PDBY had the pleasure of interviewing the author of Invisible Strings, Naledi Mashishi. Invisible Strings is Naledi’s debut novel and in this interview, she elaborates on some major concepts covered in the book.
What inspired you to write this book?
When I got the idea for the book, I had read several stories in the news about pastors who were convincing their congregants to do degrading, dangerous things like spray Doom in their faces or drink household cleaning products. Those stories disturbed me, and I wanted to write about it. I was also always interested in the idea of intergenerational trauma. Especially since apartheid had been such a traumatic period for so many people and outside of the TRC that was not really dealt with in any widescale, meaningful way. I became concerned with what we do with that trauma and how people really move on from it.
Why did you decide on the supernatural genre?
I have always been interested in speculative fiction and a lot of my earliest writing was already in the
science fiction and fantasy vein. I have read fantasy pretty consistently since I was young, and I knew quite early on that I wanted to write it. But what inspired this book in particular was being introduced to magical realism through reading The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. I decided to try to write it, so I wrote down a number of short story ideas and the idea of a little girl whose powers get used by a pastor was one of them. I realised the idea was too big to fit into a short story format, so I expanded it into a full-length novel. In retrospect, the end result is probably more fantasy than magical realism.
Religion plays a huge role in some of the characters in the book, can you please elaborate on the concept of religion in context of the book, is it supposed to be a ‘Routine’ like in Solomon’s (one of the characters) old church or is it supposed to be spontaneous?
I did not want to provide any firm answers here but what I wanted to do was contrast the way religion
has traditionally been practised versus how more contemporary churches and forms of Christianity practise it. I drew a lot from my experience. If you look at your older denominations like Catholicism and Anglicanism, they tend to be a lot more rooted in fixed routines and traditions, which I suppose stems from when the Roman Catholic Church started integrating pagan practices into Christianity hundreds of years ago. Whereas a lot of new age churches tend to be less about rigid routines and have a less structured vibe with a lot more singing and dancing.
Growing up I tended to find the more rigid traditional approach very boring and harder to connect with. Especially with prayers like the Lord’s Prayer, it never felt like I was actually talking to anyone. Just reciting a bunch of words. Less traditional churches were more appealing to me because they in my mind focused more on the personal connection aspect of religion. But I think that the lack of structure can also make them easier to bend and exploit for people like Solomon because there are no higher ups like the Vatican or the Naledi Mashishi on her first novel Invisible Strings Archbishop who can reign people like him in.
Religion and homosexuality are often times at odds, and you seem to comment on this in Chapter 21, where Molefi finds himself being told that he is an abomination by the church just because he is gay. Could you please elaborate on this?
I use a lot of characters in the book to vent the various frustrations I have had with Christianity (I am now an atheist). I have always hated the way that the church treats the LGBT+ community and Molefi was how I wanted to show that the belief that being gay is an abomination impacts real people. I also have issues with the way women are treated at various points in the Bible and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is one of the clearest examples for me of women being mistreated. I could never understand how Lot as the hero of the story offered up his own virgin daughters to be raped by a crowd of men in order to save the angels from being raped. And the part of the story that everyone tends to focus on [is] that it’s that the city was filled with sinful people and one of the clearest signs of this was all the gay sex they were having. At least, that’s how the story was taught at my church.
I felt it was important to include Molefi and to include that story as a way of showing that the church’s homophobia is harming people. But also, in a sad twist of irony, the focus on demonising homosexuality can lead people to ignore really horrific things that are happening and that are worth paying attention to, like a father offering up his own kids to be raped.
Throughout the novel, Thato receives different explanations on who and what God is and questions his existence. Could you please elaborate on these explanations?
That was also pulled from my own experiences. When I was a child, I had similar questions about where God comes from, why he does things, and how people know that something is actually his will. I also wanted to capture how religious people can sometimes discourage asking these questions like Solomon’s mother and eventually Solomon do and how frustrating these experiences are.
Through Thato’s questioning of God, I wanted to explore how people interpret God rather than provide any answers. [S]omeone like Solomon believes in God deeply but is also able to manipulate the concept of God’s will in order to silence dissent and gain power. With the Straw-Hat Lady, I wanted to highlight how historically God has been used as a weapon during colonial rule in order to exert soft power over black people.
In Chapter 28, Mamokgethi recalls a Psychology lecture she once attended on Ethics in Psychological experiments. In your opinion, what is more important, obeying authority or obeying one’s conscience?
I definitely think that obeying one’s conscience is more important. But what I also wanted to talk about with Mamokgethi is the idea of complicity. It’s explored both in this chapter and in an earlier chapter
from Molefi’s point of view where he and Dineo go to the trial of a man charged with murder under the
doctrine of common purpose. The question I wanted to raise was how much blame does Mamokgethi shoulder for everything that happens given that the only reason Solomon is able to do the horrible things he does is because Mamokgethi gives him access to Thato?
According to the doctrine of common purpose, Mamokgethi is just as guilty as Solomon. I don’t necessarily think she is, but I do feel that she does shoulder some blame and it is her responsibility to say no to Solomon even though her circumstances may not make it easy to do so.
Why do you think there are still men who are threatened by a woman who ‘acts like a man’ like Solomon describes Mamokgethi?
With Solomon I wanted to tap into the way that misogynistic men think. Solomon does not see women as being full human beings in the way men are. He has very little regard for women outside his mother and his sister and objectifies most of the women he comes across. This worsens as he becomes more resolute in his faith to the point where he begins to see women who don’t live according to Christian values with contempt.
With Mamokgethi his attitude towards her is a mixture of Christian conservatism and his tendency to objectify women. Mamokgethi doesn’t behave the way that he thinks women should behave and he resents her for this and for the fact that he is dependent on her. And I based this directly on the
attitudes of many misogynistic men I have observed over the years. They don’t see women as full human
beings and when women don’t conform to the neat boxes, they want to put them in or directly challenge
those boxes. These types of men tend to feel threatened as they perceive these women as a threat to their own masculinity.
I think they still exist because we still live in a society where sexist attitudes are normalised and so they often face no reason to change their way of thinking.
Will you be working on something new soon? A sequel maybe?
I don’t have any plans to work on a sequel. I would like to write more books in future that are unrelated
to this story but right now I’m focused on resting and enjoying having reached the milestone of publishing
my first novel.
Invisible Strings is available for purchase on the
Blackbird Books website.
Image: Blackbird Books