As I walked up to the venue, I was uncertain of what to expect from Nathan Trantraal. As I passed a family standing just outside, it didn’t even occur to me that it was Nathan, his wife, Ronelda and their daughter. In my mind, he would be a jetting soloist, moving across South Africa and landing in tiny Grahamstown to tell us about writing.
As he spoke about his terrain of experience, Ronelda sat next to him, mindfully listening, eyes alert, or reacting with a knowing laugh and their daughter played an invisible piano just next to them. “We don’t live in a writerly home, sitting around the hearth,” he chuckled. Nathan told us that it was near impossible for him, his brother Andre, or Ronelda to write when another was writing. If the door was open for one of them, it would not be for the other.
It’s funny though, because Nathan never planned to be a writer, both he and Andre were sketch artists, filling up the surfaces of matchboxes and cigarette cartons with comics. Their love for it began with their grandmother who shared the same obsession with comics, as well as Nathan’s passion for reading Tintin and Asterix. “At some point you want to see people like you in a book but we were two kids trying to get good at something there was no market for.”
They did not start out with the aim to be political but, as they sat at their kitchen table in Mitchell’s Plain, CNN was on in the background and a bit of news started to lodge. Nathan is not a political artist but he is politically aware and as Nathan said, “There’s nothing more political than poverty.” He is a fiction writer but it’s a very loose term because Nathan writes the truth about his life, and where he came from, a family of six kids with very little.
Comic drawing was an obsession and after feeling like years of not getting anywhere, Andre decided to send in a comic to the Cape Argus, not expecting anything back. “I never had a meeting with anyone,” said Nathan, followed by a self-depreciating laugh at the over-sized matric dance suit he wore. Nathan had no history of finishing what he started or being professional, but the Trantraal brothers finished their commissioned 20-pager in 6 months, and learned to work to a deadline. After that, his prerogative was getting a graphic novel published and he did.
It was never the aim to become famous or successful but to build his reputation as someone who produces excellence. Nathan established himself – as a man with a voice – a voice that speaks in Afrikaaps and makes no apologies for his work. Then came Coloureds, a comic book of short stories with one goal, to be read by Coloured people. Not for the popularity and certainly not the cash, at R3 a book. Nathan’s poetry like Chokers en Survivors followed in Coloureds‘ footsteps, written in phonetic Kaapse style.
After that came the fraught world of the newsroom, where Nathan saw the government’s control of the media first hand. With new management and their comics being removed from the paper, he began working for Rapport, a home for racism but also, the self-proclaimed ‘minority report’, Nathan Trantraal. Although he never planned to write, Nathan wants to “tell the stories of history’s losers and the first draft of history is journalism”. According to Nathan, he is no justice warrior but he wears a journalist’s lanyard and that holds power, as well as a responsibility to use it – to take the risk of telling it like it is. Untranslated and unexplained, just like his poetry, because as Nathan said, “You can’t translate and reveal at the same time.” It’s this clean-cut falseness of academia that Nathan avoids, because people don’t want to listen to people spout trivialities at each other, they want to hear what you think because without reality, “It’s like saying I’m going to be the only guy that makes food without onions, it doesn’t work.”
Nathan Trantraal is no flighty auteur with one hand on a pen and one over his eyes, he tells his stories with a scratch and an edge, just like the rock songs he listen to.