Congratulations on your shortlist nomination for the Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature 2021. Please tell me how your story was born: where did you get the idea for this story, and tell me about your characters?
It’s very exciting to be named as a finalist! I worked until late 2017 for a non-profit organisation consisting of six different high schools, serving six economically marginalised communities in different parts of South Africa. One of my tasks was to document what the schools were (and still are) doing and what they aim to achieve for their students. I had plenty of opportunities to sit in on classes – especially the unique life orientation classes – to observe and to interact with students, teachers and staff, and, best of all, I formed some very meaningful relationships with many different people.
This story was written in an attempt to process, record and share some of the many life lessons I learned there, to explore some themes and to pass on some insights – especially about the importance of learning with the heart as well as with the head, and the freeing power of truth in relationships – to others who might find them useful. My protagonist, Luntu Masiza, is a young man who faces many common life challenges. He’s often angry, confused and lonely, although he appears academically successful and popular. A new teacher, Mr Bali, recognises Luntu’s potential, but also his tendency toward arrogance and denial, and he intervenes in ways that, at first, appear to Luntu to be hostile and unhelpful, but which ultimately allow Luntu to face up to his mistakes and difficulties and to tell the truth to himself and others.
A lot of what’s included in this story is taken from real life experiences, and many of the characters are based on composites of the students and teachers whom I got to know and whose resilience and dedication I came to admire in my seven years working with the schools.
For which age group did you intend your story? Why did you specifically write a book for people of this age group? Which part of writing this story for these people did you enjoy most?
I intended this story for young people from about grade 10 to grade 12 (15- to 18-year-olds). I remember some of the difficulties of my own teenage years, those of my two children and those of the students I got to know well. I remember, too, the comfort and insights I got from books I read during those years, and hope that other teenagers may benefit in similar ways from reading the story I’ve written.
I really enjoyed re-imagining my experiences during my years working for this organisation, and restructuring them in ways that suited my story and the themes I was exploring. I loved remembering the lessons I learned and the people I learned them from, as well as the awareness that shaped me while at the schools and afterwards.
What distinguishes South African stories is that they are about people who experience our environment in the same way we do, who look like us, who understand the specific challenges we face, perhaps in more profound ways than people in other English-speaking parts of the world.
For the authors on the English shortlist: there is plenty of young adult fiction written in English. What distinguishes a South African English language book from the rest?
I believe – from my own reading experience – that most literature has universal appeal in that we’re all human and, no matter where we live or where we come from, many of our human experiences, feelings, thoughts, beliefs and imaginings will be similar. So, we can appreciate and learn from almost any story, real or imagined, written or told – from northern, southern, eastern or western parts of the world. However, there’s something extra-reassuring – or perhaps extra-powerful – when we read about people in a setting familiar to our own, who are experiencing recognisable challenges. What distinguishes South African stories is that they are about people who experience our environment in the same way we do, who look like us, who understand the specific challenges we face, perhaps in more profound ways than people in other English-speaking parts of the world.
How did the pandemic influence your writing and themes of writing, if at all?
In February 2020 (before we had imagined anything like a pandemic or a lockdown), I completed a course on writing for children, facilitated by prolific children’s book author, Lesley Beake. I had already written and published a grade 8 English first additional language reader, and was interested in writing more for teenagers. I had an idea for Luntu Masiza tells the truth and wanted to develop it. Lesley told me about the Sanlam Award and encouraged me to enter. She continued to mentor me and my writing throughout the “hard” lockdown and the whole way to submission – and afterwards, actually, as I continued to work on the manuscript. COVID did not come into my story at all. Perhaps I was trying to get away from the reality of it.
How did COVID-19 influence your own life personally?
I lost both my part-time jobs temporarily, which meant no money coming in, which was quite scary, but luckily I had some savings to tide me over. The lockdown also meant that a lot of my attention could be focused on my writing and thinking about my writing, which was immensely valuable. I’m an introvert, so I quite enjoyed this time out of the world, but I was grateful for social media, which allowed me to keep in touch regularly with family and friends. It was a very interesting time for me as a writer, and I’m already working on my next fiction project, which, this time, centres partially on the whole pandemic experience.