Authors’ Corner, episode 1: Ntabeni and Nyathi

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Picture of Sue Nyathi: provided; picture of Mphuthumi Ntabeni: Izak de Vries

Sukoluhle Nyathi, aka Sue, was born in Zimbabwe’s City of Kings, Bulawayo. She studied and worked in finance before deciding to follow her lifelong vocation of writing. She has published four novels, The polygamist, The gold-diggers, A family affair and An angel’s demise, to public acclaim. She has been longlisted in several renowned prizes like the Sunday Times Literary Prize and the Dublin Literary Award. She has also edited the collected essays of southern African women talking about stories of their traumas: When secrets become stories: Women speak out.

In this interview, Sue speaks to a fellow writer, Mphuthumi Ntabeni, on the first episode of Authors’ Corner for LitNet.

Good day, Sukoluhle. Thank you for agreeing to do this interview.

In your recent book, An angel’s demise, you seem to be venturing into historical novel? African postcolonial literature seems to like the genre. Does it afford those who suffered under colonial oppression a way to tell the history from their own point of view? Can you tell us what attracted you to the genre, and whether you are going to explore it more in the coming work?

SN: So, I have always loved historical fiction. I was a huge fan of Noel Barber, and I loved how he expertly weaved the history and a romance storyline. I was captured by Tanamera, and then I read all his books after that. At school, history was my favourite subject. I was the top student in our stream because it essentially encompassed my love for reading and telling stories about the past.

Now, the thing about history is that it often repeats itself. Yes, this sounds clichéd, but it’s true, especially when we don’t learn the lessons. I look at my country of birth, Zimbabwe, and we are a product of our bloody past. A lot of Zimbabwean history is distorted and is told from one side, and so I wanted to write a book that captures the untold narratives or the contested ones.

A lot of Zimbabwean history is distorted and is told from one side, and so I wanted to write a book that captures the untold narratives or the contested ones.

Also, in writing this book, I wanted to educate myself further about the history of my country, as I had never studied it in school. We did European and American history, so I could tell you about the German Empire and the Great Depression of the US in the ’20s, but my handle on my own history was thin. So, the research for this book, which took close to two years, was also an education for me. I might certainly write another one, because I find history intriguing. I am keen to delve deeper – maybe a novel set in King Lobengula’s era, who knows!

Yes, forgetting our history is very dangerous. When I sometimes listen to xenophobic talk by some South Africans, I wonder whether they know that at some stage of our history, the Matabele arose as descendants of a faction of the Zulu people who fled north during the reign of Shaka following the Mfecane. Shaka’s general, Mzilikazi, led his followers away from Zulu territory after a fallout in the late 1830s, and they settled in what is now called Matabeleland in western Zimbabwe.

I do allude to this history in An angel’s demise, in an effort to conscientise not only Angel about her own identity, but also those who may be ignorant of the history. However, my interest in writing this book is not solely based on exposing the fickleness of xenophobia, or Afrophobia, as people call it. I am just keen to understand more about that history, when Mzilikazi established the Matabele kingdom.

And how all that informs our present situation, I am sure. After all, writing is mostly about seeking truth. I always keep in mind, when reading or writing about history, what Ernest Hemingway said about all remembrance of things past being fiction.

What fascinates me is that the contemporary Zim writers seem to have recently decided that it is an apt time to reckon with your liberation movement’s military history, also. I know you reminded me that it goes a little farther than Tsitsi Dangarembga’s The mournable when I first mentioned this to you. You mentioned the likes of Yvonne Vera in Butterfly burning. NoViolet Bulawayo, in Man Booker’s shortlisted tragic comedy book about the post-independent Zimbabwe titled Glory, touches on it, emphasising the Gukurahundi. Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu does the same in her last trilogy instalment, A quality of mercy, taking on a slightly different ecumenical approach by also involving the experiences of white Zimbabweans in the era under discussion. Please tell us more about all of this. Perhaps comment also on Hemingway’s assertion about all things remembered being fiction and the inadequacies of history that necessitate fiction.

SN: I don’t think there’s been a contrived consensus on the part of ZW writers to reckon with our liberation struggle in literature. The efforts have been largely individualistic and centred on the courage to tackle the subject, because we have to be cognisant of the climate around writing and censorship. Not all writers can write with impunity, which is why some writers will couch their stories in satire. The reason why I alerted you to Yvonne Vera’s Butterfly burning is that it, too, deals with the liberation struggle politics, but Vera would not be classed as a contemporary fiction writer.

I agree with Ernest Hemingway’s assertion to some extent, because remembrance relies on memory, which is not always accurate and can be distorted. You only need to sit with your siblings and refer to an incident in your childhood; how you remember it will be different, hence there is an element of creativity in trying to fill the gaps, which lends to the fictional aspect of it. This is why the triangulation of experiences in research becomes important in trying to piece the puzzling past together.

I consider myself a social anthropologist of sorts. So, my earlier novels focus on contemporary society and the issues that affect my characters, and one day these will become important resources for historians and archivists. History is being made every day. Today’s present will become the past. I am just capturing it in my own words.

This brings us to another topic that fascinates me about writing ideas. Do you think that they exist somehow in the nanosphere? That there’s an element of clairvoyance about them? Often you discover that writers of the same era, even of different backgrounds, would publish a book almost at the same time that tackles a similar idea. Like with white South African writers recently, especially male writers, there seems to be this need to reckon with their experiences during the apartheid military conscription era. You find this, for instance, in Etienne van Heerden’s book, A library to flee. The same applies in Damon Galgut’s The promise and Mark Winkler’s Due south of Copenhagen. I am sure they also didn’t conspire to tackle that topic, yet it is there, perhaps as a need to cleanse themselves of apartheid demons. Where do writers get the ideas they write about?

SN: As writers, we do not live in a vacuum or silo, so we are all tapping into the universe, which is teeming with ideas which no one writer has a monopoly over. The distinguishing factor comes with the skill and temerity with which a writer uses these ideas to tell a compelling story. That said, we are all a product of our environment, there is no escaping it. Which is why you will often find these contentious topics of apartheid, colonialism and racism all permeating our writing.

I recently read a review by Karl Gostner, who had read Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, Futhi Ntshingila’s They got to you too and my An angel’s demise. The three books are set in different locations at different times, yet Karl was able to infer a similarity in the way we dealt with the complexity of humanity, and that we “might be psychics reading the world’s soul, their words telling us of our desires, or perhaps they are clairvoyants telling us of a world that is emerging”. This statement echoes your above assertion, and I am starting to think that there is an element of clairvoyance when it comes to writing. The more I listen to writers narrating their writing experiences and talking about channelling voices and energies and characters who come to visit them, the more it makes me feel like there is a supernatural element in the process.

I recall that in my earlier drafts of An angel’s demise, Simphiwe died after giving birth, but that character wouldn’t let me rest; she was like, I need to be alive, you can’t kill me now. When I had revised her – the best decision ever – her storyline took me down to the liberation struggle. So, there is something to be said about the voices in our head as we write. I recall a conversation with Zachariah Rapola, who won a Noma Award for his debut novel, Beginnings of a dream, in 2008. He told me he was in a trance when he wrote that book. He has never been able to write a follow-up book. So, you might be on to something there with the clairvoyance streak!

Yes. I quickly googled and read the piece. It speaks of what I am saying, that writers are not just, in Shelley’s parlance, unacknowledged legislators of the world; but, in what might sound like biblical and religious language, they become prophets and priests. I am fascinated by these psychic tendencies among certain writers, as if there were an omniscient universal spirit guiding them into becoming a conscience of the world.

Moving on, you talked about telling history with your own voice and in your own way, personalising it, which is one of the things I love about historical novels. It makes history accessible for us when it is interviewed by personal experiences, especially those of falling in love, as you do in your latest book, An angel’s demise. How do you answer those who say it is still too soon to talk about the atrocities of the liberation movement, when comrades turned on comrades? Or who think you’re betraying the struggle by exposing the corruption and cruelties of our liberators, now turned our oppressors?

If you would, please also tell us about the symbolism of a damsel being rescued by her knight in shining armour, only to discover that her prince is actually a frog rather than the handsome prince. And how it connects to our situation as Africans concerning our African liberation movements.

SN: Personalising history makes it reachable to readers, which is always my intention. History should not be something to be understood only by students of history and academics. Historical figures did not exist in a vacuum, and history was created while life was being lived fully. Even while our so-called liberation heroes were exiled or in incarceration, people lived and loved.

As for “It’s too soon to talk about the atrocities,” I think it’s too late, actually, as many of those involved in the struggle have since passed on and will no longer be able to share their side of the story. A piece of history, oftentimes undocumented, dies with them, and that is the tragedy. As for exposing the leaders, there is a statement by Moeletsi Mbeki which encapsulates it perfectly, that our liberation struggle heroes did not fight to upset the system; they fought, rather, for inclusion. This is why our liberators have turned oppressors, and we see this all over Africa. Hence the saying that history has an uncanny way of repeating itself. The colour of our oppressors has changed, but the oppression has remained the same, if not become harsher.

In your earlier books, you concentrate more on the African cultural practices, like polygamy, the significance of lobola and others. Particularly in A family affair, you seem to be interrogating the detrimental effect religion has on our African collective psyche. You depict this with the competent, non-judgemental, neutral stance of a novelist who delineates the effects of all these things, including our traditions and customs, as if wanting us to ask ourselves whether these are still relevant, or, rather, how they are adding value to our lives now. What data have you collected in interacting with your readers regarding this? Or, if you so wish, what are your conclusions to date, regarding the questions you were asking in your books?

SN: My novels are not academic treatises, but rather social observations of the world we live in. I have never collected any data or run a survey to try and validate some of the assertions made in my books. However, if there were to be a study of sorts – and this I leave to the academics – I am sure the statistics would certainly make for interesting reading. In my former profession as a research analyst, I worked a lot with numbers, and, if you interpret them right, numbers can tell a compelling story. That said, numbers have an effect of numbing people. Readers care more about the people behind the numbers – because you resonate with and feel empathy for Yandisa, who was a casualty of gender-based violence, but won’t be moved in the same way by the statistics detailing the number of women who have died from gender-based violence. You will be momentarily shocked, but you won’t personalise the stats, yet Yandisa’s character will stay with you – haunt you, even.

The value in my books comes from writing about those things people don’t want to talk about. My intent is to get people talking as opposed to measuring. We need to start having robust conversations around those topics that make us uncomfortable.

I didn’t mean collecting data in an academic or anthropological sense. Living is a form of collecting data to the bank of memory, where all our experiences are sorted, especially for writers. And you did call yourself an anthropologist of some sort.

In any case, growing up, did you have access to books – I mean, reading for pleasure rather than school material? What made you decide to be a writer? Did you have a lonely childhood, or did you somehow feel dislocated in situations or around other people?

SN: Yes, growing up I had access to reading books from the time I started school. While my parents were both well read, the only books we had in our home were academic texts. So, the exposure to fiction came in school, and I read voraciously. My mother also facilitated a membership with our local Ascot library.

Yes, growing up I had access to reading books from the time I started school. While my parents were both well read, the only books we had in our home were academic texts. So, the exposure to fiction came in school, and I read voraciously. My mother also facilitated a membership with our local Ascot library.

I actually hated the prescribed reading texts at school. We had Shakespeare’s A midsummer night’s dream and Homer’s Iliad. I believe it was the analysis and subsequent paralysis that killed my love for Shakespeare. I enjoyed Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth simply because I did not have to analyse them. Incidentally, I was also introduced to Jane Austen in high school, and I loved Pride and prejudice. Even after the rigorous analysis, the story still held sway in my heart. I also loved the poetry anthology by William Blake, Songs of innocence and experience. I also dabbled in poetry, but I abandoned it as a form of literary expression. I don’t think I decided to be a writer; it’s just something that was in me. I had an innate desire to tell stories, which is why by the time I was 13 I was writing novellas for the entertainment of my classmates. I gained popularity in high school for my books.

I don’t think I decided to be a writer; it’s just something that was in me. I had an innate desire to tell stories, which is why by the time I was 13 I was writing novellas for the entertainment of my classmates.

I didn’t have a lonely childhood. I was, for the longest time, the middle child, flanked by two brothers. The age gap between my older brother and me was seven years, and two years with my younger brother. My older brother did not consider me a playmate, and we fought too much with my younger brother to be playmates. So, like most middle children, I drifted into my own world; so, I played a lot on my own, but never felt alone, because even in my playtime I created characters whom I interacted with. My dad was disturbed by this and would ask me why I enjoyed talking to myself, and I would refute this because, to me, my characters were alive and visible. They even took the form of bamboo sticks, and I would give the females hair made of sackcloth to distinguish gender. However, in my mind, they were not just sticks; I viewed them as fully fledged people, so I was hurt when my father collected all my sticks and used them to fuel a fire. I then graduated to drawing my figures on cardboard and cutting them out. The play acting continued and became more sophisticated, because I would cut out items from magazines to populate my world. So, you can see that the inclination to tell stories started at a young age.

When I was a teenager, I was socially awkward and shy and did not have many friends. My parents were also very strict, so I was not allowed to go out and do things that other teenagers did; so, I lived vicariously through characters in books. Books also allowed me to travel and experience things beyond the confines of my home.

At school, were you aware that your set books were only, or mostly, from the Western canon? If so, did it bother you?

SN: I wasn’t aware at the time, because I went to a private school and my friends from other private schools also had similar curriculums. At government schools, this was not the case. They were taught African history, even though in its watered-down version. They had books like Nervous conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga and Chinua Achebe’s books in their curriculum. We didn’t have African literature in our syllabus at all.

What value do you think reading for pleasure brings to a person’s life? How do you suppose we can promote a culture of reading for pleasure among black households in particular?

And please tell us more about your involvement with the Gauteng International Book Festival and similar plans you have for the Zimbabwean literary community.

SN: I don’t want to be prescriptive, but for me reading is a form of escapism in the same way television is. I believe reading opens your mind and broadens your horizons. Reading is also an education in that it expands your vocabulary and knowledge about people, places, cultures, conflicts and history.

I don’t want to be prescriptive, but for me reading is a form of escapism in the same way television is. I believe reading opens your mind and broadens your horizons. Reading is also an education in that it expands your vocabulary and knowledge about people, places, cultures, conflicts and history.

In order to promote a culture of reading, you need to start children young. Inculcate the love for reading at a young age. Unfortunately, what happens is that when people go to university, reading for leisure is replaced by reading for exam courses. This is where the love of reading for leisure dies, unless one is specifically studying creative writing or a humanities course. By the time people leave university and start working, they no longer prioritise reading. Other leisure pursuits also start to compete with reading. Also, the drawback with reading is that it is a solo pursuit, whereas watching a movie can be a group activity. As such, many will shy away from it in favour of more gregarious activities. This is why book clubs are a perfect balance, in that while reading is a solo activity, the discussions encourage social interaction with the accompaniment of food, wine and rigorous conversation.

Getting involved in the Gauteng International Book Festival was in support of Lorraine Sithole. For years, we have been involved in other festivals, whether it’s drawing up programmes or facilitating sessions. It has always been a dream of hers to host a festival, and so I am just a supporting act in facilitating the realisation of that dream. So, with the demise of Abantu, we felt there was a gap in the market. We are not trying to be Abantu, but rather to plug a need in the literary calendar.

A few years ago, we tried to put our heads together to organise the Victoria Falls Literary Festival, but it failed to launch. Maybe it’s something I might revisit as a way of doing something for the Zimbabwean literary community.

They say childhood is the only real bank of memory writers employ. Apparently, the years after are just means of clarifying how we felt when we saw things the world showed us from the virgin mind’s point of view during childhood.

The role of book clubs in our communities, especially in Gauteng, is invaluable. I really commend them and enjoy their engagements and promotion of African literature in particular. Do you think bookshops could do more? If so, what?

And lastly: what are you working on now in your writing project, and when can we expect it to come out?

SN: I also applaud the work of book clubs in making reading accessible and fashionable at the same time. In an industry like ours, word of mouth goes a long way, and book clubs do the Lord’s work in spreading the gospel about a new book.

I don’t know whether bookshops can do more than what they are already doing. I think they have milked every avenue of trying to promote and publicise reading. Unlike book clubs, they are in business, and their efforts need to yield a return on an investment. So, short of giving books away, I am not sure what else they can do. It’s great that book chains like Bargain Books and Exclusive Books already provide venues for book launches. Independent bookstores like Bridge Books, Book Lounge and Book Circle Capital are also trying to play an integral role in trying to host events around reading and making their shops conducive for reading.

Then, there are the street vendors who take books to the people; we must never undermine that role. If you ever go into the Johannesburg CBD, you will see books splayed across pavements to lure the reading eye. There are people who might never step into a bookshop, but who will still buy a book on the side of the road. They play an important role in the second- and third-hand book market, because while someone might love to read, they might not be able to afford a brand-new book; so, cost should not be a prohibitive factor when it comes to reading.

Thank you very much for talking to me; it has been a pleasure and is greatly appreciated. We wish you the best in your writing career.

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