Monday, September 26, 2016

African Writers You Should Know: Zukiswa Wanner

Photo credit: Fungai Machirori

Zukiswa Wanner is a South African writer who was born in Zambia to a South African father and Zimbabwean mother and now makes her home in Nairobi. Her novels include The Madams, Men of the South, Behind Every Successful Man, and her most recent, London Cape Town Joburg, which won the K Sello Duiker Prize.  

She’s also written two children’s books: Jama Loves Bananas and Refilwe. She is active in numerous Pan-African writing initiatives including being on the board of Writivism, a judge for the Etisalat Prize, and a judge for our very own Bessie Head Short Story Prize for two years in a row.

She is one of Africa39, a list of African writers under 40 years of age who the Hay Festival organisers believe have talent and potential to define the trends of literature from the continent. I was happy to have a chance to ask her a few questions about her career and her activism on behalf of African literature.

Me: I read  that you purposefully choose the point of view of characters who are not like you. Can we write about people who are not like us? When does it become cultural appropriation? Is there anything like cultural appropriation for writers?

Zukiswa: Look at you starting with the difficult questions.  I think there can be cultural appropriation if writers in particular and artists in general fail to do due diligence and have enough research on their work of art. My little thing is that I tend to seek, among my readers when the book is still a first draft, at least three people who may have similarities or be familiar with the background of my character so I get that little edge in where authenticity is concerned. That said, it amuses me no end how social realism, as a fiction genre, always requires one to be more realistic than creative nonfiction.

Me: Are you the human definition of the Pan Africanism? Is that important to you?

Zukiswa: I probably need to stay in Brazil before I can be the human definition of a pan-African but yes, as a social observer, it is pretty important to me. The downside is that in some ways, I am always an outsider-looking in but it’s also very much the upside because all these countries have been generous enough to allow me certain intimacies with them that are not often given outsiders.

Me: You are active in writing initiatives around the continent, why do you think such initiatives are so important?

Zukiswa: I recently did a keynote at the Fourth Writivism Literary Festival and I explained why I feel these initiatives are important. In short, I think given the space that we are in as writers in Africa, our literary landscape has never been as fruitful as it is now. For that reason, we need to ensure that those of us with voices let others know about the exciting works that are coming from here. When other writers win, all writers win and the continent wins. Because more readers means more people who question. It is that simple to me.

Me: Do African writers have to be published overseas to be considered a success?

Zukiswa: I think this has been the case for a long time but this is changing. I know book clubs that I introduced some books published on this continent to and they loved them so much they now read African-published literature frequently.

Me: In a perfect world what would your writing career look like?

Zukiswa: I think it would look mostly like it does now but with a monthly salary for my bills because someone would have recognised that what I do is work. I know Lorenzo and Catherine de Medeci, less as members of the Florentine ruling family and more for being patrons of the arts... maybe this is something our African billionaires and gazillionaires should think of (sends a message out to the universe that Dangote, Motsepe and co read this). Their legacy would live forever. It saddens me that Miles Morland is doing something that African philanthropists should be doing with his grant. And that none of them have seen why it’s necessary that they have something similar or better.

Me:  What one thing could our publishers on the continent do to make our lives as writers living and writing here easier and more lucrative?

Zukiswa: There still needs to be better work done by publishers on the African continent on editing (some books have atrocious editing) and distribution. It breaks my heart that it is still easier to get a book that is published in the United Kingdom when one stays in Kenya than getting one published in Uganda or Tanzania which are neighbouring countries. They need to do better on this because, no matter how well-written the books are, so long as readers in different African countries do not have access to them, African writers published on the continent may as well not be writing.

Me: What are you working on at the moment?
A travel memoir and a historical fiction novel.

(This first appeared in my column, It's All Write, in the 23 Sept. edition of Mmegi newspaper)

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

I'm off to Open Book Festival in Cape Town!!

Tomorrow I leave for Cape Town to attend the Open Book Festival to talk about my latest novel, The Scattering. I'll be on three panels and if you're in Cape Town I'd love to meet you!

The panels I'm on are:

Thursday (8 Sept)  2 pm at Annexe 1:
Topic: Switching Courses: 
Lauri Kubuitsile, Bronwyn Law-Viljoen and Michela Wrong discuss the difficult choices they force on their  characters. It will be chaired by Yewande Omotoso

Saturday (10 Sept) 10 am at Book Lounge
Topic: Writing Colonialism
Lauri Kubuitsile and Kim Leine reflect on the brutality of colonialism at opposite ends of the world. Chaired by Bongani Kona.

Sunday (11 Sept) 2 pm at HCC Workshop
Topic: In the Crossfire
Dianne Case, Nadia Hashimi and Lauri Kubuitsile explore the position of women in conflicts through the lens of personal narrative. Chaired by Palesa Morudu

Hope to see you there!!

Friday, September 2, 2016

Review of Scars on my Skin

Nina Simone said in an interview that, “You can't help it. An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times”. I think Namibian poet, activist, community worker, and performer Keamogetsi J. Molapong takes these words to heart. In the 1980s when he started writing poetry, he protested against the South African apartheid system that cruelly controlled Namibia. Now his poetry is about the corruption of the new elite and the gap between rich and poor, though he still finds time for the occasional love poem.

The Scars On My Skin is Molapong’s second poetry collection, his first, Come Talk Your Heart was published in 2005. The title of The Scars on my Skin stems from the idea that every scar has a story to tell.

Molapong is a well-seasoned poet. He has performed on stages around Namibia as well as at both the 1st and the 2nd SADC Poetry Festivals held in Gaborone and Windhoek. He performed in Durban at the 11th Poetry Afrika Festival,  in Germany at the Poesie Berlin Festival and at the Ba Re E Ne Re Poetry Festival in Lesotho.  The Scars On My Skin was adapted into a play directed by Aldo Behreng and performed during last year’s Bank Windhoek Arts Festival.

Scars On My Skin includes many poems about the ruling elite who seem to have forgotten where they come from and instead are blinded by greed. Fake Money is a biting indictment of these people in power; it could easily apply to our situation in Botswana too:

They eat the economy
And talk of democracy
As if their lives meant
Anything to the poor
And sleeping masses
They…they have
Their skies of no limits
We…we have
The measurements
To dig our own graves
We cannot afford.

Molapong knows the way poverty is used to keep the masses at the mercy of the elite, he does not shy away from speaking the truth. In his poem Poverty he writes:

…Being poor is not exclusively for you
Neither is poverty designed just for us
It is the short leash used by comrades
To tie us down to our shame and ignorance
A platinum policy for their happy retirement…

In Let’s Go To Parliament Molapong calls the people to stand-up and make the change that will finally emancipate us from the shackles of this neo-colonialist, capitalist-controlled, greed-fuelled situation we find ourselves in. 

…Let’s dissipate their phantom castles
Burn their asses—I mean ashes
And call the winds to blow them
Into the cold of the Atlantic Ocean
Let’s blowtorch their greed, lust
Into fake memories of colonialism
Cripple their self-styled powers
Humble their pride and position
To the grounds of our realities. ..

Scars On My Skin is not only about political poems, in the mix are insightful and sometimes very beautiful love poems. Teach Me, Please is the plea of a man ready to change, a man who knows his limitations, and wants to be what his woman needs him to be.

…Teach me sister, give me the language
That would not be chauvinistic and crude
Steer my clapping tongue though wording
That would not make you hate me forever

Teach me, woman of my happiest dreams
To express my inner most love for you.

Another touching poem is Time which echoes back to the title of the collection:

Time, they say, heals
Wounds become scars,
Tears turn into a salty smell
And a smile masks the pain inside…

Often I see poets on stage and I wonder what’s the point? Poetry that does not move the reader or listener, does not give insight, is as good as nothing. If My Poem Can’t Move You addresses that very issue:

…If the lines I recite carry no image,
Put no doubt in your heart
Why should I continue reciting? …

The Scars On My Skin is an intriguing collection from one of Namibia’s leading poets and deserves more attention; find it and give it a read. 

(This review first appeared in my column It's All Write in Mmegi newspaper 19 August, 2016)