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Interview with Zukiswa Wanner
What was the very first book you read and finished as a child?
Possibly Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or something similar...
Have you written anything that a child somewhere will read and finish – and talk about in 30 years?
I am hoping my African retelling of Rapunzel titled Refilwe can be something that children love and will continue to love many years from now.
There’s a legend about singers being discovered in church. Aretha Franklin was discovered in the church choir. Where are writers ‘born’, in the school essay?
That’s arguable. I am sure some are found in the school essay or Compositions but speaking for myself, I arrogantly thought I could write until I had one of the most surgical editors I have ever worked with in my life. His name is Dr Larry le Doux and the most important thing I learnt from him is having an economy of words which, I think, is how I was ‘born’ as a writer. I can’t speak for others but I would then venture to say this writer was born in a university newsroom.
Can writing be taught, like a skill – driving, diving?
Yes and no. I think there are people who have the ability to tell a story. In every village and town on earth, there is that woman, man or child who can entrance her or his listeners with a story as ordinary as walking to the spaza [shop] and buying sugar. Equally there are people that are terrible storytellers who will ruin a great joke by fumbling when it comes to the punchline. The former, in my opinion, can be taught as it is already in their nature and they just need to be nurtured. All they would need to do is hone [their] skills in whatever language they choose to write in. I am doubtful whether the bad storyteller can be taught to be a good one. I compare it to music, painting or other art forms. I can learn the technical know-how of playing an instrument or painting or dance or act but there is an added something that’s inherent.
At what point in your life did you decide you wanted to become a writer?
I didn’t. I was pushed into it by the late Lewis Nkosi.
If you are from the generation that wrote love letters, were yours better – given your talent for writing?
Firstly, thank you kindly for the compliment on ‘talent for writing.’ I can’t say whether mine were better. That would be arrogant of me. I could link you up with a few now middle-aged men who could answer that J
What examples of your earliest writing do you still keep?
The only example of my earliest writing I have is the first draft of The Madams written in February 2005. And that’s because emails can be a wonderful archive. In high school, I wrote some cringe-worthy poems that I used to read to my friend Lucy, who was too generous to tell me I sucked. In retrospect I can admit it. I am NOT a poet. I appreciate it but am not one.
Is there black African female writing or just writing? There’s only one kind of journalism, if you ask me.
There are two types of writing. Good writing and bad writing.
If drivers drive, there must be a reason why writers write, don’t you think?
I can only speak for myself. I write because I have something to say. I am therefore not the writer who does a thousand words a day every day. Rather, I can go months without writing … just reading. And one day I find myself vomiting words on my laptop because I finally have something to say. It’s the reason why I am such a lousy blogger.
Do you write to heal something inside; to inform, delight, share … what is your purpose?
I write so that we may ask questions.
Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks, Terri MacMillan, Rita Dove, who do you read that defines the black African woman with the power of a pen?
I am indiscriminate as a reader. Every book I have read has impacted me. The good works have taught me how to write and the bad ones, how not to write.
You contributed a short story to Siphiwo Mahala’s African Delights? Was this ‘detour’ worth it?
Years before African Delights was conceived, I wrote the story after a night of drinking as a response to Can Themba’s The Suit and Mahala’s The Suit Continued. When I woke up sober, I thought it was a pretty decent story. I think then, Siphiwo liked the idea of adding it to his collection and I was honoured that he asked. Given that it was selected as one of the top twenty short stories of SA’s twenty years of democracy, I would say that the ‘detour’ was definitely worth it.
You have written for children. Do you read to them?
Yes I do. Reading to children is quite useful to me as a writer because if I can’t capture their attention, it means I am not telling the story well.
Does Lusaka, Zambia – at least the lived experience, come up in any of your works?
I left Lusaka before Grade One so, so far, it hasn’t come up yet but I don’t say it will never come up. After all, one of my very first reviews for The Madams was in the Zambian Post. I think it started ‘Zambian-born writer Zukiswa Wanner…’ which made me grin immensely.
Writing prizes, like the Commonwealth. Do they make or break a writer? Can a writer do without them and still feel affirmed?
Writing prizes work either way. I have known writers who have won prestigious prizes then found it difficult to work on the next ones because they wondered whether they would be able to match the award-winning book but I have also known writers who are inspired to do even better with the next work … to push boundaries. But yes, I do believe that a writer can do without prizes and still feel affirmed. Readers, more than prizes, can affirm or break writers. That’s why I try not to self-Google (I do not always succeed).
Men of the South, to mention but this one book in particular. What would you like readers to take away from reading the book?
I never dictate to readers what they should take away from my work.
What are your favourite books about Africa, or written by an African author?
Yho… there’s plenty.
Mgqolozana’s Hear Me Alone; Nwaubani’s I Do Not Come to You By Chance; Harvest of Thorns by Chinodya; Almost everything that Nuruddin Farah has written; Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives; Changes by Aidoo; Makholwa’s The 30th Candle; Zoo City by Beukes; almost everything by Forna and Mabanckou; Omotoso’s Bom Boy; Werewere Liking’s The Amputated Memory; almost everything by Mda; Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote by Kouroma and Duker’s hilarious White Wahala; Kurt Ellis’ By Any Means. I could go on and on. I discover new books about and by African authors almost every week. My greatest regret is that there are not enough translations of works by writers from Lusophone and Francophone African countries that I have access to.
What advice would you give to budding writers out there?
You are always on internship as a writer. That internship is reading. And when you take a break from the reading, write. Writers write.
What is the one book you wish you could have written, given its acclaim and literary worth?
Just one? … Never... I suffer from ink envy. I wish I had written all the good books I have read.
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