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Interview with Sabata-Mpho Mokae
You write in your mother tongue, Setswana. How big is the reading market?
Contrary to what many may think that writing in an African language limits one’s reach, Setswana is spoken by over six million people is five southern African countries. This is almost twenty times the population of Iceland where most writers write in that country’s indigenous language. But it’s not all Batswana who read Setswana.
If you come from a generation that penned love letters, do you consider yours to have been particularly well-written?
I always tried to write the best love letters than my peers. But back in the day one could charm a lady by merely using English words that were not in everyday use in black communities. Maybe if I were to find my love letters now I won’t even have the courage to finish reading one.
Do you read your own published work?
I do read my own work.
It is almost clichéd that writing is cathartic – it heals something inside. Do you write for the same reasons, what are yours?
Not really. But I have the tendency to put real life people who irritate me in my stories and kill them slowly or make them look stupid.
Is there a book you wish you’d have written?
Yes, there is. It’s Chairman of Fools by Zimbabwean writer, Shimmer Chinodya.
Have you ever fallen in love with a piece of writing by someone, a book perchance?
A poem called Dream Variations, by Langston Hughes.
Do you re-read books?
I have read So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ several times. I also read Mhudi (Sol Plaatje), The Man In My Basement (Walter Mosley) and Cry The Beloved Country (Alan Paton) at least twice each.
Would books count as your worst extravagance?
I’d like to think so. I have just over a thousand books at home. If I had money I’d be having several times that.
Have you ever nicked a book from a library or store?
No. I never had the courage.
Bookshops close down – at least some in the Exclusive Books chain. Is this a bad thing?
It’s a bad thing because it means we can’t sustain bookstores but we can sustain morgues and taverns.
Will the kindle replace the book as we’ve known it – in its paper form?
I think most avid readers prefer reading from a physical book than from a gadget. When travelling, Kindle works better. I don’t own one but I have seen friends who own kindle buy many physical books.
Do you have a favourite book among those you have written?
After writing my debut Setswana novella ‘Ga ke Modisa’ I knew I had done my best. I still feel the same way and that’s why I allow translators and other artists to do whatever they want with it. It has a life of its own and it has changed mine.
Is there any among them that you think can be adapted well for television?
I think ‘Ga ke Modisa’ can be adapted for television. One of the awards it won is the M-Net Film Award, which means there are other people who feel the same way.
You went overseas on a writing sabbatical. Tell us about it.
I had the best time of my writing career there. There was enough time to research and write in the three months I spent abroad. I had a chance to see my short story “Down Sol Plaatje Drive” being breathed life into on theatre stage. Venues were always full with appreciative people whenever writers-in-residence read. But to top it all I lived with twenty-eight other writers from other parts of the world, speaking different languages, coming from different backgrounds and writing differently. We became a family. It was extremely enriching. We attended classes and delivered lectures. Opportunities arose from there; my two Setswana novellas are being translated into English and I received invitations to collaborate with writers in others parts of the world and participate in festivals there. Honestly, it was much more than I’d bargained for.
Do black folk read enough?
Reading is still elitist, both in the black and white communities. This is extremely unfortunate because one can borrow books from the library and read. It can really be inexpensive. Some of the most ignorant people I know are not black.
In South Africa, 5 000 copies are said to be a good sales figure. Should we be buying more as a reading public?
We should buy more books. We should start the habit of giving friends and family books as presents. But there must also be no Value Added Tax on books because it contributes to making books expensive.
You seem to have a lot of respect for Sol T Plaatje. What about the writer/journalist inspires you so much?
That I speak the language he spoke, was born on a Free State farm not too far from where he was born and that my ancestors were taught at the mission school that produced him are mere coincidences. Plaatje made me fall in love with Setswana literature. Mhudi remains one of the best novels to date. Native Life in South Africa was a very courageous book and his collection and translation of Setswana proverbs was nothing but legendary. His brilliance and dedication as well as the ideas he stood for continue to inspire me.
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