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Interview with Fred Khumalo

Are writers born or made? Take us back to the early years when this youngster greeted playmates with the salute “Touch My Blood”. He had not written anything yet, but was he a writer, even at that point?

Talent is not everything. You may have been born with in innate ability to create – that’s talent – but that creative energy needs to be harnessed and channelled. As a youngster in high school, I was famous as a “scribe”  - that guy, steeped in the purple prose of James Hadley Chase, helped fellow students write their romantic entreaties to girls. But I also helped classmates write their English “compositions” for class, cos everyone thought I had “the writing thing”. Truth be told, I was merely mimicking stuff I had picked up in different books. But that is the right beginning for  a writer – you start by mimicking, until you find your own “voice” Journalistic training was a boon – taught me discipline, conciseness, the ability to ask questions – no matter how stupid. A good writer asks questions endlessly

Do you keep pieces of writing from your schooldays that pointed to a career in writing?

Sadly, I don’t have writings from my school days. I am the poorer for that

How did you get started with writing yourself?

In standard five (today’s grade 7) I co-authored (with my childhood friend Dennis Thulani Vilakazi) a play that was performed at our school. In grade 10, I started a news reading programme – whereby three times a week at morning assembly, I would climb the stage immediately after prayers, and start sharing with my fellow students, the news of the week. My news bulletins were an amalgam of stuff I’d heard radio, picked up in newspapers and general township gossip. The news bulletin became so popular I had to do it every day. Some friends volunteered to be part of my news team – only to find out that they were doing it because it was an easy and glamorous way of catching the attention of the ladies. I fired them when they failed to produce the required number of news stories for the week

Is the autobiography the genesis of the writing career or merely an exercise in narcissism?  

Write about what you know! That is the mantra that should be drummed into the head of a writer just starting out. So, yes autobiography helps the writer test his powers of observation; her memory, and most importantly – honesty. It is no accident that even for those writers who refuse to write a straight ahead autobiography early in their career, the novels or short stories that they produce at this tentative stage of their writing career tend to have a lot of autobiographical riffs and swings

Binyavanga Wainaina says “One Day I Will Write About This Place”. Is there a better canvas for an autobiography than the writer’s birthplace?

Yes, autobiography gives you the opportunity to confront some received assumptions about the place you grew up in; or it gives you the opportunity to pay tribute to it. Or to repudiate the romanticism and myths associated with that place.

If you come from a generation that penned love letters, do you consider yours to have been particularly well-written?

I was the best in my school. I could spell well. I had a treasure trove of bombastic words – “girl, how many pavements must I perambulate, how many mountains must I scale to sink my teeth into your throbbing ventricles of your pulsating heart? girl if you hear the tintinnabulation of bells drifting in the air you should know the music is emanating from the depth of me”

Do you read your own published work?

Yes. And it’s such a painful process to re-read one’s work once it’s published. You can’t stop cringing: oh, I should have done it this way? Oh, I wonder how that sentence came across to the reader.

It is almost clichéd that writing is cathartic – it heals something inside. Do you write for the same reasons, what are yours?

Writing is definitely cathartic. Touch My Blood, my very first book, was what I have called my own TRC to myself. I confessed things to myself and those who cared to read the book. I questioned some of the decisions I made while I was young. So, yes, writing is still very therapeutic to me. This is so because I am not such an extroverted person – but I have so much to say. So, I “shout”, “scream” at the world through my writing. My writing becomes a weapon, so to speak, against injustice and unfairness I see in the world. If Malema can have Parliament as his stomping ground where he vents his spleen, well, I’ll do to the computer what Malema does to those hallowed chambers

Is there a book you wish you’d have written yourself?

Teju Cole’s Open City, and Emile Zola’s Germinal

If you were to write a biography, who would be the subject – Ruth First, Mafika Gwala, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Dambudzo Marechera, Steve Jobs, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who?

Mafika Gwala. Because I owe him so much. And the world of letters is the poorer that we do not have such a book

Do you re-read books?

Yes, most definitely. Sometimes I cringe at discovering how I actually misread the book the first time around. Sometimes I re-read them so I can take them apart: like a mechanic taking an engine apart, so he can see how it actually works, and how it was put together in the first place

Would books count as your worst extravagance?

Books. Booze. Music. In that order.


When you were a Nieman Fellow, what did you study as Harvard does not offer courses in journalism?

I did so many courses. Couldn’t help being greedy. But the “fun” courses that have stayed with me would be a semester long class given by the renowned sociologist Orlando Patterson on “new slavery: human trafficking”; Another class: “Of Mean Streets and Jungle Fevers: Race, Gender, Religion in the movies of Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee”, “World Leadership: A cross-cultural experience”, “From Soul and Funk to R&B: the history of popular music in the United States”, “The power of social media in our changing world”,  

Have you ever nicked a book from a library or store?

No. But I am a biblioklept of unremitting delinquency, I can tell you that. I’ve nicked books from friends, guest houses etc. Years ago when I was working for the Sunday Times I nicked a book from a colleague’s desk. “Wow, she’s reading Ian Rankin! Well, not any more!”

You waxed lyrical about Barbara Kingsolver on social media the other day … kindly repeat your fascination here with her work.

Kingsolver is a new discovery for me. Look, I’ve seen her books many times, but I've never been inspired to try her out. Because she is ubiquitous, I thought she was just one of those writers churning out “airport novels” ala James Patterson, John Grisham, etc. Not to say I have not read Grisham and Patterson – I have my moments with them, but at this juncture I am looking for richer stuff, deeper stuff. At any rate, as fate would have it, at the guesthouse where I am staying here in Stellenbosch, I saw one of Kingsolver’s titles on the bookshelf. So, I said, okay I'm not paying any money for this, why not give her a try? And, wow! what a pleasant surprise. In Flight Behaviour, she writes about a heavy subject – climate change – but does it cleverly, weaving it into a love story. Elegantly realised.

Bookshops close down – at least some in the Exclusive Books chain. Is this a bad thing?

It is sad. But I also see some smaller, independent bookstores opening up – Love Books in Melville; African Flavour Books in Vereeneging, Book Lounge in Cape Town, Ike’s in Durban, Protea in Stellenbosch. These independent bookstores are putting an emphasis on books by African writers, and I think they are doing relatively well, having decided to go for that niche..

Will the kindle replace the book as we’ve known it – in its paper form?

One day it will happen. But for now, the two will continue to co-exist.

Do you have a favourite book among those you have written?

My current book is still my favourite, I suppose. Every now and then I pick it up – especially after reading a review, and read a few pages, asking myself: DID I ACTUALLY WRITE THIS?

Dancing The Death Drill has been quite a rollercoaster ride. When you write a book like that, don’t the characters live in you, share your life much closer than, say, your drinking buddies?

Yes, this book has been the most challenging piece of work ever. So it does occupy my mind a lot. I am currently working on something new, and every time I sit down to write, I find myself saying: YOU CAN’T AFFORD TO LOWER THE BAR NOW.

What is your favourite book quotation?

Let me have men about me that are fat; Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o' nights.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much: such men are dangerous. (That’s Shakespeare, in Julius Caesar)

In South Africa, 5 000 copies are said to be a good sales figure. Should we be buying more as a reading public?

It’s tragedy that the figure you’ve just cited is not because we are an illiterate country. No, even those who can read, and who have the money to buy books, tend to think reading books is something you stop doing once you’ve finished your formal schooling. We definitely need to be buying more books. That way, we will inspire our children to do the same. Let us tell our children that reading is not a task; it’s a pleasurable way of developing one’s intellect and  reasoning power. It’s also a cheaper way to travel the world – to go to Russia, or America, or the Vatican without leaving your house.

You’ve been on several writing fellowships. Hope it is not a dumb question: how do these residence stints help with the writing process?  

Many of them give you a generous stipend – which helps a lot if, like me, you are a full time writer. Also, these fellowships give you space and solitude to write without being distracted by family or friends. The intellectual cross-pollination of ideas at these academic residences is to die for. You emerge out of a three-month residence equipped with new ways of looking at the world, but also at your own craft. These residences are beautifully structured in that there’s a healthy mix of creative writers, and people who write books on philosophy, medicine, science, etc. If you really immerse yourself in the discussions that ensue at these residencies, you emerge highly inspired.

Do the Ministry of Arts, Culture and Recreation do enough for the book industry, to engender the culture of reading, among other things?

I know they have a book development initiative, and are also involved in the national book fair, starting this year. But obviously, as a writer I would like to see them doing more. I

Who are the shining lights of novel writing in the country at this juncture?

Ah, that’s such an unfair question to a practicing writer. There’s so much activity on the literary front. Some recent works that I truly enjoyed would include Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door, Mohale Mashigo’s The Yearning, Steven Sidley’s Free Association


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