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An interview with Thando Mgqolozana
Do you remember the first attempt at writing that you did?
If you come from a generation that penned love letters, do you consider yours to have been particularly well-written?
If we ignore the re-admission letters I wrote for students who had been academically excluded, then my first real attempt was the untitled memoir that had me in tears while writing it. I was sure it would be my first book, it had the family tree graphic and everything, but I tried to read it years later and couldn’t move past the first couple of sentences. I don’t know what prevented me from submitting it to publishers at the time but I’m glad; it was like a packet of rotten potatoes.
Some actors do not watch their own movies. The same cannot be expected of writers but once all the drafts have been submitted, do you read your own published work?
I come from a generation that experienced apartheid tyranny in deputy. Our parents went to work at white people’s houses and there they were thoroughly violated; when they returned home they applied apartheid on the children. It was the same with the teachers. Poor things. My grandmother, Mam’Ngwevu, would say, “Don’t push me, or I’ll give you a Section 9.” I had no idea what a Section 9 was but it sent shivers down my back. When I was older I looked it up and discovered it was apartheid’s Suppression of Communism Act. And you think I’d have written love letters?
It is almost clichéd that writing is cathartic – it heals something inside. Do you write for the same reasons, what are yours?
Is there a book you wish you’d have written?
When the book is new and everybody’s reading it, I often re-read to find out what the excitement is all about. I don’t want to miss out, you see. But this euphoria doesn’t last. After a few months I will have discovered so much that could have been done differently, better, the sight of it becomes a reminder that the novel is the poorer version of what I had in mind.
Have you ever fallen in love with a piece of writing by someone, a book perchance?
I was upset when I discovered George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Rustum Siyongwana’s Ubulumko Bezinja. That’s my territory right there. They had no business stealing my stories. I should probably retaliate, don’t you think? It is a perfectly literary thing.
Do you re-read books?
Most books are average. Forgettable even. But there comes a moment when a perfect book drops and suddenly you can’t imagine your life without it. I’ve had that experience several times but more recently when I read We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. I was so excited I went and got several friends to read it so I’d have people to discuss it with. But I must admit, I was afraid for the author at first. She had written a fantastic short story, Hitting Budapest, which won a major prize; and now they were saying she’s developing it into a novel. I thought that was risky. So when the book came, I was cringing; but she had other plans: The book rocked me to the core!
Would books count as your worst extravagance?
Yes. A book you read when you were a child will read differently when you pick it up later. So I’ve re-read many novels and the two that keep attracting me are Intimacy by Hanif Kureishi and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. It’s not repletion.
Have you ever nicked a book from a library or store?
I’m not sure I understand this one. A book I wasted my money on? There are a lot of those, actually. The one I can think of right now is Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. I attempted to read it but it just didn’t hook me. Such an enormous book too, and it was expensive too. Maybe I wasn’t ready for it, so I gave it away as a birthday present to a Murakami fan who loves talking cats and that sort of thing.
Bookshops close down – at least some in the Exclusive Books chain. Is this a bad thing?
I stole Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday from this wonderful guest house in Durban, and I didn’t regret it. I’m not encouraging theft but I get a little thrill from hearing that people are shoplifting books. These things are meant to be read. The bookshelf can be a prison. The thieves are liberators.
Will the kindle replace the book as we’ve known it – in its paper form?
I don’t give a fuck about Exclusive Books. They are a colonial enclave: the Westerns are placed in the best shelves, and the few Africans allowed in are hidden at the back in a ghetto shelf. It’s an eloquent articulation of the Group Areas and Bantu Homelands Citizenship Acts. It’s literary apartheid out there. The ghetto shelf is labeled ‘African Fiction’. Why an African Fiction section in Africa? But they’re not alone; our universities have institutes for African Studies and departments for African Literature. That tells you everything. So when I reject Exclusive Books, I’m opposing colonization. The problem is that as the oppressed, when we got political power we did not dismantle the institutions and systems of the oppressor; we did not create a condition to imagine something new, something not informed by a colonial framework. Our elders must have hoped it’d work itself out. They were wrong. So now we need to do what we should have: build ‘our own thing’ that’ll render the likes of Exclusive Books completely irrelevant. There are encouraging signs: Xarra Books in Joburg sells African and diasporan literature only, likewise the new African Flavour Bookstore.
In your three books, is there a favourite ‘child’ that you ‘had’ at the right time, under the right circumstances tackling the right subject?
The physical book is here to stay.
What is your gripe with literary festivals?
The artist is a shy, solitary person, yet he is out there asking to be noticed. The right kind of attention can make him deliriously happy, and the wrong kind drives him into self-destruction. The worst is when nobody notices at all. I was lucky to have A Man Who is Not A Man as a debut; it attracted all the right kind of attention, and ensured my relatively safe landing into the crime scene. I remain proud of all my previous work, but my favourite is always the one I’m writing, which I won’t talk about just yet.
l. (Let’s skip. The reason is the same as in the Exclusive Books answer.)