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Interview with Niq Mhlongo
If you were not a writer, you’d be a …
… lawyer. I studied law (LLB) for four years in the late 90s at both Wits and UCT. That’s way back before the Fees Must Fall and Rhodes Must Fall movements. I failed some of the courses and then dropped out.
Is there a piece of writing from your life before a career as a writer that you look at now and think was the best example of fine writing?
Nothing at all. Before I became an author I only wrote mediocre essays to fulfill my university requirements.
When Cupid struck, did you write better love letters?
I was a very shy guy growing up. I don’t remember writing any love letters. But I do remember one lady wrote me a love letter, [to] which I did not reply. She wasn’t good looking, and I fancied her friend more than her.
Can writing ever be taught? You’re either born with it or not …
Maybe. I’m just not sure. I think the best way of teaching writing is by encouraging people to read. The more I read fiction books, the better I taught myself how to write stories. Maybe writing can be taught, but not only at a formal school or university. Let’s not give too much undue credit to formal education here. That’s my opinion anyway.
You studied African Literature. How does it help the writer you have become?
The greatest thing about African Literature is that it focused on African writing, although not exclusively. The stories were my stories, I could relate to everything. I could compare and contrast with my immediate environment. It helped me broaden my horizons and interest in telling stories. It helped me identify gaps within the South African literary landscape and write about those. African Literature shaped the writer I am today, and I’m grateful to that. I had great professors in Bheki Peterson, Isabel Hofmeyr, James Ogude, Phaswane Mpe, Peter Rule, and etc.
After Tears, Dog Eat Dog, Way Back Home … would it be like asking a parent who his/her favourite child is? All three can’t have induced the same ‘labour’ pains! One must have been easier or more difficult to write, not so?
You’re right. All these books carry the same weight. They were written at different times from different contexts. The stories according to me do somehow overlap. They are all post-apartheid stories. However, Way Back Home is a bit different from the other two. It deals with the dichotomies of apartheid and post-apartheid eras, secular and spiritual worlds, inxile and exile, rich and poor, love and hate, South Africa and the rest of the world, whites and blacks, racism and non-racism, fiction and reality, tradition and westernisation, and so forth. It’s more experimental if you like, and uses third person narrative unlike the previous two. It is based more on borrowed experience that I observed about our society. Because of this, the process of writing it was difficult compared to Dog Eat Dog and After Tears.
Is there a best time for writing … at night, in the morning, or when the mood strikes you?
For me writing is an all time process. It starts from a thinking process, observing, note taking, mind-mapping, listening to hearsay and gossip, field research, talking to people, reading, re-reading, dreaming, meditating, conversing with friends, typing, retyping, editing, re-editing several times and so on. All these are part of writing. The mistake we often do is equating typing to writing. Typing is part of the big writing process that happens across the clock. So I guess there’s no best time for writing. But if by this question you refer to typing, then I only type when I’m in the mood. But I write every time.
Have you ever stolen a book?
I once stole Achebe’s Things Fall Apart from the library which I won’t mention. My brother scolded me until I returned it. So, the next day I hid the book on me and simply left it on the shelf inside the library. That was in the 80s.
Do you write better than you speak?
I’m confused. My friends think I speak a lot, especially after three glasses of beer. At home they think I’m too quiet. Those who read my work think I write better. What I know is that I read a lot, and I’m a good listener.
You’re just back from a speaking tour in Germany. What is the fun part regarding speaking about your books? Is the feedback better?
I must say that I don’t enjoy speaking about my books. It feels like I’m in a political campaign convincing people to vote for me. But the fun part is when people speak about your books and try to analyse your work in your presence. And yes, Way Back Home made great inroads into the German speaking world.
Where else have your books taken you to around the world?
I’m on my fifth passport now. I’ve been to more than forty countries. Some of those countries I’ve visited more than four times.
Have the tours sold your books?
Let me rather say I gained a lot of valuable experience.
Who is the most famous writer you’ve met on these book excursions?
Thousands. From Gunter Grass and Chimamanda to Ben Okri and Zakes Mda.
Who do you read, almost religiously?
The Bible. It’s the most important source of stories.
What is your biggest fantasy about your books – signing movie rights, translations into foreign languages, or seeing your words acted on stage, maybe?
They must be part of every household in South Africa.
Your anthology of short stories is due for release in March. What has been the experience of switching genres? Will you write more?
I’ve been writing and publishing short stories since 2005. Some of them have been translated into Dutch, French, German, Flemish, and appear in different anthologies around the world. So, it’s not a new thing. In my forthcoming anthology called Affluenza, I’m just putting the already published and new stories together. They are eleven in total. Eight are new and three are already published elsewhere. I will definitely write more short stories.
What is your ultimate novel, the world’s best, so far?
Way Back Home by Niq Mhlongo
Do awards validate one as a writer? If you do not get any, does that make you any less of a writer?
Awards are misleading. There are so many brilliant writers out there who have never won any awards. Actually, most of the writers I admire never won awards, or what is considered major. Writers like Meja Mwangi, Ayi Kwei Armah, Camara Laye, Mphahlele, Bessie Head, etc.
Do you read in the toilet?
Yes, mostly Facebook messages and the toilet graffiti.
Do you donate books to needy schools, libraries, etc?
I think my contribution is to write, and not to donate books for needy schools and libraries. It should be the government’s responsibility to buy my books and donate them to needy schools and libraries. Of course this depends on whether the government is serious about literacy, which I doubt.
Marlon James, if he visited … what would you talk to him about?
Do you mean the author or the basketball player? My experience is that most authors don’t talk to each other unless they happen to be standing next to each other at the urinal to take a pee. If you’re referring to the basket ball one, unfortunately I’m not a fan. I will ignore him.
One young writer we need to watch out for … and why?
This question makes me feel old. But watch out for Zakes Mda’s Little Suns. I don’t know if he is young anymore, but Tshifhiwa Given Mukwevho is an excellent writer. I love his writing because his stories are set mostly in places I would love to explore - rural areas.
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