Fungai Machirori (FM): Who is Zukiswa Wanner and what do you do?
Zukiswa Wanner (ZW): Writer, mother, feminist, African and, and, and …
FM: The ‘and and and‘ being the writing, can you tell us a little more about
ZW: I just said writer first (laughs).
FM: But can you tell us more about writer, what is it that you write?
ZW: I write books, I write columns, I write reports, I write whatever will pay the bills. But of course my primary claim to fame is the novels and the short stories.
FM: Can you tell us a little bit about your novels.
ZW: I have written four to date, the first one being The Madams which came out in 2006 and the last one being London, Capetown, Joburg which came out in 2014 in April. In between there was Man of the South in 2010 which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Best Book Africa region. I am proud to admit that I lost to Aminatta Forna’s Memory of Love but who would not be proud to lose to Aminatta Forna. In 2008 was Behind Every Successful Man. So those are the four novels.
FM: So how did you get into writing?
ZW: I was actually challenged to write by the late Lewis Nkosi, a late South African writer from the Drum era. I used to send him emails and I would send him pieces I had written of creative non-fiction and one day he emailed me back and said you should seriously consider writing fiction, which can only mean my creative non- fiction sucked. Anyway, so I went ahead and I ignored him and thought that was such nonsense. So I went ahead and wrote my first book – I wrote my first manuscript for The Madams later later later on about a year later. And when I wrote the first manuscript of The Madams and I sent it to another old man who really got excited and said baby can you send it to like- and he gave me a list of four-five publishing houses and of the five I sent it to, three accepted it. So yah.
FM: What has the journey been like into writing, what have been the challenges, the high points and the low points of it?
ZW: The literary festivals are always a high point.
FM: And why is that?
ZW: Because you actually get to meet writers and you talk and writing is such a solo art that you may think that most of the time but when you meet other writers you realise that they encountering the same problems as you are. And people you can brainstorm possible solutions with. The low point obviously is that I have been staying back on the continent since 2003 and I started my writing career in 2006 and the lowest point is generally trying to prove to the rest of the world that you are as good even though you are not a diasporic African and even though your publisher may not be in the UK and US. And yah, then there is also obviously like, I have had a few instances where an agent in the western world has told me that they loved my writing but it was not African enough. So there is this little thing about what Africa is, and the question is who defines Africa, you know. If I stay on this continent and I am writing about it, then am I in a space where I am not African enough for what I am writing? How does that work?
FM: So how does that challenge or low point affect you? Does it affect the sales of your work? Do you feel that it affects your prominence?
ZW: You know, I have decided to actually ignore that and I would tell you why. I mean obviously, it would possibly affect … Perhaps if I was staying in the diaspora and had a diasporan publisher and stuff or whatever it is, it might be different. But it is not a big deal to me and the reason that it is not a big deal to me is because I have decided that there are 53 other countries on this continent that can relate to what I am saying. So I am more keen to get my book, let’s say translated into French so that people in the Central African Republic or Cameroon can read it. I am more interested in having my books being translated into Portuguese so that people in Mozambique and people in Angola can be able to access them. Because I feel, despite the fact I write in English, the people in Mozambique, the people in Angola, the people in Cote d’Ivoire, the people in Gambia, the people in Liberia, relate to my journey so much better than an English-speaking British person who has never been in Africa.
FM: The counter argument that some people put forward is that people do not buy books on the continent. Do you feel that is true? Or do you feel that the books that are available are perhaps what people want to buy?
ZW: I think that is the greatest – expletive here – that I have ever heard and I will tell you why, I have heard that argument so many times, and I think most of the times it is because people are not aware that writers on the African continent exist. So they buy what they are given and hey buy what they see. So if go to a bookshop on our continent, you will see John Grisham, you will see Jim Pattison, you will see E.L . James and so forth and so on. And so people assume that this is the only literature that is there but the other situation, when I was doing a Read SA campaign, even now presently I have travelled to different provinces and I have travelled to different countries on the African continent and when I have done that, I have had conversations with people, sometimes it’s their first time that they are encountering an African writer or a writer from the African continent. And when they read the stuff and the feedback is fantastic and I have had, I think a lot of my sales have been by word of mouth or by recommending my work to other people on Facebook.
You know, of course I was staying SA up until I moved here to Kenya. And when I was in SA, despite the fact that there is a burgeoning and healthy literary market, amazing writers and stuff and everything, most of the people from the rest of the continent do not know South African writers. So it is only when I moved to east Africa when a lot of people got to be familiar with my work. And since that happened, it has been just amazing. I go to Kampala and I do book signings and there are tonnes of people there. I have just been in Eldoret, which is not a capital city, it is a town in Kenya and in Eldoret, I had like wonderful book signings and a fantastic crowd. And I experience this wherever I go on this continent. So, I think the whole thing of that Africans do not read, that there is nothing worthwhile or whatever, it is because perhapsour publishers and our publishing industry has not realised that we need to get out, think out of the box. Lets find a way. You have got publishers in SA, you have got publishers in Kenya, you have got publishers in Nigeria so forth. Instead of waiting for my book to be translated into French or to be taken up by an American publisher, let’s find a way of selling our titles to each other, exchanging catalogues and we see what works in each other’s markets.
FM: So you are currently involve in Writivism, which is a Uganda–based initiative that is trying to bring up young and up-and-coming African literature. What is your passion for that? Why are you involved in that project? What excites you about that project?
ZW: I am a board member and what I love about Writivism is the fact that that you are getting short stories maybe from … it‘s just not a project that someone submits say like with the other short story competitions where people just submit short stories and that is the end. The way it actually works is that you have people that submit flash fiction and then it is judged as flash fiction and then they do a workshop with an already established writer and after the workshop, they are paired up with a mentor and the short story is improved up until the judging period. And then there is a long list and a shortlist from the different regions on the continent. And so it‘s people with a passion for writing but who are being developed every step of the way in the year or six months they are in the programme and I think that is what sets it apart.
FM: We know that one of the biggest prizes for African literature is the Caine Prize and there are quite a split ideas about the Caine Prize. What is your perspective about prizes that are for African literature adjudicated by Africans outside of the continent?
ZW: You know, I am always glad when someone is offering to offer writers, whoever decides to do it. But I would ideally like to see and you know, and we have had some fantastic writers discovered via the Caine Prize, whether as shortlistees or winners. I would ideally, and I mean I got shortlisted for the Commonwealth, which really is not a prize but I have been making a big noise… I would really like to see a lot of our people… We have all these Forbes list stuff, multi–billionaires on the continent. They brag about being billionaires and they complain about the low level of literacy. The reason that we have a low level of literacy is that people do not have access to books and sometimes access to books. It is just not textbooks but reading for pleasure. I’ll love to see our billionaires and multi- millionaires put their money where their mouths are, I would like to see them sponsor some big major African literature award. Let us have the best short story on the continent best story anthology, best young adult book, best children’s book, best first novel, best non- fiction. Let us have all that. When you think about it, and if you put a budget of a million a year including administration, this could be successfully done. If we can do it for music, why can we not do it for literature?
FM: So we have the Etisalat Prize that is coming up, what do you think about prizes like that, that are being run from commercial perspectives and people are starting to celebrate African literature as an important thing seemingly. What is your perspective?
ZW: Well you know, the Etisalat is fantastic and it is in its second year. But one thing that I hope is that they involve more people in literature. Obviously the judges are literature people, but earlier this year we had the three shortlisted writers including the winner, NoViolet Bulawayo come to Kenya to do a visit. The events were very well attended, which was amazing, and the crowd was supportive. But one of the things that was very jarring was that two of the shortlistees‘ books were not available. It was like someone going to a meeting without a business card. So people loved meeting Yewande Omotoso and Karen Jennings but they could not get their books and it was very unfortunate. So perhaps, let us have these things where you consult with people in the industry. Let us see how we can make it better. Etisalat is fantastic. It can only get better from here.
FM: So we now have Africa 39, which is a compilation of short stories by 39 writers under the age 40 in Africa. You will be meeting in Nigeria , actually I really do not know why you are going to Nigeria , maybe you would like to enlighten me.
ZW: Port Harcourt in Ooctober, the last week of October I believe . It is essentially going to be the launch of the Africa 39 anthology, so we will have quite a lot of the writers who are on the list. You know there is Adichie, there is Ondjaki, there is Jackee Batanda, there is Okwiri, there is Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, there is Hawa Golokai, so it is going to be exciting obviously , there is Abubakar Ibrahim so it is going to be exciting to be with all the other writers who are on the list. They are as far as I am concerned, because I read a lot of writers from this continent , it is only a cross section of African writers under 39. I think perhaps the list does not nearly do enough justice, but I am glad that I am there.
FM: But you are not complaining.
ZW: I am not complaining.
FM: So the top 20 short stories for the 20 years of democracy, you are also on that list, what is your perspective on that. Do you feel it is a representative list, is it a necessary list- 20 years after democracy?
ZW: I am looking forward to the anthology, I think it is really quite representative, some of the short stories that are there are fantastic, I mean I was very very honoured to be on the list and to make it. So merely on the account that I am on the list , I think it is very representative.
FM: So, if you were not on the list…
ZW: I might question it!
FM: You would be like this shady (laughing). So your latest book, London Cape Town Joburg, a tour of three cities, and the changes in the lives of this family that moves from the UK into South Africa which is coming into democracy. Could you tell us about the book and how it came about?
ZW: If I tell you about it, you won’t buy copies.
FM: No, you never know you might tintilate us.
ZW: It is you know, I actually had a conversation with filmmaker Mfundi Vundla a few years ago . We were having this idea of having this rom-com set with a bi-racial couple and stuff, he had read my previous books and he thought I would be the person to do that. So what I did was, I did a bit of a treatment while awaiting funding, which generally always takes a long time in film or in the arts in general. I somehow decided to start writing this book , it was so different from the treatment- the treatment was initially, the woman was black and the guy was white and they were in California.
So it totally changed. So when I wrote about it, when I started writing London Cape Town Joburg, it became a study of what I perceived South Africa to have been from 1994 up until 2010. It was my own social commentary on the country but I also wanted very much to make the commentary from an outsider looking in. That is why Germaine, who is the wife of Martin and also Martin, are such important protagonists in the book. He is a South African and is very much an outsider because he has not grown up in the South Africa. So he sees certain things and nuances that a South African may not readily observe. But it has been fantastic and it has resonated with a lot of people in South Africa. I have been amazed at the reception.
FM: So finally, born in Zambia, to a Zimbabwean mother and a South African father living in Kenya . Pan African woman on a mission…
ZW: Wait until I move to Ghana!
FM: So is that the next stop?
ZW: Well you know, I am just flexible, I really do want to explore this continent, there is so much to do and I cannot get enough of it . And what I am trying to do with my son and partner is every year what we try to do is to take the young man to a different African country. This is where it is at .Why do you think the Chinese, Americans and everybody are coming here?
FM: So is there going to be a Nairobi Accra Harare coming up as a book maybe in the future?
ZW: No, there is no plan of a Nairobi Accra Harare book coming up in the future, you know Why , these are all important cities, each of them need their own book.
FM: Thank you Zukiswa for your time, all the best for your writing and everything else you are doing.
ZW: Asante Sana