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Niq Mhlongo

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PEN SA’s Q&A with Niq Mhlongo

Niq Mhlongo


This is part of a series of profiles on PEN SA members:

Niq Mhlongo is the author of three novels and a forthcoming short story collection. His first novel, Dog Eat Dog, was published in 2004 and translated into Spanish under the title Perro Come Perro in 2006. This Spanish edition won the Mar des Lettras prize. This was followed by After Tears in 2007 and Way Back Home in 2013. Niq’s short story collection Affluenza will be out next month.

Niq was described as “one of the most high-spirited and irreverent new voices of South Africa’s post-apartheid literary scene” by the New York Times.

Favourite South African novel?

….A Man Who’s Not A Man by Thando Mgqolozana stands out amongst many

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve just finished my short stories collection called Affluenza. It will be published by Kwela in May. Also busy with my manuscript for the new novel which is in an advanced stage.

Any characters (yours or another writer’s) that have stuck with you?

The Man from Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. Also Advo and Bafana from my novels, Dog Eat Dog and After Tears respectively.

Any advice / tips for writers starting out?

Read, read, read a lot and then write.

Hardest part of the writing and publishing process?

For me the writing process is not hard. But the publishing process becomes frustrating when you reach that time editors call ‘killing your darlings time’. This is the moment when editors mess up with your story and characters in the name of shaping them.

South African writers or books that have made an impact on you?

Afrika, My Music by Es’kia Mphahlele.

What are you reading at the moment?

I have a tendency of reading two books at a time. At the moment is Rusty Bell by Nthikeng Mohlele and A Traumatic Revenge by Tshifhiwa Given Mukwevho.

If you had to pick one book to give to all South Africans to read what would it be?

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.

Any other genres that you’re interested in trying your hand at?

I want to try poetry, but I find it very hard.

Proudest moment of your writing career?

When Kwela told me that they were going to publish my then manuscript, Dog Eat Dog in 2004. This is after they had rejected it more than ten times before.

Favourite quote from a book?

‘Why write this book? No one has asked me for it, especially those to whom it is directed. Well, well, I reply quite calmly that there are too many idiots in this world. And having said it, I have the burden of proving it…’ From Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks.

(Image courtesy Lauren Beukes)

Missing own book launch

Missing the launch
Few weeks ago an Australian TV Channel 7 showed an animated video footage of Oscar Pristorius. He was running awkwardly without his prosthesis. This was an obvious re-enactment of what might have happened on the night he is accused of having murdered his girlfriend Reeva. That footage reminded of my book launch ten years ago in Cape Town. It was back in 2004, when I was still an intern journalist with Fair Lady Magazine. Ann Donald was our editor, and I was reporting to Troye Lund. The journalism course that I was attending was run by Alice Bell. We were only two Interns at Fair Lady, me and the lady from Zimbabwe. Fair Lady had given me a chance to stop selling duvets and comforters at Home Choice where I was a telemarketer.
Oscar’s footage reminds of the day of the launch of Dog Eat Dog, my first novel. It is no doubt the book that introduced me to the world as Niq Mhlongo. The event was scheduled to start at 60:30PM for 7PM at the National Library, along Queen Victoria Street. Andre Brink had agreed to introduce this new young writer who had come to the surface immediately after the unfortunate death of K. Sello Duiker and Phaswane Mpe. Coincidently Phaswane Mpe was my African Literature lecturer at Wits University.
I was honored that Andre Brink had agreed to do the introduction. Besides the fact that he looks like Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, I had read Andre Brink even before I dreamt of one day studying at the university. My brother had forced me to read Brink’s A Dry White Season in the late 1980’s because it was his favorite; and it had since become one of my favorite too.
The trick on the day of the launch was that Fair Lady Magazine had organized a lavish Golf Day at the Paarl Golf Course. The special guest was Natalie du Toit-The Champion. Natalie was the hottest property in 2004; far more than Oscar Pristorius. She had just won gold medals for swimming at the Commonwealth games, All Africa Games, Paralympics, and this was still new. Everyone around the world wanted to take a picture with her. I mean, she had just been voted among the top 100 South Africans by the SABC, which by then had some integrity. As an intern, an opportunity like that is something you don’t want to miss. I was hoping to be given an opportunity to write about Natalie, and I knew she would be on the cover of the magazine and the story would be mine. Imagine what such a byline would do to my budding career? Magazines such as True Love and Drum would be after me, I thought. Now you understand why I so badly wanted to the Golf event first, and my book launch-talk about the case of killing two birds with one stone. So, I sat down and weighed my options. If told Troye or Ann about my book launch, they might advice me to go to my book launch and not come to the Golf Course and meet Natalie. So, ruled telling them out. Anyway, the book launch started only at 6:30 PM. The golf event would be long finish by then, so I convinced myself.
So, by 7AM the Fair Lady team was at Paarl. The theme was about making it against all odds. This was inspired by that fact that in 2001, Natalie had a horrible motorbike accident which had led to the amputation of both her legs. Against all this, she went on to win those medal in the competitions I have mentioned above.
This brings me to the video footage of Oscar Pristorius that was on Australia’s Channel 7. During lunch at the golf club building, Natalie graphically narrated to us how the accident happened, and how she lost both her legs. At one point she even removed her prosthesis and showed us the stumps. It was one of the most scariest thing I’ve ever seen. I mean, Natalie is very tall with her prosthesis on. In fact, I had to look up when talking to her. But after she removed those, I had to look down to talk to her. It haunted me, and Natalie was just smiling. Those who have met her will agree with me that she is the most humble, honest, and open person. But I swore from that day that I will never buy or ride a motorbike in my life. It is a promise I’m still keeping today.
Back to my Dog Eat Dog launch- James Woodhouse started calling me at 5PM. Those days he was not a big shot publisher. He was still selling his labor at Kwela as a manuscript reader. He was fresh from Norfolk in the UK where he had just run away from a horrible weather in that country. He was still deciding whether to make our beautiful Mzansi his home or not. Annari Van der Merwe was my publisher then. However, James had played a big role in getting Dog Eat Dog published after it was rejected on few occasions at Kwela. So he had every right to panic since Kwela had also secured Andre Brink to grace my launch. I had to calm James’ nerves by telling him that I was on my way.
It was a lie, you see. The fact of the matter is that the golf event was still on, although about to finish. But I was already bored watching people hitting the small white ball and missing the hole. I didn’t have a choice. I needed that story, although Troye was writing it. She had offered me to also write it. She told that if she likes it, she would publish, or we could be core writers. Besides, there was nothing I could do. I had used Fair Lady transport to the venue. I had to wait until the event was officially finished as we only had one driver. So I waited.
We only left at about 6:20PM. The traffic was heavy along the way, and Paarl is about 60KM away from Cape Town. James kept calling, and offering to come pick me up wherever I was. I estimated to be at the venue around 7PM; another lie. When 7pm struck I was still negotiating the traffic along Bellville. My event had already started. Andre and James were doing it on my behalf. I finally arrived at the venue at about 8:30PM. The event was officially over. A number of people had already left the venue, but James, Annari, Andre Brink and few others were still there, enjoying on my behalf. I went to Andre to tell him I was Niq and apologize, and all he said was: ‘Are you sure, you’re Niq’. He said it joking of course. The wine was nearly finished, the food was almost gone. I managed to get some few glasses of red wine though and some samoosas. While eating those, James, Annari, and Andre Brink started telling me how my own book launch went.
That night before I slept, I remembered my mother’s most irritating pedestrian saying. When I was still in primary school I used to have a bad habit of coming late from school. The punishment was that my brother would have eaten my share of bread. My mother would then say: ‘You! One day you will be late for your own funeral’. Only on the day I missed my launch did this make more sense. That night in my sleep, I dreamt about Natalie du Toit’s prosthesis legs instead of my book launch.

Crazy Author Moment

June 2010, Hay Festival, Wales, United Kingdom. I’m invited to participate at the Hay festival. Bra Zakes Mda, Ben Williams, Imraan Coovadia, and Mervyn Sloman are here too. Strangely, we all do not appear on the festival’s program, and look like lost tourists. The weather is more African than English-hot as if we brought it along from the motherland. I like it. Bra Zakes lives next door. We are both lodged upstairs, and the owners are downstairs. The house is owned by a Welsh gentleman who is hardly here. His wife is American and she says they met at some college in New England. I have forgot where about exactly. What I remember is that she has studied some pottery, and that she comes from Rhode Island. She mentions all this over breakfast in the morning when bra Zakes and I are drinking coffee. She tells me her name, which she says is Carol or Carolyn. Her pronunciation of her name is too fast for my hearing and I’m afraid to ask her to repeat it. ‘It’s rude to ask someone to repeat their name especially if you are their tenant’- I’m thinking as she puts her steaming mug on the table. We are all looking at Bra Zakes who is busy perusing the program to see if he is not mistaken that our names are not there.

‘I arrived yesterday’ he says, looking worried. ‘I would not have come here if I knew I was not going to be doing anything. I’m supposed to be teaching my class at Ohio instead of being a tourist here in Wales.’

He puts the program down and takes a sip from his coffee mug. The circle of thin smoke is rising up from the mug before disintegrating into a weaving strand.

‘But it is a lovely place, and we have a lovely weather’ says Carol or Carolyn while holding her mug. ‘The river is down there and it is called Hay-On Wye. It separates Wales from Britain.’

‘Is that so?’ I ask, not meaning it.

We are just ten minutes drive from the Hay Town. All the festivities are taking place there. Seeing that I’m also not on the program, I decide to stay inside my room and write some Way Back Home chapters. Few days ago my publisher sent me a long message of concern after skipping three deadlines.

I’m busy in my room. I hear Carol or Carolyn call my name.

‘Yes’ I answer.

‘There is a guy and lady looking for you downstairs.’
‘Okay.’

The driver of the Range Rover and a lady are leaning by the car. I recognize the lady as one of the program coordinators. I forgot her name. The Hay Festival organizers want me to quickly come to the session. It is already on. I quickly get into the Range. Off we go to the session. Along the way the coordinator tells me that the author that is supposed to be on the session did not pitch.

‘Please, say yes.’

‘What is the topic?’ I ask

‘Just talk about your books and South African literature in general’ she says while looking at me from the rear mirror. ‘Don’t forget the World Cup.’

‘But I…’

‘Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.’

She gives me a paper and pen. Ten minutes later I’m entering the hall where the session is on. It is packed. Hundred, maybe more, I think. All eyes are on me. This is the kind of session where I need two fingers of whisky before I settle down. The moderator is a young Indian lady who speaks very fast. She pauses and introduces me as I make my way to the stage. Somebody rushes to ‘mike’ me. Within two minutes I’m busy telling the audience about my books and South Africa. During the Q &A they ask a number of questions, and I ramble on. Most of them have got an interest in the looming World Cup which will start in few days time in South Africa. I talk more about their safety while in South Africa than my books.
After the session, Ben Okri is presenting at the theatre opposite where we are. Everyone is rushing out to listen to him. I walk out with the coordinator and the moderator. They are busy assuring me that I did well during the session. There is a very long queue in front of us. It snakes for some few meters. We walk straight to the door and use our free passes to jump the queue. The theatre is already packed as we go inside with the lady moderator. The coordinator does not go in. She says we will meet at the Green Room. There are no more seats left so we join the people that are standing. Ben Okri is wearing his black trademark cap. He is facing the moderator, who is an elderly man. He sips a glass of water in front of him while the moderator asks the question. Everyone except me has a paper and a pen. They are busy taking notes. Even my moderator is writing everything Ben Okri is saying.

The session lasts for about an hour. The people are clapping hands after each sentence, even before he finishes it. The clapping is long and people are now giving a standing ovation. Ben bows about five times. The clapping does not end until he signals with his hands. Then silence. There is a long queue, and people are seeking his autograph. They are all carrying one or two of his books. My moderator and I walk towards the book stand, but Okri’s books are sold out. Luckily, she has a copy of the Famished Road. She insists she wants him to sign it. I tell her that she will find me at the Green Room as I quickly want to use the computer to send a quick e-mail to my publisher. It was a lie of course. I can tell that she might take long to reach Ben. He is very busy chatting to some few fans and signing their copies.

I get to the green room. I immediately pour a glass of free red wine. Ben Williams, Mervyn, Bra Zakes, and Imraan are sitting on maroon couch at the corner there. With a glass on my hand I walk to them. Ben is busy with his new gadget called Ipad. He is demonstrating to Imraan how great the gadget is and how to do what he calls ‘Blogging’ with it. I don’t know what it means but I don’t ask him. He will think I’m stupid, I think. I keep saying ‘okay, I see’ just to make him think I’m following him. From the corner of my eye I see a lady coming with a tray of red and white wine. The glasses are knocking each other as she walks towards us. Bra Zakes says no to the wine. Mervyn and Imraan pour some. I swallow mine at one go and then ask the lady for another one. Ben is now typing what he calls a blog on the Ipad. I act as if I’m so impressed by his gadget. The coordinator comes to tells us that some journalist from The Guardian wants to interview us. We all follow her to some room. Ben is walking slowly in front of me and he is still busy blogging. While typing, he suggests that we go to some place called Abergavenny for dinner the following evening. He says it is behind some black Welsh Mountains. Only Imraan is listening to him. Imraan who is walking slowly in front of us stops a bit to ask us what we think about Ben’s idea. It is a great idea, he says. Bra Zakes sounds reluctant. He says he might not be able to go because he has some writing which is due. Ben convinces him by saying it is a nice place. Bra Zakes grudgingly obliges.
We enter the room where The Guardian journalist is waiting for us. A smile is pasted on her face. She talks about the volcano eruption at a place called Eyjatjallajokul in Iceland that nearly disrupted the London Book Fair in April. She nods knowingly and rapidly when I tell her that my plane was also cancelled. I was supposed to be there with a number of South African authors.

The interview is over in about forty-five minutes. Bra Zakes and I catch the Range Rover back to our B&B. We leave Imraan, Mervyn and Ben behind. They don’t stay at Hay-On Wye. The driver drops us at about two in the afternoon and he will pick us up again around 6PM for dinner. A great night is waiting ahead. At 7PM a Cuban music band by the name of Buena Vista Social Club will be playing. I only know one song by them but I’m so eager to watch them. Bra Zakes says he is going and so I’m going. My moderator is coming as well and I think we are going to have fun. The opening bill on the session is by Toumani Diabate from Mali who is going to play Ali Farka Toure’s songs.

We leave the Green House dinner table and it is 6:55 PM. Bra Zakes is walking in front of me to the theatre where we are hearing the sound of music. The place is fully-packed so we decided to stand at the back. Diabate is already playing. Few minutes later Ben Okri comes and stands between me and Bra Zakes. The music is captivating. We watch in silence while nodding our heads in appreciation. We clap our hands in between the songs. Some group of intoxicated white females jump onto the stage and dance.

An hour later it is the Buena Vista Social Club’s turn to entertain us. The lead singer Eliades Ochoa comes on stage first wearing his trademark cowboy hat. He strums the guitar while singing in Spanish on the microphone. The crowd goes wild as the band starts singing a song called ‘Chan Chan’. As the fourth song ‘Amor de loca juventud’ begins to play, the intoxicated girls join Eliades on stage without his invitation. Bra Zakes and I reluctantly leave in the middle of the song called ‘Dos gardenias’ because our last ride is at about 10:30 PM.

In the morning at about 9 we are at The Green Room again for our breakfast. Bra Zakes is wearing his cowboy hat. I’m facing the door. I see Ben Okri approaching our table, his trademark cap on his head. Bra Zakes is facing me. He lifts his fork with a piece of scrambled egg to his mouth. The fork is half-way towards Bra Zakes’ mouth, and Ben Okri is standing next to our table facing him. Bra Zakes puts his fork down on the plate again without eating the scrambled egg. Okri extends his right hand and says:

‘Hi, my name is Ben’ he is smiling. ‘I just want to say thank you for the great music last night. It was a great evening, and I really enjoyed.’

Confused, my eyes are darting from Okri to Bra Zakes. Bra Zakes does not look confused at all. He is shaking Ben’s hand.

‘Thank you very much’ Bra Zakes says.

I’m watching Bra Zakes as Ben is leaving our table, but he continues eating his breakfast as if nothing happened.
‘And then what was that about?’ I’m asking him. ‘But you are not a musician.’

‘Niq, I presented with Ben Okri on several literary festivals around the world. He should know who I am by now. If he thinks I’m a musician that is fine with me.’

‘So he is mistaking you for the Buena Vista Social Club lead singer?’

‘Yes.’

‘Oh my God! One day I will write about this day,’ I promise.

Deliver us from E-tolls Evil

When I was still a student at Wits University (1994-1997) I used to take part in student protests. I was among those angry students who used to disrupt classes with stinking dustbins that we emptied inside the Central Block lecture theatres. My voice was one of the loudest ones as we sang, Ugly Charlton, Ugly Charlton! We are here far from home! We will hate you and despise you for the things you’ve done to us!’ against our Vice Chancellor, Bob Charlton outside the Great Hall stairs and Senate House corridors.
Most, if not all of our protests were financial complaints in nature, and the most affected were black students. I felt that I had a duty to protest against the increasing tuition fees, accommodation fees, and a rise in our monthly allowances and so on. I believed that I shared some vulnerability and understanding with those fellow poor black students who were being excluded on financial grounds.
Our motto was simple: ‘never ever go to bed at night knowing that there was something you could have done during the day to strike a blow against injustices that affect you. I fondly remember the camaraderie that we had as the poor and affected students, and I have never stopped feeling I was part of that tribe.
That was then, and I never thought I would find myself fired up and persuaded to fight against injustice again until this year. The way in which the ruling party has disregarded the will of the people and introduced the E-tolling system on Gauteng’s freeways is my big issue this year. To voice my disapproval, I have been joining different political parties and organizations on the street in protest against E-tolls.
On the 27th of September, I found myself amongst the few DA supporters outside the SANRAL offices in Modderfontein on the East Rand protesting against the E-tolling system on Gauteng’s freeways. I painfully found myself singing the slogan vote against e-tolls in 2014, against the party that I had consistently voted for since 1994. The biggest blow against the wishes of the people was when the supreme court of appeal recently ruled against the Opposition To Urban Tolling Alliance (OUTA) on the 9th of October.
On the 12th of October I joined the COSATU drive-slow protest against the E-tolls in Pretoria CBD. This past Friday, on the 1st of November, I joined the march organized by the EFF against the E-tolls. I listened earnestly as Julius Malema encouraged his supporters ‘not to buy the E-tags and to always wear a red beret as a substitute for buying the e-tag’. I laughed with his supporters when Malema told them ‘to show a red beret when the road traffic officers ask for an E-tag’. As I write this, there will be a march organized by COSATU on the 12th of November and I’m certainly joining it.
There are several reasons why I have decided to fight against the unjust E-tolls. The most important motive is that they sadly remind me of the now defunct Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953. This notorious apartheid Act ‘racially allowed public premises, vehicles, and services, to be segregated by race even if facilities were not made available to all races’.
In a nutshell, the best facilities were reserved for whites, while those for other races were inferior. I’m of the opinion that both the Act and E-tolls are segregationist measures to enforce the dominance of one group over another. The only difference is that the Act was built on racial discrimination, and happened during the apartheid era; whereas the E-tolls are based on class discrimination and occur in the post-apartheid ANC era.
On one hand, the Act confined black people to live in particular areas designated to them, and also forbade them from enjoying other privileges reserved for white people. For example, black people were restricted from entering certain areas without the permit or dom-passes. In the past, you had to have a signature of your tribal chief, granting you permission to leave your tribal homeland or district.
On the other hand, E-tolls force the poor to pay for the use of what used to be free, by making it a criminal offence to be found driving on the freeway without an e-tag. By privatizing the roads with E-tolls, the ANC led government is imposing a financial burden on the poor people and perpetuating a rift between the haves, and the have nots.
Personally, for me E-toll means that I have to pay money to go and visit my friends and relatives in Pretoria. I feeling is like being betrayed by the very same woman I love; in this case, the ANC. I know that they are exempting the public transport users from paying the e-tolls; but this is nearly non functional. It is unlike Europe and America where there isa good underground transport system that is always reliable and on time. The truth is that the ANC has to fix this before it forces the implementation of the E-tolls.
On a positive note, E-tolls have unified Gauteng people. We are fighting it in the same spirit as we fought what we thought were unjust laws and what was unjust at Wits University, as well as The Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953. I see E-tolls as the post-apartheid’s apartheid law.

Niq Mhlongo on Way Back Home

In the early 1980’s when I was growing up in Soweto, there was a popular urban legend called Vera the Ghost. It is believed that Vera was a very beautiful lady who was killed in one of the Soweto roads in the 1950’s. It is not clear how she died, yet I don’t know which one of the three versions is true. Some people believe that she was killed in a hit and run car accident. Others say that she was gang-raped and later killed. Most people seem to believe that Vera was killed by her jealous lover who went on to throw her body into a stream. The truth is that she had died a very terrible death, and her spirits had not rested as she terrorized Sowetans after that. It is said that Vera would stalk handsome Soweto hunks at the parties and they would be the envy of every party goers. She would then use her beauty to charm the lucky hunk into buying her alcohol, and after the party she would lure them to her home. The following day the hunk would be found dead and naked on top of a grave at the Avalon Cemetery.

This is where the idea of my third novel, Way Back Home, which was published in April this year by Kwela Books comes from- Vera the Ghost urban legend as well as African cultural beliefs and myths around the concept of death. In most if not all African cultures and traditions, the dead are not gone forever. When we bury a person, it means that we are sending the deceased off to the afterlife where they join our ancestors. The ancestors play a major role in everyday people’s lives as they oversee everything we do. If we don’t do things according to the customs and beliefs, bad luck is more likely to befall upon. So when a person dies, all traditional rituals must be observed so that the deceased joins the ancestors in good spirits, so that they say all the good things about us. Being in good books with the ancestors simply means good luck and success in everything we do. For example, in case of death, the deceased has to be mourned properly so that their spirits join those of the ancestors. If a husband dies for instance, the wife has to wear black, abstain from any sexual activity until the mourning period (usually a year) is observed. If the wife has an intercourse before the mourning period lapses, she would bring bad luck of death within the family. Death has to be complete, and that is why we slaughter a beast and brew traditional beer and do some rituals with the traditional healers to inform our ancestors of our progress in matters of life and death.

Way Back Home is about these binaries between tradition and modernity; African way of healing and western ways of healing, the past and the present, the living and the dead, the rich and the poor, corruption and righteousness, white and black, love and hate, apartheid era and post-apartheid era, as well as the inxiles and the exiles. The narrative is centered around a female freedom fighter named Senami, who is killed by her own comrades in exile in Angola during the apartheid era. Like Vera The Ghost, she was not buried properly, so her angry spirit comes back in the form of a ghost to haunt her killers in the present day post-apartheid South Africa. This results in some deaths. In order to appease her spirits, her killers and relatives have to go back to Angola where she was killed to do the rituals of taking her body and spirit back home to South Africa where she is reunited with her ancestors. Only by doing this will Senami’s spirit rest in peace; and her death will be complete. In a nutshell, Way Back Home seeks to show the importance of our culture and belief which are rated below the Western way of life. It does this by putting more emphasis on African way of healing, African medicine, and African oral tradition of story-telling. For example, in African tradition of oral story-telling, every tale ends with a lesson or some kind of education. Thus, the story of Vera The Ghost had a huge impact on me in shaping my childhood. It taught me not to go out at night, lest I might be the victim of a ghost. So I was always indoors at sunset, and this helped me to avoid wrong crowd. Way Back Home is also about our past history of struggle against apartheid as it tells that sad part of the struggle that the politicians are trying to sweep under the carpet. It is about the truth, and the reflection into the past, the present and the future of South Africa.

WAY BACK HOME LAUNCH April 2013

The launch of WAY BACK HOME by Niq Mhlongo
I’m relieved now. Yes I am. Recently I announced the publication of my third novel, WAY BACK HOME by Kwela. On the website, www.nb.co.za/books Kwela, (NB imprint and my publisher) has confirmed the release date of WAY BACK HOME. If you visit this website you’ll find the release date, which is the 20th of April 2013; the price (R195), the format- soft cover 224 pages. There is also a blurb and design cover. These are some of the answers to some of the questions that were posed on my Facebook and twitter accounts post recently. Your responses to my post about the book release were really amazing, I must say. I’m sorry I didn’t have some of the answers about the launch then. Some of my readers, I understand (about eleven of them) even phoned Kwela directly to find out about the launch date. Yesterday on the 25th of March a got a call from one of my friends who was on his way to Sakhumzi Vilakazi Street in Soweto with three of his friends for the much anticipated WAY BACK HOME launch. I had initially indicated to him that the launch would be on the 25th of April although this was not yet confirmed. Because he so much wants to read this book, he had thought yesterday was the 25th of April. Hade bra Thabo, eintlik it is a month from today skhokho sam’.
My publisher and I have decided to launch Way Back Home in Sakhumzi Restaurant on the evening of the 25th of April 2013 at 6PM. The Restaurant is situated along the world famous Vilakazi Street, between Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu’s House and former President Mandela’s house in Orlando-West: (May I say their former houses since both of them no longer live there?). The street as you know has a great history of its own. Besides the fact that it was named after Dr. Benedict Wallet Vilakazi (poet, novelist, educator), the first black South African to receive a PH.D, the first black South African to teach white South Africans at the university level (Wits University), Vilakazi Street is the only one street in the world to have housed Nobel Prize winners (Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu and former President Nelson Mandela). This street has also housed one of the most famous authors, Niq Mhlongo who also lived there for about nine years. That was even before he set foot at Wits University or UCT. He was still an aspiring Chinua Achebe wanna be. Around that time, there was no Sakhumzi, Nambita, etc. Computers had no mouse then, and Steve Jobs was probably still in high school somewhere in The US of the A. Ngudus of Castle Lager, Hansa, Lion Lager, and Black Label were bought at R3. 50C at the local Spanish Inn; or at R3 at Niq Mhlongo’s neighbor called Bhakabhaka (he was an ardent fan of Orlando Pirates FC). Niq Mhlongo conceptualized Dog Eat Dog while looking out at the window of his room that faced Vilakazi Street. I’m afraid there was no Castle Lite beer then, which is now abused by the youth in the townships. By then, the researchers in Stellenbosch did not even dream that one day they might discover fraudulent meat products of donkey, water buffalo, and horse in our sausages and dried meats. I mean, Niq Mhlongo used to walk along Vilakazi Street when sent to buy real, organic T-bone at Makhedama Butchery near what used to be Maponya Mall- along the Khumalo main road. As I said, when Niq Mhlongo was still living in Vilakazi Street, there was no such thing as Sakhumzi Restaurant. The only sad attraction was former President Mandela’s house as well as Mama Winnie Mandela’s house opposite-(which unfortunately or fortunately, most tourists find interesting). By then the tourists would come on a buses and just stare at us from the windows, and only got off at the two houses. Nowadays tourists are clever, as they even ride on bicycles around Orlando West Streets. Some even sleep at the mushrooming B&B’s around DiepKloef Expensive- I mean Diepkloef Extension. Also, when Niq Mhlongo was still a resident of Vilakazi Street, there was no such thing as the Hector Petersen Museum. The only structure that existed by the Museum was the Uncle Tom’s Hall. Niq Mhlongo used to board the taxis to Joburg right at the same place where the Museum is now. There used to be long queues in the morning snaking towards the Museum. I hope you now understand why he is launching his third novel in Vilakazi Street on the 25th of April 2013.
Talking about the launch; I’m very excited that the book I’ve been trying to create since 2008 is now out. Yes, it took me that long. It was easy to tell the story orally as I shared it to those who cared to listen to my gibberish. Like they say, everyone has a beautiful story in their heads that they would love to share with the rest of the world. The challenge is getting it out of the head and put it out there in the way that everyone can access it. Sitting down, and typing my story that I already knew from the begging until the end was a mammoth task that took me about six years. The story was written in different parts of the world that I have travelled, USA, Brussels, Paris, Wales, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Amsterdam, Spain, Oslo, Botswana (at sister dearest’s house), Maputo, Lagos, Nairobi, Lusaka, etc.
I’m grateful to everyone that contributed to my story. I remember Gogo Nompi at Vilakazi Street who shared the Izangoma/spirit songs with me. Every time Gugu went home I would request her to ask Gogo Nompi for some of the songs that appear in the book. Bra Mandla Langa somewhere in Joburg, Bra Papi in Kliptown, Wonderboy Peters at the Long Bar in Braamfontein, Lucas Ledwaba at Xai Xai in Melville, my 2009 MA creative writing class mates at Wits University, my drinking partners at both Chi, Bohemian, and Post-grad Wits Pub called Pig, my former students at NEMISA- my friends, all of you were part of my research; whether you are aware of it or not. Also the two police men who arrested my friend for drinking and driving, and make him sleep at the Moroka Police Station-you were part of my research.
Please come in numbers. All of you are welcome. I know most of you might not be aware that I didn’t go to the launch of my first novel Dog Eat Dog. Ask Andre Brink and he will tell you why. Recently in February when we met with Andre in Brazzaville as guests for the Etonnants Voyageurs, we even laughed about it. This is how it happened. I’m sure after reading this you’ll understand why I am not a great fan of Golf Day, even if it’s done for charity. In 2004 I was working for Fairlady Magazine (Naspers) in Cape Town as an intern journalist. On the day of my launch (I can’t recall the exact date-but somewhere around May), I was assigned to work on some Golf Day story that featured Natalie du Toit story (swimming champion) as a guest of honor. I was held in some posh Golf Course in Paarl-about 80KM or more from Cape Town. You know how golfers are; they take their time hitting that small ball into a hole. So I sat there from 6AM watching some uninteresting people dressed in white like pimps as they fallowed and hit a damn small white ball with clubs.
Dog Eat Dog launch was at 6PM and Andre Brink was scheduled to introduce my first book. I was happy that a man of his caliber was going to mention my name, and looking forward to calling him by his first name, not professor. Oh, what an honor! Imagine feeling. Picture yourself calling President Mandela by his first name, Nelson in front of a big crowd just to show people that you’re in his league. And now visualize him responding with that smile on his face.
Okay, at half five in the afternoon my panicking poor Kwela publisher kept calling and calling. Unfortunately the golf pimps were still hitting the goddam ball, and watching the action was like watching the paint drying in Soweto room. Idiots! Why don’t they just pick the damn ball off the grass and throw it into the nearest available hole, and the game is over-I swore under my breath. Shame, my poor publisher, they must have spent fortunes for this launch, I thought. Mind you, this was my first launch and I was still a virgin in the world of Andre Brink and literature as a whole. It was also before my mind was corrupted by the likes of Zukiswa Wanner, Siphiwo Mahala, Fred Khumalo, Ndumiso Ngcobo, Sihle Khumalo, Angela Makholwa, Thando Mqolozana, Kgebetli Moele, Cynthia Nozizwe Duduzile Jele. Together we have coined a definition of a Publishers- Someone who screws a writer both day and night time. There goes my royalties because of the golf pimps, I started to get worried. Well, I convinced my publisher that the golf would be over soon.
What will they think of me disappointing an old powerful man like Andre who had written more than thirty books? The question lingered in my mind until the golf presentations were over at about six. And shit, I had to plead with the Fairlady driver to drive me to The Centre of the Books-A distance of over eighty kilometers (could be more). On our way to Cape Town, the Jetta’s wipers broke. It was drizzling. We had to drive at forty kilometers per hour because of the damn malfunction wipers, and we did so until the rain cleared somewhere near Bellville or something like that. By the time we reached the Centre for the Book at about seven-forty, my very own first book launch was over. I bumped into Andre on the door on his way out. Of course he was not aware that I was the Niq Mhlongo that stood him up, so it was easy for me to pass him without saying hello and goodbye.
Niq Mhlongo is here! My publisher tried to shout above the din. Those people that remained to eat and drink the wine were absorbed into their own private small talks. James, my editor then (now publisher), and Annari, my publisher then, tried in vain to tell the dining and wining audience that I was the author of the book they had come to launch. People started looking at their watches. African time, I thought they were thinking; he’ll be late even to his own funeral. Fortunately they listened for less than five minutes to my apologies. Then they went back to their glasses. Some empathized with me by saying ‘shame’.
I guess now you understand why the launch of WAY BACK HOME on the 25th of April 2013 is important to me. I’m even tempted to sleep in Orlando West just so that I don’t have a car breakdown, a golf day, or something. I HOPE YOU’LL BE THERE TOO.

Going to my ancestral land

When I was in high school in the late 80′s, doing a subject called HISTORY under BANTU EDUCATION, I was taught that us ‘Bantu people’, originate from the CONGO. I was made to believe that South Africa was just a jungle that was lived by the San people (who are not related to us BANTU PEOPLE) and wild animals, and that ‘we BANTUS’ and the Voortrekkers (HOURNARABLE JAN VAN RIEBECK) arrived here almost at the same time. Therefore, ‘we BANTUS’ can not claim this as an ancestral land since we came from BATEKE and the BAKONGO of the great KONGO/CONGO RIVER. Tomorrow morning I’m flying to my ancestral BANTU LAND of the Republic of the CONGO, Central Africa. Coincidentally, I have a cousin whose surname is NKUNA…and I heard that my final destination, BRAZZAVILLE was known as THE NKUNA VILLAGE before the BATEKE king (MY GREAT GREAT GREAT GREAT ANCESTOR) sold that piece of land to the French man called PIERRE de BRAZZA. SO, maybe I will unlearn what I have learnt in high school with this visit…THE ETONNANTS VOYAGEURS-INTERNATIONAL BOOK FESTIVAL….

Niq Mhlongo at the Etonnants Voyageurs in Congo-Brazzaville

I’m kicking off this year’s literary events with the ‘Etonnants Voyageurs’. This is an International Book Festival to be held in Brazzaville (Republic of Congo) from the 13th to the 18th of February 2013. This looks like a great event as writers from the Anglo-phone countries like myself will have an opportunity to share with those coming from the Franco-phone countries. For me, the timing of this event is just perfect. Since my second novel After Tears was translated into French in 2009, my work has been making inroads into the Franco-phone reader communities. This year as well, my short story titled Goliwood Drama, (first appears in anthology called Obituary Tango, Jacana, 2006, also in The Granta Book of the African Short Story, 2011, Penguin Books) was translated into French and appears in the French anthology called L’Afrique qui vient, Hoebeke, 2013. This is great progress from my side as my work is becoming more available in French. My new novel, titled WAY BACK HOME (Kwela Publishers, 2013) will be hitting the shelves in April this year. As I’m writing this, the printers in Cape Town are busy printing thousands of copies just to make sure it reaches your area as well. I’m confident that WAY BACK HOME will be a success as well, reaching thousands of readers like my previous novels (DOG EAT DOG and AFTER TEARS). Some of you already know that both DOG EAT DOG and AFTER TEARS have been reissued in the USA in 2011 and 2012 respectively by Ohio University Press. Swallow Press, as part of its Modern African Writing Series. DOG EAT DOG is also available in both Italian and Spanish, whereas AFTER TEARS, as indicated above, is also in French.
Back to the Etonnants Voyageurs in Brazzaville- it features different performing artists and authors from different parts of the world. From South Africa is myself- (Niq Mhlongo), Andre Brink, Sthembiso Moloi, Byran Little, Prince Mofokeng, Bontle Linda Senne. Other participants are Haddad Hurbert (Tunisia/France), Mabanckou Alain (Republic of Congo/France/USA), Orcel Makenzy (Haiti), Agualusa Jose Eduardo (Portugal), Peterson Pia, Le Men Yvon (France), Sami Tchak (Togo), Saro-Wiwa Noo (Nigeria), Bofane In Koli Jean (DRC/Belgium), Cole T Teju (Nigerian American), Amkoullel (Mali musician), Mark Behr (Tanzania/South Africa), Yahia Belaskri (Algeria), Jean-Marie Robles de Blas (Algeria), Serge Bramly (Tunisia), Noviolet Bulawayo (Zimbabwe), Couao-Zotti Florent (Benin), Diagne Souleymane Bachir (Senegal), Florent De la Tullaye, Diarra Ousmane (Mali), Diop Christiane Yande (Senegal), Emmanuel Dongala (Congo), El Aswany Alaa (Egypt), Abdulrazak Gurnah (Tanzania), Helon Habila (Nigeria), Joris Lieve (Belgium), Kilani Leila (Morocco), Bill Kouelany (Congo Brazza), Michel Le Bris (France), Henry Lopes (Congo), Achille Mbembe (Cameroon), Mbou Mikima Rufin (Congo), Miano Leonora (Cameroon/France), Lydie Moudileno, Janis Otsiemi (Gabon), Prophete Emmelie (Haiti), Sansal Boualeni (Algeria), Sarr Felwine (Senegal), Tchoungui Elizabeth (Cameroon/France), Tejpal Tarun Jit (India), Thiaw Rama (Senegal), Trouillot Lyonel (Haiti), David Van Reybrouck (Belgium), Zephirin Frantz (Haiti), Zongo Michel (Burkina Faso). For more information go to: www.etonnants-voyageurs.com

Way Back Home

It’s great to be back after such a long time. I don’t remember when was the last I posted something here, about two to three years. But I’m the bearer of good news-just finished editing my manuscript of my forth coming novel Titled-Way Back Home. It will be out in April 2013, and Kwela is the publisher. So, I’m Back..
Below is how Chapter one looks like

Chapter One
I, Kimathi Fezile Tito, do solemnly declare that I am a soldier of the South African revolution. I am a volunteer fighter, committed to the struggle for justice. I place myself in the service of the people, The Movement and its allies. I take up arms in response to the wishes of the masses. I promise to serve with discipline and dedication at all times, maintaining the integrity and solidarity of the people’s army. Should I violate any of these, I accept that I should be punished by all means not excluding death. A tooth for a tooth; an eye for an eye; a life for a life.

13 August 1986, Angola

Spotting a Sowetan in a foreign city

My diary tells me that this week I’m scheduled to meet with the people that sponsored my recent trip to the United States (United States Culture & Information Centre), where I had spent three exciting months on a Writers fellowship at the University of Iowa. The purpose of the meeting is to ‘debrief’ them on my journey, reflecting on all the sweet memories that still lurk in my mind about that corn mid-west state. As I plunge into the sweet memories and thoughts of my stay there, there is this one particular incident that does not want to leave my mind.

Well, let me start by the trite that most of us black South Africans don’t have passports and hardly travel even from one province to another. But, imagine this for my luck? On the 31st of August 2008 I rightfully spotted a fellow Sowetan in the bus to Coralville Mall in Iowa City, just like one would spot a Durbanite by a gold-platted tooth. The guy that I rightfully suspected was a Sowetan was wearing his sporty hat, a Lacoste T-shirt that was not tucked into his dikkies trousers and a pair of black Converse takkies; and I randomly guessed that he was my country man even before hearing him talk in his tsotsitaal.

Before I tell you how this happened, let me say a bit about Iowa City, which has a lot in common with our own Rhini/Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape. The striking similarity between Rhini and Iowa City is that they are both in the middle of nowhere, but in Iowa City you can get fined $100 for crossing red robot. They call it J-walking. Both Rhini and Iowa City are university towns, although Iowa is referred to as the city. Maybe it is because Iowa University, unlike Rhodes eRhini has a large predominately white student population of thirty thousand. But another difference is that Rhodes University in Rhini is full of black students, and it is easier for one to say ‘molo mnfondini’ to anyone at the nearby Joza Township. Iowa University is surrounded by up-market suburbs with wooden houses and at the time when I was there, people were more concerned about the now President Barack Obama or John Mc’Cain winning the elections in November.

Now back to my Sowetan friend in Iowa City- let me first tell you that on Monday the 1st of September, which was the first day of the spring, in the US it was also a Labor Day. Unlike back home in Soweto where one would expect the kids to sprinkle one another with tap water as a way of celebrating, in the US most shops were closed. Most Iowans were at the ‘beach’-which was actually basking on the sand of the nearby Mississippi River, or its tributary, Iowa River.

We had decided with fellow writers, (John from Cameroon, Uche from Nigeria, Glaydah from Uganda and I) to go to the nearest Coralville Mall, which was about twenty kilometers from the city, to do some grocery. The mall is about the size of East Gate Mall in Jozi, and there are lots of shops that are cheaper there. Let me warn you though, that in the US the item pricing in the shops is very strange. If you enter a shop and see something that costs $5 for example, expect to pay more in taxation at the till. Also when you go to a grocery store to buy a beer or cigarette, it doesn’t matter how old you are as you are required to show your ID or passport. In Mzansi, you can only buy these items if you are 18 years and older, but in the US you have to be 21 and above.

Okay, we waited for the bus to Coralville Mall at 11 am in Clinton Street. The bus fare costs 75c for each journey and you must have the correct change in coins, which can be quarters (25 cents), dimes (ten cents) or nickel (five cents). You simply slide the coins into the slot by the driver as if it was a vending machine. The driver’s job is to drive you and not to give you change.

I was already sitting inside the bus with my newly acquired friends when two white guys and a black guy (my Sowetan suspect) wearing a sporty hat boarded the bus. The white guys were walking in the front and they stopped and slid the coins on the slot by the driver. The black guy simply passed without paying and followed his friends. As the seats were all occupied, they all stood near us while balancing on the strip-hanger. There was something about the black guy that instinctively made me pause talking to my friends and looked at him. Instinctively, he just reminded me of home, and strangely, he also nodded at me as if to acknowledge my thoughts. After nodding back at him I whispered to my friend John and told him that I thought the guy was South African. While John was still laughing, we heard the bus driver talking on the speaker that ‘the guy on the hat, you didn’t pay for your fair’, obviously referring to my sowetan suspect. The guy appeared a bit embarrassed and asked his friends why they did not pay for him; obviously he was expecting them to have done so. I watched ‘my Sowetan suspect’ go back to the driver where he apologized and paid. At the same time he was saying: ‘sorry, eintlik I thought my friends have paid for me as well’. It was that sentence that confirmed my suspicion. After he had had paid his fare, he came back to stand next to us again. Out of the blue, I found myself talking to him in Zulu, ‘sawubona m’fethu’. The guy just laughed, and he was so happy to have discovered a brother in this far away corn city. We then talked in Zutho (combination of Zulu and Sotho) until we arrived at the mall. He told me that his name was Tshepo and he was also in Iowa University for six months as an exchange student. Guess where he hailed from? Ndofaya/Meadolands Zone 9-SOWETO.