As part of our January Conversation Issue, Mbali Sikakana interviews award-winning author Songeziwe Mahlangu.
Kwela Books, 2013
South African publishing at the moment is abuzz with the noble intent of getting more Black authors to come to light, whether through traditional channels or otherwise, most notably through the intervention of Black publishers, festivals and booksellers and other supporters along the value chain. This is no small feat. The disjointed relationship between advanced technical infrastructure and the deprivation suffered by the majority in South Africa is well documented—and is especially pronounced when it comes to cultural infrastructure. The effects of apartheid censorship, the violent repression of dissent, and inferior education for the Black majority for decades mean that there is now a peculiar confluence of both young and old writers and a multiplicity of Black voices that remain either unrepresented or have limited representation in South African literature. As a result, Black authors vie for space in a relatively small local market—which is becoming increasingly aware of the power of their audience—and international opportunities remain in short supply.
There is a danger, then, of a reliance on the frequent publishing of debut novels by Black authors we never hear from again.
I wanted to explore these issues with a young Black writer who has followed the traditional channels available, to highlight what limitations, obstacles and support he has encountered, in the lead-up to the publication of his first novel and since.
Songeziwe Mahlangu is the author of Penumbra, which won the 2014 Etisalat Prize for Literature and was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize in the same year. The novel was published in 2013 by Kwela Books.
Having not heard much from Mahlangu in literary circles in the last four-plus years, despite his success, he presents an interesting case study.
Mbali Sikakana for The JRB: In preparing for an interview with you, one is struck by twin strands of presumption, even hostility, when it comes to you as a writer. One, reviews of your debut novel, Penumbra tend to lean towards giving you corrective advice on writing, based on convention or tradition—sometimes directly questioning your right to claim yourself as a writer at all. Two, interviews with you at the time of publication tended to exhibit irritation at your purported insistence on privacy or discretion. What do you make of both of these as entry points for understanding your writing?
Songeziwe Mahlangu: The one accusation that kept on coming up was that I was self-absorbed. One reviewer stated the poverty ratios in Cape Town and other statistics and how I as a Black writer failed to address these things. So I got the impression that the reviewers felt that I did not address the issues that a Black writer ought to address. To me, it felt as if literature is expected to be an extension of the social sciences and that there are some imperatives for a Black writer. The same review that quoted the poverty ratios in Cape Town also called Penumbra a ‘Cape Flats’ novel in its title. I didn’t understand that, as most of the action happened in Cape Town’s southern suburbs. I was disappointed and eventually stopped following what people were saying about Penumbra. In the almost five years since Penumbra came out, and having sobered up, I’d say there is definitely a limitation put on Black writing from the critics. The work is not engaged with so much as a work of art or how well it is written but rather on the social aspect of it.
I think the impression that I wanted privacy came from a Mail & Guardian interview. I don’t know where the interviewer got that from. I for one never insisted on the interview being done by email and neither did I insist that I deal with the interviewer through the publicist at Kwela Books. During this period, I was doing telephonic interviews with people who worked for community newspapers in Grahamstown.
Mbali Sikakana: A lesser but also salient point was how your writing was viewed within a lineage in which you were the ‘lesser contributor’. To be specific, writing about Cape Town as a city as a young Black male. What do you think of this construction as a sub-genre and were you conscious of it in the writing?
Songeziwe Mahlangu: I never planned on writing Penumbra. I had writing ambitions before Penumbra and the theme that interested me at the time was the idea of success for a young person. How does one feel if they have succeeded? But then it just so happened that I had a mental breakdown and wanted to document it. Part of that experience was life in Cape Town. I was just following my thoughts and my lived experiences and was not so conscious of contributing to writing about Cape Town as a city for a young Black male. After writing Penumbra, I was conscious of the fact that the book had certain undertones of K Sello Duiker’s The Quiet Violence of Dreams. Even during my breakdown I was thinking of Tshepo, Duiker’s protagonist.
As one who has lived most of his life in the Eastern Cape and who spent my varsity years and first years of work in Cape Town, I’d say Cape Town makes one aware of being Black. There’s the racial aspect of space. We’ve all shared stories about how difficult it was to find accommodation as a Black person and how you felt that in some places you were overlooked because you were black. There’s also a racial tension in the workplace that one could not overlook. One does not feel the racial aspect so much in the Eastern Cape, among the places that I have lived.
I’m fine with any genre of writing just as long as it archives the human experience and does not limit the imagination. I think it’s good that there is writing that shows the viewpoint of young Black males living in Cape Town. That’s part of the human experience and close to home for those of us who have lived in Cape Town.
Mbali Sikakana: You halted a career in accounting after completing a business science degree to pursue a Master’s in creative writing at Rhodes University. What prompted that?
Songeziwe Mahlangu: In deciding to study business science, I wanted a career that would offer me security and the ability to go a step further than my mother and grandmother. During my studies other issues started to interest me. I met with friends who were communists and they showed me their dissatisfaction with capitalism and this made perfect sense to me. One friend said that his biggest gripe with capitalism was that where a child is born determines how far the child would go in life. I agreed with him and thought that it was unfair that who your parents are should determine how far you’ll go in life, as you have no role in choosing your parents.
I became bored with my studies and did not feel that they addressed the issues that interested me. There was also the racial aspect of the economy. I started to feel that in my work I would inevitably end up protecting the wealth of old white men. While getting no stimulation from my studies, two things started to interest me: African literature and the hip-hop scene in Cape Town. I began to devour books of African fiction at the library and they hit home. The hip-hop scene in Cape Town excited me. There were hip-hop gigs every week and we frequented them. With all these happenings, I managed to force myself to study and managed to graduate.
I then enrolled for a postgraduate diploma in accounting with the intention of qualifying as a chartered accountant. But I just got too bored. Other habits had taken over. The drinking and smoking were out of hand and I ended up failing. After failing I realised that I did not have the required passion for accounting and was not interested in repeating the diploma. The only other option I saw was to use my business science degree to look for a job.
I managed to get a job with a health insurance company and entered their graduate programme. The experience was horrendous. I spent hours at the office with nothing to do. I would even go to the office with a novel. I felt as though I was not realising my potential and not contributing to the workplace. I also applied for investment jobs with no luck. I guess that it could have been because of the recession at the time. I became frustrated, drank excessively and began to take drugs. I eventually had a mental breakdown.
Coming out of the psychiatric ward at Groote Schuur Hospital, I decided I wanted to do something I enjoyed and had romantic ideas about the arts and becoming a writer. So I applied to do the MA at Rhodes.
Mbali Sikakana: You complete your master’s degree, the product of which is a novel, it gets picked up by a publisher with no problem and then you win a continental prize. This is a dream for most writers. Was the process really that seamless for you?
Songeziwe Mahlangu: No, the process was not seamless at all. Soon after graduating, I was getting pressure to make a living. I was in talks with Kwela Books even before graduating and things were looking promising. The book was only going to come out the following year. I did what I dreaded and looked for accounting work. I signed my contract with Kwela Books while I was already working. In it, it was stated that they would print 1,500 copies. It became very clear that I was not going to be able to make a living from writing and I could not find a career that would allow me to write. So I worked for an accounting firm and tried my best to make that work. I began to regret not persevering in my accounting studies and qualifying as chartered accountant. I thought I would have been much further had I qualified as a CA. I would have been able to rent a decent apartment and have a car.
Then the book came out and the reception was cold and negative. I became all the more determined to make the accounting work out and stopped thinking about writing. Then the Sunday Times Fiction Prize shortlist happened and I was surprised; I did not think I stood a chance. Even with the Etisalat Award I did not think I stood a chance as I had mostly received negative reviews.
Mbali Sikakana: Your decision to do limited personal promotion of the book, including not attending the book launch, is unorthodox. You’re also not on social media. How do you think not having an accessible author affected the book’s general reception and why was this approach important?
Songeziwe Mahlangu: I did not consciously decide to have limited personal promotion. I gave the responsibility of promoting the book to the publisher; perhaps I should have promoted it more. At the one book festival I attended in 2013, I was very uncomfortable. Penumbra was a very personal book and I had written about my own madness. I was uncomfortable even telling people what the book was about. I guess it was hard for me to go out there and promote the book myself. But I played along where there was interest. I attended book festivals that I was invited to and gave interviews.
With my launch, when Penumbra was published I was going through an uncertain and difficult time. Even at Rhodes, some of the professors were critical of Penumbra and it was the people at Rhodes who had organised the launch. After they had read it as a thesis, I did not feel that they were supportive. One reviewer in my results came short of saying that the whole thing was nonsense. I was invited to give a reading at Wordfest at the National Arts Festival and I went there. I found the gathering cold and the attendance was sparse. And so I postponed asking for time off work to attend the launch of my book. I was also feeling shaky about a career in writing. I thought I would rather prefer to make accounting work and ultimately did not ask for the time off. Eventually I sent the guy who was organising the launch an email, telling him that I was working in Mthatha.
At thirty-two, I’ve come to accept that I’m a misfit and socially awkward. Social media makes me uncomfortable. I can’t handle people talking about me in my presence. I was on Facebook, but even little things like people wishing you a ‘Happy Birthday’ made me uncomfortable. I don’t think that my lack of personal promotion affected the book materially. The publisher approached the current structures and they clearly showed that this was not something that they felt strongly about.
Mbali Sikakana: One of the benefits of winning the Etisalat Prize is mentorship under Professor Giles Foden (author of The Last King of Scotland) at the University of East Anglia. How would you describe that experience?
Songeziwe Mahlangu: Shortly after winning the Etisalat Prize I had an idea for a novel. In the period before the prize, I was not reading much and not writing much. But I had an idea for a story and began writing. By the time I went to the University of East Anglia, I had a first draft. Giles Foden brought a very technical aspect to the novel. First, he suggested books that dealt with similar themes. He then gave me the notes he uses to teach about plot. He emphasised dramatising the work and entertaining the reader. Instead of a character leaving, he would suggest that he die. Instead of the protagonist resigning from work, he would suggest that he be fired. He helped with structuring the plot and dramatising the work. I learned where the thinking is technically in fiction. The focus is on tight, action-driven prose with lots of dialogue.
Mbali Sikakana: How has your view of literature and writing evolved over the years, and specifically after this experience?
Songeziwe Mahlangu: I still agree with Salman Rushdie: write the book that you can’t help but to write. Nothing beats raw honesty and intensity. If anything I’ve become emboldened and do not give a shit anymore. I’m not trying to be in any circles or part of any clique. But when I write, I’m going to give it to you as real as I can. I don’t think technical competence beats raw honesty. So I still pretty much feel the same way about writing as when I started out.
Mbali Sikakana: What was the plan after the Etisalat Prize win with regards to your writing output and living as a writer? What support did you have?
Songeziwe Mahlangu: With the prize, I had enough money to live for the next two years and write another novel. The plan was to write a novel that would hopefully enable me to live as a writer. Giles was very supportive. I even sent him further drafts of the novel while I was back in South Africa. He had offered to help me find an agent and to hopefully score an international deal. But I couldn’t find an editor as he had suggested. I realised that editors in South Africa do not do work outside of publishing houses and so I tried looking for an agent with the unedited manuscript without Giles’ help.
Mbali Sikakana: Coming back to South Africa, having won a prize, and working on your second novel, are the publishers knocking on your door?
Songeziwe Mahlangu: No, publishers are not knocking at my door. I’ve had to look for them.
Mbali Sikakana: What has been the process of publishing it?
Songeziwe Mahlangu: With the second novel the initial plan was to go international and access a wider market in order to make a living. But after submitting to some mainstream agents in the US and not receiving any responses, I had to rethink things. I then thought about agents that represented South African authors. In that process I found out about a prominent agent who represents big South African names. I sent her a synopsis of the novel and the first three chapters. After not hearing from her for about a month, I called. She said that she knew who I was and that I should send her the full manuscript. After pestering their offices in London with phone calls, she eventually got back to me. She was supportive and said that I write vividly and that she looked forward to seeing the book in stores but she was not taking on any new clients. She said that I needed an agent with more time on her hands to launch my career internationally and suggested an agency in Cape Town. This new agent did not feel strongly enough about the book to represent it.
A South African publisher then became a viable option. Shortly after I emailed a publisher, she called me saying that she liked what she had read so far and was ninety per cent sure that they would offer me a contract. We also spoke about the fact that I had been looking for an agent and she said that they do the job of an agent and would send the book to the London and Frankfurt book fairs. She said she felt that the book needed to go through another draft before she could offer a contract. With my options running out, I agreed to rework the novel. In reworking the novel I started to feel disrespected. We were putting so much effort in reworking the novel and there was no contract. Even if she had approved the changes, we would still need a positive review from an external reader before a contract could be offered. I found myself conceding to her changes even though I did not agree with them fully. I have never heard a Black person say ‘my clammy palms’.
My independent investigations about the success and priorities of the publisher at Frankfurt did not yield promising results. I became unconvinced by the prospect of the selling of rights on the completion of the manuscript. I then started to feel that I would be in the same situation with my second novel as I had been with my first novel. No international deals and limited local exposure. I pulled out of the casual agreement with the publisher. I also requested that a clause in my initial contract with my first publisher, which gave them first right of refusal for all my future works, be removed.
Mbali Sikakana: Given the severed relationship with the last publisher you worked with, what are your current plans and efforts to get the book out?
Songeziwe Mahlangu: I’d rather keep my plans for publishing the book to myself for the time being. But the book will be out.
Mbali Sikakana: How would you describe the themes of your second novel?
Songeziwe Mahlangu: My second novel deals with looking for your place in the world, navigating through the South African economy, the struggles of young Black graduates and hip-hop.
Mbali Sikakana: What are your closing thoughts on South African publishing for young authors like yourself?
Songeziwe Mahlangu: South African publishing is complacent and is not thinking about enterprising ways of taking books to the people. I’ve had to think, who am I writing for ultimately? And the answer to that question for my second novel is young Black South Africans in the nineteen- to twenty-five-years age category. Now I’m thinking, how can I access that market? Authors should think about whether publishers will do a good job of taking their books to their target readers.