‘It’s surreal that a coming-of-age story set in Umlazi has found another home in the USA’—International deal for Sifiso Mzobe’s debut novel Young Blood (Plus: Excerpt)

United States publisher Catalyst Press has acquired the rights to publish Sifiso Mzobe’s award-winning novel Young Blood in North America.

Young Blood, Mzobe’s debut, was published by Kwela Books in 2010, and won the Sunday Times Fiction Prize, the Herman Charles Bosman Prize, the South African Literary Award for a First-Time Published Author and the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa.

‘I’m ecstatic at this development,’ Mzobe says. ‘It’s a bit surreal that a coming-of-age story set in Umlazi has found another home in the USA.  

‘I’m happy above all else that Catalyst Press will be publishing Young Blood in North America because during negotiations they showed a passion that revealed a deep understanding of my book. 

‘I’m happy that my work will find a new audience, and that ten years after the initial release the story is still being discovered.’

Young Blood tells the story of Sipho, a young man from Umlazi who gets caught up in the violent and cash-rich world of car hijacking. 

Acquiring publisher Jessica Powers of Catalyst Press says: ‘I’ve loved this book since I first read it years ago. An empathetic and unique portrayal of a young man’s coming of age in a gritty urban township of Durban, learning the criminal “trade” his township is known for. His life spins out of control as what he grasps for hovers increasingly out of his reach. Ultimately, he must find reasons to forge another path, no matter how difficult his alternatives will be. Thoroughly engaging and a truly important book for all time.’

Carolyn Meads, fiction publisher at Kwela, says: ‘Young Blood is a fantastic novel and we are very pleased that it is getting even more recognition outside our national borders. We are extremely excited that American readers will be able to get better acquainted with Sifiso Mzobe’s work.’

Mzobe hails from Umlazi himself. He studied journalism and currently works as a freelance journalist. In 2014, he was included in Africa39, the list of the most promising authors under forty from sub-Saharan Africa. 

Young Blood was published in German by Peter Hammer Verlag in 2015 (right), translated by Stephanie von Harrach, and was subsequently chosen for The Hotlist—a list of the year’s ten best books published by German-language independent publishers. The Italian rights were sold to Lóguez Ediciones in 2016.

Mzobe’s second book, a collection of short stories titled Searching for Simphiwe, was published by Kwela in April this year. 

Read an excerpt from Young Blood:


Riding With a Rider

 I remember the year I turned seventeen as the year of stubborn seasons. Summer lasted well into autumn, and autumn  annexed half of winter. It was hot in May and cold in November. The older folk in my township swore they had never seen anything like it. Winter nibbled on spring, and spring on summer.

 It was exactly thirteen days to the day that I gave up on my high school education. There was absolutely nothing for me in school. My reports were collections of Fs. I was a master mumbler in class. In mathematics I was far below average. Nothing in school made sense, and nothing had since grade one. By grade ten I knew it was not for me. A childish hope of someday understanding had carried me through the lower grades. By May that year, that hope ran out of steam.

 When I told my parents of my decision to drop out of school, my mother went into a rage that lasted two days. My father promised me a beating to end all beatings. I showed them my F’s. After her anger had subsided, Ma listened to my explanations, but it was clear she did not understand. Nothing in class made sense, I told her. I was in grade ten, yes, but the last concepts I had really understood were at grade seven level, and I was average at those. In class, my mind was there for the first five minutes—five minutes in which I focused intently. But for the next thirty-five minutes my thoughts would wander, lost into a maze of tangents.

 It was May, and the school soccer programme had already been scrapped for the year because of a stabbing incident in the stands during an away game earlier in the year. The beautiful game was something I understood. I was a striker in the school team, and a gifted goal-getter. The soccer pitch was where I shone. It was going to be a long year, with me mumbling wrong answers in class and no soccer to redeem myself. The scrapping of the soccer programme was not so much a reason I left school but rather a footnote.

 We all slept on it. Over the next few days, the house was thick with tension. My parents enlisted the help of relatives. Uncles and aunts lectured me over the phone. School is important. Education is the key to a bright future. You are crazy, you should not have done what you did. I was polite, answered ‘yes’ to everything, but my thoughts drifted away. I wished I had superpowers and could shove my school reports into the receiver to let them see the F, G and H grades that meant I did not have the key to a bright future.

 My parents tried, they really did. Ma shouted, shook me, asked for more explanations; she tried to understand but could not—the same way I tried to understand in school but didn’t. She even cried.

 ‘I don’t know what I will do, Ma, but I am not going to school. You see my reports; there is not one subject I pass. I can’t do anything right in school. Every day I go there it’s like a part of me dies. Ma, you see my reports every year, there is nothing for me there,’ I explained.

 ‘But in this world you don’t just give up. You must keep trying,’ she said.

 ‘I know, Ma.’

 My parents tried. My uncles and aunts tried. Days rolled on and their calls dried up. The tension in our house slowly lessened.

 ‘At least he was honest with us about his decision. We know where he is. At least he is not like the others who pretend like they are going to school when they are not,’ I overheard Ma say to Dad.

 * * *

Thirteen days after I left school was my seventeenth birthday.

I was sitting on the wall that doubles as a fence and chilling area to our house, waiting for Musa, when I realised that all the trees on our street had shed their leaves. The wall, roughly painted sky blue on the outside but bare on top and inside, encloses the house in a crooked, incomplete circle. Back then, our four-roomed house wore a coat of plaster as a prelude to painting. This had taken me a day to sand down, which made my body ache in places where I did not know muscles to exist. It was not all in vain, though; at night, with all the streetlights out, the house gave off a dull glow—as beach sand sometimes does. It was close to midnight and I was thirsty.

Our house is meant to be the main feature of the ring on a cul-de-sac. Our blue wall takes up most of the space on the ring, which makes our house the last. The last on the road, the last to get plastered, the last to get a squeezing hug from the walls we call fences. The plastering on our house had been done in prolonged stages, starting with the walls in view—the front and one side. Construction of the wall took even longer. My father often fired builders, but to be fair to him most builders did not even bother to bring a spirit level. The work took years to complete, as something of greater importance always seemed to crop up—water and electricity bills, food, school uniforms and shoes.

A shopping mall had been built on the outskirts of the township, while the builders’ sand grew grass and turned shrubby in our back yard. The paintwork on the wall was mine. It was a weird blue; I told Ma the paint had gone bad.

The process of purchasing the gate to complete the crooked circle of the blue wall was also prolonged. My father had the idea of getting two dogs to guard the gap, but this went nowhere. We would feed the dogs during the day; at night, the gap was silent. Those strays disguised as pets were never there. Every week, Ma returned from the city with brochures and quotations for a gate. Months passed, and the money went on other things.

Our house, which is slightly slanted, sits at the end of 2524 Close in M Section of Umlazi. To this day perhaps, ours is the only road in the hills of Umlazi that is close to being flat. Mama Mkhize’s Tavern stands at the entrance to 2524 Close. The gates to this oasis are forever open, the music always pumping. It is a refuge for all who prefer life lived nocturnally. I knew Musa would be late that evening, so I made my way there.

The moon was plump and yellow, like a sun just risen, and it gave 2524 Close a brilliant bluish shine in the darkness. The midday and afternoon bustle was as distant as yesterday’s newspaper. As the night wore on, 2524 Close took on a crowded silence; the only signs of people passing were simple salutes and the minute amber circles of lighted cigarettes. A neighbour’s daughter kissed a man in the back seat of a car. Around midnight, the smell of marijuana is everywhere in the township. I gulped down a cloud of smoke that crossed my path. The rhythm of my steps made the moon slide and dance a little.

Mama Mkhize sells beer in cans, quarts and by the crate, weed in plastic coin bags and Mandrax pills in singles and even packets. She is a dynamo of a woman, and there are rumours she is related to people for whom killing comes easily.

‘My nephew, the one in Joburg, took his BMW to these things, what do you call them … agents? Six thousand rands, I tell you, just to have the engine fixed.’

My two Amstels were in her right hand, four loose cigarettes and change in her left. She looked like she was about to give me a hug. Gold snaked around her neck in different layers, shining on her fingers and dancing on both wrists. Her arms were thin but muscular. I always felt things move inside me when I saw her; maybe it was the Diesel jeans she wore, which made her look like a teenager in full bloom. It was unfair that she had inherited the name of her business, for she was only in her late thirties, a fact I vehemently denied until I serviced her car and saw her driver’s licence. I had thought she was younger.


Author image: Rogan Ward/Composite: The JRB

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