Our first online book club reading went well! I’m really happy with the questions you submitted for July’s author, Futhi Ntshingila.
I put the names of all who submitted questions into a bag, and the winner of a signed copy of Do Not Go Gentle is Melanie Hooks, of Los Angeles, California, USA. Congratulations, Melanie!
“It made her reckless. But someone with nothing to lose has a chance to arm-wrestle with God, and maybe to win” (32).
-Do Not Go Gentle quote, favorited by featured reader Jessica Kinnison, who adds “Just a great image–the idea of looking god in the eye as a mortal and pushing back. “
Author Futhi Ntshingila carefully read and replied to each and every one, and I hope you enjoy her answers below. Remember to have the next book, Rusty Bell, read by mid-August and submit your questions in time for the author to reply! Each reader who submits questions will be entered in a drawing for a signed copy of that book.
Q: The book has a strong oral storytelling feel to it for me especially because of the short chapter style, which I like and felt like it helped pull me through the story quickly. Do you feel there is a relationship between the oral tradition and this written one?
Yes it has. My name and my surname have a backstory like most Africans. I have always liked that. I am steeped in oral storytelling. There are in-jokes in the family that have been passed around since my grandmother’s days and if you tell them to a new person you get into the re-telling of the story. In Shameless, the story of brown sugar is straight from my cheeky grandmother’s experience speaking her truth to power. Hence my writing is somewhat a conversion from oral to written narrative. It is one of the best ways of preserving memory. I don’t preoccupy myself with this or that style of old dead guys to effectively create fiction. I get into the space of remembering and tell from my intestines, this way I can cry my eyes out if I have to. I get deeply engaged in the process.
Q: For such a story of tragic events, there was a strong theme of love and survival. Was it inspired by people you’ve known or events you’ve witnessed?
In the telling of the incommunicable experiences, it is very important to show that it is not all doom and gloom. It is important to show that poverty does not equate to lack of love. If anything the love that exists there is as authentic and strong and pure. I would dare to say that since is it not based on material possession it is more tangible and un-doubtable than the one linked to materials of the upper and middle class.
“They fell asleep on the carpet, spooning like children of the shacks who share a single bed” (83)
-Featured reader Jessica Kinnison highlighted this quote by Ntshingila in Do Not Go Gentle, adding “After all the education, the wealth, the travel, and high academic talk, they are stripped down and childlike–human. The image of Nonceba and Sipho”
Q: I was impressed by the female characters of power. A social worker at the beginning can take away the family benefits, and a female magistrate at the end can grant Mvelo peace. Was this a conscious choice or merely a reflection of current South African daily life?
I like this question because when I was writing I honestly didn’t give them these positions thinking of the power attached to it. I am from a family of four women, five including my mother. I had a father who made us feel like everything and everything was possible for us if we stick to education. So I guess my narrating reflects how I was nurtured to believe that I have no obstacles, poor as I was growing up. So nope it wasn’t a conscious choice or even a reflection of SA today. I sure hope for the young ones who read this book get influenced into thinking possibilities are not linked to gender.
Q: The novel’s plot jumps back and forth in time and follows a handful of characters who seem relatively unconnected at first, but it all comes together so wonderfully in the end.
How did you go about writing a plot like this? Did you write each character’s storyline chronologically and then rearrange scenes as needed, or did you write it in the order it appears in the novel? Or did you use another method?
Initially on Shameless, all my chapters of the past were in italics to indicate the change from actual time to reflection time. It followed the order it is in the novel just in italics. It was in the editing process that it changed. I know it can be a bit of a put-off but I felt it was the best way to show that Thandiwe had a life before prostitution and decisions were made that led her to this fast past Johannessburg. A part of me in all my story telling likes going back and forth and I tried not to make it linear because life for me is a circle. In Do Not Go Gentle, Zola dies but later on you get to hear who she was before her death.
Q: I’m only a few chapters into Do Not Go Gentle, so I’ll leave the more detailed questions to those who have read the whole time. I’m curious about the relationship between the books, and what it was like to write a second novel. Could you talk about what you learned from writing a first novel that you applied to writing a second?
In Shameless, I wrote mostly for myself fueled by anger in my observation of what was happening to black graduates when they enter corporations. It was around the time a letter of a black intern’s resignation from a company citing inequalities became viral and it resonated with so many of us. So I was fuelled by it and I didn’t even think I was going to publish my writing at first. I can tell you that it made me bolder. Do Not Go Gentle being the second book always comes with a little fear of readers because the innocence of what comes after the book is published is no longer there. But even with the second book I was fuelled by the need to tell for girls who cannot say “that uncle is raping me” at night and single mothers who are dying of diseases they never thought would reach them. The need was and always is bigger than the fear for little things like critiques and reviews.
“They molested the peace on the open ocean”
-A favorite Do Not Go Gentle quote by reader Jessica Kinnison, adding “Recalling Mvelo’s rape and crushing it. Just perfect.”
Q: How did you make the decision to use different narratives throughout the novel?
I think in parts where I feel strongly about something I find myself using first person, it’s where the lines of the narrator and authorial voice become blurred. I am not even sure if I am consciously doing it at the time of writing but when I re-read, I find that the parts that I feel most emotional about are the ones I have made first person.
Q: Were there other perspectives you considered but ended up not using?
Initially in Do No Go Gentle, Nomvelo narrated that whole story to Sipho the father-figure in her life. It worked for a bit until I realized that she would have to read minds of other characters which felt too contrived. So I dropped it and had to re-do it in a third person so that the narrator can hover and have the creative license to narrate inner thoughts.
Q: I like the way the stories blend the ideas of class, race, and pride. How much of this was accessible from your life and how much of it was fiction?
I think fiction is really a blend of what we observe around us, what we imagine and what we create to keep the plot moving. Class and Race are around me constantly I live a life that is in two classes: middle and moderate poverty. The middle class I am talking about is really a thin line held together by a monthly income that is thinly spread between myself and extended members of the family. One loss of that income could render me homeless for defaulting on my mortgage payments. This is a reality of a black middle class. It is not sustainable because as soon as you remove the monthly income, it falls flat. I have beloved family members who live in moderate to abject poverty.
Pride is in most hardworking families who do not believe in charity. This was drummed into my head as a young girl. It was consider crass and vulgar to ask for money from any adult person. I had one too many hidings from breaking this rule.
Comment from Featured Reader, Katrina Otuonye:
I found the views on where Mvelo should go to school incredibly fascinating. I’m sure that could lead into a much longer conversation on the expectations we set up for children, and how even when we try to help them, we may end up hindering them by our best efforts.
Reply from Futhi Ntshingila:
This is true. I see it with mothers who are domestic workers whose bosses offer to pay for better education of their children in these upper class schools. While the kid may get a good education, the trauma of shame is huge. The shame is linked to while your classmate’s mothers are doctors, yours is a maid. The boy who is interested in you lives in a palatial home while you go home in a shack at night. And this also leads to conflicts in the family where a child if not properly raised can become superior to her parents who have little or no education. I have seen it all in various levels. It is traumatic to witness.
Q: Shameless is about a lot of things—prostitution, Apartheid, self determination—but the overwhelming theme I saw was the complexity and depth of relationships between women. How did you approach the challenge of writing these friendships and sisterhoods between such different characters?
Some of it was drawn from my own young friendships and my sisters. My household was heavy on estrogen with my father being the only man in the house. It feels unprocessed and natural to me to write about women in this way. In a way I think I would have to dig really deep if I were to have dominant male characters in any fiction I would create in future.
Q: How did your work as a journalist influence how you write and what you choose to write about?
Yes, it did in both the books. They are both stories I really couldn’t tell in the 500 word space that you get given in a newspaper. I think unconsciously as I write I ask myself it is worth telling as I used to do when I would pitch news stories in the news conference of newsrooms. I also think hard about the hook, angle and such things of journalism.
Q: One of the images that sticks with me most strongly from Shameless is Thandiwe gathering cow dung and polishing her floor with it when she’s a child.
This is, as Kwena later reflects, a sign of how desperately poor Thandiwe’s family was, but when it’s recounted it’s a peaceful, dream-like memory. It’s a moment that humanizes extreme poverty and places the narrative firmly in Thandiwe’s control, as she would want it. Would you talk about the balance in your writing between the horrific events of this book and these glimpses of joy and beauty?
I grew up in a semi-rural location where our floors were polished by cow dung. In winter I loved scooping warm dung as soon as the cows finished doing their business. I am glad it comes across as peaceful because I was recalling those days of my own youth. I didn’t really associate cow dung with poo. It also helps that it smells like grass. Most black women my age who grew up in the rural or semi-rural areas know about dung collection and polishing the floors with it. Half the time we were not wallowing in self-pity or that conscious of our poverty. It was just life as it was until later on when we realized that while we were doing these things our white counterparts were going to the coast for holidays and worried about which bikini to wear.
Q: This book is narrated by Zonke and Kwena, though it’s almost entirely about Thandiwe. The only time we actually hear Thandiwe telling her own story is through dialogue when she’s on camera for Kwena. What made you choose to portray Thandiwe primarily through other women’s voices? She’s such a self-possessed and independent character that I found it a really interesting perspective to hear her perspective through the experiences of others.
I think that if I made her tell it, she would not be aware of how of beautiful she was, how independent she was and how much she had had to deal with. Those who observe have the advantage of being outside her head and are able to tell more effectively about her life. .
♦ ♦ ♦
Thank you to author Futhi Ntshingila, for her time in responding to these thoughtful, engaging questions, and thank you to each of you who read and gave questions for this online book club. I am really excited to read what questions you have for our next author, Nthikeng Mohlele. If you haven’t picked up a copy of Rusty Bell yet, I did see there are still some in stock at Amazon. Details on this and other upcoming books below.
Want to be a Featured Reader? It’s easy, and I will link to your site and use your photo regularly with book club posts. Click here for information.
August: Nthikeng Mohlele
Book(s): Rusty Bell
Read-by Date: 12 August 2015 Please read and email your questions no later than 12 August to firstname.lastname@example.org.
September: Phillippa Yaa de Villiers
Book(s): Everyday Wife, and/or Taller Than Buildings
Read-by Date: 16 September 2015 Please read and email your questions no later than 16 September to email@example.com
October: Mzilikazi wa Afrika
Book(s): Nothing Left to Steal
Read-by Date: 14 October 2015 PRE-ORDER ASAP by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org . This book is currently only available as an e-book, but I can ship a paperback to you from South Africa.
November: Mandla Langa
Book(s): The Texture of Shadows (paper edition ships from SA. Order ASAP via MarLa)
Read-by-Date: 11 November 2015
December: Niq Mhlongo
Book(s): Way Back Home
Read-by-Date: 16 December 2015
January through May, 2016
Thando Mgqolozana: A Man Who is Not a Man
Mamle Wolo: The Kaya-Girl (pre-order through Traveling MarLa)
Carol Campbell: Esther’s House
Ekow Duker: Dying in New York
Wame Molefhe: Go Tell the Sun
Sabata-mpho Mokae: Book launch this autumn, and he’s taking time for us online as well! Title to be announced in August.