After a lot of traveling and a little bit of illness, I’m excited to bring back our ONLINE BOOK CLUB!
Celebrated South African author Niq Mhlongo answers your questions about his writing, and the books that made him famous. You submitted so many engaging questions for this author that I felt I owed it to you to dedicate TWO Writer Wednesdays to Mr. Mhlongo, and give TWO SIGNED BOOKS away: Dog Eat Dog for this week, and his newest book, Affluenza, in next week’s contest (winner will receive book after its upcoming launch.)
To enter, simply read today’s Q&A and see the details at the end to enter. Then come back next week and try for the second book giveaway!
Questions about Dog Eat Dog
Reader: Since Dog Eat Dog was your first book, what inspired you to start writing?
Niq Mhlongo: Well, I guess I was inspired by so many things. 1994 was a very memorable and historic time. It was the year in which my novel is set, and the year we finally witnessed democracy in South Africa. Because of those changes, I went to the university in 1994 (Wits University). Historically, Wits and other institutions were ‘formerly white’. I was born in an all-black township called Soweto where studying at Wits was a remote dream. But there I was, getting the best education. This meant being taught by white professors for the first time in the same class with white students who had all the privileges.
I also voted for the first time in 1994, a thing that was denied to my parents. I felt there was a need for me to record all this, as well as the challenges which were not easy to navigate. The best way of doing so was to write Dog Eat Dog, which is based on my reality of that time. Some of the challenges are still there today—racism, lack of funds, how to deal with the sudden freedom for which I was not prepared, accents of the white lecturers which was foreign to me, the cultural shock, the rite of passage from being a teenager to being a young responsible adult, from township to the city of Johannesburg that was near-yet-foreign, and from poorly equipped public school to university. The novel reflects on that, and on what was happening in South Africa around that time. So I had an inspiration by observing my society, paying attention to the gossip, to my dreams and wishes about the new South Africa. I wanted to share my joys and disillusionments with the rest of the world. Writing the novel fulfilled all those things.
Reader: I loved the details of day-to-day life and how much life at the Y was compared to Dingz’s life with his family. During the writing process, was this the plan? Are there any other parts of Dingz’s life that didn’t make it into the book?
Niq Mhlongo: Dog Eat Dog is my first published work. I didn’t have any experience whatsoever in publishing and writing before this. So, there were so many parts of Dingz life that didn’t make it into the book. But I didn’t despair when some of these parts were omitted from Dog Eat Dog. In fact After Tears and Way Back Home are born from the parts that were excluded from Dog Eat Dog. That is why it is difficult for me to call After Tears my second book, and Way Back Home my third book. They were all part of one fat manuscript called Dog Eat Dog. The lesson I learned is that if one chapter or idea doesn’t make it during editing process, don’t throw it away. It may as well be your next book.
Reader: Dog Eat Dog is about a nineteen-year-old student who makes it into Witwatersrand University, determined that an education will be the way to a better life than the one he’s known in Soweto. The book is set in 1994, centered around the general elections of that year, when I believe you were a student at Witwatersrand yourself. Why did you decide to fictionalize that time in your life, and how did you settle on your narrator?
Niq Mhlongo: Dog Eat Dog is a work of fiction that is influenced by my observations and experience of the reality. It includes my own personal experiences as well as those of others, gossip, hopes and fears, my personal judgment of the South African society, and so on. And yes, I did study at Wits, but some of the experiences are borrowed to make my point, and to make readers aware of the challenges of youth at universities here. Some of these challenges still happen today. You can easily compare the challenges of 1994 and the Fees Must Fall Campaign and the racism nuances, even though the context is different. So, Dingz’ experience cannot be my experience alone. I cannot claim all the credit, hence I fictionalized the experiences. The narrator came naturally. It made lot of sense to me to use a first person narrative. This made the book and events believable.
Reader: While I wasn’t always behind most of Dingz’s actions, I think it was a funny and accurate portrayal of how to get ahead in an inherently unfair system, especially for a young adult. At the beginning of the story he asked if he was going to end up back with the “hopeless drunken friends of mine.” At many points, it seems he has no hope. Based on what you’ve written, and compared to what you’ve seen, do you feel as if things are improving in South Africa, especially in areas around Soweto? And, how so?
Niq Mhlongo: Things have definitely improved a lot. In terms of infrastructure, Soweto has improved for the better. There are malls in each neighborhood and people no longer have to travel far to buy. Roads are paved and there’s electricity, although we have a problem of load-shedding every now and then. Soweto itself has expanded extensively in terms of population and the size of the township. In fact, the figures have doubled, leading to huge number of unemployment rate, shortage of housing, and so on. According to the unemployment statistics last year, 25% of South Africans are not employed. Soweto is the largest township in South Africa with about two to three million people. You can only imagine the kind of hopelessness that is being caused by unemployment.
Reader: The group of friends was my favorite aspect of the novel. Each has a distinctive personality and a sharp mind, and it’s a pleasure to read their boisterous interactions. They also provide the reader with a few moments when Dingz gets taken down a few notches but, as opposed to his confrontations with the police or the university administration, the only consequence is embarrassment. The friends are both the perfect foil and network of support for Dingz. Did you always mean for the friends to be so important to the story, or did their roles evolve while you were writing?
Niq Mhlongo: That’s a great observation. I think friendship plays a major role in my writing. I think one of the reasons I circled Dingz with friends is that the novel itself is set in the university environment where friendship is very important. These become the pillar of strength when one is away from family. University can be a very lonely place if you isolate yourself, and friends become a substitute for those longings for family. You are also not only educated by the lecturers, but also by the friends you have. Friends become important for survival in the sometimes not so friendly university environment.
Reader: Most of the dialogue is in English, but in some cases, such as the section with the driver, you give the audience both. (i.e. “’Nganimanje? Why?’ asked Themba, bewildered.”) Why did you make the change/addition here?
Niq Mhlongo: I wanted authenticity. The taxi industry in Johannesburg in particular is mostly Zulu. By this I mean that most of the language used in the taxi ranks and inside the taxis is isiZulu language. I could not think of a better way to capture the taxi environment reality than using this most spoken South African language. Otherwise my story would not have been authentic.
Reader: The story also nicely balances terrifying situations (like getting an STD) with humor. In a way, it educates the reader without taking away from the character. Dingz is impulsive, but resourceful. Where do you see him in present day?
Niq Mhlongo: The story is set in 1994 when South Africa was battling with the scourge of HIV/AIDS. It was the time of political denial, and the population was dying young because of the recklessness of the youth with regard to the AIDS pandemic. Dingz, I guess would be dead and buried by now. Or he is out there, sharing his experience with others about the disease that it kills.
Reader: One of the things I most appreciated about Dog Eat Dog was the depiction of localized customs and histories. For example, when Dingz says that dogs to him have always been instruments of police brutality, and then when he describes the various hand signals used to hail minibus-taxis. Did you make a conscious decision to put in these pieces of information?
Niq Mhlongo: Yes. Most of Dog Eat Dog is about the past, present, and future of South Africa. It is about the transition from the bitter past of apartheid when black lives were rendered cheap by the apartheid government. During this past, police dogs and guns were used as instruments of terror to kill innocent black lives. The hand signals used to hail minibus-taxi show the complexity of life in Soweto and Johannesburg. Soweto for instance is a huge place of between 2-3 million people, or more. This is a community with diverse cultures and backgrounds, and we were initially crammed together against our will. People were forced to develop a sub-culture in order to live side by side. Hand signals became a way of passing messages easily and fast.
Reader: A moment that stands out for me from the book is when Dingz, who skipped out on a final exam and went to great lengths to falsify the death of a family member in order to be granted a make-up exam, confronts a dean who is unwilling to grant him his wish because he has missed some deadlines. Dingz says, “Those rules, I think, must also take cognisance of the cultural diversity of this country. If they don’t, they only apply arbitrarily to some of us.” Of course, he is talking about the funeral arrangements of an invented dead cousin, but his critique of a university system built on beliefs that don’t necessarily apply to its students is sound. He is simultaneously wrong (for lying) and right (for calling out structural racism). Was it a challenge to write a character who occupies so many conflicting moralities at once?
Niq Mhlongo: Not necessarily difficult. Dog Eat Dog is about the survival of the fittest within the system that was created within the context of racism, cultural superiority, and hate. He is aware that the changes in 1994 were still cosmetic changes and still favored the white race, and were not structural. That is why he had to be clever and use the race card to survive because the system itself is immoral.
Reader: I also appreciated the striking conversations Dingz has with his friends. Especially when they’re discussing AIDS, I was reminded at how often friends dismiss information or input. You weave in social issues to the narrative so well. Dingz is “convinced that God was white” and he and his friends are “bad news…because we end up owing money at the end of each academic year.” When you’re working on dialogue, especially with a group of characters, where do you start?
Niq Mhlongo: Indeed, I think dialogue is the strength of Dog Eat Dog. There are so many subtly political, economic, and social commentaries that I was able to achieve through it. For example, the political debate about HIV/AIDS and the denial around that time; the debate that white people used the Bible, religion, and the fear of God to take the land from black people. You can also deduce subtly reference to racism, and the lack of transformation in the universities which you can link to the current affairs.
Reader: There’s also a distinction between ladies’ nicknames (abantwana, abocherry, abosweety) and guy’s nicknames (abajita, majimbos, amagents) that clearly alerts the reader to these relationships before a word is spoken. It’s vivid and impressive.
Niq Mhlongo: Soweto is also a trend-setter in South Africa with regard to its sub-culture. The language spoken here is different from other provinces. It is the language that everyone hears from TV and try to mimic.
Reader: You write in Dog Eat Dog, “I was convinced that God was white, and either English or Afrikaans, simply because it had taken Him so many years to get an interpreter to translate exactly what the blacks and the poor wanted in their endless prayers… It also seemed to me that English and Afrikaans are God’s languages.” And, of course, I read that in English. Would you talk about how you blend different languages into your work and what they mean to you as a writer?
Niq Mhlongo: I always try to write the way I speak in bastardized English: our own English language, and not the standard English. Most of the words in Dog Eat Dog are a direct translation from different languages such as tsotsitaal, Zulu, Afrikaans, Sotho and so on. In Soweto the idea of a mother tongue is blurred because this is a complex environment made up of different languages. I tried to reflect this in my book.
Final Reader Comment: I enjoyed reading Dog Eat Dog so much. Dingz felt like a younger brother—I was often yelling at him about his choices, but it was out of fondness. Even in the darker moments there’s an irrepressible joy and vibrancy to your writing that made it enjoyable to spend two hundred pages in your company.
Niq Mhlongo: Thank you. Dingz is like any teenager around your community. You have to understand that he is experiencing the challenges of growing and definitely needs guidance.
Win a signed copy of Dog Eat Dog.
Contest question: What modern movement does Niq Mhlongo say is similar to the challenges students faced in 1994?
How to Enter: Submit your answer by clicking here to comment on Traveling Marla’s Facebook Post, or email it to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Each person who submits the correct answer has an equal chance to win!
DEADLINE: Sunday, 13 March, Midnight
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