I received so many responses to last week’s contest that I decided to create a new #contest to give away TWO MORE of Niq Mhlongo’s books, each autographed by him: After Tears and his newest release, Affluenza.
It’s easy to enter. Read today’s post, then follow the instructions at the bottom.
Questions About After Tears
Reader: Did you learn something about novel-writing from this book that didn’t surface when you were writing Dog Eat Dog.
Niq Mhlongo: Yes. One of the things said about Dog Eat Dog is that it doesn’t have a story arc. Most book critics have alluded to the point that Dog Eat Dog does not have the traditional structure of the beginning, middle, and end. It’s just a slice of life pierced together, and I agree. In After Tears I’ve learned to try and follow the traditional structure.
Reader: How did you settle on the 29 small chapter structure of After Tears?
Niq Mhlongo: Actually I have no idea. It was not a planned thing. I just wrote the story, and fortunately or unfortunately the story ended when I was doing this chapter. I recently had a look at my After Tears manuscripts and realized that some had only fifteen bigger chapters, and some had about thirty-five.
Reader: What was the process of choosing to place a glossary in-back? How did you distinguish between words that would make sense in context and those that needed explanation?
Niq Mhlongo: I originally didn’t have the glossary. Then my editor and publisher felt most of the readers may not understand some of the things I say in the book. The glossary came as an agreement between my editor/publisher and me. I was very reluctant on including the glossary because I felt it was dictating to the readers and that they would be able to decipher the meaning within the context of the book. I also felt it would slow down the pace of the book for the readers. But now I appreciate the fact that we included it because the book would be alienating some of my readers.
Reader: What does language mean to you? I read that you grew up speaking four languages in different situations/ to different people. Language is often seen as a key to freedom, but here it seems to trap people in some cases.
Niq Mhlongo: Language to me is very important. It gives me access to people’s culture, and way of life in general. Once you know people’s culture you become accepted within that particular community and no longer treated as an outsider. You can even speak with authority on behalf of a particular community that you’ve mastered their language. So, language is power, it becomes a valuable commodity. Well, I speak half of every South Africa’s eleven official languages. This is not an exceptional case because almost everyone in Soweto does that.
Reader: What other stories about liars do you admire?
Niq Mhlongo: Political liars. Ninety-eighty four by George Orwell is one such example.
Questions About Way Back Home
Reader: Often literature or other story-forms are the best way to educate, and I must say I learned a LOT while reading this book. I made notes and looked at maps and researched the proper nouns (MPLA, SADF) and history prominent in the plot. This was a fascinating process of discovery for me as a reader. I wonder how the experience of reading Way Back Home would be different for someone who grew up in the areas where the book takes place—someone with more existing cultural and historical knowledge about the story. I’m sure such a reader would catch nuances of the story that I would never notice. Do you have a loose definition of your ideal reader when you write? Did you work consciously to make this book work well on a deep level for both types of readers? If so, how did you do that?
Niq Mhlongo: When I write I normally write for myself first. I write to heal. When I have an untold story in my head, it feels like I’m suffering from a particular disease which only writing can heal. So, when I was working on this book the first person I was addressing it to was myself because I wanted to heal. I wanted to heal myself from the past atrocities, trying to make sense of what went wrong. In the process I was my own medical doctor from the political, economic, and social ills happening around me. I wanted to explore the root-causes on my own. But I was happy to later find out that I actually healed so many people who have read the book. The book opened a debate that is mostly stifled, and by talking about this topic, some people who were not aware that they were also sick or sickened by the past also healed. This was an unconscious thing on my part.
Reader: In a related question—what kind of research did you have to do to write this book? How much of the material is based on stories you already knew, and how much did you have to find? And where did you find the information?
Niq Mhlongo: The research was mostly my observations, imagination, wishes for a better society, my limited knowledge of our history, cultures, my experiences as a victim of apartheid, racism, and corruption. I consolidated this by reading books about the exile life, and followed the news around me. I also interviewed some people that have been in exile.
Reader: The events that take place at the camps are wrenching, but in order to write them so vividly, you’d have had to get as close as possible to them. How did you temper that bleakness personally as you wrote this book? Senami says more than once that death is more hopeful in some cases than life. Did this sentiment come out of your writing process, or does it exist in the book as a reflection of the exiled people’s plight?
Niq Mhlongo: The events are mostly about the exiled people’s plight as their future was bleak. But I was also concerned about the uncertainties of our democracy, that only the chosen few will enjoy its fruits fully. People like Kimathi and others who went into exile are today the ones that hold the country at ransom through corrupt means.
Reader: Much of Senami’s dialogue seems to play a role of oracle, for example: “It is always the deeds that have goodness or badness in them, not the politician. But sometimes our eyes are liars because everything else that seems real is merely part of the illusion” (p52) and “there is no hiding place when you have hurt someone” (p96). Are her remarks written as information for the plot of the book or also as a larger moral story? If the latter, what is it that you hope a reader will take away from the book, morally—and would it be applied to politics specifically?
Niq Mhlongo: Senami’s remarks are sort of prophesy to the larger moral story. Of course everyone who went into exile wanted to see change, but some fought for exchange of fortunes. For a South African reader, I want us to interrogate ourselves, ask difficult questions about the problems of corruption, unemployment, racism, the widening rift between the poor and the rich and so on.
Reader: Veracity also seems like a crucial trope in Way Back Home. As the plot advances and Kimathi tells more and more lies, his situation worsens drastically. Senami talks about vision as a lie/illusion and about the importance of truth-telling. In Chapter 28, the day of the Tender Pitch, Kimathi and his two colleagues barely speak any of their own words, instead relying on quotes of great men; this is a sort of lie of omission/distraction, and this Chapter is bookended by two of the most pivotal moments in the Camp line and the dream lines of story. Lady Mkabayi lost her life because she would not lie, and Comrade Bambaata got to live because of a lie he told. What role do you see “truth” playing in this story?
Niq Mhlongo: Way Back Home is about the past atrocities and sacrifices that South Africans had to endure before we got our freedom. Apartheid for example was built on a web of lies that held the white race superior to the black race. This notion lasted more than five decades. The novel makes such an allegory of the past, the present and the future of South Africa-that the past lies could no longer be sustained because the present and future requires truth. The reference to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the book is about the healing of the nation itself. It shows that we cannot heal as a nation until we acknowledge the problems that we inherited from our bitter past.
Q: In this book, animals—particularly owls and later snakes—act as omens and also bringers of knowledge (either straightforwardly, through dialogue, or the kind of knowledge that occurs after a “fall” event). The snakes have language and the owls do not. How did you choose these animals to fill these roles? Is the owl dropping blood in the last chapter a reflection of the blood around Pilate’s nose and mouth during the Mafukuzela raid, perhaps his initial loss of innocence (as far as we know from the book)?
Niq Mhlongo: In most African cultures and traditions, animals play an important role and are used as totems. Some traditional healers for example use pythons for healing purposes. Snakes—like pythons for example—are used for fertility purposes. In some cultures, like the Venda, pythons are used for (among other things) the initiation of girls into womanhood. For example, the domba dance which is performed by the Venda people during the initiation rites copies the movement of the python. The owl on the other hand is an omen for bad luck in most African cultures. It is associated with witchcraft, which is evil. Witchcraft happens mostly at night according to most African beliefs, and that’s the time an owl is active like witches and wizards. It is believed that the latter uses the eyes of the owl to do the devious nocturnal stuff.
Q: This question is about the structure. Reading Way Back Home felt like reading a mystery, as I was always pushing forward to uncover more and more information. The relationship between the two main plot lines came as a complete surprise to me, although as one gains pressure, so does the other. Both lines are linear except for the opening chapter scene, which takes place in the middle of the actual chronology of the camp storyline. What choices did you make in alternating these stories, especially when you chose to stay with the present for more than one chapter in a row, and what was behind your decision to open with the scene you did?
Niq Mhlongo: Way Back Home was an experimental novel for me. At first I was not even sure that it was going to work, and I nearly changed the manuscript. I revised and changed the structure so many times before I settled on the published one. I remember at some point, the second chapter was the opening. Also the two parallel plots were difficult to write, and I felt like I was writing two separate novels. I had to find a way to link both these plots. Writing the current democratic South Africa of tenderpreneurs was relatively easy because the corruption was in my face. However, writing about the past was challenging because I was never in exile. I have never been to Angola or Tanzania. I only relied on research and imagination. But I had to make everything believable. If you read the book carefully you’ll realize that the exile chapters are shorter that the current South African chapters. This is because at some stage the exile part was one long chapter which came as a dream sequence. I had to chop it into smaller chapters to make it work.
General Questions for Niq Mhlongo
Reader: What was your writing process like? How do you track each of your characters and their wants/ specific characteristics/ relationships?
Niq Mhlongo: I draw my characters from real life people. I observe, listen, and engage with people a lot every day in different spaces including shebeens, inside the taxi, pavements. When I start writing about these experiences it becomes easier.
Reader: You were an International Writing Program fellow at the University of Iowa. How did that come about, and how did it affect your writing?
Niq Mhlongo: Iowa gave me a right to write. It gave me confidence to write from a different perspective. Two of my books, Dog Eat Dog and After Tears are set in Johannesburg and Soweto Township. The third book, Way Back Home, and my collection of short stories, Affluenza are set in different parts of the world, including Angola, Tanzania, Mauritius and The United States of America. I can credit this to my fellowship in Iowa which exposed me to different writers from around the world, as well as the new environment that I had to learn a lot from.
One person will win a signed copy of After Tears, one person will win a signed copy of Affluenza!
You can enter TWICE:
1) Follow @niqmhlongo on Twitter and Tweet to him your favorite part of today’s interview (make sure you copy @travelingmarla in the tweet so I can give you credit for the entry)
2) Like Niq Mhlongo’s Facebook Page and write a post on it, telling him your favorite part of today’s interview (make sure you tag @travelingmarla in the post so I can give you credit for the entry)
Everyone who enters has an equal chance of winning. Winners will be drawn at random from all tweets and Facebook posts made by the deadline.
DEADLINE: Tuesday, 22 March 2016, MIDNIGHT
Want to be a Featured Reader? Click here for more information!