Coming Out of the (Political) Closet

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“My Vote is My Secret.” In our American political election year with so much of the world watching our circus, I have been intrigued watching the 2016 South Africa municipal elections.

Unrest and dissatisfaction with the current ruling ANC government caused speculation that there might be violence at the polls.  Advertisements appeared for “My Vote is My Secret,” creating an atmosphere in which people felt encouraged to stay silent and vote their heart, without fear of reprisal from neighbors or a political party they might be leaving behind. Some prominent figures countered with “My Vote is No Secret” but a basic understanding of language and psychology (or rather the psychology of language) would tell you that when you end with the word “secret” all a person still hears is “secret.”

I’m not a political analyst, and I don’t have to be to have my opinions, or to comment on the way I see America and the disintegration of our current political parties. I’m just one more armchair citizen, working through my choice to vote in what feels like the most frightening election of my voting lifetime.

I see similarities between disgruntled South Africans and disgruntled Americans. They aren’t really anything more than a sketch, but it’s interesting, nonetheless. Most particularly, it could be said that the outright, scathing hatred I hear for South Africa’s current President, Jacob Zuma, from members of his own ANC party, are similar to the growing rift in the Republican party of the United States, over the potential presidency of Donald Trump.

Though Zuma is already in power, and Trump rising in power, I think it’s interesting to note that the grumblings that began earlier in Zuma’s presidency have, now in 2016, shaken the powerful ANC party to the point that they lost many voters to smaller parties. In fact, this year’s potentially “game-changing” vote brought even marginal parties to the foreground, and those have been forming alliances to out-vote the ANC in government matters.

Contrary to so many pessimists prior to the election, there was no widespread violence at the power shift. South Africa stayed stable, smaller parties gained more power, and that stability has had a direct, positive impact on the value of their currency. I can only hope that both leaders and citizens recognize the 2016 elections as an impetus to work more toward improving the lives of constituents than fighting against each other, further hindering progress.

Society Culture SA flags at Mandela funeral

Why am I wasting so much time telling you about South Africa’s election instead of just coming out of my political closet already? I suppose a little bit because of those parallels, because of that “secret” campaign, because only 20+ years in and it seems like both of their major parties, ANC and DA, suffer from the very familiar problems of corruption, racism, and elitism.

Because I align with a smaller political party, I felt excited for the wins of the smallest parties here. Our own elections feel like they could be a similar, electrically charged change to shake up American politics. It doesn’t have to be only “The Donald” or “The Hillary.” There are other candidates, and I don’t believe in the term “throwing away a vote” for voting my conscience.

America is supposed to be about freedom and differences, a country of individuals as well as entities. We were the once great experiment in democracy. It’s engaging to watch South Africa in its own early struggle in a new democracy, corruptible but incredibly hopeful, with one of the best constitutions ever written and the potential (wildlife, scenic and cultural tourism; artists; mineral wealth) to be one of the most influential countries in the world. They are currently in the flush of being seduced (some say bribed) by China and Russia, but I believe in the strength of this African nation to realize they’re better than a slick short-term deal with any country (including mine) when the potential for South Africa’s greatness seems to lie in her ability to hold out, to plan for stronger global agreements, and plan for long-term growth.

Again, my own analysis is as a reader, a traveler, a citizen, an admirer of people above politics…everywhere.

In America it feels like we have really been cocking up our own great democratic experiment, but I believe we’ll get through our divisiveness and find a new rhythm, as we expand into more diverse demographics than we’ve ever known (hopefully before the tail wags the dog again.)


Americana Jeff


So, out of the closet, and into the frying pan…

I’m a Moderate. I have some issues in which I align more conservatively, others in which I align more liberally. I believe in full and equal rights of minorities, women, and LGBQT. I believe in immigration and a nation with full religious and secular diversity. I worry more about people not washing their hands, and creepy straight men lurking near bathrooms to take out their homophobic violence than I do about whomever is in the bathroom with me. I believe in my right to own guns of my choosing (yes I shoot automatic weapons.) I believe in smaller government in most instances, but not all, and that government healthcare won’t work well in America. But I also believe that our private healthcare has become poisoned by the politics and greed of big-pharm and insurance. I’m a fiscal conservative who believes that hugging a tree is equally as important as hugging a logger. There is so much more to my list, but these things seem to keep coming up in conversations about American politics, so I’m mentioning them in this post.

It’s funny how often I’m asked here about American elections. When I explain I’m not voting for either of the main candidates, people are often eager to know why.

The short answer is that I do not trust either major candidate to lead the country with the true best interest of its people and its global place in mind. As a country we act as both an elitist and a bully, leading the world not by healthy example, but by short-sighted force and blind arrogance. But there is much more depth and breadth in our citizenry than portrayed in the media, and much more than what even our own politicians believe we have. I don’t trust the arrogance or bullying nature of either major candidate. I won’t pretend I didn’t like Obama for his more moderate views, despite not agreeing with some of the more liberal policies he hoped to implement. But I did, and do, respect his character and his intent, and genuine care for the people in our country. I do not have that same respect for either Clinton or Trump.


Why not Hillary?

I believe she is an elitist academic with a white savior complex. Elitists tend to think academic studies and anthropological views on society enable them to know and understand what’s best. This perspective is not only patronizing, but ineffective at developing a full depth of understanding of the issues and needs of the average American citizen.

While I know many Hillary supporters who are academics and well balanced, compassionate individuals, still plugged in to real America, within the Cult of Hillary I also run into many elitist academics who are completely ignorant about the life of “ordinary” American citizens, and therefore misjudge and critique the opinions of those ordinary Americans as coming from a place of ignorance. There seems to be an indirect correlation between increased education and time spent in academia, with decreased understanding of the needs, desires, and perspective of non-academic citizens (i.e. the majority of America).

I sometimes wonder if education then follows its own law of diminishing returns: the higher the academic level of study and longer immersion time in rhetoric among other elitist academics, the less ability to disconnect from, assess and criticize other elitist academics in an unbiased manner. And more importantly, the less the ability to connect with the majority of American reality; and subsequently, the less ability to lead that majority successfully. Elitist academia becomes its own cult, and those on the outside, less credentialed are not welcome.

The growing resentment and anger of non- and lower-academic Americans are seen as bi-products of lower education, religious fervor, ignorance, or brainwashing. There is no recognition that politics, money, corruption, and circle-jerks within science and academic institutions have created a mistrust of science and academia. “Anti-science” is dismissed as coming from a place of religion, or a loud minority of conspiracy-theorists. But the distrust of the scientific and academic establishment (all too often grouped under the same “anti-science” umbrella) has developed in both religious and non-religious alike (my Atheist self included) as a reaction to corruption and manipulation within medical and scientific institutions.  Bottom line is that the distrust isn’t unwarranted, and there seems little or no inclination on the part of the scientific community to build better checks and balances, hold themselves and their peers to greater accountability for flawed or corrupted ownership of research, or to bridge that gap with the general public.

But back to Hillary, not the “Cult of Hillary.” I do think she has a lot of respect globally, at least from what I hear from average citizens I meet running around out here, so I don’t think her foreign policy is as dramatically dangerous as the opposition likes to play it.

I used to love and admire the strength of Hillary when she was the wife of the President. I wanted so much for her to be the future leader of our country. But her abuse of Monica Lewinsky was nasty, ugly, and brutal. It showed weakness and instability in her character. Is it more cowardice or strength to stand by a husband than to stand up to one? Is it more strength or cowardice to take a young woman’s mistake and brand her a whore for life?

Although she has a good voting record on the rights of women, she had the opportunity to show how she might use her power over a single woman, and I just can’t come to terms with her evisceration of Monica Lewinsky. Maybe “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” but that fury should have fallen on her cheating husband, equally or more so. He had the power. Some would argue he was the most powerful man in the world at the time. Monica Lewinsky was an intern. Was she culpable in the affair? Of course. But in any workplace situation, a CEO dicking around with an intern is clearly the worse of the two. This was still a sexual workplace situation, but when we swap a CEO for the Commander in Chief of the United States, then apparently our lowly intern suddenly has a magic vagina (perhaps the now-infamous dress she was wearing was akin to an African kanga and he couldn’t help himself?).

In the case of former President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, it wasn’t rape, but it was far from a relationship between equals, and the most powerful woman in America at the time, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was supposed to be leading the charge for women, reacted to the scenario, played out in the most prominent workplace in the country, by painting a scarlet letter on the intern.

Monica Lewinsky became a household joke. Bill kept his job, his wife, and his status in politics and world leadership. Hillary allowed the double-standard of “woman as whore”/”man as fallible” to undermine her own credibility as someone who stands by and for her own gender.

Let me be clear so you know where I’m coming from. I am the child of a man who cheated on his wife, left her for a woman I could only describe for years in ugly, vicious names. My childhood, which I always describe as half hillbilly/half academic, had a violent streak inside wishing I could have punched and kicked my dad’s mistress until her face was unrecognizable. I hated her. It was, after all, her fault. For me, my father had simply made a mistake. That woman was the problem, because we all know there are “some women” who are just marriage-wrecking whores.

These are the thoughts, and the words, I had as a child. I was not yet an adult who understands the complexity of relationships, of sexual power and of mistakes people make. It took years to learn the truly hard type of forgiveness when the wrong done to you is public, and humiliating, and strikes at the core of your identity. But it is learnable, even for a hillbilly academic from rural western Pennsylvania.

And then we hopefully grow into women who know that as women, we have a lot more depth of understanding than to label each other whores. Don’t we? Shouldn’t we?

Maybe, in the end, I am the petty one, but I can live with that. Hillary destroys Monica, forgives Bill, and the nation tucks it away as a woman scorned, and it’s no longer supposed to count in the overall track record of pro-woman Hillary. But I believe it goes beyond the personal. I believe it’s still valid, still relevant, and speaks to the emotional maturity and stability of a potential leader among the nations of the free world.

Hillary didn’t need to embrace Monica, but she also did not need to (but went out of her way to) use her political resources and influence to discredit, shame, and ruin the career of someone who made the same mistake as her fallible, forgivable, husband. Clinton has had years to do something to make right the abuse she laid on that young woman, to give back some respect to a career ruined. I’m guessing she never will. Why not Hillary?  A woman who still believes in double standards is not woman enough to lead me.


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Why not Donald?

Because his ego could be the end of the freedom and diversity that has made America a country to admire. Because he divides more than he unites. It is his bread and butter to be nasty, and scornful, and to mask every racist, sexist, and anti-Muslim remark as “the truth.”

Do I think there’s media bias against him? Of course. I don’t think we have one truly unbiased newspaper in America. There is also plenty of media bias for him. But it is unnervingly dictatorial to want media censorship, to want to pick and choose how he is portrayed.

He terrifies me. When he was first running, I thought his grand-standing and attention-grabbing was temporary, and he would fill out his run with more tempered, well-researched arguments about the policies he wants to adopt for America. “Make America Great Again” sounds wonderful, but like the rest of his speeches, it’s always rhetoric and fear mongering.

While I know many people I care for who like Donald Trump, and who make themselves complicit in his racism and hatred by laughing it off or downplaying it, those people don’t worry me as much as his following among serious, violent, hate groups. He is giving confidence and power to some of the ugliest and most irrational people in America, and they are not the America that makes us strong, or  whole, or healthy.

Donald Trump makes me think of Henry the 8th and his bear-baiting rings in centuries-old Britain. And his most rabid, salivating fans are eager to circle the ring, cheering and waiting to see who gets thrown in next. Maybe he throws in some Chihuahuas with the Pitbulls for good measure. The crowd roars in anticipation.

He doesn’t care if the bear kills the dogs, or the dogs kill the bear, or even if the bear and the dogs kill some of the spectators (as long as there are enough remaining to cheer). It only matters that the fans are distracted and blind with bloodlust. And Henry the 8th Trump allows the sensational over the sensible. I don’t think any person who encourages so much hatred among his followers can lead our country anywhere but to war. Make America Great Again? How about Make America HATE Again.


American flag farm silo

The Donald? The Hillary? No thanks.

America is the new Rome. Donald is a brutal emperor, running his gladiator games for a crazed fandom, holding strong to his egoistic belief in nothing but the glory of “old Rome” and the superiority of his empire. Hillary is an arrogant senator, saccharine smile belying an egoistic belief in her own savior complex, without ever actually being in touch with the working class except for some sprinkled rhetoric about an idealized citizenry to which she can’t actually relate.

Neither candidate is truly of, by, or for the people, and I really hope the “people” figure that out before November.


So…now that I have probably offended the staunch supporters of The Hillary and The Donald, and annoyed a number of friends and family, where then do I stand?

Well, I stand for what I believe is honestly in the best interest of my country, my small patch of land, my family, and friends. I stand for what I believe in, and no political party has yet to meet those standards. But I still have to choose. Domestically, the current party I align most closely with are Libertarians, and I plan to vote for Gary Johnson in the election.

Shocked? Believe me, it surprised me too, as I have spent a lot of years fighting with the idea that I only know a few Libertarians who I really like, and know a lot I can’t stand. But even the ones I can’t stand are often strong in their opinion of “live and let live” despite their differences in belief or academic background.

For me, the defining principle that makes me more aligned with the Libertarian party is this one: “We hold that all individuals have the right to exercise sole dominion over their own lives, and have the right to live in whatever manner they choose, so long as they do not forcibly interfere with the equal right of others to live in whatever manner they choose.”

Many friends think I’m in the Green party, and I actually do have a lot of respect for Jill Stein, and most people know my strong environmental leanings, but I believe Greenies don’t usually see the forest for the trees they’re hugging (though I do hug me a lot of trees!) I don’t believe the world can operate healthfully in most absolutes, and particularly not in a blind allegiance to one interest above all else.

Of course there are crazy Libertarians (and a bunch of jerks who are why I often hesitate to admit my vote this year), but there are plenty of crazy people and jerks in every single party in our country. But this election year, for me, Gary Johnson has the most personal integrity and interests for the country that align with my own ideal version of domestic America (though the party does not align with my foreign policy ideals).  But don’t paint me as a diehard Libertarian. A similar alignment is still far from my own ideal political party. A true Moderate Party has yet to be formed.  And can we please take back the term Moderate, which has for too long been paired with “flip-flop” and “wishy-washy” instead of its more appropriate pairing: balanced and open-minded.

What’s really funny is that I know so many people who feel the same way, but who are so jaded by our broken politics that they don’t believe anything different could happen. They believe a vote for a third party is a throw-away vote, and so they keep on voting for one of two major political parties running the broken system, thinking anything could possibly ever change.

I personally think it’s time for splitting apart the two-headed monster of Republicans and Democrats. They’ve both grown too big to work effectively, and they clash too much to be productive. I don’t think either party has enough politicians who still know what “greater good” even means, or who think their constituents are much more than talking monkeys whose sole contribution comes in either a big wallet, or in being a publicity stunt.

Republicans and Democrats no longer work for the interest of the average American or the country. Too much play with lobbyists, and too much time in power have made both our once-great parties nothing but rhetorical garbage factions: playing alternatively to the academic elite— dangling non-productive feel-good idealism in front of our smugly closed eyes; or to the worn and beaten working class too tired and hungry to realize the machine is not actually feeding us, but simply energizing us with fear, creating one false crisis after another.

It is difficult being a Moderate, especially when your friends see it as traitorous to their cause or leader. But when there is no current party working for the diverse mix of what I value, then I hope to vote for what I believe is currently the best direction for our country at this moment in time. Our two biggest political parties are rotting, gangrenous appendages of an unhealthy America. They cannot be healed. Cut them off, and save the country.


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My Vote is for Hope.

I hope Americans stop falling for the games our biggest politicians are playing. I hope everyone else is as sick of “The Democrats” and “The Republicans” as I am. I hope many Americans give this election the middle finger, and vote instead for a party or person we believe is going to do right by our country, not just “The Lesser of Two Evils.”

You and I are not the same. I don’t expect you to be aligned with my views, but I do hope you have the ovaries, or the balls, to have the courage of your conviction, no matter how unpopular it may make you among your peers. Keep your eyes wide open to party antics, media bias, and go with your gut—with someone who makes you personally feel true to what you value. And hey, if that’s still Hillary or Donald, so be it.

But if you’re sick of both of them, and sick of the party machines, consider reading up on third party candidates and selecting an alternative. For starters, here is this article from the International Business Times.

And don’t worry. This will be my only political post for the 2016 elections. I feel it’s my citizen duty to come clean, and now that I’m out of my political closet, I feel great!

In the meantime, I’ll bring back the love tomorrow with a short (non-political) post, an update on the book, and maybe a nice photograph of a big ol’ elephant I saw in Botswana.

Love, MarLa

P.S. For my South African readers…

First off, thank you. I’ve loved our three years in your country, and it’s exciting that I have more and more readers who are South African. I know there are a lot of tight-knit communities here, very selective of what you read, and it means a lot to me that you’re reading my work, especially the articles about my travels in country.

Some of you have sent me messages (and a few nastygrams, thanks for that) about my spelling, punctuation, and phrasing. Most of the messages refer to items which are actually correct, but are simply a difference of American English vs. South African English (for American readers, SA English is most akin to British English.)

The most common complaint is to tell me that “Traveling” should be “Travelling”. This is followed by requests that I please add “u” after my “o” in many words (e.g. favorite/favourite; color/colour). Again—spelling difference.

(I actually love the “u” after an “o” because my early years were spent reading many old books handed down through our family. Those were by British authors, in the original English spelling, and when I’m writing in my journal, I often include the “u”. But trust me, if I get used to using “flavour” or substituting an “s” for a “z” in a word, as in “organise” or “recognise,” that’s not going to go over well when I return home.)

Despite my B.A. in English, and M.F.A. in Creative Writing, I do occasionally muck up a thing or two, and my only editor for this website is me.

Let’s make a deal…I’ll not apologize for my American writing or occasional “real” error, and you don’t apologize for the adorable yet rampant butchery of “is” vs. “are” or the cloying overuse of “-kie” at the end of common words. 😉 In the interest of global politics, let’s survive our linguistic differences and fight the real battles, like our pot-stirring, out-of-touch politicians, hey?

Resurrecting the Bare-Bottomed Zebra

Have you ever heard of a “quagga?”

What’s black, and white, and red all over?

quagga zebra family losing stripes

Answers to these questions within my newly published essay at travel website, iExplore! Click here (or the photo above) to join me as I search for these “extinct” zebra, the elusive pygmy falcon, and capture a bit of travel photography along the way.

Love, MarLa

Win A Signed Niq Mhlongo Book…or TWO!

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. Read More

Signed Book Giveaways and Niq Mhlongo Answers Your Questions!

Niq Mhlongo (c) Kwela Books

Niq Mhlongo
(c) Kwela Books

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

Dog Eat Dog Niq Mhlongo

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.

best African writers

Author Niq Mhlongo


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:
Each person who submits the correct answer has an equal chance to win!
DEADLINE: Sunday, 13 March, Midnight

Featured Readers

Melanie Hooks Los Angeles, California, USA

Melanie Hooks
Los Angeles, California, USA

Jessica Kinnison New Orleans, Louisiana, USA

Jessica Kinnison
New Orleans, Louisiana, USA

Sarah Leavens Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

Sarah Leavens
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

featured reader online book club

Katrina Otuonye
Nashville, Tennessee, USA

Victor Rahlogo Gauteng Province, South Africa

Victor Rahlogo
Gauteng Province, South Africa

Ian Riggins Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

Ian Riggins
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

online book club

Caroline Tanski
Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Want to be a Featured Reader? Click here for more information!

How to Make a Cake out of Cupcakes: or How to Turn Your Essays into a Book

Anybody wanting to understand what takes me so long going through all my essays and trying create a book, this guy NAILS IT!

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Church_Photo-Larger B&W-2014Steven Church shares his remarks from the recent NonfictioNow Conference panel “Hydra-Headed Memoirs and Well-Connected Essays: Negotiating Your Book-Length Nonfiction Thing,” wherein he pondered aloud about hearing that his own “book-length nonfiction thing,” was too fragmented and associative and didn’t have unifying narrative line; and, second, about the challenges of an MFA program, where we focus on teaching student how to write really great essays and then, in their last year, expect them to submit an entire unified “book-length nonfiction thing.”


By Steven Church

Step 1: Learn to bake, from scratch, a couple of really good cupcakes—perfect little cakes that share the same basic form and thematic structure of a larger cake, the complete idea for which hasn’t actually formed completely in your head yet, but which exists just beneath the surface of your waking thoughts. Start small. If necessary, pay a lot of money to take some classes…

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Go For the Flowers, Stay for the Ghost

Postberg Flowers travel South Africa

I had a lot of fun writing October’s column for the Expat Focus website, and I hope you have as much fun reading it:

Go For the Flowers, Stay for the Ghost

And, as always, a few extra photos just for you…

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Thanks for reading. The best compliment you can give is to share my work, so if you enjoyed my Halloween piece, please pass it on, using one of the many share options on the Expat Focus website.

Love, MarLa

South Africa map rainbow

Our Online Book Club is Being Taught in the Classroom!

I was happily surprised when a friend of mine just told me that she is planning to use our online book club in her class. I thought maybe she wanted to show her students the mind of an author at work, but she said her primary interest was in the questions themselves. She wants to show her writing students how to read as writers, and felt the questions coming in are exactly the way writers should be reading for the sake of their own craft.


She isn’t one of my featured readers, so I didn’t even realize she was reading along. But after the latest Q&A with Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, she asked me for permission to use the site as a reference, and to print out portions of the Q&A to accompany passages from the books.

African literature reading

I was stoked. One of the best things I learned from my own writing professors was how to read like a writer. Reading is still enjoyable, but I rarely read without paying attention to craft. And the questions coming in from many of the featured readers for our online book club show that other writers read the same way.

Way Back Home Niq Mhlongo

As I’m looking through these questions coming in for October author, Niq Mhlongo, I can tell which questions are coming from writers versus those coming from the average reader. All questions are valid, of course, but it’s so much fun to see what each writer has been observing in a text, and what they ask of the author.

So who are these wonderful featured readers asking the brilliant questions? Well please take a look at their bios on the Featured Readers page, by clicking here. These readers, most of them already well-established writers, teachers and editors, are excellent at reading critically, and it shows through in their own work. Please take a little time to read their bios, and click through to their websites and read some of their work as well!

how to read like a writer

Are you a Creative Writing Teacher?

If you’re also a teacher of creative writing and you also find the Q&A something you can use in teaching your writing students how to read more critically, you’re more than welcome to direct them to the site, or print the Q&A. Just please make sure you talk about these wonderful authors who created all the interesting books to prompt those questions!

And please, I’d love to hear about how you use the material, and maybe even take a photo of you and your class so I can share you with the world!

Following are the July, August, and September Q&A with authors. You can join the book club at any time, whether you’re a writer or just an avid reader, by picking up a copy of the latest book and reading along. Then submit your questions by the middle Wednesday of each month to:

July Q&A with Futhi Ntshingila

August Q&A with Nthikeng Mohlele

September Q&A with Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

I will be posting the Q&A for Niq Mhlongo by the end of October, and announce the winner of a signed book by Niq. In the meantime, please be reading Nothing Left to Steal, by Mzilikazi wa Afrika. Happy reading!

Love, MarLa


Upcoming Books:

November: Mzilikazi wa Afrika
Book(s): Nothing Left to Steal
Read-by Date: 11 November 2015 PRE-ORDER ASAP by emailing . This book is currently only available as an e-book in the states, but I can ship a paperback to you from South Africa.

December: Mandla Langa
Book(s): The Texture of Shadows and The Lost Colours of the Chameleon
16 December 2015  PRE-ORDER ASAP by emailing . This book is currently only available as an e-book in the states, but I can ship a paperback to you from South Africa.

January through May, 2016
Thando Mgqolozana: A Man Who is Not a Man
Mamle Wolo: The Kaya-Girl – Please email me to pre-order this book. It is not yet available in the states. I have purchased several copies for my readers.
Carol Campbell: Esther’s House
Ekow Duker: Dying in New York
Wame Molefhe: Go Tell the Sun
Sabata-mpho Mokae: Kanakotsame: In My Times – Please email me to pre-order this book. It is not yet available in the states. I have purchased several signed copies for my readers.

Holy Happy-Sweat-Bees, Batman…Go a Fisa Thata!

travel South Africa Pretoria capital

It is insanely hot here in the capital of South Africa. No, really. I’m pretty sure a lot of us are losing our minds under this sun!

We really need some rain right now. Meanwhile my friends in America’s Carolinas and elsewhere are underwater with some kind of thousand year storm.

Oy! This planet is a mess!

Here’s a photo of a cool little drum to offset the heat. Read More

“My Brain Becomes a Pop-up Store of John Muir Quotes”

“…I was awakened by a tremendous earthquake, and though I had never before enjoyed a storm of this sort, the strange thrilling motion could not be mistaken, and I ran out of my cabin, both glad and frightened, shouting, ‘A noble earthquake! A noble earthquake!‘ feeling sure I was going to learn something. ”
John Muir

Read More

Around the World with the Poetry of Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

From South Africa, to America’s east and west coasts, to Europe and beyond, readers were traveling Read More