Monday, 26 August 2013

Meet the Author: Siphiwo Mahala

When did you start to write and at what point did you think of yourself as a writer?
Writing, to me, is an offshoot of my passion for reading, a habit that I developed from an early age. I grew up as an introverted child and as the only boy in the family. Books became my closest companion. I was particularly fond of comics such as Superman, Archie, and The Bafanas from Bona Magazine. I graduated from comics and began to read indiscriminately - from the short stories of PT Mtuze to Shakespeare. Literary studies was a natural choice for me when I got to tertiary level. I published my first two short stories while doing a creative writing course at Rhodes University in 2001. I went on to do an MA in African Literature at Wits University in 2002, and published more stories that year. In the words of Es'kia Mphahlele, writing is an apprenticeship and to me, literary apprenticeship is a continuous process of intense reading and writing.

What attracts you to the short story genre/format?
Writing short stories for me is liberating and it ignites my creative juices more than any other form of creative expression. I respond to the muse when it catches me and they can be told in one sitting, something evocative of oral narratives. However, contrary to popular perception, writing short requires a lot of discipline as there is no luxury of time and space. One has to develop a story using very few characters, and every word used must be accounted for in order to develop a concrete and aesthetically powerful story. With this book I wanted to experiment and come up with innovative approaches of presenting a book of short stories. The result of that experiment is a collection of four trilogies that are chronologically diverse but remain thematically and stylistically cohesive. Most important, I wanted to create a work of all times. As Njabulo Ndebele puts it: "It will outlive many of the social, political, and economic dramas of the time. The power of African Delights lies precisely there."

Of all the stories in this collection, which was the hardest to write and why?
Bhontsi's Toe was by far the most difficult story for me to write for a number of reasons. It is a tragic story based on a real life incident that left me traumatised for years. A childhood friend died in a similar way as Bhontsi in the story and I suppose it's a childhood trauma that I grew up with and never dealt with at the time. The story refused to forgive my silence. I guess writing it was somewhat cathartic for me because I can now talk about it with less intense emotion. It is also what I regard as a story of friendship.

Your work is clearly inspired by a number of South African authors, such as Ndebele and Themba. What lessons have you learnt about writing from these esteemed figures?
As a student of African literature I immersed myself in the works of AC Jordan, Can Themba, Nadine Gordimer, Bessie Head, Njabulo S Ndebele and many other fantastic South African writers. Some had more impact on me than others and the influence of the likes of Ndebele and Themba is palpable in my writing. I have experimented with Themba's classic short story, The Suit, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The story has been greatly reproduced, adapted for stage, and inspired several other stories, poems, comics and films. I don't know of any other short story that can boast success of equal measure. I have learnt that one is what one reads and these are the giants on whose shoulders I chose to stand. I want my work to outlive my lifetime.

Are there any special moments you remember about writing the book?
One that stands out is when I took the first draft of The Lost Suit to Kimberly, where I was to meet with Dr Don Mattera. The intention was to ask him to read it and let me know what he thought of my interpretation of Sophiatown of the 1950s.
He refused to read the story. Instead, he told me to read aloud in the presence of other literary enthusiasts. Not being much of a public speaker, I was quite reluctant and somewhat embarrassed but I could not miss the opportunity of getting feedback from the esteemed poet.
While I was reading he would wince, exclaim, chuckle, and laugh out loud. Sometimes he'd ask me to go back to a certain paragraph, and without him saying anything, I would know what was wrong with a word that I used. In that way, he made me aware of my own writing, the development of my plot, my choice of words, and the rhythm of my narrative. That is the tactic that I apply in my writing now. Reading aloud and listening while other people are reading aloud is important.

What are you working on now or what kind of work would you like to produce in the future?
I am always writing something but what is taking shape now is what will be my next novel. All I can say about it is that it is a story of redemption with a rural setting. I feel that the rural space has not been explored enough in recent writing, especially in novels written in the English language. The helpless patriot in me still harbours the hope that if there is change in one person at a time, we will subsequently redeem our society. I always try to write work that resonates with the broader society and that would exhort people to take action.

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