Literatea is an interview series that brings together prominent and emerging voices in African writing, editing, publishing, translation, marketing, distribution, and retail to discuss the craft of bringing African storytelling to the continent and the rest of the world. From award-winning novelists and poets to literary agents and editors, from indie publishers and booksellers to prize juries—Literatea pours the first cup and stirs the conversation.
For its inaugural interview Zukiswa Wanner—the author of, among others, The Madams (2006), Behind Every Successful Man(2008), Men Of The South (2010), London Cape Town Joburg (2014), and Hardly Working: A Travel Memoir of Sorts (2018)—agreed to talk about her storied journey in continental literature—from Kwaito-dungaree sporting newcomer to the cropped colourful hair which has made her a stalwart of world literature.
Zukiswa Wanner is a South African writer, novelist, and publisher with Zambian and Zimbabwean heritages. Her work has been shortlisted for the South African Literary Awards (SALA) and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. She was the 2015 winner of the K. Sello Duiker Memorial Literary Award for London Cape Town Joburg. She was also named on the Africa 39 list of 39 Sub-Saharan African writers under 40 with the potential to define trends in African literature in 2014. In 2020 she became the first African woman to be awarded the Goethe Medal for her services to cultural exchange through her literary work. She founded Paivapo Publishers and currently resides in Nairobi, Kenya.
RÉMY NGAMIJE: Interviews about the writing craft are common. They form part of the modern conception of literature. Writer A said they construct an idea like this. Writer B said this is their writing routine so this is what you must follow. That kind thing. What I have always struggled to find in most craft essays is a reflection of my realities and difficulties as a black writer. I did not, for example, have the luxury of writing in the morning while looking at the sea. Nor could I sit back in the evenings and edit while smoking a cigar and drinking cognac. A literary community was also inaccessible to me. Because these routines were not amenable to my situation I thought writing might not be for me. I’m curious to know what your writing routine was like way back when you penned The Madams, your debut novel. What role did your economic situation play in its writing process? Has your process changed over time?
ZUKISWA WANNER: I came into writing fiction more from other people’s belief that I could do it more than from my own belief that I was actually a writer, a story that you know. Back then there was no social media really so I couldn’t even network with writers from other countries, let alone South Africa. I couldn’t write online, for instance, and have people beyond my circle say “that’s pretty good” to encourage me. So I only began to think of myself as a writer once I actually had a book. But once I took the challenge and started writing The Madams I was in an interesting space. I didn’t have my own computer so I’d get to the office early so I could work on the manuscript. I was working in a photographic museum so whenever things were slow, or there were no visitors, I’d open two windows on the computer: one with my manuscript and another with some work-related stuff I could switch to if anyone came in. I completed the first draft in less than three weeks, sent it over to an old, retired friend who proceeded to give me feedback and suggested that I send the work to five publishers. Three accepted it; I selected one. I went through five edits and by the final edit I still didn’t have my own computer so, again, I used another work computer in much the same fashion as with the first draft, except I had a bound copy so I could mark the script.
I may have felt more of an urgency when I was writing The Madams because I didn’t want to get caught using the work computers so I was quicker in getting it done. I’d write as much as I could on any given weekday and then the next morning when I got to work I’d start by reading and seeing what mistakes or failures I’d made in the narrative arc.
In some ways my process has changed over time but in others it has not. I have my own computer now (Yay! Got my first one in 2007) and I’m fully self-employed as a writer so I don’t need to sneak early into some office to write. My hours are different. I tend to write from midnight until 06h00 now. I, however, still start my writing hours by revisiting what I last wrote so I can correct any oversights I may see. I also very deliberately still do four to five drafts before I publish any book.
Like you, 14 years later, I still can’t afford cognac or cigars despite the accolades but admit that I’m in a slightly more comfortable situation than I was in 2006 when The Madams came out. I also, interestingly, have only done two writing fellowships in my 14-year career—but that has as much to do with the fact that I’ve become comfortable writing in my own home as it has to do with avoiding traveling where possible unless I find it worth my while.
Also—yay—Wi-Fi! I don’t have to go to cyber cafe anymore to print, scan, and send contracts (a process that is particularly expensive when you are a single parent to a child still in diapers with an almost non-existent writerly income as I was when The Madams first came out and I was working on Behind Every Successful Man).
RN: Now I’m curious to know how many writers have used the two windows trick. I know I did it when I was writing my novel. I was teaching high school English at the time. There were days when I should have been marking; I stole hours here and there to work on my first draft. And whenever another teacher walked into my class I’d lean over to the stack of ungraded assignments with my red pen and make it look I had been recording a mark electronically. Ha!
You are right, of course—the times have changed. It is, in some ways, much easier for writers to find and maintain writing communities. As an established writer now—and being a writer who works hard to foster artistic (not only literary) communities—how has being a member of a writing community affected your writing? Do you have the luxury of sending your drafts to The Greatest Writer Ever and receiving The Best Edits Ever?
ZW: I think the two-window trick is one that only writers from a certain income bracket use. And in South Africa and Namibia those writers invariably look like you and me. We don’t have the luxury of going on retreat. Sometimes we don’t even have a computer. So we write against all odds. I remember my first publisher telling me how it was so refreshing to get my manuscript because she was so tired of getting all these self-indulgent scripts from housewives who were Karens before the word Karen was a thing. “Where are all the black voices?” she asked. I told her black voices were silent for a number of reasons: they were too tired after long hours of travel on taxis from their multiple underpaying jobs and just wanted to sleep; they did not have the luxury of writing when they were supposed to do useful jobs like teaching or being doctors and nurses so they could afford to take care of their families. Black voices were silenced by a lack of resources like computers or monies to go to cyber cafes and see her publishing house’s submission requirements that asked for three chapters and a synopsis. Although this seems like a simple and reasonable submission requirement, although those of us who are black and published can recall some tough moments, we are still more privileged than other black voices. Because we are able to gain that access, because we can do two windows at work or go to a cyber cafe or get invited for lunch to discuss our scripts and impress because we speak English “properly” and look marketable.
Yes, indeed, times have changed. I mean, dude, we have been doing literary festivals monthly virtually through writers we “ask” on WhatsApp. Kiffness—as you dudebros would say (is that even still a word?). And, of course, as you rightly note, being a member of that community has influenced my writing immensely. For the better, I think. The biggest internship for any writer is reading widely. Being part of the literary community has opened me up to books I may not have otherwise sought because I’ve got to read them as work (editing or moderating) or for pleasure because I hate meeting writers I like and being the loser who hasn’t engaged with their work through their writing. I think reading other writers’ work is the greatest gift one writer can give to another. It says to other writers: I see you. I respect what you are doing. You matter. I’m lucky that I can send something to Molara Wood and ask her for editorial feedback and she will make time. Or Thando Mgqolozana and ask him for feedback. Or Zakes Mda and ask him for a blurb. In answer to your question I’ll paraphrase a famous literary quote and say “all the best writers and editors are on my WhatsApp.”
RN: I also have to ask this for the yoof dem. What happens at writing residencies? What did they provide you with that you could not have gotten for yourself at that specific point in time? I ask because there are foolish moments where I have felt like the story I want to write can only be written in that one Parisian café or some cabin in the woods (sans horror tropes) if I could just get so-and-so residency or fellowship. So you have to spill the tea on residencies.
ZW: Man! I don’t know what happens at residencies. I have only had two fellowships my whole career. Both of them provided money so I did not have to worry about bills while I did the work—that was an important part of my signing up for them. They were also both very productive in their own ways. For the first one I was in Copenhagen with the beautiful title of DIVA (Danish International Visiting Artist). I’m sad to say I didn’t do much diva stuff. I spent it writing Hardly Working and being homesick because my lil’ man had broken his leg in rugby and I was feeling sucky for being absent. But I also had some memorable times like when I did a road trip to Lviv as well as hanging out with some fun and crazy people, including my hosts who cheered me up immensely. JIAS, on the other hand, was a different kettle of fish—a madder and more boiling kettle of fish. It was always going to be: Niq Mhlongo and I are a terrible combo and I think the senior staffers were happy when we finally left, even though they claim to love us. The most I will say is karaoke Mondays were lit. Yes, you can interpret that “lit” however you choose, including literally. But it could also just be a lighter…
RN: You know how I know you ain’t the yoof dem? You told me how to interpret “lit.” Like, how, fam? We made that word. Mxm.
But everything you said regarding economics and how it affects the writing ambitions and processes of the disadvantaged is the darn truth. The facts are always colder when the tea is hot.
Okay, here is a situation: you have paid your rent and utilities; your creditors have left you for now; you have submitted all the necessary documents for a particular deadline; and, now, finally (finally!) you have time to sit down and write. How do you decide whether an idea is best explored in fiction (short or long) or nonfiction? And once you have chosen a discipline (fiction or nonfiction) and a medium (short story, novel, essay, or whatever) how do your thought and writing processes change?
ZW: Don’t get it twisted. I am yoof dem until African presidents say I’m grown. And since that geriatric club will never say that you’re stuck with me among the “youthies”, as my pipo in Zim would say. And, no: you didn’t invent that word, my young revisionist. Ask anyone who grew up in Zim in the early 90s and they’ll tell you the word yakabaka was there way back when. We didn’t know jack about copyright then otherwise we’d have copyrighted it so that when millennials make claims…
Anyway. Back to the future in this conversation.
How do I decide whether something is fiction or nonfiction? You know, I’ve never actually had to make that decision. Before I start writing I have somewhat written already. But I also never know how it will end and so I’m constantly being surprised by myself. A friend is doing a book on opportunities in the different industries on this continent targeted at Generation Z. She asked Gen X-ers she considers to have done interesting work in the field to do introductory essays and had three or four examples of millennials in each section to talk about their challenges and achievements. I knew I had to do this essay for a while but had not done it. Then one morning I woke up and some words played in my mind:
Every profession in this book has one thing in common—it began with a story. Because everything we are, everything we do, is a story. But nowhere are the stories more important than in media and the arts.
I opened my laptop and started writing. I had no idea what I’d say or how I’d end but the words just kept coming and rolling. An hour later I was done and hit the send button. All of this is to say, I’m not the writer who plans to write a thousand words a day. I don’t. I write when I feel I have something to say, or in the case of fiction, when the characters tell me they’re ready and they want to be let out.
And you know what? No matter how often I think I know what will happen the characters always surprise me. I never foresaw the scene where Nosizwe shoots the dude in The Madams, for instance, and when it happened it was so damn satisfying and felt so right. Mfundo and Mzi were supposed to be very much peripheral characters in Men of the South. But when I started writing, they became more powerful than Tinaye who I thought would be the solo main character when I started writing the book. In London Cape Town Joburg the son who centres the book was a daughter initially.
I’m not myself then, when I write. Or, rather, I’m not myself as people who know me know me to be. I suspect it’s the reason why every time I finish writing a first draft of long fiction I’m so mentally and emotionally exhausted. Because being a conduit for all those characters is draining.
RN: I have always wondered how best to explain what you just said: that when your characters are real and autonomous they make their own decisions and say unexpected things and make their own choices, even if you are the ones who made them and their world. I mean, look at Adam and Eve.
ZW: I’m not even sure whether this makes sense or answers your original question properly but perhaps the long and short answer is this: I don’t plan the discipline or the medium. It just happens. I do have ideas that I walk with and think, hmm, this would make a great novel or short story or essay. I may write some notes on it but I never actually start writing-writing until I feel like I’m about to burst and just have to do it.
RN: What are your writing crutches? I, for example, confess to having a predilection for sunsets and sighs. When they occur together I feel as though I have found Nirvana. Do you have favourite instances or objects you like return to?
ZW: My writing crutch is definitely describing laughter. The laughter that starts in the belly, bubbles up to the chest, up to the head, and then makes the eyes twinkle before it comes out in a burst through the mouth. All my favourite characters have this laughter. It’s to me what the harmattan is to some Nigerian writers.
RN: The tea is hot today.
ZW: Just blow on it a little.
RN: Eish. What so-called rule of writing have you broken in your work and thought: Well, damn. They’re going to kill me for this but they’ll have to catch my ass first!
ZW: I have never been one to follow any rules of writing. When I read writers’ interviews or writers’ memoirs I do it less to follow their rules than to get some tea about situations that they’ve been in and the people they’ve met. My all-time favourite is Zakes Mda’s Sometimes There is a Void. I don’t care who you are, unless you can be that honest and reflective about the mess you have, please don’t write a memoir. (Here’s looking at you Rushdie with Josef Anton). Patrick French’s authorised biography of Naipaul—V.S. Naipaul: The World Is What It Is—also made for some juicy reading. That man was all sorts of problematic but that he authorised what was in that book was, like, wow. The book felt like when you’re is at a literary festival in the evening, people are gisting and all the juice comes out. Except this was about one person. The most disappointing one was Robert Suresh Roberts’ No Cold Kitchen. Initially supposed to be an authorised biography of Nadine Gordimer, Nadine later withdrew from the project and wanted nothing to do with it since Roberts was nicknamed “The Unlikeable Mr Roberts” by South African newspapers. I got it expecting some strong tea. Like, Nadine had to be angry for a reason, right? Instead I got boiled water with a teabag that has already been used three times—no flavour, zero milk, not even sugar. Not even condensed milk, fam.
RN: A harder question, perhaps: what do you constantly have to unlearn from the world when it comes to writing?
ZW: Well, I’m always unlearning that I don’t have to give answers; I can also seek and ask questions. In fact, my least favourite book is the one where I finished a narrative all tied up with a ribbon. I gave an answer. But I want my characters to live on beyond the book, understand? Will Thandi and her dude get back together? Will Slindile answer Mfundo’s text? Will Martin shoot someone? Can he? And if he does, what would happen to Germaine? And part of the reason of having to unlearn this is because the world mistakenly believes writers are intellectuals. Granted, some writers are thinkers, but then so are some dancers, filmmakers, actors, and singers. Writers, like me, are primarily storytellers. You ask me about storytelling and what I find useful and I may be able to help. You ask me to write or talk about feminism and I will point you to Pumla Gqola or Wambui Mwangi or Everjoice Win or, or, or… While I self-identify as a feminist and as a pan-Africanist and, and, and…I really believe that I should stick to my lane of storytelling and refer questions on issues beyond my expertise to those who are so that they get the messaging right. My characters will ask questions, they will argue with each other, and that’s the best I can give.
RN: Let’s change track a bit. Once you have your work written—as in you have done the best you can with the work—what is your attitude towards editing, honestly, and what is the correct or most helpful attitude towards the editing process?
ZW: My attitude towards editing is a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Before it even goes to a publisher, I send my work to a team of readers (at least one of those best writers who are on my WhatsApp and two readers). When they give me feedback I treat it the same way I would when I get the feedback from the editor when a publisher finally assigns me one. The process goes like this when the emails with feedback arrive: I am filled with panic.
—“I wonder whether this person liked my work. I hope that they liked my work.”
Then I become brave enough and read the comments and get annoyed as fuck.
—“What the fuck do you know about what I’m writing about? Do you even understand it? I don’t fucking know why I made you read my work at all, Satan.”
Please note all these conversations are happening in my mind.
RN: I’ll double-check with Molara Wood. But go on.
ZW: I leave the manuscript and let the comments play around in my head for a week or so. Then I revisit and realise my readers were right about certain things and I ignore some others. When I’m assigned to an editor, I go through the above process, too. In general, as I said, I do four to five edits before publication.
RN: How do you know when you have a good editor? What is that energy like and how does it make you change your writing, not only the work in progress, but also future works?
ZW: The best editors, for me, have always been those who make me really dislike them when we are in the editorial process but then absolutely love them when the work is done. I love editors who are able to look at my work with fresh eyes no matter how much they have read me. I like it when they are able to question and push me while still ensuring my voice comes through. Editors who I will have long debates with over the structure of a paragraph—those are great. I don’t trust editors who don’t question me. In fact, I don’t rate them. But I also don’t rate those who will question for the sake of it without substance. So I guess when it comes to editing, I’m a bit of a tough customer. Molara Wood, T. O. Molefe and Jacqui L’Ange are three editors I absolutely enjoy working with. I search for ways to work with them whenever possible.
RN: I’m happy to know the feeling of dread when it comes to editing is not confined to my person alone.
Quick story: I followed T. O. Molefe on Twitter for years. I’d always been a fan of his work. When I completed my manuscript for The Eternal Audience Of One I dropped him a random DM on Twitter asking him for publishing advice. By then I had been rejected in every single timezone to which I could send my manuscript. He got in touch with me and asked me if he could read it. Then he sent it on to Thabiso Mahlape at Blackbird Books. The rest is present history. Yeah, it’s a crazy story, but that’s how my manuscript got picked up—he’s the pebble that started the avalanche.
ZW: Oh, wow! What a story regarding Oz. I think this is the space where we trade T. O. stories. After The Madams came out some dude who was working in the finance industry in the Caribbean (or was it New York?) sent me an email introducing himself. He had hunted me down via my publishers. He told me how much he had enjoyed reading my book. It was the first time that any random reader reached out to me outside the confines of a literary festival so I was utterly charmed and responded to him. We exchanged emails back and forth and, a year or so later, we were breaking bread and toasting in Maboneng before it was Maboneng. The dude? T. O. Molefe. We’ve been friends ever since. Maybe we should call this part of the chat, the T. O. Appreciation Section.
RN: Now I wonder if we shouldn’t rope him into this thread so we can get his side of the stories. Hmm. I will look into this matter. Okay, back to you.
Once your work has been edited and sent to the publisher what do you do while you wait for the book to come out? Are you tired and deflated or do you get started on the next project immediately?
ZW: Once the first draft has been edited after the readers’ reports feedback I usually take two weeks or so to just sleep, watch TV, read comedic fiction, and sleep some more because I’ll be seriously drained (it’s not a small thing hosting characters in one’s head over a sustained period of time). Then, of course, I’ll go through the back and forth with an editor and, finally, I’ll get the proofs. I always insist on getting and reading through them. You’ll be amazed at how often small mistakes can be overlooked. There is also this small thing that I deliberately do: I always leave an error or three in the manuscript. Usually a content edit or typo. Thus far I’ve met one of my readers who constantly catches each one. She’s not a professional editor but she reads keenly and I like that. For that reason, I have put her on my list of readers when working on new manuscripts. When the book is out, however, I’m done with it except for selecting a few key passages to read at literary festivals.
RN: What is your relationship with reviews? How do you respond to them, both good and bad?
ZW: When The Madams came out I was a notorious self-Googler. I used to read every review and feel defensive about whatever small criticism I felt had come my way. I have only responded to one reviewer though and I did this privately. It was South African and Dutch writer Richard de Nooy. He had said The Madams was far-fetched because there was no way a man could have an affair with their domestic worker. I emailed him because I found this hilariously ridiculous. Had he never questioned, even from a racial perspective, where a fair share of the Coloured population came from? Were those not the power relations between baases and domestic workers? And, if this could happen across races, it could certainly happen within each race. To his credit, Richard asked me whether he could give me a right of reply on his website. I turned it down since I liked him and I wanted to keep any disagreements private. This is something I do even in these times of call-out culture. I avoid publicly calling out or disagreeing with someone if I have access to them in private unless, of course, it’s the sort of disagreement or call-out that wouldn’t harm human relations. Because I think the world has enough problems without seeking to deliberately hurt others to score points to a public.
But back to reviews. I don’t seek them now but if I should happen to come across one, I don’t respond to them. This is because I’m aware that as an artist, I’m shaped by the society I grew up in which could be distinctly different from the society the reader grew up in. So we all bring to a work of art our own baggage of life experiences, whether good or bad, and critique from that perspective. To use a visual arts’ example—a Malawian, white American, Dane, and Ghanaian will critique a work of art from the Zaria school or from Paul Onditi in very different ways because they come to the work with their own prejudices based on their upbringing. They may agree on certain things but it will never be all things. So too with literary criticism. Heck, I’ve experienced reviews that make me sound much deeper than I am. I always want to write some of the phrases down so that when I’m asked about my work I’ll be able to say profound nonsense like “I was thinking of a post-(insert favourite word of academia here) world where…” I haven’t done that yet though.
RN: Soon and very soon. Do you have any thoughts about the current status of reviewing and literary criticism as far as African literature is concerned?
ZW: I think we need more honest and useful literary criticism on the continent. At least in the English language. At present, literary criticism seems to be either where the critic praises or attacks without engaging too much with the literary merits of the work but more with the persona of the artist (if known). The other side is where artists appear to take any criticism of their work, however useful, as personal attacks, which they should not for reasons I’ve already mentioned. But the reaction is understandable because writing is one of those art forms where the artist creates alone—it is more personal. There is no band, no director, no team of scriptwriters. No make-up artists or choreographers. Of course, you have editors and everyone in the publishing chain but in the end a publisher cannot publish if a writer hasn’t written so the writer is the god of creation, with editors serving as either heavenly or hell’s angels, depending on how they chisel the work until it is ready.
What would serve us—the African literary establishment—well is having a balance. As artists we should understand that not everyone is going to like our work. If everyone did, it wouldn’t be art. I think good criticism, even when unfavourable, is the sort that helps the artist do better in their future work.
RN: I like what you said about writers creating in isolation—it does feel like that when you’re putting the words on the page. But in that moment of creation you’re also drawing on other artistic art forms, right? Like music, film, painting, sculpture. So many different art forms come out in unpredictable ways. Which other artistic disciplines do you find helpful when you write? Do you write or edit with music? Do you avoid series, films, and books until a manuscript is done?
ZW: I can’t sleep without reading, so no. I don’t avoid literature at all when writing. What I do, though, is read something completely different to what I’m writing. So when I’m writing a novel, I will read nonfiction—ideally memoirs. I stay away from series because if the writing is really good it can take me down a rabbit hole and then I ignore the manuscript. I edit in silence but I write to music. In fact, I’m incapable of starting a fictional manuscript if I haven’t yet found a soundtrack.
ZW: Yeah. For The Madams, I played a lot of Winston Mankunku Ngozi and Miriam Makeba. I was lucky I was in an office where we could play music. Additionally, these two were not artists that, had the boss come in, he would’ve asked me to turn off the music. But it went beyond the fact that Alf Kumalo was comfortable with the musicians. There was so much more. In the museum, there were two photos he took that spoke to me and seemed to speak to the script. One, which is one of my top five photos of his and was an album cover for Mankunku, has the artist holding his sax in one hand. He’s smoking and the smoke is curling up skyward. The way he is holding the sax is as though the smoke is coming out of the sax, which was quite apt since Mankunku’s sax playing was just that: smoking.
Then there was another image of Miriam Makeba in a shoe store in New York trying on shoes. She is seated and a white male shop assistant is kneeling at her feet and putting on her shoes. Mind you, this woman had gone to New York when Verwoerd had declared South Africa a republic and his apartheid policies were doing the most to black people. In the US, it was also the time of the Freedom Rides and protests in the South against Jim Crow laws. Now, here I was, writing this manuscript in an allegedly post-apartheid South Africa, where my black woman protagonist had a white domestic worker. It was jarring to the imagination of many readers—black and white—because aren’t domestic workers supposed to be black?
The other image that stuck with me throughout The Madams was a Dumile Feni drawing. It has a woman holding a cigarette or a drink in one hand, I think, while the child in her arms sucks on her breast and holds on to it as if for dear life. And I was thinking: even in times where women are supposed to relax, they’re still expected to be everything to everyone—something that comes up again and again in The Madams.
Simphiwe Dana saw me through Behind Every Successful Man. Masekela’s Stimela and Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew were the soundtrack to Men of the South.
I was saying to Troy—(RN: —Onyango, my mortal enemy, and also the pioneering editor and founder of Lolwe.)—a few days ago that either many writers on this continent owe Miles Davis’ estate a share of their meagre royalties or Miles Davis’ estate owes us something for always mentioning him in our works.
Finally, I wrote London Cape Town Joburg to Chris Adwar and the Villagers Band. I needed Chris’ upbeat music as I was writing what was my saddest manuscript. I could have sunk into serious depression without him.
RN: What are your current aural poisons for writing?
ZW: Benjamin Clementine and Nina Simone.
RN: “Zukiswa Wanner is the award-winning author of…”—Tell me, honestly, Jedi Mistress to padawan, what that title meant to you as a writer just starting out and what it means to you now that you are established.
ZW: The Madams was shortlisted for the K. Sello Duiker Prize. I was extremely excited and hoped I’d win. I didn’t. Men of the South was shortlisted for the Herman Charles Bosman and for Commonwealth Best Book (Africa Region). Then, and now, the win meant the same thing: money. Winning meant my bank balance would have a little something.
I have never put much stock in art prizes (heck, most of the music that gets the Grammy or the films that win the Oscar are usually the second best in the categories) but finally winning meant I could be able to criticise literary prizes without seeming like I was jealousing because I had never won. And now I can.
RN: Even when there is nothing to write about there is something to right—especially when you are black. This is something I tell myself whenever I feel as though I’ve hit a block. It seems impossible, for me at least, to run out of history to excavate or the present to investigate. The future, man, that’s a whole other country. How do you get over lulls in your writing?
ZW: I get over lulls in my writing by reading. I read widely. I read two books a week on average. Lately, I have made it my mission to avoid reading white men and women unless they’re saying something new. So now I focus on writers from here, Asia (particularly Pakistan and India), the Middle East, Latin America, and the Caribbean. I’m learning French because in the next two years I want to be able to access books from Francophone Africa in their original texts. I fantasise about reading Amadou Kouroma’s Waiting For The Wild Beasts to Vote in French. And Aminatta Sow-Fall. And one of my favourite people ever: Ken Bugul. Heck, I want to read my beloveds—Max Lobe and Hemley Boum—in French. And I want to learn Portuguese because, fam, Yara Monteiro, Kalaf Epalanga, Ondjaki, and a whole world of Afro-Brazilian writers exist. I’m constantly hungry for new knowledge. I suspect when I stop doing that, then, I’ll need to die.
RN: What current themes would you like to explore in your future writings?
ZW: Well, I’m working on a historical novel now. I’d love to do a futuristic novel. There are so many things I want to do. I really hope coronavirus doesn’t get me and stop me from doing them.
RN: You write, edit, and publish. You curate literary festivals. You host writing workshops and mentor young writers. You have judged and won prizes. What final frontier of literary citizenship do you have left to explore? What remains? Even at this accomplished stage of your career, what new challenges keep the blood flowing?
ZW: If I had time and another body, I’d love to do something that I already do unofficially: be a literary agent. Too many fellow writers out there are being screwed because—irony—they don’t read the fine print. But what I want to do, something more achievable, has to do with the University of Ibadan (UI). I love Ibadan. It’s one of my favourite places in the world. They have this hotel by the university I’ve stayed in it a couple of times—fam, UI is a country on its own. What I’d love to do is find a sponsor. Then, in each of the hotel’s rooms, I can remove the Gideon Bible (or add to it though I’d rather remove it) and put a bookshelf with writers who have passed through UI. It’d be bloody amazing. I’m thinking of Flora Nwapa, Chinua Achebe, Yejide Kilanko, Leye Adenle, Kole Omotoso—man, if you’re a writer from this continent and you haven’t been to UI, you haven’t lived. I realise that not many guests will pick up a book but, fuck it, it’s the idea that they’re available, you know?
RN: I get you. My cup is empty. I’ll go and put the kettle on. How do you like your tea?
ZW: With a shot of whisky, dude. Preferably nothing under 18. I feel strongly about underage engagements.