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.
In this fourth interview, and the first with a nonfiction writer, writing from the diaspora about home, the weight of literary labels, and the art of crafting memoirs make their way into this intercontinental conversation between Sisonke Msimang, in Australia, and Zanta Nkumane, in Eswatini.
Sisonke Msimang is the author of Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home (2017) and The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela (2018). She is a South African writer whose work is focussed on race, gender, and democracy. She has written for a range of international publications including the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Guardian, Newsweek, Bloomberg, and Al Jazeera. Sisonke has held fellowships at Yale University, the Aspen Institute, and the Bellagio Centre. She is currently a fellow at the WISER Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand.
ZANTA NKUMANE: What about writing made you choose it as a career? It is possibly the most difficult and rewarding of vocations.
SISONKE MSIMANG: I didn’t choose writing as a career. Like most people, I went to school, got a job, and wrote along the margins of my life. It never really occurred to me that being a writer was something I could do for an income—let alone as a craft. But I loved writing. Then I had an opportunity to take a break from work, and I was fully funded for a year and that gave me the financial security and time to begin writing my first book. By that time I was in my mid-30s. I had a pretty clear sense of what I wanted to write, why I wanted to write, and how I wanted to express myself. So I was lucky in that sense—I didn’t come to writing with a sense of low self-esteem, or need. I came to it with a desire to tell my story on my own terms.
ZN: Lockdown had us all cooped up in our houses and the wild assumption was that now writers finally had time to produce work. How did you remain committed to writing during this time?
SM: I live in Australia, in one of the few countries that literally did not have a coronavirus epidemic. Melbourne was hit with a few hundred cases and they lived under very severe restrictions but where I live we have had about three cases this whole year, and in 2020, we had no community transmission. So I feel some sense of survivor’s guilt. So many of my friends and family have been confined and cooped up all year. I’ve had the same problems of writing I always have—doing too much, taking on too many other projects. I’ve also spent more time on the phone with friends and family in South Africa and that has obviously been important emotionally. I think the care work, the work of staying in touch, and of having to demonstrate love in new and different ways without being able to see one another, has been wonderful and very hard. Losing the ability to touch people as a way of saying “I hear you” is a big deal. I live far from home so that is always something I miss, but not being able to travel, not being able to count on doing that in three weeks or three months—that is hard. I have spent a lot of time in my relationships, anticipating togetherness. The pandemic has stolen anticipation from me; it’s no longer a dimension of how I think about love. That’s been hard.
ZN: Do you have a writing process? If so, did you find that you had to adapt it during lockdown?
SM: Haha! Writing process? HAAAAAAAAAA!. I’m a mother. I work three days a week outside the home but my work day begins at nine-thirty and ends at two-thirty so that I can be home to be with the kids and help with all the homework and after-school activities. I have two days to myself—Mondays and Fridays. But I tend to fill those with admin or meetings to explore projects I have to pursue outside of my work at the Centre for Stories. So really I don’t have much of a writing practice at the moment. I dream a lot, wake up early some mornings, and squeeze in writing where I can.
ZN: You are one of my favourite nonfiction writers. But there seems to be a continental difficulty with nonfiction submissions. We have it with Doek! and with other literary publications. What is it about nonfiction that makes it so intimidating? How do we foster a writing culture that encourages nonfiction as much as fiction?
SM: Thank you. I think the issue with nonfiction is that it takes time to figure out how to both have a voice and allow your subjects to have their own voices. You are doing this difficult thing of trying to make real people and real issues sing while recognising that, sometimes, real life is boring or hard to figure out. So the nonfiction writer has to use craft, they have to be incredibly sensitive, and they have to stay within the realms of the truth. The question is why does anyone else do it at all? LOL.
ZN: You have judged a variety of writing competitions. What are your thoughts on the state of writing on the continent? Where are we succeeding and where are we failing as a writing culture?
SM: I love judging and I see it as a way to stay current—to learn from the entries. I love thinking about stories and why they work or don’t work and prizes really help you to see that up close. I also judge a number of prizes in Australia and I don’t see much of a difference in quality in both places. I think writers—wherever they are—are experimenting with form, playing with language, convention, and exploring complex issues. I worry that sometimes they are doing this experimentation without fully being clear on why they are breaking the rules. I love the impulse, and I don’t especially care about writing rules—my reading is intuitive rather than studied. But I do think that good writing is always about making choices. It’s about intention and attention. If you’re not paying attention, and if you aren’t writing with intention, then your reader won’t trust your storytelling skills.
ZN: I have a love-hate relationship with the term “emerging writer” because sometimes it feels like a title that follows African writers only, or how the expectation for our writing is trauma porn. Do you think there is a way to “transcend” the tropes the West tends to expect from our writing?
SM: Emerging Writer is certainly a racialised term. In Australia, there is a whole infrastructure of funding that is attached to “emerging writers” and it often gets spoken about in the same breath as “diverse writers” or multicultural writers. Which is to say that anyone who has some melanin in their skin is called emerging, which means that Blackness is seen as a state of never-ending “learning” while the expert writers, the geniuses who need no coaching, to special categories, are the white writers—no matter their age.
And, of course, emerging also often does refer to age. So when people use the term they are signalling a young person. And yet if you think about what a useful definition might be, certainly for the purpose of competitions and prizes, I think measuring emergence on the basis of number of books published—rather than the age of the writer—makes more sense. This means pegging our ambition about the end point of “emergence” to a metric related to output rather than identity. You are no longer emerging once you’ve written and published three books, for example. Or once you’ve been widely published as an essayist—even if you are twenty. By the same token, of course, there are times when we do want to know who the writer is. We want to know their sexuality, age, country of origin, or race and that has nothing to do with them being emerging or not. It has to do with those factors making it much harder for them to get a book deal or to write about what they want to write about without fighting the publisher’s ideas about what they really want to talk about. And in those cases we should stop using “emerging” as a euphemism and just say what we mean. In other words, emerging and discriminated against are not interchangeable words or concepts.
ZN: So many bars here—whew!
But I’d like to focus on that writing-later-in-life bit. You say by the time you started your memoir, you were in your mid-30s and quite clear about what you wanted to write. I believe that has to do with finding your voice and intention. Do you think there is a right age to write a memoir?
SM: The best time to write a memoir is when you have something to say. Memoir writing is ultimately just writing—so the story has to dictate the writing. Memoir is not autobiography: it’s not a chronicle of your life and times. It’s an opportunity to reflect on a set of experiences for the purposes of making some wider points about the world, about our inner lives, that a reader might find useful. The most basic rule of storytelling is that every story has to have a beginning, middle, and an end. So ultimately, the best time to write a memoir is when your story is over; when you’ve had enough distance from what happened to make sense of it, to write about it with meaning. Memoirs aren’t therapy—they require care and deliberation, just like all other genres. So you might write a memoir about your relationship with addiction, and then later write a memoir about your love of art. The right time to write a memoir, then, has nothing to do with your age and everything to do with whether it is actually the right time.
ZN: Thank you so much for clarifying the memoir concept because it tends to confuse many people. Nonfiction books in South African publishing are the big sellers. One would imagine the escapism of fiction would draw a large audience, too, but they tend to struggle. What are your thoughts on this? Why are South African readers so into true lives?
SM: The South African fixation with nonfiction is about our country’s fixation with our past. We are still looking for answers, still looking for explanations in the realm of politics. The vast majority of those book sales are about South Africa’s “great men”. Mandela, Mbeki, and various other key ANC figures. Many are about other “great” men—Jan Smuts, Churchill, American presidents. In many ways, this was why both of my books focused on women—on the stories that still don’t get enough attention. Winnie, of course, was widely known but vilified. So I think once South Africans have understood that they aren’t exceptional, that theirs is a colonial history like many others, and that the way to address that is not by being detained by the literal but by focusing on the imagination, then they will be freer to read fiction, to embrace speculative fiction, to think about the world by embracing imagination. That includes nonfiction, of course, but I hope it also includes nonfiction that is experimental, and that isn’t preoccupied with rigid ways of thinking about the past.
ZN: What makes a good piece of nonfiction writing for you? What do you look for that makes you go “Yassss!”?
SM: I’m interested in good writing. I don’t pick up nonfiction or fiction because of the genre—I pick it up because of the story. So good writing is good storytelling and so it is deliberate and thoughtful, it surprises me, and it is ambitious in that it grapples with difficult subjects or with simple subjects in ways that feel fresh and interesting. So Maggie Nelson, for example, with The Argonauts, who writes in this complex stream of-consciousness way which is similar to what Ocean Vuong does in On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous or Jamaica Kincaid with A Small Place. They are very different books but all of them are strong in voice, clear in intention, and soaring with ambition.
ZN: I remember at the writing workshop at The Other Foundation, you said we should consider writing from the scar or scab rather than the wound. Many would think writing something when it’s “fresh” would yield a more impactful piece of writing.
SM: I try not to be prescriptive. There are books that write from within the wound that are really powerful. At the same time, when you write from “fresh” or recent experiences, you often haven’t had a chance to process. Writing isn’t therapy, as I said, and to be a reliable storyteller it’s important for you to know where you are going, where you are taking the story. When we have just experienced something emotional we often have no idea where we are—we are lost. And it is only after the period of being lost, and having found ourselves again, that we can write something that is coherent. Again, there are people who can do it, but it is rare.
ZN: I find it interesting that you say South Africa has a fixation with its past. I recently read Keguro Macharia’s great essay, “From Repair to Pessimism”. He says the African novels of the 60s to the early 70s focused on repairing the damage of colonialism, a cultural repair of sorts, and reintroduced Africans to each other again. But the novels, from the late 70s to 00s and, possibly until now, are deeply pessimistic because the “promise of independence had not only been squandered—it had been betrayed.” I think our writing is here, in this pessimism. How do we write to a more hopeful future and tap into that energy of repair?
SM: I’m not sure that we need to. For me what writers must do is write. If there is hope in their words—that’s great. If there isn’t, that is great too. Writing must reflect where we are and different writers will feel and write what they will. The injunction to offer anything in particular is one that is dangerous for African writers—indeed for any kind of writer. Write what you like as Steve Biko says—that is the surest path to artistic (and perhaps others kinds of) freedom.
ZN: Jumping off this, what is the role of the writer at this point in our history?
SM: The role of the writer is to write. That is the only thing one must do if one wants to claim the mantle of “writer”. I say this seriously. I’m not being glib. There is an attention economy, there are structural forces arrayed against Black writers, working class writers, women, queer folks. And so the most political act you can undertake if you are a writer is to manage to find or make the time to write. It is harder for us for all sorts of historical reasons we know and understand well. And it is all the more important that we write.
ZN: I can’t agree enough with your answers. To this day one of the best bits of writing I have ever received was “just write” and you echo that same sentiment here. I want to move on to your life-writing. I think your writing does the work of remembering and how black women contribute to the world building of South Africa, past, present, and future. I believe a black woman’s South Africa is different from a white woman’s or other races, and that particular location or gaze is important. In your memoir, Always Another Country, for me, at its core is the concept of home or politics of place. In parts, I also feel a smidgeon of exile guilt, especially when you come back to work at AusAid in the 90s.
How do you define home now? Has it changed after Always Another Country or are you still home making through your writing?
SM: What a lovely way of putting it—and a great reminder. Yes, writing is definitely a way for me to build community, and ultimately that is what we are talking about when we speak of home.
ZN: How do you reconcile the many versions of South Africa that you came to know: the one your family and parent’s friends narrated to you, the one you returned to and the South Africa we are experiencing now?
SM: I have learned that in life there are things we can’t reconcile. Learning to live with the contradictions or learning to re-ask questions in new ways that might be more generative is the stuff of life.
ZN: You exist in the canon of this so-called “emergence” of the black woman South African writer but we know, historically, there exists a writing line of black women writers (Noni Jabavu, Miriam Tlali, and many others). Most didn’t have the platforms to publish, so their contributions were erased from history. What do you think your work contributes to this archive of black woman writers?
SM: In Pumla Gqola’s recent lecture on African feminist imaginations, she speaks about how there is this constant erasure of African feminists, even when they are right there in plain sight—a lot of this is contemporary erasure. Someone will be looking at you and your African feminist friends and they will say, “Oh, there are just no African feminists.” Or they will insist that what you are doing is “new” when, in fact, you are very clear yourself that you are writing into a tradition. This constant reinvention of “newness” is a real problem. What I try to do is what many others of my generation are doing—which is to point to the places in the room that are already crammed full of Black women’s writing—to say that, actually, erasure is only possible when you ignore the very real body of black women’s writing that is sitting in front of you.
ZN: Nostalgia plays a big role in South African culture and politics. We see the ANC sometimes tap into its power as a campaign tool that guilts people into keeping them in power, using the past to justify a deplorable, corrupt present. Always Another Country is nostalgic in a tender way, but there is a reckoning about its nostalgia too. Nostalgia can be dangerous, because it recalls the past in this singular way. How can writers tap into that power of nostalgia without being naive?
SM: I think nostalgia is like anything that is sentimental—the writer has to wield that sentiment with intention. Otherwise, it does this horrible thing of being manipulative, of trying to trick people into a feeling that isn’t authentic. And so as with all aspects of writing, nostalgia must be approached with suspicion. You can use it, but make sure you’re aware of how you’re using it.
ZN: I really appreciate your thoughts on writing being a way to build community. I think it’s done the same for me in ways I didn’t expect.
In a video I came across on Twitter you were speaking about respectability and class privilege (also, I want someone to look at me the way Eusebius McKaiser looks at you) but you address what your surname meant, the class and the privilege. How has this access, this “elite” background played a role in your writing career trajectory? Has it been harder to prove your talent or has it helped break down barriers faster for you?
SM: Haha! I had forgotten about this conversation. In terms of your question, privilege always works for the individual even as it works against society collectively. So it’s been, of course, beneficial to me that I am a middle-class Black and that there is whatever recognition that accrues to my name. The example I was giving, of course, was about cumulative privilege that has accrued over time, but there is no question that it has made me more legible to white people in the publishing industry. Given how our society works, this has been a boost and certainly not something that has worked against me.
ZN: You exist in a particular echelon of writers now, with a network of recognisable names—your commission fees are surely not struggling anymore! LOL. Keeping the community-building concept going, what are the contributions you have seen and think writers at your level can practice to open up the space or develop young writers?
SM: Hmm. I’m not sure if this is the case. Commission fees are always struggling and like all writers learn, unless you have a massive best-selling book you have a day job. Hopefully, you are able to earn a living doing something that is writing-adjacent. In my case, it’s been running a literary festival and heading up a storytelling programme, but anyone who tells you that you can live off the commissions is either an American working for large outlets, a liar, or both: an American liar.
In terms of the question of mentorship, I prefer to think about my relationships with writers as all collegial. When I read someone I learn —no matter their age. So developing a network of people whose work you can read and critique lovingly is really healthy. I do a lot of mentoring and judging, and in Australia there is a financial investment in the arts sector that allows those gigs to be paid. To be honest, reading, editing, and commenting takes time. If you want to do it justice in a really structured way, then organisations that have a mandate to develop talent and support early and mid-career writers really should be putting in the resources. I long for the day when we can do this in South Africa.
ZN: As a writer based in Australia, many consider you a writer in the “diaspora”. Do you see yourself in this manner? How do you actively keep your ties to the literary space on the continent? Has Australian sensibility crept into your writing in any way?
SM: Such great questions. I’m still very ambivalent about the idea of being a diaspora writer, though very clearly I am one. The material investment you have in a society makes a huge difference. Losing touch with the day-to-dayness is something that I have really struggled with. A lot of my online life is spent “in South Africa”—with South African literature and political debates. My Whatsapps are full of Eskom power outages and water cuts because my sisters insist on including me in every family chat. But the reality is I’m not there, so writing as though I am doesn’t make sense.
I’m not sure if Australian sensibilities have crept in. One of the identities I try to bring to my essays and my books is the sense of the outsider who has intimate knowledge of the places and people she is writing about. In this sense allowing any kind of sensibility to become too firmly embedded in my writing, I think, would chip away at what I’m always trying to do in my writing, which is to comment with the kind of love and anger that can only come from knowing and loving a place but standing slightly outside of it. The condition of exile becomes permanent after a while.
ZN: There was a spicy week with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and I knew she was down bad when Piers Morgan and Ben Shapiro co-signed her. I know you have written about her before. But I’m not interested in the who-done-it of it all. As a writing community, it made me think about the following questions.
Writers mentoring each other is nothing new, but it’s clear that sometimes, it can go horribly sideways. What do you think are the methods of mentorship that don’t blur the lines, but are more productive and helpful?
SM: The best mentoring relationships are based on mutual respect and trust. I have been lucky to have been mentored by people who have been genuinely interested in my growth and creative pursuits. That’s all you really need.
ZN: In “All Your Faves Are Problematic” you say “In other words, Adichie has become a signifier for something larger than herself….And it was when we began to project our dreams onto her that loving Adichie the symbol—rather than her books—became murky.”
I think that’s exactly it, many of us were also enamoured with what her success symbolised for us African writers: possibility. You represent the same for many writers too now. But, as writers, we get platformed whether you want to or not and a part of me doesn’t feel ready for that kind of responsibility as a writer.
Can we separate a writer’s work from their opinions and ideas outside of their body of work, or do you believe they are inextricably linked? And, if so, what does that mean about how we consume the works of writers we have come to know as problematic?
SM: I think people do separate the work from the other utterances of the author. But the reality is that both the writer and their opinions exist in the world. I see nothing wrong with being engaged about both your words in text and your spoken views. Accountability is demanded of people and that is as it should be. Now, whether there is a sickness in our public discourse which makes this demand a one-way street, well, that’s a different question and I’ll leave that for another time.
ZN: In the same essay, you allude to Adichie’s success due to her writing from America and Nigeria, where she was writing from the “First World” or “the West”. We can also say the same about you, writing from Australia. As writers on the continent, that possibility of success diminishes, and grappling with that can be demoralising, which is one of the reasons many leave, to go find success (also appreciation for some) off the continent.
Why is it so difficult for writers on the continent to get the kind of success writers in the diaspora seem to attain faster? The “fight” of writers on the continent at times feels very disconnected from writers abroad.
SM: I think access and speed of publication are linked to a whole heap of issues and geographic location is but one. One of our most successful and celebrated writers, Tsitsi Dangaremba, writes from Harare and has lived there for as long as I can remember. So geography matters, of course, but perhaps not in the straightforward way you propose. A significant part of developing a writing practice is related to having the time and space to write. What living in Australia has provided is access to writing fellowships, mentorship, and recognition that a literary ecosystem needs to be cultivated. That is what creates writers—its community. So I’ve been really impressed with how much of that exists here, and, simultaneously, saddened by the lack of investment at home.
So in terms of publishing, my home base, and the place I will always look to publishing first because it’s my primary audience, is South Africa. I have a publication history in South Africa and I got my deals in the United Kingdom, North America, and Australia when I was living in South Africa because I have an agent. Ultimately the material benefits of being plugged into places where decisions are made and money is plentiful accrue to writers who are either outside Africa or who have representatives outside the continent. This is sadly no different for writing than for almost every other economic endeavour. The work of publishers like Cassava Republic becomes all the more important in this regard.
ZN: I have been thinking about book prizes and their contribution to a book’s trajectory. It also seems that prizes affect nonfiction books differently to fiction books. What is the role of a book prize in any writer’s career?
SM: I think prizes are great when you can get them – especially when there is money attached. But like all external validation, they are a measure of what some people thought at a particular moment and should never be taken too seriously – even (or perhaps especially) when you win them.
ZN: I want to revisit your idea of writing from the scar rather than the wound, especially in regards to what’s happening here in Eswatini. It’s been a struggle to process, be present, and write. It’s been difficult. In these “extreme” cases where the output seems more vital during the moment rather than after, how does a writer strike the balance of production and internalising?
SM: The piece I wrote last year at the beginning of lockdown is in a sense an example of wanting to write as connection which means that you’re cataloguing a feeling, mirroring to others what you are reading about the moment. So the objective there isn’t necessarily to put forward an argument or thesis, but to say, “I am feeling this. Are you feeling it too?” And there isn’t a need for balance in that sense, merely a need to write, or conversely, a need to act in the real world and hand write later. Sometimes—and this is important—our primary identity is not “writer” but “citizen”. In the moments when you don’t want to be or cannot be both, choosing to be a citizen is powerful and needs no apology.
ZN: Sisonke, we have to cut it there. Thank you for your time and insights—I leave here with so many lessons. I hope we can do this again in future, to see where writing will be and if our sentiments hold even then.
SM: Zanta you’ve been an incredible interlocutor. You’ve asked me questions I would never have thought to think about in such a coherent way, so it’s been my absolute pleasure.