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Interview With South African Writer, Perfect Hlongwane

By Stella WaAfrika

Photo Credit: Open Book Festival
Amplicon PR, the company responsible for all public relations related matters for Open Book Festival organized a media junket at the beautiful Town House Hotel in Cape Town, where the press got to interview writers who were part of this year's edition of Africa's most sought after literary festival. The festival run from 9-13 September.

I got to interview South African writer, Perfect Hlongwane, the author of Jozi. He's so articulate with an audible radio voice! There's affirmation in each and every word he utters.

Tell us about yourself, your connection with SA and Swaziland 
My father is from Kwazulu Natal and my mum is from Soweto.  But of course most of us didn't grow up in SA. That explains the Swaziland connection. A lot of prominent South Africans grew up and did their studying in Swaziland, for example Patrice Motsepe. So basically, yes, one spent a lot of one's childhood in Swaziland and schooling; because of Bantu education which was to be avoided at all costs.
It was that kind of schizophrenic innocence and upbringing that during school time you were in Swaziland getting more or less good education, but every school holiday it came back to reality and you're once again being reminded this is home, this is where I'm from.

Would you say that kind of exposure between SA and Swaziland has influenced your writing? 
I hope it positively influenced in a sense of having had the privilege, I suppose the kind of education I'm keenly aware was denied to many of my peers and contemporaries at the time, so I hope that somehow shows up in my writing and in the quality thereof.

But I do also think that in terms of how one looks at South Africa, I think growing up one was able to look at South Africa not only as home but also as something that was truly an anomaly; something that was truly strange because one could compare with a society where it was completely normal and completely acceptable to be Black. And then of course every school holiday, come across the boarder,  you'd be reminded that, oh by the way, to be black is to be inferior.

So I think, it does inform the abiding sense of outrage that one finds sometimes in my writing when issues like that do come up.

How did you manage to strike a balance between living in Swaziland, where being Black was normal and SA, where it was the total opposite? 
I think what it did do in my case and in many other cases,  because there was quite a large community of South Africans living in Swaziland and one had a large circle of age-mates and friends, we were South African children who were growing up in Swaziland and who were also making a trip every single holiday back home. I think it created some kind of fracture which usually expressed itself in a failure to belong in either world. Because in Swaziland we were "Abomjozana".

What does Abomjozana mean?
Abomjozana were the kids from Jo'burg who thought they were smart, clever because they were from Johannesburg, they're not from boring old Swaziland... Uhmm,  you know... and even though one did gain certain things from being in Swaziland, you've also got to understand that is a very homogeneous society, it's a very small country, literally everyone knows everyone else therefore the badge of "Non-Swaziness" and it's something I think you're made to feel. Even by your surname, Swazi people are can tell that you're not Swati; even though you come from just across the boarder.

But then you'd come home and of course your English was a little better than your age-mates here at home then you're one of those smarty-pants kids who speak good English; that go to private schools across the boarder kind of thing. I think one tended to over-compensate in both camps, you know.
 For example in my case, when I was in Soweto at my Gran's place, if there was a gang of boys that were going train surfing or if there was a raid of peach trees of a neigbouring location I had to be seen playing a very active part because if I'm not then I will be seen as this English speaking snob who goes to school in Swaziland. (Laughs)

How did you get into writing? Do you think your upbringing inspired you to be a storyteller? 
My uncle... my mum is the first born in Mzwake Mbuli's family. You might know about Mzwake Mbuli. Mzwake, especially in the late 70's going into the 80's was known as the struggle poet, not only as a struggle poet but was also very politically active as foot soldier, he was on the ground. And I basically lived in the same house as Mzwake for my entire childhood and if it wasn't the Cops knocking on the door looking for Mzwake, for either his poetry or his political involvement, agitating, conversing, mobilizing then it was Mzwake also introducing me to reading, poetry and the written word. And I think at a very early age that maybe sparked off the interest in the word.. you know.
But I also think I had my own journey even though that might have been the spark.  Because I immediately got into English books, I immediately begun to question for example my uncle's struggle poetry, I started reading Tennyson, Shakespeare etc. At 10 years-old I started challenging my uncle and saying no, but why is there no structure, where is the meter and rhyme in what you've written, Malume.

My love for reading has always been there... almost from childhood I sensed that I was supposed to write and of course I went into my teenage years and begun to look around, to understand the society that I was operating in. And begun to notice there was actually no value, no currency attached to writing and to writers and I went into this phase where I thought F it....it's such hard work anyway, then why would you write for people who don't give a damn about writing and writers. So, I spent a lot of my early adult life resisting the urge, writing yes, but discarding a lot of what I was writing but also that had to do with my sort of reading culture was inculcated had made me self-critical. So a lot of stuff I wrote I came short; like there was something missing.

People say to me, "Perfect, why do we get to see your first book at the age of 42?" And sometimes I don't know if I should even answer that question. That's one way of explaining the journey.

You mentioned over-critisizing yourself and your work. Would you say your name has something to do with it? 

{Laughs} Ah, yes. I suppose that was inevitable {Laughs} I think I am a perfectionist. I think there's different ways to approach writing and reading.  My sense of it is to... I want to write a sentence until it sounds just right to me.
There's a school of thought which some Black South African writers now use of let's just write books, get them out there. People are entitled to their views.  I'm not sure that's what we should be saying or doing. I'm not sure that even with the clearly very talented young  upcoming writers that we've got coming up through the ranks that's the message we want to put across.

I think based on the available evidence, in other words the books that are there,  there's something to be said for the word of caution there's something to be said for perhaps to take more time to prepare and polish before we burden the reader with it.

 Human frailty is the constant thread that runs through the human story.

Your book, Jozi.... What was the inspiration behind it?

The inspiration behind Jozi was, 1) I had this thick manuscript which basically was my exposition of the city. I realised that what the story really was - was contained in very few pages of the storm that I was lagging around and constantly trying to revise, redirect and rewrite and I realised that the epicenter of the story was just a very small group of people that are trying to make sense of the Johannesburg metropolis in the immediate aftermath; the dawn of freedom. And I didn't want these characters to only be a vehicle; to look at the frailties of that aftermath, of that dawn.
But I also wanted to honestly capture the fact that human frailty is also part of that failure.

If you look at the characters in Jozi people were saying to me the other day, not many of them are likable or not many of them inspire great pity. It's almost as if they're to blame for their actions.

2) I wanted also to capture the sense that in as much as whatever you write about, there are always societal failings,  there are always historical cracks; but that human frailty is the constant thread that runs through the human story. I didn't want to get away from that in the story. So basically Jozi is about messed up people in a messed up city.

So hence "Where dreams come to die?"
Yeah!

Yesterday was International Literacy Day. I read that 700 million adults are illiterate and 2/3 of that are women. What do you think needs to be done? 
Yeah... a lot of people with good reason point out the role that the state needs to play. And clearly any government can be proactive and influential even. In  terms of creating and sustaining a reading culture. There's a number of ways you can do this; you can make sure libraries are accessible, that the reading material that's in libraries is not just Thomas Hardy and Shakespeare but you know contemporary literature books that speak to the experience of young people, which are the people that we want to get interested in reading. I think that is one thing. But of course we can't make governments do anything so I do think it always starts in the home.
My own observation is, and this is not a survey... the young women are out-reading the young men.
It actually makes me think. And I'm willing to bet my inheritance, which won't be much considering the fact that one is busy writing, that the big writers that are going to come out of SA are women.

For example in the Nigerian sense, Chimamanda I don't think that's an anomaly. I think it also speaks to the fact that because of the nature of reading, because it's such a democratic thing, it's an accessible thing when you do decide that you want to avail yourself of it, that you find women are able level the blank wheels and in fact they afford to excel.

In closing.. you go to bookstores and find a handful of African writers. How do we get African Literature out there? What is the future of African Literature? 
It's unfortunate that so many people are saying the very same thing, there's obviously a readership for our books, there are people that have the interest and the means to buy our books.
Our books are being placed on back shelves/under shelves or our books are not being stocked at all by so called major bookshops, and I don't think it's possible to discuss that without realising or talking about the history of capital; who's got the money, in whose's hands is the money and what interests do they have. I don't think some of these people are interested in promoting African Literature and I think at some point we need some of the new money, some of which is Black money to wake up, wisen up and become interested and realise that writing is an important part of culture and heritage and to start investing in African Literature and creating platforms as well as having bookshops where our books will be visible.

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