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Women's Month guest column: Hombakazi Mercy Nqandeka

07 August 2022 - 00:00 By Hombakazi Mercy Nqandeka

In honour of Women's Month, we asked four local women writers to respond to the following questions:

What does it mean to be a woman in contemporary SA?

Which book(s) by a South African woman made the single biggest contribution(s) to your literary work?

Margaret Atwood wrote: “A word after a word after a word is power.” How do you reclaim your power as women writers in SA?

Here, Hombakazi Mercy Nqandeka, author of Don't Upset ooMalume! A Guide to Stepping Up Your Xhosa Game, shares her answers.

My mother ensured we had plenty of books in our home when I grew up. My childhood memories start and end with books. However, the books I read were full of men. I remember how I would hold on to female characters, I held them dear to my heart. I would at times read their parts over and over. A good example of this was Troubled Waters by Joseph Diescho. I loved Lucia, the black woman who secretly dated Andries Malan, a white soldier who taught Biblical studies in a black school with Lucia near Rundu, Namibia. In my mind, I became her. I loved the description of her smartness and her long, shiny brown legs. Lucia was the goddess of my childhood. To me, she was a real person, someone I wanted to become when I grew older. She was a perfect representation of women who looked like me. Educated, smart and brave. She dated the man she wanted despite the system that forbade their union.

Being a woman in contemporary SA means having a voice, standing up for yourself and living the life of your dreams, without having to be attached to a father or husband. It is comforting that even in villages, where culture can easily favour males, women and girls can rise and become what they choose to be. To know that I do not have family pressure to get married and produce children is liberating. This is a luxury my mother did not have just 40 years ago. Being a woman in SA now means feeling more represented by women in academia, governance and business. When you search for prominent women on the internet, a bunch of them come up. This shows how far we have come as a nation. As a young woman I feel like I am not ploughing an untouched land. I am not walking in darkness because there are women ahead of me who are shining their lights towards me, encouraging me to keep walking.

Mama Gcina Mhlophe kept my childhood fascinating with the stories she told on the radio. Like elastic, she stretched my imagination. I always looked forward to listening to her beautiful, captivating voice. I fell in love with telling stories of my culture because of her. Reading her books kept the fire burning in my heart. I would hear her voice through the books. I like Takalani M's books, even though they are novels. I enjoy her style of articulation. Her books are well researched. She defines a place in a story and you find yourself Googling it because it feels so real. Her storytelling skill is captivating. It has surely contributed to the way I write my real stories.

There is something that warms my heart when I read books by Zukiswa Wanner. Her “inside Africa” stories gave me a push to start travelling on the continent. Her stories are real and crude and she has a way of making one lean in for more. When I found her books, I devoured them quickly. I wanted every book she had ever published. I also had the privilege of meeting her at her home in Nairobi in 2019.

As a female writer, carving my space and identity has not been easy, but I reclaim my power by being authentic and determined. I tell my stories the way they are, not the way I think my readers want them. That way I don’t panic about fitting into certain boxes. I just flow the best way I know and my readers embrace that. I also ensure I tell stories of my Xhosa culture. These set me apart because I share things that interest those within and outside the culture.

'Don't Upset ooMalume!' is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers. Click here to buy a copy.