Q&A with author and multimedia artist Phumlani Pikoli

29 January 2020 - 12:47 By Carla Lever
Phumlani Pikoli.
Phumlani Pikoli.
Image: Supplied

Nal'ibali Column 2: Term 1 (2020)

Congratulations on your latest book, Born Freeloaders! Tell us a little about that provocative title ...

I guess the title is about the first wave generation who experienced racially integrated education from the moment they started school. There's a lot of projection around the term 'Born Free,' which is used to describe this tiny group of people. I figured I'd use the title to explore ideas of the entitlement people often think that they have.

Speaking of provocative, you don't shy away from calling a spade a spade in your writing. Did you ever get pressure to censor your voice or change your style to fit what others might feel comfortable with?

I've never been put under pressure to censor or asked to change my style, which is cool. I guess in the times of social media 'witch hunting' (shout out Donald Trump), most people shy away from topics of controversy. I used to run towards it, but now I know fighting on the internet is essentially a snake eating itself and enjoying the taste.

After publishing your short story collection, The Fatuous State of Severity, you released a short film featuring your close friends reading the stories aloud. Why did you want to make these stories available in this highly personal way?

Collaboration is how most things get done. Even self-publishing is a collaborative process. Writing the book was, in part, a way for me to express the urge to feel. So I wanted to dive back into that by making that little doccie. It was a way to bring people a little closer and register the fact that isolation is not always the best way to seek help. If that makes any sense?

You've integrated technology into your storytelling in other ways: famously, your first collection of short stories was 'written' via WhatsApp voice note to a friend! Do you think authors today are too caught up in the differences between forms of communicating and storytelling that they miss opportunities to be truly creative?

Well, I think I might have a different approach when I create. There are always going to be purists in any field who are able to be brilliant within the confines of that discipline. I try to play with anything that has interested me and find the best tool to explore that. Each to their own, I guess.

It's perhaps harder for a long-form work like a novel, but do you have any plans to develop a multi-media angle for Born Freeloaders too?

Yeah, I think there's a huge scope in which the novel can expand, contract, and evolve. At the same time, I don't want to use being multidisciplinary as a gimmick. It's about finding the right medium and the right time.

After earning something of a reputation for breaking the imagined rules of published writing, how did you grapple with the expectations that the term 'novel' might give your readers?

Well I think it was the next step for me anyway. I don't really have great expectations because the novel I've written is all I have to offer at this stage. Being new on the literary block, I've still got a lot of work to do to gain the trust of readers.

How important is it for young South Africans to see themselves represented in the stories they enjoy?

I'd put it on the heaviest side of the importance scale! If our unit of measurement is animal weight, I'd say two blue whales and throw in an elephant for good measure.

Your short stories seem to have been born out of a need to connect - with yourself and others - and your novel also explores a theme of intergenerational SA connections. In an age of Kindles and quiet libraries, have we lost connection with the human element of storytelling which emphasises bringing people together?

I like this question quite a bit. Human connection and the burden of collective identity are fascinating to me. The worldview at the moment champions individual identity, at the expense of the weakest links along the way. It's interesting to see how much modern technology helps normalise that. I'm also not averse to modern technology in any way, but I do think its influence could be better directed towards people and less focused on individualism.

What message would you give to young people out there who love storytelling, but feel intimidated about the process of writing a book?

In the words of Riyaad Minty, “Fail often, fail fast: your audience will tell you when you're getting it right.”

Each year Nal’ibali raises awareness about the importance of reading aloud by celebrating World Read Aloud Day and calling on members of the public to help break its read aloud record. This year World Read Aloud Day falls on February 5, and the campaign aims to read aloud to 2 million children. To get your copy of this year’s story in any official SA language and register your read aloud session, visit www.nalibali.org.