Q&A with award-winning author Nthikeng Mohlele

'One derives sensory pleasure from the scent and passive beauty and potency of books'

18 February 2020 - 13:48 By Carla Lever
Nthikeng Mohlele.
Nthikeng Mohlele.
Image: Supplied

Sowetan Nal'ibali column No 5 Term 1 2020

You've talked before about writing in other languages - poetry in Sepedi, for example. Do you feel there's more, or indeed any, publishing space opening up for a diversity of South African literature?

I think there are isolated publishing incidents dotted around the South African and continental literary landscape: insufficient and too slow.

In Illumination, you write about a musician, himself a type of storyteller. Has music played a large part in your own creative life?

Yes. I associate words with music, with sounds and colours. I have no doubt I would have been a musician had I not delved in literature. Jazz.

'Illumination' by Nthikeng Mohlele.
'Illumination' by Nthikeng Mohlele.
Image: Supplied

Many people tend to give books, particularly novels, a great deal of status at the expense of other forms of storytelling. Film, music and stories told among families and friends tend to get diminished. How important is it that we consider and acknowledge the power of storytelling in its fullest sense?

It is very important. Varied artistic forms and mediums trigger and respond to particular social stimuli. I view art as an integrated whole, as cyclical, intertextual and interdependent. There is a reason there are cinematographers, pianists, composers, directors, painters, actors and so on - to illuminate and engage with different aspects of life and living.

What work by local storytellers do you find exciting at the moment?

I generally don’t get excited by art works.  I get moved, I respect them. We are living in an undeclared artistic renaissance at present, so there are vast pickings across artistic disciplines. Particularity is often short-sighted.

Access to mobile phones is booming on our continent. You've even written your books using your phone. Do you think there's an under-explored local market for mobile stories - podcast instalments of novels read by authors, or stories read on mobile as opposed to Kindle?

I am old school in this regard. I much prefer the physical book. This doesn’t mean I don’t engage with technology or content online, but that one derives sensory pleasure from the scent and ‘passive’ beauty and potency of books.

Do you feel very strongly about your novels remaining true to how you wrote them, or would you be open to their translation even when you are not directly involved in the process?

Translation is a necessary blessing and evil. Painters have to live with paint spurts, dirty brushes. The beauty of art is also the fact that it births doubt, possessiveness, the emotive: all fickle obsessions. I don’t think creators of art can ever truly own their output in its totality. All art is, at some level, prone to triumphs and distortions of varied kinds.

Many people - for many reasons - aren't able to read books as they are currently published. Would you ever consider recording your work as audio books?

I would not. I’m very particular about not overdoing anything, so I would leave such to other professionals.

African words can travel far easier than African bodies, though both you and your words have travelled quite far. What are some of the perspectives and stereotypes you've encountered around ideas of 'African literature' globally and at home?

Even with the best goodwill and professional etiquette, there are selected rotten apples that somehow believe Africans cannot be smart, and are shocked to realise how little they themselves know about anything.

What advice or observations would you give to young people who love storytelling, but aren't encouraged to create their art?

To create. Simply put one foot in front of the other. Put in the work and time in developing a craft. Seconds. Months. Years. Decades.

Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success. For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign or to access childrens' stories in a range of SA languages, visit www.nalibali.org.