'Placing any of my books under a section marked ‘chick lit’ is patently sexist' — Angela Makholwa
Congratulations on being shortlisted for the UK-based Comedy Women in Print (CWIP) Prize! Interestingly, The Blessed Girl doesn't read to me like a traditional comedy — it's very hard hitting! How would you describe the book?
I’ve always viewed The Blessed Girl as a satirical examination of the “blesser/blessee” lifestyle. The transactional nature of the relationships between older men and younger women will always pose serious questions around power dynamics, agency and consent. The book seeks to cut through all these complex topics using humour and internal reflection.
You've specialised in spicy topics in your writing career: from crime fiction to blesser culture. What makes for a compelling read?
I think readers like to be challenged. They want to be kept on their toes and they enjoy reading work that challenges their moral, political and social consciousness. Having grown up an avid reader of thrillers, I gravitate towards a lot of the writing techniques employed in suspensive writing. I love the red herrings and cliff hangers that come with that particular genre and I try to bring them into my writing too.
You've spoken before about how popular writing is often pigeonholed with the term “chick lit”, which is used to undermine both the writing and the reader. How would you like popular fiction to be represented and celebrated?
There has long been an attempt at categorising popular fiction. If you walk into a book store, you’re given the option of reading a thriller, historical fiction, a biography and so on. Traditionally, Western male writers have their pick of how they want to be categorised without being lumped under a “dudelit” category. As much as my writing is diverse and sometimes straddles different categories, it’s clear that placing any of my books under a section marked “chick lit” is patently sexist.
Why is it important for fiction to reflect people's concerns and lives in an African context, instead of just being imported from the West?
Most fiction writing is informed by our experiences, the environment around us and the socio-economic dynamics of the day. If all African writers only wrote about race (for instance), which is a major factor that contributes to the inequalities faced by black people across the world, we would miss the opportunity to bring out the other human aspects of our people. Our follies, joys, triumphs, loves, losses and a whole range of experience that make us the wonderfully complex beings that we are.
One of your passions is developing a strong culture of reading among young people in townships and rural areas. What extra challenges do these young people face in learning to love books?
Access to books! This simple thing is one of the most debilitating factors that arrest the development of young people in underprivileged communities. I’m currently involved in the African Child Foundation which performs theatrical adaptations of set works for Grade 12 learners. When we rolled out the project in rural schools in Limpopo last year, we discovered that the majority of learners didn’t even have individual copies of the prescribed works! It’s no wonder the majority of learners can’t qualify for the 60% first language requirement for university entrance. We need to find creative ways of levelling the playing field.
You're involved with organisations that promote spreading these values, like Read SA. Why do you find volunteering so rewarding?
I believe in the power of change, and I think each of us can use whatever resources we have at our disposal to impact the lives of others. In a country that has as many inequalities as ours, volunteering should be second nature.
What needs to happen at an industry level, but also an author level, so that we start to tap into the huge market for popular African fiction, published in a diversity of languages?
This is actually one of the most exciting areas for potential development in the publishing space. In children’s writing, amazing work is being done in new imaginative writing so that our children do not lose their cultural identity. The KZN arts and culture department is doing phenomenal work in promoting Zulu writing and publishing and I’m talking to more and more writers who want to publish in their own languages.
What's next for you, in terms of writing projects?
The lockdown period was fortuitous for me as I managed to complete a manuscript that I started working on late last year. “Critical But Stable” is my latest work and is set for a late 2020 release date.
How, in your experience, can parents encourage children to explore their talent for storytelling?
I’ve been reading to my children since they were babies, and I’ve always tried to allow them to narrate their own stories. It actually got to a point where my son would interrupt a story to create his own ending! Now the kids are eight and nine and have developed their own tastes in books. So, simply put, read to your children and engage with them so that they can discover the wonderfully enriching world of books!
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 children’s stories in a range of SA languages, visit www.nalibali.org