When all else fails ... become a writer

I don’t drive a Toyota. I’ve actually never owned a car. I can’t comment about its dominance of the world market. I do not read Car magazine, unless it is the only thing in the toilet at the time. So I was surprised to find myself reading a rather long piece about Toyota’s corporate culture recently in the New York Times magazine.

One thing a Toyota plant manager said stayed with me: “You actually create the conditions where things have to work to make it work.”

I lived in South Africa for 10 years, from 1991 to 2000. For much of this time, I was in Transkei studying for a BCompt. Now, I knew what a BCom was when I left Kenya, but when I arrived in South Africa, I quickly learnt that a BCompt was the final word. Alas, the BCompt was not to be. After seven years—most of which I spent sleeping, being paranoid about daylight and learning to piss in bottles, I failed applied statistics seven times.

That degree nearly killed me. It was not so much the fact that I was failing for the first time in my life or that I could not get out of bed, sometimes for days. It was that I did not know what was wrong with me. So I kept jumping back at the degree, because it seemed that the only way to be clear about what was in front of me was to follow the dotted line: finish, get a job, buy a 16-valve. I did not know then, and do not know now, what a 16-valve is or does.

Of course, it did not help matters that I had no papers. I was terrified of being in Umtata during the day, because I expected some person in a uniform to gently tap my shoulder and ask me for my passport.

I was not aware of it at the time, but I was slowly building new skills. I read novels—emptied the Umtata town library; spent a lot of time on the internet, and joined communities of writers, sending very bad, fantastical stories to the strange, lonely tribes I met online. They included a man called Charlie Sweet in Duckshoot, California, who was building a bunker because he was sure the world was ending in December 1999. His Japanese wife, an Amway salesperson, was not talking to him.

I learned to type with two fingers. I made student cards for half of the schools in the hills of Transkei. I faked an interview with Bantu Holomisa and sold it to a publication. Erm … sorry.

In this cramped life, in tiny servant’s quarters—my imagination was set alight.

The millennium was a big deal—and I had concocted a theory that the world would collapse into a singularity with itself, as nations would grow on the internet, and a global brain of software and a billion desires online would rule us—a clear full circle from the days when manuscripts were the property of monks and kings. Now, a 14-year-old had as much access to information as the CIA.

My first and favourite piece of real writing happened without a conscious effort. I had returned from a trip to see my grandparents in Kenya, and was euphoric. In my first enthusiastic week in Umtata—just before I went to bed again, I sent a long email to Charlie Sweet—a truly generous man. Years later, this piece would earn me respect. At the time, it was just correspondence.

So, when the university would have no more of me, and I could not sponge off anybody else’s generosity, when I could not ask my parents for any more money, when I could not afford to sleep anymore, when I failed applied statistics for the seventh time, when I was so unable to make any living and I lost fear that my visa situation would be found out—what had I to lose? When all these things happened, all at once, I decided to make a go of it as a freelance writer and moved to Cape Town.

At no time during this entire period was I usefully aware that I had spent years building a skill and craft that could sustain me. I chose to write because it needed no visa—for years my cheques would be paid out through friends, because it was something to do that cost no money, because I loved books, because it made me feel I was worth something in a country so obsessed with itself at the time that any other place was invisible.

I used to meet people and they would ask where I came from, and I would say Kenya, and they would say, “Oh that’s nice, what do you think about us?”

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