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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