A literary soldier

Siphiwo Mahala has followed his novel When a Man Cries with a ­collection of short stories, ­African Delights (Jacana). The stories’ ­settings range from Sophiatown of the 1950s to the rural Eastern Cape and present-day Johannesburg. Mahala talks about the collection and his writing processes.

What was the originating idea for this collection?
I wanted to celebrate my first ­decade of writing with a tribute to my ­literary influences.
I am a huge fan of short-story writing and I believe South Africa boasts some of the greatest short-story writers in the world.

I grew up immersed in the short stories of Can Themba, ­Bessie Head, Arthur Maimane, Nadine ­Gordimer, Njabulo S ­Ndebele, Mbulelo Mzamane and so forth. In the process of writing this book I interacted with prominent writers such as Don Mattera, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Lebo Mashile, Mandla Langa, Zakes Mda, Zukiswa Wanner and Thando Mgqolozana. These are some of the creative minds that have had a lot of influence on my literary appreciation. This book is a tribute to them.

Describe the process of writing the collection. How long did it take? Name some writers who have inspired you and tell us briefly why or how.
Putting the collection together actually took two years, but one of the stories, The Suit Continued, was first written and published in 2002. This story sparked a series of stories that strike a dialogue between Can Themba, Zukiswa Wanner and me.

I conceived the idea of writing The Lost Suit during a conversation that I had with Don Mattera and Phillippa Yaa de Villiers while on a tour in the United Kingdom. I relied ­heavily on wit and humour as ­narrative devices in penning these stories. The ­collection also gave me an ­opportunity to share some of the intimate stories that have stayed with me for a very long time. ­

Bhontsi’s Toe, for instance, is what I regard as a story of friendship, and I always wanted to write such a story to pay homage to friends that we have lost. One writer who has written such boyhood stories with laudable excellence is Njabulo S Ndebele, who is probably the single greatest influence on my writing.

Do you write by hand, or use a typewriter or computer?
I always begin with handwritten sketches before using the computer. Much as computers are a more advanced medium, I find them quite obstructive when writing a new story. Ideas invade my mind at the most awkward places where there are no computers most of the time. That’s why I never travel without a pen and a book. I’m a literary soldier—always in combat mode.

What is the purpose of fiction?
Fiction liberates our minds and expands our horizons of knowledge. It frees our imagination, removes all the barriers and allows us to think beyond our immediate ­surroundings.

Which work caught your eye this year, and why?
It’s got to be Sometimes There Is a Void by Zakes Mda (Penguin). Apart from the fact that I admire Mda for his discipline and commitment to his work, I respect any artist who is able to laugh at himself and remains true to his trade even at the risk of public ridicule. In this book Mda is not reluctant to talk about his own frailties and is not apologetic about exposing his shortcomings as a human being. This kind of bravery is evident in Thando Mgqolozana’s highly imaginative book, Hear Me Alone (Jacana), in which he gives a different twist to the well-known story of the conception and birth of Jesus Christ. I admire that kind of writing.

Why short stories?

Writing short stories for me is ­liberating and ignites my creative juices more than any other form of creative expression. With this book I wanted to experiment and come up with innovative approaches of ­presenting a book of short stories.

The result of that experiment is a collection of four trilogies that are chronologically diverse but remain thematically and stylistically cohesive. This is something that I have never seen before and the effect of it is that there is something for everyone. Reading the collection is almost like reading four different novels within a single ­publication. Most importantly, I wanted to ­create a work of all times. As Njabulo ­Ndebele puts it: ‘It will outlive many of the social, political, and economic ­dramas of the time. The power of African Delights lies precisely there.”

Siphiwo Mahala and Thando Mgqolozana will launch their new books at Vanilla restaurant in the Mall of Rosebank on October 5. The event starts at 6pm for 6.30pm

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