Author’s notes: Niq Mhlongo
Describe yourself in a sentence
An enigma — I’m like an algebra test that no student passes.
Describe your ideal reader
A boeremeisie in the Republic of Orania, an immigrant shoemaker on the streets of Diepsloot and Soweto, a goat-herder in Nkandla, a tenderpreneur in the Republic of Cape Town and all literature lovers around the world.
What was the originating idea for Way Back Home?
When I was growing up in Soweto there was a popular urban legend called Vera the Ghost. It was believed that Vera was a very beautiful lady killed in the early 1980s, probably by her lover. She then came back as a ghost to haunt all the men in the township. For example, she would go to a party or street bash to choose her victim, mostly a handsome hunk. She would then go to a party and pick the nicest guy, to the envy of all the guys in the party. The following day, the hunk would be found naked and dead by the Avalon Cemetery.
Describe the process of writing the novel. How long did it take?
The process started with the conceptualisation in my head, and that was long before I even went to university. It started when I first heard the story. I was very young, maybe 10 years old. I tried to write the story when I bought my first computer in 1999 but was not confident about it. Instead, I mentioned the story in some paragraph in [my debut novel] Dog Eat Dog, which was published in 2004. I promised myself that I would develop the story someday. I was only confident of telling the story after the publication of [my second novel] After Tears in 2007. So I started writing the idea from late 2007. From 2007 until early 2013 — that long, and it’s only 208 pages long.
Your publisher describes Way Back Home as your coming of age as a novelist. Do you agree?
I tried to ask around what the phrase means. Both my friends and my publisher tried to explain but I don’t understand. In the past I have been tagged as “the voice of the kwaito generation”. Even now I’m still trying to understand what that means. What I can say is that I have in the past, and during the publication of this book, disagreed with my publisher over a number of issues. For the sake of peace with my publisher, I’m leaving it for my readers to judge.
Name some writers who inspired you. Tell us briefly why or how.
For a change I thought you’ll ask me about some of the writers I have inspired. Well, since you are asking your question, I must make it clear that it was definitely not JM Coetzee or Nadine Gordimer who inspired me. It is also not only writers whohave inspired me. I was inspired by life in general. I was inspired by the taxi drivers, street hawkers, my friends all over the world, my family, my relationship with people in general, my dreams, observations and my perceptions in life.
However, I was also partly inspired by what I read. When I was growing up I used to adore all the writers in the [Heinemann] African Writers Series collection. I read from Es’kia Mphahlele, Modikwe Dikobe, Ngugi wa Thiongo, Chinua Achebe, Ferdinand Oyono, Ayi Kwei Armah and so on — everything under the African Writers Series.
Do you write by hand, or use a typewriter or computer?
I write by hand and then transcribe it to the computer in most cases.
What is the purpose of fiction?
Fiction creates an alternative world for people so that they can cope with the challenges of yesterday, today and the future. It helps people deal with the realities of today and gives them a sense of hope and solutions.
Anything you wish to add?
Yes. Buy and read my books, especially Way Back Home. But also buy and read books written by South African writers. There are rich stories that have been published in this country recently. Read them and you’ll find answers to the problems facing this country now.