/ 12 December 2023

A tale of regrowth and romance

Zibu Sithole (1)
Love and change: The Thing with Zola, written by Zibu Sithole, centres around three characters who are weathering big shifts in their lives.

Plants and trees — among other items — were damaged by the colossal hailstorm in Johannesburg a few weeks ago. 

Raking up leaves and picking up broken branches followed over the next few days — quite apt for the concepts explored in the romantic novel, whose author I interviewed recently. 

Rebuilding and resilience are some of the themes driving The Thing With Zola by Zibu Sithole. 

Of course, there is nothing romantic about shredded leaves and bleeding plants among wrecked outdoor furniture and carports. Typically, leaves don’t regrow on broken plants. A stable stem and connection to its roots is mandatory for new leaves and flowers to appear. 

The Thing with Zola is a story we all know and can relate to. It’s about ‘coming of age’ for the second time,” says author and journalist Sithole. 

She indicates that moving back home and starting over is the reality for many black millennials who thought they would never have to live in a township again. 

The key characters in the novel rebuild and reconnect after being knocked down by life’s storms. Upon returning home to Vosloorus from Europe after her visa expires, Zola — the protagonist — is rebuilding her career in South Africa. 

Thanks to a series of bursaries, 29-year-old Zola has spent 10 years working and studying in Germany. 

Mbali — the charming love interest — is trying to break the toxic hold his father has on him and his career, while Okuhle — the antagonist — is coming to grips with her own happily-ever-after falling apart.

Where fiction meets reality

The book is fiction — but it is rooted in reality. 

We all know of a neighbour’s daughter struggling to find work after graduation and the depressing, fruitless job interviews. 

Imploding life events, such as teenage pregnancy, running out of funds or the loss of a parent, force many to return home. 

Home, for many black professionals, is the townships or rural areas. 

For Sithole, the decision to move back home was not an easy one to make. She struggled with it and in fact, still does. 

“Having that element of my own journey in the book just felt right. It makes Zola a part of a community in a way. She’s one of us.” 

Sithole was born in Thokoza, a township south of Johannesburg, 32 years ago and has worked as a journalist for more than a decade. 

After the company she worked for closed down, she found her passion for writing novels, mainly ghost-writing romance and erotica. 

“The book and the opportunity to have it published was my own life rerouting. The plans I had for myself fell apart at just the right time for a better plan to come together.”

The process of writing a romance novel

The novel’s relatable writing style and tone were chosen deliberately to appeal to a wide audience. 

The book is not layered with unnecessary philosophical preoccupations. Heartwarming, like a simple cup of tea on a winter’s morning, the text melts any cold cynicism towards this genre, often criticised as not being real literature. 

Personally, this novel was a delightful snack between my teaching and academic work. 

Sithole wanted to write how she speaks as she gets annoyed when her enjoyment of a book is interrupted by unnatural phrasing.

“Another reality we face as writers and readers is the competition for our attention coming from social media, movies — and life,” she says.

The Thing with Zola is essentially written for both avid readers and people looking to pass the time with something relatable and funny. 

The likes of Dudu Busani-Dube and Takalani M have proved that writing for the “ordinary” reader — mostly black women — and simply focusing on telling the story can be a winning formula.

Regarding the challenges of developing her characters, Sithole sees writing as an empathetic exercise. 

“I had to get into the heads of people who don’t even exist, which was not easy.”

As a woman, how was she able to get into the head of her male characters such as Mbali and his friend Mthunzi, I pondered. 

“Watching men and knowing men did make it easier. 

“I read a lot, watch movies and reality TV. 

“It’s funny, but listening to someone narrate their own life gives so much insight into why they do what they do and how they do it.” 

Sithole also relied on her journalistic skills in writing the book. 

“I’ve been exposed to so many different people under different circumstances and can borrow from their gestures and experiences to build realistic fictional people.”

City and township romance

The Thing with Zola is a Joburg and kasi love story with all the trappings of a romance novel. 

The kasi (township) context and urban setting distinguishes it from the usual American and European settings associated with this genre. 

The different interpretations of black love, such as romantic, parental and sibling love, are highlighted in the novel. 

“Are black people romantic though?” I asked Sithole. 

“Black people are historically romantic. We might not be romantic in the same way as people in other parts of the world are, but we are romantic.” 

Growing up, her parents were her first model of what a romantic relationship looks like. 

“My father never bought flowers, and I don’t remember my parents going on date nights, but their love for each other was so obvious in the little things they did together and how they lived.” 

A more direct message she hopes to convey is that “strong black women” deserve soft, gentle love too. 

“It is important for us to see ourselves in soft, fluffy, frivolous romance.”

The Thing with Zola is a quick read for a lazy afternoon in the garden —after clearing the debris, of course. 

It’s a novel that makes for a great Christmas gift for that despondent family member or friend, demotivated by prospects of mjolo [dating] and a floundering career. 

It’s a reminder that like shredded plants, rooted in purpose and watered by love we can regrow much stronger after life’s thunderstorms have passed. 

As Sithole says: “I hope some of the many people who find themselves having to redirect their lives can see the hope I sprinkled over the pages.”

The Thing With Zola is published by Pan Macmillan.