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So you want to be a writer? Author Masande Ntshanga has some advice for you

by: Kamaria Balkisson - 12 February 2016

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Our “So you want to be…” series aims to help you in the process of choosing a career by featuring a practising professional to tell us what to expect in their field of work. This week we speak to Masande Ntshanga. Masande was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2015 for his short story “Space”. He’s currently awaiting the international publishing of his novel The Reactive, which has been praised by a lot of critics since its release in 2014.

Live SA: What does a day in your life entail, especially now that you’ve reached international success?

Masande: It’s essentially the same: reading, writing, revising. It doesn’t matter where I happen to be at the time, or what else I’m doing, I have to be doing one or all of those things at some point. Each day, then, is a negotiation between that, other writing work, and feeding myself.

Live SA: You studied and received your masters in creative writing at UCT. Do you think you could have written such an acclaimed novel without your educational background?

Masande: To some extent, it’s possible. I was already publishing by the time I was enrolled for my first year at UCT. During my undergrad I wasn’t producing as much work as I previously had, most likely due to having to adjust to how literature is taught as opposed to how it’s produced. I spent a lot of time absorbing texts, but having said that, enrolling for the masters degree is what galvanised me again, and I became aware of all the disparate things that I’d learned over the years, during my undergrad, and how they were drifting up to the surface of my work. In the end, the most valuable resources, I would say, are the library and the people you meet on the writing program. The people, especially, can be of great help.

Live SA: What made UCT your university of choice? Any thoughts on #FeesMustFall?

Masande: Recently, while looking for a novel by Mbulelo Mzamane, I looked at my UCT Library e-shelf and realised I’d loaned out about 513 books from the library over the course of five years, which was an embarrassing number. In any case, looking back through that list I came to the realisation that over those years, I’d had access to a substantial number of Southern African novels that you can’t find anywhere else in this country, at the moment, or even abroad. For example, Philip Zhuwao and Alan Finlay’s The Red Laughter of Guns in Green Summer Rain doesn’t exist on Amazon.
This is all to say that the institution holds many resources when it comes to literature, among other things, and I see every reason to be in solidarity with a movement that proposes more inclusivity and a wider sharing of those resources.

Live SA: From the variety of literary resources you had available, can you name a few that inspired you?

Masande: High Low In-Between by Imraan Coovadia, The Restless Supermarket by Ivan Vladislavic, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, The House of Hunger by Dambudzo Marechera, The Stranger by Albert Camus, Almost Transparent Blue by Ryu Murakami.

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Live SA: As you built up your career as a writer, was it difficult getting recognition in the beginning?

Masande: I was fortunate in that I didn’t have to deal with some of the usual obstacles many authors have to scale when they start writing. For one, when I started in high school, there were still a few print journals in which you could place stories here in South Africa. I got hold of those. Later, I was also spared the infamous rejection cycle because my publishers are the ones who solicited me for work.

After a story of mine had won the inaugural PEN International New Voices Award, I was invited for a meeting, and when they asked me if I had something longer, I told them that I did, and I was pleased to hear from them a month or so later when they told me they liked the manuscript.

Live SA: Is there anything about your chosen career that may put others off pursuing writing?

Masande: It can take a lot of time before you break through, and as a standard, the profession is very solitary, without the anxiety-quelling reassurances you might find in more steady forms of employment. Or sometimes even the cheque. Those can be the challenges. Other than that, a lot of us do it because we feel compelled to, I think, and once in a while, you get a sentence or an image that fits just right, and in that moment, you forget everything else.

Live SA: Do you have any advice for young aspiring writers?

Masande: Persevere. To quote a character from the new David Gates novella, “Write through the self-loathing.” Read as widely as possible, and try as best as you can to hold on to your own thinking. That probably matters most, I think.

Follow Masande on Twitter