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Author Mohale Mashigo on why local books don’t do well, the advantage of writing online and more

by: Siyanda Mbuzo - 9 September 2016

Mohale Mashigo_Sept 2016_©TamaraMachlaclan-2

We caught up with Mohale Mashigo, who is part of a number of panel discussions including “My Creative Lives” and “Talking Feminism” at the Open Book Festival currently taking place in Cape Town.

Who are you?

My government name is Kgomotso Carol Mashigo. I was born in Soweto, to a storyteller and a reader and I used to write sweet valley high fan-fiction in high school. I’m also a singer, song writer. I am now also a person who builds libraries for schools and currently working on my first library for a school that I volunteer at. I’m also an author and my pen name is Mohale Mashigo. Mohale is my mom’s maiden name and because she didn’t become the world famous actress she wanted to be, I thought if I did something that would get my name out there, I would include her maiden name.

Part of your book “The Yearning” is set in Cape Town. How does it feel to come here to talk about trauma and healing at Open Book Festival?

When I started writing the book, I was working in advertising and I wasn’t very happy in advertising. So, I started writing a story about a woman from Soweto (like me) living in Cape Town. I had no idea what the story would become. It is interesting to come back now, have people ask questions and interact with the story in a different way. I didn’t really think lots of people would read the book. And now that many people have read the book, it has forced me to go back to my intentions with the book, why certain things happened and how I feel about things. So it’s nice to have to be drawn back into when I was first writing it.

Zakes Mda said you tell your story ‘with charming lucidity, disarming characterisation, subversive wisdom and subtle humour.” How do you think you tell your story?

Firstly, I laughed when Zakes Mda sent that quote to my publisher and I said “What does that mean? Can you say it in plain English?”. Because I would’ve preferred it if he had said “She wrote a good story”. But you know, he’s a writer so he went crazy with it. I think I wrote a story that no one has ever read before but I still think it’s atypically South African story. I wrote this story because I’d never found a story like this one, so I wrote it.

When you say you’ve written a story that has never been told before, what do you mean?

In school, I read as many books as I could but it wasn’t until I read [Alice Walker’s] The Colour Purple that I came across the first book that had black people in it. There were many other books I read after that were written by African writers but I felt as though a story like The Yearning was missing. So, I wrote it because I wanted black people to see themselves in literature.

The yearning is about this woman who’s got a seemingly perfect life. Then things start falling apart and she feels like she’s losing her mind. But she also knows its got to do with her father’s murderer. There are many of those things in typically black South African families where someone’s gone missing. People usually say it was only political people that were killed, but it happened to ordinary people, sometimes people would get stabbed in a train and were never seen again. So, we need to talk about the bad stuff and how it affects young people now in the new South Africa.

To a young writer, how do you get your creative writing read in a digital space? 

It’s always good to start your writing on digital platforms so that by the time you publish, you have an audience and a fan base that has been following your work from the beginning. In the digital age, we have so many opportunities to get our work out there till we are eventually paid for it. You can easily start a Tumblr account and release short stories to a mass, international audience. All the digital spaces have a community that is interested in the same things you are interested in. Author of Salt, Nayyirah Waheed, started on Tumblr and by the time she had a book out, she had a community of people waiting for it. There is a literary magazine called Prufrock where you can publish anything in any language. There are so many avenues where you can publish.

How do you earn money from your writing? And how would you advise other writers to earn money from their craft?

I work at a radio station at night and get royalties for my book. But I mean that’s a process so you need to have a stable job as a writer till your writing is eventually sought-after and does well enough to sustain you. Also, writing for different publications helps. Books don’t do that well in South Africa because people don’t want to read something written by one of us. People say South Africans don’t read, but they do, just not South African books. J.K Rowling could easily sell a million copies here, but not a South African.

What mistakes have you made in your journey? How would you advise young writers to avoid the same challenges?

Our media has not created a reading culture that’s big enough for people to know what’s happening with our authors. Magazines have a tiny section on book reviews and a tinier section for a review on a South African book. In book stores there is a small shelf that says African Fiction. Out of so many countries and so many authors in Africa, how can you have a small shelf for local books? Even on radio, they never review or let people know about books that are available. There are also a few blogs that review South African and African books only. This is why we don’t do well.

Image: Tamara MacLachlan

Video shot and edited: Tamara MacLachlan