When I was a child, I would read any book I could get my hands on. As I grew older, I realised that there was something not quite right about those books – something about how I could never find people like myself, my family or the people in my neighbourhood, in them.
The people inside those books were different. They spoke a different language. Also, I couldn’t relate to their experiences. That was when I decided I wanted to write books with people like me in them: black people; working-class people; people who live in townships and former homelands; people who ply their trade on the streets of the City of Gold. That’s is how I came to write Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation, which came out in 2014.
My book is being taught in universities globally
I wanted to contribute to the ongoing conversation about what it means to be young and black in post-apartheid South Africa. I had grappled, as I continue to, with the idea that I am “born free” solely on the grounds that I grew up in a democratic country. But my lived experiences as a working-class black child are a glaring contrast to the narrative of freedom and social cohesion that the governing party is trying to paint.
I am proud of the success of the book. It is affirming, that as a child from Soweto, I wrote a book that has been translated into German and is being taught in universities globally. When a lecturer at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee sent me an email to tell me that her literature class is reading the book, I cried the entire night.
I cried every time lecturers would send me emails and tell me that they have prescribed my book.
Here’s what I wish I knew before becoming a published author
I wish someone had advised me to complete my studies before writing the book. This is because all the traveling and TV and radio interviews that everyone wanted to do with me affected my academic work negatively. I often had to compromise lectures and tests to accommodate book fairs and travels. In September last year, for example, I was in Switzerland for three weeks giving public lectures on the book. The responsibility becomes heavy if you have to balance this with attending classes.
The life of a bestselling author seems glamorous when you are on the outside looking in. But the reality is different. I was travelling the world, and sometimes speaking to audiences made me feel more like a study subject than a bestselling author. It felt like people wanted to only romanticise the struggles I had written about.
The top is a cold lonely place
But there was also the loneliness that came when the applause ended and I had to go and sit alone in a cold hotel room. I didn’t realise how a world crowded with people could still be such a lonely place. There was also the invasion of my privacy that came with being in the public eye. People would stop me on the street and want to talk. Some would walk up to me in a restaurant when I was trying to have a romantic moment with my partner. Others would send emails and Facebook messages or call throughout the day.
I battled to demand my space because I was too afraid to offend people who supported my work. I suffered greatly. I constantly remind myself that Memoirs of a Born Free was a necessary intervention in the global conversation about post-apartheid South Africa.
Even though the experience of being a young published author is not always glamorous and is sometimes debilitating, it comforts me to know that finally the lion, not the hunter, is telling the tale of the hunt.
Malaika Wa Azania is the author of Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation and a postgraduate Geography student at Rhodes University.
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