Zukiswa Wanner: “I want people to relate to my work based on individual artistic merit not labels “

By Edinah Masanga
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Zukiswa Wanner. Pic credit: Aleni Agami

When I reached out to Zukiswa Wanner I secretly hoped she would say no, so that I could then say we had an author on the list but she turned our interview request down. I think that would have been better than sitting and writing this piece because it’s so hard, writing about a writer. Where do I begin…? Maybe let me begin by acknowledging that I scoured every corner of the internet for articles on Zukiswa and reviews of her books.

High up on the Google search list was her blog where she sits comfortably in its header with an expression that you could mistake for blankness at first but on a squint, you can see that she sits there with no apologies to offer. She looks warm and approachable in that photo but in her eyes is an assertiveness that is so unmistakable.

I continued with my Google search results list and there were the articles from The Guardian and many others. I began to reconsider my decision to interview Wanner. I found her success and profile intimidating. But then, there was something about her in all those photos and texts that sort of said ‘you could try me’. And so I tried her.

I sent a friendly text to her (which is also code for groveling because of nervousness, I even called her Zuks) and when it showed the small tick that it had been read, an adrenaline rush filled me. At least she had seen it. That was a relief because the only other thing worse than no reply is to be ignored completely.

Long story short, I threw a victory punch into the air moments later because she had agreed to do the interview.

Again, where to begin. It was easier this time around. There is so much conversation about writers and their backgrounds – whether each and every writer has an obligation to speak for her or his background, ethnicity, gender etc. To write texts that help their class or group move forward their issues in a way which brings positive progress.

So I wanted to start by addressing that elephant in the virtual room.

I have been keen on interviewing a female author who has actually made it because there has been a lot of discussions recently about what writers need to write especially when writing about women. Now, as a woman and a writer, how do you want to be seen in literary works?

All the best in finding that female author who has made it to interview. But being that you are stuck with me in this interview, let me attempt to answer your question. In an ideal world, I would wish, of course, that people would relate to my work in its entirety and decide whether it’s good or bad based on artistic merit. Being that we sadly do not inhabit a perfect world, I have to make do with the fact that people will engage with my work bringing their own experiences to bear and that’s alright too. As I have mentioned in previous interviews,  once the manuscript has gone through the proofreading and it goes to print as a book, I no longer have any control on how people perceive it.

If I am unlucky, they will decide I have a warped way of observing life through my characters. If I am lucky, they will claim the text is much more profound than I reckoned it was and I can quote them in interviews on how brilliant they think I am.

Coming from a journalist background I know that information and content in the media does shape people’s opinions, so what would you say about writings that represent women in terms of areas that they are grappling with like gender-based violence? How would you want that story of us, because while devastating it is a reality, to be written?

In all four of my novels, domestic violence is, in fact, addressed and in three of the four, its gender-based violence. I didn’t want to put the issues of domestic violence gratuitously just so that I mention it. I tend to write character-driven texts so the most important issue for me is always that the plot arch be true to the character in question.

 

I know that many women, myself included, dream of becoming a published author one day but what does it take to become one? Tell me about challenges? 

The first challenge I think is to talk less about writing and actually write. Once the manuscript is finished, there is the hunt for an agent/publisher and the hope that someone likes the work enough. Too often, when a manuscript has been accepted, many prospective writers do not discuss with already established writers on contracts and I think that always has disastrous consequences as one finds out that they could have got more rights for their work. That said, this is often a learning curve and hopefully, the writer will learn when they work on their next script.

 

For women who look like you and me, sometimes it’s four times the work for a quarter of the recognition. And the writer comes last. So you are likely to be referred to as a black African woman before you can be a writer.

If however, you do manage to impress and you become a writer, there is the added burden of being representative of all blacks, all women, all Africans that one has to bear instead of just being an individual artist. This is partially why I personally avoid any invitations to literary festivals away from the continent where I am invited to panels that do not speak directly to texts I have written. So for instance, while I self-identify as a feminist, there are brilliant feminists like Pumla Gqola, Jessie Kabwila, Bibi Bakare-Yusuf and many others who can articulate better on African feminism than I can ever do. In the same vein, there are many leading pan-Africanists who can speak on the pan-African position more eloquently than I can although I also self-identify as a pan-Africanist. My area of certainty is my work because that I can comfortably engage with.

In my mind what’s there not to like about being an author but on second thought better ask an actual author, what do you like most about being an author?

It’s got to be how much useless but delightful knowledge I acquire whenever I am researching for a new manuscript. I reckon if a tombstone was to be my thing after death, mine would probably read “Here lies a plethora of useless knowledge.”

Zukiswa I love how you engage the issues but also assert yourself in your writing. Your responses are not only lucid but also delightful to read. What do you want to say to women, anything?

 

I would only say to women what I often tell myself: You are fine. You don’t need to justify yourself or your actions all the time. Sometimes a no is just that. No. And a yes is also just that. A yes.

Even though I had prepared Wanner’s bio from the mine of information I got on the internet, I wanted to hear how she would describe herself. Who is Zukiswa Wanner?

My blog probably puts it best. A writer, a feminist, an African, a mother, a lover but perhaps the only things I would add are that I am also a daughter, a sister and a friend. //

There you have it ladies, your role model, Zukiswa Wanner, a South African journalist and novelist, born in Zambia and now based in Kenya. She is born to a Zimbabwean mother and was educated in the same country. Her literary works have been shortlisted for  the South African Literary Awards (SALA) and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. She won the K Sello Duiker Memorial Literary Award for her book London Cape Town Joburg in 2015.

Her fiction, non-fiction and children’s literary works are listed below;

1. The Madams, Oshun Books, 2006. ISBN 978-1770070585

2. Behind Every Successful Man, Kwela Books, 2008. ISBN 978-0795702617

3. Men of the South, Kwela Books, 2010. ISBN 978-0795702983

4. London Cape Town Joburg, Kwela Books, 2014

5. 8115: A Prisoner’s Home with Alf Kumalo, Penguin, 2010

6. Maid in SA: 30 Ways to Leave Your Madam, Jacana, 2010. ISBN 978-1431408962

7. Jama Loves Bananas, Jacana, 2013

8. Refilwe (an African retelling of “Rapunzel”), Jacana, 2014

She also edited the following works;

With Rohini Chowdhury, Behind The Shadows. Contemporary Stories from Africa and Asia (2012)

 

#AllWomenAreRoleModels