Excerpts of an Interview with Thando Mgqolozana
I have been writing for the UCT newspaper, and the second feature I was assigned was a review of the latest novel from Thando Mgqolozana, Unimportance. I was excited to read this new book, because last year when I read A Man Who is Not A Man I was really impressed.
Here are some of the answers which I couldn't quote word for word in the final article, but I just had to share them. It's what happens when a writer is so good that the answers are feature articles on their own. Especially what he said about what it takes to get published/be a good writer.
(Also, I am a fangirl.)
This may be an unusual way to phrase the question, but I just want to get back to basics. So, briefly: who are you, and why do you write?
I want to confess that I have answered both questions several times before, and each time I’ve given different answers. That instantly makes me an incurable liar, I guess, but I am not bothered—I lie all the time when I am writing fiction.
Who am I? You’ll have to wait for my memoirs to find out why I was expelled from pre-school, and why at fourteen I built myself a shack using posters with Tony Leon’s face, but for now I can tell you that I am presently a jobbing writer: when I am not at home, writing, I am at work pretending to be a normal human being.
Why do I write? Since I started writing seriously about six years ago, if time passes without me writing anything I become unbearably bad-tempered. It always feels like something important is missing. But when I am writing I am at my happiest. That’s why I do it.
Much of the focus of the story will be around SRC elections. Is this a book about student politics?
It is a portrait of the life of a student politician. Think of the politics aspect as a wrapper, and his life the candy. You have to unwrap the candy, and once you have you’ll hardly remember there was even a wrapper to begin with.
One of the things that stayed with me after reading A Man Who is Not A Man was the way in which readers were given insight into Lumkile’s psyche. The mention of “head people” and “chest people”, and the subtle observations Lumkile makes about his world and his relationships in it (those with his parents, in particular), made him a believable character who spoke with a voice that seemed to say what people always thought must be going on inside the mind of a teenage boy. Is it your intention, when you write characters, to write them so they speak on behalf of a certain type of person, or a specific group in society?
When I was writing A Man Who is Not A Man I was obsessed with making Lumkiles’ experience possible. So I had to give up on creating Lumkile but become him. I was in his head and I felt with my heart what he did with his own. In Unimportance, I applied the same method: I became the character. This way the reader easily becomes an active witness rather than a passive spectator.
What can you say to writers who are sitting with great manuscripts, but are afraid to take the leap and call a publisher?
Not everyone who is sitting with a massive manuscript at home is a writer good enough to be published. The journey to being a published author starts with reading. If you don’t read, there’s no way you’ll ever be published; and if by some freak accident you do get published, you’ll probably never be a good writer. However when you are well read, you will be able to compare your work with that of published writers. You will arrive at a conclusion about whether or not yours is publishable, and usually this is the correct conclusion. So maybe those people keeping their manuscripts at home have correctly decided that their work is not of the necessary quality. And that’s okay, I think; we won’t all be writers.