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The Feature: Why You should Read "Unimportance"

An edited version of this article appears on the VARSITY website. Click here for that.

This April, Thando Mgqolozana, author of A Man Who Is not A Man (2009) and Hear Me Alone (2011), will debut his third novel Unimportance. Before the release of the novel, I wanted  to find out a little more about the author, and what goes on in his mind.
In an effort to find out more about Thando, and what motivates him, I asked two simple questions: ‘who are you?’ and ‘why do you write?’ After admitting that an author of fiction can never be trusted to give a truthful answer to those questions (but alluding that perhaps his memoirs would one day satisfy our curiosity), Thando says he is a “jobbing writer”. In between showing up for work at the UCT Research Office, where he spends time “pretending to be a normal human being”, Thando writes- and that is when he is most content.

Thando admits to becoming quite an unpleasant person is he spends too much time away from his work, like all creative types do: “it always feels like something important is missing”.
The day jobs of writers are always interesting to me, because it always seems like what they do when they’re not making worlds come alive between pages, just doesn’t do their genius justice. I had no idea what a research development officer was, and frankly it sounded boring. According to Thando, his job at the UCT Research Office is to assist academics with their research output- that is, their journal articles, books and conference papers- by organising seminars and workshops that give these scholars valuable guidelines for doing research right, and getting it noticed. It looks like life is an ongoing pitch, for those of us who find a field of study that we want to explore for the rest of our lives.

While being an academic might not appeal to every university, especially those at the undergraduate level, it is useful to note that research from scholars contributes to the funding the university receives from government. Consider your degree and postgraduate studies a form of giving back to the community that made you: “the more the university publishes and graduates students, the better the subsidy from government”, says Thando.
So let’s turn our attention back to the type of publishing at hand: that of a new book, whether in print or  these fancy scroll-down, ‘swipe to turn the page’, pinch zoom things which I don’t really trust. The book, and getting it published, is an idea which has been dramatized in media many times over, but there is still very little truth to what we are being told. In reality, brilliant story ideas do not just offer themselves up to a writer while he or she sleeps, then tweaked and fussed over during a montage that is accompanied by dramatic music.

In Thando’s experience, and this is something which he believes is true for most writers, writing a book requires patience: that very thing which even the most easy-going among us are running dangerously low on these days. Developing a book, for Thando, involves taking the time to decide whether that one interesting idea that occurred to him over lunch (or at that oddly creative yet illusive inspirational hour that only occurs on the watches of writers) is something which he cares about “enough for it to be [his] main preoccupation for the next two years”. Once it has been decided that this idea will indeed become a book (since Thando has come to accept that not all his ideas will) the writing begins.

In the month between the first draft and the first serious edit, Thando will do various things to take his mind off the manuscript. He will read a book (yes, writers do read other work- this is what makes them good writers), do some spring cleaning, start working on another idea, go to the movies, renew his gym membership, or do anything else that will distract him (like actually using that membership…?).
This month is necessary to give Thando perspective on the manuscript, so that he can rewrite with a fresh enthusiasm. With Google and Facebook chat as his tools, he does a lot of fact-checking and runs new ideas or phrases past some friends; this is how he gets to his second draft. This second draft is sent to two friends, who “punch holes [in it] and send back a haemorrhaging manuscript”. Thando then patches it up, using the friends’ feedback, and sends it to the publisher. Now, the waiting begins- time to draw on some of that patience.

I would imagine it is quite agonising waiting to hear from someone about whether the thing you’ve dedicated almost a year of your life to is any good, so it is understandable that during this time Thando doubts himself and is “exceedingly foul-tempered”. When the publisher finally gets back to Thando, and the manuscript has been accepted, it goes through some more editing.
More editing? At this point, it seems like writing a book requires a lack of ego, in addition to patience. Having to rework an idea based on so many people’s feedback can only be done by a person who is not above criticism and doesn’t take things too personally. Unimportance went through seven edits. 

The publishing process reaches an exciting peak two years after the initial idea, when the publisher will “secretly” send Thando a copy of the book. For days after this, he can be seen smiling to himself: “publishing a book is an exercise in patience, and it is worth all of it”. That sounds like something a new mother would say after a difficult pregnancy and hours in labour. It puts the hackneyed phrase ‘no pain, no gain’ into perspective.
So what is this seven times edited, two year-long project about? The complete novel, Unimportance, will be available this April. Its main character is Zizi, a candidate in the ongoing SRC elections, who is experiencing a slight crisis of conscience. Zizi is realising that standing as a representative of the student body could demand more of himself than he is willing (or able) to give.

When asked if the book will be about student politics, Thando says it is “a portrait of the life of a student politician, in which politics is only the wrapper around the piece of candy that is Zizi’s life: “once you unwrap the candy, you’ll hardly remember there was even a wrapper to begin with”. So it’s not about student politics, and it’s not really about sweets either: it’s about Zizi and his life as a university student.
Those who love to associate a writer’s work with their personal life will be glad to know that Thando was once an SRC member himself. This was when he realised that in politics (student and national) a lot of people were in it for themselves, and “were not in private what they appeared to be in public”. Unimportance draws on this time in Thando’s life, and he says in hindsight he thinks it was inevitable that he would betray his comrades. But then no one ever wrote any type of expose on anything they were still deeply a part of, did they? Not a very good one, at least.

One of the things that stayed with me after reading A Man Who Is not A Man almost completely in one sitting was the way in which the main character, Lumkile, was a whole person. He had thoughts and feelings about the world he was living in, and he was articulating them in a unique way, engaging the reader; he was relatable. Of this, Thando says when he writes he does not merely create characters, but he becomes them. This gives the story authenticity, and allows the reader to become “an active witness, rather than a passive spectator”.

With Unimportance, Thando says he is presenting readers with another one of these characters that he inhibited, and giving them “the stuff [that] campus memoirs are made of”. That is a bold claim, and along with the fact that the book will “take a few jibes at UCT”, promises that Unimportance will be a novel that students all over will want to pick up and read.