Zukiswa Wanner confided in me about a year ago that she was having hassles finding an international agent and her latest rejection letter said it was because her books “just weren’t African enough.” For a Zambian-born woman who lived in South Africa before moving to Kenya, the idea is laughable. But it reveals that there are still weird mythologies in publishing around what African fiction should be about.
Wanner writes about all the strangeness of our current reality. She tackles spiky issues in her novels, from the relationship between a black domestic worker and her black employers in The Madams (2006) to the range of masculinities in Men of the South (2010). She’s a fine story teller who uses humour and empathy to explore who we are right now in all our complicated, messy glory.
In this week’s The Spark, the guest blog where African novelists write about what inspired their new books, she talks about identity, love, travel and being labelled “a black woman writer”.
The Spark: London Cape Town Joburg by Zukiswa Wanner
Perhaps because of my multiple heritage and my nomadic existence I often find that identity is a central theme in my novels. The spark for London Cape Town Joburg (Kwela, 2014) came from a conversation I had with Mfundi Vundla. He had asked me to write a book that could be turned into romcom. I remember doing a treatment where the main characters were a white American male scriptwriter and a black South African female lawyer. While waiting for funding and a contract the craziest thing happened though. I revisited the idea and the manuscript became something else completely. I still liked the idea of an inter-racial couple but the book also became about death of a child.
It ended up being an emotionally exhausting experience and I remember that many a time after writing and during the editing process, I would be overly protective and indulgent of my son. As with most writing, the book wrote itself and somehow as with my previous works, identity ended up being a central theme to the work. There was the identity of Martin as a black man with an Irish last name and later, when he finds his biological father; Germaine’s identity as a British woman loving, learning and getting frustrated by South Africa; that of Zuko as a young bi-racial chap not quite sure who he identifies with most. Always, the characters, while finding their niche in every one of the three cities that make up the title of the book, are still outsiders looking in.
London Cape Town Joburg is stylistically narrated using the voices of Martin and Germaine (a borrowed narrative device from my 2008 novel Behind Every Successful Man) but I think the voices here are stronger and that may perhaps have to do with Germaine and Martin’s more worldly and less provincial perspective on life. In later parts of the book, there is also a glimpse of Zuko through his diary entries. As he grew in the manuscript, I often had to get my son to read through sections of the diary entries so I could maintain authenticity of the child-like voice.
So much has been said about novel writing in South Africa and there are a lot of expectations on the writer on the narrative voice they can take. I wanted to turn this idea that as writers we can’t cross the racial or gender lines on its head too because I believe the human experience is similar. Tired of being labeled a black woman writer I deliberately made my main characters a white woman and a black man and I certainly hope that my Germaine is as authentic sounding a white woman coming from my fingers as Beukes’ Zinzi of Zoo City fame. I had already experimented with the male voice in my last novel so I hope Martin sounds genuine too.