Plenty of stories to be told

2008-04-09 00:00

Margaret von Klemperer

FUTHI Ntshingila’s first novel, Shameless, should strike a chord with local readers. Her central characters, Thandiwe and Zonke, grow up as rural children in Mpumuza, but their lives are torn apart in their early teens by the violence of the late eighties and early nineties.

“It comes from my personal experience — some very personal,” says Ntshingila. “I was a teenager of 14 when we had to move to a less conflicted area — and change from a rural life to a semi-urban one.” Hard on everyone involved, an event like that is particularly traumatic in those already problematic teenage years.

But Ntshingila, who matriculated at Georgetown High, projects no aura of victimhood. Nor do her characters, despite their often difficult lives. Thandiwe works as a prostitute in Yeoville. “I make sure the people I write about aren’t victims,” says Ntshingila. “It’s too easy to label people — their thoughts and feelings may well not be what we assume them to be.”

It’s a point emphasised by the novel’s title — Shameless — which has a powerful ambiguity. On the one hand is the negative connotation; “shameless” as a criticism of someone’s behaviour. Or is it Ntshingila saying that there is no cause for shame? “It was a deliberate choice, trying to complicate the judgements we make,” says Ntshingila. “We judge people, but they have their own lives, and don’t care about what we think. It took a long time to come up with the title — I originally had three. This is the one that seemed to stick.”

At 34, with her first novel in the bookshops, Ntshingila might seem to be riding the crest of a wave. But it has not been easy, getting to where she is now. Growing up was tough, and there was no money for tertiary education. Her ambition had been to study speech and drama at a technicon, but that was an impossible dream. A committed Christian, Ntshingila went to work for Youth for Christ and at L’Abri Centre in the Karkloof. Her four years there are a happy memory — a solid foundation and a source of life skills that have stood her in good stead. They were followed by a year overseas, and then, finally, admission to the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Ntshingila’s ambitions had changed — she studied English and theology, doing joint Honours in the two subjects in 2001. She loved her time at university, calling it “the best years of my life”. From there, she went on to Rhodes for a post-graduate diploma in media and journalism, and then took a job as a reporter at the Sunday Times. Now she works in Pretoria at the Office of the President, in the research, drafting and speechwriting department.

But all the while, the story that would become Shameless stayed with her. She wrote it down, but was still not sure what to do with it. Finally, she sent it to Professor David Attwell, who had taught her at UKZN, and asked him what he thought. He sent it to Glen Cowley at the University Press, saying to Ntshingila that he hoped she wouldn’t mind. Ntshingila was delighted — not surprisingly as Cowley immediately wanted to publish, and not change anything.

I ask whether she wrote with a target audience in mind. “No, I didn’t think about an audience. I always knew I would like to write, and would do so someday, but didn’t know what story would come out. I was just telling about the experience, and I hope it will appeal to anybody, from a professor to a student.” And it should, a short and powerful novel, offering a glimpse into the lives of people getting to grips with a new and often raw society.

Already, Ntshingila is at work on another novel, again set in KwaZulu-Natal. And as we talk, it is clear there are plenty of stories to be told. In Shameless, Ntshingila talks about young blacks being mentored in jobs by whites, and the problems that can arise. I ask about this, though she says her own experiences have been good ones. However, she has seen young black professionals, doomed to continue as someone’s protégé because they don’t play golf, or speak Model C English. “You can sense their frustration,” she says.

Shameless touches on another potential mine of stories — the tales told by domestic workers of their madams. It is only a snapshot moment in the novel, and Ntshingila explains that she is drawing on what she heard from her mother, aunts and late grandmother who had all been domestic workers. “They are very funny women,” she says. “And the stories were very entertaining.”

Work puts time constraints on Ntshingila’s writing, and she says she doesn’t write unless she feels she has something to say, but it seems certain there will be more to come from Pietermaritzburg’ s newest published author.

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