Home-grown chick lit

2008-10-02 08:04

ZUKISWA Wanner's lively novel, The Madams, was published last year - a book in which Thandi decides that being Supermom to her child, Superslut to her husband and Superwoman is all too much, so she hires a white maid. The book has been widely and favourably reviewed and Wanner has also taken part in a radio debate, in which the “chick lit” label was discussed.

The author is in Durban this week for the Time of the Writer Festival, and the first question I ask her is how she feels about her book being categorised as chick lit.

“My definition would be literature by women on issues that affect women. If you refer to women as chicks, it's chick lit, but only in so far as it's a book by a woman, about women.”

For me, the book is an entertaining entry into a genre that is desperately short of anything home-grown, and Wanner agrees that she saw a gap for writing about contemporary South Africa that would be a testament to the times we live in but not, as she puts it, “preachy, rainbow nation, let's hug kind of stuff. It's addressing issues that affect us, post 1994.”

The issues are there - abusive husbands, the problems that beset black-and-white friendships - but the approach is lighthearted. “I haven't got a lot of hang-ups by nature,” says Wanner. “I'm a person who likes to laugh.” And there is obviously plenty to laugh at in turning the traditional maids and madams equation on its head.

“With black people in the majority, the majority will end up doing the menial jobs as well as the others. In this country, white is equated with rich, and if whites make the mistake of being poor, I guess it's embarrassing for them. If a black person comes along and says, ‘come and clean my house', they won't. They would rather stand up with a placard saying, ‘no job'.”

South Africans do not always find it easy to laugh at themselves, but Wanner says the feedback has been positive. “A lot of people tell me they read it for the humour,” she says. “And after that, it makes them think.”

Wanner was born in Zambia - her father one of the first contingent of Mkhonto Wesizwe fighters to leave South Africa. Her parents met in Zambia where her mother was also a refugee, from the then Rhodesia. Wanner was 15 when she first came back to South Africa, in 1991. At that stage, it was only for holidays, but in 2003 when she was working in London, her father died and she returned for the funeral. When she got back to the UK afterwards, she says she realised she was in the wrong place.

“I went into the Flight Centre, bought my ticket, and went and told my boss I was going back, to stay. He asked what about the two months' notice I was supposed to give. I said, ‘How about you notice I'm not here for the next two months?'.” And that was that. Her return has had its ups and downs, but she knows this is her home.

At first, the writing Wanner did was journalism and cultural commentary, using her status as a local with something of an outsider's point of view to good effect. She felt she was too much of a realist to be able to write fiction. She made that remark to veteran South African writer Lewis Nkosi, and his response was: “That is the greatest bullshit I have ever heard”. And so she began work on The Madams.

She sent a draft to the late journalist and writer Doc Bikitsha and he told her to make it longer and send it off to five publishers. “Three of them liked it,” says Wanner, who eventually settled on Oshun Books. She is due to submit her second novel to Oshun next week, this one the tale of the wife of a successful BEE businessman. “She has to be the domestic CEO, even though she has an MBA. She is supportive, but he is dismissive, so one morning she packs up and goes - and doesn't leave a forwarding address. So he finds himself having to cope with the children, including a pre-teen daughter.”

Wanner's second novel sounds like another welcome entry into the lists of home-grown chick lit - whatever you want to call it.

• The Time of the Writer runs at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre until Saturday, with talks, book launches and discussions every evening. For the full programme, contact the Centre for Creative Arts at 031 260 2506 or visit www.cca.ukzn.ac.za

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