Angela Makholwa is fast becoming the darling of SA crime fiction. Lloyd Gedye caught up with her at Time of the Writer in Durban
Since 2007, Angela Makholwa has been earning a reputation for her extremely popular and critically acclaimed fiction. Her latest novel, Black Widow Society, which was published last year, delves into a secret society of women conspiring to kill their abusive husbands. Unlike some of her characters, Makholwa doesn’t take herself too seriously.
“If you had to look at my web browser history during the time I was writing this novel, it was just shameful,” she said at Durban’s premier book festival, where she was a featured writer this week.
On the opening night of the Time of the Writer festival, you said you wanted to move away from race-based literature. Please explain?...
I think the frustration for me with much of apartheid-era literature is that it was grounded in race. Obviously I understand race is a big issue in South Africa. Even now, 20 years into democracy, it still is.
But I don’t want to be defined by the colour of my skin – all of us are greater than that. If you overemphasise its impact on your identity, you are only creating boundaries for yourself.
You have been hailed as SA’s first black female crime writer. How does that tag sit with you?
It means nothing to me. I need to find the person who coined that phrase to describe me and strangle them. I am not sure where it came from. It is a strange thing to be pegged as. It’s almost saying that if you are a black person who always wanted to read crime fiction, here is the woman for you. I am not comfortable with that.
What are your thoughts about writers like yourself growing new reading markets in South Africa?
I think you are on point. The feedback I get from many readers is: ‘I never used to read South African fiction. I thought it was boring and stale, but friends kept recommending your book.’
I think I was that person as well, the person who said: ‘Oh, here we go, South African fiction?...’
I have always been a reader, but the South African books I read were the classics like Cry, the Beloved
Country and I loved them, but I guess they framed South African fiction for me, which was race, race – all the time. I was, like, ‘what about the other stuff?’ I guess there were other people out there thinking like me.
Tell us about your first novel, Red Ink, which was published in 2007.
I started work on my first book in 2002. It started out as a biography of Moses Sithole. He was a serial killer who was behind bars at the time and he approached me to write his life story.
How did you connect with Moses Sithole in the first place?
I was a journalist working on the story for a magazine in 1997, the year he was arrested. I wrote him a letter asking for an interview behind bars, hoping for a scoop. After five years, he called me and said he could see I was someone who really wanted to understand him and he was ready to talk.
So how did the project go from a biography to a debut fiction novel?
He actually started acting like a psychopath, calling me, sending me love letters and things like that, and so I dropped that project. Then I met this publisher in 2005 and he said: ‘That’s an amazing story, you should fictionalise it.’
Was that the first time you contemplated writing fiction?
Yes, it had never occurred to me before.
So the subject matter basically decided for you that your first novel would be a piece of crime fiction?
It was completely accidental. I had an inkling one day I might want to write a book, but I had no idea what book it would be. I probably would not have chosen to work in crime fiction with my first book.
Tell us about your latest novel, Black Widow Society.
Around 2005, there were a number of high-profile cases of women accused of killing their husbands. I kept thinking that they once loved their husbands. What happens, on that day, to a woman when she decides to murder her husband?
This developed into the idea of a syndicate that helped women get out of abusive relationships by having their spouses killed.
It is a timely and pertinent idea for a novel in a country with such high rates of gender violence?...
It is a very pressing problem. People like to think of it as affecting the lower echelons of society. That is why I purposefully made it elitist, because the wealthier the woman who is experiencing domestic abuse, the more likely she will try to hide it.