As her new novel hits the shelves, literary legend Sindiwe Magona chats to YOU about what inspires her.
What’s it like being the recipient of the Ellen Kuzwayo Council Award as well as three honorary doctorates?
Without being facetious, my life never stops surprising me. When you read part two of my autobiography, which starts with the sentence, “I was a has-been at the age of 23” – I had no dreams, being the person I was then with the low self-expectations that were instilled in us by the environment. So I’m a much surprised recipient of all these awards. I’m grateful, profoundly humbled.
So I should refer to you as Doctor-Doctor-Doctor Magona?
Don’t make me laugh – I’m trying to be serious!
Why do you choose to write stories about people living in rural areas and townships who are often marginalised?
The stories I tell are stories that come to me. How? Because I’m of those people. I may no longer live in the township but I have family and friends there. So every week what’s happened in my street and neighbourhood comes to me – who’s died and how, who’s got married, who’s had a baby.
When I read the newspaper or listen to the news and hear, “So many people got shot in NY [Nyanga] this or that”, I can see that house [in my mind]. I know the mother who lived there. She was my mother’s generation. I know the children who were my age. I know their children who are now being massacred. So this is, for me, my reality. I write about my reality. If it’s painful, it’s my pain. There’s no running away from that.
What makes you angry?
Children being given no chance to become who they were meant to become by the universe – because they’re born into poverty, neglect, lovelessness. This to me is a crime, if not a sin. No child deserves that.
What makes you laugh?
When I tell stories to children! I forget I’m being watched when I tell stories and I just become one of them. They honestly bring out the best in me.
How have you been coping during lockdown?
I looked at the lockdown and said, “This is something I can’t avoid. I understand why it’s happening and I agree with it.” So the lockdown for me was, “What can you do with this time?” I’m someone who’s happy to be on my own. I read a lot. I try to write and I’m good at sleeping.
What are some of the things you missed most during lockdown?
Walking. I’m a walker in the morning, that’s the first thing I do. And visiting my siblings and friends. And going to church on Sundays. But I told myself I was obeying the injunction to self-isolate not just for myself but for the community.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the past six months and why would you recommend it?
Like Water Is for Fish by Dr Garth Japhet. I recommend it although I’m jealous! [The author is] the doctor who was responsible for Soul City and things like that. I was jealous of the experiences he’s had, doing the kind of work I firmly believe is necessary towards remaking the village that’s the nation of South Africa.
[REVIEW] When The Village Sleeps
By SINDIWE MAGONA
Magona’s new novel is told by multiple generations of amaTolo women: the living dead, a child who’s not yet formed in the human flesh, and the protagonist who brings these spirits to intervene in the present through her choices. Busi is a 13-year-old girl who lives with her mother in the backyard dwelling of her aunt’s RDP house in the informal Cape Town settlement of Kwanele.
She can’t depend on her mom, who’s irresponsible and constantly returns home at odd hours smelling of alcohol. Neither can she trust her dad – he’s disappointed her so many times. So Busi decides to become pregnant but her reason for it is shocking.
This book explores fetal alcohol spectrum disorders as well as the controversial issues of teenage pregnancy and child-support grants. “I’ve been accused of being anti-grant and anti-poor,” Magona tells YOU. “I’m not. Poverty maintenance [as opposed to poverty eradication] is what I’m against.”
This novel might sound gloomy but it’s not. Ultimately this is a story of hope and possibility. (Published by Picador Africa)