We sat down with seminal writer and one of our Short Story Day Africa judges, Sindiwe Magona. She is also an accomplished poet, dramatist, storyteller, actress and motivational speaker. Here she speaks about Xhosa traditions, family and some of the perks of the writer life.
Chasing the Tails of My Father's Cattle is set during a time of deep tradition, which both helps and betrays your main characters: a father and his daughter, Shumikazi. What impressed me was how the story, while set in the past, still has much relevance today. For those who have yet to read the book, could you please expand what it is about tradition that you were trying to explore in this particular tale?
SINDIWE: Basically, the whys and wherefores of it. Starting from the premise that tradition is not God made but a human artefact, one must therefore come to the conclusion it is time sensitive. That means all traditions begin as a need, a response to prevailing circumstance; which points to its amenability. When whatever circumstance demanded its birth changes, it seems common sense to expect the relevant tradition to change. What we try to explore in the novel, Chasing the Tails of My Father’s Cattle, is exactly that. Take, for example, the tradition of lobola – which was supposed to protect the woman so that she and her children would never be destitute. Even if the circumstances of her marriage were to change in a manner that was disadvantageous to her or her children, her birth home, her place, position, and good standing as a daughter was secured by the lobola offered and accepted when she left for her marriage home. This ensured she would always be welcome and provided for. This is theory and, no doubt, happened in yesteryear. Today, it is more myth than reality. Society has changed, thanks to a large part to industrialisation. More and more, the Xhosa family has become a unit, nuclear, rather than the extended family of the past. Now, people who propose that we steadfastly hold to this tradition, turn a blind eye to the passage of time and what that has wrought on life as it is lived today and the implication, thereof. They do not hold the family, as represented by the father or his heirs/sons to the responsibility lobola implies. This leaves the woman in a weakened position for she, following tradition, has every right to expect the protection of her male relatives. I believe a more realistic [not to say honest] outlook is to raise girl children with the understanding that their children could end up being their responsibility – a responsibility in which neither the father nor male relatives, both maternal and paternal feel any obligation to help out.
Ukuthwala is another example we could use. The Xhosa maiden of the 19th and 20th century had no other expectation than that she would be made some man’s wife and looked forward to that eventuality. In most cases, she had little say in who that man would be; the more important thing being the correctness of her passage from girlhood to wifehood in an acceptable manner with all pertinent traditions observed. Today’s maiden has more to look forward to, including choice of the man she marries. She looks forward to a career and social mobility and enjoys the protection of the constitution which, among other things, guarantees her human rights. Therefore it is totally wrong and an anachronism to subject her to the ‘tradition’ of ukuthwala. Then, also, men were men and inter-generational sex not the order of the day – which protected young women. Today, the suitor could be the age of the girl’s grandfather and parents too have become mercenary ... all pointing to the ‘tradition’ being debased, if not defiled.
While reading Chasing the Tails of My Father's Cattle I recalled your memoir Forced to Grow where you stated, "I was so busy being the breadwinner that I now know my children never had a mother." Family, and how politics and work can pull families apart, is a running theme in your work. Shumikazi's fictional tale is not your life rewritten. Still, I wondered if your experience helped feed into the empathy that created Jojo, a single parent raising his daughter Shumikazi?
SINDIWE: It is often hard to tell where one’s own life ends and research and imagination begin. I suppose even the choice of which story to pursue does imply the involvement of the self. I have been writing so much unflattering stuff about African men that I began to fear I might be accused of bashing. My father was such a good father; I miss him in my writing ... and there have been [and are] African men who have been excellent fathers [and husbands]. I wanted to pay homage to such men, remind myself that despite the abject paucity of effective fatherhood among present-day African men, this is not the whole picture ...it has not always been so. So, yes, there might be a little of my own experience of single parenthood but, more, I believe, it is the story of loving, effective, present or hands-on fathers whom I attempt to depict in Jojo. It is my belief that caring fatherhood is essential in the raising of both boys as well as girls. I lament the disappearance of this in especially black family life.
There is often a belief amongst writers that writing can be cathartic. Do you find this to be so? As your writing is wide – poetry, memoirs, short story collections and novels – I've wondered, rather than being cathartic, if they fill different needs in your creative expression, such as a desire to explore different ideas and beliefs?
SINDIWE: To the extent that I may tell myself [and even believe] that I have done something about an issue that bothers me, hurts or saddens me, angers me, fills me with outrage ... perhaps we can use the word cathartic. However, it would be more accurate to say my writing, on the whole, is my response to current social ills, injustice, misrepresentation, deception - the whole catastrophe that is the human existence. I write about things that move me, usually in ways that leave me angry.
In the acknowledgements of your novel you cite the support of universities where you were a Writer-in-Residence and Distinguished Visitor. For the less experienced writers out there, can you explain what is involved in being a Writer-in-Residence and how it feeds into the growth of a writer?
SINDIWE: Oh, you flatter me! Although I have been told I no longer qualify to call myself ‘a new writer’ ... that is how I feel still. Despite my age, one has to remember I came to writing late in my life. When my first book was published, 1990 – I was 3 years shy of 50! So many writers my age have been writing for much, much longer than I have! But, to answer your question – not that I have any vast experience of this – a university asks the writer [usually] whether they would be interested in coming to that university for a specified period of time – month[s]; a year or more. There is usually some financial compensation for the services she will provide ... mainly sharing the process with students interested in writing or studying English Literature or some other related course. The writer may also be required to give public lectures ... The benefit to the writer, mainly: is what she learns in the course of interacting with students [and teachers] of literature about her own work and about the work of other writers ... that may be in the coursework of that group. Of course, there is also the access to the amenities the institution offers: excellent libraries, theatre, faculty pow-wows ... great opportunity for networking [not that I am any good at that] and the stimulation such an environment provides.
Lastly, as a judge for the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Prize, could you tell us what you look for in a quality short fiction piece?
SINDIWE: Lively writing, accessibility, relevance, authenticity ... just surprise me.
On Sindiwe's beside table
It's occupied by Flame in The Snow: The Love Letters of Andre Brink and Ingrid Jonker at the moment.