"Qhawe: In Conversation with Nokuthula Mazibuko Msimang"
TM: Tendai Machingaidze
NMM: Nokuthula Mazibuko Msimang
TM: Tell us about yourself - Where you are from; Where you studied; Where you’ve worked; Where you are now.
NMM: I was born and brewed in Soweto. When I dream – I am in Soweto. Stories and reading have always been my joy and refuge. Before I could read I would pester my grannies for songs and stories, and would get quite impatient when told that stories cannot be told in the daytime because the listener will grow horns! When I learnt to read, I would sit for hours reading fairy tales and Enid Blyton books. That is probably where my love of writing for young readers was nurtured.
At university I studied English literature at the University of Cape Town and at the University of the Western Cape. I obtained my PhD in African Literature at the Wits.
TM: You were recently appointed as the inaugural fellow for the University of Pretoria Artist in Residence Fellowship Programme. Please tell us about the programme and the work you will be doing?
NMM: The Fellowship will allow me the space to research the music and extraordinary life of South African music legend and Africa’s first film star Dolly Rathebe. Rathebe was part of an Arts renaissance in the 50s when musicians like Miriam Makeba, Dorothy Masuka, Letta Mbulu, and Abigail Kubheka were making music that would later be celebrated all over the world. Of course there were the DRUM writers like Henry Nxumalo, Eskia Mphahlele, Bloke Modisane, Bessie Head and others who were documenting black city lives and recording history as it was unfolding.
Dolly Rathebe was at the forefront of that renaissance, and it is a great honor to be afforded the space and time to reflect on her music and artistry.
TM: You have written 6 books for young readers. Talk to us about your storytelling journey. Why write for young readers specifically? What/Who has inspired each of your books?
NMM: My first foray into youth literature was as a co-editor of a poetry journal for young readers in 1993. I co-edited English Alive with Robin Malan for a number of years. It was Robin Malan who commissioned me to write a novella for teenagers titled In the Fast Last. It is about a young girl from Soweto who struggles to make choices in the fast and really dramatic life of Soweto parties and good times. A Mozambican Summer was inspired by my travels around our beautiful continent. Love Songs for Nheti is a collection of comic short stories about a young girl, Nheti, growing up in Soweto. Freedom Song is about the need to safeguard our beautiful world for future generations. Spring Offensive is a collective biography about the teenagers who joined the underground guerilla armies of Umkhonto we Sizwe during the 1980s. My latest book is about our Superhero gold medalist middle distance runner Caster Semenya.
TM: Your most recent book Qhawe! Mokgadi Caster Semenya has been translated into 11 South African Languages. How did this come about? What has the reception of the book been like in the various languages?
NMM: I wrote Qhawe! Mokgadi Caster Semenya in 2019, after talking to Semenya and my good friend Becky Motumo (Semenya’s manager) about the idea. They both loved it. It was important for me to get Semenya’s buy-in into the project, so I would read drafts to her as I completed them. She absolutely enjoys the book and she is reading it to her children! The support from Semenya and her team has been fantastic.
My publisher Dusanka Stojakovic and I felt strongly that the story must come out in all 11 official South African languages and be enjoyed by children in their mother tongue.
The book is available on www.newafricabooks.com as well as via www.ethnikids.africa and at bookstores in South Africa.
It is in 11 official languages and the response from book lovers has been amazing.
TM: Children’s books are unique in that you have to work with an illustrator. What was it like collaborating with Sanelisiwe Singaphi?
NMM: Wow. Sanelisiwe Singaphi is pure gold. I first saw her illustrations in a book by historian Professor Nomalanga Mkhize titled In Africa with Avi and Kumbi about great African civilizations. And I thought, she has to illustrate Qhawe! I managed to get in touch with Singaphi, and the rest is a children’s picture book that is a portable art gallery. Her illustrations are vibrant, beautiful and full of soul. She is an amazing illustrator and an absolute delight to collaborate with.
TM: Did you reach out to Caster Semenya when you were writing the book? What has her response been to the book?
NMM: I reached out to Caster Semenya from the very beginning. The story was told to me by Semenya of how she was as an eight year old. I really wanted to capture the spirit of those early years when she was becoming a champion. I wanted to understand what goes into becoming a world champ. Does she rise and shine to train early in the morning? Was she naughty? Did she know she was special and had a future as a world champ? Semenya took me back to her childhood running in her village in Limpopo Province. She took me back to the love and security she felt at home and in her community. She took me back to being inspired by champion runner Maria Mutola.
TM: What is your favorite book/Who is your favorite author?
NMM: African classics I have read over and over are: Bessie Head’s Collector Of Treasures, Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi, Zukiswa Wanner’s The Madams, Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Nawal El Saadawi’s God Dies by the Nile, and Mariama Ba’s So Long A Letter.
TM: What can we expect from you in the future?
NMM: I am immersed in the Story of Mam Dolly Rathebe. Expect other treats as well.