Songiziwe Mahlangu is young, soft spoken and big and the thing is, he is still growing. The newly minted winner of the Etisalat Fiction prize is an accountant who got into writing by penning poems. Poetry led to fiction and now a continental award.
The shy novelist with the mien of a teenager spoke to Peju Akande and Toni Kan and tells them how he ended up winning a prize he did not realize he had been entered for and how writing does not even run in his family.
Sabinews: Congrats, what gave you the idea for this story? Where did it come from?
Songiziwe Mahlangu: I guess it is just fictionalized.
SN: Did you think you were going to win?
SM: I did not.
SN: How did you feel when you were announced?
SM: I was surprised and really elated to hear the news.
SN: Will this motivate you to write more?
SN: This is your first novel?
SN: You say you write poetry too?
SM: I do.
SN: So are you a poet or a novelist?
SM: I want to commit to both. It is really hard to get poetry published in South Africa because publishers don’t attach any importance to it because it doesn’t sell.
SN: So how hard was it getting your book published?
SM: It was not hard for me. I sent them my manuscript, like three months later, they got back to me and said they liked it and had to talk to some people. So, I waited for a period and finally they called me and said they want to publish it. It was not that hard.
SN: So, how old were you when you wrote this book?
SM: I was like twenty five.
SN: So, when it came out in South Africa, how was it received?
SM: It was mixed. From the reviews; some people liked it, some people did not.
SN: I haven’t read it, but it sounds like dark comedy?
SM: I suppose, it is a bit dark.
SN: So, your world view, is it sad or cynical?
SM: Where I am at the moment, I think I am hopeful. Maybe, I was cynical at a certain point of my life but now I am a bit more hopeful.
SN: Where did writing come from? Is there anybody in your family who writes?
SM: No one writes in my family.
SN: Your parents, what do they do?
SM: My mother works with the government and my father does some business.
SN: In your acceptance speech, you dedicated this to your mum, you said “thank you for letting me follow my dream.” Can you tell us what happened, and was she insisting you did something else?
SM: I told her I was into creative writing and she was supportive and said I should go ahead and do that. There are a lot of people that would not have allowed you to do that. She allowed me to go ahead.
SN: So, you can now leave accounting for writing?
SM: We all want to be full time writers, but the reality is that it is hard to sustain yourself as a writer. But, it is something we all want.
SN: Do you have siblings?
SM: I have a younger sister.
SN: Does she have any interest in writing?
SM: No, she is studying law.
SN: You say you are a writer and also an accountant?
SM: Yes, but the thing I am really committed to is the writing but I have to work to earn a living.
SN: Now you can do this full time?
SM: Maybe for a short while, I could just focus on the writing.
SN: Next year you are covered, leaving for England and back, are you thinking of all that?
SM: I am thinking of that.
SN: How did you hear about the Etisalat prize?
SM: I did not hear about it. My publisher submitted the book on my behalf. I only found out when I had been long listed. I wasn’t aware of it.
SN: Have you called your mum?
SM: I will call her when I get to my hotel room.
SN: The next novel will it be in the same way or something else?
SM: I don’t know. I have been thinking of it but I haven’t started writing about it. But, once I am finished, there will be freedom.
SN: So, poetry is dead?
SM: No, I still write poetry. Like I said, it is difficult to get it out. Publishers don’t touch us.
SN: So, what do you want to say to the organizers?
SM: I am very appreciative, it is a wonderful opportunity. It enables us to continue writing. So it is like a great investment.
SN: How are you going to spend your money, what do you have in mind?
SM: I don’t think I am going to be spending the money. Like Toni said, the plan is I can continue writing. I am going to live off this money for a while. I am not going to do anything flashy.
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