Nthikeng Mohlele: ‘I am solitary in mind and outlook’

Africa39 author, Nthikeng Mohlele (South Africa)

Africa39 author, Nthikeng Mohlele (South Africa)

What are your 5 favourite novels?

One discovers new literary loves with the passage of time and maturation of reading sensibilities. At present my favorites include J.M Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K, V.S Naipaul’s Half a Life, Phillip Roths’ The Dying Animal, Ake by Wole Soyinka and The African Child by Camara Laye.

Which 3 authors do you consider to have influenced you the most? How did each influence your work?

They are more than three: Dambudzo Marechera for pure literary bravery with language and metaphor, J.M Coetzee for word economy and sanitized prose, Albert Camus for framing of existential questions or preoccupations, Tony Morrison for the emotive and writing Afro American history and identity, Franz Kafka and George Orwell for exploration of themes concerning power, Martin Amis and Vladimir Nabokov for showing off, Ayi Kwei Armah for historicity and memorable characters, Gabriel Garcia Marquez for humour, and musician Miles Davis for note / word precision.

What plans do you have for your literary career over the next 3-5 years? What are you working on? What do you hope to publish? Which artists/authors/publishers/editors do you hope to work with?

I perceive my writing life as a lifetime vocation. I have just completed my fourth novel called Pleasure and am working on a fifth between reading and my day job. I have great editors in Sean Fraser and Elana Bregin—and don’t wish to part with them for no earth shattering reason. Publishers: Vintage, Secker & Warberg, Penguin—in partnership with my South African publishers.

Are you involved with any literary organisations in Africa or outside of Africa? How do you see the work of these organisation as contributing to your vision and career, as well as to broader cultural production in Africa?

I am, by nature and not out of choice, not a fan of group think—though I have great respect for people who do; thus contributing greatly to the development of literature and the arts in general. I am solitary in mind and outlook—for the simple reason that I know me and my views better than anyone else. I write books—I think that is enough, for now.

Please could you tell readers about your most recent artistic project, what it involved, and what you learned from it?

I dabble in atrocious poetry—horrid things I post on Facebook for keeping my mind working and for my personal amusement. I plan to be a closet poet one day. I read philosophy whenever I can; and I am slowly learning music through the guitar.

How do you hope/anticipate that the Hay Festival and the Africa39 project will help advance your career? What impact has it had thus far? What specific things would you like to see Hay Festival do for writers?

It helps profile writers by giving or affording them a global footprint. It is not up to me to dictate what should or should happen—but I think literature everywhere needs writers that are paid, prizes worth winning, greater cross pollination between world cultures and civilizations through translations and preservation. Why should great books be out of print—yet no drug dealer runs out of cocaine and heroin or whatnot?

What are the main challenges you see facing artists, writers, and literary culture in your country and region? How are you ameliorating these difficulties? What specific things would you like to see done in order to address these challenges?

I suppose the overarching limitation in South Africa is the fact that people don’t buy fiction like they do non fiction. Second, as a developing country in a devolving region, it is to be expected that there are more pressing things to people’s time and resources than chasing books—an unfortunate tragedy. Writers should be paid as well as well paid DJs—for instance.

What festivals/workshops/residencies have you attended recently? What was your role? What did you take away from the experiences you had there?

I was on discussion panels at ‘The Time of the Writer Festival’ in Durban South Africa, The Franschoek Literary Festival in the Western Cape South Africa and I am attending the Open Book Festival during September. It was confirmed to me that literature continues to be an important instrument in performing societal diagnosis if not autopsies.

Are there any authors whom you mentor, whose work you’d like to mention or talk about?

I would like to assist younger writers—yes, but I simply don’t have the time at the moment and would rather not ruin anyone’s chances of being a writer by offering half baked guidance. I hope to still contribute the little I have learnt to younger writers in the future when time permits.

Speaking on the “White Literary System” Debate, Mohlele said:

Of course there is lack of and a resistance to transformation in some quarters (not all) in our nation – everyone knows or should know that after twenty years. It is not news. It’s a sickness – a sickness of people who resist change and that of those not daring enough to insist on that change. Insistence also means imagining a counter narrative to apartheid savagery and its varied legacies – a narrative that does not insist on mining apartheid ruins for progressive solutions. As much as most festivals in their current form would have been established post 1994 – it does not follow that they would suddenly and miraculously be inclusive and representative! […]

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