Fascinated by stories

SOUTH African novelist, poet and playwright Zakes Mda is an ambassador for National Book Week, which is running across the country right now – and he is visiting Port Elizabeth to present his views on life and writing this week to mark the cultural event.

What propelled you to become a writer?

I often say that before you can become a great writer you need to be a great reader. I was propelled into writing by reading. I grew up surrounded by books from an early age.

My father was a high school teacher of literature when I was born, and then later he became a lawyer. Reading was a normal, everyday activity in my family.

The first novel I ever read as a kid was Ingqumbo Yeminyaya by AC Jordan. I was actually named after a character in that novel, which presaged my future career.

I was fascinated by the storytelling, the use of language, and the fact that the author was able to evoke emotions in me through his well-chosen words.

They formed such vivid images that I could have sworn I was there. I knew at that point I was going to be a writer.

I started writing stories and poems in the isiXhosa language and was first published at the age of 13, with a short story titled Igqirha laseMvubase.

What were your influences?

Of course both my mother and father encouraged my writing, but one of the greatest influences – which can be seen even in my first published story – was my grandmother, who was a primary school teacher.

Whenever we visited her in the Eastern Cape, where she lived with a whole horde of grandchildren, she would tell us traditional folk stories known as intsomi.

And we would also tell our own stories, those that were passed from generation to generation, and those that we created ourselves or adapted from the traditional ones.

In this way we were serving an apprenticeship as storytellers.

The strength of these stories was that they were magical, full of myths and legends. Hence the narrative mode of fiction, nowadays called magical realism, which I use most of the time. So, it was a combination of literary fiction and the oral tradition which made me the writer I am today.

What are the elements of a great story?

Every good story must be driven by a character who wants something, however mundane his or her desire may be.

And of course there must be obstacles that try to prevent him from fulfilling his or her desire.

These are the major building blocks for a good story, whether it is for children or adults.

What were your favourite books as a child?

My major reading material as a child was comic books. I was much enamoured with both Marvel and DC Comics. I still enjoy comics to this day.

I also read a lot of isiXhosa and Sesotho novels as a child, and loved such authors as Guybon Sinxo and JJ Machobane. Their characters loom in my imagination to this day.

Do you think our South Africa authors have a role in supporting children's literature to develop in Africa?

Oh, yes! Writing for children and young adults is a special skill. Not every writer will master it. It demands a lot from your imagination. In trying to correct the dearth of children's literature in South Africa I once took a group of our writers to Iceland where various Scandinavian writers and illustrators held workshops in children's literature. Scandinavians are world-famous for their children's literature.

They view such authors as mainstream and shower them with a lot of respect and honours.

A year later we did the same workshops at the Centre for the Book in Cape Town. Those efforts did bear some fruit in that one of the participants, Mpapa Mokhoane from Bloemfontein, has written a number of wonderful books for children in Sesotho and these have sold quite well. I wrote a children's book jointly with him titled Penny and Puffy, which I also illustrated. But alas, I haven't written another book for children since, though I have plans for at least three!

What is the best thing about reading and writing?

Reading opens you to other worlds and expands your horizons. It improves your language skills and your critical thinking. It also enriches your own imagination as reading itself is a creative act.

As a reader you are always filling in the gaps that the authors have left open. And you draw from your own experience, your own biography, to do that.

Why do you support initiatives like National Book Week and Nal'ibali?

I support all initiatives that encourage the culture of reading and writing.

ýFor more information on Nal'ibali, please visit the Nal'ibali website: www.nalibali.org; the Nal'ibali mobisite: www.nalibali.mobi or e-mail Nal'ibali at info@nalibali.org

Full programme at Book Week

NATIONAL Book Week continues this week at The Red Location Museum with activities ending on Saturday.

Book discussions, a word-a-thon, specialised workshops by authors such as Zakes Mda and Deon Meyer, family literacy workshops, motivational talks by celebrity ambassadors such as Bonnie Henna and Aaron Moloisi, an authors' programme, storytelling, reading tents and a praise-singing workshop by Zolani Mkiva are being conducted as part of this year's activities.

Entrance to National Book Week programmes is free, enabling schools, families and the general public to attend.

Various industry stakeholders will be invited to participate in the exhibitions, seminars and training activities.

ýFor further information: visit www.nationalbookweek.co.za or contact (021)914-8626/7