Last week, Zimbabwean academic, film maker and writer Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu was named as the fiction prize winner at the 2019 Sunday Times Literary Awards for her debut novel, The Theory of Flight. So, who is our latest literary star?
All of these disciplines, how have they helped you arrive at a novel?
Well, I suppose it does look a bit like a mixed bag of sorts... like maybe I was a little lost and trying to find my way. However, there was method in my madness, I promise. From a young age, I knew I wanted to be a writer. So, as I was working towards different degrees, I knew that what I was learning would be brought to the service of my writing some day.
I was very fortunate in that I was able to major in Writing, Literature and Publishing for my undergraduate degree, and that, as a result, not only did I learn the craft of writing, but I also read amazing literature from all over the world.
The Theory of Flight by 2019 Sunday Times Literary Awards winner Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu
While working towards my bachelor of fine arts degree at Emerson College, I was living in Boston, Massachusetts and I fell in love with film. I would go to all these cinemas that were dedicated to showing independent films. This was in the late 1990s/early 2000s, and film makers were doing incredible things, playing with the art of visual storytelling and telling these beautiful and complex, character-driven stories ... I said to myself, ‘I want to do that someday.’ And so, when it came time to write The Theory of Flight, I drew on that way of bringing a story to life.
Studying film helped me to really focus on using words to create images that can be seen by the mind’s eye. A film maker has to see it in order to depict it for the audience. A writer has to create it so that the reader can see it and experience it, so it is like working from the inside out. While studying creative writing and film have provided me with the language, form and style of writing fiction, studying African Studies has provided me with the content for my craft. If a PhD in the humanities does nothing else for you, it will certainly sharpen and hone your critical thinking skills. Critical thinking is something we need in every facet of our lives and is essential when writing a novel.
Should we not rather be talking about African folkloric traditions rather than the old trope of magical realism when we discuss The Theory of Flight?
I think there is a certain kind of magic in the everyday that is very real ... Of course, folkloric traditions from all over the world have always known this and folk tales have always been told without a distinction made between the real and the magical.
However, what I was really trying to portray, in writing The Theory of Flight the way I did, is how the everyday gets storied. Growing up in Zimbabwe in the 1980s and 1990s, you came across stories of ghosts that lured men to graveyards, politicians that had shape-shifting abilities, tokoloshes that waylaid drunken men on their way home from the beer garden – these stories were not only told from person to person, they were also reported in the newspaper, thus giving them, if not the substance, then the veneer, of fact ... of realness. In short, I wanted to show that in this place that I was writing about anything was possible, anything could happen ... and it did.
What’s next for you? Will there be another novel? Is a film in the works?
Now that I am a little long in the tooth, I have decided to give myself time to focus solely on my writing for the next two or three years. I see The Theory of Flight as the first in a series of interconnected novels. It took me roughly 10 years to write it and I was worried that it would take as long to write the second novel. So, I am happy to note that my second novel, The History of Man, will be published by Penguin Random House SA and will be available in July 2020.