Zukiswa Wanner has created magic over the years with her stories, which have earned her acclaim in the form of awards and a firm presence in the literary scene. Born in Zambia to a South African father and a Zimbabwean mother, she now lives in Nairobi, Kenya, where she chats to City Press via a video call about her anticipation for the upcoming Abantu Book Festival and her latest projects.After attending the festival in 2016 and then again last year, Wanner is adamant about the role that the festival plays in amplifying the voices of black writers and publishers, who would ordinarily get lost in the publishing space that is still playing catch up in terms of diversification and transformation.
“I was there in 2016; I make it a point to attend. It’s been very interesting for me to watch Abantu. In the two years that it has happened I have made friends with the people that have been involved. It’s kind of a lifestyle to be honest. One of the things they’ve done successfully is in the first year I remember there was a man who was a bit of a sex pest and the women complained about it. The Abantu team said: ‘We don’t want you to come to this festival and be in our space.’ And this has happened whether people are misogynist or anti-[lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex] or anything unpleasant. So it makes you feel like it’s a very safe space.”
The festival, she says, provides an opportunity for children to also enjoy the thrill of reading new books in a safe environment.
“In the past they’ve had a section for children that was across the street from the section for adults. They did not allow alcohol into the children’s section and to me it’s absolutely amazing for children to have a safe space.
“Last year when Abantu was happening, my son who is 13 years old was writing exams and he couldn’t come, but this year I am coming with him and he is very excited,” she says.
After leaving her full-time job as a journalist 12 years ago, Wanner has racked up a number of accolades. In 2006 she released her debut novel, The Madams, which portrays the story of a middle-class black woman who hires a white helper in post-apartheid South Africa as somewhat of a social experiment. The book was so well received that it was shortlisted for the prestigious K Sello Duiker Memorial Literary Award. Soon after, Men of the South was shortlisted for the Herman Charles Bosman Prize and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best book in the Africa region. In 2008, Behind Every Successful Man was released and Maid in SA: 30 Ways to Leave Your Madam followed in 2013, before her 2015 work, London – Cape Town – Joburg, won the K Sello Duiker Award.
She laughs as she relays how her mother criticised her for taking on writing as a full-time job.
“One of the things that happened in 2006 [was that] my first book, The Madams, came out. I quit my day job, a foolish decision some would say. My mother would ask me what I was doing. One of the things I said was I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to show that writing is work, it’s a profession, and I wanted to make it pay.”
She explains that becoming her own agent meant keeping up-to-date with her book sales and everything involved in the publishing space.
In addition to starting her own publishing house this year – Paivapo, a Shona word for “once upon a time” – Wanner was selected for the Johannesburg Institute of Advanced Study writing fellowship. She also released a new book earlier this year, Hardly Working: A Travel Memoir of Sorts, in which she documents her travels with her partner and son.
“I call my writing pedestrian. I write functional prose; I just want to tell the story. What informs my writing is I love to write about things that I would have wanted to read. I’m a student of life, constantly learning. Sometimes I would read something and I would be like: ‘I didn’t know this.’ So that has definitely influenced my stories and what I write.”
Wanner was prompted to start her own company out of a growing need to tell authentic and fresh African stories from across the continent, a critique, she says unapologetically, of the literary landscape in South Africa.
“The South Africa publishing industry is way ahead, it’s not even comparable to Kenya. The Kenyan industry is a bit more obsessed with publishing for schools, so commercial publishing is not really big. So despite the fact that you’ve got some amazing writers from here, they have to go out of the country to become published.
“The difference though is that, I think, and this has been a complaint that I had as a writer and spurred me to get into publishing myself, South Africa is very insular. I often make a joke about the two biggest economies in Africa: Nigeria thinks its Africa and South Africa thinks it’s not in Africa.”
An image from children’s anthology Story, Story, Story Come, published by Wanner’s publishing house Paivapo. The book tells 12 reimagined folk tales Picture: Supplied
Wanner will be selling copies of her new children’s anthology – Story, Story, Story Come – at the festival, which she explains has been put together by a mostly all-women team.
“I got South Africa’s very own Shubnum Khan to do the cover image,” she says excitedly.
Khan’s work speaks for itself – her debut novel, Onion Tears, about the lives of three generations of Indian Muslim women in South Africa was shortlisted for the Penguin Prize for African Writing and the University of Johannesburg Prize for debut fiction.
The anthology is a collaboration between Paivapo and Lagos-based Ouida Books imprint Tanja, and has been translated into isiXhosa by Siphiwo Mahala and Mandla Matyumza as Chosi Ntsomi. Wanner did the Shona translation, Dzepfunde, for Paivapo.
As if this literary legend does not have enough in her diary, she is also working on a new novel, which she says examines the role of identity, with Sol Plaatje making an appearance.
“I’m telling you this because I want it to hold me to completing the novel,” she laughs.
Wanner's pick of The Abantu Book Festival
1. Kagiso Molope
Born in South Africa, Molope made Canada her home after moving there in 1997. This year she released Such A Lonely, Lovely Road. “I am excited about it because I read it when it was still a manuscript. It went through at least three different drafts. It’s a different thing, bringing in a queer angle, and it’s very exciting for me.”
2. Novuyo Tshuma
This Zimbabwean writer, who has served as assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Iowa, released her debut novel, House of Stone, in June this year. “The literal meaning of Zimbabwe is house of stone. I thought this was very ambitious of the writer to name her book after Zimbabwe. She writes of a painful time and place when Zimbabwe was under the rule of Gukurahundi, which is an open secret in Zimbabwe, but it’s not often talked about.”
3. Tsitsi Dangarembga
The Zimbabwean author and film maker returns to the protagonist of her acclaimed first novel, Nervous Conditions, which was published in 1988, to deliver the psychologically charged This Mournable Body."I first read Nervous Conditions when I was 12 and I have tried to read it every year since then. I keep going back to it.”
4. Helon Habila
This Nigerian novelist, who won the Caine Prize in 2001, has released a new book titled The Chibok Girls: the Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria. “It will be really interesting to see him because his story is just so powerful.”