South African novelist, Zukiswa Wanner, is one of the busiest people I know. In 2020, she was named African Literary Person of the Year by Brittle Paper, one of the leading blogs on African literature. As if to seal this award, a few days later, she was named one of the 100 Most Influential Africans of 2020 by New African Magazine.
To say she is South African, is to not tell the full story. She was born in Zambia to a Zimbabwean mother and a South African father and currently lives in Kenya.
Wanner has written four novels, four children’s books and two non-fiction books. She contributed to the African children’s anthology, Story Story Story Come (2018) and translated it into Shona. She one of the writers in the New Daughters of Africa (2019) anthology and co-edited the Africa-Asia anthology, Behind the Shadows (2012) with Indian writer Rohini Chowdhury and coordinated and edited the African Young Adult anthology Water Birds on the Lake Shore (2019). She has judged the Etisalat Prize (2015) and The Commonwealth Prize (2016) and has co-facilitated the Caine Prize workshop with Sudanese writer and first Caine winner, Leila Aboulela.
Wanner has been nominated for and won several awards and has traveled extensively, attending conferences, giving workshops and sharing her work. She believes in networking and supporting other writers. Valley of Writers spoke to her about her ethos and asked her to share tips on how writers can make time to create new work and build supportive networks as well.
Fungai Tichawangana: All the events that you attend, that sort of stuff takes a lot of time. How important is this sort of networking compared to just sitting down and writing as much as one can and putting it out into the world?
Zukiswa Wanner: It does take time. I think it’s important to select a few events to attend annually. I think any writer, whatever stage of their writing, benefits immensely from selecting some and attending them (and of course whatever book launches/readings can be attended to increase one’s library because the best internship for a writer is reading).
That said, it’s equally important to carve out time to write. I am old-fashioned enough to suggest that unless and until one has published, one is not a writer. It’s important then to do the work but it needs discipline.
I am old-fashioned enough to suggest that unless and until one has published, one is not a writer.
As an example, in 2019, I had a children’s book out and two short stories published; I had an anthology of 12 children’s stories which I published translated into four languages (and I did one of the translations); I coordinated and edited an anthology of 17 Young Adult stories from across the continent in three languages; and all while still curating events for Artistic Encounters and writing my bi-monthly column for Mail & Guardian.
And of course, the literary events I attend usually mean I have to prepare and read the works of either my co-panelists or the writers I am moderating so that I am able to engage well with their work. But writing is my profession and not a hobby so I make time for it. And every writer who takes their work seriously should too. I know the importance of attending events as a marketing tool so I make time for that. But I would never use that as an excuse for why I haven’t written. So I find a way of striking a balance.
But writing is my profession and not a hobby so I make time for it.
There is this common notion that writing is a lonely art? What has been your experience as a writer in this regard?
When it comes to sitting down and transcribing the story from the brain to the computer/paper, that’s absolutely true. But if you, like me, believe that writing is more than just the actual act of transcribing, then writing is not lonely. It’s through interactions with human beings that I have been able to understand human nature as well as get dialogue and mannerisms right.
You organize a lot of events for writers and attend numerous book fairs and festivals. What have you found to be the most obvious areas for writers to collaborate?
I’m not quite sure that writers can collaborate in the actual work beyond supporting and amplifying each other’s work. Except of course in the case where one writer is editing an anthology and other writers can contribute. I do think that writers should be collaborating more with other art forms such as theatre, music, visual art. It’s part of the reason why I started Artistic Encounters. Not only will the two different artists be able to see the magic that can be created when two arts form come together, it means the audience also get to experience their favourite art form in a way that they may not have thought of.
I do think that writers should be collaborating more with other art forms such as theatre, music, visual art.
How have other writers reached out and helped you in your work?
Many new writers don’t understand this, but the biggest supporters of writers are other writers. When you turn up for a reading by another author, when you read their work and talk about it, whether on social media or in person, when you buy books you particularly like as presents for your loved ones, get them signed by the author and gift them as holiday presents, it makes a hell of a difference.
Many new writers don’t understand this, but the biggest supporters of writers are other writers.
Personally, I can’t remember the last time I gifted anyone that I love anything without a book being part of the package. I can’t expect someone to grow the literary industry without my personally doing something about it when I am part of it.
I can’t expect someone to grow the literary industry without my personally doing something about it…
Oftentimes, first-time writers feel like they are outsiders to the circle. If you are unpublished, it can seem impossible to break through sometimes. What can new, unpublished writers do to get plugged into that circle so that they can learn from other writers?
I can’t say this enough: invest time and money in your art. Attend literary events. Read online literary journals such as Lolwe, Doek, and The Lagos Review. Submit to them. Follow literary blogs such as Jamesmurua.com and Brittle Paper.
You will then know when there are callouts for poetry, short stories, novels or whatever genre of writing you do. Follow literary personalities such as Kinna Likimani on Twitter. They will keep you in the loop of what is going on in the literary industry. Equally important, know that reading did not start and end with your generation. Read those that come before you and those who came after you and understand that you are all in this together. It keeps you on your toes, and also helps you understand the trends. Ama Ata Aidoo, Nuruddin Farah, and Zakes Mda are three older writers I know who do this consistently.
Photo of Zukiswa Wanner by Victor Adewale. Graphic by Exsit Digital.