In praise of fellow authors

Been Here, Done That, a conversation with Jenny Hobbs and Zukiswa Wanner, 16 May 2014, Franschhoek Literary Festival.


On entering a panel with Zukiswa Wanner, famed African writer of The Madams, Maid in SA, Men of the South, and new book London Cape Town Joburg, in conversation with Jenny Hobbs (Thoughts on a Makeshift Mortuary) you will be hard pressed to find another panel that was more a group of friends meeting up for a good chin-wag over coffee than a high-brow discussion from two of South Africa's best authors. Hobbs' dry humour combined with Wanner's infectious chuckling have us all thoroughly amused for the full hour. Both authors are enthusiasts for each other's work, and their books manage significant parallels despite the 25-year difference between their publication dates. Both books feature mixed-race couples; are set pre- and post- Apartheid; describe moving to and from South Africa; and deal with death in the family.

“I don't understand how anyone can write without Google. Or Wikipedia!” Wanner cries dramatically at Hobbs' account of using longhand to write her manuscript. Hobbs, smiling, relates how she “used to think that thought flowed down your arm”. She states that “writing a novel is an organic thing” and that none of her books are planned. Wanner agrees: “I never know how my books are going to end.” Hobbs talks of constantly thinking of stories, and how she might “cut out and keep faces” of the things she observes in those around her, and how these things agitate inside her head like a grain of sand in an oyster. When Wanner, asks about a “weird writer moment,” Hobbs gives a “creepy” anecdote of her first computer, powered up and ready to go – displaying the name “Peggy” – the name of her late mother-in-law. As it transpired, it was only the computer programmers putting in their girlfriends' names. Wanner relates another incident, where, not particularly well-dressed, she met a woman who told her “'You're a dead ringer for my favourite author!'” When Wanner, (now properly acting out and dramatising her story with a self-consciously modest smile) told the woman who she was, she received an up-and-down, before this fan told her “'But you're so ordinary!'” and walked away.

A member of the audience interrupts to compliment Wanner's looks, eliciting claps and guffaws from Wanner. The woman qualifies, saying her students were very much impressed on meeting Wanner once, that she came “just as she was.” Not missing a beat, Wanner responds that in South Africa “people don't buy enough books, so I can't afford to buy weave.”

As the conversation begins to close, Hobbs asks Wanner about “Writivism” a recent collective, aiming to promote African talent by means of a short story competition. Wanner explains that successful candidates are assigned mentors from amongst the literary greats over the continent, and the fourteen best submissions are published in an anthology. Not all are accepted: some are told, kindly, that if they can't dance or sing, they should “stick to playing tennis.” Now in its second year, the awards ceremony, accompanied by several local writing workshops, will take place in Kampala next month. Like the Imagine Africa collective, Writivism works to promote African talent from within Africa, instead of “shopping it elsewhere”.

Wanner is asked for her opinion on her books, and responds that there is indeed one with which she is less than satisfied. But, frustrating curiosity, she cops out with “I love all my babies.” In answer to another question – all writers are insane, how does Jenny Hobbs seem to be the exception? –Hobbs asserts that to write in this non-literary country all writers are insane. “I'm insane,” Wanner murmurs. “You're obviously insane,” Hobbs quips.

Wanner closes with praise for the incredible work the intrepid Jenny Hobbs has done as director of the Franschhoek Literary Festival, saying it will be a “poorer festival without you” which is met with warm applause. Hobbs asserts, by way of consolation, that she will be going nowhere and will be writing more books. “On that note,” Wanner says, “if you could all go out and get a copy of this book, Jenny will be here signing them.” I am enthused once again with appreciation for both these women who are so ready to share their panel praising other authors.

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