‘New Daughters of Africa’: In Conversation with Zukiswa Wanner
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n 3 September 2020, the landmark anthology, ‘New Daughters of Africa’, which is made up of 200 contributions by women writers of African descent, edited by Margaret Busby, will be published in paperback by Myriad Editions.

As part of the build-up to this release, we have teamed up with Myriad Editions to bring you some insights into the anthology and its contributors. First, we are sharing our recent conversation with writer, curator, and overall literary-magic-worker Zukiswa Wanner, to whom we spoke about her contribution to the anthology, her creative writing process, and the importance of anthologies such as ‘New Daughters of Africa’.

We hope you enjoy reading Zukiswa’s characteristically insightful, intelligent, and witty answers as much as we did, and that this conversation will get you as excited as we are about the paperback release of ‘New Daughters of Africa’.

Now, without further ado, please enjoy our conversation with Zukiswa Wanner:

 


 

A: Could you tell us a bit about yourself? What do you do, what are you passionate about, and anything else you’d like us to know about you?

Z: I am a writer who considers the African continent in its entirety my home. For the sake of legalities though, I am a Zambian-born, Kenyan-residing Daughter of Africa with a Zimbabwean mother and a South African father (making South Africa the country I vote for during elections). I am passionate about literature in particular and art in general. It’s this passion that led me to create a fun literature-meets-other-art forms platform called Artistic Encounters which has been running for the last three years here in Nairobi and which I had hoped to kick off as a festival this year. It’s not a book and arts’ festival in the traditional format. Rather what I did with Artistic Encounters was get a writer with say a musician/a visual artist/a dancer/an actor and see what magic the two art forms could create on stage. Victor Ehikhamenor (as a visual artist because he is also a writer), Koleka Putuma, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Lola Shoneyin, Pede Hollist, Maimouna Jallow, Seeretsi, Makadem, Prudence Katomeni (on mbira which was fun because she is mostly known as a pianist and vocalist) and Angela Makholwa are some of the artists who have featured in it. This is turning out to be a very long answer already but, I miss swimming. I get some of my best creative ideas when in the water.

A: Earlier this year, you became the first Daughter of Africa to win the Goethe Medal. How did you feel when you heard the news? 

Z: I was immensely honoured to get the accolade. A little sad that an honour of such magnitude did not come from my home continent first but there you are. Prophets. Own towns. And so forth and so on…

A: You have also been working hard to keep us busy, entertained, and educated while on lockdown. How did the idea for AfrolitSansFrontières come up? And what are your plans for it for the future?

Z: John Legend, believe it or not. I was watching his At Home concert in the first week of Kenya’s lockdown. A short while on the same early morning, I was chatting to my friend Abu (Adam Ibrahim) and I asked him how cool it would be if we had a virtual festival. ‘Great idea’, he said. And so that same Friday morning, because I am crazy like that, I started sending out WhatsApp texts to my writer friends and asked them if they were cool with being part of this festival that would start on Monday. By 5pm, I had all 16 writers (including myself) who formed the first Afrolit. Plans for the future? As I have mentioned, Afrolit 5 is the final in English, French and Portuguese for the year. We however have one in African languages planned during the UK’s Black History Month, in October and Kola Tubosun and Mukoma wa Ngugi have agreed to co-curate. Post-covid, I hope to have five online ones every year just like this. And use them as platforms to identify fun, crazy writers to have for an Artistic Encounters Festival in the year after. If things are back to normal in 2021, I already know who is on my line-up based on this year.

A: How important would you say anthologies like ‘New Daughters of Africa’ are in contemporary societies – where Africans are often either marginalised or exoticised, and African women are even more so?

Z: I think they are immensely important. I call them anthological legs-up and NDOA [‘New Daughters of Africa’] more than any other. Publishers and agents get to know lesser known but brilliant writers when they likely buy the anthology because of the known names. It’s interestingly what I have also been trying to do with Afrolit…get the audience to turn up to the festival because of the names they know but have them pleasantly surprised by those they didn’t know.

I think they are immensely important. I call them anthological legs-up and NDOA [‘New Daughters of Africa’] more than any other. Publishers and agents get to know lesser known but brilliant writers when they likely buy the anthology because of the known names. Zukiswa Wanner

A: ‘New Daughters of Africa’ is all about women – from the contributors all the way to the editor. Were you at all inspired by the quantity and quality of contributions that make up this volume?

Z: Absolutely. A lot of these sisters really brought their A-Game to this. A testament, perhaps, to how much esteem, professional and otherwise, we have for the editor.

A: Did you find out about any writer(s) that you previously never knew of before reading ‘New Daughters of Africa’?

Z: Yes. Yes. Yes. Trifonia Obono. Makes me curse why I am not enough of a polyglot with colonial languages. Aja Monet. At least half the pre 1900s writers. So many names in the 50s and 60s and a few in the 70s and 80s. Some time ago I wrote that I now refuse to do all those “Ten Writers/Books from Africa You Should Read” list and this just cemented my resolve. The more I know in this field of literature that I love so much, the more I realise I do not know. So I am happy that I live at a time that I do and have the literary networks that I do so I can always learn more.

A lot of these sisters really brought their A-Game to this. A testament, perhaps, to how much esteem, professional and otherwise, we have for the editor. Zukiswa Wanner

A: How important would you say the role of Africa’s daughters is – not just in African writing, but in the African renaissance as a whole? 

Z: Oh man. Immensely. Listen, we live in a world where Africa’s daughters have been running this shit world without credit. Whenever some idiot tells me we are not ready to have a woman president yet, and a black woman president at that, anywhere in the world, I look at them like they are smoking some bad stuff. Even in traditional cishet household, it’s women who are running things. Sometimes they may pretend that the men are in charge, but we all know. And here is the thing: a country is just a bigger household. And in rich white households, it’s black women who are getting stuff done, too often at the expense of their own loved ones and their own mental health. I’m not even joking about this one. Just ask the rich and if they are going to be honest about it, all of them from the white Premier of Cape Town, to the white woman ‘conservationist’ in Kenya, to the Hamptons white ‘feminist’ heiress to the white housewife in Brazil, heck, to the Queen of England, they’ll all be like “No! No! I’m in charge here.” Then next they’ll be like “Busi! Njeri! Latricia!Fernanda/Meghan. Where is the Constitution/my khakhis/the Egyptian cotton towels/my children/my grandson?” Then it hits them, you know? They are like “Okay. Yes. Zooks is right. Damn these black women.” So ja. Daughters of Africa are not just key for an African but a world renaissance.  

Listen, we live in a world where Africa’s daughters have been running this shit world without credit. Zukiswa Wanner

A: Where did the idea for your short story ‘This Is Not Au Revoir’ come from?

Z: It was something that I had been thinking of for a long time. How same-sex relationships sometimes mirror heterosexual relationships in the worst possible ways. I have had the misfortune of knowing friends in both sorts of relationships who have been in emotionally and sometimes physically abusive relationship. A few days before the deadline for NDOA, I realised I had not sent anything yet. I sat down one evening and just wrote it. As soon as I finished writing it, I immediately sent to Ms. Busby.

A: What role do African cities (or settings) play in your writing in general, and in this story in particular? 

Z: They are the pulse of my settings. My favourite African cities each have something distinctive but what they all also have in common is how I feel I belong to each and every one of them. I have never shared this before but here is the thing. The first day I enter any of my favourite cities, I immediately take a walk, put my earphones on and start playing Jay-Z’s The City is Mine. Joburg. Kinshasa. Accra. Lagos. Maputo. Nairobi. Their special, different quality helps me create the narrative that I think readers familiar with that city tend to appreciate. The setting for This is Not Au Revoir in Joburg was particularly important because it is the city I know and love with the most extreme weather conditions on the continent. And the weather mirrored the emotions of the protagonist.

[African cities]  are the pulse of my settings. Zukiswa Wanner

A: In this short story, you raise the very important issue of body shaming, and the double standards that prevail when it comes to weight gain in men and women. How would you describe the current situation in South(ern) African communities or any other community that you’ve lived in, with regards to female body shaming, fatphobia, and general body image perceptions of women? 

Z: I hope I managed to go beyond gender. I think fatphobia and body shaming has become more and more prevalent as social media has become more prominent. I know men and women who have had to resort to cosmetic surgery because the perfect body just wasn’t happening despite the exercises and diets. I do think this continent is still kinder than most when it comes to accepting different weights but also of course, booty has been a thing forever.

A: In this story, you also raise the issue of mental health and eating disorders in African women. Would you say that there is a difference in the ways in which Black women and non-Black women are perceived, and/or treated in multiracial African communities? If so, why would you say this is the case? 

Z: The horrible horrible burden of the Strong Black Woman that we have had to bear since time immemorial is the cause of this. When a daughter of Africa admits to being stressed or depressed or having any mental health issue, then she is ‘acting too white.’ When one has an eating disorder, instead of our trying to seek counselling for them and getting them to see a therapist, they must definitely be acting white. I mean as our mothers have been telling us since we were children, there are starving children in ‘insert random African country currently having drought here’ so how dare we have food and decide not to eat it. It’s like being an African black trans vegan in the US, UK, France, Portugal or Brazil. You’d be looked at like you done lost your mind. You don’t have enough problems being an African? Nor being black? Nor being trans? You must take it further and say no to meat? How now? I am however starting to see some changes. I don’t know when it started but I really must give credit to the millennials and Generation Zs. I see there is greater discussion of mental health and eating disorders on my social media and in my personal relationships. I see that black women are more willing to hold each other in kindness. To say, ‘you know what? It’s okay to say I am sick and tired and I am taking time out to get some me-time.’ I also see that many of us are unlearning the toxic messages we grew up with about being black women. And it’s beautiful to watch and of course we need more of it across the globe for all daughters of Africa.

The horrible horrible burden of the Strong Black Woman that we have had to bear since time immemorial is the cause of this. When a daughter of Africa admits to being stressed or depressed or having any mental health issue, then she is ‘acting too white’. Zukiswa Wanner

A: What we loved the most about this story was the female narrator, Naledi. She is complicated, flawed, and obviously has been through a lot in her life. But she is the only one that you give a name to. The rest of the main characters (which also happen to be male) are nameless. Could you tell us more about why this was the case?

Z: You are the only readers I know so far who missed this. The other two characters are, in fact, a man and a woman. The first lover is very clearly male. But I wanted to be ambiguous enough with the second lover that when you read the last line you would say “oh okay so…” That last line is the give-away. There is also a small hint on the Valentine’s Day paragraph. And now when you reread it, now that I have told you this, you won’t be able to unsee it. But yeah. I didn’t name them and only named Naledi because Naledi is narrating the story and she is reclaiming herself. She is telling the immediate ex that she is now as irrelevant as the last one. Because emotional abuse can be so terrible that sometimes love dies with this sort of finality.

A: Why did you choose this particular story as your contribution to ‘New Daughters of Africa’? 

Z: It felt important for me to have a story that gives some sisterhood experience of something that perhaps we don’t generally talk about as much. Gender Based Violence is often discussed in black women circles but eating disorders? Not so much.

A: ‘New Daughters of Africa’ is subtitled as ‘An international anthology of writing by women of African descent’. Some people argue that all writing is writing and that differentiations such as ‘women’s writing’ or ‘African writing’ are superfluous, or even harmful; others proudly call themselves ‘African writers’ and argue in favour of this kind of categorisation. How do you feel about this, and why? 

Z: I try not to use the African writers’ label because I stay on this continent so when I am here I am a writer, you know? Over here Roberts, Gladwell, Rowling even Coetzee are white/AngloSaxon writers because I am the standard. Majority of the population look like me.

I am however aware of global publishing politics where it’s people who don’t look like me who run it. Until that playing field has been levelled and every festival treats me like I am treated when I go to Abantu in South Africa or Ake in Nigeria where it’s the quality of my work not the fact that they want a quota of bodies that are black and have vaginas, these anthologies are necessary. Until I can attend a literary festival in the UK or in the US where I am not asked about corruption by African Presidents but rather have people engage with my writing, there will always be a need for an anthology of African/Black writing. And until patriarchy is really and truly fucked and there is greater intersectionality there will always be need for anthologies of women of African descent/black queer anthologies and and and 

Until I can attend a literary festival in the UK or in the US where I am not asked about corruption by African Presidents but rather have people engage with my writing, there will always be a need for an anthology of African/Black writing. Zukiswa Wanner

A: What’s next for Zukiswa Wanner?

Z: In the next 12 months, a children’s book with Pushkin Press – a reimagining of Mandela when he was underground before his arrest. Completing my next adult novel and submitting to my agent. Afrolit Sans Frontieres. In the longer term, hopefully another AfroYoungAdult anthology in English, French, Kiswahili and hopefully Portuguese the second time around, ideally comics. Edit and publish more amazing books like Mukoma wa Ngugi’s We, The Scarred that came out earlier this year with my publishing house Paivapo. An Artistic Encounters Festival, funds allowing. And my little fantasy to have books by writers with links to certain cities in key hotels in those cities when the economy looks up.

Bonus question: Describe your experience of 2020 so far by using only book titles. 🙂 

Z: When We Speak of Nothing, We the Scarred have The Power to be The Shadow King  even if we are Hardly Working as Travellers with This Mournable Body.

 


 

If you’d like to support the work of Zukiswa Wanner and all the other contributors, you can pre-order the anthology here and receive it shortly after its official publication date (for trade or large-scale orders, please get in touch with us via our contact page).

A big thank you also to Zukiswa for taking time out of her busy schedule to take part in this interview with us.

*Author Photo of Zukiswa Wanner by Troy Onyango.