Nozizwe Cynthia Jele kicked off day four of Afrolit Sans Frontières on Instagram Live from Johannesburg, South Africa on Thursday, March 26, 2020.
Afrolit Sans Frontières is an initiative from writers of African origin curated by Zukiswa Wanner. Sixteen writers from 10 African countries are sharing their work from 15 different cities in English, French, Lingala, and Portuguese to a global virtual audience online over eight days. Since the festival started on Monday, audiences have interacted with Richard Ali Mutu in Kinshasa, Leye Adenle in London, Rémy Ngamije in Windhoek, Namibia, Hawa Jande Golakai in Monrovia, Liberia, Maaza Mengiste in Zurich, Switzerland, and Mukoma Wa Ngugi in Ithaca, New York, USA.
On Thursday, the day started with Nozizwe Cynthia Jele whose debut novel, Happiness is a Four-Letter Word (2010) won numerous awards and was adapted into a film released to much success in South Africa in 2016. Her second novel, The Ones with Purpose, was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Barry Ronge Fiction Prize 2019 and the University of Johannesburg for South African Writing in English 2019. It is currently longlisted for The International Dublin Literary Award 2020. She also writes shorts stories and contributes to magazines, newspapers and other literature platforms.
Nozizwe Cynthia Jele introduced herself to the Instagram audience as she reflected on the current lockdown in South Africa that is there because of #Covid19. It has evoked hard memories of the lockdowns she experienced when her growing up in KZN (KwaZulu-Natal) during the apartheid era. It was not great either but she mentioned that this lockdown was for a greater good. She then read an excerpt from her second novel, The Ones With Purpose. The reading didn’t follow the festival theme of reading sex scenes but in the day’s topic of “death and grief.”
When the reading ended, the questions came fast and furious for the Johannesburg-based writer who dealt with them in what really felt like a physical festival. On whether black South African writers were too insular, she agreed stating that she and her colleagues needed to get out of their own small comfortable space and explore the world.
She wrote The Ones With Purpose because she felt that South Africans needed to talk about grief. When we are bereaved, she stated, we just go through the motions organising the funeral without being in the moment, feeling and saying goodbye to the departed. She wanted to speak about several topics like child-headed households, patriarchy, and many more. The research for the book was the hardest part of writing it. One of the ways to do this was reading blogs where people were writing their experience; some who wrote survived the experience but some didn’t make it which was always jarring.
She also spoke about the process of a book coming from the page to the screen from her experience with Happiness Is a Four Letter Word. The novel was optioned and it took four years to get to the big screen; it was difficult for her as a writer with changes like the characters reduced by one. The options for The Ones With Purpose are available for anyone out there who wants to buy them.
She has a full-time job as a consultant on social responsibility that is getting in the way of doing more writing at the moment which is why she is constantly envious of those who can write full time. She is hoping to get into some formal program in the next few months so that this can change and her next book can be better than the two previous.
Her writing is based on what is happening in her life at the time. For Happiness Is A Four Letter Word, she was turning thirty and wanted to reflect on that; now she is at the point of attending many funerals and thus The Ones With Purpose is as it is.
She spoke about reading in South Africa which she believes is happening but people have little access to books. If people had access to libraries, many of which incidentally have been refurbished, look amazing but lack books by South Africans, they would read the writers currently being produced.
On the famous “Cocaine or Poetry” question, Nozizwe stated that her preferred stimulant is wine.
You can also listen to more of Nozizwe Cynthia Jele on the Cheeky Natives Podcast below.