Niq Mhlongo on the difficulties of getting black stories published

NIQ MHLONGO is at Time of the Writer 2016 launching his new collection of short stories “Affluenza”. He has previously published three novels and been called “one of the most high-spirited and irreverent new voices of South Africa’s post-apartheid literary scene” by the New York Times. He spoke to Dana da Silva about his new book and the difficulties of getting black stories published in South Africa.

The festival is going well. I’m enjoying it. It’s a new, exciting programme and looks new in a positive way.

The theme is very great, it’s thought-provoking in a sense that it’s a theme that I think talks to the heart of the writers as well as the audience so I think it’s a theme that’s bridging that gap that exists between the writers and the audience in a sense that books are very inaccessible to the audience. It’s a theme where we hear lots of audience members talking from their heart about what they want and what they would like to happen in their communities as far as the book is concerned. Here we come here directly to the audience and we talk to them directly and we inspire them in so much as they inspire us towards writing.

I want to see as many people as possible buying our books, especially books written by South African authors, books that you don’t normally get in different bookstores, books that are inaccessible. I would love them to get to read them and to actually talk to people. There are lots of people who want to be inspired to write about their communities. So we write our stories, we live our stories and the only way to be write something is whereby you have the opportunity of interacting with people in that field for some times. I became a writer because I was once interacting with other writers before I became an author.

“Affluenza” is a short story collection. Some of the stories have been published in different languages but they have been mostly not known in South Africa. They have been published in Italian, French, Dutch and Flemish so they are not published in South Africa so this is the opportunity. I have collected them so people know that Niq is  both a writer is short stories and a writer of a novel. So the themes that are there are the topical themes such as unemployment, immigration, homophobia, land distribution, HIV/Aids and lack of education. So these are topical themes, these are the themes that are affecting us as black people and as South Africans at the moment.

They have been published in some anthologies like one story was published in an anthology in 2006 called “Goldiewood Drama.” It was published by Jacana but I was published with some other writers in there. Other stories have been published in German, others stories have been published in other languages. So they are not known because people know Niq as a writer of full length novels not stories. That’s why I had to start with the new stories. It’s difficult to publish short stories collection in South Africa. Publishers who own the means of production and stuff will tell you short stories don’t sell. So for that matter we have decided I have to write these short stories because some people prefer short stories and outside of South Africa short stories are mostly the way to go. With short stories again it’s only the medium in which one can be able talk about different themes in one book and then tackle them thoroughly. I think it’s the greatest thing I’ve done with short stories.

I’m sort of a mainstream writer now because I’ve been published in different languages. But it was quite difficult when I was still starting with the first novel because you come with new themes that might not necessarily be accepted in the mainstream publishing because publishers are mostly white in South Africa. It takes a while for a white publisher to understand what’s going on in the black communities. When I write about the black communities and the challenges of the everyday, those challenges might not be a challenge within the white world where they live. So it becomes difficult for them to accept certain themes. Even in terms of culture we are quite different so it became difficult for me to publish my first book until I made it on the first book. But until then it has become easier because my books have been made inroads into different parts of communities both nationally and internationally.

We go out there and we buy “Affluenza” as much as we bought “Way Back Home”, “Dog Eat Dog” and “After Tears” because with this one it’s closer to us, it’s a diverse set of themes packed in one book. I think the writing is quite good so it’s one of the books that will make people think quite closely about our society at the moment. I mean if you read about homophobia at the moment it’s something that happens every day in South Africa and then it’s the book that interrogates homophobia as one of the themes. It’s a book that interrogates landlessness and land distribution which is quite a topical issue at the moment. Maybe the book’s aim is to raise awareness but it’s also to raise a particular debate that South Africans obviously need to debate about and we shouldn’t shy away from. I’m not giving solutions but I’m just opening a debate which is already opened. I’m just facilitating the debate. That’s why I’m so excited about it.  

The Daily Vox is the official media partner of the 2016 Time of the Writer Festival, which runs from 14-19 March 2016. For the full programme, click here.

Featured image by David Preston.