Nozizwe Cynthia Jele On Her New Book: Death Becomes A Part Of Growing Up

“My books are always an observation of where I am at that particular point in my life, what I’m experiencing personally or just my observations,” novelist Nozizwe Cynthia Jele said in an interview with The Daily Vox.

Jele’s latest offering, The Ones With Purpose, tells of a woman whose sister dies from breast cancer leaving her to pick up the pieces of her family. It is a story of family, disappointment, sacrifice, forgiveness, and love.

“With The Ones, I’ve realised that I’m experiencing certain things that come with age,” Jele said in a Facebook live interview with The Daily Vox. “Death becomes very much part of us growing up, we’re dealing also with diseases. I’ve also noticed that people in my age group, we are getting sick and it’s not just headaches and flus and fevers, but it’s actually quite serious conditions. I don’t know what’s causing it, I don’t know if it’s our lifestyle contributing to us getting sick,” she said.

The story of The Ones is centred around a family, Jele really wanted to capture the relationship we had with our family. “As much as it has all those heavy themes: death and cancer and identity and alcoholism, at the centre of it is a family that needs to pull together and get through the challenge that they are experiencing at this particular point in time,” she said.

The story of her first book, Happiness Is A Four-Letter Word, which was released in 2010, was written at quite a different point in Jele’s life. “When Happiness came out I was in my early 30s, when I started writing it I was in my late 20s and that was documenting a journey at that particular point in time,” she said.

“In Happiness, I wanted to document our experiences as young women of a particular age at a particular time in our history, this was the mid-2000s when we were starting to have money. Now it’s not just wanting things, but we actually could afford some of the things, we want to live in Sandton actually you could afford to live in Sandton but all of that was that enough? Is that what we wanted as women?” Jele said.

When asked about the importance of writing strong women characters and friendships between women, Jele said women are always a point of reference for her. There are male voices in The Ones, but the key voice is a woman, Anele, who tells the story, Jele said.

“Before my parents got married, I was raised by my grandmother and I had a strong relationship with my aunts and my mother as well. I always just start there. They’re always the first place for me to go to,” she said.

“I just think women are strong, women are warriors, and there aren’t enough women voices. If I can be that and bring women up in my stories, then that’s what I will do. It doesn’t mean that I will never write from a male point of view or have men that are carrying the story but at the moment for me, the lead is in bringing up the women’s voices,” Jele added.

Happiness is a Four-Letter Word won numerous awards, including the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in the Best First Book category for the Africa region and the 2011 M-Net Literary Award in the Film category. The book was also adapted for film.

Jele said being an award-winning writer is great from a recognition point-of-view. “It gives you opportunities that you wouldn’t normally get. It’s entirely up to you how your pursue those opportunities. It does give you a little bit of brand exposure outside of South Africa and it allows you the opportunity to travel. The prizes are nice and it’s also nice to be on #TeamAward and #TeamWinning every now and then. As it is, the industry doesn’t really compensate or pay that well so it’s always nice to have another source of income through these awards and recognition,” she said.

The success of her debut novel meant Jele put a considerable amount of pressure on herself as she wanted her future work to be just as good.

“At some point you have to get out of this mindset like oh my God, is it going to be good? Are people going to read it? And just do it. Your readers just want to read you. They don’t care, they just want your work,” she said.

It took her a couple of years but her second novel was a story that wanted to be told. “With The Ones the story just wanted to come out: it was a story that was constantly in my head, in my mind and it needed to come out,” Jele said.

The film adaptation of her debut novel Happiness Is A Four-Letter Word was released at the box office countrywide in February 2016. Jele spoke about whether she was satisfied that the film did justice to her book.

“I was fortunate to be consulted when the script was developed. I was involved in the initial workshops with the production team in terms of pulling out key parts of the book that they wanted the movie to focus on. The movie has three characters but the book actually has four and so when I was told that one of the characters was not going to make it into the movie I was made aware and there were reasons behind that,” she said.

Some of the themes she felt strongly about in Happiness – which were quite heavy – were not part of the storyline in the film. “I guess the packaging is very important because for them they knew they wanted to have this aspirational, happy movie. I think we needed that as South Africans. We needed a romcom to go to the theatres, laugh, be inspired by this glamorous life,” she said.

Jele could not say she was unhappy because she knew exactly which direction they wanted to take the movie in and was amazed by the quality of the production, the acting, and the reception was amazing.

Jele also said we need more production companies to translate writers’ content into other formats.

“The content is there. You go into any bookstore, the shelves are brimming with new local content. There isn’t a shortage of our stories,” Jele said.

Watch the full interview below.

Featured image by Sipho Hlongwane