Literature
Photo by NIck White, courtesy of World Editions.

In Conversation: Sisonke Msimang Wants Young South Africans To Always Ask, 'And Then What?'

We speak with the South African critic and author to learn more about her literary debut and memoir, "Always Another Country."

We rarely hear about the stories of the children of revolutionaries.

Their perspectives not only give us another lens through the lives of their parents, but also their own regarding how they fit in the world post-struggle.

South African critic and author Sisonke Msimang is one of them, and her memoir, Always Another Country, is an opening to learn of her constant search of belonging and identity. Msimang was born in exile to her South African guerrilla father and her Swazi mother. From living in places including Zambia, Kenya and Canada in her formative years to eventually return to South Africa, the Australia-based writer's worldview and political awakening has been met with comforting complexity that many of us young Africans living away from home—on the continent and in the diaspora—can relate to.

Her literary debut, which took three years to complete, is a riveting story of Msimang's life story with her political awakening that formed while abroad, her euphoria that came with her return to her home country, and her anticlimax with the new elites of South Africa. Ultimately, she eloquently provides a testament to sisterhood and family bonds.

Prior to her release of her second project, a book about Winnie Mandela, we speak with Msimang on the intergenerational exchange between South Africans impacted by apartheid, the importance of questioning everything and more.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.


Cover image photo by Nick White, courtesy of World Editions.

Antoinette Isama for OkayAfrica: At what point did you realize that you were ready to tell your life story in book form?

Sisonke Msimang: My journey of writing started pretty late in life—I used to do work in the human rights field and then in my mid-to-late 30s I decided that kind of activism wasn't necessarily getting the reach I wanted. The commentary pieces [I wrote] were fantastic and they were getting good pickup, then I started writing more long form essays. I felt like the next logical challenge, just personal challenge for me as a writer, would be to see if I could do a book.

On the one hand it was really just a personal goal setting. You always want to see what can you could do. It felt like the easiest thing was to write a memoir because I didn't have to go out and do any research because it was myself. Because I'd grown up in so many parts of the world, people have always said to me, "You should write a book."

Right. And that stems from the book title.

Always Another Country. That's right.

I've found the work to be digestible so far with language I can process—it's relatable. I just get this sense that you're trying to process your experience being a South African woman who's a product of revolutionary work in a country that's not that old at all—especially since apartheid is still very fresh. A lot of young South Africans that engage with us at OkayAfrica have been navigating that in a sense too. What are a few things you want them to take away after reading your memoir, in terms of how you're continuing to process how you fit in pushing South Africa forward to where it needs to be?

The born-free generation, the generation that comes right behind me, are in their 20s now. My parent's generation helped to shape the way South Africa looks today. And then the new generation is helping to shape what the future's going to look like. I feel like I very much belong in between generations where you could choose which way you want to go. So I think a lot of my peers have opted to become part of establishment organizations and part of the mainstream script and uphold pretty conservative values; respectability politics. 'Cause that's how many of us were raised. Then I think there's a very visible group of people, mainly women, but not only, who are my age and who are writing against that—who have chosen a different path. I think the reason we're visible in the South African context is because we're different. We're outliers in that sense. But partly also because there's so few of us.

Photo courtesy of World Editions.

I relate a lot to younger people in South Africa, but at the same time I'm not their age mates. So there are ways in which I have a perspective on the arc of history that's slightly longer than theirs. What I hope they take out of the book is to challenge themselves to always be complex, to never succumb to the easy answer. In South Africa it's very easy to—and in America; lots of places at the moment—arrive at the easy conclusion. And the easy conclusion is we live in a racist society and therefore it's easy to say that we are a divided country and then to accept that division.

So at the moment, I think there's this really interesting way in which young people are very cynical about race relations. Part of being cynical about race relations is to be able to signal that you understand that white people are racist, you understand that the racist power structure stays in place. But it stops there. I would hope that reading my book helps people to think about, "And then what?"

If we have the analysis that tells us this is the racist power structure and that racism continues to flourish in South Africa, what does that mean? What do you do about that? I think in a place where there isn't much leadership of what to do. You know, Nelson Mandela had one answer which is that we love white people into being ashamed of themselves. I think that has not been a satisfactory approach for a lot of younger people, my generation and younger. So what's the alternative? I think the alternative cannot be cynicism—it has to be something else. I think that's the question that they have to answer for themselves. My answer is very clear. I live a life that's very complicated. I often refuse to choose. So even the title of the book is Always Another Country because I'm always adding rather than choosing.

That's a major key.

Yeah. You know what I mean? I don't want to ever have to choose that I only belong in this one place or that I only subscribe to this one view. I think that the more layered and complex we are as people, the more chances we have to figure our problems out, whether it's climate change or whether it's racism. Like the large seemingly intractable problems in our world are not solved with a single answer. There's always another angle. So I hope that young people in South Africa who are reading this book are like, "Oh my God that's complicated. I don't know what to think of her." If someone finished my book and is like, "I loved her mom." All of that is great. I love those compliments. But ultimately, what I want them to be like is, "Huh. I don't know what to think." That's when the job is done.

Photo courtesy of World Editions.

To kind of expand on that thought, how were you able to streamline that through your layered perspectives of being a child in exile, and how that exiled life can tend to be glorified?

I think that if your approach at life is to constantly think about what's happening underneath whatever appears to be, then it's hard to glamorize. Then the glamor falls away 'cause you're looking at all the different layers. Of course in post-apartheid South Africa, one of the things that has happened is that people who grew up in exile were glamorized and the idea of those who were revolutionaries has been taken up as this elite class of people. In fact we have become elite. Many of us who came back had the advantage of education, of international exposure, of the ability to speak what are considered to be global languages. A global language is not Fante or Swahili. Although it should be a global language as French or Spanish.

We came back with those advantages because we were exposed to the world and we had education—so it was easy for us to get jobs. And then we know one another because if you weren't together in exile you certainly knew of one another because it was a network of families that was much smaller than the however many million people were back home in South Africa. So there's a lot that's real about the exile community which is part of why I wanted to, in some ways, un-glamorize it, but also I don't believe in being defensive. I think it's really important to own if you have privilege—it's really important to put it out there. There's no basis for a trusting relationship to work out the issues that plagued us as a nation if not everyone is being equally honest with one another. So my honesty is around my class, just as I expect white people's honesty to be around their race privilege. They always bring it to the table but I can't hold them to account for it if i don't bring that to the table. So that was part of what I'm interested in exploring around the exile experience.

Photo courtesy of World Editions.

Alongside engaging you memoir with people in the diaspora, what have your conversations been like with readers based on the continent?

One of the things that surprised me the most are the conversations I've had. I went to Kenya and we had a book party there it was lots of fun. And the thing that surprised me most was how people were like, "This is my story."

Africans are mobile, right? We move, for whatever reason. So my particular experience of moving because of exile was one thing. But people move. Africans move both between the diaspora in Western countries and back home within Africa, and in very similar ways to me growing up. I'm certainly not an outlier in that sense, and it's been really interesting how many people can just relate on that level to across the continent. That's been nice to see.

To keep up with Sisonke Msimang, follow her on Twitter and revisit her TED Talk, 'If a story moves you, act on it,' here.

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Here are 10 Recent Books from Black South African Women Writers That You Need to Read

These 10 books have both shifted and unearthed new narratives within South Africa's literary world.

A few years ago, we celebrated the eight most influential Black South African women writers during Women's Month. The list featured the likes of Miriam Tlali, the first Black woman to publish a novel during Apartheid, Sweet Medicine author Panashe Chigumadzi and beloved poet Lebogang Mashile. We now bring you our selection of ten literary gems by various Black South African women writers which have shifted and even unearthed new narratives in the South African body of literature.


This list is in no particular order.

​"Collective Amnesia" by Koleka Putuma, published 2017

It is unprecedented for a poetry book in South Africa to go into a ninth print run and yet, Collective Amnesia has managed to do just that. The collection of poems, which compellingly explores religion, womanhood, Blackness, queerness, traditionalism, trauma and everything in between, has also been translated into Danish, German and Spanish. The winner of the 2018 Luschei Prize for African Poetry, Collective Amnesia has also been adopted as reading material for students at various institutions of higher learning across the country. It is a truly phenomenal and unrivalled first work by Putuma.

"The Ones with Purpose" by Nozizwe Cynthia Jele, published 2018

Jele's book centers themes of loss, grief and trauma. After the main character's (Fikile) sister dies from breast cancer, it is now up to her to ensure that certain rituals are performed before the burial. The Ones with Purpose highlights a lot of what Black people refer to as "drama" following the death of a loved ones. It highlights how often Black people are often not given the opportunity to simply grieve their loss but must instead attend to family politics and fights over property and rights. It also speaks to how, despite the rift that loss inevitably brings to Black families especially, togetherness also results because of it.

"These Bones Will Rise Again" by Panashe Chigumadzi, published 2018

Drawing from Audre Lord's concept of a biomythography in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name as well as Alice Walker's essay In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, Chigumadzi's These Bones Will Rise Again explores the history of Zimbabwe's spirit medium and liberation fighter Mbuya Nehanda during the Chimurenga, Zimbabwe pre- and post-colonization and the Mugabe-regime. The book also pays homage to her late grandmother. Chigumadzi's commitment to retelling lost narratives in Zimbabwe's complex history is a radical act in itself in a world that seeks to tell the country's stories through a lens that centers any and everyone else except Zimbabweans.

"Reclaiming the Soil: A Black Girl's Struggle to Find Her African Self" by Rosie Motene, published 2018

Just as Matlwa's debut novel Coconut explores the cultural confusion and identity crises that result in Black children raised in a White world, so too does Motene's book. In contrast, however, Reclaiming the Soil: A Black Girl's Struggle to Find Her African Self is instead a non-fictional and biographical account set during Apartheid South Africa. As a young Black girl, Motene is taken in by the Jewish family her mother works for. And while she is exposed to more opportunities than she would have had she remained with her Black parents, hers is a story of tremendous sacrifice and learning to rediscover herself in a world not meant for her.

"Period Pain" by Kopano Matlwa, published 2017

Matlwa's third novel Period Pain honestly pulls apart the late Nelson Mandela's idea of a rainbow nation and non-racialism. Through the central character Masechaba, the reader is shown the reality of a country still stuck in the clenches of racism and inequality. Xenophobia, crime and the literal death sentence that is the public health system are all issues Matlwa explores in the novel. It's both a visceral account of the country from the vantage point of a Black person without the privileges and comforts of a White person as well as a heartfelt story about how even the most broken continue to survive. It's the story of almost every Black person in South Africa and that that story is even told to begin with, and told honestly, is important.

"Always Another Country" by Sisonke Msimang, published 2017

Msimang's memoir details her political awakening while abroad as well as her return to a South Africa on the cusp of democracy. Hers is not an ordinary account of Apartheid South Africa and its aftermath but rather a window into yet another side—the lives of South Africans living in exile and more so, what happens when they eventually return home. Admittedly, it's an honest account of class and privilege. Msimang describes the tight-knit sense of community built between families who were in exile and acknowledges that many of them came back to South Africa with an education—something of which South Africans living in the country were systematically deprived. It is an important addition to the multitude of stories of Apartheid-era South Africa, the transition into democracy and the birth of the so-called "born-free" generation.

"Khwezi: The Story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo" by Redi Tlhabi, published 2017

Redi Tlhabi's second non-fiction work tells the story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, the woman who accused then President Jacob Zuma of rape back in 2005. "Khwezi" as she became known throughout the very public trial, was a symbol of the many women subjected to the abuse of men in positions of power. Similarly, she was treated as women like her are so often treated—ostracized by the community and forced to leave and start anew elsewhere. Tlhabi's account of Khwezi's life was a courageous one and one that tries to obtain justice despite the court's decisions. Although Khwezi died in October 2016, her memory continues to live on in the hearts of many South African women who refuse to be silenced by the dominant patriarchal structure. For that alone, this work is tremendously important.

"Intruders" by Mohale Mashigo, published 2018

When one thinks of African literature, stories of migration, colonization, loss, trauma, culture and traditions usually come to the fore. As a result, Afrofuturism or speculative fiction is a genre that is often sidelined and the stories therein left untold. Intruders is a collection of short stories by Mohale Mashigo that unearths these stories in a refreshing manner. From mermaids in Soweto, werewolves falling in love with vampires and a woman killing a man with her high-heeled shoes, Mashigo centers the proverbial "nobody" and pushes against the narrative that Africans can only tell certain kinds of stories but not others.

"Miss Behave" by Malebo Sephodi, published 2017

There is a reason why Sephodi's Miss Behave has resonated so strongly among women across the board. Drawing inspiration from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's adage that "well-behaved women seldom make history", Miss Behave documents Sephodi's journey to smashing the stereotypes peddled by society in its relentless prescriptions of what women can and cannot be; can and cannot do. Naturally, she's labeled a "misbehaving" woman and hence the title of the book. Sephodi also explores themes of identity and gender issues while allowing women the opportunity to take charge of their own identities despite societal expectations. A book that wants women to discover their bad-ass selves and exercise agency over their lives? A must read.

"Rape: A South African Nightmare" by Professor Pumla Gqola, published 2015

This book is both brilliant in the way it unpacks the complex relationship that South Africa has with rape and distressing in the way this relationship is seen to unfold in reality. Rape is a scourge that South Africa has not been able to escape for years and the crisis only seems to be worsening. Written almost four years ago, Prof Gqola's profound analysis of rape and rape culture as well as autonomy, entitlement and consent is still as relevant today as it was back then—both a literary feat and a tragedy. There can be no single answer to why South Africa is and remains the rape capital of the world, but Rape: A South African Nightmare is by far one of the best attempts thus far.

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Nana Oforiatta Ayim author photo (c) Naafia Naah

In Conversation: Nana Oforiatta Ayim On How Her Debut Novel ‘The God Child’ Challenges the Typical Immigrant Narrative

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Nana Oforiatta Ayim's debut novel The God Child isn't your typical immigrant tale—in fact, despite it being about a Ghanaian family living in Germany and the UK, according to the art historian and novelist, it isn't one at all. "I refer to [the characters] as 'expats,' because I think it's kind of nonsensical that Westerners have co-opted this [word]," says Ayim who is also the creator of the African Cultural Encyclopedia project, dedicated to preserving Africa's artistic heritage. "When they come to work in Africa, they call themselves expats, and yet when we go to work in Europe or America, we are automatically immigrants."

The novel seeks to turn trite narratives about immigrants on their head, as it follows two young protagonists Maya and Kojo who come to terms with their cultural heritage while being brought up as first-generation children in Europe. When they learn about their homeland through mystical tales from Maya's mother, they take it upon themselves to try and restore the fictional Ghanaian dynasty back to its former glory.

The God Child colorfully explores the intergenerational experience of African children and parents living in the West, and how each responds to, adapts to, or reject the feelings of loss and sacrifice that often come along with it. Ayim depicts two young people determined to hold on to their culture despite the challenges presented by their environment. The book offers a nuanced perspective and challenges the notion that most Africans migrate to Europe or America out of an idealization of the West.

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