Mohale Mashigo on telling stories about the 'insignificant people' and learning to navigate mental illness without shame.
Born-and-raised in Soweto, Mohale Mashigo comes from a family of storytellers but never really thought she would write, let alone about Black people, until she read the works of Tsitsi Dangarembga and Zakes Mda. Like so many Black kids, she didn't know that a writer was something she could be. Mohale has since gone on to produce bestsellers including The Yearning and Beyond the River and even a comic book called Kwezi. Her most recent work, Intruders, is a brilliant body of speculative fiction, a genre that is still overlooked in South Africa. It includes stories of a mermaid in Soweto, a woman who kills a man with her high heeled shoes, werewolves falling in love with vampires and even an apocalypse. Mohale is the recent winner of the Vodacom Journalist of the Year 2018 award in the category of multiplatform.
We caught up with her to speak about Intruders, being a writer and navigating mental illness in a way that makes her feel supported and still able to celebrate her victories.
Would you say you've come to be a writer that creates work specifically for Black people or would you say you're targeting a wider audience?
I would be lying if I said I'm targeting a wider audience because I don't think I could write a story specifically meant for a wider audience. The "universal comes from the specific", so I write very specifically about Black people for Black people.
As a quick snapshot, just tell us a little about Intruders.
I think I've always wanted to call it Intruders because in all my stories you'll see that they're about people who are considered insignificant. They're about poor people, widows, people who in the background, and people who are insignificant or feel insignificant. It's about them finally being in the forefront and finding themselves in situations where they need to choose either being a hero or just continuing with their lives.
Personally, why is that narrative of a nobody-becoming-a-somebody particularly important to you?
Well, I think it's because when I grew up, I was a nobody in many terms. I was just a girl from Soweto going about her life in the early '80s where we were terrorized by the Apartheid police. There's something about that that makes you feel like a nobody and I didn't see any nobodies in the stories that I was reading.
Would you say that in the characters, there's a little piece of yourself perhaps?
People always ask me this and I say there's got to be a little piece of you in most of the characters. Some of the characters are people I'm related to, some of them are people I grew up with and some of them are just people I found in the headlines of stories.
You have an interesting rule when it comes to publishing. Tell me about that.
There was a time I was going to self-publish and I could only afford to publish a hundred copies. The rule for me now is that after I publish a book, after I've sold a hundred copies, none of it is any of my business anymore because I've reached the goal that I had when I was a nobody who was trying to self-publish The Yearning.
Would you say that you've reconciled that little girl from Soweto who was a nobody to the person who you are now?
I wish I could say yes, because that's such an easy answer but it's a no. I stay in my home, I have the same friends, I have bills to pay and I'm no more Mohale Mashigo now than I was before.
You posted something about mental health and mental illness on social media recently. Is that something that you struggle with personally?
I haven't read Intruders since they did the editing and the proofreading. It's so tedious that you just stop liking your own stories. But after I read Ghost Strain N, I realized how sad I was when I was writing all these stories. I suffer from mental illness, it's something I live with every day and I'm on medication. I have good days and I have bad days, but the one thing that I'm always able to do is to write and to make sense of the world.
And do you think your depression in some way, in as much as you write to make sense of the world, hindered you from celebrating that moment of having finished this book?
Well, yeah. I do have that problem where I don't celebrate my victories. And it's something I'm working on and my friends have been really cool about going out for a glass of bubbly to celebrate the fact that the manuscript is in and all of the changes have been made.
And would you say that a good support structure and support system, because that's what's coming through for me, has really allowed you to forge through particularly on the not-so-great days?
I'd be lying if I said that I'd still be alive if I didn't have the support system I have. My friends and family are great people. They don't really understand depressive episodes but they know when to step in and that has been such a blessing for me. In my case, support includes my family, but even if it's not your family, even if it's just one person, that can be the difference between fighting alone and having someone who fights the war with you.
Would that be your biggest advice for people struggling with the same thing?
Yeah, and I would also say that there's no shame in getting help. It took me a long time to go to therapy and medication. But I think there's no shame in getting help and acknowledging there's also a support system that's there for you.
That's so true. So, what would you say is your hope for this body of work?
My answer is always to sell a hundred copies and once a hundred copies are sold, everything else is a bonus. But if were to talk about it in an emotional way, I would hope that people see themselves in some of the stories and know that they're worth imagining and worth writing about and worth being the main character in the story, regardless of what the story is.
So, the book is finally done. What comes next for this body of work going forward?
I think what comes next is that I go around the country and I have book launches and I meet people and I have a great time and I celebrate this. But I'm working on comics and I'm hoping to do some interesting comics, locally and international, God-willing. But I'm excited about the book launches and meeting people and drinking wine. Oh my God, I hope there's lots of wine!