If you are on the Kenyan or African literary scene, then you have most likely heard of the name Zukiswa Wanner. That name comes up when you look at the Writivism Board of Trustees (until very recently), the Commonwealth Short Story Prize judging panel, the Etisalat Prize for Literature 2015 judging panel, the K Sello Duiker Prize list of laureates, Hay Festival’s Africa39 list of 39 Sub-Saharan African writers under 40 with potential and talent to define trends in African literature, or pretty much the shelves of any self respecting bookstore.
Those of us who are lucky have been invited to her digz, where she regularly plays host to writers and readers to talk all matters lit and life- many a time over a plate of coconut rice, fried chicken and cold beer. But Zukiswa Wanner is not a common name in Kenya, primarily because she is not, primaril,y a Kenyan. Her identity is kind of a complicated story in itself, but in a nutshell, she was born in 1976 in Zambia to a South African father and a Zimbabwean mom. Both her parents were political fugitives at the time of her birth from their respective countries taking refuge in Lusaka; her dad in the military wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe, and her mom in ZAPU.
Wanner was not actually keen on being the writer that she is today. At some point, at the age of 16, she had pictured herself in a courtroom arguing cases as an attorney, but then as life played its unpredictable hand, she found herself at the Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu studying journalism.
Today, Zukiswa Wanner has eight books to her name. This year marks the tenth anniversary since she put out her first book, The Madams, in 2006. Since then she has written four other novels; Behind Every Successful Man (2008), Men of the South (2010), Maid in SA: 30 Ways to Leave Your Madam (2010), and London Cape Town Joburg (2014) as well as two children books – Jama Loves Bananas (2013) and Refilwe (2014). Above all else, she takes a lot of pride in being the youngest ever biographer of Africa’s golden statesman, Nelson Mandela, having co-authored the book, 8115: A Prisoner’s Home (Penguin, 2010) with Alf Kumalo.
She is currently writing her ninth book, hopefully due to come out this year or the next.
That is quite the collection. Not many African authors have managed to put out eight critically acclaimed titles before the age of 40 and in a span of 10 years. Not that is a surprise to me, I mean, it was written that she would accomplish big things even before she knew it. When her parents named her Zukiswa – isiXhosa for ‘the glorified woman’ – they must have known something that everyone else didn’t. Ama? It only figures.
From her entire body of work, the one that stands out for our lady here is the Nelson Mandela biography which she lucked upon through a fortunate stroke of serendipity. The late Alf Kumalo had been a close friend of Zukiswa. They shared a history from 2004 when she assisted him in archiving his photos. So when the celebrated South African documentary photographer and photojournalist got some funding to do the book and he knew Zukiswa was a writer, it made sense to be with the writer best familiar with his work.
Given the weight that comes with being a Mandela biographer, you can understand why she only ever mentions 8115: A Prisoner’s Home when she showing off, and rightfully so.
Speaking to Zukiswa, we instantly realize that writing a book for the first time is hard, but it does not get easier with the second, third, fifth or eighth book. Every new book is a new experience to an author. It would be a lie to say that after the first book, you now know what the hell you are doing when writing the third. What gets better is perhaps the quality of writing in the latter books, and the kind of copy submitted as a manuscript.
When you hear an author is on the eighth book, and writing the ninth, with all the accolades that Zukiswa Wanner has, you may imagine that she has gained financial success from her books. Truth is, she has not. Sadly, this decorated writer is very far from living off the proceeds of her books. The fiscal returns have been improving, no doubt. In fact the last book London CapeTown Joburg sold more in its first quarter than the first book, The Madams, did in two years.
But the money she receives from her books is still not enough to sustain her.
Instead, she lives off writing. What Zukiswa’s books do for her is give her the profile that permits her to ask for a certain amount for her words.
“People ask me to write. I have a weekly column in Saturday Nation. I also have a monthly one in New African and now and again contribute reviews and commentary to publications like African Independent and Sunday Times in SA. I have been lucky that I get approached rather than go knocking because I probably wouldn’t know how to do that well.”
Is that it? Not quite.
“Editing, which of course is in the writing family. Judging for prizes. And literary festivals generally give writers a small stipend to do writing workshops.”
Zukiswa’s confession on how it is hard to live off books leaves one wondering why someone would slave for three years or so putting together a book, when such effort does not put food on the table. But then for her, like many artists, it isn’t about financial gain. She writes because it is the only thing she has ever learned to do correctly. “I write because I have something to say – back to your question – and writing is the best way to say it,” Zukiswa says.
The greatest payment she has ever gotten from her work, her favourite reward for all her writerly efforts, she says, has got to be “when someone has enjoyed my work so much that they buy books of the same title for their friends. That’s always hell of humbling.”
Ever looked at an author who is also a family person and wondered; which one is easier? Writing or raising a child?
“I think he raises himself that one (her 11 year old son),” says Zukiswa, “but, they’re both difficult in that a child is human and sometimes will not act exactly as you would want them to. And manuscripts never quite come out how one imagines them in their mind.”
Going by that answer (and basic Math) it means that our lady here does not have one child. She has nine. With another one on the way!
Looking at Zukiswa Wanner’s life, one thing stands out; her nomadism. Born in Zambia to political exilees. Lived in Zimbabwe, then South Africa, then USA, then England, back to South Africa and is now a resident in Kenya. Such a lifestyle makes me question whether she has finally settled with her family in Kenya or if there is the prospect of moving. To that, she says, “So far I’m staying. I never say no because I am nomadic by nature and there just seems to be too many wonderful African countries I’d like to visit before I kick the bucket. Whether I move to them though, will be dependent on how welcoming they are.”
Well, I, for one, would like to tell her to go where her waves take her, but then I wouldn’t mean it. Me I hope she stays in Nairobi.
Sorry, South Africa. This one is ours now.