Q&A with Kagiso Lesego Molope on her new novel, friendship, feminism, publishing

In my review of Kagiso Lesego Molope’s This Book Betrays My Brother for The Con earlier this year, I mentioned how the book made me feel like it had been written with a reader like me in mind, someone who grew up in Pretoria. What I didn’t know was that not only did Molope grow up in Pretoria, but she grew up in the same neighbourhood as well.

Now living in Canada, with three books under her belt and another one on the way, I caught up with Molope following This Book Betrays My Brother being named as the 2014 Percy Fitzpatrick Prize for Youth Literature.

On her upcoming novel, a love story between two men:

It is about a guy from a respected township family, a doctor, who is expected to return home and work at his father’s surgery. He falls in love with a childhood friend who still lives where they grew up. It’s about the conflict – being torn between family/community expectations and what makes you happy.

I love these guys because they’re regular kasi guys, love kwaito, hang out with their group of guys and they are dutiful sons but at the same time, they’re devoted to each other. Their love runs deep and grows for years.

Where being gay is still considered ‘unAfrican’, how do they stay together and still stay in the township? Their relationship is a secret and that causes a lot of stress and heartache for both of them.

I got tired of seeing gay characters as outsiders – homeless, prostitutes, drug addicts or just flamboyant to the point of being comical. I thought it was important to take the guy next door, the guy we all love and respect, and have him challenge us.

The biggest challenge with this one was again (as with This Book Betrays My Brother), not making their difficulties simple. I wanted no outright tragedies. Often someone gets attacked or killed and it simplifies what we think is hard about being gay in a homophobic world.

I wasn’t interested in that. It would make the reader say: Oh, I’d never actually kill a gay person, so I’m not homophobic. I wanted the reader to say: oops! I’ve said that or I’d never expect him to be gay. It had to be more subtle and more relatable.

Whether or not I’ve managed to do that remains to be seen.

I told Kagiso that I only read my first book on feminism quite late in life (in my 20s) and a lot of what I knew came from observing family members and only later did I find out there was a name for it: feminism. She explains her own journey:

I’m the same as you, my reading came later. I mean, there were no libraries ko Mabopane and yes, my mother read things I actually wasn’t allowed to read. So no, my feminism didn’t start through books. We just observed and took in our family culture and moved from there.

And I think I got a lot from music because when you grow up in the township, so much of what you learn is through music. Karen White’s I’m not your Superwoman, Destiny’s Child and TLC, etc.

So yah, I can see Beyonce being a huge influence. I actually really love that you said that, about reading late!!!

On social media:

I’m very private so putting myself out there like that takes a lot of work. But it’s a necessary evil.

It brings attention to our work, which we definitely need. It’s also helped me connect with other writers and for that I’m really grateful.

I just think you have to take regular breaks from it. It starts to feel plastic, superficial. It’s not the real world. Your friends are not really your friends.

You’re just some writer in a small room, not a prophet, and now suddenly your computer tells you that you have ‘followers’? No. Take a break. Connect with the real world. So I go in and out of using it.

I went through your Twitter timeline and saw that you are friends with
Amma Asante, the woman who made the movie, Belle. Can you tell me a little bit more about your friendship, and how your circle influences your direction (if at all) in terms of your writing?

I’m very good, very close friends with people who are loving and thoughtful and very honest about their own struggles. Amma is this huge force in my life. So is Thando Mgqolozana. So are Zukiswa Wanner and Pumla Dineo Gqola.

They love hard and work hard and that’s who I surround myself with. They see the work and the people as closely connected. And they challenge me. I recently sent Thando my latest novel and there were so many red marks in it, I was like: wow. I have a lot of work to do.

They don’t praise and flatter all the time. They’ll say: honestly, you’re just not taking this far enough. At one point Thando said: I’ll be honest with you, you don’t do this well.

And then it was time for me to research and discover ways of doing that particular thing right. And that’s important, that helps me grow.

But they also take time out from their own work just to write long love letters to each other. I need that kind of circle. My madness would run rampant if I didn’t have those writers as friends. I’ve had great conversations with Amma about Belle and much of what she’s done with it is really true to who she is as a friend, a woman, a game-changer. That’s always the case in all my friends’ works.

On feminism:

I’m a feminist. I’ve always said: I’m an African feminist author. To me that means being very strict in my work about how I portray women, about giving women characters voices.

I’ve been reading books lately where women complain about other women and the reader is supposed to side with the protagonist because she hates a skinnier woman or hates the woman her husband’s run away with. I can’t stand that. I think it’s lazy.

About me and Amma and Thando again: Amma and I are constantly trying to figure out what feminism means in our work. You know the friendship between Belle and her cousin (in the movie)…Amma said it would have been so “easy” to make them rivals, but it was crucial that she turn it into a loving friendship.
It is easy to pit women against each other or portray them as unthinking, unintelligent, lazy, gold-diggers, etc. Some of the most acclaimed novels by women do this and we don’t bat an eye because we’re so used to it.
I think it’s our duty as writers (all writers) to change that, to be a more diligent worker in that way.
Thando Mgqolozana is a rare find in that way: a feminist male author. He puts a lot of thought into the way he portrays women.

The publishing industry in South Africa is still too white which leads to a lot of books about black life sticking to the same themes (crime,
HIV/Aids, violence, coconuts etc). What has been your experience with getting published? Because I think This Book Betrays my brother is not published by a local publisher?

It is published by Oxford University Press in Cape Town, so it is a local publisher.
But yes, how many times have you heard the bit about the post-apartheid Black writer leaving the past behind? All the talk about how readers aren’t interested in apartheid and South Africa’s history?

Like that’s chic, to leave your entire history behind to satisfy some people’s need to disengage and not talk about what apartheid has done…

I don’t buy into that. I don’t write gangster novels but if I did you can be sure that the gangster would be a real man with real feelings and a history. You’d see a bit of yourself in the gangster. All writers are hustlers but my hustle is bloody honest. I don’t do puppet shows.

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