Q&A with Perfect Hlongwane

Tell me more about yourself. where are you from, how you become a writer? With that I mean, lots of people “write” but few ever take it seriously enough to write books. What brought you to this point and why inner city Jozi as a subject?

Well, my dad is from Bergville in KZN and my mom was born in Upington and raised in Soweto. They met on Commissioner St, so you might say that my obsession with the inner city began, so to speak, downtown. My parents moved to Swaziland during the year in which I was born, for reasons which still remain unclear to me.

I spent my childhood attending school in Swaziland and, between school terms, living at my gran’s place in Soweto, Mndeni. My uncle Mzwakhe Mbuli (my mom is his eldest sister), got me interested in the written and spoken word at a very young age.

I also became a voracious reader as soon as I learnt to read. I basically read everything that chanced to land in my path as a kid. I also began to write poetry, but because I was also reading poets like Tennyson and Byron, while simultaneously being exposed to my uncle Mzwakhe’s struggle verse at the time, I learnt early to constantly question the authenticity and value of anything and everything that I wrote.

I had began surfing the trains at around age eight, so during school holidays I would be in downtown Jozi almost everyday. I would walk everywhere, up and down. Walk and get lost and find my way again. I began to live in Hillbrow in 1992, and I guess the city became home for me. I studied literature and lectured at Wits in the English Dept, but for many years I wrote only sporadically and destroyed everything I wrote because it did not ‘ring true’. I also felt that writing was a thankless task in San society, so fuck it.

When I noticed that Ponte was on the cover of the book, I was almost put off because of how a lot of stories about Hillbrow tend to focus on Ponte as if it was the only thing worth talking about or photographing in that area. But I was relieved to find that the book is not one long letter to Ponte but includes surrounding areas like Yeoville and Braamfontein and makes no mention of the building. I wanted to find out your thoughts on the media’s obsession with focusing on Ponte, as almost, a singular story on Hilbrow? And find out if you ever lived in the area because you have the kind of detail that makes me think you might have walked some of the streets you write about?

Of course, Ponte stands out physically in terms of the city’s landscape, but if you read my book there is more of a focus on back streets and alleys, in other words, places that are unknown because they are unseen, and the invisible people who inhabit them.

The back cover of your book refers to Marechera and Phaswane Mpe as people who might come to mind when reading this book. Are you a fan of the two writers, perhaps or have their work (Welcome to Hilbrow) and perhaps (Black Insider?) influenced the way you have tackled Jozi? Any African writers you are particularly excited about at the moment that you would like others to check out?

Marechera was one of the writers that really got me into reading and writing. I admired his style, and I also felt that he had balls, to make the ghetto his subject matter, you know? Phaswane was my lecturer at Wits and also a good friend. A wonderful, highly intelligent guy, but when I read Welcome To Our Hillbrow I didn’t like it very much. I thought it was repetitive and mushy, rushed and badly written. But it was an important book for me because it assured me that the stories in my head were worth writing, one day. I think Masande Ntshanga (The Reactive) will be a significant voice as far as writing on the continent goes, because he writes with great empathy. Chimamanda Adichie is stylistically the most exciting voice, but I’m also a big fan of Imran Coovadia, who writes with a searing irony and is not recognised enough beyond our borders. I think different writers bring different things to the table, and that is how it should be. Nobody wants another Chimamanda, you know what I mean. I myself write with great anger, and I don’t intend to change that. I don’t think I’m capable of relegating or diminishing the lens of outrage, which is my primary reaction to life as one knows it.

Is there a particular reason why the book is so short in length?

I get asked that question quite a lot. Let me relate an anecdote to answer you. Last year, I featured at the Mail and Guardian’s literary conference, held at the Market Theatre precinct.

One afternoon, while waiting to present on a panel with two Afrikaans writers, I decided to pop into Nikki’s across the street for a drink. I got in the place and asked for Humphrey, my favourite waiter there. “Humphrey is dead,” I was told. “He died about two months ago after a short illness.”

I had enjoyed countless conversations with Humphrey, who had a cynical but very wise view of the world. But I had known him fleetingly, every time. Now, is Humphrey someone I should write about? Even fleetingly? Briefly? Yes. Because that was the nature of the interactions, and this is what my novel Jozi is largely about. People who want a longer book should read or maybe even write one. It is what it is.

Please explain the thought process behind the narrative on the character, the poet, and your choice to include his story as a letter as opposed to how the rest of the chapters are set up as referencing different people. Why did you go the italicised route?

The poet’s ‘stream of consciousness’ carry-on in the book is how I would have written the whole book, if I’d had the guts. If it wasn’t a debut. Because that is how the writing in fact presented itself to me; as voices I had heard and echoes of things I had seen and done.

It’s italicised because the publishers italicised it.

The character in your book is a writer who eventually meets his death in an alley. broke. I was wondering if this is a comment on the industry as a whole – how it is still so unsustainable to be a full-time novelist or poet unless you are tied to a teaching post at a university or something. I would love to hear your thoughts on this and on you, in general, as a writer, is it enough to sustain your livelihood and if you have any thoughts on how this might change (if it needs to at all)

Over the last two decades I have known too many, way too many writers who have fallen through the cracks. I’m talking about immensely gifted writers who died, mostly drinking themselves to death, virtually unknown. There is something soul-destroying about realising that what you are, what you are most intrinsically, is not something particularly valued by the society in which you live. Perhaps those of us who survive are just the ones who are willing or able to make certain compromises with life. As for myself, I wake up and go to work. To survive. What can be done? I don’t know. In Argentina they are paying writers to write, so that they can live and eat while writing. But I think the sun would fall from the sky before a government like ours develops that kind of vision.

Where to from Jozi, working on any interesting projects we should look out for?
I’m busy working on my second novel. All I’m willing to say is that it’s set in a psychiatric ward, so perhaps it will be a lot saner than JOZI.


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