Writing for our lives

LAST week I had the profound pleasure of attending and being part of the Time of the Writer Literary Festival 2015 in South Africa.

The festival is hosted annually by the Centre of Creative Arts which is housed under the department of humanities at the University of Kwazulu Natal.

The festival is currently in its 18th year and its longevity is due to the support from the government and other non-government organisations who fund literary initiatives.

This year the funders were the Departments of Arts and Culture (DAC), Ethekwini Municipality, Goethe Institut, Insititut Francais, The Daily News and Adams Bookstores.

There was a sterling line-up in terms of participants comprising 20 writers from Africa who are not necessarily domiciled on the continent.

My fellow compatriot NoViolet Bulawayo who currently resides in Oakland California, US, flew down to be part of the festival. There was a Ugandan writer Dilman Dila and Malian Ousman Diarra among us.

Beyond the foreign element, the majority of writers were South African, however, this year was unusual in that the festival paid homage to a lot of the Kwazulu Natal born writers.

This was my first ever writers festival and I enjoyed every single day in the company of other blossoming creatives. We had thought-provoking dialogues every evening and exchanged literary ideas on how we could keep transforming writing and the publishing industry.

This year’s theme was “Writing for our Lives”. Ironically every writer in the festival despite writing for their lives is unable to sustain their lives on the income earned from writing!

For the great part of my life I have never actually lived as a writer. I had my finance and investment career to fall back on.

Incidentally after birthing my son last year, I have never returned to formal employment and have actually spent the last ten months living like a writer. I can now safely say that I understand the literary struggles of most writers.

Trust me there is nothing romantic about a hungry artist! Royalty cheques are meager and very few writers can attest to living the lifestyle of JK Rowling, Adichie Chimamanda Ngozi or John van der Ruit who are literary success stories. As much as we all agree that writing is indeed a fulfilling profession, it does not pay the bills. Most writers had what is called the “day” job.

Writing is something pursued after hours. We had an assortment of professionals in our midst. There were the usual academic suspects who were affiliated to universities.

Then there were a couple of journalists, a psychologist or therapist, a librarian, a filmmaker, a banker, and a playwright, an activist-cum-writer, civil servants and communications specialists; interesting to see how many writing careers began in the newsroom.

Mzilikai wa-Afrika is a Sunday Times journalist whose debut novel is based on his exposé of the ex minister of Police’s lease scandal.

However, speaking to crime fiction novelist, Margaret Von Klemperer, she said she had to make a conscious decision to retire from journalism in order to focus on writing her debut novel A Dead Man as journalism left her with little scope for creative writing.

Moreover journalists felt that with journalistic writing one needed to be divorced from what one was reporting on whereas with fiction writing one needs to be immersed in the work and this is one of the challenges faced in making the transition.

Charlotte Otter a former journalist pointed out that the only good thing about journalism besides being a repository of stories was that it taught her to adhere to deadlines.

Most professionals agreed that writing was something relegated to the early hours of the morning, especially when faced with the demands of work and family.

ZP Dala said she wrote from 2am to 6am then afterwards put on her hat as a mum to two children. This is something I could easily relate to having done a lot of graveyard shifts myself! However, the most inspiring among us was Tshifhiwa Given Mukwehvo from Makhado in Limpopo.

This young man was imprisoned at the tender age of 14 for a period of 22 years for repeated crimes ranging from shoplifting to breaking and entering into shops.

He was released from prison 10 years later on parole. However, during his incarceration he transformed himself through reading and educating his troubled soul.

This is what ignited in him a passion to write. Following his release from prison he has two publications. For me this is a truly inspiring narrative of how one could rewrite their own destiny.

He is one writer who is honestly writing for his life! I left the festival feeling inspired and invigorated as I too continue to write my destiny one word at a time.

Sukoluhle Nyathi is the author of the novel The Polygamist. You can follow her on Twitter @SueNyathi

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