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Ayesha Kajee Interviews Sisonke Msimang, author of ‘Always Another Country’

Tuesday, November 28th 2017










Thank you to the Good Book Appreciation Society for allowing us to use this interview which took place in the comment section of a Facebook post – such a cool idea!

Ayesha Kajee (AK): Hi Sisonke. Thanks for agreeing to do this and be warned, I am still a bit star- and awe-struck!

Sisonke Msimang (SM): Thanks so much for having me. Star struck by me?? Lol! Please don’t be. You know everything about my life now.

AK: Let’s talk a bit about the writing process. You have described this memoir in my presence as ‘creative non fiction’. Has that given you more expressive freedom as a writer. Why the creative adjective? And has it protected you from any repercussions e.g. from people who hated what you said?

SM:  No the creative covers the fact that I am aware memory is subjective. And that there are conversations I remember differently than others. So it’s to preserve honesty in a sense.

AK: Ok. So this is still very much a true reflection of your childhood and adolescence in exile, and your homecoming and alienation of sorts in SA?

SM: Definitely.

AK:  I’m fascinated by your portrayal of Zambia and Nairobi particularly, by the freedom that was unthought of for black people in SA. Care to comment on that?

SM: Sure. There is something special about growing up in the demographic majority. And seeing black people in positions of power. Running their own businesses etc. You don’t have to be told you can do it. You just KNOW it in your bones.  It gave us extra confidence.

AK: The women particularly fascinate me in their fearlessness and feminism. Your mum, Gogo Lindi etc.

SM: Yes. I come from strong women. Not all of them claimed feminism as their word. But they all owned it in their actions.

AK: I saw her (Lindiwe Mabuza) at the ACT AWARDS on Friday and I swear I almost called her Gogo Lindi while everyone else was mum doctoring and sis Doctoring her.

SM: Haha!

AK: You’ve managed to make her so real to me!

SM: She is radiant in her 80s. And still as sharp as ever.

AK: Regal and magnificent indeed.

SM: She is indeed.

AK: My first reading of Always Another Country I gobbled it. Now am rereading it with savour. What was the hardest element for you to write about and what the most easy?

SM:  Easiest parts were the early chapters. My childhood memories were so vivid. The last section of the book I really struggled to communicate what I feel like I have learned about life through stories.

AK: And perhaps its easier to talk about the child because she’s not quite the you you are now?

SM: Exactly.  I also think the adult stuff was harder to explain because as we get older the challenges we face are more complex. Less easy to navigate as right or wrong.

AK: That’s a startling truth right there!

SM: And I guess because writing get is about stamina, I just struggled with the length and keeping it engaging.

AK: I love this honesty, Hate writers who make it all seem so easy . Or maybe I just envy them 🙂 Yet your homecoming to Jozi is just as vividly portrayed and as poignant. We see and smell the streets.

SM: Best trip ever!!!

AK: Though not quite what you anticipated. especially your first evening out….

SM: Meeting Joburg was phenomenal. And meeting my grandfather was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.

AK: The ties that bind us even as we are only semi conscious of them?

SM: Yes. The idea of family was always very important to me as a kid. Because cousins and aunts and stuff were mainly chosen…

AK: For me I guess one of the most significant parts of the book is your analysis of the current ANC and how it feels to express your view particularly as someone whose entire life was shaped by the party…. It resonates for me as a former UDF person and gets to the heart of the contradictions so many of us grapple with…

SM: Yup. On the one hand I was raised to question everything. On the other I was raised to love the ANC. So erm, that has been a complicated one to say the least!

AK: So how do you think the narrative should be shaped into the future, by those whose loyalty was almost a bygone conclusion in the past?

SM: Great question. I’m hoping the narrative is shaped more by those who aren’t loyal in that old sense.

AK: How so, then?

SM:  I get sad seeing old people trying to revive the ANC or to be its conscience. So for me it’s about civic leadership.

AK: YASSS!!!! On fleek!

SM:  It’s about renewed political leadership that doesn’t over emphasise the ANC. 

AK: So the priorities should be?

SM:  We make them too important. They are exactly as important as the DA, EFF, etc. The structural issues of inequality that will make a real difference: quality education. Crime that focused on crimes against women and children and our poorest citizens,  and political party reform to make it harder for them all to keep lying to us.

AK:  While we’re on the subject of education, yours was varied and having been educated in so many different milieu, what stands out for you as a truly great educational principle or system, if anything? Political party reform and funding transparency too!

SM: My best educational experiences have been as an adult.

AK: Care to share one or two here?

SM: I spent a semester at Yale and couldn’t believe the resources there. The library was bigger than the hospital in my village!

AK:  I can only imagine– with more than a tinge of envy 🙂

SM: Also really loved my high school. Lots of leeway to think aloud and ask questions.  In high school we all were pushed intellectually and we rose to the challenge. I’ve been very very lucky.

AK: Wonderful and evident in your fearlessness!

SM: But I will say to my parents credit they never ever tried to stop me. They have always been proud of my outspokenness.

AK:  You describe a #metoo moment in the book, well more than one, But the Praisegood incident …. Your empathy and compassion for him was astounding to me…was that hard to write?

SM: It was easy to write weirdly. Because I’ve processed that event so much. I’ve had therapy, I’ve gone over and over it.

AK: Still, not too many survivors would show that level of empathy and compassion.

SM:  But a lot of survivors aren’t also writers 😉 My job is to pull deeper and voice it.  Lots of survivors I know have empathy because pain has a way of helping you to care. If that makes sense. It makes you sensitive to pain.

AK:  I love you . Star struck again!

SM: And for me the act of writing about your life only has value to others if you’re able to share what you’ve learned. If you are still in pain, then it’s not fair to yourself to share. And boring to others in terms of reading! Lol!

AK: The other thing that really really struck me about the latter part of your book, was the self-agonization about becoming a ‘madam’. A reality of SA today if you are middle class….

SM:  Black madam.  Yes it was important for me to put it out there because privilege is real. I expect a lot from my fellow South Africans. If I want white people to be honest about theirs I should be honest about mine.

AK: And it comes with responsibility – any type of privilege. And with that, let’s open up to the audience … anyone out there want to engage?

Audience member, Bea Reader: Hi Sisonke, amazing interview, I’m curious about what you’re working on now, and of course your process. Are you a full time writer? If not how do you fit it all in?

SM: Thank you! I’ve got a few ideas cooking. One is about murders in small towns – it would be a deeply researched book.

BR: Oooooh. That sounds fascinating. It’s always the small towns that have a dark side. Non-fic, or fic?

SM: Nonfiction.  I work 2 days a week (school hours) at a place called the Centre for Stories. The rest of the time I write.

BR:  Do you have a set process or word count, or is it just that you do what you can when you can?

SM:  To write this book I just wrote. Meaning I wrote 6 hours a day and treated it like a full time job. I edit my work pretty intensely. So it took longer to edit the draft than to write it. And I did that before finding the publisher. 

BR:  Who edited it for you ultimately?

SM: The wonderful Angela Voges. She was so good to work with.

Audience member, Paige Nick: How have you found the process of launching your book in South Africa?

SM: It was wonderful. Amazing response. Intimate gatherings. Enjoyed every event.

AK: Any plans for global or regional launches?

SM: So we are negotiating rights in the US and UK and once those are finalised then absolutely yes.

AK:  In the meantime, events in our neighbouring countries are getting lit, to be frank! Any thoughts on those Sisonke?

SM: I worked on Zim issues for many years. I hope we finally see a free and fair election for our neighbours.

AK: Yes. And interesting times in Angola too.

SM: Indeed. People always right the wrongs of the past.

AK:  If there are really no questions, we can wrap up. I just want to urge every person on here, especially every south african, to READ this book. It’s phenomenal not because of the politics, that’s by the way. This is a story that will hit you in your heart at times, your head at others and your gut times uncountable.

SM: Thanks so much! It was great ‘talking’!