Student’s debut novel makes top 12
Life Out of the Ordinary is the debut novel of Ntshala Mahase, a third year law student at the University of the Free State. The book tells the story of Tom, a white boy who, instead of accepting the unmerited privileges that comes with the colour of his skin, decides to question and refuse these very same privileges, much to the horror and distaste of his family and friends.
Anathi Nyadu, a member of The Journalist team sits down for a conversation with Mahase at a time when race and racism in under the national and international spotlight.(sidebar: Racism at Missouri University).
Nyadu: Your book has been selected as one of twelve books from young and emerging writers across the country to form part of both the Western Cape Department of Education and Gauteng Department of Education and LIASA”s Young Writers Programme. How did this come about?
Mahase: I got an invitation to submit the book from a representative of the UFS library. A couple of months later I got an email that said my book was shortlisted. Later, I got an email that said my book made it to the list of five books.
Nyadu: Tell us about yourself?
Mahase: I was born in Meloding, a township in Virginia a few kilometres outside Welkom. I was raised by my mom. I grew up in a family of five, where I was the only male and had a typical township upbringing.
Nyadu: Reading and writing are like two sides of the same coin. Do you come from a family where reading was
Mahase: In fact, I don’t come from a reading family. I don’t come from one of those families where bedrooms are full of books, you know. My first encounter with a book was when I was doing Grade 6. I went to a library for the first time and came across a book entitled, “Natural Inhabitants of South Africa”. I fell in love with this book to the extent that I said to myself: “This is what I want to do. I want to write a book.”
Nyadu: At what age did you decide that you really, really wanted to be a writer?
Mahase: At 17. But at that time I didn’t think I would publish a book. It was just one of those things. I actually thought of writing and publishing a book two years back when I was in my first year. And I felt like, you know what, perhaps I can write a book, but I didn’t know how to write a book, I didn’t know where to start. What helped me were the two workshops that I attended here at UFS.
Nyadu: Your book Life out of the Ordinary is about a white young boy, Tom, who rejects the privileges that come with the colour of his skin. What inspired you to write the book?
Mahase: I was in Cape Town. I met Tom. It was the first time I met a white person who was vocal and open about the privileges that he enjoyed. He motivated me to an extent that I wanted to write about his story in a fictional manner. So, I took Tom’s story and wrote it in a fictitious way. Some of the experiences are his experiences, but some are experiences that I experienced myself.
Nyadu: When did you start writing the book?
Mahase: I started writing the book last year around July when I came back from Cape Town. It took me about four months to finish it.
Nyadu: How did the publishing of the book come about?
Mahase: After I was done, I approached traditional publication companies, but then most of them don’t publish unsolicited manuscripts, so they kept on rejecting me. Until, I said to myself “I’m either going to wait for someone who’s going to publish me, who might not even come…or I might publish my book through self-publication”. That’s when I started gathering funds from the UFS community and published my book through New Voices, a publishing company based in Cape Town.
Nyadu: Which writers do you look up to?
Mahase: I look up to people like Thando Mgqolozana, Zukiswa Wanner and Niq Mhlongo because they write fiction I can relate to, about experiences we’ve gone through, about lives of ordinary people in the street. Niq Mhlongo is my favourite.
Nyadu: What challenges did you face as a young South African writer?
Mahase: Well, like I said, most publishing companies don’t publish unsolicited manuscripts…
Nyadu: And by “unsolicited manuscripts” what do you mean?
Mahase: I mean those who just emerge and want to be published and not recommended by someone. For instance, currently we are busy trying to bring an international publisher on board, so Prof. Jansen (Jonathan) is acting as my agent. It becomes easier when it’s done via that route instead of me as an individual approaching a publisher. First and foremost, I don’t have an audience, so it becomes very difficult for publishers to risk their money and publish the manuscript.
Nyadu: What lessons have you learned from writing and publishing your first book?
Mahase: Writing is not for the faint hearted. If you can’t take criticism, quit writing. Being bold enough to withstand all the criticism that comes with writing is important.
Nyadu: There is a belief that black South Africans do not read, what’s your take on that?
Mahase: We cannot generalise. The majority do not read, but before we can judge we need to look at why they do not read in the first place. First and foremost the content that is being published now by our publication companies does not relate to the majority. So, it becomes difficult for them to buy content that they cannot relate to. In fact, black South Africans do read the Daily Sun because it writes about stories that affect them on a daily basis.
Nyadu: When you were writing the book, did you have any specific audience in your mind?
Mahase: Yes, white people. I wanted them to see the privileges they enjoy. However, currently I haven’t reached them. Most people who buy my book are black.
Nyadu: Can we expect any books from you any time soon?
Mahase: For now, I’m still marketing my book – perhaps in two years’ time.
Nyadu: What advice would you give to young writers?
Mahase: Read books, enrol for writing workshops, but the most important part is to write. Write. Write. Write.