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August Debut

Issue 2; October/November


Fred Khumalo

Fred Khumalo

Khumalo is an award-winning columnist and the Insight & Opinion Editor of the Sunday Times. His novel Bitches’ Brew won the European Union Literary Award 2006, and his autobiography, Touch My Blood, was shortlisted for the Alan Paton Prize for Non-fiction. His new novel, Seven Steps to Heaven, was published in 2007. His unauthorised biography of ANC deputy president Jacob Zuma is due in 2008, from Penguin Books SA. Fred is married and lives in Johannesburg,

This piece was first published in The Afropolitan

Image: Victor Dlamini

 On Writing
Writers will tell you of how many times they get asked the question: where do you get your ideas from? And when a writer responds glibly by saying: “I get them from life”, there is usually a long pause on the part of the enquirer and, invariably, a change of subject.

There is this belief that writers have to say things that are not only unconventional about their craft, but also profound, thought provoking, and erudite. A writer has to be deep, eccentric. That’s the conventional belief. In reality, many writers that I know do not possess the gift of the gab. In fact many are quite tongue-tied. Ask me, been there done that, got the T-shirt with the words: “I’m shit scared of talking”.

I happen to be a writer of fiction and also of essays and columns, and maybe when I’m old and wise I will also write sex books. Good way to help with the breathing, you see; cleans up the arteries, gets the heart to race faster.

In fact I have been writing columns for about 17 years now, on and off, for newspapers ranging from UmAfrika to New African (RIP) to ThisDay (RIP), to the Sunday Times.

In fact my Sunday Times column has been through two incarnations. I first wrote this weekly column from 1996 to 1998. I had to leave the Times when I was appointed editor of the Sunday World (the broadsheet version, thank you very much).

I resumed the column when I rejoined the Times in 2004. Every week I have to say something either controversial, or thought provoking, or maybe even infuriatingly narcissistic. But, always, always, it should be interesting at the very least.

And that, of course, raises the same old question from those who bother to read the column: your writing is so funny… pause… where do you get your ideas from? (The pause, I have since come to the conclusion, means that I might be funny on paper but in real life I am as interesting as Manto Tshabalala-Msimang’s hairstyle.)

I have always settled for the standard answer: I get my ideas from people and life.

But the other day I sat down and asked myself: really, really, why do I write and what inspires me, and how does writing change me as a human being?

In my on-going fight with the written word, I have never been inspired by any of the so-called inspirational books. I also do not believe that anyone can teach anyone how to write. Those who teach you writing might only help you get grounded in good grammar and syntax. Teachers of creative writing might help expose yourself to various ways of treating a piece of text. But the rest of the game is in your head, in your hands and in your innate ability and talent. It takes a lot of work, of course, to unearth that latent talent inside you.

I can teach a child how to handle a pen, how to compose the alphabet, but I can’t teach that child how to dream; how to imagine; how to literally bleed onto paper. No, can’t do that.

Writing, especially fiction, is about dreaming, about imagining, about reaching into a deeper spirituality that lies within your, its about exploring those worlds that lie dormant within us.

My friend the writer Mike Nicol uses an alluring image to describe the process of writing a book, especially a novel. The novelist is like a sculpture who gets given a chunk of wood, or stone, which he then diligently, painstakingly cuts up, parring it carefully in order to unearth the beautiful sculpture within. I think that hits the bulls eye. But in order to develop that consciousness, that sensitivity to dexterous movements of your knife or chisel around a chunk of stone you need to have visualised the end product in its entirety. You need to have thought and practised the moves inside your head very carefully; every stroke should be done with due care and diligence. Every wrong move of the knife mars the final sculpture that you are striving to unearth.

Now, on the issue of what inspired me to write my first book in the first place. Again, no, I did not have to read a manual of how to write an autobiography. I learned how to write the book from dreaming and imagining, from making love, and being sad, and being angry, and being happy, and being poor, and being black, and being shy, and being a son, and being a father, and being Catholic, and being the many things that I am. In short, I derived my inspiration from life itself.

Yes, I have read writing manuals in the past. I might, for example, read a manual on writing for television simply because I want to familiarise myself with the format in which a script is presented, and the language that those who write for television use in their trade: words like Treatment etc. I might read a book on how to sell a book to the publisher because I want to know the format in which a book proposal is written and presented.

But I cannot imagine a writing manual that’s going to actually teach me how to write, how to imagine things. In order words, the manual is just fine by giving me the technical aspects of the writing process. I can bet you my last Zim dollar, the manual will never teach me the abstract side of the process.

To proceed, then, it took a simple, real life tale, an autobiography of Frank McCourt, Angela's Ashes, to change my life as a writer. Entirely.

I had reached the lowest ebb of frustration, struggling as I was to complete my own autobiography. And then - boom! - I read Angela's Ashes in one sitting. The book hilariously tells a very grim tale of growing up an underdog in soggy Ireland. How horrible it was to have an alcoholic father, and a mother addicted to cigarettes, how terrible it felt to be an ugly boy with bad eyes and bad teeth.

Straight after reading the book I revisited my original autobiographical manuscript with renewed vigour. In 11 months flat, I had finished writing my book Touch My Blood: The Early Years. 

The book went on to be short-listed for the Alan Paton Prize for Non-fiction in 2007. The floodgates of creativity were open full blast, and in the process of finishing the writing of Touch My Blood, I started writing my novel Bitches' Brew which went on to win the European Union Literary Award.

Now this was the fascinating part. In writing the two books at the same time I was straddling two genres: fiction and non-fiction, and a very specific sub-genre of non-fiction – autobiography. I was living in two worlds in my head: the fictional and very challenging world of creating something out of nothing, of playing God, creative universes and human beings out of thin air.

In writing the autobiography I had to be measured, level-headed and accurate. I was after all dealing with real people’s lives. I couldn’t lie about my parents, for example, or my relatives who touched my life and the world I grew up in. I had to constantly consult them to remind me of things that I’d forgotten – birth dates, and other minutia of everyday life. As I was writing Touch My Blood, there would be notebooks at my desk, reference books which I had to consult in order to ascertain specific historic dates such as June 16, the death of Victoria Mxenge and other things that touched my life. This was a real life story, so I had to be accurate.

Whenever I got stuck with the world of non-fiction, I would then seek refuge in the world of the novel. This was a liberating experience as I was dealing with a world I was helping create. True, I still had to be accurate about historic events – there needed to be a verisimilitude of life in the book; I had to create convincing scenes to help the reader suspend his or her disbelief. But, thankfully, I could embellish historical events, place my characters at the centre of those events.

It was a jolly good ride. During the writing of Bitches’ Brew, there was invariably music playing in the background. Miles, Trane, Lady Day, Wynton Marsalis, the King Kong sound track. Music, jazz, and more music. The characters – at the least the main ones – had very musical lives and I therefore had to write a musical, if jazzy book. Jazz playing in the background offered me the musical crutch which I used in order to navigate, probe, and prod the world of jazz, to imagine the sounds, smell the smells of misogyny that is the doppelganger of the jazz world.

In writing Touch My Blood, I wanted to write a book that would inspire young people to dream big, to pay homage to our fallen heroes, and to have fun, enjoy life. Yeah, touch my blood, my brother, let’s cruise along the highways and byways of life together.

In writing Bitches’ Brew I wanted to show that in even the worst of times, people can make love, people can suck the world of its juices of enjoyment and life. And what better way to explore the bitterness and sweetness of life than through the medium of music!

But at a technical level, in writing Bitches’ Brew I also wanted to break with convention, as Miles did with his album of the same name. He was reviled as a traitor by many of his contemporaries and followers when he released Bitches Brew which broke traditions. In fact it recreated music, Bitches’ Brew did. I know I did break some rules in writing Bitches’ Brew – and some of my literary friends were not happy with the end product. I had not lived up to the mores of the literary world, it seemed. I didn’t care. The book had to be written in that style, in that format, in that tone of voice. I will not be arrogant as to say I did for the literary world what Miles did for jazz, in particular, and music in general. But, hey, the book is there and people are still talking about it, it is being studied by English honours students at the University of Johannesburg.

On the basis of the success of my two books, Penguin Books commissioned me to write the unauthorised biography of Jacob Zuma which is due out in April next year.

My second novel, Seven Steps To Heaven, was published by Jacana Media in October 2007.

Life has never been the same. I am writing like a man possessed as we speak trying to meet the deadline on the Zuma book.

This is all thanks to Angela's Ashes which unearthed my strength as an author of serious but hilarious books. Or so people say.   

Having come to terms with the writer who literally changed my writing fortunes, I went further to ask myself what sincerely inspires me to write a column. I hadn’t thought about this last bit, but when I pondered on it I realised that most of the time as deadline looms, I always find myself reaching out for AA Gill’s books, or those of McCourt, or at least thinking about the beautiful lyrical writing that these two blokes have blessed the world with.

And then boom, a column springs to life. What I haven’ been able to figure out, however, is why it has to take foreign writers to get me thinking about life as I experience it in everyday South Africa.
That part I still haven’t been able to figure out. I would be interested to know how other writers, columnists and general lovers of good writing would respond to that.

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