Mike Maphoto’s ‘Diary of a Zulu Girl’ blog is something of a digital literature phenomenon. Since it began a scant five months ago in April 2013, it has had more than 10 million page views from 22 countries, spawned numerous copycat diaries online and is set to become a television series as well as a self-published book. Told from the point of view of Thandeka, a young girl from South Africa’s rural KwaZulu-Natal, the diary chronicles her life in the sprawling metropolis of Johannesburg, where she has come to study law at Wits University. Thandeka quickly finds herself involved with several older Nigerian men who buy her drinks, expensive clothes, and most importantly, buy her loyalty. A month later, in May, Maphoto started a second blog, ‘Confessions of a Sugar Baby’, which delves into the high school years of one of the original diary’s central characters. Maphoto is both prolific and provocative: alternating posts of ‘Diary’ and ‘Confessions’ are published each weekday (with 104 and 51 chapters, respectively) and issues of sexuality, changing gender roles, cultural norms and xenophobia are frequently addressed. At the end of each post, Maphoto invites readers to respond to a question related to these topics, garnering hundreds of comments on each post. Writing the blog entries from his mobile phone—the same way that many of his avid fans read them—Maphoto is helping to alter the landscape of South Africa’s publishing industry as well as its reading and writing culture.
Stephanie Santana for AiW: I’ve read that your blog actually began as a prank on one of your friends. Can you explain further?
Mike Maphoto: My friend likes blogs. He’s an avid reader. He was going on and on about some blog, and the people in the blog—how he knew them. He’s a name-dropper. So basically the plan was to trick him and see if he will say he knows the people in my blog. He was saying, ‘I know this girl, I know her, I’ve seen her’. And you know, he kind of got busted. He’s like that person who always knows everybody who’s famous.
What kind of blogs was your friend reading? Were they fictional or non-fictional?
The one he was reading was called ‘Chronicles of an Unemployed Side Nigga’, and it turns out this guy wrote a true story. That’s why he stopped writing because obviously the people he mentioned were on his case. I actually know the girls involved. That’s how my blog started basically, but I never read it [Chronicles].
Which writers have influenced you or inspired you?
I grew up on Harry Potter. I was the guy who would go and wait in the line for the book to come out. I’ve written a book that was influenced very much by Harry Potter, a fantasy fiction with magic. I wrote a series of three books—also as a joke. I had a friend who was very big on Harry Potter, and I kept saying that I could do better. You notice the first Harry Potters were very simple. They were written for someone who is 12, so I figured I could write the same thing.
Did you try to publish the series?
You see, the problem is that in South Africa they don’t publish fantasy fiction. So yes, I did try but everywhere you go they will tell you straight, ‘We don’t do this. We like political books, or books with animals, fables’.
Now that you have made a name for yourself as a writer, do you think you might try to publish the fantasy series?
In South Africa I might be a name, but here people aren’t really readers, to be honest. Most of the comments on the blog are people saying, ‘Wow, I haven’t read for such a long time, since high school many years ago, this thing has made me read’. It’s very rare to get people to read, so any publisher panics.
Has anyone approached you about turning ‘Diary of a Zulu Girl’ into a book?
Yes, Penguin Africa approached me. We had the meeting a week or two after my first radio interview. The guy who approached me is actually the president of Penguin Africa. He came personally. He told me they would get back to me in a week or so with details, but it took about two months, and by then I was doing advertising and stuff. When they did make the offer it was an insult, to be honest, because they offered me R 5,000. For a while the blog was number one in South Africa. Even now, I don’t think there’s anything that enjoys such numbers in the country. I’m averaging about 45,000 readers per day and they offer $500 and say that it takes nine months to make a book? That’s a long time because people are already reading something on this book. I turned them down eventually. I am going to self-publish. I’ve already started the process, met the printing company, everything.
There’s been a lot of discussion in the blog’s comments about language. Some readers want the grammar to be spotless while others think it’s fitting that there are errors because it is a diary and is meant to be written by a young person. What are your thoughts on this debate?
I think it’s very interesting because I always argue about this with people. All of the properly written textbooks—nobody buys them. Nobody wants to read something properly written. It’s ironic that the blog is so big, yet to be fair, even by my own standards, the grammar is terrible. The spelling is terrible. But people seem to love such writing. Another thing that I think even government needs to learn—they make these kids read Shakespeare, they can’t even read it. It’s hard. At home you don’t speak English so everything that you do you first have to translate it. The blog seems like it’s written by an African. They relate faster because it makes so much sense to them.
You have readers from 22 countries around the world. What have you noticed in terms of who is reading and from where?
Obviously the number one country is South Africa. Number two is the UK. I think the story of the girl is quite universal. There’s a movie with Ashton Kutcher [Spread 2009] where he’s a playboy in Hollywood. Same storyline. He comes from a small town, and he’s very good looking. All of the women are after him and he’s using them for money. It’s the same thing. It happens everywhere. If you go to Nigeria for example, they’ve got girls who come from the village to the big city. They meet all these people with money who they do things with. Go to the UK, it’s the same thing. I think a lot of people are relating to the situations this girl goes through.
How do you explain the blog’s success?
What made my blog bigger than everybody else’s was that a lot of people mentioned it. Parents are concerned about what their kids are doing—their daughter comes home with more money than they gave her and she’s not working. Then there was this blog telling true-life stories of what’s happening in South Africa right now. Parents started talking and somebody called into a radio station and said there’s this and blog it’s very critical for our kids. Then they interviewed me. By then the blog itself was quite popular because another thing, and it’s very sad, people want women to appear as loose. The interest came from—here’s a woman who has no shame, she is loose. They call my character bad names even today. She’s a slut, she’s all this. But in all fairness, in the entire blog, she’s only slept with two people. But if you ask anyone they think she is a lost child. We live in a very sexist community and actually the sexism doesn’t come from men. It comes from women against other women. It’s something very ironic.
You’ve said you usually read the blog’s comments—what do you think of them, what do you do with them? Do they impact you as you write the next chapter?
Reading is not really interactive. It’s the author telling you their thoughts, but you can see that people are dying to say something, so what I started doing was asking questions at the end of the blog. This makes everybody feel like they’re part of the story. Social media, if there’s one thing it’s good at, is making everybody feel involved. What I’ve noticed is that first people talk about the blog, then they answer the question, but they say more on the question. It’s creating a big platform.
Have you ever read a comment and said, oh that would be a good twist and worked it into the story?
I think it is true of all artists that we are arrogant. I always feel like I’m better than the comments. Once you have the comment and you do what the person wants, it’s like someone saying, ‘Oh, I told you so.’ Now when I see something like that, I try to shock that person.
Why did you decide to start ‘Confessions of a Sugar Baby’?
This was a personal thing for me because now I knew that I could write. Now I knew that I had an audience. It’s a very interesting thing—how does a 45-year-old man go to a 16-year-old girl? What I did was I asked questions. I told people I’d like to write about sugar daddies and asked them for their life stories. The things I’ve heard—it’s properly sad. With ‘Diary’ it’s so tense because everybody wants a good story. Everybody wants drama. Everybody wants to poke fun at this girl or the foreigners. When I started doing ‘Confessions’, it gave me a chance to breathe and gather my thoughts. But then as time went on, I should have realized that ‘Confessions’ is actually much harder to write because a lot of people are closer to it than they are to ‘Diary’. At the end of the day, ‘Diary’ is about clubbing. Not everybody clubs, not everybody wears that short dress. But with ‘Confessions’, it’s your daughter, and she’s starting to like things, getting phone calls at night—from who? A lot of parents especially love ‘Confessions’. The comments on it are fewer than the comments on ‘Diary’, but they say more things. You can see somebody thought this through.
How many more chapters do you plan to do of each?
For ‘Diary’, for now, I’m going to finish I think at 120, but that’s because of TV. They are using 39 chapters per season, so I want to have 120 to be able to have three full seasons.
Are you really going to have fans cast as the characters?
Yes, even with the production company and the TV station, I was very serious about it. People are chuffed [very happy]. In South Africa our industry isn’t growing because we keep recycling the same people.
Do you have any qualms about moving away from the blog to the visual format?
No, the blog isn’t finishing. At 120 I’m going to say it’s end of part one because she’ll be going home for her holidays. I want people to read, but to be honest, I want them to read good English. We’ve got a problem when people don’t read. I’ve never dated a girl who reads. And when I read, most of the girls I’ve dated have taken offense. Seriously, in this country, if a guy reads it’s considered gay. But when is reading ever bad?
Can you tell me a bit about your future projects?
I’m now writing TV scripts, and so far people who have seen them are in love with them. I’m trying to breathe fresh air into our TV, fresh thoughts. I have one that is like gossip girl. It’s called West Road South. Back in the 90’s it was the road with the most black millionaires in the country. The story is based in a very expensive school, rich kids and what they do for fun, plus their parents. Then I have a movie called Life about a black girl who’s adopted by white parents when she’s a toddler. Then the white parents die, and there’s no one to take care of her and she has to go stay in the township with her former nanny. It’s a very interesting but tricky story. There are a lot of black kids who are in white families, but how do they relate to the rest of the black people?
I’d like to thank Mike for taking time out of his busy schedule to speak with me. The print book of ‘Diary of a Zulu Girl’ may be available as early as December of this year. In the meantime, both ‘Diary’ and ‘Confessions’ can be accessed at diaryofazulugirl.co.za.