From Aké to Kwani? Litfest: Ten Questions with Siphiwo Mahala

AkeThis year the Aké Review (the official journal of the Aké Arts and Book Festival) asked guests ten questions ahead of the festival – from whether they write in their mother tongue to what karaoke song they would like to sing.  

Two of these guests – Siphiwo Mahala and Taiye Selasi – are appearing this week as part of the 2015 Kwani? Litfest. As a way of reminiscing about the good times and inspiring conversations at Aké, while looking forward to more this week at Litfest in Nairobi, the Ake Arts and Book Festival have kindly given Africa in Words permission to share these conversations.

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Ten Questions with Siphiwo Mahala

Sipiwho MahalaWhen you are being creatively productive, who is your ideal audience?

I never think about audiences when I write. My preoccupation is always to put out the best creative piece I can produce at any given moment. Target markets and audience reception are matters that emerge once the manuscript is ready for publication.

What piece of work are you most proud of and why?

I am most proud of the piece that I am currently busy with. I believe that an artist is as good as his latest creation. When I write I always do my best, and the next time I write, I always try to do better than my previous best. It’s a virtual cycle of literary apprenticeship.

Would you write in your mother tongue and why/ why not? 

I always write in my mother tongue whenever possible. I translated my first novel, When a Man Cries, into Xhosa, my mother tongue. It was, in a sense, reclamation of the original thought. My writing is Xhosa written through English language. I infuse Xhosa idioms and cultural nuances into English to give my writing a unique flavour.

At the age of eighteen, who was your favourite author?

My favourite author when I grew up was Peter Mtuze. I found his Xhosa short stories quite hilarious and his flair of language was just phenomenal. His characters are as humane and as flawed as we are. His was the kind of writing that I could immediately relate to. He made me want to read more,and because of him I found sanctuary in books.

If you had a chance to co-author a novel, who would you choose and why?

I’m always in for creative exploration. I have previously experimented with Can Themba, where I responded to his classic short story, “The Suit,” which was first published in 1963. In response to my short story, “The Suit Continued,” Zukiswa Wanner decided to respond with “The Dress that Fed the Suit,” thus bringing a female perspective into the dialogue. In my book, African Delights (Book Craft, 2014) we have these two stories that are in dialogue with the 1960s and I think this remains one of the most unique collaborations in contemporary African writing.

Youve been entered for the Ake Festival Karaoke, what song will you sing?

I’m a retired chorister. I was chucked out of the school choir because my singing sounded more like croaking, that’s what the jealous teachers said. In fact, the principal came running to our class thinking that there was a tortured dog. I think there was something wrong with her ears, but I have no intension of going through this traumatic experience again.

City or Countryside? Why? 

I’m a rural boy so it’s countryside for me. The rural landscapes, unpolluted vegetation and the tranquillity of the countryside always invigorate my creative impulse. Beside, in my thirteen years of living in the city of Johannesburg I was robbed only once. Imagine! This is highly disappointing for a city known for its crime and violence in the whole wide world.

What are your views on reviews and whether authors should read them?

Authors should read reviews in an objective manner. We all know that once you sign off on a manuscript for publication, your creative piece is no longer yours, it belongs to the public domain. We write to be read and it’s always good to hear the opinions of people who have actually read your work.

What is your ideal writing environment? 

I write anywhere and anytime. I write whenever I have my eyes open and there is no spoon in my hand. I’m a literary soldier. I never travel without a pen and a piece of paper or notebook. Inspiration to write comes at the strangest times and in very awkward places.

Whats your Africa?

My Africa is the one where Africans define themselves and what they stand for as opposed to being defined by others. It is the continent where Africans take charge of their lives and determine their own destiny.

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Interview reproduced with the permission of and thanks to the Ake Arts and Book Festival.
Siphiwo Mahala
will appear this week at 2015 Kwani? Litfest as part of:

LitfestWednesday 2nd December, 6.00pm – 7.30pm
Language and its changing relations to African experiences and writing on the continent.
Participants: Siphiwo Mahala, Patrick Mudekereza, Yvonne Adhiambo. Moderator: Mukoma Wa Ngugi
Venue: Kenya National Theatre

Thursday 3rd December, 7.30pm
Kwani Trust’s Gala
Kwani hosts the winners of the inaugural Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature.
Readings by Taiye Selasi, Ken Walibora, Siphiwo Mahala
Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature presentation
Auction and Entertainment

Saturday 5th December, 8.00pm
Kwani? Book Party and FOKN Bois concert
Launch of Kwani? 08: The latest journal, Kwani? 08 explores the 2013 elections, the campaigns, questions around IDPs, the Constitution and how all these things could be connected to our current political reality in Kenya.
Readings by Siphiwo Mahala and featured Kwani? 08 writers.
Concert by FOKN Bois, Benefit Concert for Binyavanga Medical Fund.
Venue: The Elephant

Sunday 6th December, 2.30pm until late
Kwani? Sunday Salon and Farewell Party
Panel Discussion 1: Acclaimed writer Ken Walibora in conversation.
Panel Discussion 2: Sheng, Pidgin, Patois, and African Languages – What is the place of new urban languages in formal writing and publishing? Participants: Go Sheng, Jalada, Patrick Mudekereza
Readings: Writers from all over the world share their work with Kenyan audiences. Participants: Siphiwo Mahala, Boris Boubacar Diop, Mikhail Iossel
Venue: Kwani Trust

Find more information about 2015 Kwani? Litfest here.



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