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Alan Paton Award shortlist: Interview with Khaya Dlanga on his memoir To Quote Myself

By Jennifer Platt for the Sunday Times

To Quote MyselfTo Quote Myself: A Memoir
Khaya Dlanga (Pan Macmillan)

Your book is the only memoir to be shortlisted this year. Was it difficult putting yourself on the page?
The difficulty was writing down a version that was not better than I was, or making the circumstances that I went through appear worse than what they were. You have to make sure you come across as being the real you, even though every person has different selves – all depending on where you are or who you are with. Every person is multidimensional and it’s important to get that correct on paper.

What challenges did you face writing the book?
Deadlines. Seriously, one of the challenges was making sure that what I remembered was accurate. I spoke to my mother and my aunt. My mother was surprised at what I remembered.

Did the book bring about a healing or closure for you?
It helped me remember my roots and where I came from. It helped me appreciate what I’ve been through. It made me appreciate what so many people did to get me to where I am. I mention a lot of people and this was a way of honouring them. Unfortunately, there is no way of thanking each person individually and there is no way to include everyone.

What message do you want your book to convey?
One of the things I say in the Foreword of the book is that every story is worth telling. The message that I want to get out there is for people to know that our stories can be told. We should be able to see ourselves and relate, and not get other people to tell our stories on our behalf. There are lots of books written about South Africa and black South Africans that are not written by black South Africans. What these books describe and how they describe it will always be from an outsider’s point of view. They can be very empathetic but they always miss the nuances of being in that other person’s skin. This book has brought a new reader to the market. It’s hopefully brought a freshness.

You have spoken out about the writing style of your memoir, and how black stories should be allowed to be told in whatever style the writer chooses. Can you expand on this thought?
The one thing I found particularly interesting is that people said my book was too conversational, or it was too simple and not academic. My response to that criticism is that some people want us to tell our stories the way they want. Saying “You cannot write like this” is a way of gatekeeping storytelling. Many people are buying the book and relating to it. Isn’t that what’s more important – the fact that you can see yourself in the book? For me, my writing shouldn’t be a display of how smart I am but rather about connecting with people.

How did you start to put your memories down on paper?
It had to be chronological. It was important for me to start at the beginning. It was also important to describe my roots and talk about people who had an impact on my life – my mother, grandmother and grandfather. I wrote a synopsis for my publisher where I had to describe in a paragraph what would be in each chapter. So that got me thinking in a chronological way: when I was born, my biggest memory of my childhood (my father’s death when I was six) and so on.

How do you feel about being the author of one of the most stolen books in South Africa?
There is a hunger for people to see themselves in books but they don’t have the access to them. Why are we making access to books so difficult? It makes me angry and frustrated knowing that this is what we are doing.

What was your first memory?
One strong memory I have is of my father. I was four or five at the time. It’s my only memory of my father, but it’s really of my mother as well. She and my aunt went to visit my father. He had come back from Joburg where he had disappeared for a while. I remember my father holding me in his arms and I can feel the tension between him and my mother. I can feel that my father is feeling small. I can remember my mother’s strength and beauty in that moment, and just by a look, she is saying to him, “See, I told you I could do this by myself”.

Follow Jennifer Platt on Twitter @Jenniferdplatt

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