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An indefinable debut novel: Bridget McNulty talks to Mohale Mashigo about The Yearning

The Yearning weaves a story with African roots into Sea Point modernity, writes Bridget McNulty for the Sunday Times

The YearningThe Yearning
Mohale Mashigo (Picador Africa)

This is a curiously indefinable first novel. What starts as a tale of love and friendship about a young woman in Cape Town turns into something far more complex and unexpected. There are flashbacks to a childhood in Soweto, slices of a harrowing and life-changing incident, a swirl of sangoma ritual and a touch of family conflict. The result is compelling and heady.

The book follows Marubini, a young woman living in Sea Point and working in the marketing team of a prominent wine estate. She’s got the French boyfriend and the fun dates with her best friend, all of which lulls the reader into thinking this is going to be a light-hearted novel about relationships. Then she starts having unexplained seizures. They break open the picture-perfect life she’s living to reveal fragments of her past that are intruding on the present in frightening ways.

Mashigo blends the present-day modern Marubini with the memories of her traditional roots in a way that isn’t jarring to the reader. “Spring brings out the craziness in people. We, the sun people, stay indoors and sulk during winter. We’re always in disbelief about how bad the rain is,” Mashigo writes.

A short while later, “My father’s arms catch me as my whole body becomes a collapsed lump of skin and bones. The bowl rolls away from us and I watch it from behind sightless eyes. Then I focus my attention on Baba holding me in his arms. I am there with my father, but I am also standing by the hut door. Baba lays me down on the cow skin in the middle of the room and sits cross-legged with his back to me.”

What sets Mashigo apart, aside from this rich storytelling style, is her friendship with Zakes Mda, who she regarded as a mentor long before she met him. “There are three books that made me the writer that I am and one of them is Ways of Dying.” The other two are Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga and The Colour Purple by Alice Walker. Mashigo and Mda met while she was working as a radio presenter and interviewed Mda for her arts and culture show.

“We really enjoyed the interview and when I met him at a book launch, he remembered me. We stayed in touch. He was constantly encouraging me to write, and gave me feedback on The Yearning once I was done with the second draft,” she says.

“What is important is not to write in isolation. I have a writing partner who gives me pointers and I do the same. Having someone to share my work with has been very helpful.”

The road to writing The Yearning has been a long one: 10 years, in fact. Mashigo started writing it in 2006 while working in advertising (as Marubini does). The impetus to write came from hating her job and needing a distraction — so when she left advertising a year later, she also abandoned the story.

“I had a job that I loved and didn’t need the distraction anymore,” she laughs. “It is a better story for my absence, because when I revisited it I had some life experience.”

How much of the book is based on fact? “It’s fiction,” she states. “I have a great imagination, so none of it is based on my life. If it was based on my life it would be a boring story about a woman who drinks too many smoothies and struggles with things like taxes and relationships.”

We can all be grateful it is not.

Follow Bridget Mcnulty @bridgetmcnulty

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