‘Living Legend’ Sindiwe Magona’s new book Chasing the Tails of My Father’s Cattle, tells it like it was – and still could be…
Words: Nancy Richards
“In the small hours of the morning, I convince myself that the whole world is sleeping – it’s just me and the stars. Everything holds its breath while I write – my imagination soars at the time of day.” So when we speak at 10h00, Sindiwe Magona has been up for hours – writing, walking, meditating and reading – all before breakfast. “I’m disorganised about everything else, except writing. A writer needs discipline and commitment.” But for all her discipline, Sindiwe has an Achilles’ heel, “I am unable to say no.”
Her job count right now includes preparing for a celebration of her body of work at Elinor Sisulu’s Puku children’s literature festival in Grahamstown; finishing a play to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Women’s March; working on actress Thembi Mtshali-Jones’ biography (she has also written the biography of Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane); breathing words of life into black baby doll MissDela (“She’s going to be beautiful, unapologetic and feisty, principled with respect – for self, others and the environment.”) and a collection of poems, as well as her day job as writer-in-residence/researcher at the University of the Western Cape where she helps others write their stories. She’s also been declared a ‘Living Legend’ by the Department of Arts and Culture to encourage reading in school.
Somehow we get on to Flame in the Snow, the love letters of André Brink and Ingrid Jonker, “Oh and I’ve been asked to give the second André Brink Memorial lecture at Franschhoek (Literary Festival), how could I say no? I loved that man… There was a time when I never even dreamt that I could be in the same room as him, let alone talk to him or hold his hand. He was so generous. He gave my first novel the most beautiful review.” (Mother to Mother, 1998, recently became a prescribed setwork).
It’s hard to believe that, decades ago, Sindiwe, born in the village of Gungululu in rural Transkei, was a domestic worker, who once told her employer, “I won’t steal your cigarettes or alcohol, but I might be tempted to read your books.” In a pair of autobiographical books, To My Childrens’ Children (1990) and Forced to Grow (1992), she explains how she educated herself and went on to work at the United Nations in New York for 20 years, finally returning home in 2003.
Other books, novels, stories and writings have followed, but it was as a result of “not saying no to a speaking engagement” that she got to write her latest title for new publishing house Seriti sa Sechaba (Dignity of the Nation). “I met founder Christine Qunta, who asked me to write their inaugural novel.”
Chasing the Tails of my Father’s Cattle is the story of Shumikazi, the only surviving child of Jojo and Miseka. She grows up in a remote Eastern Cape village and is marked for extraordinary things from the moment of her birth.
“It comes from my concern that some sectors of society live a duality – between democracy and monarchy – and tradition is used selectively. I didn’t want to get mired in today’s problems, so it’s set earlier at the point of degradation of black family lives caused by mining and industry. I wanted to write not about politics or apartheid, but just to say this is how we were. Tradition is not God-made, and we are not bound by it. My hope is that everyone who reads it will be inspired by Jojo (the diligent, loving father). But best for me was the swiftness with which this book happened. I already knew a lot from being a history student (she majored in history at Unisa) but from the life I’ve lived and conversations I’ve had – the words just flew out of me. I woke up in the morning so excited to write; it was a joy to be so sure-footed – for a change.”
Chasing the Tails of My Father’s Cattle (R249), is published by Seriti sa Sechaba