Bestselling South African author Angela Makholwa has written four novels Red Ink (2007), The 30th Candle (2009), Black Widow Society (2013) and her newest The Blessed Girl which came out this year.
She was in town recently and gave the Saturday Nation an interview.
So what are you doing in Kenya?
I am here at the invitation of the Goethe Institut to take part in “Artistic Encounters” a project which pairs two types of artists together.
I was paired with Patricia Kihoro, a very talented Kenyan actress, who acted scenes from my new novel The Blessed Girl which was very well received.
How was it?
It’s been more than amazing. Fantastic. It’s one of the best experiences of my writing life because I didn’t know what to expect when I got here.
I knew that Kenyans probably didn’t really know me that well apart from maybe social media, so I was pleasantly surprised and awed to have a great audience.
A few of them were very familiar with my work. Some had read a couple of my books and some all of my books. The experience of a trained and well established actress reading from a South African novel with a South African accent, which tells a lot about how good she is, was amazing.
I’ve not had such an experience in South Africa so it was really a beautiful evening for me, and I am hoping to come back to Kenya again sometime soon.
Your first book was ‘Red Ink’. Tell us a bit about this book and how it came about.
I am a trained journalist. I worked in journalism briefly and during that time I covered the crime beat. One of the big stories I followed centred around Moses Sithole who was a serial killer.
He terrorised women in the mid to late 1990s and had a total body count of 38 women raped and killed. Once he was sentenced, I wrote him a letter addressed to his prison address asking him if he could grant me an exclusive interview where I would sit with him and find out why he did what he did.
He didn’t respond to my letter for a good five years.
Eventually he called to say that he read my letter, and he thought that of all the people who had approached him to write his life story, mine was the most compelling, and that he was ready to meet with me.
I was obviously completely confused as I was no longer practising as a journalist, having just started a PR agency.
Eventually, I decided that it might be worthwhile visiting him in prison and hearing what he had to say and maybe I might even consider writing his biography. I went to see him and we agreed to work on the project together.
At first I would go and see him in prison and take what notes I could, with prison restrictions being what they were.
As the project progressed, I realised that he was omitting a lot of the details that I would need to write a substantial story, and that he was using this project or experiment to redeem himself.
He was trying to tell a different story from what was said in court and in the papers. I didn’t want to be a pawn in his game because I didn’t believe his version of events. I abandoned the project and told him as such. Obviously he was not happy.
About a year later, I met a publisher who I related the story to, and he thought that it was a story that had brilliant potential for a fiction novel. Red Ink is that fiction novel.
It did very well as it was the first crime novel of its kind giving a black perspective to crime writing.
People were shocked by it, fascinated by it. It became a best seller in South Africa very quickly and it still is quite popular to this day.
The next book you did was ‘The 30th Candle’ which was a bit different.
I took a departure from the dark world of serial killers as I needed something different.
I was about to turn 30 when I was writing it with insecurities about what direction my life was taking, and I had a lot of questions as to whether I was where I thought I should be.
I found that the people around me, my peers, were having the same issues. I decided to pen a story around four women — university? friends — who were facing their 30th birthday. I captured this milestone from different perspectives.
One was in a long-term relationship, another was career-focused, and yet another was the wild-girl-turned-good-girl. I had a lot of fun working with those characters.
People tell me that they made life decisions based on how the lives of some of the characters evolved. It has been fascinating to talk to readers of The 30th Candle because they have such amazing personal stories to tell me based on their reading of the book.
With the third book ‘Black Widow Society’? you went back to crime telling, a society of women for which the entry criterion was killing your husband. You just couldn’t leave crime fiction alone, right?
I find it very challenging as a genre because you have to keep your reader constantly on their toes, sometimes you don’t. I do love the challenge of weaving a story that has dark alleys, cliff hangers and keeps the reader on the edge of their seats.
Intellectually, I find it quite an interesting exercise. Black Widow Society is being adapted into a screenplay.
‘The Blessed Girl’ is the book you were launching in Nairobi. It covers the sugar daddy phenomenon which is referred to as “blesser” in your country and “sponsor” here in Kenya. Were you surprised that it was received so well here?
I think it was illuminating that a very big and disturbing South African trend, for me as an observer, is actually not limited to our shores. It’s happening across the continent, maybe across the world where women use their looks to access a luxurious lifestyle which they may not be able to access on their own.
What disturbs me is that sometimes the woman is talented enough, she has the wherewithal to build a life for herself and fund it, and make a success of her life.
Because there is thing called a “blesser” or “sponsor” here in Kenya, they choose the easy way out. Yet it comes with a price.
You find that most of these men are older and married and because they have the power of money keeping these women in their lifestyles they can dictate on things that as a women you don’t want to be dictated on.
You lose a lot of your power because their bargaining chip is that they are funding your house, your car and your body. In short they own you.
So for me that’s the concern. Yes maybe it looks good on paper when you are posting on social media pages, but at what price? That is what the book explores.
It doesn’t gloss over the glamour, though. My character does live in a penthouse, she goes to exotic places that a lot of people her age would not be able to access, but then I reveal the darker side of it.
As an author, even though you may have certain judgements about a certain lifestyle or issue, there is a level of objectivity when you are writing a book because you’re not out there to preach to people as you are telling a story.
I did come in with some judgements, and by the end of the book, the character is much more human, and I had more empathy than I thought that I would ever have for her. So it was an interesting experience.
The Blessed Girl is available on order at The Prestige Bookshop in Nairobi.