Ms. Zukiswa Wanner is a Zambian-born, Kenyan-residing author with a South African father and a Zimbabwean mother. Her debut novel The Madams was shortlisted for South African Literary Award’s K.Sello Duiker Award in 2007 and she would go on to win the award for her fourth novel, London Cape Town Joburg. Her third novel, Men of the South, was shortlisted for Commonwealth Best Book and the Herman Charles Bosman Awards. Her satirical nonfiction, Maid in SA: 30 Ways to Leave Your Madam, brings to fore the sometimes fractious relationship between domestic workers and their employers while her children’s book Refilwe was an African subversion of the fairytale Rapunzel. Ms. Wanner is a feminist, mother and partner. She is Ungovernable.
NM: What is your earliest recollection of ‘being a girl’, in other words, when you first realised what it meant to be female in this world?
I was lucky to have grown up with my maternal grandparents as the first female grandchild with older male cousins. My cousins cooked and cleaned, went to the boreholes to fetch water, went to the fields and herded cattle and I did all this with them when I was old enough. My grandfather was a retired chef for the Catholic priests, so he cooked, in that way I grew up in a household where there were no clear gender roles. The women in my mother’s family were as competitive and as successful (sometimes even more so) than the boys. I think I only ever truly realised that I was ‘a girl’ when I was 17, doing my A Levels at a co-ed school and a guy I had been friends with and would walk home with often asked me out and I wasn’t interested. The guy stopped talking to me and some of the girls I was in class with wanted to know just why I was not interested in having a boyfriend. What was wrong with me?
NM: Was there a moment where you felt, officially, like a woman and why?
I think this is something I feel more and more as I grow older and become aware of some of the injustices that many women have to encounter. So no. There was no exact moment I can pinpoint and say, ‘on this day…’
NM: What were the building blocks of your awakening?
One of my great grandmothers on my mother’s (Zimbabwean) side of the family had six sons. And yet stories are told of how she had a close relationship with her daughters-in-law. This seems to have been carried on throughout. A family where we were told we could be anything. Zimbabwe itself was also different as a country at that time. It was less conservative and I suspect much of it had to do with the fact that women had been partners in the struggle for independence and their male comrades knew what many of them were capable of. So I would say the building blocks was love from my aunts, uncle, cousins, grandparents and of course parents and the belief they instilled in me that I should love myself enough to not be treated as lesser by anyone.
NM: The literary world hasn’t gone nearly far enough in making that world, one in which black people can feel welcome. How much worse is it for women?
If South African literary landscape is considered a white space (Google South African writers to see what I mean), it is yet a little generous to black men and does not quite know what to do with a black women. We have internalised misogyny even among readings black folk that I know people who are readers and book buyers who have yet to read any of SA female writers because ‘black women’s narratives, who cares? I am always amused when someone reads one of my books and then they sound surprised that they enjoyed the book. One of the earliest reviews I got for my first novel, The Madams, back in 2006 was by another writer I knew. In it she used the phrase ‘good black woman writer’ to describe me. Now if you want ghettoisation, I can’t say what’s worse than that. Being that South Africa has internalised the idea of white being the standard despite ‘black woman’ being actually the majority, it seemed to me like a loaded statement. When I write, I want to be a good writer first and foremost. When I interact with people on gender discourse, it’s important that I engage based on what I feel are the most important issues. It’s important for me then to be a good feminist. In the same vein, when I am talking of universal black politics, its’ important to be a good pan-Africanist. There is plenty of interconnectedness in all these but as a writer, which is what I am first and foremost, I want to write well not write well with labels.
“One of the earliest reviews I got for my first novel, The Madams, back in 2006 was by another writer I knew. In it she used the phrase ‘good black woman writer’ to describe me. Now if you want ghettoisation, I can’t say what’s worse than that.”
NM: What kind of a writer is an apolitical one?
I have no idea because I am not one. I believe that everything is political.
NM: What is the most important thing you’ve had to unlearn in your journey to intersectionality?
I have had to mind my language and think about words before using them. I grew up in a heteronormative world so I have had to unlearn a lot of the discourse. But, aware that I have a platform and people will ask me things, I have also had to unlearn that just because people assume I know, it does not mean I know. So, for instance, although I self-identify as a feminist, if someone were to ask me questions on feminism, I would refer that person to someone like Pumla Gqola, Simamkele Dlakavu, Bisi Fayemi, Nana Darkoah or Bibi Bakare-Yusuf because they know more than I will ever know on this subject even if I read all the books in the world right now. I can only ever speak marginally well on contemporary Anglophone African literature which is something I am involved in as one of the industry players. And even then, I would not be doing it as an expert but based on my personal experiences, observations and musings.
NM: In a world that is hell-bent on hating black women, how do you practice self-love?
I have wonderful sisters all over the world, among them my 73-year-old mother. Knowing that they are available when I need someone to cry, unload or just laugh with is a great act of self-love for me. I also love reading and swimming. Both are solo acts and while one is as educative as it is entertaining, the other helps me think and reflect.
NM: What is the most beautiful part of black womanhood?
There are certain universal jokes that only black women get. That, to me, is beautiful even when the odds are stacked against us.
NM: What is the biggest threat to black womanhood?
White liberals and black men, sadly. To elaborate, too often I have seen how black women are silenced because we are ‘too angry’ by alleged white allies as though there is nothing to be angry about. And I don’t know how many times I have crossed a street when I see a group of black men because I cannot just walk without some form of harassment sometimes verbal, often physical from my brothers and fathers.
NM: What traits must an ‘ungovernable’ woman necessarily exhibit?
An ungovernable woman should have zero fucks to give, speak her mind and live her life according to her and only her rules.
“too often I have seen how black women are silenced because we are ‘too angry’ by alleged white allies as though there is nothing to be angry about.”
NM: Who is your iconic ungovernable woman?
They change all the time depending on what I am reading. For the last four months though, it’s been the phenomenal Koleka Putuma. I wish I were half as wise as she is when I was her age. Flip, I want to be half as wise as she is when I am twice my age. She is an incredibly generous yet zero-fucks-given soul.
NM: What was your favourite outtake from last year’s inaugural Abantu Book Festival?
Am I allowed to mention my poetic crush Koleka Putuma again? As a South African, I also must admit to never having felt that free on South African soil EVER. I listened to and participated in the difficult conversations that I feel have been so lacking in black South African discourse. And yet, for all the difficulties of the conversations; for all the times I went into the bathroom and cried, I have never felt as safe as I did.
NM: You wrote a powerful letter to men recently and being a mother to a son, what is your respective wish for him?
I know that he gets lots of messages from outside and even sometimes without my realizing it, from me. I would wish for him to be a compassionate human being who can stand up against injustices. I would wish too, that he loves himself enough not to care what the in-crowd is saying if, in their saying it, they are hurting someone.
NM: Who is the most underrated writer you know and why do you choose them?
Palestinian writer Susan Abulhawa. I don’t think anyone can read Mornings in Jenin and after reading it, still question that Zionism is apartheid. And yet, she doesn’t beat the reader with slogans but each character is crafted fully and draws the reader into Jenin until the landscape is as familiar as one’s backyard.