By Myles Ojabo
South African writer, Sisonke Msimang, talks about life, multiculturalism and her memoir 'Always Another Country', to Black Creatives Aotearoa author and novelist, Myles Ojabo.
From her home in Perth, Msimang reminisces about her choice to become a writer. "My only regret," she says with a laugh, "is the delay in becoming one."
"Sisonke means ‘we are together’," she continues. "My parents belong to the generation of revolutionary South Africans that didn’t believe in giving their children white names. The South African friends I had during my childhood had no western names either.”
The relationships between home and family, place and other is tangible - even if our conversation is over the phone while one of us is in Aotearoa and the other in Australia. I wonder, would she be a different person if she was born and raised in South Africa? Her answer is simple:
“In Australia, your dark skin and short hair mean everything, unlike back home in South Africa - where it means nothing. In Africa people treat me on the basis of what I have to say. Nevertheless, I would have had less study opportunities; more experience of visceral everyday racism - and, I wouldn’t have been exposed to many other languages and cultures.”
However, Sisonke is not only a writer in the conventional sense, she is firstly a storyteller. Language (she is proficient in both Zulu and English) is incredibly important to her, as much as the ongoing debate ignited by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and the late Chinua Achebe on the use of European languages in Africa and by Africans.
“I think in English. I dream in English. My basic instincts are in English, but none of these debates are easily resolved. We need greater development of written literature in African languages, and in South Africa there is an impressive number publication of works in native languages."
She adds: "I'm also interested in having conversations with people from other cultures outside the continent of Africa and of course other Africans outside South Africa - hence the European language, especially English, becomes vital for an African like me."
Although based in Australia with strong family ties including her husband and children, Msimang is an equivocally proud South African. "My revolutionary parents fought for South Africa, and the passport means more than just being South African. It represents the victory of reclaiming a lost home. Taking up another citizenship isn’t feasible. I can’t give up South Africa."
Not that long ago South Africa gave Msimang one opportunity of taking a second passport - and she picked Canada. Now, four years since moving from South Africa, homesickness haunts her in Perth. “I went to South Africa eight times in my first year in Australia. In the second year, I went back eleven times. This year has been better. I haven’t been back in five months, but I will be in South Africa in a few weeks.”
Multiculturalism in Canada is often considered a largely unrecognised success story but for Msimang “racism and xenophobia continue to exist there” adding that "multiculturalism is also a means for a country to increase their population.
“Australia is also a multicultural society but we must remember how badly they treated the Chinese, the Italians, the Greeks and the Serbians. Most are accepted now. These countries are works in progress. We cannot forget the increasing levels of racism and xenophobia against Africans in Australia - nothing is straightforward.”
Considering the distance between her heart and home countries, it might seem that South African enclaves in Australia could offer Msimang some solace but she doesn’t seek them out. “If there were such spaces I wouldn’t sit in there. Most of the South Africans that have left South Africa over the last twenty years are white South Africans, many who left on the basis of being unhappy with the black government. They ran away from the multicultural and multiracial society we were built in. I don’t have anything in common with those sort of people - that is not a space I would feel comfortable in.”
The rainbow flag of South Africa is expected to bring whites, blacks, coloured South Africans together especially when they meet overseas, but that's not alway the case.
“It would be a lie to say we don’t have a complicated history. Some South Africans left because of economic reasons; some wanted to explore the world but still maintained a connection to South Africa. There are South Africans that left at the time Nelson Mandela became president. What does that say?”
A strong advocate for justice and activism, Msimang is now a full-time writer who passionately believes ‘stories can change the world’. For example, in her memoir, Always Another Country,she writes about an ordeal with a paedophile during childhood in Lusaka. The passage changes the world in a way she hates to admit.
“It is the silence of the African child that keeps the paedophile doing it again and again. The essence of sharing my experience is to break that silence, and to change people’s views. This can happen to any child.”
For most Africans, especially the young, the west is a far-flung land filled with hope and promises - but for Msimang the allure left her untouched. A woman who is deeply embedded with the values of changing the narrative - and the world she concludes by reflecting on her childhood:
“Most of the adults we grew up knowing had something to do with the South African revolution and my excitement was more about the news from South Africa – that someone had escaped from the country; that someone had sneaked into South Africa – an unusual revolutionary context. My consciousness was shaped by those around me – and that is my story."
Join Sisonke Msimang at the Auckland Writers Festival. You can book tickets at her different events by following the links below:
OF EXILE AND HOME: SISONKE MSIMANG
Myles Ojabo is a novelist and a former Pacific Media Centre reporter. He has a master’s degree in creative writing and a doctorate, both from Auckland University of Technology. His novel, Black River, appeared in 2018.
Written by Myles Ojabo. All interview remains the copyright of Black Creatives Aotearoa and may not be republished without permission.