Windhoek — Francis Sifiso Nyathi (SN), PhD, is one of Namibia's versatile writers. His latest novel, The Other Presence, which is on HIV - a pandemic that has become an elephant in the room and threatens to roll back development gains in Africa - is about to be launched. Moses Magadza (MM) speaks to him about his growth as a writer.
MM: How did your interest in writing come about and when did you start to write?
SN: I do not remember how I developed interest in writing, but what I remember is that my writings became more visible two decades ago when I was still a junior student.
MM: How long did it take you to write your first book?
SN: My first publication was a play and it took about three months. Before that, I had written many plays that were staged but not published.
MM: What inspires you to write and to what extent does your upbringing influence your writing?
SN: Our collective and individual historical experiences are crucial in shaping the way we view things. Naturally, it is those rough moments that hover in our minds. It is them that compel and assist us in shaping our world view. I should confess though that there is that part of this collective and individual past that occasionally surfaces in my writings.
MM: It has been said that writers, like journalists, are born, not made. Do you subscribe to this view and would you say you are a product of nature or nurture?
SN: I believe that those that argue that writers are born and not made subscribe to the school of innatists or pure developmentalists. I do not believe that there is a person that can develop intellectually without any outside input. I should therefore define myself as a social constructivist who believes that both nature and nurture were important in moulding me. I also believe in the enhancement of inborn talent with theory. It is on this premise that one would argue that to become an effective writer; there would be a need for school as well.
MM: What challenges have you faced as a writer?
SN: The challenges I have faced as a writer are that, as a country, we have a very small readership base. Because of this constraint, writing to me has been driven by passion and not commerce. I have also noted that there are difficulties for our books to access international markets while international books easily find their way into the country.
MM: Who published your first book?
SN: My first book "God of Women" was published by the now defunct Out of Africa Publishers.
MM: You are now publishing your own work. What prompted this switch, were you getting a raw deal from publishers?
SN: I have chosen to publish my own works because the other three publications that I had with other publishing houses did not give me enough motivation to keep writing. Right now, with myself as a publisher, I am sure I can keep proper track of my progress in terms of readership profiles. To be blunt, the little I have published so far already surpasses the benefits I attained in the past 13 years of my being published by others.
MM: What role has the development of ICT, especially the advent of the internet, played in your writing?
SN: ICT has done marvellous work in my writing because I can now tell which part of the world is using my book and for what purposes. For instance, I recently learnt through the internet that one of my plays "The Oracle of Cidino" was reviewed and had this review published in one of the major anthropological journals. It is also heartening to see how people easily get my books through search engines such as Google etc. I also hope that very soon I will have my books sold electronically.
MM: Have you set yourself any targets in terms of frequency of publishing?
SN: Since passion and muse largely dictate my writings, I do not set myself any targets. In fact, since my works are not produced in competition with other authors, they take their own time and all necessary freedoms to negotiate their development in terms of themes, plots, subplots etc.
MM: You come across as a self-starter and success as a writer seems to have come to you pretty quickly. How have you tried to prevent this success from getting into your head?
SN: Well, firstly, I do not see myself as having attained success as a writer 'relatively quickly' as you suggest because I see myself as still in the process of growing in this industry. Secondly, even if I saw myself as successful in the field, I would still see my successes as heavily indebted to my readers as they would have been the ones that would have placed me in that position.
MM: The plots in your latest book The Other Presence have some hilarious turns, as when one of your characters - out of ignorance - ends up being castrated when the poor dimwit should just have been circumcised. Would you consider this humorous streak as part of your style or something that just popped up as you wrote the book?
SN: I believe that humour in my writings is strategically located to arouse enthusiasm and engage the reader throughout the development of the plot and sub plots. I normally derive elements of this humour from collective experiences of our communities that is why it is easier for these readers to identify with them. What is important though are the lessons learnt from streaks such as the one you identified in the novel, The Other Presence;
(mistaking circumcision for castration) is the complexity of the theme at play; Okwonkwo's complex as developed by our literature guru, Chinua Achebe.
MM: What inspired you to write The Other Presence?
SN: I cannot fully explain the inspiration that drew me to write The Other Presence, however, I should acknowledge the existence of a muse that coerced me to pen a story about stoic trauma brought about by the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
MM: What is the one thing that you really want people to get out of The Other Presence?
SN: In the book "The Other Presence", I want to see our people (especially rural based dwellers) allowing science as a variable in their everyday traditional spiritually inclined conversations about the scourge and effects of HIV/AIDS.
MM: Studies have shown that a significant number of Namibians and indeed others that were colonised by non-English speakers, have difficulties in understanding - let alone using - English which you largely write in. How have you ensured that your writing is not at the frustrational reading level of your audience?
SN: My ability to write in English (without confounding my readers) has largely been supported and enriched by my commitment to reading. It is empirically established that good readers are good writers too. I believe in these assertions.
MM: There seems to be very few books focussing on gender issues in Namibia. Were you responding to this void when you penned God of Women?
SN: I do not fully believe that there is no literature on gender in Namibia. I would agree that maybe there is no sufficient written literature. My feeling is that, there is ample oral literature in the country that responds to issues of gender. My play God of Women is simply a story. I am not sure about its response to the void in gender literature but what I am sure about is that, different interpretations to both the plot and theme(s) have been lodged. I would also not be very accurate about my inspiration of writing it then because it was written about 15 years ago as a farewell production to my undergraduate studies at the University of Namibia.
MM: There must be pressure related to being a university lecturer (which you are) and a prolific writer. How do you juggle the two and deal with the pressure?
SN: The beauty about being a University Lecturer is that part of the job description requires that you write and publish. My job has therefore given me enough motivation to keep writing and publish whilst at the same time I deliver the required services.
MM: How do you relax?
SN: I relax in a less defined way. A cup of coffee in front of a screen watching Africans do their thing in Arsenal, Chelsea or Portsmouth makes part of my relaxation.
MM: What is your advice to budding writers?
SN: To the budding writers, I wish to advise them to be wary of adverse effects of emulating Eurocentric principles of writing. To this end, I would advise them to celebrate their own idioms, legends, heritage and experiences in their own writings if they want to succeed in this art. I would also advise them to take pride in who they are and stick to the things they know best than behave like characters that live in the shadows of Europeans. They should also take time to investigate the currently live and rife politics of book publishing in the country so that they avoid exploitation and hegemonic manipulation.
MM: Where do you see yourself five years from now?
SN: Since my writings rely heavily on the muse than anything else, I am not sure where I will find myself in five years from now. I only hope that I will still be touching people with relevant inscriptions.
MM: If you were to start writing all over again, what adjustments would you make?
SN: I do not think that I would adjust anything other than committing time so that I complete my other half written scripts.
MM: Dr Sifiso Nyathi, it was an absolute pleasure chatting with you.
SN: Thank you for affording me an opportunity to chat with you.