TIA: Your earliest memories describe humble beginnings in the rural areas herding cattle, a life which many South Africans are familiar with. Being a person who lives a very different life now, what do you miss most about ‘ezilalini’ (rural areas)?
Khaya Dlanga: I always hear this phrase, ‘humble beginnings,’ and it confuses me a lot because I have never heard it said of anyone that they come from arrogant beginnings. I think we all begin where we begin. That is the only life you know and you have nothing else to compare it to. I also don’t want to romanticize anything about iilali because there is a tendency to want to romanticize poverty. The only people who romanticize it are people who have never experienced it. Even those people who want to romanticize poverty don’t want to be poor which means that they know that there is truly nothing romantic about it. Other than that, I miss my grandparents mostly, I miss hanging out with the boys my age and wondering aimlessly.
You describe your mother as having been an unorthodox woman, whose defiant approach to life helped shape the person you became. Do you think more needs to be done to celebrate these unsung heroines of our society?
Absolutely. I think that we need to pay tribute to all the people in our lives who have been behind us every step of the way. It is not always possible but I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to pay tribute to my own mother in a way most people can’t. I believe that my mother is a representation of many invisible mothers in South Africa. Her story is not unique. She is one of many.
Early on in the book, you share your initial reluctance about writing a memoir since, as you say, you haven’t done anything great in your life like “ending extreme poverty.” How long did it take you to realise that maybe you actually should write your memoirs?
I don’t know if felt that I should. I wrote it reluctantly because I felt that my publisher had a point but I felt self-conscious about doing it. I kept asking myself, Who am I to do this?
Can you say what was the hardest thing about writing the book?
It was my career. Not wanting to come across as better than I actually am. Or generally as this super noble person because I know that I am not.
One of the things I appreciate is how candid you are in the book. There are some funny yet poignant experiences which many guys would find a little embarrassing. Your early trepidation around women and celibacy, for instance. How easy was it to put some of these into the book?
It was easy for me. I think it was easy because it’s something I am over now. It’s part of who I am which helped me be the person that I am today. I also don’t believe that I am the only person who may have had those issues early on in life. As I mention in my book, I didn’t feel sorry for myself in anyway, but I felt that I would be judged for coming from a home that was not as well off as that of other kids who went to the great school I went to. I think I subconsciously became a loner as a defense mechanism. I didn’t want my “poverty” to be “discovered” and used as a weapon. Therefore I made no friends and made no girlfriends. Funny enough, my sister had a friend from the same school I went to who came from a very well off family in the township. She would be dropped off every now and then and I remember not going outside when I saw that she was being dropped off because I didn’t want to be seen. Maybe I was proud and being a bastard now that I think about it. It was foolish and childish of me.
You cite Nelson Mandela’s A Long Walk to Freedom as a precedent when it comes to writing about circumcision at one point in the book. Many Xhosa men are still very guarded about the ‘secrets of the mountain’. Weren’t you conflicted about writing about it?
No. Not at all. I actually used Mandela as my shield and defense and I knew that if I did, I will be fine. When in doubt, quote Mandela.
Towards the end, you talk about visiting Dutyini in your later years and lamenting how little has changed. Simultaneously, however, you lament the change that you’ve undergone, a change that makes “ordinary human decency,” like greeting each other, bizarre. That was very powerful. Anything to add to that?
You know, I went to my uncle’s funeral two months ago back in Dutyini. He had been a priest and there were many people from all the country who went to send him off. At some point during the speeches, one local preacher took to the podium and started speaking and did not observe the time limit set by one presiding priest who was from Johannesburg. So the priest interrupted the preacher and asked him to wrap it up. The local preacher turned to the priest and said, “You city people and your time. You make it so quarrelsome.” I laughed along with most people, but I think that he had such a point. We have made time quarrelsome. It has become more important than experiences and enjoying people. Time is the thing we measure everything by. Back when I was growing up in Dutyini, people would walk past each other and engage in these really elaborate greetings. They enjoyed the greetings for their own sake and enjoyment.
This is your second book. The first, In My Arrogant Opinion, was a selection of essays. To Quote Myself is a collection of your memoirs. What literary direction do you intend on charting next?
I would love to write fiction. I have no idea if I will every have the opportunity. Like one famous writer once said, “I hate writing but I love having written.” This is how I feel about writing.
Then lastly, what would you like to say to that young man or woman in a ‘foreign’ city, homeless, unemployed and hungry (as you were at some point), reading this interview from his or her phone in the dark somewhere?
I can only speak for myself. I think that the only way I was able to survive was to look at surviving the present. I was never looking at how I would one day be working for some great ad agency. There was nothing more important than the present. It was also important not to feel sorry for myself. I think that I would have been so used to feeling sorry for myself that I would have used that as refuge and perhaps started building up bitterness against people who had nothing to do with my situation, resulting in wasted negative energy. I viewed what I was going through as training ground for something else. I also told myself that I am not owed anything by anyone.
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