Niq Mhlongo was born in 1977 in Soweto. When his father died, he moved to Limpopo for his high school education. Although he was an avid reader, Mhlongo failed matric. But he passed at the second attempt. He received his BA from Wits University in 1996, and in 2000 he discontinued his studies towards a law degree to write his debut novel, Dog Eat Dog, a tough tale set at a university. He followed this with After Tears, a story about a university dropout who has to live a lie. His latest novel, Way Back Home, about exiles, tenderpreneurs and a ghost, came out last year.
This conversation took place in Johannesburg.
Niq, who do you write for?
You know, that’s quite an interesting question. You don’t necessarily sit down and tell yourself who you are writing for. You write for yourself. You don’t know your audience, you don’t know who is going to buy your books; you write for yourself because you have so many different goals you want to achieve. One of them could be that you want to let out whatever is in your heart. Writing is healing. So when you write, you write because you want to heal. It heals me, so that’s why I want to write for myself. When you have a story in your mind, you cannot think of anything else. You want to get it out. A story trapped inside your head is like a disease. You won’t be healed until you get it out.
So this is what you are healing from – these stories trapped inside your head?
And where do the stories come from?
Stories come from everywhere. Stories come from different places; for some people they come from the Bible – that’s the greatest book of stories anyway. They come from folklore, from childhood, from gossip, from history. Or perhaps there is something you want to correct that you think is misrepresented in the world.
You may find that in most cases someone takes your experience, your story, and writes about it. But the way it is presented may not be in a way you would want it to be represented. Take Bra Zakes Mda’s beautiful story Heart of Redness, about Nongqawuse and the cattle killings. Maybe such stories have been written because a good job has not been done. You want to fictionalise what you think are the true events of the story.
Why through fiction?
I choose the novel because I think fiction is more powerful than historical fact. Facts don’t allow imagination. With fiction you can easily problematise what has been taken as fact.
Should we problematise history?
Yes, because we are telling people what could have happened. There’s no one way in which it could have happened; no one can claim to the truth. The truth is what you believe in. The important thing is to open a debate because there are different versions. This is my version.
So one is not wrong to say that your books are autobiographical, especially the first two?
No, not really. Maybe in small parts. The reason people think so is because it is in first-person narrative. But I’m glad when people say it’s autobiographical – it means it is believable. For instance, in Dog Eat Dog there are things about me that are different to the character. I went to Wits University, but I didn’t fail, I didn’t struggle to get a bursary, I had no problem getting into res.
Is the character Dingz someone you might know?
Dingz is many people, maybe 30.
That is a lot of people for one character. How do you make it work?
It’s working now. A story has to have conflict. When things are smooth it’s no longer a story.
Main Pic: Niq Mhlongo by Lisa Skinner