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Q&A with the man behind the most talked about novel in SA right now; Tshidiso Moletsane

From novels largely based on racial wars and colonialism, to tales that poignantly unpack intergenerational trauma and identity crises, the face of African literature is currently undergoing a refreshing directional change. To understand this, look no further than the 2022 Sunday Times Fiction Award winner, Tshidiso Molestane, whose debut novel 'Junx' weaves a compelling story against the backdrop of Joburg inner city's night life, characterised by wild sex life and drugs.

  • The face of African literature is undoubtedly undergoing a major refreshing change, moving from novels mainly based on racial wars and colonialism, to tales that poignantly unpack intergenerational trauma and identity crises.
  • Better yet, more young authors are tackling themes such as gender roles, sexuality, and mental health in the face of the ever-evolving world of literature within our beautiful continent. These are relatable narratives that are applicable to the daily lives of the majority of young adults living in South Africa today. What a time to be alive!
  • The 2022 Sunday Times Literary Awards, hosted in proud partnership with Exclusive Books in Hyde Park, north of Johannesburg, was a living prove of this. The Awards’ fiction shortlist was comprised of gifted and daring authors with glaring talent and it was evident, from the few novels that I read, they deserved to be nominated for this esteemed awards.
  • One such a deserving author who particularly stood out is none other than Tshidiso Moletsane, whose debut novel ‘Junx‘ took home the 2022 Sunday Times Fiction Award.
  • Not only did the young author meet the stipulated prize criteria for this fiercely contested book genre, but clearly surpassed the judges expectations, with one judge poignantly describing the book as “tour de force”, and went on to praise it for its “bold, raw and surprisingly elegant Gonzo-writing style”.
  • The prize criteria required “a novel of rare imagination and style, evocative, textured and a tale so compelling as to become an enduring landmark of contemporary fiction”.
  • Moletsane, who ultimately thrived, was up against equally worthy competitors, among them Damon Galgut (‘The Promise’, 2021 Booker Prize winner), Joanne Joseph (‘Children of Sugar Cane‘), Karen Jennings (‘An Island‘) and Thenjiwe Mswane (All Gomorrahs Are The Same).
  • It was for these reasons and more, why I yearned for a special sit-down with this rising literary author, to find out more about his writing journey and steady rise to becoming a notable author.
  • After we briefly exchanged pleasantries over the phone, and agreed on the date and venue (Milk Bar in Parkmore, Sandton), D-Day finally came … I must say, it truly was an honour to not only get to unravel the man behind one of the most talked about novels in Mzansi right now, but take a peak into the unraveling literary scene in South Africa and the African continent at large through his fascinating eyes.
  • For indepth reviews on the most talked about books, as well as excerpts and exclusive sit-downs with renowned authors of today such as this, visit The (NOWinSA) Book Reader front page regularly

Q&A with 2022 Sunday Times Fiction Award Winner

Q. Who inspired you to become a writer? 

MOLETSANE: I can’t say if there was someone who inspired me to write really, but now that I think about it, I remember my mother had aspirations to pursue a career in journalism when she was younger. She had an article about compassion published in the paper many years ago which I can still vaguely recall today. She cut the entire passage from the paper and placed it in a photo album, I’m pretty sure we still have that album. That may have been when the seed was planted,  though I may not have been completely aware of it at the time.

  Q. When did you decide to take up the pen and start writing?

MOLESTANE: When Hubert Selby Jr was encouraged by a friend to pursue literature he famously replied, “I know the alphabet. Maybe I could be a writer.” I read constantly as a child. I had an English teacher in primary school who encouraged my reading and was complimentary of my writing. I always had it in my head that I had an above-average command of the language; this was all the encouragement I needed to give it a try around the time I was about 15. ‘I know the alphabet, right?’I got humbled very quickly but I kept at it, thankfully. My initial attempts where very poor imitations of Stephen King, then they were very poor imitations of Chuck Palahniuk. You go through this before you find your voice.

Tshidiso Moletsane’s debut novel ‘Junx’ has been praised for its ‘bold, raw and surprisingly elegant Gonzo-writing style’.

MOLETSANE: When Hubert Selby Jr was encouraged by a friend to pursue literature he famously replied, “I know the alphabet. Maybe I could be a writer.” I read constantly as a child. I had an English teacher in primary school who encouraged my reading and was complimentary of my writing. I always had it in my head that I had an above-average command of the language; this was all the encouragement I needed to give it a try around the time I was about 15. ‘I know the alphabet, right?’I got humbled very quickly but I kept at it, thankfully. My initial attempts where very poor imitations of Stephen King, then they were very poor imitations of Chuck Palahniuk. You go through this before you find your voice.

Q:  What are your favourite books and authors?

MOLETSANE: I thoroughly enjoyed A ‘Clockwork Orange‘, and really liked ‘Anthony Burgess‘ use of language and the style it was written in. ‘Junky‘ by William Burroughs was the first book that made feel absolutely filthy while reading it. It was jarring but so much fun. This is what I want for my work; I want it to be fun.

I love Chuck Palahniuk’s early work. ‘Survivor‘ is my favourite novel by him. He has this literary device he calls ‘tempo’, which he uses well there. The protagonist in the story was a cult member who finds work answering calls on a suicide hotline. Palahniuk would recall incidents from the protagonists past in the cult to disrupt the flow between ideas and passages. I utilised this with the Jacob Zuma refrains in my novel since I didn’t have chapters.

Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions is spectacular also. She’s probably the most talented person in the world. Another book I often recommend is ‘Placebo Junkies‘ by J.C Carleson.

Tshidiso Moletsane poses for a picture during the Sunday Times Literary Awards ceremony.

Q: Do you consider yourself an avid reader?

MOLETSANE: Not anymore – which is a shame. I have struggled with my reading over the years. I would try to finish two books a month, in a year I would go through between 20-25. It’s November and I’ve only finished five books probably. It bothers me but I am working on it.

Q: Were you always aspired to be a writer, or did you have another dream career you wanted to pursue?  

MOLETSANE: I never really gave it much thought until I was a teenager. Growing up, when they’d ask me what I wanted to do, I’d lie and say I wanted to be a cop (because my father was) or a lawyer or a doctor, but in reality I wanted to be a Power Ranger. Then I wanted to be an archaeologist because I was convinced I could probably find buried treasure somewhere. I have always been all over the place, I am yet to settle.

Q: Do you consider yourself a writer or an author?

MOLETSANE: I think both are basically the same unless we’re being pedantic. The only distinction I can think of is that an author is essentially a storyteller, whereas the word writer doesn’t have that implicit meaning.

Q: Is ‘Junx’ your first novel or have you written other manuscripts before? 

MOLETSANE: I have quite a few manuscripts lying around. I’ve gone back to re-read them and they are horrible; so so bad. By the time I started writing ‘Junx‘ I had received so many rejections. I sent through a sample of ‘Junx‘ to Penguin, about three months later they asked for the complete manuscript and I was elated because I had never received positive feedback before. Probably a few weeks after that I got hijacked and had my phone stolen which had all my notes in it. I was heartbroken.

Q: Have you revisited those manuscripts, and considered getting them published? 

MOLETSANE: There is only one that may be worth salvaging. It’s actually what I was working on before ‘Junx’ but it just died on my laptop. I don’t really see that happening but you never know.

Q: Do you think because of your success with, ‘Junx’, publishers would be kinder on your next attempts to publish?

MOLETSANE: I hope not! I am okay with having my work rejected 15 times again before I stumble upon something with potential. I could have self-published at some point but I wanted to do it the traditional way just to prove a point to myself, just to prove that I could.

Q: What is your writing process?

MOLETSANE: I don’t have a writing process at all. I just start writing when inspiration takes me, which is terrible and I do not recommend at all. I haven’t written anything substantial since ‘Junx‘ got published.

Q: Do you have a particular place that you like to write in? 

MOLETSANE: Most of my writing happens in my room at night. I am still infatuated with the idea of the ‘troubled artist’ with is terribly juvenile but I’m a romantic so give me a break. Most of my favourites were alcoholics or drug addicts or degenerate gamblers and they produced such beautiful work. I always try to write sober otherwise I just vomit all over the page. Just because it worked for my heroes doesn’t mean it’ll work for me.

Q: What part of the book did you have the hardest time writing?

MOLETSANE: I didn’t know how to round off the story. I had three different endings. I was pretty young when I started writing ‘Junx’ – about 19. I was probably 24 years-old once I finished the manuscript and started doing the edits. There are so many things I had to cut and change. It dawned on me along the process that by shedding and changing so much of it, it was no longer what I set out to achieve when I started drafting it. I had to re-adjust and put myself in the same space I was mentally when I started. There are quite a few things I kept against my better judgement. I wonder how I’ll feel about this book in a few years.

Q: How much research did you need to do for this book? 

MOLETSANE: The book isn’t very long and didn’t require much research. Basically, whatever topic I happen to be obsessed with at the time will find it’s way into the story. I would read books or articles and some obscure topic would pique my interest, and then I went into the weeds with it and kept a bunch of notes. Most of them were discarded but there are always a few gems in there that are worth keeping.

Q: What’s your favorite writing snack or drink?

 MOLETSANE: I don’t have either, but perhaps cold water or Fanta.

Q: Has getting your book published changed the way you see yourself? 

MOLETSANE: At 15 I promised myself that I would get published so I am glad I have realised a personal goal. I am incredibly touchy about my writing. Every time somebody tells me they enjoy the book, I am always sceptical. Getting published has showed me I am not as secure as I thought I was.

Q: Many writers go on to become published authors with top-selling novels. Did it ever cross your mind that you would be firstly, longlisted for the Sunday Times Literary Awards and then go on to win? 

MOLETSANE: Not at all, being recognised this way seemed so far away. My mother told me I was longlisted and I was pleased with that, I didn’t see it going any further. There was a lady I spoke to at the ceremony who told me she thought I had a good chance of winning and I thought she was just being polite. It’s crazy.

Q: What or who inspired the title of your novel? 

MOLETSANE: I wanted to write something absolutely foul like ‘Junky’ by William Burroughs, the kind of book you want to wash your hands after reading. The title is a friend’s nickname but also a nod to ‘Junky’, which sparked the tiny fire that I tended until it became ‘Junx’. I am also always drawn to books with strange titles like A Scanner Darkly and A Clockwork Orange, that is a part of the inspiration too. I hope ‘Junx’ doesn’t mean something derogatory in another language because that may create problems.

“My experiences at Oppi then informed the huge party that takes place in the book” – Tshidiso Moletsane.

Q: Please explain the inspiration behind the graphics for the cover of ‘Junx’?

MOLETSANE: The book was a collaborative effort between me and my friends even though they’re probably not aware of this. A lot of the things that take place in the book either happened to me or someone I know. Koketso Poho, to whom I am incredibly grateful, is a guy from the neighbourhood who was happy to write the foreword. The guy on the cover is a friend of mine, the photo was taken in 2018 at OppiKoppi. My experiences at Oppi then informed the huge party that takes place in the book. I felt that image perfectly captured the tone of the book.

Q:  Were there any therapeutic benefits to creating characters after someone you know or based on your life experiences? 

 MOLETSANE: I can say writing it was certainly cathartic for me. I was very angry and I was going through a deep depression at the time I was writing this and it shows. I think this is why, when I got better, I wanted to change so many things.

Q: I read in an interview that the phone you had stored your notes in for ‘Junx’ was stolen from you during a robbery. Did not having those notes significantly hinder the plot or any aspect of the novel? 

 MOLETSANE: Not very much, it may have influenced changes in the characters or certain aspects of the plot, but I had already thought out the whole thing. All I lost on my phone was mostly padding. More than anything I was annoyed with the timing; it was right after I finally received good news.

Q: Did you experience writer’s block and how did you get through it? 

Moletsane: I am going though that right now. I haven’t written a thing. Thabiso from Blackbird Books assured me that this is normal and it’ll pass, so fingers crossed.

Q: What were your feelings during the editing process of your novel? 

 MOLETSANE: Having your work criticised is never easy. My editor and proof readers were really gentle with me but the whole process was like being scolded. This is made worse by the fact that they’re about four different rounds of edits and every time it’s something new and it’s grating but we power through.

There were so many talented authors up for the prize, and I was just happy with being longlisted. When my name was mentioned at the awards ceremony, I blacked out for three seconds from the shock

Tshidiso Molestane

Q: What are your sentiments about winning this prestigious award?

MOLETSANE: I am acutely aware of the social climate we live in and what is deemed appropriate and acceptable. When I wrote ‘Junx’ I didn’t expect much from it because I doubted it would’ve been received well because of the content style. I worry that some of the ideas espoused in the book will be conflated with my actual beliefs but that hasn’t been the case thus far. There were so many talented authors up for the prize, and I was just happy with being longlisted. When my name was mentioned at the awards ceremony, I blacked out for three seconds from the shock. When I got in front of the mic all I said was ‘WOW’. It was incredible, truly.  

Thando Mahlangu
Thando Mahlanguhttp://www.nowinsa.co.za
A book worm who's all about celebrating the best of African creativity, Thando Mahlangu is a lover of all things artisanal - be it contemporary art, crafts and better yet, African literature! 
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