South African author, Cynthia Jele was recently announced as one of the winners of the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Africa region. Her book, Happiness is a Four-Letter Word scooped top prize in the “Best First Book” category beating off stiff competition from the likes of Chioma Okereke, Alastair Bruce and E.C. Osundu. Africa Book Club interviewed Jele about the exciting news, her new book and her budding writing career.
Tell us about yourself, and your background?
I grew up in a small border town in Mpumalanga, South Africa, with my parents and younger brother. I had a normal and healthy childhood – I played outside a lot with other children and when I wasn’t, I was curled up somewhere with a comic book, later smuggled romance novels. I was shipped to a Catholic girls’ boarding school where I finished high school. Then it was college (here in South Africa and later the US). I’m now in South Africa working full-time in corporate and writing part-time.
How did you get into writing?
I got into writing by chance. I am not one of those fortunate writers who knew at a young age that they wanted to write. I once attended a reading session given by an American author, where towards the end of her talk she took the audience through a short writing exercise: she read out a line from a new short story she was working on and asked the audience to complete the first two paragraphs. I remember the thrill of trying to put something on a piece of paper. When I got home, I pulled out my computer and wrote a short story. Admittedly it was clumsy, but I haven’t stopped since.
Is writing a full-time vocation for you? What else are you into?
No, I write as a hobby. I work full-time as a management consultant in Johannesburg.
How easy was it to break through, let alone succeed as an author in the South African market?
I was lucky with Happiness is a four-letter word, the first publisher (Kwela Books) I submitted to was interested. We also happen to have a close-knit writing community here in South Africa that is always willing to help when one reaches out – which is what I did after I finished my manuscript.
Tell us about your new book – Happiness is a four-letter word?
Happiness is a four-letter word is a story celebrating female friendships. The four main characters – Nandi, Zaza, Tumi and Princess – are friends living in today’s Johannesburg. Like any other metropolis, the pace of life is fast and the social expectations high. But they have each other (at least most of the time).
What was your inspiration for this book?
I’m really inspired by everyday people and the situations they find themselves in. I watch people and make up stories about them. If I could, I would ask everyone I meet to tell me their story – how are they really doing? The book came about from reading too many books and watching TV shows about thirty-something women and the bonds they have with one another as well as their trials and tribulations. I’ve found that women reflect a lot about life (where they’re and where they think they should be) at this age. I also realised that women all over the world have similar stories to tell.
What do you want your readers to take away from reading it?
When I started with Happiness, I was just writing a book that I wanted my friends to read and enjoy because it talked about “us”. Towards the end of the book I realised I was actually reflecting on how my generation (those who witness apartheid firsthand) is really doing and whether we’re living up to the expectations of prosperity that has come with freedom. I would like my readers to take a moment from their busy schedules and just think back to where we come from and then go on and make things right.
What has been the public response to the book since you published it?
I think the book has been well received in South Africa. I’ve had women come up to me and say, “You know Cynthia, I haven’t read a novel since high school or college; your book is the first book I’ve bought and read in so many years.” That always brings a smile on my face.
How much work went into getting the book out? Was it easy to find a publisher?
I spent 3 years on and off getting Happiness together. It is hard work – you write and re-write, and after you’ve found a publisher, re-write some more. I was lucky with this book in the sense that the first publisher I contacted was interested. I struggle with short-stories though, even today I still get rejections. My rule is to give any work three chances before shelving for good.
Congratulations on winning the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. How did you come to enter the award?
Thank you. I believe my publisher, Kwela Books entered on my behalf.
You had some stiff competition. What do you think made you win?
Yes, the competition was very tough. I am a huge fan of short stories and thoroughly enjoyed E.C. Osondu’s Voice of America. He is such an accomplished writer. I also loved fellow countryman Alastair Bruce’s Wall of Days – the book is so beautifully written. I must add I was completely taken aback by the win. I’m not sure what the judges were looking for, but I’m glad Happiness talked to them.
Any words of advice to aspiring writers out there?
Start writing now, remember there is never a perfect moment to start. Also read, a lot – I’ve learned so much from other writers through their books.