BY GRANT MOYO
SOUTH AFRICA-BASED Zimbabwean writer Sukoluhle Nyathi, affectionately known as Sue Nyathi, considers herself a social anthropologist of sorts who is impelled by a desire to capture certain social norms and practices through writing.
Poised by a vibrant literary and publishing industry in the neighbouring country, she self-published her debut novel called The Polygamist in 2012 marking the beginning of her writing career. Spurred on by her love for reading, Nyathi edited an anthology titled When Secrets Become Stories, Women Speak Out which was recently published by Jonathan Ball.
Writing stories that resonate with her personally on pressing social issues like gender-based violence, patriarchy, migration, family dynamics and human relationships in general, is testimony of how contemporary fiction writing has taken over her heart.
Nyathi, who was born and raised in Bulawayo, did her primary education at Carmel School before proceeding to Girls College where her writing took root. She holds a Bachelor of Finance Degree and a Masters Degree in Finance and Investment from the National University of Science and Technology in Bulawayo.
Her career in finance and investments as well as economic development consulting never stifled her creativity as she continued to write after hours to escape the drudgery of economic shop talk and financial markets.
Cultivating her writing skills, she contributed to Zimbabwean newspapers like the Sunday Mail (Harare) and Southern Eye (Bulawayo).
Foraying into scriptwriting, Nyathi made her television debut in 2015 as part of the writing team of Matatiele, a 26-episode drama which aired on ETV (South Africa). This was followed by another writing stint on Bone of My Bones season 1 broadcast on SABC 2 in 2016.
Having officially retired from a finance vocation spanning over two decades to fully focus on writing in 2018, Nyathi’s other novels include The Gold Diggers (2018) and A Family Affair (2020) which were published by Pan Macmillan. Not only has her bestselling novel, The Gold Diggers, been long listed for the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize (2019) and the Dublin Literary Award (2020), it was also optioned for film. Besides contributing to two anthologies Black Tax: A Burden Or Ubuntu (2019) and Hair: Unpicking And Weaving Stories Of Identity (2019), Nyathi returned to television last year as a story liner on South African telenovela Generations: The Legacy (SABC 1).
“My inclination towards writing began to show at the age of 10 when I would cut out pictures from magazines and write little excerpts about the men and women in the pictures,” Nyathi said.
“I was 13 years old when I penned my first novel titled Crazy Over You inspired by the Sweet Valley High series which is what I was reading at the time. My interest in writing was further nurtured throughout high school where I wrote a lot of poetry.
“On completing my Advanced Level in high school it was my intention to study Journalism, but at that time there was no such degree on offer in any Zimbabwean institution of higher learning. So, ironically I found myself reading towards a degree in Finance.
“Even with my career set in finance I continued to write as a freelance for a local weekly. Many of my articles concerning love and relationships were popularly received.
“By the time I started getting suggestions that I should write a book I had written several books, none of which have been published. A Family Affair is one such manuscript which finally saw the light of day in 2020. I plan to redevelop a lot of my older manuscripts in the coming years.”
Nyathi said when she is writing she is never driven by the thought of the audience that will consume the book. Most of the time she does not even know who the audience for the book is, she says.
She tries to block out the audience to avoid being motivated by readers’ impressions since readers have a wide and diverse set of impressions.
Nyathi acknowledges that when writing contemporary fiction most of the themes are relevant and resonate with a larger audience because she will be writing about real and relatable issues.
“I often come up with a story I want to tell before I write it, and so it begins in the head before it is downloaded on paper,” she said.
“The next step is how I am going to go about telling this story and who I will use to tell it. This is followed by developing the characters which are built on stereotypes that everyone recognises. When all this is done, the writing process begins. There are characters that emerge and grow in the process and sometimes the story will take a turn that I had not initially envisaged.
“However, I allow myself to go where the story takes me, sometimes it’s more intuitive than technical.
“I think the biggest mistake most writers make is thinking the first draft is the final draft and publish that. Sometimes there is need to write six more drafts before getting to what a writer deems is the final.”
Nyathi writes in English but integrates other languages to reflect characters and the world in which the story is set.
She also tries to provide explanations in some instances within the text without detracting too much from the story. The Gold Diggers plot is based on a group of Zimbabweans who leave the country in 2008 searching for greener pastures and gold in South Africa. It follows their trials, tribulations and triumphs.
The Polygamist is essentially a tale about a promiscuous man who has many wives. She decided to use four female protagonists who find themselves entangled in a relationship with this man.
Nyathi’s books are predominantly plot-driven focusing on the set of choices characters make given life circumstances and the designs on the book covers sort to depict the context in the stories.
There are many themes being portrayed in the cover of A Family Affair, the first being a tree which signifies a family tree since the book is family-oriented. The image has been torn into four like a photograph then pieced together with sellotape or band aid which speaks to the dysfunction and brokenness in most families.
“The significance of the band aid is that as human beings we don’t deal with the root of the dysfunction, we always treat it at a superficial level,” Nyathi said.
“As a result, we continue to carry unhealed hurt from one generation to the next. The colours are earthy with green being dominant because it represents renewal, growth, fertility which are some of the themes tackled in the book.
“Orange represents sexuality, freedom of expression and success, which are other themes in the book. Red is the colour of passion, violence, seduction and anger, which are also prominent themes in this book.”
She added; “The design of The Gold Diggers cover embodies a woman whose dress spills out into the city of Johannesburg. The reason for this is because Johannesburg, where the story is set, was built on gold.
“The first settlers were lured by gold and while the gold rush is over, economic migrants continue to be lured to the city for perceived riches and opportunities. Hence, gold being the prominent colour.
“The Polygamist is a story narrated by four women who are the apple of Jonasi’s eye (the polygamist). Hence, the cover has a man with the four women mirrored through his glasses. The colour purple I chose simply because we launched the book during the Lenten season. Purple in the Catholic Church represents penance, preparation and repentance. It is often associated with royalty, luxury, power and ambition which are some of the themes dealt with in the book.”
Nyathi pointed out that she was roped into scriptwriting when a film director of Branded Souls Productions, bought the film rights to The Polygamist in 2013.
Having learned the mechanism of scriptwriting on the job, Nyathi said unlike with books where thoughts and feelings which need to show on the screen can be written, scriptwriting requires writers to be visual and action-orientated.
She stressed that story lining is the step before scriptwriting where story liners essentially plot how the story is going to go and provide treatments which the scriptwriter uses to develop the script for actresses and actors.
Nyathi is currently working on the sequel to The Polygamist set to be released next year. Whether she is writing novels or television scripts, she profoundly believes reading is an important reliable source of healing, inspiration and motivation which expands knowledge and gives exposure to circumstances beyond the society’s livelihood.
- Follow Grant Moyo on Twitter: @TotemGrant