Pearls And Heels: Zukiswa Wanner


Every Monday we have our Pearls And Heels segment where we feature women and their careers. Our Pearls And Heels lady is Zukiswa Wanner. Zukiswa Wanner is an author and editor. Among her books are Behind Every Successful Man (2008), the satirical nonfiction Maid in SA: 30 Ways to Leave Your Madam (2013) and two children’s books Jama Loves Bananas (2011) and Refilwe (2013).  Her debut novel, The Madams (2006), was shortlisted for the prestigious K.Sello Duiker Prize. Her third novel, Men of the South (2010) was shortlisted for both the Commonwealth Best Book Africa Region and Herman C. Bosman Awards and her last novel London Cape Town Joburg (2014) won the K.Sello Duiker Prize. Her short story, The Dress That Fed the Suit was selected as one of South Africa’s top 20 stories in South Africa’s 20 years post-apartheid. She was also selected as one of Africa’s top 39 writers under the age of 40.

Wanner co-authored the Mandela home biography 8115: A Prisoner’s Home with the late veteran photographer Alf Kumalo. With Indian writer Rohini Cowdhury, she co-edited the African-Asian anthology Behind the Shadows (2012) and has independently edited several works in fiction and nonfiction. She has facilitated writing workshops in Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe, England, Germany and Ghana. She has written for several publications including The Guardian (UK), Sunday Times (SA), New African, Mail & Guardian (SA), True Love (SA), African Independent, Weekend Star, and Saturday Nation. She has previously judged Writivism, the Bessie Head Short Story Award and was one of the three judges for the 2015 pan-African first book prize,  Etisalat Prize for Literature.

Zukiswa Wanner 3

1. Describe your typical day?

Typically I wake up at around 2 or 3am and do some writing or editing. At 5.30am I wake up my son to get him ready for school. He showers, has breakfast and we have our mother-son bonding moment as we wait for his pick up at 6.15am. I then do a bit more writing and get back to bed around 8am. I wake up around midday and do the administrative bit of my work (emails, interviews, invoices) and finish at 4. If I have meetings, they are generally done during this time although I must admit if something can be done via email, I don’t see why we should meet. This is my typical day Monday to Thursday. I try to give myself a three day weekend so Friday is fully dedicated to relaxing and reading (when I am researching on a book, I use this time to read up interesting anecdotes about my subject).

2. What did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a grown up. It hasn’t happened yet and I am happy it hasn’t.

3. If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently?

I would have consulted other writers before signing my first contract. I suspect I would have got a better royalty fee and have maintained rights beyond certain areas.

4. What would you say are the top three skills needed to succeed at your job?

The ability to eavesdrop is an important one. It is very helpful with dialogue. The other two depend on the writer.

5. As a professional how is it working in the Nairobi? Is Nairobi open to what you do or what could be better?

Nairobi is working for me just fine. Because of its location on the map, it opens me up to the rest of the continent well in a way that Joburg at the bottom of the continent could not. Until recently, most of my work has been outside Nairobi because here as elsewhere there seems to be the belief that if someone doesn’t know you, you and your work don’t exist. Or you shouldn’t get paid what your going rate is because ‘ati we don’t even know who you are’.

6. What motivates you?

The need to tell stories that entertain even as make me the writer (and hopefully the reader) question what may be their deeply held truths. All the amazing, crazy wonderful stories I have encountered.

7. How do you define success?

In my work, success is the ability to move my readers to laugh, smile, question, cry or be sad. That to me is what art is. In my personal life, success is the ability to sleep with a clear conscience knowing those I love are as happy and secure in my presence as I am in theirs.

8. Who has been your greatest inspiration?

No one person has been the greatest inspiration. I am grateful to my family for the staunch support but for inspiration, that would have to be every book I have read, every movie I have watched, every song I have heard and every art piece I have seen. The bad ones have taught me what not to do and the good ones have taught me what to aspire to.

9. What is your favorite aspect of your job?

When people see the value of it and do not expect freebies.

10. What would you say are the key elements to being successful?

To be comfortable in oneself and yet to always be willing to grow admitting that we are all fallible. The ability to say ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’ go a long way in making someone successful.

11. What advice would you give somebody just starting out in your line of work?

I have said it so much that it has become a cliché but I think clichés exist precisely because they ring true: read read read. Read widely fiction, nonfiction, read labels on a can of soup. And then write. And after writing, read some more. It’s also important to be in love with stories in different formats, beyond the written word. When I do writing workshops and someone says to me proudly, “I don’t have a television/watch tv,” I don’t take them seriously.

12. What has been your most satisfying moment in terms of career?

Gosh, they have been a lot. Being shortlisted for Commonwealth Best Book for Men of the South with Helon Habila, Aminatta Forna, Sue Rabie, Patricia Schonstein and Bridgett Pitt back in 2011 was a wonderful milestone. Most recently, winning the South Africa Literary Award’s K.Sello Duiker Award for my most recent novel London Cape Town Joburg and its adaptation for stage (I understand it will be performed at the Grahamstown Arts Fest so stoked about that); judging the Etisalat Prize for 2015; my columns in True Love (SA) and now Saturday Nation; my new gig doing the BBC Book Club; a performance of my children’s book Refilwe at the Southbank Centre later in a few months and of course my selection as a DIVA (Danish International Visiting Artist) which I shall take up later in the year.

13. What makes you happy?

A room full of books, the child and partner in my life, my tribe of writers on the continent who are amazing and supportive and the sisterhood (a bunch of my family and friends who hold me up).

14. What are your hobbies? What do you do in your non-work time?

Fortunately for me, reading is part of my work so I read. When weather permits, I love swimming.

15. Where you see yourself in around 10 years?

I see me having published at least three more titles with my name on the cover. I would also love to develop an animated series for children with some of my favourite writers on the continent and a Nigerian cartoonist I have in mind. Finally, I should ideally want to be running my own publishing house and bringing out some of the most lit lit in the world.

In Nairobi, you can find Zukiswa Wanner’s books at Bookstop (Yaya Centre), Prestige (Mama Ngina Street) and
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Potentash Founder. A creative writer and editor at Potentash. Passionate about telling African stories. Find me at [email protected]