The Sabata-mpho Mokae Interview
Sabata-mpho Mokae is an accomplished South African author, poet and journalist. He took time out of his busy schedule to speak with us. In our interview, we hope to find out more about Mr. Mokae and his published works.
Greetings Sabata, please share your background for our readers.
I’m a South African writer. I write in English and Setswana (a language spoken in five southern African countries by over six million people). I live in a city of Kimberley, known more for being the first place in the world where diamonds were discovered and mined. On a daily basis I work as a journalist for Independent Media’s DFA newspaper, also one of the oldest papers in the country.
How long have you’ve been writing?
I have been writing for as long as I can remember. I do remember writing some things – it might have been poems or just fiction pieces – when I was in high school. But I know that in 1991 I stumbled upon a novel “No Longer at Ease” by one of Africa’s most celebrated writers, Chinua Achebe. The story was so interesting, even to a young mind, and his storytelling so flawless that it ignited the storyteller in me. After reading that book I started to seriously attempt writing.
What were the inspirations behind each of your published works?
The first one was a biography of Sol Plaatje, a pioneering South African writer and political activist. He was the first African to translate William Shakespeare into an African language and the first black South African to write an English novel. He was also one of the founder of the African National Congress, currently the governing party in South Africa and the oldest political organisation in the African continent. His life, works and what he stood for inspired the book and continue to inspire me. My other works are inspired by the realities of life in the post-apartheid South Africa; our new struggles and even our aspirations.
What inspired you to write in different genres such as poetry, biography and novel work?
I don’t want to confine myself to one genre even though I feel comfortable as a fiction writer. I don’t write a lot of poetry and my only collection of poems, Escaping Trauma, came after a decade of writing poetry. Writing a biography came naturally to me as a journalist. At times you write a feature story about some important person and still feel like you should have not stopped where you did. Right at that moment you need to write something longer about the person. When I started writing fiction I was experimenting. That’s why I was so pleasantly surprised when my first novella won two national awards. But what I know is that I had fun when writing it, especially because it’s in an African language. Both my Setswana novels are being translated into English by translators in the United States. But also writing in Setswana, among others, is being the opposite of what apartheid intended me and others to be. African languages were not official languages in South Africa. Attempting to Anglicise us also meant culturally confusing us. A culture carries values, indigenous knowledge and history. Making people forget their language means making them forget all those things. Writing in a language that the apartheid regime marginalised is showing apartheid a middle finger. But it’s also about cultural pride and the dignity of a people.
What were the steps taken to publish books such as The Story of Sol T. Plaatje to your current youth novella Dikeledi? Did you self-publish?
The first one was published by the in-house publishing house of the Sol Plaatje Trust and because I was working for the Trust, it was fairly easy to be published by them. I had been commissioned to do research by the Trust and in my spare time I wrote the book. Once I was done they looked at it and decided to publish it. Dikeledi was published by Geko Publishing, the publishers of my first novel which had sold fairly well nationally. The publishers had assured me they’d publish anything that came from me and they did. The one I self-published was Escaping Trauma, a collection of poems. This was because most of those had already been published in several anthologies and journals. Getting them in one volume was mainly getting all my cows in one kraal. They were enough to fill a volume.
Please tell our readers why it is important to read South African literature from authors such as yourself? What can we learn in the States by reading your books?
The post-apartheid South Africa is an unfolding story. It’s the story of a nation that’s picking up the pieces after apartheid. Ours are stories of a cosmopolitan Africa, a rising Africa, a now post-Mandela Africa. My generation of writers speak truth to power, travel the world and find inspiration for creativity wherever they go. They also write about Africans and possibly for Africans in Africa and the Diaspora. They know and are enraged by what happens to young black men in America. They’re aware of how Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians live and know that their struggles are our struggles too. Many African-Americans who came here found that we share stories, we find inspiration in each others’ stories. So these are stories of people trying to make ends meet, fighting racism, wanting to live normal lives despite the odds that are against them, reclaiming their space in the world and working to regain the lost dignities.
Do you have any other literary artists in your family? If so, could you share with our readers who they are?
The other writer in my family is Gomolemo Mokae, a medical doctor who decided to leave medicine for literature and writes in two languages like I do. He also wrote television dramas.
Are you involved in other projects at the present time? If so, would you mind sharing them with us?
I’m translating the children stories of a celebrated South African storyteller, Gcina Mhlophe, into Setswana from English. I’m also working on a new book on Sol Plaatje’s letter with England-based historian Dr Brian Willan. In the next few months I and Dr Lesego Malepe, a retired professor in Boston, Massachusetts will start co-writing a series of children’s books aimed mainly at South African and African-American children.
Do you plan on attending any events soon? If so, please tell us where you will be?
This year I plan to stay at home and write. I want to make up for lost time. I have been too busy for my liking. However, I have trips planned for Ghana and the United States in September and October.
What are your plans for promoting your works and yourself in the United States? What will you need to “break through?”
I’ll be going to Oakland, California in October to promote my new book “KANAKOTSAME – in my time”. I hope to get it to bookstores and independent booksellers in the Bay area. I’ll also go to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to do the same and deliver a lecture or two. Basically I need access to the US reading community. Hopefully I’ll get invitations to literary events in the US, which will help me to interact with readers and fellow writers in the US.
How can the readers contact you if they would like to receive a personal copy?Do you have a website?
At the moment they can go to my publisher’s website www.gekopublishing.co.za. I’m on Twitter (@mokaewriter) and Facebook (Sabata-mpho Mokae). Otherwise my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
What advice do you have for someone just starting out as an author?
Writers are witnesses to the truth. Know your truth and be truthful to it in your art. Write the books that you’d like to read; that’s the only way you can be sure others will read them.
Is there anything else you would like to say in closing?
The world is one village with diverse people living in it. The best way to know others is to read about them.