The thread of storytelling

Posted on June 13, 2017


Novelist, short story writer and playwright Siphiwo Mahala's professional journey would not have happened had it not been for his love of reading, he said at the 'Meet your writers' event (a collaboration between the Department of English and the Department of Library Services) that was recently held on the Hatfield Campus of the University of Pretoria (UP).

'For anyone thinking of becoming a writer, reading is a prerequisite. It is also the reason I find myself telling stories in more or less the same way that I have listened to and read them over the years,' he said.  

Mahala sees himself as nothing more than a modern-day storyteller. He says that the kinds of stories he tells are modelled on those he remembers his grandmother telling during his childhood. 'Most of the time she wasn't formally telling a story, it was actually always very spontaneous,' he said. 'She used to make pillows by taking a sack, stuffing it with old clothes and then stitching it up. Once in a while, when the pillow was dirty, she would unstitch it so that it could be washed. With each item that she took out there would be a story to tell. If, for instance, she took out a blouse, she would say, "I wore this blouse when I met your grandfather when I was a young woman," and the story about that blouse would cover a particular period of her life,' he explained.  

This is part of the reason why Mahala finds the work of the late South African storyteller, Can Themba, fascinating. 'One of his most well-known short stories, The suit is about a mere piece of clothing, but from that item he was able to construct a story that has been with us for over 50 years,' he said. Mahala was not citing Can Themba just because he is doing his PhD on him, but also because he thinks Themba is a fantastic writer who stands out as a great example of a storyteller.

Themba's influence on Mahala's writing lead him to take the premise of The suit further with his own short story, The suit continued. 'After reading the story so many times, it haunted me,' said Mahala. He wanted to know about the other sides of the story and began to ask himself questions that eventually led him to write The suit continued. 'Basically, when I write, what drives me is the question, what if?' he said.

At the event in the Merensky 2 Library, Mahala read from The suit continued, one of the short stories in his book African delights. Dr Nedine Moonsamy, Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at UP, describes African delights as 'a postmodern wonder without any of the pretension'. She went on to say that the collection of short stories it contains is a fascinating perspectival writing experiment that teases out the 'same' story by offering different versions of each of the characters. 'We see characters in a multi-dimensional mode as we encounter them from various angles. In doing so, Mahala reveals to us the nuances and textures of the refracted lens that is our human perception,' she concluded.



- Author Mikateko Mbambo

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