GBT: Can you please tell us a bit about yourself?
Nkateko: I always struggle with questions that require me to describe myself, because I’m not quite sure which aspect of my identity I’m supposed to talk about. I’m not the same person I was five years ago in medical school, or the person I’ll be five years from now ( I imagine that future-me is in a villa in Tuscany working on a new book and I’m desperately trying to catch up with her), so I tend to overthink such questions and end up saying something horrible like “Can I send you my bio instead?” I think identity is complex and multi-layered. When I started doing interviews after my first chapbook came out, the only interesting thing I could share about myself was that I was a medical student, and then we would go into the predictable “how do you juggle medicine and poetry” line of questioning. The thing that has remained constant about me is that I love writing. Everything else is in flux.
GBT: When did you realize that you loved literature and when did you realize you could write well?
Nkateko: When I was younger, my parents would take me and my older sister to the community library and we would take out six or twelve books (six during the school term and twelve during school holidays) to read for two weeks. I always finished my books in a week or less and would end up reading my sister’s books, which I found far more interesting than mine. Despite my keen interest in her books, I was engrossed in The Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley Twins and I felt that I needed to read all the books in each of those series’ before I moved on to whichever section of the library my sister was finding those gems she was reading.
Writing came naturally to me. I started out by rewriting my story books in primary school and by Grade 5 I was already working on my first story. It was called Adventure World and was about twins who discovered there was a secret world (with magical creatures and all) in their backyard, which their parents couldn’t see. I think in a way that’s what my sister and I created for ourselves with the books we read. We moved from my birthplace, Mamelodi, when I was eight years old and my sister was thirteen, and books became our friends in the new environment. The suburb we moved to had very few black families at the time. In fact, we were the first black family on our street. I think reading was our Adventure World. And I have always wished I had a twin sister, or that my older sister and I were closer in age so that she wouldn’t outgrow the games I enjoyed playing.
GBT: What’s your creative process like? Do you have a method for getting into the “mood” or beating the “block” (writer’s block)?
Nkateko: I’ve discovered that I write best in the early hours of the morning and in unfamiliar environments (hence my obsession with writing residencies in foreign countries). I don’t think I need to be in any type of mood to write, but I know I can’t write well when I’m tired, hungry or cold. I can write a whole thesis when I’m upset or heartbroken, but if I’m not well-rested you won’t get a line out of me. In med school I would wake up in the early hours, either to prepare for a morning ward round or to study, so the habit has stuck, and I sometimes find myself waking up around three a.m. to write. My friends and I joke about being a coven of witches (because we’re all so extraordinarily gifted) so I think it’s only appropriate that I’m awake at the witching hour now and then. I don’t believe in writer’s block. I believe there are environments that don’t inspire creativity and all that’s needed to fix that is a change of scenery.
GBT: What are your favourite books by African authors?
Nkateko: My current favourite book by an African writer is The Careless Seamstress by Tjawangwa Dema. I’m reading and reviewing poetry collections by women of colour this year and this was the book that started the journey for me. Check back with me in a few months to get a full list of my favourites.
GBT: Some people would refer to poetry as “pretentious”, perhaps regarding the heavy use of similes and metaphors by some poets. What is your take on this?
Nkateko: Who said this? And which poems are they reading? Send them my way so I can suggest a reading list. I think as poets we start out being quite heavy-handed in our use of literary devices and figures of speech, but I don’t see it as a bad thing but rather as a necessary phase in the learning process. It’s a result of what we are taught about poetry in school: use rhyming words, similes, metaphors, alliteration, etc. When we learn that poetry can be anything we want it to be, and that the rules can be bent and even broken, we start to write what matters to us and start using these devices to make our words sing.
GBT: You’re a bit of a traveller, having visited a couple of African countries. What is your favourite city amongst those you have been to, and why is this?
Nkateko: Lagos. I don’t think there’s any city in Africa that rivals Lagos.
GBT: Do you think there’s too much western influence in the African literary community, in terms of how our literature is written, the plots, and language? Or do you think this is a phase we have grown past?
Nkateko: Not at all. I think we’re all writing what we know – or what we long to know. If an African writer wants to write in a way that appeals to the western canon, then let them be. The phase that we have grown past, thankfully, is the one of dictating how and what people should write. Are there platforms here in Africa where our stories are embraced as they are? Are we not all bending ourselves to appeal to a wider market of readers, which inevitably includes the West? I’m an advocate for people writing whatever they want to write in whatever way they want to write it.
GBT: Finally, a poet, an essayist, and a novelist walk into a bar. What drinks are they ordering?
Nkateko: Wow. Is this the part where I expose that I’m not clued up about alcohol at all? (laughs). The poet is me and she’s drinking everything except beer (because it tastes awful). The novelist is sipping on a beer and casually watching everyone else because this trip to the bar is “research for the new book.” The essayist is ignoring their cocktail and watching the poet drink herself into a stupor and will write a think piece about millennial poets and their alcohol dependence.
GBT: Thank you for your time!
Click here for information on Nkateko’s current works and news about her forthcoming books.