By Chelsea Haith
“Songeziwe Mahlangu wrote the manuscript with single-minded concentration, in a style entirely his own.” Robert Berold, one of the coordinators of the MA in Creative Writing at Rhodes University, praised Mahlangu the winner of the 2014 Etisalat Prize for Literature.
“He wrote ‘Penumbra’ in six months in 2011 as his thesis in the inaugural year of the MA in creative writing, supervised by Paul Wessels,” explained Berold.
Penumbra is only the second winner of the Etisalat Prize for Literature, preceded by NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names in 2013.
“It’s an absolute honour, any one of the shortlisted writers could have taken it,” Mahlangu said.
Shortlisted alongside Cape Town writer Nadia Davids and the Nigerian-American author Chinelo Okparanta, Mahlangu took home the grand prize of £15 000 as well as the Etisalat Fellowship at the University of East Anglia where he will be supervised by Professor Giles Foden.
“I’ll see what I can learn from them and see how I can apply that to my next novel,” Mahlangu said.
He admitted that he is still in the process of conceptualising his next novel and would not reveal any details of this forthcoming project on which he will work under the supervision of Foden.
Born and raised in Alice in the Eastern Cape, Mahlangu studied business science at the University of Cape Town before completing his MA in Creative Writing at Rhodes University.
Penumbra was his MA thesis and was picked up by Kwela Books shortly after it was launched in 2013.
Penumbra is dark and disturbing, following the emotional collapse of the main character Mangaliso Zolo who is beset by mental illness and paranoia.
The title of the novel refers to a partially shadowed state and reflects the novel’s setting, the underground, gritty backstreets of Cape Town.
“My experience of Cape Town was not glitzy,” Mahlangu said, speaking about the novel’s setting, saying that he had not intended to challenge the usual perceptions of the Mother City but had represented the city he knew as a resident during his studies.
The novel begins with the protagonist caught in a state of paranoia about potential witchcraft while working as a cog in the machine at a large, bureaucratic insurance company.
It then spirals into the character’s eventual mental breakdown and deals with themes such as depression, disillusionment and the meaning of success.
“As the author I think success if finding your meaning, finding what you’re meant to be doing and doing it.
One of Manga’s challenges is that he wants something more than what you’re supposed to want; to go to school, university, to get a job.
He wants something more than that, some higher form of meaning,” Mahlangu said, adding that he has found his own meaning in writing.
Listen to the full interview between Chelsea Haith and the author Songeziwe Mahlangu:
This article was originally published by Grocott’s Mail on 1 April 2015.