BY THE BOOK: Perfect Hlongwane

Wednesday March 18 2020

Perfect Hlongwane is a writer based in Johannesburg. PHOTO| TSELISO MONAHENG

Perfect Hlongwane is a writer based in Johannesburg. His debut novel , Jozi, was shortlisted for the 2014 University of Johannesburg Writing in English inaugural prize. It is available as part of the Picador African Classics series. His second novel, Sanity Please Prevail, will be published later this year.

He spoke to about his literary favourites and fantasies. 

What were your favourite reads from 2017?

The Rift by Alex Perry, Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi and 101 Detectives by Ivan Vladislavic were the books I most enjoyed reading in 2017.

Which two books do you hold so dear that they can’t possibly be lent out?

Crime & Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky and The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah are the books I treasure most and would not lend out, though they do get stolen from once in a while. I always buy replacement copies.

Your fauvorite childhood books? Why?

My favourite childhood books were a battered copy of The Marabi Dance by Modikwe Dikobe which I stole from my uncle Mzwakhe at my grandparents’ place in Soweto, The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy which was a set book in Junior High School in Swaziland where my parents had moved to from apartheid SA, and Inkinsela yaseMgungundlovu written in isiZulu by Sibusiso Nyembezi, which I read because my grandpa died when I was seven before he could fulfil his promise of getting me a copy, so I felt like I owed it to him to find it and read it and it turned out to be the most hilarious, most sad and most brilliantly written book I would read in my childhood.

If you were to dine with three writers dead or alive, who would they be and why?

The writers I would invite to dinner, dead or alive would be Toni Morrison because for me she is wisdom personified, the late South African writer Can Themba because I think he would be eloquent and get drunk and cause trouble, and William Shakespeare because he was an absolute genius and might invent a few words before dinner is over.

Most unforgettable character from a book? Why?

Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment because I’m fascinated by the subject of mental disintegration and his is as absurd as it is credulous. His delusions of grandeur or heroism and the way it intersects with his weakness, which is his humanity, is unforgettable for me.

Which book do you wish you had written and why?

Native Son by Richard Wright is a book I wish I would have written because I’m impressed by the ways in which it conveys the black experience and black masculinity without giving in to romanticising or preaching about its subject.

If you were sent off to Robben Island for a year, which three books would you take with you?

For a year quarantined on Robben Island I would take with me Vikram Seth’s monumental A Suitable Boy because it transports you out of where you are and immerses you in the world the book is telling you about deeply and effortlessly, Shantaram by the Australian Gregory David Roberts because it’s literature that reads like an action movie and you are reminded in detail that the underworld and criminals are people just like you and me who fit into no stereotype, and Wole Soyinka’s Season of Anomy because it uses a story to explore the battle of ideas in politics in a very human, very complex way. But I would have to smuggle in a copy of the Bible and Ellen G. White’s Acts of the Apostles to keep me alive. Those two books are central to my survival (sorry for cheating!)

Tell me about the last book that made you cry?

The last book that made me cry was Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala which is a true story by the author, the sole survivor in her family from the Tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in 2004. I only read the book late last year and it’s a searing account.

Among your contemporaries, who do you consider most promising?

In terms of the most promising young writer I’m biased towards South Africa and I would have to say that Masande Ntshanga, who wrote the critically acclaimed debut novel The Reactive, is at the top of the crop. His handling of space and time in ways that transcend confinement by locality and/or temporality is incredibly mature and he’s going to be a very important writer.

What are you currently writing?

I’ve just finished my second novel Sanity Please Prevail, which is with the publisher, and I want to take a few months to continue writing poetry because in any case I’m always writing poetry (for me it’s almost a form of meditation, or prayer), and also doing book reviews and essays. I’ll start working on a third novel in the second half of this year once my batteries are recharged, but I already have a rough outline and it will be set in pre-colonial Southern Africa and go on to peer into the colonial encounter.

Do you think book festivals, literary prizes and writing workshops are important to a writer’s growth?

I would say that those things can make our lives a little easier and a little less lonely as writers, but they should never be the basis of any writer’s sense of the worth of their work or the authenticity of their journey.

Baldwin is right I think to talk about discipline and endurance as crucial to the writer if they are to fulfil their life work.

For me writing is nothing short of sacred and whether you come to it early or late or whether you are prolific or erratic you just have to keep reading and keep writing and keep believing in your own ‘voice’ even if the prizes and invitations to writerly spaces are not forthcoming.


BY THE BOOK is a literary series that covers authors, bloggers, actors, academics and poets of note in the African continent. For comments or inquiries, e-mail: [email protected]