Don Makatile is a trained journalist and distinguished book reviewer whose writings have been published on Books Live and African Book Club. His short stories, On the Train to Randfontein was featured in Short Story is Dead, Long Live the Short Story! Volume 1. And an essay he wrote inspired the title for the collection too. He is an avid reader who grew up on Western paperbacks, newspapers and James Hadley Chase. He recently received his Master of Arts degree in Creative Writing from Wits University. Don Makatile talks about his experiences with literature and what inspires him.
Who is Don Makatile and where does your love for literature come from?
Born and bred in Kagiso on the West Rand. Besides football in the dusty streets of the township, there was little else to do after school except reading. My older brother, a jazz aficionado, had another extravagance after jazz LPs and the fashion labels of the day – he bought books. When I grew up, there was always something to read at home, mostly Western paperbacks. This is how I discovered Louis L’Amour.
After the Westerns came James Hadley Chase and the competition in my neck of the woods was to read more Chases than your peers.
On my own, following in the rite of passage afflicting my contemporaries, I moved to the African Writers Series where my world was opened to the works of such eminent African writers as Chinua Achebe and our own Bessie Head. At this time, visiting the local library was a pastime in vogue. It became fashionable then to talk about such titles as Things Fall Apart and Maru than the gore of Chase’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish, An Ace Up My Sleeve, etc, which had just become passé overnight.
When I started spending my own money to buy books, I picked titles from popular writers of the time like Sidney Sheldon and Frederick Forsyth, to name just two. The added beauty of reading these writers was that their works were made into movies and it appealed greatly to my generation to read books and watch the film adaptations afterwards.
Later in my reading ‘career’, I developed an eclectic interest from biographies to children’s books. I still read everything I can lay my hands on.
Did you see yourself becoming a writer as a child?
Becoming a writer? It has a nice ring to it but I’m no writer yet. Of course, I dream of seeing myself in print one day. As I’m not yet published, I still dream of life as a writer, even on a full time basis. The closest [I’ve come to it] was studying for a qualification in journalism. The dream is crystallising now because I have made a decision to move my writing away from journalism into fiction. To this end, I have finished a novel and am awaiting feedback from publishers I have submitted the manuscript to for evaluation. The novel was completed as part of a two year course – a Master of Arts degree in Creative Writing at Wits University. I graduated this year in June.
When you started writing, was it just a hobby or did you see yourself making it a profession?
As a youngster I contributed poems to City Press, some of which were published. I even won a crossword puzzle first prize from the same newspaper while doing my first diploma in journalism at the then Technikon Northern Transvaal (TNT).
I wrote for fun, fashioning myself as some of my writing heroes. At the time, I did not think one could make a career out of writing. I thought you did this to be famous, like Forsyth who was all over the news media. I remember seeing him and Sheldon in the society pages of the newspapers. It was a swell life, I thought, and I pictured myself living it.
What inspires your writing?
I say in my Twitter profile that I write to get high. Writing is cathartic. If I could sing – which I can’t do as I was kicked out of a choir at high school – I’d do it like John Legend. I like that he seems to apply himself fully to his craft. As a voice artist, he does it for me.
From my brother’s influence, I am also crazy about jazz maestros like Sonny Stitt. I still play Cleveland Blues at full blast when I want to be happy and cannot read. I do the same with Count Bassie’s Play Me.
I play it to the Heavens!
Writing, like all forms of art, is influenced by what you see around you. What you dream about too, plays a part in your art, whatever the form. My sense, from the music of those I spend money on, is that when you do something, your only choice is to do it well, or not at all. It is a work in progress but I want to be able to write like that – move the reader the same way Abdullah Ibrahim shakes the core of my being with the magic of his music.
Of all the books you have read in your life, which one is your favourite and which one has spoken to you most?
I review books for a living. Sometimes, like in the Sowetan newspaper, I would just contribute reviews for which I am not paid. To answer your question, my ultimate book is Disgrace by JM Coetzee. It won the Booker Prize. Four years after it was published (in 1999) the literary world took notice and awarded Coetzee the Noble Prize in Literature. Here’s the height of what the book means to me: In 2006, world writers agreed and voted Disgrace the best novel published in English in the last 25 years!
For a writer, there’s no better validation than respect from your peers. JM Coetzee has this.
Who is your favourite writer and how do they influence your writing?
Jeffrey Archer is up there. I don’t think people write to get awards but Sir Jeffrey has been acknowledged – with prizes, and many of them. He is the only writer I have read who has been on the bestseller list for both fiction and non-fiction on more than twenty different occasions.
I have just concluded the third book of his, Best Kept Secret (The Clifton Chronicles). He writes about the 1930s like he was there witnessing the events unfolding. This is the result of one thing – meticulous research.
A writer who gets his research right has won half the battle. In Archer’s case, the second half is won by his talent as a storyteller. Those who write about his talents say you either have it or you don’t; it can’t be taught. I get goose-bumps just sitting with a copy of Archer in my hands!
Can you tell us more about your short story On the Train to Randfontein?
I started my career as a magazine journalist, at DRUM. Of the features I wrote, which received a lot of attention, was one on the hive of activity inside a train – from the church service, the pickpockets, vendors to the love affairs.
On the Train to Randfontein is a figment of my imagination based on my experiences on the commuter trains. Before the taxi and owning a car, I did a lot of my commute on the train, as most folk would attest. There’s a lot that happens on board an urban train. I saw my weirdo crossing paths again with one of his victims on a packed train.
What should African writers do, in your opinion, to gain more international recognition?
African writers are already a world force. The pathfinders; like Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Mongane Wally Serote, Ben Okri, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Nuruddin Farah – the list is endless, have done great work in preparing the world for the African novel. The new generation of writers are doing nothing out of the ordinary to make the world sit up and take notice – they just do what writers do, which is to write.
Born in 1977, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is already a world figure. What this young author does, whose books include Half of a Yellow Sun and the latest Americanah, is … write. That’s what writers do, African, Asian, or whatever other guise. They write and the reading world votes with their purse.
What are your words of advice for budding writers?
Read and write. Make this a way of life.