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Ziphozakhe Hlobo

Child of the soil, pride of the mountain, messenger of the ancestors; even this mountain is your ancestor’s landscape. Spread your wings as wide as you can and fly—higher and higher.

Read the complete Part One of the graphic novel Khamzila’s Adventures, reprinted online in the Manchester Review

Ziphozakhe is the co-author of the first comic in the series “Ordinary Superheroes.” It’s called Khamzila’s Adventures.

Zipho: “‘Ordinary Superheroes’ is Lean Posch’s brainchild initially. She’s from Germany; she works as a multimedia artist. I met her because she was writing about people who she thought were doing amazing things in their communities and I was one of those people. From that first book that she created, she was interested in the idea of making a comic book, and she wanted the inspiration to be a person from Africa. I jumped on board as a writer.

“The inspiration was Monde Sitole, who is an adventurer. Monde grew up in Khayalitsha. It’s a township, a very informal settlement. It’s not the oldest township in Cape Town. When you grow up there you’re not afforded a lot of opportunities psychologically. That’s why apartheid had to put black people where it put them.

“Monde grew up having visions of being great. He just wanted to be great, he wanted to be on top of the world. The first time he went to a mountain, he understood. He started to be interested in mountains.

“As a black boy, nobody understands why you want to climb mountains. ‘Why don’t you just go and get a job so that you can pay our bills at home and you can make our lives better?’ But through his interest in mountains, he’s been to most of the mountains all over the world, and he’s climbed those mountains, and now he’s very interested in education because he believes that the way we are taught in school does not encourage us to think and does not encourage us to be individuals.

“And I agree with that. If I can look back at my own education, school only encouraged the clever ones. But the ones who were good in drama but not good in class, nobody aided them to explore that. Nobody taught them how to understand maths through creativity.

“That’s what Monde is mainly interested in and that was our interest in him: the fact that he wanted to make an impact in education. And the fact that when you climb the mountains there are so many life lessons you learn that you might not learn in class. So he was keen to let us use his life as inspiration.

“So Lena and I began drafting the story. Obviously the genre of comics is very much about superpowers, having a hero who can save or whatever. So we used Monde and the reality of growing up in a township as the grounding of the narrative. If you live in a shack, but then you succeed in your life, and you are able to go all over the world to climb the highest mountains, then you must have been able to switch from your reality to what you want to be. And then we liken that power to him teleporting himself. So our hero, our character, is able to teleport himself. And I think every child who grows up in a township has that power.

“Everyone has a dream. People have dreams whether they realize them or not. Even when you are sitting at home, there’s a lot of noise in the township. That’s why some parts in the book narrate that there is a lot of noise, there’s smoking, there’s gangsterism, there’s gossip. It’s just a noisy, noisy environment. Psychologically it’s horrible. But how is it that we are able to imagine ourselves out of that? If you come out of it, it means you’ve imagined yourself before out of the situation. So that’s how the character became a person who can teleport.

“The first part has been published. The book is two parts. The first part ends with the first teleportation. When he has been able to teleport himself, and all these things have been revealed to him.

“What Africans don’t realize is that they don’t belong in the township. Before colonization our culture was grounded in nature. Even when a person has a calling to become a traditional healer, they go to the iconic places to explore natural things—like the river, the forest, the mountain.

“Monde is a Xhosa boy. The mountain is very pivotal at the age the character is at, because that’s the time they go to the mountain to be circumcised. So the backstory is our connection to our ancestors. It’s possible that he’s been called by the ancestors to honour nature. You don’t belong in the township. We have to aspire to be out of the township. That’s not where we belong really.

“The drawings are done by Ethnique Nicole Leonards. She’s amazing. Every first draft was perfect. Most of them, she didn’t have to do a second draft. I think black and white drawings tell the story better sometimes.

“Monde the character has this fascination with tigers. His friends call him Tiger. He believes he’s this big gangster. He’s got pictures of tigers all over his room, which his mom rips apart. ‘You need to focus on school. I heard you were suspended from school. Dah dah dah.’ She throws the papers in the bin and they become an actual tiger.

“This boy lives a normal life, but there is another world that is constantly haunting him, but he doesn’t know what it means. He’s got the visions. The very first scene is a vision of himself being a mountain. He’s with his friends and they are telling him ‘Ach you don’t focus, what are you thinking about now?’ and they make fun of him. Then you see they are gangsters, and they rob something.”

I ask Ziphozakhe when Part Two of the comic will be out. She says she hopes six months—the story is written and the drawings are being done. They are working with the Book Lounge to publish and promote. Though the shop will take 40% of their income, there is media interest. And there needs to be a place where people can find the comic.

She summarizes the plot of Part Two for me. Monde has to decide how he will use his powers.

Zipho: “You get an opportunity, you have to seize the opportunity. People can’t do things for you. If you get knowledge, you have to decide how you will use knowledge. He gets the powers. Now he understands: I don’t belong in the township. People are acting like that because they are mentally enslaved and psychologically they are drained.”

Monde intervenes in a gang war, based on real events, and then takes the leaders for a climb up the mountain, a spiritual voyage. It sounds like Part Two takes the imagery from the first issue to both lower and higher places.

Zipho: “When you are on top of the mountain, for everyone who has ever hiked, it’s a very spiritual moment where nothing matters. You are standing on top of the world, realizing that you are great, you can make it, but you are also realizing that you are very small. You are PART of. You’re not THE. The world is big and you’re just part of the world. Life is about that, constantly keeping that balance of ‘I’m great’ and ‘I’m also a drop in the ocean.’

“I’ve never ever worked on a comic book before. I’ve worked in poetry and television writing but never a comic book. We were just experimenting. We don’t have to explore the orthodox ways of making art available. We can always rethink, and unlearn, and decolonize our processes.

“What frustrates us about art is that it becomes an elite thing where the ordinary people can’t relate to it, like in a gallery. I feel weird in galleries. Even in writing fairs, all these spaces that we create to be free, are not actually free. We want to rethink how to make art available. We are thinking about pop-up shops, having a pop-up stall where people can interact with all of us, buy the comic from us, maybe at grand parade where people have stalls with other things.

“I feel like you have to go to the people. Like our launch? It wasn’t like a launch, where you get there and we are going to be speaking as these important people. We did a workshop with people. Nicole does this amazing thing where she draws you for five rand and we advertise it as GET YOURSELF DRAWN AS A SUPERHERO.

“We get kids or anyone else who wants to be there to think about people who have affected their lives the most. We always think a superhero has to be Oprah Winfrey or whatever. Let’s talk about your life. Who is that person who makes sure that you are taken care of every day? Most of the time it’s Mom, it’s Dad. Oh, my mom can be a superhero. So we ask them to draw their mom and Nicole helps them draw their moms so that they can rethink their idea of superheroism.

“I also do a storytelling event. I do the narrative in a storytelling form, in the way or grandmothers used to tell us stories, around the fire. I think older women are very pivotal in African tradition. When men were taken to go work in the mines, women were left with all those kids. The people who gave us that wisdom, the people that made sure we ate, who did everything, were our grandmothers. That’s why in the graphic novel the person that reinforces his visions to Monde is an older woman. It could be his grandmother that he never met.

“Our happiest moment is when kids can interact with the project, because it’s from them. I feel like art, as I said, sometimes it’s not reaching to kids.”

I talk a bit about Lauren Beukes’s version of Wonder Woman. It was written and drawn for kids, and the main characters are two sisters from a prosperous family in Soweto. We talk about how more work needs to focus on kids. Ziphozakhe works on a TV show, Roughing It Up, which takes kids into nature. Before that she was helping to produce religious TV shows for kids.

Zipho: “Kids are so intelligent. I’ve been blessed in television; the only shows I’ve worked for are kids’ shows. The current one I’m working on is for teenagers. We think kids are dumb. Sometimes they understand things better than us. They want to speak about boyfriends, girlfriends, sex, if you aren’t being honest they won't spend time with you.”

I ask if she grew up as a comics fan or a science fiction fan.

Zipho: “Not really. When I was in university I started doing literature. I was very interested in African literature.

“I found it was very true to the reality of me as a black woman. There is a three-dimensional existence for you as a black person. There is the rural, where we all come from. Then there’s the urban, and the urban is divided into the township and the suburban nicer sites.

“As a black person, those are the realities. You have to negotiate your existence, your identity. Your culture is coming from the rural, trying to keep true to what you know. But now you’re in a township and it’s different. You no longer have a huge homestead where you can run around and learn how to garden. In my homestead, the whole community are people who are of my clan, who have the same surname as me. Behind our houses is our graveyard. That’s where we bury everyone. Coming to a township where yes, we’ve tried as black people to have the community we were raised with, but it’s difficult because the space is so small. You no longer have the huge homestead; you are no longer living with people who are from the same clan. You have to renegotiate the self in this.

“So you study and you kind of make it, so you are able to rent an apartment in town, and even there you have to renegotiate, because you’re not used to staying with neighbours you don’t know. You take parts of you, but you lose some parts of you and you have to strike a balance.

“And that’s what interested me in African literature. And it had a lot of ancestral influence, which I think is very prevalent in my own writing as well. What I do—I work as a multimedia content producer. I’m very interested in online media because it’s taking over the world. Traditional media have become very gatekept, especially in South Africa. The future is online media.

“I had to rethink my career because I was only interested in writing. I was a student of philosophy; I was interested in critical writing, but when you go to the labour market and media, there’s no job for that. You gotta work in a university and I was not interested in working in spaces that are not accessible to the majority of the people. Anything that happens in the university, you must know, is for the elite. So I was interested in working in community things. What interests me in online media is that it gives the power back to individuals, though it undermines the part of me that’s a writer. In a country that has propaganda and traditional media, I’m happy that there is an alternative, which is online media. And people can decide if they want to watch TV or not.”

We talk a bit about Ziphozakhe’s other writing.

Zipho: “I’ve written one award-winning play that went to England: Mamela, which means ‘Listen,’ directed by Amy Golding from the UK. She came to South Africa looking for a writer. I was very young back then.

“We travelled the Eastern Cape looking for nine women and we did interviews with them. Their stories were very heavy and I think at the time it was right that I did that play. But over the years, I’ve had a lot of criticism about it.

“It’s what is called verbatim theatre. Verbatim theatre is like documentary theatre. We record people, and write a play from what they said. We record the ‘ah ah ah’ and the actors have to repeat that. As a writer, you know the neat way to say things, but you don’t neatly pack it. If they are not making sense at the moment, let it be. The actors have to perform that moment.

“The play was invited to the Afrovibes festival in the UK. It’s a festival that invites South African theatre and showcases it to the UK. They did it in Manchester. I was based in London for a few days, and Newcastle.”

GR: “So what was the criticism?”

Zipho: “About the European gaze on African people.

“Being African is not a study for us, it is something that we are. So it’s very frustrating when a person exoticizes the experience of being African. I don’t know if Europeans can think outside that. It’s something they do by default.

“I was co-writing with Gez Casey, a writer of more experience, much older than me, from the UK. When you are a person who orchestrates a project, you kind of have the outcome that you want from the stories. That is where it was a European gaze.

“At the same time it was something that had to happen in my career. It was a great start to have this conversation with myself. It gave me a chance to come to terms with these issues. I’m so much happier with what Lena and I produced, because I was able to assert myself.

“Even now, how Europeans want to write African characters is very problematic. An example would be how people ... the idea of ancestors. It’s something Europeans really don’t understand. That Lena doesn’t understand. She describes it as a magical world. I had a problem with that. It’s not a magical world; it’s how we are. It’s normal to us. I wanted us to present that idea as a normal thing. To not say we are bringing a graphic novel that is magical. I didn’t want those terms.  I wanted us to stick to the story.

“This is about a boy who lives in a township, who has visions about a mountain, who goes to the mountaintop and is able to teleport himself. I didn’t want the academic furniture, the magic realism, dah dah dah.

“I like the term traditional belief realism, because that’s what it is. People look at our culture and think about the closest thing that they know that is similar to our culture and they name it that. They think about what is familiar to them, and don’t place themselves in context.

“Lena did an amazing job in reflecting constantly reflecting, reflecting on privilege, European privilege. I kept saying to her, ‘All the amazing opportunities you keep getting for writing this book that that I wouldn’t get as an African woman. People take you seriously because you are a European woman.’

“I really think I did justice to myself and the truth of an African Story in this one, working with a German artist.

“I’ve always been writing since I was a kid. I grew up near Port Elizabeth. Basically what happened is that when I was thirteen my mum passed away. No one was able to talk about that. Our families don’t know how to speak about emotional things. No one ever asks you how do you feel, unless you actually say, ‘This is what I feel.’

“Writing was an outlet. I grew up kind of as a weirdo. Writing kept me sane in a way.

“I stated writing in school and became part of a school club. We had book clubs, poetry clubs, and drama clubs. When I was nineteen, I wrote my first play called Dreamville, staged in Port Elizabeth. The play was set in a tavern, two people, a guy and a girl. Basically they have given up on their dreams ... for example, the guy was a musician. The girl always wanted to be a pilot. They start building an imaginary airplane. The children in us are fearless. Kids don’t have ego, so they find it easy to change. They don’t hold grudges. What kills us as adults is ego.“

Since this interview in autumn 2016, Ziphozakhe has moved to Johannesburg. For a time she was a content producer for Beautiful News SA, but she left in the summer to be a scriptwriter for Vision View Productions; mainly, their Super Sport content. I will have to wait a little while longer for Khamzila’s Adventures, Part Two.

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Geoff Ryman is Senior Lecturer in School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester. He is a writer of short stories and novels, and science fiction and literary fiction. His work has won numerous awards including the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award (twice), the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award (twice), and the Canadian Sunburst Award (twice). In 2012 he won a Nebula Award for his Nigeria-set novelette "What We Found." His story "Capitalism in the 22nd Century" is part of Stories for Chip, edited by Bill Campbell and Nisi Shawl and published by Rosarium.
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