This young author mentors aspiring writers through the very reading community that helped her publish her first book. By Catriona Ross
Zimkhitha Mlanzeli was working at a call centre three years ago when she decided to submit a story she’d written to a mobisite dedicated to readers and writers. Now, at age 30, she knows she’s found her calling as an author and editor.
A rough start
‘At school, I wrote a lot of poetry,’ says Zimkhitha, who grew up in Motherwell in the Eastern Cape. ‘It was about what I was thinking and feeling: from love to hate, and some dark mystery.’
With good maths and science marks, she received a bursary to study electrical engineering at Port Elizabeth Technikon, but she dropped out after two years. ‘I hated it! I really had to get out. I wanted to travel.’
Over the next few years, her jobs included au pairing in Johannesburg, telesales, waitressing and working for her mother’s catering business. When she couldn’t sleep, she would post her poems on Facebook.
In 2010, Zimkhitha came to Cape Town to help her sister at a preschool she’d started in Mfuleni. Then, when it closed in 2012, she found work at a call centre.
‘I’d read short stories on FunDza on my cellphone while travelling to work by train and taxi. The stories were easy, light stuff I knew about: South African boy meets girl, heartache, some witch-
craft. So I decided I could write one of these. I was beginning to hate the call centre, and I knew I had to write or I’d sink into a deep, dark depression.’
She started writing during tea and lunch breaks on her computer at work. Having been involved in a relationship that became ‘suffocating’, Zimkhitha wrote a story about a girl in a similar situation (which took just three days to write), followed up by a sequel.
Both of these stories were published in FunDza’s ‘Fanz’ section – but for thethird, ‘Letters to Jane’, she was offered payment. She whoops as she recalls the momentous email. ‘I asked if they knew about any editing jobs in publishing – washing the cups, internships, anything!’
Zimkhitha was invited to a meeting at FunDza Literacy Trust, an NGO that promotes reading among youths. ‘When I left, I thought, “They are never going to call me”, but the next Monday, I was emailed a contract!’
She started at FunDza in January 2013 as a mentor for young writers. ‘So, what was done for me, I’m doing for others,’ she says. Writers submit their chapters via Mxit; she corrects grammar, sends feedback and awaits the next draft. ‘Sometimes you wonder if you’re really helping anybody. But when you see their writing improve, it’s validation.’
Since another book was due out in the FunDza-produced Harmony High series for teens, content developer Rosamund Haden asked Zimkhitha if she’d like to write it. She jumped at the opportunity and, though they pooled their ideas and collaborated on the storyline, challenges lay ahead.
‘Usually, I had one or two people in mind when writing a story – now I had five! There were days when I just did not feel like writing … and I would watch TV. Eventually, I had to have a deadline or Blood ties never would have been finished.’
Rosamund’s advice was useful: even if you don’t feel like it, write something. Just close your eyes, think of a character and write whatever comes to mind. ‘Let everything out and you will sort it out later,’ Zimkhitha says.
She drew on her experience and observations to write this compelling story, involving gender violence, about a schoolgirl who comes to Cape Town with her older brother to make a fresh start. ‘Ros always stresses there needs to be a motivation for a character to do something. It means having to dig up stuff you don’t want to dig up, so that you get angry enough and are hurting enough to write something. That was really, really difficult. I spent a lot of time trying not to cry.’
Blood ties was launched in February at the Book Lounge in Cape Town, where Prof Njabulo Ndebele, chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, interviewed Zimkhitha. ‘I was freaking out, but it went very well. I hadn’t practised my signature or thought about the little messages you write in the books, so it was chaotic at the signing afterwards,’ she laughs.
Zimkhitha now lives in Muizenberg with her boyfriend. After her first radio interview, he role-played scenarios with her to hone her PR skills. ‘It was pretty helpful. He wants his royalties now!’
Currently pursuing a BA degree in languages and literature through Unisa, Zimkhitha plans to write many more short stories, particularly her favourite, crime thrillers.
Publish online – for free!
FunDza.co.za promotes reading in South Africa, mentors young writers and runs writing competitions.
Movellas.com is a British-founded fan-fiction site where you can post your own writing, read others’ stories and find a supportive writing community.
Wattpad.com is a Canadian-based social media platform for readers and writers. SA author Jo Watson signed an international publishing deal after her online novels gained some 10 million reads in two years of her being on Wattpad. Her novel Burning Moon won a Watty award in 2014.
Buy Blood ties (published by Cover2Cover Books) from Bargain Books or Loot.co.za. Organisations working with teens may contact FunDza to become beneficiaries and receive free books to distribute to their reading clubs. Visit FunDza.co.za or call 021 709 0688. For more local teen fiction, visit cover2cover.co.za.