Sisonke Msimang has released her much anticipated memoir Always Another Country. We caught up with the writer to talk about this new chapter of her life, about politics, and why South Africans are ready to start having difficult conversations.
Sisonke’s memoir focuses on her childhood, exiled in Zambia and Kenya, and her journey of leaving Africa to study in North America, followed by her return to South Africa in the 1990s. As much as the book focuses on the sociopolitics that lead to her disillusionment and disappointment in the present-day South Africa; it equally explores her own identity. We asked her about writing this moving and personal memoir.
‘You know, this is the first time I’ve written something on this scale. Starting out, I didn’t even know if I was capable of doing it,’ Sisonke says. ‘It was surprisingly not that difficult to write about myself. I think in part it’s because the point of the book was never to talk about only myself, or my hurts, or accomplishments. It was a means of exploring the way of a telling a story from the perspective of an ordinary person, with South Africa as the backdrop, while talking about things that are very important to South Africans at the moment. This book is really about all South Africans and our search to find a place in this country.’
As in her book, Sisonke speaks candidly about sociopolitical issues when we meet up with her for coffee. ‘We have a young democracy, just over 20 years old. When it started, the older generations were very, very anxious,’she says. ‘They were anxious about people fighting. They were anxious about expressing negative feelings or anger. And the reason for that is that they were trying to manage a big process and keep it all together. And perhaps that was appropriate at the time. But to a large extent, I think we’re coming out of that period now.’
When we ask why now, why has the conversation around several particularly difficult issues reached boiling point, Sisonke has insight on the slow process of change that’s been happening.
‘We’re now entering a new cycle of influential young people in society. Its not only young people at university, but it’s also people in their 30s and 40s. People that have about 20 years of experience living in the new democracy. And they’re ready to start having more radical and direct conversations than their parents ever would; just because of the nature of generational change. I think its an interesting combination of having a more open-minded and more influential “older” generation in their later 30s and 40s, and a younger generation of people who don’t take any crap and have the ability to say “screw it”. This combination creates something unique. And it’s interesting because we’re not facing new issues here. Men Are Trash and Fees Must Fall are actually old issues in South Africa, but it’s bubbled; and now we’re ready to face it head on.’
She shares with us how important these kinds of conversations really are for our country. ‘I firmly believe that in these cases, more is more. And we’re seeing that things won’t necessarily fall apart when we start expressing ourselves. So we’re becoming more confident and robust, and able to talk about difficult issues.’
Look out for Sisonke Msimang’s book Always Another Country, on sale now. Her memoir is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers.