This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ian: What do you think is the distinction between YA fiction and adult fiction?
Kagiso: It’s voice more than anything. I think that you have to convince me that a 15-year-old would think this way, that this is not a 30-year-old writing. Voice is everything. I think that voice is what wins awards, really. I think voice is what captures the world. I think that if you can let your reader leave wherever they are and enter into the world of your protagonist, then it’s amazing.
I think what some people might call YA that wouldn’t be for me is when the voice is very mature and reflective in a way that a teenager generally isn’t. Or maybe some teenagers are, it’s just that I’m really interested in the tug of war that goes on in those years between the parts of us that want to be very mature and very knowledgeable and the parts of us that are really really not and are really struggling with that gap, and I think that a lot of people really don’t get that right. Remember Dawson’s Creek?
Ian: I know this one: adults playing children?
Kagiso: Yes! It just didn’t work. I just thought that actually, we didn’t have that kind of foresight when we were 15 or 16. We were all struggling.
I think you can appear to know more than you do, but if you give me a young adult book where the characters are just so sure of themselves, then that just doesn’t ring true because adolescence is just such a difficult time for all of us. Even for those for whom it isn’t, they have some doubt. Nobody has a sense of self-assuredness that transcends all the things that come with being a teenager. So it’s voice more than anything that distinguishes YA from non-YA.
Ian: How do you feel about the way creative writing is taught?
Kagiso: It’s challenging. Kazuo Ishiguro teaches creative writing at a university in England and he said a few years ago—it was very controversial—that there’s no way to teach creative writing. Everyone was just like, “What are you talking about? You’ve been a prof in creative writing for so many years, for decades, and it’s very discouraging. What you’re basically saying is that it’s all up to talent.” And that is what he admitted he was saying, that it’s all about talent: if there’s no talent, you cannot teach talent.
I’m of a different view, and I’ve had this discussion with one other professor here who was asking, “How do we teach people how to write? Do they have to have the talent?” For me, I think writing is about thought. It’s about inner worlds. It’s about observation of the world around us, and I think everybody has the capacity to do that. Can we teach people to write what they think about? Yes, I think we can.
I just think that we as teachers need to have broader and deeper and more engaged conversations with students about what it is they’re trying to do. I think not everybody’s work resonates with me. I don’t read every student’s work and think, “Oh, this is brilliant.” But one thing I have learned from the class I’m teaching this semester is people have things that are on their minds all the time. You just have to tap into what those things are and roll with that. And then everybody has the potential to be a pretty great writer.
I think the way that creative writing is taught in other places can be very discouraging because I think professors expect students to write what the professor enjoys, but I think that I’ve learned that they don’t have to write what I personally enjoy, but they have to write what they can think more deeply about. My role then would be to help them to move more and more in that direction.
Ian: How has your experience been as uOttawa’s writer-in-residence?
Kagiso: I have loved every minute of it. It’s been so cool. It has been hard with the pandemic because we were in lockdown for so long, so it’s nice for me to have space outside of my own home to write, and a lot of the profs here are writers themselves, so it’s nice to have that kind of company and have those conversations. Sometimes one of the profs will come in and we’ll start chatting about how our writing’s going or what books we’ve been working on lately, and that’s been really great for me. I think it really benefits the creative writing program here for the students to have a [writer-in-residence] in-house, a professional who can look over their work and discuss it with them. I have been very vocal about how sad I am that it’s ending. I’ve loved it so much.
Ian: You’ve lived in Ottawa for some time. Most of your books are focused on life in South Africa. Do you think that your writing should be considered Canadian literature?
Kagiso: Only because I’m a Canadian citizen writing in Canada, yes, I think so. I think it is sort of a diversity of voices within the country that make it Canadian. I think Canada is a lot of different things. I am not Canadian born, but I am a settler immigrant, but I’m still Canadian. Just for that reason I think I belong in CanLit. We have writers like M.G. Vassanji who was born in East Africa and writes about East Africa a lot. He’s definitely CanLit; he’s won the Giller twice. I mean, if Margaret Atwood writes fantasy and writes about a world from the future that isn’t based in Canada, is that still CanLit? We will all say yes because it’s Margaret Atwood, right? So I think writing about other countries is the same as writing about other worlds, and it’s all Canadian literature.
Ian: You’ve mentioned that your books are classroom textbooks in South Africa as well. Would they be presented as Canadian literature?
Kagiso: In South Africa, when they read me, they read me as a South African writer. They read it as South African literature. I tend to get invited to Europe as a South African writer. The first time that I got invited outside of Canada as a Canadian writer was in 2019 when the Singapore Writers Festival was featuring Canada that year, and when they were featuring Canada they invited me as a Canadian writer.
In Canada it’s read as CanLit. So I don’t know who decides or how they decide, but I definitely consider it Canadian literature just because I live here. But it’s also very much South African because it’s based there. And a lot of my feature work will continue to be based there.
Really when we say “Canadian literature” we’re talking about white Canadian writers. We’re not really talking about anything else. Everything that isn’t by a white author is generally othered within Canadian literature. We’re all Canadian writers, so I don’t think it’s about place so much as it’s about the author.
When you think about Shyam Selvadurai, who was uOttawa’s writer-in-residence last year, he’s Sri Lankan Canadian, but his work is CanLit. Why is his work CanLit? Because he writes and works in Canada and writes about Canada sometimes but mostly writes about Sri Lanka. And that’s CanLit. But not everybody calls it that, and everybody always calls him Sri Lankan Canadian, just like everybody calls me South African Canadian, but we’re the only ones who are really on the margins. Margaret Atwood gets the label Canadian 100% without anybody questioning where her roots are from. So it’s kind of a long and broad discussion that I think we could have for a long time. But I do think it’s an important point that only those who are not white get othered or get called something other than CanLit; we’re hyphenated all the time.
Ian: Can you describe sensitivity reading briefly and then share your feelings on it, especially from the perspective of someone whose voice is presumably intended to be protected by them?
Kagiso: Sensitivity reading is when you write a book about a group or place that you are unfamiliar with, not intimately tied to the place. You might go to Cambodia for three months and think you know Cambodia intimately, but it’s a place that isn’t essentially yours. So, for example, you’re a white settler Canadian writing about being Indigenous in the Prairies. What you do is you finish your book, your editor gets a sensitivity reader. A sensitivity reader in that case would be an actual Indigenous person who grew up in the prairies, and you ask them to tell you if what you’re writing essentially would not be attacked, would not be challenged. But the way you phrase it is “wouldn’t offend anyone.”
I hate sensitivity reading. I’ve never heard other writers say that. I think it’s a very controversial position that I take, but I think it’s lazy to write about a place that you don’t know and then ask someone from that place to correct your work. I think you should do the work of being in that place and write about yourself in that place. That’s what I always emphasize: write about your place in that place. If you are a settler Canadian writing about Indigenous people, why do you not write honestly about what it means to be a settler Canadian to Indigenous people? What is that relationship, right? That’s what I want to know. I think that would be a more honest book and I think that it would just generate broader discussion, more interesting discussion, honestly.
I think what happens is a lot of people from non-marginalized groups get away with writing the stories of disenfranchised people and then get all the praise and get the money and get all of that. I just think that it’s just an old tradition where you’re problematic, and now you’re trying to soften the blow. You are not giving a voice to people from that community. You’re doing your own thing and you’re expecting to get praised for it, but I don’t think that’s honest. I just think that writers need to work. You have to work.
I think the old, old books, I think, the Kiplings of the world, the Joseph Conrads, I think those are more honest, actually, because they weren’t saying, “I know this place better than the native people of this place.” They were saying, “I know this place as a colonizer.” Right? And so, I think people are shying away from being criticized for writing as colonizers by getting the colonized people to make their literature palatable. And I think it’s deeply problematic. Let who you are stand on its own. Don’t hold onto other people to make you more acceptable to read. If it’s not your story to write, then maybe don’t write it.
Ian: When you talk about your characters—not so much about your process of inventing them, but once they are people—it’s not just a person in your head, it’s an actual person you have a relationship with. I wonder what your experience is like just having these people in your life.
Kagiso: Well, they are so in charge that part of the reason it’ is deeply painful and it’s a huge grieving process when I finish a book is that they leave. So I don’t get to be in their world anymore. I go into mourning, which maybe sounds dramatic for some people, but I do go into a period of deep, unbearable grief. But they do warn me before the book ends that it’s time to go, and then I don’t want to finish the book, and then I hold onto the book, but it has to end. So they stay with me only in that way that a dream stays with you in your waking hours—that you went somewhere in the night, and now you’re out, but you don’t keep living the dream through the day. But they’re so in charge, and it’s really up to them, so I can never write sequels. I tried, but I can’t, because I don’t get to make them stay longer than they want to. It’s very painful. It sounds a bit crazy, I think, sometimes when I talk about it.
Ian: While reading This Book Betrays My Brother, I don’t feel like I’m becoming Naledi in the book, but it does feel like I am there with her, in her world. I’m not her, but she could be sitting right here.
Kagiso: Yeah, because that’s how I live it. I live with her. I lived with her for three years or however long it was—it was three drafts, I don’t know how long it took me to write it—but you live with them and they will come more alive on the page if you let them speak.
I tried to be very in charge of Naledi’s story and it didn’t work the first two times because I was focusing so much on her and her feelings about her brother and what he did, and being a feminist and being a feminist writer, I was so determined to write a story that did not glorify the perpetrator. And what I learned through a lot of painful digging was that the key to that story, which I would never have thought was the key, was that I had to have the reader love the brother. If the reader didn’t love the brother, this whole story completely fell apart. I talk about this sometimes, about how I had to get one thing right, and I couldn’t figure out what the thing was, so I wrote two drafts and then on the third draft I got it, but the reason I got it was that I needed to make the perpetrator lovable. The perpetrator is what you call the violent beloved. We have to fall in love with him in order for the story to work. I couldn’t say Naledi loves her brother, I had to make you love the brother so that you felt for Naledi when she lost that connection with him.
When it won the Percy FitzPatrick prize, they said that that was the reason that it won, that it was just so nuanced. You couldn’t love one character and completely hate the perpetrator. And that’s what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about those of us who are witnesses and observers, and how when women come forward, we often talk about our relationship with the perpetrator, that he would never do that, he’s amazing. That’s what we keep hearing. And I just wanted to ask us as a society, what is the role of the witness in these cases that are coming out? And it was long before the #MeToo movement in South Africa, and then when it did come out in North America it was in the middle of that, so it was a really good time for it, to have that discussion.
Ian: Your writing focuses on the township in a really beautiful way, but you’re writing from a large city. Do you think that has changed the way you write about the township? Is it capital-R-Romanticized because you’re living in the city? How do you maintain that connection with your subject?
Kagiso: I don’t know how I maintain that connection. I think it’s just so deeply ingrained in me. It’s just so much who I am. It’s the soil I was raised on. It’s hard to leave that.
Nobody would call a metropolis quiet, but it’s very quiet compared to the township. I think maybe I maintain my connection to my characters there because it’s sort of a place of refuge for me. I find cities too quiet, and I find that especially in North American cities—not like Mexico City or Cairo—but North American cities I find too quiet. There are rules around behaviour. There’s no big poker culture like you would find in Singapore or other parts of Asia. There isn’t a street vendor culture. It is very not-chaotic. It’s very ordered. I find that unsettling.
So I go to the township as my refuge. I can’t ever really leave it in my body and in my mind because it’s my place of safety. The disorder, the chaos, the dysfunction, the uncertainty in life—you don’t know what’s going to happen next, you don’t know if the police are going to come, you don’t know if somebody is getting killed, you don’t know if there’s going to be a huge street party. I love the disorder of it and I think I can never lose touch with it because it’s like a security blanket. It’s the place I return to over and over again in order for this kind of neatness to work for me.
People ask me a lot how I keep in touch with that world, but I think I’m in that world in order to function in this one, if that makes sense. People are always asking, “How do you stay in touch with that when you’re here?” And for me it’s like, I am not really here. Not really, not entirely.
Ian: Do you go back to visit regularly?
Kagiso: Well, with the pandemic and family relations, you don’t go back home as much. You know, there is so much that I love about it, but there’s a reason I live across an ocean, in a different hemisphere. There’s a reason. But I do go back. I’m still figuring out the best way to go back. I think when you leave a place that has hurt you and embraced you at the same time, it’s hard to go back regularly.
I think there are some people who leave home for different reasons, who return and return and return, over and over, but I left because I needed to be away. I left because my personality is such that I need safety as much as I love the chaos. I need to be safe, I need to not worry about being attacked and things like that. So I return sometimes, but the place you leave is never the place you return to. Sometimes it’s kind of like going back, to what? And then you write about it in order to move on to the place it used to be. But it’s never there again.
Kagiso Lesego Molope is the author of This Book Betrays My Brother, which won the 2014 Percy FitzPatrick Award, and Such a Lonely, Lovely Road, which won the 2019 Pius Adesanmi Memorial Award for Excellence in African Writing. She was born and raised in South Africa and moved to Canada at the age of twenty-one. She served as the University of Ottawa’s writer-in-residence for the fall 2022 semester. You can learn more about Kagiso and her work at kagisolesegomolope.com/work.