Winner of the 2015 Etisalat Prize for Literature, a South African, Songeziwe Mahlangu has said his ambition had always been to become a writer and did not contemplate entering for the prize, saying it his publisher that identified the book’s potential and submit it for the prize.
Author of the novel titled ‘Penumbra,’ in an interview said “I never planned to enter for the prize. It was the last thing on my mind. I had just been living my life and trying to be a writer. It so happened that I wrote this novel and my publisher submitted it for the prize. I didn’t even expect to win the prize,” adding that the judges’ decision actually came as a big surprise to him.
Before now, Mahlangu had spent quite some time trying to worm his way into the hallowed circle of writers in South Africa. He was writing poetry and short stories all the while virtually testing his prowess on the literary turf.
By the time he turned 25 in 2011, he had already made up his mind to start working on a novel. But, first, he had to enroll for a Masters degree in Creative Writing at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. The result of that programme is the novel that recently emerged winner of the £15,000 pan-African literature prize for new writing.
Penumbra was published by Kwela Books, an imprint of NB Publishers. It is also the author’s first published book.
The novel tells the story of a young man and his experience as a struggling university graduate. “I think that the basic foundation of the narrative is the character’s experience of life,” the author says.
Like most first books, Penumbra, is partly autobiographical, drawing significantly from the Mahlangu’s own experiences and partly fictional. The author admits that in writing the novel he had to draw a lot from his personal encounters and also fictionalised a great deal of the narrative.
Although the setting of the novel is Capetown, he says he did not grow up in the city and only had his higher education there. It explains why the narrative seems to be quite clearly influenced by his impressions of the city.
Mahlangu describes his impression of life in Capetown as a complex issue. Part of it includes racism, which seems to overhang the city like a thick cloud, and unemployment.
“As a black man and an unemployed graduate, I know how it feels trying to break into the job market to get the kind of job that I want, especially in a society in which blacks are the minority. As it is, I had an experience of this nature. But if I can say that I am really speaking for the downtrodden, I think it just happened that way. I didn’t consciously set out to speak for the unemployed or the downtrodden,” he says.
Asked if the picture that the novel paints about life in Capetown is also representative of the general situation in South Africa, the author explained, “I can’t really say so because there are lots of young people who are also doing well in other parts of the country and enjoying the good life. So the story is not one dimensional,” he says.
Mahlangu has a first degree in Business Science and an MA in Creative Writing. The Etisalat Prize for Literature, which is his first literary award, may have given him the impetus to conquer new heights as a writer.
“I am very glad that I won the prize. I feel that I have just been given an opportunity to continue with my writing,” he says.

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