Thenjiwe Mswane on her debut novel “All Gomorrahs Are The Same”
PDBY had the pleasure of virtually sitting down with gender activist and former queer activist, Thenjiwe Mswane, to discuss her debut novel All Gomorrahs are the Same.
What does your writing process look like? Do you have any writing rituals or habits?
I want to say things like ‘of course I’ve got a writing ritual’ because I have heard writers say that they wake up at 2am when their characters arrive, I on the other [hand] will not. My characters must know that I am lazy, so they must not come at 2am. I did not have [for this novel specifically], a writing process, because I had been writing for a long time. I write on-and-off, I write when the people come into my head and say, ‘hey I am here.’ I wrote this book in the middle of my Masters and I finished it in the beginning of my PhD, so the characters were definitely more alive because the academy is *** boring, so they would appear like ‘we can entertain you.’ I wrote a lot as a distraction from the academy. One of the things that helps me write is finding a writing process that I hate. So every time I have to write academic work, I then write other things.
This is your debut novel. Why was it important for this particular story to be the first that you tell?
The likes of Toniy Morrison and black women all the time have told us to write the stories we want to read because they do not exist and archives have not told our stories in the ways that they have to, so this is the life I knew. I can only write from a place where I know.
For me, this book is an ode to every black woman I have known. They are like this – the black women that I know are like the people of this book and it just so happens that they tell the story that they do but […] I was writing from a place of wanting to
be honest and to what it means to be all the things I am and to engage with the different types of women that I am. So, it was trying to honour that really. I have written about black women a lot in academic work – it never would translate to anything that they would recognise.
What was the inspiration or influence behind the narrative?
[Laughs] The more I do interviews, the more I realise I have no idea. I never had a moment of inspiration for what the story would become. I had the privilege to know and be loved by Panashe Chigumadzi and for whatever reason, Panashe thought I could write. I do not think I would have ever given any of my work to Panashe to read but for whatever reason Panashe was like ‘I think you have got a story to tell’. So the writing itself was not new to me and I have been hit with the knowledge that I am a writer at different times in my life. I grew up in a township and I have never met a writer. I did not know that writers could look like me. In the years that I had been writing, these women lived in my head. What the world got to see are the people who live in my head every day, and like right now, without giving the book away, I do not know where Makhosi is. They come and go.
What was your reasoning for naming the book All Gomorrahs are the Same?
[Laughs] Again, there will be so many different answers to this. So for me, whether it is biblical or whether it is Alex, Gomorrahs is a place of oppression. It is a place of being inhuman, a place of non-existence, a place of being ignored, feeling unseen and all of those things. That is what Gomorrah is – this constant state of existing in a world that pretends to see but really does not. In the context of the book, the protagonist engages and encounters Gomorrah in the first context of the Bible and she meets this woman she loves (she has loved many), and she goes ‘all of these existences are the same’, whether you are in Alex, eMbali, Khayelitsha, oppression is so uncreative.
If there is a thing that oppression has been over the last how many is that it is uncreative. One of the things about it, the structure of oppression, tries very hard to pretend that our sufferings are all different from each other and that is part of the divide and conquer era of whiteness, white supremacy and power.
What this book highlights are the ways in which the oppression of black women is so intertwined intergenerationally. In a lot of these things our oppression is the same and part of the division is whiteness, and we never conquer Gomorrahs because the divisions exist and I wish that black women, all of us across the generations, would one day have the conversation of [how] we have all been oppressed by the same system, it is just that we [feel the need to tell each other] that our oppressions are different and never stand with you.
The protagonist, Makhosazane has a habit of cutting pages from books, which is remarkably interesting. Where does this come from and what does it mean?
Oh I had not thought about that, it is just what the character did. She arrived and she was cutting books. But I think how her mother, uDudu engages her, [and] it is that she [Makhosi] is at a point where she is just refusing to engage [in] any system. She fights every system. Makhosi is at a place where she hates everything and hates everyone. She is wise, she is seeing the world as she should and it is angering her, but she is very disruptive and then this becomes a theme to what she becomes. She is very destructive to herself as well. She does not like peace.
Readers often have their own perceptions of characters in a novel, but how would you like Makhosazane to be perceived?
I think what I am trying to have as a conversation with Makhosazane is the trauma of black queer existence, the lack of ever seeing ourselves anywhere. Being a black queer lesbian in particular, we have never seen ourselves grow old and go grey. We know that we die, and we know that we are traumatised. I think the conversation with her is that you live in a world where you do not see yourself, so you are fighting everything just to exist and you are destructive to yourself sometimes. One of the things that I believe is that black queer people need to go to therapy, all of them. From the point that you begin to be on the spectrum, it [therapy] should be free for all of them, because it is one thing to be black in a country that hated you in the ways it did and then its another thing when you are a woman, and you are queer.
Throughout this [all spaces that she tries to engage], there is no space for her, and she is trying to exist in these spaces. Ultimately, she is in pain but she sees herself so much more because she had been raised in a world where she ‘doesn’t look right’. We see her try to fight in, with her partner’s mother, trying to be good partner and it really hurts [for] queer people. We must be honest with ourselves so we can heal so that we are not destructive. Everything about our existence has been trauma.
The novel seems to have no clear-cut resolution, which is rather unsettling. The unresolved ending seems to be intentional. What was the thought-process behind the ending?
Ends do not always look the same. People disappear, especially in the context of SA and people escape, whether its suicide [or] disappearance and I needed it to be true to that theme. Not everybody gets saved from suicidal inclinations but that’s the thing, you do not know necessarily what happens here. There are so many people that you lose touch with and just never know where they end up.
All Gomorrahs Are The Same is available for purchase on the Blackbird Books website. Follow Mswane on Instagram at @uThenjiwe_igama.