Crime Beat: What’s driving Sifiso Mzobe
In June, Sifiso Mzobe crashed his way into the local crime fiction scene with a novel called Young Blood. He drove it at the speed of a limited edition, six-speed, manual-transmission BMW 540i road-hugger on black mag rims, fish-tailing through the conventions of the crime thriller. His beat was Umlazi, outside Durban, his scene: booze, drugs, fast cars, easy lays, and quick deaths. Crime Beat caught up with him at a traffic light before he could put foot, and, while he revved the engine, asked a few questions:
Crime Beat: There has not been much crime fiction published in English by black writers – Angela Makholwa’s Red Ink and Diale Tlholwe’s Ancient Rites, stand out as two examples. Do you consider your novel to be a part of this genre, in that it could fall very easily into the gangster subcategory?
Sifiso Mzobe: In parts it is crime fiction. I’ve had a lot of readers also tell me it is a coming of age story that happens to play out in crime land. I agree with that too. I am glad it has different meanings for readers.
Crime Beat: Are you a crime fiction enthusiast?
Sifiso Mzobe: For the simple reason than I was never exposed to it, I would not say I am an enthusiast. But I love all art. When I was growing up there were books at home, but never crime fiction. It was the same when I went to high school, we did not have any in our library. The crime fiction I was exposed to has been through movies. Growing up I was addicted to the cinema. I watched three movies back to back most Saturdays at The Wheel here in Durban the year I turned twelve. That said, I have been writing for three years non-stop and something tells me I have to pause a few months and be a reader again because I don’t read much when I write. I miss being a reader. I will get crime fiction books and I am fast reader.
Crime Beat: Let’s pause here a moment to get a handle on which books have fed into your highly energetic prose style? And what was it in them that attracted you?
Sifiso Mzobe: The style developed with the story. It needed energy to paint the picture right. Cry, The Beloved Country, Midnight’s Children and The Ground Beneath Her Feet are the books. Cry because of the human story in it. I like the two Salman Rushdie books because they showed me what was possible in fiction. In matric our prescribed Shakespeare was Julius Caesar easer, I liked the pace, rhythm in the language and the introspection in it. I read short stories too. A book of short stories has different styles in one book. I draw inspiration from books, not style. The way Young Blood is written developed with the story.
Crime Beat: Now, the movies. Which crime movies in particularly appealed to you?
Sifiso Mzobe: When it comes to movies I am eclectic. I like character studies, science fiction, superheroes, old, comedies. I am like a sponge, if it interests me I will watch it. I like the energy and technique in Scorsese movies. Casino and Goodfellas are among my favourites of his works. Heat is another one I like, the pace and realness in it makes me feel like I am inside it. City of God, about the favela wars in Brazil is another gem. Informative and creatively plotted. The Sopranos of course for being a movie in each episode. I am still addicted to all types of movies, if it grabs my interest I will watch it.
Crime Beat: If you’ve seen them: your thoughts on Jerusalema? Hijack Stories? Tsotsi?
Sifiso Mzobe: I saw Jerusalema and Hijack Stories and liked them.
Crime Beat: Before we get to the book can you tell us a bit about yourself. Where you grew up? Where you live and work now?
Sifiso Mzobe: I am 32 years old, grew up in Umlazi township where I still reside. I work for a community newspaper as a journalist.
Crime Beat: And perhaps something about your decision to write a novel. Has this long been a pressing urge?
Sifiso Mzobe: Writing a novel was one of those dreams that just refused to die. When I was a teenager I told my mother all the things I wanted to be, and there were many. Most of those dreams died over the years but this one just refused to die. I have been writing since I was 13 years old. I laugh when I clean my room and come across childish poetry and lyrics I wrote back then. Together with my family, writing has been the only constant in my life. I thought I was a poet when I was younger until I got to high school and my English compositions were always read in class. The way my classmates and English teacher reacted to them made me realise the immense power of words in a story.
Crime Beat: Now let’s get to the novel. You have presented a very vivid portrait of Umlazi in Young Blood. We get the sense of its moods, day and night. It is vibrant in that it teems with life, but it is also dangerous and can be brutal. It treats life lightly. What attracted you to Umlazi as a setting for your novel? Or what it simply a case of writing close to home?
Sifiso Mzobe: As I’ve said, I have lived in Umlazi all my life. When I decided to write a novel I was unemployed and financial constraints meant I could not move around for research. I decided to use what was in front of me. You got it right there, both vibrant and brutal. For me, it is a contrast that is interesting. I thought it would be interesting for readers to see it.
Crime Beat: Cars, booze, drugs, and women play a large role in your novel. Let’s look at the cars first. At a personal level are cars of interest to you??
Sifiso Mzobe: I love cars but I’m not as obsessed as Sipho [the main character] is. I believe I love them as much as most men do. Personally, when it comes to cars, I would choose reliability over flashy and speed. Maybe it’s because I can’t afford flashy. Readers should buy more copies of Young Blood so I can know the answer to this question.
Crime Beat: Okay, so you love cars and that’s clear from the way you describe them. But did you still need to do much research to get the details right?
Sifiso Mzobe: I did research but it was not as hard as one might think. The cars are there in the streets driven by people I played with when we were kids so I was not a stranger. All was explained to me, and in great detail.
Crime Beat: The cars bridge a number of issues: theft, hijacking, status, and then the sheer exuberance of driving fast. You depict these issues with considerable detail and vitality, yet there is a satiric or moral tone to your writing?
Sifiso Mzobe: It had to be this way. Umlazi is the car stealing capital of this province. Young boys do things you never thought were possible in a car. Vitality is the correct way to describe it since that’s how they feel when behind the steering wheel. They feel it is the only time they shine. I had to be true to the story, I could not tell the story of Sipho and leave out moments that make him feel like he is alive. My township is a strange place, we grow to choose different paths but because you are a doctor does not mean you stop being friends with a childhood friend just because he steals cars for a living. It was through these friendships that the moral tone developed. It was constant in most conversations I had with former and current car thieves, they wish they had more alternatives. Most regret that they are criminals. I saw someone just out of jail for car theft and he told me, “I’m through with this”. He has a child, no one hired him, weeks passed. When I saw him in a stolen car, I really could not judge. The moral tone came from situations like that.
Crime Beat: Drugs and the fast life go hand in hand with fast cars. This is highly attractive to young people at the best of times, and it seems especially so to Umlazi’s youth. But it also speaks of an emptiness in their lives.
Sifiso Mzobe: They will hate me in Umlazi for saying this but it does speak of an emptiness in their lives. Extracurricular activities for young people just evaporated over the years. There is nothing for young people to do. There is no place to go when there are problems at home, children stop playing way too early and there is a persistent rush to grow. Add to that the reality that as a nation we are scarred in varying degrees.
Crime Beat: Against this background we find Sipho, a young – 17-year-old – who is impressionable and falls into the bad ways almost by default? Why? Are the young just at risk? Or is it because there are few alternatives?
Sifiso Mzobe: The young are at risk because of few alternatives. Sipho’s fall into bad ways had to be easy because that is how easy it is. He comes from a place where people kill for the change in your pocket. We see it every day in the news, some hitman in court who was only paid R2000 to take a life. Sipho sees his choice of hustle as noble compared to other hustles. Young people need more alternatives, especially in township schools. I see a lot of Sipho’s in my township, bright people who are not gifted academically. And I think, just because one is not gifted academically does that mean this country does not need you? What if Sipho is the best pianist in the world or a good enough pianist to make a living out of it? We will never know, will we? That is what I mean by more alternatives in township schools.
Crime Beat: Yet your character Sipho is from a decent family and clearly has an idea of right and wrong, even if he puts this aside for a while. In fact his family and some others in the book are moral counters against which the wild behaviour of the hijackers and drug lords are to be measured.
Sifiso Mzobe: That is Umlazi for you. A complicated world in one township. Hearts come in all temperatures – cold, lukewarm and hot. It is all here. The screws in Sipho’s moral compass are loose because he does not see any other way to succeed.
Crime Beat: You treat violence – or rather the writing of violence – with a fair amount of respect. Just enough details for the reader to get an impression of what is going on without steering away from the blood and the horror. This was obviously a deliberate strategy. When it comes to depicting violence, do you feel there are certain boundaries you should not cross?
Sifiso Mzobe: My view at this moment is there is nothing that cannot be described. Sometimes a writer describes more by not describing. I have just started my journey of discovery as a writer so my views are not cast in stone. They may change as I go along.
Crime Beat: The book is a fast read and works by the conventions of the gangster novel, but you have another purpose, it seems, and that is to write a cautionary tale.
Sifiso Mzobe: As a writer I believe it is my duty to entertain the reader. If lessons are learnt while I entertain, all the better. Too many young people in my township fall into this trap of chasing fast money. For most of them if it glitters it has to be gold, you know. I hope Young Blood will teach them to tread with caution.
Crime Beat: You recently attended the Mail & Guardian Literary Festival, and featured on the crime panel. What were your impressions?
(Photo: Sifiso Mzobe at the lit fest with Margie Orford)
Sifiso Mzobe: Now that was a cool place to be. I met big names in the lit scene and was amazed at how humble and friendly writers are. The panels were thought provoking and there was a lot of laughter. I enjoyed every minute of it.
Crime Beat: One of the issues of the panel you were on considered the crime novel as the new political novel. Do you think that’s true?
Sifiso Mzobe: Politics past and present impact on the lives of people directly. Writers are reflectors – reflecting what they see with a tint of how they see it. In that sense all writing is political. The crime novel is the new political novel – showing the ills of society but not boring readers to death.
Crime Beat: Will you write more fiction in this genre?
Sifiso Mzobe: I am working on something at the moment and it is going towards this genre. I’ve said I will pause for a few months but I can’t really stop when it is going well. I always say I will stop when I finish the chapter I’m working on but when I actually do, I start another. It is going the way of crime fiction for sure.