C.S. Hadebe is a South African writer, speculative storyteller, essayist, critic, social commentator, and editor from Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal. He is a three-time Honours recipient for the SA Writers College Short Story Competition, and has been awarded an Honorable Mention in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest.
The Shallow Tales Review named his contribution in Issue 38 as the 2022 Best Essay of their inaugural Best of a Shallow Year selection. A host of his works have been placed or are forthcoming in various publications such as Kalahari Review, Lolwe, and oranges journal. His work has been included in the James Currey Anthology Vol. 1 (2022).
BY FRANK NJUGI
This conversation took place between Nairobi, Kenya and Pietermaritzburg, South Africa via Twitter DMs and Google Docs.
Frank: Hi Hadebe. Thank you so much for having this conversation with me. It is a pleasure talking to you. Apart from being a really good essayist I know you to also be a very appreciable storyteller. What’s your love story with literature?
Hadebe: It is a pleasure talking to you as well. When it comes to writing itself, I started off writing poetry, and that was way back on 9 November 2012. My love for storytelling actually first began through writing comic books, all of them being hybrid fanfic versions of Dragon Ball Z and some DC cartoons. That was around 2010. But 2012 was the true beginning of my writing journey and accumulating those 10 000 hours. I remember that Friday afternoon because that was the day I set apart one book and decided to take up writing as a hobby. I’ve always been a loner and someone who lives most of his life inside his head, so writing poetry became an outlet for me. I could write prose at the time and my English teachers frequently told me that I should take my writing seriously.
What inspired me the most weren’t actually books but rap albums. From a young age, till today, I’ve always been fascinated by rap music – lyricism to be specific. And what sparked my love for writing was the brutal honesty and the raw emotion and intellect. The things they were saying felt so personal. Those father issues, navigating the world as a black young man, and cutting open cruelty to analyze it with the mind. Each playback was like one of those lucid dreams that wake you up terrified at 3AM – a visceral thing that leaves you shaken and stays with you. Every song felt like a spiritual, mental, and soul experience.
I grew up on a diet of wordy rappers. Nas, Black Thought, and the like. I remember first hearing the snippet of Nas’s, “The Slave and the Master”, as a twelve-year-old. I was mesmerized by the truth, the heart, and the skill behind the writing. I still think about the tragedy and the drama folded into Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie”. J. Cole’s “Power Trip” still haunts me because of the eerie and obsessive personality of the song itself. I still find myself thinking about the existential meaning of Undun by The Roots, the entire album. For me, I modeled most of my writing – prose included – after fine lyricists. I studied their techniques, rhythm, subject matter, the use of poetic devices, and the overall parlance. That’s why even after years of no longer writing poetry, my writing has a lyrical texture. That’s why my words move musically. Because some of the best writings I’ve ever come across aren’t those I’ve found within the covers but speakers instead.
“As writers, we are merely pens. Every pen has ink, just as every writer has a story in them. That’s why there is no story that is less special than the other.”
Frank: It is really profound how the little details mold us into the storytellers we become as writers.
One of the quotes that I usually have in mind when I think of the art form of non-fiction, which you primarily engage in, is the one by Jo Deurbrouck, where she says, ‘Writing nonfiction means I tell people’s stories for them, not because they’re special but because we all are.’ Is this how you define your art as well? That tool for tackling the cores of the ‘bodies’ you interact with on a daily or even irregular basis including yours as well?
Hadebe: Yes. Actually I’ve always believed that with writing, we as writers are like pens, the experiences we go through are like ink, and our life story is being written by God. My faith in Jesus plays a critical role in the way I relate to life and other people; that’s why I said life stories are decided by God, others may say otherwise, particularly those who don’t share in my faith, and that’s okay. So our experiences as people might be unique, but they aren’t exactly special because everything that has happened before will happen again. For example, in one of my essays “Between the Womb and the Tomb”, I talk to my little sisters and admonish them as their older brother since they have a broken relationship with their father like I do with mine. In this instance, what is happening to my sisters is something that already happened to me. It might feel special to them, but it’s not something that hasn’t already happened. Broken father-child relationships are not new to the world. That’s why I say that as writers, we are merely pens. Every pen has ink, just as every writer has a story in them. That’s why there is no story that is less special than the other. A fountain pen that costs thousands is no different from a pen that cost ten bucks because ink is ink – just like how every writer has a story in them that is of equal power to other writers.
Frank: Speaking of your essays, in ‘Girls mature quicker’ is a myth, published in oranges journal, you can be said to endeavor towards using essaying as a medium to proponent on issues you take interest in. Should we take this as the primary motif of you being an essayist? Would you define your non-fiction to be the craft that gives you the chance to explore the banes or delights you feel the need to?
Hadebe: I’ve found that with writing nonfiction, it’s easier to relate real-life issues than what fiction allows. Obviously, this is completely open for debate, but that’s how I feel. I’m a straight talker in nature. I might use lots of metaphors and poetic devices to help get my point across, but in essence I’m blunt in my approach. And that honesty is what allows me to be as transparent as I can get with the writing. Because I’m also a speculative [fiction] writer, I tend to worry about worldbuilding, magic systems, character development, and all that. Somehow the story ends up getting lost in the design. When I write nonfiction, it’s a different ball game because my focus is simply on extruding raw emotion and unfiltered truth without having to worry about pouring such things into fictional characters to convey them. When I write essays, I don’t worry about coming off as too Christian or too emotional or too angry or too anything – I can be as ambitious as I want because in nonfiction, one can never be judged or ridiculed for showing the true shape of their soul.
Frank: Last year, Your first published piece Let Me Tell You How My Father Slowly Turned Me Into A Nervous Wreck was exceptionally named as the 2022 Editors pick in the non-fiction category of the Best of Shallow Tales Review publications. Did this achievement give you the validation that maybe you need to motivate your writing? In what way do you think such achievements and accolades affect a writer’s work?
Being honored by The Shallow Tales was a nod I’ll forever be grateful for, a road sign I was thankful to come across because now I know that the path I’ve taken is one of purpose and actual growth. A big shout out to them. With regards to validation, I’ve always believed in myself as a writer. I’ve lost so many writing competitions and suffered countless rejections. I still battle with that by the way. Growing up, I used to be ridiculed for the fact that I used to write poems, and I was shamed for it because I liked staying in and writing more than I liked being out there doing “guy stuff” as if my love for literature made me less of a boy. I’ve suffered the existential fear of “not making it” as a writer when I saw people go to universities and get degrees while I was here banking on my writing. I know what it’s like to be and feel like I’m absolutely nothing simply because I believe in what I can do with the pen.
Yet, even with all those bad experiences, I wrote on. I pressed and bled. So even though I do find awards and editor picks flattering, the validation was always there because it came from within, the same place where the throne of my Father resides. The only difference is that applause coming from outside hits different. Almost like a moment of relief that the vision I see about my dreams is also real to other writers and editors. It helps a bit to know that I haven’t been hallucinating my dreams – that they’re real and so is my ability to write. External validation hasn’t really motivated me in any way. It has only served as confirmation that I should keep believing in my writing as I’ve always done because I am a writer. That’s what I am and always will be.
Frank: I know you to be an editor as well , and more so the non-fiction editor for the Literary platform lbadan Arts. What kind of non-fiction writing do you gravitate towards? What kind are you always looking forward to reading in the submissions to the platform?
Hadebe: True perspective. That’s what I look for rather than a certain type of nonfiction. What I mean by this is that I like seeing things the way the writer wants me to see them. When I say “true” perspective, it’s got nothing to do with universal truth or truth as I define it personally. It’s about their truth. Whether or not I agree with their truth is irrelevant. I’ve always found stories that possess this quality to be the most powerful because the writer would be speaking from a place of trying to express rather than to impress. Writers who speak from “true perspective” display transparency that is almost startling to look at. Nakedness. Pleasing nakedness. True perspective is what happens when a writer doesn’t self-censor – and I love it.
Frank: Apart from the literary forms, what other art forms can you maybe say influence your writing?
Hadebe: I’d say cartoons. I’ve already mentioned rap music, but because I’m a contrarian, I’ve always seen rap songwriting as being a legitimate form of literature. Street-influenced lit with its own lexicon. Apart from that, cartoons.
Frank: Lastly, what are you currently working on? And what can we expect from you in future in regards to your writing, especially your essays and non-fiction?
Hadebe: With regards to the future, I’m taking it one step at a time. My aim is always to grow myself as a writer and to improve my editorship in any way that I can, from taking part in literary magazines to taking on essays and the like. So there’s nothing I can say I’m working on exclusively because I’ve got lots of writings in the kitchen. Some writings are almost done, others are still brewing, while others are already out in search of a home. Plus, I’m out there helping other writers with their own writing. So, there are definitely lots of essays on the way – my heart is full of them. I have been thinking of pivoting and shifting my focus to fiction writing as well. Either way, my name is definitely going to crop up a lot more often.
This dialogue was edited by our Senior Editor, Tamanda Kanjaye.
Frank Njugi is a Kenyan culture journalist, poet and writer. An alumni of the Nairobi Writing Academy, he has had works appear on plartforms such as 20.35 Africa, Shallow Tales Review, Konya Shamsrumi, Roi Fainéant Press, Olney Magazine, Kalahari Review, African Writer Magazine, Afrocritik, The Moveee, The Standard, and others. He was longlisted for the Akachi Chukwuemeka Prize for Literature in 2023 and was also a 2023 Sondeka Awards nominee. He currently serves as the managing editor for Salamander Ink Magazine and can be found on Twitter.