Nozizwe Cynthia Jele

Nozizwe at Love Books for the launch of Prof Zake Mda's The Zulus of New York
Nozizwe at Love Books for the launch of Prof Zake Mda’s The Zulus of New York

Nozizwe Cynthia Jele is a South African novelist. Her debut novel, Happiness is a Four-Letter Word (Kwela Books, 2010), has won numerous awards including the Best First Book category (Africa region) in the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2011 and 2011 M-Net Literary Award in the Film category. The book was adapted into film and released at the box office countrywide in February 2016. The Ones with Purpose is Nozizwe’s second novel. It was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Barry Ronge Fiction Prize (2019) and University of Johannesburg for South African Writing in English (2019). The Ones with Purpose is currently longlisted for the 2020 International Dublin Literary Award.

Nozizwe also writes shorts stories and contributes to magazines, newspapers and other literature platforms. She supports various initiatives to promote literacy including The Fundza Literacy Trust, which promotes reading and writing amongst young people, and is an editorial board member of the People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA) Women’s Writing Project.

This writer is so INSANELY modest, it was like pulling teeth to get her to tell me about her various achievements. But with much nagging I managed to get one or two details out of her. It is appropriate that this interview is being posted on Workers’ Day because she is one of the hardest working people I know. Her fantastic sense of humour and her incomparable voice as a writer shines through in this interview. I hope you enjoy it…

I remember the first time we met, it was at the Jozi Film Fest. You were there because your book “Happiness is a four-letter word” had been adapted for the big screen. For the five people in SA who HAVEN’T seen the movie or read the book, please tell us what it’s about?

Really? Excellent memory. To the five people – Happiness is a Four-Letter Word tells a story of four friends in their late twenties/ early thirties who are trying to figure out this thing called life in Tata’s rainbow nation. They are certainly not like their mothers (or maybe they are?!?) They have the freedom to choose what they want, who they want to be with, and to define their own happiness (whatever that is). The story follows four characters – Nandi, Zaza, Tumi and Princess – all in their early thirties and friends living in today’s Johannesburg where the pace of life is fast and the social expectations high. The women have to deal with a range of social issues – from infertility, infidelity, domestic abuse – it’s all there.

How did the movie come about? Just how big of a mindf*ck is it, watching your novel coming to life? Were there parts of it you didn’t enjoy? (Like them killing off one of your characters?)
Movie poster for Happiness Is A Four Letter Word

So one of the producers, Bongiwe Selane, was a judge for the M-Net Literary Awards which Happiness is a Four-Letter Word was nominated for (why did M-Net stop the awards? Can they bring them back?). She loved the book so much and decided to adapt it into a film (there’s a whole story of how she left her job to pursue her dream of becoming a filmmaker, but that’s for another day).

She spent years raising funds for the film and here we are. I was lucky enough to be part of the script development process and was made aware of the changes early on. Killing one of my leading ladies was the hardest thing to take, after that I learned to trust the universe 🙂 Thank goodness the movie did well enough.

(image: Movie poster for Happiness Is A Four Letter Word)

I read somewhere (okay, it was on Twitter, when I was supposed to be working) that there might be a Happiness 2. Is this a rumour or is it true? What can we expect from Happiness 2? Have you written a sequel? What’s happening?

It is the truth, of course money goddesses and gods allowing. Major changes can be expected too.

I read somewhere else (okay, it was also on Twitter) that you just donated money to help towards the building of a library in the rural areas. Were you a big reader as a child? Do libraries have a special place in your heart?

I was a big reader as a child, read everything I laid my eyes on which often got me into trouble with my mother because I tended to skip chores for books (grown up books for that matter). There were no libraries when I was growing up, my weekly reading fix came in the form of comics from the Sunday Times newspaper supplementary magazine. I appreciate and support efforts to bring books to the people and that’s why the longlisting for the Dublin Literary Award is so important me.

You are a gentle presence on Twitter. You manage to cut through a lot of the crap with grace and humour. (Teach us your ways, oh wise one). Seriously, how do you cope with trolls and with one star reviews? Have you ever even had a one star review??

I try to stay in my lane and tweet mostly bookish things which people who follow me seem to be interested in (I’ve tried dabbling in other topics but no one is interested). As for the reviews, it hasn’t been that bad. Do people really give one stars? Do they understand the effort that goes into writing a book, even for a ‘bad’ book?

Tell us about your journey to getting published. Talk us through both your lowest point (although frankly you’ve been so successful, I cannot picture this) and your highest point (cracking open the champers).
Nozizwe Cynthia Jele Portrait

Started by reading, a lot. Then I got this crazy idea that I could write. Next thing, I was writing, religiously, every day as Stephen King suggests in “On Writing,” and that’s how Happiness is a Four-Letter Word happened (it was initially titles, Chasing Pavements, based on Adele’s first album – I mean this goes back to early 2009). Kwela Books was nervous about copyright, so they came up with the final title.

Lowest points – I’ve had manuscripts rejected by publishers and agents, but this happens and you can only write more and improve your craft and everything will fall into place.  I do believe that if your work is good, it will find a place.

(image: Nozizwe Cynthia Jele)

Your first novel won several prizes. Plus you won the Mbokodo Award in 2018 for your contribution to literature in South Africa. Your latest novel The Ones with Purpose has been longlisted for the prestigious Dublin Literary Award. Is there one particular award that made you especially proud?

All prizes are special, being long-listed or shortlisted for any prize is an honour. I don’t take anything for granted. The Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book (Africa region) was a pleasant surprise because I was made to believe Happiness is a Four-Letter Word was not of literary importance (grrrrr), let alone win a prize. I am excited about the Dublin Literary Award and grateful to the City of Cape Town Library for the nomination.  We wait for the judges to communicate the shortlist.

I read an interview where you spoke about how the different stages in your life have affected what you write about. The Ones with Purpose is very different from Happiness. What can we expect from novel no 3?
The Ones With Purpose Front Cover

I wrote Happiness is a Four-Letter Word in my early 30s. I was full of optimism and curiosity.

The Ones with Purpose came eight years later, I had just buried my father. I have been seriously considering writing Ma’s story (one of the characters in The Ones with Purpose) – see how I’m aging through my novels – however I now have another idea centering around the Covid-19 epidemic (yes, yes, I know it’s the current buzz word) but I hope to bring humanity and warmth to the story I’m thinking of (oooooh, we can’t wait to read it!)

(image: The Ones With Purpose Front Cover)

Spill the tea about your writing process. Do you write thousands of words a day, 200 words a day? How does it all come together for you?

It took eight years to get my second novel out, honestly I managed to squeeze it out after panicking about becoming a ‘one hit wonder’. I write whenever I find time, which is never enough. I hold a 9 to 5 or rather 9 to 9. It’s easier to take a week off work to immerse myself in writing. Sadly, that doesn’t happen often enough either.

Advice to aspiring writers (apart from “I hope you come from wealth”).

Lol! Start writing now, remember there is never a perfect moment to start. Also read, a lot – I’ve learned so much from other writers through their books. I recently came across this tweet by writer, Sulaiman Addonia, “Dear so-called aspiring writer: yes, read read read. But. Not just books: read people, read eyes, read music, read paintings, read the air, the sea, the trees, the lakes, the sun, the moon & the stars. Read the universe” (I LOVE this). Well articulated.  Aspiring writers on Twitter can also check my pinned tweet. I try to put valuable information on writing there @jelecynthia.

Nozi and I at #SABF2017
Nozi and I at #SABF2017
What are your tips for surviving the lockdown?

I’ve been going to bed earlier than normal and getting up early. My morning routine involves reading, doing some exercises (100 jumping jacks and one almost perfect burpee), showering and getting into sweatpants, strong coffee, before jumping on a call with my colleagues for our daily check-in (work obviously must continue). I’ve found this routine to help me get through the day. I’m also part of a group of writers who are participating in the Afrolit Sans Frontières virtual festival, they have kept the green room going for the past three weeks. Weekends I clean and dance.

Have you written more during the lockdown? Have you read more?

I’ve picked up on my reading, yes, but no such luck on writing. I have however written a paragraph of what my next novel could possibly be about. That’s good enough for now.

Talk a bit about the competition you’ve been running on Twitter.

I mentioned the idea of giving away books on Twitter a day after the initial 21-day lockdown was announced. Initially I was going to give away books from my bookshelf, but Nadia Goetham (Jacana Media), Thabiso Mahlape (BlackBird Books), Zukiswa Wanner (writer and publisher, Paivapo Publishers), and writers Dudu Busani-Dube (Zandile, The Resolute) and Zanele Dlamini (Wounds of Ignorance) immediately showed interest in participating.

I then reached out to Helene Prinsloo (NB Publishers), Niq Mhlongo (Black Tax) and Jonathan Ball Publishers, and a few other writers including yourself, Anelile Gibixego (iGoli Dreams) Lerato Mogoatlhe (Vagabond), Angela Makholwa (The Blessed Girl), Siphiwo Mahala (Red Apple Dreams) to collaborate and everyone was willing. I am always amazed and grateful for the generosity of the writing community. I have since given away 29 books (you are AMAZING!)

Any book recommendations for our readers?

Just finished Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo. What a treat! Started two books – Imagine This by Sade Adeniran and Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan. Desperately wanting to read all of Bessie Head’s work.

Where can the fans catch up with you?

Twitter and Instagram @jelecynthia and

Thank you so much for taking part in #FridayReads. We are holding thumbs for you for the Dublin Library Literary Award! xxx

Was this Blackbird Book's 3rd birthday? I do not remember
Was this Blackbird Book’s 3rd birthday? I do not remember