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Sunday Times - - Review - Jen­nifer Platt @Jen­nifer­d­platt

Noz­izwe Cyn­thia Jele took eight years to in­vest her sec­ond novel with the sen­si­tiv­ity she knew it de­served, writes

The ones with pur­pose are dy­ing,” says the Rev Madiba as he speaks about Fik­ile Mabuza, the cen­tral fig­ure in her fam­ily who has died from breast can­cer. It’s a tightly coiled, emo­tional fam­ily drama. Her sis­ter Anele now has to be the fam­ily’s care­taker — sac­ri­fic­ing her­self and her dreams to look after her own chil­dren, her niece and neph­ews and her al­co­holic mother.

There are se­crets that she needs to un­ravel first — her sis­ter’s re­la­tion­ship with her non­sonso hus­band Thiza, who had al­ready taken an­other wife even be­fore Fik­ile died; why her younger brother Mbuso (now the prodi­gal son) has not seen the fam­ily for years and just why he is so an­gry all the time.

It’s writ­ten by Noz­izwe Cyn­thia Jele. Her first book, Hap­pi­ness is a Four-Let­ter Word, was a pop­u­lar choice for book clubs and then be­came an even more pop­u­lar film. Jele has many fans who wanted to know why there was an eight-year gap be­tween nov­els. She says in an in­ter­view: “That’s the most asked ques­tion (laughs). Many things con­trib­uted to the gap, but the com­plex­ity of writ­ing The Ones with Pur­pose with the sen­si­tiv­ity that I knew it de­served al­most paral­ysed me.

“Where do you start with ter­mi­nal ill­ness, al­co­holism, abuse? Also, the suc­cess of Hap­pi­ness (book and movie) and the ex­pec­ta­tion that readers wanted a sim­i­lar book con­trib­uted to this fear. Even­tu­ally I un­der­stood that readers just wanted to read my work, ir­re­spec­tive of what I had writ­ten, and this story was burn­ing and needed to come out.”

The Mabuzas’ story is a quin­tes­sen­tial South African tale. They’re a child-headed house­hold, there’s a blesser/blessee re­la­tion­ship, black tax, al­co­holism, se­crets and love af­fairs. Jele was stew­ing about this story for a while. “Early on when I was con­cep­tu­al­is­ing the book, I wanted to write about HIV and Aids and the dev­as­tat­ing im­pact it con­tin­ues to have on fam­i­lies. But then I re­alised that there was an­other killer, can­cer. Very lit­tle has been writ­ten about can­cer in black fam­i­lies, yet ev­ery per­son I’ve spo­ken to be­fore and after the book was pub­lished has been touched by the dis­ease.”

The Ones With Pur­pose has heart­break­ing mo­ments: Anele wraps her­self around the skele­tal form which is now her sis­ter; there are awk­ward con­ver­sa­tions about death and money; the hor­ri­ble in­evitabil­ity of Anele hav­ing to go through the mo­tions of or­gan­is­ing a fu­neral while griev­ing; and liv­ing on ten­ter­hooks won­der­ing when her ma is go­ing to start drink­ing the brown fluid again. Jele says that out of all of these, the can­cer was the most dif­fi­cult to write about.

“De­tail­ing Fik­ile’s bat­tle with can­cer was ex­haust­ing be­cause of the re­search. I read books, watched movies and YouTube videos of sur­vivors, con­sulted with pro­fes­sion­als, and spoke to friends who them­selves are can­cer sur­vivors or af­fected by can­cer in some way. Blogs were par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing, I’d be fol­low­ing some­one’s jour­ney and then the en­tries would stop abruptly be­cause that per­son had be­come too weak to con­tinue writ­ing or lost the bat­tle.”

Jele has a light touch. The reader feels safe in her writ­ing. She gets the tone right. The sad mo­ments are bal­anced by the up­lift­ing and ten­der mo­ments of Anele: the flash­backs of the bond be­tween her, Fik­ile and Mbuso; the re­build­ing of the re­la­tion­ship with her brother and the hope that her mother does not want to drink demons away any longer.

Jele says: “I of­ten joke that I don’t know how to write ‘sad’, by that I mean, I find the hu­man spirit too res­o­lute to be bogged down by life’s ob­sta­cles. I wanted to rep­re­sent the Mabuza fam­ily in their truest form, that de­spite the many strug­gles and pain they’ve en­dured, they still find hu­mour, ways to heal, and rea­sons to wake up the next day and keep mov­ing.”

Readers just wanted to read my work, ir­re­spec­tive of what I had writ­ten

The Ones With Pur­pose ★★★★Noz­izwe Cyn­thia Jele Kwela, R265

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