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