Lebo Mazibuko published her debut novel titled Bantu Knots. The book was published by Kwela Books in 2021.Bantu Knots is the coming-of-age story of a young Black woman named Naledi who is trying to find her self, voice and identity. In this interview with EW Blog’s editor Ezekiel Kekana, the author reflects on writing her novel, what inspired the title, and her love for telling Black women stories.
Question: First of all, congratulations on your debut novel. How has the reception from the public been for the book since it was released last year?’
I have been pleasantly surprised by the feedback I have received. The biggest compliment for me is hearing that people can identify with the story. People know these characters, that is if they haven’t personally experienced some of the things that the characters in the book go through.
Question: Let’s talk about the title, Bantu Knots. Why did you decide to go with that title?
The first image that comes to mind when people hear “bantu knots” is hopefully the image of a black woman. This is because bantu knots is a hairstyle that originated in Southern Africa. I was very intentionally about telling a very South African story. I wanted to tell a story that celebrates our beauty, culture and where we come from. The title therefore ties into these themes while also speaking about the various experiences and beliefs that connect us as black women. ‘Bantu knots’ is also literal. Naledi, the protagonist, is a young girl with bantu knots. This was done in order to directly interrogate the standards of beauty within black communities.
Question: Talk to us about the creation of the character Naledi, where did the idea to write her come from?
I have read a number of coming of age stories, but I hadn’t picked up a South African township version of it. I think it was Toni Morrison who said, “If there’s a book that you want to read but hasn’t been written yet, you should write it”. I also wanted to write a character that everyone knew. A simple story about an everyday black child who is chasing a dream.
Question: You touched on so many themes in the book, womanhood, sexuality, daughter/mother complexities, hair, rape, religion. How much of your own personal experience factored in the telling of the story?
I am the middle child and the only girl at home amongst boys. When I went left to go live in an all-girl residence in university, I discovered that some of the struggles that I faced as a young woman, other girls were facing similar challenges too. These were mainly issues around self-esteem and trying to understand our sexuality against a backdrop of culture and religion that has silenced this part of us. Underneath the silence there was violation, shame and confusion. I have personally experienced things that I was too afraid to speak about because of the fear of being asked, ‘what were you doing there in the first place?’
Most girls I know have been violated. They just do not want that label attached to them, so they keep quiet. Or, they do not know how to define an uncomfortable sexual encounter, and that also pushes them into silence. It is important that we start talking about sex in our homes especially as black people. Pretending it is not happening only leaves your daughters and sisters walking around with concealed scars.
Question: Many people credited you for telling an authentic South African story that many could easily resonate with. With this book, what message (s) were you trying to convey to South Africans?
I wanted everyone to read this book. I have read far too many books, especially in school that I could not identify with. The culture of reading would improve drastically if people were able to pick up books that are firstly written in a language they can understand, and secondly if they could see themselves and people they know in the pages they read.
Question: Mama Norah is one character who evoked mixed emotions from different readers. Some saw her as a hypocrite who preaches forgiveness at church, but could not forgive her own daughter for her mistakes. What was the difficulty of telling Mme Norah’s story, because we have so many of them in our homes?
I guess the difficulty came in not painting her as a villain. I needed to make her intentions clear. She had good intentions for both Dineo and Naledi. And she protected them the only way she knew how. The way young people are today, is very different to those of Mama Norah’s generation. This is something that most families struggle with. There is this tug of war between tradition/religion and modernity.
-How do you raise a young person in today’s world without losing our values as Africans? Mama Norah has lived with biblical teachings for sixty plus years. This is what has kept her and her home standing. What she believes is not wrong in any way, but rather it forms an important part in moulding Naledi and Dineo. Religion is the material she used in building a protective hedge around her family. The battle for her now comes in letting go and allowing Naledi and Dineo to discover themselves outside of these protective walls. As important as it is to protect your children, it is also just as important to give them room to make their own mistakes.
Question: The cast is made up mostly of Black women of different generations and backgrounds. Was it an intentional act to just tell Black women stories in the book?
I am very passionate about telling black women stories. I am surrounded by matriarchs. I have seen communities stand stronger because of black women. So, yes, absolutely it was intentional.
Question: The male characters in the book such as Sizwe, Xolani and Bheki are a true representation of what men in our society are like. In telling their stories, were you trying to show that indeed men are trash?
At a closer look, you will see that all the characters in the story are flawed. Mama Norah, Dineo, Felicia, Sis Nozipho and even Naledi all have their vices. I don’t believe in writing perfect characters who are completely pure. But I also couldn’t run away from being truthful in portraying some of the issues we face in our communities and even in our relationships at the hands of men. It was also important that I had characters like Ntate Moloi, Moruti, Mthi, Guitar boy and even Clement, who are honest men who love and are protective of those around them.
Question: Talk to us about the idea of including the African idioms on every chapter of the book?
These are the beliefs and proverbs that have built our black communities. Some of them have also brought harm. Naledi’s story is about her finding her own voice. In the journey to finding yourself there are some beliefs that you take with, and others that you must strip away.
‘Mosadi o tshwara thipa ka mo bogaleng’. This speaks about a woman’s strength yet in the same token has been how many women have been taught by culture to endure abuse. We are saying to women that bleeding, pain and torment is the role of a woman. We silence the cries of women by preaching this to them.
‘Iqhude yilo elibika ukusa.’ This is another patriarchal view that silences the opinions and the voice of a woman within a home.
There are also idioms that hold valuable teachings for us as we move through life. ‘Ingwe idla ngamabala.’ This speaks to the gifts that we possess as people. This idiom encourages us to use our skills and talents to provide or gain prosperity.
Question: What is your message to the many Naledis out there, who find themselves being dictated by society about what is womanhood?
You are beautiful. I’ll start there. Especially in this crazy Instagram world that is constantly telling us that we are not enough, it is important that we remind young girls that with their shapes, shades and social standing, that they are beautiful. I’d also say, go at your pace. Take your time in figuring yourself out. Spend enough time alone until you get to a point where you are sure of yourself and do not need the validation of others. There are no rules to who and what you should be. March to beat of your own drum, just make sure that you respect the choices and beliefs of others in the process.
Question: Should your readers expect a new book soon?
I will let my inner voice guide me as to what the future holds in this regard.
hank you for your time.
Answer: Thank you so much for your lovely review and for these questions.