Author, Mabel Mnensa, reimagines an African folktale with her book ‘Kantiga Finds the Perfect name’ (Jacana Media), which celebrates diversity, African names, and stories of immigrants.
By: Thanduxolo ‘Thandz’ Buti
All Images Supplied
Children’s books have always been infamous for their lack of diversity and for overlooking black stories. As a result, many black children have been limited to books that promote Western ideas and ways of being, which contributes to the narrative that black stories are unimportant. This further fuels the insecurities that black kids grow up with, rooted in identity and misrepresentation. But in the past decade, there is a new wave of young black authors who have been reintroducing children’s books with an unapologetically black narrative that promotes the diverse African culture.
“The inspiration behind Kantiga Finds the Perfect Name was my niece,” Mabel tells Blacklight. “She once told this story, which was very dark, and everyone in the story died in the end. I thought, well, she needs new stories. She liked Frozen and Princess Elsa, and she would say she wishes she had long blonde hair like Princess Elsa.
“I have short hair, and she would ask me why I have a boy’s haircut. Because of the content she was consuming, there was no representation of her true-self in any of the stories. I felt like she didn’t love or celebrate who she is. So I wanted to create stories that help her begin to see herself. Even as a kid, even though I was reading a lot, I didn’t feel represented in any books. I remember at the age of 11, hating myself, and wishing I could be different. With my generation, the time has passed, and the damage is done, but we can still help the younger generation to begin to appreciate themselves.”
As a cosmopolitan person, born and raised in Jo’burg with parents hailing from Malawi, Mabel’s story is one of the many stories of displacement in Africa. But she has managed to turn her life story into an enchanting story that redresses the misconceptions around immigration.
“I studied in Port Elizabeth at Nelson Mandela University (NMMU), and now I am based in Cape Town,” explains Mabel. “Because my family was sort of displaced, storytelling was big in our home. I remember we would sit and we would be told all kinds of stories.
“At the age of five, I could read, and my father took me to the Johannesburg City Library. From then on, the library served as a form of a babysitter. I loved writing, and my father encouraged it. I don’t know why because I come from a family of athletes. I enjoyed writing, but it’s scary being a writer; because there is a lot of self-doubt and being scared to put yourself out there.”
Before publishing her book, Mabel followed the more conventional route, pursuing an academic path and achieving a Master’s degree in English and literature and later worked as a marketing manager at Juta Publishers. But in between, she dabbled in performance poetry and did her thesis on performance poetry and oral storytelling.
“Doing the Masters took away my love for writing my own stories, and I could not write because I was always over-thinking it. I didn’t write for a long time because my focus was on my job; as a marketing manager. But I felt like something was missing – happiness. I then quit my job for about a year, and I started writing this story.”
Kantiga Finds the Perfect Name, also available in isiXhosa, follows the tale of a young lady who embarks on a quest to find the perfect name, and learns more about herself and her origins.
“We need to know that our names come with history, and when we are given names, as Africans, our names have a purpose and a reason. So there is no reason for us to change our names to make them more palatable. We have to change the narrative, and my wish is for young people to take pride in their names.
“Another thing about this story is the story of immigrants. There are so many immigrants in Africa and all over the world. But as we travel, sometimes we lose parts of our history. When we were growing up, we honoured oral storytelling. Our history was transferred through oral traditions; there was little or no publishing. We should not look down upon our oral storytelling tradition because the stories were not published. This book is an actual folklore tale we were told as kids, reimagined for the modern generation. I wanted something that young girls can cherish and be proud of.”
Like most local authors, Mabel struggled to get published and was rejected “about four times” before being taken in by Jacana Media.
“I believed in it,” she says about fighting for her story to get published. “I believe that I would have loved to read a book like this when I was younger. That belief and also being unapologetic (as a writer) was what resulted in this book. I told myself that this is what I want, and I am going for it, and I am not going to compromise.”
“This was my first time getting publishing, and as a newly published author, you think you don’t have any rights. And you have rights because this [your book] is your baby, and you have to make sure that you are happy with the final product. There is also this troubling narrative that we still need to dismantle; that we as black people don’t buy books.”
With the digital era chipping away at the print and publishing industry, books are slowly becoming a thing of the past. The world is now moving towards audio-visual books, and there is a growing misconception that people have a shorter concentration span, which makes it difficult for them to read longer texts or books.
“Things have changed, significantly,” agrees Mabel. “With my nephews and nieces, they know that if they are with me, then there is going to be time for reading, writing, or storytelling. One of the most important things for us is to take ownership of our narrative because I believe it’s something they tried to take away from us. We need to own our narrative and tell our own stories. We also need to let our kids tell their stories. We need to encourage them to create their own stories. We can’t just sit and complain; we as a collective need to do something, even if it’s a small action, it might be part of something bigger.
“I am old school, and I believe there is still space for paperback books in society. Some studies say kids learn better from books. As much as we are moving forward, we should preserve the tradition of reading hard books.”
As a young black author, Mabel is driven by the need to see more black and African stories represented in the media. “Representation is important to me. There is this quote that I love, which is: ‘Until the lion learns how to write, every story is going to glorify the hunter.’ History has always been a bit biased, especially in regards to black stories. I want us to learn to embrace our past, present, and future. I take pride in my Africanness, and I always want to celebrate that.”
Mabel also has a short story published in Niq Mhlongo’s anthology, Jo’burg Noir, which features works by various South African writers.
Kantiga Finds the Perfect Name is available at selected leading bookstores nationwide and online.