Author Q&A with Futhi Ntshingila, author of They Got to You Too
They Got to You Too is the deeply humane and thought-provoking story of Hans van Rooyen, a former police general who finds himself being cared for in an old age home by the daughter of liberation struggle activists, Zoe Zondi. It is a story of loss and trauma, love and reconciliation.
Futhi Ntshingila is a writer from Pietermaritzburg, They Got to You Too is her third novel. Her work centres on women and marginalised communities and she holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution.
We spoke to Ntshingila about the book, her writing journey, the reader she hopes to find with this novel and her life in books.
Can you give a brief summary of the book...
They Got to You Too is a story that is as diverse as is the people of South Africa. It is a story of facing one’s lack of invincibility against time and death. It demonstrates how a change of status quo can disarm the once powerful into defenceless. The main character Hans van Rooyen, is an example of this. A former police general who finds himself frail and anxiety ridden in an old age home with no loved ones. He finds a confessional space in his nurse who would have been an enemy in the times of war. A former security police and liberation activists’ daughter are forced find grace in humanity.
What triggered the novel?
Were the characters based on a life story you knew?
Initially the story was focused on the Anglo Boer War now known as the South African War looking into women of that time. In the process, the story of Hans developed, drawing a trajectory from the women who survived the war and raised him. It is loosely based on an encounter of a strange old man I came across at a youth camp who spoke of his time in Border Wars.
The themes in the book are so personal and close to home – does the story have personal connections to you or your family? If yes, what was the hardest part to write or how did the personal connection influence you?
Yes, I grew up near Caluza where United Democratic Front (UDF) members were harassed daily by security police and Inkatha members. The story of Zoe is familiar to me. Her father dying few months before 2010 soccer world cup had me in tears. My father succumbed to lung cancer in 2010 few months before the world cup. My sisters and I watched the first match at home with my mother. It was a healing moment.
This is your third novel, what has shaped your writing journey?
Daily living experiences imprint themselves in my mind and when I get into a space of writing I listen and go with the voices. It has served me well.
How do you approach writing and inhabiting your characters?
The writing process for this one was different. In that with lockdown I had more time to work on it even during the day. My normal process is to write at night, the silence of it helps me but with this book, I also worked on it during the day only stopping to eat or when I got stuck. I had old bits and pieces but once I hit the idea of lockdown in old age home, it became my anchor and the writing began to flow easier.
‘I have learnt that stories go where an author never thought they would go. I have given up the idea of who is intended to be the audience of my work. Wherever it goes, I hope it is read and heartfelt similar to the way I was when I wrote it.’
Likeable characters are usually popular with readers. Why do you feel complex and imperfect characters such as an irritable 80-something-year-old Hans van Rooyen are important in a story?
He had to have imperfections to reflect life realistically and for the story to be told effectively.
In the book there’s an opening line that reads “I heard all of you, thank you for trusting me with your stories.” - Did you choose this story or do you think it chose you as a writer?
The initial story I had chosen but the process and the voices chose me, were insistent, and present throughout. Mine was to listen and craft the best way I could.
The story unfolds not only in a physically constrained setting but in real-time, during COVID-19 lockdown. What value does the COVID setting and environment bring to the story and why was it important to set it in a pandemic?
It provided a setting to two most unlikely characters to be in one place that was inescapable; creating a forced bonding that leads to dropping learned mentality and embracing raw humanity.
Who is the reader you hope to find with the novel?
I have learnt that stories go where an author never thought they would go. I have given up the idea of who is intended to be the audience of my work. Wherever it goes, I hope it is read and heartfelt similar to the way I was when I wrote it.
After They Got to You Too, do you know what’s next – is there a book readers can anticipate?
Yes, there will be other stories but too early to tell at the moment.
‘I have fond memories of my grandmother telling us stories passing down wisdom through oral story-telling. I supposed I could say my grandmother was my first encounter of storytelling. I have loved stories since back then.’
Futhi Ntshingila’s life in books…
What types of books inspire you to write?
I love books with a bit of history or a backstory attached to them. The recent ones that imprinted themselves on me are The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates and My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell.
Which book do you find yourself returning to and why?
Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. It has so many life lessons that have helped me navigate difficult passage in my growth as a person and a woman.
Your earliest reading memory or your favourite childhood book?
Growing up in the 80s, reading was not the highest item in the list. I have fond memories of my grandmother telling us stories passing down wisdom through oral story-telling. I suppose I could say my grandmother was my first encounter of story-telling. I have loved stories since back then.
The book you give as a gift?
I hardly giveaway books, I selfishly hoard books, but if I were to give someone a book I would give them Women Who Run With the Wolves.
The book almost everyone you know has read but you haven’t?
I have heard a lot of people talking about Harry Potter stories. I never got to read that series of books.
Five books you would recommend to a stranger?
- Nozizwe Cynthia Jele - The Ones with Purpose
- Dr Sindiwe Magona - Mother to Mother
- Toni Morrison - Sula
- Ta-Nehisi Coates - The Water Dancer
- Angela Makholwa - Black Widow Society
Watch Futhi Ntshingila introducing They Got to You Too and reading an extract from the book:
‘“An ode to the power of storytelling… They Got to You Too is just the right fiction for our troubled times.” – Heather Robertson, editor of Daily Maverick 168’