WORK/LIFE: Fred Khumalo

Fred Khumalo

Fred Khumalo completed his MA in creative writing from Wits University with distinction and is the recipient of a Nieman Fellowship from Harvard University. His writing has appeared in various publications, including the Sunday Times, the Toronto Star, New African magazine, the Sowetan and Isolezwe. His books include Bitches Brew, Seven Steps to Heaven and Touch My Blood. His most recent book, Dancing the Death Drill, about the sinking of the SS Mendi troop ship during World War 1, was published earlier this year.

What does “writing” mean?

To paraphrase Emile Zola, writing, like any work of art, is a picture of the world, or a corner of it, distorted, coloured, arranged by the personality of the artist.

Which book changed your life?

Too many: Inkinsela yaseMgungundlovu by Sibusiso Nyembezi; Grapes of Wrath; Cry the Beloved Country; Things Fall Apart; and many others – each one of them opened a new window into the world, thus changing my life.

Your favourite fictional character?

Easy Rawlins (created by Walter Mosley for his detective series

What are you working on at the moment?

Working on a Zulu language version of the story of the sinking of the SS Mendi. Not a direct translation of Dancing the Death Drill, but a totally new book, featuring some of the Drill characters, but re-imagined from the perspective of another country, who happens to be Zulu speaking.

Describe your workspace.

It’s a five by four metre office on the west-wing of the top floor of my house. I have two huge windows – one which gives me a few of the neighbour’s yard, and the other which gives me the view of the street outside my house, including the townhouse complex opposite. In my office I have a bookshelf which contains CDs and mostly reference books for a project that I would be working on. These books change with each project.

The most important instrument you use?

My trusty old Lenovo, six years old now. And a pile of notebooks.

What’s your most productive time of day?

Mostly around 5 o’clock before everyone is up. And also around noon when they are all at school or work, and the auntie who cleans is not playing her irritating cellphone music. I can’t make her stop playing her music, cos I also play my music every now and then, for inspiration.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

I always make a point of working on more than one project at a time. When I am stick with my, say, fiction, I change gears and work on a piece of journalism or some other non-fiction. I don’t wait for inspiration. I write every day – even if it’s unpublishable rubbish.

How do you relax?

I listen to both live and recorded jazz, and other music. And I go out to friends – we have sessions with the ubiquitous brown and green bottles.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Don’t be modest, you’re not famous. Keep promoting your work and your interests.

Your favourite ritual?

Still in my pyjamas, I start my computer. While it’s booting I go and brush my teeth, then go downstairs to the kitchen to get coffee. By the time I get back to the office, the computer is ready. I start with my emails. Sometimes an idea is so pressing and compulsive I go straight to jotting it down, before I read my emails.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Finding enough time to turn the ideas I have into a piece of writing.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

I’m not a tough negotiator with publishers and editors (watch out, you scoundrels, I am working on that muscle).

What are you afraid of?

Waking up to discover I can’t write any longer. When Baruch Hirson, the historian of the South African left wing fell ill, he told his son Denis: “I cannot think if I cannot write”. That sums up my reality: I cannot think if I cannot write.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

Read, read, and read across all genres. Also: try to write every day. The writing muscle, like the soccer-playing muscle, doesn’t grow of its own volition. It needs to be nurtured, to be pushed, sometimes. A successful writer is one who doesn’t wait for inspiration, I have found. DON’T BE AFRAID OF REJECTION. In the early stages of your career it is GUARANTEED. From editors, publishers, literary agents, and literary critics

What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?

Having written Dancing the Death Drill – despite all the fears and concerns about how it might be received by both critics and readers.

Dancing the Death Drill is published by Umuzi.

Author photograph by Joanne Olivier ©.

Lest we forget, or wonder why


Writing in The Guardian in January 2013, the eminent British journalist Simon Jenkins declared that he needed to “apologise to the Germans. They are about to suffer an avalanche of often sickening Great War memorabilia, often at their own expense”. Then, with the war’s centenary activities already swamping European – and especially British – television viewers and history bestseller readers, Jenkins was already fed up. Not only, he moaned, were there “war horses everywhere”, there were still “four years of it to come”. As he concluded, ‘the essence of the outbreak of the Great War is that it was a sabre-rattling face-off expected to last a month or two… to revel in these squalid miscalculations is gratuitous.”

Returning to this theme in an August 2014 issue of The Guardian, Jenkins again threw up his hands in despair at Britain’s commemoration of the First World War, a literary and visual festival which, in his view, had come to resemble “an indigestible cross between Downton Abbey and a horror movie”. He may well have a point, at least when it comes to endless, vicarious immersion in the gore and the grime of the nightmare world of the trenches.

Still, as even an irritated Jenkins has conceded, the centenary of the global catastrophe of 1914 — 1918 has been marked not only by questionable indulgence. On the upper slopes of a huge centennial literary mountain are new books which tackle what remains one of the war’s more enduring puzzles. They are mostly rather fat, like Margaret Macmillan’s The War That Ended Peace. At a whopping 699 pages, it certainly does go on a bit. And the concern of these volumes is not with the conduct and the experience of the war, nor with its consequences. Instead, what they pick away at is perhaps the most baffling question of all — the causes of that terrible conflagration. Why? Whose fault was it ? How was it that an increasingly educated, prosperous, and advanced Europe could unleash such an unimaginably destructive conflict ? It left millions dead, some of its grandest empires on their knees, countries bankrupted, and parts of the continent either ungovernable or scarcely worth the bother of governing.

Europe’s march towards a world war in 1914 is, of course, a well-ploughed field of historical questioning and debate. For, while there is broad agreement about the consequences of the conflict, its causes have always been a proverbial bone of contention. As we are reminded by Macmillan’s elegant and absorbing account, at the end of the hostilities the victorious Allied states put all the blame on Germany at Versailles. In more recent years, some scholars have blamed France and Britain for an encirclement or a squeezing of Germany. In central Europe a restless and dynamic German nation found itself hemmed in by European rivals who were blocking its ambitions for greater world power. By 1914, Berlin had had enough of being painted into a corner and tried to gain the upper hand, embarking on a war of conquest which aimed at surrounding Germany with Germany.

Today, the consensus over the causes of the war seems to be that there is no real consensus, aside from acceptance of one or other degree of particular German responsibility. Accordingly, even though The War That Ended Peace does not blame Germany alone for what happened, its author suggests that although the ridiculous Kaiser and his scheming generals clearly had more power than anyone else to have prevented disaster in July 1914, they chose to release the dogs of war. In leading us to an understanding of how that fateful choice was made, the twenty chapters of Macmillan’s hefty, sprawling book make up three big themes. Roughly the first third of this volume plots what its author calls “the great diplomatic realignment of Europe”, as the Entente Cordiale of Britain, France and Russia squared up against the Central Powers of Germany, Austria and a puny and unreliable Italy.

The second chunk explores an ambitiously wide political and social environment, one of rampant and increasingly poisonous nationalisms, blind patriotism, and popular beliefs in life as a lethally competitive jungle in which only the fittest would survive. One such belief was that war was not only inevitable but also necessary. For it would purify countries, arrest their slide into moral degeneration, and would renew their national virility. The final third of this gripping story charts the immediate pre-1914 crises of imperialist Europe, like the Franco-German tussle over Morocco and, above all, over the volatile and vicious circumstances of the Balkan countries.

At the heart of a scholarly book bulging with detail, and composed in a reflective and elegant style, are human weaknesses, stupidities, wilfulness and self-delusions. For Professor Macmillan, the signs of these were all around, and they matter greatly when it comes to pointing fingers at those who, despite always having a choice between peace and war, chose war without seeing what it could mean. Thus, Tsar Nicholas II was too weak-willed to stand up to Russia’s generals, who despised him and got their way regardless. The absurd Kaiser Wilhelm was an infantile and “puerile” figure, whose idea of a joke was to smack the bum of the king of Bulgaria in public or to pull the ears and pat the bald heads of other foreign statesmen. General Alfred von Schlieffen, architect of the famous clockwork Schlieffen Plan which was supposed to produce German victory in double-quick time, had both age and injury against him. Already 75 in the decade before the war, he was kicked by a friend’s horse and was laid up for months, dreaming of a retirement that was slow in coming. With men such as these lies a colossal failure of imagination, an inability to sense the disaster to which their actions were leading.

Richly detailed and insightful, The War That Ended Peace is history on an epic scale. Digesting it all may require the stamina for a lot of chewing. Arguably, too, anyone with an interest in the First World War may find themselves marching across some fairly familiar ground. That notwithstanding, the story of what led to this fundamental tragedy of the 20th century has perhaps never been told before in so sensible, so meticulous, and so enthralling a manner.

The War That Ended Peace is published by Profile Books and is available from