Author Interview: Shanthini Naidoo – Women in Solitary, Or Each One A Her-O

March 7, 2021

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‘The freezing loneliness made one wish for death,’ journalist Joyce Sikhakhane-Rankin said of solitary confinement. With seven other women, including Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, she was held for more than a year. This is the story of these heroic women, their refusal to testify in the ‘Trial of 22’ in 1969, their brutal detention and how they picked up their lives afterwards.

Women in Solitary: Inside the Female Resistance to Apartheid by Shanthini Naidoo, published by Tafelberg, is available now.


How do you know when an idea is worthy of developing into a book? With songs or other shorter formats, you can get to a point of knowing if something will work relatively soon, but getting several thousand words into a manuscript and then deciding it’s a waste of time is far more frustrating.

This is my first book, but it was among those special stories I’d written as a journalist for nearly two decades, that I knew needed more than a newspaper article could cover. Also, it gave me goosebumps. Knowing this story needed to be told and that I was privileged to be given the opportunity to explore it with the women, it always felt right – not that I did not have nervousness of getting it wrong, being politically unqualified to tell such a significant story, which I quickly had to get over.


When you do decide that a theme or story is worth exploring, how do you go about unpacking that? How much do you do, and how detailed is it?

Interestingly, this started off as a research project for the University of the Witwatersrand, where I was completing my Masters degree in Journalism and Media Studies. The basis of the research was untold female narratives in the struggle for democracy in South Africa, which had a narrative aspect to it. It quickly evolved into a larger piece of writing.


How much planning do you do before beginning in earnest? Do you have to know where you’re going to end up before you start?

This story had a organic growth from an article, to research project, to book project. It grew as the platform that required it grew. I did not know my article would become a research project and the thesis would become a book, until after each aspect was complete.

I tried to immerse myself in the stories in person, as quickly as I could, with the women who are aging rapidly. It was not a structured approach, I jumped in and got the interviews done. The writing evolved after their story emerged. Some themes emerged a year later, as I sat down to write and framed the story on greater themes in SA, including generational trauma and a psychologically unhealed country.


If the hundreds of memes about writing are to be believed, sitting down and actually putting words on a page is perhaps the toughest part of the job. What are the distractions you battle with the most when trying to work?

My children, and needing to spend time with them. We sacrificed a few weekends and holidays together so I could complete this. My only internal distraction is fatigue, which comes from writing an emotional story. I tried to overcome this by meditating. Alternatively, coffee in large quantities.


What’s the weirdest or craziest way you’ve found to avoid meeting a deadline?

I have a bit of OCD, so I haven’t often missed deadlines. It gives me anxiety to have incomplete work.


Daily goals: what, for you, is an acceptable daily target, in terms of wordcount or the quality of what you complete, be it a sentence, a paragraph or a chapter?

I was told that 5000 words a day is possible, but there are no rules. I do know that there is a feeling of peace that washes over the brain, then filters to the toes when a piece of work is complete, and in an impactful way. Saying that, I could edit and reedit 100 times over if days were unlimited. It is good to have a deadline and I had a brilliant publisher who set reasonable targets.


What have you found are the best ways to get this done?

I am one of those people who can start writing the moment I wake up and walk to my laptop. I think the best way to complete a task is to find your most alert and most mindful time. If it means working before you brush your teeth, or after exercise and a shower, that’s great. It is about knowing your peak mental space and accessing it, whenever it may be.


If writing books is not your full-time job, how does completing a project fit in with your other duties?

I work in content marketing, which is essentially storytelling in a different form. My work fits in entirely, being creative but also keeping the business from the “leisure” because it is so vastly different. This allows mental space for both pursuits.


Marketing new books – print or digital: what fresh ideas do you think could be introduced to the process to make new work more accessible and appealing to both new and established readers?

Digital-first is the way to go, and it needs to be counted – apparently online sales aren’t included in ratings, which is quite ridiculous in the time of a pandemic, where everything was purchased online. Ecommerce needs to come to the party in publishing in South Africa. Delays and not considering books essential stock is a travesty when a reader is about to buy a title and is faced with barriers. Bricks-and-mortar stores need to push local, not big international titles which will sell themselves. Put black authors and authentic stories the forefront of our media, and our narrative as a nation will change. Content is queen. We have to turn our books into video, podcast and multimedia assets in order to sell the print copies.


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