Cynthia Jele is a South African-born writer who grew up in a small border town in Mpumalanga. She graduated with a BTech in Environmental Health from the then Natal Technikon and obtained a BA in International Business from North Central College in Illinois.
Jele worked as a public health officer for the Mpumalanga Health Department, and then jetted to the United States where she spent a year as an au pair. She then went on to live in the United Kingdom for a year. Upon her return to South Africa, Jele worked as a management consultant. She has recently established an economic development consultancy, Lombuso Consulting Group.
Jele’s claim to fame was winning 1st and 4th prizes in the 2008 BTA/Anglo-Platinum Short Story Competition. Her debut novel – a story celebrating love and female friendships – Happiness is a Four-Letter Word, won the Best First Book category (Africa region) in the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2011, as well as the 2011 M-Net Literary Award in the Film category. The novel was also shortlisted for the 2011 Booksellers Choice Award.
Note: The interview was conducted at the just ended 15th Time of the Writer Festival in Durban, South Africa.
GeosiReads: Is it your first time at the festival?
Cynthia Jele: Yes.
GR: Your impressions?
CJ: I love it. It’s great for writers to get together and it’s equally important for writers to meet and connect with their readers. One of the best organised festivals I’ve attended.
GR: Who are your favourite writers?
CJ: I’m not loyal to writers, rather to books.
GR: Your favourite books?
CJ: I love many books but these stand out for me: White Teeth by Zadie Smith, Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I also love The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah, Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy and White Oleander by Janet Fitch.
GR: Have you ever had any rejections in your writing career?
CJ: Yes. I have been rejected for a number of short stories.
GR: Do you write longhand?
GR: When did you begin to write?
CJ: Writing came late in life. It happened by accident and I guess it was a result of enjoying reading books.
GR: What theme(s) do you write on?
CJ: Stories of today. For instance, Happiness is a four-letter word is about four friends, Nandi, Zaza, Tumi and Princess living life in the fast and fabulous lanes of Joburg. Suddenly, no amount of cocktails can cure the stress that simultaneously unsettles their lives. Nandi’s final wedding arrangements are nearly in place. Zaza, the “trophy wife”, waits for the day her affair comes to light and her husband gives her a one-way ticket back to the township; Tumi has only one wish to complete her perfect life – a child. But when her wish is granted, it’s not exactly how she pictured it. Princess: for the first time ever, has fallen in love with Leo, a painter who seems to press all the right buttons. But soon she discovers – like her friends already have – that life is not a bed of roses, and happiness never comes with a manual.
GR: Any specific audience you write for?
CJ: It depends with the story. I’ve recently written a short story about a 50-something year old white woman; the readers would most likely be different to those of Happiness is a four-letter word.
GR: What are you currently doing?
CJ: Writing my second book.