How it all started
In 2015, I am living in the eclectic and smoggy city of Beijing, pursuing a Master’s degree at Peking University. I’d submitted an acting tape, casting for a role, and had submitted a headshot picture of myself. In this audition image, I am wearing a black, bouncy weave. The casting agent calls me back but by this time, I have removed the curly weave and I naturally returned to my small, budding dreadlocks. When they called me back, I was immediately nervous: “I just don’t think they’ll think I’m as beautiful with my natural hair,” I said to a friend on the phone, unconsciously.
This casting encounter highlighted how I had internalised a defeating story about my hair and self. That without a weave I would not be seen as beautiful. Rather id believed I’d be less appropriate. Unformed and incomplete for a professional acting gig. Till this point, I had not recognised this narrative, breathing and living so closely in me. This unawareness reminded me of these words: “there are places like this everywhere, places you enter as a young girl from which you never return.” Later on, that year, two friends and I were researching the weave hair market in Guangzhou in relation to African markets.
Sihle Nontshokweni, Thuthukile Mbanjwa & Alice Fang in Guangzhou, China Hair Market, 2015
Reflecting on the hair market, and how we Africans were the largest consumers and importers of wigs and weaves, how the Chinese sellers knew almost nothing about African people, either than that they loved the hair they made led me to think deeply about hair, our own human need for beauty, the messaging on black hair. I then wrote this blog African Rapunzel blog. This initial transcript on hair became the first draft from where I developed the storyline on Wanda.
As I developed the story, I reached out to my long-time friend Mathabo Tlali, to see how we could jostle ideas to bring this story to its fullness for children. I sent a draft of the story to Mathabo who magically laced it with creative elements of intergenerational transmission of confidence and other critical themes like the big switch. Mathabo had spent years teaching children confidence using physical theatre, so a grasp of children’s stories came easily to her. She shared her contribution in a matter of hours and just like that we were ready to submit the story to Jacana. Our publisher absolutely loved it and we have since decided to make Wanda a children’s series with book 2 coming out in September.
Mathabo and I spent months looking for the right illustrator alongside Jacana Media. When we finally met Chantelle and Burgen our dream was beautifully illustrated on paper. From the time we received the first draft of Wanda we were greatly delighted, so we carefully co-created with our illustrators by sharing varying pictures of how the characters ought to be dressed, i.e., the women from Mlungiseleli Drive. We wanted to optimize the representation of the characters and culture. We wanted the women Wanda looks up to be diverse, to vary in style, personality, hairstyles, and body size.
The question we get most often is how we ended up collaborating. To add a background, whilst we were in secondary school, we were queens of theatre and drama performance and for years we had dreamed of owning a theatre of our own offering scholarships to students who are passionate about the arts. We remained connected through the years and continuously shared our creative passions. Collaborating on the book was a natural extension of friendship and the long-shared hopes of telling stories to the world.
Sihle-isipho Nontshokweni is a South African author, story-teller, scholar, and recently the host for The Ultimate Book Show, a series of13 in-depth profile interviews with Cape Town-based, black writers. Her much-admired debut children’s book, Wanda (2019), was co-authored with Mathabo Tlali. Her latest book, Fly, Everyone, Fly, was the 2021 World Read Aloud Day’s chosen reading to reach upwards of 3 million children in South Africa. Her works have been translated into more than eleven languages, including sign language. Sihle-isipho Nontshokweni is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pretoria. Her area of research is identity, culture, and race in the post-apartheid school setup. Her interest in schools stems from lived experience, which extends across 12 schooling institutions, including the University of Cape Town, Peking University in Beijing (China), KU Leuven in Belgium, and it is from this vast world experience that Sihle tells stories.
Mathabo Tlali is a Naledi Award-nominated actress. As a trained practitioner in theatre and television, she has used her skills in facilitating workshops such as the river song and the National Arts Festival. She previously worked as an assistant director at market theatre laboratory and played a supporting role for postgraduate students at AFDA. Her passion is in igniting social self-confidence in children using physical theatre. Mathabo is a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Drama and Performance Graduate from Rhodes University. She currently works as an education practitioner for the Jakes Gerwel Foundation.