Literary wonder: Unathi Magubeni

Unathi Magubeni’s debut novel, “The Star Child”, which chronicles a poignant tale of an orphaned albino girl has rocketed him to the top list of local popular authors.

Main photo: Courtesy of Unathi Magubeni
By: Thanduxolo “Thandz” Buti

Before Unathi ‘s debut novel “Nwelezelanga – The Star Child” hit the stores this year, a few local authors were already raving about him. Award-winning author Siphiwo Mahala (Famous for his highly acclaimed short story collection, African Delights) was one of the writers who had already hailed the author as a  highly talented writer.

“It is heart-warming and an honour that the work of art is received well by some of my heroes. It is a feeling that is hard to describe. I bow in humbleness. I am grateful,” says Unathi.

The Eastern Cape born writer first introduced himself in the literature scene with his poetry anthology, Food For Thought, published in 2003. Though Nwelezalanga is a novel, it shows Unathi as quite a poetic writer who has a way of weaving language into a vivid picture that often takes the reader into a spiritual journey.

It is no surprise that the novel has a deep spiritual context to it as the author is a Sangoma and a trainee herbalist.  He humbly regards himself as just a vessel used by the higher spirits for spiritual ends. “They heal me and I share the experience with the many,” he explains.

Nwelezelanga: The Star Child by Unathi Magubane
Nwelezelanga: The Star Child (Cover)

“I remember in the beginning I thought I was giving birth to Nwelezelanga and later I had an epiphany that revealed that actually, Nwelezelanga was giving birth to me. I am reborn.”

After I read it I was deeply inspired and gained a new perspective on the magical way the universe works. The novel easily placed itself on my favourite list of local books. It is no surprise that even months after being released it still remains a popular read, locally. This week it was announced that the book clenched a spot on the Long list for the coveted Etisalat Prize for Literature alongside new author Nakhane Touré, also from the Eastern Cape.

I had a short conversation with the author about his now widely marveled story, Nwelezelanga: The Star Child.

Did you foresee the book exceeding the commercial expectations of a fiction novel?

Unathi Magubeni: The vision was for the book to reach the hands of many. One has to believe wholeheartedly in the dream for it to be realised. I did believe that the book will reach the hands of many. Commercial success is a result of this vision.

Since you published the novel, what has surprised you most about the effect it seems to have on readers?
Unathi Magubeni:
What surprised me the most is how well received the book is by my mother’s church group and the church leader, as the book zooms in on the magic of the Bantu knowledge system, which the church passes bad judgement on.

I am a healer. One can use herbs to heal; one can use dance to heal; one can use words to heal. Writing is just one form of expression.It is important to note that as one grows in the healing work, one grows as a writer.

People with Albinism are still very misunderstood across the country. Did you have personal encounters with them while writing the novel?
Unathi Magubeni: Firstly, I didn’t plan or think about writing about a girl with albinism. The first paragraph of the book which flashes out the protagonist came through inspiration. I was sleeping and I felt an urge to wake up and write and I wrote it. The story wanted to be told and I obliged. I also did research to understand further the plight of people with albinism however I did not have face to face discussions with people with albinism.

How did the process of writing the novel change you as a person?
Unathi Magubeni: I went to deeper reservoirs of being and realised more of self. I am connecting with the essence much deeper. Nwelezelanga is a great teacher. She has crystallised my purpose.

Are there any South African writers who have continuously inspired you as a writer and how did they do so?
Unathi Magubeni:
I was first inspired by Sello Kabelo Duiker. He took me on a path. He spoke to my heart. I read his first published novel seven times and he gave me courage to be a fiction writer; his heart was bare and open for all to see. He wasn’t afraid to show his vulnerability. At times, he threw his heart on the dirty floor. He is brave and a seer. He showed us the pain, the beauty, the scars, the magic and possibilities. I bow to his great spirit.

You are a Sangoma and a trainee herbalist. How do these worlds influence your world as a writer?
Unathi Magubeni: I am a healer. One can use herbs to heal; one can use dance to heal; one can use words to heal. Writing is just one form of expression. It is important to note that as one grows in the healing work, one grows as a writer.

Now that Nwelezelanga has become a popular read, can we expect a sequel?
Unathi Magubeni:
I don’t have visions to write a sequel at the moment. I need to grow as a healer and immerse myself in the process and go deeper into the sphere of the soul. I will write again when there is a story ready to be born.

Nwelezelanga: The Star Child is available at all leading bookstores.

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