An award-winning author and the producer turning her seminal debut novel into a film, speak about their collaboration, their admiration for each other and the importance of doing things that scare you.
It was a great way to end off the year. On December 10, 2019, Dineo Lusenga tweeted a picture: it was her, seated at a restaurant, a copy of Kopano Matlwa’s award-winning and acclaimed debut novel Coconut in her hands, her smile big, beautiful and pure. Sharing the table with her was Matlwa herself, clad in black, a gorgeous smile framed with red lipstick.
The caption? “I read this incredible book Coconut 10/11 years ago. At the time, I was still a TV & Film student at Wits just wanting to tell stories. Today, I have optioned film rights for this masterpiece by Kopano. Prepare your mind for when the things you prayed for, come true.”
To say people were excited is an understatement. Although released in 2007, Matlwa’s exploration of race and class in post-apartheid South Africa feels more relevant to our country today than it did 13 years ago. As Lusenga said of the book in a radio interview: “The book forces us to look at the society that we have created.”
Matlwa – that’s Dr. Kopano Matlwa Mabaso, thank you very much – was a medical student at the University of Cape Town when she wrote the novel. Lusenga came across it when she was a student at Wits, working as a producer on radio station YFM. It would be more than a decade before the two would meet, when Lusenga approached Matlwa’s agency with a proposal: to turn Coconut into a film.
If you were to experience the women in each other’s presence, it would be hard to believe that they haven’t known each other their entire lives. On set for our cover shoot, there is an effortlessness, an easiness, gentleness, respect and love that flows between them. It is palpable but it isn’t overwhelming – it dances through the set like a cool breeze on a summer’s day. That energy transforms the set into a relaxed and fun one.
Their body language often mirrors one another, and during filming, Matlwa relaxes a bit more in front of the camera when she’s sharing the frame with Lusenga. It’s beautiful to witness and beautiful to be a part of.
So when asked how long they’ve known one another, it’s surprising to find out that it’s only been a few months. But you know what they say, when you know, you know.
Lusenga describes Coconut – which was awarded the European Union Literary Award and the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa – as “a masterpiece ahead of its time”, and explains why she feels now is the time to not only revisit it, but give it new life: “Looking at our society today, it is stunning how relevant the book still is. Many young people don’t know about the book, yet the stories of [the characters] Ofilwe, Fikile and Tshepo are narratives that they live daily. I thought it was an important story that needed to be told again, and I wanted to be the one to tell it. And because it is cinematically rich, there’s a lot one can do with it.”
What made Matlwa say yes to the project? After all, giving someone else the room to reinterpret your work must be beyond daunting. “Dineo absolutely just melted my heart with her love and passion for the novel and her excitement and vision for what it could do on the big screen. I think she loves Coconut even more than I did!” she laughs. “Dineo’s great. She’s gifted. She’s talented and she is kind. She gets the ‘why’ of the story and believes in it. It’s such an honour to have someone read something you have birthed and love it as much – if not more – than you do. There was no way I could say no. I can’t think of anyone better to do this movie.”
The film is in the developmental stages – there’s still fundraising to be done – so it will be a long while before we see it on the big screen. I had approached Lusenga – whom I had met years earlier on a media trip in the Eastern Cape (I think) when she was a DJ on 5FM – as soon as the film announcement was made. She and Matlwa were on board immediately, but as we drew closer to the time of the cover shoot and interview, Lusenga was concerned that we could be overhyping something so early in its development. I understood her concerns, especially because South African media is stingy with positive attention, but assured her that the Coconut adaptation was only a small part of the story. The real story would be the women behind it, the women central to it – she and Matlwa, their journeys, their skills, their talents and how they cope with and control it all.
Kopano Matlwa is a trained medical doctor with a special interest in public health. She currently heads up Grow Great, which is a campaign that aims to galvanise a national commitment to zero stunting in SA by 2030 (a quarter of children under five in SA are stunted). Matlwa says: “This is a real travesty as stunting is a completely preventable condition that has long term consequences for children’s health, education and economic prospects across the life course. We work with communities, media, policy makers and academics to bring us closer to a future where no child is unjustly denied the opportunity to reach their full potential as a result of a preventable condition. It’s been a great privilege to work on such an important social justice issue. It’s challenging and all-consuming, but incredibly fulfilling.”
Not many people have the privilege of doing work that is fulfilling, but Matlwa always aims to do work that she is passionate about, especially because she is a mother of two. That informs her decisions to take on new projects. “I heard a quote once, that goes something along the lines of ‘Being a mom give you incredible focus, because there is always somewhere better you can be’, and that’s proven so true in my life. Any side hustle I consider taking on is competing with time I could be spending with my children. So it really needs to ignite me. Time is so precious. Children grow so fast. I don’t want to miss any of that, so I only take on work and projects that have meaning to me and that will make my children proud.”
How does she manage to fit all that she does into her schedule? How does she stay productive? After all, we all have the same 24 hours but it feels like some people have more hours than the rest of us. Matlwa’s approach is simple: “One day at a time, I suppose. As I said, because of my children, I can’t afford to be too frivolous with my time, so I weed out any nonproductive, non-meaningful activities in my life and try to only do the things that energise me, that challenge me, that scare me. If projects or opportunities come up that don’t measure up to that criteria, I politely decline.”
I weed out any nonproductive, non-meaningful activities in my life and try to only do the things that energise me, that challenge me, that scare me
You know how they say you are one decision away from a completely different life? It’s not a lie
– Dineo Lusenga
Aside from Coconut, Matlwa has two more published books to her name: 2010’s Spilt Milk and 2016’s Period Pain. After all the attention she received for her first book, did she find it difficult to follow that up? “Definitely! Suddenly going from being a random medical student to being an award-winning author with an audience was petrifying. I’d completely lost the safety of anonymity and found myself self-editing a lot as I began to write again post-Coconut.
“But I soon realised I was sapping the joy out of my writing, which I had initially begun doing, not because I thought anyone would read my work, but because it made me feel so whole. So yes, it was work, but I eventually learnt to shut the world and the self-doubt, the fear of not being able to ‘do it again’ out and just write, because it makes me happy, because I need to, because my voice matters and because I have something to say.”
The eldest of six children and self-described “grandma’s baby”, Dineo Lusenga has dreamt of making television since she was 10 years old. “I wake up every day in disbelief that that little girl, with all the oblivion of a 10-year-old, chased her dreams and saw them through.” In addition to an impressive radio career, she has worked as an actor and producer and her CV boasts projects like Intersexions and Nomfundo, and hosting the TV show Living Land. She runs her own production company, Kiwi Films, which is the company making Coconut.
Of all the titles she has and hats she wears, which is her favourite? “I don’t really have a favourite because I think that everything that I do somehow feeds into the other. So I prefer to just put all those titles into the basket of ‘storyteller’, because I believe there’s an element of storytelling in everything that I do,” she says. “Radio, as it has always been said, ‘is the theatre of the mind’, and you have to be – to some degree – a storyteller to be able to take listeners on a journey on that medium. When I produce, direct or act, it doesn’t matter what kind of project it is, the main objective is to always tell a story. My scene study lecturer at the New York Film Academy, Gail Bryson once said, ‘Storytelling is a noble calling’. That is my calling.”
Lusenga studied acting at the Academy after leaving her job at 5FM in 2015, a move that surprised many because who the hell gives up their show on one of the most high-profile radio stations in the country? “Since joining 5FM in 2010, it felt like I was just going with the motions and I hadn’t been intentional with most of my decisions. Five years later, I felt like I had control over how things would pan out. You know how they say you are one decision away from a completely different life? It’s not a lie. I was at that crossroad. I wanted to start building myself as a storyteller in the visual medium. While I love radio with all of my heart, at the time, I felt slightly distracted from my long-term vision of making films, so I made the decision to leave to focus on building that dream.”
She says the first few months post-5FM were “the easiest” because she was living her dream in Los Angeles: “Taking acting classes every day, casually walking past Warner Brothers Studios every day on my way to school, hiking up to the Hollywood sign at a moment’s notice, planning day trips to Disneyland. I was a resident of Burbank, Los Angeles. Life was great!” But when she returned home, the reality that she was no longer a 5FM presenter hit her. “I didn’t have a radio show anymore, I wasn’t getting any of the internal communication about the cool campaigns, and I was not getting free tickets to concerts,” she laughs. “It was extremely difficult to grapple with my new reality, but I was excited about what the future held.”
That future, her present, meant that she could be more intentional in her decisions and with the projects she takes on. She misses radio and wouldn’t mind getting back into it. “I have reached the kind of balance in my career where I can get back and serve this medium without compromising or neglecting my other skills or work.” So what informs her decision to take on another work? “The why of the project. I always ask: why are we doing this project? What does it mean, what is it supposed to do for the viewer? What does it mean to me? I have previously taken on projects that I would later realise I did not connect with, and those were the worst decisions. I would never do that again. Sometimes you take on projects because you need the money; again, not the best decision. Practical, in that moment, but I have hated most of the projects I only ever took on for money. As I get older, I pray for projects that are in alignment with my goals and my bigger picture.”
Life is really just too short and too random to be spent on worry. Sadly, difficult times come to us all, whether we take chances or not, whether we try new things or not, so I’m of the view that I might us well bet big on myself and my dreams than hide in a corner, afraid to try.
– Kopano Matlwa
In an interview on the Girlboss Radio podcast, US fashion designer and Brother Vellies creative director said her fear of not trying is bigger than her fear of failure. Are either Dineo or Kopano afraid of failure? And what does failure mean to them?
Kopano says: “For me, failure is not realising my purpose, not making the contributions I am uniquely called to make. Leaving this life without having realised my full potential, that’s what I fear. I’ve tried a lot of new things that have ended up in epic fails. But my life is richer for it, and at least I don’t have to live with ‘what ifs’. I can close those chapters and move forward knowing that I tried. Life is really just too short and too random to be spent on worry. Sadly, difficult times come to us all, whether we take chances or not, whether we try new things or not, so I’m of the view that I might us well bet big on myself and my dreams than hide in a corner, afraid to try. Either way, life will have its ups and downs, but rather downs from some epic heights, than downs in self-created dumps.”
Dineo echoes this: “Failure to me means having a burning desire for something and not pursuing it. Failure to me means letting fear cripple you. I am not afraid to try new things, I am an advocate of trying new things – and if it doesn’t work out, oh well, you only regret the things you did not do. But from trying new things, I have had to learn how to deal with rejection – you will always be rejected at first, but keep going.”
What are they currently on working on? Kopano says she’s “always doodling, scribbling, journalling. I have scraps of thoughts, half characters, incomplete storylines everywhere. So yes, I am writing, but whether it will come to anything worth publishing in the near future, I don’t know. I am just enjoying messing around with it for now and trying not to put too much pressure on myself to force my musings into a novel.”
And that’s one of the key messages both Dineo Lusenga and Kopano Matlwa offer: stay true to yourself, your vision, your beliefs. Don’t rush. Everything happens in its own time. And don’t be afraid to try.
Dineo offers this parting shot, which seems to apply to her relationship with Kopano: “Issa Rae once said: ‘We have a tendency to try network up, and it really is about networking across. Who’s next to you? Who’s just as hungry as you are? Those are the people you need to build with.’ That bit changed my life, it changed how I approached projects and certainly how I approach my dreams.
“In some instances, it has helped even to alleviate the pressure of the need to do it all. There’s always someone around you with whom you can achieve great things, find them and then don’t let them go. It is then when you will discover that maybe, just maybe, you can do a bit more than you ever imagined you could.”
Watch the video interview with Dineo Lusenga and Kopano Matlwa here