Cynthia Jele: ‘Look at local novels for films’


22 April 2016

She was in such awe that her book was doing well on the movie circuit, she hoped producers would turn more to local novels for their next projects, said Cynthia Jele, author of Happiness is a Four-Letter Word.

In celebration of World Book and Copyright Day, which is observed on 23 April, the South African novelist believes any day that honours books and reading should get the thumbs up. “Books are sources of knowledge and inspiration. I wrote Happiness is a Four-Letter Word as a result of reading.

“There is a famous quote by a British writer, Neil Gaiman, that sums up my feelings for books. It goes: ‘A book is a dream that you hold in your hands.'”


Jele won first and fourth prizes in the 2008 BTA/Anglo-Platinum Short Story Competition. Three years later, her debut novel, Happiness is a Four-Letter Word, won Best First Book (Africa region) in the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2011, as well as the 2011 M-Net Literary Award in the film category. The novel, which celebrates love and female friendships, was also shortlisted for the 2011 Booksellers Choice Award.

Earlier in her writing career, in 2006, Jele self-published a guide, So You Wanna Be an Au Pair in the USA: What Your Agency Will Never Tell. It covered the experiences she and others had of au pairing in the United States.

Jele was also one of the first Faces of Fundza and her short stories, such as The Big Crush, are published on the Fundza mobi site. Fundza Literacy Trust is a South African non-profit organisation dedicated to improving literacy among teens and young adults, which does through using technology accessible to its target market, such as smartphones.

The beginning

“I once attended a reading session given by an American author, where towards the end of her talk she took the audience through a short writing exercise: she read out a line from a new short story she was working on and asked the audience to complete the first two paragraphs,” Jele told Fundza about how her writing journey started.

“I remember the thrill of trying to put something on a piece of paper. When I got home, I pulled out my computer and wrote a short story. I haven’t stopped since.” That was about 10 years ago.

It took her three years to write her debut novel, which she completed in 2009.

“I was tired of books that I battled to identify with because most of them were set in different countries with different nationalities,” she explained to Bona magazine about her motivation.

“Based on that, I decided to write a book that people could identify with. I was nervous because it was my first. I had no literature qualifications; all I knew was that I wanted to write it. I started writing about the women I know and mirrored the average modern day woman’s life.”

And it has resonated with many women:

Writing was a solitary exercise, Jele said, that required a lot of discipline and commitment. “I also have a full-time job as a director at Enterpriseroom, an enterprise and supplier development consultancy. It competes with my writing time. It’s easy not to write, except writing is the most fulfilling experience for me.

“I love how for that minute, hour, hours, I can get lost in my characters’ world. It’s like living a double life.”

World Book and Copyright Day

To Irina Bokova, the director-general of Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, a book is a link between the past and the future. “It is a bridge between generations and across cultures. It is a force for creating and sharing wisdom and knowledge,” she said.

According to the United Nations, 23 April is a symbolic date for world literature. “It is on this date in 1616 that Cervantes, Shakespeare and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega all died. It is also the date of birth or death of other prominent authors, such as Maurice Druon, Haldor K Laxness, Vladimir Nabokov, Josep Pla and Manuel Mejia Vallejo,” says the world organisation.

World Book and Copyright Day is held to pay worldwide tribute to books and authors. It is also to encourage everyone to discover the pleasure of reading.