Average read time: 5 minutes.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Level 5 lockdown kicked in and in-person social interactions suddenly (though thankfully temporarily) became a thing of the past, Khaya Dlanga was confronted with the grief of the recent loss of his brother, then the cut-off from his community and eventually, the boredom of being stuck inside on his own home.
So, in an effort to reconnect with the world at large, he decided to engage with his many social media followers – he has hundreds of thousands of them – asking them questions via Instagram Stories. He found that the responses were fascinating: hilarious, tragic, moving, and bizarre and their anonymous replies stimulated more conversation. Eventually, there was enough for a book: It’s The Answers For Me, published by Pan Macmillan.
Creating a new book in a time of grief brings a new meaning to that old phrase “writing as therapy”. Here, you were able to tap into universal emotions. How important was it to have this connection to the community?
KD: It was interesting. I started asking questions randomly. Everyone was bored and frustrated, and I was alone. I just wanted to see what happened. It was amazing to me that people opened up so easily – maybe it’s because they trusted that the reposts were anonymous. I think people just wanted to say things, and it was eye-opening to see how they started confessing!
Using Instagram Stories as a platform allows for a different kind of audience participation…
KD: What worked well was to wait a while before posting the responses. I didn’t want a situation where people answered in one way because the first responses were in a certain style. Waiting allowed for completely diverse answers, from funny to somber. It was so much better that way, avoiding the subliminal direction people took from the first five or 10 posts if I had put them up straight away. Another result was having my DMs flooded with people asking, “When are you posting?”. Maybe it’s a matter of not being alone. Or maybe it’s voyeurism…
There’s a section in the book where you answer your followers’ questions, but with a tone that’s not the same as their responses. Is it – ironically – more difficult to reveal something about yourself because you’re already well-known?
KD: The fundamental difference is that I’m not anonymous in my responses as they are. That said, the questions for me never invited controversy. They were personal, but not intrusive. I’m just a guy who likes to create boundaries in my life.
You’re an advertising man with a good sense of what will be successful in what circumstances. Did that come into play in the writing of the book?
KD: Initially, turning this experiment into a book didn’t make sense to me. Even now, I’m not sure it qualifies as a conventional book. Once I was convinced it was a good idea to publish, though, I noted that these are stories about others, not about me. And it got me thinking that nobody cares as long as the book is interesting. If that’s the case, it’ll work – sometimes the focus is too much on the superficial.
Were you shocked or worried or amused by the trends you saw coming through in the answers to your questions?
KD: I was shocked by the terrible situations people get into and then feel they have no option but to stay in. It’s easy for an outsider to say, “Why don’t you leave?”, but the complexities in people’s lives are not given in their responses. Also, the vast majority of the responses, over 70%, were from women, for example in a question about cheating. Men didn’t engage as much, even when they could do so anonymously. Maybe it’s the same thing as women being more likely to go to therapy?
Speaking of therapy, let’s talk about some of your favourite things. What’s your best drink, and how must it be made?
KD: A double Jameson with ginger ale. But I hate it when the barman pours the ginger ale for me – they always pour too much! Don’t drown the whiskey!
Best place to hang out in Cape Town?
KD: The Saturday market at the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock. I don’t tell anyone I know I’m going, so I get to meet new people.
And your favourite Instagram account?
KD: It’s this one about Italy, that Old World rich and carefree thing. I love it. Check it out at @italiarefinement.
Words | Bruce Dennill @brucedennill
Editor | Nikki Temkin @NikkiTemkin
Images | Bookm cover Courtesy of Pan Macmillan, other images by Khaya Dlanga and Nganga Dlanga