09.05.2016

Flipping the script

Nas Hoosen is living a page turn at a time

Words: Serisha Letchmiah-Venter | Photography: Chisanga Mubanga

The interview, as far as I had planned it, was over the minute he opened the door. Instead what followed was close to three hours of conversation. We discussed everything from political masks to Kanye’s vulnerability to Coca Cola’s marketing strategy. The only cue it was time to wrap up was that Chisanga eventually started glancing at his watch every few minutes. I suppose that’s how you know you’re sitting in a room with a writer, one with stories about anything and everything. Nas Hoosen is that guy. 

In the spirit of our subject, let me tell you the story about how Nas came to live and work in Joburg's iconic Anstey’s building. It’s got all the key ingredients: a breakup, the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, flashbacks and an origin story.

If you’ve ever been to downtown Joburg you’ll have learned to be aware of the activity around you but without ever losing focus on yourself. Dropped off on the corner of Jeppe and Joubert Street, Chisanga and I circled the block to get our bearings and find the entrance. Eventually we found ourselves standing alongside the heritage plaque of the 20-storey Art Deco colossus. There are two people managing a sign-in book, along with another who appears through a window asking us for IDs, handing us another visitor's book we’re meant to fill in. There are multiple books because the building has multiple uses: as a clinic, studios and apartments. The lobby is of another time, with its double-volume brass-framed mirrors wrapping the entire space, except for the wall housing the elevators. 

Nas' open-space apartment is his home, office and refuge. The spaces are fluid; apart from the obviously defined kitchen and bathroom, it is a bedroom, lounge and dining room all mixing in a single area. The bed is flanked by a pair of armchairs, making it a prime spot for morning reading or upright napping. This is where we spend a good hour and a half dipping in and out of the above-mentioned conversations.

He’s only just got himself a bed – it’s something he intentionally left until after moving in – and the blankets that he used as a makeshift until now have become his couch. Around the room at arm’s length are an array of books and comics. I ask if he intentionally left them all out here for us? Turns out this is the way he likes them; not obsessively shelved according to genre or author, but holding prime real estate.

 

He’s writing a movie: a feature-length animated film. Did I mention it’s for South Africa’s best-known animation studios, and that Disney filmmakers mentored his story? This self-titled comic and film geek is living his best life, and he’s living it in downtown Egoli.

All this came about when his friend Sarah, who worked on one of Triggerfish Animation Studio’s shorts, told him about this open call looking for story ideas from across Africa. Triggerfish has been on a bit of a run, putting out a range of shorts along with successful features including Kumba.

StoryLab whittled close to 1400 pan-African submissions down to 35, flew the successful applicants down to South Africa, and hosted an intense 10-day screenwriting bootcamp. Think of it like jury duty – every waking hour together, bonding over breakfast, workshops, re-writes and readings. Disney acted as a contributing partner on the StoryLab programme, meaning that all sorts of special access was at stake. After this, the final 8 were then bundled up and housed in Burbank, California. It's at this point in the Hollywood studio where Nas started to feel the heat. 

“All I had done was stress that each page-turn had to be perfect. If I ended the page on a moment that I thought was great, I had to retain that moment no matter what. Every page of a comic ends with a beautiful turn.” 

 

At this point Nas decided to cast Donovan Marsh, who’d also made it through the gauntlet, because of the quality of his voice. For those unfamiliar with his name, Donovan has enjoyed success as the director of A Boy Called Twist. Nas knew immediately the combination would absolutely win over the judges: “When I wanted them to ahhh, they ahhh’d, when I wanted them to laugh, they laughed.”

Nas arrived back in South Africa with a feature screenplay to complete, but soon hit a snag when he found himself without a place to sleep, let alone to set his laptop. The end of a relationship saw him needing to leave the leafy suburb of Killarney, but, just as with the turn of a comic-book page, at that exact time friends of his moved to another spot leaving a Nas-shaped apartment free to move into. What better medicine is there for a writer with work to do than a period of angst and solitude (I’m probably taking license with the angst part, though). 

“It was just people flailing together,” he says of his time at start-up agencies. Here, on the other hand, he’s learning discipline. As much as he could lounge all day in bed, he’s always confronted with his workspace staring back at him. “It’s good to have a physical representation of your shame and guilt in front of you. I think, like, that’s what churches are.”

 

It would be a stretch to say that Spiderman was the reason Nas longed to live in the inner city, though it wouldn’t be altogether untrue. “I’ve always wanted to live in the city. All those natural sounds of the city: if you think of them as invasive things then they can become annoying but, it’s like the birds in the backgrounds of the suburbs for me.”

Chisanga brings up his own memories of moving to South Africa from Zambia with his family, as a kid in the late 90s. Having moved to the big city he’d always wonder, “Why do these people never sleep?”

For Nas that’s exactly the attraction, and the flashback to his childhood. “In Nairobi one night I couldn’t sleep, and there was this club that was going all night – just going. I walked around trying to find the club and just couldn’t." 

He says this is when he realised he could live somewhere in a place like this. "I mean, I do sleep, but I love the idea that if I couldn’t sleep I could be among other human beings. Now I have the choice to be with people or to be alone."

At some point he jumps off the bed, returning with two sketches in hand. One is a doodle by Paul Briggs, story supervisor on Big Hero 6 and Frozen. Briggs sketched his vision of the lead during Nas’s final pitch for The Wild Waste. Whether she’s actually committed to the screen as a cyborg is up to Nas.  The other is a vision of this post-human world, as imaged by one of his fellow participants, Kay Carmichael.

Comics are a staple for many kids. For Nas, the youngest of three by at least 10 years, he was introduced to a more intermediate level, bypassing Richie Rich and the gang and going straight to the more adult superhero comics. Thanks to his older brother, it was the glorious X-Men comics of the 90s that got him living life through worlds reimagined on paper, “They were always to be continued… it felt like real life."

Remember what I said about him living his best life? Nas also happens to be a part of a group that self-publishes an anthology of South African comics called SECTOR, and is also podcasting for BBC World Service. In his latest release he talks about African comics and Black Panther. His passion for the scene and obsessive knowledge of all things about it is paying off – he’s been asked to host a panel discussion with Jason Aaron, the creator of Thor and Dr Strange, at Fan Con in Cape Town.

Every anecdote has a story, and every story with Nas leads to another story. I mean, it just makes sense that he’s a comic book writer. “Yeah, my mum said this to me the other day. She was a psychiatrist working at Fort Napier Hospital in Pietermaritzburg, and during the whole nine months she was pregnant with me I was with her in this hospital. Even the first year after I was born, I’d be there. There were enough people around, I was raised by all these people."

“She said that the first phrases I ever said when I was a kid were all the questions she would ask to re-contextualise patients. They were all very simple questions: Where are you? What’s the date? What’s the time? What is your name? So I’ve been asking these questions this whole time … It’s a pretty cool origin story."