Friday, January 23, 2015

Birds of a Feather (a short story)

Birds of a Feather
Bontle hated everything about Gaborone Birding Club: the heavy shorts that created an embarrassing ‘shwish’ sound when walking, the wide expanse of khaki vest advertising she’d not earned a single birding badge, and, most of all, the pith helmet written- “I’m a Gaborone Birder!”.  

 The members lived in some La-La Land where bird lists and call recognition created an odd hierarchy they worshipped with voracity unseen outside of African Evangelical Churches. She knew on their ladder she was at the bottom rung, but she also knew she had only herself to blame. It all began because of lust and a lie.
 Bontle had lusted after the tall, heavy-brained Dr. Kavindama ever since she heard him give his speech- ‘Cloning- It’s Always Good to Have a Spare’. One day in the university cafeteria he said, “I love bird watching”, and without thinking Bontle responded, “Me, too.” Now, here she was.
 “Don’t forget your guide, Bontle, we don’t want another embarrassing incident,” Lillian Molemi shouted already pushing to the front of the queue. Lillian -the Birding Queen. Bontle wondered how she moved weighed down by all of her badges; ‘Best Birder’ 1989 through 2007, alone, took up the whole left side of her vest. Then she had ‘Warbler Call Recognition’, and ‘Complete List’ for ducks, birds of prey, and- the coveted- owls.
 The Bird Queen called and the group congregated like moths to a cherished lamp. “Turn Newman’s to page 471, Voila! Today’s bird- the Long-Legged Buzzard. Let’s be on our way Birders!”
 Professor Kavindama pushed to the front, his pith helmet slightly askew. “Lillian, let’s not forget, a sighting will earn the person a ‘Rare Vagrant’ badge.” He smiled up at his Queen.
 Bontle looked away. Professor Kavindama of the Gaborone Birding Club was not the Professor Kavindama with a passion for clones. He likely stole hair samples from Lillian with the hope of re-producing his own Birding Queen back in his lab. Bontle felt ill.
 Lillian kept a brisk pace when hunting a bird and Bontle quickly fell to the back. She’d never be the first to spot the Long-legged Buzzard anyway. The members were ruthless when a badge was at stake. On a trip in the Okavango Delta,  Gothata Modise, a slightly built accountant,  pushed two members into a hippo-infested channel just so he could see a copper sunbird and earn his ‘Complete List: Nectar Feeders’ badge.
 ‘Kraak!’  Bontle strained her ears.  ‘Kraak!’
 Wait-she knew that call! It was a White Back Night Heron, a very rare bird for this area.  If she found it, she’d get one of the most prestigious badges- ’Rare Night Water Bird’. She looked left then right- she was alone. Bontle set off towards the sound. 
 Suddenly she heard the group in the distance- they had heard the call too and were coming her way!  Bontle ran, ignoring the thorns tearing at her bare, chubby legs.  She pushed through some reeds and then- there it was; the white eye ring and yellow legs gave it away.  
 In seconds, Lillian’s annoyed face appeared through the reeds. “Imagine you stumbling upon that, Bontle.”
 “No stumbling involved. I heard the call, I followed it. I don’t believe you have this badge, Lillian, am I right?”
 Ignoring her, Lillian ordered a bit too harshly, “No time to waste ogling that, let’s find the buzzard!” She set off and the group trailed away after her.
 Bontle sat down on the mat of reeds, happy, and watched the heron hunt in the marshy water.
 “Quite a find.”
 Bontle jumped; she’d thought she was alone. It was Professor Kavindama. They both watched the bird for some silent moments. “I wonder…. would you’d like to accompany me to brunch later?” the Professor asked hesitantly.
 The heron pulled its beak out of the water holding a wriggling frog- finally -hunting success!
Sharing the imagined thoughts of the bird, Bontle looked back at Professor Kavindama and smiled. 
The End

This story was included in the anthology, 100 Stories for Haiti, which raised funds for the hurricane victims.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Madam Speaker, Sir!- A Memoir (Book review)

A lot has been written about Margaret Nasha’s memoir, Madam Speaker, Sir!: Breaking the Glass Ceiling ;One Woman’s Struggles, but a lot of it has been written by people who haven’t actually read the book. This becomes clear when you actually read it, which I have now done.

I was pleased to hear about this book since I am a big proponent of Batswana writing more nonfiction, particularly memoir. Memoir is a great place to store the truth, the everyday people’s truth of a country’s history, of personal moments along the way. Mma Nasha has done just that. Her personal journey is part of the history of this country, now. She’s done us a service by recording it.

Since it is a memoir as opposed to an autobiography, the author has chosen significant themes and times of her life to put emphasis on. These include among others chapters on growing up, her time at Information and Broadcasting, her time as the High Commissioner in the UK, her marriage, her time heading various ministries. She has an ease with which she approaches these topics, as if she’s been writing memoir her entire life. She introduces the chapters with an overall view of what happened and the struggles she met along the way. And then she does as all good memoirist do, she chooses significant episodes to pull out into details, often with scenes and dialogue. This brings out the emotional truth of her experience. I found it to be very adept. Many of these peeks behind the curtains are what remain with me now that I’ve finished reading; this is how powerful and entertaining they are.

I recently read a biography of another prominent Motswana and I soon grew tired of the constant promotion. Mma Nasha’s book is not one of self promotion. Yes, she’s telling a heroic story. She is a woman who has succeeded against many odds and continues to reach for more. It is asked over and over in this book- “What does this woman really want?” and time and again it is answered- she wants everything under the sun. But she also speaks of her failures and failings. If nothing else it is an honest book and I, for one, appreciate that most of all. I was deeply inspired by the book and that can only be achieved in a real way if you can see this successful woman as a fallible human just like yourself. She succeeds in that.

You can also feel the compassion she has for others and her wry acceptance of the fallibilities in her fellow humans. In one of the numerous peeks behind the curtains, she writes about the preparations she and her staff had to make when she was High Commissioner and President Masire was to be given his knighthood by the Queen. The British, as she writes, are sticklers for protocol, everything to be followed to the letter. She sent the various regulations to the people in Botswana who would be travelling with the President so that they could prepare themselves before arriving in London for the dinner. One of the stipulations was that the men should be dressed in black suit, black bow tie, and a white tuxedo shirt

Upon arrival, the then Minister of Presidential Affairs, Lieutenant General Mompati Merafhe, did not like the idea of being bossed about regarding what he should wear. They would wear what they wanted, he insisted. But Mma Nasha knew the protocol and if the Botswana delegation (except for President Masire, who had come prepared as per the stipulations) arrived in the wrong attire they would be turned away at the door, an embarrassment to the country. She had anticipated problems and her High Commission had organised a shop to rent the proper attire to everyone in the Botswana contingent to be paid for by the High Commission. She told Rre Merafhe and company that they could go with her assistant to the shop and get the right clothes or not, it was their choice. If they didn’t, she would inform the organisers of the dinner that they would not attend. They all went to the shop and got the correct clothes and were thankful to her and her staff at the dinner when they realised that every single person had dressed as they were instructed and they would have been thoroughly embarrassed had they not listened to her.

Although the writing is good, it is not perfect. As seems to be the usual case nowadays nearly everywhere in the world, the editing in places needed more work. There were some basic mistakes with dialogue tags for example.  Here’s one: “Yes I do.” She replied.  There were also far too many exclamation points for my liking.  Another thing I didn’t care much for was an odd formatting standard where words meant to be given emphasis were underlined instead of the standard of italicising or making them bold.

But that is of little concern really because the book is well done and a real contribution to our literary heritage.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

I'm in Australia Today...well kind of! I'm at WordMothers!

I wish I was in day! Nope I'm over at Nicole Melansan's fabulous blog that highlights women writers- WordMothers.

 Here's an excerpt from the interview about what inspires me:

Nearly every single thing. I am a lover of human stories. 
Despite a lot of bad press, humans, in general, are pretty amazing
 and I never, ever get tired of our stories.

Check out the rest of the interview HERE. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Starting 2015 With A Workshop and a New Published Story!

Happy New Year everyone! I hope 2015 is a fantastic year for all of us!

I started the new year going to Gaborone to help run a workshop with actor, Donald Molosi. The workshop was part of the Writivism programme. Writivism is a project run by the Centre for African Cultural Excellence (CACE). It involves holding five writing workshops in five different African cities. Participants who wanted to attend these workshops submitted a short story towards the end of last year. The best ten in each city got invited to the writing workshop. The workshop ran over three days, in Gaborone it ran from 2-4 January, the first to be held.

Out of the ten people who attend the workshop (in our case they were only eight) five will be chosen to be part of a mentoring project where they will be paired with a mentor from this very acclaimed list . With these mentors, they will produce a piece of flash fiction which will be published in magazines and newspapers around the continent. They will also produce a short story to be entered into the Writivism Short Story Contest (which is open to other writers too).  Last year I was only a mentor, but this year I got to help run the workshop and I'll also be a mentor. I'm looking forward to it.

Starting the year running a writers' workshop seems a good way to set off on the right foot, another is having a short story published. My story Pulani's Eyes went up at The Kalahari Review yesterday. It's included in my short story collection, In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata and Other Stories, but if you haven't read it it's  here online.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Changing Face of Identity

Recently my younger sister sent me the photo above of a cave in Wisconsin where allegedly my great grandmother's parents (my great grandmother's name was Jane Day) lived. My great grandmother's mother was allegedly Navajo, her husband was European, American a  generation or so back at least. My sister was told this by my father's only surviving brother.

What this means, if it is true, my grandmother (above), her name was Blanche Bolden, was one quarter Navajo,enough to be considered a member of the Navajo Nation. She was born in 1897, died a few months after I was born, 3 March 1964.

I knew about a past ancestor on my father's side who lived in a cave. I even wrote a poem about it, My Ancestress, which was published on this blog and also in an anthology in UK.  (Please excuse the not quite correct science behind that poem. No mitochondrial DNA from my cave ancestor since she was from my father's side, put it down to literary license).

I've been thinking about this a lot. Wondering how this new information comes together with what I knew about myself and what I am now, how all of this merges to create my identity. Who am I? It is such a fluid thing for all of us. One day we are this, tomorrow something else. Is it genetics that play the biggest role? Is it our life experiences? Our mindset? Is it our surface or the many layers underneath?

In this great interview, Chimamanda Adichie speaks about how her identity is often defined by where she is. Is that it?  Is place paramount? I think it plays a role.

I've been accused before of cutting off my past, taking a scissors and trimming off what I didn't want. I have, more than once, solved problems I couldn't find my way out of by running away and running away often requires the trimming off of the past if you're to make the escape a successful one. I make no excuses, I'm finding my way like everyone else. So far I'm keeping it going without too much collateral damage.

But can we really trim away what we don't want? Aren't we still who we inherently are? I think that's so. Yes, my life choices have changed me, as they should. Yes, living in Botswana I've become a different person than the one I might have been had I stayed in the country of my birth. But still there is that starting spot that's made of all who came before me, from which all else grew. As much as my scissors like to cut, I also like to know that solid centre is there. I like to think I've passed it on to my children and they will pass it on to theirs; that years and years from now bits of my Navajo great great grandmother will assert itself in a young woman walking a different place on this earth. I think, as I said at the end of my poem, it keeps me tethered, something I might have fought against another time, I now find comfort in.

...Over generations and time, over distances.
And for the first moment, I am connected
No longer floating untethered.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

WANTED: Bloggers for an Experiment

I'm looking for a few bloggers  who would like to help me with an experiment. I'd especially like bloggers from around Africa (especially from Botswana), but will also consider bloggers living other places.

I have a novel, The Vanishings, that has been accepted for publication by two publishing houses, but for reasons I'd not like to get into, I've had to take it back from both of them. The Vanishings and I are feeling slightly battle worn and don't feel like taking any more walks toward publishers together. I thought, instead, I would serialise it on my blog. I thought, starting maybe next year February, I'd put a chapter on my blog every Thursday for folks to read. Then I thought what might be even nicer was if other bloggers agreed to do the serialisation too. And then I thought how this might be an interesting way for us to share our writing. To make a certain day of the week the day for serialised novels. I'll try to think of a sexy name to describe that day. All ideas are welcome!

Would you be interested in participating? If you are, send me an email ( and I can send you the book so you can see if it is something you like. If you then are interested in being part of this, when I start I will send the prepared chapter to you a few days before it needs to be posted. I will do my best to push traffic toward the various participating blogs on the chapter days through here and social media.

The Vanishings is a detective/thriller set in the tourist town of Maun in Botswana. Here is a brief description:

"Five people seem to have vanished in thin air. Their only connection is that they were snatched in the bush around Maun. No bodies have been recovered. No suspects found. Detective Dambuza Chakalisa, newly arrived in the sleepy tourist town, is probably the worst choice to investigate this case. He drinks too much. He’s preoccupied with his marriage that is falling apart and to top it off, he doesn’t know anyone in Maun to give him a lead in the case.  But he’s about to get help.

On the way to work his first day, he happens upon an older white woman beating the crap out of a young man. It turns out to be the tough, no nonsense Delly Woods dealing with a man who mistakenly thought he could take her cellphone. An unlikely duo, but together Dambuza and Delly will uncover the truth behind the vanishings as well as a few other secrets certain people might have preferred not to have come out" 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Negotiating Writing Jobs

No matter if you are a freelance magazine article writer or a short story writer, at some point you will need to negotiate a deal. If you’re a freelance article writer you will need to turn your query into an article that will be bought and paid for in a reasonable time. The problem is that most writers are not business savvy. At some point negotiating will mean talking about money, which many of us have been taught is rude. It’s a very fine line one must walk to appear assertive and willing to protect your own interests, as opposed to being too hard and rigid. You must keep in mind at all times- this is a business arrangement. The editor has the parameters that she must work inside of, but so do you. Here are some tips to help make the process less painful. 

1. Assist a busy editor
You’ve sent your query for an article to the magazine and the editor is interested. She sends an email asking for more details about how you will approach the article’s topic. You could email back with ideas but you and she might take a few emails to get to a point where the offer to write the article is on the table. Sometimes you need to make money to earn money. At that point, I would pick up the phone and call the editor, even one in a foreign country (keep track of time zones though, no one wants to wake up an editor at 4 am). This way you can hear what she is looking for and you can assure her that is exactly what she will get. It’s a good way to establish a relationship with the editor as well.

2. Always ask for more than you will accept
Once you have agreed to write an article or story, now it’s time to negotiate the terms. In every instance when I’m offered a writing job or a book deal, I ask for a bit more than they offer. Not crazy over the top, just a bit more. They can say yes or no. Then you must know in your mind what you will accept. If they offer you 25 thebe per word to write a 2000 word article and you know you will spend more than P500 on travel and phone charges to get your interviews, then what’s the point? Don’t say exposure- exposure does not feed your kids. And don’t say to get your foot in the door. All that you’re showing this editor is that you are willing to write for 25 thebe per word and that is all they will ever offer you.

3. Look at the total package
I am not saying money is the only factor to consider when accepting a writing job. I’ve had instances where a publication wants to pay me P500 to use a short story and they want to take all of the rights to that story. What that means is I cannot sell that story again, they own it. What I would do in that instance is offer them the choice: they can either pay me significantly more or they can pay me P500 for one time rights. Or alternatively, let’s say a publication wants you to write an article for a fee below your normal rate. You might agree, but then ask them to pay all phone and travel expenses for you to go and interview people for the article. In most instances, you can find areas where the deal can be improved even if the budget is very tight.

4. When are you being paid?
One thing to always look out for is when payment will be made. When writing articles, there is wide discrepancy regarding this. Being paid when the final article is submitted can be very different from being paid when the article is published. I write for one publication that often uses my stories even a year or more after they’ve been accepted. Imagine if you must wait for your pay for more than a year? Or what if they assign you the article, you write it, the editor accepts it, but for some reason they end up not using it? Shouldn’t you still be paid since you did the work? Always push for payment at final acceptance of the article. This is another place where you can occasionally take a lesser fee if they agree to pay at acceptance.

Negotiating fees when you’re a writer can be difficult and something you’re likely uncomfortable with. It’s best you see writing as a business and approach the money side in a professional and businesslike manner.

(This appeared first in my column in The Voice newspaper, It's All Write, 7 November 2014)