Saturday, April 14, 2018

Gaborone Book Night- be There!!!

I will be speaking about my novel The Scattering and about writing historical fiction in general. Other authors on the programme are: Modirwa Kekwaletswe, Kagiso Madibana, and Thabo Katlholo.

Some of my books will be on sale and I will be available to sign them for you, so I hope to see you there!

What? World Book Night
When? Monday 23 April 2018
Time? 5 pm
Where? UB Library Auditorium

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Book Review: Accident by Dawn Garisch

Dawn Garisch is a South African writer, poet and memoirist who has six published novels, a poetry collection, a memoir and a nonfiction book. She’s also written a play, a short film, television scripts and numerous short stories. Her novel, Trespass, was shortlisted for the 2010 Commonwealth Prize in Africa and her poem “Miracle” was awarded the 2011 EU Sol Plaatje Poetry Award. And if that was not enough, she’s a practicing medical doctor in Cape Town.  Accident is her sixth novel.
            Accident   (Modjaji Books, 2017) is the story of mother, Carol, and her grown son, Max. Carol is a single parent. She met Max’s father during a trip to France where they had a brief affair. She went home to South Africa pregnant, never finding Max’s father again.  Carol is a general practitioner in Cape Town and juggling her career and motherhood is difficult. Like most women in that position, she does her best though it never seems to be enough and this creates a lot of guilt and self-recrimination.
            When Max is a teenager, he and a friend have an accident, a passing man saves Max. Carol has the man, Jack, over for a meal to thank him for saving her son’s life. Soon Jack and Max become close and eventually Carol and Jack begin an intimate affair. But Jack is a loner, an adventurer. His priorities clash with Carol’s and their relationship falls apart and one day he disappears. Max loves Jack, almost as a stand-in father, and he blames Carol for Jack’s leaving. Their relationship becomes fraught from then on.
            Max is grown at the beginning of the book. He’s a performance artist who is trying to explore the line between life and death. He set himself on fire and is in the hospital with burns. As a doctor, and as a mother, Carol cannot understand this recklessness. Max’s friends believe that he’s a genius and the art world seems to agree. But Carol thinks he’s reckless and adding undue pain, violence and trauma to the world, in particular her world. She knows when his burns heal, he will try yet another stunt (which he does including a crucifixion and a car accident) and she becomes obsessed by that, sure that her son will die during one of his artistic performances. She doesn’t understand what he’s attempting to do or why. For her, art is not a worthy thing to die for.
            The book has many themes of interest. What can a parent do when an adult child takes a path that they cannot accept? What is a worthy thing to live for —as well as die for? Can art be an arrogant crutch for a person wanting their own way? Or must artists always push themselves to the very edge so as to feel the truth of what they are doing, at all costs?
            At one point, Max’s girlfriend, Tamsyn, finds that she’s pregnant. Max warned her that his art doesn’t allow him to be a father, even to have a relationship since he keeps pushing Tamsyn away and insists they have nothing serious. Carol attempts to get Max to see how selfish he’s being.
            She says: “You’re a narcissistic child, Max, people like you shouldn’t be allowed to have sex, bringing more misery into the world.” She knew she was going too far, but she couldn’t stop the bile from spilling out. 
            “You think Picasso wasn’t narcissistic? Or Lucian Freud? They put painting first, before the people closest to them, but they weren’t only living for their own selfish pleasures. That’s what you don’t get because you’ve never had one artistic bone in your body.”
Carol answers: “…I don’t care if you’re the most famous artist in the whole bloody world, if that makes you unkind and inconsiderate, it means nothing!”
Accident raises many interesting questions but makes no prescriptions on any fronts, it’s up to the reader to sort out the issues for themselves. The shocking ending will stay with you for a very long time, when mother and son find a heart-breaking and unexpected way to find peace with each other’s choices. I highly recommend this novel written by one of South Africa’s most underrated writers who I feel needs a far bigger audience. 

(This first appeared in my column, It's All Write, in Mmegi newspaper on 23 Feb, 2018)

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Cover-to-Cover Books

In 2011 teachers Dorothy Dyer and Ros Haden along with their friends Palesa Morudu and Mignon Hardie decided to establish Cover2Cover Books after Dorothy, who was teaching in Langa Township in Cape Town, realised no books reflected the lives of her students. Ros Haden explained to me in a recent interview that the students in Langa kids struggled to find books that interested them.
“There were very few books in the library that reflected their lives and excited them except for one series, The Blueford Series, set in the projects in the United States that was fast paced, about African American teens, that was about growing up in disadvantaged communities, where gangsterism was rife. Readers in her class liked these books and could relate to the issues the teens faced but still, it wasn’t a context they knew, the language wasn’t the colloquial language they were familiar with. The rest of the books were novels from the UK and very hard to relate to about teens growing up in very different circumstances.”
That was how Cover2Cover’s first title was born.  “Dorothy asked the class if they would like a ‘Blueford’ series but set in a SA township, they said this would be exciting. That’s when Dorothy asked me if I could write a short teen novel, along the lines of the Blueford novels and that’s how the Harmony High series was born.  I wrote Broken Promises chapter by chapter. The sheets were circulated in her class as I wrote them, and went viral in the school. I think that’s when we knew we were on to something that could hook these teens on reading and keep them reading,” Ros said.
They now had the Harmony High series, but just like in Botswana, getting books to teens is difficult. Books need bookstores and the kids need money to buy the books which they don’t have. Ros explained how Cover2Cover gave birth to FunDza to solve that problem.
“And so we formed The FunDza Literacy Trust, a non-profit, whose goal was reading for pleasure amongst black teens in SA.”  Stories are put up each week on the mobi site and can be accessed with a cellphone or computer.  The stories can be read for free online. Now FunDza has a big collection of short stories and books available to anyone who logs on. Ros continued, “They were a huge hit, with the Rattray Foundation, who work with rural schools in KZN, saying the teens couldn’t get enough of them and that FunDza had started a Reading Revolution.”
FunDza’s success is evident. “The mobi site: grew exponentially from when we started in 2011. We now reach 500 000 - 600 000 readers a month across South Africa and beyond with a regular readership of 60 000 readers who come on to the site every day to read the latest FunDza stories, blogs, articles, poetry and novels, and their own stories,” Ros said.
Cover2Cover has eleven titles in their Harmony High series now and has published a selection of FunDza stories in their Big Ups anthologies, Jayne Bauling’s Soccer Season series and Bontle Senne’s Shadow Chasers series too among other books for the trade market.
On the FunDza mobi site they also have places for fans to learn about writing. “We began a ‘Developing Young Writers’ programme  where teens and young adults can send in their writing, get it edited, get feedback and see their work published on and read and enjoyed by their peers. We also mentor a number of young writers into commissioned writers for our weekly stories,” Ros said.
Cover2Cover and FunDza have won quite a few awards both locally and internationally for their work around literacy and getting young people to get excited about reading again. I asked Ros, which prize as of late has had the biggest impact for them.
“FunDza was delighted to win the Confucius Literacy Prize from UNESCO for our work in improving literacy levels in South Africa - one of five global literacy award given by UNESCO in 2017. It was a huge honour and a great reward and international acknowledgement for the work we do in spreading the joy of reading with all its lifelong benefits of developing empathy, creative and critical thinking, creativity, a shift in attitudes, and confidence and ability in writing and reading,” she said.  
I’ve been writing for FunDza for quite a few years now and it is one of the things I am personally most proud of. We need more initiatives like this run by people with a commitment to reading and who are as excited about stories as these women are. Big congrats to these women and their initiatives!
(This originally appeared in my column It's All Write (Mmegi newspaper)  in the 9th March 2018 issue)

Monday, December 18, 2017

We’re All Just Too Exposed

Lorato walked into the hotel in awe. There were chandeliers on the ceiling and soft music playing from hidden speakers. People sat on scattered leather sofas, drinking expensive drinks, wearing fashionable clothes.
Lorato got very excited. She’d worked so hard and finally everything would be paying off. Her parents who insisted she go to school for that accounting degree, would be swallowing their words. She could make a good living as a singer, they would finally see that. Look at this place! And the manager had phoned her! They wanted a live musician on Saturdays and Sundays to entertain their guests. He had seen her perform and said she was exactly who they needed.
She asked for Mr Stingy, the general manager, at the reception desk.
The woman there walked with Lorato to Mr Stingy’s office. She knocked softly on his door.
“Tsena!” a voice ordered.
The woman turned to Lorato.  “I’ll leave you here then. Good luck.”
Lorato thanked her and entered the carpeted, air-conditioned office.
“Dumela, Rre Stingy, I’m Lorato. You phoned me about performing here at the hotel.”
“Oh yes, of course. Have a seat.”
He looked intimidating in his expensive suit, Lorato thought, but once he smiled she felt more relaxed.
“So, yes, I saw you perform down the street. You’re very talented. Have you been playing piano for very long?”
“Yes, for some years now. Even now, I take both piano and voice lessons three times a week.”
“Wow, I’m impressed. You’ve put a lot of work into this thing.”
“Yes, it’s …my career.”
“Yes, of course.”
 “So we’d like you to perform both Saturday and Sunday. Saturday from 3 pm until midnight, and Sunday 2 pm until 10 pm.”
“Okay, that seems all right.” She hesitated to ask, this was always the difficult part. “So how much is the pay?”
“Pay?” Mr Stingy said. “You know this is one of the most prestigious hotels in Botswana. We get all of the top people. You’re going to make amazing connections that will further your career in so many way. It will be fantastic exposure for you.”
Lorato smiled. “Yes, of course. And what will you be paying me?”
“We can’t really afford to pay you.” He smiled his big smile again and somehow it looked different now. “Your pay will be the exposure that we’re giving you. Our company likes supporting the arts. Exposure can be more valuable than gold.”
Lorato thought about it. This was a big fancy hotel, just as Mr Stingy said. If he said the exposure that she got from singing here was valuable, he must be right, he certainly wouldn’t lie. He didn’t seem like a man who would undermine her or take advantage of her in any way. His company supported the arts.
So Lorato performed all night Saturday and all day Sunday. She met so many people. Everyone told her how talented she was. She was thoroughly exposed; Mr Stingy had been right.
The next day Lorato woke up early. She had to buy some groceries, pick up her medicine at the chemist, and then she’d take a taxi home. At the supermarket, she piled her cart high with all of the items she needed. At the till, the man punched the things into the cash register and Lorato gave him half of the exposure that she earned over the weekend. The man thanked her and she went on to the chemist. She paid for her medicine with a bit more of her exposure. Afterwards, the taxi man dropped her at her gate and smiled when she gave him some exposure— she even gave him a little extra exposure for a tip because he’d been so helpful carrying all of her bags up to her house.
Lorato knew she was finally on her way. Her dream of becoming a full-time musician was coming true.
Mr Stingy had been right after all, exposure was just as good as earning real money.
Everybody wanted exposure. Being exposed was what everyone was looking for.
The End

NOTE: This is NOT a true story.
The moral of this story: You either support the arts with money, or you’re a user like Mr Stingy.
Don’t be like Mr Stingy.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Scattering Wins Best International Fiction Book!!

My novel, The Scattering, won the Best International Fiction Book at this year's Sharjah International Book Fair in Sharjah UAE!! The book fair is the third largest in the world. I could not attend the event so my daughter jetted off to Dubai to attend on my behalf.

The prize included the trip to the award ceremony, 50,000 dirham (divided between the publisher and author equally) and a gorgeous trophy (photo above).  We thought my daughter might have to give a speech, so I wrote one just in case. In the end she didn't have to but I thought I'd post it below to show some of my feelings about winning the prize, which is a HUGE honour.

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. 

First, I’d like to thank the organisers of the Sharjah International Book Fair and the organisers and judges for the book  prize. It is a huge honour to have won this prize for best international novel and I’m humbled and very excited. Thank you. 

I’d also like to thank my publisher, Penguin South Africa, for submitting my novel for this prize. They have been supportive from the very beginning and I’m  grateful for that. 

The Scattering is the story of two wars, the second Anglo-Boer War and the German-Herero War, but more importantly, it is the story of two women:  Tjipuka and Riette. 

History is too often told in men’s voices and too often those stories depict the battlefield as the scene for heroic acts, where men rise to meet their fears and destinies. Women are so often merely the victims of war, with no agency of their own- with no voice, no story, no heroism. 

But in The Scattering, Riette and Tjipuka are not victims. Their stories, alone and eventually entwined, tell another side of war. 

For women, war is yet another cleaning-up. When the battles are over, when the dead carried off, it is the time for the women to begin their work. They try to heal the wounds, both external and internal, they rebuild the homes as best they can from the broken pieces that remain. In this work, work so difficult and often unsuccessful, the futility of war is laid bare. The black and white, good and bad, right and wrong, become grey indecipherable places with only hard unending answers. 

In The Scattering I wanted to show war, to shed light on these two colonial wars many outside of Southern Africa may not be so familiar with, in the hope of encouraging peace. Sadly, Tjipuka and Riette’s stories can be told again and again by millions of women from the past and, sadly, from the present. The hope is that one day this will no longer be the case. 

I am so pleased that the judges for this award have chosen to give The Scattering this prize, which will undoubtedly lead to more readers able to hear Tjipuka and Riette’s story, stories both unique to Southern Africa but universal as well. 

Again, thank you for this honour. 

Ke a leboga le kamoso.

Friday, September 8, 2017

amaBooks, A Zimbabwean Publisher

amaBooks is a respected publisher located in Bulawayo. They’ve published work by some of the most well-known Zimbabwean writers including Tendai Huchu, John Eppel, NoViolet Bulawayo, and Petina Gappah, among others.  It’s run by the irrepressible Jane Morris and her husband Brian Jones. I had the chance to interview Jane about amaBooks, the conversation is below. 

Can you tell me a bit about how you started your publishing house? 

We could have called ourselves Accidental Publishers rather than amaBooks as we had not planned to start a publishing company. So, no research, no business plan, little knowledge of publishing. At the time, in 2000, I was working as a social worker and trainer and was involved in training volunteers for a charity involved in helping children. Short of money to run the charity, we approached the Bulawayo-based writer John Eppel who kindly donated a collection of his poems. But how to get it published? My husband and I decided to take on the task and, although I had a background in literature (my husband Brian is a scientist), we had little idea of what publishing a book entailed. It was a steep learning curve – ISBN, paper quality, book format, font type, size of print run, origination, pricing, launch, distribution, promotion… We were lucky to find a sympathetic printer who guided us through many of the steps. And months down the line we ended up with John Eppel: Selected Poems 1965 – 1995. Within six months all 1000 copies of the collection had been sold, with all profits to the charity. We were hooked and when John Eppel suggested starting a publishing house as he had a couple of novels waiting to be published we thought why not? It wasn’t the most propitious time to start the business as Zimbabwe’s economy had started its steady decline but we love books and were excited at the prospect.

How is the trade market in Zimbabwe? 

When we began amaBooks the economy hadn’t completely crumbled so there was a better trade market and we could look to selling 1000 copies of a title, sometimes a little more. Our print runs have grown progressively smaller with the decline in book sales. We specialise in fiction and, unlike Germany for instance, where fiction is the strongest segment with 32% of the total market, fiction sales in Zimbabwe are a small proportion. With the high level of unemployment here and the poor economy, people are generally loath to spend any of their income on buying a book. Added to this is the difficulty of finding books for sale, with many bookshops having closed. 

What is your approximate percentage of trade sales and educational sales? Do you consider yourselves trade publishers primarily? 

We are first and foremost trade publishers and our sales are almost exclusively outside the educational system. A book being accepted as part of a curriculum is an added bonus, but that it not our original intent in publishing a title. As an independent publisher we have the freedom to publish what we choose, though there are, of course, financial constraints that have prevented us publishing all the books we would have liked to bring out. 

Do you do a lot of development of writers? If so how do you approach it?

amaBooks don’t tend to give detailed feedback to writers when they submit a manuscript. We have, however, organised workshops for writers who have already had some success in being published and for those who aspire to be published, either run by ourselves or by experienced writers. As well as workshops aimed at improving writing skills, we have organised sessions on reading your own work and on looking at other avenues open to writers to help make a living. Working with new writers has been a significant part of our work as publishers. From the beginning we decided that we wanted to provide an opportunity for new writers to get published. We thought that a good way to do this was to showcase their work, alongside that of more established writers, in collections of short writings. To date we have published around 250 writers. Hopefully the editing process provided an input to the development of the writers and we have gone on to publish books by a number of the writers whose work first appeared in the short writings collections, including Christopher Mlalazi, Bryony Rheam and Deon Marcus. We have also helped to organise reading groups as we strongly believe that writers should be readers; hopefully, by enthusing the participants about literature, some may go on to become writers and some may come our way.
Workshops on publishing, which we have run, with themes such as how to approach a publisher and the difference between traditional publishing and self-publishing and all in between, have attracted much interest.

What do you see as the biggest challenge for publishers on the continent? Do you manage to sell your books in other African countries? This seems to be a real challenge for most publishers.

Distribution is a major problem, both within and outside Zimbabwe. We would love our books to be available throughout the continent and to have more books by African writers available here, but the cost of transport is prohibitive. Being a very small publisher getting our titles onto the shelves of major chains is very difficult so we tend to concentrate on independent bookshops, though that tends to be limited to South Africa. If one of our writers attends a festival, or we attend a book event, that is an opportunity to sell a few copies, and to develop links.
We are keen to sell rights across Africa and have had some success with other African countries – Nigeria and, through Nigeria, the other ECOWAS countries and Cameroon, Kenya with Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan, South Africa and Egypt.
We continue to try to think of innovative ways of getting our books out there. Our titles are available as ebooks on many sites, and the African Books Collective distribute for us outside of Africa.
 Despite its many challenges, Zimbabwe seems to have quite a thriving literary community and quite a few successful writers especially if you compare it to Botswana. Why do you think that is the case? 
Zimbabwe has many good writers, quite a few having received international acclaim; names that come to mind are Yvonne Vera, Doris Lessing, NoViolet Bulawayo, Dambudzo Marechera, Petina Gappah and Tendai Huchu. As to why this is, there is a tradition of valuing education and reading, Zimbabwe still has the reputation of having a high literacy rate. And there is plenty to write about in Zimbabwe, though I guess the same could be said of many other African countries.
When we started amaBooks many of the writers were still in Zimbabwe and there was a thriving literary community here but, sadly, due to a myriad of reasons, including the economic and political climate, many are now based in the diaspora. We have just finished compiling a short story collection, Moving On, and, of the twenty Zimbabwean contributors, more than half live outside Zimbabwe. 

What do you think have been the biggest successes for amaBooks? 

How to measure success? For me, one success, despite all the stressful times, has been the joy that amaBooks has brought into our lives, being greeted in the streets of Bulawayo with ‘Hey amaBooks’.
Getting good reviews from readers and critics is one of the things we value most. We love what we do and it is heartening when others enjoy the books we have brought out. We enjoy collaboration and getting our books accepted by publishers in other countries is very exciting – the thought of expanding the readership beyond Zimbabwe. As well as selling rights to other publishers in Africa, we have sold rights in Europe, in North America and recently to the Arab world.
Our most successful book has been the prize-winning novel This September Sun by Bryony Rheam. It was accepted for the ‘A’ level syllabus in Zimbabwe and also sold well to the general public. Other publishers have brought the book out in Kenya and the UK, and a publisher in Egypt is having the book translated into Arabic to distribute in the Arab world.