Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Bessie Head Workshop

Wazha Lopang

On Saturday 1 August writers came together at Maruapula School (thanks for the room, MAP!) for the Bessie Head Heritage Trust (BHHT) short story workshop. It was a one-day event packed with information for writers. The objective was to improve the quality of the submissions for the Bessie Head Short Story Award later this year.
Writers around the country were asked to submit a 500 word story if they were interested in attending the workshop. From there twenty-two writers were chosen. Sadly, of the twenty-two only ten managed to attend, but at least those ten seemed committed to writing and improving their stories. I hope we’ll find their names among the winners later this year.
The facilitators were three past Bessie Head Literature Award winners: Wazha Lopang, Wame Molefhe, and me. Topics covered included: what makes a story a story, show don’t tell, point of view, tips for writing stories and the importance of reading, building tension, and writing realistic dialogue. The guidelines for this year’s contest were discussed by Trust member, Dr Mary Lederer.
Wame Molefhe explained that presenting facts is telling, but showing in your stories is the real challenge. When writers are able to show the reader what they see in their mind, the reader will stay interested. A story that is all telling is a boring story. She used Unity Dow’s novel Far and Beyond to give examples of how a writer writes so as to show. She gave participants a writing exercise where they had to describe an angry man and a beautiful woman without using those adjectives and instead getting the reader to see and come to the conclusion that the character is either angry or beautiful.
Wazha Lopang taught the group about point of view and why a writer chooses one point of view over another to tell their story. Choosing between first person, second person, or the various types of third person will depend on how you want to tell your story. He explained how each point of view puts restrictions on the writer. For example, if you choose first person and the narrator is an eight year old boy, you cannot expect him to know the intricacies of a car’s carburettor.
Wame Molefhe warned the participants not to use dialogue as an information dump. The people talking already know things about each other. For example if two friends are talking, a clumsy writer might want to get in the information about how they became friends through a conversation. If one of the friends says in a normal conversation- “When we became friends in standard one, when we were seven and living in Serowe.” – that would be an unrealistic conversation and a good example of an information dump.
Molefhe also spoke about how dialogue is punctuated, which was quite important since many writers are unsure about the punctuation around dialogue and tend to leave it out of their stories because of that fear, making the stories worse for it. She gave pointers on the use of dialogue tags (i.e. he said, she asked, he whimpered, etc.) which again was very useful.
Lopang gave a list of ways to build tension into your stories. Dramatic tension is what keeps readers interested in the story, without it they will stop reading. Some of the things Lopang mentioned were sentence length (short sentences up the tension), the manipulation of time, repetition, italics, and the weighing of options by the character. When manipulating time, meaning cutting back in time at the peak of a dramatic scene, a writer can leave the reader wanting to know what happens. He also explained how repeating a phrase or italicising it can also create tension. He gave the example of a person coming home and finding their front door open. You might write: The door is open. What could that mean? The door is open. Or: the door is open. Either option emphasises the fear in the character’s head and ups the tension for the reader.
Mary Lederer explained the guidelines for the contest this year. It is only for short stories, unlike in the past. The prizes are being sponsored by Diamond Educational Publishers. The deadline for the submissions (which can only be done by email) is 15 September. All details for the contest can be found here.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

International Judges for this Year’s Bessie Head Short Story Competition

The Bessie Head Heritage Trust has been fortunate to nab three of Africa’s rising writing stars as judges for this year’s short story competition. The three judges who will choose the winner of this year’s prize sponsored by Diamond Educational Publishers are Zukiswa Wanner, Karen Jennings, and Fiona Snyckers.

Karen Jennings was born in South Africa but recently relocated to Brazil. She is the author of Finding Soutbek and the short story collection Away from the Dead. She also edited the anthology of short stories Feast, Famine and Potluck for Short Story Day Africa in 2013. She holds masters degrees in English literature and creative writing, both from the University of Cape Town, and in 2015 she will complete a Ph.D. in English Literature at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Zukiswa Wanner was born in Zambia to Zimbabwean and South African parents. A widely published journalist and novelist, she currently lives in Nairobi. She was listed among sub-Saharan Africa’s most exciting writers under forty and was included on the Hay Festival’s Africa39 list. Her debut novel, The Madams, was shortlisted for the K. Sello Duiker Award in 2007, and her novel, Men of the South, was shortlisted for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers' Prize. Her most recent novel is London Cape Town Joburg (Kwela Books, 2014). Most recently she was announced as one of the judges for next year’s Pan-African Etisalat Prize for first novels

Fiona Snyckers is the author of the popular Trinity series of books (Trinity Rising, Team Trinity, and Trinity on Air). She graduated from the University of Witwatersrand with a first class masters’ degree in English literature. In addition to her novels, she writes numerous articles across a wide array of subjects including lifestyle, humour, reviews, and opinion.

For an opportunity to have your work read by these accomplished writers, you need to enter! This year’s Bessie Head Short Story Competition is for short stories only. Submissions can only be sent online to as a Word document attachment.  There is no theme and the maximum word count is 5000 words. Only citizens and residents of Botswana are eligible. The deadline for all submissions is 15 September 2015. For complete information on formatting and other requirements, see the Bessie Head webpage here.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Artists are their Worst Enemies

Across the spectrum artists tend to be crap business people who make other artists’ lives more difficult because of the bad business decisions that they make. Take musicians. Musicians like playing music, so when they get the opportunity to play for the public they take it. The problem is unscrupulous business folk take advantage of that characteristic of musicians and use it to get free entertainment. They’ll say things such as: “Come Friday night, you can play a few hours at my club and get exposure.” The musician is excited. The opportunity to play – yay! The business person exploits the musician’s poor business acumen and the musician pitches up, plays, and then goes home with empty pockets.
Okay, you can say- that’s fine, that’s the musician’s business, he’s “not in it for the money”. But it’s actually not fine. Because now when the person trying to be a professional, a musician attempting to make a living from music, approaches that club and tells the owner that their fee is P3000 for a two hour set, the owner thinks the person is mad, a diva trying to rip them off. See, the owner is used to getting music for free thanks to the musicians that came before this one. It makes it a steep, uphill climb for the professional musician to educate the owner that workers should be paid for the work that they do- all workers. And they should be paid a fair fee.
The same goes for contracts. So many artists will agree to perform without a contract. “We have a verbal agreement,” they say.  Verbal agreements mean nothing; they’re usually the beginning of a long drawn out, and often bitter, argument about money. Artists must get written contracts. The contracts should include the responsibilities of each party, and they should breakdown how the money should be paid. For example, if you’re a dancer, you might want a certain percentage before the event, maybe 40%, so that you have money to get yourself there, money for rehearsals, etc. Then the remaining 60% of the fee should be paid immediately after the performance. Any other requirements should also be in that contract. It needn’t be drawn up by a lawyer, just a straight forward agreement, all of the things that were discussed in your meeting to set up the gig, written down on paper, both parties sign it.
The same applies for writers. Writing for free is problematic. It sets up the same situation as playing music for free. It makes editors think that writing is not something that needs to be paid for, making it difficult for professional writers to make a living wage.
Many writers get so excited when they get a story or book manuscript taken for publication they don’t take the time to read their contract carefully. They are overflowing with gratitude and see no reason to disagree with the publisher on anything. There are many places in a book contract, for example, where the publisher has leeway for discussion. Writers must read contracts carefully and consider the long term effect of what they are signing. Where they don’t like something, they have the right to ask for it to be changed. If it can’t be changed, and the writer finds the clause difficult to live with, they can walk away from the deal. Nothing is locked in until the contract is signed, but once it is- that’s it. You need to live with it.
Writers who accept everything, even things that are not good for them and other writers, make it more difficult for all writers. When a professional writer now questions things on the contract or questions the behaviour of the publisher on things such as marketing or timely payment of royalties, they are considered problematic because the publisher only has experience with writers who do not view writing from a professional perspective.
Artists in all sectors must think how their actions affect all of us. Trying to make a living from the arts in Botswana is difficult. If the buyers of our work see us as unprofessional, as people who take art as a hobby, they will see no need to treat us as the professionals we actually view ourselves as. We are the ones who can define the artistic economy in the country, but it will require effort from everyone to improve the situation. 
(This column appeared in my column It's All Write in the 7 August, 2015 edition of Mmegi newspaper)

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Caine Winner’s Move Not Helpful

The winner for this year’s Caine Prize is Zambian born writer Namwali Serpell. When she was announced the winner at Oxford she took to the podium to announce that she would be sharing the 10,000 British pound prize with the four other writers on the shortlist. She claimed it was a “mutiny” in a move to challenge the prize that pits African writers against each other in an “Idols” sort of way. There are many levels on which I find her decision to share the prize and her reasons behind that decision unhelpful to writers trying to make a living on the continent. 

What does this “charitable” decision really say to the other shortlisted writers? If I was on that shortlist, I would find this action undermining. It says in one swipe that I am somehow less than Serpell. But those writers are not. They were shortlisted because their stories were deemed to be excellent. After that it is only the preference of the judges that chooses the winners, nothing more. Serpell’s decision is much like the vile donor- recipient relationship that places the recipient in a “less than” position and the donor in the magnanimous position of the giver. If I was on that shortlist, I would not allow her to do that to me, she has no right. 

As for her insistence that the Caine Prize is competitive, did she not know this the last time she was shortlisted?  That time when she got a free, all expenses paid trip to London? If her position on this issue was so strong, why did she not insist that her publisher not submit her story for the prize, for any prize actually? Why not give her spot on the shortlist to someone else when she heard she had made it? All of these questions point to one answer- her “moral high ground” position is a false one.

And I wonder where in this world is writing not a competitive business. What writing prize is not competitive? Is it not integral to their existence? Why should that not be the case for African writers? 

She has submitted to literary magazines in the United States that are competitive. She has won fellowships in America that are competitive. Why did she not apply her moral position in those instances? Why is it only applied to African writers? Why is it only “Idols” for writers when it is the Caine Prize? Do African writers need a step-up?  Some sort of affirmative action programme? Has she decided that for us? Does this not, in the end, undermine all of us? Does it not tell us that we are not as good as those off the continent which is the reason competition should not be imposed on us?

Beyond this, Serpell is an academic at a university in the United States earning a liveable income; this is not the case for the majority of writers in Africa. Prizes such as the Caine Prize are lifelines that buy writers time to write, time that they would have otherwise had to use to make an income to survive. To give the money away so flippantly reinforces the notion that writing is a hobby one does in one’s free time, not something anyone should ever hope to do as a professional career, not something they should be paid for. It reinforces notions many of us fight against on a daily basis. That, for me, is particularly unforgivable. 

I hear people praising Ms Serpell’s actions, but I think they have not considered the consequences of what she has done. What she has done is harmful to African writers. She has once again taken African writers and told them that they are not good enough to operate in the real writing world which is almost exclusively about competition. It has also created a difficult position for the next Caine winner, having to justify why she will decide to keep the money for herself, as she should. Ms Serpell should keep her money and leave the shortlisted writers to win their own. 

(This column first appeared in my column It's All Write in the  29 July 2015 edition)

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

What Tendai Huchu Can Teach Us

The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician is the second novel from Zimbabwean author Tendai Huchu. His first novel, The Hairdresser of Harare was a big success, but his new book is something all together different. 

It is set in Edinburgh Scotland and revolves around the lives of three Zimbabwean men trying to make a new life there as immigrants. The Magistrate is an older man who left his position in Zimbabwe as a respected magistrate to live in Scotland where his wife works as a nurse. At the beginning of the book he is unemployed, spending his days keeping their house clean and caring for their teenage daughter. Later he is forced to take a job as a temporary nursing assistant in a care home for the elderly. Both positions leave him feeling useless and lost. 

The Maestro works in a grocery store, at least at the beginning of the book, but then slowly he loses touch with reality. He stops going to work, deciding he wants to spend his time at home reading his books. But eventually even that is too much and he leaves his home and moves about as a homeless person in Edinburgh lost in his thoughts. 

The Mathematician is perhaps the most well-adjusted of the three, likely because he comes from a wealthy family that cushions his life in Scotland. He is working on his PhD in economics and spends most of his time with his girlfriend and his flat mates. 

The three storylines might work well alone, but are made more by being woven expertly into and through each other. The writing is beautiful, in places stunning. The descriptions of Edinburgh are from the pen of someone who loves that city and it can’t help but show through his words. There are many books about Africans in the diaspora, many books that appear similar after a while, but not this one. This one stands apart. 

Within the circle of African writers there is often the discussion about who do you write for. There is the feeling that the authors who are most successful in Europe and the United States are authors who write books not well suited to people in their home countries and the reverse-  books that are accepted in their home countries are often not the type wanted by overseas readers and publishers. This discussion and the resulting angst it causes African writers is not to be taken lightly. Is it okay to write a book for overseas eyes that discounts the local readers? And why must these issues weigh heavier on African writers? 

This book gets the balance spot on in my opinion. Huchu’s Magistrate has a love for Zimbabwean music and musicians. The writer does not stop and explain what would be readily known by Zimbabwean readers, insulting their intelligence along the way. He uses Shona freely throughout the novel, but does not weigh the narrative down with clunky explanations. He seamlessly integrates these aspects of his character and plot into the story with no apologies. The foreign reader will find their way, just as the Zimbabwean reader will navigate the unknown landmarks of Edinburgh. There is a respect for all readers here that I think is the way that it should be. Huchu stands his ground in this debate. He will write as he wants and I beg African writers to learn from him and do the same. 

The other thing that I appreciate about The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician is that it is published by the independent Zimbabwean based ‘ama Books. Huchu’s first book was critically acclaimed and translated into many languages, published all over the world. He easily might have been grabbed up by overseas publishers, but what that does is make them stronger at the expense of publishers on the continent. Of course, many publishers on the continent do not approach the publishing business with a global eye and concentrate on a very limited parochial point-of-view that makes authors unwilling to stick with them as their careers take off since it becomes difficult to make a proper living.  

Some big name authors can be published overseas but then withhold rights in certain areas around the continent to allow local publishers to distribute the book. This can assist the local publishing house. 

But that is not what’s happening here. ‘ama Books published this book. Now they will be the ones selling the rights to foreign publishers to distribute the book in those countries. This is how local publishers grow as trade publishers and begin to play real roles in the global industry. ‘ama Books and Huchu must be congratulated for this. They both took risks. Again they are showing us the new way of doing business in this harsh publishing game on the continent. 

(This column first appeared in the 3 July, 2015 issue of Mmegi in my column It's All Write)