Thursday, December 31, 2009

Reflections on the old year, Promises for the new one


I love New Year's Eve. There is something quite nice about taking a minute to look back at what you've accomplished and to look ahead at what is waiting for you.

2009 was a good year for me. I won a few contests- the best being the one in which I won the laptop. I had some exciting acceptances. My first attempt at romance got taken on the first time out. My first time entering the Sanlam Contest for Children's Literature saw me place as a finalist. My first novella, The Fatal Payout, was chosen as the only prescribed English novel for junior secondary schools in Botswana. I've made a bit of shift in my writing and now concentrate a bit more on books than short stories. I'm not sure if this is permanent but for now it is working well for me.

Personally, we moved back home after six years in Lecheng. It was nice to be back in my own house. My husband went off to university and my daughter finished her secondary school. We had two additions to our family- Catman and her son, Ramon.

2010 is looking to be a busy and exciting year. The winners for Sanlam will be announced early in the year. I have two books coming out in the first part of the year- Kwaito Love (Sapphire Press- imprint of Kwela) and a collection of short stories from Modjaji Books. I'll be off for the writers' residency in Egypt in May and am hoping to get a lot of work done on a new manuscript while there. Personally, my daughter will be starting university and my son finishing his secondary school. In 2011, father, son and daughter will all be at university together- how fun is that?

What does your new year look like?
Whatever it is I wish you a happy, dream of a 2010!
HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The White Wedding

As my dear readers know, I spent my Christmas at my husband's home village of Xhumo where his youngest sister was getting married. For those outside of Botswana, Xhumo is a village located southeast of the Okavango Delta about 150 km west of the diamond mining town of Orapa.


When my husband was growing up in the area, the Boteti River flowed every year and the area was lush and green. That doesn't happen anymore. I'm not sure why. Some say the mine used too much water, some say a misguided rice growing project near Maun caused the water to disappear. Whatever the reason, Xhumo is now a dry, dusty place. When we were there there wasn't even water in the taps despite all of the promises of the politicians just a month or so ago during elections. The people of this area are primarily Bakalanga.

For people outside of Botswana when the bride wears her white wedding dress and a big tent is put up we call it a white wedding. This wedding was held at my mother-in-law's compound where a big tent was erected and the mud houses in the compound were painted. The house above was designed using reddish/brown soil and white soil mixed with water. There are different formats for white weddings but for this one, in the morning we all went to 'church' which was at the local primary school. After church the wedding party which consisted of about ten bridesmaids and their ten groomsmen, all in their first outfits bought for the occasion by themselves, parade around the village in the back of open baakies (trucks) hooting and yelling.

When they arrive back at the compound, they are greeted with ululations and they usually have a dance to the big tent. Then speeches are made. In this case, the spokesperson from the bride's family introduced the relatives that were present and then the same happened for the groom's family. Then both the bride and the groom spoke.

Then lunch is served. It is usually seswaa (pounded meat) from a cow or a goat or in most cases both. It is served with samp (boiled corn) or rice and salads (usually butternut and beet root).
After lunch the wedding party go to change.


They usually change into traditional clothes, which in Botswana consist of various designs of a cloth called German print (see photo to the left) . The history behind this material is cloudy but it is considered the traditional dress here. It normally comes in brown and blue though lately it can be found in other colours such as red. Dresses and two pieces made of this material are called letaise.

When the wedding party comes back there is more dancing. Then dessert is served. It is usually trifle. After this there is dancing with the DJ. This can go on until quite late in the night, especially since there is usually ample amounts of traditional beer available. Sometime near evening the couple were taken to the side to be given advice from the elders. This was slightly differnt than other weddings I've attended where it is usually only the bride who is taken to the side to be told by the elder women in the family about how a wife should behave.

Cooking is done by members of the two families. Tents and chairs etc. are usually rented. There will be two big celebrations like this- first at the bride's family's home and then at the groom's. It is very expensive and the bulk of the cost is carried by the couple though each family pitches in what they can. Usually contributions are made well in advance and meetings are held to confirm how things will progress. In this case the next celebration will be at the groom's place on New Year's Day in Seronga, a village in the north near the border.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Happy Holidays Then...

I'm off to my sister-in-law's wedding in a small village called Xhumo, my husband's home. It's been a while since I've spent Christmas in a small village. I wonder if I'll be hearing choirs all night? I once spent Christmas on the roadside waiting for a lift in the middle of the Kgalagadi Desert and I remember listening to the choirs that moved around the village singing; it was lovely. That would be nice... choirs under the stars on Christmas night.
So where ever YOU are -be it the snowy fields of Colorado, the sandy beaches of Australia, the mountains of the Drakensburg or the slushy streets of London or Chicago I wish you a calm, peaceful Christmas Day, defined by what makes you happy not what the instructions on the box we all need to break out of might dictate.
Enjoy yourselves and 'see' you next week!
Peace on Earth.

Egypt Here I Come!


About a month or so ago I applied for a writers' residency in El Gouna Egypt. It is their first year offering such residencies and they are open to writers from all over the world so I didn't expect I had much of a chance. Nevertheless, I sent off the application because I knew without doing that I had no chance at all. Well- I've been chosen! Yes, I'm off in May 2010 for a month in Egypt along the Red Sea to spend 30 days writing- ONLY! What a gift.

As my blog friends know, this year, thanks to five of my books being prescribed by the Ministry of Education in Botswana, I have a bit of breathing space in terms of money. I had already intended to spend some serious time this year working on a novel but now I get to do it away from the normal pressures of home. I'm so happy.

And what can we learn from this my dear blogging friends? Take that chance- you might just get it. When May comes around I'll keep you folks posted. Maybe you'll want to apply for a residency next year.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The First Line Game

I'm spending the weekend reading Short Circuit, a guide to writing short stories, with chapters written by various award winning short story writers. It has lots of excellent advice. I'll be hosting the editor of the collection, Vanessa Gebbie, here on the 15 of January as part of her blog tour. I hope you'll stop by.

In the part I was reading yesterday, the writer speaks about the importance of first lines. I always hear about agents and publishers who claim that they can pick out a winner from only the first line. I never actually believed this. I tend to be a bit more holistic, I want a good story. A good line does not make a good story. But perhaps I'm wrong; I'd like us to find out.

I thought it might be fun if I put a few first lines below and get my readers' comments. I'm not including from where they come. I'd like to hear some unbiased opinions. Names often cloud our judgement. I'll reveal everything after a few days in the comments section.

A) Fiona lived in her parents’ house, in the town where she and Grant went to university.

B) When she was eight, Irene Rosen's grandfather told her one day, with the air of confiding a momentous secret, that he was half Sephardi.

C) She goes to their tiny country house in the woods with her daughter, ten days after the sudden death of her husband, and it isn't the silence but the noise, the wind in the trees, the way the leaves whack the window.

D)Early that day the weather turned and the snow was melting into dirty water.


E) This tale begins at the end; McPhineas Lata, the perennial bachelor who made a vocation of troubling married women is dead.

F) The leaves are the color of dried carrots.

So, which do you like best? Which ones catch you and make you want to finish the story? Which ones make you want to move on? Why? Do you think the first line defines the story?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Writers Beware When Signing Contracts in this "New Age"

A recent statement from UK's Society of Authors warns writers to take care in this fast-changing time. The recent announcement from Macmillan about selling enhanced ebooks brings yet another issue to the table. The UK Society of Authors recommends that authors be very explicit about what rights they are giving to a publisher regarding the type of ebooks the publisher has rights to. They advise that a complete and separate contract be drawn up for "enhanced ebooks". They also advise writers to push for big royalty increases on such products.

According to them: When a book has become well-established, it may be reasonable for the author's share to rise to as much as 75%. On other forms of electronic access – e.g. rental and pay-per-view - authors should receive at least 50%, preferably nearer 85%, of the publisher's receipts.

They also suggest writers allow a limited time frame for the rights to publishers regarding electronic media. They suggest 20-30 years. It is obvious technology is changing the way books can and will be sold. We can't know what the future holds and signing a vague contract that alludes to "electronic rights" without a strict definition of that term could cost us a lot of money. As I write this, I fear I hear my own money dripping away thanks to the contracts I've signed with such vague definitions.

They also suggest that somewhere in the contract writers should get the right to review royalties for ebooks, possibly every two years, and have them adjusted to "match those then prevailing in the trade".

This is fantastic guidance for all of us. Let's be armed and ready for the new publishing world that awaits us.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why I Loved Trinity Rising


Many times on this blog I have discussed the dire need of African writing to diversify away from literary fiction and the need for African writers to move into the genres- whatever African genres may turn out to be. Fiona Snyckers has done an excellent job doing just that with her debut novel Trinity Rising.
Elsewhere I've seen the book described as South Africa's first attempt at chick lit, but that's not true. Zukiswa Wanner wrote The Madams some time before this book was published. Nevertheless Trinity may be the first African chick lit that has the long, sexy legs that can stretch across the wide seas.
Trinity Rising is the story of Trinity Luhabe daughter to the famous struggle icon Abel Luhabe, something she wishes people would get over. It is her first year at university and though she has all of the intentions to study she never quite gets around to it with her packed schedule of parties, socialising, and shopping.
Trinity tries her best to show the world that she is all fluff and no substance. She is sick to death of the politics she was raised on and is now free and wanting nothing more than a good time and a sexy handbag. But the skill of Ms Snyckers is most evident in her characterisation. Trinity is a complex, contradictory character. Though she seems irresponsible, she has a brilliant business mind. Her marketing prowess is best seen when she is establishing her babysitting business. Though she seems flippant, when her friend is suddenly in dire straights, she shifts into high gear and saves the day even when she knows it might be the end of the friendship. Trinity is a brilliant character who I couldn't get enough of- thankfully the book is the first in a series- so I know for sure Trinity will be part of my future.
And what would chick lit be without romance? Again Ms Snyckers sneaks up on the reader -and on Trinity who is looking for a drop dead gorgeous guy with unlimited capacity to earn cash as Trinity's goal is to be the wife of a rich man. The author has no intention of allowing Trinity to follow such a marshmallow agenda. From stage left the leading man appears, but what is this? A lefty poet with a pony tail? Oh Ms Snyckers how could you do it to our girl Trinity?
Trinity Rising is intelligent South African chick lit. The plot is full of interesting twists and turns. I also like how she uses emails and lists to move the story forward. This reader can't wait to get her hands on instalment number 2.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Many Ways to Sell An Ebook

Macmillan has announced that they will sell enhanced ebooks for select titles that they feel will become bestsellers. They will be released on the same day the hard cover edition comes out. These enhanced ebooks will include author interviews, reader's guides and other unspecified material. The enhanced ebooks will cost more than the hard cover books and will only be available for 90 days. After this, the ebook version of that title will revert back to the standard type of ebook.

This is in contrast to some other big name publishers who believe the best way to sell ebooks is to withhold them and let the print book get its time in the sun and only bring the ebook out much later.

Despite what the pessimists say, this is actually an exciting time for publishing. There are myriad of ideas of how the publishing industry can embrace new technologies. I think Macmillan's idea is fantastic. What do you think?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Uncharitable Side of Charity

Recently a comment in a post made on UK writer Nicola Morgan's blog got me thinking. The post was about what seems to be a lovely book written by Ms Morgan's friend. Among the many things in this book is a bit about his trip to Botswana where he visited an orphanage. The thing that troubled me was this- "Or there are the terrible true stories of young orphans in Mma Ramotswe's Botswana, where many of the children have seen unbearable things, survived unspeakable horror."

I felt an immediate annoyance, but even as I write this I can't quite put my finger on the cause. Does this writer not have the right to visit an orphanage in Botswana and write about it? Of course he does. At the blog I wrote about how I'm sick of African countries forever being seen as unfixable basket cases full of unspeakable horrors. Botswana is far from that picture. Ms Morgan found my comments unjustified.

Why is it when a British writer comes to Botswana and visits an orphanage and writes of what he sees, it is different than a Motswana writer going to an orphanage in England and writing about what she sees? I don't know, but it is.

I feel, for reasons I can't quite articulate, that England will not be defined by the atrocities her orphans might endure, while Botswana will. There will be the impression that yes, these children have problems but England has the capacity to help them out and get them back on their feet- alone, while Botswana does not. Someone from outside must save them; it is the children's only hope.

The same thing applies to this business of celebrities adopting African children. Madonna adopting a child from Malawi is not the same as a Malawian pop star adopting a child from England. It sounds the same, but it is not. In one case, it is a child finding a new home, in the other it is a condemnation of a country.

This issue involves charity to some extent. My problem, I think, starts with the flaws in the whole concept of charity. It is charitable to visit an orphanage in Botswana and talk about the terrible lives the children have endured. It is charitable to adopt a child from Malawi. But charity has two aspects I find repugnant.

First, it assumes the recipient is unable to help themselves. It institutionalises helplessness. It, almost by definition, insists that the person first be helpless to receive the charity. Why couldn't the adults in Malawi help the child Madonna adopted? Of course they could, but she needed them to be thoroughly helpless to justify her charity. Why must the UK writer write of the terrible tragedies Batswana orphans endured? Is there no Motswana who is helping these children? Can Botswana not attend to its problems on its own?

Second, charity of all sorts helps the giver much more than the one receiving. The giver gets satisfaction in being defined as charitable- sometimes in big ways by announcing to the world what they have done, sometimes in small ways by just saying quietly to themselves "I am good, I've done a good thing". In either case, by whatever fraction of a degree, the charity benefits the giver, it is always at the expense of the receiver. The receiver must be found, identified as unable to sort themselves out, and then the giver must step in, wearing their glowing suit of armour and save the day. The handing over of money or food or clothes is a one off thing. We go back to giving a man a fish as opposed to teaching him to fish or in many cases ( as in aid (charity) from many Western countries) allowing him to have a fair shot at selling the fish he has rotting in his basket. Charity makes people weaker and more helpless.

I grew up poor as many people who read this blog know. I wrote a story called "The Do Gooders" which was published some time ago in the UK journal Riptide based on a memory from my childhood when people from a nearby church brought food to our home for Thanksgiving. I've never in my life been more ashamed. I swore as I hid behind the curtain that I would never again be placed in a position where I would be the recipient of charity. Never. I'd rather die. Without a doubt this event taints much of my world view.

It is all of this which fuels my anger at the manner in which the world views Africa and my adopted country of Botswana. Charity, as history has proven on this continent over and over again, improves nothing and, I feel, only makes things much, much worse. Perhaps I am so far away from sense I cannot see reason, I'm not sure. My hope is my dear readers will sort me out.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Botswana Music Camp Concert 2009

Saturday the 12th of December was this year's Botswana Music Camp Final Concert. Botswana Music Camp is quite a special thing. For one week out of the year people from Botswana, and also from over our border, gather in Gaborone to play music together. There are professional musicians, experienced amateurs and people just learning. My daughter and I attended last year for the first time. I couldn't go this year because of work pressures, mainly two textbooks and a novel to finish over fairly tight deadlines. I have to admit that I regretted not being able to attend this year but was so glad my daughter did.

The music camp offers classes in various disciplines. This year there was marimba, mbira (which is a type of traditional thumb piano), pop singing, classical singing, African drums, dance and instrumental. The schedule is tight and very vigorous with lessons and performances. Last year I attended for instrumental ( I play trumpet) and by the end of the week I was completely exhausted. It is huge fun and you meet all sorts of interesting people.

At the end of the week, the campers give a free concert to show the public what they learned. The concert on Saturday was great. The talent in the country is quite astounding. But I have to say, I was most astonished by my daughter who performed a solo. I'm scared to death on stage but as you can see from the video, she is NOT her mother's daughter, at least in that sense. She was fantastic and we were so proud of her. (Save perhaps her unfortunate decision to wear rainbow socks- one thing can certainly be said- she has her own style!)

Congratulations all of you Music Campers out there! Fantastic job!
video

Thursday, December 10, 2009

My Secret is Out!

Some months ago I had a pile of good luck and mixed in there was a secret. Well now the secret has been let out of the bag. (Click here for other finalists) My children's book, Aunt Lulu, is a finalist in the 2009 Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature. This year's theme was humour which makes it even more important to me.

When I first started writing about six years ago I thought I would be the Motswana version of Sue Townsend and create hilarious characters like Adrian Mole. I promptly wrote two, what I thought were hilarious novels. Both have had so many rejections they can barely hobble back to their bottom drawer. I gave up my dream and became quite serious. But now my hope is that Aunt Lulu might pull my dream from the ashes. (hope hope)

Aunt Lulu is about Amo, who dreams of becoming a famous journalist one day but has, to her horror, been assigned the agony aunt (Aunt Lulu) column for the school newspaper. This leads to a series of unfortunate events leading her to decide if it might not be time to drop out of school and sell fat cakes for a living. Amo lives with her Gran. Nono is Amo's best friend and she has plans to become the first Motswana astronaut. Here is a small bit from the book.

Gran knowing that I was to be Aunt Lulu for the school newspaper would have been a disaster. Anything even smelling of a waste of time got Gran seriously wound up. “Idle hands are the Devil’s playground.” The Devil played a big role in Gran’s life; actually the avoidance of all things devilish played a big role in Gran’s life.

Many things reeked of the Devil. Long unplaited hair, gardens not cleared and swept tidily, people who spoke badly about Sir Seretse Khama, most television shows, Miriam Makeba, food from tins, anything associated with airplanes, maize meal in paper bags,…. actually the list was endless and ever growing and surprisingly fluid.

You would think God and the Devil would have long ago divided up stuff. Like God got hardworking, the Devil got lazy. God got books, the Devil got comic books. Like that. I would have thought the lists were sorted out. But if you kept track of what was godly and what was the work of the Devil, according to Gran, you might very well become confused. The lists shifted a lot. But a piece of advice- don’t point it out to Gran. First she will deny it. And then she’ll be annoyed at you for the rest of the day. For example, since she liked Nono (“Comes from a good Sekgatla family”) all things to do with airplanes remained the Devil’s work, but somehow going up in the heavens in a spaceship was strictly out of Satane’s realm. I suspect the Devil list was conveniently pulled out whenever my life was to be judged....

The prize giving is in March -so wish me and Aunt Lulu luck!!!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Missing in Action

Saturday afternoon was very hot. At about 7pm my husband said he was going out to water the garden. My son and I were watching television. At about 8pm, the wind started to pick up,but at first I hardly noticed it. But then it took on an edge, the sound upped a few notches and I started to pay attention. I went outside to look for my husband but he was already on his way back inside. For the next two hours we had the worst storm I've ever seen since I've lived in Mahalapye. The wind just kept increasing and increasing. At first there was dust and then the rain started. The wind was beating the rain so hard against the eastern side of our house water came in the air bricks. And then the hail began. I was sure the windows were going to break, the wind whipped the hail with such force. In the middle of it all the electricity went out.

When the storm finally stopped about 10:30 pm, we opened the door and looked out into the pitch blackness. We could hear people talking in the distance, saying how they nearly died but we could see nothing. It was only in the morning that the devastation became clear.

Roofs were peeled off their rafters and in some cases like at our neighbour's house the rafters broke and the roof blew away. Tree branches lay everywhere. Big, old, strong indigenous trees were lifted from the soil, roots and all, and thrown to the ground like so many sticks. Electricity poles were knocked down all over the village. Four poles leading out to the water treatment plant were knocked down cutting off the water supply for the village until Tuesday.We've heard from neighbours that three people died in the village. Someone old us a tree fell on the house.

We were lucky. Our vegetable garden looked as if a lawn mower passed through it. A few roof tiles were pulled up slightly. Our mogonono tree lost a lot of its branches. Most of our tree lost their leaves making it look like early spring again instead of mid-summer. Our power was out until this morning. But otherwise we were all fine.

It was scary and reminded me of the tornadoes of my childhood in the Midwest of America. I'm glad it's all over and life is pretty much back to normal but it certainly won't be forgotten very soon.











Friday, December 4, 2009

Short Circuit-A Guide to the Art of the Short Story


Thoughts from Botswana will be hosting the award winning writer Vanessa Gebbie who is on a blog tour for the book she edited Short Circuit - A Guide to the Art of Short Story a collection of short story wisdom from some of the best short story writers currently in the business. Among the writers in the table of contents are Chika Unigwe, Tania Hershman, Elaine Chiew, and Elizabeth Baines among others. I just got my copy and am itching to get into it. Click the book cover to buy yours.
So make sure you stop by on January 15th to hear what the talent Ms Gebbie has to say!!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Sad Story of Caster Semenya

Everyone has an opinion on this one but somehow this excellent article in The New Yorker by Ariel Levy seems to put things in perspective.

The article starts looking at Semenya's track club in Limpopo Province in South Africa- Moletjie Athletics Club. A club where running barefoot on dirt tracks that if you're lucky will be cleared of thorns and stones is the norm; in a province where poverty is everywhere and if you can see a way out you better grab it fast with two hands because it is not going to pass your way twice.

Semenya's coach advised her to do just that. He told her to work hard because she had talent, and if she worked hard enough someone might spot her and give her the keys to a golden future far from the thorny, dusty tracks in Limpopo. And the dream came true.

That is the very heart breaking bit for me. She did all she could and the dream came true. Her team mates left behind at Moletjie Athletics Club use her as their new goal post- if she could do it, so can they. Suddenly the coach's talk had some weight to it. A little girl Joyce tells Levy, “I will be the world champion. I want to participate in athletics and have a scholarship. Caster is making me proud. She won. She put our club on the map.” Why does hope suddenly sound so menacing?

In the article the coach admits that at many events Semenya was forced to go into the toilet with a girl from the opposing team so that they could check and see that she was indeed female. That done, they would get on with things.

In the article Levy brings up the very unique case of South Africa where the classifying of humans into categories is a wound still raw on the edges. With one word, you could think yourself white only to find yourself black, and all the weight of that classification would come crashing down on you. Who defines the category is an issue fraught with controversy and ANC Youth Leader Julius Malema and Winny Mandela took no time to jump on the band wagon and ride it for all its political worth. Outsiders would not define their daughter. The politics were sickening to watch, but underneath it all there was a solid grain of truth. Who defines us? Who gives them that right?

No one can say exactly what makes someone a woman and what makes someone a man. The deeper you go into the science the more variations you uncover and the more cloudy the issue gets. Semenya apparently has three times the testosterone levels of an average woman- but again what is average? Always the excellent in sport are not like the rest of us. They are gifted with traits outside of what can be produced with training. Should only the average enter the ring of competition?

At the end of the article the writer, by accident, stumbles upon Semenya. She writes -
When she shook my hand, I noticed that she had long nails. She didn’t look like an eighteen-year-old girl, or an eighteen-year-old boy. She looked like something else, something magnificent.

She speaks with Semenya trying to get her to talk a bit about what has happened. Semenya says she can't speak about anything. The writer says that must "suck". Semenya responds-" “That doesn’t suck. It sucks when I was running and they were writing those things. That sucked. That is when it sucks. Now I just have to walk away. That’s all I can do.”

And all I could see when I read that was the little girl running her heart out, barefoot, dodging stones and thorns, in the sweltering sun of Limpopo Province, knowing that if she just worked hard enough the dream her coach showed her might just come true. Now as she sits firmly in the folds of that dream, she sees the only way forward for her is to turn her back on it and walk away. How heart-breakingly terrible.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

5 Things I Loved About The Double Crown


The Double Crown: Secret Writings of the Female Pharaoh is a novel about Egypt's female pharaoh Hatshepsut written by South African writer Marie Heese. I liked the book and though I finished it a few months ago, it still lingers in my mind telling me that there is something special about it for me.


1. I love history made real.

History is lovely but it often seems flat, playing out in black and white. Heese tells a story with beautiful, fully-developed characters. The history of this important pharaoh is pulled from its hidden caves nearly lost in history and shown in full colour. Hatshepsut was a real person as most of the people in the book are. Heese has fictionalised details in her life around the real life events documented in Egyptian history. She's done an excellent job. It is written as a diary of Hatshepsut and of her scribe, Mahu.


2. Hatshepsut's battles in the book are all successful women's battles.

Hatshepsut must choose between the love of her life and the power and position she must maintain. For her to give in completely to her love of Senenmut, a non-royal, she will show weakness and her position as a female pharaoh would be put in jeopardy. Many women in positions of power even today must question everything that they do so that there are no chinks in their armour where attacks can be made. The weakness of the emotional female is an easy tool used by a powerful woman's enemies. Very unfortunate, but still quite true.


3. I love the character Senenmut.

He is such a wonderful supportive mate for the pharaoh. He builds her a temple of never before seen magnificence. He loves her and respects her in equal measures. Their love story is a beautiful one.


4. The sadness Hatshepsut must endure is heartbreaking.

Throughout the book she must endure one sadness after another but still maintains at the front of her mind her position and how her actions might affect her kingdom. Sometimes as a reader I found this infuriating. I wanted her to get a break but it keeps the tension high until the end.


5. The research behind the book seems astounding.

Hatshepsut's legacy appears to have been wiped away by her predecessor her stepson Thutmose but bits and pieces have been pieced together to recreate her reign. Who she was has been defined from different perspectives depending on the writer's inclination. Heese needed to read all of this and decide what perspective she would take on this character using the freedom of fiction within the confines of historical fact.

Heese has done an excellent job of merging history and narrative. This is an excellent book, I hgihly recommend.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

5 Things I Learned From Re-Reading The Pearl

I was a reader miles before I was a writer. From the time I learned to read, I wanted to be more involved in books. That's why I became a writer. I always listen to writers speak about the method a certain author used or how the plot developed in a book or the style of the author. They read books as writers. I find that so difficult to do. Being a longtime story lover, I get lost in the story and can't stop to look for the puppets' strings. I've always thought the story would be lost for me if I read a book in that way.

I recently found a half price copy of The Pearl by John Steinbeck. Steinbeck was one of my favourite authors while growing up. His focus on the underclass with so little choices and insurmountable injustices to fight against was a theme close to my heart. I re-read The Pearl and tried to maintain my position as writer. I stopped my reader/story lover mind and tried to search for the secrets Mr. Steinbeck might teach me. I'll admit I was not 100% successful. Can you maintain that objective distance when Kino and family are on the run? Difficult, but I tried my best and here is what I learned.

5 things I learned from The Pearl

1. The foundation of a good book is a strong, and often simple, story.
Nowadays we have so many books with complicated magic and new worlds, vampires and technical medical jargon it seems almost impossible to get a book published with a simple story. Still, I believe the really good books are human stories and those human stories don't need flash to work.

2. Pacing is very important and easily done wrong.
There is a scene in The Pearl where Kino is home with the pearl and his neighbours have gathered at his house. They want to see the pearl and they want to hear Kino's plans for it. The slow pacing of that scene builds fantastic tension. You shouldn't slow down just to slow down, you must keep readers interested, but sometimes slowing down the pace is the very way to let the impact of the event sink in and the tension to take up its rightful space. By slowing things down in that scene Steinbeck lets the reader realise the implications of finding that pearl; the good side and the bad side. The reader must be brought to that point and to sit for a moment and consider it, so that the events that lie ahead have the correct impact.

3. Simple strong language is better than trying to wow the reader with your linguistic gymnastics.
Steinbeck's language is never flowery, never over the top. Always simple words used in an interesting way to let the reader see. Look at this example:

"For Kino and Juana this was the morning of mornings of their lives, comparable only to the day when the baby had been born. This was to be the day from which all other days would take their arrangement."

How lovely is that last line-.... the day from which all other days would take their arrangement .. Simple words to make a beautiful , spot on picture in the reader's minds.

4. Give your readers limited information about your characters, mostly through actions.
Steinbeck never stops and gives a description of Kino. We don't know if he has a big nose or thin eyes. We learn about Kino from his actions and from there Steinbeck respects his readers and their imaginations enough to allow them to build a Kino in their minds, each will have a slightly different Kino but that's okay. By giving your readers too much character information you are disempowering them, and in most cases boring them too.

5. Consider perspective and distance carefully.
More and more I'm realising the distance you take to tell your story becomes almost a character in itself. I'm likely not going to explain this well as I have no proper training as a writer being a science teacher by profession but it is more than Steinbeck choosing third person. Sometimes he comes in close, he moves into Kino's mind and we hear the songs that play there. We need to do that to develop the empathy we need for him. But then Steinbeck can pull back to the people of the town. From each distance the reader gains something that is needed to move the story forward or to build the tension. First as writers we must choose our perspective: first, second (rarely) or third, but then if you use third, think carefully if you need to be close or far and why. Don't move around without intention. Use the pulling back and moving in only to further your story.

This was an excellent exercise for me. I will try to do it more often.
Do you read as a writer or as a reader first?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Last Kitten Pictures

It's late Sunday morning and the first kitten has gone off with her new owner. So here are the last kitten photos. By tomorrow the rest should be gone. I'm still not sure if I'm going to keep one or not. It will depend what happens. There are three left and one person might be taking two which will mean I get zero. We'll see. So here are the last kitten photos.

















Sad to see them go but happy Catman can get her health (teenage pregnancy has seriously done a number on her- be warned you teenagers out there!) and her life outside of motherhood back.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

From Where You Write

Short story writer and enthusiast Tania Hershman has been running a series at her blog about writing and place. I loved the most recent post by Cypriot short story writer and poet (who is apparently a Betty Boop look alike ) Nora Nadjarian. Pop over and read it. It has inspired me, perhaps it will do the same for you.

How much does where you write affect your writing?

I've been thinking about this for awhile. First, I live in Botswana but I am a naturalised citizen with a very rudimentary ability to speak the main language, Setswana. Under duress I can survive, but I will sound far stupider than I am. This is a handicap to me in many ways. Though Botswana is the only place I can call home and is the place where I have lived the longest, I will always feel like an outsider. Because of this, I sometimes hesitate with a story. Is it authentic for me to write this? Am I allowed from the widest moral sense to write this? I don't want to be like the old colonialists writing from a position of false authority, lies and speculations, interpretations from a foreign perspective. This is my biggest fear. I want to be a Motswana writer.

I also have yet really to write from my true position. I can't write a story about the outsider in this culture. It always comes out sounding bitter or judgemental and I'm not that way. I'm always astounded when I read the words, it's not how I feel. I can't seem to pull out far enough to find truth, so I lapse into another place that is only misunderstood emotion.

I try, when I write about Botswana, to stick to what I know for sure from experience; the experience of others.

And what of my birthplace? What of the effect of America on my writing? Oddly, almost all of my writing set in America is the opposite. Almost always autobiographical. If I try anything else it rings false and is sent to the dustbin. I have only part of the novel that I'm currently working on that is set in America and is not autobiographical in any way. I'm still not sure if that is working.

I find this very curious. Why can I not write from my perspective here in Botswana where I am an outsider who should see better from my view than anyone else's but yet am unable to see from any one's view but my own when I write of the place where I grew up? Is it as simple as the selfishness of a child? Can I only see America through my youthful eyes that lived there? But then what of the quandary here in Botswana? Have I lost me in the crowd?

I have applied for a writers' residency for next year. If I get it, I intend to use the month to work on a novel I am just beginning. In this novel, set in Botswana, I want to try my best to force myself to see from my eyes, the place I have made home. Somehow I hope that leaving here will let me see things slightly clearer. In any case it is an experiment. I'll let you know what happens.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Years Keep Getting Shorter

I know many people as they age complain that the years keep getting shorter but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the eating of the end of the year by the ravenous holidays. One of my publishers sent me an email a week or so ago saying she hopes I enjoy the last days of the year. It was mid-November. Yesterday a different publisher said he wants to pay me and clear up the accounts before the year ended. It was the 24th of November.

Every year the holidays keep eating days away at each end. By rights the holidays should start 24th December and everyone should be back to work by 2nd January, 3rd at the latest. Instead you have people knocking off the first week of December and coming back mid-January. Do they really need that much time off to open a few presents and set off a couple fire crackers?

I'm really not a Scrooge but many people are not very efficient in the first place and then they stop work completely for a month and half. Even when they do come back it takes them a few days, sometimes even a week, to get caught up on things just so they can be at zero.

I think we should ban the discussion of the holidays at least until December. Am I alone in thinking like this?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Procrastination- the Path to your Inner Genius

If you're like me, a lot of your writing day is unfortunately filled with worrying blocks of time solely devoted to procrastination. Things that keep you from writing. But have no fear. This article brought to me via the abundantly talented Liesl Jobson claims that if you want to discover where your true genius lies follow your tracks of procrastination.

According to the article, Leonardo di Vinci was a terrible procrastinator. He was forever dodging people he promised statues or pieces of art because they were never ready on time. His main time eater was his notebooks. In his notebooks is were one can find his sketches of inventions including the parachute, the machine gun and his flying machines. It was also where he sketched out his thoughts on light that he later applied to his paintings including the Mona Lisa.

The writer of the article, W.A. Pannapacker, portends that procrastination is where Leonardo was free to explore the things he had passion for. If he was late with a commission, the type of work we all must do to make a living, so that he could fill his notebooks with his brilliance- so be it.

If creative procrastination, selectively applied, prevented Leonardo from finishing a few commissions - of minor importance when one is struggling with the inner workings of the cosmos - then only someone who is a complete captive of the modern cult of productive mediocrity that pervades the workplace, particularly in academe, could fault him for it.....Productive mediocrity requires discipline of an ordinary kind. It is safe and threatens no one. Nothing will be changed by mediocrity; mediocrity is completely predictable. It doesn't make the powerful and self-satisfied feel insecure. It doesn't require freedom, because it doesn't do anything unexpected.

Tends to shine a whole new light on the way we work doesn't it?
In conclusion the writer says something that makes me want to try harder at my own avenues of procrastination.

If there is one conclusion to be drawn from the life of Leonardo, it is that procrastination reveals the things at which we are most gifted — the things we truly want to do. Procrastination is a calling away from something that we do against our desires toward something that we do for pleasure, in that joyful state of self-forgetful inspiration that we call genius.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Will this Girl's Death Change Anything?

The recent death of an eight year old Mosarwa (Bushman/San) girl living in the north of Botswana is haunting me. I keep seeing the image of this little girl lost in the bush infested with lions and elephants and leopards. For seven days walking, hoping that she'd find her way home, hoping that someone might be out looking for her. And finally laying down in the grass and dying all alone. Why was she out in the bush in the first place? Because she could not bear to stay another day in the boarding school where she had been left.

According to The Telegraph newspaper, the little girl, Kelapile Kayawe, was left at her school Xakao Primary School, by her elder brother. Because many Basarwa live in tiny informal settlements the government cannot afford to build primary schools near them. Instead the primary schools are boarding schools called Remote Area Dweller (RAD) Schools. The schools have received a lot of bad press, citing abuse of the young children who attend them. In Botswana, though few like to say it outright, there is racism against Basarwa, the first people of Southern Africa. Since staff in RAD schools are appointed by central government, in most cases they are not Basarwa but rather people from Setswana speaking tribes, many of which arrive with their burden of prejudice. Even if there is no prejudice the staff do not speak the children's home language nor do they know the traditions of people in that area. For children new to school, this is a problem.

After dropping Kelapile at the school her brother turned to head back home, but what he didn't know was that Kelapile decided to follow him. In a short time she was hopelessly lost. This was on the 21st of October. According to the article, no one at the school reported the girl missing. On the 25th of October, Kelapile's elder sister was given permission to go home and tell her parents that Kelapile had left the school. Once home, her parents became alarmed and organised a search for the little girl.

Meanwhile Kelapile's older sister returned back to school on the 26th. The article says it was only upon her arrival, when she alerted them that Kelapile was not at home, that the school began to take notice of the situation.

On the 28th of October Kelapile's already decaying body was found. She had walked 155 km in the hot summer sun. She died alone. No post mortem on her body was done since it was too decomposed and she was buried the next day. Inside the paper, Kelapile's father Shushu Kasanga says, "I doubt Kelapile would have died if she was not a Mosarwa."

This issue is a very tricky one in Botswana. The recent skirmishes between the government and the radical and often ill-informed, UK based Survival International over the issue of Basarwa scares people into silence. Because Survival International tried to link the problem incorrectly with diamonds, Batswana circled the wagons. At the same time, Batswana wonder why outsiders feel they can meddle in our problems.

The government is trying its best. They want Basarwa integrated into mainstream Botswana society, that seems the only way toward development. But the racism issue needs to be addressed. If it is the case that Basarwa have the same rights and opportunities as all other Batswana then where are the Basarwa nurses, the Basarwa police officers, the Basarwa teachers? There is a problem and continued denial is not helping to find a way to the solution.
I wonder if Kelapile's death will finally get people speaking about the unspeakable.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Your Author Photo

I take terrible photos. I dread the inevitable request- "...and send a photo." I've struggled along sending the best of the worst. What could I do? But now that normal level of photo dread has become much, much worse. I just read this very disturbing article about the Right Author Photo.

What I've learned from this article is that ALL of my photos are WRONG. (Yes capital letters must be used here- that's how wrong they are). I have the wrong clothes, the wrong photographer (usually my husband - a big No-No , BTW), the wrong light, the wrong focusing.

All this time I thought I wasn't doing so badly. Sometimes, honestly, ignorance really is bliss.

For a long time I used this photo.


Besides being unfocused, the photo is grainy and my hair is a complete mess. Would you buy a book written by this person? Of course not. I wouldn't even do it and I know her.

Then I had this short hair photo I used for a little while:



Of course in this one I have some sort of neck situation going on and the colour is all funny, like I'm taking the photo inside of a fridge. Though I have to admit- my hair is really shiny. But apparently shiny hair is irrelevant in author photos. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

I hate to even show you folks this one. I recently wrote an article for a magazine and I used the photo below. I really don't know why. Even before reading the article about author photos I knew this photo was wrong. It was a flight of fancy, a plan working better in my head than in practice. No- this one is very, very wrong. A morning after the night before sort of mistake I'm afraid.


Below is my newest photo which I thought was okay. I'm even sitting at the computer though you can't see it. I thought it looked very productive. The background is wrong (the edge of my kitchen and the other edge of my dining room), and the shirt looks un-ironed probably because it is (I haven't lifted an iron since the 1980s), my eyes look a bit reddish (I actually thought that was a nice touch-pre article, I do occasionally write scary things and what is scarier than red eyes, all monsters have them) and the wrong photographer- hubby, yet again.

I don't know. I wish I would have just gone and watched TV instead of reading that stupid author photo article. It's bad enough we have to worry about the writing, then the publishing, then the marketing -but now the photo.

I feel very tired suddenly.

Next time the request comes for a photo....I think I'll pretend I didn't get the email.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A New Old Model for Small Publishers

In these harsh current times, many small publishers are struggling to stay afloat. Although these times may seem difficult they also often force people to think widely to try and find a way to survive.

I read this article at The Fiction Desk blog. The author suggests that looking back in time might help small publishers find a way to stay in business. According to the article, in 18th century London it was common for bookshops to also be publishers. There are some publishers who have retail stores on their publishing premises, but normally they only to sell their own titles. In the 18th century model, the bookstores stocked titles for all publishers alongside their own. Since most publishers also had bookstores little cash changed hands between the companies. Instead they swapped books.

This would be an ideal way to knock the wind out of the wild and reckless price wars that are erupting all over. Consolidating the selling of books and the production of books ensures that they are sold at the correct price and not subsidised by other product lines in an effort to squeeze out the competition and eventually be able to dictate prices from publishers. It also has a lovely bartering and cooperative feel to it that appeals to me.

What do you think?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Guidelines for an Uncomplicated Life by Sgt. Viola Catman

Number 1: In new situations, try to maintain your dignity at all times.



Number 2: Do not crap where you sleep.





Number 3: Keeping a safe distance until you understand the situation is always a good idea.


Number 4: Always have an exit plan.



Number 5: Don't believe everything you hear, even when the speaker appears very sincere.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Path We Choose

I am by nature a decisive person. Being in the middle of a decision is very stressful for me. I even feel vicarious stress when people around me are indecisive. I would rather make a bad decision and change it later than sit in the purgatory between paths. Because of this it seems odd how I dwell on those paths not chosen. I spend many hours thinking of the lives that might have been. The turned down marriage proposals- what if they'd been taken? What of the careers I turned away from? What would that woman look like?

Though I think of those could-have-been lives, I don't have regrets, mostly because I chose. I actively stepped forward. I dream of those could-have-been lives only out of curiosity. The wife to the Italian, Catholic boy- what does she do everyday? The peace worker at the United Nations, where does she find love? The wildlife vet -does she sleep content? Questions to ponder nothing more, no regrets.

I just finished On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan and if there is book I wish my children to read above all others it may well be this one. I can't bear the sadness of a life of omission, a passively led life. There is where you will find unbearable regrets. The waste and inefficiency of allowing a passive life, tossed by the whims of fate and happenstance seems the largest crime a person can commit. That life is one of unfathomable depths of sadness where those other lives mercilessly taunt you.

The saddest line in the book for me is: "This is how the entire course of a life can be changed - by doing nothing."

We must act. Is there a decision you struggle with? Is there something you need to say but hesitate? Is there a wish in your heart? Why wait? Doing nothing may cause more harm.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Chinua Achebe at Brown University

I find it quite wonderful when great people are humble.I wonder even if being humble is part of the package of greatness. Unfortunately many younger people of today confuse confidence with arrogance and that's very sad. One act of such arrogance can taint people's view of you forever. One must never forget their true place. Just recently I read about someone who met one of our young, up and coming African writers and how after the person met this writer she could no longer read the writer's books in the same way. The writer showed such ungratefulness and arrogance everyone involved in the event lost respect for the writer.

Chinua Achebe has done so much for African literature and yet this interview in The Brown Herald shows that he tries to keep things in perspective. He does not accept such titles as "the father of modern African literature" because he knows the establishment of African literature is and was a cooperative process.

When commenting on what the Brown community has done to increase awareness of African issues, Mr. Achebe had praise for the university.

"That’s really where our hope is — peace and harmony in the world, peace and harmony among thinkers. When I say harmony I don’t mean that people who disagree should stop disagreeing. If there’s a good reason to disagree then disagree as strongly as you can — that’s the only way we can straighten out our problems."

I love this most because he points out that peace is not agreeing. If we all agree, we can't move forward, we get stuck in one spot. Points of disagreement are where we find a new thought, an angle we hadn't taken into consideration, a new way to solve our problems. Respectful disagreement is the way to true peace and development.

A great, humble man- Brown has much to look forward to.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Perfect Rejection Letter?

I recently discovered The Rejectionist, a very amusing blog with even funnier comments from The Rejectionists' many talented readers. Recently, he held a contest for people to write the best form rejection letter. There is quite a list of very clever letters but here is the overall winner. I was duly impressed. Hop over and read the others.

This is by the very talented Brian Buckley! Congrats Mr. Buckley!!

Dear Sir or Madam:
Please don't be offended. Your query's horrendous.
We can't understand why you'd bother to send us
a missive so deeply in need of an edit
we wanted to vomit as soon as we read it.
Its hook was insipid, its grammar revolting,
its font microscopic, its manner insulting,
its lies unconvincing, its structure confusing,
its efforts at comedy less than amusing.
We think that on average the writing is better
in comments on YouTube than inside your letter.
"No matter," we said to ourselves after retching,
"The novel itself may be perfectly fetching.
"On reading your pages we promptly were greeted
with something a wallaby might have excreted:
a plot so moronic, a premise so weary,
and characters so unrelentingly dreary,
descriptions so lifeless, a setting so boring
that only our nausea kept us from snoring.
In short: if your book was a vaccine for cancer,
its margins inscribed with Life's Ultimate Answer,
and all other novels on Earth were rejected,
we're still pretty sure we would not have selected
this terrible, awful, impossibly hated,
unspeakably horrible thing you've created.
But thanks for submitting!
We hope you'll consider
alternative ways to get published (like Twitter)!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Long Term Effects of ARVs

Botswana is one of the most affected countries when it comes to HIV/AIDS. With a population of about 1.6 million it is estimated 23.9% of the adult population may be HIV positive. In the early 1990s people were dying continuously. There was hardly a weekend that we didn't have a funeral to attend. But then the magic of ARVs arrived. Thanks to generous donations from overseas and the commitment of our own government, ARV treatment is free to everyone. This may be a mixed blessing.

When everyone was dying people had a hopeless mentality, myself included. Fate will see what to do with me. Now ARVs have arrived and we now try to look on it as any other long term chronic disease. Both of these mindsets continue to keep the infection rate fuelled with new cases.

This article in The New York Magazine suggests that long term use of ARVs has its own side effects. These effects include premature ageing including early onset Alzheimer's Disease, cancers, and other age related conditions such as insulin resistance and cholesterol problems. Scientists are not sure if these health problems are as a result of long term ARV use or the fact that HIV is in the body.

"A study presented at a conference in February in Montreal showed that otherwise healthy people on HIV medications at about 56 years of age had immune systems comparable to HIV-negative subjects whose median age is 88. Perhaps as a result, many diseases that typically attack the very old are striking younger HIV-positive people disproportionately, like diseases of the liver, kidney, heart, and veins. One study found that 55-year-olds who are HIV-positive have all the telltale signs of late-life frailty—muscle loss, fatigue, and rheumatological disorders. "

Another very disturbing piece of information is that African -Americans seem to fare worse on ARVs. For example, they have a much higher chance of developing kidney disease as compared to their white counterparts on ARVs.

Scientists have tentatively concluded that the age related bone loss in ARV patients is likely due to the medications while the brain issues are probably from the HIV. Protease inhibitors in the ARV cocktail seem to be the culprit when it comes to impairments in cognitive function. Recent research shows about 10% of HIV positive people on ARVs have cognitive impairments. It appears that HIV can continue replicating in the brain when some of the cocktails have chemicals that cannot pass through the blood/brain barrier.

Of course ARVs have helped to save millions of lives around the world, but these new findings are disturbing. Still the best thing is to avoid contracting the disease , firstly, but then keeping yourself healthy and your CD4 count high enough so that going onto ARVs doesn't have to happen for a very long time.

I have so many HIV positive friends and this article was very disturbing because in Botswana, on this issue- the long term effects of ARV use, everything is deadly silent.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Kittens at 4 Weeks

To start a very busy week I thought we might do with a kitten update. They are now four weeks old and walking awkwardly. I see now the grey and white one has a patch of brown so I guess there are at least two females in the bunch. I'm trying not to give them names so I don't get too attached, but the smallest one, the calico, I call Christopher Columbus because she is always out exploring. The orange and white one, the one I think I'll keep if I don't keep them all (!!) is called Casper after the friendly ghost because he's so white. When they are up and about walking is a problem as they seem to be everywhere. I've shown them food but they don't understand the concept yet. Catman is finally understanding her role in this production but it will , sadly, soon be over.

And for more cat fun- how about those ambitious cats who go on for further education? Read about them here. I can only hope the kittens will take their education so seriously.

Enjoy the pics!










Friday, November 6, 2009

Bookish News for Friday

It looks like Fridays are going to be the Best in Blogland or Book News here at Thoughts From Botswana.

Big news this week was that Nigerian writer Seffi Atta has won the Noma Award for her short story collection Lawless and Other Stories published by Farafina. Short story collections seem to be coming into their own lately which is a wonderful thing. I must also mention the honourable mention given to my Zimbabwean writing friend Christopher Malazi for his book Dancing with Life: Tales from the Township.

Lately everyone is predicting the end of the publishing industry as we know it, but I'm sceptical. HarperCollins reports profits for the last quarter rose from $3 million to $20 million, while romance publisher, Harlequin, saw earnings jump a whopping 22.5%. Who said the book trade is dead?I don't think so.

Have you wondered about the reviews at Amazon? How independent are they? If this article is telling the truth those book reviews are not to be taken seriously since many of the reviewers are being paid to place the reviews. Good reviews of your book are just a few dollars away, or so it seems.

To end a very good blog post for those who would like to run literary festivals written from the perspective of the writer. Is it too much to ask that writers invited to speak or read at a festival be fed? How about a room with ventilation? Should all writers be paid the same fee? Author Amanda Craig makes some very interesting points.

To my dear readers, have a lovely weekend. Relax, have fun. Remember folks this life is not a dress rehearsal.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Looking for the Next Challenge

Friday a woman called me to tell me I'd won a prize in a writing contest I'd entered. It was an essay contest for a local business college. I entered earlier this year before my husband was leaving for university. Second prize was a laptop, so I told my husband don't buy a laptop for school I'll win you one. Friday they called to say I'd won the laptop. I was happy but not over the moon happy. Just pleased I'd accomplished what I set out to do.

Today, a publisher phoned to say she liked my three chapters for my novella and could I send the manuscript. That used to be a big deal. It wasn't today. It was nice, but slightly expected. (I hesitate to write that for fear hubris will bring wrath crashing down on me- but it's the truth)

Now I'm wondering what is up with me? Where has my excitement gone?

As I write this I have two children's books, two textbooks, a romance novella and a short story collection in the publishing pipeline on their way to becoming books- as a writer I should be very pleased. I'm happy and thankful because I know getting even one book published is a huge deal, but the sparkle has dimmed a bit, I feel ashamed to even say it, as if I'm ungrateful but I'm not. I'm really not. All the work I'm doing is for local publishing houses here in Botswana or in South Africa. I guess in my head I feel a bit like- "I've done this already".

I've been trying to figure out what exactly has flattened in my view. I guess I'm looking for a new challenge. Something where I can fail for awhile, so that when I finally succeed it feels earned- hard earned. Part of it too is I want to write a literary novel. I want to jump in with the big fish and get bashed about a bit. I know to do that I need time. I need a big block of time where I don't need to earn any money. I'm so hoping next year I will find that time. The credit crunch has taken a big bite out of my expected royalties for my five prescribed books, but I'm hoping I'll still be left with enough money to let me find the time to write. I have stories battering at the inside of my mind I need to let out, but these stories need some breathing room to find their correct size and form. They can't find that in the pressure cooker where I'm currently operating. When I let them out, they get a bit squashed and deformed and don't quite live up to what they could be. I hope next year, all the work I've put in will give me the space to get seriously challenged again by this writing gig.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

My Trip to Gaborone

I'm wishing now I would have taken my camera to Gaborone so that I might have taken a photo of one of the scariest things I have seen in my entire life. The Western Bypass is a highway skirting the centre of the city of Gaborone. Currently they have dug up one of the traffic circles along this highway. Apparently they want to do something quite spectacular in the way of engineering feats, but in the meanwhile they have created an area where people can get an inkling of how it feels to drive in a place where there are 1) No road rules, 2) Everyone is either angry or insane and 3) No speed limits. They've made this sort of super size traffic circle with really wide lanes that turns everyone into a Michael Schumaker on steroids without the use of indicators.

Every time I had to get into that circle my heart raced and sweat started pouring down my brow. I have a strange sense of direction in Gaborone where I know everything in relation to either the University of Botswana or the Western Bypass, so I was forever finding myself at the Circle from Hell. I think Gaborone residents and I are in absolute prefect agreement on one thing- I should stay in Mahalapye until construction is finished.

I love going to the cinema so I was very pleased to see two films while there. The first was District 9. I don't know if this movie is going to be distributed worldwide, but if you get a chance you must go and see it. I loved it! I thought it was clever and hilarious and touching. It is done like a documentary. It's about aliens which are living in District 9 in Johannesburg South Africa. The police unit is attempting to relocate them to what is basically a concentration camp but things go wrong. There is a fantastic analysis of District 9 and its echoing of the racism and forced removals of the apartheid years and the workings of racism in general here written by South African academic, Andries du Toit. Nigeria has apparently banned the movie because of the way that Nigerians are portrayed in it. I find banning a pretty useless way to engage with a discussion.

The other movie was The Taking of Pelham 123. It was okay because I like Denzel Washington and John Travolta but it was predictable. It was a bit of a letdown after District 9 but still going to the cinema is going to the cinema.

For the first film my husband and I were alone in the cinema. For the second film, there were a total of nine people in the air conditioned cinema. It's ridiculous. You would think they would lower the price of tickets so more people could go. A ticket was P33 (about 5+ US dollars). If they lowered the prices and filled the hall they'd certainly make more money.

After four days of running around I am now back home. Being away is nice, but being home is always nice too.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Interesting Book-y News

I am off today to collect the Boy Giant Teenager from boarding school/prison. It is apparently the boy's 16th birthday today. I've been operating from the fact that he's 13 and the sister is 15 but apparently time has passed- that of course has implications on me that I would not like to scratch at. In Botswana, unlike in America where I grew up, 16 is not such an important birthday since children here cannot get their driver's licences until they turn 18 , unless you are one of the Giant Teenagers who believe that President Khama upped the age to 21. Their mother told them she read it in the newspaper. It really does pay to keep up with those current affairs.

But that is not what this post is about -this post is about book news. If you recall a few days ago I wrote about not being very loyal to a particular publisher, it seems I'm not alone. John Le Carré has also recently swapped publishers. This interesting article in the Guardian speaks about the history of writers changing publishers and agents, sometimes under quite unfriendly terms.

And what about ebooks and the royalties for authors? I've mentioned before about fighting for higher royalty rates for ebooks. It looks like publishers, on the other hand are trying to squeeze the writer for no reason except that they can. Apparently in America the standard royalty rate for ebooks is 25%, Macmillan has sent out a new standard contract with ebook royalties at 20%. In this article from The New York Times, literary agent Richard Curtis feels that already 25% was too low and suggest taking into account the small set up costs authors should be making 50% of ebooks. Considering the slashing of the price, 50% seems fair.

Something to think about this weekend. I am off to the beautiful Tswapong Hills. Have a great weekend- I intend to!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Why do they treat writers like this?

My writing friend sent me an article from the South African Sunday Times. It's an article in which they ask South African writer Michiel Heyns, author of the much acclaimed Bodies Politic, what he would be if he weren't a writer.

In the article, he certainly takes the magic out of this writing life we live. He talks about rushing to get to a reading where he find 15 people, 2 or 3 at best have read his novel he's there to discuss. He is thanked by the organiser, who also has not read the book, and is given R250 as compensation. He goes to lunch which costs R480 and drives home covering a distance in total of 147 km. There he finds an urgent request from the Sunday Times to write the very article I was sent and he's told there will be little time as the deadline looms and no compensation. In the end, he comes to the conclusion - " What I would be if I weren't a writer is somebody who got paid." My friend highlighted that bit since when she put it in the post I was being frantic about not being paid and she thought I'd find it very applicable. It arrived on the day a big sum of money arrived like magic in my account and all of my money worries disappeared (for now) ... but still. I think most of us can relate to Mr. Heyns' frustrations.

I wonder- do we allow people to treat us like this? Is this why people think they can waste our time having us speak to non-readers about our books knowing they'll not buy them? Why do we write for free? What if we put our collective foot down and said, "No more." Would things change? What do you think?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Courtesy that is the US Embassy in Gaborone

My daughter is hoping to travel to the United States next year to visit her aunt and cousins. A writing friend just recently went to Germany and nearly missed her flight because the visa was not ready. She ended up in a mad dash collecting the visa only minutes before the plane was to leave. I don't want that to happen so I thought I'd call the US Embassy in Gaborone to see what we need to do to get a visa and how much time we need to complete it all. Since I live 200 km away from Gaborone I thought phoning would be the best way to deal with the issue.

So I called the US Embassy. First, you get a robot who tells you a lot of things, none of which are applicable and insists that you must wait or press 0. I waited thinking the robot had a plan and would take me somewhere. Don't wait, you're not going anywhere. The robot lied. You don't actually have an option -you need to press 0. Perhaps robots didn't learn the definition of the word "option" in robot school. Or perhaps it's an in-house joke for bored Embassy staff, or a money raising exercise for Botswana Telecoms for as you wait in robot purgatory, the money is click-click clicking away on your phone bill. I did learn from the first robot that the US Embassy in Gaborone is a dandy place to work because you knock off at 1:30 on Fridays. Can't beat that, unless of course they cancelled Mondays too.

When you press 0 you get a human, but as soon as you mention visa you're sent straight back to robot land. There you will get an American voice (I struggled to decide if it was male or female) of a person who is slightly annoyed with you and all of your enquiries. S/he demands straight away that you must listen until the end of the tape. S/he also tells you that s/he is not going to entertain discussing visa appointments with you on the phone. Not now. Not ever. And "calling repeatedly will not change the situation". I don't believe that last bit. I'm sure there is a threshold at which if a person called the American Embassy the robot would give in. S/he would collapse under the pressure of the calls and have to discuss the issue with my visa appointment over the telephone. Like for example if I called every 30 minutes for eternity. I don't like blanket statements like that, made by humans or robots. If I had time I might just put that bossy robot to the test. But I don't.

Apparently they have "limited consular staff and can't attend to all enquiries", but they can knock off on a Friday at 1:30pm to beat the traffic and get out of the city for the weekend. Anyway, it's all about how you prioritise things.

The androgynous robot person then directed me to all sorts of websites, repeated very quickly so it was almost impossible for me to get the whole address, unless of course I was a robot too, which I'm not. I think s/he meant to do that. And then came the worst. In a very clipped and seriously "I'm done with you" tone the robot person said, "Thank you goodbye." One sentence. There wasn't even a comma. It was the kind of "thank you goodbye" that makes you feel like you should turn ass and run. S/he had no genuine gratefulness for my call, in fact s/he wished I hadn't phoned at all. The thank you reeked of insincerity. It was a sarcastic thank you. A Steve Martin kind of thank you. And the good bye could have been shut-up if words really expressed their intended meaning.

Needless to say I know nothing more about how to get a visa for my daughter and what's worse it seems there is no way to get the information. I looked around on websites and got lots of vague information about how strict it all was. All I wanted was a bit of human contact. I would have been happy with the normal belligerent Gaborone kind of help. Anything but that sexless robot person with an attitude.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Essence of Flash Fiction

I read an interesting interview with flash fiction writer David Gaffney over at Nik's blog.

There were some interesting points. Some I agreed with like:
"...making flash fiction stories is like cooking spinach; you fill a pan with enough leaves to feed an elephant then after a few minutes all you have left is a coating of thin green sludge on the bottom" And this: "Flash fiction don’t just cut to the chase, it cuts to the point of the chase..."


And some I very much disagreed with:
"...Maybe flash is a male thing like minimalism -there are no cushions or scented candles in flash fiction"
Male thing? No. no. no. Women also can be brief and to the point, sir. And I don't know if you met my 7th grade English teacher but he was a male and he couldn't find a brief point if it stabbed him in the eye.

Mr Gaffney has some very fun flash here. I particularly like the one about a windscreen that is set to the man's glasses prescription. That would be very handy, though of course a pain when you need a new prescription or want to sell the car.

I wrote a flash piece for the recently ended Chocolate contest over at Help I need a Publisher. I didn't win (Congrats to the winners!!) so in honour of Halloween, which in a former life was my favourite holiday ever- I mean costumes AND a bag full of sweets- I am posting my story below.It was supposed to 1) include chocolate and 2) be scary. I find children who kill, especially their parents, very scary. Possibly something I should have checked out....

The Etiquette of Chocolate
I awake thirsty and head to the kitchen. I pass Mama sitting; an empty box of chocolates on her lap.
But then I stop.
Something is wrong. Her head droops at an odd angle. Sticky steps forward and I see her bloody, sliced neck.
Are they still here?
Panicked, I back away-I must save my sister!
I turn back and she's standing in the hallway, her tiny face smeared with chocolate. “Oh Rebeca…. thank God!”
Light from the bare bulb flicks off something clutched in her small hand. Confused, I look at her, and then at the knife.
“She wouldn’t share.”