Fiona Snyckers is a South African writer living in Johannesburg. She’s probably best known for her Trinity series of books: Team Trinity, Trinity Rising and Trinity on Air. The books feature the spunky, mixed-race Trinity Luhabe. Fiona’s latest book is a thriller about cyber-stalking called Now Following You. In it, writer Jamie Burchell is free with putting her life on social media until a troll becomes a serious threat. A good read I can assure you.
Some of you may be aware Fiona was a judge for last year’s Bessie Head Short Story Contest and has graciously agreed to be a judge again this year. She also regularly writes very considered opinion pieces for The Mail and Guardian. She talked with me about her writing.
Me: You’ve ventured into writing a thriller with your latest book Now Following You. Do you intend to stick with thrillers for a while or do you have another new path you’ve set out on?
Fiona: I like to keep my options open. I’m working on four new projects at the moment. One is a sequel to Team Trinity, so I am definitely keeping that series alive. Another is a comedy-romance set in the fraught world of private-school girls and their ambitious mothers. The third is a thriller, so, yes, I am continuing with that genre. And the fourth is my first attempt at a literary novel.
Me: That high wall between South Africa and the rest of Africa seems to be allowing writers through; more and more South African writers are interacting with writers from all over the continent, but the wall remains firmly intact when it comes to publishers and book distribution. What is not working?
Fiona: I really wish I knew. As writers we seem to be in contact with each other, both via social media and through literary festivals. But the publishers and distributors are not interested in cross-pollination. Perhaps it is a mistaken form of protectionism. If the publishers believe the reading pool is barely big enough to support South African writers, they might guard against other African writers “taking” our readers. I believe this is entirely wrong. We are all African writers and readers and should be freely buying and reading each other’s work. It would open up the market, not constrict it.
Me: You have written books for young adults with your Trinity series. In other places YA is a growth market but that doesn’t seem to be the case in Southern Africa. How can we get young people to be book lovers and book buyers?
Fiona: I have seen how very positively young local readers respond to my books when they get the opportunity to read them, but that opportunity will not come from a book that is available from Exclusive Books for R200.00. That is completely out of reach for too many young readers. These books need to be incorporated into school syllabuses and reading lists. That way, the school foots the bill for the books and the learners reap the benefit. Young readers are hungry for enjoyable local fiction, but it needs to be delivered to them by schools and other publically funded institutions.
Me: This is your second year judging the Bessie Head Short Story Contest here in Botswana. What are some of the most common problems with the stories that you’ve read written by Batswana and Botswana- based writers? Did you notice any unique strengths?
Fiona: Stories that have a strong and authentic sense of place always resonate with me. In a way, Botswana itself can be your biggest asset as a writer. Like all countries it is unique, and the reader will enjoy learning about it through the medium of fiction.
Batswana make exactly the same mistakes as other writers. Stories that are rambling, derivative, or sloppily presented will naturally not do well. A tight narrative with good momentum, strong characters, and the whiff of genuine originality will succeed in any forum.
Me: For you, what is the most frustrating aspect of being an African writer living and writing on the continent? What could be done to improve that?
Fiona: It is frustrating to know that the rest of the world is looking for a particular narrative from Africa. They are open to the kind of novel that has a leopard and a thorn tree on the cover, or the kind that delves into the African diaspora in the manner of Adichie, Bulawayo or Cole. There is not much space for other stories. And that is why it is so very important for us to expand our own reading market by breaking down country-based chauvinism.
(This column first appeared in the 29 July, 2016 issue of Mmegi newspaper in my column, It's All Write)