Friday, July 31, 2009

Judging a Book by Its Cover

Today Nathan Bransford discusses book covers at his blog and it got me thinking. Quite often I complain about publishing in Botswana and Southern Africa but Mr. Bransford's blog reminds me yet again that some things are better here. For example, author's say in book covers. In books I've written alone published here I've had a lot of say about the covers.

The cover for The Fatal Payout, the hands with the money, was my idea. It was apparently shot in the Macmillan offices in South Africa. The cover for Murder for Profit that was initially given to me was not anything like this, it was mostly words. I suggested bloody words, and then I got another cover which I still didn't like and then I suggested yet again that we put a photo of a village. I remember at one point there was a bloody knife with a bucket, not sure where that got off to. Even for Mmele and the Magic Bones. I found the illustrator myself (something I will never do again though).

The point I'm trying to make is that in Botswana, at least in my experience, authors get much say over their covers and that is a plus.

But what makes a good cover? I've included two of my favourite covers from my bookshelf (All the Pretty Horses and Star Girl). I can't say what I like, but I know it when I see it.
According to author Justine Larbalestier, the big publishers in America, and I'm assuming that goes across the ocean too, don't have that problem. They know what makes a good cover by studying their statistics about which covers sell and which covers don't and that is how their covers are designed; sometimes having little to do with what is actually inside the book, as is the case for Larbalesier's latest book about a black girl that has a white girl on the cover. Apparently books with black people on the cover don't sell.

In her blog she discusses the difficulties she's gone through because of that cover, one she had no control over in the end. She explains the thin line authors must walk- she hates the cover but can't let anyone know, especially the publisher who can easily give her the boot. At the same time, readers are claiming they won't buy the book with a white girl on the cover and why doesn't Larbalestier explain what's going on?
As if writers don't have enough problems.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Worst Children's Books Ever

Over at The American Scene they're debating which book can wear the crown as the worst children's book ever. I think you'll be surprised at some of the books that come up in the debate- Little Women, Curious George books, Judy Blume books and Dr Seuss (!?).

One commenter mentioned The Ugly Duckling , for him the story was traumatic. "Ugly duckling is shunned and harassed by peers for being ugly. Duckling grows up and becomes attractive. Shows them, hah! Moral: If you’re young and ostracized, you better hope you grow up and turn out hot. Otherwise, you’re screwed." He certainly has a point.

One commenter suggests Hansel and Gretel. How nice is it to read to children about Hansel and Gretel's parents trying to kill them and then in the end somehow all is forgiven and they go back home to the potential killers? Most fairy tales are pretty gruesome that way, but I liked them as kids, though possibly Hansel and Gretel less so. My main beef was the house made of gingerbread. All I could think was how sticky everything would get.

JK Rowling gets a few nods. Seems to be a lot of hatred for The Polar Express and The Giving Tree. Make sure you scroll down almost to the bottom for the lovely cartoon strip- The Unforgiving Tree. HA! If I were a tree, I'd likely be that one. Damn! How much abuse must trees take?

I agree anything Care Bear related MUST be on this list. But I remember being a kid and not liking Velveteen Rabbit. I couldn't believe how cruel it was. I hated the pictures of the poor rabbit thrown in the garden.

Which children's book do you think deserves to win this award?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Upcoming Blog Book Tour Stop

I will be hosting a stop on Sue Eckstein's blog book tour for her delightful, new novel, The Cloths of Heaven. It's about an eclectic group of expats in West Africa.
See the stops in the tour below. If you've read the book and have questions you'd like her to answer when she passes by Thoughts from Botswana, please send them through.
27 July: Myriad Editions - Publisher of the Week at The Book Depository
28 July: Caroline Smailes - review and interview/comments chat plus giveaway
28 July: Sue Eckstein Tuesday Top Ten at The Book Depository
30 July: Helen Hunt – Bookersatz - review
4 August: Thoughts from Botswana – review
6 August: Jackie Wills - review
9 August: Denyse Kirkby – review, interview and giveaway
11 August: Trailing Grouse – review
13 August: Keris Stainton – review
18 August: Thoughts from Botswana– interview
20 August :So Close
25 August: Sarah Salway – review
27 August: Bubblecow – interview re: usefulness of tour for authors

Monday, July 27, 2009

African Publishers Key to Developing African Literature

I was reading an interesting article by Nigerian writer and journalist Tolu Ogunlesi called Who Controls African Literature?. In it, he talks a bit about new continent-wide contests and projects that are trying to get us all in the boat so that 'the people in charge' can begin to get a handle on what African literature is all about. He seems hopeful that the situation in which outsiders define African literature might be changing. I'm sadly not so hopeful.

It's funny how Ogunlesi talks about how African literature is seen as this strange sort of 'let's look at the monkey in the cage' sort of literature. In the past, politics, war, and race issues needed to be at the forefront for the writing to be considered as serious African literature. The publishing folk who establish what's what were outside and that outside perspective tainted what they published and covered with praise and awards. Colonialism played its role on the population here, and now Africans knew their own great literature because people outside Africa told them what it was.

Well that is, thankfully, changing- incrementally. African publishers are stepping up, albeit under very harsh conditions, and are trying to publish African writers with African stories defined by Africans. Of course the problem comes when the bookshops are full of Harry Potter and friends and the shelf space, even in African bookshops, for books BY Africans FOR African readers can be found in the corner at the back, under the ladder, behind the Oprah Book Club sign - and -please-mind the cobwebs. How can African publishers help African writers if they can't sell their books? Such a drag to find the same sorry answer to every problem- money.

African publishers need a serious break. They should also get some awards for the selfless work that they do. What is even more sad about the situation for African publishers is that when a writer might be up there with a book that could actually earn some bucks- the writer forgets the African publishers and rushes overseas.

I'm a writer, I know the writer's point of view- they need exposure and the smaller African houses can't do it for them. They can't do it for them because they don't have the big names that earn them the big bucks to give them a budget that would allow them to develop and market emerging writers. It's a hopeless catch-your-own-tail kind of dilemma and for things to change something has got to give and I have a feeling the answer is not going to be found in new continent-wide writing contests (though, please, don't stop those) but again in the money. How to manipulate the money in publishing so that it favours African publishers. I'm not an economist. I started writing a list just now about some ways to do that, sort of affirmative action for African publishers, but immediately saw the loopholes and thought I'd leave it to those more knowledgeable.

Until African publishing houses can get a firm financial footing, African literature will be sifted, packaged, and fed back to us from outside the continent- that is just the fact of the matter. So Mr. Ogunlesi, who controls African literature? For the most part, it's still the same old gang.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Shakespeare and the Cat

Cats seem to have been born for pleasure. They will find the softest blanket, the warmest patch of sun. They will turn their nose up at any food not up to their standards, they'd rather go hungry than not thoroughly enjoy eating. Everything put on earth has been placed here for their entertainment- lizards, birds, a leaf blown by the wind. They are hedonists of the first order.

This picture is Sergeant Catman sleeping on the sofa in my bedroom, the one that entices me most days with its late afternoon sun; but I, the good writer with a heavy sack of Protestant work ethic, go back to the computer, and Sgt. Catman takes my place, or his place which I'm sure is the way that he sees it.

As readers will know we have a problem regarding Sgt. Catman. He came to our home as a boy and the vets turned him into a girl, or rather recognised that he had been one all along and made us aware of the fact. Still I see him as a boy and call him Sgt. Catman as I've become used to that. I can't quite accept the truth just yet.

The other night my daughter, one of the Giant Teenagers who are currently home for a week long holiday, said that I must stop it, that I'm committing some sort of animal abuse. I considered her point and thought I might come with an alternative name, one that might grow on me to pull me to the realisation that my cat is a girl. Viola popped into my head.

My daughter laughed. I asked her why and she reminded me of 12th Night and the cross dressing Viola. I'd forgotten about it, at least consciously, but immediately realised the appropriateness.

So now my cat has a new name- Sgt. Viola Catman.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Will my writing find me a home?

Anne Michaels, author of Fugitive Pieces and The Winter Vault, has an interesting article in The Atlantic called Reading Faust in Korean. It got me thinking about something a writing friend often says. She believes I have a distinct advantage over her since I grew up in America and now have lived so long here in Botswana. She believes I somehow have better insight having my feet in two countries. She thinks my range of stories might be wider because of this. I always think it leaves me homeless with no real, authentic place from where I can write as I drift in an in-between place. Maybe this is why in so much of my writing I must force setting in or there will be none. My stories would hover in the no man's land where their writer often lives.

Michaels asks : "Do we belong to the place where we are born, or to the place where we are buried?" In many ways I know I'll never truly belong to Botswana, but in my heart I know I no longer feel connected to America. She ends by saying: “When the dead cannot be laid to rest in ground that remembers them, sometimes literature is the only grave we have. And that grave is one way a migrant claims a place in his adopted country.” I find this very hopeful. I think now since the bulk of my writing lives only in Botswana , in Southern Africa, by default I am given a home in Botswana. What about when my writing moves to a larger audience? Where will my home be then? I hope my writing will put down stakes here in the land that I chose, not where I was born, because in the end isn't that more important? If my writing helps me to do that then it's a wonderful thing.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

So Maybe I can Win the Caine Prize One Day

I've gone off short stories lately. For awhile I thought I knew what I was doing and I got a few smack downs that put my faith in my ability in question. One of my goals has always been to win the Caine Prize one day, but a few months ago another writer led me to believe that some how the Caine was 'organised' so that certain writers were chosen to win, that the prize was seen as a way to develop African writers rather than an award to shed light on the excellent writing from the continent. It put me off the whole thing. I made no effort to get my longer stories in magazines this year, in fact , mostly I've made little effort to get any of my stories out there. For the first time in three years, I will have nothing submitted to the Caine.

This article, What does it take to win the Caine Prize?, has changed my mind. Fungai Tichawangana has taken time to analyze the winners; looking at their home country, the topic of their winning story, the winner's background in a bid to find out what characteristics do they share that might give a clue as to why they won. They are diverse. There is nothing that comes out to indicate why they won except that they are excellent writers. Fungai also points out that the judges change every year, so the assertion made by the writer who put me off the Caine seems to have been wrong.

So, my goal is reinstated- one day I want to win the Caine Prize-now I must get back in the saddle and get to work.

Monday, July 20, 2009

When will Writers be Part of the Culture of Botswana?

On Sunday the Bessie Head Heritage Trust held the ceremony for this year’s Bessie Head Literature Awards for novel, short story and poem. Pentagon Publishers has been the sole sponsor of the awards for the past two, but this year it was good to see Exclusive Books donated bundles of books for all winners. Other contributors included Botswana Advertiser, Mmegi, Momentum Wines, The Ngami Times, Simple Marketing, Sunday Standard and The Voice.

Given the way the Ministry of Youth and Culture and its Minister Gladys Korkorwe likes to latch onto the Bessie Head Awards as something they are part of, it is shocking not to see their name on the list. Meanwhile this same President’s Day weekend that ministry is popping out cheques as if we are not in the midst of an economic meltdown for every imaginable category of arts and crafts and traditional dance with winners taking home P10,000 cheques for first place as well as lesser amounts for second and third place while the Bessie Head winners won P2500, P1500 and P1000 (novel, short story and poetry, first place winners respectively- 2nd and 3rd got books only) money donated by Pentagon Publishers NOT the taxpayer. One wonders- when will writers be considered part of Botswana Culture? Even when Minister Korkorwe was right in Serowe, Bessie Head’s home, for Culture Day a few years ago, when she listed people from the village who had added to Botswana’s culture, she failed to mention Bessie Head, one of Africa’s best known writers.

Unity Dow was the “honoured guest” at the ceremony this year as she corrected the MC, poet, Goodie Tlhokwe. She said she was not the guest of honour, but rather honoured to be asked to be the guest. Before awarding prizes she read from a story in Bessie Head’s Collector of Treasures. Ms Dow chose Head’s fictionalized version of the history of the Serowe branch of the Batalaote tribe.

After her reading, the prizes were awarded. Personally, I was very happy to see Gothataone Moeng scoop first prize for her short story “Putting on Faces”. Please note down somewhere what I’m about to say – this young woman is a writer we should look out for. So later, when my prophecy comes true, remember you heard it here first. She read a short excerpt of the story which deals with the attitudes of Batswana toward Zimbabweans working in the country, a theme she has touched on before in her story Who Knows What Season Tomorrow Brings in Long Time Coming published by ‘ama Books.

I was also intrigued by Cheryl Selase Ntumy’s Crossing which won in the novel category. I’m looking forward to reading the book to be published by Pentagon Publishers.

In the poetry category, I loved third place winner, Masego Morima’s "The Man Who Walks", about the rich and so called powerful and the way that they undermine a man who walks the streets of Gaborone from the high windows of their expensive cars. It seemed to channel a warning that they might be doing so at their own risk. It was lovely and simply written with a knock-down powerful message. I was surprised it hadn’t been first place, but Dow warned the crowd, judging is subjective.

There was open mike for the audience to read something if they wanted. Although I despise reading in public, I’ve promised myself I must take every opportunity that presents itself to read until I am no longer uncomfortable with doing so. I read my story A Pot Full of Tears; I was still nervous, but I’ve learned to slow down a bit so there was some improvement.

Friend to Bessie Head, Tom Holzinger put together a lovely slide show about her life that ended the entertaining ceremony.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Anti- Plagiarism Day

Today has been declared Anti-Plagiarism Day by Jane Smith at her blog How Publishing Really Works. She has asked writers to discuss plagiarism and its effects in their blogs, on Facebook, and other networking sites to get the conversation going about a growing problem.

I have had a few run-ins with plagiarism. The first happened a few years ago when I was still owning our local newspaper. I wrote an article about the renovations done at a local car dealership in our village. A few weeks passed and I opened one of our national newspapers and there was my article, word for word, with another person's name on it. I was furious. I contacted the editor who told me the person was a freelancer and he would follow-up. The freelancer sent me an email apologising saying that the car dealership gave him the article and he thought it was theirs to give. He begged me to forgive him as he was a foreigner and didn't want to get in problems in Botswana. I asked him why he put his name on it when he knew he didn't write it? Did he get paid for submitting that article? He never emailed me again. Even as I write this, and that was more than seven years ago, this freelancer's articles can be seen in that very same national paper. I would have thought something like that would have been enough to blacklist him, but apparently not in Botswana.

Some year's later, when I just started out as a writer, I was asked to write a book for junior secondary children on Uganda. It was a work for hire with a very rigid framework of what should be covered since it was part of a series. I began doing research and wrote ample notes primarily from the internet since most books I found here were very out of date. I used my notes to write the book, not the sources, and I noted all sources for the publisher. It was the first time I was asked to do such a big writing job and it was for an international publisher, so I wanted to do a good job. I finished the book before schedule and sent it off.

To my shock the publisher contacted me saying that the section on history was very similar to something he found on the internet and he suspected I had plagiarised. I was devastated. I hadn't even gone to the website he mentioned. I explained that perhaps my lack of experience some how caused the problem, but I assured him that since I'd been a victim of plagiarism I would never intentionally set out to commit such an act. I re-wrote the offending chapter. In retrospect, I'm not sure what happened. Perhaps I had written notes that were not in my own words, though I thought that was not the case at the time. Even now, so many years later I feel sick when I think about the incident.

The internet has made it so simple to cut and paste someone else's words. It happens everyday. As writers we need to be vigilant; we must guard our writing against thieves, but we must also be very careful how we ourselves write, be certain that we are not inadvertently stealing someone else's work. Writers need to address this problem head on and with honesty.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Sarah Lotz and Exhibit A

When I was at the Cape Town Book Fair I got in the queue to have my copy of Exhibit A signed. As I've mentioned before I am a) an author stalker and b) addicted to signed books. Since I write detective books myself I am always keen to read locally written mysteries, so was excited to get me grubby hands on Exhibit A.

So I'm in the queue and I get to the front and a lovely young woman is sitting at the table. (Shocked to hear she is 38, I thought she was in her 20's until I read the review today!) I put my book down and she asks how to spell my name. So I start-"L-A-U-R-I" She puts the pen down and looks up at me. "Are you Lauri Kubuitsile?" I said, "Yes" because I actually am.
Then she went on with some quite nice words and my head blew up to the size of a large watermelon. The picture you see here is my signed copy of the book which inside says-" Amazing to meet such a talented writer". How about that?? Hope she goes on to win the Nobel Prize or something and I can sell it on eBay for millions.
(No, I'd never do that)

So why am I telling you all of this? Am I trying to let you see the power of me in case you've somehow missed it? NO! I want to start this post off by telling you- in my eyes- Sarah Lotz will not be able to do wrong. Everything I write will be biased at a 95.4 degree angle. She'd have to go on a murderous killing spree or strangle kittens before I'd be able to write a single negative word about her. Know this before you proceed. You've been warned.

I have not started her book yet, though it has moved to Pile A on my table. Those who follow this blog know that I have been involved in a long, drawn out, sumptuous, read-a-thon with Middlesex. I couldn't bear to finish it. I idled. Re-read. Accidentally purposefully let my bookmark fall out and then stuck it in further back than I actually was. It had to happen, I knew it would- the end arrived. After the event, I took a few days to live with the fact that indeed Middlesex was finished. A new chapter of my life would have to begin.

Then I started in on the Cape Town books. Since my writing partner oozed about The Rowing Lesson, I started there. In retrospect I should have thought a bit about what to read post-Middlesex, but I didn't. You can't go from the wild, reckless expanse of Middlesex to the tight, swirling words of The Rowing Lesson. Something will have to give.

I nearly threw The Rowing Lesson to the side in frustration for it not being Middlesex, but I have persevered and am actually beginning to like it, might even find myself loving it by the end; we'll see. When I'm through I will be on to Exhibit A which I will love. (Refer to third paragraph)

This post, in fact, is about a lovely quote in a review of Exhibit A in the Weekender. Ms Lotz talks about writing. She says-

I liked this (as you probably expected I would) but... really... I do like this. It is dead tiring to hear writers talk about how hard it all is. The torture of it. The blank page. The absent muse. They must use pharmaceuticals and ample amounts of alcohol just to write one bloody sentence. Ao! feel pity for them folks.

I agree with Lotz- SHUT UP! Is there anything more lovely than being god? Everyday I get to sit down and create worlds and all sorts of interesting people. I put the people in my worlds and make them do things and then I see what happens. God in a nutshell.

It's a bit like what we did as kids with Barbie's Dream House. We had Barbie and GI Joe and two spare weebles from the weeble set under our bed and one Mr Potato Head with a moustache but one eye missing. And then we put them together and we had long drawn out dramas and sometimes people would get killed (usually Mr Potato Head- I never liked that black felt moustache - dastardly is the word that comes to mind) and some would fall in love ( always a champion of the underdog, I liked a weeble to be the object of Barbie's adoration). We were in control.

Writing is like that. Writing is lovely. As soon as I leave my stories and move to the real world disappointment descends. I no longer control the woman behind the glass at the post office. (If I did she might very well choke on a chicken bone at lunch today- shame) That's where the disappointment lies. That is where the frustration can be found. Not in the writing. Never in the writing. That's the land of joy.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Race for Michael Jackson Books

When I learned of Michael Jackson's death, one of the first things I said was someone is going to make a killing with a book deal, and so it seems that is the case. According to Times Online, the King of Pop was not dead 24 hours before British publishers and writers had mounted the horse and were off on a race to see who would get their book on the shelves first. HarperCollins will have their book out this Friday, Michael Jackson- Legend, Hero, Icon: A Tribute to the King of Pop. The nonfiction publisher for HarperCollins said in the article that the author of the book, Jame Aldis, was given 48 hours to write 10,000 words which she declares is the “the tightest schedule in the history of our company”.

This may seem lightening speed, but the Chinese leave the British in the dust. They put out their tribute to Jacko, Moonwalk in Paradise, in a mere 9 days. It took 48 hours to write in one marathon sit down. According to The Guardian, 'Jiang Xiaoyu and Xing Han subsisted on a diet of coffee and cigarettes to produce the 130,000-word' book.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Things I Took 18 Years to Learn

This last weekend my husband and I celebrated 18 years of marriage. I've learned a few things in that time and I thought I might share them, maybe I'll help some of you out there in blogland so you don't have to take so long to learn lessons I wish I knew at the start.

1. Marriage is an ongoing process.
The whole world portrays marriage as an event. Even that we celebrate an anniversary makes it appear as if it happened, it's done, you're in it. But it didn't happen, it is happening. At this point in the process I think (I'm not sure about this) the end goal is to see how close you can get to another human being. How much will you let him in? How far will he let you in? How vulnerable will you let yourself get? How much trust do you have for each other?

2. The First Years are the Worst
Since marriage is a process, the first years you are the furthest you will ever be from your partner if you are both making an effort. This is why I think people shouldn't be allowed to divorce in the first five years. In my marriage, those were 'the throwing years': the throwing of plates, and cups, and glasses and even the throwing of people out of cars (not moving- thankfully). I was left roadside more than once. The funny thing is that in movies and books, those are supposed to be the honeymoon years. Maybe they are for others, not for me. I was the seriously square peg that wasn't that keen on being stuck into the very obstinate round hole.

3. I'm NOT Always Right
That seems sort of a no brainer, but in my heart I never quite accepted it, though I could mouth the words if pushed to. I think I've made that jump- finally- sometimes my husband is right. This is a new development. Believe me- it took time to get to this one and it really does help with a whole lot of things if you can get there in less than 18 years.

4. There are no lines drawn in the sand
Before you get married and maybe even in the first years, you say things like- If my husband doesn't help with household chores I'm out of there. Or Even serious ones like -I'd never be able to forgive him if he cheated on me. Those lines need to be wiped away. You will draw them if you need to when you get there, don't do it in advance, you haven't a clue what you'll be thinking when the time comes. One thing you learn along the way is that everybody is human- not just you. Of course I knew I was human, I knew I make mistakes, but I expected my husband to be a robot, hopefully one in which I had the remote. Husband's are not robots, they are fallible humans. Give them a few breaks. Forgiveness is a huge gift- to him and to you.

5. Respect is as Important as Love
You need to respect each other. You need to respect each other's time, each other's wishes, each other's dreams. Along with that respect comes support. If he wants to climb Mt Kilimanjaro, ask him if you can pack his backpack for him. I'm starting to think that respect is the other side of the love coin.

6. You must make an effort
Marriage is a slog. You need to decide, are you up for it? A good marriage doesn't happen, a good marriage is created every single day. And sadly, a good marriage can be destroyed pretty fast if people decide not to put in the effort anymore.

I think my husband and I are doing okay, I'd give us about 80%. We've gone through a scary patch of suddenly being childless with the Giant Teenagers all off to boarding school, but we are finding a way through. Considering that I came from a home of divorce and dysfunction, I'm quite impressed with myself. I'm learning. If you have anything you'd like to add to help me speed up my process a bit, I'd be thankful.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Red, White, and Blue: the Colours of Racism

So many people in Botswana think America is wonderful. I recently had a discussion with a friend of mine about why I would never live in the United States again. She just could not understand. For her it seems the land of endless possibilities, where your mind is free, and your path unhindered. I struggled to make her see that my life growing up in the United States was the opposite- I felt trapped and strangled, defined by the status quo that I was not part of. In Botswana is where I found my true freedom. Only here was I able to throw off the heavy blanket of my past and define a new life outlined in the hot sand, its borders and shape created in the present with only me as its designer. Freedom, freedom, freedom -I drink it in everyday with thanks.

We grew up very poor for much of my childhood. We were the family that churches brought food to on Thanksgiving and Christmas. They smiled happy at their charitable ways and I hid wishing they'd be anywhere else but at my doorstep advertising to the world what I was. Poor and American are two things you do not want put together. In America being poor is a crime. Who didn't work hard enough? Someone is to blame. The American Dream is a terrible weapon to be beaten with.

Then when I got married, people asked why not go and live in America where all of the opportunities are? I looked at my black husband and thought of our future brown children and I knew I wouldn't be able to live with what America would have on offer for them. I'd lived through the wrath of not being right; it would break my heart to watch those I loved most in the world have to walk a similar path.

The recent incident in Philadelphia proved to me once again that even though a mixed race man stands as the leader of the United States, racism is alive and well in that country. Being right in America means being white and being wealthy, anything else is an annoyance, a tax eater, a crime maker- something they'd rather not discuss and best keep it in the cupboard away from the party makers. No one likes a buzz-kill.

In her article in The Nation, Melissa Harris-Lacewell relates an incident of racism that her child had to withstand and as I read it I could hear the sound of the bullet I dodged whizzing by my ear, the bullet my children dodged.

For my daughter the moment came in kindergarten. Even though she was the only African American girl in her classroom, she made friends easily, adored her teacher, and was growing in confidence as a student. Then in May, just a few weeks from the year's end it happened. She and a little white boy were playing together at recess as they had done all year when he looked at her and said, "You know, I would like you better if you would take off your brown skin and put on some white skin."

I know Botswana is not perfect, but perhaps that's the very thing that offers me the freedom I've longed for. Botswana is not perfect and it makes no claims to be, it doesn't expect perfection. It's terrible living in a dream world where everyone keeps blaming you for not taking part, for not getting a piece of it, but every time you make an effort they pull it away. That's the America I know and it holds only a passing resemblance to the red, white, and blue fairy tale the PR machine keeps pumping out.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Unity Dow to Officiate at this Year's Bessie Head Awards

On the 19th of July, 2009, former High Court Justice and author Unity Dow will be awarding the prizes for this year’s Bessie Head Literary Awards. The ceremony will take place at The Little Theatre at the National Museum starting from 2:30 pm. Admission is free. Ms Dow will also read from some of Bessie Head’s writing, so it will indeed be an event not to miss. Authors and poets wishing to do readings will also be given an opportunity to do so.

The Bessie Head Heritage Trust has announced the winners for this year’s awards and they are:

For Novel:
1st Place: Ms. Cheryl Selase Ntumy for her manuscript Crossing.
2nd Place: Ms. Kagiso Madibana for The Way It Goes
3rd Place: Mr. Monametsi Paul for The Reunion

The winner will receive a cash prize of P2,500.00; the runners-up will receive a set of books donated by Exclusive Books and by Pentagon Publishers.

For Short Story:

1st Place: Ms. Gothataone Moeng for a story entitled “Putting on Faces”
2nd Place: Ms. Wanja Njuguna for her story “Forbidden Love”
3rd Place: Mr. Galefele Maokeng for “The Easter Trail”

The prize for the short story winner is P1,500.00, and again the runners-up will each receive a set of books.

For Poetry:
1st Place: Ms. Luda Sekga for “He Was My Oppressor”
2nd Place: Mr. Goabilwe Mogapi for the poem “Memoirs of a Child Soldier”
3rd Place: Ms. Masego Morima for her poem “The Man Who Walks”

The poetry prize is P1,000.00, with a set of books to go to the runners-up.

The bulk of the winners are women this year as Gasebalwe Seretse pointed out in his article in this week's Mmegi Monitor. The Bessie Head Literature Awards are sponsored by Pentagon Publishers and run by the Bessie Head Heritage Trust.


Thursday, July 9, 2009

How TV Writing Helps My Novel Writing

My writing partner and I recently finished our second 13 part television drama series. The first one was written for PSI Botswana and focuses on issues around HIV/AIDS, while the second one is the second series of a very popular local show called Re Bina Mmogo. In both, large groups of people had input in everything we wrote. In the PSI drama, we had the PSI staff but also the umbrella body for HIV/AIDS organisations which were funding the project. With Re Bina Mmogo we did not write the first series, so had to interact extensively with those scripts and their writer as well as the two companies that are producing and directing the series.

Of course in addition to that, writing collaboratively with my partner adds another dimension. The point I'm trying to make is that television writing is a team effort. Everyone from the writers at the beginning until the actor at the end will have input in the final words that are spoken and the final images that are seen. The end product is a result of every one's vision.

In some ways this is frustrating. When you have a clear idea of what you want, it is hard to see that tampered with. But at the same time, sometimes that collaboration brings out something much better than what you originally had in mind, it opens your eyes to new ways to approach the material.

In novel writing, you are the god, except of course for that editor buzzing in your ear a bit further down the line, but for the most part it is the work of one person. This can be good but it also has its downside. Before I wrote for television, it was very difficult for me to accept changes to my work.

There is an interesting discussion on the blog Three Guys One Book about television writing versus novel writing, in particular the literary novel. One of the guys, Jason Chambers has this to say:

Let's talk about TV and TV writing some more, because I think there is a completely different dynamic to novel writing, in that it is much more intensely collaborative, in contrast to the more solitary novel writer. On a writing staff, you might have the experience of 4 or 6 or however many very good writers bouncing ideas off each other, one-upping each other, improving each scene. Take a musical perspective, Lennon's ok, McCartney's ok, but together they are great, because they have someone to say - that's crap Paul, start over, or try it this way. And don't let Yoko sing, John, please. A few people are Dylan, but even those need an editor

This group way of working improves the product but also taught this writer to not be so precious with what she writes, to accept that there are other ways of doing things and of seeing things. This was an important step for me. I think it has allowed me to improve my novel writing.

Another important thing I have learned while writing for television has been how to create and maintain tension and drama, how to leave viewers hanging for a minute or two (or longer sometimes) so as to up the anty a bit. This carries over well to novel writing. In the end, they both are ways to use words to entertain people.

I'm happy I've had a chance to write for television. Though I often shout and scream at the collaborative process, I know in the majority of cases it makes the scripts better and in the end improves all of my writing.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Gadaffi's AU a Waste of Time for Botswana

In a press conference shown on BTV, Vice President Mompati Merafhe and Minister of Foreign Affairs Phandu Skelemani could barely hide their annoyance at the manner in which the just ended African Union (AU) Summit in Libya was held. The new chairperson, Colonel Muammar Gadaffi seems to be intent on running the AU just as he runs his country- by decree and order, something that didn't go down well with the Botswana contingent.

International media has covered the decision, apparently made by the entire summit, that African countries would not abide by the International Criminal Court (ICC) decision to arrest Sudan President Oma Al-Bashir. Vice President Merafhe said that this decision was misleading as it did not represent a decision that came about from a democratic process. According to him, Gadaffi brought the decision to the meeting and announced that a conclusion had been made. No debate on the issue was allowed. Both Botswana and Chad opposed the decision publicly and, according to Merafhe, other countries agreed with them though they only voiced their opinion in private. Merafhe wondered how Botswana, and many other African countries, can be signatories to the documents that created the ICC and then at the same time undermine their work. Botswana has said publicly that if the Sudanese President comes to the country they will arrest him and hand him over to the ICC.

At the same time, Merfahe would not be drawn into a discussion regarding an agreement the Botswana government entered into with the former US President George W Bush in which Botswana agreed that should American citizens be taken to the ICC, Botswana would not participate in their arrest. BTV reporter, Christopher Inyanga, asked the Vice President if this agreement was still in force with the new American administration, but the VP ignored the question.

Skelemani's disgust at how the meeting was held could not be disguised when he related how documents were brought to the general meeting that the chair said were documents made by the Executive Council, of which Skelemani was part. He was surprised to see that the documents put before the general meeting were not the ones that they had submitted. Members voiced their concerns about this. Skelemani told the local press that, "We were given wrong documents despite our complaints and we couldn't debate systematically. It is for your own judgment if this is the kind of Africa you want."

When asked if Botswana is considering pulling out of the undemocratic AU, the Vice President said that that wasn't an option. He still believed talking over issues wherever they can is the best way to solve the continent's problems.

Monday, July 6, 2009

There is No User's Manual for Writing Talent

I saw Nthikeng Mohlele, the author of The Scent of Bliss, at a panel discussion at the Cape Town Book Fair. The topic of the discussion was the personal vs the political in our writing. Mr. Mohlele shared the stage with Zubeida Jaffer and Sindiwe Magona, two powerful women, sandwiching the young author and I felt afraid for him. My fear soared when Mme Magona went on to describe black men as public enemy number one and then Mike Nicol turned to the fresh-faced Mohlele asking him to speak on behalf of his species. What a terrible burden for a writer! It seemed unfair; I wished he would refuse to speak, thinking any word at all was going to add fuel to the roaring inferno started by the perennial fire starter, Mme Magona. But he spoke, and his words didn't- add fuel to the fire that is. They were calm and sensible and intelligent and I fell quickly in line behind him as a fan.

So today as I fume at the third day of cloudy, cold weather and huddle around the fire hoping my out-of-socket back will get back in socket and my adopted country will behave as it should- meaning pull out the hot, sun and push these blasted clouds away- I was so pleased to find an essay by Mr. Mohlele in the latest issue of the excellent South African literary journal, Words Etc. (Please everyone- an appeal- subscribe to this journal so it can live a long and healthy life. )

In the essay, Mohlele discusses the awful topic of how writers write, where inspiration comes from. Those types of questions are similar to asking non-writers the correct way to fall in love or to raise a child. Books are written about such things, but in the main they are little more than one person's path, one person's way, and there are as many ways as there are people, so when it all levels out it's mostly an exercise in futility. But nevertheless the questions continue to be asked.

"How does a writer write?" Mohlele asks. "Is the process stuff for music videos, or can it be easily captured in steps one to ten, like tractor maintenance manuals- how to knit donkey-coloured cheap jerseys? When does the writer know - if the creative engines are fired up ready to go...?" Mohlele admits inspiration is a tricky and flighty bedfellow. A lot of a writer's time is spent waiting for it to return and suffering with the doubt that it may not.

The waiting for inspiration is often misdiagnosed by those around us as idleness. The writer must suffer from all sides; family members trying to fill up the 'wasteful' hours and the stubborn muse who refuses to come out from around the corner and play. "The writer has no defence against the abuse of inspiration- how it tells lies; drags him through smoke screens, whips him in public squares. He has no choice but to abide by the rules of engagement....Inspiration is a lying cheat, is drunk with self importance, and does not apologise for its tacky behaviour. It's stingy while at the same time generous, comes in a trillion disguises: a baby's laughter, a call from a drunken friend, lightening bolt thundering into a swimming pool."

But Mohlele realises he has no answers, none of us do. He says, "God, we are conditioned to believe, gives talents, but the awarding ceremony, at birth, does not include a user manual." For me, I think that's the most exciting part about this writing gig- no user manual- each and every one of us is basically winging it. I think that's the fun , at least for me, finding my way through. What do you think? Can someone be taught to be a good writer or is it a path we all walk alone?

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Contests I Didn't Win

When I was in Cape Town I kept meeting people, other writers, and they'd say- "Oh you're Lauri Kubuitsile- you win everything!". So as a service to truth, I would like to admit that I am a writing contest whore. I will enter almost any contest that requires words on paper. Because of this, it may appear as if I win quite a few contests, when in actual fact I lose an extraordinarily large amount too, but like most writers I usually never admit it. But today I want to come clean.

I recently lost three contests in a row, and though my ego is horribly bruised, I'm secretly happy. I have a three bad things rule. Once I've had three bad things happen, I always get quite a good run of lovely things. It makes for an odd life because when something bad happens to me I very quickly start searching for two more bad things so I can be set free again. I have a contest that I entered that I really, really, really want to get something in so I'm hoping I lost these three contests so I might get some good luck with that one. (I know-strange screwed up pseudo-science which my husband, who believes science is an interesting theory, would be very proud of)

So what are my three losses? Here they are in all of their glory:

1. Binnacle Flash Fiction Contest
I read about this contest on Tania Hershman's blog and she spoke about the lovely way they publish the stories on cards and I so wanted to get those cards, but sadly I got position 114. No one wants a position that has more than one digit, but the organisers thought I might like to know I was 114. The only good thing was that there were more than 115 entries so at least that's something. But I still don't get the cards.

2. BBC Radio Play Contest
Nothing again. The shortlist was announced and though I read it through word by word, four times- my name is not on it. Oh well. I liked my entry. I had adapted a short story of mine that is quite scary called And Then There Was One. Perhaps I'll find a use for it elsewhere.

3. Bessie Head Literature Awards-Poetry
Yes- I entered a poem (please refer to first paragraph of this post). I won the short story category last year, so I really should not be greedy, and I'm not really a poet, though perhaps I'd like to be. I'm happy though that a writer I truly love, who I think one day, if she is serious, may become one of the best writers coming out of Botswana has won the short story contest, so that's very nice.

I have a quotation posted next to my table where I write and it says-"You're only willing to succeed to the same degree you're willing to fail"- this is why I always try to fail spectacularly.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Know Your Market

I made it back from Lephalale with no scars so that's good, but an interesting thing happened that reminded me of the importance of knowing your target market.

I'm not altruistic, but I am very superstitious; I'm a big believer in karma. Because of this I almost always give money to beggars when they ask for it. I have a few exceptions, mostly children, which might seem strange but often parents send their children out to beg when they could be in school so if they are successful they will continue to send them out to beg. I feel it's important for them to not be successful. I know there are exceptions to this, but I work better with rules when it comes to making decisions such as this.

So, we were in the parking lot of one of Lephalale's malls and I was just getting in the car when I saw a white man approaching me. I knew he was a beggar and prepared to get money out of my handbag. Then he did an unfortunate thing; he began to talk.

He starts by saying that he has problems keeping jobs because he has a very low tolerance for laziness. When he's hired as a supervisor (apparently that is the only job he can get) he can't deal with the blacks who like to take two hour lunches since they're so lazy so he always gets fired.

Now this was a perfect case of him not knowing his market. He assumed that since I was white, I was in his tribe- his tribe of whiny, white people who want to blame all of their woes on the lazy blacks who are now in control of things. He thought by laying his problems at the feet of the blacks who are busy messing up beautiful South Africa for all the good, hard-working whiteys, I, being of his tribe, would pop out some money. He seriously miscalculated his target market.

I pulled my hand out of my handbag - empty- and told him I wouldn't be giving him any money that day, or any other for that matter, since I didn't much care for racism of any hue. I got in the car leaving him in the middle of the parking lot ranting about how he wasn't racist. I few passing people took time to look at me and look at him and listen to the conversation.

Now if this white beggar was clever, he might have engaged some of the passer-bys in a short conversation about what ensued. Quickly he would have got their position and then he could refine his spiel and likely come out ahead - not only a victim of black empowerment, but now publicly ridiculed by some white, communist sympathiser from over the border. He may very well have made out better in the long run.

So our lesson today, students? Knowing your market and targeting your pitch makes all the difference when it comes to success.