Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Agent Scam

I'm lucky where I am. I can write a book and submit it straight to any publisher in Southern Africa. We do not need agents to get books published. They have no use here. It's difficult for me to see why I must pay someone 10% of my income for passing my book onto a publisher. It's sort of like the way I don't believe in the insurance industry. And much like that same insurance industry, agents have created a situation in which their purpose seems indispensable. But they are- dispensable that is. I am evidence of that fact.

I'm sure many writers will read this and say- "But my agent is so _____. " Fill in the blank with the word of your choice- wonderful, helpful, insightful, connected....etc. Good for you, I say. I'm happy you think they're earning their 10%. At the very least we should expect that, don't you think?

But my agent gets me the best deal- you say. Well does he now? Has he ever negotiated for 18% royalties and an advance that does not get deducted from those royalties? I have. With. No. Agent.

I'm sure agents have their purpose, just like insurance. They make you feel good when you have them even though they appear to be chowing your money for no sensible reason. I don't need an agent to tell me I'm a good writer or to direct me toward what is marketable or to work on my behalf. I know I'm a good writer if my book gets taken by a publisher. I know what is marketable because I pay attention. Why should I put degrees of separation between my interests and the people who can make my interests come to fruition?

I realise in Europe and America most publishers won't accept manuscripts except through an agent. That's a drag and I feel for writers there. I know if ever I want my books published in those places I'll likely have to submit. Unfair laws and rules can be found everywhere. Agents are a great outsourcing scam from the publishing industry. Instead of having to hire people to go through towering slush piles (I despise that term by the way) they have organised a way to get writers to pay agents to do the job for them. They're quite clever these publishers.

The point I'm trying to make here is as the publishing world gets tossed upside down everyone might use this opportunity to thoroughly analyze the use of middlemen in the process. As far as I'm concerned, agents should be the first to go. Already publishers are saying that there is no money for marketing, the author must do it all. Are you trying to tell me an agent is more important in getting your book sold than a marketing budget? Let's take the 10%, what would have gone to the agent, and use it for marketing instead of digging in our own pocket as publishers would like writers to do now.

Is it fair to force us to get agents so our books can be considered and then with the other hand take more money from us to fund our own marketing? I have no problem marketing my books, I do have a problem popping out money to a person who is nothing more than a go between. Unless someone can convince me otherwise, I say the time of the agent has expired.

The song sung everywhere is that the publishing world is changing- good- then let it change.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

A writing friend from America, Ernestine, and I did a book swap. I sent her a few of the books I've written and she sent me one of her books and a few other children and young adult books she thought I might have interest in. I've been reading quite a few children's books and teenage books lately since I've found my writing interests veering in that direction. Because of that I want to learn how things are done. When I first read many of these books I was reading as a reader, now I'm going back and reading as a writer.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg I'd never read as a child, but I must say I thoroughly enjoyed it as an adult! The story is about the delightful Claudia Kincaid who decides she wants to run away, but Claudia is not your normal everyday runaway. She enjoys comfort and has decided that she will runaway to the New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. She decides to take her younger brother Jamie along because she knows he has a lot of money as he never spends his allowance. She didn't know he also had a pretty good side business cheating his friend at cards.

I love the wonderful sly ways Claudia and Jamie find to live an almost normal life in the Museum. They sleep on historic beds on display, hide their belongings in an Egyptian sarcophagus, and bath in the fountain in the restaurant when everyone has knocked off.

But the story only starts there, for this book is a mystery. Claudia cannot go home until she discovers if the Angel statue bought by the museum for a mere $225 was actually made by Michelangelo. It's such a lovely delightful tale of self discovery with characters to fall in love with.
Thanks Ernestine! And thank you E.L. Konigsburg. (I'm off to read another of Ms. Konigsburg's books Silent to the Bone)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Moeng College 60th Anniversary

Saturday we drove off to the Tswapong Hills to attend the 60th Anniversary of Moeng College. It was also their prize giving and since both of our children attend the school, I had an important reason to be there.

Moeng College was the brain child of Tshekedi Khama, regent of the largest tribe in Botswana, the Bamangwato, from 1926 to 1959. In attendance at the ceremony on Saturday was his daughter, Her Majesty Semane Bonolo Molotlegi who is also the Queen Mother of the Royal Bafokeng in South Africa. She spoke of her father's wish to build a college in the middle of the Tswapong Hills in a quiet place near the stream and the waterfall, an environment conducive to learning. He started the long process in 1933 when he requested to build the school from the British Protectorate authorities. But that was during the Great Depression and money could not be found. When the Great Depression was over he attempted to begin his project but World War II broke out. It was only in 1947 that construction began on the school.

The tribe was asked to donate money for the college. A staggering 100,000 British pounds was raised from the tribe only. You must keep in mind that this was 1947 and this was money collected from people who primarily lived on subsistence farming and cattle rearing. It is astonishing to consider.

Tshekedi Khama used mephato to build the school. A mophato is an age regiment made of men who had gone through bogwera (initiation) at the same time. These men spent two years building the school in the bush without returning home.

Tshekedi was a visionary in many ways. On Saturday his daughter mentioned how he had been the initiator in negotiations to stop prospectors from searching for minerals in the then Bechuanaland. He was successful in stopping them. If he hadn't the history of Botswana would have been a very different one.

He was a visionary too when he built Moeng College. For the first thirty years the school was self-sufficient in food. It had its own dairy, butcher, bakery, garage, generator and orchard. The students were required to learn practical things as well as academic.

Tshekedi also had no time for the racism that flourished among colonial run schools. There was no difference between the houses for white teachers and black teachers and they all lived together.

The school flourished producing some of the more influential and powerful people of this country and even from other countries as there were students from all over Southern Africa at Moeng. Among the school's graduates are: Kgosi Seepapitso, former President Mogae, former minister and successful business man David Magang, Minister of Finance Baledzi Gaolathle, well known Serowe resident and BNF MP candidate, Ms G. Nthebolan ,and leader of the opposition in Parliament MP Otsweletse Moupo.
At the ceremony, the Queen Mother announced that her family, have decided to start a trust for Moeng College called the Tshekedi and Ellen Khama Trust Fund, and they donated P185,000 to start the fund off.

(PHOTOS: Up- the Boy with his father, Down to left- the Boy receiving prize for academic excellence from the Queen Mother, the Girl with her father receiving her prize from Miss 60th Anniversary)

On a personal note, both the Giant Teenagers received prizes. The Girl for best debater and the Boy for best in biology and another given to him by the Queen Mother herself, for academic excellence.

Friday, September 25, 2009

My 4 Favourite Blog Posts This Week

I've decided to make this a regular Friday feature at Thoughts From Botswana. The number you can see is flexible depending on what I've read during the week.

This week I read, as always, all sorts of interesting things on the Internet. I saw haunting photos like those at Selma in the City of the terrible dust storms in Australia that she had to live through. I watched some hilarious videos and some touching ones. It's been a good week in blog land. And now my favourite posts for this week, though I am cheating a bit because one is not from an actual blog but rather a web site, but I've decided not to be too too strict

1. I have never actually understood "show don't tell" I always think I almost have it and then it slips away when someone advises me to stop telling and show the reader. I think agent Branford made a good attempt at explaining it here.

2. This is not officially a blog but I can't not mention this one. It is hilarious! I have become a big fan of The Rumpus mostly because occasionally one of the authors I'm currently stalking- Peter Orner- writes beautiful things there on the rare occasion. (Why oh why are you so stingy with your writing Mr. Orner??) This post though is written by Ted Wilson who has been tasked to review the world and has started by reviewing his body. For any of you who are aging (which is all of us -right?) this ought to get you laughing.

3. The second to last blog post that really touched me with week was at Elizabeth Bradley's blog. Her friend, artist Janice Lowry, recently passed away and she linked to a very inspiring video in which Janice describes her work and her many years of journals that were accepted by the Smithsonian Institute. I found the video very inspiring. Mostly I thought Janice spoke to me about my own creativity and how sometimes I feel that I am just a conduit. I finish a bit of writing and read it over and it is like I'm seeing it for the first time, as if it did not originate with me and, in some cases, I think it doesn't. Janice let her creativity drive her, it dictated the direction of things. Being the controlling Capricorn that I am I found her way invigorating and new. Very, very inspiring. Don't miss it. Her words are a still resonating within me.

4. The last post is from Helen Ginger's blog Straight from Hel. I think most writers read book reviews, but probably to either see how their book has done or in search of books they'd like to read. But who has thought of reading book reviews to get advice on writing? Well Helen Ginger has. Read this interesting post. I'll be reading book reviews with a writer's eye for now on!

Enjoy and have a lovely weekend!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Some Genres More Suitable as Ebooks?

This blogger seems to think so. After reading this I straight away could see how travel guides would be ideal as ebooks. There used to be a very popular travel guide in these parts called Africa on a Shoestring. I came to Botswana as a volunteer and all of the volunteers from all of the countries had this book. Twice it let me seriously down by being outdated.

Once my husband and I were leaving Chimanimani National Park in Zimbabwe. We wanted a short way to get to the Ruins. It had rained forever and we were camping with our newborn daughter and all we wanted was to be out of the mountains. So we pulled out Africa on a Shoestring and there was the map with a road that cut through the mountains making our trip, we thought at the time, shorter. What they failed to mention was that the word road was used quite loosely in the book. This road was a very thin, one lane, dirt path with towering mountains on one side and bottomless valleys on the other, and rail guards were obviously considered a waste of money. Once we were on it, turning around was not an option, it could not be done. It was about 30 kms but it took us hours. Luckily, we met no motorised vehicles on the way. I'm not sure what we would have done if we had. For a long time afterwards I had nightmares envisioning that scenario.

In the other case, when my husband and I were just dating we decided to hitch across two deserts (the Kgalagadi and the Namib) to go to the Atlantic Ocean in Swakopmund, Namibia. We had P500, taking this shoestring business to the extreme. We knew we had a free place to sleep in Gantsi before we crossed the border. We needed somewhere to sleep in Windhoek and Africa on a Shoestring recommended a youth hostel. By the time we got to Windhoek, which was a few days later than we had expected after sleeping a few days on the roadside, the youth hostel was no where to be found. It was now a high rise complex of flats which seemed to house only Christians. They were nice, though. They even took us in for breakfast.

The point I'm trying to make is that tourist guides become obsolete almost as soon as they're printed. Ebook tourist guides could be updated continuously. The publishers could constantly add readers' comments. They would be dynamic and, more importantly, always correct.

One interesting thing that Martyn Daniels says in this post is that it is time to stop thinking of books as one big homogeneous industry just because they are all published on paper. There are so many sectors within publishing,each with their own way to be sold. Some are more suitable as ebooks, some may not be. Some can be sold, some given away free. Again, we need to open our minds and step forward into these exciting times.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Timeless Argument- Literary or popular

Fiction is arbitrarily sliced down the middle as literary and popular. The exact definitions are wavering but some writers take pride in being firmly in one camp. The literary types frown upon those writing plot driven books that get bought by their thousands. The popular fiction clique wonder what the point is in writing books no one reads, or in some cases can't read because of their literary merit that excludes all from understanding except the author.

The battle rages with Dan Brown's current book The Lost Symbol. Phillip Pullman criticised Brown's book saying it was "flat, stunted, and ugly writing". John Grisham,one of my top ten favourite authors, has come to Brown's rescue. Quoted on Telegraph Grisham says that he doesn't understand "literature".

"For me, the essential component of fiction is plot. My objective is to get the reader to feel impelled to turn the pages as quickly as possible. If I want to achieve that, I can't allow myself the luxury of distracting him. I have to keep him hanging on and the only way to do it is by using the weapons of suspense. There is no other way. If I try to understand the complexities of the human soul, people's character defects and those types of things, the reader gets distracted."

Again as I often come down to in my blog- do we write as a job, to put bread on the table or do we write to see how far we can push the art? For me I'm a pendulum- swinging first one way and then the other. What about you?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

5 things I Liked About Act Like A Lady Think Like a Man

I'm in an Oprah loving mood after her fantastic decision to choose the short story collection Say You're One of Them by Nigerian,Uwem Akpan for her book club, so today I'll talk a bit about an Oprah book.

Those who follow the blog know I watch Oprah often (shout at her often too) and recently she had comedian Steve Harvey on talking about his book Act Like A Lady Think Like A Man (note we are far behind American Oprah). It was a pretty funny interview. My husband happened to be around and we watched it together and then being the sweetie that he often is, he bought the book for me.

I'm not big on self-help books and ones about relationships I've always thought were pretty stupid. We are all very different and when we come together that different-ness goes up exponentially as the interaction between us often becomes the third person in the relationship. But this book is funny and actually made me think again about my own approach to my man. So here are 5 things I liked about Act Like a Lady Think Like A Man:

1. When I was training to be a teacher I had to take an educational psychology class. One thing I remember from that is the best way to remember things is in batches of three. Steve Harvey must have learned this too. Everything is in groups of three:

a) The 3 things that drive men: who he is, what he does, and how much money he makes

b) The 3 ways men show their love: Profess, Provide and Protect.

c) The 3 things men need from women: Support, Loyalty and "the Cookie"

2. First let me categorically state that I am a feminist, always have been, and I don't think it is a dirty word. I am one of "those" women. Proudly. But too, lately, I've been feeling sorry for men. Okay fine they still tenuously hold the reins of power, but we all know the second shoe is about to drop. They are becoming slightly obsolete in many ways and we women, even you non-feminists who ride on the backs of all of the daring feminists who gave you your life, are the ones pushing men to the edges.

But the funny thing is as we push them out of everything, we shout at them about how they do nothing. How can they do anything when we do everything- so perfectly. Steve Harvey points out in this book that men are socialised to do certain things like provide for their families and protect us. If their wives earn money and pay for everything and can fix everything from a broken towel rack to the remote for the garage door what are men left to do? We are making them irrelevant. You want your man to do half the work- then stop doing all of the work yourself and then complaining about it. I am 100% guilty of this and Steve Harvey has taught me an important lesson.

3. Sexy is not walking around naked- that's trashy. I won't deny a woman to wear what she wants but Mr. Harvey points out that you will get what you advertise. I agree. (Is my daughter reading this by any chance???)

4. One thing he goes on at length about in this book is that women set the terms in relationships. If you say you won't tolerate X and then he does X and you show him the door, he'll learn his lesson. I agree we women have lowered our standards We will accept a lot from a man- having a bad man is better than having no man- right? As Steve Harvey points out and I agree, the answer is- WRONG.

5. The last thing I found very interesting about Harvey's point of view is when it came to single moms. I know so many single moms and they do not want to introduce the kids to the new man until they are sure there is something serious there. Harvey's take is that you need to introduce the kids to the new man straight away. As a single mom you are a package with your kids, you need to know how this man interacts with your kids and you need to know that before you get in too deep. That was an interesting point of view and seems to make sense to me. I'm not a single mom though.

The book was an entertaining read and a good place to start conversations with your partner and to let you take a look at yourself- which I did. After I read the book I quizzed my husband about some of the things Harvey says men are like, I wanted to know if he thought they were right or not. My husband was raised alone by his aunt mostly at masimo (the lands- the place of women's work). He said that book wouldn't be applying to him since he thought like a lady and looked like a man. Oh well.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Exciting Times in Publishing

I think it's time that we as writers (and other people in the book business) try to open our minds and really truly grasp the new and exciting ways books can be promoted and loved. It is no longer about going to your local bookstore and buying a book. If we learn to use new technologies correctly, books can flourish and they will carry their writers along with them.

Here is a very interesting concept that can be adapted in many exciting ways. What Stephen Elliot did was to send out the few advance copies of his latest book, not to critics and book-y people, but to ordinary readers who were willing to be part of his lending library. He asked people if they'd like to read an advance copy of his book. He got 400 people who were keen. Then he set up a sort of mailing network. He sent out his few copies to the first readers and then the readers themselves were told who to send the book off to when they were finished. Elliot kept a database of the network and poked people who were slow to pass the book on.

In this process he had people all over talking about his book, some online, which created the much needed buzz.

When his book was finally out, he used the same network of readers again. When he went out on his book tour, instead of doing readings at bookstores where few people pitch up, he did them in those very reader's houses. He often even slept in their houses which saved on hotel bills.

I think this is fabulous and I don't see why it must only be done with advance copies. Why not when the book is out? Then the hype won't be for nothing. (One of the criticism of Elliot's method was he had lots of hype before the book was for sale).

Personally I'm getting excited. Finally I'm going to have a book sold on the internet, both through online bookshops and as an ebook. It has entered a slightly long pipeline but when it is ready I intend to adapt as many of these new ideas as I can to market the book.

What do you think about Elliot's idea? I particularly liked that at the end of the whole process, he asked the last person to send the book to someone who earns less than $25,000 (US, I'm assuming- Zim dollars you'd be hard pressed to find someone) who might not be able to afford the book when it came out. Nice.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

My 3 Fav. Posts of the Week

I am stealing from my good friend Selma at the very popular Selma in the City (if you don't read her blog you are seriously missing out). She has decided to make a regular post of her favourite blog posts she read throughout the week. I read a lot of blogs so thought that would be a very groovy idea and promptly stole it.

So below are my three favourite blog posts I read this week, in no particular order:

1. This Short Story Advice from a Great was posted on Nik Perring's blog. It's a video of Kurt Vonnegut giving us all some wise advice on writing short stories. It made me think of my first years of high school. There were three girls,very brilliant, always the top of the grade, who adored Kurt Vonnegut. They were always dropping lines and referring to characters. I so wanted to be 'in' with these brainy girls (yes- I was odd- at 15 I wanted to be the brainy girl. That changed a few years later, unfortunately). so I read every Kurt Vonnegut I could find. Now I can't remember much of them and sadly, I've searched, I have not a single of his titles on my book shelf. (Not so hidden note to family and friends- if you want to send me things send Kurt Vonnegut books please)

2. This is neither pandering nor stemming from guilt for my theft- but the other wonderful post I read this week was from Selma at Selma in the City. It was a lovely bit of writing about getting rid of past grudges. I am horrible, I hold grudges forever. At the droop of a hat I can give you a list of the people I hold serious grudges against from years ago- decades even. Selma wisely points out how unhealthy that is and gives us an elegant way to rid ourselves of the obsession. I've yet to do it, but will. (Really.) Don't miss Let it Go.

3. The last post for this week comes from the blog A Subtle Knife that I recently discovered thanks to my friend Colleen Higgs. It is written by Cape Town based writer and academic Andries du Toit. He's done a fantastic review of the movie Disgrace adapted from the novel by J.M. Coetzee called Lost in Africa: disgrace, whiteness and the fear of desire. Fantastic.

Have to add these two things:

1. Congrats to Nigerian Uwem Akpan for getting his short story collection Say You're One of Them chosen for Oprah's Book Club. Big -BIG- deal for African writers and short story collections. YAHOO!!!

2. I have a short story at Bookaholic - Memory of Mother.

Enjoy and have a lovely weekend!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Out of My Window

I currently work in our dining room. When I look out my window here is what I see:

This is our front yard. The grass is finally coming back. The trees on both side of the bougainvillea are jacarandas which today are beautiful, full of purple flowers.

And the window I look out is this one:

That's my doggie Chelsea trying to get out of the photo. She's photo shy.

What do you see out your window? If you decide to post let me know so I can come and see.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Taking the A Train

Next year my daughter will be having her gap year and she has decided to spend a few months in the United States visiting my sister and her cousin (my sister's daughter) who will be graduating from senior secondary school. My sister has planned a big graduation trip for them all. Quite exciting moving around the western US; my sister lives in Colorado.

The following year, 2011, my son will also have his gap year. I asked him if he’d like to go to the States too, but he’s not keen to travel alone. I offered to go with him and he said that would be better. But of course there will be no big graduation trip, so I’d been thinking about what we might do.

Last time I was in the United States was before any of these people were born, I was, in fact, pregnant with my daughter. My husband and I got a 30 day air pass with one of the airlines, I’ve forgotten which. I thought that might be a good idea, but, sadly, they no longer exist.

Then I checked out the trains. Amtrack has 30 and 45 day passes. Then I thought wouldn’t it be fun to get on the train and move around the United States meeting all of the many writers I’ve met on the internet- at Writers Weekly from when I first started writing seven years ago, to blog friends, to my new Facebook friends.

Then I thought it would be even nicer to go on such a trip and record it all, here and maybe even write a book about it. Take photos of all of these lovely people. I’ve become quite excited just thinking about it. Already I have my long time writer friend Ms Karen preparing for my visit to Washington state- never been there but always wanted to be.

It is funny how close you get to people you’ve never actually met. It would be fun to move around and see them in flesh and blood. See their houses, meet their families, some of which I feel I know already, talk about writing.

It’s two years away so I have plenty of time to plan. Of course money, as always for most writers unless you're Dan Brown, is a problem, but two years is some time away and anything can happen. If I say now I intend to do it- then I will- one way or another. Maybe some publisher will pop up and sponsor me, maybe Amtrak will use me for publicity. Who knows? Anything can happen.

So please folks, come 2011, clear a space on your floor for me and my son, I may be stopping by.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Barbie's Back Story

I was searching for something else, but as is my usual way to procrastinate, I started looking for answers to some nagging questions by looking them up on the internet instead of attending to my work like a good writer.
At the back of my mind for a few days I'd been trying to remember Barbie's friend's name and look what I stumbled across! Is this a find or what? My gosh- imagine how much life we miss everyday by just attending to our business! What is it I've discovered? It's Barbie's back story! Ooo... FUN!

Most of us knew Barbie's boyfriend was Ken, but do you know his surname? Ken Carson- sounds very male model, Barbie's-my-cover, I'm actually gay- if you ask me. To be honest, I sort of knew Ken was gay all along, Carson just sort of hammers the last nail in the coffin. There is something about an ascot that doesn't scream heterosexual.

And who knew Barbie had parents? George and Margaret Roberts kept a very low profile, letting their daughter fill the spotlight while they lurked behind stage. Or perhaps there's something else behind that hiding in the shadows, George and Marge ......hmm?? Could it be the deep dark secret you've been trying to hide all of these years? Could it be that you didn't want the world to know that Barbie- yes, that tippy-toe-walking, perpetually-non-droopy-nippleless-booby-having, always-inexplicably-smiling daughter of yours was a result of a teenage pregnancy?
Yes, I'm sorry to say that is the only conclusion that can be made. Barbie was born in 1959 and in 1999 (!) Marge gave birth to Krissy, Barbie's youngest sister. If Marge was 20 when Barbie was born she had to be 60 (!) when Krissy was born. What doll gives birth at 60?
Come clean Marge, this is 2009. We understand things now that people (and dolls I assume) just couldn't accept in those post WWII years. Unburden yourself, secrets are very stress inducing, cancer causing even. We wouldn't want to see MmagoBarbie going down like that.
Gosh -and who knew Barbie was so popular? I count 61 friends- real life friends. That's more than I have in Facebook. In the 60s Barbie had friends like Midge Hadley; by the new millennium, she graduated to friends that didn't wear hairnets with names like River, Summer, and Ana Suarez.

And what's the story with Melissa? The Wikipedia article says "didn't exist (stripper barbie) liked being naughty". What does that mean? If she didn't exist, how does Wikipedia know that she likes being naughty and that she strips? Curious. I think it's another of George and Marge's dirty little secrets. Barbie has multiple personality disorder. When she takes on her "Melissa" personality.... well ... she gets a bit... naughty.

It's odd with Barbie so popular, Ken only managed to be friends with the partners to Barbie's gang members; Midges' husband, Tracy's fiance, and the womaniser Stephen, who dated two of Barbie's friends- both Christie and Nikki. That must have been awkward for Ken and Barbie. I suspect Barbie keeps Ken on a very short leash with the latent homosexuality and all, and doesn't let him make his own friends. I feel sad for Mr. Carson. I doubt bossy-Barbie even lets him wear ascots any more.
How fascinating Barbie Roberts-Carson's life has been though (I'm sure she's a double barrel kind of gal)! Besides being a model and in numerous rock bands, she appears to have been a terrorist at some point when she was part of the Barbie Liberation Organisation (BLO?!?).
Oh, and by the way, Barbie's friend I was trying to think of was the very groovy- PJ. I remember she had psychedelic bell bottoms and purple sunglasses. I'm glad that's settled. Now I can finally get back to work.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Definition of Patriotism

There is a very funny column in The Sunday Standard called Loose Canon, the writer is not identified. I read the column every week. This last Sunday he wrote about Batswana who have entered the Big Brother House. His point was people like to complain that they don't represent the country well. He tried to make a case that the Botswana housemates are actually excellent reflections of us, but we just don't like what we're seeing in the mirror. I tend to agree, but that is not why I'm writing this. He says some Batswana say Big Brother must be patriotic and choose people not like us so they don't embarrass us on international TV.

Then he goes on to say, "I am not a patriot. I consider myself a citizen who just happened to be born here. I don't like the idea of patriotism it has a whiff of the irrational around it.....In other words, patriots are idiots who cannot think for themselves."

I've always been slightly scared of patriotism. It is a bit like culture, pulled out when a person wants to win an argument. If you say something another person doesn't like but they have no strong argument to counter you with, they say, "Well that's very unpatriotic." It's a good "shut-up, I win" way to argue. Depending on the country it can be very effective. Batswana are pretty patriotic folk so it can work occasionally; do it in America and you win hands down.

What do you think? Is patriotism irrational and the realm of idiots?

Monday, September 14, 2009

What Botswana Writers Need

In Friday's Mmegi there was an interesting article by Barolong Seboni and Jane Swartland. They were writing about what they feel writers in Botswana need from the government. The situation for writers in Botswana is dire. There is no Arts Council. The only publishers we have in the country are educational publishers, so if you don't write for the school market you will not be published here. If you do get a trade book published, it is impossible to get bookstores to stock it or if they do it will be in the minuscule Botswana section in the corner, behind all of the international best sellers. If anyone goes there you'll be lucky they see your book, because it will be spine out, next to the shelf filled with (cover out) Alexander McCall Smith books. Very few people read books in Botswana, and of them fewer still can buy books. Being a creative writer in Botswana is an exercise in futility unless you can escape the borders.

I was told once that when the English Department at the University of Botswana suggested they start a creative writing programme there the vice chancellor asked - what for?
Though on the surface a case can be made that in a developing country like Botswana, creative writing is not important, but that would be a cursory case only. As Unity Dow mentioned at the Bessie Head Awards this year, the stories of Batswana are recorded by writers. And not just stories of the past, the stories of the lives being lived now. Every day that passes where writers are unable to be published, where people with stories in their heads can get no training, where creative writing is looked at as a hobby with little practical use, stories are being lost forever. Those stories are part of our culture, culture that is being lost.

In their article, Ms Swartland and Mr Seboni list what measures must be taken by the government to support creative writers in Botswana. They are:

1. Publishable manuscripts should be published by the government through a literature development council.

2. It should be a government policy that books regarded as Botswana literature should be bought and distributed to schools throughout the country.

3. The government, through the Ministry of Youth and Culture, should have money set aside exclusively for the training of writers.

4. Prestigious writing awards should be run by the government.

5. Writers organisations should be given funds to publish journals.

6. The Department of Culture should help to re-establish the Writers' Corner radio show.

These are wonderful wishes but taken in light of current events they seem very unlikely to happen. The only big payout writing award in the country was the Botswerere Awards for Creative Writing. It was sponsored by Orange and there was a single award for creative writing, meaning that poets, scriptwriters, novelists, and short story writers were all in the same category. They were being held biannually, this year they should have been held but they were cancelled.

Primary Education took the bold move to introduce English and Setswana readers for all standards. Books were chosen and then when it came time to buy, they decided standard 1-5 didn't need the books after all, an extravagance having little impact on the children's education- or so it seems.

These are just recent events that show government's unwillingness to support writers and introduce a culture of book reading and book loving. Seboni and Swartland make excellent proposals, but where to start? The government sees AIDS, poverty, and unemployment and they can't quite get their heads around the point of a poem or a story well written. As long as this condition persists, Batswana writers will be climbing a very steep hill indeed.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Catman the Teenager

I have to say it- my cat is an ugly teenager. She has gone all pointy and long and thin. Her face is a bit reptilian. She has this odd sort of fur now- not quite long hair, not quite short- sort of tufty in spots and almost bald in others. Not attractive; no cat shows for this one. She’s taken on a few characteristics that I don’t appreciate either. Since she lives only with dogs she seems to have adopted behaviours that don’t fit her species. The worst is rolling in dirt.

My dog Chelsea is a Jack Russell, and people who own Jack Russells, at least here in Botswana, will know what I mean when I say that their perfume is poop. Chelsea’s preferred scent is cow poop. If you don’t pay attention, when she finds it she will roll in it in a hedonistic way until she is covered then get up and prance around showing off how sexy she is.

Chelsea’s dog, Buster, the African Sausage Dog, is under the impression that a handsome sausage dog is a sausage dog covered in bits of dry leaves and grass. He will roll in them and then very carefully, almost in slow motion, walk through the sitting room so none fall off (but of course they do leaving a trail on the carpet) giving everyone the chance to appreciate his magnificence.

Catman watched these doggy behaviours and has decided rolling is a family tradition and she has chosen dirt as her speciality. So to pet Catman is a bit like giving Pig-Pen a hug. Clouds of dust billow and invariably you need to sneeze.

The other very annoying habit of Catman’s is her particular whine when fish is within a 5 km radius. It’s a “don’t be stupid- just hand it over” whine. I don’t get it. This cat was born in Botswana. The biggest body of water she’s been near is the dog’s water dish and yet from day one she knew the scent of fish. All fish- tinned, frozen ,fresh- it is hers and you will submit.

I wonder how long cats are teenagers because I am not liking this Catman phase.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Relief of a Science Textbook

Oh I have had a week! Besides my bad news on Monday, money is failing to make it's way to me from all of the directions in which it is owed ( the destiny of a writer, or so my good writer friend informs me- we are last on the list to be paid, after the man who oils the printing press).

Then my post the other day about white people in Africa has stimulated a lot of debate through email, here, and at Facebook. Debate that has me thinking too much about my life here and if it makes any sense. The saddest part of the whole discussion was a comment from a black African living in the United States who spoke about how difficult it is for him to ever make real, true friendships with white people when he is here on the continent. I realised the truth in that statement. The achingly sad personal truth in it. I just recently ended a friendship that I thought was real and true, perhaps the first real friendship I've had with a black, Motswana in the 20 years I've been here. I realised I haven't mourned that loss properly and it has all come to a head in this one single week leaving me a bit of a wreck.

But this post is not about how to destroy a writer in six easy steps for this is, actually, a positive post. Today, finally, I had a very productive day after a week of almost nothing getting done. I am back to science textbook writing and am loving it. This is my fourth science textbook.

Since I've taught science both here and in the United States and at junior secondary, senior secondary, and primary, I have quite a bit of ideas to work from. I also have very strong feelings about science teaching. I believe kids need to get active. I still remember the thrill of doing my first science experiment in school. It's what made me love the subject so much. Here in Botswana many schools, especially primary schools, have little science equipment. I keep this in mind in all of my activities and experiments. I try as much as possible to use easily available items.

Today I was working on a chapter on pollution. I often cruise around the internet to get ideas for activities and then try to adapt them to our conditions. I found a great one today about setting out white plates covered in Vaseline to look at the amount of air pollution. I've adapted it to make an experiment where you use the plates as a tool to compare air pollution at the kitchen ( most schools here cook with coal or wood) , the parking lot, the chicken house, and the classroom.

I also believe in project work. When I taught primary school I insisted on independent project work in all subjects. I think kids should get a chance to learn more about the parts of the subject they find most interesting and not always be bullied to learn what the syllabus dictates. That's even more important in our school system which is defined by the tests taken at the end of each stage.

The other very important part of science textbook writing for me is to bring the subject home. Batswana students need to know that science is not happening only in Europe or in America- science is happening right in Botswana. In each chapter, I try to interview local scientists working on research in the area being covered.

So, today my work saved me. Just the simple act of being productive has placed me back in the right state of mind. Who would have thought a saviour could be found hidden inside of a science textbook?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Does Africa Have A Song For Me?

On Sundays on SABC there is a wonderful show called "Who Do You Think You Are?". In it they take South African celebrities and with them set out to discover their ancestry. Often surprises are revealed, as family histories as we all know are often rose coloured. This last week it was Patricia Glyn's turn. For those who don't know her, which is likely everyone outside of Southern Africa, she is a writer and a radio and TV personality. From her website she seems also to be quite an adventurer. She was born in Zambia and grew up there until her family relocated back to South Africa, to Cape Town, when President Kaunda, a personal friend to her father, nationalised many of the family's assets. She is of British ancestry.

During her search to uncover her past, she discovers that a branch of her family was given land after the British army forcibly and brutally removed Xhosa people from it. There was a point in the show where she asks some elderly relatives who have lived their whole life on that very farm about the eviction of the Xhosa. One elderly woman vehemently proclaims that their land was unoccupied. When Ms Glyn points out that in fact that is not true as she had learned the truth of the matter the day before from the historian, the old woman becomes silent. What she knew to be true was now not, and who she knew she was was now altered.

Glyn feels a bit hopeless about this situation. She is now one of the bad guys. She has to accept that she gained in some incremental way by the Xhosa being denied their land. No apologies for this travesty have been forthcoming from the white British nor restitution to the Xhosa. Glyn, to her credit, meets with the elders of the Xhosa speakers in the area of the farm and apologises for what has happened. Though this may seem trite, I took it as an honest acceptance of guilt. What else might she have done? She has no claim to the land herself. She has no power to give it back. But at the very least she has accepted her fraction of culpability. That is more than most have done.

But Glyn is in a quandary. She finds herself in a situation that I think all white people in Africa find themselves. For her, this is the only home she knows. It is the place that she belongs. But she repeats Karen Blixen's plea," If I have a song of Africa, does Africa have a song of me?" I cried when I heard that. Is there any white person on the whole of the continent who can answer yes to that question? Will there ever be?

I don't know what makes this continent unique, perhaps it is only unique because it is where I struggle. Perhaps the same can be said for non-Asians in China or Japan. The obvious outward difference forever keeps you as the other. Forever. No matter what contribution you might make. No matter what you may feel personally. No matter your personal history. You do not belong.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Black Monday

After my post about the six things I'm happy about I think the gods wanted to punish my hubris. First thing Monday morning I got an email from my publisher saying that the government, thanks to this vile, hateful, economic crisis, has decided they cannot afford to purchase books for standards 1-5 (this is primary school grade 1-5). No books. At all.

This is sad in and of itself as it means children will have no books when schools open in January. Children at the lowest grades where everything is so important. The place where the foundation is built that will decide their future educational success. How do teachers teach without books?

The Ministry of Education is making chaotic decisions under financial duress and this is not the first of them. A few months ago they suddenly raised the points needed by form fives to get sponsorship to university from 36 to 40 and said that it would apply immediately. This meant children who thought that their position was secure were suddenly out in the cold. Before the month finished, they went back on their decision having given these young people a terrible fright about their future for no reason at all except poor leadership at the Ministry.

After this they announced that with immediate effect they would no longer give university students allowances over break. Again they've had to take the decision back when the students took the government to court. I feel pity for the civil servants working at the Ministry. They are the ones who must bare the brunt of this chaos not the ones at the top who create it. Education Minister Jacob Nkate seems to be immune from criticism.

For me personally this news is a disaster. For the first time I have five prescribed books for next year. Two of these will no longer be bought- at all. One of those Mmele and the Magic Bones, the one I had my best royalty deal on. The government chose them as prescribed books for standard five, but now they won't be bought. Seems to me to be reneging on a done deal, but apparently they don't see it that way. I was counting on that money. More importantly I was counting on the freedom that that money was going to give me. No more scratching away at freelancing making P200 here , P200 there. Fighting to get payment. Pushing all fiction aside trying to make enough money to survive.

I'm not sure what this means for the other books. Two are at primary one, at junior secondary. If they're slashing books so viciously I don't hold a lot of hope for the other titles. I can only cross fingers and hope that the others get bought and that the following year they go back and buy the ones that should have been bought this year.

I find it difficult today to get to work on a new textbook I'm starting for my publisher. I can't quite get the energy together for that. Futile seems to be the word filling my brain right now.

Despite the news that everything is turning around, this economic crisis is far from over. The ripple effects, I'm afraid, will be long lasting.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Six Things I'm Happy About Today

1. My son is okay.
I spent a restless night and woke up feeling quite ill and upset on Sunday. My son has been having some problems at school, some caused by him , some caused by others, and he was feeling quite depressed about it all. He is in a very remote boarding school and it's difficult to get a hold of him. I tried all day yesterday and couldn't but Sunday morning his big sister searched until she found him . My husband and I both finally got to talk to him and he sounded so much better. Teenagers are so resilient- thank god.

2. I had a lovely weekend with my husband.
He is away to university all week and he almost couldn't come for the weekend but at the last minute managed. I'd had a rough week so it was such a blessing. Though being apart all week is difficult, it does teach you to value the time you get together.

3. Had a fantastic reader's report for my kid's book Curse of the Gold Coins
I submitted the book to a new publisher in South Africa, one that I would be so proud to be published by. The reader started out with "This is quality writing by an experienced Motswana writer." I'm still humming from that one. Don't quite have an acceptance yet though. ....

4. My swimming pool is finally back up.
My husband worked hard yesterday getting it set up and today I helped him to lay down paving brick. Tonight after he left for Gaborone, I started planting green grass around it. I'll soon be back to my late afternoon swims with my "swimming machine" (soon to be patented).

5. My baby marrows have come up.
My baby marrows I planted last Monday have broken through the soil looking very healthy. I've never grown these before in Botswana so I'm very excited to see what happens.

6. Flowers in my garden and on my desk.
Spring is here and my garden is looking lovely. So lovely I can cut flowers now and for a week now I've had fresh flowers on my desk.

Friday, September 4, 2009

How to Kill Your Own Creativity

Trying to make a liveable income from writing is a serious, gut-wrenching, everyday battle. A writer I knew but try not to anymore, once criticised me for writing for contests, saying it lessened my integrity as a writer. I suppose writing to earn money does the same in her eyes. There is this odd kind of thinking among writers that this work we do, must be done for the work only, the creative process and if we get paid in the end that's fine but it is not mandatory. If we write for pay, by default the work is less. Perhaps they have the luxury of that thinking, I don't. Writing is my job.

I've written for the process. I have two very long, unpublished novels as proof of the fact. I've sent them out to publishers and agents and I've got the pre-requisite rejections enough to paper walls if I was so inclined. I don't see myself as an accomplished writer having gone through that process. I don't think because those novels were written with no market in mind, just from the sheer force of my creativity needing to be expressed they are better for it. I look at those novels as failures. Nothing more than that.

Now I write efficiently. Why write novels that will sit in desk drawers? What is the point of that? Why write short stories to submit to literary magazines that don't pay? When a contest comes around why look at the guidelines and then go through your piles of work written for the process and find that nothing fits? I just don't get that anymore.

I'll admit, right now as I wait for a cheque that is not coming and think about jobs that will only begin in two months and wonder how I will get from here to there, yes, having to think about money when you write can kill your creativity at times. But investing so much of your time and thought on books that will never find a publisher also crushes creativity just as efficiently.

My goal is to make a living from my writing. Is that wrong?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Spring in Mahalapye

This winter seemed far too long and far too cold. It seemed it would never end but it finally has. To celebrate- pictures from my garden. This first one is of the blossoms on our pomegranate tree. We rented our house out and the tenants let everything die. We moved back in February and I was sure this tree was dead. I guess not!

This is a picture of our vegetable garden at the back of our house. Carrots to the right are already being eaten as well as the tomatoes which I thought could be seen in the photo but you can't, and spinach at the far left. This week I planted green peppers, baby marrow, chili peppers, cucumbers and egg plant.

And here are blossoms on our orange tree with little oranges already showing. Wish you could smell them, they're wonderful especially at dusk. The whole garden smells of orange blossoms.

Yeah for spring.... I thought you'd never arrive.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Kgosi Kgolo Kgafela II

Kgosi Kgolo Kgafela II is becoming a very interesting person to watch in Botswana. He is a brilliant young man, trained as a lawyer, with a firm attachment to his tribe and a mission to remind Bakgatla of the rich cultural history they possess. At the same time, he is trying to find a way for the tribe to hold unto its culture while stepping forward into its future. In Botswana, there is a tendency to look at culture as something defined in the past and few have been able to make it relevant to people of today, so it is being thrown away with little to nothing to fill the gaping hole left behind. This has led to many societal ills. Kgosi Kgafela seems to have found a way to excite the youth about culture and to find a way for it to be alive in modern society.

Kgosi Kgolo Kgafela II is the paramount chief of the Bakgatla, the tribe whose capital is the village of Mochudi in the south of the country. For people who read Alexander McCall Smith books- it is the home of the fictional character Precious Ramostwe. Kgosi Kgafela II is the son to Kgosi Linchwe II who died in 2007. Kgosi Kgafela II was born in Washington DC during the time that his father served as Botswana's ambassador to the United States. He is trained as a lawyer. You can read about his life in his own words here.

After his coronation as kgosi kgolo, the controversy around him began. He was still working as a full time lawyer and wanted to remain doing so and at the same time participate in the House of Chief. The House of Chiefs (Ntlo ya Dikgosi) is a consultatory body of the legislative branch of Botswana's government and advises Parliament on issues of culture. Though he wanted to attend the House of Chiefs he would not be able to be part of the daily activities at the kgotla in Mochudi. This did not sit well with President Ian Khama's government and a battle ensued.

Earlier this year he reinstated the female initiation called bojale. Hundreds of Bakgatla women went through the traditional ceremony including writer and former high court judge Unity Dow. Last month the male version of the ceremony was done, bogwera. The rejuvenation of these ceremonies has brought a renewed pride in their culture among the Bakgatla. Bogwera and bojale are important ceremonies in most tribes in Botswana. It is where children are taught the roles and responsibilities of being an adult. Most tribes have stopped these ceremonies often influenced by churches.

Kgosi Kgafela is restoring traditional values in his village with a commitment to discipline and cultural practice. Last week a group of drama students sang songs from bojale and bogwera at a drama competition. Songs associated with these sacred ceremonies are not to be sung outside of the initiation ceremony though such rules have been ignored. The drama group was taken to the kgotla for punishment; they were beaten.

All of this may sound like the workings of a traditionalist who has not taken steps into the modern world, but if you came to that conclusion you would be wrong. He has since left his law practice. He has set up the Royal Bakgatla Communications Company which has sold the filming rights to both the bojale and bogwera ceremonies. The company has also published a book on Bakgatla history which they are selling. They are in the process of setting up a Royal Bakgatla Private Secondary School and Royal Bakgatla Properties which are looking for ways to earn money for the tribe.

He seems to have taken a page from the Royal Bafokeng of South Africa. No other tribal leader has taken the leadership of his tribe so seriously. He has accepted the role as caretaker of the Bakgatla heritage and as the one responsible for the well being of all of tribe's members. It is exciting to see such pronounced, dedicated leadership. This is a man we all need to watch.

(In my ramblings for this post I came across this quite comprehensive dictionary of Botswana at the website for the Japanese embassy.)

Are you interested in learning more about Botswana? Consider purchasing Lauri's short story collection (ebook) In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata and Other Stories, all stories set in Botswana. You can buy it at Amazon HERE

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

10 Things I Loved about Black Rabbit Summer

I'm going to borrow my friend Colleen Higgs' interesting way of reviewing books where she gives ten things that she enjoyed about the book. I thought it's a slightly more insightful way of talking about a book you've loved. Black Rabbit Summer is marketed as a teenage novel, but I found it fascinating and was intrigued from start to finish.

Ten Things I Loved About
Black Rabbit Summer by Kevin Brooks

1. Kevin Brooks' writing is Kevin Brooks on a page.
I saw Kevin Brooks read and speak at the Cape Town Book Fair this year. He is a middle aged, shy-ish, punk rocker type wired as tight as a spring. His writing is the same and I found that endearing and hopeful.
2. Foreshadowing
I grew up with the Twilight Zone and I am a lover of foreshadowing. I love lines like "I didn't know it then, but as I left Raymond's garden that day and started walking back home, I'd just made the biggest mistake of my life." Lines like that make me quiver with excitement- what next? what next??
3. Pete Boland
Pete Boland is our narrator in Black Rabbit Summer. Straight away I loved him. I loved is aimless laziness and his concern about his laziness. I loved his concern for his mother's feelings. What I loved most was the way he loved Raymond. Raymond is dorky and odd and thinks his rabbit talks to him, but Pete is loving and protective of him. He says, "But I liked the way he looked- his weirdness, his difference, his oddity. I t suited him. It helped to make him what he was." You gotta love a teenager who can say that.
4. The Grimy Streets
The book is set in a city (I think in East Essex) that is obviously in decline. Brooks uses the rubbish, the dirty river, the abandoned factories, the obviously working class neighbourhoods to heighten the fear and danger expertly.
5. First Person Perspective
I'm really beginning to realise the effectiveness of first person. Just before I read this book I read Fuse by S.A. Partridge, another book written for a teen market. Fuse is about school killings and is written in third person, sometimes even omnipresent third person and it kills the book. It is a good book, but it could have been exceptional in first person. In stories with so much emotional investment and tension you must be in some one's head or the tension is dissipated.
6. A Different Fair
Brooks turns those roller coasters and fun games- those screams- into a place full of sinister motives and danger. You'll not look at a fun fair again in the same way I'm afraid.
7. Pacing
The incremental pacing throughout the book taught me how a slow progress forward to an undefined though known danger can draw the reader in like little else can. I'm stealing that for sure.
8. An Interesting Approach to Mystery
This is a mystery above all else, but the approach is innovative. You don't learn what the mystery is until half way through. There are no real dead ends to be travelled down like a traditional detective mystery. It's more like a mist the reader must travel though.
9. Characterization
Brooks is not a fan of long drawn out description and neither am I, but when the book is over you know Pete and Raymond. You understand Nic's motivations. At points I thought I could even smell Pauly. Fantastic characterisation.
10. Raymond
He's such a harmed but gentle character. He hears his rabbit talking, he loves Pete as much as Pete loves him. He's bullied for his difference as all oddities are in this world of conformity. Your heart will ache for him.

I highly recommend this book. 5 very fat stars from me!