Monday, December 23, 2013

Merry Me and Merry You!!

The overriding fear when I was growing up in America was the fear that someone, everyone, would find out I was different. I saw what being different got you. There was David Nico who rode my school bus every morning, who gave me a peek into what different meant. His parents had him when they were already old. By the time he was on the school bus, they were grey haired and bent. And to make matters worse, he kept geese as pets, and told people about it. And he wore outdated clothes. He was different and everyone made sure he knew it. It was daily warfare for David Nico. Tripping, spit balls, name calling, laughs into hands. But David Nico didn’t seem to care. He just went on being the way he was; he didn’t try to hide anything. I looked at him and wondered why. Why couldn’t he just try to be normal?

We went through some of primary school and all of secondary school together.  At university, where people should be free to lose all of that baggage accumulated in their childhood and remake themselves, I found David Nico siting in my Zoology 101 lecture that first day and I made sure to always sit far away from him, to never greet him. I didn’t want his stink on me. I was still petrified.

At home, I had a crazy mother for a long time and then an abusive stepmother and her dull, drug-taking children.  On top of that we were poor. Different, different, different. I would go to any length to distance myself from it all. I was a normal girl like everyone else. Maintaining my normalcy was exhausting and incredibly time consuming. Friends coming over? Oh no, let me come to yours instead. And will your mother come for parent’s day? No, sorry, she’s dead. Is that druggy girl your stepsister? I don’t know her; she’s lying if she says otherwise. You know how these druggies are.  It was tough but I was vigilant. I knew the punishment I would get if I didn’t keep up the fa├žade. The work was worth it.

Holidays, all of them, require normalcy. It’s a prerequisite. There’s a package of what you must do. Put up a tree. Buy presents. Put out stockings and wait for Santa. And there is the other package of feelings. You must be with your family, whom you love, of course, and they love you in return. You must be happy. You must be thankful and joyous. You might even sing Christmas carols and go sledding. It’s the normal, the right way, to be.

If you’re doing anything else, if you’re feeling anything else, it’s abnormal. Abnormal comes at a big cost. You obviously didn’t do something right. Something about you is wrong and because of that you should feel sad. You are wrong. You need to accept your punishment for not being normal. Holidays are tough on the abnormal; merciless.

I count myself lucky almost everyday now, because somehow I managed to break free. By a series of accidents, I managed to escape the normal boxes, both physical and mental. I didn’t even know I was doing it, or maybe somewhere inside I did.

I found myself here in Botswana. There was no way I could hide my abnormal any more. I was white and most everyone around me was black. And once I couldn’t hide that particular abnormal, it didn’t seem to make any sense to hide any of my abnormal. The endless struggle to keep everything in check just fell away and I realised how much of my life had been squandered on keeping my wonky walls in place. I realised it had all been an incredible waste of my far too little time. I could finally be me, all of me.

And that went for all of the normal around the holidays too. Holidays are defined any way I want now. It might mean camping at the Atlantic Ocean and swimming in the icy sea. It might mean playing Scrabble. It might mean eating watermelon all day in front of the TV. It might mean being with the family I choose, or not. It might mean sleeping all day. It might mean laying in the sun and getting burnt to crisp or eating pumpkin pie until I feel sick.

Normal is such a bully. Such a waste of time. Such a lie. Normal is like that king with no clothes that people lied to just to not be singled out and, just like that king, we only need to turn and look at Normal and say- “Nope, you don’t exist”- and poof!, just like that the honesty of it all can be seen.

If I had one wish for the people I love this year it would be to stop being normal. Stop being forced into those boxes no one fits inside. That road is so worn and so laden with tears and sadness. Don’t let these holidays bully you with their normal boxes. Step on them and crush them into the ground, they’re filled with nothing but air in any case.
This year let the holidays ring with Merry Me! And Merry You! -just exactly how we are.
That’s my wish for all of us.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Manic Depressive Life of a Writer

Up, down, up, down, sideways and back down again. It might be a rejection, it might be a critique. It might be a comment. Or a story that just doesn't work. Or one that does. A publisher who says yes. A robot who says no.  I find this writing life to be like a crazy, wild roller coaster.

Up there is a photo of some of my published books. One would think I could look at those and think- okay, I've accomplished a lot. I'm not a complete hack. I should be happy. But it doesn't work that way. For me it's about two things 1) where I am today and 2) where I want to be tomorrow. What I've done is, well, done. Today I'm a bit stuck. Not quite started on a new project, not having any smaller jobs to distract me from my bigger problem. So today's not one of the good days.

I've known manic depressives in my life and I always thought if I was ever one I would not take medication. I would accept the depressed times so that I could still have the manic times. And it's like that with writing I think. I'm in a bit of a depressed time right now, but I know it won't last for ever. Out there are those glorious moment when things will be perfect. Those crazy wonderful moments. I've had a few.

You sit down at the computer and the story comes to you like it's been waiting your entire life. Or you get mentioned in a newsletter with a writer you really respect. Or you attend a prize giving where you win. Or a publisher tells you they're so keen you sent them a manuscript.Or you finally understand the plot of your latest book you've been fighting with.

Up and down and up and down. The writing life is a bit exciting like that. Sometimes not so nice, but always exciting.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Yikes! December is Nearly Gone!

Accidentally I found a list of my 2013 resolutions- this was a good and bad thing. I think resolutions are good to have, to help you reach for goals, to stretch yourself.  They're not good if you get to the end of the year and are demotivated by the fact that you've not accomplished many of them, which is sort of where I am now. Let's take a look at this list:

1. Get a book accepted by Mills and Boon
The main point of this was to convince myself that my romances might have some international appeal. I have a novel that is finished and has gone through a few edits, but it's not ready yet. My romances seem to have a natural length of about 30,000 words, this books needs to be 50,000. So resolution not accomplished, but I'm going to give myself big lee-way since I was sick for the bulk of this year. I'm about a quarter of my way to this goal so I get a 1/4

2. Finish If Not For This and find an agent for it
I've finished the novel. I have sent it out to agents. Now I'm waiting. So I'll give myself a 2/3 on this one.

3. Attend one writers' workshop and one writer's residency
I got accepted at Chateau Lavigny and was meant to go but couldn't because I couldn't sit or walk at the time. I did attend a poetry workshop at the Maun International Literature and Poetry Festival. I'd hoped it would be more writing poetry than talking about it, but I did attend. So I think here I get 1/2

4. Get a story taken at Take a Break
Take a Break is a great UK market for short stories. I've tried and tried to get a story taken to no avail. A friend brought me the magazine from the UK so I could get a better idea of the types of stories they use and I wrote two and sent them off. I never heard anything, so I assume they were rejected. In the end, I sent them to Drum Magazine in South Africa and both were accepted, so that's something . But still I think on this I get 0/1

5. Read three books a month
I read more than that thanks to being stuck in bed for some months, so I get all the points. 1/1

6. Write and submit one short story a month
I've checked my records just now and despite being sick for a big chunk of the year, I actually wrote a new story and submitted it in every month except February and this month December, which I might still do. In some months I wrote more than one. I'm quite happy about that one. 10/12 points I think.

7. Blog posts two per week
I failed miserably for this one. My blog has been the most neglected. 0/2 points

8. Do marketing for my books one day a week. 
Nope. I'm even surprised to see this on the list considering how much I hate marketing. I do occasionally put up a blog post or mention some news on Facebook, but mostly I'm useless.  0/ 1 points

So that was it. 15/26, 58%, not very good. Must try better next year.

BUT- I did get a new kitten named Bunny for Christmas, so that may push my score about at least 20-30 percentage points...right???

Monday, December 2, 2013

2013 Bessie Head Literature Awards

This last Saturday I was off to Gaborone for the 2013 Bessie Head Literature Awards. It was held at the National Museum's Little Theatre. This year's winners were:

In the novel category:           
Winner: Veronica Jane McLean for The Hot Chain
1st  Runner Up:  Jack Wachira Mithamo for  Prosperity Diamonds
2nd Runner Up: One Pamela Pusumane for The Girl on the Other Side of the Mirror

  In the short story category:                   
Winner:  Moreetsi Pius Gabang  for “Lesilo mo Maun”
1st Runner Up:  Wada Goitsemang   for “Uncle B”
2nd Runner Up: Tumisang Baatshwana for “Melodi”

In the children’s story category:       
Winner:  Margaret Baffour-Awuah   for “Two Frogs Go A’ Wandering”

It was a nice, chilled event. The guest speaker was one of the past winners of the Award, Cheryl Ntumy.  Since the Award win in 2009, Cheryl has gone on to have books published in South Africa as well as overseas. Her Cozy Bennett series for young adults is published by an imprint of Harlequin. The first book, set in Gaborone, Entwined, is fantastic. I cannot wait to read the next book in the series. 

(In photo (left to right): Chair of BHHT, Peter Mwikisa, winner in the novel category, Veronica Jane McLean, Cheryl Ntumy, and MC Goodie Tlokwe) 

At the event on Saturday Cheryl spoke about how the Bessie Head Award gave her courage to be serious about her writing. So much about life tells writers that it is a waste of time and that they should get practical. But prizes are important because they give writers hope that there are people out there who think their writing is good enough and there are readers out there who can connect what you're writing. 

I absolutely agree with her. For me prizes have always been a huge motivator. A stop along the way to check in if you are on track and to get a bit of a push to go on. 

The Awards will not take place next year as the Bessie Head Heritage Trust is assessing them and want to come back the following year with a new and improved model.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

My Life at the Moment

The end of the year is nearly here and suddenly I'm crazy busy. I've finally finished the manuscript for If Not For This, the novel about the effect of the Herero genocide on a couple who get lost at the battle of Ohamakari and only find each other again in Tsau, two broken people trying to rebuild a life together. I really have high hopes for this book and am starting once again to try and find an agent in UK (my perennial search). Cross fingers for me.

Last weekend I got the Slovenian copy of Signed, Hopelessly in Love. It doesn't look anything like the orginal, I think the title is different too. I wish it luck!

I'm finishing up the last proof edits for The Vanishings which is to come out in January published by the Botswana based, Black Crake Books. Black Crake will be the first publisher to attempt to publish books for the trade market in Botswana. Though I must add, my publisher for Signed, The Secret Keeper is also trying to help build a trade market with the book. They'll be running a few adverts in national papers in the coming weeks trying to get people excited about the book. I'm glad to be part of these embryonic initiatives in our market.

The Vanishings will be my first published full length novel.(YAY!!)  Not my first written full length novel (there are plenty of those) but my first published. I've been a bit of a novella queen up to this point.

It is the first in a new detective series set in Maun. I'm very excited about it and I'm excited about some of the interesting ideas my publisher has for launching and marketing the book.

Beyond all of this writing stuff, I'm helping out with the Bessie Head Literature Awards. The ceremony is on the 30th November at the National Museum in Gaborone, so I've been busy today trying to send out press releases and invitations. Maybe I'll see you there???

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Signed, The Secret Keeper- my newest book!!!

Look what just arrived by courier!!!! This is the second instalment in the life of Amogelang Sethunya, also known at Aunt Lulu, the agony aunt columnist for her school newspaper. The first book, Signed, Hopelessly in Love (Tafelberg) was featured in South Africa's O Magazine as one of the 40 Best Books of 2011.

The publisher is Diamond Educational Publishers, a local publisher who is taking their first steps into fiction with my little book and I couldn't be prouder. I wish all of us fabulous success!

This time around Amo has to deal with Nono, her best friend, losing her confidence, and the new girl Shania, forcing Amo to behave out of character. Meanwhile, the  sportswriter, Thusano, the 56 yr old teenager, nearly gets the newspaper shut down. And then in her typical Amo way, she misreads everything and just about ruins her favourite teacher's life. Meanwhile, the letter from The Secret Keeper is keeping her awake at night- but who is she to give advice to anyone?? Gran says she stumbles through life "like a donkey with a tea kettle caught on its foot", and Amo thinks that's about right. ....and... is that her falling in love with- DUNCAN?!?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Mini-Dictatorships of Facebook

(This is another of my City Press Magazine columns)

Facebook is the Wild West. Cats on bikes. Women with big butts. Eggplant carved into the Venus de Milo. Almost anything is okay. But it’s also made up of many millions of tiny dictatorships. Your wall is your country. You get to set the rules, and, even better than your typical country, you get to choose the people you want living within your boundaries.

My policy, which is a bit fluid, is in most cases I’ll let you in, but the second you annoy me you get the axe. And what sort of things prompt me to dig around in my toolbox for a sharp implement? One is an inbox messages saying- “hi.”. Nothing else, just: “hi”. Sorry, I’m a busy person. State what you want from me or be on your way.

Any sort of –isms I don’t like. Sexism, racism, stupidism. You’re gone.  Also, I’m an SMS language snob. It likely stems more from the time it takes for me to decipher what the person has said- “I h8 sum 1 lyk dat”.  Ten minutes later I figure it out and, frankly, I feel cheated.  Those were ten minutes I would have preferred to have used doing something else.

I have some friends with serious dictatorial tendencies. I have a friend who will unfriend you if you post pictures of food. He’s not my friend anymore. I posted a plate of lasagne I made from scratch. I knew what the outcome would be. I didn’t care, when you’ve made lasagne that good, it’s a wild and heady experience and throwing caution to the wind is the least of what will likely ensue.

I have another friend who is a rabid atheist. He will not allow a hijab or crucifix to spend a second on his FB page. Another friend cannot tolerate the unscientific aspect of a horoscope. Don’t even mention them. Even your star sign, you will be chased from her Facebook country before you can say Capricorn.

I often wonder if the world would be better or worse if it was run like Facebook. I’m thinking maybe worse.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

In Grace-land ( a short story)

The prison band played Graceland, the singer singing like Paul Simon except with a Setswana accent, while the green and white tent blew in the hot breeze almost in time with the beat, but not quite. MmaYaone wiped the snot from the nose of Baby Number Ten and got rid of it on the edge of her skirt. She was tired of sitting. She could feel a drop of sweat making its way down her back. The baby was niggly. MmaYaone suspected the singer was not pronouncing Memphis correctly. The speeches hadn’t even started yet, there was still a full programme to get through. She had no choice but to sit and wait it out. She wished it was over, but she knew it never would be, really. She knew they had a piece of her now, it was the price she had to pay, she knew there was always a price.  

Thabiso Nonyane’s head pounded. The bass guitar on Graceland seemed to originate from the sorest spot of his brain. He blamed it on the cheap wine, the only thing he could afford now with the president’s alcohol levy on top of alcohol levy that pushed his beloved Black Label out of his economic reach. So it was two boxes of red Harvest Time and a carton or two of Chibuku. He got sufficiently drunk, but now he was sure his head was contracting with each downbeat. He needed a bit of something to level things out or he’d never get through this day.  But the VIPs were keeping an eagle eye on him. He’d be lucky to slip out at lunch the way they watched him. All smiling with their teeth out like there weren’t any black flies around.  He’d just make a quick trip to the loo via the shebeen at the back of the compound, get a few sips of the homebrew MmaChompy always had on tap, with or without the president’s approval. That would sort him out.

Sgt General Malatsi looked around at her good work and she was proud. The poor desperate lady with the ten kids would have a new modern house thanks to her. She saw BTV had pitched up, so she ought to get some good national coverage, ought to help with her promotion. She was a shoo-in for that promotion. This would just make it certain, solid and certain. She tapped her foot to Graceland and smiled at the Minister. 

(Read the rest of the story at The Kalahari Review)

Friday, October 11, 2013

Yay for Alice Munro and The Short Story!!

This morning I woke and before even getting out of bed I read "Walker Brothers Cowboy" by Alice Munro, one of her stories I'd not read before. It was my little indulgence to celebrate her Nobel Prize win yesterday. A lovely way to start a work day.  It's a story, like so many of Munro's stories, about a family, told from the point of view of the daughter. It's mostly about the parents. The family has fallen on hard times as many had at the time it was set in the 1930s. From owning a fox farm, her father was now a door-to-door salesman. Her mother was not taking the fall well. A gentle sadness covers the story. Like so many human stories, it is about dreams lost, braver choices not taken.

The thing so lovely about Munro's stories is that they refuse to cheat with fireworks. She is always honest. She will not pull out a rabbit just because she can. Instead she waits patiently until she discovers the fireworks and rabbits in the simple everyday ups and downs in the ordinary lives of ordinary humans. That's what I always love about her stories, the honesty, the un-showiness. In her stories, she deals with the everyday things, the mundane, the work that must be done before the other things happen.

I was so happy to hear she'd won the Nobel Prize yesterday. Somehow I felt it as a win for me too. A win for everyone who writes and loves short stories. Simple honest short stories that let us understand more fully this experience of living, and loving, and being so fallibly human. Short stories are unique in their ability to capture the essence of a moment in time. They are not short novels. They are not a practice ground. Munro is a virtuoso in using the strengths of the short story to its very limits.

Congratulations, Ms Munro, and thank you. 

"A story is not like a road to follow … it's more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.”- Alice Munro

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

It's Difficult to be a Writer

I've had many jobs, more than most people I suspect. A partial list would include: bus girl, dishwasher, cook's helper, bartender, waitress, nursing assistant, clown, research assistant (on projects from viruses in ducks to follicle size in horses), flower seller, pre-school teacher, nanny, house cleaner, science teacher, business owner, primary school teacher...and the list continues. So I have a good idea about the ups and downs of most jobs. I've been a writer now for ten years and I can tell you unequivocally that writing is a tough gig.

First you have the writing itself. Trying to get that wonderful image in your head down on paper. It's never good enough. It needs re-writes and re-writes. Even once it's published you still want to get in there with the red pen. You always feel like you've failed the story in some way.

And then there are the gatekeepers. There are agents, editors, and publishers all standing ready to reject your work. And the rejection is based on all sorts of things you have no control over. Sometimes as simple as the person is just not keen on that type of story. The writing might be good, there might be a market but  that particular person just doesn't like that type of story.

And then let's say you get published. Now you have the reviewers. All coming with  their own histories and prejudices. Some untrained. Some with axes to grind.

After you've got through all of that, then you get your royalty statement. If there was ever a document that can destroy a person, a royalty statement is indeed one of them. A year of selling and your publisher has managed to sell 9 books, or worse 1. Yes, I've had royalty statements like that. And again, the royalty statement, the sales for your book, have little to do with how good the writing is. I have books that have sold in the 10,000's that are not as good as some that have sold in their 10's. It's about the market and probably more importantly, the marketing. If your publisher is not pushing your book, you won't make money, no matter how good the writing is.

The thing about writing that is so hard is that so much about your success has nothing to do with your writing. This can be frustrating. I'm used to jobs where if I put in my maximum effort I expect to do well. Writing doesn't work like that. Despite what anyone tells you, a lot is about luck. About things you can't control. It's a really tough job and you'll be bashing your head against a wall if you don't accept this early on.

So why do it?

I do it because I like it. I do it because it is one job that will never bore me because I will never reach my maximum potential. Each story I write pushes me closer and with each story I write the line that's marking my maximum potential moves that bit further. I like that. The other things, the ones I can't control,  I've tried to make a problematic peace with.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Ghanian Poet Kofi Awoonor Dies in Nairobi Attack

Saturday lunch time I was alternating between watching crap TV and washing dishes. My kids were off to a wedding and my husband asleep on the sofa. I decided to check Facebook on my phone. I see a few posts from FB friends saying that they are not at Westgate Mall. One says he was there but is now safely home. I turn on the news and there it is- Westgate Mall in Nairobi has been attacked by terrorists. A mall I had lunch in last year when I attended the Storymoja Hay Festival.

As the day progresses and the horror of what has happened develops, I send messages to friends to see where they are. The Storymoja Hay Festival is on and many writers are in Nairobi during the attack. By evening I hear that all of the writers at Storymoja have been accounted for save for one poet. I go to bed hoping he is somewhere safe. Sunday morning I wake up to hear the worst news possibe- the poet Kofi Awoonor has been killed at the mall.

As I write this, the horrific attack is not yet over. So many people dead and injured, so many lives knocked tragically off course. I wonder how Kenyans will continues after all of this. I wonder about the Storymoja organisers and how they will go on again next year. I'm not sure if I could just step forward bravely when such meaningless terror is out there.

For now, Kenyans should know that all of Africa is behind them, we mourn with them. In this case Africa maybe is a country, especially for its writing community.

Robala Ka Kagiso, Rre Awoonor.

Here is one of his last poems.