Friday, December 19, 2014

The Changing Face of Identity

Recently my younger sister sent me the photo above of a cave in Wisconsin where allegedly my great grandmother's parents (my great grandmother's name was Jane Day) lived. My great grandmother's mother was allegedly Navajo, her husband was European, American a  generation or so back at least. My sister was told this by my father's only surviving brother.

What this means, if it is true, my grandmother (above), her name was Blanche Bolden, was one quarter Navajo,enough to be considered a member of the Navajo Nation. She was born in 1897, died a few months after I was born, 3 March 1964.

I knew about a past ancestor on my father's side who lived in a cave. I even wrote a poem about it, My Ancestress, which was published on this blog and also in an anthology in UK.  (Please excuse the not quite correct science behind that poem. No mitochondrial DNA from my cave ancestor since she was from my father's side, put it down to literary license).

I've been thinking about this a lot. Wondering how this new information comes together with what I knew about myself and what I am now, how all of this merges to create my identity. Who am I? It is such a fluid thing for all of us. One day we are this, tomorrow something else. Is it genetics that play the biggest role? Is it our life experiences? Our mindset? Is it our surface or the many layers underneath?

In this great interview, Chimamanda Adichie speaks about how her identity is often defined by where she is. Is that it?  Is place paramount? I think it plays a role.

I've been accused before of cutting off my past, taking a scissors and trimming off what I didn't want. I have, more than once, solved problems I couldn't find my way out of by running away and running away often requires the trimming off of the past if you're to make the escape a successful one. I make no excuses, I'm finding my way like everyone else. So far I'm keeping it going without too much collateral damage.

But can we really trim away what we don't want? Aren't we still who we inherently are? I think that's so. Yes, my life choices have changed me, as they should. Yes, living in Botswana I've become a different person than the one I might have been had I stayed in the country of my birth. But still there is that starting spot that's made of all who came before me, from which all else grew. As much as my scissors like to cut, I also like to know that solid centre is there. I like to think I've passed it on to my children and they will pass it on to theirs; that years and years from now bits of my Navajo great great grandmother will assert itself in a young woman walking a different place on this earth. I think, as I said at the end of my poem, it keeps me tethered, something I might have fought against another time, I now find comfort in.

...Over generations and time, over distances.
And for the first moment, I am connected
No longer floating untethered.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Chris Rock has it About Right

The stuff going on in the USA lately can make a person sick. I don't think I could cope on a day-to-day basis knowing my black son or black husband or black brother had to leave the house each day. It's as if a war is going on and it has been going on for a long time.

In an interview  here, Chris Rock explains why if the problem of racism is ever going to be solved, it will have to be solved by white people because the problem is theirs. Rock says-

"So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years. If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, “Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.” It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner. Nothing. It just doesn’t. The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people."

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

WANTED: Bloggers for an Experiment

I'm looking for a few bloggers  who would like to help me with an experiment. I'd especially like bloggers from around Africa (especially from Botswana), but will also consider bloggers living other places.

I have a novel, The Vanishings, that has been accepted for publication by two publishing houses, but for reasons I'd not like to get into, I've had to take it back from both of them. The Vanishings and I are feeling slightly battle worn and don't feel like taking any more walks toward publishers together. I thought, instead, I would serialise it on my blog. I thought, starting maybe next year February, I'd put a chapter on my blog every Thursday for folks to read. Then I thought what might be even nicer was if other bloggers agreed to do the serialisation too. And then I thought how this might be an interesting way for us to share our writing. To make a certain day of the week the day for serialised novels. I'll try to think of a sexy name to describe that day. All ideas are welcome!

Would you be interested in participating? If you are, send me an email ( and I can send you the book so you can see if it is something you like. If you then are interested in being part of this, when I start I will send the prepared chapter to you a few days before it needs to be posted. I will do my best to push traffic toward the various participating blogs on the chapter days through here and social media.

The Vanishings is a detective/thriller set in the tourist town of Maun in Botswana. Here is a brief description:

"Five people seem to have vanished in thin air. Their only connection is that they were snatched in the bush around Maun. No bodies have been recovered. No suspects found. Detective Dambuza Chakalisa, newly arrived in the sleepy tourist town, is probably the worst choice to investigate this case. He drinks too much. He’s preoccupied with his marriage that is falling apart and to top it off, he doesn’t know anyone in Maun to give him a lead in the case.  But he’s about to get help.

On the way to work his first day, he happens upon an older white woman beating the crap out of a young man. It turns out to be the tough, no nonsense Delly Woods dealing with a man who mistakenly thought he could take her cellphone. An unlikely duo, but together Dambuza and Delly will uncover the truth behind the vanishings as well as a few other secrets certain people might have preferred not to have come out" 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Negotiating Writing Jobs

No matter if you are a freelance magazine article writer or a short story writer, at some point you will need to negotiate a deal. If you’re a freelance article writer you will need to turn your query into an article that will be bought and paid for in a reasonable time. The problem is that most writers are not business savvy. At some point negotiating will mean talking about money, which many of us have been taught is rude. It’s a very fine line one must walk to appear assertive and willing to protect your own interests, as opposed to being too hard and rigid. You must keep in mind at all times- this is a business arrangement. The editor has the parameters that she must work inside of, but so do you. Here are some tips to help make the process less painful. 

1. Assist a busy editor
You’ve sent your query for an article to the magazine and the editor is interested. She sends an email asking for more details about how you will approach the article’s topic. You could email back with ideas but you and she might take a few emails to get to a point where the offer to write the article is on the table. Sometimes you need to make money to earn money. At that point, I would pick up the phone and call the editor, even one in a foreign country (keep track of time zones though, no one wants to wake up an editor at 4 am). This way you can hear what she is looking for and you can assure her that is exactly what she will get. It’s a good way to establish a relationship with the editor as well.

2. Always ask for more than you will accept
Once you have agreed to write an article or story, now it’s time to negotiate the terms. In every instance when I’m offered a writing job or a book deal, I ask for a bit more than they offer. Not crazy over the top, just a bit more. They can say yes or no. Then you must know in your mind what you will accept. If they offer you 25 thebe per word to write a 2000 word article and you know you will spend more than P500 on travel and phone charges to get your interviews, then what’s the point? Don’t say exposure- exposure does not feed your kids. And don’t say to get your foot in the door. All that you’re showing this editor is that you are willing to write for 25 thebe per word and that is all they will ever offer you.

3. Look at the total package
I am not saying money is the only factor to consider when accepting a writing job. I’ve had instances where a publication wants to pay me P500 to use a short story and they want to take all of the rights to that story. What that means is I cannot sell that story again, they own it. What I would do in that instance is offer them the choice: they can either pay me significantly more or they can pay me P500 for one time rights. Or alternatively, let’s say a publication wants you to write an article for a fee below your normal rate. You might agree, but then ask them to pay all phone and travel expenses for you to go and interview people for the article. In most instances, you can find areas where the deal can be improved even if the budget is very tight.

4. When are you being paid?
One thing to always look out for is when payment will be made. When writing articles, there is wide discrepancy regarding this. Being paid when the final article is submitted can be very different from being paid when the article is published. I write for one publication that often uses my stories even a year or more after they’ve been accepted. Imagine if you must wait for your pay for more than a year? Or what if they assign you the article, you write it, the editor accepts it, but for some reason they end up not using it? Shouldn’t you still be paid since you did the work? Always push for payment at final acceptance of the article. This is another place where you can occasionally take a lesser fee if they agree to pay at acceptance.

Negotiating fees when you’re a writer can be difficult and something you’re likely uncomfortable with. It’s best you see writing as a business and approach the money side in a professional and businesslike manner.

(This appeared first in my column in The Voice newspaper, It's All Write, 7 November 2014)

Monday, November 17, 2014

Five Blankets- an exercise

I'm currently taking an online writing course at the University of Iowa. Each week we watch a video and are given an assignment around the issues brought up in the video. The week before last we were learning about ways constraints on your writing can force you to look closer at it, particularly at individual sentences. Constraints might include the number of words in each sentence, for example writing a piece where each sentence is only seven words.

In my case, I chose writing a piece where each sentence must have a number in it. I've realised that doing this does indeed improve the quality of the sentences. It was a great exercise and I'm planning to use this when I begin my next longer work of fiction, mostly because in longer works the space actually removes constraint and, at least for me, leads to flabbier sentences.

Below is my piece: Five Blankets.

Five Blankets

He murdered a man at twenty-four. In the prison where they sent him, he shared one big room with tiny windows high up near the ceiling that let in no breeze on forty degree days. Seventy men can make a mighty smell, he realised, a solid, alive smell that moved around and slapped you every now and then, reminding you about the seriousness of the situation. Though he was a murderer he had two non-murderer traits: a soft heart and the inability to identify evil.
            That first night, he was given five blankets and told to find a space on the floor. Blanket number one, he rolled into a pillow. Blanket number two and three he folded into thirds and used as a mattress against the hard, concrete floor. He covered himself with blanket number four. Blanket number five he rolled up and lay next to him. The first night he pretended it was his long ago girlfriend, the girl who lived next door to them when he was ten, Carmela; Carmela made the night shorter. The second night, blanket number five was the woman he left behind when the prison doors shut behind him, the woman he’d murdered for; she promised good would prevail despite all evidence to the contrary.
On the third night, when everything became too real no matter how he twisted his mind, when seven men promised they’d “get him” before the week finished, when the bed bugs and the heat and the prison guards high with their small power picked and poked him until ignoring was not an option, blanket number five became his mother.  He became her little boy, her three year old boy afraid of the monster rattling under the bed.  His mother hugged him and all seventy men disappeared in the fierce light of her love.
His mother stayed with him until day thirty-two when Prisoner 538 tried to steal the rolled up blanket lying next to him. He couldn’t allow that, and with four blows and a kick, he murdered his second man, again in defence of the ones he loved.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Failing is the Best Possible Thing for You

I have a quote from Wendell Mayes on my office wall- "You're only willing to succeed to the same degree you're willing to fail." I read it often. I read it when I'm about to send a short story out to a  new magazine and I'm hesitating because I'm afraid of them saying no. I read it when I think that the new novel I've started is far too ambitious for my writing skills and it might never find a publisher. I read it when I'm preparing for a speech or panel discussion where I know people in the audience are far more accomplished than I am.

I remind myself when I read that quote, that if I want to accomplish anything, I have to accept that if it is tough, if it is new to me, if it is intimidating- that's a good thing. That means I'm stretching myself. That means I'm at that wonderful edge where success and failure are only centimetres apart, but the only place where learning and growth can take place. And it reminds me that failure at that edge is not a bad thing. It's okay. At that edge we must fail and fail until we succeed, and then the edge moves out a bit more, and we must run at it head first once again.

Society teaches us failing is bad. And so we get a bit of success, and then just keep doing that thing over and over and live in our mediocre success filled world. For me that's not living. Living is growing, and growing requires us to reach and sometimes to fall.

I'm thinking of this after the workshop I did for primary kids at the library in Maun during the Maun International Arts Festival. I read them a story and then asked them to review it. When it came time to read their reviews, they didn't want to. They were scared they'd got it wrong, that maybe their opinion was not the "correct" one. They were afraid that they would fail. Because of that they couldn't act. They were stopped like statues. It was one of the saddest things I'd seen for a long time.

Let's fail. Let's fail big.Like my quote says, only big success comes from being able to accept that big failure is also an option. That's okay. I'm fine with that. I'm willing to take that risk.
What about you?

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Home is Home

I'm back home from the Maun International Arts Festival. It's our only literary festival in Botswana with any staying power, so I'm always keen to be there to support the organisers, Poetavango, a performance poetry group based in Maun.

Despite late funding and the elections, they managed against quite incredible odds to pull off a wide ranging festival that included workshops on prose, theatre, poetry and music, and another one for kids at the library. There were shows most nights: comedy, people with disabilities, poetry and jazz, the book exhibition opening with the launch of Chimurenga Chronic in Botswana, and the final big event on Saturday.

The invited poets, because still at heart it is a performance poetry festival, were taken up the Thamalakane River to visit a traditional village and to learn about some Setswana culture. It is a wide ranging Festival run by a devoted and hard-working team, all volunteers. A group I respect completely.

Now I'm back home and back stuck into my work, hoping I'll stay put for a while. We've had lovely rains and the trees have leaved out and the grass has gone green and the birds are singing and I'm happy back in my little office, back to my words and sentences, back to my stories. Away is good, but it also shows you that home is pretty nice too.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Caine Prize and Me

Last weekend the Twitter world erupted after tweets appeared written by  Binyavanga Wainaina about The Caine Prize. I think Binyavanga is fabulous. I think nearly everything he writes is exciting and inventive, and makes you stop and re-think what you thought you knew. In person, he is warm and inclusive, and awe-inspiringly brilliant. But when I read those tweets, I felt very sad.  I felt like we were shooting ourselves in the feet once again and wondering why we keep falling down.

Fine, yes, questions can be asked about why the prize for short story that Africans most respect originates in UK. We know the answer to that question. Africans don't care enough about literature. There have been, rightly or wrongly, other things higher on the list that needed to be attended to. But that is changing. People like Binyavanga and Billy Kahora at Kwani? and Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire  at Writivism, and Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva with her poetry prize in Uganda, as well as many, many others around the continent are trying hard to change this. Things are changing quickly, and in the right direction.

At the same time, for the first time ever, The Caine Prize is looking back to Africa not only to strengthen the writers here , but also to strengthen the institutions. They team up with Short Story Day Africa and Writivism. The annual Caine anthology is now published on the continent by indigenous publishers to help improve their situation. Without strong literary institutions and strong publishers, little can move forward on the continent.

I can't see a reason why The Caine Prize deserves such criticism. Anything that moves us in the correct direction is a good thing, I would think.

For me personally, the Caine Prize was a lovely boost to my career. (I was short-listed in 2011) It helped people around the continent to know me better as a writer. I went to the Caine workshop which again exposed me to a group of writers from all over the continent, some of which I now call friends. I suppose for others it got them overseas agents and publishing deals off the continent, one of the things Binyavanga seems not to like. That didn't happen for me.  It opened the continent for me, that was, and still is, a very important thing.

Because of The Caine Prize, I met Lizzy Attree. Lizzy is the best thing for the Caine Prize. She is a walking encyclopaedia on African Literature, and she has a true and genuine love for the continent, its writers, and its literature. How can this be a bad thing?

She has helped me personally by reading my novel, If Not For This. She assisted with edits and ideas of where I might send it. And maybe more than anything, has real enthusiasm for the manuscript when rejections are pouring in, causing me to lose hope.

Yes, we can all shake our fists and shout into the wind that the climate for writers in Africa is abysmal. We can search all corners for people to blame. But truly, I don't think in any corner, if you are honest, you will find The Caine Prize.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Please sign this Petition

I earn quite a bit of my income from South African publishers. The South African government is attempting to institute a policy where one textbook in each subject is prescribed for the entire country.  The petition explains why this is a bad idea for students and teachers, but it is also a disastrous idea for writers and publishers.

In Southern Africa, South Africa is the only place where a trade market for fiction is viable. But often this is only because the publisher can make good income from the educational market. If the SA government's policy is implemented it will mean only a few publishers (most likely big internationals) will have a part of that pie. Without the educational publishing money, many publishers will be forced to close up shop. This will mean that even fewer writers will find a place to be published. In short, it will be a disaster.

So please, take a minute to sign this petition. Thanks!

Friday, September 26, 2014

In That Scary Blank Zone

I hear about writers getting writer's block. If I'm in the middle of a project, that usually doesn't happen to me. I might have a crap writing day, where nothing I write works, but then I either keep writing until the crap sorts itself out, or I leave that project and work on something else in an attempt to get the juices flowing again. But there is a thing I fear, I call it the blank zone.

The blank zone is when your big project you've been working on for a year or more is finished, and nothing else has popped up to take its place. For me, I always have small projects running. I have my weekly column, or a short story I'm working on. I might have other writing projects going on , for example right now I'm working on books for an early reader series. But even with these small projects happening in the front, I must have a big, exciting project moving along in the background to keep me going, to push me along, to feed my creative mind and keep my writing muscle in shape. When there is no big project I feel adrift. I don't quite feel like a writer. I get scared that no other big project will ever come to me, that maybe my well of ideas is now empty.

That's where I am right now. I get whiffs of ideas that don't pan out. I think of something and it is either too small to test me, or too big and I shy away.

 It's a scary place this blank zone. I hope it won't last long. I hope it is not permanent.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

No Storymoja for me this Year :(

Everything was set for me to take off for Nairobi next week to attend the Storymoja Festival, but then the air ticket had a problem that couldn't be sorted. So- sadly- I am no longer attending. I was looking forward to it, especially the master class on writing for teens and the panel discussion on romance writing- but oh well, things happen.

Coincidentally, on the same day I learn I won't be attending a literary festival, my piece I wrote many months ago on litfests goes up on Kalahari Review: The Best of Times- The Worst of Times. Here's a bit of it:

Attending literary festivals is part of a writer’s life. They are wonderfully horrible experiences, especially for someone like me who lives in a tiny comfortable pond in which I take up an inordinate amount of water space, but at these gigs I morph into the microscopic plankton that the normal plankton eat. 

I am slightly known as a writer in Botswana, a few select people (I try to tell myself the better, discerning types) in South Africa might know me, might have read something written by me, and a handful of people around the continent have heard my name, almost exclusively other writers.  But jump off this lovely, huge island called Africa and it is a wasteland in terms of my writing career.

Read the rest HERE. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Our Big Road Trip Through South Africa

We started our trip at Kuruman and our first stop was the Wonderwerk Cave just outside of the town. It is the oldest site in the world that shows evidence of controlled use of fire. This is the entrance to the cave.
It is an active archaeological site.
These are some of the cave paintings, still bright and easy to see.
One of the more recent occupants of the cave was Pieter Bosman who our guide for the day was most fascinated by. He was an Afrikaner man who lived in the cave with his wife and fourteen children from 1900-1907 while he was building his farm down in the valley. He was apparently a giant, weighing 200 kgs and towering to 1.98 metres. Below are a pair of his trousers.

The next day we were off to the Moffat Mission Station. Robert Moffat was the first person to write out Setswana and published the first Setswana Bible. He was a missionary. David Livingstone came to Africa first as a missionary and lived at the Moffat Mission Station where he met his wife Mary, Moffat's daughter.
Below is the church at the mission station. It is still operating.

This is Moffat's house.
This is the house that Livingstone lived in.
Here is the actual printing press that printed the first Setswana Bible- and it is still working!

From Kuruman we headed to Calvinia along a beautiful road in the Karoo.
In Calvinia we stayed at the historic Hantam House. The small town was all decked out in spring wild flowers including the Namaqua daisy.
This was one of the displays inside Hantam Huis, the less said about the scary lady at the back the better.
From Calvinia we headed to Sutherland, but on the way we came upon this goshawk finishing his rabbit meal along the road.
In icy Sutherland, we attended a star gazing night just outside of town run by one of the residents. The next day we climbed up the mountain for a day tour of the Southern Africa's Largest Telescope (SALT).

This was our beautiful bathroom at Skitterland Guest House in Sutherland.
And these folks graced our wall.

From Sutherland we set off for the sea. Our first stop was Lamberts Bay on the west coast of South Africa. This was the sun setting on first night.

And this was the rainbow we found the next morning.
Lamberts Bay has a large breeding colony of gannets at Bird Island. You can also find cormorants nesting there too.
 From Lamberts Bay we headed to Cape Town to see friends and visit the iconic Charley's Bakery.
The original point of the trip was to visit Hermanus to see the whales that breed there, the Southern Right Whales. We took the road along the coast and had a stop at Betty's Bay to see the African Penguins that nest there.
Hermanus is gorgeous and though we saw whales,they were nearly impossible to photograph.
...except for this one.
We spent a day in George and saw even more whales. We spent a long time out with a friend watching a mother and baby playing in the water. But again- no good photos, sorry.

From George we passed through the Meringspoort Ravine in the Swartberg Mountains. It's a beautiful area connecting the Great Karoo to the Little Karoo.
With the best rest stops and toilets in the world.
A friend later told me about the wonderful determined woman who built and cares for these rest stops, Sandra Africa. You can learn about her amazing motivating story here.

 We stopped in De Aar to see the largest solar power installation in the world.  It provides enough electricity for 19,000 homes. Learn more here.
From De Aar we meant to pass through Kimberly but got caught up at The Great Hole, a former diamond mine. They have such an interesting museum there that we spent a few hours and decided to spend the night in Kimberly.
Here's a car in their museum. It's the first car in Kimberly and was driven by the diamond mine's boss.

That night we attended an art festival and watched this Afrikaans rock band.
This was the Ferris wheel at the festival. We considered taking a ride but it was cold and the queues were time!
The next day we drove home.
South Africa is a beautiful country with nearly ever corner offering up delights.We had such an amazing trip- thank you SA!!!!