Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Story of Lorato and Stanley

(Today is World AIDS Day and I thought this might be appropriate) 

Lorato came over today with her new baby, Stanley. I’ve hardly seen her since her wedding. We used to work together and we became quite close. She’s younger than me and I often thought of her as a daughter. But as people do, we’ve drifted apart. She’s now a chicken farmer up north and I’m a writer and our busy lives have dwindled down to SMSs on holidays.

She was in Mahalapye with her new baby, Stanley. Such a middle-aged man sort of name for a tiny baby. I supposed it matched his calm demeanour, fat stomach, and the contemplative look he gave me.

“Is he okay then?” I ask Lorato.

“So far.”

Some years ago Lorato dated a policeman. She loved him at first, but then problems arose. She found he’d been cheating on her. Worst still, she found that the woman he’d been cheating on her with was HIV positive. She confronted him, he denied it. She went for a test. She was positive.

The evening she told me, I felt like I’d been hit with a brick. I wanted to find a way to make this man pay for what he’d done to my friend. Her brother had died from AIDS four years previously, just before the government made ARVs free to all who needed them. She knew about AIDS. She’d been careful. This man did this to her.

But time passed and she met a new man and life went on. She got married. They wanted children and now here was Stanley, the wise little man-baby.

Lorato has been lucky so far and has avoided ARVs.  She changed how she ate, eating more vegetables and fruits, and drinking lots of water. “The biggest thing is I avoid stress,” she said. “I know stress, it will kill me.”

She told me how during the preparations for her wedding, a strife ridden affair in the best cases, but with her mother, who I know too well, it was a nightmare. Her CD4 count had gone down to 247. The ARV programme in Botswana advises HIV positive people to start taking ARVs when their CD4 count goes below 250. But Lorato refused. She knew it was the stress of the wedding. She just needed to get through it and she’d be fine. And she was right. Her CD4 count is at 412 now, even after giving birth. She’ll take ARVs when she needs them, but wants to put it off for as long as possible.

She took ARVs during pregnancy, though. Botswana’s Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) programme is one of the most successful in the world. 95% of HIV positive mothers in the country are in the programme. Less than 3% of these mothers’ babies are born with HIV. She started taking the ARVs during the 29th week of pregnancy, three pills, two times per day. Once labour started she took the pills every three hours until Stanley was born.

“He was tested at six weeks, he’s okay,” she assures me. I look down at Stanley who seems to want to tell me something important, wagging his fists at me. “One more test at a year and half and we’ll know he’s safe and clear.”

He looks healthy and Lorato says he’s never been sick. The nurses advised her that it’s okay to breastfeed, but she’s taking no chances. She’s bottle feeding. “They told me it’s okay, but I don’t think so. Anything could go wrong.”

I hold Stanley who nods off reluctantly. “You know this is not all bad,” Lorato says. “There’s a good side to this HIV. I’m careful now; I pay attention to things… for him and for me. I don’t let stress get me down any more. I manage it. I have to.”

There is so much doom and gloom around HIV. The scourge. There was a time in the 1990’s when it felt like the entire country was in mourning. Every weekend was for funerals. If you didn’t see someone for awhile, you didn’t ask. If a woman was pregnant and then never spoke about a baby, you didn’t either. During that time was when Lorato’s brother died. Sick and sick and then dead, at 22.

I look at Stanley and at Lorato and think about what a difference just a few years has made in Botswana and I’m very thankful. 

(This essay was first published in New Internationalist)

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

10 Bumps on the Writing Roller Coaster

If you're a writer you know all about the Writing Roller Coaster, unfortunately.

1. Short story finished. Time for a nap. Yay.

2. Can't find a market for your experimental romance novella about a vampire and a repressed accountant/stuntman who find themselves heading to the apocalypse but take a detour for a jolly cruise-ship holiday. No lit mags are looking for that sort of stuff at the moment. Apparently.  :(

3. Your beta-reader likes the premise for your new novel. You've finished 125 1/2 words of it. It took you all week but they're good words. Really good. Yay.

4. Your short story called  Hamster: It Was Not About the Carrot  did not make the Fancy Literature Only contest's shortlist. :(

5. Publisher likes the manuscript you sent them,  :) but they don't quite think it's right for them. :( You suspect letter was written by a robot. :(  :( A jealous robot who is going to steal your idea. :( :( :(

6. You are invited to a fancy foo-foo literary festival.Yay!

7. At the fancy foo-foo literary festival, no one knows you, including the person who invited you. :(

8. Your book gets a good review on Amazon. 5 stars even. Yay! and Yay!

9. Your mother lets it slip that she wrote the review at Amazon. And that she hasn't finished your book yet. She only read the acknowledgements that mentioned her. "But it was very well written, Dear." :(

10. You have a new idea for a novel just when you were positive the well had run dry. It's a good one, maybe the best one ever.  Ever ever, like in the history of ideas for novels.  Best not to tell the robot.  :)

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Thato Lekoko: Superhero!!!

Yay!! This is the cover of my book Thato Lekoko: Superhero, coming out next month with Oxford University Press. This is my second book with this publisher, the first was The Second Worst Thing, which has done quite well.

The blurb at the back of Thato Lekoko says:

   Tseke flies through the skies fixing the country’s problems with
her superhero powers. But when she’s not in her lime-green
suit, she is Thato Lekoko, just an ordinary teenager … and
she’s late for school.

   While dealing with the school bully, caring for her younger
sister and doing her chores, she also needs to find time to
finish an environmental project without letting down her
best friend Wanda.

   But when strange things start happening in the village, Thato
decides to investigate what’s really going on at Siane Gold
Mine. And for this job there are no superpowers; just the
power of being Thato Lekoko.

Wishing my Thato a successful flight!!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

My MIAF Poem

So I'm back from the Maun International Arts Festival 2015. Still recovering. One of the things I did  was attend the poetry workshop run by Ugandan poet Rashida Namulondo. I don't usually write poetry, only occasionally, and I like to learn more about it whenever I can get a chance.

It was an interesting workshop where I discovered different ways to look at things, different ways to find inspiration outside of yourself. One of the exercises was to try to use words in a new way defined by you but so that the reader/listener can get the meaning. I chose to use colours. Here's my poem, worked on a bit after the workshop.

The Colourful Coward

He’s like orange in that fake way,
Like the way orange looks bouncy and smells sickeningly-happy
But it really isn’t.
He likes to speak about African princesses and stars
Though he only touches them with grey.
That cold, unattached, slippery, non-committed side of grey,
Not the killer side
The side with passion.
I would have welcomed the killer side.
Even just a sliver to know he had it somewhere under everything the world saw of him.
Blue is where he likes hiding
When I insist he cut the bullshit.
When his orange and too-slick grey does my head in.
Blue, all stout and round and sturdy
Rolling, rolling— pretending as if my eyes are immune to blue.
But I see it.
I see him thinking he’s safe there.
I know all about these things.
Blue is part of it- isn’t it?
Part of the problem.
Blue, she lets him hide there
And she makes everything worse.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Off to MIAF 5! See you there!

This year the poetry collective based in Maun, Poetavango, will be celebrating the fifth anniversary of their festival called The Maun International Arts Festival (MIAF). The Festival will take place in various locations around Maun from the 23rd October to the 1st November.

Part of this year’s Festival was a short story contest. According to the press release, the original plan was to publish an anthology of the winning stories as well as some of the better submissions, and have the book ready at the Festival. Unfortunately, the plans had to be changed. There were over forty submissions, but the judges for the contest (Barolong Seboni, Wame Molefhe, and Cheryl Ntumy) advised that the submissions (outside of the winners) were not up to standard. They thought many were submitted as rough drafts which, of course, is not acceptable.

Speaking for the judges, Ntumy said: “Writing competitions are a wonderful way to nurture talent, and to encourage future efforts. Stories should be worked on extensively and edited before submission, perhaps during a series of workshops. The contestants should be advised to read a lot of short stories in preparation for writing their entries, and should ask others to read and edit their work. Finally, contestants should make every effort to check their work before submission to avoid making careless mistakes.”

I absolutely respect this decision and I wish there were more instances of this sort. If we intend to improve the writing and literature of this country, it is time we stop accepting mediocrity (and sometimes much less than that) and awarding such a low standard prizes that should only be reserved for excellence. Ten points for the judges and Poetavango for fighting that difficult battle!

In the end there were winners, and they are:
1st place: Wazha Lopang for the story The Small Matter of the Jelly.
2nd place: Jimmy Keletso for the story Welcome Home
3rd Place: Sharon Tshipa for the story Reality for Sale
The prizes are P3000, P2000, and P1000 and they will be awarded at the Festival during a prize-giving ceremony at Nhabe Museum on Monday the 26th October at 5 pm.

As for the Festival itself, there is a plethora of events taking place, something for everyone from the look of it. There will be mural painting, a writing workshop, theatre, storytelling for kids, an “Alfa of the Delta” hip hop battle, an art exhibition, comedy night, poetry slams, contemporary dance, and a traditional night, among much, much more. There’s even a football match on the programme.

It looks like the final night has been changed a bit. In the past, the final event was primarily performance poetry with a very small amount of music mixed in. According to the Festival programme, this year the final event will include everything that went on during the week including: dance, theatre, comedy, poetry and literature. My only hope is that they have sorted out the timing, going home at 2 am+ is becoming too much for this old lady.

“This will be an action-packed week,” says festival director Thato Molosi. “We’ve called to Maun top-notch artists from across the world to help us celebrate our fifth anniversary.”

There are artists participating from Zimbabwe, Canada, USA, Uganda, South Africa and Malaysia. Local artists already booked for the event include: Leshie Lovesong, Sereetsi and the Natives, Mophato Dance Troupe, Zeus, The Contrabanditz, Christophe Durand, JahGene,  Maya Roze, Morongoa Mosetlhi, Mambo Ntema , Chief Kunta, Mawee, Mod, Stoki, Mmakgosi Anita Tau, Poet Phopho, Psycho Freakers, and Ribcracker, among others.

I’m especially looking forward to attending the writing workshop, thankfully not being taught by me, but instead by a very accomplished American writer and poet Dasha Kelly, author of the novels Almost Crimson and All Fall Down. Besides being a novelist, she’s a well-established performance poet and performed in the final season of HBO presents Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam.
We’re in for some serious fun, folks! Don’t miss it.

PS: I'll be running the event for kids at the library on Wednesday morning.  

Monday, September 28, 2015

We Come In All Kinds

Being a writer, or really an artist of any kind, is difficult in myriad ways. Besides the lack of money, because the arts are continually undervalued, you have the constant rejection, and the relentless plague of self doubt. If you’re an accountant, you do your job: you prepare a balance sheet, you make financial statements for a company, but that work is not tied up with the accountant’s internal thoughts and feelings. The balance sheet does not carry a small bit of the accountant’s soul with it. There is no place where the personality and beliefs of the accountant are incorporated into the work she produces and sends out into the world.

This is not the case for writers. Everything I write has a part of me attached to it. This is why rejection of a piece of writing or a bad critique of a book can be so painful. It is as if those are judgements of me as a person, or at least a part of me.

The other thing about writing is that there is no one way. People can point out what they like and what they don’t like. You might judge writing by correct grammar and punctuation, the conventionally correct way the words are used, but others may find such things unimportant, even insulting to the concept of good writing. Another person might like highly descriptive writing, while another finds such writing unpalatable. No one can pin down good writing. No one can say: write like this. Every writer writes her own way. That’s the way she must write. I suppose the way can be improved on, to some extent, but a writer’s voice is hers. To try on another’s will ring false in even the most amateur of ears.

A person can love John Steinbeck’s writing and Ben Okri’s at the same time and yet they are so different from each other, like a good steak and a glass of exceptional  wine, each lovely but not comparable at all.  Still each is considered good writing. Each can exist; they do not compete on any direct level. They are too different for that. This is how writers and writing are. This is how short stories and novels are. They are different and unique. They are diverse. The way the tools: the words, the grammar, the punctuation, the ideas— are expressed, can never be replicated.  Each piece of writing is pulled from the writer carrying bits of skin and blood, microscopic portions of the writer’s DNA, the scent of their thoughts and history. This is important. It is maybe the most important thing about the entire art form.

Good writing cannot be captured in a net. It is not if the writing is ever published. It is not if the writer collects accolades and slips of paper posing as judgements on excellence. In the end, good writing is about truthfulness to that unadulterated voice. Good writing is about honesty to the story. Good writing should not look outward at who is viewing the process, who will judge the end-product. Good writing must hurt a little bit. And good writing must be like a fingerprint.

I believe this, I do, and yet it is hard to close out the world. It is hard to read a beautiful book and not wish that you could write in that way. To read a short story and not feel as if you will never find your own words to create such loveliness. To not be discouraged and pushed off track by the world that feeds your writing.

We all want to be seen as a success. The problem with writing is the definition of that word. I suppose that is the problem with all of the arts. We need to find a way to adjust our own minds to accept that success comes in so many kinds of packages, with so many kinds of labels. For writers, the packaging is as diverse and as ever-changing as the people we meet and the days that pass. The writing should only be judged against yesterday’s writing, against the truth, against the elimination of all false gods. Judged for the clarity between writer and reader so that the truth of the story can be recreated in the other’s mind.

It’s a difficult road this writer’s road. Take it with caution and be a little bit kind to yourself if you veer off in the wrong direction. Maybe it is the right one but only it has been waiting for you, that certain person to walk its way, to wear down the grass and clear the thorns so that the magic waiting there can be found. 

(This  first appeared in my column It's All Write in the 28 September, 2015 issue of Mmegi)

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

FAQs (from my column It's All Write)

I get a lot of people contacting me asking questions about publishing and writing. I try to address many of the issues through my columns, but some folks want a one-stop-shop so I thought a Frequently Asked Questions column might be the answer.  

1. How much does it cost to get a book published?
It cost nothing. A publisher publishes your book for free, that is if they think your book is up to their standard and they can find a market for it. The publisher’s job is to edit, design, market, and sell your book. They pay for all of that from the money they get from sales. The writer of the book gets a percentage of sales, normally 10%, this is called royalties. Anyone calling themselves a publisher but then asking the writer for money to get the book out is purposefully trying to confuse things. If you are paying anything you are self-publishing your book. Full stop. You have not been published in the universally understood way, meaning your manuscript has not been assessed and deemed good enough for the publisher to take a risk on it. You are paying to get your book published. In most of these cases, no assessment has been done.

2. I see that you are a writer; can you get my book published for me?
No. Just as the word says- a writer writes. I do not publish books. I have no sway over any publisher to force them to accept someone’s book manuscript. If you want to be a writer, you must learn to do the work of a writer and that includes researching, finding, and submitting to publishers.

3. A publisher has said they want to publish my book, but now they say they will only give me 10% of the money they get from the sale of my book. Are they cheating me?
No, they are not cheating you. With a minimal amount of research you can tally up the costs a traditional professional publisher will spend on your book before a single copy is sold. They will pay for an editor, usually about P20,000. A designer and layout person, maybe another P20,000. A cover designer, for a good one it could be another P10-20,0000. And then there is the printing. Depending on the print run (short print runs are more expensive per book) it can be between P40,000-P60,000. This is all money the publisher has spent on your book without making a single thebe on it. They will then market the book, distribute and sell the book. Ten percent is standard royalty rate for writers, I have signed contracts for as low as 5% and as high as 15%. You can negotiate, but the publisher knows their margins so they can only go so high, especially in the difficult book trade in Botswana, or even Africa for that matter.

4. I’ve put my poems together in a book, who will publish them?
Very few publishers will publish a collection of poetry. My advice for poets and short story writers is to spend some time sending your work out to literary magazines, both print and online. Try big exclusive magazines as well as easily accessed ones. Read the lit mags, understand the kind of work they want. Send your work for anthology call outs. Build up a track record of publication. Get your name out there. Go to literary festivals, even if you must pay for yourself, and read your work out loud. Enter your work into contests. After you have your name out there, you can try to send your collection out to the few poetry book publishers around the world. If you fail to find a publisher, you have a following, and you regularly read at events, you might want to self-publish your collection and sell it at the places where you read your work.  But know from the beginning, getting a collection of your poems or even your short stories published as a one author book is tough.

5. All the publishers in Botswana only publish for the school market and my book is not for schools. What can I do?
The world is a big, big place and with the internet that world lives in your office. Do your research. There are publishers all over the world and you can submit to any of them. No one needs to be tied anymore to the publishers in their respective countries. Check what the publisher publishes, read their submission guidelines— and send your work out! Rejection is part of the game, don’t take it to heart. I once read that every book manuscript gets on average sixteen rejections, so you need to think of every rejection as one more to whittle down that number until you get to your acceptance. 

(this appeared in the 11 September, 2015 issue of Mmegi in my column It's All Write)