Monday, December 18, 2017

We’re All Just Too Exposed

Lorato walked into the hotel in awe. There were chandeliers on the ceiling and soft music playing from hidden speakers. People sat on scattered leather sofas, drinking expensive drinks, wearing fashionable clothes.
Lorato got very excited. She’d worked so hard and finally everything would be paying off. Her parents who insisted she go to school for that accounting degree, would be swallowing their words. She could make a good living as a singer, they would finally see that. Look at this place! And the manager had phoned her! They wanted a live musician on Saturdays and Sundays to entertain their guests. He had seen her perform and said she was exactly who they needed.
She asked for Mr Stingy, the general manager, at the reception desk.
The woman there walked with Lorato to Mr Stingy’s office. She knocked softly on his door.
“Tsena!” a voice ordered.
The woman turned to Lorato.  “I’ll leave you here then. Good luck.”
Lorato thanked her and entered the carpeted, air-conditioned office.
“Dumela, Rre Stingy, I’m Lorato. You phoned me about performing here at the hotel.”
“Oh yes, of course. Have a seat.”
He looked intimidating in his expensive suit, Lorato thought, but once he smiled she felt more relaxed.
“So, yes, I saw you perform down the street. You’re very talented. Have you been playing piano for very long?”
“Yes, for some years now. Even now, I take both piano and voice lessons three times a week.”
“Wow, I’m impressed. You’ve put a lot of work into this thing.”
“Yes, it’s …my career.”
“Yes, of course.”
 “So we’d like you to perform both Saturday and Sunday. Saturday from 3 pm until midnight, and Sunday 2 pm until 10 pm.”
“Okay, that seems all right.” She hesitated to ask, this was always the difficult part. “So how much is the pay?”
“Pay?” Mr Stingy said. “You know this is one of the most prestigious hotels in Botswana. We get all of the top people. You’re going to make amazing connections that will further your career in so many way. It will be fantastic exposure for you.”
Lorato smiled. “Yes, of course. And what will you be paying me?”
“We can’t really afford to pay you.” He smiled his big smile again and somehow it looked different now. “Your pay will be the exposure that we’re giving you. Our company likes supporting the arts. Exposure can be more valuable than gold.”
Lorato thought about it. This was a big fancy hotel, just as Mr Stingy said. If he said the exposure that she got from singing here was valuable, he must be right, he certainly wouldn’t lie. He didn’t seem like a man who would undermine her or take advantage of her in any way. His company supported the arts.
So Lorato performed all night Saturday and all day Sunday. She met so many people. Everyone told her how talented she was. She was thoroughly exposed; Mr Stingy had been right.
The next day Lorato woke up early. She had to buy some groceries, pick up her medicine at the chemist, and then she’d take a taxi home. At the supermarket, she piled her cart high with all of the items she needed. At the till, the man punched the things into the cash register and Lorato gave him half of the exposure that she earned over the weekend. The man thanked her and she went on to the chemist. She paid for her medicine with a bit more of her exposure. Afterwards, the taxi man dropped her at her gate and smiled when she gave him some exposure— she even gave him a little extra exposure for a tip because he’d been so helpful carrying all of her bags up to her house.
Lorato knew she was finally on her way. Her dream of becoming a full-time musician was coming true.
Mr Stingy had been right after all, exposure was just as good as earning real money.
Everybody wanted exposure. Being exposed was what everyone was looking for.
The End

NOTE: This is NOT a true story.
The moral of this story: You either support the arts with money, or you’re a user like Mr Stingy.
Don’t be like Mr Stingy.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Scattering Wins Best International Fiction Book!!

My novel, The Scattering, won the Best International Fiction Book at this year's Sharjah International Book Fair in Sharjah UAE!! The book fair is the third largest in the world. I could not attend the event so my daughter jetted off to Dubai to attend on my behalf.

The prize included the trip to the award ceremony, 50,000 dirham (divided between the publisher and author equally) and a gorgeous trophy (photo above).  We thought my daughter might have to give a speech, so I wrote one just in case. In the end she didn't have to but I thought I'd post it below to show some of my feelings about winning the prize, which is a HUGE honour.

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. 

First, I’d like to thank the organisers of the Sharjah International Book Fair and the organisers and judges for the book  prize. It is a huge honour to have won this prize for best international novel and I’m humbled and very excited. Thank you. 

I’d also like to thank my publisher, Penguin South Africa, for submitting my novel for this prize. They have been supportive from the very beginning and I’m  grateful for that. 

The Scattering is the story of two wars, the second Anglo-Boer War and the German-Herero War, but more importantly, it is the story of two women:  Tjipuka and Riette. 

History is too often told in men’s voices and too often those stories depict the battlefield as the scene for heroic acts, where men rise to meet their fears and destinies. Women are so often merely the victims of war, with no agency of their own- with no voice, no story, no heroism. 

But in The Scattering, Riette and Tjipuka are not victims. Their stories, alone and eventually entwined, tell another side of war. 

For women, war is yet another cleaning-up. When the battles are over, when the dead carried off, it is the time for the women to begin their work. They try to heal the wounds, both external and internal, they rebuild the homes as best they can from the broken pieces that remain. In this work, work so difficult and often unsuccessful, the futility of war is laid bare. The black and white, good and bad, right and wrong, become grey indecipherable places with only hard unending answers. 

In The Scattering I wanted to show war, to shed light on these two colonial wars many outside of Southern Africa may not be so familiar with, in the hope of encouraging peace. Sadly, Tjipuka and Riette’s stories can be told again and again by millions of women from the past and, sadly, from the present. The hope is that one day this will no longer be the case. 

I am so pleased that the judges for this award have chosen to give The Scattering this prize, which will undoubtedly lead to more readers able to hear Tjipuka and Riette’s story, stories both unique to Southern Africa but universal as well. 

Again, thank you for this honour. 

Ke a leboga le kamoso.

Friday, September 8, 2017

amaBooks, A Zimbabwean Publisher

amaBooks is a respected publisher located in Bulawayo. They’ve published work by some of the most well-known Zimbabwean writers including Tendai Huchu, John Eppel, NoViolet Bulawayo, and Petina Gappah, among others.  It’s run by the irrepressible Jane Morris and her husband Brian Jones. I had the chance to interview Jane about amaBooks, the conversation is below. 

Can you tell me a bit about how you started your publishing house? 

We could have called ourselves Accidental Publishers rather than amaBooks as we had not planned to start a publishing company. So, no research, no business plan, little knowledge of publishing. At the time, in 2000, I was working as a social worker and trainer and was involved in training volunteers for a charity involved in helping children. Short of money to run the charity, we approached the Bulawayo-based writer John Eppel who kindly donated a collection of his poems. But how to get it published? My husband and I decided to take on the task and, although I had a background in literature (my husband Brian is a scientist), we had little idea of what publishing a book entailed. It was a steep learning curve – ISBN, paper quality, book format, font type, size of print run, origination, pricing, launch, distribution, promotion… We were lucky to find a sympathetic printer who guided us through many of the steps. And months down the line we ended up with John Eppel: Selected Poems 1965 – 1995. Within six months all 1000 copies of the collection had been sold, with all profits to the charity. We were hooked and when John Eppel suggested starting a publishing house as he had a couple of novels waiting to be published we thought why not? It wasn’t the most propitious time to start the business as Zimbabwe’s economy had started its steady decline but we love books and were excited at the prospect.

How is the trade market in Zimbabwe? 

When we began amaBooks the economy hadn’t completely crumbled so there was a better trade market and we could look to selling 1000 copies of a title, sometimes a little more. Our print runs have grown progressively smaller with the decline in book sales. We specialise in fiction and, unlike Germany for instance, where fiction is the strongest segment with 32% of the total market, fiction sales in Zimbabwe are a small proportion. With the high level of unemployment here and the poor economy, people are generally loath to spend any of their income on buying a book. Added to this is the difficulty of finding books for sale, with many bookshops having closed. 

What is your approximate percentage of trade sales and educational sales? Do you consider yourselves trade publishers primarily? 

We are first and foremost trade publishers and our sales are almost exclusively outside the educational system. A book being accepted as part of a curriculum is an added bonus, but that it not our original intent in publishing a title. As an independent publisher we have the freedom to publish what we choose, though there are, of course, financial constraints that have prevented us publishing all the books we would have liked to bring out. 

Do you do a lot of development of writers? If so how do you approach it?

amaBooks don’t tend to give detailed feedback to writers when they submit a manuscript. We have, however, organised workshops for writers who have already had some success in being published and for those who aspire to be published, either run by ourselves or by experienced writers. As well as workshops aimed at improving writing skills, we have organised sessions on reading your own work and on looking at other avenues open to writers to help make a living. Working with new writers has been a significant part of our work as publishers. From the beginning we decided that we wanted to provide an opportunity for new writers to get published. We thought that a good way to do this was to showcase their work, alongside that of more established writers, in collections of short writings. To date we have published around 250 writers. Hopefully the editing process provided an input to the development of the writers and we have gone on to publish books by a number of the writers whose work first appeared in the short writings collections, including Christopher Mlalazi, Bryony Rheam and Deon Marcus. We have also helped to organise reading groups as we strongly believe that writers should be readers; hopefully, by enthusing the participants about literature, some may go on to become writers and some may come our way.
Workshops on publishing, which we have run, with themes such as how to approach a publisher and the difference between traditional publishing and self-publishing and all in between, have attracted much interest.

What do you see as the biggest challenge for publishers on the continent? Do you manage to sell your books in other African countries? This seems to be a real challenge for most publishers.

Distribution is a major problem, both within and outside Zimbabwe. We would love our books to be available throughout the continent and to have more books by African writers available here, but the cost of transport is prohibitive. Being a very small publisher getting our titles onto the shelves of major chains is very difficult so we tend to concentrate on independent bookshops, though that tends to be limited to South Africa. If one of our writers attends a festival, or we attend a book event, that is an opportunity to sell a few copies, and to develop links.
We are keen to sell rights across Africa and have had some success with other African countries – Nigeria and, through Nigeria, the other ECOWAS countries and Cameroon, Kenya with Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan, South Africa and Egypt.
We continue to try to think of innovative ways of getting our books out there. Our titles are available as ebooks on many sites, and the African Books Collective distribute for us outside of Africa.
 Despite its many challenges, Zimbabwe seems to have quite a thriving literary community and quite a few successful writers especially if you compare it to Botswana. Why do you think that is the case? 
Zimbabwe has many good writers, quite a few having received international acclaim; names that come to mind are Yvonne Vera, Doris Lessing, NoViolet Bulawayo, Dambudzo Marechera, Petina Gappah and Tendai Huchu. As to why this is, there is a tradition of valuing education and reading, Zimbabwe still has the reputation of having a high literacy rate. And there is plenty to write about in Zimbabwe, though I guess the same could be said of many other African countries.
When we started amaBooks many of the writers were still in Zimbabwe and there was a thriving literary community here but, sadly, due to a myriad of reasons, including the economic and political climate, many are now based in the diaspora. We have just finished compiling a short story collection, Moving On, and, of the twenty Zimbabwean contributors, more than half live outside Zimbabwe. 

What do you think have been the biggest successes for amaBooks? 

How to measure success? For me, one success, despite all the stressful times, has been the joy that amaBooks has brought into our lives, being greeted in the streets of Bulawayo with ‘Hey amaBooks’.
Getting good reviews from readers and critics is one of the things we value most. We love what we do and it is heartening when others enjoy the books we have brought out. We enjoy collaboration and getting our books accepted by publishers in other countries is very exciting – the thought of expanding the readership beyond Zimbabwe. As well as selling rights to other publishers in Africa, we have sold rights in Europe, in North America and recently to the Arab world.
Our most successful book has been the prize-winning novel This September Sun by Bryony Rheam. It was accepted for the ‘A’ level syllabus in Zimbabwe and also sold well to the general public. Other publishers have brought the book out in Kenya and the UK, and a publisher in Egypt is having the book translated into Arabic to distribute in the Arab world.