Monday, February 27, 2017

The Walter Scott Prize Recommends The Scattering!

The UK based Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction has included The Scattering on its twenty book list of recommended novels.

The news on their website says:
    "For the first time, and to co-incide with the Longlist announcement, the Prize is releasing a further list of 20 books recommended by the Walter Scott Prize Academy from this year’s entries. They include newly published historical novels from Australia, Canada and Africa as well as some unmissable novels from the UK. We’ll be exploring all these books further in the weeks and months to come.  Keep watching!"

Further on their website is more about this prestigous prize.

Honouring the achievements of the founding father of the historical novel, the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction is one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the world. With a total value of £30,000, it is unique for rewarding writing of exceptional quality which is set in the past.
Sponsored by Sir Walter Scott’s distant kinsmen the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, the Prize celebrates quality, innovation and longevity of writing in the English language, and is open to books first published in the previous year in the UK, Ireland or the Commonwealth. Reflecting the subtitle ‘Sixty Years Since’ of Scott’s most famous work Waverley, the majority of the storyline must have taken place at least 60 years ago.
The Prize was founded in 2010, and is awarded at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose, Scotland, in June every year. The winner receives £25,000 and shortlisted authors each receive £1000.

Though not on the longlist, I'm quite proud that my first historical novel has been given a nod by such  an important prize. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Africa Writers You Should Know: Yewande Omotoso

Yewande Omotoso was born in Barbados, grew up in Nigeria, and has lived in South Africa since 1992. Her first novel, Bom Boy (Modjaji Books), which came out of her MFA in creative writing from the University of Cape Town, was published in 2011 to much critical acclaim. It won the 2012 South African Literary Award for Frist Time Published Authors, was shortlisted for both the 2012 Sunday Times Prize and Mnet Literary Awards and in 2013 was runner-up for the Pan-African Etisalat Prize.
Her latest book, The Woman Next Door, came out in South Africa last year, and will be published in the USA this year where the literary website, The Millions, has pegged it as one of “the most anticipated books for 2017”.  I was lucky enough to have a chance to interview her about her success, creativity, and her current work.
You’re an architect by training, a creative field. Is creativity paramount for a writer?
I’m not sure how one measures what is most important when it comes to writing fiction. The act itself, like so much else, even tasks not categorised as The Arts, is a creative act. And if you’re going to be making up people with any sense of “truth” to them then empathy is important. Audacity and courage too. Patience. Tenacity. Maybe paramount is simply the will to write. As in a kind of disease (!) or a real hunger, a “have to”.  
Bom Boy had a lot of success, how has that success affected you and your writing?
I don’t know if it’s affected me/my writing as such, the way my upbringing affects me or the country I live in, the people I love or the language I speak. I’m not sure “success” should be permitted that kind of effect. However when a book is received generously that is massive encouragement. I felt and still feel so incredibly thankful. I took the kind reception and I combined it with whatever it is that motivates me to write and I used it to keep going. John Berger said “writing has nothing to do with success it has to do with lucidity.” Of course he’s right but we do live in a world where success, however we define it (and this is important because it is not a fixed set thing) has currency. Success is only one measure but it is a measure. It usually brings a wider readership, it might bring money, reputation and status, greater networks. These are wonderful things that might make writing the next book easier but none of which have a causal effect on the thing that is most important – writing well.
What was the initial starting point/spark for your new novel, The Woman Next Door?
Being around my grandmother around the time my grandfather died and thinking – what must it be like to be burying your husband whom you’ve been married to for almost 70 years, what must it be like to have the bulk of your life behind you.
What themes interest you most in your writing?
Family. Motherhood. I’m interested in our flaws and our capacity for compassion. Relationship and love interests me a lot, romantic love, romantic entanglement, marriage. I like looking at what I think of as myths. I’m very pulled in by character and so I enjoy getting into the psychology of characters and why we are the way we are. More and more I’m fascinated by history.
You, like me, live in a society which is not quite your own. Do you think that gives you special insight into the society in which you are an outsider?
The outsider always has some kind of vantage point. Even just geographically we can understand that. Of course the outsider is both wise and ignorant. Same way the insiders have their wisdoms and their ignorances. I think, almost paradoxically, that no community is complete without its outsiders and the corollary is also true, all outsiders need the community from which they stand apart.
Can you tell me a bit about the novel that you’re working on now?
I’m working on a story about two divorced parents that go in search of their estranged adult daughter whom neither have spoken to in almost a year. It’s the story of a family that didn’t work and an attempt to solve the mystery of why not, an attempt to repair. It’s about art (the daughter is a talented artist) and love. It’s also about death.

(This column first appeared in the 10 February, 2017 issue of Mmegi in my column It's All Write)

Monday, February 6, 2017

We’re Failing our Teachers

Before I was a writer I was a teacher, and before I was a teacher I was a student who was inspired by a long queue of teachers. I feel offended, personally offended, when good, sometimes great, teachers are painted with a wide and dishonest brush. I have taught here and overseas. I have taught in government schools and private. I have taught in pre-school, primary, junior secondary and senior secondary schools. I find a lot of the commentary around the appalling JC results points fingers at teachers, when most are victims in this situation, trying their best, banging their heads against bad policies and power struggles they don’t want to be fighting.

Good teachers want to teach, and the best thing any administrator can do is to create the atmosphere that allows good teachers to thrive. Without motivated, good teachers nothing will improve. You can throw all the money around that you want, but learning happens in a classroom where a teacher is so knowledgeable and excited about the topic that they are teaching that no student is left behind on that learning journey. This can take place anywhere you have a motivated, involved, interested, and prepared teacher. These heroes come in all sorts of varieties. They might be shy or outgoing, strict or free, old school or modern, but they all have one thing in common: a passion for teaching and the best interest of their students always at heart.

I’ll not mention the obvious things that caused this JC mess, things that must be sorted such as conditions of service for teachers (including this never-ending ridiculous hours of operations business), lack of resources, burnt-out, deadwood, incompetent teachers and administrators that must be culled from the service, and automatic promotion that sees kids entering junior secondary school unable to read.

The thing about issues involving investing in education is you’re going to pay no matter what, it cannot be avoided.  Either we pay now and ensure that our children receive an education that truly prepares them for a solid successful future, or we don’t, and we lay the groundwork for the collapse of our country.

You can’t look at children and spew platitudes about how they are “the future” and not accept that even those children who’ve spent ten years in the government schools coming out unable to read and write or do basic maths, or those who have now failed their JC, those who are innately unemployable because of it, are also part of that future. To shut our eyes and pretend that “our future is bright” is about as useful as waiting for Santa to show up and drop a million Pula down our chimney. Our future is looking pretty dismal and it’s not because of the mines closing or the diamonds coming to an end. It’s because we’re not investing wisely in our most important asset. And it’s not just throwing money at the problem; it’s understanding the situation intimately.

Sometimes I think about things that motivated me when I was teaching, and also things that demotivated me. It was rarely about the money. As long as I was earning a reasonable salary, that didn’t even play into it.

One of the most motivating teaching experiences I ever had was teaching primary school in a private school here where the head teacher was quite lazy, so I was free to do mostly what I wanted. I had to teach the PSLE syllabus, which was easy enough, but that left a lot of free time for other things and I capitalised on that.

I did every single thing I’d ever wanted to do with students. In every subject, I insisted on some sort of independent learning, some sort of project or research that allowed the child to learn about things that they were truly interested in.  So they did social studies projects and science projects, they read books and gave reports that might be acting out a scene from the book or making an advert for selling the book to others. I let them be as imaginative as they could. These were standard 5, 6, and 7s. No one, because of the unmotivated head which in this case was a good thing, told me: no, these kids can’t do this, they’re too young. There was no bar above our heads stopping us, so we flew— and it was amazing for all of us. I’d jump back into that situation in a heartbeat if I could.

What we need is motivated, excited teachers who are passionate about students and their subject, and feel privileged to be given the opportunity to step into a classroom and meet their success there. We want nothing else except that, and it’s time all barriers be removed so that those teachers, those special people, can be allowed to get on with the job they love. 

(This column first appeared in the 3 Feb, 2017 edition of Mmegi in my column It's All Write)