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Crime and Prejudice: An Interview with Sunday Times Fiction Prize Shortlistee HJ Golakai

By Andrew Donaldson for the Sunday Times:

The Lazarus EffectAndrew Donaldson talks to HJ Golakai about her passion for crime, mystery and thriller fiction

Crime novels from Cape Town, especially those involving missing children, are not exactly thin on the ground, but what sets Liberian writer HJ Golakai’s debut apart from the pack is its illuminating glimpses into the lives of foreigners and the African expat community in the Mother City.

Hawa Jande Golakai was born in Monrovia in 1979. As a result of unrest, her family moved all over Africa and she has lived in Togo, Ghana and Zimbabwe, among other countries, before arriving in Cape Town as a student in 2003. A medical researcher in immunology, she writes from her experiences as a refugee, foreigner, scientist and contemporary African nomad – a life which has helped foster an intense passion for crime and thriller fiction.

In The Lazarus Effect, Voinjama “Vee” Johnson, an ambitious journalist and Liberian migrant, investigates the disappearance of a teenager, and is soon picking at the secrets of two fractured Cape Town families.

Tell us about the writing.

I wrote my first book when I was about nine. I was always writing. But for The Lazarus Effect, I decided to take one of the stories that I had in mind, one of the characters, and flesh it out into a full-blown book. It took me about 10 months. I wrote it while working full time, so I had to juggle time and there was no fun to be had on the weekends.

Did you want to write a crime novel, or did the writing lead you there?

I love crime. There’s got to be dead bodies, blood, gore, forensic examinations. I love all of that. Even TV series, the shows that I love, are cop shows. They are my favourites, closely followed by horror stuff. It’s ironic that after writing this book, I started opening up to other genres. Before I wrote the book, I think most of my reading material was crime. So, yes, it was deliberate.

Any favourites? Any writers that you particularly admire?

The heavy hitters. Edgar Allan Poe, Agatha Christie. The classics. And modern authors, Elizabeth George, Michael Connelly. Many others.

The genre seems increasingly grisly. Critics have spoken of a disturbing misogyny with the despatch of female victims. The violence is almost pornographic.

I think crime panders a little to the readership. The readership want gore, they want blood splashing, they want torture. For me it’s trending towards being gimmicky and that’s not something I enjoy reading. It takes away from the commission of the crime – the why, the whodunnit – and it detracts from the story. There’s an elegant way to write crime. I tend to get a little bit into the decomposition of the body, that sort of thing, to show that it’s a process of detection.

So it’s torture vs forensics?

I’m respectful of both, but it’s become a little too awash with the torture, the blood, and people’s parts spread across some alley and they have to look for the pieces. [Laughs] I try to make it a little more together.

You hold up a dark mirror to Cape Town. Are you making your home here?

I’ve been here for eight years. I have lived, studied and worked here. Africa is my home. The whole continent is my home. When you’ve been bussing around as long as I have, you come up with ways to live with your situation and one of them is saying everywhere is my home. Liberia is my real home, but there’s a piece of my heart in every place I have stayed.

They say it’s a very racist city.

I’ve lived in places where the population has been overwhelmingly black. Cape Town is the first city in Africa I’ve lived in which is so multicultural. It’s the most Western city I’ve ever lived in. I’ve only been to Europe once and I needn’t have bothered. I went from Cape Town and back and, well, it’s the same there. Just the weather is different. Cape Town is a very prejudiced city, but I think that’s a reflection of the country as a whole.

The insights into the refugee community in your book are fascinating.

I think for a foreigner coming into South Africa, and Cape Town, it’s a very displacing feeling if you’re from Liberia or Zambia or wherever. A lot of us have that in common, so a lot of us drift towards each other. So 90% of my friends are from other African countries. When I was writing, they were teasing me, saying: “You should represent us in your book. Don’t write a book that doesn’t show how we live!”

Did the xenophobic violence that erupted in SA affect you?

It did. I think I’ve experienced how a foreigner feels everywhere I’ve lived. It’s hard to escape being a foreigner. The minute you open your mouth, people are like: “Oh, you’re from somewhere else.” But when the xenophobic thing happened here it was shocking because, considering the history of South Africa, I’d thought this would be a country that would embrace foreigners. When we saw a man burning on TV, a lot of us were offended and scared.

To me, the book offered a way of highlighting those issues. I tried to juxtapose the issue of being a child on the street – how people don’t see you – and being a foreigner, where people, in a way, also don’t see you. Or maybe they see you in the way you present yourself; I go to work and my colleagues see my “work face”.

That’s one aspect of Vee – when she’s with her friends, she speaks differently, she acts differently. It’s almost like a shadow life that people don’t get to see. People should realise that foreigners come here to better their lives. They left home because things were not easy there, economically or politically. They’re looking for a better life. It doesn’t make their lives any easier, or you a better person, if you harass them. If people keep that basic principle in mind … I don’t want to get all Christian on you but, you know, love your brother as you love yourself. Everybody has a family. Everybody is somebody’s child.

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