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Archive for the ‘Book Excerpts’ Category

Get Goosebumps this Fiction Friday with an Excerpt from Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen

The FishermenRead an excerpt from The Fishermen, the debut novel of Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma that is going places.

The Fishermen, which was published in April, has been longlisted for the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and the Edinburgh Festival First Book Award.

Binyavanga Wainaina recently told Books LIVE he thinks Obioma is “something quite serious”, adding: “I’m on page 10 and already I have goosebumps.”

Read an excerpt from the first chapter of The Fishermen:

We were fishermen:
My brothers and I became fishermen in January of 1996 after our father moved out of Akure, a town in the west of Nigeria, where we had lived together all our lives. His employer, the Central Bank of Nigeria, had transferred him to a branch of the bank in Yola—a town in the north that was a camel distance of more than one thousand kilometres away—in the first week of November of the previous year. I remember the night Father returned home with his transfer letter; it was on a Friday. From that Friday through that Saturday, Father and Mother held whispering consultations like shrine priests. By Sunday morning, Mother emerged a different being. She’d acquired the gait of a wet mouse, averting her eyes as she went about the house. She did not go to church that day, but stayed home and washed and ironed a stack of Father’s clothes, wearing an impenetrable gloom on her face. Neither of them said a word to my brothers and me, and we did not ask. My brothers—Ikenna, Boja, Obembe—and I had come to understand that when the two ventricles of our home—our father and our mother—held silence as the fishermen the ventricles of the heart retain blood, we could flood the house if we poked them. So, at times like these, we avoided the television in the eight-columned shelf in our sitting room. We sat in our rooms, studying or feigning to study, anxious but not asking questions. While there, we stuck out our antennae to gather whatever we could of the situation.

Book details

Image of the author courtesy Pontas Agency

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Fiction Friday: Dip into Some African Cyber Punk with Nnedi Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix

The Book of PhoenixThis Fiction Friday, read an excerpt from The Book of Phoenix, the new novel from Nigerian-American cyber-punk author Nnedi Okorafor.

The Book of Phoenix – which was released internationally in May – is the prequel to Okorafor’s World Fantasy Award-winning novel Who Fears Death (2010), and features some kick-ass cover artwork by our very own Joey Hi-Fi.

Okorafor was born in the United States to Nigerian parents, has a PhD in English and is professor of creative writing at the University of Buffalo. As well as novels, she writes short stories and young adult books, and her work is inspired by her Nigerian heritage and her many trips to Africa. She lives in Chicago.’s Brit Mandelo says of The Book of Phoenix: “It isn’t just well written, and it isn’t just smart as hell; it’s also a damn good story, and it kept me reading almost nonstop all the way through.”

Read a synopsis from SFGate:

In this futuristic outing, she focuses on Phoenix Okore, a “speciMen” created by LifeGen Technologies and sequestered in Tower 7 in midtown Manhattan. An “accelerated being,” Phoenix is only 2 years old chronologically but middle-aged biologically. What she knows about the outside world comes mostly from the voluminous reading she is allowed to do by the attendants who provide her with e-readers and basic care.

Phoenix begins a tentative romance with Saeed, another speciMen, whose altered metabolism forces him to eat metal, glass and other inorganic materials. When Saeed witnesses something unspeakably disturbing within the corridors of Tower 7, he commits suicide, an act that causes an anguished Phoenix to recognize her own true nature. Something unimaginably hot burns within her mind and body, and she makes her escape by giving full rein to her newfound power — and the wings that sprout from between her shoulder blades.

On the run and with little notion of where to find sanctuary, Phoenix heads to Africa to begin a new chapter of her life. But even though she finds acceptance and love in her new locale, it seems as if there is no escaping the attention of “Big Eye,” the all-seeing agents of LifeGen. Unless she commits the ultimate act of revenge, Phoenix may never be free.

Mixing aspects of African folklore, magical futurism and superhero exploits, “The Book of Phoenix” blazes with anger for Phoenix and her predicament, and by extension for all people who suffer at the hands of uncaring scientists, bureaucrats and marketers.

The tale is also a gripping examination of the power of myth and of who is allowed to write and preserve history. Toward the end of the book, a character muses, “Now it was a time for stories that were truer than the truth, stories that spoke to the soul.” Okorafor’s fantastical “The Book of Phoenix” has that ring of truth, a superlative adventure that addresses all-too-harsh realities.

Read the excerpt:

There is no book about me. Well, not yet. No matter. I shall create it myself; it’s better that way. To tell my tale, I will use the old African tools of story: Spoken words. They’re more trustworthy and they’ll last longer. And during shadowy times, spoken words carry farther than words typed or written. My beginnings were in the dark. We all dwelled in the darkness, mad scientist and specimen, alike. This was when the goddess Ani’s still slept, when her back was still turned. Before she grew angry at what she saw and pulled in the blazing sun. My story is called The Book of Phoenix. And it is short because it was…accelerated.

I’d never known any other place. The 13th floor of Tower 7 was my home. Yesterday I realized it was a prison, too. Granted, maybe I should have suspected something. The two-hundred-year-old marble skyscraper had many dark sides and I knew most of them. There were 39 floors, and on almost every one was an abomination. I was an abomination. I had read many books and this was clear to me. However, this place was still my home. Home: a. One’s place of residence. Yes, it was my home.

They gave me all the 3D movies I could watch, but it was books that did it for me. A year ago, they gave me an e-reader packed with 700,000 books of all kinds. When it came to information, I had access to everything I wanted. That was part of their research.

Research. This was what happened in Tower 7. There were similar towers around the world but Tower 7 was my home, so this one was the one I studied. I had several classified books on Tower 7. One discussed each floor and some of the types of abominations found on them. I’d listened to audios of the spiritual tellings of long dead African and Native American shamans, sorcerers and wizards. I’d read the Torah, the Bible, and the Koran. I studied The Buddha and meditated until I saw Krishna. And I read countless books on the sciences of the world. Carrying all this in my head, I understood abomination. I understood the purpose of Tower 7. Until yesterday.

In Tower 7, there was “transformative” genetic engineering, the in-vitro fertilization of organic robots, “rejuvenation” surgery on the ancient near-dead, the creation of weaponized weeds, the insertion and attaching of both mechanical and cybernetic parts to human bodies. There were people created in Tower 7, some were deformed, some were mentally ill, some were just plain dangerous, and none were flawless. Yes, some of us were dangerous. I was dangerous.

Then there was the tower’s lobby on the ground floor that projected a different picture. I’d never been down there but my books described it as an earthly wonderland, full of creeping vines covering the walls and small trees growing from artistically crafted holes in the floor. In the center was the main attraction. Here grew the thing that brought people from all over the world to see the Tower 7 Lobby (only the lobby; there were no tours of the rest of the building).

A hundred years ago, one of the landscapers planted a tree in the lobby’s center. On a lark, some scientists from the 9th floor emptied an experimental solution into the tree’s pot of soil. The substance was for enhancing and speeding up arboreal growth. The tree grew and grew. In a place where people thought like normal human beings, they would have uprooted the amazing tree and placed it outdoors.

However, this was Tower 7 where boundaries were both contained and pushed. When the tree began touching the lobby’s high ceiling in a matter of weeks, they constructed a large hole so that it could grow through the second floor. They did the same for the third, fourth, fifth. The great tree has since earned the name of “The Backbone” because it grew through all 39 of Tower 7′s floors.

The Book of PhoenixKabu Kabu Who Fears DeathLagoon


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The 2015 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize: Shortlisted Authors Discuss Their Novels

Read a series of interviews with the five authors on the 2015 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize shortlist.

The overall winners of this year’s Barry Ronge Fiction Prize and Alan Paton Award will be announced on Saturday, 27 June, at a gala dinner at Summer Place in Johannesburg.


2015 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize shortlistees

Tales of the Metric SystemA Croc of Silver: 2015 Barry Ronge Prize Shortlistee Imraan Coovadia Discusses Tales of the Metric System
OctoberLeaping Upstream: 2015 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize Shortlistee Zoe Wicomb Discusses the Origins of her Novel October
nullArctic SummerSecret Journeys: 2015 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize Shortlistee Damon Galgut Discusses the Origins of Arctic Summer
nullThe Savage HourThe Outsiders in My Head: 2015 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize Shortlistee Elaine Proctor on Writing The Savage Hour
nullThe ReactiveAn Honest Imagining: 2015 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize Shortlistee Masande Ntshanga Talks About Writing The Reactive

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Sunday Read: An Excerpt from James Patterson’s New Thriller, Truth or Die

Truth or DieJames Patterson has had more New York Times bestsellers than any other writer, ever, according to Guinness World Records. Since his first novel won the Edgar Award in 1977 James Patterson’s books have sold more than 300 million copies. He is the author of the Alex Cross novels, the most popular detective series of the past twenty-five years, including Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider.

Patterson’s books span across many genres, including science fiction, young-adult fiction, comedy, romance, realistic fiction, suspense and thrillers. The last two are especially popular, with a rumour that one in four modern novels in those genres were written by him. These genres are both like catnip to most men, making Patterson’s books ideal gifts for the males in your life.

As it is Father’s Day today, we give you an excerpt from his latest book, which is set to be released this coming week. Truth or Die, written with Howard Roughan, proves that the truth will set you free – if it doesn’t kill you first!

After a serious professional stumble, attorney Trevor Mann may have finally hit his stride. He’s found happiness with his girlfriend Claire Parker, a beautiful, ambitious journalist always on the hunt for a scoop. But when Claire’s newest story leads to a violent confrontation, Trevor’s newly peaceful life is shattered as he tries to find out why.

Chasing Claire’s leads, Trevor unearths evidence of a shocking secret that—if it actually exists—every government and terrorist organization around the world would do anything to possess. Suddenly it’s up to Trevor, along with a teenage genius who gives new meaning to the phrase “too smart for his own good,” to make sure that secret doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. But Trevor is about to discover that good and evil can look a lot alike, and nothing is ever black and white: not even the truth.

Read an excerpt from Truth or Die:



AT PRECISELY 5:15 every morning, seven days a week, Dr. Stephen Hellerman emerged from his modest brick colonial in the bucolic town of Silver Spring, Maryland, and jogged six miles. Six-point-two miles, to be exact.

Depending on whether it was Daylight Saving Time or not, it was either still dark or just dawn as he first stretched his calves against the tall oak shading most of his front yard, but no matter what the season, Dr. Hellerman, an acclaimed neurologist at Mercy Hospital in nearby Langley, rarely saw another human being from start to finish of his run.

That was exactly how he wanted it.

Although he’d never been married, dated sparingly, and socialized with friends even less, it wasn’t that the forty-eightyear-old doctor didn’t like people; he simply liked being alone better. Being alone meant never being tempted to tell someone your secrets. And Dr. Stephen Hellerman had a lot of secrets.
A brand-new one, in particular. A real dandy.

Taking his customary left turn out of his driveway, heading north on Knoll Street, Hellerman then hung a right onto Bishop Lane, which curved a bit before feeding into the straight shoot of Route 9 that hugged the town’s reservoir. From there it was nothing but water on his left, dense trees on his right, and the weathered gray asphalt beneath his Nike Flyknit Racers.

Hellerman liked the sound the shoes made as he ran, the consistent thomp-thomp-thomp-thomp that measured off his strides like a metronome. More than that, he liked the fact that he could focus on that sound to the exclusion of everything else. That was the real beauty of his daily run, the way it always seemed to clear his mind like a giant squeegee.

But there was something different about this particular morning, and Hellerman realized it even before the first beads of sweat began to dot the edge of his thick hairline.

The thomp-thomp-thomp-thomp wasn’t working.

This new secret of his —less than twelve hours old —was unlike all the others encrypted inside his head, never to be revealed. The facts that Hellerman moonlighted for the CIA, was paid through an offshore numbered account, and engaged in research that no medical board would ever approve were secrets of his own choosing. Decisions he’d made. Deals he’d cut with his own conscience in a Machiavellian trade-off so big that it would garner its own wing in the Rationalization Hall of Fame.
But this new secret? This one was different. It didn’t belong to him.

It wasn’t his to keep.

And try as he did, there simply wasn’t enough thomp-thompthomp-thomp in the world to let him push that thought out of his head, even if only for an hour.

Still, Hellerman kept running that morning, just like every morning before it. That was what he did. That was the routine. The habit. Six-point-two miles, every day of the week. The same stretch of roads every time.

Suddenly, though, Hellerman stopped.

If he hadn’t, he would’ve run straight into it.

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Image courtesy of James Patterson Facebook page

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Fiction Friday: An Excerpt from the First Novel in English By a Black South African, Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi, on the Anniversary of His Death

Sol T Plaatje, journalist, linguist, politician, translator, writer and intellectual, died on this day in 1932, aged just 55. To celebrate his life, read an excerpt from his novel Mhudi – the first novel in English by a black South African.

MhudiSol PlaatjeNative Life in South AfricaLover of His PeopleThe Story of Sol T. Plaatje

Plaatje wrote Mhudi in 1919, although it was only published in 1930. RRR Dhlomo An African Tragedy was published in 1928, making it the first published black South African novel in English, although Mhudi was written first.

Mhudi is set in the 1830s, during a period of conflict between the Ndebele, the Barolong, the Griqua and the Boers, and Plaatje called it: “a love story after the manner of romances; but based on historical facts … with plenty of love, superstition, and imaginations worked in between wars. Just like the style of Rider Haggard when he writes about Zulus.”

But Plaatje was being flippant in this description. Mhudi is deeply political; it explores the origins of segregation and is an implicit attack on the apartheid government’s 1913 Land Act.

Read an excerpt from Mhudi, taken from Chapter 2, “Dark Days”:

Ra-Thaga, in order not to be attacked by wild animals, was won to sleep in the top branches of some large tree, where he would weave a hammock of ramblers and ropes of inner barks, tying it up with twigs. In this manner he spent many nights alone in different woods. This was a wise precaution, for occasionally his sleep and the stillness of the night were disturbed by the awful roar of the kind of beasts, making thunder in the forest. One morning, at the end of another restless night, when the wood pigeons began to address one another in their language, after the dawn of day had caused the whining of the hyenas to cease, the sun rose slowly, and Ra-Thaga, descending from his late solitary nest, commenced the misery of another day. Each of his mornings was but the resumption of his fruitless search for the company of human beings, which is seemed he was never to find in this world. As he dragged his feet through the dewy grass he seems to have no particular destination in view. He wondered how much longer this solitude would last. With a drooping spirit he mused over the gloom of existence and asked himself if he still could speak his own language; or if, supposing he met anyone and was address, he could still understand it.

These thoughts tormented him for the sixtieth time, when he suddenly saw a slender figure running softly towards him. It was clear that the maiden was frightened by something terrible, for she ran unseeingly towards him, and as he arrested her progress the girl stood panting like a hunted fox. It was only after some moments that with a supreme effort she could utter the short disyllable, tau (that is, a lion).

‘Where?’ asked Ra-Thaga.

‘Oh, stranger,’ gasped the girl, recovering her voice, ‘how good of you to appear just when my succession of misfortunes has reached a climax. I almost stumbled over a huge lion just beyond that ridge, not far from here – I am afraid he will hear us if we speak above a whisper. I did not notice the brute at first because his hair looked just like the tops of the autumn grass. He must have been eating something, for straight in front of me I heard a sound like the breaking of a tree. I think he was crushing the leg of a cos – oh, how silly of me to forget that there are no cows in this wilderness. Anyway,’ continued the girl between her gasps, ‘I noticed that in front of me there was, not a tuft of grass, but a living animal feeding on something. So I stepped quietly backward, without turning around, until I was at some distance, and then I turned and ran.’

Ra-Thaga, successfully concealing his own fears, asked, ‘You were not, then, observed by the animal, were you?’

‘No,’ she replied, ‘I believe that he is still devouring his prey.’

Ra-Thaga did not know what to do, for if there were two things he was against meeting, they were a Matabele and a lion. ‘But here is an awkward position,’ he thought, ‘a young woman fleeing to me for protection. What is best to be done?’

His native gallantry urged him to go after the beast; the young woman persisted in following close behind him. Vainly he tried to persuade her to remain where she was, but she was obdurate. ‘Nay,’ she replied, in a loud whisper, ‘I dare not remain alone.’

Ra-Thaga thought he knew what was passing through her mind before she spoke. She added: ‘I have wandered through this lonely wilderness for days and nights, since my people were scattered at Kunana; I have lived on roots and bulbs and wild berries, yearning to meet some human being, and now that I have met you, you cannot leave me again so quickly. In fact, I am not quite certain that you are a man, but if you are a dream, I will stay with you and dream on while the vision lasts; whether you are a man or ghost I have enjoyed the pleasure of a few words with you. I am prepared to see ten other lions with you rather than stay behind of my own free will. Walk on to the lion, I will follow you.’

Ra-Thaga heard this with a shiver. He believed that women were timid creatures, but here was one actually volunteering to guide him to where the lion was, instead of commanding him to take her far away from the man-eater. How he wished he might find it gone! However, he summoned up courage and proceeded, his companion following. At times he felt pleased that she had not obeyed him, for her presence stimulated his bravery. As they proceeded, however, he certainly began to doubt the wisdom of his adventure. ‘In our country,’ he said to himself, ‘lions were usually hunted by large companies of armed men aided by fierce mastiffs, and not by one badly armed man guided by a strange girl.’

Suddenly their extreme peril struck him and, before he had time to ponder it, the maiden touched his should and pointed to what looked like a moving tuft of grass, some fifty yards ahead – it was a black-maned lion.

Related news:

Remembering Sol T Plaatje, 83 Years After His Death

New Sol Plaatje Memorial Unveiled in Cape Town

Sol Plaatje’s Original Handwritten Boer War Diary Now Available in Digital Archive

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Leaping Upstream: 2015 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize Shortlistee Zoe Wicomb Discusses the Origins of her Novel October

Published in the Sunday Times

By Zoë Wicomb

Surrounded by grandchildren, I decided to write a novel about childlessness, one in which the central character does not regret her decision. But how to go about it? As usual I was paralysed by my plan, or rather, lack of planning. Then a number of random events kickstarted the writing. The first: a visit in Scotland to see the salmon perform their spectacular leap upstream in order to lay their eggs in the redds of their birth. Thus reproduction, home and belonging coalesced into my theme. Next, I read Marilynne Robinson’s extraordinary novel Home, and was struck by certain parallels with my half-formed characters. I decided to use it, to transpose the story of genteel Americans to rural Namaqualand. I invented a small settlement called Kliprand, a common country name. My protagonist Mercia, in fact, carries Robinson’s Home from Scotland to her family home in Namaqualand. This novel was turning out to be the same old story: my preoccupation with moving between two countries.

In the same year, Toni Morrison published a novel called Home, also about brother-sister relations. I resolved to call mine Home, and that name remained until just before publication when it turned out that my New York publisher had been humouring me. Under no circumstances would she allow that title, so I settled on October. Dylan Thomas’s “Poem in October” had lodged in my mind since the day of writing about the salmon leap. A writer is, of course, influenced by all the things she has ever read, and it gave me great pleasure to incorporate in my novel a few lines from Adam Small’s wonderful Kanna hy kô Hystoe, a work that speaks so poignantly of home, deracination and class in a rural coloured community.

The third serendipitous event related to photographs taken by Sofia Klaase in an impoverished Namaqua settlement, Hanging on a wire – photographs by Sofia Klaase (UCT Press, 2015). Desiree Lewis asked me to contribute an essay on this work, but I couldn’t. What do I know of photographs? But the self-portraits breathed new life into my existing secondary character, Sylvie, and inspired some of the flashbacks into Sylvie’s youth. Thus came about October, a novel drawn from a variety of influences, a patchwork of other texts.

Excerpt from October

She is drawn to the strange movements of a small turtle with yellow markings on its shell, the markings, she assumes, of youth. It swims in circles, apparently trying to gain the attention of a large, older turtle that clumsily turns away and moves off, only to find itself repeatedly confronted by the youth. With its left flip­per it swipes in irritation at the stalker, whilst steering itself away. But the young turtle persists until it manages to face the elder squarely. It reaches out with its flippers – how like little hands they are, the bones between the webbing raised like fingers – as if to touch the face of the other, the splayed fingers quivering with excitement as they slowly shiver forward, but before they touch, the older turtle turns away, evidently repelled, and hur­riedly makes off.

Mercia leans over to inspect more closely. The young one does not give up. It describes wide arcs around its quarry, then homes in. It earns a few clips around the ear, is rudely rebuffed, given the cold shoulder, but when the older turtle is lulled into dropping its guard the younger slips round and deftly confronts it once more, face to face. The prehistoric head turns away in distaste, and as its pursuer moves round to capture the eyes, the exasper­ated creature lifts its head out of the water. Give me a break, it seems to cry; give me space to breathe, but when the head drops back into the water the little face is right there, looking into the elder’s eyes, supplicating. There is language in the movement of those fingers, shivering with passion, as they reach out to touch the face of the other.

I am here! Please, oh please. It is I!

That is what it seems to say. The trembling digits are about to make contact when the older creature swipes at them, cruelly lashes out, then plunges deep into the water and manages to get away.

Phew, what a performance. What could the little chap be pleading for? What does it want? Perhaps, unlike its land cousin, the tortoise, who can walk away from its eggs, this lot left against nature in the same pond, thrown together in the same waters as their parents, will not be abandoned. Will keep on circling the elder in abject supplication. Will stutter through those quivering hands, Acknowledge me, it is I I I I…

OctoberBook details
October by Zoe Wicomb
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EAN: 9781415207062
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Full 2015 Sunday Times Alan Paton Award shortlist

Full 2015 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize shortlist

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Related news:

The Tortured Past That We Try to Ignore: 2015 Alan Paton Award Shortlistee Jacob Dlamini Discusses Askari

A Stitch in Time: 2015 Alan Paton Award Shortlistee Maria Phalime Discusses Postmortem: The Doctor Who Walked Away

The Outsiders in My Head: 2015 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize Shortlistee Elaine Proctor on Writing The Savage Hour

An Honest Imagining: 2015 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize Shortlistee Masande Ntshanga Talks About Writing The Reactive

In Search of Common Ground: 2015 Alan Paton Award Shortlistee Lindie Koorts Answers Some Tough Questions on Her Biography of DF Malan

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Read Mukoma wa Ngugi’s Short Story “Walking the Wok”, from Cooked Up: Food Fiction from Around the World

Cooked UpNew Internationalist has shared an excerpt from its new collection of short stories, Cooked Up: Food Fiction from Around the World.

The book, compiled by Elaine Chiew, contains a series of stories inspired by food and cooking, including contributions from Ben Okri, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Pippa Goldschmidt.

Read Kenyan author Mukoma wa Ngugi’s piece, “Walking the Wok”, in which a wok washed with soap causes students at a culinary school in a small town in Kenya to question the nature of culture:

Excerpt from Cooked Up: Food Fiction from Around the World by Books LIVE

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About the book

Food is our common ground, bringing together families, communities and cultures. How we cook and eat can tell us a lot about ourselves. Food can evoke memories good and bad; can be symbolic of where we come from or where we want to be.

Celebrating this universal experience, Cooked Up, compiled by Elaine Chiew, draws together authors from all over the world, each bringing to the table a unique literary interpretation of the food theme.

A young man attempts to avoid military service by over-eating … a woman re-enacts her husband’s infidelities with fish bones … students at a cookery school war over woks … a food bank visitor gets more than she bargained for … meals are prepared and shared from Cambodia to an Indian kitchen in the US, from Russia to war-torn Croatia.

These are mere glimpses into the rich variety of short stories (including flash fiction) contained in this book — a veritable treat for the senses and an uplifting cross-cultural reading experience.

It features international literary figures such as Ben Okri, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and Mukoma We Ngugi and emerging writers such as Krys Lee, Nikesh Shukla, Pippa Goldschmidt and Elaine Chiew.

About the author

Black Star NairobiKilling SaharaNairobi Heat

Mukoma wa Ngugi is the author of Nairobi Heat, which introduces the detectives Ishmael and O. His fiction has been shortlisted for the 2009 Caine Prize and the 2010 Penguin Prize for African Writing. His columns have appeared in The Guardian, International Herald Tribune, and The Los Angeles Times, and he has been a guest on Democracy Now, Al Jazeera, and the BBC World Service. His essays and poetry have been included in a number of anthologies as well as in his own poetry collection, Hurling Words at Consciousness. Ngugi was born in 1971 in Evanston, Illinois, the son of the world-renowned African writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and grew up in Kenya before returning to the United States for his undergraduate and graduate education. He is currently a professor of English at Cornell University.

Book details

Image courtesy of Mukoma wa Ngugi

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“Happiness Does Not Walk With Me” – A Sobering Youth Day Read, from 21 at 21: The Coming of Age of a Nation

21 at 21This Youth Day, Missing Ink has shared an excerpt from 21 at 21: The Coming of Age of a Nation by Melanie Verwoerd and Sonwabiso Ngcowa.

It has been 21 years since the dawn of democracy in South Africa. To mark the “coming of age” of the nation, Verwoerd and Ngcowa travelled across South Africa collecting the life stories of people born in 1994. These “born frees” relate their personal journeys, dreams and hopes for the future of the country. The brutally honest voices of these 21-year-olds, challenging and disturbing, as well as funny and hopeful, give an invaluable insight into modern day South Africa.

Read the introduction, and scroll down to read the personal story of Wandisa, who has already spent almost two years in Pollsmoor Prison for killing a woman when she was just 16.

The book will be launched at Love Books on 17 June, with Justice Malala.

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By Melanie Verwoerd and Sonwabiso Ngcowa

On 26 April 1994, the eyes of the world turned to South Africa.

After decades of oppression and immense suffering, things were about to change. For three days, queues of people wanting to vote snaked for miles around electoral stations. For the first time, millions of South Africans finally experienced the joy of being able to vote. As Archbishop Tutu said, “To describe the joy of being able to vote for the first time is like being asked to describe the colour red when born blind.” With Nelson Mandela as our newly elected president, an era of optimism, hope and joy followed.

As the rainbow nation, we truly celebrated our new freedom. With our reputation restored in the eyes of the world and with international sport and culture opening up for us once again, we sensed a new beginning. Most importantly, we hoped for a better life in the future, particularly for the new generation born after 1994 or the ‘born frees’ as they have become known. As Mandela put it at Youth Day celebrations on 16 June 1995, “This generation stands at the borderline between the past of oppression and repression and the future of prosperity, peace and harmony.”

As we write, we are aware that the term ‘born free’ is highly contested. Many young people refuse to be labelled in this way, not least because of the level of poverty they still experience. As one ‘born free’ put it to us, “How can we be called born free when we live like this?”

Twenty-one years later, our democracy and those born in 1994 are “coming of age”. Although being twenty-one does not have any legal significance any more, it does still symbolise an important rite of passage. As with all transitions, it is a time of reflection, on the past, present and future. This is certainly true for the individual who celebrates their twenty-first birthday. On a political and social level, it is also a time for reflection on where our country came from, where it is today, and what the future might hold.

These questions about our collective past, present and future were very much in the forefront of Melanie’s mind when she came up with the idea for this book. After meeting Sonwabiso, the journey that gave birth to this book started. Throughout, we have been conscious that our collaboration is in itself a reflection of the change that South Africa has seen over the last twenty-one years. Melanie grew up in the leafy suburbs of Stellenbosch and lived the privileged life of a white person during the apartheid years. Sonwabiso comes from Mpozisa, a small village in the Eastern Cape. Although we were born more than a decade apart and have very different backgrounds we are both committed to the social transformation of South Africa.

Driven by curiosity about the state of our democracy as well as the aspirations of young people in South Africa, we knew that the stories of those born at the same time as South Africa’s democracy (in a sense, after Salman Rushdie, our Midnight’s Children) will give us some insight into the questions we (and others) are asking about the state of our democracy. And so we sought out twentyone-year-olds. They generously told us their life stories and bravely exposed their fears and personal pain. We also asked them the questions that intrigued us.

We wanted to know how life was different for those born post-1994, who did not grow up under official apartheid. On a personal level, we wondered whether their dreams and expectations differed from when we were their age. On a political and public level, we were intrigued about their opinions and aspirations. It was always important to us to allow these young individuals to define themselves, instead of us trying to define them. So we have endeavoured not to impose ourselves or our judgements on their stories.

Although we assumed that we knew much about our country and its youth, we also agreed early on to open ourselves to unfamiliar worlds. This proved invaluable. Neither of us anticipated how deeply we would be touched by the young people we met. In almost every interview, there was a moment, a phrase or an anecdote that will stay with us forever – the young boy whose mother sent him a yellow plastic chair every year from Cape Town, so he could have a chair to sit on in school in the Eastern Cape; the young lesbian who told us of her attempt to commit suicide just days before the interview; the woman convicted of murder who starts to cry when we ask of a time when she was happy; and the sex worker who shows us the scars on her face from all the beatings she receives.

The selection of stories was not based on any reduction of the complex demographics of South Africa, but it does attempt to be representative of race, gender and sexual orientation. It was also important for us to include the voice of someone who had come to South Africa as an immigrant from Africa.

During the selection process, we were mindful of the danger of falling into stereotypes and did not want to write a book that plays into preconceived ideas that people hold of young people in our country. So we sought out stories that were in some way different to what is generally known.

This book is not a survey. It is a compilation of deeply personal narratives that give some insight into the experiences, hopes and aspirations of many young people in this country and the trials they have to contend with in forging their lives.

The stories reflect the complexity of our society and its diversity.

There is Jenna, a successful young woman who has lived a fairly privileged existence. She was deputy head girl and very active. But, at the age of sixteen, she suddenly became short of breath and increasingly unwell. Eighteen months with various doctors and misdiagnoses followed. Eventually, she was diagnosed as having an advanced stage of pulmonary hypertension, a terminal disease. She deteriorated rapidly and when we interviewed her, she needed an urgent double lung transplant. Kept alive by machines, she still founded a charity – ‘Get me to 21’ – with remarkable results.

There is Yonela, a rapper and artist. She is also gay. As a child, she was academically very successful and won a national rap competition. She was even invited to perform at parliament. But, then, her older sister disappeared. After a year of searching, they received devastating news. Yonela today lives in fear of her own life because of her sexual orientation. Yet she is a fearless activist who uses her music and art to deal with her fear and anger.

Marcellino lives in Heideveld on the Cape Flats, known for its gangsterism and drug abuse. He moved schools seven times in his life and had no positive male role model, yet he was and remains determined to be a success. He teaches music to underprivileged children. He speaks movingly about raising his siblings from the age of seven – picking the little ones up from crèche, cooking dinner for them, bathing them and then putting them to bed, before doing his own homework and waiting for his mother to come home from work at 8pm.

Wandisa has already spent almost two years in Pollsmoor prison for killing a woman when she was sixteen. Although she grew up in very religious circumstances, her story is one of parental neglect. She talks honestly about what led up to the event, the unfortunate night of the killing, her time in prison and meeting her victim’s family. Wandisa is slowly putting her life back together and dreaming of a future working with children.

Joost grew up in the all-white Afrikaans enclave of Orania. Now studying at North-West University, he gives a fascinating insight into life in this secluded community with their own public holidays and even their own currency. He talks frankly about the philosophy underpinning Orania, how he adjusted to the multicultural environment of the university, and the reactions he gets from fellow-students when they hear that he is from Orania.

Ishmael is a devout Muslim who grew up in Australia after his father and his family emigrated to Australia because of their anti-apartheid beliefs. Practising their faith became increasingly difficult in Australia. Eventually Ishmael’s parents decided to return to South Africa in 2013. Ishmael talks passionately about his faith, about his ambition to play professional cricket and his challenge to fit in and find a sense of belonging.

Eliezer was born four months before the beginning of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. His parents fled the bloodshed with their eight children and eventually made it to Mozambique from where they crossed the border into South Africa. They found shelter with a Dutch Reformed Church minister in Johannesburg. As a qualified accountant, his mother found work at a local supermarket and his father founded a church, whilst finishing his doctorate in theology. Then tragedy struck. Eliezer’s older brother was murdered in a late night attack. A few months later, his father died from cancer. Despite these hardships, Eliezer is now studying mechanical engineering at Wits and has big dreams for his future in South Africa.

Kgothatso and Kgotso are twin brothers from Diepsloot, Soweto. They happily grew up with their great-grandmother and grandmother. One day they met Rosemary Nalden from Buskaid, who encouraged them to join her music school. This would change their life. Today, they both play string instruments in the Buskaid String Orchestra. They have played the world, including the Royal Albert Hall in London. They are now both finishing degrees and have big dreams.

Zelda, an attractive, well-spoken young woman we met in a park in Goodwood, is a cross-gender sex worker. She told us about her battle with her sexuality, and how she went from a private school to living in a plastic structure under a bridge. Her life is constantly in danger. Yet all she wants in life is to have a sex change, get married, adopt children and be a housewife.

Aviwe first lost his mother through death. Then, two years later, his father, whom he remembers showing him no love, also died. He tells how tough it was growing up on the streets of Port Elizabeth. The streets have no ubuntu. He failed grade ten and dropped out of school when he had to look after his very sick grandmother. He has a deep-seated anger. One day, he took the decision to take his own life.

Andisiwe is a passionate ballet and contemporary dancer. An opportunity to go to London three years ago was taken away from her by what looks like a case of corruption at the Department of Home Affairs. She could not get a passport. Her identity appears to have been stolen. She lives with her unemployed mother and her sister who works at a restaurant. She failed matric, but has plans to go back to school.

Phumelelo was introduced to the adult world very early in life. At thirteen, he already started having sex. He is a hard-working
individual who supports his three-year-old daughter. He lives in Soweto with his mother. His father died when he was in grade eight. But he found love in music. He now plays in a string orchestra. He has been to a number of countries.

Tswarelo’s father was part of the African National Congress’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe. His father was in exile and received his military training in Russia. Tswarelo’s mother was a primary school teacher. She died on the day Tswarelo went to school for the first time in grade one. Left with his grandmother and older brother, he remains grateful for the values he was taught by his grandmother. He is enrolled at university to study law.

Siviwe lives with his mother, younger brother and older sister. Even after making his girlfriend pregnant while in grade twelve, Siviwe is still determined to reach his dream of becoming a sports scientist. When it comes to schools, he has experienced the worst of the worst and the best of the best. He started crèche at a village school in the Eastern Cape and went on to one of the better schools in Cape Town – Rosebank College.

Nosiphe and Nosimphiwe are twins from a family of eleven. Their mother died three years ago; the year before that their older brother died after he was attacked in a shebeen. The twins both fell pregnant and had babies while still in high school. They did not finish their education. Both say their future dreams are not cancelled by becoming mothers, but are merely postponed.

Ziyanda dreams of being a secretary. She grew up in the township of Masiphumelele, south of Cape Town. After grade seven at a public primary school in Ocean View, one of her teachers suggested that she go to a school for children with special needs, since she has a birth defect – her one leg shorter than the other. She is now at home and unemployed.

Jaime is a student at the University of Stellenbosch. She has two mothers and a good relationship with her father. She speaks about how she is aware that she got a better start in life than many black children in South Africa, especially those in townships.

Noluvo’s parents were living in Khayelitsha when she was born. She remembers walking her father to the taxi stop when she was six years old. He had told the family that he found work in Johannesburg. He never returned. She moved in with her mother’s employer in St James when she was still very young. Throughout her school life, she has been in English medium schools and has to contend with being called a coconut in Khayelitsha. Noluvo is studying to be a chef. She has a one-year-old daughter whom she adores.

Siphosethu is a young businesswoman. After completing her fashion design diploma she went on to start her own business. She runs her clothing design business from home. Her hopes and dreams are to have her own clothing boutique and a hair salon.

Although these stories are clearly very different, some themes became apparent during the months of interviewing.

A thread that ran through almost all the stories was the severe disruption of family life and specifically (with a couple of notable exceptions) either the complete absence or the destructive presence of father figures in the children’s lives. Only five out of all the young people we interviewed had a stable family life. Although it is true that most of the children’s parents were either divorced or separated, this was not what concerned us most. Undoubtedly, divorce is hardest felt by young people. However, what was related to us, time and time again, was far more troubling than the splitting up of parents. We were frequently met with amazed looks when we asked if there was or had been domestic violence in the family home. The answer was too often – of course! We were almost matter-of-factly told how their mothers were beaten and sexually abused. The pain and even hatred of many of these young people towards their fathers can perhaps best be summed up by the response of one young man; when asked if his life would have been different had he known his dad, he responded, “Yes, for sure. It would have been even worse.”

The second theme relates to the struggle for education. These twenty-one-year-olds are living in a world of unprecedented access to information, yet many are cut off from it. The schooling that has been provided, particularly for black learners, has not been one that ensures a route to post-school education and training. According to the South African government, 2.8 million young people between the ages of 18 and 24 are not in education, employment or training.

Eight of the twenty-one-year-olds in this book dropped out of school before the end of grade twelve. The reasons differ but for a number of them it was because of poverty and a lack of support at school and home. Three have their matric, but did not go any further. All of them expressed a deep desire to further their education, but found it impossible.

Another theme that emerged relates to identity. The late teens and early twenties is a time when young people naturally seek to find a sense of self and belonging in the world. We found these young men and women born in 1994 to be conscious of themselves and their position in the world. When asked, ‘Who are you?’, all of them answered with little hesitation. Their answers were complex. They showed a layering of identity from a deep engagement with many aspects of growing up in as diverse a society as South Africa.

We would often forget that the young people we were speaking to were born in 1994 and were only twenty-one years of age. They displayed a level of maturity far beyond their years.

Interestingly, almost all the people we interviewed had little appetite for politics. With a few exceptions, all had voted in the last election, but they had no interest in political issues, political parties or the leadership of the country. Many expressed negative opinions about the current leadership, but were vague and often factually inaccurate when asked about the reasoning behind their opinions. We found this to be a big difference from our experiences as young people growing up in the pre-1994 period. In our opinion, youth, particularly in the townships, were far more engaged and skilled in political debate back then.

This lack of political engagement did not however translate into a materialistic approach to life as we might have expected. Although there was the perfectly normal desire to have financial security and a home of some kind, having a family and being able to provide for their families were almost always mentioned as the number one aim in their lives. Happiness was never defined in terms of possessions or status symbols only. When asked about the future, caring for their families and finding fulfilment in a job or career were at the forefront of their minds. Yet, it was quite striking how vague many were about how they intended to pursue their hopes and dreams for the future. Since we are not psychologists or sociologists, we do not wish to speculate on a possible explanation for this. Yet the lack of a vision for the future from many of our interviewees was striking and somewhat concerning.

When we started this project, we had sincerely hoped that life had become easier for those who were born at the dawn of our democracy. However, for many of the youths we spoke to, this has not been the case.

And yet, despite the pain and many challenges that most of these young people have faced and continue to endure, they still have faith that their lives will be better in the future. Their strength, resilience and determination had us in awe and gave us a sense of hope for the next twenty-one years of our democracy.

We would like to sincerely thank all the young people who agreed to be interviewed. We know how difficult it was for many of them to expose their pain and fears to us and we can only hope that we have done justice to their stories. We also want to thank all the people who made this book possible. A very special thanks to Paula Assubuji and the Heinrich Böll Foundation for their generous financial support. Without it, this book would not have been possible.

Finally, our hope is that this book will in some small way break down stereotypes and preconceived ideas about young people in South Africa and that it will contribute to the building of our nation as we enter the next twenty-one years.

* * * * *


Happiness does not walk with me

The woman who opens the door definitely does not look like the rugby player I was told I’m meeting. Yes, she is strongly built, but it is hard to imagine her beautifully made-up face and carefully manicured nails in a scrum. Wandisa politely, almost shyly, invites us into the sitting room of a house run by an NGO for young female offenders.

As we sit down, I find it even harder to imagine that this soft-spoken young woman has already spent eighteen months in Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison for killing someone. And yet, from the first words she utters about herself, the inevitability of some serious crisis developing in her life becomes apparent.

“We were 18 children in our house in Khayelitsha,” she says. “No one ever knew or cared what I was doing.”

“Your mum did not care?” I have to bend forward to hear her answer.

She whispers, “My mum left me and my brother when we were three years old. I was one of a twin, but then, when my twin brother was four years old, someone else, who wanted a boy, took him.”

Born in Cofimvaba in the Eastern Cape, Wandisa’s dad passed away when she was eight months old. According to the stories she was later told, her mum ‘gradually disappeared’ after her dad’s death, not being able to cope with the demands of her six children. When Wandisa and her twin brother were age three, she took them to Cape Town and left them with her brother and his wife.

“I never saw my mum again,” Wandisa says quietly.

Her uncle and aunt were missionaries for the Zion Christian Church (ZCC) and the house was always packed with people who came to stay.

“If you were from the Eastern Cape, you were welcome to stay there. You didn’t pay rent; you didn’t pay electricity. You just stayed there, ate, did whatever.”

But it was a tiny house with only three bedrooms for eighteen children and the many adults. Still, her early childhood was fairly stable and she grew up believing that her aunt and uncle were her biological parents. But things changed during grade seven.

“I could see my surname was different from my family in Khayelitsha. I was always asking them, ‘Why is my surname not like yours?’ They always said, ‘No, just ignore that.’”

As Wandisa grew older, she became more and more concerned about the issue. Eventually, she spoke to a teacher at school. “I didn’t ask as if it was about me. I asked as if it was on behalf of a friend. The teacher said, ‘No, that means there is something behind this story’.” Not having the courage to confront them directly, Wandisa wrote her family a letter. They reacted furiously.

“They said, ‘No, you don’t want us anymore. You are now old enough – so now you live your life.’ But I was still so young. I was only twelve years old!”

Wandisa stops, and not for the first time I sense that she wants to cry, but she bites her lip and continues. “It was so, so difficult for me, and that is when I became naughty. At home, I was like the good girl, washing the dishes, cleaning the house. But no one knew, while they were sleeping, where Wandi was.”

With so many children in the house, the adults did not seem to notice when one was missing. Wandisa would climb out of the window at night, and then she was, as she puts it, ‘away’.

A year after finding out who her real parents were, at the age of thirteen, she met a young man, who was six years older than her and in grade twelve. Even though she knew he was ‘really old’, they became romantically involved. Wandisa says she felt loved for the first time.

“He told me everything that I wanted to know. I never heard from my biological parents or from my family – ‘I love you, Wandi’. But he told me that he loves me, that I am special. All of those words that I really wanted to hear. And so I started falling in love with him.”

They both played rugby and her boyfriend would support her at matches. None of her family ever pitched up to see her play. The relationship developed quickly and she started to go to his place at night, something she knew would never be acceptable to her family. She became even more secretive.

“In our house, a Christian house, I was not supposed to have a man. I was not supposed to talk with the guys, even to have a man as a friend. And now, when my uncle and aunt were sleeping, my boyfriend was standing outside our window. And I went with him. I thought I was happy.”

Wandisa’s sense of happiness was short-lived; her life would take a terrible turn.

One night at her boyfriend’s house, a twenty-nine-year-old woman confronted her. It turned out that her boyfriend was also dating this woman. Wandisa had been suspicious after reading messages and seeing photos on his phone. Yet when she had confronted him, he denied it and said it was from his cousin’s sister. Despite her friends also telling her “he is dating that chick”, she believed him. However, at around two o’clock in the morning, the argument between the two women turned violent. The older woman suddenly grabbed a knife that was lying on the kitchen table and stabbed Wandisa in the hand.

“I just saw the blood on my hand, you know,” Wandisa says while rubbing her thumb over the angry scar. “I felt the pain and that’s when I grabbed a corkscrew on the table and I stabbed her in the chest. I really did not mean to kill her.”

I ask whether she had been using drugs or had been drinking that night and she shakes her head firmly.

“Actually, I have never used drugs in my life. I did drink, but I don’t want to say it’s because I was drunk. I just had two ciders. I was not drunk. I remember everything that happened that day. I wasn’t drunk.”

Wandisa would not refer to the woman by name. She only calls her ‘my victim’. She says that her victim did not die immediately, but was rushed to the hospital by the boyfriend (who she also does not want to name) and his cousin’s sister. On the way to the hospital, they apparently made the fatal mistake of pulling the corkscrew out, which resulted in massive bleeding and her death.

Not knowing this, but fearful of what had happened and conscious that her family did not know that she was sneaking out at night, Wandisa called the police.

“I said, ‘I am Wandisa and I stabbed someone and I’m scared. I want to go home, can you please help me.’”

The police arrived and took her home to her surprised family. Wandisa went to bed, but shortly after was woken up by her aunt’s screams. Listening at the door of her bedroom, Wandisa realised something had gone seriously wrong. She overheard the police telling her aunt to instruct her to wear something warm as they were going to take her away and charge her with murder.

Wandisa starts to shake slightly as she relives the events of that night. She struggles to get her feelings and breathing under control. After a few minutes, she looks briefly up at me and then down at her hands again.

“Yoh! Yoh! Yoh! I was so traumatised. I could not believe that these hands could kill someone,” she says, turning her delicate hands around in her lap.

“How did your family react?”

“They were so angry,” she says. “They had to pay for the funeral of my victim and also then support me while I was in prison.”

Wandisa was charged and two years later found guilty of culpable homicide and sentenced to 48 months in jail. Whilst waiting for the court procedures to be completed, she bravely remained in Khayelitsha and continued to go to school.

“The police had to escort me every day, because those people – my victim’s friends and family – they wanted to kill me.”

I ask how her friends treated her and whether they were supportive.

She looks at me, her eyes sad. “I never had friends. My boyfriend was my best friend. Even now … I never had friends in my life. I have my cousins, and we’re like friends together. But my boyfriend was my best friend.”

Yet, like her mother years before, her ‘best friend’ disappeared when she needed him most. She never saw him again. Three years after the night of the stabbing, he tried to visit her in prison, but Wandisa refused the visit.

The court hearing was traumatic, despite having a social worker with her. It also placed a heavy financial burden on the family as they had to employ a lawyer. Wandisa’s older sister to this day pays R1,000 a month towards his costs.

I try to imagine what it must feel like to be found guilty and sentenced to prison time, when you are only eighteen years old.

Wandisa’s voice shakes as she tells me how, after being sentenced, she was taken down the stairs to the holding cells and then driven to Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison. I see her face reflect the fear she felt when she was given a prison uniform and put into a communal cell. She tells me that she stayed there for only a few hours, since a fight almost immediately broke out with the ‘boss’ of the cell.

“She was also African and I had to show her I was not weak,” says Wandisa. “After that, they put me into a single cell for the rest of my time.”

I ask her what her time was like in prison. She is reluctant to talk about it. “I don’t like to think of those times.” She describes how they had to be ready to be counted at 6am and then after 40 minutes of exercise had breakfast at 7am. She defines the programme of the day in terms of meals, but grimaces at the memory of the food. “I don’t want to talk about that food,” she says and gags slightly.

Wandisa stayed determined to further her education and she completed grade twelve in jail.

“After breakfast, I would do my school work, every day. And then at five-thirty, they closed us back in and we were locked up.”

She shivers slightly as she recalls how scared and anxious she became, locked up on her own after having always shared a home with seventeen or more children. Eventually, she had to be given sedatives.

“The pills and needles helped a bit,” she says.

I ask her why she thinks it all happened this way? What went wrong?

“I was angry,” she says. “So angry. Not just that night. I was angry for something else. That night, with my victim, I took the anger to the wrong place.”

Then she tells me how as a child she would self-harm.

“If I take off my braids now, you will see the scars. I used to bang my head. I would scream from anger, because I did not have the words. Sometimes I would just hit myself. I was so angry because of my background.” She looks at me calmly, but in her eyes, there is a flicker of bitterness.

“You know, my parents … they were not there for me. I don’t blame my daddy. He died. But my mum … my mum …”

Yet, despite this, Wandisa, like most children, always hoped to see her mother again. She searched for her for many years, even writing to a radio show to try and find her. Eventually, she found out through a cousin on Facebook that her mum was back in Cofimvaba. She still wants to see her, but her parole conditions make it impossible for her to travel there at present.

I am trying to picture the meeting of a mother and daughter after eighteen years of separation. What would one say? What would she do?

“You know, I used to have so many questions – so many things I wanted to say to her. But now, now I want to be forgiving and I want to forget. I can’t always keep her here,” she says, pointing to her heart. “But I do want to just ask her, ‘How do you feel about me? Now that I am old – how do you feel?’”

I am speechless in the face of the deep need this young woman has to just for once hear the words “I love you” from the people that matter. It is not hard to understand the deep anger that runs through someone, especially someone so young, after so much abandonment and pain. Yet, Wandisa does not strike me as angry anymore. I wonder if it is just a pose. When I ask her, she explains that her time in jail has fundamentally changed her. Not only the courses she did and the psychological help she received, but also her engagement with her victim’s family. She tells me how she requested to be part of the restorative justice programme while in jail. This involved meeting her victim’s family and apologising to them.

“I wanted to know what they were feeling and I wanted to ask for forgiveness, even if they won’t [forgive me] … I wanted to talk with them and I wanted to share with them. I wanted to tell them that I’m sorry for what I did. You see, I never spoke in court. My lawyers did all the talking for me.”

The family, including the victim’s 15-year-old daughter, came to the prison. “They were there, sitting in a line at a long table. There were two cops and two prison wardens with the family.” Wandisa had her social worker and a psychologist to support her. “There was no one from my family. I was on my own. I had to talk for myself.”

I asked how it went, but it is clear that the victim’s family was very angry. They accused Wandisa of telling lies on the stand (something she denies) and also protecting the ex-boyfriend, whom she has not seen since that night.

I ask Wandisa how she feels now. Her head drops. She says with real pain in her voice, “I feel so sorry. So sorry for my victim. But also so sorry for her child. I robbed her of her mother. If I can get money, I would buy everything for her. But I can still not replace her mother, ever.” She takes a few seconds, then says, “You know, if I could go back to that night, I would change everything. Everything! If there was a Jik [a bleach] wand, I would rub out everything. That’s what I would do. Unfortunately, there is no such thing.”

Wandisa has made peace with the fact that she will never be able to change the events of that awful night. Yet, there is very little chance now of living the normal carefree life of most 21-year-olds. Having been released after 18 months in jail, she will be on parole until September 2016, with many conditions attached. She has to remain in a house for ex-offenders with a strict regimen of shared responsibilities. She cannot travel and has to see her parole officer weekly. She sometimes goes to see her family in Khayelitsha, but she remains “very, very scared” of what her victim’s family might do. Her parole officer has advised her not to go there, but that means just more loneliness for her.

Despite all of this, Wandisa seems determined to build a future for herself. She is studying early child care development with the aim of becoming a child psychologist. “I just really, really want to help children,” she says, “and I want to be a good mother. I will tell my children every day that I love them.”

She is wary of relationships and boyfriends. “I am not saying never, but not now!” she says firmly.

As our interview winds to a close, Sonwabiso, who has left most of the talking to Wandisa and me, leans forward. “Sisi,” he asks in his usual respectful and gentle tone, “can you remember a time when you were really happy?”

After having spent an hour bravely recalling her very difficult life story, this gentle almost matter-of-fact question seems to break something inside Wandisa. There is a sharp intake of her breath and her eyes grow wide. “Yoh!” she says, trying to force a smile, but then the dam wall breaks. Tears flow down her cheeks as she looks at Sonwabiso. All she is able to manage is a shake of her head. Then she gathers herself and she whispers, hoarsely, “No, bhuti. happiness does not walk with me.”

* Her surname has been omitted to protect her identity.

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Sunday Read: Meet John Spurling, Winner of the Walter Scott Prize 2015 (Plus Excerpt from The Ten Thousand Things)

John Spurling
Image courtesy of Walter Scott Prize

The Ten Thousand ThingsThis week’s Sunday Read is an excerpt from Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling, along with news about the newly-lauded Walter Scott Prize winner.

Spurling recieved the prize for The Ten Thousand Things from the Duke of Buccleuch at a ceremony at the Brewin Dolphin Borders Book Festival in Melrose, Scotland last night. The Walter Scott Prize, which has been running for six years, is a prestigious award for historical fiction that comes with a hefty prize of £25 000.

In an article for the Sunday Express, Scott Campbell reported that Spurling took 15 years to complete this book, and that it was rejected by 44 publishers before being snapped up by Duckworth.

The Walter Scott prize judges were, in contrast, honestly enamored with Spurling’s novel about 14th-century China:

The judges said: “The Ten Thousand Things is subtle and rewarding. Through John Spurling’s writing you feel as though you are reading Wang Meng’s paintings as he created them.

“It is a mesmerising, elegantly drawn picture of old imperial China, which feels remarkably modern.”

During the shortlist phase, Spurling was interviewed by the Walter Scott Prize team. The author shares how he negotiates fact and fiction in his writing, his admiration of Walter Scott and where he finds the ideas for his work:

Your books and plays have dealt with an extraordinarily diverse range of periods and settings. How do these people and places lodge in your imagination?

I have read a great many books both for review and my own interest and entertainment and, as an art critic, have seen a great many exhibitions and, as a playwright, a great many plays. I read about Che Guevara – the subject of my first play – in a brief column in the Observer, when he was still alive in the Bolivian jungle. I read Chairman Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ in the days of the Red Guards, I read about Ovid and the Emperor Augustus long ago when I studied Ancient History at school, I saw Aztec artifacts in the British Museum

Spurling’s interest in Wang Meng, the reluctant diplomat and master artist who is the central character in this book, was first stirred up when he saw a painting by the Chinese master and a summary of his life in a book about China’s landscapes.

From this tiny spark of inspiration, Spurling painted a wide-ranging but subtle portrayal of life in the latter yeas of the Mongol-ruled Yuan Dynasty. It is a story about one man’s struggle with life in volatile times and his own complicity in a regime of invaders.

Read an except, shared by BookBrowse:

The times are turning bad again. I have been arrested for going to see a private art collection. Can you believe it? An old man of nearly eighty, a retired magistrate, is put in prison on suspicion. Instead of sitting on a dais giving judgment, here I am sitting on a stone floor waiting to be judged. Of course I’m only on remand. No one has tried or condemned me yet for the crime I am supposed to have committed, but still I’ve been here for weeks — long enough almost to have got used to the stench of the bucket in the corner. The jailer — a friendly man — says that the prisons are so full of people arrested on suspicion that it will take months, if not years, to sort out who is guilty and who is not.

Guilty of what? Conspiracy. Five years ago the Prime Minister was executed for conspiracy and anyone who ever had anything to do with him is still under suspicion. What did I have to do with such an important person? I went with some friends to look at his art collection. A rare privilege, as I thought, which turned out to be a curse.

I must not think of it as such. At my age one should be wiser and calmer. A man of my age has seen everything, done everything that he is ever likely to see or do. If he does not understand life as he nears the end of it, he never will. I have spent my life looking intensely at the so called “ten thousand things” that make up the world — man among them. I have constantly drawn them, thought and talked about them, drunk or sober, and they are not, in principle, difficult to understand.

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Secret Journeys: 2015 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize Shortlistee Damon Galgut Discusses the Origins of Arctic Summer

Published in the Sunday Times

The first time I went to India was in 1999. I was drawn by a mixture of things – a newfound interest in yoga, an old interest in travel – but the country had been lodged in my mind for a long time, in part because of A Passage to India, which I’d read way back in my twenties. On a subsequent visit I returned to that book, and it led me in turn to EM Forster’s life story.

He was an intriguing and frustrating personality, and it seemed to me that his suppressed homosexuality was like a secret engine that drove his life into strange places. The notion of an Englishman at the height of the British Empire, unable to be his real self at home, but living out some of his shadowy fantasies in the colonies, was arresting enough. But the real subject, for me, was the 11 year period in which Forster wrote A Passage to India.

I had been wanting, for some time, to write a book about writing a book. All sorts of unlikely things go into the creation of a novel, and here was a story that captured most of them. First and foremost, there was a relationship at the heart of everything. The writing of Passage was inseparable from Forster’s tortured friendship with Syed Ross Masood, a younger Indian man whom he met in 1906. It was their meeting that first put the idea of India into Forster’s mind, and when Masood went home after his studies, Forster followed soon afterward. Masood wasn’t gay and when the Englishman fell in love it caused him pain that could barely be expressed, let alone acted upon. His unrequited longings could only be sublimated in writing.

Or not writing. One of the more mysterious aspects of Forster’s struggle to complete his masterpiece was that he was stuck for nine years. Only two years were spent actually setting down the words. All the rest was hesitation – a hesitation in which he started and abandoned one novel, completed another that he wouldn’t publish, went to Egypt during the First World War, lost his virginity at the age of 37, had an affair with a tram conductor, visited India twice …

The real mystery wasn’t why I chose to write it, but why nobody else hadn’t done so already.

There are special challenges to writing a novel based on a real person. I could have invented freely and created a Forster that never existed, but it didn’t interest me. Rather, I wanted to show him as he might plausibly have been. So I did a lot of research, in order to know where I might be free to speculate and imagine. Facts are external, but the real territory of this novel is Forster’s internal world, his feelings and thoughts and desires. I hope that to some degree I’ve conjured him truthfully.

Excerpt from Arctic Summer:

In October of 1912, the SS City of Birmingham was travelling through the Red Sea, midway on her journey to India, when two men found themselves together on the forward deck. Each had come there separately, hoping to escape a concert that some of the other passengers were organising, but they were slightly acquainted by now and not unhappy to have company. It was the middle of the afternoon. They were sitting in a spot that offered sun and shade, as well as seclu­sion from the wind. Both carried books with them, which they politely set aside when they began to speak.

The first man, Morgan Forster, was thirty-three years of age and had come to think of himself as a writer. The recent publication of his fourth novel had been so successful that he felt financially able to make this journey. The six months that he planned to be away marked his first departure from Europe, and only his second extended absence from his mother. The other man was an army officer, returning to where he was stationed on the North-West Frontier. He was a few years younger than Morgan, a handsome fellow with backswept golden hair and numerous white teeth. His name was Kenneth Searight.

The two men had conversed a few times before and Morgan had found himself liking Searight, though he hadn’t expected to. The ship was full of military types and their ghastly wives, but this man was different. For one thing, he was travelling alone. For another, Morgan had seen him behave with kindness towards the single Indian passenger on board, a kindness that was otherwise in short supply, and he had been touched by it. These small signs suggested they might have more in common than he had at first supposed.

Although he had only come aboard a week ago, Morgan was beginning to feel that he had been on the ship for too long. He was travelling with three friends, but even their company sometimes wore thin. His thoughts strayed constantly outwards, into the encircling sea. He would pace the deck for hours at a stretch, or sit at the rail, lost in aimless reverie over the flying fish that leaped at the bow, or the other creatures – jellyfish, sharks, dolphins – that sometimes showed them­selves. He could sink very deep at moments like these. Once he had seen tracts of scarlet, billowing in the swell, which he was told were fish spawn, waiting to hatch. Life that wasn’t human life, maturing and breaking out and expending itself, in a medium that wasn’t human either.

Image courtesy of Nigel Maister

Arctic SummerBook details


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Full 2015 Sunday Times Alan Paton Award shortlist

Full 2015 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize shortlist

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