Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Feature’ Category

“It’s crucial for us to create plays that sound like the people they speak of and about” – a Q&A with playwright, director and storyteller J Bobs Tshabalala

Nal’ibali Column 31: Term 4 (2018)

By Carla Lever

J Bobs Tshabalala, as photographed by Jan Potgieter.

Congrats on your new publication – “Khongolose Khommanding Khommissars” is quite a title! Can you tell us a little about what it’s about?

Enkosi kakhulu for the congratulations, I really do appreciate it. This is an incredible milestone for me, and for my organization Kiri Pink Nob. Seeing also that it is my debut publication, makes it even more special for me and my team at large. So, for us, this is truly a moment!

“Khongolose Khommanding Khomissars” is a heightened period piece, only the period is very recent and very South African. It’s actually the playscript of a political satire we performed, written in what we call “Comrade-Speech” – elevated language synonymous with the Black South African aspirational discourse in the political and academic spheres.

As a young Black playwright, I think that it’s crucial for us to create plays that sound like the people they speak of and about. It’s incredible how people have taken to the first ever staging, and now, the publication. It is an important shift that we are proposing here!

It’s often a challenge to get plays published for a wider audience to read and stage them. We have powerful and interesting new theatre being made in South Africa, but are we doing enough to preserve and promote the scripts?

A simple, answer… No! We’re not doing enough – far from it. Amidst all the excuses there are some valid reasons, though.

One: some of our most interesting theatre, is physical, not text-based narrative, so it seldom translates to being a strong script offering.

Two: In the case of well written plays that are as engaging as performance texts as they are literary works, the question of commerce enters. Why spend some money on publishing for a market that I know will not spend any money on reading?

Three: There is very little collaboration between actors and publishers in South Africa. It’s a gap that needs to be closed, and my partner Monageng Motshabi and I intend to do just that! I can continue listing the ills, but my answer holds: NO! NO, we are not doing enough. Far from it!

What was your experience of self-publishing? Do you have any tips for people interested in doing the same?

It was glorious: an absolute dream! Hard work, yes. Kodwa, it was a very beautiful experience.

Monageng “Vice” Motshabi of diartskonageng is my co-publisher. This experience was such a pleasure because he and I gave it the time that it needed and we worked on it diligently at our own pace. He’s published independently before, so he knew the ropes and was more than generous in showing them to me as the process unfolded. Above all else, it’s his generosity of knowledge, contacts and spirit that made this experience so delightful.

For those who are keen to do the same, my best advice would be find someone who is equally passionate about the project and pursue it as a collaboration. Having that other person makes the brutal parts of the journey easier to endure and overcome. People should not mistake self-publishing as a synonym for “I did everything by myself as a solo project” – that’s a dangerous narrative around being independent. That’s not what it means at all.

Do you think there’s been a cultural shift where we’re telling – and listening to – our own South African stories enough, or do South Africans still tend to be more interested in international plays, books or films?

In the spaces that I operate in, the shift is tangible. People are demanding local content, and many are even demanding it in indigenous languages. That said, we need to compete for market share with the international players who have way more money than we do. What they spend on marketing one product, is what we spend on making ten, so a long way is still to be travelled when it comes to making our stories the products of choice (for the middle-class market, that is). In the working classes however, South African content is treasured. This is where I am looking to play mostly.

Your theatre work has often explored the ways we understand – and misunderstand – each other in South Africa. What interests you about this?

I’m very interested in the ways that I understand and misunderstand the country and its people. In the many ways that the country and its people understand and misunderstand me. South Africa is incredibly rich with heightened complexity and complicated nuance. I aspire to make work that captures that, so that its signature is unique to Mzansi as a character and my brand of theatre as a creative undertaking. What an amazing offer it is to be a theatre practitioner in a land that is this fertile with gems of content, concepts and people so ready to engage!

You’ve been very innovative in the ways you’ve chosen to explore socio-political issues with people. Can you tell us a little about your successful use of the game show format to draw people in and make them question their own cultural assumptions?

The Game Shows are gold for me. They took me very long to create and refine, and I feel as though only now am I getting to the heart of what they really are about and for.

Their success is based on rewarding our connections more than our divisions. On highlighting similarities in the veil of exposing our differences. On being scathing in a way that is cathartic for all, and on being funny in a way that is laughable only to our national humour. They are about using theatre to explore the theatrics of our reality.

Kodwa, my proudest achievement is that they have been made what they are by the multitude of South Africans who have witnessed them. Audiences have co-authored this journey with me, and at best, I have been very attentive and careful to be their dedicated scribe and dramaturge. It honestly feels like a commissioned work, by the people. I love doing them. The Township one, and The Suburban one – as I call them. They are triumphs. They remind me that South Africans are ready handle any concept that you may throw at them, as long as you trust them with it, they will delve in deeply.

Why is storytelling – whether through film, theatre, books or poetry – an important way for us to connect and explore our histories and realities?

It is a true monument of who we are as a people, in the time that we live in. Of all the stories to be told, the untold South African story is the most critical of them all. We want to talk about us now. We are ready to hear ourselves. We have watched as the world fantasize about us and we’re done with that!

How can people get their hands on a copy of your book?

From me! The book costs R150 a copy. In Gauteng, I deliver. In other parts of South Africa and the rest of the world, I post, which costs extra. Drop me an e-mail to

Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success! For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign, or to access children’s stories in a range of South African languages, visit:

» read article

“Having the luxury of reading for pleasure is something we’d like everyone to have” – a Q&A with Open Book School Library Project facilitator, Frankie Murrey

Nal’ibali column: 14 November 2018

By Carla Lever

Frankie Murrey, facilitator of Open Book Festival’s Open Book School Project

What made the team at Open Book Festival decide to take up the challenge of giving young children access to quality books?

From the start, we have been committed to doing whatever we are able to in order to increase learners’ access to books. Books have such a far reaching impact on one’s life and understanding of the world in which we live.

Can you tell us a little about the school book project – what it involves and how it works?

Initially the Open Book School Project saw us putting libraries into schools, but we came to realise that those libraries were underused. What we do now is put boxes of library books – we call them Open Boxes – into classrooms so that teachers and learners have access to books throughout the day. We work with the teachers to ensure that the books are relevant to the learners.

Are there any grades you strategically choose to target, or is it different for every school?

We piloted the Open Box project at St Mary’s Primary in Cape Town and there we went through the entire school, donating boxes of books grade by grade. This year we worked with Siyazingisa and placed Open Boxes in each of their Grade R classes. We’re looking to work with another Grade R group in Gugulethu in 2019.

Of course, it’s not just books you give children access to, but also a culture of reading for enjoyment and fun. Can you tell us a little about the mentoring and event side of the project?

At each of the handovers, we run some kind of book related activity that’s designed to get the kids excited about reading. This depends a lot on the age group we are working with, so this past year has been a storytime and drawing which is always loads of fun.

What has the feedback been like, from teachers, kids and parents?

From teachers and kids, the feedback has been fantastic. It’s been particularly tricky this year to source a range of books in isiXhosa, though. Teachers we’ve worked with have understood that at times we have had to put English titles into the boxes, but we always try to stock a variety of fantastic, exciting stories in the children’s mother tongue.

What have some of your favourite moments been, working on this project?

Watching the kids get hooked into the stories that are being read to them is amazing. I don’t think it’s something anyone can get tired of! Lwandiso Ntanga of the Book Lounge has been central to the smooth running of the project in 2018. Watching him interact with the Grade R learners has been an absolute delight. The world missed out on a very gifted teacher when he went the route of bookseller! As a mother-tongue Xhosa speaker, he’s ideally suited to speak to the children and share his passion for books, too.

Lwandiso Ntanga and a group of riveted young bibliophiles

Why is it so important for young people to have access to exciting books in their own languages from an early age (and throughout their lives)?

Having the luxury of reading for pleasure is something we’d like everyone to have. Without books that resonate in one’s own language, though, that becomes more difficult. It’s through books and stories that so many of us are able to recognise ourselves. When books that speak to who you are in the language that you speak are missing, that’s a failure we are all responsible for fixing.

What can we all do to support and develop all SA children’s love for reading, no matter where we live in the country?

There are a number of organisations that work to get books into schools – Nal’ibali and Book Dash are great examples. See what’s happening in your area and double check that the books are actually well matched to the learners. See if you can join a group that visits schools. Check with your local public library what their youth programme is like.

How can people get involved with your specific project?

They can get in touch with me at

So often we make our literacy challenge the problem of individuals – people should donate more books, support more charities and so on. This often lets the big players off the hook. Ultimately, of course, today’s children without books become the next generation of workers and entrepreneurs supporting our economy. What role do you think businesses and government should be playing to take responsibility at a macro level?

I would love to see government increasing budgets to allow schools additional salaries to employ librarians. I would also like to see them putting money into growing children’s publishing across all languages in South Africa. On the corporate side, many companies already have projects of their own that target school learners in different ways. It would be fantastic to see more companies involved in supporting increased reading in some way, whether it’s through putting a book directly into someone’s hands, or whether it’s through supporting the creation of kids content.

Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success! For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign, or to access children’s stories in a range of South African languages, visit:

» read article

“Poetry has a unique way of humanising the players in a political story” – a Q&A with slam poet and performer Siphokazi Jonas

Nal’ibali Column 29: Term 4, 2018

Sunday World 4 November 2018, Daily Dispatch 5 November 2018, Herald 8 November 2018

By Carla Lever

Slam poet par excellence, Siphokazi Jonas

Your poetry engages very deliberately with political and personal questions of identity. What kinds of ideas are you most passionate about spreading through it?

It’s all about the importance of autonomy in telling your story. I’m really interested in writing about and staging narratives which are not seen regularly, particularly about the lives of black women.

Do you think that there’s a space for poetry to reach people politically where newspaper reports or debate can’t? How can we all use or be open to that space?

Absolutely – poetry has a unique way of humanising the players in a political story. There is room for publishing poetry in newspapers and other media which could widen the scope of who has access to our work.

We come from a long history of protest poetry – literature, storytelling, theatre and so on. But now, it feels like there is a generational shift: a group of passionate young people who are ready to make their own political points outside of the traditionally political works of the past. Does this feel to you like a good time to be a young poet?

This is a fantastic time to be a poet! The shifts happen as politics and concerns change. Poetry gives us a platform not only to wrestle with past and present but also to engage with an imagined future.

Sometimes, no matter how familiar we are with a work, we can still read something and have a strong emotional reaction to it. Can you give us a couple of lines of your own poetry that still hit home for you?

Sure. Here’s an extract from my poem Making Bread:
Every December, in exchange for Tupperware full of roosterkoek
Tried over coals, I present uMama with English poems
To match the decadence of the season.
(English, with its heavy hand of sugar, corrodes my vernacular,
English poems do not let me forget that the bowl I work in is borrowed)

It’s always a challenge to get work out into the public, particularly as a poet. In 2016 you released some of your poetry in a very unusual format: a DVD. Can you tell us a little about why you did that and how it’s been received?

The DVD was to capture the verve and fire of spoken word which often disappears once you leave the stage. Although the work was received well, we didn’t quite account for the move away from physical DVDs and CDs – the best platforms for distribution are now online.

You’ve had some great successes in big slam poetry competitions. What has been the most exciting experience for you?

Slam is quiet a competitive format of performance and poses a challenge to the poet because of all the rules and time constraints placed on a performance. My favourite thing is how the slams tend to feel like collaborations instead of competitions.

I first encountered your work when you performed with the ‘Rioters in Session’ poetry collective. Can you tell us a little about them?

I’ve had the pleasure of being part of a number of their performances, though I’m not officially part of their collective. In their own words, Rioters in Session was “organized [as] an intuitive community for POC poetry womxn to share their work in a soft and safe space with a gentle audience”.

Why is it important for poets, storytellers, performers to have spaces to share their work and for people to be able to share and discuss it together? What does sharing stories do for communities of people?

We have an incredible history of storytelling and poetry in this country which has been integral as a way of archiving history, holding communities together, holding leaders accountable, protesting injustice, etc. I believe that we are seeing the same in the contemporary moment.

How can we encourage young people to get involved with poetry and storytelling? Are there resources or organisations you could direct them to?

The best way is to read poetry and also watch material online, follow poetry houses on social media such as Hear My Voice, Word and Sound, Poetry Africa, Poet in a Suit, Inzync Poetry, Grounding Sessions, Current State of Poetry, Words in My Mouth Poetry Slam. If there are no existing book clubs or poetry groups, start them right where you are!

Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success! For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign, or to access children’s stories in a range of South African languages, visit:

» read article

“We felt the need for a new challenge” – Michael Stanley on why their latest thriller features a new protagonist

Published in the Sunday Times

Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, who write under the name Michael Stanley, recently wrote their first novel to not feature Detective Kubu.

Dead of Night is a departure from our previous books, which are police procedurals with protagonist Detective Kubu of the Botswana CID. The new book is a thriller set mainly in SA, and features a new protagonist – Crystal Nguyen, an American investigative reporter of Vietnamese descent.

So why the change? Had we run out of ideas for Kubu?

Certainly not. We’ve plenty of ideas for more Kubu books, but we felt the need for a new challenge. The structure of a thriller is very different from a police procedural, and just to make it a bit harder, we decided to write it in first person with Crys telling the story herself.

The backstory of Dead of Night is the poaching and horn smuggling that’s devastating the rhino population of SA.

We both spend a lot of time in the bush and feel strongly about the issue. However, we wanted to step back and look at the situation from an outsider’s perspective – so we decided against a South African protagonist and opted for Crystal.

We write together by brainstorming the story, each drafting different chapters or sections of chapters, and then exchanging them multiple times for comments and corrections.

Interspersed are long discussions on WhatsApp or Skype. So every chapter has serious input from both of us.

Readers tell us the writing is seamless. To us collaboration is a natural process and we think writing by yourself must be lonely.

However, with the thriller, we found the chapters going back and forth, but not converging.

And we had trouble getting to grips with Crys. Who is she and what are her motivations? We put the project aside, and wrote another Kubu book. Still, we were convinced Crys had a gripping story to tell.

Two things brought us back to Dead of Night.

Stanley wrote a novella about Crys, and suddenly she came into focus for us. Then, soon after, our publisher asked, ‘Where’s that thriller you were writing? I want to publish it next year.’

We got to work, and this time we knew what we were doing. The book started to flow.

But there was still something wrong with the result.

It needed work, more depth, rewriting. Then, after the second rewrite, we decided first person wasn’t working for us.

Although we have quite similar writing styles, it’s hard for two people to live inside a single person’s head for a whole book. ‘The nuclear option!’ our editor told us. ‘Rewrite it in third person.’

While we were doing so we finally understood what was motivating Crys. Once we did, the book was transformed. Suddenly we were happy with it, and editors were smiling.

Maybe there will be more Crys books. But in the meanwhile we’ve got another challenge – writing a prequel on how Kubu started his career at the CID.

Dead of Night by Michael Stanley is published by Orenda Books, R220

Book details

» read article

Magical, inspirational, life-affirming – notes on the 12th Book Dash, held in Johannesburg

By Anna Stroud

Photographer Urvesh Rama was there from start to finish, capturing all the action. Visit Book Dash on Facebook for more images.

Energy crackled in the air – the kind that makes every hair on your body jig, from your nose to your toes.

It’s a powerful sensation watching nine teams brainstorm, craft and chisel away to create nine beautiful children’s books in less than 12 hours. And that’s exactly what happened on Saturday, 27 October, as volunteers drove into the heart of Johannesburg to participate in the 12th edition of Book Dash.

The Streetlight Schools in Jeppestown was the perfect home for the Book Dash crew. The schools started in October 2013 in a small store-room in Bjala Square and their aim is to create globally competitive schools in the most underserved areas in South Africa.

In 2016, they launched the flagship Streetlight Schools: Jeppe Park where we hung our hats for the day. Judging from the drawings on the wall and the wholesome menu on the blackboard, it’s a nice, caring place to learn.

The nine teams of three – writer, illustrator and designer, plus one editor for two teams – experienced that care first hand. The school’s support staff kept us fed, hydrated and happy as we worked our way to the finish line.

“Everything we do today is a gift to the world,” said Book Dash founder Arthur Attwell at the start of the day, while his six-year-old son (and unofficial Book Dash cheerleader) beamed at us from across the room.

Book Dash originated in 2014 from the founders’ belief that each child should own 100 books by the age of five. The books are available for free under the Creative Commons Attribution licence and in all 11 official South African languages.

The Book Dash model has been replicated by various groups in and outside South Africa, and the Android app recently hit just over 100 000 downloads worldwide!

This 12th edition was made possible by the Otto Foundation Trust, which allows Book Dash to print and distribute the books.

One of the reasons why I volunteered as a Book Dash editor is the feeling of positivity and goodwill that permeates the room.

Throughout the day, the love spreads from writer to editor, designer to illustrator, facilitator to support staff, barista to photographer to videographer, and back again, like a never-ending cycle of good vibes. (Yes, we had our own barista!)

In the morning, all the writers and editors gathered in the library to read their stories aloud and to give each other feedback. I’ve never experienced such an affirming group of people, who gave each other advice on how to make their stories better and built each other up every step of the way.

It wasn’t an easy feat.

As the day progressed, illustrators’ hands started to cramp, designers started to see double, writers and editors went back and fro with coffee, snacks and kind words to motivate them to the finish line.

Then the final stretch: proofreading for wayward punctuation, frowning at fonts with their own free will, and watching the clock count down to the final minutes.

And then – sweet release – the work was done and we could bask in each other’s glory.

The teams took to the stage and the writers read their stories aloud to roaring applause. The final book caused all the tired creatives to collapse in fits of laughter: somewhere in the night, a car backfired just as one writer read the line: “What’s that noise behind the tree?”

The books will be available soon – but here’s a sneak preview of the magical titles that came to life during the day:

• I don’t want to go to sleep!
• The Great Cake Contest
• The very tired lioness
• Dance, Mihlali!
• Let’s have an inside day!
• Mali’s Friend
• Auntie Boi’s Gift
• Lions are always brave
• What’s at the park?

To experience some of the magic, follow the hashtag #BookDash for live coverage on the day or visit their website to find out how you can get involved.

» read article

“Just stick to cricket, Shane.” Good ol’ Warney has been indulged once more in this tedious biography, writes Archie Henderson

Published in the Sunday Times

No Spin: My Autobiography **
Shane Warne with Mark Nicholas, Penguin Random House, R320

Shane Warne deserves a good biography.

This is not it, even with Mark Nicholas as his amanuensis.

Nicholas, an accomplished broadcaster and writer, played a marathon innings, listening to his subject, recording him, transcribing their conversations and bringing some coherence to the garrulous Warne’s ramblings.

He fails to rein in Warne and a book of almost 400 pages (including seven of fascinating statistics) could have been half the length, enough to accommodate the best part of the book, the cricket.

Warne was a great cricketer – many aficionados believe he was one of the greatest – but he can also be a great bore.

His peccadillos with a variety of women and his affair with film star Liz Hurley are tedious.

His obsequiousness toward the rich (Kerry Packer et al) is embarrassing, especially his blatant pleading to be invited to Johann Rupert’s next golf outing at St Andrews.

And his participation during a TV reality show in the “jungle” near the Kruger Park is ludicrous and irrelevant.

Stick to cricket, a strong captain – Steve Waugh, perhaps, whom Warne loathes – might have advised.

But good ol’ Warney has been indulged once more.

When he does stick to cricket, he redeems himself and his book.

He is a deep thinker on the game, was a brilliant exponent of the difficult art of leg-spin bowling and would have made a very good Australian captain.

Sadly, part of his behaviour cost him that job. Now it’s cost him a good book.

One day, when time has created some distance for dispassion, Warne will get his deserved biography. It might even be by Gideon Haigh, the Australian who is as good a writer as Warne is a bowler and who has already compiled a series of essays on the player. In them Haigh describes Warne’s bowling action as being “both dainty and menacing, like Ernst Blofeld stroking his white cat”.

Now that’s a book that would be worth reading.

Book details

» read article

What-if scenarios, the SSA, relationships, dagga & more – Mike Nicol on the ideas that sparked Sleeper

Published in the Sunday Times

Sleeper is crime writer par excellence Mike Nicol’s latest novel. Author pic: supplied.

Mike Nicol, Umuzi, R250

There were a number of ideas that sparked Sleeper.

The major one was the importance of whistle-blowers and how badly they fare when they expose corruption.

The second was a what-if scenario: what if Iran was surreptitiously looking to buy weapons-grade uranium on the international market?

And then another what if: what if we hadn’t destroyed all our weapons-grade nuclear stocks and some corrupt officials were open to selling the stuff?

There were other ideas, too, such as the ongoing relationship between the two main characters in the series, private investigator Fish Pescado and spy Vicki Kahn, and whether Vicki was still employed by the State Security Agency.

Could she, morally, have put aside her integrity to continue being employed by the state?

All this seemed to me to offer possibilities for a thriller.

Next came the constant question: how much to research? Well, I don’t like doing too much of that, especially as the daily news provides more than enough information.

When I’m writing a novel it’s about fiction, not reality, although I do have a lot of fun researching accessories, especially guns.

Which was when I came across a surprising video clip on YouTube, complete with a very cool soundtrack, put out by the Israeli Weapons Industry for their handgun, the Jericho. It’s worth a look.

However, the big surprise came somewhat into the plot when a character, of whom I was particularly fond and who has been in and out of a number of my crime novels, suddenly…

No, fear not, I’m not going to issue a spoiler alert, because I’m not going into specifics you’ll just have to find out for yourself what happened by reading the book.

Anyhow, this opened another opportunity to have another old hand return. “Nuff sed” for the moment. It’s actually one of the things about writing these sort of plot-driven novels which I really like – the unexpected walk-ons. You can never plan for them.

As for difficulties? There are always difficulties.

Just putting one word after another is difficult. And then there are instances – like did I really want to visit the Swartputs nuclear waste dump – where reality might have destroyed my story? No, I didn’t. I couldn’t afford to have the real world intrude on the story. Not completely at any rate.

So I’ll leave that for another day, and turn to a new plot development.

My main character, Fish Pescado, sells dagga to those who don’t want to buy their dope on the streets. In other words to people like oncologists, surgeons, lawyers, academics, advertising executives.

Since Sleeper was published a few weeks back, the world has changed a bit because of the recent Constitutional Court ruling on the private use of dagga.

After that was announced, I got a note from the publisher at Umuzi asking if this now meant that Fish would no longer be called a drug dealer but a florist.

Book details

» read article

In Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu’s debut novel there is no distinction between the real and the magical, writes Kate Sidley

Published in the Sunday Times

The Theory of Flight ****
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu, Penguin Books, R270

Imogen “Genie” Zula Nyoni, the gap-toothed heroine of Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu’s debut novel, The Theory of Flight, is said to have hatched from a golden egg.

She inhabits an idyllic childhood, playing among the sunflowers with her friend Marcus. Her life changes when adult concerns interfere. Marcus’s parents take him away. And soldiers – the feared red berets – bring death and horror to the village.

When the author was just seven the men with the red berets entered her own idyllic childhood on the plot of land her grandfather owned in Zimbabwe.

“I remember the sunflowers and having that space to let my imagination run wild. And I also know we had droughts, we had the men with the red berets. My memories of my childhood have to contain both those things. Not to take away from the atrocity, but people are able to go through horrible things and still live and laugh and love each other.”

This is the challenge of post-colonial literature, says Ndlovu.

“How do we tell the story of where we come from without reducing it to the doom and gloom you see on the TV news?”

The novel is set in an unnamed southern African country – a smart choice which relieves her of the burden of a real country’s deep history and inevitable complexity.

She is able to look at the issues of Zimbabwe – war and HIV and homelessness run through this book – without them overwhelming the essentially human story, the story of Genie’s life, and the author’s other themes: love and loss and friendship and the transformative power of imagination.

The tale emerges through the lives of a few families and intriguing characters, from colonial times to the present.

There’s Genie’s father, Golide Gumede, a revolutionary who endured Soviet winters to study aeronautical engineering and build a plane, “because he understood that after the war – when independence arrived – people would need to know that they were capable of flight”. And her mother, Elizabeth Nyoni, a self-styled Dolly Parton in a blonde wig, with dreams of Nashville. There are farmers, war veterans, a journalist, street kids and the brutal bureaucrats of The Organisation of Domestic Affairs.

Ndlovu is a gifted storyteller, skillfully interweaving the real and the magical, beauty and devastation, historical and personal perspectives, simplicity and complexity. She has a vivid imagination and the tale shimmers with magic, though she balks at the “magical realism” label.

“I simply told this story as honestly as I could, in the way stories have always been told around me, with no distinction between what is magical and what is real. My job as a writer is not to confine my imagination, but to use all the elements I need.”

Her background as a filmmaker informs her writing: “It was important to me to try to capture all of what was happening from the best vantage point I could have. As a writer you have this all-seeing ability but in real life you only see something from a certain angle. So each character sees Genie differently, and she has a definite understanding of herself, even when the other characters don’t. When you have multiple viewpoints and voices, there is nuance.”

She adds: “I experience the world visually and try to communicate that vision through the careful use of words. If I can’t get you to see why Golide has fallen in love with Elizabeth’s ankle, then I’ve failed.”

In this case, she succeeds – both in the telling of Golide’s ankle-inspired infatuation, and in the book itself, which is a marvellous and unusual flight of fancy. When Genie dies, and flies away on huge silver wings, she will take a little piece of your heart with her. @KateSidley

Book details

» read article

Charles Massy’s book on agriculture in drought-stricken Australia has incited furious debate, writes Bron Sibree

Published in the Sunday Times

Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, A New Earth *****
Charles Massy, Chelsea Green, R500

Charles Massy seems an unlikely revolutionary. Yet this softly spoken 65-year-old Australian farmer, bird lover and zoologist first won plaudits for exposing the political skulduggery that led to the decline of the Australian wool industry in his 2011 book, Breaking the Sheep’s Back.

He is now leading the charge for an agricultural insurrection with Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, A New Earth.

It is a 500-plus-page tome so persuasive it incited furious debate in farming circles in Australia prior to its South African release this month, with prominent environmentalist Tim Flannery likening its power, scale and honesty to Rian Malan’s great saga of SA, My Traitor’s Heart.

Massy, who still tends the farm his family has tilled for five generations, prefers to describe the book as “a gentle course in teaching landscape function through lots of stories”. But he is quick to acknowledge that many of the revolutionary ideas he describes in it, indeed, “came out of Africa”.

He is eager, too, to confess to his own agricultural crimes, and to the palpable sense of urgency that drives Call of the Reed Warbler, which is at one level a momentous history of industrial agriculture and the ravages it continues to wreak upon global landscapes at a moment in “this Anthropocene epoch where”, says Massy “we are entering unknown and frightening territory”.

At another, it is the deeply personal story of a cluster of individuals who have transformed their farms from drought-blighted dustbowls into moist, fertile, financially viable farmlands by using a range of regenerative techniques – “techniques that many regard as counter-intuitive”, says Massy.

Among the many techniques he details in the book are the radical livestock grazing practices advocated by controversial Zimbabwean ecologist Allan Savory, whose story, along with that of fabled South African botanist John Acocks, is one of many he tells in Call of the Reed Warbler.

“It was influences like that that helped save me,” says Massy, who advocates the Savory method of rotating livestock regularly and rapidly through small paddocks to imitate herd behaviour of wild hoofed animals in Africa.

This brings intensive bursts of manure and urine to the soil which in turn stimulates all important microbial and fungal activity – as well as greater germination of perennial grasses and cereal crops. He also advocates – and uses – a form of farming called Keyline, which deploys contours in the land to maximise water and conserve rainfall.

All in all his book is an elegant and exhaustively detailed plan to enhance five key landscape functions: the solar-energy cycle, the water cycle, the soil-mineral cycle, diversity and health of ecosystems at all levels, and the human-social.

For Massy, the latter is the key, and the most difficult. It is our very Western industrial mindset or what he calls the “mechanical mind”, that has led to such wholesale degradation of our soils and food.

He first began questioning the reigning agricultural paradigm in the wake of the ’80s drought.

“Every day for five years there were mocking blue skies; it got to the stage where the district was dust. We’d never seen anything like it. I had a little family, my father was dying and I was depressed but didn’t realise it. My mindset was that old paradigm – ‘I’m going to fight it and beat this drought.’ It’s a fairly arrogant statement isn’t it?” he now quizzes, “and of course I lost.”

His painful honesty in detailing how he dug himself out of “decades of debt” – and, more crucially, out of the “mechanical mindset” which led him to perpetuate the mistakes that turned the family farm into “a dustbowl” – is part of what makes this vast hybrid of a book so compelling.

Massy’s unparalleled ability to convey the beauty and complexity of the natural world to the page is another. He is keenly aware, too, that in writing about the destructive impact of industrial agriculture on the one hand, and proffering counter-intuitive solutions on the other, he is rubbing up against the same paradigms and vested interests that reacted with vitriol to Savory’s earlier ideas.

“But there is more receptiveness to change now,” he says, “because farmers intuitively know something is not right.”

Since the book’s release he has addressed farmers and scientists in various parts of the globe about the regenerative agriculture he describes. Yet he shrugs off the rigours of piling those added labours onto the demands of farming in the interests of transforming the way we farm, eat and think about the earth itself.

“You only get a small unique window of advocacy, and if you believe in something, well, you’ve got to grab it, haven’t you?” @bronsibree

Book details

» read article

“It was an opportunity to speak to the criminals, to tell their untold story.” Jonas Bonnier discusses his first true crime novel, The Helicopter Heist, with Mila de Villiers

Published in the Sunday Times

The Helicopter Heist is Swedish author Jonas Bonnier’s riveting first true crime novel. Author picture supplied.

The Helicopter Heist ****
Jonas Bonnier, Bonnier, R270

Nordic noir is all the rage nowadays – from Jo Nesbo to Henning Mankel to The Killing – yet Jonas Bonnier, author of the Scandi true crime thriller The Helicopter Heist, is “not at all interested in crime or crime novels”.

The Helicopter Heist is an exhilarating read based on the 2009 Västberga helicopter robbery; the heist was executed by four men and one spectacular helicopter roof-landing. The foursome broke into a Group 4 Securicor (G4S) cash depot in Stockholm, making off with 39-million kronor (about R88m). The criminals were caught. The money was never retrieved.

Marketed as “true crime fiction” (much to the affable Swede’s amusement), Bonnier states that he never considered writing a non-fiction account of the heist, reasoning that “I’m not a good non-fiction writer”.

Bonnier was approached by his agent to write the book; hesitant at first, he was persuaded when his agent asked him whether he would be interested in meeting the perpetrators.

“I thought, ‘Okay, I’ve never met any of the characters in my book before’,” he laughs. (The Helicopter Heist is his ninth book.)

“It was an opportunity to speak to the criminals, to tell their untold story. I can’t even imagine this novel written by me if I hadn’t met them.” Meeting with them convinced him to write the book.

The eccentric millionaire character known as Zoran in thenbook (Bonnier provided pseudonyms for the four perps) made a profound impression on Bonnier. He describes the man as a “larger than life character” who had “just stepped out of a novel”. This owing to the fact that “Zoran” ordered a glass of lukewarm water which he didn’t touch once (a trait shared with the fictionalised version of the criminal) and his wealth and extravagant lifestyle (think annual trips to the Cannes Film Festival and horse races in Monte Carlo.)

“I fell so in love with this character!” says Bonnier.

The other three perpetrators who, despite previous incarcerations, remain involved in Sweden’s underworld, were eager to meet Bonnier.

“There’s this hierarchy in prison in Sweden and if you’re a robber you’re the shit,” Bonnier explains.

“And if you’re a robber and you used a helicopter – to some extent,” Bonnier interrupts himself, “I hadn’t used this word yet – but to some extent I think they’re proud of what they actually did.”

Bonnier maintains that the characters’ back stories are “very accurate”.

Zoran aside, the character of Sami is a petty thief-turned-family-man who reverts to his old ways; Michal, a charming and savvy Lebanese criminal who grew up in the impoverished suburbs of Stockholm; and the reckless adrenaline junkie, Niklas, whose appetite for adventure makes him agree to participate in the heist before one can say “Bloukrans bungee!”

During the “hours and hours” that Bonnier sat down with the four men, he did not once ask them about past crimes they’d committed, but focused on character sketches.

“I asked them if they played Nintendo or Sega as kids. I asked them very specific questions that I needed to get out of them, like ‘if you walk up to a bar, what do you order?’”

Bonnier believes two members of the heist squad have read the book and knows for certain that the Michal character had “loved it”.

“I specifically asked him what his friends thought and he said ‘no, no – everybody on every end-station likes it’.”

“End-stations” refers to the final stop of a Swedish subway route and they’re usually in very rough neighbourhoods. “So, the criminals enjoy it!” Bonnier relays with unbridled mirth.

As The Helicopter Heist is based on true events, Bonnier had to maintain a balance between fact and fiction; he says it is “tricky”. Readers would regularly ask him if particular passages were true, and after delivering his first draft to his publishers, he was told that a certain scene was not believable. “Well, that scene was something true!” says Bonnier.

Bonnier used the age-old adage of truth-is-stranger-than-fiction to his advantage: “I realised that nobody would be able to tell the truth apart from fiction and if I had presented the book as ‘pages one to five are true and then there’s some fiction’, I would have skipped the fiction parts. So I tell them it’s all true!” he chortles.

That the criminals were able to pull off the heist was “almost unbelievable”, says Bonnier. He was fascinated by how the foursome went about planning the heist: “I mean, to blow up a roof is not just to blow up a roof! You have to use so many different techniques and find roofs in Stockholm that are constructed in the same way [as the roof of the GS4] and try it out.

“It’s amazing! I really enjoyed listening to them telling their stories. I also learned a lot about explosives,” he says, cracking up.

This is the first time Bonnier set out to write commercial fiction and he describes the experience as more time consuming than usual as he had less free rein with the content and was reliant on the advice of his publishers and crime-fiction writers. “I didn’t know how to write a crime novel.”

“I tried! I really tried!” is the exasperated response when asked whether he read any crime novels as preparation for writing The Helicopter Heist. “I watched maybe 40 movies – I love movies, and I generally like crime and thriller,” says the Oceans 11 fanatic.

Bonnier isn’t the only fan of heist movies – his gripping romp has been commissioned by Jake Gyllenhaal’s production company and will be released as a Netflix film. Bonnier is credited as a co-producer which, according to him, means that “I might be copied in one of the many e-mails that go around.”

Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises, Peaky Blinders) will be responsible for the script.

“This is a large production, no way will they involve some amateur from Sweden,” Bonnier laughs. “But names are good. Big names are good, especially Jake Gyllenhaal.”

As for what’s next – if it doesn’t involve having to kill off a main character (“I get very, very attached to my characters, as long as they’re alive they’re interesting”), or a disillusioned, divorced drunkard of a detective as protagonist (this man really has it in for his fellow Scandi scribes!) – Bonnier’s definitely interested in trying his hand at a second true crime thriller. If only for the fact that the genre definition makes him snigger. Ja, tak! @mila_se_kind

Book details

» read article