Archive for the ‘Feature’ Category
Imraan Coovadia and Geoff Dyer sat down with Hedley Twidle to discuss the art of the essay in front of a 2014 Open Book Festival audience today.
Twidle and Dyer have both previously been shortlisted for the Hatchet Job of the Year award, but it was Coovadia’s infamous essay “Coetzee in and out of Cape Town” that got the discussion going. Twidle called it an example of “nailbomb criticism”: “You put everything in there: very serious critique, together with gossip and scurrilous stories.”
“There are polite cultures, and there are warm cultures,” Coovadia responded. “If you’re living in Cape Town you’re in a polite culture and it’s actually extremely repressive. I much prefer warm cultures. I’d rather be yelled at to having someone politely steer me to the door.”
Coovadia, much to the amusement of the audience, added: “You’re assuming I knew what I was doing, which is a very dangerous assumption to make about people. I think essays sometimes make kinds of connections or do certain things, and you’re not entirely sure you’re doing. I think the best books are ones where the writer doesn’t really know what they’re doing and our job is to simply give them a kind of beautiful quality or flow.”
Twidle asked Coovadia if he was “trying to introduce friction” to what he has called the “frictionless space” of the South African literary system.
“Yeah, I was, and I realised the costs were way too high. That was one part of it. But all our South African systems are constructed to absorb large quantities of resistance and put it down, whether it’s economics, whether it’s university, or the company … we think we live in a democracy but all our systems are really good at repression.
“If you write a critical book review you’re going to pay for that in blood, every month of your life. And similarly all of the different sub-systems in our society. And I think it just makes the cost of resistance too high.”
Dyer was asked about his essay in But Beautiful on influence in jazz, and how it can move both forwards and backwards, which led to a discussion about Harold Bloom and a good quip from Coovadia:
Twidle wound down the discussion by asking: “There are all kinds of critical discursive prose that are now enabled to circulate by the Internet; has this given a fillip to the essay at all? Is it a golden age for the essay, or where are we at?”
“I don’t know if it’s a golden age of the essay but the essay has become briefly slightly fashionable again,” Dyer said, “and I think maybe that speaks to a kind of impatience, really. But I think the other thing as well is that if somebody is solely an essayist it would be quite a, sort of, lowly niche to be occupying, really. And if we were to think of the very best essayists, they would tend to be people who thought of themselves primarily as novelists, and this was something they did in their spare time.
“Gore Vidal is the classic one, nobody really reads Gore Vidal’s novels, we all read his essays. Even somebody like Martin Amis, who’s at his best as an essayist, I think he’d be incredibly insulted by that. Also, to take a really extreme example, the great essayist Susan Sontag, who really insisted she was a great writer of fiction. But I think the important thing is that they all regarded the essay as something on the lesser slopes of their achievements, a kind of sideline.”
Our editor Jennifer Malec Tweeted from the event:
- Start at the bottom and scroll up
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The 2014 Open Book Festival has officially kicked off! The launch party was held last night, 16 September 2014, at the Book Lounge in Cape Town, and from the outset the twittersphere was abuzz with excitement.
Liesl Jobson tweeted from the party and captured quite a few famous faces in pixels – both local and international authors. Have a glimpse at the timeline below for snaps of Zakes Mda, Justin Fox, Geoff Dyer, Andrew Brown, Raymond E Feist and many, many more!
Councillor Garreth Bloor from The City of Cape Town and the Book Lounge’s Mervyn Sloman welcomed a full house to this year’s festival.
If you find yourself at Open Book and in a twist over which events to attend, we’ve compiled a list of 10 unmissable ones for your convenience.
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Bontle Senne considers the immeasurable value of South African stories for South African children, and shares some upcoming projects that aim to reinvigorate African oral storytelling for the next generation.
I wish my grandmother had told me stories.
I was often left in the care of my paternal grandmother while both my parents worked full-time jobs. A former domestic worker, she was the kind of granny you see in movies and read about in books, down to her incredible homemade ginger biscuits. As a child, I was obsessed with reading. My parents did not buy me many books but I devoured the fiction section of my primary school library. After I had tired of Babysitters’ Club, Choose Your Own Adventure and Goosebumps, I made my way through Dickens, Austen and other authors who I’m not sure I would have the time or inclination to read now as an adult.
A book was a preferable companion to me than any person or pet but I don’t remember ever reading a South African book outside of school setworks. And even then, our exposure to South African English fiction was limited Maru by Bessie Head who, though born in South Africa, perhaps belongs more fairly to Botswana. My school offered only Afrikaans as an additional language and we read many interesting, complex works in the language. While I enjoyed many of these books immensely, I could not do so without a bit of black middle-class guilt. My father had been among the children who risked their lives in the Soweto Uprising of 1976 protesting against Afrikaans as a language of instruction in their schools and there I was, some 25 years later, happily tucking into Skilpoppe and Vlerkdans. South Africa can be a weird place sometimes.
Had I had the option of taking another indigenous language as a subject, I would certainly have taken it. Had I had any South African or Africa children’s books in my school library, I am sure I read them as enthusiastically as I read Roald Dahl or Jacqueline Wilson. And had my grandmother or mother told me the stories of her grandmother or mother, I think I would have had an even richer relationship with the written word.
The invalidation of oral African storytelling
I understand now why they did not. My work at the Puku Children’s Literature Foundation exposed me to many realities that had never occurred to me as a child. One such reality was that the reason my grandmother did not tell me stories was likely because of the systematic invalidation of African oral storytelling during apartheid and after it.
As my former colleague and current chairperson of the Puku Children’s Literature Foundation, Elinor Sisulu, put it:
“The denial of our own stories was perfectly logical in the education system of a racist settler society but I find it difficult to understand why we remain in the same grey area of confusion in post-colonial societies.
Throughout Southern Africa there is little conscious investment in ensuring that African folklore and traditions are reflected in the literature that our children consume in classrooms.” (Quoted from an article that originally appeared in The Times, 22 January 2013, as part of the of the Nal’ibali ‘Here’s the Story’ series of columns)
The education system that I am a product of did not believe that oral storytelling had a place in our curriculum or as a tool to unlock a love of the written word. My grandmother did not believe that she would add value to my education or literacy with her stories and so she did not tell me any. She encouraged me to read everything I could get my hands on but was never concerned about the Eurocentric nature of everything I had access to. And so, with her passing, I lost the stories that my granny had grown up listening to and loving. I will never be able to tell my future children her stories and history of the Senne family. That link to my heritage and my identity is forever severed.
Bringing our stories back
Today, there is a growing recognition of the role that oral storytelling plays in literacy and the acquisition of complex concepts in home and additional languages. In South Africa, PRAESA and Nal’ibali have done much to stimulate more appreciation for the value of our indigenous stories, sharing their multilingual stories online as well as tips for parents trying to share their own.
Early next year, Puku will host its third annual isiXhosa Children’s Story Festival organised in association with the National Arts Festival and Rhodes University and sponsored by Redisa. SAIDE’s African Storybook Project is working with teachers and parents in South Africa, Lesotho, Kenya and Uganda to turn oral stories into digital ones in print or video format. I could list a half a dozen other organisations involved in similar work across the continent but the real tipping point will be in the home. When someone else’s grandmother starts to believe that her stories are valid and in telling them, she is changing the educational outcomes of her grandchildren forever, that will be the signal that we are really making progress on reviving oral storytelling for both urban and rural African children. Until then, I’ve already made it very clear to my future children’s grandmothers that they should start collecting their stories now because there is no way my children will lose the stories of their grandmothers the way I lost the stories of mine.
Bontle Senne is a Golden Baobab Media Fellow who produces articles on behalf of the organisation to promote and highlight the African children literary scene and Golden Baobab’s work. Golden Baobab is an organisation with a dream of seeing a world filled with wonder and possibility one children book at a time. Bontle is a blogger, web editor, speaker and literary activist on the board of NPO Puku Children’s Literature Foundation and NPO READ Educational Trust. She writes stories for FunDza Literary Trust and regularly speaks on social media and children’s literature at international literary festivals and conferences.
Image courtesy of Golden Baobab
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Read an excerpt from David Platt’s short story “Doppleganger”, which took first place at last year’s Nova Short Story competition in the South African section. His winning story appeared in Probe 159, cover art courtesy of Jürgen Zimmerman.
The competition is organised by Science Fiction and Fantasy South Africa (SFFSA) and this year’s closing date is 30 September 2014, at midnight. Tech-Savvy Parenting: A Guide to Raising Safe Children in a Digital World author Arthur Goldstuck will judge the South African section, and Jenny Ridyard, co-author of Conquest, will judge the General section.
Read an extract from “Doppleganger”:
Chased him for months; promotion material.
One of two known Struggle leaders. The young one, charisma machine, apparently.
Not too charismatic with his face leaking. Mouth so swollen by now he couldn’t talk if he wanted to – China went one step too far hitting him with debilitator-shot early, cut off muscle reception, sealed his fate. Rookie error – literally. Now we don’t get intel – just the impact of a clandestine death.
Got him through infiltration, in a fucking hole in Mozambique. – untested biotech to lift classified MK intel. Traced a death threat on Security Minister Burger.
Me + van Staden: “Cheese”; top photo op for higher-ups.
Hero cop. Apartheid dog. I like both names equally.
Over now though, save the Wurm.
Rookie clips the crystal biosphere to Mphila’s neck, miniature claws cutting miniature holds into flesh. Press down. Hiss. Wurm burrows his way from synthetic plasma sludge to bloodstream. Convulsions.
Involuntary vomit, shits his pants, not pretty, Rookie leaps away. Botha laughs – one of the meanest motherfuckers I’ve ever met. Good cop; better assassin.
Wurmpie writhes under the skin.
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Mermaids, shipwrecks, and horror stories all from the deep feature in this week’s Fiction Friday.
Our short story excerpt comes from the pen of SA Partridge, author of such books as Sharp Edges and Dark Poppy’s Demise.
Shared on Aerodrome, “Up She Rises” conjures up old sea magic within the anthology, The Sea, edited by Nerine Dorman.
There were whispers among the fishermen that something was wrong with the sea. They would know, if there was. Ma believed that I was one of the ocean’s children too, just like Pa. She had accepted it, as if my fate was a certainty. When I was much younger, the realisation that I belonged to this wild, unpredictable creature filled me with dread, but nowadays I found myself feeling the urge to be near the water more and more. Maybe Ma was right, after all. But then again, she usually was.
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Noted Libyan translator and poet Khaled Mattawa and Arizona poet laureate Alberto Ríos have been elected Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets.
They join an illustrious list of poets who have held the honorary position, including Marianne Moore, WH Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Adrienne Rich and John Ashbery.
The appointment of Mattawa upholds the Academy’s pledge to implement significant changes in its structure, after the infamous resignation of chancellors Maxine Kumin and Carolyn Kizer in 1998, amid protestations over the absence of African-Americans, women, and other minorities on the board.
Mattawa and Ríos take over the seats vacated by Victor Hernández Cruz and Ron Padgett, and will serve as Chancellors for six years.
Mattawa, who was born in Libya, is assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Michigan.
Academy Chancellor Marilyn Hacker said, Mattawa “is one of the best, most inventive, lyrical and intellectually challenging American poets of his generation. His work is as daring in its amalgam of poetic techniques as it is dazzling in the breadth of its subject matter.”
About Alberto Ríos, Academy Chancellor Naomi Shihab Nye said, “For decades, Alberto Ríos has graciously, wittily, and lovingly created a rich body of poems and prose evoking the culture of Mexican American family and community life along the borderlands and in the vast deserts and mountainscapes of Arizona and the American West. His dazzling voice weaves the disappearing magic of ancestral memory into the mysteries of changing time – always a glowing champion for the power of the particular and the undersung.”
Watch this video of Mattawa reading his English translation of “Celebrating Childhood” from Adonis, which was shortlisted for the 2011 International Griffin Poetry Prize:
Images courtesy of NYU and Poetshouse.org
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Well-crafted picture books are a genre all on their own and represent the careful weaving together of the visual and the word into a single thread of the story which delights, satisfies and feeds all who read them – young and old.
This November, international Picture Book Month, Arabella Koopman, Content Manager for Nal’ibali, a national reading-for-enjoyment campaign, interviewed five of South Africa’s top children’s authors and illustrators to find out what motivates and inspires their work and why celebrating international Picture Book Month is so important, commenting that: “If you want to rekindle the child in you, explore a picture book. If you want to ignite the fire for reading in children, share a picture book with them.”
Marjorie van Heerden (Author and Illustrator)
Award winning Marjorie van Heerden has been drawing picture stories since before she could read and write and has been creating them ever since. Her work is featured in over 120 children’s books worldwide and has been published in over 30 languages.
Q: How did you first get into writing and illustrating picture books?
A: After I finished my studies at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town, and after my daughter and son were born, I became a full-time mom with an artist’s studio at home – it was my children to led me to start focussing on children’s books, particularly picture books.
Q: Which part of the process do you most enjoy?
A: For me, the fun part of picture book illustration is every part of the process – the fun time is all the time! However, the creative process, before the final illustrations, is not easy, but, at the same time, it’s part of the fun! The satisfaction lies in working at it until you solve each of the tricky parts. I love picture books – reading the story and experiencing the pictures. I believe that benefits of pictures are not only for children, a well-illustrated picture book provides the gateway to an experience – an adventure that can stimulate the mind and the imagination.
Niki Daly (Author and Illustrator)
Niki Daly has been writing and illustrating award-winning picture books for 35 years. His latest book, The Herd Boy, is one of Jacana’s recommended picture books for 2013.
Q: Why do you think we should be celebrating picture books?
A: Pictures books should be celebrated as a powerful spark for life – books are for the mind and imagination what food is to our bodies. When they have pictures, as all good books should have, they connect us to worlds that are sometimes beyond our imaginations.
Q: What is the most fun part of working on picture books?
A: The best part for me is creating the characters – I can fill up many pages of my sketchbook with them. Indeed, many of my books spring from a particular character that I have drawn. A strong character can pull you straight into a story with them.
Jude Daly (Illustrator and Author)
Married to Niki Daly, Jude Daly is an acclaimed writer and illustrator of children’s picture books herself. Her next book, available in 2014, will be illustrated by her husband.
Q: What is the hardest part of working on picture books?
A: A blank sheet of paper! Although, after 20 years of illustrating and 13 years of re-writing, I have come to love the thrill of illustrating and writing books. My main challenge is to silence the voice in my head that tells me I can’t do it!
Q: Is there anything you’d like to say to children about pictures book?
A: Picture books are an essential ingredient for feeding the imagination and for opening up endless possibilities – I hope you never feel too old to enjoy them!
Wendy Hartmann (Author)
Wendy Hartmann started writing in 1986 and has published more than 40 children’s books. Her books have been selected for honour’s lists and nominated for writing and illustration awards.
Q: Why do you think we should be celebrating picture books?
A: When you open a picture book, you discover a whole new world. Everyone needs to be exposed to the wonders and delights of picture books. No matter who you are you will discover a picture book that you will want to share.
Q: What inspires you to work on picture books?
A: That has to be the moment when the story pulls together and you feel a certain excitement. Then the illustrator starts to work and begins to interpret your words – it’s a wonderful development. The hardest part is cutting out words and sentences you thought were so important and finding out that some stories just don’t work. But, the ones that do open up a whole new world to the reader, no matter how old they are, and that inspires me.
Joan Rankin (Illustrator)
With many awards behind her name, Joan believes children’s books are the best, most exciting way to learn about life, language and solving problems. Her latest book, Sisi Goes to School and Other Stories written by Wendy Hartmann, is now on shelves.
Q: How long have you been illustrating picture books for?
A: I wrote and illustrated my first picture books about our family pets when I was 15 years old but my career really took off after I won the Daan Retief Children’s Book Illustration Competition in 1986. It really was learning on the job and I suddenly had many, many books to illustrate.
Q: What is the process like for you?
A: A book can take me anywhere from between six weeks to six months or longer to complete. The hardest part is getting started. You have to get to know the main character, their reactions and emotions – it can be exhausting! But, it’s always fun, if it isn’t, the book is at risk of being boring. Great examples of successful picture books are Clown and Zagazoo, both by Quentin Blake.
Nal’ibali will be giving away book hampers containing recommended pictures books from publishing houses Jacana, NB Publishers, Songololo and Pan MacMillan. To enter, email email@example.com with your contact and postal details. To read reviews of these titles and for further information on reading with children visit the Nal’ibali web and mobisites, www.nalibali.org and www.nalibali.mobi.
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By Tymon Smith for the Sunday Times
Fiction Prize finalist Imraan Coovadia marries ‘taxi’ and ‘poetry’ to steer a tale about murder and beauty in Cape Town.
Imraan Coovadia grew up in Durban and holds an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a master’s from Cornell and a PhD from Yale. He is director of the creative writing programme at UCT and the author of four novels, including High Low In-between, which won the 2010 Sunday Times Fiction Prize and the University of Johannesburg Prize. His latest novel, The Institute for Taxi Poetry, begins with the murder of a taxi poet. At the Institute for Taxi Poetry, where young people train to write poetry on the bodies of Cape Town’s taxis, the dead man’s protégé tries to make sense of his death.
What was the genesis of the novel?
I liked the way the words “taxi” and “poetry” fell in with each other. Like most novelists, I didn’t understand poets well and wanted to more. And I had developed an interest in taxis since watching certain films about taxi drivers (Taxi Driver, Night on Earth) in the early 1990s. Plus, if you’re trying to figure out the unplanned way this country has changed since 1990, the taxi industry is probably the best way in. It seems transport changes more rapidly than the conservative poetry-industrial complex.
Did you spend any time with taxi drivers in preparation for the writing?
I’ve taken taxis to places like airports and hotels and have always tried to talk to the drivers. I read a fair amount about the history of taxis in this country and interviewed the chairman of a taxi association. I had friends who had spent more time in taxis and I borrowed the stories they had borrowed from the drivers. But most research you do as a writer is experimenting with sentences and scenes to see which ones resist reading.
You work in an academic institution but you’re often cynical about academia in your writing. Do you get a lot of blowback from academics as a result?
I have many wonderful colleagues and friends at universities. I think it would be unjustifiable if, say, young magicians mistreated JK Rowling or serial killers travelling through time took a special interest in Lauren Beukes, just because they had been portrayed in their good and bad aspects in their novels. Having said that, yes, on blowback, and it should stop because it shows we don’t have democracy in our bones. But resistance is interesting when you encounter it as a writer, or as a person. Sometimes it shows you a mistake you’ve made. Sometimes it implies you might be right.
Are you concerned with the social peculiarities of Cape Town and how do they affect this story?
Yes. I suppose the story has something to do with the combination of beauty, murder, monopoly and social exclusion that I think defines Cape Town.
In the book you’ve re-imagined Cape Town in terms of a relationship with the former Portuguese colonies rather than Europe. Why?
I don’t know. It sounded right and then it started to seem imaginatively right. Like a poet, I was misled into thinking that certain sounds made an interesting sense.
How do you feel about the state of writing in SA at the moment?
It’s uneven. There’s lots of unexpected new and startling work, as the Sunday Times shortlist demonstrates. And there’s stuff that doesn’t interest me.
You’re working on a new novel. Can you tell us about it and how it’s going?
It’s a historical novel about South Africa between 1970 and 2010. And I’m realising that, after 20 years of writing, I still don’t have the slightest idea of how novels work.
If you were to win the prize again, what would you do with the money?
I saw recently that the extensive Gupta family, originally of Saharanpur in India, has been living in a house valued at R490000 in Saxonwold, Johannesburg. Now, for R490000 in Saxonwold, you can’t buy a doghouse fit for a thin beagle, or a cathouse, for that matter. I propose to dedicate the prize money, if I win, to buying air tickets to send the Guptas back to Saharanpur, where they will enjoy a fairer standard of living. In fact, I would say our freedom isn’t complete until we take care of the Guptas and everyone with the heart of a Gupta and every last person in government who gave excuses instead of treating the Guptas with decency. Because if they can do that to the Guptas, what will they do to the least of us? What will they do for the most of us?
- The Institute for Taxi Poetry is published by Umuzi
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By Sophy Kohler for the Sunday Times
Alan Paton Award finalist Julian Rademeyer follows the bloody trail of international rhino-horn trade.
Julian Rademeyer has been an investigative journalist for nearly 20 years. He has won a number of awards, most notably the 2005 Vodacom Journalist of the Year award for print news and the 2009 Mondi Shanduka Newspaper Award for hard news.
Killing for Profit is an account of one of the world’s most secretive trades. It exposes the poachers, gangsters, con men, mercenaries, killers, gunrunners, diplomats, government officials and crime bosses behind the slaughter of rhinos. And it follows the bloody trail from the front lines in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique to the medicine markets of Vietnam and the lair of a wildlife-trafficking kingpin in Laos.
How did you manage to earn the trust of poaching “masterminds” in order to get the inside story?
You can’t simply turn up with a notepad and start firing off questions. You have to spend time with people and it’s important to listen to what they have to say. In many instances, I returned to subjects again and again over several months to interview them.
Did you worry that your cover would be blown and your real intentions discovered? Did you fear for your life?
No. Almost everyone I spoke to, with one or two exceptions, knew I was a journalist writing a book. I think going “undercover” to report something should always be a last resort.
Have you received any threats following the book’s publication?
I received one or two during the initial newspaper investigations which preceded the book; none that I felt had much merit. Usually people who make death threats merely want to intimidate. Recently though, police received information of a “credible threat”. They have identified suspects and are investigating. I was informed about it and I have stepped up my security.
Why is it important to, as you say, focus on rhino poaching as a crime issue rather than a conservation issue?
Because it involves well-organised, international criminal syndicates. It involves corruption, gun-running, human-trafficking and murder. People are dying. Some are prepared to kill for a few kilograms of rhino horn. Others will risk everything because of the money involved. For me, it is an issue that cuts to the heart of the organised crime problem we face in this country and illustrates how much damage has been done by Jackie Selebi’s decision to kill off specialist units in the police service and the politicians who engineered the demise of the Scorpions.
Is rhino poaching a particularly Southern African phenomenon?
No. There are scattered rhino populations in a number of African and Asian countries, but South Africa is home to 73% of the world’s rhino population. This is the last stand for an iconic species that has existed for 50 million years and Southern Africa is the final battleground.
Is there any sense behind the call for a legalised rhino horn trade?
The call for legalised trade shows how desperate the situation has become. Nothing we have done so far in South Africa appears to be working. Poaching levels are reaching new highs every year.
Legalised trade is certainly not the only solution and I think it is incredibly dangerous to regard it as some magical silver bullet that will stop poaching overnight.
In my view, it is an option we need to investigate far more thoroughly. We need to know a lot more about the potential markets and what the impact of legalised trade would be. Who would we trade with? How would a central selling organisation work? How could we ensure that the process isn’t corrupted as we saw happen, for instance, with the hunting-permit process. If we get it wrong, the consequences could be devastating.
I think it would be foolhardy for us to pin our hopes only on trade and neglect the fact that this is an international law-enforcement issue.
It is also about poverty and the inherent inequalities in Southern Africa. Poaching gangs find easy recruits because so many people live in such dire conditions and are largely excluded from conservation efforts. We need to find ways to include communities like those in the villages along the border between Mozambique and the Kruger National Park.
What is the effect of the crisis on South Africa’s economy?
Private ownership of rhinos is on a cliff-edge because of the massive costs involved in protecting them. That impacts on jobs. It also has a conservation impact because fewer private owners are keen to buy rhinos at auction and prices have dropped dramatically. The Private Rhino Owners’ Association estimates losses to private reserves over the past decade at close to R1-billion. There is also the potential impact on tourism. The organised-crime element has seen rhino poaching categorised as a “priority crime” by police and a “national security risk” by cabinet. The army has been deployed in Kruger. Millions are being spent trying to stop poachers crossing the border.
How extensive are the syndicates?
They are extremely sophisticated and usually several steps ahead of law enforcement. And they are growing. Many are global operations involved, not only in rhino-horn smuggling, but in a host of other illegal activities including ivory smuggling and gunrunning. In Europe, there has been a rash of museum robberies where rhino horns have been stolen. In the US, there have been arrests of people smuggling hunting trophies to China. In South Africa, senior Vietnamese diplomats have been implicated. In Vietnam and Laos, the tentacles extend into the corridors of power. SANParks officials have been implicated, as have police, soldiers and officials in courts and provincial government . It is no surprise that people are being corrupted: Rhino horn is worth more than gold or cocaine.
- Killing for Profit is published by Zebra Press
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By Tymon Smith for the Sunday Times
Tymon Smith speaks to Lauren Beukes, who shot to fame with her sci-fi novel Zoo City, about her latest book, The Shining Girls.
Lauren Beukes is certainly a shining girl of the local and international fiction scene, but unlike the women in her latest novel, who earn the label of shining, she’s not due for a visit from a time-travelling serial killer any time soon.
Winner of the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction for her previous novel Zoo City, “a gritty phantasmagorical noir” set in the slums of inner-city Johannesburg, Beukes’s career has gone supernova at a speed that so many others only dream of. She has an international multibook deal – “somewhere in the six-figure range” – and plaudits from every corner of the globe. But as she reminds me over breakfast in a Joburg guesthouse: “To be a full-time novelist is a huge privilege and it’s what I’ve wanted to be since I was five years old. It’s only taken me 30 years to get here.”
Beukes – blonde with sparkling eyes, a slight accent (the result of two years in the US), a forthright intelligence and a self-deprecating sense of humour – is easy to like, even when she’s talking about serial killers and violence against women over fruit salad. She studied creative writing at the University of Cape Town and worked as a journalist, a job she sees as a good stepping-stone and one she still recalls fondly. “I still go on research trips and interview police detectives so I’m still doing some journalism, but it’s in service of a book rather than articles.”
Her 2006 non-fiction book Mavericks – Extraordinary Women from South Africa’s Past was shortlisted for the 2006 Alan Paton Award and her first novel Moxyland was well reviewed, but it was with Zoo City – and Zindzi its heroine who must traverse the dark underbelly of a futuristic Joburg with a sloth on her back – that international audiences began to take notice.
The first novel of her new book deal, The Shining Girls, is set in Chicago during the last century before the explosion of the internet – a tool that Beukes has used very successfully to her own advantage. She’s so addicted to technology that she employs a piece of software called Freedom that locks her out of the internet for periods so she can work on her writing without distraction. Her website offers fans answers to frequently asked questions such as “How do you pronounce your surname?” (answer: “Rhymes with mucus”), and “Will you send me an autographed picture?” (answer: “That kind of thing is best left to the Scarlett Johanssons and Anne Hathaways of the world, dontcha think?”)
The Shining Girls, bought by publishers based on a 16000-word outline in 2012 and due for simultaneous release in four countries and translation into 16 languages this month, tells the story of time-travelling serial killer Harper Curtis who discovers a house in Depression-era Chicago that allows him to travel through time hunting his “shining girls”. That is until one of them, Kirby Mazrachi, survives and spends her time in the pre-internet 1990s hunting him down.
Beukes had originally intended to follow up the success of her Arthur C. Clarke win with an “ambitious, really cool apartheid novel with a twist”, but the book was proving difficult to write. While she “was bantering with someone on Twitter, just talking sh*t as you do”, Beukes threw out the idea of a time-travelling serial killer.
“I realised that’s the book that I need to write right now and I can do it really well. My agent was over the moon because obviously it’s a very commercial, easy idea. It wasn’t a grand strategy, it was pure fluke and I just came up with a good idea on Twitter, which happened to be absolutely marketable in many territories.”
Having lived in Chicago, Beukes decided to set her novel there because she “wanted somewhere different”.
“It has a lot in common with Joburg. For example, it’s a very violent city … it’s one of the most racially segregated cities in America and also there’s a lot of modernism there, it’s the place that was the birth of the skyscraper. So there’s a lot of 20th-century mash-up in there and I found that absolutely fascinating. Everything I wanted was there and I felt like I had enough of a feel for it to be able to write it authentically.”
As for serial killers, Beukes – the mother of a four-year-old – was not overly interested in them until she decided to create one. She spent time listening to true-crime podcasts and decided that the only interesting thing about them “is that they’re not these kind of sexy apex predators”.
“They’re generally not Hannibal Lecters, they’re basically losers who can’t get it up and this is the way they get it up. They’re pathetic, cringing, awful, vile, violent men and they’re contemptible.”
It’s in the genre of speculative fiction that Beukes has made her niche over the course of three novels since 2009. I ask her if she’s worried that this will restrict her readership to young men who play video games and women who dress up as comic-book characters on weekends.
She replies: “I write what I like, I write the stories that occur to me. I wish there was a long-term strategy but I never set out to write a cyberpunk urban fantasy or whatever this is – it was the stories that occurred to me and which I decided I could write and do interesting things with. Afterwards people apply the labels and yes, a lot of people are put off by the science-fiction label, which is tragic and sad because there are some amazing science-fiction authors who do cross over.
“But I think there’s definitely a taste for it. Stephen King is a perfect point of comparison because he does high-concept thrillers with monsters and aliens and all sorts of scary things but also they’re very much about people. I might have more of a social edge.”
Beukes says she finds it hard to let things go. “Not if you stand on my foot or slight me in your newspaper – I won’t come to your house – but with social injustice, like murder and violence and apartheid, I find it hard to forgive those kinds of things.” While her new novel makes no reference to South Africa it does touch on a relevant social issue, violence against women. But it does so in a way that she hopes will “allow us to talk about what’s going on now in radically different ways and in ways that get over people’s issue fatigue.
“Do we really want to talk about violence against women, especially after the last couple of months; is it not something we’re just sick of and it feels like we’re raging against this monstrous social fabric that we can’t actually fight against? We feel helpless … And I suppose this is a way of exorcising some of those demons and dealing with it in a way … that’s a really engaging and interesting story. And to try and create people as real as possible and talk about what violence does to us as a society, what the personal impact is, the ripples it sends.”
With her next novel, set in Detroit, due for delivery in September and plenty of air miles to be racked up promoting The Shining Girls, Beukes has had to put work on the screenplay for a Zoo City adaptation on hold. But she has plans for a sequel to that book and perhaps for the completion of her apartheid novel.
She says she’ll keep trying to “write beautiful sentences as well as tell a good story that makes you think about the world, it’s not just blood and guts”.
“I’ve said to my agent that I want to write a Western and he’s said, ‘That’s fine. You will make no money but if you want to write a Western, write it and I’ll sell it.’ It might become a financial consideration down the line but at the moment I’m completely free and I can go where I want and hopefully not be boxed in.”
- The Shining Girls is published by Umuzi
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