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Hedley Twidle interviews Rustum Kozain for Wasafiri 86 – Unsettled Poetics: Contemporary Australian and South African Poetry

Hedley Twidle interviews Rustum Kozain for Wasafiri 86 – Unsettled Poetics: Contemporary Australian and South African Poetry
This Carting LifeGroundwork


The publishers of Wasafiri magazine have kindly shared an excerpt from issue 86: a conversation between Hedley Twidle and Rustum Kozain.

This special issue of WasafiriUnsettled Poetics: Contemporary Australian and South African Poetry – features poetry by Kozain, Harry Garuba, Ingrid de Kok, Antjie Krog, Mxolisi Nyezwa and Karen Press – among others – articles by Kelwyn Sole and Finuala Dowling, as well as reviews, interviews and art. Guest editor Ben Etherington calls it “a significant undertaking, with 24 contributors, new works from 13 poets, essays and interviews”.

Wasafiri 86 - Unsettled Poetics: Contemporary Australian and South African Poetry“It is the first issue of Wasafiri focused on either Australian or South African poetry,” he adds.
If you are interested in purchasing Wasafiri’s Special Issue Unsettled Poetics: Contemporary Australian and South African Poetry (no. 86 Summer 2016) please email
Below is an excerpt from Twidle’s contribution: “An Interview with Rustum Kozain”, in which the two discuss the decline of literary criticism, the perils of nostalgia, and the exhaustion of imagination in the current South African moment, as well as the influences and aesthetics of Kozain’s poetry.

We would recommend you order the magazine so that you can enjoy the interview in its entirety.

Twidle is a senior lecturer in the English Department at the University of Cape Town, who writes regularly for the New Statesman, Financial Times and Mail & Guardian.

Kozain is the author of two award-winning books of poetry, The Carting Life and Groundwork, and the only person to win the Olive Schreiner Prize twice in the same genre.

* * * * *

An Interview with Rustum Kozain

By Hedley Twidle

Rustum Kozain was born in 1966 in Paarl, South Africa. He studied for several years at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and spent ten months (1994-1995) in the United States of America on a Fulbright Scholarship. He returned to South Africa and lectured in the Department of English at UCT from 1998 to 2004, teaching in the fields of literature, film and popular culture. Kozain has published his poetry in local and international journals; his debut volume, This Carting Life, was published in 2005 by Kwela/Snailpress.

Kozain’s numerous awards include: being joint winner of the 1989 Nelson Mandela Poetry Prize administered by the University of Cape Town; the 1997 Philip Stein Poetry Award for a poem published in 1996 in New Contrast; the 2003 Thomas Pringle Award from the English Academy of Southern Africa for individual poems published in journals in South Africa; the 2006 Ingrid Jonker Prize for This Carting Life (awarded for debut work); and the 2007 Olive Schreiner Prize for This Carting Life (awarded by the English Academy of Southern Africa for debut work).

The following conversation took place on 31 July 2015 at Rustum Kozain’s flat in Tamboerskloof, Cape Town. Prior to my arrival, Rustum had prepared a chicken balti with cabbage according to a recipe from Birmingham, and also a dry cauliflower and potato curry. During our discussion (lasting one and a half hours, condensed and lightly edited here) he occasionally got up to check on the dishes – which we ate afterwards with freshly prepared sambals.

Hedley Twidle  Rustum, you wrote an article for Wasafiri twenty-one years ago (issue 19, Summer 1994) in which you discuss the reception of Mzwakhe Mbuli’s poetry. There you were sceptical of South African critics who were lauding his work and its techniques of oral performance as if these things had never happened before. You suggested that if one looks at Linton Kwesi Johnson (LKJ), there is an equally established and perhaps more skilful tradition of this in another part of the world. My response after reading the article – because you take issue with several critics of poetry – my response was: ‘Well, at least people were discussing South African poetry.’ I can’t think of a similarly invested debate around the craft of poetry going on now. Or am I not seeing it?

Rustum Kozain  That’s an interesting question, especially as so many people now seem to consider poetry as this casual activity, which is dispiriting. There isn’t a discussion of, to use the basic terms, whether a poem is a good poem or whether it is a terrible poem. My sense is that we talk about poetry, and literature more generally, simply in terms of its content or its thematic concerns. Some of the controversy around the Franschhoek Literary Festival – or one of the points raised by younger black writers – was that they (the writers) are treated as anthropological informants. They link it specifically to a history of apartheid and racism in South Africa where the black author is there to answer questions about what life is like for a black person, to a mainly white audience. But I think it goes beyond race. In general, literary criticism has kind of regressed into simply summarising a content that is readily available. Part of the reason I think poetry disappeared off syllabuses in South Africa towards the late 1980s and early 1990s is that fewer and fewer teachers at university were prepared for or knew how to engage with teaching poetry beyond analysing its contents.

I had been listening to Linton Kwesi Johnson since I was a teenager, so when Mzwakhe Mbuli exploded onto the scene in South Africa and people were hailing him as someone who had revolutionised English poetics, I thought: ‘These people must be talking crap; have they not heard Linton Kwesi Johnson who was doing it ten years before and in a much better way?’ So my argument was partly about how people are evaluating literature and it was clear that Mzwakhe Mbuli was hailed also because his politics were seemingly progressive and he was on the side of the anti-apartheid struggle. That wasn’t enough for me to want to listen or read his poetry again and again – one wanted to talk about the aesthetics of his poetry.

HT  I suppose we’re getting closer now to the thematic of the issue which is about poetic craft at a time of cultural contestation. You’ve mentioned Linton Kwesi Johnson and you’re often referring to musicians in your poetry; obviously you are drawing a great deal from an auditory response or imagination, but your poetry is not like LKJ’s at all. In fact, I read it as quite a written form of poetry; I think Kelwyn Sole had a nice phrase for it. He said it has a ‘deliberative sonority’ – which I like because even that phrase sort of slows you down and I find that your poetry slows a reader down. I wonder if you could speak a bit about the fact that you’re in some senses devoted to the sonic, auditory, to sound, to jazz. I think Charles Mingus was playing when I arrived – you’ve written poems about him – and yet there’s quite a disciplined – I want to say almost modernist – restraint to a lot of your poetry.

RK  I think a large part, if not the largest part, of my influences would be modernist and what comes after modernism. I studied at university in the 1980s when modernism was still a significant part of the English literary syllabus at the University of Cape Town, so that is a part of me. But even before I enrolled for English, an older friend introduced me to ‘Prufrock’ [by TS Eliot]. And I thought this poem was remarkable because it was something completely different from what we were used to at school, which were typically a few Shakespeare sonnets, some Victorian poetry, I don’t think any of the Romantics.

The idea of sonority – I have to agree with you. I do have a thing for the sound of words. So the sound of a word often plays a large part in its choice in a line or a poem. Why don’t I sound like Linton Kwesi Johnson? That’s one of my greatest frustrations in life [laughs] – that I can’t write like Linton Kwesi Johnson in any believable way. Part of that is because I don’t have a Caribbean background. A large part of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s charm has got to do with the language he is using, which is tied so closely to drum rhythms in the Caribbean. He has a gift but he also has that legacy or that inheritance that he can work with. I’ve tried writing parodic poems in [my reggae-sourced] Jamaican Creole, but it’s rubbish. I’ve tried writing hip hop as well, but there is a particular skill in composing for oral performance that I don’t have.

HT  I was raising the question of slowness, but certainly not as a lack. Because, in a sense, what I find when reading poetry nowadays is the need to remind myself to slow down. I think we’re all programmed to read so fast now – online and on screens – to read instrumentally and for content. So I sense the kind of syntactical mechanisms you put in place to ensure a certain productive slowness.

RK  There are two things that definitely lie behind the slowness in much of my poetry. The one thing is that I feel myself to be a frustrated filmmaker, so my poems are often visual and it’s often as if a camera were panning across a scene. The other thing that lies behind this kind of slowness was something Kelwyn Sole said – or someone said in a blurb on one of his books – it has to do with his poetry looking at the quiet or the silent moments and trying to unpick what goes on in those moments; to think about what happens on the edges of normal events.

HT  At the end of your essay ‘Dagga’ you talk about the question of nostalgia, around which there have been a lot of debates recently, especially following from Jacob Dlamini’s Native Nostalgia in which he reminisces about growing up in Katlehong outside Johannesburg. He begins the work with quite a complex rhetorical position, he asks: ‘What does it mean to remember elements of a childhood under apartheid with fondness?’ It’s a question that was often taken up by reviewers (some of whom refused to read the book at all) as evidence that his book should be filed in the ‘apartheid wasn’t that bad’ genre, that he was pining for bad old days. I don’t think you’ve ever been accused of that in any way; but I wonder if you can talk a bit about the perils of nostalgia in our cultural moment, in which certain forms of subjectivity and expression are being policed in some ways?

RK  It is an interesting and, for me, a very central question. At times I get despondent about what I’m doing because I think that it could just be dismissed as exercises in nostalgia. I think we tend towards nostalgia as we grow older. Whether nostalgia in general is a pathology or whether it’s something positive, I don’t know. For me the moment we are living in in South Africa is a nightmare moment. So part of my looking back is also to try and deal with this weird and perverse relationship we have between the present – which is a nightmare – and the past – which was a nightmare, but during which we had this hope or this dream of an escape from a nightmare. The thing we looked forward to, that added something to our lives. But that added value is nowhere to be found in the present moment. When I write in ‘Dagga’ about growing up in Paarl, yes it is partly the nostalgia of a man turning fifty and it’s a nostalgia for a place partly because of biographical migrations away from that place and away from the social relations of that place as well. So those are two properly nostalgic impulses. Part of this – and I’ve come across this idea in many writers, most prominently in Mandelstam – is the desire to freeze time. For me that’s what I try almost every time I write a poem, to freeze time in the non-fiction, in the prose – to freeze time at that time when there was still hope, in a way, that’s part of it.

HT  So why is the present a nightmare?

RK  Do you have to ask? I never studied politics or sociology or political economy so I’m very reticent to talk politics as such. That’s probably why I write poetry, because in poetry you can get away with associative meanings. You don’t have to be completely rational, analytic, precise, so you can make political statements under the cover of the associative meanings that poetry allows you. I’m happy to expose myself in my poetry because, I think, there I can say things – maybe it’s a lack of courage, but there I can say things that people can’t challenge me with, with the whole locomotive and carriages of expert knowledge. So I’m reticent to talk about politics straight up, but South Africa is not the place that we imagined in the seventies and eighties that we were going to create. On the one hand conservatives and reactionaries can laugh at us and say ‘Well, what did you expect? What did you expect from a liberation movement that was communist inspired?’ and all that nonsense. But at the same time we had a dream and we lost a dream. What do we do now?

HT  A poem that really struck me when reading across your work was ‘February Moon’, Cape Town, 1993. I was quite taken aback when I saw the date because at the time it must have seemed pessimistic. But now this kind of discourse and this kind of dissatisfaction is gaining ground; in a sense it has become our daily bread. So my question then is about rhetorical exhaustion. Because how can you, on the one hand, ‘make it new’ in the Poundian sense; but, on the other hand, how do you (any ‘you’ that is politically aware) keep saying the same thing for years and years and years? There’s a line from Arundhati Roy that I often think of at the end of her essay ‘The End of Imagination’ – which is about India and its nuclear programme. She says

Let’s pick our parts, put on these discarded costumes and speak our second-hand lines in this sad second-hand play. But let’s not forget that the stakes we’re playing for are huge. Our fatigue and our shame could mean the end of us. (Roy 122)

How does one deal with or ward off a kind of exhaustion about having to say the same things which, in a sense, is what politically astute people have had to do for over two decades now?

RK  If you find yourself repeating yourself, what do you do? For me there is an exhaustion, but not of the imagination. Much of my poetry is not written from the imagination – I don’t imagine scenarios and portray characters in a particular scenario or events. My poetry is directly about a certain reality, my reality or something I see out there, but I understand what Roy means by an exhaustion of imagination and I think our state, our government, our civil servants, the service industry, the way people interact with each other, the advertising industry, representations of South Africa in the media, by our own media, how we see ourselves and how we understand our relationship with each other – there’s no imagination, there’s no vision, there’s no forethought. So my surroundings, my context, my circumstances exhaust me. Especially if they cohere around certain ideas of the nation and what has happened politically in South Africa – that I would have touched on in previous poetry. So you just sit there and you go: ‘Why does no one read my poetry?’ [laughs] It is not just me. This has been one of Kelwyn’s hobby horses; that when you read South African poetry, there has been a constant and continuous fatigue since the early nineties about the new South Africa running through our poetry. But since no one reads poetry, no one’s hearing the poets and no one’s listening to the poets.

At the moment I’m in a kind of trough where it concerns my own writing because a lot of my poetry now has a wider focus; it’s not only about South Africa, it’s about other things as well. And they’re difficult subjects, it’s difficult to treat these subjects with the kind of gravitas that they require and to resolve that treatment in the poetry. And it is not only South Africa; the rest of the world seems to have lost that foresight, vision, imagination in the way global politics and economics are run. My exhaustion is globally inspired, though it may only have a local impact [laughs].

For the full interview, purchase Wasafiri’s Special Issue Unsettled Poetics: Contemporary Australian and South African Poetry (no. 86 Summer 2016) by emailing

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Are publishers afraid of new ideas? Margaret von Klemperer examines the trend of updating Jane Austen and Shakespeare

By Margaret von Klemperer for The Witness

EligibleWhat is happening to creative imagination? Killed off by a push for profit? These questions are prompted by the arrival on my desk of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible for review. I’ve been looking forward to this – Sittenfeld’s American Wife was a terrific book – and with Eligible, she has been persuaded to join in Harper Collins’s Austen Project.

I thought she might rescue one of the silliest ideas to come from a publishing house in recent years – not as daft as adult colouring-in, but close. The plan was for bestselling writers to “update” Jane Austen’s novels into a contemporary setting, keeping the basic plot. First was Joanna Trollope’s Sense & Sensibility (the ampersand to distinguish it from Austen’s version, not that anyone was likely to confuse the two). She could have been a good choice, but she lacked Austen’s delicate sense of irony.

Then we had Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma. I was never going to be easy to convince as this is my favourite Austen, and it was a thumping dud. The plot, which worked in the early 19th Century is disastrously wrong for the 21st, and McCall Smith’s central character is irredeemably nasty in a way Austen’s never is. Val McDermid’s take on Northanger Abbey was harmless but unmemorable. Comedy of manners is tricky when manners have changed so much in a couple of hundred years, and this one fell flat.

They all flopped. Good writers being laced into cripplingly tight corsets. So on to Sittenfeld. She has moved Pride and Prejudice to Cincinnati, called it Eligible after the television dating show in which “Chip” Bingley has been a participant, and produced a lively, hefty (it clocks in at 514 pages compared to the 369 of my battered old P&P) romp. The Bennet girls are older than in the original. Jane teaches yoga; Lizzy is a magazine journalist; Mary a perpetual student and Kitty and Lydia do nothing except tone themselves in the gym and live off their parents. Mrs Bennet is a compulsive shopper and Mr Bennet has been too idle to keep control of his money, so times are about to get very hard. Darcy is an arrogant neurosurgeon, alarmed by the extreme tackiness of the Bennets. It is engaging, and Sittenfeld has found clever ways to deal with things like elopement that would hardly cause a flutter now. Fun, but for a writer of Sittenfeld’s ability, it seems rather pointless.

So, who are the readers for this wobbly collection? Austenites are unlikely to be blown away by a feeble attempt to update their favourite characters. We also know the stories, so narrative tension is long gone. Anyone who hasn’t read Austen is hardly likely to be sent to the originals. Trollope, McDermid, McCall Smith and Sittenfeld fans may be a bit bewildered.

Personally, I blame Colin Firth’s delectable wet shirt moment in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Suddenly, Austen was sexy. So greedy publishers’ eyes turned to pound and dollar signs at the thought of a contemporary bestseller hitched to sexy old Jane. I haven’t seen an announcement of new names attached to Persuasion or Mansfield Park, so I hope this is the end of it.

There has been life in Austen for authors happy to use their own imaginations rather than be dragooned into a publisher’s template. PD James had fun with Death Comes to Pemberley, taking the Pride and Prejudice story forward, and even better was Jo Baker’s dive below stairs in the Bennet household in Longbourn, which is a fine standalone novel. A homage to Austen that digs a little deeper.

Poor old Austen isn’t the only one getting the treatment. There is the Hogarth Shakespeare series where – wait for it – bestselling contemporary authors are reworking the plots of some of the plays into novels. This is actually more successful – a borrowed cloak rather than a straitjacket. Three have crossed my path up to this point, all using problematic Shakespeare texts. Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time is a new look at The Winter’s Tale. The novel is a winner, being clever, sparky, moving and managing to make a kind of sense of what, with apologies to Will, is a distinctly weird story.

Ann Tyler’s Vinegar Girl takes on the rampantly un-PC The Taming of the Shrew. The play is seldom staged these days, but here another writer at the top of her game has picked it up and shaken the pieces into a glorious jeu d’esprit with a fabulously silly twist. When it comes to Howard Jacobson’s Shylock is my Name, I admit to not being Jacobson’s greatest fan, but the novel has been well received and Jacobson has wisely not tried to update the plot but has tackled the underlying themes. Still to come, we have Margaret Atwood’s take on The Tempest, published this month as Hag Seed and set in a prison; Tracy Chevalier’s Othello; Gillian Flynn’s Hamlet; Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth and Edward St Aubyn’s King Lear.

But even if all of them, the Austens and the Shakespeares, worked well, I would still ask: what is it for? It is as if publishers, like movie makers who seem to rely on films based on comic book superheroes to win at the box office, are afraid of genuinely new ideas. Attach the names of Austen or Shakespeare to something and make money. But two or four hundred years from now, I doubt if any of the updates will still be around. Unlike the originals.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible is published by Harper Collins.

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Bad things happen on beautiful days: Introducing Sunshine Noir – crime writing from hot countries

Bad things happen on beautiful days: Introducing Sunshine Noir – crime writing from hot countries
nullA Carrion DeathDeath of the MantisA Deadly TradeDeadly HarvestA Death in the Family

This Fiction Friday, read a new short story by award-winning crime-writing duo Michael Stanley from the anthology Sunshine Noir.

Michael Stanley is the pen name of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Both Sears and Trollip were born in South Africa and have worked in academia and business. They are the authors of the famous Detective Kubu series, the most recent being A Death in the Family.

To find out more about the idea behind the anthology, read the editors’ note:

Why Sunshine Noir?

“Nordic Noir stories,” we hear their proponents say, “are a cut above ordinary crime fiction because the landscape and weather of the northern countries intensify the darkness of the crime and deepen the psychological complexity of the characters.”

We writers of crime in hot countries beg to differ. Knowing full well that shadows are darkest where the sun is brightest and understanding, as we do, how heat can be more psychologically debilitating than cold, we decided to throw down the gauntlet to the Nordic noirists. We are here to challenge the dominance of dark-climate fiction; to show that stories set in sunny climes can be just as grim, more varied in plot and characters, and richer in entertainment value than those of the dark, grey, bone-chilling north.

To make our case, we’ve recruited crime-fiction writers from around the world. The authors in this volume will convince you with complex, beautifully written stories that span the hot places of the planet. Read these stories. You will agree.

The writers bring a variety of writing styles, which we have maintained to highlight their wonderful diversity.

Finally, we thank all the authors in the anthology for their enthusiasm and support. For their kind words, we also extend our gratitude both to Peter James, best-selling author and winner of the 2015 WH Smith Best Crime Author of all Time Award, and to Tim Hallinan, award-winning author of the Poke Rafferty series, set in Bangkok, and the Los Angeles-based Junior Bender mysteries.

You can follow us on Facebook and at Twitter @Sunshine_Noir.

Annamaria Alfieri and Michael Stanley

International bestselling author Peter James said of the anthology:

“… a whole new movement, spearheaded by Sunshine Noir”

There is a very haunting line at the beginning of a Nicci French novel I read years ago that has always stayed with me: Bad things happen on beautiful days.

For some years many of the most successful books storming the international crime scene have been under a dark, gloomy, wintry, brooding cloud, and have become known by the soubriquet of Scandi Noir. The long dark winters, freezing, hostile climate and the dour, grimly philosophical nature of some of that region’s inhabitants have created a certain style of crime and thriller writing that has proved enormously successful, in part because of the freshness it brought to this genre we love so much.

Many years ago I met very warm and friendly Maxine Sanders, widow of Alexander who is often credited as being the founder of modern satanism in the UK. She told me, “The light can only shine in darkness.” But now I sense with the publication of this gem of an anthology – hand in hand with some of the best crime writing in the world today – that there could be a whole new movement, spearheaded by Sunshine Noir! Where the darkness can only shine in the searing heat of the midday sun …


The editors have kindly shared an excerpt from “Spirits” by Michael Stanley:

It had been another scorching day in New Xade, with the temperature passing 100 degrees and not a trace of moisture. Usually things cooled off at night in the Kalahari, as the sand threw the heat back at the sky, but for weeks it had been stifling at night as well. Constable Ixau lay naked on his bed, trying to catch the breeze from an old desk fan on the table opposite him. Being a Bushman, heat and dryness didn’t usually bother him, but the persistent drought was upsetting. It’s a bad time, he thought. People are worried; people get angry. There will be trouble.
        Just then there was a hammering on the door and a woman’s voice calling him.
        “I’m coming!” he yelled, turning on the light. He pulled on a T-shirt and shorts and jerked open the door.
        “Q’ema! What is it? What’s the matter?” He’d recognised her at once. How not? She was the most attractive girl in the village, and all the young men sought her attention. Ixau had a secret longing for her, but he was much too shy to do anything about it. But tonight she wasn’t pretty. She looked as though she’d been crying.
        “What’s the matter?” he repeated.
        “It’s my father! He’s … you have to help me. Please. I’m so worried and scared. Can you come at once?”
        Ixau wanted to tell her it was all right, that he’d take care of the issue. But he was flustered, and he just stood in the doorway and looked at her.
        “He’s … I don’t know. He’s on the ground. Writhing. Saying mad things.” She hesitated. “There’s blood running from his nose.”
        Ixau felt icy fingers touch his spine. Everyone knew this was a sign that a man had entered the spirit world, the sign of the shaman. Indeed, Q’ema’s father, Gebo, fancied himself as just that, but people laughed at him behind his back and gave him no respect—particularly after he’d promised to bring rain, with no result. Still, these were not matters to be taken lightly. If Gebo had gone to the spirit world, perhaps he couldn’t get back? These things were known. Ixau felt the icy fingers again.
        “I think a spirit has him! An evil spirit,” Q’ema said, as though reading his thoughts. “Will you come? You must come!”
        Ixau pulled himself together. “Have you been to the clinic?” When she shook her head, he added, “We must get the nurse. She won’t be at the clinic now, but you know where she lives. Go and fetch her. Maybe your father is sick. I’ll go to him right now. Don’t worry, it will be okay.”
        She gave him a grateful look and turned to go, but he called after her. “Perhaps you should call N’Kaka too. After you call the nurse.” She nodded and disappeared into the night. There was no real Bushman shaman in New Xade, but N’Kaka was old and respected and knew things. If there was indeed a spirit, he might know what to do.


Ixau walked quickly to the house where Gebo lived with his daughter. He found the man on the floor with his back propped against a table that had been knocked onto its side. He was breathing fast and, as Q’ema had said, there was blood on his face. When he turned to Ixau, the constable saw a glassiness in his eyes that reminded him of the trances he’d seen brought on by drugs. Maybe Gebo had been trying to communicate with the spirit world and had taken too much? Perhaps that was it.
        “Gebo, it’s me, Constable Ixau. Are you all right?”
        The older man stared at him blankly.
        “Where is Q’ema?” Gebo said at last. “I heard her calling in the other world, but she wasn’t there.”
        “She’s coming with the nurse. And N’Kaka.”
        “That old fool? What does he want?” He tried to stand, but couldn’t manage. He held out his hand to Ixau, who pulled him to his feet. He staggered, and Ixau had to steady him. Then he grabbed Ixau and shouted, “They’re coming for Yuseb! You have to stop them! Yuseb …” His eyes rolled back and he collapsed, and Ixau had to drag him to a chair, where he slumped, unconscious.
        Ixau felt panic. Was the man dying? Should he give CPR? He remembered the brief course he’d done in the police college, but hated the idea of putting his mouth to Gebo’s bloody face. He checked his wrist and could feel an erratic pulse. Relieved, he decided to do nothing and wait for the nurse.
        Suddenly the small room was full as Q’ema, N’Kaka, and the nurse burst in. The nurse pushed Ixau aside and started examining the unconscious man. N’Kaka tried to peer over her shoulder, but she pushed him away too. Q’ema started to cry.
        “I helped him up, and he seemed okay,” Ixau told Q’ema, “but then he started shouting something and passed out. I carried him to the chair.”
        “What?” N’Kaka growled.
        “He passed out and I—”
        “No!” N’Kaka interrupted. “What did he say?”
        What had Gebo said? Ixau wondered. A good policeman would remember. Something about Yuseb? Something about someone coming for him. He told N’Kaka as closely as he could recall.
        N’Kaka liked neither Gebo nor Yuseb, who didn’t show him the respect he felt he deserved. “It’s the spirits who speak through Gebo,” he said. “They’re angry with Yuseb because he doesn’t show them respect. He’s in grave danger.” He nodded with satisfaction.
        Q’ema had stopped crying. “What about my father? Is he all right?”
        N’Kaka shrugged. “They are finished with him now.”
        The nurse looked up from her patient. “Yes,” she said to Q’ema. “Once the drugs wear off. What did he take?”
        Q’ema looked at the floor. “What he takes to visit the spirit world. He was going to beg for rain, I think. He said they could help if they wanted to.”
        There was a groan, and Gebo eyes fluttered.
        N’Kaka snorted. “He’s a fool. They won’t listen to him. He has no power. They took him and chewed him and spat him back to us.” He turned away and left without another glance at Gebo.
        “Help me get him to his bed,” the nurse said. “I’ll bring him something. He’ll be fine in the morning.”
        “Yuseb,” Gebo muttered. “They are coming …” He groaned again.
        Ixau knew his duty. Although he was scared, he knew he must check on Yuseb. He would first fetch his knobkerrie even though it wouldn’t help him against powerful spirits.



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War, hate and sex: Bron Sibree interviews Anne Sebba on her book Les Parisiennes: How the Woman of Paris Loved, Lived and Died

Anne Sebba gives us new insight into the ordeals of women in wartime, writes Bron Sibree for the Sunday Times

Les ParisiennesLes Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Loved, Lived and Died in the 1940s
Anne Sebba (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

British historian and biographer Anne Sebba has been fascinated by the World War II defeat of France and the German occupation of Paris for as long as she can remember. But for as long as she can recall, too, she has also been troubled by one of the most abiding images of that war’s aftermath: Parisian women being publicly shaven, and often painted with the swastika, for the crime of collaboration horizontale.

“That is the abiding image, and it is so one dimensional. But what has happened historically is that that has become very cheap shorthand for what happened in France,” says Sebba, who has analysed the role of collaborators and resisters, and so much more, in her mesmerising (and richly detailed) social history of the period, Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Loved, Lived and Died in the 1940s.

From the outset, Sebba knew she wanted to write a different kind of history. She ignored a renowned male historian’s advice to use the most oft-quoted male diarists of the period, and set out in search of lesser-known women’s voices. The author of eight celebrated works of non-fiction, including That Woman: The Duchess of Windsor and the Scandal That Brought Down a King (2012) and Jennie Churchill (2007), Sebba knows her way around an archive.

Yet even so, she says, “I needed to do a lot of digging.” She spent five years combing the archives for letters and diaries, and painstakingly tracking down women now in their 90s who had lived through the occupation.

“I wanted a multiplicity of points of view. That was key to what I was trying to do so that women couldn’t any longer be given this one-dimensional tag.”

In giving voice to the countless Parisian women who suffered, died or were imprisoned in places like Ravensbrück, or endured the occupation through various degrees of compromise or resistance – mostly a combination of both – Sebba drives home the fact that it was women who were left to contend with the almost all-male Nazi occupiers.

“Wartime Paris was a feminised city. That’s a sine qua non to my book. I hadn’t even realised that until I started writing it, because two million men were taken prisoner of war. Others were with De Gaulle in the Free French and yet others, if they were Jews, were in hiding, or were elderly, so there were very, very few men in Paris. So here you’ve got a city where the women didn’t have the vote, they didn’t have the right to work without their husband’s permission, they couldn’t have a bank account. And without any fuel they couldn’t drive cars so had to ride bicycles, but they weren’t allowed to wear trousers.”

For Sebba, writing Les Parisiennes was a quest to understand the difficult choices forced upon these women – so obviously disempowered yet not cowed – and not to pass judgement. She even finds the word “collaborator” distasteful. “Although it was [Philippe] Pétain who introduced this word collaborate, I think it’s ugly and judgemental. I prefer some degree of complicity. You could argue that everyone who went about their daily business was in some way complicit. I don’t want to pretend there wasn’t collaboration, there were by some estimates more than 100000 Franco-German babies born. Some of it was of necessity – to feed your children you might sleep with a German – some of it was romantic. But did the women deserve to be punished after the war in this very gendered way, without a trial, publicly humiliated?

“It was aimed at the women,” she emphasises, “and has deep roots in the fact that the men felt so humiliated and ashamed that they had lost the military defeat, the way they reacted was to take it out on the women.”

Even the role women played in the resistance remained largely unrecognised until many years later, says Sebba, whose efforts in recording stories of feminine heroism in Les Parisiennes go a long way to redressing historical omissions.

Yet in writing such an intricately detailed history about les années noires, the dark years that divided French citizens, says Sebba, “I found huge resonance in what’s going on in the world now with all this fear that we have of refugees and people who are different from us. It’s so important that we understand that this has happened once before, and that we’re all human beings.”

Follow Bron Sibree on Twitter @BronSibree

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Open letter to Adam Habib: Ishtiyaq Shukri calls on Wits to terminate its contract with ‘unaccountable’ private security firms

The Silent MinaretI See You

Ishtiyaq Shukri has written an open letter to Wits University Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib and the members of the Senior Executive Team.

Shukri is the author of the EU Literary Award-winning The Silent Minaret, and his most recent novel, I See You, has as a central concern the implications of the rise of the private security industry.

The book features a scene set in the Wits Great Hall in which the main character makes an impassioned speech about freedom and private force that, read now, seems prescient.

In his letter, which was prompted by the shooting of Father Graham Pugin just off campus, Shukri calls on university management to “demonstrate conciliatory leadership”, to “consider the lives of the students entrusted to your care” and to “terminate its contract with these unaccountable private security firms”.

Read the letter in full:

Dear Professor Adam Habib and Members of the Senior Executive Team of the University of the Witwatersrand

I have in recent months been increasingly alarmed by the growing levels of militarised violence deployed against students from the #FeesMustFall movement at the University of the Witwatersrand by private security firms paid for by the University. I despair at the failure of imagination demonstrated on the part of the University in its inability to find and employ amicable forms of management and conflict resolution, and its readiness to resort to the old South African recipe of force to settle disputes instead. I am deeply concerned by the model the University has presented to the country: that in South Africa violence and force are commodities for sale to be purchased, at undisclosed amounts, even by a university. Purchased by senior executives – not of a corporation, but of a university – executives against whom such force is unlikely ever to be deployed. Private force, purchased by a wealthy institution to be aimed at its poorest students. And I am especially disturbed by the recent shooting of Father Graham Pugin of the Holy Trinity Catholic Church next to the University. While I have wrestled with writing to you before, following his shooting I can no longer remain silent now.

I’ll just state it plainly. South Africa is under occupation by private military and security firms now in possession of a combined arsenal of privatised force which already outnumbers that of the state by five to one. And while they have the capacity to deploy levels of violence and force that surpass those of the state, they are not accountable to its citizens or to the state. In a democracy such as ours, state forces are rightly accountable to the citizens, and in the case of the shooting of Fr Graham, the Deputy National Police Commissioner Gary Kruser has apologised unconditionally and set up an official investigation to be headed by the Gauteng provincial commissioner. Commissioner Kruser is not doing us a favour. In a democracy, he is holding himself accountable, just as he should. By contrast, unregulated private military and security firms are only accountable to their shareholders, shareholders for whom the use of force translates into the escalation of profit; profit to which you have contributed untold amounts. The threats posed by private military and security firms have been a long-standing concern of mine and are a central to my novel from 2014, I See You. One of the novel’s main characters, Leila Mashal, outlines the threats in a key scene. I mention this to you only because that scene takes place in the Great Hall at Wits.

Having imagined the threat of privatised force in my fiction, I have found it very difficult to watch the violence unfold at Wits in reality, of which the shooting of Fr Graham is a startling escalation. Is nothing sacred anymore? When I set that fictional scene at Wits, the last place I imagined would one day become the setting for the greatest public manifestation to date of the occupation of South Africa by privatised forces was a university, was indeed Wits University itself. This vexes me, because it is not easy to see the boundaries between fiction and reality implode at Wits, and because to me their collapse signals that the occupation has penetrated even our most respected centres of higher learning. You have stated that you have on a previous occasion reviewed footage of claims by students regarding brutality and abuse by private security agencies at Wits. You claimed to have found nothing to support those allegations. Maybe. But today I ask you to review the footage of images of brutalised priests and students now emanating from Wits. Are they evidence enough? Do you see what we see? What the rest of the world can see – even the Pope in Rome? Whatever these private security forces may have protected, it wasn’t the reputation of the University and it certainly wasn’t Fr Graham.

In January 2016, concerned Wits faculty and staff wrote to you requesting the University to terminate its contract with these private security firms. Writing on behalf of the Senior Executive Team, you rejected their request.

Following the shooting of Fr Graham, I call on the Senior Executive Team of the University of the Witwatersrand to demonstrate conciliatory leadership. I call on you to consider the lives of the students entrusted to your care, if not on a contractual basis, then at the very least on an ethical one. I call on you to reconsider your decision, and for the University to terminate its contract with these unaccountable private security firms. In the face of their insidious occupation, which is now at least no longer invisible, is it not also the responsibility of a university of good repute to be discerning about the threats they pose, to demonstrate dissent by also shedding light on how they undermine our democratic procedures, and to take the lead in standing up to defend those procedures rather than participate in their erosion through silent financial transactions with secret unaccountable forces? And if these are not also the responsibilities of a university, then to whom do we entrust them when we are under occupation?

Ishtiyaq Shukri

11 October 2016

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‘There is a writer, or at least a storyteller, in all of us’ – read Zakes Mda’s foreword to Amagama eNkululeko!

Zakes Mda

Amagama eNkululeko!!Cover2Cover has shared Zakes Mda’s introduction to their new publication, Amagama eNkululeko! Words for freedom: Writing life under Apartheid.

The collection is an anthology of short fiction, poetry, narrative journalism and extracts from novels and memoirs. It aims to frame local literature as a lens through which to engage with our past.

Pieces by RRR Dhlomo, Nat Nakasa and Oswald Mtshali are included, as well as work by contemporary writers such as Eric Miyeni.

The collection was put together and edited by Equal Education and will be launched at Bridge Books in Joburg on 11 October.

Mda is the author of the famous novels Ways of Dying and The Heart of Redness, among many others, and his work has been translated into 20 languages. He is the recipient of the Order of Ikhamanga and was the winner of the 2014/2015 University of Johannesburg Prize for Rachel’s Blue. His most recent book is Little Suns.

With a foreword by Zakes Mda, and a mixture of famous and seemingly forgotten struggle writers, this anthology of poetry and prose opens a window onto the ways ordinary, everyday life was shaped by the forces of history.

Read Zakes Mda’s eloquent foreword:

Today’s equalisers are heirs to generations of resistance. Some of the voices of South Africa’s struggle for freedom from colonial and apartheid rule are captured in this book. It is a rich collection with works ranging from a 1929, poignant story by RRR Dhlomo, to a 1964 Nat Nakasa non-fiction piece, to the poetry of Oswald Mtshali that gained popularity after the publication of his anthology in 1971, to the musings of the contemporary cultural commentator Eric Miyeni. These works speak eloquently of our past, but they also speak of our present, for indeed the past is a strong presence in our present.

Why do you keep harping on about the past? The past is gone, done and buried. Why can’t you just forget it and move on? You said you forgave the past, so why can’t you forget it as well?

These are questions we often hear whenever a project that explores the past, such as this one, is initiated. Some of us tend to think that forgiving and forgetting are either the same thing or should, of necessity, go together.

To forget the past is not only to have amnesia about where we come from but about who we are. Like all members of the human race we are who we are today because of who we were yesterday. We have been shaped by our past for better or for worse. Our very identities are tied in with our individual and collective memory. We are often reminded of the saying: you will not know where you are going unless you know where you come from.

Forgetting the past would be forgetting the legacy the writers in this collection have bequeathed us, and indeed all other legacies that have shaped our humanity.

However, we must not remember the past selectively. We often hear that history is actually the story of the victor. We only hear of the events in which those who triumphed and became the ruling elite participated, to the exclusion of all others who also played a crucial role in our struggle, and made those victories possible. We hear this history only from the perspective of the ruling elite, valorising themselves and toasting their heroic exploits with expensive champagne, while the masses look on and have only their saliva to swallow. The stories and poems such as we have in this collection remind us that the ordinary people who bore the brunt of colonial and apartheid oppression are the true makers of history. We forget that at our peril.

The most important thing about remembering the past is not just to honour and celebrate those who fought for liberation, it is to reflect on the inhumanity of what was done to us, so that when we have attained some power we do not do the same to others. Alas, our memories are short and the arrogance of power knows no bounds. That is why quite often yesterday’s victim and survivor become today’s perpetrator and persecutor.

We must remember the past, yes, but we must not be steeped in it and live only for it. In that instance we become immobilised by perpetual victimhood. The heroism of yesteryear does not feed your stomach today. We do not want to be like a stuck car whose tyres keep spinning in the mire, unable to move forward. We move on, we act, we achieve, we hold those in power accountable as equalisers do every day. For we are working for the future.

One way of working for that future is to keep a record – even if it is just a journal – of the present, of how things are and what you did to make them better for you and those who will come after you. Hopefully after reading the stories and poems in this collection you’ll be inspired to write your own.

There is a writer, or at least a storyteller, in all of us.

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8 books to help you tap into the mind of student activists

Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko are the names usually cited during the fees protests. However, according to TMG Digital, fiction authors such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Thando Mgqolozana and Niq Mhlongo “have become part of the conversation around decoloniality and decolonised education”.

Without further ado, here are eight books to help you tap into the mind of student activists.

Memoirs of a Born Free
Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation by Malaika wa Azania

The struggle of the generations before that of the Born Frees was a struggle for political freedom and democracy and was the foundation for revolution and reform but not the ultimate goal. Wa Azania contests the notion of the born-free generation when it is a generation that was born in the midst of a struggle for economic freedom and the quest for the realization of the objectives of the African Renaissance. The book’s purpose is to give an alternative narrative to the existing one that suggests that Wa Azania’s is a generation of apolitical and desensitised people.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A powerful‚ tender story of race and identity by the award-winning author of Half of a Yellow Sun.

Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Beautiful‚ self-assured Ifemelu heads for America‚ where despite her academic success‚ she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time. Quiet‚ thoughtful Obinze had hoped to join her‚ but with post-9/11 America closed to him‚ he instead plunges into a dangerous‚ undocumented life in London. 15 years later‚ they reunite in a newly democratic Nigeria‚ and reignite their passion—for each other and for their homeland.

Dog Eat Dog
Dog Eat Dog by Niq Mhlongo

Dingz is an average Wits student who spends his time partying with his friends‚ picking up girls‚ skipping lectures‚ making up elaborate excuses for missing exams‚ and struggling to make ends meet. Dingz‚ a bright‚ articulate student‚ and his circle of friends like to sit around drinking and discussing AIDS‚ racism‚ history and South African politics.

They also have some hair-raising adventures; like being kidnapped by taxi-drivers‚ contracting gonorrhea and trying to fake a death certificate. The novel’s constant backdrop is the subtle but institutionalized racism at Dingz’s university; which threatens to deny him financial aid. Dingz is an intelligent and likable character — but he is certainly no saint. His anger at the racism around him is sometimes over-the-top but certainly not hard to understand‚ and his self-aware‚ cynical usage of the ‘race card’ is at times incredibly amusing. This is an authentic‚ witty‚ slice-of-life piece of fiction set at the time of the first South African democratic elections.

Nervous Conditions
Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

Dangarembga’s first novel‚ set in colonial Rhodesia during the 1960s‚ centres on the coming of age of a teenage girl‚ Tambu‚ and her relationship with her British-educated cousin Nyasha. Tambu‚ who yearns to be free of the constraints of her rural village‚ especially the circumscribed lives of the women‚ thinks her dreams have come true when her wealthy uncle offers to sponsor her education. But she soon learns that the education she receives at his mission school comes with a price. At the school she meets the worldly and rebellious Nyasha‚ who is chafing under her father’s authority. Raised in England‚ Nyasha is so much a stranger among her own people that she can no longer speak her native language. Tambu can only watch as her cousin‚ caught between two cultures‚ pays the full cost of alienation.

Where We Stand
Where We Stand: Class Matters by bell hooks

Drawing on both her roots in Kentucky and her adventures with Manhattan Coop boards‚ Where We Stand is a successful black woman’s reflection – personal‚ straight forward‚ and rigorously honest – on how our dilemmas of class and race are intertwined‚ and how we can find ways to think beyond them.

Unimportance by Thando Mgqolozana

Mgqolozana addressed the student crisis head-on by inhabiting the persona of Zizi‚ who is the favourite to win an election for SRC president‚ Mgqolozana reveals an intimate knowledge of student politics and student grievances. On the one hand the novel functions as parable for party politics all over the world but on the other it also specific to South African students in the 21st century.


The Wretched of the Earth
The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon

Frantz Fanon’s seminal work on the trauma of colonisation‚ The Wretched of the Earth made him the leading anti-colonialist thinker of the twentieth century.

I Write What I Like
I Write What I Like by Steve Biko

“The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” Like all of Steve Biko’s writings‚ those words testify to the passion‚ courage‚ and keen insight that made him one of the most powerful figures in South Africa’s struggle against apartheid.

Source: TMG Digital
(Descriptions of the books below are extracts from the publishers’ notes)

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They’re peculiar but there’s nothing to fear: Jennifer Platt chats to Jen Thorpe about her novel The Peculiars

Published in the Sunday Times

They’re peculiar but there’s nothing to fear: Jennifer Platt chats to Jen Thorpe about her novel The Peculiars


The PeculiarsThe Peculiars
Jen Thorpe (Penguin)

The Peculiars at a glance seems to be tapping into the zeitgeist of books about mental issues. But it’s an easy read, although Jen Thorpe doesn’t make light of any of the issues in her debut novel, which is part mystery, part romance, part family drama and part political thriller.

It’s about phobias and Thorpe has a deft touch discussing what is a debilitating problem for a lot of people as she had a fear of driving herself – the same phobia her main character Nazma has. “I understood how frustrating it could be to be limited by what type of public transport was available, and safe. This was all before Uber so I was often stuck wanting to go somewhere but limited by my own fear.”

Nazma signs up for group therapy sessions at the Centre for Improved Living. The centre brings together a quirky lot of other characters – among them Sam, whom Nazma and Ruth (the director of the centre who has to hide her own tics) have both taken a liking to. There’s also the racist Simon who has a fear of immigrants, and Nomboniso, a yoga teacher, who suffers from extreme obsessive-compulsive disorder. All of them are relatable and Thorpe gives them real phobias to work through.

“I obviously had my own personal experience and ideas about how I’d overcome it, but I wanted to make sure that a group setting like I’d envisioned could actually work for the characters. So I read up quite a bit … the book is certainly not meant to be taken as psychological theory, but I did make sure it was at least possible to try.”

And then there is Cape Town. It’s not the sunny, picturesque, postcard version. It’s the harsh winter – a windy, grey and rainy city. Thorpe makes it feel as if it is another obstacle to deal with when you have particular phobias. “I am originally from the warm, sunny North Coast, and all you see of Cape Town is sunny perfect pictures. Then I got here and my first winter felt like a lifetime of wet jeans and damp shoes. It really felt like a force to be reckoned with … when the wind blows here it still feels like a character to me.”

There are many threads that Thorpe pulls on: there’s Jericho, the homeless man who when not pissing on the wall outside the centre, spouts visions that seem to come true; Nazma’s mother who has a secret fear of her own; and the minister of wellbeing who was insulted by Ruth and now seems to be on the warpath.

Follow Jennifer Platt on Twitter @Jenniferdplatt

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How to cut your novel in half – Nnedi Okorafor describes the painful process of writing Who Fears Death

Nnedi Okorafor at the 2016 Open Book Festival
BintiLagoonWhat Sunny Saw in the FlamesThe Book of PhoenixChicken in the KitchenWho Fears DeathAkata Witch

Award-winning Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor was in Cape Town recently for the Open Book Festival, and chatted to filmmaker Wayne Thornley about writing in collaboration, the differences between writing for film and writing a novel, and her upcoming feature animation, Camel Racer.

Okorafor won the movie deal, along with her collaborator, Kenyan film director Wanuri Kahiu, in a competition held by Triggerfish Animation Studios, established with the support of the Department of Trade and Industry and the Walt Disney Company.

During the conversation, Thornley said that in filmmaking often you experience “seismic events” where you realise you need to dump six months of work.

“If we’re serious about quality, if we’re serious about authenticity, if we’re serious about reaching a wider audience, if we’re serious about story being king,” Thornley said, “if we do go down the wrong alleyway and realise it, we have to have the courage to back out.”

In reply, Okorafor said she has never had to take something she has written and throw the whole thing away, but she did have to go through the painful process of cutting one of her novels by half – after it was finished.

How to cut your novel in half

Who Fears Death was published in 2010, and was Okorafor’s first adult novel. It won the 2011 World Fantasy Award – with Okorafor becoming the first black person to win the award since its inception in 1975 – and the 2010 Carl Brandon Kindred Award “for an outstanding work of speculative fiction dealing with race and ethnicity”. The prequel, The Book of Phoenix, was published last year, and was a top seller at Open Book.

But it didn’t come Who Fears Death didn’t come into the world without a fight.

Who Fears Death started off at over 700 pages, a Book 1 and a Book 2, and I showed it to my agent and he was like, oh this is wonderful, it’s going to win all these awards, but you need to shrink it down a lot, because this is African science fiction and it’s new, and nobody does Book 1 and 2 – what is that, a duology?

So he said, keep the same plot, keep the same everything, but get it down from over 700 pages to 300. And I did it! It took me two years, but I did it.

Okorafor said she used a method taught to her by her agent, who also happens to write books on writing.

I took the manuscript and looked at every single word and took out every single word that didn’t need to be there,” she said. “And then I combined the ‘weak phrases’ into ‘strong words’, so instead of saying ‘very big’, you say ‘huge’.

So I took the 700 pages, scattered them around, mixed them all up, and then took each page out of context and went through the whole thing. It took years, but I got it down to 389 pages, and that became Who Fears Death. Even though it had the same story, it was a completely different book.

Okorafor added that the process of making Camel Racer is very different – starting with her collaboration with Kahiu.

“With Wanuri and I, we first sit down and talk extensively about the idea and have long, long conversations. And then one of us will say, okay I’m going to write this thing, whether it’s a treatment or a piece of script, or whatever. And they write a first draft. And once that’s done and nice and typo free, they hand it over to the other person, who then has complete, open, full rein to do whatever they want with it. Then they hand it back, and we go back and forth like that. The end product is so hybrid we can’t tell which thing she wrote and which thing I wrote. It’s one thing. And it’s something that I would never have written by myself.

“Importantly, the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect, and that’s another big change that I have really come to enjoy. That I can give something that I’ve just freshly written to someone else and not have to make that thing perfect. When I’m writing a novel I feel like I can’t show something to someone else unless it’s very much together. But when you’re collaborating it’s like you’re one brain.

It does have to do with chemistry. They way we work together, the honesty, and nine times out of 10 we are in complete agreement. It’s uncanny.

From there, Okorafor and Kahiu work with Thornley and three or four other people from the Triggerfish team on the more technical aspects of the project.

“During those meetings we’ll take the whole film and break it down into narrative aspects. That’s something I have never done with a novel and it was a part that was difficult for me. I’ve learned a lot. There are times when it feels like we are taking a living creature and dissecting it into pieces until it dies. But when we get to the end of the process, I see what they are trying to get me to see. And when we put it back together, it’s always better. It’s been an eye-opening experience, but it’s painful. But sometimes a little pain is necessary.

The soul of Camel Racer has stayed the same, but it keeps changing shape. The storyteller in me finds that fun, because it’s still storytelling, it’s just finding a way to tell the story in a different way.

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Image: Retha Ferguson

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The books that built me, by Nadia Hashimi

Published in the Sunday Times


A House Without WindowsA House Without Windows
Nadia Hashimi (William Morrow)

The pages I’ve consumed since I first started to read, through today, have become essential to me, building and changing and rearranging all the parts of me at different times in my life.


As a girl I read His Majesty, Queen Hatshepsut (Dorothy Sharp Carter), the story of an Egyptian queen who names herself pharaoh. She presided over upper and lower Egypt and dismantled patriarchy for a time. Women could be leaders. Women had led. My young spine straightened and I set my sights a few degrees higher.


As a teen I read Beloved (Toni Morrison) and learned that the cry of the hurt was sometimes not much more than a whisper. My ears strained to listen, then to hear and grow into organs of compassion.


To Kill a Mockingbird
As an adult I read To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) and learned that injustice wasn’t nearly as tragic as inaction. Atticus Finch stood up so that his children would live in a more just world. I grew fingers that would curl with the healthy tension of outrage.


Zorba the Greek
As a sleep-deprived student I read Zorba the Greek (Nikos Kazantzakis). Zorba pulled his bookish friend into nights of debauchery. My legs twitched with a promise never to shy from celebration.


The House of God
As a fresh-faced doctor I read the witty and satirical The House of God (Samuel Shem). Medicine could break down the healer. It could make her weary and jaded and cynical unless she made a conscious effort to stay human first and foremost.


Love in the Time of Cholera
As a woman I read Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel García Márquez). How beautiful and sad was the devotion of Florentino Ariza for Fermina Daza! Was it possible to pine so steadfastly for one unattainable person? Love, I learned, could be loud or quiet, quick or slow. My heart grew stronger, wiser.


The Poisonwood Bible
As a citizen I read The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver), a story about Nathan Price’s mission to save the soul of the Belgian Congo. His good intentions are met with bewilderment. No one wants to be baptised in the river thick with crocodiles. My eyes sharpened.


As a mother I read Bossypants. Tina Fey’s letter to her daughter is hilarious and insightful. How empowering and important it is to chuckle at ourselves, to see humour even when we’re stricken with fear about the world our children will venture into!


The books I’ve written have built me, too. I’ve infused them with the stories of my family: the uncle who hiked across mountains to escape into Iran, the grandmother who gave her children the motherly love she never felt. Their legacies are the bones that hold me up.

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