Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

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

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘International’ Category

Barry Ronge Fiction Prize shortlist: Yewande Omotoso on the origins of her novel The Woman Next Door

Published in the Sunday Times

Yewande Omotoso discusses her book The Woman Next Door shortlisted for the 2017 Sunday Times Literary Awards. Plus an extract.

The Woman Next DoorThe Woman Next Door
Yewande Omotoso (Chatto & Windus/PRH)

I started thinking about The Woman Next Door in 2012. My grandfather passed away and I travelled with my family to Barbados for the funeral. My grandmother and I shared a bed. I remember spending time with her and thinking of her and my granddad, thinking of what it might be like to have lived with someone for over 60 years and then suddenly they aren’t there. This was the catalyst, although the final story has almost nothing to do with my grandparents. Instead it became a meditation on what it is to be old – from the start I knew my characters would be octogenarians – and to have more life behind you than you have ahead. I kept pulling at this thread and my characters began to emerge. Not only had they lived long but I realised they were people who were unfulfilled. This lack of satisfaction was further confounded by their considerable wealth and career successes.

With characters, there are a few things that arrive whole and clear in the imagination and endure through the process of writing, there are other things that are present but get pruned and still there is much that one must mine for. I first envisaged Hortensia and initially I paid attention to the failed love story. I knew there would be infidelity but I imagined her as someone who, instead of leaving, had stayed and grown harder. I saw her trailing her husband and his lover, watching them have sex, I saw her 80-something-year-old self as callous but for a valid reason – she is broken-hearted. Hortensia begged for a combatant and so Marion arrived. Through her I was interested in looking at what it is like to have lived through apartheid as a white South African and have done nothing – not even in the privacy of your own thoughts – to resist it. This is Marion.

Cape Town was always the site. A precious corner of Constantia that I would invent. This provided the opportunity to, however subtly, consider the violence in Cape Town’s history which, I feel, is mostly sanitised. So I wanted to have a very quiet sense of horror about this perfect place.

My intent was to conduct an experiment into our own humanity borne through an understanding that we couldn’t come to grips with ourselves without spending considerable time in the mire, without upsetting one another, without looking at the things we’d rather ignore. I’ve had a chance to engage with a few readers who have commented that they found the protagonists “unlikeable”. Apart from my aversion to that way of categorising people (in books and in life) I instead have a different relationship to Hortensia and Marion. I feel cautioned by their hard lessons and heartened by the minuscule steps they take to move even just an inch from the rigid positions they’ve held onto – like rafts – all their lives. In them I see myself as well as the possibility, even with no sensible map, of hope.

Follow Yewande Omotoso @yomotoso

EXTRACT
Once a month a Katterijn Committee meeting was held. As far as Hortensia understood it, the committee had been started by a woman named Marion Agostino who also happened to be her neighbour, a nasty woman who Hortensia did not like. But then again Hortensia did not like most people. She had stumbled upon the meetings by accident, soon after she arrived in Katterijn. No one had thought to mention that by rights as an owner she was entitled to while away time with the other committee members. The information was let slip. At the time Hortensia had felt that the initial omission was not forgetfulness but deliberate, and it was easy enough to assume that the slight was based on skin colour. Armed with the knowledge, Hortensia had taken the short trip to Marion’s and pressed the buzzer on her intercom.

‘It’s Hortensia James from next door.’
She had not been offended by the absence of any show of welcome from her neighbour or the other residents. They had not come to Katterijn to make friends, something both she and Peter had managed without for the bulk of their lives.
‘Wait, I’ll call my madam,’ a disembodied voice said.
Hortensia leaned her shoulder against the wall.
‘Hello?’ That must be Marion.
‘It’s Hortensia. From next door.’
‘Yes?’
This was the moment when Hortensia understood she would not be invited in. The slight annoyed her briefly, but she waved it away as unimportant.
‘I’ll be attending the meetings.’ It mustn’t sound like she was asking permission. ‘The committee meetings.’
‘Hmmm, I hadn’t realised you were owners.’
Hortensia still listening at the buzzer like a beggar. ‘Yes, well we are.’
‘Oh, well I was confused. And…’ Hortensia could almost hear Marion
searching for another gear. ‘…is that gentleman your husband?’ She wasn’t asking so much as scolding.
‘Who, Peter? Yes.’ Again this hadn’t surprised Hortensia. She’d fallen in love with a white man in 1950’s London. They had been asked on many occasions to verify their courtship, to affirm that they were attached, to validate their love. Within a year of being together they were practiced at it. ‘Yes, Peter is my husband.’
‘I see.’
In the silence Hortensia supposed Marion was thinking, inching towards her next move, preparing another strike, but instead she heard a sigh and almost missed the details of the upcoming meeting. Marion even threw in a dress code as a parting gift.
‘We dress for our meetings, Mrs. James. We follow rigorous decorum.’ As if she thought dignity was something Hortensia required schooling in.
The meetings seemed to have been created for the purpose of policing the neighbourhood; keeping an eye out “for elements”, the community librarian had explained to Hortensia. Foolishness she’d thought, and soon been vindicated after attending a few sessions. The meetings were a show of a significance that did not exist. Old women, with their wigs, their painted nails, their lipsticks seeping down whistle lines; scared and old rich white women pretending, in the larger scheme of life, that they were important. Hortensia attended because the women were amusing, nattering on in earnest about matters that didn’t matter. She enjoyed to think she was laughing at them. But really it passed the time, took her mind off whatever else there was.
There were times, however, when the meetings moved from amusing to offensive. Once, a black couple moved into Katterijn, renting a duplex not on the Avenue but off one of the minor roads. They had two children. A neighbour, an old man, green at the gills and one-toothed, complained that the children ought not to bother his postbox. The matter was raised in committee. He claimed that the children were assaulting his postbox, messing with it. How did he know this, had he seen it. No, he had smelt it when he climbed down his stoep to collect the mail. He knew the smell of brown children. Could this botheration come to an end, he pleaded. Hortensia had cursed him, walked out of that meeting. And as if the Heavens had heard the man’s plea, the botheration came to an end – he died.

Book details


» read article

Alan Paton Awards shortlist: Christa Kuljian talks about her book Darwin’s Hunch: Science, Race and the Search for Human Origins

Published in the Sunday Times

Christa Kuljian discusses her Alan Paton Award shortlisted book Darwin’s Hunch: Science, Race and the Search for Human Origins, the impact colonialism had on studying human evolution, the latest developments in science and the controversy surrounding the Out of Africa theory.

Why this book, and why now?
In the early 1980s, I studied the history of science at Harvard with palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould. It was then that I learned how science is shaped by its social and political context and how racism affected the work of certain scientists in the past. Building on these interests and given South Africa’s role in human origins research over the past century, I put together a book proposal in 2013 that asked questions such as: What impact did colonialism have on the views of scientists studying human evolution? What influence did apartheid have on the search? How have the changing scientific views about race, and racism, affected the efforts to understand human evolution? As I began my research, I saw that the stories I was unearthing were of relevance to all of us today.

Can you describe your process of research?
In addition to reading books, journal articles, newspaper clippings and online sources, and watching films and videos, I conducted interviews and had personal correspondence with many people in the fields of palaeoanthropology and genetics, here in South Africa and around the world. I made numerous site visits to the Cradle of Humankind and delved into the archives at Wits University, UCT, in Pretoria and in the U.S. My research and writing continued for three years.

Why did scientists reject Darwin’s theory that humans evolved in Africa?
When Darwin wrote about this theory in 1871, European scientists had just begun the search for ancient fossils in an effort to understand human evolution. They had found Neanderthal fossils in Germany in 1856 and later in Belgium, France and Croatia. Many European scientists saw Europeans as “civilised” and perceived societies outside of Europe as less evolved. The concepts of a hierarchy of race, and white superiority were at play. These assumptions affected where they focused the search. While some explorers started in England, and others headed to Asia, none of them were looking in Africa.

Charles Darwin

 

The book shows that science is often shaped by the social and political context of the time. How has it shaped the search for human origins in South Africa?
This is really, at its core, what the book is about. Part One explores the ways in which colonial thinking affected scientists in the late 1800s through to the 1930s. What influenced Robert Broom? What decisions and choices did Raymond Dart make at the time? Part Two reveals some of the ways in which the impact of World War II and the imposition of apartheid shaped thinking in the 1940s through to the 1980s and introduces Dart’s successor, Phillip Tobias. Part Three follows scientists who have been influenced by some of the social and political changes underway in South Africa in the 1990s up to the present.

Raymond Dart believed that humans are naturally violent, but the thinking around this has changed, hasn’t it?
This is one example of how new research and a changing social context can result in completely different scientific conclusions and a very different public response. Dart believed, based on his research, that the bones he saw represented weapons and that human ancestors were naturally violent. The concept of humans as a “killer ape” became hugely popular. However, years later, another South African scientist, Bob Brain conducted similar research and concluded that the bones he saw were not weapons but that they remained because they were dense and hard to chew.

Raymond Dart

 

What was the most disturbing thing you uncovered in your research?
The most disturbing result of my research was finding out about the life and death of a woman named /Keri-/Keri who lived with her family in the Kalahari in the 1920s and 30s. Raymond Dart led a Wits expedition to the Kalahari in 1936 and met /Keri-/Keri as part of his research to understand the “Bushman” anatomy which he believed would provide him with a clue toward understanding human evolution. He referred to them as “living fossils.” Even before /Keri-/Keri passed away in 1939, Dart arranged for her skeleton to be brought to Wits to become part of the Raymond Dart Human Skeleton Collection. I tried to find out more about /Keri-/Keri and her family, her life and death. The entire painful story conveyed that Dart, and other scientists at the time, treated human beings as specimens. For 50 years, while /Keri-/Keri’s family and community were decimated and dispersed, /Keri-/Keri’s skeleton remained on a shelf in the human skeleton collection. In the late 1980s or early 90s, her skeleton went missing. It is not clear if it was stolen, or misplaced. For over six decades, at the Department of Anatomy at Wits Medical School, /Keri-/Keri’s body cast stood on display.

What were your biggest challenges in writing the book?
One major challenge was the absence of information in the archives. There are a number of people that I read about – Saul Sithole, Daniel Mosehle and George Moenda for example – who were technicians working in the field of palaeoanthropology in South Africa who were largely unacknowledged for their contributions, and never had the opportunity to study formally in the sciences. I wanted to share with the reader about their lives and their perspectives on the science of human origins. However, in most cases, I found dead ends and very little documentation. This is part of the process of how stories are told often from the perspective of people with power, and I found this frustrating.

What are the latest developments in this field of science?
Scientific knowledge is changing and growing so quickly, and advances are being made in so many inter-related scientific fields, it is difficult to keep pace with new information. The ability to extract DNA from ancient bones, for example, is one new area of science that is having an impact on the field of human origins, which brings together the work of archaeologists, palaeoanthropologists and geneticists. Many fossil finds in the last decade from around the world and right here in South Africa, with the Homo naledi find in September 2015 and last week’s announcement regarding further finds in the Cradle of Humankind, raise new questions about our past.

Homo naledi

 

Zwelinzima Vavi and ANC MP Mathole Motshekga accused Professor Lee Berger of suggesting that black people were descended from baboons. What was your response to the controversy?
Many South Africans question the concept of human evolution. I believe that Vavi’s comment came from the impact of South Africa’s colonial and racist past. Vavi said that over many generations, the racist insult comparing black people to baboons has resulted in people questioning the validity of science. “It’s in insults like this that make some of us to question the whole thing,” said Vavi.
One possible factor that could have contributed to the controversy was the artistic reconstruction of what Homo naledi might have looked like. Created by palaeo-artist John Gurche, the image was presented as part of the announcement in September 2015 and flooded the media. In some cases, the image was used in social media alongside insults to black people so many people found it offensive.
All living humans are members of the same species Homo sapiens. The Out of Africa theory, and the genetic evidence that underpins it, shows that all seven billion people on earth have common origins in Africa, from as recently as 100,000 years ago. There are always dangers in terms of how information can be used and abused. But in conducting research about human evolution, there is the potential to draw lessons from our past, and develop a new vision for the future that recognises the dignity of all human beings.
 

Darwin's Hunch

Book details


» read article

Runaway train: Michele Magwood chats to Paula Hawkins about her latest novel Into The Water

Published in the Sunday Times

For Paula Hawkins, moving from Harare to the UK was a watershed, writes Michele Magwood

I first met Paula Hawkins in Cape Town, after the publication of The Girl on the Train. She was visiting with friends and family but had agreed to some interviews about the book, which had entered the charts with a bullet, as they used to say.

“It’s a little overwhelming, I didn’t expect the reception it’s had,” she said then. She was diffident and a little guarded, seemingly puzzled that anyone would want to know more about her. She was broke when she sat down to write the book. She’d borrowed money to stay afloat and was living in a flat in a run-down semi near the Brixton men’s prison with her ex-boyfriend.

She was no neophyte: she has a degree from Oxford and had worked as a financial journalist on The Times. She’d written four chicklit novels under the pen name Amy Silver but the last two had bombed and she knew if she couldn’t pull off the next one she’d have to throw it all in and change careers. “It was the last roll of the dice.”

Jump ahead two years. The Girl On The Train has sold a staggering 20 million copies and been made into a Hollywood movie starring Emily Blunt. Hawkins has been catapulted into the Forbes list of highest-earning authors, alongside such writers as JK Rowling and James Patterson.

She is, I discover, still a little perplexed at her success. “I’m still stunned,” she laughs, on the phone from London. “That book’s a phenomenon. They come around every now and again and nobody really understands why. It won’t happen again. That was a one-off.”

We are talking about her new book Into The Water, which was released worldwide this month by Penguin Random House. Rarely has a book been so anticipated, rarely has there been such pressure on an author to perform. I wondered if the weight of expectations was too much to bear.

“You have to develop as thick a skin as you can and shut out the noise. It was a difficult process mostly because it was so interrupted. I wanted to shut myself away and immerse myself in it but I couldn’t — I was constantly touring or having to do interviews But I met some really interesting writers, and I have more confidence now. It’s swings and roundabouts really.”

Into The Water is set in a village in Northumberland, on the banks of a river. A part of the river is known as The Drowning Pool, where witches were drowned in the 17th century and where a number of women have plunged to their deaths since. As the story opens, a 15-year-old girl, Katie Whittaker, has drowned there, followed weeks later by the middle-aged Nel Abbott. Both seem to be suicides.

Nel’s younger sister, Jules, from whom she was estranged, is obliged to return to the village she fled to look after Nel’s daughter Lena, who was Katie’s best friend. Gradually — Hawkins is adept at the slow reveal — she begins to plumb the depths of this picture-postcard village, dredging up hideous events that reach back to her own childhood. Jules comes to realise that she has tragically misunderstood — and misremembered — events from her past.

Like The Girl On The Train, this has as its main theme the fallibility of memory, although Jules is no alcoholic.

“I wanted to write about siblings and about how our recollections of childhood events can be very different from each other’s. Often those things are quite trivial, but what if that incident that you differently interpret is fundamental to the people you become?”

Hawkins’s own childhood was a happy and settled one in Harare, where she was born in 1972. Her father was an economics professor at the university. “It was your typical white southern African childhood, with a nice house and a swimming pool, riding bicycles – that sort of thing. Obviously, as I got older I became conscious of the inequality, the fact that your comfortable lifestyle comes at a high cost. It was a good time for me to leave when I did. ”

It was this leaving, at the age of 17, that formed her as a writer, she says, not so much the experience of growing up in Zimbabwe. “Coming to London, feeling like a complete outsider, like I didn’t belong. I think it’s that ‘outsider-ness’ that a lot of writers experience, you sit on the sidelines and you observe.”

After getting a politics, philosophy and economics degree at Oxford, she began working as a financial journalist. When work started drying up after the crash in 2008, she turned to writing novels.

“It’s the ordinary, everyday, rather sad domestic lives gone wrong that interest me, rather than spies and serial killers. These are people you recognise. They’re struggling, they’re not rich or famous, they’re just trying to get through things.”

Hawkins is richer now than she could ever have imagined, though she’s hardly splashing it around.

“I didn’t go out and buy diamonds,” she laughs. “I do have a new apartment in the centre of London now. I’ve done a bit of travelling and I stay in nicer places than I used to, but that’s it, really. The first thing I did when I signed the deal for The Girl On The Train was pay off my credit card debt — there was a lot of it. It was such a relief, I wasn’t in trouble any more.”

Her parents still live in Harare and she returned last year to share a stage with Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah, who she adores. “She’s a force of nature and an amazing writer.”

Dreamworks has once again bought the rights to Into The Water, and this time Hawkins will be an executive producer. Hopefully they won’t set it in the US as they did with The Girl On The Train to the outrage of many fans.

As for a new novel, “I’ve got some ideas for characters but I haven’t actually been able to put pen to paper, I’m just thinking about it.”

Follow at Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

Listen to the podcast of the interview here.
 

Into the Water

Book details

 
 

The Girl on the Train


» read article

WiSER discussion: Christa Kuljian on the case of human origins

Christa Kuljian, the author of the acclaimed Darwin’s Hunch: Science, Race and the Search for Human Origins will be in discussion with Hlonipha Mokoena on Wednesday 17 May, at Wits University’s WiSER Seminar Room. The discussion will be chaired by Sarah Nutall.

Scientists and their research are often shaped by the prevailing social and political context. Darwin’s Hunch, recently shortlisted for the prestigious 2017 Alan Paton Award for Non-Fiction, explores this trend, and provides fresh insight on the search for human origins in South Africa over the past century.

Kuljian asks “What impact did colonialism have on the views of scientists studying human evolution in the early twentieth century? What influence did apartheid have on the search? How have the changing scientific views about race, and racism, affected efforts to understand human evolution?”

Darwin’s Hunch was published in November 2016. We will take a close and sustained look at the arguments Kuljian makes, the pressures that her book puts on the scientific community in South Africa, the implications of publishing this book at this time, and the outcomes and challenges, political and social, of what we now know, through this detailed and meticulous research.

Professor Mokoena will engage Christa Kuljian in bold, outspoken and forthright discussion on this complicated and contested topic.

Event Details


» read article

2017 Alan Paton shortlist

 
 
It is finally time to reveal the shortlist for South Africa’s most prestigious book award, the Alan Paton Award for non-fiction, in association with Porcupine Ridge. The winner, who will receive R100 000, will be announced on Saturday June 24.
 
 

The Alan Paton Award
The shortlist for the 2017 Alan Paton Award reflects a diverse range of subjects and historical eras: from human origins to the Marikana of just three years ago, from Cape Town today to wartime Berlin. “These are books that raise critical questions about our past, present and future,” says chairperson Pippa Green. “The big question being asked is who are we?”

Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard: Life Among the Stowaways, Sean Christie (Jonathan Ball Publishers)
This is the fascinating account of journalist Sean Christie’s time spent amongst the Tanzanian stowaways who live rough under the Nelson Mandela Boulevard flyover in Cape Town. The judges commented on his “brilliant eye” and sympathetic treatment of this subculture. “He’s something of an anti-hero, not the usual macho observer. It is heartbreaking.”

Darwin’s Hunch: Science, Race, and the Search for Human Origins, Christa Kuljian (Jacana Media)
Wits academic Christa Kuljian studied the History of Science at Harvard some years ago, and has turned her eye to the search for human origins in SA, and the contemporary context that sullied it. She examines how the thinking on race blighted science for centuries, setting up stereotypes that survive today, “This is the best science and sociology book I’ve read in a long time,” commented one judge. “This book should be taught in high schools.”

Murder at Small Koppie: The Real Story of the Marikana Massacre by Greg Marinovich
The judging panel was united in its admiration of Greg Marinovich’s account of the Marikana massacre. Drawing on his own exhaustive investigations, eyewitness accounts and the findings of the Marikana Commission of Inquiry set up by President Jacob Zuma, he reconstructs that fateful day as well as the events leading up to it. It is damning, gripping reportage, the best book by far, said the judges, on this most diabolical event in our recent history.

My Own Liberator: A Memoir, Dikgang Moseneke (Picador Africa)
The autobiography of South Africa’s retired Deputy Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court Dikgang Moseneke is an impressive book, explaining how his life was shaped. He recounts the history of his forebears and pays homage to the many communities that played a role in his development. “He is a great figure,” said one judge, “this is a very moving story.”

Letters of Stone: From Nazi Germany to South Africa, Steven Robins (Penguin Books)
In this gutting, deeply personal book, sociologist Steven Robins chronicles his search for the members of his family who died in Germany during the war. His father had fled the Nazis and found shelter in Port Elizabeth, but never spoke a word about the family he left there. When Robins stumbles upon a hidden collection of letters he is able to “hear” those people for the first time. “What is also fascinating is that Robins writes of the Basters in Nambia and the eugenic experiments on indigenous people there which was the starting point for Nazi horrors.”
 

View the 2017 longlist here.

Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard - Life In Cape Town's Stowaway Underground

Book details

 

Darwin's Hunch

 
 
 
 

Murder at Small Koppie

 
 

My Own Liberator

 
 

Letters of Stone


» read article

2017 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize Shortlist

After months of evaluation and deliberation it is finally time to reveal the shortlist for the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize, in association with Porcupine Ridge. The winner, who will receive R100 000, will be announced on Saturday June 24.

The Barry Ronge Fiction Prize
In the five shortlisted books the judges highlighted writing of rare style and imagination, stories that chose the personal over the political, and themes that are fresh and provocative. “The words”, says chairperson Rehana Rossouw, “strike at the reader’s heart”.

The Printmaker, Bronwyn Law-Viljoen (Umuzi)
Law-Viljoen’s quiet, finely calibrated novel is set in Johannesburg and centres on a reclusive printmaker named March, who makes his art obsessively – and alone – for decades. When he inherits the thdies a friendousands of drawings and etchings crammed into the house and through his work sets out to understand her troubled friend. “There’s not a superfluous word in it,” said one judge. “March is still living in my head.”

Period Pain, Kopano Matlwa (Jacana Media)
The wunderkind young author shows she has a long career ahead with this acute, powerful book. Masechaba is a young woman trying to find meaning in contemporary South Africa, a country wracked by social problems. “Where are we going,” it asks, “and what have we become?” “It’s a searing, brilliant read,” said a judge.

Little Suns, Zakes Mda (Umuzi)
“Zakes Mda is on song with this book,” exclaimed a judge, “it brings people from our past gorgeously to life.” It is 1903. A frail Malangana searches for his beloved Mthwakazi, the woman he had loved 20 years earlier and who he was forced to leave. Based on true events in history, it is a poignant story of how love and perseverance can transcend exile and strife.

The Woman Next Door, Yewande Omotoso (Chatto & Windus)
In this story of two strong-willed women, Omotoso delicately traces the racial fault lines of the rainbow land. One of the women is black, the other white, and for decades the pair have lived next door to each other in an affluent estate in Cape Town. One day, an accident brings them together. “She doesn’t pretend to have the answers,” commented one judge, “but she forces us to examine our deeply embedded racism. It’s very clever and deeply human.”

The Safest Place You Know, Mark Winkler (Umuzi)
After his father’s violent death one day in the drought- stricken Free State, a young man leaves the derelict family farm with no plan. Two people he meets on his way to the Cape will change his life forever. The story is set in the 80s, before everything changes. “I was blown away by the magnificent writing,” said a judge, “the story went straight to my heart.”
 
View the 2017 longlist here.

The Printmaker

Book details

 

Period Pain

 
 

Little Suns

 
 

The Woman Next Door

 
 
 

The Safest Place You Know


» read article

Steven Boykey Sidley on his latest novel, Free Association

“The structure, which involves intermittent podcast transcripts and third-person perspectives, was a joy to write. I could burrow into Max’s imagination and build up a cornucopia of small stories that would coalesce around him as the character developed,” author Steven Boykey Sidley said of his recent novel novel, Free Association, during an interview with the Sunday Times’ Bruce Dennill.

Read Dennill’s feature on Sidley here.

Free Association

Book details


» read article

Balancing the book shelves: Anneke Rautenbach interviews women who are creating more diverse stories for children

Anneke Rautenbach writes for the Sunday Times

Good Night Stories for RebelsGood Night Stories for Rebels
Various (Penguin Random House)

“Daughters can also be heroic.” If there is a maxim that Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo – co-founders of the children’s media company, Timbuktu Labs – live by, it’s this line by the 18th-century Chinese poet and astronomer, Wang Zhenyi. They would stake their career on it.

Wang is one of 100 women – including Ada Lovelace, Frida Kahlo, Helen Keller and Miriam Makeba – whose sumptuously illustrated biographies make up Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, a children’s book created by Favilli and Cavallo and published by Penguin Random House in April. It chimes with a moment when parents and children across the world are demanding more diverse and positive representation – of gender, race, and sexual orientation – in children’s literature. Nothing speaks to this more than the project’s success on platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo: having raised more than $1-million, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls has become the most highly funded original book in crowd-funding history.

The 30-something Italian duo say Donald Trump’s election in November gave their project a greater sense of urgency. About a month before, The Washington Post revealed the video in which the future president brags that his celebrity status allows him to do “whatever he wants” to women – even “grab them by the p**sy”.

“So many people have thanked us,” says Favilli. “The book represents not only a collection of bedtime stories, but a set of values that are now in danger.”

In a recent article for The Guardian, Favilli and Cavallo quoted the kinds of statistics that have galvanised them since starting Timbuktu Labs: by the time girls are six, they already perceive themselves as intellectually inferior to boys, according to the journal Science; and a survey by the University of Florida of children’s books published between 1900 and 2000 revealed that 25% of them had no female characters at all and 37% had none who spoke.

“Children’s media lacks diversity not only in terms of gender,” says Cavallo. “We looked for women from countries that are not usually represented, and we wanted to feature as many fields as possible.”

One of the first stories in the book belongs to Amna Al Haddad, a weightlifter from the United Arab Emirates. The book also features the story of Coy Mathis, a transgender girl who, in 2013 at age six, won a landmark case when a Colorado judge ruled in favour of her choice to use the bathroom she prefers.

A little closer to home, Buhle Ngaba, 26, a stage actress from North West, wrote The Girl Without A Sound specifically for black girls – “the ones with moonlight in her skin”. Originally intending to create a gift for her aunt who read her stories and nursery rhymes as a child, she found that she had written the fairy tale that was missing from her childhood – “about a little girl who looks like me.” Ngaba’s character isn’t waiting for a prince to save her.

“She simply goes out in search of a sound of her own.”

Ngaba, who is also the founder of KaMatla, a non-profit arts organisation that develops storytelling among underprivileged youth, describes her publishing model as the reverse of crowd-funding. “I didn’t have a lot of money, but just got the book out there.”

A team of talented friends helped to edit, promote and illustrate the story using a combination of drawing and photography. In February last year, a free PDF was made available online in English and Tswana. Within the first week, 3000 copies had been downloaded.

“I liked that you could print it yourself,” says Ngaba. “Because that means any little girl can do it.”

They have since received support from the Centre for Early Childhood Development. A month after the online launch, printed copies were made available, and more South African language translations are in the pipeline.

The response has been extraordinary, adds Ngaba, especially from black women. “We didn’t even know we were missing ourselves.”

Ngaba sees her book as part of movement towards fairer representation in local fiction, always tagging her social media posts #booksforblackgirls. But by no means does this mean that children of other races can’t enjoy it too, she says. “It’s a self-love thing. It’s simply about balancing the bookshelves.”

Similarly, Rebel Girls is not about excluding boys. “Girls are used to being the guests in other books,” says Cavallo. “We identify with Sherlock Holmes, with Inspector Gadget, Pinocchio, Superman. People often ask us when we are going to make a book for rebel boys – this is the book for rebel boys.”

Crowdfunded books that are making waves

•The Princess Who Saved Herself by Greg Pak, about a rock ‘n’ roll princess and her pet snake. It “reinvents the princess myth for a new generation of proactive girls”. With a $15000 goal, it has raised $111759.

•Wollstonecraft by Airship Ambassador. A “Snicketesque” fictional adventure for 8- to 12-year-olds, featuring Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, and Mary Shelley, the world’s first science-fiction author. With a $4000 goal, it has raised $91751.

•Flamingo Rampant by S Bear Bergman. A racially and body-diverse series about LGBT2Q families and their children, in which girls and women are “problem-solvers and action-takers”. The latest in the series has raised $70305 with a $63000 goal.

Q&A with Ambre Nicolson, author of the crowdfunded An A to Z of AmaZing South African Women – forthcoming from Modjaji Books

Was this book inspired by Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls?
It was actually inspired by the American book Rad American Women A-Z. I saw the book two years ago and immediately wished there was a local version. When I realised there wasn’t, and on a dare from a friend, I decided to make one – with permission from the American publisher, City Lights, and support from the local female-centred publisher, Modjaji Books. Our book does share one thing with Rebel Girls, and that is that the makers of both books wanted to create the book we wished we had when we were young.

Why now?
At a time when the idea that women’s rights are human rights seems so imperiled, it feels like any project that recognises women as multi-faceted, powerful protagonists is urgently needed. Particularly in South Africa, with its troubled history and terrible record of gender inequality and gender-based violence, I think too often women are presented as one of several stereotypes: the tragic heroine, the angry humourless banshee, the sexpot. I think it’s important to provide stories that show South African women in all their complexity – this is what we hope to do with our book.

How did you choose the women for each letter?
Choosing only one woman for each letter of the alphabet was an almost impossible task. For every one woman featured, we debated dozens of others. Trying to showcase a breadth of human endeavour as well as ensure that the demographics of the women featured reflect the reality of South Africa made the selection process all the more complex. But what a wonderful problem to have! Beyond trying to showcase the diversity of amazing South African women, we also wanted to make sure we didn’t just choose the usual suspects. The question we asked ourselves was always, “Is she a badass?” As a result I like to think we featured a healthy amount of rebels, troublemakers and rabble-rousers. These are women refuse to sit down and keep quiet. Not one of them “knows their place” I’m very happy to say.

What else unites these women?
I have been humbled by so many stories of resourcefulness and resilience and compassion. Looking at these stories as a whole certain themes also emerged: The women in our book are all united by experiencing adversity, in fact often this was essential to their development, as well as having a certain bloody-minded persistence.

What do you think of the potential of crowd-funding as a publishing model?
When it comes to books, I think crowd-funding is an exciting way to create interest around a project, while at the same time allowing people to pre-order copies. Arthur Attwell, [co-founder of Book Dash, a grassroots children’s publishing initiative] recently put it well: “Crowd-funded publishing is no longer an unusual way to fund important books. This is the way it’s going to happen, and it turns every one of us into talent-spotting publishing investors.”

Is this book by women for women? Or is it for everyone?
This book is about our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our friends. So I do think it is for everyone. I think it should be a book that you buy for the amazing woman or women in your life. But if I could choose just one person to give this book to it would be that 13 or 14-year-old girl who is just starting to figure out who she is in the world. I would like her to know that the South African women who went before her are truly amazing.

Book details


» read article

Book Bites: 7 May 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

Traveling with GhostsTraveling With Ghosts
Shannon Leone Fowler (Orion)
Book real
***
In 2002, Shannon and Sean are backpacking through Thailand when Sean is stung by a box jellyfish. In a matter of minutes, Shannon’s fiancé is dead. Days later, Shannon miscarries their child. Finding herself unable to cope with the normal day to day, Shannon uses her savings to travel through Eastern Europe. Traveling with Ghosts is a journey of grief, that is interwoven with memories of her life with Sean. She lays out the rocky journey of loss: from the well-meaning but hurtful platitudes, to what actually helps a person as they grapple with tragedy. A powerful read, especially for people who struggle to live with death. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

CaravalCaraval
Stephanie Garber (Hodder & Stoughton)
Book fling
***
Think of the Carnival of Venice – the equivalent of the Mardi Gras of the hot southern climes but more mysterious, dignified and exclusive. Caraval shares the magic and mystery, not to mention the canals, of this pre-Lenten festival. Scarlett and her younger sister Tella, live under the cruel and tyrannical thumb of their father: Scarlett is eager to marry an unknown suitor who will take her and Tella away from their sadistic father, but when she receives an invitation to attend the magic circus run by Master Legend Santos, she cannot resist. Scarlett, Tella and a “golden brown” sailor, Julian, reach the magical island and take part in the game of caraval. Rich, luscious, intriguing, Caraval is an exciting read. – Aubrey Paton

SlippingSlipping: Stories, Essays and Other Writing
Lauren Beukes (Tachyon Publications)
Book fiend
****
Lauren Beukes can be so cool and cutting it leaves you cold. Her uber-trendy style is signature, but Slipping shines when she eschews the snark for intimacy and heart. This collection showcases the range of her talent across 11 years of speculative and experimental fiction, intense relationship dramas and journalistic essays (in which you can see much of the inspiration for her stories). Beukes excels at writing body horror and unhappy endings. She shows readers the brutality in the way bodies are modified for the pleasure and profit of others (contrasted with power in revelling in your own body) and articulates what social media and reality TV are doing to us. Occasionally alien life appears, terrifying and incomprehensible, yet humans are always far worse in comparison. It’s funny and entertaining too, but perhaps best read when you want something to creep under your skin and connect. – Lauren Smith @violin_ina_void

The Fire ChildThe Fire Child
SK Tremayne (HarperCollins)
Book thrill
***
Chilling. Terrifying. It plays out like a movie in your head, one you can’t stop watching. Rachel is married to the charming, successful, and rich David. She moves into his old family house in an isolated part of Cornwall. But when her stepson Jamie starts to claim that he is haunted by his dead mother, Rachel begins digging. David refuses to talk about what is happening to Jamie or about his ex-wife, and Rachel becomes very suspicious. An eerie thriller with a satisfying end. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

Book details


» read article

Six West African books with unconventional approaches to gender and power, as recommended by Chinelo Okparanta


Nigerian-American author Chinelo Okparanta recently compiled a list for Electric Literature of six West African books with an unconventional, defiant approach to gender relations and relationships.

Okparanta drew upon her own experience as a child of parents whose marriage was based on inequality and oppression; she writes: “Perhaps I recognized it in my parents’ marriage as my mother underwent one painful and exhausting move after another, following my father everywhere he went, because, she too, had not yet conceived of happiness outside the realm of marriage.

In my novel, Under the Udala Trees, I explore the themes of betrayal and rebirth and happiness in the context of gender and power. In writing the novel, I imagined, unlike Ramatoulaye, a sort of happiness that existed outside of the traditional schema of marriage. Or rather, I imagined the pursuit of that sort of happiness. The fundamental desires of my protagonist, Ijeoma, are unconventional in her West African setting in the sense that she does not find her value via an attachment to a man. Lately, I’ve been interested in finding other West African authors who are also unconventional in their portrayal of love and marriage, of gender and power. The following are my top six:”

Stay With Me
1. Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo
Akin and Yejide have trouble conceiving a child. Years of struggling leads Yejide to a prophet who stipulates that she find a goat and engage in a goat ceremony. Yejide even winds up breastfeeding the goat. With expertly maneuvered, almost incredible, certainly unpredictable plot twists, the end result is a deconstruction of the concepts of masculinity and femininity and a rejection of traditional customs of marriage. The novel asks us: What does it mean to be strong? Is strength a woman who carries on serving her husband his meal even after he has betrayed her, or is she in fact weak? Is weakness a man who acquiesces to his mother’s persistent demands, rather than resisting — rather than summoning up the strength to stand proudly by his wife?

 
 
 
 
 
What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky
2. What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Arimah

In this collection, we see love in many forms, but particularly, we see stories with young Nigerian women whose sexuality is not boxed up like some shameful secret, tucked away beneath a pile of blankets. These young women do not apologize for their existence as sexual beings; or at least they do not apologize in the traditional, self-deprecating sort of way. “Wild” presents a young woman who has had a baby outside of marriage and refuses to give in to her mother’s condemnation of her. The story itself is not quite an embracing of untraditional ideals, but a lifting up of the veil of taboo enough that by the end of this story, the young woman and her child are still portrayed with dignity. “Light” begins with the beautiful description of Enebeli’s fourteen year old daughter, who sends a boy a note, and it is not the first time. She writes, “Buki, I love you. I will give you many sons.” What is beautiful about this declaration is the girl’s own ownership of her intentions. The script is flipped here, which is to say that the demand is not being put upon her. NOT: “You must give your husband many sons.” Rather, she is the one in the power position here, and she acknowledges not only her authority to give, but also the fact that it is her will.
 
 
Homegoing
3. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Two half-sisters grow up not knowing about each other. One sister becomes the “wench” of a British officer, unable to claim the title of “wife” — “wife” being a word reserved for white women. The other sister becomes a slave to the British, and goes on to give birth to a girl who also becomes a slave in Mississippi, USA. The bulk of literary criticism on Homegoing thus far has focused on the slave narrative and the purported complicity of Africans in selling themselves. What interests me, however, is the highly women-focused bent of the novel, the story really beginning with Esi and Effia. Though men certainly have their parts in the novel, these women are at once the subject and object of the story, both the water and the fire, whose lineages scald and flow into contemporary times. Effie and Esi are the ancestral characters whose spirits linger, long after they themselves, and their husbands, are gone.
 
 
 
 
Season of Crimson Blossoms
4. Season of Crimson Blossoms by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim
Embracing desire, fifty-five year old widow Binta falls into a love affair with a twenty-five year old gang leader and weed dealer named Reza. And why not? After a marriage marked by sexual repression, she craves intimacy. Set in Northern Nigeria, this bold new narrative tackles romance and eroticism in ways that defy the conservative culture of the North. Things get a bit tricky when Binta’s son confronts Reza about the affair.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun
5. Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Manyika
This beautiful, compact novel is a meditation on female aging and desire, as Dr. Morayo Da Silva, a seventy-four year old Nigerian woman living in San Francisco, narrates aspects of her life, past and present, in delightfully witty and poignant prose. Aging was never so hip, femininity never as powerful.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Behold the Dreamers
6. Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
There is a married couple here. In fact, no, there are two married couples in this utterly beautiful and absorbing novel — Cameroonians Neni and Jende Jonga, and Americans Cindy and Clark Edwards. And yet, it is a triangular affair. Imagine an equilateral triangle where two sides are represented by each couple and the third by a country. You see, both couples are also in the midst of a tumultuous love affair with America. America becomes a genderless character whose power crumbles as the financial crisis takes root and the human story progresses.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Book details


» read article