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Archive for the ‘International’ Category

A literary tap dance: Pearl Boshomane reviews Alain Mabanckou’s Black Moses

Published in the Sunday Times

Black MosesBlack Moses
Alain Mabanckou (Serpent’s Tail)
****

The cliché that comes to mind after reading Alain Mabanckou’s Black Moses is “better late than never”, because I had previously never heard of him or his works. And I’m glad that I’m tardy to the party rather than never having cracked an invite at all. The novel, which made the Man Booker longlist, is a delicious read – even if its premise is a tragic one.

The Black Moses of the title is a boy who was named by a priest, Papa Moupelo, when he was a child in an oppressive orphanage. His full name is actually a sentence: Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko, or “Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors.” While this name might seem almost ridiculous, Moses tries to live up to its meaning – as someone who will lead the lost out of the proverbial desert.

But after Papa Moupelo is plucked from his life and a Marxist-Leninist revolution erupts in 1970s Democratic Republic of Congo, Moses joins a street gang and reinvents himself as Little Pepper, before eventually appointing himself Robin Hood.

Black Moses shows a character at various stages of their life in what feels like a series of screen grabs. That’s not a criticism – it’s one of the things I love about it.

Mabanckou is a delightful writer whose long sentences (much like Moses’ name) are pretty rather than pretentious. Even when he writes about Moses’ descent into madness, it’s hard not to find pleasure in its description, as tragic as the subject matter is.

Example: “My memory problems affected my gait and I started to walk in zigzags because it completely slipped my mind that the shortest route from one point to another is a straight line, which is why, as they say around here, drunkards always come home late.”

If writing really is like dancing as Zadie Smith said, then Black Moses is a literary tap dance.

Follow Pearl Boshomane @pearloysias

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Book Bites: 23 July 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

Kill The FatherKill the Father
Sandrone Dazieri (Simon & Schuster)
****
Book thrill
Dante Torre always thought his life could be divided into before and after. During his 11 years as the abused hostage of a faceless man known only as the Father, every day was caged. After his escape, he seeks to help others and live as normal a life as possible. However, when detective Deputy Captain Colomba Caselli knocks on his door and asks for his help in a case involving the abduction of a child, Dante realises that perhaps there was no “after”. Italian crime writer Sandrone Dazieri is a master of the macabre, weaving a satisfying adventure and creating a sense of lingering paranoia. – Samantha Gibb @samantha_gibb

The Boy on the BridgeThe Boy on the Bridge
M.R. Carey (Little, Brown)
****
Book fiend
This is sort of a sidelong prequel to The Girl With All the Gifts. Not a sequel. But read Girl first and don’t panic when none of the characters is familiar. They become so quickly. Once again Carey writes with a light touch when it comes to the gore and the zombie/“hungries”. Once again there is a humane feeling of empathy with the lead character – this time an autistic boy, Stephen Greaves, who is supposed to save the world with the help of a bunch of scientists. Once again, Carey writes something that will become an important part of apocalyptic references. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

The Fire ChildThe Fire Child
SK Tremayne (HarperCollins)
***
Book fling
SK Tremayne follows in the grand tradition of the Gothic romance in which an isolated woman, an iffy love interest, and the welfare of a child make for compelling reading. In a whirlwind romance, Rachel from the “sarf of London” marries rich, handsome widower David and moves to his historic family mansion in Cornwall, where she lives with her delightful stepson Jamie. David is home only for weekends though, and Jamie changes, becoming remote and claiming his late mother Nina is going to return. Is Jamie hallucinating? Eerie, scary and compulsive reading. – Aubrey Paton

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Curmudgeon dressed as Lamb: Sue de Groot speaks to crime novelist Mick Herron about his irascible antihero in Spook Street

Published in the Sunday Times

Spook StreetSpook Street
Mick Herron (John Murray)
*****

When Mick Herron wrote Spook Street – the fourth in his series of spy novels about a cluster of misfits in Britain’s intelligence service – the Westminster terrorist attack had not yet happened. Nor had the attacks on London Bridge, in Manchester and at Finsbury Park.

All these subsequent events make Herron’s plot even more eerily relevant. Spook Street begins with the bombing of a shopping centre in the UK. (“It lasted seconds, but never stopped, and those it left behind – parents and families, lovers and friends – would ever after mark the date as one of unanswered phone calls and uncollected cars.”)

There is a grim echo, in the deadly flash mob at Westacres “pleasure dome”, of JG Ballard’s dystopian Kingdom Come – but where Ballard’s work is queasily alienating, Herron’s is warmly human.

His characters are flawed and vivid, particularly Jackson Lamb, head of a team of MI5 oddballs nicknamed “slow horses” (their office is in Slough House) and one of the most irresistibly unpleasant men ever to let loose a loud fart.

Herron, who on the phone is thoughtful and polite and about as far from Lamb as it is possible to get, says he has a lot of fun writing Lamb’s political incorrect dialogue.

“It’s kind of a safety valve,” he muses. “Lamb says all the things that you know you can’t say in public – you wouldn’t WANT to say them, you would never want to address other people in the way that he does – but there’s a great deal of fun and mischief to be had in doing it in fiction and knowing that for all the nasty things he comes up with, he’s saying them for effect, to annoy people. If he was behaving like that without being aware of how offensive he was, and actually believed the things he was saying, then he would be a different kind of person entirely.”

Lamb, like all the best characters in fiction, has slipped the bonds of his creator’s keys and taken on a life of his own. Herron says he often wonders what lies beneath the irascible old spy’s obnoxiousness.

“I know that there are things in his past that I haven’t fully uncovered. A key line to his character, from a previous book, is ‘when the Berlin wall came down he built another one around himself’. And there’s a line in what I was writing just this morning [the fifth book in the series will be published in 2018] where one of the other characters says Jackson ‘spent half a lifetime going to battle for what he believed in, and the second half of his life revenging himself on a world that seemed to have screwed things up anyway’.

“I think there’s a great deal of disappointment and bitterness there, and being obnoxious is his way of coping with it all, but I’m not sure I want to uncover the exact reasons behind the bitterness. I think one can destroy a character by probing too deeply into the reasons why they are how they are. I think it’s more fun just to let them get on with it. I’m very much enjoying winding him up and watching him go.”

Herron has the same attitude towards the universe in which his plots play out. He can be prescient about the real world but does not set out to write social commentary. In Spook Street he writes that the mall attack became “a made-in-Britain version of all those headlines, which had shrunk over the years to a page-7 sidebar, about events in distant marketplaces. Nothing brought the meaning of ‘suicide bomber’ home quite so hard as familiar logos glimpsed through the rubble.”

Having previously written successful crime novels, Herron turned to the world of spying because he “wanted to look at a broader canvas. One of the things that drove me to that was the bombings in London, the 7/7 bombings, that brought home to me how these huge events impinge on the lives of all of us, and that you don’t have to be a particular expert to have an opinion and to write about that sort of thing.

“These things are now happening … it’s not unusual to pick up a newspaper or turn on the radio and find that something very like that has happened – it’s chilling, and it now seems to be an ever-present danger, so that’s what I wanted to write about, the fact that we have those dangers there among us all the time.”

His focus, however, is always on the story. “I’m a novelist, and I do want to entertain, and the fact that I’m drawing the source of my entertainment from the real world is obviously a very important part of it, but I don’t feel that I have anything especially to warn people about or to tell them about, I’m just writing about how I perceive things to be. I don’t think anybody’s going to learn very much from my books, I do hope they will be entertained, thrilled, maybe shocked occasionally.”

Who should play Jackson Lamb?
Given the growing popularity of Herron’s novels, there will undoubtedly be several screen versions of the world’s rudest spy. When it comes to the actor who would best portray Lamb, Herron says: “If we went right through anyone who ever lived, it would be Orson Welles in Touch of Evil (1958). Physically, I think he looks like Lamb in that film; and his voice tone would also be about right.”

Not so silent: Lamb quotes
“The next sound you hear will be me, expressing confidence.” He farted, and reached for the cigarette behind his ear.

“So you’re the boss of the famous Slough House,” Flyte said. “Isn’t that where they keep the rejects?”

“They don’t like to be called that.”

“So what do you call them?”

“Rejects.”

“That is quite possibly the worst cup of tea I’ve had anywhere. And I’m including France in that.” – All said by Jackson Lamb in Spook Street

Follow Sue de Groot @deGrootS1

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Book Bites: 16 July 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

The CowsThe Cows
Dawn O’Porter (HarperCollins)
****
Book fling
It’s OK not to follow the herd. That’s the premise of The Cows, a powerful novel about three women judging each other, but also judging themselves and their ideas of children – wanting one, having one, and not wanting them. Tara, Cam and Stella are living their lives as best they can, but being constantly pressured to conform, they find it hard to like what they see in the mirror. When an extraordinary event brings them together, one woman’s catastrophe becomes another’s inspiration, and a life lesson to all. This is a surprisingly funny novel. – Nondumiso Tshabangu @MsNondumiso

Here Comes TroubleHere Comes Trouble
Simon Wroe (Orion)
***
Book buff
Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopian flair is reborn in Simon Wroe’s Here Comes Trouble. Kyrzbekistan, a fictitious Eastern Bloc country, is caught in the thrall of political turmoil that may sound all too familiar to many South Africans and Americans. As load-shedding seems to become permanent, troubled teen Ellis Dau attempts to rise to the occasion by restarting The Chronicle, his father’s independent press. Ellis’s humour (both intentionally and otherwise) is snort worthy. An excellent read for YA and new adult readers. Those over 30, however, may feel that they’ve heard this tale before, despite the fact we are living it today. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

The Last StopThe Last Stop
Thabiso Mofokeng (BlackBird Books)
*****
Book buff
Macko just managed to escape with his life after a bullet that was meant for him killed a child instead. His body may have survived but his mind is lost. He keeps seeing “things” and his stress is made worse by his dodgy taxi-owner boss and his money-grabbing girlfriend. Thabiso Mofokeng has done a sterling job of bringing to life the very real struggles of a taxi driver. It’s a poignant read and if you, like many, choose to forget the serious issues engulfing our country, this book will force them upon you. Thabiso, sir, never stop telling these very important truths. – Jessica Levitt @jesslevitt

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SA’s young readers beat world’s best at Toronto final

South African winners of the World Final of the global Kids Lit Quiz in Toronto, Canada – (L to R) Joshua Bruwer, Khelan Desai, Sahaj Mooji and Hongjae Noh.

 
A team of four South African boys has won the World Final of the global Kids Lit Quiz in Toronto, Canada – an event widely known as ‘the Olympics of reading’.

The boys, learners at St John’s Prep School in Johannesburg, emerged victorious against teams from Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States at a thrilling event at Toronto’s Oakville Performing Arts Centre.

According to Wayne Mills, the New Zealand-based quizmaster and founder of the Kids Lit Quiz, the team performed well in each of the 10 categories of questions, gradually extending their lead to secure a convincing win.

Benjamin Trisk, CEO of Exclusive Books who sponsored the team in South Africa, expressed the book chain’s delight at the win. “We are thrilled to hear that St John’s College was the winner of the international Kids Lit Quiz held in Toronto. St John’s is one of South Africa’s great schools. It has a stellar international reputation and we are proud that boys from this school have excelled in a specific field of the culture that drives us. Without passion, little can be achieved. With passion South African children have shown that they can compete with (and beat) the rest.”

An elated Nicky Sulter, the St John’s Prep librarian and the school’s Kids Lit Quiz team coach, said the boys were ecstatic about their achievement.

“We are all over the moon!” said Sulter. “The boys have been incredibly enthusiastic about preparing for this event, and have really enjoyed all the reading that has gone into this victory.”

She highlighted how important it was for boys especially to be recognised for their interest and talent in literature.

“This annual event keeps the boys reading all year, whether or not they make it into the school’s Kids Lit Quiz teams,” she said. St John’s Prep enters two teams into the Johannesburg round each year.

In the World Final, Mills asks challenging questions on just about any children’s book ever written; this year’s categories included arch-enemies, historical fiction, Grimm’s fairy tales, poetry, authors and comic book characters. The high pressure competition uses a first-to-the-buzzer format where teams earn points for correct answers but lose points if they miss the mark.

According to Mills, an encouraging trend has been the growing numbers of boys in the teams, suggesting that more boys are reading from a younger age.

“Of the 32 participants in this year’s final, 24 were boys,” he said. “This is a very encouraging sign, and shows a reversal of the kind of ratio we had in the quiz about 10 years ago.”

The eight teams in the World Final fought a long, hard battle during the previous year to get to the final. They won their various national rounds, which collectively involved over 1 000 teams of young readers aged 10-12 years old. To earn its place in Toronto, the St John’s team had to beat 40 Johannesburg teams just to get through to the national finals, where it then had to face the winners of other city rounds in Pretoria, Durban, Pietermaritzburg, Knysna, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town.

Over 100 South African schools participated in this year’s Kids Lit Quiz, said National SA coordinator Marj Brown, HOD of History at Roedean School in Johannesburg.

“South Africa holds its own against the best in the world,” said Brown. “Since we joined the quiz in 2004, a South African team has now won the World Final on three occasions. It is an exciting and motivating event that really brings reading to life for thousands of young people and broadens their scope of reading.”

The quiz was started by Mills 26 years ago to reward good readers in the same way that schools recognise achievement in sport.

“With this international competition now representing so many countries, the participants are increasingly able to meet up with ‘kindred spirits’ from other cultures – joined by their shared love of reading,” said Brown. “This can only contribute positively to understanding and tolerance among people from a young age.”


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Jacket Notes: Abubakar Adam Ibrahim discusses the characters in his award-winning novel Season of Crimson Blossoms

Published in the Sunday Times

Season of Crimson BlossomsSeason of Crimson Blossoms
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (Cassava Press)

Sometimes characters walk into your mind like visitors that come with their mats, spread them out and settle down to enjoy the shade. Some stay for a short while, others stay for years. Some come in through the front door, but others, like Hassan Reza, scale the fence.

When I had persistent visions of Reza scaling a woman’s fence to rob her, but then accidentally bumping into her, I knew I had to write about these two people and the convergence of their very diverse lives. Him, 25, rascal, weed dealer, political thug and head honcho of a band of miscreants; and her, Hajiya Binta Zubairu, 55, mother, grandmother, devout Muslim and all-round good person.

What was supposed to be a simple tale evolved into something far more complex, surprising me with its range and scope.

How does one write about a chaste grandmother having a sexual relationship with a thug in a conservative Muslim community in northern Nigeria? How does one use a story like this, completely out of character with the literature that has depicted the people of this part of the world, to say important things and explore our shared humanity?

In writing I essentially relied on my characters. I followed them and recorded their stories. When I wanted to lead them, usher them down a path, they resisted. And so we had tug-of-wars that lasted days, weeks and sometimes months – we fought and gave each other the silent treatment. Some people call this writer’s block. Eventually we made concessions and moved on, reaching the finish line after four years.

And I fell in love with them, these characters. I worried about how it would be possible not to view Hajiya Binta as a cougar for taking up with a disreputable thug. And, not being overtly fond of writing sex scenes (those things are hard), I fretted about how much detail I should include.

What I completely underestimated though was how much people ended up liking Reza, the thug. Many people, mostly women, old and young, have accosted me over this character, demanding more details beyond what is conveyed in the book.

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Book Bites: 9 July 2017

The Sun In Your EyesThe Sun In Your Eyes
Deborah Shapiro (HarperCollins)
****
Book buff
This story of a complex friendship between two women comes spangled with praise from American critics. Years after leaving college, Vivian and Lee set off on a road trip to untangle the great tragedy of Lee’s life: the death of her father, Jesse Parrish. Lee was still small when Parrish, a leading singer/songwriter, died in a car accident. His life and death have become mythical, especially as the tapes of the album he was working on disappeared on the night of his death. Lee’s whole life has been burdened by his memory and it is time to deal with it once and for all, and to sever, or renew, her foundering relationship with Vivian. – Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

Reservoir 13Reservoir 13
Jon McGregor (Bloomsbury)
****
Book biff
Fans of Jon McGregor know he is a painter who uses words rather than watercolours. Reservoir 13 is a portrait of English village life. A collection of everyday people whose everyday lives are shifted and haunted after a 13-year-old girl vanishes while on holiday with her parents. Each chapter begins a new year, with the characters slowly moving forward. It is we human beings who exist in routines that tend to alter at a gradual pace with age. This book is a work of art for readers who read for the pleasure of words and do not require tidy narratives with no loose ends. This novel is an echo of life. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

The Secret History of Twin PeaksThe Secret History of Twin Peaks
Mark Frost (Macmillan)
****
Book thrill
Twin Peaks – the TV series by David Lynch and Mark Frost – aired in 1991, and we were introduced to the town of Twin Peaks, the murder of Laura Palmer, and the cultish strangeness surrounding the killing. In 2016, 25 years after the series was aired, Lynch and Frost have collaborated on another season, and writer Frost has brought out his third book in the franchise. Presented as a dossier of FBI documents, photos, letters, newspaper clippings, and transcriptions, which may – or may not – elucidate the new series. But it’s pretty damn good, as Special Agent Cooper might say. – Aubrey Paton

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Acts of useless beauty: Bron Sibree talks to Tim Winton about his new memoir The Boy Behind The Curtain

Published in the Sunday Times

The Boy Behind the CurtainThe Boy Behind the Curtain
Tim Winton (Picador)
*****

Tim Winton refers to his new memoir, The Boy Behind the Curtain, his 28th book to date, as a midlife “looking over the shoulder”. Yet it’s difficult to conceive of more a revealing work from a novelist so revered by his fellow countrymen, but so renowned for shunning the limelight. It is a companion volume to his 2015 non-fiction meditation on the role of Australian landscape on his own fiction and that of the Australian psyche, Island Home.

Yet, this collection peels back the curtain on his life as a man and a writer in far more revealing ways. It also surprised Winton with what the book unveiled. “What sticks out for me,” he says, referring to a body of work that has earned him two Booker Prize shortlistings, “is just how unlikely it all is, having come from this modest, working-class background where no one had ever finished school”.

He writes of his sadness that members of his family remain illiterate in a chapter in The Boy Behind the Curtain, that also probes his concerns about the growing divide between rich and poor. For this is no conventional memoir, but a series of profoundly personal essays in which the 56-year-old author of such novels as Eyrie, Breath, Cloudstreet, Dirt Music and The Riders, attempts to make sense of the world, his childhood and the unconscious patterns of his fiction. “You are drawing on real stuff as a fiction writer whether you know it or not, so it’s me trying to acknowledge and also make plain some of those strands that make up the rope.”

Some of that rope’s most significant strands are those of his childhood. The book takes its cues from its titular chapter in which Winton recalls himself before he found words: a troubled, inarticulate 13-year-old who took to aiming his father’s .22 Lithgow rifle at “innocent passers-by” from behind the curtains of his parent’s bedroom. “When I think of that kid at the window, the boy I once was,” he writes, “I get a lingering chill.”

In another he recalls his fears as a nine-year-old, clinging to the steering wheel in the aftermath of a road accident in which his traffic cop father gave his son a job to do while attending an injured motorcyclist. Winton was an adult before he realised his fears related to an earlier traffic accident: one in which his father had been so badly injured that then six-year-old Winton felt he’d been robbed of the father he knew. “That scene,” he reveals, “has puzzled me all my life. Haunted me, in a way.”

That those childhood events remain so resonant in his life and work also surprised Winton . “To recognise myself as the little boy still clinging to the steering wheel, and also to recognise in this long-ago boy holding the gun behind the curtain, that he’s been and gone in one sense, but he’s still present. The people that you’ve been in your life are still with you. They still inform you and you have to be mindful of them, learn from them and not pretend that they’re not there.”

Then there is his obsession with “useless beauty” as he describes his passion for the natural world. “I realised late in life, just from surfing, that in indulging in all those thousands of mornings and afternoons surfing, I was essentially indulging in acts of useless beauty.”

He writes of his abiding need to tap into the power of the ocean in a dance he calls “the wait and the flow” in this memoir. And to read it is to swim marginally, fleetingly, closer to comprehending the miracle of Winton ’s preternatural ability to harness the power of the natural world to the page. For he writes just like he surfs. “And the feeling is divine.”

Follow Bron Sibree @Bron Sibree

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Book Bites: 2 July 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

Find MeFind Me
JS Monroe (Head of Zeus)
Book thrill
****
Intelligent, fast-paced, and intriguing, Find Me is an excellent thriller in the classic English mould, written by Cambridge graduate and freelance journalist JS Monroe. Dubliner Jarlath Costello is a promising writer who works as a click-bait journalist for an entertainment site. He falls in love with Rosa, a brilliant young student, and he cannot recover from her supposed suicide. Then two things happen to change his life: he starts seeing Rosa, and he receives her encrypted diary – which he has decoded. But her death still makes no sense and since her body was never found, Jarlath is convinced she is still alive. His investigation reveals more than he, or the reader, ever suspected. – Aubrey Paton

A Dangerous CrossingA Dangerous Crossing
Rachel Rhys (Doubleday)
Book fling
***
The Great Gatsby goes to sea in Rhys’s genteel A Dangerous Crossing. On the brink of Britain entering World War 2, Lily Shepherd flees bad memories and sets off to Australia to take up domestic service and begin again. Life at sea is unique; class lines blur and allow people to act out fantasies in a way they’d never dare to while on land. Aboard the ship, Lily is quickly swept up by dashing new friends, brimming with wealth and fabulous clothes. Together, the odd menagerie of pals have grand adventures while guarding many secrets. But with the murder of two passengers, Lily is to discover that there is much tarnish behind the glamour of the upper class. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

Here and GoneHere and Gone
Haylen Beck (Harvill Secker)
Book thrill
****
I love thrillers that have been recommended by Lee Child. He doesn’t praise many, but those he chooses are winners. This is no exception. Audra is running from New York, her abusive husband and the possibility of losing custody of her children to him. She runs before the judge can rule. In Arizona, she is pulled over by a shady sheriff who finds marijuana in her car and arrests her. Her 11-year-old son and three-year-old daughter are taken by a deputy to a “safe place”. So intense, this book never lets up. Like Audra, the reader can only really breathe at the end. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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The illumination of truthfulness: Zakes Mda’s Sunday Times Literary Awards keynote address

Published in the Sunday Times

The Sunday Times editor, Mr Bongani Siqoko, tells me “illumination of truthfulness” is the main criterion of the Alan Paton Award, which was established in 1989 for non-fiction works. He believes it applies to fiction as well, and quotes Albert Camus, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”

I thank him for inviting me to give this talk. I think the topic is quite apt in this age of truthiness (1), post-truth (2) and alternative facts (3).

I must begin by saluting the Sunday Times for establishing these awards and for maintaining them for so many years. I am honored that I was the first writer to win the inaugural Sunday Times Fiction Prize with my third novel, The Heart of Redness, some 16 years ago.

I must also salute the Sunday Times for its sterling work in journalism, particularly its investigative reporting. You, and your colleagues have added value to our young democracy by taking your watchdog role seriously. Democracy cannot function without freedom of expression in general and of the media in particular.

Some of you might know of Lorraine Adams, who first caused literary waves with her debut novel, Harbor. She wrote this work of fiction after spending years reporting on Afghanistan and Iran for the Washington Post and winning a Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism. In her journalism, she is reputed to have dug out hidden stories on crucial issues such as xenophobia, immigration and terrorism. It was therefore a major surprise when she decided to quit the profession. There was even greater astonishment when she revealed she was leaving journalism for fiction so that she could write the truth. She explained that it was only with fiction that she could address the truth behind the facts. Whereas the journalist views truth in terms of witnessable and observable scenes, she added, the novelist pierces into a privacy where the truth resides.

She is correct. Journalism answers the simple question: what happened? It is the same question that is answered by most forms of non-fiction, including history. What happened? Of course, there are attendant questions such as how and why it happened, but the key story lies in the event.

Fiction on the other hand goes much further, and answers the question: what was it really like to be in what happened?

Talking of the genesis of her fine book on a bitter rivalry of two women who are neighbors, The Woman Next Door, Yewande Omotoso tells an NPR interviewer, “I was really looking at what is it like, particularly for the Marion character, to have been someone during the apartheid days who didn’t necessarily resist apartheid, disagree with it, but kind of went along. What is it like now, you know, post-apartheid.” [emphasis mine]

What is it like? I am sure it is the same question that Kopano Matlwa attempts to answer with her suspenseful prose as we follow the young doctor, Masechaba, trying to reclaim her life in Period Pain, or Bronwyn Law-Viljoen’s The Printmaker as we search for an answer to the enigma of the printmaker’s solitary life. What was it like to be Hennie, an Afrikaner teenager in the Orange Free State of the 1980s, who has to escape his abusive father, and embark on a remarkable journey in search of his sister? We experience Hennie’s life with him in Mark Winkler’s The Safest Place You Know.

What was it like to be in what happened? It is a question whose answer gives us a sensory experience of the event. Fiction is experiential because it is transportational and vice versa.

To address this transporting question the writers create fully-realized characters – protagonists and antagonists and their allies – struggling to achieve their objectives and overcome obstacles in a compelling narrative arc. These characters may be based on real-life people the writer has known, or may be composites of same. They may even claim to have emerged from imagination. But we remember that the line of demarcation between imagination and memory is very blurred. We imagine from what we know; in other words, what we remember. Memory itself is essentially fictive. And since we are what we remember, our work creates us as we create it.

Into whatever we create as artists we bring the baggage that is our own biographies, whether we are conscious of that or not. A lot of what we create in a character is drawn from us, the creators, and from our experiences. We are always writing ourselves in the same way that we are always writing the same book.

The important thing about conventional fictional characters is that they do not function in any credible manner until their actions are motivated. The few exceptions that defy this convention are such postmodern narrative modes as magical realism. In traditional fiction, there is a practical “why” behind a character’s objectives and behaviors. Her actions are not only motivated but justified as well. This means she is who she is because of her life-experience, of her history. Fiction is very big on causality. Her actions are therefore psychologically (not necessarily morally) justified. This tells you that every writer of fiction worth her salt is a psychologist, a keen observer of human behavior and mental processes.

It is small wonder, therefore, that Sigmund Freud drew most of his groundbreaking conclusions – resulting in psychotherapy, “the talking cure” – from studying characters in novels rather than from analyzing live subjects. A whole new branch of psychiatry known as psychoanalysis was founded by analyzing fiction.

In the academy these days fiction is used to teach many other subjects, not only in psychology, history and philosophy, because fiction pierces into the truth behind the facts. Sipho Noko, an LL.B. student, told me on Twitter the other day that he had never read an African novel before until my novel, Black Diamond, was prescribed at the University of Pretoria Law School for a topic titled “Law from Below”. When I wrote that novel – a layman in the field of law – I never imagined it could be a law school textbook. Another lawyer, Advocate Maru Moremogolo, wrote to me about Little Suns, “Your book brings context to judicial powers of traditional leaders, a perfect timing #Dalindyebo – how the King wanted some of his judicial powers returned from the magistrate.”

He thought I was being prophetic, I thought I was just telling a story.

I was once astounded when I learned that Ways of Dying was prescribed at an architecture school in the United Kingdom. When I wrote that novel I never imagined I was writing about architecture. Yewande Omotoso, who is an architect in another life, once tried to explain how the novel relates to architecture, a field I know nothing about. But I forget now what she said.

The ability of fiction to operate so comfortably across all these diverse disciplines lies not only in its descriptive powers or its capacity to delineate structural problems, but in its facility to examine interiorities. The interior experience is absent in journalism, as it is in most non-fiction. The search of the interior experience has resulted in the emergence of Narrative Journalism in recent times (and of New Journalism in the last century), where the practitioners try to apply the techniques of fiction such as point of view and plot and various other narrative devices to journalism. You have seen this practiced quite successfully in the New Yorker and to some extent in Granta.

One notable non-fiction genre that has mastered the intricacies of hybridity is memoir. Memoir, unlike biography/autobiography, uses the tools of fiction to capture the essence of an aspect of the author’s life. Like fiction it explores interiorities.

The publishing industry in the Western world has set distinguishing features between memoir and traditional autobiography to which it adheres faithfully. Of course, writers always experiment and transgress genres. An autobiography is about the writer. She is the subject in a historical chronicle of her life and the events that shaped it – from the time she was born to a determined period. A memoir, on the other hand, is not about the writer but about something else as experienced by the writer or those close to her. A memoir therefore must have a subject because the writer is not the subject. For instance, the subject may be Alzheimer. A memoir must have a central theme: for example, on the author’s struggles to cope with a husband who is gradually losing his memory. A true memoirist works from memory – hence the name of the genre – because she is not a chronicler of history. She mines her memory and tries to capture the feelings and emotions she had at the time of the event. Her account is enriched by the distortions of time, by obliviousness, by faulty recall, by amnesia. The fidelity is to the emotion rather than to historical accuracy. That is why you can conflate characters in a memoir and re-invent new contexts etc. to capture and represent to the reader the feeling and sometimes the philosophy. The emphasis is on emotional truth.

History, like journalism, answers the question: what happened? We write historical fiction to take history to the level of: what was it like to be in what happened? The story of Mhlontlo that I write in Little Suns was well-known to me from the time I was a toddler. It is part of family lore. Even after I had researched its historical aspects, it still remained a series of anecdotes – surface stories lacking subtlety. It was only when I was writing it as a work of fiction, exploring what it was really like to be Mhlontlo by recreating his exterior and interior worlds, and the worlds of those who surrounded him, protagonists and antagonists, their loves, their losses, their gains, victories and defeats, that the emotional import hit me. Anger swelled in my chest. To my embarrassment I was caught screaming one day, “Damn, this is what they did to my great grandfather.”

The injustices done to amaMpondomise by the British endure to this day under the ANC regime. The amaMpondomise continue to be punished for having stood against British colonialism.
Like most writers of historical novels, I write historical fiction to grapple with the present. Great historical fiction is more about the present than it is about the past. That is why the lawyer could relate the past I was re-imagining to present contestations. The past is always a strong presence in our present.

Traditional historians believe that history is objective reality. For me history does not have an objective existence. It exists only as an absence. We don’t have direct access to the past; we cannot scientifically and objectively observe its facts. We experience history through words, through storytelling and through chronicles of events and dates. Therefore, history is textual; our attempts at separating it from literature are tenuous.

History is as subjective as journalism. I know, you think you’re objective. Observe how The New Age on one hand and the Sunday Times on the other report on the same event. It is bound to read like two different events. The value-laden words, the incidents selected or left out, and the angles that the reporters take will surely reflect their subjectivities. If contemporary journalism cannot be objective about contemporary events, what more of history which is shaped by its necessary textuality?

History is the story of the victor. That is what I try to correct. In doing so I make it herstory as well. South Africa presents us with a good example of the creation and imposition of a narrative that legitimizes the ruling elite of the day. The colonizers wrote history from their own perspective, always to validate their privileged position. The subaltern groups were denied a voice. They were even erased from the landscape so that when the colonizer arrived in southern Africa the lands were vast and empty and the natives non-existent. The colonialist dismissed as fanciful oral traditions that located ancient kingdoms and empires in the region dating hundreds of years before colonization. When the colonizer’s own ethno-archeologists excavated towns and settlements dating more than a thousand years ago, the proponents of “vast empty lands” created alternative narratives attributing them to alien civilizations – sometimes even from outer space. They were the victors and could therefore re-create the past in their own image.

Now a new order exists in South Africa. Like all regimes before it the new dispensation is narrating the past from its own perspective, re-creating and reshaping it to palliate the very present it continues to mismanage, erasing the contribution of some from the annals of history, and lionizing the current crooks – the harvesters of matundu ya uhuru, the fruits of freedom.

The truth of fiction can give context to and shed new insights on the stories unearthed by your investigative reporting. It gives them longevity and digestibility. Fiction is even more essential in this age when shamelessness and impunity among the ruling elite, and corruption-fatigue in the populace, are leading South Africa to perdition.

1 – Truthiness: The quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true.
2 – Post-truth politics (also called post-factual politics): a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored. (Wikipedia)
3 – Alternative facts: President Trump Counselor Kellyanne Conway’s phrase to describe demonstrable falsehoods that are touted as truth.

The Heart of Redness

Book details

 
 
 

The Woman Next Door

 
 
 

Period Pain

 
 
 

The Printmaker

 
 
 

The Safest Place You Know

 
 
 

Black Diamond

 
 
 

Little Suns

 
 
 

Ways of Dying


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