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Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

“The story of human evolution is not a simple, linear, straightforward one” – a Q&A with Lee Berger

By Mila de Villiers, @mila_se_kind

Research Professor in Human Origins at Wits University, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, peer-reviewed paleoanthropologist, and author of Almost Human: The astonishing tale of Homo naledi (co-written with John Hawks), Lee Berger, recently spoke to us via Skype (from an excavation site at Dinaledi and Lesedi Chambers, nogal) about his book – an account of the discovery of the hominid species, Homo naledi; Australopithecus sediba as the origin of the X-Men; his estrangement from Phillip Tobias; writing for non-scientific audiences; and local band Satanic Dagga Orgy’s ode to Homo naledi

Lee Berger sharing A Moment with the skull of a Homo naledi
(© Stefan Heunis, AFP/Getty Images)

 
First things first: your interest in archaeology was sparked at a young age when, as a child growing up in rural Georgia, you’d spend hours in the outdoors, looking for (and finding) artifacts. Do you have any advice for aspiring archaeologists or paleoanthropologists wishing to discover/rummage, yet are confined to suburbs or cities?

There are things to be found everywhere – history is all around us and the world, even urban areas and the suburbs are filled with archaeological artifacts from the past that give clues to what came before. Also, our cities are full of geology as they are of course built on and around it! It’s great to learn and explore the heritage of the area you live in as well as it’s geological heritage. One never knows as the next “big” discovery could be in one’s own backyard!

Almost Human reads surprisingly easy – and funny – for a book with a highly scientific premise. Did you struggle to maintain an accessible writing style for the hoi polloi? (And by no means am I excluding myself here).

Well, science can seem complex and overwhelming for many, but we were trying to use a style that let the specialist reader as well as the non-specialist reader enjoy the book and follow our scientific journey. We therefore tried to use understandable language and as little “jargon” as possible, only using it where it was necessary to define a complex term or meaning. Both John and I communicate widely to the public and so perhaps the writing style you note follows our speaking styles.

Throughout the final chapters of the book you often mention how much there still is to learn about Homo naledi and that it’s very likely that there are more early hominim species which are yet to be discovered. The skeletal material you recently came across in the Lesedi Chamber shares similarities with Homo naledi and adds to this statement. What can/does this new discovery tell us about human evolution in Africa?

I think the clear picture that has come from both the discovery of Australopithecus sediba and Homo naledi is that the story of human evolution is not a simple, linear, straightforward one but that ours is a complex history. Naledi and sediba show us that there is more to be found – it’s clear that we don’t really know their ancestral history and the few fossils of other species found across Africa don’t help us much with interpreting where they fit in our family tree – and that’s exciting. We currently are back in the Dinaledi and Lesedi Chambers and making new discoveries – particularly exciting is we seem to have strong evidence that Homo naledi did indeed come down the narrow chute the way our “underground astronauts” come – and that is wonderful and hard to explain – but it’s exciting!

Your “Underground Astronauts” – Marina Elliott, Elen Feuerriegel, Alia Gurtov, K. Lindsay (Eaves) Hunter, Hannah Morris, and Becca Peixotto – are all women. This dispels the myth of science being a male-dominated field. Can you elaborate on this statement within a South African context? Christa Kuljian specifically comes to mind…

I am right now watching four of these heroic women scientists working underground on our cameras in the command centre. Our field was dominated by men traditionally, but there is a worldwide trend that is shifting towards more women in the natural sciences and our field is no different and we are seeing this trend in South Africa as well. But what I think is most important about these underground astronauts is that they are demonstrating that the place for women in these sciences is not just in the lab, but also at the cutting edge of extreme exploration and adventure and very often these women are better suited physically and mentally for these difficult and often dangerous endeavours. They really are an inspiration.

You write candidly about your growing difference of opinions with prominent paleoanthropologists Phillip Tobias and Ronald Clarke. How has your account of your academic estrangement from Profs Tobias and Clarke been received by the scientific community, and readers at large?

Well, my estrangement with Phillip Tobias occurred as perhaps a natural progression of our relationship. He was like a father to me and sometimes when fathers and sons are working in the same area, they can clash. He and I reconciled later and he was very engaged and enjoyed the sediba years. Ron Clarke and my history is a complex one. Phillip and the University were promoting this young upstart (perhaps in his eyes) ahead of him. A lot of that tension I think was driven from insecurity of position. Palaeoanthropology is a competitive field with, until recently, few fossils and “fights” over the perceived more important ones are nothing new. I think though that with sediba and naledi and our approach to open access some of this tension has lessened. There is, though, still a generation that was brought up behaving in a very negatively competitive way that exists, but they are fewer and the fossils are certainly more plentiful!

I must admit that I didn’t know you and Phillip Tobias had such a strong bond…

He was my Ph.D. supervisor and then promoted me to take over his position in 1996. He and I were very close. It was the “way” Little Foot was discovered, hidden and then handled that caused the fissure. But like I said, I think that can be quite normal in such situations.

Have you received any personal ‘backlash’ from readers or scientists (including your colleagues, perhaps) regarding the candid account of your estrangement?

And no, not at all! You’re the first person to bring it up!

Seriously? Wow.

I think most scientists and “insiders” know/knew the story and it was a long time ago.

Your search for assistants to aid you in your expedition was unique in that you created a Facebook-post urging experienced scientists and intrepid cavers across the globe to apply for the task. Similarly, your discoveries at the Rising Star cave system were live streamed on social media platforms. (Those hashtags!) Can we expect an increase in scientific findings being made more and/or immediately accessible to the public, say via social media, as opposed to waiting until they’ve been published in journals after months of research and deliberation?

Okay, so if you turn on your social media feed right now you will notice we are bringing science “live” to the world through technology and social media. We are, however, doing all of our science the good old fashioned way – in peer reviewed journals. In fact and as an example there have been more than 600 pages of peer reviewed journal articles on naledi since we announced the new species. While some very prominent individuals (Bill Kimbel, Tim White and Bernard Wood to name the most vocal) have argued that we are somehow doing the science in front of the public – and they feel this is a bad thing – it’s simply not true. They are in fact creating a Quixote-esque windmill of misinformation to tilt at. We are in fact the traditionalists, they are publishing their criticisms in non-peer reviewed venues. It’s ironic and a form of “peer evasion” on their part.

Lastly – are you aware that the Joburg-based band Satanic Dagga Orgy have a song titled ‘Homo for Naledi’?

I am and we were laughingly playing the song just this morning! I think it might have even had it’s debut in the Dinaledi chamber as Elen just tweeted from the chamber about it! We all quite enjoy seeing our science become part of the popular and public sphere. It means more people hear about science and maybe it inspired people to dig a little deeper. I don’t know if you saw but Marvel Comics has sediba as the origin of the X-Men now! (which for a bunch of science nerds is very cool) – just google ‘Australopithecus sediba marvel X-Men’ for the pages.

***

(I did. Look what I found.)

Almost Human

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“We want African stories to be truly accessible to all South African children” – a Q&A with the masterminds behind Book Dash

Carla Lever recently conducted a Q&A with Book Dash co-founder Arthur Attwell and programme director Julia Norrish for Nal’ibali’s weekly column, as published in the Daily Dispatch and Herald. The three discussed fulfilling gaps in the indigenous language storytelling market, the accessibility of African stories, and how you – yes, you! – can get involved with creating a storytelling nation:

You aim for every SA child to own 100 books by the age of five. That sounds overwhelmingly optimistic, but in just three years you’ve already printed over 180 000 books with a price point of R10/copy. What’s your superpower?

Julia: Our superpower is peoplepower! We ask professional writers, illustrators, designers and editors to volunteer their time to create new, high-quality, African children’s books. We waste no time, and we pay no wages. The only cost is printing, and we do that cheaply, too, by working with great printing companies.

Julia Norrish, programme director: Book Dash

 

You make a point of making your books available in isiZulu, isiXhosa and Sepedi, which means you’re fulfilling a vital gap in the indigenous language storytelling market. What’s the response been like?

Julia: The response has been incredible: we’re thrilled when people request languages other than English, and equally chuffed that we can provide these! We must thank our translation partners for this, most notably Nal’ibali. Of the 183 963 books we’ve printed, 56% have been in English, so it still dominates, but that means there are 79 381 more African indigenous language books in kids’ hands than there were in 2013.

Arthur: Most children’s books published in South Africa are effectively cross-subsidised by textbook sales to government schools – that’s why there are so few. In 2013, of R312 million in local trade publishing revenue, only 0.5% came from books in indigenous languages. The value of mother tongue learning in the early stages of a child’s life has never been as well proven as it is today, and yet the books we’re publishing still aren’t reflecting that. We want African stories to be truly accessible to all South African children.

Your books are all available for free online and through your free Android app. Are they getting widely distributed that way?

Julia: Book Dash’s digital books are particularly powerful because anyone can freely use, translate or adapt the content. Our downloads are in the millions – from as far afield as Turkey, Afghanistan and South America – so we’re having great impact from digital. We’ll always print and distribute physical copies of our books directly to children, though. The authority and power that a print book has is irreplaceable, especially when trying to create avid readers.

How can writers, designers, translators and editors get involved?

Julia: People that are keen can join our mailing list via bookdash.org or follow us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram to hear when we announce upcoming events.

Your giveaway events sound like huge fun! Can you tell us about some of the most memorable exchanges with children and educators that you’ve had?

Arthur: My most memorable giveaway is still the first one, at Jireh Community Centre in Mitchells Plain. We gave each child three books that day. One boy, who must have been three years old, took his first book and walked off, so we had to call him back to get another, which made him very happy. And then he walked off again! When we called him back for his third book his eyes were as big as saucers. It’s really important for everyone to start thinking big numbers when it comes to giving books away.

What role do donors and sponsors play in your operation?

Julia: They’re invaluable and we’ve been lucky enough to work with some of the most generous and insightful organisations out there. Our first ever print run was made possible by crowdfunding and we’re still so grateful when people choose to donate. People can also support by purchasing copies of our books from various retailers or directly from us at www.bookdash.org.

Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success! For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign or to enter its national multilingual storytelling competition, ‘Story Bosso’, running this September, visit www.nalibali.org.


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Ja, offices are the home of intrigue, back-stabbing and old-fashioned dishonesty” – Trade Secrets contributor, Sean Mayne

Sean Mayne works for Cape Town’s favourite coffee company. When he can, he snatches minutes, sometimes seconds, to write. In 2014 he cracked the nod for the Adults Only Short.Sharp.Stories collection, picking up an accolade for Publisher’s Choice and simultaneously getting his piece of smut published in Playboy SA. In 2015, he was again published, in Incredible Journey. He is beyond thrilled to make the cut for 2017 as getting published is like tik for his frail ego.

Joanne Hichens, curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories Award and Sean’s recent kaffeeklatsch was a telling one to tell the least, e.g. did you know that Sean has been submitted to – and passed – a polygraph test? And once sold a waterless urinal to Pollsmoor Maximum security? No? Read on…
 
In your story, ‘The Unbelievable Truth’, the tension builds as Lenny and Doon – a couple of salesmen – await a polygraph test for a theft in their office. Have you ever been submitted to a polygraph?

Yes. And I passed. The interview starts innocuously: “So you live in False Bay? The sea views must be lovely, but seriously, how many times have you been to jail?” (Twice.) Then they delve into childhood. Like, “Did you ever pinch money from your mother’s purse?” (Yes.) Or reverse-psychology questions, like “Explain why you don’t fill up your car from petty cash?” (Because I catch the train.) Or “What do you think of the boss?” ( . . . ) I wondered at the time about using a polygraph for marriage vows, or marriage counseling. It got me scheming.

Was that the only inspiration for your story?

No. If there’s a lonelier profession than writing, it’s salesman. The entire psychology of selling is based on overcoming a fear of the word No! Probably because ‘no’ is the first word we learn after ‘mama’ and each working day is spent mentally preparing for rejection (kind of like entering a writing competition). This is done by clinging to a belief in the law of averages, which dictates that one in ten will buy from you. Or in reverse-psychology speak: only nine more ‘no’s’ before I make the first sale of the day. All sorts of kak swirls round in your brain before you pick up that scary phone and make a call (or submit your story) and it’s this mental anguish I tapped into.

So enter Doon, who’s having a bad run and is kind of desperate. Is he desperate enough to steal eight grand from his boss? That’s for the reader to discover.


 
 
Personal ‘office relationships’ are at the core of the story, as revealed through the eyes of Lenny. Would you agree that the office provides a pressure cooker when it comes to personal relationships? Did you capitalize on this?

Ja, offices are the home of intrigue, back-stabbing and old-fashioned dishonesty – similar to Survivor, except no one gets voted off – or not the person you tried to frame. Sales offices in particular are without morals because selling is concerned with manipulation. This is what makes crooked salesmen interesting. And isn’t story writing essentially a bunch of lies told in a manipulative way? Some people have a natural gift for selling, an aura, where customers magically say ‘yes’ to their offering. Of course the best of them are in jail for fraud. Sadly, I don’t have that aura, which is why I have to write instead.

Have you ever had a nine to five office job?

I had a sales job where the day started in an office. But the mornings degenerated into long breakfasts in cheap cafés as fellow salesmen and I dissected why that day, specifically, wasn’t good for knocking on doors. We’d reappear in the afternoon. Occasionally we’d sell stuff. Once I sold a perfume machine to Salt River Mortuary (there’s a braai grid outside the walk-in fridge, fyi); another time we sold a waterless urinal to Pollsmoor Maximum security and got to visit the kas (wyfie’s are real – high heels, lipstick, skirts, the works). Mostly I sold septic tanks (your shit is our bread and butter was my elevator pitch).

The office setting might be the most obviously associated with the concept of ‘trade secret’. Why choose this setting?

True. But nowhere in the story is there reference to ‘place’. The office could be anywhere. I did it to make the story dialogue-driven. The setting is stripped down to a bland corridor, a smoking nook, and a boardroom. I’m trusting the South Africanisms of the characters will provide context for the reader. It was a risk because I know how important ‘place’ is to a story – almost like it’s supposed to be one of the characters.

High on entertainment value, it’ a slick piece… As far as the writing goes, there are no inverted commas, the sentences often run on… Was this a conscious choice?

A wise editor once introduced me to contractions (I think it was you, Joanne). The idea of brevity snow-balled and soon any word ending –ly also had to go. It was inevitable that inverted commas would fall. But I love sentences that run on if it’s a first person narrative. It allows for an element of distraction (and manipulation), a key device if hoping to create a twist.

What writing Trade Secret would you like to share?

Make each word fight for its place on the page. Choppity chop chop.

Follow Sean on Facebook @lakesidemaynes

Book details

Trade Secrets

 
 
 
 
 
Adults Only

 
 

Incredible Journey


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12 Quick Questions with Anthony Horowitz

Published in the Sunday Times

The Word is MurderThe Word is Murder
Anthony Horowitz, Century

Has a book ever changed your mind about something?
Yes. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari, changed the way I see the world and revised my opinion about eating meat (I now seldom do).

Who is your favourite fictional hero?
Sherlock Holmes.

What music helps you write?
Anything by composer Philip Glass.

What is the strangest thing you’ve done when researching a book?
I climbed up and operated a crane.

Do you keep a diary?
No, but I do keep a scrapbook.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Oversized. Exploded. And yet.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
War and Peace. Anna Karenina. I’m not good at Russian literature.

What’s more important to you: the way a book is written or what the book is about?
They are equally important. But I often read badly written books for research.

You’re hosting a literary dinner with three writers. Who’s invited?
John Webster, Charles Dickens and Ian Fleming.

What book changed your life?
A Tintin book did — The Crab with the Golden Claws.

Do you finish every book that you start? If you don’t, how do you decide when to stop reading?
If I’m not enjoying the book and if I’m not gripped after about 100 pages, I often stop.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

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“Hair can really shake things up” – a Q&A with Trade Secrets contributor, Sally Ann Murray

Though not a sentimental person, Sally Ann Murray loves her family and her dogs. (She hates the expression ‘her loved ones’.) She is the recipient of prizes such as the Sanlam Literary Award for poetry, and the M-Net and the Herman Charles Bosman prizes, for her novel Small Moving Parts. She likes to create things. By nature (when time and heat allow) she is a gardener. Mostly, what she does is chair the English Department at Stellenbosch University, working with a group of excellent colleagues. Here Sally Ann and Joanne Hichens, the curator of the Short.Sharp.Awards discuss her Trade Secrets entry, how hair can really shake things up, and challenging The Authority…

You have mentioned that your story, ‘Clippings’, derives from quite a tangle of ‘clippings’. What was the initial inspiration for your story?

When I worked at UKZN, I once praised a colleague’s sleek, chic hairstyle. Actually, she said, she lived with the wound of another self, a girl with rampant, springy curls. She told me of a girlhood experience: standing in her very red school uniform, with her very red, embarrassed face, enduring her mother’s furious complaints about having to deal with that bushy hair. This snippet was the imaginative kernel of ‘Clippings’, though red hair, per se, was nowhere in evidence. I had to wait for the idea to take fuller shape…

Was this ‘fuller shape’ influenced by the fact that issues around ‘hair’ seem always to be in the news?

…mmm. Remember the outrage around hair in girls’ schools: black hair, afro hair, big hair; hair that needed to be controlled? In that racist climate, I was prompted to imagine a scenario in which ‘hair’, under the narrows of apartheid, could manifest as a gendered provocation. And let’s not forget that at the time I was supervising a PhD on the representation of sexualities in African fiction…

Certainly ‘hair’ and identity are closely linked… in general, why is ‘hair’ so loaded?

I’m not sure. Maybe because it’s so intimately changeable, so difficult to control? For some people, ‘hair’ is a border which marks race, or gender. I mean, in terms of schools, say: ‘hair’ is a site over which The Authorities are used to exerting petty control, and securing obedient subordination. All those young boys with their vulnerable, exposed necks, and bak-ore. Girls who must rein in their wildness, and be biddable. I am not my hair. But I love the fact that hair can really shake things up. Now it’s this style, and colour. Then suddenly it’s blue, or a man-bun. For all those old-style ladies who habitually went to get their ‘hair set’, well, hair doesn’t settle. It doesn’t stay put, either.

With all the contemporary focus on ‘hair’, why choose to set the story in the past?

Not because I’m nostalgic! Maybe because I’m interested in history? And definitely because I was chary about entering the current debates. From whose point of view would I be able write? Some uptight white school authority. That’s not me. But nor did I feel legit voicing the experiences of a young black woman, caught in the racist debacle. Sure, I think a writer should be free to write into experiences beyond her own, that’s part of the imaginative skill. But I didn’t figure I had the right deftness to handle it, never mind the right. And anyway, I really did want to offer an angle in which the emphasis on race, in apartheid SA, was turned towards other, more occluded, complexities.

Ruby’s mother, with all her anxieties and burdens of family – in one form or another – hovers in the background as young Ruby is attended to in the salon ‘A Cut Above’ by the stylist, Richard, who has his own issues around being gay, and certainly the state of the country… Are these the kind of complexities you speak of?

Maybe the story is tussling with the complex forms of authority, and power over person, through which personhood nevertheless grows into being? ‘Clippings’ tries to lead beyond the obvious surface, so that a reader’s allegiances and empathies are repeatedly unsettled. The mother annoys the hell out of me, with her dogmatic insistence, her apparently self-satisfied absorption in style… and then something in me, as a writer, found a node of connection, and the story coaxed me to discover this woman’s own sorrows, her living sadness and alienation. And Mr Richard. He’s a gay man, and often in a style that veers towards affirming the flamboyant, received expectation – that’s possibly in keeping with the historical setting of the narrative (as are the slurs used by the husband, Mr Bosch). And yet Mr Richard’s highly expressive, animated queerness is also subversive, resistant, a powerful means to challenge the narrows of the town in which he works, the politics of the country as a whole. And then yet again, as his dealings with Ila (his co-stylist) suggest, his queerness cannot suddenly be burdened with the demand of representing progressive, alternative masculinities. Just because he’s queerly different, should we expect him to be more tolerant, more accepting, of Ila’s messy life? That ain’t necessarily how things work!

The young protagonist, Ruby, is quirky, could be described as difficult in some respects, as was the ‘daughter’ in another of your stories, ‘How to Carry On’, published by Short.Sharp.Stories in Incredible Journey. Does writing this sort of character appeal to you? Do you have a preference for the ‘family’ drama?

I do like writing girl children. Especially their potent power, in the space of girlhood, when they have not yet been formalised and contained. They’re wonderfully ambiguous. So full of feistiness and fragility. I mean, really, the terrifying, inescapable thought that you will grow up to be a woman! And as for family dramas – what else is there? In terms of engaging fiction, the family is the seat of so much tension and possibility, always socially situated. Tolstoy was on to something, even if you don’t utterly agree: All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

How did you imagine yourself in the shoes of this child?

It’s not easy, even if sometimes the ideas do slip beautifully into place. When it comes to kids (people in general), I’m a hoarder of sidelong glances and words overheard – those help to get the story right. But it’s a difficult line to work, not overstepping the child’s view with that of the adult author. Especially since the kind of kids I find imaginatively appealing, for story material, tend to be the precocious, sassy, smart-mouthed kind, already too big for their boots, some adults would think. And who yet are tender and breakable.

I’m sure your personal experience of the ‘hair salon’ (I presume there have been visits!) influenced your threaded narrative?

…salons. I’m awkward in the hands of stylists. I pull back from spaces which entail revealing intimacies, among strangers. My hair is a happy mess which I (un)happily used to hack myself, until my family suggested I ought to relinquish inept control. But I know quite a bit about hip barbers, really, since our idiosyncratic daughter likes a buzz cut, etched with distinctive ‘vinyls’.

As a consummate ‘pro’, please would you share a writing Trade Secret (or few…)?

I’d rather be given The Secret myself! But, ok: don’t wait too long to get started. Don’t think of yourself as a reader, not a writer: the two are closely connected. Develop a thick skin, for those days when nothing goes right. (Rejections. They happen. And happen.) And then as soon as possible make yourself vulnerable again; thin your skin to the world because that’s what you need to make the writing better.

Trade Secrets

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An interview with Kwei Quartey – our sunshine noir author for September

A new month calls for a new local thriller author sending shivers down readers across the continent’s spine.

This month, the co-author of the popular Detective Kubu series, Michael Sears, had the opportunity to interview Kwei Quartey for The Big Thrill – the magazine for international thriller writers.

Here’s what the two sunshine noir authors chatted about:

Kwei is the author of the Darko Dawson series that follows the exploits of a police detective in Accra, Ghana. He is a doctor who lives in Los Angeles, but he spends a lot of time in Ghana researching his novels.

Kwei’s books have been praised by critics as well as leading mystery writers like Michael Connelly, who said of his work: “Kwei Quartey does what all the best storytellers do. He takes you to a world you have never seen and makes it as real to you as your own backyard.” Kwei’s debut, Wife of the Gods, was an L.A. Times best seller, and was followed by Children of the Street, Murder at Cape Three Points, and Gold of Our Fathers. All reflect strong local themes – witchcraft, homeless children, oil, gold – and have taken Darko to different places in Ghana. In Death by his Grace, everything happens in Accra itself, set against the hyper-religious atmosphere of the Pentecostal churches. In fact, the murder is much too close to home as far as Darko is concerned, in more ways than one.

Death by His Grace is a “classic” mystery in the sense that Katherine Vanderpuye’s body is discovered in the house with no sign of forced entry. Darko immediately deduces that the murderer is known to her. It now becomes a matter of discovering who had motive and opportunity, and narrowing it down from there. It’s a rather different style from your previous books, Kwei. Did you set out to do something different, or did the story just naturally develop that way?

I wanted to do something different. I felt I needed a change in style and substance from the previous novels in the series to “shake things up.” I find it fascinating that my editor at Soho Press, Juliet Grames, had independently pictured the format of the book the same way I had decided to structure it.

Deliverance and the casting out of demons is a common theme in Pentecostal churches, which have a great drawing power in Ghana (Photo courtesy of distanceisnotabarrier.wordpress.com)

 
Evangelical churches play a big role in many parts of Africa. Fiery preaching and a strong community aspect attract big crowds and, often, big money. Bishop Howard-Mills’ church is no exception. Even Darko’s family is involved. Could you tell us about the impact of this type of organized religion in Ghana?

I feel it’s largely negative. Organized religion is a class and wealth system of inequity in which the congregation feeds the pastor/minister while sapping the time and energy of people who could be doing something constructive instead. Further, I think it fosters predeterminism, that is, the sense that things happen in the life of the individual at the whims of a higher power, or “by the grace of God.” This induces a kind of passivity and disinterest in change. I feel strongly about all the social topics I handle in my novel, but perhaps the strongest about this one.

Even sophisticated people still believe in, or at least are concerned about, the effects of witchcraft. When she fails to conceive, Katherine’s marriage falls apart because of her husband’s fear of witchcraft—albeit carefully orchestrated by his unpleasant mother. In the acknowledgments you note that Katherine’s story is based on real life. Does this underlying fear of the occult often intrude into relationships in Ghana?

Absolutely. In the West, we are used to “personal issues” affecting our relationships, but in Ghana and much of Africa, the other two factors that can intrude are (1) the extended family’s influence and (2) beliefs in the occult and the power of witchcraft, curses, and the like. Till this day, people in Ghana still consult an “oracle” to obtain knowledge of or protection from malicious events past, present or future. Ironically, the oracle consulted could be a “man of God,” or it could be a practitioner of traditional religion such as a fetish priest or “juju-man.”

Continue reading Michael’s interview with Kwei here.

Death by His Grace

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“Children need to see themselves in the story” – Alexander Bar manager, Jon Keevy, on creating theatre for young audiences

Carla Lever recently conducted a Q&A with Jon Keevy: playwright, arts activist and manager of the Alexander Bar independent theatre, for Nal’ibali’s seventh column of their third term, as published in The Daily Dispatch and Herald. Carla and Jon discussed the value of introducing children to a huge range of storytelling, including characters they can relate to, and breaking down the racial divide in Cape Town cultural spaces.

Jon Keevy, manager of the Alexander Theatre

 

What’s so compelling about creating theatre for young audiences? Why is it important for children to be exposed to this kind of storytelling?

Children value surprise and ingenuity above all things and the only way to successfully create those elements as an author is to have fun, to buck the rules and be cheeky. It’s valuable for young audiences to get a huge range of storytelling, but most especially they need to see themselves in the story. They need to see young heroes. They need to see brave girls. They need to see clever kids of colour overcoming villainy and evil. They need to hear characters that speak like them and come from the same place as them.

What support does SA need to put in place at a national or regional level to nurture young writers and storytellers?

This is such a big question I’m not sure I can answer it. Behind almost every project is someone passionately trying to make a difference, so I don’t want to disparage what’s out there. In fact, more funding for existing projects and organisations would be a great place to start.

You’ve been committed to creating independent spaces for local writers and performers for many years. Why?

I hate the idea of gatekeepers in culture – that only few people have the ability to give a wide platform to new voices. I think that having a platform gives you a responsibility to take risks. Institutions have power to control access to training and opportunities and so far in South Africa many have used it poorly when it comes to transformation. When I was younger and more fiery, my attitude was that if you couldn’t get in to some theatre or programme, then you made your own. It didn’t always work – my first ‘underground theatre’ was shut down by municipal regulations after 7 months! But I learned a lot from it: failure is not a pleasant teacher, but it is an effective one. I have a theatre now and I’m not turning away anyone who is passionate about working in this crazy field. I never want to be a gatekeeper.

Tell us about some initiatives you’re trying at Alexander Bar to change creative spaces?

Well, Alexander Bar itself is an attempt at making a platform for independent theatre makers, with the best financial model for artists. But besides that we’re also creators of the Open Theatre Toolkit – software that drastically lowers the cost of running a venue in terms of time and money by allowing small organisations to manage their entire operation on one platform. We want to see small theatres and galleries flourishing across the country. This is our way of contributing to that. We have a regular exchange of shows with POPart in Maboneng, Joburg and we’re building a relationship with Makukhanye Art Room in Khayalitsha to break down the racial divide in Cape Town cultural spaces. But it’s very much about supporting people with great ideas.

Can you tell us about your latest arts activism project?

The Internet has changed the world, but many of the opportunities have been neglected in South Africa (and Africa more broadly). The world is not going to wait. We have to use the tools that are out there to shape our future. That may seem like a lot of big talk for getting academics and journalists in a room to update Wikipedia pages of South African oral, visual and musical storytellers, but I really do believe that so much South African cultural history is being forgotten through neglect every day. We’re planning on changing that!

Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success! For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign or to enter its national multilingual storytelling competition, ‘Story Bosso’, running this September, visit www.nalibali.org.


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Trade Secrets contributor Kamil Naicker on the dynamics of co-dependence, Alexandre Dumas, and the messiness of life

Kamil Naicker was born in London and moved to Cape Town with her family in 1991. She holds an MA from the University of Leeds and has just completed her PhD thesis on postcolonial crime fiction at the University of Cape Town. She is currently working on a novel about the lives of young South Africans born into exile. Joanne Hichens, curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories Award and Kamil recently spoke about her Trade Secrets entry, friendship, and the dynamics of co-dependence:

The threads of your story, ‘The Liberator’, of politics, of ageing, of looking back into the past, of personal need, are seamlessly woven into what could be described as a relationship drama. Would you agree?

I think so. I liked the idea of the main character beginning with a mission of sorts, which is gradually revealed as being the result of a very complicated relationship instead of anything overtly political. Dhaneshree is essentially recruited by Isaac, and it struck me that recruitment depends on there being some kind of unfulfilled need on both sides. Obviously this is also true of friendships and mentor relationships, albeit in a much less manipulative way, so I decided to explore a dynamic where there seems to be genuine attachment between the characters in addition to this imperative that’s carried out in the course of the story.

Was there an initial inspiration for the story? Are you personally interested in the stories of struggle heroes?

I think we all are as South Africans. It’s a great part of our cultural mythos, so it just naturally found a place in this story too. The initial inspiration was a bit more weird and ephemeral, a strip of corridor that reflected all these fluorescent lights. I pictured a character trying to walk sedately through this place that felt like a sort of creepy, submerged disco without being able to break into a run.

Your protagonist, Dhaneshree, regularly visits a care home in order to read (which could be considered her ‘trade’) to Isaac, an elderly struggle hero who has a ‘trade secret’ of his own. As the story develops, how does the close relationship between them unfold?

Their story unfolds in reverse, so we don’t see a chronological relationship as such. Isaac is a consistently difficult guy, very brusque and angry with his circumstances. As we learn more about Dhaneshree’s past it becomes clear why she appreciates Isaac. They’re both lonely, and she’s never met anyone who is willing to trade difficult truths with her instead of just pretending everything’s all right.

Then there’s also the reading itself, which kind of introduces her to a new world and different way of thinking, even though her job as a paid companion is ostensibly for his benefit. I think Isaac is also impressed that Dhaneshree doesn’t let him bully her. He senses an inner strength there.

Is the literature that features close to your heart, or chosen to show us more of Isaac’s ‘character’?

Both. It’s what I was reading at the time, but I like the idea of something as distant from our context as Dumas’s writing being used to understand the way we live now.

The Three Musketeers is actually about a group of extremely messed up, but oddly lovable, individuals”

 
What is the particular significance of The Three Musketeers?

The enduring appeal of The Three Musketeers is the fact that it’s actually about a group of extremely messed up, but oddly lovable, individuals. None of them are able to achieve any kind of stability in their personal lives, but as a fighting unit they’re unstoppable. Athos is the most daring fighter in France, in part because he actually doesn’t care whether he lives or dies. They’re able to turn their brokenness into strength, which plays back into the dynamic I was discussing earlier. Tom Burke, who acted in the recent BBC adaptation, describes the bond between the musketeers as ‘co-dependence’ rather than simply friendship, and this describes the dynamic in my story as well. It’s this relationship of great depth and extremes, but not necessarily one most therapists would approve of.

The relationship between the unlikely pair, Dhaneshree and Isaac, is also one of courage and compassion. Is this a story of redemption?

Redemption is maybe too strong a word. There’s a darkness to the story that never really goes away, an undercurrent of distrust and ethical unease. There’s no resolution as such. Courage and compassion, definitely, but it’s all very much embedded in the messiness of life. Everyone continues in their complexities rather than transcending them. At the very most, it’s a piecemeal kind of redemption. Glimmers of grace.

What writing Trade Secret would you like to share?

Can I steal one from Emily Dickinson? ‘Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.’

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“Corporations give back just enough to justify a parasitic existence” – Trade Secrets contributor Philip Vermaas

Philip Vermaas writes copy for the cosmodemonic agency. He says, of his fiction writing, “A story idea needs to grab me fully before I try and write it. An understanding family and supportive partner have allowed me to keep at it.” A few years ago, The Blue Hour, an American small press, published a full-length book of his poems, Better Cigarettes and Other Poems. He’s had a several stories and poems published here and there, in print and online, and Cape Town-based pulp magazine Jungle Jim published an excerpt from a novel. “Inclusion in Trade Secrets,” he says, “is a shiny milestone.” Joanne Hichens, the curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories Award and Philip recently discussed his Trade Secrets entry, ‘The Generate Corporation’, the intrinsic corruption of big business in South Africa, and why he prefers to keep everything he works on a complete secret until at least the second draft…

Philip Vermaas’s story is a game of cat and mouse…

 
Would you agree that your story, ‘The Generate Corporation’, is a scathing comment on South African business practice?

The story is an attempt to distil suspicions that big business operates immorally, often criminally. Corporations give back just enough to justify a parasitic existence. The predators are charting the course. It’s about the fear that predator rationales and rhetoric have been normalized.

I hope it’s scathing about big business in all capitalist countries, not just South Africa. I hope it’s more universal than that.

It’s a brave comment too on BEE. Did you intend this? Or was it a by-product of the developing story?

The BEE thing is a separate issue to the intrinsic corruption of big business generally, worldwide, but a salient aspect of business in this country. It’s inevitable to include BEE if the story is in any way to represent South Africa. BEE is a valid tool for change. But I suspect its spirit isn’t always embraced by those entrusted with implementing change, especially when established methods of making money are to be adapted. It’s merely a suspicion. That’s a benefit of writing fiction, you don’t have to quote sources, and you can indulge suspicions.

Your story also shows how the gullible – in this case your protagonist, Marcus – fall prey – through their own desires – to corrupt ethics. Tell us a little more about Marcus and how you’ve ‘manipulated’ him yourself, as the writer of the story…

His ethos is retro, with his Vespa and 70s film reference. And his naivety is not total, but rather comparative. I want him to be fairly likeable, at least in the way for which I’d forgive a friend his smugness, but not beyond question. I don’t need him to be so either/or. He’s also out for money, and his idea isn’t one to better the world, but rather to fatten the wallet … I don’t want to discredit him as a valid mind. Part of the point is that anyone who isn’t cold and mercenary would be naive in his situation. But Malthus, the antagonist, is naive in his own way. His attitudes to business and society are cynical. Cynicism and optimism are two sides of the proverbial coin. Both are naive. The story is cynical, so in a way it’s also naive. But perhaps a little naivety is necessary to write fiction.

At one point Marcus, who approaches a company to offer a new idea for patent, is offered a seat in reception, yet there are no seats. Is this intended as a bizarre ‘clue’ which foreshadows the later turn of events?

…The whole idea of there being no seats, which comes back at the end, is to convey a Kafkaesque sense of the corporation, a sense of alienation. It’s supposed to be surreal, with a nod to the difficulties in dealing with the corporate stone-walling structure, where things are said that are meaningless. The disbelief when dealing with corporations, the sheer difficulty in explaining yourself, can be very surreal.

The structure delivers a wonderful last line… many might stress that this is central to a successful short story. Do you agree?

I felt a little iffy about the last line, the whole paragraph really. I worried it was too mechanical, too emphatic a twist. But I think the short story, as a medium, does dispose to harder mechanics, a punch line. Roald Dahl is known for his strong punch lines, but there are writers for whom the wrapping-up doesn’t have to be so gimmicky, have the sting of a joke. A writer like, say, Raymond Carver, offers emotional, psychological, and observational last lines or, rather, last ideas; which often open up new ideas. And I generally prefer those stories. For me, a satisfying narrative is one that sparks thought rather than finishing it off.

What writing Trade Secret would you like to share?

I keep everything I’m working on a complete secret until it’s done, at least until the second draft. It’s about ownership of the idea. If I mention what I’m working on, even someone’s facial twitch will bring in the doubt. My ideas are fragile and easily overwhelmed. They’re best protected until they’re safe-ish in the second draft.

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“I hope my story illustrates obstacles to the full realisation of the dignity of Black Women” – Trade Secrets contributor Ntsika Gogwana

Ntsika Gogwana was born in Mdantsane, South Africa in 1984 and educated at UNISA and the University of Fort Hare, in Agricultural and Animal Sciences. Currently, he works as a Food and Beverage Chemistry Analyst for Aspirata Auditing, Testing and Certification in Cape Town. He also volunteers for Ntinga Ntaba kaNdoda, a grassroots peoples’ organisation based in Keiskammahoek that mobilises rural communities in the Eastern Cape on issues relating to communal land rights, traditional leadership, rural democratisation and sustainable development. He is interested in producing fiction that challenges normative gender and sexuality narratives. Joanne Hichens, curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories Award, and Ntsika recently discussed writing from the point of view from a woman, society’s overly sympathetic approach to men, and how reading is a must for any aspirant writer.

Ntsika Gogwana

 

Your commended story, ‘Home Cooked’, about a troubled relationship between a husband and wife, brings into focus abuse of women by men and the rage of women against that abuse. What sparked this interest?

The story was inspired by Black Women whose unacknowledged, unremunerated work as wives and mothers underwrite the racial and patriarchal structure of South African capitalism. During the Fees Must Fall protests of October 2015, I had a conversation with Wanelisa Xaba, who features on the title page of my story pictured here. She detailed the marginalization, violence and erasure that Black Women and Queers experienced within the movement. I felt that, beyond the overtly political act of organizing protests, I had to stand in solidarity with women even if I could only do so in the field of literature.

Wanelisa Xaba on the cover of ‘Home Cooked’

 

Was there a particular driving factor for you when developing the story?

I hope my story illustrates obstacles to the full realisation of the dignity of Black Women, which is a blot on the progress of our entire society.

However, in your story, the wife and mother, Nomafa, creates a revenge scenario that could be considered just as heinous as the treatment she suffers from her husband. Why did you choose to do this?

In writing my entry I was inspired by several texts that feature male/female antagonism (in particular ‘Cruel Karma’ by Nduka Ekeh, ‘Eve Was Framed’ by Helena Kennedy, ‘The Huntsman’ by Anton Chekov and ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ by Roald Dahl). I wanted to produce a literary response to what I saw as ‘Woman as subject’ in these texts. I set out to make the woman the prime mover, a revolutionary agent, who uses the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.

What was it like for you to write from the point of view of a woman? How did you put yourself in Nomafa’s headspace?

I felt incredibly apprehensive about tell a ‘woman’s story’ in the first place, and so I chose to write from a third person perspective to connote a respectful distance from my male-self and the female protagonist. That said, I believe that subjection is a common South African experience given our history and that the oppression of women is objectively wrong. The conversations I have with Black feminists helped a great deal, but I still think that my story could have been told more authentically had it been written by a Black woman, especially with regard to the dialogue and Nomafa’s ‘voice’.

Do you have any sympathy at all with her husband, Sizwe?

Yes, I do. However I think society is overly sympathetic to men and that fragile masculinity is a patriarchal device to excuse abusive men. Given that I am a man, I understand the expectation that I should feel gender empathy with any and all men, but I think the reality of gender-based violence in South Africa required that I break ranks in telling this story. My ethical position is that there can be no symmetry between the violence of the subjugated and the violence in resistance to that subjugation.

As this is your first published work, are you inspired to write more?

Absolutely! I was greatly honoured and encouraged to be commended for my entry. However, it has been an incredibly busy year for me – mostly managing relocating from East London to Durban, and then to Cape Town. I just need to get some kind of regularity in my life so that I can concentrate on developing new stories.

What have you learned through this process?

I’ve learnt a great many things. From how to better structure my prose, to the intensive editing process it takes to get a story ready for publication… I suspect I still have much to learn.

As a ‘new voice’, if you could share a writing Trade Secret what would it be?

Read, read and read. The teacher of good writing is reading great stories.

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