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Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

“It was an opportunity to speak to the criminals, to tell their untold story.” Jonas Bonnier discusses his first true crime novel, The Helicopter Heist, with Mila de Villiers

Published in the Sunday Times

The Helicopter Heist is Swedish author Jonas Bonnier’s riveting first true crime novel. Author picture supplied.

 
The Helicopter Heist ****
Jonas Bonnier, Bonnier, R270

Nordic noir is all the rage nowadays – from Jo Nesbo to Henning Mankel to The Killing – yet Jonas Bonnier, author of the Scandi true crime thriller The Helicopter Heist, is “not at all interested in crime or crime novels”.

The Helicopter Heist is an exhilarating read based on the 2009 Västberga helicopter robbery; the heist was executed by four men and one spectacular helicopter roof-landing. The foursome broke into a Group 4 Securicor (G4S) cash depot in Stockholm, making off with 39-million kronor (about R88m). The criminals were caught. The money was never retrieved.

Marketed as “true crime fiction” (much to the affable Swede’s amusement), Bonnier states that he never considered writing a non-fiction account of the heist, reasoning that “I’m not a good non-fiction writer”.

Bonnier was approached by his agent to write the book; hesitant at first, he was persuaded when his agent asked him whether he would be interested in meeting the perpetrators.

“I thought, ‘Okay, I’ve never met any of the characters in my book before’,” he laughs. (The Helicopter Heist is his ninth book.)

“It was an opportunity to speak to the criminals, to tell their untold story. I can’t even imagine this novel written by me if I hadn’t met them.” Meeting with them convinced him to write the book.

The eccentric millionaire character known as Zoran in thenbook (Bonnier provided pseudonyms for the four perps) made a profound impression on Bonnier. He describes the man as a “larger than life character” who had “just stepped out of a novel”. This owing to the fact that “Zoran” ordered a glass of lukewarm water which he didn’t touch once (a trait shared with the fictionalised version of the criminal) and his wealth and extravagant lifestyle (think annual trips to the Cannes Film Festival and horse races in Monte Carlo.)

“I fell so in love with this character!” says Bonnier.

The other three perpetrators who, despite previous incarcerations, remain involved in Sweden’s underworld, were eager to meet Bonnier.

“There’s this hierarchy in prison in Sweden and if you’re a robber you’re the shit,” Bonnier explains.

“And if you’re a robber and you used a helicopter – to some extent,” Bonnier interrupts himself, “I hadn’t used this word yet – but to some extent I think they’re proud of what they actually did.”

Bonnier maintains that the characters’ back stories are “very accurate”.

Zoran aside, the character of Sami is a petty thief-turned-family-man who reverts to his old ways; Michal, a charming and savvy Lebanese criminal who grew up in the impoverished suburbs of Stockholm; and the reckless adrenaline junkie, Niklas, whose appetite for adventure makes him agree to participate in the heist before one can say “Bloukrans bungee!”

During the “hours and hours” that Bonnier sat down with the four men, he did not once ask them about past crimes they’d committed, but focused on character sketches.

“I asked them if they played Nintendo or Sega as kids. I asked them very specific questions that I needed to get out of them, like ‘if you walk up to a bar, what do you order?’”

Bonnier believes two members of the heist squad have read the book and knows for certain that the Michal character had “loved it”.

“I specifically asked him what his friends thought and he said ‘no, no – everybody on every end-station likes it’.”

“End-stations” refers to the final stop of a Swedish subway route and they’re usually in very rough neighbourhoods. “So, the criminals enjoy it!” Bonnier relays with unbridled mirth.

As The Helicopter Heist is based on true events, Bonnier had to maintain a balance between fact and fiction; he says it is “tricky”. Readers would regularly ask him if particular passages were true, and after delivering his first draft to his publishers, he was told that a certain scene was not believable. “Well, that scene was something true!” says Bonnier.

Bonnier used the age-old adage of truth-is-stranger-than-fiction to his advantage: “I realised that nobody would be able to tell the truth apart from fiction and if I had presented the book as ‘pages one to five are true and then there’s some fiction’, I would have skipped the fiction parts. So I tell them it’s all true!” he chortles.

That the criminals were able to pull off the heist was “almost unbelievable”, says Bonnier. He was fascinated by how the foursome went about planning the heist: “I mean, to blow up a roof is not just to blow up a roof! You have to use so many different techniques and find roofs in Stockholm that are constructed in the same way [as the roof of the GS4] and try it out.

“It’s amazing! I really enjoyed listening to them telling their stories. I also learned a lot about explosives,” he says, cracking up.

This is the first time Bonnier set out to write commercial fiction and he describes the experience as more time consuming than usual as he had less free rein with the content and was reliant on the advice of his publishers and crime-fiction writers. “I didn’t know how to write a crime novel.”

“I tried! I really tried!” is the exasperated response when asked whether he read any crime novels as preparation for writing The Helicopter Heist. “I watched maybe 40 movies – I love movies, and I generally like crime and thriller,” says the Oceans 11 fanatic.

Bonnier isn’t the only fan of heist movies – his gripping romp has been commissioned by Jake Gyllenhaal’s production company and will be released as a Netflix film. Bonnier is credited as a co-producer which, according to him, means that “I might be copied in one of the many e-mails that go around.”

Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises, Peaky Blinders) will be responsible for the script.

“This is a large production, no way will they involve some amateur from Sweden,” Bonnier laughs. “But names are good. Big names are good, especially Jake Gyllenhaal.”

As for what’s next – if it doesn’t involve having to kill off a main character (“I get very, very attached to my characters, as long as they’re alive they’re interesting”), or a disillusioned, divorced drunkard of a detective as protagonist (this man really has it in for his fellow Scandi scribes!) – Bonnier’s definitely interested in trying his hand at a second true crime thriller. If only for the fact that the genre definition makes him snigger. Ja, tak! @mila_se_kind

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Which turn will the 21st century take? Michele Magwood talks to historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari about the challenges facing humankind

Published in the Sunday Times

21 Lessons for the 21st Century *****
Yuval Noah Harari, Jonathan Cape, R320


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
“In a world deluged by irrelevant information,” writes Yuval Noah Harari, “clarity is power.”

The slight, unassuming Israeli historian shot to fame with his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind which was originally published in Hebrew. He followed it up with Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Together they have sold tens of millions of copies and been translated into 45 languages.

Harari is a boldly original thinker and credits the Buddhist tradition of Vipassana meditation for his focus and insight. He meditates for two hours a day and for one or two months of the year takes a silent retreat with no books or social media. He is a vegan and chooses not to use a smartphone.

Now, having scrutinised the course of human history and forecast the future of the species, Harari presents 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, which drills into the here and now and the immediate future of human societies. What are today’s greatest challenges and choices? he asks. Where are we heading and what should we pay attention to? Divided into sections like “The Technological Challenge”, “Despair and Hope” and “Resilience” the book presents a deeply disquieting view. “As a historian, I cannot give people food or clothes – but I can try and offer some clarity.”

Yuval Noah Harari. Picture: Olivier Middendorp.

 

Here he answers questions for the Sunday Times:

What do you believe are the high-road and low-road scenarios in the 21st century? What is the best we can aspire to and what is the worst to fear?

The twin revolutions in biotechnology and information technology will give us godlike powers of creation and destruction. But technology doesn’t tell us how to use it. In the 20th century, some societies used the powers of electricity, trains and radio to create totalitarian dictatorships while other societies used exactly the same powers to create liberal democracies. Biotech and infotech can also be used to create very different kinds of societies.

Perhaps the worst-case scenario is that humankind will split into different biological castes, resulting in a situation far worse than apartheid. Artificial intelligence will push hundreds of millions of people out of the job market and into a new “useless class”. People will lose their economic worth and their political power. At the same time, bioengineering will make it possible to upgrade a small elite into super-humans. Revolt and resistance will be almost impossible due to a total surveillance regime that constantly monitors not just what every individual does and says, but even what every individual feels and thinks.

The best-case scenario is that the new technologies will liberate all humans from the burden of disease and hard labour and enable everyone to explore and develop their full potential. Bioengineering will focus on curing the needy rather than on upgrading the rich. Artificial intelligence will indeed eliminate many jobs, but the resulting profits will be used to provide everyone with free basic services, and to allow everyone the opportunity to pursue their dreams, in the field of art, sports, religion or community-building. State-of-the-art surveillance will be used to spy not on the citizens, but on the government, to make sure there is no corruption.

Which of these scenarios will come true?

At present, we seem to be heading towards the dystopian scenario, mainly due to growing global tensions. You cannot regulate bioengineering and artificial intelligence on the national level. For example, if most countries ban genetic-engineering of human babies, but China allows it, very soon everybody will copy the Chinese, because nobody would like to stay behind. The only way to effectively regulate such disruptive technologies is through global co-operation.

What role will religion, ethics and morality play in the 21st century? Are we “playing God”, for example, with bioengineering?

Ethics will be more important than ever, because humankind will be more powerful than ever. When you have the power to re-engineer life, your views on “right” and “wrong” acquire cosmic importance. But you don’t need religion in order to have a good moral compass. For morality doesn’t mean “obeying God” – morality means “reducing suffering”. In order to act morally, you just need to develop a deep appreciation of suffering.

Secular people abstain from murder not because some god forbids it, but because killing inflicts suffering on sentient beings. There is something deeply troubling and dangerous about people who avoid killing just because “God says so”. Such people are motivated by obedience rather than compassion, and what will they do if they come to believe that their god commands them to kill heretics, witches or gays?

And it is noteworthy that secular morality really works. The most peaceful and prosperous countries in the world such as Canada, New Zealand and the Netherlands are secular. In contrast, deeply religious countries such as Iraq and Pakistan tend to be violent and poor. @michelemagwood

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“I got inspired to write for children after I had my son” – a Q&A with poet Primrose Mrwebi

Nal’ibali Column 25: Term 3, 2018

By Carla Lever

Poet Primrose Mrwebi. Picture supplied.

 
You’ve written for magazines like Fair Lady, taught young up-and-coming writers and even performed your poetry at the opening of Parliament in 2004. Do you have a favourite experience of where your storytelling has taken you?

Every experience matters! Being a magazine journalist taught me a lot about looking at the world objectively, performing in Parliament meant that the whole country was listening to my voice and my art, and teaching young people gives me a spiritual feeling of finally coming to meet the purpose of my talent.

Now it seems you’re creating opportunities for others to find their talent. You held your own self-funded poetry competition – PrimPoetry – in Khayelitsha earlier this year. What was that like?

The competition left me with sleepless nights for days. I am so inspired by the talent that exists in our communities – the language skills of those poets are exceptional.

Why do you think it’s important for people to give back to their communities when they’re able?

It’s one of the ways that we can bring positive change in our world. It also eliminates the culture of complaining too much and doing nothing! One of my mantras is “If you want something and it’s not there, start it yourself and invite like-minded people to join you.”

PrimPoetry allowed people to enter for free and to perform poems in Afrikaans, isiXhosa or English. Why do you think we need more opportunities that are open to all, regardless of income or home language?

For so many centuries a lot of people have felt excluded due to their race or class. That’s not fair. If we truly want to live in a world without exclusion, we need to begin on a journey that leads us there.

Are there any more plans for competitions that people can enter?

We had one at the Rainbow Art Organisation in Delft on Saturday the 8 of September and we will be having others in the very near future. We always do a call out on our PrimPoetry Facebook Page, so keep an eye on that if you’re interested in entering.

Can you tell us a little about the children’s book you’re working on for isiXhosa and English learners?

I got inspired to write for children after I had my son. I suddenly wanted to speak in a language that children can understand. This is a collection of stories that I think will make an impact on children today. It’s also important that I write in my mother tongue because there is clearly not many books that are written in our home languages.

What kinds of resources and opportunities do our young people need to make sure they grow up loving books and confident about telling their own stories?

Children need to have libraries close to their homes. They need their parents or siblings to take the time to read to them, to be taken to storytelling clubs, book clubs or recreational centres. People like us need to bring the skills we have to our communities so that we can create that change.

Do you have any advice or encouragement for people interested in starting a poetry or storytelling event in their own communities?

Identify people that have interest in poetry and start a group. Share ideas and ask for advice from organisations, or people that work with poetry and literature. People are wonderful resources!

Nal’ibali’s annual multilingual storytelling competition is running this September for Literacy and Heritage Month. Aimed at reviving a love of storytelling amongst adults and children, and connecting South Africans to their rich and vibrant heritage, the theme of this year’s contest is South African Heroes. Enter by telling the story of your favourite SA icon, your personal hero, or a fictional hero in your language, and you could be crowned this year’s Story Bosso! To find out more about Nal’ibali and Story Bosso, visit www.nalibali.org, www.nalibali.mobi, or find them on Facebook and Twitter.


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In an exclusive interview, Kate Atkinson talks to Michele Magwood about spying, Brexit, and World War II

Published in the Sunday Times

Transcription ****
Kate Atkinson, Doubleday, R290

Kate Atkinson was immersed in the National Archives in London when a set of documents caught her eye. Part of one of MI5’s periodic releases of historical records, they concerned a WW2 agent with the code name “Jack King” who infiltrated fascist circles. He posed as a Gestapo agent and would meet members of the so-called “fifth column” in an innocent-looking flat with hidden recording devices. Next door a junior agent transcribed the meetings.

On the telephone from the UK Atkinson describes how it sparked the idea for the new novel.

“I have to have a title before I can even think about a book, so as soon as I’d read those transcriptions I had it. And then I looked up the OED definition and found it is also a word for broadcasting so it fitted perfectly, because I wanted to write about the BBC in wartime.”

Atkinson’s last two books Life After Life and A God in Ruins – both winners of the Costa Prize – were set in World War 2 and she’s nowhere near done with it yet.

Transcription is a story about ambiguity and duplicity, about idealism, loyalty and the lifelong price of those.

Juliet Armstrong is just 18 and an orphan when she is recruited by the secret service in 1940.

Initially she is the typist who transcribes the interviews taking place in the flat next door. She’s a sharp young woman with a delightfully derisive interior voice: for example, her boss is describing the fifth columnists. “Our own home-grown evil … instead of rooting them out the plan is to let them flourish – but within a walled garden from which they cannot escape and spread their evil seed.” A girl could die of old age following a metaphor like this, Juliet thought. “Very nicely put, Sir,” she said.

“I never design a character,” says Atkinson. “I write very, very slowly at the beginning of a novel and that helps to get into that interior voice. I’m inside their heads. But I don’t construct them – they simply exist. I don’t understand the neurological process, the imaginative process that helps that to occur.”

Juliet is not particularly ambitious, she is more interested in romance and going to dance halls, but her boss promotes her to undercover agent. At first she thinks it is a bit of a lark but it quickly becomes deadly serious and she learns, appallingly, what the consequences of espionage can be. As the book moves forward to 1950 and even further to 1981, we wonder whether she can ever be free of the war.

“I’m really interested in the postwar period,” Atkinson explains, “the 10 years after the war. It was so dingy and hard, there was no sense of euphoria, no money, no food still.”

Romanian actress Nadia Gray in the BBC studios, London, England, December 14 1950. Picture: Underwood Archives/Getty Images.

 
Juliet goes to work for the BBC where she produces nostalgic history programmes for children. It’s a safe and uneventful life, until the intelligence services reel her in for one last job.

Atkinson is bemused by the prevailing Brexit jingoism, the idea of a brave Great Britain standing proudly alone in the war.

“I think the war makes us very nostalgic, and let’s not forget that our view of the war is filtered through the propaganda of the time: the Blitz spirit and so on. When in fact crime rates rocketed, illegitimacy rocketed, people complained a lot. Everything was destroyed. Also, we fought for Europe and now we want to let it go, that to me is slightly mystifying.”

Is there more to be revealed from archives?

“Yes, I think there is. The MI5 and secret service archives are sealed – it’s not like the public records where everything gets released after 40 or 50 years – they only release to the public what they choose to, so I imagine there’s a great deal more. But in a way it was an untried service in the war. They were still learning. When you think about what it must be like now, just the technological aspect of what they must be doing, we really don’t know.

“But we don’t know what we don’t know, do we?” @michelemagwood

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A Q&A with author and musician, Mohale Mashigo

By Carla Lever
Via Nal’ibali: Column 24, term

Author and musician, Mohale Mashigo

 
People can tell stories in many ways. You’ve told them through writing with your novel and short stories, through images with your comic and film work and through music as the artist Black Porcelain. Why is storytelling important for you and what kind of stories do you think it’s important to tell?

Storytelling is a way for me to make sense of the world. It keeps me sane. I feel like people should tell the kinds of stories that matter to them. All stories matter!

You’ve previously said that it wasn’t until you read The Color Purple that you finally found a book with back characters. Can you tell us a little about why we owe our children and ourselves more women, more people of colour in films, books, television, advertising?

It’s so important to see yourself in the world. It’s easy to take for granted that people who look like you have always been heroes, villains, stars or models. I want little girls (like me) to know that they are worth imagining and writing stories about. It’s affirming – especially a in a world that is quite happy to make us secondary characters or people.

You first became a recognised author all the way back in school, writing fan fiction for your classmates. Do you think our communities, families and friends can play a powerful role in creating a reading culture in South Africa, by helping children to learn to love reading and writing for pleasure, not just for schoolwork?

There’s a huge storytelling culture in homes, we just need to translate that into a reading culture. Let’s take the kids to libraries, buy second hand books, give our friends books once our children have outgrown them. The quality of the stories matter as well. Let’s write stories that our kids will be excited about.

You write for the comic Kwezi, which provides South Africa with its own Jozi-based superhero. Can you tell us a little about Kwezi and where people can get their hands on copies?

Kwezi is a regular teen who suddenly discovers he has powers. Instead of becoming a “super good guy”, he uses his powers to gain popularity. It’s a story about learning how to use your powers for good. The comic books are in all book shops.

Writing for a comic seems like it would be a much more collaborative experience than writing a novel. What is the process like?

Comic books are definitely more collaborative. I’ve had to learn to be a team player and accept that stories can change at any given time. Writing a novel is lonely, but I get to be the boss!

Sure, we need South African heroes represented in books, but we also need heroes caring about books. You’ve done some heroic work to make sure that people have access to libraries. What inspires you to bring books to people?

Books changed my life and helped get through many lonely years as a weird kid. I just want kids to know that the world is bigger than their current circumstances.

How can people join in with you to help?

People can contact me on Twitter and Facebook if they have gently loved books they would like to give away. I’ll send them to a school in need of books. I also accept new books, but second-hand ones work just as well.

You’re speaking in six panel discussions at the Cape Town Open Book Festival from 5-9 September. That has to be some kind of record! What role do you think Book Festivals can and should play in South Africa right now?

Book Festivals are a place for book readers and writers to meet. Ideally we should all walk away knowing more local authors than we did before.

What kind of South African heroes would you like to see and celebrate?

I want regular people to be celebrated. There are so many regular people who do a lot to save those around them. I’d like to know their names so we can celebrate (and support) them together.

Nal’ibali’s annual multilingual storytelling competition is running this September for Literacy and Heritage Month. Aimed at reviving a love of storytelling amongst adults and children, and connecting South Africans to their rich and vibrant heritage, the theme of this year’s contest is South African Heroes. Enter by telling the story of your favourite SA icon, your personal hero, or a fictional hero in your language, and you could be crowned this year’s Story Bosso! To find out more about Nal’ibali and Story Bosso, visit www.nalibali.org, www.nalibli.mobi, or find find them on Facebook and Twitter.


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“Fierce, sad, inspired” – Anna Stroud reviews Craig Higginson’s soul-stirring The White Room

Published in the Sunday Times

A man and a woman give each other fictionalised stories about themselves, revealing much more than they ever hoped to in Craig Higginson’s The White Room. Author picture: Christof van der Walt.

 

The White Room
*****
Craig Higginson, Picador Africa, R265

In Craig Higginson’s fourth novel, The White Room, he reimagines and expands the story he started to tell in his 2010 play The Girl in the Yellow Dress. The novel opens when playwright Hannah Meade arrives in London for the opening night of her play about a brief period in Paris when she taught English to a young French-Congolese man named Pierre.

To complicate matters, she’s invited him to the premiere; but when she spots him with his gorgeous wife, she retreats into the wings and frets over how he will receive it.

“This book is so much about fiction and representation,” Higginson says in an interview.

“In the first half of the play before the interval, Pierre is pissed off with her because of the way she represented him, and stuck quite closely to the facts. But then in the second half of the play, he comes away feeling that something in him has been reached, even though the second half of the play wasn’t literally true.”

The play within the novel is structured around five grammar lessons. It opens when Pierre spots Hannah at the Sorbonne and, seeing her as a quintessential English girl, stalks her and convinces her to teach him. But the stories they tell each other about themselves are steeped in fiction, and beg the question whether we can ever truly know each other – or ourselves.

Yet sometimes the lies we tell are most revealing. Hannah’s self-representation leaves Pierre perplexed.

Higginson’s impressive use of language is demonstrated. On the surface it is spare but beneath the simplicity it cajoles the reader into playing a game of words. He writes: “There is an anarchic spirit in her, a kind of reckless impulsiveness that he will ponder over the weeks afterwards. Though she comes across as so perfect, so in control, a shadow seems to lie under everything she says and does.”

Hannah is a complex and moody character who hides from the world in books. The only time she’s truly alive is inside the grammar lessons, while outside everything is drab and dreary. Meanwhile Pierre (like Echo in the myth of Echo and Narcissus) loses himself in her and becomes a rock that reflects her voice.

Unlike the original female character in The Girl in the Yellow Dress, Hannah is not wealthy, or from the UK.

“By making her South African I was able to tap into my own memories of growing up in SA,” Higginson says. “There’s quite a lot of my own life in there … there’s a lot of me in there and yet the characters are very different from me.”

Like Hannah, Higginson was born in Zimbabwe and moved to SA at the height of the Soweto uprising. He also went to boarding school in KwaZulu-Natal, worked in the theatre, lived in England, did a TEFL course in Stoke, and taught English in Paris.

“A recurring theme in my work is the past and traumatic events or secrets from the past,” Higginson says. Hannah and Pierre attempt a relationship, but secrets and baggage from their past seep into the white room, causing them to hurt one another.

“Growing up in SA, one felt a kind of shame all the time. I mean, it’s that thing in The White Room where you’re in this abusive relationship but you don’t know if you’re the abuser or abused.”

The white room represents the room on stage where the action unfolds but it’s also the blank page, a clean slate. On another level, it’s about whiteness and the centrality it demands for itself.

Higginson explains that the novel touches on “the space that whiteness takes up in the world, the room that whiteness asks for itself, and how characters like Pierre have to negotiate that space”.

Yet, it’s a story that affirms the power of poetry, literature and theatre to reimagine and transform ourselves.

“I think we need to absorb fictions in order to heal and find a better vision.”

Fierce, sad, inspired The White Room stirs the soul. @annawriter_

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“Anger and desperation inspire me to help be one of the few voices for our Khoe issues because we are seldom, if ever, spoken about” – a Q&A with Denver Breda, Khoe language and cultural activist

Via Nal’ibali: Column 23, Term 3

By Carla Lever

Language and cultural activist, Denver Breda. Pic: supplied.


 
As a language and cultural activist, what issues do you feel most passionately about in South Africa today?

I’m most passionate about ending the Kakapasa or denial that pervades the South African consciousness, about the people who were found here in the 1600s.

You have campaigned for Khoekhoegowab to be taught in South African schools. Why do you think this is an important move?

It’s important to remind people that this land was not empty, that it indeed had many people who spoke the oldest languages and cultures that sadly were forced to adopt other names, create and speak other languages. Most of all, to show that we are still here and that the country as a whole has a responsibility to restore what was so violently taken.

Language is identity, it roots you, instils in you a set of values. This has but all been lost, especially with Coloured people who are often majority Khoe people. Language loss is actually found among First Nation communities all over the world, yet in South Africa it’s not researched enough.

Every language has its own ‘flavour’ or beauty. What are some of your favourite sayings or expressions in Khoekhoegowab?

Some of my favourite words are ‘Kawakawas’ which in Khoekhoe means restoration, ‘Kakapusa’ which means to forget, ‘Munanai’ (which is what I called my company), means to imagine. Some of my favourite sayings are ‘Ada Hoatsama gon’ which means ‘together we move’. Also ‘Toa tama !khams ge’ which is ‘the struggle continues’. But also to tell people the original name of Cape town ||Hui !Gaeb which means ‘where the clouds gather’.

How can we make sure that indigenous languages – and the cultures related to them – don’t die out?

By first acknowledging that we indeed all have a responsibility towards South Africa’s First Nations people and to learn at least one of the Khoe languages that remain, such as Khoekhoe. We can also put pressure on government and society to support the cause. People can also become what I call Xambassadors – a combination of the word Xam which means lion in the Khoekhoe language and ambassadors.

You have written short story collections, produced a play, self-published a story inspired by your mother’s journey from Graaff-Reinet to the Cape, and you have a podcast, Draadloos virrie Raadloos. That’s a lot of creative words! What inspires you to be so prolific?

Anger and desperation inspire me to help be one of the few voices for our Khoe issues because we are seldom, if ever, spoken about – not on TV, not in newspapers. We can wait to be written about, or we can write about ourselves and that is what I do.

Why is it important for people to share their stories, whether written or spoken?

I believe as Khoe – as Africans – when our stories die, we die. For me, writing stories has been hugely therapeutic. Writing about the Cape Flats, about my mother who had to leave her home in Graaff-Reinet at the age of 16 to work as a domestic worker, about a very dear trans friend of mine who I have known for almost two decades and who now lives on the street, it has allowed me to cope, to understand, to not be as angry, to look at solutions. I believe as a country our stories of pain, of hope can actually bring us together. The truth is that we are more of a family than we wish to consider.

The idea of mothering is something we have extended to language – mother tongue – and even space – motherland, mother city. Do you think there is a good time and place for all South Africans to reconnect – have a family reunion – with their land and their languages? Is it possible?

There is always a good time to connect. Not a specific time, but anytime. At the bus, at work, at schools, at your place of worship to reconnect first with self, which I believe to be more important than with others and with nature. In a way we have to become mothers to our hearts and our souls which carry so much hurt and pain. Learning one of South Africa’s First Nation languages has certainly helped me to connect with myself, others and South Africa. I’m still learning, but something happens when you either connect – or khoennect – with your ancestors or to the first languages of this land. That is truly the start of the decolonisation process.

How can people who are interested learn more about indigenous languages like Khoekhoegowa?

There are a lot of resources on the internet – YouTube particularly – though not as much as I would like to have available. For those in Cape Town, come to our public talks on 9 September at Open Book Festival and hear what one of SA’s oldest languages sound like.

Nal’ibali’s annual multilingual storytelling competition is running this September or Literacy and Heritage Month. Aimed a reviving a love of storytelling amongst adults and children, and connecting South Africans to their rich and vibrant heritage, the theme of this year’s contest is South African Heroes. Enter by telling the story of your favourite SA icon, your personal hero, or a fictional hero in your language, and you could be crowned this year’s Story Bosso! To find out more about Nal’ibali and Story Bosso, visit www.nalibali.org, www.nalibli.mobi, or find them on Facebook and Twitter.


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“I wanted to interrogate the legacy that belonged to me” – Panashe Chigumadzi on These Bones Will Rise Again

Published in the Sunday Times

By Rea Khoabane

Panashe Chigumadzi looks beyond the ‘big men and guns’. Picture: KB Mpofu.

 

These Bones Will Rise Again
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Panashe Chigumadzi, Jacana, R185

In search of mothers of the nation, Panashe Chigumadzi discovered that black women need to be seen in all their complexity. Her latest book, These Bones Will Rise Again, is an interrogation of the liberation movement that was created through the spirit of a woman but led by men and guns.

How did the book come about?

Essentially the book was a commission by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, the publishing director of Indigo Press. I happened to tell her about the research I’ve been doing independently at Wits University, about the figure of Mbuya Nehanda, an anticolonial heroine, amongst, if not the most famous person in Zimbabwe’s liberation history. She was a spirit medium who was also one of the first leaders of the Zimbabwe liberation movement Chimurenga. At the same time I had been thinking about my grandmother, who’d just passed away, and thought of a photograph of her that I’d lost.

Why did you choose to present this through the structure of a woman?

I was inspired by Alice Walker’s essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”, which speaks to the way that, even as black people, we learn to take on the eyes of the world in the ways that we look at ourselves and in the ways that we look at other black women.

It was difficult for me to see beyond my grandmother as a person, so it was really saying, how do I take on new eyes? It’s seeing her and others; I see our humanity, our fullness. I see the complexity of our humanity and that means crafting an image of a strong black woman. It’s an image of a rock but also an image of someone who loves, who cries, dreams, prays and can be nasty and nice. Complexities that black women are denied.

The title is from the words that Mbuya Nehanda spoke before she was executed…

The image of her when she was about to be executed is one we continually use within Zimbabwe … Grace Mugabe last year said she sees herself as Mbuya Nehanda. She’s always present, but it was also important for me to interrogate what this spirit has meant to us as the people. What does it mean that an ancestor who really is an ancestor spirit initially belonging to the Zulu people has now come be an ancestor of the Zimbabwean nation, and what does it mean if she is the ancestor that is spoken of to other ancestors? To question if there is maybe one primary ancestor…

You see Robert Mugabe’s ousting as a way for Zimbabweans to refer back to history…

Zimbabwe’s national history and its versions of history, and this moment of history, are created by a clash of big men and guns. I was interested to speak about this moment that is outside the figure of Mugabe and outside of our usual understanding of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. I wanted to understand this moment through Zimbabwean people and particularly women, using the figure of Mbuya Nehanda, and I thought it was my way of inventing history through her history.

I also wanted to interrogate what is the liberation struggle to me and what does it mean to the Zimbabwean people outside of what we’ve been taught? I wanted to interrogate the legacy that belonged to me, to my mother and to my grandmother, and that would one day belong to my grandchildren.

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“We are seeing that there is more to poetry than the dead white men of high school textbooks” – a Q&A with poet and cultural activist, Vangile Gantsho

By Carla Lever

Nal’ibali column 21: term 3 2018

Published in the Sunday World (26/08/2018), Daily Dispatch (27/08/2018), Herald (30/08/2018)

Poet and cultural activist, Vangile Gantsho. Pic: supplied.

 

How would you describe your own work?

Honest. Uncomfortable. Deeply mine. I don’t think it’s for everyone, mostly because not everyone wants to know how deeply we – as people/womxn/black womxn – feel. There is a responsibility that comes with knowledge.

You are participating in several of the exciting panels at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town this September. What role do you think SA arts festivals should have in bringing all kinds of people together around storytelling and culture(s)?

I guess I think festivals should be well-crafted mazes, where people are inspired to be so curious that they arrive expecting one thing, and leave having experienced something they wouldn’t have bumped into otherwise. I would hope that this adventure would spark conversation, because at the heart of storytelling is conversation – between writers and readers and society.

A lot of people see poetry as something you learn in school or intimidating to understand. Can poetry be a relevant and accessible form of expression for everyone?

I think that’s how poetry used to be taught. Now, poetry is an evolving language. We are seeing that there is more to poetry than the dead white men of high school text books. That before Lebo Mashile, there was Jayne Cortez and June Jordan. That poetry can have agency, and that emotional complexity does not always have to be trapped in complicated language.

What language/s do you write and perform in and what motivates that choice?

English. Because the way in which this freedom was/is structured meant that my parents felt it was best for me to prioritise English so my brothers and I could be successful in life. Even if it was at the expense of our home language.

You have said that people can use poetry as a healing tool – a way of feeling safe inside our own bodies. How can writing be a form of self-care?

From a young age I learned that journaling was a way of making what I was feeling and experiencing real. I think, when you are silenced, writing especially can be an important way of existing. I have seen that free writing exercises often leads people to unexpected places: “Wow! I didn’t even realise I was feeling like this.” In existing, in “saying out loud” what you are living through, you can heal from it, or discard it. You can claim some power over it.

It’s hard to break into South Africa’s very small publishing industry. You’ve proven that going it alone can be a great solution, by self-publishing your own very successful book of poetry. Can you tell us a little about what that involves?

My debut poetry collection, Undressing in front of the window (2015), taught me that no one will willingly open doors for you. You have to knock, or break the doors down yourself. And in order to do that, you must always be willing to learn. Self-publishing requires more than just raising funds. You still need a good team. And it’s not an easy process. It’s difficult, expensive work…but fortunately also deeply rewarding!

Your publishing company, Impepho Press, is a self-described “Pan-African” publishing house. Are you currently accepting submissions from authors?

We just announced our first open call, open throughout September. We are accepting submissions from people born in Africa and people of colour from the diaspora. This includes gender non-conforming people.

For those not able to afford books, are there other ways to access writing from poets working across our continent?

I think the biggest tragedy is that everything costs money. So even if I say the internet is a way of accessing the work of international writers of colour, data is expensive. And access to technology is a luxury. I think more and more second-hand books shops and the bigger libraries are getting better at stocking some contemporary writers at a steal. But the internet is probably the best bet, for now, because access to literature is seen as a luxury.

How can parents, friends and teachers encourage young people to tell their stories creatively?

By encouraging young people to express themselves honestly and without fear of intimidation or prejudice. Exposing ourselves to art also encourages us to be inspired by art!

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 access children’s stories in a range of South African languages, visit: www.nalibali.org.


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“I decided to give my stories a bigger meaning than just LOLs and likes” – Melusi Tshabalala on writing Melusi’s Everyday Zulu

Nal’ibali column 21: term 3 (2018)

By Carla Lever

Melusi Tshabalala, author of Melusi’s Everyday Zulu. Photo provided.

 

What inspired you to write Melusi’s Everyday Zulu?

I’ve worked in advertising for the past 20 years and it broke my heart how the industry treats indigenous, (South) African languages with disrespect. I wanted to showcase the beauty and, because I am um’Zulu, I did it with isiZulu.

You have a background in advertising. How are different languages used in this industry? What do you think needs to change?

You can’t talk about how advertising uses languages without bringing marketing into it. African languages and the people who speak them are not given much respect. This is starkly evident in radio advertising, where the quality of African-language radio ads is often not the same as the English and Afrikaans because they are not given the same quality control. We need more marketers and advertising professionals who actually care to deliver a quality product to this majority audience.

Your book concept started with a Facebook page! Tell us about discovering the power of social media as a tool for activism.

A little while ago, I realised that people on Facebook enjoy my writing, so I decided to give my stories a bigger meaning than just LOLs and likes. We all have the responsibility to help build the country, using whatever skills we have. Mine is writing.

How did the momentum shift your idea from a social media platform to regular media, like your book deal and a radio slot?

I was approached by publishers and radio producers – I honestly didn’t see that coming. I now have features on Kaya FM and East Coast Radio, as well as a column in Finweek.

What was the public feedback to your Facebook posts?

The feedback has been very positive even though we’ve had some very tough conversations. The people on the page don’t always agree with me or each other, but we learn from each other. Well, most of us!

Has there been a learning curve in writing for such a huge public audience?

Yes, I’ve had to adjust to writing for a broader audience, with people from different walks of life. I’ve also learnt not to react to everything people say to me. I sometimes still react, though.

You literally tackle one of SA’s big problems one word at a time. Do you think we can chip away at our ingrained prejudices?

I’ve realised that we can! We just need to talk to each other. We exist in silos and make assumptions about “the other”. That said, some people really are just terrible.

I love your catchphrase – “There’s Um’Zulu in all of us!” What do you think SA would be like if we all made an effort to learn and use each others’ languages?

I believe we all have little bits of each other in us. We need to tap into them and become an unstoppable force in the world. That’s our nation’s uniqueness.

Children’s brains are incredibly good at picking up language – they learn through play and aren’t afraid to get words wrong. How can we keep this sense of play and fun in learning language as adults?

We need to interact with each other, make friends who are different from us. We need to laugh together and at ourselves, while always being aware of our colonial and apartheid history.

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Melusi’s Everyday Zulu is published by Jonathan Ball and their giving away THREE copies! To enter, simply tell us what Melusi’s catchphrase is. Email your answer to Tiso Blackstar’s education consultant, Patti McDonald: Patti.McDonald@tisoblackstar.co.za before Monday, 27 August.

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 access children’s stories in a range of South African languages, visit: www.nalibali.org.

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