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Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

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

Published in the Sunday Times

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

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

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

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

Charles Darwin

 

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

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

Raymond Dart

 

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

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

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

Homo naledi

 

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

Darwin's Hunch

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

Published in the Sunday Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow at Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

Listen to the podcast of the interview here.
 

Into the Water

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The Girl on the Train


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Listen to John Conyngham discuss his latest book Hazara on SAfm Literature

John Conyngham was recently interviewed by Nancy Richards on SAfm Literature about his latest book Hazara.

You can listen to the podcast of the interview here:


 
 

Hazara

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Amabookabooka releases unaired episode to coincide with 109th anniversary of the birth of Bram Fischer

Amabookabooka, the quirky podcast devoted to interviewing local authors about their work, recently released a special edition episode.

This episode is from a previous podcast series produced by the Amabookabooka-duo, Jonathan Ancer and Dan Dewes, called Extraordinary Lives and has been released to coincide with the 109th anniversary of the birth of Bram Fischer – described by Ancer and Dewes as the South African prime minister we should have had.

Lord Joel Joffe, a human rights lawyer, who was on the legal team that defended the Rivonia Trialists in 1964 talks about Bram, whom he describes as his hero.

Fischer’s daughter, Ilse Wilson, also joins in the conversation revealing a different side to the Scarlet Pimpernel – that of Bram the father.

Listen to the podcast here.
 
 

Bram Fischer

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The Bram Fischer Waltz

 
 
 
 

Fischer's Choice


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Behind the words of Africa: an interview with the editors of Short Story Day Africa’s latest collection, Migrations

Published in the Times

Diane Awerbuck asks its editors – Bongani Kona, Efemia Chela and Helen Moffett – some difficult questions.

MigrationsMigrations: New Short Stories From Africa
Edited by Efemia Chela, Bongani Kona, Helen Moffett (New Internationalist Publications Ltd)

Which is your favourite story?

Kona: Today it’s “Diaspora Electronica” by Blaize Kaye. It’s set in the future where people are migrating to a better digital world, but there’s a lingering sadness at the core of the story. Despite Twitter, Instagram and new technologies of connection meant to bring us together, we somehow feel depressed and more alone.

Moffett: In “Naming” by Umar Turaki, words from multiple languages weave together the lives of men, women, children and even a rooster on a lethal journey that bristles with beauty and menace.

In “Exodus” by Miriam Bahgat Eskaros, an unusual narrator tells the story of a refugee child with poignance.

I tear up every time I remember it. Izda Luhumyo’s “The Impossibility of Home” is superb – the most original quest and women’s friendship story I’ve read in a while.

Chela: “Naming” plays around with temporality in a fascinating way and Umar Turaki’s writing is incredibly cinematic. Stacy Hardy’s “Involution” masterfully explores womanhood, eco-futures and invasion. It’s unsettling and unique.

What makes these stories African?

Kona: The writers are looking at the world from an African perspective.

Moffett: “African” stands for multiple voices, telling of often precarious lives in the wake of past and ongoing pillaging of a continent, of human movement (often forced), of outsiders and insiders, of reinventing the “heart of darkness” and subverting the western gaze – done with humour, panache and context.

Chela: African writing is so diverse that African doesn’t mean any particular voice, themes or style will necessarily be present. Migrations will surprise you.

What did you learn about editing?

Kona: Writing is a collaborative process. Before a story ends up with the reader it’s gone through an editor, proofreader, typesetter, the writer’s last last-minute changes.

A number of people work in the service of the story. It’s magical to witness.

Chela: My fellow editors have an almost telepathic knowledge of what the writer is trying to achieve. Often less is more. A great story can be told without a lot of ornamentation.

Moffett: The serenity of leaving in errors when these reflect the embedding of local languages, images and idioms in multiple Englishes. The courage to wade in and clean up muddled syntax that is obscuring brilliant storytelling. The wisdom to know the difference.

What did you learn about your own writing?

Chela: There’s so much talent in African writing. As a writer myself I have to watch my back.

Kona: Don’t worry too much about making mistakes. It’s part of the process, and mistakes can be fixed.

Moffett: To finish the damn book/story/poem and push it out there.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Moffett: READ. READ. READ. And read local.

Chela: Write what scares you. Be an active part of the nebulous, far-flung African writing community: buy and read books by African writers (and not just ones who write in English, please); create a writers’ group; start a funky literary zine. You’ll never know if you don’t put yourself out there.

Kona: Is there any better advice than “just write”?
 

Migrations

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The Magwood on Books podcast with John Boyne

John Boyne’s new novel The Heart’s Invisible Furies chronicles the life of a gay man in Dublin. Here he talks about the hypocrisy of the Catholic church, his determination to write strong female characters and how his deadpan humour serves the story.

Listen to the podcast here:

The Heart's Invisible Furies

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Murder in a world governed by astrology: Sam Wilson chats about his new book Zodiac – recommended by Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz

Published in the Sunday Times

Murder in a world governed by astrology: Sam Wilson chats about his new book Zodiac – recommended by Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz

 

ZodiacZodiac
Sam Wilson (Penguin Random House)
****

Sam Wilson’s debut novel Zodiac deserves to be a smash hit: set in an alternate universe in San Celeste, a generic US city, the book features a society governed by an absolute belief in astrology, where an individual’s future is predetermined by the date of his birth.

Like most cops in San Celeste detective Jerome Burton is Taurus, and when he starts investigating a series of particularly nasty murders he looks for the killer among the Aries underclass who are responsible for most of the city’s brutal crimes.

Wilson (a dodgy Aries himself) is not a believer. “I read a study that found that your zodiac sign really does match your personality, but only if you already believe in astrology and know what it says you should be, otherwise it’s no better than chance.”

With the help of profiler Lindi Childs (a Leo), Burton discovers – certainly in his own case – that the sign system is flawed, but reason cannot beat belief.

“I made a world in which it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. If enough people believe, then it becomes an unavoidable part of life,” says Wilson.

The victims are born under various signs and are killed in different ways – a chief of police (Taurus) is disembowelled then buried in the ground (the Taurus element), the host of a popular TV show (Leo) is shot and burnt (Leo is one of the fire signs).

Wilson says “beliefs and society shape who we are”, but says he had fun turning Burton into someone who firsts doubts the status quo and then has personal reasons for rejecting it.

The “signism” in Zodiac can be seen as a form of racism or anti-Semitism. However, Wilson says he had no overt political agenda.

“I thought that the zodiac world would be interesting and fun to write, and I came up with a story that wouldn’t work anywhere else.”

In this world a school called the True Signs Academy teaches problem children to embrace their true element; people live in designated areas according to their star sign; and a police “ram squad” (get it?) is tasked with dealing with the notoriously criminal group born in Aries.

Wilson makes it clear that signism is a bad thing. But despite the parallels a reader might be tempted to draw between the zodiac world and other oppressive regimes, the Cape Town author does not consider himself a political writer.

In fact, his influences are readable, accessible and popular.

“I was inspired by Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz for their high-concept thrillers, although I can’t compare my work to theirs,” he says.

“And I loved … some of the great writing on TV shows like Black Mirror and The Wire.”

Wilson is researching another thriller set in the same universe, but with a different situation and characters.

However, his message to those who loved Zodiac is that Burton and Childs may get a cameo. Fingers crossed! — Aubrey Paton

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The long arm of Reacher: Joanne Hichens talks to Lee Child about his latest book Night School

Published in the Sunday Times

Night SchoolNight School
Lee Child (Bantam Press)
****

Lee Child is chatty, generous with his time, this genius author who created Jack Reacher, possibly the most enigmatic series character in contemporary thriller fiction.

For the uninitiated, Jack Reacher is ex-military police; six foot five inches tall, with rugged good looks. He’s now a drifter hitchhiking across the US, inadvertently becoming embroiled in nailbiting life-and-death action.

Men, in fictional and real worlds, respect his innate cunning and the physical agility with which he keeps the bad guys cowering. Women are intrigued by his reserve and fall for his seductive allure, but he remains a loner.

“His most obvious emotional issue,” Child explains, “is the duality between enjoying and needing his solitude but at the same time experiencing heartache and alienation.”

What secret, then, lies in Reacher’s past?

“You can infer he’s been unlucky in love. He’s condemned to a life of loneliness.” But not even Child fully knows Reacher. “I’m not one of those writers who works out a mock biography. I don’t know where Jack went to school. I don’t care what his favourite colour is. I treat him as I would treat a real person. You never know everything about somebody. Even with good friends it may take many, many years before you unravel all the incidents of their past.

“Perversely, a lot of readers would be very pleased if Reacher settled down. Readers worry about him. They’d be gratified if he found happiness but of course it would bring an end to the series.”

What was the catalyst in creating Reacher?

“His experience parallels my own. In the mid-’90s I was fired from my job in television at a time the industry was reorganising. I tried to give the same back story to Reacher. Because of circumstances out of his control he was turned out into the civilian world, and dislocated from what he was used to.

“On the overt level I’m obviously separate from him, but there’s an awful lot of autobiography in a main character, so in a sense Reacher is a little of me, and he does what I would do if I could get away with it. I resist the temptation to make him too good.

“In my new book he’s under a lot of pressure. He’s got to deliver for the organisation and faces a situation that’s extremely serious.”

If Child recognises himself in Reacher, equally then, he recognises a little of himself in all the bad guys he’s ever dreamed up. “Although,” he’s quick to add, “I prefer writing about Reacher doing the right thing rather than the bad guys doing the bad thing.”

Certainly a cast of ruthless criminals appear in Child’s hard-hitting thriller, Night School. Stolen nuclear warheads, sold on the black market to unscrupulous Saudis, are a threat to millions.

“I wanted to explore the pre-millennium years. The Cold War was over – this is only 20 years ago. The threat of nuclear war was replaced by a new threat. A sense of fluidity, improvisation, and panic became fertile. I’ve revisited the roots of what we’re dealing with now, the terrorism factor.”

I ask about biographer Andy Martin’s description of Child as “an evil mastermind bastard”. He laughs. “I took that as meaning I supply really good gut-wrenching plot twists. I was pleased. There’s nothing better in a book than when you’re following it along eagerly and then you say, ‘Wow, this is something else!’”

No Lee Child interview is complete without referring to the casting of Tom Cruise in the movie series – an actor about 10 inches shorter than the character. Child is forthright: “No actors look like Reacher, none at all. Here’s a guy,” he says of Cruise, “who gets the inside of Reacher on screen. I’m thrilled and delighted that people would be so concerned about who’d play Reacher. I see it as a badge of honour.”

Ex-Major Reacher, highly decorated himself, will remain forever the wanderer, so unencumbered that he has no suitcase (although he clearly has baggage), buys clothes on a need-to-change basis, and carries only his toothbrush and credit card in his pocket.

Follow Joanne Hichens on Twitter @JoanneHichens

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Lessons from a heartbreaking Zulu heritage: Jennifer Platt chats to Nomavenda Mathiane about her book Eyes in the Night: An Untold Zulu Story

Published in the Sunday Times

Nomavenda Mathiane

 

Eyes in the NightEyes in the Night: An Untold Zulu Story
Nomavenda Mathiane (Bookstorm)
****

Nomavenda Mathiane is one of those people you immediately feel comfortable talking to, but at the same time you want to impress her. Her book Eyes in the Night: An Untold Zulu Story sticks in your head and plays with your emotions. Mathiane was one helluva journalist who worked on most major South African newspapers. She started off at The World during the uprisings of 1976. Later she worked at Frontline magazine – one of the few black women journalists who wrote about how people really lived in Soweto and other townships.

In her latest book, Mathiane tells the story of her grandmother. It’s a story she didn’t know, one she stumbled upon at her mother’s funeral.

“There was no other time I could have written it,” Mathiane says. “Because I didn’t know about my grandmother’s life. I heard about the story two years before I retired. In retrospect, if I had known the story a long time ago, I wouldn’t have done a proper job. I would’ve been too emotional. I found my voice and now I am able to sit back and look back at my life and their lives.”

It’s the story of how her grandmother, Nombhosho (which means bullet), survived the Anglo-Zulu war as a young girl. “A tale of woe and triumph,” Mathiane writes.

It’s a story of hardship and dispossession that traces the fate of one Zulu family since 1897. Mathiane says the British colonialists were “ruthless” with the Zulus. “The English torched their homes. People had no homes. That narrative [of what] happened to the Zulu people still hasn’t been told properly.”

During the time of the Anglo-Zulu war, after their land was stolen by the Abelumbi (literally “sorcerers”, the term King Shaka used for white people), her grandmother and great-grandmother and their family had to live in a cave. They had only roots and rats to eat.

There’s a heartbreaking moment when Nombhosho’s mother realises her husband is dead. She finds his shield and assegai at the entrance of the cave. That was a sign from his fellow warriors that he had died.

“It was challenging to write,” Mathiane says. “I was an alien coming into Zululand and listening to the stories. We hardly know where my grandmother’s home was. All we know is she lived next to ‘the shadow mountain’.” Mathiane had to question family members and make many visits to KZN to piece together Nombhosho’s life.

The accounts of what Nombhosho was subjected to as a young girl make the reader angry and sad. Her mother is forced to marry a man she doesn’t know and work with him on a farm, “hell on earth”, as Mathiane describes it. The white farmer beats Nombhosho and tries to rape her.

But it’s not all dire. Mathiane tells her own story of discovering the past, and discovering who she really is. There are light moments when she talks about her family and her visits to them. “There we were, young and old females sharing this huge bedroom. We were like high-school girls having a pyjama party.”

Mathiane hopes that Eyes in the Night will inspire readers to examine the past more closely.

“I want my book to make young people question who they are. When we were told about the Zulu wars at school, we were taught superficially about what happened. We never learned about the Zulu warriors.

“My father was Christian, we lived in the townships. My sister [Sis Ahh] was different, she lived with my grandmother. She was in touch with the soil. She was brought up in the Zulu rituals. None of us other six girls performed the rituals. But I’m richer for knowing what happened. I know who I am now, after writing this book.

“There are so many stories still to be told about that era. This book is just a drop in the ocean. We need people to tell and write these stories.”

Follow Jennifer Platt on Twitter @Jenniferdplatt

* * * * *

 
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Genesis of a drummer: Michele Magwood interviews Phil Collins about his memoir Not Dead Yet

Phil Collins’s excesses were mild by rock star standards, but he still feels plenty of guilt, writes Michele Magwood

Not Dead YetNot Dead Yet: The Autobiography
Phil Collins (Century)
****

“Music made me, but it also unmade me,” writes Phil Collins towards the end of this absorbing autobiography. “I carry guilt over each of my kids, I carry guilt for everything, frankly.”

On the shelf of rock memoirs it’s comparatively mild: there’s none of the anguish and glamour of Eric Clapton or the visceral swagger of Keith Richards. There’s no heroin or groupies or smashed hotel rooms. Only late in the book – and late in his life – does he tip into alcoholism, bored by retirement and depressed by his patchwork family, shuttling between three ex-wives and five children all over the world, trying to be a presence in their lives.

There are blackouts and falls, pancreatitis and smashed teeth, stints in hospitals and rehabs and eventually – and only recently – sobriety.

Most of the book, though, is an entertaining chronicle of the making of a maestro, a musician whose songs have formed the soundtrack to millions of lives. He is one of only three recording artists to have sold more than 100 million albums both as solo artists and as part of a band (the others are Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson). He’s won an Oscar (for the song “You’ll Be In My Heart”, from Tarzan) and a Lieutenant of the Victorian Order medal from Buckingham Palace for his admirable charity work. (He donates all royalties in South Africa to the Topsy Foundation.) He counts rock gods and royalty as his friends.

Collins sounds tired on the phone from London, vague and slightly rambling. Recent photographs of him show him to be frail. His back is, by his account, “completely shot” after 50 years of drumming, his hands have seized up and he’s deaf in one ear.

We talk about the process of songwriting, whether it starts with a melody or a line. “Basically it starts with improvisation on a piano,” he says. “If it’s Disney you have some kind of guideline, but otherwise you can do what you want. I just improvise and play around with it and record everything until it starts to become an idea. It’s fairly haphazard.”

The early chapters cover his love affair with the drums. He was given his first toy set when he was barely three, moving on at age five to a homemade set that consisted of biscuit tins and a triangle. He’d set it up in the corner of the lounge and play along to all the TV shows. “I’ll play to anything, with anyone,” he remembers. “I’m a versatile jobbing drummer.”

It was a comfortable, lower-middle class upbringing in the dull suburb of Hounslow in London. He had a difficult, distant father and a doting mother who ran a children’s theatrical agency. At the age of 13, young Philip was cast as The Artful Dodger in a West End production of Oliver!, attending school by day and performing at night. It ingrained in him a steely work ethic that has remained with him all his life.

“I can count on one hand the number of shows I cancelled,” he writes. “I will do whatever I can to ensure the show goes on – even if that means dodgy doctors, dubious injections, catastrophic deafness and sustaining injuries that will require major, invasive, flesh-ripping, bone-bolting surgery.”

He would have carried on acting were his head not turned by the emerging – and golden – music scene of the ’60s. He hung out in the clubs watching Cream, The Who and Led Zeppelin, often paying his way by sweeping the club floors. He played in a series of dead-end bands himself until answering an ad in Melody Maker for a drummer for a new band. It was the birth of Genesis, and Phil Collins was launched.

Ask him what he is proudest of in his life, aside from his children, and he doesn’t mention his charity work, the platinum records, the deafening applause of heaving mega stadiums. Instead, he remembers playing drums in a temporary band with his friend Eric Clapton. “We called it The Heaven Band because we all just loved every night, going on stage and playing those songs.”

Ultimately, he says, “I’m a musician. I got a chance to play with a few great people and that’s all I wanted to do. To play. Whether I was a pop star or not was irrelevant.”

He’s not dead yet, and he’s not going quietly yet, either. He’s announced a comeback tour of Europe next year. It won’t be him behind the drums, though. That honour will go to his 16-year-old son, Nic, who’s shaping up to be a mean drummer. Bred in the bone, it seems.
 
Follow Michele Magwood on Twitter @michelemagwood
 
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