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Archive for the ‘News’ Category

Sunshine noir fans, get your monthly dosage of local thriller authors here…

Watch this space for news on the best thriller and crime fiction authors Africa has to offer.

BooksLIVE will be publishing pieces on local sunshine noir authors on a monthly basis, as featured in International Thrillers Writers’ “Africa Scene”. “Africa Scene” is the brainchild of South African thriller writer par excellence, Mike Nicol, and is available on the e-magazine, Big Thrill.

Mike Nicol

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Michael Sears

 
Nicol initiated Africa Scene with a monthly “Newsletter from South Africa” covering local crime fiction and thrillers; author Michael Sears – who makes part of the duo Michael Stanley (with Stanley Trollip) renown for their Detective Kubu-series – took over from Nicol and broadened it to “Africa Scene”. Sears included pieces about African authors writing in other countries.

“The idea is really to showcase the excellent writers in the genre that we have here and generate more interest in Africa’s “sunshine noir” overseas,” says Sears of this new collaboration.

Intrigued? Read an excerpt from Sears’s recent interview with Nicol on his Barry Ronge Fiction Prize-longlisted Agents of the State which appeared in the Africa Scene-section of The Big Thrill:

Deon Meyer has said of Mike Nicol that his style is “by far the best in South Africa” and that he creates “deliciously complex characters.” The Pretoria News said of his previous book, Power Play, that it “proved once again that Nicol is a master of the genre.”

So when Nicol comes out with a new thriller, it’s always an event on the South African book scene. And his books are also enthusiastically received internationally, with Power Play making the Krimizeit top 10 in Germany, and being short listed for major thriller awards in Holland and France. If you like sunshine noir and haven’t read Nicol, you’re missing out.

In his latest book, Agents of the State, we meet again the lead characters in Of Cops & Robbers. There we wondered if the police and the crooks were actually on different sides. In the new book, we wonder if the agents of the state are the good guys or the bad guys. The answer is probably maybe. Nicol never has simplistic dividing lines.

Agents of the State is set in a dystopian South Africa with a “president for life” and all the trappings of the classic corrupt African dictatorship. Did you feel this extrapolation was needed to justify aspects of the story, or do you see South Africa as de facto there already?

I have to admit I’d never really thought of the background to Agents of the State as dystopian, especially if by that you mean repressive and unpleasant. Certainly, the book is set in a politically troubled time when the president is out of touch and paranoid, but for the rest, society is still a going concern: the hospitals function, the restaurants and shops are open, there are people in the streets, planes are landing at and taking off from the airports, kids are at school, there are sunbathers on the beaches, people meeting in the grand hotels for cocktails, the cellphone networks and the internet are up and running. However, there are some severely compromised government institutions, state security being one of those. But that this chaotic shadow world exists in parallel with the ordinary world seems to me a condition that has been present in most societies for centuries.

Indeed, the president fits the mold of the corrupt African dictator, which was a necessary condition of the story. As to whether South Africa is there already: no, I don’t think so. But that is not to say that we aren’t lurching about on the edge of totalitarianism what with the Secrecy Bill and the Hate Speech Bill, the rampant racism, let alone the audacious attempts by the president et al to “capture” various organs of state.

For some years now I’ve felt that the state – certainly what is referred to as the deep state, that combination of the intelligence services, the police, politicians, and organized crime – is where I should locate my crime fiction. It is where the most serious crime is being committed in this country. If the social aspect of crime fiction is about presenting society in extremis, then it seems to me that the espionage novel offers an opportunity to explore the underlying tensions in South Africa now. And there is a strong tradition in South African literature of opposition to and critique of the exigencies of our governments and leaders, again a territory ideally suited to the espionage novel.

Continue reading their interview here.

With names like Paige Nick, Leye Adenle, and Paul Mendelson to look forward to we expect each and every local thriller fan to shiver with antici…pation.

‘Til the 23rd of June!

Agents of the State

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Of Cops and Robbers

 
 
 
 
Power Play


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Jacket Notes: Jonathan Ancer talks about writing his book Spy: Uncovering Craig Williamson

Published in the Sunday Times

SpySpy: Uncovering Craig Williamson (Jacana Media)
Jonathan Ancer

I turned onto Jan Smuts Avenue. I was a few minutes away from Hyde Park Corner, where I had arranged to meet Craig Williamson – the apartheid spy turned parcel-bomb assassin who is now a doting grandfather living a consequence-free life in the northern suburbs of the city. Oh, and he’s also the central character in my book.

A week earlier I had mustered every ounce of courage to contact him to set up this meeting. I had devoted three years to studying his life; I had a cupboard full of documents, classified reports, court transcripts, newspaper clippings, and interviews with people he had betrayed. I had even dreamt about him. For three years Williamson had occupied my consciousness and haunted my unconsciousness. Up until that call, though, he had no idea I existed. I had put off contacting him, but the deadline for the book was approaching and meeting him was the final surge in this three-year marathon.

And now I was going to meet him face to face. Williamson had infiltrated the National Union of South African Students (Nusas) and betrayed his ‘friends’ and then lived a double life in Switzerland, trying to penetrate the ANC. He was eventually unmasked after almost a decade undercover, and returned to South Africa where he was instrumental in the murders of Ruth First, Jeanette Schoon and Jeanette’s six-year-old daughter, Katryn.

A few months before my meeting with Williamson I had interviewed Paula Ensor, Jeanette’s best friend. Paula told me how the two friends thought they would grow old together and she showed me photographs of Katryn – an angelic little girl with golden curls. Fritz Schoon was also at home when the bomb detonated. Fritz, who was two-and-a-half, witnessed the murders of his mother and sister.

I wanted to try to understand what had motivated Williamson. I wanted to look him in the eye and see if he had any remorse. As I waited for him I recalled the first interview I had conducted for the book. The person, a former Nusas leader, wasn’t convinced that the book was a good idea. His concern was that Williamson enjoyed publicity, and it would be better to ignore him. I had wrestled with Williamson — metaphorically — ever since.

I didn’t want this book to glorify him and romanticise the cloak-and-dagger world of spying. I wanted it to shed light on a slice of history that seems to have been forgotten. One of the aims of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to allow perpetrators amnesty in exchange for acknowledging what they had done and divulging details of their crimes. However, many of the perpetrators gave just enough information to get amnesty.

We often talk about “the legacy of apartheid”, but the legacy of apartheid is ultimately a legacy of people; people who perpetrated evil. People like Williamson.

If we ignore Williamson, we are absolving him of responsibility.

I wanted to fill in those TRC gaps and remind the world about Williamson’s activities – so that he doesn’t continue to live a consequence-free life. That, I hoped, would provide a small measure of justice for Ruth First and Jeanette and Katryn Schoon.

I looked up, my heart still pounding in my chest, and saw Williamson walking towards me… I took a deep breath. It was time to look him in his eye.

Follow Jonathan Ancer @jonathanancer

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

Published in the Sunday Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Yewande Omotoso @yomotoso

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

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

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Franschhoek Literary Festival: Day One

From great discussions about identity politics to the psyche of apartheid spies; speculative fiction and Holocaust denialism; women who write crime fiction and debates about whether writers are made or born -the first day of the annual Franschhoek Literary Festival provided enough stimulating conversation to exercise festival goers’ brain muscles, and festival-sponsor Porcupine Ridge supplied enough wine to keep them hydrated.

Hotter than expected, veteran FLF’ers were often heard remarking that “it ALWAYS rains during Franschhoek,” yet the pleasant weather made for an excellent excuse to enjoy a glass of in vino veritas.

To whet your appetite for whatever Saturday might bring, here are a few tweets of the vet pret first day of Franschhoek Literary Festival:


 


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Nal’ibali #CatchMeReading: four Times editors on why children should be encouraged to read

Aimed at encouraging adults and children to act as reading role models for each other, the national Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign’s #CatchMeReading drive invites members of the public to submit photographs of themselves reading in public and in fun and creative ways.

Stopping to show their support for the initiative, editors of different Times Media titles submitted their own #CatchMeReading photographs along with words of encouragement to the children in the Nal’ibali network.

Times Media has been as partner of the Nal’ibali campaign since its inception in 2012 – carrying its bilingual reading-for-enjoyment supplement (the only resource of its kind in South Africa) in select newspapers titles as well as donating and delivering over 44 000 copies directly to more than 300 reading clubs, schools, libraries and literacy organisations that form part of Nal’ibali’s network, every other week during school term time.

Each supplement edition contains one to two new stories, related reading activities as well as information and tips for adults on sharing books and stories with children or starting or participating in reading clubs.
 
It is also published in five different language combinations (English-isiXhosa, English-isiZulu, English-Sesotho, English-Afrikaans and English-Sepedi) to promote the development of multilingualism in SA.

Says Patti Mcdonald, Times Media Education Consultant: “Exposing children to reading materials in their mother tongue is an essential tool to foster a love of reading from a young age. From printing Nal’ibali’s first supplement in just three languages in 2012 to the six languages that we are printing in today, as well as growing the reach of our distribution to include the rural school’s that make up Nal’ibali’s Story Powered Schools initiative in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, we are making phenomenal in roads in establishing a culture of reading in South Africa together and are only too happy to be ‘caught reading!’”

Editors participating in the drive include Abdul Milazi of Sunday World; Brett Horner of the Herald and Weekend Post; Sunday Times Book Editor, Jennifer Platt and BooksLive Editor, Mila de Villiers. The editors’ pictures and messages will be shared on the campaign’s social media platforms to inspire others to do the same.

Members of the public can post their own #CatchMeReading on the Nal’ibali Facebook page between Monday 15 May and Friday 19 May using the hashtag. The three photographs with the most ‘likes’ will win a hamper of books from the campaign in the language/s of the winner’s choice.
 
For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign, or to access our growing collection of free children’s stories in a range of SA languages plus tips and ideas on how to read with children, visit: www.nalibali.org or www.nalibali.mobi or join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter: @NalibaliSA.

“Read to learn. Read to understand. Read to think. Read to grow. But, whatever your motivation for picking up a book, never forget to read for pleasure. You’ll discover the infinite power of your own imagination”. – Brett Horner, Editor of The Herald/Weekend Post

 

“Since I learnt to read, it has always been my go to place. It’s where I could find characters who were like me, and new characters that I would get to know. It helped to cope, to learn, to grow, to understand. Like CS Lewis said: ‘We read to know we are not alone.’ ” – Jennifer Platt, Book Editor of the Sunday Times

“I was raised by bibliophile parents who introduced me to books at a very young age, took me to the library every Saturday and encouraged me to read as widely as possible. I still remember the first ‘proper’ book I ever read by myself – the beautifully illustrated Ek sien die maan. At age six I tackled my first English book – Burger Cillié’s Mammal Guide of Southern Africa. (‘Ungulate’ was my favourite word for a loooong time after reading it.) I cannot stress the importance and necessity of instilling a love of books and reading in children enough; reading is the apex of educational escapism; reading is fun and informative; reading creates thinkers and dreamers. A book a day keeps the boredom away, ek sê.” – Mila de Villiers, Editor of BooksLive

“I grew up in the villages of Umzimkhulane and Bhobhoyi in Ugu, KwaZulu-Natal. Storybooks and reading gave me the wings to fly!” – Abdul Milazi, Sunday World Editor


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Bridge Books turns one! Celebrate by supporting the newly-launched African Book Trust

Griffin Shea

Everyone’s favourite independent bookstore in Joburg is celebrating its first birthday soon.

Bridge Books, situated in Johannesburg’s inner city, opened its doors on 1 June, 2016. Run by Griffin Shea, Bridge Books sells both old and new books with an emphasis on African literature, alongside international titles.

This singular bookstore recently launched the African Book Trust, a non-profit organisation dedicated to donating South African books to libraries in communities and schools nationwide.

Their only birthday wish is for you to support the trust. Visit booktrust.org.za to learn more about the organisation and give one of the 10 books they’re providing in their first round of giving.

If you’re eager to continue the festivities head to Love Downtown on Friday, 2 June where Naale le Moya’s Baaletsi Tsatsi will tell stories of African celebrations at 6:30 PM for 7:00 PM.

Get your tickets here and come jol like only a bibliophile can.


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The Kingsmead countdown has begun

In T minus 96 hours (that’s four days to my fellow mathematically disinclined bibliophiles), authors, editors, poets and publishers will congregate at Kingsmead College for the sixth annual Kingsmead Book Fair this coming Saturday.

You can expect an assortment of literary discussions including deliberations on political unrest in South Africa, culinary conversations with some of South Africa’s most prolific food-writers, and the nitty-gritty behind the art of short story writing.

Take a peak at the programme here and click here to purchase your tickets.


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Jonathan Jansen and his sister Naomi Jansen pay tribute to their mother in Song for Sarah: Lessons from my Mother. Read the extract.

Published in the Sunday Times

In this extract, Jonathan Jansen pays tribute to the mother whose sacrifices helped him and their siblings achieve success despite the odds

Song for SarahSong for Sarah: Lessons from my Mother by Jonathan Jansen with Naomi Jansen (Bookstorm). Also available in Afrikaans as Lied vir Sarah: Lesse van my Ma

“When you thought about it, everything seemed to work against the Cape Flats mother, from family dislocation to financial hardship, to absentee fathers, to the relentless pressure of gangs and drugs. As an energetic teenager involved in church youth leadership in the southern areas, this single question would haunt me during the obligatory huisbesoek (house visits): how on earth do these mothers do it?

Consider Mrs Volmink from Belgravia Estate in Athlone who put four boys and two girls through tertiary qualifications. One son leads a university, another is a medical school dean, and the other a prominent public sector lawyer; in their number you would also find a distinguished teacher and one who made his career in the training and development of civil servants. The eldest daughter died after a car crash because the whites-only ambulance would take only her pale friend. For long periods of time Johanna Volmink raised the children alone. Hardship was ever present in her home and yet not a single child fits the stereotype represented in comedy routines or violent novels or the evening news. When it came to human decency, academic achievement and community service, Mrs Volmink achieved much more in her home than any of the white families I knew in the well-to-do suburbs of Upper Claremont and Wynberg Proper.

As I pondered that haunting “how” question about these mothers over the years I realised that the answer was in front of me, all around me, even gave birth to me. That Cape Flats mother was Sarah Susan Johnson, married Jansen. Suddenly it all made sense. How they dealt with their pasts. How they organised their homes. How they raised their children. How they made sense of politics. How they managed affection. How they drew on their faith. How they communicated core values. How they thought about education. How they led with their lives.

The products of their labour were no accident, as the poet Shirmoney Rhode would tell Litnet of the grandmother who raised her at Nomme 20 Delphi Straat (the 2016 book title) in Elsies River:

Ek is ’n produk van haar 3am prayers

En harde werk of course

(I am a product of her 3am prayers

And hard work of course)

The Cape Flats mother was not faultless. Who is? To the children growing up, the mother was seen as being too harsh at times but was always deeply respected. This praise song is not, however, about the failings of our mothers but about the fact that they succeeded at all. None of the children was perfect. Whose are? To the mother the child was never one to be abandoned in the wrong but to be picked up again and again, and nudged towards what was right. And they did this work of correction day after day, for weeks followed by months, and year after year, sometimes even into adulthood and marriage.

The matriarchal figure hovered over that child for life. Many stories have been told on the Flats of a small-bodied mother reaching out to deliver retribution to the tall, well-built son who stands there quietly as he takes the timid smack to the face or the ineffectual punch to the body. She had earned the right to reprimand her grown child. This story of the Cape Flats mother, and of many mothers across the length and breadth of South Africa, will be told in this book.

Being the eldest in the family, my siblings suspected that I was favoured by my parents. Of course I felt differently because of the constant pressure from my mother to “set the example” as the eldest. “Firstborn”, my sister would nevertheless tease me, and that will be my third-person voice in the main text. For a reality check, I asked this sister of mine to add in her own reflections on our mother as the only girl smack bang in the middle of two older and two younger boys.

Naomi Jansen has the knack of saying and seeing things as they really are. One day that sting in her commentary really got to me as a boy so I chased her along the very short route from the kitchen to her bedroom. By dint of practice she managed to dash into the room, close the door and secure the latch bolt lock in one and the same swift action but it was too late. I ran right through the flimsy green planks of that wooden door. The personal shock probably saved my sister from further repercussions although I never could raise a hand against any of the siblings.

Her sharper eye and tongue therefore qualify Naomi to give another view of our mother. My sister’s voice appears in italics as “Naomi remembers”. In appropriate places she shares her own experiences and insights into our remarkable mother. Sometimes Naomi’s recollection or interpretation of events is different from mine, and that is fine. It is what gives this work of memory an added and special value.

“While you are under this roof,” my mother would often chide, “you will do as I say.” Under this roof is both a telling metaphor about us and the interwoven tiles above us. Sarah knew that she had little direct control over what happened in the harsh outside world. We would all grow up one day and make our own decisions as working adults and parents of children. There was little our mother could change about that. But while under her roof, the rules applied. That was where she had authority over the five children and, as will be explained, also over her husband. There was not much overhead roof to speak of in the small council house, but anyone who stayed in that confined space, including a string of relatives, would abide by Sarah’s rules.

It was under Sarah’s roof that I learnt how to live and where she would teach us how to die. Under that roof I learnt the value of selfless giving and the importance of personal discipline. Sarah did not only tell, she showed. And nothing impressed more heavily on the children’s consciousness than what my mother taught us about the ethics of work. She laboured day and night, literally, as a shift nurse. “Nobody ever died of hard work,” she would say all the time and you knew that offering a medical science rebuttal might lead to a premature meeting with your Maker.

Mrs Sedras, Mrs Volmink and Mrs Jansen are not alone. There are thousands of mothers spread across the Cape Flats and throughout South Africa who deserve recognition for their heroic efforts in raising families under difficult conditions. On one hand, this book could be read as an attempt at recovery of “the other mothers” whose stories have been buried by unrelenting stereotypes of women from the flatland areas of the Cape. On the other hand, such heroic mothers are found in every community where ordinary people struggle to make impossible ends meet. This work of recovery is offered, therefore, as a song of gratitude for all mothers.

Or to borrow from Diana Ferrus in A poem for Sarah Baartman:

I have come to take you home

Where I will sing for you

For you have brought me peace

The floppy brown purse
Nothing would test Sarah’s resilience more sorely than when the children went to university. Apartheid created universities for people they labelled by both race and ethnicity. Since Firstborn was deemed coloured, his destination was the University of the Western Cape in Bellville; the University of Cape Town was so much closer but they could not have him. The young student was also proud enough not to plead for a government concession (the permit, they called it) to attend a white university and specify a course not offered at UWC to justify studies in nearby Rondebosch.

The long journey from Retreat in the southern suburbs to Bellville in the northern areas took forever. And it was costly. One Monday morning Firstborn desperately needed money to take the taxi, train and bus to get to university. Hiking, as he normally did when there was no money, might get him to campus too late for a scheduled chemistry test. So he slunk into the bedroom where Sarah was in a deep sleep after working the hospital night shift. “Does Mummy have any money?” he whispered and instantly woke her up.

Sarah knew that she did not have a cent but nevertheless reached for her flat brown purse, opened it up and pretended to search for coins among the scribbled papers inside. There was nothing and the tears started welling up in her eyes. That day Firstborn decided to drop out of university and look for a job; the pain on Sarah’s face was simply unbearable.

Of course that was the last thing Sarah wanted and so one day she arranged with an uncle to collect Firstborn and drive him to Bellville while persuading him all along the way not to give up. If Sarah had not made that arrangement Firstborn would still be drifting between Anchor Yeast where he started in a laboratory with far too few skills and helping a brother from the church sell his fish on Prince George Drive, the M5 which linked the white suburbs to the north with the whites-only Muizenberg beach on the False Bay coastline. Where Sarah found the money none of the children ever knew, but from that day there were always a few coins in her purse “just in case” Firstborn needed them. But he never asked again.

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

Anneke Rautenbach writes for the Sunday Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crowdfunded books that are making waves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The newbie’s guide for the Franschhoek Literary Festival: Kate Sidley offers insider tips

Published in the Sunday Times

There will be free wine. Lots of it, because Porcupine Ridge is a generous sponsor. What many newcomers don’t realise, is that it’s not compulsory to take every glass that’s handed to you. Pace yourself.

Book upfront. You think it’ll be nice to have your options open but it’s not, it’s stressful, and besides, the popular sessions get booked up in advance and you walk around in a state of FOMO.

Pace yourself (II). Three sessions a day feels right to me. Maybe four. It is a full, stimulating day, but gives you plenty of time to lurk in a sidewalk café watching people go by and spotting your favourite novelist or columnist (tip: adjust for the fact that the author photo was taken after a good night’s sleep by a professional photographer, with kindly lighting, 6 or 7 years back. I know mine was).

From Ancer to Zapiro, there’s a whole alphabet’s worth of talent, no matter what your reading tastes.

It’s worth going to one of the panels with the big-name, smart-talking opinionista types. I won’t mention names. Oh, alright then, if you insist – Darryl Bristow-Bovey, Rebecca Davis, Marianne Thamm, Fred Khumalo, Paige Nick, Justice Malala, Tom Eaton. They are always entertaining.

Do see a couple of the Famous Writers. Look out for authors from The Overseas – Sophie Hannah and Richard Mason and Lesley Pearse and Philippe Sands and Joanne Harris.

Go to one of the big political panels with heavy-hitting non-fiction writers and journos and politicos. They are often fascinating, even heated, and handily provide the opportunity for you to casually mention over supper, “As Dikgang Moseneke was saying the other day…”

Go see a poet you’ve never heard of talking in some tiny venue, with two fellow audience members. Chances are it’ll be the best session you’ve had all weekend. (Or it might be crucifyingly embarrassing, but at least you went).

Go for the facilitator, as much as the panelists. Personally, I follow the always-brilliant Victor Dlamini around to his panels, but you will find your own favourite facilitator person to stalk.

If it’s your first time at the rodeo, and you have a bit of cash to splurge on a fancy meal, and you want to dine with authors, go to Jenny Crwys-Williams’ famous Saturday night dinner at Pierneef, at La Motte.

Don’t waste your time trying to find a proper jol, Franschhoek is not a party town. But there are always a couple of musical items, some long and raucous suppers, and – for the very brave – an open mic for poets at the Elephant & Barrel. Oh, go on…

Wander the streets and poke around the shops. Just remember, you’re in Franschhoek, where the wine’s free and a T-shirt costs a grand.

Be prepared to hear about the times you should have been there but weren’t: last year, when Eugene de Kock made an appearance; the year before, which Thando Mgqolozana denounced as a white colonial literary festival; or even in 2010, for the row between Rian Malan and Antjie Krog. It’s like when you finally make your dream trip to Thailand and come back bubbling with excitement and some prat tells you that you should have gone there in the 80s before all the tourists wrecked it.

Just think, when you come back next year, or the year after, you can be that person. “Ah, but you should have been here in 2017…” you’ll say, gazing wistfully over your Porcupine Ridge…

Follow Kate Sidley @KateSidley


•The Franschhoek Literary Festival is from May 19-21. Info at www.flf.co.za. Bookings at www.webtickets.co.za


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