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Archive for the ‘South Africa’ Category

Barry Ronge Prize shortlist: Craig Higginson talks about the genesis of The Dream House (Plus: Excerpt)

Published in the Sunday Times

Barry Ronge Prize shortlist: Craig Higginson talks about the genesis of The Dream House (Plus: Excerpt)


The Dream HouseThe Dream House
Craig Higginson (Picador Africa)

My previous novels had been displaced in terms of setting and location, so I decided to write a novel that was about us right now. How could I capture this strange in-between space the country was in? I returned to a one-act play I had written – no more than a single scene, a single encounter – and started opening it up and writing more deeply into it. I wanted to write a novel that borrowed some theatre techniques – especially the dialogue of conflicting perspectives, where the audience or reader is faced with a puzzle they themselves must navigate. It seemed this was a task each of us faced.

But I also wanted to write a personal, moving, surprising tale. I hoped to stretch our expectations in terms of content and form. What emerged was a stark, fragmented drama in which the placement of the words on the page often assumed the significance we expect from poetry – and where the white spaces around them started to speak.

My characters are each dreaming of a house to dwell in and a country they can unambiguously call home. That remains an aspiration for each of us. South Africa is still in the making and we have become its only makers.


Something has been busy near the grave. As recently as last night. The black earth has been churned up here and there – randomly, as a porcupine might do – but the small headstone and slight mound where Rachel lies have been left untouched. Then he sees it’s one of the dog graves that was dug up. He knows this because he dug the grave and buried the dog himself: a Rhodesian ridgeback called Jess that was always said to be too soft. A white bone gleams in the mud, wiped or licked clean by the animal that unearthed it.

The earth is soft but the coffin is buried deep – deeper than expected – and it requires some effort to reach it. The wood looks slightly slimy, almost black, but the coffin still seems to be intact. Moving with deliberation, he clears the earth away until the coffin stands alone, restored to its shape – and then he gets to his feet and stretches and they both regard it.

He and Beauty have hardly spoken since they came out here. She seems to be sulking with him for some reason. He never spends much thought on her moods, for they are as mysterious as the weather that comes in from the mountains: unpredictable, changeable, brooding, dramatic.

He bends down and passes his hands underneath the box, and Beauty copies him. It is heavy with wet. Spreading their four hands as wide as they can underneath it, they draw the box upwards as gently as they can. It wobbles slightly but retains its shape.

He can still picture the moment they put the box in the earth. Then it had been the colour of a horse chestnut, with a nutty glow inside it, carefully varnished. To the small boy holding onto the clothes of his father – part of the gathering of workers observing the ceremony from a distance – it seemed almost a pity to put such a beautifully crafted object into the earth, where no one would ever admire it. But now he is grateful for the quality of the wood.

The Madam was standing very still when the workers finally stepped forward to bury the child. She threw flowers into the little hole, but no earth. It is said that she only wept later, when she was alone in the house. And the servants of the time never disturbed her grief: they would bring her tea and something to eat only when she had exhausted it. Then the Madam would devour whatever was given her without seeming to notice it: she could eat a whole cake, or a chicken, or a pot of soup – pouring in bits of cut-up buttered toast and a jug of cream.

It is also said that the only period the Madam was happy was when the boy Looksmart was in her house. Bheki recalls seeing the boy walk in through the front door like he’d always lived there – and how he’d admired the boy for it. Because the boy expected the best of the Madam, and thought nothing of her sorrow, he managed to provide a place where she could laugh again and be a better person for a while. After Looksmart went, Bheki continued to be her driver, but all the words that could ever have been spoken between them already felt finished. There was nothing left to do but drive up and down the driveway in the same car, buy the same food from the same shop, and occasionally visit the old umlungu, John Ford.

The coffin fits neatly into the blue trunk. They gaze at it for a while before he bends to scoop and pack the earth around it – so that it won’t slide around inside. He even pats a layer of earth over the top of the coffin – picking away the odd wayward frond or twig – so that it can once again be out of sight. Then Beauty locks the trunk with the combination lock she has been carrying in her pocket. He knows that only she and the Madam know the numbers for opening it.

The Madam is waiting for them in her wheelchair in the sunlight of the stoep. She watches their progress across the lawn. Both of them are wearing the expressions of those who know they are carrying a dead child. This is not just a bale of teff. They show her how respectful they are feeling, even though they are feeling it. Inside the house, the phone is ringing, but no one moves to answer it. And there is no sign of the Baas.

High above them, the weaverbirds are attending to their nests. And from the other side of the trees an earthmover is groaning towards them. There is nothing unusual in the air, yet with the arrival of the dead child, everything has changed: for the first time Bheki begins to understand that these people will be leaving for good.

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Alan Paton Award shortlist: Interview with Charles van Onselen on his book Showdown at the Red Lion

Published in the Sunday Times

Alan Paton Award shortlist: Interview with Charles van Onselen on his book Showdown at the Red Lion

Showdown at the Red LionShowdown at the Red Lion: The Life and Times of Jack McLoughlin, 1859-1910
Charles van Onselen (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

We first meet Jack McLoughlin in your book Masked Raiders: Irish Banditry in Southern Africa. What prompted you to expand the story?
McLoughlin led an extraordinary life that ranged across the southern hemisphere of the late 19th-century British Empire. A biography offered the chance to illustrate what it meant to be Irish and a social bandit in a world growing smaller, one where formal opportunities were limited and the odds stacked against the underprivileged. I wanted to encourage the reader to see history as a process that transcends national chauvinism and national boundaries. National histories encourage nationalism, and nationalism frequently facilitates belligerence and intolerance.

Who was McLoughlin?
He was the oldest son of a poverty-stricken immigrant Irish family, born and raised in Manchester at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Like many of the deprived and poor he developed strong ideas about social justice.

What were your sources for the research?
Archives in many countries, birth and death records, court records, passenger lists and newspaper reports as well as secondary literature. Bog standard work.

Several of your books have examined the history of Johannesburg. What new insights did this research reveal?
This is not a history of Johannesburg even if the main event happens to be set in Commissioner Street. The research brought home to me just how mobile ordinary men and women were in the late 19th century. All this breathless talk about “globalisation” as a new phenomenon is so much hogwash, best suited to those teaching in business schools who are capable only of thinking back as far as the last Harvard Business Review.

You seem most interested in characters on the margins of history. Do we learn more through them than from major events?
No, I am most interested in mainstream social, political and economic currents – the processes that the mass of humanity is exposed to. But do I think it better to illustrate those processes and how they influence life-chances through the eyes of the marginalised rather than through the eyes of kings, presidents and prime ministers? Well, er, um, yes.

In what way do you think the book “illuminates truthfulness”?
That assessment falls to the reader. Hopefully the reader will emerge with a better understanding of the ways that the Industrial Revolution played itself out for men and women during the late 19th century and provide some understanding of the roots of ideas about being “masculine” in a colonial world. If one does not understand the roots of white male culture in the expanding 19th century how will you conceptualise what happened in the 20th century?

Do you admire McLoughlin?
Do I “admire” an anti-social individual, an armed robber, a misogynist, violent man and a murderer? No. Do I admire courage, determination, ingenuity and resourcefulness even when the odds are hopelessly stacked against you in terms of class, ethnicity, gender and religious belief? Yes.

What was the most difficult part of writing the book?
Trying to convey the underlying continuities in immigrant cultures as people move between, and adapt to, radically different worlds — between rural Ireland and industrialising England. These are enduring questions in all societies and the answers are often elusive.

What impression do you want readers to take away?
If readers emerge with an enhanced understanding of the fact that hardship, industrialisation and poverty are not confined to the modern era, to certain races and certain places, it may encourage empathy, sympathy and perhaps even a touch of wisdom.

How do you project what your character is thinking?
In the absence of a great deal of first-person testimony you have to make do with what you have. Then, from an intelligent reading of the record and the situation and the subsequent behaviour of your protagonist, try to demonstrate what thought patterns informed his or her actions. Common sense, emotional empathy and the parameters of logic all inform unarticulated thought when a biographer lacks abundant first-hand testimony.

What is the modern relevance of Showdown? Are there parallels to be drawn with present times?
History is about how the past links to the present and the present – possibly – to the future. If it were not so it would not be worth writing. Criminality, emigration, gangs, masculine violence, law-enforcement and the problematic links to justice are features of all societies at all times. The parallels are there to be drawn by those who wish to see and think beyond the confines of the printed page. Some, of course, may not want to do so. It can be tough going.

Do politicians pay enough attention to history?
The notion of a politician paying attention to history – other than as lip service to help underwrite selective experiences of “discrimination”, “hardship” and “suffering” in order to mobilise voters for ethnic or nationalist purposes is difficult to entertain. It’s a bit like asking a lion if it has any interest in an impala; yes, in a rather limited way.

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Rashi Rohatgi reviews Best “New” African Poets 2015 Anthology for Africa in Words

Best Verdict: carrot

The Best “New” African Poets 2015 Anthology, distributed in the USA by the African Books Collective (and in Cameroon by Langaa), is readable without being streamlined or cohesive. Editors Tendai R Mwanaka and
 Daniel da Purifacação explain in their introduction that the organization of the anthology was very much a grassroots project, organized by poets themselves rather than by the establishments that often neglect them. They put out a call for poems in an array of languages designed to ensure readers in the maximum number of African countries: submit, they said, in English, French, or Portuguese, for an anthology of this name. Beyond that, they didn’t specify a theme; their goal was to make poets heard, rather than to shape what they had to say.

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‘An inflamed semantic wrangle’ – JM Coetzee scrutinises the Israel-apartheid analogy at Palestine Festival of Literature

JM Coetzee scrutinises the West Bank/apartheid analogy at Palestine Festival of Literature
The Good StoryThe Childhood of JesusDiary of a Bad YearSlow ManElizabeth CostelloThe Master of PetersburgDisgrace


JM Coetzee was a high profile guest at the 2016 Palestine Festival of Literature this month.

In a speech given on the final evening of the festival, Coetzee scrutinised the analogy frequently drawn between Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and apartheid South Africa.

Referring to the use of the word “genocide” to describe the Greco-Turkish War in the 1920s, Coetzee says certain words can create “an inflamed semantic wrangle, which cuts short opportunities of analysis”. However, he goes on to describe the system of apartheid and the system at play in Jerusalem and the West Bank today in almost indistinguishable terms, before ending with the words: “Draw your own conclusions.”

Scroll down for the full speech, transcribed by Books LIVE for your reading pleasure

Palfest is a travelling festival, held across the Palestinian cities of Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Haifa and Nablus, to counter restrictions on the freedom of movement in the West Bank. It has been dubbed “the Iron Man of literary festivals” because of the physical and psychological challenges participants and audience members face.

Gillian Slovo was a guest of the festival in 2013, and observed: “At most lit fests writers are there to be listened to. In this one, we are made silent by the pain of all we hear.”

Coetzee was joined by a number of literary giants at Palfest this year, including Pulitzer Prize finalist Laila Lalami and National Book Award winners Colum McCann and Barry Lopez.

By contrast, Coetzee famously declined to attend the 2012 International Writers Festival in Jerusalem, saying he would only travel to Israel when “the peace process goes forward”.

Read Coetzee’s Palfest speech, delivered at the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre in Ramallah on 26 May:

I came to Palestine to see and listen and learn. In the course of the past week I have seen and heard and learned a great deal. I come away with an enduring impression of the courage and resilience of the Palestinian people at this difficult time in their history. Also, of the grace and humour with which they respond to the frustrations and humiliations of the occupation.

I was born and brought up in South Africa and so naturally people ask me what I see of South Africa in the present situation in Palestine. Using the word ‘apartheid’ to describe the way things are here I have never found to be a productive step. Like using the word ‘genocide’ to describe what happened in Turkey in the 1920s, using the word ‘apartheid’ diverts one into an inflamed semantic wrangle, which cuts short opportunities of analysis.

Apartheid was a system of enforced segregation, based on race or ethnicity, put in place by an exclusive, self-defined group in order to consolidate colonial conquest and in particular to cement its hold on the land and on natural resources.

In Jerusalem and the West Bank, to speak only of Jerusalem and the West Bank, we see a system of enforced segregation, based on religion and ethnicity, put in place by an exclusive, self-defining group to consolidate a colonial conquest, in particular to maintain and indeed extend its hold on the land and its natural resources. Draw your own conclusions.

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Deon Meyer longlisted for 2016 Crime Writers’ Association International Dagger Award

Deon Meyer


Alert! Deon Meyer has been longlisted for a prestigious Crime Writers’ Association International Dagger Award for his latest novel, Icarus.

This award is for crime novels – “defined by the broadest definition including thrillers, suspense novels and spy fiction” – not originally written in English.

To be eligible, the book must have been translated into English for UK publication during the judging period.

Meyer was shortlisted for the award in 2015 for Cobra, losing out ultimately to Camille by Pierre Lemaitre. Leif GW Persson, also on the shortlist in 2015, is back in the running this year as well.

Other awards given out by the CWA include The Goldsboro Gold Dagger, The Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, The John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger, as well as awards for non-fiction, short stories, debuts, historical fiction and The Dagger in the Library, for a body of work.

2016 CWA International Dagger longlist

The Truth and Other LiesThe Great SwindleIcarusThe Sword of JusticeThe Murderer in RuinsThe FatherThe Voices BeyondSix Four


  • The Truth and Other Lies by Sascha Arango, translated by Imogen Taylor (Simon & Schuster)
  • The Great Swindle by Pierre Lemaitre, translated by Frank Wynne (MacLehose Press)
  • Icarus by Deon Meyer, translated by K L Seegers (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • The Sword of Justice by Leif GW Persson, translated by Neil Smith (Doubleday)
  • The Murderer in Ruins by Cay Rademacher, translated by Peter Millar (Arcadia)
  • The Father by Anton Svensson, translated by Elizabeth Clark Wessel (Sphere)
  • The Voices Beyond by Johan Theorin, translated by Marlaine Delargy (Transworld)
  • Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama, translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davis (Quercus)

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Read an excerpt from Donald Molosi’s We Are All Blue – the first print publication of a play from Botswana

Read an excerpt from Donald Molosi’s We Are All Blue – the first print publication of a play from Botswana


This Fiction Friday, read an excerpt from actor and playwright Donald Molosi’s groundbreaking We Are All Blue, the first Botswanan drama to be published in print form.

We Are All Blue is a collection of two plays, “Motswana: Africa, Dream Again” and “Blue, Black and White”, and includes an introduction by Quett Masire, former president of Botswana.

“Blue, Black and White” tells the story of Botswana’s first democratically elected president, Seretse Khama, and his interracial, transformative marriage to Ruth Williams in the 1940s. It is the longest-running one-man show in Botswana’s history and the first-ever Botswana play staged Off-Broadway in New York, for which Molosi won the 2011 United Solo Best Short Solo Award.

2016 marks the 50th anniversary of Botswana’s independence, and Khama’s marriage is also the focus of a forthcoming film called A United Kingdom, which will David Oyelowo, who played Martin Luther King in Selma, and Oscar nominee Rosamund Pike, who starred most recently in Gone Girl. Molosi also has a small role in the film.

Molosi won the 2015 Bessie Head Short Story Award and was longlisted for the 2015 Short Story Day Africa Prize. He was also a facilitator for the 2015 Writivism creative writing workshops.

We Are All Blue was published by The Mantle in January.

“The publishing scene in Botswana favours textbooks, and so it is extremely difficult to publish and sell non-textbook material in Botswana,” Molosi said in an interview with World Literature Today. “What We Are All Blue offers is an opportunity to engage with Botswana of the past, present, and future at the same time.”

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Read an excerpt:

* * * * *
Donald Molosi


Based on the lives of Sir Seretse Khama (1921-1980)
and Lady Ruth Khama (1923-2002),
and the history of a nation.



Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. — Rumi

قوشعم روا قشاع
(“Lover and Beloved” in Urdu)

Present day is July 2002. A multiracial group of students enters and performs a folktale as the villagers of Serowe, perhaps accompanied by live guitar music. The students are also putting together the set and putting on costume as they tell the story.

This folktale is the theme to the class’s commemoration of Sir Seretse Khama Week, especially today (July 1) being Sir Seretse Khama Day. The class is also honoring Sir Seretse’s wife, Lady Ruth, who passed away two months prior to July 1, 2002.

ALL VILLAGERS: We begin this Sir Seretse Khama Week with the folktale that is our theme. The folktale is about a boy who brought his father back from the dead.

VILLAGER 1: It is said that there was once a boy who was living in a land far away from his kgota, his home. His father died while the boy was very young, so he did not know his father.

VILLAGER 2: When the boy was growing up and became aware that he did not have a father, he asked his mother.

ALL VILLAGERS: Mother, where is my father?

VILLAGER 3: And his mother replied—

ALL VILLAGERS: Your father is dead, my son. His name was Ngwedi, which means “the moon.”

VILLAGER 4: His mother had also since died. Hei!

VILLAGER 1: Now that the boy was growing older, he found himself wondering a lot about his father.

VILLAGER 4: People around him were treating the boy badly and beat him for no reason. He wanted his father’s protection.

VILLAGER 3: He wondered and wondered about his father and wanted desperately to see him. He wondered for days and weeks and months.

VILLAGER 2: One day he decided to yoke the donkeys to the wagon and set off for his father’s family dwelling place, his father’s kgota.

VILLAGER 1: Since his father’s name was Ngwedi, the kgota was also called Ngwedi, because he had been its headman when he was alive.

VILLAGER 2: It was evening when the boy left for his father’s kgota and the clouds were gathering over the moon. On the way he met a woman and sang out to her—

ALL VILLAGERS: Take heed, those who delay me! Where is Ngwedi’s kgota? Listen to what I ask, for the clouds are where the moon was. Don’t delay me.

VILLAGER 1: The woman said—

ALL VILLAGERS: Stay on this road, ngwanaka. You will meet some people going there. Ask them.

VILLAGER 3: Stay on this road. You will meet some people going there. Ask them.

VILLAGER 1: The boy continued his journey. On the way he met a man and he sang—

ALL VILLAGERS: Take heed, those who delay me! Where is Ngwedi’s kgota? Listen to what I ask, for the clouds are where the moon was. Don’t delay me.

VILLAGER 2: The old woman pointed to a place and said—

ALL VILLAGERS: That is the kgota you want over there, ngwanaka. Turn off the gravel road, walk a little bit and you will get to it.

VILLAGER 3: That is the kgota you want over there. Turn off the gravel road, walk a little bit and you will get to it.

VILLAGER 2: When the boy reached the kgota, he said to the people there—

LEFIKA: I am Morwangwedi, the son of Ngwedi. I want black sheep and white oxen; kill them for me. I am looking for the place where my father was buried.

VILLAGER 4: And so the people of the kgota took him to the kraal and showed him his father’s grave. The boy dug out his father’s bones and fastened them together. When he had done this, he took the meat of the sheep and oxen and put it on the bones. Then the boy began to sing—

LEFIKA: Take heed, those who delay me! Where is Ngwedi’s shirt? Listen to what I ask, for the clouds are where the moon was. Don’t delay me.

(As each item of clothing is mentioned, the villagers pull it out of their baskets and dress Lefika in it. Every time he puts on a new item of cloth- ing he transforms more into Sir Seretse Khama. Lefika is isolated from the rest of the ensemble. Soft, ethereal guitar music plays.)

VILLAGER 3: So the people of the kgota gave him his father’s shirt, and he put it on top of the meat of oxen and sheep, which was fastened to the bones.

VILLAGER 2: Then the boy asked for his father’s trousers in the same way.

VILLAGER 1: And his shoes.

VILLAGER 2: All the time urging them to hurry because the clouds were covering the moon.

VILLAGER 4: When the flesh was clothed, his father came to life! The boy yoked the donkeys, took his father, and set off back to where the boy had been living as an orphan. And when he arrived with his father, the people treated the boy like a king.

ALL VILLAGERS: They did not treat him badly like before, be- cause now he had his father to protect him.

(There is much jubilation and ululation. Lefika, one of the students has been transformed by the costume into Sir Seretse Khama. He poses as a statue of Sir Seretse and then melts out of the pose to deliver the follow- ing version of one of Sir Seretse’s speeches. Ensemble gathers around him and uses their bodies and configuration to establish a radio station studio and a microphone that Sir Seretse is speaking into. No music.)

LEFIKA: (Putting on his glasses.) Bagaetsho, we must write our history books to prove that we did have a past, and that this is  a past that is just as worth writing and learning about as any other. My fellow Batswana, we must excavate our history, dress it up in pride, intelligence, and foresight so that it may indeed come alive in our consciousness today.

(Lights fade and the rest of the speech is done in the fade-out to imply evanescent memory, or a glimpse.)

We must connect the present to the past so that the future may be secured. Because the past can disappear.

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Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka to speak at Soweto Theatre in celebration of Africa Month

Invitation to a talk by Wole Soyinka
The Lion and the JewelAkeYou Must Set Forth at DawnThe Open Sore of a ContinentOf AfricaSelected Poems


Alert! One of Africa’s most important literary figures, Wole Soyinka, will be at the Soweto Theatre to give a talk in celebration of Africa Month.

The Nobel Laureate is being hosted by Department of Arts and Culture in conjunction with the African Independent Newspaper and Press Club South Africa.

Soyinka will discuss “Politics, Culture and the New African” at the Soweto Theatre on Monday, 30 May:

Professor Wole Soyinka is one of Africa’s most famous literary figures. He was the first African to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986. Soyinka has been a strong critic of successive Nigerian governments, especially the country’s many military dictators, as well as other political tyrannies. Much of his writing has been concerned with “the oppressive boot and the irrelevance of the colour of the foot that wears it”. He has taught at several international universities including Oxford, Harvard and Yale.

See you there!

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Alan Paton Award shortlist: Interview with Khaya Dlanga on his memoir To Quote Myself

By Jennifer Platt for the Sunday Times

To Quote MyselfTo Quote Myself: A Memoir
Khaya Dlanga (Pan Macmillan)

Your book is the only memoir to be shortlisted this year. Was it difficult putting yourself on the page?
The difficulty was writing down a version that was not better than I was, or making the circumstances that I went through appear worse than what they were. You have to make sure you come across as being the real you, even though every person has different selves – all depending on where you are or who you are with. Every person is multidimensional and it’s important to get that correct on paper.

What challenges did you face writing the book?
Deadlines. Seriously, one of the challenges was making sure that what I remembered was accurate. I spoke to my mother and my aunt. My mother was surprised at what I remembered.

Did the book bring about a healing or closure for you?
It helped me remember my roots and where I came from. It helped me appreciate what I’ve been through. It made me appreciate what so many people did to get me to where I am. I mention a lot of people and this was a way of honouring them. Unfortunately, there is no way of thanking each person individually and there is no way to include everyone.

What message do you want your book to convey?
One of the things I say in the Foreword of the book is that every story is worth telling. The message that I want to get out there is for people to know that our stories can be told. We should be able to see ourselves and relate, and not get other people to tell our stories on our behalf. There are lots of books written about South Africa and black South Africans that are not written by black South Africans. What these books describe and how they describe it will always be from an outsider’s point of view. They can be very empathetic but they always miss the nuances of being in that other person’s skin. This book has brought a new reader to the market. It’s hopefully brought a freshness.

You have spoken out about the writing style of your memoir, and how black stories should be allowed to be told in whatever style the writer chooses. Can you expand on this thought?
The one thing I found particularly interesting is that people said my book was too conversational, or it was too simple and not academic. My response to that criticism is that some people want us to tell our stories the way they want. Saying “You cannot write like this” is a way of gatekeeping storytelling. Many people are buying the book and relating to it. Isn’t that what’s more important – the fact that you can see yourself in the book? For me, my writing shouldn’t be a display of how smart I am but rather about connecting with people.

How did you start to put your memories down on paper?
It had to be chronological. It was important for me to start at the beginning. It was also important to describe my roots and talk about people who had an impact on my life – my mother, grandmother and grandfather. I wrote a synopsis for my publisher where I had to describe in a paragraph what would be in each chapter. So that got me thinking in a chronological way: when I was born, my biggest memory of my childhood (my father’s death when I was six) and so on.

How do you feel about being the author of one of the most stolen books in South Africa?
There is a hunger for people to see themselves in books but they don’t have the access to them. Why are we making access to books so difficult? It makes me angry and frustrated knowing that this is what we are doing.

What was your first memory?
One strong memory I have is of my father. I was four or five at the time. It’s my only memory of my father, but it’s really of my mother as well. She and my aunt went to visit my father. He had come back from Joburg where he had disappeared for a while. I remember my father holding me in his arms and I can feel the tension between him and my mother. I can feel that my father is feeling small. I can remember my mother’s strength and beauty in that moment, and just by a look, she is saying to him, “See, I told you I could do this by myself”.

Follow Jennifer Platt on Twitter @Jenniferdplatt

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Barry Ronge Fiction Prize shortlist: Claire Robertson on the genesis of her book The Magistrate of Gower (Plus: Excerpt)

Published in the Sunday Times

The Magistrate of GowerThe Magistrate of Gower
Claire Robertson (Umuzi)

I came across the story of General Sir Hector MacDonald, a British officer in the Boer War. He was the epitome of the noble outsider, a brave and brilliant general who was hounded to death for being of humble birth and gay (I am still not sure which the Establishment felt less able to forgive).

The discovery of his story (and the fact that one of his lovers was said to have been a Boer prisoner of war) coincided with growing unease on my part at the resurgence of nationalism and the current rise of false history – a distortion of the recent past to serve a dishonourable political agenda.

These two preoccupations came together in The Magistrate of Gower. Very fortunately for the reader, though, such Big Ideas tend to take a back seat to the human lives and loves when one comes to tell the story, and in the end the book is about a young woman and the magistrate of a small town playing out the proof of Oscar Wilde’s subversive observation: “The advantage of the emotions is that they lead us astray.”


(The year is 1938, the scene a street in the town of Gower. Mrs Poley is a leading figure in the shack settlement on the town’s outskirts.)

It is almost summer, and on Church Street children in cotton nightdresses and pyjamas chase one another among the adults. About halfway down the street the magistrate is speaking quietly to Mr Theron, watching Mrs Cordier rattle her collecting box. And here it comes, a rough shriek. A shriek, a screech, a scream:

“Tim! You bloody bastard! Tim! I will bloody smash you!”

It is Mrs Poley, out of breath and in a terrible dress. She is trying to run and at the same time has one of her bosoms in her left hand to push it back behind the bib of her apron as she comes around a corner into the bright light of Church Street. She stops dead at the sight of them, a street of people playing Statues and all of them looking at her. For a long second she does not move either — her hand on her breast in its loose dress as though she is holding a spanspek high on her chest, breathing like a running dog, and a boy’s stupid giggle the only other sound.

She folds her arms across her bosom. She starts to smile a sorry-boss smile, then lifts her chin and scowls at them.

Somewhere among the stock-still people on the street the dog Tim is still running, and as he comes into the light they can see that he has in his jaws a leguaan, dead, its monkeylike black claws moving as he runs, as though they are reaching for something and falling back, reaching and falling. Its tail hangs almost to the ground and the dog has to hold its head high to keep it from dragging on the tar. Now the town dogs are streaking up the street to attack, and although men shout at them and try to block them, there is no chance that these dogs will not go after something that is, rolled into one, an intruder and limping and carrying a trophy.

In a second they have it from him.

The dog Tim trots a few steps away from them and looks back, as a jackal would, but the town dogs, curiously enough, just stop where they are, as though they are waiting for orders.

Mrs Poley, meanwhile, is on the move towards her dog, her face dark with risen blood. Mr Theron says, “No, man,” in Afrikaans, softly, and as Mrs Poley passes Vena Cordier, Vena lifts the fingers of one gloved hand to her nose, an extra unkindness.

Before the woman can reach her dog, Mr Villiers from the bank steps up and speaks the name of his dog; it is a ridiculous town name, Monroe. The big yellow dog with the leguaan in its mouth comes to its master at once. Mr Villiers waits a moment and then says, in the same actor’s tenor: “Sit. Sit. Drop it.”

Monroe obeys to the letter and Mr Villiers takes out his handkerchief and picks up the great lizard, holds it away from him with both hands, a strangler’s grip, and steps into the sanitation lane left over from when Gower was on buckets. They hear the dustbin lid lifting and being jammed tight again, then Mr Villiers is back in the light, wiping his hands on the same hanky. He gives Mrs Poley a schoolmaster’s look. She, breathless with anger, tries to catch sight of her dog among the people on the street, calling “Tim! Tim!”, but something in her voice scares him worse than the town dogs and he takes off, splashing urine on his paws. The giggling boy laughs like a bark. Mr Theron says again, under his breath, “Ag, no, man.”

The magistrate steps out from among the townsfolk and walks quickly across the street to where the big woman stands alone among the proper Gower people. He takes her elbow and turns her, and all the time he has his head down near her face, talking to her, pointing with his free hand. In this way he brings her away from staring Gower and back to her corner, where he takes leave of her with a tip of his hat.

The magistrate, returning to Theron’s side, is already regretting his actions. He had felt the heat and agitation of the woman’s outrage when he held her arm and brought her away from the lit street to the threshold of the darker part of Gower. He regretted doing so, regretted doing anything at all. She had hated him, was humiliated, he thought, had furiously strained against a world where cunning and strength and the essential art of veld foraging to feed a family (if that was the intended fate of the leguaan) must bend the knee to the bland ambitions of respectability, to this ascendancy of herd animals.

The dogs have returned to sit at their masters’ feet.

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Book Bites: 22 May 2016

Missing, PresumedMissing, Presumed
Susie Steiner (HarperCollins)
Book thrill
An intriguing look into how most crimes are resolved by dogged determination rather than hunches and exciting leads. The case of the missing Cambridge postgraduate Edith Hinds was always going to be high profile, not only because she was the beautiful daughter of successful parents but also due to revelations of her sexual shenanigans. DI Manon Bradshaw is more concerned with the plight of Fly, a boy whose brother’s murder she is investigating, but the author weaves the threads together seamlessly into a satisfying conclusion. – Aubrey Paton

Tokyo KillTokyo Kill
Barry Lancet (Simon & Schuster)
Book thrill
Jim Brodie is a dealer in Chinese and Japanese art and artefacts who becomes a sleuth by default when he inherits his father’s private-eye business. He is also a widowed father to a six-year-old daughter. Not a promising start for an action-packed detective series, but that turns out to be wrong. This time Brodie is investigating the mysterious murders of old soldiers who had been part of Japan’s vicious invasion of Chinese Manchuria, that lasted until the end of World War II. Lancet, through Brodie, has a fine eye for the subtleties of Japanese culture and an ability to decipher its impenetrability for the ignorant average Westerner. – William Saunderson-Meyer @TheJaundicedEye

A Different Kind of DaughterA Different Kind of Daughter
Maria Toorpakai (Pan Macmillan)
Book buff
Maria Toorpakai was born a natural athlete. Unfortunately, she was also born a woman in a country where Islamic fundamentalism is the political order of the day. At the age of four, Maria burnt her dresses, put on her brother’s clothes and cut off her long tresses. Despite the danger it posed, she became the number one female squash player in Pakistan. Strong, bold and independent, she went against what the Taliban deemed correct behaviour for a woman. Along with her family, Maria fled to Canada where she continues to play professional squash. Her story is a gripping one of unity, love and strength. – Varsha Lalla @varsh31

Into the Magic Shop
Into the Magic Shop: A neurosurgeon’s true story of the life-changing magic of compassion and mindfulness

Dr James R Doty (Hodder & Stoughton)
A rags-to-riches tale mixed with self-help tips that neurosurgeon James Doty learned as a 12-year-old boy in a magic shop make for an unlikely alchemy. But Doty has a not-so-secret ingredient infusing his story: compassion. The first part of his tale as a boy living in poverty is interspersed with tips on mindfulness and easy reading. Part two, on how he became a neurosurgeon worth millions, dragged on, but the final part on practising and researching compassion is inspiring. – Claire Keeton @ClaireKeetonST

Book details

  • Into the Magic Shop: From Lost Boy To Neurosurgeon: A True Story Of The Life-Changing Magic Of Compassion And Mindfulness by James R Doty
    EAN: 9781444786187
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