By Mila de Villiers
The Thuma Mina Hillbrow Book Club, an exceptional book club created for orphanages in and around Johannesburg, was recently gifted books in English, Zulu and Sesotho by the national reading-for-enjoyment campaign, Nal’ibali.
The handover of the donations was celebrated at Killarney Mall’s Exclusive Books on a sunny Saturday morning with Thuma Mina Book Club organisers, Nal’ibali team members, media and the buoyant bookworms in attendance.
The group of animated bibliophiles were also offered the luxury of selecting any two books to add to their growing libraries, thanks to a fundraiser organised by the Thuma Mina Book Club.
(Colouring-in books seemed to be a hit and Nomalizo Xabana, marketing manager for the book club, had to encourage more than one youngster to please “pick another storybook”…)
Nal’ibali’s Bongile Mtolo (and storyteller par excellence) treated the riveted audience to a reading of two stories from Nal’ibali’s story collection: Sisande’s Gift tells the tale of Sisande, an orphaned giraffe who’s gifted a book after the passing of her mother and The Rainbird – a fairy tale about hope, magic, courage and a fantastical avian.
Bongile interacted with the crowd during the reading of both stories, asking questions such as which gifts they’d like to receive for Christmas (a confident “iPhone 8!” was met with mirth from the group), and what they would name a giraffe if they were to own one (“Owen” was quite a surprising answer…)
Youngsters do tend to get a bit kriewelrig after having to sit for a prolonged period of time but Bongile kept the vibe alive by leading two lively renditions of the Nal’ibali hand-clap – because no, one doesn’t clap “like you’re in church” after being read to, he quipped.
All together now: “One, two, three!” [clap, clap, clap] / “One, two, three!” [clap, clap clap] aaand [Ululate!]
To paraphrase the Von Trapp siblings, the time to say so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen and goodbye is inevitable and the merriment concluded with a donation from The Sowetan of R80 000 to Nal’ibali, presented to the organisation by Sowetan editor, S’thembiso Msomi.
Now that’s what one calls a contribution to a nation’s literary future.
A pleasing vignette of our favourite cop: William Saunderson-Meyer reviews Deon Meyer’s novella, The Woman in the Blue Cloak
Published in the Sunday Times
The Woman in the Blue Cloak ***
Deon Meyer, Hodder & Stoughton, R195
One of the great things about Deon Meyer’s work, aside from his infallible ear for the nuances of South African life and his masterful plots, is that they are satisfyingly fat books.
Buy a Meyer and you’ve got the whole weekend sorted.
The Woman in the Blue Cloak, however, is a novella, weighing in at a mere 26,000 words and was written on invitation for the 2017 Week of the Thriller in the Netherlands.
It’s a challenging format, since there just isn’t the same space to build plot and character. Meyer writing a novella is a bit like a world-class marathon runner entering the 100m.
It is interestingly eccentric but one would be naive to expect a gold medal performance.
And so it is with this offering: a pleasing vignette of our favourite cop, dry alcoholic Benny Griessel, but just not enough meat to be anything more than an appetiser. @TheJaundicedEye
- The Woman in the Blue Cloak by Deon Meyer
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A whodunnit with a thousand suspects – Sue de Groot reviews Camilla Lackberg’s latest contribution to the Nordic noir sphere
Published in the Sunday Times
The Girl in the Woods *****
Camilla Lackberg, HarperCollins, R285
Camilla Lackberg has amassed millions of devoted followers with her series of crime novels set in the Swedish fishing village of Fjällbacka – which actually exists in the real world.
It has fewer than 1,000 permanent residents and is deathly quiet in winter, but in summer turns into a playground for Scandinavian tourists.
The Girl in the Woods, Lackberg’s 10th novel featuring author Erica Falck and her police detective husband, Patrik Hedstrom, is set in summer, when the influx of holiday-makers creates a wider pool of suspects.
A four-year-old girl has been murdered, her body found in the same place as that of a similar victim 30 years previously.
The two teenage girls who were accused of the earlier crime are now adults and conveniently present.
One is a Hollywood film star who has returned to her home town for the first time since the incident. The other is married to a sociopathic UN soldier who is on home leave.
Then there are the Syrian refugees, whose safe asylum in Sweden does not come with a warm welcome from all its citizens.
And there are the local high-school kids with too much time on their hands and the usual adolescent problems.
And then – because Lackberg loves to weave ancient history into modern mystery – there is a woman who lived in these parts in the 17th century, when literal witch hunts were all the rage.
Lackberg cleverly connects multiple tales of violence and ostracism in a narrative that climbs to a terrifying crescendo, but there is much light relief in the lives of her extended family of regular characters.
Even police chief Bertil Mellberg displays flashes of charm between being his usual bumbling and graceless self.
He is also the recipient of the best put-down in the book: when he enquires whether refugee children eat cinnamon buns, detective Paula Morales replies tartly: “Of course they do. They’re from Syria, not outer space.” @deGrootS1
- The Girl in the Woods by Camilla Lackberg
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Published in the Sunday Times
One book our world leaders should read?
The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. It’s a slim volume which is perfect for someone who doesn’t have time to read anything cover to cover. It’s interfaith, exquisitely written and full of wisdom. It might help remind our world leaders of their humanity.
Do you keep a diary?
I kept a daily diary between the ages of 13 and 18; parts of it are hilarious, others tragic. No-one has read it but me, and I’d be horrified if it fell into the wrong hands.
Who is your favourite fictional hero?
Jay Gatsby. I’ve been in love with him since I was 17 and first read The Great Gatsby. It was the most romantic book I’d ever read – at that age, every young woman wants to be loved so completely the way Gatsby loves Daisy. As I’ve grown older, I’ve seen it as the dark side of obsessive love.
You’re hosting a literary dinner with three writers. Who’s invited?
F Scott Fitzgerald – he’s both an obsession and an inspiration. As a writer, I’m fascinated by the way an author’s life feeds into their writing, and Fitzgerald’s relationship with his wife, Zelda, formed the basis for The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night. Charles Dickens, because he was a wonderful storyteller and a jobbing writer with a large family to feed, like me. He wrote A Christmas Carol in six weeks because he needed the money. And JK Rowling because, despite her success and wealth, she continues to write.
What novel would you give to children to introduce them to literature?
The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis.
What is the last thing you read that made you cry?
Rather sadly, it was the last book I wrote – The Butterfly Room. Given that I never plan books before I write them, I’m as shocked and horrified as the reader when something tragic happens.
Is there a type of book you never read?
Anything about serial killers and grim murders. I read before I go to sleep and the last thing I want is to have my head filled with those kind of pictures. For me, reading is all about escapism.
What is your most treasured book?
When I received my first big advance, I bought myself a first edition copy of Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh.
How do you select characters’ names?
I have a clutch of favourite names, so much so that when I got to the end of The Butterfly Room, I had to change the name of a major character because I’d used it so many times before.
A character you could be best friends with?
Ruth from Elly Griffiths’s Dr Ruth Galloway series. She’s a forensic archaeologist and a single mother who spends her life getting into scrapes, both personal and professional. She’s so real and warm and lives in an idyllic cottage just down the road from me. I’d love to pop round for a glass of wine at the end of a stressful day and talk old bones and kids.
The Moon Sister by Lucinda Riley is published by Macmillan, R290.
- The Moon Sister by Lucinda Riley
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“My work wasn’t ever going to be to make the reader feel comfortable” – Máire Fisher discusses her latest novel with Tiah Beautement
Published in the Sunday Times
The Enumerations ****
Máire Fisher, Umuzi, R280
Máire Fisher has followed her successful debut novel, Birdseye, with the polished The Enumerations.
The story explores 17-year-old Noah Groome, who has obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and how he impacts his family, friends and the people he encounters in rehab after a school bully pushes him too far.
The most impressive aspect of this novel is its structure; a fast-paced collage of the various storylines.
These short, punchy sections show a kaleidoscope of the anxious minds of Noah and his family, echoing how it can feel to have OCD and live around it.
“My work wasn’t ever going to be to make the reader feel comfortable,” Fisher admits. But what an interesting ride she has created.
Readers will cheer for Noah as they develop sympathy for the unsympathetic, and take delight in minor characters, including the fabulous and bold Willa, who Noah meets in rehab.
However, the true heroine is Noah’s little sister Maddie, who is both a warrior and friend to her brother.
Fisher explains: “She knows what her job is: to be – and remain – a happy, sunshine child. That places a large burden on young shoulders.”
A book of this complex nature, both in subject matter and structure, required heavy research along with many drafts: “First person, third person, past tense, present tense … poor old Noah has been through so many incarnations,” says Fisher.
Yet the finished product reads smoothly, creating an experience and an empathy that lingers. @ms_tiahmarie
- The Enumerations by Máire Fisher
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Barbara Kingsolver, Faber & Faber, R295
Picture: David Wood
There is a marvellous tableau early on in Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel Unsheltered.
It is 1871 in small-town New Jersey and a young science teacher, Thatcher Greenwood, is visiting his next door neighbour. He thinks she is sitting demurely at her desk, prim and unmoving, until he realises she is patiently feeding her finger to a Venus flytrap.
The neighbour is a fictionalised Mary Treat, the American botanist and entomologist who studied carnivorous plants and who corresponded with Charles Darwin. She is the ideal Kingsolver heroine: a barricade-breaching, society-scorning, way ahead-of-her-time woman, and a scientist to boot.
The town, Vineland, exists to this day. It was built in the 1800s as a utopian experiment, a teetotal haven for free thinkers and spiritualists, but the idealism quickly eroded. Greenwood is close to being run out of town for teaching Darwinism to his pupils, and the community’s prissy and elaborate manners disguise a vicious bigotry.
Kingsolver divides the novel into two narratives 150 years apart and centres them in Thatcher’s house.
The book opens in 2016, when 50-something journalist Willa Knox inherits the collapsing homestead.
It’s evident from the get-go that Willa’s life is threatening to collapse too. She has been made redundant from her magazine editorship and must now try and scrape a living in the online world of listicles and gobbets, her deep dive investigations no longer in demand.
Her academic husband, Ianno, has lost tenure at the university where he was professor and has been forced to take a temporary teaching position at a second-rate college.
Upstairs in the house, Ianno’s emphysemic and uninsured father sucks on his oxygen tank, fuelling himself for racist and right-wing diatribes. Their bristly daughter Tig has returned home from a heartbreak in Cuba and is railing at the world, a shrill Cassandra warning of catastrophe ahead for humankind.
Personal catastrophe strikes faster: the wife of their Harvard-educated but unemployed son Zeke commits suicide and they have no choice but to take in his infant son.
Willa and Ianno have worked hard and made sacrifices all their lives but now as retirement looms they realise that it has counted for nothing.
“How could two hardworking people do everything right in life and arrive in their fifties essentially destitute?” Willa thinks.
When she learns that their crumbling house might be of historical value, and therefore eligible for a grant, she heads for the town’s archives.
It is here that she unearths the characters of Mary Treat and Thatcher Greenwood. They were never lovers, only scholarly friends, but by alternating their story with Willa’s, Kingsolver is able to unfurl her themes.
Although he is never named, Donald Trump looms over the story and Kingsolver’s fury at him and all he stands for saturates her writing.
She has always been a campaigning writer but here she sails worryingly – and at times wearyingly – close to polemical lecturing, using her characters as vessels to rage at the state of the world.
Capitalism, globalism, wastefulness, failing healthcare, iniquitous student loans, white nationalism, stagnant wages and so on, all are aired.
“Today’s problems can’t be solved by today’s people,” Tig warns her mother, “we’re overdrawn at the bank, at the level of our species.”
But Kingsolver is too good a storyteller to lose us completely.
She powerfully evokes the anxiety of living through times of social turmoil, in the here and now, and in the 1880s. The alternating stories echo each other over the decades.
Mary Treat comments on the furore around Darwin’s theory: “When men fear the loss of what they know, they will follow any tyrant who promises to restore the old order.”
There are many ways in which we are unsheltered, physically and emotionally, but she reminds us to take comfort in one another. She reminds us, too, that we have adapted before and we will adapt again. @michelemagwood
- Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
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uHlanga Press has announced their second open submissions period!
Original manuscripts (containing 20 to 40 poems) by South African poets, or poets living in South Africa can be submitted from 1 February 2019 to 28 February 2019. (Please note that no early or late submissions will be accepted.)
And yes, local truly is lekker – manuscripts written in English, Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans (or a combo of the four!) are encouraged.
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“It’s crucial for us to create plays that sound like the people they speak of and about” – a Q&A with playwright, director and storyteller J Bobs Tshabalala
Nal’ibali Column 31: Term 4 (2018)
By Carla Lever
Congrats on your new publication – “Khongolose Khommanding Khommissars” is quite a title! Can you tell us a little about what it’s about?
Enkosi kakhulu for the congratulations, I really do appreciate it. This is an incredible milestone for me, and for my organization Kiri Pink Nob. Seeing also that it is my debut publication, makes it even more special for me and my team at large. So, for us, this is truly a moment!
“Khongolose Khommanding Khomissars” is a heightened period piece, only the period is very recent and very South African. It’s actually the playscript of a political satire we performed, written in what we call “Comrade-Speech” – elevated language synonymous with the Black South African aspirational discourse in the political and academic spheres.
As a young Black playwright, I think that it’s crucial for us to create plays that sound like the people they speak of and about. It’s incredible how people have taken to the first ever staging, and now, the publication. It is an important shift that we are proposing here!
It’s often a challenge to get plays published for a wider audience to read and stage them. We have powerful and interesting new theatre being made in South Africa, but are we doing enough to preserve and promote the scripts?
A simple, answer… No! We’re not doing enough – far from it. Amidst all the excuses there are some valid reasons, though.
One: some of our most interesting theatre, is physical, not text-based narrative, so it seldom translates to being a strong script offering.
Two: In the case of well written plays that are as engaging as performance texts as they are literary works, the question of commerce enters. Why spend some money on publishing for a market that I know will not spend any money on reading?
Three: There is very little collaboration between actors and publishers in South Africa. It’s a gap that needs to be closed, and my partner Monageng Motshabi and I intend to do just that! I can continue listing the ills, but my answer holds: NO! NO, we are not doing enough. Far from it!
What was your experience of self-publishing? Do you have any tips for people interested in doing the same?
It was glorious: an absolute dream! Hard work, yes. Kodwa, it was a very beautiful experience.
Monageng “Vice” Motshabi of diartskonageng is my co-publisher. This experience was such a pleasure because he and I gave it the time that it needed and we worked on it diligently at our own pace. He’s published independently before, so he knew the ropes and was more than generous in showing them to me as the process unfolded. Above all else, it’s his generosity of knowledge, contacts and spirit that made this experience so delightful.
For those who are keen to do the same, my best advice would be find someone who is equally passionate about the project and pursue it as a collaboration. Having that other person makes the brutal parts of the journey easier to endure and overcome. People should not mistake self-publishing as a synonym for “I did everything by myself as a solo project” – that’s a dangerous narrative around being independent. That’s not what it means at all.
Do you think there’s been a cultural shift where we’re telling – and listening to – our own South African stories enough, or do South Africans still tend to be more interested in international plays, books or films?
In the spaces that I operate in, the shift is tangible. People are demanding local content, and many are even demanding it in indigenous languages. That said, we need to compete for market share with the international players who have way more money than we do. What they spend on marketing one product, is what we spend on making ten, so a long way is still to be travelled when it comes to making our stories the products of choice (for the middle-class market, that is). In the working classes however, South African content is treasured. This is where I am looking to play mostly.
Your theatre work has often explored the ways we understand – and misunderstand – each other in South Africa. What interests you about this?
I’m very interested in the ways that I understand and misunderstand the country and its people. In the many ways that the country and its people understand and misunderstand me. South Africa is incredibly rich with heightened complexity and complicated nuance. I aspire to make work that captures that, so that its signature is unique to Mzansi as a character and my brand of theatre as a creative undertaking. What an amazing offer it is to be a theatre practitioner in a land that is this fertile with gems of content, concepts and people so ready to engage!
You’ve been very innovative in the ways you’ve chosen to explore socio-political issues with people. Can you tell us a little about your successful use of the game show format to draw people in and make them question their own cultural assumptions?
The Game Shows are gold for me. They took me very long to create and refine, and I feel as though only now am I getting to the heart of what they really are about and for.
Their success is based on rewarding our connections more than our divisions. On highlighting similarities in the veil of exposing our differences. On being scathing in a way that is cathartic for all, and on being funny in a way that is laughable only to our national humour. They are about using theatre to explore the theatrics of our reality.
Kodwa, my proudest achievement is that they have been made what they are by the multitude of South Africans who have witnessed them. Audiences have co-authored this journey with me, and at best, I have been very attentive and careful to be their dedicated scribe and dramaturge. It honestly feels like a commissioned work, by the people. I love doing them. The Township one, and The Suburban one – as I call them. They are triumphs. They remind me that South Africans are ready handle any concept that you may throw at them, as long as you trust them with it, they will delve in deeply.
Why is storytelling – whether through film, theatre, books or poetry – an important way for us to connect and explore our histories and realities?
It is a true monument of who we are as a people, in the time that we live in. Of all the stories to be told, the untold South African story is the most critical of them all. We want to talk about us now. We are ready to hear ourselves. We have watched as the world fantasize about us and we’re done with that!
How can people get their hands on a copy of your book?
From me! The book costs R150 a copy. In Gauteng, I deliver. In other parts of South Africa and the rest of the world, I post, which costs extra. Drop me an e-mail to email@example.com.
Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success! For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign, or to access children’s stories in a range of South African languages, visit: www.nalibali.org.
Are you an aspiring YA-author? The Goethe-Institut wants YOU to submit a short story (between 3000 – 5000 words) for the young adult market (13 – 19 years) in Kiswahili, English or French.
Entries close on November 30, 2018.
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