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"Obviously no one but a fool writes fiction for money" - a Q&A with Trade Secrets contributor, Darrel Bristow-Bovey

Darrel Bristow-Bovey is a screenwriter and columnist who lives in Sea Point. He was won the Percy Fitzpatrick Prize and a Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature, as well several South African Film and Television Awards, and was a finalist for the Caine Prize for African Writing. His most recent book is One Midlife Crisis and a Speedo, a memoir about growing up and falling in love and trying to swim from one continent to another.

Joanne Hichens, curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories Award, recently interviewed Darrel who’s currently in southern Spain. In between sips of rioja, Darrel shared his disdain for authors having to explain their stories, why melancholy and poignancy are naturally funny things, and a short, sharp (sorry…) writing trade secret.

Darrel Bristow-Bowey, author of the Trade Secrets story ‘An Act of God’

 
In your story, ‘An Act Of God’, journalist Andrew misses a working lunch with the lead of a touring Irish dance troupe; he loses his job and begins to write obituaries. Is this tongue in cheek? Has he been diminished by writing the lives of ordinary dead people, in contrast to exploring the lives of celebrities?

No, not tongue-in-cheek at all. I also don’t think he’s diminished, although it might appear that way to the world, and even at first to him. I think he finds far greater dignity and creative purpose and fulfillment in writing the stories of ordinary people. Ordinary lives are rich and full and fascinating, and contain far more than the thinly presented lives of celebrities. The most interesting things don’t happen in public – they happen unseen in the lives of those going about their days around us. I also think he found his real material, and his real voice, writing about ordinary people and giving them the dignity and consideration that we all deserve, no matter who we are and what we have or have not done.

Your protagonist, Sarah, meets Andrew who happens also to be disabled, at an Italian class and so begins their affair… until Bella Lennon appears, a movie star of note! Andrew’s career again picks up, and he miraculously begins to walk again. Is there deeper meaning here?

No, I don’t think so.

Short and sweet! Let’s skip to the last line of the story, which ends with the words ‘…this is what it looks like and this is what it feels like…’ Is this a means to reinforce the ‘flow’ of life? To show an acceptance of what ‘is’?

I don’t know that I specifically wanted to show anything. I just wanted to tell a story about two people and a portion of their lives.

I often advocate, to newer writers, that a short story should stick to a time-frame, but yours transgresses this boundary as Sarah and Andrew, as time goes by, are married and divorced… the story spans time and place. What are your thoughts on this?

A time-frame is just the length of time something takes, isn’t it? Are you saying that time should pass at the same rate from the beginning of the story to the end? I can see no compelling reason why that should be the case. I think whatever a story needs in order to be told is precisely what it should have.

The story is coloured by a certain poignancy, melancholy even, a self-deprecating humour. Is writing humour a natural instinct for you?

I think poignancy and melancholy are naturally funny things, and vice versa. I think writing that is without humour, and without a degree of self-awareness, tends to be pompous and dull and life-denying. I am painfully aware that these answers fall into that category.

“Ordinary lives are rich and full and fascinating.” Bristow-Bovey on the significance of obituaries.

 

Surely some readers are interested in the writer behind the story? Why would you think the answers dull and life-denying?

By that, I mean that I am aware that I am not answering with any great verve or sense of humour, and I think the upshot of that is that the answers feel dull to me, and I find dullness to be a little life-denying. Why am I answering without any verve or sense of humour? I’m not sure – partially because I am writing this from southern Spain, in between other commitments, especially a commitment to a fine bottle of rioja in the small bar opposite the bullring in Ronda. Partially because I have a horror of sounding self-important or self-indulgent, and so as a counter-measure I am perhaps tending towards the non-committal.

Is it your opinion that stories be left to speak for themselves? (That bottle of rioja, by the way, sounds delightful!)

Look, obviously the purpose of these interviews is to publicise the book, so I totally get the point of them, and as far as that goes I think they’re a good thing. I also think the questions you’ve posed to people have been good and thoughtful. I am all in favour of the questions; it’s the answers I think we can all live without. I don’t think any story was ever improved by having its author explain it. In these our times, I see authors (or aspiring authors, more precisely) endlessly talking about their writing or themselves writing or their relationship to the writing life on social media, and I think it’s a little pitiful and doesn’t do their work or them any favours.

As a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, what does fiction offer you that non-fiction might not?

I write non-fiction for money. (Well, to be honest, I don’t actually write non-fiction, I write opinion pieces and personal columns, which isn’t fiction, but it also isn’t quite the medium implied by ‘non-fiction’.) Obviously no one but a fool writes fiction for money, and the act and process of doing something not for money, not because you have to, is freeing. It frees you from calculation and from the demands and constraints of professional work. When you’re writing fiction you can write whatever you want, and take as long as you like, and end it however you want, and there is no pressure from anyone else or yourself to do otherwise, or to account for it or justify it. Fiction gives me freedom, which is sometimes joyful and sometimes obviously not, but is something that I need.

Please share a writing Trade Secret…

Do some every day.

Follow Darrel on twitter at @dbbovey

Trade Secrets

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Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature winners publish exciting new isiZulu and Sesotho books

Nal’ibali Column 18: Term 14, as published in the Sunday World (26 November 2017), Daily Dispatch (27 November 2017) and Herald (30 November 2017)

 

By Carla Lever

How hard is it to write a 25 000 word story – one that’s compelling and exciting to young people?

Ask Lebohang Pheko and Dumisani Hlatswayo. They’ve just been awarded prizes in the Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature. Along with four other authors writing in English and Afrikaans, their winning books – Pheko’s in Sesotho and Hlatswayo’s in isiZulu – are published and available for purchase both online (takealot.com) and in selected bookstores nation-wide.

“It took me almost a year, including the editing of the manuscript going forth and back from Tafelberg publishers,” said Lebohang Pheko of her book, Mamello. For Dumisani Hlatswayo, writing had to happen after hours when he came back from his copywriting job. “This one took me 2 months to research, another 2 months to write the first draft and one month to edit.”

Lebohang Pheko, author of Mamello

 
The discipline and time commitment proved worth it: their books for young people join the ranks of new South African stories that the competition has published since it began in 1980.

If there’s been a big story to this year’s award, it’s been one of success. With an increase of 60 submissions from previous numbers, there were record competition entries in 2017. Sponsors Sanlam generously matched this with increased prize money for the winners: R20 000 for Gold award and R10 000 for Silver.

There was more good news for language activists: entries were strong across all three categories, with 55 English, 46 Indigenous language and 33 Afrikaans submissions. “There can be few more worthwhile endeavors than enabling young people to read books reflecting their own realities in their own language,” said Eloise Wessels, managing director of Media24 Books, of which NB Publishers and Tafelberg form part. Wessels added that mother tongue stories “play a key role in promoting literacy and a love for books, bringing lifelong rewards.”

Thirty-seven year old Gold Award winner Dumisani Hlatswayo was born in Soweto with ink in his veins. By the age of 14 he had already had a short story in isiZulu published – Isibhobo. This was followed by a flurry of other work: he’s been a finalist for the Maskew Millar Longman awards, had a radio drama aired and currently works as a copywriter.

Dumisani Hlatswayo, author of Imibala Yothando

 
Hlatswayo’s winning story, Imibala Yothando (“The Colours of Love”), is described as “a riveting tale of love, betrayal, jealousy and growing up in the social media era.” It centres on Sinenhlanhla, who is sent to a new school in Soweto, where she falls prey to a cyber bully.

For silver award winner Lebohang Pheko, the story was somewhat different. In Virginia in the Free State, her mother singlehandedly raised three girls, of which Pheko was the youngest. Although she had dreams of becoming a lawyer, money was tight and life had other plans: she was married and had two children by her early twenties. Throughout all of this, she leapt up her own creative pursuits: movies, drawing, reading, but most of all, writing stories.

Pheko’s prize winning Sesotho story, Mamello, takes on all these elements, weaving what the judges described as a “perfect tale of overcoming adversity” about a young girl who is not allowed to attend school but dreams of becoming a human rights lawyer.

“On the day I heard I was nominated, it was good news for me,” said Pheko. “But when I heard that I won the competition and was heading to the awards, I just couldn’t believe it! I was over the moon, but also full of amazement.”

In no small part, the competition’s 2017 successes have been as a result of a conscious drive from all concerned. A ‘250 words a day’ campaign was launched, where well-known authors gave feedback and mentorship to encourage entrants to get over the line. Writing’s a solitary occupation, so constant tips and encouragement can go a long way – especially for first time authors, many of whom had never written long form work before.

“An incredible 48 entries were received from debut writers, which reflects the success of the campaign,” said Michelle Cooper, publisher of children and young adult fiction at Tafelberg. Cooper added that it’s not merely quantity of entries that the competition draws, but quality too: in the 37 years the competition has existed, nearly 80 stories have gone on to be prescribed for schoolchildren as setworks.

How important is hooking children on stories and making available books in their own languages? “As a young person growing in Limpopo there were quite a few isiZulu books I could relate to,” Hlatswayo said. “In fact, the best way to inspire more people to read and write stories in their own languages is to make those kinds of books available.”

Of course, now there are two more books to add to those libraries! Mamello and Imibala Yothando are available and adding to the number of home-grown stories South Africans can be proud to call their own.

Feeling inspired? Now’s the perfect time to start planning your world-changing new novel: entries for the 2019 Sanlam Prizes for Youth Literature are now open. Entry forms are available at www.nb.co.za and the closing date is 5 October 2019. Make 2018 a year of celebrating the stories within your world.

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.

Mamello

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Imibala Yothando

2017 Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature: an interview with Lesley Beake, who won gold for her novel Hap

Lesley Beake’s young adult novel, Hap, recently won gold in the category ‘English’ in the 2017 Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature. The judges described Hap as “a well-structured and beautifully written coming-of-age story.”

Description

Lucy, a 16-year-old girl from New York, is recovering from a recent traumatic experience. She joins her father at the fictional Barclay Bay, on South Africa’s west coast, where she slowly makes sense of her ordeal. But Lucy cannot help but also be affected by the characters around her, including that of Hap, an early ancestor who lived in the area, and whose experiences Lucy, in a state of heightened emotion and perception, seems to sense.

Lesley Beake, author of Hap. © Hannerie de Wet

 
Listen to NB Publishers’ recent interview with Lesley:

 

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David France wins the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction for How to Survive a Plague

David France has been awarded the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction! The announcement was made on the evening of 16 November.

As per the press release, composed by Picador publisher Ravi Mirchandani:

I am delighted to share the news, to those of you who don’t yet know, that last night our author David France won the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction (formerly the Samuel Johnson Prize).

The prize is the UK’s leading award for non-fiction, but it is open to books published in the UK by writers from all over the world, including in translation.

David’s book tells the story of AIDS from the first cases in the US in the late 70s to the emergence of the combination drug therapies that mean that an HIV diagnosis is no longer a death sentence in the 90s. It is in part his own story, as a gay man in New York at the time and as a journalist who covered AIDS, at a time when the mainstream press very largely did not, but it is also a significant work of history.

Thanks to the fact that the virus very disproportionately targeted members of stigmatised groups – gay men, heroin addicts and Haitian immigrants – the American establishment, from President Reagan to the pharmaceutical industry, the medical authorities, the churches and the media, for years turned a blind eye to the increasing number of deaths, usually terrible, drawn-out and agonizingly painful deaths, and to the health crisis that was emerging in plain sight.

Thanks to this willful neglect, 40 million people around the world have died. Many of them need not have.

But the book is also the story of how groups of HIV-positive people across America and the world, many of them literally fighting for their lives, fought one of the most effective protest campaigns in history. And how they eventually won.

Thanks to these activists and to a crucial group of scientists and drug developers, many millions have not died and are ‘living with HIV’, thanks to the combination therapies.Their achievement has changed not only HIV, but also the ways in which medical research is done and made a major contribution to the emergence of the ‘patients’ rights’ movement.

For all these reasons the book is an important one; it is also hugely readable, not only at times almost unbearably moving, but also gripping and inspiring, a story of heroism and victory as well as of sadness and bereavement.

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Entries for the 2019 Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature are now open!

This is your chance to become a published author!

Since its inception in 1980, the prestigious Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature has consistently rewarded work of outstanding quality, becoming a trusted brand among both the general book-buying public and the educational sector.

Prizes worth R75 000 are up for grabs and prize-winning authors will get their books published by Tafelberg Publishers, catapulting their writing career to the next level.

Get your entry form here: www.nb.co.za/Sanlam. The closing date is 5 October 2018. | Jy kan nou inskryf vir die 2019-Sanlampryse vir Jeuglektuur. Kry jou inskrywingsvorm hier: www.nb.co.za/Sanlam. Die sluitingsdatum is 5 Oktober 2018.

A Q&A with Mishka Hoosen, winner of the 2017 Short.Sharp.Stories Award's 'Best Story'

Mishka Hoosen was born in Johannesburg. She graduated from Interlochen Arts Academy and later from Rhodes University with an MA in Creative Writing. Her debut novel, Call it a difficult night, was published by Deep South Books in 2016.

Mishka Hoosen‘s ‘Wedding Henna’, which won the R20 000 prize for BEST STORY, is a powerful exploration of the erotic taboo behind the hijab. Hoosen’s tender and sensual writing explores the delicate process of painting lacy floral patterns, in henna, on the bride’s hands on the morning of her wedding. Behind this technical artistry, the author weaves another, more haunting tale, as she explores the past relationship between her protagonist, Aisha, and the bride to be. Mishka and Joanne Hichens, curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories Award, recently discussed her winning entry:

Congratulations on winning this year’s Short.Sharp.Stories Award for BEST STORY. What does this ‘win’ mean to you?

It’s incredibly difficult to explain really, and deeply, deeply moving and humbling. It’s difficult, when it’s a story that is, for me at least, centered in so much pain, so much internal and external struggle, and so many unresolved things. This contest means so much in terms of setting the tone of the literary landscape in this country, the conversations we’re having, the stories we’re bringing to light. I’m utterly humbled and awed to be counted among the writers included in this anthology, who are producing such startling, necessary, brilliant work. I’m just deeply grateful, to everyone who enjoyed the story, to the judges, the organizers who have done such exemplary work, and to my husband, who is my biggest supporter and helped give me the space and love to tell this story.

I think one of the biggest and most powerful things about this whole experience is the passion and attention of the Short.Sharp.Stories team who by doing this, are making space for voices and stories that are so often erased, vilified, ignored, to be heard. In recent years, I’ve been trying with all my heart to follow Toni Morrison’s advice, to write the stories I want to read, and more than that, to write the stories I need to hear, the stories younger me needed like air, but didn’t get to hear. If there’s solace that comes from this story, for one person, if there’s a hand reaching in the dark, or a little more empathy and kindness kindled in the world because of it, that’s everything, that’s enough.

“…love demands truth from us, the fullness of truth, and the fullness of acknowledgement, of honoring it.”

 
‘Wedding Henna’ reads in one sense like a coming of age story, as Aisha reconnects with her school friend and the memories are ignited, of being school children together, as Zahra takes this next step into marriage. Would you agree with this?

Yes, I definitely think so. It’s meant as a kind of laying to rest, a necessary addressing and honoring of something before the next stage of life can begin.

The story has such an authentic right to it, one wonders about the inspiration and how close is the story to your own experience?

My story is inspired by some of the people, places, and things I have loved, and what love does. I’m not sure how else to put it. There are aspects of people I’ve known and loved in here, and things that belong entirely to the story. Above all it’s the experience of love I wanted to capture, love that is beset on all sides, love that sears, and is forced to transcend so much in order to remain whole. There’s a great deal of my feelings about love and the sacred in here. About how love lifts us out of ourselves, brings us closer to the sacred, the transcendent. And when you’re dealing with such ignorance and harm and prejudice, the only solace, often, is in the sacred. I wanted to capture that feeling I’ve experienced, and I think many others have. I think art comes from compulsion, and our experiences are what compel us.

Love is not always easy… your protagonist, Aisha, has to subjugate her love for her schoolfriend Zahra… it seems as if instinctively she knows she must do this, yet she tells her aunt. The aunt in turn is revolted by the disclosure: ‘I told her, Auntie Sohair, I love somebody. I’m in love with somebody. With a girl….’ Wasn’t this a big risk for Aisha to take? Why did she do it?

It was a terrifying, horrible risk, yes. But I find, for better or worse, that love demands truth from us, the fullness of truth, and the fullness of acknowledgement, of honoring it. And also, what we love, and who we love, is so often a part of ourselves, a part of what makes us ourselves, and we want to share ourselves with the people we love, with our family and friends, especially. I think that if we have to keep that part of ourselves in the dark, out of sight, then we’re not wholly ourselves with the people we have to keep that from.

I think Aisha would feel that her love of her aunt demands that she be wholly herself with her, around her, and so she can’t deny or hide her love of Zahra. She wants to celebrate it, and share it, because what feeling human being wouldn’t want to do that? If she had been in love with a boy she could have confided in her aunt, she could have sought her advice, it could have been something that brought them together, and if one day she wanted to get married to him, it would have been a source of joy, of closeness, between them. It is inhumane to deny her that, and I think on some level she knows that.

Aisha is one of the most sincere characters I’ve ever written, honestly, and she’s sincere to the point of naivety, in a way. But she’s a Muslim, and we’re taught to speak truth no matter what, even unto our own parents, not to be underhanded, to be sincere in our intentions and our actions, and so if she believes in that, then she will be truthful and forthright. She will speak the truth even if it harms her. She will honor the goodness she finds in her life sincerely and in the open, if she can. It’s perplexing to me why we say one thing and do another, particularly in religion. I wanted Aisha to be a stand against that, this virulent hypocrisy that so many people enact, and most especially when they use religion to justify their own hate, their own dismissal and arrogance and lack of empathy.

Not only are questions of love and sexual identity placed in the spot light, but very gently, and subtly, questions of God are raised too, as Aisha comments: ‘What we were brought up with was so finite… God confined to black and white lines…’ Can you comment on this?

There’s almost too much I have to say about this, and I don’t think I can do my feelings justice. I think I poured a lot of my feelings about it into the story, to be completely honest, and so that will have to say the bulk of how I feel, and even that doesn’t do it very well, in my opinion. I have a reverence and love of the sacred, of God, of faith, that goes beyond anything I could say. It is my driving force and my deepest love and the impetus behind everything I attempt. I have also had the most sacred and sincere and noble parts of myself attacked, and harmed, horrifically, by people who claim the same, and who use religion as their justification for a kind of unkindness, a lack of empathy, of mercy, of love, a virulent and cruel hatred, a cruel dismissiveness and mockery, towards people based on their gender or sexual identity. I find it completely antithetical to what I believe God is – which is all-encompassing, all-understanding, most merciful, most gracious and beneficent and kind. I still struggle with that, with what to do with that.

The themes I address in the story are definitely shaped by and influenced by my own Muslim background, people I’ve known, things I’ve witnessed, and so on.

And so the story unfolds as Aisha tenderly executes the wedding patterns on Zahra’s hands. Apart from being an excellent fictional device to carry the story along, what is the particular significance of the ritual?

It’s generally a celebratory kind of act, and often that’s when a lot of laughter and secrets and advice will be shared. There’s a big aspect of womanhood and camaraderie to it, at least in my experience attending Mehndi nights and doing Mehndi patterns for brides and so on. But there’s also a profound and gentle intimacy to it that is very poignant when there’s erotic love between the two people involved.

In this story, I was actually inspired by a painting called The meeting on the turret stairs by Frederic William Burton, which captures this utterly poignant moment between two lovers whose relationship is forbidden. It’s a perfect depiction of so much of the medieval ideas surrounding courtly love – silence and restraint, sincerity and reverence and longing. The woman turns away while her lover is only able to kiss her sleeve in passing. It’s so charged with erotic tension but executed with such restraint that the moment is held taut, and it’s that aspect, the restraint of ritual and etiquette, the longing and erotic charge of touch, of the hand brushed in passing, that inspired me.

How did you research the ‘trade’ of painting Mehndi?

I’m actually a practitioner myself. I’ve done henna and Mehndi painting since I was twelve.

To get to the style, the writing has a lyrical quality which makes for fluid reading. Are you aware of ‘rhythm’ as you write? Or is the writing style determined by the character?

I’m not sure, I think it depends. I think often, when you get into the kind of ‘flow’ of writing, when you’re receptive and open and things are moving and happening, it kind of happens organically, and when you tap into a character’s voice, it takes on a life of its own.

What writing Trade Secret would you like to share?

There’s not much of a secret except to remember that it’s work. And as Khalil Gibran said, and my dearest mentors always reminded me, ‘Work is love made visible’. You must honor the work. Keep showing up. Keep paying attention. Keep your love as sincere as you can.

Click here to visit Mishka’s author’s page.

Trade Secrets

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