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

Published in the Sunday Times

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jacket Notes: Christa Kuljian talks about her latest book Darwin's Hunch: Science, Race and the Search for Human Origins

Published in the Sunday Times

Darwin's Hunch•Darwin’s Hunch: Science, Race, and the Search for Human Origins
Christa Kuljian (Jacana)

When I studied the history of science at university in the ’80s, I learned that science is often shaped by the context of the time. So when I began research for Darwin’s Hunch, I was curious to find out how the changing times had shaped the search for human origins. For over a century, scientists rejected Darwin’s theory that humans evolved in Africa, but today it is widely accepted.

One of the fascinating things I found was that anthropologist Raymond Dart has a lot in his papers that he did not share with the world. Many of his scientific practices were shaped by colonial thinking. Dart collected human skeletons in an effort to understand what he called “race typology”, which he believed held clues to evolution.

Paging through his documents, I learned the disturbing story of how one of those skeletons came into his collection, a story that remained hidden in the archives for 75 years, and which showed how scientific methods at the time treated human beings as specimens.

Phillip Tobias was Dart’s successor as the head of the department of anatomy at Wits Medical School so it was interesting to learn more about his relationship with Dart. I delved into some of Tobias’s papers as well, and it was surprising to see how his thinking on race and human evolution shifted from his youth in the 1940s through to his death in 2012. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, it was one of Tobias’s colleagues, Hertha de Villiers, who helped to shift scientific thinking away from Dart’s race typology. It was fascinating to learn about this accomplished scientist and her work.

Another of Dart’s theories was that humans are naturally violent. He based this idea on the fact that ancient human ancestors were carnivores and he believed that they used certain bones as weapons to kill their prey. This idea was so popular in the 1960s that it spread to millions of people via Robert Ardrey’s book African Genesis and the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Dart’s research inspired another young scientist, Bob Brain, based at the Transvaal Museum. Brain concluded that human ancestors did not choose certain bones as weapons, but that those bones remained in the fossil record because they could not be easily chewed.

By the late ’80s and ’90s, genetics had begun to play a big role in understanding human origins. Research with mitochondrial DNA led to the finding that all living humans had shared a common ancestor in Africa as recently as 200,000 years ago. While the changing science is engrossing, it is often the scientists themselves, and the times in which they live, that are most revealing.

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

Published in the Sunday Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was the catalyst in creating Reacher?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Joanne Hichens on Twitter @JoanneHichens

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'Deeply sobering' - Margaret von Klemperer reviews Into the Laager: Afrikaners Living on the Edge by Kajsa Norman

First published in The Witness

Into The Laager

Picking up this book, I couldn’t prevent a visceral doubt about the value of an outsider’s view – Kasja Norman is a Swedish journalist. It’s a knee-jerk response: we live here, we know our country best. Any visitor, however much they think they have explored the situation, remains an outsider, unable to get under the skin of their subject. However, the outsider’s view is often the most compelling. It is salutary, as Robert Burns reminded us, to see ourselves as others see us.

In her author’s note, Norman makes a statement that is worth quoting: “I believe that all people are more or less blind to their own culture. Certainly, it has taken a decade away from my native Sweden for me to slowly begin to notice the peculiarities of my own culture.”

And so she begins her exploration of white Afrikaner society and its attitudes, ranging from the battle of Blood River in 1838 to life in the town of Orania with its attempt to create an Afrikaner island, surrounded by a sea of contemporary South Africa. The chapters alternate between historical events that shaped the Afrikaner mindset, and Norman’s interactions with Afrikaners in Orania and elsewhere over the past few years.

Those outside its bubble are inclined to see Orania as a kind of dreary joke, head deep in the sand. Somehow Norman manages to get herself accepted, particularly among the misfits who have washed up there. Some are damaged, sad people who have found a level of protection and acceptance, and whose stories are unexpectedly moving. It is more often in communities outside Orania where Norman uncovers really horrific attitudes.

You think: but I don’t know anyone like that. And then you are pulled up short by the recent news story of the two men who forced a farm worker into a coffin and threatened to set him alight. When Norman’s book ends with the expensively built Reconciliation Bridge at Blood River, ostensibly linking the two sides who fought the ancient battle, but which is still locked and barred because the representatives of the Ncome and Blood River heritage sites cannot agree on how it should be managed, you realise that mutual accommodation and tolerance are a very long way away – and receding. This is a deeply sobering book.

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Abubakar Adam Ibrahim awarded $100,000 Nigeria Prize for Literature in glittering ceremony

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim awarded $100,000 Nigeria Literature Prize in glittering ceremony

 
Season of Crimson BlossomsAbubakar Adam Ibrahim: The man, his dreams and prize

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, who emerged from Nigeria’s generation of “intellectual terrorists”, recently won the Nigeria Prize for Literature. The award ceremony in Abuja was nothing short of grand – Michael Jimoh was there

Soon after the Swedish Academy delighted Nigerians with news that Wole Soyinka had won the Nobel Prize in Literature in October 1986, a national tragedy followed to dampen whatever excitement there was to savour of that historic feat. Dele Giwa, a stylish journalist and one of the founding editors of Newswatch, was letter-bombed. His demise, Soyinka later mourned, turned “the euphoria of the Nobel Prize into ashes in our mouths”.

When Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, winner of the 2016 edition of the Nigeria Prize for Literature, met and spoke with the press on Friday, November 25 in a clinically-clean, modest meeting room at the Protea Hotel, Maryland, Lagos, he briefly experienced the same emotional low as his senior colleague 30 years ago. His father, the one person he would have wished to be around to share this one unique moment with him, had died eight months before. In recounting it, Ibrahim’s voice became understandably low, his mien more pensive; a few journalistic heads drooped on shoulders, an expression of collective grief shown to individuals in moments of distress.

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim awarded $100,000 Nigeria Literature Prize in glittering ceremony

 

But four days later, on Tuesday, November 29, this time in Abuja, at the NAF Conference Centre in Kado, part of the Federal Capital Territory, there was no such emotion. Instead, there was celebration, celebration and recognition of an achiever. It was a mood of unpunctuated happiness from the moment MC Richmond Osuji took up the microphone to start off the public presentation of the award to Ibrahim mid-morning. The location was ideal, a quiet and easily accessible part of Abuja, with ample parking and uniformed security on guard from start to finish. The decorated tables with real white roses could have made anyone conclude that a wedding reception was about to begin.

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim awarded $100,000 Nigeria Literature Prize in glittering ceremony

 

Indeed, there was a union – not of man and woman, but of business and literature. And the result of that joint effort was evident before all by way of large posters in the lobby and in the hall: A medium shot of Ibrahim welcomed guests, his winning novel, Season of Crimson Blossoms, published by Lagos-based Parresia Publishers, beside him with the sponsor’s logo, a stylised NLNG, in smaller letters at the top.

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim awarded $100,000 Nigeria Literature Prize in glittering ceremony

 

Season of Crimson Blossoms is Ibrahim’s first novel and won the gas company’s $100,000 prize easily, trouncing 171 other entries by Nigerian authors home and abroad. In its tradition, NLNG had come all the way from Port Harcourt to honour the laureate publicly at a venue of his own choosing.

Though he was schooled and once lived in Jos, Ibrahim has resided and worked in Abuja these past years, where he is Arts Editor of Daily Trust. Fortyish with a contemplative look reminding one of F Scott Fitzgerald’s brooding visage in one of his rare sober moments, Ibrahim has said that nothing took him to writing, “I grew into it. The only thing that came naturally to me, almost as natural as breathing, was writing.”

From that first love, the Mass Communication graduate from the University of Jos has never looked back. A collection of short stories and a novel later, Ibrahim has, in the words of an acquaintance, “consistently developed himself”.

At various times an electrician and a football wannabe, he never deviated from his avowed métier. If anything, he has lived the dream of writing, thus bringing to reality what the incomparable Frenchman of American history, Henry David Thoreau, once said of dreams. “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined,” Thoreau mused centuries ago, “he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

The gathering of literati, diplomats, company execs, politicians and common folk in Abuja that Tuesday morning confirmed Ibrahim’s “success unexpected in common hours”.

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim awarded $100,000 Nigeria Literature Prize in glittering ceremony

 

The ceremony was scheduled to begin at 10pm, but the capacious hall was packed to the rafters in no time, and late arrivals had only standing space. After a mandatory frisk by security at the entrance, guests arrived in pairs and in groups or alone, filled the chairs, most of the women in hijab setting off their well-defined faces, the men in babban riga with caps caved in on one side. Female children with beaded hair and lale-designed hands complemented the northern ambience of the event.

“This is the first time a writer from northern Nigeria is winning the prize,” a longtime resident of Abuja, and president of Association of Nigerian Authors, Denja Abdullahi told me. To Abdullahi, therefore, Ibrahim’s prize is “an affirmation of so many writers in the north who have been writing without the opportunity of promotion.”

Abdullahi’s veiled comment alludes to the fact that writers in the north get far less traction than their southern counterparts whose proximity to Lagos, culture capital of Nigeria, gives them more exposure and publicity. However, the presentation more than made up for whatever publicity mileage Ibrahim may have been denied in the press. It was the most attended and most high profile literary event in recent memory in the Federal Capital Territory.

The MD of NLNG, Tony Attah, led a retinue of senior staff, including Dr Kudo Eresia-Eke, the GM External Relations. Dr Bola Afolabi, Group General Manager of the gas company, represented the GMD of NNPC, Dr Maikanti Baru. The British High Commissioner, Peter Arkwright, sat all through the event, just as two diplomats from the US and Spain did. Minister of Information and Culture Alhaji Lai Mohammed filled in for the Federal Government, calling Ibrahim “my friend” several times even though he may only have heard of him days before. It helped no more when, in his well-delivered acceptance speech, the laureate swiped at the Federal Government, declaring that “no civilisation or people achieve anything without imagination. The dire state of the Nigerian nation is a testament to this fact. We are not only conditioned to abhor imagination and creativity but to stifle it.”

Ibrahim’s creative spirit was momentarily stifled some time in Jos where, after a sectarian clash in 2008, his house was razed – along with all his books. Despite that, his dedication to writing only got stronger. “He is particular about his craft,” Mallam Denja Abdullahi recalls of the author.

The president of the writers’ body insists he is not surprised Ibrahim won the most prestigious literary award in Africa. Equally not taken unawares is the laureate’s younger sibling, Abdulkadri Adam Ibrahim.

Anyone could easily mistake him for the writer, the same visage and height, and even build. Abdulkadri has followed his sibling’s writing career closely, right from the beginning. “I wouldn’t say this is a surprise because he has been winning other competitions before. I had my fingers crossed that he was going to win and when it came, I wasn’t surprised.”

The winning entry itself, Season of Crimson Blues, published by Parresia Books under the competent headship of Azafi Omoluabi-Ogosi and Richard Ali, is a riveting love tango between a notorious, dope-dealing, hard-eyed criminal, Hassan “Reza” Babale, and a middle-aged widow, Hajiya Binta Zubairu. Though these two dominate the story, others come alive with the realism of Flaubertian characters. Mallam Haruna, a comical figure dying of suffocating jealousy, is one.

He it was, burdened by unrequited love, who hastened to Munkaila, son of Binta, with gossip about his mother’s fornication with a loathed neighbourhood crook. From then on, nothing could avert the tragedy that wound around Binta’s family like a soiled turban.

Ibrahim has a mastery of language and he deploys it expertly. In one scene, the author describes Reza and Binta, spent after making love: “the lovers lay on the bed watching the ceiling fan turning, slicing the air like an indolent scythe”. In another passage, we read of “memories eddying in little swirls around” Binta’s mind.

Season of Crimson Blossoms comes across as one of those ancient oriental tales by moonlight, complete with djinns, fragrances, incense and perfumes, sometimes used to cover up the “objectionable stench of fornication clinging” to the long-suffering widow.

It is not for nothing that the panel of judges wowed with deserved praise for Ibrahim’s novel. By a unanimous decision, they plumped for Ibrahim’s gripping tale of romance and tragedy.

“The novel moves from its evocative and passionate first sentence,” the Professor Dan Izebvaye-led panel of adjudicators commented, “through a web of anxious moments to a tragic and painful conclusion with hardly a moment of respite”.

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim awarded $100,000 Nigeria Literature Prize in glittering ceremony

 

Ibrahim comes from a generation of writers who senior journalist and writer Uzor Maxim Uzoatu classifies as “intellectual terrorists”. All of them are graduates of the University of Jos or have association with the city of Jos – the Helon Habilas, Obi Nwakanmas, Tony Kans, Dave Njokus, Richard Alis and others. So formidable is their intellectual prowess, it is said, that a UJ grad is almost always likely to win in a literary competition in Nigeria. At one time in a national poetry competition in the same year, Habila and Kan came first and third respectively.

Now teaching at George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, Habila was the first Nigerian to win the Caine Prize for African Fiction, after Aboulela, a Sudanese writer and the first African to be so honoured. Ibrahim himself has been shortlisted for the Caine Prize. He has won the BBC African Performance Prize as well as the Amatu Braide Prize for Prose. And now, the Nigeria Prize for Literature.

Tony Attah put it aptly for both the winner and the sponsoring company in his speech as the number one man in the NLNG gas company. “With respect to the prize, wherever possible, it has been the tradition to celebrate the winner of the Nigeria Prize for Literature in the author’s homestead. By so doing, we believe that we bring the celebration to the people who contributed to making this author, to those who helped shape the experiences and personality of the winner, and to the place where his creativity was fueled. In addition to that, how best could we give today’s celebration its peculiar flavour other than to have it with family and friends of both the winner and Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas.”

The highlight of the presentation came much later, when Kudo Eresia-Eke asked to recognise the mother of the author. As she stood up, wearing a brown hijab, Ibrahim strolled dramatically from the stage for a long embrace with his mother. The ovation was loudest at this time. His wife also got an ovation, the woman who stood by the author all the way through.

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim awarded $100,000 Nigeria Literature Prize in glittering ceremony

 

For every seated guest, young and old, man and woman, literate or not, there was a copy of Ibrahim’s novel gifted by the gas company as a gift, some with Ibrahim’s autograph. Giving out copies of winning entries is a long-standing tradition of NLNG. At a similar reception two years ago in Lagos, Tade Ipadeola’s poem, The Sahara Testaments, was passed out freely to guests.

The reason, according to Eresia-Eke, is for educational purposes. “For anyone serious about building people, whether ordinary individuals or communities or nations, the most important gift is education because it is what makes the individual, he becomes master of his own destiny … education is extremely important to us because a people denied education is a people denied all rights.”

Michael Jimoh is a Nigerian journalist living in Lagos. He has worked with some of the major newspapers in Nigeria but now freelances.

* * * * *

 
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Winners of the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Prize for Short Fiction announced

Winners of the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Prize for Short Fiction announced
WaterTerra IncognitaFeast, Famine and Potluck

 
Alert! “A Door Ajar” by Sibongile Fisher has won the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Prize for Short Fiction.

TJ Benson is first runner-up for his story “Tea”, and Megan Ross is second runner-up for “Farang”.

Winners of the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Prize for Short Fiction announced

 

The R10 000 Short Story Day Africa Prize – the continent’s most prestigious prize for an original piece of short fiction – is awarded annually to an African writer or African person living in the diaspora.

Previous winners of the prize are Okwiri Oduor from Kenya for “My Father’s Head” (2013), which went on to win the 2014 Caine Prize for African Writing, Diane Awerbuck for “Leatherman” (2014) and Cat Hellisen for “The Worme Bridge” (2015).

 
Read more from Short Story Day Africa:

She grabbed the wailing infant and threw it against the wall.

“A Door Ajar” by Sibongile Fisher has won the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Prize for Short Fiction. Fisher’s story, which centers around two sisters trying to escape a gruesome family custom, explores the conflict between tradition and modernity. The raw energy of the writing impressed the judging panel, who were unanimous in their decision. It is the fourth speculative short story written by a woman to scoop the R10 000 prize, which was first won in 2013 by Kenyan Okwiri Oduor, who went on to win the following year’s Caine Prize for African Writing.

She is Tiv and knows no English.

“Tea”, TJ Benson’s love story in the time of exploitation, is first runner-up. Benson uses the relationship between a Nigerian girl and a German boy, who are thrown together in the worst of circumstances, to investigate what makes us different, and whether it is more important than what makes us the same.

Nèung
A cross the road from my childhood home is a stretch of ordinary
veld.

“Farang” by Megan Ross is second runner-up. Ross uses her considered prose to tell a story about the end of naivety, exoticism and otherness. Set in Thailand, “Farang” is part travelogue, part coming-of-age tale, and beautifully encapsulates the awkward space one occupies in being an outsider in another country.

The judging panel, chaired by Sindiwe Magona, called the longlist of 21 stories “outstanding”, adding that all the stories deserve to be published.

The Prize, started in 2012, is worth R10 000, with second and third place cash prizes of R2 000 and R1 000 respectively. The 21 longlisted stories are collected in Migrations: New Short Fiction from Africa, edited by Efemia Chela, Bongani Kona and Helen Moffett, due for release in January 2017.

Many thanks to the judges, Sindiwe Magona, HJ Golakai and Tendai Huchu for their time and consideration; prize sponsors Generation Africa, the Miles Morland Foundation and Books LIVE; volunteer readers across the globe who helped us sort through the entries; our publishing partners and advisors, New Internationalist and Modjaji Books; Worldreader for sponsoring the editing mentorship; and all our project sponsors, a full list of whom are available on our sponsor page.

Last, but not least, many thanks to the Short Story Day Africa board and team.

Ends

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