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Congratulations to Alex Smith (@africa_alex), whose Devilskein & Dearlove has been nominated for a Carnegie Medal!

Helen Moffett on Editing Lauren Beukes: It's Mostly Air Traffic Control

Lauren Beukes and Helen Moffett

Helen Moffett was Lauren Beukes’ “plus one” at the recent University of Johannesburg Prize ceremony in Johannesburg, and said a few words about the relationship between an editor and an author.

Moffett has been Beukes’ editor since her first novel, Moxyland, and recalled how she was interviewed for the job when Beukes was “just another hungry, determined, extraordinarily talented young writer, determined to make her way in the world”.

MoxylandZoo City (SA edition)The Shining GirlsBroken Monsters

Despite it being showered with accolades overseas, the UJ Prize is The Shining Girls’ first South African award. But before she made her acceptance speech, Beukes handed the platform over to her editor.

“The last time I was wearing this dress,” Beukes began, “was at the Clarke Awards in 2011 [Beukes won for Zoo City – ed]. My brother shoved me at the stage without a speech, because I was so convinced I wasn’t going to win I had put it away, and I remembered to thank everyone … except my editor, Helen Moffett. So I’ve brought her along as my date tonight and she wants to say a few brief words.

“Not too long!” Beukes warned her editor, who replied wryly: “That’s usually what I say to you …”

Read Moffett’s speech:

* * * * *

“I’m going to say a few brief words about the relationship between an editor and an author. You see the words on the page, and the final product is polished, whereas what has actually happened behind the scenes – all sorts of things have happened behind the scenes.

“There’s no brief of what constitutes editing, especially of high-quality fiction – around the world, I’ve discovered, not just in South Africa. It is mostly about relationships. I have the best job in the world, because I get to work not only as a freelance editor, working with a specific author or a specific publisher, I get to work with authors over and over again. Lauren and I have been together since Moxyland, when she was just another hungry, determined, extraordinarily talented young writer, determined to make her way in the world, and she wanted to work with me. She interviewed me! And I went with her all the way through Moxyland, then Zoo City, then they tried to separate us for The Shining Girls, when she went big and international. (That didn’t work so well.)

“I’m working with an author of extraordinary talent and work ethic. Lauren does multiple drafts of everything she writes. I’m not talking about three or four. I think Shining Girls went to about … there were 18 different versions. And a lot of what I do is air traffic control, because technology simply allows for layers and bits and pieces of books to be disassembled or reassembled. But I’m lucky enough in my career now that I get to pick my authors, and I’m extraordinary lucky in that I can take talent for granted. All of my authors are talented. But when I say ‘this doesn’t work. Try A, B or C’, most of my authors in those circumstances will plump for A, B or C. Lauren goes for D. She does something fresh, she does something new. And she knocks it out of the park. It is an absolute pleasure to work with her.

“As a radical feminist, and a recovering feminist academic – I get more radical every time I read news headlines, especially in recent times – I’m very grateful to Craig MacKenzie and the prize judges’ insight into how the novel treats violence against women, because there have been some very facile readings.

“The subtext of The Shining Girls is the potential of every women who meets a violent death, especially in this country, not at the hands of that rare phenomenon a serial killer, but at the hands of a neighbour, a husband, a boyfriend, a stepfather. The Shining Girls is, in a way, a testimony to the potential that we lose when we allow a violent culture in which men can squander women’s lives. So I’m grateful to Lauren, also, for writing books that are so entertaining, so unusual, so novel, so very different, and yet there’s this real meat and bone to them.”

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Zulu Boy's Own: Rian Malan on GG Alcock's Third World Child

By Rian Malan for the Sunday Times

gg alcock

Third World ChildThird World Child – Born White, Zulu Bred
GG Alcock (Tracey McDonald Publishers)

Let’s begin with a truth-in-journalism disclosure: I have known GG Alcock since he was a schoolboy. When he decided to write a book, he asked me to suggest a title. I said, the cover should be an extreme close-up of yourself, showing blondish hair, lily-white skin and at least one of your blue-gray eyes. And the title should be, Black Like Me, at once a literary reference and a joke at the expense of those who might contest Alcock’s right to the position taken in this compelling autobiography.

In the event, Alcock settled for the less provocative Third World Child, but the story remains the same: white boy-child opens his eyes and finds himself in a mud hut in Msinga with no running water, no electricity, no toys, no TV and sometimes no food. His parents are agricultural missionaries who believe Zulu peasants will never take them seriously unless they live among Zulus, like Zulus, enduring the same privations as the peasants themselves.

In Msinga, in 1969, these hardships were extreme. The land was arid and eroded. There were snakes and scorpions among the stones. Rabid dogs stalked the kraals and there was often gunfire at night because Msinga was riven by feuds known as faction fights. When GG was a teenager he asked his dad, what’s to become of me? Neil Alcock said, I can promise you only one thing, son – I will equip you with the skills to live in Africa.

A few years later, Neil was cut down in the crossfire between warring Zulu factions. Some say his murder was an accident. GG believes it was an assassination, orchestrated by apartheid’s police. After school GG continued in his father’s footsteps for a while, but the “posturing” of leftish development workers began to irritate him so he set off to seek his fortune in Joburg.

Fast forward 20 years. The skinny refugee of yore has mutated into the owner of a fabulously successful business that tells white-owned corporations how to communicate with their African customers. He’s entertaining a crowd with a story about how one of his employees decided to play a joke on her mother by introducing GG as a Zulu. She brings mother over and says, Mom, I’d like you to meet my boss, Mr Mvelase.

The mother and “Mr. Mvelase” begin a polite conversation in Zulu. Not farm Zulu. Proper Zulu. The mother asks scores of trick questions but the boss gets everything right. It’s uncanny. He sounds black and yet clearly isn’t. Eventually she can no longer contain her curiosity and says, “Pardon me, Mr Mvelase, but to me you look just like a coloured.” GG says, “Yes, this is something that happens in my family. But I have a brother who is completely black.” She claps a hand over her mouth and says, “Hau shame!”

What skills did GG employ to get here? Language is obviously critical, but Third World Child shows us that Zuluness is also about loyalty, masculinity, good humour, nice guns, red meat, respect for the ancestors and at times, insane militarism. Alcock depicts himself as a teenage pacifist who decided in his 20s to take a stand for love and against crime. This leads to stories that end with, “I took great pleasure in beating the truth out of the bastards.” Or, “In hell, pacifists carry whips and chains.”

If you think this translates into anything as simple as racist vigilantism, you are completely wrong. On one level, Third World Child is a Boy’s Own yarn about long-range bike tours, hang-gliding adventures and death-defying shoot-outs with bad guys. On another, it tries to tell us something important about our culture.

The old certainties – all of them – are dying. In their place come strange new life forms like GG and his black friends, who are anything but model Cs. These men seem to delight in each other’s company. They laugh, spar, crack jokes about you in languages you can’t understand, then switch to English and say something outrageous like, “We’re just talking about the solution for crime. Two warning shots through the heart, hey. What do you say?” They find it particularly amusing if you turn red and start sputtering about constitutional rights.

So what do I say? I say this is a fascinating book, maybe even a landmark – the first report from the next South Africa.

My Traitor's Heart Malan is the author of My Traitor’s Heart, which featured a chapter about the Alcocks of Msinga.
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2015 UCT Summer School Programme: From the Streets of Paris to Gang Culture on the Cape Flats

The University of Cape Town’s annual Summer School, now in its 65th year, has become an institution, during which the university opens its doors to the public and offers high quality short courses presented by esteemed academics, authors and experts in various fields.

The Centre for Extra Mural Studies (EMS), responsible for the administration of the Summer School, has released the 2015 programme and it looks very, very exciting.

The Summer School offers seven different legs of tuition: Arts & Humanities; Science Conservation & Medicine; History, Philosophy & Contemporary Studies; Languages; Practical Courses; Lectures & in Conversation; and Free Lecture & Concerts.

The Lie of the LandRichard RiveThe Shadow WorldThe AIDS ConspiracyCOSATU's Contested LegacyA Jacana Pocket Guide: Short-Changed?The Toxic Mix
Flat Water TuesdaySynapseIn the Shadow of PolicySouth Africa's Suspended RevolutionPrecedent and PossibilityAfter We Said GoodbyeThe Book of Forgiving

Authors to present courses during this edition of the Summer School include Antjie Krog, Shaun Viljoen, Andrew Feinstein, Mpho Tutu, Nicoli Nattrass, Adam Habib, Ron Irwin, Ben Cousins, Sean Davidson and Michael Godby. Topics include “The Afterlives of Eugène Marais and Ingrid Jonker”, “Literary Puzzlements”, “A Musical Promenade through Paris”, “A Personal Account of the South African Arms Deal”, “The Great War – A Hundred Years On”, “Gang Culture and Police Culture on the Cape Flats”, “In Conversation: Land Reform in South Africa”, and “Mistranslation and Non-Translation in South Africa”.

Three introductory language courses will be presented, offering Mandarin, Italian and isiXhosa for beginners. The practical courses include: “Observation is a Revelation”, “Five Components of Successful Painting”, “Creative Fiction Writing”, “Literary Translation Master Class”, “Writing Books for Children”, “The Electronic Epistolarium”, “Slaves to The Rhythm” and “Music and Storytelling in Africa”.

Cost and duration depends on the various courses, with some as affordable as R80 and others going up to R2 550. Grab something to drink and have a look at the extensive programme:

2015 UCT Summer School Programme

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  • The Book of Forgiving: The Four-Fold Path of Healing For Ourselves and Our World by Desmond Tutu, Mpho Tutu
    EAN: 9780007512881
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A Benevolent Contagion: Michele Magwood Interviews Philip Hensher about his latest novel, The Emperor Waltz

By Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times

philip hensher

The Emperor WaltzThe Emperor Waltz
Philip Hensher (HarperCollins)

“I’m interested in the contagion of ideas,” says Philip Hensher, “the way in which an idea can start as an outrageous suggestion between a couple of friends, move to a small group of outsiders – a group that society despises – and before you know it is out on the street and people are proclaiming it, and suddenly everyone believes it.”

Hensher – one of Granta’s 20 Best Young British Novelists of 2003 – was in Cape Town recently for the Open Book Festival, where he discussed his latest novel, The Emperor Waltz.

It’s a colossal, ambitious book, 600-odd pages bulging with the weft of several narratives across several centuries. It’s essentially an exploration of outsiders, of dissidents on the threshold of change, nudging towards the tipping point that will change the course of history.

In hyper-inflating Weimar in Germany, a young man arrives to join the radical, distinctly odd Bauhaus art school. In London in the ’70s another young man uses to his inheritance to spite his bigoted father and open the first gay bookshop. In the farthest outreaches of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century a woman becomes one of the earliest Christian martyrs, Saint Perpetua.

“The interesting thing there is how over the course of centuries the outsider group becomes part of the oppressors. The Christians of the 3rd century are a minority of outsiders, but by the time of the gay bookshop they’re the upholders of the moral majority. So these are the ironies I had on my mind.”

Another irony is illustrated in the richly realised chapters on the Bauhaus, whose maligned artists were determined to strip away artifice and ornament. Simple good design, they insisted, should be for everyone and not a matter of luxury goods for the few. Behind the spirited characters of Klee and Kandinsky Hensher sounds the dread march of Nazism. “It was one of the inadvertent triumphs of Hitler that in closing down the Bauhaus and expelling them, he spread their principles throughout the world. I’m sure there is some wonderful flat-roofed modernist architecture in South Africa that is by the pupils of Bauhaus.” And indeed there is.

There are other, lesser, strands to this story. Hensher inserts himself as a hospitalised novelist and demonstrates the bonds of friendship and support while giving us a glimpse of the writer’s art; in another chapter appalling London “yoofs” do drugs and watch porn while their parents chitchat downstairs. Instead of straining to tie them all together, the author scatters his chapters with repeating details, a dab of the colour sage in one country and the next, the refrain of a blackbird’s song, Strauss’s Emperor Waltz playing on violins and iPods. We know the beautiful Bauhaus teapot that turns up in a British antique store decades later; the way a redhead sweeps her hair from her neck echoes down the centuries.

It all comes together into a glorious, immersive whole, a meditation on prejudice and rebellion, sanctity and debasement, the constancy of art, the invocation to live an authentic life. It raises the question, too, as Hensher says, “of how malevolence and benevolence spread in the same way. The Bauhaus, the Nazis, the early Christians, the gay movement, believed that all you had to do was change one mind at a time, and that society would be made very much better as a result.”

- Follow @michelemagwood

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Image credit to Eamonn McCabe

2014 Neustadt International Prize for Literature Winner Mia Couto: This Entity Called "Africa" is Imaginary


Mozambique author Mia Couto has received the 2014 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, becoming the first Mozambican author to be honoured with the prestigious title.

Couto was announced as the winner of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature late last year, and was finally awarded the honour last Friday.

“He is a novelist, short story writer, essayist, and biologist, a writer whose first novel Sleepwalking Land has been called one of the best African books of the twentieth-century,” Dennis Abrahams writes for Publishing Perspectives. “Mia Couto has been described by Niyi Afalabi as a ‘revolutionary optimist’ and by translator David Brookshaw as the “most original and prolific voice of his generation.”

The Tuner of SilencesUnder the FrangipaniVoices Made NightSleepwalking Land

Abrahams interviewed Couto, asking him about his identity as an African writer, the preconceptions the rest of the world has about African literature, the links between him and other prolific African writers and the loss of the tradition of oral storytelling in Africa.

“There’s this entity called ‘Africa’ – we know that it’s imaginary, it’s an invention, there are so many Africans and so many literatures in Africa, and when you consider a kind of division that is inherited by colonialism – there’s Lusophone, Anglophone, Francophone, African … you package this as a kind of one thing and it’s not of course. You don’t talk the same way about European literature. I understand it as a kind of marketing thing, so maybe instead of fighting against it, let us say that it doesn’t exist, but, as I learned from the guerilla movement, we should take advantage of the moment and the fragilities of the system,” Couto says.

Read the article for more of Couto’s poignant views:

What preconceptions do you see the rest of the world as having about African literature?

It’s not just the rest of the world. Africans have often incorporated some of these prejudices. One of them is that Africans are supposed to talk about Africa. That’s a stereotype of Africa, you don’t think that it’s a problem that an American writer will write about India or Europe, or some other place, we think that it’s natural that someone from America is doing research in Africa about topology or sociology, but it’s strange that an African guy would come to America and do anthropological studies, and so we have that deeply rooted in ourselves. You expect that from an African author you will have authenticity, and that’s something you don’t ask for from a European writer or any other writer. But that’s slowly changing. We are becoming free of that imposition or stamp of needing poverty and huts, or even worse, witch doctors and dancing around the fire. We see the reaction when people go to Cape Town or Nairobi or Johannesburg and they say “this is not Africa.” Why can’t we have the right to have diverse urban areas?

Addressing students at the University of Oklahoma during the 2014 Neustadt Festival of International Literature & Culture, Couto said: “We have fallen in the temptation of a single story against which the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so eloquently warned us.” Katherine Parker reported on the event:

“…The Neustadt Prize creates bridges, when I say this let us think of the song ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ by Paul Simon, to create bridges where there is distance and worse than that. It’s good to know that literature can help build bridges. In a world that imagines the proximity between cultures are totally dissolved by technology not solutions.”
Couto said that as a child his parents, Portuguese immigrants, would tell him stories of their life in Portugal and that through their storytelling he realized that they were able to erase distance and time and return to Portugal.

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Image courtesy of Neustadt Prize

NoViolet Bulawayo Wins the 2014 Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Legacy Award for We Need New Names

Chinelo Okparanta and NoViolet. #GoJin #wiley #HurstonWrightLegacy14 #litlifeislife

A photo posted by mitchj75 (@mitchj75) on

NoViolet Bulawayo with authors Mitchell S Jackson and Chinelo Okparanta, from Jackson’s Instagram
We Need New NamesAlert! NoViolet Bulawayo has been honoured again for her debut novel, We Need New Names, this time winning the 2014 Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Legacy Award for fiction.

The Hurston/Wright Legacy Awards, based in Washington DC, USA, and named after Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright, are presented annually to published writers of African descent by the national community of black writers, to “celebrate excellence in black literature”.

The Hurston/Wright 2014 award for non-fiction went to Craig Steven Wilder for Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, while the poetry award went to Amaud Jamaul Johnson, for Darktown Follies.

Novelist and co-founder and president emeritus of the Hurston/Wright Foundation Marita Golden said We Need New Names “felt like an imperative read”, adding: “The judges said, ‘We see NoViolet’s great characters, their entrapments, their miseries, their hungers and we also see ourselves.”

We Need New Names was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Guardian First Book Award, and won the the inaugural Etisalat Prize for Literature, the 2014 PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction and the LA Times Book Prize Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction.

Bulawayo accepted the award “with gratitude”:

Accepting the award, Bulawayo stood on stage in brilliant yellow. “It is such a great privilege to be nominated for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for fiction and to be nominated along with a fine list of writers with many accomplishments,” said Bulawayo, who won a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. “I accept this award with gratitude and in celebration of the luminous lives and the works of Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright, for being the bright beacons who created so we could write today with gratitude and dignity.”

Washington Post feature writer DeNeen Brown and the Caine Prize congratulated Bulawayo on Twitter:

Bulawayo posted some photographs from the event on her Facebook page:


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