Liesl Jobson is an accomplished short-story writer and musician who tackles everything from anorexia to cleaning the oven, the terror of losing a child, exile, infidelity and desire in her fiction. She’s also a wonderful advocate of South African fiction as one of Bookslive’s reporters.
In this guest blog post for The Spark, a series where African writers talk about what sparked off this particular book, she writes poignantly and powerfully about the deeper fire that moves her to write at all, especially through depression, using fiction as a way of piecing herself back together.
The Spark: Liesl Jobson on Ride The Tortoise
The spark was lit when I was old enough to hold a pen and squiggle its nib across a page. I had observed my mother and knew it was well within my grasp. I took what I had written to my grandmother, and asked her to read to me. Was I shocked that she couldn’t read it? Was I distressed that I still had to learn letter formation in order to write? It is an early memory. The laughter was not unkind and I am sure I was told how clever I was, but it didn’t quite erase the disappointment that my story had not reached its destination. I must have been about four.
Awareness of the power of story was kindled in the Pinetown Library, where my mother checked out books with us. It grew bolder in the bedtime stories my father told from his own boyhood. Night after night Little Coffee Pot who built up a head of steam, blew the whistle and pulled out of the Avontuur station with a sick lady on board. Going through the Long Kloof valley, the bridge was covered with water. The ambulances couldn’t get through. The rains came down, the water rose up, went to its axles, up to the top of its wheels. The train was nearly washed away but Little Coffee Pot did not quit and the sick lady got to the hospital at Port Elizabeth.
When we moved in my 14th year to New Canaan, Connecticut, I had my first bout of depression. These would come in increasing severity over the years leading to hospital stays that would later inform some of the stories I would later write. I owe my survival of the first terrible episode to the friends who wrote to me. Receiving their letters was certainly delightful, but the experience of writing back to them transformed the misery of my dislocation and distress. Letter writing gave me a way of rooting myself in my own lived experience. It offered a way through the unfamiliar place I’d landed in, a way to centre myself, and get back home.
During my student years, severe depression revisited me, and after my children were born the post partum depressions morphed into an extended black hole. Comfort arrived via writing once again. Julia Cameron’s advice in The Artist’s Way to write three pages daily changed my life. This routine offered a much-welcomed epiphany. I could put the grievances of the day and the terrors of the night onto the page. And lo, there they were, the size of a page. Observable, they became by some miracle, quantifiable too.
As I wrote, the shaking of my hand would still, my pulse would settle and my locked spine uncurled from rigid. I developed hindsight. Flipping back through the pages to the entry of the previous week I could remember how irked I’d been by a misunderstanding with my mother or enraged at a perceived insult from my husband. I could recall, as I’d inevitably forgotten, how ridiculously terrifying a child’s sickness had been. Barely a few days on the rash and fever had blown over. My children were not brain-dead, nor did I have funerals to plan. I was talking to my mother and husband again, the abraded dialogues shored up, if not quite repaired.
I’m trying to remember now, when exactly I started writing the morning pages. It must have been about 1998. I sat in the newly built granny flat. It was the year the internet arrived at our house. I am tempted now to find those early notebooks. They are in a cupboard somewhere, but I don’t have to actually look at them to know that what I was writing about then, I am still writing about now. From there I wrote a short story called “Mourning Pages”. It referenced my hospital admission. I put it up on the Zoetrope Short Story workshop and people commented. There was a way to turn what happened to me into fiction. It was a different kind of revelation. There was a way to write my narrative better. There were people who would help me. I was not alone in the unfamiliar terrain of crafting life into prose. The stories that appear in Ride the Tortoise all went through the Zoetrope workshop. They were part of a process of putting myself together as I weathered the storms.
Today, I’m back at the page, and as on many a morning, I’m mystified, grateful, and surprised. The words are sparking again. There. That one. And this. They ignite behind my neck, invisible, yet audible. They enter above the clavicles, then moves under my collar bones, out and down into my forearms, gathering in the hot spot where my wrist anchors at the keyboard. From there the coiling energy to write drives into my curled fingers, through the fingertips and by a myriad miraculous connections of ether and electrons, into letters. The ‘a’ and the ‘b’ and the ‘c’ link to make words, loop into sentences, paragraphs and, eventually, pages. My voice always returns, and yet once it’s taken flight there is always the fear that it will alight in some far away place beyond my recall, never to reappear.
This morning I’m trying to make my voice do something specific. A new story has appeared. I’m afraid of it. I’m loving it. I don’t quite trust it, though. I tinker with it in my journal. But that is jumping the gun. The journal is not the place to force the words into a specific direction. It is the place for welcoming them, for beholding them, for noticing what they have to say. Later, once this exercise is done, then I can make them work. This part of the day is for the warm up, the scales and arpeggios that must be done before the voice shifts to the aria. The warm up exercise must not be rushed, or skipped over. The vocal chords need to settle into each tone, to find the centre, pitch and timbre. The mouth and throat must stretch through each register without force. It requires time to allow these things to happen without pressure.
Flannery O’Connor talks about the spark. Her words resonate powerfully: “…I have to write to discover what I am doing. Like the old lady, I don’t know so well what I think until I see what I say; then I have to say it again.”
But this morning I have an important song to sing. I am impatient with my exercise that bores me. I must learn the lyrics, master a new melody of the next piece calling to me. Today, my morning pages are filled with more of the same: I’ve been fretting because I need more holding than I’m getting, but I’m already getting so much love and attention, so why, oh why isn’t it enough? I’m filled with self-pity because I just want to sit on his lap. I hate my whiny anguish. Loathe being stuck, not in tune with my world. I feel silly and childish. I certainly don’t want to tease out and actually examine what’s bothering me. I want to shove it away and ignore the fact that I was sobbing uncontrollably just an hour ago because my beloved’s shoulder is dislocated and he cannot hold me tight, and because of that all the fractured parts of me will never stick together while I walk on earth.
But here I am. Back at the page and remembering that, I can fast-forward through the shambles of this minute. I can lean forward a week, into a vantage point, from which I can look back on the despair of this precise minute. I can trust that it will pass. Just like when I was furious about the colour he painted the walls, or the nonsense about the compost heap, or the misheard directions to Stellenbosch. In fact, just writing that last paragraph erased the sorrow and turned the tears into a glue with words.
That little engine lives on in me. I am the engine. I am the storm. I am the water that rises and the sick lady that gets to the hospital. I am, most importantly, the sick lady that gets well, goes home and writes it like it is. I am the storyteller that learns what she knows when she sees what she writes.
Follow Liesl Jobson on Twitter
Buy Ride The Tortoise
Read a sample of her flash fiction online: ’Invasive Species’, ‘The Gospel of Adam’s Ex’ and ‘The Night Is A Teacher’. (Wordgathering Vol 3.1)
Today’s Spark – where writers talk about what set an idea for a story alight – is a little different. I asked three of the writers, established novelists Siphiwo Mahala and Yewande Omotoso and fresh-faced talent, Liam Kruger to write about what inspired their tales in the short story collection, BLOODY SATISFIED. The answers range from hilariously subverting stereotypes to the problem of evil step-mothers and just trying to look cool in bars.
Siphiwo Mahala is a champion for South African literature in his job as the head of Books And Publishing at the Department of Arts & Culture. He’s also a very fine writer. His novel, When a Man Cries about the provocative issue of circumcision rituals was translated into isiXhosa as Yakhal’ Indoda. His book of short stories, African Delights is smart, playful and full of wonderful insight into human nature.
‘Robbed by a Mad White Man’ by Siphiwo Mahala
“Robbed by a mad white man?” exclaimed a friend. He could not believe that I would even consider giving such a bizarre title to a story. Like many South Africans, my friend has learned to tread carefully around the question of race!
Given our divided past, writing about race tends to be quite a risky business. On the one hand one might be judged as being an apologist, and on the other, as racist. I was interested in neither. Mine was to interrogate some popular social stereotypes using my first-hand experience.
I drew on a story that dates as far back as 2002, when I first came to Johannesburg as a country bumpkin from Grahamstown, pulling a massive suitcase behind me at the Johannesburg Park Station. I had heard a lot of stories about the station, notorious for initiating new-comers to the fast city life. Many a visitor had parted ways with their luggage, wallets and other valuables on arrival, courtesy of street urchins who have a sharp eye for country bumpkins.
After more than ten years of living in Johannesburg, to my disappointment, I have been robbed only once. The robbery took place a few months after my arrival. It did not happen in some dingy corner at Park Station or in the dodgy streets of Hillbrow. It happened right on University campus and in broad daylight. I reached for my wallet, took out some notes and handed them over to my robber. Of course, I had no idea that I was being robbed at the time.
It was probably due to my own preconceptions that I didn’t suspect that I was being robbed. I should have known better than to believe a concocted story told to me by a ‘University student’ that he’d ‘run out of fuel on the freeway’. A twinge of suspicion was only raised in me when he uttered the words, “God bless you.” I wondered why he would bring God in on a transaction that involved only the two of us. I watched him as he walked away triumphantly, leaving me R40 poorer.
I shared this story for the first time at a festival last year amidst guffaws from the audience. I realised then that as a black person, revealing that you have been robbed by a white man won’t earn you any sympathies. As I started writing my entry for “short Sharp Stories”, the story assumed its own form, putting a white man in the middle of Soweto and involving police who are as prejudiced as many of us.
My current writing takes a similar form where I flip the coin, exploring the life of a city man who goes back to live in the rural areas. It is also a story of redemption and self-discovery.
Yewande Omotoso is a writer with nerve and energy who is also a trained architect. I think it shows in the careful construction of her writing. Her debut novel Bomboy (Modjaji Books) was shortlisted for several major prizes and won the South African Literary Award First Time Author Prize. She also writes short stories and her poem ‘The Rain’ was shortlisted for the 2012 Sol Plaatjie European Union Poetry Awards.
‘To Die For’ by Yewande Omotoso
‘What if’ is always an interesting place to give birth to a story. Although I worry that if my friends knew just how much I speculated…what if friend so and so died and then I started having acrobat sex with her widower? What if I took my cell phone (this one I’m holding now) and flung it at the guy on stage, the one playing the violin? What if, with no provocation, I spat on so and so…like that.
Sometimes I speculate, risking irreverence, about very personal and sad things. In real life my mother died. Many years after I asked myself, what if my mother died and my father remarried and the woman he shacked up with was an absolute cow. What if I felt pressed in by this woman’s presence in my life and I wanted to kill myself. To Die For became that story. Beyond ‘what if’ I have to cut tether and tell a story, unburdened by the close resemblance between reality and story, the worry that my real-life step-mother might be put off and my family concerned for my mental health. The story isn’t really a vehicle to vent my deep-seated hitherto unexpressed painfully true feelings – ‘what if’ is more like a nervous tick…a sometimes gratifying parallel-universe condition.
To Die For is less about a girl mourning her mother and more about someone who wants to die but doesn’t have the wherewithal to do it herself. She doesn’t want to be remembered as someone who took her own life, doesn’t want the pain of that on her father’s heart. Instead she feels that if only death would come “naturally” she would co-operate. And when death doesn’t come she goes looking for it – where’s a killer, a terminal diagnosis, a reckless driver when you need one?
And now, after To Die For, I’m busy hyper-editing a novel about two octogenarian neighbours who hate each other.
Liam Kruger is doing his MA in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town, where he’s ‘busy working on putting a novel together.’ He confesses he likes cities, and he likes whiskey. His short fiction and poetry have been published in in Mahala, Jungle Jim, New Contrast, and in AfroSF, a new anthology of African science fiction.
‘The Simple Art’ by Liam Kruger
I discovered Raymond Chandler, and I stopped reading crime fiction. Which is to say, I discovered Chandler, fell in love, read everything of his I could find, and found that I could no longer bear any kind of crime novel that wasn’t Chandler’s.
I dismissed contemporary crime fiction as the domain of moderately-trained monkeys and retirees – and since I was at university, I turned to Borges, and De Quincey, and Camus and Auden and whoever else would make me look fancy reading alone in bars.
I was, therefore, in the difficult position of needing to write a contemporary crime story without any understanding of what contemporary crime fiction looked like, if I wanted anything published in the Bloody Satisfied anthology – which I did, because this, too, would make me look fancy in bars. Some bars. A bar.
Assuming that the underlying whodunit formula couldn’t be too hard to copy, I looked for modern writers to emulate. A kind stranger pointed me to Ruth Rendell’s short stories, which proved to be stylish and excellent and impossible to backwards-engineer; I looked at, and discarded in turn, Orford, Leonard, Reichs, Rankin, finding much of interest but nothing I could reproduce in a hurry.
Because I was in a hurry. It was a week before the story was due; I needed a familiarity with contemporary police work, I needed an understanding of Cape Town’s crime patterns, I needed to read shelves of novels. What I had was De Quincey, Borges, and a familiarity with Cape Town’s bars. I stole from all three, and wrote ‘The Simple Art.’
It gets its conceit from De Quincey’s ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,’ structure from Borges’ murder mystery, ‘Death and the Compass,’ and setting from a place in the city bowl that I go to too often.
It gets its four – maybe five – deaths from anxiety about the exhausting ubiquity of murder narratives, in fiction and elsewhere, which has equipped folk an inbuilt shorthand for responding to the way people die – the homophobic hate crime, the xenophobic attack, the gang-related killing. It’s an anxiety that wasn’t there for Chandler, I don’t think – which meant I could try and write it without fear of sounding like another watered-down imitator. As much fear, anyway.
I couldn’t hope to copy Chandler’s style – but I’m still a little in love with him, some days, so the title borrows from his essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder.’
Everything else I’ve stolen whole cloth.
I’m currently working on my first novel, which deals with memory, and magic, and snappy one-liners.
BLOODY SATISFIED is the first of the Short Sharp Stories Awards anthologies, edited by local crime doyenne, Joanne Hichens. The 2013 collection, a National Arts Festival initiative, celebrates crime fiction and thriller stories of twenty-four emerging and established South African writers.
It’s also an excellent taster to find new writers you like, and a perfect holiday gift, IMHO.
Find BLOODY SATISFIED on facebook at Short Sharp Stories
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BLOODY SATISFED is available through Kalahari or as an ebook via AfriBooks app on iTunes and Google Play
RIP Nelson Mandela. Your fight, your ability to forgive, your faith in all of us to live up to our humanity lives on.
You weren’t a symbol, you were a man, and that’s a lot harder.
May we be haunted, in the best possible way, by your spirit of reconciliation. May we live up to what you wanted for us.
Carol-Ann Davids and I both did the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town at about the same time, but while I skipped into the future with my dissertation/novel, Moxyland, to explore a neo-apartheid, she went back, in The Blacks of Cape Town, with its provocative title, to excavate the uncomfortable forbidden past and it’s knock-on effects on who we are now.
As she describes it: Historian, Zara Black, is in an unfamiliar room in a country far from home, when she is awoken by music that evokes memories she has been trying to forget. It is this call from her father, seemingly from beyond the grave, that pushes Zara to start unraveling the mystery of her family and the act her father may have committed against the anti-apartheid movement decades earlier.
Here’s how a little distance helped her zoom-in on the subject matter she cared about most.
The Spark: The Blacks of Cape Town by CA Davids
Cape Town is the sort of place that falls between the cracks of neat definitions. Lodged as it is between the mountain and the ocean, it cannot be described in easy sentences or with a common consensus.
Or maybe that’s not quite correct: most will agree on the beauty of that flat mountain that holds the city in a collective gasp, or wonder at the oceans – the Atlantic to one side and the Indian to the other. Its beauty notwithstanding, the city is a hive of contradictions. Because beyond the tourist friendly vistas breathes another city, at once darker and more real. Circling the City Centre are the suburbs with its cropped hedges, and beyond that, government issued houses patch-worked with countless DIY extensions, and still beyond those, homes of iron and zinc running along the highway, un-writing brochures as tourists gape their way past.
Having been born in the city’s heart close to town, but raised in its ass in a peripheral suburb, I had always been aware of the myriad contradictions: extreme privilege and poverty, agitation and indifference, pretty and ugly, all staring the other down. The city that I knew, the one that I grew up in, rarely makes the headlines these days other than for what troubles it: gang land killings or other acts of unspeakable violence. What of the mundane? The boring details of life? The way ordinary people get on with it? And what about the ideas, creativity, music and political resistance that had formed me, in my bit of Cape Town?
I suppose then, it was never really a spark for me, but a slow burn for as long as I could remember. To write yes. More than that, to do what the arts and literature do best: to make real by filling in the blanks, to give spirit and shape and heft to a place; to reach beyond the city’s beauty, glamourized gang violence and expected personalities to its undercurrents and nuances and fix that onto a page.
But things change. I moved to the USA, thirty minutes from New York, and my novel took a turn. I was far from home, equally mesmerized and overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the place I was in, the range of cereals to choose from in a supermarket, the curiosity about my race and accent, my own interest in the places around me … so the basis for the novel became a split narrative structure able to cross into both worlds. Conversations on trains, the nightly news, a questionnaire – everything flickered with possibility and fed the thing.
I lived in the States for two years and just as I was about to leave, people started speculating that a handsome young congressman might run for the presidency. That he was black was hardly a small detail. By the time Barack Obama was elected I was living in China, watching the often frenzied news coverage. It was impossible not to include this. My novel was very obviously about race too. Right in the beginning, in the dream stages of writing the book, I had imagined, fantasized really, of not mentioning race at all – to have postmodern characters devoid of such things, for whom race was entirely incidental. Perhaps this was so because I wanted to escape the obsessive race-based culture I had grown up in. But ultimately I knew that for me to approach a contemporary novel in this way was a cop-out, and frankly, dishonest.
Slowly, bit by bit the novel shaped around things I wanted and did not want to write about and when it came time to pick a title, The Blacks of Cape Town, sounded about right.
Get the book from Modjadji
Follow Carol-Ann on Twitter: @ca_davids
Fiona Snyckers writes punchy, smart chic-lit (although she hates it when I drop the k) and nuanced, provocative commentary on South Africa on her blog.
Her Trinity series has done terrifically. The eponymous heroine is smart, funny, awkward and engaging. The novels are written with a light touch and a sharp social conscience – and they’re entertaining as hell.
Maybe inspired by the awesome YA Sisterz serial Fiona wrote for the yoza.mobi cell phone stories project (which you can read in full here), the third installment in the trilogy takes Trinity Luhabe back to high school.
The Spark is an ongoing guest blog series to highlight new African fiction. If you want to be part of it, go here to read the guidelines.
The Spark: Team Trinity by Fiona Snyckers
When I was thinking of writing the next book in the Trinity series, I decided to make it a young adult story. The series has always attracted young readers so it made sense to write a book set when Trinity was the same age as her biggest fans.
I have been interested for a long time in the genesis of abusive and controlling relationships. We are all familiar with the paradigm of cyclical abuse. We know of people who grew up in abusive homes, only to turn into abusers or abuse victims as adults.
But what about those women who grow up in loving, nurturing homes with no history of abuse? How do they end up as abuse victims? What does it take for a man to break a happy, confident woman down to the point where she accepts herself at his valuation?
Many of us find it hard to understand why women stay in abusive relationships when there is no economic reason for them to do so and no children are involved. We wonder why they don’t just leave.
I wanted to explore the process whereby a young girl could be isolated and have her confidence broken down to such an extent that she is not even aware of how her sense of self has been eroded.
As so often when I have unanswered questions, I turned to Twitter for help. The responses I got were immediate and overwhelming. I felt especially honoured to be trusted with people’s personal experiences. What interested me most was how often women said that their abusive relationship started off on an incredible high. They had felt fortunate, blessed and almost ridiculously happy in the beginning. Then when the criticisms and undermining started, they became focused on doing whatever it took to get the relationship back to that happy place. Like addicts, they were continually chasing that original high.
I am probably making Team Trinity sound like a far more serious book than it actually is. It is light, funny and an entertaining read. It deals with issues that range across wide territory. But I can’t deny that the original spark for it was this preoccupation of mine with how abusive relationships get started. Essentially, the book is my heads-up to teenage girls everywhere on how to recognise the signs that your power is being taken away from you.
Follow @FionaSnyckers on Twitter
Read her blog
Visit her website
Buy the book from your favourite indie or on Kalahari or Loot or get the electronic version available on Kindle.
I first came across Kgebetli Moele with his novel, Room 207, about living in Hillbrow, being young and full of burning ambition in the big city that could swallow you whole.
It’s spiky and electric and alive and it gave me amazing insight into that part of Johannesburg for my novel, Zoo City.(It was lovely to give Kgebetli a copy of the book and point out the thanks for the debt I owe to Room 207 in my acknowledgements, when we met for the first time recently at the Open Book Festival).
No surprise that Room 207 placed joint-first for both the University of Johannesburg prize and the Herman Charles Bosman prize.
As a writer, he’s ambitious, provocative and brave, and he’s become more so with every book.
The Book of the Dead takes on HIV, and makes the virus a character with its own voice.
Untitled is about a seventeen year old girl chasing her dreams, while she’s being clutched at, pulled back by predatory teachers, sexual abuse, poverty, the circumstance of her life.
He writes about things that are hard to read about. But he does so in a way that grabs you by the shoulders and shakes you.
I hunted him down to ask him to write for The Spark, a guest blog series that highlights new African fiction*.
I’ll let him tell you about where the idea for the novel came from:
(*If you’re an African writer or publisher and want to write your own Spark click here for guidelines on what I’m looking for and how to pitch me.)
The Spark for Untitled by Kgebetli Moele
1995: There was a little girl whose life was violated by her primary school teacher.
A rape case was opened, the teacher was arrested then released on bail but the case vanished like it was never been.
The rural community sided with the teacher because they gave him their children to educate long before the little girl was born. She was betraying the trust that the community had in their upstanding lifelong teacher. The little girl was judged guilty of being a ‘rape victim.’
I knew the upstanding school teacher very well but I did not know the little girl.
1999: There I was dreaming hard and hustling harder in Johannesburg but things were not moving, so I decided to take a break from the big city, to refresh in my rural community. I was walking aimlessly within the poverty-infested street corners of my community when I met a young woman. She induced an internal reaction within this self, me. I acted and we talked.
A thorough background check revealed that she was the little girl who went through the violation at the hands of her teacher, and that the violations did not end there but continued till she got titled with all kinds of derogatory terms but her beauty surpassed any derogatory term that the male chauvinist could master.
It was this beauty that induced a reaction in me the first time.
I gave her a hug and a kiss because I felt that she needed a hug and a kiss, not with intentions. Then I told her I that I loved her. She smiled.
Took her on a date to the Ngwarele River, the ever flowing Ngwarele River, there was a favourite spot of mine where I took her. We were talking when I started bathing.
At that time Ngwarele River was flowing gradually like a child taking her first steps, unlike when it was flowing or flooding during the raining season. Then she sings music that I love to hear.
After some time the girl stripped naked and came in to bathe.
For a moment she was like cocaine taking over the body of a drug addict – a moment of fulfillment, unadulterated life and living, measured in milliseconds and lasting for milliseconds.
The male psychology justified the violations; ‘this kind of beauty in this kind of a community, they can never coexist.’
Snapped out it -then I had to control my inner urges and her urges because if I were to let them take over, I felt I would not be any different to her reputable primary school teacher.
I enjoyed the bathing but I don’t think that she did.
She came to my house; I had bought her a pair of sandals and Tsitsi’s Nervous Conditions. The latter was a hard issue to make her interested in, tried to read it for her but that did not help.
I wrote her a poem there and then but I could not get to her.
She took the sandals but left the book and the poem (probably the only poem ever written for and about her).
We were always disconnected in our conversations, we were never a match.
My home boys thought that I was having a sex festival but in fact I was trying to get to the bottom of her thinking. When did I decide on this mission? For what and why? I don’t know.
Later I was back in the City of Gold chasing not Gold, but a set of dreams. Maybe it was it that she deposited something in my mind that I cannot pinpoint, but she became one of the girls in the manuscript, Untitled.
When I sat down to write, it was supposed to be a poem about Refilwe, but it manifested itself into the manuscript Untitled.
Who is Refilwe? She is one of the girls featured in the novel, Untitled.
Buy Untitled ebook on Amazon here
Buy the paperback from Exclusives here (international shipping is extra) or contact Booklounge@gmail.com to order.
Kgebetli Moele’s website on Kwela
Super-stoked that The Shining Girls made the semi-finals of GoodReads Choice Awards Best Books of 2013 in the Mystery & Thriller section.
There are some very fine books on the list (and in the other categories, including some of the books I loved most this year).
If you have a moment spare, click through to vote for your favourites.
The Spark is a series of guest blogs highlighting new African fiction with authors writing about what lit up this book in their heads.
Nnedi Okorafor is a Nigerian-American writer of Igbo-descent and a professor at Chicago State University. Her work ranges from whimsical, smart YA, to a Disney fairy novel, to the hard-hitting and provocative magical realism novel, Who Fears Death.
She’s racked up a host of prizes, including the World Fantasy prize for best novel, the Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa, the CBS Parallax Award and the Wole Soyinka Prize, not including all the short-lists she’s made.
She’s also incredibly nice and brimming with wonderfully insane ideas for stories, as I found out when I interviewed her in Chicago for a BBC World Service radio documentary on Science Fiction in Africa.
Here’s Nnedi on what set off her new collection of short stories:
The Spark for Kabu Kabu:
In Nigeria, unregistered, illegal Nigerian taxis are called kabu kabu. My most memorable kabu kabu ride was years ago when I was with my siblings and cousins in Abuja, Nigeria. My cousins were showing my siblings and me around and we’d walked very far. We didn’t want to walk back, so my cousins decided to hail a kabu kabu.
We were outside an open-air market and it didn’t take long for a kabu kabu to stop. It was a rickety ancient-looking silver thing, no yellow paint or taxi logo on the outside. My sisters and I hesitated, skeptical of the car that seemed to hold itself together by using sheer will. However, when our cousins got inside, we piled in behind them. Before either of my cousins could tell the driver where we wanted to go, six more guys squeezed in with us. Three pushed in from one side and three from the other.
I remember trying to kick the guys out and my cousins shouting at them in a mixture of English, Pidgin English and Igbo. The guys were young and laughing. Eventually, they got the hell out and we quickly drove off. The ride back to my cousins’ house took about five minutes. For the entire journey, I stared down at the road because I could see it right through a huge hole where the car’s floor should have been. We all coughed and coughed (including the driver) from the exhaust that plumed through the floor hole.
When Prime Books publisher and editor Sean Wallace asked me if I wanted to do a book of short stories, that questionable yet functional vehicle immediately popped into my mind. That was the spark that grew into a fire. Kabu Kabu is a collection of stories that do not need a license to drive on the literary highway. They take you where they feel you need to go.
Included in the collection is a novella I co-write with author Alan Dean Foster also titled “Kabu Kabu”. We wrote it back in 2007. We’d tried getting it published in the Science Fiction and Fantasy market but the rejections kept citing that it was too “literary”. Nevertheless, I loved the story and I knew that if I ever did a collection of short stories, this story would be in it. For me, the novella is about the first generation Nigerian-American experience, Nigerian immigrant adaptation and cultural connection. Technology and magic also get along in this story in a very African way, a theme I love exploring in my stories.
The Kabu Kabu collection is possibly the most thorough sampling of my “storyview”. You have mystical dreadlocks, masquerades, Biafra, Nigeria in the future, my idea of an alien invasion and first contact, good, bad and neutral juju, monsters, flying people (NOT from Zahrah the Windseeker), baboons, mythology grown from disability/deformity, nonfiction turned science fiction, spiders, girls who go to war. It’s a book where (because of the short story collection medium) I get to do something that I have never done within one book: Shape shift as much as I want.
One story whose “spark” I’d like to explain is “The Black Stain”. This is a story that is from my novel Who Fears Death. I wrote “The Black Stain” last year after a conversation with Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu, who was attached to the Who Fears Death film option as the director. The questions she asked forced me to dig deeper into the mythology of the novel’s world. The title and the inspiration for “The Black Stain” came from a few lines in Who Fears Death when Onyesonwu says, “I was trouble from the moment I was conceived. I was a black stain. A poison.” That line had always stuck with me because it made me sad.
“The Black Stain” is a brutal story; it is relentless. When I wrote it, I had to ignore the terrified and disturbed voice in my head that was telling me, “Ugh, don’t write that; It’s too horrific. Who would enjoy reading that?” It’s a story about how incidents in history become stories and the resulting stories are often laced with magic that can bend time, space, memory and the future…sometimes in horrible ways.
There are two notable consistencies in Kabu Kabu: Africa and female protagonists. These were not themes I forced on my writing. I wrote these stories at different times of my life. Between the years of 1993 and 2012. However, it’s clear where my heart resides and the gaps I believe need filling. Aside from these two themes, I’m all over the place. Most of the stories are adult, but one or two are young adult. Some are stories that happen within novels and some are standalones. There is fantasy, magical realism, science fiction, horror. There is a novella and there is a story that is closer to flash fiction. Stories are set in the past, the future, the present and elsewhere.
The one thing I wish I could have included in the collection was the nonfiction. One of the nonfiction stories was about an incident in the 80s where my sisters and I outran a group of racist high school students when we were 8, 9 and 10 years old (I’m the youngest). The other was about how I fought a group of boys in grade school while I imagined I was Zula from Conan the Destroyer. Maybe I’ll slip those in next time.
Twitter Handle: @Nnedi
Twitter Link: https://twitter.com/Nnedi
Kabu Kabu on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Kabu-ebook/dp/B00FJDMMOA/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1383105476&sr=8-1&keywords=kabu+kabu
I got an early look in at Apocalypse Now Now as Charlie Human’s supervisor in his MA in Creative Writing. I don’t normally take on students, but I was so impressed with Charlie’s short story that he entered for the Moxyland shorts competition that I commissioned him to write a guest chapter for Zoo City (one of three in the extra materials chapters, including the prison diaries by Sam Wilson and the Credo interview by Evan Milton) – and he used the opportunity to undermine my entire universe with an abstract from a psychology paper that posited that being animalled and the horror of the Undertow was all in my characters’ heads.
He’s a subversive bastard and he’s turned into a fine writer. Apocalypse Now Now is demented and wonderful and unlike any other South African fiction you’ve read. I’ll let Charlie tell you about where it came from himself.
The Spark: Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human
Tabloids made me do it. No, not smoke tik and call up demons, or capture a tokoloshe, eat dog flesh, or any other normal tabloid-sanctioned activity. Tabloids made me write a novel. Screw you tabloids.
It was the headlines that did, really. Walking to work I’d see them plastered to lampposts and realised that they were the best writing flashcards ever. They gleefully keep up a surreal running commentary on the supernatural underbelly of Cape Town that doesn’t exist. Or does it? I thought it’d be a fun question to ask and answer with Apocalypse Now Now.
Baby-snatching tokoloshes, fire demons, snake men of the Cape Flats, zombie strippers; that’s the kind of bizarre urban folklore that someone, a Chosen One blessed with years of B-grade movie watching experience and unencumbered by refined literary sensibilities, could really have fun with. *Pulls sword from stone*
Of course a novel needs a protagonist and who better than a Machiavellian porn-dealing teenager with a magical Boer heritage and some serious unresolved psychological issues. Write what you know and all that.
Baxter Zevcenko is a manipulative, cocky little schoolyard Rasputin who thinks emotions are for stupid people. Well, until his girlfriend is kidnapped and he’s forced to recognise the tree-hugging, crystal-wearing part of himself that’s just a junkie for love. The heart wants what the heart wants and Baxter’s heart wants to rescue Esmé and then rip out the heart of whoever took her.
Unfortunately there are supernatural forces at work so Baxter is forced to consult with Cape Town’s first and only Supernatural Bounty Hunter Jackson ‘Jackie’ Ronin. Ronin is an alcoholic Border War veteran with a shotgun, a mojo bag, and a degree in Dwarven style kung-fu ass kicking.
Together they set off into Cape Town’s eldritch underworld and discover a little bit about themselves, the nature of friendship, and the piloting of giant inter-dimensional mecha prisons of elder gods in the process. I’m waiting for Disney to buy the film rights. Any day now.
Baxter also originated in newspaper headlines. He came from a series of moral panic headlines about the teenagers of Cape Town being hostages to the terrible societal forces of drugs, pornography and the increasingly connected society we live in.
The thing is I was a teenager once and I distinctly remember bad things not just happening randomly by themselves. Someone has to do them. Someone chooses to distribute drugs or sell porn or bully some poor kid because he plays the tuba. I wanted Baxter to be that someone.
“Oh, a flawed antihero with a dark past?” I hear you say. “Those are so hawt right now.” Well yes, but I wanted that for a specific reason. No, really. Adolescence, that hormonally-charged liminal space, is all about those horrific, stupid, ridiculous choices and I wanted Baxter’s choices, good and bad, to come from him.
Sure, he’s an egotistical asshole but he’s trying really hard to be slightly less of an egotistical asshole. Which is a struggle I think most of us can relate to. Universal appeal!
Apocalypse Now Now is not a very deep book. WARNING: THERE ARE NO GRAND METAPHORS ABOUT SOUTH AFRICA HERE. It’s dipped in hyperactivity, deep-fried in pop culture, laced with B- grade movie bravado, and all rolled up in a satisfactorily ridiculous premise. So, you know, if you like that sort of thing…
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Buy Apocalypse Now Now on Amazon or from your local indie bookstore
Amazon UK Paperback
The Spark is a series of guest blogs to highlight new African fiction – this week it’s Cape Town writer, Jason Staggie, who was focusing on screenplays when an encounter on a plane sparked off an idea for a novel about an ultimate dare game that spirals out of control, that would fit right in with the kind of transgressive works he loves from Tarantino to Chuck Palahniuk.
(Writers, if you want to write a guest blog for The Spark, please check out the guidelines here).
Jason Staggie: Risk
People should smile more.
I find that this simple act coupled with long lingering eye contact has a very good effect on air hostesses whether they are Namibian, Chinese or any other nationality for that matter. Their job requires them to smile for the length of the flight so why not give some of that back to them? I know they probably come across guys like me all the time. Flirtatious little bastards who irritate them to no end with subtle pick-up lines for the duration of the flight. Truth to be told I’m not flattering them because I want to join the overrated club that is the Mile High. All I want is for my glass to be filled promptly with minimal effort on my part to wear the mask of sobriety.
I’m sitting in the aisle seat. Johannesburg to Hong Kong: 13 hours. I’ve been in my majestic home town of Cape Town for a month. I’m hungover and now on the long trek back to Korea. I’m so hungover that I puked twice before I got onto the plane and I fear I’m going to have to go again soon. I feel a familiar uneasiness in my stomach which is my cue for my first toilet run of the flight.
I return to my seat with the temporary glow of one who has just ejected poison from his body. An elderly, greying white man is sitting in the window seat. I curse my luck for a few seconds but I know that once we’re in the air I’ll probably be able to get one of the air hostesses to move me.
I sit down and we take off. The trolley comes around and we both get a J and B. I’m not into the Fight Club notion of the single serving friend. I may have a lot of friends but I’m always willing to pick at another mind. We may not become close, but there is generally something to learn from every little conversation.
- You’re from Cape Town, right?
- Yeah. Where you from?
Turns out the guy is from the Free State but is now living in New Zealand. His reason for being on the flight is that he returned to South Africa to sell two of his houses. He starts by complimenting me on hailing from the best city in South Africa. “The one that has fewer of “Them”. “Them” that are running the country into the ground at the moment. He goes on listing more nonsensical things that “They” do.
For a few seconds I cannot believe what I’m hearing. Is this guy telling me all this because I’m lighter and because my hair is less curly? Is he telling me this because I come from Cape Town where half the population is mixed race and thus was given the rather absurd moniker of Coloured by the even more absurd Apartheid regime? So, because I’m apparently “half and half” I will automatically side with him?
I realize that he sees me as somewhat of an ally and I feel re-invigorated from my hungover induced lethargy.
I press the button on my armrest to summon Yin. (I am now on first names basis with the 2 air hostess covering the section.) I ask politely for 2 more J and B’s and a couple of Heinekens which she retrieves for us dutifully and with a bit of pep in her step.
If there’s one thing that my travels or perhaps just the years have taught me is that although my spontaneous nature can be ever so attractive and exciting, it can also be a hindrance. In this case I’m willing to sit it out and listen to this guy’s point of view.
He goes on to tell me his family moved to South Africa from Kenya in the 60’s, after “They” took power in Kenya. He starts listing all the ills that have befallen Kenya since the colonialists were sent on their merry way.
- Do you know what you are? I ask, after his rant relents.
My eyes flare up but not in anger. Rather because I am passionately going to tell it like it is. Truth needs a bit of a spectacle because more often than not it gets overshadowed by lies.
- A coward if ever there was one, is the one sitting next to me. You are a coward. You’re probably forty years older than me yet I don’t run from things. You are a coward and you are scared. You don’t fear the crime or the AIDS as much as you fear our country..oops..my country, actually progressing. That would hurt more than anything else in the world wouldn’t it? You make me sick.
The seatbelt sign is not on so I make my way to the toilet. I literally get sick but not because of the conversation. Rather because the hangover still lingers. I’m keen for more banter. I want to talk about the potential of my people, of my Africa. I want this ignorant old man to arrive in New Zealand and question his beliefs.
I’m excited as I walk back to my seat. I have the better part of 12 hours to attempt to destroy 60 odd years of ignorance. When I return he’s gone. At least I now have all the seats to myself. I settle in for a long flight, a very long flight.
I started writing RISK two days later.
I felt like I had the transgressive tales, but meeting this guy simply made me use all his assumptions and utilise it in an extreme way in the novel.
What if instead of talking to people like this, there was a game that forced one to act and do something about the situation? A game that is so seductive and so crazy that it forces players to ask fundamental questions about their role as the youth in Africa. I called this game RISK.
The old man’s continued usage of the words “they” or “them” also planted a seed. His absolute misunderstanding of black people in South Africa propelled me to write from a black person’s perspective and create the character of Nelson.
In Nelson, I wanted to give readers an insight into a new breed of black youth: rich, bored and with no recollection of ever living in a township, yet seemingly struggling with the same issues that his poorer countrymen are facing.
RISK deals with serious issues and is a risqué novel, but at its heart it knows exactly what its saying, and although extreme, it gives a very good indication of what the youth in South Africa is feeling.
Follow Jason on Twitter: https://twitter.com/jasonstaggie
Watch the book trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZE1P0o4Xa0
Buy the e-book on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Risk-Jason-Staggie-ebook/dp/B00D3KQ0GM
Buy the paper book from Exclusive Books: http://tinyurl.com/ll3vgsc