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The Spark: Piggy Boy’s Blues by Nakhane Toure

The Spark is a series of guest blogs highlighting new African fiction with authors writing about what lit up this book in their heads.

Nakhane Touré is the author of Piggy Boy’s Blues and a multimedia artist born in a small town in the Eastern Cape called Alice. He was raised predominantly in Port Elizabeth and is now based in Johannesburg. After beginning his studies in literature at The University of Witwatersand, he embarked on a music career, resulting in him releasing an album – Brave Confusion – that went on to win a South African Music Award for Best Alternative Album. 

Here is Nakhane on his novel:

NPiggy Boy's BluesMy mother was and still is a very important influence on almost everything I do creatively. She influenced my taste in music from infancy, and although I never saw her read a book when I was a child (only later, in my teens, when we were both devout, conservative Christians reading Benny Hinn), she remains an incredible story-teller. Her vivid descriptions and ‘Xhosasation’ of the Bible made me look at it as something more personal than what I had always thought it was. When I read it (in English), as a result of how my mother retold it to me, it became real, it became something I could hold on to. In my mind the characters were alive in the present, the characters were my uncles and aunts, they were people I saw and heard in my neighbourhood. Their speech was imbued with the same cadences I understood and used. Their gestures and expressions were ones I knew and recognised. What always struck me was her commitment to the characters (their voices, their mannerisms), the painstaking attention to the set-up and the drama. I saw everything. It was no longer distant or mythological. It was not – as the imagery in every church I attended was – white. It was ours. We owned those stories. We took ownership of their laws (for better or worse), we infused them in our daily lives, mixing them up with our culture.

When I began writing stories as a very young man, the Bible became a familiar reference point; not always in subject matter, but almost always in tone, atmosphere and sometimes language. The first version of my novel was called To Whom Shall We Go? It was modelled on the sweeping, epic atmosphere of books like Kings 1 and 2 of the Old Testament. I couldn’t distance myself from it, which inevitably rendered the story impenetrable and somewhat self-righteous. It was when I ended my relationship with Christianity that I could look at the Bible as a piece of fiction, look at it from an amoral point of view, take what I needed from it and write a novel inspired by it, but not one that would hammer some religious, moral point to the reader. When I read it I read it for enjoyment, not to get some philosophical direction from it.

I finished To Whom Shall We Go? and sent it to Thabiso Mahlape, my publisher, who liked it and a contract was signed. The publication date of the novel was agreed upon and the book was sent to a reader for a reader’s review. The review was mostly negative, to the point that my publisher feared I would fall apart. I read it, and there flashed the first spark. What my publisher thought would deflate me only engendered a raging defiance. I took the parts I agreed with on the review and used them to help me strengthen what I had. I took the parts I disagreed with and transformed them into the fuel I knew I would need to revise this novel.

I knew very well that I would not be able to work in the noise of Johannesburg. And so I bought a bus ticket, made fun of myself for choosing to travel by bus – in my mind the long trip would help me figure things out, Jack Kerouac style – and travelled to my uncle’s house in East London. When I arrived, I dropped my bags in one of his children’s bedroom and we shared a greasy breakfast. That conversation became the second spark: My uncle told me stories about our people, he told stories about our family, including some very tasty secrets and helped me where I lacked knowledge on tradition and ancestry. When we finished the meal, I took a quick bath and sat down in his study to work. That conversation became the source of what ended up being the prologue of Piggy Boy’s Blues.

After I had finished writing the prologue, I understood that this trip was not just for the sake of revision, but a complete ripping up and starting again. And so I called my publisher and asked for more time. I worked tirelessly on what was no longer To Whom Shall We Go?, but Piggy Boy’s Blues.

Book details

The Spark: Flat/White by Ted Botha

Inspired by John Scalzi’s awesome The Big Idea, The Spark is a guest space on my blog, where African novelists can promote their new novels by writing a short personal essay about the inspiration (or the spark) for the story.

It’s a side project  I run in my spare time because there’s incredible writing talent on the continent (and the diaspora) and I want to shine a blazing light on it.

Authors have previously written about how their novels were inspired by wondering what if the crazy tabloid headlines were true or by a popular Soweto ghost story, or because you were clawing your way out of depression, or trying to live down the embarrassment of being a black student mugged by a white guy, or because Rihanna saved your life or you wrote this story because you wanted to look fancy reading alone in bars.

Flat/WhiteTed Botha is an ex-pat South African who writes interesting things about his experiences from found junk treasure on the streets of NYC to the comic tragedy of trying to fit into a new city or interviewing the sculptor who tries to reconstruct the faces of the women slain in the Juarez murders in Mexico.  He’s an interesting guy and in this installment of The Spark he narrates his crazy adventure, “landing in the city of my dreams, New York, and how it all quickly morphed into a nightmare as I moved into a building in Harlem and came into a bizarre conflict with my fellow residents. The events take place over about five years, and are both comic and a bit tragic. As they say, be careful what you wish for. I was a newly arrived South African who had always wanted to live and work in New York, and the city met me head-on, in every way possible. It was like an onslaught. And all the while, of course, I couldn’t let go of my very peculiar South African-ness, which added to the problem.

So, for anyone living in South Africa, or anyone who’s visited there, or any South African who has lived, tried to live or still lives in New York or any city around the world, this is a story you will relate to. It’s the story of a foreigner, an expat trying to fit in abroad, and failing.”

Here’s Ted on where this came from:

The Spark for Flat/White by Ted Botha



I pretty much knew that I wanted to tell the story of my building in New York City long before I actually got down to it. The first five or six years were just such a crazy, petrifying, stupefying, and sometimes hilarious ride that I knew I would at some point have to put my experiences down on paper.

To give you a taste of it, here’s a random sampling of neighbours that I bumped into daily: The conniving Paloma and her oily husband who loitered in their doorway with bad news for me, often a recently heard death threat (directed, of course, at me). The quiet Old Lady who hid in her flat on the first floor, causing no harm to anyone but secretly sheltering a family of criminals. Big-toothed Esperanza out walking her Chihuahua Tiny, forever concerned that there was a leak somewhere in her ceiling yet again, and wasn’t Noah going to fix it? Noah, possibly wanted outside the country for manslaughter, now paid to keep the building tidy but instead creating a kingdom of his own in our dank basement. Carmen screaming blue murder at one child, then another, and then, finally, at me, all the while carefully masquerading her true identity. Big Steve and his countless siblings, scurrying around the neighbourhood under the cover of night, a network of thieves who would do anything to keep their business going. Our forgetful lawyer, ruffled and in a world of his own, useless to stop the flood of lawlessness in our building. And the two oh-so-friendly sisters who were supposed to manage our affairs – pay the electricity, organise contractors to come by, make sure our bank account was in order – but were surreptitiously siphoning off money from our paltry bank account.

These characters and everyone else in the 29 apartments around mine did what they wanted to do, disobeyed the rules, misbehaved, lied, schemed and plotted because no one had ever stopped them from doing it, at least before I moved in. And that’s when the trouble started.

This was not how I’d imagined life in New York City would be. I had arrived from South Africa wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, as we’d say, thirsty for life and, hopefully, success in the centre of publishing, only to have my dream hijacked by this little building in Harlem. In one brief moment of madness I had accepted the role of board president – to control the residents, the lawyer, the sisters – because no one else wanted to do it.

At the time I naively thought that I could turn our directionless building around. Not once did it occur to me that I was a white South African in a new country, and most of my neighbours were not from the same ethnic group and had histories of their own, prejudices I couldn’t imagine, fears, anger and hate. I naively thought this was America, where democracy reigned, people got on, no matter what their background, and we were all one happy family. I learned the hard way that we were not.

I often reflected – as things around me got worse on a daily basis – that our decaying building was like a little country. We had our dictators, benevolent and otherwise, our politicians promising the earth and delivering nothing, our bureaucrats used to earning a salary for doing nothing, our obedient citizens (quiet, law-abiding and saying nothing, hoping that somehow things would change), our rabble (the screaming, shouting horde who actually were a lot weaker than they first appeared), and those people in the middle who just carried on regardless.

No one filled the middle ground more evidently and surprisingly than Mohammed, my one fellow African in the building. No matter how hard I tried to persuade him to become a part of the process of change in the building, that he could help turn things around, the harder he tried to tell me it would not happen. I figured he had lost hope in the system or never had any hope in it to begin with.

“You should give up trying to change things,” he would tell me, smiling mischievously. “You will never do it.”

Our little “country”, our drifting boat, our building, did change course in the end, however. Despite Mohammed’s belief it wouldn’t. And Flat/White is the story of how that happened, but mostly about how things fell apart before they came together again.
The Animal Lover

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The Spark: Devilskein and Dearlove by Alex Smith

Alex Covers

Inspired by John Scalzi’s The Big Idea, The Spark is a guest space on my blog, where African novelists can promote their new novels by writing a short personal essay about the inspiration (or the spark) for the story.

It’s a side project  I run in my spare time because there’s incredible writing talent on the continent (and the diaspora) and I want to shine a blazing light on it.

Authors have previously written about how their novels were inspired by wondering what if the crazy tabloid headlines were true or by a popular Soweto ghost story, or because you were clawing your way out of depression,  or trying to live down the embarrassment of being a black student mugged by a white guy, or because Rihanna saved your life or you wrote this story because you wanted to look fancy reading alone in bars.

Devilskein and DearloveIn this installment, Alex Smith writes about how two mysterious names, Victorian relics and her unborn child helped inspire her YA novel, Devilskein And Dearlove, which has been nominated for the Carnegie medal.

Alex Smith is a mother, writer, traveller, teacher, textile merchant, and adventurer. She is the author of the Four Drunk BeautiesAgency BlueAlgeria’s Way and Drinking from the Dragon’s Well, has been shortlisted for the SA PEN Literary Award and 2010 Caine Prize, and won a silver award in the English category of the Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature. In 2011 ‘Four Drunk Beauties’ was awarded the Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice Award.

The Spark of Devilskein & Dearlove by Alex Smith

These two names arrived in my head: Devilskein, Dearlove. I don’t know what prompted them, but I wanted to know more about them. And when the names came, I was going through an obsession with keys, of every conceivable sort, I’m still very consumed by them; probably other stories will result. Whatever the story was, it had to have keys and in this story, Albertus Devilskein, has towering shoeboxes full of them.

I was pregnant and was convinced that having a baby would mean I’d never have time to write another novel, so I was determined to get some form of draft done before my son was born. But he affected what direction my exploration of these characters and their trove of keys took: in the first place, being very pregnant at the start of writing, I wasn’t able to fly anymore, so my usual pre-occupation with ‘place’ in a story had to be channelled into the immediate surroundings. Of all the streets in Cape Town, Long Street is surely the most fascinating. So there I had: two characters, a lot of keys and Long Street.

The unborn Elias directed me further – it became important to me to write something that he would enjoy one day. I thought of all the characters and stories that had influenced me as a young reader: like Scheherazade, brilliant woman of fiction who told irresistible stories to escape death – awesome. As a child too I was utterly enchanted by Jules Verne’s work and loved C.S.Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and oh, Alice, who could forget Lewis Caroll’s Alice and Michael Ende’s philosophical adventure The Never Ending Story. Jorge Luis Borges was an exquisite mind who did astonishing things with words. I think Roald Dahl is one of the finest storytellers that has ever existed and more recently Neil Gaiman…It was Gaiman’s idea of reworking Kipling’s Jungle Book into his award-winning The Graveyard Book, that provided the final spark for novel’s evolution.

I liked the idea of taking one story, one setting, one type person (or creature) and inverting it completely. I wanted a strong female lead, a young girl who was in some way, like Scheherazade, fighting for survival by telling stories. And I wanted this feisty child, like Alice, to be transported from (her bleak) reality into something more fantastical. Where there are keys there must be doors: so came to be the maze of doors that leads Erin Dearlove into wonderlands and finally the demonic vault of her nemesis, Julius Monk.

The Secret Garden, like The Jungle Book it is a Victorian relic from a colonial era, with charm of story, but some questionable ideas in our 20th Century context. Inverting it seemed the perfect challenge – so instead of being set on a country estate in England, it is set in an urban African context, there are no servants, in fact the opposite, there is no twee perfectly happy ending, there is transformation and sacrifice.

The Secret Garden begins with a tragedy that leaves a young girl orphaned; in South Africa, there is no shortage of tragedies to choose from, in the case of Devilskein & Dearlove, it is a brutal attack on a farm that leaves Erin Dearlove orphaned.

And while the story never loses sight of hope and a touch of magic, like a talking cricket, there is a constant undercurrent of violence: the talking cricket was directly inspired by a trip to Cambodia (made long before the book was thought of) I read a lot about the history, the glory days of Angkor Wat, the recent past horror of the Pol Pot era; it’s a place steeped in monsters and beauties. But aren’t all places … perhaps that’s why I treat place like a character; because the environment unflinchingly reflects the people who are in it. And as fabulous as Long Street is, it too has a dark side.

Read the first chapter Devilskein & Dearlove for free here

Events, news, essays and explorations of Cape Town’s Secret Gardens at my Bookslive blog

Watch the Devilskein & Dearlove book trailer

Read an interview with the UK and SA cover designers

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The Spark: This Day by Tiah Beautement

The Spark is a weekly guest blog series by African writers talking about what inspired the big idea for their new novels.

Want to write one? I’m open to submissions for 2015. If you’re an African author or publisher with a new book out or coming up (or that came out in the last six months or so), please email me a query after you’ve read the guidelines here.

This entry about grief and loss and resilience, is by Tiah Marie Beautement, an American who moved to South Africa in 2008 with her family and co-founded Short Story Day Africa with Rachel Zadok. She splits her time between writing, running writing workshops for children and her short stories can be found scattered over the internet and in various magazines and anthologies. This Day is her second novel.

nullThe Spark for This Day by Tiah Beautement

The spark for This Day began in the soft tissue of my right wrist. The smouldering burn travelled up the arm and eventually made its way down to my left fingertips. The sensation was like standing a tad too close to a fire without being able to step back. I’d been here before, but this time it refused to abate. Constant. Unrelenting. Painkillers couldn’t touch it. Keys were dropped. I could barely cut food. Managing a fork was tricky. Cooking dinner was approached much like an obstacle course. I began to feel like a hero each time I drove the children to school, biting my lip as I turned the key. Text messages were received with dismay – more buttons to push.

Something was wrong. But for almost a year nobody knew exactly what was to blame for the degeneration. I waded through doctors, specialists, brace makers, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and listened to experts outline possibilities that were frightening. Received an X-ray showing damage to my right wrist. The surgeon said, ‘I’m sorry, there is nothing that can be done to fix this.’

Drop by drop life grew smaller. Gone was the surfing, rowing, piano playing and baking. Gone was wrestling with my kids, throwing a Frisbee and joining in on family bike rides. Then each day, after the children were at school, I would sit at my desk and confront that I was losing the ability to manage a mouse, to type. The words were slipping away.

Physically it would have felt better to give up. Mentally, the mere thought of quitting sent my emotions plunging. Eventually practicality stepped in, pointing out that this was only going to work if I was willing to change. New writing began by reading: a how to, which approached the craft at a different angle. That done, I took an honest assessment of the notes and research I’d gathered for a novel.

Goals shifted. Dreams altered. The story I’d planned to write no longer appealed. In the end, all that remained was the main character, Ella. She, who begins each day by writing letters in the sand. A woman who is physically healthy and financially independent. I didn’t envy her, however; the pain she carries was worse than my own. But I greatly admired her fortitude. So I offered my fictional character a deal: I would get her through another day, if she would get me through a book.

My body prevented the words from pouring forth: two hundred one day, seven hundred the next, three fifty on a third. Push too hard and it all stopped, sometimes for weeks. In between these forced sabbaticals I began to ponder the people I’ve admired over the years. These are souls who kept finding reasons to live, despite life knocking them down time and time again. Not people who live in denial, pretending life is always full of joy and endless happiness. They take life for what it is and possess a determination to find a way to live within it. Or as my physio is fond to say, ‘You need to learn to live your life.’ I looked at Ella and thought, so do you.

Peppy slogans and platitudes are often used to obscure reality. Some things cannot be fixed. There is no cure for Hypermobility Syndrome (HMS) or Fibromyalgia – my eventual diagnosis. Nor could the consequences of Ella’s tragedy be unmade. Forced positivity didn’t teach me how to live with an altered self and bringing it forward. A self that isn’t necessarily better or worse, simply different. Changed.

Day by day, word by word, I cheered Ella on as I wrote her through a span of nearly seventeen hours. As the drafts piled up, I began to learn how to manage my chronic conditions through medication, new exercises and various braces and tapes. Some parts of the body healed, some are permanently altered, while new injuries and challenges crop up and must be dealt with. It isn’t the same life as I had before. But it is one that can still be productive. A life in which the words have remained, producing This Day. A story about trying to keep going after life goes wrong.

Every day we begin again.

Buy This Day: Modjaji, Kalahari, Loot, Exclus!ves

Twitter: @ms_tiahmarie

The Spark: Den of Inequities by Kinyanjui Kombani

The Spark is a weekly guest blog series by African writers talking about what inspired the big idea for their new novels.

Want to write one? I’m open to submissions for 2015. If you’re an African author or publisher with a new book out or coming up (or that came out in the last six months or so), please email me a query after you’ve read the guidelines here.

Den of Inequities

Kinyanjui Kombani is a creative writer, banker, entrepreneur and business mentor based in Nairobi, Kenya.  His published works include: The Last Villains of MoloWangari Maathai: Mother of TreesWe Can Be FriendsLost But Found and Den of Inequities.

In this installation of The Spark, he talks about a scary personal encounter with pool halls and police.  

KombaniThe Spark for Den Of Iniquities by Kinyanjui Kombani

It is 1997, one evening, a year after high school, and I have just been arrested by police.

It seems like a dream: Only a few minutes ago we were noisily playing pool, without the slightest care in the world, and now we are subdued ‘arrestees’, each trying to talk their way out of the situation. It’s a Friday, and if we go into the police cells, the earliest we can be brought before a magistrate is Monday. The idea of a weekend in police cells is not welcome to any of us.

There are two policemen against the four of us. Each policeman has a pair of handcuffs. Naturally, they have had to look for alternatives for the two of us. So here I am, my own belt wrapped around my hand against my co-arrestee, and my free hand clutching my baggy jeans lest they fall off. And I am thinking: how the heavens did I get myself into the mess?

I am a pool addict, and we have been playing pool since 6 am, until a few minutes ago when a fight broke out at the pool den, and before we knew it plainclothes police raided it. I have been one of the unlucky ones who did not escape in time.

Eventually, my brothers will receive the news that I have been arrested, and they will come rescue me before I am bundled into the police Land Cruiser infamously known as ‘Maria’. One of the other arrestees is not as lucky, and he is taken into custody.

As I grow up, go to campus, find a job in a bank, get married, have kids and all, this incident is to fade away. Until 2013 when I am writing a novel, and suddenly it all comes back to me. I have to finish the story!

What happened to the man who was arrested? What if he had no money to bribe the policemen, and was sentenced to time in jail?

More importantly, what if he was a casual labourer, taking an all-important drug to his ailing child? And what if the doctor had proclaimed that the child would die if he dint take the drug by end of week? What if his wife had no way of knowing he had been arrested? What if … ?

Thus, Den of Inequities is born. The novel is a series of ‘what ifs’. It is a story that talks about extraordinary things happening to ordinary people.

The three part novel talks about the aforementioned casual labourer, the local mugger, and a university student. The latter, a ‘socialite’ daughter of an influential politician, thinks she has everything – the looks, the money and fame – until she realizes that everything is not as it seems.

So, what if … ? What if the local mugger was to be reunited with his long lost father? What if the father has all sorts of intentions for him? What if the university student was to fall in love with the poorest boy in the university? What if all these stories were connected?

Against this background is the story of police extrajudicial killings, rampant in Kenya. The UN Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings, Prof. Alston, released a report that incriminated police squads of unwarranted killings. So, what if the perfectly crafted our-men-challenged-them-to-stop-but-they-fired-at-us-so-we-returned-fire-two-toy-guns-were-recovered story police tell us is not true? What if there are a few rogue policemen? Or even lazy ones who, knowing that dead men tell no tales, want to get away with murder?

What if I wasn’t arrested way back in 1997? Would I have found the spark?


The Spark: Paradise by Greg Lazarus

The Spark is a weekly guest blog series by African writers talking about what inspired the big idea for their new novels.

Want to write one? I’m open to submissions for 2014. If you’re an African author or publisher with a new book out or coming up (or that came out in the last six months or so), please email me a query after you’ve read the guidelines here.

Paradise cover copy

Greg Lazarus is the pen name of husband-and-wife writing duo Greg Fried and Lisa Lazarus, one part philosopher, one part psychologist/freelancer writer, which leads to some very interesting  books. The couple have written When in Broad Daylight I Open My Eyes and a memoir, The Book of Jacob: A Journey into Parenthood

In this week’s The Spark, the guest blog where African novelists write about what inspired their new books, they talk about how Paradise came out of of a love of weird combinations including kung-fu, cool criminals and twisted history.

Author photograph

The Spark for Paradise by Greg Lazarus

was born from a set of powerful urges. We were itching to write about a lot of things, all in one book.

Kung fu fighting. How lekker is Bruce Lee? When we were children, the thing to do was go to the Three Arts movie house for a martial arts double feature and then rush outside to the lawn en masse, an entire audience of seven year olds junked up on endorphins and adrenalin from the films and the Kit Kats, and do karate fights until our parents came for us. Which often took a while. So what’s the equivalent for writers approaching middle age? You put a judo fighter in your novel. A petite underdog who is damn angry.

Rapacious Dutchmen. Netherlanders nowadays may largely be liberal egalitarians, but they’re a lot less fun to write about than their ancestors in the Dutch East India Company. What a rapacious crew! Two centuries of ravaging the world’s goodies (at an impressive average of 16% annual return to investors) while espousing law and order. We had to write something about the Cape under the Company in the late eighteenth century: a well-established and brutal society, with unsettling vibrations of revolution from Europe. And we wanted a contemporary Dutch visitor to Cape Town, a woman with goals just as dubious as those of her forebears.

Salty wisdom. Yes, we are a psychologist and a philosopher, but we yearn for someone to tell us what to do. We have no idea. Someone who is strong but wise, tough but caring. How voluptuous just to let all your worries go and follow the advice of one who knows. So we decided to bring back Avram Tversky, a character from our novel When in Broad Daylight I Open My Eyes, put him in another novel and dispense thoughts on how to act. Tversky is bad but we admire him.

A cool, ruthless criminal. A precious object, held in a secure spot, must be at risk. But no Die Hard type deed with machine guns and explosions. The malefactor should be a subtle, slinky shapeshifter – yet still ruthless.

Failure. When you’re twelve, you think you’ll get everything you might want. Great wealth? Coming up. Eternal life? Oh yes. I will not die. Ever. But by the time you are around forty (and by ‘you’, we mean ‘we’), you’re beset by the feeling of failure. What was it that I wanted? I can’t exactly remember, but surely…this isn’t it? Where did it – where did I – go wrong? These feelings deserve exploration in writing, if only as a form of self-therapy.

Good times, bad times. We wanted to acknowledge evil in parts of the book, but out of the corner of our eyes. A glancing, coquettish look at slavery and bondage. There would also be a decadent party, featuring naked swimming amidst cheesy multi-coloured pool lights. And sexy encounters between intriguing people, some of whom may or may not regret what they’ve done later.

Dope and hope. Can writing about an ecstasy trip make you a tiny bit high? We had to see. As for hope, while our reading loves include dystopian fiction, misery memoirs, horrors, chillers, etc., we thought it would be nice this time to write something nice. A feel-gooder, to some extent. Maybe something like taking ecstasy but with none of the downers.

Therefore we wrote a book about Maja, an ex-convict who goes from Amsterdam to Cape Town on shady business; her interactions with Hershel, a middle-aged real estate agent afraid of being a loser; their intimate relations with Surita, a young, aggressive rising star in judo; everyone’s negotiations with Tversky, a mysterious older man in the import-export business; and an eighteenth century deed, done by the brash Menno and the idealistic Elisabeth, that echoes more than two centuries later. The characters are fighters – for love, freedom, cash and self-discovery. Chickens, nameless but characterful, also play an essential role.

Greg Lazarus website:

Buy Paradise online (South Africans only) - – or support your local bookstore. 

The Spark: Richard de Nooy’s The Unsaid

The Spark is a weekly guest blog series by African writers talking about what inspired the big idea for their new novels.

Want to write one? I’m open to submissions for 2014. If you’re an African author or publisher with a new book out or coming up (or that came out in the last six months or so), please email me a query after you’ve read the guidelines here.


Richard de Nooy writes strange and beautiful novels, like literary puzzle boxes. He’s based in Amsterdam but he grew up in Johannesburg and draws on those experiences and what ifs for his books. His first novel, Six Fang Marks and a Tetanus Shot won the University of Johannesburg Prize for Best First Book. He says he’s currently working on his fourth novel, a series of interlinked short stories about kindness, when he isn’t mucking about on Twitter.

In this week’s The Spark, he talks about how his novel was inspired by a very disturbing story about a man with an animal living inside him.

richard denooyThe Spark for The Unsaid by Richard de Nooy

“There is a chain you can’t see running from my stomach to the bellies of all my brothers and sisters on other continents. We are all connected by this chain. But there is also a shark. He lives in my stomach and chews on the chain. You can hear him if you want.”

It has been more than twenty-five years since I heard a man speak these words at the Fort England Psychiatric Hospital outside Grahamstown in South Africa. I don’t recall his face, but his words – spoken with great conviction and intensity – live on in my brain. He believed them; his own thoughts, his hallucinations were as real to him as the walls of the prison around him. It was terrifying and fascinating.

It later dawned on me that the Shark Man might be at the dark end of a continuum, with me with me at the brighter end (relatively sane), separated by various degrees of psychopathy. What if all criminal behaviour originated from some form of psychological disorder? And if so, did it make sense to lock people up rather than treat them? As J.R. Deo, the protagonist in The Unsaid, puts it: “Imagine you had a friendly Labrador that attacked someone under extreme circumstances. Would you throw it into a pit full of mad dogs to check if it was really vicious? And if you did, would it be reasonable to expect him to display normal behaviour?”

In The Unsaid, traumatised war correspondent J.R. Deo, who also narrated my first two novels, is being held at an institute for forensic observation to assess whether he is accountable for a vicious attack on fellow journalists in a bar. Initially, he spends a lot of time writing in his cell, taking stock of horrors past and present. He also has to complete numerous tests and questionnaires that will help establish whether he is suffering from some form of psychological disorder. He regularly meets with a psychologist called Eugene to discuss these tests as well as his own writing, which he agrees to share with Eugene.

Things gradually begin to unravel. Sinister figures whom Deo has encountered in the past take control of his pen and begin dictating their confessions. Meanwhile, Deo has started interacting with his violent and often paranoid fellow inmates. His behaviour and that of the other men is constantly under observation as part of their overall psychiatric assessment. They all hope to make a good impression, because they would prefer to spend time in jail rather than suffer the uncertainty of being sentenced to treatment in a psychiatric detention centre.

Much like a dossier, The Unsaid consists of various components: Deo’s musings on the horrors he has seen, his conversations with Eugene, Eugene’s reports on Deo’s behaviour, the confessions of the sinister figures who populate Deo’s memory, and Deo’s reports on his interaction with fellow inmates. Together, these elements not only recount a story that readers will hopefully find fascinating, but also question the way modern society deals with psychopathy, crime, punishment and rehabilitation.

Holland is in the vanguard of alternative approaches to crime and punishment, looking beyond jail sentences, driven by questions such as: What kind of people will return to society? How will they cope? What are the chances that they will return to a life of crime? It will be interesting to see to what extent The Unsaid prompts similar questions elsewhere.

The Unsaid has been twenty years in the making. It is the third part of a loose trilogy that began with Six Fang Marks and a Tetanus Shot and continued with The Big Stick. The books can be read separately and in any order.

Read the excerpt that kicked off the trilogy here.

“There are guys in here who make Charles Manson look like Mister Bean with a beard. They are feral and fickle and unshackled by conscience, but I do not fear them, for I am one of them.” 

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The Spark: Zukiswa Wanner’s Refilwe

The Spark is a weekly guest blog series by African writers talking about what inspired the big idea for their new novels.

Want to write one? I’m open to submissions for 2014. If you’re an African author or publisher with a new book out or coming up (or that came out in the last six months or so), please email me a query after you’ve read the guidelines here.

Refilwe cover

Zukiswa Wanner’s mother introduces her daughter to friends as “My daughter, Zukiswa Wanner, THE WRITER.” It’s this sort of support and groupie attitude, she says, that encourages her to continue being a full-time writer.

The Spark previously featured Zukiswa Wanner for her new novel, London, Cape Town, Joburg. But she’s not only a novelist and columnist and journalist, she also writes kids books and in this week’s guest blog highlighting new African fiction, she talks about a unique twist on an old fairytale.

Zukiswa WannerThe Spark for Refilwe by Zukiswa Wanner

When Jacana asked me to take part in the project of adopting traditional fairy tales, it was natural that I would want to do Rapunzel. I was that young girl who fantasized about having long, flowing locks. I was that young girl who begged my mother to allow me to visit my aunt’s farm, not so much because I loved my aunt and cousin but because I would get the opportunity to spend hours brushing my cousin’s Barbie or Cindy dolls’ hair (I was deprived as a child. I never got any dolls and only ever got books for presents).

I was that young girl who felt in my early teens that being able to hold my hair in a pony tail was a major achievement and so, I would relax hair with Dark & Lovely, braid it overtime, and the moment it was long enough, stay for days on end with it in a pony tail. But I wanted to make Refilwe (Jacana 2014)  something that I, as a young African girl, would have liked to read so that I wouldn’t have the sort of hair issues  that I had growing up. And so it was that my Refilwe is afro-chic with dreadlocked hair.

Refilwe’s relation with her adoptive mother is a result of her biological mother’s cravings for morogo (instead of the rapunzel plant) from the neighbour’s garden. Putting in a bit of African pragmatism, when the father is asked by the old woman next door to pass on his child after the pregnancy in exchange for all the morogo (pumpkin leaves) his wife may want, he figures they could always brew again and ask the ancestors to bless them with a child. He figures that’s a better deal than the death of his wife.

Now what was I to do about the tower? Sure, I could have put Refilwe in Carlton or any of the other contemporary buildings in South African cities but I decided I wanted a rural setting. It was while travelling through Lesotho with a friend that I had my light bulb moment for my setting. If nothing else, the children’s book could also serve as a bit of a geography lesson to its readers. Refilwe would not be in a tower. She would be in a cave on top of a mountain.  I knew I had struck gold with the chant when I told the story at a school in Bayreuth, Germany and in Nairobi, Kenya and the children continuously kept yelling, “Refilwe, Refilwe, let down your locks. So I can climb the scraggy rocks.”

It’s while in the cave on top of a mountain that Refilwe is heard singing in a beautiful voice by the heir to the Sotho kingdom, Prince Tumi who then observes and imitates Refilwe’s adoptive mother’s voice. Eventually a glowing Refilwe lets slip about Prince Tumi to her adoptive mother. The adoptive mother is scandalized that not only has her daughter been allowing a man into the cave on top of a mountain BUT her statement that mama is heavier than Prince Tumi implies that she is – the horror – FAT! Well, what’s an adoptive mother to do really but cut the locks off, banish Refilwe to the desert and set a trap for Prince Tumi.

But, as in all good fairy tales, there is a happily ever after.






The Spark: Zukiswa Wanner’s London – Cape Town – Joburg

The Spark is a weekly guest blog series by African writers talking about what inspired the big idea for their new novels.

Want to write one? I’m open to submissions for 2014. If you’re an African author or publisher with a new book out or coming up (or that came out in the last six months or so), please email me a query after you’ve read the guidelines here.


Zukiswa Wanner confided in me about a year ago that she was having hassles finding an international agent and her latest rejection letter said it was because her books “just weren’t African enough.” For a Zambian-born woman who lived in South Africa before moving to Kenya, the idea is laughable. But it reveals that there are still weird mythologies in publishing around what African fiction should be about.

Wanner writes about all the strangeness of our current reality. She tackles spiky issues in her novels, from the relationship between a black domestic worker and her black employers in The Madams (2006) to the range of masculinities in Men of the South (2010). She’s a fine story teller who uses humour and empathy to explore who we are right now in all our complicated, messy glory.

In this week’s The Spark, Wanner talks about identity, love, travel and being labelled “a black woman writer”.


 The Spark: London – Cape Town – Joburg by Zukiswa Wanner

Zukiswa WannerPerhaps because of my multiple heritage and my nomadic existence I often find that identity is a central theme in my novels. The spark for London – Cape Town – Joburg (Kwela, 2014) came from a conversation I had with Mfundi Vundla. He had asked me to write a book that could be turned into romcom. I remember doing a treatment where the main characters were a white American male scriptwriter and a black South African female lawyer. While waiting for funding and a contract the craziest thing happened though. I revisited the idea and the manuscript became something else completely. I still liked the idea of an inter-racial couple but the book also became about death of a child.

It ended up being an emotionally exhausting experience and I remember that many a time after writing and during the editing process, I would be overly protective and indulgent of my son. As with most writing, the book wrote itself and somehow as with my previous works, identity ended up being a central theme to the work. There was the identity of Martin as a black man with an Irish last name and later, when he finds his biological father; Germaine’s identity as a British woman loving, learning  and getting frustrated by South Africa; that of Zuko as a young bi-racial chap not quite sure who he identifies with most. Always, the characters, while finding their niche in every one of the three cities that make up the title of the book, are still outsiders looking in.

London – Cape Town – Joburg is stylistically narrated using the voices of Martin and Germaine (a borrowed narrative device from  my 2008 novel Behind Every Successful Man) but I think the voices here are stronger and that may perhaps have to do with Germaine and Martin’s more worldly and less provincial perspective on life. In later parts of the book, there is also a glimpse of Zuko through his diary entries. As he grew in the manuscript, I often had to get my son to read through sections of the diary entries so I could maintain authenticity of the child-like voice.

So much has been said about novel writing in South Africa and there are a lot of expectations on the writer on the narrative voice they can take. I wanted to turn this idea that as writers we can’t cross the racial or gender lines on its head too because I believe the human experience is similar. Tired of being labeled a black woman writer I deliberately made my main characters a white woman and a black man and I certainly hope that my Germaine is as authentic sounding a white woman coming from my fingers as Beukes’ Zinzi of Zoo City fame. I had already experimented with the male voice in my last novel so I hope Martin sounds genuine too.




The Spark: Louis Greenberg’s Dark Windows

The Spark is a weekly guest blog series by African writers talking about what inspired the big idea for their new novels.

Want to write one? I’m open to submissions for 2014. If you’re an African author or publisher with a new book out or coming up (or that came out in the last six months or so), please email me a query after you’ve read the guidelines here.

DW_full cover

Joburg writer Louis Greenberg has a Master’s degree in contemporary vampire novels and a doctorate in post-religious apocalyptic fiction and his smart, strange fiction reflects his weird inclination, from his Coupland-esque first novel, The Beggar’s Signwriters to the very smart and creeeeeepy horror thrillers he writes with Sarah Lotz, under the pseudonym SL Grey, including The Mall, The Ward and The New Girl.

In this installment of The Spark, the guest blog series where African novelists write about what inspired their new books, Louis starts with a death and talks about how sometimes it’s okay to abandon ship.

Louis Greenberg

The Spark: Dark Windows by Louis Greenberg

The spark for Dark Windows is shrouded. All I remember is that early in 2011 Sarah Lotz and I had just finished writing The Ward, the second S.L. Grey novel.

Between juggling a dozen freelance editing and tutoring projects,  I was tooling away rather unconvincingly on a solo novel involving cricket umpires, an agoraphobic psychologist and a sports betting scam.

I had plotted the whole thing out on my whiteboard in different-coloured pens, even as far as detailing the day-by-day weather conditions in the city where it was set. But I had no momentum. The fact that I was romancing my whiteboard instead of sitting down and writing suggested that I wasn’t feeling the plot or hearing the characters.

Then one morning I came into my office with the kernel of Dark Windows – maybe it came to me in the bathtub or during those five extra minutes of sleep – flipped the white board around and started typing. This new idea had enough fuel to get me started. You need that propelling momentum when you start a novel, like the massive tanks required to get a tiny capsule up into space. Once you’re there, you can drift around exploring for quite a while before inevitably burning your way back down to earth.

I think that initial burst of energy came because Dark Windows was the sort of novel I wanted to read right at that moment – (by the time you’ve finished, of course, you’re onto other things) – so I had to set to writing it. I’m inspired by writers like David Mitchell, Scarlett Thomas, Audrey Niffenegger, Haruki Murakami and our host, Lauren Beukes, who blend magic and rich ideas with recognisable, concrete cityscapes. That’s what I wanted to do with Johannesburg in Dark Windows: apply a magical filter to it that would make it just that little bit less familiar and mundane, because to someone who’s lived here all his life, despite all their fits and starts Johannesburg and South Africa can sometimes be depressingly predictable.

As an antidote, I wanted to imagine a Johannesburg that is radically transformed – the novel’s set now, but hippies have taken over the government and ostensibly cured all social ills with their altruistic governance – and then test the limits of that transformation. It’s not a dystopian novel, but rather a vision of utopia rubbing up against reality. What happens to utopian ideals when they’re transplanted into a real city? And is it true that imagining the end of the world is the only way we can think ourselves free of the political, social and economic traps we’ve bought our way into? Is this the appeal of apocalypse?

There is more than a hint of apocalypse in the novel, a countdown to a possibly supernatural event – or is it just a scam? There are deaths, drug dealers, riots, police raids – violence lurks beneath every freshly painted surface. The harmonious rainbow is starting to crackle and peel.

There’s also love. A lot of love stories. I challenged myself, after the intercut narratives of my first book, The Beggars’ Signwriters, to stick with the same characters and let their relationships develop through the length of a novel. There’s the love story between window-painting Jay Rowan and Beth Talbot, who’s married to someone else. You also get to look in at the bonds between estranged couples, a father and a daughter, and between lovers.

I wanted to tease out these affairs in a complex, convincing way, with neither knee-jerk cynicism nor fallback cliché. I treated the politics and the love and the faith and the apocalypse in the novel with equal ambivalence. Despite my best efforts, I find it hard to draw an opinion and stick to it; the more I learn about life, the less virtue I find in firm opinions and immutable beliefs. In Dark Windows, I hope to let you draw your own conclusions and maybe change them tomorrow.

And as for the umpires book, in its time with its face to the wall, it’s crystallised into something else, something better and more compelling. The umpires shuffled away, perhaps into their own story, and I was left with the agoraphobic psychologist still sitting in her comfortable suburban house, looking, terrified, out of the window. She’s become a star of the novel I’m working on now. I’ll stick to that story if I’m ever asked what her spark was.

Download the first chapter of Dark Windowsfor free here!

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Read an interview with Joey Hi-Fi about his cover design for Dark Windows here!