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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.” 

For more on Richard de Nooy:

Visit his blog:

Follow him on Twitter: @RicharddeNooy

Buy Richard’s books on BookDepository:

From Jacana :

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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!

Events, news, bookshop links at my website:

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

The Spark: Michael Cope and Ken Barris’ Sunderland

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.

Like Nabokov’s Pale Fire or Byatt’s Possession or Danielewski’s House of Leaves, Michael Cope and Ken Barris’s novel Sunderland is a story within a story of someone uncovering a document, and the growing disconnect between the finder and the material.

In today’s The Spark, the guest blog series where African novelists talk about what inspired their new books, the pair talk about how they decided to make those perspectives especially distinctive by writing them separately – and how they brought them together.

The Spark for Sunderland IMG_5534by Michael Cope: 

For me it’s not a spark. The ideas are always there. Anyone who has the writing habit has a Pool of Ideas into which more and more of them get dissolved over time.

In my case the ideas were many and varied, and were about place and places, character and characters, and about how and why we write. Eventually something like crystallisation happens in the Pool when it reaches saturation point and you toss in the seed. The crystallisation seed was this interesting ending. All sorts of ideas attached to it, and the plot and bare frame of a book quickly became clear.

In this book that emerged from the Pool and demanded to be written down,

  • There is a deceased author, D.
  • A researcher, R,
  • is paid by D’s estate
  • to reconstruct D’s
  • last, incomplete novel, Sunderland.

This meant two very distinctive points of view – that of D and that of R. The second “spark” was the realisation that the book could easily be split between two writers. Perhaps with doubled vision we could reveal a third dimension. I approached Ken. He agreed. Yay. D became Charles De Villiers, R became Art Berger. I wrote everything that ostensibly came from the keyboard of De Villiers, and Ken wrote Art Berger and his world. The overarching plot was mine but Ken originated a lot of sub-plots and detail. In the end it was roughly half and half. The division also spared me the vertigo of creating characters within characters within characters.

I had a lot of fun creating Charles – a writer whose methods are quite different from my own. He works from lists, I don’t. He likes to have pictures of things he’s writing about. He does lots of research, crafting characters in a way that my more intuitive approach has avoided. He is very concerned to weave certain ideas into the text, in ways I wouldn’t (until now). Fiction, especially writing it, can broaden the mind. Working together was easy and we hardly fought. It was also fun. I enjoyed exposure to quite different methods, especially the deep irony of Ken’s style. Together we were able to create something which is both serious and satirical, a work which neither of us could have written alone.


Barris Sunderland 2

The Spark for Sunderland by Ken Barris: 

Mike contacted me about an idea he had for a collaborative novel. We met over breakfast and discussed it. He presented his concept – a novel for two voices – which I liked  immediately, particularly the ending he had in mind.

One voice would belong to Charles de Villiers, a major South African novelist who had died of brain cancer, leaving behind the fragments of an unfinished novel. The other would belong to a young writer and academic, on the make but insecure, later named Art Berger. Mike proposed that I write the latter voice.

“It’s a great idea, Mike,” I said. “But why don’t you just write both voices?” To which he replied that he was only interested in writing the fragments – he didn’t have the concentration span to write a whole novel!

So a number of working breakfasts followed. We constructed potted biographies for both characters that would explain their flaws and tendencies to some extent, agreed on names and roles for the minor characters, and worked out a division of labour. Mike had provided the broad concept, including some of the key plot triggers and turning points. It became my task to plot the Berger narrative, and to incorporate and arrange the de Villiers fragments within it.

Mike wrote an obituary for Charles de Villiers under his own name, and I wrote up an interview between the not-yet-dead Charles de Villiers and Art Berger, most of which we didn’t use. We met reasonably often to monitor progress and to define whatever changes were necessary.

At one stage I got a bit irked with Mike for creating the same information chaos that Charles was meant to do, a case of performing Charles rather than just writing him. But there was method in this madness because it influenced the way I developed Art’s character and shaped his responses. Sunderland was a tremendously interesting and challenging project, and the fusion of creative energies was really rewarding. Not to mention great fun at a technical level.

The Spark: Jassy Mackenzie’s Switch

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.


Jassy Mackenzie normally writes critically-acclaimed crime novels, but she recently made the switch, as it were, to erotica. In this week’s The Spark (the guest blog series where African writers talk about what inspired their new novels) she talks about what got her excited about her second playful, funny, sexy caper of a novel.

jassyThe Spark for Switch by Jassy Mackenzie

Female domination is a topic that fascinates me. Not so much in an “I want to try this” way, but more in a “Do people seriously do this and can I be a fly on the wall?” way. Although having said that, most red-blooded women could surely become accustomed to having an obedient submissive to do the household chores and cater for their every whim.

“Vacuum the carpets and clean the stove, slave!”

“Yes, Mistress.”

“And hurry up. My underwear needs to be hand-washed this morning!”

“I’ll get it done before I make you lunch, Mistress.”

“Stop answering back. I need to put my feet up for a while. Come here and kneel down in front of me.”

When I decided to write an erotic romance featuring a dominatrix, I knew it would be impossible to make it serious. The idea of a man-slave crawling around wearing fishnet stockings and pink panties is inherently hilarious. How can you do anything but giggle at the vision it conjures up? I decided it would be easier, and more sensible, to keep readers giggling most of the way through the story.

The second challenge I had was making the heroine sympathetic. I didn’t want her to come across as callous or brutal or overly kinky, so I decided I would land her in a set of horrific financial circumstances where the only way out would be to open a dungeon in the unrentable, black-painted cottage that her tenant has abandoned. She would be an accidental dominatrix – a reluctant mistress – terrified by what she was planning to do, and out of her depth from the time she opened the door to her very first client.

The final challenge was to turn a submissive man into a sexy romantic hero. Now, the interesting fact about submissive men is that they’re no shrinking violets in real life. In fact, the opposite usually applies. They are men who shoulder immense power and responsibility, successful CEOs and professionals, high earners and leaders in their fields. As a result, they crave balance; to set their corporate cares aside for a time and hand over their power to a woman who must be equally strong in order to shoulder it.

My first erotic romance, Folly, saw the heroine Emma Caine meeting and falling in love with the dangerously attractive Simon Nel – a relationship that was complicated by the fact he was also her occasional dungeon client. “It’s a great story,” my agent told me, “but I’m not sure about the ending. I think we need a better HEA.” In romance novel language, this is an acronym for “happily ever after”.

“No,” I told her. “I don’t want a HEA. I’d like to leave the story open for a sequel.” After all, I had so many questions. Would things work out between Emma and Simon, given the unusual circumstances in which they met and the logistical challenges their relationship faced? What would happen to Emma’s husband, severely brain damaged and in a care home after a car accident? Would his revoltingly materialistic and tight-fisted family get their come-uppance? And what would happen if Emma’s fledgling business faced a serious threat – like having a psychotic dominatrix accuse her of stealing clients?

A year after Folly launched into the South African market, Switch has answered these questions… well, most of them. There are a few issues that I’d like to resolve more fully – perhaps in a third book? After all, writing romance is fun, and erotic romance is even more rewarding. And as for humorous erotica, well, it’s the most enjoyable of all!

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The Spark: Unimportance by Thando Mgqolozana

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.



Thando Mgqolozana writes fearlessly about topics that would burn other writer’s fingers, from botched circumcision rituals in his scathingly brilliant A Man Who Is Not A Man to an African take on the nativity in Hear Me Alone. He’s a fierce and challenging young writer and it’s great to see him move into new unexplored territory – campus.

The SparkThe Spark for Unimportance by Thando Mgqolozana

On Campus*

In 2002, I entered the premises of the University of the Western Cape for the first time through the Pedestrian’s Main Gate. I’d taken a taxi from Gugs and my cousin, who was more familiar with Cape Town, had told me to get off at Sex Cycle, cross the road, and buzz security at the gate. Once I was in the taxi, I told the driver where I was going and there were chuckles. Upon disembarking, I saw written on the roadside board: Sacks Circle Industrial.

I’d arrived in Cape Town from my village home the previous day and had left my bags at my cousin’s in Gugs while I went for registration. I had this overwhelming anxiety when I saw WELCOME TO THE UNIVERSITY OF THE WESTERN CAPE emblazoned above the electric gate. A security guy stood guard at the readily opened gate. When he was giving me directions to the Great Hall, a security lady came out of the security gatehouse and told him, ‘Hay’bo, you are confusing him.’

‘He’s not confused,’ he replied. ‘Are you confused, mfethu?’

I shook my head.

She said, ‘Can’t you see he’s a fresher? He won’t know the Condom Square you’re telling him about.’

He thought for a second and then said, ‘Look, mfethu,’ gesturing now, ‘when you pass this brown building, this one here, you will see a lawn on the other side. That’s Condom Square. There’ll be children rolling and kissing on the lawn. Don’t mind them. Pass Condom Square. There’s a path …’

I cannot remember the rest of it.

I didn’t remember it then. I had Sex Cycle and Condom Square in my mind. What kind of names were these? I’d find out later. The university was basically a juggle with tall, brown buildings; and that day Cape Town was so misty it was as though a steaming pot had just been opened. When I’d gotten my student card, fetched my bags from Gugs, and signed in at the Cecil Esau Residence, I felt hungry. I thought for another hour what I’d do about this situation. I decided to go and ask Gwen Ross, the lady who had welcomed me at Cecil Esau. While she was giving me directions to a campus shop she wasn’t even sure was open, a short guy popped out of the corridor and said to Gwen Ross, ‘Mama Ross, my job here is done.’ He was a short fellow but he walked like he was straddling something, and he wore his belt way above the belt line. He ignored me and waved a bunch of keys, ‘Need any more help, Mama Ross?’

‘Thank you. Won’t you please show him Daddy’s shop? He needs food.’

‘No problem,’ he said, handing the keys to Mama Ross, and then turning to me, ‘This way, my guy.’

Hamilton, the short fellow walked with me and on the way he showed me The Barn – yes, a pub with Castle Lager banners and all, on campus – and then he said, ‘This thoroughfare is called NY 1.’

‘NY 1?’

‘From the Dining Hall down there all the way to the DL Block.’

‘Are there other NYs?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Like NY 2, NY 3 …’

‘No, it’s just this one. Know what it stands for?’

‘Native Yard number 1,’ I said confidently. ‘I’m from Gugs, the streets there are grouped like this, and the streets in Mdantsane are grouped into NUs. Native Units.’

We talked about the horrifying legacy of apartheid that many were too eager to forget. Hamilton would be my comrade later when I joined the South African Students’ Congress. For the duration of my stay on campus NY 1 was a significant part of my life. I walked there every day. It was the street to which the residences opened, and then it stretched on, linking residences to lecture halls, library, Student Centre, and the admin building. The street was like a river, and its water was the students. There was always someone strolling on NY 1, and often a group of boys – or girls, at times – hovering about like vultures. Walking there required loads of confidence.

It was a true replica of the real NY 1 in Gugs.

For my novel, Unimportance, the memory of life on campus was the spark as well as the fertile backdrop to the story, with NY 1 stitching it all up together. This is an account of twelve hours in the life of Zizi, a university student and SRC presidential candidate – a position that would make him the most important person on campus. It’s the night before his presidential manifesto presentation, but as he works on his speech, a squabble with his girlfriend turns ugly, and she disappears. Now everything is at risk: his reputation and position, the election, even his freedom. For the duration of the night we follow an anxiety-stricken Zizi down NY 1, searching the campus for his missing girlfriend. The following day he walks on NY 1 to the Student Centre, where, in the presence of the entire campus population, he makes an extraordinary declaration.

How will the students vote?

Integrity is at the core of this novel, but it would seem Unimportance is also a literary intervention: I am not aware of any South African novel that is based entirely on a campus, or about student politics. The university environment, and the phenomenon of student politics, is often referenced in passing. The truth is that the university is a microcosm of society. Through the life of a once popular – and then compromised – student activist, I attempt to draw this analogy.

*The manuscript was titled On Campus, before the word unimportance grew on me. I am glad to have finally found use for it

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