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Lauren Beukes

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

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.







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