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Lauren Beukes

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

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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