Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to BooksLIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Books LIVE

Lauren Beukes

@ Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

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!

Buy the book on Kalahari (South Africa)

Buy the ebook on Kalahari (SA-only)

Buy the ebook on

» read article

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

Find Thando Mgqolozana on Facebook 

Follow @Thando_Mgqo on Twitter 

Buy the book on Amazon 

» read article

The Spark: Walk by James Whyle

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.


James Whyle was born and bred in the Amatole Mountains in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. Conscripted into the apartheid army, he was discharged on the grounds of insanity. He did everything in his power to assist the authorities in arriving at this diagnosis.

His story The Story was chosen by JM Coetzee as winner of the 2011 Pen/Studzinski competition. His novel The Book of War won the Debut Prize at the M-NET Literary Awards in 2013.

In this week’s The Spark, Whyle talks about shipwrecks and lonely journeys and cultural connections and disconnections in his book, Walk.

IMG_1130 (668x800)

The Spark for The Walk by James Whyle

It was more a smoulder than a spark, a long smoulder, like the fires that burn for decades in disused coal mines, inhibited only by scarcity of oxygen.

Sometime in the 1980s, the filmmaker Guy Spiller approached me with an idea for a project. He gave me a book with an unwieldy title, A Source Book on the Wreck of the Grosvenor East Indiaman. Buried deep inside it was William Hubberly’s journal, which recounts, day by day, his walk from the shipwreck in northern Pondoland, down the Transkei Wild Coast, to the great dune deserts just east of Port Elizabeth. It is a tale of unspeakable suffering and it has a fine and simple plot. Stranded in a strange land, 150 castaways set out for home and one by one they are left behind or they starve or they are murdered until in the end there is only one left and that last survivor must surely be accounted the loneliest person in the word.

At the beginning of 2012  had just finished an MA at Stellenbosch and the novel I had written for the course, The Book of War, was making its way into book shops and the world. I went to Stellenbosch on the recommendation of a friend, novelist and playwright Harry Kalmer, and I was lucky because The Book of War book found the best mentors it could have had in Marlene van Niekerk and Willem Anker. I inferred from them that there was some hope if I was prepared to keep writing. But what?

It was Cormac McCarthy that convinced me I should try my hand at fiction. Reading him I mean, we’re not friends or anything. Although God knows he feels like one sometimes but then so does Willie Shakspere and Norman Mailer. In any event, I came back to William Hubberly’s story with a thought. What if the book had, at its centre, an emotional relationship as powerful as that between the father and the son in McCarthy’s The Road? So I started writing, reworking the account of the shipwreck that is given in the Source Book and following William Hubberly step by step. In my mind was the hope that characters, as had been the case with The Book of War, might arise naturally out of the source material and take action to enrich the story. As I worked, however, I came to realise that any novelisation, any icing on the narrative, was fraudulent and unnecessary. I wanted to stick as close to the truth as possible, and I came to love the way Hubberly mentioned people’s names only when the died or were left behind. “In the night,” he writes, “John Howse, a seaman, died through great weariness.” It seemed senseless to try and improve on that.

There’s a mystery in William Hubberly’s story, and in Walk. The Nguni peoples along the coast treated the castaways with prodigious cruelty. They stole from them, stoned them and assaulted them with wooden clubs. In some cases they murdered them. Asked for food, they would bring out gourds of milk and pour it for their dogs. And yet, when they were approached singly, or in small groups, in their villages, they were capable of treating strangers with great kindness. As I worked I realised that this was the true theme and narrative of the book.

The first meeting of discrete cultures, each with their own mythology and world view and technology, is seldom a pretty sight. Even when the cultures are related, it takes a bit of time for things to settle. Thomas Babington Macaulay will tell you that England only became England centuries after the Norman invasion when the settlers’ Northern French dialect was finally absorbed into Anglo Saxon and modern English began to emerge.

Walk, like The Book of War, is an attempt to understand the slow, ongoing, forming of South Africa. It has only three characters: the boy, who is a version of William Hubberly, the castaways, and the people. The people being the various Nguni polities that inhabited the coast. Walk is about South Africa now. About how we got here, how we came to be what we are. That’s the spark, ultimately. How the hell did we get here, Lauren? How the hell did we get here?


Find James on:  Twitter

The Red Room



The Book of War

In the pipeline


» read article

When the Pirates were the Good Guys: The Spark for Justin Fox’s Whoever Fears the Sea

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.


Justin Fox is a notable South African travel writer and photographer who specializes in going to strange and interesting places. It seems the same holds true of his fiction. In this week’s The Spark, he sets off on a Swahili dhow for pirate-infested waters.

justin fox

The Spark: Whoever Fears The Sea by Justin Fox

One month after 9/11, in October 2001, I was sent to Kenya to research a travel story for Getaway magazine. My assignment would involve catching a sailing dhow to Lamu. I flew to Mombasa, tried to find a willing captain and eventually managed to get a fisherman to sail me from Malindi to Lamu. That journey sparked the idea of writing something more substantial about being in an Islamic African context just after 9/11, with the USA about to do first strikes in the Middle East.

I initially planned to produce a travel book, which I began writing that November (2001). I worked on it for a few years and eventually abandoned the project. Then in October 2006 I was back on the east coast, chartering a dhow from Lamu, through the Lamu Archipelago and right up to the Somali border. We sailed a big Swahili dhow, slept on the beaches or on the vessel, and threaded our way through the islands.

After that amazingly evocative trip, I revisited the book and thought maybe I could use both journeys and recast them in fiction, primary because piracy was becoming prevalent and it was something I really wanted to include. For that, I needed to move out of non-fiction and into an imaginative space.

But Whoever Fears the Sea is not actually a pirate book. It’s rather a celebration of maritime East Africa. It’s about dhows and the incredible flowering of African sail over the last 1000 or so years. Today’s pirates are merely a part of this great tradition.

Most contemporary literature takes a Western angle on Somali piracy. I wanted to turn that on its head. My story tries to give some perspective on current piracy and highlight the reasons behind it. In 2001 the pirates were probably, on balance, still the good guys. They were fighting against international fishing fleets and trying to keep out Western nuclear- and medical-waste dumpers. Foreign trawlers were completely fishing out that stretch of coast and chasing the Somalis out of the water. As a kind of defence mechanism, local sailors formed themselves into a ‘coast guard’.

Today, those coast guards have turned into hard-core pirates, but in the late ’90s I think they were still in the right. I set the novel at the tipping point with my hero, Paul Waterson, sailing headlong into the confusing, dangerous, contested space of northern Kenya in 2001.

Find out more about Justin Fox at

Follow him on Twitter: @JustinFoxAfrica

Buy the book here:

Or here:

» read article

The Spark: Daughters Who Walk This Path by Yejide Kilanko

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.

In 2012, Yejide Kilanko was named one of the top five hottest up-and-comers on the Canadian writing scene by the Globe and Mail. Her debut novel, Daughters Who Walk This Path, was a national best-seller and long-listed for the inaugural Etisalat Prize. Born in Ibadan, Nigeria, she now lives in Ontario, Canada with her family where she writes poetry and fiction and works as a therapist in children’s mental health. Her next book, A Deep and Distant Shore, is forthcoming from Penguin Canada, winter 2015.

In this week’s guest blog for The Spark, she talks about what inspired the novel, set in her hometown of Ibadan, and the power of challenging silences.

The Spark of Daughters Who Walk This Path by Yejide Kilanko

Author Picture-Yejide Kilanko-2013

“Who knows where inspiration comes from. Perhaps it arises from desperation. Perhaps it comes from the flukes of the universe, the kindness of the muses.” – Amy Tan

The inspiration to write my debut novel Daughters Who Walk This Path definitely came from a place of desperation. I found myself trapped there because long after the meetings ended, I replayed the disclosures of child sexual abuse heard at work in my head.

Struggling to sleep, I turned to poetry. Writing poems has always been my way of getting through difficult times. The poem below was later shared on Facebook. Prior to posting it, I couldn’t have imagined the conversations initiated by my Nigerian friends. Even though I knew children were being sexually abused in my birth country, I didn’t think it was so prevalent or had happened to people I grew up with.

spark poem

I was well aware of our culture of silence around sex, sexuality and other issues challenging traditional beliefs and practices. Family and friends, who perhaps thought I’d forgotten this because of my many years away from home, were quick to remind me about the dangers of speaking out when I announced the decision to write a novel.

“Don’t you care people might think it is your story?” someone asked with genuine concern.

“But it isn’t,” I said.

“You and I know it isn’t. Others will think it is and you know how our people talk.”

The thought that one day someone might read the novel – I wasn’t even sure it would get published – and think I’d been sexually abused as a child, made me pause. It brought on an unexplainable, irrational feeling of shame. The kind I had seen on downcast faces at work.

Anger at the injustice of the shaming and blaming which often follows disclosures of sexual abuse made me even more resolved to write the novel. It sustained me as I wrote the first draft over a period of eight months.

Set in Ibadan, my hometown, Daughters Who Walk This Path tells the story of two female cousins who both experienced child sexual abuse. Morayo was repeatedly assaulted by a family member, while her older cousin, Aunty Morenike’s rape by a trusted family friend led to a teenage pregnancy.

Since publication, I’ve had several people ask if Morayo and Morenike’s stories are mine. I always say, it could have been.

While the novel addressed difficult issues, it was important to me, for it to end on a life-affirming note. I wanted to reinforce the belief that life can still be beautiful after horrific things happen to us.

The courageous characters of Daughters Who Walk This Path, remind us all of our humanity while providing an uplifting, authentic cultural adventure.

Author website



Buy Daughters Who Walk This Path on Amazon

Buy Daughters Who Walk This Path on Barnes and Noble

» read article

The Spark: Makhosazana Xaba’s Short Story Collection Running & Other Stories

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.


Makhosazana Xaba has a long history working as a women’s health specialist in local and international NGOs, has published a ton of academic work on gender, health and development, has a book of poetry, These Hands. She has her MA in Creative Writing from Wits University, has been a fellow at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research and won the Deon Hofmeyr Award for Creative Writing. She brings all this experience to bear, along with her poet’s sense of language and the lifelong activist’s sense of mischief …

In this week’s The Spark, she talks about what inspired some of the stories in the collection.

The Spark on Running & Other Stories by Makhosazana Xaba

I like to break rules. I like to play. Writing fiction is a way of playing. I write away from home, often in coffee shops and bookstores in order to avoid my home that is full of domestic distractions and beckoning bookshelves. I do not have a writing room, yet.

A short story has few characters, I was told in my creative writing class. Then I thought; what would it mean to bend that rule just a little? That was the starting point of Running, which gave my collection of short stories its title. I wanted the main character to be surrounded by a buzz of numerous other characters, be in conversation with them somehow, be one of them. I wanted to have a sense of congregation.

Having been to innumerable conferences all over the world, and played different roles, I decided on a conference venue as a setting – familiar ground. We are, after all, advised to write about what we know. Once I had decided that I knew I would immediately have to work with dialogue – a challenge that excited me, that idea of conference participants speaking, their voices juxtaposed against the presenter’s formal voice and that of the narrator, my main character. And hey, this was new territory – I had never read a short story set inside a conference venue.

What would it mean to play with the time frame, moving between different historical time periods within one story? That was my second challenge. I had read numerous short stories that do this but I, had not done it. Another thing I know  a lot about because I have been an activist for most of my adult life is the challenge of living and actively addressing multi-layered and interconnected issues, be they racism, sexism, class, sexuality, religion, and ethnicity and phobias of all kinds, to name a few. In Running the conference participants and the main character face some of those interconnected issues and for the main character, the personal is, truly political.

The idea behind Inside was to capture the eroticism embedded inside attraction and desire – that often tension-filled, maybe-I-should-run-away-but-I-am-determined-to-be-calm impersonated feeling, of the pre-dating phase. I needed both characters to be women. When I submitted it for the book that was tagged as “erotic” I was not sure it would be accepted as it was not so “full-on”. It was first published in Open: An Erotic Anthology by South African Women Writers. As one young friend of mine once told me, “At first I hated that story because nothing happened, but when I read it again, months later, I could see just how much, in fact, happened.”

The idea behind The Weekend – the very first short story I ever wrote – was, what if I locked two characters in a room over a few hours, what would they be doing and why? What if what they were doing is something controversial and emotional?

How could I present a sense of community, a geographical community, through a short story? What would it mean to squeeze the whole community into one story? That was the burning question behind People of the Valley. Many South Africans of the pre-television era enjoy radio. I had not read a short story that did more than just mention that so and so was listening to the radio. I wanted to use the radio as a centre of the community. And again this was familiar ground for me because I trained as a radio journalist and worked for Radio Freedom while in exile in Lusaka. Once I had decided on how the radio would be the focal point of the community’s story, I searched for a topic. I did not want the usual current affairs topics. I wanted a topic that would shake the community; get it talking, shouting, screaming, walking and, maybe running.

There are innumerable South African stories that speak of absent fathers. I wanted to write one such story from a perspective beyond the absence, after the reconnection while acknowledging the essence of the psychological impact of the absence. Room for My Shoes became my contribution to the absent fathers pool of stories.

Njabulo Ndebele’s Rediscovery of the Ordinary was a recommended book when I did my MA. When I was writing Prayers and The Trip one of my fingers was on the pulse of Ndebele’s words. So in Prayers, I wanted the challenge of a teenage narrator’s voice. How could a teenager tell a story of national relevance? In The Trip I was motivated by the desire to tell an ordinary story set around long distance driving. I have driven on the N3 from Johannesburg and Pietermaritzburg for decades and the road seemed like a interesting setting for a story.

I wrote the Odds of Dakar in response to a call for submissions that encouraged writers to mix fiction and non-fiction. I loved the idea behind Home Away: 24 Hours 24 cities 24 Writers, which also asked writers to set their stories in several cities around the world. After offering Hanoi, Havana and Dakar, three cities to the editor Louis Greenberg, he picked Dakar.

I had the greatest fun when I wrote the two retellings of Can Temba’s short story, The Suit. The first story, The Suit Continued: The Other Side which is the last one in the book, was inspired by Siphiwo Mahala’s story, The Suit Continued. Once the story was done and Matilda had told her version, it was as if Philemon’s lover was screaming in my head: what about my story? That’s how the octogenarian character was born. While I enjoyed the playfulness, these two stories were also the most challenging to write.

There is something attractive about knowing the rules and then deciding, picking the one to break, whichever way. Writing short stories is fun, a kind of game. Who says no to play?

More on Makhosazana Xaba 

Buy Running & Other Stories on Loot

Buy Running & Other Stories from Exclus1ves

(African author? Want to write a guest blog post for The Spark? Check out the guidelines and more info here)

» read article

The Spark: Nthikeng Mohlele and the Heartbeat of Small Things

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.

Small Things Cover

The Spark for Small Things by Nthikeng Mohlele 


Small Things was nearly no thing at all, after Nthikeng Mohlele’s computer crashed and took most of the book with it – but here he writes about how music not only saved his life – but the story. He calls it “The Robyn Fenty Affair”, but I’ll let him tell you about it in this week’s The Spark, the guest blog where African writers talk about what fired this particular book in their imagination.

The thing with literature is this: no one, not even the writer knows, for certain, how a manuscript, later to be a book, will turn out. This is true of Small Things, a deceptively small book supposedly about implications of historical transitions in post apartheid South Africa, a theme that would have been laborious and torturous, were it not for the inclusion of intimate grains of obscure love affairs. In a way, by no means conclusive, the writing of this novel was at once exhilarating as much as it was daunting. Exhilarating because I for the first time in the practice of authorship, came face to face with the dictatorial yet pleasant impossibility of confining what should be a long and rambling theme – intricate and not always charming – to a hundred odd pages.

That impossibility, or at least a sense of it, was as follows: how would I handle a theme (apartheid totalitarianism), well documented and somewhat universal, in a way that is without cliché and cheap shock tactics? Where would the points of emphasis be and why? If I got that right, a mammoth task still remained: how would the exploration of that theme work, if I took into account that historical time is not static, that it has contradictions, that it is open to conflicting interpretations? These questions were weighed and counterweighed against the deceptions of literary creation, suppression of personal feelings and sensibilities (I detest all forms of oppression), for artistic integrity, philosophical neutrality – if such a thing exists. I lost 80% of the manuscript when my laptop crashed, swallowing my still fluid observations with it, never to see the light of day.


The pain, agony, and helplessness that followed this mishap, a tragedy really, will be with me for a long time to come. But there was one thing I never lost: the heartbeat of the story. It, weeks later, began throbbing once more, more crystal, more urgent, but still often more confusing that before, until I could mentally connect the spiritual and cerebral anchors of the narrative, which as I later learned, kept shifting and threatening total collapse. This is when I discovered yet another trick, which I wish to share to remind and amuse myself of the terrors and charms of art. I, while driving in my neighborhood, listening to Robyn Fenty (read Rihanna), mused at how some friends quipped that Robyn was just not me, that the mere presence of Jimi Hendrix and Mandoza on my playlist was profanity, sacrilegious.

WTF, I protested, I love Robyn’s music, her sensual theatrics, and phrasing so effortless that I would have been more the poorer if I didn’t occasionally indulge in her brilliant and at times puzzling tracks. This, though seemingly unrelated, is what unlocked the tonal pulse of Small Things, similar but on many levels different from The Scent of Bliss, my debut novel. Robyn doesn’t care, I thought, she just sings her music the best way she knows how: diamonds in the sky, Jameson binges, umbrellas. But, but, the songs were, for me at least, not only about the umbrellas and Jamesons (Cheers to the Freakin Weekend, I will drink to that), but about the power of extended metaphors. ‘Mathematically’: Diamonds equaled purity and value, Jameson’s cowboyish drunkenness with a touch of class, umbrellas the best known human invention against rain – and on it went – until a moment of revelation stuck me off key: melody is nice, but so is silence, grand themes are unavoidable, but they can be broken down into smaller thrills and obsessions.

Some of my best friends confused my Robyn fetish tendencies with romantic ambitions, which is not so. Lesson: What the hell, I could mess around with narrative pace and outcomes, on thematic expectations vs contradictory disclosures.


But being a novelist is work, hard work. Think of it this way: a midwife cannot leave an expectant mother in the depths of contractions and palpitations to buy Mandoza concert tickets. That is a firing, loss of medical license offense. An extreme example, but accurate principle.

In other words, it was not enough discovering all these light beams that often led to red light districts and cemeteries of the mind, but to look for vague footpaths that circled treacherous mountain passes, that elevated the creative charge to a view from the mountaintop. It was, from that vantage point, easy and a lot of fun to name a dog after Benito Mussolini (I hope he has no surviving relatives?!), wrestled for a grand panoramic narrative feel without resorting to a 700 page tome, suggested sexual innuendo without it being trashy, moulded a lonesome and nameless bloke to project post apartheid moral landscape and iconography, played Robyn’s music on repeat to piss off my friends, acquired mythical powers that made some readers, young and old, think I could solve love skirmishes! Imagine. Flattering, but simply untrue. I simply do what other wordsmiths do: write manuscripts that become books. Small Things, born out of interesting times, is such an effort. That’s it.



» read article

The Spark: Hamilton Wende Children’s Book Arabella, The Moon and the Magic of the Mongongo Nut

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.


The Spark for Arabella, The Moon, and the Magic Mongongo Nut by Hamilton Wende 

HamiltonWende (2)Hamilton Wende is a journalist, war correspondent and thriller writer who usually writes about conflicts through Africa and in Iraq and Afghanistan. His previous novels are thrillers: House of War about a search for a lost city of Alexander the Great in Afghanistan, and Only The Dead, about the battle to free the minds of child soldiers in the forests of the DRC, which makes it so interesting that he’s turned his hand to writing a magical kids’ book set in Johannesburg. Here’s where this book came from: 

A few years ago we were renovating our house in Parkview. The kids found it a very unsettling experience and I started writing a story about our garden and the creatures who inhabit it to take their minds off the chaos, especially in the evenings when we had no kitchen, no dining room table and they sat around as I read it to them while we huddled among the dust and broken bricks … the story grew and grew until it became Arabella, The Moon and the Magic of the Mongongo Nut.

While it may seem strange that a war correspondent and thriller author has chosen to write a children’s story, I was inspired to write this story by Ian Fleming who wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for his kids. Arabella’s story, though, became more complex and exciting than I had expected – as all magic tends to do!

After Arabella’s father dies, she thinks she will never get over the sadness of it.  But then she gets a magic mongongo nut from the Kalahari from Khanyi, the mealie lady, and Zuzi, the monkey whose parents were killed by a leopard and who now lives with Khanyi. Arabella discovers a world of magic and friendly creatures in the garden –  Jongoo the songololo, Mr Sweet-Steps, the chameleon, Li-Li the dragonfly and the good-hearted affectionate Parktown Prawn!

But there are enemies in this world too: the hadedas and their evil king Ozymandias who want to steal the mongongo nut and the magic it holds. Then Arabella has to discover whether she is strong enough for the great battle high up in the lightning-filled skies above the Hillbrow Tower.

It is a story that is unashamedly South African. The imagery and magical symbolism shift between Western and African motifs quite comfortably – just as kids growing up in our society today are able to do and also expect to do as they access different cultures.

Writing it was a fantastic, Jungian journey as I really had to set the boat out every morning and trust where my subconscious would lead me. Images and plot ideas would occur to me as I was writing and then I would have to work out quite carefully as to whether they worked narratively within the rules of the special world that I was creating. The magic of the mongongo nut only works under certain conditions and so you can’t have, say, a magician coming along and waving a magic wand and all is solved. If the rules of the magic world are broken then Arabella and her allies fail, so Arabella has to choose wisely and remain loyal to her friends.

I also found that writing it and following the inner logic of the Jungian journey was an unexpectedly valuable process for me. In my career as a journalist and war correspondent I have encountered a tremendous amount of violence and I found, and still find, it very important to keep the spiritual and imaginative side of my life alive and flourishing as a balance to the often hard and brutal things that I have witnessed.

When I do readings at schools, the kids really come alive and respond to this African story. Recently, at a fete where I was selling copies of the book, two kids came running up to me and gave me a big hug. One of them said to me “Hamilton because you came to our school and read Arabella to us, I’ve started reading books again!” There can be no greater reward than hearing that.

Buy the Kindle edition on Amazon 

Buy the book on


Follow @HamiltonWende on Twitter.


» read article

The Spark: Niq Mhlongo on Way Back Home

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

I’m open to submissions for 2014 right now.  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 read the guidelines here (along with a great example of how to write one.)

Want to write a SPARK? Please mail me to enquire according to the guidelines. 


The first Spark of the year is from Niq Mhlongo, a 40 year old writer from Soweto who has been making waves in the South African literary scene since his debut, Dog Eat Dog. (The Spanish translation, Perro Come Perro, won the Mar des Lettras prize).

His new novel, Way Back Home is about exile, xenophobia, freedom fighters and most of all borders, between countries and cultures, the past and the present, the living and the dead. Appropriately, what set him writing it was a ghost story. I’ll let him tell you about it.


The Spark: Niq Mhlongo on Way Back Home

In the early 1980’s when I was growing up in Soweto, there was a popular urban legend called Vera the Ghost. It is believed that Vera was a very beautiful lady who was killed in one of the Soweto roads in the 1950’s.

It is not clear how she died. I don’t know which one of the three versions is true. Some people believe that she was killed in a hit-and-run car accident. Others say that she was gang-raped and later killed. Most people seem to believe that Vera was killed by her jealous lover who went on to throw her body into a stream.

The truth is that she had died a very terrible death, and her spirits had not rested as she terrorized Sowetans after that. It is said that Vera would stalk handsome Soweto hunks at the parties and they would be the envy of every party goers. She would then use her beauty to charm the lucky hunk into buying her alcohol, and after the party she would lure them to her home. The following day the hunk would be found dead and naked on top of a grave at the Avalon Cemetery.

This is where the idea of my third novel, Way Back Home comes from- Vera the Ghost urban legend as well as African cultural beliefs and myths around the concept of death.  In most, if not all African cultures and traditions, the dead are not gone forever. When we bury a person, it means that we are sending the deceased off to the afterlife where they join our ancestors. The ancestors play a major role in everyday people’s lives as they oversee everything we do. If we don’t do things according to the customs and beliefs, bad luck is more likely to befall upon.

So, when a person dies, all traditional rituals must be observed so that the deceased joins the ancestors in good spirits, so that they say all the good things about us. Being in good books with the ancestors simply means good luck and success in everything we do. For example, in case of death, the deceased has to be mourned properly so that their spirits join those of the ancestors. If a husband dies for instance, the wife has to wear black, abstain from any sexual activity until the mourning period (usually a year) is observed. If the wife has an intercourse before the mourning period lapses, she would bring bad luck of death within the family. Death has to be complete, and that is why we slaughter a beast and brew traditional beer and do some rituals with the traditional healers to inform our ancestors of our progress in matters of life and death.

Way Back Home is about these binaries between tradition and modernity; African way of healing and western ways of healing, the past and the present, the living and the dead, the rich and the poor, corruption and righteousness, white and black, love and hate, apartheid era and post-apartheid era, as well as the inxiles and the exiles.

The narrative is centered around a female freedom fighter named Senami, who is killed by her own comrades in exile in Angola during the apartheid era. Like Vera The Ghost, she was not buried properly, so her angry spirit comes back in the form of a ghost to haunt her killers in the present day post-apartheid South Africa. This results in some deaths. In order to appease her spirits, her killers and relatives have to go back to Angola where she was killed to do the rituals of taking her body and spirit back home to South Africa where she is reunited with her ancestors. Only by doing this will Senami’s spirit rest in peace; and her death will be complete.

In a nutshell, Way Back Home seeks to show the importance of our culture and belief which are rated below the Western way of life. It does this by putting more emphasis on African way of healing, African medicine, and African oral tradition of story-telling where every tale ends with a lesson or some kind of education.

The story of Vera The Ghost had a huge impact on me in shaping my childhood. It taught me not to go out at night, lest I might be the victim of a ghost. So I was always indoors at sunset, and this helped me to avoid the wrong crowd.

Way Back Home is also about our past history of struggle against apartheid as it tells that sad part of the struggle that the politicians are trying to sweep under the carpet. It is about the truth, and the reflection into the past, the present and the future of South Africa.

Follow Niq Mhlongo on Twitter.

Buy Way Back Home on Amazon

Buy Way Back Home on Kalahari


» read article

The Spark: Ride the Tortoise

Spark Ride the Tortoise

Liesl Jobson is an accomplished short-story writer and musician who tackles everything from anorexia to cleaning the oven, the terror of losing a child, exile, infidelity and desire in her fiction. She’s also a wonderful advocate of South African fiction as one of Bookslive’s reporters.

In this guest blog post for The Spark, a series where African writers talk about what sparked off this particular book, she writes poignantly and powerfully about the deeper fire that moves her to write at all, especially through depression, using fiction as a way of piecing herself back together.

lkj lowres-1

The Spark: Liesl Jobson on Ride The Tortoise

The spark was lit when I was old enough to hold a pen and squiggle its nib across a page. I had observed my mother and knew it was well within my grasp. I took what I had written to my grandmother, and asked her to read to me. Was I shocked that she couldn’t read it? Was I distressed that I still had to learn letter formation in order to write? It is an early memory. The laughter was not unkind and I am sure I was told how clever I was, but it didn’t quite erase the disappointment that my story had not reached its destination. I must have been about four.

Awareness of the power of story was kindled in the Pinetown Library, where my mother checked out books with us. It grew bolder in the bedtime stories my father told from his own boyhood. Night after night Little Coffee Pot who built up a head of steam, blew the whistle and pulled out of the Avontuur station with a sick lady on board. Going through the Long Kloof valley, the bridge was covered with water. The ambulances couldn’t get through. The rains came down, the water rose up, went to its axles, up to the top of its wheels. The train was nearly washed away but Little Coffee Pot did not quit and the sick lady got to the hospital at Port Elizabeth.

When we moved in my 14th year to New Canaan, Connecticut, I had my first bout of depression. These would come in increasing severity over the years leading to hospital stays that would later inform some of the stories I would later write. I owe my survival of the first terrible episode to the friends who wrote to me. Receiving their letters was certainly delightful, but the experience of writing back to them transformed the misery of my dislocation and distress. Letter writing gave me a way of rooting myself in my own lived experience. It offered a way through the unfamiliar place I’d landed in, a way to centre myself, and get back home.

During my student years, severe depression revisited me, and after my children were born the post partum depressions morphed into an extended black hole. Comfort arrived via writing once again. Julia Cameron’s advice in The Artist’s Way to write three pages daily changed my life. This routine offered a much-welcomed epiphany. I could put the grievances of the day and the terrors of the night onto the page. And lo, there they were, the size of a page. Observable, they became by some miracle, quantifiable too.

As I wrote, the shaking of my hand would still, my pulse would settle and my locked spine uncurled from rigid. I developed hindsight. Flipping back through the pages to the entry of the previous week I could remember how irked I’d been by a misunderstanding with my mother or enraged at a perceived insult from my husband. I could recall, as I’d inevitably forgotten, how ridiculously terrifying a child’s sickness had been. Barely a few days on the rash and fever had blown over. My children were not brain-dead, nor did I have funerals to plan. I was talking to my mother and husband again, the abraded dialogues shored up, if not quite repaired.

I’m trying to remember now, when exactly I started writing the morning pages. It must have been about 1998. I sat in the newly built granny flat. It was the year the internet arrived at our house. I am tempted now to find those early notebooks. They are in a cupboard somewhere, but I don’t have to actually look at them to know that what I was writing about then, I am still writing about now. From there I wrote a short story called “Mourning Pages”. It referenced my hospital admission. I put it up on the Zoetrope Short Story workshop and people commented. There was a way to turn what happened to me into fiction. It was a different kind of revelation. There was a way to write my narrative better. There were people who would help me. I was not alone in the unfamiliar terrain of crafting life into prose. The stories that appear in Ride the Tortoise all went through the Zoetrope workshop. They were part of a process of putting myself together as I weathered the storms.

Today, I’m back at the page, and as on many a morning, I’m mystified, grateful, and surprised. The words are sparking again. There. That one. And this. They ignite behind my neck, invisible, yet audible. They enter above the clavicles, then moves under my collar bones, out and down into my forearms, gathering in the hot spot where my wrist anchors at the keyboard. From there the coiling energy to write drives into my curled fingers, through the fingertips and by a myriad miraculous connections of ether and electrons, into letters. The ‘a’ and the ‘b’ and the ‘c’ link to make words, loop into sentences, paragraphs and, eventually, pages. My voice always returns, and yet once it’s taken flight there is always the fear that it will alight in some far away place beyond my recall, never to reappear.

This morning I’m trying to make my voice do something specific. A new story has appeared. I’m afraid of it. I’m loving it. I don’t quite trust it, though. I tinker with it in my journal. But that is jumping the gun. The journal is not the place to force the words into a specific direction. It is the place for welcoming them, for beholding them, for noticing what they have to say. Later, once this exercise is done, then I can make them work. This part of the day is for the warm up, the scales and arpeggios that must be done before the voice shifts to the aria. The warm up exercise must not be rushed, or skipped over. The vocal chords need to settle into each tone, to find the centre, pitch and timbre. The mouth and throat must stretch through each register without force. It requires time to allow these things to happen without pressure.

Flannery O’Connor talks about the spark. Her words resonate powerfully: “…I have to write to discover what I am doing. Like the old lady, I don’t know so well what I think until I see what I say; then I have to say it again.”

But this morning I have an important song to sing. I am impatient with my exercise that bores me. I must learn the lyrics, master a new melody of the next piece calling to me. Today, my morning pages are filled with more of the same: I’ve been fretting because I need more holding than I’m getting, but I’m already getting so much love and attention, so why, oh why isn’t it enough? I’m filled with self-pity because I just want to sit on his lap. I hate my whiny anguish. Loathe being stuck, not in tune with my world. I feel silly and childish. I certainly don’t want to tease out and actually examine what’s bothering me. I want to shove it away and ignore the fact that I was sobbing uncontrollably just an hour ago because my beloved’s shoulder is dislocated and he cannot hold me tight, and because of that all the fractured parts of me will never stick together while I walk on earth.

But here I am. Back at the page and remembering that, I can fast-forward through the shambles of this minute. I can lean forward a week, into a vantage point, from which I can look back on the despair of this precise minute. I can trust that it will pass. Just like when I was furious about the colour he painted the walls, or the nonsense about the compost heap, or the misheard directions to Stellenbosch. In fact, just writing that last paragraph erased the sorrow and turned the tears into a glue with words.

That little engine lives on in me. I am the engine. I am the storm. I am the water that rises and the sick lady that gets to the hospital. I am, most importantly, the sick lady that gets well, goes home and writes it like it is. I am the storyteller that learns what she knows when she sees what she writes.

Follow Liesl Jobson on Twitter

Buy Ride The Tortoise

Read a sample of her flash fiction online: ’Invasive Species’, ‘The Gospel of Adam’s Ex’ and ‘The Night Is A Teacher’. (Wordgathering Vol 3.1)

» read article