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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!

Buy the book on Kalahari (South Africa)

Buy the ebook on Kalahari (SA-only)

Buy the ebook on

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 

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


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:

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

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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 

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

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.



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.

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Follow @HamiltonWende on Twitter.


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