Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Africa Writers You Should Know: Yewande Omotoso

Yewande Omotoso was born in Barbados, grew up in Nigeria, and has lived in South Africa since 1992. Her first novel, Bom Boy (Modjaji Books), which came out of her MFA in creative writing from the University of Cape Town, was published in 2011 to much critical acclaim. It won the 2012 South African Literary Award for Frist Time Published Authors, was shortlisted for both the 2012 Sunday Times Prize and Mnet Literary Awards and in 2013 was runner-up for the Pan-African Etisalat Prize.
Her latest book, The Woman Next Door, came out in South Africa last year, and will be published in the USA this year where the literary website, The Millions, has pegged it as one of “the most anticipated books for 2017”.  I was lucky enough to have a chance to interview her about her success, creativity, and her current work.
You’re an architect by training, a creative field. Is creativity paramount for a writer?
I’m not sure how one measures what is most important when it comes to writing fiction. The act itself, like so much else, even tasks not categorised as The Arts, is a creative act. And if you’re going to be making up people with any sense of “truth” to them then empathy is important. Audacity and courage too. Patience. Tenacity. Maybe paramount is simply the will to write. As in a kind of disease (!) or a real hunger, a “have to”.  
Bom Boy had a lot of success, how has that success affected you and your writing?
I don’t know if it’s affected me/my writing as such, the way my upbringing affects me or the country I live in, the people I love or the language I speak. I’m not sure “success” should be permitted that kind of effect. However when a book is received generously that is massive encouragement. I felt and still feel so incredibly thankful. I took the kind reception and I combined it with whatever it is that motivates me to write and I used it to keep going. John Berger said “writing has nothing to do with success it has to do with lucidity.” Of course he’s right but we do live in a world where success, however we define it (and this is important because it is not a fixed set thing) has currency. Success is only one measure but it is a measure. It usually brings a wider readership, it might bring money, reputation and status, greater networks. These are wonderful things that might make writing the next book easier but none of which have a causal effect on the thing that is most important – writing well.
What was the initial starting point/spark for your new novel, The Woman Next Door?
Being around my grandmother around the time my grandfather died and thinking – what must it be like to be burying your husband whom you’ve been married to for almost 70 years, what must it be like to have the bulk of your life behind you.
What themes interest you most in your writing?
Family. Motherhood. I’m interested in our flaws and our capacity for compassion. Relationship and love interests me a lot, romantic love, romantic entanglement, marriage. I like looking at what I think of as myths. I’m very pulled in by character and so I enjoy getting into the psychology of characters and why we are the way we are. More and more I’m fascinated by history.
You, like me, live in a society which is not quite your own. Do you think that gives you special insight into the society in which you are an outsider?
The outsider always has some kind of vantage point. Even just geographically we can understand that. Of course the outsider is both wise and ignorant. Same way the insiders have their wisdoms and their ignorances. I think, almost paradoxically, that no community is complete without its outsiders and the corollary is also true, all outsiders need the community from which they stand apart.
Can you tell me a bit about the novel that you’re working on now?
I’m working on a story about two divorced parents that go in search of their estranged adult daughter whom neither have spoken to in almost a year. It’s the story of a family that didn’t work and an attempt to solve the mystery of why not, an attempt to repair. It’s about art (the daughter is a talented artist) and love. It’s also about death.

(This column first appeared in the 10 February, 2017 issue of Mmegi in my column It's All Write)

Monday, February 6, 2017

We’re Failing our Teachers

Before I was a writer I was a teacher, and before I was a teacher I was a student who was inspired by a long queue of teachers. I feel offended, personally offended, when good, sometimes great, teachers are painted with a wide and dishonest brush. I have taught here and overseas. I have taught in government schools and private. I have taught in pre-school, primary, junior secondary and senior secondary schools. I find a lot of the commentary around the appalling JC results points fingers at teachers, when most are victims in this situation, trying their best, banging their heads against bad policies and power struggles they don’t want to be fighting.

Good teachers want to teach, and the best thing any administrator can do is to create the atmosphere that allows good teachers to thrive. Without motivated, good teachers nothing will improve. You can throw all the money around that you want, but learning happens in a classroom where a teacher is so knowledgeable and excited about the topic that they are teaching that no student is left behind on that learning journey. This can take place anywhere you have a motivated, involved, interested, and prepared teacher. These heroes come in all sorts of varieties. They might be shy or outgoing, strict or free, old school or modern, but they all have one thing in common: a passion for teaching and the best interest of their students always at heart.

I’ll not mention the obvious things that caused this JC mess, things that must be sorted such as conditions of service for teachers (including this never-ending ridiculous hours of operations business), lack of resources, burnt-out, deadwood, incompetent teachers and administrators that must be culled from the service, and automatic promotion that sees kids entering junior secondary school unable to read.

The thing about issues involving investing in education is you’re going to pay no matter what, it cannot be avoided.  Either we pay now and ensure that our children receive an education that truly prepares them for a solid successful future, or we don’t, and we lay the groundwork for the collapse of our country.

You can’t look at children and spew platitudes about how they are “the future” and not accept that even those children who’ve spent ten years in the government schools coming out unable to read and write or do basic maths, or those who have now failed their JC, those who are innately unemployable because of it, are also part of that future. To shut our eyes and pretend that “our future is bright” is about as useful as waiting for Santa to show up and drop a million Pula down our chimney. Our future is looking pretty dismal and it’s not because of the mines closing or the diamonds coming to an end. It’s because we’re not investing wisely in our most important asset. And it’s not just throwing money at the problem; it’s understanding the situation intimately.

Sometimes I think about things that motivated me when I was teaching, and also things that demotivated me. It was rarely about the money. As long as I was earning a reasonable salary, that didn’t even play into it.

One of the most motivating teaching experiences I ever had was teaching primary school in a private school here where the head teacher was quite lazy, so I was free to do mostly what I wanted. I had to teach the PSLE syllabus, which was easy enough, but that left a lot of free time for other things and I capitalised on that.

I did every single thing I’d ever wanted to do with students. In every subject, I insisted on some sort of independent learning, some sort of project or research that allowed the child to learn about things that they were truly interested in.  So they did social studies projects and science projects, they read books and gave reports that might be acting out a scene from the book or making an advert for selling the book to others. I let them be as imaginative as they could. These were standard 5, 6, and 7s. No one, because of the unmotivated head which in this case was a good thing, told me: no, these kids can’t do this, they’re too young. There was no bar above our heads stopping us, so we flew— and it was amazing for all of us. I’d jump back into that situation in a heartbeat if I could.

What we need is motivated, excited teachers who are passionate about students and their subject, and feel privileged to be given the opportunity to step into a classroom and meet their success there. We want nothing else except that, and it’s time all barriers be removed so that those teachers, those special people, can be allowed to get on with the job they love. 

(This column first appeared in the 3 Feb, 2017 edition of Mmegi in my column It's All Write)

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

My Book At World Reader!

For a while I wrote short romance novellas that were published by Sapphire Books an imprint of Kwela Books in South Africa. I really enjoyed writing those books. Sadly, the imprint has been stopped so I  stopped too. But there was one last book- There's Something About Him, a romance about boxing. Seems unlikely but it works.The book sat unpublished so I decided to donate it to World Reader an organisation I have much admiration for.

And then during the holiday I came across this article and - surprise, surprise! I see that my book is number five on their top ten books for teens and adults! What a lovely gift!
If you'd like to read the book and support the wonderful work of World Reader you can buy it here.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Review: Fela This Bitch of a Life: the Authorized Biography of Africa’s Musical Genius

Fela Kuti is undoubtedly one of Africa’s best musicians ever. Fela This Bitch of a Life: The Authorized Biography of Africa’s Musical Genius by Carlos Moore re-published by African Perspectives is as interesting and eclectic a book as was the man it is about. The book was first published in France in 1982, this new edition came out this year with a forward from Gilberto Gil, a note from the author, additional chapters at the end about the last years of Fela’s life from 1982 to his death in 1997, and an introduction from Margaret Busby.

The book is unique in that though it is a biography, it was written from hours of direct interviews between Moore and Fela. Some chapters are written as transcripts of those interviews, in Fela’s voice and in the first person. This is also the case with the handful of Fela’s wives, or queens as they are described in the book, and close friends such as J.K. Braimah and Sandra Smith. This sort of format I found very intriguing and gives the book an authenticity as a near autobiography that other books on Fela could not have.

The book begins with Fela’s early life with his very politically aware parents. His mother was committed to improving the lives of Nigerians, women in particular, and travelled around the world in her work. His father was a Christian reverend who founded a school and was the first president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers.

Fela’s parents sent him to England to study music at Trinity College of Music. It was there where he started his first band. The band eventually went to the United States but they only had limited success there. He eventually moved back to Nigeria and established the commune, Kalakuta, and his club, The Shrine. In 1978, he married his twenty-seven wives on a single day to much controversy. At the time he had only his first wife, Remi. Fela was a complicated person, with an open, progressive, ever-learning mind, but at the same time he held positions that are hard to accept as well. His attitude toward women is one of these such positions:
“Yeh, I understand many things about women…but they are not on the same level with men…equality between male and female? No! Never! Impossible!...It seems the man must dominate. I don’t want to say so, but it seems so.”
Beating his wives also seemed to be a regular occurrence at Kalakuta. Later in his life, though, he developed a more progressive attitude toward women and the constraints of marriage.
“The marriage institution for the progress of the mind is evil…People marry because they are jealous. People marry because they are possessive. People marry because they are selfish. All this comes to the very ugly fact that people want to own and control, other people’s bodies.”

Fela was persecuted by the various leaders of Nigeria because he refused to accept their corrupt and illegitimate claims to power and spoke freely about what they were doing to the people. Fela was a musician but he used his music to challenge the status quo, and to rage at those abusing their power at the expense of the poor. Corrupt leaders did not like that. He was arrested and beaten and imprisoned many times on usually trumped up charges. One of the most brutal attacks occurred at Kalakuta where many of his wives were raped, his mother injured to such an extent that her health was so weakened that Fela believed it was, at least, partly the cause of her eventual death, and the premises were burned down.

After his mother’s death, Fela’s spirituality grew. Through his dreams and his various guides he managed to communicate with his mother. Unfortunately is appears people took advantage of his grief and some were not legitimately there to assist him in his spiritual quest but only to take from him or persecute others. He became paranoid and aggressive because he could not see who to trust.  He also began experiencing trances.
“In that trance I saw the tide change, that this whole earth was going to change into something different, into what people call the Age of Aquarius. I saw that it was going to be the age of goodness where music was going to be the final expression of the human race and musicians were going to be very important in the development of human society.”

When the first symptom of HIV/AIDS appeared, lesions around his body, he saw it as part of his spiritual journey and the shedding of his skin to grow his “new skin”. His refusal to accept his illness led to controversy yet again with the release of his song, Condom, Scaliwag, and Scatter, preaching to the people not to use condoms.

I found Fela this Bitch of a Life to be an interesting, eclectic read about a complicated man; I highly recommend it.

 (This was first published in my column It's All Write in the 2 December 2016 issue of Mmegi newspaper)

Monday, November 21, 2016

Affluenza by Niq Mhlongo-A Review

Affluenza is the latest book from South African writer Niq Mhlongo. It’s a collection of stories set in modern South Africa, post-Independence. The stories cover a wide range of topics from love to murder to HIV/AIDS and materialism, a seemingly eclectic mix.
The Warning Signs is a story about land invasion and the issues around the morality of land ownership. A white Zimbabwean, Mr Adams has now moved to South Africa after being kicked off his farm in Zimbabwe, only to find the same thing happening again. He’s not a sympathetic protagonist in that he is racist and treats his workers badly, but still the story shows the issue from his side too, with a sad surprising twist.
Goliwood Drama is a story played out again and again, not only in South Africa but all over the world, the story of questionable paternity. Thami is sure that the last born child with his estranged wife is not his. At the court, he demands a paternity test but no one is ready for the secrets it will reveal.
The suicide of a university student is at the heart of The Dark End of Our Street. Four Blocks Away is about love and the search of a condom in a foreign country when your woman is waiting back at the hotel.  Betrayal in the Wilderness is set in Kruger Park where a horrible accident plays out.
In Catching the Sun, Ngwako is visited by some strangers from the Eastern Cape. The strangers come bearing sad news that Ngwako’s daughter has died in a car accident. Ngwako’s response is surprise since he knows his daughter is studying at university. But these strangers have more bad news for him. Not only was she in a car far away from university, she was with their son who she was planning to marry and the child they had together. Ngwako’s response to this news is unexpected.
My Name is Peaches is told in first person from the perspective of a young woman who is speaking to a dead man about the many secrets revealed at his funeral. The Gumboot Dancer looks at the extent a man can go to get the woman he wants, even lying about his friend. While The Baby Shower shows how badly a woman can want a child, so bad she can resort to horrible deeds.
Passport and Dreadlocks is about a group of men off to Vic Falls on the quest to find rich, foreign women to sleep with, mooch off of, and hopefully get married to like one of their friends famously did. But things go wrong even before they leave when Two-Boy’s dreadlocks—the apparent key to catching foreign rich women—have been stolen along with his passport.
The title story is Affluenza, referring to a disease suffered by people in Joburg where they are willing to buy the most expensive car or suit, but live in debt and in a shack. In it, Fana is meeting his friend, Sanele, at the nearby bar. Sanele is getting married and tonight is his surprise bachelor’s party. While waiting for Sanele to pitch up, Fana meets some beautiful women at the bar and he invites them to come along for the party. What happens next typifies the affluenza disease.
Though the stories seem to have no clear theme, for me they often show a sort of behaviour lacking in humanity at that moment, where getting what you want is paramount with no sense of what is right or moral. It seems as if Mhlongo is acting as a warning bell to us all— chasing money, chasing sex, ignoring commitments, violating basic cultural practises and the dignity of those around us, will lead to our demise. Change your ways, the stories seem to say. In so many of the stories, if only the characters would have chosen the right thing instead of the easy thing or the one motivated by greed, the endings would have been better, happier. I wondered as I read, is this the people we are now? Chasing money at all cost, the next drink, the next lay? I hope not. I feel the author hopes not too, that he offers these stories as a mirror to us to see the truth and to change our ways before it is too late.
Mhlongo writes in simple, solid language— my favourite— telling stories many might want to avoid. He seems to be poking fun sometimes at his wayward characters and the disastrous choices that they make. An interesting collection you would not want to miss. 
(This review first appeared in my column, It's All Write, in the 11 Nov, 2016 edition of Mmegi)

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Essence Festival Durban South Africa

I will be speaking at the Essence Festival in Durban South Africa on  Friday 11 November from 2-3 pm. The event is taking place in the Durban ICC and I will be at the area called Coffee Conversation.

I will be in conversation with South African writer Elana Bregin and facilitator Ayanda Mabanga. We will be  speaking on:  “A writer’s response – a conversation about creativity”.
Click Here to learn more about the Festival.
Hope to see people there !!

Monday, October 3, 2016

Don't Miss the BHHT/Diamond Educational Publishers Publishing Seminar!!

The Bessie Head Heritage Trust (BHHT) /Diamond Educational Publishers Publishing Seminar is on Saturday, 15 October 2016, University of Botswana Block 252, Lecture Theatre 4
9:00 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. 
It is FREE and open to the public. Teas are provided, make your own arrangements for lunch. Please share widely, this should not be missed if you are interested in getting your work published. 
Below please see the programme for the day:  

Session I:  
 Preparing your Manuscript for Publication
                    Mary Lederer
Session II
                    Publishing Options
                    Lauri Kubuitsile


 Session III
                    Your Rights as a Writer
                    Lauri Kubuitsile


Session IV
                    A Publisher’s Responsibilities
                    Goememang Mogapi, Diamond Educational Publishers

See you there!!!!