Thursday, April 18, 2013

How do you make reading fun for kids? Wait - isn't it fun already?

So (spoiler alert: self-promotion ahead) I got interviewed by Inqubela Foundation on their new blog. The question I found most difficult to answer was "How do we make reading fun for children?". As a child, there was literally nothing I would rather do than read a book. I still consider it one of the most fun things I can do with my time. I get why kids don't like to read on an intellectual level but on an emotional level I'm just like comeon - do you have any idea what you're missing out on? It's as thrilling smoking in the bathroom at school and not geting caught and then as #winning as going to class and finding out you just got an A on your year test and that school is cancelled for the rest of the day. It's addictive. It can't hurt you. You parents will leave you alone for long stretches of time to do it. Dudes. What's not to love?

In any case, that was not the answer I gave on the blog:

Africans need to develop relevant, exciting, diverse, cheap children’s book in all our local languages. We can’t continue to rely on only state-sanctioned textbooks or on European texts that have little relevance to children growing up in South Africa’s rural areas or on books written decades ago. We need young people to become the producers of content and we need them to write stories that are engaging, fun and intelligent. Sometimes we can be too elitist about how we think about books – kids books can be silly or funny or scary, not just educational and not just with a moral to the story. South African children need more graphic novels, more comic books, more board books and more novels for cellphones: anything that makes reading accessible and easy.

Read the full interview - it's mostly about my work

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Incredible, Forgettable, Preventable: my mini book reviews

Because I tend to read many books that never get reviewed, I thought I should find a way to review books in a quick and pain-free way. So - Incredible, Forgettable, Preventable! It's book reviewing but the speed-reviewing version. It's cliff, shag or marry for fiction.

Here we go:

The Smell of Apples by Mark Behr

Verdict: Forgettable

I wouldn't go as far as saying that I wish I'd never read it but I would say that after I finished it, I was all like 'what was even the point of that?' It's well-written, it has compelling female characters, it's set in a beautiful part of Cape Town and it's set during Apartheid without being just about Apartheid. I thought I'd love it. But I didn't.

Perhaps it went over my head. There was something really cerebral about it that I can't reaching for, a meaning, an emotional resolution, but it was just beyond my reach. For some reason, although it is not at all like JMC's Disgrace it did remind me quite a bit of Disgrace. Some pretty disturbing shit happens in The Smell of Apples, as in Disgrace, but at the end of the latter, I felt as though I had travelled a journey with that book. My heart was changed by that book in a way that only time has unchanged. With The Smell of Apples though, I feel like we stepped out of the clearing and walked into a dense forrest together. I thought we were going somewhere, but in the end, we emerged into the sunlight in the same clearing we started in. It didn't take me anywhere.

The Skating Rink by Roberto Bolaño

Verdict: Forgettable

See above. It is well-written, it has also compelling female characters who are actually more at the heart of the story than the 3 men that narrate it, it's set in a beautiful part of Europe and it's about the ambitions of government employees, the homeless and xenophobia without bogging you down in the banality of those real first world problems. I thought I'd love it - again. But - also again - I didn't.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Blog love: east and west of the airport

One of my very dearest friends is probably also one of the best writers I know - which is saying a lot but I've met a boatload at this point. Her blog east and west of the airport, much like this blog, is not about anything in particular. It's more a running commentary on her experiences with gender, poverty, privilege, public transportation in Cape Town and whatever else she feels like writing about. Well worth following.

This week's post cut me deep. I think so often issues of race and gender, power and disempowerment, get simplified to fit neat editorials and M&G ThoughtLeader blog posts and all the messy, fairer but more confusing subtleties get glossed over. Sometimes to the point that it's no longer meaningful to even be having that conversation anymore. I quite liked this piece though because it's a careful and honest soul-searching on what is often unsaid about how we perceive our richness or poorness or relative power. And even through my blackness and my Joburg-ness I can totally relate to her experience. I feel like it could have been me sitting in that car, talking to that drunken hobo. And isn't that kind of what great writing is always supposed to do? Take you somewhere, hold your heart in place, make you stop, leave you changed.

Yesterday, as I was making my way to a friend's house, I stopped at the lights at Stanhope and Main and a man came to my window.

"Two for five rand," he said, and rattled a pair of wooden maracas through the window.
"No thanks," I told him.

"It's for my daughter," he replied.

"I'm sorry," I answered, "but no." The man's breath smelt bitter and alcoholic. So I made a judgment call. And yes, on the seat next to me was a bottle of birthday bubbly for my friend. But while the rich are allowed their frivolous purchases, the poor must be responsible (and the rich must be paternalistic). It's not as though their impoverished lives limit their freedom in so many other ways, no-no, no-no. No drink for you.
So that's what I told him, "No."

He kept shaking the maracas, kept asking, kept begging. I sat there on my throne and alternated between "no" and "I'm sorry." Sorry for so many things, but that's for another time. And then, then he tries a different line: "If you don't give me money, then give me sex."

Just go read the whole thing.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Way Back Home: Coming Soon and I'm Excited!

I met South African writer and teacher Niq Mhlongo in Brazzaville and I've got to say, the guy is a character. He is laugh-out-loud, hands-over-face, so un-PC funny and the life of the par-tay. We had a little bit of a protective uncle - protected niece vibe over that weekend because his daughter is around my age. That worked out pretty well for me when Niq helped me through Brazzaville Airport despite some close calls with some dodgy officials and almost awkward situation where I had to lie to avoid handing over all my Euros to a guy at the boarding gates politely collecting bribes to allow passengers through - so, that happened.

And every time I think of Kigali Airport, I can't help getting a flash of Niq trying to get some sleep on the most uncomfortable chairs ever made, his trademark blue hat tilted over his face and travelling for close to 12 hours with nothing but his passport, cellphone, wallet and a light jacket. In contrast, I need a minimum of two books, a coat, gloves and a face mask for any overnight flight.

Anyway, I'm very excited about his new book. From what he told me about it (including the spoilers) it sounds hec-tic and "caustic critique of South Africa’s political elite" doesn't even begin to describe the cray shizz that is up in that piece... Here's the blurb:
“I, Kimathi Fezile Tito, do solemnly declare that I am a soldier of the South African revolution. I am a volunteer fighter, committed to the struggle for justice. I place myself in the service of the people, The Movement and its allies.

13 August 1986, Angola”

Kimathi Tito has it all. As a child of the revolution, born in exile in Tanzania, he has steadily accumulated wealth and influence since arriving in South Africa in 1991. But even though everything appears just peachy from outside the walls of his mansion in Bassonia, things are far from perfect for Comrade Kimathi. After a messy divorce, accelerated by his gambling habit and infidelities, he is in danger of losing everything. And now, to top it all, he’s seeing ghosts. Sometimes what happens in exile doesn’t stay in exile.

A caustic critique of South Africa’s political elite from the author of Dog Eat Dog and After Tears (both recently reissued).

Can't wait to buy it and can't wait to read it! *dances with glee*

Go get it!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

How Current Digital Publishing Trends Impact Freedom of Expression

This weekend I'm taking part in a workshop at ANFASA's "Future of the Book" event. The workshop I'm speaking on is titled 'How Current Digital Publishing Trends Impact Freedom of Expression' and look at how Amazon and Apple have dominated the international digital publishing arena and what that entails for the local digital publishing trends.

My fellow panelists are all sort-of friends (read: ex-employers) so I feel like I know what topics they are going to focus on. For my own part, I'm feeling slightly out of my depth. Freedom of expression is not really a topic that comes up much when discussing children's literature to be honest. Except if you're taking abou the 'Tintin in Congo' saga in which case: obvs, like all the time. Unfortunately, there isn't a 'Tintin on the Cape Flats' situation to draw parallels to and South Africa seems to have swept our racist kid lit under the new democracy carpet.

I think what I'm going to talk about how reaching children means finding them on their own platforms and their own terms. In an African context, this necessarily involves an expansion of the notion of digital publishing from just being about ebooks to including publishing to mobile, on social networks and abandoning formats that publishers are only just beginning to grapple with. It also involves a change in the gatekeepers that traditionally managed what content was created for children and by whom. Freedom of expression for creators of content is increased as information, tools and resources to publish are democratised. But freedom comes at a cost and in this case, it may be passed onto the consumers of that digital content: the children.

Is this a good idea? A good approach to the question? I guess I'll have to wait until the workshop to see...

Monday, April 1, 2013

paris je t'aime!

I had an amazing time in Paris last week. The book fair was great experience, even though it was all French, all the time. I was invited to the fair for this panel:

Édition scolaire, littérature jeunesse et place du numérique en Afrique subsaharienne » : Comment le « saut technologique » africain vient-il bouleverser l’accès au livre ? Quelles perspectives pour l’éducation et le développement ? Rencontre organisée dans le cadre du cycle « Digital Africa », avec Jean-Michel Ollé (Hachette Livre International) et l’éditrice sud-africaine Bontle Senne, responsable de la plateforme de littérature pour enfants

It was basically about children's literature and epublishing. My co-panelists were a French publisher working in Francophone Africa and a Institut Francais employee trying to start digital publishing projects and training for librarians in Niger. Very interesting work, especially on the part of the woman from Niger. Again though I was struck with the real need to do some work in Francophone Africa. There's so much enthusiasm but so little support, institutional knowledge or funding for digital/mobile reading projects and/ libraries. I really feel like something like FundZa or Paperight could really take off there, especially from what I saw in Congo.

Not sure what it will take to launch that kind of project but maybe I should just put the question out into the universe and the answer will come when I least expect it to.