Friday, May 31, 2013

Chimamanda Adichie wants to teach you to write!

Farafina Trust will be holding a creative writing workshop in Lagos, organized by award winning writer and creative director of Farafina Trust, Chimamanda Adichie, from August 6 to August 16 2013. The workshop is sponsored by Nigerian Breweries Plc.

The Caine Prize winning Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainaina, and others will co-teach the workshop alongside Adichie. The workshop will take the form of a class. Participants will be assigned a wide range of reading exercises, as well as daily writing exercises.

The aim of the workshop is to improve the craft of writers and to encourage published and unpublished writers by bringing different perspective to the art of storytelling. Participation is limited only to those who apply and are accepted.

All material must be pasted or written in the body of the e-mail. Please Do NOT include any attachments in your e-mail. Applications with attachments will be automatically disqualified.

Deadline for submission is JUNE 12, 2013. Only those accepted to the workshop will be notified by JULY 22, 2013.

Accommodation in Lagos will be provided for all accepted applicants who are able to attend for the ten-day duration of the workshop.

A literary evening of readings, open to the public, will be held at the end of the workshop on August 16, 2013.

To apply, send an e-mail to
Your e-mail subject should read ‘Workshop Application’

The body of the e-mail should contain the following:
1. Your Name
2. Your Address
3. A few sentences about yourself
4. A writing sample of between 200 and 800 words.

The sample must be either fiction or non-fiction

Source: Farafina Books

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Etonnants Voyageurs Saint-Malo in pictures

Etonnants Voyageurs is really a fantastic literary festival. Earlier this year I spoke at the Brazzaville event (which was amazing) and last week I got to go to the Saint-Malo, France edition. Saint-Malo was totally French and totally European in every way that Brazza was so refreshingly African. After the 3 hour plus train ride from Paris, all the invitees of the programme were piled into buses and taken into the Old City. It's a beautiful historic part of the town, all cobbled streets and seagulls. At the opening ceremony (an event which I guess was supposed to be lunch), we were served champagne and oysters. Champagne is always a winner for me, especially after I visited the region in March and learned much more about the process of actually making the bubbly. However, oysters are not my idea of lunch. I'm much more of a generous buffet with delish veggies and yummy desserts kind of girl. I'm just not fancy enough to enjoy caviar, oysters, mussels, single-malt whiskey - can I maybe just have a Woolies couscous salad? Despite my despair over the champagne plus oysters lunch option, I've got to say it really set the tone for the rest of the festival. It really was a celebration of the finest in culture and literature, being by the seaside and above all being French - and I loved it.

There were some great panels. The focus on Africa - Nigeria and SA in particular - was well-promoted and well-supported. Events that would usually only attract 12-20 people in Joburg, for example, were packed with 200-250 people. Some events didn't just fill the place - people were standing in doorways, sitting on the floor, in corner next to the bathroom, and pressed against the back walls of hotel boardrooms, auditoriums and cafes just to catch a glimpse of the authors speaking. It made me feel very proud to be in publishing because there are clearly so many people who are not in publishing who care about literature, literacy and innovation and that's encouraging.

Of course, there were the usual literary politics. Besides the organisation-level stuff, personally, I felt very much the outcast in the SA delegation. There aren't any photos of me in their "official" Team SA pics, for example. But some of the cool(er) South African writers and the Nigerians and the translators really took me under their wings. They made me feel part of their uncool gang of cool kids. As one of the Nigerian authors pointed out: "All writers are nerds anyway. We all feel like outcasts."

Welcome to Saint-Malo!

Nigerian writer and all-round awesome person, Sefi Atta, and I

Palais du Grand Large, Saint-Malo, where many of the SA/Nigerian events happened

Writers Niq Mhlongo, Richard Poplak, Kevin Bloom, Sefi Atta and others on the longest walk to dinner ever

Writer-superstar Damon Galgut who graciously signed a tapas menu for me

Lovely Saint-Malo on a stormy, miserable day

Writer Teju Cole and his amazeballs wife on the train ride back to Paris. What happened on that train car, stays on that train car...

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The tech side of African kids books

I don't blog much about my actual day job(s) because my employers don't endorse or approve (read: know about) my personal blog but rebuilding the website was a genuinely an awesome experience and one that was only made possible thanks to the amazing team at ThoughtWorks SA. I often say this but ThoughtWorks is a very different kind of IT company. I've worked in IT before. The IT industry I thought I knew was not as responsive to the client's needs, as interested in exploring new and creative ideas and technologies and definitely not keen to take on a CSI project that doesn't fit neatly into the tick-box exercise of corporate NGO funding.

ThoughtWorks wanted to be a part of getting African kids African books using technology (as opposed to wanting to build a cool/useful website). There's definitely still more work to be done on the site to take it to the lofty heights that I imagine but I really think ThoughtWorks is going to be part of that story too. They're not just our donor or service provider. At this point, they feel like our partner.

Anyway, Craig from ThoughtWorks recently blogged about the Puku project and some of the more techy aspects of it. This is some of what he shared:

Towards the end of last year ThoughtWorks South Africa began on some exciting work for the Puku project. Puku is an Organisation devoted to bringing native language books to children in Southern Africa. I had the privilege of working on the project from when it was first thought of until completion. Who am I? I’m Craig Wattrus a ThoughtWorker here in the South Africa office.

For the South African office of ThoughtWorks this project represented a number of firsts; our first foray into working for not for profit organisations, our first fully pro-bono project and our first project using .Net and C#.

We started with envisioning and then held an inception together with Bontle the CEO of Puku and a motley bunch of ThoughtWorkers. The amazing thing for me was during some of the work-shopping sessions when the whole team started getting their hands dirty and became really passionate about the cause; providing a way for Southern African's to find literature for their children. Everyone in the room was genuinely excited to be working together on the project.

Read all about it!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Incredible, Forgettable, Preventable: Fitzgerald vs Coetzee

The only two grown-up books I've managed to make it through of late have been 'classics'. Both are considered seminal works but given a choice between Gatsby and Coetzee, I hate to say it but I have to go with JM 'We Australians' Coetzee.

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

Verdict: Forgettable

Confession: I only read the book because I wanted to see how the movie compared. I otherwise had no intention of reading it. Turns out, I wouldn't have missed much.

This novel is meant to be about the opulence and hedonism of New York's Jazz Age - a time when booze, women and money were every ambitious man's favourite vices and a self-made man could really attain that American Dream. Jay Gatsby is one such self-made man - he is actually more self-invented than made - and his mansion on West Egg becomes the epicentre of cool for a certain set of rich, famous and fabulous people. The only cool kid he really wants to impress though is the selfish and childish Daisy, his one-time love now married to the also selfish and childish Tom. Where Daisy might be forgiven for her flaws because her silly heart sort of seems in the right place (or at least where she has been raised to think is the right place), Tom is a dick with basically no redeeming qualities. One can't even understand why Jay has invested so much of his life chasing after Daisy given that a) she really doesn't have very much going for her besides a pretty face and b) she married someone else.

It's about greed, obsession and a Shakespearean-worthy valting ambition. The story is told by Jay's only real friend and neighbour Nick Carraway, about the only character in this book who I gave a damn about. And that was only because he seemed as perplexed and disconnected from the Tom/Daisy/Jay/Wilsons love-hexagon as I felt. Gatsby is delusional, Daisy is a coward and the parties don't even sound that fun.

Go home Fitzgerald, you're drunk.

Waiting for the Barbarians by JM Coetzee

Verdict: Incredible

I'm not the biggest JMC fan. Yes, I loved Disgrace, but virtually everything else I've read from him since has been very average. However, I also recognise that he probably did much of his best work before I was born so I sought out this 1980 classic thinking it would be a good way to see if my literary relationship with JMC is going anywhere. Spolier alert: it isn't.

I certainly did not enjoy reading Waiting for the Barbarians. This allegory tells the story of the unnamed Magistrate of a frontier town. The Empire has sent a brutal interrogation/torture expert to the colonial town and with the arrival of this cruel Colonel Joll, all the joy in the Magistrate's quiet, pleasant life expires. The indigenous people of the land (the barbarians) are sporadically captured, tortured and humiliated by the colonel and his men. Once the colonel leaves to report back to the Empire, the Magistrate begins a complicated and a-little-bit-creepy relationship with a barbarian girl who was left disfigured and blind by the colonel's interrogations. It is this relationship, and all the inconvenient questioning that the Magistrate starts doing about the Empire, about humanity, about human decency, that lead him into the very prison cell he has helped the Empire throw so many barbarians into. And when the torture, his humiliation and pain is over, the soldiers of the Empire retreat back to some imaginary capital fearing an invasion by the natives and the Magistrate is unceremoniously reinstated to his former position of power. The remaining townspeople are left waiting for the barbarians to invade, to kill them or simply to appear at all. And the waiting has no end.

JMC borrowed the title from the poem "Waiting for the Barbarians" by Constantine P. Cavafy. The last few lines of that poem totally encapsulate the unsettling feeling that crept out of the last pages of the book, when the Empire and its citizens have prepared themselves for an attack that has not come and probably will not come and the winter is coming:

"Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people's faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?

Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven't come.
And some of our men who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.

Now what's going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution."

And those people - my people, really - were a kind of solution in South Africa. For the new ruling elite, we probably still are.

There's no sentimentality or glossing over of what JMC is saying about colonialism, humanity, racism, the Apartheid government or any imperialist government at all, in this simple but striking novella. It's very hard to imagine that any of that rage and indignation could have been quelled, even with 33 years to manage it. I appreciated the stark and brutal honesty but, like I said, I certainly did not enjoy reading it. It's too brutal and too honest, I suppose, and that's why it haunted me for days after I read it. I admit that it's a fearless and thrilling work but it is also dark and twisty. I don't mind a book that makes me think but this was unpleasant and difficult to get through. Perhaps I understand the pre-Youth, pre-Slow Man, pre-Disgrace JMC better now but the writer I saw a glimpse of here frightened me. It was an incredible book but - never again.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Review of the Explosive 'Way Back Home'

After spending the weekend with Niq in not-so-sunny Saint Malo, I feel particularly compelled to complete this review so here goes...

The Book: Way Back Home by Niq 'I never take off my hat' Mholongo

And it's About?

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.

In a Word, it was... Explosive

Kimathi's is a character totally familiar to me. He reminds me of virtually every black man of a certain age and disposition who has benefitted handily from whatever he did or did not do as an exile, a comrade, a foot solider for the Movement. And even though so much of Kimathi's story takes place in Apartheid and in exile, it's not an Apartheid novel. Instead, it's sharply present, very contemporary and not at all hung-up on the hang-ups it explores.

I loved the vivid descriptions of Rosebank. This suburb of Johannesburg, one of its most prestigious hotels and the prostitutes that frequent its main road are principal characters in this mzanzi drama. I loved the way Niq handled the shameless, disgusting greed of those tenderpreneurs we read too much about in the daily papers. I loved that he did so without judgement and almost from the point of view of these men themselves.

Anyone who has heard the stories of witchcraft and 'calling down lightning' in Limpopo or juju in the back streets of Lagos will appreciate the unusual and totally relevant role that superstition, witchcraft and the supernatural play in this novel. It's not outlandish or unbelievable. To the contrary, it's based very much in the way that ordinary Africans live: wary that there are things beyond the natural world to fear and prepare for. It's creepy but very subtlely so and for anyone curious about what happens in the sangoma's hut, it certainly doesn't stay in the sangoma's hut in Way Back Home.

Here's the thing: there are some great South African novels out there. Modern classics told that go on to be taught in packed English literature lecture halls and win all the big prizes. And then there are novels like this: books you want to call your best friend about, books you find yourself thinking about weeks afterwards when the latest scandal of a corrupt government official breaks. These books haunt you because they are as much a reminder of your life as they are a window into someone else's. There is definitely literary value to Way Back Home and I certainly hope that some postgrad lit major takes it up for a more academic analysis than this one. But. But - this was a great novel. This book kept me guessing, left me a little chilled and made me feel so excited to read whatever Niq writes next. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Off to France! Digital Africa 3.0.

Looks I'm I'm going back to France on Thursday night. This time, I'm going to be speaking on two panels at Etonnants Voyageurs in Saint Malo, France. South African authors who will be travelling are - in alphabetical order - Mark Behr, Kevin Bloom, André Brink, Damon Galgut (this one fills me with so much glee, I feel embarrassed for myself. Thing is : I actually have already met Damon Galgut but it was before I had read In A Strange Room or The Quarry or The Imposter - so really, before I really knew for reals what a bowss he is), Michiel Heyns, Kopano Matlwa, Deon Meyer, Niq Mhlongo, Kgebetli Moele and Mike Nicol. One problem: my Sunday panel (Lagos, Johannesburg, Kinshasa Africa in creation) is at the same time at Damon Galgut's Sunday panel (Lights and Shadows). Luckily, he has another one at 5:45 so I'll just have to stalk - I mean, see - him then.

Really looking forward to seeing Niq. Haven't talked to him since his book launch which was packed with people and quickly escalated into a little bit of a partytjie. Needless to say, we didn't actually get to talk about Way Back Home and I need to talk about this book - not necessarily with its author but honestly he's the only person I know who has read it so my options are kind of limited for gushing about how amazaballs it was.

In any case, I'll also have two free days in Paris and this time, I'm packing light to leave plenty of space for books :)