Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Voyages étonnants: a weekend in Brazzaville-Congo

Last Saturday night, I was so removed from my everyday life, I may as well have been dreaming. Standing at the foot of the rolling lawns of the French ambassador's official residence in Brazzaville, where the manicured grass met the Congo River, sipping champagne in my newly acquired 'Made in China' traditional West African dress, rubbing shoulders with some of the continents more famous author and artists, I felt every bit the impostor. Surely someone was going to notice that I am neither famous nor an author? But no. The drinks kept flowing, the band played on and city finally started to cool after a day baking in the Central African sun.

I knew Brazza would be nothing like South Africa. What I didn't except was how much I would realise how un-African South Africa is with a real African country to compare it to. Brazza is a relatively small city, devoid of all the images of wildness and violence that have come to characterise its region and full of the nicest, most relaxed people. The Congolese are the kind so chilled they don't think to haggle and squabble over the price of a dress or a bracelet and never call out or harass foreign visitors to the market like traders in China or Thailand are wont to do. Perhaps they just aren't used to having that many tourists around to haggle with: in a country with very little FDI, very poor infrastructure, only two real tarred main roads in the whole city and no tourist spots that we could find, that would seem like a fair conclusion. The hotel we stayed in was fantastic but it was the jewel of the city and it was almost embarrassing to drive past the ruins and shacks were most of the Congolese live on route to the shining marble entrance hall and free wifi of our 5 star hotel.

The streets (or most often, dirt roads) are alive with activity: taxis narrowly avoiding hitting people and other taxis, merchants selling their goods to passerbys. We saw a number of photocopy/cyber cafes as we drove through the city but no malls, no stand-alone shops to speak of at all. The electricity went out frequently but anyone who has lived through Eskom's load shedding seasons isn't bothered by that too much. The fascinating thing was watching this phenomenon from a distance: on more than one occasion we found ourselves in prime position as the sun set, right on the river bank. Across the dark waters, the city of Kinshasa looked ready to eat us alive. Lights everywhere, Kinshasa at that distance could have been Joburg or Cape Town. But every time we would look over, a different part of the city would be illuminated, while another had gone out. The power outages didn't result in massive gaps in the evening skyline but instead resulted in subtle little changes here and there si that you were sure this building or that was lit up just a few moments ago. It gave the shimmering city the look of a moving thing. As the lights went out and came on and went out, the city could have been some giant beast crawling along the other side of the Congo River. Besides the real human cost of these energy inefficiencies, the sight was beautiful.

Because we managed to somehow convince a local by the suspiciously non-French name of Joe to drive us around for a day, we got to see much more of the city than many of our fellow étonnants voyageurs. We visited Livingstone Falls where the rapids have taken many to their end but children bathed unsupervised and unconcerned. We went to the market where I bought clothes and jewellery and then to a small art market where I bought an oil painting of the city's lush forestry from a young local artist.

The reason for my trip, my panel on Digital Africa and digital publishing in Afica, was a lot of fun but it seemed almost naïve to be talking about tablets and submarine fiber optic cables when you're told that only 10% of people in the whole country of the DRC have access to electricity. Forget smart phones, 3G or mobi novels, those are the real challenges. I kept thinking that's what we should really be talking about. Nonetheless, it was very interesting to hear about Congolese experiments with digital publishing and online writing. We all have far to go but we're getting there.

I'd love to go back to Brazzaville. Even though I got asked for a bribe at the airport, even though it was so hot I was melting, even though none of the taxi drivers knew where we wanted to go which resulted with a lot of driving about in the back streets of the hoods of Brazza.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Racism in Europe's children's books

A few years ago, I followed the TinTin racism saga with keen interest. As a young black child who really enjoyed TinTin, it had never occurred to me that the Danish hero had any racist undertones but clearly I hadn't seen this or this. That being said, so many of TV and literature's sexual and other innuendoes went totally over my head as a child. As an adult, not so much. This is why I'm quite interested in the debate that is currently raging over German kidlit. I have no doubt that it is exposing the ugliest elements of European arts and culture and showing the fervent hatred Africans have been on the receiving end of for decades; in print and elsewhere.

For example, soccer fans have spent the last few years watching non-white players repeatedly insulted, jeered and attacked on and off the pitch in various European leagues. A friend of mine was recently attacked on a bus travelling through Eastern Europe by some white supremacists (true story). And now the economic hub of Europe is fighting to keep their books racist "little clack children be damned!"

German Family Minister Kristina Schröder kicked off the discussion last month by saying she cut out discriminatory terms like "Negro King" from a Pippi Longstocking story while reading to her small daughter.

But it was the decision to replace the diminutive form Negerlein in Otfried Preußler's popular kids' book Die kleine Hexe ("The Little Witch") that unleashed a torrent of outrage against what some see as kowtowing to overzealous political correctness. A pundit at Der Spiegel magazine raged: What blatant censorship! And a cover story in the respected weekly Die Zeit fumed: The feelings of little black German children be damned – important literature was being defiled!

Now, I don't condemn these people as racists, but they are guilty of willful ignorance and gross insensitivity. It's utterly irrelevant if white, middle-aged men at leading German publications don't find the use of Neger offensive. I'm certain they won't mind being called a "Nazi" on their next Greek holiday, but the only people who get to decide if a term is hurtful are those having it foisted upon them. People like the defiant nine-year-old who in a justifiably angry letter to Die Zeit defended herself and her black father from the paper's apparent contempt.

Because this isn't about political correctness or censorship – it's about respect, or the lack of it, for non-whites in German society.

Read the complete article

African books aren't holy cows and neither are their writers

I came across a post this morning by Jeremy Weate who is quite bleak faced the crisis in African publishing. I appreciated someone finally calling African writers out for focussing their work on events and circumstances that played out 20 to 50 to 150 years ago. Where are the stories of hope from the BlackBerry beauties of Lagos? Where are the tales of misadventure from the Congos most reckless taxi drivers? It seems that writers are having to dig deeper and deeper to find old stories of pain and loss to stay relevant:

The writer will live for a year or two on borrowed time; words rented from experiences fast receding. A novel, or perhaps two, will emerge. Each will detail times from an Africa that is sinking beneath the horizon. The work will be feted, but less so each time. The African writer will be little irked by how much publicity his Western publisher asks him to do: set up a Facebook account, regularly ping twitter followers with updates, visit out of the way places on cold days for an audience of 10. The third book, if he gets that far, will likely be pure anachronism. The African writer will sense that times have changed back home, but will by now be helpless to address the contemporary.

Meanwhile, his western readership, looking for the next African star, will be wondering what happened. Even being thousands of kilometres away from the action, he will sense something no longer of the present. In rooms with cityscapes for views, or across the tables of chichi restaurants, executives will be leafing through someone else’s manuscript. A new tale of African horror (or sometimes, African ‘lushness’ and ‘vibrancy’) will be required in time for the run up to Christmas.

This is the part where my opinions started to diverge. Isn't setting up a FB and Twtter account and going on book tours and speaking to the five people who read and love your book kind of part of the deal? It's a business first and foremost but it's also an industry that's changing. Producers faced with global competition have to find ways to reach geographical dispersed consumers. Social media helps, so does travel. How else are you going to sell the book? A little blurb in Publishers Weekly ain't gonna cut it.

And authors - like their books - aren't holy cows. What's the big deal of having to do a Google+ hangout every so often? Is it so bad doing a blog tour? And so what if African authors want to live in the US, publish in the US, work as academics and have a better standard of life for themselves and their families? Let's not glamourise this idea of starving artists or writers so elite and noble that they can overlook the practical banality of having to earn a living and maybe put your kids through grad school in favour of some rose-tinted, PEP sunglasses. They want to make money - who with gainful employment doesn't want to?

In part I agree that "the African writer who links migration to success (and to expectations of material well-being) is part of an ageing post-colonial condition" but I also recognise that this is a global business now. Putting the ideology aside, to find your audience, whether here or in Europe or the US, is di-ffi-cult and to get that audience to buy your books en masse is even harder.

I'm completely on board with the idea that African publishers have a role to play in changing the reality of writing on this continent in ways that Weate and I can agree on:

African publishers also need to become more than what they are now. We need to collaborate, across our differences. We need to rave about our authors, and introduce them directly into each other’s markets, without recourse to a European detour. We need to help build a publishing infrastructure, which innovates and adapts to the opportunities continent provides. African publishers also need to spell out the reality of working on the continent and what is at stake.

But, perhaps because I am coming from a South African perspective, I think that local publishers publish fine work of quality, variety and substance. Yes, I would like to see more book by people younger than 30. Yes, I am interested in indigenous language writing and why publishers aren't innovating and experimenting with guerilla marketing and direct sales and taxi-rank bookstores to reach the market that I still believe exists. However, I acknowledge that South Africans own their own stories, where-ever they are published first, and not all of them are about pain, suffering, war, rape and blood diamonds. Maybe that makes us unique on the African continent but I for one don't buy that the Shining Girls is going to be a better book than say Zoo City because it has an overseas publisher. It'll probably be a better selling book but ultimately, it will only be a better book because it's author is now better.

Read the complete Situation is Critical! article

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

African authors reading list

If there's one thing that being in Brazza this part weekend (more on that later) taught me, it's that I do not read enough African authors. I've always had some vague sense of that but as I read mostly YA and while South African YA is quality stuff, it's not like there are dozens of contemporary SA YA books to wade through, I figured I'd eventually get round to it after tackling the complete works of Dessen or Zarr. This weekend, being among African writers and publishers really made me re-think it. It suddenly struck me as odd that I should be so European in my reading habits when I am an African.

Part of it, I guess, is that it's just so much easier to access European, American and even Australian reads. You don't need to have studied English or Literature to be familiar with works of those writers: you just need Goodreads or Facebook or book recommendations from Amazon. I had to actually Google 'African authors' to find some ideas on works to read because I didn't have much of a starting point and I actually have no clue what I might enjoy or benefit from reading (many thanks to Ivor Hartmann for his great list of must-read African books). I think my reading challenge for this year should be getting acquainted with the voices of my continent so I'm putting my reading list onto the interwebs. Books with (R) at the end are books I've already read. Books I read this year I'll review on this blog.


Arrow of God/Anthills of the Savannah – Chinua Achebe
Wizard of the Crow – Ngugi wa Thiong’o
Maru – Bessie Head (R)
The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born – Ayi Kwei Armah
The Famished Road – Ben Okri
The Interpreters – Wole Soyinka
The Hairdresser of Harare – Tendai Huchu
The Madams – Zukiswa Wanner
Diaries of a Dead African – Chuma Nwokolo
Zoo City - Lauren Beukes (R)
Nervous Conditions – Tsitsi Dangarembga
The Boy Next Door – Irene Sabatini
The Smell of Apples - Mark Behr
Whiplash - Tracey Farren (R)
The Memory of Love – Aminatta Forna
Purple Hibiscus/The Thing around Your Neck – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
African Psycho – Alain Mabanckou
Harmattan Rain – Ayesha Harruna Attah
Tail of the Blue Bird – Nii Ayikwei Parkes
Dancing with Life – Christopher Mlalazi
Nairobi Heat – Mukoma Wa Ngũgĩ
On Black Sisters’ Street – Chika Unigwe
Unbridled/Blackbird – Jude Dibia
In Dependence – Sarah Ladipo Manyika
Bones – Chenjerai Hove
Underground People – Lewis Nkosi
Waiting for the Rain – Charles Mungoshi
A Fine Madness – Mashingaidze Gomo
To Saint Patrick – Eghosa Imasuen
Somewhere in This Country – Memory Chirere
The Old Man and the Medal – Ferdinand Oyono
The Suit - Can Thamba (R)
Down Second Avenue – Ezekiel Mphahlele
This Earth, My Brother – Kofi Awoonor
A Simple Lust – Dennis Brutus
The Setting Sun and the Rolling World – Charles Mungoshi
Walking with Shadows – Jude Dibia
Wife of the Gods – Kwei Quartey
Without a Silver Spoon – Eddie Iroh
Time of the Butcherbird – Alex la Guma
Dog Eat Dog – Niq Mhlongo
Paradise - Abdulrazak Gurnah
From Caves of Rotten Teeth – A. Igoni Barrett
Pregnancy of the Gods – Odili Ujubuonu
The Quarry - Damon Galgut (R)
Everything Good Will Come – Sefi Atta
Burma Boy – Biyi Bandele
Graceland – Chris Abani (R)
Mashetani (The Devil’s) – Ibrahim Hussein
Betrayal in the City – Francis Imbuga
Reclaiming the L-Word. Sappho's Daughters Out in Africa - Alleyn Diesel (Editor) (R)
Echoes of Silence/The Burdens – John Ruganda
Waiting for an Angel – Helon Habila
The House Gun – Nadine Gordimer
The Concubine – Elechi Amadi
Mine Boy – Peter Abrahams
The Lion and the Jewel – Wole Soyinka
Kill Me Quick – Meja Mwangi
Disgrace – J.M Cotzee (R)
Baobabs in Heaven – Tawanda Chabikwa
Nights of the Creaking Bed – Toni Kan
Songs from the Marketplace/Village Voices/The Eye of the Earth – Niyi Osundare
Country of my Skull - Antjie Krog
Circles in a Forrest - Dalene Matthee (R)
Triomf – Marlene Van Niekerk
Measuring Time – Helon Habila
The Only Son – John Munoye
Room 207 – Kgebetli Moele
The Book of Secrets – M. G. Vassanji
In a Strange Room - Damon Galgut (R)
Paradise – Abdulrazak Gurnah
Little Ice-Cream Boy - Jacques Pauw (R)
Bom Boy - Yewande Omotoso
Thirteen Cents – K. Sello Duiker
David’s Story/Playing in the Light – Zoe Wicomb
Blood Kin - Ceridwen Dovey (R)
One Day I Will Write About This Place – Binyavanga Wainaina
The Identity of Blood Money – Mzondi Lungu
Say You are One of Them – Uwem Akpan
Sleepwalking Land – Mia Couto

I've already ordered:
The Memory of Love – Aminatta Forna
The Smell of Apples - Mark Behr
Open City - Teju Cole
Paradise – Abdulrazak Gurnah

I've been putting off reading for months:
Bom Boy - Yewande Omotoso

That's a crapload of books. I best be getting on with it.

image from

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

What I'm reading now

The Skating Rink by Roberto Bolaño

It look like a winner! What's it about?

A phenomenally unusual three-way murder mystery.

With a murder at its heart, Roberto Bolaño’s The Skating Rink is, among other things, a crime novel. Murder seems to have exerted a fascination for the endlessly talented Bolaño, who in his last interview, according to The Observer, “declared, in all apparent seriousness, that what he would most like to have been was a homicide detective.”

Set in the seaside town of Z, north of Barcelona, The Skating Rink is told in short, suspenseful chapters by three male narrators, and revolves around a beautiful figure skating champion, Nuria Martí. A ruined mansion, knife-wielding women, political corruption, sex, and jealousy all appear in this atmospheric chronicle of a single summer season in a seaside town, with its vacationers, businessmen, immigrants, bureaucrats, social workers, and drifters.


On the Road by Jack Kerouac

What's it about?

The legendary 1951 scroll draft of On the Road, published as Kerouac originally composed it

In three weeks in April of 1951, Jack Kerouac wrote his first full draft of On the Road — typed as a single-spaced paragraph on eight long sheets of tracing paper, which he later taped together to form a 120-foot scroll. A major literary event when it was published in Viking hardcover in 2007, this is the uncut version of an American classic—rougher, wilder, and more provocative than the official work that appeared, heavily edited, in 1957. This version, capturing a moment in creative history, represents the first full expression of Kerouac’s revolutionary aesthetic.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Let's talk about NetGalley

Let me start by saying I ain't got nothing but love for NetGalley. I find it useful, I find it a great way to find authors and books I otherwise would never have had the chance to read or review. I get rejected often because I'm an international blogger but actually, that's just a part of the process and it does not bother me at all. I'm always appreciative of the books I do get to read. That being said, I'm not everyone. For example, none of my wedding photos are on Facebook. That's not relevant? Oh... Anyway, I tend not to really understand much of the NetGalley rejection indignation and that is why finding this open letter to NetGalley reviewers on made me laugh for days:
listen up reviewers, we need to have a heart to heart.

Are you happily married to a wonderful man?

Stop putting that in your bio. Does it effect how you review books? No. No, it does not. And honestly, I find it weird that it’s where you get your first sense of identity. The same goes for however many delightful children you have and how they are the light of your life.

What that has to do with your ability to review books, I will never know. Also, having a spouse and children does not count as special interests.

Realize that unless you are the book editor of the New York Times or some equivalent than you are (probably) a small fish in a large ocean. So, before you write the publisher a ticked off email about how you are shocked that your request was rejected:

Read more of this touching heart to heart

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Forgotten Profession

One of my dearest friends is now living in UK and working as a TA. I am really enjoying her blog because a) she's my friend and b) I haven't yet come across a South African equalivalent blog - not about teaching methods or the crisis in education or using technology to leverage education but instead just on personal reflections about teaching. In many ways (not to mention the current 'essential services' debate) I think the title of her blog, 'The Forgetten Profession', is more apt than ever.

I have stolen an excerpt from one of her latest posts as it combines two of my favourite topics - gender constructs in society and how to reach kids in the classroom.

More disturbing, however, was the revelation made on Friday, our final day of having a supply teacher for the week. For the first time, there was a male supply teacher filling in for the class and the effect was almost instantaneous. Despite getting progressively rowdier throughout the week, the lack of a regular class teacher seeming to fuel the disobedience engines, the morning chatter was automatically quieted on seeing Mr G standing at the front of the class on Friday morning. Instead of the usual (and now expected) outbreaks of “Who is that?” echoing across the classroom, quieter whispered discussions started the day off. Apart from the one or two children who are always going to push their luck, most of the class got straight on with the activities provided without the usual charade of 21 questions the other supply teachers had been forced to endure on previous days. The threat of missing playtime was taken more seriously or so I can only assume based on the remarkable behavioural change made once this declaration was made; and polite requests were all that was necessary to keep 97% of the class in line for the day.

It breaks my heart to know that the majority of children in our class seem to take orders, requests and instructions from male teachers more unquestioningly and more obediently than their XX-chromosome counterparts. In the 21st century, in a first world city, surely gender should be just a formality instead of an instructional part of a person? The bigger question, is why do these children react in this manner? Is it because we as society have failed to deconstruct gendered stereotypes sufficiently enough to teach our children that men and women are equal? Or is it because these children are living in home structures where the male figure is always the enforcer and the female figure is just someone to toy with? Growing up it was my mother who was the enforcer (she still is!), and this instilled in me a sense that gender doesn’t have to predetermine your role in any aspect of your life. Now I am starting to realise that I was lucky, and so many children are not exposed to this sort of gender-neutral environment until the damage is already done.

I wasn't necessarily surprised but it did give me food for thought. I don't think my future children would have this particular gender bias because while I probably would not be the enforcer, I certainly would not tolerate that kind of gender normatively in my house. Girls, go play with your trucks! Boys, it's your turn to set the table and help cook dinner! And heaven help the child of mine that shows any inkling towards any man=strong, woman=kitchen chacharag tendencies!

Read more about the adventures of the Forgotten Profession(al)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

It's no accident that I do what I do

Last week I had the greta pleasure of giving the Native Axe Sharpener lecture in Native's Johannesburg office (I also had the double pleasure of learning that Helen Moffett was simultaneously giving the Cape Town version of the same talk, but that's another story). It's like an internal TED talk so obvs it was an awesome experience that I would gladly repeat every week. I actually once got rejected for a social media job at Native so I found amusing that I got to go give a talk on social media.

I had wanted to focus my talk on Paperight and some of the other organisations that are finding interesting and exciting alternative distribution models of literature. And I technically did discuss that. However, even though I didn't intend to talk about the work I do but the discussion kind of became about that and the challenges of promoting the production and consumption of indigenous African language literature by itself. There were some very strong views from the audience which wasn't wholly surprising because the language question stirs up all kinds of emotions in South Africa.

African language publishing, particularly for children, should be flourishing given the great emphasis placed on language rights by the Constitution and the growing body of international research that indicates that mother-tongue based learning is ideal for children. On the contrary, our African language publishing is faltering. According to Galloway and Struik’s annual publishing industry survey report (2009), English books make up 73.2% of book sales to schools despite the fact that English is spoken as a first language by only 8.2% of the population. Sales of all the other African languages combined only account for 16.62% of overall sales, despite speakers of these languages making up 78.5% of South Africans. It's those kind of stats that fuel debate about if there's even a point in trying to elevate the position of our other languages and certainly those kind of stats that make my work complex and sometimes a little depro.

And it's no accident that I came to do the work I do. I understand perfectly the pressure to teach children English, to make sure they excel in that language, to make sure that they have a chance at getting into a good programme at varsity and then find a good corporate job. I understand feeling that African languages only have a place in the home, only when you visit grandparents but anywhere outside of that, they are useless. I understand white and black people thinking you are more intelligent, more capable and more right somehow because you can express yourself in this colonial language, imposed on this country much like French, Spanish, Portuguese were imposers on others. I understand what it's like to lose your mother tongue. I lost both of my home languages so the lesson has been learnt twice. And I also understand what's it's like to not feel bad about it at all because English is complex and beautiful and allowed me to give voice to every secret ambition, to visit anywhere in the world I wanted to go from my bed at home and stand up in front of hundreds of people without the fear of mocking or ridicule.

I understand the other side, both sides of the indigenous language debate, because I am the other side. I care and I don't. Excellence in English benefited me and it didn't. I'm not sure if I lost my languages or I threw them away. I was so young (3 years old at the time) that I'm not sure it even matters; I'm not sure I'm culpable either way.

So now I work to preserve and promote all our stories in all of our languages, especially for children and teens. The most difficult part of my job is having to explore my past, concepts of identity and heritage everyday without wanting to run away and hide in a book. Because I made trade-offs that I can't ever take back. I lost all links to my extended family, to my culture, to the Batswana people, to the stories of my grandmother and her mother and her mother... I lost that all and in exchange I got a great education, a great job, opportunities I never thought I'd ever have to do things that matter. If I could start again, 22 years ago, I'm not sure what I would choose. I'm not sure I could choose at all.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

I feel it! It's almost here

In one week I'll be in Brazzaville. The panel I'm speaking on looks super interesting. And it's featuring this guy (who Google Translate tells me invented Africa's first tablet and Android phone) so that's obvs a good thing:

Vérone Mankou, le nouveau Steve Jobs africain ? En tout cas, ce jeune congolais n’en doute pas : la révolution numérique de l’Afrique est en marche ! Jeune entrepreneur ambitieux, il est le créateur de la première tablette tactile et du premier téléphone Android du continent africain.

And look! It's me!

SENNE Bontle

Blogueuse et activiste littéraire, cette jeune Sud-Africaine est actuellement directrice générale et éditrice pour la fondation Puku Children’s Literature dont l’objectif est de mettre les nouveaux outils du numérique au service de la littérature africaine. Elle a également lancé un catalogue des petits éditeurs Sud-Africains afin de favoriser leur visibilité et leur développement. Personnalité engagée, elle est par ailleurs propriétaire et membre du comité éditorial de la maison d’édition féministe Modjaji Books.

Pity about the whole me not reading French thing... but yay for Google Translate!

IP theft taken to the next level

This was a strange post to stumble on from Tell the Wolves I'm Home author Carol Rifka Brunt:

Here's one to put in the super bizarre box... Rapper Gerald Walker has decided to appropriate not only my title, but the entire cover of my book for his latest song. I have to say that even in the remotest outposts of my imagination I never saw the possibility that my literary novel about a geeky suburban 14-year-old and her gay friend might intersect with the world of rap/hip hop. Now, the question is, should this make me angry or should I just be enjoying the humor in the strangeness of the situation?

For the record, I'd be pissed.

See the stolen cover, listen to the song with the stolen title.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Bell Jar's new cover inspires LOLZ

I haven't read the Bell Jar. I can't even honestly say that it's on my list of to-reads. Even though my love for Virginia Woolf is real and I'm fascinated by mental illness in literature and art and I feel that African society could seriously benefit from making a serious effort to understand mental illness and those who suffer from it and I think feminist publishing and writing are the future and and and - Silvia Plath is a little bit of a downer, even for me.

I have however found much amusement in the recent 50th anniversary re-issue of her iconic book by UK publisher Faber with a brand-new cover featuring a stock image of yet another pretty but bland (also as per the usual, sorry for saying it) white girl. Because of course the images featuring not-skinny, not-conventionally beautiful, non-white, oldish women are just not suitable for a book for the ladies. Naturally, the Internet is not so sure Ms Plath would have been amused. And so the parodies of the Bell Jar cover have begun:

See more over at

(Incidentally, HuffPost had a different perspective on the new cover haters and while it was food for thought, I'm not sure it really gets to the heart of why people are upset. While I think the point about women hating on chick-lit is valid, Bell-gate is not so much about a disrespect of chick-lit as it is about a need for to respect and accurately promote the writing for women in general. Even chick-lit covers deserve thoughtful and representative design.)

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Cloning Joan

Yesterday I attended the presentation of the 2012 Crystal Kite SCBWI Member Choice Award for Children's Book. It was at Sandton Library and the event was not very well attended (it was at 10am in the middle of the week, to be fair) but I do really like SCBWI and I adore the book that won. Well, maybe that's not entirely honest. I like the book, Finding Aunt Joan, but I'm not exactly the target market. I like Jenny Hatton, who wrote that book and is so committed to children's literature in this country and is also such a nice person, but I have a lady crush on Joan Rankin. She is so humble and so lovely despite so much success and something crazy like over 30 books illustrated. I sat next to her at the SCBWI year-end party last year and I was like a giggling school-girl.

Joan studied fine art, graphic art, weaving, puppetry and shadow theatre. Whose live is that??

I've always admired illustrators. Perhaps it's because if my life depended on me being able to draw pretty much any animate object, my life would pretty much be overs. (I can't draw, I can't sing: all my childhood dreams dashed!) But I think my admiration extends beyond that. It's amazing to take the pictures in your mind and make them real on paper - or on the computer screen or on the iPad. It's amazing to then put your faith in your scribbles and doodles and show them to people and then ask them to pay for them. Amazing in the good way obvs.

I guess Joan is also a wonderful, local reminder that sometimes being talented and working really hard is actually enough to make books that matter and still pay the rent. Please can we clone and deploy her to every major city in Southern Africa? I'm very keen to try get into one of her illustrators' workshops this year.

And maybe that's the real secret behind cloning Joan. Public-private partnerships that pay artists to go to townships, primary schools, churches, mosques, community centres, big halls in the middle of nowhere to stimulate a love of drawing. I suggest a public-private sector intervention because I think it's unrealistic to expect unilateral action on the part of either these days. Spreading the risk and spreading the expense translates to spreading the love. I also think that to expect artists to get their on love of the craft alone is also unfair: we kind of have to meet them halfway.

But with more focus on development of those in the arts and those trying to get into the arts and those who could be saved by the arts, we could end up with more Joans. But we could also end up with more artists, more graphic designers, more city planners and architects and fashion designers... In our current education crisis, I'm guessing that for most people we have more pressing concerns than teaching kids to draw. My only concern is that we've already let so many of our artists die poor and I think our future Joans and Alf desserve better.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Trade-publishing challenges in SA: Arthur Atwell talks to Smangele Mathebula

I stumbled on this is timely and important discussion this morning; I can't believe I somehow missed it last year. I have some strong opinions about the creativity, collaboration and will that is required from civil society, from state and from our corporate trade publishing industry to make books less than prohibitively expensive and less than the luxury items they are right now.

In their interview in August last year, Arthur Atwell talks to Smangele Mathebula. BTDubs, I absolutely loved Arthur's TED talk on on-demand printing in the rurals and the possibilities that alternative book distribution channels have for the developing world (watch it). I'm super keen for his latest talk called "Tech spreads slowly” too.

Anyway, I particularly agreed with Arthur's view on the role of government and would in fact love to see this expanded in a discussion paper or presentation. The idea of more publishing legislation, government oversight or a state-owned publishing house frustrates me because although I've heard these suggestions before, I'm not sure they really makes sense. I think that more support for organisations with the vison, expertise and experience to build a reading culture it's what's needed - that and contributing to an environment that empowers business to find cheaper and easier ways to get books to people. Arthur gives the following example:

In South Africa, banking regulations make it near impossible to offer a truly affordable way to buy online without a credit card. In Kenya, M-Pesa has made ecommerce truly affordable by enabling mobile payments without a bank account at very low transaction costs. In South Africa, M-Pesa’s rollout has been hampered by banking regulations, which required that network operators offering M-Pesa work within an existing bank (Nedbank), which in turn pushed the transaction costs so high that the system is not truly useful to the poor.

Until truly affordable mobile banking is available, the total cost of buying books will remain out of reach for most people, no matter what publishers do.

That said, two initiatives actively tackling these problems are Mxit and Paperight.

Yes! That makes sense and it's the kind of thinking trade publishing needs. I definitely recommend reading the whole interview

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Some SA book blog love:

I found a new SA book blog! This is something I always feel quite pleased about. The more the better, I say. And it's a sign of good things when writing about books, reading books and sharing books moves out of that same old club of lit people who talk back and forth amongst each other all day. (Ok, yes, I'm a hater: I'm basically like the Dan Humphrey to their Nate-Serena-Blaire-Chuck mash ups...) Same reason I think movements like @ReadaBookSA are so exciting.

Anyhow: the blog is called coffee, books and lipgloss and it's written/run by Laurynne from PE. I'm pretty sure it's not the blog for me. While I'm certainly not a hater of the genre by any means, pure romance is not for me (I like a mix of a little love, a little sads, a little thoughtful). I used to read tons of pre-1960 Mills & Boon a few years ago and that was mostly for the lolz but I love that Laurynne totally proved me wrong on my blog tour hypothesis of but a few posts ago. She is doing exactly what I naively thought was not being done so viva book tours, viva!

I'm quite looking forward to seeing how the idea plays out and quite looking forward to seeing other bloggers doing the same thing. Here's the coffee, books and lipgloss book blog tour premise:

Author ~ Meet & Greet

In short it's where any author (old, new or even up and coming) can have a whole post on my blog introducing themselves, sharing with us how it all started or share just about anything relating to them as an author and of course details about their books and where we can get them.

If any authors are interested in taking part in this new feature you can message me on facebook or Goodreads, email me at or you can just go straight to my blog and contact me from there. Please use the subject heading of "Author Meet & Greet"

Don't be afraid to share this with anyone you think may be interested in participating. It's a great way for us to learn about authors we may never have heard of or get to know some of our old favorites even better.

The ONLY requirements is that their genre is romance related. It can be adult, contemporary, paranormal, erotic, YA, fantasy, whatever - as long as they write tales about LOVE :)

I love the energy, I love the design but I wish there was a little less going on because the sheer volume of content and images on the blog make it really hard to properly read and focus on anything. I really like that it seems to run like a business and I especially like that updates seem to happen on the regular - nothing worst that a blog that hasn't been updated since '11. I'm looking forward to seeing how the blog grows and mayhaps nominating it for an SA Blog Award this year?

Fan of romance? You're welcome.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Marilyn Monroe’s Unpublished Poems

I'm a massive fan of the show Smash (because, who isn't?). It really got me thinking about Marilyn Monroe and the woman behind the face, the hips, that song. ran an awesome article yesterday on her forgotten/never published/unfinished poetry. This one really touched me:

Oh damn I wish that I were
dead — absolutely nonexistent –
gone away from here — from
everywhere but how would I do it
There is always bridges — the Brooklyn
bridge – no not the Brooklyn Bridge
because But I love that bridge (everything is beautiful from there and the air is so clean) walking it seems
peaceful there even with all those
cars going crazy underneath. So
it would have to be some other bridge
an ugly one and with no view — except
I particularly like in particular all bridges — there’s some-
thing about them and besides these I’ve
never seen an ugly bridge

I mostly don't really get poetry (expect if we're talking Neruda or Atwood in which case I'm there like a bear) but I found this achingly beautiful and sad and honest in ways I don't really understand. Maybe that was the point.

Read more of Marilyn's poems on Brain Pickings

Friday, February 1, 2013

How does one find a writer of Tsonga picture books? Good question.

Recently a went on a mini-FB rant about the state of African language children's writing in South Africa. My concern wasn't about the quality - it was about the accessibility. And not even the usual 'where can I find these books??' #thirdworldproblem. My query is about where I could find the authors.

For a project for my day job, I was looking for writers in all 10 official indigenous languages, previously published and preferably highly respected in their languages of expertise. Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans were literally a Google search or a phone call away. Off the top of my head, I could think of four or five of the usual suspects, authors of international renown and success. Easy McSteamy. But then it got to the Tsonga, Venda, Ndebele, Sepedi and whoa. Not so much as a FB page to find these guys. After my rant, my FB friends suggested the same authors I had already signed up. One friend suggested I put out a general ad looking for authors: which granted was a good idea and actually the most practical thing to do but with one three days to find someone, time was not on my side. I sent out emails to every notable SA writing organisation that I could think of - some went unanswered but other were super helpful. Many of the names provided write in Zulu or Xhosa though so, again, bit of a problem.

I was frustrated. Where were these people hiding? Why aren't they writing articles or reviews or blogs online? There was not one list available online of say Setswana books and their authors but parents are always asking for them. No contact details or info anywhere either. But I knew they were out there somewhere. I've walked the floors at Biblionef and seen their books. They couldn't just be a figment of my imagination.

And I was right. I did find them eventually, mostly through friends of friends and looking at the lists of past MER Prize or MML Award winners and then stalking the shit out of them. It shouldn't have been this difficult though. So next week, a week before the new goes live, I'm adding a list of our children's writers and illustrators to the site. The next step (budget eventually permitting) will be adding a database for writers and illustrators where you can search by name or languages - find their work, their contact details and keep them in the business of the arts.

So, how does one find a writer of Tsonga picture books? Come end of Feb, maybe check