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Augustus 29, 2012 in Uncategorized

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#84 JM Coetzee in Texas – Rob Gaylard

November 4, 2011 in Sonder kategorie

 Isn’t it rather dismaying to learn that our (are we right to think of him as “our”?) foremost writer has sold his literary papers to the University of Texas in Austin?

Of course Coetzee is free to choose what to do with his papers, and of course he belongs to the world, not just to South Africa, and yes, he did receive a doctorate from the University of Texas in 1965 – so this is not a criticism, just an expression of regret.

Whatever he has achieved in the world of letters, whatever awards he has won, Coetzee’s South African experience remains foundational. For better or for worse, South Africa (and more specifically the Western Cape) has made him the person and the writer that he is. His unique mode of oppositional writing was forged in the South African crucible. This is not to deny the influence of wider intellectual currents, and this is not to say that his writing must be viewed through an exclusively South African lens. But one does feel a sense of loss.

In the Harry Ransom Research Centre Coetzee will be rubbing shoulders with some very illustrious writers. And it will be very convenient for American and European scholars to have him on their doorstep, so to speak. And no doubt NELM would not have been able to compete with the $1,5 paid by the University of Texas. But one can’t help thinking that international scholars might have benefited from making the trek to the small, parochial Eastern Cape town of Grahamstown to study Coetzee’s manuscripts in some place less alien than Austin, Texas. (One can learn a lot about South Africa in Grahamstown if one keeps one’s eyes open.) What a shot in the arm it would have been, for NELM, and for South African scholars and postgraduate students, to have had these documents located more proximately.

Coetzee may well have had a relationship with the University of Texas, but for the thirty most productive and important years of his working life (as a writer and academic) he was employed by the University of Cape Town, which must have provided him with some kind of intellectual and creative space.

Clearly Coetzee had every right to make the choice he made. But one cannot help but wonder what it was that tipped the scales in favour of Austin, Texas.

#83 Where does poetry begin? – Kyle Allan

Oktober 26, 2011 in Sonder kategorie

 Where does poetry begin?

Poetry begins in silence and transcends ourselves. A poem is both a message and a destination. A poem is both a process and an entirety. We are channels and also embodiers of the poem. Where does the poem end and another existence begin? And yet the poem is separate from us. As soon as we write or speak it takes on new life, like a child.

Should there be a message in poetry?

Poetry is the message. Poetry is our consciousness extended and revealed. It is a revelation of the link between things. Poetry is a synthetic process, combining many concepts and things into a unity. If there is poverty, write about it. Don’t shrink from existence. Art is about being awake to whatever form existence takes.

My favourite poets

Dante Alighieri, TS Eliot, Robert Lowell, Wopko Jensma, Kobus Moolman, Christopher Marlowe, Ike Mboneni Muila, Mxolisi Nyezwa, Shakespeare, Rainer Maria Rilke, Seithlamo Motsapi, Uche Nduka, Christopher Okigbo, to name only a few. I believe in our South African contemporary poetry – we have produced some great poets in recent decades. I rate Mxolisi Nyezwa to be the equal of a Lorca, yet most people in this country do not even know his name. Motsapi is mind-blowing. I am in awe of his reconstruction of syntax, yet he is not even in most compiled African anthologies. History will acknowledge him as one of the greatest poets of the continent. Muila is a modern Burns and ee cummings in one, but our scholarly elite regard his poetry as too far out – yet they appreciate James Joyce. Wopko Jensma is apocalyptic. You feel his words like portents in your body. Few modern writers are so powerfully stripped down. Kobus Moolman is like a messenger between the seen and the unseen. He is both a great symbolist and an imagist, a great estranger of language. Yet so many of our young people write as if these writers never existed.

The visionary writers like Mxolisi, Seithlamo and Khulile Nxumalo have decolonised English syntax and made powerful new systems out of it. Angifi Dladla is another amazing imagist poet. Don’t forget Isabella Matindoane. Her death is a tragic loss but no one seems to care. I also like Rustum Kozain and Steven Watson, and I ask why people are so afraid of writing long or longish poems? There seems to be an interdict against it or a scepticism in poetry’s qualities and essence. I work a full-time job, yet apply myself with discipline to writing poetry. My life and poetry flow into each other continually. It takes years to learn craftsmanship. Application is vital. Inspiration is the spark, but you must keep the fire burning with earnestness. And let me not forget Don Mclennan, who has thousands of imitators now. He stood for good values like a true painter: clarity of light; good use of language.

These are merely a couple of writers that come to mind, but in reality I am very open to experience. My veins are open to poetry in any form. What carries you as a poet is an attitude of openness, an ability to receive words, an understanding that wisdom begins in silence. To be potently overcome by deep silences.

I collate a poetry journal, Sibali, which is Zulu for brother-in-law. I have done only print versions so far, but I’m looking into doing an online version soon. I made a very big magazine, consisting of 116 pages long, a short while ago when I had sponsors. Unfortunately they lost interest. I ended up trying to print the magazine myself at home. What a crazy labour of love! The magazine’s contents were amazing, but self-publishing is hectic when you work from limited personal funds.

#82: Facing the future – Judy Croome

Oktober 13, 2011 in Sonder kategorie

My name is Judy. I am a bookaholic. I’ll buy a book I don’t need (and will probably never read) because I love the smell, the feel, the sight of it. I was the kind of person who threw out clothes to make cupboard space to store more books.

Until, that is, I discovered a new addiction: e-books.

At first, I resisted their seductive call.

Oh yes, I put up a good fight. I want a book to feel like a book, I said. A real book is printed on paper, I insisted. A book, I lamented, inhaling the familiar, musty scent of an ancient first edition, must smell like a book.

But then … I received my first Kindle. Smooth, sleek and black, it fitted in my hands just like, well, just like a real book.

Perhaps I’m just fickle, but less than a year after my introduction to e-books, my first choice for book-buying is an e-book (electronic book) over a p-book (paperback book.)

For both reader and writer, e-books bring advantages that p-books just can’t match.

E-books are:

  • Environmentally and cost-friendly. You never have to recycle an e-book to save a tree. And e-books generally cost less to produce (and buy) than a p-book.
  • Easy to read. Struggling with that thousand-page tome in size 10 font? No problem. Zoom in and resize your e-book to the font you want. No lights because of an Eskom power failure in your area? Again, no problem. Many e-readers incorporate built-in lighting devices. (Just make sure your battery is always charged.)
  • Easy to carry. In effect, you have a library on the go. When I’m on holiday, instead of having one suitcase filled with a selection of books, I have my Kindle library and hundreds of books to suit any reading mood.
  • Guilt-free. I have the bad habit of holding conversations with my books. I scribble notes and jot my thoughts in the margins, both of which effectively ruin the book for any other reader. With e-readers, you can make notes, reference them and delete them when you’re finished. No more hearing that voice in my head that makes me feel guilty for writing in A Book.
  • Permanently available everywhere internet technology exists. As a reader, how often have you found a new author you love and want to buy their backlist? Popular old stories are often unavailable or cost-prohibitive. E-books are permanently on the shelf to buy. For a writer, that’s a tantalising thought. Will some curious reader, a hundred years from now, on some space station heading towards Mars, download my book and be touched by it? With e-books, that’s not such a far-out scenario!

A remnant of loyalty to my old love compels me to confess that e-books are, sadly, not yet perfect. There are some disadvantages:

  • Resistance to change. Despite the acceleration of technological change leading to an increased recognition of its advantages, changes in human behavioural patterns do lag behind. People embrace change at their own pace, and many readers still prefer p-books.
  • Certain books are not suited to e-book format. Books with loads of photos, diagrams and pictures are not easy to read on the current crop of e-readers. I also find that I prefer to read poetry and reference books the old-fashioned way, in paperback.
  • Geographical and format restrictions. There’s an abundance of e-book formats, such as .mobi, .epub and .pdf. If you buy a Kindle, you can read only .mobi format. If you buy a Sony, you can’t read .mobi. So, which to buy? And, if you want to buy a particular book, will the geographical copyright restrictions allow you to purchase the e-book?
  • Power supply. To read your e-reader you need a power supply. Paper books never need recharging.
  • Not much fun to play with. How many paper aeroplanes can you make with an e-reader? None. And there’s nothing more satisfying than the thump an awful book makes when you throw it across the room. Pressing the Delete button on your e-reader doesn’t give quite the same satisfaction!

So, as both a reader and a writer, what do I face in the future?

For now, as the tsunami of technology currently changing the publishing industry continues to reshape the landscape of books, I’ll continue to read a mixture of e-books and p-books.

I have the feeling paper books will be around for a long time. But in ten years, when e-reader technology is that much more advanced and the innovative e-readers of today are the future’s dinosaurs, who knows how many paper books I’ll still be reading? I can’t begin to guess.

All I know for certain is that e-books are here to stay. And I’m seriously addicted to them.

Judy Croome lives and writes in Johannesburg, South Africa. She was recently shortlisted in the African Writing Flash Fiction 2011 competition, and other short stories and poems have appeared in Itch-e Magazine and “Notes from Underground Anthology”. Her independently published novel Dancing in the Shadows of Love is available from Loot.co.za and Amazon.com. Visit Judy on her blog, www.judycroome.blogspot.com.

#81: The Past is Another Country – Writing about the past in fiction – Clive Algar

Oktober 6, 2011 in Sonder kategorie

It was a bizarre but enjoyable experience for me to see my first novel, Journeys to the End of the World, on display in the bookshops in 2007, a few days after my 65th birthday. And when the reviews started coming in, with critics calling it “spellbinding”, “haunting”, and “riveting”, I decided that the experiment had been worthwhile, and that I would start work on my second one right away.

Although creative writing had always been my ambition, a busy career in the financial and mining industries left me with no time to write – and hardly any time to read for pleasure. During the latter part of my career I was based in London and my office was only a couple of blocks from the famous Hatchard’s bookshop. I bought wonderful books there and took them home, where they slowly gathered dust.

When I retired and returned to South Africa my wife and I settled on our small farm in the Western Cape, where for the first time in many years I could read what I wanted to, when I wanted to.

One of the subjects that I read was the history of World War I. My late father had served in the trenches of the Western Front and as a child I had asked him about the war, but apart from telling me a few amusing anecdotes he had always changed the subject. Later I realised that dredging up submerged memories of the horrors he had experienced there was extremely painful for him, even after the passage of so many years. He preferred not to look back.

I was also reading South African history, and I came across a remark by the missionary Dr John Philip about the behaviour of certain Khoi during the Hottentot Rebellion of 1799. The symptoms he described sounded similar to those of World War I shell shock. Around that time I noticed a newspaper article about post-traumatic stress disorder among present-day victims of crime, and suddenly I saw a link between South Africans of 1799, 1916 and the present time.

The opening line of LP Hartley’s novel The Go-between reads: “The past is another country – they do things differently there.” I believe in the wisdom of that line: it encapsulates a truth that any writer of historical fiction must acknowledge. The actions and motivations of characters set in the distant past cannot be fully comprehended by us today, because they are filtered through our experience of life as it is now. To attempt to interpret the lives and beliefs and motives of people from the past, the novelist must write about universal themes, about the human condition. As Isaiah Berlin said, “Intercommunication between cultures in time and space is possible only because what makes people human is common to them, and acts as a bridge between them.” I saw post-traumatic stress as a common factor, and from that grew the plot and characters of Journeys to the End of the World.

My second novel, Flowers in the Sand, published earlier this year, is set during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899–1902, mainly during the closing months of the conflict. It is early days yet, but so far the critics have been kind enough to find it “completely engrossing”, “superbly written” and “a great adventure story”. Whatever other critics may say, I hope that my readers will understand and empathise with the troubled protagonist Emma, who, more than a century ago, struggled with moral dilemmas which threatened to overwhelm her.

Well, I am 69 now and my third novel (not set during a war this time) is currently being considered by a publisher. What can I hope to achieve in a writing career that started so late? There are two late bloomers that I admire: Giuseppe di Lampedusa because his only novel, The Leopard, was a great one, unfortunately published posthumously; and Mary Wesley, who was not a great novelist but was a great success. Mary’s first book was published when she was 70 and she went on to write many more, some of which had been made into films by the time she died at 90.

There’s not much satisfaction in being published posthumously, I would think, so if I may choose I’d like to do a Mary Wesley. Wouldn’t that be fun!


Journeys to the End of the World (ISBN 978-0-620-38334-9) and Flowers in the Sand (ISBN 978-0-620-47695-9) by Clive Algar are published by Penkelly Books, Cape Town ([email protected]) and are distributed by Helco ([email protected]). They are currently stocked by about 40 bookshops in South Africa and Namibia, and are available overseas via the website www.clivealgar.co.za or via Amazon.

#80 The right time to write – James Fouche

September 29, 2011 in Sonder kategorie

Another brilliant day for writing. The clouds are full and hanging low. There is something electric in the air. The intoxicating smell of coffee drifts across my laptop screen. Patrons are coming and going, stopping and walking, carrying on. This is fantastic, because people, everyday people, being as mundane as they can be, supply an author with ample characteristics and mannerisms and body language.

This is what it’s all about. I take a deep breath and time myself, initiating what most would describe as the writing process. I’ve been waiting to finish this scene for weeks. It’s vital to be in the right mood to write, especially when you are a 55-year-old farm worker waking up in a pool of blood, looking at a panga lying next to your head without a single clue as to what had happened or who had attacked you. I envision myself lying on the ground, opening my eyes and seeing what my character is seeing, feeling what he is feeling, doing what he would be doing. I’m ready.

Then, at the peak of my concentration, my phone suddenly starts to vibrate. I take the call and sigh as I listen to the voice at the other end. One of my clients has had a heart attack and I need to file the paperwork at the office. I finish the call and sit for a few seconds looking at the empty screen in despair. The blinking marker is begging me to start typing, but I can’t. There goes another brilliant opportunity.

Since my first novel was published I’ve been doing this unbearable balancing act between careers – flipping between the one I have to do and the one I want to do. Unfortunately there is no middle ground or one correct option for now. Sales of the first novel has not yet justified the shift in careers. I have to follow up with another novel or else I’ll be stuck in quicksand for the next five years.

An average day might see me going to my office and making appointments, doing paperwork, mailing publishers or reviewers or other authors, eating lunch while completing an interview for a fellow author’s blog, seeing clients, doing more paperwork, taking the dogs for a walk, and preparing for the next day. When I sit down at the laptop it’s almost eleven o’ clock and my eyes are falling shut.

As an author you want the world to know that you are an inspired voice with something useful to say, something of value to those who care to listen or read. Keeping that in mind, there is only one effective way of promoting yourself: constantly. This is difficult when all you really want to do is write. I have four books in my mind and no time to pen them down. So many things keep getting in the way.

Here are the three most prominent hazards for a new author attempting to complete his second novel, while still trying to promote his first one.

First, location: We relocated to George, where very little occurs from a literary point of view. I’m out of touch with the writing community.

Secondly, vocation: Generally first-time authors don’t step into the position of full-time author overnight. Chances are you have to work elsewhere, or manage a number of jobs at the same time, in order to keep food on the table. Sadly, this eats into your writing time, not to mention the loads of research time that precede the actual writing.

Lastly, inspiration: Here lies the snag, the ever-present thorn in the side, the ultimate counter-weight that always tips the way you don’t want it to tip. Inspiration drives the creativity of what we do. As long as there is no drive there will be an empty Word document on the screen.

If writing is not all you do, then the world quickly gets in the way and steals away your time and your inspiration. Luckily I have a very supportive and understanding wife, because let’s face it, authors are no day at the beach. At times we can be our own worst enemy.

So how to overcome these terrible pitfalls that face an aspiring writer every day? How can a first-time author complete that next novel and get his or her book into the world.

There are only three possible solutions, and here they are: determination, determination, determination.

#79 Short, Sharp & Snappy – Robin Malan

September 21, 2011 in Sonder kategorie

 “If I see another modern adaptation of a fairy tale, I’ll scream!”

Teachers who have to do with school theatre have been having it tough lately.


Well, no one wants to inflict on school students the “hoary old chestnuts”, those dreadful one-act plays like The Monkey’s Paw and The Bishop’s Candlesticks that seem to have been around for centuries. Nor, it seems from the heartfelt cry of one teacher, endless sub-Thurberesque “hip” updates of old fairy tales.

The trouble is: no one in the professional theatre is writing plays that short anymore. The idea of three short plays making up a “triple bill” of one-acters for an evening’s entertainment is completely passé now. Every bit as much as the “well-made play” of three acts and two intervals. Nowadays very few plays have an interval at all, and plays generally last about 70 to 90 minutes at one stretch and then they’re done!

So what do teachers do when they have to suggest short 20-minute plays suitable for their students to do for events like the inter-house play competition or inter-school play festival or just a short class reading? Where do they go to find them?

I still have a strong interest in school theatre and I go and see schools’ play festivals. And I’m struck (sometimes struck dumb) at the banality of the texts they have to work with. So I decided Something Had to Be Done. And Junkets Publisher would do it.

Of course, Junkets Publisher is me. A one-man operation (with an admin assistant coming in twice a week).

I put out a call in 2010 for short plays suitable for performance or rehearsed reading in high schools. The brief was wide open. I specified that the play had to be no shorter than 1 500 words and no longer than 4 500 words. The writer needed to be “a South African or a member of a SADC country or a person living or working in Southern Africa”. I said nothing at all about what the play should be about; all I said was that the plays should be “suitable for reading or performance by high school students, ie teenagers between the ages of 13 and 19”.

Astoundingly, 57 plays were submitted. Of these, a few disqualified themselves by being over the word limit or inappropriate for the specified age group.

I enlisted the help of a long-standing friend and colleague, Colleen Moroukian. (When I say “long-standing”, together we directed Iphigenia in Taurus, the first Greek play to be staged on the Jameson Hall steps at the University of Cape Town, in 1960, when we were both students.) Colleen agreed to become my co-compiler of the Short, Sharp & Snappy collection, and we started working our way through the plays submitted.

The standard was so high that we decided that there was material easily good enough for two volumes. Junkets Publisher will now publish the two volumes in The Collected Series, as Short, Sharp & Snappy 1 and Short, Sharp & Snappy 2 at the same time, with publication date 1 December 2011.

So who are these 24 playwrights whose plays were selected for publication?

They range from experienced writers for the stage (such as Ashraf Johaardien, Omphile Molusi and Peter Krummeck) to those for whom this is their first play. In age they range from 16 to 77. Margaret Clough, an ex-physical science teacher, is the oldest, enjoying her retirement both by walking her dogs on the beach and by writing – she has just had her first collection of poems, At Least the Duck Survived, published by Modjaji Books. The youngest are three 16-year-old students from King David High School Victory Park – Dean Salant, Gav Rubin and David Wein – who, together with their drama teacher, Renos Nicos Spanoudes, wrote Child’s Play. Just one year older than they are is Caitlin Spring, author of The Search, which she directed last year at Fish Hoek High School.

The authors come from a wide spread of places in Southern Africa, from Kwekwe (Jonathan Khumbulani Nkala) and Harare (SM Norman) to Simon’s Town (Caitlin Spring) and Bonteheuwel (Barry Morgan); and from Olievenhoutbosch (M Andries Phukuntsi) to Schoenmakerskop (André Lemmer); and many other places besides, like Itsoseng (Omphile Molusi) and McGregor (Suenel Holloway) and Voëlklip (Renée Muller).

These are definitely plays that young players can get their teeth into. The plays deal with a wide variety of themes and issues, including:

  • bullying in schools (Omphile Molusi’s For the Right Reasons and David Stein’s The Goliath Project)
  • life in a small South African town (David and Bruce by Martin Hatchuel)
  • an abandoned baby left in a window (Rob K Baum’s The Opening)
  • slave stories (Samson, the Storyteller by M Cassiem D’arcy) and a traditional African folk tale (André Lemmer’s Thabo and the Tar Man)
  • dysfunctional families (Gisele Turner’s Woof Woof and Renée Muller’s HOP-House Dance)
  • blossoming love despite difficult situations (Jonathan Khumbulani Nkala’s Faith in Love, M Andries Phukuntsi’s Love Secondary and André Lemmer’s Playing in the Park)
  • sexual harassment in the workplace (Tariro on Top by SM Norman)
  • drug abuse (the four-author Child’s Play)
  • HIV teaching in schools (Monti Jola’s The New Struggle, workshopped with The Lost Voices group of students from New Crossroads and Phillipi)
  • caring for children with disabilities (Cassandra Puren’s To Care for You Always and Kirsten Miller’s Remember Joe) or infected by HIV (Ashraf Johaardien’s Miracle)
  • the hazards of having a bicycle (Jonathan Khumbulani Nkala’s The Bicycle Thief)
  • … and even ghosts (Margaret Clough’s Ghosts in the Supermarket).

The plays are often raw, gritty, even uncomfortable. Whether worked through in fierce realism, or played out in jaunty comedy, or handled through images more abstract and symbolic, these are plays for young actors to tackle, and – above all else – find the reality, the truthfulness, of these scattered shards of life lived at this time in this place.

Clearly, these two volumes will prove valuable to everyone involved in drama, theatre arts and performing arts in all high schools and teacher training institutions. School libraries, university libraries and public libraries will be very interested in acquiring them.

I hope we will be able to send these two volumes out into the waiting world with a launch on 1 December 2011, World Aids Day, with The Lost Voices student drama group performing an extract from their play about HIV in the classroom, The New Struggle by Monti Jola.

It will be interesting to see if all teachers react as one teacher in Cape Town did, just on hearing about the Short, Sharp & Snappy volumes: “This is a brilliant idea and something needed by us at school.”

To order, and for further information, please contact Junkets Publisher at [email protected] or on 076 169 2789.

Words are our first way of getting some kind of grip on the world we arrive in. Crafting them into poetry is the best way I know of freeing us from it too.

#78 Young Adult Fiction: Character, character, character (but think again if you’d like to get published) – Naomi Meyer

Augustus 17, 2011 in Sonder kategorie

  Maya Fowler, SA Partridge and Izak de Vries all recently supplied this forum with a wealth of thoughts regarding Young Adult Fiction. Fowler and Partridge respectively wrote about the aspects of pop culture in this genre and De Vries questioned the need for the existence of a distinction between young adult fiction and adult fiction. All three contributions are stimulating material for any reader, regardless of their interest in young adult fiction per se.

With regard to De Vries’s question about the need for young adult fiction and his view that a good story weighs more than writing for a specific genre (to paraphrase): from a personal point of view I agree. Of course a good story is important. But in my opinion (and implicitly De Vries’s opinion too) memorable characters form the backbone of a book. The book One Day by David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton, 2009) was a sleeper hit and I read it myself only recently. I immediately understood its charm: both characters, the man and the woman, are completely human. I couldn’t put the book down. And neither, evidently, could millions of other readers, judging by the bookselling charts in the Sunday Times (UK) and Sunday Times (Ireland).

From a publisher’s point of view, though, I need to ask De Vries, a publisher himself: Is the need for young adult fiction not inevitable? In this credit-poor time we are living in, would publishers not be looking at publishing a book which fits a specific genre, rather than simply publishing a book which is not really targeting a market, even if it has a good story? Again, I agree with De Vries. The Writers Bureau in Manchester teach their students deliberately to aim their material towards a specific genre. Young adult fiction is a clear market. There is a bookshelf in a bookshop set aside for young adult / teenage fiction (usually decorated with vampires, gothic characters and anything else which would attract 9- to 12-year-olds but maybe not, openly, somebody older than 14). Young Adult Fiction, as a genre, does exist, even if only in the minds of bookshop owners.

Conversely, there now also exists a genre of adult fiction in which the main characters are youthful. Books which immediately spring to mind are The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (Mark Haddon, 2004), The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (John Boyne, 2008) and Room (Emma Donoghue, 2010). All three of these books are appreciated by grown-ups and I would nearly want to go as far as to say would not be appreciated at all by the readers the real age of any of their characters. All these books are social commentary, in a way, but their characters convince because they really feel like children to the reader. Which brings me back to agreeing with De Vries once again: if the characters weren’t likeable, the genre wouldn’t have mattered.

To divert a little: there are plenty of movies made nowadays which seem to be made for children but are actually more aimed at their parents: Shrek; The Incredibles; Wall-E; Toy Story 3. Many of these movies work really well for young children, but some of the jokes are more appreciated by the parents than the children themselves. Which demonstrates again: character probably is more important than genre – if you like a character, regardless of whether you’re a child or a grown-up, it is not going to matter so much which specific genre of movie you are watching.

I agree with De Vries, although I would emphasise the importance of a book’s characters more than the story. But from a publisher’s point of view, I have to ask: What if any specific genre were to fall away? Would some really great stories and some really memorable characters not be swept away in the big ocean of unpublished manuscripts?

#77 Young Adult Fiction: What Makes YA Fiction YA? – Lauri Kubuitsile

Augustus 11, 2011 in Sonder kategorie

As a writer of books for children and young adults I’ve read with interest the recent discussions in the South African book world about young adult fiction. Maya Fowler and Sally Partridge both ask if timely, trendy references are needed to make young adult fiction pertinent to that generation. Both of them come to the conclusion that no, they are not, and I agree.

It reminded me of a session I attended at the Cape Town Book Fair, where British YA writer Kevin Brooks was asked about getting the lingo right in his books, asked if he did extensive research, since he was clearly no longer a teenager. He said no, because he saw no interest in getting the lingo right. As Partridge has stated and Kevin Brooks has concurred, what is in and what is out moves at lightning speed. The rate of the publishing world is more snail-paced, so logistics alone say you’ll get it wrong. And as Kevin Brooks said that day in Cape Town, when you try to be hip and you get it wrong, it’s not nice. Really not nice.

I was recently shortlisted for the Caine Prize and our shortlist had the unhappy honour of garnering the attention of Nigerian journalist Ikhide Ikheloa. He had many things to say, but one thing I found outstandingly ridiculous was his assertion that the stories on this year’s shortlist were not modern because they contained neither cell phones nor computers. This is a bit how I feel about the reference in YA fiction to certain computer games or pop figures. Just as a cell phone or a computer does not make an African story modern, mentioning Justin Bieber does not make a story a good one for teenagers.

As Izak de Vries mentions in his discussion about Fowler’s and Partridge’s articles, good writing is good writing. If you shove Captain America: Super Soldier, a couple of Taylor Swifts and a Beyonce or two into a pile of bad writing it does not automatically become a YA book.

I see drops of pop culture and teenage or children’s references as spice. Much like the way I use Setswana in my English books. They both need to be used in such a manner that even if the reader has no reference to that pop-culture titbit or the Setswana, it doesn’t affect the reader’s enjoyment of the story. And, as others have mentioned, it doesn’t make the book a one-shot cultural dinosaur before it even hits the shelves.

Also, adding detail for detail’s sake is just bad writing. I recently attended the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop in Lagos, and one of our teachers, Chimamanda Adichie, pointed out the power of significant detail, how choosing particular things in the setting or about the characters can bring truth to your writing. On the other hand, piling in detail of everything just adds clutter. In some cases, I feel pop-culture loading in YA fiction is just clutter.

One question that has not been fully interrogated in this discussion is Izak de Vries’s when he asks why we must make a distinction between YA fiction and any other type of fiction. He states, and rightly so, that a YA book can be enjoyed by adults just as easily as it can be enjoyed by teens. But this point can be applied to all fiction, actually. Chic lit, sci-fi, detective, romance – these are categories designed by marketers, primarily, in order to sell books to people they feel are most likely going to enjoy them. These categories are not written in cosmic stone in The Big Book of Publishing in the sky; they’re fluid.  

But as Partridge points out, and I agree, some themes draw young adults to them, no matter when the books were written. Teens are in that no man’s land where they are trying to establish their identity while trying to work out how the world operates. When I was a teen I searched out books that helped me find my way through the minefield, and my teenage children do the same. So I differ with De Vries: I do think there are differences between what young adults and others like and this helps to define the genre, even as fluid and overlapping as it may be.  

I also think this is a wonderful, healthy debate; I’m happy it is taking place and I look forward to hearing what others have to say.

#76 Young Adult Fiction: “Youth novels” are unlikely to ensure a comfortable retirement home for their creators – Derick van der Walt

Augustus 11, 2011 in Sonder kategorie

Pondering the concept youth novel during the past few years I have been amazed to discover that nobody really knows exactly what the concept entails. People really don’t. Not the publishers, and certainly not the teachers who are responsible for cultivating the dying art of reading books among the people who will, in future, make watershed decisions about global warming, the classical concept of democracy and how to feed the poor. (And, of course, how much they would be willing to spend on the upkeep of their parents in the retirement home around the corner.)

Do we really need this concept, and does it contribute anything meaningful to the world of books or literature? I really don’t know. But what I do know from experience is that people who read (and age is not the issue here) do not judge a book by the way it is categorised. Rather, if it makes you angry, makes you cry, or makes you laugh, you will consider including it on your list of things that mattered.
My concern is that when a book is classified as a “youth novel” it becomes something that has to be treated and experienced in a specific way. If I were a teenager (I actually was, some decades ago) I would have been seriously “gatvol” if someone told me the following: “This is a youth novel. It was written especially for you and you friends between the ages of 13¾ and 15½. We as informed adults (having googled everything from illegal substances to how iPods could fly) have your interests at heart. Because we care about you, this was written especially for you, because we know you so well. We understand the hormones and the stuff that goes with it. Been there ourselves.” As a teenager I would actually contemplate killing the cat or not brushing my teeth for the next decade.

Most younger readers (those who really read – and there are actually still a whole bunch of them) would probably have moved on to serious adult literature long ago –  perhaps even before starting to shave. (I encountered Hold my hand I’m dying and Lady Chatterley’s lover when I was 14 – “borrowed” them from my mother’s collection.)
Of course, publishers utilise the label to market books. This may help them to focus their marketing efforts on a specific audience, such as the teaching fraternity. No problem here, but it is such a grey area.

Why are books such as The book thief, Spud, Roepman and Swartskaap not being regarded as youth novels? Or are they? If a novel has young people as its main protagonists or antagonists, does this make it exclusively a “youth novel”?
Some amazing books about young people have been published in South Africa over the past few years. Fanie Viljoen’s disturbing but wonderful Breinbliksem; Francois Bloemhof’s Nie vir kinders nie,which, among other things, explores male prostitution;Anoeshka von Meck’s story about a girl who desperately tries to survive in an orphanage (Vaselientjie); and Anzil Kulsen’s Zita, who tries to explain the difficulty of being a girl from a different cultural background trying to fit into “white” South Africa, are but a few that come to mind.

Bottom line: These are good books. And not only because they are good “youth” novels, but because they are books that can be appreciated by people between the ages of 12 and 112.

This may be the secret. A good book is a good book is a good book. If it is a good book only because the teachers think it will be a fairly comfortable and easy read for the bored people in their classes it will, in all likelihood, not stand the test of time.

And the creators of the “youth novel” believe that the term decreases the book’s selling prospects. If you have written a youth novel, people will look you straight in the eye, even rejoice about its success – but they will never ever read it. You have written a “children’s” book, after all.