TO THE UNPUBLISHED WRITER

I met you this week. It occurred to me that I have met you (or some version of you) many times before.I could have met you at a university, led you in a workshop, chatted to you at a residency OR MAYBE you are the person who comments on my status updates.

Your sentences flow beautifully. Your prose is to be envied at. You write the type of phrases that I wish I could have thought of.

You want to write as well as Adichie. Nay better than Morrison.

You would like to outdo Smith. And wag your disapproving finger at Winterson.

When you are done, Beukes, Bandele, Coetzee and Chinodya will stand and take notice.

Forster, Baingana, Gappah and Wanner will just have to sit down and put their laptops in retirement.

So today as I write this I would like to ask you to please STOP!

Stop revising chapter one over and over again and just finish the manuscript already.

I really should not tell you what to do. of course.

You are just the greatest writer who never published and I, I am an average published writer.

But I am telling you because I would like to read your great book before I die.

So dear greatest writer who never published, please finish that damn first draft!

Dear South Africa (A Tribute to Alf Kumalo)

On Sunday the 21st of October, I got the tragic news that iconic South African photographer, Alf Kumalo died of renal failure. It was traumatic to hear, but at 82, his had been a life well-lived…in spite of you, South Africa.
I met Alf Kumalo back in 2004 after I had just returned to South Africa. Unable to find a job in the field I had studied for despite numerous applications and what I thought was a pretty impressive portfolio (to be fair none of the newspapers I applied to ever got to see my portfolio because they never responded to any of my application letters), I had been volunteering at some community organisation. It was here that I met Alf through another late great, Aggrey Klaaste. Alf had his trademark Nikon

Alf Kumalo and I Photo Credit: Alvin Pang

around his neck (I cannot recall ever seeing him without it, not even at black-tie functions), and I half-joked that he should teach me photography. He informed me that in fact, he had a photography school in Diepkloof and I should come through the next day.
With my self-esteem on the lower end of the scale, I went to meet Alf Kumalo holding my portfolio. I was anxious to show that I was accomplished and was not just some loser child who was trying to find something to do with her time. When I arrived at the Museum, I left my portfolio at reception while I went into a class taught by Nick Makgamathe. When I got out of class after an hour of being told what a shuttle, lense etc was, I found Alf waiting for me with an Italian coordinator of some NGO that was funding the school and the museum. And thus the narrative went. Unable to find funding in South Africa for this wonderful and innovative project where post-matric students were being taught photography for free, it was an Italian organisation that realized Alf’s brilliance and funded his dream – at least for two years.
The coordinator had seen my portfolio, he asked me whether I would be interested in being employed by the museum doing some write-ups, archiving, and captioning some of the material in the museum. Finally a paying job? Are you kidding me? I said yes. I never did get to learn photography. Did not do much archiving either – the brilliant Jacqui Masiza then at Bailey’s and now at Apartheid Museum did some of that. But I got to learn Alf’s photographs. I captioned. I wrote the text for the website. In the gaping moments while we hoped for guests to visit the museum, I wrote the first draft of The Madams. I discussed literature via email with Lewis Nkosi. I gossiped about which photographer was caught under the bed of which leading politician with Doc Bikitsha. I also wrote numerous proposals.
The Italians were about to leave. Time was running out. We needed funding to keep the museum and school running. Nick, Ruth Motau, Jacqui – anyone and everyone who was working at the museum at that time was earning peanuts, but they believed in Alf’s dream. Here was Alf, fighting and knocking on the doors of all these cadres he had photographed. There he was going to meet the Minister or the DG of a Ministry which-shall-go-unnamed. Here he was being invited to the Foundation where the mining mogul who called him Bra Alf would be present. And there he was honoured with the Order of Ikhamanga Silver for his contribution to the arts and to history with all the big guns present. We took to keeping at least four printed proposals in Alf’s car on a daily basis. He would hand them out to all people of influence he met. Surely, just surely one of these people would start sharing Alf’s dream?
None of them did.
Or maybe they just did not care.
What would have been the return to them on teaching township children visual art anyway? And who goes to museums? It’s not as though we are tourists. We experienced ’76, we do not need to see the pictures.
At some point in time, I gave up on the dream. I left the museum. Alf, or Mr. K as I called him, did not. He used the funding that he received from a photograph he sold to Total to pay the skeletal staff left. He would use money that he received from exhibitions he did abroad to fund his dream. He never gave up on it. He always called me a pessimist, ‘Hhawu, you are too young to be such a cynic,’ he would say. Before telling me he was off to meet another bigwig and he was sure he could convince them to make this their social corporate responsibility gig.
Alf and I would remain friends even after I abandoned his dream and started chasing my own. In 2010, we collaborated on 8115: A Prisoner’s Home, a story on the Mandela home that is now a museum. IDC funded this project. In all the time that I knew Mr. K, IDC was one of the few organisations who put their money where their mouths were.
A few years ago, Lewis Nkosi died. Prior to his death, people were collecting funds because his medical bills had escalated. When he finally died, the Ministry which-shall-go-unnamed, were kind enough to help with the funeral. Jazz legend Zim Ngqawana died.  And we heard talk of some music scholarship in his name (it has not happened). Miriam, Brenda, Busi…you celebrated all of them after they died but cared little when they lived.
On Sunday, Alf Kumalo took his last breath. His dream was never realized while he was alive. Mr. K’s death with a dream unrealized should be yet another indictment on you, South Africa. He gave so much of himself and you gave nothing back. And many people who believe in South Africa realize too late that, alas, the love and belief is one-sided.
Today, I have some questions for you, My Fatherland.
Are you giving Dada Masilo and Greg Maqoma their just credits? Do you know the name of Neo Ntsoma or Paballo Thekiso while they are alive? How many international awards will Xoli Sithole receive before you can fund her internationally celebrated documentaries? Are Rian Malan or Napo Masheane coping? Will Shafinaaz Hassim and Kgebetli Moele matter only when they are dead?
And today too, I have a request, South Africa.
When I die, leave my loved ones to grieve in peace. Do not celebrate me, or hypocritically mourn me. If I were worth acknowledging, you would do so while I am alive. Because you and I know, South Africa, even criminals are spoken highly of when they die.
Against my better judgement South Africa, I love you. You,a country that cannot afford three million a year for a visual arts school to educate some of your poor but fails to blink while spending hundreds of million to build one man his own town. Right now though, regardless of my misplaced love, right here….all I would like to say to you is: FUCK YOU VERY MUCH. Alf Kumalo deserved better.

How to Write a Novel course


So I was bitching about some terrible short stories I read in the course of the making of Behind the Shadows in my last post,and what do you know? My fellow comrade in ink and author of Strange Nervous Laughter asks me whether she can guest post on my blog for her really cool and innovative program on How to Write a Novel. I do not know if it well help those other ‘writers’ but I certainly hope it can help those of you who have been told by someone other than your parents that you can write. So from Bridget McNulty, here is the guest post:

Writing a How To Write A Novel course

The funny thing about having written a novel (once, five years ago) is that everyone assumes you are now the expert on how to write a novel. Whereas, really, it could be as simple as having stumbled across a really good recipe for chocolate cake.

No, that’s not true at all. There is definitely a sense of knowing how to do something once you have done it once, the trouble is in finding a recipe that others will be able to follow. That was the challenge my brother Brendan and I were faced with when we decided to create Now Novel (www.nownovel.com): an online novel writing course that helps you start – and finish – your novel. What we noticed was that there were a lot of books and courses and essays and blog posts and forums about how to start a novel, but not so many about how to keep going. And really, isn’t that the hard part? Getting to the end?

First of all, though, we had to get to the beginning. I wasn’t an enormous amount of help at first, because my creative process involves sitting down and spewing the words onto the page, then trying to wrestle them into some kind of order afterwards. Let me tell you: this is not the most constructive or intelligent way to write a book, because the wrestling is often very difficult and carries on late into the night. My brother’s approach to life is to find a process that is guaranteed to work. As you can imagine, we had many fervent arguments about the creative spark and trying to create a formula for it… But in the end, he won me round. Mainly because the way we’ve structured the online novel writing process actually works.

Now Novel (www.nownovel.com) leads you through a series of questions in each section that result in something concrete that you can actually use: a central idea (that then gets tested), a theme statement, an idea of setting (with images to illustrate it), a sense of plot. And then each of those is delved into in more detail, aligned to one of the seven universal stories (yes, believe it or not, there are only seven) and chopped up into chunks of what needs to happen when. Instead of ending up with a steaming pile of words that need a lot of wrestling to turn into a novel, you end up with a solid first draft of a novel. It has structure and plot development, in-depth characters (with character studies for each) and a theme that really resonates with you. It’s a recipe that seems to be working for many of the Now Novel writers who’ve used it so far.

Of course, there’s also a lot of motivation involved. We’ve got a daily blog (http://www.nownovel.com/blog) with inspiring blog posts about writers and writing, tips on how to stay motivated and fun facts about how poetry and film can feed into your writing – all those lovely things you want to read when you’re actually procrastinating but would like to pretend you’re working. We’ve got a creative writing forum (http://www.nownovel.com/bookwriting/forums) where people can discuss any of their issues with (life and) their novels. We’ve got weekly emails with writing prompts and great quotes and some good old-fashioned guilt tripping to keep people writing, and a Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/nownovel) with a lot of amusing images that only book geeky types will appreciate. And we’ve got the beginnings of a community: a community of people who want to get together to start – and finish – their novels.

Want to come over and say hi? I’d love to meet you. Check out www.nownovel.com and let me know what you think…

– Bridget McNulty

Behind the Shadows: Birth of an African-Asian Anthology

And so it was that after a call out in March and a deadline of August 1st, my co-editor Rohini Chowdhury and I, found ourselves reading through hundreds of manuscripts to select our favourites. As we read through we each had four categories: Yes; Maybe; No; and…Hell No.
In the Yes category were the stories that kept to the word length (3000-5000 words), kept to our theme for the anthology – Outcast, and were well-written. There were some obvious winners. The title story, Behind the Shadows by Tasneem Basha, had both Rohini and I calling each other crying then laughing on the phone. Jill Morsbach’s The Hunted showed a society grappling with newfound democracy. Granny’s Parasychological Services by Himanjali Sankar was another obvious choice because of its playful tone and yet the ability to stick to the brief. So too was Jackee Batanda’s Thing That Ate Your Brain.
Our Maybes consisted of stories that resonated somewhat but failed to meet the word count or needed some clarification on a point in the plot. This may be where we separated the good writers from writers who take their craft seriously. The writers who take their work seriously – some of them established, took a look at the suggestions and reworked what needed to be done and returned it on time. The good writers – many of them quite known in literary circles on both continents –did a ‘don’t- you- know- who- I- am? Google me,’ move -offended that we dared give feedback that was not a hundred percent in love with their work. From the experience, I learnt that Felix Cheong from Singapore is a great writer. And that what’s-her-name from Nigeria has an over inflated sense of self as a writer.
The Nos failed to adhere to both word count and plot. The Hell Nos not only had bad plot, failure to adhere to word count, but atrocious grammar. It was painful to read them and I am still looking at emails that Rohini and I sent each other.
To: Rohini Chowdhury
From: Zukiswa Wanner
Subject: ‘Story__________ from alleged writer________
Email Content: Errr Ms. Well-read co-editor, maybe you can help. What is the point of this story? Is there something in Indian mythology that my African brain cannot understand? I rate it a ‘oh hell hell no.’ I think I need a tea break to undo the sour taste in my mouth.
Zooks
The amusing thing about the Nos and the Hells Nos is that there were some persistent people in this group. I remember Rohini and I in a back and forth with some writers who initially enquired why we did not select their stories. We explained AGAIN (we had already done so in the ‘we regret’ emails). And then they emailed back again suggesting that they edit the scripts, and getting progressively obnoxious with each email. It was like those rejected ‘singers’ one sees on the first day of rehearsals on Pop Idols. You know those ones who always say they have been studying music since three, are in the church choir or something and then when they starts singing it’s like a nail running along a chalkboard.
Interviewer: ‘So what happened in there, are you okay?’
‘Singer’(with false bravado): ‘Those judges don’t know what they are talking about. My mom says I am the best singer in my family. I am going to the studio on my own and sell more records than the stupid idol who wins. Watch me!’
After the feedbacks, we had a total of 30 stories. Some writers had published elsewhere so we had to remove them. Others fell through the cracks because they failed to submit their edits on time. The final work is these twenty one stories.
Behind the Shadows is available on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Behind-Shadows-Contemporary-Stories-ebook/dp/B009H77OLU/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1350468120&sr=1-1&keywords=behind+the+shadows

Behind the Shadows – The Conception of an African-Asian Anthology

London Book Fair 2010. Focus Nation: South Africa. BEHIND THE SHADOWS(1) Thanks to the South African Department of Arts & Culture, the British Council, South African Publishers Association (these three are the ones that sent me emails) and let’s not forget FIFA World Cup. It was because we were hosting the World Cup that we became the nation focused on. As writers from South Africa, we were ambassadors of sorts. South African writers were there to show what Brits we encountered that we are normal, law-abiding, booze-guzzling writers – ‘just like you, see? We won’t kill you if you come to our country for FIFA World Cup.’ We were there to hopefully meet up with an international publisher who would say, ‘I love your book, can I translate it into English…wait…it’s already in English err, well, interesting book. Could you perhaps rewrite it a little, make it more err African?’ South African writers were excited about this one. Many of us were going. It would be a week of book discussions during the day, and partying at night with all our favourite friends and writers. What’s not to like? I was to leave earlier than others because of a fundraising dinner for Read SA (it never happened thanks to absence of writers). Prior to my departure, I had received an email asking me whether I wanted to meet up with a British writer. I am polite, so I said yes. In my mind though, I was hoping this was not another way of the Brits trying to neo-colonise me, ‘let’s give this poor African writer a mentor so she can write good Queen’s English. Not that South African English she writes.’ If that was their plan, they and their bloody agent writer would fail dismally. I would tell her it was 2010 and not 1910 – no more Union of South Africa as part of y’all. Sovereign nation (sort of) and very sovereign writer and all that. The n I flew out on a Saturday and the rest of the writers were to follow on Wednesday.
On arrival in London, I checked my email and there was an introduction to an English writer. Rohini Chowdhury. Phew. Not exactly English sounding name. I figured if conversation got absolutely dull and all else failed, we could always resort to talking about Gandhi in South Africa, the Dutch East India Company, and the caste laws… ‘oh my goddess, we also had the caste laws. We called it apartheid. We are still trying to get over it, really.’
Rohini was gracious enough to come to the hotel and meet up with me that Sunday. Our brief chat was fun and if she did not have to go home and be a mother, we would have talked for hours. She had already read some of my stories in short story format and she now took home a copy of The Madams to familiarise herself more with my work. Before she left, and I then thought, having decided that I would not corrupt her daughters because I was a model of virtue, Rohini invited me to her house for dinner.
Meanwhile, apart from Margie Orford, Njabulo Ndebele, Nadia Davids, Miriam Tladi, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Andrew Feinstein, Mark Gevisser and a few others, the rest of the South African writers were stranded thanks to the volcanic ash (remember it?). Their absence was sad on so many levels but it also brought with it one or two pleasant outcomes. I would never have been able to do that fun television interview for one of the BBC’s with Njabulo Ndebele had everyone been there. I was not scheduled to do an interview with him. Also, I may have ended up cancelling my dinner date with Rohini as South African writers tend to discourage any dates at literary events where one does not go with them.
And so I went to dinner at Rohini’s house. Her daughters were at school (so much for my saintly mien) and I would only see them briefly as I was about to depart. Rohini was not your typical British person because the food was delish. We talked books and more books. We talked men, women, children. We talked politics, though we did not get into BRICS. Yes, we satirized Mandela and Gandhi like any normal people of South African and Indian origin would. And then we talked about the possibilities of a collaborative literary effort.

Letter to My Teenage Self

Hey Zooks,
It is 2012. Unless you count electronic mail, no-one really writes letters anymore. I communicate with my friends via BBM, WhatsApp, and Facebook (you will know what this is when you come to the future). So, don’t waste your time paying attention to Sister Aloysius in English on the ‘art of letter writing’ but, you do need to pay attention to everything else in English class because your future job is as a writer. And on that writer note, you will hang out with some of the big names right now, and be friends with some future literary giants. Seriously.
Lose the Hammer pants. I know you think they are cool now but when Susan Chiutsi shows you photos of yourself wearing those Hammer pants as an adult, you will be wondering what was wrong with you. In other words, you will find out that you do not have to follow fashion all the time.
Kiss that St. Ignatius boy you have a crush on next time you go to the disco already. When you are grown, you will finally kiss him based on this crush. You will find out he’s a lousy kisser. You will realize that if you had kissed him earlier you would have known this and got over him faster. And still on boys, you are NOT going to marry your first boyfriend. Chill on ingratiating yourself to his parents and siblings because when you break up it will be difficult to break up with them.
When mom gives you money for computer classes during the holidays, lie to her that you are going. Instead, use the money to go to the movies, buy books, or even an afternoon session clubbing at Turtles. MS-DOS and Lotus 1-2-3 will not help you in future. Right now, the teenagers who are reading this are asking themselves what that is.
You know how everyone is writing in their auto books Dreamland: Hawaii? Well you, lucky girl, will actually get to stay there and make some lifelong friendships. There is a guy called Barack from there who will become the first black President of the United States. Sorry. He will not be one of the people you will meet during your time in Hawaii. You will hang out with his wife later when you are an important writer though (well, sort of).
If you think your mom is cool now, wait till you meet her at 60 something…she will have a cooler music collection than you.
That bald head that looks so happening on R.Kelly right now? It shall no longer be something that just looks good on him and Aaron Hall. In your later life it shall be de rigueur for both genders. You too will sport it. And everyone, apart from your son who wants you to have a weave like other mothers, will think you are totally rocking it.
Oh, and no matter how old you get? You will never have any certainty to that question that you and everyone at St. Dominic’s keep discussing: Whether Father Berridge and Sister Elaine really had anything going on or were just good friends.

Cheers,
Your Thirty Something Old Self.

My Breakfast with Michelle Obama

Last year, Michelle Obama was in Johannesburg. And she wanted to meet me. Ok, maybe I was being a tad delusional. The invitation read:

The U.S. Mission to South Africa cordially invites you to
A Young African Women Leaders Forum featuring
The First Lady of the United States of America, Mrs. Michelle Obama,
on Wednesday morning, the twenty-second of June
from six-thirty a.m.
Venue: Regina Mundi Catholic Church
1149 Khumalo St., Soweto

I was just at the end of my youth year and I have an inflated sense of myself so it could only be natural that I would be one of Young African Women Leaders that Michelle wanted to meet. I ignored the Forum bit. If Michelle and her peeps wanted to say I was part of a Forum then dammit, I would be. Later that week, I had an upcoming meeting with my publisher from Cape Town so when she emailed confirming details of our meeting, I could not help slipping in that I (and not her), and one of her other authors Cynthia Jele were going for an inclusive breakfast pow-wow with Michelle O.
I thought of the conversations I would have with Michelle. The stuff we have in common: her man grew up in Hawaii, I partied in Hawaii errm, went to university there; I am a mother as is she. Then there were other not-so-obvious things. Like, she is a lawyer and, well, I wanted to be a lawyer when I was in high school. Even read John Grisham and everything. Oh, and she has a daughter called Malia, and I have a Hawaiian friend called Malia. See, so much in common. I imagined we would probably be about twenty Young African Women Leaders sitting on a round table with Michelle and chatting about how we are solving Africa’s problems while having breakfast. I had planned that I was going to be a loyal South African and even though she would probably be having coffee, when asked what I wanted to drink, I would say ‘rooibos please,’ in my most refined voice. I did not mind that I had to scan my ID so that a security check could be done on me by Special Forces, the CIA or someone. I was having breakfast with Michelle, see? And because I am awesome like that, I went across town to meet up with fab writer Fiona Snyckers for autographed copies of her Trinity books because I was absolutely certain that Malia would enjoy this taste of Africa. I am considerate like that. So far, so good.
On the day in question, I woke up early, was all dressed and ready to go by 5.30am, then went to wait for Jele at Southdale as I was hitching a ride with her. When she arrived, we made our way to Soweto discussing just what we would talk to Michelle about.
Except
When we got to Maponya Mall in Soweto, there were tents to the right verifying security information. There were also at least five buses waiting to pick people up to take them to Regina Mundi where it seemed my expected tete-a-tete with Michelle and nineteen other ‘chosen’ was actually going to be a rally. I realized I was not the only person who had assumed this was going to be a cozy little gathering with Mrs. O. Spotted Ferial H over there; and that side June Josephs Langa; and behind Cynthia and me, Lindiwe Mazibuko. Having Lindiwe close to us provided my first entertainment of the day.
Jele: I know you from somewhere.
Me (to Lindiwe): Actually no. Do you know who she (pointing to Jele) is?
Lindiwe (squinting eyes and trying to be polite): her face seems familiar…
Me: Yes, but do you know who she is?
Lindiwe shakes head uncertainly.
Me: So how do you hope to run the next government when you don’t know some of your country’s most celebrated writers? This is Cynthia Jele, winner of the Commonwealth Best First Book…write her name down and when you are going back to Cape Town make sure you get her book.
Lindiwe looks a little sheepish.
Jele: no man, but this girl is very familiar Zooks, who are you?
Me (jumping in so I can seem clever): Hhawu Jele, this is Lindiwe Mazibuko, DA Spokesperson Lindiwe?
Jele(light bulb): Ah-ha. The Tea Girl! How are you?
Lindiwe took the Tea Girl thing in her stride and we had one of those ‘standing in line with strangers’ chats.
We showed our IDs again, registered, and then we got on the buses and off to Regina Mundi a few minutes away we went. When we arrived, we had to stand in line again. There was a search, we had to switch our phones off and on to show that they were real phones, and then we got to the secure section. On arrival, we each received a bottle of water and some security guy advised us to use the Port-a-Loo if we needed to go because once we entered the church, we would not be allowed to get out. So we dutifully did as suggested and we were soon in Regina Mundi church. Ja sies!
Twas a sea of humanity in there. Ok, maybe not a sea but there were over a thousand people in there. At about 9am (we had been in the place since 7.30 so perhaps I should not complain as a certain President Kibaki has been known to arrive at 2pm for an event with a time plan of 10am), a bevy of young ladies walked in and we all had to stand up and clap for them. Turned out these were the Young African Women Leaders to be celebrated and not Cynthia, Lindiwe and the rest of us almost unyouth.
There was a speech from the Gauteng Premier, Nomvula Mokonyane, followed by Baleka Mbete on behalf of the ANC, and then we heard from Graca Machel. All the speeches were of the ‘sisterhood’, ‘sister Michelle is back home’, ‘how these brilliant young ladies should emulate this wonderful woman’ variety.
And then Graca called Michelle. And as Michelle walked up to the podium, there was a standing ovation and lots of whooping and yelling. Yup. This being my first rally-type thing, it was only then I understood the elation of the mob. Flip, I certainly understand the Republican and Democratic national Conventions better now.
Michelle celebrated the Young African women Leaders. These were young women from all over the continent who have served their communities and Africa in ways that are humbling. Hearing some of the tales I wondered at my arrogance to think I could even be considered one of them. Among them was one of the most beautiful young people I know, Dr. Kopano Matlwa – writer, medical doctor, founder of an organization of student doctors imparting primary health care to poor communities, winner of so-many literary prizes etc etc and all this before she was 25. And there were other over-achieving little upstarts like her from all over the continent. Forty in all, I think the number was.
I was also taken by how Michelle is probably Barack’s biggest p.r. officer. she constantly began the next paragraph of her speech with, ‘my husband says…’ and of course right at the end she told all assembled that we should all learn from the young women assembled and not allow anything to stand in our way. If anyone felt they were failing and wanted to give up they should remember her husband’s words and say, ‘YES WE …’ yup. You guessed it.
And that was the end of the show.
At 11am, hungry and tired after waking up at an ungodly hour to prepare for the breakfast that almost was, Cynthia and I walked out of regina Mundi to get back on the bus to Maponya Mall and look for breakfast.
And the books?
I gave them to Baleka Mbete who I hope delivered them to Michelle for Malia. But should the books not have arrived to Malia, a word to all of you. If you have a teenage daughter, niece, friend the one thing you could do for them this National Book Week is get them Fiona Snyckers’ Trinity Rising or Trinity on Air. You will seal their love for books in one purchase.