BOOKS

THE RAINMAKER
TEXT ALEXANDER MATTHEWS PHOTOGRAPHY LAR LESLIE

A NEW CHAPTER OF HOPE
TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS

The City of Cape Town calls Blikkiesdorp a Temporary Relocation Area but residents of its metal-sheeted dwellings aren’t going anywhere soon. Although there is electricity and sanitation, this is still a desolate, barren place, home to thousands of the Mother City’s formerly homeless. In the sandy cold they wait for formal housing, for a future almost impossible to envision. Andrew Gasnolar, a qualified attorney and Mandela Rhodes scholar, was so moved by the plight of its people that he established an NGO, the Boundless Heart Foundation, to bring hope to this, and other underprivileged areas, of Cape Town. For 2012 Mandela Day on 18 July, the Boundless Heart brought together a coalition of supporters, from local government to corporates such as Plascon and SAB for a day of good deeds. A band of more than 600 volunteers painted houses in bright colours and planted indigenous trees and vegetable gardens. Mandela Day also saw the installation of a community library, made possible through a partnership between SAB, Interactive Africa (the organsiser of Design Indaba) and interiors firm Cécile & Boyd’s. “Madiba’s vision is that education is a tool for transformation — so we can become our our own agents of change. We wanted to create a safe space in which aspirations, hope and dreams are not only possible but nurtured and supported,” says Gasnolar. “Design Indaba saw this as an excellent project to get involved in as it not only gives

back to the community in a sustainable way, but it also harnesses the power of design and creativity in making a difference to the education problem in SA,” says Dale Cupido of Interactive Africa, which secured a shipping container to be used for the library. They also brought in architect Y Tsai, who has designed several other container customisations, to design its exterior modifications. Cécile & Boyd’s Mia van Wyk oversaw the design of the interior, using “colour in such a way that it would uplift and inspire and also be applicable not only for children but also adults — from bright primary red and yellow, to the more subdued lighter shades of orange and blues. We used complementary colours that would calm, soothe and also create a stimulating environment,” she says. Children’s art was hung in frames on the wall, and bright, easily stackable furniture was chosen to ensure the space could be as versatile as possible. “A container space is just so much more inspirational as there are almost unlimited possibilities of what this little steel box can become,” says van Wyk. Books from Leisure Books, Penguin and Random House Struik and other donors ensured the shelves started filling quickly. Partnering with its network of supporters, Boundless Heart Foundation plans to roll out libraries in other underprivileged areas to inspire hope and a love of learning amongst young South Africans.

Colleen Higgs is waiting for me at the cosy café in Cape Town’s southern suburbs where we’d agreed to meet. With short grey hair, gentle eyes and an orange scarf warding off the winter chill, Colleen Higgs does not appear the embodiment of a publishing doyenne. Don’t be fooled. As the founder of Modjaji Books, hers is a daring and vital contribution to a local publishing landscape dominated by cookbooks and sports memoirs — where fiction is marginal, mostly written by middle aged white men. Black voices, particularly those of women, remain scarce. Modjaji Books is helping to change that, promising to “make rain” for Southern African women writers. “I thought it was a good idea to offer a platform for women, especially for books that were maybe about things that were not seen to be as important by mainstream publishing,” says Higgs. She established the publisher in 2007 while still working at the Centre for the Book where she ran a programme that helped writers to get their work published. When she brought out a collection of her own poems, she realised she’d caught the publishing bug. She left the Centre for the Book, using her pension to set up Modjaji. “I often think that I must be crazy. I’ve also learnt to live with uncertainty and fear; but to not let fear immobilise me,” she laughs. “I have no background or training in business or entrepreneurship so I’ve learnt it all by doing it.” Modjaji’s catalogue includes short stories, memoirs, poetry and novels. But Higgs allows the lines to blur, also publishing cross-genre books, something mainstream publishers shy away from. Hester se Brood, for example, combines a cultural history of bread with recipes, while being the memoir of Hester van der Walt’s life in the dorpie of McGregor. While Modjaji has occasionally received small grants for certain titles, “it’s largely self-sustaining. I describe it as subsistence publishing,” says Higgs with a smile. Digital printing technology enables her to print small runs (normally 150 copies for poetry collections and 300 for novels), which she can then repeat should there be a demand for it. A constant challenge for the Higgs is “the resource juggling; both time and money”. Then there’s “cash flow, energy, finding the right people” — she works with an extensive network of freelance editors, proofreaders and designers. Internationally, the non-profit African Books Collective distributes Modjaji’s titles, printing them on demand, while Snapplify has prepped and stocked its newest non-fiction titles in iTunes for iPad. Higgs is proud of bringing to a conservative country new voices and important stories that grapple with female experiences as varied as sexuality and stillbirth. When Tracey Farren’s Whiplash was released in 2008, several suburban bookstores refused to stock it, appalled by its raw and sympathetic portrayal of a sex worker. This embargo collapsed when the book was nominated for The Sunday Times Fiction Award the next year. “Making a book isn’t just like making a product because it’s adding to what is known. It’s about sharing stories and building culture,” she says. “Getting to play a very small part of that feels incredibly exciting. I often feel like I’ve gotten away with something.”

www.facebo ok.com/TheBoundlessHeartFoundation

www.modjajibo oks.co.za

50 AUGUST 2012 WANTED

BOOKS

A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN
WORDS FROM OUR NATION’S WOMEN
EDITED ALEXANDER MATTHEWS

WRITER’S BLOCK

Yewande Omotoso
TEXT ALEXANDER MATTHEWS

Yewande Omotoso is an architect and freelance writer based in Cape Town. Born in Barbados, she is the daughter of a West Indian mother and a Nigerian father and has lived in SA since 1992. Bom Boy, her debut novel, was shortlisted for the 2012 Sunday Times Fiction Award. What does being a writer mean? For me, it means observing and commenting on life, storing seemingly insignificant details about people and behaviour; to prod society in sometimes the most painful places and evoke compassion. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given? Do what you love. The sheer joy of doing so will be your first pay cheque. What’s the last book you read? Swallow by Sefi Atta. Where’s the best place to write? I’ve learnt to make wherever I find myself the best place. I don’t want to make writing precious. Who has influenced your writing? From people like my father to the authors of the many books that were read to me and that I’ve read myself over the past 30 years or so. I am happy to be influenced by anything masterful, good, that rings true and resonates from great poetry, cinema, music, inspiring buildings and so on. What’s the hardest thing about writing? Telling the critiquing noise in my head to pipe down. Creating something and at the same time judging and thrashing it, is not productive. What do you dislike most about yourself? I don’t have an answer. And this is not a sign of arrogance (I am far from perfect) but more an acceptance of what I am and what I’m not. If I had to dig, I don’t like the fact that I tend to be busy a lot and always on the go. I have a real sense that our time on earth is limited and so hate to waste it but even so I often need to remind myself to be calm, to meditate, to pause in life. How do you cure writer’s block? Getting out there, getting out of your head, connecting with people and what matters in their lives would cure any kind of block. What’s your favourite ritual? Making vegetable juice with my Oscar Juicer. What do you do to relax? Long baths. Long walks. Long meals with friends. Reading and watching great books and films. If you were a cartoon or comic character, which would it be? I’d probably be Road Runner. I would love to be Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street — so chilled out. What’s your favourite magazine? I love architectural magazines. There are many great ones but my current favourite is Earthworks. Favourite place in the world? Barbados. If you could go back in time, where would you go back to? Any time before my mother fell ill. Has the Web made literature better or worse? Neither. I don’t think we can credit or blame the Web (or any thing) for the quality of literature. As human beings, we are ultimately responsible for the work we produce. The internet is a piece of amazing technology like the telephone and the wheel. It’s how we choose to use it that makes the difference.

ANTHLOGY Reclaiming the L -Word Edited by Alleyn Diesel
Much as SA’s Constitution guarantees, in theory, the rights of all race groups, it also protects but cannot guard the rights of those of all sexual orientations. The collection has been compiled to raise awareness about what it means to be a lesbian in SA and attempts to curb the homophobic violence prevalent in South African society. So-called “ordinary” lesbian South African women have been asked to contribute, sharing stories and poetry. There are also beautiful photographs by Zanele Muloli. After some simplified academic theory on the background of lesbianism, the stories are real, everyday, filled with anecdotes, love of family and exploration of soul and identity, spanning different races and cultures. Although these women have their sexual orientation in common, the wealth of diversity shows that this isn’t what defines them. These are women with careers, families, hobbies and pets, and many of the stories centre on these aspects. SARAH LAURENCE

FICTION For the Mercy of Water
By Karen Jayes In Jayes’ eagerly awaited first novel, thirst rules. In an unnamed droughtravaged country, water is a precious commodity and it is over this that a war is being waged between the company ruthlessly controlling water supplies, and those who resist. When a chance rain leads the guards of the company to an isolated village, they discover Mother, an old woman with an inexplicable story. As pieces of Mother’s tale appear in the media, a young writer’s interest is piqued and she sets off to find her, in the process uncovering long-hidden truths. Jayes’ fablelike story was inspired by her journalistic work in London, where she often heard of global water wars and conglomerates controlling access to water, restricting it from locals. Her delicate approach to the trauma narrative is remarkably accomplished and reminiscent of a sensitivity only achieved by JM Coetzee. Indeed, it was he who awarded her the international PEN/Studzinski Literary Award in 2009 for her short story, Where he will leave his shoes. For the Mercy of Water has the makings of an award-winning novel, a major feat from one of SA’s most exciting new writers. TARAH CHILDES

Modjaji Books, R185

Penguin, R170

COMMENTARY It Feels
Wrong to Laugh, But… By Anele Mdoda This is just one in a series of entertaining pocket books, aptly called The Youngsters. The youth-aimed series features prominent young South African personalities and tackles issues that range from the cultural and political, right down to hair weaves and clubbing etiquette. In this particular one, Anele Mdoda, radio DJ, TV presenter and Twitter queen, discusses owning her looks and personality, carving out a space as a female DJ in a male-dominated industry, the lessons she learnt from her mother, and her somewhat contradictory views of what it means to be a woman in SA. Her voice is distinct and seemingly unedited. In fact, if you’ve ever heard Anele on the radio, you won’t be able to help but read it in her exact tone; sweet if you like it, but immensely irking if you don’t. However, this short but fun series, edited by award-winning journalist and author Mandy Wiener, is laudable for speaking to a generation that is fame obsessed and battles to pay attention to anything longer than 140 characters. TC

SHORT STORIES got.no.secrets
By Danila Botha This 12-strong short story volume is not for the faint hearted. Each story centres on a young female protagonist, almost all written in the first person and many of them similar characters. Some are set as close as Hillbrow and others as far away as Toronto, with a few other forgettable city settings in between. Drug abuse is a common theme, although self-mutilation, illness, murder and abuse all feature. One needs a strong stomach to soldier through all of Botha’s offerings in one sitting; although it does lead one to feel thankful for one’s own circumstances. Drawn from real life, many of the stories are inspired by Botha’s volunteer work with an organisation providing resources to homeless people in Toronto. The style of writing is gritty and its brutal bluntness lends it a certain dreariness unimproved by a few typosa few typos that have somehow survived in the final product. Don’t read these stories too late at night — they’ll meld into each other and you’ll wake up convinced you’ve had nightmares. SL

Modjaji Books, R150

Picador Africa, R85

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51 AUGUST 2012 WANTED

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