Abi Godsell is a South African author whose debut novel – Idea War: Volume 1 – will be released this month by Wordsmack, a digital publishing house specialising in African speculative fiction. Idea War is a YA dystopian novel set in Joburg, and I invited Abi over to share her thoughts on living and writing about the city. Welcome Abi!
I count myself as very lucky to be living in a city that I love. It’s not something that everyone has. What’s more, Johannesburg isn’t just the place that I live either. It’s the heart of both my work as a writer and as a student of Urban and Regional Planning, so I’m triply lucky.
It’s why I write the way I do, locating stories in very specific places. At least, this love of city, and wanting to share that love is one of the reasons.
I have the, probably rather silly, hope about how people will read it. I hope that someone sometime, reading a piece of mine, say, a fight scene on a street in Idea War, would take a look at the map showing where it happens and recognize a landmark in the text and suddenly say “Hey! But that’s my street! I drive that street to the veggie shop every Saturday.”
And maybe the next time they drive it, they’ll look at it a little more closely and see it as just a little cooler.
Don’t ask me to tell you what the streets are actually like though, in this city I live in and love and write, because the picture wouldn’t be a very accurate one. At least, not accurate for anyone other than me. That’s the thing about Jozi, it isn’t one city, it’s thousands.
“A story about Johannesburg? Are you insane?” an acquaintance told of friend of mine when she mentioned that we were thinking about such a project. “What do three sheltered white girls know about Johannesburg? I’ve seen things in this city that you couldn’t possibly imagine!”
And he had. Well, not things that we couldn’t imagine, but things that we hadn’t seen, faces of the city that we’d never met. Angry, broken, painful faces, well out of our life-experience. We didn’t live in his Joburg, and he didn’t live in ours. That’s what it’s like working here, there are as many different Johannesburgs as there are Johannesburgers, and you’re always mindful of that. Even if there aren’t people to remind you of how small your city experience is, you’re always mindful. If you walk or work or write here, you move through spaces, listen to languages, see scenes, read signs that you don’t understand, because they are not part of your Joburg. No matter how well-travelled you are, or how well-connected or how long you’ve been around, your city won’t contain even a hundredth of all there is. No single person’s Joburg can.
It’s that that makes this such an incredible place to set stories.
You see, my friends and I weren’t insane, thinking that we could write a Joburg story, being who we are. (At least, I believe we were not insane, and will go on believing that, else I’d have to find a new line of work.) We just knew that we didn’t have the whole story, because there isn’t just one. I think, density wise, stories-per-square-kilometre, Johannesburg must be one of the richest places in the whole world.
Writing here feels a bit like cheating. It’s not as though I have to make up a great deal. The city I live in is built as much on stories as on gold-dust. The Neon Lions in Newtown, the metal pigeons in the shadow of the Family Court, the last curlicued iron lamppost at the edge of Parkhurst, the rusting-metal rainbow on the gates of George Harrison Park, brown hyenas in Bryanston, vultures on apartment roofs in Hyde Park. It’s all there, and that’s even before you start talking to people about the stories of their cities.
It’s more of a substrate than a setting for the stories I write. Rather drab, generic plots and vaguely dissatisfying characters grow up and fill out for me, when I sit with a map and say “but what if this happened there?”
That’s the second reason why locating stories in very specific places is so important to me. The setting is so much more than a stage. It’s a force that enlivens and enriches, forms and shapes. My writing simply couldn’t be half of what it is, if it wasn’t nourished, and taught by my city.
Callie Baxter is 16, and damned if she’s going to just sit tight and accept the invaders who have occupied her city. She’s worked hard to keep her fledgling group of passionate and righteous rebels alive, but as they uncover the new government’s most heinous plot yet, she realises she has only just begun to understand the pain of loss, and the true cost of growing up.
Idea War: Volume 1 is the first installment in a thrilling new urban series which outlines the story behind the fight for the soul of a future Johannesburg.
The city represents a shining example of recovery to the outside world, but can a small group of determined teenagers overcome the decay that has taken root at its core?