Writing Joburg – A guest post by Abi Godsell

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!


Abi, medium

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.


IWmediumThe Idea War

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?

You can follow Abi @Cyanseagull or check out her blog Worlds and Words to find out more about the book and Johannesburg as a setting.


Review of Stolen Lives by Jassy Mackenzie

Stolen Lives by Jassy MackenzieTitle: Stolen Lives
Series: Jade de Jong #2
Jassy Mackenzie
crime thriller
own copy
Rating: 6/10

I hadn’t planned to review this novel, and had’t heard of it until I stumbled across a second-hand copy during my recent holiday in Cape Town. I’d been taking the opportunity to build my collection of SA genre fiction, so I was quick to grab this crime thriller. Jassy Mackenzie is one of the better-known names in SA fiction and is currently in the spotlight with her latest release, Folly, about a woman who falls on hard times and sets up a domination dungeon in her garden, offering her services as a dominatrix to make some much-needed cash. Stolen Lives, published in 2010, also has a sexual theme, but it tackles sex crime and is (presumably) much darker and more violent. It’s the second in a series featuring PI Jade de Jong. I haven’t read the first book, Random Violence, but I thought this one stood perfectly well on its own.

If you spot it online or in store, I suggest you avoid reading the blurb unless you don’t mind learning about two thirds of the major plot developments. I’ve written a plot summary that’s less exciting, but less revealing. The story opens in the London, where Detective Constable Edmonds, newly promoted to the Human Trafficking Division of Scotland Yard, goes on her first raid at a brothel that’s been using trafficked women. They fail to capture the owner or the mysterious woman who injures two cops and escapes with an accomplice, but they at least manage to rescue the girls, most of whom have been trafficked from South Africa.

In Jo’burg, the very wealthy and impeccably groomed Pamela Jordaan hires Jade de Jong to be her personal bodyguard. Pamela’s husband Terence recently went missing, and because he owns a stripclub – the kind of business that attracts dangerous people – Pamela fears for her own safety. Jade thinks she’ll just be babysitting some paranoid housewife, until she and Pamela are nearly shot in broad daylight, and Pamela’s daughter Tamsin goes missing as well. Further investigation draws Jade into the sordid world of sex work and human trafficking, and instead of simply watching Pamela shop, she finds herself dealing with cases of torture, murder and rape that are all linked to the trafficking case in London.

At least Jade has the help of police Superintendent David Patel, her ex-lover who recently ended their brief relationship on a cold and awkward note after a moral disagreement. David is dedicated and ambitious, but horribly overworked. He still cares about Jade though, so he does his best to help her, especially when her case begins to involve serious criminal activity and intersects with his own investigations. Although neither of them harbour any illusions about the dangers of the situation they’re involved in, they still find themselves unprepared for the extent of the violence and brutality that follows.

Not surprisingly, Stolen Lives offers bleak picture of crime in South Africa, and Jo’burg in particular. I learned quite a bit about the human trafficking in my home country, assuming Mackenzie’s novel is as accurate as it seems. Apparently it’s the third most lucrative crime in the world, after drug trafficking and arms dealing. South Africa is, depressingly, both the source and destination of trafficked women, and the laws related to these crimes are so inadequate that they tend to work against the victims rather helping them. Any such case is a “right bloody pain in the arse” for the cops, and the USA has actually put SA on a watch list for “an inability to exhibit efforts to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking” (36)

I don’t know SA was a human trafficking hub, but the inefficiency of governmental and legal systems wouldn’t be a surprise to any citizen, and the novel makes this an integral part of the plot. Home Affairs is portrayed as an inefficient institution, rotten and reeking with corruption. Officials take a year or more to process passports and ID books, or expect bribes before they will do anything. On the other hand, passports can easily be bought as long as you have the money and the right contacts. One of the villains goes to violent lengths to procure a set of forged passports, and other countries are said to complain about the number of fake passports from South Africa (leading, for example, to South Africans requiring a visa to enter the UK). One character describes the country as “beautiful but lawless”, which is a tad melodramatic, but I understand where that feeling comes from.

Still, Stolen Lives is hardly the bleakest novel I’ve read about SA. It’s subject matter is disturbing, but it’s not written from the perspective of those who suffer the most – the trafficked women or the women who move to Jo’burg from small towns, desperate for jobs promised by the allure of the big city but finding themselves resorting to sex work. We see things either from the POV of law enforcement agents (Jade, David and Edmonds), or the criminals they’re trying to stop. This is still a crime novel intended to entertain, so the victims are seen only through the eyes of cops or criminals, their voices heard in interviews or pleas. Pamela could be considered a victim of sorts, but she is so snotty and spoilt that it’s hard to feel much sympathy for her, especially since her family’s troubles are a consequence of their sordid business dealings.

That said, this isn’t what I’d call an easy read. It may take a more privileged perspective on sex trafficking, but this is not a book for sensitive readers. It includes torture, rape, and a great deal of other violence. Not all of it happens on the page, but a young woman describing how she was kidnapped, locked up and repeatedly raped is horrifying enough.

On a gentler note, are the personal lives of Jade and David. They broke up because of Jade’s attitude to killing – she shot the man who murdered her father, and feels no remorse. In fact, she believes certain people deserve to be killed – a moral issue the novel raises a few times. David, however, disagrees so strongly with this that he left. They still care about each other, but David has another complication – his wife Naisha and young son Kevin. The couple separated after Naisha had an affair, but again, David still loves her and is doing his utmost to maintain a strong relationship with Kevin despite his demanding job. Over in the UK, Edmonds’s story is more focused on the case itself, but we still get an understanding of her as an awkward woman, trying hard to overcome her insecurities in order to do good work. The novel also gives a glimpse into the culture of Jo’burg, which is much more… intense than the laid-back attitude of Capetonians. There was a bit of comic relief in Jade’s description of the way Pamela “screamed Sandton, from her big, gold-framed sunglasses and the silver Patek Philippe watch on her left wrist to the oversized diamond rings that sparkled on her red-manicured fingers”. Sandton is an affluent suburb in Jo’burg, and although I’ve never spent much time there, I know exactly the kind of person Jade is talking about.

There is, you may have noticed, quite a lot going on here. Too much perhaps. There are four main crimes – Terence’s disappearance, Tamsin’s disappearance, the human trafficking in the UK, and a kidnapping that I omitted from my plot summary – as well as several minor ones. As a reader, you can assume from the start that they’re linked, and certain sections show exactly how they’re linked, although they don’t reveal all. Jade and David, however, aren’t able to figure this out until the last quarter of the novel, when it comes as absolutely no surprise to you. By then, you’re just waiting for them to fill in the blanks. There are also many different viewpoints – the narrative switches frequently between the main characters (Jade, David, Edmonds) as well as minor characters whose brief appearances show us parts of the plot that the protagonists aren’t privy to. Towards the end, there are even sections from the villains’ POVs.  And with the multiple viewpoints come multiple story arcs. It’s not hard to keep track of everyone, but it does make the novel feel very untidy, with stories and characters scattered all over the place. Mackenzie brings everything together, of course, but it’s not all that satisfying. Perhaps one of the reasons is that it’s not the kind of crime thriller that engages you in the mystery by giving you the means to figure things out on your own. Either you know more than the protagonists, or you have to wait for someone to you exactly what happened.

It’s still a good read – it has the action, violence and shock value that you expect from a crime thriller – it’s just not as tightly plotted as I would have liked, and there were some details that didn’t make sense or were left dangling. I also thought it very stupid that Jade goes alone to face the villain in the final confrontation, with David not even considering the possibility that this might be extremely fucking dangerous and suggesting she wait for help. Instead, he just gives a lift home so she can get her car and drive off to her possible death.

One other concern I want to mention is the way that non-white characters are usually described according to their race. If, for example, a woman is described only as being tall with brown hair, you can assume she’s white. Because if she’s black, coloured or Indian, that will be part of her description. Mackenzie is hardly the only author to do this and she doesn’t always do it, but it’s so noticeable because this is a crime thriller about detectives, and providing physical descriptions of characters is a standard means of evoking an investigative tone. One character who is frequently described as the “black accomplice” when other, more important descriptions could be easily be used. It wouldn’t be a problem if the white characters were similarly described. It’s also not necessary, and not all authors do it, opting for more subtle means of describing their characters unless the issue of race is pertinent. Is the word “black” meant to evoke a sense of menace in accordance with stereotypes? Or does this trend, here and elsewhere simply acknowledge the way many readers see white as the norm and wouldn’t imagine a character to have a different skin colour unless it was specified? But that’s another debate.

All in all, Stolen Lives is a decent crime thriller, given weight by the very serious issue at its core. Crime has become a major theme in South African fiction, a dire but welcome change from the (post) Apartheid politics that dominated our novels for so long. Stolen Lives highlights a major issue in the SA crime scene and asks difficult questions. Although I had some issues with the book, I liked the moral ambiguities – the way villains can become victims and vice versa, the way characters sometimes do unpleasant or cruel things to achieve more admirable ends. I’d grit my teeth before venturing into another of Mackenzie’s novels, but don’t take that as a reason to shy away from her. Her works are available locally and abroad, so check them out 🙂