An interview with Helen Brain

helenCape Town-based author Helen Brain loves to make things: miniature books for keeping secrets in; a garden fence decorated with discarded objects; music and laughter. She also loves to tell stories, and her latest book is entitled Elevation, the first in a post-apocalyptic YA series set in an altered Cape Town, the last human settlement in a ruined world.

Sixteen-year-old Ebba de Eeden grew up in a colony with two thousand chosen children in a bunker beneath Table Mountain. When she is recognised as the missing Den Eeden heiress, she is elevated to the surface, which is not a radioactive wasteland, as everyone in the colony has been told, but home a functioning society split into elite and servant classes.

After a life of slavery, Ebba finds that she is now a rich young woman with servants, a luxurious home and a farm with more potential to grow food than anywhere else in the ravaged world. There is little opportunity for her to enjoy these comforts, however, as Ebba is immediately faced with extreme demands and difficult choices. Aunty Figgy says Ebba is the descendant of the goddess Theia and has to use her power to save the world before the next cataclysm. The High Priest and his handsome son are doing everything they can to get Ebba to leave her farm and join the rest of the elite in their religious community, which worships the god Prospiroh. And Ebba herself can’t ignore the responsibility she feels to use her new resources to rescue her friends in the bunker.

 

elevation

Helen’s novel is a fast, exciting read full of the ecological concerns that are so often captured in post-apocalyptic fiction today. In the middle of this is a young woman who, like most teenagers and many adults, finds herself in a world that’s so much bigger and more complicated than she realised. And she can’t just live in it; she has a responsibility to try to understand it and change it for the better. It’s a scenario that raises all sorts of tough questions. I posed some of mine to Helen, who kindly took the time to answer them.

Welcome to Violin in a Void Helen!

LS: You’ve written over 50 books for children and young adults. What is it that you love about writing for a younger readership? What stories and subjects are you most drawn to?

HB: I love children, I find them much easier to relate to than adults, and I remember my childhood with all its complex emotions vividly, so writing for children came naturally. As a child I read all the time. My mother was the librarian at a teacher’s training college, and she brought home all the Carnegie and Newberry medal winners for me to try out, so I was introduced to the best kids lit and loved the way they could take you into another world.

As a reader I like swashbuckling tales, edge-of-your-seat adventures, imaginative fancies and word play. I try to write what I want to read.

 

Post-apocalyptic and dystopian YA novels have become wildly popular over recent years. What do you think it is about this subgenre of fantasy and science fiction that is so appealing to YA fans (of all ages)? What is it about the genre that attracted you?

I think many teens are in a place that psychologically resembles a dystopian landscape. Their childhood has been destroyed, and they’re struggling to create a new way of being in an adult world. They’re like moths in a cocoon, fighing to break through the layers of silk and, once they’re free, to work out how to open their wings and use them. That’s a very dystopian place to be.

 

The trope of the Chosen One has a long history in fantasy, and it fits neatly into apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, in which authors frequently suggest that humanity has caused too much damage or become too corrupt to save itself or the world. What we need, in some of these narratives, is the intervention of a higher power, such as evolved or enhanced humans, superior alien intelligence or, in this case, divine beings. Descended from a god, Ebba is the saviour – or she will be, if she can step up to the challenge. How did you go about writing this character? What’s it like to rest the fate of the world on the shoulders of a naïve young woman who has, almost literally, spent her entire life living under a rock?

Ebba is of course an element of my own personality – my own struggle to find my inner power and to stop relying on someone else to look after me. She’s also every young woman who thinks she can’t manage life without a boyfriend or a best friend, and who gives away her power because she’s scared to use it. Over the course of the three books she has to learn to access her inner strength – represented by her four ancestors – and to literally wise up.

 

You grew up in a staunch Catholic home, married a priest and lived in parishes all over the Western Cape. Elevation, however, is deeply critical of institutionalised religion. Prospiroh is an angry male god who wipes out most of the world with an ecological catastrophe, leaving only a few select survivors, much like the Christian god does with the Flood. The worship of Prospiroh is characterised by fear, conformity and modesty, while the community of worshippers is bonded by the music and rituals of church services. The High Priest is authoritarian and, most notably, religion is used as a tool of oppression, enslaving the poor to serve an elite. How has your relationship with religion changed from childhood to the writing of this novel?

This series is essentially about wrestling with my issues around faith and religion. I was a committed Christian from 16 to 40. Then, after a year or two of struggling, I stopped believing.

Four years later my very devout husband, the most moral and ethical person I’ve ever known, was struck down with colon cancer, aged 46. In his last month he had periods of the worst physical pain imaginable where he begged god to tell him why he had turned him into his whipping boy.

I couldn’t reconcile how a caring god would do this to someone who loved him. Murderers, rapists, war criminals, torturers were flourishing, and here was someone who genuinely loved god and had served him faithfully begging to die, screaming from pain. It was excruciating. If he’d been a dog or cat we’d have ended his suffering. I didn’t want to know a god who stood by and let someone who loved him suffer like this.

I began this series as an atheist but as the books are progressing I’m revising my theological stance. In essence they’re a record of my private wrestling match with god. Whether god exists only as a function of my brain chemistry or is a being out there in the ether somewhere I haven’t decided yet.

 

Goddesses are often presented as the nurturing, eco-conscious, egalitarian alternatives to conservative, destructive male gods, and in Elevation, it’s only through the goddess Theia that the world could be saved. Do you think a goddess could save religions from their pitfalls?

I don’t think it’s about having a matriarchal god instead of a patriarchal one. I think it’s about the two living in balance. That’s what Ebba’s job will be – to get them to make peace.

 

You blog about financial advice for an investment and budgeting app, and your posts got me thinking about the powers and pitfalls of money in the novel. Although the world has been reduced to a few small societies at the tip of Africa, it still runs on money. When Ebba is elevated, she not only rises from the bunker to live on the surface, but rises in class thanks to an inheritance that makes her fabulously wealthy. She finds it both liberating and confusing, and although her money empowers her, it endangers her too. How would you describe the role of money in terms of plot, worldbuilding and character development? And why is it that these people are still clinging to the concept of coin?

I found this tricky. I decided that the citizens would still use coins and have a monetary system, but the rest of the world will be using bartering. Ebba’s rich not only because she’s inherited a lot of gold stashed away in a bank vault, but also because she owns the only arable land in the city, and because her goddess blood means plants grow very fast around her. Food is the major commodity in this post apocalyptic world, and she has a unique ability to provide it. That’s why everyone is trying to gain control over her.

The idea of the book came about through my concern about the way we’re destroying the planet in search of material happiness. I think of the series not so much as dystopian or mythology but as eco-theology. I used religion and the gods and goddesses as a metaphor to highlight what I see as our biggest problem today – our material dissatisfaction.

I imagine us like the Little Prince standing on the top of his planet in a pile of garbage. He’s holding more and more things, and to make them he has to dig away at the planet he stands on.

Helen-Brain-garden-fence

Helen’s garden fence, decorated with the things other people discarded.

If we don’t stop wanting more and more and more, new cars when our old ones work, the latest phones, more clothes and things for our increasingly big houses, and toys and gadgets, we will destroy our earth.

We’re treasuring the wrong things. It’s the green spaces, the forests and beaches and gardens and veld that bring us happiness, not more stuff. But we’re hellbent on destroying the very thing that brings us life.

 

Without giving away too much, can you tell us what to expect from the rest of The Thousand Steps series?

In book 2 Ebba has to rescue the two thousand from the bunker before the General genocides them by closing up the ventilation shafts. To do this she has to sacrifice herself, and she doesn’t want to.

In book 3 she is elevated to Celestia, and has to sort out the gods and find the cause of their dysfunctionality. It’s kind of Enid Blyton meets Dante with a healthy dose of Philip Pullman.

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Interview: Matthew MacDevette, author of Blacker than White

 

Matt and I met online just over a year ago when he hired me to edit his apocalyptic fantasy novel, Blacker than White, in which a female Lucifer goes to war with Heaven when Jehovah decides it’s time for Judgement Day and the angels descend to slaughter humanity. She takes a hapless but brave Oxford post-grad along with her to help circumvent the inconvenient pact she made not to spill too much angelic blood.

The project was an incredible piece  of luck: here I was at the beginning of a career shift, assuming it’d be a long time before I built enough of a reputation to get the kind of book I wanted to edit, when the kind of book I wanted to edit fell into my lap. And it was good – well-written, funny, full of action, packed with quirky worldbuilding, and driven by tenacious but damaged characters. I got to discuss some of my favourite topics with Matt: gender in fantasy fiction, the mythology of heaven and hell (and his unique take on it), and the creation of fantasy societies.

Now that the novel has gone out into the world, I asked for an interview. Welcome to Violin in a Void Matt 🙂

 


Matthew-MacDevette-2So, why write a story about the Devil?

When I first heard about The Fall as a child, my main thought was, “yay God for winning”, but as I got older it changed to, “hang on, I kind of get where Lucifer is coming from”. The Devil embodies much of what we despise, yes, but also much of what we’ve come to value, like independent thought, bravery in the face of overwhelming odds and defiance of unyielding authority. She – I’m just going with ‘she’ – is also much more relatable than the Bible’s heroes. Bundle all of that with what she went through – getting violently cast from her home into a barren wasteland for all eternity – and you get a deeply interesting character. Dangerous? Yes. Scary? At times. Funny? Perhaps. A little twisted? Absolutely. But interesting. So I wanted to write her, but not like she’s usually portrayed: as the ‘ultimate evil’, a slick dealmaker, a farcical fool or, more recently, a trying-to-make-it-in-the-world regular(ish) guy. I wanted to write her as a person that, like any of us, has complex feelings and thoughts shaped by her own particular history. That, I figured, would make for one hell of a story.

Why represent Lucifer as a woman? What differs from the way we usually see the character portrayed?

Two main reasons. First, novelty. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Lucifer portrayed seriously as a woman. If you’ve just thought, “but what about Elizabeth Hurley in Bedazzled?”, slap yourself across the face. Second, misogyny. Our heroes tell us a lot about who we want to be. So much of what is idolised in monotheistic religion is male. Men men men, everywhere you bloody look, doing all sorts of great things. The women? Never mind, they’re over there tempting the men or cleaning for the men or just waiting in the background supposedly yelling, “I’m your receptacle for childbirth … I sure hope it’s a BOY!” The whole idea of femininity in the Bible – and elsewhere – is muddied. Screw that. Most powerful characters are male, but half the world is not. By portraying this powerful character as a woman, the story can explore a lot of interesting issues related to that. Exactly how, you ask? No spoilers!

Alexei and Lucifer both have to deal with intense grief, and Lucifer has a history of psychological dysfunction that not only affects her personal life but entire worlds and societies. How did these themes find their way into the story? What was your approach to writing about trauma and mental illness?

I think that being a little messed up is part of living a full and beautiful life, not a step away from it. I wanted to honour that through the characters. With Lucifer, I tried to get to the heart of what it must have felt like to be cast from Heaven – from her home, from her family – and depict it as intimately as possible. I was intrigued by the idea of her experiences literally changing the landscape of her world, and her trying to navigate that to safer ground, because I think that’s often how it feels for us. As for my approach, well … a lot of it was inspired by what I was going through at the time. I wrote the bulk of the novel a few months after the end of a seven-year relationship. That, together with ideas informed by the loss of my father when I was 18, means that it’s probably not the sunniest book you’ll ever read. But hey, it’s not a book of mourning – quite the opposite. While loss is a big theme, so is the reckless affirmation of life despite all the misery it throws at you. So I guess my approach is to do the trauma justice without giving it the whole courtroom.

Blacker-than-WhiteThe story gets pretty brutal at times, but there’s a fair bit of humour in there too. What kind of role would you say humour plays in horror and dark fantasy? How do you balance the two?

An important role! I struggle with stories that take themselves seriously ALL THE TIME. Just because you’re writing about suffering or death or loss doesn’t mean you have to portray your world or characters as only defined by those things. Because I don’t think the world is defined by those things. Humour reminds you that characters have internal lives separate from whatever terrible events are unfolding around them, and that even in tragic moments we can steal moments of joy. It’s an act of defiance in a world that wants you dead. Also, it’s a way to make your readers extra sad. By keeping them entertained and giving them an emotional reprieve from harsh things, they have energy to feel even more devastated when the next terrible event comes around. As for balance, I always appreciate it when authors: 1) aren’t so goofy that their story loses credibility; 2) stick to jokes their characters would actually make; and 3) use more than one kind of funny – it doesn’t ALWAYS have to be snark.

What does the title Blacker than White refer to exactly?

A few different versions of ‘it’s not as simple as we think it is’. In the most general sense, the play on the phrase ‘black and white’ is meant as a rejection of the idea that things are either one way or another – good or evil, hero or villain, virtue or sin. We are all different things at different times to different people. It’s dull and dangerous to pretend otherwise, and yet too many influential people do. It also refers specifically to the characters of God and the Devil – regardless of who you choose to cast as the hero, neither is truly innocent.

Heaven and Hell both conform to and subvert conventional ideas about them. Hell can be terrifying but it’s got a university. Heaven is beautiful, but its orderly splendour is disturbing. Can you tell us a bit about your worldbuilding for these settings?

The idea of Heaven has always bothered me – a place of eternal peace with no suffering, no death, no conflict, no disorder. It seems incredibly boring. It also seems like somewhere where it would be difficult to be truly human, since I’m not sure you can be human in a place where you’re leaving so much of your ‘earthly nature’ behind and being flattened into one kind of ‘good’. So I wanted to ask the question, ‘what would this paradise we claim to value really look like, and would we still want it if we found out?’. The idea with Hell was similar, in that the usual representations seemed boring – I’m burning and screaming and generally not having a good time for all eternity, sure, but what else? I was intrigued by the idea of Hell-as-a-state-of-being rather than Hell-as-a-place. I also wanted to explore the society of the Fallen angels. What would they be like? How would they have organised? How would they relate to a strange new world? How would they recover after the violence of the Fall?

Besides travelling to Heaven and Hell, the characters traverse multiple locations on Earth, and even make a stop in the little town of Paarl in the Western Cape winelands of South Africa. Why Paarl?

Ah, Paarl. I did my undergrad at the University of Stellenbosch, and I remember travelling with friends to places around there. Paarl was one of them. I have fond memories of those times and of some of the old farmhouses we visited and drank too much wine in. There is also something Afrikaans woven in. The friends I mentioned are Afrikaans, the Cape is very Afrikaans, and I’m partly Afrikaans. So for me the winelands are a mix of friendship, landscape and language that I call to mind when I think ‘South Africa’.

Apparently Blacker Than White took over four years from start to publication. Can you tell us a bit about that journey?

Well, I think I first had the beginnings of the idea in 2008 or 2009, but I didn’t write the first words until late 2011 when I moved to Oxford to do my master’s (hence the opening scenes). I wasn’t aaaallllll that diligent during 2012 – too busy waiting for the Rapture, as one does – but I did manage a first draft in March 2013. In April, I started work at the international development consultancy I remain at to this day, and it’s been pretty intense ever since. Fast forward to 2015, when I hired an editor who had the audacity to suggest actual changes to the story that were quite time consuming (Lauren Smith … heard of her?), and here we are.

Any thoughts on self-publishing?

It’s tricky! I tried a few agents in the UK and US before deciding that I’d rather spend the time building a kind of start-up out of it. At the time, I figured I could outsource the core functions of a publishing house, keep all the content I suspected some folks would find too controversial, and have some fun. I expected it to take a lot of work, but it’s turned out to be more than I anticipated – I didn’t expect to have to recreate the ebook approximately three billion times to get the formatting right, for example, and marketing continues to be a bit of a black box. I’d say if you want to do it, be prepared to be more business/project manager than writer for a long, long while. It’s true that you don’t need publishing houses to get your work into readers’ hands any more, but the value they add takes a lot of time, effort and problem-solving to replace. My internal jury’s out at the moment – I’ll update you in a few months!

What’s next? Will you return to any of the worlds or characters from Blacker than White?

I don’t plan to write a sequel. I wanted to write this as an open-and-closed story, and to do what I wanted to do with it I kind of had to. That being said, the world is still alive in my mind and I often find myself wondering and wandering around bits of it. So I may return to it, one day, but if I do it would be to tell a very different story that isn’t dependent on Blacker than White. In the meantime, ‘next’ for me is more stories! Always more stories. This is actually the second novel I’ve written; the idea of rewriting the other one – it needs some work – still tickles my fingers. I’m a bit of a split personality – I love economic/social development work but I’m also compelled to create stories in my head and write them down – and I’m still trying to find a way to balance the different parts of myself. But there will be more. A lot more.


Matthew was born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, but when he was two and a half decided that he needed a change from small(ish) town life. So he moved to George, which is even smaller. No one said he was a very clever toddler. He studied in Stellenbosch, Cape Town and Oxford before moving to Johannesburg in 2013, where he’s happily remained.

He works for a consultancy focused on international development, thinks that we all have more in common than what sets us apart, and is deeply passionate about Africa’s potential.

Blacker than White is his first novel.

Where to find Matthew:
Twitter: @mattmacdev
Email: matt@blackerthanwhite.net
Facebook: Blacker than White
Buy Blacker than White on Amazon

GUEST POST: The diplomatic responsibilities of sci-fi authors by Scott Gray Meintjes

Scott Gray Meintjes is a South African author who has written a cyberpunky dystopian series called The Cybarium Chronicles. It kicks off with Steel Wind Risingan action-packed novel featuring androids, gene-hacked heroes, animal-human hybrids, and a world-dominating robotics company. He’s currently reworking it for traditional publication, and in the meantime I asked him to share his thoughts on sf and AI.

Welcome to Violin in a Void Scott!

The diplomatic responsibilities of sci-fi authors

As a boy, I was convinced that my birth into the 20th century had been some terrible cosmic mistake. As an ardent fan of fantasy writing, I wished that I’d been born into a period in history when battles were fought with swords and battle-axes, and the primary mode of travel was on horseback. Of course, I hadn’t taken into account the implications of a world without vaccines, toothpaste and toilet paper.

My desire to live in a fantasy-like past passed, which is just as well, because it was never a possibility. However, I could conceivably live to see a number of sci-fi mainstays become reality. In many cases the research is close, but are we mentally ready for these potentially paradigm changing technologies? Until now, speculating on the moral and social implications of matters such as human gene manipulation and sentient robots has been the province of science fiction writers, but the rate of  technological advancement could soon force everyone to take an ideological stance on these issues. If you think the media makes a fuss over GM food, just wait until they get a load of GM people.

The practically exponential rate at which new technologies are now being pioneered presents a potential challenge to both the originality and the longevity of sci-fi authors’ works. As Elon Musk works to perfect the hyperloop, and NASA experiments with warp drive designs, it’s becoming more and more difficult for authors to make a plausible offering in science fiction that isn’t already being worked on in one form or another. I, personally, don’t think it’s a problem. All it means is that the future of science fiction isn’t fictional science, but works of fiction that revolve around cutting edge science. After all, the appeal of the genre isn’t in imagined technologies, but the arcs that they allow and the effects that those technologies have on the imagined worlds.

But even when authors base a story around an existing technology, it’s all too easy to for advancing technology to ruin its longevity. In 2009, Eric Garcia released The Repossession Mambo. Given the leaps that the field of artificial organs (particularly hearts) had taken in recent years, the future that he imagined was highly viable. Just two years later, scientists at the university of Minnesota succeeded in using adult stem cells to grow a heart outside of the body. Two years on from that, we had artificially grown hearts that could beat alone outside the body. The future imagined by Garcia is looking less realistic, as we skip the mass production of artificial organs and move straight to purpose-grown organs or regenerative treatments that re-grow organ tissue inside the body, while you carry on with your day. Obviously, the proliferation of regenerative therapies wouldn’t invalidate Garcia’s work of fiction. The crux of the novel is the inherent amorality in the economics of medicine, and the themes would apply equally well to lab-grown organs. What it does highlight is the ever narrowing gap between science fiction and scientific reality. What sci-fi authors write about today may soon be relevant to the real world, and this could have far-reaching implications for the attitudes we cultivate.

Steel Wind RisingLiterature has always had an unparalleled power to influence people’s social and political views by offering readers the chance to experience conflicts personally and emotionally through a connection with literary characters. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written 13 years before the abolition of slavery in the U.S., is often credited with changing attitudes in the North, which ultimately led to the Civil War. Where science fiction is concerned, authors have the unprecedented potential to inspire attitudes about issues that have not yet become reality. While human genetic manipulation could offer a whole new aspect to socio-economic separation, it is the questions relating to artificial intelligence that I find most provocative. What is it that makes us human: our biology or our intelligence? Should human rights extend to all sentient beings?

There is a divide on AI within science fiction, with one side portraying sentient robots as a threat to mankind, while the other portrays them as  being virtually human. In my own writing, I attempt to create sympathetic robot characters, capable of drawing readers onto the ‘robots are people too’ side of the argument. Part of the reason for adopting this position is simply that I think it’s more interesting. But I also think that when sentient robots become a reality, they will be whatever we expect them to be, in the same way that participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment took on the behaviours of the roles they were assigned (prisoner or guard). I suspect that the only chance that synthetic humans will have of finding their humanity is if the world treats them like people. I like to think that science fiction can shape the attitudes that will one day make this possible.

But how does a lifeless machine become a character capable of inspiring pathos, admiration and even love? In writing Steel Wind Rising, I envisioned the robot character, Andrew, as the avatar of his world. At least part of the appeal of robot protagonists must be that they fit into futuristic landscapes more readily than humans. That said, I think their appeal extends beyond a mere confluence of character and environment. Perhaps it’s precisely because we don’t expect to be able to relate to robot characters, that it’s such a heart-warming surprise when we do. The very core of android appeal is in contradiction. Who doesn’t love a good contradiction in a literary character: the flawed hero, the honourable thief, or the repentant sinner? When it comes to mechanical men (or women) the contrasts are that much sharper. The very image of the robot is one of hard steel and intractable logic, so when a robot character displays any fragility (physical or emotional), it gets our attention.

One of the most common themes amongst sentient robots has always been their longing to be treated as equals. The desire to be human hits at the heart of the robot experience. Since we are all human we shouldn’t relate to this either (unless you are, yourself, a sentient robot, reading this in the distant future), but there is something in it that speaks to us. Long before artificial intelligence was a within the reach of man, Carlo Collodi examined this theme in The Adventures of Pinocchio. Somehow the goal of becoming a ‘real boy’ was relatable and the character was a loveable, if mischievous, one. So, why does the quest for humanity appeal to us? Perhaps we are so used to taking it for granted that, when we encounter a character whose fondest wish it is to be human, we recognise the nobility of that desire. It moves us in the same way that seeing someone without drinking water would.

The question is, can we infer emotions and desires in robots if we believe they are only a simulation? The concept of artificial emotions is initially problematic, until we probe the nature of human consciousness. Robot minds are typically depicted as emerging from (sometimes contradictory) commands and programming, rather than coming from an intelligent ‘self’. In the past, we would have identified this as a key difference between robots and humans. Today, modern interpretations from cognitive science are more pervasive. We can more readily accept the concept of our intending, autonomous ‘selves’ emerging from basic (sometimes contradictory) mental impulses and processes, and creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. If our own emotions are anything, they are simulations created by our brains.

So, academically we can accept that a robot’s experience of the world could be identical to our own, and our experience of fictional characters show that our attitudes towards them could indeed be positive. But what about our unconscious actions that make up so much of human interaction? Well, personally, I’m certain that this is no impediment, because our reactions to social circumstances are incredibly automatic. This was beautifully demonstrated in the documentary: ‘How to build a bionic man’. The ‘man’, named Rex, was comprised of state-of-the-art prosthetics and artificial organs, but his body was only roughly human shaped and his speech was powered by an advanced internet chat-bot. The people interacting with Rex knew this, and yet, their behaviour towards him was remarkable. When Rex’s bionic arm failed, he spilled his drink and apologised. His companions rushed to reassure him and put him at ease, just as they would a human companion. It didn’t matter that Rex’s apology was a pre-programmed response. They projected an emotional state of mind onto this facsimile of a human and responded as if it was real. It is not difficult to imagine a future in which people and robots interact in a way that is indistinguishable from normal human exchanges.

Hopefully our ability to connect with robot literary characters bodes well for robo-human relations when artificial life is finally perfected. With any luck, they will learn compassion from our benevolent treatment of them, and will, in turn, treat us with kindness when they rise up and rule the world.

__________________________

Scott MeintjesScott Meintjes was born in Durban, South Africa, where he grew up and lived until the age of 25. During this time, he attained his Master’s degree in Psychology and met his wife, Eleanor. In 2006, he moved to England to serve in the British Army.

Today he lives in the University city of Cambridge, with his wife and daughter. Scott has been an enthusiastic reader of fantasy and science fiction since childhood, and started writing to create a story that he would enjoy reading.
His aim is to write sci-fi that is as appealing to newcomers to the genre as it is to long-time fans.

The SA Fiction Collection: Shark’s Egg

The first post for my SA Fiction Collection reminds me why I love second-hand bookstores. It was also the first book I bought on my recent visit to South Africa. I spent two days in Joburg staying with Lu from Sugar and Snark, and she took me to Outer Limits, a comic book store in Melville. Among other geekery like games and figurines, Outer Limits has a small selection of new and second-hand genre fiction, and I spotted this slim, obscure title on the shelves:

Sharks Egg

Shark’s Egg, published by Kwela Books in 2000, is the debut novel by Henrietta Rose-Innes. You may have heard of her recent novel Ninevah, or come across one of her short stories, which have appeared in numerous publications. The somewhat sloppy cover of Shark’s Egg doesn’t really appeal to me, so it’s a good thing I was familiar with her name. The cover suggests fantasy, but the blurb implies more realist fiction. I’ll have to see for  myself.

Shark’s Egg by Henrietta Rose-Innes (2000, Kwela Books)

Goodreads Blurb:
A dark coming-of-age story set in Cape Town, Shark’s Egg tells the story of Anna’s schoolgirl friendship with the magnetic, destructive Leah, and their ambiguous adult relationship. Alan, Anna’s first lover, becomes the focus of a moral and sexual struggle between them as adults – played out against the menacing backdrop of the sea.

Links:
Goodreads
Kwela Books
Buy a Copy: Exclusive Books | KalahariGraffiti Boeke (Afrikaans website) | Amazon |

 

About the Author
Henrietta Rose-Innes is a South African writer based in Cape Town. Her novel Nineveh was published by Random House Struik in 2011, following a short-story collection, Homing (2010), and two earlier novels: Shark’s Egg (2000) and The Rock Alphabet (2004).

In 2012, her short story ‘Sanctuary’ took second place in the BBC International Short Story Competition. Nineveh was shortlisted for the 2012 Sunday Times Fiction Prize and the M-Net Literary Award. In 2008, Henrietta won the Caine Prize for African Writing, for which she was shortlisted in 2007. Also in 2007, she was awarded the South African PEN Literary Award. Shark’s Egg was shortlisted for the 2000 M-Net Literary Award.

Her short stories have appeared in various publications, including Granta, AGNI and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011. A collection of short pieces, translated into German, was published in September 2008 as Dream Homes.

She is currently Donald Gordon Creative Arts Fellow at the the Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts (GIPCA), University of Cape Town.

Website 
Twitter: @HenriettaRI
Goodreads

Review of The Bay of Foxes by Sheila Kohler

Title: The Bay of Foxes
Author: Sheila Kohler
Published: 26 June 2012
Publisher: Penguin Books USA
Genre: drama, metafiction
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10

Dawit is an Ethiopian refugee living in Paris in 1978 after having escaped torture and imprisonment under the violent, oppressive rule of the Derg. He has no money, no job, and no visa, so he lives in fear of being caught by the police and deported. Then one day in a café he sees M., “that rarest of writers, a literary best-selling one.” Dawit – a well-educated aristocrat – has always admired her work. She’s in her sixties now, and her face is ravaged by both age and alcoholism, yet he still finds her beautiful. He goes over to speak to her, and they strike up a conversation.

M. is clearly enraptured by the stunning, young Dawit and invites him to stay with her in her luxurious, spacious apartment overlooking the Luxemborg gardens. Dawit eagerly grabs hold of this opportunity. He’s been living in a cramped apartment in the ghetto with many other Ethiopians, and appreciates the luxury of having his own room at M.’s place.  More importantly, he’s no longer has to worry about starving.

However, this is a strange arrangement, and as you can imagine their relationship is disturbing from the start. For a while, Dawit does nothing and barely even sees M., since she spends most of her time locked in her room, writing. He wonders what her motives could be, but there are no prizes for guessing what she wants from him. M. uses Dawit for inspiration, ideas, and shows him off to her friends like a living African artefact. Obsessed with Dawit’s youth and beauty, M. clearly expects their relationship to become sexual, but unfortunately – for both of them – Dawit is gay. It’s unfortunate for Dawit, because he is almost powerless here. M. provides him with everything – a home, food, designer clothes (Hermès, Armani). With his excellent French, he eventually starts to do secretarial and editorial work for her, so she pays him a monthly stipend. She even secures a tourist visa for him so that they can travel to her villa at The Bay of Foxes in Sardinia.

M. holds the power of wealth over Dawit, and unless he’s willing to live in fear and poverty again, he has to put up with patronising racism and can’t raise many complaints when the old woman comes into his room at night, switching on the light to watch him sleep naked, or crawling into bed with him. His life with M. actually reminds Dawit of his imprisonment in Ethiopia. The guards would also leave the light on, making it impossible for him to sleep, and like M. they could enter his cell whenever they wanted and do what they wanted with his body.

Dawit is at M.’s mercy, but in this case his imprisonment is cushioned by wealth, comfort and safety, so it’s not hard to understand why he stays. He also picks up some useful skills and information. As M.’s secretary, he takes care of all her correspondence and to do so he learns to impersonate her – she teaches him her signature, so that he can answer her letters and sign documents; he learns to imitate her rough, masculine voice so that he can take phone calls for her. They’re both very tall and skinny, and because she sometimes buys men’s or unisex clothing, he initially wears her pants suits and shoes. She calls him her “very young and dark double” and is amused by this comparison.

From here, it wasn’t difficult for me to see where the story was going. Although I can’t think of any specific examples, I’m pretty sure I’ve come across some version of this tale before. It also parallels Kohler’s earlier novel Cracks in several ways. Predictable as it is though, it’s not too bad. I like novels that intimately explore strange, manipulative relationships, and the psychology of obsession. The Bay of Foxes is also detailed and well written in a way that I find engaging even though there are no surprises. When Dawit speaks of M.’s work, he says he “does admire her spare, concentrated prose, her brief evocative novels” and I wondered if Kohler was using a description of her own work here; I’d say that’s an excellent way to describe my feelings about the two novels of hers that I’ve read so far.

The Bay of Foxes didn’t explore Ethiopian culture as much as I’d hoped (if you strip away a few names and details, Dawit could be from any number of countries), but I suppose this novel isn’t really about Dawit as an Ethiopian, but rather about the relationship between a disempowered young African man and an old, rich, white European woman. I don’t like the use of ‘African’ as a blanket term since the continent is so vast and diverse, but in this novel it doesn’t matter that Dawit is Ethiopian – to the French, the Italians and perhaps even to himself, he’s an African, a black man.

I wasn’t sure what to make of the ending though. It’s not unsatisfying (although I wouldn’t be surprised if many readers feel otherwise), but it’s a tad… convenient? Dawit is trapped in a difficult situation, but the most likely conclusion would, in some ways, be unjust and displeasing to the reader. Instead, Kohler smoothes everything over in a way that’s more palatable but doesn’t feel quite right. I can’t say much more of course, but I’d be interested to know what others think. All in all, a good, quick literary read, if a little predictable.

Buy a copy of The Bay of Foxes at The Book Depository

Up for Review: The Bay of Foxes

Cracks by Sheila Kohler was one of the most unusual non-genre novels I’ve read, and the kind of book you never forget. It’s an intensely sensual story about desire, beauty, and jealousy set at a girls’ boarding school in rural South Africa. It has the quirk of a group narrator (one of the members actually has the same name as the author), and an unforgettably shocking climax. When I first read it in high school, I also thought it amazingly refreshing to find a South African novel that wasn’t about politics, racism or Apartheid. After re-reading it later I felt that it wasn’t one of the best books I’ve read, but it’s certainly one of the most memorable and poetic, reminiscent of The Virgin Suicides.

When I saw a new Sheila Kohler novel on NetGalley, I immediately requested it in the hope of a similarly evocative reading experience.

The Bay of Foxes by Sheila Kohler (Penguin Books USA)

Marketing copy from NetGalley:

In 1978, Dawit, a young and beautiful Ethiopian refugee, roams the streets of Paris. By chance, he spots the famous French author M., who at sixty is at the height of her fame. Seduced by Dawit’s grace and his moving story, M. invites him to live with her. He makes himself indispensable, or so he thinks. When M. brings him to her Sardinian villa, beside the Bay of Foxes, Dawit finds love and temptation-and perfects the art of deception.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Sheila Kohler was born in South Africa and earned degrees from the Sorbonne, the Institut Catholique, and Columbia University. She teaches at Princeton University and Bennington College and lives in New York City. She has won two O. Henry Prizes, an Open Fiction Award, a Willa Cather Prize, and a Smart Family Foundation Prize. Her books have been published in 10 countries and have sold more than 60,000 copies.


The Bay of Foxes will by published on 26 June by Penguin Books USA.