Book 3: Lauren Beukes: Broken Monsters

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Lauren Beukes, Broken Monsters, speculative fiction, South AfricaLauren Beukes is a writer that probably needs no introduction to many of you who will read this blog. She’s a South African speculative fiction writer, and Broken Monsters is her fourth book. She has won like a gazillion awards and is the envy of writers around the country (and world, and possibly the universe). Her other books are

  • Moxyland
  • Zoo City
  • The Shining Girls

Before Broken Monsters I had readMoxyland and the Shining Girls.Beukes also did the Masters in Creative Writing in UCT and Moxyland was the book that she completed there.

Moxyland was set in Cape Town and it was generally a very cool plot (espionage, anti-Government activity). She came to speak to us while I was doing the MA and one of the things she said that stuck with me was that fiction writers who live in South Africa should be grateful, because the news here can sometimes be so ridiculous that we have so much material. She also said that speculative fiction (the new fancy word for science fiction) doesn’t necessarily have to be out of this world weird, but can also be reality with a few twists. Moxyland pretty much fits that bill. It felt like the things that happened in the book could easily happen in real life in the future, and reminded me a lot of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.

The Shining Girls felt more to me like a crime thriller than a sci-fi. It was set in the USA instead of SA which was a sad move away from home content, but probably a necessary one in terms of Beukes’ market. It was a gripping story and it is quite graphically violent. Beukes also took the opportunity to use her fame and talent for good, hosting a charity art auction with art inspired by the book to raise money for the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust. Some other really exciting news is that Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company has bought the television rights to the story so we may get to see it on screens soon!

Broken Monsters “a paranormal crime-noir” is her latest book. You can watch the book trailer here. Also set in the USA, it follows the story of Gabi Versado (a homicide detective), her daughter, and the failed artist Clayton Broom. Strange bodies start appearing around Detroit, and it is Versado’s duty to find out who is leaving them there, and what they have to do with all the mysterious doors around the city. It’s a complex story that you know, right from the beginning, is going to end strangely.

The characters are a strength of the text – each one has their own challenges and capabilities which make them seem more real and rich to the reader. As the Mail and Guardian notes “her female protagonists defy casual stereotyping” and it’s great to see so many female characters solving things and showing both competency and compassion.

I think as a writer what someone can really learn from Beukes is pacing. The chapters are the right length to keep you reading one more than you planned to without feeling like the book is holding you hostage. The action is paced well with plot-building chapters so that you’re desperate to find out more.

Beukes also uses place and space really well to build suspense (e.g. the party scene and the side of the road scariness) but also to enhance the humanity of the characters. I have never been to the USA, never mind to Detroit, but place and space was well described in Broken Monsters, so much so that it felt like an additional character that reflected back onto the protagonists, and helped to reveal things about their past and future (if they were lucky enough to have one). It also seemed like a place you might not want to walk around alone at night in.

Another thing to learn from Beukes as a writer is that you must make an effort to develop a brand, a website, and truly show case yourself. I think for a lot of women the idea of promoting yourself feels kind of weird because we’ve been programmed to stay out of the limelight, or to spend more time promoting others than ourselves. Beukes shows us that it’s time to start celebrating our own talent, as we rightly deserve to do, and her website is a great example of how you can showcase your work. Lauren is often on twitter, and often engaging.

I really enjoy speculative fiction and I think we’re really lucky in South Africa to have such a strong culture of it, and particularly such talented female writers like Beukes.

Follow Lauren on twitter at @laurenbeukes and on Facebook here



Book 2: Mamle Wolo – The Kaya Girl

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Mamle Wolo, Mamle Kabu, The Kaya-Girl, Ghana, Accra

The Kaya-Girl is the first young adult fiction I have read since I was a young adult (which seems a very long time ago). I often think about what young women are reading about, and how it influences their ideas of their world and their own power, but I haven’t engaged much with what’s out there at the moment.

Mamle Wolo was one of the facilitators for the AWW14 workshop in Uganda this year and was one of the people who made me really excited to visit Ghana, a country I knew hardly anything about. She is a great facilitator and a great writer, with lots of advice on technique. I was in her discussion group where we each got to write a little bit and get some feedback, and it was a wonderful experience.

I bought a copy of her award winning book (it won the Burt Award for African Literature) whilst in Uganda and it is the second book I read for this project. It tells the story of Abena and Faiza, two similar girls from two very different backgrounds. They meet whilst Abena is on school holidays and is staying with her aunty in Accra. Her aunty has a shop in the Makola market which looks like an incredible place.

Faiza is a Kaya girl, who works at the market carrying people’s purchases for them. They are from two startlingly different worlds – rich/poor, educated/uneducated, privileged/underprivileged – and yet they manage to connect on a level that goes beyond words and past experiences. I loved how Mamle captured the innocence of both of them, and how they learn so much from one another. The market itself is another character in the book, making you keenly aware of space and place. I really want to go there and see it!

One of the main things I think about when I think about writing a young adult novel is how I’ll get the ideas I want to get across without becoming didactic. The Kaya-Girl does this using such clever devices such as an internet search, a talk with a father, and the use of a love-interest to reflect back onto the main characters.

If you are a parent and you want your child to learn about privilege, love, and friendship, then I’d recommend getting this book for them. I think it would be a great book to read to your child or teen, because it would spark so much dialogue.

I really enjoyed it and it certainly made me curious to find out even more about Ghana (I am so so keen to go there) and to read more young adult novels. Mamle also writes adult novels under the name Mamle Kabu.

Find her on twitter here and like her on Facebook here

Book 1: Yewande Omotoso, Bom Boy

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I was privileged to attend the AWW14 African Women’s Creative Non-Fiction Writing Workshop hosted by the AWDF and FEMRITE in July 2014. The workshop lasted 10 days and was facilitated by Yewande Omotoso and Mamle Kabu. My fellow participants were amazing (read more about them here) and the facilitation was excellent.

I had known about Bom Boy for a number of years because it was published by the same publisher that I worked with in publishing the My First Time Collection of Women’s Stories of Sex and Sexuality – Modjaji Books. I also had met Yewande before and found her to be a great person but I had simply never gotten around to reading her book (excuses excuses!) When I heard she’d be facilitating the workshop I was excited because I knew that she had been nominated for numerous prizes (the Sunday Times Literary Awards 2012 for the Fiction Prize, the Etisalat Prize for Literature in 2013) and won others (SALA prize for English First-Time Published Author 2012) so I was ready to receive all the wisdom and tips she was going to give out.

On the first day of the workshop Yewande told us about her experience completing the Masters in Creative Writing at UCT. Having just completed the programme myself, I was really interested to get her take on it, and she did describe it in ways that I agreed with. It was a useful opportunity to meet other writers, and it was a very expensive way to force yourself to write a book. She also said that when she was finished her book, she didn’t even wait until graduation to send it out to a publisher (thank god she did!). She was brave and bold. She inspired me from her very first facilitation session, she shared some of her amazing writing, and she was totally practical about the writing process. If you get a chance to hear Yewande speak, you should take that chance straight away.

I bought Bom Boy at the workshop, got the famous signature, and it seemed natural that Yewande’s book would be the first one I’d read for my project. Bom Boy tells the story of Leke (pronounced Lay-kay) who is a young man living in Cape Town with a few strange habits and phobias. He is an instantly interesting character because he seems both deeply in connection with, and deeply surprised by the world around him. His story is complex – a South African mother who he doesn’t know and a Nigerian father who writes him letters to tell him about a family curse. In a sort of dream-like fashion you are swept along with Leke as he tries to find a grip on life, and perhaps even find himself. The characters are compelling – you want to try and understand why they do the things they do.

Bom Boy made me think a lot about destiny and the (in)escapability of history. It got me thinking about writing craft and how to tell a narrative from different perspectives, and tools that you could use to do this. It allowed the reader to travel through different time zones without the story line becoming overly complicated – I suppose this was probably because each character was so clear in my mind that I didn’t ever get confused about who was talking. Yewande certainly knows how to write dialogue.

As the cover blurb describes it “Bom Boy is a well-crafted and complex narrative written with a sensitive understanding of both the smallness and magnitude of a single life.” I was so chuffed at my first book for this project because it really made me excited to keep reading, and to keep writing.

You can follow Yewande Omotoso on twitter @yomotoso and like her Facebook page here.