Friday, February 12, 2016

The women, the magic

One of the small privileges of living in my corner of Johannesburg is being close to that most lovely (and rare) of things: an independent bookshop.

And not just any independent bookshop. At Love Books, there are literary quotes engraved into the flagstone step. There are hand-made cross-stitch samplers dividing the genres. There are high-back armchairs upholstered in Madiba-shweshwe and 1950s telephone tables. There is an adjoining cafe that smells of good coffee and expensive chocolates.

Love Books is, in short, less a shop than a welcoming hearth for heartsore readers.

All photos (c) Ríona Judge McCormack

Delightfully, it also plays host to a range of book-launches at erratic times throughout the year. In the last twelve months I've sat enthralled listening to Barbara Kingsolver, Helen MacDonald, Lauren Beukes and John Boyne - and host of new South African authors - speak about life, creativity, loss and the unexpected. (I missed Teju Cole's evening, but thankfully heard him speak instead at the Troyeville Hotel)

This week, it was the turn of Zakes Mda to launch Little Suns.

Photo credit and copyright Victor Dlamini

Zakes freaking Mda, people! How on earth do you begin to interview such a literary legend?

It turns out to be simple: you get Mbali Vilakazi to do it. (This is where I invite you to watch her phenomenal TEDtalk on poetry and process. I'll even wait right here while you do it.)

Over the course of an hour, Mbali took us through a beautifully thoughtful discussion with Professor Mda on fierce women, outsiders, forgotten stories, and the intersection of personal and political histories. Here are just a few fragments from that conversation:

On the array of interesting and bold women that populate Little Suns:
Why do I create strong female characters in my books? I think maybe because I don't know how to create any other kind.
On including the story of King Mamani, the first (and last) woman to be king, who took a wife and had a surrogate child with her:
Mamani she was ruthless in fact. Her cousin wanted to take [the throne] from her, but she was not having any of that. So she had him and all his supporters killed. I am in fact her descendant. But she is written out of my history, out of the history of the amaMpondomise.
On the magic in his stories:
It is from the tradition of stories we tell here, around the fire. My grandmother's stories taught me that the supernatural or the strange and unusual existed on the same plain as the real, that it is a natural part of that world... When I met Gabriel García Márquez he said to me, 'Do you know where I get my magic?' I said no. He said, 'From my grandmother. And do you know where she got it?' And I said no. He said, 'She got it from the African slaves.'
On writing under Apartheid:
During apartheid you could take a realistic slice of life, transfer it to the page and presto! Theatre of the absurd! [from @sa_poptart]

Buy the book - both in design and content, it is a thing of exquisiteness.

Thank you Jozi, for allowing me to bear witness to moments such as these.

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