Friday, 6 March 2015

From Matilda to Refilwe: A Celebration of Children's Literature

I've been wanting to do a follow-up to my YA fiction post (which feels like ages ago when I wrote that) for the longest time. One that focuses on children's literature more broadly - so this post is long overdue. I did get inspiration a month or so ago when I (and a few other people) were asked on Twitter what we thought an African children's literature themed landscape would could look like.

I went on about it being an inclusive (not an exclusive) landscape, that lets Black and African kids explore themselves via fiction, but also introduces non-black and African kids to to other perspectives. That it was as much about shared experiences and backgrounds as it was about showing different cultures and experiences. More than anything, I wanted a landscape where there was choice for all kids on a bookshelf - whether in the library, bookstore or online. 

From Matilda to Refilwe: A literary landscape which includes all

Since then I've been doing a lot of research on children's literature (and I cannot lie reading quite a few of them as well) and decided that I would do a series of post showcasing the wonderful world of African children's literature I've been discovering. Hope you enjoy (I know I have).

Friday, 27 February 2015

Meet ... Xanelé Puren

Next up in the 'Meet' Series - my chance to interview anyone I would love to meet that is involved in African literature - is Xanelé Puren. A look at Xanelé's bio reveals what a dynamic young woman she is - illustrator, named one of the Mail & Guardian's 200 Young South Africans in 2012, co-founder of the social enterprise See-Saw-Do (which combines the two things she loves: illustration and the wellbeing of children in South Africa) and winner of the inaugural Golden Baobab Prize for African Illustrators

I am just going to come out and say that I am completely inspired by Xanelé Puren's creative activism - and I am very honoured that she took the time to answer my many questions for the series. Enjoy!!!

About you

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself (where you’re from, what you do, any fun details)?
I'm a 26-year-old Capetonian. Mother to a very large and fluffy cat named Bob. Wife to Jeremy, who is not only my life partner, but my business partner as well. Together, Jeremy and I co-founded and run a “child centred” design company called See-Saw-Do.

Could you describe your journey to becoming an artist?
I've always considered myself to be a “creative being”. My mother studied fine arts, so I guess it runs in the family. Illustration in children's books really made me aspire to want to be in the creative industry. I ended up studying Visual Communication Design at Stellenbosch University where I discovered that I have a great passion for illustration.

Do you remember the first illustration you ever drew?
I can't recall the very first picture I drew. I do however recall that I've always loved drawing. At 6 years of age, on my first day at pre-primary, I was extremely excited over my first drawing. I was busy drawing a horse and my picture covered the entire page. The teacher tapped me on the shoulder and told me not to cover the page and suggested that I use less colours, because it was taking too much time. I was quite set aback by that comment and that's probably why I have a vivid memory of what that particular drawing looked like.

What do you do when you are not illustrating?
See-Saw-Do, our design studio, requires a lot more from me than just illustration. We have to manage projects, do site visits and a whole bunch of other things required of us to make the business run smoothly and have a maximum impact on the children and communities we work in.

Fortunately, when you live in Cape Town there is always so much happening in the city (first thursdays, rooftop movie screenings, gallery openings etc). I love climbing Lion's Head, all the various hiking trails along Table Mountain. Cape Town has loads of food markets, my personal is the Oranjezicht City Farm Market. We're almost at that market every Saturday morning.

On illustrating

How did you become interested in illustrating, and particularly illustrating literature for children?
Growing up, my mother used to expose us to many many illustrated story books. These books definitely cultivated an appreciation for illustration and stories. As mentioned in a previous answer, I discovered my true passion for illustration whilst at University. Our final year brief was "design to make a difference" and I decided to focus on designing for children. During that year I designed two books and we beautified 3 Early Childhood Development Centres with relevant educational murals.

Currently, I don't focus solely on illustrating children's literature. The illustrations I currently produce are done for See-Saw-Do with the goal to enhance and beautify child environments. I do draw in my free-time as well and apart from designing three of my own books I’ve also illustrated a book for the Joy Bracelet initiative.
The JOY Book's vibrant and colourful illustrations by Xanale Puren.
What do you love the most about being an illustrator (and illustrating for children)?
I love investing time and energy into beautifying spaces where children live, learn and play - whether it's through classroom upgrades, and makeovers, illustrations or through an illustrated mural. Being able to create something that will have a positive impact on a child, their play environment, their learning environment or their creativity is extremely rewarding.

Your artwork has been described as having a “‘child-like’ playfulness”, where do you get your ideas for your drawings from?
Sometimes I have to create illustrations according to a brief. In other cases, I have to come up with themes, design solutions. More often than not, the ideas flow onto paper quite effortlessly. I know that my past, present, the crazy information age that we live in obviously has an impact on the creative mind which in turn has an impact on one's work.

Beyond illustrating for children’s literature, you are the co-founder of the social enterprise See-Saw-Do, could you tell us the story behind it?
See-Saw-Do was born out of my final year studying Visual Communication Design at Stellenbosch University. Our brief was “design to make a difference” and I decided to focus my energy and creativity on designing for children. I ended up seeing a great need for beautification at local Early childhood development [ECD] centres as well as a need for educational books. During 2010 I designed 3 English/Xhosa work/image picture books and three relevant themed murals. I entered this idea for the Sappi Ideas that Matter competition and won a grant that funded printing 2000 of my books + running costs to re-paint more ECD centres. This grant gave me the confidence to pursue See-Saw-Do post graduation. My husband (who played a big role in the entire process up to this point) also decided to devote 100% of his time to make this initiative a success and we’ve been running for 4 years.

See-Saw-Do has developed into a company that re-imagines and designs  beautiful, functional and relevant child environments. Our scope of work includes mural makeovers, spatial upgrades, and interior classroom makeovers. 
See-Saw-Do beautifies child environments through beautiful, bright relevant themed murals.
Image courtesy of Xanele Puren
See-Saw-Do's Interior Classroom Makeovers. Image courtesy of Xanele Puren
Interior of a Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU) bus.
Image courtesy of Xanele Puren
This year, we will also start working on designing and installing exterior play spaces. We fund our projects by partnering up with corporate companies, NGO’s and our local government. We’re dreaming big and super amped about what the future holds for See-Saw-Do, the creative possibilities and the impact it can have on children's lives.

On Children’s Literature and Golden Baobab

Do you remember which children’s books were your favourite back when you were a young reader and why?
I still have quite a few books from my childhood library! I love a tale from Liberia called "The Vingananee and the tree toad", a Russian folk tale "Varenka", "Where the Wild things are" by Maurice Sendak, "Moomin" by Tove Jansson to name but a few. All of these books have beautiful illustrations and captivating stories.

Books from Xanele's childhood. Image courtesy of Xanele Puren
How did you hear about the Golden Baobab Prize for Illustrators?
I received a email that was sent out by the Golden Baobab to illustrators and writers who might be interested in participating.

Could you tell us about the piece you submitted and the inspiration behind it?
We had a very strict brief we had to use to base our illustrations on. Brief number one was "A boy and his little brother are lost in a big city market. The older boy is pulling his brother who is distracted by a chicken."  Brief number two: "Jama only had 15 minutes to choose books before the library closed. He could see, out of the corner of his eye, the librarian's foot tapping nearby. But Jama needed to take books his father would believe he was interested in."
Jama is late to borrow a book from the library. Image via Golden Baobab
What was your reaction to winning the inaugural prize?
I was super surprised, super stoked and extremely happy! I definitely threw a few air punches!

On Books and More

What are you reading right now?
“I am Malala: The girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban” by Malala Yousafzai and “The minor adjustment beauty salon: The Nr1 ladies detective agency” by Alexander Mccall Smith, as well as “Parenting beyond pink and blue” by Christina Spears Brown.

As an illustrator, have you ever judged a book by its cover? If so, what are some of your favourite book covers?
I often fall into the trap where I don’t have time to properly browse through books in a bookstore and I end up pick a book with the most aesthetically pleasing cover. I’ve had my fair share of success and failure using this method! A charming book I came across using this method was “In the sea there are crocodiles” by Fabio Geda. One of my personal favourite covers is an illustrated cover by Carson Ellis for a book called “Wildwood”.

Final Question (I promise)

What’s next?
See-Saw-Do will be moving into a new studio space later this month. I hope to make the space cat friendly to accommodate our extremely social and affectionate cat. We have a few exciting projects lined up and if all goes according to plan, we’ll be expanding our services to include designing and installing multi-sensory play spaces. This will add a new dimension to our work and I’m very excited to see where it will lead us! One of our main beneficiaries, Eldene Primary, will hopefully be the first space to benefit from a new play area.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Next in the Meet Series

The 'Meet' Series is my chance to interview anyone I would love to meet that is involved in African literature. 

As someone who hasn't hidden the fact that I love the art associated with books, as much as I do the words in them, I am really happy to announce that next in the series is Xanelé Puren, winner of the inaugural Golden Baobab Prize for African Illustrators

From South Africa, with a love for illustration awakened through the countless number of children's books her mother exposed her too, Xanelé won the Prize with two illustrations: Two lost boys in a big city market and Jama is late to borrow a book from the library
Two lost boys in a big city market. Image via Golden Baobab
American illustrator and writer, Paul Zelinksky - one of the 2014 judges "found the characters in Xanelé’s illustrations to be very attractive and appealing in part because it takes some examining to see them as even human, but once you do see them that way, they are quite amusing. Her illustration are decorative, artistic and charming and I do think she has given us some very lovely work.!"

While early childhood educator, Akua Peprah, finds Xanelé's illustrations are " ... vibrant, textured and playful. There is so much detail in every character and the backgrounds. The illustrations evoke such strong feelings and makes me want to read the books where those pages came from.!"

I love, love, love that one of the judges was 8-year old Ghanaian book lover, Kofi Anyimadu who "really liked discovering the unexpected characters in Xanele’s Illustrations! I liked the men playing cards and the carpet in the middle. The carrots for a nose was also funny!"

Golden Baobab is really changing the work of children's literature on the continent and last year, it launched the Golden Baobab Prize for African Illustrators Prize to 'recognise and celebrate talented African illustrators for children stories.' 

Said to be the biggest and most prestigious prize committed to discovering, nurturing and celebrating talented African illustrators of children’s stories, executive Director, Deborah Ahenkorah, explains the reason behind the launch being that:
"Children deserve to have imaginative and captivating illustrations accompany enthralling stories they read. They deserve to not only see themselves represented in those stories but also in the images they consume."
I couldn't agree more, and in fact I am reminded by a piece I read the other day by Mabel Segun on the importance of illustration in children's literature. In it Segun writes that: "pictorial language is literature in its own right ... [with] art helping a young child to discover [their] own identity and cultural heritage."

The inaugural prize shortlisted 12 finalists, ten of which were recently featured on Okayafrica on 10 African Children's Illustrators to Know. 

If you haven't seen the artists work, you should definitely check them out, and then join me next week for the first Meet Series of the year with Xanelé Puren - who is not just a talented artist, but is transforming the lives of young South Africans through her social enterprise. How cool is that? Xanelé will be sharing her journey to becoming an artist, what she loves about being an illustrator, her social enterprise, and her favourite children's book growing up. 

"Terra Incogonita" Edited by Nerine Dorman

Terra incognita. Uncharted depths. Africa unknowable. Nineteen new short speculative stories from the fringes and hidden worlds of Africa.

Terra Incognita, Short Story Day Africa's latest anthology (edited by Nerine Dorman, published in South Africa by SSDA in association with Hands On Books and available internationally via African Book Collective in partnership with Modjaji Books), contains stories that explore, among other things, the sexual magnetism of tokoloshe, a deadly feud with a troop of baboons, a journey through colonial purgatory, along with ghosts, re-imagined folklore, and the fear of that which lies beneath both land and water. 

The anthology's focus reflects 2014 being Short Story Day Africa's 'year of speculative fiction'. As explained following the announcement of the longlist in August 2014:

"Speculative fiction gives writers a way to discuss issues without wheeling out the tropes and the poverty porn and the Oxfam goats. Earlier this year we sent out a call for all your fantasy, sci-fi, horror, alternative history and magical realism, just about anything that fell into spec fic genre. The them, Terra Incognita, asked writers to take us into unknown places, break moulds, rethink the way we tell our stories."

Short speculative stories from 19 writers
The anthology's writers include South African, Diane Awerbuck, who won the 2004 Commonwealth Writers' Prize best first book (Africa and the Caribbean) and the SSDA competition in 2014. Awerbuck was also shortlisted for the 2014 Caine Prize; Ugandan writer, film maker and social activist Dilman Dila, who was shortlisted for the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize; and Nigerian Brit, Mary Okon Ononokpono, winner of the 2014 Golden Baobab Prize for Children's Literature, whose short story in the anthology, Editöngö, gives a glimpse into an earlier version of the opening chapter of her forthcoming adult debut novel.

If you're curious about the cover of Terra Incognita, as I was, the cover follows-on from the anthology's theme of subversion:
" ... In the four years since inception, the SSDA team has developed a survival ethos: to subvert and reclaim ... To subvert ideas about what it means to be a writer in Africa. To subvert ideas about African stories."
In addition to thinking the cover 'just looks nice', the designer, Nick Mulgrew, explains how 'he took to re-appropraiting old ideas about Africa' in this blog post on SSDA's website:
" ... the design is about subverting colonial cartographic tropes, and as well as undermining ideas of Africa as a dark, impenetrable continent, in order to reclaim and reposition them in a more modern, Afrofutiturist context."
Really loving the theme of subversion for both the stories and the cover for this anthology. I've barely got through books published in 2014 and there's already so much to read. 2015 keeps on looking better and better. 

Sunday, 15 February 2015

'On Africa': The 2015 PEN World Voices Festival

Image via PEN World Voices. Art by Kenyan artist, Wangechi Mutu.

The 11th Annual PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature will bring together over 100 writers from around the world in New York from May 4 -10 2015. The best part - this year's 'new curatorial approach' is on the 'contemporary literary culture of the African continent and its diaspora'. 

The festival will be co-curated by Chimamanda Adichie (who will also deliver the annual Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture on the closing night) and the Festival Director, László Jakab Orsós. Orsós, speaking on the festival, said:
"Focusing on the African continent is an ambitious undertaking ... We cannot, in one week-long Festival, even come close to presenting the entirety of the riveting literary landscapes throughout Africa, but we’re excited to present a select group of writers and artists who, I believe, will inspire New York audiences with their uncompromising and brilliant work. It’s our privilege to put the spotlight on these writers, and it is my hope that they will challenge all of us to create art that is bravely subversive and relevant to our time.”
The Festival, which will have events taking place across New York City, will feature both established and emerging writers and artists from around the globe - including Teju Cole, Edwidge Danticat, Mona Eltahawy, Richard Flanagan, Aminatta Forna, Yahya Hassan, Rachel Kushner, Alain Mabanckou, Achille Mbembe, Nico Muhly, Sigrid Nunez, Michael Ondaatje, Luc Sante, Craig Seligman, Tracy K. Smith, and Tom Stoppard.

The press release states that there will be a:
'rich and eclectic variety of conversations, readings, workshops, and performances celebrating the power of the written word as a vital element of public discourse'. 
Festival highlights, and there are many, include a diverse group of writers including Aminatta Forna, Lola Shoneyin, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and Binyavanga Wainaina, reading commissioned work exploring their imagined scenarios for global culture and society in 2050; 'a salon-style gathering' where the audience will mingle with writers and artists, including Boubacar Boris Diop, Billy Kahora, Alain Mabanckou, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and Véronique Tadjo, over drinks - as hosts lead conversations with the audience on issues vital to shaping deeper understanding between African nations and the West. The Festival will also include panels exploring the African diaspora, the future of queer communities in Africa, the vibrant poetry scenes across the continent, and the roles of bloggers in the literary landscape. Find out more about what's on, here.

While it is impossible to expect the festival to be able to cover the entire depth and breadth of literature on the continent and in the Diaspora (the press release even raises that), when looking at the line-up, I couldn't help but think about Maaza Mengiste's tweets last year on the dominance of certain African countries on the literary world stage

There are definitely some amazing writers attending this event, who I would love to see (honestly, I am so excited about this event and I would love to be in New York for it). Still, African literature is also so diverse and this Festival could have been an awesome space to showcase even more of that richness and vibrancy. It seems I wasn't the only one thinking that, as Arabic Literature (in English) asked, 'Which African Voices?'The post also points to the fact that the Festival 'could be an opportunity to explore things differently', such as French-language African writing from Algeria and Morocco, 'but the opportunity is missed'. 

Where are the North African voices? Image via: Twitter
This doesn't make the Festival any less great and certainly shouldn't take away from the fact that there is going to be a week long festival in May in different parts of New York celebrating African literature. For that, I am thankful, very excited, and if I am being honest seriously jealous that it's happening in New York. 

Find out more about the Festival on the 2015 PEN World Voices websiteTickets for all Festival events are also available there.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

African Reads: 100 Days of Appreciation

For 100 days, between 10th October 2014 and 17th January 2015, Angela Wachuka gave us nothing but African literary heaven with the wonderful #100DaysofAfricanReads. As described on Sister Killjoy's Facebook page - one of the social media platforms, which hosted the project - #100DaysofAfricanReads was:
"a series of portraits on books, writers and readers, over a 100 day period ...  highlighting the work of an African author in print and online ".  
It wasn't only images - each photo was accompanied with a blurb about the book/story and the author.
Some of the striking images from #100DaysofAfricanReads.  Source: Sister Killjoy's Facebook Page
Photos reposted with permission from Angela Wachuka

From classics (Things Fall Apart, Our Sister Killjoy, Nervous Conditions) to contemporary fiction (Open City, Ghana Must Go, Wife of the Gods) and e-books (Boy, Snow, Bird) to short pocket sized stories (easykwani) the images captured the variety of books and formats on the continent. There were also links to short stories (Teju Cole's Water Has No Enemy), essays (O Digba Ka Na’ by Michael Salu), and works from writers' collectives (Jalada) and magazines/newspapers (Chimurenga).

More than that, #100DaysofAfricanReads also captured the diversity of readers - women and men, young and old, found in different parts of a city (I'm assuming the pictures were taken in cities). From the butcher holding Okot p'bitek's Africa's Cultural Revolution, to the woman in the market by the fruit and veg stand holding a copy of Two Songs (also by Okot p'bitek), to reading at night in a downtown bar/restaurant staring out onto the street, or at home, at the bustop, in the library, in your car, in the park or even on the pavement of a busy street. Even authors, like Toni Kan, Okey Ndibe, and Nike Campbell-Fatoki got in on the action holding copies of their own books Nights of the Creaking BedForeign Gods., Inc and Thread of Gold Beads respectively. If it isn't already obvious, I loved everything about #100DaysofAfricanReads.

Probably around two or so weeks into project,  I noticed that the Cameroonian cultural magazine, Bakwa Magazine started featuring excerpts of stories related to  on their website. Recently, I got the chance to ask Dzekashu MacViban, founder of Bakwa magazine, a few questions on Bakwa's involvement with #100DaysofAfricanReads.

On his thoughts on the project:
" is a challenging project which Angela Wachuka was able to pull off wonderfully. It takes the world on an African writing reading spree which cuts across several genres and forms highlighting popular and not so popular works (including purchase links) all of which are introduced such that the reader has a general idea of the work in question."
On how the idea for Bakwa to collaborate on came about:
"Actually, the collaboration was Angela’s idea and it came about just before Bakwa published an excerpt of Awes Osman’s novel "Skinless Goat" in Somalia. After that, she said she’d very much like to feature some contemporary Cameroonian writers as part of ."
On the excerpts:
"With the exception of the excerpt from Awes Osman’s novel, Bakwa’s contribution to was made up of short stories by Cameroonian female writers Joyce Ashuntantang and Monique Kwachou. The decision to feature fiction by Cameroonian female writers of English expression is mostly because Cameroonian writing in English is not well known in the world and the writers who are internationally recognized are mostly men."
I especially love that #100DaysofAfricanReads and Bakwa used this opportunity to showcase the works of female Cameroonian writers in English. It's just a testament to how through platforms like these, we are able to gain access to literary works we may not usually have access to.

For me #100DaysofAfricanReads is as much about showcasing how diverse (African) literature (on the continent and in the diaspora) is and how we consume it in so many different ways, as it is about the diversity of social life in Africa - it shows that reading can, and is, for everyone.

So thank you Angela Wachuka for such an awesome initiative, to the photographers (including Msingi Sasis, Michael Adesoun, Jacque Ndinda, Neo Jasmine Mokgosi [I'm sorry if I didn't get all of the names]) for such amazing visuals, and the men and women for working it in those photos.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Even More New Releases for 2015

Last year, I showcased ten new releases to look forward to in 2015. Since then, the UK and US covers of Nnedi Okorafor's The Book of Phoenix were revealed and there are a few more books to add to that list. Here's to another great year of reading.

Day Four by Sarah Lotz
May 2015

Sarah Lotz returns with the chilling follow-up to The Three. In Day Four, four days into a five day singles cruise on the Gulf of Mexico, the ageing ship Beautiful Dreamer stops dead in the water. With no electricity and no cellular signals, the passengers and crew have no way to call for help. But everyone is certain that rescue teams will come looking for them soon. All they have to do is wait. That is, until the toilets stop working and the food begins to run out. When the body of a woman is discovered in her cabin the passengers start to panic. There's a murderer on board the Beautiful Dreamer ... and maybe something worse.

101 Detectives by Ivan Vladislavić
June 2015

What kind of Detective am I? Eardrum or typanum? Gullet or aesophagus? Pussy or pudena? A Detective needs a language almost as much as a language needs a Detective.

In this new collection of stories, award-winning author Ivan Vladislavić invites readers to do some detective work of their own. Each story can be read as just that - a story - or you can dig a little deeper. Take a closer look, examine the artefact from all angles, and consider the clues and patterns concealed within.

Whether skewering extreme marketing techniques or construction dystopian parallel universes; whether mounting a mother's loss or tracing a translator's on-stage breakdown,  Vladislavić's pitch-perfect inquisitions will make you question your own language - how it defines you, and how it undoes you.

Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto (Translated by David Brookshaw)
July 2015

Mia Couto's latest novel is a dark, poetic mystery about the women of the remote village of Kulumani and the lioness that hunt them.

Told through two haunting, interwoven diaries, Mia Couto’s Confession of the Lioness (A confissão da leoareveals the mysterious world of Kulumani, an isolated village in Mozambique whose traditions and beliefs are threatened when ghostlike lionesses begin hunting the women who live there.

Mariamar, a woman whose sister was killed in a lioness attack, finds her life thrown into chaos when the outsider Archangel Bullseye, the marksman hired to kill the lionesses, arrives at the request of the village elders. Mariamar’s father imprisons her in her home, where she relives painful memories of past abuse and hopes to be rescued by Archangel. Meanwhile, Archangel tracks the lionesses in the wilderness, but when he begins to suspect there is more to them than meets the eye, he starts to lose control of his hands. The hunt grows more dangerous, until it’s no safer inside Kulumani than outside it. As the men of Kulumani feel increasingly threatened by the outsider, the forces of modernity upon their traditional culture, and the danger of their animal predators closing in, it becomes clear the lionesses might not be real lionesses at all but spirits conjured by the ancient witchcraft of the women themselves.

Both a riveting mystery and a poignant examination of women’s oppression, Confession of the Lioness explores the confrontation between the modern world and ancient traditions to produce an atmospheric, gripping novel.

Based on true facts and written in atmospheric language, A confissão da leoa skilfully interweaves the enthralling stories of Arcanjo and Mariamar, constantly surprising the reader with unexpected twists and turns.

US covers of Day Four and Confession of the Lioness