Charlotte's Web

Charlotte Otter – novelist, feminist, crime writer


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Writer on Tour

I have been out and about, dear readers.

In March, I went to the Leipzig Book Fair:

leipzig

I was feeling pretty nervous (hiding nerves under brave smile):

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Because first up was an interview with the press:

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But, being socialists, they were very nice to me:

press

Then I went on stage to do a reading (one guy fell asleep):

Buhne

After, that I went to the Institute of African Studies to do another reading. This time, I had Madiba with me for company. I felt much more relaxed:

madiba

I read:

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I signed:

signing

Then I drank some wine:

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Last night, I did a reading in Langenbruecken, near Bad Schornborn, organised by the darling proprietors of the ars legendi bookshop. They arranged wonderful wine, Italian delicacies and some fabulous jazz. My husband and friends were there and I felt less nervous.

Starting to get the hang of this reading in German thing:

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Next up is Berlin in May, and then in June I hit South Africa to promote the English version of the book and do readings in Pietermaritzburg, Durban, Cape Town and Joburg.

In between all this promotion work, I am trying to write book two. It is not easy, but I have come up with a plan. It involves sparrows, dawn and daggers drawn against the inner editor.

And perhaps a little wine.

 


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My Writing Process Is Not Like Skiing (anymore)

One of my first blog posts ever was about skiing. Another post compared my fear of skiing with my fear of writing. I come to you, fresh off the slopes, where I did not ski, but where I let my family members throw themselves up and down mountains while I ensconced myself safely in coffee shops to write. Wordage! I achieved it. I am happy. But not complacent … never that.

ski

Non-writers doing stuff on mountains

On my return, I find that my friend Kate Kelly author of Red Rock (a cli-fi thriller for age 10+) has tagged me for a post on my writing process. I am very happy to oblige, and indeed, very relieved that she asks no questions about skiing.

So, onward!

1. What am I working on?

I am working on my second novel. It is crime fiction, and part two in a series starring Maggie Cloete, crime reporter at The Gazette, Pietermaritzburg’s only daily newspaper.

2. How does my work differ from others?

I think it’s the only crime fiction about a crime reporter working on a newspaper in Pietermaritzburg.

3. Why do I write what I do?

It’s what I know. I used to be a crime reporter on a newspaper in Pietermaritzburg.

4. How does my writing process work?

I write in clumps – big bursts in short periods of time. It is not ideal and I believe that writers need a daily writing practice but that does not work for me since I work full time and I have a houseful of humans who need me. I wrote my first novel, Balthasar’s Gift (published in Germany in  2013 and due out in South Africa this year) over a period of five years. Since I had no idea what the book was going to be about, I had to write my way into the story. Plus I also had to learn how to write a novel, and this took time and many, many  drafts.

This time, now that I know the book and I know that it is crime fiction about crime reporter on a daily in Pietermaritzburg and I have a two-page plot plan, the process is quicker and more efficient.

Having said that, it still requires a similar amount of day-dreaming, of percolating and composting, of going for walks and wrestling with plot angles in my head, or sitting in coffee shops and staring out the window. That will never change. The process is as it will be.

Writers, please tag yourselves!


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Conversations with Writers: Talking to Susie Nott-Bower

Susie Nott-Bower is the author of The Making of Her, published by Linen Press in 2012 and described on their website as “a blackly funny novel about women who feel unwanted and irrelevant when they reach fifty.” When Susie and I were on the same online writers’ forum, I watched Susie’s progress to publication with interest and marked The Making of Her in my mental TBR pile. After the forum caved, I lost contact with Susie, but when I finished reading the novel, I tweeted Susie to tell her how much I had loved it. She graciously agreed to an interview.JPEG OF FINAL TMOH COVER ONLY

Here’s our chat:

Susie, I have just finished reading The Making of Her, which I thought was superb. I suspect there is a germ of autobiography in there. Could you talk about how aspects of your life sparked the premise of the book?

Susie Nott-Bower: So glad you enjoyed it, Charlotte.  And yes, there’s more than a germ of autobiography there! The Making of Her is the story of three middle-aged people (and I’m definitely middle-aged) whose lives are transformed during the production of a tawdry television makeover show.  I worked as a director/producer for the BBC and Channel 4 for many years, and have written just about all my life.  The two women – Clara, a driven, impatient television producer – and Jo, a sensitive, introverted writer – are two sides of myself.  Clara, a feminist, has lost her femininity along the way, and Jo is increasingly losing her spirit, married as she is to the dreadful Iain.  Pete, the reclusive rock star, has barricaded himself into a too-small life.  All these are tendencies of mine, under pressure.  While many of the events in The Making of Her are not autobiographical – I’ve never had plastic surgery, for instance – the themes definitely are.

What I loved about TMOH, is that although the themes of love, loss, self-esteem and relationships are chick-littish, for want of a better word, your style is quiet and literary. This really surprised me, as I expected a Bridget Jones of a book. How did you reconcile your theme and your style? Which came first?

The Making of Her was rejected by one agent on these very grounds – that the tone seemed at odds with the content of the novel.  My style has always been quiet and reflective, and I went on a How To Write A Novel course at University College, Falmouth clutching the beginning of a ‘literary’ novel.  The course leader – who wrote historical romance – advised us to put aside anything we’d brought and start from scratch.  I wrote my first ever step sheet that evening, which turned out to be The Making of Her.  The course – which was excellent – basically focused on how to tell a good story.  I’ve since realised that both accessibility and depth are important to me:  I want readers to be involved, and also for there to be levels of depth and resonance.  After all, The Making of Her is about superficiality in the worlds of television and plastic surgery – yet beneath that surface lie questions about culture, the feminine, and individuality.

So, let’s talk about your writing process. How did you move from a step sheet to a fully fledged novel? Are you a planner, a pantser or something in between? 

The Making of Her was planned and I was quite regimented about it:  I set myself a target of just 2,000 words a week and worked from my step sheet.  It was comforting to have a structure, a map of the terrain.  And 2,000 words a week was doable, and meant I’d have a first draft in 9 months or so.  But these days I am a planter – something between planner and pantser, with gardening allusions.   I start with the seed of an idea, plant it on paper and watch it grow into … whatever it becomes.  How successful this is remains to be seen!

Love the idea of being a planter! I think having pantsed my first book, that’s what I’m probably doing now. So, let’s talk about working with a small indie press. How is that working for you?

Linen Press has been built over seven years by Lynn Michell, who is passionate about what she does.  She brings out two to three books a year, which means that as a writer you receive a great deal of personal attention – a fabulous gift, since Lynn is a superb editor. Pre-publication is a collaborative process and as well as working through The Making of Her chapter by chapter with Lynn, I was involved in every aspect of the book, including  choosing the cover design.  Linen Press is rightly proud of its books as beautiful objects as well as thoughtful and page-turning stories.  The down side of this is that, because the print-run is relatively small, costs tend to be high.  The Making of Her is now available as an e-book, which means it can compete.

What have you done for The Making of Her in terms of publicity?

Publicity and distribution for small indie presses are a challenge.  Writers have to be willing and able to put in a lot of time and effort on their books’ behalf.  I wrote to every women’s magazine and newspaper – in some cases twice over – and most never replied.  Book bloggers have been fabulous.  And Cheltenham Waterstones gave me a day’s signing – although I understand they no longer do so.  But the Linen Press’s reputation is growing and hopefully this will help.  They’ve just published Maureen Freely’s latest novel, Sailing Through Byzantium, which has been chosen as one of the Sunday Times’ Books of the Year.

What are you working on now?

Urgh.  The question I dread!  Because I’m not working on anything – I’m in a long-drawn-out fallow/barren period.  Wasteland.  Waiting for spring are three projects – an almost-completed first draft of a non-fiction book about creativity and personal development; 30,000 words of a novel; and the seeds of a new one – a few scenes, a few ideas, some backstory…

What were your top three reads in 2013?

I have regressed to comfort reading, and spent last year reading and re-reading Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street, Corduroy Mansions and Isabel Dalhousie novels, together with some Mavis Cheek and quite a bit of chicklit.  There are three novels waiting on my ‘to read’ shelf – Rosy Thornton’s Ninepins, Essie Fox’s The Somnambulist and Barbara Trapido’s Sex and Stravinsky. 

You can find The Making of Her on the Linen Press website.


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Conversations with Writers – Talking to Yewande Omotoso

Yewande Omotoso’s novel Bom Boy is published by South Africa’s Modjaji Books (the awesome independent publisher that will be publishing Balthasar’s Gift later Yewande_03this year) and has been shortlisted for the inaugural pan-African Etisalat literary award. I just spent the last two days having a lovely chat with Yewande via email about writing.

Here’s what we said:

Yewande, your debut novel, Bom Boy, has just been short-listed for the pan-African Etisalat Prize. Congratulations! Could you tell us the premise of the novel and what inspired you to write it?

The story of Bom Boy is really the story of Leke. A young man growing up in Cape Town. He’s adopted and never knew his parents. Somehow he’s struggled to feel at home wherever he’s been and so his childhood has been one of a misfit. As he comes of age his adoptive father hands him a package. It turns out to be a bunch of letters from his biological father. Slowly Leke, pariah, outcast, borderline sociopath, works his way through the letters, through “his story” and his parents’ story, his heritage and tries to find the ground, he even tries for love.

Hard to say “what inspired” and point to something specific and concrete. The story morphed over many drafts. A professor of mine once said you write your first five drafts and then you finally realise what it is you’re trying to do. So the beginnings can be watery and dark. Bom Boy began as wanting to write about someone on the edge, someone even a little mentally unwell, but not so unwell as to be irrevocable.

Yes, I think it took me five drafts to work what I was writing too. So is Bom Boy your first novel, or is there a manuscript under the bed?

No! There are no manuscripts under the bed. There are several short stories, some that got published others rejected and many that have never been sent out. There are lots of poems. Bom Boy was my first attempt at something novel-length.Cover_BomBoy_Front_300 dpi(1)

What was the difference for you between writing short stories and poetry, and writing a novel? Could you talk a bit about the process of writing Bom Boy.

Poetry is often quite personal, autobiographic and linked to specific moments when I seek catharsis. I don’t think of myself as a poet. I use poetry as a kind of medicine for loss, heartache, coming to terms with various things. So it’s medicine first and then art which means my poems are often no good! Or if they’re a little good I’m too lazy to make them better.

Short stories I write continually, I use them as a practice. It’s a good way to hone the skill. Short stories are incredibly difficult though, because of their compact nature. I’ve gone through love-hate times with short stories. Currently I’m enjoying reading and writing them, enjoying the challenge and the lessons.

Writing ‘Bom Boy’ was an adventure. Writing a book is like a forest you can really get lost in. Because it’s so big (sometimes seemingly endless) it really tests your resolve, your temerity as well. And it’s scary the way an unfamiliar forest can be. There’s always a bit where you can’t see anything…I like the scale of it. Trying to wrestle with something quite unwieldly. Tame it but not too much or it loses its essence. It’s a great fight, I think.

I really love that image of writing a novel being like a forest. Do you have any specific writing routines or practices? Is coffee essential for example, or tons of tea?

Not really. When I wrote Bom Boy I would awake in the early mornings to write. 5am or so. Writing first thing in the day remains sacred but it’s not always possible. I’ve tried not to be a fussy writer. I’ve trained myself to just about write anywhere and at any time. On an empty stomach or stuffed, with munchies or without. I seldom begin writing at night but if I’ve started late in the day I can continue for many many hours. Certainly though there are conditions under which I seem more efficient. Morning. Silence. Warmth. Stability helps, the absence of turmoil, emotional and otherwise.

I also need to be reading when I’m working on something. And I have no formula for “what” but I do need to have something inspiring in my hands.

It’s so lovely to connect with you and hear how you go about your process. Writing can be lonely. Do you have support from other writers – a writers’ group or network?

Writing itself isn’t lonely I don’t think. Solitude is, for most writers I believe, a necessity in order to make the work. And solitude can be a very cherished thing. My loneliness is seldom linked to my life as a writer. It’s linked to other things and other aspects of life although I concede that it’s not always easy to tell these things apart.

Strangely, my writing is often an antidote to my experience of loneliness. As if writing itself is my true unflailing companion…but that’s another whole story!

That said as a writer I spend chunks of my time alone. Solitude is seldom a problem for me. And there are usually enough people I know that when I want to see someone I can. Being an architect as well and currently getting a small practice off the ground means I actually have quite a balanced life at the moment.

In terms of my need for relationships with other writers it is imperative for me. Firstly I seem to have a terrible weakness for writers. I fall in love with them – men and women alike – and I seek their company and advice. I have a kind of childish (misguided?) notion that “writers are the best”! On a more serious note, though, in terms of producing work, if I’ve made any progress I attest a lot of it to a few treasured relationships with writers some of whom are in my own family.

You mentioned that you are an architect. Do you see any similarities in designing buildings and building novels?

I am commonly asked that. I think there are similarities or at least I choose to see some. To construct is a verb I think that applies to both activities. Also the way a building design exists in my head first and then all the work to make it real. Same with a story. Same with a lot of creative acts. Same in the sense that I believe the strongest designs have some core idea or intent behind them. With a lot of great stories there’s usually some key underlying answer to the question “what’s the point”? And again that notion that you, the maker, doesn’t always know “the point” at inception but part of bringing the creation to maturity is your discovery of it. In architecture we use tracing paper, drawing over and over and slowly the image changing, becoming more itself, same with writing draft after draft after draft.

Tell us about your path to publication … how did you find Modjaji, or how did they find you? 

I started nearing the end of my Creative Writing masters. I finished the manuscript and submitted it to UCT. Then I started thinking of “sending it out”. A friend mentioned Modjaji. I looked them up. Sent a precis of my novel, then a chapter and finally the whole thing. Colleen wrote back some months later, she liked it and wanted to publish it. I was a bit dumbfounded. We met and I liked her, I also admired her work as a publisher and the important role she plays in SA publishing. That’s how it started.

So from a Creative Writing degree, to a publication deal to short-listing for a major literary award! How does that feel? How important do you think it is that there is now an African literary award?

In terms of your question: It feels exciting and immensely encouraging. Wanting to write can seem like a very hair-brained notion. When things like this happen I feel a mixture of luck, suprise and relief. And while it doesn’t happen all the time, it’s the same feeling I get when a stranger greets me and says they read the book, even better if they say they liked it or it resonated with them. These are all experiences, however rare or fleeting, that have a touch of magic to them.

It is incredibly important that there is now an African literary award, for several reasons. One is the quality of this award. It is not just a pot of money; if you study carefully the mechanics of the award it goes beyond merely rewarding a writer, it is designed to ensure the expansion of African literature, designed to ensure that the writing and reading of African fiction thrives, in this way it develops a community as opposed to just an individual. Two, it is an African award whose home is in Africa. Three, while I don’t think “to win an award” is a good reason to start writing, I do think this award adds a certain profile to the job of writing, encourages young people to get interested in telling stories and this can only be a good thing for Africa and the world.

Yewande blogs here and Bom Boy can be purchased here or here.


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My Literary Hero

I had a brief interview recently with Maxi magazine about my literary hero, Eleanor Catton:

maxi

Here’s a loose translation:

My literary hero is the Booker Prize winner, Eleanor Catton. As a writer I admire her lively, original use of language, her playfulness, lack of fear and willingness to experiment. As a reader, I love getting lost in the worlds she creates. As an introduction to Catton, I’d recommend The Rehearsal, a moving novel about a sex scandal at a school.

(Charlotte Otter, 44, lived in South Africa for a long time. Her page-turning debut Balthasar’s Gift tells the story of a journalist on the chase of an evil case of corruption.)


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Conversations with Writers – Talking to Ute Carbone

Ute Carbone and I hang out in the same writers’ space. When her first novel, Blueberry Truth, was published by Etopia Press in 2011, I remember remarking on BlueberryTruth_ByUteCarbone-the gorgeous cover and making a note to myself to read it. Two years later, I got off my backside and did so – and what a reward it was! Blueberry Truth is an exuberant, delightful story about Verbena (Beanie), her quartet of sisters and a damaged little girl called Blueberry who takes Beanie’s heart. Ute writes with a warmth and charm that bubble up through her storytelling and which make the reading experience truly effortless. It is a special skill, which I love as a reader and which, as a writer, makes me pretty envious.

Ute was kind enough to come and join me at Charlotte’s Web for a chat about her novels – there are many!

I’ve just finished reading Blueberry Truth, which I loved. Correct me if I am wrong, but it was your first published novel. Was it the first novel you wrote or do you have manuscripts under the bed?

Hi Charlotte, I’m tickled that you liked Blueberry! It was my first published novel, but actually the fourth I’d written.  I’ve got a large pile of work under the bed. I’m slowly, but I hope surely, starting to dust off some of those manuscripts and put them out into the world. Of Blueberry’s predecessors, two of the three manuscripts are still tucked into the back of the closet, collecting dust. The other, a women’s fiction called Dancing in the White Room, is under contract and is scheduled for release in March of next year.

Dancing in the White Room is a gorgeous title. Do you always use colours in your titles?

Thanks Charlotte. No, not all of them have colors. Though now that you’ve mentioned it, maybe from now on… Actually, the title for this comes from a ski term. It’s a book set around skiing, the main character’s significant other is an extreme skier. For a long time, I didn’t know what to call it, it was ‘the ski story’ on my computer,  and then I came across Dancing in the White Room, which is slang for skiing through powder snow so deep you can’t see anything but white. It was kismet. I knew I had found a title.

I love that image. For me, skiing is associated with fear – as is writing. Do you have any writing-related fears (that you are prepared to acknowledge?)

Who me, scared? She said while looking over her shoulder and biting her lip.

I’m a big ‘fraidy cat when it comes to writing.  Facing a blank page is always scary. There’s a fear that the story won’t work out as I’d envisioned it–and honestly, it seldom does. And the fear that it won’t be as wonderful as it is when it’s just a kernel of an idea floating around in my head–and truly, it’s never as brilliant. Once I get past those fears and have managed to write the story, there’s the fear of sharing, a fear that I’ll be like those singers on the talent shows, the ones who can’t hold a note but think they can, who get up there and bravely sing off key while the rest of the world wonders why they ever thought they could sing.

I read somewhere that if you’re not at least a little scared when you write, then you might not be doing it right. I try and keep that in mind.

Face the fear and do it anyway is my motto too. Now, tell us about your other published novels.

It’s gotten to be a long list, Charlotte. I’ve been very lucky to have found some small publishers who like what I write. These past few years I’ve gotten to polish up some of those old manuscripts we talked about earlier and get them out into the world along with some newer works. So, let’s see. I’ve got three romantic comedies available through Champagne Books.

The P-Town Queen is a wild romp of a story about a shark researcher who has lost her grant money, gotten a divorce and is living with her retired fisherman father in Provincetown (P-Town) Massachusetts and a guy who is running from a mob boss hit by living under an alias and pretending to be gay (P-Town has a vibrant gay community).

Afterglow is chick lit with a bit of a twist. The main character is a kindergarten teacher in her fifties who finally asks her philandering husband of 30 years for a divorce. Through the course of the book, with the help of a slightly crazy best friend and a love affair with a much younger man, she gets back on her feet again and finally, once and for all, learns to stand up for herself.

Searching for Superman is the more traditionally romantic of the three, though it still has a lot of quirky characters. The lead is a young woman who is looking for the perfect man–a guy a lot like superman. She meets an ordinary guy dressed as superman for a kid’s birthday party and figures he’s not the real deal. But, of course, he’s just the right guy for her. The book is set in and around and old theater that teaters on the edge of being torn down.

Then I have a trilogy of short stories called The Lilac Hour available through Turquoise Morning Press. The stories are love stories and they are linked in that the main characters are women from three generations of the same family. I’m currently working on a historical novella series. The novellas all revolve around the same two characters– the daughter of a wealthy ship builder and a sea captain. The books are set in and around clipper ships in the 1850s. It’s a real departure for me to write, but I love being able to stretch my wings and try new things. The first two parts of the series, Sweet Lenora and To the Wind, are available through Champagne. The third part comes out next year, in April. Part four currently resides in my head and I’ll soon have to sit down and commit it to words.

And, if that weren’t enough, I have two books coming out next year. Dancing in the White Room, which I’d mentioned earlier, comes out with Turquoise Morning Press in March. It’s women’s fiction, with a strong female protagonist (I love strong female characters) and is set in Lake Placid, NY (not too awful far from where I grew up)  The main character is a ski patrol woman who is living with an extreme skier who likes to take death defying risks. It’s  a lot about whether or not this is a love worth keeping and at what price.

Confessions of the Sausage Queen is the craziest book I’ve written to date, with an ensemble cast of quirky characters who run willy nilly through the pages in an effort to save a small town’s biggest employer, the local sausage factory. It comes out with Champagne Books in July of next year.Then, of course, there are the manuscripts unfinished on my computer, the ideas still in my head, and three novels, several shorts and a few novellas still in the back of the supply closet. I’m going to have to live to a hundred to get to everything. Even then, I’ll probably still have a pen in my hand because I won’t be done.

Wow! You’re prolific. Five published books, two coming out next year and a series of novellas in the making! How do you combine life and writing? (Please don’t tell me you also have a full-time job …)

Not so much prolific as stubborn. I try to write at least a something everyday. For years, I wrote in little chunks of time, late at night after everyone was asleep, or while waiting for an appointment, and so on. I taught a writing workshop, so that kept me in good writing form. Currently, I don’t have a full time job and my kids are both grown, so I have more time to devote to writing. Balance has always been a problem, though. More recently, the challenge is carving out the time and space to write with all the other things that go along with being an author–doing edits, writing promotional pieces, and keeping up a blog and a website.

Well, while we’ve been talking I’ve downloaded and started reading The P-Town Queen, so you have a new fan. Thank you so much for the lovely chat.

Thank you, Charlotte. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you. I hope you enjoy The P-Town Queen.

(I did.)

Ute’s books can be found at Barnes and Noble and Smashwords. Her website is here and her blog is here. You can find her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter.


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World AIDS Day, 1 December 2013

The first time AIDS crossed my radar was in 1985, when I read this edition of Time magazine. People were dying of a virus and nobody knew why. It was terrifying; a plague. I had my first HIV test at university and then later in the UK when I was pregnant with my first child. I was, mercifully, HIV-free but for millions of people the experience of being tested has a different outcome.

Getting up the courage to have the test is one thing (brilliantly documented in Jonny Steinberg’s book Sizwe’s Test), but living with HIV – even in this world of anti-retrovirals – takes another kind of courage.

In his memoir Aidsafari, South African journalist Adam Levin talks about how, when he tested positive in 2003, he experienced life-threatening opportunistic infections and debilitating side-effects from the medication, was bedridden for months, tortured by nerve pains in his feet, lost his hair and teeth, required dentures at 35, had TB and cancer. It is a deeply moving book.

Imagine suffering as he did, but in poverty – in a home without electricity or running water and without access to medical care.

Despite having the world’s biggest HIV treatment programme in the world – 2.4 million people on drugs – South Africa is only treating a third of them. Four million people still don’t have access to treatment. At least one in five treatment facilities or clinics have run out of HIV or TB drugs.

AIDS has not gone away. We might be getting closer to a vaccine, but that is cold comfort to people already infected with the virus, who through poverty can’t access treatment or whose local clinic has run out of drugs.

The theme of World AIDS Day 2013 is Shared Responsibility: Strengthening Results for an AIDS-Free Generation. The virus began one person at a time, and we can end it one person at time. Let’s think about ways we can each take steps to stop HIV – we can find a local AIDS organisation and donate, we can talk about AIDS to our children, we can read up about HIV to beat the myth that it has been dealt with. I did a quiz and discovered that despite all my research into HIV/AIDS, I still know very little. Self-education helps!

In the name of learning more, I have collected some blog posts and news articles more eloquent than mine on the topic of HIV/AIDS:

We can end AIDS without a cure

Too many being left behind in AIDS fight

World AIDS Day: No time for complacency

Still here and still fighting – AmeriNZ blog for World AIDS Day

Thanksgiving and World AIDS Day

The sangoma who lives for science

If you have written a blog post to mark World AIDS Day 2013 or stumbled across a post you like, let me know and I will link to it from here.

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