Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


The Big Book Launch Tour

Just back from South Africa, where I took Balthasar’s Gift to four cities and got to celebrate its launch with a lot of special people in wonderful book shops around the country. I was also honoured at each event to have a great co-host join me on stage (or in comfortable arm-chairs and once, a red leather sofa) and ask me questions about crime fiction in general and Balthasar’s Gift in particular. I’ve been alone with this book for many years, so I was more than happy to talk and talk and talk. Many people bought books, so I was happy to also sign and sign and sign.

Much of it has melted into a happy blur, but here’s what I can remember from each launch:


The event was held at Cafe Tatham, a beautiful cafe adjacent to the city art gallery. High ceilings, wonderful purple walls. The book 10452881_10152201793812424_2697434667311636703_oarrived in the nick of time, thanks to bookseller extraordinaire Cheryl Naidoo who talked FedEx in from Durban. Friends and family poured in (including two school friends, and one school teacher of mine) and the cafe was soon full of people talking and drinking wine. I sat on the red sofa with Cheryl Stobie, who is a lecturer in English Literature at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (and my former Grade 6 teacher). She asked me if writing the book had turned me into a better version of myself (yes and no), which of the characters I would like to have dinner with (Aslan and Maggie), which parts of the book were hardest to write (scenes involving children; at this point I cried),  and the role of the journalist in society (observer versus activist).


On to Durbs, where my co-host was William Saunderson-Meyer, journalist, author of the much-syndicated Jaundiced Eye column 10446258_10152213847877424_6315109870788985504_oand crime fiction aficionado. The event was held at Adams Books in the Musgrave Centre, and manager Cedric Sissing gave us a lovely intro. The bookshop was packed – and I was touched again to see faces of school friends and people who I hadn’t seen for years. William and I talked about the role of crime fiction as a political reflection of society, my own political journey and how that was mirrored in the novel, how distance made it easier not harder for me to write the book and my route to publication. He wanted to know what the hell feminist crime fiction was and I attempted to explain. William put it out there that that the brandy-soaked Boer is a bit of a tired stereotype, and my riposte was that German audiences had no beef with Boer but were not crazy about the arts reporter.


Cape Town

Cape Town is special, even if I diss it a little in the novel. Special for me because I studied there and special because it is filled with some of my favourite people in the whole world. My co-host was the TV director and novelist Sam Wilson, who is awesome and also my cousin (no link between his awesomeness and our shared genes – he just is). Sam and I talked about Pietermaritzburg being a character in the novel, about how Maggie is a female James Bond, how I researched the AIDS topic and whether there is a book two10406458_10152530265159680_225241871486428441_n featuring Maggie (there is). We competed with the State of the Nation address, happening at the same time about 300 metres away in Parliament, and despite this, there was a goodly crowd. A couple of cops wandered in with their walkie-talkies on, adding an air of authenticity. The Book Lounge put on a fabulous spread – pity I didn’t get around to trying to their biltong, feta and rocket sandwiches. As with the other two events, we sold nearly all the books.


The last event was in Johannesburg, held at Love Books in Melville. Like the Book Lounge and Adams, this is a wonderful shop, with thoughtfully chosen books and comfy armchairs where you could while away hours. The owner Kate Rogan gave us a lovely intro, and then my fellow Modjaji writer and author of the Trinity Luhabe series, Fiona Snyckers, asked some perceptive questions about Maggie and about the role of the journalist in society. It was a very cold, wintry Joburg evening and I was so touched and thrilled that so many people turned up. I saw colleagues from my Joburg working days, family (my children are quite bewildered by the number people with whom they share a gene pool) and friends new and old.

In between the four events, I also did a couple of press interviews, appeared live on radio twice and did some signings. The whole experience was amazing, and now I need to get working on Book Two so that I can go back and do it all again.



Things Have Gone a Bit Meta

There is nothing quite as exciting as a newspaper article about your forthcoming book launch in your hometown newspaper. It is even more exciting when it’s the newspaper that you trained on as a junior journalist many years ago. And trebly so when the newspaper you write about in your novel is ever-so-loosely based on your hometown paper.

See here:



Memory is Fallible – Two Novels from Fact

In the twenty years since democracy, there has been a groundswell of South African literature. Once two behemoths – Gordimer and Coetzee – strode the land, but the freedom of the new South Africa has brought a freedom of creative thought and a wave of writing. Now we have South African crime fiction (rivaling that of the Scandis, so I hear from reliable sources), South African romance and young adult fiction, South African distopian fiction and even South African chick lit. Margie Orford, Deon Meyer and Lauren Beukes are household names to book lovers.

I have recently read two South African debut novels that are worth mentioning in their similarity of purpose. Both are novelisations of true events. In both books, the writer is both narrator and character, writing fiction out of fact.

The first is called False River and it is written in English by Dominique Botha, whose mother tongue is Afrikaans. False River tells the achingly tragic story of her older brother Paul, a poet and renegade whose brilliance could not be contained by an ordinary life and who died of an overdose in London when he was 27. As the first two of five children, Dominique and Paul were allies. The novel charts both Paul’s trajectory and Dominique’s as she goes from being adoring little sister to anxious guardian to one of his mourners.

False River is beautifully written. It contains passages of such breathtaking poetry, so deeply anchored in the landscape I know and love, that it is worth reading for the language and imagery alone. If Paul was a poet, Dominique is one now.

However, she is also a storyteller, and this is a novel. For the reader, there is a layer of tension, a discomfort, in knowing that it tells a story that is real. When asked in a recent SATV interview why she chose not to write a memoir, Botha said that “… memory is  incredibly fallible and we can’t rely on it, so when you go back and recreate something you either have to be incredibly factual or you have to acknowledge the fact that retrieving a memory is committing a first act of fiction.”

Asked why she took so long to write this first book, Botha said that at first she felt too much in his shadow to write. However, she realised many years after his death that his memory was fading and that she had a strong compulsion to put pen to paper and write it down. As someone who knew Paul and many of his friends loosely disguised in the novel, I am glad she did. Not only do we have a new voice on the South African literary scene and a story that is a gift to the reader, we also have a way to remember our friend. Here is a scene from the end of the book:

Time flies and time stands still. We pass through time. She is not swayed by us. The vlei spills into the pan. A moorhen glides. Willows drop braids into water. Buried flowers in the darkened garden strain against the soil.

By sunrise all the women from the stat were sweeping and cleaning around the house. They had come unbidden. Ma stood by the window watching them. Martha edged her upstairs to change.

The protocol of solace marked the hours.

The second novel from fact I have recently read is One Green Bottle by Debrah Anne Nixon. The narrator is a woman named Jennifer Hartley, whose idyllic life on a KwaZulu-Natal farm is marred by a series of panic attacks that eat away at her self-esteem and grip on reality. She is hospitalised in a local psychiatric ward. The novel charts her series of stays on the ward, the people she meets and endures there and, after losing her marriage and custody of her children, her eventual tentative recovery and release.

One Green Bottle is a searing account of mental illness and does a brilliant job of evoking the hopelessness of those caught in its coils. While it is less obvious than with False River that the narrator and the author are one, there are clues. The novel is dedicated to ‘fellow sufferers of mental ailments’, the main character writes pages of a novel while she is incarcerated and an afterword from a psychiatrist talks of Nixon’s struggle and catharsis.

However, for me it became evident in Nixon’s descriptions of ward life that this was no creative imagining of the despair, bleakness and grinding exhaustion that is long-term mental illness. I had to put the book down several times while reading, in order to regain the energy I needed to go back into the wards. Despite her simple sentence structure and compassionate and often loving descriptions of Jenny’s fellow inmates, Nixon pulls no punches. She is brutally honest and reveals a system that is failing its patients, both at a structural level and in the inability of psychiatry to do much more than throw experimental cocktails at their patients in the name of healing.

While two books don’t make a trend, it was interesting to read False River and One Green Bottle back-to-back. Both tell acutely personal stories cast as novels and, whether read as fact or fiction, both take the duty of care to show that while loss and tragedy are part of the human condition so too are hope and love. As Botha’s final poem says,

soil must subside

we may not

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South Africa – Time for a New Freedom

Yesterday, Dr Ramphele launched Agang, a new political party that will contest the 2014 election. She said:

I am inspired by a burning ambition to aim higher.To expect excellence in education, in healthcare, and policing. To restore integrity to public life and pride to public service. To restore the trust between citizens and their leaders.


All this is possible if we raise our expectations of the future. You know I want us to dream bigger, to expect much, much more. Imagine for a moment that 90% of our children passed their matric each year and that we had libraries and computers in every school.

Imagine that our economy grew by 5% every year, creating thousands of new jobs and imagine that we could drive unemployment down below 10%. Imagine that every mother and her baby are born happy and healthy and that we could walk the streets free of the fear of crime. And imagine that we had the education, job opportunities, housing and healthcare to raise millions out of poverty.

This, is what true freedom feels like and it is within our reach. It is a future we can have if we expect more from ourselves, our government and our country, and if we vote for the future, not the past.Many times we have had the courage to stand together and lead our country forward.

Read the full text here.


Breaking News

Breaking my long-term blog silence (motto: don’t apologise, don’t explain) with this amazing breaking news of a traditional wedding that took place recently in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The happy couple are men and theirs is the first traditional African gay wedding in KZN.

Says Tshepo Modisane:

“We decided on a traditional wedding not only to keep in line with our customs and traditions, but we also wanted to show the people of this country that, yes – it is possible to have a traditional African gay wedding,” explains Modisane. “There is this idea that being gay is an ‘unAfrican’ phenomenon, that homosexuality is something to be ashamed of – that it is a Western thing. Thabo and I wanted to go against this notion by showing South Africans that being gay is indeed African and is very much a part of the African culture. We wanted people to know that a gay union can be accepted and celebrated by friends, family and the broader community,” he says.

Watch the wedding video here.

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World AIDS Day: Some Things I Found

It’s World AIDS Day today. I come from South Africa, a country where 4.85% of adults are HIV positive and where 1.7 million people are on ARV treatment. There are 1.9 million AIDS orphans in South Africa.

My novel, Balthasar’s Gift, centres on the murder of an AIDS activist. While discrimination is receding, and people who need treatment are starting to get treatment, South Africa still has a long way to go.

I alway focus on World AIDS Day here at Charlotte’s Web. Here are some things I found that show the changing face of HIV/AIDS:

Dating when you’re HIV positive

Portraits of people with HIV

10 Things We’ve Learned about HIV/AIDS

Clinton Releases Blueprint for AIDS-free Generation

HIV: Film tells survivors’ stories

HIV prevalence falls in sub-Saharan Africa, but is still higher than anywhere else

Orphaned at the ages of 6 and 7, Tandeka and Njabulo have looked after each other for 10 years. Their teacher is also an AIDS orphan.

Mother to child transmission reduces in South Africa, but the costs are hard to cover

South Africa: From Crisis to Catastrophe

South Africa: HIV drugs increase life expectancy by five years

Story of a Survivor

When the need is so great, it is hard to choose where or how to help. I support the Noah Community, which empowers communities in South Africa with the knowledge, skills, strategies and self-confidence needed to create and run organisations that support the well-being of their vulnerable children. These organisations are networks, not buildings, although most do have a resource centre. These centres have staff and provide additional programmes for vulnerable children such as daycare, aftercare, child protection and bereavement counseling.

If you have a World AIDS Day post, let me know and I will link to it here.

Here are some of my previous World AIDS Day posts.


In Memory of Herbert James Downs

Today is the anniversary of the death of Herbert James Downs, who was murdered in South Africa a few weeks after his 100th birthday. His grand-daughter, K, asked me to repost a post I wrote three years ago about his death and what that meant for me.  In memory of her wonderful grandfather, I give you Cold Comfort:

A year ago, deep in the heart of Europe, while driving through the continent’s longest tunnel as my family slept around me, I made a decision that was momentous for me. It had been silting up for years, but as the weight of the Swiss Alps pressed down on my family, I decided that, although I love my homeland and although my soul will always be South African, I will never live there again. The tunnel was long, straight and well-lit, and I wept as I drove. I kept the decision locked into my heart, not wanting to verbalise it, because that would make it too real. Today, I’ve cried again, all day long with bitter tears as the nail was banged into the coffin of my decision.

In March 2006, 100-year-old Herbert James “Bob” Downs was stabbed several times in the home which he built and where he had lived for 72 years. His murderer stole a television from him, which he later sold for R150 (€12). Sibusiso Mbuje Dlamini (29) was caught later that day, wearing a pair of Bob’s favourite shoes. There have been many murders in South Africa, countless murders, some perpetrated by the apartheid government, others perpetrated by the freedom movement and others by ordinary citizens. Every murder is tragic, but the murder of Bob Downs caught my heart. He was the grandfather of a schoolfriend of mine, and had recently celebrated his 100th birthday surrounded by his loving family: children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His granddaughter, K, had sent me photos of that lovely day. One picture that stays with me is of Bob, sitting amongst rows of his family, under the generous arms of a tree, the green lawns of someone’s home stretching out into the landscape of KwaZulu-Natal, the land that is etched into my heart. The joy that radiated from them made me cry. I felt, selfishly and briefly, robbed. Shortly afterwards, he was murdered.

This week, Dlamini was sentenced. He got life, plus ten. Cold comfort for Bob Downs’ family.

If you are feeling brave, look at Bob’s face here. See the wisdom in his wrinkles and the kindness in his clear blue eyes, which are those of a much younger man. When I looked at this photograph, over a year ago, I knew that I could not live in a country where a life as well-lived and good as his is so cheap. I made my decision and I held onto it in silence.

Last night, I was contacted by a young South African woman, who found me through my blog. Her husband is of German extraction. They are considering selling everything and immigrating to Germany. We spoke on the phone for a long time, and I heard the same sadness in her voice: how she loves her country, how she lives in fear, how the stress is affecting her whole family and how they are going to take the biggest risk of their lives and move. And I counselled her to do it. Germany, I said, is stable. It is green, healthy, safe, child-friendly and kind. As I said those words, my heart tore a little more. She is born and bred South African like me, whose parents are South African like mine. Her father runs a small supermarket and, she says, in order to be safe, has his own private army. “Going to the supermarket there is like going into Belfast. Soldiers everywhere.”

This morning, I drove past green hills and thought how blessed I am to have landed in this safe, green place. The Heidelberg hills are so beautiful, gentle and rolling, filled with surprises like ruined castles and winding rivers. They will never be mine. They will never attach themselves to my heart with barbs that cannot be loosened. If my soul had to choose between the green hills of Heidelberg and the yellow grass of the Drakensberg, my soul would choose the latter. I dream of the smell of the air in Cape Town, and wake up with my pillow wet.

My mother and I have been having these phone-calls. We skirt the topic, we tease around its edges. For a year, we have been approaching it. And then today I said it. I said, “Tones, I’m never coming home.” And then I cried and cried. Somehow, when you tell your mother, then it is real, almost too real to bear. Since then, I have been crying and I can’t stop. It’s cold comfort for my mother that we are safe here, cold comfort for me that my life is stable and kind, cold comfort for my children that they have freedoms unimaginable to kids of their age in South Africa, but see their grandparents once a year.

My heart is breaking. I am never going home. My beloved country, exactly that of Alan Paton’s, land of yellow grass, duikers, vervet monkeys, sardine runs, dark palaces of thunderstorms, crocheted doilies weighted down with stones, the smell of mutton, rusks dipped into sweet tea, people who shout hello to each other, will always be a holiday destination for me. I am filled with love and admiration for those who stay, for those who still believe in South Africa’s future. They are brave and their courage astounds me. I can’t be that brave.


Twenty Years

Twenty years ago today, Nelson Mandela walked free. I was twenty-one, and had lived my entire life under a repressive regime that legally sanctioned the artificial separation of blacks and whites, and the oppression of the former. It is hard to describe how we felt on 11 February 1990. Weight was lifted off our shoulders. We were shaking off a blanket that settled over us all, shutting out the light.

As Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster prison, South Africa walked from night into day. We looked at each other and saw not blacks and whites, but people. He represented the hope of a whole nation that finally we could look into each others’ eyes and see our common humanity.

The day was one of jubilation and joyous disbelief. We literally couldn’t believe what we were seeing. There he was! On a hot February afternoon, literally walking out of jail, and the government that we despised had allowed it. After so many years of oppression, the facade of apartheid, the edifice, was crumbling. Like Berliners knocking down the Wall the previous year, we South Africans felt as if we were making and watching history. We were part of one of the century’s miracles. We looked at each other, and wept.

Madiba is a great hero. He went into jail a freedom fighter and emerged, 27 years later, as a statesman who spoke peace and reconciliation, ready to lead his country into the future. And we followed.

Here’s his first interview with the world’s press:


South Africa: Drugs for HIV+ Babies

According to a report from the BBC, South African president Jacob Zuma announced today, World AIDS Day, that his government would provide all HIV-positive babies under the age of one with antiretrovirals. He also promised that the drugs would become more widely available to children and pregnant women. Zuma said in his speech at the Pretoria Showgrounds that he was preparing to take an AIDS test himself. He urged everyone to test.

While this may seem a drop in the proverbial ocean, it is also an urgent and imperative about-face from a government that ignored AIDS for too long. A decade of denialism has cost hundreds of thousands of South Africans their lives. It is estimated that by 2015, 5.7 million children – a third of South Africa’s children – will have lost one or both parents to AIDS. There are currently 1.4 million AIDS orphans in the country. I read a blog run by orphan careworkers. Go and see the faces. These are the children who no longer have parents because the South African government acted too slowly to contain the epidemic.

Zuma’s announcement is a positive change, say AIDS activists Treatment Action Campaign. Let’s hope so. Let’s see the South African government save lives instead of waste them.

ETA: Times Live journalist, the very excellent Claire Keeton says World AIDS Day 2009 in South Africa was “an historic event”.


Breaking the Silence

One of South Africa’s most senior and eminent businesspeople, Clem Sunter, writes movingly of the AIDS crisis in News24:

We recently witnessed the huge coverage given to the Air France Airbus that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. Two hundred and twenty-eight people perished in that disaster. Putting our Aids statistics into perspective, the equivalent is four airliners full of mostly young South Africans plunging into the sea every day of every month of every year. And yet silence accompanies their death because they die individually and the majority are from deprived backgrounds.

We should be ashamed and we should do everything to break the sound of silence. We should talk openly about ways to change sexual behaviour to minimise transmission of the virus. We should get the advertising agencies involved since it is their speciality to change behaviour. We should encourage people to get themselves tested and if they test positive seek the appropriate medical treatment. We should focus on compliance with the pill regimen and the fact that even when you feel better you can’t stop taking the pills.

Finally we should openly praise all those heroes and heroines who have dedicated their lives to caring for the victims of the epidemic. They deserve national medals for their bravery and compassion.

(My emphasis.)

Four planes a day crashing into the sea, four planes a day, filled with young people who should be economically active, taking care of their children and their parents and living life. It’s hard to stomach, which is why people don’t talk about it, but it is a tragedy on a giant scale – and one which will come to haunt the South African politicians who messed about for too long toying with dissident science and refusing to commit to providing people with the drugs.

It is easier to mourn one plane than many, as we harden ourselves to horror and stop hearing it. One of the things I’m trying to do in the book I’m writing is to show how AIDS has become a fact of life in South Africa, but how, at the same time, it is a deeply personal and excruciating tragedy for those who die and those who are left behind. Each story is worth telling.