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Umuzi New Writers Showcase 2008 – a Splendid Event

You Don’t Fool Around with MountainsRandom ViolenceThe Fall of the Black-Eyed NightDo NOT take this road to El-Karama

Selebelo SelamolelaJassy MackenzieSean BadalChris Harvie

“Umuzi’s way of saying, ‘Rage against the dying of the light!’ is to hold an event like this,” said emcee Frederik de Jager welcoming some three hundred guests at a splendid celebration at Johannesburg’s Park Hyatt.

Introducing four illustrious literary journalists and the four new writers they interviewed at this year’s Umuzi New Writers Showcase, he said that publishing director, Annari Van der Merwe, had been committed since the conception of Umuzi as an imprint of Random House to defining a new space in which South African voices could emerge and flourish.

Annari Van der Merwe & Corina van der Spoel“Conversations With Writers”, a captivating video presentation, showed the writers in the context of their books: vast swathes of snow-covered mountains, perilous ascents up ice-covered cliffs and Selebelo Selamolela learning to type on fingers lost to frost-bite; Jassy Mackenzie in a staccatto Johannesburg, slipping between traffic on noisy streets, sipping cappuccino in a chic bistro; Sean Badal in a Cape Town Muslim-owned restaurant with Arabic prayers mounted on the wall and a cricket match playing on a background TV; and Chris Harvie‘s amusing tale about his kangaroo skin hat superimposed with images of Baobabs and binoculars, the Caprivi strip and camping gear.

Selamolela, Mackenzie, Badal and Harvie were interviewed by Bruce Dennill of The Citizen, Tymon Smith of The Times, The Weekender‘s Rehana Rossouw and Jenny Crwys-Williams of Talk Radio 702 respectively.

Bruce Dennill & Selebelo Selamolela“So, you’re a risk manager by trade and you climb mountains for fun?” said Dennill to Selamolela. The author of You Don’t Fool Around with Mountains trained as a civil engineer at UCT, where he was an active member of the university’s Mountain and Ski Club.

“The day you step onto a mountain, you assume a risk. Thereafter, it’s all about risk management,” he said. Selamolela, who grew up in Soweto, has eagerly promoted the sport and concept of mountaineering in the townships.

Dennill asked him about the curious experiences he had as a member of the Everest Peace Project. Arriving in Nepal, Selamolela was treated with suspicion. Many people had never seen a black person before and thought him to be a witch!

“I realised they were curious, if wary of me. It was a learning curve for all of us in the team, porters, guides – all from very different backgrounds, including a member of the Israeli Special Forces and a Pakistani.” On their arrival in Katmandu, the area was unstable, thrust into civil unrest. “Although it felt like South Africa of the 80s, it helped me see the progress we’ve made and how much we have to be grateful for.”

Selebelo SelamolelaDennill asked whether the physical or mental exertion had been greater. “When your body collapses because you’ve hit the wall then your inner man must take over. There’s no way to prepare for seeing a corpse on the mountain,” he said. “When people you’ve eaten and climbed with die on the way, that messes with your mind!”

Dennill noted that Selemolela was newly married to Mamelo, a fine woman whose name means ‘Patience’! “Can your family ever understand what drove you to take such a risk?” he asked. Selemolela waved his stumps of fingers and said, “These are my battle scars. They’re a testimony to my own willpower and courage. Some people lost their lives. I hope my family will understand that I live by Jim Morrison’s quote: Expose yourself to your deepest fear; after that, fear has no power, and the fear of freedom shrinks and vanishes. You are free.

Rehana Rossouw & Sean BadalRehana Rossouw asked Sean Badal in her inimical way: “You’re not from Cape Town. You’re not even a Muslim. So why did you write The Fall of the Black-Eyed Night?”

Living in London during a wave of immigration there, he found himself in a Muslim community and was struck by the differences in identities within it. And as a Hindu, he was often mistaken for being Moslem. “A Syrian man would stop me in the street, jabber away in Arabic, clearly expecting an answer from me. I’d shrug, not understanding a word. Probably he was just asking for directions to Harrods…” says Badal. Arriving in Cape Town, he observed a different sensibility again.

“You’ve got my son in your book,” said Rossouw, “as well as my cousin, grandmother, uncle, brother, and my niece and aunty. Are we that strange? Are we Muslims so very different?”

Rehana RossouwBadal reassured her that he’d had no intention of writing about the extended Rossouw clan. “In fact I used the Hindu family template because it applies to all ethnicities. Tolstoy said, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ As with all clichés, they often turn out to be true.”

Badal talked about the anti-Muslim hysteria he experienced in London, noting how after the bomb attacks on the underground, people would get up and move away from Muslims if they sat beside them. “I observed the dirty looks, the humiliation, the fear and terror on both sides. Another cliché is that all Muslims are fundamentalists and brothers, but in reality, 2000 years after the invasion of Persia, the Arabs are still blamed and detested.”

Rossouw promised that although an undercurrent in the book was Islamic politics, the essential theme was love, redemption and how the culture and nuances of religion pervade life.

Tymon Smith & Jassy MackenzieTymon Smith said that the author of Random Violence had referred to herself as a “naughty girl” in the video, but as he researched, all he could learn was that Jassy Mackenzie edited a hair and beauty journal and wrote for a horses magazine. He found himself compelled, he said, to ask, “What’s a nice woman like you writing a book like this?”

“Appearances deceive, you know? What you don’t know is that the moment I met you I was sizing you up, thinking of 17 creative ways to murder you.” Tymon shifted in his chair. “People’s private lives are so fascinating, so dreadfully different from the daily appearance. The darker their dark side, the more closely kept are their secrets!”

He asked her why she’d elected to write in the crime genre as her first exploration. “When the time comes to write a novel,” she said, “you write what you like to read. As a reader of crime fiction, you’re also a detective. An adrenaline-fuelled reading experience is so exciting that I don’t bother with anything else. Writing my own novel, I didn’t think twice. The process of writing was as exciting as reading – but quite a bit slower.”

Dion de Jong & Jassy MackenzieWhen she started she knew only the beginning and didn’t plan the story in advance. “I let myself think one or two chapters ahead. That keeps me worried about it and keeps the adrenaline pumping. I think one has to trust the sub-conscious’ creativity.”

“There’s an amazing amount of choreography needed to get an action scene just right.” She’d prevail upon her husband to stand up, raise his right hand as he turned to left. “And then I’d sock him in the jaw,” she said, beaming.

Mackenzie “sweated and toiled” over the sex scenes, languishing for hours creating sensuous moments. “When I showed the manuscript to Deon, he asked me where the sex was, but my editor wanted me to tone it down.”

Jenny Crwys-Williams & Chris HarvieJenny Crwys-Williams interviewed Chris Harvie, the author of Do NOT take this road to El-Karama who is also a hotelier, hospitality industry consultant, quiz and cryptic crossword compiler, historian, tour guide, traveller, and a food and wine enthusiast.

Crwys-Williams said to Harvie, “Your 28 000 km trip through eight African countries was a mammoth journey undertaken on a wing and a prayer with unlikely team-mates you didn’t always like: an ex-army captain, his Irish second wife – which you pointedly said was 52, and I thought that was rotten of you, an employee of a public school and a pompous hotellier – which was you. After years of serving others in the hospitality industry, being always nice to guests, you were ready to go out there, experience the exuberance of Africa and tell it like it is?”

Jenny Crwys-WilliamsHarvie conceded that choosing travelling companions was tricky. “It’s one thing to spend two weeks with friends – which we’d all done. It’s another to go away together for 100 days. Travelling brings out the best and the worst in people.”

He reflected that the South Africans he countered along the route typically had a very high opinion of themselves, “but mostly the locals didn’t seem to care where we came from.” Crwys-Williams mentioned that, like Harvie, she’d read – and fallen foul of – Paul Theroux. They both agreed that Dark Star Safari left you feeling the urge to take an overdose, slit your wrists and hang yourself simultaneously.

“Look,” said Harvie, “Theroux is a ‘real’ author, but I wanted to offer a counter voice to the tales of misery. I wanted to find the good news. Africa is a fundamentally a happy place where people wake up and smile.” He talked about the iconic Shiwa Ngandu (The Africa House) in Zambia where an eccentric colonial built his dream and native bearers carried a Rolls Royce part by part, and the bone china dinner service plate by plate. “It still smells like a Surrey mansion with scents of kippers and old leather.”

Returning home, Harvie reflected on the shift of mood as they crossed the border – the increased anxiety. During the three and half months of the safari, they never experienced any rudeness, bullying or officials trying to extract a bribe. “If you were to do the trip again would you do it the same way?” asked Crwys-Williams. “I absolutely would,” said the author. “In fact I will. I’ll do it again.”


Shylock Matsunyane, John Ndlovu & Shimmy Teledimo Lynda Stephenson, Shirley Brown & Jenny Pols Ann Westcott & Vivienne Beck David Mosana, Poppie Maseko & Aaron Bila Sarlimah Moloi, Khosi Radebe & Bellina Bila Allen Roux & Jenni Mclean Kathryn White & Tymon Smith Ramaredi Maja & Lerato Mantambo Barbara Ludman & Rehana Rossouw Linda Vincent & Huni Skuse Hailey Buikes & Teniel Renaud Gina de Villiers & Richard Pearce Gadifele Moroaswi & Kabelo TlhapiJenny Ruiters & Keith Woodward Kevin Govender & Anton van Rensburg Lamelle Shaw & Simao Kikamba Terri Kristalsky, Kirsten Kennedy & Veronique Hoog Hazel Bagley & Bridget LamontDave Chislett & Corina van der Spoel Monique & Andrew Hauptfleisch Rowan Crummond, Louis Weinstein, Gerald Sadleir & Lynda Records Seladi Skhaolelo & Paul Lekena Timothy Silaule & Aaron Bila Emily van Hest & Lyn Riesnik Ari Karantonis & Dion de Jong Jenni Mclean & Vee Laros

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