She’s only just published her first novel – and it’s already up for one of Africa’s richest awards. chats to SA’s latest literary star
Acaptivatings a molecular biologist and nature lover-turnedjournalist, Jacqui L’Ange harnessed all her skills to create her utterly debut novel, The Seed Thief, published by Umuzi. And we’re not the only ones who think so. Last month, the 2016 Etisalat Prize for Literature (Etisalat is a multinational telecommunications giant) announced the short list for its Pan-African award that celebrates debut African writers of published book-length fiction – and L’Ange was on it. The winner will be announced next month.
L’Ange is competing against Nigerian authors Jowhor Ile (And After Many Days) and Julie Iromuanya (Mr & Mrs Doctor) for R250 000 in cash, an engraved Montblanc Meisterstück pen, an Etisalat-sponsored book tour to three African countries and a fellowship at the University of East Anglia in the UK.
L’Ange chatted to City Press via email from Cape Town, where she lives with her husband, son and several furry family members. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Pretty much for as long as I can remember. Actually, what I really wanted was to be able to type the way my father did. He was a journalist, and my earliest memories are of watching him bash away at his manual typewriter, with a sheaf of blank pages next to him. There was something in his focus – the furrowed brow, the rhythm of the keys, the ping at the end of a line when he’d hit the carriage return – it was just the coolest thing ever.
My father was also the person who encouraged my reading, and my love of words – his obvious enjoyment of TS Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which he would read to me while I was curled in his lap, with our cat watching ... that was heaven. Initially, he discouraged any interest I might have had in journalism – he told me, quite rightly, that it doesn’t pay! – but after I flirted with a career in molecular biology (genetics), the pull of words took over.
I started my writing career as a copywriter in advertising, moved to magazine journalism, then multimedia, then film and television – but books and stories have always been my first love, and fiction is what I wanted to do most. I believe in the power of a story to change lives. Your bio says you spent a large part of your teenage years in Brazil.
It’s a country that has a special place in my heart, and I return there whenever I can – if I can’t actually travel there, I immerse myself in its music, its food, its writing...
While I lived there, I was only vaguely aware of the connections between Brazil and Africa, but some years ago, while I was working on a film, I met a Brazilian actor who practised Candomblé, a form of Afro-Brazilian spiritualism. I was fascinated and wanted to learn more.
So, on a subsequent trip to Brazil, I went to Salvador, Bahia, which is the African heartland of Brazil. I was so captivated by what I found there, so amazed that more people didn’t know about this rich African ‘new world’ tradition ... So that was the ‘seed’ of the book, if you like. The actual seed of the title, and the story, came about after I started writing. Before that, I just knew I wanted to write a story that connected Africa and Brazil, past and present. That connection started with slavery and colonisation, which is all about appropriation. Without giving too much away, can you tell us what the book is about?
The Seed Thief is about a quest for an endangered plant, which takes my protagonist, Maddy, on a journey to Brazil and also into parts of herself and her past that was previously blanked out and inaccessible to her.
It’s about connections – finding commonality with others in what feels like a fragmented world, and the connections we have with the historical past, which lives on in and around us in so many ways. It’s also about appropriation – the idea that we can ‘own’ the earth, its resources, its people – and about how some greedy entities have always tried to exploit their position of power for commercial gain. That’s a lot. Maybe it’s just simpler to say it’s a crosscontinental love story! Did you have first-book nerves?
Since this is my first novel, it was scary putting it out into the world ... but it was also amazing to let it go and watch it take on a life of its own and have a relationship with people outside of me. People have been very kind and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. How do you feel about the state of South African fiction?
I may be biased because I am in the middle of it, but it feels to me that South African fiction has never been stronger. There are so many exciting new voices, so many vibrant works. There is a proud reclaiming of stories and, with the movement to decolonise our literary landscape, books are getting to people where they are, people who previously didn’t have access to elite literary events or socalled high-end bookstores.
Obviously, there is an enormous amount of work to be done – in basic literacy, in spreading the words, in publishing more stories in mother tongue languages. I was recently in Chile and I was struck by the fact that every subway station had a bookstore – usually bigger and more prominent than the food kiosks. They all celebrated South American writers with banners and promotions on local books. Imagine if our train stations and taxi ranks did that.
How many lives have been changed by the right story in the right place at the right time? Stories shape dreams, they offer hope, they kindle ambition. All you need is access to the words. Where to from here?
I’m working on another novel with an ecological theme and a complicated relationship – and this one also has a lot of animals...
WORDSMITH Author Jacqui L’Ange at home in Cape Town