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

CityPress - - Voices -

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

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