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Margie Orford

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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Tribute to Nadine Gordimer

Nadine Gordimer was a passionately cerebral writer, and her death confirms the passing of a generation of South African writers who lived by a firm moral compass. There are very few of them left. She was her country’s most celebrated writer, winning the Booker Prize in 1974 for “The Conservationist” and in 1991 the Nobel Prize for literature.She died Sunday at age 90, at home in the presence of her children.

Born in Springs, a rough mining town near Johannesburg in 1923, Gordimer published her first short story at age 15. Her first novel, “Lying Days,” was published in 1953 and was followed by 12 more. “I would have been a writer anywhere,” she said in an interview in 1990. “But in my country, writing meant confronting racism.”

Her birth and death bracket the establishment and eventual demise of apartheid, the most brutal and dehumanizing period of South Africa’s history. Her voice — at once lyrical and acerbic — is unique, forged by a lifelong engagement with the corrosive effects of a political and economic system founded on inequality and segregation. She claimed that “to be a writer is to enter public life,” a principle to which her career as a writer and an activist bears eloquent testimony. Gordimer observed no boundary between the ethics of living and the aesthetics of writing, which was why the apartheid censorship board banned several of her novels.

“I am interested in human beings in human situations,” she told one interviewer. However, under apartheid, there was very little space in which to be human. Not even the most intimate realms of the body and of the heart, of sex and love, of the everyday pleasures of friendship escaped the invasive prurience of racist legislation. In her great novels of the 1970s — “July’s People,” “Burger’s Daughter” and “The Conservationist” — she explored the intimate spaces within and between South Africans, writing with great eloquence of the damage that was done by the inescapable warping of human relationships by apartheid.

I read these powerful and disturbing books as a student in the 1980s, a time when South Africa’s resistance to apartheid generated increasing violence. It was Gordimer who charted apartheid’s destruction of individuals, a destruction that was mirrored at that time in destruction in the public realm, where barricades burned and police fired endless volleys of bullets at protesters.

Gordimer was a woman of great personal integrity and political commitment. She joined the anti-apartheid movement in the early 1960s, and she helped edit Nelson Mandela’s famous “I am prepared to die” speech in 1962. She used her prominence as a writer to campaign against apartheid, calling for economic sanctions to be enforced against South Africa to end minority rule and joining Mandela’s African National Congress.

Even after South African politics became increasingly nasty and brutish during the postapartheid era, her acuity and her commitment to principle remained unwavering and inspirational — perhaps because hers was always primarily a commitment to the grand old notions of freedom, justice and equality. She understood better than most people why postapartheid South Africa was not a utopia, that the end of apartheid hailed abroad as a miracle did not erase 300 years of formalized racial inequality and poverty. But she had no patience with the smug schadenfreude of interviewers or other writers who questioned her commitment to politics in the light of postliberation disappointments. Her novels in the last two decades continued to address the messy complexity of the poverty that endured despite the end of apartheid.

Even in her twilight years, Gordimer felt compelled to fight one last valiant political campaign, against the Protection of State Information Bill introduced by the government of President Jacob Zuma. Known as the Secrecy Bill, this draconian law, if passed, would limit freedom of speech and threaten writers more than any legislation under apartheid did. It would also serve to mask the rampant corruption that is corroding the great political legacy of the anti-apartheid struggle as embodied by the likes of Mandela.

Her writing and her politics were intimately connected in a manner currently unfashionable. For her, it was impossible — indeed, pointless — to try to separate the two. Having experienced firsthand the effects of censorship, she was a tireless champion for freedom of expression. The banning of her books was taken up by PEN International, and she, as a vice president of the organization, campaigned tirelessly for the right of writers to be free and to be heard. In a world where increasing numbers of writers are being silenced, there is much to be learned from her political commitment and from her great ability to unfold in elegant prose how repression and violence distort the human heart.

Nadine Gordimer’s passing leaves a gap in the literary and political landscape, not only in South Africa but throughout the world.

This first appeared on Al Jazeera


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Quick-fire Questions from Crime Always Pays

Declan Burke from Crime Always Pays recently fired a few quick questions at me. In the following interview I reveal, among other things, the pitch for my next book:

What crime novel would you most like to have written?

WOLVES EAT DOGS by Martin Cruz Smith.

What fictional character would you most like to have been?

Arkady Renko (goes with the above). But some days I feel more like Cruella deVille. I never want to be Bambi’s mother.


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Babies and Books Have a Lot in Common

My new crime thriller, Gallows Hill, is going to the typesetter this weekend, so I am deep in the never-ending end of the final edit. Pin-pointing the end of the process of writing a book is a little like identifying that moment when one’s adult children leave home. Just as you think the book is done/the kids have moved out it/they return. But with hindsight, I can see that the end-of-the-end started exactly a month ago with the birth of my tiny nephew. My three year-old niece came to spend the night with me while her bug-eyed parents went to hospital. Both of them were stricken with that look people get when the future in the form of an infant – inexorable, painful and expensive – bears down on them.

That night was dark and stormy; I know this because my roof leaked, soaking my three-year-old niece to the skin. It was midnight before I got her dry again and settled her in my bed, but I couldn’t go back to sleep. Not with the book deadline rushing at me like a bullet train driven by my implacable publisher. So, I just stayed up and worked all night; my manuscript was overdue. It had to be in. Now. Like the baby being born, there was no more give! As I worked later and later into the night, it occurred to me how alike babies and books are; the four a.m. sleeplessness being only the most superficial similarity.

There are others. Both babies and books seem like an astoundingly good idea when you get them started. That’s the fun part. It is usually quick, often done on holiday under the influence of alcohol. These happy origins are rapidly forgotten by everybody except the author and/or mother as gestation takes place out of sight, if not out of mind.

This discreet phase, however, has one inevitable and melodramatic ending: an agonising labour. Books, like babies, require blood, sweat, tears and the occasional star in the east before they will be delivered. In the immediate and exhausted aftermath there is a non-pregnant pause when everyone with a vested interest holds their collective breath and the book/baby is checked. Head, body, arms, legs, fingers, toes for the babies. Plot, style, tension, character, dialogue, profit potential, for books.


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The Complexities of Being a Mother Who Also Has Ambitions

I recently wrote an article for the Daily Mail about the year I spent away from my husband and children in pursuit of my dream of becoming a writer:

Twelve years ago, I abandoned my children – Olivia, ten, Hannah, seven, and Emma, three – and it would be one heartbreaking but exhilarating year before we were properly reunited.

‘Welcome to New York City.’ The pilot’s voice cut through my thoughts. Outside, a hot wind was blowing, but there was no Olivia, no Hannah, to hold down my skirt. The crook of my arm ached at the absent weight of Emma. I had left my children in the care of my parents and my husband Andrew back in Namibia, to start a master’s degree at City University of New York. In my head, accusing voices told me that what I was doing was selfish, unnatural. I have been asked many times, in tones ranging from approval to hissing repugnance, why I did it. It’s not easy to answer, as it is so tied to the complexities of being a mother who also has ambitions.


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Lunching with David Klatzow and Penny Haw

David Klatzow and I were recently interviewed by Penny Haw about forensic science and crime writing while lunching on the Newmark hotel group’s luxury yacht, the Nautilus:

NOVELIST Margie Orford and forensic scientist Dr David Klatzow have at least one thing in common: they’re in the business of crime. In fact, I’ve heard them referred to as “SA ’s king and queen of crime”.

Recently , with the publication of Klatzow’s biography, Steeped In Blood: The Life and Times of a Forensic Scientist, last year and news he’s working on a new book, it emerged the scientist and novelist have another thing in common: they are both accomplished storytellers.

Author of the Clare Hart series of thrillers — she has just put the finishing touches to the fourth in the series, Gallow’s Hill — Orford is among SA’s most eminent crime writers, both locally and abroad.

Her books, Like Clockwork, Blood Rose and Daddy’s Girl, have been translated into more than eight languages; and film rights for Blood Rose have been optioned to a London-based South African film-making team .


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Liu Xiaobo, Freedom of Speech and the Crime of Writing

It is easy to take the act of writing, the pleasure of reading for granted. As easy as it to presume the liberty to speak, the liberty to listen, the liberty to weave disparate views into a workable and strong social fabric. But freedom of speech and the associated freedoms that come with it – the freedom to hear disparate views, to challenge to power, to name abuse – can never be taken as given. They are rights that have been hard won in every country where citizens have the right to speak out. In countries where freedom of expression is denied, it is always the first step towards democracy. When Aung Sang Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in Burma in November, 2010, her first statement paid tribute to the fundamental importance of freedom of expression.

This past Sunday, March the 20th, the Berlin-based Peter Weiss Foundation of Art and Politics commemorated of the Anniversary of the Political Lie. (The first political lie was the weapons-of-mass-destruction whopper that led to the invasion of Iraq.) There is a surfeit of political lies to choose from each year, but this year coordinated worldwide readings were held to pressurize the Chinese government to release Liu Xiaobo, the writer and activist.

The South African PEN Writers in Prison Committee and Poetry International South Africa joined with more than 90 organisations around the world to protest Liu Xioaboa’s ongoing detention. A number of South African writers with firsthand experience of prison shared their own writing.

Liu Xiaobo is currently the world’s only winner of the Nobel Peace Prize still held in detention. In 2009, after co-authoring ‘Charter 08’, a manifesto calling for greater freedoms and democracy in China, He was sentenced to eleven years in prison on a spurious charge of ‘inciting subversion of state power’. 1936 was the last time neither the winner, German journalist and pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, nor any of his family members, could go to Oslo to collect the Nobel Peace Prize. They were all barred from leaving Nazi Germany. This is an uncomfortable historical twinning.

Liu Xiaobo’s family and supporters have been continuously harassed since the prize. His wife, Liu Xia, has been under house arrest and has, by all accounts, suffered great psychological stress. The poem that was read around the world on Sunday was a moving and intimate tribute by Liu Xiaobo to his wife’s suffering and his own deep loneliness.

You sit there all day long
Not daring to move
For fear that your footsteps will trample the dust
You try to control your breathing
Using silence to write a story.


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Human Disasters Hide Behind Japan Spectacle

The earth shrugged this week, unleashing human suffering in Japan that is too immense to quantify. The events in Japan make for mesmerizing television. In the midst of this tragedy are the seeds of novels. Of lovers lost, of loved ones found, of small survivals that will gradually put the magnitude of the earth’s power back in its Pandora’s box.

This natural disaster diverted the world’s attention from the human disaster that is Colonel Gaddafi’s apocalyptic bombing of the Libyan people. There is the David-and-Goliath heroism of jeans-clad boys pitting themselves against the regime’s tanks and warplanes. Wars that cannot be either won or lost (like Vietnam, like Iraq, like Somalia) make for fabulous films. All the scriptwriters need to do is keep the cinematic eye focused on an individual, or a unit under siege, and not ask any questions about the wider political frame.

But in Cape Town this week events of a different scale slipped briefly into view. In a grimy magistrate’s court in Khayelitsha, the sprawling, violence-wracked township that skirts suburban Cape Town, a murder trial was postponed for the thirty third time. It was a postponement and a murder that distils a social malaise that is as hard to cure as it is to write about.

Zoliswa Nkonyana and her friend went for a drink at a shebeen in Khayelitsha on the 6th of May 2006. The few photographs I have seen of Zoliswa show a young woman with a set to her jaw that tells you that she will stand up for herself. Nineteen-year-old Zoliswa lived openly as a lesbian. South Africa has been tainted by virulent irruptions of homophobia. One particularly horrific variant have been what are termed ‘corrective rapes’ of lesbians. Many people assert that Zoliswa was murdered because she was openly gay and because she refused to take shit from a group of thugs. It is an assertion supported by the chillingly targeted attack on this young woman and others like her.

That night Zoliswa, despite taunts she was subjected to, refused to use the men’s toilet at the place she had gone for a drink. A group of men pursued her and knifed her to death in the street. Nine men were charged with Zoliswa’s murder and the attempted murder of her friend and a passerby who tried to intervene.


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My Fictional Detective Wants to Quit after the Public Protector Raid. What Now?

You have trouble on your hands when one of the lead characters in the book you are writing tries to resign. This week, in the middle of a deadline from hell, my lovely fictional detective, Captain Riedwaan Faizal, told me he had had enough of the South African Police.

I need him!

He has seen me through four books and has helped my heroine, Clare Hart, out of some pretty tight fictional corners. He has shot his way out of gang-riddled corners. He has punched a rapist hard enough to make him feel a little bit of the pain he inflicted on his victims. He has bust enough gangsters selling drugs to children to make a wing or two of South Africa’s over-crowded prisons overflow. He has turned in a corrupt police officer or two.

But the most recent antics of the South African Police’s top brass got to him, like they got to many of us and by Thursday last week, I had an insurrection on my hands. He would not drive his car, he would not shoot, he would not arrest anybody. He use an untranslatable Afrikaans phrase, gatvol. All he wanted to do was throw in the towel, hand in his resignation and go and start a security company like so many other ex-cops have done over the last few years.

Writing about the police, like working for the police, in South Africa is not straightforward. I had managed to persuade him (and me) to stick it out when our last police chief, Jackie Selebi was given a fifteen-year sentence for corruption. In that long-running case a great deal of court time was devoted to proving that the plump and sharp-suited head of a large criminal empire with tentacles throughout South Africa, had given Selebi with cash and gifts in exchange for lost dockets and information.

One gift in particular caught my attention, a very expensive pair of shoes. Sharp and shiny, a pimp’s shoes, a gangster’s shoes, a bought and paid for policeman’s shoes. It was a revealing and diminishing bribe. Shoes are so intimate, so personal. Buying a man shoes is the equivalent of buying a woman saucy underwear. It is not a purchase that bears scrutiny if the relationship is a clandestine one. But I persuaded my Captain Faizal to stay on in the police force by persuading that his boss had been a weak and venal man and that now he was gone. The rot had been stopped.

A new police chief was duly appointed. Bheki Cele is a tough looking man with a taste for flashy suits and white hats, and a demeanour that suggests that he shoots from the hip. The developments around him have been far more sinister. Cele tweaked government tender and procurement procedures and signed a 500 million rand rental agreement for new police headquarters with an old friend.


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Making Sense of Death, The Banality of Violence and the Madness of Gaddafi

I wanted to write about death and dying this week. Death is central to crime fiction; making sense of death is its heart. There were two deaths that touched me this past week, one directly, one less so.

The first death was a good death.

My beloved old father-in-law died last Thursday in his own bed, in his sleep. At peace. A fine end, all things considered, to a fine life.

He joined up at eighteen and fought in the desert campaign in North Africa during the World War II. He was an active and lifelong member of the Gunners Association. A way, I imagine, of making sense of the deaths of so many young men killed in the Sahara in the early 1940s. The commemorations, the wreaths, the marches, the care for widows and indigent old veterans, were a way of honouring the dead and celebrating the brazen good luck of the living.

There is no material for a crime novel in that passing, unless one can find a way of writing about the cruel evolutionary joke that robs fine minds of their cohesion in old age. He had Alzheimer’s disease and I would happily pitch a bounty hunter of the Lee Child variety to go after that renegade gene that unravelled his personality and memory in the end.

But in the end, it was a release, a death that one could stitch into the fabric of a family.

The second death unravelled a family.

Two weeks ago a grandmother was reported missing from her home in Johannesburg. She was sixty-five years old. She was plump and jolly and loved, part of a wide network of friends and family.

After a frantic searches by her distraught family and the police her bludgeoned body was found near a railway track. Her car, a clapped out old vehicle, was spotted in various places and then the cops stopped it and the men (the woman’s killers) were arrested and charged. Her family have buried her and, if the slow and rickety wheels of the South African justice system turn, the men who murdered her will get life.


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The Ethics of Writing Crime Fiction in South Africa

South Africa, charming and vibrant as it might be, is a delinquent democracy in which the most outrageous crimes are committed, often with impunity. It is a murderous country where no one is unaffected by violence. It is a place where corruption is corroding hard-won democratic institutions. It is a place where ethics – collective and individual – are increasingly elastic.

So, I ask myself, is it ethical to write crime fiction, to fictionalise crime? What are the ethics of representation, especially the representation of violent and degrading experiences, in a place where everyone has them? I could not find a satisfactory answer, so I put this question to a professor of philosophy at the University of Cape Town.

He advised me to consider these two things.

First: That one would have to weigh up the value of public knowledge of things with an individual’s rights to privacy. A solution to this, he told me, would be that a story be told anonymously because once it is linked to an individual, it would be a further assault. This I do in all my books. I sink real people and real interactions deep below the surface of my fiction so that their lived experience is the pulse, the heartbeat of the stories, but the detail of their identities is not. It plagues me though that the murders, the rapes, the fear that one fictionalises are the lived experiences of so many people in South Africa.

Second: there is the necessity of truthfulness, of avoiding the hyperbolic, the sensational. This can be a vexing question for a novelist. Is my account truthful even if I have buried the originating detail? Does it reflect things accurately? Crime fiction is a popular genre – born out of the penny ‘orribles of the 19th Century – and many crime books are filled with the most pornographic violence.

Much of what I think of as ‘good’ crime fiction – well written and ethical – is not hyperbolic. It might be condensed, time might be speeded up a little, but it is not possible to create a good story without being truthful and accurate in the essence of interactions around traumatic events.

This is a challenge if you write about crime in South Africa. The reality is that most actual crime is far too hyperbolic, for too outrageously meaningless, far too sensational. The violence is excessive, too gratuitous to be turned into a good story. There is, in fact, little narrative behind most crime. It is just lots of drinking and fighting, shooting and hitting and stabbing and then people are dead and children are crying. And the cops come and roll their eyes and arrest a couple of people.

End of story.

No reason, no explanation, no gain.

Just loss and pain and no words to say it.

And that is not what crime fiction is about.

So, in life the ethics are messy, the crime fiction the aesthetics complex, but for Ian Rankin, creator of the fabulous Rebus series, that is a good place for a writer to be. He wrote that

‘What crime fiction needs is a sense of the incomplete, of life’s messy complexity. The reader should go to crime fiction to learn about the real world, not to retreat from it with comfortable reassurances and assumptions… Good does not always triumph in today’s crime fiction; evil cannot always be rationalised.’

It was life’s messy complexity that brought me to the subject matter of my last book. DADDY’S GIRL originated in a series of real events. In a two-week period in 2007, eight little girls were killed in Cape Town. Really little girls. The youngest was 18 months. The oldest one was six. I wanted to explore this feral society that picks off the weak and vulnerable.

This was the question that kept on coming at me as I clipped the stories of these deaths from the newspapers. What does it mean when the fathers turn on their (baby) daughters and kill them?

A Jungian formulation, I know, but what other kind of question is there to ask? What should one say when a patriarchal society is stripped to its malignant bones and kills its own children? In the Greek myth of origins, Cronos eats his grown sons.


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