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Alex Smith

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Short Story Day Africa Interview with Nerine Dorman, Nick Mulgrew & Cat Hellisen

short story day2

Happy short story day, Africa! A while back I did a series on the formative reading experiences of African authors for the Little Hands Trust. And as a result I got an email from Rachel Zadok one of the driving forces behind the brilliant Short Story Day Africa competition and anthology. In her email, Rachel asked if I would curate a blog roll for this years SSDA Interview using those formative reading questions. In a blur of novel edits, student assignments, and toddler related sleep deprivation, I eagerly responded that I’d love to curate the blog roll. It sounded like a good thing, didn’t mention that I didn’t have a clue what that meant and I hoped that by the time Short Story Day Africa arrived, I would be more in the picture.

Well, in a flurry of tweets, the day has arrived. Hooray! I’m not sure sure I’ve been a good curator of the blog roll, because I’m shoddy at Twitter, I don’t Reply and Retweet as I should, but it was great this morning to see many of the authors who originally answered the Formative Reading Experiences questions on the Twenty in 20 longlist, including:

Henrietta Rose-Ines – read about Henrietta’s formative reading experiences here
Cynthia Jele – read about Cynthia’s formative reading experiences here
Sarah Lotz – read about Sarah’s formative reading experiences here
Diane Awerbuck – read more about Diane’s formative reading experiences here.
Alistair Morgan – read about Alistair’s formative reading experiences here
Sindiwe Magona - read about Sindiwe’s formative reading experiences here
Lisl Jobson – read about Lisl’s formative reading experiences here
Zukiswa Wanner – read about Zukiswa’s formative reading experiences here
Arja Salafranca - read about Arja’s formative reading experiences here
Gabeba Baderoon – read about Gabeba’s formative reading experiences here

Also on the Twenty in 20 longlist is Nick Mulgrew, who is one of the authors who completed and Tweeted his formative reading experiences for the SSDA Interview earlier in the week. Nick answered the questions as follows:

1) What is your earliest memory of books and reading?

I can’t remember, and I suppose that’s because books, while not exactly abundant, were very much present in my house – something that I know now, as an adult, is a tremendous luxury for any South African. I suppose what helped me first and foremost in one day giving me the option to choose writing as a career was that I had ready access to books. They were always just part of my life. There is no beginning. Every child should have that.*

2) As a small child, what book/s were your favourite?

By all accounts, I was a very early reader, and I remember my Grade 1 or 2 teacher giving me copies of Roald Dahl books – James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, etc. – to read when I had motored through the bookshelves of our classroom. Knowing me, I probably only pretended to read a lot of the books we had in class – either way, I loved Roald Dahl and devoured every single one of his books for children.

Later, in my tweenage years, I remember loving this awful crime-fiction book called Don’t Look Behind You by Lois Duncan. I was so lazy (read: obsessed with Pokémon and Magic: the Gathering) at that time that I must have used the book for no less than three consecutive English book reviews for different teachers.

3) Where did you grow up? Do you have a particular memory of a library, bookshop or other place of books in your hometown?

I grew up in Glenashley, a suburb of Durban that’s groggy and slow-paced, even by Durban’s groggy and slow-paced standards. I was a fortunate kid in that there was a satisfyingly muggy and sun-damaged library just a few hundred metres from all the different houses we moved between when I was a child.

I used to go to the library with my mother quite often. I suppose I must have read a lot of books from there, but my overwhelming memory is it was the kind of library in which nothing looked exciting: many of the books looked like they were donated when the library was built, which I’m going to guess was sometime in the 1960s, and I remember just not reading a lot of the books I took out.

What interested children in the sixties in white suburban South Africa was very different to what I found interesting as a white suburban child in the nineties. I liked computers. I liked modern fantasy – and I don’t even think the library had a copy of The Hobbit! I had to borrow that one from my friends.

For all the faults of the municipal library, my senior primary school library was great. They had a full set of Animorphs and Goosebumps books. What more could you want?

Both experiences have taught me that children don’t just need access to books, they need relevant books, too.

4) As an adult, in the role of parent or caregiver, what has been your experience of reading with children?

I’m not a parent, and I haven’t been in the position of looking after children much in my short adulthood thus far, but something I do know is that children need books. My God do they need books. And if things carry on in this country like they are right now, it’s no exaggeration to say that most children in South Africa will never own their own book. (Click that link for a brilliant blog post by my old boss, Arthur Attwell, who breaks down the reasons behind this.)

It’s a tragedy, an indictment not only of the dehumanising monolith that was the apartheid state, but also of our collective inaction today; our non-attempts at making sure more children have more books, and recognising how awful this is for everyone in our country.


*Book Dash is a project that wants to flood South Africa with free, high quality children’s books, created by talented volunteers. Volunteer your time and get involved here.

ja11 Brilliant Nerine Dorman also replied to the Formative Reading questions this week:

What is your earliest memory of books and reading?

The house where I grew up was filled with books, and one of my earliest memories involves pulling books down from the shelves and being frustrated because I couldn’t read the stories. The whole idea that someone might have the wherewithal to sit down and write an *entire* book seemed magical to me. I couldn’t wait to read, and was able to do do so from a young age – I was way ahead of my peers in that regard.

By the time I was 12, I’d read through The Lord of the Rings in its entirety, and I was completely smitten. I knew then that one day I wanted to write my own stories, in my own made-up worlds.

Second only to that was my voracious reading habit, of up to a book every two days, which meant I was constantly at the library. Wherever I went, I’d lug at least one or two books around with me. I also managed to avoid getting invited to all future family weddings, because I once took a book into the reception after the ceremony. What can I say? I was bored and books were (and still are) far better company than people. And I was never invited to family functions with *that* side of the family ever again. Achievement unlocked!

As a small child, what book/s were your favourites?

I absolutely adored my Story Teller tapes and listened to them until they were stretched. My favourite story was about Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat by Ursula Moray Williams, that was one of the stories that had been adapted for the Story Teller format, but I remember crying my eyes out at the Oscar Wilde stories about The Selfish Giant and The Happy Prince. Looking back now, I realise what a treasure trove this collection was, because it instilled a love for storycraft and introduced me to a wide selection of tales from around the world.

But I loved The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien, and CS Lewis’s Narnia books also captivated me. Charlotte’s Web by EB White was another favourite, but I also obsessively read anthologies of animal stories, especially if they had to do with cats.

Where did you grow up? Do you have a particular memory of a library, bookshop or other place of books in your hometown?

I grew up in the seaside fishing village of Hout Bay in the Cape Peninsula. Back then we were an isolated community. My family used to farm there, and I suspect I was of the last of the locals to eventually leave once the valley became fully yuppiefied. Nowadays Hout Bay is nothing like it used to be, which makes me sad. My mom used to teach at Kronendal Primary School and I’d have to hang out there and wait for her to finish. Bored out of my mind at the age of six, I started volunteering at the local library – just packing away the children’s books or sitting in a corner hunched over a book paging through pictures. Consequently, I’d spend large chunks of my time at the library, a place that was often a sanctuary for me, as I was often bullied by the “cool” kids.

Even during high school, I often spent more time in the library at Wynberg Girls’ High School than I did hanging out with my peers. I’d while away hours paging through old copies of National Geographic or even the high school journals. Even now, I’m able to digest facts at a glance and often surprise myself with some of the bizarre stuff I remember. Books are time capsules too, and offer fascinating glimpses into the past or possible futures.

I miss the time I had as a kid to just get lost between the shelves. When you’re young, you really live under the illusion that your time is limitless, and when I stepped into the pages of books, I always returned with the sense that I could go out and do anything.

As an adult, in the role of parent or caregiver, what has been your experience with children?

I don’t have children, but when young ones visit my home, I always go find a pile of books for them to look at. Some kids are like me when I was that age, and we don’t hear a peep from them for the entire time that their parents are visiting. I like those kids, and I get what they’re experiencing when they get lost in those books. And they’ll definitely be invited over again. If they’re reading, it means they’re willing to discover new worlds.

And as an aside, all these questions relate to my most recent release, The Guardian’s Wyrd, which is exactly about a kid who loves libraries a little too much… (But he’s no Bastian Balthazar Bux)


Very talented Cat Hellisen also responded to the questions this week, saying:

1 – What is your earliest memory of books and reading?

There are three things:

1) Lying on the floor for hours going through my Story Tellers over and over again.

2) My mom having to fight with the school librarian to allow me to take books out of the big kids’ section.

3) A huge fat book of illustrated nursery rhymes that I basically dragged with me everywhere.

2 – As a small child, what book/s were your favourite?

I was hugely into talking animal books, like Colin Dann’s Animals of Farthing Wood books, and from there I came to fantasy and got really into Diana Wynne Jones. Her book Dogsbody was probably *the* book that made me a writer, and a writer of the fantastic and strange.

3 – Where did you grow up? Do you have a particular memory of a library, bookshop or other place of books in your hometown?

I started off in Cape Town, then was dragged across country on a train and ended up in Joburg, where I spent the rest of my childhood. I hung out at my local library a lot – I was reading six books a day. In the end they gave me a job as a library page, purely I think because I was always there and they didn’t know how to get rid of me.

4 – As an adult, in the role of parent or caregiver, what has been your experience of reading with children?

I confess I hate reading aloud. I read pretty fast and reading aloud means slowing down and well…slowing down. I can find it rather frustrating. I made sure my kids could read as soon as possible so I didn’t have to read to them. They’re both massive readers so it doesn’t seem to have hurt them.

Thank you Cat, Nerine and Nick for taking time to answer the questions.


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