Love and Crime: in conversation with Consuelo Roland

FIONA ZERBST chats with Consuelo Roland author of The Good Cemetery Guide, Lady Limbo and Wolf Trap about sex, death, detective fiction, love, magic realism and what it means to write novels in the 21st century.

Consuelo Roland

Consuelo, let’s talk about how the importance of crime in Lady Limbo and Wolf Trap, the first two novels in your Limbo Trilogy. Daniel in Lady Limbo writes crime fiction and the books feature private investigators, detectives and criminal syndicates.

I remember going to the circus as a seven-year-old in a red-tartan-checked cape my mother made me (like Sherlock Holmes). I realise now that feeling like a detective (and a writer) makes me a detached observer of the antics of others. A writer is partly a detective, one who unearths and casts light on the hidden or secret worlds of others. Also, a detective starts from ‘point zero’ and works obsessively to reach the truth.

I like the fact that writing detective fiction becomes a trope in the novel.

I read a lot of French at one stage and French crime fiction is very popular. I like to play with some of the clichés of detective fiction. I think I like writing about crime because it illustrates very clearly the contradictions that form the basis of human life. Everything we do is based on the existence of conflicting forces inside us. Criminals live in a very clear world. For most of us, an act of crime would be immensely fracturing and harrowing, but it would be normal for a criminal. There’s juxtaposition between the criminal world and another world, a very ambiguous one.

Let’s talk about Paola’s transition from tough, organised career woman to impetuous, grieving sleuth in Lady Limbo.

One of the things I wanted to explore in Lady Limbo was the whole gender equality issue. I was that career woman for a very long time. I had power over others and I used it. I wasn’t a very likeable person because one is just so stressed, twelve to fourteen hours a day. You try to be the perfect woman in all ways. I used that experience to write Paola’s character.

It seems to me that Paola exemplifies moral ambiguity – she has doubts, she questions herself.

Paola likes to think that her life is rational – most of the time we fool ourselves about how clear everything is in our lives when it’s really not. A random encounter or choice made and everything can change. It sits somewhere between our normal lives and a life of crime. We like to think it’s a clear line, but is it? Paola has to navigate this territory from the moment she chooses to investigate Daniel’s disappearance.

Once she begins investigating, we find ourselves in a very dark world, one of sexual commerce, sex trafficking and so on…

The two worlds interest me – how we live our daily public lives pretending there is no sex, but we have rich sexual lives in private and in our thoughts. When you’re a novelist, you’re constantly observing how people relate to other people, often in a very sexual way. I think it’s easier to stylise sex in literary fiction where your readers give you quite a bit of leeway − I’m thinking of Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Atonement − or within a specific genre where sex scenes are expected. It’s tricky writing about sex because there’s often a mix of readers across the spectrum. I’ve had readers ask me why I write about sex and comment on how sexual the characters are. I don’t find them that sexual at all, by the way! It’s part of the story. Someone said the other day that I write about good sex and bad sex. I thought that was an interesting comment.

Yes, you skirt the Mills & Boon clichés.

But our lives are very much clichés. Marriage is a cliché. Parenthood is a cliché. Being a modern career woman is a total cliché! I think I write about the hidden so much because we deny it a lot of the time. It’s not to say I’m not terrified of that – I am – but I do feel we’re constantly on that edge. I am very drawn to writers like Atwood, Murakami and Irving because they explore the sexual relations of human beings. I don’t know how it can be left out of books!

Daniel’s a mysterious guy – it’s difficult to figure out his motives or get inside his head. How do you write a character like him, knowing that you can’t give the reader too much?

Daniel first came to me as a voice and I tried to write the book in his voice. He came as the instigator of the story, so to speak. I thought, “If he’s the one who wants me to tell this story, why am I not telling it in his voice?” It seemed that he wanted me to tell the story from Paola’s perspective, however; he was an enigma and he remains one to me. I do think living a double life makes an enigma of people. Daniel may not be at the forefront of the story, but he has huge power within it.

One never gets a sense that the characters will be completely immersed in darkness – there’s always a sense that good will prevail and there will be redemption?

Well, we know that, in general, readers want a drop of hope. We’re brought up knowing that books without hope, entirely bleak, are a shock to the system. It would be an interesting experiment to try a hopeless version! But I do think you need playfulness to come out of that darkness and write the next book. You can get lost!

Let’s go back to your first novel, The Good Cemetery Guide. To my mind, there’s a strong element of magic realism in the novel, which makes for much levity in the fact of death and decay. Was that a conscious choice? There really was something of Love in the Time of Cholera about the novel…

There is a magical and mythical element to the novel – the semi-magical world of a fictional Kalk Bay where a lonely man had been born into a funeral parlour. Anthony the boy likes to fall asleep in coffins. I think in magic realism you have to be able to let yourself go, be ridiculous and just go for it; it’s an exaggerated, augmented reality but it’s all possible; it’s not a fairy tale. Rushdie speaks about magical realism as an enrichment of reality rather than an escape. Kalk Bay, this place in the fictional ether of The Good Cemetery Guide with a railway line going through it, is like García Márquez’s Macondo or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. The idea is to capture real people in a real place and evoke something of their distilled particularity.

I’d like to ask you about your writing process and where it starts. Where does a book begin for you?

It’s different every time. Ursula Le Guin said something about a story being like trying on a role… one puts on a whole play of possibilities, to see what characters will do. For me it’s very much like that; it’s mostly impromptu. Writing is never easy for me. It’s like pulling teeth. I have to rewrite and rewrite until the writing has its own sound like a poem. Every word has to be right and in the right place. It takes me forever. I can rewrite a chapter hundreds of times.

Can we call your Limbo Trilogy books postmodern? You play with the idea of writing about writing and the reader is very much conscious of your writing process and how you construct your characters.

It all depends how you define ‘postmodern’ but it’s true that if you look at Irving, Murakami and Atwood, my guiding lights as a writer, certain attributes stand out. The divide between the fantastic and the real is permeable in their writing, even if as Marukami claims, it is very natural in Japan. In the Limbo Trilogy, characters have to constantly figure out what’s real and what’s not real, because of the blurring of truth and lies. Other postmodern touchpoints are the stories within stories, the existential leanings as characters try and find meaning, and the absence of a clear resolution or consistent universe. Ultimately I’d hope that the Limbo Trilogy is a riveting saga that opens up its own space for the reader’s enjoyment and interpretation.

The final novel in the Limbo Trilogy will be published by Jacana Media in 2019.

10 QUESTIONS: Paul McNally

Paul McNally


Paul McNally is a journalist living in Johannesburg covering criminal justice, health and science. A 2016 Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard, he’s also the founder of The Citizen Justice Network, which develops journalism in under-reported areas in indigenous languages. The Street – which zeroes in on the crime and punishment unfolding in Ontdekkers Road, Johannesburg – is his first book.

What inspired you to write The Street?

The moment when I realised that what was happening in Johannesburg (and possibly the rest of the country) should be a book rather than an article (as was originally intended) was when I saw that the bribes happening between the police and the drug dealers was for small amounts. These weren’t occasional and large amounts of money, but rather constant and small – just enough for a police officer to buy lunch, or a few groceries to take home. That is when I realised that the problem was systemic and was really the fuel for a much larger ecosystem that involved the police, the drug dealers and the South African public.

You demonstrate through your writing what appears to be a close personal bond with Raymond (a shop-owner), Khaba (a middle-aged police officer) and Wendy (ageing police reservist). Did this make it difficult to maintain objectivity when conducting research?

Absolutely. You are committed to being as objective as possible, but you find yourself spending a great deal of time with people that you are committed to figuring out. And the strategy I took was to be upfront with what I was feeling about the different people I was interviewing. The book developed into a journalist’s journey into this world of drugs and corrupt cops and then when they are brought into that story the reader can make a judgement call as to how good a job the journalist is doing, but the honestly is key.The Street

The Street is non-fiction, but it uses narrative techniques usually found in novels, such as a careful focus on character, place and emotion. What was the motivation for this?

The way we engage with narrative is we have a character that we empathise with and then we see how they endure challenges and change. That’s the type of story that is exciting to read. This trajectory happens in real life all the time. You don’t need to contrive this to happen. You just need to wait and wait and eventually you’ll see.

What were you reading as you prepared for and wrote the book?

I read a few books from the amazing Jonny Steinberg (Midlands, A Man of Good Hope). Also, I am a big fan of trying to read things that are out of your usual comfort sphere while you are writing so you don’t get too locked on to a specific style – this can be copies of You magazine or forcing yourself through a Dan Brown paperback, just to hear different voices.

What’s the thing that surprised you the most while you were researching the book?

I think how people could be brave and optimistic in the face of incredible adversity.

What would you like South African readers to take as a key lesson in the book?

During writing the book I developed a strong sympathy for the police. And though the book’s premise is about the police being involved in taking bribes from drug dealers there are dimensions to how the police live and what they are forced to endure that truly shocked me. I don’t want to preach to readers, but I hope that they feel from reading The Street that they are given moments of insight into the police that they didn’t have before. It feels like these huge structural problems of our country need to be crowd-sourced – we all need to be thinking about what could be shifted to make our lives better.

Do you think vigilante justice (like that of Raymond) is a valid way of combating crime?

Well, I don’t think he’s a vigilante. I think he is someone who reached out repeatedly and his cries went largely ignored. The decisions he makes in the book and his actions feel like they come from a host of places. There is a difference when someone is being violent with a sense of self- righteousness (I think Raymond is aware of how peculiar his actions are). I think some pockets of community policing (which I visit in the book) have this vigilante problem of believing they are doing the law’s work when they are putting drug dealers in the boots of cars and driving them around (a lot of community policing people and neighbourhood watch folk were incredibly friendly and scornful of this activity).

How can the South African police force conquer corruption within its own ranks?

What I discovered is that conquering corruption isn’t about raising wages. You can’t fight corruption, you need to neutralise it by building up morale from within. There needs to be a sense of accountability brought into the police from station level all the way to the top (and ideally up to the president).

How did you adjust from your work as a journalist focusing on shorter pieces, to writing your first book, and what were the contrasts and similarities between each process?

I spent the last year or so developing a citizen journalism organisation called Citizen Justice Network. We train paralegals in areas around South Africa to be radio journalists. So my job became largely managing people and budget reports and figuring out how to manage work flow. So writing the book became a good contrast to this type of work.

In a country where newsrooms are facing enormous financial and staffing constraints, what are the ways in which considered, long-form reportage can be kept alive?

People have to buy the books. That’s the long and short of it. But I think because it’s a time and place when long-form is struggling in the newsroom that should mean narrative non-fiction books have become relatively unique. I don’t think people have lost their attention span, but they just need to have what they are reading framed properly. It is an exciting time that you can access all the books that have ever been written by using a kindle and still people are drawn to the new as long as it is relevant and interesting for them.

The Street is published by Picador Africa.

“If only they had the chance”: an interview with Don Pinnock

GARETH LANGDON chats to Don Pinnock about his new book, Gang Town.Don Pinnock

Residents of Cape Town are well aware of its two faces. On one side, the picturesque coastline that runs around the peninsula, Table Mountain watching over lithe bodies sunbathing on white sandy beaches. But travel far enough beyond the green mountain slopes, and you arrive in the Cape Flats, an apartheid relic built to rehouse coloureds and blacks under the Group Areas Act.

Don Pinnock ventures deep into these neighbourhoods to provide a detailed analysis  of their gang violence, poverty, drugs and lack of policing. His City Press/Tafelberg Non-fiction Award-winning book Gang Town is an exploration of gangsterism in the Cape Flats, but is also a journalistic and criminological study, owing no doubt to Pinnock’s background in these areas. He lays his examination out in six parts, including a lengthy appendix which gives it the feel of a doctoral thesis rather than a book, but the structure provides direction for the reader and prevents the boredom that can occur with such lengthy non-fiction works.

What is most interesting about Gang Town is Pinnock’s focus on adolescence, mostly male adolescence, and the role it plays in forcing young boys to turn to gangsterism. This makes sense in light of Pinnock’s background in criminology, and in his work with the Usiko Trust, but the core of Gang Town actually came to him in a dream:

One night before starting work on this book I dreamed I’d been allocated a house in a rural village. It turned out to be a single wall with an old door and dirt floor, nothing else. I spent some time cleaning the floor and, as evening fell, there was a knock on the door. I opened and a horde of ragged, hungry-looking local children flooded in. I thought: ‘I have nothing for them.’

They were very sweet but rowdy, so after a while I asked them to leave, but they wouldn’t. Eventually I shoved a few through the door saying: ‘Go outside now.’ A boy looked at me then at the sky where the roof should be and the sides where walls should be and said: ‘There’s no inside.’

When I woke up the meaning of the dream was clear. For around 30 years, on and off, I’d been highlighting the plight of young people at risk in Cape Town in books and lectures. I had co-founded an organization, Usiko Trust, to take young men from distressed families to beautiful wilderness places and help them build resilience in the face of absent fathers, poverty, shame and the hyper-masculinity of gang life.

The message from the world of dreams was that this was just a start. So far all I had was a wall with a door through which children could enter. The structure was incomplete with no roof for protection from the elements. There was still a lot to do before the building was habitable. And children in need were not people against whom I could shut the door.

The obvious explanations for adolescent gangsterism remain – poverty, crime, a lack of adequate role models and education – these are all neat explanations for why someone would join a gang like the Americans or the 28s, but Pinnock notes a more interesting nuance. He notes how, young men, during their most vulnerable stages of development, crave adult attention and have a natural tendency towards aggressive and territorial behaviours.

“People see gangsters and I see kids with enormous potential if only they had the chance,” he says. “I treat them with the respect they deserve and they respond with warmth and trust. So many burn up and far too many die before 25.”Gang Town

In the past, traditions served to curb teen boys’ dangerous tendencies, but in a society where family has disintegrated and children are largely left to their own devices – their parents on drugs, in jail or even dead – these traditions fall away, and new rituals take their place. Here we find the gang symbolism, initiation rituals and strict rule books that govern these gangs. For Pinnock, gang ideology is simply a replacement for what is lost when society breaks down – albeit a dangerous and criminal replacement.

“The most frightening thing is the way far too many young people in high-risk areas are dealt with by mothers and especially fathers unconcerned or unaware of the impact of their poor parental care,” he says. “And also pretty scary is the failure of government – local and national, pre and post apartheid – to provide decent conditions for kids to grow up in. We are thereby really cooking trouble in the future.”

This danger is clearest when Pinnock enters the Flats to observe children as young as 5 and 6 playing in the streets. When asked to draw something, they draw a gang symbol. When asked to name a role model, they name a gang leader. When asked what they want to be when they grow up, they say gangster. Their games are about territory and shooting, stick fighting to emulate their panga-wielding older brothers and fathers. Rescuing these adolescents, catching them as young as possible, is the solution Pinnock proposes – one which goes beyond the vast societal problems which the individual is powerless to defeat, and focuses on what we can do to help the kid on the street, slowly preventing gangsterism one kid at a time.

The lack of an elderhood of men seems to be what, according to Pinnock, is most lacking in these poor areas. One of the most uplifting stories he can recall centres around a teenage boy finding the belonging and pride he so desperately craves from older male role models:

In Nguni culture, when a young man is a kwedien – uncircumcised – his opinions aren’t valued. When he speaks he’s tolerated but not regarded. He’s a child. The makweta ceremony is the time of manhood. In traditional areas, several weeks into the ceremony, there’s a time when the young man is invited to a beer drink.

I attended one while researching adolescent traditions in the Quamata area of Transkei. There were about 50 men sitting in a circle on stools and upturned tins passing a large can of beer. I watched the young man come down the mountain and approach the group. He was nervous. His eyes were downcast.

As he walked up to the circle the men made space for him and he sat down. They continued talking. He just sat there and nobody paid him any attention. But when the beer came round it was passed to him and he drank and handed it on.

After about 20 minutes – I guess he was plucking up courage – he said something. Nothing special, just a comment in the flow of conversation. But every man stopped and listened to him. Then they nodded, agreeing with him and the conversation flowed again.

I was watching him closely. His shoulders straightened, his eyes brightened and he looked the men in their faces. In that moment, in that instant, he became a man. His story had been heard. He’d been accepted.

Larger issues of this kind are often difficult to address in a society strangled by bureaucracy and poverty, but Pinnock notes that there is still progress being made in certain areas. The key is knowing where to start:

“Cape Town has started by looking at systemic solutions and, rather gratifyingly, it is using Gang Town as a reference text,” he says. “Working one-to-one has great value for both the healer and the healed, of course, but solutions can only come from the underlying systems and failures of those systems that underpin what I call life-course-persistent deviance. I would start by utterly changing the school curriculum (it’s neck-up and boringly impractical), decriminalise drugs (it would halve the prison and court population) and turn prisons into educational centres and not the hell-holes they presently are.”

While Pinnock’s prose is at times stiff and dense, the interspersal of interview extracts, the words of real residents of the Flats as well as police officers and jail wardens, helps to break the monotony and provides detailed context for the more academic passages. Pinnock has also included pictures he shot, as well as archived images, of District 6, the Flats and Cape Town youths which are a nice touch.

For a reader seeking a detailed exploration of gangs in Cape Town, one which goes deeper than the conventional media circus often associated with these myths, or indeed the total silencing of these desperate communities, then Gang Town is a good place to start.

Gang Town is published by Tafelberg.

White tears


In Weeping Waters, translated from the original Afrikaans into English by Isobel Dixon and Maya Flower, Karin Brynard deftly deploys the conventions of crime fiction to illuminate many of the central tropes of post-apartheid life in an eye-catching whodunit. Racial antagonism, political patronage, corporate greed, right-wing extremism, police corruption, land rights, stock theft, occult shibboleths and violent crime are cast into a potent critique of the impulse to pin post-apartheid white anxiety onto a storytelling mode which has found increasing traction in our cultural milieu in recent times.

While Weeping Waters suffers from tacky dialogue, staid and sticky deployment of romantic tension, faltering attempts at comic relief and a tepid denouement, the book still offers a refreshing treatment of a genre which, in a South African context, easily stands accused of fomenting white paranoia. Brynard’s thorough investigation of the ways in which the injustices and social categories of a society shaped by colonial modernity affect people’s interactions in the present ensures the book vigorously contests the spurious notion that whites are the greatest victims of crime in this country.

The plot turns on the murder of Freddie Swarts, a young white artist from the Cape, and her adopted daughter-to-be, a young Griqua girl, on the farm of Huilwater in the remote Northern Cape. Colonel Albertus Beeslaar, a tough former Johannesburg cop with a haunted past, is tasked with solving the murders. Sara Swarts, Freddie’s estranged younger sister, returns to Huilwater. Here she has to confront not only the trauma her sister’s death, but also the guilt about the way she cut Freddie out of her life during the last days of their father’s life.

Given the gallery of louche characters who populate the small farming community on the outskirts of Upington where the narrative unfolds, there are plenty suspects. These include Boet Pretorius, the owner of the neighbouring farm and the man who alerted the police to the murder; Adam de Kok, the Huilwater farm manager with an interest in reclaiming land from which his Griqua forebears were chased away in the 19th century; Nelmari Viljoen, a close former friend of Freddie Swarts and a property mogul; and Buks Hanekom and Polla Pieterse, right-wing Afrikaner nationalists none too pleased with Freddie’s enthusiasm for a campaign to return the surrounding land to the Griqua community.

The difficulty of Beeslaar’s job is compounded by the the lack of resources the police department he takes over has, the neophytic sloppiness of his colleagues’ work, his traumatic past (which leaves him sleepless and prone to debilitating panic attacks), and the symbolic complexity of the murder scene. Sara Swarts discovers that the gruesome mis-en-scene of Freddie’s murder (Boet Pretorius finds her naked, propped up against the foot of her bed with her hair hacked off and her throat lacerated) is prefigured by the sinister visual arrangement of one of Freddie’s paintings. The calculated staging of the murder suggests that the culprit must have had an intimate familiarity with Freddie’s artistic output and the torsions of her darkening mind: a profile which none of the mentioned suspects appears to fit. Brynard masterfully marshals the reader’s proclivities, beliefs and assumptions about who the murderer could be, undercutting at every possible turn each possible thesis about who committed the heinous act, as it arises.

Weeping Waters is published by Penguin.

WORK/LIFE: John Carlin

John Carlin is an award-winning journalist. His newest book is Chase Your Shadow, about Oscar Pistorius; previous ones include Playing the Enemy (which inspired the film Invictus) and Knowing Mandela.

What does “writing” mean?

Using the written word to engage people by generating emotion, or informing, or instructing, or entertaining – or, best of all, all at the same time.

Which book changed your life?

King Lear.

What are you working on at the moment?

An article for a Spanish newspaper about a new leftwing political party that is taking Spain by storm.

Describe your workspace.

I have many workspaces. It can be a glass desk at home with a big computer screen on it, it can be a small plastic airplane table with a laptop on it; it can be a table in a hotel room anywhere.

The most important instrument you use?

My head.

What’s your most productive time of day?

Between 10am and 2pm.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

Play a game on my iPad.

How do you relax?

Reading, watching football, helping my son with his homework. (Well, scratch last.)

Who and what has influenced your work?

Everyone and everything I read, from newspaper writers to novelists, to philosophers, to historians.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Byron said, “No good ever came from good advice.”

Your favourite ritual?

Morning coffee with cigarette.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?


What do you dislike most about yourself?


What are you afraid of?

Fanatical sheep (disguised as people).

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

If you HAVE to write, write. Otherwise do something else for a living.

What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?

My happy marital separation.

Chase Your Shadow is published by Penguin in South Africa and is available from

Photograph by: César Nuñez Castro

POEM: The Last Road Dogs


Challenge extended-
We wonder would you spend an afternoon
In the dark and foreign corners
Of the Wikipedia category “Australian Criminals”

Which offers no surprises –
They are a loose and unhinged people after all
That has happened there,
The men, the flies, proximity to the sun.

They make up a considerable percentage
Of the internationally imprisoned,
They traffic in amphetamines on a regular basis –
In jail they write Shantaram.

I knew
That I could spend a whole afternoon
Reading the statements of the accused
To myself in an Australian accent.

The courtroom is packed,
The woman on the stand looks left, looks right
At the man who will not look at her,
And says yes it’s him.

Yes he is one of Melbourne’s main dealers
In what the papers refer to as party drugs
There’s a scar on his face that I gave him –
We were road dogs together, I admit it.

This is how the underworld speaks
In Australia today —
Like a Charles Manson interview
I once read on a plane.

The jury reels back as one
At the road dogs admission,
And the verdict is sealed – they don’t care
About what happens now.

She leaves the courtroom
And he walks past her shackled in the passage,
Wearing a stripy uniform and wearing a hat with corks on,
The scar that she gave him still vivid.

She had mugged him for a joke outside a party
To show which one of them was meaner,
One minute was I love you,
The next she stuck her keys in his face and dragged.

They brush past each other like the corks on his hat
Jostling together
He into the dark and she into the day,
And him the only road dog she would ever come to love.

EXTRACT: Dear Bullet by Sixolile Mbalo

My grandmother seldom spoke directly to me about her feelings. It was only when she prayed that I could hear how she felt. So, in hospital that first day, and for many months afterwards, I heard how she felt. She would begin by thanking God that I survived, because I could so easily have died. This she said over and over again. Sometimes she would ask God straight out what he thought she should have done if I had died. How could she ever look after another child if this happened to the one she was looking after with an involved heart? All of this I heard in her prayers.

I also heard the doctors expressing their surprise: why did the bullet not go through my head and blow open the other side?

Two days later, the police came to take a statement. I was still in great pain and my face was swollen. They showed me a photo: was it him? Yes, it was. They had already arrested him. As Pindile was a fugitive, the photo had gone up all over Mthatha. A taxi driver saw him getting into a cream bakkie, took the registration number and phoned the police. The police followed the bakkie to the rank for Cape Town buses and arrested Pindile as he was paying for a ticket to visit his family in Gugulethu. Apparently he acted surprised.

‘Do you know Sixolile?’

‘No, I don’t know her.’

‘So you don’t know the one you raped and shot?’ ‘Who told you that?’

‘She, she is in hospital.’

He was shocked. ‘Is she alive?’

I stayed in hospital for almost three months. When I was discharged, I couldn’t walk properly. I was not fine.

Initially I went back to Grandmother’s house, but I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t walk or eat. She had to cook soup for me. The neighbours would come in the mornings and volunteer soup and potatoes, because I could not eat any hard food. As they came and went they offered prayers, and in the prayers I heard them saying: God was amazing for sparing my life. I heard that there was a purpose to it that I didn’t die, and that was to give my heart to Jesus. The pastor who took me to the hospital said I shouldn’t cry; it was the way of growing up. If it didn’t happen to me, who else might also have been destroyed? Because I didn’t die, this guy could be caught, and so I saved many, many other girls. There was one old woman who would come into the house and just stand staring at me: ‘Auw mntanam!’ Then she would shake her head for a long time and sigh: ‘We prayedprayedprayed when you were in hospital.’

It was true. Many people prayed for me. I was an Umanyano in the Anglican church – our amachurch. The people from the church came to the hospital to pray, and also later with my grandmother at her house. The community was very shocked and had trouble dealing with what had happened to me. The first rape, that of Fuagase, had happened about five years before, but it was not so violent and had taken place within a family context.

My grandmother slept badly after the incident. She would wake up about four o’clock and start praying and praying. I could hear her grief. At times she would be angry. Other times she just sighed and began to cry, like someone without hope.

The community described Pindile as cruel, as a monster, without ubuntu, to do something like that to a young girl. I heard even the other boys were upset and disgusted with his behaviour.

Growing up as an orphan, I have to say I didn’t have a lot of experience of what they call ubuntu. I was alone, and alone had to fight for everything I had. I became cheeky and learned to look out for myself. I could not blame anybody in Mqekezweni for my suffering, because the one who was supposed to have the responsibility of looking after me – my mother – was somewhere else, enjoying herself.

Although Grandmother was the only one to whom I felt connected, she would sometimes shout and get frustrated with all the burdens and misbehavings around her. When she was like this, it frightened me a lot, because I had to face up to the possibility that one day she might tire of looking after the children of her irresponsible children and abandon us.

Now there was this me, who was not myself, to add to that. I was weak. I was terrified most of the time. I felt unsafe. I had constant pains. I had nightmares. I hardly got up before I wanted to lie down, so I took up more space than anybody else. Nobody in the household could continue as before, as I reminded them of things that they didn’t want to be reminded of. It even felt as if the neighbours avoided me when I came out of the house to sit in the sun.

Dear Bullet by Sixolile Mbalo

Extracted from Dear Bullet, published by Jonathan Ball and available from

Scorched memories


The act of remembering has two distinct functions. The first is recording – writing down events so as not to lose them in collective or individual memory. The second is catharsis – the act of writing and remembering as a way of dealing with trauma, a way of purging the mind or even the body of a painful memory.

Dear Bullet certainly falls into the second category, but to some degree also into the first. The book is the memoir of Sixolile Mbalo and her brutal rape and shooting in her rural town of Mpandela, a region of the Eastern Cape best known as the childhood home of Nelson Mandela. The story is simply written, but detailed. Mbalo recounts exactly what her experience was and how she perceived the events before and after the “incident”. She is attentive to her family’s reaction and aware of a dramatic shift in her inner and outer worlds after the fact.

In the book’s afterword, Anjie Krog (who helped Mbalo write the book), notes the author’s deliberateness in her task. She notes Mbalo’s steadfastness in getting her story down and her tangible desire to put a full stop at the end of this stage of her life. This is the working of catharsis for Mbalo. While she acknowledges that she hasn’t reached the end of her road, the book is her first step in moving forward.

The narrative begins with Mbalo directly addressing the bullet which is lodged in her head – the physical reminder of irreparable emotional damage. But the novel moves swiftly from addressing the bullet to addressing the reader as Mbalo “tries frantically to find a listener for her story”. This search for a listener raises a question around the relationship between reader and writer, listener and speaker. Once the audience is found, what should the result be?

In her simple and deliberate prose, Mbalo is able to easily communicate a set of circumstances so familiar to women all across this country, victims of violent crime in a largely poor and rural society, one which not only (in some cases) condones violence towards women, but is also helpless to prevent it. Failing infrastructure and policing have let many women down and, as a result, Mbalo’s story will most likely repeat itself. But for now, the text can provide a snapshot of reality for Mbalo and the many women like her and if it doesn’t provide answers, it certainly raises questions for the “listener”.

Taken as an historical moment, the memoir stands as an example to us: an example of an experience which we hope to push further into history, and out of the present. In this way, Dear Bullet has helped Mbalo remember, and may help us one day forget.

Dear Bullet is published by Jonathan Ball and is available from

WORK/LIFE: Margie Orford — crime novelist


The award-winning journalist and writer Margie Orford is the author of the Clare Hart series of crime novels. The five books in the series have been published internationally, in nine different languages. Born in London and raised in Namibia, the Cape Town-based Orford is Executive Vice-President of South African PEN and patron of Rape Crisis.

What does “writing” mean?

Earning a living.

What book changed your life?

The first one I learned to read — a Beatrix Potter, I think — I was about five and suddenly the black squiggles that I had been puzzling over since I was three coalesced into the letters. I realised the magic trick: that writing is written-down talking/thinking/feeling.

Describe your workspace.

I have a studio in my garden. No internet. Huge windows that give me a panoramic view of Table Mountain and Devil’s Peak. A table, a chair, a chaise longue for naps. NOBODY is allowed over the threshold. So no hurly-burly etc. there.

The most important instrument you use?

Pen, paper, heart, brain.

What’s your most productive time of day?

When my panic is greatest.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

I fight with the people who love me. Then I go and write. Then I have to come out and apologise and be nice.

How do you relax?

I should, yes…

Who and what has influenced your work?

The Brothers Grimm, the Greek myths and Die Son. A couple of writers in between: the Brontë that wrote Jane Eyre, Kafka, Patti Smith, Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace. Some early Milan Kundera, Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain. The many people — survivors, perpetrators and arbiters of violence — whom I have interviewed and dreamt of. Freud. Jung. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Johnny Cash A LOT — and other country music too. MacBeth and King Lear etc. I gannet from pretty much everything I read and hear; culture, society — and writing too — is part of one long conversation. Books are just the written down part of it.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Show don’t tell.

Your favourite ritual?

Pouring a glass of wine; smoking a cigarette.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Convincing people who do actual useful things that writing is an actual useful job.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

That I think too much before I do things.

What are you afraid of?

Not having loved enough.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

If you can’t be a trapeze artist then you might as well try writing. Your failures will be less spectacular and you won’t break your neck trying it.

What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?

Taking risks.

Water Music by Margie Orford Water Music, published by Jonthan Ball, is Margie Orford’s latest novel and is available from

Photograph: Zaheer Cassim

In pursuit of justice


13-year-old Joe Coutts is helping his father pry tree saplings out of the foundation of their home on a day that had him wishing “something out of the ordinary” would happen. Shortly afterwards, Joe’s mother, Geraldine, arrives home bloody, shaking and wet with gasoline. She has been the victim of a brutal rape and beating, her attacker intent on setting her alight before she manages to escape.

The Round House, Louise Erdrich’s 14th novel and the winner of 2012’s prestigious American National Book Award, is set in 1988 rural North Dakota. Our sole narrator, Joe, and his family live in the fictional Indian reservation of Yoknapatawpha, and are a part of the Ojibwe tribe, first introduced in Erdrich’s acclaimed 2008 novel The Plague of Doves.

While the novel‘s plot hinges on the difficulty of prosecuting non-Indians who commit crimes, rape in particular, on reservation land, it is equally a Dickensian coming of age tale. Geraldine’s attack occurred at the Roundhouse, a sacred site and jigsaw puzzle of federal, state and tribal land each with their own set of jurisdictions, making it nearly impossible for Joe’s father, a tribal judge, to attempt prosecution. Joe, increasingly frustrated with his mother’s depression and his father’s inaction, resolves to seek justice himself.

He enlists the help of his three best friends and together they bike through the Indian county in search of clues in the haphazard manner of typical teenage boys. Erdrich’s portrayal of their journey, replete with sweat-houses, youth groups, Catholic priests, “Indian grandmas where the church doesn’t take”, and rich landscapes are vividly portrayed. But it is her pitch-perfect dialogue that captivates the imagination and infuses an otherwise very serious novel with humour. The teenage boys veer between adult contemplation and naïve joys, like sneaking cigs and beer (that may be evidence), the anticipation of sex, and Star Wars-style banter about penis size: “Zack laughed at me, Aren’t you a little short for a Storm Trooper? Size matters not. Judge me by my size, do you?”

None of this distracts Joe from his pursuit, which he describes as a search for “the identity of the man whose act had nearly severed my mother’s spirit from her body.”

Unlike Erdrich’s other novels which make use of multiple viewpoints, we see the events of The Round House only through Joe’s eyes. His naive, honest account distills Erdrich’s otherwise ambitious undertaking of both chronicling American Indian life and telling a contemporary crime/coming of age novel. A combination which would otherwise seem forced. The Round House is a worthy, fascinating read that packs an emotional, intelligent punch.

The Round House is published by Constable & Robinson and is available from