Born A Crime is a rollicking ride of a book, an enjoyable feast of storytelling. Deservedly it is already a number one bestselling book. Combining comedy and tragedy, the book covers the dying days of apartheid in South Africa and the uncertain dawn of a new age as Nelson Mandela tries to birth a Rainbow Nation out of a horrific, nationalist, racist past.
Trevor Noah’s autobiography of his childhood and adolescence in this perilous, shifting landscape cleverly avoids polemical statements and moral platitudes. Instead he describes a resilient and opportunistic child and teenager whose intuitive street smarts lead him into a hustler’s life. The very facts of how he learns to navigate the political currents swirling around him provides vivid commentary on those challenging times for South Africa.
The book begins and ends with chapters on his mother. She is a woman of unbreakable religious faith. Sundays with Mom mean attending three different churches in three different parts of Johannesburg and environs.
Mrs. Noah is a formidable woman. She knowingly broke apartheid laws designating as a crime sexual intercourse between people of different races. Yet, she moved into a “gray” area (neither white nor black-only residences) with a man she loved, a Swiss man. Wanting a child she persuaded him to be the father.
When Trevor was born she moved back to her mother in Soweto, the sprawling black township near Johannesburg. Trevor became accustomed to clandestine visits to his father. He learned that if they were out in public he could not call him “Dad” and must walk alongside his mother but several steps behind his father. In later years his father moved to Cape Town, and they lost contact.
Trevor does not enjoy church and argues continually with his mother about her Sunday regime. But she is steadfast in her faith overcoming all obstacles an inadequate transport system throws in her way. Only when he was an older teenager and living away from home did Trevor stop going to church.
By then we have learned of his mother’s marriage to a Tsonga man, a master mechanic, Abel, and of their move to a previously “whites only” suburb where Abel houses his business. Eventually Trevor has two younger brothers, Andrew and Isaac.
Early on Trevor experiences being on the receiving end of Abel’s strength, wrath and other ravages his alcoholism bring. But this move does not only portend tragedy. Fortuitously it also provides Trevor with a shot at better schooling. He is now enrolled in previous “whites only” schools.
At junior high and high school, Trevor encounters the heartache of crushed love. He struggles to find his identity as a so-called “colored” youth, unacceptable to both the black kids at school and the white. His identity crisis also creates opportunities as he uses his entrepreneurial instincts to keep himself busy and earn some money.
“My life of crime started off small. Selling pirated CDs on the corner. That in itself was a crime, and today I feel I owe all these artists money for stealing their music, but by hood standards it didn’t even qualify as illegal. At the time it never occurred to any of us that we were doing anything wrong—if copying CDs is wrong, why would they make CD writers?”
Trevor graduates from high school and wants to study computer programming at university, but the family does not have the money to pay for his studies. Unemployment among black youth is as high as 50 percent. For the last two years of his adolescence, Trevor, living away from home, and along with friends, works the streets of seedy and dangerous Alexandria Township selling pirated CDs, DJ’ing wherever invited, and working deals for other hustlers that give him and his cronies a cut of the profit.
Inevitably, the day arrives where he is stopped by the cops and arrested for driving a stolen car. The car belongs to Abel but Trevor “borrowed” it and put on false number plates. He cannot find the registration papers. Through guile he avoids a jail sentence but after describing a week in a holding pen awaiting trail, we see fully that the new black police force is as brutal as their white predecessors.
The book ends on a poignant note. Trevor, in his twenties and working as a stand-up comic, on Sunday morning is called by one of his younger brothers and told Abel shot their mother. Her life had moved on from Abel having divorced him and married again. One Sunday in a drunken rage he sought her out and shot her. Miraculously she survives, and Noah writes movingly of how her near-death experience highlights their indestructible bond and how much having her as his mother shaped his life.
Once she is out of danger they sit on her hospital bed, “She broke into a huge smile and started laughing. Through my tears I started laughing too. I was bawling my eyes out and laughing hysterically at the same time. We sat there and she squeezed my hand and we cracked each other up the way we always did, mother and son. Laughing together through the pain in an intensive-care recovery room on a bright and sunny and beautiful day.”
This book is a breath of fresh air. Hopefully a sequel is in the works. We wonder how Trevor Noah made the leap from stand-up comic in South Africa to anchor The Daily Show as Jon Stewart’s successor in New York.
Janet Levine is the author of Inside Apartheid, her political memoir exploring the role of white activists in the anti-apartheid struggle.
This is me, this past week, teaching a Philosophy class, in the same classroom, at the same school, as I have done for these past 29 years. I look happy, I am happy, I love teaching. If all there is to teaching is teaching, then, on most days I feel I can teach for ever. But there are meetings, and duties, and obligations, and grades to compute and comments to write, and students to see, and parents to see, and visits to the college office, and plays and other performances and sports events to attend, and (did I mention meetings), new technology to master and more and more pressure on faculty and students alike as the college application process year-by-year encroaches on every corner of high school life. You grow older among a sea of perpetual youth so gradually that you hardly notice your own well of bountiful energy starts to dry up. If your time in the classroom invigorates you, all that time away from the class room drains your internal reservoirs. I am tired. This has been an unusually trying year of ups and downs and I feel it now. So this is no time to make decisions. But for me the transition away from teaching in this pressured environment has already begun. One more year I have said, a heads up, so as to graciously exit (as a older friend once called it) “the little stage” of the class room.
Transitions abound in my life as in your own. Elementary school to middle school, middle school to high school, high school (usually) to college, college to (maybe) grad school, and then usually a job. Along the way transitions to and from relationships, transitions through the individuating process in adolescence into new understandings of parents and family life, experiments with and questions around gender roles and sexuality. Transitions in serious relationships, surviving break up, heart ache, more commitment, then (maybe) marriage, children, divorce, second time around a better fit, illness, death. Children, and the unfolding of unconditional love. Big bumps suddenly in life’s smooth path; divorce or death of a (partner) spouse. How do we recover from those transitions? But we do, although gradually life’s bumps and bruises whittle away at our core.
When I had a recent significant birthday I treated myself to a session with a world famous astrologer (Lawrence Hillman) and he is as good as his reputation. At the end of the session he said you have to find a place you can call home. This statement made me ponder, didn’t my Buddhist teachings say home is where the heart is? Well, yes and no. Metaphorically, yes, but physically no; physically I’ve never much cared for the New England landscape although I love the shore villages in the summer and the tranquil Berkshire Hills, and the mountains of Vermont but New England can never replace my complete at-one-ness with the South African landscape I love. Never home. It is too cold and barren and dead for too much of the year. I crave flowers, color, bird song, scents, warmth and light, sunlight, I am a person of the light. My life is in the USA now. I am an African-American. And I’ve found “home” in south west Florida surrounded by the one-of-a-kind and magnificent Everglades that teeming estuarine environment of great white clouds and blue sky, birds, saw grass and fish. And light and warmth.
This week my counselor suggested I write about transitions because she has so many clients (especially women) experiencing all of the above (and many more), all the time. So perhaps I will. I appreciate your feedback.
This is a cautionary tale told by an experienced practitioner (me) directed mainly at myself to heed my own words. Earlier this week I received copies of the Portuguese translation of my parenting book, Que Pai Ou Mae Quer Ser?. Definitely an “UP” moment in my writing life not only because the book looks attractive and professional but also because of the timing of its arrival. (The birth of this book has a sub-plot whose synopsis is germane to this blog.)
In the summer of 2009 I received an email from a Portuguese Catholic priest who had read the original American edition of my book Know Your Parenting Personality, an application of the Enneagram to parenting. He said something to the effect that he wished every parent in Portugal could read the book and asked about translation rights. I replied that was a promising idea I supported and he should approach Portuguese publishers who may be interested and then email me. And to my pleasant surprise, he did. A year later one of them www.principia.com contacted me. My agent and the publisher arranged a contract, and she cautioned me that it would not be easy to “get funds from Europe” (remember the low point of the Great Recession out of which we are slowly climbing?) I did not hear anything for two years and then in October there was an email from the publisher to say that because of the recession he had put many publishing plans on hold but now they were going ahead with the parenting book. And lo and behold, ten weeks later I have the translation edition in my hands.
Now for the “DOWN” moment (turning out to be a long one and therefore the reason why an “UP” moment is so welcome.) I am trying the old-fashioned way to publish my latest work, a novel Veld Fire. I wrote my heart into this book; and yes, I do know that is not a “gimme” to being published. (Call out here to my excellent editor, Lorraine Fico-White at www.magnificomanuscripts.com who saved me from my excesses and helped me shape the manuscript into a novel I am proud to stand behind.) The protagonists are two women and their love story is the engine of the work. (Call out to President Obama who in his Inauguration Speech highlighted Stonewall and gay rights as central to the ongoing struggle for human rights.) What better time than now to publish this book? What better time for a book about two people who love one another (and are women) to flow into the literary mainstream? Liv and Rosie’s story is set in 1960 in South Africa, the significant year of the Sharpeville Massacre and its aftermath. It celebrates history’s neglected PAC leader Robert Sobukwe and his contribution to the human rights struggle, in addition to a cast of many other real and imagined characters.
Agents have lauded the writing. But no one bites. South Africa is far away. Lesbians are not as popular as vampires. Historical fiction is but a tiny niche in the fiction market.
This is not my failure. I am a Three on the Enneagram and the notional idea of “failure” is a big psychological hurdle for me. As a Three I am all about product and performance and “getting things done.” But here and now I need a dance partner. I do not want to self-publish, that smells of defeat; for me, for the whole publishing industry. How many thousands of worthy manuscripts languish and die every day? A writer once famously said the books that deserve to be published will find a publisher. Is this an old-fashioned maxim now as redundant as the traditional publishing industry is rendering itself? Maybe or maybe not. One of my sons, a writer himself, advised, “Let the process work.” But what process is he talking about?
Do I go Indie?
It took years for the Portuguese translation to reach me, this is my lesson to myself.
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Idly, one morning this Thanksgiving holiday weekend, I picked up a recently published academic history book on a black South African writer and read this phrase, “…on the terrain of language…” in the Introduction where the author, Hlonipha Mokoena, quotes the South African literary giant, J.M. Coetzee, from his book White Writing: “…landscape remains alien, impenetrable, until a language is found to win it, speak it, represent it. It is no over- simplification to say that landscape art and landscape writing in South Africa … revolve around the question of finding a language to fit Africa, that will be authentically African.”
This idea, wholly new to me, provided as they say, much food for thought. Possibly because in my latest manuscript I try to evoke the spirit of the landscape of my motherland and especially the significance of “light” (sunlight) as a central metaphor. One of my protagonists loves the “light” but slowly realizes as she awakens from the darkness imposed on the country by the Afrikaner-African soul that her being lives in many other dark places. T.S. Eliot called this phenomenon an “objective co-relative” (think of Emily Bronte’s WutheringHeights with its inner and outer storms.)
I had no idea that a body of literature exists on “the terrain of language” and I am content I did not; otherwise I am sure my writing would have become too self-consciously contrived. I am pleased I wrote from my heart.
However, this is an interesting line of inquiry to pursue. Let’s take South African writing. An English-speaking settler whose antecedents date back not even two hundred years may write of the land in something like these terms “The red land was rich and fecund, bordered by indigenous acacia and exotic eucalyptus, content to conceive and gestate under the vastness of clear blue sky, lit like a stage by the burnishing sunlight.” These are words and concepts typical of the inheritors of the writing of Thomas Hardy and other great evokers in language of the English terrain. An Afrikaner with over four hundred years of settlerdom has a different language, a paean of appreciation, a paean of pain, “Ah, die rooi aarde, die rooi aarde, bloed van my bloed, die land van my vaders, my land, Godse land.” (Ah, the red earth, the red earth, blood of my blood, the land of my fathers, God’s own land.) An African writer, with less than a hundred year heritage of written language expressing his indigenous African terrain, yet is the possessor of a timeless oral tradition of comprehending the land; and he writes of it, as if a living part of his soul, the place where all the generations of his ancestors lie, intrinsically present in the very dust he breathes. He is the land and the land is him. He is black and brown and dark, almost dried blood dark. He does not need the lyrical beauty of English, or the history-burdened associative language of Afrikaans; in him, in his language, he carries the terrain of Africa, written in an African language.
Can giants such as J.M Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer, or even little known me write authentically of South Africa in our “terrain of language?” This is the vexed question that I’ve been chewing over. And where does writing from one’s heart enter the discussion?
Marlene van Niekerk is an Afrikaner poet and author whose magnificent recent novel Agaat (see my blog 2011/01/09) comes closer than any South African work I have read in creating through poetic imagery and prose that which move us beyond the “terrain of language” and into the philosophical realm of the concept of “place.” This is truly a great South African novel of “place”. But that is a blog for another time.
In my last post on this topic I blogged on some aspects of the relationship of writers and editors. For myself I can report that while there is progress with my latest project, a historical novel, it is a vexed adventure. As you can see from the title of this post I have moved on to Phase Three of the process; the search for an agent. From all that I have read over past years and continue to read, almost daily, on the hopeless state of publishing with a “real” publisher (as opposed to plunging into the “new” self-publishing world with an eBook) the majority of writers who are self-published state they would relinquish that process in a heart beat to sign a contract with a publisher.
After much thought I decided to try the “old” road again and find an agent, the gatekeeper to the publishing kingdom, someone who will help me grab the publishing ring. I made this decision because several years ago I took the innovative route with my novel “Leela’s Gift” and found while I enjoyed the experience of producing the book as both easy and satisfactory, as I worked with a self-publishing company, the marketing and publicity process proved expensive and time consuming. In fact so focused on writing and then producing the book I neglected the before publication PR vital to selling the Product. At least with an “old school publisher” you have a shot at some “before publication” PR.
The back story? My first agent found me after I appeared on the PBS News Hour in an interview with Judy Woodruff. He was an “old school”, veteran New York agent, and after several fruitless leads found a “home” for my political memoir. The next agent came easily too. She was recommended to my co-author (we were writing a book on the psychology of personality) and she landed us a six-figure deal after sending the proposal to several editors in an “auction.” (The book project failed but that is another story.) This agent stuck with me and helped me secure publishers for my next two books. I felt assured of continued presence in the publishing realm.
Then? Then the publishing world began experiencing volcanic shifts as if its citizens lived on the lower slopes of a Vesuvius in near-constant uproar. Publishers failed to see the consequences heralded by the ramifications of the exploding Information Era and Information Technology Age. One of those ramifications being the democratization of accessibility to knowledge and to those who want to share their inner expressiveness with this vast new wave of readers. Amazon.com, whether generator or purveyor of this movement (or both) ruled and continues to rule the universe. Both reviled and praised, Amazon, and a legion of other web-based publishing enterprises, flourish while “real” books wither in the “virtual” Kindle and other reading devices onslaught, and once mighty bookstore chains as well as independent bookstores go the way of dinosaurs. Web-based book clubs and venues for readers to rate and recommend books proliferate…and so?
And so, writers still write books and readers read. Agents still exist, publishers publish (on an ever diminishing scale) what some writers write. Here is the rub, as Shakespeare said.
My agent moved on to other ventures. Finding a new agent is daunting. Several weeks ago I sent out several query letters based on recommendations from some people I know in the broader publishing world. One agent replied within ten minutes and asked me to send the manuscript. Another replied the same day with a similar request. A third asked for the “(in)famous” first three chapters and a synopsis. Could I have a “hot” property? How long will it remain that way? Week after week passed (it was August the “dead” spot of the publishing year) I heard nothing. Yes, during this time I could have self-published the novel…but still something in me wants to honor the “old” process. How much longer do I wait until I send out more query letters? Haven’t I been here before? I am caught in a time warp.
Two weeks ago I arrived back in Boston from almost a month in Johannesburg and the Kruger National Park (the Park). To quote Charles Dickens “It was the best of times and the worst of times.” I left with what at the time was an undiagnosed abdominal issue and exacerbated the condition by falling into a shower stall one night and hurting my back. Driving over excessively bad sand roads in the Park only made the pain worse. The “best” was simply being there—among family and friends in Johannesburg, and then in the magical Park.
I have been going to Kruger since I was a kid of three and later, together with my husband, we took our sons from their infancy. One of my sons shepherded me through the Park this time. I realized how deeply our family imprint was in him. Up at 5.30 am every morning, driving until around midday. And then a late afternoon drive until the gates at the camps closed at 5.30 pm. Exhausted, yet we could not absorb enough of the bush veld: lions, cheetah, elephants, buffalo, rhino, hyenas, many other animals, glorious, multi-hued birds and surprising blooms among the tawny brown and shimmering grasses at mid-winter. The edenic Orpen Dam, and on and on. The secret to being in the presence of the spirit of the bush is to drive at about five to ten miles an hour and not complain about the wash boarded roads.
We stayed at Olifants camp, in the middle of the Park (longitudinally) but almost on the Mozambique border on the east. We went with a guide on a night drive and saw a serval (see photo above taken from the internet), one of the rarest animals you’ll ever see, as well as spring hares (look like baby kangaroos), scrub hares, genets and other nocturnal creatures. This drive was definitely a highlight. Olifants is built overlooking the Olifants River and is my favorite camp. There is an indefinable peace there that allows you to be positive about the interconnectedness of nature. The vegetation is thick thorn bush scrub perfect for elephants and we saw plenty of those magnificent creatures.
Next we went south to Satara where the vegetation is open grass lands perfect for antelope, rhino and predators. We witnessed glorious sunrises and sunsets, stopped at many overlooks of rivers and dams. At one, way below on the rocks, a lone male baboon sat looking meditatively into the sunset, a quintessential African scene. There were others such as: a large herd of elephants silhouetted in the middle distance from the road blowing pink dust into the air backlit by the pink-red setting sun. Satara has a dark, brooding feel. The rondavels (round huts for sleeping) are built in large circles facing inwards reminiscent of the Boer laagers when the Boers trekked north with their slaves to escape the new British emancipation of slaves laws. But once out of the camp you are surrounded by and can revel in the African bush as described by the early pioneers and explorers around the turn of the twentieth century.
Our final camp was Lower Sabie where—for one night—we had a tented cabin placed at the electrified camp fence and only yards from the Sabie River. The night chorus was constantly underscored by the deep bass grunts of many hippos. The stars (magnificent wherever we were) seemed close enough to touch and evoked a quite appropriate mystical response. Lower Sabie is riverine terrain and filled with animals coming and going to the river. You are guaranteed to see lions and other predators on the famous Lower Sabie road. Indeed, we saw five lionesses and a young lion walking purposefully almost on the road, and more lions at Timbavati. Another first for me on another night drive was seeing an African porcupine. I had no idea they were so large.
Definitely I will not wait for many years to pass before I visit the park again. I only hope Park management can improve the provisioning of the camp stores and the standard of food in the restaurants; it was dreadful.
Here is a progress report (as promised) on the process of getting a book to the market place if you have not been scared off by all the negative information on the demise of the publishing industry as we know it. Ebooks are the rage, but as I blogged previously, unless you are a hyperactive whiz at social networking, only your beloved family, and not even all of your closest friends, will read your (expensive to your checking account) epublished work.
1. The work itself. In my experience books take between three to five years to reach maturity. First there is the magnificent rush of spending twelve weeks of a certain summer writing every day and producing a draft. You are so excited you tell your closest and dearest of your latest obsession (big mistake) and of course they want to read it. But it is like reading tea leaves hidden in a gutter of muddy waters. You can sense they are underwhelmed. At this stage do not do share it with anyone. Those closest to you are your least reliable readers because they know too much about you and read as if you are all at a pyjama party telling stories. Never, ever, never, never, send this draft to an agent or publisher however tempted you are to share the next great read that will rock the publishing world.
2. Put that draft aside for at least a year and the following summer take a long trip somewhere that leaves you little time to write.
3. When the dark days of that following winter roll around take out the manuscript and read it to see what is salvageable. Not much. Find a new structure, change the third person narrative to first person, leave out all the bits that you love but nobody else will be at at all interested in reading, decide on past or present tense or both. How outside the box do you want to be? The first draft was for you, but who are you shaping the work for now?
4. This process can take two to four years. Finally, when you know every word of the manuscript so thoroughly and can tell anyone on what page to find it. Finally, when you have worked so hard on the first fifty pages that you feel sick at the thought of reading them again, you are ready for an editor.
5. The best editor you ever had is probably dead by now or doddering around your native country that you left decades ago. The other best editor who did such a great job on you memoir also published decades ago, despite your efforts to do so, is no where to be found. The editor you used on your most recent book was “meh” and way over-priced. So with little faith in achieving results, you turn to social media networks and put out a request for editors, and are deluged. Everyone who writes, it seems, has an editor “to die for.” After conversation with many you pick one who seems sympatico and the process of truly beginning to shape your work is underway.
6. This is where I am at. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime if you know of an agent who will actually interact with a writer as a person and not a cog on the stalled Publishing Express, someone who will not take almost as long to get back to you as it took you to epublish your last book, send me their name. My history with agents it at least worthy of its own blog entry (if not two) and will appear in due course.