South African kids are hungry for relevant, local literature!

Bontle Senne chats about stampeding children, bullies, academic dissertations and things that go bump in the dark…

Her latest deliciously creepy book for tweens is now out – look out for Lake of Memories Book 2 in the Shadow Chasers series. It’s illustrated with line drawings by Pete Woodbridge. 

Bontle, you describe yourself as a literacy activist – and you’re now a published author – has anything shifted for you since publishing your own book?

I’ve never been one to buy into the “Africans don’t want to read” hype. I’m not saying that there isn’t a huge challenge for trade publishers and booksellers in South Africa. There is, of course. But the absence of relevant, engaging, local and accessible literature is something that is improving pretty slowly.

My former life at Puku Children’s Literature Foundation taught me that parents are especially hungry for those kind of books for their children. What surprised me when Shadow Chasers came out was how hungry kids are for that change. I spoke to 5 year olds at Kingsmead Book Fair, shooting apologetic looks at their parents for the nightmares I was afraid I was causing. I spoke to matrics in their last year of school and trying to do everything they could to get me to keep reading to them and postpone going back to class as part of Franschhoek Literary Festival. I spoke at St Dominics School for the Deaf, aided by an incredible sigh language interpreter, for the full school and their teachers. Every time I was amazed by how children of different ages got caught up in the story, how they begged me to keep reading, how they stampeded their librarian to find out when they would have the book.

Part of it must have been the novelty – a story set in a township, an adventure between a taxi owner’s boss and the orphan who lives on her dad’s property, a girl who doesn’t care that she’s not pretty and a mystery that spans back generations. And let’s not forget about the supernatural elements: I had a great time trawling through academic texts and dissertations, some almost 100 years old, describing the myths and monsters that our children should know but that most of our urban society has forgotten. South African children know to be scared of vampires and werewolves but would laugh at the idea of the tokoloshe and blink in confusion at the mention of Mami Wata. Things that go bump in the night are as much a part of our heritage as art, music, language and I was glad to discover that kids think so too.

What does literary success look like to you?

I got asked this question at Open Book and in a sense, I already have it. All I wanted was to have my book-babies out in the world for children to read and enjoy. I wanted to write about and be able to travel the world and talk about other people’s books and I’ve done a fair bit of that too in the last 5 years. But the more practical part of me also recognises that being able to financially support myself entirely as a writer is the ultimate literary success – and one that not many African writers get to experience unfortunately.

What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

Research for book 2 involved re-watching every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and reading a lot of academic texts on monsters and rituals across the continent. I also try to ask adults about the supernatural stories that their grandmothers told them as children. When I was media fellow of Golden Baobab in 2014, I wrote about the sense of loss I felt at the stories about my culture and (supernatural) heritage that my grandmother never shared with me because they seemed to have no place in my formal or informal education in her mind. I’m still pretty bleak about it.

I spent 6 months in Sierra Leone last year so there was also a fair bit of trying to understand what local myths I could dig up and rework into Lake of Memories. I wasn’t very successful. As it turns out, many in Sierra Leone are incredibly superstitious and viewed chatting to me about terrible, dark, and maybe magical things as highly inappropriate.

What were the most surprising things you learned after book 1 was released?

I often read the first chapter of my book when I do events. In it, my main character Nom gets surrounded by some bullies and fights back. Most kids in the audience love it but there’s always that one, pure soul who reminds me that ‘it’s not nice to hit anyone or call them ugly’. I always agree that that’s true and then get asked why I wrote about it then. I wrote it to establish that Nom was a character who could stand up to bullies even if she wanted to cry as much as she wanted to punch someone being mean to her. I also wanted to write about the subtlety of bullying someone by attacking their self-esteem, how words could be more damaging than fists and how unexpected people can stand up for you but you have to be willing to fight for yourself.

Inevitably I’m asked if I was bullied at school. I was tall and gangly like a weed with braces and glasses and literally all I wanted to do was read so, yeah, I definitely got bullied. Didn’t get to punch anyone until years later though, but that’s a story for another time…

Lake of Memories and Powers of the Knife (Shadow Chasers Book 1) are both available from bookshops and online.