Bontle Senne hopes to publish her third book for tweens in the nail-biting Shadow Chasers series before she turns thirty in October this year. Heather Robertson asked the talented author of Power of the Knife and Lake of Memories about the stories that shaped the storyteller.
What are your earliest memories of being read to and told stories?
My mother swears that she told me stories as a child but my earliest memories of being read to or told stories was in nursery school. I think that as a child, you lose yourself, your geography, your perspective, in any good story – written or oral. That’s what helps the tradition of oral storytelling for children endure and evolve into the shapes we’re seeing it in today – apps, online videos, TV shows. What I loved was getting lost in any kind of good story. I learned the kind I like – fast, smart, quirky – at a young age but I read anything and everything I could. I would read the TV guide, I would read the classifieds. My reading tastes have narrowed a lot with age. My writing tastes have followed suit.
Which storytellers (oral) or writers do you most admire and why?
Oral storytellers: Gcina Mhlophe and Sindiwe Magona. Both have this incredible gift of sucking you in, wrapping their story around you, putting you inside it. I last saw Gcina at Abantu Book Festival. She told this funny and touching story of how she came to have a peace garden in her home. By the end of it, there were tears running down my cheeks. You don’t get lost in her storytelling – you kind of find yourself in it. It’s a really moving thing.
You have spoken to and read to many children about your first two books in the Shadow Chasers series, what memory of their encounters with your work stand out for you the most?
I’m always struck by how polite the children I give readings to are. Invariably, one young boy or girl will put up their hand and ask why a bully in my story called the main character ugly or why the main character is fighting with a girl gang on page one of book one. It’s very sweet. Their sense of right and wrong, and what is done and not done, is already very set at 7/8 years old. I probably won’t take on any of that feedback: I like that my characters are silly and impulsive and impolite. They are much more like the kind of kids I grew up with than the perfect little angels we thought we should be.
Kalid Moosa took me on a school visit to Theo Wassenaar Primary School in the south of Johannesburg, It’s a very diverse and vibrant school but they had no library. These wonderful kids were so hungry for stories and books. The usual question about why none of my characters are particularly good children came up but this was my favorite school visit ever because of their wonder. Their eyes were wide with the discovery that books could be written by people who looked like them and lived close to where they lived.
Talking about the next book, how many more Shadow Chaser books are in the pipeline and when can we expect the next book to be released. Can you give us a hint about what is in store for us?
Well, there were originally going to be only 3 but now it’s looking more likely that there will end up being 4 books in the series.What’s in store for the next Shadow Chasers books will be more monsters, more horrors and delights in the dreamworld, more of Nom leaping before even thinking of looking, more of Zee (unsuccessfully) trying to keep them both out of harm’s way.
A lot of the most globally successful tween books (Harry Potter and the Percy Jackson series come to mind) are actually terrifying adventures involving epic battles between heroes and monsters, friendship, death, backstabbing, bullying, magic, mysticism and mythology. Pre-teens seem to be totally gripped by these things that go bump in the night and make them climb into their parents’ beds. Your books also explore these themes in an African location and context, can you explain what the attraction to the spine- curdling and nail biting is?
When I was a tween, I adored Harry Potter, Goosebumps, all of that scary stuff. I still do. It’s just something about my personality. I think I (and many of the tweens you mention) are drawn to the idea that your life could be something bigger, scarier, more magical, more unknowable, than you could imagine, you could get a letter to Hogwarts, or find out you’re a vampire slayer, or discover another world in your bedroom cupboard, or get turned into a mouse while trying to stop a conference of European witches. You would never even know that these things could happen to you before they did. It’s that idea that you are so special that not even you know it yet. I’m still kind of waiting for my letter from Hogwarts to arrive.
Some parents label anything to do with the supernatural as anti-Christian and ban their kids from reading these books. What would you say to a parent who wanted to ban their child from reading one of your books for this reason?
I would say that they weren’t written with that intent. I would add that research suggests that reading fiction not only positively impacts educational outcomes but also makes readers more empathetic. Isn’t that what every parent trying to raise a child with good values and a kind heart wants? And then I would add that every child should be able to explore worlds real and unreal to better understand the world they live in. Allowing a child to read my, or any other fantasy books, is no different to allowing them to dream.
I love writing about girls who kick butt. I love writing about girls who find themselves in strange and difficult situations and don’t let fear paralyse them into inaction. And I love writing about African mythology, the supernatural, the unknown, the rumoured. It was a combination of these loves that lead to Shadow Chasers.
Your character Nom is a tough girl who stands up to a bully – is this based on your experiences as a child? How much of your own life is reflected in your books and how much is pure flight of imagination?
There were plenty of bullies in my primary school years. I wish I had stood up to them earlier but it wasn’t until the very last day of grade 7 that I realised how insignificant and insecure they were. After that, no one could bully me because I didn’t care enough about them to be bullied. That’s sort of Nom’s starting point – she was born with the kind of self-confidence it took me years to build up. Nom is also very much like my mother – or at least how I imagine my mother would be growing up in 2017, with a taxi owner boss, and a magical legacy to protect. Besides that, the whole thing is 50% based on existing research on African supernatural beliefs and rituals and 50% based on my own crazy ideas of what might make a cool story.
What schools did you attend and do you recall any teachers or friends encouraging your love of reading and storytelling?
For primary school: Meredale Primary (grade 1 – 4) and Bryandale Primary (grade 5 – 7). For high school: Fourways High. At Meredale, I won the award for creative writing every year. At Bryandale, my one-act plays and short stories won prizes. At Fourways, it was pretty much more of the same. My teachers were always very supportive. I had a few who really pushed me to be a better writer – not just to submit a better assignment. My best friends were always so indulgent of my writing. They endlessly read stories, listened to plays, helped with the last lines of poems. By the time I was 14 or 15, I would get up in the middle of the night to write for an hour or two and then fall asleep at my desk the next day and then my friends were the ones trying to keep me awake and encourage me to sleep through the night and maybe not be quite so obsessed with writing.
Have your books been translated into African languages? What are your views on the availability of contemporary writing like yours in African languages to enable children to read in their mother tongues. Do you think enough is being done to encourage writers in African languages and mother tongue reading for pleasure in South African schools and homes?
They have not been translated yet but I hope that they soon are. I know that there is not enough being done to support producers of original, engaging and relevant work for children in African languages. There’s this idea that it’s an ideological thing, or a nice to have, or some kind of cute whimsy to want children to read and write in their indigenous language but that is only partially true. Without creating a generation of young people who can articulate themselves, understand others, acquire complex concepts in text, and explain their meanings to others, we don’t have doctors, accountants, or engineers. We don’t have anything. It’s not sentimental to want reading for pleasure in mother tongue to be taken more seriously. In the world of work, children need to have mastered their home language in order to master English in order to become their own masters.
Story Powered Schools is a Nal’ibali initiative endorsed by the Department of Basic Education and made possible by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Story Powered Schools aims to spark learners’ potential and unlock their school success through multilingual reading and storytelling by placing stories at the heart of classrooms and schools. For more information about the campaign or the power of reading and storytelling, visit: www.nalibali.org and www.nalibali.mobi.
THANKS TO NAL’IBALI FOR PERMISSION TO REPRODUCE THIS INTERVIEW