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The New Generation of African Crime Writers

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Joanne Hichens: Welcome to the 2021 CrimeReads African Crime Fiction Round Table!

We have a wonderful selection of African crime writers who’ll be chatting about their books, what it means to be an ‘African’ crime writer, and indeed whether such a thing should bear a label. We’ll talk of cultural influences and who we write for and finally offer some reading recommendations.

First of all, please start off by talking briefly about yourself and your writing. Basically, who are you?

Michael Stanley: We’re a writing duo—Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Friends for many years, our love of Botswana and our experiences in the African bush motivated us to write a detective novel set there. A Carrion Death introduced an overweight detective whose nickname is Kubu, meaning hippopotamus in the local language. Despite his size, Kubu can move quickly when he needs to. Entertainment Weekly called him ‘the African Columbo’. We wrote six mysteries in the series, then decided to write a prequel, Facets of Death, going back to when Kubu first joins the CID in 1998. Trying to find his feet is tough, and things become even tougher when he’s thrown in the deep end to help solve a violent heist from Botswana’s richest diamond mine.

Bryony Rheam: I’m a Zimbabwean writer, living in Bulawayo. My debut novel, This September Sun, was published in 2009 (UK 2012), about a young girl growing up in Zimbabwe and her relationship with her grandmother. My second novel, All Come To Dust, was published in 2020 (UK 2021), and is a crime story set in Bulawayo.

Femi Kayode: Despite the fact that I have always written, it took me a while to call myself a ‘writer’. Strange, because in one way or another, I have only ever made a living writing.

I started in theatre and despite being a science student, the University of Ibadan’s Theatre Arts department was the place I called home. My first screenplay was an adaptation of a stage play I wrote and it won an Mnet New Directions award and formally ushered me into the world of screenwriting. On the side, I got a job in advertising as copywriter and 25 years later, I am still in advertising, primarily as a writer. My first novel, Lightseekers was written as part of my thesis at University of East Anglia where I studied Crime Fiction. It was published in the UK and US this year, and at long last, I am able to say I am a ‘writer.’

Kwei Quartey: My two ambitions from early childhood and my teen years were to be a physician and a writer. Over the decades, the status of each of these careers waxed and waned in relation to each other. I liken it to two race cars on a track. Sometimes, one is ahead of the other, at others they’re abreast of each other. That’s the way it was for a long time as I practiced medicine and writing novels simultaneously, that is up until 2018 when I retired from medicine and began writing full time.

Chanette Paul: I’ve been writing for 25 years now. I tried quite a few genres from romance to literary work and have been published in all I tried. My favorite reading matter is psychological thrillers and suspense. I haven’t attempted to write the former as yet, but I love writing suspense novels with a bit of genre bending to go with it. I’m currently writing my forty-ninth novel and have added a historical angle to the crime and suspense elements.

Ameera Patel: I’m a Johannesburg based writer, largely influenced by the world around me. My writing journey began when I was still a student at the University of Cape Town, doing my undergraduate in Theatre and Performance. I felt like there weren’t enough texts representing what we were going through and I began to write poetry. I worked predominantly as an actor for many years but I continued to write and penned a few plays. Outside the Lines is my debut novel and I currently work as the Assistant Head Writer for the South African soap Scandal!

Joanne: Now that we know who our fantastic line up are, let’s cut to the chase. What is ‘African’ crime fiction anyway? Do we consider crime fiction set in Africa as a separate genre? Or is it basically the same as crime writing anywhere, merely with African settings? Let’s start with you, Femi. 

Femi: I believe it is a separate genre because it has tropes and contexts that are unique to the continent. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t think crime fiction set in Africa can be just for entertainment purposes. The continent remains underreported, misrepresented and poorly understood. I believe it is the responsibility of African crime writers to use the popularity of the genre to showcase the continent in an authentic way. This automatically means that our approach to writing African crime fiction must be all-encompassing. We must use context to drive plot, and create characters who are dynamically interacting with history and present, using cultural norms as the basis for conformity or deviation.

Chanette: I won’t pretend to have the answer, but I can feel it when I read a book with an African setting being used by a non-African author. It lacks the heart of writing about a continent one has lived on since birth.

Ameera: My personal view is that when your setting is as textured and nuanced as the one I find myself in, it becomes more than just a setting. In my novel, the city, Jo’burg, is so pervasive that it seems to have taken on the role of a lead character. It has its own moods, impacts the other characters, and its nature unravels as the novel does.

Michael Stanley: We think it is different. After all, Nordic Noir is all about cold, snow, and blizzards, and the sort of characters who take it on. The frigid setting affects culture, and culture affects people. Similarly, Africa is about heat, and the wide variety of different cultures and beliefs that often clash are the warp and weft of all stories set here. It is this variety of cultures and the tension between them that makes for interesting story possibilities.

Bryony: I think what is different about African crime is that you don’t have the usual means of investigating a crime that you may have somewhere else. Speaking from a Zimbabwean perspective, there are little to no forensic investigations done; the police are limited by lack of money and resources; there is corruption and the whole justice system is quite dodgy.

Kwei: My personal framing of African crime fiction is that it incorporates phenomena that might not be commonly found in fiction of western origin, which relies largely on the hard, quantifiable evidence, motive and opportunity, alibis, and the mechanics and timing of murder. In African crime fiction, other factors intervene, e.g. the role of beliefs, magical thinking, and something called ‘spiritually-caused death’, which comes about by preternatural means. Other phenomena include indigenous healers, juju, ritual murder, and curses, all of which can disguise the truth of whodunit and how. These types of indigenous beliefs can coexist with and are not mutually exclusive of good, African detective work in the physical realm, just as in Africa many people go to western-based hospitals while using local and traditional remedies.

Joanne: So let’s get to those settings, that sense of place. You each set your novels in various corners of Africa. I’d like to ask a more specific question of each of you, starting with our South African settings. Much contemporary crime fiction set in South Africa is colored by the aftermath of the apartheid era.

Chanette, do you consider this a defining feature of South African crime fiction, and how does it affect your writing?

Chanette: I’m a-political as a person and as a novelist, but the history of South Africa cannot be denied if one wants to reflect reality. It would be like an American author denying slavery or the Civil War. Or an Australian denying the atrocities of their past. So yes, the past—and not only apartheid—features in some of my books although they are not inherently novels about apartheid. And even in contemporary novels, the reality of who and what we are as a nation, shimmers through. It would be like writing a novel set in 2020 of 2021 without mentioning masks and other Covid-related issues. It just won’t ring true.

So, no. I don’t think apartheid is the defining feature. One can write a story without even mentioning apartheid, but it is something that cannot be denied and will be reflected—to a larger or lesser extent—in South African stories.

Joanne: What about you, Ameera, does the aftermath of the apartheid era, the after-shocks as it were, influence your work?

Ameera: I’m not sure if it is a defining feature of all South African crime fiction but it definitely is in Outside the Lines. The novel deals with prejudice, racial discrimination, and one cannot deny the impact of apartheid on our city planning, which impacts the characters in the novel. Systemic racism is a huge by-product of apartheid, which I definitely explore through my characters. 

Joanne: Moving further afield, when it comes to you, Michael, you’ve covered diamond heists, Bushmen, murders for human body parts. The themes in your novels are African Noir all right, but what is unique to Botswana as a setting for all this?  

Michael: A Carrion Death needed somewhere a body could be thrown from a vehicle for hyenas to completely consume. No body, no case. A location with less-controlled wild areas than is the case in South Africa.

We know Botswana well and have spent a lot of time there. Also, we realized that Botswana was an ideal country from which to explore a variety of issues that affect the whole region, without them being distorted by the aftermath of the apartheid era. Thus we have a different backstory for each novel: A Carrion Death is blood diamonds; The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu is the aftermath of the civil war in neighboring Zimbabwe; Death of the Mantis is about the plight of Bushmen trying to maintain their culture in the modern world; Deadly Harvest concerns the awful practice of using human body parts for black magic; A Death in the Family concerns the growing influence of China in Africa; Dying to Live considers what would happen if a plant is found in the Kalahari desert—still full of unknown botanical species—with an apparent life-extending property. And the prequel, Facets of Death, deals with the impact of diamonds on the very existence of Botswana.

It’s backstories like these that make African Noir so fascinating! However, as we said before, we love the country with its wonderful wildlife areas, arid Kalahari, and friendly people from diverse cultures. We’re delighted when readers tell us they want to visit the country after reading our books.

Joanne: Bryony, All Come to Dust has a complicated plot with intriguing characters and reminds one of a PD James crime novel. Could it have been set anywhere except in Zimbabwe? 

Bryony: I don’t think so. Many elements in the plot are connected to the economic and social situation in Zimbabwe. I don’t think those would work elsewhere. Even the loneliness of some of the characters is a result of the changes that have taken place over the last twenty or so years. Many people have left the country, and those who remain are either the top of the food chain or right at the bottom. Wealth and poverty are in great contrast. A lot of people who should be enjoying their retirement are struggling to survive on very small pensions. There are also a great many young people who do not see a future there. Everyone wants to leave. 

Joanne: Femi, your debut novel, Lightseekers, concerns mob violence, college fraternities with a Nigerian twist, ambivalent police, and tribal culture. It all takes place against the heat of a Nigerian summer. Your protagonist, who tells the story, has come home from years in the US, so sees it all with new eyes. Is that how you brought the location to life?

Femi: Absolutely. The character was deliberately developed for the purpose of allowing the reader to see the setting through his eyes. He needed to originate from that place, but must be distant enough to see it differently. His origins gave him credibility, while his sojourn in the States ‘otherized’ him. He was a stranger in his homeland. And the fact that he is investigating a heinous crime he assumed would never happen in the States, he comes with preconceived notions that need to be interrogated, challenged and perhaps even debunked. I really enjoyed playing with that juxtaposition.

Joanne: Kwei, your Ghana series is alive with a feeling of the country. How do you go about infusing that into your stories, especially as you live in the US?

Kwei: It’s more of a subconscious process than conscious. When I visit Ghana to research the topics of my novels, I live ‘in the moment’, absorbing elements around me—sounds, sights, smells, tactile experiences, people, and animals. Later, when I’m writing the scenes, I bring back those rudiments, or sometimes they surface without my calling on them. I also take a lot of random photographs that may later help play a scene or tell a story. I try to do this because there is little to no parity between everyday life in Ghana and daily living in the United States. I’m almost obligated to show how very different the two environments are if I’m to be true to my work. For example, in some places in Ghana, I’m always aware of the faint smell of smoke in the air, due to the still-prevalent use of firewood for cooking. That tiny touch makes all the difference, and it won’t appear on your Google map.

Joanne: Let’s move on to talk of the impact of African cultures in their diversity. Africa is rich in diverse cultures, sometimes dozens within a single country, but human nature remains pretty well the same everywhere. Character is crucial in a story. To what extent are your characters different from those of fiction set on other continents? Michael, over to you.

Michael: Character is determined by many things, but of course culture is very important. We think this is what makes the characters different—the environments in which they live, the tensions between different peoples, the cultural norms and expectations. But when it comes to the individual, they are motivated by the same emotions that motivate people anywhere: love, greed, hatred, jealousy, fear, anger. It is the context and what may cause these emotions that is, at least to us, so intriguing.

Bryony: I agree that human nature is human nature and we are all motivated by similar desires. However, culture does play a strong part in creating character. Again, I think my characters have all been shaped by their lives in Zimbabwe, whether it is old Mrs Whitstable, originally from England, or Edmund who is a Zimbabwean and hasn’t lived anywhere else. I think that the way we deal with something such as a murder is different to how it is dealt with elsewhere. In Africa, life is cheap; a death, suspicious or not, may easily be swept aside. The idea that the police are investigating it does not carry as much weight as it would somewhere else.

Kwei: The emotions and motivations experienced by characters in my novels are indeed quite universal: greed, lust, anger, grief, jealousy, and so on. But certain underlying Ghanaian societal behaviors and mores can shape each character and how they behave. For example, in my first Darko Dawson novel, Wife of the Gods, one of my characters is a childless, unmarried Ghanaian woman in her late forties. Some people believe she’s a witch who takes her babies growing in her uterus to a coven, where she devours them. (That would be a kind of spiritual death to which I referred earlier.) Such a woman may be a target of physical attacks and threats, which places my character in a position that wouldn’t exist in western societies.

Femi: In Science Fiction, the renowned NK Jemison refers to Element X as a feature or trait that fundamentally affects the world the writer is creating. No matter what the Element X is, the writer must know that it affects everything the characters do within the created world: how they sleep, eat, interact, view the physical world or even relate with the spiritual.

Lately, I have become fascinated by the idea that most, if not all of the countries that were colonized suffer, in one way or the other, from a collective socio-psychosis, call it ‘Post-Colonial Traumatic Stress Disorder’. I am convinced that over time, this is the Element X that binds all African crime fiction and which affect plot, and most importantly, character.

As I have mentioned, African crime fiction cannot be purely for entertainment, it means that our characters need to be a lot more nuanced. Complexity underlines the setting of African crime fiction, and the same must go for the characters.

Chanette: My main female characters reflect African-ness, specifically being South African, white, female, and Afrikaans speaking. Very few authors from other continents—if any—can replicate this. And why would they want to? We all have our own stories to tell through our own characters and their backgrounds.

Ameera: I think, in a way, that the more specific you are about character, including culture, the more universal they become. Because my novel is told through multiple characters, I wanted to ensure that their differences were clear, this definitely includes cultural differences and the way in which they see each other. However, in order to ensure that I was not writing characters as the ‘other’, I put a little bit of myself into each character… And then allowed them to follow their own journeys.

Joanne: Bearing this all in mind then, to what extent are you writing for local readers and to what extent do you write for a broader audience? Particularly for an international audience? And does it make a difference? Is African crime fiction for Africa? Kwei, what are your thoughts on this? 

Kwei: I set my stories in Ghana, but in truth, I am not writing for Ghanaian readers as my prime audience. Although my books sell in Ghana, they are not widely distributed there. I walk a thin line between presenting authenticity while not completely losing my readers. Mind you, in the context of the mystery itself, I might still need to show to the Ghanaian reader how local custom and tradition affected this particular story. I can illustrate this by the fact that even in the United States, Americans don’t know everything about local beliefs and customs elsewhere in the country, although they may indeed understand them more readily than African counterparts.

Another aspect is Ghanaian police work doesn’t proceed in the highly structured and convenient way we see in the western movies. That works both in and against my favor because much of the time I’m not bothering in my books with fancy stuff like DNA and the hackneyed technique of phone tracking, which occurs a whole lot more in fiction and film than in real life. So, Emma and Darko have to work with what they’ve got: good, solid investigation. Those DNA test results won’t be in for weeks or months, I’m afraid.

Chanette: I’m mainly writing for South Africans—Afrikaans speaking at that—but would love to have a broader audience. Offerlam and Offerande were the exceptions. They were meant to include a Netherlandic audience—specifically Belgians—and have subsequently been translated into Dutch. Offerlam was also translated into English as Sacrificed but that was less successful so the follow up has not been translated yet.

If one writes for a broader audience, it shouldn’t be noticeable. It could easily come across as contrived. The Nordic authors don’t spare us names that are difficult to pronounce, they don’t write for South African, Brits or Americans. They write the stories and so be it if it gets translated and becomes popular. I believe that’s how it should be.

Bryony: When I write, I don’t really think about the audience, although sometimes I stop and think would someone who had never been to Zimbabwe understand this? Zimbabwean readers may be able to pick up something extra from knowing certain places or understanding certain references, but I am careful not to include anything that would only be understood by someone with a knowledge of Zimbabwe. However, I also think it is important to inform people of how the country works. Zimbabwe is not a well-known place and many readers may have stereotypical views of what it is like, that lions walk the streets for example, so it is quite nice to be able to help readers see it in a different perspective.

Michael: Botswana has a small population (less than two and a half million), and a much smaller reading population, especially for fiction. Our books are sold there in small quantities. However, they are accepted. Shoshong, a small town, has a cultural festival and one year chose a Kubu book, A Death in the Family, as its theme. There were poems, scenes enacted, songs, all based on Kubu and the story. It was wonderful to be there!

While our books sell best in the US we feel that someone in Botswana needs to be able to pick one up and recognize the country as home. To that end, we spend many hours talking to people and travelling to the areas where we set the stories. Unfortunately, COVID has prevented us from doing that for the new book, A Deadly Covenant, which will be out next year.

Ameera: I think it does make a difference, people who know this place, will hopefully read the book and identify with the places and perhaps recognise the characters populating the world. Whereas someone from somewhere else might see it as a way of exploring Jo’burg. I definitely started off with the intention to write for a South African market and was as specific as possible with place and character in the hopes that the reader would relate… But I think that because of this specificity the characters also came to life in a way that an international reader can relate to as well. 

Femi: To a large extent, I really just want to be known as a writer who tells good stories. I see myself as Nigerian first and foremost, but as a writer, I desire to see my books placed next to fellow writers all over the world. So, my approach to writing keeps this goal in mind. I write to give context to the world of the story so that anyone who picks it can really understand the place, the characters and why this crime (and its investigation) are unique to the place. But I also want my fellow Nigerians to read it and feel represented, seen and understood. It’s a delicate balance but I think writing with compassion and respect, the writer can achieve that balance in any culture.

Joanne: When considering a growing worldwide popularity of African fiction in general (bearing in mind Damon Galgut won the 2021 Booker Prize for The Promise, and the Nigerian author Abdulrazak Gurnah won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature) there’s a feeling that African Noir may become the next Nordic Noir. If so, what will make that happen? If not, why not? Ameera, will you kick us off?

Ameera: I’m not sure. I think that because of apartheid, there are so many stories here that have not been told because so few people were afforded education and even fewer were encouraged to tell stories. If it does happen, I think the reason is that so many of these stories are still fresh and waiting to be told.

Michael: That’s a tough one. Africa is a continent that never ceases to fascinate, and it has superb writers, some of whom are at this Round Table. However, for it to become as popular as Nordic Noir will require readers to become more adventurous; readers who like to travel from an armchair and be challenged in unfamiliar ways. The characters of Nordic Noir are not that different culturally from the typical mystery/thriller reader in Europe and the US. That cannot be said about African characters. Is that a chasm too broad to be bridged? We think the jury is still out on that.

Chanette: Firstly, I don’t write noir. But I believe African/South African literature as a whole can add a lot of value to worldwide literature and find an audience just about anywhere. We have excellent authors with fascinating stories.

In my case—and for other authors writing in indigenous languages—translation and the cost thereof is a huge prohibiting factor. The other problem is finding an agent. Especially finding an agent without first having to have your work translated. I think there is a huge opportunity for an agent that can read novels in the original language—for instance Afrikaans or Xhosa or Zulu—and can decide whether it has international appeal or not before going to the huge expense of translation.

Bryony: Crime is a very popular genre. However, it does tend to be dominated by writers from the West. There is nothing particularly wrong with this, but I think that today’s readers are always looking for something new, and a different setting does bring a refreshing flavour to the genre, taking it out of British police stations and American crime investigating units. African crime is a mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar and that’s what makes it really interesting.

However, as many African writers will agree, Western publishers are often hesitant to publish anything from Africa that does not focus on famine, poverty, AIDS and the like –those stereotypes mentioned earlier. Africa is so much more than that. They seem to want one kind of story and need to realize that they need to start publishing different ones. African crime is ready to boom, but it’s being held back by the very people who should be acknowledging its potential.

Femi: I have become wary of the consistent refrain of Africa being the ‘next frontier’ and how this or that is going to blow up and take over the world. At this moment, I am interested to see more African writers actually writing. And telling our stories well. I want our universities to offer programmes in creative writing that take into account the uniqueness of African setting, culture and history. I would like to see our books/stories used as case studies or part of the reading lists in creative writing programs all over the world. I want to see storytelling that is not fashioned after westernized narrative models. It’s the distinctiveness that will drive popularity. And that’s what we should strive for.

Kwei: I fear the notion of African Noir rising to the prominence of its Nordic cousin, thus usurping its reign, might be a bit too optimistic. I think readers’ appetites are still highly tilted in favor of the western side of noir. I’m not exactly citing racism, although I’m hinting at it as a sense I get and not as a determined fact. Nevertheless, I do strongly feel that African Noir should be a category on its own and absolutely have its own section in physical bookshops, insofar as those still exist.

Joanne: And lastly, talking books, for all those interested in reading more African crime fiction, would you nominate one African crime writer whose books you admire and recommend?

Michael: Since there are two of us, we’re going to cheat and have one each. Michael’s choice is Mike Nicol, one of South Africa’s best stylists, who writes twisty thrillers set in Cape Town. Try Power Play. For Stan, it’s Oyinkan Braithwaite, whose intriguing My Sister, the Serial Killer won an Anthony award for best debut novel—a first for an African writer. 

Kwei: I enjoy the way Malla Nunn sets her scenes so vividly and ties in local strife and social tensions so artfully. Her style of writing is quiet but powerful. Parenthetically, I would like to see more stories out of West Africa to join the crime fiction out of Southern Africa. 

Ameera: I’m a big fan of Lauren Beukes. I find her writing fresh and I love the way she is able to push the envelope when it comes to genre. And while her work is often set in outlandish or warped worlds, I find her stories brutally honest and thrilling.

Bryony: I really enjoy Jamal Mahjoub (Parker Bilal). I think the idea of a private investigator, rather than a policeman, works much better in Africa. The PI has a lot more freedom and can flit between all sorts of different worlds.  Quite an interesting perspective.

Femi: Leye Adenle. Without doubt the most contemporary (and original) of crime writers coming from Nigeria. I also love Margie Orford, who I think is a trailblazer in the issues that she deals with in all her novels.

Chanette: Dibi Breytenbach. But there are so many more! I find it sad that English-speaking South Africans rarely read the work of South African authors—unless of course it is a Booker-prize winner or internationally celebrated author. Why this is so I cannot fathom. We have so many wonderful stories, written, and waiting to be told!

Joanne: Thank you so much every one. With an increasing number of really great crime fiction voices coming from the African continent, we hope to introduce more of authors to you in the future. Catalyst Press is running a ‘Reading Africa’ week,  from 05 December to 12 December so please take the opportunity to catch some fine work at Catalyst Press. It is indeed ‘your destination to journeys unknown’. Please also check out International Thriller Writers The Big Thrill, where there’s a great repository of interviews with African writers on Africa Scene. You might be hooked sooner than you’d imagined!

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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