Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Escape to South Africa, with Trilby Kent

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Trilby Kent (photo credit: Daniel Webb)

If March seems to be the cruelest month, you may be turning to books for your escape — and Open Book wants to help you find the titles that will spirit you away. With Trilby Kent's YA novel Stones for my Father (Tundra Books), you'll hear the cries of a lourie bird as if you truly there. Trilby talks to Open Book about the joys and challenges of writing a novel set in far-off South Africa and shares with us some of her favourite South African writers.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Stones for my Father.

Trilby Kent:

The story follows 12-year-old Coraline Roux through the darkest days of the Anglo-Boer War: from the sacking of her family’s farm, to a trek across the battle-scarred Transvaal, to internment in a British concentration camp. Amid the suffering and hardship are moments of joy and beauty, including a figure of hope who emerges in the form of a Canadian soldier.


What inspired you to write a YA novel about the Boer War?


Partly the fact that mother’s family is South African (my several-times-great-uncle was the Boer hero Danie Theron, while other distant relatives include Andries Pretorius and Christiaan de Wet). Partly the fact that the Anglo-Boer War is such a tragic and fascinating conflict — at once the last "great" imperial war and a prelude to the horrors of World War I — and yet so few people know much about it. Any writer basing a story around this period in South Africa’s history will be spoilt for choice in terms of theme and subject matter. Race, empire, nationhood, loyalty, courage, integrity, greed, betrayal…it’s all there. And set against one of the world’s most beautiful and unforgiving landscapes to boot.


What was the most challenging aspect of writing a novel set in a foreign land?


Resisting the temptation to lapse into "travel guide" writing and instead trusting the reader’s ability to conjure with simple moments to evoke the feel for a distant time and place.


How did you establish a sense of place for young readers who are likely to be unfamiliar with the landscape and culture of South Africa?


I think this had to do with avoiding heavy "info dumps" and long passages of potted history and instead trying to appeal to those sensations and experiences that readers are likely to recognize no matter where they’re from. One way of doing this is by appealing to the senses — capturing the way that dry air makes the hairs in your nose crackle and sting, or comparing the cry of a lourie bird to a child shouting "go away!" — so that strange things come to seem familiar.

Incorporating snippets of local dialect can also really enliven certain passages, and I had fun incorporating the odd Afrikaans or isiZulu word or phrase whose meaning could be deduced based on the context.


Did you have an opportunity to visit South Africa during the writing of this novel? Do you feel that it's important for a writer to experience the setting of a novel, or do you have other strategies for bringing the place to life in your mind?


I last visited South Africa in 2007, a year before I began writing Stones for my Father. We stayed with my mother’s aunt and uncle on their farm in the Free State, where part of Corlie’s story takes place. It’s an incredibly beautiful part of the country but one that’s haunted by a violent history and is still very much torn between the "old ways" and the new. Getting to spend some time soaking up that way of life was definitely a valuable experience.

Having said that, I’m now writing about an imaginary island loosely based on wartime Guernsey, where I’ve never been — and that’s forcing me to re-examine my assumptions and to home in on the sorts of details that are easy to take for granted when you know a place too well. I think that working with this heightened awareness, this sense of otherness, can sometimes make for more vivid writing.


Do you have any favourite South African writers whose work you could recommend to us?


I adored Devil’s Valley and Cape of Storms by André Brink — both re-imaginings of haunted landscapes and moments in South African history that resonate to this day. I’m also a huge fan of Nadine Gordimer’s early work and her painfully beautiful coming-of-age novel The Lying Days in particular. A hundred years from now, these books will have endured in the same way Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm does to this day.

As a journalist, I have enormous respect for Donald Woods’ work, and I’ve also returned several times to My Traitor’s Heart, Rian Malan’s memoir of growing up under Apartheid.

More recently, I really enjoyed Zakes Mda’s The Madonna of Excelsior, a novel based on an actual trial that took place in the 1970s for contraventions of the notorious Immorality Act, and I look forward to reading more by him.


If you could travel anywhere for the purposes of writing about that place, where would you go?


Great question! At the moment I’m finding myself drawn to remote and starkly beautiful landscapes such as Tristan da Cunha and the Faroe Islands, so I’d probably opt for something along those lines. The Skeleton Coast is another place I’d love to visit — there’s a story about a shipwrecked convict transport that’s been fermenting at the back of my mind for a while now…


Smoke Portrait, your first novel for adults, will be published next year in the UK. What can you tell us about it?


It takes place in 1936 and is divided between two narratives: that of Glen Phayre, a young Englishwoman who has recently moved to Ceylon to live with her aunt, and Marten Kuypers, a 13-year-old Flemish boy whose family is struggling to cope with the sudden disappearance of his older brother. Early on in the story Glen embarks on a pen-friend exchange with a prison inmate, but her first letter is misdirected and ends up with Marten, who replies in the prisoner’s guise. What follows is an exploration of the decline of colonial rule in the subcontinent and rise of fascism in inter-war Europe. More than once I found myself wondering if I’d bitten off more than I could chew, but as always that will be something for readers to decide!

Trilby Kent studied at Oxford and the LSE and worked for a time in the rare books department of a London auction house. She has written for the Canadian and British national press and in 2010 was shortlisted in the Guardian's International Development Journalism Competition. She is the author of two novels for children and is currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at Exeter University. She lives in London, England.

For more information about Stones for my Father please visit the Tundra Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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