“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”
DIANE DE BEER
Everything about author Lauri Kubuitsile is unexpected.
First there’s the name which (for me anyway) implied that I was meeting a black Botswana writer, only to be surprised by this Baltimore-born woman appearing at the guesthouse in Johannesburg where we were set to meet.
She moved to Botswana in 1989 (first running away from home at the young age of 16), where she met her husband (they are recently divorced). She declares herself a proud Botswana citizen hence the stories she has written especially in her last two books: The Scattering with at the centre the Herero who were forced to flee in 1904 South-West Africa when the German colonial authorities issued an extermination order; and now But Deliver Us From Evil (Penguin Books), a story about a young Koranna woman who is mistaken for a kidnapped white child, something that determines her whole life.
Kubuitsile only started writing at 40 and that was by accident. An unscrupulous business partner left her with a publishing business which finally led to this former science teacher publishing the first of many books.
Before these two books, she has won or been shortlisted for many awards. She twice won Africa’s premier prize for children’s writing, The Golden Baobab. She also won the creative writing prize sponsored by Botswana’s Department of Youth and Culture. In 2011, she was shortlisted for Africa’s most prestigious short story prize, The Caine Prize.
She writes across the age spectrum for adults, teens and children and her books cross many genres. Her book, Signed, Hopelessly in Love was recognised by South Africa’s O Magazine as one of the best reads in December 2011. The first book in her Kate Gomolemo Mysteries series, The Fatal Payout, is a prescribed book in Botswana for all junior secondary school children.
And she writes easily it seems. Once the story is in her head, she rushes through that first draft just to get it down on paper. Only then the tough work begins as she starts editing. That takes much reading and rewriting, but the process has always worked for her. “I know I won’t die while I have a story in my head because that need to get it out on paper is too overwhelming,” she says – only half in jest.
The thing about Kubuitsile’s writing is her storytelling ability. She draws you in immediately with a style that is focussed on plot rather than characters, she says, but even copping to this penchant, she manages to flesh everything out: the places, the people and their incredible lives. That’s what keeps you turning those pages as you delve back into a history that’s familiar but unknown.
Many of us would know about the Koranna, but that’s probably in most instances the extent of our knowledge. Their history is vague. “I’m surprised by how few people know their story or even about them,” says Kubuitsile, who hopes to change some of that with this and hopefully a next book (following another story in-between) which will also be revealing.
The other intriguing aspect of her writing is that she is telling the story of especially the women – and added to that, the women of the oppressed/vanquished, which makes it doubly hard but also timely. These stories of our past were mostly recorded by men thus writing the odd throwaway line about women or their place in society into the actual history being told, those of the men and their wars.
But we know, says Kubuitsile that these women were doing a lot and often keeping things going. “This is history as a narrative,” she explains. “You can’t find the voices anywhere, but you are given leeway to fill in, because the evidence is there.”
She loves the research and has stumbled on the most amazing stories that have informed her own writing or even set a book in motion, like this one. It was while researching The Scattering that she read a line about “the daughter of the maid at the missionary’s home” as well as a letter by Kgosi Sechele (the ruler of the Bakwena of Botswana) in which he corrects a letter that accuses him of killing 25 witches to say that they were only five and in any case well known as witches. All of these fuelled her imagination as the story so masterfully unfolds.
More than anything though, it is her fascination with the Koranna that first piqued her interest. She explains that most of them came from the colonies, some mixed race but more a mix of many people including the Batlhaping, San, Griqua, Baster, Dutch and other Khoi people, hence the lightness of her protagonist Beatrice’s complexion, lived on islands in the Gariep River and were big raiders. “They wanted to be free and to be left alone,” she says and what kept them alive was their ability to swim and navigate the river, better than anyone else.
She talks about her books in the same way she writes, with a confidence and credibility that sits comfortably with someone who has published 30 often very different books, with much success.
She calls herself a generalist, loves the fact that she can make her living from writing, but that’s only half of what is going on in her life. She talks of many different projects, amongst others writing computer games, the one she had to tackle immediately and features hugely in her life.
But there’s also a book with the current title of Reflecting Light that she describes as probably her most autobiographical. It tells the story of a woman who grew up with a very famous mother followed by a famous husband. Her light was always reflected by who they were, making compromises, and being defined by feelings that weren’t her own.
That’s not all – naturally! She is currently collaborating on a project with an established well-known South African author, which they are writing as a first-person narrative. “We come from very different places, she is character driven and I do plot,” she says. “We will have to see if two people can get their brains together to make one!” It’s early days still but if anyone can, it will be these two.
That is if either of them can be penned down to get it done. For Lauri Kubuitsile, for a story to be written, it must be aching in her head.
And thank goodness, that’s exactly why But Deliver Us From Evil is so riveting. She desperately needed to tell that story and did so quite brilliantly.