Africa Scene: An interview with Penny Lorimer by Michael Sears
Penny Lorimer was born in England, but has lived in South Africa from the age of six months. She grew up in Johannesburg, studied drama at the University of Cape Town, and was an actress for five years, supplementing her inconsistent income by waitressing and working for the Johannesburg Public Library.
After leaving the acting profession, she held a variety of positions, including union administrator, radio newsreader, dialogue coach for television, film editor’s assistant, and PA to an archbishop. She now works in the education sector for a national group of independent high schools serving economically marginalized communities. FINDERS WEEPERS, her debut mystery, was published in South Africa in May last year. It’s a powerful and moving story, and exposes the current South African education crisis along the way.
FINDERS WEEPERS takes place in a fictional rural school in the Eastern Cape. Girdwood, once a highly regarded private school that educated some of South Africa’s future leaders during the Apartheid era, has now fallen into disarray and is as bad as any rural high school in the country. Boniswa Sekeyi, a committed teacher educated here and in the United States, takes on the job of principal and is determined to restore the school’s previous high standards.
I asked Penny how she’d come to write FINDERS WEEPERS.
Would you tell us something about yourself and your writing?
I have always been a voracious reader—I cannot go a day without reading and would rather forget my toothbrush than my book when going on holiday. (I’ve done so in the past, in fact.) I think when you love reading, and read a lot, it’s inevitable that you begin to wonder whether you could do what these writers—who give you so much pleasure—are doing. So I’ve also been interested in writing almost as long as I can remember. I’d written bits and pieces at various stages of my life, but never anything lengthy or significant. I came second in a Fair Lady short story competition in the late 1980s, and my work always involved writing—speeches, website content, reports, and many, many letters. As my children got older I began to feel a need for another kind of creative expression and began to consider writing a novel, without really knowing how I would find the time.
I loved reading books about writing, and, in an essay, Maeve Binchy wrote that if you wanted to write you had to give something up. It could be exercise, playing poker, watching television, or time with friends and/or family. I didn’t play poker and the only thing I was willing and able to give up was sleep. At around the same time I got the beginnings of the idea for FINDERS WEEPERS and felt pretty passionate about it. So I started waking up at five a.m. every morning and writing for an hour before getting the kids and myself ready for school and work. On weekends I would work for a bit longer and in this way managed to complete the book in about three years. It was very long at first so there was still a lot of re-writing and editing to do before it got whittled down to its final form. Thank the universe for all the people that insisted on the shortening and showed me how to do it!
Your novel reveals much about rural school education—and, indeed, state education in general—in South Africa in the twenty-first century. How did you get the background to show such an in depth picture?
I was working for an organization that was investigating and raising money for the restoration of South Africa’s mission schools—that is, the schools that had been set up by foreign missionaries during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to serve local, mostly rural, populations. These schools had mostly been taken over by the apartheid government or closed down or deprived of resources after the introduction of the Bantu Education Act in the early 1950s. Before that they had been thriving educational institutions, often producing results on a par with or better than good white schools. Most anti-apartheid struggle leaders, including Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, and Chris Hani were educated at these schools. Other African leaders like Sir Seretse Khama—the inaugural president of Botswana—and almost his entire first cabinet also attended mission schools in South Africa.
I visited several mission schools in the course of my work and became fascinated by this part of history that I’d never been taught. My visits also made me realize—on an emotional, rather than just intellectual level—the full horror of the effects of apartheid on the education of black South Africans, which is something we have still not managed to correct. Some of the mission schools have managed to rise again, often through the efforts of their alumni, but others are still struggling to achieve the academic standards they once attained.
In a way Boniswa is the hero of the story, although Nix is the protagonist and the narrator. You tell the story from both of their perspectives in the first person. Why did you choose that approach?
I find reading first person narratives very immediate and honest, and writing in first person was a challenge I wanted to give myself—never to duck out of the personal perspective for one single moment. I was also reading Sue Grafton at the time of my decision and may have been influenced by that. It turned out to be much harder than I’d imagined. The creation of Boniswa’s e-mails was not my original intention but it was a way of avoiding the “preachy trap.” Novelists must avoid lecturing around their themes at all costs—it breaks the spell they are attempting to cast. As a teacher in a school in a rural backwater, Boniswa, through her descriptive e-mails to someone in another country, could reveal things about the state of education that Nix would not know, though I wanted readers to know them. I also hoped to reveal more of Boniswa’s character this way—since Nix had never met her and had only inaccurate ideas about her. Writing from one other person’s perspective also helped me avoid writer’s block to a certain extent. If I was feeling blocked with Nix, I could switch to Boniswa
Nix is a junior reporter with a German father and a Xhosa mother. She’s a mixture of traditional and modern and finds it hard to fit into either world. Although South Africa has a large population of people of mixed race, she doesn’t fit into that culture either. What were you telling us through this character?
I’m interested in the similarities and dissimilarities of South Africans of different backgrounds and cultures and races. I think it’s because I grew up in apartheid times and am still trying to work out how apartheid could have happened, how it could have been allowed to happen, and the role perceived power and lack of power played in it—power is still a big and dangerous theme for us in this country.
I wanted a main character who was unable to really identify entirely with any race. She is in a kind of cultural and racial no-man’s-land, hence her name: Nix. She looks colored, has an African mother and a European father, and has grown up in a privileged white household. On a personal level she struggles with her lack of proper rootedness, but it means she can cross historical barriers to a certain extent because she belongs everywhere, and nowhere.
People can’t quite work her out; their lack of certainty empowers her, especially as a journalist, and she takes full advantage of this. In fact, part of her enjoys keeping them guessing, but, at the same time, she is searching for her own sense of connection and belonging. I think many of us are doing that in this country. I certainly am. She’s on the universal journey of discovering that ultimately personal power and belonging can come only from within, but she’s got a way to go still—like most of us.
Nix goes to Girdwood to find Boniswa, who has been missing for some days. Strangely, although people are friendly enough, no one seems to be concerned about the principal’s absence. Boniswa’s only real friend is her mentor in the United States. Are she and Nix really the same in not fitting comfortably into any culture?
I do see Boniswa as being in a similar in-between cultural space as Nix. Boniswa is closer to her African roots, having grown up with her grandparents in a rural area, but her academic abilities distance her from them somewhat, especially when she is given the opportunity to study in America after school.
Like Nix, she has to deal with feelings of not belonging, trying to find her place in the world, and then back in her own country. She brings new ideas of what education should be to a long socially and economically marginalized community that has grown used to accepting mediocrity. It’s inevitable that her fellow teachers feel threatened by her and are therefore less concerned about her disappearance and more inclined to believe lies about her whereabouts than they should be.
FINDERS WEEPERS is as much a whydunit as a whodunit. Are you more interested in the psychological aspects of a crime?
I think all fiction is about the why. If all writers do is narrate a series of events, without revealing causes and intentions, then you’re likely to have a lot of disengaged, disappointed, and frustrated readers. Even in non-fiction—like the whole Oscar Pistorius saga—we want to know not just who did it and what he did but why he did it.
The crime genre is a wonderful vehicle for just about any story with its unlimited opportunities for exciting plot and character development and interesting environments and themes. It can also cross-pollinate with other genres, such as romance, science fiction, espionage, horror, chick-lit, psychological drama, and more. That’s why I love it.
With one exception, you have a lot of sympathy for all your characters and their situations. The teachers battle with low self-esteem, unmotivated children, and bureaucracy. The children have little hope for the future, and often come from homes broken by AIDS, alcohol, or poverty. The detective is committed and hardworking, but lacks resources. The white residents are suspicious and uncomfortable. Where does all this lead?
I guess it leads to my conclusion (and it is nothing new or earth-shattering) that life is a struggle for all of us, no matter who we are and from what circumstances we come. Our struggles are different but all equally uncertain and compelling. I wanted my characters to reflect this. The exception is the character who is entirely self-interested and entirely sure of his right to be entirely self-interested.
Would you tell us about your next project? I hope Nix will be back!
Writing FINDERS WEEPERS taught me a huge amount about commitment, discipline, resilience, self-belief, and the craft of writing. Writing is a drug I will never be able to do without now that I’ve discovered it. So I’m working on a follow-up to FINDERS WEEPERS and hope that the next stage of Nix’s journey will be made available to interested readers. At the same time I’m working on a young adult novel. Unfortunately it’s virtually impossible to support oneself as a novelist in this country, so I must still spend most of my weekdays at my regular job which, though I enjoy it, slows the writing process down much more than I would like.
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