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Fiction Friday: read chapter one of Vernon Head’s A Tree for the Birds

In this long-awaited follow-up to his international success, The Search for the Rarest Bird in the World, Vernon Head once again reveals his mastery of the genre of nature writing. This time with a novel, A Tree for the Birds. In this remarkable book, Head captivates and enchants us as he tells of the adventures of Chrisnelt, Chaminda and Pastor Kadazi as they navigate deep into the mysterious world of the Congo River, the Great Dancing Road.

This story of a boy’s quest contains an urgent ecological message: a plea to break down the boundaries that humans impose on the world and to reconnect with the eternal, life-sustaining cycles of nature. Head offers a novel of profound beauty. Set in the heart of Africa, this powerful story at the edge of damnation bends a reflection of all of us through the eyes of a birdwatcher who sees wings fly like escaping leaves on streams of eternal water and air for all.

The book reveals Head’s deep love for nature and his penetrating and startling way of seeing birds. This story will fascinate birdwatchers, twitchers, bird lovers and birders-in-training alike.

Chapter One

The rain came to Chrisnelt as the softest stars, large drops landing in the street of dust. His imagination took each drop into his heart, bouncing and glittering in every colour. He counted the seconds between drops. He counted the drops becoming muddy dents and swelling brown circles in the sand. The patterns were slow and rhythmical, a breathing thing of delight. He began to run in leaping arcs below the heavens, his little arms outstretched, his thin fingers splayed like feathers and his pink nails twinkling. Around the tree he went in gentle wetness toward happiness, as only seven-year-old boys can go. And his long shadow rippled upon footprints and across the old walls of rust in a tail of joy. He laughed, following the spoor-line of his best friend, who was no longer on the ground, but now high in the middle of the brightest mango tree.

The tree was the only greenness in that world of corrugated iron and homemade bricks the colour of burnt earth: the rancid hue of soils passed through the bowels of an insect.

A tropical street in the late afternoon is often cooler than a house in those parts. The mists from the River at the edge of the City found their way between houses, up alleyways, over roofs and into the wide streets, whereas houses simply held heat. And so it was always good to have a veranda: a place that gave shade and a wooden stool or two. There were intermittent verandas along the street. Each was fringed with palm fronds held on the arms of ancient treetrunks bleached like bones, standing rhythmically and pattering swathes of shadow here and there in the dust. Wood had become scarce, no longer coming from the forest, a forest that seemed to get further and further away with the passing of every season. All the houses were very low, some sagging, some swelling at the sides as the dry walls crumbled, like rising ribs revealing lungs.

Chrisnelt’s street was a typical street, his house a typical house, although one of the few to have a wooden deck below the overhang of the veranda, and the only house to host bats in the eaves near the front door, swinging like little black flags of welcome. The Malotikas loved bats, as they loved all wild things; it was just their way. Mainly, it was Mr Malotika’s way, since his youth far up the River. Along the house-fronts on both sides of the street lay concrete culverts filled with sewage, flowing with flies. Dogs drank occasionally from these edges, as did the little birds after bathing in hot sand that seemed to bubble. Below the house, buried like a corpse under the linoleum, lay the hard mud of a previous house made by unknown owners, and below that, the crushed pieces of a forest that was now charcoal.

Yet within the dirt, and deep inside all the browns – as with anything fertile – lay hope and life, and the unknown. From a street of hardened sand near Chrisnelt’s house – a two-minute sprint for an energetic child with big feet and eyes filled with notions – a marvel of leaves had slowly pushed up to the sky, or so his father told him. The mango tree had arrived unobserved by almost everyone, a relic (all seeds are relics) from a meal once tossed as waste.

With unfathomable resilience, it had fought its way to the light, shaped by goodness, looking for a future away from the darkness cast by walls; avoiding rush hours of storming feet, dodging the sacks of charcoal dragged monthly by tired men to the sooty doorways, and bending deftly away from the wheels of wooden carts. Once it had been trampled by a stumbling drunk who vomited upon its first leaf, and twice pissed on by a dog. It always bounced back. It knew only to rise, and to continue rising, constant, instinctive, on the route that all trees take: the profound stretch toward the inevitable edge of the sky – or so Chrisnelt was told by his father. And as it went up, so it went down, great roots singing all the time as they drank, down into the vast depths that held the song of the River, which, in turn, held everything else. Eventually the tree grew beyond harm – higher than the tallest man, with a trunk fatter than any belly – and became part of the street: a wild thing from nature finding a place in the City of shading walls. Chrisnelt remembered this story very often.

Once, during a particularly hot summer, sitting under the tree with his best friend No, soft pollen fell on his feet. Then they heard whistles coming from above; undulating, battling within the grinding from old trucks, and under the honk of taxi-cars, and below the shrieks and moans of wandering people. The whistles came from inside the tree’s tiny flowers, and they made a poem, a private lullaby for this special boy and his friend. Chrisnelt and No seemed to be the only people to hear it: the buzzing wings of insects and the rattling legs of ants that shone like glass. The sprays of creamy flowers erupted in waterfalls right before their big gazes. Glistening creatures from the world of feelers, carapaces and pincers came to feed, playing on twirling leaves and dangling petals of scent, alive in all their senses. And everything swelled into bulbous green, blushing finally into red, becoming the gift of fruit.

Chrisnelt’s laughter became louder, intermittent giggles bursting out in between and here and there, every time he had a deep thought. He pranced and ran, being sure to plant each foot in the prints made by No. The summer raindrops – as it is in the tropics – continued to dance with him, bouncing and ululating. One by one they came down, some tickling his cheeks, some dribbling off his pointy chin, some hesitating, clinging to him like friends do. His thin shadow, and the thick shadow of the tree, held hands as he circled it again and again. He circled some more. Everything glistened. His wide eyes glowed. ‘I’m a bird and I’m looking for a tree!’ he said at the top of his voice.

No had loved birds since he could first crawl, watching them on the veranda in all their intricate colours. He would lie next to Chrisnelt there, spitting bits of masticated corn at the sparrows that looked like tiny toys, the birds hopping closer and closer, often sitting on his outstretched fingers, once even on his nose. No loved birds so much, he squeaked and chattered like them before he could talk. And when he could walk, he flapped like them too. Chrisnelt learned to love them as well. He loved everything No loved. The love was wild and true like wilderness.

‘If you close your fingers tightly and point your arms, you can make wings and fly like a fast pigeon ah, with all its colours. And if you wiggle the tips you can dive like a sparrow,’ said No to Chrisnelt on a quiet day, watching a distant flock of white birds against a white cloud.

‘You can’t fly like me yet Chrisnelt ah, I have already taken off into the sky up here,’ said No (pronounced Noh, with the ‘h’ floating off the tongue). No always wanted to be first. Chrisnelt would have the idea, No would then take the lead. He was very brave. Chrisnelt would often hide behind that bravery. They had been neighbours since birth. They’d shared the adventure of standing for the first time, holding each other up, with a single gurgling cry. It had been a grand day back then for both families; the parents had clapped and the two boys had fallen into each other’s arms, the strong arms of No, the weak arms of Chrisnelt: four legs and one fat body of folds wobbling on the green linoleum floor.

Book details

Launch: Beaten but not Broken by Vanessa Govender (12 September)

At the height of her journalism career, more than one million households across the country knew her name and her face. Her reportage on human suffering and triumph captivated viewers, and with it Vanessa Govender shot to fame as one of the first female Indian television news reporters in South Africa.

Always chasing the human angle of any news story, Govender made a name for herself by highlighting stories that included the grief of a mother clutching a packet filled with the fragments of the broken bones of her children after they’d been hacked to death by their own father, and another story where she celebrated the feisty spirit of a little girl who was dying of old age, while holding onto dreams that would never be realised. Yet Govender, a champion for society’s downtrodden, was hiding a shocking story of her own. In Beaten But Not Broken, she finally opens up about her deepest secret – one that so nearly ended her career in broadcast journalism before it had barely kicked off.

She was a rookie reporter at the SABC in 1999. He was a popular radio disc jockey, the darling of the SABC’s Lotus FM, a radio station catering to nearly half a million Indian people across South Africa. They were the perfect pair, or so it seemed. And if anyone suspected the nature of the abusive relationship, Govender says, she doesn’t believe they knew the full extent of the horror that the popular DJ was inflicting on this intrepid journalist. The bruising punches, the cracking slaps, and the relentless episodes filled with beatings, kicking and strangling were as ferocious as the emotional and verbal abuse he hurled at her. No one would know the brutal and graphic details of Govender’s story … until now.

In Beaten But Not Broken, this Indian woman does the unthinkable, maybe even the unforgiveable, in breaking the ranks of a close-knit conservative community to speak out about her five-year-long hell in this abusive relationship. Her story also lays bare her heart-breaking experiences as a victim of childhood bullying and being ostracised by some in her community for being a dark-skinned Indian girl. Govender tells a graphic story of extreme abuse, living with the pain, and ultimately of how she was saved by her own relentless fighting spirit to find purpose and love. This is a story of possibilities and hope; it is a story of a true survivor.

Event Details

Book signing: Mutts by Emma O’Brien (8 September)

Mutts is a book about rescue dogs and their heartwarming stories.

Full of character, mischief and second chances, this book will have you howling with laughter and reaching for the tissues. Featuring portraits by award-winning photographer Emma O’ Brien, Mutts will complement every dog lover’s coffee table. Many of the dogs that feature in the Mutts project were deposited at shelters because their owners didn’t want them anymore, some were abused before being rescued and some found themselves there by accident of birth.

All of them are at the mercy of someone seeing them and choosing to adopt them when there are not enough homes to go around. The book proceeds will all go to CLAW and Sandton SPCA, but the publication of Mutts is not just about raising funds, it is also to raise awareness about the number of great dogs that sit in shelters, and to encourage people to adopt.

Event Details

Launch – This is how it is: True stories from South Africa by The Life Righting Collective (20 August)

This is How It Is is a collection of real life experiences. Most of these writers have never been published before. They wrote primarily to explore themselves, to engage with their own capacity to be creative, and to bear witness to their lives and the times in which we live. Putting traumatic experiences down on paper can help a person to put shame, guilt and fear down, and to step out of the circle of enchantment that might have kept them trapped for years.

Writing is sometimes able to turn a painful incident into something more manageable, even beautiful. This is an aspect of the power of artistic practice – that we can take the blurred feeling of what is disturbing us and give it form in the world. The stories inspired by our experiences can reveal what we didn’t know we knew, as they take shape on the page. Self-discovery is linked to self-recovery, but communication does not end there: those who are willing to share their stories can have a valuable impact on us, as readers, by revealing aspects of their humanity.

In addition, the writers may experience healing through having their experiences witnessed. Engaging with this ‘other’ by listening to what happened to them cuts across those things that separate us: sexism, racism, ageism, nationalism and gender stereotypes. Often we discover that we are more alike than we are different. Our beautiful world is in trouble, much of it because we are not paying attention to what is right in front of us. When the facts don’t stir us to reconsider, story can. This anthology is a contribution to the groundswell towards meaningful change. It invites us to become curious and reflective rather than fearful and defensive. It encourages us to climb down from the ladder of hierarchy and competition, and to join the circle of relationship and humanity, through becoming vulnerable enough to share and to listen to our own and each other’s half-hidden stories.

This anthology is the pilot year of what we hope will be an annual edition. This year’s theme, ‘This is how it is’, speaks of truth-telling and the relief of being able to communicate openly and honestly about things that are usually difficult – suicide, extra-marital affairs, mental illness, racism, untimely death.

“A powerful collection of life stories written in a healing space.” – Pregs Govender

“We forget that the most daring thing we can do is to allow ourselves to be seen. To stand before the world and to say this is who I am. This is how it is.” – Bongani Kona, 2016 Caine Prize finalist and co-editor of Migrations

“The writers in this triumphant anthology are both courageous and candid, allowing the reader a glimpse into their lives. There is need for more of this writing in South African literature.” – Sara-Jayne King

“Refreshing, poignant and wide-ranging, this collection surprises with unusual perspectives and gives voice to a broad array of talents.” – Helen Moffett


The Life Righting Collective runs courses for anyone who wants to learn to write about their experiences. The approach promotes self-discovery, self-recovery and more effective communication. We raise funds to make courses available to those in need of sponsorship and to provide platforms for these life stories to be published. Sharing experiences with a wide readership can help reduce discrimination and promote mutual understanding. Visit the website:

Event Details

  • Date: Monday, 20 August 2018
  • Time: 6:00 PM for 6:30 PM
  • Venue: Love Books, The Bamboo Lifestyle Centre, 53 Rustenburg Rd, Melville, Johannesburg | Map
  • Guest Speaker: Arja Salafranca
  • RSVP:

    Book Details

Launch: These Bones Will Rise Again by Panashe Chigumadzi (17 August)

A timeous book, with Zimbabwe’s elections taking place in July 2018, These Bones Will Rise Again responds to the November 2017 ousting of Robert Mugabe, exploring events leading up to the ‘coup not coup’ that brought his 37-year rule to an end.

This long-form essay brings together bold reportage, memoir and critical analysis to radically reframe the political and cultural history of the country, recognising the role of women, workers and urban movements in its liberation struggle.

In a searing account, These Bones Will Rise Again explores the heady post-independence days of the 80s, the economic downturn of the 90s, through to the effects of the fast-track land reform policies at the end of the century.

Out of Zimbabwe’s official versions of history, Chigumadzi wrests a complex and personal history of the past and present through intercession with two ancestral spirits – anti-colonial heroine Mbuya Nehanda, the founding ancestor of Zimbabwe’s revolution, and her own beloved grandmother, who passed shortly before the de facto coup.

This is an inspiring work exploring loss, recovery and memory that reminds us of the universal and timeless human impulse to freedom, a shared sense of belonging and the will to hope.

Event Details

Celebrate BlackBird Books’s third birthday! (15 August)

As we kick into women’s month, pioneering publisher of African voices and narratives, BlackBird Books is turning three this month! How time has gone!

To mark this occasion, BlackBird Books will host a celebration as also a way to reflect on how far we’ve come and the many more stories we are to celebrate.

The contribution of BlackBird Books to the South African literature space cannot be overlooked. In its short life, BlackBird Books has produced titles that will remain a proud legacy to African literature. To name some, Sweet Medicine by Panashe Chigumadzi, Born to Kwaito by Esinako Ndabeni and Sihle Mthembu, Miss Behave by Malebo Sephodi and The Broken River Tent by Mphuthumi Ntabeni.

Sweet Medicine

Book details

Sweet Medicine by Panashe Chigumadzi
EAN: 9781928337126
Find this book with BOOK Finder!

Born To Kwaito

Born To Kwaito by Esinako Ndabeni, Sihle Mthembu
EAN: 9781928337676
Find this book with BOOK Finder!

Miss Behave

Miss Behave by Malebo Sephodi
EAN: 9781928337416
Find this book with BOOK Finder!

The Broken River Tent

The Broken River Tent by Mphuthumi Ntabeni
EAN: 9781928337454
Find this book with BOOK Finder!

Take a look inside Wendy Hartmann’s magical new book, The Singing Stone

Storm has a beautiful stone that her parents gave to her when she was born. When she holds this stone and sings, everyone in the village stops to listen. But when she is tempted by an old woman to sing songs that can control the wind, waves and the entire ocean, things go wrong.

With her brothers and all the other fishermen lost at sea, will she be able to undo the things that she has done?

Written by award-winning author Wendy Hartmann, The Singing Stone is a magical tale about family love and encourages children to believe in themselves. Folk tales help develop strong reading skills and a love of stories.

Available in English, Afrikaans (Die Singende Klip), isiXhosa (Ilitye eliculayo) and isiZulu (Itshe Lokucula.)

Wendy Hartmann has been writing for many years, with more than 40 children’s books published. Her books have been selected for honour’s lists and nominated for awards for writing and illustration. Wendy lives in Cape Town, is married and has two daughters. In her spare time, she paints, has taken part in numerous exhibitions and has works in private collections in South Africa as well as overseas.

Book details

Launch: Things We Don’t Talk About. Ever. by Desiree-Anne Martin (7 August)

In 1980s apartheid Cape Town, five-year-old Desiree-Anne is grappling with how she’s going to turn her tar baby doll’s skin into sweet, soft lily-white.

What she has learnt is that Whites are better than ‘Slamse’ and much better than ‘Kaffirs’.

She doesn’t know how to force her father to stop drinking or gambling or make her mother love her or get the boys and men to stop touching her in secret.

She learns how to soothe the pain: through secret masturbation and lying. She also gives her life and heart to Jesus every summer at Scripture Union camps.

As she grows up, she begins to understand the rules of living in her depressed family as well as in her fractured community: We Don’t Talk About It. Ever. In her teens, laden with the awkwardness of bushy, unruly hair, braces, and a body shorter and rounder than a Womble – and now firmly planted in a ‘White School’, Desiree-Anne is forced to confront her ‘Coloured identity crisis’.

She turns to self-harm, disordered eating, the thrill of petty theft and escapism through books and acting. Although she wins a place to study drama at UCT, sensing her parents cannot afford the tuition, she opts to go to the UK where she gets lost in bars, clubs and pills.

On her return to South Africa she embraces the “free love” Ecstasy trance club scene but when she meets Darren, a heroin addict, she turns to needles. Her search for love and acceptance descends into a self-destructive spiral as an intravenous smack addict.

This is a harrowing memoir on the darkness of addiction, but it is also a touching and sometimes humorous account of a little-girl-turned-woman’s deep need and reckless pursuit for love.

When Desiree-Anne finally finds recovery years later, she uncovers her real voice to talk and write about things that were previously left unspoken.

Event Details

Take a sneak peek inside Niki Daly’s Sharp-Sharp! Thoko

Here comes Thoko again!
Thoko is resourceful!
Thoko is full of fun!
Thoko is kind-hearted!

Niki Daly makes reading about life as a kid entertaining and realistic with his delightful new local heroine, Thoko.

Thoko finds herself in some tricky situations that teach her a few important life lessons along the way. Thoko skips through life, leaving behind a trail of laughter.

With adorable illustrations and four heart-warming easy-to-read stories, Niki Daly has created a second book about Thoko – who is sure to become one of his most beloved characters. Look out for the first Thoko book, Hooray! Thoko.

Available in English, Afrikaans, isiXhosa and isiZulu.

Niki Daly has won many awards for his work. His ground breaking Not So Fast, Songololo, winner of a US Parents’ Choice Award, paved the way for post-apartheid South African children’s books. Since then he has published widely and has given talks in several countries.

Among his many books, Once Upon a Time was an Honor Winner at the US Children’s Africana Book Awards, and Jamela’s Dress was chosen by the ALA as a Notable Children’s Book and by Booklist as one of the Top Ten African American Picture Books of 2000.

In 2009 Niki was awarded the Molteno Gold Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Literature. Other books include Nicholas and the Wild Ones, Thank you, Jackson, The Herd Boy, Pretty Salma, No More Kisses for Bernard! and Ruby Sings the Blues.

Niki is married and lives in Kleinmond, South Africa.

Book details

Deadline for the Gerald Kraak Award and Anthology extended to 31 August


The deadline for the Gerald Kraak Award and Anthology – an award and anthology on the topics of gender, human rights and sexuality, for writers and photographers across Africa – has been extended.

Rather than general discussions of these subjects, the judging panel will select pieces which engage with gender and sexuality in ways that promote new insights into human rights matters on our continent. Only the very best work submitted will be shortlisted and published in an anthology, with the winners to be announced at a 2019 award ceremony, hosted by The Other Foundation and attended by the authors of the top three submissions. The overall winner will receive a cash prize of R25 000.

Both published and unpublished work are eligible.

Full information and submissions details may be found on Jacana Media’s website.