Interview With Award-Winning Author Manu Herbstein

Recently, NWASA sat down with award-winning author and NWASA Member Manu Herbstein to learn more about his writing journey and the lessons he has gained thus far.

Manu Herbstein is the prize-winning author of historical and modern African fiction for adults and young adults. His first novel, Ama, a Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, won the 2002 Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Best First Book.

He was asked a series of 10 questions, which have been shared below.

1. Tell me a little about yourself.

I was born in Muizenberg in 1936. After graduating at the University of Cape Town (UCT) with a degree in Civil Engineering, I left South Africa in 1959. I didn’t pay a return visit until 1992.

In the 1960s I studied and worked in the UK, Nigeria, Ghana, India, and Zambia. I’ve lived in Ghana since 1970. My wife and sons are Ghanaians. I enjoy dual citizenship, South African and Ghanaian. It was only as I approached 60 that I started doing research for my first novel entitled Ama, a Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

It won the 2002 Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Best First Book. A South African edition, published by Pan Macmillan in 2005, was launched at the Xarra Bookstore in Johannesburg and the Slave Lodge in Cape Town.

2. Are there any books or authors that inspired you to become a writer?

As I mentioned above, I started writing late, so let me take the liberty of mentioning some books which inspired me, though without any thought of becoming a writer. An early one was Eddie Roux’s Time Longer than Rope, subtitled A History of the Black Man’s Struggle for Freedom in South Africa, first published in 1948.

Shortly before I left South African in 1959, I read Ezekiel (‘Zeke’, later Es’kia) Mphahlele’s autobiographical Down Second Avenue (The following year I was to meet Zeke in Nigeria–Chimurenga has published our correspondence.)

Round about that time, Heinemann began publishing its African Writers Series, many of which I read. If I were to choose one to mention, it might be Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Devil on the Cross. Of novels by Ghanaians, I would choose Francis Selormey’s autobiographical novel, The Narrow Path: An African Childhood, and Kojo Laing’s Search Sweet Country.

I dropped history after standard 6: All I recall of that is the Slagtersnek Rebellion. Many years later, I read a real history book: Noel Mostert’s Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People. Finally, a novel which I read in the original Afrikaans, Elsa Joubert’s Die Swerfjare van Poppie Nongema.

I wasn’t inspired to become a writer by any author or book, rather by current events, civil disturbances in northern Ghana which came to be known as the Guinea Fowl War. I set out to write an historical novel set in a period about which, at the outset, I knew nothing.

Fortunately, I found the shelves of the Balme Library at the University of Ghana to be well stocked with relevant material, both primary and secondary. What I couldn’t find there, and on the Internet, I found later in the Schomburg Library in Harlem. When Ama was eventually published, I arranged relevant extracts from my sources in a website, where they may still be read at, courtesy of the publisher of Africa Today Magazine, Kayode Soyinka. It is those extracts which were the source of my inspiration.

3. What early life experience/s taught you the power of language?

I was a voracious reader as a child, using the resources of the free Carnegie Public Library in Muizenberg, particularly during school holidays. (The library was built in 1909. I can find no mention in the archives as to whether “free” applied to whites only.)

Afrikaans was a compulsory second language at school. My father, who grew up in Graaff Reinet, had learned Dutch as a child. He was an advocate, serving English-speaking clients.

In 1946, he became a judge and felt the need to acquire competence in Afrikaans. To do this, he took a subscription to Die Burger from which he would read aloud for fifteen (15) minutes every day. Die Burger had a good sports page, and I learned more Afrikaans from it than I did from school lessons. Today, I read an article in Vrye Weekblad online, every morning.

In 1958, having become aware that the Apartheid education system had deprived me of the opportunity to learn isiXhosa, I put a message on a UCT notice board, asking for a teacher to give me private lessons. There was just one reply, from fellow student Archie Mafeje (who would go on to a distinguished academic career.) I still have the exercise book I used, but I have to admit that I failed to acquire even a simple proficiency in the
language, something which I still regret.

I had marginally more success with Twi, Ghana’s lingua franca, in which both my sons are fluent, though without the ability to read or write the language. I know the grammar, but Twi is a tonal language, an aspect which it’s difficult for an adult to master. I regret that most of my fellow members of the Ghana Association of Writers (GAW) write only in English.

4. Can you describe your writing approach?

About the Atlantic Slave Trade, the late Prof. Ali Mazrui wrote, “Few of the enslaved were able to leave written memoirs describing their experience. The rules which govern the practice of their discipline make it difficult, if not impossible, for historians to tell us how they felt. Unless, of course, they were to venture into the field of historical fiction.” Few historians have taken this step.

In my historical novels, I have tried to meet Prof. Mazrui’s challenge, free of the constraints which govern the work of historians. Most of the relevant texts, both primary and secondary, were written by whites, either
participating slave traders or colonials or, later, scholars.

I have searched these texts for illuminating incidents and hints of character, reading between the lines where necessary. However, I feel strongly that historical novelists should not deliberately distort the generally accepted historical record.

5. What do you think makes a good story?

An engaging central character; a plot with plenty of conflict; and the developing response of the central character to the experience of conflict.

6. What risks have you taken with your writing that have paid off?

I grew up white in apartheid South Africa but have spent most of my adult life in Ghana. I have tackled, through historical novels, two issues (both central to Ghanaian history) the Atlantic Slave Trade and British Imperialism.

Both have received little attention from Ghanaian writers. I was aware of the risk of involving in my writing in some way, the cultural baggage which I might have brought with me to Ghana; and so I prevailed upon some leading Ghanaian historians, literary scholars, and writers of fiction to vet the manuscript of Ama. To my relief, it passed these tests without adverse comment.

7. What’s your favourite and least favourite part about publishing?

Favourite: Selling many books and getting good reviews.

Least favourite: the reluctance of agents and publishers in the West (where the potential monetary rewards lie) to support well-researched stories which reflect African experience.

8. Are there any projects you are currently working on?

Letter writing is an aspect of culture which has become obsolete. Letters often reflected a response to current events. Over nearly seventy years I have kept thousands of letters, both received and sent, many of them handwritten.

I am transcribing them into Word documents and naming them in the format, year, month, and day. To date, I have done some eight hundred (800) so far, but many more remain. When I’ve transcribed the last letter, I might put them all into a book, arranged in chronological order.

9. What advice would you give to aspiring writers, or those looking to improve their writing skills?

Read, read, read; but read critically. Write, write, write; but postpone criticizing your writing: then, later, criticize, edit, rewrite.

10. How can people access your publications and get in touch with you?

I asked ChatGPT, “Where can I buy books by Manu Herbstein in South Africa?” It replied, “Manu Herbstein’s books can be bought at major bookstores in South Africa such as Exclusive Books, Wordsworth, and Bargain Books. They can also be purchased online through websites such as Loot, Takealot and Amazon.” Alternatively, search “Manu Herbstein” online.

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