Slaughterhouse by Melissa Sussens launched at EB Cavendish

Last night at Exclusive Books Cavendish: a beautiful evening of poetry and celebration. Melissa was in conversation with Jacques Coetzee. Their exchanges about the craft of poetry were inspiring, and Melissa’s reading of her poetry moved all the hearts present.

Thank you to Melissa, Jacques, Linda and the team at EB Cavendish, and all poetry lovers who attended.

A while back, Jacques also interviewed Melissa for AVBOB Poetry. If you missed the launch of Slaughterhouse, please read the interview below.

Jacques Coetzee – Ingrid Jonker, Olive Schreiner & AVBOB Poetry prize winner and author of An Illuminated Darkness (uHlanga Press, 2020) – interviews Melissa Sussens about her debut collection, Slaughterhouse.

JC: Judging from its title, the catalyst for the poems in your upcoming collection was the year you spent working at a slaughterhouse as part of your compulsory community service after qualifying as a veterinarian. Did you consciously set out to complete a body of work in order to deal with this trauma, or did you slowly realise over time that this was what you were doing?

MS: Writing about the slaughterhouse began with the poem which ended up as one of the winners of the 2020 New Contrast National Poetry Prize. Writing that poem unlocked something for me and I realised that I could write about these niche, specific experiences in a way that could be related to a universal human experience. I think I needed to write about that time in order to process it, but I didn’t expect to get a book out of it. 

JC: One of the most striking qualities in your work is its ability to tell stories. Was storytelling an important part of your life growing up? Is this something you think about while writing, or does it come naturally to you?

MS: I have always loved reading and living myself into stories. Discovering that poems could tell stories the way longer pieces of writing do was a magical realisation for me. I want to be a storyteller first. I hope my poems connect with people in ways that are understandable and grounded. I don’t want readers to leave my work feeling they “don’t get it” or that my poems only exist in the clouds. 

JC: How did poetry enter your life? Do you remember a particular moment when you knew that poetry was something you wanted to pursue seriously?

MS: My earliest memory of writing poetry was creating rhyming treasure hunt clues as a kid for my younger brother’s birthday party. My first taste of being a “published poet” was as a young teen when I had a few poems published in Teen Zone magazine. As a student I sought out that feeling of connection again and started sharing my writing with friends and then at open mic events (shoutout to Spoken Sessions in Pretoria). But it was only after doing a poetry writing and editing course with American poet, Megan Falley (Poems That Don’t Suck) back in 2018 that I started taking my writing, and more importantly my editing, more seriously. 

JC: Another aspect of your work that fascinates me is the attention it pays to form. I am thinking, for instance, of your pantoum about gender-based violence in South Africa, of Slaughterhouse Sestina and Euthanasia Pantoum. Do you enjoy working with difficult forms for their own sake, or is this also partly a way to focus or contain powerful emotions?

MS: I love using forms as tools to unlock my writing. They feel like puzzles to me, especially the sestina, and I love the challenge that provides. I also find it interesting how sometimes a form can allow me to find an angle that I wouldn’t have otherwise found if I was writing free verse.

JC: You write movingly about your work as a vet, risking territory where many writers would become sentimental or cute. I suspect that the success of these poems has something to do with your taking up of alternative personae, like the euthanasia syringe used to dispatch pets who can no longer be treated.

MS: I find persona-type poems very freeing. In writing them I am able to explore or express things in a way that I wouldn’t if I was writing in my own voice. I think they allow me to better imagine a situation from another angle. I am constantly searching for humanity, for connection through my writing.

JC: How easy is it to move between your work as a vet and the space in which your poems arrive?

MS: It varies. When I have a poem prompt or idea in my head I can spend my time at work playing with it in my thoughts or finding inspiration from incidents in my vet life that I can write about. But there are also times when I struggle to switch off my job mindset and focus on my more creative side. I would say I am generally quite elastic though. I spend most of my lunch hours on poetry – writing, editing or reading poems in the middle of my workday.

JC: Slaughterhouse contains piercingly beautiful poems of heartbreak, of innocence lost and regained, and ultimately about domestic happiness. Would you like to say something about the way poetry has helped you to maintain emotional well-being during difficult times? Do you think poetry can provide a kind of exorcism, or be a kind of talisman to help us navigate particularly challenging emotional terrain?

MS: Absolutely. I have experienced loneliness intensely throughout my life. For me poetry is a reminder that I am not alone, a way to connect the outside world with my internal one. Poetry is essential in my emotional processing, both in my personal life and in the hard aspects of my work. By writing these poems I can exorcise some of the negative emotions that would otherwise weigh me down. 

JC: Perhaps surprisingly for a collection called Slaughterhouse, one of the greatest pleasures your poems afford is their flashes of humour. I am thinking of poems like The Drive and Blue, which seem to signal tormentedness but are really (for lack of a better word) tragicomic. Does this ring true? Is this quality in your work recognised enough, or do readers tend to miss it?

MS: Thank you so much for saying this! I have tried to bring some dark humour (I love tragicomic as a description of it) to my poems. I don’t think this is something that is recognised by most people. I think I mostly come across as a very serious person, and my poems probably do too. But I absolutely want people to find the humour or lightness within this collection too, to be able to laugh at life’s ironies alongside me.  

Joy Watson in Joburg!

Joburg, you are in for a literary treat of note! Joy Watson will be launching her debut novel, The Other Me, at three different events next week. We hope to see you at at least one of them, if not all!

First up: Exclusive Books Nicolway, Wednesday, 20 July. Joy will be in conversation with author Angela Makholwa.

On Thursday, 21 July, Joy will be at Book Circle Capital and in conversation with media powerhouse and author Joanne Joseph.

Last, but not least, Friday, 22 July: a literary dinner at Tommy’s Bar where you will enjoy a light meal and a discussion between Joy and author/editor Sue Nyathi. Bridge Books and the Heinrich Boell Foundation are co-hosting.

Last night at the Waterfront

Wherever she appears, Joy Watson is surrounded by love – human and literary – and last night’s launch of her novel at EB V&A Waterfront was no different. We were treated to an insightful, funny, moving discussion between Joy and John Maytham.

Joy’s comment on the event: “Last night’s book event at Exclusive Books was small and intimate. It was truly special – filled with all the ‘feels’. I laughed hard – John Maytham is incredibly conducive to raucous laughter. And I cried when Caroline Peters, for whom I have tremendous respect, got up to talk about my feminism and how, many years ago, in lieu of wedding gifts, I asked people to donate to the cause of violence against women. John was incredible as a discussant – bringing to the fore the most pertinent issues in my book. My heart is so full – my support crew was there and long-standing friends turned up to show love and support. I walked from that event feeling so blessed.”

Thank you to Joy and John, and to all the wonderful people who showed up to share the occasion with us.

Sunday Times Literary Awards longlists announced

The longlists for SA’s most prestigious annual literary awards for non-fiction and fiction – the Sunday Times Literary Awards – have been announced in partnership with Exclusive Books. Karavan Press has two titles on each list. Congratulations to all longlisted authors, and extra literary hugs to Karavan Press authors: Karen Jennings, Nick Mulgrew, Nancy Richards and Cathy Park Kelly!

FICTION PRIZE

FICTION LONGLIST

This is the 21st year of the Sunday Times fiction prize. The criteria stipulate that the winning novel should be one of “rare imagination and style … a tale so compelling as to become an enduring landmark of contemporary fiction”.

JUDGES

EKOW DUKER — CHAIR
Oil-field engineer turned banker turned writer, Ekow Duker grew up in Ghana, studied in the UK, the US and France and now lives and works in Joburg. His debut novels, White Wahala and Dying in New York, were published in 2014 and were followed in 2016 by The God Who Made Mistakes, and in 2019 by his fourth and most ambitious novel, Yellowbone.

KEVIN RITCHIE
Ritchie spent 27 years at what is today Independent Media, including editing the company’s smallest daily newspaper, the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley, and its flagship, The Star, in Joburg. He received several journalism awards during his career and wrote the two-volume Reporting the Courts – A Handbook for South African Journalists. He also co-authored The A-Z of South African Politics (Jacana 2019). After leaving journalism in 2018, Ritchie founded a media consultancy which provides communication services, training for journalists and communicators and coaching for editors and CEOs. He writes a syndicated weekly opinion column in the Saturday Star.

NOMBONISO GASA
Writer and political analyst, Gasa is a research fellow at the Centre for Law and Society and Adjunct Professor at the School of Public Law at the University of Cape Town. In the early ’90s, Gasa was part of the ANC’s Commission for the Women’s Emancipation of Women. Gasa has been published widely in newspapers and academic journals, including Women in South African History (HSRC), which she edited in 2007. She has sat in several public positions, including the Commission for Gender Equality, Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and Development Bank of Southern Africa. Gasa has a long history in politics, feminism and women’s rights activism extending to her teenage years which saw her arrested several times by the apartheid government.

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NON-FICTION PRIZE

NON-FICTION LONGLIST

The award will be bestowed on a book that presents “the illumination of truthfulness, especially those forms of it that are new, delicate, unfashionable and fly in the face of power”, and that demonstrates “compassion, elegance of writing, and intellectual and moral integrity”.

JUDGES

GRIFFIN SHEA — CHAIR
Shea is the founder of Bridge Books, an independent bookstore in downtown Johannesburg, and the author of a young adult novel, The Golden Rhino. Bridge Books focuses on African literature and on finding new ways of getting books to readers. The store’s non-profit African Book Trust is the lead partner in the Literary District project, a collaboration among booksellers, city agencies, businesses and other volunteers. Before opening Bridge Books, Griffin worked as a journalist for 15 years, mostly with the international news agency Agence France-Press (AFP).

NOMAVENDA MATHIANE
Mathiane has been a journalist for over 35 years. Her writing career began in 1975 as a reporter at the World Newspapers and she later joined Frontline magazine, where she specialised in writing about life in South African townships. Since then she has worked for most of the major South African newspapers. Her last journalist job was writing for Business Day as the legislature reporter. Mathiane has written three books: Beyond the Headlines, South Africa: Diary of Troubled Times and Eyes in the Night: An Untold Zulu Story. She currently teaches isiZulu at a private primary school.

BONGANI NGQULUNGA
Ngqulunga is with the University of Johannesburg where he currently serves as director of the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study (JIAS). He is the author of The Man Who Founded the ANC: A Biography of Pixley ka IsakaSeme, which won multiple awards, including the Sunday Times Non-Fiction Award in 2018. Ngqulunga was educated at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and at Brown University in the US, where he obtained a doctoral degree.

‘The Other Me’ by Joy Watson launched at EB Cavendish and Liberty Books

We had a full house for the EB Cavendish launch of Joy Watson’s The Other Me. Joy was in conversation with the fabulous Rebecca Davis.

This particular Exclusive Books branch is close to Joy’s heart as she has been buying books there for many years and has been reviewing new titles for the bookshop in her capacity as a Daily Maverick Lifestyle contributor and the great reader that she is. Friends of Joy’s organised beautiful live music and a blessing bowl, which allowed all present to say thank you for the good things in our lives and to let go of the burdens we carry.

Wherever she goes, Joy brings with her the emotion contained in her beautiful name. The intimate gathering at the Liberty Books launch of The Other Me was full of it. Joy was interviewed by Liberty Books’ owner, Christy Weyer.

The two amazing women spoke about the novel and Joy’s research and how the two areas of her life influence each other. The conversation was truly illuminating. It is always inspiring to listen to astute readers talk about books. The evening include Cleopatra, the resident literary cat, the book-loving Elgin/Grabouw community, Peregrine hospitality and the warmth of the fire place.

Unforgettable events! Thank you to all who made them possible and who attended.

No one wanted to leave at the end of the evening. We all wanted to stay, like Cleo, who was sad to see us go.

Can’t wait to return!

An Island by Karen Jennings launched last night at EB Cavendish

Photo by Penny Haw

A lot stood in its way – geography, a pandemic, international lockdowns and other more mundane challenges – but, at last, we managed to be on the same continent and in one place, in a bookshop that was open and could welcome readers, and could finally celebrate the book that brought us all together: An Island. The novel itself has been through quite a lot since its official publication in December 2020. A Booker longlist, a K. Sello Duiker Memorial Award and around twenty different editions world-wide (published and planned) later, and we could officially launch Karen’s stunning novel.

Thank you to Linda and the entire team at Exclusive Books Cavendish for making the event happen, to Karen for sharing her stories with us, and to all who attended. An evening to remember!

Photo by Annette Snyckers