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Our Online Book Club is Being Taught in the Classroom!

I was happily surprised when a friend of mine just told me that she is planning to use our online book club in her class. I thought maybe she wanted to show her students the mind of an author at work, but she said her primary interest was in the questions themselves. She wants to show her writing students how to read as writers, and felt the questions coming in are exactly the way writers should be reading for the sake of their own craft.


She isn’t one of my featured readers, so I didn’t even realize she was reading along. But after the latest Q&A with Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, she asked me for permission to use the site as a reference, and to print out portions of the Q&A to accompany passages from the books.

African literature reading

I was stoked. One of the best things I learned from my own writing professors was how to read like a writer. Reading is still enjoyable, but I rarely read without paying attention to craft. And the questions coming in from many of the featured readers for our online book club show that other writers read the same way.

Way Back Home Niq Mhlongo

As I’m looking through these questions coming in for October author, Niq Mhlongo, I can tell which questions are coming from writers versus those coming from the average reader. All questions are valid, of course, but it’s so much fun to see what each writer has been observing in a text, and what they ask of the author.

So who are these wonderful featured readers asking the brilliant questions? Well please take a look at their bios on the Featured Readers page, by clicking here. These readers, most of them already well-established writers, teachers and editors, are excellent at reading critically, and it shows through in their own work. Please take a little time to read their bios, and click through to their websites and read some of their work as well!

how to read like a writer

Are you a Creative Writing Teacher?

If you’re also a teacher of creative writing and you also find the Q&A something you can use in teaching your writing students how to read more critically, you’re more than welcome to direct them to the site, or print the Q&A. Just please make sure you talk about these wonderful authors who created all the interesting books to prompt those questions!

And please, I’d love to hear about how you use the material, and maybe even take a photo of you and your class so I can share you with the world!

Following are the July, August, and September Q&A with authors. You can join the book club at any time, whether you’re a writer or just an avid reader, by picking up a copy of the latest book and reading along. Then submit your questions by the middle Wednesday of each month to:

July Q&A with Futhi Ntshingila

August Q&A with Nthikeng Mohlele

September Q&A with Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

I will be posting the Q&A for Niq Mhlongo by the end of October, and announce the winner of a signed book by Niq. In the meantime, please be reading Nothing Left to Steal, by Mzilikazi wa Afrika. Happy reading!

Love, MarLa


Upcoming Books:

November: Mzilikazi wa Afrika
Book(s): Nothing Left to Steal
Read-by Date: 11 November 2015 PRE-ORDER ASAP by emailing . This book is currently only available as an e-book in the states, but I can ship a paperback to you from South Africa.

December: Mandla Langa
Book(s): The Texture of Shadows and The Lost Colours of the Chameleon
16 December 2015  PRE-ORDER ASAP by emailing . This book is currently only available as an e-book in the states, but I can ship a paperback to you from South Africa.

January through May, 2016
Thando Mgqolozana: A Man Who is Not a Man
Mamle Wolo: The Kaya-Girl – Please email me to pre-order this book. It is not yet available in the states. I have purchased several copies for my readers.
Carol Campbell: Esther’s House
Ekow Duker: Dying in New York
Wame Molefhe: Go Tell the Sun
Sabata-mpho Mokae: Kanakotsame: In My Times – Please email me to pre-order this book. It is not yet available in the states. I have purchased several signed copies for my readers.

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Around the World with the Poetry of Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

best African literature
Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

From South Africa, to America’s east and west coasts, to Europe and beyond, readers were traveling Continue reading Around the World with the Poetry of Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

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I Bet I Can Make a Niq Mhlongo Fan Out of You!

best African writers
Author Niq Mhlongo

I want to make a bet with you, dear reader.

If you can make it through a book by Niq Mhlongo and walk away without becoming a Niq Mhlongo fan, I’ll give you 50 Rand. Continue reading I Bet I Can Make a Niq Mhlongo Fan Out of You!

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What Will You Say to Phillippa Yaa de Villiers?

Welcome to September Book Club!

I’m so excited to share the work of award-winning South African author, Phillippa Yaa de Villiers.

Please read either Everyday Wife, or Taller Than Buildings, and submit your questions and comments by Wednesday, 16 September. I know my featured readers in the states are already either finished or in the process of reading. These are short books, so you could easily read both of them before mid-September, but at least please read one.

“Phillippa Yaa de Villiers illuminates relationships of many kinds and intensities – between lovers, children and parents, the politics of emotion shared and remembered and confronted, sustained across the distance of place or memory.”
-Margaret Busby

Taller Than Buildings Phillippa Yaa de VilliersThe author will answer your questions!

Like each of the authors before her (Futhi Ntshingila and Nthikeng Mohlele), Phillippa Yaa de Villiers has agreed to reply to your questions and comments on this site.
(To see how the Q&A went for July and August, please click here and here.)

Remember every question and photo you send enters you for a chance to win a signed book from the author!

How to Participate:

Read about her work below, and get your hands on one or both of these books if you haven’t already. If you’re in the states, Taller Than Buildings is available as a Kindle ebook, and Everyday Wife is available in paperback at both Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Please submit questions and/or photos by 16 September. For full details on our online book club, click here. If you or your book club would like to become Featured Readers, click here for details.

Submit by 16 September to for a chance to win an autographed book from the author!


The Everyday Wife Phillippa Yaa de VilliersThe Everyday Wife

The Everyday Wife won the 2011 South African Literary Award for a poetry collection

The everyday wife is a handy little book of practical poetry for any occasion. Mischievous and profound words recreate everyday life in South Africa and other parts of the world. In this, her second volume of poetry, Phillippa Yaa de Villiers unravels the security blanket of routines, exposing the soul of the quotidian.

African Books Collective


Taller Than Buildings

“The poems in Taller than Buildings are stories about, and vignettes of life in and around South Africa. They’re crafted from sensitive observation and narrated with a verve, an energy that on reflection, renders the collection’s title particularly apt.”
Moira Richards, Rattle e-Review

Sample poem from Taller Than Buildings:

The River

One day the Hillbrow Tower started to cry.
Real tears poured down its sides
collected in the gutters,
and ran down Banket Street,
and when
the other buildings saw the tower’s sadness
they started to weep in sympathy.
Soon the whole city was sobbing,
the tears joined other tears
and filled the depressions and valleys.
They covered the koppies,
and collected in City Deep,
cascading over Gold Reef City
flooding Fordsburg
and soaking Soweto.
They flowed until they became a river
that carried us into the night,
where our dreams grew
taller than buildings
taller than buildings

About the Author

Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

Phillippa Yaa de Villiers
Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

Phillippa Yaa de Villiers is a multi-award-winning writer, performer and editor. After writing television scripts for ten years, she won a place on the British Council/ Crossing Borders programme and a grant from the Centre for the Book to publish her first volume of poetry Taller than Buildings (2006). Her poetry and prose are widely published in journals and anthologies. Her one-woman show, Original Skin, has toured in South Africa and went abroad in 2010. She has performed her poetry from Cuba to Cape Town, Berlin to Harare and of course in her home town, Jozi where she lives with an assortment of animals and her son.
-source: African Books Collective

Upcoming Books:

*Please note: Due to transportation time to send books to the states, I needed to shuffle the order of the next few titles. Please begin reading one of Niq Mhlongo’s books for our October Book Club. Links to each of his books are below…

October: Niq Mhlongo
Book(s): Way Back Home, Dog Eat Dog, After Tears
16 December 2015

November: Mzilikazi wa Afrika
Book(s): Nothing Left to Steal
Read-by Date: 11 November 2015 PRE-ORDER ASAP by emailing . This book is currently only available as an e-book, but I can ship a paperback to you from South Africa.

December: Mandla Langa
Book(s): The Texture of Shadows
16 December 2015  PRE-ORDER ASAP by emailing . This book is currently only available as an e-book, but I can ship a paperback to you from South Africa.

January through May, 2016
Thando Mgqolozana: A Man Who is Not a Man
Mamle Wolo: The Kaya-Girl
Carol Campbell: Esther’s House
Ekow Duker: Dying in New York
Wame Molefhe: Go Tell the Sun
Sabata-mpho Mokae: Book launch this autumn, and he’s taking time for us online as well! Title to be announced in August.

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Online Book Club Author Response and Signed Book Winner!

Welcome to our second monthly online book club! August found us reading Nthikeng Mohlele’s Rusty Bell.

Congratulations to Ian Riggins, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Ian’s name was drawn at random from questions received for August author, Nthikeng Mohlele. He will win a signed book from the author!

Once again, great questions from readers of Rusty Bell, by Nthikeng Mohlele. I picked a book I knew would challenge even the most avid readers to push through one of the most unreliable narrators I’ve ever read, and wow did they come up with some strong questions. Continue reading Online Book Club Author Response and Signed Book Winner!

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Rusty Bell, or Small Things?

I’m excited to get messages that you’re busy reading one or both of the August books by author Nthikeng Mohlele. Rusty Bell is his newest release, while Small Things is still receiving acclaim since its release in 2013. Please finish reading one or both of these by next Wednesday. They are not long reads, so you could probably knock out both over the weekend if you’re free.

Behind this story of love, music and the eternal quest, lies an artistic sensibility as generous as it is complex. The prose is rich in texture, the final effect melancholy and comic in equal proportions. – J.M. Coetzee, in praise for Small Things

Update: I believe Rusty Bell has sold out of its new stock on Amazon now (thanks, readers!!!) and it looks like some naughty used-book sellers have jacked up their prices on the second-hand copies. Continue reading Rusty Bell, or Small Things?

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Online Book Club Author Response and Winner!

African Literature online book club

Our first online book club reading went well! I’m really happy with the questions you submitted for July’s author, Futhi Ntshingila.

African literature
Author Futhi Ntshingila

I put the names of all who submitted questions into a bag, and the winner of a signed copy of Do Not Go Gentle is Melanie Hooks, of Los Angeles, California, USA. Congratulations, Melanie!

“It made her reckless. But someone with nothing to lose has a chance to arm-wrestle with God, and maybe to win” (32).

-Do Not Go Gentle quote, favorited by featured reader Jessica Kinnison, who adds “Just a great image–the idea of looking god in the eye as a mortal and pushing back.

Author Futhi Ntshingila carefully read and replied to each and every one, and I hope you enjoy her answers below.  Remember to have the next book, Rusty Bell, read by mid-August and submit your questions in time for the author to reply! Each reader who submits questions will be entered in a drawing for a signed copy of that book.

African LiteratureQuestions for Futhi Ntshingila

Q: The book has a strong oral storytelling feel to it for me especially because of the short chapter style, which I like and felt like it helped pull me through the story quickly. Do you feel there is a relationship between the oral tradition and this written one?

Yes it has. My name and my surname have a backstory like most Africans. I have always liked that. I am steeped in oral storytelling. There are in-jokes in the family that have been passed around since my grandmother’s days and if you tell them to a new person you get into the re-telling of the story. In Shameless, the story of brown sugar is straight from my cheeky grandmother’s experience speaking her truth to power. Hence my writing is somewhat a conversion from oral to written narrative. It is one of the best ways of preserving memory. I don’t preoccupy myself with this or that style of old dead guys to effectively create fiction. I get into the space of remembering and tell from my intestines, this way I can cry my eyes out if I have to. I get deeply engaged in the process.

Q: For such a story of tragic events, there was a strong theme of love and survival. Was it inspired by people you’ve known or events you’ve witnessed?

In the telling of the incommunicable experiences, it is very important to show that it is not all doom and gloom. It is important to show that poverty does not equate to lack of love. If anything the love that exists there is as authentic and strong and pure. I would dare to say that since is it not based on material possession it is more tangible and un-doubtable than the one linked to materials of the upper and middle class.

“They fell asleep on the carpet, spooning like children of the shacks who share a single bed” (83)

-Featured reader Jessica Kinnison highlighted this quote by Ntshingila in Do Not Go Gentle, adding “After all the education, the wealth, the travel, and high academic talk, they are stripped down and childlike–human. The image of Nonceba and Sipho”

African literature
Question by Featured Reader, Melanie Hooks (c) 2015, Melanie Hooks

Q: I was impressed by the female characters of power. A social worker at the beginning can take away the family benefits, and a female magistrate at the end can grant Mvelo peace. Was this a conscious choice or merely a reflection of current South African daily life?

I like this question because when I was writing I honestly didn’t give them these positions thinking of the power attached to it. I am from a family of four women, five including my mother. I had a father who made us feel like everything and everything was possible for us if we stick to education. So I guess my narrating reflects how I was nurtured to believe that I have no obstacles, poor as I was growing up. So nope it wasn’t a conscious choice or even a reflection of SA today. I sure hope for the young ones who read this book get influenced into thinking possibilities are not linked to gender.

Q: The novel’s plot jumps back and forth in time and follows a handful of characters who seem relatively unconnected at first, but it all comes together so wonderfully in the end.

online book club
Question by Ian Riggins, Featured Reader. (c) 2015 Ian Riggins

How did you go about writing a plot like this? Did you write each character’s storyline chronologically and then rearrange scenes as needed, or did you write it in the order it appears in the novel? Or did you use another method?

Initially on Shameless, all my chapters of the past were in italics to indicate the change from actual time to reflection time. It followed the order it is in the novel just in italics. It was in the editing process that it changed. I know it can be a bit of a put-off but I felt it was the best way to show that Thandiwe had a life before prostitution and decisions were made that led her to this fast past Johannessburg. A part of me in all my story telling likes going back and forth and I tried not to make it linear because life for me is a circle. In Do Not Go Gentle, Zola dies but later on you get to hear who she was before her death.


Q: I’m only a few chapters into Do Not Go Gentle, so I’ll leave the more detailed questions to those who have read the whole time. I’m curious about the relationship between the books, and what it was like to write a second novel. Could you talk about what you learned from writing a first novel that you applied to writing a second?

In Shameless, I wrote mostly for myself fueled by anger in my observation of what was happening to black graduates when they enter corporations. It was around the time a letter of a black intern’s resignation from a company citing inequalities became viral and it resonated with so many of us. So I was fuelled by it and I didn’t even think I was going to publish my writing at first. I can tell you that it made me bolder. Do Not Go Gentle being the second book always comes with a little fear of readers because the innocence of what comes after the book is published is no longer there. But even with the second book I was fuelled by the need to tell for girls who cannot say “that uncle is raping me” at night and single mothers who are dying of diseases they never thought would reach them. The need was and always is bigger than the fear for little things like critiques and reviews.

“They molested the peace on the open ocean”

-A favorite Do Not Go Gentle quote by reader Jessica Kinnison, adding “Recalling Mvelo’s rape and crushing it. Just perfect.”

Q: How did you make the decision to use different narratives throughout the novel?

I think in parts where I feel strongly about something I find myself using first person, it’s where the lines of the narrator and authorial voice become blurred. I am not even sure if I am consciously doing it at the time of writing but when I re-read, I find that the parts that I feel most emotional about are the ones I have made first person.

Q: Were there other perspectives you considered but ended up not using?

Initially in Do No Go Gentle, Nomvelo narrated that whole story to Sipho the father-figure in her life. It worked for a bit until I realized that she would have to read minds of other characters which felt too contrived. So I dropped it and had to re-do it in a third person so that the narrator can hover and have the creative license to narrate inner thoughts.

Q: I like the way the stories blend the ideas of class, race, and pride. How much of this was accessible from your life and how much of it was fiction?

I think fiction is really a blend of what we observe around us, what we imagine and what we create to keep the plot moving.   Class and Race are around me constantly I live a life that is in two classes: middle and moderate poverty.  The middle class I am talking about is really a thin line held together by a monthly income that is thinly spread between myself and extended members of the family.  One loss of that income could render me homeless for defaulting on my mortgage payments.  This is a reality of a black middle class.  It is not sustainable because as soon as you remove the monthly income, it falls flat. I have beloved family members who live in moderate to abject poverty.

Pride is in most hardworking families who do not believe in charity.  This was drummed into my head as a young girl.  It was consider crass and vulgar to ask for money from any adult person. I had one too many hidings from breaking this rule.


Comment from Featured Reader, Katrina Otuonye:

featured reader online book club
Comment from Katrina Otuonye, Featured Reader (c) 2015 Katrina Otuonye

I found the views on where Mvelo should go to school incredibly fascinating. I’m sure that could lead into a much longer conversation on the expectations we set up for children, and how even when we try to help them, we may end up hindering them by our best efforts.

Reply from Futhi Ntshingila:

This is true. I see it with mothers who are domestic workers whose bosses offer to pay for better education of their children in these upper class schools. While the kid may get a good education, the trauma of shame is huge. The shame is linked to while your classmate’s mothers are doctors, yours is a maid. The boy who is interested in you lives in a palatial home while you go home in a shack at night. And this also leads to conflicts in the family where a child if not properly raised can become superior to her parents who have little or no education. I have seen it all in various levels. It is traumatic to witness.

Q: Shameless is about a lot of things—prostitution, Apartheid, self determination—but the overwhelming theme I saw was the complexity and depth of relationships between women. How did you approach the challenge of writing these friendships and sisterhoods between such different characters?

Some of it was drawn from my own young friendships and my sisters. My household was heavy on estrogen with my father being the only man in the house. It feels unprocessed and natural to me to write about women in this way. In a way I think I would have to dig really deep if I were to have dominant male characters in any fiction I would create in future.

African literature global
Shameless traveled to Harvard Hall in Boston, Massachusetts, USA.
(c) 2015 by Caroline Tanski, Featured Reader.

Q: How did your work as a journalist influence how you write and what you choose to write about?

Yes, it did in both the books. They are both stories I really couldn’t tell in the 500 word space that you get given in a newspaper. I think unconsciously as I write I ask myself it is worth telling as I used to do when I would pitch news stories in the news conference of newsrooms. I also think hard about the hook, angle and such things of journalism.

Q: One of the images that sticks with me most strongly from Shameless is Thandiwe gathering cow dung and polishing her floor with it when she’s a child.

online book club
Question by Caroline Tanski, Featured Reader (c) 2015 Caroline Tanski

This is, as Kwena later reflects, a sign of how desperately poor Thandiwe’s family was, but when it’s recounted it’s a peaceful, dream-like memory. It’s a moment that humanizes extreme poverty and places the narrative firmly in Thandiwe’s control, as she would want it. Would you talk about the balance in your writing between the horrific events of this book and these glimpses of joy and beauty?

I grew up in a semi-rural location where our floors were polished by cow dung.  In winter I loved scooping warm dung as soon as the cows finished doing their business.  I am glad it comes across as peaceful because I was recalling those days of my own youth.  I didn’t really associate cow dung with poo.  It also helps that it smells like grass.  Most black women my age who grew up in the rural or semi-rural areas know about dung collection and polishing the floors with it.  Half the time we were not wallowing in self-pity or that conscious of our poverty. It was just life as it was until later on when we realized that while we were doing these things our white counterparts were going to the coast for holidays and worried about which bikini to wear.

Q: This book is narrated by Zonke and Kwena, though it’s almost entirely about Thandiwe. The only time we actually hear Thandiwe telling her own story is through dialogue when she’s on camera for Kwena. What made you choose to portray Thandiwe primarily through other women’s voices? She’s such a self-possessed and independent character that I found it a really interesting perspective to hear her perspective through the experiences of others.

I think that if I made her tell it, she would not be aware of how of beautiful she was, how independent she was and how much she had had to deal with.  Those who observe have the advantage of being outside her head and are able to tell more effectively about her life. .

♦ ♦ ♦

Thank you to author Futhi Ntshingila, for her time in responding to these thoughtful, engaging questions, and thank you to each of you who read and gave questions for this online book club. I am really excited to read what questions you have for our next author, Nthikeng Mohlele. If you haven’t picked up a copy of Rusty Bell yet, I did see there are still some in stock at Amazon. Details on this and other upcoming books below.

Love, MarLa

Want to be a Featured Reader? It’s easy, and I will link to your site and use your photo regularly with book club posts. Click here for information.

Upcoming Books:

August: Nthikeng Mohlele
Book(s): Rusty Bell
Read-by Date: 12 August 2015  Please read and email your questions no later than 12 August to

September: Phillippa Yaa de Villiers
Book(s): Everyday Wife, and/or Taller Than Buildings
Read-by Date: 16 September 2015 Please read and email your questions no later than 16 September to

October: Mzilikazi wa Afrika
Book(s): Nothing Left to Steal
Read-by Date: 14 October 2015 PRE-ORDER ASAP by emailing . This book is currently only available as an e-book, but I can ship a paperback to you from South Africa.

November: Mandla Langa
Book(s): The Texture of Shadows (paper edition ships from SA. Order ASAP via MarLa)
11 November 2015

December: Niq Mhlongo
Book(s): Way Back Home
Read-by-Date: 16 December 2015

January through May, 2016
Thando Mgqolozana: A Man Who is Not a Man
Mamle Wolo: The Kaya-Girl (pre-order through Traveling MarLa)
Carol Campbell: Esther’s House
Ekow Duker: Dying in New York
Wame Molefhe: Go Tell the Sun
Sabata-mpho Mokae: Book launch this autumn, and he’s taking time for us online as well! Title to be announced in August.

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What Would You Say to an Author?

African literature reading

You guys are the best. I have been getting your questions and comments for our first author, Futhi Ntshingila, and I am really proud to send them to her. You guys really read and think like pros!

online book club
Featured Reader, Ian Riggins (Pennsylvania, USA), with Do Not Go Gentle. (c) 2015 Ian Riggins

If you haven’t submitted your questions, you can still get them to me by midnight tonight. I’m sending everything to her at one time, tomorrow morning, so she can take a week to give you equally thoughtful replies. And next week, when the questions and answers are posted, I’ll also announce the winner of a signed copy of her book!! Continue reading What Would You Say to an Author?

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Welcome to the New Book Club!

African literature reading

The new Book Club page on my website is now up and running. You will find it in the Menu Bar of the website. I’m excited to have so many readers joining the online book club.

Welcome, and enjoy!

"Reading, with a pint of Ben & Jerry's ice cream is the way to go." Submitted by a reader in Pennsylvania
“Reading, with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is the way to go.”
Submitted by a reader in Pennsylvania

So many people have asked me what African literature I recommend, and what books I’m reading here, that I thought an online book club would be a great way to share with you what I’m reading, and loving. Continue reading Welcome to the New Book Club!