KURT GEORGE ELLIS was born in 1983, Durban and lived in the communities of Newlands East, Greenwood Park, Redhill, and Sydenham. Surrounded by drugs, alcohol and gangs from a young age, he found joy in the world of fiction. After he matriculated, he moved to Johannesburg to study film making and then English Literature. In his first year, he won the Harry Oppenheimer Creative Writing Award at the University of Witwatersrand. His debut novel, By Any Means, was longlisted for the 2015 Etisalat Prize for Literature. He still lives in Johannesburg with his wife and daughter.
Here, Kurt Ellis talks about his first novel, the Etisalat Prize for Literature longlist, the crime genre in modern African literature, the backstory of his novel, and the disadvantaged community. The following is the full interview —Tope Salaudeen-Adégòkè for Saraba Magazine
SARABA: By AnyMeans is different from other books on the 2015 Etisalat Prize Longlist. It is crime fiction, a thriller. What particularly primed the story? Why did you write in the Genre?
KURT ELLIS: I am very proud of the critical success By Any Means has received. Personally, I have never placed the story on the Crime/Thriller shelf myself. For me, it is a tragedy. The idea for this story came to me at a time when my cousin Luke died, and my passion for Shakespeare was being born. I began writing it in 1998 as a way for me to cope with the loss of someone who was very close to me. And as time went by, I realized that By Any Means had the potential to be more than a story about an individual’s loss and heartache, but also a window into a South African subculture that does not get looked through that often—the South African Coloured Experience. In particular, the Coloured Experience in Durban. An experience that is filled with violence, crime and drugs. 90% of the criminal/violent acts mentioned in the story were from experiences I know to be true. I had either witnessed them or had been told about them from someone who had. So when some people say it is ‘crime-fiction’, I say, ‘no it’s not. It’s crime reality’ for far too many people.
As to if I consider it a breakthrough novel for the genre, it is really not up to me to say. For me, it is simply sixteen years of hard-work coming to fruition.
SARABA: The genre has garnered less attention in African literature; would this change in the near future?
KE: Yes and no. Of course, like most writers, I do have dreams of influencing the world through my words. I am currently working on a project to promote reading in young South Africans by creating a series of children’s detective stories for example. I am self-publishing this project because I want to bring in young writers to co-write the stories with me so they can gain some experience. And to offer a little mentorship which I didn’t get when I was trying to publish By Any Means. I want to bring in young artists to design my characters and book jackets, to, again, give them the experience they need. I want to run writing competitions for the youth, because unfortunately not enough importance is given in South Africa, and perhaps the rest of Africa on the Creative Arts. So, yes, I believe positivity is needed in order to get a better tomorrow.
But what today needs is honesty. We cannot fix a problem until we diagnose what the problem is. And the problem in South Africa is that only 56% of pupils in Grade 1, 2 and 3 achieved more than 50% in Foundation Phase Home Language exams. In Maths, only 36% achieved a passing grade. The World
Economic Forums’ Competitiveness Index (2012-2013) ranked SA’s education system 140 out of 144 countries. And based on the South African Book Development Counsel study, only 1% of South Africans report to buying books, while only 14% report to reading books. This is a problem, and that is why I am working on the project called The Lumeria Detective Agency. But my other writing is intended to speak to the here and now. To tell stories of what is happening in the present. It might not be easy to swallow, but it will be honest.
SARABA: By Any Means is a coming of age story. It talks about gang violence among youths in South Africa, how dreams could be scuffled and snuffed out. What impact have this had on the nation and the multiplicity purpose of living?
KE: As per the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we as humans have a great need to belong. And we know that as teenagers, the need to be “in the group” and not an outsider is at its strongest. Unfortunately, when you grow up in townships where being a gangster is the highest status level, you get many youths making the decision to go down that route. A route lined with violence and drugs. These areas are crippled with poverty, and no one likes being poor. So when young people see that those with money are the gangsters, they decide to go down that path. As I said in the book, the youth don’t ask the question, “why don’t I see many old gangsters?” That is because most are dead or in prison. What is needed is positive role models for the youth in the township, and people who care, to actually act.
SARABA: Poverty and illiteracy are the twin basis of violence as you have noted. The novel also portrays that. Would you say these have undermined the development, progress and chance of a better life for youths in South Africa?
KE: Crime is a problem in South Africa. And crime can be linked to poverty and poverty in turn, can be linked to lack of opportunity and options. For many Black, Coloured and Indian youths in South Africa living in townships, there is a belief that there are little options for them as adults. In fact, most believe there are only two. The first is to get a job, find a spouse, stay in the same road they grew up in and send their children to same school you went to. In short, remain within the circuit that powers the gangs. The second is to enter the criminal lifestyle. They see that the only people in the township with the flashy cars and with the money are the criminals and the gangsters. And who doesn’t want a flashy car and cash? The youth need options. They need to be made to dream of bigger and better things. In By Any Means, Captain says something like, “No-one grows up wanting to be a gangster. We want to be lawyers, astronauts and doctors, but your dreams die fast in the sections.” This is so true. I think back to the people I went to school with. Many of whom said they want to be doctors and so on when they grew up. Most are not. And in my opinion, the cause of this is that there is still Apartheid in South Africa, except it is no longer based on skin colour, but on wallet size. The government does not care enough about the poor. They (along with the police) deny that there is even a problem. I watched a documentary earlier this year on a township called Wentworth, in Durban. It is a Township I know well, having grown up in Durban, and many times, having been chased by gangsters in the Wenties’ as we call it. The documentary was on gang violence, and they interviewed the police commander in charge of Wentworth who said there was no problem with gang violence in Wentworth. That the people who were shot on New Year’s Day were hit by strays bullets from celebrations. It was the biggest load of nonsense I had ever heard. And this is what I meant when I said we need to identify the problems today and not deny they exist. The youth need options, and the options come through education.
SARABA: There is tragedy in the conclusion of the novel. Does that reflect the everyday tragedy in Durban?
KE: This was a tough decision to make, as to how to end the story. Who doesn’t like a happy ending? The weirdest and funniest experience I had writing this story was the ending itself when I was begging the “writer” not to do what he was about to do, knowing full well, that I was the “writer” and I had the ability to prevent it. A happy ending would have been great, but it would have been a lie. Tragedy is a part of everyday life in Coloured and Black townships in South Africa. “And they all lived happily ever after” is a line that many in these areas do not know. And my hope with this book is that anyone who lives/lived in Soweto, Sydenham, Mitchells Plain in South Africa, or any township in Africa or the World who picks up this book and reads it, can identify with the events. And to know that they are not alone.
SARABA : Do you have a perspective on how disadvantaged communities could be possibly reconditioned and renovated for a better living?
KE: There is a lot that can and should be done in terms of education and opportunities for the youth. They need mentorship. They need to be shown that they do have options. And not only book smarts, but also life skills. Like a career counsellor. Someone to sit with these kids, and help them identify their goals for the future. The youth growing up in the poorer communities don’t know what to do after they complete school, if they complete school. I will give you an example, I recently ran into a friend of mine from high school. He is employed full time, yet he does not have a tertiary educational. And this is someone who was a straight A student. Far more intelligent than I. So I asked him, why didn’t he go to university or college, and he said his family had no money for it. He was not aware of the possibility of applying for funding or a bursary, or even that such possibilities existed. And this is an easy matter to fix. Career counsellors are needed. People need to sit with these kids and find out what their dreams are. Then they need to plot the steps on the plan on how to achieve these goals. There is a saying, “If you don’t know where you are going, you will end up someplace else.” And this is what happening.
SARABA: The novel took 16 years to hit bookshelves; could you briefly talk about your experience during this period, why it took you so long to see it in print?
KE: It was certainly not for a lack of trying. I finished the novel in 1998. After I won the Harry Oppenheimer Award in 2001, I decided to send it through to publishers. I did not even get a response. I then re-wrote the novel and sent it off again. And once more, I received no response at all. I re-wrote and resent the novel. This time, I think I got one rejection letter. And this is exactly how it was for 16 years. Rejection, re-write, rejection, re-write. Nobody likes rejection, but I could not get rid of this dream I had of walking into a bookstore and seeing my name on a shelf. And now that it has happened, it is a dream come true. And to be honest, all those rejections were a blessing, because it allowed me to mature as a writer and to improve the quality of the story and my writing.
SARABA: Bringing football into the plot makes the novel somewhat distinct though it is a national sport in South Africa. You are a football aficionado, a Liverpool fan. Kyle, a character in your novel, is scouted by a football club in England. Isn’t that whimsical of you?
KE: I am a massive football fan. My weekends are planned around what time Liverpool are playing. But here is something quite interesting about the story: the novel is dedicated to my cousin Luke Cafun who died when he was 15/16 years old. And Luke was a top class goalkeeper (and a damn Man United fan). He was internationally capped at youth level for South Africa and even had his own agent. And one of the saddest memories I have of his passing was that as he lay there on his deathbed, his mother received a call from his agent saying Liverpool FC wanted to offer him a trial. So although it may seem like a bit of a stretch on my part to add it (which I did consider) that event is one hundred percent true.
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