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Children's Literature in Southern Africa

Puku Presents: Sesotho/English Author Damaria Senne

Puku features a weekly interview with of one of Southern Africa's very talented children's book authors, illustrators or storytellers in our new 'Puku Presents' series. This week, we feature talented Sesotho/English author Damaria Senne. Damaria works as a writer, producing copy for a number of business, government and NGO clients. Her children’s books include The Doll that Grew and Tselane and the Giant.

Why did you start writing?

I began writing as a young girl. This was simply an expression of the stories and characters already running around in my head. However, I was not sure that I could be a professional writer, or if my parents would even let me train to be one. In those days, parents dreamt of their children becoming doctors, teachers and lawyers, not creative professionals.

At university, writing became my reward for doing school work. If I finished studying a chapter on Organic Chemistry or successfully did a series of math problems, for example, I would then reward myself by doing some creative writing. When some of my work was published and I got paid for it, I realised that writing professionally was not such a far-fetched dream after all.

What is the most difficult part of being a writer for children in Southern Africa?

For me, the most difficult part of being a writer for children in Southern Africa is finding publishers for all my stories. There are plenty of publishers doing business in South Africa, but most of the ones I have interacted with focus on educational publishing. Yes, they do publish stories aimed at entertaining children too, but they are limited on how many they can bring out each year.

And when it comes of African language stories, their capacity is even more limited. African language children’s books don’t sell in huge numbers. This makes it difficult for traditional publishers to invest in them(publishers are in business to make money afterall). As a result there are very limited opportunities for African language books to be published.

You've probably been asked about what advice you would give to aspiring writers. What advice would you not give to an aspiring author?

I would not give aspiring writers advice on what stories to tell. That is a very individual thing. The stories that I have found resonate most with readers are the ones that come from depth of the writer’s creative well, be it the retelling of a folktale, a fantasy story or even a science fiction story.

I would also not offer aspiring writers advice on the writing process. I’ve seen some authors do it. They’d say something like, writer every day, or always carry a notebook where you can jot down ideas, or even, draft your story by hand first before you type it out. And maybe, some of those strategies work for them. But, I’ve come to realise that none of us have a definitive method of writing. Sure, some authors have succeeded more than others, and maybe their methods work efficiently for them. But that is no guarantee they will work as well for the next author.

You have self-published some of your books. How was the experience?

enter image description hereThe first children’s book that I self-published in 2012, The Doll That Grew, was not my first self-publishing venture. In 2011, I had self-published a non-fiction ebook called How To Get Quoted In The Media, which I co-wrote with Christelle Du Toit, a journalist and communications specialist.

I had also worked as a freelance publisher for traditional publishing houses and overseen the publishing process for a number of non-profit organizations I’ve worked with throughout my career. And I had the support and assistance of great editors and proof-readers and a designer. So the process didn’t just rest on me: I had these professionals who could competently assess the work and ensure that the material was ready for the public.

Once we had a product, the marketing and selling process of The Doll That Grew began and it was much tougher than I anticipated. Firstly, I became shy about the book. It was my baby and I wanted people to love it, but I felt like I hadn’t done enough to make it irresistible. I also worried that parents and children would hate it. I just wanted to hide, instead of being out there talking it up. I always feel that way, by the way, even when my work is being published by someone else. Left to my own devises, I would probably skip the launch event and hide out in some remote area until people forgot I even published a book.

The marketing and selling process is ongoing, and remains the toughest part of the self-publishing process.

Would you self-publish again?

Absolutely! It’s a great feeling to nurse your story from idea to manuscript to book product. It’s not a better feeling than when your book is published by a traditional publisher, but it is equally good in a different way.
I already have stories, mine and other people’s, lined up to be published through my company, Damaria Senne Media. My only challenge is time and money. Life issues slowed down my self-publishing plans last year, but if and when I have the time, I will jumping on that horse all over again.

What are you working on next?

Gosh! I wish I could say I was working on one particular story at any given time. Unfortunately, I’m one of those clichéd scattered writers with numerous ongoing projects at the same time. The two most important stories (to me) that I want to finish are Hunting for Ghosts and Rain Queen. The stories are not commissioned or anything. The characters are just running around my head and I know they won’t shut up until I’ve written the stories down.

Hunting for Ghosts is the story of a young boy who finds an old rusted gun buried in the garden of their new home and investigates, speculating that the gun was probably used to shoot someone. “It would be so exciting if we were to find the body of the person who was shot with this gun buried under the patio!,” he tells his mother, who is definitely not impressed by the find.

Rain Queen is the story of a princess who is just about to inherit her mother’s crown, but is told that she cannot ascend the throne until she can prove that she can make rain, a skill only a Rain Queen would have. The problem is, she’s a modern young woman doesn’t even believe anyone can make it rain.

What was your favourite book as a child?

I didn’t read children’s books as a child. I didn’t have access to them. But I loved the story of Mmatladi le Dingwe, a story that was included in Primary School learner’s book. Then there was the story of Worsie (in my Afrikaans learner’s book), which my siblings and I found extremely funny. Even today, we still make reference to the character of Worsie when we talk about someone running from problems.

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