A Q&A with African fairy tale author, Charles Siboto

"Telling our own African stories helps us find ourselves and remind us of who we are," says children's book author Charles Siboto

29 July 2019 - 12:16 By Carla Lever and nal'ibali
Spot on! The proud author with his debut storybook.
Spot on! The proud author with his debut storybook.
Image: Supplied

Nal’ibali Column 3 Term 3 2019

Congratulations on The Blacksmith and the Dragonfly! Can you tell our readers the one line teaser of the plot?

Thank you. In a nutshell, our African fairy tale is about a brave and fierce young warrior woman who saves a young prince from a curse.

What gave you the idea to write a children's storybook?

I was approached by our editor and my former colleague with the concept. I used to work for our publisher and she thought I could lend some of my experience to the project, which I’ve been happy to do.

You wrote the story in collaboration with Riana Louw and Christelle Lambrechts. What were the challenges and benefits of being a three-person creative team?

The immediate benefit is that you get three different skillsets on board – it becomes a true collaboration! The biggest challenge is sending the manuscript and illustrations back and forth as we polish them. I live in another country so the three of us rarely see each other in person.

I love how The Blacksmith and the Dragonfly reverses the traditional idea of a prince saving a damsel in distress: here, it's the lead character Ndiliswa who saves a prince! What have reactions been to such a fantastic feminist storyline?

Both young girls and (pleasantly surprising) boys adore Ndiliswa! She is the heroine we all need and deserve. Her bravery and resourcefulness are inspirational.

What were your story influences growing up?

I’m a fantasy and sci-fi nerd. I grew up with The Chronicles of Narnia, good ol’ Harry Potter, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Star Trek, you know, the whole thing. I'm also my grandmother's child so I grew up with fables, iintsomi that she told me and we listened to uMam' Gcina Mhlope's stories on the radio.

Why do we need more books - for adults as well as children - that tell meaningful, local African mythologies, histories and everyday stories?

I grew up with the stories I mentioned above. I love them but I always felt people like me were missing in them. Telling our own African stories helps us find ourselves and remind us of who we are. Children need to know that heroes can look and sound like them… and that they can be like those heroes!

How can we encourage more diversity in terms of representation and language in our publishing industry?

The first step is for storytellers from all walks of life to show up and create diverse stories. We also need to create more awareness of how the publishing business works. Many storytellers don't know how publishing works and that causes a lot of confusion.

You work with words for a living as a copywriter and editor. What advice would you give to someone who is interested in freelancing in those industries?

In addition to honing your craft, listen to the advice your mother gave you: get out and play with other children. To get work you have to reach out to and get to know people in the industry. Go to industry events and book launches, talk to people.

You work in Germany these days. What do you miss about South African stories, languages or experiences?

I miss everything about South Africa. I visit home quite often because I miss the vibe. I miss our flamboyant way of being, our many languages and how we flavour them.

People in Cape Town can catch you at this year's Open Book Festival from 4-8 September. What will you be speaking on?

Yes, I will be with some amazing storytellers speaking about the art of writing books for children. The programme will be released in the first week of August, so take a look at www.openbookfestival.co.za for further details.

Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination, and school success. For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign, or to access stories in a range of South African languages, visit www.nalibali.org.