THE SPARK is a weekly guest blog series by African writers talking about what inspired the big idea for their new novels.
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Hamilton Wende is a journalist, war correspondent and thriller writer who usually writes about conflicts through Africa and in Iraq and Afghanistan. His previous novels are thrillers: House of War about a search for a lost city of Alexander the Great in Afghanistan, and Only The Dead, about the battle to free the minds of child soldiers in the forests of the DRC, which makes it so interesting that he’s turned his hand to writing a magical kids’ book set in Johannesburg. Here’s where this book came from:
The Spark for Arabella, The Moon, and the Magic Mongongo Nut by Hamilton Wende
‘A few years ago we were renovating our house in Parkview. The kids found it a very unsettling experience and I started writing a story about our garden and the creatures who inhabit it to take their minds off the chaos, especially in the evenings when we had no kitchen, no dining room table and they sat around as I read it to them while we huddled among the dust and broken bricks … the story grew and grew until it became Arabella, The Moon and the Magic of the Mongongo Nut.
While it may seem strange that a war correspondent and thriller author has chosen to write a children’s story, I was inspired to write this story by Ian Fleming who wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for his kids. Arabella’s story, though, became more complex and exciting than I had expected – as all magic tends to do!
After Arabella’s father dies, she thinks she will never get over the sadness of it. But then she gets a magic mongongo nut from the Kalahari from Khanyi, the mealie lady, and Zuzi, the monkey whose parents were killed by a leopard and who now lives with Khanyi. Arabella discovers a world of magic and friendly creatures in the garden – Jongoo the songololo, Mr. Sweet-Steps, the chameleon, Li-Li the dragonfly and the good-hearted affectionate Parktown Prawn!
But there are enemies in this world too: the hadedas and their evil king Ozymandias who want to steal the mongongo nut and the magic it holds. Then Arabella has to discover whether she is strong enough for the great battle high up in the lightning-filled skies above the Hillbrow Tower.
It is a story that is unashamedly South African. The imagery and magical symbolism shift between Western and African motifs quite comfortably – just as kids growing up in our society today are able to do and also expect to do as they access different cultures.
Writing it was a fantastic, Jungian journey as I really had to set the boat out every morning and trust where my subconscious would lead me. Images and plot ideas would occur to me as I was writing and then I would have to work out quite carefully as to whether they worked narratively within the rules of the special world that I was creating. The magic of the mongongo nut only works under certain conditions and so you can’t have, say, a magician coming along and waving a magic wand and all is solved. If the rules of the magic world are broken then Arabella and her allies fail, so Arabella has to choose wisely and remain loyal to her friends.
I also found that writing it and following the inner logic of the Jungian journey was an unexpectedly valuable process for me. In my career as a journalist and war correspondent I have encountered a tremendous amount of violence and I found, and still find, it very important to keep the spiritual and imaginative side of my life alive and flourishing as a balance to the often hard and brutal things that I have witnessed.
When I do readings at schools, the kids really come alive and respond to this African story. Recently, at a fete where I was selling copies of the book, two kids came running up to me and gave me a big hug. One of them said to me ‘Hamilton because you came to our school and read Arabella to us, I’ve started reading books again!’ There can be no greater reward than hearing that.
Follow @HamiltonWende on Twitter.