The Spark: Balthasar’s Gift

balthasar cover_lowres

Inspired by John Scalzi’s awesome The Big Idea,  The Spark is a guest space on my blog, where African novelists can promote their new novels by writing a short personal essay about the inspiration (or the spark) for the story.

It’s a side project  I run in my spare time because there’s incredible writing talent on the continent (and the diaspora) and I want to shine a blazing light on it.

Authors have previously written about how their novels were inspired by wondering what if the crazy tabloid headlines were true or by a popular Soweto ghost story, or because you were clawing your way out of depression,  or trying to live down the embarrassment of being a black student mugged by a white guy, or because Rihanna saved your life or you wrote this story because you wanted to look fancy reading alone in bars.

Maggie Cloete is a crime reporter on a daily paper in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. When an AIDS activist is murdered in broad daylight outside his place of work and the cops are quick to dismiss it as a robbery gone wrong, her instincts are on red alert. If she had taken the activist’s call seriously two weeks before when he had asked her to cover the case of a quack selling fraudulent AIDS cures, would he still be alive? Against the express wishes of her editor, Maggie investigates and soon finds herself the target of local gangsters – as are a houseful of AIDS orphans whom the activist was sheltering. Maggie uncovers the secrets of Balthasar’s life and death, and finds herself facing down his killer.

After fourteen drafts and six years of blood (not really), sweat (genuine) and tears (yes), Balthasar’s Gift found a home with Ariadne in Hamburg and later Modjaji Books in Cape Town. I am currently working on book two of the Maggie series, called Karkloof Blue.

The Spark for Balthasar’s Gift by Charlotte Otter


From Mucus to Blood, Sweat and Tears

The spark for Balthasar’s Gift was lit when I flew home to South Africa from London in July 2000 with a plane full of AIDS activists heading for the international AIDS conference in Durban. They – and millions in South Africa – were full of hope that Thabo Mbeki would stand up at the conference and say that HIV caused AIDS. And then start to roll out antiretrovirals to those with the virus. Of course, he didn’t.

I had a six-month-old baby in my arms, and the guy next to me held her so that I could go to the bathroom. Instead of complaining or freezing me out when she cried, as babies are known to do on planes, he smiled, laughed and jiggled her. On the flight, I caught pink eye from my daughter and by the time I touched down in SA, my eyes were a running red mess of pus and mucus. Still he smiled and jiggled my baby.

That guy showed me compassion. He could have turned his  back on me, been disgusted by my gross eyes or enraged by my baby’s wails, but he was not. He treated us both like human beings.

Something that unites us all – all cultures, all nations – is intolerance of the other. And nothing was more othering in South Africa in the late twentieth century than HIV/AIDS; so much so that our newly elected democratic government refused to acknowledge that HIV led to AIDS and so refused to provide the much-needed anti-retrovirals that would give people with HIV at least a chance at a normal life. Hundreds of thousands of economically active people contracted HIV and then died of AIDS-related illnesses, leaving behind nearly two million AIDS orphans. Many of these children were themselves othered – turned out of their communities, robbed and driven onto the streets.

It seemed necessary to me to construct a story around a nation that had so recently driven racial intolerance out of its statutes, but which was diving headlong, arms wide out in a vast embrace, into a new kind of intolerance – against people with HIV and the activists who tried to help them.

I started writing Balthasar’s Gift many years after that plane flight. To ensure it was readable, I created a badass, motorcycle-riding, hard-drinking female journalist with impulse control issues as the protagonist. I worked very hard to disguise my tub-thumping urges in a stonking good story.


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Balthasar’s Gift on Amazon