Romance bodice-ripper novels get SA flavour

Hate and passion flares in rural South Africa when Thuli meets the gorgeous Jake in a locally flavoured romance novel with a feisty black heroine and a hunky Zulu man in shining armour.

The story follows a well-oiled path to love in a recipe perfected by Harlequin Mills & Boon and Barbara Cartland that has been adopted by two South African publishers who saw a gap for young black female readers.

“The response has been phenomenal. It’s a market that people believed didn’t read and wouldn’t buy books,” said Moky Makura of Nollybooks which publishes in a “bookazine” format with puzzles and talking points.

“We’re trying to say, you know books can be fun. They’re easy, they’re light, they can reflect your lifestyle. It’s entertainment.”

The short, 30 000-word books are sold for around R50 and offer a gentler reality to South Africa’s high crime, HIV and inequality 17 years after the fall of white-minority rule.

“These are typical romance novels,” said Sapphire Press author Mokopi Shale, addicted to romance novels since 13 after stealing her sister’s book and reading it under the covers.

“Boy meets girl, they like each other, they consummate their relationship, then they think it’s not going to work or something bad happens and they break up. Then they go through this whole angsty period and they get back together in the end and they get married.”

Different story of Africa
The books are from Africa and some plots have the lovebirds practising safe sex, meeting traditional chiefs, and discovering cross-border smuggling gangs.

All end happily. A romance novel absolute, which has led Mills & Boon to sell one bodice ripper every three seconds in Britain, but one that authors say also gives a different view of Africa.

“Every time there’s a story about Africa, it’s always a sad one and it’s one that ends badly or one that ends with a question mark,” said Shale.

“The life of an African is a serious one. Sometimes you just need a break from the seriousness to just get a little bit of joy back into your heart so that you can carry on with life.”

No swoon-prone weaklings, the heroines are financially independent women who may support their families and occasionally teach their love interest about modern womanhood.

While South Africa battles getting more people to read for pleasure, fans see themselves reflected in the books which depict the country’s growing black middle class.

“These are typical young South African women you meet every day. You know, they have got ambitions, they have a life, they have hobbies, they love shopping, they have friends,” said fan Matebello Motloung.

“You can see yourself in the pages, so you are like, oh you know, this is like my girl — actually this is me.”

‘Finally lightening up’
Publisher of some of South Africa’s leading black writers, Kwela Books created the year-old Sapphire Press which pays around R12 000 per manuscript for books featuring strapping men and beautiful women on its covers.

“We’ve just had the most extraordinary feedback from people. Young women who email us and say that they haven’t finished reading a book since they were in their final year at school,” said publisher Nelleke de Jager.

“And that they could never understand how people would say ‘but I couldn’t sleep the whole night, I just kept reading’ and then the same thing happened to them.”

Award-winning Botswana writer Lauri Kubuitsile sees an important shift.

“I’ve been writing for some years, but only since these Sapphire titles have been published do people in the village where I live come up to me and talk about my books,” she told Agence France-Presse.

“For so long African literature was so serious. Everything needed to be political, make a statement. I think it’s fantastic that everyone is finally lightening up, we’re having fun.

“In South Africa and in Botswana everyone sings the song — black people don’t read books. Why? Maybe because books were not being made that they wanted to buy, books about our lives as Africans were not being written.” — Sapa-AFP

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