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Crime Beat

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Crime Beat: Q&A with H.J Golakai

I recently had a chat with Hawa Golakai, newcomer to the krimi scene, about her début novel, The Lazarus Effect which was launched this year. I dug for some clues on what it’s like to write crime as a scientist, her West African background and the supernatural thread of the novel.

Crime Beat: You don’t often hear of research immunologists getting into crime writing. What led you to writing your début novel ‘The Lazarus Effect’?

Hawa Golakai: There are more scientists in crime writing than people are aware of, and doing the genre a welcome service in terms of believability too. In my case, I was one of those kids who never fully got over wanting to be everything when they grew up. Cop…chef…fashion designer… Two dreams I never gave up on was being a scientist and writer. I’ve been writing from a very young age, and darkness and doings-in have always featured in my stories. I just never considered getting published, it seemed like a dream only other great writers accomplished and my writing was for pleasure. But this book was an affair of the heart and “demanded to be in print” so to speak, so I followed my instinct and took the plunge. Part of the reason I enjoy working as a scientist is because it provides excellent plot material and practical knowledge for crime fiction.

Crime Beat: Indeed! Other parts of your background seem to have an influence on your novel such as the West African community in Cape Town. It gives the novel a distinct flavour which I really enjoyed but also pointed to the difficult histories of these countries. Please tell us about these choices.

Hawa Golakai: The old adage of ‘best write what you know’ is clichéd for good reason, as it gives great advice, especially for debut authors. It was less a choice and more an obvious decision, to work into the narrative a backdrop of the foreign community living here. This isn’t something I’ve encountered regularly in local fiction, and when it is tackled the perspective is often skewed or poorly represented. South Africa is a large, multi-cultural nation, but the reining perception of foreigners and their countries can sometimes be quite closed and one-dimensional. From experience I know the opposite is usually true! One man’s ‘difficult history’ is another man’s ‘flavourful life’. The idea is to broaden the viewpoint.

Crime Beat: Let’s talk about Voinjama, your detective. She’s a fresh voice on the South African crime scene – sassy, tough and smart (like any detective worth her salt!) Her narration of the queue in the hospital was fascinating to me, and I’m sure to many readers because she gives South African readers an outside perspective of themselves. Is this just for the humour of it or are you trying to get us to look deeper at ourselves?

Hawa Golakai: Both, in equal measure! I’ve found that those who can’t laugh at themselves tend to lack introspection and objectivity, and therefore don’t have much capacity for improvement. To me that’s a tragic trait in any African, but luckily I haven’t come across it often. We all possess oddities that we don’t pick up on unless a mirror is held up to us, and doing this light-heartedly is something I enjoy. Crime isn’t as removed from humour as people think.

Crime Beat: Voinjama is a particularly interesting detective figure. She’s a sensual, warm and insightful woman but she also withstands several rough beatings by people and cars. How did you go about crafting her as a character and what/who influenced you?

Hawa Golakai: I can’t really say any one person influences my characters. For me, creating a ‘person-scape’ is very different from working a plot or coming up with a setting. It’s tough to absorb the full influence of a real person and use that to make a character; people aren’t like places and events. Personalities give birth to themselves in my head, but I do use real peculiarities and experiences to add dimension. I can say that Vee and I share a lot; in many respects she’s either my twin or polar opposite. So keeping up with her saves time!

Crime Beat: There is a thread of religion that runs through ‘The Lazarus Effect’ which is rare in crime fiction. How do these two worlds interact for you in the novel?

Hawa Golakai: The premise for the book was pretty out there to begin with, so it had to be tasteful. To the purists, crime fiction should read as strictly as a science, so I wanted to overturn that somewhat. Religion, the supernatural, and ‘alternative’ belief systems, are oddly often lumped together into one hocus-pocus category, yet for many both are very real and interactive. Vee’s life reflects both her Christian beliefs and cultural background, the type of upbringing many black women experienced. The interface between crime and faith, even if it’s just in what you think you know, brought an extra layer to the story.

Crime Beat: The cover boasts a rave review from Deon Meyer, “brimming with intelligence, wit and real heart. Enormously entertaining.” Will there be any more adventures of Voinjama?

Hawa Golakai: That was a very flattering endorsement, so definitely I want to live up to it by having more in store. Vee is my ‘loudest’ and most interesting voice, and with all her complexities she’s easily my favourite toy right now. I blueprint a few storyline ideas at a time; mixing it up saves me from inertia and scattered thinking. Then I focus on one and develop it properly. I hope to have more escapades for Miss Vee in the near future.


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