The hidden secrets of writing with Ekow Duker
Ekow Duker has published four novels since attending our flagship Creative Writing Course. Over time, we’ll be featuring all four in this blog series celebrating the books published by past participants and members of our community.
Today, though, we’ll be looking at White Wahala (Picador Africa), which was shortlisted for the European Union Literary Award in 2011/2012. The story concerns the relationship between a brutal moneylender Cash Tshabalala and a white drug user, highlighting the wounds that still bedevil interactions in South Africa two decades after the end of apartheid.
In this scene, Cash confronts a pastor who owes him money, catching him in his own reprehensible act:
There was a light on in the little cottage behind the chapel. It gave off a warm inviting glow from behind heavy linen curtains. The garden around the cottage was lush and overflowing with lilies, wild roses and closely planted trees. It was an idyllic picture book scene, quite fitting for a place of meditation and worship. The Jaguar crunched softly across the gravel driveway and slowed to a stop. S’bu One slipped out the clutch and let the car spasm briefly as the engine shuddered and died.
‘What now, boss?’
S’bu Two gave an exasperated snort. ‘What now, boss! Where to, boss! You’re always asking fucking questions.’
‘I just want to be sure,’ said his brother. ‘What’s wrong with that?’
‘Nothing. Just don’t keep asking like we’ve never done this before. Eh, boss?’
But Cash was already out of the car and walking briskly towards the cottage where a thick wooden crucifix hung above the front door.
‘Open it,’ he said curtly to S’bu One, for he had a stronger shoulder than his brother. The door splintered and fell open with a surprised squeal. There in front of them was Pastor Mazibuko scrambling to untangle himself from the coloured boy impaled on his lap. Cash strode across the room and slapped the pastor twice across the face.
‘This is what you use my money for?’ he snarled.
Pastor Mazibuko crumpled to the floor. His thin arms and legs flailed about like a bundle of firewood when the rope holding it together is cut. He lay there panting, much too distressed to even think about covering himself. He was an elderly man with dark curly hair peppered with tiny kernels of grey. His belly flowed outwards from his chest and ended in a softly rounded pouch above his crotch. He sobbed bitterly but each whimper only made Cash angrier. He swung his foot and kicked the pastor hard in the small of his back.
‘Is this what you use my money for?’ he shouted again.
S’bu One and Two stood to one side and watched calmly. They held the boy between them to stop him from running away. He was naked too except for a heavy metal watch hanging from his wrist. A cruel smile flitted across the boy’s lips as Pastor Mazibuko curled up like a millipede. Cash kicked the man again, so hard this time that both S’bus winced in unison.
‘I’ll be in the car,’ said Cash, his breath coming in heavy spurts as he turned back towards the broken door. The S’bus nodded as one and took a step towards the pastor. The boy hesitated, not sure if he was free to go.
‘Did he buy you that?’ Cash asked suddenly, pointing at the watch.
‘Who the fuck…’ the boy began to say until S’bu One’s boot caught him hard between the legs. The boy clutched himself and let out a hideous moan before falling heavily to the floor.
Cash ripped the watch off the boy’s wrist and brandished it in front of the pastor’s face.
‘Did you buy this?’
Pastor Mazibuko nodded glumly. His eyes were fixed on Cash Tshabalala’s shoes in case he kicked him again.
‘With my money?’
Pastor Mazibuko sobbed. ‘Holy Mother of God! Forgive me!’ Saliva drooled from his mouth and seeped in a sticky pool beneath his chin.
‘Save that for your sermon,’ spat Cash. ‘You’d better have my money tomorrow. All of it.’
He put the watch in his pocket. It was a Tag Heuer, a real one. Cash walked out as the blows began and a drawn out animal cry split the air. He closed his eyes for a minute. ‘I’m getting too old for this crap,’ he muttered.
This scene is shocking, and is intended to be. Ekow uses contrast to emphasise the extreme violence that takes place within it. He first takes the trouble to show us a setting of serenity, peace and refuge, with its warm, inviting glow. He focuses even on the particular flowers in the garden and the soft crunch of gravel. All seems ordered there, and as it should be.
The scene works because of the details. He takes us through every grim second of the violence so that we experience it along with the characters:
We hear the pastor’s animal cries, we see his ‘dark curly hair peppered with tiny kernels of grey. His belly flowed outwards from his chest and ended in a softly rounded pouch above his crotch.’
We notice that his gaze is focused on Cash’s shoes, in case he chooses to kick him again.
The dialogue is surprising and shows that, even in the grimmest of scenes, there is place for a touch of humour and absurdity.
- It’s counter-intuitive but, in fast scenes filled with action, slow down.
- Focus on the sensory details that will allow us to visualise the scene and be there with the characters.
- Use dialogue that does more than convey information, showing us more about the characters and their relationship.
If you’d like to write better, whether you’re a complete beginner or have some experience, but would like to up your game, our Creative Writing Course deals with all these techniques in great detail, and encourages you to try them out, with personal feedback.