In her debut novel, bio-piracy and romance are an exotic mix from mixed media writer, Jacqui L’Ange who reveals her deep green streak…
Words: Nancy Richards
Pictures: Odette Howell and supplied
“It’s dystopian, an eco-thriller… a lot of animals.” Top of Jacqui L’Ange’s mind when we speak is the book she’s working on now, her second title. But her debut, The Seed Thief, is the one that finally gave her the title she always wanted – novelist. ‘Africa meets Brazil’ is her snapshot description, or more expansively, “Young botanist in search of an endangered plant gets caught up in a parallel world of Afro-Brazilian spiritualism, and finds out some home truths, where she really stands, and what she is prepared to sell out in order to survive.”
But it was also “a way of connecting with one of the places I grew up in,” says Jacqui, a journalist, editor, copy-, screen- and ghost writer. She had a multi-national childhood in South Africa, USA, Germany, Brazil and back to South Africa, so her world view is wide. As are her interests – psychology, mythology, ecology all of which meld together in the book like a rewind on the pieces of Gondwanaland.
The origins of The Seed Thief began in 2004. “I was in Mozambique making a movie with Grey Hofmeyer, my first. On the set was a Brazilian actor who taught me about Candomblé, an African spiritualism, and I just knew then I had to explore it.” A year later she went to Brazil for a high school reunion. “I also took the opportunity to go to Salvador (the spiritual cradle of the country) in the coastal state of Bahia.” All this became fuel for her masters in creative writing at the University of Cape Town.
When she was ready to write her book Jacqui at first thought the link between the two continents of Africa and South America would be the sea and slavery. “But as I was doing research in the library, I came across a book in the anthropology section called The Sacred Leaves of Candomblé about the use of medicinal plants. That was when my protagonist Maddy (Magdelena) became a botanist – and the seed, well it was just such a great metaphor for life in transit.”
The seed quickly started to germinate. “I’m not sure how I found out that Kirstenbosch was part of Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, but I volunteered there once a week, sorting seeds and studying them under a microscope.” Research also took her to the UK, to the vaults of Kew Gardens itself, by which time the story had well and truly taken root.
As she takes her reader through a sacred ceremony and lush gardens of ‘towering Bahian myrtles and fat-fruited jaca trees…tendrils of bottle gourd snaked among castor beans and tall sprays of artemisia – the old-world witches favourite’ you are seduced by her not inconsiderable ecological knowledge bank. “I’ve been working on environmental stories for a long time; I went to the first UN Conference in Rio back in 1992.” But she admits it’s the characters that grew the story. “I interview them in my head, put them in an interrogation room and let them answer questions – it really feels like someone else is talking back to me.”
So there’s Maddy on a quest to find a seed in Brazil, and then there’s Ze – the ceremonial, charismatic, alluring plant guru who helps her. Has Jacqui known such a man? Her response is enigmatic: “He might be based on someone, but it’s all Maddy’s fantasy really – women really like him.” Moving swiftly on, she says, “In a nutshell, The Seed Thief is about bio-piracy and romance but ultimately it’s a quest to find home.”
Years ago as an undergrad, Jacqui majored in psychology to understand how people work – through writing this book, she may just have come a little closer.
The Seed Thief (R220) is published by Umuzi, a division of Random Struik