One of the great things about literary festivals such as the Hay Festival here in Kells is the serendipity of it all, heading into the unknown and finding something wonderful.
It’s great when yo listen to someone and don’t want them to stop.
The name Paula Leyden was in my mind somewhere like a tree you pass in a train but there was no time to take it in.
Paula was born in Kenya, moved to South Africa and then to Zamia and back in 1973 to spend a lot of her adult life in South Africa. She says she was shocked by what she saw in SA and got involved in anti-Apartheid politics there. She also worked for a Rape Crisis Centre and for a group called Lawyers for Human Rights. and she regularly travels around bookshops, libraries and schools discussing human rights issues)
In 1993, she moved to Ireland and has been raising horses in Kilkenny, and after becoming part of a writers’ club, sent a novel to a publisher, who much to her suprise, took it up.
At the Iona Hall in Kells she spoke about her childrens’ books. Set in Zambia, they were full of magic realism and tackled dofficult subjects such as child marraige and HIV/Aids which she talks about to chlidren – whom she says find them really funny and Paula has that gift of expressing gritty reality with humour and magic without taking away from its horror.
With an audience containing young children she decided not to read a story of hers set on death row in a South African prison but her stories are full of storeis from her own esxperiences.
She knew a real snake man like Ifwafwa in The Butterfly Heart. (Zambisa is butterfly-shaped, she says.)
A neighbour in Zambia came to her house and asked her father to get kill a cobra which was under her kitchen table. He beleived that it wasn’t right to kill animals so he went and got the snake man who happened to be in prison.
The guard however let him out on cindition Paula’s father would return him directly to prison. After the snake man had the cobra saftely in a serge bad, Peter Leyden returned him to prison – but the snake man had another request. He wanted to keep the cobra as a pet. As the prison guards knew that he could handle the snake and it in turn would keep the rat population down, he was allowed to keep it!
After a while, however, the snake man stopped “milking” the cobra, ie taking its poison out because the snake was his friend – with inevitably tragic consequences.
Paula, who lived in the north for a while, also spent time working on the Truth and Reconiliaiton Committee in South Africa – lots of reconciliation but not enough truth, she said but thought that one could be useful in the north.
You can find out more about Paula Leyden at Walker Books.