Durban - rhinoceros and the leopard, two of South Africa’s Big Five animals, feature prominently in the books of Glenwood artist Ashling McCarthy.
A professional painter, McCarthy recently released “The Leopard in the Lala”, her second book in the Poacher’s Moon Crime Series. It follows almost two years after her debut novel, “Down at Jika Jika Tavern”. Although they are works of fiction, the conservation information is meticulously researched because that is her contribution to South Africa’s wildlife heritage and the people she dearly loves.
McCarthy’s first book deals with rhino poaching, the second with the dangers people pose to the leopard population. The central character in both books is student anthropologist Nonhle Ngubane from Zululand, the only daughter of game ranger Samson and his wife Thuli, and their life at The Last Outpost Lodge.
The subjects of her novels are not a coincidence as McCarthy, a social anthropologist who swopped her plans to pursue a PhD for writing, feels passionately about conservation and Zulu culture. She was born in Zululand after her parents relocated to South Africa from Ireland for one year, which just continued for many more. Even though she didn’t spend her entire childhood in Zululand, it was the place where she felt most at home and made some of her most cherished memories. Her mom’s ashes are also scattered there.
Although McCarthy and her twin sister were fed Irish folklore from birth, it was her childhood and time spent as an art student in Zululand that shaped her awareness and view of the world. “My dad was really good at storytelling and every night he would tell us a bedtime story.
“It was always about the Irish, and about fairies and leprechauns and mythology. And that was a very big part of our growing up, understanding the other realm, not even understanding it, just hearing about this other realm with characters we didn’t know very much about, but it was just so intriguing.”
An unfulfilling graphic design course and two stints of working in the UK made her realise she was definitely South African and wanted to pursue something more heart-centred back at home.
On her return to South Africa she signed up for a learnership as a craft developer which took her back to her beloved Zululand. She knew she wanted to “meaningfully contribute towards community development”, not as an outsider imposing what she thought should be done, but by working with people and recognising that they held the answers.
McCarthy said being quiet and an introvert turned her into a “people watcher”, which helped her to understand people and pick up valuable information about them.
“I think that has really enabled me to develop those skills of watching and listening, even to the point where, you know, I really can hear how people talk or axioms and rules that are so specific to cultures, whether it’s urban or rural, and look for those markers and little things that really make a person who they are,” said McCarthy.
The writing process is an ongoing one, and she is always mulling over a plot or imagining how a character would fit into a certain situation, even returning to stretches of road to ruminate over a scene.
Her writing is rich in detail; you can smell the “fug of smoke” caused by the imphepho that sangoma Mthunzi Mnguni burns in his rondavel in “Down at Jika Jika Tavern”, or the fear of sis’ Lungi, the girlfriend of a security guard, as she tells Nonhle Ngubani about the man her boyfriend works for who forced black women to take HIV tests before he pimps them to men, in “The Leopard in the Lala”.
McCarthy said she wanted her readers to understand why people did things like poaching or acted in a particular way.
“It’s not just about greed, even though some people make huge amounts of money, but others have no choice because of their socio-economic conditions. I would love people to just consider that people do things often because they’re influenced by factors that might be out of their control.”
Her time and life in Zululand led to a Master’s degree in social anthropology and the development of a non-profit social development organisation, I Learn to Live – Ngifundela Ukuphila, which gives schoolchildren and youth in rural Zululand education opportunities.
“The Leopard in the Lala” and “Down at Jika Jika Tavern” can be bought at Exclusive Books and from her website, www.ashlingmccarthy.co.za
The independent on Saturday