London Book Fair interview wit

London Book Fair interview with South African publisher Patricia Schonstein

Patricia Schonstein is a novelist, poet, author of children’s books, publisher, creator of anthologies and all round power house. Yet Schonstein remains humble, grounded and just remarkable on every level. The South African was able to catch up with her at her stand at the London Book Fair 2015.

London Book Fair interview wit

At the 2015 London Book Fair held at the Kensington Olympia, numerous publishers, distributors and authors exhibited their fine works. One small stand held a South African treasure that certainly needs reporting.

Patricia Schonstein was the hidden gem of the London Book Fair. Schonstein is the publisher at African Sun Press, a tremendously accomplished author of children’s literature and adult novels, as well as the creator of arguably the most important anthologies of poetry to ever come out of South Africa.

Born and raised in Zimbabwe, Schonstein now lives in Cape Town. When living in Grahamstown in the 1980s, Schonstein, observing the constant raids on homes in the black townships and realising how harmful this was for children, set up a non-racial preschool in Grahamstown. Its teaching principles were based on peace and non-violence and it ran from 1984 until 1994, when apartheid ended. While running the preschool, Schonstein became aware of the lack of black characters in children’s books. She resolved to write her own stories, poems and songs for children. This gave rise to her first published work, a children’s book ‘Sing, Africa!’ This is soon to be updated and reprinted.

Schonstein struggled to get her work published during the apartheid era, so decided to take the bull by the horns and publish her work herself. This gave birth to African Sun Publishing which continues to print important and highly enjoyable works not only of Schonstein but also Don Pinnock. African Sun Press is a partner in the highly popular McGregor Poetry Festival being held for the third time in August 2015 in McGregor, Western Cape. It is South Africa’s only national poetry festival.

Schonstein humbly does not speak of her accomplishments. Rather speaking profoundly more of her love for others work than her own achievements, which speaks to her humility and love for her craft. Schonstein gained a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Cape Town, supervised by J. M. Coetzee. Schonstein’s debut novel ‘Skyline’, which was never discussed during the interview, was an incredibly important award-winning work. Schonstein is the winner of the Prix du Marais 2005, the Percy FitzPatrick Award 2002, received second place in Sunday Times Fiction Award 2001, long-listed in the prestigious IMPAC, Dublin International Award 2002, and listed as South African Twenty Five Must-Reads 2007. These accomplishments are incredibly important for a first novel.

Thankfully it was not Schonstein’s last novel.

PHOTO 2 PatriciaSchonstein by Gaelen Pinnock

While the novels brought Schonstein certain acclaim, they are not her passion. Poetry is without question closest to her heart. Schonstein’s first published anthology of poetry, Africa My Africa was her personal collection of poetry that had in one way or another affected her. Having been surrounded by poetry all of her life, and having kept hundreds of poems that had moved her and uplifted her over many years, it was these poems that gave way to the first anthology of poems titled ‘Africa My Africa’. Big names like J M Coetzee and F.W de Klerk are contributors to this first anthology. F.W. de Klerk is included with a short poem.

A found poem is where a person utters something and it is interpreted as a poem, but it was never intended as a poem. The few lines F. W. de Klerk spoke in opening address to the South African Parliament in February 1990, unreservedly releasing Nelson Mandela from prison, was a “found poem” according to Schonstein. Schonstein passionately explained how these words were poetry to thousands of people who had struggled during those dark days of the apartheid regime.

Having had success and with such hard hitting names contribute to ‘Africa My Africa’, Schonstein started received even more poetry than before. These submissions gave rise to an incredibly important poetry anthology, called Africa Ablaze. These poems focusing on the wars and civil conflicts in Africa. Schonstein is not completely certain, but is almost sure Africa Ablaze is the only ever produced anthology of African war poetry, making Africa Ablaze a powerful work of art and history, as well as being an incredibly moving book. The poems in this anthology leave a reader little doubt of the pain, horror and anguish the writers endured but still they managed to survive. Poetry creates beauty in every sense, even in these awful conflicts.

Next a change of pace was needed after such a heart wrenchingly emotion anthology as Africa Ablaze, Schonstein created a third anthology about love called ‘Heart of Africa’, which covers not just the sweet parts of love but incorporates tales of betrayal, hurt, dismay, while bubbling through is the need to be loved, held and to hold.

Speaking to Schonstein for just a few minutes, anyone will see just how infectious her words are for both South Africa and the written word. This also includes her charity work that has touched so many lives. Even with the efforts of creating books, the process does not tire Schonstein. Her desires to reach even more parts of Africa are determined and clear. The passion and love that is passed into Schonstein’s work is impossible to ignore, and even through words that are not hers, the structure shows the essence of Schonstein’s heart and reminds you of how amazing certain human spirits are. And they start with Schonstein herself.

If you would like to submit your work, have a look on Schonstein’s website The main criteria for submission are: the poem must be in English and “touched by Africa” (either with its author being African or the poem being about an African experience).