California Literary Review

Bush Tea with Alexander McCall Smith

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March 31st, 2007 at 8:19 pm

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Alexander McCall Smith

It was the memory of a woman chasing a chicken around her yard, amidst feathers and dust, that shot author Alexander McCall Smith into the spotlight. Never mind that he had, prior to the chicken story, written over fifty books, some of them specialist titles like Forensic Aspects of Sleep and The Criminal Law of Botswana. But it was the enormously engaging Mma Precious Ramotswe, founder of the first ladies’ detective agency in Botswana who won readers over. Protagonist in The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency Mma Ramotswe sets up shop in a small storefront in Gaborone and soon becomes a recognized figure, someone people with problems seek out. It was in 1998 that Smith achieved instant fame with what started out as a short story, grew into a set of stories and now the promise of an eight-volume series. A professor of medical law at Edinburgh, born in what we now know as Zimbabwe, who taught law at the University of Botswana, the author found his literary niche in telling the stories of Botswana, its remarkable people and its great traditions of courtesy, dignity and survival. Five books in the series are out — The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Tears of the Giraffe, Morality for Beautiful Girls, The Kalahari Typing School for Men, and The Full Cupboard of Life. McCall Smith has also earned 2 Booker Judges’ Special Recommendations and won the vote for one of the International Books of the Year and the Millennium by the Times Literary Supplement. Smith uses deceptively simple language and a sparse story-telling style in his detective series. While Mma Ramotswe solves cases — whether it is tracking down a missing husband, uncovering a con man or following a wayward daughter — the stories cannot be limited to the traditional genre of ‘mystery.’ They are more about the relationships between people and the indomitable spirit that drives the day-to-day lives of Africans.

You don’t resort to sex sirens or bludgeoned millionaires to hook your readers. And you still keep them turning the pages with everyday, commonplace events! How?
I believe that people are very interested in reading about the ordinary things of life. One can make a very simple situation seem interesting — often it is very simple matters that arouse most passions in people.
Your books reflect a delicate balance of life and humor. What are the cultural aspects of Africa and its people that contribute to this?
I think that people in sub-Saharan African cultures often have a very good sense of humor. They have a strong sense of human values and they are frequently very empathetic. As a result one finds a balance of humor and good nature in such societies.
There is a sense of languid pace in your writing that probably appeals to readers who lead frenetic lives. Do you consciously set out to achieve this pace?
It is rather difficult for me to answer this. I suppose I like my writing to have an unhurried pace but I do not set out to achieve this in a deliberate way. I suppose this is just the way it emerges when I write.
For someone who is not a Botswana native, you write so convincingly of its characteristics and people.
I had the great fortune to spend my childhood in Zimbabwe, which is next door to Botswana, so I suppose that gave me some understanding of the society. I have also spent time in Botswana and return there every year. It is a country very close to my heart.
What is your writing schedule like?
When I am busy with the day-to-day tasks of being an author — book signings, talks etc. — I have to snatch short spells of time in which to write. Sometimes this can be on planes or in hotel rooms as I travel on promotional tours. When, however, I have the opportunity to spend large chunks of my time on my writing I will write for more than four hours a day, more or less without stopping.
In what ways is the process of writing similar to the process of dreaming?
I think this is a very interesting question. I believe that writing comes in part from the subconscious mind which explores situations and possibilities in much the same way as the dreaming mind does.
How has the huge success of the Mma Ramotswe books changed your lifestyle and you as a person?
I very much hope that the success of the books has not changed me personally. I think one has to watch that, though. I try to lead the same sort of life that I used to, but that is not entirely possible. I have lost control of my own time, to an extent, and I suppose I have also lost a degree of privacy. However, my main ambition is to lead an ordinary existence.
What is your first love — teaching or writing?
I enjoy both of these — it would be difficult to choose between them. I suppose that at heart I am a writer, first and foremost. As to how this is so, I am not sure, but I would imagine that it is something to do with a deep inner sense that this is what I have to do.
How involved are you in the movie projects of your books?
I speak to the people who are involved in this. I have confidence in their ability to deal with the story in a way which reflects its cultural context. Obviously the translation of a book to the screen can involve some changes, but I hope these are not too extensive. However, in reality, I have very little control over the final outcome.
What exactly is bush tea?
t is rooibos tea or redbush tea, a type of tea grown only in South Africa but available in US health food stores. It can be drunk with honey and in this form is sometimes known as honeybush tea.
  • Margaret Christian

    I have discovered your wondeful books in the last few years and as a previous Zimbabwean (now living in Australia) and occasional visitor to Botswana, you have brought back so many memories of ‘the good times’. You encapsulate the nature and temperment of the African people so well, and I have in turn recommended your stories to many friends. You certainly don’t have to be an ‘African’ to enjoy your stories.

    Thank you

  • colleen pederson

    I just want to say thank you! Your many lovely books touch my heart, and stimulate my moral thinking [kindness, not legalistic] as well as my appetite! Your books have become like good friends, and I feel a sense of loneliness when I say good bye to one.

    Thank you for writing – for following your gift and sharing so generously with us.

    Warmest Regards,
    Colleen Pederson

  • Emma Moore

    I have become completely addicted to your wonderful books and dread reaching the final pages….as someone with no experience of Africa, your writing opens up that world to me, and in it’s simplicity it so describes a world where people still have moral standards, are not rushing through their lives frenetically and above all, are full of heart…

  • Indulekha

    I’ve noticed that there has been an increase in the sales of redbush tea, even in supermarkets. Im convinced that this is at least partly down to your Mma Ramotswe!

    thankyou for your lovely books, I hope the no.1 ladies detective agency has no end of problems to solve so that I can read about them endlessly!

    x

  • Sanda Bartman

    Hello:

    I just wanted to say that the The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency captured my undivided attention and eager to read more of your writing I found The Sunday Philosoply Club available and became caught up in the lives of these characters. I enjoyed this book so much I quickly read all of the books in that series. Now I am reading the series of 44 Scotland Expresso Tales. As I read your books I find I am increasingly interested in ethics, especially ommissions which Big Lou brings up in Expresso Tales, Scottish culture and putting on my grocery list Mma Ramotswe tea for the purpose of drinking while reading your books. I am also eager to know your thoughts on multiculturalism. Thanks, Sandra Bartman

  • Hayley Hogan

    I was born and raised in South Africa and emigrated to the USA ten years ago. The Mma Ramotswe series has helped medicate some of my homesickness. I get so absorbed in these books that my husband complains that he has become a widower. Those who have lived in Africa will understand how it gets into your blood!!!!

  • http://www.thegirlcanwrite.net Lorette C. Luzajic

    What a thoughtfully written piece with such interesting questions! Wonderful! One of my most treasured belongings is the autographed first installation. Smith was visiting the bookstore I worked in. My boss knew I was crazy for the series, and he gave me a copy to be signed by the author.

    Each and every book in the series is a treasure. Absolutely original. If there’s anyone out there who hasn’t treated themselves to these, I urge you to take a quiet few hours to begin the series. You’ll read every one, and feel more peace of mind and contentment in life.

  • http://kimberlys.blogg.se Kimberly Enqvist

    I really love your books the ones about Mma Ramotswe and the ones about the Irish woman, I have every one of them and i encourage my friends to read them as well. I hope you’ll write more fantastic books, ’cause i’ll read them with my breath hold.

  • http://www.pitara.net.in arpita kalra

    Have devoured with real pleasure and countless cups of ordinary tea almost all of your books…eagerly wait for the march 2009 release….have converted my mother whos never read fiction …to an avid reader…!cant thank you enough for them.

  • Barbara Pellicciari

    I too have become an avid reader since 2005 and have turned many friends into your fans, in the UK (home), Italy and the USA. Just returned from Los Angeles last night and was gutted to see on your US website that you were actually at the UC Berkley, giving an evening talk! Have now printed off the dates of your UK appearances and hope to catch you at one of them! It’s so refreshing to read such entertaining books, with no bad language or sexual overdosing, so prevalent in modern story-telling these days! Even though I have visited South Africa only briefly, I now feel as though I have been there many times and really appreciate the ‘other side’ of Africa and its peoples that you paint, which is so different form what we are fed by the media on a daily basis!

  • Ulus Balloon

    I was not aware of your book series of the “Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency” but became aware by the televised HBO series. Such a refreshing image to come from the mother land. I feel a deep association with the people and the country that makes me happy to be an African American. I hope to visit one day soon.

  • paula mcmanus

    I Love your new show. I have been looking everywhere for the tea set used on the show, that they serve bush tea in. do you know where I can get one?

  • Linda Price

    In 1989 served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Botswana. Your books take me back to a time in my life I love to revisit. Thank you.

  • Ellen Rouse

    Oh, how I have fallen in love with Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi! I am nearing the end of The Full Cupboard of Life and wonder what I will do without this lovely piece of Africa in Botswana and this community of people. The peaceful simplicity is a welcome respite for me everyday. Thank you so much for sharing these characters with the world.

  • Cheryl Roebuck

    When I saw that Jill Scott had been cast for the part, instantly I knew that I would like the show. However after seeing the pilot, I absolutely feel in love with the show and the scenes. Shortly after the first show, I was walking through the airport at which time I purchased the first book in the series. I finished the book the next day and bought the next 3 while on my trip. I have since purchased the remainder of the series and I have really taken to bush tea. Keep the stories coming, at least until I can travel to Botswana

  • Sue Wright

    I first saw The No, 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency on the HBO series. I immediately started searching for the first book in the series. I have now completed all the books in this series and am eagerly awaiting another. I love these books! They have caused me to research Botswana (which I knew very little about) and red bush tea (which I am in the process of ordering). I love the stories and the fact that they are steeped in a quieter and lovelier pace of life. And they prove that it does not require sex to sell a book. Keep up the good and let us have many more of this series.

  • http://bjsivers@msn.com brian sivers

    So much to recall so many happy tears to shed, and the smell of the african life the noise a place I called my home a place I shall never forget. Yours books pull my mind back to a time in my youth, finding myself on a tobbaco farm in Hartley, that I am shore you have heard of. The tobacco barns the late evening on the stupe with a drink, all around the hum and sound of the wild life, the gentle breeze, oh my eyes are starting to blure such joy how blessed could one be. Thank you thank for the words you are able to write. Bless you. CALEN DORA

  • Mary

    Starbucks has the Rooibos tea. It’s really good!

  • Marjorie Jackson

    Dear Mr. Smith,
    I have read all of your Isabel Dalhousie books and absolutely love them. I find her internal philosophical discussions extremely interesting and relevant. And, I very much enjoy the ladies detective stories, particularly because I lived in Cape Town for a year and half back in 1972-3, and enjoy thinking of people I met there, the southern Africa landscape, the pace of life, that I am reminded of when reading your books about Botswana. I have now discovered your short stories in Heavenly Date and am delighted with this other aspect of your writing! I am curious if the story Bulowayo is in any way reminiscent of your own knowledge of people and place from your childhood?

  • Roi B. Davis

    Two days ago, I picked up (library) the DVD (3 parts) and I could not turn it off; tonight is my last tape and I must seek to see if there are more. I hope there are more series in the States I can view.

    I have never seen an African base TV show and I found every aspect of the movie equal to the ones in USA.

  • Mary P

    I have enjoyed The NO.1 Ladies detective agency. I am intrigued by Precious’ wisdom. She is a fine classy lady. She reminds me of my mother. I am always eager to find out how she will handle situations. She is so patient with Mme.Makusti and I feel she has helped her in so many ways.
    I have just completed The Double Comfort Safari Club. Can’t wait for your next installment in the series. Traveling to Botswana has become my greatest desire. I just had my firt cup of red bush tea. Thank you for good, clean Christian literature. My daughter is 15 and she has enjoyed you as well. Thank you for such a well written series, that I can pass down to my children, and future grandchildren.
    Mary P

  • Laurie

    I, too, would like to know how to purchase the tea set used in the show!

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