Welcome to the second FWG Awareness Week! This is a bi-monthly event, run by the moderators in the FWG Slack group (Searska GreyRaven, ritter_reiter, and George Squares) as a way to bring focus to minority culture and writers in furry literature. Through features such as interviews, reading lists, and author AMAs, we hope to provide ample material and a safe, respectful setting for inter-cultural dialogue within our diverse community.
Our focus this month is on authors from post-colonial nations, and for our second interview we’d like to present Jako Malan! Born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa, Jako is a computer programmer by trade who has a recurring fascination with the furry fandom. He considers himself a casual furry, enjoying the added aesthetic quality and versatility of working with non-human characters. After a delightful episode of globetrotting—which included an extended stay in the US and England—he now lives with his wife and two young children in Bellville, nestled comfortably behind the Boerewors Curtain. Jako is the author of the post-human anthro novel reWritten, and his anthro stories can also be found in Passing Through and Symbol of a Nation. A member of the Furry Writer’s Guild, he can be found there and on Twitter under the alias Erdwolf_TVL.
Disclaimer: While the Awareness Week project seeks to amplify underrepresented voices and perspectives, please bear in mind that our interviewees comprise one opinion out of many, and do not represent everyone within their demographic.
Tell us briefly about yourself as an author. How long have you been writing?
I see myself as a creator in a more general sense, rather than an author. I allow my imagination to run amok; mashing together ideas that seem completely unrelated and (sometimes) outright ludicrous. I tend to latch onto a specific theme or idea and become completely obsessed by it. I tend to move on to the next theme or idea rather abruptly, though. If I had the time, talent and resources, I would probably make movies. Writing is a quick and economical alternative, though, so it has been my tool of choice.
As a hobbyist writer, I don’t force myself to write a specific quota of words per day. I often go months (sometimes years) without writing a single word of fiction. When the bug bites, however, I tend to be very productive. I wrote large parts of reWritten in the mornings before work and during lunch breaks, checking in well over 2000 words on a good day.
The oldest piece I have in my archives dates from around 1992. It is essentially a piece of fan fiction loosely based on my favorite TV show at the time – Ovide and the Gang.
Creative writing was one of my favorite subjects, though I didn’t produce much work outside of what was expected of me in school. I spent most of my free time being a computer nerd – creating and playing DOOM mods and writing computer programs.
The writing bug bit me in my senior year at high-school. I wrote three fairly long fan fictions based on the Star Wars prequels – Gungan lore with a host of original characters. It was fun, but being fan fiction, it would never be published. I started toying with the idea of creating something original around this time.
Throughout, most of my writing was done in English, despite it not being my mother tongue. Afrikaans is a truly beautiful language, but it takes a lot of work to do really well. It involves a lot more typing (because of accent marks and double-negatives). The potential audience size is also a lot bigger when sticking to English.
After finding inspiration in the Furry fandom in the early 2000s, I started working on an early version of what was to become reWritten. This first incantation – Shadows and Reflections – was written as a script for a graphic novel. It was mostly complete in 2006, though I only managed to get the first 25-odd pages illustrated before funds (and motivation) ran out. I might revive this one day, though.
I took a lengthy break between 2008 and 2016, during which I wrote (mostly terrible) poetry whilst building my career, traveling the world. My wife and I got married in 2013. Our daughter was born in 2015 and our son in 2016.
Despite many sleepless nights during this time, 2017 was my most productive year to date. I was accepted into the Furry Writer’s Guild. My debut novel and two shorts were published.
Right now, I’m stewing over a novel-length furry piece, three or four short stories, and the script for my visual novel, Project Greenfields (the latter being most active). I’d really like to have something done by the South Afrifur Convention in July, but so far this year has been more about fighting fires than stopping to smell the flowers.
How did you encounter the furry fandom, and why did you start contributing to it?
I think that most of us start out as furries. The characters on cereal boxes, sport mascots, cartoons, movies… We literally grow up surrounded by anthropomorphic animals. It is our “normal” as kids.
I remember a particular despair when my father told me that cartoon animals didn’t “live” like we do – I could not meet them nor visit them in their hometowns. I guess we all have that watershed moment where we can choose to continue believing in cartoon animals or not. (Clearly, I chose the former.)
Though I kept my interest in animal people, I spent my young days oblivious to the existence of the furry fandom. These were pre-Internet days, so ideas travelled more slowly.
In the early days of dial-up internet, my sister and I joined the Jar Jar Binks Fan Club Message Board. (I believe this still exists.) Amongst others, I met a dragon scalie from Pennsylvania who introduced me to the furry fandom. I managed to visit him during my first trip to the USA and we are still in contact to this day. I am not sure if he still considers himself a furry, though.
Yerf!, VCL, IRC, and various awful websites hosted on AngelFire became my staples. I did some personal furry-themed illustrations and paintings. It dawned on me that Furry would be a good platform to tell my stories in. Apart from being a genre that piqued my interest, it would also give me an audience to target – one that I considered myself a part of and understood fairly well.
The rest is history, I guess!
Who are your favorite authors? How about furry authors?
As far as mainstream fiction goes, I liked reading Arthur C. Clarke, PJ O’Rourke, Neil Gaiman, and local veteran author Leon Rosseau. Furry authors I like reading include Tempe O’Kun, Watts Martin, Patrick Rochefort, and Mary E Lowd.
I must confess, however, I’m not a big consumer of fiction. (I’d probably be a more prolific writer if I were.) I do consume a lot of poetry, non-fiction, and music with strong lyrical content, though. I adore the work of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Justin Hayward, and Jacques Brel. Local poets and songwriters whose work I enjoy include Amanda Strydom, Koos du Plessis, Anton Goosen, and Randall Wicomb.
I try to appease my lack of reading by convincing myself that programs are novels for computers. And that writing fiction is programming for the human mind.
By that measure, I guess, I am a prolific writer after all.
You’ve lived in the US and the UK for an extended period, before returning to South Africa. How did life abroad compare to life back in South Africa?
After finishing high school, I spent four months working as a telephone operator at a New England ski resort. This was pre-9/11 – the USA was still the place we knew from watching television as kids. The fabled land of opportunity, yellow school buses, red fire hydrants and Mickey Mouse. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to the USA again hereafter. It is telling how things have changed since then (and, I think, not for the better). I’d love to visit the USA again, this time with my wife – though I’d be hard-pressed to live there long-term. The strong consumerist culture of America is very different from the more conservative norms / austere circumstances most South Africans grew up with. What I do like about the USA, however, is how easy it is to get hold of “cool stuff” and that you never have to travel very far to find that rare record, piece of electronics, or… furry convention?
I lived in Kew Gardens (South East London) between June 2005 and July 2006. I was on a working holiday visa, though I did manage to cement the first of a good nine-year-long career at a large multinational. I really enjoyed my stay in London and really wished I could stay a bit longer. It is not without its share of social ills, but it is a well organised and charming old place.
What I miss most about London is the public transport. The ability to walk around town at just about any time of day, not being bored and being reasonably assured of your personal safety. London is great if you are young and single. Not the ideal place to raise a family, though. London kids are… strange. I also have fond memories of hanging out with the London Furs during this time.
As of today, I am back in Cape Town’s northern suburbs, where I was born and grew up. With my wife and kids, it is convenient to be close to my parents and in-laws. Cape Town is a beautiful and pleasant place. Not as vibrant as Johannesburg. Not as accessible as London and not as ambitious as Boston. It does offer a very decent standard of living and has good amenities.
You once mentioned South Africa as “a setting with unique stories that’s woefully underrepresented in the sci-fi community”. Aside from the distinct choice of species you show in your stories, what would you personally want to see in South African furry or sci-fi fiction?
Little things can make the difference between a narrative that feels tired and done – and something that feels fresh and innovative. There is hardly such a thing as a new story. As writers, we have been pretty good at repackaging these old ideas and distracting the audience with fancy new decor.
Take the movie District 9, for example. It is not African per se. The plot could have worked just as well in another international city. But little nuanced things gave it a distinct local flavour. And I think audiences appreciate this. The animated piece Khumba is also a good example (although in my opinion, it tries a bit too hard to appeal to international audiences).
Many popular period pieces have local equivalents (or local perspectives) that allow a writer to make great use of the local scenery. We had a revolutionary war against Imperial Britain. (Two, in fact!) We had an age of pioneers, which includes a lot of conflict with the indigenous peoples. We had our unpopular war (the Angolan Border War). We had our civil rights movement (against apartheid). The list goes on.
In terms of furry, obviously we have incredible biodiversity. We are spoilt for choice when it comes to species. Our relationship with animals is different to that in other parts of the world. Human influence is still big, but since land is not at such a premium (such as in Europe), animals have less contact with humans and can “be themselves” to a larger extent.
On a grander scale, what I would really love to see is more pre-colonial African folklore, superstition, and culture woven into our stories. I think the emphasis thus far has been too focused on recent history (Nelson Mandela, the fight against apartheid, etc.) I don’t claim to be an expert in African culture, but I DO know enough to know that I haven’t even scratched the surface.
South Africa has had a long history of tension and conflict – examples which come to mind are the Boer Wars and the struggle against apartheid, echoes of which still remain today. Do these conflicts influence your writing, and if so, how?
I always say that my indoctrination program was interrupted at a very critical point. Until the age of 13, I experienced a very different “normal” than I did thereafter. Some of the mind-shifts my generation had to make were rather dramatic. People who were national heroes before were now suddenly the villains. Things that you took for granted before were suddenly gone.
An example of this would be the role of Afrikaans (my home language) in society. Before apartheid ended, you would see both Afrikaans and English on just about every product you buy at the store. Appliances and cars would have Afrikaans manuals and labels. Most things are exclusively English nowadays. There is also a move towards English-only in academic circles, as students believe they will be more employable in the global economy.
Overall, though, I am grateful for a very privileged upbringing, comparable in many regards to that I might have had, were I born in Europe or the USA around the same time.
I think the conflict that has the biggest influence on my writing was the border war with Angola and possibly the Rhodesian bush war. These are recent conflicts where the distinction between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” isn’t as clear cut. These were messy, politically complex wars. Many who died were ignorant to what was really going on.
To say these things do not influence my writing would be ignorant on my part. reWritten doesn’t deal with the above mentioned conflicts in any direct way, however. It is more of a statement on post-humanity (more on this later).
The search for cultural identity is an involved process for furry species created by humankind, as in your novel reWritten. Did growing up in a nation with an analogous background (i.e. a colony created by a powerful nation) affect the way you portrayed this aspect of furry identity?
As a white Afrikaner, the search for identity is very topical. People have very strong opinions about who we ought to be. A pseudo-identity was manufactured for us by the nationalist government. For better or worse, it was forced down our throats. It is probably the closest we’ve had to a true identity, but it is neither authentic nor sustainable.
Ultimately, I think we are heading towards self-discovery, but we are not there yet. Other groupings in South Africa are in a similar process of self-realization: the Lost Generation, the Born Free generation and those I consider to be the “True Millennials” (born after the Internet).
Each of us have a story to tell and a destiny to fulfill. And we also have to figure out how to live together in harmony.
Though there may be undertones of this seeking in reWritten, the Mammalæ world is more post-human than anything else. The sons of man look at the wreckage of the world we left behind for them. They try to make sense of what they see. And try to survive at the same time.
I think we are pretty bad tenants in this world, but Mammalæ have a different perspective on this.
Their society is built in the ruins of our own. They were created in our image, to live amongst us. It is therefore inevitable that they would imitate us in many respects. In other aspects, however, their society is much more complex. With many different species of different shapes and sizes, created for different purposes and with different natural tendencies. Their society inevitably operates differently.
This is a challenge, but it also enables many things that would be difficult to portray in a homogenous society. I alluded to the inner working of their society in reWritten, but I hope to explore this in much more detail in Greenfields.
For non-native writers looking to use South Africa as a setting, is there anything you would like to see them portray more of? Are there also any stereotypes or misrepresentations you would like to draw attention to?
There are parts of South Africa that can be used as a plug-in replacement for other parts of the world, without too much inner knowledge. To make a story truly South African, subtle details will need to be considered. To make a story both South African and one that appeals to an international audience… I think this still needs to be done well.
With regards to Africa as a whole, I’d like to echo something that is often said. People need to realise that Africa is a continent and not a country. Africa has many languages, many cultures. Many histories. There is room for The Lion King and derivatives. But to think that Africa is just about savannahs with animals running around is like thinking that London is the entire United Kingdom. Or that New York City is the be-all and end-all of the USA. Or that Germany is one big year-long Oktoberfest.
Which of your works are you proudest of?
Naturally, I am very proud of reWritten. It has been a long and exciting journey to get my work in print. However, the piece I had the most fun writing and re-reading (to date) is “The Savage Caravan” (Passing Through anthology by Weasel Press). It sets the tone for a spicier kind of story that works well in the furry market. The Gentler Times canon which it belongs to is also a lot more accessible than that of Artisans and Opportunists (the universe of reWritten). It is more Zootopia-like, in that it uses the existing world we live in, but where humans are replaced with anthropomorphic animals.
Any parting words of advice for aspiring writers in the fandom?
As an author, you have a duty to explore. Expose yourself to new ideas. Learn to absorb without feeling an obligation to change yourself (or the others). If you only expose yourself to that which you are comfortable with, your writing will be boring and predictable.
Furthermore, I encourage you to find your own measure of success. Not everyone who writes a piece will get published. Not everyone who gets published will sell a million copies (or make any money to speak of). Unless you are a professional writer, write for yourself first, everyone else second.
When the time comes to show your work to the world, take the time to polish your work and make it accessible. Get an editor. Have your stuff beta-read. Be willing to make changes you don’t necessarily agree with, if they will make your work more accessible.
Make use of all the wonderful free resources that are available online. Visit tvtropes.org. Join the Furry Writers’ Guild. It is a small community with many folks willing to help. Often for free.
Lastly, play nice. Don’t be a primadonna. It is a small community and hardly anything nowadays happens without everyone knowing about it.
Discuss this article on the Guild forums, or check out Jako’s page on Goodreads.