Interview: Tabisa Or Not Tabisa?, Or Of Xhosa It’s Ok To Take On Taboo Subjects

January 18, 2015

Described as a “racy, pacy crime thriller,” Priscilla Holmes’ Now I See You has met with popularity and warm reception. Filled with the sights, sounds, and local flavor of the Eastern Cape especially, the book travels from the glittering restaurants of Johannesburg to the backroads of the rural Eastern Cape, from the corridors of financial and political power to the safe houses of rural tradition. It features a feisty and intelligent heroine, DI Tabisa Tswane, who, in her investigation into a series of robberies by masked, eerie-voiced gunmen, has to draw on her wits, courage, and self-awareness to navigate worlds dominated by men, culminating in a confrontation with her own troubled past.

Priscilla Holmes


Priscilla Holmes speaks about her foray into crime fiction, her heroine, and her journey through vastly different worlds, cultures, and taboos.

Crime fiction is noted for introducing some of the most memorable heroines in our pubic imagination – feisty, complex women like Clarice Starling (from Thomas Harris’ Hannibal series) and Lisbeth Salander (from Stieg Larrson’s The Millenium Trilogy). Where do you think DI Tabisa Tswane fits into that tradition? What would you say gives her her edge?

Priscilla Holmes: I think DI Thabisa Tswane fits in perfectly among Lisbeth Salander and other feisty, flawed detectives in modern fiction. She’s been damaged by her savage ejection from her rural roots, and although she loves living in Johannesburg and her city life, she longs for her remote valley, but she can’t go back.   She’s a modern young, black woman with a tough take on her professional life, but has a vulnerable side.  She can’t return to where she grew up.  She’s known for her clever interrogation skills, and her almost legendary “intuition” about people, which has helped her solve many crimes.   There’s a bitter-sweet side to Thabisa, which makes her unique.

As a white woman assuming the perspective of a Xhosa woman, how do you navigate entering into another culture and background? How do you try to navigate the dangers and pitfalls of cultural appropriation, especially when Xhosa culture plays such a fundamental role in the book?

I did much careful research on Xhosa culture and background.  First of all, I lived in the Eastern Cape for two years, visiting all the places I was writing about.  I interviewed, and went out to work with, several women police officers from the Port Alfred/Kenton/Grahamstown areas, and listened carefully to their stories of the difficulties of becoming a police officer in the apartheid years. Many hours of interviews were recorded and used in the book. I read countless books about Xhosa culture. I then worked at UCT with Professor Andrew Spiegel, a Professor of Anthropology specialising in the Xhosa culture. The book was edited and read by Xhosa readers. I was aware that Thabisa was educated as a white girl at her Grahamstown school, which helped. I have tried to avoid any cultural misappropriation.

A lot of the book deals with women navigating, conquering, and being victimised in what has for a long time been “a man’s world.” What did you want to say with these characters regarding how they survive in worlds dominated by men?

What I wanted to say to women working in a world dominated by men, is that they mustn’t be afraid, they can do anything a man can do, even better in many ways. A woman brings a special intuition, compassion and understanding to any profession.  I worked in Australia in a man’s world, in a managerial position for many years, where men had to report to me, and I found that “speaking softly but carrying a big stick”, and being tough only when it was needed always worked for me.

What crime novels would you say inspired or influenced you?

Obviously Stieg Larrson, Deon Meyer, Margie Orford and Lauren Beukes – especially Lauren’s The Shining Girls, which I have read twice!

You’ve said before that your characters take on lives of their own — how do they come to you? How do you know when a character is here to stay?

It’s something I never believed until it happened to me, but as I’m writing, especially in the very early morning, suddenly a character will do something, or say something I hadn’t planned, something I hadn’t even thought of! They are in my head all the time and they just … do things!  My imagination goes into free flow and I’m in the zone, so I do what they tell me.

You take on quite a few tricky or taboo subjects head-on in Now I See You – sexual and domestic violence, homosexuality, corruption, and so on. How do you go about trying to tackle and portray them with sensitivity? What do you hope to accomplish through writing about these subjects in the way that you have?

I didn’t set out to accomplish anything about taboo subjects, I just set out to tell a story.  I don’t think any of these subjects should be taboo, they just form part of many people’s life experiences. I hope I have treated these subjects with sensitivity. I have interviewed several woman who have been abused. Their stories are not pretty, but they are fascinating to a writer.

What do you think is the future of crime fiction in SA, and what would you like to see come out of it?

There are so many excellent crime fiction writers in South Africa, and I believe they will only go from strength to strength. I would like to see some of the taboo subjects in my book brought into the spot light and changed.


Now I See You by Priscilla Holmes is published by Modjadji Books. Follow Modjaji Books on Facebook at on Twitter at  @modjaji_bks.  The website is