Penning the tale of a vervet monkey

Hout Bay author Penny Haw with her Scottish terrier Mary. Another Scotty, also called Mary, features in Nicko: The Tale of a Vervet Monkey on an African Farm.

For 31 years, Hout Bay resident Penny Haw has plied her trade as a writer.

As with most who make their living from words, she had always harboured ambitions of writing a book one day, but recognised that the medium was very different to her day-to-day work as a freelancer.

“To be honest, the thought terrified me. Your work is going to be judged,” she told the Sentinel over coffee last week.

Fortunately, Ms Haw could fall back on the charming, true-life tales passed on to her by her late grandmother, Alice Kirk, renowned around the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands as something of an “animal whisperer”.

The Kirk farm was a magical place, as injured or abandoned animals were brought for treatment but eventually ended up being part of the family.

Dogs, cats, polecats, birds and other unusual species would find their place in the home, quickly acclimatising to their behaviours and requirements of their furry or feathered “brothers and sisters”.

Once such addition was the vervet monkey Nicko, a cheeky but lovable primate who became both sibling and parent to the offspring of other farm animals.

As a child, Ms Haw had been thralled by stories of Nicko’s exploits while sitting at her “gammy’s” knee, and when she herself became a mother, entertained her own son with Nicko’s adventures.

“Three years ago, my son suggested I write a children’s book, and should write down Nicko’s story. I wrote three chapters, and submitted them to Linda de Villiers, who I had met before, at Penguin Random House,” Ms Haw said. “It took a long time to get the contract – the whole process took three years – but Linda agreed to publish it, which was obviously very exciting.”

Nicko: The Tale of a Vervet Monkey on an African Farm reached the shelves last month. The story is told from Alice’s perspective, and Ms Haw has attempted to catch her voice as accurately as possible. “I loved writing this book. I was fortunate in that I could also refer to some of my grandmother’s notes, and I used a lot of her own words in the book,” she said. “To be honest, the writing is not ‘child’ child-like. I wrote it as if kids were not reading it themselves. I would write it a chapter at a time, ending each chapter with a cliffhanger.

“This way parents could read a chapter to their children before bed each night, and kids would be wondering what was going to happen next.”

Hungarian-born illustrator Petra Langner, an obstetrician by profession, brings the wonderful characters to life.

“Penguin Random House went through a lot of different illustrators, before they settled on Petra. She really understood what I was writing about, even though it’s her first book,” Ms Haw said.

“When she was growing up in the United States, she had a pet racoon, and when she arrived in South Africa she took in a meerkat on their farm in Williston in the Northern Cape. So I think she could relate to the material.”

Ms Haw said her grandmother loved books, and would definitely have gone to university had she been born in a different era. “In 1958, she actually wrote an article for Farmer’s Weekly about the animals on the farm. She loved reading and writing.”

Asked whether she believed her grandmother would have approved of her work, she said she had actually posed the same question to her mother, warning her that she was intending to write “Gammy’s story”.

“Fortunately, my mom said she would have laughed her head off, and would have loved the book.”

Rather than simply hosting a series of book launches, Penguin Random House suggested Ms Haw should market the book at schools, delivering talks and readings to youngsters. “I have been to Llandudno Primary School, and am also giving a presentation to Disa Primary School on the importance of storytelling. I would often ask my gran to retell a story, but she never told me to shut up. I remember how important that was to me.”

She admitted that she would like the book to be a success, as this would improve her chances of being published again, but “my best pleasure is people who have read the book telling me they’ve enjoyed it”.

Given the quirky nature of this delightful tale, it should perhaps come as no surprise that since releasing the book, Ms Haw has encountered others who have their own animal stories to tell.
“A few months ago, someone tweeted an obituary about a monkey called Gogo that had died. The obit was by a vet named Dr Peter Baker, who had Gogo for 23 years,” she said.

“I saw all the similarities between Nicko and Gogo, and I decided to get in touch with Dr Baker. We chatted on the phone for two hours. These monkeys, when you get to know them you see how they understand things very differently from other animals.”

Ms Haw will be appearing at the Book Lounge in the Roeland Street in the Cape Town CBD on Saturday September 23.