Review: The Snow Sleeper by Marlene van Niekerk

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The Afrikaans poet and fiction writer Marlene van Niekerk is best known for her ground-breaking novels, Triomf and Agaat. She has many accolades to her name, including being a finalist for the 2015 Man Booker International Award when it still recognised the entire oeuvre of an author, not just an individual title. Van Niekerk’s The Snow Sleeper, at last translated into English, is the kind of book that could have been a worthy winner entirely on its own terms. Locally, the original did receive the prestigious University of Johannesburg Prize for Best Creative Writing in Afrikaans in 2010.

The four interlinked stories which form The Snow Sleeper – “The Swan Whisperer”, “The Percussionist”, “The Friend”, and the titular story – took my breath away. During an inaugural lecture a professor recalls an exasperating relationship – mostly epistolary and one-sided – with a creative writing student who challenges her ideas about creativity and mentorship. At the end of “The Swan Whisperer”, the professor questions her own work within the South African context in ways previously unimaginable: “god only knows who is writing in me.”

Van Niekerk quotes Orhan Pamuk for the epigraph of her book: “A writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him.” That the professor giving the inaugural lecture shares a name with the author of The Snow Sleeper is telling.

In “The Percussionist”, an antiquarian clockmaker specialising in grandfather clocks speaks at the funeral of his writer friend. “He wanted to be remembered for his books, he always said, because nobody would be able to make any sense of his life,” the clockmaker tells the people gathered at the occasion. In his eulogy, he captures the process of observed reality transmuting into fiction, with longing at the very core of the seemingly unfathomable process.

Van Niekerk’s dead writer is the author of the stories which we recognise by their titles as her own. The self-reflective The Snow Sleeper acknowledges the incredible power of storytelling, and its various pitfalls. While any artistic act can be seen as death-defying, in the end loss is inescapable. There is also no shying away from the predatory nature of any creative endeavour. In one of the narratives, a researcher interviewing homeless people for a field study records a story that throws a light at the precarious relationship between an artist and their – often oblivious, sometimes reluctant, and occasionally manipulative – subjects. In one of the most poignant moments of the book the vagrant asks: “What can I do in the end but avenge myself? On behalf of all the wretches who’ve sat as models through the ages so that narcissists on state subsidy can excrete artworks?”

And while undoubtedly also “seducing with false images”, The Snow Sleeper is a brilliant meditation on the eternally intriguing nature of art, life, and the individual whose humanity breathes soul and beauty into it all.

The Snow Sleeper

by Marlene van Niekerk

Human & Rousseau, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 15 March 2019.

Review: House of Glass by Susan Fletcher

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Image: Virago

Clara Waterfield, the heroine of Susan Fletcher’s latest hauntingly beautiful novel, House of Glass, has a rare disease that makes her bones extremely brittle and confines her to a life of protected seclusion. Her mother and step-father provide as much safety, education and entertainment as they can while the curious girl grows up under their loving care. The unique upbringing makes Clara socially awkward but also unusually bold and unspoken once she is allowed to venture out into the world as a young woman.

The novel is set in England shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. Through the library that her step-father builds up for her, Clara has access to a wide range of scientific knowledge, and despite her isolation, she is well versed in the political and social developments of the day. News of women marching for their rights and the looming war reach and fascinate her. She finds her way to Kew Gardens where she becomes a keen assistant to a botanist and gardener, and unwittingly learns a trade that leads to an exciting offer of setting up a glass house on an estate in Gloucestershire.

Struggling to deal with the grief following the loss of her mother, Clara decides to travel to Shadowbrook to establish a botanical paradise for its owner. From the moment she arrives, she encounters strange occurrences which the staff and the elusive master of the house veil in secrets and silence. Undeterred, Clara embarks on a journey of discovery that will challenge all her beliefs about the world and her own life.

Fletcher’s mesmerising prose lures you in and holds you captive until the unexpected resolution of the mystery at the centre of this thought-provoking Gothic tale. You can judge House of Glass by its exquisite cover.

House of Glass

by Susan Fletcher

Virago, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 15 March 2019.

Review: ID – New Short Fiction from Africa, edited by Helen Moffett, Nebila Abdulmelik and Otieno Owino

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Helen’s ID selfie

We often open books to read stories about characters we can identify with. It is a search for sympathy and understanding. Picking up a book which actually reflects your own image back at you, however, is rather rare. But this is exactly what the latest Short Story Day Africa (SSDA) anthology, ID: New Short Fiction from Africa, does. The book’s cover is partly a mirror in which you can see fragments of your face.

Focusing on the theme of identity – whether we interpret ‘ID’ as short for one’s ‘identity document’ which can official represent you, or as one’s ‘subconscious’ in Freudian terms – the stories in this book are about “who we are” and “who we choose to be” on the African continent and in the world. The collection features the winning entries of the SSDA Prize and twenty other stories by writers from across the African continent.

The story which took the $800 top prize, All Our Lives by Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor, sweeps us along as we follow the trials and tribulations of a group of young men drifting in and out of Nigerian cities. Sew My Mouth by Cherrie Kandie is a touching exploration of the challenges a lesbian couple experiences in urban Nairobi. In Per Annum, a stunning piece of speculative fiction, the Johannesburg-based writer Mpho Phalwane tells the story of a group of young people fighting a corrupt government to keep their memories alive. The entire anthology challenges us to know our diverse selves.

ID: New Short Fiction from Africa

Edited by Helen Moffett, Nebila Abdulmelik & Otieno Owino

Short Story Day Africa, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 8 March 2019.

Longlist of the SSDA Prize for short fiction announced

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The 2018 Short Story Day Africa longlist:

  • ‘The Satans Inside My Jimmy’ by Harriet Anena (Uganda)
  • ‘The Jollof Cook-off’ by Nkiacha Atemnkeng (Cameroon)
  • ‘The Last Resident’ by Jayne Bauling (South Africa)
  • ‘Mr Thompson’ by Noel Cheruto (Kenya)
  • ‘The Layover’ by Anna Degenaar (South Africa)
  • ‘A Miracle In Valhalla’ by Nnamdi Fred (Nigeria)
  • ‘Of Birds and Bees’ by Davina Kawuma (Uganda)
  • ‘Maintenance Check’ by Alinafe Malonje (Malawi)
  • ‘Why Don’t You Live in the North?’ by Wamuwi Mbao (South Africa)
  • ‘Slow Road to the Winburg Hotel’ by Paul Morris (South Africa)
  • ‘The Snore Monitor’ by Chido Muchemwa (Zimbabwe)
  • ‘Outside Riad Dahab’ by Chourouq Nasri (Morocco)
  • ‘Broken English’ by Adorah Nworah (Nigeria)
  • ‘Queens’ Children’s Little Feet’ by Godwin Oghenero Estella (Nigeria)
  • ‘Door of No Return’ by Natasha Omokhodion-Banda (Zambia)
  • ‘An Abundance of Lies’ by Faith Oneya (Kenya)
  • ‘The Match’ by Troy Onyango (Kenya)
  • ‘Supping at the Fountain of Lethe’ by Bryony Rheam (Zimbabwe)
  • ‘Happy City Hotel’ by Adam El Shalakany (Egypt)
  • ‘The Space(s) Between Us’ by Lester Walbrugh (South Africa)
  • ‘Shithole’ by Michael Yee (South Africa)

Congratulations to all Writers!

Dear Readers, You are in for a treat! For more info about the prize see: Short Story Day Africa. To read more about the longlist, head over to the Joburg Review of Books.

ON THE MINES at the Norval Foundation

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I joined the Norval Foundation as a member after my second visit to the art museum. It has become one of my favourite places to go to, for art, coffee or a G&T with a view – the bar overlooks the artistically and botanically lush museum gardens.

btrOne of the current exhibitions is very close to my heart: “On the Mines” by David Goldblatt.

“Shown for the first time in its entirety, On the Mines: David Goldblatt is the last exhibition that the photographer personally helped conceptualise before his death in 2018. Goldblatt is revealed as the great chronicler and documenter of South Africa: the quiet observer of how the country, its peoples, its institutions and landscape have been inscribed by politics and power.”

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The photographs on display were partly published in 1973, in a book by the same title as the exhibition. The book included an essay by Nadine Gordimer, one of the countless texts I read when writing my PhD.

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I cannot help but wonder whether I would be here today, living and writing in Cape Town, if it hadn’t been for Gordimer’s extraordinary work. Her writing – its beauty, probing wisdom – was my entry point to South Africa’s literature and then to the country. I will be forever grateful for the introduction. It was because Gordimer agreed to an interview that I visited South Africa for the first time fifteen years ago. The rest is history.

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It is difficult to believe that she is no longer among us, but her work lives on, a great consolation. I hardly knew her, but the few hours spent in her company and the many years spent thinking and writing about her work make me miss her, a lot…

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Three other stunning exhibitions can be seen at the Norval Foundation right now: the work of Yinka Shonibare and Ibrahim Mahama – thought-provoking and enthralling.

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And then a collection of nudes from the Sanlam Art Collection. Not to be missed.

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You Make Me Possible reviewed on LitNet

btr“Biography lovers may despair that the internet is making it improbable that biographers will still discover old, forgotten letters in dusty attics, revealing juicy secrets about celebrities. It still remains a problem when writers discard electronic records of their correspondence, but this book proves that emails can be every bit as romantic as old-fashioned letters, and all the more immediate.”

— Elkarien Fourie

Read the entire review here: LitNet.

Review: Nasty Women Talk back – Feminist Essays on the Global Women’s Marches, edited by Joy Watson and Amanda Gouws

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Most of us despair, but publishers around the world are probably laughing all the way to the bank because of Donald Trump. The president of the United States might not be good for anything else, but he is certainly great for the book business. I can no longer count the titles I have come across recently, written in reaction to the innumerable atrocities – in words and deeds – committed by the man.

Nasty Women Talk Back: Feminist Essays on the Global Women’s Marches, published in South Africa but with contributions by women from around the world, is a collection documenting diverse responses to Trump’s campaign, his election, and the ensuing Women Marches organised in protest to Trump’s presidency.

In the introduction to the book, the editors talk about a period of “deep mourning” many of us have been experiencing since November 2016. It is not to be underestimated. Having Trump in power has not only exposed numerous vulnerabilities we experience in our everyday, but also reversed progress already gained in areas of gender rights and equality.

The twenty-five essays and three poems included in Nasty Women Talk Back are an attempt “to put pen to paper and show fervour for ongoing feminist activism”. Reading the individual pieces, I also felt inspired. Ranging from academic comments to deeply personal stories, all the essays are illustrated. The texts and images refer to the striking signs participants of the Women Marches carried during the protests.

“My arms are tired from holding this sign since the 1960s”, reads one of the signs, but as Rebecca Davis points out: “We may be tired, but we cannot afford to shut up.” Books like Nasty Women Talk Back allow us to counter the violence of silencing and to find solidarity in a common cause.

Nasty Women Talk Back: Feminist Essays on the Global Women’s Marches

Edited by Joy Watson & Amanda Gouws

Imbali Academic Publishers, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 22 February 2019.

CREATIVE WRITING MENTORSHIP OPPORTUNITY WITH KAREN JENNINGS

Karen JenningsKaren Jennings is a South African, married to a Brazilian, and in September of 2015, due to various circumstances, they were compelled to move from South Africa to Brazil. It has been a challenging and difficult time for Karen. Perhaps most difficult has been feeling removed from the country of her birth, a place that she loves and had hoped always to be part of. This year she started to look at her life and consider how she could realistically be involved in the future of her country, in even the smallest of ways, at the distance and without the benefit of any sort of income to assist her. She was inspired by the organisers of Short Story Day Africa and Writivism who work incredibly hard to bring opportunities to African writers. With this in mind, she has decided to offer a mentorship/writing course to an aspiring writer for a period of 12 weeks, starting on 1 April 2019.

For more details click here: CREATIVE WRITING MENTORSHIP OPPORTUNITY WITH KAREN JENNINGS

And here are two of my reviews of Karen Jennings’s work:

Travels with My Father – An Autobiographical Novel by Karen Jennings

Space Inhabited by Echoes by Karen Jennings

If you are an aspiring writer, please apply. This is a rare opportunity to work with someone who is passionate about what we do and who truly cares.

 

Richard III at Maynardville

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Literature in motion; an art form difficult to resist. I could never imagine being on stage, but I love sitting in the audience, suspending my disbelief, living and breathing the action unfolding before my eyes.

Theatre.

I prefer sitting in the first row. Small venues are my favourite. Done well, it is pure magic. It transforms.

I go regularly, often twice or thrice to see the same performance – to relive the wonder. I study the texts at home. Not many enjoy reading plays; I delight in them.

A while back, I wrote one. It even won an award. The prize money bought me a gorgeous, wine-red quilt. Last night, I was tempted to take it with me to Maynardville to the opening of Richard III, with Alan Committie in the main role. But the action-packed play and a Shiraz in the interval kept me all cosy and warm.

‘Why, I can smile, and murder while I smile…’

And he does. Smile, murder, seduce. Vanquish. Fall. The vicious circles of power.

The open-air theatre is the perfect setting for the play, the southeaster a willing contributor with uncanny timing. Tall trees haunt the stage. The simple props and the understated elegance of the costume design enhance the superb performances of the entire cast.

Cassandra Mapanda as Queen Elizabeth stood out for me. A true royal presence on stage. But nobody and nothing disappointed.

Shakespeare has never been easy for me. And Richard III was new despite my education and love for the theatre. Yet I never felt lost. As one head after another is impaled and hearts are conquered and torn apart, we are transported into the distant past that has a lot to teach us about our own times, our greed and disenchantment.

I will see it again before the run is over.

Richard III is on until 9 March; Wednesday to Saturday, at 8.15pm. Don’t miss it!

 

Announcing: The Philida Literary Award

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Today is the fourth anniversary of André Brink’s death. As we – his readers and loved ones – remember André, I would like to share the news that from next year on there will be a literary award given in André’s honour. The award will be named after a historical figure, the slave woman Philida van de Caab who entered the archival records because of laying an official complaint against her masters, Francois and Cornelius Brink, distant relatives of André’s. She became the protagonist of André’s last published novel, Philida (2012). André’s rendition of her courage and resilience continues to inspire me – and many others – as a woman and a writer.

As I wrote in the Note on my latest publication, You Make Me Possible: The Love Letter of Karina M. Szczurek and André Brink (Protea Book House, 2018), with André’s encouragement and support I was able to acknowledge the fact that I was a writer and that this would be forever my way of being in the world. He was an inspiration to many other writers and he was always generous with his time and expertise in furthering the literary careers of others. It is therefore my wish to establish The Philida Literary Award with the royalties from You Make Me Possible.

The Philida Literary Award will be awarded to a writer mid-career for an oeuvre of between three to five books of any genre. The idea behind the recognition is to acknowledge an author with a consistent record of publishing works of excellence and to encourage them further in their pursuit of a literary career. The award ceremony will take place annually on the anniversary of André’s death, 6 February, starting with the fifth anniversary in 2020. Thus, locally, it will be the first literary award given every year.

Four other judges who are immersed in the local literary community will join me each year in choosing a worthy winner. Each winner will be given an award certificate and an amount of money that will be at first determined by the royalties, and in future on funding which is in the process of being secured.

Picture above: Fragment from the cover illustration of Philida by Joe McLaren.

Thank you to Rachel Zadok, the founder of Short Story Day Africa, for inspiring the ideas behind the criteria of the award.