Review: Postcolonial Poetics – 21st-century Critical Readings by Elleke Boehmer

Postcolonial PoeticsIt is nearly impossible to know where to start when writing about postcolonial studies. This vast field of inquiry has influenced diverse schools of thought and disciplines all over the world. One of its leading scholars in the literature corner is Elleke Boehmer, the author of such seminal works as Colonial and postcolonial literature: Migrant metaphors (1995; expanded edition, 2005), Empire, the national, and the postcolonial, 1890–1920: Resistance in interaction (2002) and Stories of women: Gender and narrative in the postcolonial nation (2005). What sets Boehmer’s work apart from many other academic writers’ is its readability. She is also an acclaimed novelist and short story writer. These two facts are most likely related. They also allow the author to view the topic of her latest book, Postcolonial poetics: 21st-century critical readings, from a rare perspective, as a theorist and practitioner of the art of creative writing.

The central question Boehmer addresses in Postcolonial poetics is “whether there was a kind of reading that postcolonial texts in particular solicited” and, if yes, what its main characteristics were. In eight concise chapters, the book offers an intriguing approach to understanding our relationship to postcolonial literature as readers. Boehmer examines how the structures of postcolonial writing in English – with focus on southern and West Africa, black and Asian Britain, as well as India – “shape our reading”, and how this literature “interacts with our imaginative understanding of the world”. The emphasis moves from the text and its author, to the recipient in front of the page: Boehmer believes that literature “has the capacity to keep re-imagining and refreshing how we understand ourselves in relation to the world and to some of the most pressing questions of our time, including cultural reconciliation, survival after terror, and migration”, and shows “that literary writing itself lays down structures and protocols to shape and guide our reading”.

Continue reading: LitNet

Postcolonial Poetics: 21st-century Critical Readings
by Elleke Boehmer
Palgrave Macmillan, 2018


“An act of inspiration”: Review of La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono

AiW Guest: Karina M. Szczurek 

Trifonia Melibea Obono’s La Bastarda was first published two years ago in its original Spanish by Feminist Press and has now become the first novel by an Equatorial Guinean woman writer to be translated into English. The book was banned in the author’s home country. More a novella than a novel, in seven short chapters, it tells the story of Okomo, the “motherless orphan”. Okomo’s mother died giving birth to her and she “was declared a bastarda – a bastard daughter.” Her father is absent for reasons no one is willing to explain to the teenage girl. Okomo is desperate to find her only remaining parent, but the Fang community she is part of closes ranks and is unwilling to lift the veil on the mystery of her father’s disappearance from her life.

Okomo grows up in the polygamous family of her late mother…

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Review: The History of Intimacy by Gabeba Baderoon

The History of IntimacyIt is heartening to see the proliferation of high quality poetry collections on the local literary scene, publishers like uHlanga Press, Modjaji Books, Protea Book House and Dryad Press leading the way. The history of intimacy by Gabeba Baderoon – “[a]n exquisite new collection from one of South Africa’s finest, most treasured poets”, according to Nadia Davids – is the only poetry volume published by Kwela Books this year, but one which is a most welcome addition to the plethora of distinguished South African poetic voices. It is Baderoon’s fourth after The dream in the next body (2005), The museum of ordinary life (2005) and A hundred silences (2006). She is also the author of the monograph Regarding Muslims: From slavery to post-apartheid (2014).

At the beginning of her literary career, Baderoon received the DaimlerChrysler Award for South African Poetry. The jury described her voice as being able to find “the poetic in the ordinary with a fine sense of locality and space”. They noted that Baderoon “weaves political and social issues into her poetry without sloganeering. Her work tackles a wide range of themes, astutely shifting the focus from the outside to the inside.” These remain her strengths as she takes us on a poetic journey of note in The history of intimacy.

The shift described above is beautifully captured in poems like “Axis and revolution” and “Stone skin”. In the former, we find the following lines: “In the door, I am a reflection/ on reflection, gleaming/ against the facing windows, seamless/ turning, turning// outside into inside, opening/ a dark glint of entry to your house./ Through glass skin,/ I am inside, invited in.” And in the latter: “In the castle the statues stiffen/ with perfection. Outside the stone walls/ the Senegalese immigrants hold out their hands/ full of roses and good fortune.” These “gestures”, we are told, “are not aesthetic, are not silent.” Only “the stone wall keeps in its place [at night]/ and outside, the silence, the growing silence”. Local history is encapsulated in the skin of stone, and the present moment of the foreign immigrants is alive in their skin and gestures of hope, commerce and exchange…

Continue reading: LitNet 

The History of Intimacy: Poems
by Gabeba Baderoon
Kwela, 2018

Review: The Death of Truth by Michiko Kakutani

mde“For journalists everywhere working to report the news”, says Michiko Kakutani’s dedication in her latest book, The Death of Truth, published only a few weeks ago. The Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic started her journalism career at The Washington Post, the newspaper that Jamal Khashoggi was writing for at the time of his brutal murder earlier this month.

Telling truth to power can be lethal. Murder is the most blatant tool in the constant onslaught on truth we witness around the world. “Two of the most monstrous regimes in human history came to power in the twentieth century, and both were predicated upon the violation and despoiling of truth, upon the knowledge that cynicism and weariness and fear can make people susceptible to the lies and false promises of leaders bent on unconditional power”, writes Kakutani in her introduction to The Death of Truth. She proceeds “to “examine how a disregard for facts, the displacement of reason by emotion, and the corrosion of language are diminishing the very value of truth, and what that means for America and the world” in the present moment. It is essential reading.

Kakutani looks at the impact of postmodernism on our understanding of culture, history and science, and traces why “objectivity – or even the idea that people can aspire towards the best available truth – has been falling out of favour.” She turns to current events and literature to show why facts and integrity – and the courage to fight for both – are of utmost importance, why we must do everything we can to revive truth and rescue it from the jaws of decay.

The Death of Truth is simultaneously a chilling and inspiring read. Kakutani states: “I believe in being truthful, not neutral. And I believe we must stop banalizing the truth.”

The Death of Truth

by Michiko Kakutani

William Collins, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 26 October 2018.

Review: The House with the Stained-Glass Window by Żanna Słoniowska

The House with the Stained-Glass WindowThe city is Lviv. The house with the stained-glass window is an architectural treasure. The four generations of women living in it are steeped in the setting’s rich and deeply troubled history. And so begins Żanna Słoniowska’s magnetic debut novel. Ukrainian-born, Słoniowska has settled in Cracow, Poland, and published The House with the Stained-Glass Window in Polish. It won the esteemed Znak Publishers’ Literary Prize and the Conrad Prize for first novels. It was shortlisted for Poland’s most prestigious literary award, the Nike (not to be confused with the sports brand), a respected recognition. Translated seamlessly into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, the book is one of those historical novels that manages to encapsulate a century of socio-political hopes and upheavals in Ukraine’s most famous city by portraying the private and intimate lives of a single family, specifically the women who shaped its core.

“I remember that on that particular day Great-Granma was ‘having hysterics’, in other words lying in bed and loudly sobbing”, her great-granddaughter, our narrator tells us. “Days like this occurred since time began, and weren’t necessarily proceeded by any kind of nasty incident. ‘It’s to do with the past,’ Aba would explain… I imagined ‘the past’ as uncontrollable, intermittent blubbering.”

Aba remembers how Great-Granma’s husband, her father, was one of the “people who started to vanish from the flats in our house”. She was awake when they came for her Papa: “He kissed me goodbye, and said it was an error, he’d be back soon, while two men stood waiting for him in the doorway. I never saw him again,” Aba recalls and her granddaughter knows exactly what it means to lose a parent to historical forces. Her mother, Aba’s daughter, the renowned opera singer Marianna is assassinated.

The novel opens with her final moments: “On the day of her death, her voice rang out, drowning many other, raucous sounds. Yet death, her death, was not a sound, but a colour. They brought her body home wrapped in a large, blue-and-yellow flag – the flag of a country that did not yet exist on any map of the world.” But it soon would, the country that we know today as Ukraine, in which Marianna’s daughter tries to carve out a space for herself.

The young woman’s intuition tells her “to be beware of people who can change your memories.” One of them is Mykola, her mother’s married lover with whom she, too, begins an affair after Marianna’s death.

Słoniowska is a noteworthy storyteller with the remarkable ability to evoke an entire era with a few simple images. The Lviv of her narration – “this city, worn out by history” –becomes the fifth main character of the book, along with the women who make it their own despite the demanding circumstances they face. The English translator provides us with a short, useful introductory note on the history of the region to familiarise the reader with the broader context. The House with the Stained-Glass Window is beautiful and announces a great talent on the international literary scene.

The House with the Stained-Glass Window

by Żanna Słoniowska

Maclehose Press Editions, 2017

Review first published in the Cape Times on 19 October 2018.

A Conversation with Leila Henriques

Sarafina Magazine

Leila Henriques is an actor, writer, director and teacher. As an actress, she has starred in more than 30 productions. Some of her select stage credits include: Hedda GablerThe Something Prince, YermaRed Shoes and The List. She has taught acting at various academic institutions across South Africa including Wits, AFDA and The Market Theatre Lab. Together with Irene Stephanou, she wrote the book The World in an Orange –exploring the work of Barney Simon published by Jacana, which was shortlisted for the Alan Paton award. Following a successful run at Woordfees earlier this year, she is currently starring in Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class directed by Sylvaine Strike at the Baxter Theatre

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Review: Self-Helpless – A Cynic’s Search for Sanity by Rebecca Davis

Self-HelplessWe can thank the giraffes. The threat of their extinction had driven Rebecca Davis into despair and sent her on a rollicking search for meaning. The resulting book, Self-Helpless: A Cynic’s Search for Sanity, was at times dangerous to research, but it is witty and delightful to read.

In the past, when confronted with the disappearance of a species and other symptoms of the appalling state of the world around us, Davis had the perfect solution to all her worries: alcohol. She did not just drink socially and in moderation. Most of the time, she preferred to drink herself into oblivion. When her excessive consumption of alcohol began to threaten her relationship with her wife Haji, she decided to call it quits and find other ways of engaging with reality in her free time.

During her investigation, Davis acknowledges her inner demons, occasionally risks her life and finds insightful answers to some of the most pressing questions of our times. Self-Helpless records her adventurous year-long journey towards “wellness, spiritual enlightenment and good old-fashioned happiness”. Living in Cape Town, she is at home in the city that has the latest fads of self-improvement, no matter how outlandish, on offer.

Magic mushrooms might not seem like an obvious point of departure for all, but Davis attends a Sacred Mushroom Ceremony and is nearly converted, but then, she and her wife attempt to replicate the experience at home – with nearly disastrous consequences. A visit to a sweat lodge ends up nearly as lethal. Davis is sceptical of the possibility of reincarnation, but allows herself to be hypnotised in order to explore her past lives.

Having married into a family observing the fast of Ramadan, Davis joins her relatives, hoping to become “free and light; empty and pure” through fasting. She quits social media and turns for guidance to the good, old-fashioned plethora of self-help books available in our bookshops. She discovers the existence of the “exercise pills” and orders the illegal wonder-drug online. What gets her truly hooked, though, are gyms and exercise apps.

Following Marie Kondo’s path to minimalist living, Davis declutters her home, leaving behind only objects that “spark joy” (some famous books do not survive the purge). She finds peace through meditation, on a silence retreat and inside an isolation tank. Her encounters with her cursed ancestors turn out to be much less satisfying. Luckily, even though she has a brush or two with her own mortality, no giraffes are harmed during her quest. And you will not want to miss the story of her “pet goat” and the “icky guy”.

Although highly entertaining, the book is much more than a humorous romp. Davis is great at making us chuckle and think at the same time. At the end of it all, for life to be meaningful, each one of us has to know what gets us “out of bed on a Saturday morning”. If that thing makes you smile, hold on, you are on the right path.

Self-Helpless: A Cynic’s Search for Sanity

Rebecca Davis

Macmillan, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 21 September 2018.

Review: It’s Only Blood – Shattering the taboo of menstruation by Anna Dahlqvist

cofA friend from my university days in Wales once told a group of women gathered at my student residence that when she started menstruating, her parents gave her a bunch of flowers and took her on a river boat excursion to celebrate the occasion. She was German, and the rest of us were, like her, exchange students from different European countries. Most of us had rather bleak stories to tell about our own individual memories of our first periods. By then, we were all in our early twenties and had about a decade of painful monthly woes behind us. I still remember the relief we all felt when sharing these stories and our experiences, as opportunities to talk about or reflect on menstruation without feeling a certain degree of shame, anger or disillusionment had been rare for most of us up to that point.

It became easier to deal with this aspect of our physiology as we got older, more educated and less intimidated by the sheer responsibility of it all. But we were all young middle-class people with access to information, medical advice as well as sanitary products and facilities like clean bathrooms with running water and washing machines. It is estimated that around two billion people in the world experience menstruation, but for many of us this simple biological fact of life is so heavy with everyday consequences that it becomes a burden almost impossible to negotiate.

In her bold and illuminating book, It’s only blood: Shattering the taboo of menstruation, Swedish journalist Anna Dahlqvist confronts the topic head-on. She specialises in gender, sexual and human rights, and intertwines her knowledge of and her research in these fields to present an eye-opening, cross-spectrum picture of what it truly means to be a “menstruator” – this is the term she prefers because it is inclusive; trans men menstruate, too. For her book, Dahlqvist interviewed menstruators of all ages around the world, spoke to international specialists researching menstruation and analysed data from numerous studies.

The resulting portrayal of the challenges menstruators face is shocking…

Continue reading: LitNet

It’s only blood: Shattering the taboo of menstruation
by Anna Dahlqvist
Wits University Press, 2018

Review: 101 Water Wise Ways by Helen Moffett


Day Zero might no longer be looming large on our Western Cape horizons, but the drought we are experiencing and the lack of sustainable, permanent solutions for the water crisis force us all to consider our relationship with this precious, irreplaceable resource as well as to acknowledge and understand the dramatic climatic changes we have been experiencing throughout recent decades.

Helen Moffett began blogging about ways of how to address the emergency situation around the time when the threat of Day Zero for Cape Town became official and we all began to panic. She was asked by her publisher to write a guide on how we can take responsibility and confront the crisis, rather than hide our heads in the proverbial sand. Moffett sees her book, 101 Water Wise Ways, as “an ally in your fight to save water, and part of your survival kit, along with the first-aid box; Valium for water-worries”. Crucially, she writes with the “humbling” awareness that “Day Almost Zero is reality for countless families”, not only in South Africa but around the world. Some of us should stop feeling sorry for ourselves. We can all take heed and learn.

I was reading 101 Water Wise Ways over a period of two days when copious rains were falling from the skies and the Cape was sighing loudly with relief. But, the winter rains don’t seem to be as generous as we had hoped, and there is no other palpable water miracle waiting around the corner that we could hope or pray for. Whether we accept it or not, we are in this for the long run. Under these circumstances, Moffett’s tips on how to tackle the water crisis feel like a summer’s rain, gentle and invigorating. She believes that we have “an unprecedented opportunity to become better neighbours, stronger communities and more close-knit families” by facing the challenge together, and shows exactly how we can achieve this goal.


Tips range from general to specific. From how to collect and store water to how to help replenish the groundwater supply in your garden, or to have a water-wise garden in the first place. Among many other easy, useful tips for all budgets, she finds ways of how to approach water scarcity and hygiene while menstruating or remaining sexually active; how to avoid wasting water while cooking or washing your dishes (the teabag tip is priceless!); or how to flush our toilets or install a simple dry urinal. Moffett’s compendium teaches you to cope with this and much more.

The book is never preachy. Moffett does not interrogate who and what is to blame for the current water crisis. Instead, she focuses on what we can do in order to find short- and long-term solutions for dealing with it in our daily lives, whether at home, at work, or as active citizens with social responsibilities. Accessible, practical and often refreshingly humorous, 101 Water Wise Ways takes on one of our greatest fears – running out of water – with a can-do attitude.

101 Water Wise Ways

by Helen Moffett

Bookstorm, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 31 August 2018.

Review: The White Room by Craig Higginson

The White RoomThe White Room, Craig Higginson’s latest novel, is sublime. Sometimes a simple, strong word can express it all, especially when you are reviewing a book so intricately fascinated by language – how we use it to communicate, to obfuscate or to hurt.

I have been reading Higginson’s work – his internationally recognised plays and award-winning novels – religiously since the publication of his third novel, The Last Summer. In The White Room, his fifth, Higginson returns to many of the themes he explores in his narratives: the nature of storytelling, trauma and loss, our place in history, familial ties and other human relationships, the fragility of love and, as mentioned above, the sheer wonder of language.

The novel has undoubtedly autobiographical echoes, as the protagonist, like Higginson himself, is a Zimbabwean-born playwright, living in South Africa, and travelling to London for the opening night of one of her plays. But, Hannah Meade is not Craig Higginson, although the play she wrote and is about to see performed for the first time strongly resembles Higginson’s own work, the remarkable The Girl in a Yellow Dress.

This is not the first time Higginson picks up the skeleton of one of his plays and fleshes it out to transform and resurrect it in the form of a novel. His previous, The Dream House, was based on another of his plays, Dream of the Dog. The reverse adaptation, for want of a better term, was extremely successful in both cases – the richly layered novels expounding the core truths of the theatrical pieces.

The White Rooms opens in London, where after the performance of her play, Hannah is hoping to reconnect with Pierre, the Frenchman of Congolese descent with whom she had a brief but turbulent affair while he was one of her English students many years ago in Paris. She is now a successful playwright, teaching creative writing, and walking the beaches of the Cape Peninsula where she “lives in a small town not far from Cape Town that is stuck between a high wild mountain and a wrinkled bay filled with sharks.” In this latest play of hers, Hannah works through the events of the past, looking “back at that earlier version of herself as an old antagonist still capable of harming her and all she has accomplished since leaving Europe.”

She goes back to her memories of the time she spent in Paris with Pierre and tries to come to terms with her more distant past, when her beloved twin brother Oliver was still alive and Hannah thought she would become an actress. Sitting next to his wife in the audience in London, Pierre has no idea what he is about to witness on stage and how the play’s dramatically filtered unfolding of the past events – “her version of Pierre – which, like a figure in a dream, is little more than an extension of herself” – will once again shatter his life.

The White Room takes us seamlessly back and forth in time as we are confronted with the inability of the young couple to not only recognise, but also acknowledge and accept each other for who they truly are when they meet in Paris, and the inevitability of their present encounter in London with all its surfacing anxieties and possibilities: “She withdraws deeper into the shadows as the rest of the audience fades into insignificance, and the world of the play, with hideous alacrity, starts to rearrange itself around him.”

Just as effortlessly, the narrative moves between fiction and reality. What adds intrigue to the story are the recurring references to Higginson’s own oeuvre as it has evolved in the last two decades since the publication of his first novel, Embodied Laughter.

Most of the story is set in Paris where, meeting once a week for their private lesson, Pierre and Hannah attempt to dissect their reality as it is reflected in the grammar rules of the English language. But whereas these are relatively easy to convey and Hannah feels “happiest in the place of language”, the dishonesty and escalating misunderstandings between the overeager student and his conflicted teacher erupt in scenes of heart-wrenching violence: “From the outset, there was a strong and dangerous attraction between them, an ineluctable force that wanted to draw them together, as mismatched as they might have appeared to be. But that did not make them compatible or healthy for one another.”

Higginson’s prose is luminous. He is one of those writers that make you look at individual words and phrases and delight in the multifaceted variants of their meanings. He seems always aware of how they relate to one another and, how through those connections, they enrich our experience and understanding of the world as well as our place in it. It is engrossing to trace through the narrative how the colour in the novel’s title refers to a physical and metaphorical space, the starkness of the blank page, as well as the traumatic history embedded in skin colour. And even though Hannah “tells her students that she in only interested in the life of the text”, that “[t]heir so-called lives are of no relevance”, her own story explores the undeniable entanglement of the two realms: “She was like a house that in the end no one wanted to inhabit. She required too much work. No matter how hard they tried to paint her walls white, she was a step behind, painting them black.”

Both Hannah and Pierre are intensely troubled characters, riddled with guilt, shame, insecurities and dark longings. But no matter how distant their internal conflicts might come across at times in comparison with one’s own life, they are simultaneously deeply familiar. It is impossible to remain unmoved by their story.

When opening a book with Higginson’s name on the cover, I have come to expect excellence – to be enthralled and challenged, emotionally and intellectually. The White Room not only delivers on these expectations, it goes far beyond them.

The White Room

by Craig Higginson

Picador Africa, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 24 August 2018.