Monthly Archives: April 2014

Author-to-Author at the Franschhoek Literary Festival

Nadia Davids, photo by John Gutierrez

Nadia Davids, photo by John Gutierrez

During the highly anticipated Franschhoek Literary Festival this year (16-18 May), I will have the pleasure of discussing our debut novels with the award-winning author Nadia Davids. Our event is scheduled for Saturday 2.30pm and will take place in the Hospice Hall. To buy tickets, click here: Author-to-Author [71] (R60).

Nadia Davids’ work has been published, produced and performed in southern Africa, Europe and the United States. She was awarded the Rosalie van der Gucht Prize for new directors for her play At Her Feet and received three Fleur de Cap Award nominations for Cissie. Nadia holds a PhD in Drama from UCT and lives in London, where she lectures in the drama department at Queen Mary University of London. Her debut novel, An Imperfect Blessing, was published in April.

About An Imperfect Blessing:
“It is 1993. South Africa is on the brink of total transformation and in Walmer Estate, a busy suburb on the slopes of Devil’s Peak, fourteen-year-old Alia Dawood is about to undergo a transformation of her own. She watches with fascination and fear as the national drama unfolds, longing to be a part of what she knows to be history in the making. As her revolutionary aspirations strengthen in the months before the elections, her intense, radical Uncle Waleed reappears, forcing her parents and sister Nasreen to confront his subversive and dangerous past.

Nadia David’s first novel moves across generations and communities, through the suburbs to the city centre, from the lush gardens of private schools to the dingy bars of Observatory, from landmark mosques and churches to the manic procession of the Cape Carnival, through evictions, rebellions, political assassinations and first loves. The book places one family’s story at the heart of a country’s rebirth and interrogates issues of faith, race, belonging and freedom.”

KarinaNadia Davids and I do not know each other in person (yet!), but we have quite a lot in common. We were both born in 1977 and do not live in the countries of our birth. We have academic backgrounds and completed our PhDs in 2008. We are playwrights, short-story writers, and debut novelists this year. I look forward to discussing our novelistic firstborns, An Imprefect Blessing and Invisible Others at the festival.

Nadia Davids’ other scheduled events at the FLF:
Friday 11.30am [9] Playwrights Strut and Fret
Friday 4pm [37] Revelling in South African English
Sunday 11.30am [93] The Considered Canon

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A literary ‘rainbow nation’ in Regensburg

University of Regensburg

University of Regensburg

At the beginning of April, I attended a literary conference in Regensburg, Germany. Organised by Prof. Jochen Petzold, the conference intended to shed light on some of the developments in recent South African literature. Two days, various themes, and an intimate crowd of eager participants amounted to a very stimulating experience which reconfirmed for me the decision not to forsaken academia all together just yet. The papers covered a wide range of topics, from youth literature to writing on HIV/AIDS, with the farm novel and Indian Ocean literature thrown into the mix.

UK Quartet Books edition

UK Quartet Books edition

The conference kicked off with a paper by Chris Warnes which put a smile on my face because Warnes spoke about ideas being more productive than theory. Taking popular fiction seriously, Warnes explained how romances, crime novels, and thrillers can tell us more about present-day South Africa than ‘serious’ writing. The next speaker, Michael Cawood Green, read an excerpt from his upcoming novel. Full of scrumptious ideas, it gave one more food for thought than most theoretical writing ever can. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing Green’s fascinating novel For the Sake of Silence (2008). It remains one of my all-time favourite books, and I am deligthed now to own a signed hardback copy given to me by the author.

We continued with papers on Achmat Dangor‘s Bitter Fruit, trauma and memory, and young adult literature. I shared the slot with Sandra Stadler who has done some ground-breaking work on the YA genre in South Africa. Her thesis is something to look forward to.

Focusing on Nadine Gordimer’s The House Gun, Ivan Vladislavić’s Portrait with Keys, Stephen Watson’s A City Imagined , Antjie Krog’s Body Bereft, and the theoretical backbone done on the city in South African literature by such scholars as Achille Mbembe, Sarah Nuttall and Michael Titlestad, I spoke about how among urban spaces, Johannesburg and Cape Town dominate the literary topography of the country, and how the latter is fast on its way to becoming South Africa’s capital of crime fiction with internationally best-selling authors like Deon Meyer, Margie Orford, Roger Smith, Sarah Lotz or Mike Nicol, making Cape Town the preferred settings of their literary crimes.

Mike Nicol and Angela Makholwa

Mike Nicol and Angela Makholwa


That evening, two crime specialists, Angela Makholwa and Mike Nicol, read to us from their latest work, and together with our host, Jochen Petzold, spoke about their experience of the crime genre in South Africa and abroad.
Mike Nicol, Jochen Petzold, and Angela Makholwa

Mike Nicol, Jochen Petzold, and Angela Makholwa

The next day began with two papers on the HIV pandemic as reflected in literature and culture. The farm novel dominated the next slot on the programme. It seems nowadays that no conference on South African literature can do without a vivid discussion on the elusive ending of J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. There are usually as many interpretations as people in the room, and so this time. The novel continues to haunt literary scholars.

Speaking about Aziz Hassim’s Revenge of Kali, Felicity Hand quoted a sentence from the novel which stuck in my head: “Only a corpse knows the loneliness of the grave.” The conference ended with three papers focused on Afrikaans literature. Cilliers van der Berg spoke about Afrikaans literature as a “minor discourse”, Adéle Nel about the “sense of ending” in some contemporary novels, and Willie Burger about the difficulties of categorisation that diversity brings with it.

I left Regensburg full of new ideas, a long list of titles to read, and a feeling of being part of a vibrant, exciting, and bold literary culture in South Africa.

Book mark: The Last Man in Russia and the Struggle to Save a Dying Nation by Oliver Bullough

Book mark_Last Man in RussiaIn this enthralling but heart-breaking book the historian and journalist Oliver Bullough tries to find answers to a fundamental question about Russia: Why does a people turn to vodka for solace and what consequences does mass alcoholism have for a country? Bullough travels through Russia in the footsteps of Father Dmitry Dudko to trace how a fearless priest, who had brought hope and unity to his people, succumbed to the KGB. He exposes the ruthless finesse of the KGB’s enterprise in the former Soviet Union, the greed which has replaced ideology after the transition, and the continuing drinking problem of an entire nation. Despite inklings of optimism, it’s difficult to take heart for the future of Russia from his insightful report.

Book mark first published in the Cape Times, 25 April 2014, p. 12.

The Last Man in Russia and the Struggle to Save a Dying Nation
by Oliver Bullough
Allen Lane, 2013
Penguin, 2014

27 April 1994: Two Decades Later

27 April 1994SA 27 APRIL 1994: AN AUTHORS’ DIARY * ‘N SKRYWERSDAGBOEK (Queillerie, 1994)
Edited by André Brink

“…here was an opportunity for writers to test their word against, arguably, the most remarkable moment in their history.” André Brink in “To the Reader”, p. 8.

“Later, sun low, tide running out in me, I bus into the township shack of my dear love, my need of her never so strong.
[…]
She reads me, smiles, her eyes soft in the room’s dusk, her hands beckoning me to come.
‘It’s done,’ she whispers, ‘we have walked the last mile!’
Later still, I help her to the bed. We are careful with each other as though we hold a fine glass, and my heart sings.
Yes, against all odds, my heart sings.” Tatamkulu Afrika in “Against All Odds, My Heart Sings”, p. 13.

“Mens se hart is bly: niemand gaan hierdie stukkies toekoms wat die mense vashou weer kan wegneem nie. Byna wil ek sê: hierdie land se politici verdien wragtig nie so ‘n wonderlike bevolking nie.” Breyten Breytenbach in “Joernaal van ‘n wending”, p. 25.

“The day has been captured for me by the men and women who couldn’t read or write, but underwrote it, at last, with their kind of signature. May it be the seal on the end of illiteracy, of the pain of imposed ignorance, of the deprivation of the fullness of life.” Nadine Gordimer in “April 27: The First Time”, p. 52.

“We all know that it won’t be a smooth road ahead.” Jenny Hobbs in “The Day We Minded Our Peace in Queues”, p. 60.

“An Organisation must be disciplined, purposeful, and idealistic in a good sense. It must also be diverse, in that it must encompass others, beyond its own affiliates. It must be committed and dedicated to one goal and one goal only: to change the miserable conditions of people to enable them to live full and rich lives; it must inspire them to realise their full intellectual potential.” Mazisi Kunene, p. 73.

“My greatest victory and achievement as an individual is to know that my children and grandchildren and their age groups in my community move with grace and dignity as full-fledged citizens of South Africa, and with full rights to determine the future of our country.” Ellen Kuzwayo in “The First Democratic Elections in South Africa”, p. 80.

“Peace is like an undying light / Shining and glowing from within / Within each one of us” Gcina Mhlophe in “Peace Is Within”, p. 85.

“Perhaps it [Table Mountain] was reaffirming its old lesson on faith: on election day. That the future is there for us: we need to have faith in it, and in ourselves. And so I ended my day unemotionally, but deeply affirmed.” Njabulo S Ndebele in “Elections, Mountains, and One Voter”, p. 95.

“I picked up the pencil that was well chewed and attached to the makeshift desk by a length of string and put my cross, quickly, trying not to agonise about it yet again.” Mike Nicol in “Voting at the Camel Rock Café”, p. 98.

“Wanner iemand my vra wat dink ek van ons toekoms, dan antwoord ek ons mag die toekoms nie ken nie: so bly elke dag ‘n avontuur.” Jan Rabie, p. 108.

“So, Mammie en Derri, cheers! Ek leef – kyk, ek leef – in ‘n nuwe Suid-Afrika!” Adam Small in “Feniks: ‘n brief, kamma, aan my ouers (wat al dood is)”, p. 123.

“It was after three hours walking, at 7 am, that I cast my two votes at the Dwarsrivier polling station. It was quite clear that I was the very first person to vote there. No doubt the IEC staff manning the station had been expecting something extraordinary all along, but not for the first voter suddenly to appear, as I had done, out of the mountains behind the school-hall that served as the polling station.” Stephen Watson in “Voting With My Feet”, p. 162.

“Want vir die heel eerste keer in my lewe was ek ‘n vry Suid-Afrikaan.” Melvin Whitebooi in “Au revoir”, p. 171.

Contirbutors: Tatamkulu Afrika, Hennie Aucamp, Chris Barnard, Breyten Breytenbach, Kerneels Breytenbach, André Brink, Achmat Dangor, Abraham H de Vries, Arthur Goldstuck, Jeanne Goosen, Nadine Gordimer, Rachelle Greeff, Jenny Hobbs, Peter Horn, Daniel Hugo, Elsa Joubert, Antjie Krog, Mazisi Kunene, Ellen Kuzwayo, Dalene Matthee, Mzwakhe Mbuli, Gcina Mhlophe, Petra Müller, Njabulo S Ndebele, Mike Nicol, Welma Odendaal, Abraham Phillips, Marguerite Poland, Jan Rabie, Albie Sachs, Riana Scheepers, Gus Silber, Adam Small, Berta Smit, Peter Snyders, Klaas Steytler, Alexander Strachan, Pieter Dirk-Uys, Madeleine van Biljon, Marita van der Vyver, Marlene van Niekerk, Lettie Viljoen (Ingrid Winterbach), Stephen Watson, George Weideman, Melvin Whitebooi

Homecoming launch of Invisible Others

Photo by Roma Szczurek

Photo by Roma Szczurek

A small but very enthusiastic crowd gathered earlier today at the Protea Bookshop in Rondebosch for my “homecoming launch” of Invisible Others. Thank you to everyone who made this one so special!

The first copies of Invisible Others at Protea Bookshop in Rondebosch, photo by Roma Szczurek

The first copies of Invisible Others at Protea Bookshop in Rondebosch, photo by Roma Szczurek

The shop is beginning to feel like an extension of our lounge. As Johan from the shop remarked, it is located almost in our backyard. I will never forget the first time I browsed there. I think it was Del who asked me whether I needed help. I was looking for a collection of stories by Etgar Keret. The bookshop did not have a copy. I bought another book and then forgot about the Keret. About two weeks later, I was done shopping at the centre and was putting some groceries into my car, parked in the vicinity of the shop, when Del recognised me and came out to say that they now had the Keret book I had been looking for the other day. Did I want to have a look at it?
Of course I did, and I was very impressed by such kindness and service. It is always a pleasure to go back to a bookshop where people care and know about books (which is not a given nowadays – I once had to spell Nadine Gordimer’s name at a bookshop…).

Emma after the launch, reading Siri Hustvedt's The Blazing World

Emma after the launch, reading Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World

Today at the launch, I had the honour of being interviewed by the wonderful author Emma van der Vliet. We spoke about the influence of film on Invisible Others, particularly the 1992 film Damage, staring Juliette Binoche and Jeremy Irons. Often when I write, individual scenes come to me in the form of film-like images and the medium is an inspiration for my work. There is one line in Damage which I found haunting: “Damaged people are dangerous; they know they can survive.” Konrad reflects on it in the novel. We also discussed how the novel began, how the main characters formed in my head, and how Cara refused to be written the way I’d first imagined her. The first images of Konrad I had in my mind were connected to a jersey a hitchhiker my Mom and I picked up in Poland many, many years ago wore. The young man told us he’d knitted the jersey himself. Konrad, also an avid hitchhiker in his youth, owns a jersey like that in the novel. Emma also asked about my writing process. When I was still working on my thesis about Nadine Gordimer’s post-apartheid writing, I found many references to her strict schedule of devoting the mornings to her stories. Inspired, I tried to do the same, only to discover that I could not write one decent sentence in the mornings. (Recently, a friend gave me a sign I love for my kitchen: “I don’t do mornings”.) I am an afternoon person. My best time for writing is after lunch and coffee, that is when I am at my most prolific and inventive.

By Renée le Roux

By Renée le Roux

It was great to see Renée le Roux at the launch whose amazing artwork has been an inspiration for Dagmar’s art in the novel. Before encountering Renée’s work, I couldn’t find a way of responding to abstract art, but the first time I stood in a room full of her paintings I understood and felt what abstract art was about. It was such a thrill and discovery. Her images spoke to me like no other. Her “Mommy’s Boys” are in my study and despite their sadness, make me smile every day.

Thank you to everyone else who was there!

Launch cakeThis is the launch cake which Emma and I enjoyed for our breakfast after the talk. The woman who baked it is going to hear from me soon. It is always good to know where to get a divine chocolate cake, definitely one of my all-time favourites.

Thank you for this delicious literary treat: launch, cake and all!

Magda Lipiejko (1976-2014)

Magda Lipiejko

Magda Lipiejko

The generations in my family overlap in a strange way. I have aunts and uncles who are roughly my age. One of them married a woman who was also only a year older than I. I never really got to know her, but there was this one summer over a decade ago when I visited them in Szczecin, Poland, and stayed for a while, nursing a broken heart.
Even back then, my aunt Magda was already a recognised photographer, make-up artist and stylist, owned a successful model agency, exhibited the most astonishing drawings which reflected her boundless imagination, and contributed wise and edgy articles to local publications. She had a Master’s degree in philosophy, read Tarot cards in her free time, and designed her flat to look like something out of a style magazine. Magda loved Henry Miller and wrote her blog under the pseudonym June Miller. She was a mother, too.
Mis w swetrze (Teddy in pullover) by Magda Lipiejko

Mis w swetrze (Teddy in pullover) by Magda Lipiejko

The first two drawings I ever bought from an artist were hers. They travelled with me to Cape Town and hang opposite my desk where they inspire me every day. After I met her, Magda and I corresponded for a while, but then we lost touch. The last time I wrote to her was for her birthday a few years ago. She did not reply. But there were no hard feelings. On the contrary: ever since that summer in Szczecin, I thought about her nearly every time I drew, wrote, saw a Tarot card, bought a new furniture piece, put up my hair, or took photographs. She and her work were a constant source of inspiration. Lace reminds me of her. And a certain type of drinking glasses. And old-fashioned scissors. Sepia photographs and old postcards. Alice in Wonderland. She shared a birthday with my Grandma and a dear cousin, so I always remembered her then as well. Full of admiration, I often looked at her websites and was happy to see that she was prospering, following her visions and making them come true. I dreamt of having my author’s photograph taken by her one day.
Through the family grapevine I found out that my uncle and Magda separated some years ago. At some stage someone in the family mentioned that she was not well. I might have written that last letter for her birthday because of those rumours. I don’t know. Nobody else mentioned anything about her for several years until this February.
Photo by Magda Lipiejko

Photo by Magda Lipiejko

The message came late at night. Magda died of cancer just after her 38th birthday. A cousin told me that until the very end she believed that she would recover. She was strong, beautiful, fiercely intelligent and multi-talented. In her short life, she achieved more than most others do given twice the time.
After the news of her death reached me, I visited her websites and her blog. I spent days looking at her photographs and reading her texts. In the same week, I received the first copies of Invisible Others. Holding them in my hands, I thought again of Magda (I know I would have even if she had still been alive). There I was, so proud and happy, so full of hope for the future and the many other novels I was going to write. And I thought that this is also how it must have been for Magda before her death. She must have also had these dreams. And she should have had an entire lifetime to fulfil them. It pains me deeply to know that she did not get that chance. But I am grateful for the words and images she has left behind. In them, she lives on, continues to inspire. It was her blog that made me overcome my reluctance to have one of my own again (unfortunate experiences in the past made me weary of the medium). And here I am, thanks to her.
I am glad that I told her how much her work means to me before it was too late, and I am infinitely grateful for everything she has given me.
I miss her.
Photo by Magda Lipiejko

Photo by Magda Lipiejko

Spring in my Mother’s garden

Flowers4Flowers3Flowers2Flowers1My Mom has green fingers, and I am certain that her toes are green, too. Ever since I can remember, our house was full of plants and flowers. Often, they did not belong to her, but were only staying with us like guests at a spa or clinic, for treatment or convalescence. Wherever we lived, people soon came to realise that my Mom could heal or bring back to life the most neglected, suffering plant. And she could never say no to an abandoned philodendron or cactus. I haven’t inherited her gift, but I do try to keep my wild garden in Rosebank, Cape Town, happy. My Dad always said that one has to reach a certain inner maturity to garden happily and successfully. Not sure about the successfully, but there is happiness all around. Perhaps I am gradually getting there?
I recently visited my Mom in Uttendorf, Upper Austria, and took a few photographs of the flowers in her garden. Spring at her most beautiful!

Review: Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

Barracuda by Christos TsiolkasReaders familiar with Christos Tsiolkas’ previous four novels, especially the widely acclaimed The Slap (2008), might approach his latest, Barracuda, with great anticipation. Not having read any of the others, I did not know what to expect and even after finishing Barracuda, I am still not sure what to feel about this complex, but disappointing novel.

Set for the greater part in Australia, it tells the story of Daniel Kelly who goes by the nickname of the title. A highly talented swimmer, Daniel receives a scholarship to a prestigious private school. Coming from a Greek-immigrant, working-class background, he has a great chip on his shoulder and feels like a complete outsider among the rich and spoilt beautiful kids.

With the support of his coach Frank Torma, he begins to prove himself in the water, and following the coach’s advice to “always answer back when you receive an insult”, he gains respect from some of the boys on the squad. But when all his dreams are crushed and he fails to deliver on his promise to become a great champion, Daniel’s world spirals horrifically out of control.

Told alternatively in the first and third person with Daniel as the focaliser, and jumping to and fro between different periods and events in his life, Barracuda examines the lethal whirlpool Daniel finds himself in after his failure and the reasons leading up to it.

As the narrative zooms in and out of the collage of Daniel’s life, one has the uncomfortable impression that the author is trying too hard to make Daniel’s breakdown and its consequences believable. Throughout the novel, I questioned his motives and actions and could never really grasp either, thus it was nearly impossible to identify or empathise with him.

The fact that it occasionally took quite a while to find one’s feet and connect the dots because of the non-chronological storytelling technique did not help in the matter either. Stylistically, there is a certain irritating, breathless repetitiveness in the novel, which awakens a longing in one to edit the text instead of getting lost in it.

Tsiolkas also has a tendency to describe bodily functions with a frankness and attention to detail that goes beyond challenging accepted norms. One scene in particular is not only disturbing, but also alienating. One wonders what the author wanted to achieve with it.

Thematically, Barracuda is a mixed bag. The novel focuses on the different relationships Daniel forms with his family members, friends and lovers, but also takes up issues of class, sexuality, identity, migration, religion, same-sex parenting and xenophobia. The characters have a tendency of discussing these topics at length, mostly without convincing arguments. They are not integrated well enough into the narrative not to appear didactic.

The novel has been received to enthusiastic critical and popular acclaim, but at more than 500 pages, Barracuda is one of only a few novels I’ve truly struggled to finish.

Review first published in the Cape Times on 11 April 2014, p. 28.

Solitude of a different kind

First edition

First edition

Years ago, a family friend lent me a copy of the novel in Polish translation. The cover was mostly black with some image in front I can’t recall. I also don’t remember our friend praising the book in any particular way. He just thought I needed to read it. The novel waited for me on my bedside table for a few months, perhaps longer, if memory serves me right. Luckily, our friend was in no hurry to get it back. I must have been about 20 years old, at university, buried under tons of other books and deadlines.

All of these are vague recollections.

What is distinct in my memory is the getting lost inside the novel after reading only a few pages. All else ceased to matter. I entered a completely different world. Every page was like a door opening on a new space in my head and in my heart – none of which I had a clue existed before. The experience was mind-blowing, earth-moving, and simply beautiful.

Who says a book cannot change the world? Sto lat samotności did, not only for me. In its many translations the novel has enthralled millions of readers around the world.

Published in 1967, ten years before I was born, Cien años de soledad is a classic in the truest sense of the word. Its author, Gabriel García Márquez, died yesterday at the age of 87. May he rest in peace. May his words live on forever.

Launch of Invisible Others at Protea Bookshop Rondebosch

Invisible others 26 April 2014.indd The following is an invitation to my “homecoming launch” at the Rondebosch branch of the Protea Bookshop:

“Dear Reader / Geagte Leser,
It is with great pleasure that Protea Bookshop in Rondebosch extend an invitation to what we would like to call the homecoming launch of Karina Szczurek’s Invisible Others, on Saturday morning, 26 April. Karina will be here to discuss her debut novel with Emma van der Vliet.

Dit is met groot genoegdoening dat Protea Boekwinkel in Rondebosch u uitnooi na wat ons graag beskou as die tuiskomsbekendstelling van Karina Szczurek se Invisible Others op Saterdagoggend, 26 April. Emma van der Vliet sal met Karina in gesprek wees oor haar debuutroman.”

Date: 26 April 2014
Time: 11am
Place: Protea Bookshop Rondebosch
Shop 29
Rondebosch on Main
51 – 81 Main Rd
Rondebosch CT, 7700
Tel.: 021 685 9296

Emma, photo by Robert van der Vliet

Emma, photo by Robert van der Vliet

Emma van der Vliet is the author of Past Imperfect and Thirty Second World. I had the pleasure of working with Emma on both, Touch: Stories of Contact and Encounters with André Brink. I love her work and look forward to our discussion next Saturday. Protea Bookshop is located almost around the corner from my home and it is one of my favourite places in Cape Town – excellent staff and a wonderful collection of books. It is indeed a true “homecoming”.