Monthly Archives: September 2015

Sugar Man: The Life, Death and Resurrection of Sixto Rodriguez by Craig Bartholomew Strydom and Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman

“I remember her tongue sliding into my mouth,” a friend tells me, his eyes sparkling, mischief playing on his lips. A pause follows while everyone around the table is trying to recall their first French kiss. “Yeah, ‘Sugar Man’ was playing in the background,” he says eventually, snapping us out of our respective reveries.

“I wonder how many times you had sex”, Sixto Rodriguez sings in “I Wonder”, one of the songs on his debut album, Cold Fact, which was released in South Africa in 1971. The South African release is the beginning of one of the most incredible stories. Ever.

Years of enthusiasm and dedicated research, countless unbelievable coincidences, and an Oscar-winning documentary later, Sixto Rodriguez has risen from decades-long obscurity to enjoy the world-wide recognition he and his music deserve.

Sugar Man coverAnd now, the two men who refused to give up on a crazy idea and started it all, Craig Bartholomew Strydom and Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman, have written a fascinating book chronicling the quest.

Many of my South Africa friends have a Rodriguez story to tell. Like Strydom and Segerman, most of them first heard the music in the army. All believed the rumours that Rodriguez had committed a spectacular suicide. But unlike the authors of Sugar Man: The Life, Death and Resurrection of Sixto Rodriguez (2015), they did not set out to find out what exactly had happened to the singer with an astounding cult following in South Africa.

I’d never heard of Rodriguez until I saw Malik Bendjelloul’s remarkable documentary Searching for Sugar Man (2012). The soundtrack immediately crept under my skin. I shed tears of unbelief and joy watching the amazing story.

I cried again every few pages while reading. With infectious passion, Strydom and Segerman offer an incisive behind-the-scenes look at the Rodriguez Saga. Divided in four parts – The Mystery, The Man, The Music and The Movie – Sugar Man: The Life, Death and Resurrection of Sixto Rodriguez is full of gems Rodriguez fans will love, including two generous photo sections. The writing is great, and the beauty of reading the story is that you can slow down at leisure and savour the magic of every step along the authors’ journey.

I met and heard Strydom and Segerman for the first time at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town earlier this month. Listening to them speak about Rodriguez and their involvement in his story was magical, reliving it all once more through Sugar Man: The Life, Death and Resurrection of Sixto Rodriguez even more so. Their generosity, die-hard dedication and integrity (there is no glossing over the difficult bits in the book) is truly inspiring.

Craig Bartholomew Strydom and Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman with Andrew Donaldson at Open Book 2015 (Photo: Books Live)

Craig Bartholomew Strydom and Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman with Andrew Donaldson at Open Book 2015 (Photo: Books Live)


Malik, who heard the news with Brittany by his side while on a trip to Los Angeles, was finally able to exhale. It was as if he had been holding his breath for four years. He was now only one step away from the moviemaking’s greatest accolade. Craig went for a long walk after the announcement, remembering his statement to his army friends in 1984: ‘I am going to find out what happened to Rodriguez.’ His words may have dissipated into the ether, but they had been the genesis of an idea. An idea that was later energised by the liner notes of a CD and eventually realised. Now, thanks to an indefatigable Swede and a young record dealer who literally begged for the rights to re-release the music of the rock star who never was, that idea, that story, was world-famous. And so, at long last, was the withdrawn poet-sage-musician-activist who started it all.
(Sugar Man: The Life, Death and Resurrection of Sixto Rodriguez, 234-5).

For all Sugar Man news: The Official Rodriguez Website

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The magic of Open Book 2015

Helen MacdonaldSo, who else has fallen in love with Helen Macdonald during Open Book 2015 in Cape Town? H is for Hawk has been on my radar for a while, but I’ve only decided to get the book when I heard about Macdonald’s generous endorsement of Stray: An Anthology of Animal Stories and Poems, edited by Diane Awerbuck and Helen Moffett (all royalties donated to TEARS Animal Rescue). How cool is that? Macdonald showed up at the Open Book Stray Readings and stole my heart reading the passage in which she first saw and fell for Mabel, the goshawk who helped her cope during her time of bereavement. At one of her other Open Book events, Macdonald spoke about how you can’t tame grief and how sometimes you have to do mad things in order to survive it.

This was my first Open Book since André’s death. Last year, we were still mourning Nadine Gordimer – together. We’d thought that we might celebrate the tenth anniversary of our first and only public interview (at Schloss Leopoldskron in Salzburg in 2004) with an event at the festival, but André was recovering from a knee operation and did not feel up to it. We did pay tribute to Nadine: with Margie Orford, Billy Kahora and Imraan Coovadia reading from her work and sharing stories about her influence on their lives and writing. André read from his own work at another event. We attended a few others, gathering memories which all returned to me this year when I was walking around The Fugard Theatre – alone.

At the opening ceremony, Mervyn Sloman said that every year Open Book is infused with magic. How true. “You’re a magician,” someone magical in my life said to me once. Perhaps I can conjure miracles when inspiration and desire strike, but I would like to think of myself as a magician of a different kind, one who can recognise the magic of the everyday. Even when suffocating in the clutches of grief.

with SallyMagic was all over The Book Lounge and The Fugard Theatre during Open Book this year. In the stories I read preparing for the festival (discovering my love for the work of Karen Joy Fowler, Melissa de Villiers and Andrey Kurkov in the process); in the warmth of a friend’s grip around my arms at the opening ceremony; in Karen Joy Fowler’s humour; in the melody Petina Gappah sang during her interview with Lauren Beukes; in a walk in the sun between events; in Stephen Segerman’s and Craig Bartholomew Strydom’s devotion to the Sugar Man story; in Claire Robertson’s mesmerising reading voice; in seeing the first cover designs for the special edition of Flame in the Snow; in Elleke Boehmer’s, Henrietta Rose-Innes’s and Craig Higginson’s inspiring eloquence; in a dim sum lunch, a bubbly and a Glenfiddich shared with friends; in Beverly Rycroft’s moving honesty; in a friend’s sparkling eyes which could have been clouded by loss but weren’t; in the hospitality of Fugard’s Iris who with her colleagues took such great care of all of us; and, last but not least, in S.J. Naudé’s careful thoughts about our craft – the magic and beauty of it all.

with KarenI loved chairing the three events I was asked to. I loved seeing old friends and meeting new ones. I loved interacting with writers whose work has meant so much to me over the years. I loved buying books and talking about literature with people who care. I loved being asked to sign my novel. I loved feeling that I was close to returning to my own creative writing. I loved every single memory from the past. I loved making new ones.

Thank you, Mervyn, Frankie and all the other magicians at The Book Lounge.

You can’t tame grief. Grief is this creature that moves into your home when death strikes. It lurks, ready to pounce at all times, especially when you least expect it. It never leaves again. You can’t tame it, but you can tame the way you react to it. And live. And experience joy again, in a story and in your life. And smile. And appreciate the magic. That moment.
with Andrey and Andrew

(Photos: Books Live and PEN SA)

Polish – Afrikaans magic

This morning I received the following message (in Afrikaans, nogal!):

“Koop vandag se Rapport! Groete Jerzy”

To which I automatically replied:

“Ek sal, baie dankie! K”

And I did. Inside, was an article about Jerzy Koch’s A History of South African Literature: Afrikaans Literature 17th – 19th Centuries (Van Schaik, 2015).
Jerzy Koch_Rapport
The article and our exchange reminded me of something I wrote for Die Burger in 2008.

Found in Translation: Two Poles in South Africa
(Die Burger 28 July 2008)

There is only a handful of people in his home country with whom the Pole Professor Jerzy Koch can easily converse in the language which over the last fifteen years has become his great linguistic passion – Afrikaans. His home in Wrocław in the South of Poland is perhaps the only place in the country where one will be welcomed with homemade bobotie and some biltong which always features on his shopping list whenever he visits South Africa.

When he is here, people are pleasantly surprised with his fluent and articulate Afrikaans and his incredibly diverse knowledge of local culture, literature and history. Koch’s work forms one of the strongest cultural and intellectual bridges between Poland and South Africa, and between the two languages, Polish and Afrikaans.

Suitably, his African adventure began with magic. Sometime in the 1980s, with his students of German, Koch was celebrating Andrzejki (St Andrew’s Day). According to Polish tradition, he poured some beeswax through the hole of a key into a bowl of cold water. The ensuing wax figurine, which was to foretell his future, was interpreted as having the shape of either a heart or of Africa. Not surprisingly, a few years later, Koch lost his heart to Africa when, after completing his doctorate at the Belgian Catholic University of Leuven, he participated in a conference in Potchefstroom in 1992.

In the introduction of his latest book, Hottentot Venus and Other Essays on South African Literature (published in Polish by Dialog, 2008), he recalls his fascination with South Africa of the early 1990s: “The fact that the transition in Poland was happening at the same time as the South African one made interest in South Africa, at least in my eyes, obvious.”

In 1993, our paths crossed for the first time in the most unusual manner and unbeknown to both of us at the time. After Daniel Hugo recited some of Ingrid Jonker’s verses to him at Three Anchor Bay, Koch translated a selection of Jonker’s poetry from Afrikaans into Polish. The volume was edited and published by WitrynArtystów, a small publishing house run by none other than my uncle, Bogusław Michnik. Jonker’s poetry collection was most likely the first book ever translated from Afrikaans into Polish. It is one of numerous translations from Dutch and Afrikaans for which Koch received the Martinus Nijhoffprijs in 1995.

Jerzy Koch is also the author of several monographs and numerous articles on South African literature in general, and Afrikaans literature in particular.
Jerzy Koch_booksHis previous book of local interest, History of South African Literature: Afrikaans Literature – 17th-19th Century, published in Polish in 2004, was the first study of its kind written by a non-South African for a non-South African audience. It is comprehensive, wonderfully illustrated history of Afrikaans literature which is an excellent point of entry for Polish students of South African studies at two Polish universities, University of Wrocław and the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, where Koch introduced this particular field of inquiry. In translation, it might offer an inspirationally fresh look at literary history for Afrikaans speakers.

Koch is currently working on the sequel to this publication, a history of twenty-century Afrikaans literature and on the first Afrikaans-Polish dictionary, apparently the fourth ever bilingual dictionary that includes Afrikaans. He is also editor of the annual publication Werkwinkel: Journal of Low Countries and South African Studies. Its third issue on its way to us as I write.

Jerzy Koch, André and I in Stellenbosch in 2006.

Jerzy Koch, André and I in Stellenbosch in 2006.

In South Africa, he is presently a research fellow at the UFS in Bloemfontein and since 2005 a member of the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns, an honour rarely bestowed on a foreign scholar.

Easily recognised by his old-fashioned, long, curled moustache, Jerzy Koch was, fittingly, the first person I ever spoke Polish to in South Africa when we met at last in person in 2006 during one of his visits to the Cape. Ever since I came to live here myself in 2005 I have been absorbing Afrikaans. One day, Jerzy Koch and I will have a conversation in Afrikaans about Langenhoven. We share a passion for this country, its people and their cultural treasures, believing that it is of the utmost importance to forge understanding between peoples through explorations of the unknown with the help of the known. And a little bit of magic.

(When André and I first visited my uncle who published Tęsknota za Kapsztadem, he proudly presented the volume to us, not in the least aware of the connection between Ingrid Jonker and André. He was just proud of having published a South African author in translation. I remember I had tears in my eyes when he handed the book over to us and I paged through it, looking for a poem dedicated to André. I found one, pointed at the dedication and then at André, and said to my uncle in Polish: “It’s the same person, you know.” Tears flooded all our eyes. Magic. And Jerzy and I texting to each other in Afrikaans – that’s magic, too.)