Monthly Archives: April 2016

FLF 2016: my scheduled events

FRIDAY 13 May:

Water coverStationsAffluenza

[45] 16h00 Writers of few(er) words

Karina Szczurek chats to Mark Winkler (Ink), Nick Mulgrew (Stations) and Niq Mhlongo (Affluenza) about the art of keeping it short while ensuring impact.



[67] 11h30 Writing relationships

Under the Udala TreeLike It MattersPleasure

Chinelo Okparanta (Under the Udala Trees), David Cornwell (Like It Matters) and Nthikeng Mohlele (Pleasure) get to the heart of how writers depict love, sex and friendship through their characters. Chaired by Karina Szczurek (Invisible Others).

[74] 13h00 André Brink Memorial Lecture

Sindiwe MagonaAndré

(Photographs: Victor Dlamini)

Karina Szczurek welcomes you to the second annual lecture in honour of her late husband André Brink, and will introduce Sindiwe Magona (prolific author and writer-in-residence, University of the Western Cape). She will offer an outsider’s take on this giant of South African letters in a talk titled “André Brink: enigma, betrayer, villain or hero?”    


SUNDAY 15 May:

[116] 11h30 Literary letters

Everyday MattersFeatured Image -- 1244

Finuala Dowling chairs a discussion with Margaret Daymond (Everyday Matters: Selected letters of Dora Taylor, Bessie Head and Lilian Ngoyi), Karin Schimke (Flame in the Snow) and Karina Szczurek (Flame in the Snow), about what the personal correspondence of significant figures reveals about their writing, themes and lives.

Book tickets here: FLF 2016 




KARINA M. SZCZUREK is the author of Truer than Fiction: Nadine Gordimer Writing Post-Apartheid South Africa. She is also the editor of Touch: Stories of Contact, Encounters with André Brink; Contrary: Critical Responses to the Novels of André Brink (with Willie Burger), and the 2015 SSDA anthology, Water: New Short Fiction from Africa (with Nick Mulgrew). She also writes short stories, essays and literary criticism. Her debut novel Invisible Others was published in 2014.

Review: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes AirReading dead authors is not unusual, but opening the late Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air feels different. He wrote it knowing he was dying and it was published by his widow a year after his death. The immediacy of the knowledge is uncannily palpable. For me, the experience was even more intimate on two different levels. Firstly, I also had a cancer scare recently and Kalanithi was my age when he died. In retrospect, his memoir made me count my blessings, again, as I am healthy and have escaped with just a fright. Secondly, like me, as a young person he struggled to choose between two vocations: medicine and literature. Unlike me though, he chose medicine. But literary longings had never left him and when life became unbearable, like many of us he found some amount of solace in the written word.

The striking title of the book derives from lines of an Elizabethan sonnet: “You that seek what life is in death, / Now find it air that once was breath.” To contemplate it alone is already an experience in itself. In the forward, we are told: “Be ready. Be seated. See what courage sounds like.” Can one ever be ready for death? I doubt it, especially not when at the age of thirty-six, with the most promising medical career ahead, you look at a CT scan of your lungs and become aware that they are riddled with tumours.

At this stage of his life, Paul is about to complete the decade-long training necessary for becoming a professor of neurosurgery. He is married to Lucy, also a doctor. Because their relationship is strained, he does not know at first how to break the dreadful news to her.

When Breath Becomes Air tells Paul’s story before and after the lethal verdict. We see his aspirations taking him to the heights of what is possible in his field. Every day he is confronted with illness, decay, and death – of others. He is constantly challenged to question what makes life meaningful. Some of the descriptions of his daily routines as a medical student and doctor are not for the faint-hearted. Even less so is the narrative of him becoming a patient. It is gut-wrenching to realise how the potential Paul had worked so hard to build will “go unrealised”. With searing honesty, he describes his attempts at making the most of the time left at his disposal and the ambition that drives him in the face of ultimate defeat. He writes how, paradoxically, the illness heals his marriage, and how he makes the courageous decision to become a father to a child who will most likely not remember him. Knowing that his words will outlive him, he writes the book.

When Breath Becomes Air is published with a beautiful epilogue by Lucy, “his wife and a witness”, who carries on with “love and gratitude alongside the terrible sorrow, the grief so heavy that at times I shiver and moan under the weight of it.”

When Breath Becomes Air

by Paul Kalanithi

The Bodley Head, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times, 22 April 2016.

Review: Affluenza by Niq Mhlongo

AffluenzaEvery new book by Niq Mhlongo is literature to my ears. His three novels, Dog Eat Dog (2004), After Tears (2007) and Way Back Home (2013), were fresh, gritty and not to be ignored. Reading them in sequence you witness a writer coming into his own, developing an unmistakably individual voice that captures a historical moment like no other. That moment for Mhlongo is now. If you want to take the pulse of present-day South Africa, you can turn to his work for insight.

Dog Eat Dog encapsulates the lives of a group of Wits students at the time of the first democratic elections. After Tears describes the challenges and disillusionments of their generation after graduation. In Way Back Home the characters have seemingly made it, but their lives are haunted by greed, corruption and ghosts from their past. Never afraid to tell it like it is, Mhlongo offers a brutally honest glance into contemporary South Africa.

In his first short-story collection, Affluenza, he continues in this vein, but at the same time the writing is even grittier. Four of the eleven stories were published before. The topics range from farm murder, suicide, and paternity to animal attacks in a game park. Mhlongo does not shy away from difficult discussions surrounding the issues of race, gender, sexuality or class, pointing to the horrendous levels of miscommunication arising when people approach one another with bigotry…

Continue reading: LitNet

Silver linings: Stranger by Sihle Ntuli

StrangerThe thing with poetry is that it either works for you or it doesn’t. I do not know many people who read it for pleasure. Nowadays, poetry certainly seems to be an acquired taste. I often abstain myself, prose being my staple food. But every now and then a poem or, if I am lucky, an entire volume comes along that makes my heart swell with gladness. Sihle Ntuli’s Stranger is one of those gems. The author asked me to review his debut poetry collection. I do not know why, but I am delighted, and honoured, that he did.

Divided into six parts, Stranger offers a glimpse into contemporary South Africa from the perspective of a keen observer with a distinct, edgy voice. Ntuli might be only in his mid-twenties, but his sense of perception is sharp beyond his years. From the first poem to the last, the reader is drawn into the kaleidoscope of his world and its vivid patterns. In “kwa mashu f section bus stop”, commuters’ souls are whisked away to places where they attempt to make a living, “as billboards block the sun”, feeding their impossible dreams. The distinction between the crushing greyness of daily existence and the possibility of a golden life of opportunity features in other poems, such as “friday”. Here the moving opening lines:


in between creases on foreheads

living has folded thoughts

into blankets and sheets

unfolded in dreams


to lie down to pillow talk

to walk behind grey matters

to watch brain revolving around desires unfulfilled


my grey life upon eyes

the all-seeing eye


the sun losing colour when it dies

the aggressive night

black blood protrudes

moon blows cold wind on wounds

the heart weighing tons upon tons


living life like it’s golden is expensive

it costs a lot to be virtuous and true


Ntuli writes about the reality of the South African township and being a young man in contemporary South Africa, but his vision goes beyond. He captures universal moments of hardship, the kind of poverty which does not only manifest in material lack, but also in the soul, which longs for beauty and is confronted with despair instead. “monday” chronicles the exhaustion and hopelessness of the everyday which is hard to overcome: “the phrase ‘things change’ / speaks only to those who expect to get returns” and the “spoon through your chest” brings out both “blood and beauty / as you love and feel pain in the same colour”.

Violence and loss are linked, the brutality and pulse of street life exposed. Occasionally, to cope you hope for escape, take some pill or other substance: “mind coming to age / life and bland taste / less trouble”. That substance can be love; no matter, as long as it alters your consciousness and your ability to feel. The mind wants to flee the desolate, hostile world. The wish to tell it like it is, though, is clearly there – the need to separate illusion from truth. Ntuli reads the world, its delusions and dreams, and tries to navigate the difference.

At the same time, he offers moments of unbearable tenderness, as in a phrase like “silence in your eyelids”, or my favourite poem of the collection, “the walls”:


the everyday

should not seep

through           the walls


it is behind these walls

that truth undresses

then lies


Grief is palpable in many poems, captured most poignantly in a few lines in the last stanza of “late”: “early morning / dressed in black / the sun rose / our flowers on top of caskets / the late as candles”. His images are striking, definitely not easily forgotten, thus his words do not die on the page but continue a life of their own through the associations they awaken in the mind of each and every reader who immerses herself in them.

The title of the collection resonates throughout, but is most strongly captured in “the stranger”: “towards him / they throw adjectives / the suffocating symphony / the injustice / words slant to one side / lying”. Race, skin colour, otherness, and contrasts between ordinary lives lived in obscurity and silver linings shining on the horizons whether in words or sunsets bring with them a palette of visual impressions which Ntuli makes us reconsider. Nothing is just a colour: “i sit on the side silently / living life like it’s silver / as the lining is blocked by the roof”.

Recurring in the collection are references to music. It is in the rhythm of every poem, “between jazzy notes without words”. Like music, the lines are meditative, haunting, thought-provoking. They help us negotiate the world, “moved by thoughts that have no rhythm”. But unlike one of his narrator’s contemporaries who seem to be more interested in being DJs rather than poets, as many in the struggle were (“gospel gold”), Ntuli carves out his creative space in words. His is a new struggle: for his own voice, for the recognition of his reality and vision.


Stranger by Sihle Ntuli

Aerial Publishing, 2015


Review by Karina Magdalena Szczurek

Review: The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

WintersonJeanette Winterson is one of my favourite writers of fiction and non-fiction. Her recent memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal (2011) was a revelation. I was introduced to her work at university with the by now classic novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985). Her Lighthousekeeping (2004) is one of the most moving love stories I have ever read. Among many texts, it echoes Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The main character Silver reappears in other Winterson novels. As does the line: “Tell me a story.” Winterson is known for her retellings of myths and legends, her writing is rich in intertextuality. I loved her modern rendering of the Atlas myth, Weight (2005).

The Gap of Time, Winterson’s latest novel, is also a cover version of a famous classic, no other than Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. It is the first book in a series launched in October last year which aims to reimagine Shakespearean works for our generation. Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name was published last month. Upcoming titles include such promising treats as Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood’s take on The Tempest, or Gillian Flynn’s version of Hamlet.

One does not have to be a Shakespeare buff to enjoy The Gap of Time. For those unfamiliar with The Winter’s Tale, the original is summarised in the beginning of the book. But Winterson’s brilliant interpretation is self-reliant and can be read independently.

“The story has to start somewhere”, but not necessarily at the beginning. The Gap of Time begins in the middle: Shep, a jazz bar owner, and his son Clo witness a murder. At the same time, they discover a little girl “as light as a star” in a baby hatch of a hospital nearby. Because the child reawakens Shep’s belief in love, which he lost when his beloved wife died of cancer, he decides to adopt her.

The story moves back in time to when the ruthless businessman Leo accuses his wife pregnant wife MiMi of having an affair with their best friend Xeno, and of carrying his child. Although both deny the accusation vehemently, Leo attempts to kill Xeno and refuses to acknowledge his daughter when she is born. His rampant jealousy results in a tragedy which leaves no one unscathed.

Years later, fate leads two young people to fall into love, but their respective family histories might ruin their chance at happiness. With great emotional and psychological depth, Winterson’s tale examines the notions of family and what it means to love, “to know something worth knowing, wild and unlikely and against every rote.” She exposes the foolishness of taking love for granted and allowing chances at redemption to slip us by.

As Winterson writes in the end, the reason Shakespeare endures is because stories of revenge, tragedy and forgiveness are universal. This superb twenty-first century retelling speaks straight to our contemporary, post-Freudian consciousness and touches our ancient hearts which continue longing for the recognition of the magic they are capable of.

The Gap of Time

by Jeanette Winterson

Hogarth Shakespeare, 2015

Review first published in the Cape Times, 1 April 2016.


Book mark: The Chameleon House by Melissa de Villiers

The Chameleon HouseMelissa de Villiers was born in Grahamstown and educated at Rhodes, but she is a citizen of the world. She lives in Singapore, travels widely, and often returns to South Africa. The nine stories in her debut The Chameleon House are informed by migrations. The concept of home is interrogated, as is contemporary South Africa and its difficult past, “old ways unextinguished and forever edging forward, smudging boundaries”. A woman inherits her grandfather’s weekend house and with it the question of ownership. Another is the victim of sly abuse. An illicit couple is caught up in a blackout. Lust and power mingle with loneliness, an “emptiness – desolate and cold – that would claim her should her hold on him flicker and fail.” Loyalties are tested when four friends sharing a house in London unwittingly harbour a traitor among them. This is powerful storytelling from a writer to watch.

The Chameleon House

by Melissa de Villiers

Modjaji, 2015

First published in the Cape Times, 25 March 2016.

Book mark: Unsettled and Other Stories by Sandra Hill

UnSettledThe feeling one is left with after reading Sandra Hill’s debut story collection Unsettled is reflected in the title of the book. Hill paints vivid portraits of what it means to be a woman in different places and times. It is a finely layered picture of the everyday and the unusual. The mother of one of the characters insists that one should read poetry “slowly, expectantly, the way you eat oysters”, as the “magic…comes after you swallow.” Although every story is a fully contained piece, read together, they acquire that magic of swallowing oysters. Saturated with local flavours, settings, history, Unsettled offers evocative, intimate glimpses of women’s lives – their dreams, desires, worries and regrets – many readers will find uncannily familiar, sometimes perhaps difficult to acknowledge: “Life can take us away from where we belong, but we don’t lose the longing for it… If we are lucky we get to make our way back.”

Unsettled and Other Stories

by Sandra Hill

Modjaji, 2015

First published in the Cape Times, 25 March 2016.