Monthly Archives: October 2017

Review: Self-Portrait with Dogwood by Christopher Merrill

Self-portrait with Doogwood review

“Trees and words branch into memoir”

Christopher Merrill is a highly acclaimed American poet, translator and editor. He is also the author of several books of nonfiction, including The Grass of Another Country: A Journey Through the World of Soccer and Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars. He recently visited Durban for the Articulate Africa Art and Book Fair where he spoke about his latest work, a memoir with the irresistible title Self-Portrait with Dogwood. Published earlier this year, the book is a series of vignettes about central episodes in Merrill’s life, all involving varieties of the dogwood tree. It might sound peculiar, but it is a delightful way of presenting a life.

“The average lifespan of a flowering dogwood is eighty years, and at the approach of my sixtieth birthday it occurred to me that I might create a self-portrait in relation to a tree that from an early age I have regarded as a talisman. Not a memoir, strictly speaking, but a literary exploration of certain events through the lens of nature”, Merrill writes in the prologue. His approach to the project and his elegant prose are reminiscent of the work of the great American essayist Anne Fadiman, whose own memoir, The Wine Lover’s Daughter, is to be published next month.

The individual chapters of Self-Portrait with Dogwood loosely follow the chronology of Merrill’s life, but never in the way you would expect. The structure challenges our “way of thinking about the tradition of writing memoirs.” Merrill begins with a seemingly typical childhood story of building “a fort under the dogwood tree” near the border of the neighbour’s property, but weaves the military history and legendary heroism of the region into his narrative. Mr Wright, their neighbour, was a Native American and the young Christopher played war with his son Michael, their childhoods infiltrated by the reality of the Cuban missile crisis and the Vietnam War. Mr Wright was responsible for conscientising Merrill by challenging his family’s political allegiances and making him aware about the destruction of the environment and the need to protect it.

Upon revisiting his early home as an adult, the absence of his dogwood tree prompts Merrill to note “that in addition to our inordinate fondness for shaping history by military means we are also adept at waging war on nature.” In his life, Merrill has been entangled in both styles of warfare and, as a passionate conservationist and cultural diplomat, has tried to steer the global consciousness towards better understanding of the perils involved.

Wars lurk behind many of Merrill’s enquiries and memories, but none as vividly as the one he finds himself in the middle of in the early 1990s in the former Yugoslavia. The memoir also includes outlandish stories about dogwoods. Experts have suggested that the trees might have been used in the Trojan War, perhaps even to build the infamous horse. A popular poem claims that the cross Jesus was crucified on was made of dogwood. “The dogwood, then, as metaphor – of the march of civilization, the Passion, growth and decline, love and war.” Merill writes about “dogwood diplomacy”, which was “the nickname bestowed upon a State Department initiative to promote friendship with Japan” and about why he was not allowed to visit the only two places in Russia where dogwood trees can be found.

He calls dogwood his “totem tree” and describes the role it played as witness to all crucial events of his life. In one of the most touching stories, Merrill recalls the pair of kousa dogwoods at the entrance to a park in Iowa City where he now lives with his family. The health of one of his daughters began deteriorating rapidly without apparent medical cause. The dogwoods in the park were in full bloom when she was at her lowest, but “acquired talismanic significance” during their visit and allowed Merrill to hope for her recovery. When they visited at the end of the season, and the trees were heavy with fruit, she was properly diagnosed and improving.

In his memoir, Merrill pays tribute to a few remarkable people who shaped him: a friend who became increasingly delusional at the same time as attempting to discuss the meaning of life via the literary greats with him; Charlie Ed, an African American who taught him what true disenfranchisement was and with whom Merrill worked in a lumberyard after getting in trouble with the police for drug possession; Jerry Munro, the owner of the nursery in which he worked for many years; and the poet Agha Shahid Ali, his dearest friend who died of brain cancer.

The words and wisdoms of writers like Herman Hesse, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Rachel Carson, and Henry David Thoreau dapple the narrative like light through a tree canopy. We turn to them for guidance and solace, especially in brutal times. Merrill describes his own experience of the post-9/11 era and trying to make sense of the layers of trauma surrounding the event.

As a wordsmith himself, Merrill acknowledges the fascinating idea that there might be a connection between trees and language as their branches attract birds and thus perhaps they inspire music: “Linguists posit that sometime in the last hundred thousand years our ancestors began to imitate birdsong and monkey alarm calls in delight, boredom, or terror, depending on the circumstances; the fusion of these two finite systems of communication from the animal world produced a third system, seemingly infinite, capable of conveying holistic messages. The integration hypothesis of human language evolution proposes that the combination of avian music and primate warning, the expressive and lexical layers of meaning, gave rise to grammar, and the rest in history – which is to say, the history of speech.” It is a marvellous way of looking at how one of our greatest feats – language – can be traced back to trees.

“In the nursery trade, dogwoods are called ornamentals, their flowering a highlight of spring.” Merrill’s writing feels like that kind of flowering: gentle, beautiful, full of life.

Self-Portrait with Dogwood


Self-Portrait with Dogwood

by Christopher Merrill

Trinity University Press, 2017


An edited version of this review was first published in the Cape Times, 13 October 2017.



Review: Khwezi – The remarkable story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo by Redi Tlhabi

Khwezi“What is it about our society that excuses these monsters? Why are we not holding people accountable on all levels?” Redi Tlhabi asked at the recent Cape Town launch of her latest book, Khwezi: The remarkable story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo. She was referring to the horrifying prevalence of sexual violence in South Africa and our inability to prevent it as well as to offer justice to its victims. In Khwezi, Tlhabi demonstrates how the legal system and we, as society, have failed the victims of sexual violence in general, and one person in particular: Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, for over a decade known to most of us only as Khwezi – the woman who decided to fight for her right to safety and dignity and accused Jacob Zuma of rape when he ignored both by having sex with her without her consent on 2 November 2005. Zuma was acquitted of the rape charge in May 2006. Kuzwayo, vilified and violated by his supporters, had to flee the country.

“We managed to carry on,” Tlhabi reminded us at the launch. “This should have been a turning point for South Africa, but it wasn’t.” Perhaps the publication of this brave and incisive book is giving us another chance a decade later. It is compulsory reading for anyone wanting to understand where we are as a country, as a people.

After years in exile, Kuzwayo returned to South Africa and agreed to work with Tlhabi to reclaim her name and life, but while we all now can read her story and know her by her real name, her life was tragically cut short when she died of AIDS-related causes a year ago.

“Here I am, attending a funeral instead of a triumphant book launch”, Tlhabi writes, continuing: “She was adamant – she would attend the launch and I was to introduce her by her real name.” But on 15 October 2016, Tlhabi, along other women, carried Kuzwayo’s casket at her funeral: “I was convinced that the book had died with her, that I could claim no moral authority for writing her story now that she was no longer here to vouch for it, but being in Durban that day gave me courage to carry on… This is her story.”

In an interview, Kuzwayo tells Tlhabi: “It was important for me to say to him, you cannot come onto my body and just do what you want to do. And soil me like that.” She adds: “I never saw myself as Zuma’s accuser, Zuma’s victim, or Zuma’s anything. I do not want any attachment to that man.”

In the book, Tlhabi gives us an insight into Kuzwayo’s restless and intricate life. Growing up in exile, the daughter of Mandla Judson Kuzwayo, a Umkhonto we Sizwe hero who died in a car accident when she was a child, and Beauty Kuzwayo, an actress who struggled to take care of her family after her husband’s death, the young Fezekile had to face displacement, loss and insecurity and survived three rapes before she turned fourteen. Repeatedly traumatised, she suffered from depression and anxiety. But her hunger for life and her irrevocable trust in the goodwill of people shine through. A trust that often exasperated those who loved her, also the author of her memoir. Tlhabi portrays Kuzwayo in all her beauty and troubled complexity and does not gloss over the tangled aspects of her personality.

Kuzwayo emerges from the pages a woman who had been asked to negotiate unbearable pain and yet retained her integrity throughout, even when an entire mob of manipulators, crooks, and seemingly well-meaning people was set to prove otherwise. Tlhabi recalls several episodes from the Zuma’s rape trial which are shocking, but we allowed them to happen on our watch. The most sickening is Adv Kemp trying to imply that Kuzwayo as a child gave consent to have sex with adult men. Judge van der Merwe did not stop this line of questioning, nor did he protest the invasive, unforgiveable questioning about her sexuality. They showed no understanding of trauma, nor the cultural traditions Kuzwayo grew up with.

“There are times when the legal, ethical and moral truths come together,” Tlhabi said this week at the Book Lounge, “but this was not one of those times.” However, she states unequivocally: “I believe her.”

Khwezi is Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo. Khwezi is many women. Tlhabi relates Zuma’s inappropriate behaviour towards her and tells the story of one of her colleagues who had a similar experience. The memoir is “about every woman in South Africa,” she said. Khwezi is also I. Anyone affected by sexual predation knows how convoluted the issues of complicity, consent and shame we deal with are. “Not all men, but all women,” my psychologist told me at the time when I struggled to articulate my feelings when I was violated a year ago. “Not all men are monsters,” she said, “but all women experience forms of violation in their lives.” Terrifying but true. Patriarchy, entitlement, violence, denialism – past and present – have to be challenged and exposed. Breaking the silence is extremely difficult: “I could not imagine any woman coming forward to accuse a powerful man of rape after how Khwezi had been treated”, Tlhabi writes. But Kuzwayo and Tlhabi encourage victims and survivors of sexual violence and predatory behaviour to speak out and to fight for our integrity, safety and dignity. Tlhabi once told Kuzwayo: “even when justice is denied, withheld, perpetrators must know that we know who they are and how they operate. At least some of these horrible experiences must be written about. If not to document personal pain and loss, perhaps provide teachable moments for future generations?” More than ever we need “to have a meaningful and transformative conversation about sexual violence and the language of power.” As Tlhabi states: “If we are to declare ‘Remember Khwezi’, then we must do so boldly, courageously, honestly.” As she does in her ground-breaking book.

Khwezi: The remarkable story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo

by Redi Tlhabi

Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2017

First published in the Cape Times on 6 October 2017.

Review: Colour Me Yellow – Searching for my family truth by Thuli Nhlapo

Colour-Me-YellowReading Thuli Nhlapo’s powerful memoir, Colour Me Yellow, two thoughts dominated my mind. The book reminded me of a Polish saying that “families are best in photographs”. It also made me think of what Mphuthumi Ntabeni said at the recent Open Book Festival: “We need to address the failures of our traditions.” At the same time, I was overcome by an array of emotions. I was seething at the injustice of what happened to Nhlapo throughout her life, while simultaneously being filled with incredible sorrow for the child she once was and the deepest admiration for the woman she became.

Colour Me Yellow tells one of the most heart-wrenching stories I’ve ever read. Nhlapo grows up with her mother telling her: “I hated being pregnant with you. I used to cry the whole day. I hated carrying you in my stomach. It was such an embarrassment for me and my family.” Wherever she turns, she meets with abuse, neglect and lies. No one wants to tell her the truth about why she is treated differently to her siblings, other family members, and the rest of the community. She feels alienated and scared. “What’s it like to be a normal child?” she wonders. She realises that she is never called by her name. To survive these ordeals, she develops two strategies, to become as invisible as possible so as not to attract any attention and the accompanying inexplicable brutality, and to excel at everything that she does to prove her worth.

“Since all my attempts to be accepted were unsuccessful, I gave up. It was useless to try to smile when I knew I was not wanted.” She reads and watches Bruce Lee films to escape reality. She does extremely well at school and despite all the adversity she experiences, begins to study, eventually graduating and entering the professional world on a high. She also gives birth to two sons and navigates the challenges of motherhood and work as well as the demands her family makes on her as a provider.

But years of denial and dishonesty take their toll: “My only quest was to find the truth”, she writes. She embarks on a mission to find the reason for all the hostility she encountered from her family and beyond. She wants to understand why she was never wanted. Eventually, a family member tells her to go to an address where she will find out everything about her real roots. The people she faces there shock her, but although, at last, they are willing to claim her as their own, she continues feeling that she does not belong. She persists and finally uncovers the truth about her origins. The revelation will have you reeling.

Today, Nhlapo is an acclaimed journalist and television producer. Colour Me Yellow is a portrayal of endurance and courage in the face of true evil. It is also a stark reminder of the ability of truth to set us free and the resilience of the human spirit.

Colour Me Yellow: Searching for my family truth

by Thuli Nhlapo

Kwela, 2017

Review first published in the Cape Times on 29 September 2017.