Monthly Archives: January 2018

Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Sing Unburied SingDespite her impressive résumé, I had not heard of Jesmyn Ward before her latest novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, was recommended to me by two local booksellers in the beginning of December. But I am thrilled that I finally came across her work. Ward is an American novelist and the first woman to win the prestigious National Book Award twice. This is no small feat, as she has only turned forty and Sing, Unburied, Sing is only her third novel. She received the National Book Award for it and its predecessor, Salvage the Bones (2011), but already her debut, Where the Lines Bleed (2008), was highly acclaimed. Ward is also the author of a memoir, Men We Reaped (2013), and the editor of an essay and poetry collection, The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race (2016). Her potential has been recognised with the famous MacArthur Fellowship, better known as the “Genius Grant” ($625,000 – allow a moment for this number to sink in) given to individuals residing in the United States who exemplify “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction”. I look forward to exploring more of her work, past and future.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is the story of a mother and a son and the people who shaped them. Leonie is thirty; she gave birth to Jojo when she was only seventeen. The two of them are the main narrators of the story. The third, Richie, is a ghost whose violent death is a mystery which has to be resolved for those who are still alive to find peace. Jojo first encounters him in Pop’s (his grandfather, Leonie’s dad) recollections of Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary, where now Jojo’s own father, Michael, is also serving a sentence. Leonie is black, Michael white. This is present-day Mississippi where these facts define everything about their lives. Leonie remembers when they met and Michael “saw” her: “saw past skin the colour of unmilked coffee, eyes black, lips the colour of plums, and saw me. Saw the walking wound I was, and came to be my balm.”

But Michael’s parents refuse to have anything to do with Leonie, her family, and their own flesh and blood, Jojo and his baby sister Kayla. Leonie thinks of her home as her “death-crowded household”. Mam, her mother and only grandmother her children have ever known, is dying of cancer. Her knowledge of plants and healing cannot save her life, but she has her spirituality to guide her through the darkest hour.

Given, Leonie’s only brother, was killed in what was officially described as a hunting accident, but was clearly murder. What makes the coming to terms with his death even more complicated is the fact that it was Michael’s cousin who pulled the trigger of the shotgun that killed him. Given’s ghost cannot rest and appears to his sister whenever she gets high. Drugs offer her escape from her obligations as a mother to her two children who share a bond of trust and care she can’t help being envious of. It is Jojo, not Leonie, Kayla turns to for comfort every time the little girl is distressed. Perhaps more than his mother, Jojo, although only on the cusp of adolescence, understands about the necessity to face the ruthless realities of life and its harsh responsibilities.

The novel opens early in the year with Jojo helping Pop slaughter one of the animals on their farm: “This spring is stubborn; most days, it won’t make way for warmth. The chill stays like water in a bad-draining tub.” The brutality and tenderness of the scene is overwhelming and sets the tone for the entire story. Ward’s stunning prose draws you in, makes you look, feel, as Jojo narrates his own emotions: “I don’t want him to read my slowness as fear, as weakness, as me not being old enough to look at death like a man should”. It is the day of Jojo’s thirteenth birthday and Leonie’s failure to celebrate the occasion as it should be makes her son remember how he stopped hearing the word “Mama” in his head in reference to her a long time ago. He calls Leonie by her name. In her insecurities, regrets and her ever-present anger, she does not know how to reclaim her true status in her children’s life.

Michael is about to be released from prison and Leonie decides to take Jojo, the baby and her friend Misty on a road trip to pick him up. Jojo is reluctant to go, but he has to take care of Kayla. As their car moves away from home, he takes heart from Pop “with his straight shoulders and his tall back, his pleading eyes the only thing that spoke to me in that moment and told me what he said without words: I love you, boy. I love you.” For most of the road trip, the narrative lacks the emotional intensity of the beginning and ending of the book, but my persistence to the revelations and beauty of the final pages was richly rewarded.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is set in the twenty-first century, but everything that happens to these characters is the result of hatreds and injustices going back to the horrors of the first ships crossing the waters of the Atlantic from Africa to the Americas with their human cargo on board. The layers of racism and violence resulting from these events of the distant past are congealed under the everyday of the present and constantly erupt to the surface, wanting to be acknowledged.

Pop tries to explain to Jojo how that passage, its waters, still move inside people, and eventually the young man understands “that getting grown means learning how to work that current: learning when to hold fast, when to drop anchor, when to let it sweep you up.” It is the sea and the suffering of its ghosts that flow through the hauntings of Sing, Unburied, Sing. What happened to Richie at Parchman lies at the core of all stories and reveals how the most terrifying aspect of violence is that sometimes it manifests as kindness. The elements of magic realism in Sing, Unburied, Sing echo one of greatest novels of all times, Toni Morrison’s classic Beloved, and the songs of Ward’s title resonate with the literary giant’s own. Jesmyn Ward is well poised to follow in her footsteps.

Sing, Unburied, Sing

by Jesmyn Ward

Bloomsbury, 2017

An edited version of this review first appeared in the Cape Times on 26 January 2018.

Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World by Lyndall Gordon

OutsidersBeyond Power: An Interview with Lyndall Gordon

 by Karina M. Szczurek

In 1915, Virginia Woolf emerged from a mental breakdown only to witness the madness of the Great War’s senseless slaughter. As a woman opposed to violence, she felt she had no country to call her own. Disillusioned, she encouraged women to form “the outsiders society”. Woolf is one of the women Lyndall Gordon includes in Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World.

The inspiration for the book came to her in 1975 on a train journey to Reading, where Gordon was to give a talk on D.H. Lawrence. “It was early morning, a beautiful day,” she remembers, “I suddenly thought I wanted to write a book about women through the generations, and the kind of ideas they had about how the world could be.” The creative seed for Outsiders was planted, but Gordon went on to author six individual biographies – of T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Brontë, Henry James, Mary Wollstonecraft and Emily Dickinson – as well as two memoirs before embarking on the envisaged project.

Lyndall GordonGordon’s entire oeuvre, however, makes it clear that the vision from the train did not remain dormant. Even when writing the two men’s biographies, she focused on the women who shaped their creative consciousness. Daring to conceptualise a contrasting reality to the insanity of our present, she is drawn to women who, like James’s Isabel Archer “affront their destiny”.

It is late morning when we meet in her light-flooded flat in Sea Point. Her permanent home is overseas but she always returns to the Cape with longing. An ardent writer and, in person, also a compelling storyteller, she enriches the conversation with her remarkable memory as luminous literary quotes and insights soar from her lips.

Looking out to sea from where we sit, it is easy to picture Woolf’s “fin of a submerged form lurking in the waves.” Much is at risk. Outsiders, a “dispersed biography”, is unlike Gordon’s other work. She recalls her apprehension before it went to print. A culmination of four decades of meticulous consideration, the book is a record of revolutionary outlooks. Interweaving the intellectual and creative work of “prodigy” Mary Shelley, “visionary” Emily Brontë, “outlaw” George Eliot, “orator” Olive Schreiner, and “explorer” Virginia Woolf, Gordon shows how these “outsiders” imagined a new world order into existence. By staying true to themselves, the five defied norms and expectations.

“I wanted to show how these women looked at what is crude, ugly, abusive, dismaying in human nature, but then found a voice that was a different strain in civilised men and women: Mary Wollstonecraft spoke of ‘tenderness’ and George Eliot of ‘sympathy’.” Each rebelled against inequality and misogyny. “Power is rotten,” Gordon says, appalled at the hunger for it, in men and women alike. “I feel like an outsider as a feminist because I don’t think power is a good thing.” At the very core of this book is what Gordon refers to as “an alternative to power”. The Brontë sisters were criticised as “brutal, unwomanly” for exposing domestic violence in their novels, she points out. “This speaks right to this time when there is a tsunami of public opinion sweeping everywhere with the #MeToo Campaign.” The challenge of silence surrounding victims of power persists.

Gordon quotes the young Jane Eyre: “Speak, I must.” For the five writers speaking was a “creative and moral act”. Gordon herself believes in “being a moral being” and explains: “The moral being inside me is responding in a small way to the gigantic moral being in all these writers.” They wanted to be seen for who they believed themselves to be. Their legacy endures because of the intellectual and emotional potential they unlocked for us to recognise. It dazzles in Outsiders.

(An edited version of this article first appeared in the Sunday Times on 21 January 2018.)

Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World

by Lyndall Gordon

Virago, 2017

Review by Karina M. Szczurek

In the epigraph of her Outsiders: Five Women Who Changed the World, Lyndall Gordon quotes one of the subjects of the book, George Eliot: “Souls live on in perpetual echoes”. The four other “outsiders” she writes about are Virginia Woolf, Olive Schreiner, Emily Brontë and Mary Shelley. Another great literary soul looms large in the lives of these writers – the formidable women’s rights champion Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley’s mother who died shortly after giving birth to her. Schreiner described her as “one of ourselves”.

In 1787, Wollstonecraft famously proclaimed that she was “the first of a new genus”. She unmistakably was, and the five remarkable women on which Outsiders focuses clearly belong in the same novel category. Because of their ingenious outlooks and their bold defiance of norms, they were all outsiders in their societies in one way or another: “In a period when a woman’s reputation was her treasured security, each of these five lost it. Each endured the darkness of social exclusion.”

In her foreword, Gordon specifies why she has chosen these five “outsider voices rising in the course of the nineteenth century: a prodigy, a visionary, an outlaw, an orator and an explorer. To my mind, they came, they saw and left us changed.” I remember what discovering Wollstonecraft and these five writers she inspired meant for me as a young woman and as an aspiring author. Even if we might not realise it, we owe many of our freedoms and rights to these pathbreakers. When Mary Shelley ran away with the still then married Percy Bysshe and soon after published Frankenstein (first anonymously in 1818), which was to become one the best-known novels of all times, respectable women obeyed their fathers and “did not indulge in a public arena”. To speak out as a woman was seen as “unnatural”, to publish an aberration. William Makepeace Thackeray admired Emily Brontë’s writing, but “thought it driven by a spinster’s ‘hunger’ for a man. If she had a husband, he said, she’d have no need to write.” This attitude persists and will be familiar to modern women writers and intellectuals. Back in the nineteenth century, “Emily’s unsociable habits and unwillingness to please must be seen in this gendered context, which makes her no freak: rather a woman courageous enough to resist absurd norms.” Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf thought her “gigantic”. Her Wuthering Heights (1847) endures through the ages, engaging generations of readers in myriad ways.

Genius cannot be explained, Gordon notes. It often refuses to be silenced, even if it can only be articulated in private. The subjects of Outsiders joined the fictional heroine, Jane Eyre, in emphatically stating “Speak I must.” Whether it was in public or in their intimate communications, they wrote against their silencing, and their voices continue to resound.

Denied proper education, which was usually reserved for the men in their families, these women were mostly self-taught. They sought out the company of those who recognised their brilliance and in some cases entered relationships with the men who truly saw them for who they were, with whom they could “communicate with unlimited freedom”, as Mary Shelley felt she could with her husband or George Eliot did with her lover, George Lewes. But Mary Ann Evans (which was the given name of the author of Middlemarch), first “glimpsed the possibility of being a different sort of woman” in her uncle’s wife who was considered “strange” in her time when she became a Methodist preacher; her “candour” and “sympathy” for the young Mary Ann inspired the future novelist, editor and essayist.

Like Mary Ann and the Brontë sisters, Olive Schreiner ventured into the publishing world under a male pseudonym. She published The Story of an African Farm as Ralph Iron. However, when her true identity surfaced, it became “an asset with the rise of the New Woman in the 1890s.”

It was Mary Shelley’s stepsister Claire Clairmont who “dreamt up in her night-time confab with Shelley: ‘a subterraneous community of women’.” And it is this community that has been sustaining the “outsiders” through the ages until they could reclaim their rightful place. “Schreiner’s voice is a link in the chain coming down from Mary Wollstonecraft, whose watchword was ‘tenderness’, and George Eliot, whose watchword was ‘sympathy’.” Both Schreiner and Wollstonecraft “want to elicit what is distinctive in women’s experience with a view to constructing a different world” and the former strongly believed that “there lies something deeper” for women to attain beyond the vote, independence and education.

Since the publication of her first biography in 1977, Gordon herself has been considering these ‘depths’ in the biographies and memoirs she has published. Life writing is a way of seeing, recognising. Nowhere is it as evident as in Outsiders, this “dispersed biography”. Gordon reminds us of Woolf’s essay “The Art of Biography” (1938): “a biographer, she says, ‘can give us much more than another fact to add to our collection’. A biographer can give us rather ‘the creative fact; the fertile fact; the fact that suggests and engenders’.” Outsiders thrives precisely in this kind of terrain and continues to examine Woolf’s question about “the true nature of women”.

The writers Gordon depicts fought for equality but not at all cost; they understood the corrosive quality of power. For Eliot “imagination” and “imaginative sympathy” were to “replace ill-feeling, scoring, greed, all base forms of aggression.” She and the other “outsiders” sought something different, a way of being beyond power and violence, especially when it manifests as, in Schreiner’s words, “the bestiality and insanity” of war. Today, Schreiner’s “dreams of women to be are like dispatches from an unmapped land, a country everyone knew existed, but still unseen.”

Lyndall Gordon’s mother named her after Schreiner’s protagonist from The Story of an African Farm who believed: “Men are like the earth and we are like the moon; we turn always one side to them, and they think there is no other, because they don’t see it – but there is.” Indeed. By recalling and amplifying these voices from the past, Gordon is addressing our present. Through her five subjects’ lives, their genius and creativity, she allows us a glimpse of a world without the abuse of power, one without violence – a world at peace. What saddens me is that I will probably not live long enough to see this alternative vision become reality. It remains, however, up to us to nourish the dream and for future generations to realise it.

(An edited version of this review was first published in the Cape Times on 29 December 2017.)


Warning: Essence Festival, ARTiCULATE Africa, Durban

To all writers:

On 18 December 2017, I sent the following letter to Darryl Earl David, the eThekwini Municipality, the eThekwini Municipal Library, the Essence Festival, the Book and Art Fair ARTiCULATE Africa, and the UNESCO Creative Cities Network:

At the end of August 2017, I was invited by the eThekwini Municipality and the eThekwini Municipal Library to Durban to participate in the city’s second Book and Art Fair, ARTiCULATE Africa, as part of the Essence Festival. Hosted by the eThekwini’s Parks, Recreation and Culture Service Unit between 28 September and 1 October, the fair offered a platform for local and international writers to speak about their work. The invitation was sent to me by the curator of the Book and Art Fair, Darryl Earl David, and offered the following: a return flight to King Shaka International Airport in Durban, accommodation for the duration of my stay, transport to and from the airport, and an honorarium for my participation. After I accepted the invitation and confirmed my attendance, I was asked to invoice the Essence Festival for my participation and to supply other supporting documents – which I did. I was told that all my documents were in order and that I would be paid soon after the festival. It is now two-and-a-half months later and I – and, as far as I could establish, all other participants (apart from two who insisted and received an advance of 50% on their fee) – have still not been paid despite repeated assurances from officials that the matter was on the verge of being resolved. I am not only concerned by this unacceptable delay of payments, but that we might not be paid at all. I was informed that participants of the first ARTiCULATE Africa suffered a similar fate, and since 11 December none of the people responsible for this year’s payments have been replying to my letters. This is no way to treat anyone under any circumstances, but especially not writers by a city named as the first UNESCO City of Literature in Africa.

My experience and concerns are shared by the following local and international participants who asked their names to be added to this letter: [names of half of the participants].

We would like to urge you all to make sure that all the participants of ARTiCULATE Africa are immediately remunerated for their work.

Thank you.


Karina M. Szczurek

The first payments were made to a few participants within a few hours of my letter being sent. This might be a coincidence but, under the circumstances, I doubt it. On 20 January, a Durban-based journalist investigating the story wrote to me and asked for comment. It might be another coincidence that my own cheque was deposited into my account that day (but was cleared by the bank only in early January, three months after my attendance of the festival!). Nearly every day, I keep receiving letters from other participants who have still not been paid (one just came in while I am typing this text), despite several further interventions by them and Darryl Earl David. No official apology was ever issued by the people responsible for the fiasco. No one, apart from the woman responsible for depositing the cheques and David, has acknowledged the letter above. I doubt I will ever be invited back, but it does not matter, because after all this humiliating begging for what is owed to us – payment for our work – I cannot imagine going through this process again. I am putting this on my blog to warn other writers: should you be invited, please demand to be paid in advance – don’t go otherwise. It is actually not worth it. I have been to numerous festivals and book fairs and have never been treated in such a way before. I had a great time while in Durban, but all my memories of the event are soured by the experience of what happened afterwards. It is simply unacceptable.