Monthly Archives: March 2018

Review: Navigate by Karin Schimke

Navigate-by-Karin-SchimkeAnyone who has read Karin Schimke’s Bare & Breaking, for which she won the prestigious Ingrid Jonker Award in 2014, will be delighted to know that her second collection of poems is now available from Modjaji Books. Navigate is sublime. Schimke’s poems steer between memory and loss, beauty and hurt, while forging a path to understanding, joy, holding on.

The poem Smoking remembers the house that was “my aunt’s speck of planet”. The woman’s existence continues beyond her life in the poet’s fragile words: “This is how dead people live on: / smiling in a shaft of memory / with smoke wreathing their heads. / A herald of hindsight.”

The volume opens with an image of “my father” removing a splinter from his daughter’s foot, the process full of kindness: “However / long it took, however sore / it was, losing the splinter / was always a loss.”

The mood swiftly changes in the following poem where the memory is of impatience and boredom on the part of the observer who is in a workshop, where “The day had whined and hammered too long.” Violence follows: “You grabbed me by the hair.” The impression is that the people involved are the same as in the previous poem, the father and his daughter. And that the immigrant of the next poems is the father, whose sense of orientation has been overthrown by migration, “When the stars are upturned” and “The immigrant belongs to nothing but his hands.” The same loving hands which can attend to a stuck splinter, repair what is broken, or offer the daughter safety as she learns to swim, can simultaneously cause pain.

The collection returns to the image of feet and hands in Superstition, where the roles are reserved as the poetic I is the one offering comfort to the you of the poem who is lying helpless in a hospital bed, machines keeping the body alive. The feet are “uninvaded territory. They’re / useless to these intricate calibrations. / But your feet are useful to me. / I can hold them and imagine / I’m steering you back here.” The confrontation with death and frailty of a loved one continues in the following poems, Do you remember the time when so many people we knew were dying? and Cleaning the wound.

The sequence of the poems tells a compelling story. It is clear that the internal compass needed to “navigate” is as upset as the external one. Home is a mere suspicion (The existence of home) and belonging must be questioned, specifically in our socio-historical context which requires extreme sensitivity: “Belonging is as delicate as a machine: / one foreign speck of dust makes each part / question itself. You must keep the system clean.” In a note to The Shasta daisy’s native range, we learn that the flower “grows from seed like a classic perennial. But once established, it is permanent and never invasive.” The immigrant father “loved those Shastas”. They demanded “little” of him, “how compliant they were. How / attractive their simple perennial solace.”

The garden is full of Shasta daisies, other plants and fertile memories, but the next poem, Hybrids, classifies: “You never planted your bones here… You grew hybrid languages and hybrid children. / Unlike God, you were not pleased.”

The poet is a creator, too. Time flows; change is inevitable. In the four poems which make up Praxis – four steps to understanding change, Schimke captures the nature of transformation which acknowledges the part-futility and part-uncertainty of the process. The final result cannot be asserted with confidence. The word “maybe” – in parenthesis – precedes the final stanza of the quartet in which the woman who was once a little girl is watching out in anticipation: “for the forgiveness / that comes before an apology / or to marvel that she was grown / and was seldom afraid now.”

Doubt enters the equation. The seven poems – or “songs of self-censorship” – of Taped beak are heart-wrenching, especially in the context of the poem which follows them, The things they do not tell you, when “Unspeakable things were happening not far away” and were impossible to process at the time by an eight-year-old “you”. The poem Then why establishes the purpose of trying to carve out a space for creativity among binary codes: “we make, / that’s all. the pen / the brush the drill / the wood the tool / the trowel, your hand –” and when the pain of it all is questioned, the answer is simple: “it hurts, i said. / here, she said, / pouring ink / into my palm. // it’s medicine.”

Eventually, a sense of calm descends on the collection when the poetic I speaks of simple, ordinary, but emotionally charged, experiences: independence in January swim (“I own this body as though / I am its first citizen.”), erotic fulfilment in Truffler (“I, the earth and hot, / swell of my fruiting bodies / for the hog’s horny snuffling.”), or watching a film about the life of John Keats in the poem by the same title, Bright star (“i wept for everything / and all of it: the sun, the wind, and our / infinitesimal belligerent important / little love.”)

Life is a journey, they say. It’s easy to get lost, especially in treacherous or dreamlike territories far away from everything familiar. “I will have to eat stars to be guided back”, says the first line of When I finally get to Bhutan, the penultimate poem of Navigate. But, it is the simple gestures of tenderness that return us to the safety and belonging of home, as Schimke reminds us in The first time we went for a walk. The beach walk along a metaphorical “cosmological crack” ends on a “wooden deck / where a wind rustled and you dusted / sea sand from between my toes. / My feet were at home in your lap.”


by Karin Schimke

Modjaji Books, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 23 March 2018.

Review: Mine by Sally Partridge

MineAt first glance, it looks like a typical boy meets girl story. However, Sally Partridge’s latest novel, Mine, is so much more. The book’s stunning cover illustration by Astrid Blumer introduces us to Kayla and Finlay (or Fin), the protagonists of the novel: we don’t see their faces, but we know that Kayla’s hair is in part strikingly blue, Fin is wearing a hoodie with a thunderbolt on his back. They are sitting on bench. One of them must have arrived to the meeting on a skateboard. Someone carved their initials into the back of the bench. Next to “K+F” is a broken heart. A squirrel watches on.

Fin’s alter ego is Thor, hence the thunderbolt: “now there’s someone I can respect”, he tells us. “Strong. Angry. Invincible. The guy can control lightening. They say that when it storms, it’s Thor fighting giants.” The moment Fin steps onto a stage and begins to rap he turns into his hero. At night, he is the star of a popular band, playing to adoring audiences in Cape Town’s clubs. During the day, he is mostly stoned so that he can survive the drudgery of school and the threats lurking at home in Lansdowne. An only child, abandoned by his mother when he was a young boy, Fin is growing up with a violent father who couldn’t care less what happens to his son.

Kayla is the skater. She loves comic books, has a rather unusual penchant for classical music and plays the flute. She comes from a more stable home, but like most teenagers feels that her mother and step-father do not understand her. At school, she has the reputation of a “slut”. “There is no such thing as romance anymore – guys just want one thing”, she says. She feels so lonely and insecure that even this kind of abusive attention she receives seems better to her than none. What she does not recognise and others refuse to see is that she is not only beautiful, but smart, kind and super talented.

Mine alternates between Kayla’s and Fin’s perspectives. We fever along with both of them as they are trying to find a way to each other. The first time Fin sees Kayla, she flits by on her skateboard, her blue hair flashing. She immediately leaves an impression. When he accidently sees her again at a school recital, playing her flute, he is clearly smitten. But the girl who is chasing after Fin warns him of Kayla’s reputation. Their first proper encounter is awkward, yet Fin recognises something in Kayla that is all too familiar to him: “She acted just like I do whenever someone compliments me. I whack it back, retreat into my little cave of self-loathing.” And so, from the start, he senses that he can be truly himself with her.

Falling in love is never easy, especially when you never feel worthy. Or “impossible to love”, as Kayla thinks of herself. Fin’s song lyrics flow from the heart: “Does anyone know me? … I’m nobody, a freak. Never be, ever be, good enough to be the One.”

What do you do when you “feel like all my cracks are showing”? Kayla and Fin decide to give it a try, to open their hearts to each other and break the cycles of self-doubt that repeatedly get them into trouble. Cautiously, love is declared and promises are made. Previous patterns of engaging with others are tested and abandoned for something new, better: “We stand like this in silence. Her face is so close to mine. I want to kiss her more than anything in the world. I can see she expects me to. Wants me to, even. And that’s exactly why I can’t.”

Fin needs to show Kayla that he is not like all the other boys: “She makes me want to believe I can be the good guy for once.” And Kayla desperately tries to be the kind of girl he imagines her to be. She has only ever known disappointment before: “But I can’t help that I want the things other girls have. I mean, why shouldn’t I?” she asks. They are both scared out of their wits, but willing to risk it all. Yet, sometimes the best of intentions cannot stand up to the destructive habits of one’s own past. “Love also stings sometimes… We both know that.”

Partridge is never afraid to tackle the big issues young people have to deal with growing up. And in Mine, she also does not shy away from addressing the horrendous consequences of peer pressure, our need to belong, or the minefield of budding – anything but innocent – sexuality. It is about that first big love: “I’m on such a high from being around him, it’s like I’ve slipped and fallen into his universe and it’s just us and no one else.” It all feels incredibly real, including Cape Town – the other main character of the novel.

In André Brink’s An Instant in the Wind, one of the main characters fears that “love is the beginning of violence and betrayal. Something in oneself or in the other is killed or betrayed”. This fundamental recognition echoed in my mind while I was reading Mine and heading towards its explosive, unpredictable ending. What touched me most about Partridge’s novel is that its emotional truths resonated with the teenager I once was and the woman I am today. I believe that, unlike many young adult novels which are specifically aimed at teenagers, Mine will appeal to anyone who has dared to defy his or her one’s own demons for love. “For the unrequited lovers and broken-hearted”, reads the book’s dedication.

Partridge is an acclaimed novelist and short story writer. Three out of her previous novels published locally were awarded the prestigious M.E.R. Prize for Best Youth Novel. The fifth one appeared only in German translation. She has been recognised by IBBY International for her young adult fiction. Mine is her best work to date.


by Sally Partridge

Human & Rousseau, 2018

An edited version of this review first appeared in the Cape Times on 17 March 2018.

Review: The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities – A Yearbook of Forgotten Words by Paul Anthony Jones

CabinetLanguages are living, breathing, mutating creatures. The English language of today is not the one of 1602 when, according to Paul Anthony Jones in The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities: A Yearbook of Forgotten Words, “the Elizabethan playwright Thomas Dekker coined the word love-libel – literally, ‘a handwritten admission of someone’s love’”. Or the English of the early 1400s when the striking word “recumbentibus” (which, like so many of the words Jones collected in his remarkable book, the spellcheck on my computer does not recognise!) was adopted into the language from Latin: “In its native Latin recumbentibus was used merely of the act of lounging or reclining, but when the word was adopted into English it was given a twist: English writers…began to use it to refer to forceful, knockout or knockdown blows”.

Despite linguistic evolution, many obscure words remain in the language, if not in everyday use then at least in Jones’s quirky bookish cabinet, home to such delightful words as “fedifragous” (an adjective describing a break of promise or a violation of oath), “spike-bozzle” (a verb meaning “to sabotage; to ruin or render ineffective”), “miraculate” (“to produce by a miracle”) or “eucatastrophe” (a noun for “a sudden and unexpected fortuitous event”).

The book comprises of 366 entries for every day of the calendar year, each with a tale attached to a particular date in history. The author traces each word’s etymology and tells a story illustrating its use. For 1 January, Jones chose the delightful word “quaaltagh”: “Proving there really is a word for everything, your quaaltagh is the first person you meet on New Year’s Day morning.” The noun was borrowed from Manx, “the Celtic language of the Isle of Man, in the early nineteenth century.” With its roots in the verb “quaail, meaning ‘to meet’ or ‘to assemble’, as it originally referred to a group of festive entertainers who would come together to gambol from door to door at Christmas or New Year singing songs and reciting poems”, a quaaltagh soon became a symbol for what the new year was about to bring: “dark-haired men were said to bring good luck, while fair-haired or fair-complexioned men (or, worst of all, fair-haired women) were said to bring bad luck – a curious superstition said to have its origins in the damage once wreaked by fair-haired Viking invaders.”

The words contained in Jones’s The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities are as fascinating as the stories accompanying them. Incidentally, the entry for 27 April, a date engraved on South African hearts, is “cosmonogy”, meaning “the creation of the universe”. The word was coined in the seventeenth century when thinkers of the time were beginning to reimagine and understand the nature of our solar system. In 1619, for example, the German astronomer Johannes Kepler postulated that “the universe…had come into existence on 27 April 4977 BC.” He was off by a few billion years for the universe, but I like the idea that he chose 27 April for a new beginning.

The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities: A Yearbook of Forgotten Words

by Paul Anthony Jones

Elliott and Thompson, 2017

Review first published in the Cape Times on 9 March 2018.

Review: New Times by Rehana Rossouw

New TimesRehana Rossouw’s debut novel, What Will People Say? (2015), was already on its seventh impression when I was reading it earlier this year. Being reprinted so often within a relatively short period of time is no small feat for a local novel. Even though I came late to the party, I immediately understood why it was so popular. Rossouw, a veteran journalist, succinctly captured an era and a community – the Cape Flats of the late eighties and early nineties – and made them come alive through a handful of characters belonging to the Fourie family. This was the time of volatile politics, raging gang wars and impossible choices. Decency and family values did not protect you from the evil of the system and the cruelties of the streets. Only the toughest survived to thrive.

Rossouw’s second novel takes up where What Will People Say? left off, but with an entirely different cast of characters. Set in 1995, just before the Rugby World Cup and Mandela’s world-famous reconciliatory gesture of wearing the Springbok jersey at the tournament, New Times tells the story of one woman trying to navigate the precarious early days of democracy, the constant swings between socio-political euphoria and despondency, and her personal rollercoaster ride between hope and despair.

Ali (Aaliyah) Adams, the narrator of New Times, grew up in the Bo-Kaap, but she is not as devout as her Muslim family and finds it difficult to conform to the expectations of her patriarchal and deeply religious community. She does not dare to reveal to anyone that she is gay. After the death of her father, Ali takes over his responsibilities as the breadwinner of the family and continues supporting her mother and grandmother. The family wrestles with the mother’s grief and her ensuing breakdown, hospitalisation and severe depression. She returns home, but she is a daunting presence who offers little support to the other women.

Ali is fighting her own demons. When the newspaper she works for closes down, she struggles to keep it all together. Eventually she is hired as a political reporter for a respected Cape Town weekly: “I am playing my part again in building a better society, back on the job.” After initial difficulties, her career stabilises, but it is only momentary relief. Preparations for her best friend’s wedding trigger memories of the passionate love the two women shared when they were younger. Reconnecting professionally with another friend, Lizo, a former political prisoner on Robben Island who now works for Madiba, brings with it its own challenges. And she has to cope with the fact that Munier, the one friend she always runs to for comfort, is in danger of dying of AIDS.

A fearless political reporter, Ali does not mind stepping on anybody’s toes in her quest for truth, but her unstable emotions are threatening to get the better of her and jeopardise her career. She understands the necessity of the upcoming Truth and Reconciliation Commission and is already working on the kind of stories which will make headlines once the hearings begin. Interviewing a black woman fighter pilot in the Air Force for an article, she discovers that she was involved at Cuito Cuanavale where a young man Ali is also investigating died fighting for the apartheid government. Sinister forces would like to keep that particular chapter of history closed forever. Together with a colleague, Ali tries to get to the bottom of what happened to the soldier who never came home to his desperate parents.

The New South Africa is haunted by these ghosts. Ali herself is plagued by recurring nightmares and flashbacks which are caused by layers of trauma she experienced as a reporter before the transition, as a daughter when her father was dying, and as a woman unable to live out her sexual preferences. Her emotions are in overdrive. She finds it impossible to trust people. It is only a matter of time until something has to give. Feeling hopeless about the silences and tensions in their home, Ali’s grandmother takes things into her own hands and embarks on a mission to help the family. But are coconut ice and a traditional healer the answer?

Intimate, emotionally charged, New Times offers a fascinating glimpse into the birthing pains of a free South Africa. Reimagined from the perspective of more than two decades of democracy, it is a revealing take on what still needs to be faced in order for us to move towards and not away from those initial dreams of a “better life for all.” Rossouw’s insights shine a guiding light.

New Times

by Rehana Rossouw

Jacana, 2017

Review first published in Afrikaans in Die Burger on 5 March 2018.