Monthly Archives: June 2018

Review: Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree by Niq Mhlongo

Soweto Under the Apricot TreeNiq Mhlongo is one of my favourite South African storytellers. He is the author of three novels (Dog Eat Dog, After Tears, Way Back Home) which have been reprinted several times and translated into other languages like French and Spanish. Mhlongo is also well known for his short stories. His debut collection, Affluenza, gave readers a fascinating insight into contemporary South Africa. In those stories, Mhlongo tackled such wide-ranging issues as suicide and farm murders, exposing our prejudices and inability to communicate. He writes about the crucial nexus between race, gender and class and has a wicked sense of humour, often making you laugh while you squirm with discomfort.

Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree is Mhlongo’s second collection of short stories which takes us on a similar journey as the one before. The topics are as diverse, but the execution even more sophisticated. Mhlongo is one of those writers who go from strength to strength with every book. “If the apricot trees of Soweto could talk, what stories would they tell?” The question on the book’s back cover invites us to ponder. Stories are the easiest way of travelling to anywhere in the world, and Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree takes us into the heart of the famous township of Johannesburg. Unfortunately, in the fourteen years I have lived in South Africa, I have not had an opportunity to visit Soweto yet apart from when experiencing it through the eyes of some of its greatest storytellers. And having read everything else Mhlongo has written, I felt I was in good hands while embarking on this particular literary trip.

The short story is considered a tough genre to write, and an even tougher one to sell. As a writer, you have to make the limited space count. Mhlongo knows exactly how to lure you in and make you want to know more. Consider these opening lines for a few of the stories: “The bizarre address you gave me some ten years ago is still stuck in my memory.” Or: “Oupa Eastwood has reported the same incident more than ten times at different police stations.” Or: “Sitting next to the coffin were five men dressed in black suits.” And then you find out that the bizarre address referred to is in a cemetery. The incident Oupa Eastwood reports is of seeing “people attempting to commit suicide at the big hole near his home in Riverlea.” And despite the sombre occasion mentioned in the last of the three quotes above, you cannot help but smile soon after when you come across the following inverted reference to a popular classic: “the Dobsonville people had to deal with the fact that the marriage and the three funerals were happening on the same day.”

Mhlongo knows how to keep his readers hooked and guessing. As to the selling of his fiction, he doesn’t only wait for the publishers and booksellers to do their job. He is known for going from place to place and offering his books to interested readers from the boot of his car. And for those lucky ones to encounter him on his path, I bet he throws in a tale or two into the bargain.

The eleven short stories in Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree are at times heart-wrenching, but the overwhelming impression they leave behind is one of satisfaction and delight in the art of the telling.

In the collection’s titular story a family gathers under an apricot tree on the day they unveil a tombstone for one of their relatives who passed away the previous year. Food is served and drink loosens some tongues. Secrets kept for many years spill out in the hours which follow.

At the centre of “My Father’s Eyes” is also a secret which leads a woman on a quest to search for her absent father: “Mokete was convinced it was my fault that our daughter was born with cerebral palsy. He insisted that I find my father and appease my ancestors with traditional sacrifices to make things right.”

In “Curiosity Killed the Cat”, two neighbouring families and cultures clash over the drowning of Bonaparte, a cat. Following the cat’s funeral, the Phalas family finds it difficult to connect to their grieving neighbours, the Moerdyks: “None of the cards came from the Phalas. They could not mourn. For them, and for Ousie Maria, a cat was just another animal. It could not be equated to a human being. In fact, to most Africans a cat is a symbol of witchcraft and bad luck.” But Ousie Maria has a different worry concerning the dead cat and as the conflict escalates, she has to face her own believes and guilt concerning the animal’s drowning.

Opinions and expectations collide on board of a flight to the UK in “Turbulence” when a young black scholar has to endure the ramblings of an elderly white lady relocating to her family in Australia: “I’m glad to see young black people like you studying”, she tells him. “You know, South Africa is going to the dogs because we’re led by uneducated people. That’s why I’m leaving.” Their journey takes an unforeseen turn which makes you look at their lives anew.

In “Nailed”, MEC Mgobhozi and one of his mistresses experience the shock of their lives when the woman’s husband comes home to find them together and decides to deal with the adulterers in his own way. Another romance ends badly in “Private Dancer Saudade”. “My heart has been broken before, but you are the first and the last person to break my life”, the narrator explains in a letter to her lover.

Like anywhere else, life under the apricot tree moves on in a dizzying speed and is often stranger than fiction. Niq Mhlongo brings the people and the places of Soweto to life. Between the funerals and the marriages, there are high hopes, devastating betrayals, and unexpected twists and turns as the streets of Soweto captivate on every page.

Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree

by Niq Mhlongo

Kwela, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times, 15 June 2018.

Review: Taming Toxic People – The science of identifying and dealing with psychopaths at work or at home by David Gillespie

Taming Toxic PeopleWe all know about them. They are often quite (in)famous. Most of us have encountered them in our personal lives or at work. Some of us are their victims. And no matter what you call them, once you have had to deal with one, you will never forget it. They go by many names: psychopaths, toxic people, malignant narcissists or master manipulators. All charm and seduction when you first meet them, whether socially or professionally, and then…! By the time they are done with you, nothing is the same any longer. To any human being with empathy, these people never make sense in the long run: their lies, manipulations, subterfuges, risk-taking, and constant deflection of blame and responsibility will have you tied up in knots. They live by different rules, and they always go for the kill. They are human parasites, unable to feel, emphasise or care for others. They are just brilliant at pretending that they can when it suits their own agendas.

Taming Toxic People: The science of identifying and dealing with psychopaths at work or at home by Australian author David Gillespie is a guide on how to manage the psychopaths in our lives. Gillespie bases his analysis on available research, personal experience and observations, as well as stories of psychopaths and their victims. Most of the victims prefer to remain anonymous. It is frightening to read in the author’s acknowledgements that psychopaths “frequently ruin lives so thoroughly and are so likely to seek revenge for any slight, be it real or perceived, that even people who have not seen them for decades still crave anonymity.”

It is hard to admit to yourself that you might be or had been ensnared in the toxic power games of such an individual, but it helps to understand that you stand no chance against such ruthlessness if you are vulnerable and unprepared. Gillespie opens his book with comparing an encounter with a psychopath to that of an encounter with a tiger: “He will use every faculty millions of years of adaptation have given him, to determine whether you are trouble, or lunch. You cannot reason with him, you cannot threaten him, you cannot plead for mercy. Your only chance of survival is to convince him that you are more trouble than you are worth.” Taming Toxic People teaches you how not to be devoured.

One of the first signs of being in the territory of such a predator is bewilderment. Psychopaths “behave in bizarre and often unpredictable ways. And as soon as we are entangled with them, we spend more time worrying about how to deal with them than we do running our own lives.” The harm and distress they are causing in the process may take a long time to recover from, sometimes the rest of your life. Some damage is irreparable. And, as Gillespie points out, nowadays we are living in a reality that encourages psychopathic behaviour and allows people with such traits to flourish. The 21st century seems to be the perfect habitat for psychopaths. It is essential for anyone who has empathy to know how to survive in such dangerous environments that are spreading worldwide. If you have any doubt, watch the news on any channel or go onto social media: “We are no longer a community; we are individuals who happen to live in the same place. The result is we no longer trust in authority because it is not earned through a life of unimpeachable honesty. We no longer trust in experts because they are often for sale to the highest bidder. We no longer trust the media because it chases clicks rather than the truth. Instead, we invest our faith in anyone who tells us they have simple answers to our problems and who looks and talks like us. It is a perfect set-up for any psychopath.”

Gillespie divides Taming Toxic People into four parts: “The Theory”, “The Everyday Psychopath”, “Managing Psychopaths” and “The Psychopath in Society”. He writes accessibly and has a good sense of humour (comic relief is most welcome in between the scary bits). Each part is comprehensive and offers extremely valuable advice. The author goes into the history of psychopathy and the terminology associated with the condition. He lists a few key tests for identifying psychopaths and explains the science behind them. He gives some more or less obvious examples from history (the Mother Theresa story was a shocker, I must admit) and our contemporary world (for example, the most obvious one – the US president). What is empathy and how it helped us evolve is discussed in detail. The chapters on how to manage the psychopath in different spheres of our lives are fascinating – reading them could potentially save your life, or at least spare you a lot of unpleasantness.

If you are lucky, you will never encounter a psychopath in your life, but the chances are that you already have or will at some stage. It will frighten or perplex you, or both. And sometimes there will be a high price to pay. Taming Toxic People will make you re-examine your life and relationships. It will make many confusing situations – whether in the past or the present – seem suddenly clear. It might not be too late to do something about them. Gillespie is very confident that the “taming” is possible and the methods he proposes are doable, even if they sometimes mean completely walking away.

What I found most inspiring about Gillespie’s book is his solution to the broader issue of how our societal structures which have kept us safe in the past have been eroded and are letting us down. He proposes a way of living our private lives and directing our professional conduct in such a way that psychopaths cannot thrive among us. It is a path based on transparency and accountability, and orientated towards communal rather than individual goals. It is truly worth thinking about and aspiring to.

Taming Toxic People: The science of identifying and dealing with psychopaths at work or at home

by David Gillespie

Macmillan, 2017

Review first published in the Cape Times on 8 June 2018.

Review: Tsk-Tsk – The story of a child at large by Suzan Hackley

Susan Hackney. Photo.Ian CarbuttIt is painful to think and write about Suzan Hackney’s courageous memoir, Tsk-Tsk: The story of a child at large, around Mother’s Day when many of us celebrate our fabulous mothers or are cherished as such by our kids. The relationship between a child and a mother is not always one of joy, and Hackney’s story is mostly one of unimaginable heartbreak. She was given up for adoption as a baby by her biological parents. Still in the hospital, the moment she found herself in the arms of the woman who was to become her mother, she started screaming her lungs out. The scream was a foreboding. Her memoir reads like a reckoning with that primal anguish she experienced as an infant and the torment which followed. It is also a story of survival in the face of impossible odds, and of laying ghosts to rest.

“I was made in Coffee Bay. Right there on the beach, in the sand. To this day I despise coffee and adore the sea in equal measures”, Hackney begins her life story. Most of it will be characterised by the tension between loving and hating which she captures in these first few sentences. Her adoptive parents call her Susan – which she insists on changing to Suzan as an act of self-reclamation later on – and take her home to Pietermaritzburg, were everything is “extremely civilised here, and structured, organised, pristine, well-modulated, painfully polite and prim. This clashes somehow with my wild tantrums as it does with my poo-smearing pastime… Not even my dad is impressed with these early display of artistic genius and none of this is helping my mother’s nervous condition.”

What is described by the family as her mother’s “nervous condition” results in horrifying abuse. Instead of experiencing tenderness and care as a child, Suzan is constantly exposed to her mother’s rage. And from the moment she can, she fights back. Her father attempts to mitigate the torture, but one does not have to be a psychologist to understand how power dynamics in dysfunctional families go horribly wrong. Everyone suffers. The only stable source of kindness and love little Suzan experiences is her older brother Jonathan, who is also adopted. She smiles for the first time when she sees him: “Jonathan becomes my favourite person in the whole world and he happily takes on this role, as he does everything, in his caring, little boy’s stride.” But Jonathan is also only a child who is as much ensnared in the toxicity of the family relationships as everyone else involved, and there is only so much that can be endured. When their mother actually gives birth to a third child, the fault lines intensify.

Growing up, Suzan and her mother clash over everything: “Right from that first fateful encounter in the hospital, this mother and I are sworn enemies and no matter how hard I try to change it or how much I don’t want it to be like this between us, I’m incapable of doing anything about it. I love her with all my childish heart even though I am still small enough to fear her. Sometimes I also hate her.” The psychological and physical violence the little girl encounters is narrated in a seemingly casual and controlled way which makes it all the more shocking, and powerful. Cutting down to the bones of the story and revealing them in their most vulnerable nakedness, Hackney relates what happened but mostly refrains from commenting on the situation as an adult.

This is Hackney’s first book and, because of its intimate and deeply personal nature, probably the most difficult she will ever have to write on all kinds of levels if she pursues this career, and so the consummate skill she already shows in Tsk-Tsk is highly admirable.

Hackney continues her story until she is in her late teens. “I really am a dreadful child”, she writes about the internalised suffering, “I am defiant and cheeky, I speak way too loud, I shout at the slightest thing. I have wild and violent temper tantrums for apparently no reason at all and I can keep screaming for hours and hours… I’m smacked. I make fires, sometimes inside the house and sometimes in the garden.” At times, the book reads like a continuation of that screaming and setting things alight. The sorrow becomes otherwise too great to hold.

It gets worse; the accumulated misery persistently seeks a way out. As a thirteen year old Suzan is sent to a reformatory, the first of many, and eventually declared a ward of the state. A different kind of battle for survival begins for her. And it is not one she fights only on her own behalf; on her path, she encounters others she feels she needs to protect. And those who cannot be saved: “Kim also has to keep a suicide watch on Kerry 24/7. From very early childhood, Kerry’s father beat and raped her. When she was twelve, she fell pregnant and gave birth to a dying baby boy with no brain; Kerry’s intention is to kill herself, to be with her baby again.”

Suzan repeatedly runs away, living rough and getting involved with people who definitely do not have her best interests at heart. No matter where she turns, violence is lurking and pounces without mercy. The places where she is supposed to be kept safe turn out to be the most lethal. Hackney exposes how horribly the systems – our homes and the state – that are supposed to protect the most vulnerable members of society fail. There were moments when it was difficult for me to continue reading, and Hackney lived through it all.

Tsk-Tsk will make you seethe with anger, and it will make you cry. It is the kind of book that scars one’s soul, but should be read anyway. No child should be allowed to ever suffer like this.

Review first published in the Cape Times, 25 May 2018.