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Of broken things

Someone I work with on a project had a serious medical emergency recently. Their recovery took a while and delayed the project. The delay wasn’t a big deal, we were all just glad that the person was recovering well and would be all right. And the project is more or less back on track now.

When objects or the body break, it is not only more obvious, but usually easier to accept the reality of the situation. The brokenness is a real thing in the world. If your leg is broken and in a cast, no one will ask you to run a marathon with them. One plans and works around the broken bones and adjusts to what is possible until they are completely healed.

When something invisible that does not obviously manifest in the physical world breaks, the only way to communicate it to other people is by putting on a cast made of words. But when you say ‘my mind is broken’ or ‘my heart is broken’ or ‘my soul is broken’ or ‘I am broken’, somehow it is usually not enough, unless you explain exactly what is happening. And the problem is that often you actually do not know, or are simply too vulnerable, too anxious, too confused, too exhausted to even try to explain. But because you seem otherwise fine, people still expect you to run the marathon with them.

I haven’t been well for quite a while and I am all of the above – too vulnerable, too anxious, too confused, too exhausted – to explain. I am sometimes angry that I have to explain anything at all. I want it to be enough that when I say ‘I am not well’, I am believed and that my invisible brokenness is respected. I want to be allowed to heal without constantly having to justify why I can’t run the marathon. I want to celebrate that I can get up in the morning and walk, which most days feels like the greatest achievement already. I still manage quite a lot, just not the marathon that is expected of me.

And then, there is the inescapable global brokenness. In her latest newsletter, the wonderful Esther Perel writes: ‘Is it any wonder so many of us are feeling numb and disoriented? Alert: this, too, is part of the mental health crisis. In response to tragedy after tragedy, many of us are cycling through fight, flight, and freeze responses faster than we can finish a cup of coffee—myself included.’

Empaths are having a really, really hard time right now, even if they themselves are not broken – the world around us is.

One of the hardest things for me right now is that I am breaking my promises. Because I promised to run the marathon – which is impossible with broken bones, even if only invisible – there are many people who are still eager to continue with the preparations and find it difficult to accept that it’s not happening as fast as I had promised them it would when I was still fit to run. My slow walking requires a lot of patience. But even though it does break my heart to have to deal with the occasional lack of patience, I also understand. After all, I made promises I cannot keep. It’s all right if anyone wants to run without me. I accept that.

I break promises I made to myself. This is hard, too. The only thing I keep hanging on to like a lifeline is my writing. The book is being written. But facing the book’s content is also facing my brokenness.

Another hard thing is the numbness, the inability to take stuff in – the good and the bad. It’s almost as if the metaphorical cast around me is so thick and large that nothing or very little gets through. Again, for an empath this is an unusual way of being.

Today, something really good happened. After almost five years of paying off the debt for Topolino, we finally, officially belong to each other, and this morning I received the document to prove it (the process of the transfer was quite challenging in my current state of being, but I managed!). I would take Topolino for a celebratory spin around town, but I – like so many others – cannot afford to be that frivolous when fuel prices and marathon dreams, among so many other things, are breaking my bank account. Also, ironically, I suppose, my garage door broke this weekend and going for a spin is another challenge altogether. I will be phoning the electrician today and waiting patiently for his arrival. I will walk until Topolino can be easily freed again.

Walking is fortunately still possible for me, even when I am invisibly broken. Walking will have to be enough for a while. Accepting my limitations and setting healthy boundaries are part of my healing process.

Proust Questionnaire

I saw one of these sometime in January and replied to the questions, intending to post them on my blog, but somehow never got around to it…

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What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Being with Loved Ones.

What is your most marked characteristic?
Patience.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
The lasting relationships in my life.

What historical figure do you most identify with?
Mary Wollstonecraft.

Which living person do you most admire?
Lyndall Gordon.

Who are your heroes in real life?
Those who are courageous enough to put kindness first before all else.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Gullibility.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Lack of empathy.

What is your favourite journey?
Home.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Diligence.

Which word or phrases do you most overuse?
Suddenly.

What is your greatest fear?
Being targeted by a psychopath, again.

What is your greatest regret?
The psychopath.

What is your current state of mind?
Seeking balance.

If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?
I would like a few of my family members to be richer, so they could visit me in Cape Town more often.

What is your most treasured possession?
My diaries.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Having to survive without Loved Ones in my life. I wouldn’t.

Where would you like to live?
Where I live now, Cape Town, my home.

What is your favourite occupation?
Reading.

What is the quality you most like in a man?
Kindness.

What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Kindness.

What are your favourite names?
Sophia, Adrian.

What is your motto?
Not perfect, but much better.

COUNTRY LIFE Podcast: Author Karina Szczurek interviewed by Nancy Richards

“In a translucently honest and open-hearted gesture, Karina Szczurek shares letters of love, hope and intimacy between herself and writer André Brink, in a book that, unwittingly, they wrote together.”

Read and listen here: COUNTRY LIFE PODCAST

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Thank you, Nancy Richards & Country Life (I will miss the magazine very much!).

Longlist of the SSDA Prize for short fiction announced

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The 2018 Short Story Day Africa longlist:

  • ‘The Satans Inside My Jimmy’ by Harriet Anena (Uganda)
  • ‘The Jollof Cook-off’ by Nkiacha Atemnkeng (Cameroon)
  • ‘The Last Resident’ by Jayne Bauling (South Africa)
  • ‘Mr Thompson’ by Noel Cheruto (Kenya)
  • ‘The Layover’ by Anna Degenaar (South Africa)
  • ‘A Miracle In Valhalla’ by Nnamdi Fred (Nigeria)
  • ‘Of Birds and Bees’ by Davina Kawuma (Uganda)
  • ‘Maintenance Check’ by Alinafe Malonje (Malawi)
  • ‘Why Don’t You Live in the North?’ by Wamuwi Mbao (South Africa)
  • ‘Slow Road to the Winburg Hotel’ by Paul Morris (South Africa)
  • ‘The Snore Monitor’ by Chido Muchemwa (Zimbabwe)
  • ‘Outside Riad Dahab’ by Chourouq Nasri (Morocco)
  • ‘Broken English’ by Adorah Nworah (Nigeria)
  • ‘Queens’ Children’s Little Feet’ by Godwin Oghenero Estella (Nigeria)
  • ‘Door of No Return’ by Natasha Omokhodion-Banda (Zambia)
  • ‘An Abundance of Lies’ by Faith Oneya (Kenya)
  • ‘The Match’ by Troy Onyango (Kenya)
  • ‘Supping at the Fountain of Lethe’ by Bryony Rheam (Zimbabwe)
  • ‘Happy City Hotel’ by Adam El Shalakany (Egypt)
  • ‘The Space(s) Between Us’ by Lester Walbrugh (South Africa)
  • ‘Shithole’ by Michael Yee (South Africa)

Congratulations to all Writers!

Dear Readers, You are in for a treat! For more info about the prize see: Short Story Day Africa. To read more about the longlist, head over to the Joburg Review of Books.

ON THE MINES at the Norval Foundation

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I joined the Norval Foundation as a member after my second visit to the art museum. It has become one of my favourite places to go to, for art, coffee or a G&T with a view – the bar overlooks the artistically and botanically lush museum gardens.

btrOne of the current exhibitions is very close to my heart: “On the Mines” by David Goldblatt.

“Shown for the first time in its entirety, On the Mines: David Goldblatt is the last exhibition that the photographer personally helped conceptualise before his death in 2018. Goldblatt is revealed as the great chronicler and documenter of South Africa: the quiet observer of how the country, its peoples, its institutions and landscape have been inscribed by politics and power.”

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The photographs on display were partly published in 1973, in a book by the same title as the exhibition. The book included an essay by Nadine Gordimer, one of the countless texts I read when writing my PhD.

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I cannot help but wonder whether I would be here today, living and writing in Cape Town, if it hadn’t been for Gordimer’s extraordinary work. Her writing – its beauty, probing wisdom – was my entry point to South Africa’s literature and then to the country. I will be forever grateful for the introduction. It was because Gordimer agreed to an interview that I visited South Africa for the first time fifteen years ago. The rest is history.

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It is difficult to believe that she is no longer among us, but her work lives on, a great consolation. I hardly knew her, but the few hours spent in her company and the many years spent thinking and writing about her work make me miss her, a lot…

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Three other stunning exhibitions can be seen at the Norval Foundation right now: the work of Yinka Shonibare and Ibrahim Mahama – thought-provoking and enthralling.

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And then a collection of nudes from the Sanlam Art Collection. Not to be missed.

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You Make Me Possible reviewed on LitNet

btr“Biography lovers may despair that the internet is making it improbable that biographers will still discover old, forgotten letters in dusty attics, revealing juicy secrets about celebrities. It still remains a problem when writers discard electronic records of their correspondence, but this book proves that emails can be every bit as romantic as old-fashioned letters, and all the more immediate.”

— Elkarien Fourie

Read the entire review here: LitNet.

CREATIVE WRITING MENTORSHIP OPPORTUNITY WITH KAREN JENNINGS

Karen JenningsKaren Jennings is a South African, married to a Brazilian, and in September of 2015, due to various circumstances, they were compelled to move from South Africa to Brazil. It has been a challenging and difficult time for Karen. Perhaps most difficult has been feeling removed from the country of her birth, a place that she loves and had hoped always to be part of. This year she started to look at her life and consider how she could realistically be involved in the future of her country, in even the smallest of ways, at the distance and without the benefit of any sort of income to assist her. She was inspired by the organisers of Short Story Day Africa and Writivism who work incredibly hard to bring opportunities to African writers. With this in mind, she has decided to offer a mentorship/writing course to an aspiring writer for a period of 12 weeks, starting on 1 April 2019.

For more details click here: CREATIVE WRITING MENTORSHIP OPPORTUNITY WITH KAREN JENNINGS

And here are two of my reviews of Karen Jennings’s work:

Travels with My Father – An Autobiographical Novel by Karen Jennings

Space Inhabited by Echoes by Karen Jennings

If you are an aspiring writer, please apply. This is a rare opportunity to work with someone who is passionate about what we do and who truly cares.

 

Richard III at Maynardville

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Literature in motion; an art form difficult to resist. I could never imagine being on stage, but I love sitting in the audience, suspending my disbelief, living and breathing the action unfolding before my eyes.

Theatre.

I prefer sitting in the first row. Small venues are my favourite. Done well, it is pure magic. It transforms.

I go regularly, often twice or thrice to see the same performance – to relive the wonder. I study the texts at home. Not many enjoy reading plays; I delight in them.

A while back, I wrote one. It even won an award. The prize money bought me a gorgeous, wine-red quilt. Last night, I was tempted to take it with me to Maynardville to the opening of Richard III, with Alan Committie in the main role. But the action-packed play and a Shiraz in the interval kept me all cosy and warm.

‘Why, I can smile, and murder while I smile…’

And he does. Smile, murder, seduce. Vanquish. Fall. The vicious circles of power.

The open-air theatre is the perfect setting for the play, the southeaster a willing contributor with uncanny timing. Tall trees haunt the stage. The simple props and the understated elegance of the costume design enhance the superb performances of the entire cast.

Cassandra Mapanda as Queen Elizabeth stood out for me. A true royal presence on stage. But nobody and nothing disappointed.

Shakespeare has never been easy for me. And Richard III was new despite my education and love for the theatre. Yet I never felt lost. As one head after another is impaled and hearts are conquered and torn apart, we are transported into the distant past that has a lot to teach us about our own times, our greed and disenchantment.

I will see it again before the run is over.

Richard III is on until 9 March; Wednesday to Saturday, at 8.15pm. Don’t miss it!

 

Being a cat

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In the Acknowledgements of my novel, Invisible Others, I wrote: ‘My furry family, Glinka, Salieri and Mozart, true experts at life, keep trying to teach me how to make the most of it; I hope they will succeed one day.’ It is four years later, but no matter how desirable, being a cat is not an easy task. I might, however, be closer than ever. ‘Your immediate goal is to be a cat’, writes Jaron Lanier in the introduction to his Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (2018), a book that is, despite its title, ‘about how to be a cat.’

‘Cats have done the seemingly impossible: They’ve integrated themselves into the modern high-tech world without giving themselves up. They are still in charge. There is no worry that some stealthy meme crafted by an algorithm and paid for by a creepy, hidden oligarch has taken over your cat. No one has taken over your cat; not you, not anyone… Cats on the internet are our hopes and dreams for the future of people on the internet’, says Lanier. And he should know, not only as a Silicon Valley insider, but as someone who shares his life with cats – Loof, Potato, Tuno and Starlight – who taught Lanier ‘how not to be domesticated’.

Books, like cats, have the ability to change lives. I read Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now over the festive season and it did exactly that: changed my life. I haven’t deleted the only social media account I have (yet?); that, too, is ‘part of your prerogative, being a cat’, as Lanier emphasises. But I did decide to change the way I interact with social media.

The problem with social media that Lanier identifies – ‘relentless, robotic, ultimately meaningless behaviour modification in the service of unseen manipulators and uncaring algorithms’ – is, of course, something that many of us have been aware of for quite a while. But it was ultimately his book that encouraged me to do something against it in my own private capacity. I am tired of the exploitative, manipulative, addictive, artificial, often toxic and aggressive, nature of social media. It seems that no matter how much you try to curate your experience, there is no way of avoiding all the negative side effects of engaging with the diverse platforms. There are just so many accounts that you can block without feeling that you are totally wasting your time and could invest it in something much more creative and positive, something that perhaps you yourself – and not some ruthless, greedy company – can profit from, if not exactly financially, then definitely intellectually and emotionally. It’s time to ‘detach from the behaviour-modification empires for a while’, as Lanier says.

‘Go to where you are kindest,’ he suggests, and it resonates with me deeply. Kindness is essential to my survival. It is kindness that has carried me to safety across the roughest storms of my life, and there have been way too many in recent years. I want kindness and calm in my life, and cats and books. That is what makes me happy, what makes life worthwhile for me.

What has changed? Nothing drastic. I stopped tweeting on 31 December. Mid-January, I am still missing it sometimes (it is addictive, after all), especially the interaction with friends and followers I truly care about but, mostly, I feel a lot of relief. I still look at notifications every now and then and acknowledge the ones which I would have in the past, and I use DMs to communicate with a few people, but I completely ignore my timeline. Many social media accounts are of interest to me, but I look at them directly when I feel like it. Basically, I shifted from an active participant to a passive observer. I want to give it a few months to see how I will feel about it all later in the year.

It is amazing how much time I save every day by not engaging with social media. And I decided to use that time for creativity. As Lanier says, the internet is not the problem, the problem is how we use it and how it is being used against us. Producing and sharing creative content about topics I am passionate about, that I or others can also profit from – directly or indirectly (from the exchange of ideas or book sales, for example) – feels right. It is crucial to consider, in Lanier’s words, ‘sustainable, dignified business models’ where a transaction between two parties does not have to go through a third one ‘who is paying to manipulate them.’ Lanier asks for social media that he can pay for, and where he can ‘unambiguously own and set the price for using my data, and it’s easy and normal to earn money if my data is valuable.’ I like that idea very much.

Lanier asks, ‘What if listening to an inner voice or heeding a passion for ethics or beauty were to lead to more important work in the long term, even if it measured as less successful in the moment? What if deeply reaching a small number of people matters more than reaching everybody with nothing?’

What if? Indeed.

I upgraded my blog, so that it does not feature any ads I cannot control; I love the new, clean look which is focused on my – personally chosen – content. The costs involved were minimal in comparison to the benefits.

I decided to choose my online news and entertainment sources directly and to pay for content I find valuable. Well-researched, -considered, -written and -presented content costs money to produce and I want its creators to be well-paid for their intellectual and creative work. Quality, not quantity – that’s what I seek.

The word ‘content’ itself deserves more attention. I find it problematic, but that’s a thought that needs further consideration.

I love paper and never read e-books if I can help it. Reading print media of diverse nature during the festive season made me remember how good it feels to lie next to the pool and turn the pages of an informative, fun magazine. I want more of that in my life again, too.

There is a wonderful passage about writing in Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. It turns a premise writers live by on its head: ‘You can’t read well until you can write at least a little’, claims the author, and continues, ‘The reason we teach writing to students is not in the hopes that they’ll become professional writers… Instead, we hope they’ll learn what it means to write, and to think, which will make them more thoughtful when they read.’ And he adds, challenging us: ‘You can’t use the internet well until you’ve confronted it on your own terms, at least for a while. This is for your integrity, not just for saving the world.’

Integrity, like kindness, deserves to be cultivated with the utmost care.

Finally, I find Lanier’s description of certain questions as ‘tender’ beautiful. Let’s ask more of those ‘tender questions’ together.

Empathy is the fuel that runs a decent society.’

— Jaron Lanier

(PS I tweeted the link to this post and pinned it to my timeline as a way of explaining my disappearance from Twitter; my friends have been asking whether everything was all right. It is. Thank you for caring!)

Sunshine in my pocket

Every New Year’s Eve local time at midnight, I tune in to my favourite radio station in Austria to hear the live ringing of the St. Stephen’s Cathedral bells in Vienna. Afterwards, they always play Strauss’s “The Blue Danube” waltz, and then usually a pop song of note. This year that song was Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling”. I’d never heard it before, but it was catchy enough to remember. When I looked it up, listened to it properly, watched the video, and read the lyrics, I could not stop dancing to it, and realised that it is the perfect song to start this year with.

Last year … should be best forgotten, at least most of it, especially the first half (ugh!). Personally all I can think of is: I survived. Fortunately more intact than I thought possible. And here I am, ready for 2017! All positive energy and smiles, or as Timberlake sings, with “that sunshine in my pocket”.

A whole sun of sunlight in my heart’s pocket, in fact.

New Year’s resolutions? Ah, you know, the usual: write a few books, win the lottery, travel the world.

In all honesty, I hardly have any plans. It’s the year I turn 40. I will publish two books. All monumental stuff, but it feels like my life should be: I am getting older. I write. I publish. I am embracing it all with great joy. What is different about this year is my involvement with PEN South Africa. I have been co-opted as a board member and will be promoting activities celebrating our inspiring literary heritage and contemporary writing.

For a while now, I have also been dreaming of founding an independent publishing house, a home to exquisite writing. This year might see its birth.

There will be literary salons, book festivals, trips – local and overseas – and lots of tennis to watch (Rafa is back!). I am looking forward to the publication of Koleka Putuma’s Collective Amnesia, Antjie Krog’s Lady Anne: A Chronicle in Verse, SSDA’s next anthology of short stories Migrations: New Short Fiction from Africa (edited by Efemia Chela, Bongani Kona and Helen Moffett), Katherine Stansfield’s Falling Creatures, Melissa Volker’s A Fractured Land, and Sarah Lotz’s next novel in which a Polish character features … I was told she gets to have some great mountaineering adventures … Or was it sex? Both, I hope. As long as she reaches the summit.

karinaI have no doubt this will be a brilliant year for books; many more exciting titles await.

I wish you all lots of health, and if not a sun, then at least a ray of sunlight in your pocket.

Let us dance.

Let’s not stop The Feeling.