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Review: Landscapes of Light and Loss by Stephen Symons

Landscapes of Light and LossStephen Symons is a versatile wordsmith. His work has appeared in numerous publications locally and abroad. A writer who is as comfortable with prose as he is with poetry, Symons knows how to invite a reader on a journey of discovery. You never feel alienated when following in his literary footsteps, even if the topics are unfamiliar or difficult to confront.

Landscapes of Light and Loss is the follow-up to his luminous debut poetry collection, Questions for the Sea, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Ingrid Jonker Prize and received an honourable mention for the Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry.

Published in the Dryad Press Living Poets Series which is gradually building up an impressive list of titles, the author’s latest offering is as rewarding for the reader as his previous volume. Words, like water, can wash over you and create inner landscapes which offer solace and understanding. Sometimes you stand before them in awe. But Symons never attempts to dazzle with virtuosity. His poetry seduces with understatement.

Landscapes of Light and Loss opens with a shattering poem about climate change, one of the most pressing issues of our times. With the prefix “re” in “rediscovered” in the last stanza of Crows are Building Nests of Stone, Symons signals the momentous historical period we have brought about with our carelessness: “We have rediscovered the secret of fire / and slowly, / like a father ageing — / fields scab as the earth forgets rain, / the seasons have wasted to heat and bone. / Everywhere skin is flaking to ash.”

Love and loss mingle in the collection which is interspersed with moments of heart- stopping tenderness, as when the lyrical I speaks about “my children” who “have lived too few seasons / for mortality to take root, / they only know music / composed of light and awe, / choruses with no beginning or end” (Every Bone Knows Its Place), or when dreams are narrated in Three Dreams of Salt: “In my first dream your ankles wear a hem of salt / as if they had just returned from an empty beach / before it is combed by dawn.”

The reader’s senses are awakened with such lines as: “He imagined that a new book was what clouds, or perhaps a sunrise smelt like” (The Passing). Or: “The sea, / warm as / an infant’s bath” (Durban Surf).

Poems of remembrance bring a personal and political dimension to the collection. In Buffelsbaai, a conversation turns to the violent past and the men around a braai “run their talk / down / the evening’s spine / and feel history’s vertebrae / beneath its skin.”

Landscape of Light and Loss ends with a plea – “I wish I could make / every morning windless — / a sunned attic” – and another stunning image of calm: “like the meniscus of a pond / trembling under an insect’s weight.”

Landscapes of Light and Loss

by Stephen Symons

Dryad Press, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 29 March 2019.

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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What is Up Lit?

Kate Mallinder - a writer's blog...

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I recently had the pleasure of speaking on a panel about Up Lit at the Society of Young Publishers’ annual conference. With me on the panel were Lisa Highton from Two Roads, publisher of The Keeper of Lost Things and Martha Ashby, editorial director of Harper Fiction, but specifically in this case, editor of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. It was a fascinating session, so here is what was said about this relatively new genre of ‘Up Lit’.

 

What is Up Lit?

Highton commented that the term Up Lit was first coined about 18 months ago in a Guardian article talking about books with kindness at their centre. Ashby added that these books aren’t saccharine however – they deal with some big life issues; mental illness, loss, grief. But this is where it differs from other stories tackling similar themes; these books have a strong sense of community…

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Review: Call Them by Their True Names – American Crises (and Essays) by Rebecca Solnit

Call Them by Their True NamesThe importance of truth and the careful use of language cannot be underestimated. “Precision, accuracy, and clarity matter, as gestures of respect toward those to whom you speak; toward the subject, whether it’s an individual or the earth itself; toward the historical record. It’s also a kind of self-respect”, writes the award-winning author and intellectual Rebecca Solnit in her latest collection of essays, Call Them by Their True Names. The individual pieces draw our attention to the roots of the present crises facing America and beyond: the infamous election of 2016, inequality, and climate change.

“Sometimes the state of our union seems like an absurdist thriller film that we would not have believed was possible, let alone likely, let alone real, had we been told about it a couple of years ago.” Unfortunately, current reality cannot be simply switched off. Creative effort is required to stop the rot.

Solnit considers “the act of naming as diagnosis”. She is very much aware that by diagnosing a “grim” situation, you will not necessarily be able to change or solve it, but “you’re far better equipped to know what to do about it.” Also, any “revolt against brutality begins with a revolt against the language that hides that brutality.”

In her usual fashion, Solnit’s astute analysis galvanises readers into action and supplies us with hope. We need to return to that state of affairs “in which you are, as the saying goes, as good as your word.” Addressing such diverse topics as isolation, cynicism, rage, activism, gentrification, violence, homelessness, revisionism, journalism, and the justice system, Solnit shows how not to remain passive, but to fight for what we believe in and are passionate about. With its integrity and clarity, Solnit’s writing is, as always, exhilarating.

Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays)

by Rebecca Solnit

Granta, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 2 November 2018.

Review: Packing My Library – An Elegy and Ten Digressions by Alberto Manguel

Manguel.indd“Loss helps you remember, and loss of a library helps you remember who you truly are”, writes the remarkable Argentine-Canadian wordsmith, Alberto Manguel. Nine years ago, I had the great fortune of spending an afternoon in his company. It was just after a visit to the special collection of a library in the French province of Champagne where I had seen manuscripts from the Middle Ages. The librarian responsible for them handled the treasures in white cotton gloves and, for understandable reasons, would not allow anyone else to touch them. Still spellbound, I told Mr Manguel of the encounter with the precious books and how much I had longed to touch their pages. That is when I found out about his own famous library, located in the home he shared with his partner near Paris, and containing thousands of books, some as ancient and unique as the ones I had seen. And in his kindness, he said that if I ever came to visit, he would allow me to hold these books in my hands.

Sadly, I never had the opportunity to take him up on this generous offer, but the dream remained with me until I read Packing My Library, Alberto Manguel’s farewell to the library he told me about, an extraordinary collection of thirty-five thousand books “housed in an old stone presbytery south of the Loire Valley, in a quiet village of fewer than ten houses.” He doesn’t go into details why the home – and the library – had to be packed up in 2015, but the experience had been clearly traumatic. To adapt an African proverb: When an old library dies, a man burns to the ground.

“I’ve often felt that my library explained who I was, gave me a shifting self that transformed itself constantly throughout the years.” With the help of friends, the books are catalogued and put into boxes before being shipped to Canada. Packing My Library is, as the subtitle suggest, a lament for the absent books and the lost space where they had come to rest for many years, where the author “never felt alone”. Manguel recalls how the library took shape throughout his nomadic life, how individual titles became part of the collection and how they influenced the author’s reflections. The digressions of the subtitle are short pieces on topics as diverse as literary creation, revenge and Jorge Luis Borges, the writer who at one stage of his life became the director of the National Library of Argentina, a post now occupied by Manguel.

Most known for his outstanding A History of Reading, Manguel has been sharing his love of language and reading with us for decades. Packing My Library is a touching tribute, an obituary to a self formed and informed by a library now dormant until – hopefully – its next “unpacking”.

Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions

by Alberto Manguel

Yale University Press, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 2 November 2018.

Review: Postcolonial Poetics – 21st-century Critical Readings by Elleke Boehmer

Postcolonial PoeticsIt is nearly impossible to know where to start when writing about postcolonial studies. This vast field of inquiry has influenced diverse schools of thought and disciplines all over the world. One of its leading scholars in the literature corner is Elleke Boehmer, the author of such seminal works as Colonial and postcolonial literature: Migrant metaphors (1995; expanded edition, 2005), Empire, the national, and the postcolonial, 1890–1920: Resistance in interaction (2002) and Stories of women: Gender and narrative in the postcolonial nation (2005). What sets Boehmer’s work apart from many other academic writers’ is its readability. She is also an acclaimed novelist and short story writer. These two facts are most likely related. They also allow the author to view the topic of her latest book, Postcolonial poetics: 21st-century critical readings, from a rare perspective, as a theorist and practitioner of the art of creative writing.

The central question Boehmer addresses in Postcolonial poetics is “whether there was a kind of reading that postcolonial texts in particular solicited” and, if yes, what its main characteristics were. In eight concise chapters, the book offers an intriguing approach to understanding our relationship to postcolonial literature as readers. Boehmer examines how the structures of postcolonial writing in English – with focus on southern and West Africa, black and Asian Britain, as well as India – “shape our reading”, and how this literature “interacts with our imaginative understanding of the world”. The emphasis moves from the text and its author, to the recipient in front of the page: Boehmer believes that literature “has the capacity to keep re-imagining and refreshing how we understand ourselves in relation to the world and to some of the most pressing questions of our time, including cultural reconciliation, survival after terror, and migration”, and shows “that literary writing itself lays down structures and protocols to shape and guide our reading”.

Continue reading: LitNet

Postcolonial Poetics: 21st-century Critical Readings
by Elleke Boehmer
Palgrave Macmillan, 2018

“An act of inspiration”: Review of La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono

AiW Guest: Karina M. Szczurek 

Trifonia Melibea Obono’s La Bastarda was first published two years ago in its original Spanish by Feminist Press and has now become the first novel by an Equatorial Guinean woman writer to be translated into English. The book was banned in the author’s home country. More a novella than a novel, in seven short chapters, it tells the story of Okomo, the “motherless orphan”. Okomo’s mother died giving birth to her and she “was declared a bastarda – a bastard daughter.” Her father is absent for reasons no one is willing to explain to the teenage girl. Okomo is desperate to find her only remaining parent, but the Fang community she is part of closes ranks and is unwilling to lift the veil on the mystery of her father’s disappearance from her life.

Okomo grows up in the polygamous family of her late mother…

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Review: The History of Intimacy by Gabeba Baderoon

The History of IntimacyIt is heartening to see the proliferation of high quality poetry collections on the local literary scene, publishers like uHlanga Press, Modjaji Books, Protea Book House and Dryad Press leading the way. The history of intimacy by Gabeba Baderoon – “[a]n exquisite new collection from one of South Africa’s finest, most treasured poets”, according to Nadia Davids – is the only poetry volume published by Kwela Books this year, but one which is a most welcome addition to the plethora of distinguished South African poetic voices. It is Baderoon’s fourth after The dream in the next body (2005), The museum of ordinary life (2005) and A hundred silences (2006). She is also the author of the monograph Regarding Muslims: From slavery to post-apartheid (2014).

At the beginning of her literary career, Baderoon received the DaimlerChrysler Award for South African Poetry. The jury described her voice as being able to find “the poetic in the ordinary with a fine sense of locality and space”. They noted that Baderoon “weaves political and social issues into her poetry without sloganeering. Her work tackles a wide range of themes, astutely shifting the focus from the outside to the inside.” These remain her strengths as she takes us on a poetic journey of note in The history of intimacy.

The shift described above is beautifully captured in poems like “Axis and revolution” and “Stone skin”. In the former, we find the following lines: “In the door, I am a reflection/ on reflection, gleaming/ against the facing windows, seamless/ turning, turning// outside into inside, opening/ a dark glint of entry to your house./ Through glass skin,/ I am inside, invited in.” And in the latter: “In the castle the statues stiffen/ with perfection. Outside the stone walls/ the Senegalese immigrants hold out their hands/ full of roses and good fortune.” These “gestures”, we are told, “are not aesthetic, are not silent.” Only “the stone wall keeps in its place [at night]/ and outside, the silence, the growing silence”. Local history is encapsulated in the skin of stone, and the present moment of the foreign immigrants is alive in their skin and gestures of hope, commerce and exchange…

Continue reading: LitNet 

The History of Intimacy: Poems
by Gabeba Baderoon
Kwela, 2018

Review: The Death of Truth by Michiko Kakutani

mde“For journalists everywhere working to report the news”, says Michiko Kakutani’s dedication in her latest book, The Death of Truth, published only a few weeks ago. The Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic started her journalism career at The Washington Post, the newspaper that Jamal Khashoggi was writing for at the time of his brutal murder earlier this month.

Telling truth to power can be lethal. Murder is the most blatant tool in the constant onslaught on truth we witness around the world. “Two of the most monstrous regimes in human history came to power in the twentieth century, and both were predicated upon the violation and despoiling of truth, upon the knowledge that cynicism and weariness and fear can make people susceptible to the lies and false promises of leaders bent on unconditional power”, writes Kakutani in her introduction to The Death of Truth. She proceeds “to “examine how a disregard for facts, the displacement of reason by emotion, and the corrosion of language are diminishing the very value of truth, and what that means for America and the world” in the present moment. It is essential reading.

Kakutani looks at the impact of postmodernism on our understanding of culture, history and science, and traces why “objectivity – or even the idea that people can aspire towards the best available truth – has been falling out of favour.” She turns to current events and literature to show why facts and integrity – and the courage to fight for both – are of utmost importance, why we must do everything we can to revive truth and rescue it from the jaws of decay.

The Death of Truth is simultaneously a chilling and inspiring read. Kakutani states: “I believe in being truthful, not neutral. And I believe we must stop banalizing the truth.”

The Death of Truth

by Michiko Kakutani

William Collins, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 26 October 2018.

Review: The House with the Stained-Glass Window by Żanna Słoniowska

The House with the Stained-Glass WindowThe city is Lviv. The house with the stained-glass window is an architectural treasure. The four generations of women living in it are steeped in the setting’s rich and deeply troubled history. And so begins Żanna Słoniowska’s magnetic debut novel. Ukrainian-born, Słoniowska has settled in Cracow, Poland, and published The House with the Stained-Glass Window in Polish. It won the esteemed Znak Publishers’ Literary Prize and the Conrad Prize for first novels. It was shortlisted for Poland’s most prestigious literary award, the Nike (not to be confused with the sports brand), a respected recognition. Translated seamlessly into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, the book is one of those historical novels that manages to encapsulate a century of socio-political hopes and upheavals in Ukraine’s most famous city by portraying the private and intimate lives of a single family, specifically the women who shaped its core.

“I remember that on that particular day Great-Granma was ‘having hysterics’, in other words lying in bed and loudly sobbing”, her great-granddaughter, our narrator tells us. “Days like this occurred since time began, and weren’t necessarily proceeded by any kind of nasty incident. ‘It’s to do with the past,’ Aba would explain… I imagined ‘the past’ as uncontrollable, intermittent blubbering.”

Aba remembers how Great-Granma’s husband, her father, was one of the “people who started to vanish from the flats in our house”. She was awake when they came for her Papa: “He kissed me goodbye, and said it was an error, he’d be back soon, while two men stood waiting for him in the doorway. I never saw him again,” Aba recalls and her granddaughter knows exactly what it means to lose a parent to historical forces. Her mother, Aba’s daughter, the renowned opera singer Marianna is assassinated.

The novel opens with her final moments: “On the day of her death, her voice rang out, drowning many other, raucous sounds. Yet death, her death, was not a sound, but a colour. They brought her body home wrapped in a large, blue-and-yellow flag – the flag of a country that did not yet exist on any map of the world.” But it soon would, the country that we know today as Ukraine, in which Marianna’s daughter tries to carve out a space for herself.

The young woman’s intuition tells her “to be beware of people who can change your memories.” One of them is Mykola, her mother’s married lover with whom she, too, begins an affair after Marianna’s death.

Słoniowska is a noteworthy storyteller with the remarkable ability to evoke an entire era with a few simple images. The Lviv of her narration – “this city, worn out by history” –becomes the fifth main character of the book, along with the women who make it their own despite the demanding circumstances they face. The English translator provides us with a short, useful introductory note on the history of the region to familiarise the reader with the broader context. The House with the Stained-Glass Window is beautiful and announces a great talent on the international literary scene.

The House with the Stained-Glass Window

by Żanna Słoniowska

Maclehose Press Editions, 2017

Review first published in the Cape Times on 19 October 2018.