Category Archives: What I’ve Written

Review: The Messiah’s Dream Machine by Jennifer Friedman

The-Messiah's-Dream-MachineFollowing her critically acclaimed debut memoir, Queen of the Free State, Jennifer Friedman returns with a sequel that takes us back to the moment when she was leaving the Free State for boarding school and continues her story into adulthood. The Messiah’s Dream Machine is spread over many more years and settings than the first book, and thus is perhaps more disjointed in its retelling of anecdotes from the chronicles of Friedman’s rather eccentric family. However, like its literary sibling, it focuses not only on a life full of adventure and discovery, but also on the darker sides of adolescence and of growing into the often unexpected roles fate has in store for us.

After recording the trials and tribulations of boarding school in Cape Town, Friedman depicts her married life in Johannesburg and her family’s emigration, first to Israel and eventually to Australia, where she still lives and traverses the skies in her Grumman Tiger plane. But no matter how far she goes, the Free State continues calling her back to the places “transformed beyond recognition, and the ghosts who’ve drifted unchallenged through the years”, and it is Friedman’s narrative that, like amber, encloses these stories into time capsules which will endure in the imaginations of her readers.

“Never is a long, long time … I’ll never send you away, said Ma. I’ll never leave you, Al says now,” Friedman writes and shares with us how to survive broken promises. With her vivid prose and a knack for dialogue, she delivers an array of odd characters that many of us will recognise from our own circles of family and friends. The Messiah’s Dream Machine also features disgusting meatballs, bloody springbok hunts, mice plagues, floods, a tornado, a few funerals and a wedding. “Nostalgia with teeth”, according to Mike Nicol.

The Messiah’s Dream Machine

by Jennifer Friedman

Tafelberg, 2019

Review first appeared in the Cape Times on 12 April 2019.

Review: Placeless People – Writing, Rights, and Refugees by Lyndsey Stonebridge

btrThroughout the ages, humans have been migrating across the globe; it is ingrained in our nature. Depending on time, place, and reason, these individual or mass movements of people have been welcomed or deplored by others. But being a refugee has never been easy. When you are forced to leave your home country and seek refuge elsewhere, whatever initiated the journey is usually only half of the ordeal you are facing – the uncertainty on the other side can be as daunting, if not more so.

Timely, succinct, and deeply moving, Lyndsey Stonebridge’s Placeless People: Writing, Rights, and Refugees throws a light on a topic that is constantly in the news and, whether we like it or not, often on our doorsteps.

Having spent quite some time in refugee camps as a child, I am aware far too intimately what it means not to have a country to belong to and a people to call your own. I thought that I knew what there was to be known about this topic, but Stonebridge’s research and take on placelessness and its consequences on the lives of millions of people scattered around the world today exposed my own ignorance and made me reconsider many long-standing beliefs.

The crisis we are confronting in the twenty-first century is, as Stonebridge shows, “in reality not a refugee crisis, but a crisis of moral and political citizenship”. Going back in time and examining creative responses to placelessness, as well as the legal and socio-historical frameworks which shaped the concept, Stonebridge delivers an unsettling account of who we are.

Placeless People is a powerful call to arms against “today’s toxic mess of bile bureaucracy, bad faith politics, and ethno-nationalist posturing.” It is an invitation to rethink what it means to be human in today’s shifting landscapes of uncertainty.

Placeless People: Writing, Rights, and Refugees

by Lyndsey Stonebridge

Oxford UP, 2018

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

Review: Secret Keeper by Kerry Hammerton

Secret KeeperSecret Keeper
Kerry Hammerton
Modjaji, 2018

To read the entire review, click here: LitNet

[…]

The keeper of the titular poem tends to secrets as others tend to bees. Like the insects, the secrets always return, “hairy bodies crammed into my mouth” wanting to escape (“The secret keeper”).

The last part of this captivating book, not unlike life itself, consists of poems of loss and grief. Here, too, there is a before and after, and once again it is impossible to imagine how “to get to the other side” (“This year”) when a loved one, the father, dies. The mourning child states: “I am better at my other life,/ where no-one is dead,/ where sadness doesn’t press/ its cold weight into my sternum/ creep along my clavicle, breathe into my spine” (“My other life”).

In Secret keeper, Hammerton manages to capture the essentials of most adult lives – love, loss, loneliness, anxiety, ageing and death – and leaves us pondering our own mortality, and that deep longing not to feel our insignificance “at night” when we are all alone under the “black sky, stars,/ the milky way”.

[…]

To read the entire review, click here: LitNet

Review: The Snow Sleeper by Marlene van Niekerk

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The Afrikaans poet and fiction writer Marlene van Niekerk is best known for her ground-breaking novels, Triomf and Agaat. She has many accolades to her name, including being a finalist for the 2015 Man Booker International Award when it still recognised the entire oeuvre of an author, not just an individual title. Van Niekerk’s The Snow Sleeper, at last translated into English, is the kind of book that could have been a worthy winner entirely on its own terms. Locally, the original did receive the prestigious University of Johannesburg Prize for Best Creative Writing in Afrikaans in 2010.

The four interlinked stories which form The Snow Sleeper – “The Swan Whisperer”, “The Percussionist”, “The Friend”, and the titular story – took my breath away. During an inaugural lecture a professor recalls an exasperating relationship – mostly epistolary and one-sided – with a creative writing student who challenges her ideas about creativity and mentorship. At the end of “The Swan Whisperer”, the professor questions her own work within the South African context in ways previously unimaginable: “god only knows who is writing in me.”

Van Niekerk quotes Orhan Pamuk for the epigraph of her book: “A writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him.” That the professor giving the inaugural lecture shares a name with the author of The Snow Sleeper is telling.

In “The Percussionist”, an antiquarian clockmaker specialising in grandfather clocks speaks at the funeral of his writer friend. “He wanted to be remembered for his books, he always said, because nobody would be able to make any sense of his life,” the clockmaker tells the people gathered at the occasion. In his eulogy, he captures the process of observed reality transmuting into fiction, with longing at the very core of the seemingly unfathomable process.

Van Niekerk’s dead writer is the author of the stories which we recognise by their titles as her own. The self-reflective The Snow Sleeper acknowledges the incredible power of storytelling, and its various pitfalls. While any artistic act can be seen as death-defying, in the end loss is inescapable. There is also no shying away from the predatory nature of any creative endeavour. In one of the narratives, a researcher interviewing homeless people for a field study records a story that throws a light at the precarious relationship between an artist and their – often oblivious, sometimes reluctant, and occasionally manipulative – subjects. In one of the most poignant moments of the book the vagrant asks: “What can I do in the end but avenge myself? On behalf of all the wretches who’ve sat as models through the ages so that narcissists on state subsidy can excrete artworks?”

And while undoubtedly also “seducing with false images”, The Snow Sleeper is a brilliant meditation on the eternally intriguing nature of art, life, and the individual whose humanity breathes soul and beauty into it all.

The Snow Sleeper

by Marlene van Niekerk

Human & Rousseau, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 15 March 2019.

Review: House of Glass by Susan Fletcher

House-of-Glass_Susan-Fletcher

Image: Virago

Clara Waterfield, the heroine of Susan Fletcher’s latest hauntingly beautiful novel, House of Glass, has a rare disease that makes her bones extremely brittle and confines her to a life of protected seclusion. Her mother and step-father provide as much safety, education and entertainment as they can while the curious girl grows up under their loving care. The unique upbringing makes Clara socially awkward but also unusually bold and unspoken once she is allowed to venture out into the world as a young woman.

The novel is set in England shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. Through the library that her step-father builds up for her, Clara has access to a wide range of scientific knowledge, and despite her isolation, she is well versed in the political and social developments of the day. News of women marching for their rights and the looming war reach and fascinate her. She finds her way to Kew Gardens where she becomes a keen assistant to a botanist and gardener, and unwittingly learns a trade that leads to an exciting offer of setting up a glass house on an estate in Gloucestershire.

Struggling to deal with the grief following the loss of her mother, Clara decides to travel to Shadowbrook to establish a botanical paradise for its owner. From the moment she arrives, she encounters strange occurrences which the staff and the elusive master of the house veil in secrets and silence. Undeterred, Clara embarks on a journey of discovery that will challenge all her beliefs about the world and her own life.

Fletcher’s mesmerising prose lures you in and holds you captive until the unexpected resolution of the mystery at the centre of this thought-provoking Gothic tale. You can judge House of Glass by its exquisite cover.

House of Glass

by Susan Fletcher

Virago, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 15 March 2019.

Review: ID – New Short Fiction from Africa, edited by Helen Moffett, Nebila Abdulmelik and Otieno Owino

ID Selfie

Helen’s ID selfie

We often open books to read stories about characters we can identify with. It is a search for sympathy and understanding. Picking up a book which actually reflects your own image back at you, however, is rather rare. But this is exactly what the latest Short Story Day Africa (SSDA) anthology, ID: New Short Fiction from Africa, does. The book’s cover is partly a mirror in which you can see fragments of your face.

Focusing on the theme of identity – whether we interpret ‘ID’ as short for one’s ‘identity document’ which can official represent you, or as one’s ‘subconscious’ in Freudian terms – the stories in this book are about “who we are” and “who we choose to be” on the African continent and in the world. The collection features the winning entries of the SSDA Prize and twenty other stories by writers from across the African continent.

The story which took the $800 top prize, All Our Lives by Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor, sweeps us along as we follow the trials and tribulations of a group of young men drifting in and out of Nigerian cities. Sew My Mouth by Cherrie Kandie is a touching exploration of the challenges a lesbian couple experiences in urban Nairobi. In Per Annum, a stunning piece of speculative fiction, the Johannesburg-based writer Mpho Phalwane tells the story of a group of young people fighting a corrupt government to keep their memories alive. The entire anthology challenges us to know our diverse selves.

ID: New Short Fiction from Africa

Edited by Helen Moffett, Nebila Abdulmelik & Otieno Owino

Short Story Day Africa, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 8 March 2019.

Review: Nasty Women Talk back – Feminist Essays on the Global Women’s Marches, edited by Joy Watson and Amanda Gouws

Nasty Women Talk Back

Most of us despair, but publishers around the world are probably laughing all the way to the bank because of Donald Trump. The president of the United States might not be good for anything else, but he is certainly great for the book business. I can no longer count the titles I have come across recently, written in reaction to the innumerable atrocities – in words and deeds – committed by the man.

Nasty Women Talk Back: Feminist Essays on the Global Women’s Marches, published in South Africa but with contributions by women from around the world, is a collection documenting diverse responses to Trump’s campaign, his election, and the ensuing Women Marches organised in protest to Trump’s presidency.

In the introduction to the book, the editors talk about a period of “deep mourning” many of us have been experiencing since November 2016. It is not to be underestimated. Having Trump in power has not only exposed numerous vulnerabilities we experience in our everyday, but also reversed progress already gained in areas of gender rights and equality.

The twenty-five essays and three poems included in Nasty Women Talk Back are an attempt “to put pen to paper and show fervour for ongoing feminist activism”. Reading the individual pieces, I also felt inspired. Ranging from academic comments to deeply personal stories, all the essays are illustrated. The texts and images refer to the striking signs participants of the Women Marches carried during the protests.

“My arms are tired from holding this sign since the 1960s”, reads one of the signs, but as Rebecca Davis points out: “We may be tired, but we cannot afford to shut up.” Books like Nasty Women Talk Back allow us to counter the violence of silencing and to find solidarity in a common cause.

Nasty Women Talk Back: Feminist Essays on the Global Women’s Marches

Edited by Joy Watson & Amanda Gouws

Imbali Academic Publishers, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 22 February 2019.

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.

 

Review: Somewhere in Between by Niki Malherbe

Somewhere in BetweenHow to be a feminist? What does it mean to be a good parent, especially a good mother? What is success? What is justice and how does it relate to ethics? How can reading and writing help with the answers to these, and other, vital questions? Somewhere in Between is Niki Malherbe’s attempt at resolving some of these conundrums in the context of her own life. She dedicates her book “To all women who try hard to get the balance right and all the men who do too”.

Malherbe is also the author of From Courtrooms to Cupcakes. In Somewhere in Between, she continues the themes of her debut, trying to reconcile her private and professional aspirations. Her background is in law. She is a wife and a mother of four. Writing is her enduring passion. She is an avid reader, and it is the writers who intrigue her, along with her family’s experiences, that fuel her literary pursuits. Somewhere in Between is part diary, part memoir, part essay; throughout, Malherbe comments on the authors she turns to when seeking guidance or comfort. Writing a book is like having a relative in jail, she says: “You don’t want to admit it but it’s very tricky to hide.”

Oscar Pistorius is no relation to the author, but she is writing at the time of his trial. As she watches the proceedings, she approaches the case not only through the lens of her legal training and feminism, but also from the perspective of a mother.

Malherbe tries to narrow and unpick the ambiguities she encounters on her path. Like most of us, she has her blind spots: occasionally dismissing her own writing as “frivolous” and her thinking as “trivial” – whereas she wants to and should be taken seriously; or, probably unconsciously, using terminology that undermines her feminist perspective; and often leaving the women who, willingly or not, never become mothers out of her considerations. However, to her credit, she does not settle for any easy, sloppy answer. And, many of the conflicts she describes remain unresolved, despite her attempt to tackle them head-on. For some, only approximations are possible; there simply are no straightforward solutions.

There were moments in the book where I wished Malherbe had dared more, especially when the narrative becomes self-reflective, but what she already reveals – especially her doubts, anxiety and envy – is extremely courageous and her pursuit of truth and understanding deserves not only applause but close examination. Somewhere in Between opens up many conversations we could all profit from taking further. Along with Mary Pipher, Malherbe believes that: “Using words, writers have the opportunity to bring justice and make their own mark on the world.” That is the incalculable power of storytelling and we can do much worse than endeavour to make sense of the world and find what gives meaning to our existence.

Somewhere in Between

by Niki Malherbe

2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 1 February 2019.

Review: These Bones Will Rise Again by Panashe Chigumadzi

these bones will rise againIn November 2017, the “coup that was not a coup” in Zimbabwe held the world’s attention as the seemingly impossible became reality: after decades of rule, Robert Mugabe was ousted from power. These Bones Will Rise Again by Zimbabwean-born journalist and novelist, Panashe Chigumadzi, is an incisive exploration of these events and the author’s personal response to the historical moment as it unfolds as well as the past that shaped it: “The struggles over history are complex, because the present continuously slips into the past, marking history as always ambivalent, incomplete, a work in progress.”

Chigumadzi interrogates the way we remember. She is acutely aware of language and storytelling as a way of preserving memory and belonging. “In search of those answers, I must lower my eyes from the heights of Big Men who have created a history that does not know little people, let alone little women, except as cannon fodder”, she writes and decides to listen closely to what the bones of her female ancestors have to tell and teach her about her own life and that of an entire nation.

Reading other black women, she confronts “the unflinching stories of our mothers and grandmothers and aunts and sisters” and wonders for the first time “what did it mean for a black woman to be in my grandmother’s time?” She interviews the women in her family who are still alive and mourns the ones who had passed away too soon. Those who “refused their place in time” are returned to history.

Growing up between Zimbabwe and South Africa offers Chigumadzi a fascinating perspective. I am writing this review during the social media shutdown in Zimbabwe. It is voices like Chigumadzi’s that guide us through times of uncertainty. These Bones Will Rise Again is an inspiration.

These Bones Will Rise Again

by Panashe Chigumadzi

Jacana, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 25 January 2019.