Category Archives: What I’ve Written

Review: Whose Story Is This? Old Conflicts, New Chapters by Rebecca Solnit

Whose Story Is ThisThere are numerous writers out there who understand the complexity of the present. Many can also clearly convey their insights. But few do it as strikingly as Rebecca Solnit. I have discovered her work only recently, but have read and loved all the books she has authored by now. Her latest is another intellectual delight.

Whose Story Is This? Old Conflicts, New Chapters is a collection of essays Solnit penned over the last three years. At the heart of the book is the ancient question of who and how is allowed to tell a story. It might seem simple at first glance, but there are no easy answers. And when one realises how many seminal stories are silenced and for which reasons, one can grow terrifyingly worried about the narratives that infiltrate our lives.

Storytelling and power are tensely interlinked. Credibility or lack thereof forms part of that connection. Having a voice doesn’t necessarily mean that it is your time to speak. Truth and accuracy are paramount. And perhaps most importantly for our strange times, the dominant story is often the one that is lethally misleading: “Gaslighting is a collective cultural phenomenon, too,” Solnit notes, “and it makes cultures feel crazy the way it does individual victims.” Whose Story Is This? is worth reading just for the explanation of this concept. But the book offers so much more.

Solnit’s intense clarity of thought and compassion allows us to follow her as she “maps or machetes” paths out of “this horrible tangle.” She says that it is all about the “active practice of paying attention to other people.” It is also about kindness. Our world can use a lot more of these vital skills, if we want to envisage a future that is meaningful to most, not only a few.

Whose Story Is This? Old Conflicts, New Chapters

Rebecca Solnit

Granta, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 20 December 2019.

Woman Zone Book Club

WZ Book Club

The Woman Zone Book Club meets every second Saturday to discuss recently read books. The women of the book club also invite guest authors to speak to them about their lives and work. I had the privilege to have been invited yesterday afternoon and had a fantastic time.

Photo by Nancy RichardsFor obvious reasons, I chose to speak about a few of the women in my life who shaped my creativity and were instrumental in paving my way towards a career in writing, editing and publishing. It was impossible to honour all of them in a short time, but these are the women who featured in my talk yesterday: my grandmother, Babcia Marysia, and my Mom, both of them nurtured my creativity in indirect but significant ways; Mrs Nellie Fahy, the librarian who awakened my passion for reading; Nadine Gordimer, whose writing brought me to South Africa for the first time; Maureen Isaacson, who first gave me the opportunity to hone my craft as a book reviewer when she was book page editor of the Sunday Independent; Lyndall Gordon, whose work and friendship showed me how to continue being a writer in the world when I was doubting that I could; Rachel Zadok, who believed in me as an editor and through work kept me sane when my world lost nearly all connection to sanity; and Joanne Hichens, who was a stranger when I asked her to visit me in an hour of utter despair nearly five years ago, but we became friends and are now co-editors of an anthology of short stories we published together: HAIR: Weaving and Unpicking Stories of Identity.

The other books I mentioned during my talk were:

with Desiree-Anne MartinDuring the book club reviewing session, I also briefly spoke about the book I had finished reading that morning: Desiree-Anne Martin’s remarkable We Don’t Talk About It. Ever. She was there at the meeting and it was great to tell her in person how I felt about her memoir and to ask her to sign my copy.

It was my first visit to the WZ Book Club, but I hope that there will be many, many more in the new year. Located at the Woman Zone Library at the Artscape it is a generous and beautiful space for discussing all things literary with the most wonderful women.

Review: The First Breath – How Modern Medicine Saves the Most Fragile Lives by Olivia Gordon

The First BreathWhen a doctor pushed a shunt into her “unborn baby’s thorax to save his life from a deadly condition called hydrops”, Olivia Gordon and her husband had no way of knowing what other challenges would await them and their son before or after his birth.

Ground-breaking fields of medicine are making it possible for many children who would have died only a decade or two ago to survive and, in many cases, lead perfectly ordinary lives. These advances are also paving the way for a generation of parents who have to cope with the consequences of extremely difficult decisions that can result in unimaginable tragedy, lifelong commitment to special care for their children, or miraculous joy. Quite often the possibilities intertwine. Gordon guides us through this new world, taking into account her personal experience and impeccable research into the medicine and dedication that created it.

Written with immense integrity and sensitivity, this thought-provoking book not only made me revisit the choices I have made in my life, but also rethink my preconceptions about this topic. The First Breath is highly recommended for anyone considering their options as a parent, especially with all the progress modern medicine has to offer.

The First Breath: How Modern Medicine Saves the Most Fragile Lives

by Olivia Gordon

Pan Macmillan, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 13 December 2019.

 

Woman Zone Book Club Guest Author

On Saturday, 14 December 2019, I have been invited to speak about my work at the Woman Zone Book Club in Cape Town.

Woman Zone

The Woman Zone Book Club is a lively afternoon of discussion, debate and discovery, sharing books from our shelves and welcoming local guest authors. Everyone is welcome at any meeting.

How it works: We review the books borrowed last month and, over a cup of tea or coffee, we chat about great reads and meet our guest author.

Even if you haven’t been before you can tell us what’s on your bedside table.
Then we browse the shelves of the Woman’s Library and choose an enticing title to borrow for the next month

fptbty

Date: Saturday 14 December
From: 2pm to 4pm

Woman Zone Library Hub, Ground Floor, Artscape
RSVP: 

Beryl 082 490 6652 hipzone@mweb.co.za
or Nancy 083 431 9986 info@womanzonect.co.za

Donation: R30
Tea and coffee served

Check out reviews on
Instagram: wzbookclub and
facebook.com/Woman Zone CT

Review: Cape Town – A Place Between by Henry Trotter

Capet Town_A Place BetweenThe first in the Intimate Geographies series, Cape Town: A Place Between by Henry Trotter is a thought-provoking, genre-crossing book that will intrigue locals and foreigners alike. Incorporating elements of memoir, guide book, socio-political history and travelogue, Trotter tells a compelling story and captures the essence of what makes the Mother City so irresistible on the one hand, and so impossible to grasp on the other.

He opens with three vignettes from the recent past: Day Zero, a bizarre hijacking attempt and the Clifton Fourth Beach sheep slaughter. From there, he sets out to deepen our understanding of these snapshots by exploring the different strands of history that made them possible and covers impressive ground in short, entertaining chapters that will make you look at Cape Town anew, even if you have lived here all your life. As a visitor you couldn’t ask for a more succinct and vivid introduction to the place.

Trotter is American, an outsider who made Cape Town his home many years ago. His perspective is fascinating, but it is, of course, not without its challenges: “I realize”, he writes, “there’s nothing quite like listening to a white American guy man-splaining African history and culture. Even I cringe when I think about that.” But there is much more to Trotter than meets the eye, and it is precisely because he is painstakingly aware of his position that Cape Town: A Place Between becomes such a ground-breaking book.

The title of the series is crucial to remember: this is an “intimate” take on a geographical place many of us who live here believe we know; no matter how frustrated we get trying to come to terms with its many contradictions. Trotter invites us to “embrace the discomfort, the dissonance, and the delight entailed in investigating this inimitable city called Cape Town.”

Cape Town: A Place Between

Henry Trotter

Catalyst Press, 2019

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

 

Review: Made in Sweden – 25 Ideas that Created a Country by Elisabeth Åsbrink

Made in SwedenWhether it is ABBA, Pippi Longstocking, Scandi noir, Swedish massage, Volvo or IKEA furniture, these famous Swedish exports usually evoke positive connotations. We often associate Scandinavian countries in general and Sweden in particular with innovative ideas and socio-political stability. Award-winning Swedish author, Elisabeth Åsbrink, decided to test these assumptions about her country and ask herself the following questions: What are the real Swedish values? Who is the real Swedish model?

In her latest book translated into English, Made in Sweden: 25 Ideas that Created a Country, Åsbrink, who recently visited South Africa for the Open Book Festival, looks into some of the most defining concepts and figures shaping her home country and debunks some of the myths which have grown around them. The book is a fascinating journey through Scandinavia’s ancient and more recent history as well as a key guide to understanding present-day Sweden and its people.

Åsbrink’s love for her country is clear, however it “isn’t blind.” Many of her revelations are surprising, if not shocking: a few will make you rethink your love of Swedish things (like the history of IKEA and its founder’s dubious past). Others will make you want to embrace them with joy. The story that moved me the most is the one about how, exactly forty years ago, Sweden became the first country to ban all forms of psychological and physical violence towards children and how Astrid Lindgren was involved in making it happen.

Made in Sweden: 25 Ideas that Created a Country

Elisabeth Åsbrink

Scribe, 2019

First published in the Cape Times on 22 November 2019.

Review: The Unfamous Five by Nedine Moonsamy

The-Unfamous-Five-310x480Friends Neha, Devon, Shejal, Janine and Kumari live in the Indian suburb of Lenasia and spend a lot of time together. It is the early 90s, just before the first democratic election in South Africa. The country is preparing for change when the teenagers witness a terrible crime on one of their outings in the township. Their sense of belonging and identity is shaken as they embark on the rough path to adulthood after this lethal incident. Alongside them, South Africa is also trying to come into its own. This is the premise of Nedine Moonsamy’s beautifully crafted debut novel, The Unfamous Five. Although clearly echoing Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five novel series, Moonsamy makes this story completely local and her own.

The Unfamous Five is narrated from the perspective of all five friends at different stages of their lives from June 1993 to April 2003. The individual stories are told in affecting vignettes that reveal the multi-facetted connections between the friends, their families and other people who come to share their lives with them as time progresses.

“As she lives through the moment she already knows that she will remember it for the rest of her life”, it is revealed about Janine at one point in the book, as the account continues: “She records it in her mind as one of those moments. Those moments when reality bursts open like a volcano and spits hot lava across one’s front lawn.” It is the perfect description of how the novel records the essential stages of the group’s journey as individual young adults and as a whole.

It took me a few pages to get into the intense rhythms of the narration, but once I did, I could not put The Unfamous Five down, curious of how these lives would develop and whether the relationships depicted would survive their many permutations and challenges. All five stories are compelling, but I was particularly moved by Janine’s.

Through these characters, Moonsamy brings the transition alive in a way that is truly tangible, never shying away from the most difficult aspect of the period, exposing the devastating consequences of racism, homophobia and intolerance of any kind: “This is how they choose to spend their time, undressing each other until they stand there, naked and raw, clinging together as they desperately search in one another for a new truth about themselves.” The observation is made during an argument about the past and the New South Africa. It is the private and the personal that becomes political here as in the best of fiction addressing these concerns through this specific place and time in history.

This is the adventure of life, he [Devon] thinks, travelling through each other’s lives, each other’s weeks.” Moonsamy offers us a generous insight into what the adventure of life entailed for the unfamous – but fascinating – five of her novel.

The Unfamous Five

Nedine Moonsamy

Modjaji Books, 2019

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

Review: Out of Darkness, Shining Light by Petina Gappah

Out of Darkness, Shining Light“Whoever heard of a group of people marching from place to place with a dead body?” It is precisely such a journey that is at the centre of Petina Gappah’s latest novel, Out of Darkness, Shining Light. Two decades in the making, the book tells the story of the sixty-nine men and women who decided to carry the body of Bwana Daudi – the Scottish physician and explorer David Livingstone – across the African continent after his death, so that his remains could be interred in his own country.

“In the grave we dug for him under the shade of a mvula tree, his heart, and all the essential parts of him, are at one with the soil of his travels. The grave of his bones proclaims that he was brought over land and sea by our faithful hands.”

The novel has two primary narrators: the expedition’s cook, the slave woman from Zanzibar called Halima, who is freed by Livingstone’s death, and the aspiring missionary from the Nassick school in India, also a former slave, Jacob Wainwright. Their voices complement each other perfectly in this richly textured chronicle of loyalty and betrayal, ambition and resilience, placing the emphasis on the lives of people neglected by history, the true protagonists of this particular tale.

Gappah’s approach is stunningly encapsulated in the retelling of the famous encounter between Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley, one of numerous highlights of this sumptuously imagined historical novel. It has been a long time since I have delighted in a book so much. Out of Darkness, Shining Light is Gappah’s third novel since the publication of her exquisite debut collection of short stories, An Elegy for Easterly, ten years ago. It takes you to the heart of the continent, illuminating it with the bright torch of African storytelling.

Out of Darkness, Shining Light

Petina Gappah

Faber & Faber, 2019

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

Review: Wise About Waste – 150+ Ways to Help the Planet by Helen Moffett

WiseAboutWasteThere is nothing to be done. We are coming too late to the party, allowing doom and gloom to persist. It’s easier to remain in a state of stupor than to take up the torch of an eco-warrior. Looking around, you will be forgiven for thinking that the war is already lost anyway. And there is no doubt about it: we are the bad guys on the wrong side of history. We are destroying our environments with ignorant dedication at a mind-boggling speed. The results are undeniable and crushing.

After her book on water conservation, 101 Water Wise Ways, published at the height of the water crisis when Day Zero was looming large in Cape Town, Helen Moffett turned to tackling the most pressing issues involved in waste reduction. She does not deny that the situation globally is precarious, to say the least, but once again Moffett approaches the challenge with a can-do attitude and a dose of healthy humour, no matter what the odds.

Wise About Waste: 150+ Ways to Help the Planet will make you feel empowered and arm you with numerous practical tips that don’t necessarily take a fortune and around-the-clock dedication to implement. Moffett shows how to make a significant difference – to the planet and, more selfishly, to us humans – with relative ease. It’s a no-brainer: “the healthier the environment, the healthier we are.” She also urges us to think bigger and strive for change on a large scale, but it is what she proposes we do in our everyday family lives that gave me most hope.

“Resistance is NOT futile”, Moffett writes and encourages us to embrace our “inner fish” and to “swim upstream”. Becoming “wise about waste” is not always easy, but it certainly feels more attainable since I have read this book.

Wise About Waste: 150+ Ways to Help the Planet

by Helen Moffett

Bookstorm, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 13 September 2019.

Review: Upturned Earth by Karen Jennings

Upturned Earth“You learn to like the taste of sand out here … It gets to a point where you don’t feel quite right without a grain or two in your mouth. After all, it’s what the miners eat, isn’t it?” With these words the new magistrate of a mining town in Namaqualand is welcomed by his predecessor. It is winter of 1886, and after an arduous journey, William Hull arrives in Springbokfontein to guard the rule of law in the desolate place. Hull is well-meaning but obtuse and naïve; it takes him a while to grasp that there is only one real authority in town, the Cape Copper Mining Company, and that his attempts at justice are also being treacherously undermined in his own home, under his very nose. The battle of wills that ensues has tragic consequences.

At the same time, Molefi Noki returns to the copper mines from his village in the Idutywa Reserve in the Transkei Territory, where he and his wife had just lost a baby after yet another difficult pregnancy and birth. Grieving and desperate, the Xhosa miner embarks on a search for his missing brother who had been sent to the notorious local jail for drunkenness and seems to have disappeared since then.

Tensions between the miners and the Company arise over working conditions and pay. After a tragedy claims many lives, the conflict escalates into outright horror. “It’s the way of the mines; you should know that well enough. How many old miners do you see walking around? … None. No miner sits by the fire in his old age with his grandchildren bouncing on his knees. It’s the same for all of us”, one of the mine workers reminds Noki.

Shattered by the Marikana Massacre of 16 August 2012, and inspired by historical sources about the Cape Copper Mining Company, Karen Jennings wrote Upturned Earth “as a comment on the history of commercial mining in South Africa – the exploitation, conditions and corruption that began in the 1850s and continue to the present,” as she states in her author’s notes. The novel is a sobering reminder of the roots of everything that has been going wrong in the mining industry for decades. Written from the perspectives of Hull and Noki, Upturned Earth throws a light into the darkest places of this history and shows that not much has changed, and there is so much to fight for.

Jennings is a novelist, short-story writer and a poet. Upturned Earth is her fifth book, showcasing her striking talent that is maturing with every new publication. Born in Cape Town in 1982, she currently lives in Brazil, but her creative consciousness is steeped in the African imaginary. Her latest novel is an incisive contribution to our understanding of what it means to endure a system that “no individual could ever hope to alter or redeem.”

Upturned Earth

by Karen Jennings

Holland Park Press, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 13 September 2019.