Category Archives: What I’ve Written

Review: My Mother’s Laughter – Selected Poems by Chris van Wyk

My Mother’s Laughter: Selected Poems by Chris van Wyk, compiled and edited by Ivan Vladislavić and Robert Berold, is one of those literary gems that you will want to have on your bookshelf. Most readers will know Chris van Wyk as the author of Shirley, Goodness & Mercy and its sequel, Eggs to Lay, Chickens to Hatch, both memoirs published in the decade before Van Wyk’s untimely death of cancer in 2014.

He was a versatile writer of children’s books, autobiographical works and other non-fiction, as well as fiction. As editor of Staffrider, the literary and cultural magazine founded in the late 1970s (in existence until 1993), Van Wyk mentored a whole generation of emerging writers. In 1979, he published his only poetry collection, It Is Time to Go Home.

And now, My Mother’s Laughter brings together a selection from the debut volume, also the poems which appeared in Van Wyk’s memoirs, and includes previously unpublished work, showcasing the much-loved author’s poetic talent.

Inescapably, many of the poems from It Is Time to Go Home are set against the socio-political landscape of its time, but even decades later they radiate an energy of awareness and resistance that seems timeless and inspires to action against injustice. My Mother’s Laughter opens with “Metamorphosis”, a poem signalling transgenerational concerns about how historical events such as the Sharpeville massacre and the Soweto Uprising influenced and politicised whole generations of South Africans – a young son, “fidgeting around his [father’s] work-worn body / asking questions at his shaking head”, as a teenager trying to make sense of the world “after June 16”, ends up comprehending what was and is at stake: “I nod my head. / I understand.” Despite the horrors witnessed and the struggles which followed, the sense of hope for a better tomorrow does not abandon the poet. One day, he assures, hearts “will throb / to the rhythm of a drum / And all of Africa will dance”.

The political poems are interspersed with tender love poems, dedicated to Kathy, Van Wyk’s future wife. They were married in 1980 and had two sons. “I am happy here; / just being against your navel”, the poet declares in “You Must Never Know I’m Writing You a Love Poem”.

The previously uncollected poems evoke a strong sense of home and community, how the world infiltrates both with its deeply troubled realities, but also how family bonds and friendships as well as commitment can, if not shelter you from the worst, at least allow you to confront it. They are tributes to heroes of the struggle and heroes of the everyday alike. Van Wyk remembers his “ouma’s yard” and how the “black words / on the white sheets” of the books she bought for them were “like coal strewn across a field of snow.” Equally, his “mother’s laughter” sustained the family throughout the harsh winter of oppression.

My Mother’s Laughter: Selected Poems

Chris van Wyk

Deep South, 2020

Review first published in the Cape Times on 4 September 2020.

Review: Sea Star Summer by Sally Partridge

The award-winning YA author, Sally Partridge, has been writing about the trials and turbulences of growing up since her debut novel, The Goblet Club, in 2007.

Partridge’s latest novel for young adults, Sea Star Summer, is her seventh and tells the story of the sixteen-year-old Naomi on holiday with her parents in Jeffreys Bay, where all she wants to do is enjoy some solitude and read good books. Yet, a dashing but dubious local surfer, another unusual and wonderful holidaymaker called Elize, and her intriguing brother, have other plans in store for Naomi. There is nothing more magical than falling in love for the first time. Equally magical can be reading about it in a novel when the book manages to capture, as Sea Star Summer does, that unforgettable and intoxicating mixture of wonder, revelation, anxiety and possibility that is young love.

“There’s only one person out there, a dark-haired girl about my age, kicking her feet through the incoming tide. The way she’s laughing and shrieking, clearly in a world of her own, makes it look like she’s having a great time. I envy her lack of inhibition. If it was me, I’d be worried about who’s watching.” This is how Naomi first encounters Elize. Meeting her sets in motion a chain of events and discoveries that allows Naomi not only to find herself and what she wants, but also to find the courage to proclaim it, even if only softly, to the world.

“Even the sea and sky seem larger, more real than before, like I’ve been walking around half asleep this whole time and have only just woken up.” The sea moods and beach adventures of Jeffreys Bay are vividly portrayed in this sensitive and empowering story that will appeal to young people and those young at heart alike.

Sea Star Summer

Sally Partridge

Human & Rousseau, 2020

Review first published in the Cape Times on 14 August 2020.

Review: Leaving Word by Steven Boykey Sidley

As Steven Boykey Sidley says in the acknowledgments of his latest novel, Leaving Word, it is true that “writing a book with a fiction editor as its main protagonist is asking for trouble, on many levels”. Writing a book about the publishing industry as a whole might be asking for even more trouble. But, if anyone can pull it off with aplomb, it is Sidley. And Leaving Word, his fifth novel, is a rollicking read because of it…

Continue reading: LitNet

Leaving Word
Steven Boykey Sidley
MF Books, 2019

189

Review: A Poor Season for Whales by Michiel Heyns

42It is a poor season for just about everything, but not for reading if you can manage to keep enough headspace intact to engage and enjoy it. And the latest novel by Michiel Heyns, his ninth, is pure literary delight. “Margaret Crowley, handsome, clever, rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly fifty-six years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. It was therefore hardly to be foreseen that in her fifty-sixth year she would kill a man with a kitchen knife.”

And so begins A Poor Season for Whales, taking you straight to the heart of the “last outpost of the white middle classes”, Hermanus, where Margaret Crowley has moved after an amicable divorce to start a new life away from her usual social circles in Cape Town. One day, while she is walking her dog Benjy, her canine companion gets into trouble and is rescued by Jimmy, a mysterious stranger, who takes an unsettling interest in Margaret and her life.

At first grateful for his assistance, ambivalent about her own reactions to the young man, Margaret cautiously allows Jimmy into her home, while he does everything he can to become indispensable to her. Her friends and her grown-up children are not impressed, and there are moments when she also suspects ulterior motives, but Jimmy intrigues her beyond the initial hesitation. And when her ex-housekeeper, Rebecca, demands her assistance in providing her with a home, and her over-the-top sister-in-law decides to descend on Margaret and her children for Christmas, Margret does not feel that she has a choice but to allow Jimmy to help her handle the situation.

As you joyously and nervously turn the pages of A Poor Season for Whales, the question throughout persists, of course, about who is going to end up with a kitchen knife in his back, especially after the said knife appears on the set like a Chekhov’s gun. The title suggests that whales might also make an unexpected appearance. Or not.

The plot is carried by pitch-perfect dialogue. Imagine Jane Austen meets Before Sunrise and Heyns’s own A Sportful Malice. The running socio-political commentary felt spot-on. Heyns has a beautifully wry sense of humour and I found myself laughing out loud every few pages. After Jimmy’s condemnation of Margaret’s cooking skills, I might never be able to allow iceberg lettuce into my kitchen.

On a more serious note, the novel also reminded me of The Talented Mr Ripley and perhaps a lesser known but stunning novel by Elizabeth Jane Howard, Falling. The way Heyns depicts the relationship dynamics in his novel made me think – with discomfort – about a few people in my life who have the tendency to push one into previously unimagined corners and get away with it. But a kitchen knife is seldom an option.

A Poor Season for Whales

by Michiel Heyns (2020)

Review first appeared in the Cape Times on 15 May 2020.

Review: Three Bodies by NR Brodie

Three BodiesThe second Reshma Patel and Ian Jack thriller by NR Brodie, Three Bodies, is here and, if you enjoyed the first one as much as I did, you can get excited. Yes, it’s also available as an ebook and Brodie has announced on social media that she will be donating all her royalties from the sales during the lockdown to the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce supporting sex workers in this time of crisis when they are at risk more than ever.

In Three Bodies, the risk to the three women who are discovered dead in different bodies of water around Gauteng comes from a dark source. At first, the cases seem unrelated and, when Ian Jack comes across the first one during an investigation in which he helps to trace a security guard gone missing, and his partner Reshma Patel discovers a severed finger and a stash of money and guns next to two corpses deep underground in Johannesburg’s tunnels while also pursuing a missing person case, they find it difficult to connect the dots. Both finds are accidental, but Reshma’s has immediate consequences for her career when she takes a bold step behind her superior’s back and contacts another unit to investigate the gruesome crime scene she stumbles upon.

As in Knucklebone, the first book in the series, Brodie offers a cast of fascinating characters. Is Myburgh, the ex-cop turned head of security for a group of housing estates, past his best? Despite his impeccable credentials, can Super Sobukwe be trusted after it comes to light that he might have put Reshma and her new colleague, Wayde Claassen, carelessly in lethal danger? And who is the fierce Angela de Bruyn from the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin trying to protect? Do mermaids exist?

It was good to see MaRejoice from Knucklebone return with all her wisdom and intuition. And Joburg is there in all its gore, grit and glory again. Having written a lot of non-fiction about South African cities, Brodie knows a thing or two about how to portray a metropolis like Johannesburg with aplomb. There were a few descriptive passages of characters’ comings and goings when the writing slowed down to a pace that reduced the impact of the narrative, but the vivid cash-in-transit heist scenes and the final showdown of the novel made up for a lot in the page-turning department.

Knucklebone does not have to be read before you can dive into Three Bodies, yet the private and professional relationships between Reshma and Ian are better understood if you know how they have developed since the spectacular ending of Brodie’s debut novel. The magic realism elements of the first book are toned down in the latest, but are used to a great effect towards the end of the novel, allowing us to wonder at the reality we think we know.

Three Bodies

NR Brodie

Macmillan, 2020

Review first published in the Cape Times on 8 May 2020.

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

YMMP_cover

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

Review: I Wish I’d Said…Vol. 2 edited by Johann de Lange and Mandla Maphumulo

I Wish I'd Said

‘…A similar sentiment is captured in two exquisite lines of “Two images, after a call” by Nick Mulgrew: “The gentle go gentle. Even in daydreams you cannot wound,/ more the way you left your book unread; cold tea on the table.” The same way these images of loss spoke directly to my innermost thoughts and feelings, there will be numerous others that each individual reader will find touching. Across the different languages, the poems illuminate the universality of grief. And we live in a time of worldwide loss, not only because of the threat to the welfare of the people we know and love, but because our entire way of being is changing on a seismic scale as we enter a period of global transformation and have to cope with the grief that goes with the gradual vanishing of security and vision.

A broken tree, a pillar falling, a mountain collapsing, loved ones going to sleep – these are metaphors often referring to our demise; a “human library” departing features in “It’s time” by Moses Seletisha (second place winner in Sepedi), and life is described as a “paper fire” in “That’s life, my child” by Nolusindiso Mali (original in Xhosa). I suspect that a lot of the beauty of many of the poems’ original rhythms and imagery is lost in translation, but numerous sparks of uniqueness shine through the layers of various languages, as in this delicate line: “Sleep when wounded and accept,” with which Neliswa “Sange.M” Sampi-Mxunyelwa ends the fourth-place contribution in the Xhosa category…’

To read the entire review, please see: LitNet

I Wish I'd Said_excerpt

I Wish I’d Said … Vol. 2

Edited by Johann de Lange and Mandla Maphumulo

Naledi, 2019

Review: The Upside of Down – How Chaos and Uncertainty Breed Opportunity in South Africa by Bruce Whitfield

bruce-whitfield-the-upside-of-down

I’d never thought that a radio show about business news could be of personal interest to me, but I have been enjoying Bruce Whitfield’s clear and accessible Money Show for a few years now. Whitfield’s The Upside of Down is the last book I bought at a bookshop before the lockdown, but it is also available as an ebook. Although written just before the pandemic hit South Africa’s shores, it is an astoundingly fitting and inspiring read for our terrifying times.

The title alone already feels like a reassurance. The same clarity with which Whitfield presents his show can be found in his writing. One doesn’t have to be an economic and political fundi to follow the arguments presented in The Upside of Down. And after failing miserably at the quiz included in the first chapter of the book, I happily absorbed the knowledge and ideas that followed.

There is no way of assessing our current economic situation without wanting to weep, and Whitfield presents us with a sober picture after the looting of the Zuma decade, but he steers his readers towards the positive stories of entrepreneurs, big and small, succeeding against all odds. These are extremely empowering. He also outlines the basic traits that visionaries and companies require to thrive in an unstable environment as well as what socio-economic factors could contribute to stabilising it in order for the desperately-needed growth to follow and employment figures to increase.

Opportunities arrive all the time but, because of a persistent atmosphere of doom and gloom, not enough of us dare to dream. Whitfield understand the power of storytelling in channelling positive energies towards turning those visions into reality: “It’s in the very crisis in which South Africa finds itself today that there lies an enormous opportunity for renewal, growth and optimism.”

The Upside of Down: How Chaos and Uncertainty Breed Opportunity in South Africa

Bruce Whitfield

Macmillan, 2020

First published in the Cape Times on 24 April 2020.

PS This is Salieri, taking the title seriously and seeing the world from a different perspective.

108

Why I am buying the Baxter a cup of coffee every month for a year

Baxter Theatre

I love the theatre; I have loved it ever since I can remember. The six theatre venues I regularly visit in Cape Town are the Fugard Theatre, the Baxter Theatre, the Kalk Bay Theatre, the Artscape, Maynardville, and the Courtyard Playhouse. My favourite stage is the Golden Arrow Studio Theatre at the Baxter. I love its intimacy and immediacy; if I can, I sit in the first row and watch the wonder of acting unfold right before my eyes…

So when I got Lara Foot’s letter this morning, asking for support for the Baxter, I was immediately flooded by memories of this incredible space, a home for the arts, a home for art lovers, and when I imagined that it could cease to exist, a cold shiver ran down my spine. It is unimaginable…

The earliest distinct memory I have of the Baxter is from 2005: André’s 70th birthday celebration in the foyer during which Antjie Krog gave an amazing speech I will never forget.

I fell in love with that smallest venue at the Baxter when watching Exits and Entrances on this stage. Most recently, I saw The Hucksters there. And before it: Waiting for the Barbarians, and There Was This Goat, and Mother to Mother, and #JustMen, Solomon and Marion, and and and… The memories keep coming.

Only last year in November, we listened to Anthony Marwood play in the Baxter’s concert hall.

And remember that moment when Roger Federer dropped in during the Rolex Arts Weekend? Difficult to think that this was only the other day…

oznorCO

My brother and I sat near the stage and couldn’t believe our eyes. We also got to chat to Tracy K. Smith again. We heard her perform years ago in New York and I became a fan. She signed the copies of all my books and agreed to pose for a photograph.

Meeting Tracy K. Smith at the Baxter

There are also memories of pain and solace at the Baxter. In my memoir, I wrote:

In the weeks of grief and recuperation which followed, I found myself anchorless, adrift and vulnerable. There is no peace in fear for a loved one. No place to hide in the face of death. I read and wrote through the nights, stared into darkness. All scattered and breathless, I watched Lara Foot’s play Fishers of Hope at the Baxter. The staging, despite the harsh realities of the lives portrayed, soothed me. In many scenes, a short clip of a sunset on a lake rising in swells with a fishing boat in the centre played against the back wall of the stage. Towards the end of the performance, the woman protagonist stood on a jetty, and her triumphant cry and her song for fish and plenty resounded across the lake’s waters. Her strength was a reassurance.

Other unforgettable plays that I watched on these stages were Somewhere on the Border, Mies Julie, Betrayal, Sizwe Banzi is Dead, among so many others…

Philida van de Delta, the musical, was performed at the Baxter.

And, of course, that is where Joanne Hichens and I heard the fantastic news that we would receive a NAC grant to compile and edit the anthology HAIR: Weaving and Unpicking Stories of Identity.

It was one of the most joyous projects I have ever worked on, and it felt incredible to be able to ask writers and photographers to contribute and to actually offer them payment for their work. This is not always common in our field of work…

Most of you won’t know it, but I am actually an award-winning playwright. Writing for the theatre is not my main line of literary interest, but I found it extremely rewarding to work on the play and I have at least one more play in me that will be written one day. I am also one of those readers who reads plays, even if I have never seen them performed on stage. But to witness a play unfold live in front of your eyes is magic in its purest form.

There are so many reasons why the show must go on.

If like me, you would like to become a #BaxterCoffeeAngels, click here: BAXTER COFFEE ANGELS – buy the Baxter a coffee, and if you can, add a piece of cake or a glass of wine, too.

 

Review: J.M. Coetzee – Photographs from Boyhood, edited and introduced by Herman Wittenberg

JM Coetzee Photographs from Boyhood

“What struck me most about the book is that along with the aspiring artist’s curiosity and professionalism, it conveys, perhaps even unintentionally, a certain kind of vulnerability that probably should have been but wasn’t immediately obvious in my thinking about the author and his writing. This is a young man who was still searching for his medium of expression, watching – often unbeknown to his subjects – and recording them in a soul-searching, piercing, yet seemingly detached manner that reflects later in his writing. And this is a boy trying to define for himself what it means to be a man in the world.”

To read the entire review, click here: LitNet

J.M. Coetzee: Photographs from Boyhood

Edited and introduced by Herman Wittenberg

Protea Book House, 2020