Tag Archives: anthology

wow, that Nick Mulgrew is really something

This is not a review, just a Fan Letter of Admiration Addressed to You in Public.

I became aware of somebody called Nick Mulgrew about one-and-a-half years ago, perhaps two. The name definitely stuck by the time I read his award-winning story “Turning” in Adults Only. I knew about his connection to the literary magazine Prufrock, heard that he wrote poetry. Then earlier this year, I got involved in Short Story Day Africa (SSDA) and met Nick in person. First impressions: fiercely intelligent, funny, unassuming. Young.

We were entrusted with co-editing Water, the third SSDA collection of stories. The anthology includes twenty-one pieces from across the continent, among them this year’s finalists and the winner of the competition (still to be unveiled). We began the task and my first impressions of Nick only intensified. Multi-talented, wise, and sensitive were added to the list. He was a revelation to work with. Punctual, understanding, and extremely cooperative. What seemed like a daunting task, turned out to be pure inspiration (I learned so much from Nick!). We also had a fantastic selection of writers to work with. And the stories! I can’t wait for readers to dive into Water. You will find some absolute stunners in there. With SSDA, Rachel Zadok set out to give prominence to the versatility of storytelling in Africa. She was adamant that it’s not all gloom and doom. Water proves it unreservedly.

myth-cover_20150830A while back, Nick embarked on another literary adventure by becoming the editor of uHlanga, the hottest poetry publisher on the block, with three debut collections out this month. His among them: Genna Gardini’s Matric Rage, Thabo Jijana’s Failing Maths and My Other Crimes, and Nick’s the myth is that we’re all in this together. I got it yesterday at Sindiwe Magona’s launch of Chasing the Tails of My Father’s Cattle (published by another newcomer, Seriti sa Sechaba Publishers) at The Book Lounge. Before bed, I wanted to dip into it and ended up ditching Jack for the entire collection. Unputdownable.

Before I buy a poetry book, I have this weird test. I find one or two short poems in the volume and if I like them, I buy it. If there aren’t any, the first few lines I turn to have to be bloody good to make up for the lack of short gems. Nick’s the myth is that we’re all in this together opens and ends with few-liners. And even the dedication is a poetic gesture of note. I won’t spoil the fun for poetry lovers and tell you what it is, or why the titles of the individual parts of the collection made me smile.

I will share the opening poem:

CONSISTENCY
it’s always the same
sun and it’s always the same
sky

I love its sublime simplicity which says everything about the power of poetry, because, naturally, just as the sun and the sky are never the same to the perceptive observer, every word in a poem in the hands of a true poet is a revelation, every time.

Or watch the seeming ‘blah, blah’ of the first lines of “feature pitch” turn to “… whether it’s expression or provocation / or minesweeping for echoes in this confluence / of galaxies, or inside the thoughts of another person, / one who sits at their computer at seven-thirty … nursing small sadnesses”.

Or the ease of “on watching Notting Hill for the thirteenth time” which ends with “aware giddily of his own unawareness”.

Or the poignancy of “maybe-gay”: “I say thank you in as deep a voice I can muster.”

Or the maturity of “testament”: “a recipe to give to a child who / in a few years might be someone like me / but in many ways better”.

Or the devastating truths of “first readers”, a poem anyone who had their intellectual and physical property violated will relate to.

There are the intimate moments of poems like “eyebrows” (“as you look / and kiss / in all those places that / no one really looks at”) or “a June missive” (“you / were alone as I was”), and the social consciousness of others like “barrier” (“things that would be small knowledge / that would make me morally obliged / to learn small things about him too”) or “Boxer Rebellion” (“… but really this world is too / vast, this past too deep, for us to / ever really know anything about / each other ever”).

And the longest poem “commitment” includes these lines about friendship, “a soft and strange peace to which you / could return sometimes but not rely on. / I think that might be useful to you,” and it is so long because “… my friend is / locked up – that isn’t just a thing you can / condense into another thing nonchalantly.”

At the core of it all are language and our ability to mis/communicate, especially now in the digital age that is revolutionising what it means to be human in a world of global calamities, fraught with the insanity of the everyday.
truism
I. Am. In. Awe.

“and readers will read it and be like,
wow, that Nick Mulgrew is really something,”
(“feature pitch”)

He is. And he is only 25. I mean, like, really!?

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Review: Tales of the Metric System by Imraan Coovadia

Tales“…for me, Tales of the Metric System is by far his most accomplished. It is definitely one of the most profound fictional takes on South Africa’s transition from the horrors of the apartheid era to the uncertainties of the present. Spanning four decades between 1970 and 2010, the novel captures the spirit of all crucial historic moments of the period by focusing on the lives of a few people, real and imagined, whose stories are intricately interlinked.”

Read the entire review on LitNet.

Tales of the Metric System by Imraan Coovadia
Umuzi, 2014

The official book trailer:

Review: in a burning sea – Contemporary Afrikaans Poetry in Translation edited by Marlise Joubert

in a burning seaMy Afrikaans is sufficient enough to follow everyday conversations, watch Afrikaans soapies and read Die Burger. But ever since hearing Antjie Krog read in her deep, melodic voice from her impressive oeuvre in Afrikaans I have wanted to understand more than just basics. Until that moment arrives, only translations allow me to savour some of the riches of Afrikaans writing. In poetry, these are not easy to come by. Of the few available in recent years in English, Krog’s Body Bereft (2006), Ingrid Jonker’s Black Butterflies (2007) and Wilma Stockenströrm’s The Wisdom of Water (2007) in particular belong to my all-time favourites.

in a burning sea is thus a highly anticipated publication which will hopefully pave the way for more translations. Altogether the anthology features thirty contemporary Afrikaans poets. Alphabetically arranged by authors’ names, the collection takes its title from a poem by Breyten Breytenbach, one of only a handful widely translated practitioners of the craft: “how often were we here / where only silver shadows stir / only through you I had to deny myself / through you alone I knew I had no harbour / in a burning sea”.

The editor Marlise Joubert, author of seven volumes of poetry herself and editor of four Versindaba anthologies (a publication inspired by the annual poetry festival by the same name), asked established poets and newcomers (but with at least two published volumes to their name) to submit ten poems from which a selection was then made for the book.

Among those included are the exciting young voices of Ronelda S. Kamfer (“the bullet nestled in his throat / his mother did not cry / the politicians planted a small tree / and the Cape Doctor tore it out / and flung it where the rest of the Cape Flats dreams lie – // on the flats”), Danie Marais (“On seconds thoughts, Stellenbosch, / you are a violated classic – / a bergie with an 1840s gable / for a hat…”), Carina Stander (“in the weak sunlight / filtering into the kitchen / mothers like calabashes / nattered on knitted goatskin”), and Loftus Marais (“and when i have to stand before Him / i’ll curtsy effeminately / and carefully explain to Him / that my catsuit / (folded in the suitcase next to the vanity case) / is fire resistant” – from The Second Coming) who hold more than their own along such greats as Breytenbach, Krog, Stockenström, Petra Müller, T.T. Cloete or Marlene van Niekerk.

Top translators of the likes of Michiel Heyns or Leon de Kock, often in collaboration with the poets, and the authors themselves made the work available in English. Hardly ever was I aware of reading translations, the Afrikaans poems feeling very much at home in their new incarnations. The originals are presented alongside the English for parallel reading.

André Brink’s introduction gives a short historical overview of Afrikaans poetry and its various trends, placing the selection in context. Most poems included are very recent, with a few exceptions dating back as far as M.M. Walter’s Apocrypha XII (1969): “When Eve clad herself amidst the grove of figs / in fashions by the heavenly Hartnell –”. Some poems had not been published at the time of submission, including Marlene van Niekerk’s eulogy Hamba kakuhle, Madiba.

What strikes one immediately when reading the anthology is how well local flavours mix with global traditions. The anthology opens with a landscape poem by Zandra Bezuidenhout about the last days of summer in the Midi: “the night is balmy with bonhomie / and aromas linger like tongues”. Bezuidenhout’s other poems are steeped in an irresistible sensuality whether she describes the sharing of a fig (“and offer the plum-red sweetness / as token of our bonded state”) or an exhibition by Marlene Dumas (“how transparent the nipple-bud / bleeding in berry-red passion”).

Universal themes are presented along concerns closer to home such as in Martjie Bosman’s Scorched Earth (From Ouma Makkie’s stroke-stricken mouth I inherit / two bitter words: insult and scorn / and the mournful knowing that generations / settled this family land in vain”), or Daniel Hugo’s in memoriam poem to Ingrid Jonker, Escape (“I love walking – drunk on ozone – / up to Three Anchor Bay…everywhere sewage smells / algae, seal vertebrae, mussel shells / a clotted, stinking ink-fish / and – stone-cold sober – you see / at times a poet’s body”), or Krog’s colonialism of a special kind (“people are made ashamed that they have forgiven // because at the deepest level / we respect anger / understand hate / admire revenge”).

in a burning sea gives one an enticing taste of what is happening in Afrikaans poetry at this point in literary history. Not all the poems selected take one’s breath away, but they definitely put one in a mood for more.

in a burning sea: Contemporary Afrikaans Poetry in Translation
edited by Marlise Joubert
Protea Book House, 2014

An edited version of this review was published in the Cape Times on 14 November 2014.

Review: The Gonjon Pin and Other Stories – The Caine Prize for African Writing 2014

The Gonjon PinThe Caine Prize for African Writing has a reputation of launching literary careers. Previous winners include Helon Habila, NoViolet Bulawayo, and Henrietta Innes-Rose. The Caine Prize collections of stories comprise each year’s shortlisted entries and pieces written during a workshop organised in conjunction with the prize.

By nature an anthology of short stories is usually a mixed bag. This year’s volume, apart from some excellent exceptions, is not particularly accomplished. Reading most of the contributions one senses amazing talent and potential, but the stories, even two or three of the shortlisted ones, feel unfinished. They intrigue, but do not wow despite varied themes, innovative approaches to form and content, and moments of stylistic beauty. All the elements of great short-story writing are present, but they hardly ever feature together in one piece.

African writing has a certain reputation, on the continent and beyond. Depending on individual tastes, readers either fear or count on stories of socio-political relevance, everyday hardship and disillusionment, the diaspora experience, violence and abuse, the HIV pandemic, neglect or instability. There is a prevalent feeling of ‘things falling apart’. The Gonjon Pin and Other Stories includes all of the above and in that sense does not disappoint.

The shortlisted stories stand out for their originality. In Diane Awerbuck’s Phosphorescence (South Africa), a suicidal young woman bonds with her daring grandmother over the bulldozing of a city landmark. While following the election back home on television, a Zimbabwean family tries to negotiate between a quarrelling couple in Tendai Huchu’s The Intervention (Zimbabwe). Billy Kahora’s protagonist develops an uncanny relationship to a zoo gorilla in The Gorilla’s Apprentice (Kenya). And in the winning entry, My Father’s Head by Okwiri Oduor (Nigeria), a woman tries to conjure up her dead father by drawing him, but his head refuses to fit into her sketches.

The shortlisted story which impressed me the most, however, was Efemia Chela’s Chicken (Ghana/Zambia). A young writer of remarkable assurance, Chela has that rare gift of making you pause again and again to appreciate a striking image or a perfectly balanced sentence while never allowing you to take your mind off the story she is telling. Chicken is about a woman who cuts the ties to her family and tries to survive on her own in the big city by making some tough choices.

Of the twelve workshop stories, the titular The Gonjon Pin by Martin Egblewogbe (Ghana) and The Lifebloom Gift by Abdul Adan (Somalia/Kenya) were a true discovery. Reminiscent of the mad and irresistible story-telling of such authors as the Israeli Etgar Keret or the Welsh Alex Burrett, these surreal tales made me sit up, laugh, shake my head, and marvel at the incredible power of the genre. Egblewogbe has his characters dealing with a man’s functioning genitals hanging on a study wall. Adan creates a world where an unusual man spreads cult love by stimulating people’s moles. It is gems like these that make reading anthologies worthwhile.

The Gonjon Pin and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2014
Jacana/New Internationalist, 2014

First published in the Cape Times, 10 October 2014.

Review: Adults Only – Stories of Love, Lust, Sex and Sensuality edited by Joanne Hichens

adultsonlycoverThe stories in this anthology have been selected from some 150 entries submitted for the second annual Short.Sharp.Stories competition. As with all such collections, the quality of the twenty-two individual pieces varies. The authors range from first-time-published to award-winning practitioners of the genre. Additionally, in this particular case, every reader’s sexual preferences will strongly influence their reading of these diverse contributions. Sex in all its permutations is a highly personal experience, as is writing and reading about it. Hats off to the editor and all the authors for their daring explorations of the mine-fields of our sexualities.

As Aryan Kaganof’s narrator states, “there is no love that is not an echo”; he also understands that “real sex happens in the head”. Erotic stories are like lovers. They will either satisfy you or leave you wanting.

No doubt a few of the contributions will bring many readers out of their comfort zone and will have you reading through your fingers. Others will excite you. Some will delight with their humour or tenderness. There is a lot to be learned. Who would have thought that Woolies would emerge from the anthology as the preferred place of choice for sexy lingerie shopping? Or that the smell of semen reminds some of peeled potato? I didn’t even want to know what blunt knives could be used for. Every reader will find something to please or disturb them. No matter what, brace yourself: Adults Only is one hell of ride for most of its journey.

After reading the opening story, Alex Smith’s “The Big Toad”, I knew that I would never be able to look into my kitchen cupboards without apprehension, and perhaps a tiny bit of envy. I might have to get some Jungle Oats to liven up the scene inside my predictable cupboards. Arja Salafranca’s “Post-Dated Sex” made me look at post-it notes with fresh eyes. Her story approaches that beautiful space between lovers where words “dissolve” and become something “instinctive that moves against them.” Beauty is also the subject of Donvé Lee’s “The Mirror”. Lee is the author of An Intimate War (2010), one of the most erotic local novels of recent years. Her story shines with a similar intensity and rare honesty.

The competition’s winning entry, Nick Mulgrawe’s “Turning”, is a well-written and a worthy choice, but it did not move me as much as Ken Barris’s captivating “Louka in Autumn”, or Anthony Ehler’s shattering “Breaking the Rules”, or Alexander Matthews’s illuminating “Entropy”. Efemia Chela is a young writer to watch. Her “Perigee” is as bold and astute as her recently Caine Prize-shortlisted “Chicken”. She writes a lush and supple prose that is a pleasure in itself.

The language of sexuality is a very tricky thing to master. What will arouse one person, will do nothing for another. It’s so easy to fall into clichés and vulgarity. So it was quite refreshing to smile at phrases like “sex has always been at best pedestrian – Tim walks all over me” (in Christine Coate’s “The Cat’s Wife”, a tale of a bored wife seeking out adventures which will make her fly, literally and otherwise), or to admire the eloquence with which Justine Loots describes the sadness of an encounter between a prostitute and a young inexperienced man: “One of his wings, if he has wings at all, is torn at the edge. It won’t affect his flight much, you won’t even see it, but it’s there all the same.” The magic realist twist of Loots’s story “Uncaged” brings a wonderful dimension to the entire book. Strange beasts roam the world she creates; one can never be sure who is the prey and who the predator.

Not every use of the word “cunt” will have the same impact of Ian McEwan’s Atonement. And yet I was reminded of it in Aryan Kaganof’s powerful story “Time Out With My Destiny”. With every paragraph the first-person narrator lures you in, manages to surprise and capture something unique, and ends on a shattering note. A “wow story”, my husband said when I read it aloud to him.

The stories in Adults Only capture different aspects of our relationships: from tender intimacy to raw sex, and beyond, to abuse and rape. Wamuwi Mbao’s “The Ninth Wave” tells of that moment when wanting more from a relationship breaks the little that the other is prepared to give. Alan Waters’ debut story “A Threesome in the New South Africa” recounts a hilarious encounter between a middle-aged man, his younger girlfriend, and a Rastafarian of intimidating proportions. Not every longing is clearly identifiable. In Dudumalingani Mqombothi’s “The Streetwalkers”, the search for his lost father leads a man into the arms of a sex worker.

Adults Only is a fascinating read which showcases the diversity, audacity and vibrancy of South African fiction.

Adults Only: Stories of Love, Lust, Sex and Sensuality
Edited by Joanne Hichens
Mercury, 2014

An edited version of this review was published in the Cape Times on 12 September 2014, p. 10.

Alex Smith

Alex Smith1A long time ago, behind seven mountains and seven rivers… That is how fairy tales begin in Polish. The words make me think of the time I met Alex Smith when she was looking for people to translate her Orphan’s Lullaby. I did the Polish version and we met for coffee at the Book Lounge to discuss the project and to get to know each other. It’s hard to believe that this already happened six years ago. Since then we have become friends and have supported each other through the ups and downs of writing careers.

We share a deep love for literature, even if our reading tastes often differ and the kind of stories we tell are sometimes worlds apart. The one thing which has always stood out for me in Alex’s work is her powerful, versatile, irresistible prose which has few equals in contemporary South African literature. I once told her that I would even read the history of toilet paper, if she were to write it. Her prose is like a cup of delicious tea, like a favourite bar of chocolate, like a warm breeze on a perfect day on the beach. One wallows in it with pleasure, no matter what her subject matter.

My absolute favourite of Alex’s books until now is Drinking from the Dragon’s Well (2008), a quirky travel memoir about the time she spent in Asia. I will never forget the kettle falling scene. Simply wonderful, like the rest of the book. I reviewed it along with her Four Drunk Beauties (2010) for ITCH.

Alex contributed a funny, moving story to Touch: Stories of Contact. She has been shortlisted for the prestigious Caine Prize. One of her more recent stories features in the Adults Only anthology and I am told that it is remarkable (can’t wait to get the book just to read it). She has been recognised for her work with the Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice Award, has been short-listed for the SA PEN Literary Award, won a silver award in the English category of the Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature, and was shortlisted for the international Rolex Mentor & Protégé Arts Initiative. And I believe even greater things are to come for her.

Her latest novel, Devilskein & Dearlove (published by Umuzi locally and Arachne Press in the UK) is about to be launched at the Book Lounge next week. Alex will be in conversation with the amazing Versuhka Louw. We are in for a real literary treat.

“Young Erin Dearlove has lost everything in a violent attack on her family. She now lives with her bohemian aunt Kate in a run-down Cape Town apartment block. Locked into a fantasy of her previous life, she shuns all overtures of friendship from her new neighbours, until she meets Mr Devilskein, the demon who lives on the top floor… and opens a door into another world. Just as Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book reworked Kipling’s The Jungle Book for a modern audience with a liking for the supernatural, Devilskein & Dearlove is a darker, more edgy, contemporary reworking of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic The Secret Garden. An orphaned teenager is taken in by a reluctant distant relative, and in her new home makes an unexpected friend and finds a secret realm. It has shades of the quirky fantastical in the style of Miyazaki’s (Studio Ghibli) animated films like Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle (originally a novel by Diana Wynne Jones). Alex says ‘As a child The Secret Garden was one of my first favourite novels – one of the first I relished reading by myself. Although Devilskein & Dearlove is very different, it was inspired by that novel and its themes.'” (Arachne Press)