Tag Archives: Cape Times

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.

Review: Vintage Love and Other Essays by Jolyon Nuttall

vintage loveA few years ago, after the death of his wife, Jolyon Nuttall joined his daughter and her family during a work visit at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the United States. There, in a bookshop, he rediscovered the essay as a literary form and specifically fell under the spell of George Orwell’s essayistic endeavours. A newspaper man through and through, Nuttall has made a life out of words, as a journalist and a media manager. Retired now, he decided to turn to “episodes in my life that stand out in memory” and explore his past through the medium of the essay.

The resulting collection, Vintage Love and Other Essays, elegantly published in a hardcover edition by Jacana, tells a few key episodes in a rich life of growing up during the turbulent time in South Africa’s more recent history, of travel and intellectual exchange, of managing some of the most influential local media, and of trying to pick up the pieces after a great loss. As a literary scholar, I found Nuttall’s recollections of the two famous writers, Alan Paton and Lewis Nkosi, particularly intriguing.

“Writing these essays has helped enormously to reintegrate myself into my life as a whole from childhood through adulthood towards old age”, says Nuttall. The experience filled him “at times with a headiness that is light-hearted.” Vintage Love captures the essence of a life well lived and exude a calm that is rare in South African life writing.

Vintage Love and Other Essays

by Jolyon Nuttall

Jacana, 2018

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

Review: Intruders by Mohale Mashigo

intrudersMohale Mashigo is a well-known musician who debuted two years ago as an author with the best-selling and award-wining novel, The Yearning. Since then, she has adapted a movie for a young adult novel, Beyond the River, and co-written comic books for the Kwezi series. Intruders is her first short story collection.

In her author’s note, Mashigo dedicates the stories “for the weird, the wonderful … and us, who never see ourselves in the stars but die in seas searching for them.” Before we are allowed to jump into the extraordinary stories of this volume, Mashigo offers us a thought-provoking essay on Afrofuturism: “What I want for Africans living in Africa is to imagine a future in their storytelling that deals with issues that are unique to us”, she writes and encourages writers on the continent to engage in a “project that predicts (it is fiction after all) Africa’s future ‘post-colonialism’; this will be divergent for each country on the continent because colonialism (and apartheid) affected us in unique (but sometimes similar) ways.”

Mashigo’s own stories shine the light as she lets her imagination explore these future territories. A young woman has to deal with the consequences of her actions when she discovers her family’s legacy and their connection to the sea in Manoka. A mother disappears and leaves a long letter with instructions for her fifteen-year-old child to follow into safety and to find family members who will be able to assist with her own challenging inheritance in Nthatisi. When people’s hearts are extracted and those responsible are burned by vigilantes, Koketso tries to save his friend Steven against all odds in Ghost Strain N. Café Ferdi in The Palermo is a place where you agree to having your memories stolen when you enter: “The only way to access those memories was to come back and have them play out like a movie in front of you.” Two orphans hunt monsters in BnB in Bloem and a woman kills a man with her shoe and grows wings in The High Heel Killer. An unlikely couple set up a home in an abandoned zoo with guinea fowls and pigs in Once Upon a Town. The three stories Untitled I to III take more unexpected twists and turns.

Synonyms for ‘intruders’ are listed at the back of the collection’s cover: “trespassers, interlopers, invaders, prowlers, infiltrators, encroachers, violators” – the characters in Mashigo’s stories are all of these and more. They might be werewolves, mermaids, apocalypse survivors or vampires, but they also feel familiar as their author taps into emotional worlds which are common to most of us.

Intruders is story-telling at its most eclectic: Mashigo challenges us to be “fantastical” – as in “conceived or appearing as if conceived by an unrestrained imagination; odd and remarkable; bizarre; grotesque” – and “to remain true to ourselves.” The resulting collection lives up to its remarkable promise.

Intruders

by Mohale Mashigo

Picador Africa, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 4 January 2019.

Review: The Lion’s Binding Oath and Other Stories by Ahmed Ismail Yusuf

btrhdrWritten over many years, the short stories included in Ahmed Ismail Yusuf’s debut collection have a mythical quality to them and tell a tale of a people searching to find peace in a time of turmoil. Yusuf grew up as a nomad in his native Somalia and relocated to the United States where he still lives and where he discovered his love for books and storytelling.

Set during the years preceding and spanning the civil war in Somalia, the individual stories in The Lion’s Binding Oath and Other Stories are deceptively simple in structure, but read together as a whole, they reveal a rich mosaic of voices and lives that are at once of a different time and place and yet strikingly familiar.

The opening story, A Slow Moving Night, explores the ties of a rural family through the eyes of a boy shepherd. The five stories of The Mayxaano Chronicles focus on the life and influence of a remarkable woman in the time of war and peace. Old legends allow a young man to survive hardship and find a way back to his people in the titular story.

Broad socio-political and religious themes form the background to Yusuf’s stories about ordinary people who would otherwise remain anonymous in official histories. It is exciting that, among a growing list of other intriguing title from across the continent, the American Catalyst Press is now making these stories available to our local reading public in The Lion’s Binding Oath and Other Stories.

The Lion’s Binding Oath and Other Stories

by Ahmed Ismail Yusuf

Catalyst Press, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 28 December 2018.

Book review: The Bitter Taste of Victory – Life, Love and Art in the Ruins of the Reich by Lara Feigel

bitter-tasteLara Feigel is a cultural historian and a literary critic, combining her interests to write about the meeting point between life, literature and history. In her last two books, she looks at how people whose quintessential purpose in life is the search for beauty and meaning survived their antithesis: war. In her The Love-charms of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War (2013), Feigel wrote about five authors who were based in wartime London, driving ambulances, fighting fires, being creative, and loving passionately while desperately trying to remain alive.

In her latest offering, The Bitter Taste of Victory: Life, Love and Art in the Ruins of the Reich, Feigel picks up where she left off in her previous book, at the end of the war, and introduces a new, larger cast of characters – writers, intellectuals and artists – who were sent by the Allies to defeated and occupied Germany to assist in denazification and rebuilding the nation they had been trying systematically to annihilate over the past few years.

Their idealistic mission is an opportunity like no other, placing cultural activities at the centre of the plans to reconstruct the country. For a brief moment in history “a new united Europe, underpinned by shared heritage that would allow nationalism to be replaced by a common consciousness of collective humanity” seems like a viable option for the continent’s future.

Germany is a wasteland. Poverty, hunger and despair rule. Survivors grapple with guilt. Exiled German writer Peter de Mendelssohn arrives to establish newspapers in the British zone. He notes that “new eyes” and “totally new words” are needed to describe the devastation.

The horrors perpetrated in the concentration camps come to the surface of the world’s consciousness, and with them questions of complicity, responsibility and justice. In the light of the revelations and the Germans’ lack of immediate repentance, the Allied artists and reporters sent to the country find it nearly impossible to “make sense of the postwar world” or to emphasise with the people they encounter.

Among them is the photographer and war correspondent Lee Miller. After a visit to Dachau, she photographs herself in Hitler’s bathtub. Like others, she is “troubled by the ordinariness of Nazi leaders.” German-born Hollywood star Marlene Dietrich, “in army uniform, low-voiced, funny and adoring” has to face the fact that her family members collaborated with the Nazis.

Eerily echoing our own, this is the time of the Nurnberg trials, the nuclear bomb, migration, displacement and rising tensions between the other ideologies taking hold of post-war Europe, resulting in the division which will most strikingly manifest in the Berlin Wall. A sense of failure and helplessness sets in. But Feigel ends her brilliant portrayal of this turbulent period with Austrian-born Jewish American filmmaker Billy Wilder who “was able to laugh off the bureaucratic absurdity of communism, the megalomaniac blindness of American imperialism, and the fascist conformity of the Germans by satirising them all in equal measure” and standing “defiantly on the side of life.”

The Bitter Taste of Victory: Life, Love and Art in the Ruins of the Reich

by Lara Feigel

Bloomsbury, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times, 24 February 2017.

Review: Patriots and Parasites – South Africa and the Struggle to Evade History by Dene Smuts

denesmutsDene Smuts once said that “there are two approaches to opposition lawmaking work: making a noise and making a difference.” Throughout her courageous life she chose to make a difference. Smuts completed the manuscript of Patriots and Parasites: South Africa and the Struggle to Evade History shortly before her unexpected death in April last year. Her daughter Julia midwifed the project to completion.

In the Festschrift included at the end of the book, Jeremy Gauntlett notes Smuts’s “portable spine” which she lent out “often to many weaker people.” Before entering politics, she took a stance against censorship as a journalist and editor of Fair Lady. She resigned from the magazine in protest when her editorial independence was threatened over a story she ran about Winnie Mandela. She insisted on “readers’ right to know”. The longest-serving female parliamentarian, the first female chief whip, a lawmaker renowned for her work on the Constitution, Smuts was central to the birth of the new South Africa. She understood the importance of “cultivating the garden” that is our country.

The memoir is not a blow by blow account of Smuts’s private life. But when you read closely, the person who emerges from between the lines is a remarkable, inspiring human being who led by example. The book is testimony to her brilliant mind and fierce integrity. You might not always agree with what she has to say, but you never doubt that her heart is in the right place. She is unflinching in her analysis of contemporary socio-political developments and does not hesitate to call a spade a spade, or to mention when she is “incandescent with anger”.

There is no pussyfooting around burning issues of racism, polarisation, affirmative action, corruption, or reconciliation: “Just as apartheid was triggered by fanning the embers of cultural resentment of colonialism into the fire of Afrikaner nationalism, Thabo Mbeki brought out the bellows to reignite black resentment against white rule, both colonial and Afrikaner nationalist, when both had become history.” It is just another example of the ancient adage that we do not learn from history. And if anything, South Africa is one of the best embodiments of the effectiveness of the well-known policy: divide and rule (or conquer).

This is not the time to look for differences when common causes have to be addressed in order for the country to thrive as a whole, and Smuts’s incisive scrutiny of Mbeki’s legacy and the present government’s “misrule” points to the pitfalls we are facing. Only if we can all feel that we are “contributing to a new country”, will we be able to feel “at home”. Smuts recalls Jakes Gerwel’s words: “we had created the institutional mechanisms to deal with” the “remnants of the racist past”; “we should build on the positive foundations of transition and the Constitutional order to develop the non-racial reality already emerging.”

Patriots and Parasites is a passionate account of the importance of free speech, which Smuts championed in all her incarnations, whether as journalist or legislator. She points out the dangers of political correctness if allowed to stultify vigorous and necessary debate. Dialogue is pertinent to a healthy democracy. Communication consists as much of voicing concerns as listening. Smuts reminds of the occasion when in 1985 Ellen Kuzwayo was asked by white fellow women writers what they could do to help the cause: “All you can do is listen, listen.” Smuts herself kept her ear close to the ground as she knew the power of informed decision-making.

She gives compelling insight into the nitty-gritty of law-making, taking us back in time to the transition and recalling the turning points in history that made political change possible. The forces at play in the writing and implementing of the 1994 Interim Constitution and the 1996 Constitution are recorded in fascinating detail. Smuts remembers Kader Asmal acknowledging that “probably never before in history has such a high proportion of women been involved in writing a constitution.”

At the core of Patriots and Parasites is the knowledge that this is just one account of the palimpsest that is history. Other stories have to be told: “If the question is whether South Africa can evade history, then we need, at least, to hold up as true a record as possible of that history. The best way of doing so where records are not available, or are as contested … is to give as many accounts of what occurred as possible. This memoir is one such contribution to our recent history.” We owe it to ourselves to nurture and study these testimonies; not to allow recorded history to fall “into disarray, or decay”. Looking back, Smuts warns against apathy towards diverse manifestations of evil. Otherwise, as the reality around us shows over and over again, we will be “doomed to inhabit a world of false narratives”.

Smuts writes that “all we have to defeat this time, however hopeless it may sometimes look, is misrule and the erosion of everything we have already achieved”, and ends on an optimistic note: “It will be easier, this time.”

Patriots and Parasites: South Africa and the Struggle to Evade History

by Dene Smuts

Quivertree, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times, 17 February 2017.

Bookmark: Bookshops by Jorge Carrión

bookshops-jorge-carrionThere are times when people proclaim either the death of reading, or the death of the book as a physical object, or the death of bookshops, and no matter how much sceptics try to kill off one of the most engaging and enriching human experiences, it prevails and with it does the book and its private and public homes: bookshops and libraries. As any passionate reader will verify, bookshops can be oases of literary bliss. Jorge Carrión travelled around the world to visit many of them and wrote a fervent reminder of why they matter: “Every bookshop is a condensed version of the world.” South African readers will delight in the mention of local authors and favourites places such as the Book Lounge: according to Carrión “the best bookshop in Cape Town”. Originally written in Spanish, Bookshops pays homage to literature and its practitioners, both writers and readers alike.

First published in the Cape Times, 17 February 2017.

Bookshops

by Jorge Carrión

Maclehose Press, 2016

Bookmark: How to Open the Door by Marike Beyers

cover-marike-beyers_how-to-open-the-door“Who would want to read them?” we are asked at the back of Marike Beyers’s poetry collection, How to Open the Door. The answer is as easy as it is true: “Anyone interested in the recent inflection of various Englishes and … inflections of the ‘soul’.” In deceptively simple words Beyers captures complex memories of family scenes and relationship dynamics, stretching across time and space. There is loss, tenderness and pain: “here I am all razor blades / and concrete rubble / all corners sharp”. She is just as aware of language as of silence: “but there you stood / your mouth of broken birds”. There are people who live “outside of words”, but not the poet; “is it all too simple / is home then / this standing // in an open door”, she asks, and invites us to follow into the space of her poetic vision.

How to Open the Door

by Marike Beyers

Modjaji, 2016

Bookmark first published in the Cape Time, 17 February 2017.

Review: Prunings by Helen Moffett

 

pruningsThe image on the cover of Prunings, Helen Moffett’s second collection of poetry, is an exquisite unfinished painting of a broom karee branch. The poems in the slim chapbook are similarly delicate and unusually fragmented. Together with her editor and founder of uHlanga Press, Nick Mulgrew, Moffett decided to display the editorial process of pruning the individual pieces, but also entire poems which were cut from the volume and yet are still included in square brackets with horizontal lines struck through them. It is work in progress on show. The final effect of this innovative collaboration is one of wonder. What is supposedly excluded is as powerful as what remains: [no. It’s a failure. / I keep on in the hope that one day / I’ll figure out how to write this.]

In an interview, Moffett revealed that unlike in many other poems, the “I” in this intimate collection is not an assumed persona, but the author herself. There are three clearly identifiable clusters of poems in Prunings, sometimes overlapping in theme: musings on travels, often to exotic or dream-like locations; poems of loss and longing; and those which centre on memory and witnessing. In Barbados, Moffett records: “Drinking coconut water in / a rum-shop in the north, / talking cricket, liming. / This happened. We were there.” Closer to home, we witness in Kleinmond in Summer “Wind gone to bed, / water streaked with snail-trails. / Fading mountains exhale, / letting go the heat of day.”

The format of Ex-lover is more telling than the couplet which makes up the poem: “It’s about time I wrote you a poem; / everyone else has one.” The touching Wisdom is dedicated to one of our greats, Antjie Krog, and opens with: “I’m inclined to trust her, / this woman with a child’s clear vision, / who points out the scabrous sores / on the Emperor’s bare bum, / and sees magic in unpropitious dust.” Moffett also has the gift of noticing both, the sores and the magic. Prunings is a fine embodiment of her poetic vision. It ends with my favourite line, echoing Antigone: “[hmm, no.]”

Review first published in the Cape Times, 10 February, 2017