Tag Archives: Jacana

Review: Holding My Breath by Ace Moloi

holding-my-breathHolding My Breath by Ace Moloi is a heart-wrenching, deeply inspirational grief memoir. Written in the form of a letter addressed to Moloi’s late mother, it tells his story before and after his mother’s death. He writes in the Prologue to the book: “I have decided to break the silence between us. I am starting this conversation to remind you of your younger son and to update you on my life.” Moloi points out that mourning is like learning a new language – “the language of living without you.” His mother died of an unexplained illness when he was thirteen and left him and his older brother to fend for themselves. Their father was absent when they were growing up. The boys had to rely on other family members for support. They encountered abandonment, hunger and despair as the divided family was mostly incapable of caring for them.

Moloi tries to hold on to the memory of his mother for guidance: “Through the power of your narratives, we were able to piece together the fragments of our history. You empowered us by interpreting events and people to provide a larger picture of who we were. And with every laugh, every remark, every shake of the head at your too-good-to-be-true stories, we forced the universe to take us seriously.”

Moloi is bright and talented, but without the support of a nurturing family for most of his young life, it takes an immense amount of strength and courage for him to get through school. He graduates in the top one hundred students of his province. Eventually he manages to enrol at university and with the help of a bursary completes his studies: “I fixed my concentration on defying my history by finishing school and going to university. I was tired of living with a false sense of family. I needed to work hard so I could start my own family, throw off the reigning curse and set a new generational trend.”

However, the cycles of rage and violence catch up with him. He unleashes his anger at those closest to him. In a moment of utter desolation, he attempts to take his life. His faith helps to anchor him, and he begins keeping a journal. As a student, he excels at a university newspaper and as a student leader. He tries to reconnect with his father, but realises that not having him in his life might have been a blessing in disguise.

Despite all the adversities he faced, Moloi continues making a name for himself as a communicator and writer. He wants a different future and understands the significance of his success not only for himself, but also for others facing similar hardships: “My village needed something to boast about. The kids playing in the dust needed a role model. Their fathers had abandoned them. Their fathers were drunkards who beat their mothers. They were orphans. Their families divided. They needed me to prove to them that it was possible to disobey history and break the curse of poverty and despair.”

Holding My Breath: A Memoir

by Ace Moloi

BlackBird Books, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times, 3 February 2017.

Review: Sam and Me and the Hard Pear Tree by Jami Yeats-Kastner

sam_and_me_hard_pear_tree_covGrief is a curious creature. When you lose a beloved person, everything changes. You even have to learn to breathe anew. None of it is predictable. The process is highly individual. Reading Jami Yeats-Kastner’s heart-wrenching memoir about the death of Sam, her youngest son, was perhaps not the wisest choice for me after having experienced the greatest loss of my life, the death of my husband. Yeats-Kastner’s journey, however, is very different. Yet her story resonated with me in unexpected ways and gave me a measure of comfort.

“The Day It Happened” for Yeats-Kastner and her family was 8 February 2013. Her eighteen-months-old son drowned in their pool. That day she became the “Crazybutterflylady”, guided by signs in the form of butterflies on her path to acceptance and to herself.

As my favourite philosopher Mark Rowlands says: “To be at our best we have to be pushed into a corner, where there is no hope and nothing to be gained from going on. And we go on anyway.” Yeats-Kastner repeats the sentiment in the opening of her book: “Sometimes you need to be completely broken to find the most powerful part of yourself.”

As she notes, losing a child is “universally accepted” to be the greatest of pains. It is the loss of a life not lived, of the immense potential and its beauty. It is unbearable. Those left behind live in a void that is undefined: “If you lose your parents you’re an orphan; if you lose your husband you’re a widow. But what is the name for us, the broken ones? There isn’t one, because people can’t accept that it should happen.”

What Yeats-Kastner shows is how to transform the heartache of such a loss into a force for good. She seeks out messages which lead her on a path of discovery. She realises that in order to continue a meaningful life, to be a good mother to her other two sons (one of whom has severe low muscle tone), to be a loving wife and a fulfilled person, she needs to preserve her space and cultivate her creativity. Not afraid of what others might think of her, she pursues all avenues – whether spiritual, religious, or alternative – to achieve her goals. Together with friends, she starts a charity in her son’s name and learns to appreciate “life’s great truths”.

Nothing is easy. Guilt feelings persist. Reproach from others has to be confronted. There are days where everything seems impossible. Yeats-Kastner confronts it all with searing honesty and does not flinch, simply asking that we do not judge her too easily. She describes her family’s ordeal and their courage to find a new life. They move house, take up new professional challenges, and follow the butterflies which seem to appear out of the blue, but are in fact constantly around you if you are bold enough to look for and acknowledge them.

Sam and Me and the Hard Pear Tree is a moving memoir of survival, healing and hope.

Sam and Me and the Hard Pear Tree
by Jami Yeats-Kastner
Jacana, 2014

Review first published in the Cape Times, 2 April 2015, p. 24.

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.

Honey, We’re Having a Book

Authors of both genders relate the process of writing and publishing books to having children. Karina Magdalena Szczurek spoke to Lauren Beukes, Mary Watson and Emma van der Vliet about writing and motherhood.

maverick-coverLauren Beukes is a literary mother of two and soon to be a biological mother of her first child, a daughter, to whom she has dedicated her debut novel Moxyland: “To bright possibilities”. Lauren is also the author of the non-fiction collection of stories about extraordinary women from South Africa’s past entitled Maverick (2004). Nominated for the Sunday Times Alan Paton award, it seems to have been only the beginning of a highly successful career.

Since she was a toddler, Lauren has been addicted to the written word. Early on she became impatient with her parents’ pace of reading bedtime stories and took the matter into her own little hands. At five she read her first novel, no other than Tolkien’s The Hobbit. “I highlighted all the difficult words in yellow, then my parents had to explain what they meant.” At about the same time, upon hearing that Enid Blyton had earned £1 million with her books, Lauren decided to become a writer herself: “It had never occurred to me before that you could get paid to make up stories.”

Lauren and her younger brother grew up in a house full of books. Their parents encouraged them to read and to make up stories. The family led a culturally inclusive life and Lauren often visited Alexandra as a child. “My parents were involved in the church support group called Friends of Alex. My mother worked with the women of Alexandra to make culturally accurate china dolls from Zulu brides to Xhosa initiates for the tourist market. My brother and I were fortunate to have had such a liberal upbringing.”

This upbringing equipped Lauren to seek out and face the challenges that form the everyday of her life. She jokingly describes herself as “a recovering journalist”, for many years her primary occupation. For the last three she has been working as a scriptwriter at Clockwork Zoo Animation in Cape Town. The acclaimed SABC sci-fi kids’ series URBO: The Adventures of Pax Afrika is one of her babies. “It’s been great to create a coherent world that tackles big issues head-on and I am proud of our inspiring multidimensional heroines.”

Lauren feels strongly about being a woman and is excited about having a daughter. She wants to raise her as more than the stereotyped Bratz princess that seems endemic to 21st century girlhood. At the same time, she does have fears about imminent motherhood. “It’s a scary thing. I don’t begrudge other women their choices, but I would never want to be ‘just’ a mom, the same way I’m not ‘just’ a wife. I don’t want to give up my job, nor my interests. There will certainly be less time for creativity, the necessary ‘headspace’ for writing, and I will have less energy, but undoubtedly I want to continue working. My new novel is already incubating and I have some ideas for smart and slightly dark children’s books.”

Lauren wants to be there for her daughter, to be entirely involved in her life. But the fulfilment her work offers is also very important to her. “Having a wonderful, supportive partner makes things a lot easier.” Lauren’s husband, Matthew, works with her at Clockwork Zoo Animation. “We wanted to have our baby now. Moxyland was accepted for publication at the beginning of the year, and we decided that it was the right time to consider parenthood.”

Moxyland began as an MA thesis in Creative Writing at UCT. After some initial false starts, the manuscript ended up on the desk of one of Jacana’s editors and was accepted for publication literally within hours – “one of the fastest book deals ever,” Lauren recalls proudly. It is a brilliant, generically pioneering (in the South African literary context) novel which can be compared to the best of its kind worldwide. Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) or Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods (2007) come to mind immediately. It presents a frighteningly believable near-future vision of the city of Cape Town and has all the ingredients of becoming a cult novel.

Lauren wants to continue writing the kind of literature that asks questions and does not necessarily offer simple solutions. “I’m absolutely a feminist, or maybe I should say a humanist, in that I believe women are entitled to choice. But I balk at describing myself as a ‘woman writer’, I’m just a writer. Gender – and genre – are too often used to ghettoise. There seem to be certain expectations of women writers, just as there are of science-fiction writers. I’d like to avoid labels.”

Glinka with Lauren Beukes's Moxyland toy

Glinka with Lauren Beukes’s Moxyland toy

The marketing of Moxyland transcends expectations as well. A mini merchandise empire has sprung up around the novel, including an official soundtrack CD from African Dope which captures the futuristic urban vibe of the book, and the fabulous Moxy toy, a mutant clone of the Moxyland cover monster. It is produced by the Montagu Sew & Sews, a collective of impoverished women in the Klein Karoo set up by Lauren’s friends especially for the project, in keeping with the sense of communal responsibility Lauren inherited from her parents.

Before her daughter is born in September, Lauren would like to finish her part of an experimental novel she and three other authors (Henrietta Rose-Innes, Diane Awerbuck and Mary Watson) from Cape Town are co-writing, Exquisite Corpse, a collection of intertwined but independent stories set in a glossy shopping mall on the day before Christmas. The book promises to be another literary success.

MossMary Watson gave birth to Liam, her first baby, in May. She has been a literary mother since 2004 when Moss, her volume of interlinked short-stories, was published. The first story in the collection, “Jungfrau”, won the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing in 2006. Mary dedicated Moss to her parents and siblings. “When I was small my sisters read to me more than my parents, but my parents introduced us to books. On Saturdays they would take all of us to a second-hand bookshop where we would explore the shelves for hours.” Mary could read before she went to school and had to wait patiently for the other kids to catch up with her skills. “I read like a demon and loved writing activities at school. My imagination was working overtime, I invented my own stories. I already wrote and illustrated my first book at about the age of 5 or 6. Literature was my first love.”

Liam’s nursery is already full of books, but Mary will only start reading to her son in a few months. Her husband Cathal played the fiddle to their baby when he was still in the womb. Now Mary sings to him in what she calls her “unlovely” voice. “Really, you have to hear it, I can’t sing but Liam doesn’t mind.”

The pregnancy was for her “the most uncreative, unproductive time.” She struggled to write anything during the whole nine months. “Before I became pregnant I imagined that my pregnancy would be a wonderful time for creativity, but I guess all my creative energy went into growing my baby.” Looking at Liam, one cannot help but see that he is more beautiful and precious than any work of art.

After giving birth, Mary is again bursting with creative energies. “For me, the writing process is like André Breton’s ‘phrases knocking at the window.’ There was a lot of silence during my pregnancy, but now the sentences are back and I hear them knocking all the time. Once motherhood becomes more manageable, I’ll go back to writing.”

When the time comes, Mary will be finishing her contribution to Exquisite Corpse and her first novel. “The novel is going to be more ‘realistic’ and it will be more about ‘real’ people than Moss. It is an altogether different book, a lateral take on ghosts and haunting.” By mid-October Mary will also be going back to her work at UCT where she is a lecturer at the Centre for Film and Media Studies.

Mary’s doctoral thesis explored “disruptions in cinematic realism and the construction of alternatives such as magical realism and surrealism through the use of specific editing techniques.” She thinks of film and media studies as “another way of doing English.” When she entered the field it was a growing discipline and offered good opportunities for development.

Mary’s academic and creative interests intertwine. The characters in Moss (2004) slip in and out of reality into fairytale-like places, most notably the moss garden, their stories however being anything but fairytales. It is as if the dark psychological states and the violent reality the characters have to deal with are too much to be faced on the level of realistic descriptions.

Like Moxyland, Moss is set in Cape Town. But in Moss the reality of the urban setting is not subverted by dystopian imaginings, but rather by myths, legends, and fables, no less disturbing. Many of the stories in Moss portray dysfunctional familial relationships. The title story “The Moss Garden” explores the difficult topic of incestuous child abuse. It did not come “knocking on the window”: “The story came to me in a dream. In the same dream I also saw myself writing it.”

Mary is a master of the short story form. Seldom does one see the kind of control over the genre which her work demonstrates. Although she enjoys the challenges of novel writing, she is fascinated by the “completeness” of the shorter form. “A story is this small, perfect thing that you can make. It’s like poetry with more of a narrative. The art of the short story excites me. The novel can also offer you the scope to expand on a single, small moment. Ian McEwan does this so excellently in Enduring Love or Atonement.”

In the coming weeks Mary wants to concentrate on all those special moments she is experiencing with her biological firstborn. “Right now, my life evolves around Liam’s needs. We are still figuring out motherhood together.” But she is firmly set on returning to work and writing as soon as possible. “I need to go back, but for now it’s just one project at the time.”

Past ImperfectThe experiences of giving birth to a baby and a book have been always uncannily connected to one another for Emma van der Vliet. On Valentine’s Day in 2003 she felt like a “barrel on legs” when she finally handed in her MA thesis in Creative Writing at UCT. A few hours later she gave birth to her first son, Oscar. “It felt like a comedy of errors at the time. I was stressed before handing in, hadn’t had a day off before the time and precisely on that day I couldn’t find parking and was frantic because of the deadline running up. Luckily, my mom was there to support me. After I finally submitted the thesis, I couldn’t feel any movement in my womb and was worried, especially since it was one month early before the set date. My mom suggested that we go for a scan, but I ended up staying at the hospital and Oscar was born that day.”

Two years later, the submission of the thesis for publication – a novel entitled Past Imperfect – coincided with the birth of her second son Leo. Today, Emma is pregnant with her first daughter who is due in October. Shortly beforehand, in August, Emma is submitting her doctoral thesis at the Centre for Film and Media Studies at UCT where, like Mary, she is a lecturer.

Emma’s literary firstborn Past Imperfect appeared in 2007 and was dedicated to her mother. “I was read to a lot as a child, especially by her. The first book I remember reading (and rereading) myself was Alice in Wonderland. Ever since, I’ve been fascinated by children’s Gothic stories. I also lived out books and my own imaginary worlds. One of my favourite games was playing ‘lost in the woods.’ I constructed houses, applied make-up, invented costumes and staged plays which all the visitors to the house had to watch. I became obsessed with Victorian literature and society early on. The Brontë sisters remain among my favourite authors.”

Nowadays, reading to her own children is one of Emma’s favourite activities. “I can always calm them down with reading. At the moment they are obsessed with nature books but they also love stories. I think I would feel terribly bereft if they didn’t like reading.”

Emma grew up in a family of teachers and academics. When it was time for her to choose a course of studies she decided on languages, drama, journalism and media. During a two-year break in her studies she worked as a photographer and publicist for the theatre and travelled around Europe. “I also acted on stage in children’s theatre. I always played the baddies, the vampire or the evil witch.” The progression to film came naturally to her. “The medium combines my visual and verbal interests.” She spent a decade in the film industry, doing a great deal of production as well as writing, directing and designing props. “But after a while I felt that my brain was atrophying. I also had to live in constant crisis management mode, with little time for anything and not enough intellectual stimulation. I was already writing bits and pieces at the time and felt that writing offered me the solitary time that I needed for myself.”

When Emma was 7, her teacher at school told her mom that one day Emma would become a writer. In 2000, at the same time as she began her work at UCT, she embarked on her creative writing course. The result, Past Imperfect, embodies chick lit at its very best, and Emma is one of the champions of the genre. This kind of writing style is her “Holy Grail: enjoyable, intelligent, slightly left-leaning woman’s fiction that might make people laugh.” And while Past Imperfect will make you laugh yourself into stitches, it is also one of the best-written novels recently published in South Africa, our own local Bridget Jones, or even better. No wonder the initial print run is almost sold out.

Like many other debut novels, Past Imperfect is slightly autobiographical. However, the relationship between the heroine Clem and her mother is not. “I have a very strong, close bond with my own mother. I really cherish it. The dysfunctional relationship between Clem and her mom is the complete opposite. They only become reconciled in the course of the novel. By portraying them is such a way I have somehow exorcised one of my biggest fears and it felt like another form of homecoming.”

Emma is planning to set her next novel in the film industry. She is also thinking of writing about the way children influence people’s lives. “Children force you to see the world in a different way, your priorities shift, you take small things less seriously. They also fill up everything. Before my children were born, writing took place in the cracks between the responsibilities of my day job. Now, there are no cracks, so something has to give to make room for creativity.”

Emma plans to take some time off work next year and tackle the second book syndrome head-on. “I am quite desperate to write,” she confesses. And anyone who has had the pleasure of reading Past Imperfect will be desperate for the publication of her next baby.

First published in WORDSETC 3 (September 2008).

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