Tag Archives: Karina M. Szczurek

Review: The Snow Sleeper by Marlene van Niekerk

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The Afrikaans poet and fiction writer Marlene van Niekerk is best known for her ground-breaking novels, Triomf and Agaat. She has many accolades to her name, including being a finalist for the 2015 Man Booker International Award when it still recognised the entire oeuvre of an author, not just an individual title. Van Niekerk’s The Snow Sleeper, at last translated into English, is the kind of book that could have been a worthy winner entirely on its own terms. Locally, the original did receive the prestigious University of Johannesburg Prize for Best Creative Writing in Afrikaans in 2010.

The four interlinked stories which form The Snow Sleeper – “The Swan Whisperer”, “The Percussionist”, “The Friend”, and the titular story – took my breath away. During an inaugural lecture a professor recalls an exasperating relationship – mostly epistolary and one-sided – with a creative writing student who challenges her ideas about creativity and mentorship. At the end of “The Swan Whisperer”, the professor questions her own work within the South African context in ways previously unimaginable: “god only knows who is writing in me.”

Van Niekerk quotes Orhan Pamuk for the epigraph of her book: “A writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him.” That the professor giving the inaugural lecture shares a name with the author of The Snow Sleeper is telling.

In “The Percussionist”, an antiquarian clockmaker specialising in grandfather clocks speaks at the funeral of his writer friend. “He wanted to be remembered for his books, he always said, because nobody would be able to make any sense of his life,” the clockmaker tells the people gathered at the occasion. In his eulogy, he captures the process of observed reality transmuting into fiction, with longing at the very core of the seemingly unfathomable process.

Van Niekerk’s dead writer is the author of the stories which we recognise by their titles as her own. The self-reflective The Snow Sleeper acknowledges the incredible power of storytelling, and its various pitfalls. While any artistic act can be seen as death-defying, in the end loss is inescapable. There is also no shying away from the predatory nature of any creative endeavour. In one of the narratives, a researcher interviewing homeless people for a field study records a story that throws a light at the precarious relationship between an artist and their – often oblivious, sometimes reluctant, and occasionally manipulative – subjects. In one of the most poignant moments of the book the vagrant asks: “What can I do in the end but avenge myself? On behalf of all the wretches who’ve sat as models through the ages so that narcissists on state subsidy can excrete artworks?”

And while undoubtedly also “seducing with false images”, The Snow Sleeper is a brilliant meditation on the eternally intriguing nature of art, life, and the individual whose humanity breathes soul and beauty into it all.

The Snow Sleeper

by Marlene van Niekerk

Human & Rousseau, 2019

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

Review: House of Glass by Susan Fletcher

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Image: Virago

Clara Waterfield, the heroine of Susan Fletcher’s latest hauntingly beautiful novel, House of Glass, has a rare disease that makes her bones extremely brittle and confines her to a life of protected seclusion. Her mother and step-father provide as much safety, education and entertainment as they can while the curious girl grows up under their loving care. The unique upbringing makes Clara socially awkward but also unusually bold and unspoken once she is allowed to venture out into the world as a young woman.

The novel is set in England shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. Through the library that her step-father builds up for her, Clara has access to a wide range of scientific knowledge, and despite her isolation, she is well versed in the political and social developments of the day. News of women marching for their rights and the looming war reach and fascinate her. She finds her way to Kew Gardens where she becomes a keen assistant to a botanist and gardener, and unwittingly learns a trade that leads to an exciting offer of setting up a glass house on an estate in Gloucestershire.

Struggling to deal with the grief following the loss of her mother, Clara decides to travel to Shadowbrook to establish a botanical paradise for its owner. From the moment she arrives, she encounters strange occurrences which the staff and the elusive master of the house veil in secrets and silence. Undeterred, Clara embarks on a journey of discovery that will challenge all her beliefs about the world and her own life.

Fletcher’s mesmerising prose lures you in and holds you captive until the unexpected resolution of the mystery at the centre of this thought-provoking Gothic tale. You can judge House of Glass by its exquisite cover.

House of Glass

by Susan Fletcher

Virago, 2018

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

Review: ID – New Short Fiction from Africa, edited by Helen Moffett, Nebila Abdulmelik and Otieno Owino

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Helen’s ID selfie

We often open books to read stories about characters we can identify with. It is a search for sympathy and understanding. Picking up a book which actually reflects your own image back at you, however, is rather rare. But this is exactly what the latest Short Story Day Africa (SSDA) anthology, ID: New Short Fiction from Africa, does. The book’s cover is partly a mirror in which you can see fragments of your face.

Focusing on the theme of identity – whether we interpret ‘ID’ as short for one’s ‘identity document’ which can official represent you, or as one’s ‘subconscious’ in Freudian terms – the stories in this book are about “who we are” and “who we choose to be” on the African continent and in the world. The collection features the winning entries of the SSDA Prize and twenty other stories by writers from across the African continent.

The story which took the $800 top prize, All Our Lives by Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor, sweeps us along as we follow the trials and tribulations of a group of young men drifting in and out of Nigerian cities. Sew My Mouth by Cherrie Kandie is a touching exploration of the challenges a lesbian couple experiences in urban Nairobi. In Per Annum, a stunning piece of speculative fiction, the Johannesburg-based writer Mpho Phalwane tells the story of a group of young people fighting a corrupt government to keep their memories alive. The entire anthology challenges us to know our diverse selves.

ID: New Short Fiction from Africa

Edited by Helen Moffett, Nebila Abdulmelik & Otieno Owino

Short Story Day Africa, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 8 March 2019.

You Make Me Possible reviewed on LitNet

btr“Biography lovers may despair that the internet is making it improbable that biographers will still discover old, forgotten letters in dusty attics, revealing juicy secrets about celebrities. It still remains a problem when writers discard electronic records of their correspondence, but this book proves that emails can be every bit as romantic as old-fashioned letters, and all the more immediate.”

— Elkarien Fourie

Read the entire review here: LitNet.

Review: Nasty Women Talk back – Feminist Essays on the Global Women’s Marches, edited by Joy Watson and Amanda Gouws

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Most of us despair, but publishers around the world are probably laughing all the way to the bank because of Donald Trump. The president of the United States might not be good for anything else, but he is certainly great for the book business. I can no longer count the titles I have come across recently, written in reaction to the innumerable atrocities – in words and deeds – committed by the man.

Nasty Women Talk Back: Feminist Essays on the Global Women’s Marches, published in South Africa but with contributions by women from around the world, is a collection documenting diverse responses to Trump’s campaign, his election, and the ensuing Women Marches organised in protest to Trump’s presidency.

In the introduction to the book, the editors talk about a period of “deep mourning” many of us have been experiencing since November 2016. It is not to be underestimated. Having Trump in power has not only exposed numerous vulnerabilities we experience in our everyday, but also reversed progress already gained in areas of gender rights and equality.

The twenty-five essays and three poems included in Nasty Women Talk Back are an attempt “to put pen to paper and show fervour for ongoing feminist activism”. Reading the individual pieces, I also felt inspired. Ranging from academic comments to deeply personal stories, all the essays are illustrated. The texts and images refer to the striking signs participants of the Women Marches carried during the protests.

“My arms are tired from holding this sign since the 1960s”, reads one of the signs, but as Rebecca Davis points out: “We may be tired, but we cannot afford to shut up.” Books like Nasty Women Talk Back allow us to counter the violence of silencing and to find solidarity in a common cause.

Nasty Women Talk Back: Feminist Essays on the Global Women’s Marches

Edited by Joy Watson & Amanda Gouws

Imbali Academic Publishers, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 22 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.

You Make Me Possible at the Woordfees

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One of my favourite events of the year opens the literary festival season and I am really looking forward to speaking about You Make Me Possible at the Woordfees with Kerneels Breytenbach on 6 March 2019, at 12:00, in the ATKV Boektent.

OUR LOVE LETTER

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Karina Szczurek, in gesprek met Kerneels Breytenbach

 Aangebied deur Protea Boekhuis

Haar man het haar met briewe die hof gemaak, vertel Karina Szczurek van die skrywer André P. Brink, met wie sy ’n dekade getroud was. Nou is dié briefwisseling sedert hulle ontmoeting in Desember 2004 in Oostenryk deur Karina gebundel as laaste liefdestaak teenoor André. You Make Me Possible begin in die roes van die ontdekking van ’n geesgenoot, dokumenteer die brose begin van ’n byna onmoontlike verhouding, en daarna die verdieping daarvan tot ’n volwasse verhouding in ’n nuwe wereld van saamwees en erkenning. Kerneels Breytenbach vra haar uit.

6 Maart 12:00

60 min | ATKV Boektent

R55 | R70 by die deur