Tag Archives: Karina M. Szczurek

Review: Like Family – Domestic Workers in South African History and Literature by Ena Jansen

Like FamilyThe relationship between domestic workers and their employers in South Africa has a complex and deeply troubled history. Yet, it lies at the heart of many local homes, whichever side of this relationship you find yourself on: as job creator or taker. The connection between the two defines everyday life for millions of South Africans. For foreigners, it is often unfathomable. Thus, I found Ena Jansen’s study of the subject, Like Family: Domestic Workers in South African History and Literature, extremely illuminating.

Having grown up in a Polish working-class family, I was taught to do all domestic work myself. Also, there was a time in my life when I cleaned other people’s houses to make money, but the transactions with my employers – cash for services rendered – did not involve much socio-historical baggage. Despite, or maybe because of, these experiences, after first moving to Cape Town, I found it incredibly difficult to adjust to having staff in the home I shared for a decade with my late husband. I now live alone and have returned to taking care of my home and garden on my own, finding it easier to negotiate. But I understand that my situation is exceptional within the context of South African history; I only know one other middle-class household where a domestic worker is not employed to clean up after the family.

My personal recollections and observations might seem irrelevant as such, but they point to the greatest achievement of Jansen’s book: no matter what else, Like Family will make you re-examine your position in this historically fraught set-up. Jansen herself recalls the women who took care of her and her family throughout their lives and invites her readers to reflect on their own situations through the prisms of South African history and literature.

First published in Afrikaans in 2015, Like Family has been updated and now includes references to more recent publications. By tracing the relationship between families and the people they either forced or employed to do their domestic work from mid-17th century to the present, Jansen unearths the origins of what the narrator of Barbara Fölscher’s short story “Kinders grootmaak is nie pap en melk nie” (Raising children is not simply a matter of porridge and milk, 2002) calls “a wound in my house”. It is a striking image, and most apt to illustrate the dynamics of violence, uncertainty and suffering that characterise the relationship and its background.

Rooted in slavery, the ties between domestic workers and their employers have undergone many changes in South Africa and resulted in a “peculiar, often contradictory form of duty and dependence”. Jansen sees the relationship as defining in comprehending race, class and gender relations in South Africa. Like Family is not a comfortable read, but its insights have the potential to change lives.

Like Family: Domestic Workers in South African History and Literature

Ena Jansen

Wits UP, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 21 June 2019.

Review: Zikr by Saaleha Idrees Bamjee

saaleha-idrees-bamjee-zikrZikr is the debut poetry collection of the writer and photographer Saaleha Idrees Bamjee. Once opened, it is not a book you will want to close again easily, unless for a moment of silence to contemplate the beauty of what you have just read before you return eagerly for more.

In interviews, Bamjee talks about how the poems grew out of a deep sense of longing and loss, most poignantly expressed in poems like After a Miscarriage, or My World Today with the opening sentence “No babies yet”, or We Are Building Your House which ends with the lines “I have cleared a space in my mind, child / in my waking hours, and in my heart. / We are framing your memories, and waiting.”

Infertility, death, devotion and what it means to be an independent woman in a world of traditions are the major themes of this delicately woven volume. Its fabric is durable enough to hold the heaviest of struggles. One of my favourite pieces in Zikr is the prose poem Women on Beaches which includes the lines “The first bathing suit was a wooden house wheeled into the sea. They used to sew weights into hemlines. Drowning was a kind of modesty.”

The title of the book refers to “the remembrance of God” and some of the most powerful poems in the collection capture moments of exquisite spirituality: “My hands / are not big enough / to grasp prayer, / my tongue not loose enough / to utter them” (I, the Divine).

With Zikr, Bamjee establishes herself as a poet of grace, allowing readers to find solace and strength in her words: “I won’t pack sand around your heart. I will fill your mouth with zephyrs. / I will leave a bomb in your hand and quietly close the door.”

Zikr

by Saaleha Idrees Bamjee

uHlanga, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 14 June 2019.

Saaleha Idrees Bamjee with Nick Mulgrew

Saaleha Idrees Bamjee with her publisher Nick Mulgrew at EB Cavendish

Review: London Undercurrents – The Hidden Histories of London’s Unsung Heroines, North and South of The River by Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire

London UndercurrentsThe Thames runs through it. North and south of the famous river lie the “hidden histories” of mostly forgotten women. London Undercurrents brings them vividly back into our literary consciousness in this remarkable collection, written and compiled by two of the city’s female poets. Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire researched the past of these two geographical spaces located around the natural aquatic divide and retrieved from its archives the voices of women who have occupied them throughout the ages: “Woke up to find / I’d lived here half my life. / Felt the pull of community. / Began to dig. Began to sow.”

From Catherine Boucher, who upon marrying William Blake learned “to sign my own proud name”, or a young pupil who remembers being taught by Mary Wollstonecraft – “this woman who drove us towards / betterment in spite of ourselves” at the end of the 18th century – to a mother whose heart “still leaps / when police sirens call” and she remembers her son, a victim of gang violence in the 1960s, the poems in London Undercurrents capture the lives of women from diverse backgrounds, all sharing a city away from its usual spotlights.

Reading, we witness a street seller enticing passers-by to buy her cheese in 1575, discover what it must have been like for a fourteen-year-old to become an apprentice laundress in the 1890s, or we march along concert goers on their way to see the Sex Pistols in 1977 and are told to “take a good look”: “We’re pretty in black, / mother, daughter, sister, Punk.” What emerges through these evocative and accessible poems is a unique urban chronicle that is a joy to engage with.

London Undercurrents: The Hidden Histories of London’s Unsung Heroines, North and South of The River

by Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire

Holland Park Press, 2019

Review first appeared in the Cape Times on 7 June 2019.

Review: The Messiah’s Dream Machine by Jennifer Friedman

The-Messiah's-Dream-MachineFollowing her critically acclaimed debut memoir, Queen of the Free State, Jennifer Friedman returns with a sequel that takes us back to the moment when she was leaving the Free State for boarding school and continues her story into adulthood. The Messiah’s Dream Machine is spread over many more years and settings than the first book, and thus is perhaps more disjointed in its retelling of anecdotes from the chronicles of Friedman’s rather eccentric family. However, like its literary sibling, it focuses not only on a life full of adventure and discovery, but also on the darker sides of adolescence and of growing into the often unexpected roles fate has in store for us.

After recording the trials and tribulations of boarding school in Cape Town, Friedman depicts her married life in Johannesburg and her family’s emigration, first to Israel and eventually to Australia, where she still lives and traverses the skies in her Grumman Tiger plane. But no matter how far she goes, the Free State continues calling her back to the places “transformed beyond recognition, and the ghosts who’ve drifted unchallenged through the years”, and it is Friedman’s narrative that, like amber, encloses these stories into time capsules which will endure in the imaginations of her readers.

“Never is a long, long time … I’ll never send you away, said Ma. I’ll never leave you, Al says now,” Friedman writes and shares with us how to survive broken promises. With her vivid prose and a knack for dialogue, she delivers an array of odd characters that many of us will recognise from our own circles of family and friends. The Messiah’s Dream Machine also features disgusting meatballs, bloody springbok hunts, mice plagues, floods, a tornado, a few funerals and a wedding. “Nostalgia with teeth”, according to Mike Nicol.

The Messiah’s Dream Machine

by Jennifer Friedman

Tafelberg, 2019

Review first appeared in the Cape Times on 12 April 2019.

Review: Placeless People – Writing, Rights, and Refugees by Lyndsey Stonebridge

btrThroughout the ages, humans have been migrating across the globe; it is ingrained in our nature. Depending on time, place, and reason, these individual or mass movements of people have been welcomed or deplored by others. But being a refugee has never been easy. When you are forced to leave your home country and seek refuge elsewhere, whatever initiated the journey is usually only half of the ordeal you are facing – the uncertainty on the other side can be as daunting, if not more so.

Timely, succinct, and deeply moving, Lyndsey Stonebridge’s Placeless People: Writing, Rights, and Refugees throws a light on a topic that is constantly in the news and, whether we like it or not, often on our doorsteps.

Having spent quite some time in refugee camps as a child, I am aware far too intimately what it means not to have a country to belong to and a people to call your own. I thought that I knew what there was to be known about this topic, but Stonebridge’s research and take on placelessness and its consequences on the lives of millions of people scattered around the world today exposed my own ignorance and made me reconsider many long-standing beliefs.

The crisis we are confronting in the twenty-first century is, as Stonebridge shows, “in reality not a refugee crisis, but a crisis of moral and political citizenship”. Going back in time and examining creative responses to placelessness, as well as the legal and socio-historical frameworks which shaped the concept, Stonebridge delivers an unsettling account of who we are.

Placeless People is a powerful call to arms against “today’s toxic mess of bile bureaucracy, bad faith politics, and ethno-nationalist posturing.” It is an invitation to rethink what it means to be human in today’s shifting landscapes of uncertainty.

Placeless People: Writing, Rights, and Refugees

by Lyndsey Stonebridge

Oxford UP, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 29 March 2019.

Review: The Snow Sleeper by Marlene van Niekerk

btrhdr

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

House-of-Glass_Susan-Fletcher

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

ID Selfie

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

Nasty Women Talk Back

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.