Tag Archives: memory

Review: Synapse by Antjie Krog

SynapseReading Antjie Krog’s latest volume of poetry translated into English, Synapse (Mede-wete in Afrikaans), I was faced with an old personal dilemma: How much hard work is too much in order to reach that moment where meaning and aesthetic pleasure reveal themselves to you as a poetry reader? I don’t have an adequate answer. Perhaps everyone’s threshold is different anyway. In the end all you have is your very individual frame of reference, as a friend recently reminded me.

In any poetry volume you will find poems which will immediately speak to you. Others will require a specific key to unlock a feeling of appreciation. Rereading, research, or exploration of context will eventually reward your effort. Some poems will forever remain inaccessible no matter the amount of goodwill you put in. And then there will be those which will simply leave you cold. The poems in Synapse fit into all these categories.

The volume is divided into two parts: The Yard and Four Efforts in Linguistic Synapse Tracing. The first part opens with a series of epigraphs which are followed by thirteen poems, all focused on the images of the yard and the farm. These I find the strongest and most captivating in the book. In the epigraphs we are introduced to spaces in which the land and its ownership take centre stage and gender roles are clearly defined. The poems speak of the death of a patriarch, familial roots which reach into a troubled past, grief, guilt, race relations, and the ancient questions of owning and belonging.

As the poem 11. fossilised tree trunk makes clear, everything is connected, embedded, echoed throughout history. And yet, everything changes: “after all the years we gurgle (the only outlasting ones) / burdened with the dying light and bloodsick with heritage / : the new ones prepare to enter the yard” (13. old yard). At the heart of one’s relationship with the land are beauty and language: “places that could always snap my skeleton into language / coil me into voices bore into my entrails / expose a certain wholeness of belonging as my deepest tongue / tear chorales and something like discord from my brain” (6. live the myth).

This is the kind of poetry that leaves one gasping for air, which opens up new spaces in one’s understanding and feeling about the past and everyday reality in this country.

The Yard continues with poems which grapple with morality and reconciliation. The idea of interconnectedness is challenged in hold your ear to the tear in the skin of my country where already the format of the poem signals separate spheres of understanding the concept of forgiveness. The words of the speaker of the first section, Cynthia Ngewu, who testified in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about the murder of her son, one of the Guguletu Seven, cascade onto the page like a waterfall. The neat couplets which follow represent an ordered attempt to understand the motives and worldviews of the officer who was involved in the killing. In the end, we are told, “it was futile to try to weave interconnectedness into / the concrete bunker that lives inside Mr Barnard’s whiteness”.

The bleakness of moving beyond such divisions is captured in miracle where South Africa’s relatively peaceful liberation is juxtaposed with present-day, all-consuming greed and violence: “we have become the prey of ourselves caught up / in ethnic avarice and total incapacity for vision”.

More intimate poems about ageing, memory, grand-motherhood, domesticity, or the I-you constellation of lovers reveal the wonders of the world along deeper philosophical questions about our capabilities and responsibilities. The tone ranges from sombre to light-hearted. Krog is one of the few poets out there who can smuggle Skype, wifi, the Internet and memory sticks into poetry and make them look as if they almost belonged. Also, when she swears, she makes it count.

The poem convivium astounds with its breadth: “what use my caress in the breath-earthed night if a centre- / less universe opens space in the nonexistent for dark / matter to overpower a few broken beads of light?” The poem, like the human body at the core of its universe, “tuneforks such abundance”.

Apart from a handful exceptions, especially the Lament on the death of Mandela, the latter part of the volume, specifically the obfuscated Four Efforts in Linguistic Synapse Tracing left me baffled. The tightness and clarity of the preceding poems dissolved in musings where it became more and more difficult to follow the poet on her journey. The academic in me insisted I persevere and come to grips with the pieces, but the Sunday morning reader just wanted to return to the earlier poems in the collection or open another book. The Sunday morning reader won.

Synapse
by Antjie Krog
translated by Karen Press
Human & Rousseau, 2014

A ‘butchered’ version of this review appeared in the Cape Times on 19 December 2014, p. 12.

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Book mark: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station ElevenWithin a short period of time a lethal flu wipes out 99% of the world’s population. Civilisation as we know it grinds to an abrupt halt. Station Eleven tells the story of a handful of survivors of the mayhem which ensues. At its centre is the resourceful Kirsten of the Travelling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians performing Shakespeare.

Spanning a few decades before and after the collapse, Mandel draws a bleak picture of humanity, but the darkness is penetrated by flashes of light and goodwill. Creativity, art, self-expression pave the way to society’s precarious rebirth as the individual characters realise how strongly the drive to be remembered is anchored within them. A thrilling page-turner which is simultaneously though-provoking and entertaining, Station Eleven is being deservedly compared to the likes of Margaret Atwood. This is speculative fiction at its best.

Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel
Picador, 2014

Review: Dare We Hope? Facing Our Past to Find a New Future by by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

Dare We HopePumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s collection of articles published between 1995 and 2014 offers a fascinating glimpse into the main issues plaguing contemporary South Africa. A professor in psychology, Gobodo-Madikizela was deeply involved in the proceedings of the TRC and wrote the award-winning A Human Being Died that Night, one of the most relevant and haunting books of recent years. It tells the story of her interaction with Eugene de Kock, the apartheid assassin known as Prime Evil.

Gobodo-Madikizela is a leading authority in research on trauma, memory and forgiveness. Many articles in Dare We Hope? focus on remembrance and reconciliation as relating to race, gender and power. Gobodo-Madikizela puts her finger on the insidious everyday ways we work against a common future by “attacking one another…in private and in public”.

Having recognised the seeds of discontent being sown and germinating in our society, Gobodo-Madikizela warns against the next revolution, “one in which the masses rise against a new breed of beneficiaries of privilege.” The “never-ending cycle of nothingness” that is poverty and lack of aspiration “strips away the humanity of individuals.” Unless we can create opportunities for people to lead meaningful lives, we will have no future as a society.

A large section of the book is devoted to dilemmas of leadership and morality. It is an incisive analysis of the “terrible shame”, the “moral rot” of the Zuma years and the terrifying legacy they are threatening to leave behind: “From the beginning, Zuma’s presidency was destined to corrupt the soul of the country.”

Gobodo-Madikizela identifies what is “missing in our democracy”: “a spirit of human solidarity that transcends the commitment to membership of one’s racial group or political party.” Her plea is for a shared humanity, for the understanding and acceptance of our diverse grievances, traumas and complicities, and, crucially, for the triumph of moral responsibility.

The articles in this book repeatedly call for dialogue: “Listening to one another and acknowledging the experience of loss on both sides would be a start.” It is a call for the employment of that wonderful faculty we all have in common: our imagination. It is also a call for moving beyond denial and revenge into a space where guilt can be articulated and forgiveness becomes a lived reality.

Dare We Hope? is an extremely sobering read. Gobodo-Madikizela is under no illusion that what she is narrating is anything but “a gruesome tale”. However, her voice is one of wisdom and, despite all, deep-seeded hope. To ignore her insights and not to heed her warnings could prove detrimental not only to individuals but to society at large. This collection is a much needed reminder that South Africa is in a dire need of more dissenting voices and, even more importantly, true leaders who can lead by example. Gobodo-Madikizela’s vision is a vital contribution in both respects.

Dare we hope? Perhaps. One thing is for certain; a lot of work needs to be done to rekindle the spark of an earlier promise.

Dare We Hope? Facing Our Past to Find a New Future
by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
Tafelberg, 2014

The Image of a Pie: Reflections on Open Book 2014

Niq Mhlongo, Chris Beukes, Malaika wa Azania and Natalie Denton
I cried twice. No matter how much I tried to control myself, the tears kept coming and I was grateful for the pack of tissues I had in my handbag. I should have started shedding tears at the beginning of the event, when the woman who is our national treasure, Sindiwe Magona, noticed that we were only a few people in the audience while the whole of South Africa should have been attending. But it was only when Sixolile Mbalo, the soft-spoken, beautiful author of Dear Bullet, Or A Letter to My Shooter (2014), pointed to herself with her most articulate hands and used the possessive pronoun “my” to refer to the man who raped, shot, and left her for dead, that the dam of anguish broke inside me. In my own personal reality I speak of “my friend”, “my brother”, “my husband”. To have to survive a reality where a rapist is internalised into “my rapist” is nearly unbearable to think of, and yet, as Ekow Duker, the third panellist of the Open Book Festival event presented by Rape Crisis, mentioned, “We get more upset when our soccer team loses than when a woman is raped.” That is the reality Mbalo lives, and courageously survives, every single day of her life. All of us should take note and salute her. Any moment, her fate could become that of “our friend”, “our sister”, or “our wife”.

“Women are ghost heroes in our struggle.” – Niq Mhlongo

This year’s Open Book unfolded over five days from 17 to 21 September in Cape Town. It was filled with insight and inspiration. Apart from the moment described above, laughter dominated. The second time I shed tears, they were also an expression of joy. Speaking about her touching Good Morning, Mr Mandela (2014), Zelda la Grange told Marianne Thamm that Madiba destroyed all her defences just by holding her hand when they met. La Grange’s life bears testimony to one of Thamm’s remarks: “Mandela made us better people; that’s what good leaders do.” The conversation between these two powerhouse women was undoubtedly a highlight of the festival. Judging by the faces and comments of people present at the event, most felt its magic.

“Let it all come out and let us talk about it.” – Mandla Langa

Sixolile Mbalo’s and Zelda la Grange’s life stories capture the immense span of the spectrum of South African everyday experience. And it is essential for our humanity to pay as much attention to the one story as to the other, even though it is in our nature to gravitate towards happiness and success.

“Memory is always a fiction we tell ourselves.” – Rachel Zadok

Continue reading: LitNet.

Jonny Steinberg, Mervyn Sloman and Mark Gevisser
Niq Mhlongo, Geoff Dyer and Zukiswa Wanner
Raymon E Feist, Deon Meyer and Andrew Salomon
Zelda la Grange and Marianne Thamm

Review: The Visitor by Katherine Stansfield

The VisitorThere are these magical moments in life when your call of longing is answered by the ideal book. Katherine Stansfield’s debut novel, The Visitor, was such a book for me. Despite having grown up in a picturesque mountain landscape, for most of my life I have felt that I belonged to the sea. In the last few weeks I have been thinking about the influence that sense of affinity with the sea has had on me as a person and a writer. Stansfield spent her childhood in Cornwall and lectures at the University of Wales which overlooks Cardigan Bay. The sea is in her blood and it is one of the main protagonists of her stunning novel.

Meticulously crafted, submerged in wisdom and yearning, The Visitor opens with a gem epigraph, a line by Ruth Bidgood: “When I have pictured a calm sea, there is your boat, waiting.” Set in a fictional fishing village in Cornwall towards the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, the novel tells the story of Pearl, Jack and Nicholas: “The three of them live on the same street, three houses all in line and Pearl’s house in the middle. The three fathers go out in the lifeboat when the flare goes up, and everyone goes to chapel. Each family works together in pilchard season.”

Playing together as children, Pearl, Jack and Nicholas test the boundaries of the friendship that binds them. As young adults they begin to form new allegiances with one another and the community around them. When the pilchards stop coming, the lives of those dependent on the fish for their livelihood change irreversibly. Nicholas is a dreamer ready for adventure and distant shores. The steadfast Jack believes in the continuation of traditions. Pearl knows to whom her heart belongs, but some choices are not hers to make.

Years later, Pearl is forced to abandon her home. Once again everything around her transforms as her small village is flooded by tourists and modernity. At the same time she grapples with an infinitely more tragic loss as she tries to hold on to the precious memories of the love of her life: “What was remembered was true.” Haunted by a past which seems more real than anything else around her, Pearl waits for him to return and sneaks away to revisit the places where they’d experienced flashes of happiness together. On her wanderings she encounters cairns which remind her of all that is lost. She carries a cairn inside her, “weighed down by its stones”. Because of her precarious health, she is not allowed to swim, but the sea is the only thing which restores her to herself: “They were old friends. They had an understanding.”

A constant companion to the human drama unfolding at its shores, the sea continues with its own rhythms. Stansfield is also a poet. Her debut collection Playing House will be published in October. No wonder The Visitor’s prose shimmers with breath-taking beauty.

The Visitor
by Katherine Stansfield
Parthian, 2013

First published in the Cape Times, 29 August 2014, p. 32.

Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014)

An edited Afrikaans version of this article appeared as “Die miesies hy skryf” in By on 26 November 2011.

The madam he write

At eighty-eight Nadine Gordimer is throwing some more logs in the fire. Karina Magdalena Szczurek spoke with her about “certain kinds of attention”.

‘Do you know this author?’ I ask a waitress, pointing at Nadine Gordimer’s name on the cover of a book I am reading.

She shakes her head.

I pay for my lunch and walk from the restaurant to Parktown West, Johannesburg. A jacaranda petal falls on my head as I approach the angular white house which Nadine Gordimer has called her home for the past fifty years.

The first time I arrived here in 2004, I’d felt sick with worry for a week beforehand, duly warned about Gordimer’s reputation as an interviewee who suffers no fools. And this was my first interview, ever.

With Nadine during our first interview in 2004.

With Nadine during our first interview in 2004.

But when she realised that I wasn’t there to ask about her breakfast (the type of personal question she usually refuses to answer), she let down her guard. It was an invaluable experience.

My present visit is a déjà vu in this and other respects. I’m again first met by a staff member and inspected by an eager Weimaraner before being invited into the house. I walk through the kitchen, down a passage and past the narrow, light-filled study where Gordimer’s typewriter squats proudly on a small desk. She is waiting in the lounge. As I enter she folds a newspaper and puts her reading glasses aside.

It is the same room where we first met, but the furniture is arranged differently. She settles in an elegant rocking chair. I sit on a sofa opposite with a coffee table between us.

I have seen her look her age in badly taken photographs, but never in person. Today she looks radiant in a gracefully long white kaftan dress with a soft blue pattern. Her grey hair is stylishly arranged. Delicate earrings adorn her ears.

This time I am more at ease, but I still notice my hands trembling slightly as I set up the voice recorder. I can feel Gordimer’s lively brown eyes on me. A beauty at her age – she turned eighty-eight this month.

Few literary oeuvres can match Gordimer’s. Between the publication of her first story as a child in 1937 and today, the world has seen fourteen novels, ten short-story collections, and six volumes of essays. In 2010, her stories and essays were collected in two large tomes: Life Times: Stories 1952-2007 and Telling Times: Writing and Living 1950-2008.

When in the beginning of 2006 Ampie Coetzee spoke to Gordimer at a literary breakfast organised by Die Burger Book Club in Cape Town, she told him that her memory no longer allowed her to think in novel-terms.

The collection of stories Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black was published a year later.

Now she’s finished writing another novel after all. I remind her of what she’d said at the breakfast.

She smiles. ‘I don’t know what was wrong with me then.’

Since 2001, when her husband Reinhold Cassirer died, all her books carry his life dates and the dates of their relationship on their front pages. The dedication moves me every time.

Throughout her writing life Gordimer has stuck to a strict routine, devoting the first part of the day to her work only: ‘I still feel in the morning when I get up now, I’ve got to be at my desk.’

André Brink recalls how many years ago, before he knew better, he tried to phone her before lunch. A staff member informed him that Gordimer was not available.

At André's 70th birthday in Johannesburg.

At André’s 70th birthday in Johannesburg.

‘The madam he write,’ he was told firmly, and he had to try again in the afternoon.

The statement is extremely telling, even if it was not intended as such.

Gordimer grew up into a position of privilege in apartheid South Africa. And yet, while many others went with the flow, she devoted her life to fighting injustice. Even though she is most uncomfortable about the designation, for decades she was considered the ‘voice’ and ‘conscience’ of South Africa in the world.

I first encountered her work at university. The story “The Moment Before the Gun Went Off” (1991) pricked my interest in South African literature, and eventually brought me here for research, then for life.

It tells the story of an Afrikaner farmer on trial for shooting one of his farm workers. The racial and political circumstances condemn him, but the last line of the story overturns all our expectations: “The young black was not the farmer’s boy; he was his son.”

Gordimer has often been accused of portraying Afrikaners unfairly in her work. Asked about it, she reminds me that when the time to protest came there was no prejudice. ‘We did it together!’

She is also quick to point out how Uys Krige was the first person who published anything of hers: ‘He encouraged me tremendously, gave me the most helpful criticism and was a very dear friend.’

She reads Afrikaans writers in translation, and regrets that she lost the Afrikaans she learned at school, or that she never learned any of the other indigenous African languages. ‘As I say, it’s terrible; I’m a very poor linguist.’

Gordimer’s work is not everyone’s cup of tea, mostly considered too political or / and too challenging. But both judgements rest more on hearsay than an engagement with her actual work.

Occasional stylistic density prevents a more leisurely read, but allowed to sink in, her thought-provoking stories can be inspiring, revelatory, and life-changing.

Many see her 1994 novel None to Accompany Me as a purely political reflection of the transition period in South Africa’s recent history. Rereading it now, I am stunned by the accuracy with which she prophecies the dangers facing the fledgling democracy. But for me personally, the novel is one of the most profound portrayals of a woman’s journey to selfhood.

This again brings to mind the statement with which André Brink’s morning phone call was fended off, and another quality which has defined Gordimer’s career – her ambivalence towards feminism. ‘All writers are androgynous beings,’ she states repeatedly.

She caused an uproar when she withdrew The House Gun (1998) from the shortlist of the prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction, reserved for women only.

‘I have been indeed and still am sometimes tackled, because I withdrew…and then I made this rather rude, I suppose,’ she reconsiders, ‘frank remark that we don’t write with our genitals.’

One of her stories, “A Journey”, was reprinted in the South African October edition of Playboy.

‘How do you feel about being published in the magazine?’

There is no issue for her. She does however make one crucial distinction. ‘I would hate to be published anywhere which was racist,’ she says. ‘I would refuse.’

Her parents were Jewish, but she is a self-declared atheist. She recently caused, in her own words, ‘great offence in America’ with her story “Second Coming” (2011) in which the son of God walks across a desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape. The possibility of life’s or humanity’s re-creation is rendered impossible, because as the last one-sentence paragraph tells us: “The sea is dead.”

‘What was the Americans’ problem with it?’ I’m curious.

‘Well, it’s not for me, sitting here in South Africa, this little unbeliever in any religion to say that Jesus is coming…using this as the ultimate example it should be, for people who revere Jesus and the idea of a second coming, that he should find the world destroyed. It’s a story about the environment.’

Gordimer’s Get a Life (2005) was probably the first green novel in South Africa. She is one of a handful of local writers who now consistently champion the environment in their work.

* * *

While she gets some tea, I glance around me. On three sides of the room shelves brim with books and CDs. A vase of strelitzias and a few sculptures of different origins catch my eye. A walking stick rests against the other side of the sofa. The room opens on a large patio and a magnificent garden in full bloom. The cushioned bay window looks like an ideal place for reading. It makes me think of something she’s just said:

‘I have recently reread Anna Karenina and War and Peace, and I have reread the whole of Marcel Proust and now I can read French sufficiently to read it in French. And there are so many others. When I look at my bookshelf, I say, my God I must read that again before I die.’

Bodo, the dog, appears at the same time as the tea tray. Marie biscuits are on offer.

‘How do you like your tea, weakish?’ she asks.

‘Strongish’

‘Oh good!’

Bodo is allowed one cookie while she pours the tea. As she lifts the heavy pot her fragile hands betray her age for the first time.

I cannot help but think of the three thieves who forced their way into her home in 2006 and brutally removed her wedding ring from her finger.

‘Did the attack have any lasting effects on you?’

‘You know, I hesitate to answer this because it sounds as if I’m saying that I am brave. I’m not… The only thing of consequence, practical consequence, is that I now have these wires around the house… But I’m not brave…I choose to go on living here…my reality is here.’

With Sontag at Wits in 2004.

With Sontag at Wits in 2004.

She has been accused of lacking courage to criticise the ANC. But following her late friend, the American intellectual Susan Sontag, Gordimer believes that ‘to be a moral human being, is to be obliged to pay certain kinds of attention.’

Very often she is the first to pay attention and fight with any means available to her for the causes she believes in.

Recently, together with André Brink, she drew up a petition against the planned legislation curtailing freedom of speech in South Africa and introducing ‘apartheid-type censorship all over again.’ The petition was not only signed by just about every writer in the country, but also many international writers whom Gordimer approached at the time during a visit in Sweden.

‘Let’s keep [the protest] going. Throw another log in the fire!’ she says.

The presidency was not impressed.

‘President Zuma didn’t have the courtesy to send us, representing so many others, an acknowledgement.’

In a recent HARDtalk interview she told Stephen Sackur that real loyalty to the ANC means the right to criticize the party, of which she is a member. She spoke of the disappointment she felt about the values that were being betrayed by the ANC. I prod her for more particulars.

‘First of all the fact that power is used in a very personal way.’

She is also deeply disappointed about the government’s handling of education.

‘The schooling is so bad.’ She is shocked at the discrepancy in entry requirements for university students from different backgrounds.

‘We can’t keep our black comrades out of universities. My God, who would want to? But what is the point of them coming in if they can’t cope. It’s humiliating for them…’

With Carlos Fuentes and André at home in 2006.

With Carlos Fuentes and André at home in 2006.

On the way to O.R. Tambo I ask the shuttle driver whether he knows the author Nadine Gordimer. I also ask a few SAA attendants. No recognition.

While awaiting my flight, I pose the same question to the middle-aged gentleman next to me. He is the only person to respond positively to my question. Does it matter that he is white and at least two decades older than the other people I’ve approached?

I am confident most Poles would at least have heard the name of the Polish Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska at school.

* * *

Still in Gordimer’s lounge, I dare ask a personal question.

‘What makes you really happy?’

A short silence; my heart stops.

‘André would say chocolate,’ I volunteer out of desperation.

‘Well, that’s an evasive answer… I’m also very fond of black chocolate, but of course that’s a taste happiness.’

Another pause.

‘I have been unbelievably lucky by having forty-eight years with the love of my life, and I have that to treasure. Sometimes it is painful to do so, but other times…it’s there, I had it.’

Fresh from Franschhoek: FLF 2014

Nadia and I at the FLF, photo by Jennifer Platt

Nadia and I at the FLF, photo by Jennifer Platt

Another FLF has come and gone. It was my first one as a participating author. My event with Nadia Davids was a real joy. Nadia is wonderfully articulate, kind, a pleasure to talk to, and more beautiful in real life than in any photograph. We discovered that on top of everything else we have in common, she left South Africa the year I first arrived here. We seem to be leading these uncanny parallel lives. I hope there will be many more points of contact. We read from our novels, spoke about writing place and history, being first-time novelists, the genres we write in, and our lives as writers and critics.
With Nadia
(Jennifer Platt from the Sunday Times twitted live from our event.)

The guest of honour at the FLF this year displayed her eloquence with light, shade and colour, bathing Franschhoek in its autumn glory. This is my favourite time of the year, and the beauty of autumn days like these past two fills me with a sense of wonder like nothing else. (There was this one autumn day in 1990 when my mother was hanging up laundry in our garden in Church Street in Warwick, NY, and I was just there, watching her, surrounded by the reds and browns and yellows of dying leaves, basking in the early morning light, the sun on my back, and silence between us when I thought, This is where love comes from, from the beauty of this world, it is nourished and sustained by it. Despite its craziness, the weekend reminded me of that day.)

André with Breyten Breytenbach at the FLF

André with Breyten Breytenbach at the FLF

Franschhoek had all its other treats ready for us. Books and book lovers everywhere. The programme offered tons of stimulating encounters. The food and the wines were divine, as always. Gable Manor, the guest house we stayed in, was charming and cosy. In the words of Kgebetli Moele, the author of Untitled, who left a comment in the guest book the day before us: “Perfection!”
All that was missing was the time and space to enjoy it all, but festivals are by nature hectic creatures, especially if one is participating, leaving you dazed and exhausted for days afterwards. There is something about a festival that often puts me on edge. It’s not the participating on stage or being part of an audience, but rather the in-between of awkwardness when these boundaries are blurred.

I attended four sessions and a show during the weekend. The highlight was the show: Pieter Dirk-Uys’s AND THEN THERE WAS MADIBA! I have heard him speak at FLF and other events before, seen him numerous times on TV, and have cooked with Evita for years now, but I had never attended one of his live performances. Now I know that by not making it to one earlier, for years I have been depriving myself of laughter and insight. I will not be so stupid in the future. Dirk-Uys as Madiba or Zuma or Verwoerd was a sight to behold. He was priceless as Winnie. And underneath all the laughter and fun was a profound message of hope and being all together in this beautiful mess we call the New South Africa. There is always hope for a nation capable of laughing at its follies.

The sessions I attended were truly inspiring, worth every cent:

WHO GETS TO DECIDE WHAT’S LITERATURE
Jenny Crwys-Williams talking to Karin Schimke, Lauren Beukes and Imraan Coovadia about the interactions between authors, critics and readers. I found the following comments interesting:

Lauren said that nowadays authors have to be more social and put themselves out there. As Jenny pointed out, Lauren is highly successful in exploiting social media for book-promotion and is one of the few young South African writers who can write full-time because of commercial success. Lauren said that as a social person she counts herself lucky to be able to engage in the world of social media and enjoy it. She also said that she was fortunate in finding an agent who understood her vision. Lauren helps to promote other local writers by hosting The Spark on her blog. When she started with it, the idea was to have a white and a black writer alternatingly, which has proven impossible. It seems that black writers were not responding as readily to her requests as white writers (I had a similar experience when compiling Touch: Stories of Contact for which I was subsequently criticised, but I did approach many more black writers than ended up in the anthology; for various reasons some chose not to participate in the project; both Lauren and Imraan donated their fantastic stories for which I am still very grateful). She also praised her South African editor, Helen Moffett, who allows her to perform all kinds of acrobatic stunts in the air because she knows who is on the ground waiting to catch her if anything goes wrong. (As part of the trio Helena S. Paige behind the Girl series, Helen is not only a successful novelist, but also a sensual poet and a nurturer of South African literary talent.)

FLF books1Karin conceded that as a journalist she understands that she should be participating in the world of social media, but admitted to finding it exhausting. She made a wonderfully vivid comparison between twitter and being at a crowded cocktail party where all one longs for is a breath of fresh air, but getting to the door proves to be nearly impossible. (I cannot say how grateful I was for that image – I am too frightened to even enter that room – I am the one outside in a quiet corner, sipping the champagne, and reading a book). Karin did not get out of her way to market her book of poetry Bare & Breaking when it was published in 2012. Like most writers, she would love to be able to write in her chosen genre fulltime, but has to make a living otherwise. She has no illusions about being able to live off writing poetry in South Africa, but that is not what it is all about for her. As a writer, one has to understand one’s motives for writing, she said.

Imraan spoke about the difficulty of talking about the reading experience which is deeply personal and not always easily shareable. I loved his comment about the fact that a change in taste is proof of a “living mind”. He also mentioned that for him there are different ways of being a writer in the world. He referred to Damon Galgut who is shy and simply gets on with his writing without unnecessarily putting himself out there. He also said something very interesting: Why spend so much time on publicity if the reason you write is to get rich? Instead, one could invest the time in becoming a billionaire by other, more straightforward ways. For him, writing is about the “book and you”.

(After the session I bought a copy of Karin’s Bare & Breaking. Some time ago, I published a review of four Modjaji poetry titles, three of which I found outstanding, one less so. The positive comments I made about the three books went largely unnoticed. For my comments about the fourth one I got lynched. The heated reaction of the publisher and friends of the author to my negative remarks about the fourth volume sadly put me off further Modjaji titles. This is how I missed out on Karin’s book until now. But some of her comments about the volume and her own approach to writing made me curious enough to ignore my decision to keep away from Modjaji titles. On Saturday evening, I read some of Karin’s poems in the luxurious bath of our room with a view at Gable Manor and the moment I got out, I made my husband read them. We were both bowled over by her “sound-shades”. I look forward to discovering the rest of the volume.)

Here is one gem:

“Morning Work” by Karin Schimke

We are cocked and angled
together like an African chair,
groin-hinged and eye-locked,
small-talking the sun up.
At the join we are genderless
until – out of two flat triangles –
something flowers at us,
blooms bright as though
our eyes are suns
and it must find light.
We give it light, and we laugh,
and then bury it, lids shut,
so it can seed again.

THE CONSIDERED CANON
Imraan Coovadia spoke to Nadia Davids and Michiel Heyns about the Western and the South African literary canons. All three are novelists, reviewers and academics.

FLF books 2Nadia said something very moving about academics having the “privilege of learning to read deeply”. She sees the text as a social document that operates in the world, not only as something read for pleasure. During our talk the day before, I asked her whether her own novel, An Imperfect Blessing, was an attempt to write a people into history who had been underrepresented until recently, and she said yes, admitting that it was done with the full awareness of the pitfall of representation. That was her reason for including minute details of everyday Muslim family life in her story of specific historical moments (time round forced removals from District Six, the state of emergency in1986 and the year 1993, just before the first democratic elections). Michiel mentioned that while reading Nadia’s novel he was aware of her having read Jane Austen. What a compliment for any writer!

Nadia, Imraan and Michiel at the FLF

Nadia, Imraan and Michiel at the FLF

Imraan, who is an excellent book reviewer with the kind of gutsy eloquence which I lack, quoted from the curious Wikipedia entry about South African literature which made most of the audience shudder. Hope was expressed that people engaged in writing these entries will amend it to reflect less biased views. Imraan asked the panellists to name their own personal South African canons. The Story of an African Farm was there for both Nadia and Michiel. Michiel mentioned Bosman, Paton, J.M. Coetzee (Age of Iron and Disgrace); Nadia added Woza Albert!, The Island, Gordimer and Brink. Outside of South Africa, Nadia made a special mention of Anna Karenina, and Michiel of Middlemarch. Harold Bloom’s conservative take on the Western canon was discussed. Imraan found that according to Google the most mentioned South African books are Long Walk to Freedom, Cry, the Beloved Country, Country of My Skull, Heart of Redness, Ways of Dying, Spud, The Smell of Apples, The Power of One, and Master Harold and the Boys. He added Burger’s Daughter to the list himself, because “it should have been there.” I agree wholeheartedly.

Michiel Heyns is one of my favourite local book reviewers. (For five years, I’d had the honour of reviewing books alongside Imraan and Michiel for the Sunday Independent under the editorial guidance of Maureen Isaacson.) I always say that when I grow up I want to write reviews like his. I also had the privilege of working with him on Encounters with André Brink. Michiel is one of the few South African authors who see the entire world as their fictional playground, daring to write about topics other than local. I applaud him for that! Exciting news is that Michiel’s latest novel, A Sportful Malice, has been published last week. Talking about the Western canon, or any canon for that matter: the title derives from Shakespeare. Definitely something to look forward to! During the discussion, Michiel mentioned merit in relation to Nadia’s reference to the text as a social document. He spoke about literature and the canon as a “moral guide”, of showing you “how to live your life”. A test for any text is whether you are prepared to reread it, he said. I also think of it in terms of whether you want to share it with other people. The moment I find myself buying the same title over and over again for my friends, I know I have encountered a good book.

AFRICAN PASTORAL
DominiqueHarry Garuba talking to Dominique Botha, Claire Robertson, and André Brink about their latest novels, False River, The Spiral House, and Philida, respectively.

Claire and Dominique are first-time novelists. Like André, Dominique writes in both languages, Afrikaans and English. She recommended to everyone in the audience to write in Afrikaans if they could, as she was thrilled with the kind of enthusiasm and reception she encountered on the Afrikaans literary scene. Her novel is based on her family story and she has kept the names of her family members in the book: “It’s my take on something that may or may not have happened,” she said. She is of the opinion that “it is much better to write truth and call it fiction than to write fiction and call it truth”. (During questions from the audience, I asked about her decision to keep the real names for a fictionalised story. She said the names were beautiful and that changing them would not have removed the problematic aspect of the situation. The people involved would still know that they are being written about, only the larger public not. I’m not entirely convinced. In cases like this, I always try to imagine what it would be like for me: I would feel uncomfortable about my own brother writing a fictionalised version of me and using my name for it in a novel. It simply would feel that it wasn’t me. Why my name then? If he was writing a memoir or biography, and attempting to reconstruct memories in the process without intentionally fictionalising them, I would have no issue with him telling anything about the family past we share and using my name. In a novel based on fact, on the other hand, I feel that a name change signifies that fiction is part of the parcel, that the people are no longer the ones you knew in real life but partly imagined characters who might reflect on real people but are their own creatures. This is particularly true for me when one writes about people who are still alive and who owe their own versions of a story. I don’t want to pretend to have final answers to this complicated process, not even for my own work, but I think it is an aspect of writing that should be treated with utmost care.)

Claire, who had the rare experience in South Africa of having her book go beyond the first impression within a very short period of time, spoke about the idea of a farm novel which not only connects us to the land but to something much larger. After she’d finished her novel, it revealed to her that what she had been writing about is the “urge to perform acts of rescue”. While writing, whether as a novelist or a journalist, she looks for “tragic flaws”, not “wickedness”, in people, whether it is in the men of the Enlightenment or the architects of apartheid.

Tellingly, I forgot to note who during the discussion said that memory is a “very personal and unreliable thing”.

Victor and André

Victor and André

For André, whose novel Philida was born on and delves into the history of the nearby wine farm Solms-Delta, the act of writing begins when fact ends and imagination takes over. Through writing the story of Philida, he felt “enmeshed in my own life”. Philida could voice things which were difficult to communicate otherwise.
In the fourth event I attended (LITERARY DOYEN) Victor Dlamini, an insightful and patient interviewer (and one of my favourite photographers), spoke to André about his career, belonging, and Philida.

A note of thank you: Thank you Liz for all your kind words about my novel (you made my day!). Thank you to all for a weekend of literary delights!

Books sold (that I know of): 1 (thank you Nols – very kind of you! I hope you will enjoy it)
Books bought: 3
(I’m clearly not in it for the money.)

A literary ‘rainbow nation’ in Regensburg

University of Regensburg

University of Regensburg

At the beginning of April, I attended a literary conference in Regensburg, Germany. Organised by Prof. Jochen Petzold, the conference intended to shed light on some of the developments in recent South African literature. Two days, various themes, and an intimate crowd of eager participants amounted to a very stimulating experience which reconfirmed for me the decision not to forsaken academia all together just yet. The papers covered a wide range of topics, from youth literature to writing on HIV/AIDS, with the farm novel and Indian Ocean literature thrown into the mix.

UK Quartet Books edition

UK Quartet Books edition

The conference kicked off with a paper by Chris Warnes which put a smile on my face because Warnes spoke about ideas being more productive than theory. Taking popular fiction seriously, Warnes explained how romances, crime novels, and thrillers can tell us more about present-day South Africa than ‘serious’ writing. The next speaker, Michael Cawood Green, read an excerpt from his upcoming novel. Full of scrumptious ideas, it gave one more food for thought than most theoretical writing ever can. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing Green’s fascinating novel For the Sake of Silence (2008). It remains one of my all-time favourite books, and I am deligthed now to own a signed hardback copy given to me by the author.

We continued with papers on Achmat Dangor‘s Bitter Fruit, trauma and memory, and young adult literature. I shared the slot with Sandra Stadler who has done some ground-breaking work on the YA genre in South Africa. Her thesis is something to look forward to.

Focusing on Nadine Gordimer’s The House Gun, Ivan Vladislavić’s Portrait with Keys, Stephen Watson’s A City Imagined , Antjie Krog’s Body Bereft, and the theoretical backbone done on the city in South African literature by such scholars as Achille Mbembe, Sarah Nuttall and Michael Titlestad, I spoke about how among urban spaces, Johannesburg and Cape Town dominate the literary topography of the country, and how the latter is fast on its way to becoming South Africa’s capital of crime fiction with internationally best-selling authors like Deon Meyer, Margie Orford, Roger Smith, Sarah Lotz or Mike Nicol, making Cape Town the preferred settings of their literary crimes.

Mike Nicol and Angela Makholwa

Mike Nicol and Angela Makholwa


That evening, two crime specialists, Angela Makholwa and Mike Nicol, read to us from their latest work, and together with our host, Jochen Petzold, spoke about their experience of the crime genre in South Africa and abroad.
Mike Nicol, Jochen Petzold, and Angela Makholwa

Mike Nicol, Jochen Petzold, and Angela Makholwa

The next day began with two papers on the HIV pandemic as reflected in literature and culture. The farm novel dominated the next slot on the programme. It seems nowadays that no conference on South African literature can do without a vivid discussion on the elusive ending of J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. There are usually as many interpretations as people in the room, and so this time. The novel continues to haunt literary scholars.

Speaking about Aziz Hassim’s Revenge of Kali, Felicity Hand quoted a sentence from the novel which stuck in my head: “Only a corpse knows the loneliness of the grave.” The conference ended with three papers focused on Afrikaans literature. Cilliers van der Berg spoke about Afrikaans literature as a “minor discourse”, Adéle Nel about the “sense of ending” in some contemporary novels, and Willie Burger about the difficulties of categorisation that diversity brings with it.

I left Regensburg full of new ideas, a long list of titles to read, and a feeling of being part of a vibrant, exciting, and bold literary culture in South Africa.