Tag Archives: novel

Review: Cove by Cynan Jones

coveI was born in Poland, but as a student I used to live in Wales. About two years ago, I read a glowing review of Everything I Found on the Beach by the young Welsh writer Cynan Jones. The reviewer mentioned that the novel featured a Polish character. A Welsh novel with a Polish character was an irresistible combination for a reader with my literary background. I ordered and devoured it, and since then I have read every other novel or novella I could get hold of by the same author: The Long Dry, The Dig, and the latest, Cove.

Cynan Jones has become one of my favourite writers and I await each new book of his with fervent anticipation. I have never been disappointed. His work offers two elements which I find most exciting in literature: the ability to lay bare the intricate landscapes of the human heart and soul, and a prose powerful enough to match what is revealed: the brutality and beauty of our existence. Jones is constantly being compared with the greats of modern literature – rightly so. But his voice is distinct, unforgettable.

Cove opens on a beach. A child is missing. A doll is washed up by the tide. And a dead pigeon is found: “The head was gone, the meat of its chest. The breast-bone oddly, industriously clean.” The man who finds it feels a sense of horror that the bird “knew before being struck. Of it trying to get home. Of something throwing it off course.” He removes the rings from its leg to return them to the owner who will be wondering about its fate.

As the epigraph explains, a cove can be “a small bay or inlet; a sheltered place” or “a fellow; a man”. Cove tells the story of a man who finds himself adrift in a kayak after he is struck by lightning. His recollections of how he got there and who he is are vague. He is injured, covered in ashes: the remains of someone who will definitely not return. The shore seems unreachable, but intuitively he knows that someone is waiting for him to come back: “The idea of her, whoever she might be, seemed to grow into a point on the horizon he could aim for.”

Cove is a quest for survival – man versus the elements: “Stay alive, he thinks.” Jones knows how to tell unique stories with universal appeal. He is fearless in his explorations of places most of us are terrified of. As in life, death is a constant in his stories. He reduces his plots to essentials and by doing so magnifies what is truly important. His work reminds us of the strengths and brilliance of the novella, an underestimated form in our time.

When you face the impossible, and all seems wrecked and lost, not many options remain: “If you disappear you will grow into a myth for them. You will exist only as absence. If you get back, you will exist as a legend.”

Cove

by Cynan Jones

Granta, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times, 13 January 2017.

Review: Midwinter by Fiona Melrose

midwinterIn an act of idiotic drunken bravery, two friends, Tom and Vale, steal a boat in a storm. The consequences for both of them are enormous. The incident lays bare a past supressed for a decade and a future which is just as heavy to carry. The laden, rain-drenched darkness of the night of the theft sets the tone for this atmospheric narrative. Fiona Melrose’s stunning debut novel Midwinter tells the story of loss, the way it breaks you down and the effort it takes to put together the shattered pieces.

Melrose was born in Johannesburg and is now – after years of living abroad – once again based in the city of her birth where she is working on her next novel. She completed an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London, and spent a lot of time in Suffolk where Midwinter is partly set. Told from the alternating perspectives of Vale and his father Landyn, the book recounts two seminal episodes of their lives: the period on their farm in Suffolk after the boys’ boat theft and the time Landyn spent with his family living and farming in Kabwe, Zambia, ten years earlier.

From the beginning we are aware that something horrendous happened to Vale’s mother during their sojourn in Zambia. The relationship between Vale and his father is troubled by guilt and blame. Much has been left unspoken, and when it surfaces between them, rage and violence erupt: “You can set the dark aside for just so long before it comes after you and rolls you back under its weeds and rocks.” Both of them are suffocating in the silence between them. As it spreads to Vale’s other relationships, it threatens to destroy all that is still worth living for.

Landyn holds on to the sightings of a fox in their neighbourhood – “fine, sharp as a whip, keen-eyed and sleek.” The beautiful animal embodies for him his late wife. He also cares for his sickly dog Pup. The attempts of the father and son to reach out to each other, to find comfort and healing, often go astray, but relentlessly they continue trying: “We just stood there in the wet air looking at each other with all that hurt between us. The whole morning held its breath.” Perhaps when nothing else is left, love will prevail after all?

Vale’s friend Tom comes from a different type of dysfunctional family. When his mother goes off with another man, his father in unable to deal with the abandonment in any other way than by turning to stupefying drinking. Tom is neglected and lonely when Vale and his family take him under their wings, but when they emigrate to farm in Zambia he is left behind to fend for himself for a while until their return. And then, during the storm, he is severely injured and his future looks even bleaker than ever before.

Between the crushing heat of Kabwe and the merciless cold of Suffolk, Melrose evokes the landscapes and seasons of her settings with succinct prose: “Sitting in the motor with Vale hissing and biting next to me, I could feel all the dust and grit rolling up over the deserts from Kabwe. It was as if from the moment I read about the place for the first time, the two places could never be separated again. I’d struck my boy and now we were all in this great sucking bog. Tom was in it with us. There was nowhere to go with all that. Nowhere at all.”

Midwinter is the story of broken people, whether they are broken by colonialism, war, grief, or cowardice. Melrose is very subtle with her critique of current global socio-political affairs – her focus is definitely on the intimate, personal spaces in and between us, but the war in Iraq and the trauma of colonial exploitation lurk between the pages of Midwinter and lend the novel powerful gravitas. It is because none of it is in any way laboured, it is one of the strongest aspects of the book.

fiona-melroseThe author should also be commended for doing what much too often writers shy away from: writing entirely from a (gender) perspective which is not their own. At no time in the novel did I ever feel that I was not in the heads and hearts of a young man and his ageing father. Melrose uses first-person narrators for both to great effect: “For ten years I’d shirked the memories. I always felt them scratching at the darker corners of my mind, still feral; but sitting on a tree stump in the gathering dark, all of it – the space, the fear, the sorrow – all seemed to find me again.”

The title refers to Vale’s and Landyn’s family name, but also to temporal and spatial thresholds as well as the emotional landscape the two men have to cross. Melrose’s rendering of what awaits them beyond is heart-wrenching and beautiful as it will ring true to anyone who has suffered unbearable loss.

You can judge this book by its exquisite cover which attracted me to it in the first place. Midwinter is lyrical and intriguing in its gorgeous starkness.

Midwinter

by Fiona Melrose

Corsair, 2016

An edited version of this review was first published in the Cape Times, 6 January 2017.

 

Review: There’s Always Tomorrow by Abner Nyamende

theres-always-tomorrowThe overwhelming impression I had while reading Abner Nyamende’s There’s always tomorrow was that the novel had not been edited properly, if at all. It began with the first page, where the word “darkness” features six times without apparent reason. And the unnecessary repetitions are only the tip of the iceberg. After finishing, out of curiosity I looked up Partridge, the publishing house, and was informed that, although backed by a giant international trade publisher, the company provides only self-publishing services to their authors. Editing seems to be part of the professional packages on offer, but I cannot imagine that it was employed in this particular case. In this regard I was appalled at the quality of the final product, and it is a pity, because the book has an important story to tell. If the author did pay for editing of any kind, he was cheated…

Continue reading: LitNet

Book review: Three Plays – Dream of the Dog, The Girl in the Yellow Dress, The Imagined Land by Craig Higginson

three-plays-and-glinkaReading a play is like listening to an opera on CD. Many would argue that both are best experienced on stage. There is nothing like a live performance, I agree. Yet, no matter how much I love going to the theatre or opera house, reading a play or listening to opera in the comfort of my own home can also be special.

I have never seen any of Craig Higginson’s plays performed live, but I have read most of them, a few several times. As texts, they are deeply satisfying and engage the reader on intellectual and aesthetic levels while giving voice to intimate, troubled spaces of the soul as well as addressing profound socio-political issues. Earlier this year, Wits University Press published three of Higginson’s most acclaimed plays – Dream of the Dog, The Girl in the Yellow Dress, The Imagined Land – in one volume, with a foreword by Jeremy Herrin and an incisive introduction by Michael Titlestad. Herrin speaks of Higginson’s “delicate psychology” in the “theatrical landscape, a place where the contradictions and messiness of contemporary life hold themselves up for inspection.” Titlestad points out “the plays’ common concern with the possibilities and limits of representation… Collectively they refract what has been at stake in this country’s transition, and they do so with a subtlety and insight that will ensure their longevity.” Despite their complexity, the plays are readily accessible.

dream-houseDream of the Dog was first written and appeared as a local radio play in 2006, and was rewritten and staged the following year in South Africa before transferring overseas. Its action takes place in KwaZulu-Natal. An aging couple sell their farm to developers. The man in charge of the project turns out to be the son of one of their former workers. As he returns to the place, he brings with him long-supressed memories of violence and death on the farm. The play inspired Higginson’s latest novel, The Dream House (2015), which won the prestigious University of Johannesburg Prize for South African Writing in English this year.

In The Girl in the Yellow Dress, a British woman living in Paris gives English lessons to a Frenchman of African origin. As the young people discuss gramma constructions, their carefully constructed personal stories surface and collide. The play was first performed in Grahamstown in 2010 before conquering stages around the world.

The most recent play in the collection, The Imagined Land, premiered locally last year. It is a stunning work in which a young black scholar decides to write the biography of an elderly white literary icon and simultaneously begins a relationship with the woman’s daughter. The unreliability of memory and the archive, guilt and desire complicate the highly charged action, set in present-day Johannesburg: “Not that I believe a narrative can represent a life. Imagined lands – that is all we are, all we have access to.”

There are no easy resolutions, but grace and redemption seem possible. In Herrin’s words: Higginson’s “characters invariably turn towards the light. They have an inclination for the truth, even if reconciliation might still be beyond them.”

 

Three Plays: Dream of the Dog, The Girl in the Yellow Dress, The Imagined Land

by Craig Higginson

Wits University Press, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times, 28 October 2016.

Great, even life-changing – the books of 2015

Another great year of reading is coming to an end, although it did not start that way. I am grateful to the love that has returned my passion for reading to me when reading – when life – became unbearable.
books2015
Knowing how few books one can read in a lifetime (I won’t depress you with the estimate), I have become quite selective and wise about what I read. Thus, out of the sixty-three books I have read this year (until today, some not for the first time), almost all were good, thirty-one were great – among them were a few which were life-changing – and only two I did not finish. Of these two, one was brilliant, but I was reading it on 6 February and have not been able to return to it. The other one I had wonderful hopes for, but I was so disappointed and frustrated that after a hundred pages I decided not to waste more of my time on it. In the spirit of the festive season, the perpetrator shall remain unnamed.

The great ones I have finished, I would like to divide among four categories: relevant, delightful, exquisite, and life-changing (whereas some, of course, overlap).

There are old-time favourite authors on my list like Alexandra Fuller and Ivan Vladislavić, but also new discoveries like Pamela Power or Mark Winkler.

Relevant
Ingrid Jonker: A Biography by Louise Viljoen
Back to Angola: A Journey from War to Peace by Paul Morris
A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
J. M. Coetzee and The Life Of Writing: Face-To-Face With Time by David Attwell
Books That Matter by Marie Philip

Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.
(A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion)

Delightful
The Unknown Unknown by Mark Forsyth
What Poets Need by Finuala Dowling
Ms Conception by Pamela Power
What I Didn’t See and Other Stories by Karen Joy Fowler
Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov
The Chameleon House by Melissa de Villiers
Embers by Sándor Márai
Tribe by Rahla Xenopoulos
The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell

I had a very efficient guano maker installed in my bath.
(The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell)

Exquisite
The Long Dry by Cynan Jones
Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller
101 Detectives by Ivan Vladislavić
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
The Dream House by Craig Higginson
The Alphabet of the Birds by SJ Naudé
We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Sugar Man: The Life, Death and Resurrection of Sixto Rodriguez by Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom
the myth of this is that we’re all in this together by Nick Mulgrew
Wasted by Mark Winkler
Notes from the Dementia Ward by Finuala Dowling

We have to admit our massive love for people. If we don’t ever need to know its depth, we just feel the light on the surface.
(The Long Dry by Cynan Jones)

Life-changing
Flame in the Snow / Vlam in die Sneeu by André Brink and Ingrid Jonker
Killing Floor by Lee Child
Water: New Short Fiction from Africa
Mountains in the Sea: A Celebration of the Table Mountain National Park by John Yeld and Martine Barker
The Art of the Publisher by Roberto Calasso

I would like to single out two books I haven’t written about. Yet. Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins and Roberto Calasso’s The Art of the Publisher.
A God in Ruins
Atkinson’s novel is one of the most exquisite books I have read in my life. Its beauty and its declaration of love for the power of literature to capture eternity, to heal, to open up spaces in us we never even knew existed are staggering. Personally, I will always associate the novel with two seminal moments in my life. While reading it during one of those serene nights when you are at peace with yourself and the world, I saw something beautiful and drew a sketch of the scene at the back of the book. It is also engraved in my heart. And when I finished A God in Ruins, I was crushed by the inability to share it with André, but then something happened which gave me comfort and hope and the book will always be at the source of these feelings when it comes to reading. I hope to write about it before the year is over.
The Art of the Publisher
Calasso’s book speaks about everything I have ever known, felt, dreamt about or hoped for in publishing. I have known for years that one day I would become a publisher myself. The Art of the Publisher made me realise that the time has come to make that day become reality.

Joanne Hichens, an everyday superhero

If you think that bringing up three kids and paying the bills on your own is tough, you are right. Running a short story competition? Hard work. Writing a book? Yep, also uphill battle. Getting it published? Nearly impossible. Starting your own publishing company? F-u-c-k-i-n-g crazy. Surviving widowhood? Not sure how one does it, not there yet.

Well, in the past two years, Joanne Hichens has been doing it all. And tonight, she launched her novel Sweet Paradise which is the publishing flagship of her newborn venture, Tattoo Press. Fittingly for the occasion, The Empire Café in Muizenberg was jam-packed with friends and excited readers. The book is dedicated to Joanne’s late husband, Robert, who died unexpectedly in January last year. Joanne stood brave and beautiful in front of the crowd, her three amazing children running the show. She spoke about how Robert encouraged her to write, believed in her as a novelist, how after his death everything became a struggle and all she wanted to do was watch other people’s miseries on TV while hugging a wine bottle. I can relate. There is a very good reason why I don’t keep whiskey in the house or why I know when NCIS’s latest episode is airing. I know what inner strength is required to get up from bed every morning and why sometimes one fails.

Photo by Liesl Jobson

Photo by Liesl Jobson


And yet, here she is with two short story anthologies, a novel, and a publishing house to her name, all achieved within twenty-two months since Robert’s death. Despite her own frailty, Joanne has been a pillar of strength for me on my journey through widowhood. She is not only a hero, but a superhero. Watching her tonight I was once again inspired, as a woman and as a writer. I take my hat off to her.

At the heart of a celebration like tonight’s there is a loneliness that is so dreadfully painful that one has to be a superhero to keep on standing. And I know this because yesterday I held a copy of Vlam in die sneeu for the first time in my hands and I failed.

Philida van de Delta

I remember the pages of the manuscripts spread all around our lounge floor: Afrikaans, English, several versions of each, all a complete muddle. André and I going around with scissors and Sellotape, piecing the different scenes together, then transferring the final ‘cut’ to the computer, editing, correcting, arguing, crying, laughing, and every inch of the way loving the story and the remarkable woman at its centre – those were the final stages of André’s last novel, Philida (2012), longlisted for the Man Booker later that year just in time for the publication.
Philida4

She arrived like all stories do, unexpected.

A phone call from a man who’d bought a farm near Franschhoek. An uncanny family connection. A museum opening. A barefoot girl with a heart full of courage. No wonder André fell in love with her. She walked straight into his imagination. And now she is stepping out of the pages of his book into the songs of her descendants.
Philida3
The people living, working and making music at Solms Delta have read Philida and turned her story into a musical.

I was invited to see the premier at the Baxter Theatre last night.
Philida1
Since André’s death, I have been unable to predict what will give me joy, what will hurt me. Everything is different now. What I believe will be difficult for me, turns out to be easy. At times, the easy stuff becomes impossible. Yesterday’s performance was utterly beautiful in all respects – simply stunning! Yet, it completely broke me. I wasn’t the only one who’d shed tears while following Philida’s moving story. I sat next to Tracey Randle, the wonderful historian who’d helped André do research for the book, and to Beverley Scott, mother of the late Alex van Heerden who, with his talent, charisma and enthusiasm, had brought music to the farm in the first place. We all cried, but I was the only one who had to leave, sobbing uncontrollably, just after the show.
Philida7
André and Alex should have been there last night, not only in the words and the music on stage, not only in our hearts…
Philida2
The beautiful young woman who sang Philida was the embodiment of André’s vision. He would have wept with all of us had he seen her come alive across space and time at the Baxter last night. The entire cast and the musicians were pure magic. They made my heart sing. The evening, though, broke it, too. And I was not prepared. I wish I could have said thank you or at least goodbye, but all I was capable of was finding refuge in the spare bedroom of my friends’ house which since early February has been on standby for such moments when being alone is not a viable option for me.
Philida5
I am humbled by the experience in all kinds of ways, and grateful. So many lives have been touched, changed, transformed for the better in all these years since we first heard Mark Solms’ message on our answering machine, that he wanted to meet, to tell us a story…
Philida9
Thank you.

PHILIDA VAN DE DELTA
at the 5th Annual Zabalaza Festival at the Baxter
Philida6
Company – Solms Delta
Writer – Members of Delta Soetstemme choir, facilitated by Amelda Brand
Director – Amelda Brand
Cast
Lyrics:
Delta Soetstemme choir, facilitated by Adriaan Brand, Leonore Bredekamp, Nick Turner, Amelda Brand and Jervis Pennington
Songs arrangement – Delta Langbroek band, musically facilitated by Adriaan Brand and Carlo Fabe
Language(s) – Afrikaans
Philida8
Performance Dates & Times:
22 March @ 18h00 – BAXTER FLIPSIDE THEATRE
27 March @ 16h00 – BAXTER Concert Hall

Our Brass Bed

Home AwayBraunau am Inn | Geretsdorf | Salzburg, Austria, 7 p.m.

You are like me. You feel safer on the right side of the road, sitting on the left in the car, changing gears with your right hand, looking over your right shoulder to reverse. The little white Daihatsu was an unexpected gift from your father; he bought it for peanuts and renovated it so that you could have a car of your own. You should actually sell it now. Ever since your move to Cape Town, you drive it only during occasional visits to your parents, at most a few weeks every year. For the rest of the time, the reliable little car loiters in the yard gathering dust. It is much smaller and less comfortable than the respectable Mercedes you and your husband share at home, yet you feel safe in it. The idea of parting with it is painful to you, even though you know this would be the sensible thing to do. It’s what your father urges you to do every time you come to visit. He sees no point in keeping it. But no matter how hard it is to admit, even to yourself, you see it as another loss of part of your life. You have experienced too many losses; you can’t reduce it to an ordinary transaction of exchanging money for an object. This object is too special. The car and you share a history.

You have always been an intrepid traveller, and the Daihatsu has taken you to many remote corners of Europe. It has never let you down. When you were at university, you drove it to Salzburg every day, fifty kilometres each way. You would rather have it stand around and rust in the backyard of your parents’ house than sell it to a stranger. The thought of returning to it is always comforting. There was a moment when you seriously considered having it shipped to South Africa, but you soon realised that the transfer costs would have exceeded the car’s worth. It was a silly idea.

Your plane landed yesterday. You travelled from Cape Town to Munich via Amsterdam, and took the train from the airport to Simbach, Braunau’s twin, where your brother Krystian picked you up from the station. Nowadays, with the borders in the European Union abolished, the two towns are divided only by the Inn River and the usual neighbourly mistrust. For many years you lived in Braunau am Inn, Hitler’s Austrian birthplace, until your parents decided to move to the countryside and bought a house in the nearby village of Geretsdorf. Still at university, you moved with them because you had no other choice. All your life you had little say in the places you learnt to call home. Until now, that is. You moved to Cape Town because you wanted to – a traumatic liberation.

You do not visit your old house in Braunau any more. You went once and it broke your heart to see the building modernised, its small fairy garden replaced by a standard lawn, all the trees reduced to stumps. The old staghorn sumac which leant on the garage wall and in whose branches you used to read was gone. So were the deceptively straggly-looking plum trees which bore baskets of fruit every second year. Worst was the complete disappearance of the tall emerald arborvitae hedge which surrounded the entire property and gave your family privacy in the densely populated area. The place looked stripped and exposed. You felt just as violated.

You remember the time when you moved into the house after living in the States for more than two years. It was small and dilapidated, but with combined effort your family quickly turned it into a home. Here you listened to your brother dream-laugh in the bedroom next to yours; your mother filled the house with the smell of plum jam in autumn; your hard-working father fell asleep on the kitchen bench every evening after supper. This suddenly became the place where all your journeys began and ended. Even today returning to Braunau feels like a homecoming to you; it was the longest pause in your itinerant life. Nine years may not seem long, but it meant nine years of certain stability you had not experienced before.

In the early nineties, Braunau became a place of safety, in spite of its many contradictions. As an Ausländer – a foreigner – you had to stay at home when thousands of neo-Nazis descended on the town each April to celebrate the Führer’s birthday. But on other days you took your friends and visitors to the front of the house where he was born to have a look at the monument placed there. Brought over from the concentration camp in Mauthausen in 1989, the stone commemorates the victims of fascism: Für Frieden, Freiheit und Demokratie. Nie wieder Faschismus. Millionen Tote mahnen. (For peace, freedom and democracy. Never again fascism. Millions of dead warn.)

It is not a warning the generals of the former Yugoslavia took to heart when the wars broke out in 1991. You remember watching the daily media reports from the region just across the Austrian border and translating for your grandma who was staying with you at the time. The images brought back her own memories of war and displacement; it was the only time you heard her speak about that distant past. Every day she wanted to know how many more aid trucks with medicine, blankets, food and clothing had left Austria for the conflict zones. Thousands and thousands, you assured her. Somebody pointed out to you that it was not only a humanitarian gesture, but also a way of keeping the flow of refugees into Austria under some kind of control. Many came anyway. For a few months of high school you ended up sitting next to a tall, dark-haired girl whose face you still see but whose name escapes you. She told you in broken English that she didn’t know where her father and brothers were, whether they were still alive. She’d escaped only with her mother. You did not dare imagine the horrors she must have seen, the courage it must have taken to flee, what and whom they’d had to leave behind. Your own refugee past – escaping communist Poland in the late 1980s, going through refugee camps, and migrating through the world for four years – was insignificant in comparison. Your life had never been in danger. Staying at home on Hitler’s birthday to avoid creepy looks and verbal abuse from neo-Nazis hardly seemed relevant.

Earlier today, with history on your mind, you passed the Mauthausen stone monument on your way into town. The medieval Stadtplatz, the main square, was bustling with activity. The place had first been mentioned as Prounaw in an official document from 1120. As you drove into the centre, it struck you how ancient all these buildings were in comparison to the place where you lived now. Your Victorian house or even the Castle in Cape Town seemed like toddlers when compared to these Methuselahs.

In August, the light is still bright in the evening, but you had to hurry before the last shops closed at seven. Your flat in your parents’ house in Geretsdorf had stood empty for a couple of months. All day long you swept, vacuumed and dusted; then you unpacked your heavy suitcase and rushed to town to buy a few essentials. Suddenly, German was all around you. You feared to open your mouth, afraid that nothing would come out, the language you’d been speaking most of your life somehow forgotten, engulfed by a terrified silence. In the chemist, you carried a tube of your favourite toothpaste and panty liners (you always schlep both to Cape Town because you cannot find satisfying local substitutes for them) to the counter and tried your luck: Ich möchte bitte mit der Bankomatkarte zahlen. (I want to pay with my debit card.) The words flew out of your mouth, automatically. You remembered the pin code for your Austrian debit card. The woman at the counter looked familiar. At Billa you bought some Leberkas, the traditional Austrian sausage meatloaf, and a few bottles of Uttendorfer beer from a local brewery. You would have one in a hot bath later.

Now, driving back from Braunau to Geretsdorf, you think how easy it is to return, to go unnoticed, to pass as one of the locals again. The Daihatsu slides through the Upper Austrian landscape, surreally lit by the setting sun. With your right hand you smoothly shift the gear to accelerate for a takeover manoeuvre. Just as smoothly your mind shifts into a narrative mode and you describe the surroundings to yourself in your head. The kitsch pastoral scene, suddenly outrageously beautiful in the setting sun, demands some concentration: The ink-smeared horizon, the bruised horizon, dotted with eerie clouds, punctuated by clouds, glowing orange, blushing orange, from the touch of setting sunrays … The words swirl in your mind like candy around a child’s tongue. Shocked, you spit them out as you drive on and stare at the sun setting over the barley fields, the grand square, white farmsteads, the small herd of cows, and you force yourself to describe the scene in German: Der Himmel, der Horizont, blau, die Wolken, die Sonne, orange. Individual words and their particles come to you, but they refuse to turn into smooth, peppermint-sweet images. You are startled.

***

Once you’d mastered all three, you divided your languages into favourites. Polish for speaking. German for writing. English for reading. Since your move to Cape Town you have been assimilating Afrikaans into the mix, for socialising. Driving towards Geretsdorf, you recognise that a shift has taken place. The carefully ranked categories no longer apply. English has taken over.

It shouldn’t surprise you. You lived in the States for over two years, continued learning English at school in Austria, and later you studied English literature at university for twelve years. Since 2005, you’ve been living in Cape Town where it is the lingua franca. You and your husband speak English to each other and you are at home with it; it is at home with you. English has inadvertently become the language you work in, as a critic and finally – yes, finally – as a writer. You know that this last shift is the crux (even if at this very moment you have to look up the exact meaning of ‘crux’ in a monolingual dictionary to make sure that it is actually the word you mean).

English has become the language of your creativity; your intimacy with it derives from living in South Africa. But you’ve only just realised it now, on this road from Braunau to Geretsdorf. It unsettles you, this shift of paradigms which has happened so automatically, so unconsciously, and you need time to take it in; you need to think it through. In English. You recall the Chinese-Canadian writer Ying Chen speaking in Lyon about her mother tongue and the tongue of her fiction; she compared one to an arranged marriage and the other to a love affair. You can identify with the idea of English as your lover.

You arrive in Geretsdorf enlightened, in love, park the car in front of the house, and do not lock the door. At home in Cape Town, long before you get to the garage you have to start checking whether you aren’t being followed. In Geretsdorf, there are no security bars on your parterre windows, no alarms, no terrifying daily Neighbourhood Watch reports, no stories of friends’ hijacked cars, no neighbour arriving at your gate with knife wounds in his face, no phone calls from your stepdaughter traumatised after an armed robbery, no funerals of murdered family members, no foreigners burnt alive in the streets. At least not since 1945.

You derive pleasure from the unlocked car door. You enter the house with a smile and open the terrace door wide open to celebrate this sense of freedom, and to let in some fresh air before the sun sets completely. The only reason to lock up later will be to keep the mosquitoes out of your bed tonight.

From upstairs your mother calls that dinner will be ready at eight. You have a while to relax, to settle further in to one of your many former homes where everything is still so familiar. You moved into this flat after your return from a student-exchange year in Wales, and lived here for four years before you decided to make South Africa your home. It was in this very study, on this desk in front of you, where you’d planned your first journey to Africa, on a research grant for your PhD on Nadine Gordimer’s post-apartheid work. Most of your books, travel guides and maps are still here, now filed away with the photographs and study materials you’d brought from South Africa in 2004; the defended and published thesis added to the collection in 2008. There is also the photograph of you with your future husband and other participants from the ‘South Africa in Perspective’ Symposium you helped to organise at the University in Salzburg at the end of 2004. Next to it is a postcard of the picturesque Schloss Leopoldskron, where the last event of the symposium took place and where you fell in love with the man who would become your husband, even though you did not dare admit it at the time. You and your husband have returned time and again to Salzburg, the city you both love so much, the city that brought you together, with its centuries-old architecture, dignified opulence, and mummified socio-historical structures, all glossed over with gold and red for Sound of Music fans descending in their thousands, clicking away pictures in tourist-crowded alleys, stuffing themselves with grilled chestnuts or oven-baked potatoes topped with sour-cream and chives, buying useless gifts at the rustic Christmas Market, gathering next to the cathedral around the handsome Russian balalaika player, drinking hot chocolate or iced coffee at Tomaselli, ascending in cable cars to the medieval fortress that squats on top of the miniature mountain (which sometimes reminds you of another that you can see every day from your stoep in Cape Town), attending endless music concerts, trampling on the roses in the Mirabell Garden where Copernicus sits wondering whether he is German or Polish. And yes, yes, Mozart! Mozart is everywhere, more golden and reddish than anything else in the famous city of Salzburg, reclaimed covetously by a place that never wanted him during his lifetime.

You know there is more to Salzburg; it’s hidden, quiet, small, a little grey – yours. Alone, one January evening before midnight, you walked the fog-veiled streets of the old town and decided to leave Salzburg, Geretsdorf, Austria – for good. The final link in a long chain of events which began in 1999, when Edwin Hees (now a dear friend), arrived in Salzburg to share his passion for the arts of the Beloved Country and brought your whole world to a standstill. After his lecture, you rushed into the departmental library with burning cheeks and a famished mind and tried to absorb everything possible about South Africa’s past and present. You were overwhelmed by the intensity of the historical moment only five years after the first democratic election. You were moved by the promise of a new future, by the vibrancy of the emerging post-apartheid literature. History was happening then and there, at the multilingual tip of the foreign continent; it was not something confined to outdated school books. It was a time of chaos and possibility.

Travelling to South Africa for the first time in 2004 only confirmed all you’d learnt and hoped about the country in the five years since Edwin’s first lecture; strangely, you felt instantly at home in this distant, foreign, multitudinous place. No wonder that a year later, you had come home for good. South Africa was a forge, shaping history as you watched, shaping you as you lived. You abandoned the shadow of a medieval fortress, unchanged for centuries, and exchanged the crystallised reality of Europe for the muddle of a lived present. Its complexity finally tipped you over the edge of impassivity and allowed the creative impulse that you’d been harbouring for years to emerge onto the stark white light of a published page.

Now, on this visit to your parents, you sit in your old study in Geretsdorf and stare at the books that represented South Africa before it became your home. On the desk is a little pile of presents you brought for your family, among them a collection of short stories which includes one of your own. You take up a pen and dedicate the book to your parents and your brother, relieved that the content has nothing to do with them. The story is about rape and domestic violence. As one of the lucky ones, you have never experienced anything like it in your own life, but it is part of the reality of your new home, and you constantly feel the need to confront it in your writing.

South Africa is in constant flux. Positive and negative forces of change are entangled and nothing is clear-cut or easy. You sometimes think that living compartmentalised lives is the only way to survive in this fractured place. But you still want to have coffee with your gardener on the stoep while discussing the rain clouds and the mole invasion. Surely that shouldn’t be so much to ask for? Yet you know the mere suggestion makes the poor man want to sink into the nearest mole hole. (Madam?) And no matter how hard you try to explain this to your European mother, she doesn’t understand. You foolishly thought you could apply your straightforward idealism to a country that was anything but ideal. South Africa is far from unique in this respect, but this doesn’t make anything right, just more desperate. This society’s vibrancy comes at a high price. You aren’t going to change the world. The world is changing you. To try to understand, you write.

You live in a country at war with itself. It’s not paranoia, or some obscure statistics; it’s reality. Daily, thousands of people are dying around you, of preventable diseases, preventable crime, preventable poverty and, most recently, preventable xenophobia. You realise that this time the keyword of hate speech had been makwerekwere. What if the next time it is whites; will you burn to ashes in the streets with bystanders watching you helplessly or, worse, with joy? But you need not even think that far. Every day, other words are pronounced with hatred around you: baby, woman, HIV positive, privilege. There is always somebody too vulnerable for their own good. And the disquiet, the omnipotent force of history – ironically – is gathering to pounce again. But you do not stand up and fight, nor do you leave for safer shores; paralysed, from a vantage point of relative safety on your private island, you watch the ongoing catastrophes around you as if in slow motion, hoping it won’t happen to you, knowing precisely that you might be next.

Waking up from nightmares, you sometimes indulge in daydreams of fleeing, and think about the old Victorian brass bed you share with your husband, with its soft, duck-down pillows (a Christmas present from your parents), fresh linen with cream-and-yellow flower patterns (a wedding gift from your Aunt Zosia), and the luxurious, snow-white duvet cover (a token of gratitude from your Italian friend Michela).

***

Selma. Her name was Selma. You remember. The tall, dark-haired girl from Yugoslavia. What a coincidence; she shares an initial with the heroine of Slavenka Drakulić’s As If I Am Not There, the 1999 novel that has been haunting you for weeks, ever since you saw the photo of the man burning in the street.

It’s a simple, cruel story: “S. is a teacher in a Bosnian village; twenty-nine, gentle, clever and pretty, with a love affair and an apartment of her own. Until one spring day a young Serb soldier walks uninvited into her kitchen and tells her to pack her bag, and her life is interrupted. As the sky turns black with smoke behind her, S. enters a new world, where peace is a fairytale and there are no homes but only camps: transit camps, reception camps, labour camps, death camps.”

Still in her kitchen, at first S. is too shocked to do anything but offer the soldier a cup of coffee. She had known something terrible was about to happen, all the signs were there. There was time to flee, but she’d clung to a hope that it wouldn’t be necessary. She didn’t want to give up her familiar, ordinary, happy life.

S. ends up in a camp where she is repeatedly raped and tortured. She falls pregnant. After liberation, in exile in Sweden, she gives birth to a child whom she decides to keep and nurture. Slavenka Drakulić’s novel is fictitious; it doesn’t tell the story of any particular woman, but it is the story of thousands of women in the Balkans, of women all around the world. In your nightmares, it is your story.

***

Under extreme pressure, you imagine how relatively easy it would be to return to Geretsdorf or Salzburg, to make a new-old life for yourself and your husband there. In these visions you see yourself taking him by the hand, grabbing your passports, putting your cats in their transport cages and taking the quickest route to the Austrian consulate or directly to the airport. In your mind, you are ready to pack and go anytime. You’ve done it in the past, as an Eastern European refugee, moving from one place to another, always in a hurry, hardly ever allowed to take anything with you. You know you can survive.

***

Ultimately, nothing can happen without loss. Two things represent all: a language and a bed. You fear the necessity of having constantly to negotiate between a husband and a lover. You have made your bed, and now you want to sleep in it. The affair is too passionate and precious to end. You do not want the practicalities of living in a German-speaking world to invade this space. You fear your adulterous mind, knowing how flippantly it had switched before, making you dream, think, live in another language. But it had never been as creative as in English, in this turbulent, divided country that you call home.

Yes, you choose to continue waking up from nightmares next to your husband and your cats in your old Victorian brass bed – this silent witness to over a century of marital bliss, estrangement, passion and loneliness. This is the place where your family gathers, where you sleep, make love, eat, watch rugby on TV, read, laugh, talk, pick your way around the cats. Where you listen to the sounds of the house and the constant low hum of the city at night, fearing malevolent footsteps.

Should you ever decide or be forced to leave, the bed – and almost everything else – would have to stay.

***

You aren’t good at dealing with this kind of loss. You grow instantly attached to objects. You surround yourself with charms, dream-catchers; Rudolf, your small, plush guardian angel, never leaves your side; hundreds of books (As If I Am Not There among them), clothes (the black top you found in Aberystwyth), mugs you collect (the tall handmade dark-blue one from the Norwegian island Ona), furniture (mostly bookshelves), a few jewels (the silver peacock brooch with turquoise stones from your grandma), photographs (of you with your husband and Madiba), shoes (the beige slippers from Paris), paintings (a Jan Vermeiren commissioned by your husband for your twenty-ninth birthday), mirrors (the one that waited a year for you at the Naked Truth in Stellenbosch), a laptop (with your creative output saved in it), cameras (both from your father), the camera bag from your mother, the stuffed rag rat your Aunt Iwona made for your namesday when you were fourteen, the circle-of-friends candleholder from your best friend Isabella, the Swatch your father gave you fifteen years ago, the Winnie-the-Pooh eraser from your brother, and the white lace tablecloth from your great aunt. These items are worthless, but priceless. Like your small Daihatsu, standing unlocked in front of your windows, you want to keep it all, to collect it even in writing.

But whereas you don’t have to worry about the little car or anything else you own in Austria, all these precious possessions are in danger in Cape Town, if not of being stolen (who would want you great aunt’s lace tablecloth?), then of being left behind if worst comes to worst. The mere idea of it makes you ache inside. You want to curl up somewhere safe and not think about it. Throughout your migratory childhood and youth you didn’t allow yourself to grow too attached to people; it was safer to grow attached to the few things you could carry.

The Victorian brass bed in Cape Town embodies your new-found creativity. The thought of losing it fills you with a dread greater than the fear of finding a soldier in your kitchen. You understand S., even though nothing about all this is rational. You are a bundle of intuitions and anxieties. Split in half, you know you should be leaving, and yet you insist on staying on your island, hoping against hope, against all facts, against the statistics of the reality around you. Instead you dream, love, laugh and put your creative energies to good uses. Every day, you stand on your stoep and look up at Devil’s Peak and know you will never want to trade it for a medieval fortress. And in the small hours of the night, you lie awake in the brass bed, waiting for your soldier to come, to serve him coffee.

***

Dziecko, kolacja gotowa.’ (Child, dinner’s ready.) Your mother calls from upstairs and you look at your Swatch; it’s eight. You get up from behind your desk and, hugging the dedicated book to your heart, you close the terrace door with your right hand to keep the mosquitoes out at night. It is almost dark, the sky the colour of spilt ink. Your Daihatsu looks grey in the twilight. The emerald arborvitae hedge your parents planted around their new property is almost as tall as the old one in Braunau, but you can still see the lights going on in your neighbour’s house across the street. After dinner you will call your husband at home and wish him goodnight. You will miss him and the cats for the next ten days of your visit. You will have a bubble bath with an Uttendorfer. The practical IKEA double bed you have in Geretsdorf will seem empty and cold, even in the middle of summer. You will read before falling asleep, marvelling at the silence of the countryside around you. You will be preoccupied with the corrections to an essay about the recent xenophobic attacks in the country; there will be no foreign footsteps invading these thoughts. When your light is off and the silence absolute, nobody and nothing will disturb your dreams about your old Victorian bed in Cape Town.

***

I am like you. It’s terrifying.

First published in Home Away, edited by Louis Greenberg (Zebra Press, 2010).

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).

Since then:
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Writers’ Other Lives

Books in Mafra
“We pay our writers to write,” my Norwegian friend Kristin said as if it was the most obvious thing in the world and enlightened me about the Statens Kunstnerstipend, a “grant and guaranteed income programme with the objective to give creative and performing artists the opportunity to actively pursue their artistic career and to aid younger artists in establishing themselves as artists.” The programme offers diverse short and long-term grants as well as one-off bursaries for travel, study or material expenses for artists based in Norway. I was mostly fascinated by the “guaranteed income” support scheme: established artists can apply for this to provide them with the financial stability necessary for having “artistic enterprise as their primary form of occupation.” And the crux is that the recipients retain the right to this financial stability (paid monthly) until they reach retirement age.
Norwegians seem to take a much-quoted imperative to heart: “If you think culture is expensive, try ignorance!” The objective of their support programmes is to ensure that individual artists are able to contribute “to a diverse and creative wealth of art” in Norwegian society.

Listening to Kristin and reading about Statens Kunstnerstipend, I thought of the many writers I know in South Africa who struggle to make a living while pursuing their creative careers. For most, the situation is not desperate, but almost all pay their bills by other means than their creativity. I decided to approach a few of them to discuss the dynamics involved in being a writer and having an ordinary day job. Their valuable comments were often surprising and opened up many engaging ways of thinking about this topic.

We tend to think of creative people rushing home after long hours of suffering in their dreary jobs to lock themselves up in that special room of their own and devoting the rest of their waking hours to the Muse. What transpired from my interviewees is that, on the contrary, even though it is sometimes difficult to juggle their paid and creative work, they actually enjoy their money earning jobs just as much as they do their creative ones. Only the degrees vary.

Red InkAngela Makholwa is the author of the urban thriller Red Ink (2007) and the fresh-off-the-press chick-lit adventure The Thirtieth Candle. When she was fifteen, she decided “quite firmly” that one day she would publish a novel with “an authentically South African story”. Today, she is not quite sure anymore what that means, but she is definitely somebody who knows what she wants and how to get there. She runs Britespark Communications, a successful public relations and events management agency in Johannesburg, and feels fortunate to be “doing something that allows her creativity to flourish”.

Siphiwo Mahala is in a similar position. As Deputy Director for Books and Publishing at the Department of Arts and Culture, he works in his field, which gives him great satisfaction. He has always been passionate about reading and went on to study literature at university, finishing with an MA in African Literature at Wits. When he began publishing short stories, the overwhelming joy of “seeing his creative writing in print” inspired him to pursue this avenue further. He received the 2006 Ernst van Heerden Creative Writing Award for his first novel, When a Man Cries (2007), an incisive portrayal of township life in South Africa. He says that his day job is “essentially the best one that any literary enthusiast could do in the public service”. It includes the promotion of the culture of reading and writing and developing a sustainable book industry that encourages equitable development of all local languages: “The job itself is not too far from my personal ambitions hence it is so fulfilling.” Only drawback: “When a job is a passion it means that when something goes wrong it doesn’t end in the office, you take it home and your family falls victim of a situation they didn’t cause.”

When a Man CriesInspired by their day jobs, Angela and Siphiwo find that they can well manage the two spheres in their lives, creativity and work. However, sacrifices have to be made, as Siphiwo notes, and one has to accord creativity the time and space it deserves. Only then can you also “expect your potential reader to skip their favourite soap opera, miss hot gossip, and let the pots burn while reading your book,” he says.
Would they give up their jobs to write fulltime if they could make a living out of it? An emphatic yes in both cases in spite of the aforesaid. For Angela writing is “an esoteric experience” and she “envies those who can afford to do it fulltime”. Siphiwo considers writing his “first love”, but he is too realistic about making money out of it: “For as long as the culture of reading remains as low as it is currently in the country, we are not likely to have more than 10% of our writers writing for a living.” He might not write for a living, but he insists he “lives for writing.” Financial support from the government for writers would be welcomed by both, although Angela feels that it could make her feel obliged to write “about issues of enormous political or social impact”, while Siphiwo believes that any such support could truly work only with “a national writers’ association firmly in place.”

In their considerations, both authors allude directly and indirectly to an aspect of state-sponsored support for artists about which Sven Eick, author of the socio-critical novel Apetown (2007), feels strongly: “I am firmly behind the notion that artists should challenge society rather than attempt to have society endorse their work.” He also believes “that the tax-paying public should have the right to choose whether or not they want to support writers, i.e. by buying their books, and that it’s not the government’s business to fund writers on their behalf.” Sven highlights the corruptive aspect of making money with creativity: “If writing novels were to become my only source of income, then inevitably I’d begin writing novels to make money, and that would represent a corruption of the creative process for me. I think a 50/50 balance would be about right.” By which he means that he’d also “always want to do something other than writing.”

ApetownSven was working on cruise lines when he realised that he was destined to become a writer. He wrote regular updates of his experiences which attracted “a small, but dedicated following.” He knew then that he should invest more “energy” into writing. Today, he earns his living as a copywriter for a network of sports websites: “I find many aspects of the sports I cover interesting. Sport is really about narratives, and despite being somewhat saturated by the amount of sport I cover I still find these narratives interesting and engaging.” He wants to continue with a similar but more creative line of work in the future: “I’m interested in the business aspect of the internet, how to keep content free and informative whilst still generating revenue using non-intrusive and targeted advertising. However, I’d obviously prefer to write more creative content than the grunt work that occupies a lot of my time.” And even though he would not accept financial help from the government as a writer, he wouldn’t mind making money out of books, so that he could continue to write at leisure. “I guess this is any writer’s dream,” he says. “I just don’t want to become a book-a-year Wilbur Smith type.” He also suggests that “instead of governments paying writers it might be useful to fund initiatives like the Boekehuis in Calvinia, or other low-cost writers’ retreats where we could go away to write at no expense.”

Other writers would endorse state-funded grants, but like Sven, they cannot imagine giving up their other occupations in order to write fulltime. Multitalented, with degrees in drama, journalism, and creative writing, Willemien Brümmer always knew that she wanted to be “An Artist”, but it took her a long time to find her individual path. She published her debut short-story collection, Die dag toe ek my hare losgemaak het (The Day I Let My Hair Down) in 2008. She actually writes for a living, writing feature articles for By, the Saturday supplement of Die Burger, Beeld and Volksblad. Almost stumbling into journalism by accident, Willemien felt in the beginning that it was not creative enough; “it felt like stealing,” she remembers, and the wrongly perceived lack of creativity made her ashamed to call herself a “journalist”. She realised how inseparable journalism and creativity were only fairly recently. A few years ago, while completing her MA in Creative Writing, she wrote profiles of people “in the news” for Die Burger’s weekly column Oop Kaarte and recognised how similar the methods for writing articles and writing short stories were. The only difference is that “reality is often far more interesting than anything I can come up with,” she admits.

Die daagThis dimension of her work is decisive. She draws inspiration for her fiction from the stories she encounters in real life: “In my next book, fiction and journalism come together closely.” Still, writing fiction feels like “chocolates after dinner”, like “spoiling yourself,” says the Calvinist in her. As a perfectionist, Willemien invests a lot of time in each journalistic article, and despite having a lot of freedom in what she writes about, she sometimes feels torn between having to write about yet another subject and wanting to engross herself in the one she is currently working on. “It’s simply not enough to have only one week to write about somebody like Sindiwe Magona,” she laments about a recent assignment. “Nor is it easy to distance oneself from a story one is working on for a couple of months. It’s like falling in love; turning away can be a painful experience which also poses a lot of ethical questions. It’s not a natural situation; one has to become calculatedly distant and that’s not the kind of person I really am.” In this respect, Willemien would not hesitate to accept a grant to support her writing, journalistic and fictional: “It would allow me to concentrate, work in-depth, on both. In an ideal world I would write a book about each subject.”

Similarly, in an ideal world, the talents of Helen Moffett would not go to waste. “I wear many hats,” she writes on her blog. It would take an entire walk-in cupboard to display all, or at least some, of them: academic, copyeditor, mentor, teacher, cricket expert, and most recently the co-author of Bob Woolmer’s Art and Science of Cricket (2008) and author of the sensual poetry collection Strange Fruit (2009). With four academic degrees and thirty years of experience, Helen does not have a regular income because her health dictates that she work as a freelancer. Academic editing for clients all over the world pays the bulk of her bills. There is also fiction editing, manuscript assessment, training (writing workshops for academics and NGOs), copywriting, ghost-writing, and occasionally a life-saving royalty cheque courtesy of one of her prescribed academic titles.

As for Willemien, creative writing feels to Helen like “sitting down to pudding”. She has her notebook always at hand, because “poetry happens anytime”, and she has enough notes for stories, novels non-fiction to keep her busy for the rest of her life, if she could only afford to give up her bill-paying activities, especially academic editing. “If I have any kind of break, I write like mad,” she says with a dreamy smile on her face, “and I eagerly accept commissions for fiction. This means I get a deadline and the piece must be finish on time, allowing the work equal value and importance. It always feels like a holiday.”

Strange FruitHaving constantly to worry about making a living, diminishes Helen’s potential as an academic as well as a creative fiction and non-fiction writer. She says an unambiguous yes to any grants for writers, however modest. Many wonderful opportunities slip by her because she cannot afford to invest her energies in them. In the last seven years, she has been trying to write a book on gender violence, a crucial topic in contemporary South Africa, and one that Helen is an expert on. “It’s tough to write; I’m only able to make any progress when I get a bit of funding for the project, but I still have some way to go.” Asked what she would do if she didn’t have to worry about the end of the month, she says she would write and devote more time to teaching: “I love teaching, but there is so little pay in it. Yet, I feel that it is my moral responsibility to transfer my skills. I just can’t lock up all that education and experience I’ve been fortunate to acquire over the years; not being able to pass it on is terrifying, but I have very little choice.” Even so, she insists on teaching a few courses a year, however poorly paid.

Drinking from a Dragon's WellIn comparison, Alex Smith fully intends to “make a living out of creative writing”, but she also wants to continue working in other areas as long as they do not sap her creativity. At present, she is a tutor for a novel writing course and a bookseller at Exclusive Books. “Working with books keeps me grounded. I’m a story addict and seeing the dozens of new titles arriving every day is heartening, but it also doesn’t allow for any illusions of grandness about writing. I feel writers and booksellers are readers’ servants.” Alex’s grandfather was a dedicated book collector, travelling to London to buy everything from antique tomes to rare first editions. She grew up surrounded by books and being around them makes her “immeasurably happy.” She has authored two herself, the novel Algeria’s Way (2007) and the travel memoir Drinking from the Dragon’s Well (2008). A third, Four Drunk Beauties, will be published next year. Talented and prolific, with a Creative Writing MA under her belt, Alex wouldn’t say no to financial support for creativity, but doesn’t feel anybody owes her anything. Having studied business science, for some years Alex earned a good salary as a successful creative and marketing director of a textile company. “But I always wanted to be a storyteller,” she stresses. “The way things are now, I’m free to write, and the price is debt, but it is my choice to be in this position. My heart’s desire is to explore real and imagined places, and play with turning those into stories.” Knowing her literary output and determination, one cannot help but feel assured that she will succeed at what she does with such unmistakable passion.

One author who has managed to write himself out of dire poverty is the inspirational Zanozuko Mzamo, or Zyd, as many know him. He is the author of a motivational book called A Year of Staying Positive (2007). Zyd grew up in Johannesburg, went into exile in the 1970s, studied economics in Zambia and Bulgaria, and returned to South Africa in the early 1990s to work in commerce. He was deeply unhappy with what he was doing, struggled to keep working, and eventually ended up broke and homeless. It was devastating, but the experience set him out on a journey of “soul-searching and gift finding”. He asked himself, “Who am I? What am I here for?”

A Year of Staying PositiveTo find answers, he visited libraries, fell in love with self-help literature, and discovered writing as a way of encouraging people. In 2005, he applied for a job at the community newspaper City Vision and even without pay persisted in publishing a weekly motivational column that garnered him a lot of recognition. He received so much positive feedback from his readers that with the help of Colleen Higgs and the Centre of the Book, he decided to self-publish 52 of his articles in book form. “A couple of publishers turned me down, but I wouldn’t be deterred, not even by the initial scepticism about the book in my community.”

His persistence and initiative were recognised by Carl Wesselink of the Kuyasa CDM Project (developing energy efficient housing in Khayelitsha). Carl Wesselink saw that Zyd’s book could inspire people and offered to buy two thousand copies of it to distribute in Kuyasa as well as to pay Zyd’s salary for a year. Today, Zyd coaches people in personal development and self-improvement in Kuyasa. He considers reading an indispensable ingredient of both. His latest initiative is the Teach a Child to Read Campaign, and he has two more books on the way. He finds the idea of state-funded support for his writing intriguing, but is scared that it would make him lazy: “I like challenges,” he points out. “When I was about to drown, I found my calling,” he says, relaxed and confident. “I hope to sell a million copies of my books.” His mere presence inspires. It’s easy to believe that he will make it.

All seven authors I spoke to seem to have found the right niches for their many talents. Financial support for their creativity wouldn’t drastically change their lifestyles, just utilise their talents in more efficient and rewarding ways. They all seem to have discovered what Zyd writes in one of his essays: “Life is what you make it.”

Sources:
http://www.kunstnerstipend.no/english/

First published in WORDSETC 6 (September 2009).