Tag Archives: poetry

Book marks: The Leonids, The Bostik Book of Unbelievable Beasties, Cats

the-leonidsThe Leonids

by Isobel Dixon

Mariscat Press, 2016

 

Isobel Dixon is one of South Africa’s finest poets. This year she published a collection of poetry, Bearings, and The Leonids, a pamphlet containing seventeen poems devoted to her mother who died last year. The exquisite pamphlet is a tribute to a beloved mother and to the family she nurtured around her. It opens with the vivid, sensuous impressions of “Notes Towards Nasturtiums”. The poems contain striking images of everyday life, memories of love and kindness, all infused with the pain of loss. Dixon takes us into the heart of her family home, celebrates the closeness she shares with her sisters, recalls her parents and evokes the intimate moments when they both passed away. Reading Dixon you are constantly reminded of the power and beauty of language, how it can blossom with the generosity of simple, gorgeous kappertjies. How it can preserve that which is most precious, long after it is gone.

lauren-beukes-read-her-latest-book-bostik-book-unb-57The Bostik Book of Unbelievable Beasties

by Lauren Beukes

Bostik South Africa, 2016

 

One of the greatest gifts you can give to a child is to nourish their imagination. The Bostik Book of Unbelievable Beasties contains twenty “ridiculous rhymes” about creatures living in the land of Unbelievia. Children from around South Africa were asked to illustrate the rhymes written by award-winning author Lauren Beukes. The best twenty drawings were chosen for this delightful book. Kids will love the funky texts about The Oogle, The Gulpsome Squidge, or The Vampire Bunny who “might give you a fright if you spot this critter stalking your garden at night. It’s got s fluffy tail and fangs and wears a red cap. But don’t be afraid, don’t try to escape! You see, this bunny vamp only sucks carrot juice. Except on its birthday, when it slurps chocolate mousse.” The awesome illustrations by their peers will inspire many more flights of the imagination.

Download here for free: The Bostik Book of Unbelievable Beasties

jane-bown-catsCats

by Jane Bown

Guardian Books/Faber & Faber, 2016

 

Sharing a life with felines is fascinating. Jane Bown, the Observer photographer who died in 2014, is best remembered for her iconic portraits. This collection of her cat photographs was compiled by Robin Christian who was her researcher and catalogued her archive. Cats includes seventy-six photographs Bown took over five decades, ranging from Jean Cocteau’s portrait with his cat Madeline to shots of the many cats in Bown’s own life. Who can resist Queenie’s trusting face or the impertinence of the three furry beauties on the kitchen counter of Bown’s Hampshire home? She was clearly in tune with the elusive nature of her feline subjects. Cats is a book to melt any cat person’s heart. The only thing which disturbed me about it is a quote by Bown: “Once you’ve owned a cat you are hooked forever.” You cannot own a cat. But they do hook one for life.

First published in the Cape Times, 11 and 18 November 2016.

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Book review: Questions for the Sea by Stephen Symons

questions-for-the-seaQuestions for the Sea, the debut collection by Cape Town-based poet and graphic designer Stephen Symons is the latest exquisite offering from the independent local publisher, uHlanga. The sea, questions, light and poetry: an irresistible combination.

Divided in six parts, Questions for the Sea opens with poems about death and memory: “the ashes of dreams, / too fine for remembering // settle over a moonlit bay / and shimmer / into forgetting.” A surfer drowns and death comes to him “in a whorl / of cobalt and white.” A lover recalls the map of a beloved body: “And here I lie, / closer to fifty, / still lost within its darkest territories.” A couple visits a dusty dry dorp: “All this place comprehends is a vertical sun and a deficiency of clouds. Every house burns at the stake and every surface has long forgotten the taste of dew.”

Symons captures life’s instances in words which evoke all senses. The poetry is subtle, seductive, soothing – even when it tackles pain and loss. Or war, a tough theme to handle in any art form. The second part of the collection comprises of poems about conscription. “Call Up, February 1990” speaks about the biblical Abraham and Isaac, ending with these quietly shattering lines: “There, just the firm grip of sons’ hands / and the impatience of engines.” In “Wordless (Township, 1990)”, a man is “shot through in the dark, just twenty kays from my childhood”. In “Letter Home”, young men are “cleaning rifles, / or licking lies into envelopes.” A visit to the famous battlefield of Spioenkop in the poem by the same title ends with “light splintered / and still twisted, deep into the flesh / of this country’s history.”

The third and fourth parts of Questions for the Sea return to the intimacy of loss and love. Adultery is a theme: “the circumference of his lie / weighing down his finger” or “Over a stove / untruths are being told by a wife / of an afternoon spent / with a friend.” As is parenthood in poems like “Emma”, “Sleeping Son”, or “Fathers Are Mostly Absent”.

The penultimate section of the volume focuses on place. In meticulously crafted stanzas Symons travels across the Cape Peninsula and beyond, illuminating our longings for beauty and meaning.

The stunning titular “Questions for the Sea” forms the last part of the collection and includes snippets of seaside images and human existence as traced through the hours of a day and a night. In “16h30”, we witness the beach “stunned / by a day’s worth of heat – ”. Just before midnight, the poet asks: “Do you feel the ceaseless rubbing / of bone and timber / that lies wrecked / beneath your skin, // held under by a black tonnage / beyond maps / and human claim?” And finally at midday, we are left with the question: “How are these words / more or less / than prayer?” I do not know, but they are.

Questions for the Sea

by Stephen Symons

uHlanga, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times, 21 October 2016.

invite-questions-for-the-sea

Silver linings: Stranger by Sihle Ntuli

StrangerThe thing with poetry is that it either works for you or it doesn’t. I do not know many people who read it for pleasure. Nowadays, poetry certainly seems to be an acquired taste. I often abstain myself, prose being my staple food. But every now and then a poem or, if I am lucky, an entire volume comes along that makes my heart swell with gladness. Sihle Ntuli’s Stranger is one of those gems. The author asked me to review his debut poetry collection. I do not know why, but I am delighted, and honoured, that he did.

Divided into six parts, Stranger offers a glimpse into contemporary South Africa from the perspective of a keen observer with a distinct, edgy voice. Ntuli might be only in his mid-twenties, but his sense of perception is sharp beyond his years. From the first poem to the last, the reader is drawn into the kaleidoscope of his world and its vivid patterns. In “kwa mashu f section bus stop”, commuters’ souls are whisked away to places where they attempt to make a living, “as billboards block the sun”, feeding their impossible dreams. The distinction between the crushing greyness of daily existence and the possibility of a golden life of opportunity features in other poems, such as “friday”. Here the moving opening lines:

 

in between creases on foreheads

living has folded thoughts

into blankets and sheets

unfolded in dreams

 

to lie down to pillow talk

to walk behind grey matters

to watch brain revolving around desires unfulfilled

 

my grey life upon eyes

the all-seeing eye

 

the sun losing colour when it dies

the aggressive night

black blood protrudes

moon blows cold wind on wounds

the heart weighing tons upon tons

 

living life like it’s golden is expensive

it costs a lot to be virtuous and true

 

Ntuli writes about the reality of the South African township and being a young man in contemporary South Africa, but his vision goes beyond. He captures universal moments of hardship, the kind of poverty which does not only manifest in material lack, but also in the soul, which longs for beauty and is confronted with despair instead. “monday” chronicles the exhaustion and hopelessness of the everyday which is hard to overcome: “the phrase ‘things change’ / speaks only to those who expect to get returns” and the “spoon through your chest” brings out both “blood and beauty / as you love and feel pain in the same colour”.

Violence and loss are linked, the brutality and pulse of street life exposed. Occasionally, to cope you hope for escape, take some pill or other substance: “mind coming to age / life and bland taste / less trouble”. That substance can be love; no matter, as long as it alters your consciousness and your ability to feel. The mind wants to flee the desolate, hostile world. The wish to tell it like it is, though, is clearly there – the need to separate illusion from truth. Ntuli reads the world, its delusions and dreams, and tries to navigate the difference.

At the same time, he offers moments of unbearable tenderness, as in a phrase like “silence in your eyelids”, or my favourite poem of the collection, “the walls”:

 

the everyday

should not seep

through           the walls

 

it is behind these walls

that truth undresses

then lies

 

Grief is palpable in many poems, captured most poignantly in a few lines in the last stanza of “late”: “early morning / dressed in black / the sun rose / our flowers on top of caskets / the late as candles”. His images are striking, definitely not easily forgotten, thus his words do not die on the page but continue a life of their own through the associations they awaken in the mind of each and every reader who immerses herself in them.

The title of the collection resonates throughout, but is most strongly captured in “the stranger”: “towards him / they throw adjectives / the suffocating symphony / the injustice / words slant to one side / lying”. Race, skin colour, otherness, and contrasts between ordinary lives lived in obscurity and silver linings shining on the horizons whether in words or sunsets bring with them a palette of visual impressions which Ntuli makes us reconsider. Nothing is just a colour: “i sit on the side silently / living life like it’s silver / as the lining is blocked by the roof”.

Recurring in the collection are references to music. It is in the rhythm of every poem, “between jazzy notes without words”. Like music, the lines are meditative, haunting, thought-provoking. They help us negotiate the world, “moved by thoughts that have no rhythm”. But unlike one of his narrator’s contemporaries who seem to be more interested in being DJs rather than poets, as many in the struggle were (“gospel gold”), Ntuli carves out his creative space in words. His is a new struggle: for his own voice, for the recognition of his reality and vision.

 

Stranger by Sihle Ntuli

Aerial Publishing, 2015

 

Review by Karina Magdalena Szczurek

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.

wow, that Nick Mulgrew is really something

This is not a review, just a Fan Letter of Admiration Addressed to You in Public.

I became aware of somebody called Nick Mulgrew about one-and-a-half years ago, perhaps two. The name definitely stuck by the time I read his award-winning story “Turning” in Adults Only. I knew about his connection to the literary magazine Prufrock, heard that he wrote poetry. Then earlier this year, I got involved in Short Story Day Africa (SSDA) and met Nick in person. First impressions: fiercely intelligent, funny, unassuming. Young.

We were entrusted with co-editing Water, the third SSDA collection of stories. The anthology includes twenty-one pieces from across the continent, among them this year’s finalists and the winner of the competition (still to be unveiled). We began the task and my first impressions of Nick only intensified. Multi-talented, wise, and sensitive were added to the list. He was a revelation to work with. Punctual, understanding, and extremely cooperative. What seemed like a daunting task, turned out to be pure inspiration (I learned so much from Nick!). We also had a fantastic selection of writers to work with. And the stories! I can’t wait for readers to dive into Water. You will find some absolute stunners in there. With SSDA, Rachel Zadok set out to give prominence to the versatility of storytelling in Africa. She was adamant that it’s not all gloom and doom. Water proves it unreservedly.

myth-cover_20150830A while back, Nick embarked on another literary adventure by becoming the editor of uHlanga, the hottest poetry publisher on the block, with three debut collections out this month. His among them: Genna Gardini’s Matric Rage, Thabo Jijana’s Failing Maths and My Other Crimes, and Nick’s the myth is that we’re all in this together. I got it yesterday at Sindiwe Magona’s launch of Chasing the Tails of My Father’s Cattle (published by another newcomer, Seriti sa Sechaba Publishers) at The Book Lounge. Before bed, I wanted to dip into it and ended up ditching Jack for the entire collection. Unputdownable.

Before I buy a poetry book, I have this weird test. I find one or two short poems in the volume and if I like them, I buy it. If there aren’t any, the first few lines I turn to have to be bloody good to make up for the lack of short gems. Nick’s the myth is that we’re all in this together opens and ends with few-liners. And even the dedication is a poetic gesture of note. I won’t spoil the fun for poetry lovers and tell you what it is, or why the titles of the individual parts of the collection made me smile.

I will share the opening poem:

CONSISTENCY
it’s always the same
sun and it’s always the same
sky

I love its sublime simplicity which says everything about the power of poetry, because, naturally, just as the sun and the sky are never the same to the perceptive observer, every word in a poem in the hands of a true poet is a revelation, every time.

Or watch the seeming ‘blah, blah’ of the first lines of “feature pitch” turn to “… whether it’s expression or provocation / or minesweeping for echoes in this confluence / of galaxies, or inside the thoughts of another person, / one who sits at their computer at seven-thirty … nursing small sadnesses”.

Or the ease of “on watching Notting Hill for the thirteenth time” which ends with “aware giddily of his own unawareness”.

Or the poignancy of “maybe-gay”: “I say thank you in as deep a voice I can muster.”

Or the maturity of “testament”: “a recipe to give to a child who / in a few years might be someone like me / but in many ways better”.

Or the devastating truths of “first readers”, a poem anyone who had their intellectual and physical property violated will relate to.

There are the intimate moments of poems like “eyebrows” (“as you look / and kiss / in all those places that / no one really looks at”) or “a June missive” (“you / were alone as I was”), and the social consciousness of others like “barrier” (“things that would be small knowledge / that would make me morally obliged / to learn small things about him too”) or “Boxer Rebellion” (“… but really this world is too / vast, this past too deep, for us to / ever really know anything about / each other ever”).

And the longest poem “commitment” includes these lines about friendship, “a soft and strange peace to which you / could return sometimes but not rely on. / I think that might be useful to you,” and it is so long because “… my friend is / locked up – that isn’t just a thing you can / condense into another thing nonchalantly.”

At the core of it all are language and our ability to mis/communicate, especially now in the digital age that is revolutionising what it means to be human in a world of global calamities, fraught with the insanity of the everyday.
truism
I. Am. In. Awe.

“and readers will read it and be like,
wow, that Nick Mulgrew is really something,”
(“feature pitch”)

He is. And he is only 25. I mean, like, really!?

Book mark: Playing House by Katherine Stansfield

Playing House_book markPlaying House is the debut poetry collection by the author of The Visitor (2013), a remarkable novel about loss and longing in Cornwall at the turn of the last century. As in her rich prose, in her poetry Katherine Stansfield has an eye for everyday detail. Her poems make us pause and consider. Whether describing a cat trying to get to an interesting-smelling morsel under the fridge, the auction of one of John Lennon’s teeth, the recipe for a crisp sandwich, or “raspberries lured to ripeness by the rain”, she moves from the familiar to the surprising and enchants in the process. Her images are clearly defined. The voice is authentic, subtle but strong. The title of the volume comes from “First Place”, a poem about a couple’s attempts at adult life. Full of thought, fun and beauty, Playing House is the real deal.

Playing House
by Katherine Stansfield
Seren, 2014

An edited version of this book mark was first published in the Cape Times on 5 December 2014.

Book mark: Aerodrome Journal Issue 01 / 2014

Aerodrome coverFor the past fifteen months the digital version of Aerodrome has been an exciting platform for all things literary. Immensely pleasing to the eye, it publishes fiction, poetry, reviews and a particular favourite of mine: author interviews. Freshly launched, the first paper issue of Aerodrome is an aesthetic gem and opens with several interviews with writers and artists such as Isobel Dixon, Zapiro, Mary Watson, Anton Kannemeyer, Conrad Botes and Zoë Wicomb. It also offers the best of the first year’s digital content and includes a few specials which will appear online later. A personal highlight is one of the exclusive features: an inspiring interview with Damon Galgut in which he states that you can recognise a real writer by the way they approach language. In this respect, Megan Ross’s short story “The Accidental Colour” and Jane McArthur’s poem “The Girl from Witwatersrand” delight.

First published in the Cape Times on 31 October 2014.

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).

Our Literary Felines

Mozart after finishing Imre Kertész's Liquidation

Mozart after finishing Imre Kertész’s Liquidation

Inspired by a chat over dim sum and pu-erh tea with Alex Smith and her recent Three Cats blog post, as well as an exchange of cat photographs on twitter with Katherine Stansfield whose four Cats seem as literary as our Feline Family, I decided to share a few stories and photographs here with you.
Anya and Mozart supervising the writing of my PhD thesis on Nadine Gordimer

Anya and Mozart supervising the writing of my PhD thesis on Nadine Gordimer


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André and I don’t want to remember the ordinary boring life we led before Anya and Mozart (named after Anna Netrebko and Amadeus – they were born in the Mozart year) arrived on a KLM flight from Austria in 2006. It was quite a dramatic occasion, because their documents got lost along the way and their trip was postponed by 24 anxious hours. However, at last we received the news that they were safely on their way and we could pick them up from the airport. The plane landed, all the passengers – human and non-human – deboarded and we were told that we would get ‘our dog’ in a few minutes.
‘But we are expecting two cats,’ we protested with hearts in our throats.
The man glanced at the documents in his hands, ‘Yeah, right.’
Minutes passed, we remembered the lost documents and began to prepare ourselves for the Rottweiler travelling on Mozart’s pet passport while he and Anya were on their way to Australia for all we knew.
The airport official returned empty-handed, but assured us that ‘our dog’ was on his way.
‘You mean our TWO CATS!’ we shouted, but he was gone again.
At last, he returned with a cage containing two very vocal Kitties we recognised. Relief, relief!
We had read all the available cat books and prepared the house for their welcome, stressing about getting it all right, but Anya and Mozart were completely blasé about the entire trip to the other side of the world. The moment we arrived home, we let them out of the cage and stood around helplessly, watching for any signs of distress. They stretched, looked around, located the litter box, did their business, saw the food and the water, helped themselves, sniffed a bit around, and literally twenty minutes later were both stretched out on our bed, looking up as if to say, ‘So, when are you coming to bed?’

Our lives changed that day. They became a million times better!

Anya with one of her favourite novels, Jeanette Winterson's Lighthousekeeping

Anya with one of her favourite novels, Jeanette Winterson’s Lighthousekeeping


To lose Anya to a speeding car a few months later was shattering, for all three of us, worst for Mozart of course, but we all didn’t know how to deal with the loss. I still see her strolling through the house, waving her gorgeous bushy tale as if the world belonged to her. It did. We miss her terribly.
Mozart showing Salieri the ropes of supervising my PhD on Gordimer

Mozart showing Salieri the ropes of supervising my PhD on Gordimer


After the tragedy, friends recommended a kitten. That is how Antonia Salieri came into our lives in 2007. Born in a sewage pipe, she was a bit of a rough diamond at first, and so tiny that she constantly got lost under Mozart’s feet when he tried to play with her. Eventually, out of desperation, I presume, not knowing how to engage her otherwise, he danced on the scratching pole for her, bum and tail high in the air like a real pro. None of us will ever forget the performance, least of all the flabbergasted Salieri. Once she recovered from the shock, they settled into a co-habitation of mutual respect. Salieri quickly realised that the circumstances of her birth shouldn’t stand in her way of behaving like royalty and she earned herself the nickname Principessa from an Italian visitor to the Brink household. She only eats her food if served on the kitchen table (Royal Albert plates), takes up half of my half of the bed (she doesn’t care much for my back problems), and screams at me if I misunderstand ‘Catlise’, the most important language for any human to understand. Any cuddles happen only and entirely on her terms when she is ready for them.
As a kitten Salieri read Olga Tokarczuk

As a kitten Salieri read Olga Tokarczuk


Salieri pensive after reading the Sunday newspapers

Salieri pensive after reading the Sunday newspapers


Salieri shocked how little she knew about Paris after reading The Most Beautiful Walk in the World by John Baxter

Salieri shocked how little she knew about Paris after reading The Most Beautiful Walk in the World by John Baxter


Salieri supervising André's translations of Ingrid Jonker's poetry for Black Butterflies

Salieri supervising André’s translations of Ingrid Jonker’s poetry for Black Butterflies

Salieri getting her teeth into Roget's Thesaurus

Salieri getting her teeth into Roget’s Thesaurus


Salieri trying to put some order into the chaos on André's desk

Salieri trying to put some order into the chaos on André’s desk


Mozart is our wanderer and partly adopted the neighbours as his other family. He is very wise, speaks Polish, German, English, Afrikaans, and Catlise fluently, understands many more languages and loves David Attenborough bird documentaries.
Mozart contemplating whether to read Granta magazine or Gordimer's Selected Stories next

Mozart contemplating whether to read Granta magazine or Gordimer’s Selected Stories next


Mozart searching for a dictionary

Mozart searching for a dictionary


We never thought of another cat to join the household, but when Michela Glinka was placed in my hands with a red bow around her neck and we were told that she desperately needed a home, we had no choice. She arrived in 2008 with a tummy problem and kept us awake the whole first night. Between trying to somehow help her and changing our bed sheets for the third time, I was ready to give her back, but when we eventually all fell asleep in the morning and woke up together, I knew she was here to stay. She is now sleeping on my chaise longue in one of her nests.
Glinka in a nest

Glinka in a nest


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Glinka is the ultimate nest-builder, fresh laundry is best, but any blankets or quilts will do. We also call her our birdie-cat because she chirps like a little bird. The moment I set foot out of the bed in the morning, she will be running through the house, chirping along the way to welcome me into the day. We make coffee together and then return to bed where she will sit on my chest (as close to my face as possible), have rusk crumbs, and read with me or go over to André to check whether his book is more interesting. Most of my writing happens with her in my lap or somewhere in the room.
Glinka with Lauren Beukes's Moxyland toy

Glinka with Lauren Beukes’s Moxyland toy

Glinka pondering a word she'd just looked up in a German-English dictionary

Glinka pondering a word she’d just looked up in a German-English dictionary


Glinka inspiring my writing

Glinka inspiring my writing

Glinka and I writing in winter close to the fireplace

Glinka and I writing in winter close to the fireplace


Glinka is most famous in the literary circles around the world as the cat who inspired Kleinkat in André’s Philida (2012), recently also published in Taiwan (I love the cats on the different covers).
Philida3Philida2Philida cover TaiwanFrom the acknowledgements of my Invisible Others: “My furry family, Glinka, Salieri and Mozart, true experts at life, keep trying to teach me how to make the most of it; I hope they will succeed one day.”

So far so good: Best of 2014 book giveaway

Best of 2014_1
For me, one of the best tests for a good read is whether I find myself wanting to share it with others. The bookshops I visit will testify to the fact that I often return to the same title over and over again when searching for presents. I don’t know how many copies of the original versions and their translations into other languages I have bought in the last few years of, among others, Mark Rowlands’ The Philosopher and the Wolf, or Carsten Jensen’s We, the Drowned, or Alastair Bruce’s Wall of Days, or Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved. The authors of these books must have enjoyed at least a bottle of really nice wine or bought a book or two by other authors from the royalties my book-shopping sprees have generated for them. And it makes me happy to think that this might have been the case. Cheers!

The last six months have been particularly plentiful in good reads. I’ve been lucky. There is nothing worse than finishing a great book and encountering a dozen duds before discovering the next good one (especially if you are like me and finish most of the books you’ve started). But 2014 is turning out to be a really satisfying reading year. Of the books I’ve read until now there are twelve that I have either already bought for or at least wholeheartedly recommended to others.

The twelve titles in no particular order:

Ash WednesdayAsh Wednesday by Ethan Hawke (2002)
My dear friend Isabella and I have been fans of Ethan Hawke, the actor, since high school. I will never forget how we saw Great Expectations with him and Gwyneth Paltrow at a student cinema in Łódź – the screen was made out of three bed sheets and we sat on ordinary kitchen chairs in the audience… When we found out that Hawke was a novelist, too, I bought Isabella his debut novel as a present, and ever since then I have been meaning to read one of his books myself, but somehow never got around to it. But then earlier this year, I accidently saw Reality Bites again and thought of Isabella and decided to make up for lost time. Ash Wednesday was a real treat: Jimmy and Christy are in love, pregnant, and want to get married, but nothing is simple when you are young and life with all its choices looms large around the corner. On a road trip across America they confront their secret dreams and hidden fears, risking everything for what they believe in. Ash Wednesday is written in a crisp prose that carries you across the page like a good old Chevy Nova across an alluring landscape. It has turned me into a fan of Ethan Hawke, the novelist.

The Last Man in Russia by Oliver Bullough (2013)
I was asked to write a short review of this book for the Cape Times. The book broke my heart because it resonated so much with my memories of my native Poland. It saddens me that the one characteristic that Russians and Poles are (in)famous for in the world is their heavy drinking. Alcoholism is a plague which has taken a heavy toll on both countries. I believe that things are changing in Poland, at least that is what my family and friends assure me of, but it will take at least a generation or two for the new ways of life to have real impact on society and to begin to heal the wounds. Bullough explores the historic trauma at the root of the pandemic with incisive insight. Anybody interested in understanding that part of the world will be wise to read The Last Man in Russia. It not only throws light on the past of the region but also its current situation.

A Sportful MaliceA Sportful Malice by Michiel Heyns (2014)
I brought this book back from the FLF. It is the funniest novel I have read in the last few years. I take books with me wherever I go and I found myself reading this one in a few public places where I got a lot of curious stares from strangers because I couldn’t stop laughing while reading. Every page brings a smile to one’s face, and some of the humour is truly and deliciously dark. A Sportful Malice takes the reader to Tuscany via London Stansted on a nightmare Ryanair flight which turns out to be the least worrisome aspect of Michael Marccuci’s trip. Micheal is a gay South African literary scholar. One of his many Facebook contacts offers him a house for rent in a small Tuscan village where Michael plans to finish the book he is currently working on. On his trip, Michael encounters the obnoxious Cedric, a clumsily inexperienced but not unwilling Wouter, his eccentric (to say the least!) landlord and his wife, and the irresistible Paolo. But nobody and nothing is as it seems. Full of himself, Michael is too blind to realise that he is not entirely in charge of his fate. The novel is told in a series of Michael’s letters to his lover back home. As always, Heyns’ prose is pure pleasure, and the humour of A Sportful Malice is sheer delight.

Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut (2014)
I had the honour of reviewing Galgut’s latest for the Cape Times. I read an advance proofs copy but have bought the strikingly pink hardcover edition for a young friend who is discovering and exploring his sexuality. A lot has changed in our society since the days of E.M. Foster, but despite our amazing constitution, there is still so much hatred and bigotry around that it makes one desperate. It is such a precious gift to find that other person who shares your dreams and longings. What sex or gender that person is shouldn’t concern anybody else but the people doing the searching and the finding.

The Maze Runner by James Dashner (2009)
While reading up on the touching and wise film The First Time, I accidently stumbled upon the trailer for The Maze Runner. It intrigued me and when I realised that it was based on a novel I decided to read the book before the movie came out later this year. It didn’t disappoint. Fast-paced, the novel itself is like a maze. You have no clue where you are going to end up turning the next corner. And the ending just makes you want to read more. I was relieved to discover it’s the first in a series. I’m a sucker for stories about friendship (one of those got me hooked on the writer whose book is next on my list here!) and I liked the portrayal of the dynamics between the characters in The Maze Runner. The thrilling action all around was a bonus.

Die DreiThe Three by Sarah Lotz (2014)
I’m supposed to review this novel so the proper review is pending. For now, I would just like to confess that I am a Stephen King virgin. I remember Isabella devouring King novels but I’ve never really felt that they were something for me. I have seen some of the films based on the novels, enjoyed Carrie and Misery very much, and my favourite TV series at the moment, Haven, is based on one of King’s short stories, “The Colorado Kid”, and yet I haven’t felt tempted to turn to the books. I did buy a King novel for my brother on his 30th birthday (the novel was published the same year as he was born). But still, no King for me. Until now that is. After reading Lotz’s The Three – brilliant, riveting – and seeing King’s endorsement on the back cover, I have decided to give the man a chance since he has shown some really good taste there. I bought The Shining yesterday. Incidentally, it was published in the month and year of my birth. And JohaN from Protea Bookshop informed me that the sequel is out. Fortunately, unlike other readers, I won’t have to wait 37 years for it!

Bare and BreakingBare & Breaking by Karin Schimke (2012)
Schimke’s collection also came back home with me from Franschhoek. I haven’t felt so excited about a volume of poetry since Tracey K. Smith’s Pulitzer-winning Life on Mars (2011). I read Smith’s collection a few weeks before the prize announcement (which made me jump up and down with joy) and was simply bowled over by the power and wisdom of her words. Schimke’s volume has similar qualities, but it exhibits an intimacy and eroticism that I haven’t encountered in contemporary poetry for a long time. She writes skin and desire, allowing the reader to get lost in both. In simple images she captures the miracles of a couple’s everyday life, how those little wonders remain hidden from others but never cease to amaze those who experience them. The violence of desire explodes on the page and splits you open. Bare & Breaking echoes those moments when you face the inevitable, when loss threatens your sanity, when you can’t help longing for all the wrong reasons. And when you get to the last poem in the volume you will be struck by the quiet after the storm. Poetry can be so satisfying!

And speaking about ‘quiet’, next on the list is:

Quiet by Susan Cain (2012)
The book made me properly understand something about myself that I have always known only intuitively. It probably is such a bestseller because it resonates with a lot of people. Life has become somehow simpler for me since reading Quiet. It helped me crystallise certain ideas on how to stay in tune with my inner qualities. In the words of Ruben, the protagonist of André’s The Rights of Desire, “I don’t like shouting.”

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt (2014)
Hustvedt is one of only a handful of writers who have never disappointed me. A friend introduced me to her work and I have read every single title she has published. Every time I open one of them, I know I will be challenged, enriched and entertained. I bought a copy of The Blazing World for a friend even before I read my own, because I knew that one couldn’t go wrong with a novel by Hustvedt. I am waiting for the translations into German and Polish so that I can share the book with friends and family abroad. I reviewed The Blazing World for the Cape Times.

Road of ExcessThe Road of Excess by Ingrid Winterbach (2014)
Translated from Afrikaans, The Road of Excess was a wonderful companion read to The Blazing World. They are both set in the art world and deal with the insecurities of creativity and fame. Aaron Adendorff is a renowned painter recovering from cancer. After more than two decades of prosperous collaboration, it seems that the owner of the gallery where Aaron usually exhibits is threatening to drop him. Inexplicably though, he sends two new darlings of the art world Aaron’s way and asks him to assist them. All this time, Aaron is getting the weirdest messages from his brother, a recovering alcoholic, intent on confronting some uncomfortable truths about their family past. To make matters even more disturbing, Aaron’s home is invaded by the unforgettable Bubbles Bothma, a neighbour from hell, who is threatening to save Aaron from all his demons, if she doesn’t accidently get him killed first. A profound and funny read which lingers in one’s mind long after the last page is turned. I have now read all of Winterbach’s novels available in English and am hoping that my Afrikaans will be good enough one day to enjoy the ones which remain untranslated. Her work is extremely versatile, engaging, and her supple prose shines through even in translation.

Breyten Breytenbach, A Monologue in Two Voices by Sandra Saayman (2014)
My short review of this title is being processed for publication, but I can say here that this book simply as an object offers the reader a gratifying aesthetic experience. It is beautifully and carefully produced, includes a variety of reproductions of Breytenbach’s artworks, and encourages the reader/viewer to perceive them in context.

Bloody LiesBloody Lies: Citizens Reopen the Inge Lotz Murder Case by Thomas and Calvin Mollett (2014)
My review of this bold book should be published in the near future, so I won’t repeat myself here. I can just urge anybody interested in the history of the case to read Bloody Lies and to look at the Molletts’ website: Truth 4 Inge. If you are following the Oscar Pistorius trail, this book might also be for you. Bloody Lies is a highly informative, page-turning read.

I would like to invite other readers here to tell me which books have made such an impact on you in the first half of this year that you wanted to share them with others. At the same time, please let me know which of the titles I’ve mentioned above you would be interested in reading yourself. From your comments, I’ll draw one name at the end of July 2014 and send you the book you have chosen from my list of twelve titles. I will include my own Invisible Others in the parcel.

Happy reading & sharing everyone!