Tag Archives: short story

Coven by S.A. Partridge

1-covenA spider scuttled across the dusty window.

Carmelita watched it curiously. The webs that clung to the panes were brown with age. It must have crawled out the floorboards. She looked down at the floor and caught a swift movement in the corner.

Old houses held so much life, she thought.

Through the window she could just make out the overgrown bushes and trees shaking in the seasonal Cape winds.

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She hated summer. She didn’t mind the wind too much. She loved the wildness of it. It was the unforgiving heat she hated, that made even sitting still uncomfortable. And there was always a burning in the air. Fires were an inevitability in Cape Town. It made her nervous, but that was a natural anxiety for a witch. There would always be someone wanting to see you burnt. Even for simply existing.

She looked up at the sound of laughter and caught an unfamiliar phrase in German. Marta was Skyping with one of her European friends again. The thought made Carmelita long for tall, cool forests and frozen oceans. Marta had visited almost every country in the world for her work and had friends in every one. Carmelita would never understand why her friend had abandoned the iced gingerbread houses of Vienna and settled in the sweltering, windy South African city instead. Carmelita was only ever happy when it rained, or when it was cold.

Marta’s laughter rang loud and clear from the other room. It was easy to be Marta’s friend. She was an old soul who had devoted her life to studying alchemical texts and world magic. An Academical. Carmelita was a Wildling. Their magical natures couldn’t be more different, but their friendship met somewhere in the middle.

Marta’s old Victorian home was an oasis from the heat. The wooden floorboards and high stone ceilings created a cool sanctuary. Carmelita loved it there. All old houses held on to their history like words stored in books. As a Wildling she felt it deeply. The house spoke to her through its creaks and cracks. It whispered to her in the way Marta’s books whispered to her. Raw magic was all around her.

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She jumped as one of the resident cats sprang through a window. The heavy scarlet drapes were thick with fur.

“Tea or something stronger?” Marta asked as she swept into the room in her long cotton dress. She placed a scented candle down on the coffee table, which flickered in the dust and filled the air with the scent of jasmine.

“It’s too hot for tea,” complained Carmelita, her eyes fixed on the flames. “And honestly, do you really need to ask? How long have we been friends and when have I ever asked for tea?”

“Gin it is,” said Marta happily, moving to an Oak cabinet.

Marta collected glasses and the cabinet contained an assortment of sizes and coloured glass, as well as trinkets she had collected on her travels. She opened the glass doors and took down two crystal glasses with twisted stems, like vines.

Wild glass for a wild thing, thought Carmelita.

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Marta placed a glass down next to the candle and settled on to a deep purple divan. No sooner had she lifted her feet than a small grey cat leaped up to bury itself in the folds of her skirt. She pulled her long brown plait over her shoulder and twisted it absently.

“Ingrid sends her love, as always,” she said.

Carmelita nodded. She had met the Norwegian witch twice before. Another mad European who loved the sun. The last time she had visited, her skin was splotchy and angry pink and her young daughter had run across the wooden floorboards stark naked.

“It must be wonderfully icy up there,” she said wistfully.

Marta smiled. “Oh yes.”

They drank in silence for a few moments.

“They’re all excited for the Raven’s Feast. The bonfires they make are a true wonder. I hope you get to see it one day.”

Carmelita sighed. “Well at least there’s the Sabbath to look forward to.”

The Witch’s Sabbath traditionally took place on Christmas Eve, or Mōdraniht, as the old Norwegians called it.

They both smiled. Feasts and holy festivals were one thing. Witch’s Sabbaths were quite another.

“Do we know what the moon is doing on that night?” Carmelita asked.

Marta shrugged a slender shoulder. “Does it matter? We’re going to celebrate regardless. And there’s the sacrifice. I’ve been looking forward to it all year.” Her eyes flashed deliciously.

Carmelita grinned. “Then it will be a Blood Moon, surely,” she said.

6-coven

They roared with laughter, causing the cat to dart off in irritation.

 

On the day of the Sabbath, Carmelita spent the morning in her flat’s tiny kitchen preparing lunch for her parents. Roasted pork belly with caramel sauce, crispy roast potatoes, sweet carrots and creamed spinach. While the gravy finished boiling, she laid out chocolates and homemade mince pies. Her parents stayed an hour then left. They weren’t a close family and even after thirty years had no idea their daughter was a witch.

Carmelita’s childhood had been a wild, imaginative time spent in her own head. She preferred the fairies and spirits she believed lived in the overgrown garden and spent long days outside making up stories and climbing trees. The outside was alive. A friend. When she was sad, dry leaves would swirl in the wind around her feet to make her laugh and bright orange Black-Eyed-Susan’s would make a comforting bed to lie in while she watched the sky.

She suspected her imaginings were true when the house began to send her secret messages. Her doll would suddenly move for no reason, and mould would appear in her room alone – in large clumps that mushroomed from the carpet.

Wildlings were creatures of nature. If one lived in a place for too long, the garden would begin reclaiming the house. Birds would move into the roof and weeds would claim the rest.

Carmelita could predict the future in a puddle of rain, and read the past in a moss-covered tree trunk.
After her parents left, she texted her boyfriend to see how his own family lunch was going. They had recently started dating, and while he found her moods challenging, he loved her weird nature. Most people thought of her as a non-conformist, but in reality she preferred the invisible world to the real one.

She lifted her feet up onto the couch, already starting to sprout mould at the edges and noticed the row of Starlings on her washing line. She wouldn’t mind them so much if only they left her herb garden alone.

Benjamin was looking forward to seeing her. It was going to be their first Christmas together and they were planning on spending the day picnicking at Kirstenbosch Gardens. She had an extra batch of mince pies ready, and the leftover pork was going to make delicious sandwiches.

She sealed off with a kiss and a promise to say goodnight before she went to bed. She had a big night ahead of her and didn’t want to be distracted by her phone. Long strips of cloud were extending across the afternoon sky. It meant the cold was coming back. A good omen, she thought.

 

The first thing Carmelita noticed when Marta opened the door was her wide-brimmed black hat. The next was her smile.

“Welcome”, she said happily.

The interior was lit by hundreds of flickering candles that cast long shadows. Laughter could he heard from the dining room where a small group of women chatted animatedly over wine. The long oak table was covered in an assortment of cheese, fruit and cakes. Carmelita added her tupperware container of mince pies to the spread and popped an olive into her mouth.

4-coven

“How are you, darling?” asked a familiar singsong voice.

She turned and was immediately enveloped into Edythe’s warm, motherly embrace. Edythe was also an Academical. They had met many years ago at a Coven meeting, and had clicked almost at once. Edythe was well-loved in the community and renowned for taking young witches under her wing.

“I’m great. Super excited for tonight. It’s so good to see you. It’s been ages.”

Edythe nodded and plucked a cherry from the table. She closed her eyes in delight. “Oh I do love a good Sabbath,” she said.

Carmelita spotted her friend Charlotte on a divan, clutching a glass of red wine. Charlotte’s lustrous jet-black mane and ruby-red lips made her instantly noticeable in a crowd. The young witch was an Academical in training and had only been part of the Coven for a few months. Carmelita liked her very much. They waved at each other excitedly.

The only other Wildling was Linda, an old soul like Marta. She could disappear for days on her canoe to be one with nature. She smiled faintly and drifted towards the window.

The witches stopped talking as Marta appeared in the doorway with a large basket of twigs. “Are we ready?” she asked. “I can’t wait a moment longer.”

 

The Coven assembled on divans and leather armchairs, each taking a handful of twigs which they would tie together with lengths of twine.

Carmelita swallowed a mouthful of wine. No one could truly appreciate wine as much as a Wildling. They could taste the earth and vines in every drop, the dew on the grapeskin, the wood of the barrel.

She shook off the pull of the grapes and concentrated on the task at hand. Every ring of twine bound the spell to the twigs. Her fingers worked the string, and she felt the flicker of life through her fingertips. The magic they were casting needed both the skill of the Academical and the raw power of the Wildlings. The Academicals understood the spell, the cause and effect. They created the words that held the magic together and knew the ancient incantations that would hold them fast. Wildlings drew power from the world around them and added the spark of life needed to quicken the spells.

It would take all their combined power to cast the spell.

Carmelita watched as Marta wound heavy twine around her hands methodically. Round and round and round. She was creating the head – the most important part of the sacrifice.

 

“We missed you at the last Sabbath.”

Carmelita looked up absently. Charlotte was smiling at her cheerfully.

Guilt pricked at her. She had always been secretly jealous of her Academical friends. They were cool and composed, kilometres above everyone else. Carmelita went mad more than she could sometimes stand. It was easier to lock herself away, like a werewolf at full moon. Quiet absence was better than wild-eyed raving.

She smiled and made up some excuse, feeling even guiltier for it. She hated lying. But she hated being seeing as unstable more. She had missed the last Sabbath and felt terrible about it. She concentrated on her bindings, and hoped Charlotte wouldn’t pursue the conversation. She didn’t.

The afternoon lifted and opened into quiet night.

The witches listened as Edythe told them about a Winter Solstice ceremony she had participated in during her Oxford days. Her student Coven drank plum wine till midnight, when they finally stole into the night to make their sacrifice. It was an anxious, exciting time when being a woman was just as bad as being a witch. Being both was practically scandalous. It took a long time for Edythe to realise she wasn’t wicked.

More wine was poured and the snack table was quickly swept away to make room for their bundles.

“Where shall we do it?” asked Charlotte. “I can’t drive like this. I think I’ve drunk and entire bottle of Pinotage on my own already.”

They exchanged nervous glances. No one was in any condition to drive.

Marta smiled and picked up an armful of bundles. “There’s no need. There’s a reason I’ve let the garden go to seed. The trees are so wild it’s become a leafy fortress. No one will be able to see what we’re up to.”

7-coven

They left the house in single file. The stoep creaked as they walked, and long branches scratched and pulled at their skirts. Carmelita could see the swell of stars above them. A frog chirruped from somewhere in the garden and she immediately relaxed. She wasn’t afraid of the dark shadows and rustling. She felt most at home with what scared others.

They built a fire. While the others watched the flames build, Marta and Edythe constructed the sacrifice. They were the most senior Academicals and had performed this ritual many times before. Charlotte watched their movements with bright-eyed concentration, memorizing every step.

Carmelita slipped into the shadows and hung a smaller twig effigy from a tree branch. It was three twigs bound together to create Algiz, the rune of protection -her own private gift to Marta. Her friend would discover it in her own time, when it would hopefully bring a smile to her face.

She returned to the fire to discover the likeness of man tied to a spike in the ground. Flames licked the bottommost twigs, singing the mossy ends. It would catch soon.

Edythe stepped forward and sprinkled a handful of earth into the flames.

“Tonight we celebrate the end of another year and with it the end of a terrible reign over our souls. With these words I banish the influence of a most odious spirit. May his evil never touch us. And may the new year be free of his malevolence.”

Marta stood in front of the burning figure solemnly.

Carmelita knew the intention of this ritual was mostly for her friend’s benefit. As much as the witches tried to live above the world and its mundane cruelty, there were some people whose cunning was beyond logic and reason. Sometimes being brilliant and beautiful attracted the jealousy of bad people who wished those gifts for themselves.

Marta was the most brilliant woman she knew, and preternaturally beautiful. It was an unearthly beauty like the ancient elves and fairies who had learned long ago to hide themselves from the world.

8-coven

Linda stepped forward and flicked a glistening branch towards the flames. Drops of blood clung to the bound twigs. “With this blood I consecrate this site in the name of Jörð, goddess of the earth.”

Charlotte tossed a handful of basil into the fire, her pretty young face illuminated by the flames. “I protect this site in the name of Frigg, who we honour this Mōdraniht.”

“Protect us from treachery,” intoned Carmelita, invoking the sign of Eihwaz with her fingers.

“And may the new year bring with it mercy,” said Marta, cupping her hands.

They watched the effigy burn and concentrated on their own wishes. Carmelita knew that Marta was secretly wishing for justice and Edythe strength. What Charlotte and Linda wanted she did not know. She herself wished for peace.

Inside they could hear Marta’s old grandfather clock strike twelve times for midnight.

When the sacrifice had burned down to ashes they returned to the house to consume the Mother’s Feast, knowing the new year would bring all that they had wished for.

9-coven

 

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The Break-up

Break-Up LitNet illustration

It was an awkward situation. I was standing there, in front of my best friend’s door, with a cardboard box and an old suitcase in my arms, feeling foolish. I could hear her drying her hair inside. Taking a deep breath, I pressed the bell.

“Coming!” Marlene shouted, switching off the hairdryer.

When she opened the door, the dark hallway of the flat building was flooded with sunshine. It was the beginning of a hot summer day, the humidity in the air promising rain later in the afternoon. Marlene’s damp red curls looked on fire in the bright morning light.

She hovered in the doorframe, staring at the box and the suitcase, twisting one of her curls between a forefinger and a thumb.

“Hi,” I volunteered.

“Hi, come in.” She disentangled her fingers from her hair and swept her hand aside in a gesture of welcome. The flimsy bathrobe she was wearing came undone as she did so, and I glimpsed a perfect, small breast before she tied the garment tighter around her waist.

“This is weird,” she said, following me into the flat.

I pressed my lips together and agreed. “You can say that again.”

We were facing each other, not really knowing how to proceed. Nothing had prepared us for this odd situation.

“I don’t know.” She paused. “I don’t know whether all the clothes will fit into this suitcase.” She rushed through the second part of the statement. “The box might also be too small for all the other stuff,” she added with a shy smile.

“That’s alright, maybe you’ll have a bag or something for me?” I looked her straight in the eye, without returning the smile. I didn’t know what was really expected of me. Was I supposed to be distant? Angry? Sympathetic? I had no clue. Deep inside, I simply wanted to be neutral, but that didn’t feel right either. But how was I to pick sides?

“Right!” She gracefully turned on her bare heel. “Let me show you the stuff first.”

She led me to her bedroom. As always, the place was in a state of chaos. I never saw her make her bed, or pick up all the magazines and books from the floor. She was the fastest and least discriminating reader I knew; the likes of Dan Brown and Virginia Woolf were strewn all around us. We shared the passion of reading, but I was more careful with my choices, and I liked to be organised. Pedantic, is how Marlene described it. I preferred to think of myself as fastidious.

“That’s all I could find.” She pointed at a pile of clothes on the bed next to one of the crumpled pillows. “Some pieces were still in the laundry basket, so he might want to check.”

She reached for the box I was carrying. “Let me try to get the other stuff in here for you.”

While I was packing the suitcase, she put some DVDs, CDs, computer games and comic books from another pile on the floor into the box.

“I’ll get a plastic bag for the sneakers and the roller blades,” she said and left the room.

With difficulty I zipped up the bulging suitcase and looked at the box. I recognised the top CD cover: Lady Gaga. Kester once played the record for us. I tried to keep up with the latest in music, but some developments were beyond me.

Marlene returned, packed the remaining items, and handed me the bag.

“This won’t change anything between us, will it?” She was facing the window and the lucid sunlight illuminated her features again. I knew her well enough to recognise what was coming. I wasn’t good with tears, especially not hers.

“Of course not,” I reassured her, put the bag aside, and pulled her into a loose embrace. Her hair smelled like summer rain on hot concrete.

Continue reading: LitNet

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!?

Review: Tales of the Metric System by Imraan Coovadia

Tales“…for me, Tales of the Metric System is by far his most accomplished. It is definitely one of the most profound fictional takes on South Africa’s transition from the horrors of the apartheid era to the uncertainties of the present. Spanning four decades between 1970 and 2010, the novel captures the spirit of all crucial historic moments of the period by focusing on the lives of a few people, real and imagined, whose stories are intricately interlinked.”

Read the entire review on LitNet.

Tales of the Metric System by Imraan Coovadia
Umuzi, 2014

The official book trailer:

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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The Image of a Pie: Reflections on Open Book 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading: LitNet.

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

Precaution

'Woman Before a Fish Bowl' by Henri Matisse (1922)

‘Woman Before a Fish Bowl’ by Henri Matisse (1922)

Violence is out of hand; nothing New in South Africa. Nina yawned. She switched off the radio, gulping down the last sips of coffee. She took her keys from the desk in the passage and, with some cash and a debit card, stuffed them into her jeans pocket. No handbag, no trouble, thank you. She grabbed her notebook, made sure that she had all the details of her next victim, and put the alarm on before she left the cottage.

A human rights activist was next on the list for this week. She was working on a series of interviews with victims of crimes and prominent people concerned about the recent developments, trying to beat up a storm about the wave of violence in the country. Her editor was pleased with her initiative. She met Bongani, one of her newspaper’s photographers, in front of Ann Shaw’s house. He was waiting in his pink Tazz, engrossed in one of the science fiction novels he always carried around with him. He did not see her approach until she opened the passenger’s door and got in.

‘Jesus, Nina. You scared me!’

‘Hi!’ she smiled. ‘You should really lock your doors, you know. Even here in this neighbourhood.’ She glanced at the row of old Victorian houses seaming the street. ‘Unless the Force is with you.’ She smiled at the chewed-up paperback edition of the old Star Wars trilogy he was holding.

‘Ha, ha.’ He put the book away on the back seat. ‘So, who is on this morning?’

‘Ann Shaw, the Dragon Lady.’

‘Who?’

‘Ann Shaw.’

‘Never heard.’

‘Bongani! Wake up and smell the coffee! Ann Shaw, the Peace Nobel Prize winner of 1986.’

‘Whatever. Is she pretty?’

‘You people! How come, you don’t know her? She is, like – HUGE, spelled in capital letters. The famous anti-apartheid activist. You must have heard of her!?’

‘Nope, sorry to disappoint you, Miss You-Know-It-All. Before my time. I will let the YOU PEOPLE,’ he made the inverted commas sign with his fingers, ‘pass today. So is she attractive, or not?’

‘She is eighty!’ Bongani pretended to be disappointed and started pulling his camera bag from underneath Nina’s feet. ‘Why Dragon Lady?’

‘Let’s just say, she is not exactly press-friendly. I never had the pleasure, but I heard some gruesome stories. So beware and take some of that Force with you.’

‘Funny. Common then, my lightsaber’s ready.’

They got out of the car, Nina felt her hand damp on the notebook. She took a deep breath and moved around the car to join Bongani, who was making faces at the intercom camera, ready to press the front gate button.

* * *

It was already dark. She had her dinner in front of the computer. Tony, the only alarm-proof pet she could think of, was staring at her through the glass bowl next to her laptop screen.

‘Don’t worry, my friend. If anything happens, I’ll protect you, alright.’ She tapped the bowl with her fork.

In between the mouthfuls Nina paged through her last two interviews in search of a new approach for Ann Shaw. It all happened so quickly, but it felt like an eternity. There were five of them. With guns. They spread around the restaurant, assaulted the guests and the manager. One of them hit my wife in the face and I could do nothing. How do you feel about it today? I get these dreams about fighting back, about protecting my wife. It’s a terrible mess. In your latest novel the protagonist is a street kid; he seems so innocent at times, especially when we see him with his friend or the old beggar, but he is also extremely ruthless. Yes, a year ago, I encountered a boy, about twelve. He was begging for money; he said for food. So I took him to a nearby shop and told him to get what he wanted, that I would pay. And I did; when we came out of the shop, he kicked me and called me names, running away from me, the shopping bag clutched tightly to his chest. The next day I sat down to write the book.

It was hard to take at times. Nina felt swamped with all the stories. Fortunately, this morning’s interview went well. Shaw was not as formidable and difficult as she had expected. No nonsense, straight to the point, terribly eloquent, and surprisingly attractive after all. Even Bongani was impressed: ‘I thought you said she was eighty. My makhulu is eighty. This lady is sexy!’

All the preparation and the rather sleepless night before the interview were worth the trouble. Nina felt that Shaw had really responded to her. And Bongani did a brilliant job, too. She had the photographs in front of her on the screen. He was bloody young, only twenty, yet he was the best photographer they had. He had a way with people, letting them be, and capturing their essence without interposing. He even made the woman she had interviewed first for the series comfortable, and she actually smiles in one of the photographs they printed with the article. One of her eyes still swollen from the blows delivered to her face. She was six months pregnant at the time of the attack. Alone at home, her husband away on business. All I could think of was my baby, please God, don’t let me lose my baby. And her incredible presence of mind, When he started unbuckling his belt, I asked him to use a condom. Blank. You know, because of HIV. The attacker miraculously obeyed.

No wonder Ann Shaw was furious. Recently, she had written a few scathing articles herself. The international medias were sucking up all the reports coming from the country, especially if Nobel Prize winners were the authors. A change of moods. More and more voices speaking up in a wave of disappointments. It hurt most when it came from people like Shaw, who had always defended the Miracle. Now, they felt they couldn’t anymore; the lack of proper response from the authorities a crime in itself. Silence, once again one of the worst evils – nobody in the government willing to deliver us from it, Nina thought.

Please God, don’t let me lose my baby.

Shaw’s hoarse voice and her sarcasm: You know what is the worst? Hearing victims say how glad they are to be alive. As if that wasn’t their God-given right. Nina was tired. The lack of sleep was getting to her. She saved the file with the first part of the interview, she updated her backup copy and put the memory stick in a cookie jar in the kitchen. Then she put the laptop in a cabinet drawer and locked it for the night.

‘Don’t let the bed bugs bite you, Tony!’ She took the panic button with her to the bathroom.

Everything in slow motion. You want to run away – don’t really know from whom or what – but you can’t with your feet glued to the ground. One of those dreams. Interrupted by a vicious sound somewhere in the background.

‘Nina, sorry to wake you up so early, but I just got the news from my pal at the station. Is your Shaw article ready?’

‘No. Almost. You said I had until tonight. I just have to tie up a few points. Why?’

‘Ann Shaw was attacked in her house last night.’ Nina was awake instantly. ‘I want you to phone her and try to get a comment. Maybe you can see her again?’

‘You’ve got to be kidding! Ann Shaw? Of all people!’

‘I know, I know. Irony of fate.’

‘No respect for anybody anymore. Was she hurt?’

‘No, thank god.’

‘Don’t let her hear you say that!’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Nothing. So what happened exactly?’

‘Around eight, two men, masked but unarmed, forced their way into her house through the back door when the domestic was brining out the garbage. They must have known that the two women were alone in the house.’

‘And? What did they do? Take?’

‘The usual: cell phone, laptop, some money, jewellery. So, phone her O.K.? See what you can get.’

‘You mean loot some more?’

‘You know what I mean. Sorry again for waking you up. Coffee is on me today.’ She hung up and stared at the panic button next to her bed.

* * *

Ann Shaw did not want to comment. But she promised to get back to her as soon as possible. Nina thought her voice sounded much more placid today. On her way to the office, Nina stopped at the chemists.

‘What can I get you, lovey?’

‘A ticket to Australia,’ she mumbled under her nose.

‘Sorry?’

‘No, no. I’m sorry. A packet of condoms please.’

‘Six, or twelve?’

‘Six, please.’

In the car, she took one out of the box and stuffed it into her jeans pocket. She put the others in the cubbyhole and drove on to work.

First published in New Contrast 36.1 (March 2008). I wrote this story in 2007 after a few of our family members and friends, Nadine Gordimer among them, became victims of crime. It was at this time that I thought of what I was experiencing as a witness and a writer as ‘pre-traumatic stress disorder’.

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!

First steps

Invisible Others is making her first steps in the world. These are some of the questions I have been asked about the novel during the launch last Tuesday (interviewed by S.A. Partridge) and during the Woordfees event (interviewed by Ingrid Winterbach) on Thursday. A rough reconstruction of my replies follows.

How does it feel to hold the novel in your hands?
It still doesn’t feel real. I think it will take a few weeks to sink in, to properly realise that something that has lived on in my head for so many years is finally out there, contained in an object that has turned out to be so beautiful. I am grateful for all people involved in the production process of the physical book, especially Hanli Deysel and Danél Hanekom, whose ideas, designs, guidance and the willingness to cooperate were exceptional. It isn’t a given that an author is included in the decision-making pertaining to this part of a book publication.

How did the novel begin?
As a short story, and with a single image. For a long time I’d thought of myself a short story writer, but I was curious whether I could write in the longer form. To test myself, I went to a writer’s retreat in Calvinia and began writing my first novel there. In the course of my stay in Calvinia I realised that I could do it, but the story I was writing (a more typical first novel about growing up) was too autobiographical, too close to the bone, and I was not prepared to share it with an audience, at least not yet. So the manuscript ended up in my drawer. I then picked up an unfinished short story I was working on at the time. It began escalating into something longer and eventually resulted in Invisible Others. But it all started with an image of a woman and a man having a picnic in a park I knew in Paris. That scene is still in the novel. I knew that they were somehow trying to reach out to one another, but it was not easy for them to connect. The novel became an exploration of the reasons behind this difficulty.

Will there be another novel, or are you returning to the short form?
I am working on a YA novel, and I have a half-finished speculative fiction novel waiting on the backburner. But I love short stories and will continue writing them. I am intrigued by the challenge of the short story, of having to make every word and gesture count. Sometimes I feel that everything I write is about gestures, tiny imperceptible things like a glance or a twitch of a finger can change the course of a story. Capturing these moments in fiction fascinates me.

How does an academic background inform your writing?
I am aware of trends, patterns, some theory which is a good and a bad thing. As a writer, I would like to build on existing developments, but not be trapped by them. Having a very individual and specific migratory background, and yet being thoroughly shaped by my knowledge of local literature, I believe I can contribute something different to the scene. At the same time, very often being aware of what is happening can be limiting and discouraging.

Carolina's park

Carolina’s park

You write about Paris with a clear sense of place. Do you know it well?
I wrote about a deeply personal side of Paris – the spaces I know and love in the city, like the Polish Bookshop or some of the restaurants and parks mentioned in the novel. But I don’t want to claim that I know Paris well. It is a city which constantly eludes me no matter how eager I am to grasp it.
I was also very much aware of the fact that Paris is one of the most written about places on the planet, and that I did not want to compete with such a significant body of work. Trying to do justice to the setting, I concentrated on a few familiar, intimate spaces. I worked from memory, but also took photographs, drew little maps, made many notes, and used Google Maps for verification. But there was a moment where imagination took over and the descriptions in the novel do not always correspond 1:1 with reality. Also, I discovered that during the time it took me to write the book some places I used as settings had changed: a restaurant I mentioned disappeared completely; the bookshop changed its layout and expanded. In that sense, the Paris of the novel is at times a purely imagined space.

Both Cara and Konrad find refuge in Paris – why Paris as a runaway place?
For Cara, the reason why she chooses Paris becomes obvious as the novel progresses. For Konrad, it is a place that is essential to his research. From the first, Paris was always part of the story. The story chose it. On the one hand, I persisted with the setting because I liked the idea of it being an unusual place for a contemporary English-speaking South African to emigrate to. It used to be much more obvious for Afrikaans speakers to travel to Paris in the 50s, 60s and beyond. A whole generation of Afrikaans writers were shaped by their Parisian encounters. On the other hand, I did not want to write another novel about an exiled South African returning to the country of their birth. Cara and Konrad do not emigrate because of socio-political or historical circumstances, but for purely personal reasons. I wanted to write about a different migratory experience which reflects a different aspect of the reality of our globalised world – one where people migrate and choose to stay or even move on, but do not return to their country of origin. In that sense, I wanted the novel to defy expectations.

What about other research?
My characters know a lot more than I do about art, history, typesetting or geography. They have different passions and fears from mine. I wanted to make things which originated in my head come to life for others. I had to read up enough on all these subjects in order to make them believable.

And national identity?
There are two ways in which I wanted to engage with issues of identity in the novel: as an everyday experience without necessarily political or historical connotations; and an academic pursuit where these connotations matter strongly, but are nearly entirely confined to the research Konrad does, they do not spill over into his own lived experience. But on the whole, I wanted to remain on a rather superficial level while handling these issues by concentrating on the nostalgia for one’s country of origin in daily life which manifests itself in preferences for certain food, music, art, reading, drinks, proverbs, or customs. It was important for me to show that despite these obvious and natural longings, like so many people in today’s world, Konrad and Cara can make a home for themselves away from the places of their birth.

In the novel, you come across as an authority on art. What is the role of visual art in your life?
To be honest, I know very little about visual art apart from my own responses to some artists’ work. I have a deep love for beauty and objects. There is something about the timelessness and reliability of an object which fascinates me. I surround myself with objects which have meaning for me, some of these are art pieces – hardly ever of any general value, but always of enormous personal value to me. One of the reasons I fell head over heels in love with The Book of Happenstance (by Ingrid Winterbach) is the portrayal of the relationship the main character has with her collection of shells. It is one of the most, if not the most, accurate description of what I often feel for objects which matter to me, and what their loss means to me.
I am a huge fan of Siri Hustvedt’s work as a novelist and as an observer. Her books on art and looking at art are inspiring and moving. The theory is just as important as the response, and the clarity of her presentation of both is astounding.

Which artists, if any, inspired the art in Invisible Others?
These might seem like completely incompatible influences, but for Lucas’s work I thought of Francis Bacon, Egon Schiele and Tamara de Lempicka; for Dagmar’s work I thought of William Kentridge and Renée le Roux. But no specific real image inspired any of the imagined paintings which appear in the novel. It was more like the combined mood of these oeuvres that I tried to capture in the art featured in Invisible Others.

Invisible Others is a timeless story where technology takes a backseat – was this a conscious decision?
Very much so. It also reflects my own life and attitude towards social media, media in general, and the internet. I love the opportunities technology and media offer, but I have also become very cautious in using them. The internet provides us with enormous advantages; it can enrich our lives, but it can also be a dangerous tool with a sting. The exposure to media nearly destroys Cara’s life. She consciously tries to hide from it all. Konrad is weary of the pitfalls of the internet and yet can’t resist its temptations. To his credit, instead of speculating, he tries to keep an open mind and find out what he needs to know from the only person who can tell him the truth about what happened.

Why the attraction of love triangles and dysfunctional relationships?
When we are honest with ourselves, most of us will have to admit that there are many things – essential things – in our relationships with others which we cannot articulate – such as our fears, desires or passions. I have always been fascinated by this inability to communicate between people, and personally, I have worked all my life in my relationships to conquer it. But often instead of communicating, we end up falling into triangular relationships – not necessarily with other people, a hobby or work can be such an escapist third party – to satisfy what cannot be brought to light in the relationships which truly matter to us. We are mostly suckers for suffering. We need to suffer to feel alive. There aren’t many people out there who are happy without drama, who can appreciate the simple, good things in life.

Do invisible others doom relationships before they even happen?
They do. For better or worse, we carry around the memories and ghosts of people who have shaped and influenced our lives and very often we are either unaware of their presence or not courageous enough to admit to it or face it. These invisible others can interfere with our present relationships if we allow them to haunt us. Finding a way to see and understand these spaces and figures makes relationships possible, or not, if we fail. This is where fiction comes in for me: writing is often an attempt at trying to penetrate those spaces.

What drives Cara into the affair?
A powerful attraction. She falls for the wrong man and persists in the relationship. It seems to me that we often stay in relationships because we believe that we have already sacrificed so much for them, we simply have to make them work, even if the only sensible thing to do is to cut one’s losses and walk away.

Why should the reader identify with her?
I hope readers will travel a journey with Cara similar to my own. When she appeared to me in that picnic image in the park, she started off as a puzzle, a mystery, one I did not particularly warm to, but one who intrigued me. I wanted to understand her, to see what made her tick, and almost inevitably I started caring for her in the attempt. Cara defied me. She showed me that sometimes people do terrible things not because they are terrible people, but because they can’t help themselves. One can appreciate or forgive a lot as long as one understands the reasons. This is part of what Siri Hustvedt refers to as “a call for empathy” and the reason why I chose the passage from one of her essays which explains this phrase for the epigraph of Invisible Others.

The ending of the novel was puzzling – can you comment?
The ending somehow surprised me as well. It has everything to do with the fact of how Cara took over her own story, how she did not allow me to leave her entirely in the lurch (as I was keen to in the beginning). It is an open ending. It is wonderful for me to see how some of my readers are beginning to interpret it. Deep in my heart I can feel what happened to Cara, but I still want readers to decide for themselves.

In the novel, Cara turns to reading for solace or guidance. What would you like readers to take away from this novel?
I suppose a bit of both, but mainly solace – I don’t feel that I have the right to guide anybody. But if readers find a moment of truth or revelations in the novel which penetrates their own invisible others and inspires them to explore, communicate, understand these spaces, the magic of fiction would have happened, and that would be more than I would dare to hope for.

You are married to one of the most important contemporary South African writers with an overwhelming oeuvre to his name. Isn’t it a bit intimidating?
Not at all. In the beginning, when I started getting to know André I was a bit scared of his creative process. I know that for many it can be a process of solitude and exclusion and I did not know how I would fit into, or around, it. But then I discovered how open to sharing André was, how generous and supportive, and I relaxed completely. Our studies are at the opposite ends of a passage in our house. There is a lot of communicating going on between them, and invitations to tea.
André’s body of work is enormous, and I am its greatest fan. It doesn’t intimidate me because I have no intentions of competing with it – that would be ridiculous. My writing is very different, the stories I want to tell are my own. I am grateful for all of André’s support and expertise, but I also know that it works both ways. I offer the same to him. There is no room for intimidation in our personal and literary relationship.