Tag Archives: Stephen Watson

Review: Books That Matter – David Philip Publishers during the apartheid years by Marie Philip

Books That MatterAs I see it, in publishing there is a significant difference between accidental and nurtured bestsellers. Nowadays, the market is dominated by the former. But every now and then you get a publisher who will understand the value of the latter.

Reading Marie Philip’s memoir about the famous publishing house she and her husband established in South Africa during the dark years of apartheid, I was reminded of how precious such an approach is in the book world. It is even more precious and definitely rarer when it is combined with a moral and social conscience which Marie and David Philip and their team exemplified.

It is difficult to imagine the South African literary scene without David Philip Publishers (DPP). Over the years, they have launched or assisted the careers of such writers as Richard Rive, Nadine Gordimer, Mandla Langa, Stephen Watson, Alan Paton, Sindiwe Magona, Ivan Vladislavić and Lyndall Gordon. The list of their titles, which Marie Philip includes at the end of her incisive book, is astounding, to say the least. Just to give you a sample, among their seminal publications are: Don Foster’s Detention and Torture in South Africa, Mamphela Ramphele’s A Bed Called Home, Michael Fraser’s A Fynbos Year, The Essential Evita Bezuidenhout, Ellen Kuzwayo’s Sit Down and Listen, and Being Here: Modern Short Stories from Southern Africa (compiled by Robin Malan). Because of their independence the Philips “had the freedom to take risks and be bold, and even eccentric”, as well as to tune into their “own publishing instincts”. While it was important to survive, money was not their “main concern”. The combination of these factors turned out to be a recipe for great success in all respects.

And it all began with a penguin in the early 1970s…
Continue reading: Not Now Darling, I’m Reading

A literary ‘rainbow nation’ in Regensburg

University of Regensburg

University of Regensburg

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

UK Quartet Books edition

UK Quartet Books edition

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

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

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

Mike Nicol and Angela Makholwa

Mike Nicol and Angela Makholwa


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

Mike Nicol, Jochen Petzold, and Angela Makholwa

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

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

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

27 April 1994: Two Decades Later

27 April 1994SA 27 APRIL 1994: AN AUTHORS’ DIARY * ‘N SKRYWERSDAGBOEK (Queillerie, 1994)
Edited by André Brink

“…here was an opportunity for writers to test their word against, arguably, the most remarkable moment in their history.” André Brink in “To the Reader”, p. 8.

“Later, sun low, tide running out in me, I bus into the township shack of my dear love, my need of her never so strong.
[…]
She reads me, smiles, her eyes soft in the room’s dusk, her hands beckoning me to come.
‘It’s done,’ she whispers, ‘we have walked the last mile!’
Later still, I help her to the bed. We are careful with each other as though we hold a fine glass, and my heart sings.
Yes, against all odds, my heart sings.” Tatamkulu Afrika in “Against All Odds, My Heart Sings”, p. 13.

“Mens se hart is bly: niemand gaan hierdie stukkies toekoms wat die mense vashou weer kan wegneem nie. Byna wil ek sê: hierdie land se politici verdien wragtig nie so ‘n wonderlike bevolking nie.” Breyten Breytenbach in “Joernaal van ‘n wending”, p. 25.

“The day has been captured for me by the men and women who couldn’t read or write, but underwrote it, at last, with their kind of signature. May it be the seal on the end of illiteracy, of the pain of imposed ignorance, of the deprivation of the fullness of life.” Nadine Gordimer in “April 27: The First Time”, p. 52.

“We all know that it won’t be a smooth road ahead.” Jenny Hobbs in “The Day We Minded Our Peace in Queues”, p. 60.

“An Organisation must be disciplined, purposeful, and idealistic in a good sense. It must also be diverse, in that it must encompass others, beyond its own affiliates. It must be committed and dedicated to one goal and one goal only: to change the miserable conditions of people to enable them to live full and rich lives; it must inspire them to realise their full intellectual potential.” Mazisi Kunene, p. 73.

“My greatest victory and achievement as an individual is to know that my children and grandchildren and their age groups in my community move with grace and dignity as full-fledged citizens of South Africa, and with full rights to determine the future of our country.” Ellen Kuzwayo in “The First Democratic Elections in South Africa”, p. 80.

“Peace is like an undying light / Shining and glowing from within / Within each one of us” Gcina Mhlophe in “Peace Is Within”, p. 85.

“Perhaps it [Table Mountain] was reaffirming its old lesson on faith: on election day. That the future is there for us: we need to have faith in it, and in ourselves. And so I ended my day unemotionally, but deeply affirmed.” Njabulo S Ndebele in “Elections, Mountains, and One Voter”, p. 95.

“I picked up the pencil that was well chewed and attached to the makeshift desk by a length of string and put my cross, quickly, trying not to agonise about it yet again.” Mike Nicol in “Voting at the Camel Rock Café”, p. 98.

“Wanner iemand my vra wat dink ek van ons toekoms, dan antwoord ek ons mag die toekoms nie ken nie: so bly elke dag ‘n avontuur.” Jan Rabie, p. 108.

“So, Mammie en Derri, cheers! Ek leef – kyk, ek leef – in ‘n nuwe Suid-Afrika!” Adam Small in “Feniks: ‘n brief, kamma, aan my ouers (wat al dood is)”, p. 123.

“It was after three hours walking, at 7 am, that I cast my two votes at the Dwarsrivier polling station. It was quite clear that I was the very first person to vote there. No doubt the IEC staff manning the station had been expecting something extraordinary all along, but not for the first voter suddenly to appear, as I had done, out of the mountains behind the school-hall that served as the polling station.” Stephen Watson in “Voting With My Feet”, p. 162.

“Want vir die heel eerste keer in my lewe was ek ‘n vry Suid-Afrikaan.” Melvin Whitebooi in “Au revoir”, p. 171.

Contirbutors: Tatamkulu Afrika, Hennie Aucamp, Chris Barnard, Breyten Breytenbach, Kerneels Breytenbach, André Brink, Achmat Dangor, Abraham H de Vries, Arthur Goldstuck, Jeanne Goosen, Nadine Gordimer, Rachelle Greeff, Jenny Hobbs, Peter Horn, Daniel Hugo, Elsa Joubert, Antjie Krog, Mazisi Kunene, Ellen Kuzwayo, Dalene Matthee, Mzwakhe Mbuli, Gcina Mhlophe, Petra Müller, Njabulo S Ndebele, Mike Nicol, Welma Odendaal, Abraham Phillips, Marguerite Poland, Jan Rabie, Albie Sachs, Riana Scheepers, Gus Silber, Adam Small, Berta Smit, Peter Snyders, Klaas Steytler, Alexander Strachan, Pieter Dirk-Uys, Madeleine van Biljon, Marita van der Vyver, Marlene van Niekerk, Lettie Viljoen (Ingrid Winterbach), Stephen Watson, George Weideman, Melvin Whitebooi