Tag Archives: University of Johannesburg Prize

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

by Craig Higginson

Wits University Press, 2016

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

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Interview: Ivan Vladislavić and 101 Detectives

101 DetectivesThe FollyMy first encounter with Ivan Vladislavić’s writing took place in a multidimensional construct of language and fantasy that is his remarkable novel The Folly (1993). It must have been around a decade ago when I moved to South Africa. Since then I have always returned to his books with a great sense of anticipation which has never been disappointed. His latest collection of stories, 101 Detectives, is no different, although it baffled me in the beginning. The first three pieces made me think a lot about the intellectual playfulness of The Folly. Some of the stories are set in recognisable and yet shifted or alternative realities which are quite uncanny. In a recent e-interview I asked Vladislavić whether this was his way of avoiding the cliché trap, of challenging the impression of one of his characters that “no matter what I do or say, or how I remember it or tell it, it will never be interesting enough” (“Exit Strategy”)? He hadn’t gone about it “deliberately”, he wrote, and mentioned that in his youth he read “a lot of sci-fi and was taken with writers like Ray Bradbury, who could twist the ordinary into the alien very skilfully through a kind of estranging lyricism”. Of his own early work he says that “the strangeness is more a product of language and imagery than of constructed setting.” More recently he had read speculative fiction again, “which may account for the atmosphere of a story like ‘Report on a Convention’. Many ordinary contemporary spaces are strange. One grows accustomed to it, but the precincts and lifestyle estates often have a weirdly layered, compelling artificiality to them. They’re at such an odd angle to the surrounding world that ‘shifting’ them would make them feel less rather than more peculiar.”

Reading and listening to Vladislavić, the key word I associate with his work is “intellectual”, especially in conjunction with “stimulation”, and it is the main reason why I read him. He challenges me, inspires me to question reality and literature, to perceive both more consciously and often with deeper appreciation. I delight in the engagement. When I think Vladislavić, I also think art, photography, beauty, language, and, perhaps above all, Johannesburg. Few have written as perceptively about Johannesburg as he, “mapping and mythologising” the city (in the words of Elleke Boehmer). Few can employ language to capture not only the beauty of experience, but the beauty of language itself to such stunning effect. Few have entered collaborations with artists of different media, as victoriously enhancing the disciplines in the process. In 2010, together with the South African photographer David Goldblatt, Vladislavić published TJ & Double Negative, a novel with photographs. More recently he worked with Sunandini Banerjee on an illustrated novella titled A Labour of Moles (2012), and 101 Detectives also includes a “Special Feature”: a gallery of photocopies of dead letters, ie letters never delivered to their intended recipients because of address errors and suchlike, referred to in the story “Dead Letters”. There are also images of the places they were supposed to have reached, taken from an exhibition in Poland dedicated to them.

What appeals to Vladislavić in this kind of exchange? I wondered…

Continue reading: LitNet

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: