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Review: Stations – Stories by Nick Mulgrew

StationsIt’s difficult to believe that this is only Nick Mulgrew’s debut collection of stories. Stations reads like the work of a seasoned writer. Here is someone with acuity and a perfectly pitched voice. Not surprisingly, his writing is already highly acclaimed.

As the title suggest, the individual pieces in the book take their cue from the Stations of the Cross, in which Jesus’s last steps before crucifixion are commemorated. The dialogue between the structural skeleton of the book and each tale is striking. “Athlone Towers”, the volume’s first story, or “stop on a slow road to purgatory” as the spine of the book professes, uses the powerful image of the demolition of the famous Capetonian landmark to portray the demise of a relationship. At the same time it echoes Jesus’s condemnation to death. In the fourth “stop” of the book, “Ponta do Ouro”, a young man accompanies his mother on a fraught Christmas holiday to Mozambique. His parents are in the middle of a divorce. The corresponding station reflects Jesus’s encounter with his own mother shortly before his death. In “Restaurant”, a hopeful entrepreneur has to close down her restaurant. Her suffering mirrors Jesus’s death on the cross. In all of the stories, the devotional references are very subtle but enrich the reading substantially.

The way the stories engage with their religious context reminded me of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Decalogue, the Polish director’s ten films based on the Ten Commandments. What captures the reader’s imagination is the way the teachings are translated into a modern, often secular, narrative that we can all relate to.

Mulgrew’s characters are in transit, on the verge of a discovery or transformation. His stories are set around South Africa and beyond, even in the afterlife. The titular story takes us on a trip through the purgatory, which is reimagined as an alternative version of the Cape Peninsula: “Everything was familiar, but not familiar enough to be comforting… My heart dropped. This place had a geography that had to be relearned.” It is one of the most profound readings of the tensions and dilemmas of present-day Mother City. “Mr Dias”, “Posman”, or “Die Biblioteek vir Blindes”, also grapple with contemporary issues such as racism, affirmative action, or intolerance, but are more preachy and a slightly less successful.

The stories which spoke to me best were of intimate nature, focusing on topics close to the heart: rites of passage, grief, revenge, sexuality, or relationships between siblings, lovers and strangers. It is in these spaces that Mulgrew connects with the reader most poignantly, describing what might otherwise go unnoticed: “You lean to kiss me between the back of my ear and the top of my neck; in that place that doesn’t have a name.”

Mulgrew and I co-edited a book of African short stories. Watching him as an editor was a fascinating experience. His fine-tuned sensitivity and attention to detail are exceptional. He is also a fine poet, a true language practitioner. These talents reverberate in the arresting prose of Stations.

Stations: Stories

by Nick Mulgrew

David Philip, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times on 18 March 2016.

Chris Barnard 1939 – 2015

“And now Chris Barnard…” Breyten Breytenbach wrote for today’s Die Burger.

I did not know Chris and his wife Katinka well, but the few times I spent in their wonderful company are locked away in my heart as warm memories. They were both kind to me, open, welcoming. André loved them. We visited their home in Mpumalanga in 2007 where I took this shot of a photograph hanging in their house (Chris and André in the middle):
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More recently, I remember a day when we sat together in the sun outside their house in Onrus, drinking what from that day on became my favourite South African bubbly: Krone Borealis. There were strawberries and laughter. The warmth of friendship.

My thoughts are with Katinka and her loved ones.

The opening passage of the chapter “Sestigers, Censors and Security Police” from André’s memoir, A Fork in the Road:

It was during the years leading up to my return to Paris in ’68 that censorship turned really bad. The situation was surprisingly complicated. Among the events that held me in South Africa, there was the emergence of a new generation of Afrikaans writers, the Sestigers (‘Sixtiers’); among those that prompted me to leave was the almost simultaneous crackdown of censorship. The complication lay in the fact that, in the South Africa of the Sixties, neither could be imagined without the other.

Within only a few months of my return in August, 1961, I received a letter from the young author Chris Barnard (no relation, I should make very clear, of the surgeon who a few years later became famous for succeeding with the world’s first heart transplant). Chris was then fiction editor of the magazine Die Brandwag, for which I had during my student years, and even during my stay in Paris, written potboiler short stories. He offered me an opportunity of emptying my drawers of old manuscripts. But much more importantly, he broached the subject of ‘a new generation’ of writers in Afrikaans. This was something that had much preoccupied me in Paris. I had even written an impassioned essay for the magazine Huisgenoot pleading for such a new wave of writing: taking my cue from the Dutch writers known as the Tagtigers (‘Eightiers’) of the previous century, who had swept away all the dead wood of conventional writing in Holland to establish a spectrum of bold and passionate prose and poetry that infused the Romantic movement in the Low Countries with the inspiration of Impressionism and Symbolism. In our context, of course, it was no longer a matter of Romanticism, but all the ripple effects of Modernism and Existentialism. My essay wasn’t published until several years later, as a kind of nostalgic backward glance, but from the correspondence with Chris it was soon evident that we were fired by the same kind of vision for a drastic overhaul of Afrikaans fiction.

Ever since the Thirties, when a group of young Afrikaans poets had boldly established radical new forms of individualism, our literature had been striving to break away from the more conventional expressions that had characterised it since the time of the First Language Movement in the late 19th century. Various spasms of renewal had followed, but these were invariably restricted to poetry. Fiction and drama still lagged depressingly behind; and by the time European literature was already experimenting with exciting new forms of writing, Afrikaans fiction was still largely stuck in 19th century Naturalism, echoing, at second or third hand, the surface features of the bleaker endeavours of the form, but without the passions of the great Russians, or the genius of a Hardy or a Hamsun, let alone an Undset, a Proust or a Musil. Our fiction, as the poet N. P. van Wyk Louw characterised it, was still locked in a local, cosy kind of realism dominated by locusts, drought and poor-whites.

Now came the discovery that a new generation of Afrikaans prose writers was waiting in the wings: we had widely different backgrounds and styles and interests, but one passion we shared – to bring Afrikaans literature, particularly fiction and drama, up to date with the rest of the world. Most of us, by that time, had spent shorter or longer periods abroad, mainly in Paris, and that experience emphasised the parochial closeness of the local cultural scene. Chris had not yet taken his gap year, but was preparing for it – in spite of the misgivings of his then wife. I can remember her arguing: ‘I’m really not eager to go to Europe. I’m scared that it may change my view of the world, and I’m so happy with the one I have right now.’ What made the comment memorable was that it exactly captured the attitude of all too many Afrikaners at the time.

Several authors had begun to move into prominence during the fifties. The early leading figure was Jan Rabie (born 1920) with his piercing brown eyes and defiant black goatee, strongly inspired by French writers like Henri Michaux and the Existentialists during his long stay in Paris, whose work was in no small measure one of the reasons why I ultimately decided to go to Paris myself – and one of the consolations about coming back in 1961, when he broke new ground with his passionate explorations of the Afrikaners’ early interaction with Africa. There was also Etienne Leroux (born 1922), a Mephistophelian figure always obscured behind dark glasses, soon to become the leading novelist of the generation, whose outrageous satires in the vein of the myth-mongering of his time provoked the religious and political establishment with his irreverence and wit. But he presented this establishment with a peculiar challenge: as the son of a respected cabinet minister in the Nationalist Government, he was not an easy target for ostracism or attack. Bartho Smit (born 1924), a dramatist, deceptively gentle in manner and appeareance. As a publisher, uncomfortably ensconced in the right-wing house of Afrikaanse Pers-Boekhandel, later Perskor, he became something of a mentor to most of the rest of us and was the moving spirit behind the quarterly journal Sestiger which, for the two years of its existence, became the mouthpiece of the whole group. After early work in a conventional, if charming, vein, Dolf van Niekerk (born 1923), a self-effacing loner, made an electrifying impression with his existentialist reimagining of early 20th century Afrikaner history. The other Sestigers were younger. Adam Small (born 1936) was the only coloured writer in the group, an affirmative presence with his angry and satirical poetry, his virulent rejection of apartheid, and his brilliant play, Kanna hy kô hystoe (Kanna Comes Home), which brought Afrikaans drama up to date with what had been happening in the rest of the world: an evocation of the lives of a coloured family who are forced to bear the brunt of the only one among them who manages to break away and lead a prosperous life in Canada, until the death of the materfamilias, Makiet, forces Kanna to return home. Abraham (Braam) de Vries, born in 1937, whose eyes, forever gleaming behind thick glasses, missed nothing, soon became adept at exposing the terror and magic that lurk below the surface of the everyday. And of course Chris Barnard (born 1939), a gentle giant, revealed an early interest in the taboos of apartheid before making a decisive break with realism in favour of symbolism, and an exploration of the absurd.

On the fringes of the Sestiger group the most important new writer was Breyten Breytenbach, who had settled in Paris in 1960, while I was still there, although we did not meet until 1964, when Ingrid and I were on our disastrous way to Spain. Breyten hit the world of Afrikaans letters like a force of nature, splashing a Black-Southeaster rain of surrealism, existentialism and Zen Buddhism across the still rather arid South African landscape. For many years, and in the minds of many people, the appellation of Sestiger applied pre-eminently to Breyten. Yet he persistently refused to be regarded as a member of the ‘movement’, both before and after his imprisonment from 1976 to 1983 on largely trumped-up charges of ‘terrorism’.

Others on the periphery of the core group of Sestigers included the master of Chekhovian impressionism, the short-story writer Hennie Aucamp; Elsa Joubert with her explorations of Africa and her persistent redefinitions of the Afrikaner world and heritage; and Karel Schoeman, who rather preciously cultivated the image of the enigmatic outsider, whose delicate prose explores the human condition within a South African context. In his best work he is a consummate novelist, but he resolutely steered a course separate from that of the Sestigers.

And then there was Ingrid. Who was a Sestiger in all but name, and who produced the major poetic work of the time in Afrikaans. Her prose alone, a handful of exquisitely wrought stories and sketches, should qualify her for inclusion in the group. So did her dramatic break with the ancien régime represented by her father, her uncompromising rejection of apartheid, and her embracing, under the influence of Uys Krige, of the free-verse forms of Lorca and his South American successors.

Last year, for Chris’s 75th birthday, André wrote the following tribute (published in Die Burger, if I remember correctly):

Dit was in die vroeë jare van die Sestigs, toe ek nog in Parys aan die studeer was, toe ek vir die eerste keer ’n brief van Chris Barnard uit Parys ontvang het. Daarmee het ’n korrespondensie aan die gang gekom wat tot vandag toe nog nie heeltemal sy einde bereik het nie, ofskoon die klimmende jare ons al op verskillende maniere probeer bykom of stilmaak het.

Op ’n tyd het Chris beplan om met sy destydse vrou, Annette, vir die eerste keer op Grahamstad by my en Estelle, my eie eerste paaltjiewagter, te kom kuier. ’n Nogal rampspoedige eerste kennismaking, want soos dit teen donkeraand geblyk het toe die Barnards hul bagasie uit die motor wou gaan haal waar ek die tasse al met die intrapslag uit die motor in die straat vlak voor die voordeur wou gaan aflaai en ons gesamentlik agtergekom het dat daar g’n teken meer was van ’n tas klein of groot nie. Waarskynlik het ons toe al pens en pootjies ingesleep geraak by die gesprek waarmee ons toe reeds begin het en waarby daar tot heden vandag toe nog nie tekens van ’n verslapping sigbaar is nie.

In die loop van daardie aand het Annette al wat flikker is, uitgehaal om dit aan die twee jong konstabels by die gestrande motor te vertoon, toegelig met histrioniese vermoëns wat vir my heelwat meer beïndruk het as vir Estelle: sy het verseg om in die swyende tweestryd tusen die twee vroue kans gesien om selfs maar ’n aks bes te gee. En Chris het ’n oorpyn ontwikkel wat vir niks wou skrik nie. Maar dit alles het minder as niks geweeg vergeleke met ’n lotsbestemming nie.

In die tussenjare was daar in die vriendskap al korter of langer hiate, om beter of swakker redes, van die soort wat jy maar in byna elke menslike verhouding teenkom; maar nooit – selfs nie in die maande wanneer dit tydelik tot stilstand gestotter het as een van die twee, of soms albei, deur ‘omstandighede buite ons beheer’ – voorlopig onkapabel was nie, was daar werklik enigiets gewigtigs in die weer nie. Chris was vir ’n ruk weg Parys toe, en daarna weer ek, en daarna is hy weer getroud, en toe weer ek, en toe weer ek, en toe weer ek, ensovoorts. Maar iets het tussen die twee van ons bly aanloop asof daar nooit enige onderbreking was nie. Op ’n onderwaterse vlak het ek en hy daardie gesprek tot vandag toe bly deurvoer. Nou is hy en Katinka saam, en ek en Karina, hy in Mpumalanga en ek in die Kaap. En mits die vlees geneë voel en die vermoë behou, behoort dit tot in lengte van dae so voort te gaan. Onder destyds se Sestigers is daar vandag nie danig veel meer oor nie, so ons sal maar aanhou tot waar die karrentjie sy staanplek kry.

Daar is min wat hierdie afgelope jare – nou waaragtig al meer as vyftig! – nie neerslag gekry het in ons korrespondensie nie. Soveel veugdes, soveel hartsere. Soveel huwelike, soveel egskeidings. Toe ek Ingrid destyds ontmoet het, was Chris een van die eerste vriende wat in ’n brief daarvan gehoor het; en ook hy wat heel eerste was om van die patetiese digpogings te siene gekry het wat ek vir Ingrid geskryf het. Oor die jare was ek jare lank een van sy eerste lesers, en omgekeerd (en vandag bly hy een van die bestes). Dit was – en is – wat ons probeer eerlik hou het teenoor mekaar. En dit is nie te versmaai nie.

Tussen hom en Bartho is die eerste gedagtes oor die moontlikhede vir vormgewing van Orgie gewissel. Met verloop van tyd het ek en hy elkeen, as ek nou reg tel, vier kinders verwek, en hande vol romans, verhale, draaiboeke en ander pennevrugte die lig laat sien. Oor en weer het ons gehelp om probleme uit te stryk, kritici uit te sorteer, idees te toets, mekaar op die skouers te klop, skoppe onder die gat te gee, of so na aan trane afvee te kom as wat ’n mens jou gevoeglik durf veroorloof het. Nie een van ons het verwag om so oud te word dat ons dertig van die agterkant af sou kon bekruip nie. En destyds was Sestig nog net ’n literêre begrip, g’n werklikheid of ’n simbool of ’n ding nie. Vandag is die wêreld ’n anderster plek. Maar op die een of ander manier probeer ons byhou. En ons kan nog altwee, deur die genade of een of ander moedswilligheid ons variasie probeer opsê van: Ek was toe Bart Nel, en ek is wragtag nog hy. En halleluja!

(Thank you, Izak de Vries, for proofreading the original text.)
Chris's books

Book mark: The Alibi Club by Jaco van Schalkwyk

The Alibi ClubJaco van Schalkwyk is an artist and a writer with enormous promise. His visual and literary imageries correspond. Published simultaneously in Afrikaans and English, his debut novel The Alibi Club is a poignant, meticulously constructed narrative, written in a starkly revealing prose. It tells the story of a medley of striking individuals who frequent the titular club in Brooklyn where booze and drugs flow in abundance, the jukebox and the pool table provide entertainment, and human relationships are forged and discarded through the nights. The narrator is a young South African who progresses from cleaner to bartender at The Alibi. He arrives in Brooklyn in 1998 and departs nearly a decade later. His observations paint an incisive portrait of the neighbourhood during that time, especially the radical transformation it experienced after the horrific attacks of 9/11.

The Alibi Club
Jaco van Schalkwyk
Umuzi, 2014

First published in the Cape Times on 24 October 2014.

Review: My Mzansi Heart by King Adz

MyMzansiHeartReading King Adz’s My Mzansi Heart is like watching a reality TV show: drama, drugs, rock and roll, and rather longish ad breaks in-between. The book was almost too much for my senses and left me quite confused at times. I doubt, however, that nearing forty, still wearing shoes I bought a decade ago, and attending Metropolitan Opera live transmissions at Cinema Nouveau, I form part of the readership My Mzansi Heart is targeted at. Yet, King Adz and I have something crucial in common. We are both foreigners who have made our homes in South Africa, having fallen head over heels in love with the country and its people. Every love is different though. What matters is that your heart is in the right place, and King Adz’s beats for Mzansi.

King Adz is the pen name of Adam Stone, a Brit who grew up in the outer suburbs of London, arrived here with his family just after the changeover, and decided to stay. He started off at an ad agency and became a filmmaker, a writer (previously of Street Knowledge, The Urban Cookbook, The Stuff You Can’t Bottle: Advertising for the Global Youth Market), and most importantly a promoter of everything connected with street culture. Somewhere along his many travels he took the wrong turn and nearly lost everything to booze and drugs. My Mzansi Heart tells the story of his descent into the hell of addiction and his recovery.

The in-your-face narrative, punctuated by slang and a lot of French, is a rollercoaster ride across South Africa. It includes King Adz’s encounters with some famous locals such as the photographer Roger Ballen, the fashion stylist Bee Diamondhead, or writer Rian Malan. Along the way he also sniffs out potential future stars of different industries, whether it is fashion, media, photography, food, or music. King Adz roams the cities from Soweto to the Cape Flats looking for talent and promoting his heart out for places, institutions, products, and people (himself included), he believes in.

Towards the end of the book he writes: “There was a second there, typing the above words in, that I stopped and thought of the enormity, the stupidity, and the restlessness of the egocentric and Warholian act of self-promotion, and how it consumes a lot of my life. One moment it seems worthwhile, the next pointless and empty.” The statement captures my sentiments about his project. My Mzansi Heart offers many great flashes of insight into present-day South Africa, but one has to wade through a lot of fluff and bling to get to the gritty, good stuff.

Perhaps surprisingly, though, King Adz selling techniques worked on me. I’m looking forward to taking out a friend to lunch at Beijing Opera. As a lover of dim sum, I was intrigued by the mention of the “pop-up” restaurant in My Mzansi Heart (King Adz knows the owner Yang, and they have a copy of his cookbook on the wall). And I am not ashamed to admit that I’ll be looking out for Jack Parow Braai Sauce at my local supermarket.

First published in the Cape Times, 26 September 2014, p. 31.

At Home in China

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Unexpectedly, it felt like a homecoming. Our Dragonair flight from Hong Kong to Beijing landed in the late afternoon. From the moment we left the arrivals hall something in the air made me want to curl up inside myself and simply return to where we came from. And it was not the chilling wind; nor the constant drizzle.

The grey architecture’s sharp and unimaginative lines, the bleak atmosphere, the poverty and hopelessness of masses, the condescending attitudes of people in any kind of authoritative position, the schemers operating below the radar of the system, and the uncanny impression of being constantly watched as if surrounded by an omnipotent, unpredictably scary, presence – almost instantly I was transported back to the time I was growing up in Eastern Europe still under the thumb of communist rule, before the political changeover of the late 1980s. Something engrained in my bones, but dormant for so many years, resurfaced in recognition.

The traffic policeman in charge of the taxi flow at the Beijing Capital International Airport shoved us aside and signalled for us to wait. It transpired that we were judged to have too much luggage to fit into an ordinary taxi, with no other kind of taxi in sight. There were three of us, each in possession of a suitcase and a piece of hand luggage. We tried to suggest that we could at least attempt to load the luggage into a car or separate and take two taxis, but both ideas were rejected. After a while of hopeless waiting, a rickety minibus arrived, clearly not an official taxi. The driver ‘generously’ offered to take us all to our hotel for about twice the usual fee. We did not have a choice but to accept.

An insignificant scene, one could say, but it was just the beginning. For the reminder of the trip I was constantly aware of this familiarity between the Poland of my childhood and the present-day China and I marvelled again at the destructive power of the ideology behind the resemblance, at how two countries of such diverse cultural backgrounds – Eastern European and Asian – could be reduced to eerie similarity under the pressures of a single system of thought.

But beside the ache in my bones, the experience of discovering a few spots of China was one of the most memorable ones of my entire travelling life. For the first time, I realised what Americans were doing when they ‘did’ Europe in two weeks. Our attempt was of a similar nature. My husband André Brink and I visited China to attend two literary festivals, in Hong Kong and Shanghai. The invitation was facilitated by a dear friend of André’s, Gary Kitching, who kindly offered to accompany us not only to the official literary events but on most of our journey through the Land of the Dragon. Apart from visiting the two festival cities, we used the opportunity to fulfil lifelong dreams of walking on the Great Wall and seeing the warriors of Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Terracotta Army.

It was our honour and pleasure to share parts of the journey with another South African writer, Mandla Langa who, like André, was a guest of both literary festivals. Mandla Langa’s latest novel, The Lost Colours of the Chameleon (2008) won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Africa Region in 2009. During the two festivals Mandla read from the novel and spoke very movingly about his work, the hardships of exile, and the tragedy of having to cope with his brother’s death at the hands of the ANC. At shared events, Mandla and André discussed the different sides of the literary and political struggle they were both involved in during apartheid. On a more positive note, they shared with their enthusiastic audiences their feelings of optimism about the explosion of creativity in the New South Africa.

In Hong Kong at one of the literary events, together with Mandla, André was interviewed by Rachel Holmes, author of The Secret of Dr James Barry (2002) and The Hottentot Venus: The Life and Times of Saartjie Baartman (2007). She reminded them of the occasion they had met in London when Mandla was still in exile. André described the encounter in his memoir, A Fork in the Road (2008). He went to see Mandla and Essop Pahad at the time. As he took his leave, André was offered a packet of ANC coffee from Kenya and was told that they would drink it together when they were all allowed to come home “one of these days”. “The coffee will still be fresh,” André was reassured. Mandla accompanied him to the tube. André recalls in the memoir: “I walked huddled over the small packet I was carrying like precious loot under my arm. Mandla walked inclined towards me as if he, too, wanted to claim possession. Perhaps we were both imagining the flavour of that coffee: the smell of tomorrow. One of these days.”

For both of them, and for myself, the time of tasting freedom has arrived when at last we all found ourselves living in democratic countries, post-1994 South Africa and Austria respectively. But while we were travelling in China, signs of the ongoing repression and fear were everywhere: the Rio Tinto trial began in Shanghai amongst secrecy and doubt in the fairness of the process, Google was finally on its way out of the country refusing to accept the censorship imposed on the search engine, and an interview with the outspoken Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, a victim of censorship and state violence, was repeatedly shown on BBC World. Very tellingly, there were hardly any Chinese readers attending the festival events.
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Even before arrival in the country, while applying for our visas we were told not to mention the fact that we were writers, academics or had any associations with the media. This might have either endangered the positive outcome of the application or at least made the process much more tedious, we were warned. So, André travelled as a retired teacher, I as a housewife. Neither was a direct lie, but both statements were far removed from the truth. The application went smoothly. To our great surprise, the Chinese Consulate in Cape Town even distributed free DVDs about the Dalai Lama. We did not dare take one when applying for the visa, suspicious of the unexpected offer (a possible test of the worthiness of the applicant?), but could not resist bringing it back home once the visas had been granted. We were curious whether it was a piece of propaganda. But it turned out to be shrewder than that. We only managed to watch thirty minutes of what seemed a factually correct documentary. Then we fell asleep; it was so boring. Clever, we thought.

We also discovered that in spite of being widely publicised in the print and online media, the literary festival in Shanghai we attended was strictly speaking illegal. This kind of schism is also part of the system I remembered from growing up. You constantly live your life on the border of legality. Your actions are tolerated until you overstep a line. Where that line is precisely located you never know until you cross it, and then all which has been ignored till then will be counted against you.

As a special administrative region, reflecting the policy known as “one country, two systems”, Hong Kong still enjoys a high degree of autonomy in all areas except defence and foreign affairs. The city hosted its literary events officially. Celebrating their tenth anniversary with a bang, the festival organisers invited the likes of Alexander McCall Smith, Junot Díaz, Louis de Bernièrs, Linda Jaivin, and Mo Zhi Hong whose debut novel The Year of the Shanghai Shark (2008) won the Best First Book for South East Asia and Pacific of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2009 (the same year as Mandla won with The Lost Colours of the Chameleon).

The Hong Kong and Shanghai festivals often collaborate in bringing authors to the their audiences. So some faces were more or less familiar when we arrived in Shanghai. Contrary to expectations, literary festivals or conferences seldom offer good opportunities of getting to know other writers, especially if one is rather shy by nature, which, maybe surprisingly, many writers are. In spite of many organiser’s efforts to put them into social situations, writers often end up lonely in hotel rooms, passing the time from one event to another with TV or mini-bar content (more often than not, both), or if the gatherings take place in interesting settings, desperately trying to see as much of the area as possible. The latter happened to us, when André and I spent every free minute exploring Hong Kong and Shanghai instead of listening to other guests of the festival, no matter how alluring.

We did however, even if only briefly, catch up with Linda Javin, Louis de Bernièrs, and Mo Zhi Hong in Shanghai. On the terrace of the fabulous “M on the Bund” Restaurant (venue and one of the main sponsors of the festival), over James Bond martinis and the exotic Dragon’s Pearl cocktails we listened to the wonderfully flamboyant Linda Javin, author of the best-selling A Most Immoral Woman (2009), talking about her latest project, a traditional Chinese opera based on a story from a Ming Dynasty novel for which she has been asked to write the libretto. We actually managed to attend Louis de Bernièrs’s official event during which he delighted the audience with a reading of “Obadiah Oak, Mrs Griffiths and the Carol Singers”, a story from his recent collection Notwithstanding (2009), and charmed us all with his infectious sense of humour. With Mo Zhi Hong we shared a taxi to the airport in Shanghai and after a brief conversation were very sorry not to have been able to spent more time in the company of this erudite young man. The festival over, he was on his way back home to Auckland and we were travelling to Xi’an for our appointment with the world-famous Terracotta Army.

One of Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s megalomaniac ventures, the terracotta warriors are a sight to behold. What struck me most about visiting China’s well-known places of interest was that in spite of seeing them numerous times on television programmes or in photography books, one is not prepared for their size. Constantly I had to readjust the images in my head to the real thing. The Great Wall of China (also Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s brainchild) does not impress with its height, as I expected. It is actually quite low and narrow for most of its unfathomable length. But when you stand on one of its vantage points and it stretches away from you in both directions over the mountain ranges like a ribbon carelessly discarded on the seemingly impenetrable landscape, it takes your breath away. In Beijing, the infamous Tiananmen Square is so vast that one can hardly see from one side of it to the other and walking across it in bitter cold was quite a challenge. The Forbidden City is actually a city within the capital. We began our tour of it at the northern entrance and it took us over four hours of almost continuous walking to reach the South Gate where Chairman Mao’s portrait overlooks the scene of the terrible massacre which took place in 1989.

Similarly, no matter how often one had seen them on television, the enormous excavation pits near the city of Xi’an where the Terracotta Army stands exposed after thousands of years of existing only in legends, are simply awe-inspiring. Each individually crafted and meticulously reassembled after centuries of being buried in mud, the warriors testify to the outrageous and murderous dreams of a single individual. Thousands of craftsmen and workers were tortured and killed during the execution of Qin Shi Huang’s vision of the army that was to protect him in the afterlife. Since their discovery just over thirty years ago, thousands of archaeologists, scientists and helpers have been meticulously putting the warriors’ remains together to make them, and what they stand for, known to the world. I walked around the pits and was terrified by the hunger for power and greatness which called this army into being. It was a chilling experience, but I admired the incredible reconstruction work on site and the amount of knowledge experts have gathered about ourselves and our past from the excavation pits. If only we would learn from it.

Other ‘visionaries’ ruled the land. After the so-called Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s when China’s innumerable treasures were destroyed and a whole generation of artists annihilated, the country is in the throes of another ‘cultural revolution’, this time brought about by Big Money and Big Mac. Like many other fast-growing economies, China is in constant flux, its authenticity challenged by the same forces which are at work in South Africa and other westernised parts of the world. Recently modernised for the Olympic Games, China still looks like one gigantic building site. Entire cityscapes are dominated by high-rise flat buildings which function as dormitories for the expanding population. Transport networks, shopping malls, factories, office buildings, and all kinds of institutions rise from the ground like mushrooms after the rain. The one constant is forests of cranes. Higher, bigger and faster seems to be the motto for everything. I can imagine that architects must have a field day in a country where their imaginations are required to go beyond all limits.

One of the most spectacular modern sites we saw was the architecturally mind-boggling Pudong skyline in Shanghai, the characteristic Oriental Pearl Tower dominating the scene. Over the last two decades the district has become home to China’s commercial and financial buzz. Just across the Huangpu river from Pudong is Shanghai’s best-known historical landmark, the Bund. While we were visiting, we witnessed the exciting preparations for the World Expo all along its beautiful promenade.
China2
Yet, among all the splendour and chaos, the one place in China that is truly lodged in my memory is the Old China Hand Reading Room, a small antique book-cum-tea shop located in one of the quieter streets of the French Concession, another of Shanghai’s historical districts. It was founded by photographer Deke Erh and writer Tess Johnston and strikes the perfect balance between past and present, between Chinese and Western influences. Furnished with antique furniture and stocked with hundreds of old and new publications as well as many quirky trinkets of local and international origins, the shop is a must for all tea and book lovers. They also serve excellent cappuccinos in ancient porcelain cups. Just the thing after a long Sunday morning walk through the Concession, as André and I discovered.

Everywhere else we had what one really should have while travelling through China: tea. It is served at every opportunity, its distinct flavours and the rituals to bring them forth cultivated through millennia-old traditions. I have always loved tea but never appreciated it as much as after the visit to China. The souvenir I cherish most from our visit is my collection of exquisitely embroidered, colourful silk pouches from the Laoshe Teashop in Beijing which was recommended to us by our dear friend Alex Smith, the author of the travel memoir Drinking from the Dragon’s Well (2008). Inside the pouches conceal such wonders as Dancing Fairies, Love at First Sight, Birds of Heaven, and Whispering Flowers. If you put them in a transparent teapot and pour mild boiling water over them, the little green tealeaf bundles which are known by these fantastic names open up like blossoms and release a string of flowers – jasmine or lily – from their centre. The taste is as marvellous as the spectacle.

It is good to be back in Cape Town, where I’m truly at home, and to enjoy a bit of Chinese magic. Not all can be lost for a people who can create such perfect little artworks in a teacup. They may yet survive the dreams and visions of ‘Great Men’. And in spite of everything that is going wrong in our own country, I gain strength from the unsurpassed surge of creativity we are experiencing at the moment in South Africa. I just hope that my bones won’t begin to ache here, and I wonder whether I will ever be granted a Chinese visa again. Or will this article be placed in a file with my name on it, hidden away in some obscure cabinet?

First published in WORDSETC 8 (August 2010).

Book mark: The People’s Platform – Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age

Book mark_The Peoples PlatformEvery time I think co-operative thinking cannot surprise me any longer in this world, somebody proves me wrong. Astra Taylor is a writer, activist, and documentary filmmaker. In her thoroughly researched and comprehendingly presented The People’s Platform, she debunks some of the myths surrounding the advantages of the internet, which in just 20 years has changed everything about the way we live. Taylor warns against users becoming oblivious consumers exploited by power and greed which often hide behind seemingly benign services. She champions an “open, egalitarian, participatory, and sustainable culture” where people are “put before profit”, and gives practical advice about how such goals can still be attained.

The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age
by Astra Taylor
Fourth Estate, 2014

First published in the Cape Times, 1 August 2014, p. 32.