Tuesday, 15 October 2013

The Problem with Being Zimbabwean

NoViolet Bulawayo at the Open Book Festival 2013 in Cape Town
By Mary Corrigall

Noviolet Bulawayo  looks as if she is preparing to attend a funeral. In a black dress and jacket and wearing a grave expression, she strides along the pool outside a Rosebank B&B to meet me on the veranda.
Her demeanour matches the bleak heaviness that pervades her first novel, We Need New Names, which deals with Zimbabwe in a state of "falling apart" and the pains and struggles of living in exile in the US. To say it has been well-received is an understatement; it's the first Zimbabwean novel to crack the Man Booker short-list, making her the first black African woman to have received this accolade.
"For a fresh face it gives you courage. Writing is a very difficult career. You don't know what is going to happen; you write because you must write," she says, before adding the ubiquitous, "it has been very humbling."
Ironically, part of the novel's acclaim is linked to the humour that undercuts her dark subject-matter - the back of the book's cover carries an excerpt where the word "laughing" is reiterated. Her humorous side is well disguised during the interview. She's prickly, only smiles once and in response to comments or questions she often nods her head and offers a brusque response: "yup, yup".
At first I put this down to a reticence to being interviewed - writers tend to shy away from such encounters - but later decide it could be a consequence of her immigrant status in the US, which has made her sharply self-conscious and aloof. Another consequence is her attachment to her identity as a Zimbabwean and African.
"The States is one country that sharpens your identity, for me because I am not an American and it is a space that boxes people. It never occurred to me that I was black and African until I got to the States and those categories mattered. I grew up in a township and went to schools were everyone was like me. I never experienced life in racialised degrees. When I got to the States I realised I am black but not part of black America and that consolidated my identity as an African."
It is not easy holding on to that identity after living in the US for over a decade, Michigan at first and then spells at Cornell (Ithica, New York) and Stanford (Stanford, California) universities. Yet she doesn't speak with an American twang.
This is a surprise - Lauren Beukes, the celebrated local author, still proudly sports one after living in that country for a few months 10 years ago.
"I didn't want it," she asserts, as if adopting an accent is a choice. Claiming or holding on to her identity isn't incidental to the novel; it is her way of maintaining a link with her homeland, coming to terms with what it has become in her absence and, as the title implies, it speaks of the nature of redefining oneself elsewhere, a condition that has, in the wake of the mass exodus of its citizens, become a characteristic of being Zimbabwean.
In one of the final chapters where Bulawayo slips into a diatribe about an immigrant's existence and reflecting on the psychological cost of being "illegal", she writes: "We did not want their attention. We did not meet their stares and we avoided gazes. We hid our real names and gave false ones. We built mountains between us and them, we dug rivers, we planted thorns."
Perhaps it was too much to expect her to operate like the narrator, Darling, a sassy and sarcastic character who shoots from the hip and is able to detect when something is "kaka". Significantly, Darling loses this fiery spirit when she immigrates to the US, shifting the narrative voice into a different gear, where she seems more of an observer, working in low-level jobs as a cleaner or at a recycling centre, where she sifts through |the detritus of this consumerist society. Bulawayo says she didn't consciously plan this change in the narrative voice.
"It's not her, it is the space, voice is tied to geographic space. I spent my first year in silence in the US. People thought I was quiet and shy. In reality at home I was one of the noisiest rowdy kids. When I got there I died down. Every time you encounter Darling in Zim she is with friends. In the US she is behind closed doors, looking at the snow. It is the space that stifles the individual and for immigrants, just not being able to express yourself in your language makes you a different person. I am one person when I am speaking Ndebele, but I am also a different person. That is what is happening to Darling. She is a changed person because the space changes her."
Bulawayo frequently switches between talking about herself and Darling. It's as if they are one and the same. It's easy to draw parallels between Bulawayo and Darling; their lives are mirror images of each other. Well, to a point. Both women are born-frees in that they arrived in the world after Zimbabwe gained independence and both eventually settled in the US and struggled with adapting to life in that country and with their voluntary form of exile.
Where their lives differ is quite significant and has an impact on the book's credibility to some degree. While Bulawayo's childhood in Zimbabwe was "beautiful and normal", Darling's is marred by extreme poverty, violence, instability and the sorts of horrors no child should be exposed to. She is rooted in a society that seems to have collapsed; there isn't enough food, none of the children attend schools or live in regular homes. This community has become so twisted that even a preacher humiliates and abuses a woman in front of his parishioners under the guise of ridding it of sinful behaviour. This isn't just a community that has lost its moral compass, it seems to have lost its humanity.

Psychic and Political Conundrums: Call It Dog

By Rob Gaylard

Call it Dog (Atlantic, Penguin) is not an easy book to get your head around. Essentially, it is a quest narrative: the protagonist, Jo Hartslief, returns to South Africa after a 10-year absence to cover the xenophobic violence sweeping the country in 2008, but this soon evolves into a cross-country road trip with her semi-estranged father, Nico.
He enlists her help to try to prove his innocence of complicity in the death of an ANC cadre who was tortured and murdered by operatives of the apartheid-era CCB (succinctly described by Wikipedia as "a government-sponsored hit squad".)
What is the truth about her father? The novel takes us into murky territory, and its keynote is uncertainty or indeterminacy. Is her father a pathological liar and devious manipulator, or was he a man with some elements of decency who found himself in over his head? What is, or was, he guilty of? Is he just the fall guy?
What are Jo's obligations to him? Should she help him prove his innocence - or should she turn him over to the police?
Whatever he may have done, he is also Jo's father - and "the only family (she) has left". (Her mother died when she was 12.)
Much of the novel consists of a verbal sparring match between Jo and her father as she (vainly) tries to establish the truth. Is she simply "indulging his bullshit"?
Does she become his accomplice, or even his hostage? "You have no idea who I am," she tells her father at one point, but this comment could just as easily have come from him.
And what should you make of the shadowy Gideon van Vuuren, the "star player" for the notorious Koevoet, whom we never actually meet? He seems to be the "Prime Evil" in this scenario, inspiring fear in former colleagues - and he is possibly responsible for the car crash that killed Jo's mother, and for the crash that nearly kills Jo, and that results in the disappearance of her father (he exits about two-thirds of the way through the narrative). But does Gideon even exist, or is he a figment of Nico's imagination?
To further complicate the situation, we have Paul Silongo, son of the murdered man, with whom Jo (rather improbably?) develops a relationship.
He is a rising star in the ANC in Gauteng, and seems plausible and likeable. But how much does he know - and is he in turn using or manipulating Jo?
It is just plausible that he might meet her at the airport - she had spoken to him on the phone, and arranged to interview him in South Africa, but would he go to so much trouble on her behalf? Is he flirting with her, or is he stalking her (and using her to get to her father)? As with so much else in the novel, the reader can't be sure - but Paul does seem a whole lot nicer than her father.
The meticulously detailed descriptions anchor the novel in reality, and reinforce the impression that Jo often feels like a stranger in what is (or was) her own country.
However, a novel can stand only so much indeterminacy and uncertainty: one expects some degree of clarity to emerge, even when one is dealing with events back in the Eighties that were never fully uncovered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and with people who would never willingly appear before the TRC.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

An unflattering view of South Africa: Zebra Crossing

By Michiel Heyns

It is one of the surprising aspects of Meg Vandermerwe's debut novel, Zebra Crossing (Umuzi), that her main character and narrator, a young albino Zimbabwean girl adrift in Cape Town at the time of the football World Cup, should be reminiscent of the most demure of Victorian heroines.
In her self-denying, self-effacing timidity she recalls such outsider figures as Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre or Charles Dickens's Esther Summerson in Bleak House. (The fact that Dickens is mentioned twice may suggest that the author was aware of this connection.)
But if there is indeed this parallel, its significance may lie in the point at which the lines diverge: whereas the Victorian heroine typically overcomes her undervalued state to marry the man she has quietly been in love with for several hundred pages, Chipo – well, suffice it to say that her novel does not end on wedding bells and general merrymaking.
Vandermerwe, then, has succeeded in welding an adapted marriage plot to a far grimmer form, |the immigrant-narrative, and to adapt the Victorian social-problem novel to South African realities. She gives us a recognisable Cape Town: the novel's main locale, President's Heights, is a thinly disguised version of the slum block, Senator Park in Keerom Street, now being refurbished.
Here Chipo and her brother, George, sharing a single room with two other Zimbabweans, the brutish Peter and the gentle David, experience the rigours of émigré life: the crowded accommodation, the exploitation by locals and fellow-émigrés, the long, futile waits at Home Affairs and, above all, the xenophobia.
The émigré community is abuzz with rumours that they are being tolerated only until the closing match of the World Cup, after which they will be "burnt".
Chipo, an albino, is up against a double prejudice: not only is she a makwerekwere, she is also a "monkey" or "sope", as albinos are called in Zimbabwe. And, as a young woman, she is subordinate and subservient to her demanding brother and the other males in the makeshift household.
Her life is made tolerable by the kindness of David and the concern of Jean-Paul, the reclusive tailor from Rwanda, with his own memories of atrocities. Indeed, such joy as she has is provided by her fantasies of being loved by David, and by the new clothes that Jean-Paul insists she wear.
A pitfall of the first-person narrative of a self-denying person, such as Dickens's Esther and Vandermerwe's Chipo, is that the voice may come to seem self-pitying, even a bit self-admiring: "My hands smell of Omo and my skin is red and irritated," Chipo says. "When there is money I must ask George to buy me a pair of rubber gloves." Or: "Little Sister's job is to cook and clean, not to to stick her nose where it does not belong."

Living on the Edge: White Dog Fell from the Sky

By Rob Gaylard

This is a large, capacious, generous novel which celebrates human staying power, courage and honesty. White Dog Fell from the Sky (Penguin), by Eleanor Morse is set in Botswana in 1977, and takes in the vast landscapes of that dry land - "this world of interminable blue sky, heat that scoured your brains clean".
It takes us to some remote places. It moves from the lives of the !Kung San (the name used in the novel), struggling to survive on the edge of the Kalahari, to an old woman digging for tubers in the sand, to the rather more comfortable lives of the expatriate community in Gaborone, to the stark terror of torture in an apartheid prison. Morse tackles these different experiences with an unflinching honesty.
The novel owes a great deal to the author's experience of living in Botswana in the mid-1970s. She is an American who lives on Peaks Island, Maine. This is her third novel (and the only one set in Africa). One senses that it must have been brewing in her mind for a long time. The setting (Botswana) enables her to move beyond the ordinary securities of suburban life. Her citing of Faulkner's Nobel address is a clue to her approach to the writing of fiction: "I wanted to write about the human heart, its losses and joys, its separations and connections".
This is an ambitious project, and the novel does not fail. Essentially, it is the story of three intersecting lives (the author admits that her novels are driven more by character than plot).
At the novel's centre is Alice Mendelssohn, an American who works for the Ministry of Local Government and Lands: her work partly explains her concern with the fate of the San/Bushmen (and in particular their claim to the land and to a way of life that has been theirs for thousands of years). Early on in the novel she discovers that her husband has been cheating on her (although their marriage seemed to be heading for failure anyway) and they separate.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Power is lost in Translation


By Aghogho Akpome

THIS book is about South Africa's ongoing transformation and its Janus-faced paradoxes. Although identifying with those who believe that apartheid has not really ended, the author, Carli Coetzee - adjunct lecturer at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies - acknowledges that things are changing and progress has been made since 1994.
To hasten this prolonged "death" of apartheid, Coetzee makes a compelling argument in Accented Futures: Language Activism and the Ending of Apartheid (Wits University Press) for the active - or activist - surfacing and acknowledgement of differences, disagreements and inequalities during social interaction, but particularly in the processes of teaching and learning in higher education institutions.
She proposes a theory of "accented" discursive attitudes and practices whereby one is encouraged to gauge and engage with the other person's frames of reference - their history, their knowledge systems, their perspective - in a conscious and conscientious way.
Unlike some currently dominant practices that tend to gloss over apartheid's enduring legacies of inequality, ostensibly for |the politically correct goals of national unity, "accentedness", Coetzee argues, promises more productive outcomes for the transformation project.
For one, it doesn't "attempt to empty out the conflicts and violence" that official discourses often sweep "under the surface". Rather, an "accented" communicative approach both acknowledges, and validates the inequalities that have endured into the so-called "post"-apartheid dispensation.
This is envisaged as a means of accommodating the diversity of opinions and interests that have long existed in the country. "Accentedness" thus incorporates local contexts into the knowledge creation and transmission equation.
"Accentedness" would enable us - to paraphrase American writer Anais Nin - to see things more as they are, than as we are.

Meet the Author: Siphiwo Mahala


When did you start to write and at what point did you think of yourself as a writer?
Writing, to me, is an offshoot of my passion for reading, a habit that I developed from an early age. I grew up as an introverted child and as the only boy in the family. Books became my closest companion. I was particularly fond of comics such as Superman, Archie, and The Bafanas from Bona Magazine. I graduated from comics and began to read indiscriminately - from the short stories of PT Mtuze to Shakespeare. Literary studies was a natural choice for me when I got to tertiary level. I published my first two short stories while doing a creative writing course at Rhodes University in 2001. I went on to do an MA in African Literature at Wits University in 2002, and published more stories that year. In the words of Es'kia Mphahlele, writing is an apprenticeship and to me, literary apprenticeship is a continuous process of intense reading and writing.

What attracts you to the short story genre/format?
Writing short stories for me is liberating and it ignites my creative juices more than any other form of creative expression. I respond to the muse when it catches me and they can be told in one sitting, something evocative of oral narratives. However, contrary to popular perception, writing short requires a lot of discipline as there is no luxury of time and space. One has to develop a story using very few characters, and every word used must be accounted for in order to develop a concrete and aesthetically powerful story. With this book I wanted to experiment and come up with innovative approaches of presenting a book of short stories. The result of that experiment is a collection of four trilogies that are chronologically diverse but remain thematically and stylistically cohesive. Most important, I wanted to create a work of all times. As Njabulo Ndebele puts it: "It will outlive many of the social, political, and economic dramas of the time. The power of African Delights lies precisely there."

Of all the stories in this collection, which was the hardest to write and why?
Bhontsi's Toe was by far the most difficult story for me to write for a number of reasons. It is a tragic story based on a real life incident that left me traumatised for years. A childhood friend died in a similar way as Bhontsi in the story and I suppose it's a childhood trauma that I grew up with and never dealt with at the time. The story refused to forgive my silence. I guess writing it was somewhat cathartic for me because I can now talk about it with less intense emotion. It is also what I regard as a story of friendship.

Your work is clearly inspired by a number of South African authors, such as Ndebele and Themba. What lessons have you learnt about writing from these esteemed figures?
As a student of African literature I immersed myself in the works of AC Jordan, Can Themba, Nadine Gordimer, Bessie Head, Njabulo S Ndebele and many other fantastic South African writers. Some had more impact on me than others and the influence of the likes of Ndebele and Themba is palpable in my writing. I have experimented with Themba's classic short story, The Suit, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The story has been greatly reproduced, adapted for stage, and inspired several other stories, poems, comics and films. I don't know of any other short story that can boast success of equal measure. I have learnt that one is what one reads and these are the giants on whose shoulders I chose to stand. I want my work to outlive my lifetime.

Are there any special moments you remember about writing the book?
One that stands out is when I took the first draft of The Lost Suit to Kimberly, where I was to meet with Dr Don Mattera. The intention was to ask him to read it and let me know what he thought of my interpretation of Sophiatown of the 1950s.
He refused to read the story. Instead, he told me to read aloud in the presence of other literary enthusiasts. Not being much of a public speaker, I was quite reluctant and somewhat embarrassed but I could not miss the opportunity of getting feedback from the esteemed poet.
While I was reading he would wince, exclaim, chuckle, and laugh out loud. Sometimes he'd ask me to go back to a certain paragraph, and without him saying anything, I would know what was wrong with a word that I used. In that way, he made me aware of my own writing, the development of my plot, my choice of words, and the rhythm of my narrative. That is the tactic that I apply in my writing now. Reading aloud and listening while other people are reading aloud is important.

What are you working on now or what kind of work would you like to produce in the future?
I am always writing something but what is taking shape now is what will be my next novel. All I can say about it is that it is a story of redemption with a rural setting. I feel that the rural space has not been explored enough in recent writing, especially in novels written in the English language. The helpless patriot in me still harbours the hope that if there is change in one person at a time, we will subsequently redeem our society. I always try to write work that resonates with the broader society and that would exhort people to take action.

Ode to rich tradition in Black SA writing


By Rob Gaylard

Siphiwo Mahala's African Delights (published by Jacana in 2011) and Russell Kaschula's Displaced (Unisa 2013) were recently launched together at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. Both authors are from or are based in Grahamstown.
Mahala writes with a welcome awareness of the rich tradition of black writing in this country, and intertextual play is a prominent feature of this collection of short stories. The most obvious precursor is Can Themba, the "poet laureate" of Sophiatown: his acclaimed short story, The Suit, provides the springboard for the first three stories in the collection. The narrator of the first, Terence, is the man who was discovered in flagrante in bed with Matilda by her husband, Philimon (acting on a tip-off). He is indignant that his peccadillo has been publicised by Can Themba:
"The only thing he mentions in his propaganda piece, The Suit, is that I ran away. Did he think that was the end of the story for me? Did he think that I, a respected schoolteacher, enjoyed running around the streets of Sophiatown in my underwear?"
The story bristles with inventive energy, and captures something of the spirit of the time: "Hangover was playing with me, I tell you. I knew the only remedy was to pay a quick visit to Thirty-Nine Steps." The note of righteous indignation, as well as the appeal to the reader (who is assumed to be sympathetic) are the keynotes of the story.
Readers of Themba's story will know that it has an enigma at its centre: why does Tilly, who has an adoring and attentive husband and a seemingly perfect marriage, commit adultery (not once, but over a period of three months). The woman's perspective (absent from Themba's story) is brilliantly captured by Zukiswa Wanner.
Her story provides plausible insight into Tilly's psychology (and frustration) and provides a compelling explanation for her attraction to her lover (seemingly a much less worthy man than her husband): "Yes. Terry is a drunk. Yes, he probably is a bad husband and as a teacher, a miserable role model for the children of Soweto, but Phil sweetie, Terry was EXCITING."

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Inheriting the culture of silence


By Mary Corrigall

The only thing worse than interviewing a journalist, is being the journalist at the receiving end of the interview. This is how I open my exchange with Emma Brockes, a British journalist based in New York and author of a memoir dubbed She Left me the Gun: my mother's life before me (Faber & Faber).
The title is a bit of a misnomer as the gun in question was handed into the British authorities by her South African born-mother before she died. As a result Brockes didn't exactly inherit the item, though its existence, which hinted at a violent past haunted her, finally propelling her to Johannesburg to discover its significance in her mother's life before she settled in the UK.
My opening remark is designed to put us both at ease but it is also a way of directing attention to the way in which Brockes exploits and hides behind her identity as a |journalist in her account of piecing the puzzle that was her mother's past. My intention doesn't go unnoticed by Brockes.
"It's weird watching journalists do the things that I do.
"They think they are really discreet and they are not at all," says the forty-something Brit over her breakfast in an intimate restaurant in a swanky Houghton bed and breakfast were she is holed up for her publicity tour.
She Left me her Gun charts Brockes's attempt to uncover the events in her mother's childhood in South Africa, which she had never elaborated on during her life. Brockes only felt compelled to disinter the details shortly after her death. It was a gut reflex to her passing.
"You spend your entire life not wanting to know anything about your parents, and then one day they are gone and it's suddenly your history and it seemed absurd to me. I thought I would lose more of her if I didn't know about everything she had been."
Despite this project being driven to satisfy an emotional need and centred on uncovering the facts about her own family, Brockes embraces a journalistic mode not only in her retelling of her mother's life but the position she adopted from the outset when she began |her research.
It facilitated a level of detachment that helped her navigate the difficult truths she was forced to confront about her family.
"I found that soothing. The logistics were familiar to me, I like sitting in musty libraries. I knew that in order to get it done I needed some sort of professional safety net."
This distance is palpable throughout the book and explains the pronounced absence of the narrator/author.
She is almost an invisible character that recedes in the background, acting simply as a conduit for the information or narrative.
"It's counter-intuitive for me to be the engine of the story. I am not a columnist so I am not used to using myself as material. I think it is an aesthetic as well. I like |compressed books. I am happier being brief and not belabouring the point."

Native Label the seed of Africa's Strife


By Aghogho Akpome

Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity (Wits University Press) by distinguished Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani is a quintessential postcolonial text. It is a worthwhile contribution to the vast body of scholarship that - put simply - challenges the authority of colonial intellectualism and knowledge, and examines the lingering effects of imperialism on formerly colonised territories.
In this book, Mamdani discusses how the identities of indigenous peoples (tagged "native" and "tribe") were formulated ideologically and invested with enduring legal and cultural force on the basis of bogus anthropological and ethnographic theories that served the selfish political interests of British Indirect Rule. The book's title - a pun on the political catchphrase, "divide and rule" - reflects one of Mamdani's main didactic objectives: to demonstrate, practically, how the actions of colonisers are responsible (at least in part) for some of the endemic social discords that continue to plague the formerly colonised world.
This small book (only 154 pages, including long notes and an index) has three chapters, the first of which is titled Nativism: The Theory. Here, Mamdani focuses on the intellectual work of Henry Maine, a 19th-century English jurist and historian whose ideas, according to Mamdani, strongly influenced the policies and practices of British colonialism during the crucial period of the mid- to late 1900 '0s.
During this time, the British empire experienced uprisings in India (1857) and Jamaica (1865) that indicated, in Mamdani's words, "a crisis of mission, and a crisis of justification", and that resulted in the reconsideration of the colonial enterprise "from civilisation to conservation and from progress to order". Mamdani claims that the theories offered by Maine were central to the reorganisation upon which indirect rule was founded.
A key implication of these ideas, Mamdani demonstrates, is the definition of indigenous peoples, or natives, in terms that are essentially oppositional to settlers. Thus, "if the settler was modern, the native was not; if history defined the settler, geography defined the native; if legislation and sanction defined modern political society, habitual observance defined that of the native". To account for this conclusion, Mamdani devotes the bulk of chapter one to detailed analyses of various aspects of Maine's lectures and writings on indigenous Indian history, customs and laws as well as the latter's reflections on the history of human civilisation and the empire's administrative crises.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

The State of Writing in SA


By Craig Higginson

Where South African fiction and non-fiction have exploded in the past two decades - with a rich and diverse range of people publishing books - our theatre is still dominated by writer-directors. Theatre practitioners who came to the theatre predominantly as directors and who have started to write or adapt their own plays, either because of a growing interest in telling their own stories or simply because there are too few new South African plays out there to direct.
We have had few career playwrights who came to writing plays through the study of literature and its related subjects. In the past, plays were made by communities of people and they were made to be performed - not published. Directors also enjoyed more status than playwrights and it was common practice for directors to completely change or rewrite plays in the rehearsal room. So it is perhaps little wonder we have had virtually no career playwrights.
In today's South Africa, we remain almost as divided as ever: between races, religions, languages, classes, nationalisms. We stand somewhere between apartheid and democracy, pulled in different directions - the best of us sometimes losing all conviction, the worst of us too often finding refuge in a passionate intensity.
So what is the role of the artist at the current time? And more specifically: what is the role of the contemporary South African theatre practitioner?
The easy answer to this is that there are as many roles as there are artists. We are free to make whatever fictions we like. We have fought for our freedom and we are free to exercise it however we want.
This is all very well, and it is a position I am in no position to contest. What I would like to suggest, however, is that I believe the quality of our fictions will depend entirely on the quality of our engagement with questions of content, form and context. It seems to me that the time we live in - in South Africa and more generally - requires works of the imagination that are nimble, dextrous and capable of infiltrating and engaging a range of perspectives at once.
Of these three areas, the issue of context is perhaps the most directly political. Who do I want to tell my story to? Or put it another way: Who do I want to talk to? Whose thinking do I want to reflect or challenge? What change do I want to make in the world? Am I writing for my own gratification - for money, for recognition, for revenge - or because I want to nourish something outside of myself?
In both theatre and fiction - which are the modes that occupy me most as a creative person - we have an honourable and justly celebrated legacy in South Africa. During apartheid, literature had a very clear role in defying the state. The ethical playing field was relatively unambiguous. To counter the dreary monologue of Afrikaner and other nationalisms, literature and other art forms provided an alternative monologue. One that asserted our shared humanity.
Because theatre during apartheid was predominantly workshopped by the director and the cast, this led to plays less concerned with dramatic structure and tight, combative dialogue and more concerned with monologues that attempted to access the interiority of the characters. By giving voice to the inner life, they made us see the humanity in characters that had been compartmentalised, reduced to ethnic types, so that they could be more easily dismissed or overlooked.
Playwrights like Athol Fugard and Zakes Mda wrote conversational, discursive plays - generally naturalistic in style and often quite old-fashioned in terms of form - that were again concerned with giving voice to the voiceless and dignity to those whose dignity had been taken away from them. When one compares these writers with their contemporaries in America or Britain, the plays often feel sluggish in terms of plot and bogged down by too much verbiage. Yet what could characters in plays during that period do but talk? What was more urgent?

Toying with an immovable history: HHhH




By Mary Corrigall

I'm expecting to meet a self-deprecating man. In HHhH, Laurent Binet explicitly rejects elements of the novel, certain chapters even, and allows the failures or shortcomings in the work to be transparent.
"It's clever, isn't it?" he says laughing, when I suggest that in pre-empting criticism of his book, he automatically undercuts arguments against it.
One of the main misgivings he expresses in HHhH (Random House Struik) is the fact that while it is intended to chart the heroic actions of a group of Czechoslovakian parachutists who assassinate a high-ranking Nazi officer, Reinhard Heydrich, he indulges in a quasi biography of this infamous SS officer dubbed the Butcher of Prague, among many other equally pejorative sobriquets to suit the barbaric acts he sanctioned. The curious title, HHhH, refers to a saying popular among the SS: Himmlers Hirn heist Heydrich - Himmler's brain is called Heydrich, and confirms the focus of the novel, though Binet cunningly avoids naming him. It reads like a stutter, as if Heydrich's name is caught in the throat.
In detailing Heydrich's life story, however, and the pivotal role he played in arriving at the chilling "final solution" for the "problem" with the Jews in Europe, Binet draws attention to the necessity for or the sense of justice that Heydrich's assasination would present.
Similarly, in the frank and self-conscious manner in which Binet narrates history, he also generously points to some of the practicalities underpinning this seemingly incongruent bias; there simply isn't sufficient information about the parachutists to fill a book, while in contrast much is known about Heydrich. This, of course, points to a failing in how history is written; inevitably the focus tends to be on evil oppressor, rather than an in-depth look at the identities of the liberators or victims. Perhaps we are more curious about inexplicable malevolence. This might explain the inordinate amount of material pertaining to the Nazis on the History Channel - in his novel Binet admits to a weakness for this channel. His preoccupation with World War II is certainly rooted in its representation in popular culture; the constant revision or recycling of historical events.
Of course, as a novelist Binet could have invented the histories, motivations and characters of the Czech heroes, but it would have been in contravention of the ethical code that guides his novel: to remain faithful to the facts.
"Inventing a character in order to understand historical facts is like fabricating evidence. Or rather, in the words of my brother-in-law, with whom I've discussed all this, 'It's like planting false proof at a crime scene where the floor is already strewn with incriminating evidence,' " proposes Binet in HHhH.
It's rare to meet a novelist so bound to the truth. This noble gesture, however, seems not only impossible in relaying history - can it ever be faithfully rendered? - but also seems in contravention of the spirit of novel writing altogether; certainly it presents an extraordinary limit for a novelist.

Book industry needs to turn over a new leaf: Franschhoek Literary Festival

Alexander McCall Smith, the British author who has penned a series of books set
in Botswana, was the star attraction at the FLF pic by Christine Fourie


By Konstantin Sofianos

'It seems that we are all trying to break into something, but we don't know what that is." Ingrid Winterbach, writer of adroit, searching novels in Afrikaans, is talking animatedly from her seat beside an intensely reflective Eben Venter, and next to the apparently detached figure of Carel van der Merwe, author of a string of similarly cool fictions of adult personal crisis.
The occasion is a panel on translation at this year's Franschhoek literature f?te, but the immediate setting is the narrow hull of a white-washed church building in one of the Boland town's back streets, the kind of place in which, as Philip Larkin wrote in his poem Church Going, "someone will forever be surprising a hunger in himself to be more serious".
Winterbach is speaking about the enduring cultural chasm between Afrikaans and English writing, a problem aggravated by the general inadequacy (in all languages) of literary translations in the country, but her comment strikes at another issue that might have remained otherwise implicit among the varied activities of the Franschhoek fest: the question of literary and cultural prestige, and of the institutions that are able to confer this in South Africa today.
What, after all, are writers like Winterbach attempting to "break into" when it comes to South African writing in English, and who decides whether they have achieved this or not? Some preliminary clues might be found in the proceedings of this year's Franschhoek Literature Festival (FLF) as a whole.
Over the past few years its claim to be the premier literary event of its kind has been contested by the emergence of other national gatherings of readers and writers such as the Mail & Guardian Literature Festival in Joburg and the Cape Town Open Book festival, which has successfully positioned itself as an event devoted to higher-end literary fiction attracting impressive rosters of prominent international authors, including Booker Prize winners - it is in conscious opposition to the FLF, one suspects.
And yet the FLF retains a special, gilded attraction for literary patrons and book industry insiders alike, and its autumnal coming each May is an eagerly anticipated event. This is no doubt bound up with its location in the laminated pastoral surrounds of the wine-land town, with its gentrified main street of shopping boutiques, outdoor bistros and haute cuisine restaurants. The FLF offers less a literary than a "lifestyle" experience: writerly conversations and poetry readings mix with panels on gardening, cookery or popular history, and are supplemented by pricey gala dinners and concert recitals.
According to the website, some 8 500 weekend festival-goers descended on Franschhoek last year, to take occupation of its scattered auberges and guest-cottages, and to saturate in its faux-francophone ambience. These are startling numbers for an ostensibly literary function, and they seem to have been maintained this year, in the festival's seventh annual iteration. Practically all the 91 panel discussions on offer were fully sold out by lunchtime on the opening Friday, though tell-tale empty chairs at most events suggest that some patrons preferred to linger over their glasses of semillon.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Digging beneath the sparkle of The Shining Girls


By Mary Corrigall

Lauren Beukes is ever the golden girl in her gold dress with cameras trained on her as she poses on the balcony at Zietzies in Brixton. Despite all the success she seems grounded, perhaps to a fault; she's overly interested in accommodating me - "where do you want to sit? Are you comfortable here?" A former journalist, she probably over-identifies with her interviewers. It's an endearing quality.
It's too easy, if not facile, to dub her the Shining Girl, the title of her new novel. Undoubtedly she is a successful novelist and not just in South Africa, where a paltry sale of 2 000 books gets you on the best-seller list, before you go out of print; though Zoo City, her breakaway novel, shall we call it, was out of print until it won the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2011.Beukes is quick to mention this with a note of bitterness, or is it irony? She recounted the same story during a radio interview the day before. Maybe she sees it as a triumph.

Most surprising about her success is that her work appears to be a hit with this country's literary intelligentsia. Rarely is commercially successful genre literature embraced by intellectuals, though the advent of genre literature in this country seems to be setting academia alight. Ever on the lookout for "transliterature" or works that no longer mine the clichéd white-guilt apartheid themes, the sci-fi spin - Zoo City sees people attached to animal "familiars" - seems to offer the imaginative leap that some feel South African literature has been lacking.

It is fitting that this "transnational" literary heroine speaks with a heavy American twang. Even more appropriate is the fact that she can't explain it - way back, and for less than two years, she lived in Chicago, where The Shining Girls is set. It is centred on a time-travelling serial killer called Harper Curtis, a coarse, hard man who begins jumping through time after hitting upon a house in the 1930s that is something of a black hole.

Is setting a novel in another country really an imaginative leap or is it an extreme form of avoidance, repression or denial? It may even be a cop-out; it alleviates the need to negotiate the sometimes irreconcilable socio-political issues of our times.

The most interesting aspect to her latest novel, which is littered with Americanisms, is the way she has cannibalised that culture. It almost reads like a cinematic postmodern pastiche.

Reflecting on the Struggle Years from Afar


By Rob Gaylard

At the centre of this thought-provoking, debut novel by Anthony Schneider, A Quiet Kind of Courage (Penguin) is Henry Wegland, an octogenarian ex-South African of Jewish (Lithuanian) extraction, a one-time member of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), involved in a minor way in the sabotage campaign of 1961.
In some ways it is easier to say what this novel is not than what it is. It is not a gripping linear narrative of events related to the armed resistance campaign of the early '60s. It is not a triumphalist narrative celebrating the heroism of the leaders (and cadres) of the resistance movement.
Given the author's location and personal history (New York; one of his grandfathers was, like Henry, a Struggle veteran who lived much of his life in exile) the novel relies in part on imaginative reconstructions of a momentous era (South Africa in 1960/1961).
The author's distance (in both time and space) from many of the events he describes means the novel is not informed by first-hand observation and experience in the way that other notable South African political novels are - novels such as Jonty Driver's Elegy for a Revolutionary, or Alex la Guma's In the Fog of the Season's End, or Mongane Serote's To Every Birth its Blood.
Instead this novel works by juxtaposition, through a juggling of several narrative strands.
In the first place there is Henry, the retired law professor and one-time MK "foot soldier", who is now in his eighties.
In spite of the apparent vindication of what he has struggled for (the ANC is in power), his life is suffused with regrets - for the Liverpool of his early childhood and the larger-than-life figure of his Uncle Isaac, for the wife (Sarah) and lover (Nellie Mkhatshwa), both of whom he left in South Africa, for the daughter he never had, and for what might be construed as his betrayal of his son Glenn.
Arguably the real burden of the narrative is the troubled relationship between Henry, his grandson Saul, and Glenn.

Protest Works lose their Poeticism



By Mbongiseni Buthelezi

How do you revitalise a book that has become a classic 41 years after it was published? And how do you read poems that you've lived with for many years with a new eye? These are the questions raised by the republication of Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali's Sounds of a Cowhide Drum (Jacana).
Let us begin by taking a step back into the past. Poems from the collection littered my path as a student of literature over many years. The detribalised, Sounds of a Cowhide Drum, Always a Suspect and Bow on a Swing have been favourites of teachers and anthologists. They have been commented on by critics again and again. The collection, as a whole, has assumed a position of importance as a key intervention at a time when writing by so-called protest writers of the 1950s and 1960s had been silenced by censorship after the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre.
As writer Richard Rive noted in a 1977 essay in the journal English in Africa, writers like Es'kia Mphahlele, Bloke Modisane, Lewis Nkosi, Dennis Brutus and others had voluntarily or involuntarily gone into exile in other countries. Those who remained were banned or their works were banned. Hence, says Rive, "For almost a decade there was no literature by blacks and when one did emerge in 1971 with Mtshali's Sounds of a Cowhide Drum there was almost no precedent for it."
The collection has received great acclaim, which has grown over the years, for poems that turned away from protest writing's sloganeering. It has been lauded for Mtshali's astute capturing of the detail of people's daily lives and struggles in Soweto, Joburg and in rural KwaZulu-Natal. Most important, critics have seen great value and skill in Mtshali's devastatingly understated critique of apartheid through a brilliant use of irony.
Given the acclaim the collection garnered, how, then, did it receive a new lease on life when it was republished?
The republished book makes another important intervention. All the poems have been translated into Zulu. Alternate pages carry English and Zulu versions. Mtshali translated the poems himself. The publication of the poems' Zulu versions is part of a growing and admirable trend to promote reading and writing in African languages.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Mahama's narrative bereft of vision and insight: My First Coup D'Etat


By Aghogho Akpome 

In My First Coup D’Etat (Bloomsbury Publishing, London), John Mahama, Ghana’s current president, offers an ambitious account of Africa’s post-independence transformation through the lenses of his personal experiences and those of his native country.
He focuses on the years between the late 1960s and 1980s, a period that has been described as Africa’s “lost decades”, and one that corresponds with the awakening and growth of national consciousness in him. Mahama also writes about African culture and Western influence, about the beauties of the countryside and the joys of family life.
By speaking (in his introduction) of Africa’s “survival” through periods of social, political and economic turmoil, Mahama’s view of the continent’s multiple dilemmas promised to be innovatively upbeat. But by the end of the narrative, this optimism becomes tempered by a note of cynicism expressed by a word in the Akan language of Ghana – “anaa” – which he interprets as an “invitation for doubt”; a word which questions whether we are “progressing or regressing”.
Mahama’s ethnographic sketch of Ghanaian politics since that country’s independence in 1957 is framed around correlating events and changes in different parts of Africa. He thus makes generous references to peoples, places and|happenings in countries as diverse as Nigeria, Libya, Uganda and South Africa. Mahama’s continent-wide historical approach in this book is also symbolic as it serves to recall Ghana’s pioneering role in post-colonial African nationalism as well as in the pan-African movement.
All this is important as it has been argued correctly that each country’s peculiar challenges need to be understood within the wider context of the continent’s shared history and experiences. Which may also be why this edition of the book is “adorned” by endorsements from African scholars – the recently deceased Chinua Achebe, Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Sierra-Leonean Aminatta Forna. Nigeria’s Booker winning author, Ben Okri, also contributes a thoughtful epigraph. (Yet, one might also surmise that Mahama’s position as the sitting vice-president – president by the time of the book’s publication – of one of Africa’s leading democracies could also have played a part in their favourable support.)
The book’s Africanist and historiographic orientations (as laid out in its introductory sections) are innovative and promising – however, its actual narrative content is a bit disappointing. In the first place, the stories tell more about Mahama’s father (to whose memory the book is dedicated), than about the author. Part of Mahama’s central focus, it appears, is the defence and explanation of his father’s wealth and roles (or lack thereof) in Ghana’s politics.

The Politics of Rewriting the Continent: Reflecting on Achebe's legacy


By Aghogho Akpome

Regarding the outpouring of stories (fictional and non-fictional) in the aftermath of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the literary critic Njabulo Ndebele observed in 1998 that this country represents “a living example of people reinventing themselves through narrative”. One man who understood the potential of stories to shape social imagination was the late Chinua Achebe.
Virtually all of Achebe’s writings reflect a passionate interest in the telling and retelling of history, indicating that this issue lay at the core of his socio-political commitment, and influenced his |other signature sub-themes.
In 1998, Achebe explained how jaundiced colonial versions of African history (including those that were openly fictional and those that claimed to be factual) affected him as a young writer. He was aware that stories “had been used to set one people against another and that the depiction of himself and his colour and his people and his race has been less than just; he then realised that he had a task. Not necessarily to confront other people, but to save himself because he was aware that there was a story, that there was another story about himself which was not being told. And so all he was doing really was to bring that other story that was not being told, bring it into being, put it among the stories and let it interact.”
The best-selling Things Fall Apart remains one of the most iconic examples of the “other story” that has successfully challenged ”authoritative”, racialised and pejorative depictions of formerly colonised people. It is reported to have sold over eight million copies worldwide and has been translated into many languages. Achebe summed up his novels as “re-|creations of the history of Africa in fictional terms”, an artistic and ideological enterprise that spawned extensive scholarship and won him high levels of critical acclaim.
Underscoring the immeasurable value of these stories, Achebe reportedly rejected a $1 million offer from American rap star Curtis Jackson (aka 50 Cent) to use the title Things Fall Apart for a movie. It is said Achebe saw the offer as an “insult” and his representatives reportedly said the book is “listed as the most-read book in modern African literature, and won’t be sold for even £1 billion”.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

When Things Fell Apart


By Bhekizizwe Peterson

It is not surprising that Chinua Achebe, as a writer and scholar, attached great significance to the cultivation of critical thinking in society in order to negate the prevailing “poverty of thought”. His novels, he once asserted, were meant to explore “when the rain began to beat us”. This was in relation to the colonial experience and the post-independence predicaments that seemed to plague African states.
In relation to the former, Achebe noted in a famous essay, The Novelist as Teacher, that “I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past – with all its imperfections – was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf, delivered them.”
The essay, first published in 1965, was included in the 1975 collection of essays, Morning Yet On Creation Day, whose title evocatively intimates the deferral of the “dreams” and “promises” of the nationalist struggles for independence. The task of the artist and scholar was to simultaneously look at the past and the future from the vantage point of the present.
With regard to the present, the duty is the need to grasp and explore the Hopes and Impediments (the title of another collection of essays published in 1988) that constitute the socio-economic, political, cultural and intellectual limits and possibilities that informed post-independence African states.
Achebe’s nuanced and powerful recuperation and affirmation of the integrity of pre-colonial African polities is well acknowledged. It is his wrestling with the antimonies of “freedom” that I want to focus on. In a sense, all his post-independence novels, No Longer At Ease, Man of the People and Anthills of the Savannah, are profound, self-reflexive meditations on the seemingly intractable problems that seem to beset Africa.
The list of litanies is well known: colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, poverty, ethnicity, patriarchal despots, corruption and impunity, to mention some of the key ones. What distinguishes Achebe’s reflections on the challenges that face the continent is his willingness to also cast a critical eye on African leaders, intellectuals and artists who regard themselves as enlightened visionaries and whether their ideas, analyses or works shed light or cast further darkness on the nightmares of the post-colony.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

The Struggle to know a dark soul: Redi Thlabi's Endings and Beginnings


By  Sikhumbuzo Mngadi

The personal story, or the story of or about an individual’s experience, as opposed to one that raises explicitly large questions – of philosophy, politics, culture and society – the keyword here being “explicitly”, continues to exercise a notable influence on recent black South African writing. Given the times, this is to be expected: the large questions have shifted to the background and become, in the words of the American Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson, the “political unconscious” of the narratives.
Against this background, Redi Tlhabi’s Endings & Beginnings (Jacana) is a retrospective narrative of her brief platonic, but for an 11-year-old nevertheless intense, friendship with Mabegzo, an Orlando East jackroller, that raises deeper social questions within a personal narrative framework.
The author states her approach in the preface, “(m)y fervent belief that social conditions create the monsters who terrorise our lives and make us prisoners in our own country has made me curious about their background”.
My curiosity lies in the intersection of, and tension between, the personal and the socio-historical points of view that Tlhabi uses as the basis for this memoir.
For it is in the movement of the narrative between these modes that Tlhabi finds some difficulty in attempting to process, in 2004, the meaning of the events of her brief friendship with Mabegzo in the few months of 1989, which is also the time in which he died by a friend’s bullet at the age of 22.
In this light, Endings & Beginnings could be said to perform two seemingly mutually incompatible acts within two seemingly incompatible narrative frameworks: Tlhabi’s personal narrative seeks a symbolic exorcism of the “ghost” of Mabegzo, while the other seeks to explain the broader socio-historical context that shaped him.
The narrative framework of the 26-year-old Redi Tlhabi (nee Direko) is relatively secure in its empirical method and social analysis, and it is through this that she frames another, much less secure, of an 11-year-old Tlhabi grappling with a social milieu in which metaphysical explanations of social phenomena co-exist with sociological ones. For instance, describing some of the times she had with Mabegzo, the 11-year-old Tlhabi recalls one moment in which “he launched into the story of his life”, that is, of the gang-rape of his mother and of his birth from the rape, overheard in the streets from other children. But she also recalls how these moments of “clarity” – they never were clear – would be followed by spells of absence while Mabegzo visited a “sangoma for cleansing”.

Death of the Novel


By Mary Corrigall

The novel has been under threat for some time, or at least its defining qualities under constant revision. More recently, however, it seems as if its death is imminent. In this country, reports about the irrelevancy of the novel have been coming out more frequently than novels. There is almost a rush to discredit a work before it has even been written. The prized political novel has been deemed by many to be obsolete, or at least overshadowed by a flood of crime fiction, a new burgeoning genre here which it is thought is a better vehicle to address socio-political issues.
It's easy to declare that something is flourishing when it's so marketable.
Non-fiction works have been hailed as providing the new political and moral compass in the literary sphere, charting our realities more faithfully or immediately - Oscar Pistorius's murder trial is not even under way and Random Struik House has already announced that a book, No More Heroes, is in the offing.
Those singing the praises of non-fiction tend to be non-fiction writers who often haven't read local fiction for some time, a situation that publishers in South Africa say is so widespread there seems little reason to publish novels at all.
Can we really know, then, what state novel writing in this country is in if few make it on to the shelves?
Facts have had little to do with people making proclamations about the novel, which is what makes its status such an excellent subject for, well, fiction.
This may have been why Howard Jacobson, the British author and journalist, set out to write an irreverent novel about its irrelevancy. Zoo Time (Bloomsbury) is a first-person account by a fictional author called Guy Ableman, who is consumed by his struggle to write and sell another novel.
He enjoyed some success with his previous novel, wryly titled Who Gives a Monkey's? which set him up for a suitable run on the literary festival circuit.
But these gatherings are small, attracting mostly authors peddling their work, a smattering of|middle-aged women who sustain the egos of the male fraternity and old-age pensioners with little else to do - "literary festivals filled a gap in the calendar of the retired".

Thursday, 28 March 2013

This Book Betrays my Brother

By Rob Gaylard

Kagiso Lesego Molope's This Book Betrays my Brother (Oxford University Press) engages and convinces the reader, and does so with consummate skill.
It is a coming-of-age novel that depicts the growth pains of the narrator and her friends - early-teenage girls who are coming to terms with their sexuality. It describes the excitement of dating, going to your first social, the matric dance.
The need to be attractive to the opposite sex and to conform to social expectations is overwhelming. These scenes create a convincing familial and social context, and the intimate, local feel of the narrative is greatly enhanced by the frequent resort to Setswana words or expressions (a glossary is provided).
The protagonist and narrator, Naledi, is part of a well-to-do family. Her father owns a grocery shop, Tshwene's General Store. They have moved from the township (ko motseng or kasi) up to "diEx", the extension, where upwardly mobile middle-class families live.
The narrative explores these two worlds, and depicts the social and psychological realities that shape Naledi. She and her brother experience the tension between wanting to belong to their own township-based peer groups and of being part of a privileged group that attends private schools, plays rugby (rather than soccer) and speaks English much of the time.
Naledi's mother insists, "We are not the same". In this way the novel recalls the themes so memorably explored by Njabulo Ndebele in Fools and Other Stories.

SA evoked through rural battle: For the Mercy of Water


By Konstantin Sofianos

Karen Jayes's For the Mercy of Water (Penguin) is a strange, challenging novel, and a revelation. It makes much post-apartheid literature look banal, in its concerns, and amateurish, in execution.
At a time of severe water-crisis and drought, administration over this essential resource has been handed to the corporate control of "the company", which oversees the marketised supply of water in the big cities, and ruthlessly safeguards its dwindling sources in the parched, rural hinterland. The countryside has been largely abandoned following the imposition of ferocious tariffs on water-use, left to the silent transit of convoy-trucks, and to the rule of corporate militias, the "company men".
The absolute predominance of the company, guaranteed by the extension of executive powers in the national interest, is contested only by women, those too young or too old to make the harried trek into the cities, who launch daring night-raids on the reservoirs, or re-route the life-bearing corporate pipes and conduits. In this context of a simmering conflict, an unexpected rainfall brings the company soldiers to a desolate valley-town, where they confront a group of girls in the care of an aged school-teacher, known simply as Mother.
The narrative circles around the "unfortunate incidents" that ensue from this encounter, that will leave most of the girls dead, one soldier blinded, one girl, Eve, in flight, and the apparently traumatised schoolteacher under the ambiguous protection of NGOs and aid workers. A brief online report will draw Jayes's writer-protagonist and narrator to the valley, who arrives there in the novel's opening chapter, to be followed soon after by the company's organised effort to secure the area, and establish the official narrative of events.
All of this is to say precious little about the actual experience of reading Jayes's novel. The book opens with an epigraph by the aestheticist poet Rilke, and concludes with a citation from the Qur'an, and by acknowledging the support of, amongst others, André Brink. Between those unlikely coordinates a remarkable writerly capacity unfolds, which perhaps owes something to each, and it is through this finely-wrought instrument of style that the novel's actions and scenes are relayed.

Balanced meditation on Citizenship: Becoming Worthy Ancestors


By Aghogho Akpome

At a recent academic writing retreat, a prolific researcher advised a group of budding writers that it helps for an article to have a "sexy", attractive title. The appeal of Dr Xolela Mangcu's book Becoming Worthy Ancestors: Archive, Public Deliberation and Identity in South Africa (Wits University Press) goes beyond its catchy title.
For those with an interest in public debates on contemporary South African nationalism, democracy, history and group identity, Becoming Worthy Ancestors is a worthy read. And as one of the blurbs on the book's cover says, the informative analyses it contains enable productive "rethinking of what it means to have an inclusive conception of citizenship in South Africa" today.
The book is a collection of eight essays each dealing with either one or more of the social and political issues mentioned above. Mangcu brings together views from eight distinguished academics, six of whom are South Africans. The South Africans, in addition to Mangcu, are the late Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, Mtongela Masilela, Pumla Dineo Gqola and Carolyn Hamilton. The others are US-based Ghanaian Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Benedict Anderson and Martin Bernal, both of whom have British origins.
The contributions from the non-South Africans are particularly important due to their distance from the events and historical issues discussed in the book. The main effect of their international, "view from the edge", is that readers are offered a broad trans-regional and historical context within which local concerns may be considered. Potentially, this enables a more objective and balanced meditation on issues often distorted by recalcitrant emotions and prejudice.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Does 'SA Literature' matter?


By Leon de Kock

"Now, 10 years after JM Coetzee left the country ... South African literature in English does not matter very much any more.”
This sweeping – and to many, potentially devastating – comment, was uttered just a few weeks ago by veteran UCT-based critic Ian Glenn during his public spat with Imraan Coovadia.
In the context of his intra-UCT wrangle with Coovadia, Glenn’s judgement serves to diminish Coovadia’s importance as a South African author, but in a more general sense the statement deserves wider consideration.
Is it true that South African literature doesn’t matter “very much any more”?
A few years ago, I published an academic article under the title, Does South African Literature Still Exist? In that piece, I asked whether the anti-apartheid imperative of “landlocked”, special-case struggle literature had not fatally overdetermined what we used to call “SA Lit”.
Not only did the symbolic and legislative conditions for such a literature disappear after 1990 (though not the material ones), but the world also became “post-national”. It is a globalising world in which success as a writer increasingly demands readership – and content – beyond determinate borders.
 Simply put, “national” struggles such as apartheid – and national “exceptionalism” – no longer capture the world’s attention. As a writer, you now need to speak to larger issues, breaching terrestrial boundaries.
In the wake of apartheid’s end, the SA Lit “home industry” – built up at SA universities over about three decades by figures like Stephen Gray, Tim Couzens, Michael Chapman, Ian Glenn and others – quickly began to lose its steam.
Critical theory and cultural studies gradually eclipsed academic interest in SA Lit. It became a lot sexier in academia to write in one’s own name on discursive trends relating to cities and subcultures, for example, than to opine boringly about the qualities of yet another Gordimer novel.
At the same time, “creative nonfiction” authors like Jonny Steinberg and Antony Altbeker stole much of the limelight from the novelists who were trying to outdo Coetzee and Gordimer, and failing. “Reality” seemed to be getting the better of “imagination”.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Domestic Drudgery: Awerbuck's Home Remedies


By Mary Corrigall
There comes a point in Diane Awerbuck’s Home Remedies (Umuzi) when you become disinterested in Joanna Renfield, the main character.
It may have something to do with the fact that Joanna detests herself and her banal, domestic existence. She is a mother trapped in a loveless marriage and, as is to be expected, her identity has undergone a crisis since giving birth to her son.
Her ever-expanding “writer’s bottom”, as her husband affectionately calls it, has caused her to detach herself from her corporeal being, too. She has also lost touch with her sharp, former self; a highly educated researcher and writer.
But this persona hasn’t been completely discarded; as she lingers on the periphery of her consciousness in the form of an alter ego voice dubbed Dr Renfield.
Dr Renfield is there observing, passing judgment on her life, highlighting the ironies, encouraging Joanna to retain the details, as if the minutiae are important material for a literary project.
Dr Renfield reminds her that her mundane existence could have purpose, or could be justified as a necessary “sacrifice” at the altar of art.  But can Dr Renfield save her from the persistent suburban ennui that has engulfed Joanna?
Or is her alter ego the obstacle to  her fulfilment as a mother? It’s a role Joanna struggles to reconcile with. ”It was a blessing, it was a curse,” she says of the contradiction that thwarts her efforts to claim a fixed position.

Absence of Love: Malatji's Love Interrupted


By Rob Gaylard

Reneilwe Malatji is on record as saying: “We need stories that are told from the point of view of black people, we need stories from rural areas, we need stories from ekasi, ja genuine sincere stories.”
This debut collection of short stories, Love Interrupted (Modjaji) – written in partial fulfilment of the requirements for an MA in creative writing at Rhodes University – just about fits this description.
Malatji is familiar with the disjuncture between the rural poor and the privileged, educated class, and many of her stories explore the tensions this sets up.
Her strength lies in delineating particular situations, rather than in probing character and motive.
There is little sustained exploration of interiority, and little evidence of formal inventiveness, but the situations Malatji explores are often compromising or disturbing, and centre on dysfunctional relationships, marital abuse, and the irresponsibility of husbands or fathers. (A subtitle for the collection could be, “A good man is hard to find.”) There is, however, a flip side: what is the role of wives or mothers in apparently condoning or tolerating one-sided and often abusive relationships? What price marriage, one wonders?
The title story is one of the most powerful in the collection. Its grimly realistic narrative traces the decline and disintegration of a once-promising marriage between two school teachers.
How could things go so horribly wrong? It would be simplistic to blame any one person or one factor, although traditional expectations clearly have a role to play. The wife is “willing to go with the flow and be a good makoti”, yet, in the end, the story spares no one. All Anna (the wife) is left with at the end is “hope and faith”.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Unpacking colonial relations: Shades

By Mbongeni Malaba

Marguerite Poland's novel, Shades, is a profoundly moving and exquisitely crafted story of love, faith, missionary endeavour, the search for education and identity. It explores the quest for power, in the realm of families, and the broader Christian family at St Matthias Mission in the Eastern Cape. Poland intricately weaves together the lives of pivotal members of the community, principally Father Charles Farborough, who epitomises the dedication of a benevolent missionary, whose selfless devotion to his family and flock exemplifies the finest traditions of the contribution by missions in southern Africa.
He exudes loving-kindness and generosity of spirit, has more emotional intelligence than his wife, Emily; cares deeply about the well-being of his daughter Frances and son Crispin; and is deeply saddened by his failure to breach the barriers erected by his son's depression.
His wisdom and compassion are powerfully conveyed as Poland charts his close bond with Frances. This stands in stark contrast to the fraught nature of Emily's relationship with both her children: the chasm between mother and daughter is unbridgeable; and Emily does not hide her disappointment in her son's poor scholastic record. Thus Crispin and Frances grow up feeling inadequate, in terms of their mother's aspirations. Her devotion is centred on her nephew, Victor Drake.
Poland's masterstroke lies in her capacity to delineate the complexity of her characters in such a way that the reader constantly re-evaluates his or her relationship with them. Emily Farborough's limitations as a mother are rooted in the loss of her first and second offspring and the anguish that characterised the long drawn-out labour that resulted in a stillborn son. Her small stature belies her "titanic will".
Her alienation from Africa is seen in her iconic reverence of "Englishness", symbolised by her love of roses and family china and posset cups. Unlike her husband, whose faith is steadfast and all-embracing, hers is founded on strength borne from iron determination, an unrelenting moral code and hard bargaining with God.
The complex nature of love emerges in the contrasting relationships within families: Charles and Emily's relationship is based on mutual affection and respect. Victor and Frances' bond is predicated on bubbling hormones; Charles provides reassurance for Crispin and Walter Brownley, his former assistant, through gestures, like his heartfelt hugs and handshakes, which speak louder than words.

Meet the Author: Marguerite Poland


When did you start to write and at what point did you think of yourself as a writer?

I wrote my first book when I was nine. Of course, it wasn't published, but I saw it through and after that continued to "write books" (mostly desperate love stories) until my first |children's story was published in 1979 - 20 years later. I think I only thought of myself as a "real writer" when I saw my first big and serious review - for The Mantis and the Moon.

What was the seed and inspiration for Shades?

I think the seed for Shades was planted when I was a very small girl and met my great-grandmother, on whom Frances, the heroine of Shades, is based. It germinated further when I visited St Matthew's Mission near Keiskammahoek in the Eastern Cape, where my great-great-grandfather had been a missionary from 1872-1913.
Family tradition, stories and lore all contributed. But the real core of inspiration came from my great-grandmother's memoir written when she was in her eighties - a vivid account of life at St Matthew's. This led to intensive research into the period and the place.
I have always been interested in South African history - particularly the history of the Xhosa people, engendered by my study of African languages and social anthropology at university.

What was the main challenge in writing Shades?

The main challenge was getting to grips with the complex and turbulent history of South Africa at the turn of the 20th century and trying to weave it into the intimate story of a particular family without losing the focus of the very personal narrative concerning the protaganists.
I had to explore the events, issues and ideologies which shaped this country at that watershed in its history; the plethora of legislation which disempowered black people; the debate on the role of missionaries; the South African War and rinderpest pandemic and, most importantly, the establishment of the migrant labour system, which changed the shape of black South African society so tragically and irrevocably.

What impact did the writing of Shades have on you and what insights did it give you?

It had the greatest impact on me of anything I have written because, in writing it, I had to examine my own ideology - political and spiritual - and face up to the role that my family had played in shaping institutions - missions and the migrant labour system - which had such a profound effect on society.
I suppose it made me assess more clearly what it is to be a white South African - to understand the legacy I inherited and to meet the challenge of transcending that history.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a novel which has taken rather too long to germinate because of other responsibilities.
But as I have just launched Taken Captive by Birds, which has been such a happy collaboration with Craig Ivor, the artist, I am not too desperately stressed by the lag.  

Friday, 25 January 2013

Books Page expands and moves!


The Sunday Independent’s Books Page has expanded and moved to Page 18 in Dispatches. In a context where most reporting on literature in the mainstream press has steadily shrunk, it is worth celebrating the fact that The Sunday Independent has bucked this trend and restored the Books page to this section of the newspaper. The move will provide for more in-depth commentary on local and international fiction and non-fiction from some of the country’s finest minds. 

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Life Underground: Salman Rushdie's Joseph Anton




By Konstantin Sofianos

In the frantic opening passages of Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh, his fifth novel, and the first to appear following the globally-publicised fatwa or clerical decree ordaining his death, the eponymous Moraes Zogoiby is pictured fleeing the Alhambra-like mountain-fortress that had become his prison, bearing with him a sheaf of manuscript-pages that are his testimony. His persecutors are possibly already at his heels, and may lurk everywhere. As he plunges into the Andalusian woods, he nails pages from his testament onto passing trees, defiantly. He can do no other, presumably.
To return to The Moor's Last Sigh is to be reminded of the imaginative force and exuberance of Rushdie's writing at its best. Individual scenes are preternaturally vivid, words and phrases unroll like circus tumblers in every direction, and are gathered together again in bulging, comic sentences, that combine to exert an irresistible narrative pull. The dialogue is improbable and priceless: "inform your goodwife to shutofy her tap. Some hot-water trouble is leaking from her face." As the novel unfolds, it extends to embrace both the trans-oceanic pepper trade of the early modern period and a dynastic saga of four generations, full-up with formidable women-figures and cowed but tragic men, and still finds space to accommodate a troupe of delinquent Lenin-imposters. At its core, however, lies an exaltation of the occult capacities of art, a theme evoked in the resplendent frescoes of the blazing-eyed and white-haired Aurora, matriarch and painter, Rushdie's finest character.
Rushdie's previous novel, The Satanic Verses, had been published in 1988, and initially met with a favourable reception that placed it on that year's Booker Prize short-list. The text presented a sprawling, flamboyant fiction that ruminated on ideas of identity, migrancy and flux in a newly globalised world, but its appropriations from received accounts of the life of Mohammed, and its allusion to apocryphal passages allegedly once included in the Qur'an, the satanic verses of the title, attracted the attention, then the outrage, of Muslim authorities.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Double Identity: Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth




By Mary Corrigall

‘What a cheek,” observed Andre Brink coyly, at a recent dinner in Joburg, reflecting on assuming the voice of a woman in his latest novel Philida. Of course, for Brink writing under the guise of a woman, and a slave who suffered at the hands of his own ancestors, comes with the sort of political baggage that Ian McEwan, the British author, does not have to navigate. Yet in Sweet Tooth (Jonathan Cape, distributed by Random House Struik) McEwan is similarly weighed down by, or must justify, the female voice belonging to Serena Frome through which he narrates his spy novel.
In fact, in his idiosyncratic postmodernist manner, this concern is part of the plot, though it only becomes apparent at the novel’s close, when the true identity of the narrator is revealed, prompting you to plunge into the novel again, reading it through the secondary lens of the “actual” narrator.
Then it dawns on you that this is precisely what you have been doing all along; reading Miss Frome’s antics via an awareness that her words are McEwan’s, though at a certain point, when you become absorbed in her story, your cognisance of this filter tends to evaporate, only coming back into focus when his sometimes chauvinistic rendering of her irks.
In Sweet Tooth, McEwan is interested in the act of reading and the (unspoken) contract between the author and reader. This theme finds suitable expression through an amusing, if not ludicrous, double-identity spy plot, that sees the young, but ambitious Serena – she is dying to hop out of the typing pool and into the shadowy world of espionage – dispatched by MI5 to pose as a representative of a foundation that supports persecuted writers. It is part of a ploy to secure and nurture the talent of a young writer who would unwittingly be guided to promote the government’s policies.