THE EXTRAORDINARY POWER OF PERFORMANCE AND LIVE THEATRE IS FIRMLY ESTABLISHED AT THE REVIVAL IN 2022 OF THE LIVE FESTIVAL CIRCUIT

When you are sitting in contemplation at the end of a year, your head packed full of memories of live festivals for the first time in 24 months, you realise the excitement, exuberance and energy live theatre brings to both performers and audiences. There’s simply nothing that compares DIANE DE BEER discovers. Here are just a few of those magical moments…:

There were many performances that I will hold onto for a lifetime, some that linger, others that were a fun watch, and one performance in particular that just made me senselessly happy.

(Pictures of Die Moeder by Emma Wiehman and top far right, Nardus Engelbrecht)

It was also the play, the director, and the rest of the cast, (Dawid Minnaar, Ludwig Binge, Ashley de Lange) , but Sandra Prinsloo was the star of Die Moeder, which had its debut at the Woordfees. It held all the potential of being something special, but what this actor brought to the role was spectacular. If this is how she dances into the twilight of her career, buckle up.

Director Christiaan Olwagen has been away playing successfully in television and movies, but it’s always on stage that he has been most impressive for me. It feels as if it is a medium he understands and where he feels at home and his vision translates magnificently.

With that driving her and a magnificent script, it was up to Prinsloo to plumb the depths of an ageing woman who has lost all sense of herself as the world (and her family) seems to have discarded her. Or that’s how she perceives it to be.

Prinsloo slips under her character’s skin (and yours) and more in a performance that simply surpasses everything she has done before (and there were some great ones). But this was next level and for this gracious actor, a just reward for years and years of hard work.

We all knew she was one of the greats and then she went one better! We’re blessed to have her.

The other magic Saartjie Botha created, with live performances allowing yet another experience of Sylvaine Strike and Andrew Buckland’s Ferine and Ferasse, was the breathtaking Firefly. A production I can see over and over again, each time reliving the complete and overwhelming embrace of old-fashioned storytelling.

But let’s start  at the beginning. I have been to perhaps too many festivals in my time, but this was my first time at Cape Town’s Suidooster at the start of a new (and hopefully) live 2022 and I was surprised and impressed by Jana Hatting’s ingenuity. Some of the smaller festivals have tight budgets, audience complexities and artists who are all vying for a slice of the cake.

She introduced a brilliant mini season titled Voices/Stemme for which she invited seasoned and exciting younger talent to tell stories, short ones, and they hit all the right buttons. It’s good at a festival, where the menu is diverse, to have short interludes of dedicated excellence. And with performances by Chris van Niekerk, Devonecia Swartz, Buhle Ngaba and Elton Landrew, for example, with directors and writers like Amelda Brand, Wessel Pretorius, Dean Balie and Jemma Kahn for these 10-minute short pieces, it hit the sweet spot time and again. And the shows were all free … and packed.

Because of the Zap Zap Circus, also on the Artscape premises, they’re included as part of the festival and that’s another huge tick in the box. There’s nothing like a circus for the whole family and especially this one, where such amazing development work is being done, is worth promoting. It also meant that the venue was available for other shows.

It’s a great little festival with great vibes as it is all contained on the premises of Artscape. Watch out for this one with many hidden treasures including young talent showing off their best on many different platforms. They had some amazing jazz as well, with some literary excellence happening on the writing/authors side.

KKNK was back with a bang, a smaller and shorter festival, but one that packed a punch. Perhaps it was a case of old favourites back at their best, but with the long break, that’s exactly what we wanted. Marthinus Basson delivered a double whammy with a recharged Ek, Anna van Wyk and a play that crept up on me and is still at work, Terminaal 3, both with star casts and both lingering with obliterating impact.

For me it was also a renewed admiration of Frieda van den Heever, the director and compiler of Oerkluts Kwyt, a programme celebrating the poetry of Antjie Krog, and the performance brilliance of Antoinette Kellermann, both of whom turned 70. Van den Heever had previously created the perfect Die Poet Wie’s Hy with Dean Balie.

She has a wonderful sensibility, she knows how to pick them and then present a programme basically consisting of the spoken word and music, but the way she balances content and creativity is delicately stunning. For this one she also brought on board astonishing sounds, two women who sing under the Ancient Voices title, the duo Lungiswa Plaatjies and Nimapostile  Nyiki, –  extraordinary.

Anna Davel

I was also reminded this year to watch out for producer/performer/writer Anna Davel (production manager for above mentioned show). She has turned into someone who seems to spot gold. She was also responsible (and part of performance) for Aardklop’s Mixtape van die Liefde where another new artist, Stephanie Baartman, made her mark. She has been part of the television soapie circuit for a few years, but she announced her presence on stage with poetry and song. And that, I suspect, is just a smidgeon of what she will show in the future.

Everyone was also raving about Davel’s exceptional 21, presented at KKNK. She has always shone on stagte, but her voice and her comfort levels on stage have matured magnificently.

Karatara, a production I’ve written about frequently, is one that honours the story which deals with the devastating Knysna fires. The performers (dancers Grant Van Ster and Shaun Oelf and Dean Balie, narrator) as well as the creative team, Wilken Calitz and Gideon Lombard created something extraordinary . It’s worth seeing again and again as it feeds the soul.

And who can forget the art of Karen Preller? Her mesmerising exhibiton took you back in time in an extraordinarily unique way.

Om Skoon Te Wees with Conradie van Heerden

And as an interlude there was the hugely successful Lucky Pakkies, an extension of the previously popular Uitkampteater, which created a stage for shorter if no less exciting work and some extraordinary performances.

It’s also a concept that allows performers to practise and hone their craft in different genres as well as roles. Writers are given a chance for short and sassy work, actors have a smaller if intimate and often vulnerable stage and directors are offered an opportunity to try different things in challenging spaces.

In the Free State, it is always the art that overwhelms and again they didn’t disappoint, one example being Pitika Ntuli’s Return To The Source (which can still be seen at the Oliewenhout Art Museum on your way to the coast), which is simply stunning and perfect for the space at that amazing institution, and they also have a provocative permanent exhibition worth viewing again and again. André Bezuidenhout’s unique photographs was another winner, with the subject well-chosen and then magnificently captured.

And then there was the welcome return of Elzabé Zietsman with the hard-hitting Femme is Fatale. This is someone who understands how to grab you by the throat when there’s no other way. Her intent is to violently if necessary showcase gender-based violence. We all know the scourge it is in this country and no one is listening.

She is going to try her best to make you listen. And with a script which is as blunt and blistering as it is determined, she hits where it hurts most. Being the veteran she is, there’s not a note, a line or a hair out of place and she shows what contemporary cabaret can achieve when done with heartfelt honesty. It’s a courageous and memorable performance.

Another standout and engaging performance was the dance production Blame It On the Algorithm by the Darkroom Contemporary Dance Theatre. It was mesmerising, memorable and something completely different, always a gift for a festival.

Finally it was with a new stance that Aardklop approached the 2022 live season. Instead of hosting a festival in Potchefstroom (it will be returning there in 2023), shows were also presented in Pretoria and Jozi. There are many differing opinions about the success, but for artistic director Alexa Strachan it is about survival.

They’re a small and possibly struggling yet determined artistic collective and they produced a few winners of which the standout was Nataniël’s Die Smitstraat Suite, an astonishing accomplishment.

It’s been a lifelong dream for this prolific artist/composer whom many simply know as a pop composer. Not being my field of expertise, he explained that the music was inspired by the classical oratorium with nine compositions sung in English and Latin (some of his songs not previously recorded combined with original music). He was accompanied by the excellent Akustika Choir led by Christo Burger.

And to add his trademark stamp, an original series of stories, which cleverly pulls the title and the full performance together.

This is what makes him so unique. Few people have the skill to come up with something as complicated as this music with choir and solo parts, accompanied by the Charl du Plessis Trio. And then to add some achingly funny stories that introduce an explosive touch before you lose yourself again in the exquisite music.

He also had two other performances at festivals during the year. First there was Moscow at the Suidooster at the beginning of the year and then Prima Donna at the KKNK. Both of these were innovative and unique in performance, scripts and music, all executed by the artist himself except for the musicans (Charl du Plessis Trio) and costume designer Floris Louw who all contributed with flourish.

Aardklop Aubade’s driving force Charl du Plessis

Produced under the Aardklop Aubade flag, this classical season, introduced by Aardklop and led by Charl du Plessis presents Sunday morning classical concerts at Affies to re-introduce the classics to a previously enthusiastic audience as well as a stage for especially solo artists, but not exclusively so. It’s another great festival invention.

In similar vein, with the help of the KKNK, artists Neil Coppen and Vaughn Sadie established the ongoing Karoo Kaarte with the aim of promoting real change in communities. The idea was to use the arts in many different ways to change the narrative of the Oudtshoorn community to a more inclusive one.

These were early days, but the work which included fine art projects to navigate and explore identities as well as a theatre production which involved the community and workshopped a story to include all their lives and dreams.

Ownership has been activated, but this was simply the beginning and it is going to be hugely exciting to watch how this develops and how local artists are given wings.

And of course there was so much more…

ZIMBABWEAN AUTHOR SIPHIWE GLORIA NDLOVU DELIGHTS WITH THE GLORIOUS QUALITY OF MERCY

With the launch of the third in a trilogy, The Quality of Mercy (Penguin), author Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu has firmly established herself as a writer not to be ignored. As an admirer, DIANE DE BEER writes about the way she captivates with her unique storytelling:

WHEN handed the third book in a trilogy by Zimbabwean author Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu to review, my heart went up an extra beat. I had launched the first book The Theory of Flight in Pretoria a few years back, had done an email interview and reviewed the second The History of Man during lockdown and again, to my delight,  I was invited to launch this latest, The Quality of Mercy.

The last is always my best, arguably because I remember it best. But I can still recall how thrilled Iwas, not yet having met the sublime Siphiwe yet, on reading the first. I immediately recognised a unique and very particular voice – and then came the second, which approached writing in a completely different style.

Third time was not such a surprise, because by now, I knew the author better and realised that for her own imagination (a wild one, early in her life activated by her grandmother) and playful nature, she had to write in this way.

Asking about the three novels and what each one represents, she embroidered: “The three novels that make up the City of Kings trilogy – The Theory of Flight, The History of Man and The Quality of Mercy – all deal with aspects of Africa’s modern history. The History of Man deals with the colonial moment and its many (often limiting) narratives; the story of Emil Coetzee serves as a critique of colonial power.

The Quality of Mercy is a story of transition and delineates a country’s journey from being a colonial state to a postcolonial state. The Theory of Flight is concerned with the postcolonial moment and its gradual loss of ‘ease’ as it becomes a place of increasing dis ‘ease’; the story of Imogen Zula Nyoni calls for a different kind of revolution from the one that led to independence.”

If she were simply telling stories it would have been fine, because she is such a superb storyteller and probably we would have loved it still, but it is also the way she goes about capturing the history of her land (ours and more) in a time of transition and beyond  – as well as, of course, before.

There’s a lightness in the telling, but don’t let her deceive you. She has found her own subversive way of saying exactly all the serious things she wants to, subtly without being preachy.

For example, she had no qualms, as a black female writer, to step into the shoes of a white male protagonist, and then one who was running a deeply secretive intelligence office in a colonial land which we all know but which she never names. And pulls it off with aplomb and terrifying insight.

In conversation with Siphiwe at the Centurion Mall for the launch of The Quality of Mercy.

It is the way she climbs under the skin of a man who grew up privileged, but as he moved up in the world into the world, turned into a man difficult to recognise, driven from the outside rather than a true belief in what he was doing.

And that’s where her gift lies. The insight she shares about things that we all think we know and understand. This writer has a different take which she launches with a light yet incisive heft.

Talking about the period she has chosen to set this trilogy, she explains that the major plot of The Quality of Mercy, the investigation of a crime, takes place over a span of five months, December 1979 to April 1980. “Since this is a story about how a country transitions from being a colonial to a post-colonial state, these dates correspond with two very important dates in Rhodesian and Zimbabwean history – the date when the ceasefire that brought an end to the civil war was announced (December 21, 1979) and the date when independence was officially granted (April 18, 1980).

“This period of transition holds within it both hope and uncertainty  ̶  what will the post-colonial moment be like, how will power change and shift, what will the experience of ‘independence’ feel like, will we all feel equally free, what will we do about the past injustices created by the many forms of colonial violence, will we seek vengeance or justice for the wrongs of the past…”

With this latest novel, even if I knew to expect the unexpected I was still caught out. I wasn’t expecting her to come at me with such a surge of visual delight, and much of it has to do with her protagonist, Spokes M Maloi. Only the toughest heart wouldn’t  immediately embrace this detective who is married to the light of his life, Loveness.

There’s a reason for the loveliness and charm of Spokes, his particular job description and the fact that this one is a crime novel. Siphiwe explains: “The main protagonist of The Quality of Mercy is Chief Inspector Spokes M. Moloi, a long-serving policeman in the British South Africa Police (BSAP). Part of what I wanted to examine about the period that the novel covers is how the idea of ‘independence’ was different for different groups of people because settler colonialism had created very narrow definitions of citizenship and belonging that were based on extremely binary and limiting views on race, gender, ethnicity, class etc.

In the company of Siphiwe and her mom Sarah celebrating the latest book The Quality of Mercy.

“In order to achieve a more inclusive and bird’s eye view of this moment, I had Spokes, as a black man who had lived his entire life in a segregated country, investigate a crime that would take him into the homes and lives of an incredibly diverse group of characters. Given the particular period of history that the novel deals with, Spokes’ mobility and ease of access would have been extremely restricted and curtailed by his race (and in some instances) his gender and class were it not for the fact that his country was actively moving towards being post-colonial and he had in his possession a detective’s badge.”

He’s also at the end of his career, and as his country is attempting to move into a new phase, so he and especially his wife, are set on slipping into a much gentler realm.

There are a few hold-ups though. There’s a case that just won’t let go. Daisy was a woman killed quite brutally and spokes has never found the monster who did the dastardly deed. But no more give-aways.

This is a book you want to read without too much knowledge in hand. It has to be approached with the energy and exuberance the writer intended, and if you haven’t read any of her novels yet, you’re in for a treat.

While they are viewed as a trilogy, Siphiwe is happy to talk about interconnectedness, and I suspect there are a few still to come. Writing about the City of Kings, where she was born and has given her heart to, she has created a community with some figures more prominent than others in each of the books.

And because the protagonist in one might pop into another very scantily, once you know a bit more, there’s a curiosity to go back and re-discover where you first met someone and what all the connections are.

When she sat down to write her fist one, Theory of Flight which won the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize, Siphiwe had an idea of what her story was going to be, but it is only as she writes that everything becomes fleshed out in glorious detail   ̶  and she is also caught unawares.

“What I have enjoyed most in writing the City of Kings trilogy is the slow revelation of how the different stories fit together – The Quality of Mercy begins where The History of Man ends and ends where The Theory of Flight begins, bringing everything full circle. If I had known from the first that I was setting out to write a trilogy, I would have been too overwhelmed by the prospect, so I am very happy and relieved that it was all a process of gradual discovery.”

Perhaps none of us, not even the writer, knows what’s coming. What we do know is that she will sweep you off your feet all over again.

THE MANY FACES OF HOERKIND’S HERMAN LATEGAN AS HE FIGHTS THE GOOD FIGHT

Journalist/writer Herman Lategan starts Hoerkind (Penguin) with a paragraph which states that this is how he remembers his life, and what happened from his birth until today. He notes that he was blessed to know people and to write about them. He also admits that memories can be deceiving. That there is no literary consciousness to be found. If there is a conclusion necessary to this writing, he hopes a reader or two could be encouraged to fight their fragility. Everything is fleeting. DIANE DE BEER interviewed him at his Pretoria Exclusive Books launch, was captivated by him … and his writing:

When I first read about Herman Lategan’s book Hoerkind, Die Memoires van ‘n Randeier (outsider) I realised I knew nothing about his life. When I was asked to chat to him for the Pretoria Exclusive Books launch earlier, I immediately said yes.

During the first reading of the book, my heart stopped several times and I rushed through it at breakneck speed. When I said I didn’t know anything about this beautiful boy, that wasn’t the half of it.

Because Herman lives in the Cape and now writes mostly for Afrikaans media, I only met him quite recently. Once people knew I was talking to him, lots of little titbits were recycled but I’ve always had a rule about gossip, unless something or someone has done something to me personally, I don’t take much notice. Life’s too short.

In conversation

I was slightly worried because I know Herman struggles emotionally and has addiction problems but on the night we had our conversation, he was exactly who I thought he would be. He was kind and funny and comfortable talking about what was a really challenging life   ̶   and I don’t know many who would have sailed through it like he did.

And if that implies that it was easy, not at all. But he has a will to live, to make it and in spite of those who put him down throughout his life, he is determined to survive. It’s that bravado and courage, but also the vulnerability that caught my attention the first time we met.  I think he felt it, because I knew from the start, Herman would be as charming as he always is when the two of us bump into one another.

Playing the cool kid.

And he was. Not that he didn’t shock his Pretoria audience with his salty tongue, but with a title like Hoerkind (Whore Child), they would have expected that and we were all adults in the room.

Back to his story. At a second reading I could sit back and appreciate the life he had tried to navigate, the many angels he had watching over him (most spotted by him) in a life where he must have believed evil triumphs over goodness. It really takes your breath away.

There’s much about the book that I loved beginning with Herman’s voice. Like me, he started out writing in his second language (English) mainly because he had turned his back on anything Afrikaans, because it was there that he felt he received only harshness.

But in more recent times he has embraced his mother tongue and anyone who experiences his way with Afrikaans words and stringing words together, will know it’s where he belongs. It comes naturally, without pretence or a dictionary at hand – or that’s how it reads.

And because he has written the book in almost choppy chapters, allowing the events themselves to dictate, it’s an easy read. It fluctuates in mood and tempo and while much of what he has experienced has been harrowing, it is through his ability to find people who will embrace him, even adopted families who protect him, that he manages to forge ahead and achieve a life that would be admirable even without the hardships.

The Herman Lategan persona.

Understanding that he has had to do it all himself and that he knew instinctively when and where to turn for help, you also understand why he is such a survivor. Many in these circumstances would have become completely dependent on others. I don’t think he was ever allowed to do that. He had to fight his way through, go and find the answers of his neglectful parents for himself so that he could stop being the victim and forge a life that is completely reliant on his own talents – and there are many.

What’s not to love and hold?

That is exactly what he has done. Does he regret not having parents who were present in especially his young life? Of course, who wouldn’t. Is he still sad about that? Yes. And that’s never going to pass. But what he hasn’t done, is to feel so sorry for himself that it paralysed him.

He’s not that patient. Life isn’t going to pass him by. He has received as much joy as sorrow and he has decided to focus on all of it, hence the book.

He appreciates the people who have reached out a hand, but he hasn’t allowed that to define him. As many who gave, there were others who took away. He understood this balance and has probably always been battling the percentages, even putting himself at the coalface of his fears.

The Herman Lategan I know. Now you see him now you don’t …

So far he is winning and that’s the way he would say it too. He doesn’t take life for granted, that luxury has never been part of his life  ̶  and in retrospect, he will probably recognise it as a gift. It’s how he kept jostling ahead.

Because Herman is as adept in English as Afrikaans, I’m holding thumbs that he rewrites/translates the book into English. It’s been hugely successful and a wider audience is certainly out there   ̶   waiting.

Since this writing, the book is being translated, so those of you wanting to read it, hang tight.

It’s that radiant a read.

THE SUPPORT OF MOTHER-TONGUE VOICES, THE PRIMARY AIM OF THE AVBOB POETRY PROJECT

The AVBOB poetry competition is a smart way to pay it forward in a country where words help to heal the past as well as celebrate hope. DIANE DE BEER celebrates the way the company has opted to play its part:

The AVBOB Poetry Trophies

If you think of projects companies could back to boost their philanthropic profile, poetry doesn’t immediately come to mind. But that’s exactly the route AVBOB, the funeral company, selected.

The link, of course, is the words. What do people need when attending a funeral or dealing with relatives or friends who have lost someone? And that’s what they have so cleverly done – while casting a wide net.

Not only did they decide to spotlight poetry, they also chose to feature all South Africa’s 11 languages in the process. What they have achieved even more smartly is to pay attention to the small stuff and to get it right.

It’s no small challenge to run a national poetry competition in 11 languages. And to then select 11 winners, one for each official language. Once these are selected, all the poems are translated and each year a poetry anthology is published to further celebrate the poems, and in the bigger picture, poetry as a whole.

Eleven talented poets were announced as the overall winners of the 2022 AVBOB Poetry Competition at a gala prize-giving at the Pretoria Country Club at the end of last month. The evening was a glorious celebration of the power of poetry to bring people together, to build community, and to offer uplifting words in times of loss.

AVBOB CEO Carl van der Riet in his keynote address described poetry as an art that has a unique ability to bypass the rational mind and logical intellectual process and to speak directly to the heart.

AVBOB’s CEO, Carl van der Riet

“We have a rich heritage of poetry in South Africa. So, as we each observe Heritage Day on 24 September, I would like to encourage all of us to also remember this unique part of our heritage which has served as such a beacon of hope and inspiration for people.”

Each winner received a prize which included R10 000 cash, a R2 500 book voucher, and an elegant trophy. Each guest also received a copy of the annual anthology containing the winning poems, I wish I’d said… Vol. 5, which was launched at the event.

Van der Riet explained, “The support of mother-tongue voices has been a primary aim of the AVBOB Poetry Project since the very beginning and so the editors were encouraged that 65% of all poems entered were written in South Africa’s vernacular languages.” He further noted that the AVBOB Poetry Library now contains over 17 000 poems, each of which earned the poet a usage fee of R300. That amounts to over R5.2m spent on building a cultural repository of poems available to those who need words of comfort and consolation.

The top six poems in each language appear in the anthology accompanied by an English translation. A selection of commissioned poems and four Khoisan poems from the Bleek and Lloyd collection round out the anthology. This comprehensive collection was compiled by the editor-in-chief of the AVBOB Poetry Competition, Johann De Lange, and the esteemed Xitsonga academic, literary translator and founding chair of the PAN South African Language Board, Professor Nxalati CP Golele.

De Lange said, “Poetry bears witness to our lives, our loves and our losses. It helps us traverse major transitions, giving us the words to name the feelings and to tame the emotions. It helps us to fathom what we must live for, define what we must protect, and focus on what we must promote in a changing world.”

Viewers around the country participated simultaneously via livestream on AVBOB Poetry’s social media channels.

The 2022 AVBOB Poetry Prize winners are: Clinton V. du Plessis (Afrikaans), Letitia Matthews (English), Nkosinathi Mduduzi Jiyana (isiNdebele), Sipho Kekezwa (isiXhosa), Nomkelemane Langa (isiZulu), Pabalelo Maphutha (Sepedi), Kgobani Mohapi (Sesotho), Molebatsi Joseph Bosilong (Setswana), Prisca Nkosi (Siswati), Mashudu Stanley Ramukhuba (Tshivenda) and Pretty Shiburi (Xitsonga).

To order I Wish I’d Said… Vol.5 SMS the word ‘POEM’ to 48423 (at a standard cost of R1.50 per SMS) to have it posted to you at a total cost of R240. Alternatively, email your order to tertia@naledi.co.za or find it at selected bookstores. Visit www.avbobpoetry.co.za to find elegiac poems for reading aloud at funerals or to include in memorial leaflets, and to register to enter the 2023 AVBOB Poetry Competition (which closes on 30 November 2022).

AVBOB POETRY PRIZE WINNERS IN MORE DETAIL:

2022 AFRIKAANS WINNER – Clinton V. du Plessis

Clinton V. du Plessis lives in Cradock in the Eastern Cape where he works as an accountant. He is a prolific poet with many poetry collections to his name and his work has appeared in translation in the international arena. Listening to stories on the radio was a powerful formative influence in his childhood. He particularly loved listening to PH Nortje’s Die groen ghoen and was desperately keen to read the book. His father, who was a labourer on the railways, persuaded his boss to borrow the book from the library on young Clinton’s behalf. His winning poem Leemte is an achingly tender tribute, written in honour of his father.

2022 ENGLISH WINNER – Letitia Matthews

Letitia Matthews feels blessed to live on the southern border of the Kruger National Park with her husband, Peter. She’s a freelance web and graphic designer who found that helped her through heart-breaking losses. As a cancer survivor, she realised that loss also leads to new life and adventures. These experiences showed her how to navigate bereavement. Her poem Time Of Death comes from the dark nights and empty days that eventually led to her embracing life again.

2022 ISINDEBELE WINNER – Nkosinathi Mduduzi Jiyana

Nkosinathi Mduduzi Jiyana is known in spoken word poetry circles as Gembe Da Poet. He comes from KwaDlawulale in Limpopo, and after discovering a love of writing poetry in 2018, established a reputation as a vibrant slam poet. His poem Ithemba alibulali encourages youth to be strong, to resist fear, and to remain faithful when grief strikes. He believes that by entering the poetry competition he is exhibiting his writing talent.

2022 ISIXHOSA WINNER – Sipho Kekezwa

Sipho Kekezwa is a prolific and multi-award-winning author of children’s books, dramas, short stories and YA novels. He started his writing life as a voracious reader. Various of his titles have wearned significant acclaim over the years, but this is his first poetry award. His dramatic work, Ubomi, ungancama!, published by Oxford University Publishers in 2020, won the 2021 SALA Award in the Youth Literature category. Sipho’s winning poem ICocekavaras is a plea to heed common sense and to get vaccinated. After living in Khayelitsha for 26 years, he recently returned to East London to continue his work as a freelance editor, proofreader, translator, book reviewer and creative writing facilitator.

2022 ISIZULU WINNER – Nomkelemane Langa

Nomkelemane Langa claims the majestic rolling hills of northern KwaZulu-Natal as his geographic and cultural heritage. Born in the deep rural village of Nkandla he now lives in Richards Bay where he freelances as a TV producer and presenter, Maskandi singer and guitarist, author, poet, crafter, actor and MC.

His winning poem Mhla lishona ilanga is an aching portrait of grief set between the last light of dusk and the first light of dawn. He started writing poetry in high school as a member of the Isulabasha Dancing Pencils Writing Club. He attributes his success to the ancestral promptings that guide his words.

2022 SEPEDI WINNER – Pabalelo Maphutha

Praise poems and powerful words were Pabalelo Maphutha’s inheritance at birth. He was born into a family of traditional praise poets and writers in rural Ga-Mphahlele in Limpopo, and grew up with a deep love of the written and spoken word. He began writing and performing his own poems in the mid-2000s, while still at school. He has appeared in various theatrical and film productions and is committed to serving his artistic goals with passion, focus, and dedication. His poem Se išeng dipelo mafiša reflects on the process of aging and death and will comfort all who have lost an elder.

2022 SESOTHO WINNER – Kgobani Mohapi

Kgobani Mohapi comes from the eastern Free State town of Lindley. He has entered the AVBOB Poetry Competition every year since its inception to test his poetic skills against the best in the country and came second in 2019. His poem Ke o entseng deals with the issues lovers would ask after a separation. He was inspired to write poetry by his Sesotho teacher, Mr NJ Malindi. Kgobani is also a novelist, with a novel titled Lerato.

2022 SETSWANA WINNER – Molebatsi Joseph Bosilong

Molebatsi Joseph Bosilong is an educator and a published author from the North West province with an enormous passion for the arts. He is an engaged member of the regional writers community, committed to sharing opportunities and information with fellow Setswana writers. His poems appear in Volume 4 of the poetry anthology, ‘I wish I’d said…’ He used the form of the Mosikaro, which uses the first letter of the first word of each line going downwards to spell out the word Tsholofelo, which means hope. Tsholofelo is both the title and the theme of his poem, which pays tribute to the health workers who battled the pandemic and the hope for a vaccine to defeat the virus. He wrote this poem to heal from the pain of losing his mother.

2022 SISWATI WINNER – Prisca Nkosi

Nomvula Prisca Nkosi started writing short stories and poems at a very young age. She lives in Ermelo, where she works at a hamburger joint. While she makes fast food, she has many deep thoughts. She decided to enter the competition to improve her writing skills and to give voice to her rich imagination. Her poem Imihuzuko explores the scars that tell of life’s injuries. “Some people lose hope while others gain strength through their suffering,” says Prisca, “and to share the experience inside me.” This is her first poetry award.

2022 TSHIVENDA WINNER – Mashudu Stanley Ramukhuba

Mashudu Stanley Ramukhuba was born in Ha-Rabali village in Limpopo’s Nzhelele Valley. He attended Rabali Primary School and, later, Patrick Ramaano Mphephu Secondary School, where his love of poetry grew strong. He was inspired to enter the competition on the death of beloved family members. “When my sister died very young, it was hard to believe I would never see her again,” he says of his winning poem Maḓuvha a mudali. This carefully crafted and formal work honours his sister’s life. The poet reminds the reader in a wise and gentle tone that we are all visitors on this earth, and encourages us to consider our legacy. Mashudu is married and currently unemployed.

2022 XITSONGA WINNER – Pretty Shiburi

Pretty Shiburi is a poet making powerful connections. Born and raised in Madobi village in the far northern part of South Africa and currently studying electrical engineering at Westcol TVET College in Krugersdorp, this is a poet who makes sparks fly. Her darkly funny poem N’hwembe explores the idea of home and ownership by examining a pumpkin vine, which causes consternation in its wanderings into the neighbour’s yard. This playful metaphor demonstrates her  love of her mother tongue and offers a wry glance at other wanderers.

WHEN CREATIVES GET TALKING ABOUT THEIR WORK, IT CAN OPEN NEW WAYS TO NAVIGATE

As part of Karoo Klassique earlier in August, two Herzog prize-winners, Ingrid Winterbach (Voorouer. Pelgrim. Berg.) and Johan Myburg (Narreskip) chatted about their latest work. DIANE DE BEER reports on two informative conversations on creativity:

As a double Herzog Prize winner, a new novel by author Ingrid Winterbach is always a celebration. But it’s not only the accolades of course, it is the writing that gets people talking.

Voorouer. Pelgrim. Berg. (NB Publishers), her latest novel was the book under discussion and she was in conversation with book editor Elna van der Merwe. The fact that the one had written and the other was so familiar with the content, turned this into something extraordinary – and, for the prospective reader, an indication of whether this was something for them or not. That is what book discussions should do – not only explain or dissect the book but also encourage those listening to read.

Talking about the writing process, Winterbach was quick to note that if she had to wait for inspiration, she wouldn’t have been as prolific. As most writers would attest, it’s a hard daily grind of writing, re-writing and refining, and her latest book deals with family history and, at the other end of the spectrum, online dating to bring some light relief.

She and artist husband Andries Gouws have separate studios where they work every morning and where she writes. Afternoons might be spent painting. She chats delightfully about the writing process. Having written more than a dozen books (as well as others under the pseudonym Lettie Viljoen), she finds herself revisiting old themes. “But now I approach them differently,” she says, the implication being that she’s older and wiser.

Elna van der Merwe and Ingrid Winterbach.

Even if her books are viewed as challenging, when writing, she doesn’t think about the readers. Writing is enough of a challenge and her plots are never straightforward.  She knows it would be easier to simply have a plot that’s marching towards a final conclusion, but that’s never been the way she tells stories. “That doesn’t interest me at all,” she says as she illustrates her penchant for a “sombre story with manic pace”.

When asked about the way she uses language and introduces English slang, she’s quick to note that she doesn’t know anyone under 50 who speaks pure Afrikaans. It would sound unnatural in today’s world, she believes, if she should write in that pure sense. The only character who does speak Afrikaans without any deviations in this particular book is a character called Gysbert, who is slightly mad.

And that is how she defines her characters, by playing with their dialogue. “The fact that he speaks in the way he does, is part of his aberration.”

Writing for her is a time she searches for something new, something that challenges her. Just as she doesn’t want to read the same book over and over again, the same instincts kick in when writing.

For her it is about writing brilliantly. As Van der Merwe pointed out, Ingrid would be bored with a mediocre novel – either reading or writing. It was fascinating listening to these two specialists in their craft talk about both writing and reading.

Poet Johan Myburg with author Ingrid Winterbach

Winterbach later sat down to speak to fellow Herzog prize winner, poet Johan Myburg, about his latest poetry book, Narreskip (Protea Books, see https://bit.ly/3bjfs9b) and with these two writers working in different genres, they shared their mutual admiration.

To listen to the novelist discuss her impressions of a master poet was extremely special. She started by describing Narreskip as fresh and astonishing, written with outrage, but never shrill, always controlled.

Both of them admitted that they would like to swap genres once in a while, but that it wouldn’t be possible, hence the admiration.

Winterbach explained the differences as poets (carrying) everything with them, while for a novelist when writing, it’s like going on a camping trip when writing a book.

Both were equally intrigued with the other’s process and because they understand writing, the process was also diligently discussed.

Asked about when to rhyme and when not, Myburg responded that the poem is the one that demands. “It also has to do with the look of a poem on a page,” he explained. Who would have thought?

As someone who uses a lot of references and not many that ordinary readers would recognise, Winterbach gave a handy guide of how to approach each of the Myburg poems. She obviously had huge fun reading and noted that it was a massive learning exercise for her. That’s just the way Myburg writes and because his areas of speciality are so wide-ranging, he can dip into quite obscure places.

Being an art critic is particularly handy as he reaches into the past to look at the present. Pointing to the famous Yeats line from his poem The Second Coming:

 And what rough beast, it’s hour come round at last…

This is where his poetry took her.

Two special writers.

She would first read the poem and then start analysing and checking possible references. It meant that not only was she more informed after reading the poems, she understood and thus enjoyed them more – and only then can the reader truly wallow in the wealth of riches provided by the poet.

And speaking about language, she was delighted to read that even when dabbling in the 15th and 16th centuries, he could tongue-in-cheek have a scribe writing a blog! Or when writing about muti murders, he would reference the Goya sketches Disasters of War and not giving these particular poems titles, it was as if the journalist stepped forward and reported what he had witnessed.

Both these two talks emphasized the importance of book launches and also the fun. If you match the right people, not only will prospective readers gain insight, but they will also have a much better understanding of the author as well as the writing process and in some instances, how to approach a specific poetry collection or novel. I felt blessed.

POET JOHAN MYBURG, A MAN OF WISE, WONDROUS AND WITTY WORDS

A book launch is exciting especially when something as rare as an Afrikaans poetry book is being introduced. Narreskip (Protea Boeke) by Johan Myburg was the collection being celebrated. DIANE DE BEER wants to invite poetry patrons to share her enchantment:

 

One of my favourite writers, Johan Myburg, recently launched his 4th poetry book titled Narreskip (loosely translated as Ship of Fools) and, without spoiling the fun, it is the life around him that he observes and spotlights.

Poetry is something I have always loved and checked from the side lines. More than anything, I love other people reading and talking about poetry – making sense of my own reading experience.

And then, Johan writes in Afrikaans, and while it is my mother tongue, I write in English and am perhaps not as familiar with my first language as I should be.

He was surprised when I told him there were many words I didn’t understand. It’s not that the language is that highbrow, it’s simply that he has a phenomenal vocabulary and makes use of words that few people still use. But that also gets your attention. It’s not just what he is writing about but the way he engages with the language.

Even his references send you scuttling to google and you do, because it is intriguing enough to get your curiosity salivating.

But I digress. In spite of all my qualms, Johan’s writing is especially interesting because, even if poetry might seem scary to some, and he is quite the intellectual, he has a way of writing that is embracing and accessible. And that more than anything is what makes it so fascinating.

Poetry can be alienating to many people and when you start talking about Herzog Prize winners like this particular poet, it could be even more intimidating. But now I’m starting to sound scary – even to myself – and that’s not the point of this exercise.

 I want to encourage – even second-language speakers – to try this book, which had already received a handful of glowing reviews from the top Afrikaans critics at the time of the launch. And yes, we’re talking poetry, that niche of writing exercises.

With Afrikaans poetry critic Karen de Wet’s introduction (at the launch) in hand, I am going to use her as my guide because of her in-depth knowledge of this poet and his writing. But also as someone who knows how to judge the value of someone like Johan, who still in this time we live in, has the chutzpah to write yet another book of poetry.

It’s not as if readers are clamouring for the latest Afrikaans poetry offering. But as an artist, I suspect, he can’t help himself. He has the skill and the artistry and something to say. His awards prove that he also has the means to say it magnificently. And even I, with my paucity of knowledge in this field, can attest to that.

Johan has the credentials. He is one of only 20 poets who has won the Herzog Prize in its 104 years of existence. And he is a true classicist. Not only is he knowledgeable about classical literature, art and music, he is also well versed in history and philosophy, as well as being one of the country’s top art critics who has often curated  small and large exhibitions.

And he uses this wealth of experience in his writing. In fact, he giggles as an aside when talking about all his references at the launch, “I had to make sure ahead of time that I could still remember where all those come from.” I know him well enough to suspect that’s just his insecurities. That mind of his would hardly allow one of those to slip away.

Poet Johan Myburg

In fact, if I could really make a wish, I would like to spend some time with Johan so that he can take me through the work and explain his thought processes. It’s that kind of work. There’s too much happening for everything to be grasped with a first or even second and third reading and my grasp of Afrikaans literature as well as the classics is much too scant to be truly comfortable with the essence of this work.

Both Karen and critic Joan Hambidge agree that this is something to read again and again. As Karen states so succinctly (and I translate loosely): “The 106 pages of verse in Narreskip will not be read only once, there is value in the money paid for this poetry book.” And then Hambidge gives you the key when she explains in her review that the poet uses the classical landscape in which to play with the here and now.

Again Karen captures it best when she explains what the real importance of these Myburg words, witticisms and wisdoms might be: “What is the role (importance) of the poet, the poem, here? That those of us who might be blunted, might see what is happening in our world, see ourselves, reflect, devise (or even rethink).”

Johan himself reflects in an interview about his preference for a participating society rather a grumbling one.

He practises what he preaches and invites his readers to engage. In fact, when we lose hope not only because of what is happening too close and personal for comfort, but also because of the universal fallout with wars, epidemics and economic downturn affecting everyone, this is indeed a way to climb out of that quagmire.

Allow this wise and witty wordsmith to take you by the hand and follow him on a journey, masterfully thought through, of the here and now. It gets your mind exercising in a way that presents much more in the way of positive than negative thought.

We do need those now.

Finally, if nothing else, it is the brilliance of the Myburg mind that will entice and enchant. We need to take time out to listen and then languish in the thoughts of others – especially those who make the time to not only think, but then also share it so bravely with others.

REINAARD

KAROO KAARTE LEADS THE WAY IN THE ARTS WITH A PROJECT DESIGNED AND DESTINED TO ELEVATE AND PROMOTE REAL CHANGE IN COMMUNITIES

South Africans are starting to realise that we have to do it for ourselves. That’s how change will really make an impact. It’s something artists Neil Coppen and Vaughn Sadie put into practice with the establishment of Karoo Kaarte at (and with the help and support of) the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees and a handful of other funders . DIANE DE BEER spoke to the two art activists about this ongoing dream of theirs:

Co-Facilitator Vaughn Sadie leading a discussion with the core team (left) with co-facilitator Neil Coppen during rehearsals for Op Hierie Dag. Photography by Ryan Dammert.
Karoo Kaarte (Karoo Maps) was one of the most intriguing and important productions at this year’s Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (KKNK).

The project’s name Karoo Kaarte plays on the dual meaning of kaarte in the Oudshoorn context. The English translation of kaarte is maps and in the local vernacular “om kaarte te sny” refers to hanging out and telling both serious and light hearted stories.

Described in the festival guide as the heart of the festival, it was the result of months of research and work done in Oudtshoorn. It was the dream of the late Dr David Piedt, a founding member and Chairman of the KKNK and someone who worked tirelessly for the transformation and renewal of the KKNK over the years.

The project driven by the KKNK was established to make a transformative difference in the Karoo town where the festival is based.

Facilitated by the smart combo of the innovative theatre maker Neil Coppen and the visual artist Vaughn Sadie, the idea was to use the arts in many different ways to change the narrative of the Oudtshoorn community to a more inclusive one.

Karoo Kaarte team gathers for the research and creative process used to bring together a range of participants to reimagine the archive as an inclusive community resource. And images and details of the Karoo Kaarte team engaging, over a series of workshops, with Zietske Saaiman’s large-scale map of Oudtshoorn and its many suburbs which she painstakingly demarcated in masking tape on the floor of the CP Nel Museum Hall. Photography by Ryan Dammert and Karoo Kaarte.

Storytelling is one of the most powerful and compelling tools we have as people to bring about change, and it is exactly what was applied in this project in many different forms. The whole community of the town was encouraged to participate and engage in the research projects, which focussed on as many individuals as possible telling their individual stories, and more particularly, how they saw themselves featured in the town.

The whole exercise is about bringing people together. With our past in mind, many of our towns and cities still show the former fault lines and it is wishful thinking to hope that things will slide into normality by itself. This is some of what they were working with to incorporate and bring everyone together to tell their stories and become part of the fabric of this Karoo town.

Coppen explains how it all started: “I’ve worked with Hugo Theart (KKNK Artistic Director) multiple occasions as a producer and across many of our conversations, he always expressed the festival’s need and enthusiasm for developing projects that invested in the Oudtshoorn arts community and deepened the relationship between the festival, residents and local artists.”

 “The Karoo Kaarte Project was born from these conversations and is an expansion and deeper iteration of a variety of projects Vaughn Sadie and I have worked on over the last decade, both in collaboration and separately. As artists and facilitators we both are deeply passionate about, and committed to, initiating public participatory arts and theatre projects across South Africa, creating work that attempts to stimulate empathy, awareness, dialogue and deeper listening through performance and visual arts mediums.”

With the help of  the KKNK, their resources and energy, they were able to pull off a project and programme of this depth, complexity and reach. Both Coppen and Sadie moved to Oudtshoorn for six months, collaborating daily with what they  describe as an incredible team of young artists, writers, musicians, performers, arts leaders, activists and educators.

The good news is that this is an ongoing project. With the KKNK, their vision is to establish a solid and effective long-term engagement with the community of Oudtshoorn through the arts and expand the project annually to include and feature more and more local artists at the festival.

A big part of the success depended on the people involved. The process was one of broad consultation, which meant that Coppen and Sadie engaged with around 60 businesspeople, traditional knowledge holders, political leaders, supporters of the festival and artists to reflect on the possibilities of implementing a community-led festival programme for the KKNK in 2022. 

“Once the project began, we selected a core team of Oudtshoorn-based artists, poets, arts leaders, writers, musicians, researchers, facilitators and educators . These participants were guided over the four-month ‘first phase’ of the project through a series of weekly workshops to introduce the project methodologies and processes.

“Essential to the success of these processes was the involvement of leading intangible heritage consultant Deidre Prins-Solani, who facilitated a series of key workshops around developing the project ethos,  harnessing deep listening skills and the importance of preserving and archiving the intangible heritage of the region.” 

The core team participants were then trained in oral history skills and methodologies and, from October 2021, conducted 35 oral histories with a range of residents around the themes of music, land, identity, sexuality, disability, history and place. These unearthed a compelling set of stories and life histories which were and are being collated and used to bolster the existing archives housed in the CP Nel Museum, which means that the history of the town is being broadened to capture as much of the community as possible.

For change to truly manifest, everyone has to claim ownership.

From this body of research the team also generated content in the form of four Zines (small magazines distributed at the Festival), art exhibitions, a theatre production and a musical performance for a week-long community-led programme at the 2022 KKNK Festival, all of which we as festival goers could engage with.

On the art side, a participatory collage process saw the team working with hundreds of images handpicked from the CP Nel Historic archives and a selection from the KKNK’s past 25 years of theatre festival photography, as well as personal images brought to workshops by participants. These collage workshops were held with school learners, unemployed youth in outlying rural areas (in partnership with the Youth Cafe) and the broader public. 

This process was designed as a quick but thought-provoking introduction by capturing how participants from various walks of life imagined themselves, as well as their sense of place and context within the town and outlying areas.

 This then lead to the theatre production Op Hierie Dag and the public arts programme. Both the theatre and arts teams (each featuring around ten participants in their teams) sifted through vast bodies of research to create performances and exhibitions which fall outside of the more stereotypical ones that have come to define the region – and of course many others.

To find musicians, actors, writers and poets for the theatre production, a series of open auditions were hosted covering the town extensively. In the end, the panel saw over 100 people and completed call-backs and workshops to finalise the cast and musicians for the production.

Sadie explains that the visual arts, theatre and music are all invaluable modes of expression for communicating the research. “It’s important to have multiple entry points to make the project accessible to different audiences through different registers.”

“I was deeply inspired by the level of dedication, talent and commitment shown by the whole team and was challenged and changed by creating this work and dreaming alongside all of them. I believe the Karoo Kaarte process proves that collaboration at this scale can yield powerful and exciting creative results,” noted Coppen.

He argues that  much of art and theatre making in the Western world is about individual ego, hierarchies and ownership, while all the outputs of Karoo Kaarte were achieved through deep conversation, consultation and collaboration with dozens and dozens of incredible minds and talents. “It was a process whereby each one of us were encouraged to contribute our respective skill sets and abilities to the mix.”

 The theatre production of Op Hierie Dag, for example, featured many voices and contributions and a text inspired and co-authored by the citizens of Oudtshoorn. “One of the local participants, Tiffany Saterdacht and I worked incredibly hard to wield all these narratives into a coherent theatrical experiences, but the material itself literally stems from thousands of pages of research and interviews that were gathered by the Kaarte core team.”

“In the end there were so many people responsible for its success and reception and who could feel a sense of pride in what they collectively accomplished and saw up there on the stage.”

Some of the Karoo Kaarte team members including (L to R) Clarissa Saaiman, Glenisha Tarentaal, Tiffany Saterdaght, Cole Wessels, Zietske Saaiman, Lauren Theodore, Mirinda Ntantiso, Ané Koegelenberg,  and back Theo Witbooi, Janion (Noemwoord) Kennedy Vaughn Sadie and Neil Coppen.

What excites Coppen and Sadie is the talent they unearthed. Many of them were young artists and arts leaders who worked tirelessly at their craft and disciplines for several years and honed their abilities despite the challenges they have faced around lack of access, recognition and platforms.

 They both agreed that many of the participants across this project were some of the most talented and hardworking artists they had the privilege of working with.

If anything, this project set out to try dismantle this misconception that artists and performers from small towns (the fringes of more urban arts centres) are lesser or “amateur”… when all that’s really missing from the equation is the access to space, platforms, mentorship and resources.

 When you are able to offer these elements to these artists and storytellers, they are truly able to shine and receive the sort of recognition that is long overdue to them. So a project like Karoo Kaarte tries to foster and build these platforms and shift the national spotlight to shine on worlds, people and stories that have been excluded from national stages and conversations for way too long. It’s really about treating Klein Karoo based artists and storytellers with the respect, audiences and attention they deserve.

For those of us lucky enough to see some of what they had created, the most impressive was the participants and their enthusiasm.

Thato Mbambe during his solo in the Vallei Klanke concert at the 2022 KKNK festival. Mbambe was one of the successful younger candidates from the audition process to land roles in both the theatre concert and stage production.

If I had one bit of criticism it was about not understanding the breadth of the project. I missed out on the museum collages and I know many were unaware of the musical evening at the end of the festival, one of my highlights of the festival. The result was that even more excitement around the project could have been generated.

 Fortunately, as Coppen states, “the dream is for this process to continue and grow and expand well into the future and we are already dreaming up new processes as a collective for 2023”.

The acclaimed Lida Botha as part of the Op Hierie Dag cast.

That is heartening and I for one will be planning ahead to make sure I witness Karoo Kaarte’s evolvement from start to finish. And I’m crossing fingers that this is a process that will spread to cities and towns across the country.

The six Kanna Award nominations for the theatre production alongside the Kanna Herrie-prys for cutting-edge contribution to the festival saw the Karoo Kaarte team sharing stages and recognition with some of South Africa’s top theatre and arts luminaries, an achievement that further begins to blur the lines between so called “community” artists and those who operate in the “mainstream.”

Karoo Kaarte, a KKNK project, was supported by the ATKV, Nasionale Afrikaanse Teater-inisiatief (NATi), the Oudtshoorn Municipality, the Western Cape Department of Culture and Sport, Mzansi Golden Economy (MGE), the Netherland Embassy of South Africa, the University of Stellenbosch’s Department of Social Impact and Transformation, the C.P. Nel Museum, SON, Business Arts South Africa (BASA) and Absa. Research was supported under the To-Gather programme of the Swiss Arts Council, Pro Helvetia.

IT’S TIME FOR MOTHERS TO MATTER, SPEAK OUT AND CLAIM THEIR RIGHTFUL STATUS IN THE FAMILY

MOER (Protea Books), the debut novel of Michèle Meyer, tackles the shrine of motherhood and both dismantles and deconstructs the position of family saviour these often battered and bruised women have to uphold. It’s a brave and necessary approach to take, writes DIANE DE BEER:

Mothers of the world are often celebrated in superficial ways, but when it comes to their daily lives and how they have to cope, it is often woman alone.

She isn’t really allowed to complain because so many get on with it and don’t say a word. It is a selfless task, even with the rewards of raising a family. With that comes a responsibility that must be quite terrifying.

And on my part that’s only conjecture, because by choice I didn’t have any. The task for me seemed too daunting and I knew for my sanity I needed to work. For some of us that’s just how it is.

Michèle Meyer’s book MOER (Protea Books) has a title with many meanings, amongst them an old-fashioned word for mother, but also translating to extremely harsh words, and thus giving the indication, certainly to this reader, that this is going to be an interesting read.

And it is so much more. It does indeed deal with motherhood, but is written in quite a novel fashion. The chapters are mostly short and while the characters are all connected and there is a throughline, it’s not a once-upon-a-time story.

It deals with different aspects of being a woman in relation to being a mother. I know that editor Deborah Steinmair guided the decision of how to present this particular story and it’s something author Michèle Meyer eagerly acknowledges.

It is the clever combination of the writing and the compilation that adds power to this/these  particular mother(s) story.

That’s what Meyer achieves. It becomes universal rather than personal, even when it feels almost painfully personal. As her mother was singularly alone in a house filled with husband and children, so many wives/mothers are confronted with children whom they have to raise on their own. Sometimes they are single, but other times the need for help isn’t acknowledged – mentally or physically – and often the means aren’t there and one partner is out in the world earning the family’s keep, while the other keeps the family alive.

It’s a setup that hasn’t changed for far too long with most of the time, the children handed over to the mother to do as she sees fit – and sometimes she has no clue.

In many instances, it is the circumstances not the people involved that turn out to be harrowing, but in others, it’s just the way things have been done for generations with the man of the household making the decisions while everyone else has to comply.

And then, of course, there are many permutations … yet very few are resolved. Meyer’s mother(s), alas, is from a very isolated place. Young and fragile, she is left to her own devices as she tries to face the terrors of motherhood singly. The husband is carving out his career and that is something that takes up all of his time, his wife and his growing brood hardly acknowledged.

And yes, I know in many instances these things can be worked out and dealt with in quite a wholesome manner, but that is still unattainable in most households. Sometimes money helps to alleviate the worst, but there’s not much one can do about an emotional wasteland.

Not many people have the fight to go this one alone, but sometimes, that’s the only option. And for this mother that was it – and her saving grace. Meyer doesn’t save us the hardship of what her mother had to battle to survive. And that’s yet another courageous decision. Mothers are meant to carry the load – without complaints. This one does too, but she knows she has to save her life for the sake of her children and even when losing them at the start of rebuilding her life, she knows she doesn’t have a choice.

A recent story of a single mother who fought for her child on one of the streaming services told a similar story. It was based on a true story of a young woman involved with a weak man she knew she had to shake. She does, but her only option is to work in the service industry cleaning houses, and everything (especially bureaucracy) is against her succeeding. The world isn’t set up to reach out  a helping hand. Instead these women are disregarded, or seen as victims, never worth saving. They have to fight for themselves.

It’s time that more women speak out, tell and share their stories so that others might have the courage to stand up and walk out when often their sanity and their lives are involved.

Because it is a story of mothers, individual readers will read it from different perspectives, and that is what makes this such a smart read.

Meyer’s writing is hard-hitting (many will think personal) and that especially makes it such a brave book and one that will bring relief to many who will (hopefully) no longer feel alone.

RONELDA S KAMFER’S KOMPOUN WILL LEAVE YOU SHATTERED BUT THE BRILLIANCE WITH WHICH SHE WRITES IS LASTING AND WILL BLOW YOUR MIND

As a fan of Ronelda Kamfer’s gut-wrenching poetry, I was excited by the announcement of her first novel, Kompoun (Kwela). There’s something about her writing that holds you in its thrall and instinctively I knew that whichever way she chooses to tell a story, I will be on board. And having declared my subjectivity, I, DIANE DE BEER and the author speak our minds:

Ronelda S Kamfer

With Ronelda S Kamfer you know from the first sentence the kind of story you’re about to drop into.

And if you want to know what’s happening in literature in this country, you have to read this one. As an award-winning poet, this is her first novel, but she says that she doesn’t view the writing in any way as different.

“There was never really a shift. To me the boundaries between poetry and prose are superficial. I felt the story would benefit from a longer form. I wanted to capture more detail than I usually would. 

 “The main differences were the technical aspects of writing a novel. Basic things like ensuring continuity and providing geographical context, etc. But I tend to keep a lot of notes anyway.

“ And that helped. With Kompoun (the title, which is explained by a dictionary entrance on o the word in the front of the book), Nadia and Xavie had a notebook, the landscape had its own notebook, and my feelings had its own little section in a bigger notebook.

“I had a very clear idea of all the different elements that would make up the book eventually,” she explains

The brilliance of the writing and the story lies in the way she catches life, colours it in so many different shades and textures that you have to keep your wits about you, and also tugs constantly at any emotional toughness you think you have.

You should know by the end of page one whether you can stomach this one and if you do, you will be gloriously enriched on many different levels. But believe me, it’s tough.

The young Nadia explains that her Uncle Empty is actually oraait. He hits his wife, but she has too few nice adults in her life to write him off. And right off the bat you take the first hit.

Telling the story is Nadia and she alternates with her cousin Xavie as they reflect on their childhood.

Readers not familiar with Afrikaaps but also the way Ronelda tells the story, will have to pay close attention when reading Kompoun. It is  heart-breaking and often shattering in its pain, yet completely compulsive – and brilliant.

Ronelda’s choice of young narrators also determines how you experience the story. “We are children for such a short time. But it’s a time of our lives where we’re most ourselves in many ways,” she says. “ It’s a beautiful moment, before we start to compromise bit by bit.

“We are more selfish in little ways, but less selfish in the ways that matter most. When we’re children, we are less averse to risk, and that makes us more open, more forgiving and more honest.

“Most adults are calculating and closed off to some extent. Self-preservation becomes the dominant theme in our lives.

“Their resilience in the face of life’s disappointments made the children the ideal storytellers because the story to a large degree is about the struggle to retain your innocence and the desire to live freely, openly and honestly.”

And this is perhaps further explained in the dedication in the front of the book: All the women, who had to say sorry, even when they weren’t sorry

Musing on the difference between the novel and poetry, she felt that the novel required more stamina and concentration for a longer stretch of time. “I get bored very quickly, so my mind would trail off to other things. With poetry everything moves faster. And every new poem feels like its own thing even if it’s part of a collection.

“With the novel I was always aware that every part is a piece of the whole. That’s one of the reasons perhaps why I had to break the book down into these short fragments. So that every chapter could feel like a little project. It kept me engaged. I will always write poetry and I will continue writing novels, but I’m sure I will write other things as well.”

One of the riches of the book is the language but it also restricts the readership as your Afrikaans has to be good to get a grip on the Kaaps. But if you do, it’s like music to the ear.

And for Ronelda, it is who she is and how she expresses herself, as she explains:

“The language is very important, because the story spans across generations and different geographical spaces. It was important to represent all the different variations of Kaaps, whether it was Plattelandse Kaaps or the way it’s spoken in the Western Cape.

“Kaaps is also a very visual language, that relies a lot on metaphors. My mother died 10 years ago and my grandmother a year ago and I see the way they used language as part of my inheritance.

“With Kompoun I managed to come up with some phrases that felt like it came from their mouths. And that is probably one of the most satisfying things for me.”

And for those of us who read it, the way the language is used is such a huge part of the story, as often it hits its target with a speed and velocity that catches you unaware – but has double the impact. It’s simply not translatable.

It has been said that it feels like an autobiographical story, but when you ask Ronelda about the objective of the story, she says it was the book itself.

“I write things because I feel compelled to write them. It’s not a reaction to anything nor a statement. It’s really just the manifestation of a desire. I wanted to see these places and these characters in literature, so I expressed that,” she says.

And that’s  precisely why you are drawn into the lives of these children from the start. In a South African context, it is a familiar world, perhaps harsher than many of us might imagine, but something we can understand.

I have found that the thing that excites me most in any book is originality. They say there are only a few stories to be told, but it is the way the story is told where the creativity lies. That’s true for Ronelda as well.

“I love books and films and music that give me an adrenaline rush. And I get that rush from hearing a truly original thought, or seeing something beautifully observed or understood.

“My aim as a writer is the same as my aim as a consumer of art. I want the reader’s heart to skip a beat.”

And that mine did from start to finish!

I was fascinated by the way I experienced Kompoun. While the story is devastating and, the lives of the children, especially Nadia’s beatings, emotionally and physically painful, the book is powerful rather than painful, as if  by telling the story and not hiding from the truth, the children reclaim their power.

“I think Kompoun is the first book I wrote without any rage; the characters might be fighting but the story is not about rage. For me, it is about profound loss and we have all lost.

“ It is not about whiteness or patriarchy or violence. These things are a product of loss but I understand how someone might read into that first. I think it has to do with empathy, and how you relate to the unfairness of the lives of the characters.

“In some people this need to empathize causes that almost knee-jerk reaction, to look for reasons and to allocate blame. I do that all the time, but I am learning to process things slower and sit with my feelings longer.”

And then she concludes with what she wishes for readers.

“It was important to me that the experience of reading the book would conjure more than just sadness in the reader. These are strong characters who have things they believe in. I felt the character’s rebelliousness was integral to the book.

“It’s not a book about being defeated, it’s a book about emotional and psychological revolution.”

That is exactly what stays with you throughout the reading. This group of cousins, children all at the time, looked out for one another and were born into a generation that decided it was time to talk. And that made the difference. And does similar things for the reader.

If you think you might understand it and get to grips with Kaaps, no one tells a better story about these people and their lives than Ronelda S Kampher. May she never stop telling her stories – it doesn’t matter whether in poems or novels or any other way she comes up with. I will stand in the front of the line.

JM COETZEE’S LIFE AND TIMES OF MICHAEL K IS A STORY THAT RESONATES

PICTURES: Fiona McPherson

Craig Leo and Carlo Daniels in Life and Times of Michael K

DIANE DE BEER

JM COETZEE’S LIFE AND TIMES OF MICHAEL K

ADAPTED AND DIRECTED by Lara Foot

CAST: Sandra Prinsloo, Andrew Buckland, Faniswa Yisa, Craig Leo, Roshina Ratnam, Carlo Daniels, Marty Kintu, Billy Langa and Nolufefe Ntshuntshe with the Handspring Puppet Company

CO-PRODUCTION: Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus (Germany) and Baxter Theatre

SET DESIGN: Patrick Curtis

LIGHTING DESIGN: Joshua Cutts

ORIGINAL MUSIC COMPOSITION: Kyle Shephard

DIRECTORS OF PHOTOGRAPHY AND FILM: Fiona McPherson and Barrett de Kock

VIDEOGRAPHY AND EDITING: Yoav Dagan

PROJECTION DESIGN: Kirsti Cumming

COSTUMES: Phyllis Midlane

 SOUND DESIGN: Simon Kohler

VENUE: Baxter Theatre

DATES AND TIMES:  7pm nightly until 19 March with Saturday matinees at 2pm on 5, 12 and 19 March

Craig Leo, Nolufefe Ntshuntshe, Carlo Daniels, Faniswa Yisa, Billy Langa in Life and Times of Michael K

It is quite astonishing with the Russian invasion of Ukraine as the backdrop on most minds, how the horror in JM Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K is amplified.

Written in 1983 in Coetzee’s sparse yet startling style, the story shines a powerful light on the life of a simple man, afflicted by a disfigurement, standing out without being someone, and being in the world not to engage, but rather flee from others.

That’s where he finds his freedom – in the wild, desolate landscape of a country that doesn’t want him and yet pursues him for crimes not committed or even imagined.

Both Michael K and his mother have lived honourable lives in service of others, he as a gardener and she as a domestic worker who lives under the stairs in an apartment block, like her son, unseen and unheard.

When she falls ill, with war raging around them, she turns to her son to take her “home”, there where she was born and raised, where she believes she once found happiness. And so their harrowing journey begins.

Sandra Prinsloo, Faniswa Yisa, Craig Leo, Roshina Ratnam in Life and Times Of Micheal K

Because of where we find ourselves right now, and looking back through the history of these past 30 years, both nationally and internationally, Michael K’s story hasn’t changed. That’s why it is such a brilliant choice to herald what we are hoping beyond hope, might be better times.

There was a buzzy anticipation on opening night as people moved into the Baxter Theatre for the Lara Foot-adapted and -directed Life and Times of Michael K, a production cleverly staged with the Handspring Puppet Company in a multi-dimensional fashion including performance, film and music – all on a grand scale.

And with a magnificent set which constantly changes with moving as well as still images and lighting that astounds, we’re off into the story and running with the narrative from the start. It’s quite overwhelming as Michael K’s story is told from many different angles and voices with different landscapes as he goes on his long and winding journey. Visually it is spectacular and achieves a moving world that is both elaborate and evocative.

Telling the story, there’s an ensemble playing different characters; the physical Michael K, exquisitely crafted by the Handspring masters happily accompanied by his equally statured mother; the voices and puppeteers; as well as the film, which simply because of scale could be jarring at times rather than just slipping in and out of the narrative – yet all of these combined make it quite difficult to get to the beating heart of the story.

Nolufefe Ntshuntshe, Craig Leo, Carlo Daniels, Roshina Ratnam and Andrew Buckland in Life and Times of Michael K

As the name suggests, this is Michael K’s story. While the character himself can be seen as an insignificant man, that is the point and what Coetzee hopes to uncover in his desolate and desperately haunting tale of a man who is struggling to find and cling to his freedom. Gardening is what moves his world, something that adds rather than detracts from our physical place on this earth.

But even that is not good enough. Somehow it is twisted into an act of terrorism as he is accused of feeding a guerrilla army. He is simply never allowed to be.

Coetzee’s descriptive and detailed telling of Michael K’s battle to survive on this arid land, the way he works with the earth to both feed the soil and his soul, nourishing his freedom, his sole means of survival, doesn’t quite have the impact on stage as it does on the page. The exquisite existential rendering which won Coetzee such applause is somehow missed.

His is a harsh world in which there is mistrust all round. Who is Michael K? Even though he is described as someone who cannot organise a dart game, he is still seen as a threat by those who feel they are in command and have to lead the way.

No one can be left to their own devices. And it is this stranglehold, a man’s desperate struggle to hold on to his freedom, that disappears under the weight of the production, one where the true horror of being Michael K struggles to break through.

Foot has thrown all her energy and skill into this one and there are many memorable moments to witness and remember. It is a worthy production that captures the zeitgeist – a time of pandemics and panicked, power-driven presidents.

What you don’t get is the bewilderment of a man who has found himself in a world that prohibits him from finding his own way and making a life unaffected by those around him. The only way he knows how to breathe and survive.

Thát is the life and times of Michael K.