A Handful of Holiday Reads With Heart

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read. 
― 
Groucho MarxThe Essential Groucho: Writings For By And About Groucho Marx

 

Holidays are on the horison and that means more reading time for many while others might just indulge more than usual. Here are a few old and new, brightly coloured and blue, to make a note of for yourself or as gifts, for those who need to escape:

DIANE DE BEER

 

The Home by Louise Candlish (Simon and Schuster):book roy

Imagine returning home one day and finding strangers making it their own. It is probably unthinkable and yet, that is exactly the premise Candlish is working with.

That and an individual who gets into trouble and instead of grabbing someone close to him to help out, he tries to fix it on his own and finds his life spiralling out of control. It’s the stuff nightmares are made of and yet, this story shows just how easily that kind of scenario can play out.

It’s a simple premise yet what makes the read intriguing is the way it it runs away with not only one but a few lives. Fi Lawson’s home on Trinity Avenue is her dream house. It’s where she and her family will grow old and everything she does is focused on this fact, the proverbial white picket fence dream even when it isn’t exactly that.

The point though when reading the book is that most of us can identify or at least imagine arriving home to find it is no longer yours and what this would mean to your life. Or perhaps not and that’s Fi’s problem. Husband Bram is nowhere to be found. Even though there have been problems never on this kind of scale. But once he was discovered en flagrante by his wife in their garden getaway shed, there’s almost no getting away from a life that hasn’t been truthful.

Trapped in a lie of some kind, he plunges from one dizzy height to another as the fall turns catastrophic beyond anything we can imagine.

It’s a dream of a read because while it all seems plausible, its also unimaginable but surely will help you to see why the straight and narrow is such an appealing option. It’s the perfect escape in Gone Girl kind of way.

Circe by Madeline Miller (Bloomsbury Publishing):book circe

Nothing would have drawn me to this book if someone hadn’t pointed to the fact that she had heard a fabulous interview with the author. Generally I like my fiction to be more contemporary as we already live in a world so fantastical, we need writers to make sense of it in some way.

But this caught me unawares and much of it has to do with the reinvention and retelling of an age-old story, one we have all been introduced to but from another point of view. Yes, the men are all still there, but what Miller does so majestically is take the women from the side-lines and cast them centre stage.

Perhaps it is exactly that which kept me in contemporary literature for stories with more relevance for my life, but this time round, Miller caught me delightfully unawares.

Take this following paragraph for example and it is Circe’s thoughts that are set out:

“Later years I would hear a song made of our meeting. I was not surprised by the portrait of myself: the proud witch undone before the hero’s sword, kneeling and begging for mercy. Humbling women seems to be the chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.”

But with Miller’s retelling of a tale we’ve heard before, the accents are moved to turn this into a compelling story with a contemporary heartbeat. The reading is poetic, the language mesmerising and more than anything it is the way Circe moves in her world, takes charge of the life she has been “allowed” and turns it in a way that makes it her own choice.

Miller’s is a brave new world which all of us should venture into.

book allAll the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy (Maclehose Press):

With everything happening to women in India in these current times, reading the stories their women writers are telling is fascinating.  This one starts with the words of a young boy: “In my childhood I was known as the boy whose mother had run off with an Englishman.”

And like so many books from that part of the world there’s a whimsy, a mystical quality and a poetry in the language that captures all the elements that seem to be floating in and around the stories they want to tell. There’s an immediate censure in that opening paragraph. What kind of mother would leave her young child? How does he cope? Where does she go? And why?

Many more questions will emerge while getting to grips with the lives of this unusual and perhaps oddly disconnected family where different members are adopted by passers-by, almost as if they feel the need to lend some kind of attachment.

These are difficult times in the world – similar to now – with many wondering about the state of their universe and how to navigate things that seemed simple in the past. And for Myshkin’s mother, with strangers entering her family’s domain, new vistas seemed to beckon but at a cost to those whose lives hers intertwined.

One of India’s greatest living writer’s proclaims Oprah on the cover and that’s something to live up to. Nevertheless, she tells an impactful story from a specific world and time that resonates strongly in our troubled world today.

And underlining all this, is that it is a story told by a woman allowing her female characters a much stronger say than they might have had previously: “She’s not forward, she’s forceful. She is sure of herself and lives by her own means – runs her own taxi service and her own shop and orders her staff around and bosses her daughters and spits her tobacco juice as far into the corner as any man – I suppose these things mark her out as forward.”

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Picador):book life

I was given this book by a friend who said she had read halfway but couldn’t see why she should deal with so much suffering. I was intrigued, if she didn’t want to read about such suffering, why did she feel I should? Fortunately I persevered because what this story does superbly is underline the impact of one’s childhood on the adult psyche.

If ever there is a hackneyed phrase it is this and yet, there’s a reason which is what this remarkable story about four classmates who moved to New York to make their way, each in a particular field, some more successful than others, some more deeply scarred that those who might be struggling to make ends meet, sets out to show – perhaps for some too painstakingly.

As we follow in their footstep as they try to make their careers and a lives in the ultimate city to achieve success, it is the reaching out, the turning away, the holding someone upright, the coming together of friends as lovers, and in conclusion, the way people look out for each other, that holds our attention. Finally it is about a life that can be navigated with a little help from a friend.

Older and wiser readers will know that one cannot do it alone, but sometimes, people who have been damaged by blind trust are reluctant to travel that road again. It is a tough life to follow but because these are four such remarkable characters with their hangers on, their lives determined by such recognisable desires, the length of the novel gives the author the chance to make them come alive in a way that invites insight and ownership.

Take your time, because it is a compelling read.

book americanAn American Marriage by Tayari Jones (One World):

We hear daily about the numbers of African-American men jailed in America. We also read about human rights lawyers who spend their time trying to free those who have been unjustly imprisoned in a system that has been designed to make their lives impossible and turn their dreams inside out.

Have you ever wondered what happens to the lives of those who are connected to these innocent victims and how their imprisonment is much more than just an individual punishment? That’s exactly some of what is investigated and explored in what seems like just another well-written fictional tale but is so much more as it homes in on one of the scourges of our world.

It’s about the ultimate love as two people are torn apart with one unable to hang on and still feels responsible for the devastation she leaves behind. But more than that, it is also bringing the personal to what has become a universal story.

In an interview with a white male TV host who was shocked about all these young black men dying at the hands of police in the US, Toni Morrison graciously yet sharply pointed out that this wasn’t new to the African American community, because of social media, it was simply out there to be seen by everyone. It could no longer be an invisible crime.

With the growing statistics of African American incarceration and the abusive prison system in that country, it is also tough to ignore the impact on a people. It is all of this that tragically underlines and holds this particular story which might imply a tale of three ordinary lives but cannot be further from the truth. This is how worlds are destroyed by not valuing the lives of all of the people all of the time.

book againstUs Against You by Fredrik Backman (Michael Joseph)

In an earlier post, I had reviewed the prequel to this book then still titled Scandal which later changed to Beartown. It was a fascinating read about a small Swedish town whose livelihood and passion is all focused on their young ice hockey team. Until, a disaster happens which tears the town apart.

Their strongest and most popular hockey player is accused of raping the daughter of the coach of the team. Just that one sentence is loaded with many different implications and that is what the author plays with.

It was a deeply enjoyable book as Backman dissected the town and their reactions to this particular event – and then allowed it to play out. Especially in this time of course, nothing of this seems unfamiliar or surprising and what happened in fact was that the young star player accused by the teenage girl and the deed confirmed by his best friend left town while the girl stayed behind.

This follow-up takes it further as we enter a town that is deeply divided with the most inhabitants accusing the girl (even if just in their minds and attitudes) of causing this great loss to their town and its future.

The upheaval is huge and into that void steps an ambitious politician who knows how to play the pack to his own advantage and a future visibility which will take him to the top. It doesn’t come more cynical than this but that’s the world we live in so tell it like it is.

And Backman loves doing this – very cleverly as he explains how people think and why they do certain things with no empathy for the people they harm in the execution and fulfillment of their own dreams.

It’s really sad yet refreshing to navigate this story of modern living in a world where everyone is out there battling only for him/herself.
It’s a clever story but alas, unlike the last one (and arguably the translation doesn’t help), the writing becomes both preachy and cute. There are too many devices, too many nods to the reader allowing them to participate in the conspiracy and this detracts from the delight that the first novel accrued.

But the story is still on point and those who read the first, will not want to miss this further development.

Saunders has a Specific Way of Telling Stories in Style, Stridency and Sweetness

I read my eyes out and can’t read half enough… The more one reads the more one sees we have to read. – John Adams

 

DIANE DE BEER

Book lincolnLincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (Random House):

If you’re familiar with the short story wizard, you will not want to miss his first foray into novel territory.

As is to be expected, this master of imagination and writing has thoroughly thought through his first outing and how to approach it. He does this without the attempt feeling too grueling, because he has a story to tell that’s so smart and so unique, his followers won’t be disappointed. Probably more than anyone, Saunders would have felt the weight of what he was trying to do more than anyone else.

If you have ever listened to an interview with this writer, you will know that he has an exceptional mind, thinks about life in an extraordinary fashion and seems to make interesting choices on whatever catches his fancy – from marrying to writing.

In this instance the title refers to the Lincoln you’re thinking of and it is his son Willie who is trapped in the bardo (the state of limbo which is how the Tibetans refer to this intermediate state between death and moving on). He is the adored 11-year-old son of the man known as the Civil War president who is in there fighting a losing battle with typhoid fever.

His parents are hosting a lavish banquet when Willie dies and his body is taken to Oak Hill Cemetery where he is laid to rest in a marble crypt.

What ensues then is the magnificence of the Saunders mind. He saw a snippet that the president had at least twice visited the crypt at night where he sat and mourned over the body of his cherished son, and this sent this limitless imagination a wandering.

The cemetery is occupied by spirits who, it becomes clear in the reading, don’t want to move on and become the narrative as they tell the story of the father and the young boy by also dwelling on their own state of limbo.

The novel unfolds through their speeches, passing mainly between three vessels consisting of a young gay man who killed himself after his lover rejected him; an ageing reverend; and a printer who was killed in an accident before he and his young wife could consummate their marriage, an event that was on the verge of happening following many years of marital friendship and that’s all.

Willie, like all the children, is expected to pass on quite swiftly but because of his father’s visits, he is reluctant to leave which could mean that he could become trapped in a terrible tangle of almost demonic growth.

The three voices as well as those of contemporaries of Lincoln – whose quotes are used throughout to tell a particular story – make this a magically compelling reading. It’s like seeing a novel, so visual is the Saunders narrative, but you have to keep your mind sharp to keep up with the conversation and the people and events being described.

It’s fascinating and not unexpectedly unlike anything you have ever read which makes it hugely exciting. It’s the kind of book that you should just go with and not worry too much if you’re not quite sure what is happening and why. It does start to make sense as you go on and because of the writing, you can simply wallow in the Saunders literary genius, his way of telling the story and the words and language he picks to convey a certain feeling or mood or describe a rascal or a love affair between an unlikely couple. That’s just the way he tells stories.

The Lincolns in fact don’t even feature on the foreground although it is a story to explain certain things about memory, how people see and view things and how it loses in translation or from which perspective it unfolds.

With memory such a big thing at the moment, it makes you think about history and how we learn things – inadequately – because it came almost all of the time from a white male perspective. Nothing wrong with that perspective as long as it is supplemented and supported with a wide range of ideas and views to cover all the tracks and prejudices that might reside with a particular group.

Exciting times we live in as perspectives shift and trust Saunders to capture this particular mood change that is causing such upheaval all around the world we live in.

Always Another Country – A Memoir of Exile and Home by Sisonke Msimang who Struggles to Recognise Home

The book to read is not the one that thinks for you, but the one that makes you think.

Harper Lee

 

 

DIANE DE BEER

always another country

 Always Another Country – A Memoir of Exile and Home by Sisonke Msimang (Jonathan Ball Publishers):

If this book proves one thing, it’s the difficulty of navigating a life in this country. Yet, that’s also what makes living in South Africa so exciting and invigorating. We are always being challenged to grow and expand in every way we can.

And if you take Msimang’s credentials on face value, you could automatically accept that in today’s world, in this time and in this country, she has it made. It’s exactly that which she grapples with and what makes it so intriguing. This is a real life filled with hopes and dreams and expectations and armed with all the values she thought would get her through this life.

The cover guides you into the story as it explains that she writes about her exile childhood in Zambia, Kenya and Canada, her college years in the US, and then returning to South Africa in the 1990s. The road seems already travelled but on a purely superficial level.

It also depends on where you stand, young or old, black or white, man or woman, all of these might influence your reading. What you can be sure of is that she will surprise you and take you on a journey of one woman’s hopes and dreams in a country that has taught us all lessons and always will. No resting for the wicked here –it’s the challenge that this country has given us.

Msimang didn’t have it easy even if it sounds like she did. Her parents were in exile, but they also didn’t have typical exile lives (if that even exists.) Her father, a South African black man who fled his country even before the Rivonia Trials, spent 10 years being trained and fighting as a soldier for the cause. In Lusaka, the closest he has been to his country of birth in 10 years, he meets a Swazi woman who is pursuing her studies and becomes his wife. She loves him, but she is ambivalent about his revolution.

“My sisters and I are freedom’s children, born into the ANC and nurtured within a revolutionary community whose sole purpose is to fight apartheid…On the playground we cradle imaginary AK-47s in our skinny arms and instead of Cops and Robbers, we play Capitalists and Cadres,” writes Msimang.

And if like me you are old and white, you will know how far removed from your world that game was at that time. That’s precisely what makes this such a compulsive read. As someone who grew up schooled in this fashion, living this life outside the borders of the country her family calls its own, once she returns with all life’s experiences part of who she is, what does she make of her country?

This is a place many were taught never to question, never to doubt and then reality sets in. But not just the reality of what some see as a crumbling ANC on different levels, also a country that having now put apartheid behind them, has the opportunity to fashion a brave new world. It’s a story about the obvious and the unexpected.

Msimang’s informative years are unique. She may have benefited from privileges many were denied in her country, but racism doesn’t need oppressive laws to thrive. Think Trump and his ascendancy and what that has meant for African Americans; or Europe’s reaction to refugees streaming into their countries.

She has experienced that, so what happened when returning to South Africa would not have been completely unexpected. And yet for many it was the hope – rainbow children and all those heady dreams and expectations. “South Africa is now free,” she writes about those early days, “and those of us who care about the country are coming to see that the dream of freedom was a sort of home for us. It was a castle we built in the air and inside its walls everyone was a hero. When we first returned from exile the castle stayed firmly in our mind’s eye. We told ourselves we were special, and we sought to build a rainbow nation.” Remember those early days of our young democracy when those kinds of sentiments would not have been out of place.

Even in 2010, the country again reached for that dream and what they thought could be achieved with the euphoria of the sporting world’s love and attention – but sadly it would not last. And like those shattered dreams, Msimang has had to take a step back, re-evaluate her hopes for this homecoming and plan her life accordingly. We can dream a world we want to live in, but this is seldom what we will get. Sometimes it’s neither better or worse – just different.

That’s is how she views her world and then decides to shape it. And that is what you will find when dipping into this extraordinary African adventure. With her earlier life, she had already faced many curve balls, and she was not going to buckle if everything didn’t go her way. She has a clearer view than many about her world, will fight against injustice with every fibre of her being and then tackle the road ahead.

Much of what unfolds in this story is unexpected and contributes to the final rewards of a life reassessed in a world that doesn’t always turn out the way you expect it to – and yet, sometimes it takes you down roads that open up unexpected and unexplored vistas that contribute richly to an already extraordinary life. It’s about grabbing and holding on to the moment – and when you have fought this hard, waited this long and lived the lives of others simply by being a child, that is your natural way of being.

Telling stories in this country adds texture and knowledge as we learn about the lives of people who inhabit our world yet were forced to live in specific way not of their choice. But then they also push on and turn everything on its head.

Author Thuli Nhlapo’s Colour Me Yellow Written With Substantial Heroic Honesty

READING IS A CONVERSATION. All books talk. But a good book listens as well.

Mark Haddon

DIANE DE BEER

 

Colour me Yellow by Thuli Nhlapo (Kwela Books):

book colour

It’s so often a matter of birth and where you land on this little planet – in what shape and form that – determines the rest of your life – as this title subtly suggests.

White people are seldom or never called out on the colour of their skin while black men especially in the US approach every morning as they leave their home with a certain trepidation. To be a woman in the #metoo era might be exciting for some but for far too many, they still have a target on their back. Just listen to the horrifying news from India for instance.

You could find yourself as a stateless human being if you’re of a certain ethnicity in Myanmar and whether you’re born in North or South Korea has huge implications.

It’s not only this time although everyone probably feels that of their time, but life seems particularly harsh now. You need all the help you can get, starting with your family, to make it in this world. If you have to battle them as well, life can be extreme.

The only person who knew the whole truth had stayed mum, not once volunteering to talk. The closest she had come to it was when she said: ‘I hated being pregnant with you.’ Hearing that mantra as a child already in a hostile environment doesn’t bode well for your future and it is exactly that story the journalist Thuli Nhlapo was determined to unravel and expose – if only to herself. She knew it had to do with her father but she didn’t know who he really  was and her mother was not going to tell.

In the meantime, from the day she can remember, she was harshly treated by her family. I felt I needed to prove there was absolutely nothing wrong with me – even though I may have been yellow or a boesman, I breathed and bled like any normal human being.

And this starts with her family, those closest to her, her mother and father, who have to mirror the outside world to a child. What chance does she have with those who don’t know her if this is the reaction of those who do?

But one can imagine that in today’s environment where dysfunction is usually a family trait, there are many children who battle with those closest to them, those that should protect them, often in a fight for their life, or as Nhlapo confesses, a struggle for her soul.

Where she has been blessed is that she has an ability to write (was winning as she says, writing and journalism prizes left, right and centre), which also means that she could organise her thoughts, think like a journalist and investigate her own past – with the accent on the identity of her father. As she grew older, this became more and more of a problem with even the spirits rejecting the surname given to her as that of her ‘father’s’. It couldn’t go on this way but her mother was refusing to budge.

It’s an extraordinary tale, but also one of immense fortitude and courage, self-reliance and making it on her own because that was all she knew how to do. When she was struggling with one of her pregnancies, she coped without asking for any help. She ascribes that to being a black woman and that’s just what black women do, but she concedes that the prospective father was out of town – and not a doctor! So that’s what she did, went to hospital and saw a doctor and when he treated her with disregard, she insisted that he do a thorough check-up – and she was right. She knew she was the only one who would be fighting for her life. If she didn’t do it, no one else would step up.

As she forecast, he was lazy in his diagnosis of a miscarriage and she could move on and out and find a doctor who would treat her with care – the care she knew deserved.

Colour me Yellow isn’t an easy book to read but it is written with heroic honesty with a real-life heroine who demands and easily draws your enthusiastic support. It is easy to give as well as a nod to your own much more comfortable life because even without asking, you got what a child needed – her family’s love. It just makes life that much easier and survival not something you have to deal with every day.

But as Nhlapo proves, every life is worth fighting for and finally – for yourself and your children – you will triumph.

African Muckraking: Power to Writing it Like it Is

There’s so much more to a book than just the reading – Maurice Sendak

 

DIANE DE BEER

AFRICAN MUCKRAKING COV

 

 

African Muckraking: 75 Years of Investigative Journalism from Africa edited by Anya Schiffrin with George Lugalambi (Jacana):

 

 

South Africans will know exactly what the power of this kind of investigative journalism is following apartheid and now the Zuma years.

There are of course other things involved as well, but nothing can downplay the importance of the freedom of the press and, even when that is sacred, the courage of journalists to tell the hard stories. When powerful people do bad things, they have the means to protect their wrongdoing.

Except from journalists whose lifeblood it is to tell the truth, nothing but the truth. So help us God. And that’s exactly how it works, often.

And nowhere is it more important than in countries where powerful people think they have the right to do things exactly the way they please. It’s not a new thing and it’s absolutely not something that is found in just certain parts of the world. Power corrupts, sadly, and more than ever, politics has become abusive in a way that few could have predicted.

It’s a known fact that African journalists are not recognised around the world, not even on their own continent. In Africa itself it is difficult to reach a broad audience due to the oftentimes low education, literacy problems and income levels of potential audiences. That goes hand in hand with poor distribution possibilities because of inadequate infrastructure, which makes reporting and distribution tough.

In the global North, writes the author in her introduction to the book, the contributions of African journalists are largely unknown – often because of the assumption that good journalism doesn’t originate in Africa. Western audiences trust satellite news, parachute journalists more than they do local reporters, she writes.

“This book aims to dispel that.” She goes on to say that readers should be reminded that journalists really can change the world – and again, we have seen that most recently in our papers and on television, in the unflinching reporting as well as among those who stood up to the SABC and fought for truthful journalism.

In the book she presents 41 pieces of campaigning and/or investigative journalism from around the continent, each with context provided by today’s foremost experts on the continent; in South Africa, for example, Anton Harber and Ferial Haffajee. They don’t come better than that.

When selecting pieces to include in the book, they tried to be inclusive, including excerpts from pamphlets as well as newspapers from a wide range of countries, as well as stories that had impact or covered an important story even if they weren’t classical works of investigative journalism by today’s standards.

It’s stirring stuff on a continent that doesn’t flinch when it comes to horror. She notes that Africa is diverse and newspaper were influenced by colonial powers. They hoped to reflect this diversity, for example, with someone like David Martin who wasn’t born in Africa but still calls it home.

This book followed on Shiffrin’s editing of Global Muckraking (2014) when Harber, then director of the investigative reporting programme at Wits suggested that they edit a book exclusively for African journalists.

Then disaster struck. There was a paucity or often complete absence of records, which pushed her and her crack researcher Vanessa Pope to persevere. Anyone who has worked in newspapers these past few decades will know exactly what that means. When newspaper libraries went digital and as newspaper groups changed ownership, these archives were the first to disintegrate. All of this also bumped into the disastrous lack of funding for the profession, which meant these side issues completely disappeared.

That is exactly what makes this such an amazing read. Not only is every story selected something quite extraordinary (especially given the context and the quality), it is also a reminder of the quality to be found on the continent that is so often ignored in the wider context of the world. Fortunately, we now have the means in a digitally connected world to change that to some extent.

Following the introduction, which highlights significant historical cases of journalism supporting social and political change, she points out that this journal can only hint at the “full constellation of contributions” that African journalists have made to their societies.

But she does encourage readers to get a taste of the powerful work that African muckrakers have done and hopes that the book will contribute to a conversation about the importance of investigative journalism in Africa.

Nobody reading the book will have any doubt about that but the times we live in have also underlined the importance of investigative writing about those who abuse their power at the cost usually of vulnerable people.

It is beautifully set out, which all adds to the power of the pieces which are classified in sections ranging from struggles for independence to corruption; health, rural affairs and environment; mining; and women, for example.

And more than anything, the intent is clearly stated with the first piece written by Sol Plaatje: All We Claim is our Just Dues.

It is riveting from start to finish.

 

 

 

Elize Botha: a Remarkable Book of Letters Reveal the Life of a Remarkable Woman

I am a reader, not because I don’t have a life, but because I choose to have many.

 

DIANE DE BEER

Elize Botha

ELIZE BOTHA: Gespreksgenoot – ‘n Brieweboek by Heilna du Plooy, the co-ordinator (Litera):

 

This is an unusual and very specific book and obviously you must understand Afrikaans to even think of reading it.

Pay heed to the delightful name: Gespreksgenoot – ‘n Brieweboek (Companion – A Letters Book). What surprised me most was how the letters capture the time, a specific period, and the Afrikaans literary world which because of the politics of the country, was all-important at the time.

Because I wasn’t part of that world yet knew about the people and read some of the books while writing about the arts and interviewed Elize Botha at a specific time, it’s been an amazing read.

The compiler (and the word doesn’t really do justice to what must have been a mammoth task brilliantly executed) who was going to write a biography of Botha, a woman ahead of her time and supremely important in the Afrikaans literary world, was handed the key to much of her letter-writing which was how she kept contact and became close friends with so many writers. Starting to read through the letters, Du Plooy very quickly realised that Botha would be much better served if she could simply put the letters together in a certain fashion to tell the story.

From the beginning, she decided that once a letter had found its way into the book, it would not be censored in any way. It’s either in or out, warts and all. And she needn’t have feared, for those of us on the edges, the finer gossip items are too nuanced and for those who can pick it up, they probably knew it all already. But it’s not that kind of book anyway and Botha was not the kind of person to be entertained unduly by idle gossip. She had far more interesting things to talk about. It is these conversations between those with similar interests – literature – that are so fascinating and educational.

There are many surprises, quite unexpected, I would imagine. For example, the art of letter writing, if anything, points a finger at a lost art since we now rely on the internet and social media to communicate. What a joy to still encounter someone who wrote such meaningful letters – and regularly. It was the way she communicated with those not in her immediate vicinity and what a blessing for us, because she has riches to impart on many levels.

More than anything, it is the way the letters have been written, the language, the topics they discuss and how regularly in extremely busy lives, they still managed to keep up this correspondence. It’s a lost world. The letters are illuminating and sheer joy and point to the loss of something that will never be recovered. Typing an email is just not the same as taking the time to sit down to write a letter to a friend. It’s extremely special and when they really have something to say, and its about something as important and universal as literature, it is something special to share and to experience.

Take, for example, someone like Audrey Blignault, an Afrikaans writer who for those of us who didn’t have better insight might have viewed her in a specific way. There’s a completely different woman who emerges when you follow these two smart people’s writing and exchange of ideas. It’s fascinating to read for example how they were influenced at the time by international writers like Saul Bellow, hardly able to wait for his latest novel; or when discussing someone like Tolstoy, the quality of their ideas is illuminating. It’s like bumping into a mini lecture in the comfort of your home and a real gift to have insight into their thoughts on reading and how it stimulates their inner worlds.

elize botha1

The joy of reading and superior writing is celebrated on every page and though the accent here is on Afrikaans literature in a time when many in this world were fearful for the language, in essence, it is about reading in whichever language you prefer, the appreciation of that language and the art of storytelling. That’s universal and a great advertisement for books, something that can always do with encouraging publicity.

For Botha it would have been unthinkable not to read. Even though as a judge for many different institutions, dealing with books and regarded as one of our finest Afrikaans literary figures, it was part of her daily life, and the way she lived. Most of her career was spent in academia, teaching but also setting the guidelines in her particular field of literary theory and criticism. But she was also very aware that her career was on a slow burn (“a long slow curve,” is how she phrased it) because of being a woman in this time. Hopefully that graph might now be changing with everyone being more vocal about the problems and the social media world keeping a watchful eye.

Starting out in her early days as a journalist, she was also the editor of the Tydskrif vir Letterkunde (Magazine for Literature) from 1973 to 1992. Many celebrated authors published their first work here in the 70’s and 80’s under her guidance and nurturing. She also published often in different spheres – from literary criticism to articles and collections of literary essays. And she travelled often with literary quests as part of these journeys. She featured on every literary committee and academy of the time and for many years was the chairperson of the M-Net Book Awards.

As a woman she was often the first in many different fields, like a board member of Nasionale Pers, the first female chair of the Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns (Academy of Science and Art) and finally, the first female chancellor of the University of Stellenbosch, a position she occupied until her untimely death in 2007. But all of this is just a small part of her packed life as any woman who has raised three children in between all this academic superpower will know.

More than anything, says the compiler (colleague and friend), Heilna du Plooy, this collection of letters is also an effort to preserve something that is precious, and to capture people and events and views and insights which can serve as encouragement and a source of survival for others.

It’s a remarkable read about a remarkable woman.

Books that Allow the Words and Actions of Those Involved To Tell the Real Stories

If you want to go for fact rather than fiction, DIANE DE BEER has two examples dealing with events happening on an international front but with relevance here:

 

book chernobylChernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich (Penguin Books):

I first discovered this author with her book celebrated with a Nobel Prize for literature in 2015 –  Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets – in which I discovered her unique style. She rejects the term journalist but describes herself as an oral historian. What she does is allow people to tell their stories and something remarkable unfolds. In Russia for example, like in South Africa at more or less the same time and like here, people were expecting their lives to change dramatically with the and dismantling of the UUSR.

It did of course for a handful of oligarchs and the usual suspects and like here the lives of ordinary people were trampled on and they were left gasping for air. It is where she shines her spotlight harshly yet illuminating the lives that are struggling to make sense of what is happening to them.

I picked this one up at a sale recently and was as engrossed in this story told in similar style. Who doesn’t remember Chernobyl? And yet, it’s the name and nuclear disaster that strikes hardest, the rest is hazy. On this particular cover, Julian Barnes is quoted as saying: “The book leaves radiation burns on the brain.”

Being the writer, he captures it magnificently.

“All that remained behind barbed wire was the land. And the graves. Our past our great country,” says one party member who felt he had to help with the clean-up. Another was taken on a cleaning operation without any warning: “On the first day we saw the nuclear power plant from a distance. On the second, we were already clearing the rubbish around it. We were shoveling with ordinary spades…As we said battling the atom with spades! In the twentieth century.”

Then there’s this about the nuclear operator Leonid Toptunov who was on duty that night at the power plant, and pressed the red emergency shutdown button a few minutes before the explosion. It didn’t work…He was treated in Moscow: “To save someone, there has to be a body to start with,” the doctors said throwing up their hands in despair.”

“The most serviceable robots were soldiers,” says another of the clean-up period following the catastrophe which just kept going on and on for those unwittingly commandeered to help in this deathly process.

Women were being tested when breastfeeding and found to be radioactive. Professionals who knew what happens in these situations, asked the right questions. They were told to simply carry on testing and watch the television. Emergency measures were being taken. “I – an engineer with twenty years’ experience, someone who knew the law of physics. I knew every living thing needed to be evacuated from the area, at least temporarily…We were accustomed to believing. I belong to the post-war generation that grew up with the faith.”

It is statements like these and many, many more that tell the full story in the saddest detail, the way the people are led by their noses because they follow their leaders with blind faith – to their deaths. “Everybody knows and still they can’t do anything, not the killers in command and neither those who are doing the dirty work – and then die. That is our world – and the world of most who live on this earth today.”

It is Alexiev’s powerful research and conversations with people on the ground who tell their stories and how and what happened. It is tragic and horrific, even more so than the actual explosion. But at least these unwitting victims can be heard, their stories are being highlighted – and sadly in this world, it probably won’t make a difference.

But now we know – at the very least.

book oneOne of Us by Åsne Seierstad (Virago):

When someone told me they were reading the book about the mass killings in 2011 by Anders Behring Breivik who killed 77 of his fellow Norwegians, young people who were doing their civic duty, on an island, isolated from the world and any immediate help, I didn’t understand why anyone would want to read about this distant tragedy seemingly unrelated to anything here.

Nevertheless, I was given a copy and happy to test my misgivings. Of course it is much more than simply the story of the killings as the author is a journalist who knows how to go about finding and researching her stories, in some instances perhaps too thoroughly but that might also have to do with the translation. The language doesn’t always hold to the subject matter and the focus is sometimes just too much for a particular topic.

And yet, what she does is to walk back in time to Breivik’s childhood, the tug of war between his father and mother, his father’s second and much envied family by the young man, his own isolation in the world and a determined almost frantic effort to be recognised and accepted by almost any peer group.

It is pointed out on the book’s cover that the book shows that “evil is not born but created” (Independent on Sunday) and that is evident in the detailed evidence that Seierstad is at pains to point out.

It is also a story of our time, how people are unable to deal with their own lives and how there is nowhere to turn to. Today’s living is so fast, hardly anyone will notice someone else’s pain, reach out a hand or take the time to even have a conversation. If you grow up in the kind of isolation that is illustrated here, the dark web is almost inevitable if you are determined to make yourself visible.

This is obviously the extreme but if you take this relatively young century into account, people seem to feel more and more that they have to make an impact simply to be seen. That’s a problem of our time which can only get worse.

Writing is What Debut Author Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu Wants to do With her Life

A writer that was born to write is a wondrous thing as DIANE DE BEER discovers when first reading The Theory of Flight (Penguin Books) and then speaking to the author Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu:

 

book Siphiwe and mom
Author Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu and her mom Sarah Nokuthula Ndhlovu.

 

On the third of September, not so long ago, something truly wondrous happened on the Beauford Farm and Estate. At the moment of her death, Imogen Zula Nyoni – Genie – was seen to fly away on a giant pair of silver wings…

 

These are the first words in Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu’s debut novel The Theory of Flight (Penguin Books) and it never lets up. From that first sentence, it grabs your attention and keeps you in a state of wonderment about this first-time fiction writer’s glorious gift of storytelling.

She says that an immensely strong connection to her family and a similar one to Bulawayo, the city where she was born and raised, informs her writing.  “I am also deeply invested in Zimbabwe’s history. These things not only influence my sense of self but also inform my writing. The Theory of Flight is marked through with these influences and Beauford Farm and Estate is built on the memory of the place I grew up as a child – Rangemore.”

She was born in 1977 in the former Rhodesia during what she calls “the country’s civil war, but what most call the war for liberation and others call the bush war or terrorist war”. At the time of her birth, her family was going through a rough time as her grandparents’ nationalist politics had her grandfather imprisoned as a political detainee and her grandmother blacklisted from her teaching profession. “When my grandfather was released from prison in 1978, my entire family left the country as political refugees. We lived in Sweden and then the USA before moving back to Zimbabwe when the country became independent in 1980.

“I grew up in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe in the 1980s and 1990s, in 1997 I left Zimbabwe for college in the USA. I lived in the USA for 18 years, furthering my education until I received my PhD from Stanford University in 2013. When my grandmother passed away in 2014, I realized that I had lived in the ‘diaspora’ long enough and that it was time to come home. I got a job in Johannesburg in 2015 and worked and lived in South Africa until July this year. I had decided to take a year off to just focus on my writing, so that is what I will be doing, now back in Bulawayo, starting in October.”

book flight

The remarkable thing about her book is not only the writing but also the way she tells her story which she says she has been doing since she was a very young child. With a grandmother who was a teacher, she was taught to read from a young age and was told these amazing stories. “I have always had a vivid imagination and a passion for storytelling. My grandmother used to tell the most amazing stories so from a young age I was very aware of what a great and wonderful expanse the imagination was. I visited the places in my imagination many times as a child. I remember standing in sunflower and maize fields lost in my imagination.” (All images which are very present in her book).

“As my vocabulary grew, I started drawing stick figures whose lives grew more and more complicated as I grew. In my teens, I started writing general ideas for stories and short stories. I loved reading ever since I started reading at around the age of 4. And at some point it occurred to me that I wanted to be a writer. It was a distant dream, but one I firmly believed I would realise. So at college I studied Writing, Literature and Publishing.”

She then went on to pursue an MFA in Film and a PhD in Modern Thought and Literature, but she held tightly to the dream of becoming a writer. “It was something that I always knew I was going to do. Doing it, however, proved somewhat more difficult and complicated than I had imagined.”

She started writing The Theory of Flight in 2010. But she was writing her PhD dissertation as well. The situation was untenable because she was losing her heart to her characters but she didn’t have time to spend with them. She talks about being a conduit for these stories, that it feels as if they come to her and she simply has to listen.

She finally finished writing the dissertation in 2013 and the first draft of The Theory of Flight in 2015.

What she discovered was how difficult it is to transport the world you visit in your imagination onto the page. But however difficult, she fell in love with the process of writing, of getting to know the characters better, of having more of their world revealed to her. “This was what I want to do with my life.”

She can’t remember how the title of the book came to her but there is an explanation in the book. The story, she explains, was a means for her to deal with the loss of her aunt, Sibongile Frieda Ndlovu to whom the book is also dedicated, who passed away in 2007, at the age of 34. “She was four years older than me and we had grown up as sisters.”

She wanted to explore the many ways we love and lose the people in our lives. She also wanted to examine Zimbabwe’s own history of loss — civil war, ethnic cleansing, HIV/AIDS, genocide. “The country has lost millions of people, all within the span of a generation – what does this mean for the country, who are we now?”

It’s clear when reading the book that the writer is someone extraordinary and when you chat to her, that feeling is reinforced. Having been out of her country of birth the past 20 years, she could watch from afar, think about things more clearly and come to very specific decisions. In a time when it is all about me, Ndlovu believes strongly in the Kennedy adage: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

But she was also very clear in her mind that she did not want The Theory of Flight to be a doom-and-gloom African tale. “I wanted all that loss to be put in the context of all the love that existed throughout all those difficult events in our history. I wanted the story to also be about the sunflowers, the friendships, the loves that people experienced. I also wanted the story to capture the way stories are told in this place: anything is possible, the imagination is a great big expanse, people can fly.”

She does all that and so much more. When she was a little girl, soon after her grandfather came out of prison, she saw the torture marks on his body. When she asked him about them, not fully understanding yet feeling the pain, her response was that she hated all white people. “He looked at me and asked me what had white people ever done to me?” She describes this as her most teachable moment which says everything about who she is and has become – and it runs through her writing with clarity and charm.

And if you lose your heart to the people of her world in The Theory of Flight, there’s good news. She’s in the process of planning the second book of what she hopes will be a trilogy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blackwashing Homophobia in SA and How Violence is Used as Control

blackwashing coverAuthor and activist as well as adjunct associate professor in the Department of Public Law at the University of Cape Town, Melanie Judge is speaking at the Open Book Fair in Cape Town on September 5 and 7, and then she will also be joining diverse authors at the South African Book Fair in Jozi on September 8 in a discussion titled Feminism – a global conversation. She spoke to DIANE DE BEER about her latest book titled Blackwashing Homophobia: Violence and the Politics of Sexuality, Gender and Race (Routledge, 2018):

 

It sounds like a mouthful, the title, and it is, but what it captures is the essence of what still drives the world – power and how that plays out in the worlds of especially “the other”.

The title, notes Melanie Judge, is an attempt to think about homophobic violence alongside other types of violence and discrimination, not in isolation but to historically situate it in a South African context. “I wanted to know what fuels homophobia” And adds, “given our history, it is impossible to unpack issues of race and sexuality in South Africa separately – hence the title.”

Pointing to the title – blackwashing homophobia – and what emerged from her research, especially how racial and sexual discrimination work alongside one another to produce very problematic ideas about gay and lesbian people in South Africa, and about black gay and lesbian people in particular, is what drives this particular story.

As an activist, she wanted to understand and glean the multiple dimensions of both the causes and effects of violence and its relationship to race, gender and sexual power.

She notes that violence is always an instrument of power and a way to exercise it. How then are lesbians vulnerable to violence – more so than other groups for example – and in what way do they resist.

Power, she explains is a way to exert control over those who don’t conform to sexual and gender norms. If for example, you’re a lesbian, the implication is often that you’re not a “real woman”. In the book, the specific vulnerability lesbians face is described as “double trouble”, meaning that they are stigmatized because they are women, and also because they are lesbian, and that the trouble the gender system in which men are straight people are dominant. In all cultures, sexual and gender diversity is battle ground on which social norms are defined and challenged.

Melanie Judge
Melanie Judge

The book also explores how violence is used to control sexuality and gender. Looking back at colonial and apartheid times, people were governed through violence. “Violence was used to control,” she explains, and that continues to today. “We are a very violent society, so it makes sense,” she argues as she fast forwards to now.

But her focus for the book is on homophobic violence and how it relates to other forms of violence. “How for example does it intersect with racism?” Her argument is that violence props up, establishes and maintains systems of inequality. It is also used to maintain the hierarchy between men and women, gay people and straight people, and rears its ugly head whenever there’s inequality.

It’s important in maintaining the status quo to keep those binaries in place. In other words, if you’re a lesbian, you cannot be a real woman, so you’re always viewed as ‘lesser than’ for not complying with gender norms. And in the end, everyone in society is affected. “Queer becomes a spectacle,” she says, “a kind of anomaly to the ‘normal’ that is sometimes tolerated, just as long as it knows its place and doesn’t disrupt too much”.

If people from the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community are systematically excluded on different levels, it creates a form of marginalisation, something the South African society and its way of conducting life is very familiar with. It was important in this sense for example to explore the link between the everyday insults that LGBT people face and the more brutal forms of violence they are subjected to.

This results in a social environment that makes these more extreme forms of violence possible. Already, for example, white LGBT people who are affluent, escape some of the targeting. In trying to understand this violence, she found that it was often ascribed to blackness. “I find that particularly racist,” she says.

There’s a strong discourse for example about violence in the township and this idea that violence is inherent to black people. What she feels needs to be done is to problematise that kind of misrepresentation because it doesn’t tell the full and thus correct story. “No one,” says Judge, “is naturally bigoted, and we must understand the realities facing black LGBT people as a product of centuries of racial and economic oppression and dispossession.”

But she argues, power inequalities produce violent outcomes. “People are kept in their place in the social and economic hierarchy through violent means.”

She argues strongly that if we want to address the violence, we have to address social injustices. Violence is all about building your identity, who you are and how you function in the world. It is time says Judge that we stop asserting our own right over others in terms of race, gender and sexual superiorities. “We have to establish new forms of social relationship,” she says. “How empty is your power if it can only hold its own at the cost of the other?”

That’s why binaries were so essential during apartheid: blackness and whiteness had to be classified and identified constantly. “Yet, we never have singular identities,” she notes. You’re not just a woman, you might also be queer or straight, rich or poor, and this will shape your life prospects. What defines you never rests on one thing alone and in that intersection is where people connect across difference. “We have a multiplicity of identities. Some of these give us power and others make us vulnerable.”

As individuals we are all complicit in maintaining the current state of affairs but she has discovered powerful and positive resistance against discriminatory social norms.

But how does one erase the past patterns of doing and being in relation to others? It is something that we need to confront in this country especially because of our past and with the hope of creating a different future. “We have to undo everything,” says Judge who knows things don’t just happen as a matter of course.

Systems of prejudice are all about exclusion. “It’s about keeping people in positions of inferiority or superiority that lies at the heart of inequality.”

But she is excited about the divergence and vibrancy of queer life in this country. “We are in post-apartheid and to some extent with huge advances, but the law has largely run its course in how far it can take us towards a more equal society.” She believes that with the firm footing of legal equality, the battle ground can, and has, shifted to the religious and cultural spheres. “It is important that we change the way we relate to one another, and that we change social structures to be more equitable and inclusive.”

“We have to think back before we can go forward,” are her sage words of advice. Homophobia is part of the legacy of colonialism and apartheid. “We can’t approach the now if we haven’t dealt with the past,” she advocates.

Liezie Mulder of the Iconic île de pain Makes Every Recipe Her Own – Anytime

Ile de Pain Wild oats loaf_4599
Wild oats loaf

Liezie Mulder and her family’s restaurant île de pain in Knysna are legendary. Her second cook book île de pain ANYTIME (Quivertree) has recently been published. If you love food, playing around in the kitchen, take note. She tells DIANE DE BEER about her way with food and how best to replicate her passion:

ile de pain cover muckup (002)

 

 

If you have been to Knysna’s famous île de païn, buying into Liezie Mulder’s latest (2nd) cookbook will be easy.

She says it herself in the introduction: As a chef I borrow, share and am inspired by the works of others and I absorb what is happening around me, at home and on my travels, and then make it my own.  …what is important is to use my own voice, to be honest, to be unique and true to myself.”

She wants to make it better using different techniques or using ingredients in a way that’s different or by introducing unique flavour combinations. Sometimes she simplifies it to express her style and philosophy more emphatically.

Travel is a huge source of inspiration for her. It gives her a chance to breathe far from her immediate surroundings, to experience, listen and be immersed and influenced by different cultures. She scribbles notes while watching cooking shows and collects food memories when she travels- here or abroad.

The restaurant menu is constantly evolving but for her the important ingredients are simplicity, uncomplicated and wholesome. And then she adds: “There has to be a party in your mouth with every bite!”

Ile de Pain Liezie
Liezie Mulder’s île de païn

The past 15 years at île de païn with much heartache and joy has taught her to have more fun and not to take work and food too seriously. It shows and comes across especially in her philosophy. Asked about her recipes, she says they should be fresh, simple, uncomplicated and fun. “I like to keep flavours in a recipe clean, working within the flavour palette of one region or country. I like to combine unexpected flavours and present it in a way using few components on a plate, so as not to confuse the palate.”

It’s about celebrating her favourite food memories … and food! “I wanted to create something lasting, beautiful but also useful. Something that captures the essence of what we do, and at the same time inspires others.”

If you’re interested in the food world, watch food programmes or speak to foodies, you will already know that sourcing ingredients is hugely important. “It is vital to use quality, healthy, fresh produce that offers high value in terms of both vitality and beauty.” All of this will contribute to the quality of your food in a way that saves both money and time in the long run.

The restaurant is a family affair with Mulder and her partner and master baker Markus Färbinger at the helm. What they initially set out to do was a village bakery which has now turned into a fully-fledged restaurant that works around the clock. She gives insight into the running of that as well: “It was only after five years that systems began to flow. Better-qualified chefs joined the team, we changed our working hours, took a step back, and grew as a result of becoming more aware of what needed focus.”

Because this was their family’s life, they had to adapt the running of their restaurant to suit their lifestyle. Everything was going well at the 10-year mark and then something dramatic happened – a fire in 2015 and everything burnt down.

But this gave them time to rethink their lives and their restaurant – and whether they wanted to start again – from scratch. The answer was yes but this time they could take a deep breath and design a new île de païn which she describes as “confident, lighter, happier, sophisticated but not perfect”.

This time it’s all about quality and not quantity – in their food and their lives. The recipes included in the book are the most popular from the restaurant menu, her own personal favourites and those of her family. Each one tells a story from where the inspiration comes from and how it became part of their menu. It could be cooking with her mother-in-law or sharing a meal with a Vietnamese farmer or even something as exotic as being invited to cook with the chef of the King of Bhutan.

Ile de Pain1
île de païn

Before she gets into the real recipes, Mulder has some advice:

Basics, basics, basics, she stresses. Only when you have mastered the basics can you start playing around. That’s the rule with most creative endeavours.

One of this chef’s strengths is organisational skills. She advises cooks to work with checks and balances. Take the time to read through a recipe, weigh out all the ingredients, organise your work area, get all your equipment ready – and clean as you go.

Quality ingredients has already been highlighted and with equal importance, she stresses detail and consistency in everything she does in the kitchen.

Speaking as a professional chef, she believes passion about food, people, creativity and a need to be of service are what you need to make it in the hospitality industry.

There’s much to like about the book but with bread and baking a strength of this restaurant whose name translates as island of bread, pay attention. And when she notes that the concluding chapter – Prep Time – is her favourite, also take note.

She loves sauces, relishes and dips, almost all of which can be made ahead of time and are jampacked with flavour as well as guaranteed to deliver a punch at every meal, she assures. So perhaps that’s the right place to start. She believes the great start to any successful meal, menu or dinner party is in the planning and preparation.

Ile de Pain L and M
Liezie Mulder and and her partner and master baker Markus Färbinger

Especially if you cook and entertain mainly on your own, here’s heartfelt advice and if you listen to what she says and how to go about it, your kitchen can become a great source of joy.

What makes this such a special book is the fact that Mulder spends most of her life thinking about and working with food. It’s not just the recipes that are precious, it’s also everything she has to say about the recipe and how best to prepare a certain dish or bake a brilliant loaf of bread.

Get thee into the kitchen!