Books are Telling the Impactful Stories of the #MeToo Movement With Great Vigour

Book The TestamentsMany are wondering what the impact of the #MeToo movement has had on the lives of women. Has the serial stalking subsided or is it business as usual. The backlash as well as the reinvention of some of the accused might be an indication and yet, like in #BlackLivesMatter, it’s as if voices have been given a freedom to tell stories and more people are listening. DIANE DE BEER highlights some of the good news:

 

There’s no doubt that The Handmaid’s Tale in 1984 was ahead of its time (some would say at the right time) but now, looking back, it’s almost as if the world has caught up with Atwood’s dystopian tale.

Women’s reproductive functions became their only value in a world where a previously free-wheeling democracy turned into a totalitarian dictatorship in which specific men made all the decisions with no attempt at embracing the needs of the female populace.

Some would say that’s the lives women were living anyway, but with more subtlety in the execution, but perhaps the fact that little has changed for women since, is more of an indictment. Even the new millennium didn’t offer many new horizons.

But there has been a mind shift even if it still only finds its power in the “voices” of those creative women who write or tell stories through film or theatre or other writing of course.

And while Atwood never wanted to write a sequel to her most iconic novel, she might have been pushed by the success of the television series based on her book, which had to its advantage the timing as well as the excellence of the production on all levels.

Some have said enough already, but personally having witnessed a third generation of girls entering exactly the same world I did midway through the last century, that’s where I want to say enough already!

So well done Ms Atwood for both novels, and while The Testaments (Chatto & Windus) has to my mind an easy (yet hopeful) ending (no wonder art historian Mary Beard described her as a “optimistic dystopian”), I was thrilled that the author’s prescience kicked in both times – in 1984 and again in 2019 and that she was thus rewarded with the 2019 Booker Prize (shared as it was).

BK Girl (002)Perhaps on a different timeline but Edna O’Brien’s Girl (Faber & Faber), speaks to similar themes.  While this is a work of fiction, there’s enough fact around for her to tell a story based on reality – and it’s horrific. That 276 female students could be kidnapped by an extremist terrorist group in the Northern province of Nigeria and disappear overnight with all our sophisticated surveillance techniques is astounding.

And yet, while 57 were rescued a few months after the capture, and a few stragglers have managed to escape, more than 200 women (no longer girls, all these years later) are still missing. Hopefully this book by one of the world’s leading writers, described by some as her masterpiece – understandably – will shine a searing spotlight on those still missing.

Had they been on another continent and perhaps not black, more effort would have been made and yet, the same group is still terrorising African people in that part of the world and the women must surely by now be fully integrated into their way of life. It’s been almost six years and they were at a very vulnerable age when first captured.

What O’Brien has done so cleverly is write a story of a young girl, now with a baby, who escapes the tyranny to journey back home through nightmarish terrain. But she is courageous and by now crafty and by sheer force of will, she makes it home.

Many would imagine that would be the end of her hellish life’s journey. But as is so often the case with female victims even someone who has discovered her own voice – she is silently blamed for everything that has happened to her, including the kidnapping and the pregnancy.

It’s tough to imagine how you deal with one tragedy after another and yet, it’s almost as if life keeps throwing those challenges at those who don’t buckle. It is about the strength of a woman fighting for her life and fighting back, in spite of a world which has turned its back on her. It’s full of heartache but finally, also hope for each woman survivor.

bk she saidJodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, winners of the Pulitzer Prize, have written a book about their article on “breaking the sexual harassment story that helped ignite a movement”.

She SaidBreaking The Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite The Movement (Bloomsbury) is an extraordinary read as they go into great detail to tell the story of their travails to get to a story that had to be watertight, so that it wouldn’t simply be dismissed and disappear into thin air – as was so often the case in the past.

 

What has been happening is that the entitlement of some powerful men turns them into monsters, who believe they can simply take women whenever and wherever they want.

And in the case of perhaps now the most visible alleged sexual molester, Harvey Weinstein, he had an army of enablers around him to make this predator’s sex life run smoothly. Some who didn’t care to confront him, some who went out of their way to help, because it would benefit their careers and others, like his brother, who kept fixing the problem, yet never making it go away. Somewhere in all of this, women’s lives and dreams were being destroyed. No one seemed to care and the women were too scared to talk.

Even the most famous ones. If women like Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ashley Judd couldn’t stand up to Weinstein, what chance did a young assistant or secretary have?

If you never pay for any wrongdoing and you are perceived to be all-powerful, you will believe and write  your own press. And while they tell Weinstein’s story and his efforts to kill the story and to deny any wrongdoing (to this day), they also turn to one of the other high-profile rape cases, that of Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation against Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.

We all know what happened there in spite of amazing testimony by a woman of such impeccable character and dignity. And yet like the Anita Hill case in 1991, where her accusation against another Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas was roughly brushed aside at great personal cost to the accuser, all these years later, the results were the same.

The only impact of the #MeToo movement was more publicity. As a result, it was more delicately handled by the members of congress because of the media scrutiny. But still, the US now have two men accused of sexual crimes, sitting on the highest court in the land.

Fortunately, the #MeToo movement has gained immeasurably as women got the courage to step forward and many mighty men who have been paying cash for their sins in the past decades, yet never punished publicly, have had to leave their high-paying, high-profile jobs as the women stood up and together made their voices heard – too loudly to be ignored.

And because the media was so often part of the story, like in the Fox News case with Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, both mighty powerful and then brought to their knees, the details were given to the world in full colour. There was no more escaping these sins that had been perpetrated for decades on naive young women with dreams – all shattered.

BKcatch & killThe second book covering the Weinstein sexual abuse allegations comes from a different angle – yet making many of the same points. It seems investigative journalist Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill – Lies, Spies and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators (Fleet) was ahead of the pack but the closer he got to the nub of the story, the harsher the degree of resistance from even his own network that would finally have to screen the story.

It meant that he had to switch from a release on NBC News to a print story in The New Yorker, which the magazine was happy to publish after fact-checking extraordinaire. This book tells how this investigative reporter had to battle violence and even espionage to expose this celebrity serial abuser while focusing on the powerful people surrounding him at his own workplace as well as the coverups from Washington to Hollywood.

Weinstein had learnt and perfected the ways of wielding power and he used that liberally to obtain support for his evil lifestyle with full consent of people – both men and women – who should have known better. It’s an astonishing read, more of a thriller than a news report, which is more the style of She Said.

And while it seems to go on and on, especially towards the conclusion, he wanted to emphasize the lengths he had to go to  get this story told. The amazing thing is that everyone knew. Yet no one was speaking – even the women were too scared to share the horror of their experiences.

It is this silent conspiracy that has turned rape into an epidemic worldwide. When the powerful think they can get away with something, many of them would do just that, as those being accused attest too.

And if anything, what all these public revelations have done is to show why women were so scared to tell their stories. No one was listening and when they did, they simply refused to believe the accusations. Think of Strauss-Kahn, former IMF boss who was accused by the hotel worker cleaning his room.

Finally those doors have been opened. Now we have to make sure that those who have to make decisions are representative of the whole community not only the perpetrators.

Perhaps then, some of the outcomes will make more sense

 

 

 

Marguerite Poland Suffers No Sins of Omission in her Awesome New Book

Book Sin of Omission

In these sensitive times where much is said about who can tell whose story, Marguerite Poland has tackled a topic that many might have stepped away from – black missionaries who had to confront not only the prejudices of the their colonial benefactors but also the horrific practices in the Church itself. DIANE DE BEER lost her heart to this extraordinary writing and Poland’s storytelling:

 

 

Author Marguerite Poland was very clear about telling this story. “My great uncle was very dear to me. He had been largely brought up on St Matthew’s Mission in the Eastern Cape by his grandparents who were the Anglican missionaries.”

Although she was only fourteen at the time, she found his stories of life on the mission fascinating. As an added bonus, he always encouraged her to learn Xhosa, believing that most of our problems stemmed from miscommunication.

“He told me the story of a talented young Xhosa boy whom his grandfather had sent away for higher education and what happened to him when he left school. The story stuck in my mind,” she explains.

Many years later when she was writing a history of an Eastern Cape school, she came across a piece of information that struck a chord of recognition and being the kind of writer she is, she followed the lead. It led her in a circuitous and often obscure fashion to the real person about whom her great uncle had spoken.

She had to do in-depth research and then travel to Canterbury in England where the inspiration for her main character (“whom I named Stephen Mzamane”) had been educated. This she followed with a trip to the isolated mission station where Mzamane had been a priest. “These journeys were informed by the material found for me by a wonderful friend in England who unearthed the relevant missionary letters in the English archives.” And she thanks all those sources generously in her book.

“I was cautious about writing the story of Stephen Mzamane – very aware of the sensitivities which exist in ‘appropriating’ the lives of others. Is it respectful? Is it justified? I was aware of the immense responsibility in taking on the task and knew that preparation for it had to be meticulous. I also knew that if I didn’t write it, a story which I think still resonates today, it might never be told and a young man of great courage and faith, forgotten.”

Marguerite-by Melissa Mitchell8 (1)
Marguerite Poland. Picture: Melissa Mitchell

 

As in her writing, Poland speaks as sensitively about the  challenges she faced in telling this particular story. Challenged for writing both outside her gender and her culture (in consideration of the particular sensitivities of all who live in South Africa), she was acutely aware of the responsibility expected of her both in adapting the historical event and in attempting to recreate events as authentically as possible.

“I was fortunate to have access to a vast number of letters written between 1860-1885 from various missionaries to their parent organization in England, which were hugely instructive in understanding the history of the era and its concerns  as well as the personalities I had come to know from years of research into Anglican Church history.”

And probably, it is this authenticity, the confidence with which the story is told, that takes hold of the reader right from the start.

She explains that the ‘real’ Stephen Mzamane’s own letters were among them and from this  emerged a character whose life she could start to imagine with some confidence. That is evident in the writing.

“The ‘real’ Stephen Mzamane had also been my great-great grandfather’s assistant at the mission for a number of years and my relation wrote very warmly of him,” she says. Naturally she felt a personal connection with the story because of the family links, but that also made it a greater responsibility while also giving her a sense of it being appropriate for her to write it.

She also believes that the writing of any story, history or biography, is a form of appropriation – that’s the nature of the job. “This story is based on important and significant facts. It is written as a novel which means I have used my novelist’s imagination based on those facts to the best of my ability.”

When reading the novel, right from the start, there’s a sense of sadness that grips you around the character of Mzamane and the life he is expected to lead. It’s not that he doesn’t grab hold of it. In his life, what is being offered is real hope that his circumstances can change and that he make a difference to the circumstances of his long suffering people when returning home.

First educated at the Native College in Grahamstown, he is sent to England in 1869 for training at the Missionary College in Canterbury. He returns back home full of hope and expectation, but instead of the life he thinks will follow, he is relegated to a dilapidated mission near Fort Beaufort while the Church all but turns its back on him.

This might sound like a bleak story but Poland tells it in such a way that you want to witness the story of a young man of such promise whose hopes are dashed by people who could have made a spectacular difference.

Poland argues that writers choose subjects for a hugely diverse range of reasons. “Writing a book takes time, commitment and, on the downside, exacts much frustration and self-doubt, boredom, stress and a whole range of other emotions. It is also a very great joy attempting to bring characters to life,” she says. “There are transcendent moments, synchronous happenings which give one a sense of purpose and inspiration and make one see it through.”

“One can’t just stop and leave a character in limbo – especially if it is based on a real person. That would be very cowardly! I write about things that move me and that I really care about. It is very personal and I am fortunate to be able to take on projects that I truly choose. Stephen’s story came to me as a youngster, it stayed with me in all my research for other books and projects, it kept intruding, slipping into my consciousness, being insistent – like a gift that must be appreciated and accepted with good grace!”

By the end of the novel I was in tears because of investing wholeheartedly in Stephen. And while this isn’t something I do often when I read even truly sad books, I was puzzled. As is her wont, Poland gives the perfect explanation:

“I think that the obstacles and hurts that my character faced in the 1870s and 1880s still exist. Sins of omission are not so difficult to identify and be addressed or punished. They are committed by everyone daily through the small slights, neglects, prejudices and lack of empathy that are ingredients of the human character particularly in societies where prejudice and gross economic inequalities exist.

“ Most such sins are committed out of fear, of ‘becoming involved’, apathy or simply lack of sensitivity to the feelings or needs of others. Other ‘sins’ are greater and underscore the dictum that evil will flourish if just men do nothing.

“We still live in a very unequal society in South Africa.”

And that is the real sadness.

 

 

 

 

 

Sally Andrew’s Tannie Maria in her Hair-raising adventure Death on the Limpopo

Sally dancing in the Karoo
Sally dancing in the Karoo

If you haven’t yet made the acquaintance of Ladismith’s Tannie Maria, DIANE DE BEER tells you why you should, in this, Sally Andrew’s third in the series, Death on the Limpopo:

Cover Limpopo finalOn my first meeting with Tannie Maria, I knew that she was the real deal. It’s easy to lose your heart to any of author Sally Andrew’s characters because the storytelling and writing both have authenticity and a sensibility that make the Karoo and her characters sing.

And by now, says Sally, her small-town characters are well established and she can no longer simply push them around.

Tannie Maria is a kind of agony aunt for the local Klein Karoo Gazette in Ladismith and she tries to lighten her reader’s dilemma with a recipe which should add to a swifter solution of whatever might be bothering them.

Sally describes the other regulars as follows: Jessie, the fiesty young investigative reporter; Hattie a Mary Poppins-like editor and Maria’s boyfriend detective Henk Kannemeyer with the distinctive moustache who keeps a protective watch on the woman who has captured his heart.

Tannie Maria loves Henk (pic by Sean Brown)
Tannie Maria loves Henk Picture: Sean Brown

Much as the people are the ones that steal the show, the backdrop is the Klein Karoo, a landscape that’s always hovering and means as much to Tannie Maria as the food she uses as nourishment for a healthy mind as important as body. Soul food probably describes it best.

Sally and Bowen Picture Andrea Nix
Sally Andrew and Bowen Boshier Picture: Andrea Nix

Sally lives(most of the time) with her artist-husband Bowen Boshier in a mudbrick house in a nature reserve in the Klein Karoo. This is where she finds her inspiration, especially when she wanders off on her own and allows nature to play with her over-imaginative mind. It’s also that playful mind that goes into entertainment mode when she plays dress-up for her book launch and introduces some animal characters which she either forgets can talk or puts some words into their mouths.

The biker outfit she wears to these latest book launches, isn’t random. Her latest invention arrives in the Klein Karoo with a screech of tires in a whirlwind of dust on her black Ducati motorbike. Zabanguni Kani is an investigative journalist from the Daily Maverick described by Sally as “strong, black, no sugar”.

There’s no messing with Zabanguni even in this part of the world where she stands out no matter what and Sally views her as her “inner biker chic” but also “the voice of my hardcore activist youth”. It’s an interesting and lively strand that she introduces into a book that deals more than anything with fathers and daughters.

That is bittersweet but perhaps not coincidental as the author’s father was very ill during the writing of this book and sadly died before the Death on the Limpopo was published. “He helped with historical research for this book, sharing his memories, and recommending books and articles to me,” she writes in the Acknowledgements. “He then listened to the whole manuscript as I read him a draft on his sickbed, two chapters a day. He was my best listener and editor, offering insightful comments. He cried quietly at the good bits and snored loudly during the boring bits.”

None of the darker elements in the writing are a surprise. Because of the main character, one might be forgiven if you don’t take any of this seriously, but the essence of the writing is always hardcore as the writer tackles issues in all three Tannie Maria books including spousal abuse, PTSD and there’s a constant quest for healing as her central character deals with her violent past.

As interesting as her characters and story lines might be, what gives the writing weight is the fact that all of this (perhaps not the sleuthing although she does that in her head) is this unusual writer’s real world and the life she leads.

She and Tannie Maria inhabit the same landscape and encounter the same plants and creatures, all of which play a dominant part in their lives.

Then there’s the writing:

The tar ended, as if a black brush had just run dry, and the wheels of my bakkie gripped the earth beneath us. My bakkie loves dirt roads. My red veldskoene got excited too, and added speed to the accelerator. I slowed them both down. I don’t like to go fast in the veld. You never know where there might be a tortoise or a meerkat crossing the road.

It’s evocative as it creates visual pictures that result in a colourful reading as the story races ahead.

Weerligkoek complete PvS. JPG
Weerligkoek Picture: Peter van Straten

Sally tries all the recipes herself and for those she doesn’t attempt, she relies on the help of others and sometimes like for this latest book, she finds specialists like Mari-Louise Guy who with her brother has built a cake and recipe book empire in the Cape.

Tannie Maria's milktart
Tannie Maria’s melktert

Mari-Louise for example took the traditional Ladismith recipe provided by Hetty Smit, and then developed the Weerligkoek (Lightning Cake ) which, when reading the recipe, tells you throughout that it is do-able, but seems quite a tough ask. And Sally assures me that the Melktert in the first book is one of the best. And so all her recipes should be, they’re read and experimented with all across the world. Her books are extremely popular and have been translated into many different languages.

 

You also know, spending some time with the author, that she would not settle for anything but the best. Just doing an interview was quite a mission because she didn’t want to clutter the conversation I was having with her for the Pretoria book launch at Uppercase Books.

I didn’t mind because artists have their own ways, they know what works for them and that’s the right time to indulge their whims.

Anyone who can come up with the Tannie Maria stories and set it in an authentic South African landscape that makes sense, capture the wonders of this country and its people and then do it in a language that has its own rhythms for these particular tales, gets my vote.

poppy seed rusks
Poppy seed rusks

Hopefully Tannie Maria still has much life left in her and will keep sharing her stories rooted in the Klein Karoo (or introducing other nature areas as was done here). She has crept into many hearts as we listen to her advice, dreaming of a coffee and poppy seed rusk that comes from her kitchen.

Journalist Tanya Farber Explores the Lives of SA’s Notorious Female Killers

Pictures: JEREMY DANIEL

bloodbook.jpg

 

The statistics speak for themselves: 95 per cent of people who commit murder are male writes journalist/author Tanya Farber about her choice of subject for her book – Blood on her Hands – South Africa’s Most Notorious Female Killers (Jonathan Ball Publishers). DIANE DE BEER gets the lowdown on the book, why she wrote it and why it is so compelling:

It is precisely the percentage of female killers that  makes the stories of the murderers in Blood on her Hands – South Africa’s Most Notorious Female Killers unusual: they come from the small 5 per cent of killers who are female. And this is what intrigued author Tanya Farber – that and covering one of the court cases, which drew her in.

While that already makes them more interesting, especially when coupled with the fact that they are seldom impulsive acts of violence, it also intrigued her to delve into the plotting and planning that went into each murder.

“Dina Rodrigues is a case in point – she had several opportunities to rethink her decision to murder a baby, and yet she stuck to it like glue. Daisy de Melker’s serial killing took place over several years, so what was going on in that mind of hers? I find it fascinating that the wiring could be so wrong inside the human brain.”

As a journalist, her interest was sparked when she was tasked to write court stories. “I am actually a science reporter, but as newsrooms have shrunk, one often writes stories outside of one’s own beat. That said, I have been utterly spellbound by the trials that I have covered, and I am particularly interested in forensics. This, of course, includes forensic psychology: I am particularly interested in the mind of a deviant person, and how that plays out in the courtroom.

“I begin the Najwa Petersen chapter in the actual court room because her public facade in the courtroom, and her interior world, were so very different.”

With the writing, her goal was to imagine a ‘day in the life of this particular woman’. “In some cases, I began with the day of the murder, so we see, for example, Celiwe Mbokazi on the phone om the day of her husband’s murder and we get a sense that she is speaking to her accomplices, knowing full well that this murder might take place in front of the children.

“In other cases, I described a day that would give the reader insight into the murderer’s background. Like in the Phoenix Racing Cloud Theron chapter, it starts off with her as a toddler living in a caravan with her often-absent mother, so I tried to imagine the world through her little-girl eyes,” she explained.

And when it came to choosing the women she would write about, she firstly excluded any woman who one could feel was justified in committing murder.

“Ellen Pakkies, for example, killed her son who was a tik addict and was literally tormenting the family, so she has no place in this book.”

blood author

She wanted to study women who in her opinion could not be absolved of their crime due to circumstances. “Even Charmaine Phillips – one can recognize the wretched and violent childhood she had but does that give her the right to take part in the cold-blooded murder of four men by shooting them at point blank range?” So, she made the cut.

And while she doesn’t think society is softer on women killers, they certainly illicit more interest than do their male counterparts. “As I discuss in the analytical chapter at the end, female killers in the past were often seen as being mad (as in seriously deranged and out of touch with reality) or else what would explain their deviance from being a nurturer?

“The point I make in the book, however, is that female killers can also just kill because they are murderous and bloody-minded just like any male killer who goes about plotting and planning someone else’s demise.”

Marlene Lehnberg, she argues, was just a teenager when she began plotting the murder of her boss’s wife because she was having a red-hot affair with him. “Her ultra conservative upbringing might explain how her brain was shaped, but then consider that there are thousands of others in our country who grew up in conservative households but didn’t go about killing people!”

The chapter dealing with Joey Haarhoof gave her nightmares – literally.

“Even more so than the Chane van Heerden chapter, even though she mutilated and decapitated her victim, and skinned his face.” Haarhoff had this impact for two reasons: Farber was not much older than the victims and remembers clearly the sheer terror of what was going on and the warning issued by her parents. She is also now a mother with two daughters who both fall within the age range of Joey’s victims and so, imagining the pain of the parents, is much more real for her now.

“In short: back then, I could relate to the victims. Now I can relate to the parents.”

It’s fascinating stuff and reading it, because of the way the topic has been approached has you turning the pages – even when in some instances you believe you know the stories. It is the psychological angle, the way this hard-nosed journalist tackles her subjects and then the softer approach, an almost a gentle voice, telling the story, which makes it so insightful.

It’s also telling which of the stories got greater play in the newspapers and media while some, perhaps just in my case, slipped completely under the radar. Even though each one is a story of horror, Van Heerden, Mbokazi and Theron were unknown to me. Why?

That’s probably also part of the greater story. And as a newspaper journalist at the Sunday Times, Farber has special insight into a world of stories that catch the attention and play out in specific ways. And she makes a strong case in a world of fake news and populism.

“Despite all the ‘noise’ of social media, and the power of citizen journalism, it is still crucial to have reliable reporters who can deliver the facts. My approach always with court reporting is to blend the facts of the case with observations in the court room – the silent power of body language, the fascinating way in which the English language is used and abused to paint a picture depending on which side you’re coming from … all of that.

“The media, be it newspapers or reliable digital sites, still have a crucial role to play in conveying this to a readership.”

In conclusion, for those considering telling their own stories or perhaps venturing into the world of  writing, she issues a warning and sound advice: “Writing a book is HARD work and if anyone is considering doing it, make sure it is a topic that absolutely draws you in as a writer or else you will find yourself hating the process.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nataniël, Master Storyteller of his Life, in Look At  Me: Recollections of a Childhood

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”
― Cicero

 

DIANE DE BEER

When starting to write what was going to become a memoir, Nataniël first googled the meaning of the word and liked what appeared.

A memoir, he gleaned, is a book based on what you remember and what you feel. He doesn’t have ANY memories from before he was five – and that had me thinking too.

So memoir it would be, rather than an autobiography. For him it is all about making sense of his young world. “I didn’t write this book because of a need to share my life or about being famous,” he notes. “It’s about how I tried to figure out my life.”

That’s how it started…

“It’s a story of a young boy’s absolute fear of the ordinary,” he elaborates. “I needed to discover how it worked – families, friends, schools, towns, countries … everything.”

To him it felt as if everything was already in place when he arrived on this planet and only now, after a lifetime of research, does he feel more equipped … to live.

“The ‘70s was one of the worst times to land on the planet,” he concedes. To him it seemed as if the world was trending with bad fashion and zealotry.

“For those who know me, it will read like a memoir and for those who don’t, I hope it will be an incredible story.”

That’s also the reason the book will be published simultaneously in both Afrikaans and English. “It’s aimed at those readers who understand how big the inner life of a child is. It’s much bigger than the universe,” he notes. And that was really what fast-tracked him to tell this story.

It was the first time he was putting pen to paper not to be funny. Most of his other books were first written as sketches for the stage, which inevitably had to be funny. “It’s freeing,” he says of his memoir-writing experience. And nice to be old enough not to be intimidated by the whole gig, the process.

Nataniël has been writing all his life. From his stage scripts to magazine columns, which arguably should have made this another caper. But that’s not how this works, most authors will tell you. Even Nataniël, a man for whom creativity seems to come easily, found it hard going. Next time, he says, he will escape somewhere just to write, not try to do it in-between the rest of his life.

But he doesn’t feel he is asking for any literary feedback or judgement. The only thing he didn’t stick to are the real names in all instances. “I changed some,” he says and according to his explanation, he changed the names of people he didn’t want to glorify. “I have always been very specific with selecting names when writing anyway,” he says.

That’s true. Think of his shows. There’s Sabella, Romany Dippenaar, Mr Fazakas, Hildatjie … go to any  of his stage stories, open any page.

Once you start reading this one, you will realise that in his young life, he gave titles to everything – from streets to houses to trees and more. “The show has always been in my head,” he notes. People who knew him as a child will get that. “The book is about me functioning in the world.”

And if one goes by his shows, which have been thinly disguised life stories, his was never an easy fit. Ordinary is how he would describe it, while others might point to his non-conformity which has always been a problem, even in today’s world.

Please just don’t stick out was his solitary desire. “Ordinary,” underlines Nataniël, is what he was looking for. Creativity has always been second nature to him which immediately obliterated his longing to disappear in the crowd – at that young age.

This is not about him and his neighbours though, he says. It’s not about his life, it’s about how he navigated that life.

nataniel-.jpgTalking about the Afrikaans and English version, he wrote the Afrikaans and his translator, Iolandi Pool, did the English version. But, says Nataniël, it is not strictly speaking a translation. “She understood how I would have written it in English,” is how he best explains it.

“English is much more poetic and musical,” he explains. “Afrikaans is staccato and rhythmic.” If he had written the English version, it would have resulted in a very distant cousin of Jane Austen, is how he tells it. But he needed someone who got his distinct voice. They needed to capture that – and Pool certainly did that.

Reading it first in Nataniël’s own words and then the translation, the differences are fascinating. It’s exactly the same story but to get the voice strong enough in both versions took some vision – and the two worked very closely together with much toing and froing between them. The English almost has an old-fashioned feel, comes from this country but without moving into strictly speaking South Africanisms, which would have been the easier option. There’s a certain elegance in the telling.

“I live in Afrikaans and I read in English,” he says. “My Afrikaans is vocal and my English is written.” The challenge for him and Pool was not to become Herman Charles Bosman. For example, rather than use stoep they used porch. But writing in both languages was important.

“I wanted this to be a universal story and I wanted something of my own to give to foreign friends.”

“Those who want insight will get that, for others it will be entertaining and intriguing,” he believes. “It’s about someone who refuses to follow any rules.”

It’s memories of a childhood more than anything else, which he describes as “50% horror and 50 % complete fantasy amongst his paper dolls and rugby balls. It is the best shape on which to practise make-up,” he vows. “It’s the same shape as my face!”

“My childhood was the perfect storm of fear and fearlessness,” with the horror beginning as soon as  he stepped into the world. Back home he could create his own fantasy world. “I couldn’t understand what was wrong with the rest of the world. How could or should we obey, if it wasn’t deserved?

What I really loved about the book was that, like anything Nataniël does, he isn’t following a recipe. He tells his story as only he would. Through the years I have watched many talented artists trying to copy his successful “recipe”. You can’t. It’s about his identity, who he is, how he operates in the world and how he likes to show and tell. All of that is quite unique and what gives him his cachet in whatever he wants to do.

And it could almost be anything, because he has such a determined and decisive attitude about who he is, what he wants and what he won’t do.

That’s the right time to write your memoir and to share your life with the world. And thank goodness it could be done in English too so that his magical stories could spread wider than an Afrikaans only audience.

His wisdom is witty and wacky and takes you into a world that is weird and wonderful. I have watched him on stage for almost his whole career and was still surprised by how he chose to tell us about his young life.

I should know by now that Nataniël always does it his unique way – and his success relies on that individuality.

As with his stage stories, it is his voice and language that captures your heart, that makes you listen and laugh and perhaps in what was the saddest moment in the book, have you screaming in laughter and pain.

If you understand the language, read it in Afrikaans. Yet, for English readers, the experience will be as rich and intense as they follow one young boy’s determination to find his way. I loved having the choice of reading both.

Look At  Me – recollections of a childhood/Kyk Na My – herhinneringe aan ‘n kindertyd (Human&Rousseau) should be read widely as we pay attention to the world as seen through the eyes of a child.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gene: An Intimate History Takes You Into a Brave New World – Or Perhaps Not

It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.― Oscar Wilde

 

 

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DIANE DE BEER

 

The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee (Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Emperor of all Maladies) published by Scribner

 

This isn’t my normal go-to literature as I would much rather focus on people and their intriguing  lives but as I was pointed in this direction not only because of the content but also as a result of brilliant writing, I decided – wisely – to give it a go.

The author had scored a Pulitzer prize for his previous book investigating cancer and as with this one, he was initially pushed in this direction because of family and their influence or lack thereof on one another. “Madness,” he writes, “has been among the Mukherjees for at least two generations, and at least part of my father’s reluctance to accept Moni’s diagnosis lies in my father’s grim recognition that some kernel of the illness may be buried like toxic waste, in himself.”

He explains that the story of the birth, growth and future of one of the most powerful and dangerous ideas in the history of science: the “gene”, the fundamental unit of heredity, and the basic unit of all biological information.

In this prologue, he also notes that there are stories within all the stories he tells as he goes along, “But this book is also a very personal story – an intimate history. The weight of heredity is not an abstraction for me.”

So apart from the personal touch which turns the reading into something easily accessible, Mukherjee is an extraordinary writer. It’s not just the language he uses to tell his story (and I have to assume English is not his mother tongue) but also the way he tells it, how he questions the world and also that he comes from a unique perspective.

The book is 495 pages long followed by extensive notes, a bibliography and index and some parts of the reading might be more gripping than others, but if like me, this is foreign territory, you will be gripped from start to finish. After all, we are talking about every human being, how they are formed and how they function.

It’s all a complicated business and it is this that keeps you fascinated. A sentence like this for example: “The results were startling for three reasons. First when Wilson measured the overall diversity of the human mitochondrial genome, he found it surprisingly small – less diverse than corresponding genomes for chimpanzees. Modern humans, in other words, are substantially younger and substantially more homogeneous than chimpanzees (every chimp might look like every other chimp to human eyes, but to a discerning chimpanzee, it is humans that are vastly more alike).” Makes you think.

As do his musings on the beginnings of the human race in southern Africa. “The population was likely quite small, even minuscule by contemporary standards. The most provocative estimate is a bare 700.

“Mitochondrial Eve may have lived among them, bearing at least one daughter and at least one granddaughter.” That’s why it is a difficult book to put down.

Some sentences will stop you in your tracks: “You can sequence DNA from an African-American man and conclude that his ancestors came from Sierra Leone and Nigeria. But if you encounter a man whose great grandparents came from Nigeria or Sierra Leone, you can say little about the features of this particular man. The geneticist goes home happy; the racist returns empty-handed.”

This is an endless trove of gene information that might influence health and happiness – or not. Though, as it frequently does when talking genes, the story comes with a twist writes Mukherjee: “The very genes that enable a cell to peel away mortality and age can also tip its fate toward malignant immortality, perhaps growth, and agelessness – the hallmarks of cancer.”

You very quickly understand that there are no easy answers. Someone might think they have found a cure for something and around the corner, there’s information that turns the whole theory around. It puts a whole other spin on this field and an understanding as a novice when you hear certain public pronouncements, it can just as quickly fade away not to be heard of again. Only to appear much later in a different guise.

Just reading about the different findings and how patience, often the best attribute when dealing in this kind of painfully slow research, was often missing, resulting in mistakes – and sometimes hampering ongoing research and findings because of blunders – some of them fatal.

But with patience comes perseverance and these scientists know how to keep pushing and putting their heads down until they find positive outcomes to the benefit of mankind.

One of the scary things according to the author for many is what is known as “gene management”. And he quotes: As the political theorist Desmond King puts it, “…We are all going to be dragged into the regime of ‘gene management’ that will, in essence, be eugenic. It will be in the name of individual health rather than for overall fitness of the population, and the managers will be you and me, and our doctors and the state.

“Genetic change will be managed by the invisible hand of individual choice, but the overall result will be the same: a co-ordinate attempt to ‘improve’ the genes of the next generation on the way.”

He points out that all the parameters whichever way we look at it are inherently susceptible to the logic of self-reinforcement. “We determine the definition of ‘extraordinary suffering’. We demarcate the boundaries of ‘normalcy’ vs ‘abnormalcy’. We make the medical choices to intervene. We determine the nature of ‘justifiable interventions’.”

He underlines that in the final analysis, humans with a specific set of genomes are responsible for defining the criteria to define, intervene on, or even eliminate other humans endowed with other genomes.

“Choice seems like an illusion devised by genes to propagate the selection of similar genes.” And that’s the scary thought. You can see the red lights flashing all over the place especially in the kind of environment we find ourselves in today.

If people successfully start meddling with the gene pool and someone in power says to a certain group of people, “if you’re not happy here, go back to where you came from”, just imagine what could all go wrong in our world when people really start fiddling with genes.

In the end, normal is defined by whom?  “The book,” says Mukherjee, began as an intimate history – but it is the intimate future that concerns me.”

The last century, he reminds us, taught us the dangers of empowering governments to determine genetic ‘fitness’., then the question that confronts us now in this current era, is what happens when this power devolves to the individual.

“It is a question that requires us to balance the desires of the individual with the desires of a society.” That will remain the dilemma.

It is one thing to manipulate genes, he notes, it is quite another to manipulate genomes. And it is that difference that a reading of this book will explain in much fuller detail and understanding, something we should all understand in a field that could improve our world in unimaginable ways but also steer humankind into a world we would rather not imagine.

That is why he is pleading for a manifesto for this post-genomic world. He was already predicting that by the time this book was published (2017) new frontiers would have been reached and I’m sure they have been.

It’s a glorious and gripping read about something that is applicable to everyone on this planet. Many will know exactly what the author is talking about and might find his specific take on this world the thing they focus on, for others, who have perhaps only a vague understanding, this is a book that navigates the world in a way that will make sense to even the novice.

Books That Gift You The Time To Dream

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
― Toni Morrison

 

 

Diane de Beer reviews a a few fascinating reads:

 

 

Book Zulus of New York

The Zulus of New York by Zakes Mda (Umuzi):

It’s a remarkable story that Zakes Mda has unearthed here.

He knew just how to approach the telling of it in a time when finally it seems there’s more awareness in the world of problems in the past that have never been acknowledged. It meant that these persist in exacerbated form to this day. And with people like Trump and Johnson leading powerful nations, it only gets worse.

Nevertheless, just the title should pull you in. Who would have thought? In New York and paraded in all their powerful mysticism of the time, yet naturally, at their cost. They had to play the savage because that’s what gawkers came to see, hearing the stories of the infamous King Cetshwayo. And in the process, the performers were losing their souls. Until a love story of sorts unfolds in all this darkness and brings some light.

Mda has a magical touch and a way of drawing his readers into a world that might not be familiar. And then he punches you in the gut as he holds up the mirror of what people do to those they don’t recognise as themselves.

Book Theo Flora coverTheo and Flora by Mark Winkler (Umuzi) which has just been shortlisted for the Sunday Times fiction list:

It’s an intriguing tale and really reminds me of the idiom to spin a yarn. With novelist Charlie Wasserman left by his investment-banker wife with the means to stay on in their home, he discovers a box of her family letters written between 1940 and 1944. The letters reveal a love affair between her grandfather, a 40something lawyer at the time and Flora, a much younger journalist.

Even though Wasserman’s former wife instructs him to destroy the letters, he has found a way to revive his somewhat slumped writing career. Interesting characters wander in and out of this novel tale which keeps you engaged from beginning to end.

It’s an addictive yarn.

Book Milkman

Milkman by Anna Burns (Faber&Faber):

This is a book that probably accidentally came in a time of #MeToo and Brexit which compounds the meaning in a story that is set in an unnamed Irish city where the aim of living is to blend in.

To be noticed is not only damaging but dangerous. Middle sister is leading a life of terror and it is all exacerbated because she tries to keep it quiet that she has a maybe-boyfriend and that she is being terrorised by a very scary character called Milkman.

If you want to know what it feels like to live in a world where people are terrified to breathe yet some are determined to live their lives in spite of a rumour mill that can destroy the little you have, this is one, hand-in-hand with Margaret Atwood’s television adapted Handmaid’s Tale, to immerse yourself in.

Then re-look the life you have been gifted and smile.

Book Cul de SacCul de Sac A Memoir by Elsa Joubert (Tafelberg):

A moving farewell from one of our great writers. That’s JM Coetzee writing about this memoir and indeed it is that – moving.

But what it also reminded me of was the different ways people approach any stage of their life.
In her 95th year, she explores the continent of old age says the blurb on the back cover. And that plays a role – her age. A few decades ago, not many people were reaching their 90s, but now with modern medicine and more emphasis on health during your lifetime, it’s possible.

But she lost her life partner and with that her independent spirit – somewhat – which rather colours her perspective it seems.

Also, the choice of where she lives and how she copes with the devastation of a diminishing world, even with caring family around, is quite harrowing. “That’s why they have this big, long lift, to take out the coffins at night when we’re asleep,” she writes.

I found it moving and admirable that she is still determined to tell her story, a life so great and so rewarded, and so magnificently captured.

And yet, I’m still determined to go out singing!

Book TranscriptionsTranscription by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday):

This is another of those writers you don’t want to miss. From her early writing to the present, she keeps swinging with stories that surprise and delight.

Atkinson has a specific smartness about her writing which always keeps you engaged. I recall years back when reading the description of Life after Life and wondering how she would pull me into the lives of people whose lives kept turning on the same dime, but in different directions – and she did – masterfully.

It was simply a masterpiece. Perhaps following that one and the companion,  A God in Ruins, she should have turned away from War stories to something completely different. Think of this as an adventure, one of the characters say at the beginning of what turns out to be a rather pedestrian spy story.

If not even Atkinson can light a fire under a Girl’s Own type of adventure, perhaps it’s not to be. It doesn’t grab you and neither do the characters who all seem a touch lukewarm – as do their actions.

I didn’t think it possible to feel indifferent about an Atkinson story – sorry – but about this one I do.

 

Book The DistanceThe Distance by Ivan Vladislavic (Umuzi):

Anyone who has read this author will know you can drift on clouds in his words. He just has a unique way.

Similarly, with the topics he tackles and the stories he tells. While it might feel as if it is about one thing, there are different things going on.

This one is ostensibly about siblings and their life stories. Is one voice more important that the other, who remembers the truth and who decides about that?

These are some of the questions posed. But he also spotlights the country and the time we live in, and the harshness of our lives while living in a time when life isn’t valued. Yet with the number of refugees battling out there in an unwelcome world, is it even possible to think of more ordinary lives in this way?

Everything begins with a young Pretoria boy’s obsession with Muhammad Ali. Now, as an adult, he turns back to the scrapbooks of his youth, asks for help from a somewhat unwilling brother but also tries to unravel the mystery of writing, how it happens and why he does it.

It’s simplicity itself and yet there are underlying streams that keep popping into the story and strangling any thoughts you might have had about what this story is about and why it is being told.

And that is precisely this astonishing writer’s strength.

 

Book There Goes English teacherThere Goes English Teacher A Memoir by Karin Cronje (Modjaji Books):

As a huge Korean fan, having visited the country twice as a guest of the government, I was hugely intrigued by this book which deals with someone teaching English.

We all know South Africans who have done that but in Cronje’s case, she’s slightly older than most graduates who almost use this as a gap period. For her, it was is a gap year while ageing and coping with major life changes that had her almost gasping for life.

Perhaps that’s not the best time to jump into this kind of adventure. A third into the book, I almost put it down which isn’t something I often consider, choosing my reading matter carefully.

Nevertheless, I decided to keep going because while I found her writing frustrating in many instances, I was also enchanted by others.

I still feel that it needs a strong edit which would (for me) turn her into the brilliant writer she is some of the time. Too often, it was just too much, she had made the point clearly. And yet, there she goes on again… and again.

But then again, it might just be me.

 

The Sorrow of the Same Train: Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us and James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long …

True stories of the persecution of black boys and men in the United States have, perhaps, never been as raw as in Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us. Her four-part miniseries about the Central Park (Exonerated) Five is breaking viewing records on Netflix. But when DIANE DE BEER read James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone (1968) at the same time as watching the miniseries, the 50 years between the two explorations of the same agonising topic burned away, into the same history of hate:

 

 

When two brothers, Caleb (17) and Leo (10) are stopped by the police in James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone (1968)

I’m glad you were with me, because if it hadn’t been for you, they’d have given me licking …

What for?

Because I’m black, Caleb said. Because I’m black and they paid to beat on black asses. But with a kid your size, they just might get into trouble. So they let us go.

 

Anything changed? That was written more than 30 years before the last century ended and we are almost 20 years into the new one.

when they see us
A scene from Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us

And yet horror is still being expressed by the events (1989) of the exonerated Central Park Five. The story has suddenly been given life again by the expressive Ava DuVernay’s evocative and brilliantly blunt When They See Us, recently released on Netflix.

You just need to focus on the name of the four-episode dramatised version of five black and brown teenagers wrongly accused of the assault and rape of a woman jogger in new York’s most iconic public park – hence the name, the Central Park Five. The men were exonerated years later, in 2002, but this series is a reminder once again of the horrific racism of the American justice department including the police and the prosecutors as well as the wrongful rage of the media at the time. Property magnate Donald Trump further exacerbated and fuelled the fire of an already baying white citizenry with full-page ads (at the cost of $85 000) in the New York Times and other papers. He called for New York State to adopt the death penalty.

What DuVernay does in this particular series is focus on the young boys (from 14 to 16 at the time of their arrest), the way they were mistreated, the absence of any rights for the young boys and their parents and how far and wide the damage spreads in a community when this kind of devastatingly wrongful act is taken to its conclusion – one of the young men, 16 at the time, was tried as an adult and sent directly to Rykers, one of America’s most notorious prisons.

Ava DuVernay at work
Ava DuVernay at work on When They See Us

 

To witness only his story which unfolds in harrowing detail in episode 4, is devastating. I cried from start to finish. To see a life destroyed in such a wilful manner is impossibly sad. But DuVernay knows exactly what she is doing and she doesn’t hold back.

In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour for example, when talking about Donald Trump (now president of course) she explains why she included particular clips of him and a television interview: “What he said at the time contributed to the air of criminal bias pointing to black and brown boys and girls as animals, a wolfpack, dehumanising black people.”

The Trump interview itself is also packaged in a way that is both screamingly funny yet shows the contempt of  the two women when they hear him speak.

As he talks about black people (in 1989), he says he would like to be a “well educated black because I do believe they have an actual advantage today”. The real interview is played on a television screen in the room with two of the mothers of the accused boys watching. The one turns to the other and says:

“What is a black?”

“I don’t know,” says the friend, “but when is the white man going to get a break in this country?”

A retort follows sharply: “They have to keep that bigot off TV.”

“Don’t worry about it, his 15 minutes is almost up!”

And knowing what we know now, that’s no longer funny.

 

James Baldwin writes further in his book about his white fellow Americans: I did not want to leave this fire, leave this room, but I wanted to get out of this country. I had had it amongst all these deadly and dangerous people, who made their own lives, and all the lives they touched, so flat and stale and joyless.

My countrymen impressed me, simply as being the emptiest and most unattractive people in the world. It seemed a great waste of one’s only lifetime to be condemned to their chattering, vicious, pathetic, hysterically dishonest company.

For these people would not change, they could not, they had no energy for change: the very word caused their eyes to unfocus, their lips to loosen or to tighten, and sent them scurrying into their various bombshelters.

 

What is so astonishing about DuVernay’s stubborn spotlight on issues and people who have never had a voice, is that she has obviously decided to take a stand and speak her mind on issues that people have been pussyfooting around to the consternation or confusion of the rest of the world watching.

When referring to Trump, there’s no hesitation when she points to his “racist supremacist views and opportunist buffoonery of the time”.

She’s equally blunt when speaking about the US prison system, something she has invested in keenly with her Academy Award winning documentary 13th which exposed the historical racial bias in the system.

Answering a question by Amanpour about the broken system, she again approached it head-on: “I don’t believe the system is broken. It’s working exactly as it was meant to work.”

And that’s exactly what she focussed on in 13th: “How the system came to be, the historical context of a criminal justice system that overindexes on the criminalisation of people of colour in the US.”

“It can’t be reformed,” she tells Amanpour. ”It has to be completely overhauled.” And then she adds, “We need massive work to reframe how we think of criminality in the US.”

That is precisely why the five young men (Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, and Kevin Richardson) turned to her as their saviour, the one they wanted and willed to tell their story.

They knew she had the insight and would get it right. For her it was about showing their innocence destroyed as they were ripped from their youth in a matter of moments. They didn’t stand a chance. The prosecutor of the case is heard saying: “Every black man who was in the park that night is a suspect. I need all of them.”

She got what she asked for and more. Corey Wise wasn’t in the park, he simply accompanied a friend to the police station as support. He was sentenced for 15 years and because he was unwilling to confess to a crime he didn’t commit, he wasn’t allowed parole.

 

A final note from James Baldwin: People become frightened in many different ways – the ways in which they become frightened may sometimes determine how long they live. Here I was, in the country, and on a country road, alone, facing two armed white men who had legal sanction to kill me; and if killing me should prove to be an error, it would not matter very much, it would not for them be a serious error. It would not cost them their badges or their pensions, for the only people who would care about my death could certainly never reach them Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone.

Watch both 13th and When They See Us on Netflix if you haven’t done that already.

 

  • The details are easy to look up on the internet, but in case you want to know: The case was heard in two 1990 trials. In one, Salaam, McCray, and Santana were found guilty of rape, assault, robbery, and riot, and sentenced to the maximum, 5 to 10 years in a youth facility. Richardson was convicted of attempted murder, rape, sodomy, and robbery and was also sentenced to 5 to 10 years. Wise, at 16, tried as an adult and convicted of sexual abuse, assault, and riot was sentenced to 5 to 15 years. Santana, Richardson, McCray, and Salaam went to juvenile detention for five to seven years but when they were released, they were required to register as sex offenders, which limited their ability to find work. Finally they were all exonerated when a man already in prison, came forward with a guilty plea.

Choices Choices Choices: Entertainment In Style – Out On The Town Or At Home

cine prestige
Cinema in style at Cine Prestige The Grove

There’s a world of entertainment out there for you to tap into whatever your interests. DIANE DE BEER explores some of the options and the way it stretches your mind:

 

 

If your movie-going days seem to have dwindled, The Grove Ster-Kinekor recently launched its revamped Cine Prestige theatre with a screening of action thriller John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum – and all of Cine Prestige’s signature comfort.

If you are one of those people who are reluctant to leave the comfort of their home because cinemas have become rowdy places with cell phone interruptions and blinding screen lights that detract from the experience, then this might be a way to entice you back.

cocktails at cine prestige
Cocktails at Cine Prestige

It reminded me of business or first class flying with seats that move and change into comfortable sofas with you and your partner sweetly ensconced into your own private space.

The experience also includes a cosy private lounge, and a full bar offering with a range of drinks from wine, beer, cocktails, and hot drinks.

You are no longer reliant on popcorn and coke, although those are also available for those die-hard movie memories. Guests can also enjoy gourmet snack platters, and a selection of desserts, all served in the comfort of a fully reclining leather seat. It’s a great way of watching a movie.

All of this comes at a price, naturally (R161 a ticket without refreshments) but assuming you want to watch movies on a big screen in extreme comfort, this certainly is that.

John Wick
Fight or flight in John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum

Personally, I realise that I’m not the target audience of the John Wick franchise which we were invited to see yet fortunately this was my first experience of this particular Keanu Reeves strongman, which meant there was an element of novelty involved.

But not for too long. These films are simply a series of flight and fight scenes in various guises, with little happening in-between.

Their next offering, Longshot, is a love story that tracks the life of a free-spirited journalist who keeps running into trouble. Played by Seth Rogen, Fred unexpectedly charms Charlotte (Charlize Theron), who is smart, sophisticated and sassy. The combo of the silly and the serious should be fun and our girl is always someone to watch.

This will be followed by Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which won’t be diarised, and Rocket Man, which is described as an epic musical fantasy which makes sense if you’re told it is based on the unfiltered story of Elton John’s breakthrough years. It nevertheless is not an unauthorised version, Sir Elton was a big part of the process.

Cine Prestige, it seems, is about a fun experience rather than movies that might seriously engage your mind, but we need these escapist adventures as well. And seeing the whole adventure as a bit of a fantasy, the movie itself might just as well fall in that genre too.

But while on the subject of entertainment and keeping up with the latest out there in a way that’s easy – and perhaps not putting you out of pocket, I was recently watching a Christiane Amanpour programme on CNN. This is one of the few that cover politics but also the arts with authors, filmmakers, directors and the like all making an appearance. (Check it out on CNN, currently at 7pm on weeknights and again repeated at 5am in the morning. She keeps you in touch.)

But this particular segment featured two extraordinary women who are both tasked with introducing us to a new world fast emerging out there.

Radhika Jones
Radhika Jones

The first was Radhika Jones, the first mixed race editor of the pop culture magazine Vanity Fair, which immediately impacts their cover and story choices to reflect the world we live in – all of it – not just from a certain vantage. She makes some brave decisions for the future of the magazine, and this is where you get to play around for a while. She recently opened up the Vanity Fair archives, free of charge for now.

Vanity Fair archive
From the Vanity Fair archives

That means you can sit endlessly scrolling through issues from the beginning of time depending on your interest. Vanity Fair has always been a magazine that homes in on the zeitgeist which is what makes it of interest internationally.

As Jones explained to Amanpour, her cover choices weren’t really the result of who she is but rather of what is happening in the world around us, with the success for example of Black Panther and Get Out and she wants to capture the spirit of the times. To allow readers into this world through the archives is a treat. Go and have a look. Just make sure that you are in the archives, not the magazine itself which is limited to four articles a month, of Vanity Fair and then have fun with your reading choices.

 

And on that note, if you have a Netflix account, don’t miss the Rachel Lears documentary Knock Down The House. It looks at the primary campaigns of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Cori Bush and Paula Jean Swearengin, four Democrats endorsed by Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress (the names say it all) who ran for Congress in last year’s US midterm elections.

Knock Down The House1
The four women competing in the Midterm Elections

It premiered at Sundance 2019 in January, was voted an audience favourite and was bought by Netflix for the most money ever paid for a documentary.

These women were running together on a grassroots level and what the filmmaker wanted to explore was power now and what it looked like, how representatives and money converge and what happens when people who don’t have the money, are brought into the process. Because of the large amounts of money required to run, usually only certain kinds of people can access the process, but this is changing with Ocasio-Cortez and her particular brand (and charisma)  turned into hot currency with the current crop of Democratic Presidential hopefuls whenever they have a stage.

She was the only one elected and has already challenged the status quo in a country where a largely white male Alabama senate recently passed the most restrictive abortion bill in the US deciding about the rights of women and their bodies, “the only thing men cannot control,” argues Gloria Steinem.

All of the above are “entertainment” options in our new world of access, streaming and many other avenues that keep popping up.

It’s time to play and stretch the mind – and that’s the best way.

Author Lauri Kubuitsile – Force of Nature

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” 
― Haruki Murakami

 

 

Evil cover HR

DIANE DE BEER

 

Everything about author Lauri Kubuitsile is unexpected.

First there’s the name which (for me anyway) implied that I was meeting a black Botswana writer, only to be surprised by this Baltimore-born woman appearing at the guesthouse in Johannesburg where we were set to meet.

She moved to Botswana in 1989 (first running away from home at the young age of 16), where she met her husband (they are recently divorced). She declares herself a proud Botswana citizen hence the stories she has written especially in her last two books: The Scattering with at the centre the Herero who were forced to flee in 1904 South-West Africa when the German colonial authorities issued an extermination order; and now But Deliver Us From Evil (Penguin Books), a story about a young Koranna woman who is mistaken for a kidnapped white child, something that determines her whole life.

Kubuitsile only started writing at 40 and that was by accident. An unscrupulous business partner left her with a publishing business which finally led to this former science teacher publishing the first of many books.

Before these two books, she has won or been shortlisted for many awards. She twice won Africa’s premier prize for children’s writing, The Golden Baobab. She also won the creative writing prize sponsored by Botswana’s Department of Youth and Culture. In 2011, she was shortlisted for Africa’s most prestigious short story prize, The Caine Prize.

She writes across the age spectrum for adults, teens and children and her books cross many genres. Her book, Signed, Hopelessly in Love was recognised by South Africa’s O Magazine as one of the best reads in December 2011. The first book in her Kate Gomolemo Mysteries series, The Fatal Payout, is a prescribed book in Botswana for all junior secondary school children.

And she writes easily it seems. Once the story is in her head, she rushes through that first draft just to get it down on paper. Only then the tough work begins as she starts editing. That takes much reading and rewriting, but the process has always worked for her. “I know I won’t die while I have a story in my head because that need to get it out on paper is too overwhelming,” she says – only half in jest.

The thing about Kubuitsile’s writing is her storytelling ability. She draws you in immediately with a style that is focussed on plot rather than characters, she says, but even copping to this penchant, she manages to flesh everything out: the places, the people and their incredible lives. That’s what keeps you turning those pages as you delve back into a history that’s familiar but unknown.

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Fearless author Lauri Kubuitsile

Many of us would know about the Koranna, but that’s probably in most instances the extent of our knowledge. Their history is vague. “I’m surprised by how few people know their story or even about them,” says Kubuitsile, who hopes to change some of that with this and hopefully a next book (following another story in-between) which will also be revealing.

The other intriguing aspect of her writing is that she is telling the story of especially the women – and added to that, the women of the oppressed/vanquished, which makes it doubly hard but also timely. These stories of our past were mostly recorded by men thus writing the odd throwaway line about women or their place in society into the actual history being told, those of the men and their wars.

But we know, says Kubuitsile that these women were doing a lot and often keeping things going. “This is history as a narrative,” she explains. “You can’t find the voices anywhere, but you are given leeway to fill in, because the evidence is there.”

She loves the research and has stumbled on the most amazing stories that have informed her own writing or even set a book in motion, like this one. It was while researching The Scattering that she read a line about “the daughter of the maid at the missionary’s home” as well as a letter by Kgosi Sechele (the ruler of the Bakwena of Botswana) in which he corrects a letter that accuses him of killing 25 witches to say that they were only five and in any case well known as witches. All of these fuelled her imagination as the story so masterfully unfolds.

More than anything though, it is her fascination with the Koranna that first piqued her interest. She explains that most of them came from the colonies, some mixed race but more a mix of many people including the Batlhaping, San, Griqua, Baster, Dutch and other Khoi people, hence the lightness of her protagonist Beatrice’s complexion, lived on islands in the Gariep River and were big raiders. “They wanted to be free and to be left alone,” she says and what kept them alive was their ability to swim and navigate the river, better than anyone else.

She talks about her books in the same way she writes, with a confidence and credibility that sits comfortably with someone who has published 30 often very different books, with much success.

She calls herself a generalist, loves the fact that she can make her living from writing, but that’s only half of what is going on in her life. She talks of many different projects, amongst others writing computer games, the one she had to tackle immediately and features hugely in her life.

But there’s also a book with the current title of Reflecting Light that she describes as probably her most autobiographical. It tells the story of a woman who grew up with a very famous mother followed by a famous husband. Her light was always reflected by who they were, making compromises, and being defined by feelings that weren’t her own.

That’s not all – naturally! She is currently collaborating on a project with with an established well-known South African  author, which they are writing as a first-person narrative. “We come from very different places, she is character driven and I do plot,” she says. “We will have to see if two people can get their brains together to make one!” It’s early days still but if anyone can, it will be these two.

That is if either of them can be penned down to get it done. For Lauri Kubuitsile, for a story to be written, it must be aching in her head.

And thank goodness, that’s exactly why But Deliver Us From Evil is so riveting. She desperately needed to tell that story and did so quite brilliantly.