Debut Novel Talion Bravely Explores and Pushes the Boundaries in Thriller Genre

Photographer: Joanna Olivier

 

booktalion

Discovering a first novel with a young writer in the process of finding his voice is exciting. DIANE DE BEER chats to author Beyers de Vos about Talion, his love of writing and future plans:

 

It’s always a thrill reading the first novel of a new writer, especially when it turns out to be quite experimental, pushing the boundaries and the result of an MA in creative writing under celebrated author Etienne van Heerden.

The young man in question is Pretoria born and bred Beyers de Vos, the novel, a thriller, is titled Talion (Penguin) and the dedication of the book points to the origins of his writing:

For my mother, who taught me to love words.

And for my father, who told this story first

It’s also a love of reading and being blessed with incredible English teachers all through primary and high school, he explains. “They fostered a love of story.”

“I wanted to understand how those stories worked – why I loved them so much and how they were made. When I started writing myself, trying to find those answers, everyone was really encouraging. I also had a really strong sense that my imagination was my strongest asset. If I let my imagination grow, if I figured out how I could harness it, I would never feel alone, never feel powerless, never feel insecure. And after all that, what choice did I have but to become a writer?”

With an undergraduate degree in Publishing, an honours degree in English literature and then the creative writing, following this with a first novel, he felt comfortable enough to resign his job as script writer to focus on a second book. “So reckless of me,” he interjects.

beyers de vos_-10
First-time author Beyers de Vos

Yet when you listen to his story, there’s nothing that’s not carefully thought through in the way he has gone about carving a niche in the world of literature.

“I knew that I wanted to write a novel. But I also knew that I would never commit to it if I wasn’t put under some pressure. I thrive in an academic environment – so an MA seemed ideal. Having Etienne as my supervisor was just luck – he was there and at my disposal. He’s a genius, obviously, and his influence on my work is difficult to measure. With Talion he really guided it from something that could have been more ordinary to something that is maybe a little stranger.”

We’ll get to that strangeness later. First the book, which is a thriller – and that, it seems, is happenstance as it’s not a genre De Vos is going to stick to exclusively. “I love crime literature, I like thrillers. But I’m also a bit of a snob about it – I need my thrillers to be more than your average Jo Nesbo. Not that there’s anything wrong with Jo Nesbo – but as a reader and a writer, I’m much more interested in the darkness of those stories than the thrill of them. What I’m attracted to is tragedy – thrillers lend themselves to that beautifully. The genre is a vehicle, a shortcut, to get to what I’m really after – which is some kind of exploration of why humans are so capable of torturing themselves, and others.”

And whatever way you look at it, a strong feature of the novel is the writing and perhaps more importantly, the young audience it should appeal to. It’s young and happening with the main characters all in that peer group. The fact that it’s set in Pretoria, a city De Vos knows well and captures in an invigorating and unexpected fashion, is also a bonus. He even has Oom Paul and his warriors doing a gig on Church Square!

He isn’t always sure what he is trying to do or why, some of which works and arguably at other times not quite and he is uncertain how to articulate what attracts him to certain stories, death rather than romance for example. “An idea takes hold of me – in this case the idea was ‘what happens to someone psychologically when they decide to kill someone else?’ – and I become obsessed with it. Then I have to write my way through it. I come out the other side with a piece of work, and I’m not sure I understand what I’m trying to accomplish beyond shaking the idea around until I’ve created something meaningful. What is Talion trying to say? What am I trying to say – I’m still figuring that out.”

beyers de vos_-2
Beyers de Vos

That’s not a bad thing though, and he feels similarly about his writing style. “It’s instinct. It has its own rhythm, like music. I didn’t have to ‘find’ it – it just was there, inside my head.” It’s also something that you can feel when reading the book is still being formed, sometimes it seems just too precious, perhaps self-conscious, and as a reader you become more aware of the writing than the story. But what I loved was that he was willing to go this route, to play with ideas and words which will inevitably lead to some failure, yet driven by a desire to do something different, to tell stories his way and to play with a genre that many might advise him to leave well alone.

On some levels it did feel like a first novel because of all the above reasons, but the overriding emotion was one of excitement to experience this writer’s future writing and how he approaches book two following mostly rave reviews for this first one.

Speaking to him about young readers, he argues different sides. “Are my peers reading? If not, is it because they feel alienated by the books that are out there? Are they looking for something new? Is it even a question of age? It’s certainly my hope that a new generation of writers are writing for a new generation of readers, who can pick up a book and say, ‘this book represents me and the country I know and is exploring ideas that are important to me’.”

De Vos, who describes Afrikaans as his home language and English as his first language, notes that he has a complicated relationship with his heritage, which he is only reckoning with now that he is working in Afrikaans too. “The truth is that my publishers asked me to translate it because they thought the market would be more responsive if it was released in both languages,” he says of the translated version. “The Afrikaans market is much bigger, and to be frank, much more supportive. Going forward, I will be working in both languages. I am currently working on a couple of Afrikaans-only projects, as well as a new novel, written in both English and Afrikaans.”

And as a reader: “I read fiction almost exclusively. In the last few months I’ve read The Southern Reach trilogy, which is science fiction, and Snap, a crime novel by Belinda Bauer. I’ve discovered Joyce Carol Oates, and I’m making my way through her bibliography. I also read Transcription, Kate Atkinson’s new novel.”

What I loved about Talion most was the approach on all the different levels, the language, the youthfulness which is fun and informative and also the intent. It is also with some of those aspects that I often struggled most. But given a choice, this is the kind of book I like reading as I discover a new voice still finding its way – but once it hits the ground running, I predict, will soar spectacularly.

  • The author will be part of a panel discussion titled Nuwe Bloed (New Blood) at this year’s US Woordfees on March 6 at 2pm in the Adam Small seminar room

Mike Nicol pushes all the right buttons with Sleeper, the third in his latest trilogy

DIANE DE BEER

Sleeper_NicolWith issues and idiosyncrasies like state capture and Donald Trump dominating the news cycles almost to the exclusion of anything else, it feels as if in the realm of fiction, especially writers of thrillers and espionage must be having so much fun. When fact becomes stranger than fiction, doesn’t that give especially a thriller writer carte blanche?

“Oddly enough,” says author Mike Nicol whose latest book Sleeper (Umuzi) is the third in a series that began with Of Cops & Robbers and Agents of the State, “the worse the behaviour of our leaders, the more difficult it is to write fiction that reflects contemporary situations.”

Trump, he says, is so outrageous that he cannot be placed in anything but farce while Zuma was slightly different and more in the manner of dictators as his period in office was characterised by the deliberate and malicious plundering of the state. “You must remember that readers aren’t that interested in the fantastical. They want their thriller fiction to be logical and deadly and they certainly don’t want the outlandish.”

 

That means instead that life has suddenly become that much harder for crime writers because of what is happening in the real world. But he is having fun – to his surprise. As someone who switched to crime writing following a slew of novels and non-fiction writing, he wasn’t expecting that. “Don’t get me wrong, it is no easier than any other type of writing, but it is a lot more fun,” he accentuates.

 

He reckons he has the best time with the dialogue. In Sleeper there were great opportunities – with the sleeper herself and two characters called Bill and Ben. This is exactly what he means by fun. These two are a reference to Bill and Ben, the flowerpot men in the popular children’s story. “As I had been exposed to the antics of Bill and Ben thanks to my granddaughter, I thought why not haul them in to do service in a spy novel?”

You have to love that in-between all the madness and mayhem, two of the characters have been snatched from a children’s book!

 

Those familiar with Nicol’s writing will know his characters but if you need to catch up, Nicol supplies some back story. While each book is a standalone and can be read in isolation, the main characters – Fish Pescado, a private investigator, and Vicki Kahn, a lawyer and spy – are at the heart of the books. “Their relationship is the link from book to book,” explains the author. “There are walk on parts by secret operative Mart Velaze and his handler the mysterious Voice, who have featured in earlier novels. Also, Krista from Power Play, the daughter of Mace Bishop, who was the protagonist of the initial Revenge Trilogy. And here Mace flies in for a small part in Sleeper,” he elaborates.

 

“I had always wanted to develop a universe of characters, which I could call on from time to time. Unfortunately, they’re only human and for some of them Death comes calling,” he says ominously. That’s precisely what makes the books intriguing. If you have been following the different trilogies, you have come to know even the side characters well because at some point they were centre stage. If one of them is killed, as a reader, you are much more invested because of previous meetings.

 

So, bizarrely in a world where the characters often don’t feel that much for one another and are often easily expendable, the reader has an attachment because of a character’s back story. It keeps you reading though because of the unpredictability and Nicol’s seeming indifference for his (and our) darlings. It’s as it should be.

 

Speaking about thriller writing in general, it all started for him when trying to find a good fit as writer. “The house of crime fiction has many rooms and my initial venture into the genre was into a sub-category, the security industry, which hadn’t yet had much play at that point.”

But as we live in a lightning fast, changing world while his first, the Revenge Trilogy, confronted such issues as Pagad bombings, arms trading, land claims, farm murders, corruption in real estate development and then drugs and abalone poaching in Power Play, with Of Cops & Robbers he found a new tack. “The focus here was to look at the atrocities of the apartheid hit squads, rhino horn and elephant tusk poaching then and now, before moving into the corruption of the current government and human trafficking, particularly during the Zuma years in Agents of the State.

Mike Nicol
Mike Nicol

 

“Once the major crime in the country became government crime it seemed logical to shift into a form of espionage fiction – thrillers by another name. And this is where Sleeper finds its centre: the corruption of government officials in positions of power and what happens to whistle-blowers.”

Sound familiar?

 

There is so much going around at present but as usual, this savvy writer is pushing all the right buttons. His writing has always been exceptional and in this genre, he has found his niche with great aplomb. Both the writing and story are fast, feisty and furious and with Cape Town (where he lives) as the backdrop, it’s visual and familiar to everyone living here. If in the earlier books, the story might have felt far-fetched, the real world has raced ahead so briskly that far-fetched has become an outmoded concept.

 

As Nicol has established not only his slacker hero in the minds of readers but a clutch of colourful characters that keep us entertained, if this is your introduction, perhaps start with the first in the trilogy and work your way to number three.

There won’t be too much of a gap between this one and yet another encounter with Fish and Vicki, so for the moment, he is sticking with them. “The characters are the real plot manipulators but there invariably and inevitably comes a point where I don’t know what is going on or how to resolve things. This is about two thirds of the way in. Weeks of despair follow until the obvious plot resolution suddenly dawns. And it is always obvious. The obvious, I have discovered, is difficult to see. So I guess you could say that the process is a tough one.”

 

When he has time to tune out and get into his own reading, Nicol has an eclectic smorgasbord to choose from: “A variety of non-fiction and fiction. Just recently I read McMafia by Misha Glenny and The New Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins.

“On the fiction front I have been immersed in espionage novels by Charles McCarry, Robert Littel, Olen Steinhauer, Charles Cumming, John le Carre, Chris Pavone. My crime fiction reading encountered the French writer Pierre Lemaitre (who probably wrote the first of the now popular psychological thrillers involving a woman, Blood Marriage) but who has also written three really good police procedurals (Alex, Irene and Camille). Another interesting top crime writer this time from Australian is Candice Fox, especially her Crimson Lake.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie On Histories Of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was the keynote speaker at an event hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation as part of the “Remembrance period” to mark five years since Madiba’s passing. She explored how histories have shaped the imagination of the future. This was followed by a conversation with Dr. Sebabatso Manoeli and Neo Muyanga on the role of memory and importance of remembering:

 

Chimamanda and Graca
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Graca Machel © Nelson Mandela Foundation

Diane de Beer

 

There was envy, said Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Johannesburg on Thursday night, where she was the keynote speaker at the Nelson Mandela Tribute night hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation as part of the centenary Living the Legend celebrations. “We wanted a Nigerian Nelson Mandela!”

Fresh from her talk with former First Lady and author Michele Obama, who reinforced the Nelson Mandela legacy when she told Adichie that Nelson Mandela made Barack Obama possible, she switched between the inaccuracies of history and memory, turned to women who need to fight back and also dwelled on being African and the pride that had to be reclaimed.

“But I don’t trust this Rainbow Nation thing,” she said to loud cheers from her predominantly young audience. “I am fiercely Pan African. My visceral sense of protection is high. We haven’t talked it through,” she said, pointing out that we cannot just forget the past as is so often suggested.

Can the process of remembering be scrubbed clean? “They might suppress it but always it will be there,” she warned. “It is important to acknowledge that the process will be messy and long and most of all, that kindness is necessary.”

Returning to Nelson Mandela time and again as was her brief, who and what he represented, speaking about memory and history, she shared that even though he was South African, the world claimed him. “He sparked a belief in what was possible,” she said.

Chimamanda
An ecstatic Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie © Nelson Mandela Foundation

Speaking in a country where heroes are ditched easily, and the memories distorted, she explained that as a storyteller she couldn’t trade in perfection. “Where does absolute perfection exist? Memory, she pointed out was often about how the present configured the past, something that features strongly in our world today. “To avoid the truths we do not like is to avoid grappling with complexity,” she says. “Progress is a journey which doesn’t run in a straight line but in zigzag.”

“I think humanising him, acknowledging that he wasn’t perfect, isn’t denigrating him. When we do that, we realise that there’s a lot that we ourselves can do.”

“It’s about pushing against this idea that perfection is required. The idea of people being heroic is not that they are perfect, it’s that they have done one thing that is remarkable”

That’s it absolutely. Often with history, the facts are there, but the citizens, those who lived it, know it is not the truth. That’s where storytelling becomes the driving force says the storyteller. That’s where the truth often lies. “If human beings were perfect stories wouldn’t exist because our imperfections create the stories we tell.”

Who defines the accepted norm? “It’s about owning who you are and knowing that who you are is enough.” In stories she learnt about the loss of dignity, to be human, is to be valued, she affirmed. “We need to push back against the idea that there is a way that things should be.”

“Our history was invented for us. It’s time for us to reclaim it. I went to a very good school in Nigeria, but I knew very little about Nigerian history. I knew a lot more about the kings and queens of England.”

Changing tack but sticking to her theme of humanity, she said that with our high rates of sexual violence, South Africa needs to grapple with gender stereotypes, but we need to focus on the perpetrators, the boys. It’s no longer good enough to tell the girls to be careful.  “It is time to raise boys differently,” she says. “A woman’s body belongs to her and to her alone. We must insist that men go through a process of learning. Women must be accepted and respected as full human beings – from the boardrooms to the busses.”

As we focus on boys rather than on girls, we could start by saying “Mandela wouldn’t do that!” And switching to fighting talk she insisted that women should never feel shame or guilt because they were a victim of crime.

She also touched on South Africans and their many languages. Traveling from the airport, her driver confessed that he spoke nine languages. “South Africa is in many ways an inspiration to many parts of the African continent,” said Adichie, as she pointed to their confidence and their command of African languages.

“We should own who we are and know that it is enough.”

Chimamanda and guests
Facilitator Cathy Mohlahlana, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Neo Muyanga and Dr Sebabatso Mano. © Nelson Mandela Foundation

She was then joined on stage by historian Dr Sebabatso Manoeli and activist, composer and musician Neo Muyanga. Discussing how people could reclaim their history, Dr Manoeli suggested that Europe should be regarded as irrelevant, an idea that Adichie immediately adopted.

“We also need to read against the grain,” noted Muyanga, suggesting that’s how to find history on the margins. “We need to explore alternative narratives as we move away from fact to truth.”

Given the final word by journalist Cathy Mohlahlana, who facilitated the discussion on the importance of memory, Adichie encouraged everyone not just to talk about the wrongs of the current historical narrative, but to find a way to do something – anything – even something tiny.

That’s the way forward.

Nataniël at Play with Family and Friends

Edik book coverSiblings Nataniël and Erik le Roux partner in a book that captures the magic and mayhem of a French-styled lifestyle based on their four-season television cookery series Edik van Nantes, which finished earlier this year:

 

DIANE DE BEER

 

“Except for family, we don’t have things that old,” says Nataniël at a French heritage evening hosted by French ambassador to South Africa, Mr Christophe Farnaud, in celebration of the entertainer/TV personality’s latest book Die Edik van Nantes (Human & Rousseau, R370) co-written by his brother Erik le Roux, who was also co-presenter of the KYKnet cookery/lifestyle/travel programme consisting of four 13-episode seasons.

It all began with the younger Le Roux brother settling in Nantes after marrying Nathalie, who is from the area and introducing Nataniël to this city where he quickly lost his heart. Before that, he says, he only travelled to Paris where he had great adventures – amongst them Paul Gaultier remarking that he was the only overdressed person he had encountered in this city of high fashion.

Nataniel and French Ambassador
Nataniël presents his latest book to the French ambassador in SA, Mr Christophe Farnaud

Once the siblings discovered that Nantes was their heritage, their great adventure followed as they searched for their roots, criss-crossing the region all the while cooking with both their French and Afrikaans heritage, coming into play. But they also focused on the arts and culture of the city and region, turning this into much more than just a cooking show.

They were also smart enough to know that you have to have a hook to hang a cooking show on (similarly with a book) to distinguish yourself in a market that’s saturated. “People don’t use recipe books anymore,” says Nataniël, “they cook from the internet. You have to give them more.”

He is amused by some South Africans who feel a sense of betrayal because of his love affair with many things French, but to understand his admiration, you have to understand his sense of adventure and added to that, a journey he could share and experience with his brother. “We could catch up and reconnect,” he says which is why he describes this as one of his happiest work experiences.

Not only could the Le Roux siblings research their heritage as descendants of the French Huguenots, but Nataniël could also discover and explore the culturally rich university city, now the home of family.

He describes Erik as someone who has the technique and experience of professional kitchens while he is a “rough home cook”. Erik notes that he loves eating more than cooking, yet they both acknowledge that food is the way too many hearts and hearty get-togethers with friends and family. “It’s an escape and a way to destress from a hectic stage career,” explains Nataniël, hence the book, which features the lifestyle and recipes the way these were presented in the television series in celebration of a city the artist now calls his second home.

His brother was always going to leave South Africa, because he couldn’t come to terms in a place where old men wear shorts, he notes.

Nataniel's favourite table in the book
Nataniël’s favourite table in the book

And when Nataniël first wanted to visit his brother’s new home, Erik explained that he would hate the industrial city. But determined to recognise the region, it was a quick yet lasting enchantment. To the amusement of everyone at the French Embassy, he explained that Nantes was his French addiction. What he learnt in France was everything about inspiration, aspiration and even more importantly, intimidation!

“I love the way the city has welcomed me and my crew,” he explains. Doors were flung open and he was invited to film in renovated art museums, try their regional cuisine, tweak the recipes for local viewers, discover new ingredients in cafés, bistros and restaurants and share his French passion with his South African television audience. Because of their dedication to capture the essence of the city, these two bald brothers have also become a fixture in this North-Western French city.

Discovering a town that boasts everything from four upmarket paper shops, for example, to the largest puppet building company in the world, Nataniël knows how to flaunt it. He was thrilled to hand the Ambassador his first Afrikaans book on French culture!   “It’s a South African book on France without any lavender or rusted wrought iron,” he says, pointing to an overcrowding in this French oeuvre that he feels has leant too heavily on a specific nostalgia.

And followed that with a piano recital where he was joined in a piano tribute (with She and Emmenez-Moi) to Charles Aznavour by his accompanist, classical and jazz pianist Charl du Plessis (see picture).

messenger poster

So apart from this latest book, which is already flying off the shelves according to the author, he is also finishing with his last short season in 2018, Messenger, at the Oude Libertas from December 12 to 15, following a short run at Pretoria’s Atterbury Theatre.

“A sign, a message, a suspicion, a proverb, a shock, a revelation, that’s how lives are changed, for the better or worse,” he notes. From the earliest miracles, legends and myths to new discoveries or internet filth, most of humanity live life overwhelmed by fear, trends, tiredness or hysteria. “This is what I wanted to explore, social phenomena that paralyze, surprise and rejuvenate.”

These are his topics of discussion in a show performed in a time usually associated with festivities and inspiration and you will find all of that in these stories told in either Afrikaans or English with music both self-penned (including Messenger, which is completely mesmerising) and established songs, like the soft Duke Ellington jazz ballad  It Shouldn’t Happen to a Dream..

Costumes are original and breath-taking in his own inimitable style and his superb musicians include Du Plessis (piano), Juan Oosthuizen (guitar), Werner Spies (bass) and drummer Peter Auret.

It’s a glorious way to conclude your cultural year with an entertainer who will have you laughing hysterically as he smartly underlines the madness we need to navigate in our modern world.

Booking at Computicket.

 

 

 

 

Adrienne Sichel Gives Context to SA Contemporary Dance in Body Politics

Adrienne book cover

Kgomotso Moncho – Maripane

Guest Writer

 

The description that dance is “wordless expression in a world where words are currency,” by poet Lebo Mashile in her unpublished poem, I Dance To Know Who I Am, speaks to the hesitation and sometimes lack of engagement with South African contemporary dance locally.

The poem also encapsulates the transformative experience that dance can be.

Mashile created the poem for the production, Threads, a collaboration with choreographer and anthropologist, Sylvia Glasser and her Moving Into Dance Mophatong Company.

The poem opens veteran dance writer and arts journalist, Adrienne Sichel’s new book, Body Politics: Fingerprinting South African Contemporary Dance (published by Porcupine Press).

Adrianne_Sichel_photo_by_Val_Adamson
Adrianne_Sichel_ Picture: Val_Adamson

The book is a socio-political cultural history that focusses on the roots and evolution of South African contemporary dance from the mid 1970s to 2016.

Whereas the role of protest theatre is known in its engagement with socio-political issues, it may be taken for granted that contemporary dance, through its activist actions, played an important part in the championing of a free and multi-cultural society, during and post- apartheid.

Sichel’s book illuminates this particular cultural history, revealing how prior to democracy, the proponents of contemporary dance were at the fore-front of cultural activism.

“The policy-making Arts and Culture Task Group (ACTAG) process which culminated in the White Paper, the establishment of the Department of Arts and Culture, Science and Technology, as well as the founding of the National Arts Council in 1997, was the handiwork of many politically focussed dancers, educationists, choreographers, researchers and administrators,” she writes.

One of the standout traits of South African contemporary dance is that it is driven by the activist artist.

Adrienne Sichel Book Launch Jhb.
Adrienne Sichel Book Launch Jhb.

“That’s what gives it its originality and made it attractive to the world. You have people commenting on their society and the human condition. It has overtaken theatre in a way because dancers keep working and make it happen despite the challenges,” says Sichel.

“Paradoxically contemporary dance is an individualistic art form, but in so many ways South African contemporary dance is a collaborative mission to express our cultural and artistic identity. A lot of SA contemporary dance and African contemporary dance is sensorial and experiential. Those dimensions create a much more holistic vibrant art form,” she says.

Body Politics gives context to South African contemporary dance. It captures the collusion of cultures and histories as people explored their roots and their identities of the country and the people they wanted to be pre-1994. It highlights these very rich essences and fingerprints their origins with chapters looking at the birth of Afro-Fusion, subversive storytellers, the birth of theatre dance and what constitutes contemporary African dance.

It features festivals, companies and artists including early pioneers and contemporary players like Glasser, Carly Dibakwane, Robyn Orlin, Alfred Hinkel, Jay Pather, Jeannette Ginslov, Vincent Sekwati Koko Mantswe, Gregory Maqoma, Mamela Nyamza, Nelisiwe Xaba, PJ Sabbagha and many more.

 

It also includes a collection of Sichel’s published and unpublished journalistic writing. This makes it an important documentation and preservation of a unique artistic heritage and a necessary learning tool.

In mapping the evolution of this remarkable art form and its vocabulary, Sichel moves through terrains of contentious issues of appropriation and ownership, leaving questions to ponder on. Questions similar to the ones she asked herself when contemplating writing this book, like, who has the right to collate and tell this history? Who owns this history?

As a dedicated witness to and advocate for SA contemporary dance for 40 years in an environment that often rejects SA contemporary dance, she has earned the right to tell this history. Her background growing up in the rural Rustenburg exposed to her to a variety of cultures, religions, rituals, political practices and prejudices which fueled her curiosity as an arts journalist.

She co-founded the South African Dance Umbrella as a free democratic platform for all South African dancers and dance forms. She has also created an accessible language to articulate meanings behind movements and the fresh aesthetics of South African contemporary dance, which is no easy feat.

At the Johannesburg launch of the book in September, Sichel said, “What is scary about Body Politics is that it’s very concrete, it is tangible and it can’t be changed. I will be judged, just as I have been judging and evaluating people over the decades.”

She is also acutely aware of the gaps the book leaves and this is perhaps a challenge for the gaps to be filled.

The existence of Body Politics also makes the dearth

of books archiving or capturing cultural history in the country glaring. This is an urgent concern for Sichel.

“So many people did not want to publish this book. We don’t respect our history in this country. There are many narratives and cultural histories that are not being published and also need to be written,” she says.

Sichel’s hopes for dance is that “it keeps informing, transforming and educating.”

 

 

 

 

 

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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

 

Our House 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 spiraling 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.