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Colleen Higgs

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Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category

“Everything by heart” from Jacana’s Just Keep Breathing collection

My daughter turns ten today and as a way of acknowledging her birthday for myself, and what a milestone it is for me, I am re-publishing the story I wrote for the Jacana collection, Just Keep Breathing edited by Rosamund Haden and Sandra Dodson.

Everything by heart

I was so much older than most first time mothers-to-be. I wandered into bookshops and fingered through countless books about babies, feeling like an impostor. The world of motherhood a foreign country; I didn’t belong to it, nor it to me. I was hoping for a story to guide me into this hinterland, to teach me its customs and folkways. Little did I know that I would have to learn everything by heart.

At 29 weeks I thought I was having a stroke. I felt unbearably hot and nauseous, and the pain was excruciating – especially intense under my right rib. It was difficult to breathe, my skin felt too tight, I felt I might implode. It turned out that these were all symptoms of pre-eclampsia.

I gave scant attention to information in the pregnancy guides about complications relating to pre-eclampsia, out of a vague superstition that my full attention would only bring on this or one of the other dangerous illnesses outlined there. Pre-eclampsia is a potentially life-threatening condition for mother and child, which usually strikes late in pregnancy. Older mothers, especially those having their first baby, are more likely to develop it. Little is known about the causes of the disease or possible preventative measures partly because the window for studying it is very small; however, the best treatment is to deliver the baby.

I realised in retrospect that there had been signs in my pregnancy that something was not right. I’d been ill and tired throughout the 29 weeks, and had none of the positive symptoms described in the books. I’d had several serious migraines, but this pain so was extreme it was like an extended convulsion. All of these episodes seemed to happen on Sundays or public holidays, which meant house calls and paying extra for the heavenly relief of the 3 in 1 injection cocktail of Voltaren, tranquiliser and anti-nausea medication, that would blissfully ease the intense, prolonged pain and vomiting and finally bring sleep.

I was admitted to hospital on a Monday, and told by Dr J, my gynaecologist/ obstetrician, that he would try to keep my baby inside me for as long as possible. I wore a belt across my chest to monitor the baby’s heartbeat. She seemed to be doing OK. After the third pre-eclamptic episode, Dr J decided to do an emergency Caesar on the Thursday – May 30th, 2002, which would make Kate, my baby girl, 11 weeks early. When I first realised that my baby was going to be premature, that I was unable to incubate her inside my body where she belonged, I cried with guilt and sadness, feeling that I had let her down.

At the delivery, André, my husband, was at my head with the anesthetist, while the lower half of my body was hidden behind a curtain. Being very tall, André could see over the screen and witnessed the entire procedure, from Dr J cutting me open to the extraordinary moment when he pulled the tiny, bloody creature out. Kate looked nothing like the pictures of newborn babies in the books. She was tiny, almost fleshless, a newly hatched bird that belonged firmly in its nest. She seemed old and wise, unearthly. My entire being flooded with tenderness as I held and kissed her for a few seconds before she was taken away from me. André followed her and the paediatrician out of the room to the Neo-natal ICU. I saw her again only hours later, in the early evening, when I had recovered from the operation a little.

It’s easy enough, now, to give a factual account of what I experienced in hospital, but it’s not so easy to write about the inside of the experience, even less so to convey anything of what it might have been like for Kate. She underwent numerous blood tests in the form of pinpricks to her heels; she received several doses of antibiotics, iron drops to ward off anaemia, caffeine drops to make her heart beat faster, oxygen too, although she didn’t ever have to be on a ventilator. She had jaundice and spent 3 days and nights under UV lights in the first week of her life. She was given Surfactin to strengthen her lungs. She weighed 1080 grams – just over a kilo – when she was born and then her weight dropped down to under a kilo for a week or two.

The first day or so of Kate’s life I was sore from the Caesar, and my neck was painfully stiff from leaning over the incubator, from the tension of the whole experience. My breasts were enormous and tender and the only relief I got was from expressing my milk, which was pale brown when it first came in. At once it was sent off to the lab to be tested in case there was something wrong with it. I was ashamed as I waited for the results, unsure of myself, of my milk, of my role. When the lab determined that it was fit for Kate’s consumption, I was relieved, filled with joy. I had dreaded the worst. She was initially given 1 ml at a time from a tiny syringe suspended cleverly above her with an elastic band that led into a tube down her nose straight into her stomach. I became adept at filling the syringe, at feeding my baby in this way.

In the first ten days or so she lay in plain sight in an elevated open incubator against the back wall of the NICU. She was kept warm by the heated incubator and covered with a miniature space blanket when she wasn’t being held. She was naked except for a tiny nappy and a great number of tubes and monitors attached to her body. She cried seldom, but when she did it was a peculiar sheep-like bleat.

One morning, while sitting in the plastic chair next to the incubator holding her next to my skin, I looked down at her and noticed that she had turned very white, almost blue. She was cold too. Time stopped for me. The paediatrician was called and she was given a life-saving blood transfusion. I can’t remember what it felt like to be in the moment of the ordeal. I have forgotten how hard it was. At the time, I coped by taking everything one day at a time, one hour at a time. I didn’t plan or think ahead about next week or next month, or the end of my maternity leave.

While in the NICU, I watched other mothers who skillfully changed nappies and used special cotton buds and lotions and wipes. I hadn’t bought anything for my baby, not wanting to tempt fate. While we were in hospital André did the first baby shopping: prem nappies and Kate’s first toy, a small, soft purple Eeyore. I was shell-shocked, unprepared. It was enough witnessing her incubation from the outside. With the help of nurses, the paediatrician and other mothers, but mostly just by watching her closely, I began to figure out what she needed minute by minute. And what I was able to do.

Kate’s birth brought an overflowing of gifts: babygros, vests – even an embroidered one – hats, blankets, hand-knitted jerseys, booties, dungarees, miniature sheepskin slippers, a plastic bath chair, a pram, a cot and a house full of flowers. All who knew us seemed to welcome her into the world.

I remember sitting in the NICU next to the incubator drinking tea about a week after Kate was born when the convener of the antenatal classes phoned to tell me that the date of the first meeting was postponed. At first I didn’t know what she was talking about, then I started to cry. “My baby has been born already,” I told her. She was kind and sympathetic, which made me cry even more.

The first night I had to leave Kate in the hospital and go home was particularly bleak, the world wet and cold, the drive up Hospital Bend to Woodstock too far. My whole being resisted leaving, my arms felt too empty, too light. For two months I lived in a nether-world of driving up and down to the hospital and sitting next to her incubator, holding her or simply being with her while observing the goings-on in the NICU, seeing babies leave and new babies arrive. All the time I was away from Kate I felt like I was in a transit lounge – unreal, in-between. I felt present only when I was with her. Everything else was preparing, recovering, gearing up for, resting.

Every time you enter the NICU you have to wash your hands in order to cross the threshold into the sacred place, the place beyond the glass windows, beyond ordinary daily life. Friends came to see Kate when she was a little bigger and I was allowed to carry her to the window for a few minutes to show her to them. Once, when a dear friend came to see Kate, a nurse who had become quite possessive of her took her away from me, and held her up to my friend. I insisted on taking her back into my own arms. As soon as I did so the nurse in turn insisted that Kate be taken back into the NICU as she had been out of it long enough. In those first weeks I had to submit to the authority of the NICU nurses, and had no option but to give Kate back to them when they told me to. I wasn’t allowed to hold her for too long in the beginning. When she was sick with a gastric infection in the first weeks, I wasn’t allowed to pick her up at all. I could touch her, but only with my hands through the little doors in the side of the incubator. My back and upper arms tired and stiffened from the odd positioning.

Those early months were about existing in the present, not thinking, but observing, listening, sitting still, learning a slow, meditative patience while she grew gradually bigger and stronger. Almost imperceptibly she gained a few grams each day and took in a little more milk while I sat at her side, her attendant mother, guardian angel, witness, nurse. It became a meditation — being there for her. Being. There.

I remember drinking coffee in disposable cups from the hospital coffee shop. I remember the smell of popcorn, which the nurses often bought to eat at quieter moments. I remember how long the nurses’ shifts were – 12 hours. One older nurse told me, “The best way to be a mother is to learn to trust yourself. Listen to that inner voice. Trust it.” She told me this late one night when we were the only adults in the NICU. All the sick and premature babies were in their cots and incubators and it was dark and quiet except for a beep now and then and the humming sound from the electronic equipment.

Twice a day I visited her, every morning from about 8 till about 3 in the afternoon and then again at night. Before my night visit I would sit close to the fire in my great grandmother’s chair, deriving some comfort from it. André bought coal and wood and made the fire in the small Victorian fireplace in our Woodstock home each cold, wet night that winter. I would relax slightly as I stared silently into the flames between mouthfuls of supper, bracing myself for the drive back to the hospital. Our dogs lay next to the fire all night. The wooden floorboards near the fireplace were pocked with black scorch-marks from decades of popping coal. I would leave André and the dogs and head out into the rain. Cape Town winter rain is more than just weather – it can feel endless, a permanent submersion, frightening for a non-native. No matter how cold or wet it was outside as soon as I entered the NICU, I would overheat.

Almost daily, new faces, new mothers arrived. I became a fixture, nearly invisible, in my daily vigil. In three days the other women gave birth, got the hang of things and went out into the world with their babies who were kitted out in new clothes and receiving blankets, matching baby bags and new car seats. I stayed on and on. After several weeks of sitting there day after day, I knew most of the routines; I could have acted as an NICU assistant. I remember the nurses gossiping crossly about a twenty-something mother who only visited her baby every two or three days. I also saw that there were far more challenging misfortunes than being premature. There were babies who had to be ventilated; there were babies who were much sicker than Kate. A baby with spina bifida came to the NICU in preparation for a long and highly specialized operation. She was much older than the other babies in the ward.

One of my most traumatic experiences was attempting to breastfeed Kate in the hospital under strict supervision. She had to learn to feed before she could be released from her hospital sentence. I would try and fail. Well-meaning nurses weighed her before and after a feed, and there would be regretful shakes of the head, no – she didn’t take anything in. Other nurses, many of whom hadn’t ever had a baby of their own, offered me nipple caps, suggested different positions for her head, demonstrated how latching is supposed to work, but between us all we couldn’t get it right. Eventually, thanks to a kind word from an older nurse who had two of her own children, I realised that Kate needed to bottle-feed or we would be in hospital much, much longer. I pumped my breasts, milked myself several times a day and stored the milk either at the NICU or at home in the freezer. Determinedly, I taught my baby to drink from a bottle.

Kate’s first bath was in a 2-litre ice-cream container. Before then I washed her body inch by inch with cotton wool and warm water. How light she was and how small, so small she fitted into my hand. I’ve forgotten or mostly forgotten those tiny nappies and knitted caps and what being on red alert was like.

When we brought Kate home she weighed just two kilograms, still smaller and lighter than most babies are when they are born. I had been deeply apprehensive that I would need to monitor her breathing constantly, that I would need a gadget to tell me that my baby was still alive. But when the time came I trusted the connection between us enough; I knew that she knew how to breathe. She slept in our bed, snuggled between us, and, tiny as she was, I knew that I wouldn’t roll over onto her. I had the strangest sensation of both sleeping and being aware of her at the same time, cradled next to my body. I felt archetypal, animal, like a great lioness with my cub at my side, my body a source of warmth and food and comfort.

As I write this Kate is five and a half. She delights me every day with her passionate will and her own particular self, the same powerful creature who was evident from the first moments in the incubator. Together we got through. She was a survivor then and she is a survivor now.


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The fabulous, the dark and the hilarious #flf2011

This is my fourth or fifth time of going to the FLF. I always go with my close friend and it becomes a weekend of relaxing, pleasure and work. Thankfully this year I did not have a launch organised, so was able to be much more chilled.

Over the past few years Jenny Hobbs has asked me to chair a session and I always say yes. Even when I am overwhelmed or know absolutely nothing about the topic, I say yes.

This year I chaired the session entitled Love Stories; panelists were Lindsay van Rensburg, editor from Kwela; Nani Mahlanga – Sapphire romance author and the inimitable Fiona Snyckers, who needs no introduction to BookSA readers. I was bemused to be asked to do this one as I am probably the least romantically inclined, the person least likely to have read a romance that I can imagine. But I stuck to my rule and said yes. I learnt the following: South African romance readers require a little more challenge than the straightforward Mills and Boon formulaic stories, otherwise they get bored. Sapphire promotes responsible sex, there will be a condom in the story at a strategic point. Romance is seen to be a gateway to other kinds of literacy, so could be a way of ‘growing more readers’. I was left with a number of questions, such as; is there a tradition of gay/lesbian romance fiction? I wonder why the ‘rape fantasy’ is becoming more prevalent in international romances? Where will this all lead? I was hugely encouraged by the way our writers and publishers this genre are approaching this opportunity. I look forward to hearing more as they see how sales go and how readers and new writers develop.

The fabulous
Seeing and greeting and chatting with friends and colleagues that one normally only has online contact with, meeting new people, eating divine meals in various Franschoek eateries with fascinating friendly folk, the weather, seeing Modjaji authors looking pleased with their Franschoek experience.

Lauren Beukes‘s sloth draped over her shoulders, she looks like a real celebrity!

Listening to Janice Galloway’s talk; I was fortunate to have read her memoir, This is not about me before the festival. Galloway was brilliant, vivacious, confident and I loved her Scottish accent. Her writing is dark, funny, devastating and brilliantly written.

In the Masculinities session, Melinda Ferguson carried off her “counterpoint” role with enormous charm and aplomb. What was puzzling was that the issue discussed by the panelists was race rather than masculinities. Maybe it was that the panelists were seated on a stage looking over a sea of middle-aged to elderly (mostly) white faces, and race is what came up for them?

the dark
My bag was snatched while I was at the BookSA celebration organised by Louis Greenberg and Sarah Lotz. During the main course, a waitress noticed a bag lying on the ground just outside of where we were sitting. My wallet was open and all my cash – which wasn’t much was taken. And then I noticed my cellphone was gone. A few minutes later the manager had security and the police on the case and my things were retrieved. I had to go to the police station to identify my belongings. It turned out that a gang of boys, between ten and fifteen years old were the culprits. My friend and I sat at the police station, we had to wait for the detective to arrive. Eventually we asked if we could go back to the restaurant and have our dessert and coffee and pay. This we did and then when we came back to the station the boys were in the front of the charge office sitting in row. They were apparently well known to the police. Feral boys. They had to wait for the parents to fetch them. By the time we left the station at about 12.30 only one mother had arrived. We heard that there were two armed robberies in the squatter settlement. A group of Somalians arrived at the station to lay the charge regarding the first armed robbery.

I decided to lay a charge against the boys, as this would mean that some of them might go before a magistrate and be put into a diversion programme for youth at risk. I will have to go through to Franschoek at some point and spend a day in court waiting for this case to come before the magistrate.

I saw the boys again on the streets on Saturday and Sunday, drifting up and down the main drag.

Sigh.

the hilarious

Justin Cartwright’s anecdote “Iris Murdoch’s method of writing was to lie on her back for three months on the floor and then get up and write the novel in a week.”

Zakes Mda saying something like this:
“I had never read a memoir or autobiography, so I thought I better read one or two. I started with Gunther Grass, after about ten pages or so, I thought nahhh, I am a storyteller, I have written all these novels, I can do this.” He then proceeded to write it in three months and refused editing suggestions, he wanted it to be shaggy (I think that is what he said).

Khaya Dlanga’s wonderful story, that I hope he will write one day, told us with how To Kill a Mockingbird hampered his love life.

Michiel Heyns’s dry humour as he spoke about reviews in that session, see below:

[48]: Critical Factors (Hospice Hall)
Is author hagiography taking the place of informed literary comment? Regular book reviewers Imraan Coovadia, Michiel Heyns and Tymon Smith discuss the rise and rise of the personal versus the critical with Cape TimesBooks Editor Karin Schimke.

The toilet saga and looming elections as a backdrop to the FLF. The toilet humour in the Sunday papers, particularly Ben Trovato’s Whipping Boy.


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“Waar was jy?” remembering and making sense of the past

Earlier this year, I wrote an article about memoir for Rapport Boeke. It was translated into Afrikaans. Here is the English version for those of you who might have missed the Rapport.

The autobiographies of Doris Lessing and Simone de Beauvoir entranced me as a young woman, they encouraged me to envision a different kind of life for myself because were women who were courageous, confident breakers of barriers.

We have been so divided, so separated from each other in South Africa, we want to know who we are living with and what their lives are like, have been like. We want to find out how others survived and how they have made sense of their lives. So we turn eagerly to biographies, “I read South African biographies because so much of our history is hidden; I want to better understand what happened,” says one reader. Another asserts, “Some of my all-time favourite books are memoirs, they connect us across space and time. They bring history kicking into the present. They represent our best efforts and our failures at dealing with the Big Questions: how we deal with race and sex and death and love and faith. They have a truth that transcends anything we make up.”

Lynn Carneson’s moving book about her parents, Fred and Sarah The Red in the Rainbow is her way of paying tribute to her parents, and to the painful lives they endured in participating in the struggle for freedom in South Africa. This kind of biography acts as a marker or memorial, ‘the lives of my brave parents shall not go unnoticed.’

Ronnie Kasrils’ book, The Unlikely Secret Agent is a long love letter to his late wife, Eleanor, which also works as a memorial to her. He tells the story of her arrest, detention without trial and escape from custody in 1963. The story is told simply, yet passionately and Kasrils refers to himself as Ronnie, the story is written in the third person about himself and Eleanor. This book and Carneson’s fill in some of the missing story about white people who were an essential part of the struggle against apartheid and reveal the price they paid for their commitment.

Many South African writers have played with the form and come up with something that is not exactly what we think of when we think of autobiography or memoir; they are not straightforward chronologies. In Native Nostalgia, for example, Jacob Dlamini writes the story of the Katlehong he grew up in, such that the township becomes the main character. He writes of the community and mores of this community, his own life and those of his close neighbours and family. But he also analyses wider trends, like the role of radio stations, and language, nuanced class identities within Kathlehong. As the blurb says, it is “part-history, part-memoir, part-meditation, and part-ethnography.” He explores the role of Afrikaans in Katlehong “…it was the language of colloquial expressions and …there is a deeper sense in which Afrikaans was (and is) the language of black nostalgia.” Dlamini goes on to refer to the phrase, “Waar was jy?”, a question to be asked about any number of cultural icons and references.

Antjie Krog weaves other stories into her own or her story into that of others, most recently in Begging to be Black, she weaves the story of Moshoeshoe I of the Basotho together with her account of a particularly frightening period in her own life in Kroonstad when she got involved in a situation, that was dangerous to herself and her family as well as to her own sense of morality.

In a panel at the Cape Town Book Fair this year, Sindiwe Magona and Jane Katjavivi, discussed their experiences of writing autobiographically. Magona said she wished she could write To My Children’s Children again, as there were many things she left out and glossed over too quickly when she iwrote it twenty years ago. As a publisher I would encourage her to write more. Katjajvivi explained that she started out writing a novel, but soon realised that if she wrote about the women she wanted to write about they would be recognisable as themselves to a Windhoek audience. So she decided to ‘tell the truth’ and set about writing accurate and detailed accounts of the lives of particular women who are her friends. She then realised that she was also writing about herself and her own life. For Katjavivi, the writing of Undisciplined Heart became a journey of discovery of what exactly it was that she was really writing about.

For the writers of autobiography they have chance for a second reading of experience, with consciousness added. Memory allows an objectivity which helps reveal the patterns of a particular life. Even though biographical writing is ‘true’, there is a fictionalisation: episodes and themes are selected and others left out. The description of the patterns in a particular life are interpreted by the biographer. Certain incidents stand for many other similar experiences or incidents. In well written biographies, the reader will be left with a clear sense of the life and times of the person, of his/her preoccupations, concerns, and the feeling tone will be accurate. As readers we get a privileged insight into the times and people who lived through those times, through their own autobiographical writings and through the writings of their biographers.

A small, tender memoir like Malika Ndlovu’s Invisible Earthquake tells us what it was like for her to experience the stillbirth of her baby girl. We are taken by the hand into her grief psychosis, and brought out of it on the other side. These books, some of which describe great pain, terrible suffering are medicinal to us readers, we find out that you do survive, and we learn again about the resilience of the human spirit and the courage of those amongst whom we live, often unaware of the challenges in their lives.

Helen Brain, author of Here Be Lions, says, “We write memoirs to be heard. To give our stories significance.” Sometimes there is a price to pay in ‘telling the truth’ of their particular story. Brain says, “[It caused] a complete breakdown of relationships with my family. Because I used my real name, and it was an ugly story, it impacted hugely on my family, who didn’t want me to publish it. I did it because perpetrators of sexual violence in families invariably get away with it, while the victim is forced to carry the secret or lose her family’s approval. I said ‘I refuse to carry the secret any longer.’’ In spite of the disruption to her life, she says, “It served as a turning point for me. It was very healing. Also extremely painful.” Brain says she learned “that there are a lot of women out there who have experienced the same, and are hurting.”

Undisciplined Heart

Book details

Begging to be Black

Native Nostalgia

The Unlikely Secret Agent


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An unlikely trio

The Book of the DeadClose The Door Softly Behind YouAPETOWNBeen reading a lot lately, these three local books deserve to have something said about them, but I don’t have time to write separate posts, so in a tiny window of opportunity, here’s why I recommend all three books.

Kgebetli Moele’s, The Book of the Dead, his second novel is quite a book. Even though it is a fairly short read, it is a devastating book. It offers a scarey, bleak, and I guess realistic picture of the world it describes; and in that sense \offers an explanation for the rampant spread of HIV. In the second part of “Dead”, The HI Virus becomes a character in the way Death does in Zusak’s The Book Thief. Although Moele’s character feels more intent on doing his work, and has evil motivations. It makes an interesting read and could helpfully be read alongside Aernout Zevenbergen’s Spots of Leopard. One way of reading “Dead” would be as a case study of what Zevenbergen is looking at, ‘what it means to be a man’ in post-colonial Africa, in the context of HIV/AIDS; the breakdown of traditional society, the rise of materialism and so on. I prefer this book to Room 207, in spite of the violence and the horror. For me it holds together more coherently.

Emmaleen Kriel writes about her own experience of taking up domestic work in the UK and Europe as a way of earning money, she has seven children who have all left home and is a widow, in her fifties she decides to do what for many priveliged white South Africans would seem an extraordinary thing to do. She also writes about it. And of course it makes for interesting reading and for those who have ever employed a domestic worker it is interesting to read about how the world and her employers are viewed by one particular person. She has a range of employment situations and each one brings different insights. Kriel has republished her book herself as it was out of print. I can see why it is still selling.

Once I started reading Sven Eick’s, Apetown, I couldn’t put it down – a fast-paced novella that is funny, tense, and wonderfully evocative of a particular aspect of Cape Town with which, thankfully, I am not intimately acquainted anymore (night clubs and grungy digs). What I loved most about Eick’s novel was its dark, funny, sassy, critical, bright twentysomething worldview. Which also made me feel old. Especially bits like this:

“No Mom, I’m dead.”
She was really phoning to tell me she was still alive. I hadn’t phoned her for a week; she didn’t understand that I didn’t have any money left and I hadn’t really tried to tell her. At fifty years of age, she wanted me to think that maybe she had slipped in the bath or was lying at the foot of a staircase with a broken hip.
“Well, I’m fine, thank you for asking.”
And just there I switched off from the conversation, which was a rerun of a hundred conversations that amounted to little more than a catalogue of the iniquities inflicted on my mother by life during the last fifty years.”

His description of Lars’s mother makes me see her as seventy plus or older, even though I know some sprightly seventy year olds, but fifty and already worried about broken hips? But this is a minor point and I don’t think I am the intended audience for the book. I laughed out loud at the weird situations his characters got themselves into, bits had me cringing with sympathy and horror (intended by the author, I hope). Let’s see more of your work Sven, I think you are a gifted writer, with a wonderful darkly comic voice. Bring it on.

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