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Colleen Higgs

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

The poet and the woodcutter

Green Dragon 6 now out – available from better bookstores and direct from Gary Cummiskey.

I have a prose poem in Issue 6 called – “The poet and the woodcutter”, here it is:

The poet and the woodcutter

The husband invited the younger man into his home, to build more shelves. He was a poet, the older man. He had small hands, rather like bear paws in a children’s book, and nearly as hairy. He could lie on his couch and visualize the new shelves. He couldn’t build them, or not easily and effortlessly. So he gave the younger man a job.

The younger man was down on his luck, between things, living in the forest. He was able-bodied, and had large, tanned, capable hands. He was dangerous because in spite of being down on his luck, he was tall, dark and handsome. He looked like the prince disguised as a woodcutter in a fairy story. He wore a black hat at a jaunty angle, smoked cigarettes that he rolled up himself. Sometimes he drove by on his way to swim at the dam on a borrowed motorcycle. Sometimes when he rode by he wasn’t wearing a shirt.

So, the woodcutter came to make shelves for the poet. The poet’s wife made him cups of tea and tried to think of things to talk to him about. He didn’t chat much but he smiled easily, and made her laugh when he spoke, his tone wry, his words few.

The poet’s wife was also a writer. Of course she couldn’t read her work to the poet, he was a real writer, a serious writer, a poet. He needed silence and he needed to listen to difficult jazz music. He needed to read the work of other serious poets who lived in Germany, Turkey, Israel and Poland – not the ramblings of his own wife.

The poet’s wife took to reading her work to the woodcutter; let’s call him that, the tall, silent, tender-hearted woodcutter. He listened to her poems and stories and she could tell he found them moving from the way his eyes crinkled softly as he listened.

The poet was often away on important business, giving readings, signing books, meeting with other famous writers in big cities here, there and everywhere.

The poet’s wife was often alone in the big house with the new shelves and the tin roof that rustled in the wind. Or she would have been if not for the woodcutter who came round sometimes for a cup of tea, or to listen to her reading. Some days he walked past instead of riding the bike. He stopped and asked her to go with him to the dam for a swim. One particularly hot summer’s evening she went swimming with the woodcutter and decided that she would go and live with him in the forest and become a real writer herself. And so she did.

Green Dragon 6 features lots of other stories and poems by the following:
Alan Finlay, Janet van Eeden, Vonani Bila, Daniel Browde, Ingrid Andersen, Cecilia Ferreria, Kai Lossgott, Gary Cummiskey, Kobus Moolman, David wa Maahlamela, Tania van Schalkwyk, Joop Bersee, Anton Krueger, Gus Ferguson, Mick Raubenheimer, Goodenough Mashego, Aryan Kaganof, Brent Meersman, Kelwyn Sole, Haidee Kruger, Allan Kolski Horwitz, Megan Hall, Mphutlane wa Bofelo, Mxolisi Nyezwa, Neo Molefe Shameeyaa, Arja Salafranca, The Litchis

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Ten things I loved about “The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo” (not a review)

I absolutely loved The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo by Peter Orner.

1. All the way through I had that feeling of breathlessness, a kind of rapture I only get from reading, that’s why a book like this is my drug of choice.

Except like any good trip it had to come to end, when I got to that last third of the book, I started to feel sad, the way you do towards the end of a wonderful holiday or a visit with a dear friend.

2. Orner writes absolutely beautifully. Some of the chapters are very short. He observes what he writes about so closely that you feel as though you might be doing something slightly indecent to the characters, that is getting to see and hear things you shouldn’t, being allowed in too close.

3. The book is set on a Catholic farm school in Namibia, the narrator is an outsider, an American volunteer from Cincinatti, Ohio. (I did a teaching prac in a rural school in what is now called the North West; and I was a foreign exchange student in Iowa; something about those experiences resonates for me in this book).

4. I loved all of the characters, they were so quirky and idiosyncratic and yet utterly recognisable. Obadiah, Kaplansk (the narrator), Antoinette, Auntie, Pohamba, Theofilus, Festus, Dikeledi,Tomo are some of them.

5. There is a terrible mounting tension in the story.

6.There is heartbreak, there is pleasure in the ordinary – a Fanta Orange on a hot day, there is the drought which seems to never end, there are goats, dust, stones, graves, distant mountains, school boys, a headmaster, a locked Science lab, there are 312 pages if you don’t count the Reading guide and there are 155 chapters. Each chapter is a poem. (I may have mentioned that already.) There is a love story. There is sex. There is friendship and camaraderie. There is a car that is going nowhere. Fences, donkeys, cows. No rain for a long time.

7. Chapter 11 is called Goas – here is the whole chapter:

Seasons at Goas, as much as you can call cold, hot, and more hot seasons, catapult into each other. Days too. Winter mornings bleed to summer afternoons. And memory is as much a heap of disorder as it is a liar.

The spiraled ash of a spent mosquito coil. A book with a broken spine lying facedown. A row of tiny socks drying on the edge of a bucket.

8. The storyteller stays in a single room in the Single Quarters.

9. Orner’s humour is dry, drier than Namibia. Here is Chapter 104, all of it.
Drought Stories

The Namibian had already been at it for months, quoting experts, statistics. The isohyets for mean annual rainfall have been falling dangerously … atmospheric and ocean circulation patterns consistent with … climatic change and variability remain constant … water surface catchment areas are shrinking throughout the central …
But drought being a negation, an unhappening, it doesn’t make for interesting copy.
We skipped those articles. It came every year. It was only a question of which region would get it worse. No drought was news. Extreme drought was news. Anything else was page 6, after sports. What emergency was duller?

10. Mavala Shikongo herself.

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Review of Things Without a Name in the Cape Times

I have recently branched out into writing reviews, here is one which appeared in the Cape Times Book page on Friday 16th January 2009. Watch this space…

Things Without A Name, the third novel from Joanne Fedler (Jacana) is a compelling read. At the heart of the story is Faith, a vividly evoked, extremely troubled, quirky character who works as a legal counsellor in a women’s crisis centre. She loves animals passionately, and is a vegetarian who cuts herself in bad moments. As readers we aren’t sure we can trust Faith, she breaks most of the rules of her profession, and she doesn’t always come clean about why she does what she does. Through this loveable yet unreliable narrator, Fedler examines how caregivers come to terms with a daily dose of trauma, when dealing with the victims of domestic and other violence, and rape. We see through Faith the extreme personal cost of blurry boundaries for caregivers and the relentless drain it is on those who counsel and assist women who day after day come in, raped, abused, beaten, abandoned, molested.

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The Hills of Kampala

I got back last night from a week in Uganda at the first Femrite African women writers’ residency, aptly called “Shared Lives” — which was facilitated by our very own Helen Moffett. The week was a gift, a rest, an inspiration, refilling of the well. I had a corner suite with huge windows overlooking the hills of Kampala and Lake Victoria in the distance. A huge palm tree outside my window housed ground hornbills that flapped and rustled and preened themselves. We had two layers of mosquito netting around the bed, which turned the bed feel into a romantic canopy.

Hilda Twongyeirwe and Lillian Tindyebawa organised the residency with a lovely calm manner and seeming effortlessness. I can’t thank them, Femrite and the members of Femrite, as well as the donors enough for hosting us for this unforgettable week.

I was impressed and inspired by too many things to capture in a quick blog.

Please google Femrite, it really shows what a small group of committed people can do and how they can have an enormous impact. Many of Uganda’s prize-winning writers are members of Femrite, writers such as Monica Arac de Nyeko, Glaydah Namukasa, Doreen Baingana, Violet Birungi and Susan Kiguli (the only one we were lucky enough to meet).

Writers from Ghana, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and South Africa participated in the residency – each person brought wisdom, stories, lives, a new perspective.

I loved Kampala, which appears to still have very strong ties to the villages and rural regions. The city bustles with taxis, bicycle taxis, scooter taxis (boda bodas), 4 X 4s, trucks, buses, people walking, people pushing handmade wooden wheelbarrows piled with bananas or building materials. Still a largely subsistence economy people make their living providing transport, selling clothes, shoes, homemade takeaway foods, plants in roadside nurseries. Others roast g-nuts and sell them and at the Bujanga Falls on the Nile a photographer took group photos and sold the prints to us for 2000 Ugandan Shillings (roughly R10) The roads are pot-holed, dusty and jostle with life. The climate was fabulous, tropical, steamy, but not really too hot. We had a few thunderstorms and sudden downpours. On balmy nights, we sat around on the terrace of the Hotel International Muyenga drinking Nile, Trader, Club or Bell beer and eating divine Indian curries and Naan bread discussing the politics of books, the world and Africa or just reminiscing about our lives or recounting the incidents of our day to each other.

I will never forget Hilda, Lillian, Winnie, Connie, Margaret, Philo, Sophy, Yaba, Kingwa, Olivia, Helen, Mastidia, Yemuhdish, Betty whom I now feel are my friends and sisters. The week was intense full of stories, writing, reading work in progress, getting feedback, practising reading for the Makerere University public reading.

Some of the other people who joined us for an afternoon or were with us at Makerere were charming, friendly and very welcoming. Everyone I came into contact with made me feel welcome in Uganda and in fact the stall holders at the Craft Market at the National Theatre say as you look at their crafts, “You are very welcome.” I was delighted to meet Mother Hen (Mary Okurut – the founder of Femrite), Uncle Tim (Prof Timothy Wangusa), Patrick Mangeni, Barbara, and Allen.

I will write more anon, and no doubt Helen will too. But just wanted to get down a few first thoughts and an overall impression. Femrite will be producing an anthology of work that was either written, edited or worked on during the residency.

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I’ve seen it twice. If you haven’t seen it you really should get to it. Wow what a movie. It’s a real (new) South African movie, full of all so much including all the tricks like a car chase, various other chases, gun battles, helicopters, singing prayer groups, a soundtrack that is heart-stopping and it made me feel warm towards car-jackers! In a way. Has anyone else seen it?

The other thing I loved was that both times most of the audience was black, which is not something I’ve seen before at movies in Cape Town.

And it is for me a long visual love poem to Joburg. It made me laugh nervously, whole-heartedly, hang onto the edge of my seat, and sigh many times in a kind of rapture.

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Dinaane reviewed by New South Wales Law Review

DinaaneWhatever next? But you have to take them where you get them, and even though the review is really a stick, especially to the anthology as a whole, there are a few carrots to nibble on.

A fragmented landscape
by Jackie Shapiro, Law Society of NSW

Dinaane is a collection of 11 South African short stories by female writers which its publisher, Telegram describes as “showcasing contemporary women writers from around the world”. It attempts to probe the cultural consciousness of a country racially fragmented by apartheid. It offers interesting glimpses into the kaleidoscope of South African experience; however, stylistically its prose lacks the punch to stand out in the crowd.

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Third edition of Wordsetc


Phakama has asked me to spread the word – look out for the next edition of wordsetc, should hit the stores on Friday.

This edition is a women’s edition; it looks at gender issues through the prism of literature. Great essays and features.

The title sells at Exclusive Books and CNA nationwide, as well as at independent books stores such as Boekehuis (Jhb), Xarra (Jhb), Kalk Bay Books (Kalk Bay), The Book Lounge (CT) and Clarke’s (CT).

Wordsetc is for a discerning reader who enjoys a quality read. Our subscription is R170 for four editions (we’re quarterly).

Oh and there is an article by me, which is a publishing manifesto for Modjaji Books.

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