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Colleen Higgs

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

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.

“Waar was djy?” Remembering and making sense of the past

As a young woman the autobiographies of Doris Lessing and Simone de Beauvoir entranced me, they encouraged me to imagine a different kind of life for myself because they were both courageous, confident breakers of barriers.

We have been so divided, so separated from each other in South Africa, now 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 asked Facebook friends who read biographies for their reasons: “I read South African biographies because so much of our history is hidden; I want to better understand what happened.” 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. Here 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 in 2010, Sindiwe Magona and Jane Katjavivi, discussed their experiences of writing autobiographically. Magona said she wished she could write To My Children’s Children again, she left many things out and glossed over too much too quickly when she wrote 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.”

This article was written for Rapport Boeke last year, and was translated into Afrikaans.

Book Launch: Lava Lamp Poems by Colleen Higgs

Lava Lamp Poems: Colleen Higgs: Colleen HiggsYou are invited to come along to the launch of Lava Lamp Poems by Colleen Higgs. Finuala Dowling will introduce the poet and her work. There will be a short reading from the collection.

Finuala Dowling says this about Lava Lamp Poems:

The poems in Lava Lamp are compelling: at once conversational and uncanny. Colleen Higgs tells the truth but tells it slant, insisting on the singularity of everything that is familiar — domesticity, marriage, motherhood, family. The sequence of poems set in Johannesburg is captivating.”

(Finuala Dowling is the author of What Poets Need, I Flying, Notes from the Dementia Ward and Flyleaf. Dowling has also recently won the Olive Schreiner prize for ‘Notes’ and she received the Ingrid Jonker prize for I Flying.)

And Fiona Snyckers says this

Alternating between the most economical of free verse and the most elastic of prose-poetry, Higgs shows a dazzling facility with both mediums. Her poems reach into the past, isolating long-gone moments and imbue them with talismanic significance. Personal history is rendered as a series of cultural artefacts, as distinct and recognisable as the eponymous lava lamp. But even as the past is forced to stand still and submit to scrutiny, it’s meaning remains fluid and elusive.

Humour runs through the collection like a glowing thread – from the gentle and affectionate ‘an ode to Perry’ to the utterly female satire of ‘on wanting a washing machine’ and ‘where these things lead’, to the dark undertow of ‘blaming Lulu’ and the bitter pill of ‘excuses’. Humour is used to evoke a wry smile, or in the case of ‘excuses’ a grimace of recognition.”

(Fiona Snyckers is author of Trinity Rising and Trinity on Air.)

Event Details

  • Date: Thursday, 20 January 2011
  • Time: 5:30 PM for 6:00 PM
  • Venue: The Book Lounge, Corner of Roeland and Buitenkant Streets, Cape Town
  • Guest Speaker: Finuala Dowling
  • Refreshments: Come and join us for a glass of Leopard’s Leap wine and a snack
  • RSVP: The Book Lounge, booklounge@gmail.com, 021 462 2425
    www.booklounge.co.za

Book Details

“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

Are you warm enough?

Just for fun and to cheer myself up from an acute case of ‘Not the London Book Fair Blues’, I thought I would post this story that was accepted for Urban 04 (Dave Chislett’s publication, which had to get shelved, due to lack of funding) and then was published in New Contrast. I can’t find my printed copy of NC, so can’t accurately give the volume and date, but it was either late in 2009 or early 2010.

Are you warm enough?

Do you remember that weird time in about ’92? Before the elections. There was a bit of a light at the end of the tunnel. Anyway you must remember my friend, Ruth – I bet you never heard that she had an affair with my brother, Grant? Ja, it wasn’t for that long, a couple of months at most. Anyway it was when he was a clown in a play at the Market Theatre, did you ever see it? So he got really trashed on something, white pipes, I don’t even know, I was never that au fait with all the options. Ja, apparently he couldn’t sleep for two weeks and he disappeared with the clown suit. No one knew where he was. Later we heard he’d been painting garden furniture at a friend’s parents’ place somewhere out at Fourways or Lanseria, and talking about becoming a tennis coach. He even spoke of getting an Arthur Ashe tennis racquet. Ruth was the only one who spoke to him while he was lost. And she believed him, she believed all the tennis coach stuff and she encouraged him. He sounded so convincing. Passionate, knowledgeable – you remember what he was like? I would have laughed at him if he’d told me that tennis coach shit. Except I would probably have cried instead.

So they had to cancel the play because there was no understudy and no extra costumes. It was some kind of improv play that had been his idea in the first place. Ag shame man, Grant’s name was mud with those okes, as you can imagine, for years, not just months. Some of the other actors in that play went on to star in big shot TV series like the one about Barney Barnato and Isidingo even. Grant was a brilliant actor when he wasn’t drugging, I always felt sad for him, he could have also been famous and that.

So anyway after the whole clown fiasco, Grant spent a couple of years on the streets, in Yeoville and then in Cape Town. I even heard from someone that he tried to score free Kentucky from one of his army mates who worked at KFC head office. He phoned the oke from a tickey box. Remember how there used to be tickey boxes hey? The oke pretended he didn’t know Grant, how blind is that? Even my Mom didn’t hear from him for at least a year.

Poor Ruth was a bit in love with him for a while; he was so sweet and fucked up, and he played the guitar and sang to her and made romantic gestures with flowers. He rode a motorbike, nothing fancy, just a Honda 250 or something like that, and he had this amazing World War 2 jacket he’d got from my grandpa. My grandpa was in Monty’s army in North Africa. Grant wore it all the time, it was the Real McCoy, he always had a soft spot for family memorabilia. And old Grant, he knew how to spin a line hey. The gift of the gab, my Gran used to say. When he was a kid all his teachers loved him, even though he was a cheeky little bugger.

Ruth had just broken up with Nathan when she got involved with Grant. Nathan was one of those single-minded okes, funny and bright, quick witted. Sports-mad. Ag in the end it had all got too intense for her with him. She began to wonder if the main reason he was with her was because her father was a famous political lawyer and he was hoping it would rub off on him. Ja, anyway, the next thing was, Nathan and I started sleeping together. I can’t even remember how it happened. It was like comfort eating. Suddenly you wake up and you smell the roses, or should I say doughnuts. One day it seemed like – there he was, I woke up and there he was, Nathan was in my bed. I remember some uptight friend of mine saying at the time that my bed was like a railway station. She really cheesed me off. Why is it better to only ever have slept with one or two men? Can you tell me? Look, I was being kind to Nathan. He was very cut up about Ruth. When we were alone he was sweet like some dogs are, you know golden retrievers, sort of soppy and well meaning. I couldn’t bear to see how sad he was, and I wasn’t involved with anyone else. And he and Ruth had broken up. So it wasn’t completely wrong?

Anyhow when Nathan heard about Grant and Ruth, he was over to Ruth’s like a shot. I was the kiepie who told him. Fuck, I wish I’d kept my mouth shut. So Grant and Ruth and Nathan had one of those B-movie scenes, only it happened in Muller Street. Grant climbed out of Ruth’s bedroom window onto the balcony, he was in his underpants and he sat there while Ruth and Nathan argued with each other in the lounge. Ruth didn’t really want Nathan to know that she and Grant were kafoofling in the middle of the day. I suppose she didn’t really want Nathan to know about Grant at all. That is the thing I feel the most shit about, even now, when I think back. I mean Ruth was my friend. Ja, so Nathan didn’t know Grant was right there. Luckily Grant was stoned enough to be fairly cool about sitting outside on the balcony half naked. They fought for so long he even fell asleep out there, or so he told me.

Grant lived in a flat at the bottom end of Dunbar Street. You didn’t ever see his flat did you? I only went there a couple of times. And the one time I visited him there he’d filled his whole flat with branches he’d brought in from when the Council pruned the plane trees in his road. He was so mal, hey. Bos bevok. He didn’t want to leave them there to die in the street like rubbish, he said. His place spaced me out, completely. Apart from the branches, which was enough to push me over the edge, his flat was dirty and I mean vuil, hey. Dishes and pizza boxes and crusty pots rotting all over the place and I’m not exaggerating. Stompies and bottlenecks – not even in ashtrays. The oke was living like an animal. I was glad my old lady couldn’t see how he was living, she would have turned in her grave. Well she isn’t dead yet, but you know what I mean. No furniture apart from the mattress and sheets and blankets so filthy you couldn’t tell what colour they were originally. It was worse than bergies, and that’s saying something. I couldn’t stop myself from tuning him, “Sies man Grant, how can you live like this? Are you a dog?” But you know what? Not even dogs, not even pigs live like that.

Old Grant was always such a joker, so full of life and laughs, I felt like a dried up old prune around him, even when we were kids. He could always make you hose yourself. But I’m sorry that flat was the end for me. Something inside me tightened. It scared me. I don’t think Ruth ever went there, she would have run a mile. Grant used to visit her in his leather jacket, somehow emerging from that bloody pig stye cleaned up enough for a person like Ruth to be cool with. No you’ve got to hand it to the oke, he’s pulled off some tricks in his day and getting involved with Ruth was one of those occasions – big time.

In any case, Ruth and I were never close again. I suppose she didn’t trust me after all of that shit went down. I still think about her sometimes, miss her even, but in the end there was too much water under the bridge. Nathan, the dweezil, told Ruth about his ‘fling’ with me as a way of tuning her for Grant. Yessis we were all so dof. Look it didn’t help him, Ruth never forgave him for that, nor me. Things between Grant and Ruth also cooled off, she lost interest, she was too cut up about everything. Grant was pretty freaked too; he really dug Ruth. She was older than him, and she was very mooi and soft and they’d had this lekker playful thing going between them. She was probably the classiest chick he’d ever got near.

*******

I remember this one night, we were all at Dawson’s. It was before Ruth and Nathan split up, she and I were still friends and somehow Grant came along for the ride that night. He used to pitch up at my place when he wanted something to eat and he couldn’t come up with a better plan. One time when he couldn’t find me he ate loquats from one of those big gardens in Jan Smuts near the Zoo, where the trees hang over onto the pavement. Anyway I think that was when they met, Grant and Ruth. The Radio Rats were making a comeback and Dawson’s was cooking. People like James Phillips and Johannes Kerkorrel showed up. Definitely the best jorl in Joburg that night. We all danced like mal, even Nathan, who wasn’t really a dancer. His heart wasn’t in it, but that night he was jiving with the best of us. That journalist who got shot a few months later in Katlehong was there too. Everybody was at Dawsons, even the short drug dealer who always wore that mustard-yellow felt homburg. When I think about it now, it was like we were celebrating the end of something terrible that we’d lived through our whole lives. It was like the war was over and who the fuck knew what would happen next?

******

After everything cooled down between the four of us, Nathan and I still slept together sometimes. He would drive past my flat, down Kenmere Road on his way home. He lived up in those larney flats behind the water tower. If my lights were on he’d phone from his place. It was before cell phones.

The conversation would go something like this,

“Howzit. Are you there?”

“Ja.”

“What’re you doing?”

“Reading.”

“Are you warm enough?”

“Almost.”

A few minutes later he’d be there, smiling and as pleased as all hell with himself, at my door. We would usually fuck and then curl up and sleep tightly wrapped together. Those nights with Nathan were quite lekker, a bit less lonely, you know. The mornings were sometimes a bit awkward. Deep down I knew I wanted more than a bit on the side here and there. One night I said “Ja, I am,” when he asked, “Are you warm enough?” and then he didn’t call again. Just like that. Can you believe it?

The next time I bumped into him he was dropping a video into the slot at that shop in Parktown North with his four-year-old daughter. I was living down the road in Blairgowrie. Married and everything. But that’s another story. She was only cute hey, his daughter, big blue eyes and wild, curly blonde hair. I couldn’t believe it, almost. If I hadn’t seen her with my own eyes. Somehow I’d never pictured any of us jollers with kids and all of that. He was a hotshot corporate lawyer about to emigrate to Canada.

I haven’t seen Ruth for years. Sometimes I hear about her, what she’s doing from mutual friends. The weird thing is that she also lives in Canada. She makes really short documentary films. I don’t know if she ever got married or anything.

Grant opened up a video shop in Mossel Bay with his wife, Jeannie. I don’t know where he met her, I’m too scared to ask. How she tamed him, your guess is as good as mine. But the life down there suits him (rather him than me – hey?) He fishes and surfs quite a bit. Drinks every night. But not too much. They take it in turns at the shop. He fetches and carries the kids, they’ve got two beautiful little girls and can you believe it – he designs websites in his spare time as a sort of a cross between a hobby and a job. He was always someone who was going to be able to reinvent himself. It’s not a bad life. Oh and he also has a fucking conspiracy theory blog, most of which he makes up himself.

Anyway I better dash. You look great, next time you must tell me all about where you’ve been.

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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Thoughts while reading Ways of Staying

Ways of StayingWays of Staying made me think, it troubled me, made me wonder why I don’t think about leaving, made me wonder if I have ostrich tendencies. I wanted the book to articulate my reasons for staying, but instead it troubled me more about why I hadn’t really considered leaving.

I also wondered why I personally don’t know as many people who have experienced the kinds of violent attacks that are described in the book. Of course, everyone, or almost everyone, I know has had things stolen from them. Or violent encounters or close encounters of a violent kind, from which they escaped physically unharmed. For example, last year my car was broken into twice, once in my driveway at home and once at Rondebosch Common when my handbag was stolen, which took months of annoying errands to get myself back to almost square one. I still don’t have a car radio. So I haven’t been listening to SAFM, and have been even more out of the news loop than I was before. I pick up snippets from the headline posters on lamp posts – this week I discovered that Zuma is marrying another wife and that as a taxpayer I will be involved in footing the bill. I also discovered that cricket was being played in Cape Town. (I also learnt this from Facebook and from seeing all the cars parked along the roads near Newlands.) (I do usually buy the Mail and Guardian and sometimes a Sunday newspaper.)

Of course I know terrible stories of things that have happened to people. The most appalling stories that I know of were things that happened pre 94. Like Phindiwe who cleaned our house when I lived on a farm outside Grahamstown in the late 90s. She ‘fell’ pregnant when she was 14 and the doctor she saw at the time gave her a hysterectomy, he told her that her blood was wrong. She is still at the age of 60 married to Zwelenzima, the man who was her boyfriend, when she was 14. They both drink ‘too much’.

I liked meeting the people that Kevin Bloom introduced me, his reader to. I was especially inspired by Themba Koketi, the young man studying to become a social worker. I wondered if I would have been able to succeed at university under those circumstances. I doubt it. Timothy Maurice Webster interested me too, an African American who chose to come and live here.

I kept hoping that Bloom would give me a range of simple reasons for staying. But he doesn’t. Instead he interrogates the question of leaving or staying. Although I don’t think about living here as ‘staying’. This is where I live. For better or for worse. For richer or for poorer. Perhaps I am too fatalistic. I can’t imagine living elsewhere. Perhaps I lack imagination. I need the weird complexities, the impossible challenges, the peculiarity of here.

Ways of Staying mirrors for me the way I attempt to create something resembling a coherent understanding of my motivations and experiences by patchworking or collaging the bits and pieces together. In fact, it isn’t coherent, and underneath it all is something that is not really possible to put into words, to write in a book. And yet from reading Ways of Staying I get a strong sense of who Kevin Bloom is and what matters to him and why he stays.

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Nieu Bethesda delights & holiday reading Dec 2009

Andre - the goat deli man's goatsTwo weeks of blissful reading, swimming in a froggy resevoir pond, cycling on dusty roads, lunches at the Two Goats deli, idly chatting and catching up with friends, champagne, pancakes, dry heat, afternoon naps. New Year’s Eve lantern parade, braais – Karoo lamb chops from the Merino Butchery in Graaf Reinet, cracked heels, slight sunburn, a Christmas tree made from a dried out sisal ‘tree’.

Some highlights: A man called Hitler who loaded the gas cylinder into the car in Graaf Reinet, bumping into a Cape Town friend outside the Spar in Graaf Reinet. Being mistaken for a labourer at the builders’ supply store.

Read the Stieg Larsson trilogy in three and a half days. Loved every word, utterly gripped by the series, read for hours in the dark with my headlamp torch – developed a new sense of Sweden. Lisbeth Salander – a fascinating main character.

Went for two days without reading and then dived into Lorrie Moore’s A gate at the Stairs, loved it too – although it left me feeling a bit down-hearted.

I read Colm Toibin’s, Brooklyn, which was brilliant. He is one of my favourite writers, he makes me think and feel deeply through his stories and writings and my own. The essence of what I loved about Brooklyn was the sense of loss and the impossibilty of making choices that fully work. All choices involve loss, sometimes unbearable loss. For a taste of this book, read the first chapter here. And Eben Venter’s interview with Toibin here.

Native Nostalgia by Jacob Dlamini cheered me up. I loved the evocation of Katlehong, and was interested in his argument about nostalgia for a past that is seemingly impossible to be nostalgic about. I’m sure this book will stir up lots of heated debate. My only critique is that for me it read a little too much like a lightly edited-for-popular-consumption-PhD at times. Especially the last chapter. I would have liked more of the evocation of the author’s early life, and less reference to other writers and their theories and arguments.

Then On Mexican Time by Tony Cohan, perfect holiday reading, imagining Mexico while in Nieu Bethesda. Cohan’s book made want to go to Mexico even more than Frida Kahlo did.

I love the thing about holidays where you bring some books to read and then borrow from friends and then have heated discussions over a glass of wine about the book (Native Nostalgia). Or you have dreamy sharings of the bits you liked best (On Mexican Time). Or your friend quickly goes online to order the book you have recommended (Brooklyn). Or you see others rivetted to a book that you have just finished (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).

For more photos of Nieu Bethesda and the Lantern Parade check out my Facebook Album and for a very short, somewhat amateurish video of the Lantern Parade see here

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8 reasons why I recommend Maya Fowler’s “Elephant in the Room”

The Elephant in the Room
1. As a parent of a girl, this novel makes me think I need to learn more about eating disorders and how they come about. Children can so easily become casualties of their parents’ inability to be present and aware.
2. Fowler takes us into the main character’s, Lily’s mind and body, her inner obsessions about food, eating and her body.
“My body screams for the icing, my mind says no, but its starting to quaver. My mouth waters as I beat the icing. It’s thick and glossy, made with real butter. The sweetness caresses my nostrils, and so does the rich bitterness of the cocoa; and then there’s the salty creaminess of the butter. Mind and body are fighting like mad. My body has transformed itself into a champion wrestler for the occasion. My mind is taking a beating.”
Fowler writes with vivid clarity about Lily’s inner torment, and she shows us the repetitive, circular patterns of Lily’s self destructive cocoon.
3. The style and language in this novel impressed me. So did the sense of place and the details that make Kalk Bay, Plumstead and the Karoo Farm come alive for me as a reader. The sound of the sea and wind, the stone walls of the Kalk Bay house and of the farm house in the Karoo. “Its windy and sand gets stuck in my teeth. I thought it would be a good idea to come out here to my lonely hill, but even the sheep are tucking their heads into their woollen armpits.”
4. We have a new, interesting voice in this young novelist. “The Elephant in the Room” is a strong debut novel and I look forward to reading more of her works.
5. The child’s perspective on family secrets, such as the death of Andre, Lily’s uncle and her grandfather and how their deaths came about.
6. The character of Gesiena, reminds me of characters in many South African farm novels, I loved her and was saddened by her life and her fate.
7. In spite of the tragedy/ies at the heart of the novel, Maya has a light touch, she writes with humour at times, deftly and seamlessly weaving in facts about anorexia, bulimia, butterflies and South African politics, so they are part of Lily’s life and engagement with her world and not the writer imposing her research or views on the reader.
8. As a parent, teacher or someone who knows young people you may be able to identify the early stages of anorexia or bulimia. Lily’s Gran and mother both ignore the signs, which seem to be quite obvious to this reader, in spite of how Lily goes to great lengths to hide her tracks and keep her awful secret.

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10 things I loved about Jassy Mackenzie’s My Brother’s Keeper

My Brother's Keeper1. Laki, Nick’s sidekick. His clothes (short sleeved shirt in a garish shade of green, embroidered with orange fish), his earnest demeanour, his loyalty, his yellow Renault…
2. The mystery surrounding Laki’s sexual orientation
3. The coincidences that tie up the plot like a well-laced boot (so to speak)
4. The opening chapter that grabbed me and kept me
5. Nick’s profession – paramedic, an unusual one for a crime fiction, but brilliantly chosen and woven through the book
6. Stronghold Security – and how it is at the heart of this very contemporary South African krimi
7. Joburg (I love the different Joburgs that writers are coming up with) – Jassy’s Joburg is a frightening, seedy, down at heel and glamourous, fast paced, and she zooms us all over Jozi from Newtown to Midrand, Yeoville to the Joburg Gen, suburban Northcliff to OR Tambo, Nandos in Germiston and the trip to Louis Trichardt in the dark at top speed.
8. Nick’s buzzy, manic energy that will drive him up to Louis Trichardt in the middle of the night on a hunch
9. Nick’s awful brother (didn’t love him, but he certainly kept up the stress levels as the story unfolded)
10. Cellphones on, off, broken, keep the plot moving in clever ways

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