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REVIEW: A renegade called Simphiwe

Simphiwe+Dana+5

What We Don’t Know We Know

pumla-gqola-renegade_called_simphiwe_covA Renegade Called Simphiwe

Pumla Dineo Gqola

MF Books

REVIEW: Genna Gardini

In 2005, author and now-publisher Melinda Ferguson wrote the memoir Smacked, which was met with such success that publishing house Jacana offered her an imprint of her own. With MF Books Joburg, Ferguson has, so far, commissioned titles almost all by and about South Africa women. In 2013, she added a new book to the stable, WITS associate professor of African literary and gender studies Pumla Dineo Gqola’s A Renegade Called Simphiwe. Here, Gqola, who describes the book as her “dream project”, considers and interrogates what singer Simphiwe Dana means as a cultural figure in contemporary South Africa.

Despite being defined by Jacana’s website as “part biography, part analysis”, the book is, by Gqola’s own admission, not a biography. Instead of following a linear narrative through Dana’s life, Gqola has written eight essays using the idea of Dana as starting point, unpicking and unpacking what it might mean to be a young black woman artist living and making work in South Africa today. As the writer puts it, biographies “are not the only way to make sense” of a person’s life.

And it is questions around the wider significance of Dana’s life, or many different lives, which form the spine of the book. The divisions between her public profiles (as a musician, writer, and social and political commentator) and the public’s reaction to them and her much discussed private life, are of interest to Gqola. They also became of interest to me – on more than one occasion, while reading the book I was approached by someone who wanted to know if it “told the truth” about Dana.

When asked what that might mean, the explanation always ended with a line about how the singer’s (sometimes alleged, sometimes confirmed) romantic entanglements seemed to be in contrast with opinions she’d voiced or aligned herself with.

Thinking about these reactions, I decided that this desire to find out the “truth” about Dana had something to do with what Gqola explains as feeling both drawn to and dismissive of the singer’s contradictions, of being both envious and dismissive of her ability to move (or transgress, depending on how you look at it) between spaces.  Poet Adrienne Rich once wrote that in poems we put “what you don’t know you know.” In this book, Gqola speaks to the significance of Dana as an artist who may not have personally grown into the wisdom clear in her work. She also addresses how people’s reaction to Dana also illuminates something about South Africa today: “…her profundity is not only in her prophetic vision. There is much freedom for our individual selves if we allow ourselves some of the permissions she wrestles with.”

According to the writer, Dana’s first album, Zandisile, “appealed to listeners who may not ordinarily dance together.” For Gqola, the singer has a resonance, no pun intended, which transcends genres and spaces in that she seems to dissolve restrictions. How others react to Dana’s pushing of boundaries is sometimes supportive, sometimes questioning, sometimes abusive.  “One minute South Africa worships at her throne. The next minute we are trying to rein her in. This says something about her,” writes Gqola.

In 2012, Dana was reported to be involved with a married man. The singer, who had tweeted previously about her belief in heterosexual monogamy, was widely lambasted, by both the press and in social media, for having double standards. Gqola, in turn, considers the double standard of Dana’s detractors, with Dana slutshamed for having an affair with a married man who received very little of the same treatment.

The book’s title has been considered controversial, with some asking why Gqola would define Dana as a renegade. The author, however, answers the question fairly clearly in the first few pages of the preface: “The book is called A Renegade Called Simphiwe because Simphiwe widens many people’s senses of what is appropriate and imaginable. She is a rebel even within defiant spaces.”

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word refers to “a person who deserts and betrays an organisation, country, or set of principles.” But perhaps it is worth remembering that that dictionary later also defines a renegade as someone who “behaves in a rebelliously unconventional manner.” This seems fairly in line with Gqola’s consideration of Dana.

The clarity of Gqola’s writing is astounding, her thinking sturdy and easy to follow as a bridge through the spaces she describes Dana moving to and from. As I write this, I find myself reading a recent tweet by Dana which almost seems to allude to that journey: “We have travelled so long with our heads to the ground we have forgotten the beauty of our path.” – Genna Gardini is a poet and playwright reading towards her MA in Playwriting at UCT.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in October 2013

 

Identity’s spiral

identity

Public holidays have very little meaning for me beyond the arrangements they require, so I can’t claim to have spent Heritage Day pondering my heritage.

Yet, in September, I thought a great deal about identity and, since identity is made up partly of that which we inherit – genetically, culturally and politically – I can’t really say that Heritage month made no claim on my consciousness at all.

Spiral-lIf you think of identity as a spiral – with the outer coils relating to large “facts” and the inner point constantly coiling towards the minutiae of self-realisation, then I can roughly say my identity is this: I am South African, a woman, white, straight, middle-class (in that I am neither rich nor poor) and educated. Then there are the bits of identity I have accumulated through context of my birth and adulthood here and now – and through maturity – which inform my own understanding of myself and the world. I am a humanist, an atheist, a feminist. Then there are the facts of my life: the work I do, that I am a mother, that I speak and read in more than one language, that I like exercising, and music and books…and so on ad infinitum.

I like the “ad infinitum” part – I love the details of the project of living my life as well as I can, according to my ever-evolving idea of “well”.

While the minutiae are my particular life are not interesting to anyone but me, I cannot imagine a single person’s life in which personal and social identity does not have meaning to them, or is not worth thinking about.

So it has been interesting to be given, through my reading, a chance to re-examine the outer edges of the coil; to step back and see the whole of me in my context.

I did not seek the books I read this month in order to think about identity. They came to me, as books do, randomly. And they stretched the inner point of that coil a little further, as books always do.

The first was a novel by an Israeli writer called David Grossman. It sucked me in, tumbled me about and spat me out, so that when it was finished I put it down beside me, curled up and lay there for half an hour, stunned, spent, desolate, inspired and inexplicably hopeful.

The book is called To The End Of The Land.

I will not make this a review. I will not diminish the complexity and rewards of the book by revealing the details with which the story rewards the reader. I am deeply grateful that I took this book on recommendation without reading anything that had been written about it before, because it would have robbed the story of its power.

But I will say this: this book affected me in the way I have come to expect to be affected by books from writers in countries with hard, dark histories, where cruelty and beauty sit together like two hunched crows, bickering over the last bits of flesh on the bones of nations.

Countries that are like South Africa.Categories-of-Persons-WEB

Because the book had such a profound effect on me, I could not read a novel immediately so I picked up Categories of Persons – Rethinking Ourselves and Others, a book edited by Megan Jones and Jacob Dlamini. I was expecting dour, academic pontifications on national identity.

What I found was one of the most engaging collection of essays I have ever read, anywhere.

If you have any interest at all in who you are, who “we” are, how we find ways to be South African together, buy this book. Every essay delights with its humour, or intimacy, or research, or slant-wise approach at the question each of us asks at some point or another: who am I? – Karin Schimke is an independent writer, a columnist and a poet.

  •  This column first appeared in the Cape Times in October 2013

 

Curing yourself through reading

DSC02114

DSC02114 I am a sucker for simple covers. Old books were good at that: no pictures adorning the cover, a fancy typeface for the title, perhaps with a dash of golden glitz to sparkle against the dour blue, red, brown or black background. No cover shouts, no blurbs. Just the thing – the paper and the words. A good story, a marvel of poems, can be so gaudy inside your head, no accessories are needed.

It’s quite fashionable nowadays to make novelty books like this, a tendency that leans towards the pretentious. Yet still I am drawn to plainness.

So here’s one that’s a dish: fat, but light, grey cover with a darker grey spine, and the title in a no nonsense type in orange: The Novel Cure.

This is what I thought of the inside:

The Novel CureDSC02118

The A – Z of Literary Remedies

Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin

This is the oddest book, which no amount of lucid description can really explain, but let that not put you off.

The authors have, it seems, been “prescribing” books to one another for a variety of ailments for decades. Their combined efforts at “diagnosing” what ails someone and elucidating why a particular novel could aid in their recovery, have resulted in The Novel Cure.

For the problem of “children, pressure to have”, they recommend We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. For racism they suggest, predictably, but accurately, The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. For “cancer, caring for someone with”, they’ve recommended A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.

There are “cures” for physical afflictions like sweating and toothache, and “life” afflictions like road rage and “fatherhood, avoiding it”.

In between are crazy wonderful lists, like “The Ten Best Big Fat Tomes” and “The Ten Best Novels For After A Nightmare”.

With all its bright ideas for what to read and re-read, the book itself is a sure cure for any reading slump. – Karin Schimke

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in September 2013
  • The book has a great website too. Check it out here.

REVIEW: Apocalypse Now Now

apocalypse now now

apocalypse now nowCharlie Human

Apocalypse Now Now

Umuzi

REVIEW: Ruth Browne

Speculative fiction is taking off in South Africa, and Charlie Human’s debut is a shot of adrenaline for the genre. African cyberpunk in the pulp magazine Jungle Jim, Sarah Lotz’s visions of the undead, the volatile mix of urban fantasy, sci-fi and Safa-slang in Laurne Beukes’ Moxyland and Zoo City: all these gather under the umbrella of “speculative” fiction, and our young and agitated democracy is the perfect springboard for the imagination. Whilst being cheerfully eviscerated at his book launch by his ex-supervisor, Beukes, Human said he drew inspiration from the tabloid headlines trussed to streetlight poles across Cape Town. He wanted to tap into the creative spirit behind news stories about Tokoloshes stealing babies, and the result was the lurid Apocalypse Now Now.

My first impression of this novel was that Human had forced a bunch of battered genres into joyless orgy in a back room at the Kimberley Hotel. I’m not the first critic to make the connection between the book and the grungy atmosphere at “Kimbos”, a venue Capetonians love to hate. Apocalypse Now Now is a back-and-forth narrative that hops from Claremont and Rondebosch to Philippi, Epping, Parow and somewhere off the East Coast on a fishing trawler. The anti-hero, Baxter Zevcenko, is a sociopathic schoolyard delinquent who thinks of his classmates as NPCs (a nerd acronym for “non-playing characters”). He runs a neat little start-up business at his high school, selling niche porn to students. As a Westerford alumnus, I can assure all readers that “Westridge” high school is definitely not Westerford. Not at all. The school’s constantly poised to erupt into gang warfare, and guns and hard drugs are always close to hand. At the same time, the hateful yet introspective Zevcenko suffers Boer War-era dreams narrated in italics and gets warm and fuzzy about his girlfriend, Esme, until she’s abducted by the Mountain Killer (krimi angle). Jackson Ronin is Baxter’s foul-mouthed, gun-loving, enraged, irresponsible mentor, who introduces him to Cape Town’s supernatural population of elementals, sprites, zombies and weirder things. Ronin’s a neo-noir hippy samurai with a side-order of Mr Miyagi, tasked with helping Zevcenko find his kidnapped girlfriend.

The one writer this novel really brought to mind was Peter Merrington, author of The Zombie and the Moon, an excellent, kaleidoscopic tale spanning continents, immersed in South African mythologies. Human also incorporates juicy local myths and legends, from Van Hunks (the dude who dealt with the devil, not the hipster bar) to sorcery with chicken blood. The distinctly Human elements include a military installation on Devil’s Peak and zombie strip-clubs that deal in human flesh. However, at times the story takes on a real Artemis Fowl feel. Human was portrayed as dark and adult at his launch, but some grisly Mengelesque scenes of experimentation and the odd zombie orgy aren’t always enough to shake the young adult vibe.

All that taken into consideration, however, the harsh, jocular tone of narration is engagingly informal, and it’s obvious Human had a good time writing this (when Lauren Beukes wasn’t ripping him a new one). Riddled with pop culture, bursting with cynicism and maniacal energy, Apocalypse Now Now is something you should buy and read. Do it.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in Septemeber 2013

REVIEW: The imagined child

imagined child

imagined childThe Imagined Child

Jo-Anne Richards

Picador Africa

Review: Kayang Gagiano

Jo-Anne Richards’ novels have a distinctive narrative pattern to them: readers invariably find themselves introduced to a cagey female protagonist originally hailing from the Eastern Cape. These prickly heroines have fraught, problematic relationships with their lovers or spouses, close female friends and/or children, and a tendency to refuse to open up. They harbour shameful secrets and traumatic pasts (often linked to the politics of the time) which must (we, as clever, more emotionally grounded readers naturally realise) be confronted. And then there’s ‘the big reveal’ towards the end of each book, some long repressed demon or skeleton-in-closet exposed, followed by a contrived, over hasty resolution. Richards’ latest endeavour, The Imagined Child, though less overtly political, gentler in tone and more humorous than some of her previous works, is not very different in this regard.

However, to reduce Richards’ impressive oeuvre to a mere formula would be churlish; she is a fine writer with a particular gift for evoking a sense of place through lyrical prose and astutely-observed descriptions. Whether she is conjuring the rugged beauty of an Eastern Cape farm (as in her bestselling debut, The Innocence of Roast Chicken), the vibrancy of (newly) post apartheid Jozi (in Sad at the Edges), or the insularity of a small Free State dorp (as in this latest novel), Richards’ writing is at its most powerful when sketching vivid, atmospheric backdrops to her angst-heavy human dramas. And somehow, however irritating I find her insecure, sometimes abrasive heroines, their compelling histories do inevitably lure me in.

Jo-Anne Richards

Jo-Anne Richards

The Imagined Child is about the pitfalls of keeping secrets and the burdens of motherhood. Odette is a divorcee in her early forties who writes story outlines for a local soapie. Seeking a fresh start, she has recently relocated from crime-ridden, smog-heavy Jozi to the (fictional) Free State farming hamlet of Nagelaten. (And indeed the name, which translates as “left behind” is no coincidence, we shall discover). After experiencing a big romantic disappointment and surviving a frightening burglary – and perhaps most significantly, having sent her slightly learning impaired daughter off to London to au pair – Odette is ready to embrace bucolic bliss. She has purchased a quaint house on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks (because it has a great river view and a fruit orchard and because she is an enlightened type who fantasizes about befriending her squatter neighbours) and plans to open a coffee shop serving pukka cups of joe.

Describing herself as ‘guarded with her own innards,’ Odette has few friends. Every week she travels to Johannesburg to meet with her therapist (these are painfully frustrating sessions in which she prides herself on disclosing absolutely nothing of emotional value) and to attend meetings with her fellow soap hacks (caricatured secondary characters who offer some amusement, but mostly raised my hackles).

Though Odette yearns for an uncomplicated existence, one senses that she is ambivalent about both her move and her daughter’s life abroad. There is something not quite right about young Mandy; her condition is alluded to in cryptic terms by her defensive mother. As the plot unfolds, we discover that both the town and our protagonist harbour dark, guilty secrets.

Nagelaten is not panning out to be the great escape Odette had envisaged. Its parochial white populace, consisting primarily of conservative Afrikaners trapped in a cultural time warp, tend to frustrate and her attempts at inter-racial friendship largely fall flat, or remain superficial. She develops a more acute sense of the town’s potential menace when she hears of a gruesome farm slaying and is robbed of most of her domestic possessions. Then there are the veiled hints about a salacious scandal involving the local dominee and the mystery surrounding strange young indigent, Wolfie, who slopes around town and whom few will acknowledge. Life is further complicated when she begins a relationship with the murder victim’s widower, Adriaan, an engineer turned farmer who has a more cosmopolitan background than the town’s average inhabitant, but who remains strangely tight lipped about his wife’s untimely demise. When her daughter is implicated in the death of the baby in her charge, Odette’s life is thrown into further turmoil.

The elements of mystery and suspense, which Richards introduces to her tale, first subtly and then more overtly, make for an absorbing read.  Her ‘small town with big secrets theme’ also reminded me to some extent of Michiel Heyns’ award winning Lost Ground. Like Heyns, Richards uses South Africa’s still-brittle cultural, class and race relations to great effect. While the sarcastic Odette, who is more saturated with unacknowledged guilt than a deep sea sponge is with salt water is perhaps not the most likeable of characters, she is fully realised and interesting. Richards’ usual habit of rushing her dénouement did not overly detract from my overall enjoyment of this flawed but intriguing novel. – Gagiano is a freelance writer and reviewer.

  • This review first in the Cape Times in 2013

 

South Africa Crime fiction – the novel’s form as mediation of social conditions?

crimereader

OF-COPS-ROBBERS-MIKE-NICOL-9781415203767-197x300Of Cops and Robbers

Mike Nicol

Umuzi

By Leon de Kock

Mike Nicol’s new thriller, Of Cops and Robbers, got me thinking once again about the relation of ‘crime’ writing in and of South Africa to what one might call the ‘sociopolitical’ zone, that space which has traditionally engaged ‘serious’ writing ever since Olive Schreiner shook off the African exotic in the late nineteenth century and turned towards an approximation of social realism. Nicol’s thriller-novels, including this one, present a curious mix of, on the one hand, informed political – and historical – savvy, such as one would expect from a senior writer-journalist and commentator like this author, and then, on the other, a slew of generic thriller bon mots. These stylized typicalities of the genre – deadpan humour in the face of dead humans, dry witticisms signaling wised-up discernment about universally corrupt dealings – make for good thriller-reading. We should not be too eager to slam an author such as Nicol for doing what the genre demands, and doing it rather well, too.

If, however, one were reading more purposefully for sociopolitical content, and for formal innovation in line with such subject-matter – a tendency which Nicol’s novels invite, despite Nicol disclaiming any serious ‘political’ intent – then one might find these generic elements somewhat limiting. As some academic critics have argued, in Nicol’s case in particular, the generic tics limit the range and scope of representing individual subjectivity, and they foreshorten the novel’s ability to probe social formations beyond formulaic patterns. Rather than re-animate the serious-political-analysis versus the thriller-cliché argument – one which was widely aired following my SLiPnet review of Roger Smith’s novel Dust Devils in 2012 – I’d like here to avoid the starkly divisive terms of that particular debate and ask whether we might find some value in asking a different question, which is this: might the generic constraints of noir (which is essentially what Nicol writes) be seen to be a more rather than a less adequate form in which to capture key elements of a certain kind of politics? Upon reading Nicol’s Of Cops and Robbers, which I found both entertaining and viscerally offputting, both limiting and revelatory (in spite of Nicol’s evident mastery of form and fluidity of style), it struck me that one might read a novel such as this within a Lukacsian lens of novelistic form as a mediation of social conditions. I like to think of this mediating function as fictional adequation.

The question that arose for me was this: might it be true that the stunted emotional range, and the blunted motivational scope, of key characters in Nicol’s novel, serve as a necessary adequation of social conditions within an economy of severe moral cupidity? Two examples of key characters in Of Cops and Robbers are Jacob Mkezi and Dr Gold. Mkezi is a disgraced former police commissioner in the current ruling party who has turned to mafia-style big business (his peons routinely assassinate anyone with evidence against him), and his dealings here include the sale of a cache of rhino horns discovered in Angola. The rhino horns were harvested as part of dirty dealings in the South-African backed Angolan war against Swapo in the 1970s.

Further plot intricacies aside, the novel successfully links corruption within the current plutocracy in Pretoria with similar degeneration in the old Nationalist regime via a curious alliance between the ANC’s Mkezi and Dr Gold, based on the former Nationalist Finance Minister Dr Nico Diederichs, who is widely rumoured to have been implicated in illicit gold-bullion shifting to Zurich. In Of Cops and Robbers, a member of parliament with information about Dr Gold’s secret dealings is assassinated on the East Rand, along with his wife. This incident is based on the murders of Dr Robert Smit and his wife, Jean-Cora, also in the 1970s. The novelistic circumstances are quite deliberately set up as a parallel with the actual events of Smit and his wife’s murder.

The double-agent role of Mkezi, who profits from both the Nationalist and the ANC power bases, is not so much a direct parallel with actual events as a distillation of many cases in which such double-dealing can be shown to have occurred. Nicol’s novel also makes it plain that corrupt political dealings are a common theme in both the Nationalist and the ANC regimes.

The complex historical details here excavated, and their trails, which the reader can trace both backwards and forwards in political time and space, are adroitly handled. They make the novel interesting and readable, especially since Nicol integrates such socio-political coordinates within a cops-and-robbers form, not to put too fine a point on it.

Yes, the book is engaging, a ripping yarn and hard to put down (which is more than one can say for a lot of fiction), but how ‘true’ is it? This is the hard part. Indeed, one might run a postgraduate seminar on the question of ‘truth’ in fiction, the starting point being that ‘truth’ must always be an approximation, a certain adequation of form to content. The process of using certain conventions of form, with an accompanying vocabulary and style, might be seen to partially ‘capture’ or ‘shade in’ some but not all facets of any phenomenon or process. If one accepts this as a working proposition, then one might ask: what kind of particular shading-in does the crime-thriller offer for South African sociopolitical conditions, within a distinctly noir expression of its typical features? Think of Raymond Chandler, or Dashiell Hammett, to mention two classic examples, and the use of a markedly dry kind of savor faire to describe what amounts to the horrifying physical cruelty often evident in ‘casual’ killing. Why the driest of tones, the most deadpan wit imaginable, and a thoroughly offbeat (seemingly nonchalant) literary style, in describing such repugnant human acts? What ‘encoding’ or prior processing of morality, of a moral economy, is moulded into such stylized gestures?

Clearly, one might begin to find the answer in the ‘sophistication’ of the private eye – she or he has seen this too many times before to be too badly shaken. The PI has become hardened to an essentially degenerate urban or political scene, and his ‘noir’ responses encode a healthy skepticism about the possibility of human betterment, or any kind of optimism about social progress. This is the way it is. This is the dark side of modernity. Better to maintain a gruff, savvy, bleak sense of humour about it. The question arises, however, whether there isn’t more to the story than the story is able to tell, given the form?

Swing back to Mike Nicol and South African crime fiction in general, and the immediate observation one might make is that, mostly contra to classical noir, here the crooks are very often in government, or working for government (hence the ambiguity in Nicol’s title, which blurs the distinction between ‘cops’ and ‘robbers’). In South African crime fiction, the usually civil space of noir is significantly enlarged (although the cops in classical noir, also government lackeys, are by no means angels). Might one argue that in South African (and African) crime fiction, the government runs the mafia, rather than the other way around? It is an interesting speculation, despite exceptions to the rule, because it is precisely in such enlargement that overlaps between the generic thriller and the ‘political’ occur in current local crime fiction.

Instead of setting the one up against the other, as the debate so far has tended to do, might one not see the very use of ‘generic’ noir to capture (or annex) the political as a formal innovation, a distinct adequation of form (in a very particular generic expression) to social content? What such an adequation implies, in the baldest of terms, is that the current style of political machination (remember the recent case of Dina Pule?), just like the shady doings of Dr Gold (don’t forget Nat skelms like Dr Diederichs), don’t deserve much more than a noir response; that such human landscape is adequately rendered in a form which need not look too deeply into questions of individual subjectivity or characterological complexity. The moral economy of near-blind cupidity to which such behaviour subscribes is so hollowed out and debased that the hardboiled gesture is the characterisation it positively invites.

Certainly, such a conclusion accounts for the sheer satisfaction I often get when reading some of Nicol’s stories. Yes, this is what it deserves. Yes, that’s the truth of it. Yes, now he’s pinned the bastard down. But that’s just my feeling, both subjective and quasi-objective – based on my own lifetime’s worth of reading a country we call South Africa. And this is where the problem lies when assessing how ‘adequate’ any work of fiction is or might be to the truth – the answer lies not in an external assessment, but in an inner, readerly sense of how close to the mark the writer is, or could be.

Certainly, one can do factually-based comparisons, check the story against the archive, but that will not account for the ‘truth’ of style and form, which is always an approximation, a variable gauge.

This is why writers need lots of readers, lots of reviews, lots of discussion – so that a critical mass of reception might eventually indicate a kind of consensus, the way great works are known to be great by the force of continued attention. If writers like Nicol can continue to gauge the temperature of the social while also entertaining their readers, then it might be a good idea to keep reading them.

  • Leon de Kock is professor of English at Stellenbosch University.

COLUMN: The elastic essay

essays thumbnail

By Karin Schimke

No doubt, the first time you heard the word “essay” it was at school and, to varying degrees of discomfort, it was a part of the arsenal required for you to pass high school.

Learning a word at school often augurs badly for the concept it shorthands. Although I didn’t have a horror of writing essays – my fears were confined to things mathematical – I didn’t realise until very late in life, that essays are deeply satisfying way to spend reading time, on top of being an amusing way to learn new ways of looking. For the essay – though many things – has very special powers of observation, afforded it by its elastic form, and its tolerance of both heart and head in its discursions.

An essay is nothing at all like the things you had to do at school. And if you haven’t read Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Katha Pollitt, George Orwell, Christopher Hichens, David Sedaris, Siri Hustvedt, David Wallace Foster, Joan Didion and Dave Eggers, then you won’t know just how different the two types of “essay” are.sarah-bakewell

Oh, and Montaigne, of course. Michel de Montaigne, the father of the essay. Not, I admit, that I have read Montaigne’s essays, but I am currently reading a book by Sarah Bakewell called How To Live. It is a biography of Montaigne, but approached by looking at the questions he asked and the answers he explored.

“Explored” – not “found”. Because an essay exists to discover, not to decree. Bakewell says Montaigne’s essays “have no great meaning, no point to make, no argument to advance. It does not have designs on you: you can do as you please with it.” Though some might find this too inconclusive, too fuzzy, his essays were a bestseller in his time and continue to be read 400 years later.

Michel de Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne

Montaigne is considered the father of the essay because that’s what he called his work – a kind of writing that had not been seen before. The word “essay” means “to try”. He was trying a new kind of writing – and the writing was trying to find answers.

He and the talented, amusing, engaging writers I mentioned above, are able to move from the particular to the universal, and from the personal to the political, with fluidity and panache. They are able to “look at the world through the keyhole of anecdote and description”, as one observer put it. What I like is how they hook into the world from a purely personal point of view, but manage – mostly – to avoid solipsism. They are a part of the world, but engage a third eye, a way of linking the self to the political, social and historical Zeitgeist. They make no pretense of it either – they do not try to hide behind a mask of objectivity. They often place themselves centrally and, from there, wander questioningly over much wider ground.

I like that essays are often inconclusive, ambivalent and tentative. They steer away from the absolutism that pervades public discourse. They give body to the poet Walt Whitman’s words: “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes)”.

The paeditrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott said that tolerating ambivalence was a sign of emotional maturity. Essays require the reader to get comfortable with ambivalence.

In return they inform through close observation, and close observation very often has the effect of exposing the humour or absurdity in things. Essays do not alienate by doling out wisdom from lofty positions, but engage the reader in observing peculiarity, particularity and in, ultimately, discovering personal meaning.

Essays show us “how to live”: inquisitively, questioningly – and tolerant of life’s infinite shades of being. – Schimke is a poet, a journalist and a the editor of the Cape Times books pages.

  • This column first appeared in the Cape Times in June 2013
  • Schimke is an independent writer, a poet and the editor of the Cape Times books pages.

REVIEW: The Quarry

The Quarry

The quarry1The Quarry

Iain Banks

Little Brown

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

Guy and his son Kit live in a ramshackle old house on the edge of a quarry.

This simple statement stretches to incorporate a universal truth with “ramshackle old house” standing in for “the body”, and “on the edge of a quarry” being a metaphor for the brief moment of consciousness wedged between our birth and our death.

Banks, however – at least when writing as Iain Banks and not the science-fiction writer Iain M. Banks – does his trade in big ideas not in the market place of vague concepts, but in the smallish inner rooms of domesticity and relationships. And so he narrows the action of The Quarry down to one setting, one weekend and one group of friends reunited, probably for the last time before Guy, who has cancer, dies.

For older readers this outline might recall memories of two movies: The Big Chill (made in the eighties) and Peter’s Friends, starring Stephen Fry, made in the UK in the nineties. Both were about a group of old friends coming together for a weekend in a big house.

The location and proximity between the characters at once highlight a shared history, a comfortable rapport and comradeship between the friends, while also showing how time has isolated them, has shoved each on to his or her own life trajectory, away from youthful hopefulness and a sense of belonging, towards the more solitary pursuit of making a life.

In each of those, as in The Quarry, death is the magnet that draws old friends together again. In The Quarry, death’s imminence lives fully and rudely on every page. This is partly thanks to Guy who rages – sometimes theatrically, but never pointlessly – against the premature dying of his own light, and partly because Kit seems to have Asperger Syndrome and doesn’t “do” euphemism.

“How’s Guy?” asks one of the friends who arrives for the weekend.

“Oh, still dying,” I tell her.

“Jeez, Kit” she mutters.

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Iain Banks, who died earlier this year.

Fans of Banks – and there are, for good reason, many of those – will know that this prolific writer died of cancer earlier this year. It is startling almost to the point of incomprehension that most of The Quarry was written before he was diagnosed with cancer of the gall bladder. In a sharp reminder of how comfortable Banks was with gallows humour – displayed in abundance in his last novel – he said in an interview before he died that it was typical of him to leave his research too late.

He did not have cancer while he was writing this book, and yet he captures its outrages and indignities, the laments it engenders, the rage it elicits, breathtakingly. Guy is a cantankerous old git, made so not by terminal illness, but by inborn arrogance and defiance. His character is a wonderful carrier for conveying the affront that cancer is.

Kit, his son and the book’s narrator, is eighteen, horny, odd, and a world master of a computer game.  The detailed descriptions of this parallel universe complement, contrast and accentuate – even satirise – the “real” world.

To Kit falls the unpleasant and thankless task of nursing his father, coaxing him to take his tablets, wiping his bottom, feeding him, all the while being abused and shouted at by his father.

The friends who come for the weekend are recognisable, even stereotypical: the stoner, the carer, the self-serving lawyer with political ambitions, the lovely but tiresomely zealous journalist and the ambitious couple. The supposed purpose of the weekend is to find one of the movies the group made together in their wild, spaced-out student days. The elusive tape gains monstrous proportions in their minds, but meanwhile, they are doing the sort of things old friends do: they carp and tussle, argue about politics, drink too much and go on a pointless expedition – decidedly more difficult with a dying man in tow.

Banks is exceptional at gathering odd characters together and making them talk. His dialogues – all the way through from The Crow Road, to Dead Air, to The Steep Approach to Garbadale, to Stonemouth – are bitty, bitchy and bolshie, often leaving the reader dizzy with amazement and amusement at the casually profound insights that come streaming in between the funny nonsense.

In The Quarry, there is much of that. I hesitate to say this about a writer I admire for precisely this, but almost too much. There are times when you want to walk out of the kitchen or the living room where they are all sitting, gabbling at one another along what are clearly well-established paths of thought for each of them, instead of engaging authentically in proper conversation.

Yet, this slight irritation contributes powerfully to the sense of closeness and claustrophobia already activated by the single-setting location, and also provides an antidote to the strong reminders of life’s brevity, of the pull of nihilism so amply underscored by the fact that the weekend’s action takes place on the rim of a quarry which soon will expand to suck in the house and all that it means to those who have lived there.

Banks has succeeded, sadly for the final time, in providing a close look at family and friends, at the comforts of atheism and pragmatism, at the big questions of morals and meaning and making-do in an imperfect, infuriating world.

REVIEW: Americanah

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americanahAmericanah

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Fourth Estate

REVIEW: Bongani Kona

At several points during my reading of Chimamanda Adichie’s third novel, Americanah, which centers on the life of a Nigerian woman living in America, I found myself thinking about my own journey from Harare to Cape Town. So finely rendered is the black migrant experience in Americanah that it washed ashore a tide of memories I had long forgotten: the nervous wait at the visa office, the gradual estrangement from friends and family ‘back home’, the difficulty of establishing roots in a foreign land.

Even if the crossing of borders has become a feature of modern life that most of us, at one time or another, by fate or by design, have to endure, such departures – tinged as they are with loss – are always a kind of mourning. Like most immigrants, the memory of where I come from – regardless of the passage of time and maybe because of it – is never far from my mind. And perhaps this is what it means to live in diaspora: it is to live with the memory of loss – a place, a community – of something that is no longer there.

Ifemelu, the headstrong heroine of Americanah, moves to the United States after a series of protracted strikes halt her studies in Nigeria. The novel opens with her sitting in a hair salon in Trenton, New Jersey, and moves back in time through a series of flashbacks chronicling her 13-year sojourn in the U.S. and her earlier life in Nigeria. She has, at this point, given up her fellowship at Princeton and shut down her popular satirical blog, Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those formerly known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black, in order to rekindle her lost love affair with Obinze in Lagos.

The thoughtful and scholarly Obinze is the novel’s other main protagonist. Americanah also charts his journey from Lagos to London and back again. While Ifemelu after a desperate start to stay afloat manages to build some semblance of a successful life, Obinze has no such luck. He is plunged into the dark underworld of undocumented migrants and has to make do with menial jobs and the constant threat of deportation hovering over his head. It’s a life of unremitting misery and he finds solace only in visiting book shops.

To show the drudgery of his existence: at some point he gets a job cleaning toilets and one day he gets to work only to find a mound of faeces on the floor. Instead of cleaning it up, he removes his gloves and disappears into the London streets. At a later juncture he finds work with a delivery company using someone else’s national security number but he has to handover hefty percentage of his salary every month. Eventually, and the outcome is almost inevitable, Obinze is deported. However, homecoming is good to Obinze. Not long after his return, albeit through underhanded dealings, he becomes a real-estate mogul and marries a former beauty queen.

chimamanda-adichieAmericanah is at heart an epic 500-page love story spanning three continents yet it more than that. To paraphrase Ifemelu, a novel doesn’t have to be about only one thing. Adichie’s previous novels, the Orange Prize-winning Half a Yellow Sun, and Purple Hibiscus found their lifeblood by delving into Nigerian history. This is her best work to date, and both old and new readers of her fiction will marvel at her writing. She might still be in her mid-thirties and yet she can be counted as one of the leading writers of our time. Americanah is hotwired by some of the urgent issues of our time, namely immigration, race – and the politics of black women’s hair.

“You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country” an African-American writer says to Ifemelu halfway in the novel. “If you write about how people are really affected by race, it’ll be too obvious.”

Yet both Ifemelu (writing her blog) and Adichie are undaunted by this advice. Ifemelu starts blogging in response to her growing awareness of race and how it plays out in American life. “I did not think of myself as black” she writes, “I only became black when I came to America”. It’s an acknowledgement that identity is not only a matter of how we see and label ourselves but also a matter of how we are seen by others.

Elsewhere she also writes: “Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or Ghanaian. America doesn’t care. So what if you weren’t “black” in your own country? You’re in America now.”

It took Adichie five years to write Americanah and she joked during a radio interview that she spent four-and-a-half of those years watching YouTube videos of how to style her hair without using chemicals. It’s not coincidental that Americanah opens with Ifemelu get her hair braided.

It may be a minor act but it’s an act of reclaiming oneself and that, I believe, is the lesson here. – Kona is a freelance writer and he works in advertising.

 

COLUMN: Finishing your book

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By Karin Schimke

It has been a month of starts and no finishes.

The most enthusiastic start, with the sharpest finish, was with the current German bestseller, a satire that imagines the illogical return of Hitler – arising fully intact from a spot on a field in the middle of Berlin, as though waking after a brief nap in his uniform – in new century.

er-ist-wieder-da-T-KHKKLxThe book, called Er Ist Wieder Da, by Timur Vermes, daringly pokes fun at a great many things – most notably and hilariously the current media culture – and its dry delivery induced long-lasting fits of laughter.

But then, suddenly, I’d had enough and stopped reading it.

I also started and then stopped Julian Barnes’ latest novel Levels of Life. It’s not the first time I’ve given up on Barnes either, though there are books of his I read easily and happily to the end.

I hope my father never reads this column. He’d be mortified. Giving up on a book is, in his opinion, an act of sacrilege, not unrelated, perhaps, to his position that one eats every morsel on your plate. He was a little boy during WW2 – he knew what it was like to feel hungry. Later, perhaps in response to the cruelties and privations of childhood in a post-war society, he became a voracious reader of adventure stories, usually featuring brave boys or intrepid young men.

An unfinished book, like an unfinished plate of food, is, I think, a sign to him of both ingratitude and unconscionable waste.

I might offer the sweetener – were I to get into a conversation with him about this – that life’s too short to waste time on bad books. Yet I don’t only give up on bad books. Neither of the two mentioned above are sloppy, thoughtless books.

The reason I don’t give up on bad books because I seldom start bad books. This is a skill most avid readers develop eventually: the ability to find a friend or colleague whose opinion you value, a reviewer you trust, a handful of authors you can rely on, so that you no longer have to wade through the waist-high piles of rubbish that are on offer to find that which floats your particular literary boat.

In an essay entitled “On reading and books” – which, by the way, is utterly worth reading beginning to end, if only to remind yourself of the provoking one-sided parley you enter with a dead philosopher when you read his or her work – the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer says that “in order to read what is good one must make it a condition never to read what is bad; for life is short, and both time and strength limited”.

While his quaint views on women are unfortunate, I do agree with the old chauvinist on the matter of how I would like to spend my reading time.

Yet, there are many people like my father who will hack and chop their way through a literary unpleasantness come hell or high water in order to come out the other end being able merely to say “I finished it”. I think they are misguided: giving up on bad books is not just “not terrible” it is almost a duty to yourself.

But it still doesn’t explain why I’d give up on books I could very well expect to be good. And I do. I frequently give up on books I am enjoying very much.

This is the point in a piece of writing where the writer would reveal some deep insight. In this case, where I’d be able to offer a perfectly reasonable explanation for my treason. But I can’t.

I can only offer, instead, that I am reading Sons and Lovers (DH Lawrence) for the second time, and if I was reading right now instead of writing, I’d have finished it this morning. – Schimke is an author, poet and independent journalist, and the editor of the Cape Times books pages.

  • This column first in the Cape Times in August 2013