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QUICK REVIEW: Things A Little Bird Told Me: Confessions Of A Creative Mind

Things a little bird

Things a little birdThings A Little Bird Told Me: Confessions Of A Creative Mind

Biz Stone

Macmillan

ISBN-13: 9781478927754

REVIEW BY: Mvelase Peppetta

One can’t deny that “Things A Little Bird Told Me,” is a fascinating read. How can one not be curious about the back-story of how an idea to send out 140 character-long messages turned into a global and cultural behemoth that’s been lauded with everything from toppling decades old dictatorships (whether correctly or incorrectly), to filling our days with the inanities of what our “friends” are doing. Oh, and of course becoming a company worth billions on the side.

Of less interest to me were Stone’s trite business lessons for would-be entrepreneurs – or “confessions of a creative mind” as he’s termed them – gleaned from his unique set of circumstances. While there is certainly a market for this, I’m not it. The relative scarcity of these lessons, however, did not ultimately detract from my overall enjoyment of his story.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in October 2014.

REVIEW: The Children Act

children act (2)

children act

The Children Act

Ian McEwan

Jonathan Cope

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

Fifteen novels later and McEwan’s attention, precision and art remain unflagging. Again – yet again – he has produced a novel of blinding intensity and meticulous detail.

In The Children Act, he presents the story of Fiona Maye, a respected high court judge in the family court. Her life’s work is to deal with the messes left in the wake of love, and preside over matters of deeply divisive moral and religious matters. To these she brings her exceptional knowledge of the law, her ambition, her intuition and an unfailing humanity and patience, without lapsing into the territory of debilitating despair that can accompany such work.

One of the cases she must judge on is whether a set of Siamese twins are to be separated, an operation which will instantly kill one. If the operation is not to go ahead, the other will wither and die a slow painful death as he feeds all his strength and energy to the weaker brother.

As in SaturdayMcEwan brings to life the complexities of certain professions. In Saturday, he presents the inner world of a neurosurgeon; here, it is the delicate, straining work of deciding “what is right”, that is examined. In this, McEwan is a master. He brings to the reader the impossible experience of a vicarious career. The paradoxes, weaknesses, strains and exhilarations of a different career are finely wrought and one is deeply moved by and interested in the dilemmas innate in certain professions.

If it is a usual preoccupation with authors, then I would argue that few others bring the same level of detail and nuance to the matter that McEwan does. However, it is not, in my experience, very usual for authors to busy themselves with the intricacies of a profession at the level of a deep – I almost want to say “spiritual” – engagement with identity. Characters have work (or not), have occupations (or not), but seldom is work examined with such gentleness and interest as a source of meaning.

“Work and love – that’s all there is,” said Sigmund Freud, and McEwan does not neglect the second half of that equation. Fiona has been married to Jack for decades and they love and respect one another deeply. They do not have children, but do have a platoon of nieces and nephews whose company they enjoy.

But – as in many relationships – work brings its weight to bear and after the Siamese twins case, something in Fiona has shifted. The underrated effects of the case have cooled her towards Jack. A marital crisis – which is where the book begins – has been set in motion, threatening not only their love and marriage, but their “respectability”, a notion which Fiona argues to herself remains a factor. She feels herself drawn into the cesspit of her work where people who once loved one another bicker and fight or – in the worst cases – scream at and spite one another, often all the way to the courtrooms. She and Jack are too restrained for such scenes, withdrawing from ugliness when any conversation veers towards “excruciating frankness”.

Then Fiona is presented with a new case: a boy, just months from being considered an adult, is dying of leukaemia. A blood transfusion could save him, but he and his parents refuse the transfusion because they are Jehovah’s Witnesses. The legal and moral problems are set out – interesting in and of themselves – but alongside this, is Fiona’s more personal involvement in the matter after she visits the boy in hospital in order to assess the situation.

The boy opens that profound vein of regret about her childlessness that has pumped beneath the surface of her life.

Deftly, McEwan recreates the inner life of a respectable, good human being, juxtaposing it against the world’s horrors (there is always news on in the background of the story and Fiona’s life) and the dramas of the family court.

McEwan wields language like a fine surgical instrument, never saying too much, never overplaying a moment or a feeling or a scene. Indeed, he is at his best in his shorter novels, laying and overlaying meaning and light in tight prose where every economical word seems to have been extracted from the vocabulary ether for the express purpose of furthering his thought experiments in which the reader becomes intricately involved. Each moment mounts the next with both exactness and smoothness, and together they build a subtle tension. As in many of his books, it takes a while to register a mounting towards disaster so that, when the disaster strikes, you’re left slapping your forehead for not having seen it, while at the same time being deliciously surprised.

Only once in the book does McEwan abandon his usual linguistic restraint, delivering in chapter four a tone change from Fiona’s usual sobriety to disgust. Here, he segues into emphatic, almost hyperbolic language, fuel-injecting verbs to underpin Fiona’s revulsion: “Greedy husbands” and “greedy wives” “manoeuvre” like nations at the end of a war, “grabbing” the spoils. In a rare moment of indulgence, she wishes she could send down all those people “wanting, at the expense of their children, a younger wife, a richer or less boring husband, a different suburb, fresh sex, new love…[m]ere pursuit of pleasure. Moral kitsch.”

The Children Act is a superlative work of literary fiction. – Schimke is the editor of the Cape Times books pages.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in October 2014.

REVIEW: The Violent Gestures of Life

Saudi

Violent gesturesThe Violent Gestures of Life

Tshifhiwa Given Mukwevho

UKZN Press

REVIEW: Dudumalingani Mqombothi

The Violent Gestures of Life is framed around the narrative of a fourteen-year old boy, Gift, who is arrested for allegedly raping his sister. He is sent to a youth reformatory, Qalakabusha (“to start afresh”), for his incarceration because of his age.

This coming of age story show just how terrifying an experience growing up can be, not only because of what one gives out to the world, but because of what the world gives back. Young people have to navigate many things and at times with naivety and the author manages to disassemble and assemble the mind of a troubled teenager.

At times, the writing is raw, at others sophisticated, and this is not terrible at all. Perhaps what helps the author navigate the narrative is that it is semi-biographical, since he too has a fascinating life story teeming with defeat, incarceration and triumphs, themes that are also explored in the book. Though I came to learn of this after I had finished reading the novel, it all made sense. The author is writing from within, purging demons and infusing them with prose.

In the second half of the book, how the author assembles and disassembles the protagonist and other characters is more cautious and this is less attractive. For example, some characters have an inexplicable change in personality, not justified within the text.

This caution, inking a narrative that tears itself away from being completely insufferable towards one that redeems itself, hinders the narrative.

Gift’s troubles are narrated by himself and they are slowly revealed through the book, at first without remorse or any cognitive insight, but later with maturity. This maturity is the result of what happens at the reform centre and the growing cordiality in his relationship with those closest to him. He comes to see what is wrong with his actions and nurtures new empathy as he begins to think about the feelings of the people in his life.

This book is, amongst other things, a narrative of reform centers that are tasked with rehabilitating young offenders, but end up destroying their souls, discouraging them from having any hope.

One could say that the book would mainly appeal to troubled adolescent children and their parents. It would show the youth where a troublesome life could lead them and suggest ways parents could use or avoid when dealing with their kids. But then that would perhaps be unfairly narrow as the novel carries many universal themes. It deals with the clash between religion and tradition, divorce, adultery, crime, xenophobia and homophobia.

The novel’s few problems stem from its use of language that I found unfamiliar and its narrative, which at times – to propel itself forward – interrupts itself with a dramatic incident when it did not need to.

However, this is a brilliant multifaceted read, and adds Mukwevhoto the list of exciting South African young authors.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in October 2014.

REVIEW: A Man of Good Hope

Map of Africa



Good hopeA Man of Good Hope

Jonny Steinberg

Jonathan Ball Publishers

REVIEW: Bongani Kona

The xenophobic attacks which swept through South Africa in May 2008, leaving scores of foreign immigrants dead and thousands of others stranded in make-shift refugee camps, is the central event around which Jonny Steinberg’s sixth book, A Man of Good Hope, pivots. Part sociological and part ethnographic, the book chronicles the journey a young man from war-torn to Somalia to South Africa at a time when tensions between foreigners and locals are simmering beneath the surface.

In October 2010, when Steinberg was still employed by the Institute for Humanities in Africa at the University of Cape Town and round about the time he started working on A Man of Good Hope, the institute hosted a public dialogue at the Mowbray Town Hall titled ‘To whom does Cape Town belong?’ The event caught the interest of a large cross-section of the public, from high ranking academics, radio DJs to Somali refugees.

As the different speakers took turns to talk about the meaning of their lives in this city, some said they felt a strong sense of belonging and others said they did not. Among the latter group was a Somali shopkeeper. “We [Somalis] don’t belong in Cape Town; we’re victims of Cape Town,” he said, in reference to his own experience of trying to build a life wedged between hostile forces: an antagonistic local community on the one hand and a placid police force on the other.

I mention this because the central question the xenophobic attacks asked is an extension of the one posed at the public dialogue: ‘To whom does South Africa belong?’ Who is deemed not to belong and why? These questions lie at the heart of A Man Good Hope.

The eponymous man of good hope is Asad Abudllahi, a Somalian living in Blikkiesdorp (‘Tin Town’), an abject informal settlement housing located some 30 kilometers away from Cape Town. His story begins in January 1991. The civil war which had ravaged much of the country finally reached the capital Mogadishu that summer and five militia men showed up at his mother’s door step at dawn.

“Three of them came up to the door and knocked very hard. My mother did not want to let them in,” he says, but the men persisted. Eventually they won out against his mother and broke the door down.

“My mother just stood there…she held me to her leg. The first militiaman just stared at her. She stared back. Then the second militiaman pushed the first one out of the way and shot my mother in the chest.”

Asad watched as she collapsed onto the floor, dead. From that moment he became a refugee proper, someone sailing through the world without anchor.

“We walked out of Mogadishu and kept walking,” he says. There was no time to weep. The war had caught up with them and to avoid being swept up by the great tide of violence, Asad had to keep moving. And with such hasty departures, to borrow a phrase from Damon Galgut’s eloquent novel In a Strange Room, “travel isn’t celebration but a kind of mourning.”

Enticed by the promise of a life without constant upheavals,Asad makes his way to South Africa. It’s a treacherous journey which costs thousands of American dollars. Smugglers have to be paid at every turn and the palms of immigration officials have to be greased to ensure safe passage. In the end, Asad manages to cross into South Africa with hardly any money to his name and without the requisite documentation.

“A refugee,” Steinberg writes, “has lost control. Great historical forces have upended him and he no longer has a place in the world. He has become an in-between sort of being, suspended between a past which he belonged somewhere and a future in which he might belong somewhere once more. But for now he is in abeyance; he is swept this way and that, like a flotsam in a tide.”

Asad is precisely that kind of man, swept this way and that by great historical forces. A Man of Good Hope traces his quest for stability in South Africa but it seems he is doomed to suffer. “There was no such place in South Africa…One could run from province to province, from town to town. South African violence would find you.”

Of all Steinberg’s thoroughly researched books, A Man of Good Hope is the most discomfiting to read, primarily because the 2008 xenophobic attacks have somehow become repressed in our collective memory. Through the story of one man’s many loses, Steinberg revisits that chapter, one of the darkest in South Africa’s post-apartheid history, and asks many troubling questions about the nature of our society. – Kona is a Cape Town writer

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in October 2014.
  • The featured Map of Africa pic is by Michael Tompsett

 

REVIEW: The Gonjon Pin and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2014

Gonjonuse

caine_cover_2The Gonjon Pin and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2014

Jacana/New Internationalist

REVIEW: Karina Szczurek

The Caine Prize for African Writing has a reputation of launching literary careers. Previous winners include Helon Habila, NoViolet Bulawayo, and Henrietta Rose-Innes. The Caine Prize collections of stories comprise each year’s shortlisted entries and pieces written during a workshop organised in conjunction with the prize.

By nature an anthology of short stories is a mixed bag. This year’s volume, apart from some excellent exceptions, is not particularly accomplished. Reading most of the contributions one senses amazing talent and potential, but the stories, even two or three of the shortlisted ones, feel unfinished. They intrigue, but do not wow despite varied themes, innovative approaches to form and content, and moments of stylistic beauty. All the elements of great short-story writing are present, but they hardly ever feature together in one piece.

African writing has a certain reputation, on the continent and beyond. Depending on individual tastes, readers either fear or count on stories of socio-political relevance, everyday hardship and disillusionment, the diaspora experience, violence and abuse, the HIV pandemic, neglect or instability. There is a prevalent feeling of ‘things falling apart’. The Gonjon Pin and Other Stories includes all of the above and in that sense does not disappoint.

The shortlisted stories stand out for their originality. In Diane Awerbuck’s Phosphorescence (South Africa), a suicidal young woman bonds with her daring grandmother over the bulldozing of a city landmark. While following the election back home on television, a Zimbabwean family tries to negotiate between a quarrelling couple in Tendai Huchu’s The Intervention (Zimbabwe). Billy Kahora’s protagonist develops an uncanny relationship to a zoo gorilla in The Gorilla’s Apprentice (Kenya). And in the winning entry, My Father’s Head by Okwiri Oduor (Nigeria), a woman tries to conjure up her dead father by drawing him, but his head refuses to fit into her sketches.

The shortlisted story which impressed me the most, however, was Efemia Chela’s Chicken (Ghana/Zambia). A young writer of remarkable assurance, Chela has that rare gift of making you pause again and again to appreciate a striking image or a perfectly balanced sentence while never allowing you to take your mind off the story she is telling. Chicken is about a woman who cuts the ties to her family and tries to survive on her own in the big city by making some tough choices.

Of the twelve workshop stories, the titular The Gonjon Pin by Martin Egblewogbe (Ghana) and The Lifebloom Gift by Abdul Adan (Somalia/Kenya) were a true discovery. Reminiscent of the mad and irresistible story-telling of such authors as the Israeli Etgar Keret or the Welsh Alex Burrett, these surreal tales made me sit up, laugh, shake my head, and marvel at the incredible power of the genre. Egblewogbe has his characters dealing with a man’s functioning genitals hanging on a study wall. Adan creates a world where an unusual man spreads cult love by stimulating people’s moles. It is gems like these that make reading anthologies worthwhile.

  •   This review first appeared in the Cape Times in October 2014.

REVIEW: Reclaiming Afrikan: Queer Perspectives on Sexual And Gender Identities

Afrikan Male Warriors Kissing

Reclaiming-Afrikan_cover_lowReclaiming Afrikan: Queer Perspectives on Sexual And Gender Identities

Zethu Matebeni

Modjaji

REVIEW: Mvelase Peppetta

One thing I hate is people who spell Africa with a “k.” So the title, Reclaiming Afrikan: Queer Perspectives On Sexual And Gender Identities, when I thought it was “African,” made me think this was a book right up my alley.

I was wrong, but not in the ways I expected.

Reclaiming Afrikan is by no means perfect, but its imperfections are not reinforcements of my preconceptions about those who write “Afrikan.”

Curated by University of Cape Town academic Zethu Matebeni, Reclaiming Afrikan is a “collection of art, photography, and critical essays interrogating the meanings and practices of queer life in Africa today.” As a collection of thoughts by activists and artists from across the continent, this collection is a fascinating and reaffirming look into the experiences of Africans who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or intersex (LGBTQI).

It is fascinating because mainstream pop cultural representations of LGBTQI Africans primarily cast us as victims. While this collection correctly highlights this reality, it does so while also expressing that some LGBTQI Africans are happy, fulfilled people who have carved themselves lives that are relatively free of homophobia.

For those of us who so rarely see ourselves represented in this way, it makes it a reaffirming read.

In many of the works collected in Reclaiming Afrikan you find fascinating tales, fictional and true, of LGBTQI Africans being the main characters in their lives. These are individuals whose identities are not primarily defined by the fact that they live in nations that are some of the most antagonistic to their rights and personhood. While these are people fully cognisant of this, and the horrors others in the LGBTQI community live, it doesn’t stop them from celebrating and enjoying who they are.

The multiple ways in which those of us who would be deemed “Un-African” by many of our leaders are celebrated in this collection makes this a worthy collection.

There are a few points at which one may feel let down by editorial choices. One such instance is the decision for an obscure cover image considering the amount of striking photo-work featured in the collection.

Yet, overall, one cannot fault the curation done by Matebeni. From the choice to include a graphic novel by Zambian artist Milumbe Haimbe, to the experimental free-form essay by Neo Musagani, there is a wealth of subject matter to stimulate readers.

But this collection did disappoint in one fundamental way.

Thanks to pop stars like Taylor Swift or Emma Watson assertively taking on the identity,”Feminist” – with a capital “F” – has found itself moving from academia into mainstream culture.

The increasingly global rejection of homophobia signals an acceptance of some of what constitutes LGBTQI culture, but queer theory is still not where Feminism is. Queer theory is a diverse field of studies and thoughts which attempt to explore and explain the LGBTQI experience.

Despite its many positives for women, Feminism remained a largely rejected concept. In Feminist circles there is still debate on whether having Beyoncé stand on an MTV stage calling herself a Feminist is negative or positive. Even so, in those circles most will agree that if, because of acts by Beyoncé, Watson, or Swift, more women are willing delve deeper into feminism, rather than reject it, it is a positive overall.

In Reclaiming Afrikan, I initially thought I would find the first steps in having a queer theory equivalent of Beyoncé standing on a stage silhouetted by Feminism, but this isn’t that book.

Presented as a coffee table book – even though it is a soft cover – I expected that this would be a collection of queer theory put forward in a simple, easy to understand format. Unfortunately, what I found was a collection of dense, academic texts. Perhaps my excitement blinded me to this. This collection goes so far as to have academic style referencing for even the foreword. In no way am I saying this isn’t an interesting collection, but how it is visually presented and the content’s format do not match.

If you are the kind of person who would go through the latest edition of an academic journal on queer theory you would enjoy having this collection on your coffee table. If, as interested in the subject matter as you may be, like the majority of the world you have never tackled a social sciences academic text, let this collection pass by.

One need only Google “Is Beyoncé feminist” to realise that the simplification of an academic thought culture raises difficult questions.

Yet that Feminism is being discussed at all is also comforting.

As a queer African I really wanted Reclaiming Afrikan to be our Beyoncé moment. It comes tantalisingly close to being it, but we’re not quite there yet. – Peppetta is a writer and media expert and tweets under the handle @MvelaseP.

  •  This review first appeared in the Cape Times in October 2014.