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REVIEW: The Alibi Club

the alibi club

the alibi clubThe Alibi Club

Jaco van Schalkwyk

Umuzi

REVIEW: Lwandile Fikeni

The first chapter of Jaco van Schalkwyk’s debut novel is fraught with anxiety. Countless faceless, nameless people are desperate to enter into the United States. People here have no names: only designations. You have Visas and Citizens. Our narrator and protagonist is number A98108755 – a Visa making its way through Customs and Immigration.

“I carry documents certifying I am free of hepatitis A and B, influenza, polio, tetanus, rubella, measles and rotavirus. I am able to prove that I am a good number with sufficient funds, that knows the address to my final destination,” the narrator tells us. The last bit, of course, is a contradiction, which reveals itself as the book unfolds. In the book, this “final destination” is as elusive as the reasons our protagonist is so desperate to get into America.

The story opens in 1998 and catalogues the narrator’s ups and downs in vivid, sharp prose reminiscent of gonzo journalism. One can sense an acute sense of self-disgust in the tone of the book. It begins to feel as though the language and style is used as a tool with which to try speak of the psychological trauma of having grown up in the conservative silence of white apartheid South Africa and the white post-apartheid fear of the unknown. The novel is hinged on a character who has left a new constitutional democracy led by a government of what he must have been taught to believe to be terrorists, to the crafting of a new American identity in post 9/11 that was founded, quite overtly, on the imagining and cultural production of “the terrorist” as a Muslim body, and how that affected the American psyche.

In one of the most superb understatements in the book, the 17-year old protagonist, who has just left South Africa exclaims, “I feel anonymous and free,” upon setting foot on American soil. Soon, he’ll find himself at The Alibi – a seedy bar in Brooklyn where he finds work cleaning toilets and mopping vomit off the mottled floors before graduating to become a barman of a mangled bar. In short, staccato sentences that sting, the narrator catalogues the drunks and the drug dealers and the drugs; the racists and the whores and the warmongers – every moiling muppet who finds himself along DeKalb Avenue in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, New York.

This is the Fort Greene soon-to-be gentrified, a place that is miffed by the looming presence of bull-horned hipsters. This Fort Greene is still rowdy and unpredictable. Our narrator survives the violence and the drabness of his new home by drowning in drink. We are never told about the narrator’s past in Cape Town, South Africa. We are never allowed even a glimpse into the nature and reason for his despair and detachment from his home country. Perhaps here the author aimed to navigate away from the niggling bits of contemporary South African history and its racial politics.

It is through the unsaid that one might say The Alibi Club represents a liminal space for our narrator. Between 1998 and 2007 his life dangles aimlessly on crumbling American ground and the birth of a dangerous Americanism built of war on terror and a fickle urbanism built on the faux-culture of hipsterism. During this time of transition, of waiting, and of not knowing what to do next or what will happen next, he finds refuge in the smoky haze of an ‘old time bar’ – The Alibi Club – where he meets the characters that give the novel such sharp luminosity.

It is these skeptical, cynical characters – desperate and dejected by the changes in their environment and with America at large – and the author’s tight-fisted language that lends the novel its pungent stench. Take for instance:

“Everybody has an Amy. Amy has a Hotmail account. Amy is crazy. Amy makes me crazy. Amy eats uppers out of plastic wrappers. I’m mad about Amy. I think we’re mad about each other. Amy wants me deep inside her. She has her reasons.”

Or:

“Tommy is a boss while Owen is gone. His hands get sick. Boils from inside his palms. He can’t paint. His skin breaks out in a rash up to his elbows. He says it’s from washing dishes.”

Or:

“Before Jean-Baptiste disappeared entirely, he owned an Alfa Romeo. Nobody owns an Alfa Romeo in Brooklyn. His was a red 1974 Spider Veloce. When it didn’t look like rain, JB drove around the neighbourhood in his Spider. The Spider moved into the raw space on Waverly Street, between Myrtle and Willoughby, before he did. Later, above the garage, he fashioned a room with a bed and a glass coffee table on which he could do more cocaine.”

The book follows this logic and economy until the very end. It is filled with countless characters that enliven its every page. However, they never quite give you any depth or any real insight into their lives and motivations and despair. As one reads further, the characters begin to feel more like caricatures and the novel begins to feel like an assemblage of images than a construction of meanings. Perhaps, this owes to the author’s background as a visual artist or perhaps, it was an artistic choice in the composition of the novel itself.

Stylistically, the novel is great and the narrative voice is captivating. It is unfortunate that we never get to know why our narrator left South Africa in 1998. It would’ve been ideal to learn the source of the character’s desperation to get into America during that transitional era of his home country. One only gets a sense of skeletons lurking in the shadows. Every sap and sod who finds themselves at The Alibi seems to drag a few of these skeletons to dissolve them in a drink or two, or more, while something sinister encroaches on the bar and DeKalb Avenue’s way of life.

In conclusion, perhaps, one could say that the book is about an imagined community among strangers. More precisely, The Alibi Club is a support group of people who leaned against each other for support during a tumultuous time in the history of America and the world.

 

REVIEW: Books That Matter: David Philip Publishers during the apartheid years

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41BVsmOHteLBooks That Matter: David Philip Publishers during the apartheid years

Marie Philip

David Philip Publishers,

REVIEW: Karina M. Szczurek

As I see it, in publishing there is a significant difference between accidental and nurtured bestsellers. Nowadays, the market is dominated by the former. But every now and then you get a publisher who will understand the value of the latter.

Reading Marie Philip’s memoir about the famous publishing house she and her husband established in South Africa during the dark years of apartheid, I was reminded of how precious such an approach is in the book world. It is even more precious and definitely rarer when it is combined with a moral and social conscience which Marie and David Philip and their team exemplified.

It is difficult to imagine the South African literary scene without David Philip Publishers (DPP). Over the years, they have launched or assisted the careers of such writers as Richard Rive, Nadine Gordimer, Mandla Langa, Stephen Watson, Alan Paton, Sindiwe Magona, Ivan Vladislavić and Lyndall Gordon. The list of their titles, which Marie Philip includes at the end of her incisive book, is astounding, to say the least. Just to give you a sample, among their seminal publications are: Don Foster’s Detention and Torture in South Africa, Mamphela Ramphele’s A Bed Called Home, Michael Fraser’s A Fynbos Year, The Essential Evita Bezuidenhout, Ellen Kuzwayo’s Sit Down and Listen, and Being Here: Modern Short Stories from Southern Africa (compiled by Robin Malan). Because of their
independence the Philips “had the freedom to take risks and be bold, and even eccentric”, as well as to tune into their “own publishing instincts”. While it was important to survive, money was not their “main concern”. The combination of these factors turned out to be a recipe for great success in all respects.

And it all began with a penguin in the early 1970s. Once they had founded their publishing house and had their logo, Marie Philip wrote the story of a “resourceful penguin” surviving the oil spills of tankers diverted around the Cape because of the closure of the Suez Canal at the time. Published simultaneously in English and Afrikaans, the thin hardback with a dust jacket, Gregory, Jackass Penguin (Gregory, Kaapse Pikkewyn), was a hit in its English edition. It also taught DDP a first valuable lesson about the nature of publishing in Afrikaans in a highly charged socio-political environment.

Soon after the penguin story, manuscripts began to arrive. They decided to accept “any good book that came along”, including the perceived ‘unsaleables’: poetry, essays,
and short stories. As Russell Martin notes, “David’s choices were guided by a feeling for what made a good book and his belief that good books would sell (unlike today’s belief that if a book sells, it is good).” DDP understood and lived by T.S. Eliot’s dictum: “A nation that doesn’t value its poets is in danger of losing its soul.”

With the books came responsibilities way beyond the call of duty in present-day publishing. The Philips joined a group of oppositional publishers and eventually founded the Independent Publishers Association of South Africa (IPASA). They continued producing books which they believed in, even if they were banned and confiscated. Books That Matter documents the courage it took to confront censorship and harassment from the security police under the apartheid regime. Despite hardship, sales and awards followed, and within a relatively short period of time, David Philip Publishers was a firmly established company, not only locally but also on the international publishing stage.

The Philips were publishers who cultivated strong personal ties with their authors to whom their doors were always open. A glass of wine was always ready to welcome visitors. Arderne Cottage, where the publishing venture was initially based, was often a safe house for activists. Lifelong friendships developed. One comes across authors all the time who reminisce about these close-knit relationships which sustained them through all kinds of difficulties, whether of political, literary or personal nature. In 2009, Nadine Gordimer wrote: “David Philip was the kind of publisher every writer would like to have. His dedication was to the Word as literature, not on the calculated Best Seller but as an art in illumination of the mystery of human existence.”

Marie Philip recalls her husband quoting the publisher Faber during a trip to the UK: “Books don’t make money”. To which an Ethiopian librarian who overheard the statement responded: “No, but they make a difference.” DPP’s legacy testifies to the fact.

In his commemorative lecture of 2010, “Let it be known: The heritage of David Philip and the needs of the nation”, Stanley G.M. Ridge stated: “David Philip’s deep conviction made the publisher a vital agent in the process of building the nation and nurturing it to health. Without such publishing, there is a gulf between the promising intellectual growing points in the society and those who need to engage with them. It is by building relationships with writers that those growing points can be discovered and nurtured, and it is often by taking significant risks that the works see the light of day.” To comprehend this role is as crucial today as it was before 1994, but few are up to the challenge. In the same lecture, Ridge said: “In a multicultural society, particularly one in an accelerated process of finding itself, it is vital that people across social boundaries come to see beyond the caricatures and enter imaginatively into other people’s lives.” What better vehicle for such imaginative leaps than the stories we can share through literature? May those who refuse to reach out across those boundaries take heed.

Richly illustrated, beautifully told, Books That Matter is a gem of local literary history. If there ever was a book that mattered, this is certainly one.

QUICK REVIEW: Do Not Go Gentle

gentle_breeze_by_jamuna

DO NOTDo Not Go Gentle

Futhi Ntshingila

Modjaji

Mvelo’s life is a constant living hell. It is tainted with every injustice and evil, and condemned with every ridiculous superstition and damaging scrap of ignorance that it is possible for a single society to muster. Mvelo is the poster child for an economically and morally impoverished country.

Her story grabs the reader by the hair and drags them through the roughest and dirtiest places that our almost broken country has given birth to.

And then it does a remarkable thing: it turns into a fairytale. Not of rags to riches, but of isolation to embrace.

Told in the plainest language, this story – Mvelo’s story, which is so many people’s story – unfurls unexpectedly (even a little soppily) into a drama of redemption. I can’t remember when last a book made me cry from happiness. Someone needs to make this one into a movie.  – Karin Schimke

REVIEW: Leaving Before the Rains Come

rain

Leaving Before the Rains Come jacketLeaving Before the Rains Come

Alexandra Fuller

Harvill Secker

REVIEW: Karina M. Szczurek

I must have been quite a disconcerting sight: weeping my eyes out in the middle of O.R. Tambo International Airport. I couldn’t help myself. That is what a good book can do to you. I was passing the wait for my flight home with the final few chapters of Alexandra Fuller’s latest memoir, Leaving Before the Rains Come, when the tears just started spilling over. It wasn’t the first time one of Fuller’s books had made me cry. But perhaps it was most fitting since this particular story feels as if it had been written through a lot of intimate pain.

Mostly known for her international bestseller, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Fuller is the author of four other books. She is one of those writers who will either irritate the hell out of you or steal your heart. She stole mine with The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, the incredibly moving story of a young cowboy who died on the oil rigs in Wyoming, and I have been reading her work ever since. My other favourite is Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier in which Fuller captured her haunting encounter with a veteran of the Rhodesian war. In hindsight, the book can be read as a companion to Leaving Before the Rain Comes.

Readers familiar with her other memoirs will know that the Fuller family “gets over it, whatever it is, and they move on.” Accustomed to war, insanity, loss, fear, violence, grief, drinking, death, and the wonder and chaos that are Africa, the Fullers don’t do boring. When Alexandra, or rather Bobo, as she is known, meets Charlie, an American, in Zambia in 1991 and decides to settle down with him and their family in the United States, she believes that she is choosing a life of “certainties, safety nets, and assurances” which all seem terribly alluring after an existence based on “perpetual insecurity”. She is young, she thinks that “the only thing that stood between me and oblivion was love”, but, as we all find out sooner or later, love is hardly ever enough. Even if it is a love that is strong and true as theirs undoubtedly was: “The sudden shock of coming into such sharp focus – the sheer, unlikely, extraordinary luck of being loved by this man – was wonderful, but it was also confusing. The few other men I had been with had found my intensity off-putting, unseemly, alarming, but Charlie calmly, fearlessly turned toward it, as if warmed by the heat I threw off.”

When Bobo gives birth to their first child and nearly dies of malaria, the romance of adventure begins to wear off. Eventually they decide to settle in Wyoming, paying bills, bringing up their kids, and in Bobo’s case, trying to fit in. But with the looming financial crisis of recent years, Charlie’s loss of income, an engulfing silence between them, and Bobo’s ingrained ache for Africa, they begin to feel “undone from one another”.

Many years ago, a friend gave me valuable advice: When in doubt, listen to your body; it never lies. This is something Fuller discovers herself when amidst the crisis she falls seriously ill. She also understands that Africa doesn’t easily let go of her own. And no matter how hard it is to face the possibility, the idea of a divorce begins to creep into their marriage.

In most cases it takes more courage to get out of a marriage than to stay in it. Fuller is no coward; she has been inducted into ‘getting over it’. “We’d come together with too much passion to break apart gently”, she writes. There is unbearable heartache, warfare, betrayal, separation and return: “But in every real way, we steered assiduously away from one another.” Throughout it all, Fuller tries her hand at writing, one rejected novel after another, until one day someone makes clear to her that fiction might not be her métier. She also discovers what it means to be independent, financially literate, and “that for a woman to speak her mind in any clear, unassailable, unapologetic way, she must first possess it.” In the middle of it all something staggering and totally unpredictable happens. Once again it becomes obvious that it is in the face of calamity that we forge our true selves.

Fuller does not hold back. Her ability to expose the most hidden corners of the soul in a way that is respectful and kind, towards herself and others, is beautiful. Her powerful insights are clad in a language to match: “Then there was an abrupt release, and there she was: a long-limbed, waxy, blood-smeared baby unfurling on my chest, her lips a perfect rosebud of query, and everything I had ever thought I knew about pain and love and fear of death raced out of me and was replaced by a fierce, murderous adoration. I looked at Mum in astonishment. ‘I know,’ she said…” The entire book is full of such astounding scenes and observations which leave you breathless, or in tears, or roaring with laughter.

The cocktail of searing honesty, relentless humour and gorgeous storytelling Fuller serves up in Leaving Before the Rains Come is intoxicating.

REVIEW: It Might Get Loud

locusts

locustIt Might Get Loud

Ingrid Winterbach

Translated by Michiel Heyns

Human Rousseau

REVIEW: KARIN SCHIMKE

Take the title as a warning. Or as an invitation. Either way, you’re not going to get what you generally expect when you pick up a South African novel: the gentle prising of our of violent past, present and (undoubtedly) future through hyper-real interaction between recognisable characters.

What you will get is a cacophony of realities. It Might Get Loud is a vast and clamorous story that mixes the unmitigated presence of the dead, of demons and spirits and mysteries, into the prosaic lives of the two main characters, Maria Volschenk and Karl Hofmeyer.

The characters don’t know one another, and while they do skim past one another towards the end of the book, they never meet and are unaware of one another. Yet they have much in common: both journey from Durban to Cape Town on the impetus of their relationship with a troubled sibling.

In this sense, Winterbach’s tenth novel typifies the quest in literature, where the journey is both symbolic and the spine around which the plot is assembled. Karl’s journey in particular, is full of trials as he heads to Cape Town in his car, trailing through the country’s “godforsaken” backwaters.

What both characters need to retrieve (retrieval being an element of the quest novel) is an answer: Karl needs to understand what has happened to his brother that he is “causing havoc” on the urban farm where he is living, while Maria is trying to make sense of her sister Sofie’s suicide.

Neither Karl nor Maria return to Durban with answers, but neither does either seem to have turned any obvious corners in their own development. Which leaves the journey-as-plot aspect of the novel apparently unfulfilled – things happen, in sequence, but the traditional course of cause and effect – the “and so” – is missing.

This is not to imply any failure. The novel’s hazy irresolution is precisely the point: it avoids pronouncements.

Central to both stories is a farm (the place actually exists), an old military store in Tamboerskloof that became neglected and was taken over by Josias Brand, a hippy artist with a will of iron and heart for society’s misfits. Karl’s brother Iggy has ended up here amongst the animals, strugglers and survivors, but has fallen foul of Brand.

This farm is enormously symbolic as a geographic marker, referencing the well-established plaasroman in Afrikaans, but turning it on its head, so that here it represents more fully the country’s liminal spaces. It is a place where previous social orders are evident, but crumbling. It is the crackled surface that might lie between what is concrete and what, for so many South Africans, regardless of race and culture, is an “other side”; the unseen, but vividly experienced world of the spirit.

On the way to Cape Town, Karl reads letters Iggy has written him in which he sets out a grand, occultish fantasy that plays off inside the old storage halls on the farm, in which Iggy says he has had to fight for his “soul” against demonic forces. That Iggy is, in medical terms, delusional, is borne out by the real-world situation in which Karl finds him when he gets to Cape Town: drugged on a psychiatric hospital bed.

Karl’s confusion and hopelessness in the face of his brother’s strange ramblings and his fate – indeed in the face of life – is contrasted starkly with his obsession for heavy metal music.

Winterbach details – sometimes perhaps gets a little carried away with her research – this obsession, when Karl comes across as similarly obsessed metal fans on his way to Cape Town and they discuss bands and gigs together. In fact, the English title of this book comes from a 2008 documentary about some prominent heavy metal musicians.

The muscular, uncompromising aggression of this rock genre is the polar opposite of Karl’s personality. He washes his hands obsessively and is superstitious to the point of paralysis about numbers. But he is also a realist and Iggy’s otherworldly obsessions are a cypher to him.

Numbers are important in the story – Maria is a bookkeeper, whereas her sister was a poet – but they are not the only heavily loaded symbols. There are biblical images of plague, small creatures, domestic farm animals, movies, opera – It Might Get Loud is in fact exactly the kind of amplified distortion that heavy metal is, and a source of endless intertextual references, so varied in scope and historical time that even the experienced reader would have to read it more than once to pick up and hold on to all the threads.

The result is often puzzling, but also exceedingly pleasing. It Might Get Loud is intelligent, boundary shifting and unafraid of itself.

The novel is rather like Sofie’s poems, which one character describes as having “a kind of spirit…that no longer takes account of things like your normal, predictable aesthetic.”

REVIEW: 101 Detectives

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correct 101 detectives101 Detectives

Ivan Vladislavić

Umuzi

REVIEW: Ken Barris

I expected excellent writing from Ivan Vladislavić when I began reading this collection of short stories, and found it in abundance. However, I did not expect the hilarity I encountered in some of the tales. Not that Vladislavić is humourless by any means, but I seldom have the pleasure of laughing out loud when I read his work.

The title piece exemplifies this humour. A detective suffering an anxiety disorder travels to the 101 Detectives: Sub-Saharan Africa conference. He sees the name “Joseph Blumenfeld” in red letters on a white background. His reaction seems inspired by the low comedy of Inspector Clouseau: “For a moment he froze and a tight fist of fear clenched in his gut. That name rang a bell. And then he remembered that he was undercover. I am Joseph Blumenfeld, he thought.” Not atypically for Vladislavić, however, his satire of the genre begins to unravel at the edges, allowing glimpses into a fluid play of meanings and sounds that bubbles inside or under narrative, as in “He dug this snub-nosed lingo slubbing out of his pug-ugly mug.”

It is difficult in this limited space to do justice to the versatility of the collection. “The Fugu Eaters” is a detached, ironic description of two security policeman waiting in a hotel room for a subject under surveillance to arrive. Their humanity is suspect not only because of what they think and say, but also because of the surveillance to which they are subjected by the writing, which holds them under a cold, detached light. “Hair Shirt” and “Lullaby” are conventionally structured short stories about moving human situations, though both are subtly observed; in the latter story, the narrator’s detachment is unable to contain the sadness of the climax, allowing emotion to emerge freely.

“Exit Strategy” is the tale of a corporate storyteller who must operate in a world of corporate jargon and management speak, echoing Vladislavić’s enduring satiric reiteration of commercialised language, as if to reproduce its banality. The storyteller experiences a crisis on discovering that there is also a corporate poet. As a result of her consequent dip in performance, she is obliged to undergo sessions in a “recitation pod,” a claustrophobic device that envelopes her head. According to the manual, it “gives your words weight and returns them to you, ‘delivers’ is the technical term, in an apparently tangible form.” The pod is also a literary device, however. It points to the muteness and entrapment of a creative mind that can only think and imagine in the grotesque terms imposed by her hackneyed, flattening linguistic environment.

Similar themes emerge in “The Reading,” though with much greater emotional resonance. Maryam Akello is a refugee who has written about her traumatic experience of abduction and captivity. She does a reading in Germany in her native language Acholi, before an audience in which only one person understands her. The narrative structure is one of the most interesting features of the story, in that it dips into the point of view of various audience members, so building up an account of a listening as much as of a reading. It is only after she has completed her reading that a translation follows. The spotlight then falls on her translator, Hans Günther Basch, who reads his German translation, and subsequently on how he is affected by its content, and how that in turn affects the listeners. In this way writing, reading and listening are again made to cycle around each other, exposing more slippage and eccentricity than even human clockwork should have to endure.

Despite my admiration, I felt at times that Vladislavić’ speaks too much to himself, like Akello reading in a tongue that is opaque to her audience. “Dead Letters,” for example, makes partial sense if you have read his novel Double Negative. There we encounter a Mrs Pinhiero, who possesses a set of dead letters (i.e. letters that were never delivered and have fallen out of the system). The fiction in 101 Detectives presents a selection of these dead letters, without context or coherence. Framed as baldly as this, it makes too little sense. I had similar reservations about “The Trunks – a Complete History,” in which the writer-narrator struggles to represent the life of a long-dead stranger by combing through the objects, books and pictures he has left behind. The distance is too great to be overcome, however, the objects are insufficiently interesting – particularly because the life behind them has to be inferred, which is a dry business – and so I found this story tedious.

In balance, these flaws are a side-effect of Vladislavić’s considerable structural and thematic range. He is always willing to go out on a limb, an appetite for risk that has delivered some of the finest prose written in this country today.

  • Barris is a writer and researcher, and works at Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

REVIEW: Best White and Other Anxious Delusions

2015-05-17 22.11.26

best whiteBest White and Other Anxious Delusions

Rebecca Davis

Pan Macmillan

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

When there is grand hype around the release of the book, it can often be a disappointing read. Not necessarily because it is bad, but because it is quite good – and nothing more.

Cultish admiration of an author’s public persona can sometimes obscure the quality of their work.

The debut work of Rebecca Davis, possibly one of the best known journalists currently working in South Africa – not only because she has covered some of the most newsworthy events of recent years, but because she is very active and has a large following on Twitter – is in such danger.

She comes across as likable (though not everyone likes what she has to say). It would be easy for her fans to approve of her first foray into book publishing simply because she wrote it.

And the hype around the release of Best White and Other Anxious Delusions is – well, it’s big.

So the chances of this book fizzling like a giant balloon are great.

Does it?

No. Not once. Not even when you read it cover to cover (an episodic approach over a period of time is more recommendable, however).

Over 32 chapters, Davis maintains a consistent level of “edunewsatainment”, a made-up word you’ll find in the chapter entitled “Look It Up”, and which would refer to a “media product which is part education, part news, and part entertainment”, if it were, in fact, a word.

Davis herself calls Best White a collection of essays. Which, indeed, is what they are.

Sarah Bakewell, writing about Michel de Montaigne’s essays in How To Live, says his 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 them.

It counts for Davis’s essays too.

What this requires on the part of the reader is a certain amount of tolerance. Do not approach Best White expecting answers because, in the best tradition of the form, Davis answers nothing. If you like your non-fiction authors and journalists to dole out wisdom and point their finger with authority at a direction in which they believe you should move, then Davis is not for you.

If, however, you can plop around happily in puddles of randomness without such expectation, read Best White, because not only will you laugh really hard sometimes (and want to interrupt family members in their own business to read some paragraphs aloud), but you’re likely to learn stuff.

Because Davis, like all good essayist and journalists, has a voraciously curious mind.

She is able to impart the most fascinating nuggets of information that seems completely unrelated to her topic in such a way that you feel you might want to spend an hour or two – as soon as you’ve managed to put her book down – doing a little bit of research into types of winds, Kitty Genovese and the possible legal complications of an accident involving two self-driving cars.

What makes her writing so funny – quite apart from the fact that she has a clear, authentic and consistent voice – is that she uses the essay as a lens for close observation of the world. And when the world – and here, particularly South Africa – is viewed closely, its inherent absurdity is revealed.

For inconclusive, self-effacing, informed humour, delivered with often almost perfect pitch by an openly ambivalent writer (she often questions her own take on things), you’d be hard-pressed to find a more satisfying example of essay writing in South Africa.

And if the zeitgeist has you chewing your cuticles to shreds, then that’s all the more reason to read Davis’s collection of wild anecdote that manage, admirably, also to capture a social and historical moment that both has us in its thrall but which is, like all other social and historical moments, transient.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in June 2015. 

 

 

Eighth Day: Japanese Poetry

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The thousand year plus history of Japanese poetry, poetic form and genre has intrigued, influenced and set poets from the West a-squabble during the last century or so as various groups attempt to extrapolate and propound their one right and true whole from their small portion of the elephant. Tread with care.

WhiskWhisk by Yoko’s Dogs

Pedlar Press

Writers, unlike most other artists, generally eschew the rigour and joys of collective creating but here, four very different and independently prolific Canadian poets compose as Yoko’s Dogs, as complement to their separate artistries. Whisk’s mostly 4- and 8-stanza poems alternate short 3-line, and shorter 2-line verses in the manner of renga, the centuries old genre of Japanese collaborative linked poetry.

So brief a form lends itself to Imagist concision and piquancy; writing verses in turn, to acrobatic repartee that the Dogs employ with the sure agility of trapeze artists—according readers equal share in the fun. Sensuous images and their juxtapositionings mesh to generate mood and meanings that ripple below the surface words. Much more to these poems than greets the eye of initial readings and, teasingly, they revealed to me, a little more on every one subsequent.

 

Tanka100g100 Tanka by 100 Poets

of Australia & New Zealand

Edited by Amelia Fielden, Beverley George & Patricia Prime

Ginninderra Press

Tanka, like haiku, seem (too) often written and enjoyed merely as playful counting ditty. The poets here, however, with subtlety, wit, allusion, metaphor, and sonnet-like volta, show off all the artistry and nuance of the form as poetry. Compiled in emulation of the influential 13th century Japanese anthology, Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, many of these tanka (short songs) also touch on love—yearnings, gentle erotica, heartbreak, remembrances.

But as classic Japanese waka has in its 1 300-year lifetime, modernised into tanka, so do these contemporary poets extend the form to the modern Australasian world—surfers waxing boards, dreaming of that perfect wave; zesty fragrances of oranges doomed to tomorrow’s marmalade; the insidious onset of Alzheimers; bushfires spewing “breath from Hades”… Wonderfully diverse; skilfully portrayed.

 

MomentaryStayA Momentary Stay by Charl JF Cilliers

Lots, it’s been said, depends on the colour of a wheelbarrow in the rain. Even more, judging by the volume and ferocity of haiku discussions I witness across the planet, depends on the interpretation of haiku; what it is, how it’s to be writ.

There are five haiku and a tanka in this book which is worth reading just for the joy of seeing the forms interpreted with rare understanding of the nuances of their Japanese antecedents. Two examples (that also encapsulate the tenor of the whole collection):

 

The moon’s half awake –

I sing in its hollow shape

on the edge of light.

and

The mystery enfolds

me – here where willow trees bend

over their shadows.

Cilliers fills his collection with keen observations of his world and mullings over the ways in which poetry helps make sense of it.

 

StarlightRecycling Starlight by Penny Harter

Mountains & Rivers Press

Harter opens this moving collection that charts the journey through her first year of widowhood, with a haibun—the ‘prose poem plus haiku’ form Matsuo Bashō famously employed to compose his travel journals in 17th century Japan. The poetry begins at Bill’s deathbed and with cancer’s ruthless wasting of a husband’s body; it continues, portraying numbness of loss and the exquisite shards of pain that penetrate it.

There is another haibun for the packing and move to a new home, trailed by memories; memories that waken the vain hopes that “I can dream myself back home.” At the last, and as the title suggests, the poems transition to a sense of balance regained; into some letting go of the darkness and to the tasting, again, of that which was, and will always be, sweetness.

Scholtz-Haiku

 

Living with Haiku by Pieter Scholtz

(Drawings by Andrew Verster)

Horus Publications

Very few South African poets pay serious attention to Japanese poetry form and genre. But since Steve Shapiro’s, In a Borrowed Tent, won the ’96 Ingrid Jonker, there’s been a steady, albeit slow, growth of interest in haiku, tanka, haibun and renku.

Haiku can take you far from the peaceful, monkish communing-with-nature roots you may associate it with, and Scholtz wisely sidesteps, straddles perhaps, the often bloody divides of opinion about the form. He also looks to Yosa Buson’s mastery of haiga for his pairings of drawings with the haiku in the collection.

The poet writes succinctly of love, life, and about the brain haemorrhage that almost killed him, managing always, to find beauty in even the difficult parts of life.

 

The doctor who became a writer

Maria

 

MariaMaria Phalima, author of Postmortem: The Doctor Who Walked Away is one of five authors who made it on to the 2015 Sunday Times Alan Paton. The award is given annually for a book that demonstrates “the illumination of truthfulness, especially those forms of it that are new, delicate, unfashionable and fly in the face of power; compassion, elegance of writing, and intellectual and moral integrity”.

You’ve just been nominated for the Sunday Times Alan Paton award and your second book was recently published. Both are, to some degree, memoir. Tell us about them.

Postmortem – The Doctor Who Walked Away is about my journey through medicine – why I chose to study medicine in the first place, my experiences of working in the public health system, and the reasons I chose to walk away from the profession. I wrote this book because I wanted to fully understand the reasons behind my life-changing decision. I knew in my heart that I had made the right decision; throughwriting the book I wanted to interrogate that decision and to finally put that chapter of my life behind me.

My second book, Second Chances, is a novel for teens. It isn’t intended as a memoir, but of course it does draw on my life experiences to a certain degree. It’s about a young girl from Soweto who wants to be a doctor, but finds many obstacles in her way – poverty, peer pressure, HIV, sugar daddies. She has to navigate these obstacles and keep her eye on the prize. I wrote the novel because I wanted young people from difficult circumstances to know that their immediate environment needn’t limit their dreams. (Second Chances was the English category winner of the Maskew Miller Longman Literature Award in 2013).

The theme running through both books is one of overcoming challenges and trying again. I strongly believe that life always gives us a second chance, as long as we are willing to grasp it and make the most of the opportunity.

You identify now as a writer, rather than as a doctor. It’s a middle class parent’s nightmare: “If you want to get ahead in the world, become a doctor or a lawyer. If you want to be an actor or a writer you’re never going to get anywhere.” How do you interpret that fear, how did your parents react to your career change and what will you tell your children when they start thinking about what they want to be one day?

We all want the best for our children; I understand that clearly now that I’m a parent. I imagine my mother was concerned about my decision, though she never expressed it. She was very supportive; she wanted me to do well in whatever field I chose.

Through my drastic career change I see that our work is not so much about the pieces of paper we acquire; it’s more about the gifts we express and how these gifts can positively impact other people. So my children are free to choose whatever career they feel will best enable them to serve others and live a fulfilling life. And I think it’s also important for them to realise that their careers will evolve as they grow and mature. What works in their 20s and 30s may not serve them as well in their 40s.

At the Franschhoek Literary Festival recently you told Grade 11 learners that you’d been a reader as a child and that it made you realise what the possibilities were for you in the world. How did you become a reader?

I read to escape the reality of my home environment, and in so doing I found out that the world was far bigger than what I was seeing around me. I was fortunate that I attended a private school with a well-stocked library, so I had plenty of choice. Also my mother worked in education and she often brought home books from the African Writers Series.

Reading is vital for young people – for people of all ages, actually. It’s a form of personal development. I think young people should read whatever they find interesting and relevant to their lives. We as adults can do a lot to encourage them by reading to them when they are little, and by setting an example by also being avid readers. When children realise that there is a whole universe inside the pages of their books, they will want to explore it.

Do you think enough books are being published in South Africa that reflect a reality children and teenagers can relate to?

The majority of young people in this country face huge challenges in their communities, and often they have no way of processing what is going on around them. I think books which speak to these challenges in a way that is accessible to them – and enjoyable to read – can do a lot, to not only encourage them to read but also to impart knowledge and empowering perspectives. Young people need to be able to see themselves in what they read, so I think it’s vitally important that more books are written and published which black youths can identify with.

Medicine is about healing. Can books and literature be about healing?

Absolutely. Writing Postmortem was a cathartic experience for me, and I know from the feedback I’ve had from many doctors that it has helped them to see that they are not alone in their struggles within our health system.

I went into medicine because I wanted to heal others. I realise now that, through my writing, I am continuing on my path as a healer.

  • This Q & A first appeared in the Cape Times in May 2015

I’M DROOLING OVER: Sweet

03_SaltedCaramelPopcorn
Sweet cover

© Sam Linsell

Sweet

Sam Linsell

Struik Lifestyle

Review: Lesley Byram

Why yes, I do like caramel. Why do you ask?

If you tried the recipe we shared recently for Sarah Dall’s salted caramel you’ll understand why it’s hard to move on.

I’m always keen to try things I haven’t tried before, especially when the flavour combinations are already firm favourites. And I was going to skip over the salted caramel recipe in Sam Linsell’s recently launched second cookbook, Sweet. That is, until I tasted it at a Cape Times event at which she recently gave a demonstration.

Now, I’m a believer in not messing with recipes that already work. Why, for instance, fiddle with crème brûlée when the original recipe is already perfect? Why add caramel to crunchy, fresh popcorn? Better still, why add popcorn to perfectly good caramel?

With good reason, it turns out. I used to enjoy the ready made caramel popcorn until I realised it tastes as though it’s made with margarine. Nothing on earth deserves to be made with margarine.

Sam’s recipe is for spicy salted caramel popcorn. I wasn’t sure about that. Cinnamon I can understand but this recipe includes cumin and paprika and if I hadn’t been at her demonstration I would have given it a miss. It’s just not a combination I could imagine going with caramel. I was wrong.

You don’t taste the paprika but there is a subtle hint of cumin which really adds to the deliciousness of the caramel.

03_SaltedCaramelPopcornI decided to make a batch for a friend who loves caramel popcorn to see if it really is as easy to make as Sam made it appear.

I didn’t look at the clock but I don’t think it took more than 15 minutes in total.

Sam’s tips were useful. Use a neutral flavoured oil – I used the neutral flavoured coconut oil. Put the oil and the popcorn kernels in the pot together and then heat. Pop on the lid and wait for the oil to heat up. It doesn’t take long at all for the kernels to start popping. Listen closely and, when there is a two to three second gap between poppings, remove it from the heat. Any longer than that and you risk burning it.

Put it in a large bowl, making sure there are no unpopped corn kernels in the bowl.

Many will say that the trick to making caramel is not to stir the sugar, butter and syrup mix while it’s boiling. Sam disagrees. While it is important not to have sugar crystals on the side of the pot (wash them off with a pastry brush dipped in water), Sam says continuously stirring prevents some parts from going darker than others or becoming bitter.

Once you’ve added the vanilla and spices and mixed it well you can pour it over the popcorn in the bowl. Work fairly quickly when you do this to ensure all the popcorn gets an even coating before the caramel starts to harden. I managed this without any trouble but if you find that some popcorn is without caramel and some clumped together you can put it all in the oven in a roasting pan at 120ºC for a while before stirring again. Stirring with two spoons or spatulas works well. Put the bowl on a rubber mat to stop it moving around your counter top if you don’t have someone to hold it for you – or use a heavier bowl.

Then you can decide whether you want individual popcorn or clumps. Individual pieces look more professional but if you prefer to munch on a clump, why not?

This makes a lovely gift in a pretty jar tied with a ribbon.

spicy salted 
caramel popcorn

Makes 10–12 cups

125 g corn kernels
10 ml coconut oil, or any other neutral oil 
5 ml ground cumin
5 ml ground cinnamon
3 ml paprika
5 ml salt
2 ml bicarbonate of soda
150 g butter
200 g granulated white sugar
30 ml golden syrup
5 ml vanilla extract

This recipe turns ordinary popcorn into something special, worthy of a party. The spice is mild enough to give it an exciting flavour edge, while still suitable for children. You could add more paprika, chilli or cayenne if you want to take the heat up a notch. I use coconut oil when making popcorn – it is a little healthier andgives the  popcorn a lovely flavour – but a neutral oil such as sunflower works equally well.

Preheat the oven to 120 °C. Line a baking tray with silicone or baking paper.

Make the popcorn any way that your prefer. (I like to use a large skillet with a glass lid.) Transfer the popcorn to a large, deep bowl; it should only half fill the bowl, allowing space to toss thesauce.

Mix all the spices and bicarbonate of soda together.

In a medium-size, heavy-based pot bring the butter, sugar and syrup to the boil. Continue to let it bubble, stirring continuously, until the mixture turns golden-brown and reaches the hard crack stage of 155 °C. Add the vanilla extract and spice mix and stir vigorously for a few seconds, then remove from the heat. Pour the hot caramel over the popcorn and toss to coat.

Spread the caramel-covered popcorn evenly on the prepared baking tray and bake for 
15 minutes. Remove it from the oven and toss to ensure it’s evenlycoated. Return it to the oven for a further 15 minutes, then remove, toss again and leave to cool.

Once cool, break it up and store in an airtight container.

(Extracted from Sweet by Sam Linsell (Struik Lifestyle). Available at all good book stores, RRP of R250.00)