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REVIEW: Until Julius Comes… Adventures in the Political Jungle

julius

Until JuliusUntil Julius Comes… Adventures in the Political Jungle

 Richard ‘Hannibal Elector’ Poplak

Tafelberg

REVIEW: Donald Paul

In 2011, an Irish journalist based in Cape Town wrote a book about Julius Malema, called An Inconvenient Youth, and the New ANC. The author, Fiona Ford, titled her first chapter ‘The devil wears Breitling’. Ford writes that she was with Malema in Caracas, Venezuela, for the conference of the World Federation of Democratic Youth. It’s Saturday, 24 April 2010. Back in South Africa, on Monday, 26 April, the ANC were planning to meet to decide on suitable “disciplinary measures to deal with the youth” Julius Malema.

Ford describes sitting with Malema in the Caracas hotel and his agitation about the hearings, but what stands out are his fashion comments delivered to Ford “with scorn, pity and dismay, all rolled into one”.

“The leather in your shoes is supposed to match the leather in your belt and your watch. So if you wear brown leather shoes,” he tells her, “you must wear a brown leather belt, and a brown leather watch.”

Three years later, Richard Poplak is on the 2014 electoral campaign of Julius Malema’s fledgling party, the Economic Freedom Fighters. And what pops up but fashion and the red beret, the “primary piece of ordinance” in the EFF’s “prêt-à-porter arsenal”. Poplak goes on to quote Walter Benjamin on the “intersection of politics and fashion” (don’t get nervous – this is the sort of erudite reference Daily Maverick readers expect) but the catching issue here is fashion: the production and marketing of something, reputedly “new”. Ford’s excellent book had only one glaring error: it wasn’t a ‘new’ ANC that Malema was fashioning, but his own political entity.

If after reading Ford, you sat up, replaced the screw top on the chardonnay or ordered a Coke without the klippies, and reconsidered your blasé notions of South Africa’s loudest and most “inconvenient” youth; after reading Poplak, you will skip the chardonnay and Klippies, and go straight to the spook and diesel.

Poplak points out – correctly – that the Democratic Alliance candidates in the 2014 election were not “bloodthirsty enough. Not battle-hardened enough”. What turns Mmusi Maimane on is macroeconomics, which is just not going to cut it in the brick-flinging, Molotov cocktail arena of South African politics.As he says, “no matter how much bullshit they [the EFF] spew, those berets scream ‘revolution’. And revolution is, sadly, sexier than macroeconomics”.

The great joy of being on the campaign trail with Poplak though is not only the insights into Julius Malema but also the side characters. Take Kenny Kunene and his Patriotic Alliance Party. Poplak reminds us ofthe fact that Kunene “isn’t the biggest piece of shit in South Africa” and that his talk about “helping children as often as Michael Jackson did, which, I’ll admit, is always a cause for worry” are not really the issues. What is the issue is that “no one knows what he does” since he stopped his life of crime and “got into the Brave New South African economy of producing nothing”. (He “won tenders” apparently.)

His take on Mamphela Ramphele is summed up in the preamble to the chapter devoted to her: “Destiny’s Child: In which we consume lox and cream-cheese bagels with the Worst. Politician. Ever.” Say no more.

And if you thought President Jacob Zuma was all about the laugh (Heh,HEH, heh, heh), then Poplak’s take on him is chilling. Zuma “radiates no intelligence… he is not a man of purpose, but a man of power”, and that does not bode well for the country.

Richard-Poplak

Richard Poplak

Poplak’s style and language is mesmerising; the sentences flow through inflamed urban streets, splash against discordant images, and swirl around people who we know through their public presence, but who he engulfs with wave after wave of detail. His chapter on Trevor Manuel is searing and wickedly funny, filled with the sort of niggles, usually ignored, that legends always leave in their trail. Who would have thought our country’s economic destiny was forged “by way of grammar”?

Julius Malema recently addressed the Cape Town Press Club. The venue was Kelvin Grove – yes, I know, last bastion, white privilege, racist, anti-Semitic, etcetera –  ­and Malema read his audience perfectly. Okay, the literacy requirement was at the level of: “Here is Jacob. Here is Helen. Jacob and Helen go up the hill”, but still, he nailed it.

Malema in front of this audience became a praise poet for Helen Suzman, an admirer of Helen Zille (whom he never once referred to as ‘Madam’), and a damning critic of both President Jacob Zuma and and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, whom he speared with the comment that “Cyril loves money more than people”, referring to the Lonmin mine workers killed at Marikana.He also said that as he helped put Zuma in power, he would help Zuma lose that power. They loved it.

Malema was and is the consummate politician. Poplak resorts to gamer jargon to capture Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters. “In the grimy scrim of South African politics, the Angry Birds gamer is a proxy for [the EFF], who are merrily catapulting ‘enraged urban youth’ into a piggish ruling party’s teetering political home.”

But is not just the ANC’s political home that is under threat from the EFF. It is the nation’s political metropolis. At the EFF’s final election rally, Poplak is at his descriptive best as Malema makes his entrance: “Fighters in white golf shirts and men in ersatz military uniforms… 30 bikers on screaming hogs and sport bikes, red-lining their engines to a slaughtered-pig squeal of mechanical agony”. There’s more. It’s a great essay.

But, as he says, the policies Malema promises the crowd have never worked, and the EFF party apparatchiks will not make them work “because none of them have actually done anything”.

But that’s a trifling detail when Julius comes.

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

 

REVIEW: Black Dog Summer

Black dog

Black Dog SummerBlack Dog Summer

Miranda Sherry

Head of Zeus

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

For an author to step into the arena of farm murders in literature could be construed as a fool rushing in where angels fear to tread. It is, as we all know, a highly politicised, deeply painful and painfully divisive topic in South Africa.

Perhaps the reason Sherry manages to tread like an angel, rather than a galumphing, rallying apocalyptic horseman, is because the family affected by the murder central to this story is not Afrikaans. Had it been, the stuff of this story might have become stuck inside the Gordian knot of our violent history and our violent present.

As an English-speaking South African the choice of an English-speaking murdered woman as the narrator was probably natural for Sherry, but it was also beneficial. Because for this story to be understood, it needs to be as clear as it can be of politics. Sherry’s aim is not to dissect motives or analyse context, but merely to reflect on the fact of violent death and what it leaves in its wake.

Not that the story of Bryony and Gigi is coy, naive or purposefully obtuse. It’s just that the intricacies of the setting of this story – Limpopo and Joburg – are the background noise to the real drama: the way people make sense of that which cannot be apprehended by any amount of reasonable thought.

Gigi’s murdered mother Sally – finds that “something went wrong with [her] dying” and that she is able, unemotionally, almost coldly, to gather story threads from those she left behind.

I’m not a fan of dead narrators, but found the narrator’s “not-aliveness” far less disturbing and intrusive than I expected. That she “steps in” towards the end was not, I’ll admit, my favourite part of the story. The denouement would have worked fine without this other worldly intrusion. However, on the whole, and considering the other magical elements in the story (a sangoma features prominently); Sherry keeps her narrator on a fairly short leash.

After Sally dies, the highly traumatised Gigi is taken in by her cousin Bryony’s family. The family’s psyche has already been brutalised by an unspeakable crime, affecting each in a different way, now they must find a way to accommodate this newly parentless teenager who is, in fact, a stranger to them. For eleven-year old Bryony, this intrusion is hardest, because she must share her room with her stunned “zombie” cousin.

The “dead” narrator can be forgiven ten times over for this one immense gift that Sherry gives the reader: the delicate and utterly believable creation of child characters. Not once, as the story gathers tension and gallops towards a really unexpected and riveting last quarter, does she impinge on their dignity as humans, belittle their confusions and fantasies, or patronise them for their responses.

Black Dog Summer is tightly woven and richly rewarding. It is not flaccid or overwritten, never overwrought nor mawkish. It is simply a sterling story, well told, by an author who, I hope, will produce another novel very soon.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in September 2014.
  • The painting of the dog on the featured image is by Rachel Howard.

 

REVIEW: Dark Windows

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DW_full coverDark Windows

Louis Greenberg

Umuzi

Review: Jonathan Amid

In 2007, The Beggars Signwriters signaled Louis Greenberg as a talented, sensitive author capable of telling moving, poignant stories. Greenberg is also one half of the horror-writing duo S.L Grey, writing with Sarah Lotz. Dark Windows is his latest offering, gripping and original, and it will arguably confound and challenge many readers, while offering a resolutely different kind of speculative, apocalyptic fiction.

As South Africans, our obsession with impending doom and peril is associated either with crime or racial discord. Somewhere on the horizon, for many, lies the day where we will meet our end at the hand of the threatening other. Set not in the future but in the present day, after the Mbeki administration, Greenberg sets up a superbly realised conceit: the country is run by the Gaia Peace Party. And Gaia Peace is all about positive energy; a remarkable turnaround in social welfare, a staggering reduction in the consumption of meat, and a 90 percent reduction in crime, with the virtual absence of proper security and alarm systems, not to mention the belief by the woman in charge, senior minister Meg Hewitt, that a game-changing supernatural event, The Arrival, is to usher in the best of what is yet to come. Yet dissent is growing. Amid all the light and seeming positivity is the feasible undertow of mind-control, possibly how the incumbents managed to come to power in the first place, though few are willing to offer this insight in public.

Greenberg constructs the novel’s architecture, and I use this word because of Greenberg’s dexterity in shaping a text which is thoroughly unpredictable, character-driven, quietly clever and illuminating through its spare, exacting prose, around three main figures: the haunted Jay, a man who receives hot-stone therapy as punishment for an earlier transgression, and whose need for redemption and self-examination follow him around wherever he must perform secretive jobs for the state; Beth, the troubled and uncertain married woman with whom he has a steamy affair; and the bureaucrat Lang, whose own story and personal history add a further layer of intrigue to the novel.

Deliberately, then, I leave the title for last, since it speaks directly to the driver of the novel’s plot, but also to the kind of character revealed by the novel. For Project Dark Windows, Jay must paint black the windows of five specifically chosen sites, united by a death on the premises. As further details of the deaths emerge, and while Jay is in the process of painting these windows each on a different day, the veracity and true nature of the Arrival comes into question. As the tension mounts, considerably so, Greenberg interrogates with poise and acid clarity notions of guilt, redemption, the collective unconscious, the nature of belief, the meaning of death and the need to be loved. This novel, by its striking end, has turned the notion of certainty on its head, opening further windows for reflection.

  •  This review first appeared in the Cape Times in  2014

COLUMN: Nostalgia

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nostalgia img

Nostalgia’s come a long way.

It used to be classified as a medical condition (though doubtful in the same category as tuberculosis) and comes from words meaning “homecoming ache”.

There’s not been much scientific investigation into nostalgia, but some evidence from different academic studies elevates it from a mooning melancholic state to something that has an important psychological function.

Nostalgia is believed, for instance, to affirm one’s sense of self and increase your social connectedness. It can lift your mood and self-esteem, and help frame meaning. Interestingly, in one study, people who dwelt fondly on past memories had an increased perception of physical warmth.

A certain slant of light reminds you of the smells of childhood suppers. The cooing of doves in the late afternoon can become the queasy reminder of quiet Sundays that heralded the beginning of another boarding school week. And a scent can spiral you right back to swirly ice-creams at the beach in Durban in 1979, or the conflicting loneliness and joy of being in Paris by yourself in 1998.

Place is central to nostalgia. Our memories are often linked to emotion and place simultaneously – like a feeling of powerlessness linked to the shape of the front gate beyond which you were not allowed to venture alone, or the feeling of safety linked to the floral patterns of a grandmother’s curtains.

Good travel writing evokes nostalgia without being overtly nostalgic. If the writer has succeeded in transporting the reader, he or she makes one long for a place that is foreign but feels vicariously familiar.

Apart from the fiction I read this month – each novel with a strong sense of place (Tuscany, Miami, New York) – I also read two non-fiction books that made me aware of how we place ourselves geographically as part of the project of understanding the roads that have lead to our current selves.

The first book was Mark Gevisser’s Lost and Found in Johannesburg. It is a memoir, mapped along the streets and rivers, the cemeteries, “locations” and mine dumps, the forests and green lungs, of the city of Johannesburg.

It is a looping, thorough, generous work that avoids solipsism by providing greater historical and social contexts for Gevisser’s own life events and mental shifts as he grew up in the city. It is an expansive work: evocative and instructive. It’s a love song to urban spaces and the way in which places makes us, the way in which we project on to them, and they reflects us back to ourselves. The way they mould our creative, relational and intellectual endeavours.

The book made me seek out a travel book that has been recommended to me from time to time, but suddenly felt urgent to read: Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines.

“Songlines” are tracks across Australia mapped out through indigenous people’s songs and stories. They are a kind of oral cartography of the landscape, a way in which itinerant people were able to find their way, while roaming, using landmarks noted in song.

This wasn’t an easy concept for me to get my head around and I expected the first few pages to set it all out neatly for me, to define songlines in a way that made sense to me as a white person with a modern Western education in the Christian tradition. Soon, however, how exactly the songlines worked became secondary as Chatwin himself moulded the Australian outback for me, recreating the sullen heat, the chilling racism and the merciless countryside through his own brand of observational narrative journalism.

The unexpected and unusual joy of the book were the sections in which he transcribes parts of his previous travel journals – entries of varying length linking Western literature, indigenous art, archaeology, poetry and storytelling, and hunting and foraging, with various nomadic traditions.

I’m a homebody mostly. Writers like Gevisser and Chatwin give me rambler’s heart. They give me a homecoming ache.

REVIEW: Sunderland

sunderland

sunderlandSunderland

Michael Cope & Ken Barris

Jacana

REVIEW: Kayang Gagiano

The premise: A distinguished South African author drafts the fictional skeleton of his magnum opus while a brain tumour plunders his faculties, systematically causing cognitive chaos. All that remains are tantalising fragments of what would have been eminent wordsmith Charles De Villiers’s tenth novel, Sunderland, ostensibly a partially allegorical novel about an elite gated community built on the slopes of Table Mountain. A few months after his death, would-be writer and middling academic Art Berger, having recently received a 27th rejection slip for his own novel (working title: Summer Sonata), is approached by the deceased author’s family, and commissioned with ‘reconstructing’ said fragments into a publishable novel. The bait proves irresistible despite the enormity of the task. Art is hooked, lined and sinkered into agreeing. He must somehow transform ‘a series of pastiches’ and a ‘harlequinade’ comprising a cast of almost one hundred characters (both human and non human), into a work worthy of De Villiers’s substantial oeuvre. Game on.

Cope is, according to interviews,  responsible for the De Villiers section of the book. Seldom has the saying ‘all style and no substance’ been as artfully deconstructed as it is in his rendering of Charles’s artistic vision. His Sunderland, we learn, is (or was to be) a text grandly ambitious in its scope, with sweeping ecological and political themes, concerned with South Africa’s still tenuous social geography. Its author, we discover, was a methodical and systematic researcher, obsessed with minutiae. The novel, it is hinted at, was to have a grand, climactic finale. But these are presented merely as intriguing glimpses and alluring character studies, leaving the bulk of the imagining to each of us to make of it what we will. (“A story,” Art muses at one point, ‘becomes itself by what the writer leaves out.”)

Involving an intriguing narrative patchwork, Cope and Barris’s Sunderland is in its turn comprised of Art’s pitiful (unsent) letters to his remote and judgemental spouse, Taryn, his project journal (supposedly documenting the process of re creating the De Villiers text, but more often digressing into personal reflections about the fragile state of his disintegrating marriage, and a growing fascination with Charles’s alluring daughter, Lynda), a brilliantly conceived obituary, the deceased author’s notes and research (including a few Wikipedia articles), diagrams and visuals, emails from Charles to his editor sister, Anna, and of course, excerpts from his draft(s) of Sunderland.

Where the De Villiers sections teases the reader (not least because we are introduced to compelling characters we long to know more about, such as artist Anice, jeweller Karl Heinz, and savant computer programmer, William), Barris’s simpatico protagonist, Art, provides the novel with more emotional substance. Melodramatic, continuously self-reflexive and prone to drafting passages drenched in hyperbole and cringe-worthy metaphors (sauce on a mushroom burger, he relates during a bitter fight with cold fish Taryn, ‘tasted of ennui’, the patty itself of ‘ground up human tongue, bloodied and still sensate,’) Art is a selfish, flawed buffoon. Despite his pomposity, one cannot help becoming invested in his personal and professional dilemmas and sympathising with him to some degree. While his over the top writing style and habit of analysing his own life as though it were a literary text (he is a navel gazer par excellence) grows tiresome in patches, Barris tempers his character’s more self indulgent ramblings with some very entertaining social satire, similar to that found in Kingsley Amis’s cult classic, Lucky Jim, or David Lodge’s campus trilogy.

Certain plot devices are more successful than others. Art’s journal, for example is implausibly detailed with regard to interchanges he has with other characters, including Taryn, Lynda and his intellectual nemesis, Vernon Freshwater. But for the most part, in terms of plot, themes and character, the novel is surprisingly cohesive. It is a narrative patchwork quilt that has been deftly sewn together.

Stylistically adroit, conceptually playful and saturated with irony, Sunderland, succeeds as collaboration precisely because it sets out to create disparate voices; to comprehensively distinguish and delineate between Charles’s fictional universe and Art’s piecemeal conception thereof. And as readers, our ‘literary detective work’ (to quote the book blurb) naturally echoes Art’s own, as we explore the divergent strands of this cunningly constructed tale, imagining our own version(s) of De Villiers’s novel as we go along.

Those who prefer more straightforward, linear narratives might find this book a little too contrived and ‘clever-clever’, the authors making too much of a meal out of meta-narrative. However, those who relish intellectual and conceptual playfulness and enjoy ‘texts within texts’ stories such as A.S. Byatt’s Possession, or Ian McKewan’s Sweet Tooth will no doubt delight in engaging with this lively, mischievous and inventive tale.

Read an interview with Cope and Barris here.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in July 2014

 

 

 

Two men, one novel

collaboration black board

Poets and authors Mike Cope and Ken Barris have known one another for decades. Now they’ve written a novel together. KARIN SCHIMKE interviews them on Facebook.

ken and mike

Mike (left) and Ken have been friends for over thirty years. Picture: Sky Cope

Ken arrives late for the Facebook date. Karin calls him on his cellphone and reports back to Mike, waiting on-line:

KARIN: I called him and we were cut off, but not before he said “oh” in a way that made me realise he forgot/has the wrong time. It’s engaged now.

MIKE: I’m glad he forgot. During the writing of the book I forgot a meeting or two and felt guilty.

KEN: (Arriving on-line): Schadenfreude, Mike. Goeiemôre!

MIKE: Hi Ken! The very same ; )

KEN: Môre ouks. Jammer ek het vergeet.

KARIN: No sweat. I’m going to ask the questions one at a time and I’d like you both to answer before I ask the next one. So that you don’t crib.

How long have you two been friends?

MIKE: Since some time in the eighties, when we met at various poetry readings and literary events?

KEN: As far as I can recall, we met more seriously around the time Mike wrote a very complimentary review of my first poetry collection – but it was around poetry readings and so on.

So we’re looking at a friendship of some 30-odd years. You’ve just written a book together. Are you still friends?

KEN: Of course!

MIKE: Yes. Why shouldn’t we be?

Artistic differences? Getting to know someone you like in a different way? No. I do know that you’re still friends. But what’s it like writing a book with someone else? All fun and happiness?

KEN: No, we had disagreements, and – I think more from my side – they were resolved with a degree of heat. Mike, in fact, was very diplomatic. Bear in mind that writers (well, this writer anyway) feel very strongly about what they’re doing, it’s fuelled by a great deal of energy. That is the interpersonal side, of course. On the other hand, I got great joy out of collaborating with a creativity like Mike’s, and the technical challenges were unusual, complex, and therefore tremendously interesting.

MIKE: Writing together was mixed but mostly fun for me. It turns out that writing together was a way of giving form to a friendship in the midst of the chaos of regular life. Of course we had some spats, but that’s normal I think, and nothing we couldn’t sort out. And yes, I think we did get to know each other better through it. Without it we would certainly not have spent so much time in each other’s physical and intellectual company.

Let’s move on to the book. Mike, I remember some years ago you wrote a novel and were told that it wasn’t “South African enough”, or something along those lines. What is “South African enough” when it comes to novels?

MIKE: Karin, I have no idea. It was something long ago in a rejection slip. I suppose that there are certain niche markets and “South Africa” is certainly one.

KEN: I think it is a term that has lost its currency. It echoes the demands of engaged literature dating back to the Struggle years, but it doesn’t seem sustainable in a transnational world – which doesn’t mean that I think particularly South African themes/textures, political or otherwise, are out – it just means that there is far more choice for South African writers and readers (and of course publishers).

MIKE: But because I have another job and don’t have to make a living from writing I find that I can write what I am interested in without regard for these ideas.

And the book you’ve written together is called Sunderland. If I take the word as literally as I can, it seems to be a title that cuts to the very heart of South Africaness, so perhaps the book is “South African enough”, whatever that means. Tell me about it.

KEN: It’s a tale about a major South African writer who has died of brain cancer. His family hires a wannabe writer and researcher to reconstruct the fragments of his last novel left on his computer. Everything goes wrong from there.

MIKE: It’s a novel of ideas, and a satire, and a literary experiment. And a few other things.

Why did this book require two authors? Is it because you came up with the idea together one day over a glass of wine? Or did one of you ask the other to help out?

MIKE: I came up with the overall idea, but I needed another voice as I was forced into doing all sorts of ventriloquism by having a character who was a writer, and his texts. Ken’s dry ironic voice was the obvious choice.

KEN: It’s a novel of two voices, and it was Mike’s conception. At his invitation, we met over breakfast and discussed it. I asked Mike the same question – why don’t you write both voices? Mike replied that he only wanted to write the fragmented work of the dying writer, which (I think) was the centre of his original preoccupation, his inspiration. I was immediately fascinated by the idea.

Does that imply, Mike, that you had no idea of how Ken would respond? Or was the unfolding carefully plotted?

MIKE:  Both. Ken had wide scope for the creation of his character and what he got up to, as well as various sub-plots. But it all had to fit with the stuff I was producing, as well as converge on the ending. I did make a few futile attempts to steer his character in my preconceived direction at first, but Ken was unresponsive, it was unnecessary, and I soon gave up.

KEN: We got together over several breakfasts and built up background to the characters in discussion. Their original conceptualisation (as opposed to their characterisation in detail) was pretty much guided by Mike, though in discussion. Then it was my job to plot the younger writer’s narrative in detail (his name is Art), and to write that.

How did the actual writing proceed? Was it ping-pong in the ether, with one doing something, and the other responding?

MIKE: As I recall, we both just wrote when we could, met occasionally for breakfast, and kept files updated on the cloud. I had to write the fragments of my character’s unfinished novel, so that Ken’s character could have something to write about.

KEN: It was more complex than that. We had a shared cloud folder. But Mike wrote his voice in a series of fragments, while I wrote mine as a more traditional narrative – then I would feed sections of Mike’s narrative into mine as both unfolded. Always in consultation, sometimes disagreeing.

MIKE: But mostly agreeing. There were some stages when it was quite exciting, and we felt that we were creating something interesting/good/hot.

When did you begin and how long afterwards did you consider the novel “finished”?

KEN: It was roughly two years, taking up most of 2011/2012. I thought it was finished at the end of 2012, but I was wrong about my part – following feedback from various sources, I added a bit of material around September 2013. But I only feel a novel is “finished” when it’s been published, and been through the cycle of response and reception.

MIKE: We started, I think, in early 2011. My guess is that we were done two years later. I had been thinking about it for a year before that.

KEN: I’m glad we’re agreed on the years. I was getting a bit worried.

MIKE: Years of bad living have taken a toll on both our memories.

KEN: As I demonstrated this morning. Ahem.

MIKE: You can still redeem yourself through prayer.

KEN: I can’t remember any.

MIKE: Karin?

KARIN: Yes, here I am. I was stopping to laugh.

But now the novel has a publisher. Was it hard to find one?

KEN: Not very. We had two rejections first, and the third one bit. It’s being published by Jacana.

MIKE: We did have a couple of rejections.

When will the book appear on the shelves?

KEN: In May this year, they tell us.

MIKE: In May. Jesus, is this an echo chamber?

KARIN: Mike, is that you reminding Ken how to pray?

MIKE: Yes. If you’re a writer you just make it up.

KARIN: Okay, let’s get professional again.

How many novels has each of you written?

MIKE:

I have written two novels and a memoir, which is sort of novel-ish. I have two published volumes of poetry and several chapbooks. And some stuff on the web. I have a volume of poetry under consideration with an editor

KEN: Six. And a collection of short stories, and two volumes of poetry.

You both have “real” jobs (I’ll duck here for the brickbats from the full-time writers). What do you do to put bread on the table? (As an aside, I’m a full-time writer. There is seldom bread on my table.)

MIKE: I make jewellery.

KEN: I work at Cape Peninsula University of Technology, but most of my income is from book reviews.

A question just for Ken: Does book reviewing and book writing have a built-in tension?

KEN: Yes, very much so. I’m aware of how bad it feels to get a crap review, and vice versa. On the other hand, it’s not a critic’s job to make people feel good regardless. So I find the balancing act personally difficult in certain situations. Of course it’s easy when you’re reviewing a terrific book.

When you are writing a book, do you imagine what you, as a critic would say about it?

KEN: I always do, but that happened long before I was a critic. I think there is a valuable split in myself (and probably other writers) between writing and reading sides: it’s so important to try and see your work clearly (to the degree that it’s posisble).

Okay, last question: what question do you wish I’d asked you about Sunderland? And please answer it. 

KEN: You’ve got me stumped.

MIKE: I wish you’d asked about the ending, which was the originating idea of the whole project. I would have been able to be evasive, but say that it’s a great ending.

This seems a good place to stop: at the ending. The book sounds intriguing. I look forward to reading it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Hand-made” – litmag editor on publishing poetry

litmag edges
offramppic3

Gary Cummiskey – writer, publisher and editor of the literary magazine New Coin

Gary Cummiskey was recently appointed the editor of New Coin, one of SA’s oldest literary magazines – it celebrates its half century this year. Cummiskey is a writer himself, and is the engine behind Dye Hard Press, which has published numerous titles by an impressive array of literary South African writers, including Arja Salafranca, Khulile Nxumalo, Allan Kolski Horwitz, Phillip Zhuwao from Zimbabwe, Gail Dendy, Kobus Moolman, Alan Finlay and Gus Ferguson. He shares his thoughts on publishing and on whether lit mags still have a role to play in the digital age.

Tell us about Dye Hard Press

I started Dye Hard Press in 1994, on a shoe-string budget, if that, and without having a clue what I was doing – I knew nothing about layout or design. But I did know I wanted to publish poetry, I had a computer and access to a photocopy machine … and staples. So I starting producing these chapbooks of A4, photocopied pages, stapled down the side. I called it Dye Hard Press because I hadn’t a clue what I was doing but refused to accept defeat.

dyehardpressIt was a fun time for South African poetry, just after the first democratic election. There were a lot of small journals that started up around that time – like BLeKSEM and Something Quarterly, for example. Home-made jobs. Kitchen-table publishing. People were optimistic and open. They were curious about what we were doing, curious about this poetry that was being written and published – it wasn’t the kind of poetry they had been forced to read at school. It was an exciting and creative time.

Since then, I have gone through periods of giving the press a break, but always coming back to it. Improving the product, as the marketing crowd say, evolving from producing these A4 stapled sheets to producing perfect-bound books, all professionally designed.

I haven’t bankrupted myself through Dye Hard Press, even though it has often been my own money that has gone into publications and most times I have barely covered my costs. But things are getting expensive, and even digital publishing is not as cheap as it used to be. And then trying to sell the books – especially poetry – is another matter. But small presses are important. We not only tend to publish the groundbreaking work, but also keep things going for poetry. Any big publishers putting out poetry at the moment? I don’t see any – only the small publishers, few that they are. But it is definitely getting tough. Bookstores are reluctant to stock poetry. Publishers battle to sell them. Most poetry now is sold at events – poetry sales have to be event-driven. And the poet has to play an active role in promoting the book.

During the three years that I will be editing New Coin, Dye Hard Press will have to take a back seat. But during that time I also want to rethink Dye Hard Press, particularly with regards to poetry publishing. Perhaps it is matter of returning to publishing chapbooks, to reduce the costs, and then sell them direct to readers at events or by mail order. This would also reduce distribution costs. There are many ways to get poetry out there – but it requires a change of mind-set by both publisher and poet.

Tell us about literary magazines in general – what are they for and who sponsors them? Can poetry magazines survived when there is so much poetry on the internet?

Literary magazines play an invaluable role in providing readers with a variety of voices within a culture, or maybe subculture or even subcultures – whether poetry, fiction or nonfiction. They can be almost like a snapshot of what is happening culturally at a given time. Not one voice, or even two voices, but several – all brought together, providing an insight into the diversity and richness of what is being expressed. South African culture is diverse, that is one of its strengths. In the past South Africa has had various literary journals, whether long-established, formal publications such as New Coin or New Contrast, and there was also Staffrider in the 80s and early 90s. But there has also been a wealth of small, home-published journals owned or even produced by an individual – I’m thinking of Lionel Abraham’s Sesame, there was also Gus Ferguson’s Slug News and Carapace, which is still going. There was BLeKSEM and Something Quarterly. We still have Botsotso, and Timbila, plus Kotaz in New Brighton. Some of these are or were sponsored, others not. I don’t think Carapace has ever received sponsorship. I published Atio in the mid-1990s, and then Green Dragon, which ran to six issues from 2002 to 2010.  Some of the journals have never appeared regularly, but so what? Some poetry journals were fairly short-lived, lasting only a few issues, but at least they were published and that is the main thing. And besides, maybe they were not meant to last beyond a few issues.

I would like to see more online publishing initiatives in South Africa – more online platforms for publishing poetry, whether journals or even chapbooks. These can be blog-based and you don’t need a degree in web design to get them going. But there is still a future for print journals. I don’t see the online and print scenarios as being either-or, but rather both-and. Online poetry has tremendous advantages – instant international distribution, for one. But print also still has its benefits. I like to lie on my bed or on a sofa and read from a book. I guess you can do that with an e-reader, but with print there is the physical feel of a book, you can feel and appreciate the texture of its pages. There is a sense of a book – of creation.

However, if print journals are to attract and retain readers they also need to be vital, the content must be seen as vital. They must be regarded by poets and poetry readers are essential reading and cutting-edge – in touch with what is happening.

Tell us about New Coin

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New Coin literary magazine turns 50 this year

New Coin is one of South Africa’s oldest literary journals and is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. It is published by the Institute for the Study of English in Africa (ISEA) in Grahamstown. It publishes mainly South African English poetry and reviews, and appears twice a year. New Coin is not available online as such, but is distributed electronically by various organisations, including  Sabinet Online. New Coin is available on subscription but we are looking at introducing the publication for sale at selected bookstores.

Submissions can be made electronically to newcoin@ru.ac.za. You will receive an acknowledgment of receipt. Poets should submit about six poems for selection, ideally as an attached MS Word document.

Do you have any particular desires or ambitions for New Coin?

My main aim is to produce issues containing quality poetry that is alive, exciting and challenging, as well as relevant to the contemporary South African poetry discourse and to poetry readers.

What do you read? 

Poetry, fiction, nonfiction. I recently finished reading DH Lawrence’s novel The Lost Girl, Jim Morrison’s posthumous collection of poems, Wilderness, and am now reading John Fowles’ first novel, The Collector. Last year I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which was one of the best novels I have read for a long time.

In terms of poetry, some of my favourite poets are Bob Kaufman, Gregory Corso, Sinclair Beiles, Ira Cohen, Mxolisi Nyezwa, Artaud, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Henri Michaux, Frank O’Hara, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Lautreamont, Baudelaire, Lorca, Wopko Jensma, Seitlhamo Motsapi – the list is endless. Will I ever be able to read everything I want? I doubt it. There is just too much. And that is just the first-time reads – not the books one wishes to read again and again.

What is your own publishing history?

I had my first poems published in one of the final issues of Staffrider – that was such an exciting literary journal. Then Gus Ferguson published poems of mine in Slug News. Gus encouraged me – not only to write but also with my publishing imprint, Dye Hard Press. I have published quite a few chapbooks of poetry through Dye Hard Press, but back in the mid-90s Gus published a collection of mine, When Apollinaire Died, in his Firfield Press series. Have been published by Tearoom Books too – apart from publishing a print chapbook of mine, Romancing the Dead, Tearoom also recently published an e-chapbook of free-form haiku, called I Remain Indoors. I had a chapbook published in India, by Graffiti Kolkata, called Sky Dreaming. Through Dye Hard Press I also published Who was Sinclair Beiles?, which I co-edited with Eva Kowalska, plus my debut collection of short fiction, Off-ramp.

What sort of poems do you write?

I have been influenced very much by the US Beat poets and the French surrealists, so this does have an effect on my approach to writing poetry. I once referred to myself as a “dada-surrealist-madhouse screamer”, which I guess fits the bill. Yet when I Remain Indoors appeared, someone was surprised and said: “These poems are not surrealist!”

But why play in one room when you can play in several?

 

Librarians pick top twenty SA books since democracy

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South African librarians have picked their top twenty South African books published in the last twenty years.

The Library and Information Association of South African (LIASA) has just released the list from nominations across all genres, and which include children’s books.

Here they are:

  • Long Walk To Freedom by Nelson Mandela (Macdonald Purnell, 1994)
  • Country of my Skull  by Antje Krog (Random House, 1998)
  • I have life: Alison’s Story by Marianne Thamm (Penguin, 1998)
  • Disgrace by J M Coetzee (Vintage, 1999)
  • Jamela’s Dress by Niki Daly (Tafelberg, 1999)
  • Heart of Redness by Zakes Mda (OUP, 2002)
  • Madonna of Excelsior by Zakes Mda (OUP, 2002)
  • Confessions of a gambler by Rayda Jacobs (Kwela Books, 2003)
  • Dis ek, Anna by Elbie Lotter (Tafelberg, 2004)
  • Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk (Tafelberg, 2004)
  • Shirley, Goodness and Mercy by Chris van Wyk (Picador Africa, 2004
  • Spud by John van de Ruit (Penguin, 2005)
  • Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred by Mark Gevisser (Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2007)
  • Anderkant Pontenilo by Irma Joubert (Tafelberg, 2008)
  • 13 ure by Deon Meyer (Human & Rousseau, 2008)
  • Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony (Sidgwick & Jackson, 2009)
  • Thula Thula by Annelie Botes (Tafelberg, 2009)
  • My father, My Monster by McIntosh Polela (Jacana, 2011)
  • 8 Days in September by Frank Chikane (Picador Africa, 2013)
  • Endings & Beginnings: A Story of Healing by Redi Thlabi (Jacana, 2013)

To marry a black girl…

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Marrying Black Girls for Guys who aren’t Blackmarry32

Hagen Engler

MF Books

REVIEW: Pieter Odendaal

In Marrying black girls for guys who aren’t black, Engler narrates the story of his relationship with Baby, aka Nomfundo, in an informal, frank and unapologetic manner. Along the way, he shares all the confusion and insights that their interracial marriage has led to.

In a word, the book is refreshing, despite the well-established SA tradition of using interracial love as a springboard to talk about general race relationships – probably because the book steers clear from trying to be politically correct. Rather than prancing around the political, Engler bites right into it, laying out our history of colonialism, persistent systematic racism and the generational legacies of apartheid. He helps to render whiteness visible, pointing to its privilege and its disconnect from Africa, and identifies key aspects of what he calls “white culture”: crap tattoos, Carte Blanche, shorts, extreme sports, the DA, and so on.

And yet, despite Engler’s self-confessed whiteness, he almost never comes across as a typical liberal who attempts to solve all our problems in one swoop. He acknowledges that his marriage hasn’t made him a de facto authority on blackness in a country where the fictitious notion of race has led to particularly large gaps between races. Rather, he says, we are all in a state of “racist rehab”, trying to rid ourselves of our addiction to prejudice.

Part of this rehab entails telling our own stories, which is precisely what Engler does: he tells us how he met Baby at a kwaito gig in Newtown, how he proposed one morning, without pants, by throwing a paper bag containing the ring onto their bed, how he learnt about the importance of lobola negotiations in getting to know one’s in-laws, and how he has had to renegotiate the notion of race after their son’s birth. This personal narrative is interspersed with tips for whiteys looking to pick up black girls, a particularly enjoyable open letter selling whiteboys to black women, and tidbits about everything from the importance of BEE to the intricacies of black hair.

At times Engler even performs his whiteness, choosing rap as his vehicle. It is precisely his self-aware perspective and tendency to self-ridicule that enables him to address the kinds of issues which we usually prefer to avoid. He uses both comedy and sincere self-questioning to disarm, to lure, to sway.

One blind spot which Engler acknowledges is his representation of women. In a later chapter, entitled “The other struggle”, he shares the insights he has gained about how FHM, rather than simply celebrating women, distorts our conception of beauty and denies women their subjectivity by reducing them to consumable objects. He blames his past bigotry on having been “brandwashed”. And yet his wife’s silence throughout the book and his continued obsession with looks show us that past ways influence and perhaps even limit present ways of seeing, and therefore how we act and interact with each other, whether it be as people of different genders or races.

Despite this reservation, Engler must be commended for his contribution to the growing archive of ways in which we are re-imagining ourselves as South Africans (also see the recent Categories of Persons, edited by Megan Jones and Jacob Dlamini). He shows us what we’ve known all along – that culture is not static, but malleable, and that new categories of persons come into being whenever different cultures meet. Hence his keenness to force us whites out of our comfort zones into spaces where we are not in an artificially created majority, so we can realise how min whiteys there really are in Africa and the importance of embracing our shared Africanness in order to grow this country collectively.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in January 2014

The goal and its challenges

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Having spent time in December making the goals, I spent most of January trying to remember them. This poem sums up the challenges:

Bullseye-Desktop-WallpaperThe Three Goals

By David Budbill

The first goal is to see the thing itself
in and for itself, to see it simply and clearly
for what it is.
No symbolism please.

The second goal is to see each individual thing
as unified, as one, with all the other
ten thousand things.
In this regard, a little wine helps a lot.

The third goal is to grasp the first and the second goals,
to see the universal and the particular,
simultaneously.
Regarding this one, call me when you get it.