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“Hand-made” – litmag editor on publishing poetry

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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?

 

PLAY REVIEW: The Orange Earth

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The Pain of our Past in Classic Play

47539941_0_Img2The Orange Earth

Adam Small

NB Publishers

As I write this, it has been barely a week since Nelson Mandela passed away. All day, as I considered how to review Adam Small’s play The Orange Earth, which he describes as a “denouncement of the evil political system of Apartheid”, one of the memorials held for the former South African President played on the TV behind me. Reading The Orange Earth, which is the story of a political activist detained during Apartheid, I cannot help but think of Mandela and the many, many others who were unjustly arrested and imprisoned during that time.

Although The Orange Earth was written in 1978, it is only earlier this year that the text was published for the first time. The play follows Johnny Adams, a coloured man (he calls himself one of “the dusty people”) who is being tried for his suspected role in the bombing of a shopping centre during Apartheid. The play is structured as a series of dream-like memories revisited by Johnny during his trial and filtered through interactions with his wife, father and prison warden.

Arguably the best known of the celebrated writer and academic’s work, Small has described The Orange Earth as a fictionalised autobiography. The playwright refers to the play as “on- and ongoing”, perhaps in part because of its various versions. The play was initially written in Small’s first language, Afrikaans. He then translated it into English in 1984 to be broadcast as a radio play by the BBC. Small writes that “the drama’s Afrikaans version is somewhat tighter than the full length BBC text.” However, it’s the English version that is being reviewed here. Even in the notes around the play, Small is clear that, in his opinion, it is only through considering both versions that a director could do justice to the play, perhaps underlining the manifold dangers of segregation explored in The Orange Earth’s content.

That the play was eventually rewritten for radio seems clear when reading its opening. The first few pages are meant to be experienced in production as a soundscape, with the stage directions instructing that all lights be turned off in order for the audience to listen to “the unsettling voices in the dark.”  Perhaps this particular focus on the sounds of words, particularly those describing confusion and terror, are also linked to Small’s prolific career as a poet. The play is lyrical, using repetition and ellipses to, perhaps, point to the struggle to articulate pain through words.

I reread The Orange Earth during the past week’s deluge of homages to Madiba, thinking of his speeches around the importance and necessity of forgiveness. This play feels like a reminder that behind forgiveness there is the memory of what came before, and perhaps after, it: pain.

The Orange Earth is a pain-filled text. The feeling of a harm which seems almost irreparable and the question of how to live in the face of it (especially when you are repeatedly told, as Johnny is, that you are not allowed to) is almost palpable in the play. It pulsates. One of the most searing images in The Orange Earth is a childhood memory returned to repeatedly. In it, Johnny’s mother is instructed by a white woman to move to the back of the house rather than approach the font door. “She looks right past her, as if Mamma isn’t there,” recalls Johnny. This memory, along with others, is dragged across the skin of the play repeatedly. That The Orange Earth is loosely based on the playwright’s own experiences is clear in his decision to include a photograph of his mother on the back cover. A similar picture is mentioned in the play. In it, she looks at the camera, a bloom tucked behind an ear, posies in one hand, the other holding out her flora dress. She is, herself, budding, full of potential. Beneath the picture it reads: “The playwright’s mother as a young woman, the girl who had to go around the back.” This is one of the strongest moments of The Orange Earth for me. Here she is, her position at the back now signifying her importance, her history, her existence. She is impossible to look past.

  • Genna Gardini is a poet and playwright based in Cape Town. She is currently completing her MA Theatre-making (Playwriting) at UCT.
  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in January 2014

 

TOP TEN SOUTH AFRICAN BOOKS 2013

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TOP TEN BOOKS 2013

By Karin Schimke

There are a great many contenders each year, but here’s my pick for The Star’s Top Ten Books of 2013. Sheesh, what challenge to narrow it down.

 

 

Categories of Persons: Rethinking Ourselves and Others

Edited by Megan Jones and Jacob Dlamini

Picador Africa

These nine engrossing essays grasp way beyond stereotype towards richer understandings of what it means to be South African. In lucid prose, each essay reveals the intimate politics of body, language or role. Outstanding writing and exciting slant-wise thought on the absurdity and inefficiency of simple identity markers.

Endings and Beginnings

Redi Tlhabi

Jacana

The rigorous and unflinching story Tlhabi’s childhood and of her friend Mabegzo – who started well but went down in flames – is driven by truth not ego. It’s savagely intense and moral without being preachy.

The Spiral House

Claire Robertson

Umuzi

Archaic language makes it difficult to get into this book with its two intertwined narratives in across two centuries, but the rewards are manifold. Complex and rich with experience and sensation.

Wolf Wolf

Eben Venter

Tafelberg

A harrowing book with a shocking sting in the tail, Wolf Wolf tells the story of a young gay man looking after his dying father. Masterful tale about people losing control.

From Quantum to Cosmos: The Universe Within

Neil Turok

Faber and Faber

This SA-trained scientist weaves personal experiences and thinking into a wide-ranging tour through science’s history and philosophy, presenting thrilling ideas plainly but lucidly.

Zebra Crossing

Meg Vandermerwe

Umuzi

An albino teenaged orphan and her brother flee Zimbabwe for Cape Town. There are no clichés in this kaledeiscopic debut about the life of immigrants on the fringes of society.

False River

Dominique Botha

Umuzi

This story of lefty Afrikaans farm kids making their troubled way into adulthood is lyrical and memorable. Poignant, funny and richly poetic, it’s not just another South African farm story.

My children have faces

Carol Campbell

Umuzi

The Karoo gypsies – known as karretjiemense – are given faces in this debut novel full of intrigue and drama. Fast-paced and filled with romance, tenderness, jealousy and revenge.

The Imagined Child

Jo-Anne Richards

Picador Africa

A jaded city woman seeks a fresh start in a small town in this gently humorous story, which explores parenthood, secrets, guilt and fear. Increasing suspense makes it absorbing.

Penumbra

Songeziwe Mahlangu

Kwela

This astonishing debut explores modern urban life and its attendant dangers for a young graduate with a cushy first job. It calls to mind the work of K. Sello Duiker and Phaswane Mpe.

LAST YEAR: 1.The Big Stick 2. The Garden of Evening Mists 3. My Father, My Monster 4. The Hungry Season 5. The Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods 6. The Long Way Home 7. This Book Betrays My Father 8. Eloquent Body 9. Biko 10. Absent Tongues

 

REVIEW: False River

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False River

Dominique Botha

Umuzi

REVIEW: Ruth Browne

Dominique Botha’s dense, gorgeous novel-memoir, dedicated to her parents, tells of the growth and dissolution of her brother, Paul.

Raised together on Rietpan, the Free State farm owned and inhabited by the Botha family for generations, Dominique and Paul explore childhood and adolescence together on wide-open farmland in a country of closed minds. The oldest of five children, these two carry the family legacy and the expectations of their parents most heavily. For Paul, the road out of Rietpan led to a deep existential despair.

False River reads in part as a mapping of that trajectory, but it is also a portrait of the relationship between a sister and her older brother, complete with petty cruelties, love and infinite longing.

Botha portrays herself as a soft-hearted child, barefoot and sunburnt and easily swayed. Paul marches ahead of her, winning prizes for his poetry at the local school, reading everything that comes to hand, learning independence the hard way.

Soon Paul is sent off to a private English school in Natal, and Pa’s greatest concern is that his son will forget his Afrikaner heritage. When Dominique follows her brother to attend a nearby girls’ school, her loyalty to her ancestry is also tested, and the tension between English- and Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans is subtly disclosed through the snide comments of classmates.

But Rietpan is always on the horizon for Dominique and Paul both, as though each has an anchor sunk in the muddy pan that dries to a husk in summer, its floor covered in flopping fish. For Paul the farm has an earthy resonance that is at once of and beyond words: the ploughing of soil, the hard work of operating a tractor and caring for cattle. In some sense he is planted in Rietpan – it is the only solid ground he knows.

For Dominique, who exists in a state of constant, submerged anxiety, Rietpan is merely home. She writes the details of preserving fruit and meat, of cleaning and maintaining and preparing, with a thoughtless familiarity that shows just how deep her roots go. Ouma’s pantry shelves are “lined with aniseed rusks and preserved watermelon”, and at home, guinea fowl fillets are “cut with a thick seam of fat and laid head to toe in vats and layered in salt” for biltong. Even more telling is her encyclopaedic knowledge of the plants and animals that share her world, from English oaks, white stinkwoods and pepper trees to waterbuck hiding in the wag-‘n-bietjies, and doves “swirl[ing] above the chimneys before oncoming storms”. The barbels and leguaans in the water inspire chilling mythologies for the children, and the smells, sights and tastes of rural life are evoked with great care and poetry. History lies thick on Rietpan, and Botha knows exactly how to sample that rich atmosphere and display it in all its poignant delicacy.

Botha blurs the line between biography and fiction with refreshing honesty, rather than claiming total recall of long-gone thoughts and conversations. At the same time, she draws out the history of the Viljoenskroon district and its place in the national context, referencing her parents’ activism and the segregated categories of black and white still very much in force during her childhood. Young Dominique echoes her father’s educated turns of phrase and political sentiment, and also takes correction from his belt. Pa is a hard man struggling to be fair in a nation wracked with inequality, and his efforts to remain strong, honest and decent have mixed effects on his children. His wife is sharp-minded with a head for business, but leaves much of the angst and discipline to her husband.

As Dominique grows, her voice matures, and she retreats further and further into herself. She reads as a profoundly lonely narrator, following her brother’s wild spoor scattered across the wilderness and then the world, as he grows up and leaves the farm. Botha assaults the fraught ideals of rigid masculinity, but they nevertheless possess the power to hurt her brother and everyone around him.

Paul Botha is a poet, and in writing him his sister has revealed herself as a poet too. This is not a hagiography. In some ways Paul comes across as a character in a Julian Barnes novel, like Adrian Finn in The Sense of an Ending: at first a precocious schoolboy intellectual, then increasingly worldly and mournful.

But Botha has drawn him with scars and flaws intact, powerfully human. In that telling, she also embodies herself in fiction, telling the story again so that nothing may be forgotten.

Finally, with her eye for context, history and human interaction and emotion, she writes us too, as a nation, holding up all of our wounds and contradictions for everyone to see.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in 2013

REVIEW: Lost Ground by Michiel Heyns

LOST GROUND

Michiel Heyns

Jonathan Ball

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

There is the story of the story, and then there is the writer’s story, of which the reader is often not aware. Sometimes, the writer too, remains ignorant of how his or her story underpins and overlaps journalistic observations; moves and feints around the building blocks of the narrative they are constructing.

Peter Jacobs, the narrator of Lost Ground is a writer who trips over his own story in an attempt to write a long feature article for an international newspaper. Of course, the elements for involvement are already there: he is a man returning to the Little Karoo town he grew up in because his enchanting cousin  Desirée has been murdered.

The richness of the material for a piece that would interest an international audience is easy to spot: Desiree comes from a conservative white Afrikaners family, her father a former mayor of the tiny town of Alfredville. Desirée’s husband is the coloured police chief of the town and former ANC activist Hector Williams. He is also the suspect in the murder and has been arrested, leaving the town’s law in the hands of his deputy Bennie Nienaber.

Explaining his writerly interest in the story, Peter tells his new friend in town – a psychologist called Nonyameko – that the press covered the events of the murder but “I want to find out what the facts mean, what they tell us about the possibilities or impossibilities of a non-racial South Africa”. He believes that the murder is more than just a “bad marriage” gone wrong, but that there was also some “significant confluence of events”.

There was indeed a significant confluence of events that lead to Desirée’s skull being bashed in by a small household statue: Peter’s involvement with the ‘characters’ in his story is not merely as the inquisitive eye of social analyst, but he finds that, in spite of his twenty year absence from South Africa and the fact that he has not had contact with his cousin or other family, nor with his school best friend Bennie, he is central to – even it seems implicated in – Desirée’s death.

It all sounds very heavy, doesn’t it? Where history and politics of a country crash into the history and politics of the individual, the consequences are seldom gentle sentimental waves, but devastating emotional tsunamis. And yet, Ground Work doesn’t give off any of the airs one sometimes expects from novels that deal with Important Topics. It grows lushly, in fact, out of the simplest elements of successful story-making: interesting basic  “facts”, believable and entertaining dialogue, well-paced information release, a gentle tension that builds gradually, an acute sense of time, place and character and, most triumphantly, humour.

It is, however, Heyns’ style – his dry, funny scrutiny of his characters, his narrator’s self-effacing and slightly self-mocking personal insights, his ability to convey the grainy texture of even the simplest emotion – that makes Ground Work  an unmitigated novelistic happiness to stumble into. Not that one stumbles into Heyns – not, in any case if one is an avid reader of South African literature. That he is enormously and impressively awarded for both his novel writing and his translation of major Afrikaans novels into English is no secret.

Readers who may “stumble” into him by way of alluring book displays in airport books shops or in mall shop windows are likely to buy the book because of its – richly fulfilled – promise of a mystery/murder story, but will be pleasantly surprised by the multi-facetted, diamond-like quality of this wonderful work of fiction.