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Oopsie Daisy


Why is it so hard for people to say “I made a mistake”? Instead they lash out, defend, get angry. It’s as though making a mistake is a mortal sin, a terrible indictment against their entire existence. The only terrible mistake, I think, is to make one and then fight the “oops” as though your very life depends on it.

IMG_00000625I do Nia dancing and my wonderful Nia teacher Kathy Wolstenholme recently wrote a book about Nia called Juice! (That’s where I found the quote below). Until recently, this was the only dance book I owned, because I’ve always felt that reading about dance could never quite capture feeling the dance.

Then I read a memoir by a Cape Town doctor and writer, who is also a dancer. 

Here’s an excerpt from the book Dance With Suitcase: A Memoir Resting on Movement by Dawn Garisch which – refreshingly – encourages mistakes.

I could not hand creative life over to the professionals. Movement, drawing, pottery, singing and writing have all helped me in so many ways: how to find out what I am feeling, how to express something difficult without hurting others, how to understand myself and value my body and myself as a woman, how to trust my impulses, how to befriend my inner critic, how to regain my centre in the midst of turbulence, how to express my whole self – not only the socially acceptable aspects – how to overcome the terror of the blank page, the white canvas, the empty dance floor. How to trust my mistakes, for often enough the slip of the drawing hand or the ‘wrong’ move in dance has opened the door to something utterly lovely or insightful that I could not have anticipated.

The lesson of the ‘wrong move’ applies to the ordinary poetry of life. We do not seem to be able to avoid the things we want to avoid most. In my experience, I have had a whole list of nevers I have reneged on: I was never going to own property, never going to shave my legs, never going to have a mid-life crisis, never going to get divorced, I was certainly never going to rock climb.

How is it that the ‘wrong move’, like the ‘wrong mark’ and the ‘wrong note’ can reset intention, changing direction to one that, after the initial discomfort, can feel exactly right? It is a superb paradox that illustrates how layered we are, and how much we do not know. From early childhood we are trained to avoid error. The fear and shame associated with making mistakes can paralyse us […]

Losing my balance while I attempt an exact step tears open the careful construct of the known dance […]

Trusting error in the creative act frees up my life, and makes me less anxious, more curious and increasingly forgiving of myself and others. It allows me to live more deeply and humanely, rather than focusing on the surface gloss of perfection, and the attendant judgement that says I am not good enough, never was, and never will be.


REVIEW: Eloquent Body


Cover_EloquentBody_Front_96dpiEloquent Body

Dawn Garisch


“The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates.

His further insistence on the primacy of the abstract over the material realm has been appropriated to feed the lasting view that the proper lenses for conducting such examinations of life and human understanding were those of reason, science and knowledge, as variously interpreted through the ages. The emotions, arts, intuition and embodiment were, for the most part, correspondingly undervalued.

But recent developments, notably in neuroscience, have forced re-evaluation of our ‘irrational’ side as an intrinsic part of what means to be human.

Eloquent Body tackles the relationship between these worlds from both perspectives. This contrasts with the spate of books from such as Johan Lehrer (How we decide; Imagine: How creativity works), Martin Seligman (Authentic Happiness; Learned Optimism; Flourish) and others, favouring that of the abstract scientist even when addressing humanity’s affective dimensions.

Garisch’s own life, and her metamorphosis ‘from a doctor who writes into a writer who doctors’, is the central thread.

Yet this is not entirely a memoir. Unlike, say, Rachel Cusk, whose experiences of motherhood and divorce become the springboard for wider reflections, Garisch’s primary concern is the reflective inner pilgrimage itself. So this accomplished novelist (nominated for the Commonwealth Prize for Africa) and poet (winner of the inaugural Sol Plaatjie European Union Poetry Award) has turned to non-fiction to chart where ‘the two streams of [her] life converge’. It is a ‘point in place and time’ towards which she has ‘been heading … for years’, during which her life as ‘a doctor and a novelist, a scientist and a dancer, a researcher and a poet’ has reflected many of the dichotomies of the wider world.

It is a persuasive exploration of what it means to pursue a fully integrated life of health and wholeness. I suspect that rather more of us hanker after a sense of coherence than share philosopher of liberalism John Rawls’ view that it should be seen as “irrational or more likely as mad” to desire a value-framework for guiding life’s choices.

In aiming to make “a contribution to the pool of ideas and works that aims to find out who we are, and why we are here”, this doctoring writer-poet unsurprisingly focusses on “the drive towards life as it manifests in the body, in illness and the creative act”.

Garisch begins by recounting how her own illness and her small son’s accident forced her “to reconsider, fundamentally, my understanding of myself, my body and how the world works.”  This included realising the important difference between healing and curing.

She then considers how failure to embrace the reality of our embodiment can often contribute, directly or indirectly, to injury or illness – while carefully noting this is not always the case.

She addresses the roles fear, anxiety and self-deception can play (for example, smoking to “help” handle stress), especially in our commoditised, politicised world. As someone who once suffered a spinal problem soon after repeatedly describing a particular event as “the final straw [which breaks the camel’s back]”, I have sympathy for her account of the linkages which can arise between our conscious, unconscious, and bodily selves.

Garisch then reviews how both scientists and artists “investigate the truth” in ways that can seem incompatible, before proposing better strategies that draw on both approaches, for dealing not only with anxiety, but with the challenges of healthy, holistic living for ourselves and our planet.  In this way she indicates the applicability of her approach in seeking bigger questions embracing the environment and global economic justice, with more appropriate measures of health and growth.

Yet, perhaps because of the more global audience for which Garisch has written fiction, this is not a particularly South African book (apart from recording her brief time as ship’s doctor aboard the SS Agulhas). She makes few connections with the particular fears, anxieties, and ill-health suffered on so many levels by our nation and its communities. This important subject remains the task of another book, or another writer.

But Garisch is effective in what she does tackle. Underlying her clear, clean, sentences (woven through with vibrant poetic imagery) is a thorough-going intellectual rigour. Her extensive quotes and references (with comprehensive endnotes for the curious reader wanting to investigate further – though I could then have done without the intrusion of a small number of footnotes) are the carefully placed stepping stones by which her journey of exploration proceeds.

Modest and generous, Garisch readily acknowledges that she “too is deep in the soup, clinging to a noodle”, and that there are neither easy nor one-size fits all answers. What works for her may not resonate with another, and it is “necessary to find the particular and personal images that speak to the motif of each individual’s life.”

She warns against necessary listening to emotions becoming license to narcissistic self-indulgence, and encourages the “slow steady focus [of] patient gardening”. Yet at times, for all her frustrations at wayward patients, her largely optimistic view of human nature risks underplaying our capacity deliberately to do harm. I also wondered whether she might have said more about perceived relationships between illness, and punishment and guilt – though perhaps these are voiced more to clergy than doctors.

At its best, this ought to be a difficult book, for to read it seriously is to accept Garisch’s challenging invitation to pursue our creative side, to “wake up to ourselves” and “bear witness to the truth of our own lives.”  While she offers advice and example, it remains the case that “no-one [else] can teach us how to find out who we are and what we have to say in our own unique way.”

I like to think that Socrates, who insisted, approvingly, on the non-rational role of the muses in poetry, would have lent his own encouragement.

Sarah Rowland Jones, diplomat, priest and poet, has a master’s degree in mathematics and a doctorate in philosophy of religion.

  • This reviewed first appeared in the Cape Times in 2012

REVIEW: A Memory This Size and Other Stories

memory and writing

A memory this sizeA Memory This Size and Other Stories


REVIEW: Maya Fowler

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” said WB Yeats in his poem The Second Coming, his words famously echoed in the title of Chinua Achebe’s groundbreaking 1958 novel. But does the centre still hold? Is Western tradition still the centre, for literature, after all?

At first inspection – and bearing in mind that NoViolet Bulawayo’s Booker-nominated We Need New Names and Nigeria’s acclaimed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest novel, Americanah are both set in the States – the reader might think America is some kind of axis for the African imagination. Three of the five shortlisted stories are directly concerned with America. However, read on and you soon discover the majority of themes are tied to home soil. Even so, “[p]eople have a way of getting lost in America,” fears a mother in the story titled America. “America has a way of stealing our good ones from us. When America calls, they go.”

This year’s Caine Prize was not without controversy. Things turned nasty after Adichie said in an interview that she wasn’t interested in the Caine collection, and didn’t think it’s where you’d find the best African writing. Shortlistee Abubakar Adam Ibrahim responded with a swift “F*ck you” on Twitter, while Elnathan John revealed perhaps more than he should have of his feelings towards Adichie on his blog.

A Memory This Size and Other Stories consists of the five stories shortlisted for the 2013 Caine Prize – all of exceptional quality – as well as 12 new, specially produced stories created at this year’s Caine Prize workshop in Uganda.

Caine Prize winner Tope Folarin

Caine Prize winner Tope Folarin

First prize went to Tope Folarin for Miracle, set in a Nigerian evangelical church in Texas. While I agree with one judge’s appraisal that Miracle is “a delightful and beautifully paced narrative, that is exquisitely observed and utterly compelling,” I prefer Pede Hollist’s Foreign Aid.

This story, of a man from Sierra Leone who emigrates to America and becomes fat on both fast food and on the worst of the values he finds there, was filled with the same cynicism as the winning story, but with perhaps even more dark humour. In this account of the protagonist’s return to his native “Salone”, a “Louis Vuitton fanny pack” of dollars strapped to his waist, we are shown what happens when a man behaves like a tourist in his home country. While the writer pokes fun at certain American ways, he does not shy away from illustrating Sierra Leone’s problems.

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s The Whispering Trees contains elements of magic realism. A young man, dead but not dead, blinded by the accident that killed him but didn’t, emerges from the hell of depression able to see the souls of people and objects. The protagonist’s bad behaviour, in the darkest period of his blindness, held for me flashes of Orhan Pamuk. I love this story, but Ibrahim’s workshop story, The Book of Remembered Things, also included in the anthology, I love more. It deals with religious disbelief, but also zeal. It is a sensitive, moving portrayal of one family’s love, hate and hurt, and ways of protecting, that will stay with me for a long time.

Bayan Layi, by Elnathan John, is a brilliant and terrifying story of children running wild; boys without hope, without love, that speak the language of violence and of killing. I was impressed by the writer’s ability to make you warm to the protagonist, even though the child is someone you’d hate to meet in person. John’s characters are striking and complex.

Perhaps my favourite was Chinelo Okparanta’s America, in which a young Nigerian teacher, who dreams of being an environmental engineer, follows her lover to America. It is a poignant love story in which we are reminded that there are trickier places than America to be gay. The protagonist explains to the visa interviewer that she wants to go to America to study environmental engineering so that she can learn about recent oils spills in the US and how to apply the lesson in the Niger Delta.

The story speaks of some form of restitution. If, for centuries, colonial powers tapped Africa of its natural resources, with little regard for environmental impact, perhaps they can at least pass on knowledge of how to deal with environmental disaster today.

The second section of the collection, the workshop stories, holds some brilliant work, and some of a less polished standard. The short story is a difficult form for the new(er) writer, and especially endings can be elusive. This is clear from the weaker stories, which are sabotaged by their endings more than anything else. Yet there is no shortage of excellent writing in the workshop section.

Wazha Lopang’s The Strange Dance of the Calabash is a delightful dig at patriarchy and arranged marriage. Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s Blood Guilt is an ironic, chilling but darkly humorous account of post-liberation atrocity. Hellen Nyana’s Chief Mourner deserves special mention for its pathos and focus on relationships. Rotimi Babatunde’s Howl is a wonderful piece of satire and magic realism. Stanley Onjezani Kenani’s haunting Clapping Hands for a Smiling Crocodile deals with environmental concerns. And Elnathan Johns’ A Memory This Size is magnificent piece of work. As it happens, John’s bio reads that he has “tried hard, but has never won anything.”

I’m willing to bet that last part will change.

  • Fowler is a writer, editor and translator
  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2013

REVIEW: Maddaddam



Margaret Atwood


REVIEW: Karina Magdalena Szczurek


The day the Nobel Laureate for Literature was announced in October was a great day for the short story, for women writers, for Canadian literature, and for the remarkable Alice Munro. Yet, my heart bled for another Canadian writer: Margaret Atwood. The ways of the Nobel committee are unfathomable, but given the choice between a brilliant Canadian woman short-story writer, and a brilliant Canadian woman short-story writer, novelist, essayist and poet all in one, it’s hard not to wonder what went through their minds.

Undoubtedly, there is a prejudice against so-called genre writing, even when it transcends such reductionist labels with the impeccable quality of its offerings, as do most works stemming from Atwood’s pen. Her The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is a classic. Not that Atwood’s work can be lumped into any category. In the last decade, Atwood has published extensively, but the emphasis has been on the speculative fiction trilogy which began with the Booker-shortlisted Oryx and Crake (2003) and now concludes with MaddAddam. Perhaps the genre has torpedoed Atwood’s chances with the committee? If so, it is regrettable. But having said so, this is not to take anything away from the recognition of Munro’s work of which I am an avid admirer.

Also, I hope the above will testify to my respect for Atwood’s prolific writing and put my disappointment in her latest novel into context.margaret-atwood

Oryx and Crake blew me away. Set in a not too distant future, it tells the story of Jimmy, the seemingly last human survivor of an apocalyptic plague unleashed on the world by his best friend Crake. In Jimmy’s care are the Crakers, a genetically engineered, green-eyed, blue-penis-swinging, eerily singing and purring humanoid species – Crake’s idea of an improvement on depraved humanity. The novel ends when Jimmy, injured and hallucinating, encounters three other human beings.

The follow-up, The Year of the Flood (2009), recounts the same story from another perspective and also leads up to the charged encounter. The three people Jimmy sees are Amanda, previously of the God’s Gardeners, an eco-sect founded by Adam One and led by the street-wise Zeb, and her malevolent kidnappers who have raped and tortured her. As it turns out, two others are also watching the confrontation: Ren, Amanda’s best friend, and Toby, their erstwhile teacher at the God’s Gardeners, who have likewise survived the pandemic. They are the protagonists of The Year of the Flood.

Having loved the ingenious predecessors, I reread them before turning to the trilogy’s highly anticipated conclusion. The joy I got out of the rereading turned out to be the best part of the whole experience. MaddAddam aptly wraps up some of the loose ends of the other novels, but it far from delivers on their considerable promise.

How is the handful of remaining humans going to build up a new life from the ruins of the post-pandemic world where genetically spliced plant and animal species sprawl and roam free, dangerous pig-human hybrids among them? What role will women, previously mass exploited and brutalised, play in this newly-fledged society? What is their interaction with the naïve, peace-loving Crakers going to be like? How will Jimmy feature in the mix, especially since three of his ex-girlfriends are among the survivors, and two of them have been inadvertently raped and impregnated by the Crakers who still see Jimmy as their creator’s prophet? What will they all make of Crake’s brilliantly insane plan for humankind and their own involvement in its execution?

The potential conflicts appear ripe for the picking. But MaddAddam only skirts these issues. Instead, the novel focuses on the backstories of Zeb and Adam One, and the enfolding relationship between Toby and Zeb. The former dominate large chunks of the narrative and unnecessarily demystify two of the most intriguing characters of the trilogy. The latter descends into the ludicrous stuff that soap operas are made of.

The mutations the main characters undergo in MaddAddam are baffling. Top-notch scientists, hackers and revolutionaries turn into bitchy fashionistas. The strictly vegetarian God’s Gardeners tuck into juicy steaks and crisp bacon. The tough, mysterious Zeb transforms into a chauvinistic jerk – “beneath vulgar”, in the words of his brother. Most discouraging, the once resilient and wise Toby begins acting like a lovesick teenager. Jimmy is comatose for nearly the entire time and when he finally regains consciousness, most of his conflicted, poignant nature stays behind in the coma.

The tension and the emotional intelligence of the first two novels are irreparably compromised in MaddAddam. But not all is lost. Moments of dark humour, the homage to the power of storytelling, some twists in the inter-species relations, and above all Atwood’s powerful prose, provide some satisfaction. But compared to the first two incisive instalments of the trilogy which both ended with a bang, MaddAddam is a mere whimper.

  • Szczurek is a writer, editor, and literary critic based in Cape Town.
  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2013.

Happiest book I’ve read this year

penumbra cover image

I squeezed the last few pages of Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore into little rogue minutes today. The last paragraph made me goose-bumpy up and down my limbs.

What an unusual book. And how utterly, squeakingly sweet and warm, what a squishy lovely heart it has, how fuzzy and cuddly the various ropes that tie all the lovely ideas together.

I can’t remember when last a book made me feel so happy. Does that sound twee and silly? Mebbe, bebbe, but hell, Mr Sloan is an unexpected burst of nice.

Here’s a link to the first chapter, and here’s the review we ran in the Cape Times:

penumbraMr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Robin Sloan

Atlantic Books

Clay Jannon is out of work. He’s part of the Google-generation and so it comes as a surprise to him when he finds himself working at a very strange bookstore. He also finds himself working for one of the most endearing literary characters I have chanced upon in years: Mr Penumbra. The 24-hour bookstore is no ordinary one. It has members, not customers, and Clay’s job is to service them and not read the books. Of course he does and the plot pages its way through a post-modern clash between the arcane and the internet generation. Part mystery and part story about a love affair with the written word, and an unlikely friendship, Robin Sloan has pulled off a book that holds as many surprises as his bookstore does. Whether you are a loyal book aficionado or like to be glued to your e-reader you will find a home in this wonderfully complex tale.


REVIEW: A Tale for the Time Being

ruth ozeki

a tale for the time being

A Tale for the Time Being

By Ruth Ozeki


REVIEW: Melvyn Minnaar

Halfway though this complex, driven ‘double story’, there is a theatrical rift between novelist Ruth and her environment-artist Oliver about the diary of a 16-year-old Japanese girl Nao she had found, washed up near their house on a remote island coast in British Columbia.

In their purposely slow read, over some time, of the compelling diary, they had come to a point where the urge to find out whether the girl died in the 2011 tsunami or committed suicide, as she constantly threatened, had forced their own relationship to a flash point.

Oliver defuses the situation be reminding Ruth that what they had been reading was ten years old. A decade had passed since Nao’s passionate private reports on pages inserted under cover of Proust’s A la recherché du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time).

The penny dropped: the urgency that they had experienced to ‘save’ or find the troubled teenager had been overtaken by the reality of history. Time had become an impossible deal, the moment of life and death paradoxical.

At this point the deliciously poetic title of this remarkable, ground-breaking and beautiful novel is driven to a climax. The dense and yet clearly conveyed philosophy of perception and experience of time is nailed down in superbly exposed human emotion and real passion.

Author Ruth Ozeki, shortlisted for Man Booker Prize for this, her third novel, had set the intrigue from the start. “My name is Nao, and I am a time being… someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and everyone of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”

Those opening lines of the diary set an ambiguous trap for the reader, into which we happily fall.

As does the fictional Ruth, because as a novelist, she had been struggling with a memoir. Her ‘writer’s block’ – and subsequent tension with her easy-going partner – is contrasted with the blabbermouth writing of the young, outspoken, clever, girl. (Exquisite writing by Ozeki makes this first-person voice memorably vivid.)

This establishes also the format of the novel. Alternative chapters tell the two stories as they unfold in two historic time zones, places and communities. With this Ozeki sets a nifty rhythm for the reader.

Nao sets out to tell the life story of her 104-year-old anarchist feminist Buddhist nun great-grandmother Jiko. Yet the diary entries in purple ink relate her own sad life.

Displaced in Japanese society after her early childhood in the USA, she writes candidly about the bullying at school, the humiliation, sex and her dysfunctional parents. Shreds of youthful, tragi-comic humour shines though as, after her father’s second failed suicide attempt, she complains that if he is going to do something, he should at least follow through with it.

Her exploration of Buddhism exposes mature intelligence. She discovers that zazen meditation is to “enter time completely”. She responds to Jiko and admires her great-uncle Haruki, who was forced to become a kamikaze pilot and wrote a secret diary in French.

As Ruth reads this on the other side of the world, her life too moves towards clarity – a kind of spiritual understanding of herself as writer. A planned memoir had been stuck for years, as if life simply wouldn’t get on.

The cunning narrative that Ozeki constructs – and it is truly a most readable story with colourful characters, vivid settings and dramatic turns – evolves gently to meditation of the meaning of time. And, ultimately, the significant, private experience of life.

Death is the counter part, the defining moment, the instant history stops: old people dying (Nao’s beloved great-grandmother the Buddhist nun Jiko and Ruth’s mother), persons threatening to commit suicide (both Nao and her hapless father), or having to commit suicide (her great uncle, a kamikaze pilot in the war).

Ozeki is not shy to spread the simulacra and symbols of time around: a war-time watch rewound after many years, faded diaries and old letters, sea currents that take years to move, a nun endlessly old, the change of seasons, and plenty of quotes from Buddhist sages and poets.

Naturally this points to the nature of writing itself. The diary and memoir as report. The novel as a construct of both writer and reader in time. (There is a dynamic ‘magical realist’ moment of reader panic when Ruth discovers or dreams that the rest of Nao’s diary contains only blank pages, hence no conclusion to her story.)

It is all marvellously evocative – and purposefully complex to hook the reader to the arguments. It’s a superb read.

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










REVIEW: We Need New Names


we need knew names

NoViolet Bulawayo

Chatto & Windus

REVIEW: Kayang Gagiano

Penned under her unusual pseudonym, Zimbabwean author Elizabeth Tshele has turned “Hitting Budapest’’, her award-winning short story which won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing, into a ferocious, hard hitting debut novel laced with bitter gallows humour. It’s a cautionary tale, which made me quite literally flinch on occasion. Prospective readers should prepare themselves for the emotional equivalents of jabbing upper cuts and the occasional well-aimed gut punch to the solar plexus, as We Need New Names conjures a nightmarish vision of life in a corrupt, and politically and socially unstable African nation.

Does this get a bit much sometimes? Yes, it can. Does Bulawayo sometimes come dangerously close to creating yet another ‘trauma junkie’ portrayal of Africa? To a degree. But luckily she succeeds in balancing her often macabre vision with wonderfully irreverent passages and wry social commentary which lifts her book beyond the merely sensationalistic. Since the second half of her book is set in the United States, the juxtaposition of two very different worlds also puts a refreshingly different spin on things and creates a more nuanced end product.

The first half of We Need New Names has strong elements of a dystopian, surrealist modern day fable. The novel tells the coming of age story of Darling (also our first person narrator) who, when we meet her, is a street savvy, jaded nine-year-old girl living in an unnamed African country. (Readers will soon enough pick up that this is contemporary Zimbabwe.)

Darling is part of a marauding band of brutalised street children living in a derelict shanty town on the edge of the capital, the ironically named, ‘Paradise’. Their suburban homes have long ago been bulldozed by the overzealous Mugabe government, their schools have been closed and their teachers retrenched, their parents are out struggling to make ends meet. They are desensitised and feral and spend their days trawling more affluent suburbs stealing fruit and ferreting for booty, or engage in bizarre role playing and games most of which seem to bear some element of crassness or viciousness. They steal the shoes of a suicide victim for bread money. They pretend to be a band of presidential supporters beating an opposition party member to death. Bastard, their gang’s self anointed leader, is an unmitigated bully – a Mugabe enforcer of the future. These kids wear American College T-shirts donated by aid workers and expediently pander to the clicking cameras of do-gooders and pressmen in the hopes of handouts. Their daily activities and attitudes are there to offer readers a horrifying reflection of the spiritual and moral erosion of their society.

Bulawayo highlights mob brutality, the scourge of Aids, child molestation, the lightweight impact of international aid and other issues as she weaves her absorbing tale. It’s all rather menacing and creepy and depressing yes – but the strange fact is, these kids are also having fun, being creative and making the most of bleak circumstances. They haven’t lost their sense of vitality, no matter how tough life may be. So while Bulawayo’s weakness as first time novelist may be her urge to overdo ‘the horror, the horror’ (she can be heavy handed with the litany of woes), her child narrator’s delightful candour (used to great ironic effect), her lively prose which brims over with verve, and her insightful juxtaposition of Darling’s early life set against her later coming of age in the United States, justify her inclusion on this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist. The novel’s unpunctuated dialogue, however, can make for tricky reading. While it adds to the narrative’s surrealist edge, I would have been glad of quotation marks to distinguish spoken words in the text.

In the novel’s second half, Bulawayo cannily describes Darling’s adolescence as part of an illegal immigrant family headed by her Aunt Fostalina and Fostalina’s Ghanaian partner. While the author continues to blend bleakness with humour in this part of the story, as Darling’s skewed immersion into the false promise of the great, ephemeral ‘American Dream’ is described, the satire is gentler and in many ways far more effective. The author, who like her protagonist immigrated to the States as pre-teen, has great fun cocking a snoot at Middle American mall culture. Hankering for home, Darling changes her accent, goes shopping with friends, watches internet porn, takes on demeaning part time jobs and finds herself (along with fellow émigrés) inhabiting a conflicted state of economic and cultural limbo.

Bulawayo’s dense prose is layered with meaning. For every observation Darling makes, whether it be about a bogus lay preacher plying his salvation trade in a Harare ghetto, or about her Americanised aunt’s obsession with diets and Victoria’s Secret lingerie, there is much incisive social commentary in this unusual and thought provoking text.







REVIEW: Pilgrim


Pieter Cilliers
Protea Book House

REVIEW: Shirley de Kock Gueller

The English translation and update of Pieter Cilliers’ groundbreaking book, ‘n Kas is vir Klere (I wish he had published the book under the title, A Closet is for Clothes) is making an appearance 16 years after the Afrikaans was published. The first part – the original book now called Different – is heartbreakingly and movingly written. The second part, Sixteen Years Later, comprises responses to the book, with Cilliers’ insightful commentary.

8776063359_860059bd19Cilliers is well-known as a television producer, and particularly as the man who turned Carte Blanche into an investigative journalistic force in this country. But, as a Hervormde Kerk minister at the age of 23, the young Cilliers was schooled in the Biblical response to homosexuality and thus, along with many of his peers, battled the wisdom that said homosexuality was deviant, and could be corrected with treatment. What’s shocking is that there are still people around who deny research that homosexuality is not a choice.

Faced with a father who had no truck with homosexuals, a country that believed the American Field Service was ‘commie’, a conditioned rural society of boys who scorned those who were different, Cilliers recounts without pity the pain he suffered, not least in accepting himself for who he was and is.

As important, he recounts his awakening to the struggles that others were suffering especially in the church thanks to the dogmatic justification of apartheid and keeping women out of the pulpit. It’s an assault on hypocrisy and were it not so damaging and hurtful it would be almost funny. There are times when you may be moved to tears, times when you will get enraged, times when you will laugh at the things he says and at the characters he sketches.

It’s a reminder of the narrow-minded days when people rushed to Lesotho to watch the banned Godspell, and when the church, for a time, banned the ‘pagan’ wedding march by Mendelssohn. It’s searingly honest and, coupled with the fact that the television producer is so-well known, it is really courageous. His writing style is clear and concise, also sensitive and keeps you reading. You can feel his desolation and isolation, usually self-imposed because he felt he couldn’t confide in anyone, and then applaud the guts it took to publish his story.

This is a social history, a lesson in self-acceptance and, above all, a lesson about ignorance, misconceptions, moral judgment and prejudice. In spite of our tolerant constitution, there’s still ignorance and prejudice, as you will discover in the letters he quotes.

Not all are hostile … some show how the book gave them courage, others recount their own quests for honesty, and others are downright laudatory. Prof Wimpie de Klerk writes: “I salute you with a sincere warmth … your accessible style … your storyline is gripping ….. your struggle …your protest against the traditions of the church …. ”

Buy it and read it. It’s completely worth it.

I hate Halloween

hate halloween

I hate Halloween. Not in a lazy sort of a way. I hate it actively.

I love hating Halloween. I have spurned general and specific resentments, am done with the righteous indignation of youth, find anger exhausting and often pointless unless it is precise, well-thought out and wielded like a surgeon’s laser. But my path to guru-dom would be so glum if I couldn’t seethe at some things. So Halloween it is.

I don’t have a problem with the pagan nature of Halloween, as some do. I’m all for paganism. I’m even for mainstream religious stuff, as long as its aim is not to embrace me in its exclusivity, or harm anyone – though that is seldom the case.

What I have a problem with is that it is new. Yes, I know it’s not newnew. It’s just new here. I don’t celebrate Anzac Day, or Bastille Day, or Guy Fawkes, or Independence Day, so why should I celebrate an end-of-summer ritual the Celts began thousands of years ago when I have not an ounce of Celtic blood in my veins, and summer’s just beginning.

I’ll tell you why I am expected to put up with costumes and elaborate arrangements for going trick and treating: it’s because of cultural imperialism. And this is where I stand my ground. Americans – who inherited the festival from the Celts in the first place – are fully entitled to celebrate Halloween with the gusto and enthusiasm they do. Wipe yourselves out with pumpkin pie and ghouls, say I. Whatever blows your star-spangled skirts up.

The festival, in essence, has its roots in a time when people were far more invested in the origins and fate of their food. It’s linked to harvest festivals but also to pagan festivals of the dead. It all became a bit mixed-up – if you want a frank assessment of the history – with pagans and Christians and gathering resources before winter, and with some groups believing that on 31 October the boundaries between the living and the dead overlapped.

Which is why Halloween is such a mish-mash of images: pumpkins (autumn food); skulls and skeletons (the dead); disguises (so that when the dead spirits come to seek revenge and cause havoc won’t recognise you) and sweeties (to appease the evil spirits). It’s all very deurmekaar, and that’s fine. I wouldn’t like Halloween more if it was more coherent.

I will just never like Halloween, because it is nothing but another excuse to dish out money on cheap tat – probably made by child workers in the East somewhere – and indulge children’s natural penchant for sugar orgies. Nothing at all to do with thinking about where our food comes from and how to value it.

I inherited the tradition of Christmas from my forebears and it would be disingenous to make as though I scoff at it when in fact I deeply appreciate its role as a giver of ritual, togetherness and new beginnings. But I did not inherit Halloween and I will not pass it on.

So when the spectre of Halloween first raised its rude, insistent head in my children’s lives I made my resistance clear. I will not bend one degree to accommodate Halloween in my life. I will, however, bend in the opposite direction to resist it.

It takes some serious muscle though. It requires the will to explain my stand against rampant consumerism and galling imperialism to all the parents who are always saying to me “Ag, it’s just a bit of fun for the kids”.  Well, cheap shot, I think. Is your implication that I am against fun? And anyway, if it’s just about the pursuit of fun for kids, are you also celebrating and forking out for Eid, Christmas, Diwali and Hannukah this year?

And it takes colossal creative thinking to explain to the kids that Halloween is the apparently innocuous face of those two troublesome –isms.

While the children are welcome to take part in Halloween with their friends, they understand now that I am not to be drawn into arrangements or the untying of any purse strings. I will not buy Halloween make-up or cut holes in sheets for little ghosts. I will not buy sweets for trick or treaters. I will not trawl the streets of my suburb with a small band of monsters to inflict Halloween on others. I will not spend one cent or one kilojoule on Halloween.

So I spend every October defending my position to long-faced children and parents of the children’s friend. At the end of the month I feel like I require my own little festival of the dead souls just to toast my own tenacity.

I am the scrooge of Halloween. My pointless little battle enlivens me…as lost causes often do.

Please, God, please: libraries


Thank God for libraries and librarians…they are a source of hope

By Karin Schimke

The boy is mad about the girl. She’s not like the other children. She’s very quiet and she likes to read. She reads him poetry and he wouldn’t mind so much, if only she’d allow him to rest his head in her lap while she does.

Later she asks him to walk to the library with him. They walk through Valhalla Park, which he says is like walking through Bosnia: depressing and dangerous. At the library he makes fun of the covers of the Afrikaans Mills & Boons-type book she likes and she laughs at him. Then finds an Andre Brink’s book. She loves Andre Brink. She reads him the rude bits and they laugh. Later they walk back through the “war zone”.

chokers en survivorsThis story is sketched in one of the poems by Nathan Trantraal in his debut collection of poems called “Chokers en Survivors”. If his name seems familiar to you – and not from his Afrikaans poetry – then you may have seen it on the Cape Times’ weekly comic strip called The Richenbaums.

But this is not about Trantraal or poetry or comic strips. This is about synchronicity. No, this is about libraries.

Not long after reading the affecting story of teenage love in a library, Valhalla Park library bleeped on my radar again.

Apparently many readers there have an insatiable taste for the books of Sophia Kapp. Kapp, a lecturer, is a writer of Afrikaans novels – novels that are extremely popular. So popular that the librarians at Valhalla Park called her publisher and asked whether there was any chance at all that she could be a guest at the library during women’s month to talk about the empowerment of women through reading. (Her speech, in Afrikaans, can be read here).

Although she lives up country, Kapp came to Cape Town and braved last week’s spectacular Cape Town storms to speak to her fans at the library, where she made an impassioned plea for women to claim their rights, not just be aware of them.

Then, on Saturday, I read a long piece in an Afrikaans newspaper weekend supplement in which the writer visits his local library for the first time in many years, having slid into the comfortable middle class happiness of being able to afford his own glossy books. I had mixed feelings about the article. I thought it was an evocative homage to libraries as central and vital to many, many people, but was deeply irritated by his insistence on naming the race of the people he saw at the library (except when they were caucasian, which he clearly deems to be the default human race).

That aside, the piece warmed me again to the role of community libraries, and made me want to seek out the smell and feel of my local library, where the chief librarian always looks flustered and smells as though he baths once a month, but can be relied on to find what I want and always politely enquires about how my own writing is going. It made me want to find Susan again, the children’s librarian, who knew my children’s names and had a reliable hand in guiding them towards books they would like when they were little.

The Open Book festival begins in Cape Town this weekend. Its organisers aim to make a library for a school that doesn’t have one. This means collecting around 5 000 books with which to stock it.

They’ve managed this impossible-seeming task before. I have no doubt they’ll do it again.

I imagine every ounce of sweat, every cent, every over-time hour, every thought and every tiny effort put in by the people who love books – the authors, like Kapp, the publishers, like Lapa who sponsored her trip, the librarians, like those at Valhalla Park who care so deeply about the people they serve – and for the first time in weeks I feel almost mawkishly optimistic about life.


Sanitation too. And better health care.

But please, God, please, many, full libraries.

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