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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


REVIEW: A renegade called Simphiwe


What We Don’t Know We Know

pumla-gqola-renegade_called_simphiwe_covA Renegade Called Simphiwe

Pumla Dineo Gqola

MF Books

REVIEW: Genna Gardini

In 2005, author and now-publisher Melinda Ferguson wrote the memoir Smacked, which was met with such success that publishing house Jacana offered her an imprint of her own. With MF Books Joburg, Ferguson has, so far, commissioned titles almost all by and about South Africa women. In 2013, she added a new book to the stable, WITS associate professor of African literary and gender studies Pumla Dineo Gqola’s A Renegade Called Simphiwe. Here, Gqola, who describes the book as her “dream project”, considers and interrogates what singer Simphiwe Dana means as a cultural figure in contemporary South Africa.

Despite being defined by Jacana’s website as “part biography, part analysis”, the book is, by Gqola’s own admission, not a biography. Instead of following a linear narrative through Dana’s life, Gqola has written eight essays using the idea of Dana as starting point, unpicking and unpacking what it might mean to be a young black woman artist living and making work in South Africa today. As the writer puts it, biographies “are not the only way to make sense” of a person’s life.

And it is questions around the wider significance of Dana’s life, or many different lives, which form the spine of the book. The divisions between her public profiles (as a musician, writer, and social and political commentator) and the public’s reaction to them and her much discussed private life, are of interest to Gqola. They also became of interest to me – on more than one occasion, while reading the book I was approached by someone who wanted to know if it “told the truth” about Dana.

When asked what that might mean, the explanation always ended with a line about how the singer’s (sometimes alleged, sometimes confirmed) romantic entanglements seemed to be in contrast with opinions she’d voiced or aligned herself with.

Thinking about these reactions, I decided that this desire to find out the “truth” about Dana had something to do with what Gqola explains as feeling both drawn to and dismissive of the singer’s contradictions, of being both envious and dismissive of her ability to move (or transgress, depending on how you look at it) between spaces.  Poet Adrienne Rich once wrote that in poems we put “what you don’t know you know.” In this book, Gqola speaks to the significance of Dana as an artist who may not have personally grown into the wisdom clear in her work. She also addresses how people’s reaction to Dana also illuminates something about South Africa today: “…her profundity is not only in her prophetic vision. There is much freedom for our individual selves if we allow ourselves some of the permissions she wrestles with.”

According to the writer, Dana’s first album, Zandisile, “appealed to listeners who may not ordinarily dance together.” For Gqola, the singer has a resonance, no pun intended, which transcends genres and spaces in that she seems to dissolve restrictions. How others react to Dana’s pushing of boundaries is sometimes supportive, sometimes questioning, sometimes abusive.  “One minute South Africa worships at her throne. The next minute we are trying to rein her in. This says something about her,” writes Gqola.

In 2012, Dana was reported to be involved with a married man. The singer, who had tweeted previously about her belief in heterosexual monogamy, was widely lambasted, by both the press and in social media, for having double standards. Gqola, in turn, considers the double standard of Dana’s detractors, with Dana slutshamed for having an affair with a married man who received very little of the same treatment.

The book’s title has been considered controversial, with some asking why Gqola would define Dana as a renegade. The author, however, answers the question fairly clearly in the first few pages of the preface: “The book is called A Renegade Called Simphiwe because Simphiwe widens many people’s senses of what is appropriate and imaginable. She is a rebel even within defiant spaces.”

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word refers to “a person who deserts and betrays an organisation, country, or set of principles.” But perhaps it is worth remembering that that dictionary later also defines a renegade as someone who “behaves in a rebelliously unconventional manner.” This seems fairly in line with Gqola’s consideration of Dana.

The clarity of Gqola’s writing is astounding, her thinking sturdy and easy to follow as a bridge through the spaces she describes Dana moving to and from. As I write this, I find myself reading a recent tweet by Dana which almost seems to allude to that journey: “We have travelled so long with our heads to the ground we have forgotten the beauty of our path.” – Genna Gardini is a poet and playwright reading towards her MA in Playwriting at UCT.

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


Identity’s spiral


Public holidays have very little meaning for me beyond the arrangements they require, so I can’t claim to have spent Heritage Day pondering my heritage.

Yet, in September, I thought a great deal about identity and, since identity is made up partly of that which we inherit – genetically, culturally and politically – I can’t really say that Heritage month made no claim on my consciousness at all.

Spiral-lIf you think of identity as a spiral – with the outer coils relating to large “facts” and the inner point constantly coiling towards the minutiae of self-realisation, then I can roughly say my identity is this: I am South African, a woman, white, straight, middle-class (in that I am neither rich nor poor) and educated. Then there are the bits of identity I have accumulated through context of my birth and adulthood here and now – and through maturity – which inform my own understanding of myself and the world. I am a humanist, an atheist, a feminist. Then there are the facts of my life: the work I do, that I am a mother, that I speak and read in more than one language, that I like exercising, and music and books…and so on ad infinitum.

I like the “ad infinitum” part – I love the details of the project of living my life as well as I can, according to my ever-evolving idea of “well”.

While the minutiae are my particular life are not interesting to anyone but me, I cannot imagine a single person’s life in which personal and social identity does not have meaning to them, or is not worth thinking about.

So it has been interesting to be given, through my reading, a chance to re-examine the outer edges of the coil; to step back and see the whole of me in my context.

I did not seek the books I read this month in order to think about identity. They came to me, as books do, randomly. And they stretched the inner point of that coil a little further, as books always do.

The first was a novel by an Israeli writer called David Grossman. It sucked me in, tumbled me about and spat me out, so that when it was finished I put it down beside me, curled up and lay there for half an hour, stunned, spent, desolate, inspired and inexplicably hopeful.

The book is called To The End Of The Land.

I will not make this a review. I will not diminish the complexity and rewards of the book by revealing the details with which the story rewards the reader. I am deeply grateful that I took this book on recommendation without reading anything that had been written about it before, because it would have robbed the story of its power.

But I will say this: this book affected me in the way I have come to expect to be affected by books from writers in countries with hard, dark histories, where cruelty and beauty sit together like two hunched crows, bickering over the last bits of flesh on the bones of nations.

Countries that are like South Africa.Categories-of-Persons-WEB

Because the book had such a profound effect on me, I could not read a novel immediately so I picked up Categories of Persons – Rethinking Ourselves and Others, a book edited by Megan Jones and Jacob Dlamini. I was expecting dour, academic pontifications on national identity.

What I found was one of the most engaging collection of essays I have ever read, anywhere.

If you have any interest at all in who you are, who “we” are, how we find ways to be South African together, buy this book. Every essay delights with its humour, or intimacy, or research, or slant-wise approach at the question each of us asks at some point or another: who am I? – Karin Schimke is an independent writer, a columnist and a poet.

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