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REVIEW: Letters of Stone


Letters of StoneLetters of Stone – From Nazi Germany to South Africa

Steven Robins



There is no easy way into and through the telling of a family history when the story has been shaped by intergenerational trauma. At every turn there is a trap: an alienating adherence to fact and detail at the one extreme; mawkishness, sentimentality or spluttering outrage at the other. Robins has avoided every one of them.

Perhaps the fact that almost 30 years have passed since this South African anthropologist became interested in the story of his father’s family has helped to shape this extraordinary narrative. Perhaps what is necessary to tell a story of such import with such clarity is time: the slow accrual and organisation of information, the gradual realization of the vastness of what shaped you, the gradual integration of the complex interwoveness of identity and once-removed emotions guilt, anger, fear and despair.

Robins’ father Herbert never spoke about his childhood as a German Jew in Berlin and Robins never asked. Until it was almost too late. Herbert was 82 in 1989 when it first occurred to Robins to interview him. Herbert had emigrated from Berlin in Germany to Port Elizabeth here in South Africa in 1936 after the Nazis came to power.

Central to Letters of Stone is a photograph of three women that stood in Robins’ Port Elizabeth home when he was a boy, but about which no one ever spoke. During his interview with his father – which covered “every aspect of his life in Poland and Germany”, he never once asked about the photograph of the three women who, it turned out, were his grandmother Cecilie flanked by his aunts Edith and Hildegard.

Cecilie had five children with her husband David. Their son Artur emigrated from Berlin two years after Herbert and settled in what was then Northern Rhodesia. This was the only family Robins knew. “[T]here seemed to be,” he writes “an unstated agreement that the rest of [my father’s] family were not to be spoken about.”

Once his father died, Robins began a piecemeal – and often oddly serendipitous – retrieval of his father’s family history. One small revelation would lead to another, one clue would unlock a previously invisible door. The very shortened version of this story is: the family that remained in Germany died. And from these very bare and terribly brittle bones, Robins has constructed a behemoth of interconnected social and political histories across the globe in the twentieth century.

This book’s value does not rest purely on the intrinsic power of its central story. Its value is in the depth and scope that it reaches through the veritable pinhole of one family’s story.

Robins’ experience as both an academic researcher and a writer of nuance renders Letters of Stone a work of immeasurable beauty. It folds towards itself and then unfolds again in a pastiche of personal experience and feeling, photographs, letters and anecdotes, but through it all runs the muscle of twentieth century history. And it is this muscle that makes this work an absolute triumph of storytelling.

Not satisfied – or perhaps even able – to see any detail as isolated, Robins creates a kind of meta-context for his family’s story that encompasses eugenics, various genocides, war, apartheid, subjugation, dehumanization, nationalism, cultural assimilation, exile and the creation of political situations that result in a desperate search for refuge across international borders.

While this might sound like a project in which ambition could outstrip coherence, Robins again manages this vast body of information with enormous elegance, creating three distinct but intertwined story lines: the story of his need to connect to his family, the story of the family left behind in Germany and the story of the catastrophe of prejudice and subjugation.

Each of these narratives follows its own arc and Robins controls the tension admirably. It builds and builds so that one becomes enthralled to the extent that it is hard to close the book for any period of time.

The story of what happens to his family – revealed in letters found after his father Herbert and his Uncle Artur’s deaths – emerges through the hand of his grandmother Cecilie. The growing anxiety, the narrowing of the geographic and social spaces from which she reports and the desperation to escape from Germany, create a stifling claustrophobia that must have deeply affected Robins during the research.

There is much to admire, consider, talk about and take heed of in Letters of Stone. I cannot think of a single South African for whom this book would not have relevance. Especially now. Especially here. Especially this week.

  •  This review first appeared in the Cape Times in March 2016



REVIEW: The Alibi Club

the alibi club

the alibi clubThe Alibi Club

Jaco van Schalkwyk


REVIEW: Lwandile Fikeni

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


REVIEW: 101 Detectives

101 detectives feature image

correct 101 detectives101 Detectives

Ivan Vladislavić


REVIEW: Ken Barris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The doctor who became a writer



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sweet cover

© Sam Linsell


Sam Linsell

Struik Lifestyle

Review: Lesley Byram

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

spicy salted 
caramel popcorn

Makes 10–12 cups

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

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

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

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

Mix all the spices and bicarbonate of soda together.

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

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

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

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

“White with anger”


It’s been some days since Thando Mgqolozana said that he will no longer attend what he called “white” literary festivals. Since then, he has posted, on Twitter, a vision of a what a better literary world would look like in SA (you can read it all here). And there’s lots more to read on the matter. 

The conclusion I have come to is that Thando and his supporters want exactly the same thing as the organisers of the Franschhoek Literary Festival – of all festivals: Access for ALL South Africans to books and reading. 

Here’s the summary of the literary festival that I wrote for The Financial Mail.

“I will never be seen at another literary festival unless it is a black literary festival,” said writer Thando Mgqolozana, rolling an unpinned grenade into the usually polite, intellectually stimulating, convivial arena in which all literary festivals take place.

He was talking on a literary panel at the Franschhoek Literary Festival (FLF) this weekend chaired by Victor Dlamini entitled “Colouring In The Lines”.

It was bound to happen in Franschhoek.

For the nine of years of its existence, the FLF has continued to astonish writers of all races for its ability to remain so solidly, apparently intransigently, white. Look down from a stage, or across the audience from the back of a hall, and what you see is a well-kept carpet of greying white people’s hair.

It’s not all white. The panellists are, if not wholly representative of South African demographics, certainly not a reflection of what’s going on in the audience. And even the audience is not all white, but you can count those who aren’t.

“Black authors and black literature,” said Mgqolozana, echoing a point he made earlier in the week in an interview with Daily Vox, “are being viewed as anthrolopological subjects.”

He said authors had been trying to negotiate integration into a system that is white “from the owners of the farms where the trees are grown for the paper for the books” down to the lowliest marketing intern. He felt there was nothing more he could do or say to feel like a part of this white literary establishment.

“My contribution is to walk out of it.” He meant out of all literary festivals.

He is not the first to complain. Siphiwe Mahala declared in an article some years ago that he would not return to the festival to “perform in a circus performed exclusively for the amusement of the rich”.

Mahala and Mgqolozana aren’t lone voices. Amo Ngoepe, a young writer, said: “I think much of it (the ‘whiteness’) is unconcious, but for that reason deliberate action is required. Franschhoek is far. It’s expensive to get here. It’s intimidating. It’s a real culture shock. It makes reading seem elitist. And this is the only panel so far that I’ve attended that had only black people on it.”

Andrea Nattrass, Mgqolozana’s publisher, said: “Everything he identifies is real, but it’s not something the publishing industry is oblivious to. It is something we actively work to negate.”

That was on Saturday.

On Thursday, before many of the headline acts – Hugh Masakele, Eusebius McKaiser, Rebecca Davis, Richard Poplak, Moeletsi Mbeki, Deon Meyer, Jonathan Jansen – started hitting town, Maria Phalima was at Franschhoek High School talking to a room full of (only black) scholars.

Phalima’s book, The Doctor Who Walked Away, has been shortlisted for the Sunday Times Alan Paton award. She told her young audience: “It sounds dramatic, but reading felt like it opened the world for me. Growing up in Soweto in the 80s was hard. Reading helped me see that there was more in life than what I could see around me. It made me think what could be possible for me.”

Phalima was talking at Book Week For Young Readers, the festival that precedes the FLF, where the more than 5 000 learners of the valley get to meet authors. Book Week is an off-shoot of FLF Library Fund, which was developed to promote reading in the valley. Its successes include thousands of new books in schools in the valley, a box library in every high school class, a container library at one of the schools and the appointment of a full-time librarian who has trained four assistant librarians from the community.

The entire juggernaut of the FLF drives that machine. This year more than 16 000 tickets were sold for over 100 events over three days. More than 150 authors, 12 of them international, came. All because local librarians wanted more children to have access to books.

The FLF, like other literary festivals, also provides a platform for some of the most riveting and stimulating political and social discussions anywhere in the country, from land reform, to social media behaviour.

Judge Dennis Davis last week said: “The general poverty of intellectual discourse in our country means that there are so few opportunities to benefit from engaged and intelligent discussion. One swiftly realises why Franschhoek presents such an oasis of sense.”

Ann Donald, director of the FLF for the past year, said: “I have never been quite sure whether the accusation of ‘too white’ is aimed at the organisers for not providing a programme that attracts a more diverse audience, or at black readers for choosing not to attend the festival.

“I know the work that goes into developing a programme that is representative and which allow for a broad diversity of experience and writing to be represented. There has been progress in this regard, and that work is ongoing, but we have a long way to go and it’s something that we take very seriously.”

On Sunday, Mgqolozana was on another panel, this one run by Eusebius McKaiser and featuring writer Marianne Thamm and psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela. Their topic: Is Anger Underrated.

It maybe be underrated, but it is not under-felt. Anger rustled through the room like a restless child and finally erupted when Mgqolozana eloquently and unequivocally re-stated his disinterest in attending literary festivals in future.

Black audience members say they feel uncomfortable, unseen and unheard. White audience members feel affronted by what they perceive to be a rejection of their support of the literary machinery that allows black voices to be heard.

Can the twain meet over the (undoubtedly noble) cause of uniting all people through reading? Or will the ropes keep unravelling forever over the issues of what is seen as a patronising white literary establishment?

  • This article first appeared in the Financial Mail of 21 May 2015

Samurai swords and death by social media

samurai girl

The world of words, books and education will be opened up and examined in thought-provoking – and probably highly amusing – depth at this year’s Franschhoek Literary Festival (FLF), with the festival’s Friday programme tailored specifically to accommodate the floods of teachers and pupils who attend each year.

From samurai-wielding authors, to controlling yourself on social media, to government’s controversial proposal to limit textbooks to one per subject, the interests of those who are at school – both as learners and teachers – there is nothing at all boring about the kind of education that will be happening in Franschhoek from 15 to 17 May.

“While the programme is open, and every happening is of interest to just about anyone, we make sure to plan some of the events on a Friday so that school groups can be accommodated,” said Ann Donald, Director of the FLF.

“There is always great enthusiasm for those happenings that are of interest to teachers and pupils, so we’ve slightly broadened that part of the programme.”

Possibly the most exciting of the talks for older primary, and younger high school learners, and their teachers, happens on Friday morning at 10am when Darrel Bristow-Bovey, author of Superzero interviews two renowned authors: John Boyne, author of the international bestseller The Boy In the Striped Pyjamas – which was also made into a movie – and Chris Bradford, author of the Young Samurai series. Bradford is known to bring an authentic Samurai sword to his talks with young readers.

High school pupils and their teachers probably have much to learn from Rebecca Davis, one of South Africa’s best known hard news journalists and a woman who has had to stand her ground against some very tenacious and abrasive trolls on her Twitter feed. Davis is the author of Best White And Other Anxious Delusions and she’ll be in conversation with Emma Sadleir, who wrote the utterly delightful and equally terrifying book Don’t Film Yourself Having Sex. They’ll be talking about why being too open on social media is a dangerous thing.

There is a plethora of Friday events that high school learners will want to attend, but one that promises to be particularly moving will focus on the life stories of three remarkable South African women: Ruth Carneson, daughter of struggle activists who writes about her difficult, colourful, crazy life in Girl On The Edge, international actress Pamela Nomvete, whose memoir Dancing To The Beat Of The Drum appeared last year, and Maria Phalime, whose book Postmortem: The Doctor Who Walked Away caused a great stir when it was published. They’ll be interviewed by Redi Tlhabi, whose warmth and humour as a host have won her a great number of admirers amongst the regulars at the FLF.

Another talk that will be of interest to teens and their teachers focuses on what teens read and the crossover factor that draws adults to books aimed at teens. Panelists will also be discussing what adults think teens should be reading, which isn’t necessarily the same as what teens are reading.

Outspoken critic of the education system Jonathan Jansen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State, will be speaking at an event entitled “We Won’t Get No Education”. This panel will also feature Western Cape Education MEC Debbie Schäfer and Arthur Atwell, who has is finding new and interesting ways to get books to children, and will be chaired by one of the festival’s most popular interviewers, Francis Wilson.

Donald says that a highlight of the Friday programme is the Poetry For Life Competition Finals, an event in which high school students compete against one another in recitation. South Africa is the latest country to join this international initiative.

“The competition finals tie in with ‘Reading to Remember’, an event earlier in the day, which explores why learning poetry by heart at school is important,” said Donald.

The competition will be judged by, among others, Cape Talk radio stalwart John Maytham and “Afrikaaps” poet Nathan Trantraal, and will be hosted by the poet Finuala Dowling.

“Everyone’s really excited about this one. It’s entertaining, educational and competitive all in one. Young audiences will love it,” said Donald.

  • The programme for the FLF is available online at www.flf.co.za. The festival takes place from Friday 15 May till Sunday 17 May. Block bookings are available for schools, which means that staff and pupils will pay only R20 per ticket per event. For school block bookings, you can contact Sheenagh at help@flf.co.za.




The burning man after the burning book

book burning
This morning, the images of burning people in the news...here's a column I wrote in February 2014 and for which I was torn apart.

To burn books is to make a strong political statement. To burn a book is a symbolic act culturally understood to stand in for a hatred of ideas.

Book burning – like flag burning – is ceremonial; an overt statement of an intention to oppose freedom of thought. It is emblematic of a narrow worldview, of censorship, of a desire to silence dissent.

At around 3am this past Tuesday morning, the Zithobeni Community Library in Bronkhorstspruit, east of Pretoria, was set alight.

The library was built in 1986 and it served a large community that included two high schools and three primary schools.

It is moot that this deplorable act of violence by protestors against their neighbours was meant symbolically, but it’s worth asking if it was, and what it might be symbolic of.

The Nazis made a bonfire on Opernplatz in Berlin in 1933 and burned the books of Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Émile Zola, Friedrich Engels, Franz Kafka and Ernest Hemingway. They also burnt the books of Heinrich Heine, a Jewish-born German poet, journalist and essayist, who’d written in a play just over 100 years earlier, that: “Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen” – “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, also burn people.”

Never was that direct correlation between the burning of books and the burning of people more direct and literal than in Nazi Germany.

The service delivery protests – the inflamed rash on the nation’s skin pointing to a severe underlying infection which risks bringing this fragile democratic body to within an inch of its life – are not surprising.

burning bookBut the burning of this library is a visceral shock.

The violent Bronkhorstspruit protests – where not only a library was burnt – continued into Wednesday. According to one news report, police shouted at those arrested: “You don’t want better lives. You are burning your children’s education. You are burning their books.”

Empathy for the hell in which millions of South Africans live threatens to dilute horror at the burning of those books.

Children on their way to school must jump over bubbling rivers of sewage spilling from manholes, and balance their bodies of festering pits when they need the toilet. Rubbish not collected by municipalities lies stinking next to homes, and the desperately poor scavenge there for scraps of food amongst the maggots and used sanitary towels and nappies.

Families share their shacks with rats and roaches and, when they get ill, they must walk far to a local clinic where they queue for hours before they are, very often, treated to toxic doses of the effluent that arises where nurses are overworked and underpaid: rudeness, impatience, intolerance, mockery, disdain.

Something must give – and is giving – under the extreme juxtaposition of the promised life of freedom and the dire, fetid circumstances in which so many must daily attempt to live, and live with dignity.

Perhaps there was nothing at all sinister in the burning of the library. It – like clinics and homes that have also succumbed to the conflagration – is quite likely simply “collateral damage”.

Yet, we have come to understand that “collateral damage” is euphemism for murder, committed under the banner of what some feel is a justified cause.

So the burning of Zithobeni Community Library is chilling.

If it was meant to be symbolic, what was it symbolic of? If it was not symbolic, then how profoundly has education failed in this country if it has not entrenched in every single citizen the incontestable necessity of books for a hopeful future? How far gone are we if the hope that books represent is dead enough to be cremated? How little are children loved and valued if their books are burnt?

Ray Bradbury, who wrote Fahrenheit 451 – a novel in which books are banned and “firemen” burn any that are found – once wrote: “…when Hitler burned a book I felt it as keenly, please forgive me, as his killing a human, for in the long sum of history, they are one and the same flesh”.


Six questions for Paige’s badly behaved pen


paige1Paige Nick has quite a following in South Africa, both as a columnist and a novelist. Which means, I hope – and I’m sure her publishers hope – that unlike other collections of columns, hers will sell well. I think it will. I mean, she’s funny, right? And she talks about sex. If people aren’t buying funny books by people who talk about sex then there really is no book buying public left here.

I asked Paige some random questions.

Your blog is called A Million Miles From Normal. Please list three ways in which your life – now – is a million miles from “normal”.

Number 1: This morning a stranger, who calls himself ‘Kyknet’ (why?), emailed me a picture of his (not erect) penis and asked me to sign it and email it back to him. True story.

Number 2: The three most recent search terms in my Google history are; ‘How many teeth does an adult have?’, ‘Nostalgia paresthetica’, and ‘image of businessman tied up with a telephone cable’.

Number 3: No two days are the same, one day I’m writing about blow jobs and condoms, the next I’m doing a job for an ad agency, which has me researching different kinds of retirement annuities, or the best pram to buy.

So apparently you divide your time betweeen the US, the UK and SA now. You do know how glam that sounds, don’t you? 

Ha, if only. I love a good rumour. My home is in Cape Town. Last year I was lucky enough to get in a three-month trip, which included a month and a half in the UK, writing, a few weeks in Amsterdam doing research for my new novel, and a month in the states doing a big road trip.

No matter how popular a columnist, collections of columns are supposed to sell notoriously badly. (Not as badly as poetry, I’d venture, maar nou ja.) What are your hopes for this book? 

That it’s an actual book at all was one of my biggest hopes. It started out life as a Sunday Times e-book, and there were no guarantees it would ever make it into print. The fact that it’s a book of columns and crazy letters will hopefully lend it more appeal than a book of just columns *she says crossing fingers and holding thumbs*. I guess now my greatest hope is that it makes whoever reads it laugh.

Paige Nick in number?

You know what they say; there are three kinds of people in the world; those who are good with numbers, and those who aren’t. I’m in the latter category, but let’s give this a whirl anyway.

pensbehavingbadlyI’ve written 218 columns for The Sunday Times Lifestyle section. Pens Behaving Badly is my 6th published book. I have 31 of my own teeth (one in the back, on the left, is missing). On a massive week after a column about penis size or farting, I can receive up to 20 or 30 letters. On a slow week, just 4 or 5. Pens Behaving Badly contains 152 real letters (78% of which are nuts), from 119 individual letter writers (many write regularly). I am 41 years old and still have all 10 fingers and 10 toes, which come in handy when I have to count stuff.

What are you working on right now?

Earlier this year I finished a new novel. It’s a biggie for me and I’m extremely excited about it. It’s set in a strip club in Amsterdam, where all the strippers are celebrity impersonators. The reluctant heroine is a Rihanna lookalike from South Africa. It was at times the hardest thing I’ve ever written, and the funnest thing I’ve ever written.

So are you proof that someone can make a living from writing?

It’s tough this writing gig. Not as tough as being a brain surgeon, of course, in that the only life that’s really on the line is your own. But tough nonetheless. I supplement my fiction-writing income with the freelance advertising writing, the columns and some prostitution.

Internationally, Paige Nick is best known as one third of the Helena S Paige trio, whose first “choose your own adventure” erotic novel, A Girl Walks Into A Bar, was launched in 2013. It has now been published in nineteen countries around the world.
Locally, Paige is best known for “A Million Miles From Normal”, her weekly column in the Sunday Times Life & Style magazine. As one of the anchor columnists of the Life & Style section since 2011, she has produced hundreds of hilarious columns and received hundreds more hilarious responses. Pens Behaving Badly is a collection of the best of her columns and the best of the wild letters they’ve inspired.     
If you don’t know Paige’s work, check out what she refers to as her “smutty and ridiculous blog”, which is also called A Million Miles from Normal.

My Top Ten Badilisha Poets and why I chose them

What do I want from poetry? What makes me return to some poets, and immediately forget others? I’m constantly checking and re-checking these answers for myself. And now I’ve had the opportunity to do it again in selecting my Top Ten for Badilisha Poetry X-change.
This is how far I’ve got with my answers for myself: I know that I am an impatient reader of poems, so if a poem is going to be long, it needs to keep me on side with every word and every line so that I don’t find myself thinking eight or ten lines in “Why am I reading this?”
The brevity of the form is what appeals to me: jamming neuron-electrifying images and concepts into as few words as possible.
Secondly, I am drawn to specificity. Poems that meander around mustering vague ideas of things (like the concept of “woman”, or the concept of “my Africa”, or the concept of “love”) bore me. I like detail. I like the universe to be revealed to me in the detail. And I like to know that the poet knows what he or she is trying to convey – I like to feel assured that they have something to say that is new and interesting and worthwhile.
Thirdly, and possibly most importantly for me, is the language. When a poet shows that he or she is undaunted by the possibility of language, is exhilirated and enlivened by surprising word combinations, is not a slave to adjectives, then my poet’s ears are opened to anything they have to say. When a poet has this puppy-dog love of language and its gymnastics, I will allow them to lead me even to the end of an epic poem.
And, finally, I realise that I have a particular soft spot for poets who display humour. This is not an absolute requirement and I must be clear that I’m not asking for comedy in my poetry. But when a poet shows a lightness, a kindness, a wryness about all that he or she observes in the world, then the chances are that I will return to their poetry.
Each of the poets I have chosen fulfills each of these requirements. Their poems are not too long, but when they are, I don’t get bored with trite and vague language. With each poet, I have a clear sense that they know what they’re trying to do…they are not merely arranging pretty words and interesting thoughts around for their own amusement, but  they have something urgent that needs saying. Many of these poets have to a lesser or greater extent shown me in their poems (not necessarily the ones you’ll read on Badilisha) that they understand humour, that they wield a wry pen, that they do not take all of life so seriously that the readers squirms.
But most importantly, each of the poets I have chosen here knows words, knows the rhythms of meaning, can extract the sounds of any emotion, however fleeting, using the same 26-letter alphabet we all use. Each invents language again with every poem. And that, finally, is perhaps my greatest satisfaction and the reason I return to them often.
Read about my Top Ten Badilisha Poets here.