Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘South Africa’ Category

Air you can breathe

At the Wits panel on ‘decolonization’ the rage was palpable, the anxiety intense. Like many of the confrontations in our society, it was all about race, and racial identity. But is there more to the argument? Often the most important intentions that are communicated are obscured by the noise of fear and anger. The message comes out packaged in sparks because the flames need to clear a space and set the tone for urgent attention. Thando Mgqolozana is going down as a firebrand and a disrupter of cool and intellectual spaces because of some of his comments, but he is essentially calling for support for the black writer within his broader concerns for indigenous, original, literary fiction (and, I hope, poetry).

In a way, we are all trying to exist, to breathe the same air, to contribute to the sustained, organic process of creating a culture. These spaces exist, but usually briefly and because of culture, music, art or any other act of expression that brings people together to think and imagine and remember. Anger arises when a boundary has been traversed. The assumptions about what writers should be writing about and what readers want  – the creation of a literary culture – are stomping over how black people see themselves functioning in that space. I believe that this is because of the power of the white gaze despite the political transformation of South Africa.

One of the weird things about being a transracial adoptee is that your race is invisible. As one of my exes said to me “you’re basically white, right?” I think he meant that because of the material conditions of our lives, we have the same cultural references. But we grew up during apartheid, when I was black and he was not, sot the emotional texture of our experience can never be the same, because from a young age I knew that I was different. In the white way of thinking the quality of that difference was natural and genetic and therefore unchangeable. I grew up with socially acceptable values – we are all equal and at the same time the hidden values, i.e. African people are not as intellectually developed as Asian and European people. As a young woman I was told that I was adopted and had to come to terms with who I was – an embodiment of apartheid – as a black person I was inferior to white people and simultaneously as a white person I was superior to black people.

I have never wanted to attend the Franschhoek festival because just the idea of being in that space brought out a rash of anxiety. Anxiety because I am both – therefore I identify with the reports from my black colleagues who had various humiliating episodes and equally identify with the embarrassment of the hosts, whose intention is not at all to humiliate black writers. My condition of being in between the two ‘camps’ gives a  sense of somehow transgressing, being neither here nor there, impartial yet doubly mistrusted – a state of constant stress. It is simply a fact of our society that some areas remain stubbornly untransformed, and even if it isn’t said, the secret agenda of white supremacy can only admit to black inferiority. Even if we have old middle class offshore funded black folks filling the pews of the church, the system will be unchanged, so it’s not about race only. My idea was to stay away from such toxic spaces.  However this year Jackie Kay, also a transracial adoptee was invited to the festival and I have always wanted to meet her, so I gladly accepted the invitation and packed an extra dose of rescue remedy.

During the Franschhoek festival a writer asked me why I wasn’t enjoying it. “Where are you staying?” she asked, a sympathetic trapdoor opening in her voice, as if food or accommodation could ruin a literary festival for a writer, as if it’s a kind of holiday, which it is, in a way, for most of us. A working holiday. I had been accommodated in the Franschhoek equivalent of the Burj Khalifa. I wrestled with my in-built sense of black guilt (I got all this and I I have the cheek to say I had a kak time?) and said that I didn’t enjoy feeling complicit in endorsing a mediocre message about the realities of our society. Oh, she said, but I heard the doubt at the threshold of that trapdoor. “I enjoyed it, she said, “I mean it was interesting…”

I didn’t like being at Franschhoek because it felt like a toxic space to me. I don’t like being in places in South Africa that are consciously trying to look European – not even colonial – and consider that to be an achievement. I didn’t like the fact that the working class people were not invited to the festival and there was no attempt made to widen the reading public beyond old folks who can afford to visit Franschhoek. For me a toxic space is one where I have to constantly be made aware that because of my genetic make-up I was born indebted to the Western project, which gave me what I have now used to ‘better myself’ – the alphabet. I really enjoyed hosting a panel with Nathan Trantaal, Joan Metelerkamp and Bev Rycroft, and I really enjoyed the reading of Jackie Kay, and the other panels that I attended. I enjoyed talking about the poems that inspired me with Karen Schimke and Dan Whyle. But in between the small slights – the Sunday Times Award shortlist cocktail party, the cost of a meal, a slight sense of panic – where are the black people! By Sunday I needed to go to church – so I attended the panel Mandla Langa was hosting, to listen to Bongani Madondo and Hugh Masekela riffing off where they come from. I breathed easier in that – it wasn’t about being better than anyone. It was just, this is who I am. This is my contribution.

Although I am newly a lecturer at Wits university, I am still new to the idea of teaching outside of the workplace. I think one of the functions of these cultural gatherings is teaching – that is, unbundling concepts, giving examples, showing people different ways of thinking. Sometimes a sister just wants to relax, say what comes out of her mouth, be free and wild and challenging. Where people are so afraid of criticism, it is not safe to breathe without a mask on.

Growing up for me has meant accepting that the version of reality that I had been raised in was false. With the confidence which comes with a solid sense of superiority – of one’s culture, use of language and validity – I have expressed opinions and made statements and had to taste the vinegar of criticism. It is not death, however, so I am still here to make more mistakes and tread on more toes. However I’m a bit more circumspect about saying things aloud before I’ve thought about it. For self-preservation, yes, it’s true, but also because I am learning that sometimes listening is more important than talking. And thinking is the silent partner to all this activity.

So if you’ve been following the Wits panel (if you want to get a sense of it, you can look on you will understand that we have a situation of conflict in the literary scene which is racial. Black people are angry, but so are whites – yet our current way of reporting emphasizes the black anger and leaves out the white passive aggression that is also part of the communication breakdown. Another aspect of focusing on the black anger is a way of subtly ignoring it.

White people are also angry, but their anger is passive, for example a number of writers and other festival participants, who say that people who raise objections are obliged to come with solutions. Such an argument refuses to listen to Thando’s anger giving it the condition ‘to come with solutions’ so therefore seems more reasonable, and reasoned, as if the purpose of all discussion is to come to a peaceful resolution and those who are not engaging with that in mind are not playing by the rules. There are no rules however, because the game is being invented in the here and now, and I personally don’t feel that it is a debate in the strictest sense. In this instance, Thando’s position makes white people feel uncomfortable because it reminds them that they are receiving unearned privileges and continuing to benefit from a system that is fundamentally not equal. And for liberal white South Africans, the fears are rigidly constrained in the prison of political correctness – an explicit set of rules.

In the shadow game of racial dogma this is just an act however. White passive anger comes out of fear, the dread that whites have of being on the wrong side of history. When the Marketing Co-ordinator of Wits Press, Corinna van der Spoel had her chance to speak, she vented some of that white passive anger – and actively alienated the audience.

Humans in the academic environment have to rationalise their subjective, emotional views folding them into the origami of arguments, thereby creating a sane, objective context in which their idea can be sympathetically viewed. All humans rationalise fears by projecting them right back on whoever they come from.  Anger, when it is not used with political consciousness – is fundamentally uncreative – it is violent, tends to move quickly, is randomly destructive and supports and maintains mediocre levels of thinking.

Black members of the audience who reacted vocally to van der Spoel’s central argument, in which she stated that black bourgeois people don’t buy their children books, were reported as ‘angry’ but I wonder if she considered the violence of her statements before she made them, or if she just felt like she was explaining her point of view. She spoke with the assurance of experience, that ‘I know these people, I’ve worked with them’ because she was speaking with the authority of someone who once started an independent bookshop called Boekehuis. I am a bit bemused by her belief that black South Africans should flock to support an enterprise that proclaims its Afrikaner pride by way of its name. Nevertheless during its lifetime many black authors gave readings and launched their books there and bought books for their children and their friends and family. New audiences were created by friends of the authors mingling with Boekehuis’s usual clientele, and it was lively and beautiful and the beginnings of maybe an authentic indigenous literary culture – very much middle and upper-class, but a beginning nevertheless.

There were loads of problems – books were either in English or Afrikaans, so the many other languages in which South Africans express themselves were not represented. So before we pat ourselves on our backs about our literary culture, consider who else is in the room, and how many are outside this lovely dream.

This is the reality that writers who are socially conscious are experiencing. It is a violent reality that throws the validity of their work into question and it takes courage to complete the task of writing. Van der Spoel’s standpoint, that the book economy is not working because black people are not making it work, negates the worldwide trend of bookshops closing as the capitalist system crunches down on spaces that don’t show profit fast enough.

Publisher and writer Alan Kolski Horwitz started his intervention into the debate by asking why we expect Franschhoek to change, when clearly the resistance is too strong. Once again we have been distracted from key issues of Thando’s – and many writers – displeasure about Franschhoek and what that literary space represents. On the material side, books are still too expensive, our books are not in libraries or taught in schools. Black writers are funded to attend literary events where they explain themselves and generally mimic white writers in the west – when there is no will or resources devoted to the expansion of this chummy little club of readers.

A lot has been written about what was said at that ‘debate’. I was interested in the figure of Mandla Langa, who sat silently taking notes. Is this a short story, a poem or a book being conceived? or doodles? I was interested in Siphiwo Mahala’s sense of betrayal by writers associations, none of which has responded to Thando’s comments, and never responded to Siphiwo’s call for a boycott of white festivals in 2011. Dismissed as inappropriate, irrelevant or ‘not coming with solutions’, small wonder that black writers are frustrated.

It occurred to me that debates, to have any weight or force beyond the sensational venting of views, can go on for days and need to be revisited and replayed, and most of all, listened to.

Van der Spoel’s views, I imagine, are informed by the fact that her lovely and well supported independent bookshop had to close down, despite all the books that black readers bought from her. She felt so isolated and vulnerable, and the fear needed rationale that would not attack the supposed benevolent system that we are all working so hard to uphold – capitalism. She entered a risky situation and expressed her views – and hopefully will learn from the fiery response she received.

Black writers and readers have over 300 years of supporting, engaging and contributing to South African literature, and it is incredible that it is not a universably accepted fact that there is a gap in our understanding, a gap on our shelves. The fact that contradiction is only now becoming apparent is a measure of our weakness and our strength. Weakness because after 21 years of democracy and we still don’t manage to hear all the voices in the room, and strength because brave people are standing up and speaking, despite the negative vibe. Too often we need support and affirmation, but true growth comes from the sharp bite of criticism – no book gets written without the writer consuming kilograms of humble pie.

However, she was a scapegoat because she represented a white business model that has often said behind closed doors what she declared in public. But there is another aspect to this debate – and why I’m not sure it was a debate as much as a much-needed venting – and that is authority. White people often are on the back foot when it comes to speaking about our society. There are all kinds of trapdoors of complicity that they unconsciously fall into, there is a hesitancy in advancing an argument when you know you’ve got your own shit. As long as they think of themselves as white first and Afrikan second, they will always feel isolated and terrified. As long as they fail to identify with Afrika and craft their own responses to what that means, they will be unwelcome visitors in a hostile land. If they continue to negate the humanity of black people by ignoring their feelings because it makes them feel uncomfortable, they’d better be prepared for stagnation.

If black people hide their anger, it is not because they don’t feel it. They just don’t trust that it will be heard. There is no sense that their expression will be received with acceptance and understanding and willingness to daily do the work of making the imagined world real on all levels of life.

If white people hide their ignorance behind political correctness and don’t frankly expose their truth, as repugnant as it might be, it festers and keeps conversations unstable and insincere. If everyone is too afraid of being wrong, and for that reason says nothing, there is no progress either.

A debate is formal discussion of certain issues with the aim of coming to a vote, or a plan, a course of action. We have few debates in South Africa because we need therapy – hence most talking is about how people feel. It can’t be a debate because how can one person’s ‘feeling’ be more valid than another’s? This was like a pre-debate because it was a very necessary state of the sector therapy session, but we are still far from coming with a substantial, warm-blooded, full-bodied resolution of the bleak whiteness of our literary landscape.

For example, just say if the minister of arts and culture was genuinely committed to the people who he’s supposed to represent, and he took on the treasury to get them to remove the VAT on books. That could be a debate if those people had any concern about the people they supposedly represent. If more kinds of stories could be heard and read, in places that more people could afford, we could have liberated zones that could grow together and then maybe in the future, create a new country.

After Franschhoek Hugh Masekela said to me “you’ve got too much anger. you need to do that tai chi, deal with it.” I don’t agree. Anger and outrage can energise action; if not expressed they can percolate into bitterness and decay. We have to be able to listen to each other’s anger and let the anger out. It needs to be understood on its own terms and deconstructed in the terms of intellectual equality in South Africa. This way we liberate it, kahle kahle.

» read article

Jackie Kay – poet of that frrrr sound that you hear when it’s really quiet at a concert and your mom leans over to tug your shirt

Jackie Kay 3

So Jackie Kay will be at the Franschhoek Literary Festival this year, in conversation with me and also with Finuala Dowling. Hosting Kay seems like the coup of coups for the Festival. Because Kay is a writer who excels across genres, from poetry to fiction to memoir. An engaging reader, her performance is laced with humour and delivered in the rich brogue of her home language, Scots.

I was introduced to her work by my former mentor on the Crossing Borders Distance Learning scheme, John Lindley. I was trying to write my story, which oddly enough is a little bit similar to Kay’s. Hence my electric interest, but it was her poetry that really made me to fall in love with her work. Of course as an adoptee I feel ambivalent about the work that I make that is a response to my personal story. It feels like cheating – to have all that drama just served up, just nje like that because you were born and your mother gave you up! not having to imagine a dilemma but inheriting one.

Then the race thing. Feeling tongue twisted and enraged and envious all at the same time, too black and not white enough and just generally twisted and vile, I got into a toestand with a writer colleague who declared “I’m not white when I write, I take off my white male identity, I’m simply a writer.” I was furious with his smugness, his sense of entitlement, his absolute belief that his perspective could be taken to be ‘universal’.  I couldn’t make sense of my frustration with him and with myself, because I couldn’t easily articulate where I was coming from either. Thanks to Jackie Kay I found on page 36 of Red Dust Road: “It’s not so much that being black in a white country means that people don’t accept you as, say, Scottish; it is that being black in a white country makes you a stranger to yourself.”

So how do you write when you’re a stranger to yourself? when all the reflections given to you by others somehow distort what you know to be your inner truth, your reality?

Although I grew up in Africa, I was adopted by white South Africans under apartheid, so I also felt alienated from myself. Writing was a way to map the labyrinth, to link the inner worlds with the outer perceptions and prejudices. It’s like being a snail at a vinegar-tasting, a lot of the time in South Africa, where comments about racial identity are splashed about so frequently one sometimes forgets there’s more to you. There’s more to us.

So here’s to a great line-up at Franschhoek. Thoughtful, intense, and dare I say it? Beautiful. Here’s a poem by Jackie to whet your appetite

You might forget the exact sound of her voice,
Or how her face looked when sleeping.
You might forget the sound of her quiet weeping
Curled into the shape of a half moon,
When smaller than her self, she seemed already to be leaving
Before she left, when the blossom was on the trees
And the sun was out, and all seemed good in the world.
I held her hand and sang a song from when I was a girl –
Heil Ya Ho Boys, Let her go Boys
And when I stopped singing she had slipped away,
Already a slip of a girl again, skipping off,
Her heart light, her face almost smiling.
And what I didn’t know, or couldn’t see then,
Was that she hadn’t really gone.
The dead don’t go till you do, loved ones.
The dead are still here holding our hands.

» read article

Running by Makhosazana Xaba (Modjaji Books, 2013)

With this year’s Nobel Literature Prize going to the Canadian Alice Munro, it appears that the status of short fiction is rising to equal the novel in the eyes of the powers that be in the literary world. Makhosazana Xaba’s new collection of short stories is an excellent example of contemporary African fiction. Running leads the reader through dreams, nightmares, places of pleasure as well as familiar and unfamiliar purgatories. From the beach to the geriatric ward Xaba reveals hidden possibilities in the real-life and imagined characters of our virtual democracy.

South Africa’s constitution grants equal rights to all citizens of every gender, race and sexuality. The behaviour of our citizens often lags behind. It is always the violent breaches of this code for humanity that make headlines, yet we do not live in headlines. Authors live among people and capture the lives of people, and this is one of the joys of Running: everyone will find themselves a place in these reflections on our life in this country.

A dry ironic voice begins the book in the story After the Suit. “To be terminally ill and write from a hospital bed at the age of eighty is a tad risky; the tendency to romanticise abounds.” This story references Siphiwo Mahala’s recent short story collection, African Delights which is in part an imaginative response to Can Temba’s famous short story The Suit. The Suit “tells the story of Philomen, a middle-class lawyer, and his wife, Matilda, who live in Sophiatown. One day, Philemon hears that his wife is having an affair, so he goes home in the middle of the day and catches her in flagrante. Her lover jumps out of the window but leaves behind his suit. Philemon then dreams up a strange and bizarre punishment. Matilda has to treat the suit as an honoured guest, feed it, entertain it and take it out for walks. This serves as a constant reminder of her adultery. A remorseful Matilda eventually dies of humiliation. Philemon then regrets his actions but it is all too late.” (Wikipedia,

Like Temba’s, Xaba’s After the Suit focusses on the detail of the character’s pov. For example, the octogenarian Mondliwesizwe Mbatha notices the elderly nurse’s uniform: “Two buttons around the bust displayed some strain.” Xaba thus begins her collection by bestowing the humanity that the apartheid system removed from black people over generations, by giving voice to their private thoughts, some delightfully mundane, others steeped in philosophy.

Xaba’s precision is what keeps the reader focussed on every word, wanting to find out more. As a veteran of organisations working to change society, she is adept in using the language of meetings and rallies, crisis committees and caucuses, but it is the writer’s sensibility that brings all these to a human form. “The way she carries herself in her black conference T-shirt and black pants makes her pronouncements more believable. Maybe it’s her sturdy body. Maybe it’s the doctor in her. She has a presence, one that says “take me seriously”.”

Everything in Xaba’s world has a voice, each object, person, and creature is making meaning through its existence. In the somewhat sinister The Weekend, “The bedroom had a queen-size bed against the wall to the right side of the door. A bedcover of large sunflowers spoke to the walls. Against the wall opposite the bed stood a wooden chest of drawers, the kind that makes you want to ask many questions…” The mundane sharing of chicken pieces is contrasted with an intense exploration of abortion.

Like the bright community radio presenter Thuli in the punchy People of the Valley, Xaba listens to her characters and asks questions rather than offering judgements; in this way, drawing them out of themselves. Coupled with the author’s poetic imagination, and economical use of language, the story is insightful without being heavy, the different voices of the people who call in to the show to air their opinions paces up what could be a dry debate about the ethics of rural medical practices.

The thoughts are crafted in a rich language that flows through dialects and localities where she finds her characters, who reveal themselves directly to the reader. Sometimes it is the setting that reveals the character, as in Room for my shoes, where the narrator goes to the beach to enjoy the sunrise. “The sea looks agitated. The waves appear to be rushing to the shore at an anxious speed, one I have not seen in the few days since our arrival on this island. But then we’ve only come to the beach in the afternoon. Maybe this is the pre-sunrise rhythm,” she continues to rationalise until the sea’s tempestuous behaviour leaves her in terror. But it is her father’s scolding care that stays with her for days afterwards – a resonant and brief reflection on love and exile, and how we live together afterwards.

Then there is Refiloe, the optimistic orphan in Prayers, who needs only three things, tablets to cure her little sister’s bedwetting, “a businessman to build a home for children, orphans who do not go to school and those who do not have homes”, and the name of the mine where her father worked, so she can claim his pension. Instead of presenting a victim, which Refiloe undoubtedly is, Xaba introduces us to a resilient, hopeful individual who is trying to overcome the material challenges of her life – again, she brings the character to her full humanity for the reader’s appreciation.

There is something filmic in the way she creates the space for the reader to absorb her character’s thoughts and musings. One of my favourite examples from The Trip, a story about one of our national rituals: the long road trip to visit family.

“At this hour the horizon was doing its thing, with colours in the sky changing to announce the rising sun. The clouds and the sky seemed to have rehearsed this gracious performance. She thought of singers announcing the arrival of the bride, the joy, the voices. The skies and clouds seemed to understand this well. The colours were the mystery. The kind of mystery it’s best not to unravel.”

Like the love story waiting to unravel in Inside, a story of sexual attraction between two women, the simplicity of Xaba’s world allows desire to flourish and dreams to reach their realisation. These stories allow characters based on real people in a real society, to live their lives fully, and show us once again that writing is the only true democracy in which everyone is allowed to exist.

Running, the title story is a sharp observation of a very common betrayal in South African society, when a young, energetic activist meets a shadow from her past. As is the case with such stories, the only justice awarded to the victim is the telling of the story, and in the telling, her humanity and her courage remind us all of the strength that lies in us.

If you’ve ever sat at a coffee shop with a view of a public area, wondered about the inner lives of the characters that cross and recross the space, Running is the book for you. If you’d like to give a person overseas a snapshot of what it’s like here in South Africa at the moment, this is the book to send them. Running is a love poem, a cry of anguish, the courage of a child, sexual desire, emotional distance, all told in your ear, in a whisper, by a friend.

» read article

Despatches from Jozi House of Poetry

Today Jozi House of Poetry explored languages with Mthunzikazi Mbungwana and Nicholas Richard Holmes Welch as featured poets. Vangi Gantsho and I presented the show, which was called The language where you live. Vangi opened with a poem, and I closed with another, both about language. I was curious about what language people think and dream in, and how that becomes poems.

We are still so raw from apartheid, such wounding that we haven’t been able to make the transition to live comfortably in languages outside our mother tongue without the serpent of compromise. Or is it pragmatism? One brother mentioned that he avoids speaking his mother tongue because of not wanting to inconvenience others, then we heard a story about how speakers of African languages are often told that they’re excluding people yet the same people refuse to learn those languages, thereby removing the responsibility for unexcluding themselves from themselves.

Yet one sister admitted that her language knowledge was too poor to really gain much from the literal meaning of the languages she heard(isiXhosa, isCamto, and snatches of isiZulu and isiNdebele from uWelech), yet she appreciated the feeling that came across. This is fascinating to me as I told Khosi earlier, because I’ve heard so many translators of poetry are not actually conversant in the language they’re translating from, but they repeat and repeat and repeat the poem and then gauge the feeling and then rewrite it in the language they’re translating to. They REWRITE your poem, choma. A poet I am studying under told me that in Russia they rewrote her poem so that it was rhyming – which it wasn’t in the original.

According to Nicholas Richard Holmes Welch, it easier to translate from Japanese to Zulu because of the open syllables which abound in both languages. Both poets are scholars of language, Mthunzikazi learns at the feet of her family in the Eastern Cape; having studied communications and working continuously in government departments which require her skills. Nicholas is an itinerant performer who picks up knowledge and adds it to the linguistic lexicon he inherited from is isiZulu speaking grandfather. He has also studied linguistics formally and so is able to arrange his knowledge according to a system. His current craze is translating traditional Japanese tanka poems into isiZulu.

Unfortunately Pitika Ntuli had to be excused because he was in KZN, attending to a dispute between kings. The open mic was particularly brilliant with young poets reflecting on the nature of home (goosebump moment), travels to the metropole and the fierce feelings that brings up and a love story, as well as a brave freestyle exploration of language and identity in present day South Africa. Felix de Rooy opened this part of the session with his invocation of his being and his destiny, which, even though he’s from a place which most of us have NEVER HEARD OF (Curacao) we could relate. We are also products of the colonial orgasm, trying to find our way in the world.

Sigh. We all want to belong. We all want to be recognised. This is the human condition. Sometimes it hurts when we don’t. However today at JHP everyone was included – even if we couldn’t hear all the words. That is a sadness that’s folded into the hem of my expression. Yet Nicholas – Pule – gathers silences in other tongues and paints them on walls to a hip-hop beat with the rhythm of laughter. Mthunzikazi says what women are not supposed to say, with humour and a firm grasp on what’s wrong and reminding us that the word can open a path to your true identity, and it might be lonely and hard but the reward is that subtle sense of belonging – to yourself.

The generous and faithful Zaheer Karolia filmed the event and participated in the discussion. Makhosazana Xaba joined us as well as Felix de Rooy, who as we speak is sitting in OR Tambo airport waiting for his (delayed by 3 hours) plane. Even though we had a great time WE MISSED YOU MYESHA. COME BACK SOON.

» read article


Heritage Month, Jozi House of Poetry explores the link between language and identity. As part of the It’s so Gay festival, we will welcome contributions to the discussion, as well as open mic poems in IsiNgqumo or Gayle (or any official or unofficial South African languages).

Featuring poets Mthunzikazi Mbungwana, Pitika Ntuli and Nicholas Richard Holmes Welch in discussion with Vangi Gantsho and Phillippa Yaa de Villiers. After a 15 minute set from each poet, we open the discussion and explore the theme in depth, referring to the writer’s intentions, habits and cultural and literal references.

The session takes place on 29 September at POP Art Theatre in the Maboneng Precinct on Fox Street, in the building known as Main Street Life. It starts at 2pm and closes at 5. Tickets are R50 at the door. Bring your poem for the open mic!

» read article

A traumatic revenge by Tshifhiwa Given Mukwevho 2011 Timbila Publishing Isbn 978-0-9869991-2-3

I’m always amazed by how small independent publishers bring literary works to hungry audiences with a blockbuster budget of passion and dedication, yet no resources for marketing. How can it be that in a country that constantly speaks of ‘stories that need to be told’ these books which are written, printed and published then disappear into the mulch of marginalised consumerism? What agents of mediocrity ignore new talent? Timbila Publishing, which first exposed other notable writers including Myesha Jenkins, Makhosazana Xaba and Vonani Bila, has once again revealed a gem.

This debut collection of short stories was written during the author’s prison sentence at the Kutama Sinthumule Maximum Security Prison at Makhado, in northern Limpopo. He was released on parole in November 2010 after serving eleven years.

This is a portrait of a rarely-witnessed South Africa, where Mukhwevho’s humanity goes behind the masks of poverty, aggression and despair. With a gaze that is controlled and unafraid, he reveals our society’s fears. With precision and patience he dissects our shameful emotions. I say ‘our’ because even though many of his protagonists will not be his readers, we identify with them, even if we’re repulsed by them. His preoccupation with retribution is explored through several sharply observed characters in various settings. He captures social tensions with a poet’s economy, instantly placing the reader in the shifting chorus of onlookers.

Mukwevho’s linguistic palette includes tshiVenda, sePedi, xiTsonga, and English, and he can hear Shona. He moves effortlessly between the mental spaces of his characters, making them audible to one another: his writing language is polyrhythmic, lyrical and vivid.

Even as an outsider, one can roam from rural Eden to inner-city pub to burnt out squatter camp, led by Mukwevho’s radiant prose. In Music to Ears, he probes the tensions and regrets of musicians torn apart by apartheid legislation and corporate cowardice. In Strange Demise, he explores a daughter’s bereavement, capturing the mood exquisitely: “Days elapse like small, uneven stones pelted at the dirty water of a songless dam.” He takes the reader to the edge of despair in the title story, where the revenge meted is as traumatic for the victim as for the perpetrator. He reveals in a series of resonant images, the systematic violation of a human psyche.

From setting to setting, story to story, I was absorbed, delighted and repulsed. It’s not possible to have a neutral, disengaged perspective with these traumatised scenarios, the flesh and blood of news stories told with a disarming humour and humanity. In a country where the line between right and wrong is typically hijacked by the powers of big money and big reputation, this book reveals, through its exploration of ordinary stories, the damaged landscape of morality, and the enduring power of the dream.

» read article

Daphne’s Lot by Chris Abani

Daphne’s Lot is less a war story than a family memoir that took place in Nigeria during the Biafran war. This is how Chris Abani makes sense of his parentage, early life and circumstances, and an early exposure to the extreme cruelty of ethnic conflict. The author, son of an Englishwoman and an Igbo intellectual, has created an epic in verse that subverts the form “while playing in the field of its tradition…”

Daphne’s Lot – a pun evoking her fate, as well as her mob of four children, and somehow also echoing Lot’s wife, looking back at the ruins – follows Daphne’s journey from the Midlands of the UK to Nigeria, and back again to be reunited with her husband.

He has chosen to construct the memoir in couplets, with long sweeps of lines that reveal unpredictable rhymes like jewels in the sand. As much this is a sumptuous, lyrical delight, it fearlessly reveals how ugly humans can be – both on an intimate level, as in his father’s violence – and in the political murderous war on civilians, specifically the one million children who died of starvation.

While he makes no claims to write a classic epic poem, he does use some of the conventions of the form to bring his story to life. For example, the invocation to the muse is a poem entitled Only a small prayer, opening with the words:
“I know nothing of truth/Towering like that first light,
Unbending sacred river.”

And he ends the poem by naming his muse: poetry. This is the muse to whom he prays, to lend structure to the clamour of memories. We see the writer as he struggles to begin, with a familiar frustration:
“Oh Christ, my craft, and the time it is taking” and then he disappears between the folds of Daphne’s life in Midlands post-war Britain, we almost forget him as her family comes to life in the little boy’s mind, the familiar endearments of Grampy and Mum and we are reminded, as in all war stories, people were living there. The parts of the poem are economically headed with dates, in 1937 he observes:
“There had not always been the war, unfettered/Weed in the garden of Europe, over-running neat
Boundaries, like the one Grampy tended and grew/The flower Mum would be named after.”

Here we see a master poet who in two lines sketches history and his family’s place in it without compromise of tenderness or horror. His reading of his mother’s regret at turning down her scholarship to grammar school for secretarial college “like the smell of mangoes/rotting – sweet, so sweet – /”
The epic contains not only the journey of the family to flee Biafra and its corpses, to England, but Abani’s later wanderings which have culminated in a life in the USA. Abani’s complex relationship with his father, a womaniser, a wife-beater and a war hero, finds an uneasy peace in the latter part of the narrative, as we witness a son fashioning a hero from his alienated father.

“Red Cross official in charge of distributing food/and medicines, the task had been more formidable
And dangerous than fighting on the front lines/where the only responsibility was to one’s self.
He further undertook the risky work of reuniting/lost children and parents. This required a dedication,/
Commitment and bravery equal to any marine…”

Deities are absent from this damaged landscape, except the muse, poetry, revealing with empathy the journey of one young man from chaos to closure. Sort of. Abani’s complex honorific is finely crafted and resonant.
Chris Abani’s first novel, a political thriller titled Masters of the Board, was published when he was sixteen years old. He was imprisoned under suspicion for being involved in the plot that took place three weeks after the book was published. After his release he wrote Sirocco, which earned him another period behind bars. On his release he wrote several dissident plays and he was sentenced to death. With the intervention of friends he managed to escape and found refuge in Britain. He now lives in the United States.

This rich document, filled with the light and shadow of his native land, the textures of family and love, nevertheless does not spare the reader of the slaughter, the shattered lives and the insanity of war – bringing to our news-filled imaginations other wars, other losses, other lives. There is, as he promises in his foreword, much to be celebrated: courage, and love above all.

» read article

A star has fallen.

The sky is a little darker without the light and life of Chiwoniso Maraire, one of Africa’s outstanding artists, mbira maestro, songstress, griot, poet, visionary. Chiwoniso died before even reaching 40.

I fell in love with her music and her voice long before I was privileged to be included on the bill at Poetry Africa in 2007. There she was performing with Chirikure Chirikure and Comrade Fatso and I was mesmerised. I swopped a copy of Taller than buildings with her and took home a copy of Timeless and just put it on repeat. In 2009 I was lucky enough to be billed at the Berlin Poesiefestival, and this poem came out of a night of ecstatic dancing with a buoyant public that included Keorapetse Kgositsile, Kgafela wa Magogodi, Isabel Ferrin-Aguirre, Flora Veit-Wild and countless other souls who drank of the nectar of her music. May her legacy live on in those who were influenced by her. I wish that all the broken-hearted people are healed by the strength and beauty of her work.

Stolen rivers
For Chiwoniso Maraire

We Africans came to Berlin to sing
and recite poetry. We had an agenda:
remembering our anthems of loss,
galloping, consuming,
the pillage, the cries
like forest fires, like haunted children,
how can we, how can we even
begin to redress?
Enraged, we wanted revenge
and then, Chiwoniso, you stepped on the stage and
you opened your mouth and
every stolen river of platinum and gold
poured out of your mouth in song;
your voice etched us out of the night
and doubled the light in each of us.
You restored all the treasure-houses
from Benin to Zimbabwe, Mapungubwe to Cairo;
Africa moved its golden bones,
shook off its heavy chains
and danced again.
That night I thought
if only
love could purchase bread,
Africans would not be hungry.

Chiwoniso Maraire

» read article

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison – a review and invitation

I was completely taken by this incredible novel, taken and shaken and wolfed down by it. The powerful, impressionist style of it, like fast-paced sketches where an entire history, feeling, colour, style is suggested by a single economical yet perfect line, like jazz on a Sunday afternoon, the blues below the surface, imbibed in a heat-wave, in racism’s claustrophobic attic. This is an adventure, a fable, an epic poem about one man’s existential crisis in the American Dream of the early 20th century, where everyone can have a piece of that pie in the sky, except if you’re black – but especially because you are black, because you’re still better off than your parents, or grandparents who were slaves, and you’d better do your best to advance yourself and make the most of the opportunities or else you’ll be spitting on their graves.

The brilliance of a writer who can take such a personal, psychological trauma and spin it out, play it out in a number of cauldrons of human ambition and aspiration, boil that poor man, stir him up and add spices to the pot … and leave the nameless protagonist still nameless after the intense adventure. Yes, there is no resolution, no revolution no reward. But instead of leaving one with bitterness and bile, it left this reader satisfied by a story well told.

I’m not alone in my praise for this book: in 1953, the year it was published, it won the US National Book Award, and Time ranks it 19th in the top 100 novels published in the 20th century. Yet I’d never heard about it, which I can understand in South Africa where every vestige of African thought and reflection was hidden from us by apartheid.

Wikipedia says: “”I live rent-free in a building rented strictly to whites, in a section of the basement that was shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century.” In this secret place, the narrator creates surroundings that are symbolically illuminated with 1,369 lights from the electric company Monopolated Light & Power. He says, “My hole is warm and full of light. Yes, full of light. I doubt if there is a brighter spot in all New York than this hole of mine, and I do not exclude Broadway.” The protagonist explains that light is an intellectual necessity for him since “the truth is the light and light is the truth.” From this underground perspective, the narrator attempts to make sense out of his life, experiences, and position in American society.”

From then on he’s off like a racehorse, or a steeplechase, in a speech competition at the county hall, which is actually some kind of wrestling competition, spine-curlingly humiliating (I know Microsoft, that isn’t a word, but there isn’t a word that can trace the shape of that combination of humiliation and hope that the author is exploring.) And that’s just the first hell, then he wins, and goes to college, the second hell, he divulges the secrets of the shanty town with its abject and amoral lumpen proletariat to the white patron, shocked and undone he seeks refuge (and brandy) for the white gentleman in the shebeen, and they are swallowed into yet another inferno of contradiction and compromise, and there are several more hells that he’s thrown into, until by the end of the book you’re screaming, stop, stop, stop doing that to that man!

Have a taste of the introduction:
“I am an invisible man.No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan
Poe; nor am l one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass.

When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything except me.”

Sound familiar Mzansi? Am I wrong when I say that everyone can identify with this protagonist? We are all invisible to each other? so you’re hooked in and you read and read and you can barely breathe but you can’t stop until its over: rubble and broken glass. Silence.

And you step back and go for a walk. And you wonder how you’ve been betrayed and how you betrayed yourself and you realise that there’s no way out of this particular hell, made bearable only by the luminescence of great minds like Ellison’s.

» read article

Jozi House of Poetry’s October Session: Colours of peace

This month Jozi House of Poetry introduces a diverse panel of poets: an MC, a midwife and a historian share their perspectives on peace. We are bombarded with physical and emotional violence, war, abuse, addiction, racism, xenophobia, corruption, theft, rape. Where do we go to find peace? What does this peace look like? How does it feel? Does our writing change? Can we imagine peace in our lifetime?

Makhosazana (Khosi) Xaba, a midwife, gender activist and former soldier, returned to South Africa in 1990, and began pursuing her passion for literature and remaking herself as the country she fought to create came into being. After the publication of her first collection, these hands, she graduated cum laude with a Masters in Creative Writing and released her second collection Tongues of their mothers, “an arresting combination of challenging social commentary and intensely personal reflection”. She continues to contribute to the health and well-being of our country as a poet and as a health worker.

Thekwini se kind (Durban’s child) Busiswa Gqulu collaborated with DJ Zinhle’s to write and perform the smash hit My Name Is, and is signed to the popular outfit Kalawa Jazmee Records. Her poetic journey began in 2005 as a member of the all-women collective ‘Basadzi Voices’ and she has shared stages with Tu Nokwe, Thandiswa Mazwai and Siphokazi.

Sarah Godsell gathers oral histories from people in different parts of South Africa. Academic curiosity led her to a field rich in emotional journeys, which feeds into her poetry. Godsell is fascinated and inspired by the human spirit, the need to protect hope and the need to tell truths.
Jozi House of Poetry takes place on 28 October at PopArt Theatre, Main Street Life in the Maboneng Precinct. Tickets are R50 or R40 with a donation of sanitary pads. The poetry is followed by an audience-led discussion and an open mic.

» read article