“Outrageously funny with unerring humour and intelligence” – Cosmopolitan
“A superb mixture of sitcom, satire and South African stuff” – Zapiro
“Has won the hearts of millions!” – Mail & Guardian
This year we are in for a treat: After 25 years, Madam & Eve is still going strong and are back with more hilarious cartoons looking back at another year of the crazy rollercoaster that is daily life and politics in South Africa.
Madam & Eve cartoons appear regularly in the Mail & Guardian, The Star, The Saturday Star, Herald, Mercury, Witness, Daily Dispatch, Cape Times, Pretoria News, Diamond Fields Advertiser, Die Volksblad, EC Today, Kokstad Advertiser and The Namibian.
“I am always amazed by the energy and passion displayed by this writing and drawing duo that manages week after week to come up with fresh comedic ideas on which to make their point and build their powerful punch line.” – Business Day
Stephen Francis is the writing half of the Madam & Eve team. Born in the United States in 1949, Stephen moved to South Africa in 1988. In 1992, witnessing the interesting and often funny dynamic between his South African mother-in-law and her domestic housekeeper, he conceptualised the Madam & Eve strip. Francis is also an award-winning script writer, and radio and TV personality.
Rico Schacherl forms the other half of the creative team – as illustrator. Born in Austria in 1966, Rico has lived and worked in Johannesburg for most of his life, and has been drawing cartoons ever since he was old enough to hold a pencil. Besides his work on Madam & Eve, Rico also produces illustrations and editorial cartoons for a wide range of other publications.
Michael Yee was born in Pretoria. His story ‘Mouth Full Teeth’ appeared in Short.Sharp.Stories Incredible Journey and he’s thrilled to be included again. He’s had the privilege of working in Joburg, Prague, Frankfurt, London, and most recently as a freelance creative director for an ad agency in the Ivory Coast. He looks forward to living in a world where things are more equal. Joanne Hichens, curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories Award, recently conducted an interview with Michael during which they discussed the cruel history behind his entry, having to stay detached while writing scenes of violence, and why short stories shouldn’t be age-restricted.
What was the initial spark for your short story, ‘Satins and Giants’?
I received a horrific video about the angora fur trade from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) that I wanted to write about for this year’s competition.
Your story is a hard-hitting exposé of your protagonist, Achim, who gets caught up in a cruel family system as well as the taint of the worst of European history… How did you marry these ideas?
I would love to take credit for that, but really, once the protagonist appeared it was just a case of staying out of his way. He showed up after some digging revealed that Himmler kept secret angora farms in Auschwitz, using the fur to line the jackets of SS officers. In fact, the photo at the beginning of ‘Satins and Giants’ are of rabbits raised there.
The story, influenced as it is by Nazi war crimes, highlights this evil in a visceral way. Was it difficult to write?
Having to stay detached while rewriting those scenes of violence was really tough, many nights I went to bed seeing double.
Your protagonist, Achim, perpetrates a kind of unspeakable cruelty to animals. It has been suggested that your story should come with a ‘trigger warning’. Do you agree with this? (Or are we too molly-coddled as readers?)
I guess movies and music albums use warnings, but that’s a legal requirement to protect minors, which is not the case for short stories, so I would tend to disagree. I hope nobody is ambushed by the cruelty though, as I tried to avoid that with a pretty dark tone from the start. (Having said this: I’m even more thankful now that the story was included in the collection, given the subject matter.)
“Some digging revealed that Himmler kept secret angora farms in Auschwitz, using the fur to line the jackets of SS officers. In fact, the photo at the beginning of ‘Satins and Giants’ are of rabbits raised there.”
Did you feel you were taking a risk with this subject matter, a risk which might exclude you from publication?
Definitely, I was nervous when the time came to submit and with so many excellent writers with great stories to tell, the risk of not making it always looms large. But a year on, I’m very grateful to have a story included that I cared about in the collection.
Back to Achim. He does find some kind of redemption. Was this important to you as writer?
Yes, I’d like to live in a place where people get second chances, no matter how badly they messed up. Plus, after everything Achim had been through, he deserved a break. He had earned it!
Is the setting an echo of the concept that ‘wealth corrupts’? Yours is a fascinating scene …
Very much so. After realising what this story was about, it guided many decisions: the setting of structural rot, mansions overlooking other decaying mansions in ‘Sol Kerzner’ country in Johannesburg, and props, dialogue, Achim’s relationships, his motivations. The order that this brought was comforting because the protagonist was so chaotic!
What writing Trade Secret would you like to share?
Be kind and patient with whatever arrives on the page.
By Mila de Villiers, @mila_se_kind
Research Professor in Human Origins at Wits University, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, peer-reviewed paleoanthropologist, and author of Almost Human: The astonishing tale of Homo naledi (co-written with John Hawks), Lee Berger, recently spoke to us via Skype (from an excavation site at Dinaledi and Lesedi Chambers, nogal) about his book – an account of the discovery of the hominid species, Homo naledi; Australopithecus sediba as the origin of the X-Men; his estrangement from Phillip Tobias; writing for non-scientific audiences; and local band Satanic Dagga Orgy’s ode to Homo naledi…
Lee Berger sharing A Moment with the skull of a Homo naledi
(© Stefan Heunis, AFP/Getty Images)
First things first: your interest in archaeology was sparked at a young age when, as a child growing up in rural Georgia, you’d spend hours in the outdoors, looking for (and finding) artifacts. Do you have any advice for aspiring archaeologists or paleoanthropologists wishing to discover/rummage, yet are confined to suburbs or cities?
There are things to be found everywhere – history is all around us and the world, even urban areas and the suburbs are filled with archaeological artifacts from the past that give clues to what came before. Also, our cities are full of geology as they are of course built on and around it! It’s great to learn and explore the heritage of the area you live in as well as it’s geological heritage. One never knows as the next “big” discovery could be in one’s own backyard!
Almost Human reads surprisingly easy – and funny – for a book with a highly scientific premise. Did you struggle to maintain an accessible writing style for the hoi polloi? (And by no means am I excluding myself here).
Well, science can seem complex and overwhelming for many, but we were trying to use a style that let the specialist reader as well as the non-specialist reader enjoy the book and follow our scientific journey. We therefore tried to use understandable language and as little “jargon” as possible, only using it where it was necessary to define a complex term or meaning. Both John and I communicate widely to the public and so perhaps the writing style you note follows our speaking styles.
Throughout the final chapters of the book you often mention how much there still is to learn about Homo naledi and that it’s very likely that there are more early hominim species which are yet to be discovered. The skeletal material you recently came across in the Lesedi Chamber shares similarities with Homo naledi and adds to this statement. What can/does this new discovery tell us about human evolution in Africa?
I think the clear picture that has come from both the discovery of Australopithecus sediba and Homo naledi is that the story of human evolution is not a simple, linear, straightforward one but that ours is a complex history. Naledi and sediba show us that there is more to be found – it’s clear that we don’t really know their ancestral history and the few fossils of other species found across Africa don’t help us much with interpreting where they fit in our family tree – and that’s exciting. We currently are back in the Dinaledi and Lesedi Chambers and making new discoveries – particularly exciting is we seem to have strong evidence that Homo naledi did indeed come down the narrow chute the way our “underground astronauts” come – and that is wonderful and hard to explain – but it’s exciting!
Your “Underground Astronauts” – Marina Elliott, Elen Feuerriegel, Alia Gurtov, K. Lindsay (Eaves) Hunter, Hannah Morris, and Becca Peixotto – are all women. This dispels the myth of science being a male-dominated field. Can you elaborate on this statement within a South African context? Christa Kuljian specifically comes to mind…
I am right now watching four of these heroic women scientists working underground on our cameras in the command centre. Our field was dominated by men traditionally, but there is a worldwide trend that is shifting towards more women in the natural sciences and our field is no different and we are seeing this trend in South Africa as well. But what I think is most important about these underground astronauts is that they are demonstrating that the place for women in these sciences is not just in the lab, but also at the cutting edge of extreme exploration and adventure and very often these women are better suited physically and mentally for these difficult and often dangerous endeavours. They really are an inspiration.
You write candidly about your growing difference of opinions with prominent paleoanthropologists Phillip Tobias and Ronald Clarke. How has your account of your academic estrangement from Profs Tobias and Clarke been received by the scientific community, and readers at large?
Well, my estrangement with Phillip Tobias occurred as perhaps a natural progression of our relationship. He was like a father to me and sometimes when fathers and sons are working in the same area, they can clash. He and I reconciled later and he was very engaged and enjoyed the sediba years. Ron Clarke and my history is a complex one. Phillip and the University were promoting this young upstart (perhaps in his eyes) ahead of him. A lot of that tension I think was driven from insecurity of position. Palaeoanthropology is a competitive field with, until recently, few fossils and “fights” over the perceived more important ones are nothing new. I think though that with sediba and naledi and our approach to open access some of this tension has lessened. There is, though, still a generation that was brought up behaving in a very negatively competitive way that exists, but they are fewer and the fossils are certainly more plentiful!
I must admit that I didn’t know you and Phillip Tobias had such a strong bond…
He was my Ph.D. supervisor and then promoted me to take over his position in 1996. He and I were very close. It was the “way” Little Foot was discovered, hidden and then handled that caused the fissure. But like I said, I think that can be quite normal in such situations.
Have you received any personal ‘backlash’ from readers or scientists (including your colleagues, perhaps) regarding the candid account of your estrangement?
And no, not at all! You’re the first person to bring it up!
I think most scientists and “insiders” know/knew the story and it was a long time ago.
Your search for assistants to aid you in your expedition was unique in that you created a Facebook-post urging experienced scientists and intrepid cavers across the globe to apply for the task. Similarly, your discoveries at the Rising Star cave system were live streamed on social media platforms. (Those hashtags!) Can we expect an increase in scientific findings being made more and/or immediately accessible to the public, say via social media, as opposed to waiting until they’ve been published in journals after months of research and deliberation?
Okay, so if you turn on your social media feed right now you will notice we are bringing science “live” to the world through technology and social media. We are, however, doing all of our science the good old fashioned way – in peer reviewed journals. In fact and as an example there have been more than 600 pages of peer reviewed journal articles on naledi since we announced the new species. While some very prominent individuals (Bill Kimbel, Tim White and Bernard Wood to name the most vocal) have argued that we are somehow doing the science in front of the public – and they feel this is a bad thing – it’s simply not true. They are in fact creating a Quixote-esque windmill of misinformation to tilt at. We are in fact the traditionalists, they are publishing their criticisms in non-peer reviewed venues. It’s ironic and a form of “peer evasion” on their part.
Lastly – are you aware that the Joburg-based band Satanic Dagga Orgy have a song titled ‘Homo for Naledi’?
I am and we were laughingly playing the song just this morning! I think it might have even had it’s debut in the Dinaledi chamber as Elen just tweeted from the chamber about it! We all quite enjoy seeing our science become part of the popular and public sphere. It means more people hear about science and maybe it inspired people to dig a little deeper. I don’t know if you saw but Marvel Comics has sediba as the origin of the X-Men now! (which for a bunch of science nerds is very cool) – just google ‘Australopithecus sediba marvel X-Men’ for the pages.
(I did. Look what I found.)
Also available as an eBook.
When Lauren Segal receives a call from her husband one wintry morning in 2014, the furthest thing from her mind is her biopsy results. For two years she’s been living a cancer-free existence after a double mastectomy that has put her in the clear. The call shatters the foundation of her world – the lump she thought was scar tissue is malignant. Her cancer is back.
Cancer: A Love Story is the intimately searing memoir of a four-time cancer survivor. The book magnificently tracks Lauren’s journey to come to terms with the untold challenges of facing the dreaded disease. Forced to face her needle phobia, the author leads the reader into her crumbling world as she confronts the terrors of treatment – from debilitating chemo to nuking radiation. Death is her uninvited companion.
But in the midst of her lonely horror, in a quest for deeper meaning, Lauren discovers the unexpected gift of awareness of unanticipated opportunities that cancer presents – to confront her unmasked humanity – her fears, strengths and weaknesses.
“Throughout my arduous journey into the world of cancer, I have discovered that proximity to death brings with it a new proximity to life. I have learned that luck and unluck, happiness and distress, hope and despair are tightly coiled into a life well lived.”
Lauren’s story removes the enormous stigma that still surrounds breast cancer; it tackles the deep fear surrounding diagnoses and treatment and it encourages us to take control of our health. It ultimately triumphs by showing the reader how a person in any unwanted life situation can come out on the other side. The book also provides vital insights for professionals involved in the care of cancer patients and a hugely informative section on chemo tips for those undergoing treatment.
Killing Karoline deals with important topical issues relating to adoption, identity, race, mental health and addiction.
Born Karoline King in 1980 in Johannesburg South Africa, Sara-Jayne (as she will later be called by her adoptive parents) is the result of an affair, illegal under apartheid’s Immorality Act, between a white British woman and a black South African man. Her story reveals the shocking lie created to cover up the forbidden relationship, and the hurried overseas adoption of the illegitimate baby, born during one of history’s most inhumane and destructive regimes.
Killing Karoline follows the journey of the baby girl (categorised as ‘white’ under South Africa’s race classification system) who is raised in a leafy, middle-class corner of the South of England by a white couple. It takes the reader through her formative years, a difficult adolescence and into adulthood, as Sara-Jayne (Karoline) seeks to discover who she is and where she came from.
Plagued by questions surrounding her own identity and unable to ‘fit in’ Sara-Jayne begins to turn on herself. She eventually returns to South Africa, after 26 years, to face her demons. There she is forced to face issues of identity, race, rejection and belonging beyond that which she could ever have imagined. She must also face her birth family, who in turn must confront what happens when the baby you kill off at a mere six weeks old returns from the dead.
Sara-Jayne King is a mixed-race South African/British journalist and radio presenter whose career spans over a decade and has taken her across the globe in search of remarkable stories and fascinating characters. While studying for an LLB degree in the UK, Sara-Jayne realised her passion lay elsewhere and, after graduating, she went on to complete a Master’s in Journalism in 2004. Her career began as a junior journalist in local radio in London and since then has included roles in the Middle East and Africa, most recently as a senior editor for news channel eNCA and presenter for Primedia’s talk radio station Cape Talk.
Don’t miss the opportunity to have your book signed by this singular author (and woman!)
Literary Crossroads is a series of talks where South African writers meet colleagues from all over the continent and from the African diaspora to discuss trends, topics and themes prevalent in their literatures today. The series is curated by Indra Wussow and Sine Buthelezi.
The guests for the October edition of #LiteraryCrossroads are:
Writer-performer Phillippa Yaa de Villiers is the author of three collections of poetry and lectures at Wits University. Her autobiographical play Original Skin toured South Africa and Germany between 2008-2012. Her work has appeared in local and international journals and has been translated into Burmese, Mandarin, German, Italian, Flemish and Dutch. She is on the judging panel of African Poetry Book Fund (University of Nebraska) and is part of the South African Poetry Project (Zapp). She performs her poetry internationally and locally.
Tania Haberland (BA, HDE, MA) is a Mauritian-German-South African hybrid poet-artist-teacher-bodyworker. Her book Hyphen won the Ingrid Jonker Prize. Tania’s work brings poetry into educational and therapeutic contexts. Artistically, she loves to co-create multidisciplinary pieces exploring ‘carnal poetics’. Her current projects include The Technology of Tenderness with movement artist Fabrizio Dalle Piane, JazzGa: creating & singing poem-songs with musicians, translating Dome Bulfaro’s poetry… Mille Gru will publish an Italian anthology of her poems in 2018. Her second book, Other, is searching for a home.
Xabiso Vili is a performer, writer, social activist, TEDx speaker and soul collaborator. His writings explore his inner world to relate to the outer world. He is the champion of multiple slams and WordNSound poet of the year 2014 and 2015. Xabiso has performed all over South Africa, in Scotland, UK, the U.S. and India. As part of his activism work, Xabiso works with Mthubi the Hub, an organisation that takes over abandoned buildings and transforms them into art hubs for the community. Xabiso also runs writing, performance and event organizing workshops through Scribe Rites, a performance writing collective he co-founded that has produced other award-winning writers and performers. He released his album, ‘Eating My Skin’, created with Favela Ninjas. His one-man show ‘Black Boi Be’ has travelled extensively to critical acclaim.
Date: Tuesday, 10 October
Venue: Goethe-Institut Johannesburg, 119 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood
Mapule Mohulatsi is a South African reader and writer. Her work appears in the Kalahari Review, Itch Magazine, This is Africa, Black Letter Media’s The Short Story is Dead, Long Live the Short Story, and the Enkare Review. Joanne Hichens, the curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories award and Mapule recently sat down to discuss Mapule’s winning entry, the rebirth of the oral storytelling tradition, and decolonization:
What is the provenance of the title of your story, ‘The Line of Beauty’?
The line, as noun, is a long narrow mark or band. The line, as verb, is to stand or be positioned at intervals in a linear fashion. A line can also be an indication of demarcation, or a verse of poetry. The line of beauty, the story, was inspired by untold stories that are nemesis to symmetry.
The story has many themes or threads running through it, which pertain to ‘the line’. Can you tell us more about this?
The notion of the thread in the story is associated with memory and meaning made as active and present in the process of storytelling – the line is not always coherent, neither are our memories and the meanings we make of the things we can remember. In this sense then, history is neither coherent nor linear; especially when voiced by individuals. This story is against all notions of the historical timeline, and in its own way, against form and structure.
“The notion of the thread in the story is associated with memory and meaning made as active and present in the process of storytelling – the line is not always coherent”
The writing is lyrical, almost mesmeric. In some cases it reads as uncensored free writing. Is this the way the story came to you? Almost as if it was actually being ‘told’ rather than written?
Yes. If anything, I might just be a worthier poet than I am a storyteller; but yes, the story came as a tale told, rather than one written. I do pay attention to how the writing sounds, which is not always an advantage. Each story has its own sound, and this one in particular was very adamant of where it was going, musically, that is.
Is storytelling, particularly oral storytelling, as passed down through the generations, becoming a lost art?
I don’t think so. To me, something as simple as a rumour that spreads through word of mouth is oral storytelling. In fact, I think the oral tradition is experiencing a sort of rebirth. I mean, look at the efforts Afro-futuristic work does, particularly visual artists like Wangechi Mutu who use oral narratives to convey artistic aspirations, as well as tales and fables that have passed down through generations. My protagonist is one such example, she is a drunkard more than she is a storyteller, but for the pleasure of her company, she rambles. These ramblings, rumours, songs, sculptures, etc. maintain the oral tradition.
And of course your unnamed protagonist tells the story of ‘Mama’ herself a powerful figure as storyteller. Mama sits under the peach tree, drawing the girls of the village to her feet to listen to her fantastic tales, many of which are also peppered with sexual allusion. How did you create her as a character?
She reminds me very much of my own grandmother who sat on the bark of a dead tree and spent most of her old age telling herself, and anyone around her, stories. Stories that did not make sense, not that they had to. The characters in her stories were all real. My grandmother’s animated way of telling them even more so. I never had any experience of the villages. I was ‘born and bred’ in the township. But growing up, I realize that even though my grandmother had no fireside, and a circle of grandchildren around her, it was the story of her life, from her side. That matters to me. I did not create a character. I remembered one, and added my own poetics/politics to her. My grandmother had no baritone, no bulging figure; those are merely the instruments of my memory remaking her. She was funny, and beautiful. Those aspects of her I kept.
The story goes back to the beginning (of sorts)… Is it a story of colonization?
Yes. And no. Both. Haha. It is a story (retold) of colonization, which makes it, in its own way, a story of decolonization. Decolonization to me is the shifting of the lens of seeing, of telling, of understanding. It is a story of colonization because it tries to make sense of the sexual tensions and liberties of a time, and it is a story of decolonization because of who tells it, and how. Colonization and miscegenation in particular are usually the stories of men – men who conquered, and men who were conquered. This story is of a different beginning.
What writing Trade Secret would you like to share?
Ensure clarity and simplicity, then writing will come across as being of outstanding artistry and skill.
Follow Mapule at
Mapule Mohulatsi @3rdbombadil
Published in the Sunday Times
Softness of the Lime
Maxine Case, Umuzi
As a descendant of slaves, this was a story I always wanted to write. My grandmother’s grandmother was born to a slave and her master. “But theirs was a real relationship,” Ma, my grandmother, insisted. “He loved her.” Even though I was quite young when I first heard the story, I always wondered about this. I wondered further when Ma admitted that this master had a wife, and children from that marriage.
“She grew up in their home,” Ma offered, as if this was proof. “The family was quite fond of her.”
“Then why didn’t they free her?” I demanded.
“Those were different times then,” Ma said. “They took care of her, even after the old man died.”
From Ma and her cousins, I heard how the family supported my great-grandmother Johanna financially. Ma or one of her cousins would call at the house in Wynberg to collect their grandmother’s living allowance. The building burnt down years later, and all I had was Ma and her cousins’ word.
But there was something else – real proof of his love for her and her descendants, according to Ma and others in the family who repeated the tale. The proof was inscribed into the cover of a yellowwood Bible and later, in the form of a newspaper cutting from the Sunday Times of September 2, 1973.
According to this article, “Bantjes millions: now Coloureds stake claim”, this man had placed a fortune in gold to be inherited by his descendants 100 years after his death.
The article confirmed my family’s claim. It confirmed that with many of her children living as white under apartheid, Johanna destroyed all evidence pointing to this slave heritage.
I often wondered why Ma held her slave ancestry in such high esteem – especially when so many people, South African or not, denied theirs. From Ma’s stories, I too became proud of my slave heritage.
Shoving that yellowing Sunday Times cutting at me from time to time, and telling me where to look, Ma encouraged me to write the “real” story of Lena and Geert, insisting that we were born out of love and not abuse, as is commonly believed. But could it be love?
Researching this book, I don’t believe so. As much proof as I found to substantiate Ma’s claims, much was negated. So, while in writing this book I took the liberties of fiction, I hope that ultimately, by reimagining their worlds, I’ve succeeded in portraying what life under slavery at the Cape might have been like.
Sadly, Ma didn’t live to see this book published.
Published in the Sunday Times
Khwezi: The Remarkable Story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo
She changed the topic and left me a series of voice messages. I have listened to them regularly since her death. They break my heart every time. It is strange how we interpret words. When I first listened to the messages, they did not seem like a cry for help – just Fez talking as she usually did about how she felt. Now that she is gone, they have taken on a different meaning, a poignancy. I replay her words, detailing how overcome she was by pain, how she could not decide what to do with her life but that ‘that decision will take care of itself’. She was often overwhelmed by life, but would quickly bounce back, saying, ‘Anyway dear, I will take it one fool at a time.’ This time, she said, ‘I will just go with the flow.’
And then she got serious, describing her condition. ‘I am not feeling so hot. It’s just … um. I think I am just still going through a rough patch and I must go with it, go with the flow. I don’t know what is going on.’
I expected that, in typical Fezekile fashion, she would describe, in detail, everything that was happening to her, everything she was feeling. I assumed she was only talking about her emotional state. Even though she had been off her ARVs for a while, it did not occur to me that the physical deterioration had started. Apart from a case of shingles earlier in the year, the first time she had ever suffered from an HIV-related illness, she seemed to be in relatively good health. She was religious about her vegan diet, supplements and meditation, but clearly something was missing.
She proceeded to inform me that she had been in bed for more than a week because her left leg was swollen. But that she was trying to move her body, because ‘My dear friend says it is important that I elevate my leg but also keep my body moving, and my heart moving. She has given me this exercise. Some yoga stunt.’ Several times a day, with the help of her mother she would get off her bed, lie on her back on the floor, elevate her legs and push her feet against the wall.
‘It is just Ma and I in the house so getting off the bed is a challenge. I almost, almost fell on her and she is confused, doesn’t follow instructions properly, and not too strong and doesn’t quite know what we are doing. It was hilarious, actually … huuu! Almost like a circus.’ She was laughing in her voice message, but her laughter was the sound of the vanquished – as if she has come to terms with the never-ending cycle of suffering that has become her life. By this I do not mean that she had come to terms with her death, but just accepted the frequency of her chapters of drama and sadness. She still believed – at that time, at least, a week before she died – that she would get well. She was delicate, animated and self-deprecating, drawing me in so that I could almost picture her and her mom, wrestling on the floor, trying to get Fezekile back on her feet.
I asked if she needed anything, how I could help.
‘Oh dear, where do I start. It is what it is.’
I checked on her every day, especially after the message she left me in which she expressed a desperation to visit her father’s grave.
In the next message, she told me she was going to send me all her passwords. This did not seem strange to me at all, given that I was writing her book; I had become used to her innocence and trusting nature. I figured she was giving me access to some of her writings and musings.
I did not have a chance to acknowledge this message before she sent another one immediately: ‘Today I miss my father Diza. Isn’t that strange? It feels like he never left. I see him everywhere. Yet I miss him terribly. Am I weird?’
‘Not at all,’ I messaged back. ‘I have been there. I think about my father often. But my heart no longer aches. The world was dark when he left it, though … but I am living.’
‘Oh. All sounds so familiar. It just flipped over. But when I am asked how I cope with life, I say it is those foundation years. It always hurts, though. Sometimes at the most inopportune time. Even now.’
‘What is hurting you the most, when you think about him?’
‘I feel robbed, dear. Just robbed. I look at the comrades and how they live, and I feel robbed. Diza would not recognise so many of them.’
‘Which ones in particular?’
‘Ah, the looters, the corrupt, the arrogant, the rapists.’
We don’t speak for a couple of hours; then, in the evening, she asks me, ‘Have you ever wondered how a man becomes a rapist? Do you think they wake up and decide, today, I am going to be an arsehole to a woman? I mean, are they born rapists, do they become rapists, do they think about it or, you know, spur of the moment? That’s been on my mind. What do you think, dear?’
On 2 October, she left me a voice message that she was coming to Johannesburg on the fifth. She was breathing heavily, her pauses just too long between each word. ‘I am just sick and tired and I do not know what is next. Anyway there is something in Joburg, on the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth, this holistic healing thing. Ummm, anyway dear, I don’t know how I am going to get on an aeroplane.’ She had told me that her leg was swollen ‘from [her] bum to [her] toe’. She took a deep breath. ‘But it is important that I go. And Auntie Bunie believes that I, I’ll be better when I get there. So, let’s see, it is in two parts. The spiritual and the physical.’
‘What do you need?’
‘I have tried everything, meditation, acupuncture, so let’s see how this will work.’
Somehow, with her swollen leg – a suspected thrombosis – she arrived in Johannesburg. By this time, she was no longer answering her phone or replying to messages. The last message I sent her
was on the fifth, the day she said she was starting her healing course. I told her that I had finally finished reading the transcript of the trial, and that I was proud of her: ‘A bit broken, but I break many times over this subject. The system is entrenched. The point of my writing is exactly how the questions posed to you further entrench patriarchal and sexist views.’
The message remained unread; she deteriorated further. After all the battles she had fought and won – and fought and lost – she would not survive this one. When death came knocking at her door, I imagine her answering the door with her signature, ‘One fool at a time, please.’ I was deeply saddened, especially since her last messages were still full of hope.
Michele Magwood finds Salman Rushdie on fine and furious form in his latest novel. The Golden House is a glorious fusion of knowing social commentary and compelling mystery, packed with wit and cultural references. She spoke to him in New York.
The Golden House
Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Cape
In Salman Rushdie’s previous novel, the antic, phantasmagorical Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, the city of New York is overcome by “strangenesses” – lightning crackles from fingers, a gentle old gardener begins to levitate, an abandoned baby causes boils to erupt on the faces of anyone who is corrupt. In his new novel, however, there is none of his trademark supernatural fancies or magical realism. Instead he has written an up-to-the-minute, drenched-in-zeitgeist panorama of New York and America. This time, the strangeness is real.
“When I finished writing Two Years I thought this probably pushes this kind of writing as far as it can go, so I thought I’d try to write a very different novel, a realist social novel about the last decade or so.”
Rushdie is speaking from his home in New York, where he has lived for the last 17 years, the city that has enabled him to live what he calls “a perfectly normal life”, after the many years of hiding in the UK with a fatwa hanging over him. He said he chose New York because it reminded him of his hometown Bombay with its noise and bustle, but also because it is a place of re-invention. “Everybody comes from somewhere else.”
In The Golden House a man arrives in the city with his three grown sons. They arrive on the day that Barack Obama is elected, a time of optimism, “when Isis was still an Egyptian mother-goddess”.
They seem to come from nowhere, or anywhere. There is no sign of a wife or mother, but it is clear they are stupefyingly wealthy. The men take outlandish new names for themselves. The father is Nero Julius Golden, the eldest son Petronius, known as Petya, the second Lucius Apuleius, or Apu, and the youngest Dionysus, or simply “D”. “Who should we say we are?” the boys ask their father. “Tell them nothing. Tell them we are snakes who shed our skins,” Nero says.
The novel may be sharply contemporary, but there is something ancient to the story. “In Greek and Roman tragic plays we know from the beginning that some terrible calamity is about to befall these characters and then it hits them. In this book the reader quite rapidly understands that this family is hiding something serious, and you know that secret is going to blow up in their faces. So in that sense it has the shape of a classical tragedy.”
Notes of foreboding are sounded early on by the narrator, a young filmmaker named René who lives in the same moneyed, sylvan enclave as the Goldens and who decides to make a film about them. Buried in the narrative, a clever mise en abyme, is his script for the documentary.
The fuse is lit when the septuagenarian Nero takes a young Russian bride, Vasilisa. Beautiful of course, just 28 years old, but with a preternatural cunning. This being Rushdie, he has her harbouring, Alien-like, the rapacious witch Baba Yaga. Nero’s sons are dismayed.
The doomed Golden sons channel the dark materials of Rushdie’s current preoccupations: Petya is a lumpen alcoholic, a shut-in savant who designs video games. Apu is a gifted artist, handsome, priapic and fashionable with the Manhattan élite, “famous on 20 blocks.” And then there is D, painfully gender-confused.
Here’s Apu loose on the town: “He followed a Canal Street Kabbalist named Idel, who was adept in the ways of the forbidden Practical Kabbalah, which sought through the use of white magic to affect and change the sphere of the divine itself… he also went eagerly… into the world of Buddhist Judaism, and meditated along with the city’s growing cohorts of ‘BuJus’ – classical composers, movies stars, yogis.”
This is Rushdie at his Dickensian best: keen-eyed, plucking shining observations from the streets like a magpie. His treatment of the troubled D is more sober, however, as he assays the field of gender identity. “The more I dug into it and talked to people I realised how much hair-splitting hostility there is between people who 99% of the time would be on the same side.”
D is depressed by the choices he is being forced to make: “You could be TG, TS, TV, CD. Whatever feels right to you.” Transgender, transsexual, transvestite, cross-dresser. None feels right to him and on they go. If he doesn’t identify as male or female, there is ze, ey, hir, xe, hen, ve, ne, per, thon or Mx. As one gender worker says regretfully, “My field should be a safe, soft space for understanding and instead it’s a warzone.”
Rushdie is at his most damning, though, at the end of the book when a new president is elected. This is the age of fake news, truthiness, bawling rhetoric. It is the age of grotesques and comic characters in power – a green-haired cartoon Joker is in charge. The times are toxic.
As René says: “What does one do when the world one believes in turns out to be a paper moon and a dark planet rises and says, No, I am the world… when your fellow Americans tell you that knowing things is elitist and they hate elites, and all you have ever had is your mind and you were brought up to believe in the loveliness of knowledge… and then all of that, education, art, music, film becomes a reason for being loathed, and the creature out of Spiritus Mundi rises up and slouches toward Washington DC, to be born.”
Yes, this time Rushdie’s strangenesses are real.
“The story of the Goldens is a private tragedy surrounded by what is turning into a national tragedy,” he sighs. “I think that’s really in a way what the book is trying to say.”
Listen to Michele and Salman’s conversation here