The 2014 Richmond BookBedonnerd Literary Festival kicked off yesterday, and runs until Saturday, 25 October.
This year’s festival will be graced by renowned Elvis Presley artist James Marais, as well as Dawn Garisch, Jonty Driver, Dominique Botha, Clinton V du Plessis, Elizabeth van Heyningen and Cristo Brand.
Check out the programme for this year’s festival:
2014 BookBedonnerd Literary Festival Programme
A comic book featuring Steve Biko, who died 37 years ago in September, has been published as part of the Africa Illustrated series.
The book, which is aimed at children, is the result of a combined effort by the Steve Biko Foundation and comic production company Umlando Wezithombe, who have already produced works on Xhosa prophet Nongqawuse, World War II veteran Job Maseko and the Curse of Mapungubwe.
Steve Biko tells the story of the black consciousness activist’s life, from his birth and first incarceration, to his death in 1977.
View excerpts from the graphic novel below.
Nic Buchanan, creative director at Umlando Wezithombe, told Books LIVE a little about the Biko project.
How did the idea for the Steve Biko graphic novel come about?
The response from most children, when asked about studying history, is a long face and an indication of the overwhelming text books. We wanted to take Steve Biko’s story and put it into an engaging format, one that could reach children of a young age, and so the storytelling and picture combination was perfect.
Can you tell us about the process of translating the life and philosophy of Steve Biko into this form?
To make any comic book is a huge labour of love. We start with researching all material available, then it goes to scriptwriting, storyboarding (where we lay out the balance of visuals and script), illustration, inking (fine line tracing over the illustrations), colouring (on computer, adding all the visual effects), lettering, print preparation and finally printing. There are numerous skills required along the way, and so it’s not just about drawing nice pictures.
How do you think this story will be beneficial to preteen and teenage readers?
The feedback has been amazing. The young readers always want to know why all their study material can’t be in this format. What is probably the most interesting feedback is that it sparks an interest for them to learn more about Steve Biko, so the comic has given a platform for them to investigate deeper.
Why is it important for young people to understand Steve Biko’s legacy?
He contributed so much to this country from such a young age, and young people can learn from him, and grow using his learnings.
If readers take only one thing away from this book, what would you like it to be?
That they have a proud history with role models to light the way.
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Africa39 opens with its star turn but in no way does it peak too soon. The Pink Oysters by Shafinaaz Hassim is a thrilling but sordid corpse-and-diamonds caper featuring Afghan émigrés and Somali traders running wild in Johannesburg’s Muslim quarter. Ukamaka Olisakwe’s This Is How I Remember it is a clear-eyed account of a girl’s romantic awakening in Nigeria, which traverses adolescent peer pressure, cruelty and confusion before culminating in deep longing and the deceptive promise of reciprocated love.
- Africa39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara by Various Authors
Find this book on Kobo!
Lees jy Herman Lategan, dan dink jy: katlagter, lieweheersbesie. Dis nie sy woorde nie, dis net die aansteeklikheid van sy woordgebruik dat jy, die leser, skoon op hol raak en jou eie ou gunstelinge oproep. So flankeer Lategan met woorde. Dis nie ’n kroeg nie, dis ’n taphuis; hier is hyserbedieners; ’n lieplapper is lief vir sy lawaaiwater; hier is nagvlinders, nagblomme; hier is mans wat skapies aanja.
Immers is jy een van die honderdes (duisendes?) wat weekliks jou Rapport só lees dat jy Lategan se “Woorde wat wip” (in my geval Ruthie ook) vir laaste hou. Nou kry jy ’n boekvol woorde wat wip wat in konteks, en nie altyd in konteks nie, lei tot ’ n vertelling, of ’n herinnering, of net ’n waarneming.
Maar die ding is, Christiaan Bakkes is nie stereotipies of alledaags of gewoon nie. Inteendeel. Hy lewe teen 200%; hy moes net alles uitwoed om te kan weet wat hý gaan word eendag as hy groot is. Daar is dus twee belangrike aspekte hier wat die boek goed maak: unieke interessante inhoudelike stof en ’n ewe unieke skryfstyl. Soos in al sy boeke gebruik hy sy kort masjiengeweersinne, en in vier of vyf sulke sinne spring hy maklik heen en weer tussen drie verskillende onderwerpe. Hier vat en daar los, soos iemand wat nie seker is wat hy met sy lewe wil doen nie. Maar slim genoeg geskryf dat alles sin maak.
On Wednesday evening Lauren Beukes and Dominique Botha were awarded the 2013/14 University of Johannesburg Prizes for South African writing in English, for The Shining Girls and False River, respectively.
Beukes was awarded the Main Prize, which comes with prize money of R75 000, and Botha the Debut Prize, accompanied by an award of R30 000.
On the Main Prize shortlist this year were Beukes, Zakes Mda (The Sculptors of Mapungubwe) as well as Books LIVE members Steven Boykey Sidley (Stepping Out) and Rachel Zadok (Sister-sister).
Ken Barris and Sidley won last year’s UJ Prizes, for Life Underwater and Entanglement, respectively.
Craig MacKenzie of the University of Johannesburg awarded Beukes her prize, calling The Shining Girls a “highly innovative novel” that “blends time travel, serial killers, mystery and the evolution of Chicago in the twentieth century, all within the framework of Beukes’s magical imaginings and rendered in beautifully constructed prose”.
In her speech, Beukes spoke about the novel’s inspiration and setting, and why she wanted to “subvert the serial killer genre”. Beukes said she intentionally made her character Harper Curtis boring, and instead told the victims’ stories. She ended by insisting that as a society we “have to hold onto our anger about femicide”.
Read MacKenzie’s thoughtful comments, followed by Beukes’ acceptance speech and photographs from the event:
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UJ Prize Laudation, 22 October 2014
Craig MacKenzie and Ronit Frenkel
Lauren Beukes has won the 2013 UJ Prize for The Shining Girls (Umuzi). This highly innovative novel blends time travel, serial killers, mystery and the evolution of Chicago in the twentieth century, all within the framework of Beukes’s magical imaginings and rendered in beautifully constructed prose.
Set between 1929 and 1993, the novel focuses chiefly on serial-killing drifter Harper Curtis, who moves through time in search of his ‘shining girls’ in order to steal their light by brutally murdering them. Only one of his victims, Kirby Mazrachi, survives, and she becomes the protagonist of the story as she begins to chase Harper across killings until the final denouement towards the end of the novel.
The narrative moves back and forth across decades, something that is made possible by Harper stealing a key off a blind woman whom he strangles. The key opens a house that is really a wormhole into other times while remaining in its Chicago locale. The house is filled with mementos of the women Harper has murdered, and is portrayed as an almost conscious entity in the novel – but its secrets remain secrets to the novel’s end.
Beukes plays with the idea of time travel in innovative ways. Harper travels through different eras, and Beukes points out the ordinary but spectacular sights that strike him as a time traveller – from the “the whirling and flaying brush strips of a car wash” in the 1980s to the construction of the iconic Sears Tower in the 1970s, and to the depression-era atmosphere of Chicago, which is when Harper begins to frequent the wormhole house.
Harper meets a ghetto kid (Mal) in the 1980s, and this provides the occasion for Beukes’s skilful presentation of Harper’s perplexity at being thrust forward in time several decades (he’s never encountered TV, for instance). But one thing remains constant across time. The deadly demeanour of a serial killer: Harper threatens to kill Mal, who immediately backs off, sensing the threat of real physical harm.
Unusually for a novel about a serial killer, Beukes does not flesh out Harper’s character. It is clear that she is attempting to reconfigure our global fascination with serial killers by humanising the victims in the novel rather than their murderer. Accordingly, she describes every woman he murders in vivid detail.
Harper snuffs out each of their lights, but his motivations and background remain inconsequential – he is really assessed only through these deeds. He is not a romantic character in any way, being neither suave and good-looking nor wealthy. He doesn’t have a ‘following’ or any sort of coherent ideological agenda, which we have come to expect from literary and media representations of serial killers.
The magic in the story lies in its against-the-grain depictions, and in Beukes’s blending of old genres to create something new. While Harper picks his victims because he is attracted to their shine, it is Kirby who becomes luminous by using what he does to her to see what others cannot.
Harper leaves something on each of his victims from the woman he murdered before, creating a loop via objects out of time that mark each murder as his own. Kirby is able to connect these objects to one murderer when others cannot, in much the same way that she is able to connect the man from her childhood with the impossible idea that he remains unchanged 13 years later when he returns to kill her.
Perhaps it is Kirby’s uncanny intellect, coupled with an inexplicable experience of the impossible, that makes her shine. The same can be said of her creator. Beukes’s foray into fresh themes and settings in her third novel sparkles with light and interest.
The above is a slightly adapted version of an article that appeared the Mail & Guardian on 6 June 2014
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Lauren Beukes’ UJ Prize Acceptance Speech
Stories are doors. They are the way we understand ourselves. They are our doors into other people’s heads and I think it’s one of the most powerful ways of understanding each other. It’s the most powerful tool of empathy. And novels are a hit straight to the vein, you are mainlining empathy when you read novels.
In The Shining Girls I particularly wanted to subvert the serial killer genre. This idea of serial killers as these diabolical monsters who are so fascinating, and their families were eaten by cannibals, and they’re outwitting the detectives, and they are not that. They’re not. Real serial killers are boring, empty, violent losers. There is nothing interesting about them! The only interesting thing about them is the act of violence that they commit. And it is an act of impotence. This is their only way of being able to connect to the world. And it is pathetic. And the fact that we glorify that is pathetic.
So I really wanted to turn that inside out and to look at the women, to what we lose every time there’s a headline. And The Shining Girls was just about to come out when Reeva Steenkamp was murdered. And for 24 hours she was just Oscar Pistorius’ girlfriend. She didn’t have a name! Why do we exalt the killers and lose sight of the victims. I really wanted to bring that through in the book.
I was also interested in the loops of history, and the mistakes we make again and again and again. It’s crazy – we don’t learn. Ben Williams, who’s the literary editor of the Sunday Times, told me a very interesting story about Chicago, that the apartheid government went to Chicago in the 1950s to learn how to do segregation better. And the way to do it better is to drive a highway straight through the slums. Have you been to Cape Town recently? It is a universal story. We like to believe in South Africa that we do crime, that we do segregation, that we do racism, that we do violence best. And corruption. The reason I set The Shining Girls in Chicago is because I was interested in the twentieth century, how it has shaped us, and the same mistakes we’ve made over and over again. From the Depression to the recession. From apartheid to the war on terror, and how they used exactly the same tools to try and control us. This theory of fear that justifies anything. The fact that we are still debating about women’s right to control their body today! When it should have been resolved in the 70s already. And it’s so frustrating for me to see that. And I wanted a broad canvas to play on. If I’d set the novel in South Africa in the twentieth century it would have become a story about apartheid, and Moxyland and Zoo City are both apartheid allegories. I wanted to play with broader issues. But it is written with an absolutely South African sensibility, which is an awareness of social issues because we trip over them in the street here. Especially violence against women. And there have been critiques about the novel and about the violence in the novel. But it’s supposed to be shocking. Because real violence is horrendous. I wanted to tell the stories of victims who didn’t have a voice.
There’s a scene in the novel where Kirby, who’s had a terrible attack happen to her, is talking to Dan, who asks her why she doesn’t just let it go, get over it. And Kirby pulls down her scarf, which she wears to hide the slit where he tried to cut her throat. And she says: “How am I supposed to let this shit go?” And we cannot let this shit go. We have to hold onto our anger about femicide. And of course it’s not committed by serial killers, it’s committed by the men who are supposed to love us.
There’s a belief that feminism hates men. It’s not feminists who hate men. It’s society who hates men. Because we have such a low opinion of men. We believe that they are violent, that they are out of control, that a short skirt will incite them to rape. We need to have a better opinion of men. Men are people too. And we need to hold them accountable. And we need to hold them to higher standards.
Thank you, and thank you for supporting South African literature in such an incredible way.
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Jennifer Malec (@projectjennifer) and Books LIVE (@BooksLIVESA) tweeted from the launch using #livebooks:
Alert! The Jacana Literary Foundation has revealed the shortlist and finalists for the 2014 Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Award.
A jury of Johann de Lange, Goodenough Mashego and Ingrid de Kok whittled down 303 entries to a list of 82 poems, which will be published in this year’s anthology, The Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Anthology Vol IV.
The jury then decided on a shortlist, which was then forwarded to Mongane Wally Serote, who decided on the three finalists.
Finalists for 2014 Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Award
- Rochelle Jacobs, for “Something Other”
- Thabo Jijana, for “Children Watching Old People”
- Jim Pascual Agustin, for “Illegal, Undocumented”
The winner of the fourth annual Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Award will be announced at the launch of the anthology, on Tuesday, 4 November, at a reception at the Goethe-Institut, Johannesburg.
Congratulations to the finalists!
The Jacana Literary Foundation is pleased to announce the shortlist and finalists for the Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Award 2014.
The jury, comprising distinguished poets Johann de Lange, Goodenough Mashego and Ingrid de Kok, selected 82 poems out of the 303 entries received to be published in this year’s anthology. The jury furthermore deliberated on which entries should be shortlisted, and this list was sent to celebrated poet and author Mongane Wally Serote, who decided on a list of three finalists, and eventually, the winner. All judging is done anonymously.
The finalists are:
Rochelle Jacobs, for the poem “Something Other”.
Thabo Jijana, for the poem “Children Watching Old People”.
Jim Pascual Agustin, for the poem “Illegal, Undocumented”
The winner of the Sol Plaatje Poetry Award will be announced at a reception at the Goethe-Institut, Johannesburg, on Tuesday 4 November, by a European Union Delegation representative. The three finalists receive cash prizes, and the anthology, consisting of poems in English, Afrikaans, isiXhosa, Sepedi and Setswana, will be launched the same evening. Next year the award will resume its association with the Poetry Africa festival held annually in Durban, which was sadly interrupted this year.
The Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Award is supported by the European Union. The annual Award, named after Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje (1876–1932) and now in its fourth year, recognises the life and vision of this highly respected political and social activist. As Plaatje’s works did in his time, these poems reveal the political and social attitudes of our time.
Poets included in the 2014 Sol Plaatje EU Poety Anthology
Jim Pascual Agustin, Kyle Steven Allan, Adewole Armah, Saaleha Idrees Bamjee, Suzan-Jane Kathleen Bell, Ayanda Billie, Fadwah Booley, Sindiswa Busuka, Zethu Cakata, Ntyatyi Christian, Margaret Clough, Christine Coates, Lise Day, Gail Dendy, Abigail George, Sunelle Geyer, Kerry Hammerton, Vernon RL Head, Colleen Higgs, Sandra Hill, Rochelle Jacobs, Thabo Jijana, Justine Joseph, Moses Nzama Khaizen, Gertrude Trudi Makhaya, Katise Mawela, Frank Meintjies, Komiso Mfingo, Andrew Miller, Janine Jocelyn Milne, Jackie Mondi, Nedine Moonsamy, Nick Mulgrew, Eduan Naudé, Pam Newham, Sizakele Nkosi, Lazola Pambo, Thabo Seseane, Francine Simon, Annette Snyckers, Dianne Stewart, Jan Tromp, Susan Woodward, Sithembele Xhengwana.
Halloween is approaching, and that means it’s almost time for this year’s Horrorfest at The Book Lounge in Cape Town.
From The Book Lounge:
It’s once again time to dust off your witch’s hat, release the tarantulas and carve that spooky pumpkin, because the SA HorrorFest Bloody Parchment event happening at the Book Lounge on October 29 at 6pm. Get into the creepy spirit by dressing up as your favourite ghoul or ghost, and join us for an evening of haunted thrills when the likes of Diane Awerbuck, Ruth Browne, SA Partridge, Nerine Dorman, Carine Engelbrecht, Dave-Brendon de Burgh, Zane Marc Gentis and David Horscroft gather to share their tales of weirdness and terror.
As usual, the opening event will be followed by film screenings over the next few days at the Labia Theatre in Cape Town (29 October – 7 November) and The Bioscope in Johannesburg.
- Date: Wednesday, 29 October 2014
- Time: 5:30 PM for 6:00 PM
- Venue: The Book Lounge
71 Roeland St
Cape Town | Map
- Participating ghouls: Diane Awerbuck, Ruth Browne, SA Partridge, Nerine Dorman, Carine Engelbrecht, Dave-Brendon de Burgh, Zane Marc Gentis, David Horscroft
- RSVP: firstname.lastname@example.org, 021 462 2425
Broken Monsters is not like either of those previous outings. Neither urban fantasy nor horror tale, this book fits more comfortably into the kind of territory Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow have made their own: taking a facet of the present and riffing on it to the point where we see the future implied (and already partly realised) within it.
Within the trappings of solid police procedure, Broken Monsters follows the exploits of another protagonist who, like Curtis, is mired in the banality of evil. This killer creates literally twisted artworks, fusing the bodies of his human victims with those of animals.
Last night Dominique Botha was awarded the 2013 University of Johannesburg Debut Prize for South African writing in English, for her novel False River.
Lauren Beukes was awarded the R75 000 Main Prize, for The Shining Girls. The Debut Prize comes with an award of R30 000.
False River and the Afrikaans version Valsrivier have received a number of awards, including the Eugène Marais Prize, the Jan Rabie Rapport Prize for the best debut in Afrikaans, and the University of Johannesburg Afrikaans prize for creative writing.
The other shortlistees for this year’s UJ Debut Prize were Claire Robertson (The Spiral House), CA Davids (The Blacks of Cape Town) and Perfect Hlongwane (Jozi).
Professor Karen Scherzinger of the University of Johannesburg, who sat on the judging panel, called False River “an extended, insightful and often painfully frank inscription” of the narrator and novelist’s brother, Paul Botha.
Read Scherzinger’s panegyric, or encomium, if you will, on False River, followed by Botha’s gracious and thoughtful acceptance speech (and scroll further for photographs from the event):
Keep an eye on Books LIVE tomorrow (Friday) for Beukes’ acceptance speech and Craig MacKenzie’s comments on The Shining Girls.
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False River opens with an epitaph that is in itself a contemplation on the nature of epitaphs: ‘As trees are the remembered bones of departed flesh, so the spirit imparts its own epitaph’. The source of this enigmatic description is, in a further doubling back of memory and commemoration, the equally enigmatic subject of this novel, the narrator’s (and novelist’s) brother, Paul Botha, for and about whom this book is an extended, insightful and often painfully frank inscription.
The structuring principle of this pastoral novel is based upon a young girl’s perception of her brother’s chaotic, passionate and frequently destructive life journey, closely paralleled by the development of her own dawning self-awareness, the halting progression of their parent’s marriage, the dramatic pulsing life cycles of a farm and its caretakers, the uneven, incongruous and often contradictory existence of liberal farmers in the Free State in the seventies and eighties, and the broader context of South Africa’s own perilously teetering history, in the twenty-odd years leading up to 1994.
This point of view – that of a child, mediated with the lightest of touches, by her adult self – is used to rich and varied effect in the novel. In the first place, it transports us into a long-lost but immediately familiar perceptive field in which the world is saturated with treacherous possibilities. For example, in the Botha’s farmstead, ‘Unsmiling portraits of dead people from the graveyard hung along the walls of the passage. Some of them climbed out of the picture frames and knocked on my bedroom door at night’ (15). And: ‘I got out of bed and opened the curtain to let moonlight into the hall. At night our passage turned to water and barbels swam below the wood grain’ (28) It is also a perspective that understands the world with leisurely, auditory and visual vividness: ‘I knew the sound that everyone’s car made over the cattle grid. Pa charged his bakkie in two by two, like the rigid march in my European folk music book with soldiers in pointy hats and golden lapels. Abel and Mary drove a tentative barcolle over the cattle grid in six-eight time. With Ma it depended on her mood, a quick waltz charging out, or a last one driving back, eating koeksisters in the car to finish before Pa saw’ (60).
This point of view is also the vehicle for much of the novel’s piercing irony. The young Dominique tells her story with a blithe innocence; an innocence that sets the adult world, with its post-lapserian prejudices, half-truths, and concealed savagery, into sharp contradistinction, and places the reader in a position in which she is continually compelled to read imaginatively and sometimes painfully against the smooth grain of Dominique’s naïve account. This extraordinarily skillful manipulation of irony is incisively deployed in a passage in which Dominique and her family visit the local agricultural fair:
For many years the church prevented the show dance on the Friday evening because they were worried about moral decay. Pa gave us pocket money to buy tickets for the fairground swings. We were flung in circles above the black children crowding outside the fence and they waved and smiled. I felt sick from too much spookasem and I closed my eyes. Pa said the irony is those contraptions were death traps and no-one should be allowed on them. Paul said he bet I did not know what irony meant, but I did. It meant something made of iron, like those death traps.
In this passage, the irony shifts and settles in different places. Initially, it throws into relief the moral relativism of the community, in which the correctness of a dance is worrisome, but the unthinking exclusion of black children from the fair is unexamined. This exclusion seems to go untested by Dominique, which therefore demands its examination by the reader; and her nausea, as a consequence, is patently as much an instinctive ethical response to the incongruity of the children’s apparent ‘smiling and waving’ from the margins of the fairground and Dominique’s vision, as it is from too much spookasem and the motion of the swings. Botha’s crafting of the event and the passage into an ironic contemplation of irony is a coup de grace, and is a marvellous instance of how the novel persistently, but never heavy-handedly, sets up the conditions for self-reflection on the part of both the narrator/author, and the reader.
In the early chapters of the novel in particular, the young Dominique’s innocent perspective is used not only in the interests of irony, but also in service of characterisation. There is the narrator’s father, Andries Botha, known simply as ‘Pa’: driven by liberal politics but constrained by traditional, conservative ideas about children and discipline; a benevolent if paternalistic farmer and employer who is in turns impatient and intolerant and loving towards his immediate family. His bewildering contradictoriness is succinctly captured in an early passage from the novel. Pa beats Dominique and Paul with his belt for a childish misdemeanor:
‘it is my duty to teach you the difference between right and wrong,’ he said, pushing his hand through his short, brown hair. Paul looked at the wall and said nothing. Then he wiped his face with his arm. Pa did not hit his workers like other farmers did. Or make the boss boy do it. Only once did he hit Goldberg with his fist because he lost his temper during planting season because of all the stress. Goldberg was one of Pa’s boss boys, but we did not use words like that in our family. Pa said Goldberg was his workshop foreman. (16-17)
Botha makes superb use of indirect reporting in her representation of all of the main characters in this novel, and never so revealingly as when she is dealing with Pa. His pithy proclamations about nearly everything one might care to shake a stick at are channeled through his young daughter, who repeats this received so-called wisdom with disarming naievety: ‘Pa always called the English perfidious Albians’ (10), ‘Pa said we had delusions of grandeur calling our vantage point a hill’ (11), ‘Pa said Rietpan lay at the end of the Voortrekker trail like a sigh of relief’ (12), ‘Pa said Ma’s cakes were triumphs of imagination’ (13), ‘In the summer our lawn rolls down to the water’s edge, softly sprung like a ballroom floor, Pa said.’ (13), ‘Pa said one must turn the tap carefully otherwise the thread strips and then it’s buggered’ (14). ‘Ouma carried her dogs past the birdbath into the entrance hall. Pa called them ridiculous, coddled pompoms (21). ‘Pa called Johannesburg Sodom and Gomorrah’ (40.) This trend of reported speech is turned deliciously on its head when Dominique observes that ‘Pa’s workers called him Oorlog, but not to his face’ (42).
Positioned fatally against Pa is his son, Paul: witty, troubled, doomed, rebellious, emotional, iconoclastic, imaginative, cruel and kind. Botha’s rendition of her brother is both wistful and frank, loving and critical. Her ability to maintain these contradictory impulses is enviable, especially given the fact that Paul is not simply a fictional character whose motivations and behaviour can be manipulated with all the freedom that imaginative creation allows, but the author’s brother in, as they say, ‘real life’. Her representation of Paul is bravely free of the pitfalls of nostalgia – idealisation, hyper-presence, and myth-making, for example – without forswearing the essential imaginative engagement that makes reading this novel such a rewarding experience. By way of giving you just a taste of who Paul is, and how he is crafted by Botha’s extraordinary prose, the following:
Paul hated practicing scales. He drew note names on to the ivory keys of our piano with a ballpoint pen. CDEFGAB. Ma was furious. The ivories looked like dirty fingernails. ‘Net gekke and dwase skryf op mure en glase!’ she shouted. She let him give up though. Then he became a Voortrekker. They learnt skills that were useful during the Boer War. On Fridays they hoisted the National Flag at the parade ground and stood to attention in the sun in brown polyester shorts, long-sleeved t-shirts and an orange tie pinned down with medals. After one term he refused. He told me that Voortrekker means wanker in English (33)
The portrait of Sandra Botha – Ma – is softer-toned, gently conveying the sense that that her world-view is far more consistent and coherent than her husband’s or son’s and arises from a deep well within. ‘Ma always used to speak out when she could have just walked away’, reports Dominique. ‘Ma always made us use the entrance reserved for blacks’ (18). Ma’s portrait is significantly coloured by her association with nature, especially the trees that provide the dominant trope of the novel, expressed in the epitaph that I referred to earlier: ‘trees are the remembered bones of departed flesh’. The novel is lushly canopied with trees, which, like the characters, are both indigenous and alien, thriving and waning, consoling and hostile. Botha constructs a veritable arboretum in which the drama of the Botha family tree is performed. For example, the continual contestation between Ma and Pa is instanced by the ‘only mulberry tree’ on the farm ‘whose ‘roots were lifting the graveyard walls near the ruins of the old house … Pa was threatening to cut the bloody thing down. Ma said he should fix the wall instead’ (7). Trees are entwined into Ma’s idealism and poetic vision, as we might tell from this extract:
We waited for Abram in the shade of a honey locust. Ma brought the saplings for fifteen cents each from the government nursery in Aliwal North and Abram planted them along the length of the road. They had to be watered daily and many died. In years to come, Ma promised, the trees on either side of the road would meet and fill with nesting doves. In summertime the trees were going to roll out a carpet of ruffled seed pods filled with sweet, sticky gum.
Christiaan and I lay under the seringa tree outside Ma’s office. Berries bunched against the navy sky and weavers stacked nests potluck on the naked branches. Ma said when seringas come into flower they smell like wisteria with pepper added’ (44)
A big peach tree flourished at the entrance gate. We never saw its fruit because children from the stat plucked the ripe peaches at night. When the tree blossomed Ma … drove … slowly and we lolled out the windows, dazed by the silky shoots adorning the pitted branches’ (60).
And at the end of the novel, Dominique offers Paul a poem, in which she describes herself as ‘waiting under the pepper tree’ and as ‘want[ing] so much/to bind you with words/to our place of origin/to begin again’. The bittersweet longing of this image is undeniable, but there can also be no denying the fact that both she and the reader are in a good place, under the reaching shade of that pepper tree, and that Paul has, as much as words can be binding, been brought, through memoir, nature, and imagination, to our vision and therefore, fleetingly, back to life. Paul might not have thought much about academics – we know from the novel that he called them ‘macademics’ who ran ‘univershitties’; nonetheless I am sure he would have been wildly proud to know that Sliminique/Dominique Botha is the deserving recipient of the 2014 University of Johannesburg Debut Award for South African Writing in English.
University of Johannesburg
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Dominique Botha’s UJ Debut Prize Acceptance Speech
No writer ever needs to fear dark water or a clean page. All you need is a childhood. That original Atlantis where remembrance has been silted over by time. A wreck of loose thoughts and entangled pasts, sinking into oblivion, rewritten in coral, memories darting like skittish and vivid schools of fish.
And therein lies the ethical rub. From the outset I felt uncertain about my right to dredge up the past. And agonised how to garnish and serve up the offering, as memoir and thus the truth, or as a novel and therefore not the truth. A genre is after all an agreement, a pact of sorts between the writer and reader.
However, like truth and imagination, fact and fiction offer a slippery handrail onto an often spurious divide. Someone like John Coetzee leaves it up to his readers to assess the opaque overlap of genre in his writing. To flirt with literary categories is to hopscotch around the ethical challenges that a writer faces. A genre choice is often just a way of throwing a blanket over the intimate embrace of imagination and memory. For the writing to work the reader needs to hoodwinked anyway – the text must generate a suspension of disbelief.
I wrote False River with the intention of remembering my brother Paul. To bind him with words to our place of origin. Michael Holroyd says that recreating the past is a universal human impulse. We call on the same magic that our forebears did with stories of ancestors around fires under the night skies. The need to keep death in its place lies deep in human nature, and biography arises from that need. That is its justification.
From the outset I allowed myself to write freely in the manner of a novel. My intention was not to recreate history, but rather to pay a personal tribute of love. As you reconstruct past events you soon learn that history is the brick and story the mortar, and fiction the water. False River is a family portrait, but the lens, the frame, the background and the lighting is all artificial. And the photographer myopic. Like memory the eye is not innocent. I realise that the fading snapshot can only ever be a signifier of what was once flesh and blood and touch.
Grief needs a bandage. Like scar tissue prose and poetry grow over festering memories. One could stretch the metaphor of injury to the notion that our national consciousness remains wounded in the firing line of clashing histories, and continues to serve as a muse for the production of clashing histories, at times mumbling and at times tormented. And yet there is more than just consolation in the tracing up of absence. Because in time, or en route, I realised that fiction is what makes an approach to the truth possible. Perhaps because reality is always a creation playing off in the present, and that we need to make ourselves in order to know who we are.
Breytenbach tells us that it is inherent in the art of telling to reconfigure that which is told – as a result of the techniques we use to fix consciousness: structure, namely selection and rejection, and texture (the sounds, metaphors, and rhythms used to convey feelings and thoughts) and these get a life of their own. Observations are put away for later use because we do not write immediately. In this way experience gives shape to memory, just as memory gives shape to experience. We remember how we want to, often in service of the ego more than in service of the truth.
In real life there is too much minutiae to embody in a narrative. A degree of conflation is inevitable, leading to a melding of characters and places and events. Like a language is a dialect with an army and a navy, so the truth is often just the narrative that crossed the finishing line first.
In my book the spirit of place is centred on the family farm called Thornvale but rechristened in the novel with the more evocative name Wolwefontein. Wolwefontein was the original trekker farm that is spoken of in family lore as lost, but was in fact sold by a great uncle to recoup gambling debts. As child I breathed in the word Wolwefontein as if it were a magic phrase; forbidden ground lost beyond the river; beyond the present; inaccessible; there were wolves. Wolf is of course a naming error, an artifact from another continent. Vocabulary is the nomadic footprint that remains behind in language, long after a new destination of amnesia has been reached. Like a mnemonic device the choice of the place name Wolwefontein reminded me of the fragility of truth, and that all our stories are going to calve away into simplification and then cave into the void.
I wanted to honour my brother’s memory, but I also wanted to enter into conversation with a larger group of people, and succeeded in doing that by writing up his life. Paul Auster says that every book is an image of solitude. At the same time the end result of all this time spent alone in a room is a document that allows you to enter into a more meaningful form of connection with others than is possible in normal social interaction.
I agonised about the ethics of my undertaking but eventually the act of writing superseded the impetus to memorialise. To retrieve a memory is to commit a first act of fiction. To remember – to re-member – is to give hands and feet to crippled emotions and allow them to dance into metaphor.
What is writing is not an exercise in recuperating memory? It is stopping to listen – of consciously being alive and attentive. Memory is the mentor of imagination, as stars are its vectors. The discipline of writing is also a great gift of freedom – by writing one is gradually relieved of the sense of uniqueness of self. It is in many ways a liberating shuffle in the direction of humility. Yet other people may interpret ‘facts’ pruriently at face value because they are still living with the weight of ‘self’. If a writer is to write at all, the personal cannot be diverted from the communal sluice of shared experience. A writer mops up impressions and wrings out a narrative from spillage.
I realise now that everything was more complex than it seemed then, when we still lived in black and white. I wrote in English about experiences that were laid down and salted in Afrikaans. I am grateful to have regained my mother tongue. It is the source of origin and therefore originality. A language truly is more than a sum of its parts. Language is cultural memory, and carries the conjugations of history like a stain and a garland.
I also learned that although your cloak of words exposes you, the single naked voice is that of our common human condition and its search for meaning.
For this reason I feel enormously honoured that False River is being lauded by the University of Johannesburg in this hallowed space and in this company of writers and thinkers. Literature is a history of the imagination. Through your workings a last place of refuge is being offered for the single voice within that larger history. Thank you.
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Jennifer Malec (@projectjennifer) and Books LIVE (@BooksLIVESA) tweeted from the launch using #livebooks: