This Fiction Friday, feast your eyes and ears on a selection poems from the uHlanga Press New Poets series.
uHlanga was launched recently, supported by a grant from the Arts & Culture Trust, with the aim of becoming a platform for the publication of debut collections from South Africa’s most promising young voices.
Three collections are being published soon: Matric Rage by Genna Gardini, Failing Maths and My Other Crimes by Thabo Jijana, and the myth of this is that we’re all in this together by Nick Mulgrew.
Read the poems:
* * * * *
You have no power here
I will tell you what I know.
It won’t be what you want me to tell you,
or what you think I should know.
Not what is written down for the children to imbibe,
not the story of Nongqawuse, that swayable girl
wandering around the Cape wild, leading Phalo’s sons
Qamata knows where.
I will tell you what I know.
It won’t be what those that do you dirty
will want me to say.
It won’t be nice.
It won’t be like wine.
It won’t be broadcast delayed live on the speaking box.
I will tell you what I know.
Sticks and stone, burning tyres,
Andries Tatane, that man they killed in Alex.
Did you ever hear what was said
on June 26, 1953, a year after the Defiance Campaign
had begun in Port Elizabeth?
That every parent must tell their children
about the campaign and the sacrifices
the people had made?
Where were you when “Zandisile” came out?
The One Love Movement on Bantu Biko Street?
I will tell you where. Glued to your couch
no more moved by the visuals on eNCA
than when you suffered a lesson
on the bitter fruits of the French Revolution,
and how it left behind the impression
that violence ought to be legalised
as a method of maintaining order,
that an individual’s life was of less importance
than the objectives of the group in control.
I will tell you what mam’Nywabe used to tell me:
to always pick fruit from the lowest branches,
for if the tree wanted you to have it all,
it would forget about the primates and drop down
all its fruits ’til the ground in all the fruit gardens
were covered with every type of produce.
I will tell you what I know.
I will tell you everything I know.
Give me a moment,
and I shall begin.
* * * * *
Here I am, on this frigid Saturday
in late 1998, kneading my eyes
and staring up a sloping Melindo
Street in Kamv’elihle. It’s past
cockcrow. And raining – a gentle
shower, like baking flour off
a sieve. I go from the sidewalk
to the front stoep, then I am
at the window inside, watching
the mamas of the kitchens (damp
dresses and OK shopping bags as
bonnets) scamper past. Any time
now, I know Mama’ll be walking
through the gate; she’ll have her
nurse’s cap. She’ll be tired. She’ll
be angry; there is nothing I can do.
So I make it to a bench near the
door to Madi’s bedroom, and sit
down. On the carpet, there’re the
blood drops – I’ll tell Mama it was
Madi who started it, that I didn’t
mean to. And then I’ll make a
stubborn face; Mama’ll shout that I
take off my pyjamas, find a washbowl
of water and pour Omo. And then –
then I’ll rinse my hands clean.
* * * * *
She said, “Love, the only thing that lives is letters.”
The truth is a clamour, is a great rocking vibration
that’s brittle and sex-shelled; that’s listening, a conch.
I’ve looked into that mouth, and asked: Did I know you
from my self’s start?
From the first crustacean dollop of my brain, where both
the speaking and the tongue are still sitting, undrained?
Our lives wonder each other, disassemble like engines,
the process sudden, apparent.
Stop mid-speech, take the motor out your talk.
Click the conversation from its context into a grammar
that even your mother used, like false teeth: a means to an end
she could take off at night. Only knowing herself when she
was just gums.
Words shamed me, so I loved them.
Laundered and spelt, I’ve felt each sentence as strain,
a thin membrane pulled between throat and head until
I called from the nodes of my chest, instead, humming:
Is this where I learn into myself?
Already the writing sheets above me, cursive and prophesying,
doing meaning mean justice, double-stitched against time.
But sometimes here,
but sometimes here you’ll talk of language like a lover,
like a white-wash of water outside a church in the Karoo.
And this is how it separates you.
* * * * *
The Aquasize Instructor
She just doesn’t like the look of me,
I can tell,
with my face dripping from this cap, as if twisted from a tap
into a shallow pool of fat
that gathers twice at the chin.
It’s the gusset of ancient stockings you handmade.
I’m screwed out of my body, like a bulb.
On the first day, she berates me for not breathing properly –
says, “If you want to look like this, you must be healthy!” –
her body jerking in its costume, like biltong in a condom.
I duck down into the deep-end and, snorkeling, mouth:
“I’m not this moment. I’m its document. I’ll last longer!”
while old men thunder and tool towards me: sea bulls,
snapped back to movement by the water,
which does not hum and wait the way the world does,
and ushering you to death in a series of past bedrooms,
old lovers dropping from the windows like stompies.
Above, the instructor steams and strives. Furious
as a fish in a microwave, she tells the ladies “I’m 45!”
and waits for their reactions. They pause,
then titter. They are polite. Tonight, they’ll talk
to their husbands of her calves, risen and fingered
like rolls they wouldn’t buy at the Woolworths.
She catches me smirking and I want to say:
“See, I’m no longer cleft like a sum by this abacus of bone.
I’m inking time in metres! My brain sinks two! It clicks,
Hungry as scissors for fingers!” But she looks away.
* * * * *
listicle: top five veggie burgers in the City Bowl
I: KNEAD BAKERY, KLOOF STREET
it’s the basting that sets this one apart
beetroot based patty grilled with
barbecue marinade giving the burger
some crisp beneath the yielding bun
way better than Hudson’s across the street
II: SPUR, STRAND STREET
we know what you’re thinking who
would go to Spur for a soy burger
but on two-for-one Mondays it’s only
thirty bucks for a Fry’s-esque carb bomb
with spaghetti onion ring tangles and blanched chips
III: WOODLANDS EATERY, DEER PARK
did you know globalised factory farming is one of
the main causes of climate change perhaps
it’s time to think about whether it’s right
to participate in an immoral system sometimes
the patty is dry but the setting is world-class
IV: THE ODYSSEY, BREE STREET
this is why Telemachus returned to Ithaca:
perfectly grilled mushroom and bashed butternut
make this a sweet-and-savoury delight between
what must be the best sesame glazed dense
burger bun under Edison bulbs this side of Salt River
V: ROYALE EATERY, LONG STREET
get the tofu and satay burger with sweet potato fries
when I took first year philosophy I wrote an essay
trying to reduce veganism to absurdity to annoy
my tutor how do you know plants can’t
have feelings still I regret this years later
* * * * *
on watching Notting Hill for the thirteenth time
I would quite like to be Hugh Grant in Notting Hill
but there are a few reasons why I cannot:
one I am not Hugh Grant;
two I do not live in Notting Hill;
three I do not own a bookstore,
and besides in twenty-fifteen South Africans
don’t buy many books;
four although I am lilywhite
and devoid of muscle– actually the reasons
are innumerable really.
but the fascination remains,
a simple want;
not that I want to be desired
by women in nineteen-ninety-nine,
but rather I’d like to be the kind of guy
who stays unfettered by his disabled ex-lover’s house
and has one slice of toast for breakfast
(maybe two mugs of sweet tea);
who, thriving on dreams and monologue,
gives foil to a worldly actress;
who may birth awful scriptwriting
and, giving breath to Portobello
when Portobello is wrapped in itself,
wafts in unbuttoned Oxford shirt
aware giddily of his own unawareness.
* * * * *
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor was one of the incredible international authors to visit Cape Town during the 2015 Open Book Festival. The Kenyan writer took part in various panel discussions, and on the first day of the festival, sat down with Books LIVE’s Erin Devenish to chat about her life as a writer.
Owuor spoke about what shapes her words as well as what keeps her from writing. She also shared some practical advise for aspiring authors and had a word of wisdom for her 21-year-old self.
Owuor’s “magical” and “richly evocative” debut novel Dust tells the story of Kenya’s turbulent recent history. It was shortlisted for both the 2015 Folio Prize and the 2015 FT/OppenheimerFunds Emerging Voices Award.
When asked what she hopes readers take away from Dust, Owuor says: “I hope they get a sense of story; the thing that story gives you, whatever story it is. I hope they leave with that thing, that intangible thing.”
Sit back and read the interview:
Books LIVE: I need to start by saying thank you for your novel, your words and the work that you do.
Owuor: Thank you!
At what age did you know that you wanted to be a writer, and what did realising that mean to you?
I realised I wanted to be a writer when I was three. I discovered that I could put together letters of the alphabet and create something with it. When you put T-H-E and F-A-T, suddenly you have “the fat”, and then C-A-T, “cat”. And it becomes real then. Some of my first works of words were on my mother’s wall.
But it took a long, long time after that. I was fundamentally a C student, but very good with English compositions; I love English literature and books. But I never thought it could ever be me. It was the most magical thing, and it took a long, long time – I ended up doing a lot of strange and wonderful things.
At the age of 35, when everything I thought I wanted fell from my hands, the thing that remained was writing. That’s what I did, that’s what I ended up doing.
Do you remember the first story you wrote? What was it for, and how old were you at the time?
Actually, the first moment I understood that words put together could mean something was when I was seven years old. If you can imagine the shyest, most invisible girl in the class. I still remember the feeling when I walked into the class one morning and found that the poem I put together was up on the wall with five gold stars. Mrs Saunders – that was my class teacher – called my mother. When mum came, I really thought I was in trouble. Mrs Saunders wanted to know, “Did she copy this?” I remember bursting into tears and saying, “No!” – I thought I’d done something wrong. But it was the moment of realising, in a very childish way understanding, that words matter. I remember that.
Do you consciously model your writing on authors you admire, and who are those authors?
Okay, so picture this: all of these ghosts are inside my heart. And, I make no apologies, most of them are dead white men. GK Chesterton, Oscar Wilde, Tolkien! And then of course people like Michael Ondaatje, and some great female writers as well.
But, I don’t know if I model my work after them as much as I evoke their spirit, the things they have said that moved me so intensely. There’s always a temptation to say, “What would he say? How would he look at that word ‘and’?” I guess the consciousness of their presence is very much there.
Do you have rules for your writing?
No. No rules. Not even one.
How did you go about getting your first piece of work published?
My first piece of work was “Weight of Whispers”, which ended up winning the Caine Prize for African Writing. It was no conscious effort on my part; it simply happened that I happened to write at the time of a certain zeitgeist in the Kenyan space. It was a kind of fervour and foment around literature that was happening in 2002, 2003. At that time my colleague, co-writer and in many ways my mentor, he kicked me in the butt and got me to write, Binyavanga Wainaina. When he won the Caine Prize in 2002, he used his money to set up the Kwani Trust. The Kwani Trust published my story online. So my first story was the product of digital publishing, and it was submitted to the Caine Prize, and to my surprise it won. That opened up amazing doors for me. So that’s what actually happened.
Do you have any practical tips for writers trying to break in, or just write stories?
The only practical tip I would say is, number one, just write. Write, write, write. Get your story out, and don’t worry if they’re not in the public domain yet. The second thing is network, network, network. Meet the right people and publishers, tell your friends, participate. In the end, the people who publish are people. The thing that gets published is relationships, frankly.
What excites you about Open Book? What do you feel you want to give South Africans or take away from the festival?
I think it’s always about meeting everyone. The idea about one’s tribe; the tribe of writers, the tribe of those who love books, who love the word wherever they are in the world. They transcend boundaries and idea of stage. In many ways its a bit like the wind, flowing in different parts of the world, meeting. Meeting the convergence of wind right here is why I’m here. That’s what I’m excited about.
Which events at Open Book are you excited about going to or taking part in?
All of them. I think its just exciting to be here, and I’m just really excited about the space.
When you start writing, do you start with a theme, or a plot or characters?
I’m not trying to sound weird or precious, but I’ve noticed if I’m writing, it’s mysterious in that you don’t know where the idea strikes your heart. It seems its your spirit it comes from. But it could be anything. It could be something in this moment that suddenly, walking down the street I think, “Yes! There’s a moment.” And then to pursue, to run after that: the story, the feeling, the urge, and obviously where it leads.
Actually, when I sat down to write the book Dust, I had kind of pre-planned what it was going to be and that turned out a total disaster. It was part of the lesson of learning how to write a book – getting out of my head, getting out of my self and just allowing the story to happen.
What do you hope that readers take away from Dust, and from your other writing?
I hope they get a sense of story; the thing that story gives you, whatever story it is. I hope they leave with that thing, that intangible thing.
Linked to that, what role do you think readers play in making writing and novels what they are?
To illustrate a point I’m going to make, I was in a place of doubt after the book with the short story “Weight of Whispers” was published (A is for Ancestors). I was in a place of doubt about who I was as a writer. Because, in my other personality, I’m very much a corporate bitch and I do corporate things very well. So I was doing that, I was working at a grand institution. Then I was invited to the Brisbane book festival, that was 2010. It was in this time that I was thinking maybe I should try other things. But what happened was, something major shifted there. The most naked for me was meeting these kind of 70, 60-year-old women who were daughters who had inherited a book club that had been going on since the early part of the twentieth century, and they had read my book, and they had opinions about what should have happened. They had cornered me and were saying, this and that. I think my heart just melted. I said, “That is why I write.” Now you understand, I write for them. That what readers are for me: I write for you guys.
You have had a lot of interviews, maybe good maybe bad. Is there an interview question that you dread or dislike answering, and are there ones that you kind of like to answer?
Oh, that’s an interesting question. Let’s see. I don’t think I dread any. An interview question is the type of thing where you never know what you’re going to find. So there’s the gambler in me that likes the “hah hah”. But I think that one that has begun to irritate a lot is one that I tend to get in mostly Europe. Suddenly because I am a writer from Africa, I must have an answer to Ebola, you know, disease, poverty. I’m a writer, I don’t know. I’m not a medical doctor. I don’t know what to do. Not, “What is your opinion?” but “What is your country going to do about supply, the pathology?” And I’m thinking, “I wanted to talk about Tolkien. Really, I did. I want to talk about hobbits.” That’s the one that begins to get grating.
Well, tell me about Tolkien and hobbits. How do they come in to your book?
They were like the templates. They’re there; as I’m writing they watch me. I enjoy the adventure. I think it’s just a realisation. I was very young when I read it, but I realised books are like that magic cupboard. You open it and then you enter into incredible, other universes. That’s what Tolkien, and the hobbits, and everybody means for me. Up to now, you will not tell me they are not real. They’re real. They just live somewhere else.
How would you describe your writing, in terms of theme and style? Do you describe it?
I let the critics do so. Well, the critics have all sorts of directions and opinions. There are two or three I don’t recognise, but that’s okay. My job is, I’ve realised, to tell the story.
Being an African writer and a writer from Kenya, does that ever weigh on you or weigh on the way that you’re received? Or do the opposite, in lifting up your writing? What impact does it have?
This probably refers to the earlier question that there seems to be a presumed burden, which I reject of course. I duly reject. I know I’m a writer, and I happen to be from Kenya, from Africa. But the desire to place the burden of carrying the entire continent on my back or explaining and interpreting the continent to those who are, frankly, far too lazy to do their own research, which I also tell them to their faces. I’ve learned to do that now.
What is your next project?
Aha, I will tell you and then I will kill you. Actually, I don’t mind saying the draft, a reasonable draft, of the new book, working title The Dragon Bites Me, Indian Ocean stories based in Kenya. I love the Indian Ocean.
What’s next on your reading pile? And what are you reading currently?
Oh, quite a lot actually. Echoing Silence, it’s Thomas Merton. I think I’m sort of going through a Thomas Merton phase. He writes a lot. I don’t know if you know it? It’s a compilation of his work; he’s writing to writers. It’s just exquisite, in terms of grounding the mind, the heart, the spirit.
Where are based at the moment?
What do you miss about Nairobi when you’re not in Nairobi?
When I’m not in Nairobi, Nairobi and I have got a what do you call it … Like I told somebody, we endure one another. We don’t really like each other. But we’re forced to live together. Especially since I was born there. I much prefer the ocean or the vast desert spaces. So we are happy to be apart. But when we meet each other, we nod very politely and accommodate each other’s lives, Nairobi and I. But what can I say, I keep going back. So it must be one of those relationships where we secretly love one another but will never admit it.
Where is your ideal place to live then?
There’s so many ideal places. My ideal place is an island surrounded by the Indian Ocean. Anything close to that Indian Ocean. And I’m very precise: the Indian Ocean, it’s no other ocean.
Looking back, what would you tell 21-year-old you?
I’d tell 21-year-old me: Vonney, fear is an overrated thing, emotion or whatever one wants to call it – a force. Cut through your bullshit. Just get on with it. Don’t be afraid.
Where do you go to get away?
If I’m really, like, dried out, I go to the ocean. I find the ocean. I have quiet places, different places. They’re spaces of worship, that have been made sacred places and very quiet, quiet places. The back of a church. Those amaze me. And to just breathe from the heart. Always nature, is amazing. And among my nieces, children. Children are amazing for just getting things balanced again.
Do you have any quirky hobbies, or just normal hobbies?
It’s one of those ones, where if you reveal it … the one I will admit to is, it’s sort of a temptation, I don’t know why, it never goes away, is the urge to climb trees. Or climb heaps. That’s one thing we did as children, my sisters and I. And I still do, so my little nieces are scandalised, “Aunty Yvonne!” “Please don’t tell mummy.” Up till now, it’s still the same. The idea of climbing up to a high place and looking down.
So are you going to do Table Mountain?
I did Table Mountain when I was here, illegally. I illegally climbed Table Mountain and stayed overnight for my 28th birthday. Which I shouldn’t have done, but nobody found me. If I have time I would, but I always feel that for Table Mountain I need to come here to be with it. I would be coming to Cape Town specifically for her, for the mountain, not as a by-the-way. I cannot see Table Mountain as a by-the-way. It’s a mountain that is very important for the choices and paths my life took.
I wanted to ask about your corporate personality and your personality as an artist and a writer. Do they ever clash, or do they feed into each other?
They clash. I sometimes say I’ve got a jealous muse. When I’m in my corporate mode, nothing of the writing energy or spirit … it’s almost as if it goes away and sulks. But no, they don’t get along at all.
What is your least favourite thing to do in ordinary life that takes away from your writing or takes away from your spirit?
One that takes away and saps the spirit is, I don’t know if it’s ordinary but I keep running into it, have you ever gone into a space that is so blocked, a cesspool, negative, dragging down, politicking, ugliness thing that can be tempting to get into, you’re sucked into a debate or a conversation that’s so dragging to the spirit. I take weeks to recover from that. It takes a long time to recover from those kind of conversations that do not feed a writer’s soul. That’s murderous.
Do you have a thing that is really nerdy, but you still love?
I think I’ve got a lot of those! Let’s see. Well, I was a nerd. My first job and my first professional life was as an Apple technician. Give me the pieces, break it down, I will put it together again. And I will love putting it together, the electronic pieces, and turning it into a phone. So I was a nerd. No embarrassment, no shame with that. Technology, all the little thingies, love them.
I’m sure you’re in demand somewhere, so one last question: What’s one thing you want readers to know about reading or what should writers know?
I think one of the things I’ve found is to give room for the unexpected, both in the reader and among the writers. Because, on the other hand, we also learn. I’ve found those writers, readers, people, show me. It’s a bit like being a human being and you’ve never seen your own back, so they show me my back. They show me through their words, with their ideas. I get a sense of what a part of me I haven’t seen looks like.