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Oswald Mtshali’s Sounds of a Cowhide Drum and Antjie Krog’s Skinned Strike a Note at The Book Lounge

Oswald Mtshali and Antjie Krog

There is no stopping Cape Town’s literati. Despite the bounty of recent literary events, the Dancing in Other Words festival held at Spier, and the Franschhoek Literary Festival, the crowds arrived on Monday night, undeterred by minor matters like the practicalities of sending a RSVP!

Sounds of a Cowhide Drum /  Imisindo Yesighubu Sesikhumba SenkomoSkinnedOswald Mtshali, who recently launched a beautiful reissue of his classic Sounds of a Cowhide Drum with the poems now translated in Zulu, was joined by veteran Afrikaans poet, Antjie Krog. Her most recent publication is Skinned, which represents new works translated into English, as well as those spanning her publishing career.

At least an hour before the event took place, people started arriving to claim a seat. Book Lounge spokeswoman, Verushka Louw, welcomed the duo on behalf of Mervyn Sloman, who was attending the Étonnants Voyageurs festival in Saint-Malo, along with a contingency of South African writers. He sent a message in his inimical style which was read aloud, to great enjoyment from the audience.

“Growing up in a typically sheltered white middle class South African suburb in the ’70s and ’80s, reading two books in my teens woke me to the reality of our country. Eskia Mphahlele’s Down Second Avenue was one and Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali’s amazing collection of poetry, Sounds of a Cowhide Drum, was the other. Reading Mtshali’s poetry as a 15 year old completely altered my ‘understanding’ of my country and consequently of myself, and for that I owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

“It is so wonderful that such an important collection is back in print after so many years of being unavailable and for that, a serious vote of thanks must go to Jacana,” said Sloman. His message concluded with the assertion that he was “thoroughly pissed off” to be missing the two South Africans for whom he had the utmost respect but was confident that all in attendance would have “an experience to remember.”

Louw’s own message followed. She said there was very little room for individual thought in the small towns where she grew up. “It might even be considered dangerous, or that is how my teachers explained it. With that perfect vision called hindsight, I realise that my teenage self was always searching for someone or something to say it is okay to have thoughts that cross boundaries.”

She said, “I devoured books like Marie Biscuits, until I discovered Antjie Krog. Then I stopped and learned to savour words. You wrote about things that I have thought, in ways that I have imagined. You became my philosophy lesson, my geography map, my crying nights. The thing with poetry is that it is a bit like walking in the veld. There is always a chance to discover treasure, a small encounter that could lead to life-changing events. For not being able to not write these things down, Antjie, I thank you.”

Mtshali started the event by reading a selection of his poems in English and then in Zulu. He is a masterful performer evoking the atmosphere of each poem with perfectly poised expression and deliberately paced intent. Introducing each work by setting it in context with a brief explanation, he then launched into his majestic oration. After an enthusiastic reception, he handed the microphone to Krog. Her performance, differently theatrical but equally powerful, held the audience rapt by the direct force of her word.

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Liesl Jobson tweeted live from the event using the hashtag #livebooks

Report and images by contributing editor, Liesl Jobson.

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