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Archive for the ‘Book Excerpts’ Category

Fiction Friday: read Bushra al-Fadil’s winning entry for the 2017 Caine Prize for African Writing

The Sudanese writer Bushra al-Fadil was announced as the winner of the 2017 Caine Prize for African Writing on 3 July. His story, “The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away”, translated by Max Shmookler, was published in The Book of Khartoum – A City in Short Fiction (Comma Press, UK, 2016).

Press release from the Caine Prize for African Writing:

Bushra al-Fadil has won the 2017 Caine Prize for African Writing, described as Africa’s leading literary award, for his short story entitled “The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away”, translated by Max Shmookler, published in The Book of Khartoum – A City in Short Fiction (Comma Press, UK. 2016). The Chair of Judges, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, announced Bushra al-Fadil as the winner of the £10,000 prize at an award dinner this evening (Monday, 3 July) held for the first time in Senate House, London, in partnership with SOAS as part of their centenary celebrations. As a translated story, the prize money will be split – with £7,000 going to Bushra and £3,000 to the translator, Max Shmookler.

“The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away” vividly describes life in a bustling market through the eyes of the narrator, who becomes entranced by a beautiful woman he sees there one day. After a series of brief encounters, tragedy unexpectedly befalls the woman and her young female companion.

Nii Ayikwei Parkes praised the story, saying, “the winning story is one that explores through metaphor and an altered, inventive mode of perception – including, for the first time in the Caine Prize, illustration – the allure of, and relentless threats to freedom. Rooted in a mix of classical traditions as well as the vernacular contexts of its location, Bushra al-Fadil’s “The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away”, is at once a very modern exploration of how assaulted from all sides and unsupported by those we would turn to for solace we can became mentally exiled in our own lands, edging in to a fantasy existence where we seek to cling to a sort of freedom until ultimately we slip into physical exile.”

Bushra al-Fadil is a Sudanese writer living in Saudi Arabia. His most recent collection Above a City’s Sky was published in 2012, the same year Bushra won the al-Tayeb Salih Short Story Award. Bushra holds a PhD in Russian language and literature.

Read “The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away” here:

The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away
Bushra al-Fadil

Translated by Max Shmookler

 
There I was, cutting through a strange market crowd – not just people shopping for their salad greens, but beggars and butchers and thieves, prancers and Prophet-praisers and soft-sided soldiers, the newly-arrived and the just-retired, the flabby and the flimsy, sellers roaming and street kids groaning, god-damners, bus-waiters and white-robed traders, elegant and fumbling.

And there in the midst, our elected representatives, chasing women with their eyes and hands and whole bodies, with those who couldn’t give chase keeping pace with an indiscrete and
sensual attention, or lost in a daydream.

I cut, sharp-toothed, carving a path through the crowd when a passerby clutched his shoulder in pain, followed by a ‘Forgive me!’ Then a scratch on a lady’s toe was followed with a quick ‘Oh no!’ Then a slap to another’s cheek, after which was heard ‘Forgiveness is all I seek!’

So lost in dreams I could not wait for their reply to my apology.

The day was fresher than a normal summer day, and I could feel delight turbaned around my head, like a Bedouin on his second visit to the city. The working women were not happy like me, nor were the housewives. I was the son of the Central Station, spider-pocketed, craning my neck to see a car accident or the commotion of a thief being caught. I was awake, descending into the street, convulsing from hunger and the hopeless search for work in the ‘cow’s muzzle’, as we say.

I suppressed my unrest. The oppressed son of the oppressed but despite all of that – happy. Could the wretched wrest my happiness from me? Hardly. Without meaning to, I wandered through these thoughts.

The people around me were a pile of human watermelons, every pile awaiting its bus. I approached one of the piles and pulled out my queuing tools – an elbow and the palm of my hand – and then together they helped my legs to hold up my daily depleted and yearly defeated body. I pulled out my eyes and began to look… and look… in all directions and to store away what I saw.

I saw a blind man looking out before him as if he were reading from that divine book which preceded all books, that book of all fates. He kept to himself as he passed before me but still I felt the coins in my pocket disappear. Then I saw a woman who was so plump that when she called out to her son – ‘Oh Hisham’ – you could feel the greasy resonance of the ‘H’ in your ears. I saw a frowning man, a boy weaving an empty tin can along the ground with his feet. I saw voices and heard boundless scents and then, suddenly, in the midst of all of that, I saw her. The dervish in my heart jumped.

I saw her: soaring without swaying, her skin the colour of wheat – not as we know it but rather as if the wheat were imitating her tone. She had the swagger of a soldier, the true heart of the people. And if you saw her, you’d never be satiated. I said to myself, ‘This is the girl whose birds flew away.’

Her round face looked like this: Her nose was like a fresh vegetable and by God, what eyes! A pharaonic neck with two taut slender chords, only visible when she turned her head. And when she turned her head, I thought all the women selling their mashed beans and salted sunflower seeds would flee, the whole street would pick up and leave only ruts where they had been, the fetid stench of blood would abandon the places where meat was sold. My thoughts fled to a future I longed for. And if you poured water over the crown of her head, it would flow down past her forehead.

She walked in waves, as if her body were an auger spiralling through a cord of wood.

She approached me. I looked myself over and straightened myself out. As she drew closer, I saw she was holding tight to a little girl who resembled her in every way but with a child’s chubbiness. Their hands were woven together as if they had been fashioned precisely in that manner, as if they were keeping each other from straying. They both knit their eyebrows nonchalantly, such that their eyes flashed, seeming to cleanse their faces from the famished stares of those around them.

‘This is the girl whose birds flew away,’ I said.

I turned to her sister and said, ‘And this must be the talisman she’s brought to steer her away from evil. How quickly her calm flew from her palm.’

I stared at them until I realised how loathsome I was in comparison. It was this that startled me, not them. I looked carefully at the talisman. Her mouth was elegant and precise as if she never ate the stewed okra that was slowly poisoning me. I glanced around and then I looked back at them, looked and looked – oh how I looked! – until a bus idled up and abruptly saved the
day. Although it was not their custom, the people made way for the two unfamiliar women, and they just hopped aboard. Through the dust kicked up by the competition around the door I found myself on the bus as well.

We lumbered forward. The man next to me was smoking and the man next to him smelled as if he were stuffed with onions. If the day were not so fresh, and were it not for the girl and her talisman and their aforementioned beauty, I would have gotten off that wretched bus without a word of apology. After five minutes, the onionised man lowed to the driver: ‘This’s my stop, buddy.’

He got off and slammed the door in a way that suggested the two of them had a long and violent history. The driver rubbed his right cheek as if the door had been slammed on him. He grumbled to himself, ‘People without a shred of mercy.’

The onion man reeled back around and threw a red eye at the driver. ‘What?’ he exploded. ‘What’d you say?’

‘Get going, by God!’ I yelled. ‘He wasn’t talking about you.’

As the bus pulled away, the onionised man’s insults and curses blended with the whine of the motor. As if the driver wanted to torment us, he continued the argument as a monologue, beginning, ‘People are animals…’

Continue reading here.


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Fiction Friday: read Part 1 of Bronwyn Law-Viljoen’s “If you go down to the woods”

Barry Ronge Award-shortlisted author Bronwyn Law-Viljoen has published a series of short stories, “If you go down to the woods”, on the African literature website Aerodrome.com. Read the first of the four here:

Check

Racism never detects the particles of the other.

Just before six. So. A good hour. The traffic coming up Beyers is a trickle. It will be backed up all the way from Judith by the time I’m headed back, but that’s then. The park and the dogs are now. I can ease into my skin, regard the day first. I glance in the rear-view mirror. Mouse has her front paws up on the back seat. She’s watching me—her eyes are sucked brown sweets—making sure I know what I’m doing, that I’m going the right way. Morris is hangdog. I look at the back of his knobbled head. He’ll have that glazed expression that makes people in the other cars smile. The journey to the park is a rude encounter with cold that he doesn’t like, until, that is, we are in the park.

We pull into the lot at three minutes to. It’s darker than yesterday, winter creeping in, holding onto the night longer and longer. The burgundy Cherokee is there, but no sign of the German woman with her nine rescues given to aggressive pack behavior. They are to be avoided. But not because of Morris, who for all his rock jaw and brick-shit-house body, is not a fighter, but will stand wagging desperately to announce he’s cool—cool man—while the pack rushes him. It’s Mouse, no flight dog, all seven kilos of her ready to punch way above her weight.

I coax them out of the car, and as he touches ground the bull terrier is ready, shoulders squared, line of fur rising along his spine, on his toes in that swagger gait. Mouse is off to the dustbin to find old bones or something rotting, her docked tail erect. The car guard watches us. The park is still.

I walk into the cold and wonder if I have too little or too much clothing on, notice the chill on my ankles above my socks. At the bottom of the hill the dam lies breathing. Our vapour rises into the dark. I check the moonbag—keys, leashes, turd bags and two half treats. I swing the bag around, pick up the pace.

The dogs are all ears, stopping to piss for a moment and then off, noses to ground, Mouse running ahead to find a scent and track it all the way to a pile of discarded KFC, Morris heading left to pick up a trail he found yesterday, angling back across the path to check on me, and then off the other way, his haunches bunching to a stride that’s more bounce than trot, feet high, ears up, his whole body present. His reserves gathered in sleep now squeezed into his veins and his big heart so that he’s on all cylinders, looking for something.

Mouse heads back and suddenly the two of them are off at a sprint, the Jack Russell after the bull terrier, nipping at his arse so that he wheels around in full flight to throw her off but she’s at him, barking and biting at his tender sphincter displayed under his lifted tail, soft grey muscle that contracts when another dog approaches or just before he needs to relieve himself, and irresistible to Mouse. It’s a ritual of tag that circles around my walking until they split apart and pick up a scent, bouncing away at the end of the invisible bungee cords that tie us to each other. Off they go. My thoughts unravel with them in loose threads of dreams and morning.

I settle into a fast-paced rhythm, swinging my arms high, breathing deep to match my stride. We know the routine, fall into it easily, the dogs off and back, off and back, my body working itself into a sweat in the cold air. I focus on my feet and the path ahead and look for signs of movement. I think of Joel, and the list.

So you are out walking your dogs in the park and you see me walking towards you, well not me, but a guy, walking towards you. What happens in your head? How does this checklist work?

Okay, a guy like you, thirties, black, slightly taller than me, alone, no dog, no bag. Do you have a backpack, are you carrying anything?

No, no backpack.

And what are you wearing?

Jeans, t-shirt, jacket.

Hoodie?

Jeez, that’s a cliché.

Humour me.

Is it cold? Okay it’s cold, so yes, I have my hood up and my hands in my pockets, and I am walking, head down, no backpack.

Do you have anything in your hands, a packet, say, like a shopping bag?

At six in the morning? No. Just me, hands in my pockets, walking towards you.

Okay, which part of the park are we walking in? That’s important—where we are. In the woods, where it’s still dark at this time of the morning? Or near the dam, which is out in the open and I would have a view in all directions?

You decide. You know the place.

Okay, we’re in the forested part, and we’re walking along next to the stream on the path. The dogs are ahead of me, and you come along.

Okay, so give me the checklist. What plays in your head?

I watch Morris head into the bushes. He’s after something. Human faeces, maybe, so I run to catch up, calling him out before he can eat it. He comes running back, big grin, looking for the head pat. Mouse is on her mission amongst the trees, but she’s close enough that I know she’s going to come when I call. The cord is slack.

So let’s say I have about fifty paces to do this. Here’s the list. Male, young—not too young, but, say, twenties, thirties—in the woods, alone, no dog, dark clothing, hoodie, no bag. Actually ‘no bag’ comes after ‘no dog’ and before ‘dark clothing’. You have no bag, so that means you’re not going to work. If you were you’d have a backpack and maybe a lunch bag, Pick ’n Pay usually.

Christ, you know the brand of the bag?

Pick ’n Pay is easy—red, blue and white. That’s for your lunch, otherwise why else would you have that kind of bag in your hand at six in the morning? And definitely a guy with evil intentions is not carrying a Pick ’n Pay bag. Remember, this is a suburban park, surrounded on all sides by houses, streets, shops, small businesses. We’re not in the bush here. Technically, we’re in the city. Or very near.

Okay, so you start with male. Are you sure? Doesn’t black come first?

Well I’ve thought about this a lot, trying to assess the level of my prejudice, but no, if you’re male, young, white, alone, no dog, hoodie, no bag, I’m just as worried as I would be if you were all of these and black. So no, it’s definitely male that comes first. A woman coming along the path who checked every box except the gender one wouldn’t worry me. If she were black I’d only wonder a little because mostly it’s white women walking in the park and only in the last several months have I encountered black women walking, but then it’s black women in their late thirties with a dog or a child, or both. Middle-class black women. A young black woman would surprise me, except if she were in running gear. A young guy walking alone in the park would make me start checking the list.

Okay, so first gender, and then age, and then race?

Well, I have to admit that I’ve not been able to test this theory because I’ve never encountered a young white male on his own, walking, in a hoodie, in the park at six in the morning. So there’s that.

Okay, so you’re hoping, in a way, that if you did, you’d be afraid. Because that would reassure you—in respect of your prejudice I mean. You’d be afraid but at the same time relieved to find that your reaction to a young white male was the same as your reaction to a young black male?

Continue reading here.


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Read an excerpt from Hedley Twidle’s Firepool in the new issue of the JRB

The latest issue of the Johannesburg Review of Books is out now and contains an excerpt from Hedley Twidle’s Firepool: Experiences in an Abnormal World, a chronicle of South Africa in the ‘second transition’ – one in which the foundations of the post-apartheid settlement are being shaken and questioned in all kinds of ways.

From the complex legacy of artists like Moses Taiwa Molelekwa and JM Coetzee to the #FeesMustFall protests, from the N2 highway to the gnawing uncertainty of our nuclear future, Hedley Twidle treats serious subjects with a sense of playfulness, mischief and imagination.

Read Twidle’s essay on three South African men who contributed to the country’s music and literature scene in the 1990, yet passed away at the age of 27:
 
 
18

Phaswane Mpe (1970–2004)
Moses Taiwa Molelekwa (1973–2001)
K Sello Duiker (1974–2005)

Three talented men, three great hopes for a post-apartheid South African culture, gone too soon. The first an academic and novelist, author of the strange and prophetic short work Welcome to Our Hillbrow (2001). The second a pianist and composer, whose major works are Finding One’s Self (1993) and Genes and Spirits (1998), with Wa Mpona (2002), Darkness Pass (2004) and several live albums released posthumously. The third, the author of two key novels of the South African transition – Thirteen Cents (2000) and The Quiet Violence of Dreams (2001) – who was working as a screenwriter at SABC1 when he took his own life.

If Molelekwa carried the hopes of South African music in the 1990s, then for literature perhaps it was Duiker and Mpe. Yet each of these talented, troubled men would be dead before the end of South Africa’s first decade as a democracy, leaving a great sense of sorrow and emptiness. For me they are bracketed together: discovered together (late). What they share (Taiwa and Sello especially): earnestness, naivety. A voice that was vulnerable, that was still in the process of working itself out. The occasional false notes that come with the ambition of trying to get somewhere else, somewhere new. Also: an unwillingness to talk about the circumstances of their deaths. Can one listen to the 1990s through their work, at a time when the 1990s seems very far away, when a period that you lived through has now become historical?

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In an interview, pianist Moses Molelekwa named his three biggest influences as Abdullah Ibrahim, Herbie Hancock and Bheki Mseleku. Ibrahim for his hard-won simplicity; Herbie for the way he treats the keyboard as a site of restless experimentation; Mseleku for his merging of jazz techniques and southern African melodic lines.

In finding out more about Bheki Mseleku – who suffered from diabetes and bipolar affective disorder, who spent two years on retreat in a Buddhist temple and many more in exile – I learned that he had once met Alice Coltrane in Newport. Here she gave him the mouthpiece that John Coltrane had used during the recording of A Love Supreme. When Mseleku returned to South Africa in 1994, this was taken during a burglary in Johannesburg – an event which, according to his 2008 obituary, ‘seriously destabilised him’. The mouthpiece Coltrane used in the recording of ‘Prayer’ and ‘Ascent’, a mouthpiece which he bit into, and which would have carried his teeth marks – this went missing in Johannesburg, perhaps dumped in a skip or a storm drain, perhaps finding its way to an unwitting musician. For weeks I carried around this footnote, stunned, not really knowing what to do with it.

20

‘Does life begin at 40?’ asked an online tribute to a South African pianist and composer who died in 2001 at the age of 27: ‘That’s the time signature Moses Taiwa Molelekwa would have reached on Wednesday, 17 April 2013.’

‘Time signature’ is a musical term for the number of beats in a bar. I want to stretch it to consider the musical signature of a time – 1994 to 2004, the first ten years of South African democracy – that is by now a historical period. Now when an album like Molelekwa’s Genes and Spirits or a book like K Sello Duiker’s The Quiet Violence of Dreams, which once seemed so contemporary, have become period pieces. So what does it mean to listen to those years, in both Molelekwa’s playing and the verbal signature of Duiker’s prose?

Continue reading here.

Book details


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Louis Greenberg is working on a post-cyber noir novel

Acclaimed author, academic – he holds a doctorate in English literature from Wits – and specialist in the post-religious apocalyptic fiction of Douglas Copeland, Louis Greenberg, has a new novel in the making.

Greenberg recently blogged that he’s putting the finishing touches on his post-cyber noir novel, Green Valley. Exploring themes of truth and falseness, questioning who we can and can’t trust, and asking what we’re willing to risk for those we love, Green Valley is being marketed as “True Detective meets Black Mirror”.

As intrigued as we are? Read the first two paragraphs of the synopsis here:

The world has turned against digital technology in a neo-Luddite revolution. At its height, over eighty per cent of people in Stanton wore The I – to bank, to work, to shop, to ride. But for eight years, what’s left of Zeroth Corporation, The I’s developer, has been holed up in Green Valley, an enclave sealed in a concrete bunker from the rest of the world.

When Lucie Sterling gets a call from her ex-husband David in Green Valley, her complacent lifestyle in Stanton is shattered. She hasn’t told her partner Fabian Tadic, a high-power anti-technology campaigner, that she has a nine-year-old daughter – she let David take Kira into Green Valley and close themselves behind the wall and they faded into her past – but now David’s telling her that Kira is missing. Over the years there’s been a trickle of invisible kids through the Stanton morgue, Green Valley children who occasionally turn up dead outside the enclave, and who officially don’t exist to Stanton law enforcement. For Lucie, the invisible kids have suddenly become personal.


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Read the first chapter of Paige Nick’s Unpresidented

In the irreverent tradition of her best-selling Death by Carbs, Paige Nick rounds up a fresh herd of sacred cows in another hilarious local satire. But this time it’s Number One who gets the treatment…

It’s 2020, and ex-president Jeremiah Gejeyishwebisa Muza has just been released from prison on medical parole, with a dangerously infected ingrown toenail. Now he’s back home with his two remaining wives, a skinny dog, a rapidly dwindling entourage, and a fire pool to maintain. Plus the municipality is demanding he pay a vast outstanding rates bill.

But Muza has plans – big ones – that include a memoir of alternative facts being ghostwritten by disgraced journo Matthew Stone. Will Stone meet his deadline, as publisher, agent, and drug dealer all breathe down his neck? Will Muza pay the money in time and succeed in his plans to conquer the world? Will his long-suffering parole officer stay one jump ahead of him? And which side is he limping on today?

Enjoy the first chapter of Unpresidented: A Comedy of Errors:

30 DAYS TILL DEADLINE
THE WRITER

‘Writer, did you type up all those words I gave you yesterday?’ The ex-President asks as he lumbers into the room without apology. I shouldn’t complain, he’s only forty-five minutes late. Better than yesterday, when I stared at the four walls and a damp-stained ceiling for an hour and a half before he and his entourage deigned to grace me with their presence.

‘I did, sir, but I need to discuss this with you…’

‘Excellent. Read those words back to me now, comrade, so we can hear how it sounds before we proceed with Chapter Two. I think this is going to be a very, very great book, a bestseller definitely.’

His gang all nod and two of them high-five each other. I try again, forcing respect into my tone: ‘Yes sir, but the thing is…’

‘Ah, you are intimidated by me, Mr Stone. And I understand, I know it must be unnerving being so close to a living legend, but remember, I am still just a man who is made of flesh, bones and blood.’

‘No sir, actually, that’s not it…’ I begin again.

‘And you don’t have to call me sir. You can call me Mr President.’

‘Ex-President,’ I mumble.

‘You can begin reading now, Mr Stone. I’m an important man, with a sore toe, and I’m sure you don’t want to waste any more of my time.’

Trying to reason with him appears to be useless. I roll my eyes so far back in my head I can see the wall behind me. When they roll back around again, I tilt my laptop screen to offset the glare, clear my throat, and read as un-sarcastically as possible. Which isn’t easy.

‘Chapter One,’ I begin. ‘It was a beautiful day outside, but I had to be patient when I was released from prison, because it took forever for the gates to slide open so I could step into freedom, wearing my expensive suit. Even from behind my tinted glasses, I had to blink away the glare of the sun and cameras. It would take me a while to adjust back into the world after my time away.

‘With all eyes on me, I overcame great pain from the considerable injury that resulted in my medical parole, and limped to the podium. I am from the people of the sky – amaZulu. We are warriors, and a great man does not allow something as inconsequential as a life-threatening physical injury to hinder him. It takes more than a small axe to fell a great tree.

‘During my time away I had lost the padding I gained during my presidential years, and replaced it with this lean, agile physique I have now. When I finally got to the podium…’

‘I believe it was “of a boxer”,’ Muza interrupts me.

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘The line you just read out, comrade writer: it’s supposed to say that I replaced my bulk with the lean, agile physique of a boxer. You said the words, “lean, agile physique”, but you must also include the boxer bit. It’s a very important detail.’

The ex-President’s men grunt. I type in his changes, bashing at the keyboard with two reluctant fingers, then reread the revised sentence in a monotone.

‘…During my time away I had lost the padding I gained during my presidential years, and replaced it with the lean, agile physique of a boxer.’ I look up to see if he’s satisfied. His double chins wobble as he nods, and his gang add their bobble-head-dog-on-the-dashboard nods, so I continue reading.

‘In the glare of hundreds of thousands of camera flashes, the first thing I saw from the podium, with my tireless lawyer, comrade Zwelani, by my side, was the massive crowd. In their excitement to be near their idol, thousands of people surged forward, roaring my name, “Muza, Muza, Muza!” The men were dancing, the women ululating. Some of the people in the crowd were even crying – with happiness, of course!

Fans threw flowers at me as the press jostled to get the best shot for the world’s newspaper covers the next day. They had to be pushed back by the police! I waited for the crowd to settle, so I could be heard over the cheering. Then I spoke directly to my people for the first time in three years, eight months and twenty-seven days. It is a triumphant moment I will never forget. In prison, not a day went by that I didn’t visualise my great resurrection! My holy revival! Viva Muza, viva!

‘The crowd hung on my every word. History will report that I am a great orator. And so, in this historic speech that will be quoted until the end of time, I did not shy away from the truth! I recalled the contentious circumstances of my detainment, outlining how my opponents and adversaries colluded and abused the ends of justice to bring me down! The crowd roared! They saw before them a man who could not be kept low! A man who would soon lead them once again!

‘Then other VIPs came to the podium. A preacher spoke of how I made this country great while I was President. Then a community leader bore witness to my charity and intelligence. Of course the press will not report on these things, comrades, because they are out to get me, spreading hateful propaganda. But believe me, I heard and saw these events with my very own eyes and ears.’

I peer over my screen as I come to the end of the chapter. The ex-President’s eyes are closed, and he’s mouthing the words as I read. When I’m done, he starts clapping, and everyone else joins in.

‘Very good, Mr Stone. Very, very good. You are clearly a talented writer. This is rousing, powerful stuff, don’t you agree?’

‘I would agree, sir, except … except, I didn’t write a word of it, and none of it is really true, is it?’

Muza glares at me as the room goes quiet.

‘What are you saying, writer?’

‘I’m saying, sir, Mr ex-President, sir, that what you dictated to me and instructed me to type up, isn’t exactly how things really played out on the day.’

‘How do you know what happened on that day, Mr Stone? You weren’t there from what I understand.’

‘No, you’re right about that part at least, I wasn’t there on the day you were released from prison.’

‘And neither were the millions of people who will be buying and reading this book, were they, Mr Stone?’ says the ex-President as he sips from one of the Cokes his men have handed round. I note that nobody has offered me one.

‘No, sir, once again you’re right, the people who will buy this book probably weren’t there on that day, but you see, the press were there, and they had cameras. People tweeted and Facebooked and Instagrammed about it. And from everything I saw, the events on the day were vastly different to the ones you’ve had me write down here.

‘For example, there were no speakers, and the crowd had to be held back because the police were concerned for your safety. You say people were throwing flowers, but there are only reports of some rotting fruit and veg flying around. And the bit about how much weight you lost, well, I don’t know how to put this delicately, sir, but many have referred to your parliamentary pillow…’ I say, noting his massive bulk. He’s wearing a grubby leopard-print vest with a hole just under the armpit and a pair of faded black tracksuit bottoms. His boep stretches the fabric of the vest to its limits. Boxer’s physique, my foot. Maybe in the heavyweight category. Float like an elephant, sting like a buzzard.

‘Comrade Stone, clearly you have a lot to learn about politics,’ Muza booms. ‘Just because the press says something doesn’t mean it’s true. If we believed everything the press have accused me of in the last twenty years, where would I be today?’

‘Probably still in jail,’ I mutter.

‘Exactly!’ he shoots back. ‘And I’m not, am I? I am here, back in my majestic, magnificent Homestead, where I belong. Working on some very big business plans and preparing to lead this great country once again. So you see, you can’t always believe what the press prints.’

‘Weeeeeell…’ I say.

‘And whose memories are these anyway? They are mine, not yours, Mr Stone. Mine,’ he snaps.

Muza’s veneer of charm is thinning. Not that I care. What’s he going to do, call SARS and have me audited? Fire me, hire someone else to do the job, fire them, and then hire someone new all in one weekend? Complain to Cyril? Set The Hawks on me? Hardly. He’d be lucky to find the power or the airtime to set a budgie on me. Although I don’t like the looks I’m getting from his heavies.

‘First of all, it’s a memoir, not memories, sir. And secondly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that you’re under contract with my publisher. We have a month in which you’re contractually obliged to tell me your story: the truth as it really happened, not a bunch of alternative facts that you’ve whipped up.’

‘And let me remind you, comrade Stone, that you TOO are under contract with MY publisher. You are supposed to write down everything I tell you.’

‘Yes, but right now there’s a rather big difference between everything you tell me and the truth.’

‘Are you calling me a liar, comrade Stone?’

We glare at each other, neither wanting to look away first. Until he starts his trademark chuckle, and everyone else in the room starts laughing too. I’m thrown; it’s not a reaction I was expecting.

All challenge leaves his eyes as he changes tack: ‘You must relax, comrade Stone. You worry too much. You will have your stories, and the publisher will get their book in time.’

‘Are you sure? Because we only have a month, and I’ve already been here for three days, and all you’ve done so far is keep me waiting, and then dictate a bunch of fake news, and make me write it down with a lot of exclamation marks. It’s unlikely we’ll be able to use any of it, unless the publisher decides to put this title on their fiction list instead.’

‘So, Mr Professional Writer, you don’t like the way I work. Why don’t you tell us all how you would like to do this instead?’

‘Well, for one, we’re going to need to spend a lot more time together if we’re going to get your story down in the time we have left. And you’re going to have to allow me to write it for you. What’s the point of having a professional writer if you don’t let me actually write anything? If your idea is to dictate your version of the story to me, then let’s rather just get a typist. But I think you’ll find I’m a damn good writer, if you give me half a chance.’

‘Perhaps you’re right, comrade.’

‘Really?’

‘Sure,’ he says.

‘So you’ll agree to meet with me every day for a few hours, and if you’re going anywhere or having any meetings, perhaps I can shadow you?’

Muza nods, and his entourage domino-nods.

I’m flooded with relief. I press record and place my dictaphone on the coffee table between us.

‘That would be brilliant. Why don’t we start with how it really felt to come back to the Homestead that day, after being away for so long? Did you know that three of your five wives had left you while you were in prison, and that you would be coming home to a much emptier Homestead than the one you left three years, eight months and twenty-seven days earlier?’

Muza stares at the dictaphone. He shifts in his seat and winces.

‘Those are interesting questions, comrade writer. You have given me a lot to think about and I need to consider my responses carefully. So I think that is enough work on the memories for today, don’t you?’

‘But it’s only eleven,’ I say as Muza makes a few false starts at getting to his feet, rocking backwards and forwards. Finally he clutches the armrest to heave himself out of the leather couch.

‘Can we talk again later?’ I ask.

‘I have a phone call with the Minister of Finance now, and then an important meeting with my campaign manager that I need to prepare for, so regrettably I will have to cut our work on the memories short today.’

‘Can I sit in on the calls?’

‘I would invite you, comrade, but it’s sensitive business. Top secret, in fact.’

‘Sir, Mr ex-President…’ I begin, my voice stern.

‘Alright, alright, I have a meeting with my parole officer in a few days. You can join us for that. One last thing before I go, comrade Stone.’

‘Yes?’ I say, hopefully.

‘You wouldn’t have a couple hundred I could borrow? A bottle of Johnnie Walker Black would definitely help me get my creative juices flowing, so we can write these memories together in time.’

‘That’s the point I was trying to make before, Mr ex-President. Please don’t flow with creative juices. I don’t want your juices. The creativity part is my job. I just need you to tell me the truth in your own words: how you feel and what you’re going through. People want to hear about the real man behind the legend.’

‘Precisely, comrade Stone, you are right of course. And I think a bottle of Johnnie Black would definitely help me find that man for you.’

‘Didn’t you just get a massive advance from the publisher?’ I ask.

His jaw sets. ‘Do you have any idea how much it costs to run a place like this?’ He indicates the mouldering ceiling and stained walls.

‘I think most of South Africa has some idea,’ I murmur. ‘Not to mention the legal fees from my early parole.’

Legal fees: that’s a euphemism if ever I’ve heard one, I think, as the ex-President puts his hand out, palm up. And he’s not waiting for a high five. I take cash out of my pocket and he grabs a corner of the wad. I grip my end of it tightly.

‘If I give you this, do you promise we can do some more work together later today, after your calls?’

‘Of course, comrade, you have my word,’ he says.

I let go of my side of the wad, and the cash is secreted in his tracksuit pants in under a second.

‘And if not today, comrade, we’re definitely on for tomorrow,’ he adds as he waddles out of the room, followed by his crew. He’s quick on his feet for a man with such a dangerously infected ingrown toenail that he’s been released from prison years early on medical parole.

I look around for something to punch, but everything in this room looks like it already had the life punched out of it ages ago.

Unpresidented

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Fiction Friday: read an excerpt from Now That You Are Black in America by Eneka Chinagorom

Emeka Chinagorom was born in Onitsha, Nigeria. His fiction and non-fiction has been published on Bellanajia.com and the Hawai’i Review. An earlier version of his short story, “Now that your are black in America” appeared in the Hawai’i Review and won the 2017 Ian MacMillan Award for Fiction. Chinagorom currently lives in the United States and is working on his first novel.

An excerpt from “Now that you are black in America”, by Eneka Chinagorom:

I want you to hold out your ears and listen.

Hold my ears?

You are not too old for this, for this is a matter of life and death, and I am not about to sit and watch the only palm nut I have roasting in the fire burn. Besides, I am your mother. I carried you in my womb for nine months, and if I say draw your ears, you should ask me how hard. So, now hold your ears.

Your father and I have taken to watching American news more than we watch Super Story. We want to understand what is happening over there. Our hearts are up to our mouths in worry. We still do not understand most of it and we rely on your Uncle Benji to explain sometimes. He says there is nothing happening now that did not happen when he was there as a student. I cannot imagine what it feels like being so young and finding yourself in a place where you are suddenly black before anything else. Especially in a place where it is the worst thing you can be.

I do not want to say I told you so, but I wish you had listened to me and chosen the scholarship in London. Uncle Benji – always the headmaster – agrees. He says that it is not as though people do not encounter racism over there in London, or anywhere else for that matter, where there are people of different colours, but he says that racism in London is just like their humour – it is not apparent; that you have to be looking for it to see it. Unlike in America, where everything they are serving you is in your face, delivered to your very doorstep like it is mail.

Have your held your ears, are you listening?

I hear you.

No. No, this is not one of those “I hear you” moments, only for you to go on doing what you have been doing. No, this is not one of those times we say things that you listen to with one ear and cast away through the other. Understand that this is life and death for us. Your father and I had gone through hell before we had you. I was then at an age when pregnancy was nothing short of a miracle; you cannot imagine. So you must take this serious.

You worry too much, Ma.

Worry too much? Worry too much? Are you planning to kill your father and I before our time? Eh? Are you?

Do not cry, Ma. I am listening, I promise. I am holding my ears.

Good.

On TV, the other day we listened to a man who said that the biggest problem facing young black men in America is getting home after they leave the house. We want to make sure that in four years, you will be back to us safe and sound.

Now listen.

I raised you well. It is unfortunate that I have to instruct you again on some of these things as though you were a small boy. If you were here, among people that look the same as you, these are things you should not have to worry about, but now that you are black in America, they matter a lot.

First of all, you have to know the rules and follow them.

About police. I do not assume that any black person in America is ignorant of how encounters involving black people and police officers end up. It is on TV every day. You must know and follow the rules and do everything right.

How is your little car? I hope all is well with it. Uncle Benji and your father now think it was a mistake to have given you money to buy it in the first place. I only wish we could afford something better, something newer so that it would be less likely that you have one of those dreadful encounters. Although I have now seen on TV that having a newer car is as much reason to have a police encounter as driving a jalopy as long as you are black. So my son, please take good care of your car. Do not do anything to it that will attract undue attention.

Do not decorate it; what your Uncle Benji say they call pimping. It is a car, not a house.

Do not play music too loud in it. It is a car, not a disco parlour.

Do not drive with anything broken or any expired document. I would rather have you go hungry than have anything out of order in your car. Always have your license. Are you still in the habit of forgetting your wallet? If you are, take a picture of your license with your cell phone as that is one thing young people never forget to take with them. I am not quite sure if doing so would help anything, but it is something.

Do not over speed. Stay in your lane. It is better to arrive at your destination late than not to arrive at all. If ever a police officer stops you, be very respectful and use as many “sirs” as possible.

Do not argue.

Do not cuss.

Do not talk back. Keep your hands where anyone can see them. Explain whatever move you are going to make. Say you have to open the door and get out or have to bring out your license or have to unfasten your seat belt.

Do not forget to add “sir” to whatever you say. Speak correct English. Did you lose your accent yet? I hope not. I saw on TV that Americans have an ear for people whose tongues are thick on their words. Your accent could divert attention and show that you are a different kind of black in a place where black has only one shade.

Smile.

Say you are an only child and that you have an old mother back in Nigeria who would die if anything were to happen to you. Saying that might not mean a lot in that country where human life is trivial and dogs have more dignity than black people. In a nation of the most intelligent people, I find it unfortunate that they do not seem to understand how one person’s untimely death can ruin many lives. They do not see how one life is like a road leading to others and those others leading to much more. It would not just be your father and me who would not survive if anything were to happen to you. It would also be your uncles and aunts who cannot wait for you to do well in your studies, get a fine job and help them with your cousins. So it is not just your life; it is many lives now and generations down the line.

Uncle Benji is not quite sure you should mention that bit about Nigeria. He says you cannot be sure if the police officer has received one of those emails from a Nigerian prince who has a large inheritance coming and wants help to see it released. If so, then just say you have a mother who would die if anything were to happen to you. Hopefully, the police officer has a mother as well who has trained him well and whom he loves.

Do not get involved in anything illegal.

Do not be at any place where you are not supposed to be.

Do not touch anything you are not supposed to touch, eat or drink anything you are not supposed to.

Make sure to do all you have to do during the day and be back at your hostel before the sun goes down. I always told you that if anything were to happen to anyone in daylight, there are more chances there would be people there to witness and offer help if it is needed.

I forbid you to go out at night.

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Fiction Friday: read an excerpt from the worst/most hilarious sex scene ever published in an African novel

For your reading pleasure (ahem) today’s Fiction Friday piece is an excerpt from Mongo Beti’s 1956 novel, The Poor Christ of Bomba, set in 1930s Cameroon.

Think missionaries. Think syphilis. Think priests losing their virginity. Think ridiculous sex scenes.

Ready?

*Deep breath*

Here goes:

It was last night, and I suspected nothing. I was simply lying on my bed and I was worried about the Reverend Father who was down with fever on account of that accident on the river. I thought with terror of all the water he had vomited on the river bank. I suspected nothing. I couldn’t know. And she knocked at my door. Before I could get up to see who it was, she was inside, because I’d forgotten to push the bolt. Oh, I should have suspect then! She was in my room. Before I could say anything she struck a match and said: “Aren’t you asleep? Ah, I’ve caught you thinking about girls, you little wretch!”

I said nothing. I was too surprised. By the brief flare of the match, I saw her white combination, her naked throat, her breasts which swelled out, her garment just where the shoulder-straps began.

Already she was sitting on my bed. The match had gone out and it was once again quite dark in my room. I was propped up on my left elbow. In the angle of my stomach and my legs I felt the pressure of her almost naked back. Then she slightly rubbed herself against my thighs, moving her bottom to and fro. And I stayed there resting on my elbow, saying nothing because I was too astonished.

I had never been so close to a girl. And I began to be afraid. My heart was beating with a terrible violence and with each beat the blood mounted to my head like a river in spate and made me shake. A devilish tom-tom was pounding in my ears, sirens were screaming in my skull. It sounded as if an aeroplane was loose in there. That girl had unloosed all the cacophony of hell in my head. Why didn’t I take warning in time, my God? Oh, that girl…I should have watched out. It would have been better to run out of the room. I still wonder what kept me there.

All this time the bottom of her naked body was there in the pit of my stomach. The bottom of her back which she kept moving to and fro. Once, I moved towards the wall to get away from her touch, but she moved too and I felt her there again more acutely than before.

She said: “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I can’t go to sleep. And neither can you, it seems.

I said nothing and she gave a deep laugh. I heard her laughing in little chuckles.

She said again: “Go on you priest, you! Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? A fine little man like you playing at priests. What an idea!”

I said nothing. I stayed resting there on my left elbow. She pushed still harder against me, wriggling her hips.

I was helpless with all that racket in my head: bells clanged away wildly as if it were a day of consecration for a new church; the aeroplane engine which was revving up for take-off; the sirens singing in chorus for some unknown festival, and that accursed tom-tom. Now there were xylophones as well. And that machine which made my whole chest tremble as if I were in a train or riding a lorry on a road torn by the rains.

My throat was dry.

She said again: “Why don’t you say something? What’s wrong with you?”

Three times I wetted my lips, and I managed to say: “this is my room, not Zachariah’s. I came here because it was too stuffy in the other house, but it’s my room…”

I noticed that my voice was doing tremolos like the new Vicar when he’s singing the Mass.

She laughed and said: “Do you think I’m going to eat you?”

I felt sweat pouring all over me, on my brow, my hair, my arms, my stomach, my back. I was shivering with fright…No, I wasn’t afraid; I must have been hot, because I was sweating…Agh! I can’t say now whether I was cold or hot. I was sweating great drops and at the same time I was shivering as if I’d slept out in the rain. My chest was bursting.

My sex was worrying me, because it wanted to stand up, like it does at dawn when the doves are singing. But there wasn’t room for it to stand up; that girl Catherine was pressing against me so hard.

Suddenly I wanted to piss! I felt certain that if my sex, struggling to stand up, went on butting against that girl’s naked back, I would finish up wetting my bed. However, I had taken a piss before going to bed.

She lighted a match and looked at me. Then she asked: “Why are you so scared?”

Continue reading here. You deserve a good laugh.

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Margaret von Klemperer reviews Moira Lovell’s Speech after long silence

This review was originally published in The Witness on April 4, 2017.

IT is a real treat to have a new collection of poems by local poet, writer and teacher – and long-standing Witness book reviewer – Moira Lovell. This is her fourth collection, and indeed comes after a long silence. Although a number of the poems here have appeared in various journals, her last collection, Not all of Me is Dust, came out in 2004.

As one would expect from such a long gestation, and from Lovell, the work is meticulously crafted. While the subjects may often be mundane – monkeys in suburban gardens; shopping on pensioners’ day; rubbish bags by the side of the road; a visit to the aquarium; ageing or travel, her take on them is never predictable. Some are deeply moving: many are funny.

As Digby Ricci, the head of English at Roedean in Johannesburg, says in his introduction: “Moira Lovell has an enviable ability to defamiliarise; to make us see the world excitingly afresh.” He then goes on to say: “Such writing is wit in the fullest sense of the word: a wedding of humour, wisdom and learning.”

I would like to quote two poems in full, to give a flavour of what is a beautiful collection of work. – Margaret von Klemperer
 
 

Three Monkeys
They are female beggars –
Their babies held beneath
Like blackmail –
Positioned in triplicate
Along the ridge of the roof
Behind a gauze of rain
Which turns them into ghosts
Their eyes dolefully haunting
The far-below fare
That overspills the platters
Of the fortunate and festive
Bibulously braying
Bulging with indulgence
From amongst whom
A someone suggests
You should make a poem…
Like commissioning a painting
Of poverty.

Pensioners’ Tuesdays
The worst is not the aisles
Where supermarket trolleys
Double as zimmerframes
And dim eyes
Behind unfashionable frames
Peer
At the mockery of prices
The worst is not the queuing
At brisk-bodied tills
Where the assembled goods
Must be heaved out
And paraded
Like assorted luggage on a carousel
Where arthritic fingers
Fumble with banknotes
And credit cards
Wedged into wallets
The worst is
In the carpark
Where miscellaneous
Ageing knights
Don their rusting armour
And
Having abandoned all the rules
Canter backwards
Into the joust.

Not All of Me is Dust

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Read an excerpt from Lake of Memories – the new book in Bontle Senne’s Afrocentric fantasy adventure series

Shadow Chasers Book 2: Lake of Memories Cover2Cover Books has shared an excerpt from Bontle Senne’s new book, Shadow Chasers Book 2: Lake of Memories.

The book is the follow-up to Powers of the Knife, and part of the Shadow Chasers series, a contemporary Afrocentric fantasy adventure series.

The book will be launched on Saturday, 26 November at Skoobs Theatre of Books at Montecasino, when Senne will be chatting to Pamela Power.

“I’ve never been one to buy into the ‘Africans don’t want to read’ hype,” Senne said in a recent interview.

“I’m not saying that there isn’t a huge challenge for trade publishers and booksellers in South Africa. There is, of course. But the absence of relevant, engaging, local and accessible literature is something that is improving pretty slowly.”

* * * * *

 
Read an extract from Chapter 3 of the book:

They knock on the door and hear Gogo’s voice telling them to come in. As they enter the candle-lit room, they see that Gogo is already in bed.

“Zithembe, Nomthandazo,” Gogo says with her eyes closed. “I thought you would come.”

“You did?” Nom blurts out.

“Yes. You see, many years ago I was one of the Bhekizizwe, a Shadow Chaser. Just like you. I know why you are here,” she says. “You want Zithembe’s knife. You want to use it to get into the dreamworld, where the Army of Shadows lives, and rescue his mother. You will need to find her knife to do so. But I cannot help you. The Army of Shadows is too dangerous and powerful now.”

“But they have Mama,” Zithembe blurts out. “I have to rescue her, Gogo. She’s been trapped in the dreamworld for years.”

Gogo’s eyes snap open. She stares at Zithembe, her lips pressed tight, before whispering, “Do you think I haven’t thought about rescuing her? Itumeleng is my daughter! I have prayed every night for her.”

“But the war against the Army is bigger than one person or one Shadow Chaser, even if she is my only child,” Gogo continues. “Itumeleng knows this, and if she was here, she would agree with me: you must stay out of this fight, Zithembe.”

Zithembe goes to this grandmother’s side, kneels besides the bed and takes her hand. “Please, Gogo,” he pleads. “Where is my knife?”

Gog pulls her hand away from Zithembe and rolls over, away from him, to face the wall.

“I am an old woman,” she says. “I have forgotten where the knife is. Now leave me. I want to sleep.”

Zithembe stands and steps back, unsure of what to do next. But Nom walks straight towards Gogo.

“That’s it?” Nom says.

“Nom!” Zithembe says, as if he is warning her – or scolding her. He tries to grab her arm to drag her out of the rondavel, but she pulls away from him.

“No, I don’t care about being respectful. This is a war!” Nom says, folding her arms. “I know you know where the knife is, Gogo. Please, you have to tell us!”

“How dare you! Gogo does not take orders from children,” says a voice from the door.

Zithembe and Nom whip around to see Zithembe’s cousin, Rosy, standing in the doorway with both hands on her hips.

“Gogo is right,” says Rosy as she walks into the room. “This is not a game. The Army of Shadows is dangerous, and you two are too young to be in a war with monsters.”

Nom rolls her eyes. “How old are you?’ she asks. “Thirty-five?”

“I’m fifteen. I’m old enough to take Gogo’s knife as my own. I’m old enough to be a real Shadow Chaser. Twelve is too young – you are too young,” Rosy says, kneeling beside Gogo’s bed. The sleeves of her dress are long, but Nom thinks she sees a flash of an angry yellow scar on Rosy’s arm. “You heard what Gogo said,” Rosy continues. “Get out.”

Nom is about to start a real fight, but Zithembe is faster than her this time. He grabs her arm and drags her out of the rondavel.

“You can’t just – ,” Nom begins to argue, but Zithembe puts a hand over her mouth and a finger to his lips. He points towards the back of the rondavel and pulls Nom with him as he sneaks into the shadows. They crouch in the weeds and nettles underneath an open window. Rosy’s voice drifts to them in an urgent whisper.

“… an evil water spirit that calls itself Mami Wata. Gogo, I believe that the Army has sent Mami Wata to tear apart the village in search of the knife.”

There is a pause before Zithembe’s grandmother says, “I wish I could remember where Zithembe’s knife is. If I could remember, I would hide the knife again, somewhere new, somewhere no one could find it. But for now, you must protect the village. And we must keep Zithembe and Nomthandazo safe until they are old enough to fight.”

“Yes, Gogo,” agrees Rosy.

“Go to the beach and attack just before midnight tonight. Your knife will be the light to guide the way and open the door to send this monster back to the dreamworld. Good luck, ngane yam. Be safe,” says Gogo.

 
Related stories:

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Hedley Twidle interviews Rustum Kozain for Wasafiri 86 – Unsettled Poetics: Contemporary Australian and South African Poetry

Hedley Twidle interviews Rustum Kozain for Wasafiri 86 – Unsettled Poetics: Contemporary Australian and South African Poetry
This Carting LifeGroundwork

 

The publishers of Wasafiri magazine have kindly shared an excerpt from issue 86: a conversation between Hedley Twidle and Rustum Kozain.

This special issue of WasafiriUnsettled Poetics: Contemporary Australian and South African Poetry – features poetry by Kozain, Harry Garuba, Ingrid de Kok, Antjie Krog, Mxolisi Nyezwa and Karen Press – among others – articles by Kelwyn Sole and Finuala Dowling, as well as reviews, interviews and art. Guest editor Ben Etherington calls it “a significant undertaking, with 24 contributors, new works from 13 poets, essays and interviews”.

Wasafiri 86 - Unsettled Poetics: Contemporary Australian and South African Poetry“It is the first issue of Wasafiri focused on either Australian or South African poetry,” he adds.
 
If you are interested in purchasing Wasafiri’s Special Issue Unsettled Poetics: Contemporary Australian and South African Poetry (no. 86 Summer 2016) please email wasafiri@open.ac.uk
 
Below is an excerpt from Twidle’s contribution: “An Interview with Rustum Kozain”, in which the two discuss the decline of literary criticism, the perils of nostalgia, and the exhaustion of imagination in the current South African moment, as well as the influences and aesthetics of Kozain’s poetry.

We would recommend you order the magazine so that you can enjoy the interview in its entirety.

Twidle is a senior lecturer in the English Department at the University of Cape Town, who writes regularly for the New Statesman, Financial Times and Mail & Guardian.

Kozain is the author of two award-winning books of poetry, The Carting Life and Groundwork, and the only person to win the Olive Schreiner Prize twice in the same genre.

* * * * *

An Interview with Rustum Kozain

By Hedley Twidle

Rustum Kozain was born in 1966 in Paarl, South Africa. He studied for several years at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and spent ten months (1994-1995) in the United States of America on a Fulbright Scholarship. He returned to South Africa and lectured in the Department of English at UCT from 1998 to 2004, teaching in the fields of literature, film and popular culture. Kozain has published his poetry in local and international journals; his debut volume, This Carting Life, was published in 2005 by Kwela/Snailpress.

Kozain’s numerous awards include: being joint winner of the 1989 Nelson Mandela Poetry Prize administered by the University of Cape Town; the 1997 Philip Stein Poetry Award for a poem published in 1996 in New Contrast; the 2003 Thomas Pringle Award from the English Academy of Southern Africa for individual poems published in journals in South Africa; the 2006 Ingrid Jonker Prize for This Carting Life (awarded for debut work); and the 2007 Olive Schreiner Prize for This Carting Life (awarded by the English Academy of Southern Africa for debut work).

The following conversation took place on 31 July 2015 at Rustum Kozain’s flat in Tamboerskloof, Cape Town. Prior to my arrival, Rustum had prepared a chicken balti with cabbage according to a recipe from Birmingham, and also a dry cauliflower and potato curry. During our discussion (lasting one and a half hours, condensed and lightly edited here) he occasionally got up to check on the dishes – which we ate afterwards with freshly prepared sambals.

Hedley Twidle  Rustum, you wrote an article for Wasafiri twenty-one years ago (issue 19, Summer 1994) in which you discuss the reception of Mzwakhe Mbuli’s poetry. There you were sceptical of South African critics who were lauding his work and its techniques of oral performance as if these things had never happened before. You suggested that if one looks at Linton Kwesi Johnson (LKJ), there is an equally established and perhaps more skilful tradition of this in another part of the world. My response after reading the article – because you take issue with several critics of poetry – my response was: ‘Well, at least people were discussing South African poetry.’ I can’t think of a similarly invested debate around the craft of poetry going on now. Or am I not seeing it?

Rustum Kozain  That’s an interesting question, especially as so many people now seem to consider poetry as this casual activity, which is dispiriting. There isn’t a discussion of, to use the basic terms, whether a poem is a good poem or whether it is a terrible poem. My sense is that we talk about poetry, and literature more generally, simply in terms of its content or its thematic concerns. Some of the controversy around the Franschhoek Literary Festival – or one of the points raised by younger black writers – was that they (the writers) are treated as anthropological informants. They link it specifically to a history of apartheid and racism in South Africa where the black author is there to answer questions about what life is like for a black person, to a mainly white audience. But I think it goes beyond race. In general, literary criticism has kind of regressed into simply summarising a content that is readily available. Part of the reason I think poetry disappeared off syllabuses in South Africa towards the late 1980s and early 1990s is that fewer and fewer teachers at university were prepared for or knew how to engage with teaching poetry beyond analysing its contents.

I had been listening to Linton Kwesi Johnson since I was a teenager, so when Mzwakhe Mbuli exploded onto the scene in South Africa and people were hailing him as someone who had revolutionised English poetics, I thought: ‘These people must be talking crap; have they not heard Linton Kwesi Johnson who was doing it ten years before and in a much better way?’ So my argument was partly about how people are evaluating literature and it was clear that Mzwakhe Mbuli was hailed also because his politics were seemingly progressive and he was on the side of the anti-apartheid struggle. That wasn’t enough for me to want to listen or read his poetry again and again – one wanted to talk about the aesthetics of his poetry.

HT  I suppose we’re getting closer now to the thematic of the issue which is about poetic craft at a time of cultural contestation. You’ve mentioned Linton Kwesi Johnson and you’re often referring to musicians in your poetry; obviously you are drawing a great deal from an auditory response or imagination, but your poetry is not like LKJ’s at all. In fact, I read it as quite a written form of poetry; I think Kelwyn Sole had a nice phrase for it. He said it has a ‘deliberative sonority’ – which I like because even that phrase sort of slows you down and I find that your poetry slows a reader down. I wonder if you could speak a bit about the fact that you’re in some senses devoted to the sonic, auditory, to sound, to jazz. I think Charles Mingus was playing when I arrived – you’ve written poems about him – and yet there’s quite a disciplined – I want to say almost modernist – restraint to a lot of your poetry.

RK  I think a large part, if not the largest part, of my influences would be modernist and what comes after modernism. I studied at university in the 1980s when modernism was still a significant part of the English literary syllabus at the University of Cape Town, so that is a part of me. But even before I enrolled for English, an older friend introduced me to ‘Prufrock’ [by TS Eliot]. And I thought this poem was remarkable because it was something completely different from what we were used to at school, which were typically a few Shakespeare sonnets, some Victorian poetry, I don’t think any of the Romantics.

The idea of sonority – I have to agree with you. I do have a thing for the sound of words. So the sound of a word often plays a large part in its choice in a line or a poem. Why don’t I sound like Linton Kwesi Johnson? That’s one of my greatest frustrations in life [laughs] – that I can’t write like Linton Kwesi Johnson in any believable way. Part of that is because I don’t have a Caribbean background. A large part of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s charm has got to do with the language he is using, which is tied so closely to drum rhythms in the Caribbean. He has a gift but he also has that legacy or that inheritance that he can work with. I’ve tried writing parodic poems in [my reggae-sourced] Jamaican Creole, but it’s rubbish. I’ve tried writing hip hop as well, but there is a particular skill in composing for oral performance that I don’t have.

HT  I was raising the question of slowness, but certainly not as a lack. Because, in a sense, what I find when reading poetry nowadays is the need to remind myself to slow down. I think we’re all programmed to read so fast now – online and on screens – to read instrumentally and for content. So I sense the kind of syntactical mechanisms you put in place to ensure a certain productive slowness.

RK  There are two things that definitely lie behind the slowness in much of my poetry. The one thing is that I feel myself to be a frustrated filmmaker, so my poems are often visual and it’s often as if a camera were panning across a scene. The other thing that lies behind this kind of slowness was something Kelwyn Sole said – or someone said in a blurb on one of his books – it has to do with his poetry looking at the quiet or the silent moments and trying to unpick what goes on in those moments; to think about what happens on the edges of normal events.

HT  At the end of your essay ‘Dagga’ you talk about the question of nostalgia, around which there have been a lot of debates recently, especially following from Jacob Dlamini’s Native Nostalgia in which he reminisces about growing up in Katlehong outside Johannesburg. He begins the work with quite a complex rhetorical position, he asks: ‘What does it mean to remember elements of a childhood under apartheid with fondness?’ It’s a question that was often taken up by reviewers (some of whom refused to read the book at all) as evidence that his book should be filed in the ‘apartheid wasn’t that bad’ genre, that he was pining for bad old days. I don’t think you’ve ever been accused of that in any way; but I wonder if you can talk a bit about the perils of nostalgia in our cultural moment, in which certain forms of subjectivity and expression are being policed in some ways?

RK  It is an interesting and, for me, a very central question. At times I get despondent about what I’m doing because I think that it could just be dismissed as exercises in nostalgia. I think we tend towards nostalgia as we grow older. Whether nostalgia in general is a pathology or whether it’s something positive, I don’t know. For me the moment we are living in in South Africa is a nightmare moment. So part of my looking back is also to try and deal with this weird and perverse relationship we have between the present – which is a nightmare – and the past – which was a nightmare, but during which we had this hope or this dream of an escape from a nightmare. The thing we looked forward to, that added something to our lives. But that added value is nowhere to be found in the present moment. When I write in ‘Dagga’ about growing up in Paarl, yes it is partly the nostalgia of a man turning fifty and it’s a nostalgia for a place partly because of biographical migrations away from that place and away from the social relations of that place as well. So those are two properly nostalgic impulses. Part of this – and I’ve come across this idea in many writers, most prominently in Mandelstam – is the desire to freeze time. For me that’s what I try almost every time I write a poem, to freeze time in the non-fiction, in the prose – to freeze time at that time when there was still hope, in a way, that’s part of it.

HT  So why is the present a nightmare?

RK  Do you have to ask? I never studied politics or sociology or political economy so I’m very reticent to talk politics as such. That’s probably why I write poetry, because in poetry you can get away with associative meanings. You don’t have to be completely rational, analytic, precise, so you can make political statements under the cover of the associative meanings that poetry allows you. I’m happy to expose myself in my poetry because, I think, there I can say things – maybe it’s a lack of courage, but there I can say things that people can’t challenge me with, with the whole locomotive and carriages of expert knowledge. So I’m reticent to talk about politics straight up, but South Africa is not the place that we imagined in the seventies and eighties that we were going to create. On the one hand conservatives and reactionaries can laugh at us and say ‘Well, what did you expect? What did you expect from a liberation movement that was communist inspired?’ and all that nonsense. But at the same time we had a dream and we lost a dream. What do we do now?

HT  A poem that really struck me when reading across your work was ‘February Moon’, Cape Town, 1993. I was quite taken aback when I saw the date because at the time it must have seemed pessimistic. But now this kind of discourse and this kind of dissatisfaction is gaining ground; in a sense it has become our daily bread. So my question then is about rhetorical exhaustion. Because how can you, on the one hand, ‘make it new’ in the Poundian sense; but, on the other hand, how do you (any ‘you’ that is politically aware) keep saying the same thing for years and years and years? There’s a line from Arundhati Roy that I often think of at the end of her essay ‘The End of Imagination’ – which is about India and its nuclear programme. She says

Let’s pick our parts, put on these discarded costumes and speak our second-hand lines in this sad second-hand play. But let’s not forget that the stakes we’re playing for are huge. Our fatigue and our shame could mean the end of us. (Roy 122)

How does one deal with or ward off a kind of exhaustion about having to say the same things which, in a sense, is what politically astute people have had to do for over two decades now?

RK  If you find yourself repeating yourself, what do you do? For me there is an exhaustion, but not of the imagination. Much of my poetry is not written from the imagination – I don’t imagine scenarios and portray characters in a particular scenario or events. My poetry is directly about a certain reality, my reality or something I see out there, but I understand what Roy means by an exhaustion of imagination and I think our state, our government, our civil servants, the service industry, the way people interact with each other, the advertising industry, representations of South Africa in the media, by our own media, how we see ourselves and how we understand our relationship with each other – there’s no imagination, there’s no vision, there’s no forethought. So my surroundings, my context, my circumstances exhaust me. Especially if they cohere around certain ideas of the nation and what has happened politically in South Africa – that I would have touched on in previous poetry. So you just sit there and you go: ‘Why does no one read my poetry?’ [laughs] It is not just me. This has been one of Kelwyn’s hobby horses; that when you read South African poetry, there has been a constant and continuous fatigue since the early nineties about the new South Africa running through our poetry. But since no one reads poetry, no one’s hearing the poets and no one’s listening to the poets.

At the moment I’m in a kind of trough where it concerns my own writing because a lot of my poetry now has a wider focus; it’s not only about South Africa, it’s about other things as well. And they’re difficult subjects, it’s difficult to treat these subjects with the kind of gravitas that they require and to resolve that treatment in the poetry. And it is not only South Africa; the rest of the world seems to have lost that foresight, vision, imagination in the way global politics and economics are run. My exhaustion is globally inspired, though it may only have a local impact [laughs].

For the full interview, purchase Wasafiri’s Special Issue Unsettled Poetics: Contemporary Australian and South African Poetry (no. 86 Summer 2016) by emailing wasafiri@open.ac.uk

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