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Books LIVE is in the process of exclusively sharing the winning stories from the 2015 Short Story Day Africa Prize for Short Fiction.
First up last week was Mark Winkler’s story “Ink”.
This week we are sharing Alex Latimer’s second-placed story, “A Fierce Symmetry”.
The winners of this year’s SSDA Prize were announced at the Ake Art & Book Festival in Nigeria in November, with Cat Hellisen taking first place. Second place went to Latimer, and third to Winkler.
The complete 2015 SSDA longlist is published in Water: New Short Fiction From Africa, edited by Nick Mulgrew and Karina Szczurek.
Both of SSDA’s previous anthologies have received widespread acclaim; two stories from Feast, Famine & Potluck were shortlisted for The Caine Prize for African Writing – with one, “My Father’s Head” by Okwiri Oduor, going on to win the prize – while Terra Incognita was given an excellent review from the LA Review of Books.
This year’s judging panel, Mary Watson, Billy Kahora and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, said Latimer’s story “wonderfully observes the theme of the competition, has an admirably sparse style, interesting content and a strong voice”.
In a chat with SSDA recently, Latimer explained the background to the story:
Tiah Beautement: Your story, “A Fierce Symmetry”, centres around boiling down dead tiger in an attempt to preserve the bones. I’ve read it seven times and, with each reading, another detail opens up. How did this poignant story come to be?
Latimer: My mother died when I was eleven and since then I’ve been trying to find a way of writing about it. So it’s only taken me twenty-something years to put these three thousand words down. For me ‘A Fierce Symmetry’ is about the gradual second loss of my mom as my life moved on and I began to forget details about her. That’s such a difficult part of grieving – and it never ends. And the tiger-boiling had these weird and often visceral parallels of process that fitted perfectly.
I ended up writing the first two thousand words of this story over two days about a year ago. Somehow it all fell into place in my mind. The next thousand words came in bits and pieces over a few months – but there was no pressure since I wasn’t sure I even wanted to publish this story. I just wanted it to be as good as I could make it.
Latimer’s debut novel The Space Race was published by Umuzi in 2013. His next novel, South, co-written with Diane Awerbuck, will be published by Corvus in September 2016. Alex is best known for his picture books, which have been translated into a variety of languages and sold globally.
Read the story:
A Fierce Symmetry
Two bodies arrived at our house a year apart. The first was my mother’s,
in an ambulance, for us to see. My aunt came into my room. I had my head resting against the wall and my eyes closed. She sat on my bed.
“Do you want to see her?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Are you sure? I’ll come outside with you and we can just see her and say goodbye.”
“I don’t want to.”
The ambulance left a few minutes later. I heard it roll back out of our driveway and into the street, then turn down the hill past the Joan Harrison Swimming Pool.
A week later I was standing on a chair, looking for a practice golf ball in the pocket of a golf bag on top of Dad’s built-in cupboards. I was excused from school for the week and bored with daytime television. Behind the suitcases was a tin that I didn’t recognise.
Inside was a paper bag that held coarse, dry sand. I unrolled the top and felt it with my finger. I sniffed it too. I took a second to realise it was my mother’s ashes and I put the lid back quickly, as though I’d let her ghost out.
We sprinkled those ashes in the sea the next day. We drove out before sunrise in our grey-blue kombi to Igoda Beach, with flowers, the tin and some matches. We didn’t talk in the car. We ate shop-bought muffins and stared at the sun rising in the side mirrors. Igoda Beach is endless. The sea is always rough and dark there, and the dunes are steep and tall and edged with thicket. We walked down to the sand in single file and crossed the shallow river mouth. Dad led us along the shore until the car was a speck in the morning haze.
“Here,” he said.
The four of us rolled our trousers up to our knees and waded into the surf and we each threw some of that sand into the water. Then we tossed roses like javelins into the foam.
“The sea is connected everywhere,” Dad said. “It doesn’t matter where you go, she’ll always be with you.”
He asked if we had anything we wanted to say, but it was too hard to speak and we stood quietly, our feet numb from the cold, our rolled-up trouser hems damp with frothy swell. We retreated up the side of a sand dune, with the whole ocean laid out in front of us, and made a pyre of the newspaper we’d carried the flowers in, and the empty paper bag. They burned reluctantly and the wind whipped the ashes away while we sipped on juice from boxes and watched as a fisherman passed by far below. He stopped to look at the washed-up roses.
Twelve months later the second body arrived.
I was lying on the same bed, trying to reach a letter that had slipped down into the dusty space beneath it, when my middle brother ran into my room.
“Do you want to see?”
I followed him; my eldest brother trailed after.
When we came out of the kitchen door, the garden gate was open and we could hear a bakkie idling in the driveway. Dad was clearing pot plants off the cement table.
“Make space,” he said, shooing us.
Four men came through the gate, carrying the body wrapped in a couple of hessian sacks. We knew what it was – Dad had told us it was coming – but the arm that protruded from it seemed too human and
we were unsure for a moment. It was a fingerless hand, pink and cupped and clawing.
“Where do you want it?” one of the men asked, and Dad showed them across the courtyard to the table. They laid it down and I could see for the first time how long it was and I caught its smell. Fatty and meaty.
Dad would not peel back the hessian to let us see the whole creature: it would only attract flies. Instead he sent us to fetch things from the garden: the zinc tub from below the washing line, the one we used to wash the dog in; bricks from the pile below the cherry guava tree, sixteen of them; firewood, wherever we could find it. We carried armfuls of jacaranda twigs and old pine off-cuts from beside Dad’s workbench.
Then we watched him stack the bricks into little columns, two high and two deep, and arrange and re-arrange them to counter the uneven paving. He rested the zinc tub on the pillars and tested his construction for stability, pushing down hard on the rim with his palms so that his feet lifted off the ground.
“Can we see it yet?”
Dad didn’t answer.
“Where’s the dog?” he asked, lying on his side on the paving, holding a match against the crumpled newspaper. “Is the gate closed?”
“Just check if she got out.”
We began our search in the living room, calling for our Irish terrier, and looking under tables and beds. I found her at the bottom of the garden cowering under the leaves of a delicious monster. I took her by the collar and checked her muzzle. She’d hidden away like this once before and Dad had found her foaming at the mouth – a dead raucous toad beside her. She vomited a lot that night, but she survived.
“I found her,” I said when I got back to the courtyard. “She’s fine.” The hose was hanging over the lip of the tub, gurgling, and Dad had the kitchen scissors in his hand.
“You all ready?” he asked.
He cut away the hessian and, snip by snip, revealed the carcass of a female Bengal tiger.
She looked uncomfortable. Her front left leg stuck out sideways, while the others were tucked in towards her body. Her tail was curled down between her legs and she was stiff – locked into place, the same nervous position she’d been in when she’d collapsed from the tranquilliser.
“Died during a routine check-up. Anaesthetic was too strong,” Dad said.
I used to visit the zoo a lot, so I’d seen this tiger when she was alive. But I saw now that half of her was fur and fat and charisma – and the people at the zoo had already trimmed all of that away. Here she was without her skull or her teeth or her claws or her flesh. She was a headless Sunday chicken carved down to the bone, good only for broth.
“You two, take that side. Us two will take the front.”
We lifted the tiger up off the table, crab-walked to the tub and lowered her into the rising water.
We spent the afternoon feeding the fire until bubbles like Fanta appeared on the bottom of the tub. They multiplied and the water boiled and we watched her turning to soup. Her bones changed colour in the heat: first pink, then yellow and beige. The heat liquefied the fat that had rested between the tendons and bones, and it rose to the surface as a layer of waxy foam. It smelled like bad lamb pies. The hot water relaxed her completely and at last she lost her cowering pose and took the shape of the cauldron. Her protruding paw sank slowly into the froth.
The neighbours came to look over the wall, and they were polite and understanding, as people are when they are dealing with the mild insanity of the bereaved.
“I hope you don’t mind the smell,” Dad said.
“Oh, no. It’s not so bad. What’s in the pot?”
“A tiger. The one from the zoo died.”
“I’m going to re-build her. Wire the bones together.”
“And where’s the head?”
“The zoo kept it, and the skin too. For a rug, they said.”
“Oh, okay. Well, we’ll keep popping our heads over to see the progress.”
They never did.
We left her to boil for days. The last thing Dad would do before bed was lay a few thick logs on the fire to sustain it during the night. And in the morning, we’d rekindle the ashes and get it blazing before we left for school, our hair smelling of smoke, our clothes saturated with the smell of animal.
In class for “How Was Your Weekend?”, I stood up and told everyone
about our tiger. After I sat down the boy after me made up a story about how his cocker spaniel had hijacked their ride-on mower and driven it into the swimming pool. The tiger was better as a secret anyway.
The next Saturday over breakfast Dad told us to let the fire die. He hadn’t stoked it the evening before and the ashes were cold. The tub was lukewarm when we touched it.
The bones had loosened and disconnected and sunk to the bottom. Dad found a coat hanger in the shed and he bent it into a long hook and fished around in the stew with it. He hooked her pelvis, which despite the days of boiling still had sinews attached. He lifted it out of the soup and put it in the outside basin. It steamed in little puffs.
“We’ll have to do another boil,” he said, “but first we need to cut as much of this stuff away as we can.” He pointed to the ragged meat. Quite suddenly, my brothers lost interest in the tiger. They had better things to do on their weekend than pare flesh from a pelvis.
I changed into old clothes – paint-spattered tracksuit pants and
a shirt I’d outgrown. The tub was too heavy to lift and so we emptied
it with old five-litre paint tins, scoop by scoop, into the drain. First
came the greasy brown foam that had risen like cream, then the grey soup. The water level dropped in strata until the jumble of bones
appeared through the murk. We grabbed the big ones with our hands: femurs, ulnas, clavicles. The rest we scraped up in the kitchen sieve, a mess of vertebrae and wrist and ankle bones that we would one day have to decipher.
“Make sure the dog doesn’t grab any of these,” Dad said, though we both knew she wouldn’t come close.
I helped to keep the bones steady as Dad carved his way around the body, dividing the soft from the hard. Everything was greasy: the bones were soap to hold. I was gripping the pelvis and Dad was manoeuvring the knife when his hand slipped and the blade sliced deep into the back of my thumb.
I had to wait for him to clean up before he could treat my wound. I sat in the passage with my head resting against the bathroom wall, holding folded toilet paper over the cut to stop the bleeding. It took fifteen minutes for him to scrub the tiger fat from his arms and hands and wrists and nails. When he returned, wet to his rolled-up shirt sleeves, he doused my wound with hydrogen peroxide. It stung and fizzed, foaming into pink bubbles that spilled over into the bath.
“That’s it clearing all the germs out,” he said. “It only stings if it’s working.”
My middle brother came to watch, leaning on the doorframe.
“You going to have tiger powers now?” he asked.
From then on I was only allowed to watch as Dad cleaned the bones. The next day, with the help of the gardener he picked up the tub and poured the rest of the water down the drain.
Dad went over the bones one by one with the blade. Then he filled the tub once more and lit the fire and returned the remains for their double-
boiling. The water was much clearer the second time, and I could see down to the bubbles jostling the bones at the bottom as though they wanted to thread themselves together once more and come alive.
After work one evening, Dad fetched me and took me to the museum with him. The cut had scabbed over; in the car I played with its frayed edges. We parked under the lucky bean trees and crossed past the front entrance, past the bronze coelacanth, to a pair of tall rusted gates topped with razor wire. A man came to greet us.
“So it was you who got the tiger?”
“Most of it,” Dad replied.
He showed us into his work room. It smelled of cigarettes and spray paint. A snot-coloured urethane duiker stood on a table surrounded by photostats of live antelope, running or hopping over rocks. Instead of hooves, though, this one’s feet ended in wire pins. Along one wall was a huge chest freezer for keeping bits and pieces of animals in until they were ready to be reconstituted, and on a bench across from it was a deflated gymnogene, its feathered skin peeled off and then flipped the right way round like a worn sock. Over tea, he showed us how to wire bones together using a drill, copper wire and glue. It looked simple enough but he suggested we practice first rather than get it wrong on the tiger.
“Roadkill is easiest,” he said. “Just keep a black bag in your cubby. Or maybe you’ve got an old dog?”
After he’d shown us the wirework, he and Dad got chatting about a mutual friend whose yacht had run aground and I edged away from the conversation, past the mounted hyena head and up some wooden stairs.
The attic was dark and filled with stuffed creatures, weathered and dull. There were rows of birds, each dotted with borax powder to stop the bugs, and staring blackly out of glass eyes: penguins, falcons,
pigeons, loeries and vultures, set side by side, unnaturally close to one another. A nervous baboon sat in one corner holding onto its knees. Above it hung an orangutan, its hands worn down so that the white plaster cast showed through the black skin. Beside a tapir with
alopecia there were glass-fronted drawers full of insects and hummingbirds and field mice and tiny dried fish, all labelled in scratchy, handwritten Latin.
And on top of the drawers, jostling for space with tiny birds on wooden perches, were skulls, lined up in a row from big to small: genet, civet, caracal, cheetah, leopard, lion and tiger.
I picked up the tiger skull to feel its weight. It was heavy with teeth. I inspected the incisors, running my fingers over them and feeling the blunt points, and I wondered whether we could ask to have it since it was just sitting here. Perhaps if I found an excuse to come back, I could stuff it in my school bag and take it home to complete the skeleton. It would be years before anyone noticed.
Dad called me down and we re-traced our steps back to the kombi, carrying a coil of copper wire and a pack of clear two-part epoxy.
“What did he say about whitening the bones?” I asked.
“Shouldn’t use bleach,” Dad said. “Rather paint them with peroxide.”
The next weekend, I watched Dad empty the tub for the last time, five litres at a time. Then he fetched the peroxide from the bathroom cabinet and poured it into an old feta cheese tub. He put on washing-up gloves, and then he picked up each bone and painted it with the clear liquid. I expected them to fizz but they didn’t.
Dad placed the bones to dry on an old dog-washing towel. They were yellow and almost transparent, saturated with the grease of zoo food, the frozen bulk braai packs of low-grade chicken pieces.
The bones sat in the sun for a week, until they were dry to touch, then Dad packed them into brown paper bags, which he labelled as meticulously
as he could: Tibia + Fibula; Left (?) Scapula + Lumbar; Misc Metatarsals L+R
mix; Tail vertebrae ad infinitum.
He packed the brown bags on a high shelf in his study, behind some books. He put away the tub and the bricks, two by two, and the cursed knife. There was a big black burn mark on the patio and the constant dampness of an oil stain like a halo around it, where the broth had spilled from under the rim of the tub.
The dog emerged from the jungle of palms and wild banana trees beside
the swimming pool and took to eating again, though she would not be bathed in that tub and she avoided the area outside the kitchen door. The next time we took her to walk on Nahoon Beach, she disappeared into the tree line above the dunes and we fetched her that evening from a woman who’d read the number on her collar.
“Probably chasing monkeys,” Dad said.
Two years later I was standing on Dad’s wooden draughting drawers – looking for a reference book on the top shelf in his study – when I found the bones again, nestled together beside the coil of wire and the glue. I took one of the bags down. The paper was saturated with grease like a leaky Chinese take-away.
I opened it. They were still yellow and glassy, despite the peroxide. I imagined the stubborn fat that soaked up the calcium was her ghost, still haunting her bones, driving the dogs into hiding as she stalked the neighbourhood at night, unwilling to be forgotten.
And I wondered about the rest of her – her skull and her skin lying on the floor somewhere, and about her kidneys and claws and cartilage that had been sliced away before she had come to us, and also about the blanched off-cuts and the fat we’d poured down the drain. We had tried to whittle her down to her solid core, to her essence, but even that was incomplete.
There was one other bone missing apart from the skull: the very last vertebra from the tip of her tail. Dad had seen it slip through the wire mesh that he’d put over the drain. It was barely bigger, he said, than a full stop.
* * * * *
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Over the next three weeks, Books LIVE will exclusively share the winning stories from the 2015 Short Story Day Africa Prize for Short Fiction.
First up is Mark Winkler’s story “Ink”.
The winners of this year’s SSDA Prize were announced at the Ake Art & Book Festival in Nigeria in November, with Cat Hellisen taking first place.
Second place went to Alex Latimer for “A Fierce Symmetry”, and third went to Winkler.
The complete 2015 SSDA longlist is published in Water: New Short Fiction From Africa, edited by Nick Mulgrew and Karina Szczurek.
Both of SSDA’s previous anthologies have received widespread acclaim; two stories from Feast, Famine & Potluck were shortlisted for The Caine Prize for African Writing – with one, “My Father’s Head” by Okwiri Oduor, going on to win the prize – while Terra Incognita was given an excellent review from the LA Review of Books.
This year’s judging panel, Mary Watson (South Africa), Billy Kahora (Kenya) and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (Nigeria), called Winkler’s story “imaginative and evocative”, saying that it reveals its “unfamiliar world in a vivid yet delicate way”.
In a chat with SSDA recently, Winkler explained how the story came about:
Tiah Beautement: Your Water story, ‘Ink’, involves maps and ink blots as well as a quest for underground water. What attracted you to the theme and how did the story came together?
Winkler: I’d actually written a few drafts of “Ink” before I saw the call for SSDA submissions, and it seemed an apt entry. I suppose water and the issues around it have been very much in the collective consciousness, now more than ever.
‘Ink’ was initially the exploration of an idea for a longer project, based on the notion that civilisations generally take root near a source of water, and that as they mature, territories and boundaries begin to be defined and drawn up (which is why the narrator of ‘Ink’ is a cartographer). Maps are drawn, and histories and the myths that grow from them are written in ink (more or less), leading to progress but also to inevitable conflict. Both substances, water and ink, are inextricably linked in the telling of stories and legends, from the first hand-print on a cave wall, to the tattoos of concentration camp prisoners, through to Tolkien and the latest Booker winner. The Rorschach blots that fascinate Angela are pretty much maps themselves, similar to the maps of colonists and conquerors that set out to define boundaries in an arbitrary attempt to categorise people – who, being three-quarters water themselves, are a lot more changeable and fluid than rigid interpretations might allow.
Winkler has spent his working life in advertising, winning over 30 local and international advertising awards. He is currently creative director at a leading Cape Town agency. His first novel, An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Absolutely Everything, was published in 2013, and his second, Wasted, in 2015. He lives in Cape Town with his family.
Read the story:
I thought you were only supposed to see one thing, but apparently you’re allowed to find more. You should see a bat or a butterfly or a moth, and also the figure of a woman in the centre, if you’re “normal”. If you’re not, you might see breasts, vaginas, perhaps a penis. I cannot see any of those things. I suppose it’s mostly the men that do.
How can identifying the figure of a woman be “normal”? When I find her, I see she has no head, and her hands are aloft as though searching for it. Or else they’re expressing pain, or despair. The bat or butterfly image is hardly innocent – its wings are shredded, torn, holed. It seems a sad thing to find.
Me, I see the face of a beast. A hellish wild pig, with angry mad eyes and tusks. Apparently that makes me a little paranoid. Tell me something I don’t know. Am I the only one who feels this city shift as if it were floating on water? I feel it shiver in its changes, a tectonic island nudged here and there by what lies beneath, and it feels like the slipping of a carpet on a tiled floor. What could it be other than water? And if it is, why do we have so little, eking out our rations between sunset and sunrise, if and when the Council of Ten allows it, filling pots and jugs so that we may make tea or wash our armpits?
Some nights I dream of walking in the rain I’ve never seen. It falls warm on my bare skin, and when I awake my pillow is soaked with perspiration.
There comes Douglas, scooping his fingers through his long hair. Dashing Douglas, Sindi calls him. I find his teeth rather long and his breath often reminds of yesterday’s garlic. I hide the browser before he gets to my desk, and the pig is gone.
“You’d have much more space in here if you put your desk against the wall,” Douglas says. Again.
But then my back would be to the room, I don’t say, and people like Douglas would see whatever I’m busy with. Maps unfinished, dead-end research paths, the black blots of wild pigs.
“How is Jeezette today, anyway?” Jeezette is Douglas’s phonetic version of the female form of Jesus, and when he’s in a flippant mood, it’s what he calls me instead of Angela. A few years ago, I’d had a bit too much to drink at our little Christmas party, and had let on that my mother is a nun. You can imagine the mirth, the virgin birth jokes, the requests that I walk across the empty swimming pool outside the restaurant. They have long forgotten Douglas’s karaoke, and Sindi’s dancing, but they’ve never forgotten that one little comment of mine.
“I’m fine,” I say, like a teenager. Douglas comes around and leans over my desk. He peers at the map on my screen, breathing on me.
“And where are we now?”
“Okay, good,” Douglas says, as he always does. “You have fun now.” And off he goes, scooping at his hair and making sure to show off his broad shoulders and his slim dancer’s hips.
The second card surprises me. I’d thought they all consisted of a watery wash of black ink. Like the others, this is symmetrical, and black, but there are smears of red top and bottom.
I see human forms, clowns or children, each one’s hands up against the other’s as if they were playing a clapping game. Three-six-nine, the goose drank wine. Somehow the song they were singing had stopped mid-phrase, freezing them forever on the page just as their hands touched.
I’m relieved that what I see is regarded as normal. It means I relate to people. The implication is that if you don’t see the blot this way, you’re a sociopath, or worse.
At least I am spared that.
I am a cartographer. Or more accurately, a geography honours graduate who fell into making maps. What else would you do with a geography degree? And now I work for Douglas, who works for the Bond Foundation, as does Sindi, and as James used to before his body was found washed up in the desert against the dry wave of a dune. That his lungs were full of water left no doubt that he had drowned, although nobody could say how, or why.
It was after James’s death that I began to feel our city shift under me. Sometimes at night the slightest wave will lift my bed before putting it gently down again. A sudden subtle movement might cause a stumble on the stairs. Just a few days ago when crossing the Square during my lunch break I saw perhaps two dozen people waver, just once, like reeds in a gust, as the world undulated beneath us.
“Did you feel that?” I said to an old man near me as the lunch crowd carried on about its business.
He held his bottle of water closer to his chest and his eyes narrowed. “Feel what?” he growled, and scuttled off.
I cannot see anything but two figures beating on a shared drum. There is something ancient about them. They remind me of the whispers I’ve heard of the Primitives who – according to City legend – once lived off the land before it turned to dust, and fished in the sea before it withdrew its waves and allowed the desert to claim its sandy underbelly as its own. When we arrived – depending on who you’re listening to – we either chased them into the hinterland with our machines, or killed them off with our other machines.
Most apparent are the breasts on the figures. But above their knees is a protrusion, a broken femur perhaps, or the representation of a penis as painted by someone who has never seen one.
The notes are vexing. To see the figures as female, as I have, is to be homosexual. To see them as male is to be heterosexual. Does this apply to men and women alike? I cannot tell. And the notes say nothing about the foetuses I see dangling in the void behind each figure.
A great beast or man, feet made enormous by the low perspective, threatens from the card, ready to attack.
This, say the notes, is a “bad” answer. You should simply see a standing figure, or a bear, or a gorilla. I learn that it’s called the “father card”, and the way you see it equates to your perception of male authority figures, or of your father.
No surprises there, then.
“What’s it like having a nun for a mother?” Douglas asks one Saturday
morning as he rolls off me.
He probes the issue often, from different angles. I wonder how much time he spends thinking up new ways to ask the old question, while Sindi and I compare centuries-old maps with the way our city is laid out today. Even Douglas must know by now that I will not speak about it.
I get out of the bed. I have nothing on, except too much flesh for a young woman. But I have little – in this sense – to hide from Douglas.
He has no interest in the skinny women who wander the City with their crotch-gaps and their tiny tits and their blued cheeks and their hair piled high in stiff sculptures on their heads. He has said as much, often, nuzzling into my softness. This is why I overlook his long teeth and garlic-tainted kisses, and why I forgive him his constant hair-tossing.
From the dresser I take a sheet of paper and hold it up to him. On it is a map I have drawn – in the old style, with ink and water and brushes with points no thicker than a pencil’s – of a place that exists only in my head. There are forests, which I have drawn by clumping together what I recall of images of trees. They are a patchwork of greens, some dark where I’ve allowed the ink to run thick, and some pale where I’ve thinned it with water. Running from the hills are streams and rivers that I’ve rendered in cool blues, and they fill irregular lakes among the forests. I cannot think of a way to indicate the glacial depths of the lakes, and hope that their purple-inked surfaces might be enough.
There are two towns with names I’ve made up to sound like the Old Language, and I have marked them on the paper with a calligraphy pen in stiff serif lettering.
“What do you think?” I ask Douglas. I suddenly feel shy, as if the map has made me more naked than I am.
He sits up in the bed and leans forward, squinting at the paper. I know what he’s going to say, because he always says it.
Usually I tell him it doesn’t matter. This time I say, “Nowhere. Everywhere. It’s how I think the world once used to be.”
“It’s beautiful, Angela.” He holds his hand out for it and places it across his knees and for long moments examines my work while I imagine walking in the shade of the forests and wading through the coolness of the streams in the way our people must once have done. He looks up at me to tease. “Don’t you get enough of maps at work?”
I do better with the fifth card, and see a bat as I’m supposed to. To me, he – I can’t say why it’s a he – has his back to me, and what should be seen as antennae I see as long fluffy ears. I’m hardly the girlie type, but I do find the little soft-edged creature inexplicably cute.
They say that there used to be millions of bats in the caves and crevasses of the mountains behind the City. Silent and invisible during the day, they would mass at night and float shrieking over the streets in great dark clouds as they cleaned the air of the mosquitoes and midges that used to breed in the swamps. There are scratchings on the walls of a few caves that some believe show a close relationship between the bats and the Primitives, although the nature of the relationship is yet to be defined. Sometimes schoolboys will bring home frail matchstick bones or eggshell skulls from their adventures, giving credence to the old stories.
After the swamps dried up, the elders say, the insects died out and the bats starved. In the caves that once dripped with water only stalagmites and stalactites bear witness to that faraway past, even as they crumble to dust.
It’s our job – mine and Sindi’s and Douglas’s – to rediscover the old watercourses that once sustained the mosquitos and the bats and the City itself. Sindi trawls through the City Archives and the only museum that is still functional, and she scans the ancient charts she finds on the machine seconded to us by the Bond Foundation.
The three of us will pore over the scans and, based on the indications of old ponds and wells and streams, will try to determine where the water once came from, using logic and deduction rather than fact to pinpoint the mountain aquifers, old sewers, market gardens, remnants of dams and ponds that may once have held ground water, or reservoirs that once drew the living water from the veins and arteries of the mountain streams to slake the numerous thirsts of the City.
Then I take Sindi’s scans and overlay them on our modern maps, and I mark up our most likely leads. In the four years we’ve been doing this, our recommendations to the Bond Foundation have led to the digging up of disused parking lots, the excavation of the basement of the City Hall – rendering the old building unsafe and forcing the Council of Ten to take up residence in the Old Library – and in one sad case, the relocation of an entire community. The results have been interesting only archaeologically, when old walls that bore the marks of water erosion were turned up, or canals filled with sand uncovered, or the bones of a mother and child buried in a bag found – all of them stained black or purple or deep ochres by the soil.
Not once has water, or damp evidence of it, been discovered as a consequence of our work. And yet when least expected, the city shudders with the power of it.
It’s too easy. After the cotton crops failed and the sheep all died in the sun, the people of the City turned to their dogs for food and clothing. Often in my childhood I would see their hides salted white and pegged out in the sun to dry, later to be turned into coats or bedcovers. The sixth image shows such a pelt, stretched taught across the card. I do not see the mushroom cloud or the men with goatees who may or may not be there. The card has to do with one’s attitude to sexuality, but the notes do not elaborate.
Douglas comes over to my desk and once more I hide what I am looking at. He asks where Sindi is and I tell him she is out scouring the City for maps, even though her pickings are becoming thinner with every passing day. He looks around to make sure of her absence, and then he pulls her chair towards my desk and sits down.
“I have heard that the Bond Foundation is considering closing us down,” he says. “Apparently our inability to deliver water has frustrated them.”
I am not sure what he wants me to say.
“There isn’t much work for us map-makers in the City. I can’t see what we will do to make a living.” He sounds close to tears. I try to recall a moment when Douglas has allowed his confidence to flag like this, slipping like a bathrobe from his shoulders, and I cannot.
“Perhaps we should move away from this dry place,” I say. “There must be a need for our skills somewhere else.”
Douglas snorts. “And how are we going to do that without dying in the desert?” he says. “Sail?”
Two little girls, rendered in soft greys, face each other with their ponytails flying in the air. That’s what I’m supposed to see, and it’s what I do see. What the notes don’t mention are their little thalidomide arms or their jointed crustacean bodies. These aspects give the girls a certain vulnerability, and if their ponytails are flying, they must be jumping, which makes me wonder what will happen when they land.
The City is a dangerous place. People are sometimes killed for a bottle of water and a few coins. Thirst-crazed bands have been known to invade family homes for their last drops of water, and if they are caught they try to deflect blame to the Primitives.
The Bond Foundation has for some years deployed a private security force to protect citizens buying water from its stores. You get inked on a thumbnail every time you buy a bottle, and the ink fades in the time the Bond people have decided it takes to consume the contents. Being discovered with a bottle of water in your hand and no ink on your thumb could see you arrested, so it’s best to drink up before the ink fades and to buy another bottle. At the office we have to display a current certificate, known as a “Bond”, on the front door. The Bond is replaced, newly stamped and sealed, along with our weekly container of water to confirm our compliance.
It is illegal to investigate, or even to ask questions about, the source of the Bond Foundation’s water. I suppose they have yet to find a way to make it illegal to think about it.
They say that beyond the walls of the City other dangers lurk. The gates are closed and barred at sunset, and male citizens between the ages of twenty and forty stand guard through the night as the annual roster decrees. In all my life, there has never been an attack, but the old people say that there are still Primitives in the desert, that they are gathering their strength and their resources, and that it is only a matter of time before they bring their spears and their anger to the City gates.
In the heat of the day the children are called inside to play in the shade and the adults take to their beds to prevent precious sweat escaping their pores. Crying, even in the face of bereavement or pain, is frowned upon for the water it wastes.
Douglas is twitchy today. His fingers scrape through his hair more frequently than ever. I wonder whether the rumours of our disbanding are weighing on his mind, but when I ask him he retires to his little office in the corner and closes the door.
It has an internal window, so it’s not much of a hiding place, but I suppose it’s all he has.
The colours are at once jarring and soft. I’ve seen black cards and grey cards and cards with splashes of red, so the vividness of the eighth is a surprise. To my eye, the oranges and pinks and blues show damp lungs, wet innards, the hint of a spine capped by the grey skull of some animal. A vivid and semi-living thing with no skin and the head of a dead creature. Climbing up its sides, and using the horns of the skull for purchase, are two pink beasts. I cannot decide whether they are hostile or benign, whether they seek the succour of the skinless being, or are bent on assaulting it.
This is what you’re supposed to see, but the notes do not mention a skull.
We have been irresponsible with our water this working week, and on this last day we share the dribbles left in the container among the three of us. My urine is a dark amber and has a bitter smell. I remember reading somewhere that we are three-quarters water, and as the last sour drops fall from me I wonder how this can be, when we have so little, and whether it might be illegal to ask the question aloud.
I don’t know what to make of these oranges, pinks and greens. I wait until Douglas and Sindi are occupied with other things before I print out a copy so that I can view it from other angles. Ninety degrees this way, ninety that, and still I see nothing but blots of watery colour. I turn it upside down, cock my head and give up.
The notes say that most people struggle to find anything in it.
Sometimes my normality amazes me. But I do find this trickery annoying.
Douglas has retreated into his office, and again he has closed the door. I see him through the window, though, hunched and anxious as he talks on the phone. I wouldn’t be surprised if he tells us it’s all over when he emerges. But instead he leaves without a word, screwing his hat onto his head as he goes, and then slamming the door behind him.
I glance at Sindi, but she is bent over an image and hasn’t noticed Douglas leaving. I look at the door. I wonder why fate would set two random vectors – call one a and the other d – on their individual arcs to intersect at precisely the same place and time on the infinite map of the universe.
I am surprised that there are only ten cards, and also that they are so specific. I’d always imagined them as a random infinity of black patterns, put together with a bottle of ink and some blotting paper between consultations in the back office of psychologists’ rooms; each counsellor’s interpretation no more objective, nor more accurate, than the patient’s.
I am irritated, too, that the last card is once again a trick card. No matter how I cock my head or narrow my eyes I see nothing in its symmetry of colour. But the notes say that seeing sea-creatures is the most common, and most acceptable, response.
How could I see sea-creatures if I’ve never seen one before?
I cannot imagine these spiny, many-legged things alive. How big were they? Microscopic, or as substantial as a wild City cat? Did they smell? Could they bite? Did they cause disease? Make a nun pregnant? And what was their concentration in the sea, say, in parts-per-million?
Perhaps they have by now evolved to live beneath the sand, sculling their way through the endless grains, somehow sucking oxygen and
sustenance from the lifelessness around them.
I close the image of the last card. I have learnt that I am no more normal or abnormal than the dull median. I close the other maps – the inaccurate old doodlings that Sindi has dug up and scanned, the precision of the modern ones supplied by the Foundation. It is early to go in search for lunch, but I need the air.
Instead of food, I find Douglas at a table in the shade across the Square. With him is an emaciation of a woman, her cheeks sunken and her cheekbones protruding, burnished with the fashionable blue. Douglas has before him a bottle of cactus liquor, and he pours generously into two glasses and dilutes the stuff with precious splashes from his bottle of water. I step behind a pillar and watch them toast, glasses held high above their heads. Then they drink and the woman leans in and says something. Douglas laughs long and hard and so does she.
Sindi sometimes brings back images that have nothing to do with the Bond project. The three of us huddle around them like children over a storybook even though there is always work to be done. Sindi selects these superfluous pictures for their curiosity value, and they invariably feature long-ago scenes of life with water.
She has shown us City streets glistening wet, and through them people running with umbrellas, or their coats over their heads. A man in the sun with no shirt, pushing a handle to propel a small machine across an expanse of the richest green. A lithe woman who has stretched herself into the shape of an exclamation mark, hanging suspended in the air above a pool of pale blue. Toddlers in a bright yellow tub in the sun, splashing water into the air, and you could all but hear their shrieks of joy.
One of Sindi’s images comes back to me as I watch Douglas from behind my pillar. It shows people wearing the smallest items of clothing. Adults are lying on the sand of a beach while children play. A brief – and surely dangerous – distance away, rolling white waves crash in the shallows while people cavort among them with their hands in the air. Across a bay of an impossible blue stand the mountains behind the City. It’s disconcerting, in the least, to see your hometown in this way, at a time when it was almost subsumed by sea, when today the half-basin of the bay is no more than a repository of sand and rock and dust and household garbage dumped by City workers. Stranger even than this is the thought that the people in the image would have ventured smiling and laughing into a sea full of the beasts shown on the last card. But the ink and the water say it was so.
Perhaps the City floats on ink rather than water. Perhaps it is not water but ink that has written its story, in blacks and blues and fathomless deep purples. Perhaps without the ink there would be no City, and without the City there would be only water.
Douglas is laughing again, and I see that the woman has moved around the table to be closer to him. She rests her elbow and she holds her glass aloft between thumb and forefinger.
I lean against the pillar and through my shoulder I feel the world quiver
as another slow wave disturbs the City beneath my feet.
* * * * *
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This Sunday Read features an excerpt from the new book by Yann Martel, The High Mountains of Portugal, which is to be published in February.
Martel won the Man Booker Prize in 2002 for Life of Pi, which sold more than 12 million copies worldwide, making him the bestselling Booker winner of all time. The film adaptation of the book earned 11 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, and won four (the most that year) including Best Director for Ang Lee.
Martel’s first novel, Self, was published in 1996, following a 1993 collection of short stories, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios. In the author’s note to Life of Pi, Martel writes that Self “vanished quickly and quietly”, and he is on record as saying it is a “terrible novel, and that he wishes it would disappear”. It was, however, shortlisted for the 21st Chapters/Books In Canada First Novel Award.
Life of Pi was Martel’s second novel, released in 2001, although it was rejected by at least five publishers before it was accepted.
In 2007, Martel was part of a delegation to the Canadian House of Commons to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Canada Council for the Arts. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was present in the House but “didn’t look up at the celebratory delegation nor offer words of congratulation on the council’s milestone”. In response, Martel began sending a book to Harper every fortnight, accompanied by a detailed letter explaining the choice. He never received a reply from the Prime Minister, and ended the experiment in 2011 after sending a total of 100 books, saying he was “tired of using books as political bullets and grenades”. A book-length account of the project, What Is Stephen Harper Reading?, was published in 2009.
The Canadian author’s third novel, Beatrice and Virgil, was published nine years after Life of Pi, in April 2010, and was not well received. The Guardian called it “by turns pretentious, humourless, tedious, and obvious”.
Canongate announced in September 2015 that it acquired the UK rights for Mantel’s new novel, and early responses have been more promising. Canongate publishing director Francis Bickmore said: “There are no tigers in this fabulous new book but it does explore our relationship to the natural world, and asks from where comes our humanity.”
About the book:
In Lisbon in 1904, a young man discovers an old journal. It hints at the existence of an extraordinary artefact that—if he can find it—would redefine history.
Some thirty-five years later, a Portuguese pathologist finds himself at the centre of a murder mystery.
Fifty years on, a Canadian senator takes refuge in northern Portugal, grieving the loss of his beloved wife.
Three linked stories. Three broken hearts. One exploration: what is a life without stories? The High Mountains of Portugal takes the reader on a road trip through Portugal in the last century—and through the human soul.
Read an excerpt, from Text Publishing:
His uncle beams, filled to the brim with pride and joy in his Gallic gewgaw. Tomás remains tight-lipped. He does not share his uncle’s infatuation with automobiles. A few of these newfangled devices have lately found their way onto the streets of Lisbon. Amidst the bustling animal traffic of the city, all in all not so noisy, these automobiles now roar by like huge, buzzing insects, a nuisance offensive to the ears, painful to the eyes, and malodorous to the nose. He sees no beauty in them. His uncle’s burgundy-coloured copy is no exception. It lacks in any elegance or symmetry. Its cabin appears to him absurdly oversized compared to the puny stable at the aft into which are stuffed the thirty horses. The metal of the thing, and there is much of it, glares shiny and hard—inhumanly, he would say.
He would happily be carted by a conventional beast of burden to the High Mountains of Portugal, but he is making the trip over the Christmas season, cumulating holiday time that is his due with the few days he begged, practically on his knees, from the chief curator at the museum. That gives him only ten days to accomplish his mission. The distance is too great, his time too limited. An animal won’t do. And so he has to avail himself of his uncle’s kindly offered but unsightly invention.
With a clattering of doors, Damiãno enters the courtyard bearing a tray with coffee and fig pastries. A stand for the tray is produced, as are two chairs. Tomás and his uncle sit down. Hot milk is poured, sugar is measured out. The moment is set for small talk, but instead he asks directly, “So how does it work, Uncle?”
He asks because he does not want to contemplate what is just beyond the automobile, fringing the wall of his uncle’s estate, next to the path that leads to the servants’ quarters: the row of orange trees. For it is there that his son used to wait for him, hiding behind a not-so-thick tree trunk. Gaspar would flee, shrieking, as soon as his father’s eyes caught him. Tomás would run after the little clown, pretending that his aunt and uncle, or their many spies, did not see him go down the path, just as the servants pretended not to see him entering their quarters. Yes, better to talk about automobiles than to look at those orange trees.
“Ah, well you should ask! Let me show you the marvel within,” replies his uncle, leaping up out of his seat. Tomás follows him to the front of the automobile as he unhooks the small, rounded metal hood and tips it forward on its hinges. Revealed are tangles of pipes and bulbous protuberances of shiny metal.
“Admire!” his uncle commands. “An in-line four-cylinder engine with a 3,054 cc capacity. A beauty and a feat. Notice the order of progress: engine, radiator, friction clutch, sliding-pinion gearbox, drive to the rear axle. Under this alignment, the future will take place. But first let me explain to you the wonder of the internal combustion engine.”
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One of the most exciting titles of 2016 is Affluenza, Niq Mhlongo‘s long-awaited first collection of short stories. It will be published by Kwela in March this year.
Mhlongo is the author of three novels – Dog Eat Dog, After Tears and Way Back Home. His work has been translated into Spanish, Italian, French and German.
With Affluenza Mhlongo returns with a collection of stories that cover the span of our democracy – the euphoria of 1994, the Aids pandemic, xenophobia, the madness of Marikana and the Zuma presidency. The stories have been published to critical acclaim in France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the USA but remain largely unknown in South Africa.
2015 started with a bang, showing once again that things are not well in the beautiful country of South Africa. Mhlongo responded to Penny Sparrow and Chris Hart‘s racist social media comments – and the ensuing #RacismWillFall discussion – by sharing snippets from Affluenza on his Facebook page, writing that he explores this sensitive issue, along with others relating to current events, in his stories.
Read Mhlongo’s introduction to the short excerpts, and view photos of the manuscript which is now in the final round of editing:
Yesterday I was doing the very final proofreading of Affluenza (my new book which is coming out on the 20th of March this year). At the same time, we black people of South Africa were being insulted on social media; being called Monkeys by the likes of Penny Sparrow and Chris Hart. This tempted me to give you the taste of some of the issues explored in AFFLUENZA. I wrote this in 2009. Achebe pointed out that, ‘the last five hundred years of European contact with Africa produced a body of literature that presented Africa in a very bad light’. And this is the source where the likes of Penny and Chris draw from. Now the time has come for Africans to tell their own stories, including racism which is still is still rife in this country.
Author image courtesy of Victor Dlamini
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As part of the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s 25th anniversary celebrations, it has released an anthology of new speculative fiction, Pwning Tomorrow: Stories from the Electronic Frontier, with stories from 21 authors including South Africans Lauren Beukes, SL Grey and Charles Human as well as heavy hitters such as Neil Gaiman, Bruce Sterling, Cory Doctorow, and Charlie Jane Anders.
This EFF – not to be confused with Julius Malema’s red beret platoon – is one of the world’s leading nonprofit organisations defending civil liberties in the digital world, working to ensure that our rights are protected as our use of technology grows.
“From Mary Shelley to George Orwell to HG Wells to William Gibson, science fiction has been the most enduring, most convincing way for artists to engage in tech policy issues.” - Cory Doctorow
The Pwning Tomorrow ebook, available in ePub and MOBI formats, has been released under a Creative Commons license – in other words, it’s free and free to share – but you are asked to name your price and make an optional contribution to support EFF’s work.
From the EFF:
We meet many speculative fiction fans in the course of our work to protect digital civil liberties, and the 21 stories in this collection inspire a sharper sense of the futures we may experience and the role of rights and freedoms there. The authors explore the wonders and perils of technology over the next 25 years and beyond, imagining the consequences of everything from abusive intellectual property lawsuits to out-of-control viral marketing, from over-protective intelligent fridges to violently loyal cyber-pets.
It’s also important to know that writers have long been at the forefront of the fight against mass surveillance in the real world. Paranormal romance author Carolyn Jewel is the lead plaintiff in Jewel v. NSA, EFF’s long-running lawsuit against warrantless collection of electronic communications. Her novella, “Free Fall,” rounds out the collection.
The full list of contributors:
Charlie Jane Anders
James Patrick Kelly
* * * * *
Read Beukes’ story from the anthology, shared with kind permission from the EFF:
* * * * *
by Lauren Beukes
1. High life
The heat presses against the cab, trying to find a way in past the sealed windows and the rattling air-conditioning. Narrow apartment blocks swoop past on either side of the dual carriageway, occasionally broken up by a warehouse megastore. It could be Cape Town, Pearl thinks. It could be anywhere. Twenty-three hours’ travel so far. She has never been on a plane before.
“So what’s the best part about Karachi?” Tomislav says, trying to break the oppressive silence in the back – the three of them dazed by the journey, the girl, her promoter, and the surgeon, who has not looked up from his phone since they got in the car, because he is trying to get a meeting.
The driver thinks about it, tugging at the little hairs of his beard. “One thing is that this is a really good road. Sharah e Faisal. There’s hardly ever a traffic jam and if it rains, the road never drowns.”
“Excellent.” Tomislav leans back, defeated. He gives Pearl an encouraging smile, but she is not encouraged. She watched the World Cup and the Olympics on TV; she knows how it is supposed to be. She stares out the window, refusing to blink in case the tears come.
The road narrows into the city and the traffic thickens, hooting trucks and bakkies and rickshaws covered in reflecting stickers like disco balls, twinkling in the sun. They pass through the old city, with its big crumbling buildings from long ago, and into the warren of Saddar’s slums, with concrete lean-tos muscling in on each other. Kachi abaadi, the driver tells them, and Pearl sounds it out under her breath. At least the shacks are not tin and that’s one difference.
Tomislav points out the loops of graffiti in another alphabet and taps her plastic knee. “Gang signs. Just like the Cape Flats.”
“Oh, they’re gangsters, all right,” the driver says. “Same people run the country.”
“You have gangsters in your government?” Pearl is shocked.
The cab driver clucks and meets her eyes in the rearview mirror. “You one of the racers?”
“What clued you in?” Dr. Arturo says, without looking up. It’s the first thing he’s said all day. His thumbs tap over the screen of his phone, blunt instruments. Pearl rubs her legs self-consciously where the tendons are visible under the joint of her knee, running into the neurocircuitry. It’s a showcase, Dr. Arturo told her when she asked him why it couldn’t look like skin. Some days she thinks it’s beautiful. Mostly, she hates seeing the inside-out of herself.
“Why do you think you’re in Pakistan?” The driver laughs. “You think anyone else would let this happen in their country?” He rubs his thumb and fingers together and flings it to the wind.
2. Packed with goodness
Pre-race. A huge +Games banner hangs above the entrance of the Karachi Parsi Institute, or KPI. It’s a colonial building that has been extended to accommodate them, the track built over the old cricket ground and into the slums. The school has been turned into the athletes’ village, classrooms converted to individual medical cells to cater to their unique needs. Pearl’s, for example, has hermetic bio-units and sterile surfaces. The window has been fused shut to prevent the polluted air from leaking in.
In the room next door, they installed extra generators for Charlotte Grange after she plugged in her exo-suit and tripped the power on the whole building. Pearl can hear her grunting through the walls. She doesn’t know what Siska Rachman has.
She sits on the end of her bed, paging through the official program while Tomislav paces the room end to end, hunched over his phone, his hand resting on his nose. “Ajda! Come on!” her promoter says into the phone, in that Slavic way, which makes the first part of the sentence top-heavy. Like Tomislav himself, still carrying his weightlifter bulk all squeezed up into his chest and neck. He doesn’t compete anymore, but the steroids keep him in shape. The neon lights and the white sheen off the walls makes his eyes look bluer, his skin paler. “Peach,” she was taught in school, as if “peach” and “brown” were magically less divisive than “black” and “white” and words could fix everything. But Tomislav’s skin is not the warm orange of a summer fruit – it’s like the milky tea she drinks at home.
Tomislav has thick black hair up his arms. She asked him about it when they first met at the Beloved One’s house on the hill. Fourteen and too young and too angry about everything that had happened to mind her elders, even though her mother gasped at her rudeness and smacked her head.
Tomislav laughed. Testosterone, kitten. He tapped the slight fuzz over her lip. You’ve got it too – that’s what makes you so strong.
He’s made her laser all her unsightly hair since. Sports is image. Even this one.
He sees her looking and speaks louder. “You want to get a meeting, Arturo, we gotta have something to show.” He jabs at the phone dramatically to end the call. “That guy! What does he think I’m doing all day? You all right, kitten?” He comes over to take her by the shoulders, give them a little rub. “You feeling good?”
“Fine.” More than fine, with the crowds’ voices a low vibration through the concrete and the starting line tugging at her insides, just through that door, across the quad, down the ramp. She has seen people climbing up onto the roofs around the track with picnic blankets.
“That’s my girl.” He snatches the program out of her hands. “Why are you even looking at this? You know every move these girls have.”
He means Siska Rachman. That’s all anyone wants to talk about. Pearl is sick of it, all the interviews for channels she’s never heard of. No one told her how much of this would be talking about racing.
“Ready when you are,” Dr. Arturo says into her head, through the audio feed in her cochlear implant. Back online as if he’s never been gone, checking the diagnostics. “Watch your adrenaline, Pearl. You need to be calm for the install.” He used to narrate the chemical processes, the shifting balances of hormones, the nano-enhancing oxygen uptake, the shift of robotic joints, the dopamine blast, but it felt too much like being in school: words being crammed into her head and all worthless anyway. You don’t have to name something to understand it. She knows how it feels when she hits her stride and the world opens up beneath her feet.
“He’s ready,” she repeats to Tomislav. “All right, let’s get this show pumping.” Pearl obediently hitches up her vest with the Russian energy drink logo – one of Tomislav’s sponsors, although that’s only spare change. She has met the men who have paid for her to be here, in the glass house on the hill, wearing gaudy golf shirts and shoes and shiny watches. She never saw the men swing a club and she doesn’t know their names, but they all wanted to shake her hand and take a photograph with her.
She feels along the rigid seam that runs in a J-hook down the side of her stomach, parallel with her hysterectomy scar, and tears open the Velcroskin.
“Let me,” Tomislav says, kneeling between her legs. She holds her flesh open while he reaches one hand up inside her abdomen. It doesn’t hurt, not anymore. The Velcro releases a local anesthetic when it opens, but she can feel an uncomfortable tugging inside, like cramps.
Tomislav twists off the valves on either side and gently unplugs her stomach and eases it out of her. He sets it in a sterile biobox and connects it to a blood flow. By the time he turns back, she is already spooling up the accordion twist of artificial intestine, like a party magician pulling ribbons from his palm. It smells of the lab-mod bacteria and the faintest whiff of feces. She hands it to Tomislav and he wrinkles his nose.
“Just goes to show,” he says, folding up the slosh of crinkled plastic tubing and packing it away. “You can take the meat out of the human, but they’re still full of shit!”
Pearl smiles dutifully, even though he has been making the same joke for the last three weeks – ever since they installed the new system. “Nearly there.” He holds up the hotbed factory and she nods and looks away, because it makes her queasy to watch. It’s a sleek bioplug, slim as a communion wafer and packed with goodness, Dr. Arturo says, like fortified breakfast cereal. Hormones and nanotech instead of vitamins and iron. Tomislav pushes his hand inside her again, feeling blindly for the connector node in what’s left of her real intestinal tract, an inch and a half of the body’s most absorbent tissue for better chemical uptake.
“Whoops! Got your kidney! Joking. It’s in.”
“Good to go,” Dr. Arturo confirms.
“Then let’s go,” Pearl says, standing up on her blades.
3. Forces greater than you
You would have to be some kind of idiot. She told her mother it was a bet among the kids, but it wasn’t. It was her, only her, trying to race the train.
The train won.
4. Why you have me
The springkaan drone flits in front of Pearl’s face, the lens zooming in on her lips to catch the words she’s saying under her breath and transmit them onto the big screen. “Ndincede nkosi undiphe amandla.”
She bends down to grab on to the curved tips of her legs, to stretch, yes, but also to hide her mouth. It’s supposed to be private, she thinks. But that’s an idea that belonged to another girl before Tomislav’s deals and Dr. Arturo’s voice in her head running through diagnostics, before the Beloved One, before the train, before all this.
“It’s because you’re so taciturn, kitten,” Tomislav says, trying to comfort her. “You give the people crumbs and they’re hungry for more. If you just talked more.” He is fidgeting with his tie while Brian Corwood, the presenter, moves down the starters’ carpet with his microphone, talking to Oluchi Eze, who is showing off her tail for the cameras. She doesn’t know how to talk more. She’s run out of words, and the ones Dr. Arturo wants her to say are like chewing on raw potatoes. She has to sound out the syllables.
Pearl swipes her tongue over her teeth to get rid of the feeling that someone has rigged a circuit behind her incisors. It’s the new drugs in the hotbed, Tomislav says. She has to get used to it, like the drones, which dart up to her unexpectedly. They’re freakish – cameras hardwired into grasshoppers, with enough brain stem left to respond to commands. Insects are cheap energy.
Somewhere in a control room, Dr. Arturo notes her twitching back from the springkaan and soothes in her head. “What do you think, Pearl? More sophisticated than some athletes we know.” She glances over at Charlotte Grange, who is also waiting for her interview. The big blonde quakes and jitters, clenching her jaw, her exo-suit groaning in anticipation. The neural dampeners barely hold her back.
The crowd roars its impatience, thousands of people behind a curve of reinforced safety glass in the stands, raised high above the action. The rooftops are packed, and there are children climbing the scaffolding around the old church like monkeys.
The people in suits, the ones Dr. Arturo and Tomislav want to meet, watch from air-conditioned hotel rooms five kilometers away. Medical and pharmaceutical companies looking for new innovations in a place where anything goes: any drugs, any prosthetics, robotics, nano. That’s what people come for. They tune in by the millions on the proprietary channel. The drama. Like watching Formula 1 for the car crashes.
“All these people, kitten,” Tomislav says. “They don’t want you to win. They’re just waiting for you to explode. But you know why you’re here.”
“That’s my girl.”
“Slow breaths,” Dr. Arturo says. “You’re overstimulated.” The springkaan drone responds to some invisible hand in a control room and swirls around her, getting every angle. Brian Corwood makes his way over to her, microphone extended like a handshake, springkaans buzzing behind his shoulder. She holds herself very straight. She knows her mama and the Beloved One are watching back home. She wants to do Gugulethu proud. “Ndincede nkosi.” She mouths the words and sees them come up on the big screens above the track in closed captions below her face.
They’ll be working to translate them already. Not so hard to figure out that she’s speaking Xhosa.
“Pearl Nit-seeko,” the presenter says. “Cape Town’s miracle girl. Crippled when she was 14 years old and now, here she is, two years later, at the +Games. Dream come true!”
Pearl has told the story so many times that she can’t remember which parts are made up and glossed over. She told a journalist once that she saw her father killed on TV during the illegal mine strikes in Polokwane, saying she covered her ears so she didn’t have to hear the popcorn pa-pa-pa-pa-pa of the gunshots as people fell in the dust. But now she has to stick to it. Grand tragedy is a better story than the reality of a useless middle-aged drunk who lived with a shebeen owner’s daughter in Nyanga so that he didn’t have to pay off the bar tab. When Pearl started to get famous, her father made a stink in the local gossip rags until Tomislav paid him to go away. You can buy your own truth.
“Can you tell us about your tech, Pearl?” Brian Corwood says, as if this is a show about movie stars and glittery dresses.
She responds on autopilot. The removable organs, the bath of nano in her blood that improves oxygen uptake. Neural connectivity blows open the receptors to the hormones and drugs dispatched by the hotbed factory. Tomislav has coached her in the newsworthy technical specs, the leaks that make investors’ ears prick up.
“I can’t show you,” she apologizes, coyly raising her vest to let the cameras zoom in on the seam of scar tissue. “It’s not a sterile environment.” “So it’s hollow in there?” Corwood pretends to knock on her stomach. “Reinforced surgical-quality graphene mesh.” She lightly drums her fingers over her skin, like in rehearsal. It looks spontaneous and shows off her six-pack.
She hears Arturo’s voice in her head. “Put the vest down now,” Arturo instructs. She covers herself up. The star doesn’t want to let the viewers see too much. Like with sex. Or so she’s been told. She will never have children.
“Is that your secret weapon?” Corwood says, teasing, because no one ever reveals the exact specs, not until they have a buyer.
“No,” she says, “but I do have one.”
“What is it, then?” Corwood says, gamely.
“God,” she says, and stares defiant at the insect cameras zooming in for a close-up.
5. Things you can’t hide
Her stumps are wrapped in fresh bandages, but the wounds still smell. Like something caught in the drain. Her mother wants to douse the bandages in perfume.
“I don’t want to! Leave me alone!” Pearl swats the teardrop bottle from her mother’s hands and it clatters onto the floor. Her mother tries to grab her. The girl falls off the bed with a shriek. She crawls away on her elbows, sobbing and yowling. Her Uncle Tshepelo hauls her up by her armpits, like she is a sack of sorghum flour, and sets her down at the kitchen table.
“Enough, Pearl,” he says, her handsome youngest uncle. When she was a little girl she told her mother she was going to marry him.
“I hate you,” she screams. She tries to kick at him with her stumps, but he ducks away and goes over to the kettle while her mother stands in the doorway and covers her face.
Pearl has not been back to school since it happened. She turns to face the wall when her friends come to visit and refuses to talk with them. During the day, she watches soap operas and infomercials and lies in her mother’s bed and stares at the sky and listens to the noise of the day; the cycles of traffic and school kids and dogs barking and the call to prayer buzzing through the mosque’s decrepit speakers and the traffic again and men drunk and fighting at the shebeen. Maybe one of them is her father, who has not been to see her since the accident.
Tshepelo makes sweet milky tea, for her and her mother, and sits and talks: nonsense, really, about his day in the factory, cooking up batches of paté, which is fancy flavored butter for rich people, and how she should see the stupid blue plastic cap he has to wear to cover his hair in case of contamination. He talks and talks until she calms down.
Finally, she agrees that she will go to church, a special service in Khayelitsha Site B. She puts on her woolen dress, grey as the Cape Town winter sky, and green stockings, which dangle horribly at the joint where her legs should be.
The rain polka-dots her clothes and soaks into her mother’s hat, making it flop as she quick-steps after Tshepelo, carrying Pearl in his arms like an injured dog. She hates the way people avert their eyes.
The church is nothing, a tent in a parking lot, although the people sing like they are in a fancy cathedral in England like on TV. Pearl sits stiffly on the end of the pew between her uncle and her mother, glaring at the little kids who dart around to come and stare. “Vaya,” she hisses at them. “What are you looking at? Go.”
Halfway through the service, two of the ministers bring out the brand-new wheelchair like it is a prize on a game show, tied with a big purple ribbon. They carry it down the stairs on their shoulders and set it down in front of her. She looks down and mumbles something. Nkosi.
They tuck their fingers into her armpits, these strangers’ hands on her, and lift her into it. The moment they set her down, she feels trapped. She moans and shakes her head.
“She’s so grateful,” her mother says, and presses her into the chair with one hand on her shoulder. Hallelujah, everyone says. Hallelujah. The choir breaks into song and Pearl wishes that God had let her die.
Pearl’s brain is microseconds behind her body. The bang of the starting gun registers as a sound after she is already running.
She is aware of the other runners as warm, straining shapes in the periphery. Tomislav has made her study the way they run. Charlotte Grange, grunting and loping, using the exo-suit arms to dig into the ground like an ape; Anna Murad with her robotics wet-wired into her nerves; Oluchi Eze with her sculpted tail and her delicate bones, like a dinosaur bird. And in lane five, farthest away from her, Siska Rachman with her face perfectly calm and empty and her eyes locked on the finish line, two kilometers away. A dead girl remote-controlled by a quadriplegic in a hospital bed. That is the problem with the famous Siska Rachman. She wins a lot, but there is network lag time.
You have to inhabit your body. You need to be in it. Not only because the rules say, but because otherwise you can’t feel it. The strike of your foot against the ground, the rush of air on your skin, the sweat running down your sides. No amount of biofeedback will make the difference. “Pace yourself,” Arturo says in her head. “I’ll give you a glucose boost when you hit 800 meters.”
Pearl tunes in to the rhythmic huff of her breath and she stretches out her legs longer with each stride and she is aware of everything, the texture of the track, and the expanse of the sky, and the smell of sweat and dust and oil. It blooms in her chest – a fierce warmth, a golden glow within, and she feels the rush of His love and she knows that God is with her.
She crosses third, neck and neck with Siska Rachman and milliseconds behind Charlotte Grange, who throws herself across the finish line with a wet ripping sound. The exo-suit goes down in a tumble of girl and metal, forcing Rachman to sidestep.
“A brute,” Arturo whispers in her ear. “Not like you, Pearl.”
The car comes to fetch them, Pearl and her mother and her uncle. A shiny black BMW with hubcaps that turn the light into spears. People come out of their houses to see.
She is wearing her black lace dress, but it’s 40 degrees out and the sweat runs down the back of her neck and makes her collar itch.
“Don’t scratch,” her mother says, holding her hands.
The car cuts through the location between the tin shacks and the government housing and all the staring eyes, out onto the highway, into the winelands and past the university and the rich people’s townhouses which all look alike, past the golf course where little carts dart between the sprinklers, and the hills with vineyards and flags to draw the tourists, and down a side road and through a big black gate which swings open onto a driveway lined with spiky cycads.
They climb out, stunned by the heat and other things besides – like the size of the house, the wood and glass floating on top of the hill. Her uncle fights to open the wheelchair Khayelitsha Site B bought her, until the driver comes round and says, “Let me help you with that, sir.” He shoves down hard on the seat and it clicks into place.
He brings them into a cool entrance hall with wooden floors and metal sculptures of cheetahs guarding the staircase. A woman dressed in a red-and-white dress and a wrap around her head smiles and ushers them into the lounge, where three men are waiting: a grandfather with two white men flanking him like the stone cats by the stairs. One old, one hairy.
“The Beloved One,” her mother says, averting her eyes. Her uncle bows his head and raises his hands in deference.
Their fear makes Pearl angry.
The grandfather waves at them to come, come, impatiently. The trousers of his dark-blue suit have pleats folded as sharp as paper, and his shoes are black like coal.
“So this is Pearl Nitseko,” the Beloved One says, testing the weight of her name. “I’ve heard about you.”
The old white man stares at her. The lawyer, she will find out later, who makes her and her mother sign papers and more papers and papers. The one with thick shoulders fidgets with his cuffs, pulling them down over his hairy wrists, but he is watching her most intently of all.
“What?” she demands. “What have you heard?” Her mother gasps and smacks her head.
The Beloved One smiles, gently. “That you have fire in you.”
8. Fearful tautologies
Tomislav hustles Pearl past the Muslim protestors outside the stadium. The sects have united in moral outrage, chanting, “Un-natural! Un- godly! Un-holy!” They chant the words in English rather than Urdu for the benefit of the drones.
“Come on!” Tomislav shoulders past the protestors, steering her toward a shuttle car that will take them to dinner. “Don’t these cranks have bigger things to worry about? Their thug government? Their starving children?” Pearl leaps into the shuttle and he launches himself in after. “Extremism I can handle.” He slams the door. “But tautology? That’s unforgivable.”
Pearl zips up the hood of her tracksuit. The Pakistani crowd surges to the shuttle, bashing its windows with the flats of their hands. “Monster!” a woman shouts in English. “God hates you.”
“Isn’t that what fear always is?”
“I forget that you’re fast and clever. Yeah. Screw them,” Tomislav says. The shuttle rolls and he claps his hands together. “You did good out there.”
“Did you get a meeting?”
“We got a meeting, kitten. I know you think your big competition is Siska, but it’s Charlotte. She just keeps going and going.”
“She hurt herself.”
“Ripped a tendon, the news says, but she’s still going to race tomorrow.”
Dr. Arturo chimes in, always listening. “They have backup meat in the lab, they can grow a tendon. But it’s not a good long-term strategy. This is a war, not a battle.”
“I thought we weren’t allowed to fight,” Pearl says.
“You talking to the doc? Tell him to save his chatter for the investors.”
“Tomislav says – ” she starts.
“I heard him,” Dr. Arturo says.
Pearl looks back at the protestors. One of the handwritten banners stays with her. “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” it reads.
9. She is risen
Pearl watches the buses arrive from her bed upstairs in the church. A guest room adapted for the purpose, with a nurse sitting outside and machines that hiss and bleep. The drugs make her woozy. She has impressions of things, but not memories. The whoop of the ambulance siren and the feeling of being important. Visitors. Men in golf shorts and an army man with fat cheeks. Gold watches and stars on the uniform, to match the gold star on the tower she can see from her window and the fat tapered columns like bullets at the entrance.
“Are you ready?” Dr. Arturo says. He has come from Venezuela especially for her. He has gentle hands and kind eyes, she thinks, even though he is the one who cut everything out of her. Excess baggage, he says. It hurts where it was taken out, her female organs and her stomach and her guts.
He tells her they have been looking for someone like her for a long time, he and Tomislav. They had given up on finding her. And now! Now look where they are. She is very lucky. She knows this because everyone keeps telling her.
Dr. Arturo takes her to the elevator where Tomislav is waiting. The surgeon is very modest. He doesn’t like to be seen on camera. “Don’t worry, I’ll be with you,” he says, and taps her jaw just below her ear.
“It’s all about you, kitten,” Tomislav soothes, wheeling her out into a huge hallway full of echoes under a painted sky with angels and the Beloved One, in floating purple robes, smiling down on the people flowing through the doors, the women dressed in red and white and the men in blue blazers and white shirts. This time she doesn’t mind them looking.
They make way for the wheelchair, through the double doors, past the ushers, into a huge room with a ceiling crinkled and glossy as a seashell and silver balconies and red carpets. She feels like a film star, and the red blanket over her knees is like her party dress.
From somewhere deep in the church, women raise their voices in ululation and all the hair on Pearl’s body pricks up as if she were a cat. Tomislav turns the wheelchair around and parks it beside a huge gold throne with carved leaves and flowers and a halo of spikes around the head. He pats her shoulder and leaves her there, facing the crowd, thousands of them in the auditorium, all staring at her. “Smile, Pearl,” Dr. Arturo says, his voice soft inside her head, and she tries, she really does.
A group of women walk out onto the stage, swaying with wooden bowls on their hips, their hands dipping into the bowls like swans pecking at the water and throwing rose petals before them. The crowd picks up the ululating and it reverberates through the church. Halalala.
The Beloved One steps out and onto the stage and Pearl has to cover her ears at the noise that greets him. A hail of voices. Women are weeping in the aisles. Men too, crying in happiness to see him.
The Beloved One holds out his hands to still them. “Quiet, please, brothers and sisters,” he says. “Peace be with you.”
“And also with you,” the crowd roars back, the sound distorted, frayed. He places his hands on the back of the wheelchair.
“Today, we come together to witness a miracle. My daughter, will you stand up and walk?’
And Pearl does.
10. Call to prayer
The restaurant is fancy with a buffet of Pakistani food, korma and tikka and kabobs and silver trays of sticky sweet pastries. The athletes have to pose for photographs and do more interviews with Brian Corwood and other people. The girl with purple streaks in her hair and the metal ring in her lip asks her, “Aren’t you afraid you’re gonna die out there?” before Tomislav intervenes.
“Come on! What kind of question is that?” he says. “Can’t you be normal?”
But the athletes don’t really eat and there is a bus that takes them home early so they can be fresh, while the promoters peel away, one by one, looking tense, in fancy black cars that take them to other parts of the city. “Don’t you worry, kitten.” Tomislav smiles, all teeth, and pats her hand.
Back in her room, Pearl finds a prayer mat that might be aligned toward Mecca. She phones down to reception to ask. She prostrates herself on the square of carpet, east, west, to see if it is any different, if her God will be annoyed.
She goes online to check the news and the betting pools. Her odds have improved. There is a lot of speculation about Grange’s injury and whether Rachman will be disqualified. There are photographs of Oluchi Eze posing naked for a men’s magazine, her tail wrapped over her parts.
Pearl clicks away and watches herself in the replay, her strikes, her posture, the joy in her face. She expects Dr. Arturo to comment, but the cochlear implant only hisses with faint static.
“Mama? Did you see the race?” she says. The video connection to Gugulethu stalls and jitters. Her mother has the camera on the phone pointed down too low, so she can only see her eyes and the top of her head.
“They screened it at the church,” her mother says. “Everyone was very excited.”
“You should have heard them shouting for you, Pearl,” her uncle says, leaning over her mother’s shoulder, tugging the camera down so they are in the frame.
Her mother frowns. “I don’t know if you should wear that vest – it’s not really your color.”
“It’s my sponsor, Mama.”
“We’re praying for you to do well. Everyone is praying for you.”
She has a dream that she and Tomislav and Jesus are standing on the balcony of the Karachi Parsi Institute looking over the slums. The fine golden sand rises up like water between the concrete shacks, pouring in the windows, swallowing up the roofs, driven by the wind.
“Did you notice that there are only one set of footsteps, Pearl?” Jesus says. The sand rises, swallowing the houses, rushing to fill the gaps, nature taking over. “Do you know why that is?”
“Is it because you took her fucking legs, Lord?” Tomislav says. Pearl can’t see any footsteps in the desert. The sand shifts too quickly.
12. Rare flowers
Wide awake. Half past midnight. She lies in bed and stares at the ceiling. Arturo was supposed to boost her dopamine and melatonin, but he’s busy. The meeting went well, then. The message on her phone from Tomislav confirms it. Good news!!!! Tell you in the morning. Sleep tight, kitten, you need it.
She turns the thought around in her head and tries to figure out how she feels. Happy. This will mean that she can buy her mother a house and pay for her cousins to go to private school and set up the Pearl Nitseko Sports Academy for Girls in Gugulethu. She won’t ever have to race again. Unless she wants to.
The idea of the money sits on her chest.
She swings her stumps over the bed and straps on her blades. She needs to go out, get some air.
She clips down the corridors of the school building. There is a party on the old cricket field outside, with beer tents and the buzz of people who do not have to run tomorrow, exercising their nerves.
She veers away from them, back toward the worn-out colonial building of the IPC, hoping to get onto the race track. Run it out.
The track is fenced off and locked, but the security guard is dazed by his phone, caught up in another world of sliding around colorful blocks. She clings to the shadows of the archway, right past him and deeper into the building, following wherever the doors lead her.
She comes out into a hall around a pit of sunken tiles. An old swimming pool. Siska Rachman is sitting on the edge, waving her feet in the ghost of water, her face perfectly blank with her hair a dark nest around it. Pearl lowers herself down beside her. She can’t resist. She flicks Rachman’s forehead. “Heita. Anyone in there?”
The body blinks, and suddenly the eyes are alive and furious. She catches Pearl’s wrist. “Of course I am,” she snaps.
“Sorry, I didn’t think – ”
Siska has already lost interest. She drops her grip and brushes her hair away from her face. “So, you can’t sleep either? Wonder why.”
“Too nervous,” Pearl says. She tries for teasing, like Tomislav would. “I have tough competition.”
“Maybe not.” Siska scowls. “They’re going to fucking disqualify me.”
Pearl nods. She doesn’t want to apologize again. She feels shy around Siska, the older girl with her bushy eyebrows and her sharp nose. The six years between them feels like an uncrossable gap.
“Do they think Charlotte is present?” Siska bursts out. “Charlotte is a big dumb animal. How is she more human than me?”
“You’re two people,” Pearl tries to explain.
“Before. You were half a person before. Does that count against you?”
“Do you know what this used to be?” Siska pats the blue tiles.
“A swimming pool?”
“They couldn’t maintain the upkeep. These things are expensive to run.” Siska glances at Pearl to make sure she understands. In the light through the glass atrium, every lash stands out in stark relief against the gleam of her eyes, like undersea creatures. “They drained all the water out, but there was this kid who was … damaged in the brain, and the only thing he could do was grow orchids, so that’s what he did. He turned it into a garden and sold them out of here for years, until he got old and now it’s gone.”
“How do you know this?”
“The guard told me. We smoked cigarettes together. He wanted me to give him a blowjob.”
“Oh.” Pearl recoils.
“Hey, are you wearing lenses?”
She knows what she means. The broadcast contacts. “No. I wouldn’t.”
“They’re going to use you and use you up, Pearl Nit-seeko. Then you’ll be begging to give some lard-ass guard a blowjob for spare change.”
“Doesn’t matter. You say tomato, I say ni-tse-koh.” But Siska gets it right this time. “You think it’s all about you. Your second chance, and all you got to do is run your heart out. But it’s a talent show, and they don’t care about the running. You got a deal yet?”
“My promoter and my doctor had a meeting.”
“That’s something. They say who?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Pharmaceutical or medical?”
“They haven’t told me yet.”
“Or military. Military’s good. I hear the British are out this year. That’s what you want. I mean, who knows what they’re going to do with it, but what do you care, little guinea pig, long as you get your payout.”
“Are you drunk?”
“My body is drunk. I’m just mean. What do you care? I’m out, sister. And you’re in, with a chance. Wouldn’t that be something if you won? Little girl from Africa.”
“It’s not a country.”
“Boo-hoo, sorry for you.”
“God brought me here.”
“Oh, that guy? He’s nothing but trouble. And He doesn’t exist.”
“You shouldn’t say that.”
“How do you know?”
“I can feel Him.”
“Can you still feel your legs?”
“Sometimes,” Pearl admits.
Siska leans forward and kisses her. “Did you feel anything?”
“No,” she says, wiping her mouth. But that’s not true. She felt her breath that burned with alcohol, and the softness of her lips and her flicking tongue, surprisingly warm for a dead girl.
“Yeah.” Siska breathes out. “Me neither.” She kisses her again. “News flash, Pearl Ni-tse-koh. There’s no God. There’s only us. You got a cigarette?”
13. Empty spaces
Lane five is empty and the stadium is buzzing with the news.
“Didn’t think they’d actually ban her,” Tomislav says. She can tell he’s hungover. He stinks of sweat and alcohol and there’s a crease in his forehead just above his nose that he keeps rubbing at. “Do you want to hear about the meeting? It was big. Bigger than we’d hoped for. If this comes off, kitten …”
“I want to concentrate on the race.” She is close to tears but she doesn’t know why.
“Okay. You should try to win. Really.”
The gun goes off. They tear down the track. Every step feels harder today. She didn’t get enough sleep.
She sees it happen, out of the corner of her eye. Oluchi’s tail swipes Charlotte, maybe on purpose.
“Shit,” Grange says and stumbles in her exo-suit. Suddenly everything comes crashing down on Pearl, hot metal and skin and a tangle of limbs and fire in her side.
“Get up,” Dr. Arturo yells into her head. She’s never heard him upset.
“Ow,” she manages. Charlotte is already getting to her feet. There is a loose flap of muscle hanging from her leg, where they tried to attach it this morning. The blonde girl touches it and hisses in pain, but her eyes are already focused on the finish line, on Oluchi skipping ahead, her tail swinging, Anna Murad straining behind her.
“Get up,” Dr. Arturo says. “You have to get up. I’m activating adrenaline. Pain blockers.”
She sits up. It’s hard to breathe. Her vest is wet. A grey nub of bone pokes out through her skin under her breast. Charlotte is limping away in her exo-suit, her leg dragging, gears whining.
“This is what they want to see,” Arturo urges. “You need to prove to them that it’s not hydraulics carrying you through.”
“It’s not,” Pearl gasps. The sound is somehow wet. Breathing through a snorkel in the bath when there is water trapped in the U-bend. The drones buzz around her. She can see her face big on the screen. Her mama is watching at home, the whole of the congregation.
“Then prove it. What are you here for?”
She starts walking, then jogging, clutching her top to the bit of rib to stop its jolting. Every step rips through her. And Pearl can feel things slipping inside. Her structural integrity has been compromised, she thinks. The abdominal mesh has ripped, and where her stomach used to be is a black hole that is tugging everything down. Her heart is slipping.
Ndincede nkosi, she thinks. Please, Jesus, help me. Ndincede nkosi undiphe Amandla. Please, God, give me strength. Yiba nam kolu gqatso. Be with me in this race.
She can feel it. The golden glow that starts in her chest, or if she is truthful with herself, lower down. In the pit of her stomach.
She sucks in her abdominals and presses her hand to her sternum to stop her heart from sliding down into her guts – where her guts used to be, where the hotbed factory sits.
God is with me, she thinks. What matters is you feel it.
Pearl Nitseko runs.
» read article
Courtesy of KR Publishing, read an excerpt from Swimming Upstream: A Story of Grit and Determination to Succeed, by Shirley Zinn.
Zinn’s story is one of determination, courage, and triumph over adversity. She was born and raised on the Cape Flats, but was determined that the typical story of a girl from that area – gangsterism, alcoholism and teenage pregnancy – would not be her story.
Instead, Zinn relentlessly pursued her goals and forged an impressive academic career before setting out to conquer the world of business.
Jonathan Jansen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State, calls Swimming Upstream “one of the most impressive autobiographies in recent years”.
“What makes this well-written book particularly relevant in the present,” Jansen says, “is that it draws attention to the role of nonmaterial resources in shaping the destiny of disadvantaged youth in circumstances where there was little money and even fewer opportunities.”
* * * * *
Read an excerpt from Swimming Upstream:
What it takes
There are a lot of misconceptions out there about what it takes to be a successful businesswoman, but I know from personal experience that it’s possible to conquer the boardroom in stilettos. It’s possible to crack that glass ceiling: set your sights high and aim for that apex. I refused to allow myself to be defined by the concept of a glass ceiling.
I’ve never assumed a particular persona, been something I’m not, said anything I don’t believe in, or said something I haven’t thought through properly. I’ve always been respectful of the views of others and I’ve never emulated male behaviour to get a few steps ahead. I have worked with men who believed in gender equity and that we need to build a society based on principles of equity and fairness together as men and women.
I love being a woman, and I celebrate my femininity in ways that work for me: I take great care with my make-up, I dress for the occasion, I try to make an impression when I walk in that I’m ‘all woman’. I see my femininity as a key strength, and I can only seek to be the best version of myself.
Women need to be allowed to be women; they need to be respected for who they are. We need to create a better South Africa – a better world – for all and we need to ensure that all are included: black, white, male and female. All of us must benefit from the democracy that we’re trying to build where men and women can flourish in an inclusive, fair and just society.
The spirit of our Constitution, of unity in diversity, isn’t about displacing any group of people. Neither is the spirit of ubuntu, and it certainly wasn’t Madiba’s vision that we do so. For me the philosophy around gender and equality is about creating inclusivity and an integrated society premised on the principles of democracy and a better life for all.
In my HR role, I realised that hiring diverse talent is one of the biggest challenges that leaders face today, given the global war for talent. The best mix and diversity of talent translates into diversity of thinking, optimal performance and provides organisations with a real, tangible, measurable competitive edge. Many organisations, however, simply don’t get the mix and diversity of talent right, but are happy to tick the boxes for the sake of compliance.
They also fail to harness and unleash the potential in their people by pigeonholing and boxing people in, or labelling them and telling them there are certain things they can and can’t do.
Individuals are also guilty of this by placing huge limitations on themselves, when they think they can only do so much. We sometimes think we need to be an Einstein to add value, but this really isn’t the case. Often, the little incremental things we do have a huge impact and there are many things that we have to do for the first time.
South Africa is desperately trying to grow its economy, and we need to harness the talent of every single person, male, female, white or black, to ensure that we’re effectively growing this country to compete in the global environment, in line with our national vision as expressed in the National Development Plan. Women constitute fifty-two percent of the population, and we simply cannot be dismissive of fifty-two percent of the talent in this country.
We need male and female leaders who can achieve this in both the public and private spheres. The more we can get the best and the brightest people into our organisations – irrespective of race and gender – the better.
Having said this, we still need to correct the past. We need to find a way to unlock economic liberation for people and find ways to harness the collective intellect of all people in this country. We must put them into positions of leadership and give them opportunities that they might never have had.
If we’re able to do this, South Africa will be a much better place, much sooner than if we spin our wheels and have endless debates that don’t go anywhere. Many of our debates about transformation are about compliance, tick boxes and numbers. We have lost the spirit of what we are really trying to achieve through economic empowerment.
As women, we also need to recognise the men who’ve made a difference in our lives. I’ve been fortunate to have had friends, colleagues, a husband and a father, including leaders like Tom Boardman and Pravin Gordhan, who’ve all displayed enormous generosity of spirit in allowing and enabling me to do the things that I’ve done. They’ve all supported me in a very real way.
I’ve always had great men around me. I intentionally surrounded myself all my life around good men. I subscribe fully to UNICEF’s definition of gender equality: “Gender equality means that women and men, boys and girls enjoy the same rights, resources, opportunities and protections … it does not require that they be treated exactly alike.”
I also subscribe to Wendy Harcourt’s views, expressed in the Report on World Commission on Culture and Development 1995: “The time is past when a women’s movement had to exclude men in the fight against patriarchy. The time has come rather for women’s vision to restructure and redefine work in order to fashion a new society for women and men based on women’s experience and skills as care-givers and reproducers.”
Some women actively seek out like-minded women: I’ve never done so. I draw on the strengths of everyone around me for moving the organisation forward and I try to take people along with me, even if we differ on some points.
Besides ticking the boxes from a legal and compliance point of view, research shows that where women are on boards and in senior executive positions, organisations have a better triple bottom line. I’ve always wanted my brain-power to work for me.
But while I believe that women play a huge role in board and senior management positions, I’m always very careful not to state emphatically what qualities women bring to the boardroom or to senior management. This can lead to stereotyping. You don’t want to see women defined by a cadre of leadership that does the soft stuff. You want to see women, together with men, being able to build a great organisation that is successful.
Women make a huge difference when they’re empowered to do what they need to do within the organisation. Smart organisations have worked this out. When you interpret this in a systematic and thoughtful way, you can realise results you never imagined possible.
It’s not always perfect, but as a general principle, in a world where talent is in such short supply at decision-making levels, you cannot possibly exclude half of your candidates. Women such as Oprah Winfrey, Gloria Serobe, Maria Ramos, and Graça Machel have stepped up even when they’ve had to stand alone. There are women on our own continent who’ve played a great role and have made a huge difference, not just to organisations, but to society. These women have to be celebrated.
It’s important to acknowledge that while we need to create gender equity in the workplace and in society as a whole, we still face many challenges and deep-seated prejudices. Women have been socialised to be subservient, so when women step up and want to have their voices heard they’re often seen to be too aggressive, too outspoken, and too pushy. Paternalistic behaviour is still very much alive and well.
We live our lives within a broader environment, within a society that has decided to structure and frame itself based on things that are acceptable, and things that aren’t. We have all kinds of unwritten rules and intangibles that sometimes play themselves out in the most horrific way in boardrooms and engagements in the workplace.
It’s also important to acknowledge that women are socialised as little girls to be polite, nice, subservient, co-operative and accommodating, so we sometimes struggle with the notion of being feminine and being ambitious at the same time. The challenge is that we have to compete in the world as it’s currently set up. We have to come to terms with personal ambition and not be defensive or apologetic about our aspirations.
I’m currently coaching a woman whose boss has told her that when she speaks out she’s too “aggressive”. He actually used that word in his brief to me. If it were a man speaking like this, it would be acceptable. When women do the same thing, however, they try to silence you or take you out, which is what they tried to do in this case.
Women often find themselves in this position because someone, perhaps even their boss, thinks they’re a little too confident. The confidence is identified as being ambition. It’s never a case of ‘she’s done her homework’, ‘she knows what she’s doing’, or ‘she has a point’ and she is a valued member of the team.
Many women suffer emotional abuse at work and at home, the fall-out being depression, anxiety and decreased morale. You can’t always choose your boss, but you don’t have to take abuse. You have the right to respectfully and professionally disagree, and to reserve your rights if needs be.
There are, however, many men who’ve understood this and who accept that equity is required. We need to recognise our common humanity as men and women, and that we need to co-exist and build a meaningful future together.
We need to engage men and women in the equality and mainstreaming dialogue; we also need to make men accountable for gender equity. This isn’t a women-only issue, but a societal and economic issue to make everyone financially sustainable and contribute to overall economic growth and prosperity.
South Africa is still without adequate representation of women in JSElisted corporations, reports the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa (BWASA) in the 2015 South African Women in Leadership Census. It is very concerning that only 8.79% of JSE-listed companies have twentyfive percent or more women directors (BWASA 2015). The research conducted also draws on international benchmarks and cites South Africa as a top performer amongst BRICS countries, with almost double the percentage of women directors, compared to its nearest competitor, China (at 11.1%).
There is a concern that although there are more women than men now graduating with degrees, women are still pursuing degrees in non-critical disciplines as per the country’s skills requirements. We are beneficiaries and guardians of our Bill of Rights and have a collective responsibility to ensure that all women benefit from this. We, both men and women in this country, have to continue to be activists for change and equality. The job is never really done, and we could regress if we take our eye off the ball.
We especially need to pay attention to rural development, as women in these environments have endured even further marginalisation economically and socially. Our big enemy is our history of gender inequality and social engineering. We are not confronting this sufficiently, and superficial, peripheral efforts will not be sustainable. We need to collectively drive systemic solutions that will permeate public policy, organisational practices and social responsibility to ensure that justice prevails.
We require a convergence of both public sector, private sector and civil society to focus on what will make South Africa great. We need to unify our nation around a single vision, and embrace the notion that social stability and national cohesion precede economic growth.
Our personal contributions to equality should not be underestimated. We are called upon in the South African National Development Plan to be “active citizens” and to make the changes in society that are enshrined in our Constitution. We need to shape the values and behaviours in our families, communities and society through dialogue, debate, education and personal accountability for change.
The fact is that life is harder for women than men all over the world. Society, in general, still engages in economic, social and political discrimination and inequities continue to pervade our life experiences. The lists of challenges and atrocities that women face as a result, are endless. Many of these have been documented, but for most women, their stories remain locked in the silence of prejudice and pain.
Even after twenty years of democracy in South Africa, the struggle for gender inequality continues. We need systemic solutions; we cannot simply leave it up to women to fix the societal ills of discrimination against women.
About the book
Shirley is a formidable woman with an amazing story to tell. She has risen to the top of the pile in both academic and business circles, and yet she has retained great humanity and empathy in the face of great personal tragedy.
Her story has lessons for us all – whether we are ordinary or extraordinary, whether we work in business, in government, or at home. Shirley’s story will inspire you and show you that it is possible to achieve your goals, if you are prepared to swim upstream and be single-minded in getting where you want to be.
About the author
Shirley Zinn, who holds an MEd from the University of the Western Cape and a DEd from Harvard, was awarded the Top Woman in Business and Government and Top Executive in Corporate South Africa by Topco Media in 2008. She was recognised by the Black Business Quarterly and received the award for Top Woman in Business and Government and most Visionary Woman in 2008.
Zinn served as HR Director for SARS, Nedbank and Standard Bank. She is currently the Chairperson of DHL: Global Forwarding SA, and a Non-Executive Director on the Boards of AdvTech, Tuesday Consulting, Business Engage, Sygnia Asset Management, and the Boston Consulting Group SA. She also serves on the Advisory Boards of Monash, African Society for Talent Development, and the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences. She is the President for the Harvard Alumni Association South Africa and a Fellow of the Institute of Directors SA.
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Jingle all the way – find the perfect bookish gift for every guest at your Christmas party!
Christmas is but a jingle bell away and many of us are yet to fill the stockings with our last-minute purchases from the Crazy Store.
We at Books LIVE believe that books are the perfect gift for any occasion and that even the most hardened book-heathen can be persuaded of our religion with the right edition in their hands.
No one has the brainpower to think this time of year, so we’ve compiled a list of books from 2015 for each individual guest at your festive dinner table (yes, even for that one uncle).
Not convinced? No problem. Read the excerpts from each book before you click the “purchase” button.
Happy Festive Season and oh, oh, oh – you’re welcome!
* * * * * * * *
For the Banting dissident
Death By Carbs by Paige Nick:
Not a day went by that Trevor didn’t wish he’d gone into bacon. People would always like bacon, wouldn’t they? Most of them, anyway. Not the Jews and Muslims of course, although some of them seemed to be coming around to it.
Earlier that morning, Trevor had considered the road paint business; people would always need road paint. Well, as long as there were roads. And before that, in the changing room at the gym, he’d eagerly considered the towel business (although he would definitely make them bigger, he thought – everybody made towels too small these days). There was also the running shoe business, and at this point, even the showerhead business seemed attractive. Surely those industries would be less stressful than the one he was in right now? Hell, working as head of public relations at Eskom would be less stressful.
It wasn’t even eight am yet, and Trevor had already weighed up at least ten different career alternatives to being the Managing Director of a company that manufactured bread, baked goods and snacks.
For the political satire junkie
Jimfish by Christopher Hope:
Spying an oddly coloured boy in the crowd, the President asked: ‘And what’s your group, young man?’
Jimfish did not hesitate: ‘I’m with the fish, sir. That’s my name and that’s my calling.’
The President was impressed. ‘Good for you, Jimfish. If we all stuck to our own school, shoal, tribe, troop and territory we’d be a lot happier. Those like Nelson Mandela, who oppose me, will stay in jail. There will be no mixing of the colours, no turning back and no going forward. In fact, no movement of any sort, not while I am in charge.’
Natives by Inongo Makome:
Ever punctual, Montse met Bambara Keita at the time they had agreed on. She drove him to Roser’s place, where she could see her friend waving from across the street. Montse told Bambara Keita that it was ok to get out of the car. As he obeyed her orders, she looked around to make sure that no one had seen their operation.
Bambara Keita went toward Roser. She walked ahead of him. When she got to her door she looked in both directions. When she saw that no one she knew was around, she gestured for the African to come along. She pressed the button for the elevator, but the light indicated they had to wait for the elevator as it descended from the top floor. Roser was nervous. She was afraid she would run into a neighbor.
Just as the elevator was about to arrive, the door to the street opened. Roser mumbled something that the African couldn’t understand. But he thought she was cursing her bad luck. He too was annoyed by the neighbor’s appearance.
For the connoisseur of local fiction
Rachel’s Blue by Zakes Mda:
Old hippies never die, an old song suggests, they just fade away. Actually, they just drif to Yellow Springs where they’ve become a haunting presence on the sidewalks and storefront benches. Some in discoloured tie-dyes, strumming battered guitars, wailing a Bob-Dylan-of-old for some change in the guitar case. Others just chewing the fat. Or giving curious passers-by toothless grins, while exhibiting works of art they have created from pine cones and found objects.
Jason de Klerk is too young to be one of the baby-boomer originals, though he puts a lot of eﬀort into looking like them. He was drawn to Yellow Springs after dropping out of high school, and in that town he fell under the spell ofa faded hippy called Big Flake Tomas with whom he busked at the public square or gigged at the Chindo Grille when no act with at least some regional proﬁle had been booked. The master’s fat ﬁngers strummed and plucked on an Appalachian dulcimer, while the acolyte furiously beat a conga drum, and then blew his didgeridoo.
The Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself by Penny Busetto:
She enters, takes her seat without looking at him, and closes her eyes. From outside the windows she can hear the sound of traffic and the uneven dripping of rain. A depressed, empty sound. He clears his throat. – Come sta? I hope you will be able to talk to me today. I am going to put the tape recorder on again. Just in case. He smiles, a thin-lipped smile that is not reflected in his eyes.
Her mind hears his words but she feels no need to respond. She can’t stop her ears from hearing, but she can block her reactions to the words. – Vede, Signorina, posso chiamarti Anna, vero? Vedi Anna, you are in a lot of trouble. You need to help us to help you. Devi parlare.
She opens her eyes but doesn’t look at him. She is aware of his eyes constantly on her, following her breathing, watching her every reaction, trying to get inside, to penetrate beneath the skin. – I’ve been looking at your folder. La cartella clinica. Very interesting. I’m interested in your childhood. Your parents, for instance. Your father.
The Reactive by Masande Ntshanga:
Lindanathi means wait with us. What I’m meant to be waiting for, or who I’m meant to be waiting with, I was never told. Ever since I could spell its ten letters out, I’ve been trying to make it shorter, into five. You can take that as a hint on what to call me if you want. Or not. Either way, it won’t make much of a difference to me.
That’s what my name is.
I’m Nathi, and of the three of us, I’m the one who’s supposed to be dying. In order to do as much standing around as I do, you need to be one of the forty million human beings currently infected with the immuno-deficiency virus. Then you need to stand at your friend’s computer and design a poster over his shoulder, one telling these people you’re here to help them. Then you need to provide them with your details – tell them you prefer email or sms – and then start selling them your pills.
What helps, of course, is to try to forget about it as much as possible. Which is what I do.
Maybe it’s this whole slavery thing, Cissie says.
What Will People Say: A Novel by Rehana Rossouw:
Kevin was waiting at the school gate when Nicky and Shirley strolled out arm in arm at the end of the school day. He stepped forward as they came near. “Greetings ladies, can I escort you today?”
Shirley giggled. “Of course you can, right Nicky?”
Nicky didn’t want Kevin walking with them. He was only after one thing. She hadn’t gone to the SRC meeting at second break; she was too busy sukkeling with Shirley’s problem. She still hadn’t found a solution. As she expected, it didn’t take long – two steps out of the gate and Kevin started on her.
“So Nicky, I was expecting to see you in the meeting this afternoon. There’s work to be done. We planning to bring the country to a stand still for the tenth anniversary of the ’76 uprising.”
What About Meera by ZP Dala:
He sat on a wooden chair in the garden underneath the hundred-year-old thorn tree. His daughter sat quietly breathing near him. The crickets began to sing love songs, the swallows that flew north for the winter now revelled in the December dusk and came home like obedient children to roost in their muddy homes. Not so far away, in the shacks, fires burned and their wood smoke brought a fragrance to the night. The dew had not even begun to fall yet.
He looked with a side glance at the wild-haired child he had fathered. She seemed lost in the world around her. As always, she sat with one foot dangling off the stool and one tucked underneath her. His limber, tiny-boned girl. The daughter he knew nothing about, knew not how to talk to. He knew only that his heart would always betray him in her tiny presence. The little place-shape she took in the big wide world.
‘The swallows came back, Papa,’ she commented, breaking the silence. He breathed out loud and wondered why this child was lingering around him tonight.
Boy on the Wire by Alastair Bruce:
Cape Road leads from the centre of Port Elizabeth, near the cricket ground, west into the suburbs. At the national road it branches south and the tarmac becomes narrower as it leads away from the city. The houses grow larger and are set further and further back from the road. Some are invisible behind the blue gum trees. If you follow this road for about twenty minutes, until after the streetlights end, you will come ﬁrst to a single-storey house, painted white, but now brown with dust. ere is a light on in the lounge of this house. Next door is a larger house, two storeys, built out of red-brick. This house is in darkness, save for a single light over the front door.
John Hyde sits in a chair in the bungalow. The patio door is open and the drawn curtains shift in the breeze.
There is a full moon. The moonlight gets in between the gap in the curtains and washes over Hyde’s face. The light seems to wipe his features away.
Notes From the Lost Property Department by Bridget Pitt:
Her phone is croaking again. Iris eyes it warily. She’d thought that a frog sound would be soothing, but the croak is somehow more ominous than the bicycle bell ringtone that she’d had before. She’d ignored the last call, but the caller is apparently not easily deterred. She snatches up the phone and silences its croak with her thumb. ‘Hello?’ she suggests, tentatively.
‘Hello? Hello? Is that Miss … uh Langley?’ The voice is loud, nasal and institutional, bringing to mind the rubber feet on walking aids, the chilly humiliation of a bedpan.
‘This is Sister Samson from Lavender Lodge Frail Care Facility. Is Mrs Grace Langley your mother?’
‘Yes … Yes, she is.’ Iris sounds doubtful, as if apprehensive about what complications owning this relationship might subject her to.
For the True Crime buff
Gruesome by De Wet Potgieter:
In 1994, shortly after South Africa’s first democratic elections of 1994, two AK-47 rifles were shoved into Sergeant ‘Pedro’ Peens’s hands, accompanied by the command ‘Get rid of these very quickly, or we shall hang’.
With the two ‘hot’ rifles in the boot of his police car, Peens was panic-struck. He knew full well he had dynamite in his hands. He pondered what to do with the weapons, his stomach tied up in knots while he paced restlessly trying to work out a strategy. He realised he was on his own now. He dared not ask for advice, as the politics in South Africa had become so dangerously fluid that no one could be trusted any longer.
Colonel Eugene de Kock, commander of the state-sanctioned death squads at Vlakplaas, had already been incarcerated and was awaiting trial, while policemen and members of the Civil Cooperation Bureau (CCB), the notorious covert unit operating under the South African Defence Force (SADF), had begun to sing like canaries backstage in an effort to save their own skins.
Grave Murder by Jana van der Merwe:
Late on Tuesday afternoon, the team studied the cellphone statements again. This time, Steyn offered to call the last number displayed on Michael’s phone, as if a different caller, much like a different gambler taking over an unlucky slot machine, could twist fate to their advantage.
‘Let’s hold thumbs,’ said Van Zyl.
‘Here goes,’ Steyn said as she punched in the number. It rang. She could not hide her elation as she mouthed and signalled the good news with a thumb’s up. On the spur of the moment, Steyn decided to pull an old trick she and Van Zyl had learnt from their good friend, the respected private investigator Leon Rossouw, from Bloemfontein. It was a trick that had worked time and again to lure possible suspects to the police.
For the spec-fic and sci-fi fans
The Raft by Fred Strydom:
Remember Jack Turning—
I fell out of my dream.
It took me a while to figure out where I was, where I had fallen asleep. It was the familiar scratch of sand beneath my clothing that first became apparent.
I sat up and looked towards the sun. It was sinking into the ocean, layering the sky in uneven smears of purple, yellow and red. The day was ending and I’d already spent most of it asleep, which meant I’d spend most of the night awake. Again.
“Do you know about the alp?”
The deep voice belonged to the large and swarthy man sitting beside me. Ropes of sun-bleached dreadlocks slung over his shoulders and down to the small of his back. His name was Gideon and he was as much of a friend as I could claim to have in that peculiar place. Still, I knew so little about him – where he’d been born, where he had originally lived, or what it was that he loved in this world. I didn’t even know his last name. All I knew was that he had been taken to the beach as I had, all those years ago, and that, like all of us there, he was a far and unconquerable distance from where he truly wished to be.
Terra Incognita edited by Nerine Dorman:
“How My Father Became a God” by Dilman Dila
My father was a god, though he looked like any other old man. He had a thick white beard, and a bald head with tufts of hair above his ears. He had no wrinkles. His ribs showed. His gait was slow, shuffling. He always wore large, green earrings, a rainbow-coloured necklace, and a black goatskin loincloth. He looked ordinary, but I knew he was a god. This was confirmed the day he showed me the egg-shaped thing. The object stood on two, bird-like legs that were taller than he was, and it had a pair of wings that were so large my father must have skinned twenty cows to make them. I wondered where he got the hide, for he had no wealth to buy cattle.
“It’s buffalo skin,” he said. “You don’t hunt,” I said.
“I paid a hunter.”
I frowned, but was too courteous to ask how he had paid the hunter. He was so poor he could not afford to buy a chicken.
“I sold him a trap,” he said.
Why You Were Taken by by JT Lawrence:
A well-built man in grimy blue overalls waits outside the front door of a Mr Edward Blanco, number 28, Rosebank Heights. He is on a short stepladder, and is pretending to fix the corridor ceiling light, the bulb of which he had unscrewed the day before, causing the old lady at the end of the passage to call general maintenance, the number which he had temporarily diverted to himself.
He would smirk, but he took himself too seriously. People in his occupation were often thought of as little brain-to-brawn ratio, but in his case it wasn’t true. You had to be clever to survive in this game, to stay out of the Crim Colonies.
Clever, and vigilant, he thinks, as he hears someone climbing the stairs behind him and holds an impotent screwdriver up to an already tightened screw. The unseen person doesn’t stop at his landing but keeps ascending.
Tracer by Rob Boffard:
Seven years ago
The ship is breaking up around them.
The hull is twisting and creaking, like it’s trying to tear away from the heat of re-entry. The outer panels are snapping off, hurtling past the cockpit viewports, black blurs against a dull orange glow.
The ship’s second-in-command, Singh, is tearing at her seat straps, as if getting loose will be enough to save her. She’s yelling at the captain, seated beside her, but he pays her no attention. The flight deck below them is a sea of flashing red, the crew spinning in their chairs, hunting for something, anything they can use.
Under Ground by SL Grey:
All morning I’ve been cleaning the condo, wiping down every surface with disinfectant, vacuuming the carpets and the upholstery and the purposeless drapes. There’re no windows down here, no natural light. Behind the curtains are just screens with moving photos: a forest scene in one frame, a snowy mountain, a tropical beach right next to it. They make me feel nauseous.
And built-in closets everywhere.
Thick, crisp sheets and built-in closets. This condo is so luxurious, I should feel happy, like we’re on some sort of dream vacation, but I’m hating it already. I wish we could just go back home. I wish Daddy had never bought this place.
For the poetry aficionados
Haiku for Africa by Marié Heese, illustrated by Edith Bukani:
In Haiku for Africa, Heese focuses on Africa and the African landscape, which lends a new dimension to this ancient Japanese art form.
Beautifully illustrated by Grahamstown-based artist Edith Bukani, the latest edition of Haiku for Africa comes complete with an audio CD, read by Natalia Molebatsi.
Listen to five poems from Haiku for Africa, performed by Molebatsi:
Chants of Freedom: Poems Written in Exile by Mathews Phosa:
Boys and girls are back
Humbly claim your victory, boys and girls are back,
looking into a treacherous tomorrow, this is your time,
to make or to break.
Give us the spirit,
we need a virile soul, give us a vision,
we need a tank of ideas.
Choose your side, you can’t be both and everything,
to fish and swines.
Bilakhulu!: Longer Poems by Vonani Bila:
I was born in 1972
Where Mudzwiriti River swelled over roads and boulders
But nothing green grew in Gazankulu Bantustan
Even plants and trees and shrubs
Even the animals and birds and reptiles
Even the mountains and lakes and streams
Felt the pain of apartheid war
I still live here in the backwoods
With the common people
Warming ourselves around bonfires
I’ve slept in grand sky-scraping hotels
And villas of the world’s jaw-dropping cities –
My name is inscribed in books, postcards, newspapers, zines and films
But I’ve never been active on Facebook or Twitter
When I finally sleep
I want to be folded neatly
Planted into a family cemetery
Head facing east
Please my children, don’t pile up goods on the grave
The rain will wash my memory away
The sun will dry them and wild fire will burn me to ashes
Please my children, don’t be foolish and chop the trees
I planted with passion
They’re your future oxygen, bread and soup
A Writer’s Diary by Stephen Watson:
It is, I think, in that sense that A Writer’s Diary is more than just a scrupulous examination of the abiding preoccupations of one of contemporary South Africa’s most eminent English-language poets, essayists and critics – arguably the most observant, humane, and digressive of his generation. For Stephen Watson’s insights into language, culture, landscape, ideologies, writers, painters, politics, society, and the baffling nature of the human condition nail his colours to the mast. In this, his small volume is also a manifesto. As an approach to life as an intellectually serious business, it presents a rich and engaging range of beliefs which fan out from a primary impulse. That impulse is to grasp at the heart of the matter, with unsparing candour.
DLP Yali-Manisi: Limbali Zamanyange: Historical Poems edited by Jeff Opland and Pamela Maseko:
In his poetry David Manisi sought lessons from the past in an effort to sustain the will to resist. The struggle might deploy different weapons: he valorised education, for example, associating it with celestial imagery, and offered it as a tool to redress the imbalances between black and white in South Africa. Whether or not the tools are peaceful, the struggle remains militant. In “Imfazwe kaMlanjeni”, Manisi heaps scorn on those who take no part in the conflict, who seek to preserve their own skins ignoring the needs of the nation. In Canto IV the warriors exhort each other:
Masife siphele madun’ akowethu.
Ofa ngozuko ngofel’ into yakhe,
Adunyiswe naxa selele kooyise.
Ngamagwal’ ancama konk’ okwawo,
Afe kaninzi kungafikang’ ukufa,
Af’ engenzanga nto kub’ akanto,
Okwawo kukuty’ ahluth’ alale.
For the history fundi
Wine, Women and Good Hope: A history of scandalous behaviour in the Cape by June McKinnon:
The dawn of the twentieth century brought the start of a new era for the Cape of Good Hope. Tensions that had built up in the preceding century between the British and the Boers finally came to a head with the Second Anglo-Boer War, fought from 1899 to 1902. The war cast a shadow on the country for over two years, and its effect on both the individual and shared lives of the inhabitants of the Boer republics and British colonies would change the course of South African history.
In the Cape, the war generated an influx of immigrants who would help to alter the social dynamics of the region. Although their arrival did have an impact on some of its broader societal issues, including the politics and conflicts in the colony, it also had social consequences that could be viewed as less grand or epic than what is usually associated with war. While many things changed, many other things stayed the same. And in regard to the high jinks that had plagued the Cape for nearly three centuries, the Anglo-Boer War had no less of an influence in diminishing their seedier aspects than any other major event occurring in its history. Indeed, you could say that the war brought this out in full force.
Recce by Koos Stadler:
In the 1980s many rumours did the rounds about the Recces. Because of the secretive nature of Special Forces training and operations, little was known about the units. Whatever was written about the Recces in the media was often distorted or misquoted. One Afrikaans magazine in particular had a penchant for Recce stories. An article I kept for many years portrayed the South African Special Forces soldier as a silent killing machine, programmed to sneak into enemy bases to slit the guards’ throats prior to an attack. We were depicted as superhuman warriors, fighting the enemies of our country.
I experienced first-hand the effect of someone taking these crazy stories too seriously. While on a visit to my folks in Upington, I picked up a lonely hitchhiker close to Vryburg, in what is today the Northern Cape. As soon as the guy got in I sensed from his body odour and scruffy clothes that he was one of the so-called knights of the road, vagrants who travel from town to town, making a living from benefactors and travellers who provide food and drink along the way.
A History of South Africa: From Past to Present by Fransjohan Pretorius:
What was apartheid?
The first time that the term apartheid appeared in print appears to have been in a pamphlet issued at a conference on the missionary endeavours of the NG Church in Kroonstad in 1929. It was used in the speech delivered by the Rev. JC du Plessis of Bethlehem. In Die Burger it was first seen in 1943 in a leading article. At about this time Dr DF Malan, leader of the NP, began to use the term in Parliament to differentiate his party’s policy from the segregation plan of the ruling United Party (UP).
During the premierships of Generals JBM Hertzog and Jan Smuts, South Africa was a segregated society. Black people had extremely limited political rights, schools and residential areas were segregated, the pass law was enforced to keep black people out of the cities, and there were separate sport and recreation facilities. On the other hand, during Smuts’s second term as prime minister (1939–1948) there was an increase in the variety of social services available to black people and the level of these services was improved. Furthermore, virtually every government report, especially the report of the Fagan Commission in 1948, recommended that black people’s permanent residence in the cities should be officially recognised. However, the NP was determined to curb this line of reasoning and to extend and enforce the separation between white and black people.
Eden’s Exiles by Jan Breytenbach:
During a century or more of intensive exploration by persistent adventurers of awesome stature, Africa – known as the dark continent because of its hidden secrets and treasures – slowly be came exposed.
Livingstone, Stanley, Selous, Speke and others opened up the continent for missionaries, hunters, traders and European farmers. Only a few uncharted corners remained where the white man’s foot had hardly trod because the cost of exploitation would be prohibitive both in money and in human life.
These areas became the last sanctuaries for the remnants of a profusion of wildlife that once roamed the African plains, forests and swamps. A harsh climate, remoteness and the tsetse fly formed a formidable defensive barrier which could not be breached by greedy man bent on wielding his non-selective rifle and willful destroying the last vestiges of a treasure which he, impoverished in spirit, failed to acknowledge as vital to his own continued existence on planet Earth.
For the revolutionary
Antjie Krog and the Post-Apartheid Public Sphere: Speaking Poetry to Power by Anthea Garman:
To understand more about this situation, I focus on one particular public figure in South Africa, Antjie Krog, the poet, journalist and book author, in order to unpick how the platform to speak in public is created and crafted. A focus on one seemingly anomalous public person, her biography, works, media coverage and trajectory illuminates the factors that constitute the making of such a public persona. Krog continues to speak into the post-apartheid South African public sphere when racial markers of identity, history and experience that attach to the person speaking remain powerfully in place in all spaces of dialogue, so that who talks for whom on what issues are very important but fraught factors.
‘Public sphere’ is a useful – but sometimes limiting – term for a shifting and liminal space in the world in which an abundant range of practices occur that are difficult to grasp in a comprehensive and detailed way. However, some recent work allows me to sketch some suggestive markers of the domain that give a sense of the major concerns, shape, spaces and guiding practices of the post-apartheid (yet still transitional) public sphere.
Africa Uprising: Popular Protest and Political Change by Adam Branch and Zachariah Mampilly:
From multiple directions, crowds converged on Burkina Faso’s National Assembly on 30 October 2014. For days, massive protests of tens or even hundreds of thousands had mounted against President Blaise Compaoré’s effort to push a constitutional amendment through parliament that would allow him a third term. Finally, frustrated at the lack of response from the government, thousands of protesters smashed their way into the parliament compound, setting ablaze vehicles and ransacking the building. Soon, flames flickered up the sides of the white-tiled structure as soldiers stood by and watched. Other government buildings were soon burning, and, despite the military’s attempt to put down the uprising, Compaoré had no choice but to announce his resignation on the following day.
A new wave of protest is sweeping across Africa today. The multiparty regimes and neoliberal economies that emerged from the upheavals of the late 1980s and early 1990s have proved unable to meet popular aspirations for fundamental change. Starting in the late 2000s, what we identify as the third wave of African protest has posed dramatic challenges to the established order in over forty countries across the continent.
Creating Africas: Struggles Over Nature, Conservation and Land by Knut G Nustad:
For centuries the Umfolozi River has been washing down silt, creating a river delta with extremely rich soil on its way to the Indian Ocean. The flats, covered in bush, stretch all the way to the ocean in the east and are met by a subtropical forest to the north. Between the forest, the river and the sea lies one of Africa’s largest estuaries.
It is teeming with wildlife — hippos, crocodiles, elephants and other animals are here in abundance. Africans had been using the forest and the area as hunting grounds and as a place to hide during conflicts as the impenetrability of the forest made it hard to traverse. For a long time the forest and the flats were protected from white hunters as well because malaria made travelling here extremely difficult. But at the beginning of the twentieth century the potential of the area as agricultural land was realised, and a heroic effort to make the land suitable for sugar cane production began.
Reporting from the Frontline: Untold Stories from Marikana by Gia Nicolaides:
It was Thursday 23 August, exactly a week since the shooting. There was a strange atmosphere in Marikana. Death still hung in the air. The community, particularly the women, were grieving. At the same time the men were more determined than ever to continue with the strike. Over the past few days the miners continued meeting on the koppie, but they didn’t stay there very long. As soon as they had a large enough crowd, they would start marching towards the mining shafts. They would sing and dance and then all drop to the ground and sing in hushed tones before standing up again and moving forward. Doing this, it took them several hours to get to each of the shafts. Their motive was to ensure that no one else was working.
They gathered outside the shafts and a few of them would storm in and chase away anyone who was seen to be working. They even went as far as throwing stones and bricks at those who were found inside. The shooting had also attracted more media attention and several well-known international reporters had arrived in Marikana. One of them was Alex Crawford from Sky News. On a quiet afternoon when the miners had retreated to their shacks she interviewed me on the koppie. I was surprised that she wanted to speak to me. Alex had told me she had been listening to my radio reports and wanted to get a more in-depth view of what had happened. I had watched her television reports for many years and had always considered her a veteran journalist. It was quite an honour to discuss such a relevant story with her.
For the thrill seeker
The Score by HJ Golakai:
Vee flipped a hand for silence, frowning over the document open on the flatscreen. It was all over the place. Jumbled, wordy in the wrong places, the punch sucked out of it. The online team were a pack of butchers – why else would every thing of beauty that passed through their feral mitts come out the other end looking, sounding if that were possible, like a mangled carcass?
Prose was doomed to play the ugly stepchild to graphics in their world, as if readers only visited the digital page to look at pretty pictures. She chopped a few limp lines off the third paragraph, thought better of it and deleted it completely. “Dammit!” she threw her hands up. “What’ve you done?”
“This,” Darren Februarie tapped the screen, “is a masterpiece.”
“This is shit spattered on a bathroom wall, that’s how readable it is.” She readjusted her chair. “Last time I give you anything for comments.”
Hour of Darkness by Michéle Rowe:
Fred sat in his car and watched the lights go off in the houses on the street. One by one. He checked his dashboard clock. Eight p.m. exactly. Then the light in his house went off. Natasha would take something like Earth Hour seriously. She’d got some weird ideas in her head. He didn’t mind. It was best to do what everyone else in this neighbourhood did, and not stand out in any way.
The house looked unlived-in from the outside: a seventies, split-level affair with wood and slasto details. Only a rental, as impermanent as every other place Fred Splinters had occupied. He deserved something better by now. It gave him a sour taste in his mouth to think he might be a failure. It was not a good thought, not a helpful thought. Why had Natasha insisted on this area? She liked the ‘ordinariness’, she’d said, that she could walk to the shops. However, it was also close to Diep River Police Station, only four blocks away, which did not suit Fred at all. He preferred to give the law a wide berth. He clicked the gate remote. The metal gate shuddered, partially opened, and then stuck.
For the moody foodie
Recipes for Love and Murder: A Tannie Maria Mystery by Sally Andrew:
Isn’t life funny? You know, how one thing leads to another in a way you just don’t expect.
That Sunday morning, I was in my kitchen stirring my apricot jam in the cast-iron pot. It was another dry summer’s day in the Klein Karoo, and I was glad for the breeze coming in the window.
“You smell lovely,” I told the appelkooskonfyt.
When I call it apricot “jam” it sounds like something in a tin from the Spar, but when it’s konfyt, you know it’s made in a kitchen. My mother was Afrikaans and my father was English and the languages are mixed up inside me. I taste in Afrikaans and argue in English, but if I swear I go back to Afrikaans again.
Cooked Up: Food Fiction from Around the World by Ben Okri and Mukoma wa Ngugi, edited by Elaine Chiew:
When my friend Daniel Chan confided in me that Jennifer was leaving him because he was washing his wok with soap, I laughed till I started to wheeze.
And when I came up for air it was to use the little psychology I knew to assure him he was obviously displacing. Jennifer could have left him for any number of reasons – he was too short, had a missing front tooth, and even though only in his mid-twenties, was already balding. To his credit he was an excellent chef, but he was considered a bit eccentric because he exercised, which is to say he ran a mile every other day. To all this Chan promptly responded, ‘Fuck off.’
The more I thought about it, the more improbable it seemed – that in a culinary school in a small town in Kenya called Limuru, a soap-washed but clean-rinsed wok could come between two lovers from China, and leave the man ostracized from both his community and his adopted society
For the nature nut
The Alphabet of Birds by SJ Naudé:
Shortly before his mother’s death he sees her naked for the first time in his life.
He enters the bedroom. The bathroom door has been left open, in case she should fall or lose consciousness. It frames her: the body shapeless, the small towel she quickly presses against herself too small to cover her lower abdomen. Each pubic hair with a drop of clear water clinging to the tip. They both look away. Later they pretend it never happened.
Let’s first go back in time, a few months, to where he is standing, halfway down the cellar stairs, looking up at Joschka. Joschka is hesitant, calling him back, a large old-fashioned key in his hand. They are staying at Joschka’s brother-in-law’s castle, Burg Heimhof, in the Oberpfalz, not far from Nuremberg.
Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes:
Mossie was standing under the tree outside the Lion House, as he knew she would be. She drifted over to him like smoke settling on his clothes, his skin. He remembered his mother’s musty odour: cigarettes and sweat and sweet eastern scent.
Con was a little out of breath, and the sweat felt chill on his skin. He’d walked, fast, all across the city from the hospital, jogging at times. It had taken a while; the day had faded, the sky growing soft and purple as a lake, and the cars switching on their pilot lights, approaching white and receding red, as he crossed their glittering wakes.
It was not intentional; not a route he’d plotted or planned. It was just where the walking had taken him: not back to Elyse’s flat, but up, back up again to the blue-green mountain.
For the young at heart
The Last Road Trip by Gareth Crocker:
Within hours of the funeral, Jack was back in the water. As usual, he had lost count of how many laps he had done. Given how long he had been in the pool, he knew it had to be a reasonable number. At the age of seventy-one, it surprised him that he was still capable of swimming prodigious distances – more so than he ever imagined possible at this stage of his life. Not that feats of endurance mattered much to him these days.
However, intrigued to see just what he was capable of, he had recently decided to test himself and had embarked on a swim with no end goal in mind. When boredom, rather than muscle fatigue, had brought a premature end to the experiment, he was astounded to learn from his friend, Sam – who was sitting poolside and counting diligently – that he had managed a rather remarkable 238 lengths. The equivalent, almost, of six kilometres. Still, it meant little to him. He was no longer obsessed with fitness the way he once was. The competitive urge that used to gush through his veins – that drove him to swim internationally for a time – had long since left him. He swam now because it was a form of escape and he still savoured the sensation of cutting through the crisp blue water, the comforting rhythm and solitude of it all. It was also the one place where he allowed himself to think about those things that, outside of the water, he knew were better left alone. More than anything, swimming was his way of connecting back to Grace.
For that one uncle
A Bantu in My Bathroom by Eusebius McKaiser:
A good friend of mine, Seth, confessed to me many years after we first met that he had a rather horrible thought the first time he saw me. He walked into my philosophy tutorial at the beginning of his university career and when he realised that I was the tutor, he thought, ‘Oh dear, my luck to be assigned the incompetent black tutor.’ That is the sort of confession one can only trot out if your friendship is more solid than the skull of a politician. I chuckled, and we laughed it off over a pint of lager – or three.
We didn’t need to analyse the confession. It was obvious what was going on: my skin colour was assumed to be carrying information about me. And in this case, my black skin carried the warning, ‘incompetent!’ The onus was on me to disprove the assumption. Only white tutors could be assumed to be competent unless proven to be useless. It was the other way round for black tutors.
Could I Vote DA?: A Voter’s Dilemma by Eusebius McKaiser:
To be honest I feel sorry for Helen Zille sometimes. Especially as leader of the DA she must feel a bit like she’s stuck in the Hotel California: you can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave. There is no one who can currently replace her, and so even though she has been willing to step down as party leader, senior leaders would have none of it, including some of those who do not always agree with all of her strategic calls.
Let me start by being blunt about my take on Helen Zille. I think Helen Zille is a +god leader. She was the perfect person to build an excellent foundation for the DA in the post-Leon years. In fact, I would go a step further and suggest that she hasn’t yet been given adequate recognition within the party and within our political landscape for her role in opposition politics.
But, she’d be the wrong person to lead the party beyond 2012. It goes without saying it is too late for her to be ditched ahead of the 2012 elections. But soon after the 2012 elections the DA must search for a new leader.
- A Bantu in My Bathroom: Debating Race, Sexuality and Other Uncomfortable South African Topics by Eusebius McKaiser
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Image courtesy of I Am Second
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Why does incorrect punctuation make people so angry?
World renowned linguistics authority David Crystal says the supposed “innovations” brought about by texting and social media – abbreviations, omitted letters, ideograms, nonstandard spellings – have been part of the English language for centuries.
Crystal is the author, co-author, or editor of more than a hundred books about language, the latest being Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation.
The book examines the history of punctuation from 500 AD and the use of “camel case” in Old English ToMarkTheBeginningsOfNewWords, to Jay Z’s decision to drop the hyphen from his name.
Ed’s note: “The big thing about language is that it always changes,” Crystal tells The New Yorker, and this is my continual mental reply to internet pedants. At the same time, I was relieved to discover that the book is only titled Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation in the US: that “s” in “persnickety” almost gave me hives.
Read an interview with Crystal from The New Yorker:
“There are two extreme views about punctuation,” he writes, “the first is that you dont actually need it because its perfectly possible to write down what you want to say without any punctuation marks or capital letters and people can still read it youdontevenneedspacesbetweenwordsreally.” The second view is that punctuation is essential, not only to avoid ambiguity but also because it “shows our identity as educated people.” Crystal walks the reader through the history of punctuation, from scriptura continua—that is, words written without spaces between them—to the more punctuated present. In Old English manuscripts, punctuation is idiosyncratic; to denote word divisions, writers tried a variety of strategies: dots, spaces, “camel case” (that is, using capital letters rather than spaces ToMarkTheBeginningsOfNewWords). Then the rise of printing created the demand for a standardized system.
Read an excerpt from Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation
Word-spaces are the norm today; but it wasn’t always so. It’s not difficult to see why. We don’t actually need them to understand language. We don’t use them when we speak, and fluent readers don’t put pauses between words as they read aloud. Read this paragraph out loud, and you’ll probably pause at the commas and full stops, but you won’t pause between the words. They run together. So, if we think of writing purely as a way of putting speech down on paper, there’s no reason to think of separating the words by spaces. And that seems to be how early writers thought, for unspaced text (often called, in Latin, scriptura continua) came to be a major feature of early Western writing, in both Greek and Latin. From the first century AD we find most texts throughout the Roman Empire without words being separated at all. It was thus only natural for missionaries to introduce unspaced writing when they arrived in England.
Writing in antiquity was viewed by most people as a guide to reading aloud. Today, we tend to read silently, privately, rapidly. We can skim through text if we wish, omitting portions. In early Greek and Roman civilization, people routinely read aloud to audiences in displays of oratory, every syllable was valued, and eloquence was highly rated. No skimming then. A text would have been well prepared before being read in public, so that it became more like a musical score, reminding the reader what to say next. In such circumstances, experienced readers wouldn’t need word-spaces or other marks. Some influential writers, indeed, poured scorn on punctuation. Cicero, for example, thought that the rhythm of a well-written sentence was enough to tell someone how to bring it to an effective close. Punctuation marks were unnecessary.
But without punctuation of any kind, readers would have to do their homework to avoid unexpected miscues. We would have to do our homework too, if we had no word-spacing today. Faced with the sentence
we need to know if this is a text about sex crimes or about speech pathology before we can correctly read it aloud. Early writers on oratory and rhetoric, such as Aristotle and Quintilian, often illustrated the dangers of misreading an unpunctuated text, and stressed the need for good preparation. Familiarity, they hoped, would breed content.
We can carry out an experiment to show how familiarity with a text helps our reading of it, even if it is unspaced. Take a text you know well, and write it down without word-spaces, then try reading it aloud. Like this:
Our knowledge of the content enables us to read it quickly. But with a bit more effort we can do this even if we don’t know the text in advance. In fact, this is something we’re increasingly doing these days, as a result of the Internet. Domain names don’t use word-spaces. Consider the following addresses:
It may take us a millisecond or two longer to read these strings, but we can do it. Scriptura continua is back!
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This Fiction Friday, read an excerpt from the much-anticipated debut novel from Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Season of Crimson Blossoms.
Abubakar’s novel was launched in Abuja, Nigeria, on 25 November, where it sold out.
Ibrahim’s first book was a short story collection, The Whispering Trees, published in 2012. The titular story was longlisted for the inaugural Etisalat Prize for Literature and shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing. You can read “The Whispering Trees” here.
Abubakar was also included on the Hay Festival’s Africa39 list; the most promising 39 authors under the age of 40 from Sub-Saharan Africa and the diaspora.
Season of Crimson Blossoms is his first novel, published by Cassava Republic Press and Parrésia Publishers. It was released in the same month as his friend and fellow Nigerian Elnathan John’s debut novel, Born on a Tuesday.
Abubakar was a judge of the 2015 Short Story Day African competition, and he chatted to SSDA organiser Tiah Beautement about writing, reading, and African literature:
Tiah: What would you like to see change in the African literary landscape?
Abubakar: I would like to see more intra-continent engagement and better utilization of the literary space. I would like to see Africans reading more African writers. I would like to see South African and Kenyan books in Nigerian bookshops, I would like to see Nigerian books in Tanzania and Uganda. I want to read Ghanaian books in Abuja. I want to see better engagement between Anglophone and Francophone Africa, with more translations across the two divides. It is a shame that Togo is just next door and I have absolutely no idea what the literary landscape looks like over there. I want this to change.
Read an excerpt from Season of Crimson Blossoms:
Binta had noted Mallam Haruna’s unease right from when he offered to stand guard over her and wave away the midges tormenting her with the tail of his kaftan. He had backed down immediately when he saw the shocked expression on her face. Then he had spent five minutes trying to tell her how important it was for a man to protect the woman he loved from ‘all enemies’.
That was how he got talking about scorpions and how he had been stung three times in the past. He punctuated his gory tale of feverish nights fighting off the venom with little nervous chortles.
Then he had attempted to mount his cap on her head, right on top of her hijab. It was so unheralded that she had wanted to flee.
‘Is there something wrong with you this evening?’
‘Oh no, not at all. Just wondering what you would look like with my cap on you.’
She gaped at him, as if she had somehow contrived to see through his skull and discovered that his cranium was packed full of semi-deflated balloons.
He seemed oblivious to her stare. ‘You know I am the best cap washerman in this corner of the world, wallahi.’
He went into a fractured narrative about how he had learned how to wash caps in Maiduguri when he had been an almajiri and how he had married his first wife as ladan noma.
Binta’s mind drifted. She wondered what she could do to get rid of Hureira since her husband had refused to come for her. She contemplated several possibilities, none of them practical, and concluded that other than escorting Hureira back to her own house, she had no choice but to accept that her daughter might end up permanently stationed in Fa’iza’s room, while her matrimonial home in Jos collected the harmattan dust.
When her mind wandered back, Mallam Haruna was talking about his third or fourth son making a living driving a white man around Port Harcourt, and how he had been in an accident and now limped like a three-legged dog.
She felt his hand on her shoulder, a light slap at first and then the hand slid down just a bit.
‘Mosquito,’ he grinned.
The cat meowed, almost half-heartedly. It used its front paw to wipe its head, took several steps and then bounded off the fence, into Mama Efe’s side of the wall.
Mallam Haruna launched into yet another disjointed narrative on how best to deal with the pestilence of mosquitoes using dried orange rinds sprinkled on embers. Then he reached out and slapped another mosquito on her back and yet again, his hand tarried.
She regarded him with a frown. ‘Mallam Haruna, yaya dai?’
‘Nothing, nothing,’ he laughed, uneasily. ‘Perhaps we could meet somewhere else.’
‘Well,’ he lowered his voice, ‘well, we could just go somewhere else, you know, just get to know each other better.’
‘What do you mean?’
He was unsettled by the bluntness of her tone. ‘Well, you know, I was just saying we could go somewhere private, you know—’
He turned on his radio and fiddled with the knob, sweeping past stations.
She said nothing, only watched him search for a discernible voice in the sea of static. He switched the radio off just as suddenly as he had turned it on.
‘So, what do you say?’
‘You know, what I said, about going somewhere.’
‘What do you have to say that you can’t say here?’
‘Well, we could go to Mr Biggs, or Mama Cass or La Crème, one of these fancy places, you know.’
‘I am not hungry.’
‘Well, I don’t mean now, of course, silly. Perhaps tomorrow.’
‘I have a kitchen and a store full of food. If I’m hungry, I know how to cook.’
He laughed, ‘Binta ke nan. Why are you being difficult?’ It came out as a statement.
‘Mallam, I am not going anywhere with you. I am not a young girl to be gallivanting about.’
He lowered his head and sighed. He switched on the radio again and began fiddling with the knob absently.
‘Switch it off, dan Allah.’
He put the radio by his side and then picked it up again. Then he removed his cap and scratched his scalp. Finally, he said he was leaving and they stood up.
She shook her hijab. ‘Sai da safe.’
‘Binta,’ he called as she made to leave. ‘Perhaps, you know, we could go to a hotel, you and I—’
Watch a video interview with the author:
Author Abubakar Adam Ibrahim talks about: his first novel Season of Crimson Blossoms about an older widow wanting to explore her sexual side in Northern Nigeria; how the North of Nigeria is seen in fiction; and the author as a writer of “human stories”.
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About the book
“A rich and vibrant novel with shades of brutality, romance and the pressures of a close knit community.” – Leila Aboulela, author of The Kindness of Enemies
“A haunting story of forbidden love trying to survive in the midst of social and political violence; of obligation versus personal freedom; of desire and death. Vivid characters, good dialogues and a strong sense of location are the perfect ingredients.” – Veronique Tadjo, author of As the Crow Flies
“A powerful and compelling debut. The taboo subject of an older woman’s sexuality, portrayed with courage, skill and delicacy, is explored in the context of the criminal underworld and the corrupt politics that exploits it. Thus, elegantly, and with compassion for the powerless, Ibrahim gives us unique insight into contemporary Nigerian society. This is a novel to be savoured.” – Zoë Wicomb, author of October
In conservative Northern Nigeria, the salacious affair between 55-year-old widow Binta Zubairu and a 26-year-old weed dealer and political thug with the very unusual name Hassan ‘Reza’ is bound to cause more than a ripple.
Brought together by some unusual circumstances, both see a need only each other could satisfy. Binta, who before the encounter, is reconciling herself with God, has the need to unshackle herself from the sexual repression that characterised her marriage, and a deprivation that typified her widowhood. But beyond that, there is her desire to redeem herself for the loss of her first son, whose tragic death haunts her still.
And so when the thug, Reza, whose real name not many people remember, arrives with a heart emptied by the absence of a mother who abandoned him when he was months old, and rekindles Binta’s passions, they strike it off.
As word of his unwholesome liaison with the widow Binta spreads and draws condemnation and social ostracisation for Binta, things get to a head when Binta’s rich son confronts the thug with disastrous consequence.
Set in the predominantly Muslim north of Nigeria, this story of relationships, and the lack of it, unfurls gently, revealing layers of human emotions and desires.
About the author
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim was born in Jos, Nigeria and grew up wanting to tell stories by any means possible, including self-drawn comics. Eventually he started writing and published his debut short story collection, The Whispering Trees (Parresia Publishers, Lagos, 2012) to critical acclaim. It was longlisted for the inaugural Etisalat Prize for Literature and shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing.
Abubakar has won the BBC African Performance Playwriting Competition in 2007, the Amatu Braide Prize for Prose in 2008 and is a 2013 Gabriel Garcia Marquez Fellow and a 2015 Civitella Ranieri Fellow. He is included in the Hay Festival’s Africa 39 List of the 39 most promising African Writers under the age of 40. Season of Crimson Blossoms is his first novel.
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Read an excerpt from Valley of Victory: A True Story of Trials, Tribulations and Triumphs by Val Rankin Prinsloo.
In Valley of Victory, Prinsloo describes her life with bipolar mood disorder, shares her experiences and discusses psychosocial disabilities in the workplace.
In the excerpt below, Prinsloo describes the emotional experiences that led to her re-uniting with her childhood friend Khanyisile.
About the book
Val is a girl raised in apartheid South Africa.
Her family is financially well-off, there is an abundance of everything except harmony.
As a child, she is hurt, as a teen insulted, and as a woman, abused and discarded. Haunted by her extreme obesity, Val slips into a world of reckless debauchery and alcoholism and substance abuse of all kinds. All other kinds discord ran like wild fire through her life in much the same destructive manner.
Is there hope for her? Can she redeem herself? The only soul she can turn to is her childhood friend, a local servant girl. Can her friend guide and mentor her, and eventually pull her out of her bottomless pit of despair?
With an epic sweep that spans well over forty years, Valley of Victory is a touching tale of one individual’s fight against the society, its hypocrisy and a system that is rotten to the core. It is the moving story of a woman’s determination to take charge, change herself and the world around her.
Along the journey, Valley of Victory asks questions that are as simple as their answers are complex. Who are we? Why are we here? What is our connection with our Higher Power? It tackles issues head on, with a sharpness that pierces the heart and a bluntness that dents the soul.
Leading us to the final question, If all human beings long to attain Peace, why is Love the most ignored emotion?
About the author
Val Rankin Prinsloo lives and works in the insurance sector in bustling Johannesburg, South Africa. She is married to Sydney and is mother to Cidal. Life is jam-packed with day-to-day activities but writing gives her the greatest pleasure and fulfillment and that is how she spends any free time.
She was born and raised in the so-called City on a hill, Eshowe (KwaZulu-Natal) in 1972. Those days were a far cry from city life; quite rural, where everyone knew your name and stopped to offer you a lift in the rain.
Valley of Victory is her first book.
Her journey through life has been a challenging yet exciting transformation.
Sometimes, life’s like chewing gum …
Great in the beginning. Flavourless later. Sticky.
That’s how I felt. Chewed, stuck, stale – between a hot pavement and a tight shoe, on a humid, sweltering day.
Yours truly, however, had the reverse taste experience. Gum, spat out by another, picked up from the pavement. Already flavourless, sticky twice over. Then, gradually, a delicious tang began to seep through magically, cutting through the bad taste in my mouth. A true salivary surprise.
Well, none of this is new for me. I’ve always felt like a square peg in a round hole. I looked around and found carefree attitudes and artificial smiles. And it affected me.
I craved to be ‘normal’, to be able to laugh and chat and be free – like the rest. They say, ‘Fake it till you make it’. So I tried the plastic smile but it didn’t stay plastered for long. There’s no mask for the heart … the pain cracked through and streamed down my cheeks … the mask slipped, the cover was blown. There I stood, naked and exposed. And from beneath the façade of falsehood the “real me” peered out.
The gum was carelessly discarded by someone inconsiderate … the mindless actions of some can cause discomfort for others … a little thought and the world be made a better place …
But the world can wait. First comes I, me, and myself. I’m a world within, my own oceans of despair, my own dry land of comfort, with my own volcanoes and valleys. (Valley … that rings a bell. Hold that thought, we’ll come back to it.)
God knows I tried. The pain and the heartache were real and palpable, and excruciating … but it passed and I thought time was a great healer. It is, but it takes a huge effort, and time does extract its pound of flesh. If only that pound of flesh was taken off my rather fat thighs … !
The hurt stays just under the veneer of normalcy, the gum that sticks your shoe to a scorching floor, all set to topple you over at a moment’s notice. For me, that was the stumbling block – in my emotional, physical and spiritual progress. The gum would root you to that point in time and space, not letting you move on, not allowing you to grow …
It was the year 2000. The millennium. And a good time, I thought, to pull in the reins on my life slipping out of control. The time for tough calls. Then and there I made the decision – to roll up my sleeves, to kick off my shoes. (That’d help me get rid of the nasty gum as well!) I needed to get a perspective, to pull myself together. Enough destruction had been done, now time for damage control.
Paradoxically, I had to pull back to focus. I had to begin at the beginning, to trace out the steps and find out which one was out of place. Precisely where did I fall out of step? I had to relive the story to learn the lessons for each episode, each experience.
The terrain was tough, the trip daunting. But I never felt alone. Like in Eliot’s The Waste Land, there was always a ‘third’ that walked beside me, matching my step. That companion, like a shadow, made it all easier – a journey shared is the distance halved.
Quite involuntarily, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, Khanyisile came to mind. She was friend, partner, and soulmate to me, all in one. Almost like a clone of mine, she was with me, walking, falling in step throughout the journey. Anything happens, any thought crossed my mind, my first instinct was to share it with her – and when I do, it somehow seemed that she already knew about it. And she was quick with a reaction; often, a diametrically different perspective from mine. I resented it at first, since it never quite matched my own point of view, but on retrospection later she would be the one who emerged right. It was uncanny.
Back to my expedition. It was a long trek, and I was walking barefoot. Mostly it was hot coals or broken glass. Sometimes, freezing cement floors. And rarely, lush green meadows. Mostly, it was slippery slopes and precarious rope bridges – with the frightening deep below. At times, it was the cutting edge of shrapnel. And rarely, cooling waters caressed bruised feet. Call it the variety of life.
But before we take that crucial first step on this thousand-mile journey, a small orientation about pre-apartheid South Africa. Back then, not so long ago, people were often derogatorily classified according to their race:
Whites – Caucasians, thoroughbred, Europeans, English-speaking. Also called: Wit O’s, Blankes. Blacks – Native Africans, non-whites. Also called: Darkies, Kaffirs, Koons, Zots.
Indians – Non-whites of Asian descent. Also called: Koolies, Tjaroes.
Coloured – Mixed breed, a combination of any of the above. Also called: Bruin O’s, Kullids. (My little daughter, in her utopian innocence, considered herself ‘none of the above’. According to her our shade of skin is akin to the fruit, so she is a ‘peach’.)
This story is, among other things, also about the unlikely bonding between the hapless, disadvantaged black Zulu girl Khanyisile, and the privileged, spoilt, coloured girl Valenta. Or Valley as my late dad used to call me. (You’ll hear more about him soon, the greatest hero of my life.) But unlike flowers in the sun, this bunch never wilted – their friendship kept blooming forever in the valley of life.
And this story, our story, comes with a plethora of patterns and textures. It’s the story of our friendship, at one level; at another, it’s the story of my darkest hours. It’s also the tale of how Khanyisile walked into my darkness and spread light. Which is what makes it everyone’s story, yours and mine, because all of us have our horrors and all of us need our Khanyisiles to drag us out of the abyss.
In that zone, there’s no racism; it hardly matters if Khanyisile is ugly or pretty, black or white or in-between. All that counts is she helps you to get to the bottom of who you truly are. That’s universal, independent of time and place and language and creed – the need to understand and be understood.
So here’s my story, as I lived it. I write this in 2014, it’s been a long time coming. I often think that there has to be more to life than a mundane existence – indeed, there’s a greater purpose for each of us walking the earth. That purpose is what makes a real difference to our fellow human beings.
So what’s my purpose? Having gone through fire, and having emerged alive albeit burnt and battered, I can come to the rescue of the unfortunate who got the rough end of the stick like me.
Maybe that’s my mission in life. And, may I add, Khanyisile had a key role to play in crystallising my part for the world stage. She was – and is – everywhere.
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