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Archive for the ‘Book Excerpts’ Category

“The blood of the woman on the stoep of my father’s shop was redder than stoep polish.” Read an extract from Harry Kalmer’s A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg, shortlisted for the 2018 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize

Published in the Sunday Times

“My name is Alice and I am as old as the mountains.”

Richard Ho’s grandmother spoke into Cherie Sadie’s camera.

“As old as the mine dumps. As old as Mandela. We were born in the same year. So I am not exactly sure what I imagine and what I remember. Is there a difference? Not much, if you ask me.

“Sometimes when I am in bed, I think I hear the whistle of a steam locomotive. But there haven’t been steam trains in Johannesburg for years. So the train I hear is probably only my memory. Or my imagination.

“At night in Chinatown you could hear the trains shunting at the municipal market and in the Braamfontein Yard. Steam trains. Toot-toot. Clickety-clack. But my first memory is of another place.

“My father owned a shop next to a mine. It was during a strike. There was a Boer woman. Afterwards we heard that her husband was a scab. She was on the stoep of my father’s cash store when a piece of coal hit her in the eye. Nobody knew who threw it. I’m telling you, she screamed. She dropped to her knees and cried like a baby. I remember it like it was yesterday. She was wearing a white apron and one of those kappies that the poor aunties wore in those days. Blood spurted from her eye like a fountain.

“I seldom speak Afrikaans these days. But the pretty words come back all the time. Words like ‘fontein’ and ‘lokomotief’. Not words you hear a lot any more, if you hear what I’m saying.

“Anyway, I’m losing track of my thoughts. The blood of the woman on the stoep of my father’s shop was redder than stoep polish. My parents tried to stop the bleeding with a towel. Older Brother who died last year at ninety-five … or was it the year before last? Anyway, Dad sent Older Brother to call the soldiers. They came with a tank or lorry or something like that and took the poor white woman away. I don’t know who the woman was and I never saw her again. But I clearly remember her eye spouting blood like a fountain. That’s the first thing I remember.”

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Read an extract from Francois Smith’s The Camp Whore, shortlisted for the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize

Published in the Sunday Times

Rock. Above me and around me. I am in a cave, I know that now. On the rockface eland are leaping over me, and between them are little black men with knobkerries in their hands. I also know what that is.

On Bosrand there was a cave with Bushman paintings. Yes, Bosrand. Now things are coming back to me. Pa had shown us. Pa. Ma. Neels. Me.

There was also a face in front of me. I remember now. And the shock. He sat on his haunches next to me, and I saw the grains of sand on his pants and on his hand. Then I saw that the hand was black. I closed my eyes. Shut them. Later on, I again tried to work out where I was but all I could see were these mud clouds and the only thing that existed was this terrible fear.

It’s also him talking now, that face.

It’s like rocks tumbling down a mountain from up high. It is a sound that I know. I understand what he is saying. Kgotso, Mofumahat-sana, he says. That is how they greet one. The good ones, that is their greeting. But he just wants me to believe that he is one of the good ones, what he really wants is a white woman to do with as he pleases.

I can see him clearly now. He sits with his knees pulled up and holds a knobkerrie between his legs. His head is turned away, but I know he is watching from the corner of his eye. Metsi. That is what I need to say. Water. I want water. He must give me water, that is all I want, and then I can die. He must just kill me quickly so that I cannot see or feel what he is doing.

He puts the knobkerrie down and stands up. I’m scared half to death. But all he does is dip his hand into a calabash next to me – I’ve only just noticed it – and brings his hand to my mouth. Cupped.

I stick out my tongue and can at least taste the water. He lets it drip. I try to swallow, but my tongue won’t move. Luckily, more comes, and then more. The water is bitter, tasting of leaves, something like aloe or sage. My whole face is wet, and so are my chin and throat.

There is something wrapped around my head, I can feel that now. Why am I lying here under a blanket? Am I naked? What has the herdsman done to me? What is he going to do to me?

O mang? That is what I should say. Who are you? But the words refuse to come out. I can’t speak. Like Ma, when she tried to pray but couldn’t find the words and stretched her hands out towards me. Lord, watch over us, and let your light shine upon us.

My lips crack when I try to open my mouth. Only prayer will prevent darkness from descending on the land. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, sayeth the Lord. There is a priest sticking his hands up in the air, straight as an arrow up at the clouds and he looks down at me, and I look away from his terrible face, away from his eyes glaring at me like a glowing furnace, seeing only evil and wretchedness. Where is that herdsman who is always sitting here, next to me, where is he? His name is Tiisetso. He doesn’t call me nooi. But then he looks away and says ke sôno. It’s a great pity, he says. He says I must sleep again so that I can become strong again. He says I was hurt badly at Balla Bosiu. With his knobkerrie he pounds the ground between his feet.

Balla Bosiu. The camp. The place where they weep at night, that is what they call it. That I do remember. The camp. That is where I have come from. I know that now. But if I close my eyes and think, then all that comes to mind is the feel of a sheep’s hoof in my hand, how hard the bone is under the skin, and the prickly wool, and the kick that jerks my arm right up my shoulder. Then I see someone pull back the head and swiftly draw a blade across the throat and cut, cut, cut as the blood bubbles and the windpipe bursts, and I cannot look away even though I want to and the man who is slaughtering looks at me, his nose is thin and skew and his lips are dry and the same colour as his skin, not red, and he says something to me, but I cannot hear what he is saying.

Instead, I keep my eyes open. But how did I get here? This man must tell me. What is he going to do with me? If only I could ask. What is he going to do with me?

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Read an excerpt from Lesego Rampolokeng’s Bird-Monk Seding, shortlisted for the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize

Published in the Sunday Times

Lesego Rampolokeng is a poet, word performer, and the author of 12 books, including two plays and three novels. He has collaborated with visual artists, playwrights, film-makers, theatre and opera producers, and musicians. His no-holds-barred style, radical political aesthetic and instantly recognisable voice have brought him a unique place in South African literature.

The gathered, sweating, angry-to-trembling Afrikaners in the dusty street want it to have been an attempt at rape. An assault on their grasping at white nationhood. The hands are on the guns. The trucks roar, eager to grab whoever it was. Old woman speaking, the one who lives in the house opposite, with her Parkinson’s-diseased geriatric husband who can only hobble a quarter step at a time from the door to the gate, and her divorced, middle-aged, bulimic daughter. She speaks fast, her squeaky vice trying to rise above the deep-throat growls of the trucks and their old-republic-clad occupants. She prattles fast about how i am a good person, i live in that little house behind the trees, i help out… and it is to not have them turn their murder-intent and fire attention on me… Yes, they gathered in, wanting it to have been an attempt at despoiling this white woman.

And the victim… she struts, the attention bringing a little colour, in vain, to her face. She is walking off her soles, bouncing, glad. She looks like crumpled khaki, like brown paper wrapper out in the elements too long. Like she has been through storms, wind, dust then drain-water drenched and cast out in the driving sun. Pink blotched some kind of symmetry across the face. Deep lined, the visage. Trenches cutting in and across. Thin to the bone, you can see the bones sticking out on both shoulders, desperately holding her shirt up. She bathes in the harsh light of her victimhood. For a change because always when she walks past, the boers look at her. Surreptitiously, the grimaces forming, and steal their glances away, never staring.


She is no boeremeisie to hold up in pride of the Van Riebeeck and oom Paul Kruger old tradition. She hustles all – black, white – for money in the street. The pale skin peeling off her face. She collects and sells scrap metal across the freeway and…you need not be told but you can see the drug-hunger. The craze behind the skinless eyes.

This day her two children, 6 and 8, ran screaming down the dirt-street and cries filled the air. I ran out. And heard through the trees bordering our properties my AWB neighbour furiously saying, loud-voiced – i later learned it was into her telephone – ‘kom gou…kom gou’ and blabbering incoherently, other things. By the time i got to the gate there were three trucks and a couple of cars gathered in the street, guns on show. A police car arrives, and the police are bored, one yawning. It is Monday morning.

They don’t believe this rape story. The AWB neighbour, predatory, like the smell of blood was in the air and the wounded close by, was wafting and floating around, holding centre-court.

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“Barbetje had helped me with the first two births – the unsuccessful births. Motherhood had never been my desire.” Read an excerpt from Maxine Case’s Barry Ronge Prize shortlisted novel, Softness of the Lime

Published in the Sunday Times

Barbetje cleared her throat again.

“Just say what you want to say,” I told her, addressing her in English this time. My English was better than hers by then.

Barbetje ignored me and instead bustled about the kitchen while I watched her with defiant expectation. She took out two cups and saucers: not the good stuff the family used, but not the worst. She placed the sugar and a jug of milk next to them and then poured the tea that had been warming on the stove all morning into the cups. She stirred them briskly, then passed me one.

“Hot, sweet tea always makes me feel better,” she explained. I could believe it; she drank several cups a day.

“Why don’t we sit?” she suggested, pulling out a chair at the table. We seldom sat there; the table had always been reserved for the family, even once the misses left. When we worked we stood, but Barbetje was having none of that.

“My legs are sore.”

I sat down, since I knew that no one would actually tell me that I could not. Anyway, it was usually Barbetje who watched me, to make sure that I didn’t overstep my bounds, and if she told me to sit then I would sit. We sipped our tea in silence. I decided that I would not goad her to talk. Maybe I was afraid of what she’d say.

“His father was exactly the same,” Barbetje said, once I had nearly finished my tea.

I stirred the bottom of my cup, thinking that the words alone must have tasted like sugar on her tongue, but she had surprised me with the tea. Such a sweet irony, I thought, that Barbetje should be to one to show me how I too had been deluded enough to believe that a man like that would keep his word: “I will marry you one day; I will give our children my name”. That’s what he used to say on the nights he wanted to talk.

I was glad that Barbetje hadn’t required me to confirm the news of his marriage; she probably already knew, perhaps she was privy to the details. I didn’t know and I didn’t ask. I let her speak.

“Always promising one thing but doing another,” Barbetje said.

I wanted to ask her about the children she’d borne; I wanted to know what had happened to them, whether she’d thought they’d make a difference. I wanted to ask whether the old man had been able to sell his own flesh and blood. If his son was exactly like his father, I needed to know that.

Barbetje had helped me with the first two births – the unsuccessful births. Motherhood had never been my desire. Not to be hurtful, but it had never been my plan. The hopeful among us saw children as negotiating instruments, a tool when we had so little with which to bargain. Others bore children to punish, a constant reminder of the sins of the fathers. All those fathers sinning so unconscionably, ardently, what was another child when compared to able hands, strong arms, feet? A baby for some was gold, and if not gold, then silver.

A baby is not a bird…

I remembered the words from Rakota’s tale; had always wondered what it meant. Those words were the first thing that came to mind when I saw the child, the first one, a girl. Birdlike bones and damp feathers of hair like a newly hatched chick.

A baby is not a bird…

Barbetje’s words disturbed my thoughts. “‘n Stywe lat het geen konsensie nie,” she said, placing a hand on my shoulder.

It was true what she said. A stiff rod had no conscience.

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“Etienne sees only one face in the twilight crowd: Axel’s.” Read an excerpt from SJ Naudé’s Barry Ronge Prize shortlisted novel, The Third Reel

Published in the Sunday Times

The opening band is called Namenlos. They play their first song: Stunde Null is waiting behind the stage. Mindless copycats, Etienne thinks. Echolalic music.

There is a single prop in the middle of the stage: a huge grey-green sound recorder. A mute piece of equipment from some government office or other, built – so it seems – to withstand a nuclear war.

Christof – “our technical boffin”, as Frederick refers to him – tracked it down somewhere in Berlin and had it delivered.

They look at each other. Then the three gazes settle on Etienne. He isn’t sure what he should read into them. A plea? A threat? How does it happen that the three of them always simultaneously make the same demands? And that – this he is only realising now – a collective chill can emanate from them as suddenly as collective warmth?

Namenlos ends their session, leaves the stage.

Smoke is pumped out of the machines, enfolds the instruments. The four of them jump light-footedly onto the stage, one by one. Screams rise from the crowd. While they saunter to their positions, the huge sound recorder’s two reels start turning, magnetic tape tautened between them. Loud, declamatory male voices can be heard: speeches by the East and West German politicians interrupting each other, talking over each other until it becomes sheer cacophony. No single voice can any longer be distinguished from the others. Etienne enters with an extended drum roll, foot on the drum hammer’s pedal. Sparks fly when he rubs steel files over each other. Frederick emerges from the smoke behind the synthesiser: an ominous note is growing, a siren straight from hell.

They play. Play. As none of the echo-bands can.

They recycle noise from the void. It merges with the sounds of cars on highways, tractor engines and power plants’ furnaces. New noise ensues, killing old noise. And then it starts all over again. They have to let go of everything – extinguish everything – that preceded the noise. There is no longer any history, nor any future. No bodies and no consciousness. Everything is sound.

The surging crowd grinds the tomato field to a pulp. Stunde Null play ‘God’s Idiots’. They play ‘The Language of Men and Machines’. There is a moment of silence; the eclipse begins.

The four of them look at each other, then start playing ‘Sonnenfinsternis’. The moon punches a hole right through the sun. Below them everybody is going into a frenzy. A black cloud shifts over the whole of Germany, making everyone deaf.

The evening air lays a lulling hand on Etienne’s forehead. But it isn’t evening; it is afternoon. They are playing to drain the sun of its warmth. At the height of the solar eclipse they keep an impossibly long and cold note. Vibration from the blood. Then they let go. They chase the moon off, bring back the light.

Etienne sees only one face in the twilight crowd: Axel’s. Around him, people are rising and falling, as if under a vast sheet. Axel isn’t wearing any sunglasses, is looking at Etienne with naked eyes. Etienne plays his drums for the tree resin dripping from Axel’s back, for the childlike scribblings on his skin. For how small he looks underneath the German sky.

Around Axel, dozens of people have stripped their clothes off. Ready to follow the music’s commands, to march straight into the flames.

It takes a while before Etienne realises he is the only one still hitting the drums. The other three are watching him in silence. Somewhere they have lost each other. They know he is now playing for Axel only.

The crowd has been wounded, Etienne thinks as he touches his painful erection. They are covered in blood and slimy scraps of flesh. Like a scene of mass surgery – an open-air operation room, patients who start wandering when the anaesthetic fails. But what is actually clinging to them, is tomato pulp.

His three friends’ eyes have become cold. They no longer know him. Etienne looks out over the heads, finds Axel’s face.

The lyrics of the last two lines of ‘Sonnenfinsternis’ linger on “Everybody knows this is Nowhere/Follow the fire and it will guide you home.”

The Third Reel

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“We remembered blundering, in fog, into a nudist colony” – Terry Bell shares anecdotes from A hat, a kayak and dreams of Dar

Published in the Sunday Times

It was a book that was supposed to have been written as we travelled half a century ago. But all the notes and everything else we owned was lost, stolen in Madrid. That followed several months of great difficulty being stranded in Equatorial Guinea, being robbed at gunpoint in what was then Zaire and finally arriving in Ndola on Zambia’s Copperbelt, in what our contemporaries described as “an emaciated condition”.

It was a tumultuous time politically in the region and there was no thought of going back to a book I had tentatively dubbed: Paddle Dammit! This after the need for my partner and wife, Barbara, and I to paddle frantically to avoid collisions with ships coming upstream on the Rhone as we careered downstream.

Two years in Zambia were followed by time in Botswana and New Zealand, where a decade after we had paddled down the Thames in London, bound for Dar es Salaam, we were presented with an album of postcards sent by Barbara to her parents throughout our travels. With them came 11 tapes made on a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder during the latter part of our journeying.

There were no machines we could play them on and so they were stored with the postcard album – and we forgot about them. But we often talked about what we had done, the humorous moments and the difficulties. We were encouraged to write up the journey of both a hat and a kayak called Amandla.

I didn’t want to rely on fallible memory and thought that to write such a personal memoir would be self-indulgent. Authors John and Erica Platter disagreed and, encouraged, we took the postcards out of the album and discovered, on the backs, a diary of our journeying. All but one of the tapes were also transcribed onto CDs.

I realised we had an accurate record of where we had been, what we had done and when. Even what we had eaten. To write it up would be a break from the generally worrying areas of economics, politics and labour that I concentrate on; a lighter moment about a more hopeful time when everything seemed possible.

“How on earth do you cook, travelling in a kayak?” asked John Platter. Barbara set to, drawing up a selection of the recipes used for one-pot camping cuisine. We remembered the incidents of blundering, in fog, into a nudist colony; of the terror of our first experience with 250 ton barges; of the roar of the mistral wind and the calm, lovely canals.

It was therapeutic. And it underlined for us how liberating it had been and how hopeful the world had seemed as we blundered our way from swinging ’60s London through the waterways of France into the Mediterranean.

We learned much, lessons that still seem pertinent today. . .

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Fiksie Vrydag: Jacques de Viljee se kortverhaal, My laaste aand (in Kaapstad)

Foto’s: Jacques de Viljee, Instagram

Jacques de Viljee is ’n skrywer van Kaapstad. Sy werk is al in New Contrast en op LitNet en gepubliseer.

My laaste aand (in Kaapstad)
Jacques de Viljee

“Dis tog vanselfsprekend: Kill your darlings, my kind.”

“Maar wat bly oor?”


[11:41, 8/28/2018] +27 73 693 2733: En die verlange na die ruik, proe, hoor, voel?

[11:49, 8/28/2018] +27 73 693 2733: Jy kan deurkom.

[11:49, 8/28/2018] +27 73 693 2733: Dis net ek.

[11:49, 8/28/2018] +27 73 693 2733: Naak en eerlik.

[12:11, 8/28/2018] Christine van Vreden: Ek wil omhels. Ek wil vergeet. Ek wil glo.

Daar het net nou te veel twyfel opgeduik. Ek kry dit net nie weggebêre nie.

Ek wil, ek wil

Dus vertrou ek dat ’n tydjie alleen my net weer sal laat besef dat my idees/ persepsie nie altyd so konkreet hoef te wees nie. Dat mens bly mens.

Maak dit sin?


Net die skoon word vermoor
Net die sag kry seer
Net die jonk glo
Soos wat net die jonk van hart kan glo

“O Jirre ek moet gaan -” Stamp ’n stoel om, mense wat oor mekaar praat, harde musiek wat krapperig oor die luidsprekers speel, sigaretrook en wierook, vuil kussings en oorvol glase.

“Hierso: Why some aspects of punk spoke to Afrikaans-speaking musicians and not to Anglophone musicians is a theme that further research should investigate more carefully.

What do you think, P?” “Ja, youth culture specialist.” “What do I think? Dude, to be honest I think it’s that brattiness that’s so inherent to punk rock -” “Brattiness?” “What do you call it, a vloermoer? That conscious dissociation with the order, the system, whatever. To break down everything around you, even if you let the walls fall in on yourself. I think that’s why the Afrikaners -” “Afrikaans speakers.” “Vink, fokkit.” “Whatever, man, why they chose punk rock as a medium, rather than something more sophisticated like jazz, which they probably saw as another form of Anglo-imperialism, cultural snobbery or something, you know.”

“Ja, seker.”

“And then youth culture. Like counterculture it just needs confusion and alienation to erupt.” “Maar is hulle nie confused nie? I’m on my way to thirty and I’m confused as fuck!” “Maar jy moet onthou, Ludwig, keep in mind that they’re growing up in this time, they’re used to this continuous and constant change.” “But it’s … exponential …” “They’re okay with that. Only what happens in the moment matters. What happens to the moment doesn’t.” “Expendable present.”

“The best, babez! We dyed our hair purple and watched the first Harry Potter movie!” “That. Is incredible!” “I know, right!” “We’re just fucked, man. Confused. And that’s why the alternative scene or whatever you wanna call it, realness, is being shaped by these geniuses in their late twenniez and thirdiez.” “That’s fuckin’ us!” “That is fuckin’ us, dude! Why do you think I enjoy my job so much? These are the people I work with every day!” “It’s a bless!” “Such a bless, bro.”

Hulle lag. Vat slukke wyn. Ludwig haal sy tabaksakkie uit sy baadjie en sit dit voor hom op die tafel neer.

“Exactly! So I’m making this note in Kitcheners about writing a poem or something about Amelie and Janine meeting at an exhibition in Maboneng, because, I mean, it starts with Janine going up to Amelie and being, like, ‘Stan Smiths are the most comfortable shoes on Earth, am I right, babe? -” “Ja, and we spoke about a psychoman! We both had one! She had this guy they camped with in the Tankwa Karoo and afterwards he called her a desert slut!”

“Haha, what the fuck!”

“And I was chatting to this guy on Tinder and I told him I like cello music.” “Yeh.” “And he stops talking to me. Calls me a cello slut.” “What the fuuuucccckkkkk!!!” “And so, as I write the note this guy comes over to us, and he asks for a lighter. And next moment he has two lighters and a match lighting up his cigarette, shakes his head and smiles this gigantic smile. And the ice is broken. Such a …” “Try streaming happiness, you know what I mean?” “Highly Recommended dude, ons moet dit dan doen. Ons het ’n vyf jaar voorsprong.”

Die deurklokkie lui. Iemand se foon lui, dronk huiweroomblik, dan: “Ek sal dit kry.” “Ruann, dude! Lekker. Ons is by Ryno en Amelie se flat, luister musiek, drink joints en rook wyn. Ja … Um, ja, Ludwig, Phumlani, Jacques, Janine, Vink, Sibusiso … Okay cool, nee, geniet Siblings, dude, laat maar weet as jou planne verander.”

“Wie’s dit, Ami?” “Dis Jesus by die interkom.” “Al weer.” “Patrick Stickles, mahn!” “I feel like that about Kendrick Lamar.” “I know, right! Master historian.” “I only talk for myself. Fuck your association.” “Doesn’t tweet. Like Camus.” “Vink!” “King Kunta.” “Ja, die heeltyd. Daar’s hierdie nuwe ding wat hulle uitgedink het, wel jy het seker al daarvan gehoor, waar jy al jou mediese data in ’n masjien kan upload, en hulle basies ’n kloon van jou kan maak wat nooit sal siek raak nie, so nooit kan doodgaan nie. En jou consciousness …” “Jammer dat ek jou in die rede val. Dis weird. Ek was altyd vreesbevange vir die dood, aande wakkergelê. Nou’s dit die idee van onsterflikheid wat my nie kan uitlos nie.” “Ek voel dieselfde, man.” “Ons het vergeet dat doodgaan deel van lewendig wees is.” “Ja ja ja,”

Ludwig staan verwilderd op, klim op sy stoel, wat onder hom wankel. “Almal almal almal! ’n Heildronk. A toast. Here’s …” Lig sy glas. “To dying!”

Almal saam, “To dying!”

“Fok ja, kom hier, Ludwig.” Ryno sluk die laaste van sy wyn af. “Daar’s nog bottels in die kombuis.” “Feminism’s failure to acknowledge that beauty is a value in itself, that even if a woman manages to achieve it for a particular moment, she has contributed something to the culture.” “Presies! Jacques, ek –” “Dude, daar’s nog kots op jou baadjie.” “Thanks. Fok.” “Ja, wanneer die wêreld in 2029 in rook en vlamme opgaan.” “Social media, right, we’re all sitting in the same room trying to talk over each other.” “What I wanna know is: Are we cool enough for you, Phumlani? I mean …” “Maar dis wat dit is: Kanye en Drake. Hulle tap in hierdie self-obsessie, want dis so tekenend van ons tyd.” “Volgens my: Tame Impala wat op daai selfde obsessie intap, die gevoel van vervreemding daarteenoor.” “En Maandagaand Stellenbosch!” “Yes! Dit gaan lóóp!” “Dit gaan hárd loop!”

“Fok Buzzfeed! Popkultuur popkultuur popkultuur popkultuur! Ek kan nie.” Die girts van ’n lighter maak ’n vlam. “Aaah! Smoking joints like cigarettes al weer!” “Dude, sit Swanesang op. Die grafsteen van ons jeug, noudat ons op die onderwerp is.” “Nee, Lugsteuring, iets harder!” “Jy’t nie My Chemical Romance op vinyl nie?” “Bra. Jy’t ’n moerse wanpersepsie van my musieksmaak.”

“Krisjan het. Moet ek dit gaan haal?” “As jy nugter genoeg is om die naald te lig.” “Kom, sit.” “Ek sit bietjie op my voete.”

“Ja. Ek en Christine is besig om op te breek.”

“Nee, Jacques.”

“Daar’s net hierdie magteloosheid. Dis eintlik erger, jy weet. Al wat oorbly is woorde om te herstel. En ek weet nie of ek woorde diep genoeg het nie.” Hy trek aan sy sigaret.

“As daar iemand is wat het dan is dit jy, my lief.”

“God. Ek kan net hoop en bid.”

“Weird vraag. Onregverdige vraag. Help dit jou nie? Is sy nie die persoon wat die storie van jou pyn aandryf nie?”

“Vink. Dink jy nie dit is waar die raaisel net joune is nie? Dis soos om te vra waaraan dink jy as jy masturbeer? Dis jou weergalmende heelal, jou orgasme op papier.”

“Vreemd. Ja. Wanneer laas? Ek dink … in ’n treinkompartement op pad Bloemfontein toe. Myne ook…”

“En die boek?”

“Goed. Die einde is in sig. Ek oefen vir onderhoude as ek hoog en alleen is.”

“Goed so…”

“And how is the current political sphere any different to imperialistic missionaries?” “It’s the new entertainment industry.” “Western capitalism in sheep’s clothing.” “And memes are just cultural inside jokes.” “Thanks, Vink.” “It’s true, though.”

“Okay. Ons moet gaan. Come, Sibz.” “Cool, cheers, man. Is julle Uber hier?” “Ons stap sommer. Dis tien minute.”

“Veilig wees.”

“Bye, Vinklief. Bye, Sibz.”
“En hoe voel dit om nie meer ’n werk te hê nie?”

“So bevrydend, joh.”

“En môre vlieg jy?”

“Môre vlieg ek.”

“Vriend, ek gaan jou mis.”

“Ek ook, alles; almal; elke aand.”

“Desnieteenstaande. Feite bly feite.”

“Yoh, P, did you see the newest Jean Kleynhans?” “No?” “A white guy and a black girl sitting in bed, Do liberal black girls enjoy social justice more than sex? at the top, the girl busy on her phone, starting a tweet with tfw, and the guy is busy masturbating, moaning JA! JA!, about to come.” “Jesus.” “Going all political and shit, huh?”

“Politics is porn.”


“Ryno, is jy reg om ʼn pa te wees?”

“Waarvan de fok praat jy, bra?!”

“Net ’n vraag.”

“Ek groei weer my baard, so seker ja, ek weet nie. Dis ’n vreemde vraag, vriend.”

“Ek moet ook gaan, dude, baie dankie.” “So nou is dit net ons en die volksverraaier.” “Julle weet dat ek kan Afrikaans verstaan.” “I’m referring to Ludwig, Phumlani.”

“Ag fokof, man!”
Die plaat het ophou speel. Phumlani is huis toe en Amelie het gaan slaap.

“Al weer net ek en jy, Ludwig.”

“Janee.” Dowwe geklop, gedagtes wat leeg weergalm.

“So jou laaste aand in Kaapstad, nè?”

“My laaste aand in Kaapstad.”

“Die aand voor die groot verkiesing…”

“En ek gaan nie eers fokken stem nie.”

“No Allegiance to the Queen.”

“No allegiance to the queen.”

“Dis Ruann wat gebel het, nè? Waar het hy gesê is hy?”

“In Siblings saam met Darius-hulle.”

“Ah, okay, die skate crew.”

“Yes. Die Enlightened Youths.”


[12:15, 8/28/2017] +27 73 693 2733: Ja.

[12:15, 8/28/2017] +27 73 693 2733: Maar ek gaan myself nooit kan vergewe nie

[12:15, 8/28/2017] +27 73 693 2733: die seer wat ek gemaak het

[12:21, 8/28/2017] +27 73 693 2733: dat my dade jou verhoed om by my te wees

[12:21, 8/28/2017] +27 73 693 2733: my verstand kan homself nie begryp nie

[12:23, 8/28/2017] +27 73 693 2733: is hierdie apartwees nie genoeg nie?

[12:23, 8/28/2017] +27 73 693 2733: hoe lank moet ons onsself gysel?


(Hey Ludwig, nou net by die flat gekom. Te moeg om uit te gaan. )

(Dink nou net. Wil net weer sê. Gaan vind wat jy soek. Gaan geniet wat jy vind. My goed kan enige dag verander. Moenie daaran vasklou nie. Ek gaan die fisiese jy mis. Ek het jou oneindig lief. Maar ek gun jou als. Daar is so baie wat wag!)

(Hoop julle klomp kuier lekker! Ek sien jou moreoggend. Liefde e)


’n Maand by die see. Grys druppels teen die vensters. Die reuk van groen heuwels en ’n dynserigheid oor die see. Afgeskilferde rotse, soutsmaak branders. My kinderdae, het jy geweet? Rooi oë en geel vingers. Die stilte van die see, druisende geraas oor die sand. God en liefde en verlange en dood en skuld en pyn en vrees en afsondering. Altyd musiek wat my weer na die mens toe terugtrek.


Ma en Pa

Vanaand is my laaste aand in Kaapstad. Môre vlieg ek Suid-Korea toe. Ek het deur Wikus (Wynand se vriend) daar werk gekry om Engels te gee.

Daar is seker twee goed wat ek behoort te verduidelik.

Eerstens, hoekom ek gaan: Ek dink, basies, voel ek net al vir lank asof ek nie meer hier is nie. Ek word surround deur mense met probleme en drome soveel anders as myne. Alles wat ek doen is op die internet. Al my werk, ek lees net op die internet. Dit is waar ek flieks kyk en musiek luister. En ja, ons het al hieroor gepraat, en ja, dis seker hoekom ek boeke begin koop het en al my vinyls. Om te voel asof ek hier is. Maar die mense hier … Niemand voel tuis nie en ek kort ’n tuiste.

En dit beantwoord seker tweedens hoekom ek nie vir julle gesê het ek gaan nie. Hoe sê ek dit met ’n straight face? Julle was nog altyd hier en ek was altyd die een wat gesê het Nee, ons moet vir ewig bly.

As hierdie seermaak hoop ek julle kan soortvan verstaan. Ek gaan vir minstens twee jaar nie terugkom nie, maar julle is welkom om enige tyd te kom kuier. En ek sal e-mail en ons kan Skype en ek is nog steeds op ons Whatsapp group.

Ek sal safe wees. Ek sal laat weet hoe dit gaan.

Groete Liefde


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Ek bel. Dit lui. En lui. En lui.


Die liriekaanhaling in die tweede gedeelte van die kortverhaal kom uit “Oop vir misinterpretasie” deur Fokofpolisiekar.

Die kortverhaal bevat ’n uittreksel vanuit die volgende bron:

Maria Suriano & Clara Lewis (2015) Afrikaners is Plesierig! Voëlvry Music, Anti-apartheid Identities and Rockey Street Nightclubs in Yeoville (Johannesburg), 1980s–90s, African Studies, 74:3, 404-428, DOI: 10.1080/00020184.2015.1004850, asook ’n aanhaling van Camille Paglia.

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The reluctant president: an extract from Mandla Langa’s Dare Not Linger

Published in the Sunday Times

Nelson Mandela never finished the sequel to Long Walk to Freedom. Using his draft, notes and a wealth of archival material, Mandla Langa has completed the chronicle of Mandela’s presidential years. This is an edited extract from Dare Not Linger.

The reluctant president

‘My installation as the first democratically elected president of the Republic of South Africa was imposed on me much against my advice’
- Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela spent the night of the inauguration at the State Guest House in Pretoria, which would be his temporary home for the next three months while FW de Klerk was moving out of Libertas, the presidential residence — Mandela later renamed it Mahlamba Ndlopfu (“The New Dawn” in Xitsonga, meaning literally “the washing of the elephants” due to the fact that elephants bathe in the morning).

At about 10am on May 11, the day after the inauguration, Mandela arrived at the back entrance of the west wing of the Union Buildings, accompanied by a security detail of the as-yet unintegrated units of the South African Police and MK. Two formidable women — Barbara Masekela and Jessie Duarte — who were at the heart of Mandela’s administration as ANC president, stepped along as smartly as they could, laden with paraphernalia for setting up office.

Forever in the shade, the temperature in the corridors was one or two degrees lower than outside, forcing a somewhat conservative dress code upon the staff and officials. Previously, when Mandela had met with De Klerk, the corridors had always smelled of coffee brewing somewhere. This morning there was no such smell and, except for the few people Mandela met at the entrance to the building, the place seemed deserted and forlorn, devoid of human warmth.

How Mandela charmed apartheid personnel

Executive Deputy President De Klerk had taken the whole of his private office with him, leaving only the functional and administrative staff.

But conviviality and sartorial elegance were the last things on the minds of Mandela’s staff, whose main business on May 11 was the finalisation of the cabinet of the Government of National Unity and the swearing-in of ministers. It was a small team, composed of hand-picked professionals, which had to deliver an urgent mandate.

As Duarte observed, Mandela was not passive in the selection of staff. When he sought to enlist Professor Jakes Gerwel as a possible director-general and cabinet secretary, she remembered that Mandela “wanted to know everything there was to know about Jakes. He asked Trevor [Manuel] … before he actually sat down with Jakes and said, ‘If we win, would you come to my office?’

“He also spoke to quite a number of activists [about] who this Gerwel chap was; who … would go into government with him.”

A competent cadre in the president’s office was needed to make up for the gap left by the withdrawal of the 60 people on De Klerk’s staff. At Thabo Mbeki’s prompting, a team headed by Department of Foreign Affairs official Dr Chris Streeter took on the role, with Streeter becoming Mandela’s “chief of staff” until the director-general was appointed.

Mandela was quick to dispel the illusion that he would be getting rid of the old personnel. He made a point of shaking hands with each member of staff. Fanie Pretorius, then-chief director in the office of the president, remembers the occasion: “He started from the left and he shook hands with every staff member, and about a quarter along the line he came to a lady who always had a stern face, though she was a friendly person. When he took her hand, he said in Afrikaans, ‘Is jy kwaad vir my?’ [‘Are you cross with me?’], and everybody laughed and the ice was broken.

He continued and gave the message to all the staff. There was nothing more and everybody was relieved. He was Nelson Mandela at that moment, with the warmth and the acceptance. Everybody would have eaten out of his hand — there was no negative feeling from anybody after that in the staff, at least that we were aware of.”

Mandela’s personal warmth towards people from all walks of life, from gardeners, cleaners, clerks and typists to those in the most senior roles, did not go unnoticed. Those who came across him in the course of their work described him as generous, self-effacing and easy-going; a man who knew “how to be an ordinary person”, with a sincerity demonstrated by his “greeting everybody in the same way whether there is a camera on him or not”; “there is never the feeling that he is up there and you’re down there”.

Mandela was respectful but not in awe of the world in which he found himself. Like all confident people who take their capability for granted, he was unhesitant about the road he needed to take to strengthen South Africa’s democracy.

Throughout his political life, he had never shirked responsibility, no matter how dangerous, as evidenced by his role as the volunteer-in-chief in the 1952 Defiance Campaign Against Unjust Laws — inspired by the sentiment contained in his favourite poem, Invictus, “the menace of the years” had found him “unafraid”.

One term only — that’s the deal

Imprisoned for more than a quarter of a century, Mandela had become the world’s most recognisable symbol against all forms of injustice. He was initially reluctant to become president, perhaps feeling that he had accomplished what he’d set out to do with his stewardship of the heady period from release to the elections.

“My installation as the first democratically elected president of the Republic of South Africa,” he writes, “was imposed on me much against my advice.

“As the date of the general elections approached, three senior ANC leaders informed me that they had consulted widely within the organisation, and that the unanimous decision was that I should stand as president if we won the election.

“I urged the three senior leaders that I would prefer to serve without holding any position in the organisation or government. One of them, however, put me flat on the carpet.

“He reminded me that I had always advocated the crucial importance of collective leadership, and that as long as we scrupulously observed that principle, we could never go wrong. He bluntly asked whether I was now rejecting what I had consistently preached down the years. Although that principle was never intended to exclude a strong defence of what one firmly believed in, I decided to accept their proposal.

“I, however, made it clear that I would serve for one term only.

“Although my statement seemed to have caught them unawares — they replied that I should leave the matter to the organisation — I did not want any uncertainty on this question. Shortly after I had become president, I publicly announced that I would serve one term only and would not seek re-election.

“At meetings of the ANC,” Mandela continues, “I often stressed that I did not want weak comrades or puppets who would swallow anything I said, simply because I was president of the organisation. I called for a healthy relationship in which we could address issues, not as master and servants, but as equals in which each comrade would express his or her views freely and frankly, and without fear of victimisation or marginalisation.”

The ANC — or, more precisely, President Mandela — needed to think clearly and plan well. Without this capability, it would be difficult to synthesise the old, security-oriented, bureaucratised civil service, a carry-over from the insular legacy of apartheid, and the new, somewhat inexperienced personnel, some of whom had recently graduated from overseas academies where they had received crash courses in administration and the rudiments of running a modern economy.

While De Klerk had a functioning administrative office staffed by people who had worked with him for years, Mandela and his deputy, Mbeki, had to start from scratch.

Gerwel was the first senior appointment, bringing gravitas to the presidential staff.

He also brought his extensive political background as a leader of the United Democratic Front and his engagement with the ANC in exile.

As vice-chancellor of the University of the Western Cape, a position from which he was about to retire, he had led the transformation of an apartheid university into an intellectual home of the left. Mandela’s endorsement of Professor Gerwel shows the high esteem in which he held him. It’s even more remarkable that Gerwel came from the black consciousness tradition and wasn’t a card-carrying member of the ANC.

At the time he appointed Gerwel, Mandela had formed a reasonable idea about how he wanted his office to look. Like all obsessively orderly people — at one point he wanted to make his own bed in a hotel — he couldn’t function without a solid base.

Having Gerwel at the helm served this purpose. He respected Gerwel and would take his advice. Masekela later commented on this aspect of Mandela’s character.

“I think it requires a certain amount of humility and self-interest to want the best advice and to take it. He was a little too much admiring of educated people, I would say. He really was seriously impressed by degrees, and so on, and if you expressed some scepticism about someone like that it would be very difficult to convince him.”

Joel Netshitenzhe was a member of the ANC’s national executive committee and national working committee with a strong background in communications and strategic analysis. Deceptively casual and with an aversion to formal dress, Netshitenzhe — working with media liaison officer Parks Mankahlana, who’d come from the youth league — operated a brief that went beyond writing Mandela’s speeches: he was also the unofficial link to the various ANC and government constituencies.

Trusted by the media, mainly because he exuded confidence and candour — and was known to have the ear of the president — he worked hard to simplify the more complex policy positions in various forums.

But Mandela needed more than the cold, crisp analyses of his advisers; he also drew on the counsel of others in the ANC.

Having started a practice of marking Mondays as “ANC day” in his diary, he would spend that day at the ANC head office with the top officials and others, also attending NWC meetings. He had no set timetable, however, when consulting other ANC leaders close to him, like Walter Sisulu.

“Me, in particular,” Sisulu said, uncomplainingly, in a 1994 interview, “he likes to ring. He wakes me up, one o’clock, two o’clock, doesn’t matter, he’ll wake me up. I realise after he has woken me up, this thing is not so important — well, we discuss it, but it didn’t really require that he wake me up at that time.”

Mandela’s involvement in cabinet, however, changed over time.

Early in his tenure, he was more hands-on, keeping himself informed on almost all aspects of policy in order to maintain the coherence of the ANC in the GNU, a measure demanded by the intricate process of transformation.

100 days of meetings

Manuel remembers how, on the eve of cabinet meetings, Mandela convened ANC ministers and their deputies in an ANC cabinet caucus at his Genadendal residence in Cape Town. This he did, Manuel says, “so that we could caucus positions that we wanted to take and be mutually supportive. It afforded comrades [an environment] to have a discussion that was quite free”.

In his first 100 days in government, Mandela held meetings to guide the ministers or get their support for positions he held. He maintained a continuous interest in matters concerning peace, violence and stability.

As Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma observed, “I think for me he was more engaged at the beginning, but maybe it was because I engaged him more at the beginning because I myself was not experienced.”

Although Mandela had intended to announce the appointments only after the inauguration, his hand was forced by the media, which had got wind of the debate around the position of the deputy president, with the announcement of the cabinet being made on May 6 1994. It was an incomplete list and some of the names and their corresponding portfolios would be changed.

Setting up the cabinet was not uncontentious, with De Klerk piqued at inadequate consultation in the allocation of some portfolios. However, Mandela’s personal touch was unmistakable. Some of the processes, appearing haphazard at their genesis, ended up bearing fruit. A few of the cogs in the wheel of the machine geared to advance Mandela’s dream were blithely unaware of their importance and how their own lives would change

Dare Not Linger

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Read an excerpt from the third book in Bontle Senne’s Afrocentric fantasy adventure, Shadow Chasers

Only the Shadow Chasers, with their magical knives, can save the world from the evil that lives in the dreamworld.

“Scary riveting fun! Escape in this magical and modern South African fantasy.” – Nonikiwe Mashologu, childhood literacy specialist

“I love the book because it’s scary and cool. Nom is a very brave girl.” – Gugulethu Machin, tweeny reader

Flame of Truth is the third in the Shadow Chasers series, an Afrocentric fantasy adventure for pre-teens (9 to 12 year olds.)

Bontle Senne is a book blogger and literacy advocate. She is a former managing director at the Puku Children’s Literature Foundation, a trustee of READ Educational Trust and a part owner of feminist trade publishing house Modjaji Books.
Read an excerpt from Bontle’s extraordinary book:

They hear the piercing scream of the Lightning Bird as another ball of flames falls from the dark sky and explodes on the patch of sand at the cave opening.

Nom and Zithembe lie on their bellies in the dirt, trying to stay low in the shadows so that the Lightning Bird does not come into the cave to find them.

“Nom, when we get out of here … ,” Zithembe whispers bitterly, pressing his cheek to the ground so he can look at Nom and she can see how annoyed he is.

Nom rolls her eyes and shifts her attention to the cave opening. She can’t hear the Lightning Bird, but that doesn’t mean it’s not waiting for them just outside the cave, ready to drop another ball of fire. “There was no way I could have known that it was going to come all the way up to the mountains,” Nom says. “I thought these things stayed in the forest!”

“Who told you that?” Zithembe snaps.

“Rosy! Well, kind of Rosy. I think that’s what she said …” Nom thinks back to a few weeks ago when she and Rosy, Zithembe’s cousin, had come into the dreamworld and were chased by the Lightning Bird. The giant black bird had flown over them, circling, stalking. With its long, curved beak, shaggy chest feathers, two sets of wings, and two long, orange legs, it had terrified her and brought back Rosy’s darkest memories.

Now, when Nom reaches out and her hand finds the cave wall, the stone feels cool and wet. She feels the magic of the dreamworld buzzing lightly through the tips of her fingers. It’s the same feeling she sometimes gets when she holds her knife. A Shadow Chaser’s knife has powers that she and Zithembe are only just starting to understand.

“We could go back,” she suggests, already guessing what Zithembe will think of that idea. Zithembe groans as a clap of thunder booms from outside the cave.

“We cannot just go back,” he says. “We have to find my mother. How can we find her if we go back?”

“Zee, we’re not going to be able to get out of here without getting roasted. We can use the special powers in your knife to get home, and then try another night. We can come back in a few days with – I don’t know – a plan or something.”

It is weird for Nom to suddenly be the one with a plan. She’s never really been known for thinking things through. They got stuck here in this cave because when Nom saw the Lightning Bird she turned and ran before Zithembe could even ask what was going on. They had scrambled further up the mountain they were exploring. Then Nom dragged Zithembe into the cave just as the balls of fire began to rain down on them, burning holes the size of soccer balls into the sand. Nom had been right to be afraid, but she could have at least warned him before she started running.
It was so often “act and then think” with her. At least Zithembe had finally gotten used to that.

“I have a better idea,” Zithembe says. “You should use your knife to turn yourself into a Lightning Bird.”

“What?” Nom asks, even though she’s pretty sure she heard him.

“You should turn yourself into a Lightning Bird,” Zithembe repeats, replaying what his mother had told him about the power of Nom’s blue knife to change her into someone – or something – else. “I’ll jump on your back and we can fly out of here and into the forest.”

If they weren’t trapped, crawling on their stomachs in the dark, Nom would punch Zithembe. “But the forest is where it lives!” she says, feeling deeply frustrated.

Nom remembers the forest from her visit to the dreamworld with Rosy, when they fought the Mami Wata.

She remembers the muffled sounds of moans, crying and wild giggling drifting out to them from inside the dark and unknowable Thathe Vondo Forest. Rosy had explained that the forest exists in the real world and the dreamworld at the same time. In the real world, the people who live near the forest believe that it is full of spirits and monsters. In the real world, the people are just as afraid of the Lightning Bird which they call Ndadzi, as Nom is, here in the dreamworld.

“OK, then we fly to the Clearing or to the Lake of Memories,” Zithembe suggests.

Being annoyed isn’t helping, so Nom sighs and tries to be kind instead.

She says, “Zee, listen to me. There are soldiers of the Army of Shadows everywhere. Even now, the shadow men must be marching towards us. Your knife’s power can get us out of here safely. I know you want to find your mom. I want to find her too, Zee, but not today …”

They are quiet for a few minutes.

Nom isn’t sure whether Zithembe is still trying to think of ways to get out of this cave and keep exploring the dreamworld or whether he is trying to accept the truth in her words. As she waits for him to speak again, Nom sees a cloud of pale orange dust float into the cave.

The dust cloud stops just in front of them, blocking their view of the cave’s opening, and then drifts down low to the ground where they lie.

“Nom … Zithembe,” says the soft, faraway voice of a girl.

Zithembe twists his head to look at the floating dust and then back at Nom.

“Did that dust thing just speak?” Nom asks, saying out loud what both of them are thinking.

“I have a deal for you,” whispers the dust. “Help me rescue my friend fromthe Army of Shadows and I will help you find Itumeleng.”

Itumeleng. Zee’s mother.

“Who – or what – are you? Why should we believe you?” Zithembe asks.

There’s a trace of anger dripping into his voice. He wants to save his mother, but how can he trust a floating cloud of dust? Any of the magical things in the dreamworld could trick him into trapping himself or Nom here.

Book details

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

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

Press release from the Caine Prize for African Writing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by Max Shmookler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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