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Archive for the ‘Feature’ Category

Read ‘Space II’ – a new story by Masande Ntshanga

Read ‘Space II’ – a new story by Masande Ntshanga
The ReactiveThe ReactiveThe Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things and Other Stories

For today’s Fiction Friday, Masande Ntshanga has generously shared a new short story with Books LIVE.

Ntshanga wrote the story during the Caine Prize workshop in Zambia in March, and a version of it appears in the latest award anthology The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things and Other Stories.

The story is a sequel to Ntshanga’s 2013 PEN International/New Voices Award-winning story, “Space”.

Ntshanga’s debut novel The Reactive was published in South Africa by Umuzi in 2014, and by Two Dollar Radio in North America in 2016.

Read “Space II”:


Yesterday, Lona showed me a picture of her daughter, the second one, before she told me she couldn’t get wet for her boyfriend. We’d gone straight up without starting out at the bar with Lukhanyo, the bar-back, next to the slots, and I wanted to tell her that I didn’t ask, but she pressed my fingers against the side of her thigh, and before I could answer, the two of us got drowned by a siren wailing down from Claim Street. They’re shooting at more kids on that campus in Parktown, she said, before turning over to sleep, and while I sat next to her, I traced the small scab on her elbow with my front finger, picking at it a little, before she opened her legs and I waited for the siren to fade before we could start.


I go there once a week, now, and we always work it out the same way. Lona’s new; a few months on the job; and they keep her on the top floor with the premiums. That’s 22-year-olds from Mozambique and Swaziland, Bots and Zam; where she splits the blinds and tells me to undo my belt and drop my shoes next to the bin with the used rubbers and wipes. Lona tells me to turn off the light, too, and I do as she says, most times, but sometimes I’ll ask her if she wants me there and she’ll turn around, the covers hitching up against the crook of her waist, and a bruise brushing up from the small of her back up to her neck. I don’t even know you, I imagine her thinking, during those times, and I’ll start to feel a fever touching me at the base of my neck, but other times she won’t turn and I’ll feel her dry hands pulling on the loose skin between my legs, a way of bringing me back, I tell myself.


Once a week, after shedding half a grand on Lona at the club, I’ll get in touch with my father on the line. I’m edgy, Thembi used to say, and I’d tell her how Pa used to get me that way since I was young. He’d heave me up on his shoulders in our hallway, eBhisho, until my stomach would churn, the acid catching at the back of my throat from fear. I figure it’s the only reason we still get on – I act like he’s still got his old size and Pa believes he could push his palms through a wall. He likes to make claims, my father, harkening us back to things past and things shared, he apportions us blame, and places me here and himself there, before marking the events that lead to his collapse. I’ll let him, most times, but sometimes I’ll ask him how things were before Ma, just to set him off, and we’ll go through the seventies – his bachelor years in the hotel lobbies of Umthatha – with me acting like I can’t hear how deep he’s sunk into his nip, or that I wouldn’t find him scattered the same way the following day. Do you remember when we found her in the garage after the ‘rover crashed? It was ’02, back in the old house, and we had just the mattresses at the back behind the Nissan.
               I don’t, I tell him.
You don’t?
I don’t.
It isn’t unusual for us to fall silent over the line. Pa’s my last living relation, and we used to have him set up in a home in Port Alfred after his collapse, where it was the house policy for long distance clients to keep up with calls. I used try and negotiate them off it.
               He’s not really sick.
               He isn’t?
               It’s grief.
               There’d be silence on the line. We prefer to preserve a contented atmosphere.
               Is that realistic?
               He’s your father.
               I know he’s my father, I’d sigh.
               Eventually, when I lost my first job at the ISP in Victory Park, we had to cut Pa’s insurance down and move him out to a small two room close enough to a lake.
Clean air, he told me, meant he didn’t have to keep up with old friends.
               Fair enough, I said, but I knew by then the calls were a habit for him.


On weekdays, I do the admin support for a campus network in town, where we’re set up as an FET, a squat block with its windows lined opposite the soccer pitch at Ellis Park. It isn’t hard. We split the duties down the middle, myself and Colin, and take turns on the maintenance jobs, before we do our rounds at the computer labs with the first-years. Most of the time, we manage to tell ourselves that work is fine. We even have a sign. This department has not yet been outsourced, but you may want to refer to management for confirmation.


We’d met at some party, Thembi and I, the house warming of a distant acquaintance, a French-Canadian post-grad we’d both later discard without much thought. There were American students at the digs, pink and sweaty from excursions into the neighbouring townships, drawling give-me-fives in the living room and dressed in the robes of ancient pillages, spilling pink potato chip crumbs on the wooden floors under the high ceilings; and I guess celebrating Halloween there. I found Thembi in the kitchen, replacing a hidden bottle of Jameson in a cabinet below the basin; she was slender, with a fatigue vest, faded jeans.
               You always steal from your hosts?
               Only the wealthy ones, she said.
               Well, you’re in luck, then, I told her, and pointed at my chest.
               I don’t know. You don’t look like this word I just used.
               I’m in disguise.
I watched her get on the cluttered counter, nurse the drink in both hands.
               You from outreach?
               Well, here, she said, tossing me a t-shirt with a solar logo on it. It was hers, I figured.
Is that the move, though, these days?
What is?
Looking for kegs to crash at community outreach.
No, I know the guy, I said, and hooked a thumb over my shoulder.
Right, she said. James. Of course you do.
I grinned to show that I’d been caught. Then I reached behind her, got a glass and rinsed it; after Thembi poured us both a shot and stirred the ice in with her finger, I told her I’d seen her before.


On the way to work, today, we passed a taxi overturned in a ditch next to Empire Road. It was caused by a cell phone, our driver said, and some of us took photos of it as he drove past. I leaned my head back against the window after the wreckage had receded, and watched the road as we came to a stop at the following intersection, near Constitution Hill, where a line of men and women in red berets were holding up placards, chanting a protest song, and blocking our line of traffic from gaining passage through the crossing. From the cracked backseat, I remembered how this morning, on street lights across the city, the headlines from the dailies had reported the EFF’s call to return the ownership of the stock exchange to its workers. The march had started in Newtown and was set to end in Sandton, and up front, our driver drew down his window and hooted, whistling in support as he banged out a rhythm from the side of his door. The men and women laughed and began to separate in turn, and when I looked back again, they seemed to have grown into an even bigger mass. I closed my eyes, then, and remembered how my father had once tried to explain the stock exchange to me; in those days, Pa had been an economics lecturer at a Technikon in East London, and we’d both been sitting on the living room floor with a stack of his grading when the stocks had come up on TV.
               He called me, yesterday.
               It’s about your mother, he said. Call me back.
               I deleted the message and called Lona, but there was no answer. I called Pa back, but there was no answer there, too. Then I reached into my pants, but felt limp in my palm.
               I texted Lona.
               Nothing is as beautiful as the hood between your legs, I said.
Then I thought about it.
Not even you, I told her.
               Later, it took me over an hour to fall asleep, and when I woke up, I found a please call me from her number. I’d never got a response from Lona, before, or anyone I’d ever met at the clubs.


I walk into work late and find Colin with his legs crossed over our counter, watching the TV we took from one of the staff common rooms for indefinite repairs.
               How are things on the outsource front? I ask him.
               He uncrosses his legs. No labour brokers at the gate, sir.
               Hear, hear, I tell him.
Then I walk into our kitchen, rinse out a mug and scoop out Ricoffy and Cremora. I make it sweet, and waiting for it to cool down, open Lona’s message and call her back. The phone rings once before the call is declined, but I wait and get a text message from her a moment later. Meet me at the McDonald’s down from the club, she says.
I write to her that I will.
Then I sit down next to Colin and point at the TV.
               He shrugs. I left it on anything but the news.
               I look at the screen again, a beach scene blurred behind a veil of static, and think of how much Thembi used to like to travel towards the end. We’d part over the course of her different destinations, but before then, I remember how she told me she lost a phone in Zimbabwe once, close to the border, and how she couldn’t drink the tap water in Thailand, and how in Zambia, she’d taken so badly to a course of Malanil, that she couldn’t pet the cheetahs for all the time she spent over the sink in a lodge in Lusaka. The art was something to see, though, she’d added to me over the line.
I stretch my arms, now, and finish the coffee.
Who’s got lab, today? I ask Colin.
You’re on, he says, before leaning forward to turn off the TV.
I leave the IT room and make my way down the lino in the corridor.
I don’t always mention it, but you should see our students. Twice as many of them arrive for registration towards the end of Feb, and by the time we start on our second semester, they’ve been culled down in half; most of it from fees; the other cases from grades. It’s tempting to think of them as survivors, on certain days, braving the corridors of Ellis Park in Chuck Taylors and tank tops, but most of the time, I can’t help but think of them as pushing towards something rumoured. I stop at Mrs. Mokoena’s office and knock twice on the chipped door; I can hear her talking on the line before she pauses to invite me in.
Dumela, mme, le kae? I say at the door.
I’m fine, she says, and as usual, I watch her hand wave me towards the key cabinet, where I find the double set we use for the labs.
On my way out, again, I hear her calling for me.
Placing a palm over the receiver, Mrs. Mokoena looks at me and smiles. Tell me, she says. Isn’t it enough to be late once a day? You’ve had those students waiting for ten minutes in the corridor next to Mr. Dukisa’s class. You know he doesn’t like to be disturbed.
I scratch my head. I thought they’d changed the schedule.
You thought they’d changed the schedule, she says. Just go, will you.
I go and find half of them on the floor in the next block, leaning against the wall of the computer lab, their backpacks set between their legs, and their faces fixed on their phones. I tell them to get up. Then I look at my watch and join them on the wall.
If you start getting here any earlier, I say, I’ll be out of a job.
They laugh, and as they do that, I open the door to set them up for their tutorial class. It’s one of the introduction sets from Mr. Longela – they start a new chapter of Matlab the following month – and they get through the 45 minute exercise in half an hour. We spend the rest of the time watching the clock.
Teacher, did you hear two students were hospitalized from Parktown?
Yes. Not even rubber bullets. They’re shooting to kill us, now.
I nod, thinking of Lona, again, and open a browser and direct it to Google. Ever since the start of the protests, Lona’s filled her head with the plight of the students, and I’ve even come close to telling her of how I grew up in Bhisho during the year of the massacre; how I came to lose my mother to another version of this.
My head hurts. It says here they torched a bus, I tell them.
Yes, they did. The students need to be heard, now. This is a matter of free education and ending financial segregation. We cannot back down from colonial administrators.
This comes from Philani, an engineering student in a black track top, the zip left undone to reveal a yellow SASCO shirt. The ribbing on the sides of his sweater looks bright in the light, almost bleached, and his hair is shaved close to his skull and trimmed.
I nod at him and get up from my desk.
Right, I say. It’s time to pack up and log off.
Then I take another look at their scores.
You all did well, today, I say, but they can’t hear me over the sound of their packing; after they’ve cleared out, I lock up and get back to Mrs. Mokoena, before finding Colin asleep. I look at the TV and it’s back on, again, full of static, and set on the news.


I get in touch with Pa after work, and he lets the phone ring once before he picks it up, sounding out of breath, and I brace myself outside a spaza shop in Kew. Inside my line of view, the Joburg traffic is turned up, jammed at the crossing near Wynberg.
               You took your time, he says.
               I tried you last night; what’s wrong with your breathing?
               You sound like you’re losing air.
               I was out gardening.
               You were out gardening?
I listen to him laugh for a while. Yes. Madala does the garden in the yard next door and I asked him over and then I gave him a hand. I gave him two hands.
It’s past six, I start to say, but decide against it. You told me I should call you back.
We need to talk.
I heard that much.
I’m thinking of a trip.
               I cup my brow in my palm and choose each word. Where to?
               To my son, he says. The City of Gold.
               I breathe for a while. Fine. Let me arrange you a ticket.
               I’ve already bought a Greyhound, he says. I arrive tomorrow.
               I see.
               Then Pa takes a moment to clear his throat. How are you?
               I’m fine, I tell him. I have to go.


I take a taxi to Bree, before I connect to Hillbrow at the rank, and then I ride until the bus stop on Edith Cavell, and walk up Pretoria Street, where I find the McDonald’s at the corner of Claim. I look inside and find Lona sitting at a table towards the back, nursing a fountain soda and a copy of The Star. I use my hand to clear the crumbs from the seat in front of her.
               You South Africans used to be lucky, she says, but look at this, now.
               I look and see students standing in front of riot police in Soshanguve; sometime last week; and place a palm over her fingers, feeling surprised when she doesn’t flinch.
               I sigh. They were promised even more than we were, I tell her.
               It’s easy to see that.
That’s what we all say. Do you want to eat before we go upstairs?
               I can eat, she says, but can you?
               No one knows me, here, I tell her, but even if they did.
               Then what?
               Then nothing.
               I come back with a tray holding a pair of cheeseburgers and two cartons of fries. Placing them on the table, I refill Lona’s fountain Coke from mine.
               You look good in the light, I tell her.
               Well, you don’t; what happened to your tooth?
               I smile. It got knocked against a beer bottle. You’ve never seen it before?
               Of course I’ve seen it before. Does no one ever play with you?
               I laugh at that. Not that I can remember, I say.
               Later, I take my hand and push it between her cheeks like I used to with Thembi and she pushes it away; we carry on, twisting over each other as the dawn blushes her cracked window a pink shade, and we go at it twice before I get up to drop the plastic in the bin next to her door. I get back in the covers with her as the morning traffic begins to hum, and closing my eyes, I think of how the two of us could be trapped inside the hull of a giant machine, but Lona’s body feels warm against my own, and I decide to listen to her breathe.
               I need your help, she says, and still lying in bed, I don’t say anything back. Lowering the covers, Lona lifts her arm and shows me the bruise on its underside. I got this in the car accident, she tells me, but I didn’t tell you how it happened.
               How did it happen?
               I was drinking in Mbabane.
               I listen for more.
               My parents are in Joburg, this weekend, she says, and I want to see my daughter.
Then I think about what Lona tells me next for a while.
I’ll do it, I tell her.


I arrive at Park Station on time, but Pa’s bus is delayed, having broken down on the national road outside Kokstad. I go back to the parking lot, absorb the morning sun, and rest my head over my forearms. Then I get up to find him again, which I do, next to the escalators.
               I help him with his suitcase.
               These roads, he says. This country won’t run out of ways to kill us.
               I laugh to set the two of us at ease. You’re safe, at least, I say.
               That’s why you go with Greyhound, he tells me.
               That’s why you go with Greyhound, I echo him.
               Out in the parking lot, I take out my cell phone and call for a taxi; after the Uber arrives, I help pack Pa’s baggage into the boot. My father takes the back seat and I sit up front, on the passenger side, so I can direct the driver towards the shortest route. Then we drive out onto Rissik and merge into Victoria towards Parktown.
               I’ll start us off at the mall for something to eat, I say.
               I hope it’s affordable. I know you people like to spend.
               We join Oxford and head out towards Rosebank before Pa tells me he doesn’t understand why I don’t have a car. You’re definitely smart enough for it.
               I shrug. I’m working on affording the instalments, I say.
               Do you remember when you scored 139 for that IQ test?
               I thought it meant my life would be different, I tell him, but I don’t really like computers. Then I wait for him to answer, but Pa only leans back in his seat.
               We drive past Killarney, going through Riviera, and when we come to a stop at an intersection with an armless man holding up a sign with his chin, I look out of the window and where we are reminds me of an old colleague I used to have.
Chantel used to wear shaded glasses; she had a sharp chin and always shared her pack of Rothmans with the rest of us on the team. We were colleagues at MWEB, the second largest internet service provider in the country, and our offices were stationed in Victory Park, between Randburg and Parkhurst. Even though we’d been hired as customer service reps – most of us were latched onto tech support through inbound calls – our duties were extended to include sales, that summer, in order to facilitate the roll out of the country’s first uncapped ADSL service. It was during this time that Chantel and I were teamed together and scheduled on the same route close to town.
               We’d park our van at the start of each block, check the log for the houses that needed tech support, and we’d cover those first before we knocked on the doors of the rest, asking if they were interested in upgrading to the company’s latest broadband package.
               We’d get through them quick, most times. Chantel and I had both done well at A+ in college, and she had a way with the people who came from these neighbourhoods, too – Illovo, Parktown North, Riviera – that made them open their doors long enough for us to sell.
               We had a lot of downtime as a result. We’d park the van under a tree, share cigarettes and listen to the countdown on Y. Chantel thought she’d be rich from what we’d gone to school for, and I used to tell her that I thought she was thinking of a different time.
               It went on like this for most of the summer of oh ten, until one day, after I’d gone down on Chantel inside the van, we serviced the router of a client in Illovo who waited for us to drive off before she called our offices in Victory Park, lodging a complaint with client services that she’d picked up the smell of marijuana.
               The two of us were called in, having already decided that I would shoulder it for the sake of her son, and after my dismissal, Chantel gave me a contact number linked to her sister, who worked for a mobile clinic initiative in town, where they were looking to install a network for stock taking and keeping records for their returning patients.
               I joined Chantel’s sister Catherine the following week, and on my first day on the job, we took the clinic out to the corner of Commissioner and Polly, the first stop in a series of brothels that were getting HIV treatment in preparation for the World Cup. In the bus, during her break, I told Catherine about the first man I’d ever seen suffer from the illness it lead to. I was a child in Bhisho, I told her, and I’d seen the father of a friend of mine fade in a shed at the back of a tavern in ‘92. We headed up to Royal Park, after that, starting off at the Hillbrow Inn, before we parked outside The Summit, which was how I started going to the club, years before I would come across the Lona I know now, whom I’d find late one Wednesday evening, dancing on the floor without a top on under a blue strobe.


Our driver banks into Tyrwhitt Avenue and comes to a stop before the boom gates that lead into the parking bays at Rosebank Mall. I get out and help Pa with his suitcase. Then we walk past the Woolies store and settle ourselves under a sunshade at Café Europa, next to the craft market with its curios, and opposite the Mimmos Eatalian, where two businessmen sit in front of a chicken finger platter, taking sips from draughts of craft beer.
               You don’t like computers, Pa says. I always told your mother she was spoiling you with those videogames, but she broke her back for them. Now you don’t like computers.
               That’s different.
               I know it’s different, he says. You were clever. You needed the stimulation.
               I order an espresso from the waiter; Pa asks for a tea and gets honey to sweeten it. We sip on the drinks when they arrive, and I look out towards the lawn with the artificial grass.
               You made time for me, he says.
               I take a sip from the espresso. Then the two of us watch as two girls walk past the cafe, dressed in high-waisted jeans and black, printed tank tops.
               You used to have a girlfriend, he says.
               I blow on the coffee before I finish it. Then I leave both my hands in the sunlight.
               Ma never liked her, I tell him.
               Your mother always wanted happiness for people. It wasn’t realistic.
               We spent some time apart, me and Ma. Thembi was someone who understood that.
               Did she?
               We both didn’t understand our parents, I tell him, and in the end, when she said the two of us were too similar in our unhappiness, it was hard for me to disagree.
               I look at him and Pa traces his finger along the rim of an ashtray on the table.
               I could never talk to my father, either, he says. I suspect it could be this country.
               I lean back on my seat as a black jeep approaches the rear end of the mall, close to the FNB ATMs, and I hear “Face Down” by White Lung coming out from its speakers.
               I’ve moved from Port Alfred, Pa says.
               I look up.
               It’s true. I’ve gone home to eDutywa.                
               You have?
               The old plot was abandoned and growing weeds, he tells me, and I used my retirement on it. I feel it’s the best decision I’ve made in the last ten years.
               Pa looks at me, then, and smiles. I’ll be herding goats like my father, now, he says, and that makes the two of us laugh. We cause the table to rock until our waiter arrives to take our orders, and after lunch, when the taxi arrives and we pack his suitcase inside the boot, Pa tells me changing our focus doesn’t have to mean we’re forgetting. Then my father pauses again, and before he closes the backseat door, he tells me he doesn’t think it’s possible to.


I install him in my flat in Kew, take his suitcase to my bedroom, and sit him down on the couch in front of a soccer game in second half.
               No, I want to read, he tells me, and I turn off the TV.
               I walk to the kitchen and fill up a glass with ice before he calls me back to the living room. I close the tap, and when I walk to him, I find Pa holding up an old photo of himself; he has an afro in the picture, and his moustache is thick and glistening.
               This is what I looked like when I met your mother, he says.
               I nod and take a sip from the water.
               I was working as a sales rep, back then, before going back to school.
               I know, I tell him.
               Your mother was a beauty, Pa says, and packs the photo away.
               I take a seat next to him and turn the TV back on, pressing the volume down to mute the match. You never stayed with us at the house on Rharhabe Road, I say. It was her, Nana, and myself. I remember meeting you for the first time. That doesn’t seem right as a memory.
               It was a different time. We were living in an occupied country.
               There were things you could’ve protected me from.
               Pa sighs. It broke families, this place, and you could say it still does.
               We watch the flickering green of the soccer pitch, the ball leaping between players.
               Well, I’m glad you came back, I tell him.
               I’m glad, too, he says. You, your mother and I had a good ten years before her health problems started. You know, I had no idea, and sometimes, I think even she forgot.
               The only thing I remember about that year is trying to fail Afrikaans and seeing a dying man at Ma Thano’s, I tell him. I remember Ma working, too. I remember how she’d been promoted at her job and how she wanted to get me to a better school.
               Pa smiles before he lets his face drop again. It’s what made it all so surprising, he says. That she would do what she did on top of everything else.
               I tell him that I know.
               There was something remarkable in her, he says. Then he turns to look at me and tells me he’s certain it’s something I have, too.
               I smile enough to make him turn back, and then I switch off the TV.
               Later, after he tells me he’s tired, I set Pa up in the bedroom and take my laptop back to the lounge. There, I open my browser and look at my history tab: Roxy Reynolds, Ms Goddess, Harley Dean, Cassidy Clay, Jasmine Jae, Teanna Trump, Shazia Sahari, Sabrina Taylor, Maya Hills, Jazmine Cashmere, Valentina Nappi, Franceska Jaimes, Noemilk, Mya G, Leah Jaye, Sahara Knight, Marquetta Jewel, Loona Luxx, Ashlyn Brooke, Sophia Knight, Diamond Legacy, Penelope Cum, Giselle Mona, Lela Star, Sara Jay, Susana Caliente.
               The list goes on, and I remember how I couldn’t stop touching myself the morning we got up to bury my mother. It had started in a moment of inattention, I guessed, a disbelief that reached towards the force of habit – aiming to fend off that morning’s facts – but the act solidified into a respite that felt like putting her death on hold. I couldn’t tell whether or not it was the act or the anticipation – the rush of blood that changed the feeling of nausea into light-headedness – but after a while, the only thing that gave more relief than arousal or coming was sharing them with someone else.
               Ma had died fifteen years after sustaining a bullet wound at the Bisho Massacre in ‘92, when eighty-thousand protestors, led by the ANC and aiming to dissolve the last remaining Bantustan in the country, had been gunned down by the Ciskei Defence Force, killing twenty-eight and injuring over two-hundred in place.
               I hadn’t known about it on the day it happened; Ma was gone for a fortnight, that month, and my grandmother, Nana, and I got help from our neighbour, Sis’ Khethiwe, before my father arrived with his bags a week after Ma’s return. We moved towns after that, but Ma never told us that the wound had given her complications that would last her the rest of her life, and even ten years later, when she crashed the Land Rover – complaining of a momentary loss of consciousness – my father and I, who’d found her sitting alone on a mattress inside the garage next to our double cab Nissan, had been none the wiser.


I rummage for my passport in the cabinet below the TV. Then I sit down at the coffee table and write a note for Pa, which I take back to my room and tape onto the door for him to find. I watch him on the bed; he’s fallen asleep sitting upright against the wall, the book he was reading – The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle – split in half and sliding down his thighs. I place it on the bedside with a bookmark. Then I close the door and make it out of the apartment to the parking lot, where the air feels warm and moist on my skin.
               I call a taxi to Hillbrow, and on the way there, the driver asks me how life’s been for me in the city. I turn the question back on him and look out of the window, again, watching as the orange lights glow against the darkened skyline below the Vodacom tower.
               It’s about money, big man, he says, and I grunt in agreement.
               I’m saving up for my own car, he tells me. These white people have everything, you see, and all we can do is work, no?
               I nod, and we go silent for a while before the cab drops me off at the corner of Van der Merwe. I take out a hundred for the doorman and see Lukhanyo, the bar-back, next to the entrance after I’ve been patted down. I walk over to him.
               Long time, he says, and I nod.
               I ask him if he’s still working the slots.
               No, mfowethu, I gave that up. You can’t make money that way.
               The bass thumps against the walls around us, and the blue and pink strobes cut tapered beams through the dark. Lukhanyo lifts his forefinger and rubs it under his nostrils.
               I shake my head, saying no, and ask him if that’s what he’s doing, now.
               Ja, I sell a little here and there, but nothing to the girls.
               I nod. You have to be careful.
               You know me, he says, and I tell him that I do.
               Then I point a finger towards the ceiling.
               I haven’t seen her come down today, boss, but she should be up there.
               We shake hands and I walk towards the lift, where two girls eye me from inside the elevator car, and I smile back without taking on their offer. The two of them walk past me, then, into the club, and I make my way up to Lona on the top floor; when I knock on the chipped panel, she tells me it’s open and that I should lock the door behind me. I find her sitting up in bed, smoking a Dunhill Light and scrolling through her phone.
               Yesterday, when Lona told me her parent’s conditions for letting her see her daughter, I didn’t think much of the hour of pretence it would take from me.
               Now I sit on the edge of the bed, take out my passport, and flip through the pages in front of her, asking if her parents will believe her fiancé’s papers.
               Lona laughs, and later, when I can feel her sweat cooling down on my skin, she asks me if I don’t ever want to see the other girls, downstairs, or even the dancing.
               I tell her not more than anyone else.
               Maybe that means something, then, from what you’ve told me about yourself.
               I think about what she means by that for a long time.
               Then I tell her that maybe it does.

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The Rosa Parks Library Book Club celebrates Angela Makholwa and Lerato Tshabalala in Soweto

By Thato Rossouw

Angela Makholwa and Lerato Tshabalala

The Rosa Parks Library Book Club recently hosted Angela Makholwa and Lerato Tshabalala during the August edition of their monthly book club, held in the library’s Innovation Studio.

The Way I See ItBlack Widow Society

The library, which is located at the Ipelegeng Community Centre in White City, Jabavu, Soweto, is one of nine American Spaces run by the US Mission South Africa. It first opened its doors to the South African public in 1976, at the premises of the Orlando YMCA. It was moved to the Ipelegeng Community Centre in 1985.

This month’s event was held in celebration of women writers, and Makholwa and Tshabalala were asked to speak about their journeys in the world of literature.

Lerato Tshabalala

Tshabalala, whose debut The Way I See It has had the country speaking ever since its launch, spoke about what her book was really about.

“More than anything the book is about people understanding the plight of us as black people,” she said.

Angela Makholwa, who is the author of three books – and currently working on her fourth – spoke about the need for research grants for South African writers.

“I wish that was something we had. The ability to have the time and the money to go out there and interview our subjects,” she said.

Angela Makholwa


The event ended with a Q&A session where the writers answered questions ranging from their thoughts on the role of women in society to their choice of subject matter when writing.

Angela Makholwa, Lerato Tshabalala and the audience

Thato Rossouw (@Thato_Rossouw) tweeted live from the event:

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Jacket Notes: Sam Scarborough on her book Trapped, a story about verbal and emotional abuse

Published in the Sunday Times

Sam Scarborough (Human and Rousseau)

My story is about verbal and emotional abuse. I wrote the book initially to help me understand what was going on in the relationship I was in. It was a diary of events and conversations that I felt I had to record so that I would not have to constantly question my sanity. I was being accused of things that I knew were not my doing, nor my fault, so I thought I was going mad. Adding to that, I could not believe that I had got myself into an abusive relationship, me, the strong one, the Leo, the independent woman. So I started writing a diary, to keep track of events and to make sure I was not imagining things.

Shattered dreams went into this book, along with written accounts of each day, my thoughts and emotions, while I waited to see what the evening would bring, when my partner, more often than not, came home drunk.

The inspiration to publish was because, many years ago, I helped a friend get out of an abusive relationship by giving her a book to read. I can’t remember what the book was, but it helped her. And this is why I published, because if this book helps just one person, then it was meant to be a book and not just a sad diary sitting on my laptop taking up megabytes. I hope that by reading about my experience, other woman may find the courage to get out of whatever situation they are in.

At times, I found writing and reading the book tedious because I could see the repeat pattern of behaviour. Yet it took time for me to come to grips with the situation and to finally leave. I was angry that I had allowed myself to get into the situation in the first place. And when I wrote the book, I was still very angry – the book definitely has this tone. And I tried not to edit the anger out, even though it didn’t make me look good at times.

This was the difficulty – including the truth of it, without making it sound glamorous, or better. Some people have asked me why I would want to tell people about what happened. Others have said I am very brave. But mostly, people have encouraged me to tell my story.

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Guilty of captivation: Bron Sibree talks to bestselling author Liane Moriarty about her latest novel Truly Madly Guilty

Reading Liane Moriarty’s novels is an innocent pleasure, writes Bron Sibree for the Sunday Times

Truly Madly GuiltyTruly Madly Guilty
Liane Moriarty (Penguin Random House)

Imagine lunching in Los Angeles with one of Hollywood’s finest. If you think that’s surreal, then you know just how author Liane Moriarty felt this April, when she sat down to lunch with Reese Witherspoon. Along with Nicole Kidman, Witherspoon is among a formidable line-up of luminaries starring in an HBO series based on Moriarty’s sixth novel, Big Little Lies. Then came a meeting with the legendary writer and producer David E Kelley, who has adapted Big Little Lies for the screen. “It was a real honour for me, but a very surreal experience,” says Moriarty. “That’s the only word I can use, it’s so difficult to describe how it feels.”

For the Australian-born Moriarty, this capped a momentous year during which three of her novels not only hit the New York Times bestseller list, but film options to all three were snapped up by major studios. CBS was first off the mark, optioning her fourth novel, The Husband’s Secret, and Jennifer Aniston is now attached to TriStar’s adaptation of her fifth, What Alice Forgot. Not that Moriarty is any stranger to success. Well before her US breakthrough – which brought her worldwide sales to more than six million — she had garnered a doting international readership, and admits she has long “felt lucky to be able to make a living from writing”.

The imminent release of her seventh novel, Truly Madly Guilty, marks 13 years she has now spent crafting the kind of novels that prompted Kirkus Reviews to describe her as “an edgier, more provocative and bolder successor to Maeve Binchy”. Moriarty dreamt of being a writer since the age of eight, but lost her confidence in adulthood, becoming a copywriter instead. She recalls it was only when her sister, Jaclyn, published a teen novel that sibling rivalry took over and she felt compelled to write her own debut novel. “I remain eternally grateful to her.”

She was 36 when the success of that debut, Three Wishes, enabled her to quit her advertising job and write her second, The Last Anniversary, which folded potent thematic concerns, believable characters and a quirky brand of humour into a superbly plotted mystery. Five novels on, Truly Madly Guilty speaks to a different set of thematic concerns, yet still reprises familiar ones. Notably guilt. “I do seem to keep returning to guilt a lot in my novels, and I feel guilty about it,” laughs Moriarty. “But I’m just interested in it. Women seem to be pretty good at it, certainly it’s an emotion I struggle with on a daily basis.”

Truly Madly Guilty has a mystery at its heart, shaped around an unspoken-of event at a barbecue. Revolving around three disparate couples, it also probes the nature of a lifelong friendship between two successful women. Erica’s miserable childhood had led to her being unofficially adopted by Clementine’s family since both first attended school, and their adult friendship is sharply observed by Moriarty.

“I’ve known many people who were unofficially adopted by other families because of their difficult home lives. Families just let them become part of their family, which is an amazing thing that people do, but not an official thing. I then thought, what if one member of the unofficial ‘adoptive’ family didn’t really like this person, and how they’d then have this permanent struggle between wanting to feel generous but feeling guilty.”

Now 49, Moriarty, intends taking cues from Margaret Drabble. “If you look at her books, her characters seem to have aged along with her, and I love that. So I’d like to do the same thing.” She also ranks Anne Tyler at the top of her list of inspirational authors, but for Moriarty writing is a choice more than a compulsion.

“I find that I’m happier when I’m writing, I start to get a bit tetchy when I’m not. I hadn’t realised that until I wrote Three Wishes, and then I felt so relieved. Imagine,” she adds softly, “I could have gone my whole life and not realised that something was missing.”

Follow Bron Sibree on Twitter @BronSibree

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Hagen Engler shares the books that built him

Published in the Sunday Times

In the Maid's RoomIn The Maid’s Room
Hagen Engler (Jacana)

I’m most satisfied with my writing when I’m nervous about it. When I’m not sure how it will be received. It might be an experiment with form, topic or style, or just pushing the boat out further than usual. I take solace in the fact that these people did it before me, and better …
Trainspotting Screenplay
Trainspotting adaptation by John Hodge: I read this as a screenplay when it came free with a copy of Loaded magazine in the ’90s. I was stoked that a story so visceral, surreal and uncompromising could be nominated for an Academy award. The swearing, the drugs, the bodily fluids and the raw Scots dialect from Irvine Welsh’s original novel made me realise there are no limits to writing and that dialogue in local dialect can be amazing.
Thirteen Cents
Thirteen Cents by K Sello Duiker: The later Quiet Violence Of Dreams was more literary, and maybe better, but I read this first. This tiny book, with its magic realism, showed me Cape Town in such a fresh way … It became a place of dreams, monsters and people who fly. “I take out my money. Thirteen cents. I must have lost one cent on the mountain.” So powerful.
'Master Harold' ... and the Boys
‘Master Harold’ … And the Boys by Athol Fugard: Another great book that was not a novel. It gave me a broader understanding of what a book is. Of course it also taught me that as a white person, much of whatever I had was built on the exploitation of other people. It’s an intensely human story told in 60 pages. The play opens, “The St George’s Park tearoom on a wet and windy Port Elizabeth afternoon.” I grew up 500m from there, so it couldn’t be closer to home.
House Of Leaves
House Of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski: Hundreds of pages, parallel and intersecting nightmare stories. Footnotes that grow and take over the main text, drawings, photos, poems, indexes, appendices, scripts … The creepiest, most ominous, disturbing book ever. Taught me to be episodic and unfettered by form and typography. And that if you’re going to write evil, do it properly.
City Of Nine Gates by Zebulon Dread: I bought this from the author himself, hand-to-hand in Melville. I’ve always believed in self-published authors and am one myself. This book of three stories is just so unfiltered. He drops two F-bombs on the copyright page and goes hard from there. Dread was an independent voice who would not be edited or constrained. With dreadlocks, a gown and a pair of underpants, he was living his aesthetic. Confirmed to me that you can write what you like. You will be called to account for it, though, so you must be brave.
•Engler’s novel In The Maid’s Room (Jacana, R220) is about “the surfer, stoner culture of PE, but also the slow death of white entitlement”.

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Facts and Fictions: Find out about Bridge Books – Joburg’s newest independent bookstore – and the coming reading revolution

By Jennifer Malec for the Sunday Times

Facts and Fictions: Find out about Bridge Books - Joburg's newest independent bookstore

“People are always telling me, ‘Oh, there’s finally a bookstore in town!’ But if you look out that window there are two booksellers right across the street. There’s another one behind us, and if you go round the corner there are just tons and tons of people selling books.”

Griffin Shea likes to emphasise that he is no trailblazer when it comes to selling books in downtown Joburg. But his new shop, Bridge Books, certainly makes an impression. It’s located in the old Barclays Bank on Commissioner Street, one of the city’s most revered Art Deco buildings. You are greeted by a triple-volume entrance hall decked out in wood panelling and brass, bordered by marble colonnades and finished off with giant, glittering chandeliers.

Bridge Books focuses on new and second-hand African and South African books, with a smaller collection of “rest of world” huddled on its own shelf, in a pleasing inversion of standard local bookshop practice. But Shea also acts as a wholesaler to a group of informal vendors who, in turn, source second-hand books for him. “It becomes a two-way dynamic,” he says, “which works so well because if you want classics like Nervous Conditions or Things Fall Apart recent prints are still expensive but if they come in second-hand you can sell them for R80. Lots of people can make an impulse purchase if it’s double digits.”

… When you walk around you realise there’s a lot of reading happening that the formal book industry just doesn’t know about.

Shea describes the informal booksellers he works with as “disenfranchised from the world of books”. Many are migrants or young entrepreneurs, without a bank account, credit record or ID book. “That makes it very difficult to interact with large companies, because companies need you to have those things, and reasonably so. But there’s also no reason not to bridge the gap and be the go-between.” And that’s his plan.

An aspiring novelist in the young adult genre himself, and with a vague plan of selling his own books, Shea struck out into the inner city last year. “I was armed with all this grim data about how nobody reads in South Africa,” he says. “But when you walk around you realise there’s a lot of reading happening that the formal book industry just doesn’t know about.”

His ambition is to connect the publishing establishment with the reading that happens “quite literally on the street”. But he also wants to keep it simple. “When I hear these debates about decolonising publishing, it blows my mind,” he says. “There are these huge issues, but there are also some very simple problems that, if solved, can have a big impact.”

For example, informal booksellers have a hard time keeping their stock safe from theft, water and rats. Shea mentioned this to Pan Macmillan, who donated some plastic bins and trolleys. “That’s a problem you can solve with R1000, and it can significantly change the way people do business,” Shea says. “Nobody needs their problems solved for them, but to provide a tiny bit of support, that’s part of what I’m trying to do. To make connections with people that they might not otherwise have, for dumb reasons.”

Bridge Books hasn’t been open long, but Shea says the response has been “amazing”. “People gravitate to a bookstore where they feel they will find what they’re looking for,” he says. “There’s a disillusionment about bookstores – without slamming anyone – and there’s a demand for local stories. I think in the city people feel neglected.”

SO what are people looking for? Well, everything. But Shea says his younger customers are interested in lesser known liberation heroes, as well as early African or pre-colonial stories about the San or Mapungubwe. “They tend not to be so obsessed with the recent past, which weighs so heavily on many people. They want a much broader look at history, which is inspiring.”

Shea says the bad rap publishers and bookshops often get in South Africa is undeserved. “There’s this idea that they don’t want to sell books to the population at large, but they all do,” Shea says. “Not everyone knows how. Everyone I’ve been in contact with is willing to experiment and gamble on this very random project in town. People really are willing to try, and if this project addresses just one little thing, it’s a start.”

Shea is starting an NGO, the African Book Trust, which will buy books to donate to libraries. To find out more and hear about Bridge Books events, follow them on

Griffin Shea recommends

Radiance of Tomorrow
Ishmael Beah - Famous for his memoir about being a child soldier, Radiance of Tomorrow is about returning home. It’s gorgeously written, because he translates often very literally from his mother tongue into English, which creates some beautiful metaphors.•

Sometimes there is a Void
Zakes Mda - As soon as the books arrive they go back out. I ordered two of everything to start, to see what would work, but two is not enough for Zakes Mda. You need 10 of each thing and they just keep going.•

Niq Mhlongo - Affluenza is really good. Short stories are underappreciated; they’re really hard to write. These are gorgeous little gems, and as a parent of young children I like that I can have a feeling of accomplishment by finishing one and then collapsing asleep.•

So Long a Letter
So Long a Letter - People are always looking for Nervous Conditions and Things Fall Apart, so to broaden the African canon a bit, Mariama Bâ is someone we don’t usually read because the books are geographically or linguistically distant.

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I Write What I LikeOliver Tambo RememberedThe Coming RevolutionEight Days in SeptemberCyril RamaphosaWhen Hope Whispers

Bridge Books top sellers

1. I Write What I Like, by Steve Biko
2. Oliver Tambo Remembered, edited by Z Pallo Jordan
3. The Coming Revolution: Julius Malema and the Fight for Economic Freedom, edited by Floyd Shivambu
4. Eight Days in September: The Removal of Thabo Mbeki, by Frank Chikane
5. Cyril Ramaphosa, by Anthony Butler
6. When Hope Whispers, by Zoleka Mandela

Follow Jennifer Malec on Twitter @projectjennifer

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  • Oliver Tambo Remembered: A Collection of Contributions from Around the World Celebrating the Life of OR Tambo edited by Zweledinga Pallo Jordan
    EAN: 9781770102361
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Why the first South African novel to be banned under apartheid law is also one of the worst ever written

Published in the Sunday Times

Rosa Lyster conducted a forensic-detective-style search for the author of the forgotten book An Act of Immorality, which despite its pseudo-liberal credentials she believes is one of the worst local novels ever written

In 1963, the state tried to take control of South African literature. While other legislation was already being used to censor “undesirable” material, the 1963 Publications and Entertainment Act was the first to make statutory provision for the control of locally produced work, allowing the apartheid state to operate one of the most comprehensive censorship systems in the world. It is difficult to communicate the scale of the endeavour, except to describe it as a kind of mania. The censors tried to read everything, were suspicious of everything, wrote dense and detailed reports on everything, in an attempt to neutralise the perceived threat of literature. They failed, ultimately. But they tried.

The first South African novel to be banned under the new legislation was titled An Act of Immorality, published by Trans-World in 1963, and written under a pseudonym: Des Troye. The book jacket advertises it as “A Startling Expose of Sex Across the Colour Line”, featuring a lawyer who “prosecutes offenders of the Immorality Act by day” and “by Night, under neurotic compulsion … breaks the immorality act.” The author is described as “a Johannesburg Attorney who holds a degree in psychology … He writes under the pen-name ‘Des Troye’ to avoid victimisation and publicity”.



An Act of Immorality sold 40,000 copies on publication, breaking previous records on South African sales by 25,000 units. In late 1963, an American film crew entered South Africa illegally through Swaziland in order to make a film of the book, drawing the attention of the Security Branch. Further scrutiny followed about six months later, when An Act of Immorality was submitted to the censorship board by the Police Commissioner. The novel was quickly banned. Censors’ reports describe it as “an attack on the National Party” and on apartheid. Attached documents reveal that the offices of the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Justice, and the National Commissioner of Police were engaged in a joint effort to unmask Des Troye, who they had identified only as a white Johannesburg-based lawyer who might be working at the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court. It is unclear, in these memos, whether this information has been gathered from analysis of the novel itself, or from other sources of intelligence. What is clear is that they badly wanted to find out who he was.

This is the first half of the story of An Act of Immorality. I have told it to a few people, and the response is always the same: they cannot understand why they haven’t heard it before. It’s such an interesting story, after all: anonymous author, 40,000 copies sold, first South African novel to be banned. The most interesting thing about Act though is that almost no one seems to know anything about it, even the people who should know. I can offer myself as a test case: I am in the process of completing a doctoral thesis about literary censorship during apartheid, and all I knew that the book was that it existed, and that it was long out of print. I had never read it, and I had no idea of the author’s real identity. It’s not just me – in wider discussions of literary censorship, the novel is mentioned only in passing, and only the pseudonym is provided. Peter McDonald, the author of The Literature Police (Oxford University Press) and an authority on the subject of apartheid censorship, didn’t know who Des Troye was, either. I asked him about it over email, shortly after I became interested in the case. He replied saying that he hadn’t been able to get to the bottom of it, and encouraged me to do some more digging.

I started with the book itself, which I read over two days in the National Library, sitting with all the people rustling their newspapers and doing their maths homework. I’m not sure what I expected it to be like. Earnestly liberal, maybe. Probably a bit racy, with some bad sex scenes and an implausible plotline. I didn’t think it was going to be good. I did not anticipate how bad it actually is.

An Act of Immorality is a very bad book. It begins with the sentence “It was afternoon, a warm, sensual afternoon”, and it is all downhill from there. Characters are coarsely drawn; description is weak; plot twists are produced at the last moment; whole characters exist only to illuminate the nobility of the protagonist, Johannes Burger, an obvious stand-in for the author; and dialogue is comically bad. It urgently needs an edit. The tone moves awkwardly between laboured raunchiness and long stretches in which characters have impossibly unlikely conversations about psychology. Remember the psychology thing, because it becomes important later.

Open Act at any page, and you will find something to cringe at. It’s not a sin, though, to be a bad writer. The real problem is that it is also a horrible book. The novel continually expresses views which are repellent, while also presenting its protagonist as an exemplar of liberal humanity. On the one hand, it weighs against the Immorality Act, calling it “an act of death”, and provides countless scenes of the damage the act wrought. On the other, it contains many sentences like these: “It was obvious to all present, even to the most ignorant African onlooker, that here was a man different from other men”; “[e]ven the most illiterate non-white in the gallery could see that Johannes was a man of conviction”; “her voice, poise and attire were extremely sophisticated for a black woman”. The protagonist’s desire for black women is described as a “neurotic compulsion”, and it is strongly implied that the root of this “compulsion” is his sexual abuse at the hands of his mother. It is further intimated that both parents were driven to suicide by their own “neurotic” desire for black men and women. White people’s desire for black people is continually depicted as pathological, the product of a troubled mind, and the root cause of the suicide of at least four white people in the novel. It is literally what kills them. The novel was banned on the grounds that it was “a slashing attack on the Immorality Act and apartheid,” but it could almost have been used as state propaganda.

Reading Act made me understand why the author had been so coy about his identity. I went back to the censor’s report hoping to find something, some clue about who he was. I found it: a typed memo at the back of a file I had looked at probably 20 times before, and yet somehow failed to properly see: “It may be mentioned that the ‘Sunday Express’ of the 29th September contains a report to the effect that an American film company is secretly filming the novel. The department has notified the SAP, and will be advised as to the authenticity of this statement. According to the Press report, the author is Mr Simon Meyerson.”

I can’t think of a more vivid example of the lunacies of the apartheid state than the fact that three state offices, between them, were apparently in doubt as to the identity of someone whose full name, occupation, and photograph had recently been published in a national paper. The secret of Des Troye’s identity was never a secret at all.

Ordering the microfilm from the National Library, I expected to find a small piece somewhere towards the back of the paper. It was on the front page. A screaming headline: SEX BOOK IS FILMED SECRETLY ON RAND: AMERICAN UNIT “SHOOTS” “ACT OF IMMORALITY” The article describes the author in the same terms used on the book jacket and states that “until today, his identity has remained a well-kept secret”. The writer goes on: “I am now able to disclose that the author is Mr Simon Meyerson, a 27-year-old student at the University of the Witwaterstrand”.

The subsequent interview of Meyerson makes for revealing reading. The writer of the article, Gordon Winter (subsequently revealed to be an apartheid spy), quotes Meyerson as insisting that the book was not “political” and instead was an interrogation into “the underlying psychological reasons … why people broke the Act in spite of its disastrous consequences.” In a follow-up report a week later, Meyerson insisted again that his motives were not political. Discussing an upcoming trip to London in order to negotiate world film rights for the novel, Meyerson stated: “I … wish to tell [the Minister of Information] that I do not intend being a bad ambassador for South Africa when I go to London on Thursday.”

It is difficult to say what he was thinking when he gave this interview. Also, it is important to remember that the writer of this article was an apartheid spy – he might have quoted Meyerson unsympathetically, or out of context. It is difficult to say. It looks very bad, though, especially the part about being an ambassador for the apartheid state.

Where is Meyerson now? An online search found a psychologist of the same name and age, also born in South Africa, who has an LLB and now lives in London. He did not respond to repeated email requests for comment, so it might be him, or it might not. Nowhere in this Meyerson’s biography or list of achievements is there any mention of An Act of Immorality.

Whoever wrote the book has succeeded in obscuring this part of his past. There is, in fact, very little remaining evidence that the book existed at all. It has fallen almost entirely from view. The question as to why this has happened might be easy to answer: this is a horrible story, and one that we would prefer not to remember.

Follow Rosa Lyster @rosalyster

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South Africa’s day of reckoning approaches: Ishtiyaq Shukri weighs up Brexit, the Tshwane unrest, privilege and poverty



There hasn’t been a day of reckoning in South Africa, but if things don’t change tangibly and soon, there will be. And when it comes, it will be horrific, but it will not be without cause.

Ishtiyaq Shukri considers the implications of Brexit, the American presidential race, hysteria around migration, and the recent unrest in Tshwane

Like so many people in the world today, I don’t live in a country, but between countries. Over time, I have developed an affinity with all of them. When I am physically present in one, the others are always on my mind.

South Africa and Britain are two of my countries, and while I no longer feel at liberty to travel to Britain physically, life is not only experienced through the movements of the body, but also in the workings of the mind. Despite my physical exclusion from the UK, I spend a lot of mental time there, particularly in London. I have lived for so long between my countries that they have begun to merge, no longer separate places on the map, but one place in my head. That is where they co-exist and where I hold them together.

Watching our capital burn, on the 40th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising

This has been a particular difficult week for South Africa and Britain. In Pretoria, riots erupted on 21 June over the nomination of Thoko Didiza as the ANC’s mayoral candidate in local elections scheduled for August. To see our capital city in flames isn’t easy, but in the case of Pretoria, it has been especially cutting to witness such fiery images coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising of 16 June, 1976. Those pictures of Pretoria in flames paint a thousand words, among them the following eight: All is not well. Something needs to change.

News from Britain has also been vexing. On 16 June, I was driving on a busy motorway and had turned down the radio to negotiate a convoy of trucks when five words filtered through the din of the highway to punch me in the ears – British Member of Parliament shot. In the immediacy of the moment, the announcement competing for my attention with the lorry ahead, the thought crossed my mind that perhaps the shooting had occurred in Afghanistan or Iraq. Isn’t that where such things happen? I slowed down and turned up the volume to hear the details: not Afghanistan or Iraq, but West Yorkshire, England. I remember looking at the radio and asking out loud, “What?”

This week, those words from the protest song by the British rock band Queen have going round in my head, the way songs sometimes do:

Is this the world we created? We made it on our own.
Is this the world we devastated, right to the bone?
If there’s a God up in the sky looking down
What must he think of what we’ve done
To the world that He created?

That they grow ever more poignant with the passing of time belies our assumptions of our age as the pinnacle of human progress and evolution. When I look around the world, particularly at the countries in which I have lived my life, I draw different conclusions about the state of the world and the language we use to describe it. We use terms like the “developed world”, the “first world”, the “industrialised world” to categorise, to elevate and to denigrate, whereas I have a growing sense of foreboding that only one descriptor is increasingly relevant to ever-expanding swathes of our planet – the devastated world – because that is how most people on Earth experience life. What meaning is there to any of our categories when the economic and foreign policies of rich countries in the “developed world” are directly responsible for the poverty and insecurity of poor countries in the “developing world”, their policies actively working against development to foster destruction and annihilation instead. Let me give just one example – Yemen – pulverised by Saudi Arabia with British and American weapons.

The dynamics of the contrived categories we impose on the world are equally at work in the horrendous language we use to talk about people we perceive as different. There are two current affairs items, which – along with Tony Blair – I have taken to muting. The first is news involving the American billionaire currently a front-runner for the Republican Party in the campaign for the US Presidency. I refuse to write his name. He has already had more media coverage than a bigoted idiot should. The other is the debate around Britain’s proposed exit from the European Union to be decided in a referendum on 23 June. No longer able to endure the vitriol of the “Brexit” campaign, I tuned out.

The myth of change in South Africa

Similarly, if anything belies the myth of change in South Africa, it is the language South Africans continue to use and the ways of thinking we continue to employ. Young privileged South Africans can frequently be heard arguing that they are not responsible for apartheid as they were born after it (supposedly) ended. This kind of thinking is born out of that of their parents, who similarly absolved themselves of responsibility through claims that they either did not know what was going on, or that they were merely abiding by the laws of the land, or that they were simply following orders. These deceptions continue to be peddled as truths in South Africa, where they are used by enormously privileged people trying to reconcile and legitimise the continued states of unequal favour they enjoy, and to absolve themselves of any responsibility for the enduring trauma tormenting the country. And even as they employ such duplicity, it is without any awareness of the converse being true – that if wealthy South Africans born after 1994 are not responsible for the state of the nation and therefore at liberty to enjoy their wealth, then poor South Africans born at the same time are not responsible for their poverty and therefore at liberty to protest.

In reality, the truth is more like this: around the world, but especially in South Africa, privilege and poverty are inherited, and like most inheritances, you get it from your parents. 22 years after 1994, who in South Africa still lives in townships? And how many township inhabitants are white? By what perverted thinking have privileged South Africans become innocent victims? Of Africa’s 10 richest people, three are South African – more than in any other country on the continent. All three are white (men). The notion that they are victims is the same kind of perversity that allows Israel to paint itself the victim of Palestinian aggression even while it has nuclear bombs and the most powerful army in the Middle East at its disposal, while Palestinians have stones and knives and crude Qassam rockets.

Britain is the most corrupt country in the world: Brexit deflects the real issues

Such flawed reasoning becomes the rationale through which we justify and perpetuate racist stereotypes and attitudes. Take corruption, for instance. Depictions of Africa as endemically corrupt are commonplace. And while corruption certainly blights our continent, according to Transparency International, Britain is in fact the most corrupt country in the world, and London the world’s “number-one home for the fruits of corruption”. But who cares about facts when they conflict with our ingrained notions of the developed world, of the west, of the first world and of Europe, which brings us another set of truths. Europe is in meltdown because of its supposed migration crisis, but it is in Africa where most of the world’s refugees live – more than 2.5 million. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, 26 percent of the world’s refugee population lives in Sub-Saharan Africa. And the countries that host the largest refugee populations are not in Europe, but in Asia and the Middle East – Turkey, Pakistan and Lebanon.

The same language used by privileged South Africans has been on abundant display in Europe. European countries have colonised the world, yet they descend into crisis when a fraction the world’s most desperate and vulnerable people arrive at their borders, not as violent colonisers but as desperate refugees. On 4 April, 2016 the EU started sending migrants back to Turkey, some fleeing conflict-ridden countries like Afghanistan, which EU member states like Britain actively helped plunge into war. In 2004 I was awarded the inaugural EU Literary Award. On 4 April, 2016, I felt nothing but shame. Today it is an award that leaves me with a deep feeling of embarrassment and betrayal.

In Britain, hysteria around migration has led to the prospect of a British withdrawal from the EU. In the wake of the assassination of the British MP Jo Cox by Thomas Mair, there is now a petition sweeping across the UK to cancel the referendum on Thursday. I hope it will be called off, but that is unlikely. This referendum should never have been called for in the first place. If Britain wants to have a referendum, let it have one on ending the sales of arms to Saudi Arabia. Let it have one on ending its involvement in illegal foreign military interventions. If Britain wants to have a serious national debate, let it have one on ending the scourge of homelessness, poverty and exclusion, particularly white poverty and exclusion, because in Britain, white poverty is invisible. And when white poverty in Britain does appear on the national stage, it is usually as the butt of the joke in sitcoms like Little Britain. Vicky Pollard is a target precisely because she is poor white.

This referendum deflects such issues, and taking Britain out of the EU won’t improve things for Vicky, however much she has been promised that it will. It is a deceptive, indulgent and shortsighted campaign, set upon tearing up Europe and dismantling the world. It has revealed deep divides in British society. Should Britain leave the EU, how will its factions continue to cohabit an isolated island? And when the EU is no longer to blame, what will be the substitute piñata, and who will people like Thomas Mair feel at liberty to stab and shoot next? This parochial campaign has serious international consequences because a British exit from the EU will leave Europe weaker. The tragic killing of Jo Cox should also remind us of the global dangers posed by a weakened Europe should it all unravel.

On 28 June, 1914, a Slavic nationalist Gavrilo Princip fired a shot that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg. The shot was fired in Sarajevo, but it travelled through Europe and around the world, igniting World War I. Should Thursday’s referendum go ahead, I hope British voters will consider their choice carefully. I hope they will look beyond their immediate horizons and consider the world as it is, a tinderbox, fragile, volatile and highly militarised. I hope British people will consider the sinister movements that will feel emboldened should the Leave camp win. The neo-Nazi nationalist movement National Action has already voiced support for the killing of Jo Cox. I hope that British voters will remember their history, and recall just how far the bullets of European nationalists like Princip and now Mair can travel.

There hasn’t been a reckoning in South Africa yet

And as Pretoria burns, let wealthy and powerful South Africans continue to dismiss and isolate themselves from the grievances of the township. The riots in Pretoria may have been sparked by the announcement of a mayoral candidate, but the level and spread of the violence suggests that it is fuelled by deeper unresolved issues. Many of those go back decades, some even centuries. There hasn’t been a reckoning in South Africa yet, and if you think 27 April, 1994 was a substitute, perhaps it’s time to think again. It may have been a kiss-and-make-up moment, but that’s clearly all it was – a moment. The good will of that day on which people felt they had achieved real change has gone. A new generation has grown up. They care little for the amnesties, or negotiated settlements or the rainbows their parents settled for. They are not impressed by some of the heroes of the struggle so admired by their parents’ generation. They weren’t there for the love-in, remember? 27 April, 1994 may have been your day of freedom, but it clearly isn’t theirs. And why should it be when they don’t live in a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, but in a township at the back of a hill? There hasn’t been a day of reckoning in South Africa, but if things don’t change tangibly and soon, there will be. And when it comes, it will be horrific, but it will not be without cause. No doubt, the pictures from that day will also paint a thousand words, among them the following three: Lord help us.

The Silent MinaretI See You

Ishtiyaq Shukri is the author of the EU Literary Award-winning The Silent Minaret and I See You

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A brief, ephemeral encounter between two people long ago: The meeting of Qing and Joseph Orpen

By Stephen Coan

On the Trail of Qing and OrpenBeneath the blank-windowed office block cliffs of downtown Johannesburg an unusual exhibition offers a rare opportunity to consider the echoes of a series of conversations held between two men in the remote high Maloti-Drakensberg nearly 150 years ago.

In 1873 Joseph Orpen, a colonial administrator, was commissioned to track down the Hlubi chief Langalibalele kaMthimkhulu who had fled into Basutoland to escape the Natal authorities. Orpen recruited local scouts, among them a man named Qing, a Bushman who lived in the Maloti mountains. Orpen was impressed by Qing and interviewed him about his people’s stories and rituals. The two also discussed the rock art they encountered at several sites.

William Howard Schröeder's portrait of Joseph Millerd Orpen, 1872Orpen later published an account of these interviews in the Cape Monthly Magazine and this article has since come to be regarded as “one of the most thrilling documents in the archive of Bushman ethnography,” according to Jeremy Hollmann, a specialist in southern African hunter-gatherer rock art.

“The meeting between Qing and Orpen in the Maloti-Drakensberg in what is now Lesotho, is widely agreed to be a unique moment,” exhibition curator Justine Wintjes says, “and the only recorded instance in which the meanings of certain rock art scenes were discussed between an outsider, Orpen, and Qing, a man whose community may have still been making rock art.”

The meeting of Qing and Orpen, which occurred during a key episode of colonial oppression in the late nineteenth century, and its outcome forms the subject of the exhibition On the trail of Qing and Orpen: from the colonial era to the present, currently showing at the Standard Bank Art Gallery.

Although there are no pictures of Qing, this figure on horseback painted on the wall of Melikane Shelter stands in for Qing in both book and exhibition. It may have been painted during Qing’s lifetime. Source: Jeremy Hollman.

The exhibition coincides with the publication of On the trail of Qing and Orpen, authored by a multidisciplinary team of scholars: José Manuel de Prada-Samper, Menán du Plessis, Jeremy Hollmann, Jill Weintroub, Justine Wintjes and John Wright, who are also the contributors to the exhibition which was curated by Wintjes, assisted by Wright and Weintroub.

“Six people worked on six different issues,” Wintjes says. “Our approach has been even-handed. Qing and Orpen have equal status.”

Despite such statements the exhibition and the book are not without an element of controversy – notably in the use of the term “bushman”. Some “San” groups use the term “San” as a self-designation while others reject the term and prefer “Bushmen”. Some descendants of Bushmen accept the generic label “Khoisan” which Khoisan activists are fostering; others say this marginalises them.

As is pointed out in the book and in the brief texts accompanying the exhibits, the word “San” was adopted by academics in the 1960s to describe southern Africa’s hunter-gatherer peoples, an all-embracing term incorporating both the present and, crucially, the past. It was seen as a suitable replacement for “bushman” which had come to have a pejorative meaning, denoting not only difference but inferiority. But, as it turns out, “San” is also a contested word, and in certain contexts probably just as disparaging.

Quite apart from scholarly usage, “San” has come to be used as an expression of identity among certain groups seeking their rights as southern Africa’s “first nation”. “In this sense the word ‘San’ equates and strengthens a sense of ethnicity,” Weintroub says. “It symbolises a way of fighting for resources, but to project it back into the past is an anachronism.”

Accordingly, since the 1980s some scholars have gradually returned to using the word “bushman” though rock art specialists still use the term “San”.

“It’s not just the word that is contested, but the whole idea of making it a category of people,” says Wright, a historian who has been working on the history of the bushmen of the Maloti-Drakensberg since 1965. “It is used as a blanket description for a whole range of peoples with different languages. San is a 20th century term; to use it now is an anachronism. Just as it makes no sense to talk of Zulus 500 years ago; Zulu was a term that only began to be widely used after the emergence of the Zulu kingdom in the 1820s.”

Wintjes says the term is used in the exhibition and the book to denote a specific identity. “We simply didn’t have a better term in this context than ‘bushman’. There is no replacement for that word – but we have worked towards using it in more nuanced ways. We also use this term for its continuity with eighteenth and nineteenth-century sources, and to connect back to a time of searching for categories. We use it in a non-ethnic, non-tribal sense.”

Wright agrees: “San is a modern ethnic term – echoing an imagined tribal past. It’s part of the whole tribal paradigm that South Africa is currently caught up in, which in itself is highly problematic.”

Over the years Bushmen have also accrued a layer of romanticism, seen by some as living fossils from some Edenic golden age when human beings lived in harmony with their natural environment. Wright is having none of that: “The whole notion of ‘ancientism’ is rubbish, they are as much a part of modern history as we are.”

Some conversations are always going to be difficult, especially when different levels of discourse – popular, activist, and academic – intersect but are talking at cross-purposes. Qing and Orpen relied on interpreters and Orpen’s article arose out of that problematic process. Now comes the book and the exhibition.

“Both are primarily on the backstory, production, and afterlife of a particular text – Orpen’s crucial article on the stories that Qing told him,” Wright says. “We are trying to open up historical questions.”

And both go further than previously in looking at the text, Weintroub says. “The published text is taken as authoritative. But there are differences between the published text and Orpen’s original manuscript.”

These discrepancies have been scrutinised by folklorist De Prada-Samper. His findings, drawn from both the manuscript and the published text, feature in what is the largest section of the book and present much new information. Of particular note are his interpretations regarding beliefs surrounding snakes, the nature of the rain-creature, and another dimension that relates to a complex of beliefs “very widespread in southern Africa and beyond, about an underwater world that very often, though not always, is connected with the world of the spirits of the dead”.

“José’s work is the central element of the book,” Wright says. “José’s rethinking will attract attention.”

According to Wintjes the book and exhibition serve to fill a gap in scholarship, as few of the studies on Orpen’s article place it within a wider historical context.

The book came first. “It existed as a project five years ago,” Wintjes says. “When Barbara Freemantle, curator of the Standard Bank Art Gallery, heard about it she said it would make for a great exhibition. So, in part, the exhibition facilitated publication of the book – but it also extended the content of the book into a different mode of exposition. The book is illustrated in service of the text, but with the exhibition we move out of a textual mode.”

The exhibition features rarely seen examples of rock engravings, paintings and bushman artefacts, as well as activist T-shirts side by side with nineteenth-century artworks by Thomas Baines, Andrew Anderson, George Angas and others, some especially restored by Standard Bank for the exhibition.

Also on display are a variety of manuscripts, including a reproduction of Orpen’s original, books, and some spectacular photographs by Hollmann of the rock art sites where Qing and Orpen held their conversations.

Men Catching Snake
A digitally enhanced photograph of an image from Sehonghong Shelter identified by Qing as depicting “men … under water” catching a “snake” with “charms” and a “long reim” (sic). Another nineteenth century informant said the paintings depict “rainmaking”. Source: Jeremy Hollman.

Objects and artworks are placed in interesting juxtapositions, adding further layers to Qing and Orpen’s interaction. “There are objects from the Wits Art Museum and these are in a cabinet that is an echo of the nineteenth-century ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’. Next to them is a display of a selection of the many the books that have come out of their encounter. So this library display situated next to a museum storage mode of display generates new meanings, for example turning books into objects of material culture. We are asking questions in that kind of way.”

The exhibits are interspersed with short texts, often inconclusive and open-ended. “They throw questions back to the engaged viewer,” Wintjes says.

Exhibition and book explore the encounter of Qing and Orpen from various perspectives: history, archaeology, folklore and ethnography, linguistics, art and art history.

Both book and exhibition pivot on Orpen’s text and the agreement among the scholars involved that there was far more to be mined from it.
Linguist Du Plessis teased out the linguistic evidence “while attempting occasionally to ‘walk the text back’ in an effort to uncover particular words that may have been used either by Qing or the interpreters”.

“The information that Orpen transmitted for us includes around two dozen words from Qing’s ‘own language’,” Du Plessis says, and from these “small shards” she was able to ascertain that Qing’s language “was suffused with elements from both Khoekhoe and southern Bantu languages … while others must have been present from the outset in the broader !Ui family to which his language probably belonged”.
Weintroub sifted the history of the text and its place in knowledge production. “Scholars tend to use it as a repository of information to back up certain interpretative material,” she says. “But I wanted to look at its history as an archival object with a trajectory of its own in relation to epochs or paradigms of thought at different times.”

“This text came out of a brief, ephemeral encounter between two people long ago, but look at what it has given. The scholarly work on it is massive. That encounter was very short but it has inspired so much.”

Doubtless it will inspire more. Wright says: “This book and exhibition are not the final word on the subject. This is not a closed account.”

The exhibition is showing at the Standard Bank Art Gallery until the end of the year. The book On the Trail of Qing and On the trail of Qing and Orpen – From the Colonial Era to the Present Orpen is published by Standard Bank.

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On the Trail of Qing and Orpen

  • On the Trail of Qing and Orpen by José Manuel de Prada-Samper, Menán du Plessis, Jeremy Hollmann, Jill Weintroub, Justine Wintjes, John Wright
    EAN: 9780620688451
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Dorothea Bleek

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Megan Ross reports back from the Iceland Writers Retreat – dubbed ‘the best in the world’

Iceland Writer's Retreat


Megan Ross recently returned from the Iceland Writers Retreat – known as one of the world’s best and most picturesque writers retreats.

Ross is a writer, journalist and editorial designer from Gonubie in the Eastern Cape. She was selected as the female South African entrant for the PEN International New Voices Award in 2014, longlisted for the 2015 Short Sharp Stories Award and shortlisted for the 2015 Short Story Day Africa Prize.

In December, she won an Alumni Award to the Iceland Writers Retreat, and travelled to Reykjavík in April.

Read her report, and interview with IWR co-founder Eliza Reid:

It’s touted as one of the best writing retreats in the world, and after attending I must agree that the Iceland Writers Retreat lives up to its reputation. Set in picturesque Reykjavik, the retreat consists of four days of writing, events and workshops led by acclaimed authors. This year’s retreat featured workshops with Neel Mukherjee, Miriam Toews and Cheryl Strayed, among others, and was also the first year the Alumni Award was awarded. An all-inclusive prize, based on merit and financial need, the award is entirely funded by the retreat’s alumni, and is the reason I was able to travel 11,000km to beautiful Iceland for such an unforgettable writing experience.

On the last day, I caught up with co-founder of the IWR, Canadian-born writer Eliza Reid, to talk about her work-life balance, mingling with famous writers and her key ingredients for a writing retreat.

Eliza Reid of the Iceland Writer's Retreat
Eliza Reid


You’ve had a busy year. There’s the Iceland Writers Retreat, you’re a mother to four children and you’re also a writer. How do you manage to do so much, with a young family in tow?

Iceland is a great place for young families. There is help in the form of subsidies from the government and Reykjavik is a really safe, small city: I let my children walk home from school, and child care is reasonable. Coming from Canada, where having four kids and still working would just not be possible, it makes logistical sense to be here. I also have a home office and my husband and I have a really good domestic balance at home.

On top of this, your husband is running for the Icelandic presidency, and you might just be the new First Lady of Iceland. How is this affecting things?

At the moment I’m focusing exclusively on the campaign, where there are only another three weeks to go. I’m just doing the essential stuff for IWR and some of my other projects, while Erica [Jacobs Green, IWR co-founder] is of course, looking after a lot. We also have Lisa Shannen helping us on social media.

At the beginning of the retreat, you mentioned that you came up with the idea for a writing retreat over lunch with Erica. Tell me about that.

I like to say that most good ideas always start over booze of some sort. But really, we were over at Erica’s drinking wine in the kitchen, and Erica had just come back from a writing conference in the United States. We were having this philosophical discussion about writing and we wondered why there’s nothing like that here in Iceland when there are so many in the US … and being the kind of person who is into event organising, I piped up and said we should start our own. (We also joked that it would be a good excuse to hang out and make our lunches tax-deductable!)

Iceland Writer's Retreat

How did you get things started?

I was going to Canada, where my brother is also a writer. He and I chatted about my idea for a writers’ retreat, and I asked him what he thought peoples’ expectations would be, what we should focus on and how we would go about organising something like this. He suggested we find some authors who would be good teachers, and get some sponsors on board.

In only its first year, you attracted writers like New Yorker journalist Susan Orlean. How did you manage to secure such a famous writer for a fledgling event?

We were really lucky at first. Susan Orlean is a friend of a friend, so we were able to get her in 2014. And we just wrote Geraldine Brooks an email asking her to get involved the following year. Word of mouth helped, and getting those first authors assisted us out for the retreats that followed. We also made sure everything looked legitimate and ran smoothly. And since then, writers have been surprisingly willing. The retreat is also set in Iceland, which is a big drawcard!

Iceland is home to a rich, centuries-old literary tradition and is also the first non-native English speaking country to have a UNESCO City of Literature. Does this have anything to do with the IWR gaining such momentum in only its third year?

It helps that Iceland has its own well-known authors, along with an amazing literary culture, but honestly, I have no idea how it’s grown so big, so quickly. I guess people have enjoyed it and they’ve expressed this through word of mouth.

What is at the core of the Iceland Writers Retreat?

This isn’t a competition or a conference. It’s about bringing like-minded people together into a completely new, beautiful environment. There’s a relaxed, friendly tone. And the travel dimension is very attractive.

Iceland Writer's Retreat

How important is the team behind the scenes?

The retreat started with just Erica and I. Erica has a fulltime job so I do a lot of the day-to-day things but we make all the big decisions together. In terms of a team, we have our social media and marketing intern, Audrey Wright, who manages that aspect of things. We’re lucky to mentor her, which forms part of her university programme in Toronto. There’s also our blog manager, plus our volunteers who help out for the duration of the retreat. We also pay our volunteer coordinators, Elizabeth Nunberg and Lisa Shannen.

The event is so slick and impeccably run. How do you achieve this with such a small team?

Planning, planning and more planning. Even though we organise everything down to the last minute, there’s constant work to be done during the retreat. I mean, this year I’ve only been to one workshop. I know Erica’s also only been to one, and the rest of the time we have just been working.

How do you cope when things go awry?

No matter how well we plan things there are always little things that can go wrong. But you just have to fix them! For instance, Cheryl Strayed couldn’t come this year. She had terrible flu and couldn’t fly. But people are generally understanding, so we deal with it and move on, and learn for the following year.

Erica Green and Eliza Reid of the Iceland Writer's Retreat

You and Erica are a powerhouse team. How do you do it?

Erica and I have been friends since 2011 and just work really well together. I never have to explain myself to her, and vice versa. Communication is obviously key in this sort of thing.

Does running a writing retreat inspire your own writing career?

It most certainly does. Lately, I haven’t put a priority on my own writing career or made it my whole focus and that’s okay. On the rare occasion, I do get some writing in. But that’s really on the rare occasion.

What is your favourite part of the retreat?

I find the entire event wholly fulfilling. Erica and I joke that we’ve found a way to meet people from around the world, and make great contacts to stay with each time we travel. But seriously, I have loved creating this network of similar-minded people from all over the world, and Erica and I both enjoy playing a role in connecting people with each other.

Iceland Writer's Retreat

The Alumni Award is a great way to make this sort of event more inclusive. Was this one of its aims?

Despite us trying to make it as cost-effective as possible, we know not a lot of writers could afford to go to this sort of event. So we thought we should just ask our alumni, because they could afford to come here in the first place. Owing to their generosity, we named it for them. Although we based the Alumni Award on merit and financial need, we were well aware it would be difficult to determine who is more deserving since we don’t ask for proof of financial need. When it comes down to it, do you choose the widow with four kids and cancer from Iowa or the young female writer in Sudan? It can be difficult.

How did the Alumni Award work?

It was mainly a quick win contest. We had five hundred entries and it ended up being like this lottery. We didn’t charge an entry fee and a competition works really well because it’s great advertising too.

How long did it take to raise the funds?

We used the Icelandic version of Kickstarter, and raised 50 percent of our goal in just one day, and the rest in only two weeks. We were pleased with how ready the alumni were to help because it really showed the value of such an award.

Iceland Writer's Retreat

What is your core focus when planning the retreat each year?

We insist on small, intimate groups, as well as a good gender balance in the faculty and the classes. And then of course, it’s set in Iceland! We incorporate this tourism aspect into a lot of what we do in the form of literary tours and events. People enjoy this.

Do you have any plans to expand the IWR? Would you consider hosting another event or recreating something similar somewhere else?

We decide plans for expansion on a year-to-year basis. We like to give as many people as possible an opportunity to attend, but also want to maintain the small, friendly feeling. There’s a few tweaks lined up for 2017 which we are yet to announce. As for the latter, we’ll always host it in Iceland.

I keep imagining an event like this in South Africa. What would you tell someone looking to establish a new writing retreat?

Write a good business plan. When you’re thinking about securing a corporate sponsor, don’t tell them your event is great because it’s a good cause, give them the bottom line: tell them it will make them money! Then involve organisers and suppliers that you can trust.

Iceland Writer's Retreat

When organising a literary event on this kind of scale, what should one be aware of?

I would say that there are always going to be people who don’t like certain aspects of things. Accept this and don’t be disheartened. Another key thing is managing other people who want to come along for the ride, because there will be people who want a portion of the success when things go well.

Have you learned any valuable lessons in running the last three events?

I’ve had to learn to say no! For example, we’ve had agents approaching us to pitch at the retreat and we’ve always said no to because this just doesn’t tie in with our vision. Don’t try to be all things for all people. Erica and I have always been upfront about what the IWR is and how we run it.

And lastly, what would you say is the secret to the phenomenal success of the IWR?

We hand out feedback forms at the end of every retreat, and we take this information very seriously. You must find out what people loved and didn’t love, and grow from it. We also always keep in mind that this is our event. To anyone else, I would say to remember that you need to be loyal to your vision. Ignore any naysayers, do what you want to do and execute that.

Iceland Writer's Retreat

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