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Archive for the ‘Feature’ Category

The extraordinary incident of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s BBC Newsnight interview

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Half of a Yellow SunWe Should All Be FeministsAmericanahPurple HibiscusAmericanahThe Thing Around Your Neck

 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says she felt “upset” and “ambushed” by her recent interview on BBC Newsnight.

The interview, which took place just after the United States election, made international headlines, as Adichie was horribly mismatched with Donald Trump supporter R Emmett Tyrrell, and made some strong remarks about the president-elect, racism and privilege.
 

 
In a statement on her Facebook page, Adichie reveals that she was given no indication that she would be pitted against a Trump supporter.

In a comment on the post, BBC Newsnight give a half-hearted apology, saying they are “terribly sorry” Adichie “felt ambushed by the encounter”, claiming that it was “an honest mistake” and expressing the hope that the author will return for a one-on-one interview “some time”.

The programme’s intentions with the match-up were made clear, however, by the simple fact that they couched the title of their initial YouTube video of the encounter in antagonistic terms: “Is Donald Trump racist? Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie v R Emmett Tyrrell”. As Adichie says, “It is about entertainment.”

(This is not Adichie’s first unfortunate run-in with the British press. In February 2015 The Guardian erroneously published a very personal piece by Adichie on depression, and had to “apologise unreservedly” for the error.)

Tyrrell, who is editor in chief of the American Spectator, was equally perturbed by the encounter, and wrote a piece for The Washington Times that is nothing short of bizarre. In it, he refers to Adichie and Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis as “two apparently intelligent English-speaking women” – being sure to emphasise their gender – speaking “incomprehensible” “gibberish”. “They showed no sign of drunkenness or of drug abuse so I left the studio perplexed,” he writes.

He refers to Adichie by her first name throughout the article and calls her a “so-called novelist”, “a Nigerian lady of supposedly great gifts”.

“I had never heard of her, and for decades I have kept an eye on the intellectual vistas as editor in chief of The American Spectator,” he trumpets, before switching to misplaced wry amusement and 1920s flapper slang:

“Why on earth she was appearing before a British audience to discuss an American election I have no idea. If the BBC wanted to explore creative writing I suppose she was their gal, but then what was I doing there?”

Tyrrell writes that he even contacted his very good friend and distinguished historian Andrew Roberts, who hadn’t heard of her either.

It is a mystery why Tyrrell did not simply type Adichie’s name into Google. If he had done so, he could have read about her academic and literary background, he would have seen a (very long) list of awards, and would have learnt that she has been based in the United States for 20 years. Further Googling would have revealed that earlier this year Adichie wrote a short story about Donald and Melania Trump for The New York Times Book Review (clearly not enough of an intellectual vista for Tyrrell).

Repeating what was his biggest gaffe in the Newsnight interview, he again refers to Adichie as “highly emotional”, and paraphrases two of the farcically illogical points he made that day as if they prove that he won the debate.

He tops it all off with a gloriously ironic reference to Adichie’s “invincible ignorance”.

Tyrrell hits so many stereotypical notes one would be forgiven for suspecting that he was a very good actor hired to play the part of Fuddy Duddy number one.
 

 
Adichie, meanwhile, showing the same composure and eloquence she did in the Newsnight interview, has written a response on Facebook criticising the BBC’s handling of the interview, reiterating her statements about Donald Trump and racism, and specifically taking issue with Tyrell’s problematic use of the word “emotional”:

He didn’t say my name. Perhaps he didn’t know it because he had not paid attention when we were introduced. Mine is not an easy name for languid American tongues anyway. But that word ‘emotional.’ No. Just no.

Normally I would not think of ‘emotional’ as belittling. Emotion is a luminous, human quality. I am often emotional – gratefully so. But in this context it was coded language with a long history.

To say that I responded ‘emotionally’ to the election was to say that I had not engaged my intellect. ‘Emotional’ is a word that has been used to dismiss many necessary conversations especially about gender or race. ‘Emotional’ is a way of discounting what you have said without engaging with it.

 

Read the full piece, as shared on Adichie’s Facebook page:

ON THE BBC NEWSNIGHT INTERVIEW

By Chimamanda Adichie

Two weeks ago, BBC Newsnight contacted my manager to ask for an interview with me. I would be interviewed by the presenter, they said, and would broadly be asked about the election. I said yes.

When I arrived at their studio in Washington DC, the show’s producer casually said, “You’ll be on a panel with a Trump Supporter. A magazine editor who has supported Donald Trump from the beginning.”

“What?” I said. At no time had I been told that there would be anyone else in the interview, never mind being pitted against a Trump Supporter.

I felt upset and ambushed.

I wanted to walk away, but decided not to. I was already there. And I did want to talk about the election, which I had experienced in a deeply personal way. I was still stunned and angry and sad. I still woke up feeling heavy. Not only because I am an enthusiastic supporter of Hillary Clinton, but also because, with Donald Trump’s win, America just didn’t feel like America anymore. The country that grew from an idea of freedom was now to be governed by an authoritarian demagogue.

“I’m sorry you didn’t know it was a panel,” The producer said. “There must have been some mistake somewhere when your manager spoke to the people in London.”

Some mistake somewhere. My manager had simply not been told.

“We want to have balance,” he said.

But sneakily pitting me against a Trump Supporter was not about balance – we could have easily been interviewed separately.
It is a deliberately adversarial strategy that news organizations use in the pursuit of what is often called ‘good television.’
It is about entertainment.

I told the producer that my condition was that I not be asked to respond directly to anything the Trump Supporter had to say.
We could both air our opinions without being egged on to ‘fight it out.’

The Trump Supporter arrived. A well dressed, well groomed elderly man. The producer greeted him, gushed a little. He introduced me to the Trump Supporter. “She will be on the panel with you,” he said.

The Trump Supporter barely glanced at me.

The producer wanted us to shake hands, and he gestured to complete the introduction. We shook hands.

“How are you?” I said. Something about the tilt of the Trump Supporter’s head made me think that perhaps he had hearing problems – and suddenly his standoffishness was forgivable.

I felt a kind of compassion, while also thinking: why would this man, editor of a conservative magazine, be willing to put America in the hands of a stubbornly uninformed demagogue who does not even believe in classic conservative principles?
We got on air. We were seated uncomfortably close. The studio itself was strange, a flimsy tent on top of a building that overlooks the White House. A strong wind rattled the awning.

The interview began. I was determined to speak honestly, and not be distracted by the Trump Supporter, and be done with it and go home and never again allow myself to be ambushed in a television interview.

Until the Trump Supporter said that word ‘emotionally.’

“I do not respond emotionally like this lady,” he said.

I thought: o ginidi na-eme nwoke a? [“Just what is wrong with this man?” - hat-tip to Brittle Paper for the translation]

He didn’t say my name. Perhaps he didn’t know it because he had not paid attention when we were introduced. Mine is not an easy name for languid American tongues anyway. But that word ‘emotional.’ No. Just no.

Normally I would not think of ‘emotional’ as belittling. Emotion is a luminous, human quality. I am often emotional – gratefully so. But in this context it was coded language with a long history.

To say that I responded ‘emotionally’ to the election was to say that I had not engaged my intellect. ‘Emotional’ is a word that has been used to dismiss many necessary conversations especially about gender or race. ‘Emotional’ is a way of discounting what you have said without engaging with it.

No way was I going to ignore that. Which, predictably, led to an interview in which I found myself, rather than talking about misogyny and populism, responding to a man who claimed that an anti-NAFTA, China-bashing, America-First Donald Trump would be an ‘internationalist’ rather than an ‘isolationist.’

Who presumed that he, a white man, could decide what was racist and what was not. And who insisted that Donald Trump is not a racist, even though the evidence is glaring, even though the House Majority Leader of Donald Trump’s own Republican party condemned Donald Trump’s racism.

So much for responding ‘emotionally’ to the election.

I left that interview still feeling upset. But it made me better see why America no longer feels like America.

 
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Covers revealed for local and UK editions of Fred Khumalo’s new book, Dancing the Death Drill

Cover revealed for Fred Khumalo’s new book, Dancing the Death Drill
#ZuptasMustFall and Other RantsSeven Steps To HeavenThe Lighter Side of Life on Robben IslandZulu Boy Gone CrazyBitches' BrewTouch My Blood

 
Alert! Fred Khumalo has revealed the cover for his new novel, Dancing the Death Drill.

The book will be published in February 2017, by Umuzi in South Africa (left) and by Jacaranda Books in the UK and Ireland (right).

Cover revealed for Fred Khumalo’s new book, Dancing the Death DrillCover revealed for Fred Khumalo’s new book, Dancing the Death Drill

 
Dancing the Death Drill recounts the tragic story of the SS Mendi, a passenger steamship that sank in the English Channel in 1917 killing 646 people, most of whom were black South African troops heading for France to serve in World War I.

February 2017 will mark the centenary of the disaster.

Jacaranda Books founder Valerie Brandes said: “We are delighted to work with Umuzi and Penguin Random House South Africa on such a brilliant novel that will help shine a light on this dark moment in our history.”

Khumalo revealed the lovely looking covers on his Facebook page, saying: “What a journey it has been: writing, fighting with publishers and editors, editing, fighting some more … finally sighing in relief.”
 

 
We can’t wait to lay our hands on Dancing the Death Drill. Keep your eye on Books LIVE for more details as they emerge.

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  • The Lighter Side of Life on Robben Island: Banter, Past Times and Boyish Tricks by Fred Khumalo, Gugu Kunene, Paddy Harper
    EAN: 9780620540537
    Find this book with BOOK Finder!

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

 
Read an extract from Chapter 3 of the book:

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

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

“You did?” Nom blurts out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s it?” Nom says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Gogo,” agrees Rosy.

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

 
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Report from the first Bridge Book Festival: Books are incredible; access to books is more incredible – Yewande Omotoso

Words by Thato Rossouw, most images by Purilarb Tommy Cherngphatthana

Yewande Omotoso and fans

 

“Books are incredible, but what is more incredible is access to books,” were writer Yewande Omotoso’s opening remarks as she sat down to do a reading on the Bridge Books balcony during the inaugural Bridge Book Festival.

The Woman Next DoorThe Relatively Public Life Of Jules BrowdeEyes in the NightAffluenzaHappiness is a Four-Letter WordFrom Whiskey to Water

 

The one-day festival, which was hosted in association with Sunday Times, took place on 29 of October throughout the Johannesburg CBD – at Bridge Books on 85 Commissioner Street; Corner House on 77 Commissioner Street; the Rand Club on the corner of Lovedale and Fox; and Ernest Oppenheimer Park on the corner of Albertina Sisulu and Joubert Street.

It featured book readings and discussions, and Omotoso said: “the event is brilliant for its location, in particular, how it uses the city.”

Readers and book fansReaders and book fans
Readers and book fans

 
Bridge Books owner Griffin Shea said he wanted to use the festival to give people an invitation to visit the city centre and walk inside heritage buildings that can sometimes be closed off.

“Because so many buildings downtown are weighed with history, it’s also important to redefine our urban spaces,” he said. “One way to do that is by celebrating contemporary South African culture, like our outstanding writers.”

Readers and book fansReaders and book fans

 
The festival featured a variety of writers including Omotoso, Nozizwe Cynthia Jele, Raphael d’Abdon, Sarah Godsell, Flow Wellington, Nomavenda Mathiane, Niq Mhlongo and Samantha Cowen, and, after reading from their latest work, the writers had the opportunity to answer questions from the audience.

Yewande Omotoso reading

 
Omotoso, the award-winning author of two novels, read from her latest book, The Woman Next Door, and discussed her work, inspiration and future plans with the audience. When asked about her main interests when writing her books, and whether or not she ever has “messages” in her work for her readers, Omotoso said her interest is in writing about “the myth of purity”, but she added, “I don’t try to teach people anything.”

Omotoso also spoke about the connection she has with the characters she develops in her stories, saying that she could never have written any of them if she didn’t have a connection with them.

Readers and book fansReaders and book fans

 
Another author who had a reading at the festival was former journalist Nomavenda Mathiane who, after her reading in the foyer of the City Central building, spoke about the importance of having Africans tell their own stories and the journey that ended with her writing her new book, Eyes in the Night. Mathiane outlined the lessons she learned while writing the book and how valuable they were for her. “I have learned so much about myself, my family and the Zulu nation from writing this book. It has been the best experience I have ever gone through,” she said.

Nomavenda Mathiane

 
The audience was treated to a taste of upcoming work as well, as author of the famed novel turned movie Happiness is a Four-Letter Word, Nozizwa Cynthia Jele, read a chapter from an untitled work in progress, which she hopes to have published late next year. After reading from the new novel, which she described as totally different from Happiness is a Four-Letter Word, she spoke about the struggles of writing a second novel after the success of her first one.

Present at the event were publishers, writers and readers. Some of the reading groups that were present include the Hector Peterson Museum Book Club, the Bookamoso Book Club and the BookWormers Book Club, among others.

The event ended on a successful note with an after party, where authors, readers and publishers came together to discuss their love of books and the work they do. Shea said the event was an indication of the goodwill that people have for downtown Johannesburg and the number of people who want the city to succeed. “It’s also a celebration of the joy that our city takes in reading,” he continued. “We have to keep looking for new ways to tap into that enthusiasm.”
 

Celebrating Joburg and South African writing: 2016 Bridge Book Festival programme revealed

 

* * * * *

Thato Rossouw and Jennifer Malec (and others) tweeted live from the event:

 
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Scandi colonialism: Rosa Lyster talks to Kim Leine about his book The Prophets of the Eternal Fjord

Giant, icy Greenland is the setting for this absorbing novel, writes Rosa Lyster for the Sunday Times

The Prophets of Eternal FjordThe Prophets of the Eternal Fjord
Kim Leine (Atlantic Books)
****

The protagonist of The Prophets of Eternal Fjord, a priest named Morten Falck, is a mystery to himself. Idealistic, but not clear on what those ideals mean. Not particularly good, and not bad, he sees without understanding, and is buffeted by forces beyond his control. He sails from Copenhagen to Sukkertoppen, Greenland, in 1787 to convert the Inuit to the Danish church, and his experiences there make up much of the novel.

He keeps a diary in which events, including the founding of a rival settlement on Eternal Fjord, are transcribed but not processed. Sensory experiences are described with a hallucinatory intensity, and his catastrophic relationship with Lydia, “the widow”, is presented to the reader in vivid detail. No final conclusions are drawn, however, at least not by the priest. It is left to the reader to do this, to absorb the import of the novel’s key preoccupations: colonialism and its effects (especially on women), the way landscape shapes us, the ways we love each other.

It is tempting to draw parallels between an author and his protagonist. Other characters take up important positions (the catechist, the widow, the prophetess), other voices take over, but the novel begins with the priest, and it is his journey we are often concerned with. There are, certainly, one or two important similarities between Kim Leine and Morten Falck.

Like Falck, Leine has spent a significant part of his life in Greenland, participating in what he calls “the great post-colonial adventure”. Educated as a nurse, he spent 15 years as a primary healthcare practitioner in Greenland’s capital Nuuk and on its eastern islands.

The similarities end here. If Falck is a mystery to himself, if he sees much but understands little, Leine has internalised the lessons learned in Greenland, and effortlessly communicates them to others.

In a recent interview Leine spoke about his output (prolific), his influences (Melville and Flaubert), his past (turbulent in parts), future projects (again, intimidatingly prolific), his feelings about Greenland (strong), and about Denmark (occasionally mixed). He speaks about the implications of the “mild tyranny” of the Danish colonial project, its reverberating effects in Greenland today and the Danish people’s perception of it, with clarity and insight.

Leine’s prose, at first, can take one aback. The novel shows the brutal life in Greenland, and harrowing events are described in unemotional language. Leine himself describes the novel’s tone as “un-empathic”, saying that “the book doesn’t care about the [frequent] deaths of its characters”.

The book doesn’t care, but the reader does. Despite (or perhaps because of) the utter lack of sentiment in the novel’s pages, it is difficult not to get completely absorbed by Falck’s strange, complicated journey. This is due, in part, to Leine’s eye for the significant detail: the mud on someone’s boots, the lice tumbling from someone’s dress, the grease on someone’s cheeks. His characters, and the landscape they inhabit, are hugely present: what they see, how they look, what they smell like, what they eat, where they sleep, how they speak, how they pray.

The Prophets of Eternal Fjord is the first volume of a trilogy dealing with the Danish occupation of Greenland. Leine has already embarked on Volume 3, which deals with the 1880 colonisation of East Greenland, led by an expedition of female rowers, “the toughest women in the world”. He speaks about these women as if he knows them and, in a way, he does. This is what good writing can do: take us out of ourselves and into an entirely new and unfamiliar world.

Follow Rosa Lyster on Twitter @rosalyster

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

An Interview with Rustum Kozain

By Hedley Twidle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HT  So why is the present a nightmare?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Are publishers afraid of new ideas? Margaret von Klemperer examines the trend of updating Jane Austen and Shakespeare

By Margaret von Klemperer for The Witness

EligibleWhat is happening to creative imagination? Killed off by a push for profit? These questions are prompted by the arrival on my desk of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible for review. I’ve been looking forward to this – Sittenfeld’s American Wife was a terrific book – and with Eligible, she has been persuaded to join in Harper Collins’s Austen Project.

I thought she might rescue one of the silliest ideas to come from a publishing house in recent years – not as daft as adult colouring-in, but close. The plan was for bestselling writers to “update” Jane Austen’s novels into a contemporary setting, keeping the basic plot. First was Joanna Trollope’s Sense & Sensibility (the ampersand to distinguish it from Austen’s version, not that anyone was likely to confuse the two). She could have been a good choice, but she lacked Austen’s delicate sense of irony.

Then we had Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma. I was never going to be easy to convince as this is my favourite Austen, and it was a thumping dud. The plot, which worked in the early 19th Century is disastrously wrong for the 21st, and McCall Smith’s central character is irredeemably nasty in a way Austen’s never is. Val McDermid’s take on Northanger Abbey was harmless but unmemorable. Comedy of manners is tricky when manners have changed so much in a couple of hundred years, and this one fell flat.

They all flopped. Good writers being laced into cripplingly tight corsets. So on to Sittenfeld. She has moved Pride and Prejudice to Cincinnati, called it Eligible after the television dating show in which “Chip” Bingley has been a participant, and produced a lively, hefty (it clocks in at 514 pages compared to the 369 of my battered old P&P) romp. The Bennet girls are older than in the original. Jane teaches yoga; Lizzy is a magazine journalist; Mary a perpetual student and Kitty and Lydia do nothing except tone themselves in the gym and live off their parents. Mrs Bennet is a compulsive shopper and Mr Bennet has been too idle to keep control of his money, so times are about to get very hard. Darcy is an arrogant neurosurgeon, alarmed by the extreme tackiness of the Bennets. It is engaging, and Sittenfeld has found clever ways to deal with things like elopement that would hardly cause a flutter now. Fun, but for a writer of Sittenfeld’s ability, it seems rather pointless.

So, who are the readers for this wobbly collection? Austenites are unlikely to be blown away by a feeble attempt to update their favourite characters. We also know the stories, so narrative tension is long gone. Anyone who hasn’t read Austen is hardly likely to be sent to the originals. Trollope, McDermid, McCall Smith and Sittenfeld fans may be a bit bewildered.

Personally, I blame Colin Firth’s delectable wet shirt moment in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Suddenly, Austen was sexy. So greedy publishers’ eyes turned to pound and dollar signs at the thought of a contemporary bestseller hitched to sexy old Jane. I haven’t seen an announcement of new names attached to Persuasion or Mansfield Park, so I hope this is the end of it.

There has been life in Austen for authors happy to use their own imaginations rather than be dragooned into a publisher’s template. PD James had fun with Death Comes to Pemberley, taking the Pride and Prejudice story forward, and even better was Jo Baker’s dive below stairs in the Bennet household in Longbourn, which is a fine standalone novel. A homage to Austen that digs a little deeper.

Poor old Austen isn’t the only one getting the treatment. There is the Hogarth Shakespeare series where – wait for it – bestselling contemporary authors are reworking the plots of some of the plays into novels. This is actually more successful – a borrowed cloak rather than a straitjacket. Three have crossed my path up to this point, all using problematic Shakespeare texts. Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time is a new look at The Winter’s Tale. The novel is a winner, being clever, sparky, moving and managing to make a kind of sense of what, with apologies to Will, is a distinctly weird story.

Ann Tyler’s Vinegar Girl takes on the rampantly un-PC The Taming of the Shrew. The play is seldom staged these days, but here another writer at the top of her game has picked it up and shaken the pieces into a glorious jeu d’esprit with a fabulously silly twist. When it comes to Howard Jacobson’s Shylock is my Name, I admit to not being Jacobson’s greatest fan, but the novel has been well received and Jacobson has wisely not tried to update the plot but has tackled the underlying themes. Still to come, we have Margaret Atwood’s take on The Tempest, published this month as Hag Seed and set in a prison; Tracy Chevalier’s Othello; Gillian Flynn’s Hamlet; Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth and Edward St Aubyn’s King Lear.

But even if all of them, the Austens and the Shakespeares, worked well, I would still ask: what is it for? It is as if publishers, like movie makers who seem to rely on films based on comic book superheroes to win at the box office, are afraid of genuinely new ideas. Attach the names of Austen or Shakespeare to something and make money. But two or four hundred years from now, I doubt if any of the updates will still be around. Unlike the originals.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible is published by Harper Collins.

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Bad things happen on beautiful days: Introducing Sunshine Noir – crime writing from hot countries

Bad things happen on beautiful days: Introducing Sunshine Noir – crime writing from hot countries
nullA Carrion DeathDeath of the MantisA Deadly TradeDeadly HarvestA Death in the Family

 
This Fiction Friday, read a new short story by award-winning crime-writing duo Michael Stanley from the anthology Sunshine Noir.

Michael Stanley is the pen name of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Both Sears and Trollip were born in South Africa and have worked in academia and business. They are the authors of the famous Detective Kubu series, the most recent being A Death in the Family.

To find out more about the idea behind the anthology, read the editors’ note:

Why Sunshine Noir?

“Nordic Noir stories,” we hear their proponents say, “are a cut above ordinary crime fiction because the landscape and weather of the northern countries intensify the darkness of the crime and deepen the psychological complexity of the characters.”

We writers of crime in hot countries beg to differ. Knowing full well that shadows are darkest where the sun is brightest and understanding, as we do, how heat can be more psychologically debilitating than cold, we decided to throw down the gauntlet to the Nordic noirists. We are here to challenge the dominance of dark-climate fiction; to show that stories set in sunny climes can be just as grim, more varied in plot and characters, and richer in entertainment value than those of the dark, grey, bone-chilling north.

To make our case, we’ve recruited crime-fiction writers from around the world. The authors in this volume will convince you with complex, beautifully written stories that span the hot places of the planet. Read these stories. You will agree.

The writers bring a variety of writing styles, which we have maintained to highlight their wonderful diversity.

Finally, we thank all the authors in the anthology for their enthusiasm and support. For their kind words, we also extend our gratitude both to Peter James, best-selling author and winner of the 2015 WH Smith Best Crime Author of all Time Award, and to Tim Hallinan, award-winning author of the Poke Rafferty series, set in Bangkok, and the Los Angeles-based Junior Bender mysteries.

You can follow us on Facebook and at Twitter @Sunshine_Noir.

Annamaria Alfieri and Michael Stanley

International bestselling author Peter James said of the anthology:

“… a whole new movement, spearheaded by Sunshine Noir”

There is a very haunting line at the beginning of a Nicci French novel I read years ago that has always stayed with me: Bad things happen on beautiful days.

For some years many of the most successful books storming the international crime scene have been under a dark, gloomy, wintry, brooding cloud, and have become known by the soubriquet of Scandi Noir. The long dark winters, freezing, hostile climate and the dour, grimly philosophical nature of some of that region’s inhabitants have created a certain style of crime and thriller writing that has proved enormously successful, in part because of the freshness it brought to this genre we love so much.

Many years ago I met very warm and friendly Maxine Sanders, widow of Alexander who is often credited as being the founder of modern satanism in the UK. She told me, “The light can only shine in darkness.” But now I sense with the publication of this gem of an anthology – hand in hand with some of the best crime writing in the world today – that there could be a whole new movement, spearheaded by Sunshine Noir! Where the darkness can only shine in the searing heat of the midday sun …

 
 

The editors have kindly shared an excerpt from “Spirits” by Michael Stanley:
 

It had been another scorching day in New Xade, with the temperature passing 100 degrees and not a trace of moisture. Usually things cooled off at night in the Kalahari, as the sand threw the heat back at the sky, but for weeks it had been stifling at night as well. Constable Ixau lay naked on his bed, trying to catch the breeze from an old desk fan on the table opposite him. Being a Bushman, heat and dryness didn’t usually bother him, but the persistent drought was upsetting. It’s a bad time, he thought. People are worried; people get angry. There will be trouble.
        Just then there was a hammering on the door and a woman’s voice calling him.
        “I’m coming!” he yelled, turning on the light. He pulled on a T-shirt and shorts and jerked open the door.
        “Q’ema! What is it? What’s the matter?” He’d recognised her at once. How not? She was the most attractive girl in the village, and all the young men sought her attention. Ixau had a secret longing for her, but he was much too shy to do anything about it. But tonight she wasn’t pretty. She looked as though she’d been crying.
        “What’s the matter?” he repeated.
        “It’s my father! He’s … you have to help me. Please. I’m so worried and scared. Can you come at once?”
        Ixau wanted to tell her it was all right, that he’d take care of the issue. But he was flustered, and he just stood in the doorway and looked at her.
        “He’s … I don’t know. He’s on the ground. Writhing. Saying mad things.” She hesitated. “There’s blood running from his nose.”
        Ixau felt icy fingers touch his spine. Everyone knew this was a sign that a man had entered the spirit world, the sign of the shaman. Indeed, Q’ema’s father, Gebo, fancied himself as just that, but people laughed at him behind his back and gave him no respect—particularly after he’d promised to bring rain, with no result. Still, these were not matters to be taken lightly. If Gebo had gone to the spirit world, perhaps he couldn’t get back? These things were known. Ixau felt the icy fingers again.
        “I think a spirit has him! An evil spirit,” Q’ema said, as though reading his thoughts. “Will you come? You must come!”
        Ixau pulled himself together. “Have you been to the clinic?” When she shook her head, he added, “We must get the nurse. She won’t be at the clinic now, but you know where she lives. Go and fetch her. Maybe your father is sick. I’ll go to him right now. Don’t worry, it will be okay.”
        She gave him a grateful look and turned to go, but he called after her. “Perhaps you should call N’Kaka too. After you call the nurse.” She nodded and disappeared into the night. There was no real Bushman shaman in New Xade, but N’Kaka was old and respected and knew things. If there was indeed a spirit, he might know what to do.

***

 
Ixau walked quickly to the house where Gebo lived with his daughter. He found the man on the floor with his back propped against a table that had been knocked onto its side. He was breathing fast and, as Q’ema had said, there was blood on his face. When he turned to Ixau, the constable saw a glassiness in his eyes that reminded him of the trances he’d seen brought on by drugs. Maybe Gebo had been trying to communicate with the spirit world and had taken too much? Perhaps that was it.
        “Gebo, it’s me, Constable Ixau. Are you all right?”
        The older man stared at him blankly.
        “Where is Q’ema?” Gebo said at last. “I heard her calling in the other world, but she wasn’t there.”
        “She’s coming with the nurse. And N’Kaka.”
        “That old fool? What does he want?” He tried to stand, but couldn’t manage. He held out his hand to Ixau, who pulled him to his feet. He staggered, and Ixau had to steady him. Then he grabbed Ixau and shouted, “They’re coming for Yuseb! You have to stop them! Yuseb …” His eyes rolled back and he collapsed, and Ixau had to drag him to a chair, where he slumped, unconscious.
        Ixau felt panic. Was the man dying? Should he give CPR? He remembered the brief course he’d done in the police college, but hated the idea of putting his mouth to Gebo’s bloody face. He checked his wrist and could feel an erratic pulse. Relieved, he decided to do nothing and wait for the nurse.
        Suddenly the small room was full as Q’ema, N’Kaka, and the nurse burst in. The nurse pushed Ixau aside and started examining the unconscious man. N’Kaka tried to peer over her shoulder, but she pushed him away too. Q’ema started to cry.
        “I helped him up, and he seemed okay,” Ixau told Q’ema, “but then he started shouting something and passed out. I carried him to the chair.”
        “What?” N’Kaka growled.
        “He passed out and I—”
        “No!” N’Kaka interrupted. “What did he say?”
        What had Gebo said? Ixau wondered. A good policeman would remember. Something about Yuseb? Something about someone coming for him. He told N’Kaka as closely as he could recall.
        N’Kaka liked neither Gebo nor Yuseb, who didn’t show him the respect he felt he deserved. “It’s the spirits who speak through Gebo,” he said. “They’re angry with Yuseb because he doesn’t show them respect. He’s in grave danger.” He nodded with satisfaction.
        Q’ema had stopped crying. “What about my father? Is he all right?”
        N’Kaka shrugged. “They are finished with him now.”
        The nurse looked up from her patient. “Yes,” she said to Q’ema. “Once the drugs wear off. What did he take?”
        Q’ema looked at the floor. “What he takes to visit the spirit world. He was going to beg for rain, I think. He said they could help if they wanted to.”
        There was a groan, and Gebo eyes fluttered.
        N’Kaka snorted. “He’s a fool. They won’t listen to him. He has no power. They took him and chewed him and spat him back to us.” He turned away and left without another glance at Gebo.
        “Help me get him to his bed,” the nurse said. “I’ll bring him something. He’ll be fine in the morning.”
        “Yuseb,” Gebo muttered. “They are coming …” He groaned again.
        Ixau knew his duty. Although he was scared, he knew he must check on Yuseb. He would first fetch his knobkerrie even though it wouldn’t help him against powerful spirits.

***

 

 
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War, hate and sex: Bron Sibree interviews Anne Sebba on her book Les Parisiennes: How the Woman of Paris Loved, Lived and Died

Anne Sebba gives us new insight into the ordeals of women in wartime, writes Bron Sibree for the Sunday Times

Les ParisiennesLes Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Loved, Lived and Died in the 1940s
Anne Sebba (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
*****

British historian and biographer Anne Sebba has been fascinated by the World War II defeat of France and the German occupation of Paris for as long as she can remember. But for as long as she can recall, too, she has also been troubled by one of the most abiding images of that war’s aftermath: Parisian women being publicly shaven, and often painted with the swastika, for the crime of collaboration horizontale.

“That is the abiding image, and it is so one dimensional. But what has happened historically is that that has become very cheap shorthand for what happened in France,” says Sebba, who has analysed the role of collaborators and resisters, and so much more, in her mesmerising (and richly detailed) social history of the period, Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Loved, Lived and Died in the 1940s.

From the outset, Sebba knew she wanted to write a different kind of history. She ignored a renowned male historian’s advice to use the most oft-quoted male diarists of the period, and set out in search of lesser-known women’s voices. The author of eight celebrated works of non-fiction, including That Woman: The Duchess of Windsor and the Scandal That Brought Down a King (2012) and Jennie Churchill (2007), Sebba knows her way around an archive.

Yet even so, she says, “I needed to do a lot of digging.” She spent five years combing the archives for letters and diaries, and painstakingly tracking down women now in their 90s who had lived through the occupation.

“I wanted a multiplicity of points of view. That was key to what I was trying to do so that women couldn’t any longer be given this one-dimensional tag.”

In giving voice to the countless Parisian women who suffered, died or were imprisoned in places like Ravensbrück, or endured the occupation through various degrees of compromise or resistance – mostly a combination of both – Sebba drives home the fact that it was women who were left to contend with the almost all-male Nazi occupiers.

“Wartime Paris was a feminised city. That’s a sine qua non to my book. I hadn’t even realised that until I started writing it, because two million men were taken prisoner of war. Others were with De Gaulle in the Free French and yet others, if they were Jews, were in hiding, or were elderly, so there were very, very few men in Paris. So here you’ve got a city where the women didn’t have the vote, they didn’t have the right to work without their husband’s permission, they couldn’t have a bank account. And without any fuel they couldn’t drive cars so had to ride bicycles, but they weren’t allowed to wear trousers.”

For Sebba, writing Les Parisiennes was a quest to understand the difficult choices forced upon these women – so obviously disempowered yet not cowed – and not to pass judgement. She even finds the word “collaborator” distasteful. “Although it was [Philippe] Pétain who introduced this word collaborate, I think it’s ugly and judgemental. I prefer some degree of complicity. You could argue that everyone who went about their daily business was in some way complicit. I don’t want to pretend there wasn’t collaboration, there were by some estimates more than 100000 Franco-German babies born. Some of it was of necessity – to feed your children you might sleep with a German – some of it was romantic. But did the women deserve to be punished after the war in this very gendered way, without a trial, publicly humiliated?

“It was aimed at the women,” she emphasises, “and has deep roots in the fact that the men felt so humiliated and ashamed that they had lost the military defeat, the way they reacted was to take it out on the women.”

Even the role women played in the resistance remained largely unrecognised until many years later, says Sebba, whose efforts in recording stories of feminine heroism in Les Parisiennes go a long way to redressing historical omissions.

Yet in writing such an intricately detailed history about les années noires, the dark years that divided French citizens, says Sebba, “I found huge resonance in what’s going on in the world now with all this fear that we have of refugees and people who are different from us. It’s so important that we understand that this has happened once before, and that we’re all human beings.”

Follow Bron Sibree on Twitter @BronSibree

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Open letter to Adam Habib: Ishtiyaq Shukri calls on Wits to terminate its contract with ‘unaccountable’ private security firms

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The Silent MinaretI See You

 
Ishtiyaq Shukri has written an open letter to Wits University Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib and the members of the Senior Executive Team.

Shukri is the author of the EU Literary Award-winning The Silent Minaret, and his most recent novel, I See You, has as a central concern the implications of the rise of the private security industry.

The book features a scene set in the Wits Great Hall in which the main character makes an impassioned speech about freedom and private force that, read now, seems prescient.

 
In his letter, which was prompted by the shooting of Father Graham Pugin just off campus, Shukri calls on university management to “demonstrate conciliatory leadership”, to “consider the lives of the students entrusted to your care” and to “terminate its contract with these unaccountable private security firms”.

Read the letter in full:

Dear Professor Adam Habib and Members of the Senior Executive Team of the University of the Witwatersrand

I have in recent months been increasingly alarmed by the growing levels of militarised violence deployed against students from the #FeesMustFall movement at the University of the Witwatersrand by private security firms paid for by the University. I despair at the failure of imagination demonstrated on the part of the University in its inability to find and employ amicable forms of management and conflict resolution, and its readiness to resort to the old South African recipe of force to settle disputes instead. I am deeply concerned by the model the University has presented to the country: that in South Africa violence and force are commodities for sale to be purchased, at undisclosed amounts, even by a university. Purchased by senior executives – not of a corporation, but of a university – executives against whom such force is unlikely ever to be deployed. Private force, purchased by a wealthy institution to be aimed at its poorest students. And I am especially disturbed by the recent shooting of Father Graham Pugin of the Holy Trinity Catholic Church next to the University. While I have wrestled with writing to you before, following his shooting I can no longer remain silent now.

I’ll just state it plainly. South Africa is under occupation by private military and security firms now in possession of a combined arsenal of privatised force which already outnumbers that of the state by five to one. And while they have the capacity to deploy levels of violence and force that surpass those of the state, they are not accountable to its citizens or to the state. In a democracy such as ours, state forces are rightly accountable to the citizens, and in the case of the shooting of Fr Graham, the Deputy National Police Commissioner Gary Kruser has apologised unconditionally and set up an official investigation to be headed by the Gauteng provincial commissioner. Commissioner Kruser is not doing us a favour. In a democracy, he is holding himself accountable, just as he should. By contrast, unregulated private military and security firms are only accountable to their shareholders, shareholders for whom the use of force translates into the escalation of profit; profit to which you have contributed untold amounts. The threats posed by private military and security firms have been a long-standing concern of mine and are a central to my novel from 2014, I See You. One of the novel’s main characters, Leila Mashal, outlines the threats in a key scene. I mention this to you only because that scene takes place in the Great Hall at Wits.

Having imagined the threat of privatised force in my fiction, I have found it very difficult to watch the violence unfold at Wits in reality, of which the shooting of Fr Graham is a startling escalation. Is nothing sacred anymore? When I set that fictional scene at Wits, the last place I imagined would one day become the setting for the greatest public manifestation to date of the occupation of South Africa by privatised forces was a university, was indeed Wits University itself. This vexes me, because it is not easy to see the boundaries between fiction and reality implode at Wits, and because to me their collapse signals that the occupation has penetrated even our most respected centres of higher learning. You have stated that you have on a previous occasion reviewed footage of claims by students regarding brutality and abuse by private security agencies at Wits. You claimed to have found nothing to support those allegations. Maybe. But today I ask you to review the footage of images of brutalised priests and students now emanating from Wits. Are they evidence enough? Do you see what we see? What the rest of the world can see – even the Pope in Rome? Whatever these private security forces may have protected, it wasn’t the reputation of the University and it certainly wasn’t Fr Graham.

In January 2016, concerned Wits faculty and staff wrote to you requesting the University to terminate its contract with these private security firms. Writing on behalf of the Senior Executive Team, you rejected their request.

Following the shooting of Fr Graham, I call on the Senior Executive Team of the University of the Witwatersrand to demonstrate conciliatory leadership. I call on you to consider the lives of the students entrusted to your care, if not on a contractual basis, then at the very least on an ethical one. I call on you to reconsider your decision, and for the University to terminate its contract with these unaccountable private security firms. In the face of their insidious occupation, which is now at least no longer invisible, is it not also the responsibility of a university of good repute to be discerning about the threats they pose, to demonstrate dissent by also shedding light on how they undermine our democratic procedures, and to take the lead in standing up to defend those procedures rather than participate in their erosion through silent financial transactions with secret unaccountable forces? And if these are not also the responsibilities of a university, then to whom do we entrust them when we are under occupation?

Sincerely
Ishtiyaq Shukri

11 October 2016

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