By Sue de Groot for the Sunday Times
Marilynne Robinson (Little, Brown)
“People think a writer’s life is more romantic and exhilarating than it is,” says Marilynne Robinson. “It’s a wonderful life and I’m endlessly grateful for it, but a lot of it is just sitting around biting a pen and wishing you knew what to say.”
One can only imagine the pile of chewed pens Robinson must have discarded over the years. Her output is not what you’d call prolific, not in the Stephen King sense, anyway. Now 71, she has published just four books in 33 years, but each of them has left readers gasping for more.
Her first novel, Housekeeping, was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981. The next, Gilead, took the Pulitzer in 2005, and in 2009 Home was awarded the Orange Prize. In Lila, her fourth novel, Robinson returns to the fictional town of Gilead, the setting of her previous two books. She did not plan this, she says. Lila did.
“I had no idea, while writing the others, that Lila would one day emerge,” she says. “A book happens when a voice I recognise as the voice of my character becomes strong enough in my mind. I’m more passive in the situation than perhaps I should be. I just suddenly know that a voice is there.”
Lila’s voice is rough, uneducated, questioning, innocent, observant. A neglected child stolen by a compassionate drifter in Depression-era America, she grew up on the road with a knife for protection and an instinct for survival. When the book begins she is an adult, travelling solo. She takes up temporary residence in a shack on the outskirts of Gilead, with the intention of moving on. When she steps into the church one day to escape the rain, she meets the elderly Reverend John Ames, and thus begins an unlikely and profoundly moving love story.
Ames has to perform a delicate dance around Lila to make her stay. She is wild and combative, posing challenging questions about his religious judgments. The moments when they draw close are like sunlight breaking through storm clouds. “I hope sometimes you’ll feel a little more at home,” Ames says to the woman who has never known a home.
Home is a concept that intrigues Robinson. “I think the search for a place to call home is one of the most positive drives in humans,” she says. “If you have the idea of home in the first place you are one of the fortunate. For me, home is a place where you feel at ease, you know the customs. That’s an ideal. Home can also be the nexus of all the things you have struggled with. It can be a difficult place and still be very emotionally important.”
Lila, after much resistance, finds her emotional home in the eyes of the kindly old preacher. In turn, she is the balm that soothes his loneliness. Robinson says she believes in the idea of twinned souls, or what some might call love at first sight.
“In my own experience I would say there is a way in which people are ‘matched’ on some spiritual level. You may have no affinity at all for people with whom you appear to have a great deal in common, but the opposite can be true of someone who is quite unlike you. I think that’s one of the great pleasures of life: you never know where you will find the person for whom you can feel that lovely affinity.”
Robinson lives in Iowa City, where she writes and teaches. Her voice on the phone has the same warm cadence as her words on the page. She speaks of her characters with the fondness of family. “I feel bad all the time about causing my characters pain,” she says. “I’m very engrossed in them and I suffer for them when they have to go through something that I have created for them. It’s bizarre.”
Through her characters she asks theological questions that have perplexed the faithful for centuries, but says her books are in no way an attempt to make converts to her own brand of liberal, humanist Calvinism.
“I write about issues that are of interest to me, and I guess I assume that the reader will also be interested. I write my books out of some sort of impulse that I can’t quite describe. I don’t write them pedagogically or anything like that. I find my way into a world that I am imagining and it has its own questions and problems. If people find the books meaningful, I’m grateful for that, but I’m not too concerned about things like opening people’s minds.”
Follow Sue on Twitter @deGrootS1
Image courtesy of Macmillan
By Pearl Boshomane for the Sunday Times
The Strange Library
Haruki Murakami (Harvill Secker)
The book isn’t dead. Although for a moment everyone panicked because they thought the e-reader was killing it, it seems the freakout was premature. A Telegraph article recently reported that Kindle book sales in the UK have “disappeared to all intents and purposes”, while physical book sales have risen by five percent.
While the e-reader’s biggest selling point is convenience, some books were not meant to be electronic. Haruki Murakami’s latest, The Strange Library, is one of those books. Why? It’s the kind of book that can make even the most seasoned bookworm feel like they’ve just discovered the wonders of books for the first time.
The hardcover version of the 96-page novella has a magenta cover that takes us back to the days when libraries were popular places of wonder, pleasure, mystery and infinite possibility.
Designed by illustrator Suzanne Dean, The Strange Library’s pages are made to look like those of library books that have been held by many hands, dirtied by many fingers, consumed by countless minds. There are stained designs on some pages and stamps on others, with several gorgeous illustrations adorning the book: donuts, black dogs, birds, school shoes, feathers and caterpillars are all featured here.
When you first page through the book, these all seem like random, unrelated objects scattered about. But once you read the story, everything comes together. It follows an unnamed narrator who heads to his local library to borrow some books on tax collection in the Ottoman Empire (yes, that’s right). We don’t know much about him, except that he’s a schoolboy who lives with his mother, and it’s not his first time at this library.
But as soon as he walks in he can feel that something is different about it.
The narrator is helped by an unnamed old man who is warm the one moment, menacing the next. The old man hands him three colossal books and says, “Those three books have to be read here – under no circumstances may they leave these premises.” The boy is led down a gloomy staircase and through a creepy maze and soon the strange library becomes his prison, the old man his captor.
The Strange Library is a strange story, but it’s also an absolute delight, turning something as plain as a library into a world that’s magical and dangerous. I have never read 96 pages so quickly in my life.
Have I mentioned just how crushingly stunning this book is? Sorry, Toby Shapshak, the DStv Explora is not the most beautiful object of 2014. Haruki Murakami’s The Strange Library is.
Follow Pearl on Twitter @pearlulla
Published in the Sunday Times
Which books are on your bedside table?
J by Howard Jacobson, a haunting novel that I have now re-read three times, the delightfully silly Francis Plug: How to be a Public Author, by Paul Ewen, and Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White.
Who would you like to be stuck in a lift with?
A lift engineer.
Which book changed your life?
There are so many great books and powerful reading experiences that it’s hard to pick one, but I think EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class made me understand the real importance of writing history, and the passion that a great historian can bring to the subject.
Which current book will you remember in 10 years’ time?
It’s probably too soon to tell – but I keep re-reading Henry James’ The Golden Bowl.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
I have a great liking for “really” when I don’t mean, “is that accurate or truthful” but really mean, “do you think I am fool enough to believe this”, but I am too polite to say so.
What novel would you give a child to introduce them to literature?
A Room with a View by EM Forster and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
What are you most proud of writing?
I’m very proud of my new book The King’s Curse because it takes on the myth of Henry VIII’s charm and shows him as a tyrant, a despot and a wife-killer.
What is the last thing that you read that made you laugh out loud?
I laughed at the Francis Plug book, above.
What is the strangest thing you’ve done when researching a book?
Years ago I was expelled from the Georgian House at Bath for ducking under the rope and peering up the chimney. I wanted to know if you were a Georgian lady seated at the fireside whether you could actually see the sky. (You can.)
What are you working on next?
I am working on a novel about Katherine Parr, the last wife of Henry VIII.
The King’s Curse by Philippa Gregory is published by Simon & Schuster.
Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster
Forced to revisit the past: a brief look at Jacob Dlamini’s Askari: A Story of Collaboration and Betrayal in the Anti-apartheid Struggle
by Makhosazana Xaba
I agreed to be on the panel at the launch of Jacob Dlamini’s book at WiSER without having read the email properly. All that mattered in that moment was that he had a new book. I love books like children love toys, I like Dlamini’s writing and I often enjoy WiSER events.
Days later when a follow-up email arrived to let me know that the actual book would take longer than planned to return from the printers and that I would be sent a soft copy, I had more time to really read that email. The very word askari made me want to scream. “Why are they asking me to be on a panel discussing a book on askaris?” Waves of emotion began rolling one after the other in no discernible pattern: shock, confusion, anger, irritation. The only thing that stood in the way of my urgent need to change my mind was my integrity. It took everything in me to look my problem in the face and reframe it: this is a challenge, embrace it.
Askari gave me many sleepless nights, from the time I received the soft copy and read it in a weekend, to the many times I returned to it just to reread this or that chapter. But I will return to that later.
Let me begin with a reflection on my journey with Dlamini’s writing because this is not a typical book review. I first encountered his writing via his newspaper columns. Once I realised he was a regular columnist, I would start reading his article before reading anything else in the newspaper. I was fascinated by the energy I felt in his writing. There was something very attractive about a simple writing style that had the ability to carry such profundity. Dlamini’s commentaries, brief as they were, were never straightforward. They were nuanced and that is what I admired. In no time, I was addicted to his column.
And then, in 2009, a book entitled Load Shedding: Writing On and Over the Edge of South Africa, an anthology of personal essays edited by Sarah Nuttal and Liz Mc Gregor, was published. In Dlamini’s essay, entitled “The Bequest”, he wrote about finding out that his heart was on the right side of his body. My health background came flooding back as I tried to recall being taught about this very rare condition. Most of all, though, I was fascinated by the way Dlamini wrote about the “quirky location” of his heart, which engaged with the many themes of home, family, constant travel, personal and national politics, apartheid and, yes, nostalgia. I enjoyed the nuanced and multi-layered piece and was drawn to the personality that is his mother. Dlamini used his heart as a metaphor for home. He weaved a layered, textured, heartfelt tapestry, which was a window into his life as a child growing up in Katlehong, his family, and in particular his mother.
In the same year his book, Native Nostalgia, was published. Reading the essay about his right-heartedness and the essays from this book and thinking back to his columns, it was clear to me that Dlamini is committed ¬- as he clearly stated in his book – to reading our country. He recognises that the history of black people, in particular, is rich and complex, that it cannot be contained inside the master narrative and therefore should not be told as such. This is a sentiment I share and espoused in my essay “Serene in my skin”, published in Load Shedding, wherein I wrote about the complexity of being “Zulu in the time of Zuma”, as the back cover blurb put it.
This then, leads me to the book, Askari: a Story of Collaboration and Betrayal in the Anti-apartheid Struggle, in which Dlamini tells the rich and complex story of Glory Sedibe, an MK operative with many names. I knew him as Comrade September. It was news to me to read he was also Wally Williams. I had heard of a Wally Williams but I had assumed that he was a different person.
The WiSER event took place on 29 October, 2014. The date, October 29, has been etched in every muscle of my body for 31 years. It was on the morning of 29 October, 1983, when an estimated 500 men – warriors of Inkatha, which was backed by Gatsha Mangosuthu Buthelezi – invaded Ongoye University (also known as the University of Zululand) and attacked students who had been protesting against the university’s plans to celebrate Cetshwayo Day on campus.
It was only in the early evening, when we finally managed to escape the campus grounds, that we went to Ngwelezane Hospital to visit the injured. One student was already dead. Three students died later that night. This was exactly two months, one week and two days after the national launch of the United Democratic Front (UDF). On our campus we had organised for the UDF. The climax of its launch was a proud moment of our student activist lives.
I was one of those students who protested against the university’s plans to celebrate Cetshwayo Day. And, as an elected leader, I had been part of the group that planned and led the protest. While we recognised that under the apartheid regime it was crucial to honour important historical events for black people and honour their heroes, we were opposed to the event taking place on the university grounds. As progressive anti-apartheid students we believed it was a clear demonstration of the university’s collusion with the homeland system that the apartheid regime was using to divide black people along tribal lines. Although our university was meant, according to the apartheid regime’s plan, to serve the Zulus, as a progressive student body we did not identify as Zulus. We identified as black South Africans working towards the end of a racially divided country.
What has this piece of history got to do with Dlamini’s book? Everything! In my mind it has everything to do with it. Not only did that event, now known as the Ongoye Massacre, remain etched in my memory and visit me in my dreams for at least two decades, but it also presented me with a complete political paradigm shift around what it meant to be black in the struggle.
Put differently, it presented me with the complexity that Dlamini writes about. Imagine this: black men like me, wielding spears and holding leather shields, running towards us as if in real combat. Yet we were young and unarmed. Black men like me, killing black students like me. Black men like me, leaving behind bodies of injured students, also black like me. Until then I had never had to confront that reality of our struggle. Until then I had not had to confront betrayal of that sort and of that magnitude.
I was not so naïve as to think that black people had never betrayed others like them. We were already dealing with the challenge that the homeland leaders were presenting, in what we viewed as collaborating with the apartheid regime. It was the context, the crass combat nature and the timing of that massacre that hit so hard, so deep, so devastatingly … that I was never the same again. And I was an older student, in my mid-20s; I had already completed a four year diploma at a nursing college.
Dlamini’s Askari, by telling a story of collaboration and betrayal in the anti-apartheid struggle, adds to a growing sub-category of books about the struggle that present readers with its layered complexity. I am thinking here of books I read recently:
- Mbokodo: Inside MK, a book by Mwezi Twala;
- Umkhonto we Sizwe: Fighting for a divided people, a book Thula Bophela and Daluxolo Luthuli;
- Inside Quatro: Uncovering the Exile history of the ANC and SWAPO, by Paul Trewela;
- External Mission: The ANC in Exile, by Stephen Ellis;
- Stones Against the Mirror: Friendship it the time of the South African Struggle by Hugh Lewin; and
- Death of an Idealist: In search of Neil Aggett, by Beverly Naidoo
I am sure there are more, but I list the six above because I have read them, some more than once. Different as they are at many levels, they are similar in that they remind us of the complexity, the nuance, the multiple layers and connections that Dlamini writes about. Some hint on collaboration and betrayal while others delve deeply into these themes.
How then does Dlamini write about collaboration and betrayal in his book? I could give a simple answer: exquisitely. In 299 pages, with 14 chapters entitled: The Insurgent, The Askari, The Farm, The Choice, The Inferno, The File, The Village, The Oaths, The Show Trial, The Location, The Archive, The Infamy, The Psychology and, finally, The Past, the Present and the Future.
So we read about Comrade September (I call him thus because that is the name I knew him by). We learn about his background, his home and his family, his village, his political awakening and how he joined the ANC. Dlamini gives us the context within which to understand him. Or, should I say, a context within which to try and understand him. And then Dlamini writes about how Comrade September turned; how he crossed the line and began working for the side he had been working against. He was in Swaziland, in 1986. This was when I paused. I paused when I read the details of his turning point because I was reminded of a slice of my own biography.
In December of 1986 I left for exile via Swaziland. I had been trained internally as an MK cadre and had worked for some years within my cell. I was captured by the Swazi police a few days after I landed. They put me in a holding cell. In all that time my biggest fear was twofold: rape, and being handed over to the apartheid security police. I never knew how exactly I would handle the rape and the torture that we had been trained to expect. The torture that would precede the handing over to the South African police had been a great part of our underground training. I, like many others and dare I assume Comrade September, had internalised, through this training, the suicide choice in the face of such torture. As it turned out I was “small fry” and “just a woman” (I overheard one of the prison warders say). I was released after a few days. I have never forgotten, though, how terrified I was of the possible rape and torture.
Dlamini invites us to consider Comrade September’s “choice” – collaboration or death. He gives us examples from Chile of people who faced a similar choice and decided to live and collaborate. In a sense, Dlamini suggests that Comrade September is not unique, that others like him can be found elsewhere in the world. There were a few times in the book when I thought the examples from other countries were a tad too many but, that’s not the point.
I was very curious about the chapter on “the psychology”. I was so curious that I read and reread it. Dlamini starts this chapter by quoting from Hugh Lewin’s book Stones Against the Mirror, where he wrote about his own torture and what he confronted then. Again I was reminded of my time in a holding cell in the Swaziland prison.
Dlamini’s telling of the story of Comrade September’s journey before and after what went on at the TRC – Vlakplaas, in the MK underground – all the time refuses to draw simple lines that connect neatly at targeted points. He shows the intricate webs and challenges to readers to look deep inside ourselves, inside our history and inside the future we are creating today. Here then is an excerpt from the last chapter (page 260) entitled, “The past, the present, and the future”:
The life of Glory Sedibe highlights something of the ‘fatal intimacy’ at the heart of human relations. To say that apartheid generated unwanted intimacy between individuals, and to challenge the claim that the struggle against apartheid was simply a racial war, is not to say that ‘race’ did not matter nor that race thinking had no salience. Race obviously mattered a great deal. But, it would be wrong to think that race determined the allegiances and loyalties of individuals in any simplistic way. Race might have been handy in the work of askaris, but far more potent was the personal and social intimacy that askaris could call on and generate in order to carry out their missions.
This paragraph speaks volumes and I would argue that it continues to be relevant in our current political times. However, I could not help thinking about how similar this “fatal intimacy” is to abusive heterosexual relationships, where the unequal power that exists in the couple means that the woman ends up serving the agenda that the man wants to pursue. Under apartheid, askaris were in fatal intimate relationships with white security operatives, as unequals serving the agenda of the apartheid state. Their agency was confined within the limits of gross power inequality. The very process of torture took place within the confines of the apartheid system’s organised apparatus. Torture was meted out by a whole system, on its home ground, against an individual. I wish Dlamini had delved into this in more detail.
Taking the analogy further, it takes the overriding context of the ideology of patriarchy to explain the collusion that women choose as they stay in abusive relationships. The overriding context of racism explains the collusion that askaris chose after they were turned. Apartheid – the now widely accepted crime against humanity – made it conceivable for victims of the very system to turn against their own in order to serve its ends. Therein lays the power of ideological domination of one group over another. When power is unequal in the first place, it is the wielders of that power that will “call the shots” by any means necessary, in this case torture. Is it conceivable that there could have existed, during the anti-apartheid struggle, a category of askaris who would have been turned without torture?
Let me close by returning to the sleepless nights that the book gave me. I had not expected to read about so many people that I knew personally and knew of, even though the book was mainly about Comrade September, of whom I had heard a lot. I, like him, had been part of what the ANC and MK called the Natal Machinery.
I did not enjoy being reminded of those times: the never ending suspense that lay at the core of our lives, the hanging threats that were part of the many activities we were engaged in. I did not enjoy being reminded of those times because even though we held onto the dream that we are now supposedly living, the skeletons of that period continue to rattle. The rattle deafens at times and we have not yet found the peace we thought would be an integral part of the dream. I did not enjoy being reminded of that past because my next collection of poetry revisits it. Writing it took its emotional toll on me. Submitting it gave me the longed-for break. I was relaxing in the comfort of my break from the past when Askari shook me awake.
Askari screams, limbs in the air, demanding attention. Through Askari the man with his heart on the right side of his chest reminds us that things are not always what they seem. He reminds us that the unexpected and often inexplicable demand our prodding. Askari is a significant part of our struggle archive.
This won’t be news to everybody, but animated book covers are all the rage these days.
Sarah Lotz is the first South African author who has given change a chance with the United Kingdom edition her novel The Three, published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Update: The animated cover for Lotz’s new book Day Four has also been revealed!)
Lotz joins international authors Neil Gaiman and Stephen King, among others, in the digital revolution of book covers.
Which local author’s book would you like to see with an animated cover? Let us know on Facebook and Twitter, or in the comments below!
Have a look at some of our favourite animated book covers:
(Not all are official. Click on the picture for the source.)
In December last year Kenyan storyteller extraordinaire Binyavanga Wainaina addressed an adoring crowd at the sixth edition of TEDx Euston: Facing Forward held in London.
Wainaina is an established author and the founding editor of Kwani?, a Kenya-based literary network dedicated to developing quality creative writing in Africa. Last year he was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People after he made headlines in January when he came out as homosexual by adding a moving lost chapter to his book, One Day I Will Write About This Place.
The piece, titled “I am a homosexual, Mum”, took on the form of a letter to his mother who passed away when he was 29. In it, Wainaina imagines the conversation he would have had with her. His talk at TEDxEuston followed up on this, with Wainaina sharing the conversation he would have like to be able to have with his father, whom he calls Baba.
We’ve been needing to talk. We haven’t really had a chance to talk since you died three years ago and I thought today might be a good day. Of course, you might be aware that with mum, I had a conversation in January. With mum. About me, and about stuff in general.
In April 2001, Baba, I had just come back from Cuba for spring break. I’d gone of course to misbehave and I had a lot of fun. In fact, it was difficult getting out because I did not know that in Cuba you could not use an American credit card and I had to rush back on that Sunday to get back to teach on Monday and on Monday, my head felt weird. I thought, “Ah! Too much rum.” My body wasn’t moving properly, things were awkward.
Monday, Tuesday, taught class, Wednesday, Thursday. On Friday it felt like there was water moving all over my head and I took myself to the hospital. They took an MRI and they told me I’d had nine small strokes. This was April. And they said they’d have to put a pipe through here [stomach] because that vein [in his head] was 70 percent full and it will go inside and reach here [head] and then it will burst open and there’s a 5 percent chance that I will bleed and things will happen. Off course, and remember that many conversations were happening on the phone and I was away for 14 days and really didn’t get to talk.
Later, months later, auntie Muvoni came to visit and said to me: “You know, your father called me in tears and said, ‘Please, save my son!’” Now you know, Baba, we never have these sorts of conversations, I love you, I love you fine …
Later, after had Wainaina recovered, his father was rushed to the hospital, after also suffering a stroke. This brings Wainaina to another memory:
Let me reverse. When we sat in your living room three weeks before you had said to me something. You said, “You know I’ve prepared a room for the two of you?” And I remember very clearly my head saying, What?! This is unusual and clearly you are opening a fire. You know, Baba, you have never asked me, “Where is your girlfriend?” and I can’t say there was any inconsistency in the love you gave. You never said there was anything wrong when I was dressing up in girls’ clothes with Shiro and getting into strange kinds of trouble. It seemed to least bother you. Or me twirling like Michael Jackson! There were clearly concerns on your face, but it didn’t affect the love you gave me. So when you said that I thought to myself this is the time to bring it up with you. Surely this is the time for me to say that I need to hear from you to be freed to love and that I am 40-something years old and I need that freedom and I need to hear from you that it is okay. But I didn’t.
After that moment, Wainaina’s baba passed away, and the author felt he had to ask himself how he could have contributed to the stress that led to his father’s death. He reflects on his own life and the various things he had gone through, wondering how it affected his dad. He admits, “I really wasn’t the brave one. But I feel like now my season is beginning,” and shares with his father the hopes he has for the continent he calls home:
There is nothing that is a priority about being a homosexual and being an African. But there is everything that every African has to defend, every kind of diversity we carry as an African, even when you do not understand it. For me, what has come to be is to arrive at this place where I am living in plain light. I am not living in a dark continent. I will stand free, the way I need to be as a moral being on the continent and nobody will stop me from going where I will. And, if you decide to, I will go through you or you will stop me.
We cannot think of our continent as a hostile place. Too many of us have learnt to fear it. And I feel that if you trust it, engage with it and be involved with it in conversations of building, as adventurers, that this continent will start to sing to us again.
That is all I have to say.
Watch the video for Wainaina’s full conversation with his father:
Image courtesy of TEDxEuston