By Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times
The Buried Giant
Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber & Faber)
It’s been a while since I felt a glow of pride in South Africa, the muscle memory of post-94 euphoria having long atrophied. But Kazuo Ishiguro is urgently, emphatically, reminding me of what he calls our “shining example”, our achievement of balancing memory and forgetting in forging our new society. “It seems to me miraculous that you came through that without a civil war or horrendous violence, and you’ve had 20 years of democratic civilisation. Remarkable.”
This is not the time to quibble. Ishiguro, speaking to me from Cambridge, was nursing a cold and dreading the book tour travel ahead, with its attendant airport tedium. He was probably dreading a fresh offensive in the debate that has erupted around his book, too.
The Buried Giant is a quest myth, a fable set in the Dark Ages of Britannia in the years after the Romans bolted. It is a dank, dangerous land, swirling with fear and suspicion. Ishiguro peoples it with dragons and ogres, repulsive pixies and a decrepit Arthurian knight, giving rise to the suggestion that he is dabbling in the genre of fantasy, which according to the experts has no place in serious literary fiction. The keepers of the genre, meanwhile, believe it has been disparaged, and a petulant internecine war is being waged on august books pages on both sides of the Atlantic.
Ishiguro is sanguine about it. “I think the discussion about the shifting parameters of literary fiction is an interesting one, but I do also want people to just look at my book.”
An elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, set out from their manky hamlet dug into a hillside in search of their lost son. At least, they think they have a son. For there is a veil of amnesia that lies over the land, a magical mist breathed out by the she-dragon Querig that causes people to forget the past. On the way they meet a Saxon warrior with his young apprentice and the aged knight Sir Gawain, crotchety remnant of the glorious court of Arthur.
We gradually realise that the mist is masking the memory of war, a holocaust of slaughter that had swept through the land. The obliteration of these events has enabled the people to live relatively peacefully.
“What I want people to think about when they read it is not genre, but the big questions of remembering and forgetting. How do societies go forward into the future when they have dark things in their history? To what extent do they need to go back and examine the dark passages and when do they need to just bury it so that society can stop disintegrating into cycles of violence and go forward?”
He needed the supernatural elements, he says, to tell a metaphorical story. He didn’t want to set it in Bosnia or Northern Ireland or Rwanda because that would have brought it closer to non-fiction.
The genesis of the story – 10 years in the writing – lies in the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Ishiguro was influenced by Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey, as well, but also mentions the Japanese folk takes he grew up with, “Samurais lopping off the arms of demons on bridges and that sort of thing.” He also talks animatedly about Westerns. “I’m rather fond of 70s Westerns, they had an elegiac quality about them, lone gunfighters who are out of time, who no longer have a place in society. That had a lot to do with my picture of Sir Gawain.”
Central to the story, too, is the love between Axl and Beatrice. “It’s about the long slog of love,” he says, “how you stay together over years and years and years. Shared memories are crucial to it.” But again, he asks, do you bury the inevitable dark memories of a relationship, or re-examine them?
Reviews have been, as they say, mixed, ranging from “weird” to “wonderous”. It is a difficult book, its language is odd and courtly, the pace supine at times, but eventually it casts a quiet spell.
Ishiguro raises the South African transition to democracy again. The TRC may have buried our particular giant, I say, but the corpse keeps rearing up. “But it hasn’t risen up to cause civil war,” he says. “Yugoslavia is a perfect example of what happens when sleeping giants aren’t dealt with properly. It disintegrated.”
Follow Michele on Twitter @michelemagwood
Image: Jeff Cottenden
What is the root of the violence pointed toward foreigners in South Africa?
Before the most recent surge of violence, Theresa Mallinson from The Daily Vox asked four authors who attended the annual Time of the Writer festival – Thando Mgqolozana, Futhi Ntshingila, Tshifhiwa Given Mukwevho and Dilman Dila – this poignant and relevant question.
“It’s mad, it’s crazy – it makes absolutely no sense to me,” Mgqolozana says. Ntshingila also does not understand the phenomenon: “It’s something that makes me very unhappy and ashamed.”
Mukwevho believes “the xenophobic attacks are caused by a lack of opportunities, such as work – mainly work, in fact – in South Africa” and explains why he believes this is the case.
Dila, who is from Uganda, makes a very valid point: “There is a feeling in Africa that we contributed to the freedom in South Africa. If you have a good economy and someone can come here to make a good living, why do you stop them?”
Read the article:
Thando Mgqolozana, writer, Cape Town
It comes from a systematic erosion of self-confidence of black people. So they don’t see themselves the same as Zimbabweans, Malawians, Ethiopians, Mozambicans and so on. Before colonial and apartheid times, they descended from there – they come from these people. That interruption with those colonising parties led to a change of perception and understanding of who they are. It really has to do with mental understanding – if they understood those people to be of their own neighbours, they wouldn’t do that [xenophobic attacks]; they would be in solidarity. It’s mad, it’s crazy – it makes absolutely no sense to me.
In celebration of 100 years of dedication to education Oxford University Press Southern Africa (OUPSA) has launched their centenary campaign entitled: “Every child deserves a dictionary.”
The initiative aims to supply 20 000 dictionaries to schools across South Africa that cannot afford them and at the same time to create awareness around education and language.
Marian Griffin Kloot, Higher Education and Trade Director for Oxford University Press SA, spoke to Pippa Hudson about the campaign. “We want to donate a total of 20 000 dictionaries to 200 schools across all nine provinces. We’ve already donated 10 000 and we need some help to get the next 10 000 into the hands of learners,” Kloot says.
Listen to the podcast to find out how you can get involved:
How does it work?
During the first stage of the campaign 10 000 dictionaries are being distributed to schools in the Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga, North West, Free State, Gauteng and Western Cape and for the second stage members of the public can pledge their support on the everychild.oxford.co.za website. For each pledge OUPSA will donate one dictionary to a school in need.
“We call on the public to get behind the initiative and to show their support through our ‘Every child deserves a dictionary’ campaign which reminds South Africans of the power of knowledge, the value of education and the importance of giving our learners the chance to fully realise their own potential,” Steve Cilliers, MD of Oxford University Press Southern Africa, says.
Sindiwe Magona, activist, teacher and internationally recognised author of among others The Ugly Duckling and From Robben Island to Bishopscourt, shared her views on why every child deserves a dictionary and explained how words shaped her life.
Watch the video:
OUPSA asked children what they think the word “thesaurus” means. Watch the super cute video:
To pledge a dictionary go to everychild.oxford.co.za. Follow the campaign on social media using the hashtag #EveryChild, on Twitter @OxfordSAHE and @OxfordSASchools and on Facebook: www.facebook.com/OxfordSAHE and www.facebook.com/OxfordSASchools.
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“Every child deserves a dictionary” – raising awareness about the value of education
25 March 2015: In celebrating 100 years of contributing to education in South Africa on 25 March 2015, Oxford University Press Southern Africa (OUPSA) has launched its flagship centenary campaign, “Every child deserves a dictionary”. The campaign will see the educational publisher donating 20 000 dictionaries to schools across South Africa that would otherwise not have the funds to buy such an important and valuable resource.
The “Every child deserves a dictionary” campaign aims to create awareness about the value of education and language. To kick-start OUPSA’s centenary, 10 000 dictionaries are currently being distributed to schools in the Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga, North West, Free State, Gauteng and Western Cape. The donations are facilitated by the Adopt-a-School Foundation which has also helped select schools to receive the dictionaries, in communities where this NGO is active through educational upliftment programmes.
During the second phase of the campaign, members of the public will be encouraged to place a “pledge” – without any cost to themselves – on the everychild.oxford.co.za website. Each “pledge” will result in one dictionary being donated.
In total OUPSA aims to donate 20 000 dictionaries with a value of R2.2 million. Donations to schools in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and the Northern Cape take place during the second part of the campaign and additional books will be dispatched to the remaining provinces during the course of the year.
“To celebrate 100 years of making a difference to education in our beautiful country, we aim to donate 20,000 copies of our Oxford South African School Dictionary to learners and schools across the country that do not have the funds available to buy such an important resource,” says Steve Cilliers, MD of Oxford University Press Southern Africa.
“We call on the public to get behind the initiative and to show their support through our ‘Every child deserves a dictionary’ campaign which reminds South Africans of the power of knowledge, the value of education and the importance of giving our learners the chance to fully realise their own potential.”
Established in South Africa in 1915, OUPSA is a leading publisher of educational material for schools and higher education. OUPSA is especially well-known for its trusted dictionaries and excellent literacy material. The Oxford South African School Dictionary was developed in consultation with a range of South African teachers and language experts and addresses many common usage mistakes that South Africans (learners and adults alike) make. The dictionary is aligned to the curriculum and is one of the non-fiction top-sellers in the country.
“We truly believe that every child does deserve a dictionary, arming them with the resources they need to help them with their education, as education is the key to social transformation in South Africa and a way to unlock opportunities for the youth of the country,” adds Cilliers.
“This campaign is not just about giving something back to the learners of South Africa; it is fundamentally about the value of words, literacy and books.”
Long Story Short has shared the video and podcast from its first event: Hlubi Mboya reading “Tender”, a short story by Nozizwe Cynthia Jele.
The Long Story Short project was launched on Friday, 27 March, at the Olievenhoutbosch Community Library in Tshwane, with legendary actress and Aids activist Mboya kicking off the first of a series of public readings.
Next up is Niq Mhlongo, whose short story “Gollywood Drama” will be read by
theatre heavyweight Mbali Kgosidintsi on 25 April at the Hammanskraal Community Library.
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Listen to the podcast:
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Published in the Sunday Times
The Kind Worth Killing
The book began as a simple premise. I pictured a drunk man on a plane, telling the stranger next to him that he was thinking of killing his wife. I knew this man pretty well. He was not a natural-born killer, he was just a betrayed husband, full of rage. And I knew the woman next to him almost as well. She listened to this man’s story and decided that his wife deserved to die. But that was all I had.
At varying points before I ever started writing I would imagine how this story would play out. For a long time, I thought that the woman would begin to stalk the man after this airplane flight. I even imagined that the man would suffer a blackout and have no memory of the plane flight at all. The story nagged at me, so I decided I should just start writing and see what happened.
I was really just writing by the seat of my pants. I gave the man a name — Ted Severson — and had him narrate the story. The woman in the seat next to him became Lily Kintner and she turned out to be a narrator as well. I decided that they would tell the story in alternating chapters.
Then an interesting thing happened. Ted Severson was always going to be the lead of the story — he was the one who wanted to kill his wife — and Lily was just going to be extra motivation for him to achieve that goal. But then Lily, who starts her own story by recounting a murderous encounter when she was 13 years old, began to take over.
She was just so much more interesting than Ted. For one, she had spent a larger part of her life thinking about murder, not just as an instrument of revenge, but as a very practical survival tool. Even though she’s villainous, she would never think of herself as a villain. She was a protagonist, and I realised that she had staked that claim in my novel.
Readers read to find out what happens next. And sometimes writers write to do the same thing. That was the case with The Kind Worth Killing — writing it kept surprising me, right up to the very end.
By Pearl Boshomane for the Sunday Times
All This Has Nothing To Do With Me
Monica Sabolo (Pan Macmillan)
Getting your heart broken sucks. We all know this. You don’t need me to tell you about it.
But there’s something much worse about love that’s not returned. No matter how confident you are, its sting brings with it self-doubt, endless negative introspection. Were you too pushy? Not pushy enough? Was your personality too much? Either way, the unloved one looks inward for the cause of the problem.
In her debut book, Monica Sabolo documents this painful (and pointless) process quite beautifully. Most of the book is written as an epistolary novel: mainly emails the protagonist (‘MS’, as she’s identified) sends to someone we don’t know, as well as texts between MS and the unwilling object of her affection, identified only as XX.
Other parts of the book supply backstory: MS tells us about her mother’s bad decisions, starting with a charming Italian jerk, MS’s father, whom she later encounters as an adult. She also recounts her early experiences with the opposite sex, from the seven-year-old boy in red swimming trunks that she met on holiday as a six-year-old to her relationship with her stepfather.
Its pages peppered with images of scooters, lighters and cigarette butts, All This Has Nothing To Do With Me is a little hard to get into at first. It’s not the kind of book that tries to charm from the first page. “The first section of our analysis will focus upon the pathological phenomenon ‘blind love’” is hardly the most captivating opening line in the history of literature. If you stick it out past the first 20 pages, though, you’ll find that it’s worth the effort.
What makes this book work as a raw dissection of heartbreak is Sabolo’s writing: distant, often unemotional, observational and witty. MS is the guinea pig in her own lab. It’s hard not to cringe when reading her letter to Facebook, asking them if they are able to provide information on who’s been viewing her profile (because she obviously wants to see if XX has been stalking her page).
Unrequited love is so consuming that the quest to win someone over becomes an obsession, followed by a second obsession on why you couldn’t. Obsessions captured painfully and perfectly by this strange little book.
Foll Pearl on Twitter @pearlulla