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Jacket Notes: Maxine Case tells of why she needed to write about her ancestors and their lives as slaves in a Softness of the Lime

Published in the Sunday Times

Softness of the LimeSoftness of the Lime
Maxine Case, Umuzi

As a descendant of slaves, this was a story I always wanted to write. My grandmother’s grandmother was born to a slave and her master. “But theirs was a real relationship,” Ma, my grandmother, insisted. “He loved her.” Even though I was quite young when I first heard the story, I always wondered about this. I wondered further when Ma admitted that this master had a wife, and children from that marriage.

“She grew up in their home,” Ma offered, as if this was proof. “The family was quite fond of her.”

“Then why didn’t they free her?” I demanded.

“Those were different times then,” Ma said. “They took care of her, even after the old man died.”

From Ma and her cousins, I heard how the family supported my great-grandmother Johanna financially. Ma or one of her cousins would call at the house in Wynberg to collect their grandmother’s living allowance. The building burnt down years later, and all I had was Ma and her cousins’ word.

But there was something else – real proof of his love for her and her descendants, according to Ma and others in the family who repeated the tale. The proof was inscribed into the cover of a yellowwood Bible and later, in the form of a newspaper cutting from the Sunday Times of September 2, 1973.

According to this article, “Bantjes millions: now Coloureds stake claim”, this man had placed a fortune in gold to be inherited by his descendants 100 years after his death.

The article confirmed my family’s claim. It confirmed that with many of her children living as white under apartheid, Johanna destroyed all evidence pointing to this slave heritage.

I often wondered why Ma held her slave ancestry in such high esteem – especially when so many people, South African or not, denied theirs. From Ma’s stories, I too became proud of my slave heritage.

Shoving that yellowing Sunday Times cutting at me from time to time, and telling me where to look, Ma encouraged me to write the “real” story of Lena and Geert, insisting that we were born out of love and not abuse, as is commonly believed. But could it be love?

Researching this book, I don’t believe so. As much proof as I found to substantiate Ma’s claims, much was negated. So, while in writing this book I took the liberties of fiction, I hope that ultimately, by reimagining their worlds, I’ve succeeded in portraying what life under slavery at the Cape might have been like.

Sadly, Ma didn’t live to see this book published.

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Private tragedy is now national tragedy: Salman Rushdie tells Michele Magwood why he wrote his latest novel The Golden House

Michele Magwood finds Salman Rushdie on fine and furious form in his latest novel. The Golden House is a glorious fusion of knowing social commentary and compelling mystery, packed with wit and cultural references. She spoke to him in New York.

The Golden HouseThe Golden House
Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Cape
*****

In Salman Rushdie’s previous novel, the antic, phantasmagorical Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, the city of New York is overcome by “strangenesses” – lightning crackles from fingers, a gentle old gardener begins to levitate, an abandoned baby causes boils to erupt on the faces of anyone who is corrupt. In his new novel, however, there is none of his trademark supernatural fancies or magical realism. Instead he has written an up-to-the-minute, drenched-in-zeitgeist panorama of New York and America. This time, the strangeness is real.

“When I finished writing Two Years I thought this probably pushes this kind of writing as far as it can go, so I thought I’d try to write a very different novel, a realist social novel about the last decade or so.”

Rushdie is speaking from his home in New York, where he has lived for the last 17 years, the city that has enabled him to live what he calls “a perfectly normal life”, after the many years of hiding in the UK with a fatwa hanging over him. He said he chose New York because it reminded him of his hometown Bombay with its noise and bustle, but also because it is a place of re-invention. “Everybody comes from somewhere else.”

In The Golden House a man arrives in the city with his three grown sons. They arrive on the day that Barack Obama is elected, a time of optimism, “when Isis was still an Egyptian mother-goddess”.

They seem to come from nowhere, or anywhere. There is no sign of a wife or mother, but it is clear they are stupefyingly wealthy. The men take outlandish new names for themselves. The father is Nero Julius Golden, the eldest son Petronius, known as Petya, the second Lucius Apuleius, or Apu, and the youngest Dionysus, or simply “D”. “Who should we say we are?” the boys ask their father. “Tell them nothing. Tell them we are snakes who shed our skins,” Nero says.

The novel may be sharply contemporary, but there is something ancient to the story. “In Greek and Roman tragic plays we know from the beginning that some terrible calamity is about to befall these characters and then it hits them. In this book the reader quite rapidly understands that this family is hiding something serious, and you know that secret is going to blow up in their faces. So in that sense it has the shape of a classical tragedy.”

Notes of foreboding are sounded early on by the narrator, a young filmmaker named René who lives in the same moneyed, sylvan enclave as the Goldens and who decides to make a film about them. Buried in the narrative, a clever mise en abyme, is his script for the documentary.

The fuse is lit when the septuagenarian Nero takes a young Russian bride, Vasilisa. Beautiful of course, just 28 years old, but with a preternatural cunning. This being Rushdie, he has her harbouring, Alien-like, the rapacious witch Baba Yaga. Nero’s sons are dismayed.

The doomed Golden sons channel the dark materials of Rushdie’s current preoccupations: Petya is a lumpen alcoholic, a shut-in savant who designs video games. Apu is a gifted artist, handsome, priapic and fashionable with the Manhattan élite, “famous on 20 blocks.” And then there is D, painfully gender-confused.

Here’s Apu loose on the town: “He followed a Canal Street Kabbalist named Idel, who was adept in the ways of the forbidden Practical Kabbalah, which sought through the use of white magic to affect and change the sphere of the divine itself… he also went eagerly… into the world of Buddhist Judaism, and meditated along with the city’s growing cohorts of ‘BuJus’ – classical composers, movies stars, yogis.”

This is Rushdie at his Dickensian best: keen-eyed, plucking shining observations from the streets like a magpie. His treatment of the troubled D is more sober, however, as he assays the field of gender identity. “The more I dug into it and talked to people I realised how much hair-splitting hostility there is between people who 99% of the time would be on the same side.”

D is depressed by the choices he is being forced to make: “You could be TG, TS, TV, CD. Whatever feels right to you.” Transgender, transsexual, transvestite, cross-dresser. None feels right to him and on they go. If he doesn’t identify as male or female, there is ze, ey, hir, xe, hen, ve, ne, per, thon or Mx. As one gender worker says regretfully, “My field should be a safe, soft space for understanding and instead it’s a warzone.”

Rushdie is at his most damning, though, at the end of the book when a new president is elected. This is the age of fake news, truthiness, bawling rhetoric. It is the age of grotesques and comic characters in power – a green-haired cartoon Joker is in charge. The times are toxic.

As René says: “What does one do when the world one believes in turns out to be a paper moon and a dark planet rises and says, No, I am the world… when your fellow Americans tell you that knowing things is elitist and they hate elites, and all you have ever had is your mind and you were brought up to believe in the loveliness of knowledge… and then all of that, education, art, music, film becomes a reason for being loathed, and the creature out of Spiritus Mundi rises up and slouches toward Washington DC, to be born.”

Yes, this time Rushdie’s strangenesses are real.

“The story of the Goldens is a private tragedy surrounded by what is turning into a national tragedy,” he sighs. “I think that’s really in a way what the book is trying to say.”

Follow @michelemagwood

Listen to Michele and Salman’s conversation here

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"A satisfying and intelligent read" - Margaret von Klemperer reviews Paula McGrath's second novel

Published in The Witness

A History of Running AwayPaula McGrath is making a name for herself in literary circles as someone to watch. A History of Running Away is her second novel, and is written with considerable assurance, despite a complicated structure.

There are three strands: two set in 2012 and one 30 years earlier; two in Ireland and one in America. Each has a female protagonist, and all of them are either actually escaping from something, or contemplating escape. One is an unnamed gynaecologist, angry at Ireland’s abortion laws and looking to move to London, a new job and a man who wants her there. But she is held back by her mother, old and suffering from dementia, and the guilt she still feels at having once run away from her before. Not that this time it is likely her mother will even notice.

Next is Ali, an American teenager who has been orphaned by the death of her single mother and is desperate to escape the stultifying life her previously unknown grandparents are mapping out for her. Hers is an escape fraught with danger and unwise choices.

Finally, back in 1982, Jasmine, having run away from her distant mother, her controlling uncle and her education, arrives in Dublin via a dangerous stay in London. Rootless but feisty, she discovers boxing – not allowed for women in the Ireland of the time – and hooks up with a Kenyan medical student who allows her to train with him. Jasmine is the most realised of the characters and the most endearing, and it is her story that is central to the development of the novel.

In the end, McGrath draws her three strands together – some of where she is going becomes pretty obvious, but that doesn’t really detract from the book. What the reader enjoys is not suspense, but story. My only quibble would be that the good characters – George the Kenyan, Jasmine’s upstairs neighbour Deano and the mother and daughter duo who rescue Ali – are so saintly that it is hard to believe in them. Even saints have to have the odd flaw, surely? But all in all, this is a satisfying and intelligent read.

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Mysteries, myths, and military facts: Archie Henderson looks at two books that cover the Angolan civil war

Published in the Sunday Times

Cuito CanavaleCuito Cuanavale
Fred Bridgland, Jonathan Ball Publishers
*****
 
 
 
 
 
A Far Away WarA Far-Away War
Ian Liebenberg, Jorge Risquet and Vladimir Shubin (Editors), Sun Press
**

It’s been 30 years since Cuito Cuanavale became a landmark in the Angolan civil war. South African and Angolan troops, some of them just boys, died there. So did many Cubans. The full casualty toll in a war that was fought mainly in secret is still unknown.

Along with the mysteries are the myths, one of them being that a decisive battle was fought around the little town between 1987 and 1988. There certainly was some fighting, but the big battle was fought 170km to the southeast on the Lomba River and it ended decisively in favour of South Africa and its ally Unita.

An entire brigade of the Angolan army was wiped out at the Lomba, forcing a retreat by the Angolans and Cubans back across the confluence of the Cuito and Cuanavale rivers. There, in 1988, the fighting ended in either a stalemate, if you accept the military facts, or in a victory for the MPLA and Cubans, if you believe Fidel Castro’s propaganda.

Veteran journalist Fred Bridgland, author of Cuito Cuanavale, says: “If anyone won, I’m afraid it was the South Africans because [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev gave Fapla a final £1-billion. ‘Go and take out Jonas Savimbi and his headquarters in Jamba. But if this doesn’t work, that’s it. No more money.’”

Since Angolan independence in 1975, the country’s recognised government, the MPLA, had been fighting a civil war against Savimbi’s Unita. The two liberation movements had fought the Portuguese. Both needed outside support: the MPLA got it from Cuba, East Germany and the Soviet Union; Unita from South Africa and the US.

Bridgland’s book remains one of the best accounts of the war. As a Reuters correspondent assigned to Lusaka, he arrived as a young idealist filled with notions of “liberating the whole of southern Africa by the power of my pen”.

He made an auspicious start. Being in the right place at the right time, he got a scoop on South Africa’s invasion of Angola in 1975. “I began to realise that the war was a lot more complex than the musings of an undergraduate,” he says. “This was a grown-up story. Very complicated things were happening.”

Bridgland became enamoured of Savimbi, made many friends among the Unita commanders and covered the war mostly from their side. It put him in touch with the South Africans, whose military commander, Jannie Geldenhuys, allowed him to interview his troops. Those interviews make for a compelling story.

Bridgland has two big regrets: Savimbi turned out to be not a charismatic guerrilla leader, but a madman who murdered his own people; and the other side of the story – that of the Angolans and Cubans – was closed to him. Apart from a limited budget that prevented him from reaching the Havana archives, the Cuban bureaucracy was “horrendous”.

This should have made Far-Away War, which had the benefit of Cuban and Russian editors, a welcome addition to the war’s literature. Sadly, it’s disappointing. There is too much academic pontificating and no personal stories from commanders in the field, or soldiers in a trench or tank. Its value is the photographs from Cuban archives and the extensive bibliography.

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A palatable aftertaste: Anna Stroud reviews Ken Barris's The Life of Worm and Other Misconceptions

Published in the Sunday Times

The Life of Worm The Life of Worm and Other Misconceptions
Ken Barris, Kwela
*****

The worlds depicted in The Life of Worm and Other Misconceptions are ordinary, mundane, bizarre and surreal, but always rooted in the beauty of language. Ken Barris is a craftsman – chiselling away at each sentence until it gleams with understated elegance. Three stand-out stories are the titular “The Life of Worm”, “The Olive Schreiner Stall” and “Poor William”. The raw emotion in each is familiar and discomfiting. In the first, we see a man imprisoned in his own paranoia. His house is a fortress and his dog is a beast; yet he still feels unsafe and simmers with rage at something as innocuous as a tree.

In the second, a victim of necklacing tries to reach out to the living from beyond the grave. He fails, in life and in death, to make connections. In “Poor William”, a man comes across a talking ape in his kitchen. This is a complex story, signalling how chance encounters can alter our perceptions forever.

The opening story, “To See the Mountain”, about a writers’ retreat in Cameroon, introduces writing as a major theme. The narrator and his friend wish to see a nearby mountain up close, and embark on a pilgrimage to get near it. Very little writing gets done, as in “The Grand Parade” when a writer sets up a makeshift office in a busy marketplace in Cape Town and witnesses the cruelty and desperation of humans, himself included.

The idea of writing as something that happens under pressure, and perhaps under siege, crescendos in “Really into Timeshare”, where readers can no longer afford to buy whole books and must settle for a few pages at a time.

The mood of the stories is at times gentle and melancholic, like a simple yet exquisite meal that lingers on your palate hours after the plates have been cleared. The collection imparts invaluable knowledge on writing, writers, history, culture, nature, relationships, and the human condition. – Anna Stroud @annawriter_

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Q&A with Nathan Hill

Published in the Sunday Times

The NixThe Nix
Nathan Hill, Pan Macmillan

If you could require our world leaders to read one book, what would it be?
For my own country’s leader, I would recommend Trump read Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, not only because of its lessons in introspection and self-knowledge, but also because, as one of the longest books in history, it might keep him occupied and away from Twitter for like a year or two.

Which books are on your bedside table?
After the success of The Nix, I’m being asked by editors and writers to “blurb” their books, which has been a great pleasure – it’s the first time in my life I’ve been able to read books before they come out! And for free! So my bedside table is filled with advance copies of novels that will be published next year.

What do you snack on when you write?
If the writing is going really well, I usually just completely detach from the world of physical things: I won’t hear the music playing, I won’t notice how long I’ve been sitting, and I won’t realise that I haven’t eaten anything in many hours. Which means that when I finish writing for the day I suddenly feel famished and cranky with hunger, which is pretty frustrating for my wife.

What is the strangest thing you’ve done when researching a book?
I did a lot of research for The Nix, but I’m not sure any of it would qualify as “strange”. I visited all the places where the riots of 1968 happened in Chicago. I read as many studies as I could find about the neurobiology of video game addiction. I watched YouTube video of American soldiers in Iraq traveling inside Bradley Fighting Vehicles. I found a certain Atari game from the ’80s so I could describe the noises it makes while you play it. I figured out the bureaucratic process by which the government places a person on the “no-fly list”. I walked around the campus of the University of Chicago for a whole day just to be able to accurately describe how terrible its architecture is. Things like that.

Has a book ever changed your mind about something?
This happens to me all the time, and I hope it happens to a lot of other readers too. I think it’s a requirement for being a good reader, that you have a mind that’s open enough for change. Otherwise, you’re just reading things you pre-agree with, which would be pretty boring.

You’re hosting a literary dinner with three writers. Who’s invited?
I like to laugh over dinner, so I’d probably invite my favorite funny writers: Zadie Smith, whose White Teeth is not only brilliant but also hilarious; BJ Novak, who wrote a hysterical story collection called One More Thing, and also wrote a pretty funny TV show called The Office; and David Sedaris, who’s just as fun to listen to as to read.

What novel would you give a child to introduce them to literature?
When I was young, my parents found this set of books at a garage sale, which included reprints of books like 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea, Huckleberry Finn, Treasure Island, The Call of the Wild, Lord of the Flies, even Moby Dick. I wouldn’t say that reading any one of those books in particular made me want to be a writer. Instead, it was the thrill of reading all of them – all the adventures I had, all the friends I made, in my head, in those pages – that made me want to write.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
Once on Christmas I received John Irving’s A Widow for One Year, and I finished it before New Year’s.

What is the last thing that you read that made you laugh out loud?
Touch by Courtney Maum, which came out in the States this summer. It’s a novel about a trend forecaster, and it has some hilarious things to say about technology.

What keeps you awake at night?
Binge-watching Game of Thrones. If I see an episode or two right before bed, I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ll start obsessing about what Cersei’s up to, or start imagining assassins in the room.

What are you working on now?
I’ve been on tour for The Nix for more than a year now, and all this time the next novel has been marinating in my head. So when the tour is finished this fall, I’ll be able to get to work on this new story.

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