Monday, 26 August 2013
THIS book is about South Africa's ongoing transformation and its Janus-faced paradoxes. Although identifying with those who believe that apartheid has not really ended, the author, Carli Coetzee - adjunct lecturer at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies - acknowledges that things are changing and progress has been made since 1994.
To hasten this prolonged "death" of apartheid, Coetzee makes a compelling argument in Accented Futures: Language Activism and the Ending of Apartheid (Wits University Press) for the active - or activist - surfacing and acknowledgement of differences, disagreements and inequalities during social interaction, but particularly in the processes of teaching and learning in higher education institutions.
She proposes a theory of "accented" discursive attitudes and practices whereby one is encouraged to gauge and engage with the other person's frames of reference - their history, their knowledge systems, their perspective - in a conscious and conscientious way.
Unlike some currently dominant practices that tend to gloss over apartheid's enduring legacies of inequality, ostensibly for |the politically correct goals of national unity, "accentedness", Coetzee argues, promises more productive outcomes for the transformation project.
For one, it doesn't "attempt to empty out the conflicts and violence" that official discourses often sweep "under the surface". Rather, an "accented" communicative approach both acknowledges, and validates the inequalities that have endured into the so-called "post"-apartheid dispensation.
This is envisaged as a means of accommodating the diversity of opinions and interests that have long existed in the country. "Accentedness" thus incorporates local contexts into the knowledge creation and transmission equation.
"Accentedness" would enable us - to paraphrase American writer Anais Nin - to see things more as they are, than as we are.
Writing, to me, is an offshoot of my passion for reading, a habit that I developed from an early age. I grew up as an introverted child and as the only boy in the family. Books became my closest companion. I was particularly fond of comics such as Superman, Archie, and The Bafanas from Bona Magazine. I graduated from comics and began to read indiscriminately - from the short stories of PT Mtuze to Shakespeare. Literary studies was a natural choice for me when I got to tertiary level. I published my first two short stories while doing a creative writing course at Rhodes University in 2001. I went on to do an MA in African Literature at Wits University in 2002, and published more stories that year. In the words of Es'kia Mphahlele, writing is an apprenticeship and to me, literary apprenticeship is a continuous process of intense reading and writing.
What attracts you to the short story genre/format?
Writing short stories for me is liberating and it ignites my creative juices more than any other form of creative expression. I respond to the muse when it catches me and they can be told in one sitting, something evocative of oral narratives. However, contrary to popular perception, writing short requires a lot of discipline as there is no luxury of time and space. One has to develop a story using very few characters, and every word used must be accounted for in order to develop a concrete and aesthetically powerful story. With this book I wanted to experiment and come up with innovative approaches of presenting a book of short stories. The result of that experiment is a collection of four trilogies that are chronologically diverse but remain thematically and stylistically cohesive. Most important, I wanted to create a work of all times. As Njabulo Ndebele puts it: "It will outlive many of the social, political, and economic dramas of the time. The power of African Delights lies precisely there."
Of all the stories in this collection, which was the hardest to write and why?
Bhontsi's Toe was by far the most difficult story for me to write for a number of reasons. It is a tragic story based on a real life incident that left me traumatised for years. A childhood friend died in a similar way as Bhontsi in the story and I suppose it's a childhood trauma that I grew up with and never dealt with at the time. The story refused to forgive my silence. I guess writing it was somewhat cathartic for me because I can now talk about it with less intense emotion. It is also what I regard as a story of friendship.
Your work is clearly inspired by a number of South African authors, such as Ndebele and Themba. What lessons have you learnt about writing from these esteemed figures?
As a student of African literature I immersed myself in the works of AC Jordan, Can Themba, Nadine Gordimer, Bessie Head, Njabulo S Ndebele and many other fantastic South African writers. Some had more impact on me than others and the influence of the likes of Ndebele and Themba is palpable in my writing. I have experimented with Themba's classic short story, The Suit, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The story has been greatly reproduced, adapted for stage, and inspired several other stories, poems, comics and films. I don't know of any other short story that can boast success of equal measure. I have learnt that one is what one reads and these are the giants on whose shoulders I chose to stand. I want my work to outlive my lifetime.
Are there any special moments you remember about writing the book?
One that stands out is when I took the first draft of The Lost Suit to Kimberly, where I was to meet with Dr Don Mattera. The intention was to ask him to read it and let me know what he thought of my interpretation of Sophiatown of the 1950s.
He refused to read the story. Instead, he told me to read aloud in the presence of other literary enthusiasts. Not being much of a public speaker, I was quite reluctant and somewhat embarrassed but I could not miss the opportunity of getting feedback from the esteemed poet.
While I was reading he would wince, exclaim, chuckle, and laugh out loud. Sometimes he'd ask me to go back to a certain paragraph, and without him saying anything, I would know what was wrong with a word that I used. In that way, he made me aware of my own writing, the development of my plot, my choice of words, and the rhythm of my narrative. That is the tactic that I apply in my writing now. Reading aloud and listening while other people are reading aloud is important.
What are you working on now or what kind of work would you like to produce in the future?
I am always writing something but what is taking shape now is what will be my next novel. All I can say about it is that it is a story of redemption with a rural setting. I feel that the rural space has not been explored enough in recent writing, especially in novels written in the English language. The helpless patriot in me still harbours the hope that if there is change in one person at a time, we will subsequently redeem our society. I always try to write work that resonates with the broader society and that would exhort people to take action.
Siphiwo Mahala's African Delights (published by Jacana in 2011) and Russell Kaschula's Displaced (Unisa 2013) were recently launched together at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. Both authors are from or are based in Grahamstown.
Mahala writes with a welcome awareness of the rich tradition of black writing in this country, and intertextual play is a prominent feature of this collection of short stories. The most obvious precursor is Can Themba, the "poet laureate" of Sophiatown: his acclaimed short story, The Suit, provides the springboard for the first three stories in the collection. The narrator of the first, Terence, is the man who was discovered in flagrante in bed with Matilda by her husband, Philimon (acting on a tip-off). He is indignant that his peccadillo has been publicised by Can Themba:
"The only thing he mentions in his propaganda piece, The Suit, is that I ran away. Did he think that was the end of the story for me? Did he think that I, a respected schoolteacher, enjoyed running around the streets of Sophiatown in my underwear?"
The story bristles with inventive energy, and captures something of the spirit of the time: "Hangover was playing with me, I tell you. I knew the only remedy was to pay a quick visit to Thirty-Nine Steps." The note of righteous indignation, as well as the appeal to the reader (who is assumed to be sympathetic) are the keynotes of the story.
Readers of Themba's story will know that it has an enigma at its centre: why does Tilly, who has an adoring and attentive husband and a seemingly perfect marriage, commit adultery (not once, but over a period of three months). The woman's perspective (absent from Themba's story) is brilliantly captured by Zukiswa Wanner.
Her story provides plausible insight into Tilly's psychology (and frustration) and provides a compelling explanation for her attraction to her lover (seemingly a much less worthy man than her husband): "Yes. Terry is a drunk. Yes, he probably is a bad husband and as a teacher, a miserable role model for the children of Soweto, but Phil sweetie, Terry was EXCITING."
Tuesday, 13 August 2013
The only thing worse than interviewing a journalist, is being the journalist at the receiving end of the interview. This is how I open my exchange with Emma Brockes, a British journalist based in New York and author of a memoir dubbed She Left me the Gun: my mother's life before me (Faber & Faber).
The title is a bit of a misnomer as the gun in question was handed into the British authorities by her South African born-mother before she died. As a result Brockes didn't exactly inherit the item, though its existence, which hinted at a violent past haunted her, finally propelling her to Johannesburg to discover its significance in her mother's life before she settled in the UK.
My opening remark is designed to put us both at ease but it is also a way of directing attention to the way in which Brockes exploits and hides behind her identity as a |journalist in her account of piecing the puzzle that was her mother's past. My intention doesn't go unnoticed by Brockes.
"It's weird watching journalists do the things that I do.
"They think they are really discreet and they are not at all," says the forty-something Brit over her breakfast in an intimate restaurant in a swanky Houghton bed and breakfast were she is holed up for her publicity tour.
She Left me her Gun charts Brockes's attempt to uncover the events in her mother's childhood in South Africa, which she had never elaborated on during her life. Brockes only felt compelled to disinter the details shortly after her death. It was a gut reflex to her passing.
"You spend your entire life not wanting to know anything about your parents, and then one day they are gone and it's suddenly your history and it seemed absurd to me. I thought I would lose more of her if I didn't know about everything she had been."
Despite this project being driven to satisfy an emotional need and centred on uncovering the facts about her own family, Brockes embraces a journalistic mode not only in her retelling of her mother's life but the position she adopted from the outset when she began |her research.
It facilitated a level of detachment that helped her navigate the difficult truths she was forced to confront about her family.
"I found that soothing. The logistics were familiar to me, I like sitting in musty libraries. I knew that in order to get it done I needed some sort of professional safety net."
This distance is palpable throughout the book and explains the pronounced absence of the narrator/author.
She is almost an invisible character that recedes in the background, acting simply as a conduit for the information or narrative.
"It's counter-intuitive for me to be the engine of the story. I am not a columnist so I am not used to using myself as material. I think it is an aesthetic as well. I like |compressed books. I am happier being brief and not belabouring the point."
Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity (Wits University Press) by distinguished Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani is a quintessential postcolonial text. It is a worthwhile contribution to the vast body of scholarship that - put simply - challenges the authority of colonial intellectualism and knowledge, and examines the lingering effects of imperialism on formerly colonised territories.
In this book, Mamdani discusses how the identities of indigenous peoples (tagged "native" and "tribe") were formulated ideologically and invested with enduring legal and cultural force on the basis of bogus anthropological and ethnographic theories that served the selfish political interests of British Indirect Rule. The book's title - a pun on the political catchphrase, "divide and rule" - reflects one of Mamdani's main didactic objectives: to demonstrate, practically, how the actions of colonisers are responsible (at least in part) for some of the endemic social discords that continue to plague the formerly colonised world.
This small book (only 154 pages, including long notes and an index) has three chapters, the first of which is titled Nativism: The Theory. Here, Mamdani focuses on the intellectual work of Henry Maine, a 19th-century English jurist and historian whose ideas, according to Mamdani, strongly influenced the policies and practices of British colonialism during the crucial period of the mid- to late 1900 '0s.
During this time, the British empire experienced uprisings in India (1857) and Jamaica (1865) that indicated, in Mamdani's words, "a crisis of mission, and a crisis of justification", and that resulted in the reconsideration of the colonial enterprise "from civilisation to conservation and from progress to order". Mamdani claims that the theories offered by Maine were central to the reorganisation upon which indirect rule was founded.
A key implication of these ideas, Mamdani demonstrates, is the definition of indigenous peoples, or natives, in terms that are essentially oppositional to settlers. Thus, "if the settler was modern, the native was not; if history defined the settler, geography defined the native; if legislation and sanction defined modern political society, habitual observance defined that of the native". To account for this conclusion, Mamdani devotes the bulk of chapter one to detailed analyses of various aspects of Maine's lectures and writings on indigenous Indian history, customs and laws as well as the latter's reflections on the history of human civilisation and the empire's administrative crises.