Thursday, 20 December 2012

A Measure of African Fiction: The Caine Prize

By Rob Gaylard

The Caine Prize has established itself as the leading award for African short fiction. Many of its previous winners have gone on to establish themselves among the leading lights of a new generation of African writers.
This collection, African Violet and Other Stories. The Caine Prize for African Writing 2012 (The New Internationalist and Jacana), makes for rewarding and sometimes compelling reading. The stories are not characterised by formal experimentation, but they explore and dramatise the human situations of a variety of protagonists.
The most striking story in the collection is the prize-winning Bombay's Republic, by the Nigerian writer Rotimi Babatunde. This is an exhilarating introduction to a volume that celebrates the variety and vitality of African writing.
In this story, war is the locomotive of change: after his experience of fighting the Japanese in the jungles of Burma in World War II, things will never be the same again for Colour Sergeant Bombay, our Nigerian war hero. There can be no return to a world of fixity, order and stasis (the colonial world) where everything was underwritten by the authority of the god-like white man.
On his return from the war, Colour Sergeant Bombay occupies the old jail on the hilltop, and declares himself life president of his "free and independent republic".
His slide into delusions of grandeur mirrors that of any number of African tyrants and dictators who have occupied the post-colonial stage (from Idi Amin to His Imperial Majesty Bokassa I to Mobutu Sese Seko to Gaddafi to Mugabe).
For all its fantastic nature, the story is an acute commentary on this kind of African leader. The difference is that Bombay's delusions are harmless - he is, after all, the sole citizen of his self-declared independent state. Thousands do not perish at his whim; he commits no genocide: he is a ludicrous colossus ruling over an imaginary state.

Recounting the Loss: There was a Country

By Mbongiseni Buthelezi

Over three million people dead. A coup, then a countercoup, followed by pogroms throughout Nigeria, especially the north. The year was 1966. Chinua Achebe was about to publish A Man of the People, which ends with a coup. As the printing presses were about to start rolling, life imitated art. Did he know something the public did not - as an executive at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in Lagos?
He didn't. The first coup took him and almost everyone else by surprise. A group of low-ranking officers took it upon themselves to overthrow what was seen as a corrupt government. The leaders of several states were executed in one night. At first there was widespread celebration. Then a story got around that the military coup "was in fact a sinister plot by the ambitious Igbos of the east to seize control of Nigeria". In There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (Allen Lane), Achebe surmises: "The night of January 15, 1966, is something Nigeria has never really recovered from."
There was a countercoup in July 1966, after which the leaders of the first coup were executed. The descent into chaos gained pace. In Achebe's account, we learn that about 30 000 Igbos were butchered in acts of violence, to which authorities turned a blind eye. Achebe mulls this over quite a bit in the book.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Confessions of a "well-spoken coloured"

By Margaret Lenta

Spanner in the Works: One Woman's Journey from Factory Floor to the Corridors of Power (Umuzi) by Pat Fahrenfort is life writing at its best and bravest. No witness to misery, no complaints about injustice, and if there are encounters with the great, we get to know facets of them that we didn't expect.
It's the story of a working woman's life from 15 years old, when she is jerked out of school one Friday and told by her mother that she has a factory job to go to on Monday. The work is deadly and the supervisory staff authoritarian.
The instant change from schoolchild to working woman proves appalling. Employment means early rising - work begins at 8am and Pat's home is far away on the Cape Flats - compulsory overtime and, as she says, if she is lucky (overtime is sometimes required at weekends) a little fresh air and vitamin D on Sunday.
Not all her fellow workers are unsympathetic: some remember their own early days. Hand the pay packet over to Mother as soon as you arrive home. No ''thank you'' can be expected.
Fahrenfort learns that the pressure to learn adult endurance and acceptance of tedium and exhaustion comes not only from the working environment but from home.
When she is laid off, she tells us that her mother "was displeased, and for a week or more she hardly spoke to me".
For some years Fahrenfort continues, despite her employment, to be at the disposal of her mother, pushed from job to job when there's a chance of a slightly higher wage.
Employers and their deputies are casually racist, casually sexist - it takes skill and caution to escape exploitation by a man who thinks it's his right. She makes one mistake: a single night as a stripper in a club, which horrifies her parents and convinces the sexually predatory that she's fair game. It's a brief detour; before long she is back to the world of daily work.

Intellectual Pursuits: Coovadia's Transformations

By Betty Govinden
Transformations: Essays - evokes many different emotions, sensations and impressions at each twist and turn of the page. I am propelled into an ever-expanding intellectual universe, as I renew old friendships and make new acquaintances. Why am I surprised by the impressive global and historical sweep of Imraan Coovadia's writings (from Plato to Ranci?re), and the authority and imaginative reach of his thinking, which includes a knowledge of the Bible, its language and style, and of Christianity alongside a new respect and recognition of the everyday? Any great (humanities) scholar, worth his or her salt, should surely do no less.
Reading Transformations (Umuzi, Random Struik), I want to go back to the tutors of my graduate sensibility - Milton, Shakespeare, George Eliot. But I find it hard to accept that my gurus of recent decades - Edward Said, who is chief among them - are being stripped of adulation. Was I missing something all these years, being so enamoured and in awe? I read the lines again. I am frustrated by Coovadian nuance, forcing me to think for myself.
As I press on through Transformations, I appreciate the element of juxtaposition, its audacity. The walls between high criticism and reading low culture are demolished. Coovadia alerts me, in passing, to the notion that in an essay, "gossip and close reading, metaphysics and psychology, philosophy and love and scorn and politics may even co-exist without necessarily provoking discordance".
Indeed. JM Coetzee and Shrien Dewani make strange bedfellows. But they are both pared down here. I warm to the allusion game that Coovadia loves to play. I think of TS Eliot's "hollow men". Coovadia writes each differently, but with the same pace, the same modulation, and I begin to appreciate his rendering that an essay "is nothing but the shifts and turns in topic which come through a writer's hand-like shifts and turns through the hands of a pianist".

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Untangling the Life of a Hero: Biko: A Biography

By Konstantin Sofianos

The figure of Steve Biko has assumed a notable ubiquity in post-apartheid culture. Frozen in two or three iconic postures, his image stares out at us from T-shirts, posters and urban graffiti. Biko is revered on university campuses, invoked in boardrooms and in service delivery protests, and is dutifully but generically acknowledged in public rhetoric.
But Biko can be all things to all people in this way only to the extent that his symbolic legacy is voided of intellectual content. The recent publication of Xolela Mangcu's Biko: A Biography (Tafelberg) is thus a particularly welcome event, promising as it does to restore Biko to public consciousness in the full wit and tangle of his life and thinking, at a time of heightened social tension and intellectual disarray.
Though Biko's activism and protracted assassination at the hands of apartheid security forces have been chronicled in anti-apartheid documents and memoirs - really, exercises in political martyrology - Mangcu's book is the first attempt to provide a full-scale biography of Biko, "presented to the reader warts and all", as Mangcu writes, including "the women, the drinking, the bad temper, the stubbornness and the arrogance at times".
He is well placed to be the author of such a book: a prominent political commentator and academic, Mangcu was also the founding director of the Steve Biko Foundation, and hails, as the book reveals, from the same township of Ginsberg, King William's Town, in which Biko had grown up some years earlier, and to which he was confined under a banning order from 1973 onwards.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Psychic Ties: The Land Within

By Mary Corrigall

Alistair Morgan might belong to a rising faction of emerging authors but his literature carries the leitmotifs of his predecessors; white guilt, the politics of land ownership and the master/servant dynamic.
These themes find traction in his latest novel, The Land Within (Penguin SA), in predictable ways, though interestingly he doesn't deposit the weight of white guilt at the feet of the older generation. Instead, he unearths the baggage of his own precarious generation - those who don't readily view themselves as perpetrators nor can they claim the guilt-free status the born-frees enjoy.
He gradually unravels this psychic guilt via Henry Knott, an affluent, white man in his forties who is forced to confront his past when he travels back to the Karoo farm where he was raised. A corollary to this physical journey is obviously an internal one - as alluded to in the book's title.
The sights, sounds and textures of the external landscape trigger memories that push his psyche back to a tragic event he has presumably suppressed. Certainly, there is a sense that this event is tied to the land - it's literally and figuratively buried in the landscape - thus his confrontation with the past can only be realised through a physical encounter.
The spectre of death looms large, from the beginning of Henry's journey, carried at first in the pervasive aroma of carrion, leading him down the passage of time. The weight of his guilt is corrupting his encounter with the present, colouring everything.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Enslaved Fiction: André Brink's Philida

By Margaret Lenta

André Brink's latest novel, Philida (Harvill Secker), deals with the life of a slave woman immediately before the announcement of the emancipation of slaves, which took place at the Cape in 1834. Only in 1838 were they finally free to leave their masters.
The first chapters of the novel record that she suffered gross sexual exploitation, a commonplace of slavery. There was a shortage of women; slaves were in almost every sense the property of their masters and the law was administered by white men who had a strong interest in evading provisions designed to protect slaves.
Perhaps the most inhuman feature of the concubinage of slave women was that their children by their masters were included in the slave group, and often sold by their biological fathers.
The paradox at the root of slavery is that slaves are as much at the disposal of their owners as a chair or a bowl, yet both parties to this horrible relationship know them to be as human as their owners. This produced a climate of secrecy; everyone knew but owners refused to acknowledge that all kinds of abuse, from rape to murder, were taking place. Historical sources - the diaries of Lady Anne Barnard are probably the best example - make this clear, but they leave the novelist with a problem. If no one was allowed to speak of these horrors, in what voices can an author tell the story of slavery? Brink's answer in 1983, when he published A Chain of Voices, was the casting of his narrative into a series of internal monologues, as he has done here, where the story is told in the thoughts of the interacting slaves, owners and officials. Here the thoughts of Philida, her master, his son and the official to whom she testifies are used to tell the story. As in A Chain of Voices, the agonies can seem overemphasised, and the reaction of this reader was often, in the first section, "I've got that point now".

Friday, 19 October 2012

Between Texts and Places

By Rustum Kozain

"Think about it. A bunch of German and American kids meeting up in Berlin and Paris between the wars to make all this joyful music before the Nazis kick it to pieces? And the legend survives when a lone tin box is dug out of a damn wall in a flat that once belonged to a Nazi? Man. If that ain't a ghost story, I never heard one."
This is one summary - bare as it is - of one of the two central narratives in Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, which has been nominated for the Man Booker Prize. Both narratives are narrated by Sid Griffiths, a jazz bassist and a native of Baltimore in the US who in 1927 found himself gigging in Berlin. This precis does not add "flavour to the story", observes Sid when he reflects on an insignificant detail of another summary of the same story.
Completing the rhythm section with Sid is drummer Chip Jones, also from Baltimore and a friend since childhood. They are both black, but Sid is light-skinned - he has family members who pass for white in the US - and there are times in Berlin where this is to his advantage. As war approaches in Berlin (and soon will break out), Sid and Chip meet up with various German musicians and eventually form the Hot-Time Swingers, a band now comprised of Sid and Chip, a black German trumpeter, Hieronymous Falk, a Jewish German pianist, Paul Butterstein, and two white Germans, Ernst von Haselberg on clarinet and Fritz Bayer on saxophone. The band becomes popular in Berlin, eventually gaining even the interest of Louis Armstrong all the way in Paris.
At the centre of the band and the story stands Hieronymous. A prodigy, Hiero can play: "Stupid young for what all he could do on a horn. You heard a lifetime in one brutal note." And thus Armstrong's interest in meeting the band.
But Hiero is a mischling, literally translated as "bastard", "mongrel", "half-caste" or, indeed, the "half blood" of the book's title. Born in Germany to an African dad and a German mother, Hiero is "so dark no soul ever like to guess his mama a white Rhinelander? [But] if his face wasn't of the Fatherland, just bout everything else bout him rooted him there right good".
On the eve of World War II, then, and on the run following a brawl with a group of Nazis during which Chip kills one of their attackers, Hiero, Sid and Chip make their way to Paris. Paul, it turns out, will have been captured and sent to Saschenhausen, Fritz will join a Nazi-approved band, and Ernst, from a wealthy and influential family, will remain in Germany for reasons unclear. Soon, war breaks out and, not long after, Germany invades and occupies France, which is where the story begins.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Through the screen of Literature

By Mary Corrigall

The longer I spend in Michiel Heyns's company, the more convinced I become that Christopher Turner, the main protagonist in his latest novel, Invisible Furies, is his spectral double.
It's his uneasiness with being the subject, rather than observer, that gives root to this idea. Of course, the latter is the default position for writers and while Turner is an astute spectator, and Heyns fixes him in this role, he lacks the courage to write - he prefers to edit, refine other people's work.
"I am attracted to the outsider concept. In my other novels, too, with the exception of Bodies Politic, the characters are observers, they stand and they watch. I am attracted to Christopher, a main characters who is an observer of the action. It goes with the whole thing of showing and acting that the novel explores."
Heyns is already holding a large glass of white wine when I find him in the plush lounge of the Southern Sun Hyde Park Hotel. It's late afternoon and he probably has a few Joburg interviews lined up before the launch of Invisible Furies at Exclusive Books in the adjoining mall. I imagine the process to be slightly excruciating for the retired Stellenbosch academic-turned-novelist. He doesn't hint at this; there is a degree of weariness to his manner.
The wine has taken the edge off any obvious signs of discomfort, and he is settled back confidently in a chair. It may be his humility, or his desire to go unnoticed, that evokes Turner.
"I don't think of myself as a writer. I would never write down writer next to 'profession' on a form. I would write 'pensioner'. I still see writing as something I do on the side. I am a dog walker who happens to write novels," he says with a gentle smile.
This declaration is unexpected, unsettling even: he has penned five previous novels and won numerous awards for his writing - how could he not consider himself a novelist? I turn this question around in my head for days after our meeting and eventually decide that denying this designation is precisely what frees him up to write.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Talking Shop: Open Book Fest report

By Konstantin Sofianos

The eateries and drinking-holes of Cape Town's CBD rang with literary chatter, bustling suburbanites mingled with hipsters along the pavements, and in the men's room someone observed that they found the preceding speaker "trenchant", not your average urinal conversation. It was the annual Open Book literature festival in Cape Town, which ran through five densely-packed days across the Heritage Day weekend, September 20th-24th, and featured over a hundred individual events, all steadily attended, and many packed out.
An initiative of the Cape Town Book Lounge, and organisers Mervyn Sloman and Frankie Murrey, the Open Book festival, only in its second yearly iteration, is already poised to establish itself as the premier cultural event of its kind in the country. Its distinction lies in the calibre of international and local authors it has been able to attract: this year's guests included two recent Booker Prize winners, in Alan Hollinghurst and Kiran Desai, book-club staples Lionel Shriver and Joanne Harris, authors respectively of the blockbusters We Need to Talk About Kevin and Chocolat, revered American science fiction writer Neal Stephenson, beguiling children's book author Emily Gravett, and notable emerging talents like Esi Edugyan and Anjali Joseph. These are not tired literary icons dragged out "on the circuit," in Auden's phrase, but rather active contemporary writers who retain an apparent intellectual openness, and an infectious fascination with their developing craft.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Win a Book Hamper

In an effort to share books and encourage Sunday Independent readers to do the same, we are offering three readers the chance to win a book hamper courtesy of Penguin Books SA.
Each hamper contains three new titles from the publisher: Thinking up a Hurricane is a unique coming-of-age memoir and Martinique Stilwell’s recounting of her true-life gypsy |childhood. Dangerous LIfe by Ben Okri constructs a vivid picture of Nigerian life.
Internationally acclaimed writer Nuruddin Farah’s Crossbones is a tense and moving portrait of individuals cast against overpowering social forces.
To win the hamper send an e-mail explaining how you have spread the word about books during this past week, whether through donations to your local library or to someone you encounter or know.
Include your full name, postal address and cellphone number. |Send your entries to by September 21.

Settler of a different kind

By Rob Gaylard

SA letters has found a fresh, new voice. Rosemary Smith's memoir, Swimming with Cobras (Modjaji Books) covers just over 30 years of a very active life, from her arrival in Grahamstown as wife of a newly appointed English lecturer, to her "retirement" in 1999. This rich and interesting narrative is several things at once. Most obviously it is record of years of dedicated service for the Grahamstown Area District Relief Association and the Black Sash in Grahamstown.
It records how the shifts in the national political arena - from the Soweto uprising to the repression of the mid-80s to the beginnings of the thaw in the late 80s - were registered at the local level.
More than this, however, Smith's memoir records how the drama of alienation and integration played out in her own life, and how her political/welfare work was instrumental in finally making her feel a part of this small Eastern Cape town with its quasi-colonial society. It vividly records her initial discomfort and sense of alienation: the unfamiliar Eastern Cape landscape was a far remove from the "manageable scenery of Oxfordshire" and for some years she continued to feel "the strong seductive pull of English life". This recalls the sense of estrangement felt by many of the original 1820 Settlers: as with them, so here the green fields and country lanes of England form a kind of counterpoint against which to measure this unfamiliar new land. The book shows how a principled lifelong commitment to non-racialism, peace and justice enabled the author to find her feet - and her sense of herself.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Caught in the Underbelly

By Mary Corrigall

Eberard Februarie never wakes up in the morning feeling refreshed. His skin is dry and taut, his muscles ache and he typically surveys the dystopian world he inhabits with pounding in his head, a consequence of his penchant for night-time booze-ups.
This sense of physical degradation doesn't simply mirror the debased crime-ridden society he encounters as a member of SAPS but is an external manifestation of the inner impact of his profession.
He can't lift the lid on the agony that haunts the deep recesses of his consciousness; if he did, he would fall apart and would no longer be able to survive or weather the abysmal realities that his job puts him in contact with daily. As he wades through the dark trenches of the world of crime, his corporeal character is weighed down by the truths he cannot face and the toll of a lifestyle, which ironically is supposed to counter it.
As a cop tasked with solving violent crime, he is the buffer between society and its undesirable underbelly, but in a morally corrupt society, where the boundary between right and wrong keeps shifting, Februarie has lost his way. He seems more at home among the debased.

Meet the Author: Andrew Brown

What was the main challenge in writing Solace?The biggest challenge was venturing into the arena of religious differences and fundamentalism, setting the novel within this contentious environment without being offensive or overly insensitive to other people's beliefs and cultural practices. Some religions are more sensitive to criticism or debate than others and all three mainstream religions come under scrutiny in the book. I think that I may have annoyed a few people on the extremes, but the response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive.
Are you satisfied with the end-product; do you have any reservations about it, would you do anything differently? I had reservations when writing Solace about repeating a character, in this case Detective Inspector Eberard Februarie from Coldsleep Lullaby. I don't want to be a series writer or to fall into the trap of formulaic writing, so I was extremely ambivalent about dusting the mothballs off him and putting him back into action. On the other hand, he is a character that I like and he fitted the bill perfectly for the main protagonist in Solace. It also allowed me to develop him further as a character (in this case, taking the poor man to even lower emotional depths). On reflection, I think it was the right thing to do for the book, but I am reluctant to make Eberard a regular feature.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Life versus Art: Lessons in Husbandry

By Margaret Lenta

LESSONS in Husbandry (Umuzi), packed with incident as it is, resembles life rather than art in that it contains a large diversity of matter, no part of which necessarily relates to any other part.
The main theme, which resurfaces frequently in Shaida Kazie Ali's novel, is Malak's grief for her sister Amal, who disappeared 10 years previously, immediately before her marriage to Taj, and has never reappeared.
Taj, already provided with a marital home but lacking a bride, asks Malak to marry him in place of her sister. Husband and wife are each other's unsatisfactory substitutes; their marriage is childless and Taj is unfaithful - though generous.
Malak, in this up-to-the-moment work, has a share in a cupcake business. But does her business partner have to be a Holocaust survivor who tells her story? Does she have to meet an old friend who is now an anorexic model? Isn't it trivialising of the whole to include so much?

Meet the Author: Shaida Kazie Ali

What was the challenge in writing Lessons in Husbandry?I loved writing the first draft but the challenge was learning to trust the story and let go of the preconceived ideas I had about how the plot should develop.
Are you satisfied with the end product? Yes. Probably. I doubt that I'll ever be pleased with a final draft. If there wasn't a publishing deadline, I'll write revisions forever.
What drove you to write the book and what do you aim to achieve with it?A vignette near the end of the novel kept materialising in my mind and it intrigued me because I didn't know how the two characters in the scene had arrived at that point. I wrote back to the beginning of the book to unearth the background to the story but I found the writing process was one that was filled with surprises.

Monday, 16 July 2012

"Apartheid era literature has been oversimplified"

By Kelwyn Sole

The period since liberation has allowed a number of new perspectives, themes and possibilities for expression to emerge in South African literature. In the immediate political sphere, many noteworthy literary figures have, since liberation, suggested that the days of the “bring-on-the-poet-to-lick-the-stage-clean-for-the-politicians” phenomenon (to use Lesego Rampolokeng’s phrase) are over; while others, such as cultural activist Vonani Bila, have lamented the “clowns” who are still prepared to perform work of uncritical flattery for politicians. In addition, there has been an explosion of genres more concerned with entertainment, such as crime, teen and fantasy – one of which, crime fiction, has instigated fascinating discussions about its potential for highlighting socio-political problems. 
From the perspective of literary studies, though, we appear now to be in the process of entering a new, post-transitional phase in our history, marked by a renewed interest in so-called “protest” literature and discussions about the viability (or not) of certain genres as bearers of the “political”. This renewal of debate has, of necessity, highlighted misconceptions and omissions in our understanding of our critical priorities to date. One of these is the relative lack of interest in an important period in our literary history: the two decades preceding liberation. 
To a majority of literary commentators, the cultural and literary concerns of these two decades were made redundant by the demise of apartheid. This has resulted in a tendency to present this period in a remarkably uniform way, both in the media and in universities which teach South African literature. The general impression given is that these years were unspeakably arid; chiefly because most writers were engaged in various kinds of “support” activity to anti-apartheid organisations, and had little interest in questions of craft, skill or style beyond these dictates.   Any suggestions that there were socially conscious writers and performers who were not so circumscribed, have tended to be ignored. 

Friday, 13 July 2012

Challenging Insitutions: Coovadia's Taxi Poetry

By Maragaret Lenta

In The Institute for Taxi Poetry (Umuzi) Imraan Coovadia presents us with a university department where "taxi poetry" is studied, and with the hundreds of minibus taxis on the streets of Cape Town, whose "sliding door men" aggressively collect fares and generally rule over the passengers. These minibus taxis may have the poetry to which the title of the novel refers painted on their sides, yet when poetry is quoted within The Institute for Taxi Poetry, it is on three occasions from within the recognised canon of South African poetry, the authors being //Kabbo, a nineteenth century San convict (translated into English by Stephen Watson), Karen Press and Douglas Livingstone. Coovadia does quote one of the revolutionary black poets, Keroapetse Kgotsile, to attribute his line to the taxi poet Gerome Geromian, and the epigraph to the novel is taken from Mongane Serote's City Johannesburg. Poetry permeates our lives, these allusions say; it formulates for us what we think - but probably nothing more specific than that.
Solly Greenfields, "once a taxi poet, and then a Buddhist, once a Muslim, once a Jew, once a lowly cook in the Mount Nelson? on other occasions a guest in the very same hotel", whose murder by an unknown assailant stands at the beginning of the novel, is the catalyst for the plot - which is arguably the weakest part of the novel.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The White Side of Life

By Rob Gaylard

Donald McRae left SA (to avoid military service) in 1984 and has made a successful career for himself in the UK as an award-winning writer and journalist. In Under Our Skin: A White Family's Journey through South Africa's Darkest Years, he turns from the worlds of professional boxing (Dark Trade, 1996) or boxing and athletics and politics (In Black and White, 2002) or the drama of the world's first heart transplant (Every Second Counts, 2006) to write about the drama of his own life. McRae brings to bear his skills as researcher and journalist to produce an honest and dispassionate autobiographical account of what it was like to grow up white in SA in the years when apartheid was at its height. It is an unassuming and absorbing story, although much of it may be familiar - at least for an SA reader.
The central theme is its exploration of what it meant to grow up in a privileged white cocoon in the heyday of apartheid - a central trope of much SA writing. This means it is also a coming-of-age story, a story of the gradual loss of innocence as young Donald's eyes are gradually opened to the nature of the world around him. As with many such stories, there is the awkwardness of adolescence and of first sexual encounters (the more significant of these often involve crossing some cultural or racial line, hence the book's title) - but do not expect anything erotic or even confessional. Despite the personal nature of this memoir, there is a restraint in the telling: there is little sustained introspection, and little sensory detail.

Q & A: Donald McRae

What was the main challenge in writing Under our Skin?I've written six previous non-fiction books - with subjects ranging from pioneering heart surgeons and criminal lawyers to sporting icons and sex workers - and each was underpinned by years of detailed research about larger-than-life characters. It was a rather tricky challenge to place myself and my family at the heart of this very different book. But Under Our Skin is also meant to be a memoir of a particular era in SA from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s.

Are you satisfied with the end product, do you have any reservations about it, would you do anything differently?The book has, at least so far, been generously received. But I'm not sure if I quite got the balance right between the "good stuff" and the more overwhelming "bad stuff" of life in SA during that very different time. As a writer, I'm inevitably drawn to more dramatic and often harrowing memories. Perhaps I should have included more on the sweeter days that also shaped our past. However, it was important to me that I devoted an entire section to the detention and death of Neil Aggett in 1982. So I wouldn't change too much if I had to write it again.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Debate: Novels have to engage with politcs, says Heyns

Award-winning novelist Michiel Heyns, who has recently published Invisible Furies (Jonathan Ball), speaks to Mary Corrigall about Lost Ground, his previous novel.

You dismissed an interviewer’s observation that Lost Ground is a “state of the nation” novel, suggesting that every SA novel delivers pronouncements on it. Are the worth of novels still measured against the depths to which they plunge into socio-political conditions? I hope I didn’t “dismiss” the observation! But, yes, given the nature of the novel, most, if not all novels, would offer some kind of reflection (not “pronouncement”), direct or indirect, on the socio-political conditions underlying its production. The second part of your question is more difficult, but I’ll stick my neck out and say that yes, I think that novels are still gauged as “important” or not, depending on their engagement with those conditions.

Could political commentary be better served in a crime novel?No, I don’t think so, unless we were to say that crime is the main component of our political situation. I know it sometimes feels that way, but I wouldn’t want to proceed on that assumption.

Writers often address the canon from which their writing is rooted, how do you think Lost Ground responds to the political novel (or other genres)? I did not think of Lost Ground as emerging from that particular canon, no. If I had in mind any particular forerunner, it was Shakespeare’s Othello – yes, a political work, I suppose, and also a story of a crime, though I didn’t think of it in just those terms.

In writing Lost Ground, what did you discover about political/social conditions that hadn’t been so obvious to you before?Constructing a plot means, among other things, figuring out the relations between different characters. In constructing the fictional town of Alfredville, I was forced to recognise how interwoven the different parts of the community are – any community. I realised this in the abstract; but writing the novel brought it home very graphically. I had to dramatise, that is, imagine, very different perspectives on the same situation.

Ashraf Jamal has suggested that this imperative to describe the socio-political conditions in SA has limited the vocabulary of fiction – do you agree? If we accept that there is this imperative, it would probably be a limiting one. And my answer to the first question suggests I do think there is some such pressure (“imperative” may be too strong a word, as is “compelled”). But if the presentation of socio-political conditions is a natural part of the process of novel-writing, then it needn’t be limiting; it’s just part of what goes into most novels.- published June 24, 2012.

Debate: "Should we even be talking about the novel?"

By Mbongiseni Buthelezi

Literary studies in SA seems to be taking a while to work out what its project and its objects of study ought to be since the transition to democracy. In his piece “Roger Smith and the ‘genre snob’ debate”, and in the discussion the review generated on the Slipnet website, Leon de Kock, the academic and author, makes the point that some recent works, such as Sifiso Mzobe’s Young Blood, are unscrambling the categories that have become too easy for literary critics to use to classify, describe and discriminate.
He also suggests that the “field is ripe for contention and remapping”.
To make the point that these debates have been had too often, De Kock refers to, among other things, the 1980s Leftist condemnation of elitist criticism as attending only to highbrow literature. He asks: “Do we really want to go back there? Can’t we take those debates and mainly read, now, and move on?”
While he is probing these matters in the context of asking about the ascendance of so-called crime fiction in the place of more “serious” novels, it is worth widening the lens slightly to take in a larger view of literary studies in post-apartheid SA.
As the form that has been privileged for perhaps the last century in literary studies, is the novel still worth agonising over? Does it matter that it is being forced to describe socio-political conditions in the country to be considered good?

Political Debate: "There is still a future for political novels"

By Kelwyn Sole
One approaches this topic with a certain amount of déjà vu, as questions pertaining to political literature were an area of critical debate during the struggle against apartheid.
These debates, heated though they were, vanished in the face of the unbannings of 1990 and political settlement of 1994. Post-liberation SA, it was now proclaimed by many literary commentators, had become a “normal” society where literature could pursue interest in the “ordinary” activities of its citizens. If there were to be a social area at issue at all, it was as regards the upliftment of the previously disadvantaged, especially through the prism of identity politics.
The issue of political fiction, to be sure, always played a minor role in pre-liberation debates. The prevalent usage of the “political” was more often in genres with an oral and performative potential, such as poetry and drama. Nevertheless, a number of issues regarding political fiction were visible in debates at this time, and were left unresolved at apartheid’s demise.
The first question one needs to ask, then, is why a topic declared redundant at liberation, both by the literary establishment and by cultural spokespeople from the new government, is once again raising its head?
With the benefit of hindsight, I would suggest that it is now possible to question the validity of assumptions about the “end of the political” made at liberation. In the face of corruption, mismanagement, and – even more to the point – attempts by the government to curb its media and artistic critics (for example through the Protection of State Information Bill and the Brett Murray incident), political and even resistance art are again compelling topics of discussion.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Final part of Political Novel Debate

In this Sunday's edition is the final part of our 3-part series looking at the nature of the political novel in the post-apartheid era. Mbongiseni Buthelezi suggests that we shouldn't be agonising over the novel when other cultural forms seem better able to address and engage with current conditions. Kelwyn Sole asks why the political novel should be seen as redundant after liberation? Michiel Heyns (pictured above) believes that the crime genre cannot serve to plot the socio-political conditions in the country unless you view crime as the main component of our political situation

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Political Novels Debate: "We don't need political novels anymore" - Coovadia

Mary Corrigall: Your novels have dealt with the political conditions in SA but do you consider them political novels – what do you think is meant by that tag?Imraan Coovadia: Politics is one way of dealing with the existence of other people. Novels are another way, and maybe a better way, at any rate, I think a more interesting way. Politics is organised around the distinction between my friends and my enemies whereas, in novels, friends and enemies tend to become confused with each other. Having said that, good politicians are often pretty good writers – Lincoln, Churchill, maybe Obama, although in Obama’s case the writing is a little too reconciling and maybe the politics also. He doesn’t seem to believe in the existence of enemies.

Do you think the nature of the political novel has shifted in the post-apartheid era? If so, in what way?Yes, of course. We don’t need political novels anymore. In fact we may not even need novels. You’d have to say that the vital energies of South African culture aren’t confined to literature anymore. We have the doodle raised to a transcendent form by William Kentridge, the puppet as a work of art from the Handspring Puppet Company, the cartoon as practised by Zapiro, Lauren Beukes’s science fiction or fantasy novels, and the grotesque of Die Antwoord. There’s a lot more energy there than was ever contained in the standard model of the political novel.

Political Novels Debate: New Literature for a Changed World?

By Margaret Lenta

Until the first democratic elections in 1994, writers were under pressure to restrict their subject matter to the struggles to abolish apartheid and allow all adult citizens the vote. Until these aims were achieved, it was felt, no other human rights issues should receive attention. Assertions that the law disadvantaged women, that religions other than Christianity were unfairly treated, that many subjects, political and social, should not be mentioned in print, went unchallenged.
Arguments about this exclusive focus became irrelevant in 1996, when a constitution was accepted which defined broad principles relating to personal liberty and a just state. The ways in which these principles could be implemented needed to be taken up in written and spoken debates across the land, but writers needed time to think, and euphoria is not the best stimulant of creativity.
Literary discussion was delayed by ambivalence: the 1996 constitution proclaimed the equal rights of men and women, of racial minorities, of all kinds of sexual orientation and all religions, but did Mr or Ms Average agree with this? All the established societies of SA were – and most remain – patriarchal: if equality between men and women and religious tolerance are both constitutional principles, how for example do we deal with the fact that many religious groups exclude women from their ministry?
Eleven languages were recognised – but what does recognition mean? Can we, or should we, make a language spoken by a small group of people “equal” to one spoken by millions? Should economic interests decide debates when the poor face starvation?
All these debates were material for literature, but writers took time to think them over – there was a falling-off in literary production between 1990 and 1999. In that year JM Coetzee’s Disgrace appeared, making the “Afro-pessimist” point strongly: if reconciliation were to take place, it would, the book suggested, demand huge sacrifices by whites and the acceptance of radical changes in power dynamics.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Part 2 Political Novels Debate this Sunday

In this  Sunday’s edition we continue with the debate on the nature of the political novel in the post-apartheid era. Challenging political authorities is no longer the focus, proposes Lenta during her survey of shifts in literature since 1994, though she observes that writers were initially crippled by the euphoria that political changes brought.
“Eleven languages were recognised – but what does recognition mean? Can we, or should we, make a language spoken by a small group of people “equal” to one spoken by millions? Should economic interests decide debates when the poor face starvation? All these debates were material for literature, but writers took time to think them over – there was a falling-off in literary production between 1990 and 1999.”
Coovadia proposes other cultural forms have superseded the novel.
“We don’t need political novels anymore. In fact we may not even need novels. You’d have to say that the vital energies of South African culture aren’t confined to literature anymore.”
Next week, Mbongiseni Buthelezi and Kelwyn Sole weigh in on the topic.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Part 1 Debate: Q & A with Zakes Mda: "All art is political"

Your novels have dealt with the political conditions in South Africa, have you considered them “political novels” –  what do you think is meant by that tag?All art is about power relations. Therefore all art is political whether its’ creators overtly intend it to be or not.
Is the perceived value of a novel in this country still measured against the depths with which the novelist plunges into the ‘state of the nation’?  No. Any successful novel is about characters and their conflicts. The characters interact actively with their environment, which includes the setting. Some of that environment will be shaped and informed by the social, political and economic conditions.
What is at stake for the characters in their conflicts may therefore be overtly political in nature, be criminal, romantic, existential, erotic, religious, scientific, fantastical etc. or any combination and permutation of these.
A novel that is dominated by the “issues” (including “state of the nation”) at the expense of credible character development (for literary fiction) and engaging plot development (for genre fiction), or a combination of both,  will be an utter failure.

Part 1 Debate: Is Gordimer out of time?

By Mary Corrigall

After the country went to the polls in the first democratic elections of 1994, a line was drawn, delineating what the country had been and what it would become. This socio-political rupture between the past and present was to some degree artificial; it also implied an erasure. In No Time Like the Present (Picador Africa), Gordimer expresses this temporal break in the form of a compelling motif of a motorbike ripping “the street like a sheet of paper roughly torn.”
This everyday event has momentous significance for the Reeds – Steve and Jabu – for the simple fact that it coincides with Steve’s suggestion that the family move into the suburbs. For the Reeds transplanting their lives in the suburbs is a politically loaded act; after years of living under the radar as not only an interracial couple, but as Umkhonto operatives taking up residence in the suburbs implies that they are being reaggregated into a society with which they were once at war.
Gordimer places the “s” in suburb in upper case throughout the text as a way of drawing attention to the politics underpinning this spatial and ideological frame. The suburb where they settle offers the utopian dream for which they fought. Around the corner live their (former) comrades and an NG Kerk has been overrun by gay men – an obvious sign that the old authority has been overturned.
“Now everything is after,” becomes a mantra for this new society or condition, this ideological shift.
But the rip that has segmented their existence, their narratives, isn’t a clean one.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Debate on Political Novels

In the Sunday Independent this weekend the Books Page - Page 16 Life will feature the first of a three part special on the nature of the political novel. The furore over Brett Murray's portrait of President Jacob Zuma has prompted interesting questions around the nature of political-centred art in the post-apartheid era. This has ramifications for the political novel, the privileged literary genre in South Africa. The emergence of a local crime genre, where much political commentary is being embedded has prompted academics such as Leon de Kock to question the value of the political novel. This week Books Editor, Mary Corrigall, will review Nadine Gordimer's No Time Like the Present and Zakes Mda responds to questions on this topic in relationship to his writing.

FLF 2012: Chapter or Worse?

By Matthew Blackman

The last time I was at the Franschhoek Literary Festival I made a mental note never to return. This was after a session where several novelists not only shamelessly plugged their own books but also seemed disingenuously to promote their fellow panelists'. Now call me a hypocrite lecteur, but on Saturday I returned and attended the Sunday Times Literary Awards shortlist announcement.
However, unlike the bonhomie that pervades - in my limited experience - some of the festival's panel discussions, I noted some disquiet after the announcement. The editor Helen Moffet was expressing chagrin. "I want to box somebody's ears," she said to judge Imraan Coovadia. "Thando Mgqolozana was robbed." Moffett then admitted she was Mgqolozana's editor.
It is this "incest" that lies at the heart of many of SA's literary ills, and it is one that extends to the festival itself. There is no doubt that criticism becomes a complicated business in the South African literary microcosm. And certainly biases derived from the closeness of the community, when aired publically, can lead to a distorting of the relevance and value of certain works.

Gilfillan & Hope on FLF 2012

By Mary Corrigall

The themes and names on this year’s Franschhoek Literary Festival (FLF) programme might have been interchangeable with those from previous years, but Lynda Gilfillan, the academic and renowned editor who chaired and starred on a variety of panel discussions at FLF 2012, proposed that “it was better than last year. It surprised me with its richness.”
“The country changes so radically that some of the same old tired topics are always refreshed. Jonathan Jansen for example appeared again, but I didn’t feel a sense of déjà vu when he spoke.”
Christopher Hope, the author who founded the festival six years ago, was delighted with the turnout this year. “The halls were packed. You had to book to get in. There was a real buzz in town.”
He is no longer the festival’s director and regrets that there wasn’t as wide a mix of authors from different countries.
“(The line-up) needs to be more diverse. For so long we were cut off from the rest of the world. We need a bit of ‘elsewhere’ here. Festivals like this need to be about controversy and discussion.”

Brothers in Arms

By Margaret Lenta

Brothers in Arms is not a general history of the Anglo-Boer war, but a somewhat anecdotal account of the participation in it of the Dutch – readers need pencils and paper by their sides to help them find their way through the enormous number of individual names.
As happens in most wars, some of the Hollanders who joined the Boers found they were in their element, enjoying attacks on blockhouses and other fly-by-night activities. Others adapted to wartime conditions and endured the hardships and the gradual fading of hope as best they could.
Chris Schoeman’s interest is in the Boer side of the contest, and there is no attempt to understand British strategy or motives.
The Dutch who volunteered to fight alongside the Boers belonged roughly to two groups: those who were resident in the country when war was declared and whose sympathies, understandably, were with their friends, colleagues and neighbours; and those resident in the Netherlands who felt sufficiently strongly about the war to come to southern Africa and fight alongside their distant relatives.
Schoeman explains that the people of the Netherlands “felt an increasing solidarity with their Dutch-speaking (relatives) in South Africa”, and their queen, Wilhelmina, wrote to the Boers expressing her sense of the strong bonds which united them. She even tried to dissuade the aged Queen Victoria from endorsing the war, according to Schoeman. It was in vain: the last major war of British imperialism was unstoppable.
This preliminary political information is the first and last we are offered. Other than this, Schoeman is concerned with the lives of the Hollanders who volunteered and served, though he does imply that other Europeans felt that Britain’s attack on the Boers was unjustifiable. Many of us have read of the Irish presence on the Boer side, and the sympathy of the Kaiser (despite the fact that he was Queen Victoria’s favourite grandson) for the Boers.