Sunday, December 28, 2008

Harsh truths about love

Performed at Old Mutual Theatre on the Square, Sandton, Johannesburg

Hard Love is a play inspired by a real incident in the life of Israeli playwright Motti Lerner.

“I met a lovely girl,” he writes, “who later became deeply religious. Our lives were virtually impossible from the outset. One day I saw her quite by chance at the theatre. She was married with many children and had shaved her hair.”

Still wondering what she felt, the seed of an idea was planted and a hard-hitting poignant examination of a relationship, is the result.

Zvi (Ashley Dowds) has come to the religious neighbourhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem to see Hannah (Keren Tahor), the woman he divorced 20 years before. They are worlds apart: Zvi has chosen not to become religious, moved away from the neighbourhood after his divorce and has spent the past two decades writing books.

Meanwhile, Hannah has become ultra-orthodox and is devoting herself to motherhood and home, raising a child with a man nearly 30 years older than herself.

Going back and forth over their lives and what each has become, they soon start to reach the real the heart of their conversation. They must discuss the blossoming relationship between Eran and Rivka, ironically their two children from their respective second marriages. How the two teenagers become involved is less important than the fact that they are smitten with each other, much to their parents’ consternation.

This attitude shifts in the play. At first Zvi is amused, and not at all concerned by the relationship which so disturbs Hannah, but as the scene changes, it is Zvi who cannot accept it, while Hannah welcomes it.

The couple were divorced because of the death of their first-born child, and the religious doubts that crept into Zvi’s life after that early trauma.

Hannah has blamed him, saying God punished him for not believing, an idea that has festered throughout the years of her marriage to the only man that would take her, a man twice her age.

“I was divorced, my son had died no one else would have had me,” Hannah explains to Zvi, as he tries to make sense of her life.

In a dance of admissions, guilt and evasion, Hannah and Zvi’s conversation twines through the years, each believing that the other has not been happy in their chosen life. After his second divorce Zvi has flitted from woman to woman, a practice which the religious Hannah cannot condone, or understand.

Early on we learn that Zvi’s mother committed suicide, a martyr to her religion which she saw as imprisoning her. Clearly this early influence has influenced Zvi’s own desire to escape.

There can be no common ground between them, no reaching through that which divides them, despite the love they once felt for each other, and still do.

“To this day all my dreams take place in your street,” says Zvi.

Scenery and viewpoints shift in the second half of the play as we leave the religious neighbourhood of Mea Shearim. We move away from a traditional setting where a lace tablecloth covers the table, the chandelier is dim and old, and the sideboard is probably a piece of furniture passed down through the generations.

We are in secular Tel Aviv, the light is bright, the furniture modern and minimal, all stark lines and white leather. The action plays itself out within this room, as we see that the balance of power has shifted. Zvi is no longer so sure footed and Hannah has meanwhile gained in confidence and brightened.

But will they be able to breach religious differences and the dark seam of mistrust that has characterised their relationship? You keep hoping.

Tahor brings luminosity to her portrayal of Hannah, beautiful through her passionate beliefs and certainty of faith. Dowds inhabits the complex Zvi.

Both actors take on mild Israeli accents, but Dowds’s voice is sometimes lost within the accent and is indistinct at times. Both successfully draw you into their worlds and their dilemmas. I couldn’t help feeling that the interval was superfluous. The second half is distinctly shorter and I’m sure that we could have held out as an audience. The lack of a break would in this case serve to keep you engrossed.

A jarring element in the production is the use of lights, which suddenly brighten to indicate moments passing. I thought that this device was unnecessary. Darkening the stage for these moments passing would have felt more natural.

This is a story that stays with you long after the rather abrupt, yet open-ended final scene. You will draw your own conclusions as Hannah exits the stage – perhaps that religious differences cannot conquer all, or that two people cannot cross the divide of their own personalities, or something else entirely.

That’s the beauty and strength of Hard Love, which is a play that makes you question your own assumptions about the nature of love.

(Published in The Sunday Independent July 20 2008)

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Desert and desire become one

Review of The Imposter, Damon Galgut, Penguin

This is a quiet, powerful story, a novel trimmed of excess, where every word means what it should. A handful of characters dominate the terrain of The Impostor, set in a small, sleepy Karoo town. This is a pared down novel, running at just over 200 pages and yet huge in impact. It draws you in from the moment you begin, and keeps you mesmerised. Quietly. There is no gore; there are, seemingly, no cliffhangers.

And yet, peer beneath the surface and Galgut exposes the gore inherent in all our lives. This is a novel steeped in the realities of life in South Africa today, with its edge of corruption, its contradictions and its searing beauty against complex realities. “The guards and the thieves were the same people – there’s South Africa in a nutshell,” says a character halfway through the story.

It opens on the day that Adam Napier drives into a sleepy Karoo town. He’s going to take up residence in the abandoned home that his wealthier brother Gavin bought some years ago. On the way there he is stopped by a traffic cop for running a stop street and is outraged when he’s asked to pay a bribe to ensure the fine goes away. But Adam won’t pay, he’s just lost his job and his home, one of the reasons he’s moving into this abandoned house. The scene sets the tone, revealing Adam as an upright and somewhat indignant man. It’s only one of the traits that will set him apart in a country and a place where it’s sometimes just so much easier to pay a bribe.

Adam, who once published a book of poems as a young man, is determined to begin writing poetry again after 20 years of silence and working in a faceless corporation. Forced out by affirmative action, injury is added because he didn’t see it coming, that the young black junior was being groomed to replace him. Choosing to spend the first night in the house, even before the electricity and water have been turned on, Adam experiences the first of many strange nights, with only his thoughts for company and a yearning to again write the poetry that just won’t come.

His neighbour is a silent man in blue overalls and with steely grey hair, a man nearing old age. The first sighting is accompanied by a look that does not lead to an introduction, but the quiet shutting of doors. Adam’s life carries on, quiet days followed by quiet nights, with only his own thoughts and regrets for company. Then one day he bumps into Canning at a local shop. Canning, left money by the father he hated, inherited a game farm, Gondwana, just outside town.

Adam will spend the first of many weekends there, drinking toxic blue cocktails and admiring Canning’s black wife, Baby. Canning reveres Adam from their boarding school days, although Adam can barely remember him. But Adam returns again and again, drawn by desire for Baby.

Events move slowly, inevitably to a climax. Things are not what they seem at Gondwana, and changes are afoot. Canning will benefit from this new South Africa … and not just by acquiring a desirable black wife. Part of the beauty and power of this novel lies in Galgut’s finely-tuned use of language. The Karoo comes alive under his pen, a stark harsh Karoo baking in the sun, full of spiky plants and hard, tough earth. Dialogue is carefully pared down and measured. There are no superfluous pages of conversation, and Galgut has an ear for South African idiom and expression.

As Adam tries to makes sense of the changes that will befall the game farm and all their lives, he is taken on a helicopter ride with Canning. “It comes to him that time is the great distorting lens. Up close, human life is a catalogue of pain and power, but when enough time has gone past, everything ceases to matter. Nothing that people do to each other will carry any moral charge eventually. History is just like the ground down there: something neutral and observable, a pattern, a shape.”

With The Impostor Damon Galgut once more firmly establishes himself as a writer of immense and strange power. A writer who can carry the mettle of greatness without a wobble.

(Published in The Star Tonight, May 2008)

Bridget Jones in Scrubs

Review of Karma Suture,Rosamund Kendal, Jacana

It’s the end of another long, tiring day for GP Sue Carey. She’s wearing green surgery pants, as she had yet more body fluid spilled over her during the course of the day, and she hasn’t eaten anything more nourishing than a giant slice of cheesecake.

She’s just 28 years old, still single after a broken engagement, ginger-haired rather than auburn, sleek and more zaftig than svelte. She works 24-hour shifts at a time to pay off her huge medical bills, dashes from one hospital to another, and in between tries to relax, socialise, be a good friend to one who is slowly becoming addicted to drugs and anorexia, and meet men so she can have another relationship to endure, so she doesn’t end up alone with only a cat for company. Oh yes, to add to all this, she joins a philosophy class.

If this already sounds too much like chick lit, it’s anything but. A simple précis may read like some kind of doctor/local Bridget Jones number, but Karma Suture presents something deeper and more profound. On one level this is a fairly light story: the trials and tribulations of an exhausted, overwrought young doctor still struggling to find her feet in the world, if not the hospital.

But it also presents an astonishing portrait of what really goes on in government hospitals and the doctors who work in them. Author Rosamund Kendal is herself a medical doctor who practises in KwaZulu-Natal, dividing her time between medicine and creative writing. So clearly she knows what she is talking about.

Sue Carey is a likeable, fun character, and you get to laugh and love and empathise with her, but the secondary plotline – that of life in a hospital for the medical personnel – provides a compelling read that is gripping.

No amount of newspaper reports can as accurately describe the minutiae and day-to-day realities of life in our hospitals, from bed shortages and negotiations with other departments to clear the said beds; to treatments that don’t happen, or happen too late; to diabetic patients guiltily wiping away pie crumbs after downing Cokes and nodding yes to doctor when she suggests other foods, but all in vain, as some patients will go back to what is easiest.

There are weekend stabbings, gang members and family members battling it out with broken bits of bottles, only to somehow become the best of buddies the next day. There are young girls who decide to take overdoses at four in the morning. It’s no wonder the doctor on duty is short-tempered and irritable. And then the scourge of Aids: anyone who doubts its insidious presence need only to walk the wards of Bellville (where Sue mainly works), or any other large hospital. People are dying, and they are dying of Aids, over and over. And yet each receives a different “cause of death”, pneumonia for instance, as patient confidentiality prevents writing the truth.

Revolving around Sue the doctor are the accoutrements of her personal life. Her flatmate Leah, soon to snuggle up to married life; model Gina, skinny, getting high on drugs to stay that way; and Carol from the philosophy class, who becomes more than a friend.

Sue copes with the tensions of being a doctor by having more than the occasional one-night stands. Then she does get involved with a dishy young doctor and the path is not smooth (when is it ever?), but by now you’re cheering her on.

This book also reads a bit like one in a series – you wouldn’t mind hearing more; by the end you are really in sympathy with this slightly kooky, but loveable doctor. How did she get to where she is? You’d like to know more about her years of training or studying, and of course, what happens next?

Perhaps author Kendal will tell us in due course.

(Published in The Star Tonight, May 2008)

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Poetry Combo

The only thing uniting these five, diverse collections of poetry is that each was launched in 2007 at the Poetry Africa Festival hosted by the University of KwaZulu Natal, and that each poet is a South African.

Diversity is not a bad thing at all: in fact, the sheer range of the poetry collected in these volumes points to the vibrant, flourishing state of modern poetry in this country.

Poets may deplore the lack of outlets, and sometimes justifiably so, but it remains that in any given year a number of new collections are published by various houses in South Africa.

Starting with Kobus Moolman’s third collection of poetry, Separating the Seas,what comes to mind is that you could call Moolman very much a minimalist, paring down words to the point that images form clearly and succinctly. There is no fat in Moolman’s poetry and this lends it a stark, almost bare power.

Here are a few examples of Moolman’s use of simplicity.

Auto de fe: “Hills are wan in the distance/grass is dry and yellow. /Somewhere an old fire burns/a dead man’s dreams.” Or Dawn quietly and beautifully rendered: “Just past Newcastle/the dark lifts slowly/to allow a small morning in.” No confessional practitioner, the poet is obliquely hidden in the third person in poems such as Self-portrait in a window and He: a writer’s biography in eight parts.

Moolman is also not a political poet, but the realities of life are simply and effectively brought to light in Cost of Living, which lists various items of foodstuffs and When there is no food: “What I do/when there is no food in the house/ is to put water on the stove …/then we drink the water and go to bed.”

Gail Dendy brings the same care and pruning to her work as Moolman. While not as minimalist as Moolman, her poems in The Lady Missionary are small, well-crafted gems. Her poetic eye ranges from personal poems that speak of being of a mother-to-be, of a cat sleeping, to the sweetness of love, the evocation of a lady missionary coming to Africa, and the ravages of disease in The Cancer.

Rarely has the effect of this illness been so quietly and yet skilfully brought to the page. From a description of “she started shrinking/…but it was when the weight fell off…/leaving smoke on the wall …./ her hair went next/so that her skull/was a hood/of gristled silver.” The inevitable decline is revealed quick-silver in these lines: “The sun is out/to polish/every gravestone in the city.”

The only performance poet of the five reviewed here is Napo Masheane, actress as well as writer. She performed in the acclaimed My Bum is Genetic, Deal with it last year. Caves Speak in Metaphors marks her debut collection. Masheane is a powerful performer and having watched her perform at Poetry Africa, I can affirm that many of these poems sing on stage under her powerful delivery, and some are more suited to performance than a quiet reading on the page. But since this a collection meant to be read quietly, for my money the more powerful pieces are those quieter ones. Examples of these are Occasion: “In the wisdom of the
wise/time is not stupidly /split up into seconds or minutes/ But flows like beer in a pot/ that is sucked until it is finished.” I don’t Know You is equally powerful in its evocation of a lover who one has not yet met.

Haidee Kruger’s debut collection, Lush, poems for four voices, offers the same care and pruning of voices to reveal a distilled essence in single images. Arranged in the four voices of Agnes, Dorothy, Gertrude and Brigid, each woman speaks of being loved, loving, leaving, of the everyday, of the misunderstandings that pass through relationships with banal frequency. In poem four of the Dorothy sequence, these misunderstandings are delicately put forward: “I say/ I need a heart like/ a glossy suntanned seed/ …you say./ I think your tongue is on fire./ I say/ I feel like a ticking clock, a rising bread/ … you say/you are a /grater.”

But there are also more pleasurable moments of intimacy such as in part six of the Brigid sequence when a mommy is described as “a renowned slayer of monster/ a follower of fairies/ an apprentice of passion.”

My criticism of this collection lies in the use of the four voices: each is not distinct, and each seems to meld into another. Perhaps this is deliberate: perhaps each is part of a whole.

Vonani Bila’s Handsome Jita: Selected Poems is a weighty collection, both in length (it’s over 100 pages, and has been selected from three previous other collections of his poetry) and in terms of subject matter. Bila does not flinch from criticising the ruling ANC, from addressing poems to Mandela to caricaturing Robert Mugabe, to describing the poverty he sees around him every day, a poverty that he does not see being addressed by fat-cat politicians who have forgotten their ideals.

His poetry is often composed of short, sharp and choppy lines, lending a breathlessness in rhythm. There are portraits of ordinary individuals such as The Disabled Man or Car Watcher which illustrate Bila’s style: “She stands in the cold night/A gentleman heaves from a Mercedes Benz/Gonna eat at the Spur. /Can’t be her father/Her father is from Mafefe/ Coughing asbestos dust/ … I’ve slept with men for bread/I was hungry God.”

Bila is also a gifted performer and had set his astonishing Dahl Street, Pietermaritzburg to music. The poem, which runs to several pages, offers a panoramic view of life on its street, ranging from poverty evidenced in sex workers old at 22, the men who prey on them, and the homeless who prowl the street, a true “sham festival of life lost”.

(Published in The Star, March 2008)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

On the cat walk

He takes us to the little wooden house he first occupied when arriving at this private 18 000ha reserve in Limpopo Province. Now the wooden home is mainly unoccupied, and the garden is a little overgrown, but it was here that the dream of a home for cheetahs was born...Read more here

As one with the elephants

An elephant's hide is curiously soft, wrinkled and folded over on itself, but also incredibly soft. That was a surprise; only having seen elephants in the wild from game drive vehicles, I had assumed the skin to be as tough and coarse as it looks from afar. Elephants also have their own personalities, and that weekend at the Elephant Sanctuary in Hartebeespoort, we all fell in love with our individual elephants...Read more here

Time travel to days before WYSIWYG

"I’d sell my computer before I’d sell my children. But the kids had better watch their step. When have the children helped me meet a deadline? When has the computer dragged in a dead cat it found in the backyard?”

James Fallows is writing in the Atlantic Monthly – in 1982. From the day that the processor technology SOL-20 entered his life in 1979, he’s been a fan of the PC. Gone for Fallows were the days of laboriously typing and retyping on a typewriter, or calling in a dreaded secretary to do the work before dispatching said copy to hungry editors.

And so begins a delightful essay in which Fallows explores what a computer means to him in those long ago days before mouse pointers were developed, WYSIWYG was still a term to be invented, and an eye-friendly screen had flashing green letters instead of white ones, against a black background. Fallows also recounts his difficulties in getting software for his machine, although he didn’t call it software then, and of the difficulties of saving his work. After all, his machine only had a 48K memory. So there’s some complicated stuff with tape before he discovers floppy discs.

But this is an ode to the ease that computers introduced into our lives, especially writers who had been reduced to numerous retypes or using wadges of thick Tippex everywhere. You’d then Photostat the pages so that you couldn’t see the tippex, but sometimes you didn’t quite get the lines matched up, but this was acceptable, sort of. Nobody really expected that copy could come out of a laser machine in crisp, evenly matched lines.

Reading Fallows’s article, which is archived online, is like stepping back in time. I wasn’t battling with a new PC in 1982; I was nine and writing imitation Enid Blyton stories. I had an old, rusty, manual typewriter which my grandmother had no more use for. You bashed the keys with all the strength of a nine-year old’s fingers, and you created an exclamation mark with a full stop and an apostrophe, but never mind. This was real writing – real writers used typewriters, not blue Bic pens. Word processors were out there – and local women’s mags of the time had short-story writing competitions in which the prize was often one of these beauties.

You saw the text appearing on a little grey wedge of screen, and you could edit as you went along or something like that. I don’t know – I only graduated to an electric typewriter. PCs were a long way off. My mother and I did try to buy one when I entered university but we ran out of the Dion store. What programs did we want to run? the salesman asked. Programs? What on earth were programs? The man looked bemused.

I carried on with my Tippex and photostatting techniques. They worked. Sort of. When a publisher of short stories needed an electronic copy of a story I had to go to a special shop that retyped my story and put it on a floppy – well before the days of email.

I did finally get introduced to computers at a community newspaper, in my first job. We used computers that had been born in the late 1970s, had flashing white letters on black and required complicated manoeuvres. No hitting a button on your tool bar to indicate italics, it was alt-spacedelete or something that made you work the grey matter in your head. Sometime later there was internal mail, precursor to email, and of course we journalists all laid out the paper with cutting-edge technology, using PageMaker. Here, finally, was WYSIWYG. Hell, I even learnt to pronounce the thing.

But you never forget your first PC – I had a grand sum of 8MBs of speed and 1 gig of memory. Friends marvelled. A gig! A gig indeed, with a clunky drive to store info on floppies, and a CD drive to use with the new CD-Roms. Okay, I couldn’t write and play music at the same time – on the PC – but this was a small matter.

My photographer uncle remembers his first, also a clunky machine, used to track his burgeoning freelance business. But you couldn’t actually see images on it. Quite how that worked is beyond me now. And then there was email, and life changed unrecognisably for all of us. In my first job I’d receive freelance submissions by fax and have to type them in (and I have never discovered all 10 of my fingers on the keyboard). Photos were taken, printed, delivered. To get them in the paper the scanner took them to a big black room with a big black camera-type thing that “photographed” them for print.

And that was only last decade. I give eternal thanks for computers, email, digital photos and whatever else they’re going to invent to make our lives easier. Can’t wait for the next 10 years...

See James Fallows’article at

(Published in Sunday Independent, July 2008)

Bite-sized slices of life...

There is talk that the long-neglected short story is enjoying something of a renaissance locally, and the publication of four collections in recent months seems to bear this out.

The collections reviewed here offer a varied, rich reflection of the different forms that the modern story seems to take. These range from flash fiction in 100 Papers by Liesl Jobson, to dream parables of Allan Kolski Horwitz's Out of the Wreckage; from realistic scenes in Zoe Wicomb’s The One that Got Away, to elements of the fantastic in the many lesbian stories in Jane Bennett’s Porcupine.

Jobson’s chosen form in 100 Papers is that of flash or micro fiction, in which is a story sketched in a few short paragraphs, and/or a few pages. Much of Jobson’s flash fiction takes its inspiration from the domestic. These are stories that explore the plight of the “weekend Mommy”, such as the excellent Pickle which brings to life the difficulties of being such a mommy.

Another excellent piece is The Jailer, which details the death of a marriage. Jobson’s prose is witty, polished, clever. She has an unusual way with words: “My head is an over-ripe apple, my neck is the stalk, twisting, round, round, round. It snaps. I grab a knife. As I raise it, I see it pumping over and over into his carotid artery. Instead I stab the pile of dinner dishes I was about to carry to the sink.”

Wicomb, too, explores the world of the domestic, of relationships teetering, failing, somehow surviving the turbulence of life and personalities. This is her long-awaited second collection of stories, a sort of companion volume to You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town. Now lecturing in Scotland, the influence of that move is echoed in Wicomb’s stories, which range geographically from the Cape Flats to the northern cities.

In these stories Wicomb gives voice to the Cape Coloureds, exploring cross cultural relationships, and the intersection of cultures. Examples are to be found in the excellent story which opens the collection, Boy in a Jute-Sack Hood and the simply titled N2. In Boy, Glaswegian academic Grant Fotheringay strikes up a relationship with his gardener’s son, Samuel. A relationship in which, unusually, the balance of power lies with the boy. In N2 a white couple are returning from a wedding, arguing, when their car breaks down. When Themba, hiding in the bushes, offers to help, they are, predictably, terrified of being robbed or hurt. But Themba is not out to hurt them. The story turns on Themba’s actions and reactions.

Meanwhile, in Friends and Goffells the long-standing friendship between Dot and Julie is stretched to breaking point by the addition into the twosome of Julie’s Scottish husband Alistair.

While Wicomb’s stories are firmly realistic, Bennett’s fiction in her debut volume Porcupine, soars and dips into the realm of the fantastic, before swooping back into reality. Set largely in Cape Town, these are stories in which a painted sky becomes a catalyst for a murder, or a woman logs on to the ’Net to find a spell so that her lover will return. This last takes place in the quirky story, Thought Control, in which the narrator J needs a spell, because “the reason was simple. She wanted to talk to someone and the someone did not want to talk to her. In such a situation, options are limited.” The story ranges across time, and geography, moving from New York on September 11 2001 to Cape Town today, eventually alighting on the someone sitting on an amber couch.

Poverty is the centre piece of Contracts, in which Julia, who gives money to the wheel-chair bound beggar woman Lottie, finds the lines between unwritten contracts blurred and distorted. And in Virtual Reality the action veers between a woman who conducts an imaginary relationship with Madiba through the television screen and a prosecutor, fighting to put a rapist behind bars.

Lastly, Kolski Horwitz’s short stories explore another imaginary world, that of Abel, a dream figure passing through lands, time and fantasies. Interspersed among the stories of Abel are more conventional, realistic short stories which unpack the disturbances of marriages and lives blown to pieces by a single thought.

In the excellent Determined Love, a slim story of just three pages, Horwitz shines a light on so many marriages in which people are tethered together by habit. In the almost surreal The Tap Plant two boys decide to go on a hike for seven days with provisions for only one day. They will rely on their wits to survive this trial. Adultery and the consequences of abstinence are the subject of She Whom I Love, while the shocking Gerard, told through the eyes of a young boy, shows how lives are changed in an instant.

(Published in The Star Tonight, October 2008)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The renaissance of short-story publishing

Short stories are commonly called the Cinderellas of the literary world. Publishers complain that readers don’t buy short-story collections, and so publish few volumes, then bookstores don’t stock them in great quantities.

All around it seems to be a Catch 22 situation.

But, are things changing? After years of drought, in which you found just a few local volumes published, whether of anthologies or of collections by single authors, 2008 has seen what some are referring to as a renaissance of the genre in South Africa.

These collections include Zoe Wicomb’s The One That Got Away, Liesl Jobson’s 100 Papers, Jane Bennett’s Porcupine, Allan Kolski Horwitz’s Out of the Wreckage and Writing the Self edited by Anne Schuster, Maire Fisher and Annemarie Hendrikz, an anthology of writing from women’s workshops.

That’s not to mention the annual collection of stories published from the Caine Prize; this year’s title is Jambula Tree and other stories, just published by Jacana. Then there’s a forthcoming anthology of stories on the theme “Bed” to be published by Modjaji Books, and another volume, collecting poetry and fiction published online on, is also scheduled for publication. It’s a joint Bleksem Books, Botsotso Publishing and Dye Hard Press publishing venture.

The fourth in the Urban anthology series, edited by Dave Chislett, is also due for publication later this year.

So, is the genre flourishing? Is there more interest in short fiction now than ever before? South African writer Henrietta Rose Innes recently won the Africa Caine Prize for this year with her story Poison, and the resultant publicity helped to put the story on the map.

As Coleen Higgs, writer, poet and owner of Modjaji Books, comments: “This is good for stories in South Africa, it makes them newsworthy.”

Historically, short stories were consigned to small, literary magazines and more recently they have been published on the web. But they are coming out of the closet, as it were.

It’s interesting to note that when You magazine, which is one of the few popular magazines to publish (and pay for) short stories – stopped publishing them a flurry of reader reaction ensured that they were reinstated as a regular feature of the magazine.

You fiction editor Cecilia van Zyl explains: “Readers love the stories. We can only surmise that people enjoy a quick, quality read. Our stories are never longer than 2 000 words.”

Another popular magazine that is throwing its weight behind the genre is Essentials . This has published a number of short stories, and run a short story competition, called Voice of Africa, in conjunction with Mills and Boon.

Then there’s the newly launched Jozi Weekly, a weekly newspaper that offers publication space to both short fiction and another under-read genre, poetry. Editor Sebastian Stent says: “As an entertainment newspaper, we decided early on that we must not only cover entertainment in Joburg, but act as an outlet for the amazing creatives who live here. We are busy preparing a prize which will go to the short story that readers vote as their favourite.”

With literary journals being the traditional vehicle for short stories, this past year has also seen the launch of two new publications, Wordsetc, edited by Phakama Mbonambi, and Baobab, edited by Sandile Ngidi.

Mbonambi professes a love for the short story. “In a nation that is struggling to cultivate a culture of reading, it will encourage more people to read as they will not have to read a whole book chronologically to follow a single tale.

“Rather, they could choose a story that resonates with them or interests them the most. Chances are, readers will read other stories as well.”

Other local literary journals and online sites that publish fiction include titles such as: Botsotso, New Contrast, Ons Klyntji,, ITCH ( and A Look Away quarterly journal. Another online platform – –is also soon to be launched as a platform for creative writing.

And then there are a number of other initiatives that are bringing stories to readers in ways that haven’t been explored before.

The “Novel Idea” is believed to be a first, and was developed by Michelle Matthews, previously of Oshun Publishing. A number of South African writers were commissioned to write stories which were delivered to or “published” via cellphones. Readers subscribed via SMS and then voted for the best story. Sam Wilson, author of the winner, Prestige Animals, walked away with an R8 000 prize from sponsor Vodacom.

The “Can You Twist?” initiative delivered stories to subscriber’s e-mail addresses. It ran for six weeks, featuring authors such as Bridget McNulty and Ragel Nel, who won with her story, Heavens Alive. Again, subscribers were asked to vote for their favourites, and stood to win prizes.

But despite the many varied ways of getting stories “out there”, are readers really interested in reading more local short stories?

While You magazine found their readers demanding that stories be reinstated, Matthews, who published a collection of women’s stories every year while at Oshun, is more pessimistic: “I can say that short-story collections definitely don’t sell as well as novels. With so-called ‘time poverty’ familiar to busy readers, short stories could be a quick fix. I think readers like to get lost in a book."

Another publisher, Alison Lowry, of Penguin, says that although she does not see the genre as flourishing, she does not believe it is entirely neglected either and mentions the role of awards: “Encouragement and support for the genre also come from literary awards such as the Caine Prize and PEN – the last mentioned just announced as being opened more broadly to entrants from across the African continent this year – and the inclusion of winning entries in collections that guarantee a high level of quality for a reader are all signs that the genre is not moribund.”

Booksellers are at the forefront of the buying public, as it were. Mervyn Sloman is owner of an the independent bookshop in Cape Town, The Book Lounge, and says: “There is a lot of interest in short stories – ranging from people who love the genre and are surprised to find a decent selection available for browsing to those who wouldn’t have thought to buy a collection of short stories but through interaction with one of us working here, have decided to give it a shot.”

Corina van der Spoel at The Boekehuis in Melville, Joburg, finds that anthologies of stories “are only ever looked at by people who are looking for teaching material, (although) discerning readers do look at short stories.”

Ann Donald, who opened Kalk Bay Books in 2006, is one bookshop owner who is keen to promote the genre: “A few weeks ago we focused our fortnightly promotion on short stories and it proved popular.

“The biggest hurdle is getting customers to consider short stories as an option or to overcome a resistance to the form.”

In agreement with Donald is literary agent Ronald Irwin, who is upbeat: “I think that good short story collections would certainly garner the interest of the South African public if they are marketed properly and the stories were entertaining. We are looking for fresh, fun, quirky writing that isn’t a one-way ticket to a guilt trip. I think that writers of short fiction have to do the same things as writers of long fiction: Create work that demands to be published.”

(Published in The Star, October 2008)

Jo'burg 1998

A young boy,
a first-year university student,
takes the bus home
through a scuzzy part of town.
He looks out the windows.
Slumped against the doorway
a man bleeds into his own blood,
he's just been shot dead
for no reason, really,
except that a gang, having robbed a shop
still had a bullet left in a gun.
The dead man bleeds,
in his hand
blue cigarette smoke still curls from a lit cigarette.

Paying an account in a smart department store,
I stand behind a couple.
She: short, fattish, plain, young;
he: taller, fatter, plain, young.
For a long long time he caresses the
hard cartilage of her ear,
round and round the seashell shape,
talking, loving,
she looks demure,
he is so tender.
I look away,
the line shuffles forward.

(Published in The fire in which we burn)

Friday, December 19, 2008

Sanlam Award, 1999

The short story Couple on the Beach received the Sanlam Award for short fiction in 1999.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

You're married. It happens

Strange things happen when you go on leave. You come back married, with a brand new name and absolutely no idea who your new husband might be. Going online, your bank cheerfully welcomes you with a “Welcome Arja!”, but your name is now Mrs A Coetzee.

The customer care woman at the other end of the line is not only mystified, but also doesn’t seem to care. You tell her there’s no Coetzee in your family, never has been and you’ve never been a Coetzee – how could this happen? She doesn’t know, suggests you get in your car and drive to your nearest branch to sort it out.

The cheery poppie at the counter assures you it’s nothing to worry about, it happens all the time when a bank updates its software and records and, not to worry, her colleague is going to sort it out. You still have the same amount of money in your account, don’t you?

Yes, alack and alas, you do. The new name didn’t bring a rosy glow to your bank balance, and the last thing you want to do while you’re supposed to be away from the hurly burly of life is to encounter it at your nearest bank.

Back at work, a colleague asks if you’ve checked your status at home affairs. What if you have been married off secretly somewhere offshore?

You turn ice cold for a minute. It’s nightmare territory – proving you’re not married is like proving sky is blue. Holding your breath, you check – no, home affairs hasn’t married you off; it’s only the bank that is determined to see you with the knot tied.

Friends don’t understand why you are not livid with rage, why you haven’t demanded to see the bank manager... Truth is, you’re tired. When you’re not fighting name changes, you’re fighting a cellphone company over their 3G service that doesn’t work, or holding on to the phone while a bored oke at DStv is telling you to pull out the red plug and replace it with a yellow.

No, it’s your Jewish mother who comes to the rescue when she tries to deposit a cheque for you and the bank won’t accept it because it isn’t in the name of Coetzee, she goes into action. Thank God for Jewish mothers who don’t take no for an answer.

Days later the poppie from the bank phones to say that your name has been changed but now they can no longer investigate the matter because it would be too difficult because you are no longer Mrs Coetzee.

You stare down the phone. You can just imagine the face on the other end and barely manage to splutter out that you don’t care how difficult it is, you still want the matter investigated. As you put down the phone, a messenger brings you a little black box. Inside, with a press release inviting you to a bridal expo, a fake diamond ring in a black velvet box winks up at you, and nestled further down is a little plastic statue of a man and woman in wedding regalia, the kind that you plop on to a cake.

Finally, you howl.

(Published in The Sunday Independent, October 2008)

HerStoria awards, 1996

Accepting the 1996 HerStoria third prize for The Love Accountant, a short story.

Logging on and out of touch

I banged my hand against the desk. “Somebody fix this!” I said to no one in particular, feeling as though I was howling into a dark void.

For the umpteenth time that evening my internet connection had cut. I could predict that it would cut after 10 minutes, and then I would spend another 10 minutes rebooting the modem and waiting for it to pick up a rather elusive connection. And this had been going on for 10 long days. I knew I had a mere 10 minutes to check a fact on the internet or race through the email on some of my online accounts.

I was at the end of my tether – I had phoned my service provider numerous times and my problem had now been “escalated” after we had disabled and enabled a host of modems and other items on my laptop. I was close to booking myself into a facility as were, I think, a host of friends who asked how I was and got a tirade on how I couldn’t stay online for longer than 10 minutes at a time.

And it wasn’t just the sheer frustration of not being able to surf or check facts; it was the sense of desolation I felt. I was in some wilderness in which communication was sporadic and missives slow. I felt as though a limb had been torn off. I had regressed to a time before we had email, but unlike the dark days before email I was out of the habit of just picking up the phone and having a good old-fashioned long conversation. Plans these days are made by SMS and email – weeks go by and you haven’t spoken to a particular friend but you have had numerous and sometimes long, heartfelt conversations by email. You know who has broken up with whom and who is seeing someone new, you know about a friend’s job interview, but you haven’t heard his/her voice in ages, not until you meet up for coffee or supper, of course, and, yes, you have made those plans by email.

This same lack of contact occurs in the business world too – deals are made and deadlines adhered to, and yet you haven’t exchanged one physical word with the person you’re dealing with. An occasional voice on the other end of the phone comes as a shock. This same lack of contact extends its dangerous tentacles to other areas of our lives. Email, messaging and SMSing have been a tremendous boon to our lives – but it’s no coincidence that along with the rise of these technologies has been the addition of a new word in our addiction vocabulary: email addiction.

There are some people – I won’t name names – who have up to eight internet accounts (it’s a long story, okay, I’m dealing with it, give me time) to those who take their laptops away with them so they can check their email while on holiday in between sighting cheetahs and elephants (look, I said I was dealing with it...) to BlackBerry addicts who make addicts out of others. I’ve become so used to being able to get hold of some writers on a BlackBerry that I am surprised when a writer professes they don’t have one.

My internet provider sorted out my problem. I logged on, cancelled an unconfirmed dinner that night and surfed blissfully for hours. But, I had picked up the phone a day before and called a friend who had moved cities months ago. Not only was she pleasantly surprised to hear my voice, but we connected and shared news as we hadn’t done in months.

Point taken.

(The Sunday Independent, December 2008)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Spanish lessons in Málaga

My cousin, Déborah, has a new maid starting work this afternoon. Moroccan, she comes highly recommended by friends. OK, I think, I’ll be back only after six, so I won’t get to meet her. Wrong. She’s coming from five to eight o’clock tonight. Of course. Déborah did say afternoon after all, and in Spain afternoon doesn’t end at six or so as it does everywhere else. And neither does work. Spain, especially in Andalusia, still observes the traditional long lunch and siesta. Shop gates shut at two and so the long afternoon begins. Settle down for a lunch lasting several courses and find some Spaniards to pass the afternoon with. They’ve been doing it all their lives, unlike the tourists, wondering bewildered, wondering what to do with ourselves.

And then, come five o’clock and shop fronts go up again, offices open, and workers carry on into what we’d call night, meaning that the Spanish work longer hours than many other Europeans. But it’s summer and it doesn’t get dark till nine or so. Isn’t that really afternoon then, goes the explanation. Don’t argue. Don’t point out that in winter it doesn’t stay light after six and darkness falls when it should. It’s pointless to argue, after all. Spain is a country with traditions and customs stretching back centuries.

A Spanish-born, South African-raised, argumentative visitor who doesn’t really speak the language isn’t going to change things. Might as well enjoy the differences and meet the new maid.

Which you do. Her Arabic-influenced Spanish sounds perfect to you, although Déborah and her husband, Juanmi, tell you it’s grammatically challenged, to say the least. You don’t quite know what to do with yourself, hours and norms turned upside down. But you are adjusting to eating supper at 10 at night, so a maid cleaning the floors at eight at night is just one more adjustment
in the fabric of your time in Spain.

Still, you notice the differences, remark on them, and they are a source of much conversation.

Why does English have such an annoying habit of joining words: “take-out” and “dish cloth”, for instance? New words are created all the time in this way, and it’s a foreign concept to Déborah and Juanmi.

“In Spanish there’s one word for things,” says Juanmi crossly,“you can’t join words together.”

Too true, but doesn’t this lend English a wonderful elasticity and variety?

“I think it comes from the German roots of English,” you say, “I think German does that.”

In fact you have never thought about it, even as you go about joining words with the alacrity all native English-speakers do. Meanwhile Juanmi is busy mixing up kitchen and chicken, but not to worry. Not half as embarrassing as trying to say you’d like the thigh, when asked what part of the chicken you’d enjoy.

When your aunt blushes red and there’s laughter around the table, you know you’ve made a boo-boo. You’ve asked to eat a man’s thing rather than the thigh. Never mind. You’re among family.

You’re also among family as you unwittingly turn yourself into a male by using masculine endings, and it’s your turn to get cross, asking, one dinner, why Spanish doesn’t just have one form for all nouns and adjectives, like English. What’s with this masculine, feminine, tables are female as are chairs, and the beach is both masculine and feminine, depending on whether you’re trying to be poetic or not.

In one of your more tired moments – you’ve been battling to speak Spanish to shopkeepers all day, English seems woefully unknown – you suggest that Spanish change just a little and from now you’re just going to wilfully ignore all rules. You don’t realise such a statement can hurt however.

You’re talking about English again, and how it is bent out of shape by all the billions of people who speak it as second and third languages, Déborah says then she should be allowed to say “buyed” instead of “bought”. Ouch, that hurts and you realise what you’ve done.

OK, you’ll try to get your masculine and feminine endings in order. Language is as close to you as a loved one. You often don’t realise how attached you are to your English-speaking country.

It hits home when you walk into a bookshop in Málaga and ask if they have any books in English. They do, surprisingly, because I mean, you are in Spain. But you realise that you are a typical English-speaker in many ways: you’d probably expect to find some English books to buy in outer Mongolia. After all, the whole world should just speak English, shouldn’t it?

Browsing among a limited selection, you’re surrounded by novels in Spanish by authors you have never heard of. The covers are wild swirls of artwork, and you can’t reach and touch with anything approaching understanding. How frustrating. Even Juanmi’s novel, recently published, is a closed world to you. You translate the title into English but get no further.

Instead you discover a Survival book to living in Spain and read of expats, so many Brits, who try to make a life along the Costa del Sol, and don’t exactly thrive. It’s hard to make friends, they say, it’s hard to earn a good living, it’s hard to integrate.

The Spanish, it would appear, are a closed, homogeneous society. With the number of expats coming and going, not settling, and moving on shortly, it’s no wonder many Spanish often don’t befriend them. Why bother? Then there are the enormous numbers of retirees who buy homes and go about creating a little England in the sun, complete with satellite TV that brings you all the BBC channels, and fish and chip shops serving mushy peas. They often don’t even bother to learn Spanish.

Later you meet an English-speaking journalist who’s lived here 20 years, is married to a Spaniard and has two daughters. “My husband gets incensed when he sees our neighbours and they greet him in English,” she tells me. “Can’t they say hola, acknowledge that they’re in a different country?”

You read in Giles Tremlett’s book Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through a Country’s Hidden Past of expats who retire to the coast. Walking through n “urbanisation” or complex of townhouses, he asks an English ex-pat if there are any foreigners in the town. “No, not really,” he answers, “There is one Norwegian, the rest of us are British.”

You laugh wryly.

Wondering about this friendship thing once more you talk late into the night with Déborah about friends made and lost, and where she has met her own circle of close friends. And then you ask something: she keeps referring to a cousin of Juanmi’s as a friend. Is he a cousin or a friend? Well, he’s really a cousin, she says, but he’s part of their social circle, so he’s a friend. The terms are used interchangeably and you start to get a sense of the close-knit circle Spanish people move in.

“We don’t have people to lunch on Sundays,” Déborah tells me another day. “People spend that time with family, they are not available.”

How odd to this South African-raised observer. Next day is Sunday of course, and family time. Aunts and uncles come to lunch, the table is laid with Spanish omelette and Iberian ham. Family day, but among the differences, there are the other echoes of globalisation. We talk about the Spanish versions of TV shows in which contestants are made to look 10 years younger with Botox treatments, facelifts, dental caps and well-fitting bras.

“I’d never have plastic surgery,” says my aunt in Spanish. “These lines are me, there’s no one else in the world who has this face.”

You have to agree, but your Spanish isn’t advanced enough to also suggest erhaps some people do need the surgery, that confidence levels improve when they’ve had the nips and tucks, and you are, after all, living in a world where youth is prized as a jewel, some things don’t change, no matter what country you’re in.

But it’s the differences that are challenging and tire you after a while. Wandering Málaga’s streets one day, you’d like a simple lunch. Not a full sit-down meal that’s going to cost you an arm and a leg. After all, you’re carrying hard-earned euros in your pocket. A small Coke is R16, you compute, mouth hanging open. A plate of fish and rice and a bottle of mineral water comes to close to R100. So you’d like a toasted sandwich for lunch.

You tramp the streets, there are no toasted sandwiches in this land of the extravagant lunch. And then you do what you swore you’d never do. You go into a mall and order a takeaway hamburger from a Burger King. It feels like failure, but you don’t need much Spanish to point at the order on the board and you do know what you’re getting, more or less.

Back in the streets you walk among a sea of Spaniards, a homogeneous sea of white. Spotting the odd black face is an event, a novelty. You don’t realise how just how multicultural the society you live in has become. It’s evident in the sea of white faces, and the traditional Spanish food on offer at so many restaurants. Back home you eat pasta at coffee shops, drizzle balsamic vinegar on salads in all sorts of restaurants. It's hard work making your way in a country where English is not as widely spoken as you’d expect. With Spanish being spoken by 417 million in the world as either a first or second language, (English is spoken by 508 million), you find Spanish-speakers have the same insularity that so many English-speakers do, many not having seen the need to learn the language. It’s frustrating, but familiar.

Then The Lion King opens in Johannesburg and you watch a snippet being shown on a newscast one night. You don’t understand much of what they’re saying, but it’s a small glimpse of home and you realise it’s time to leave.

As the plane lifts you away, you watch Spain disappearing. The fields patch-worked into farmlands look like Dalí or Picasso creations. The colours are brown, beige and dark greens. The fields are oblong, oddly shaped approximations of triangles, tapering to curved or hooked points.

Nothing is uniform and nothing is as you would expect.

(Published in The Sunday Independent, August 2007)

Profile on Arja Salafranca

by Janet van Eeden
(Published in The Witness September 2007)

Poetry Africa, organised by the Centre for Creative Arts, comes to Durban from the 1st to the 6th October, 2007. One South African who will be there is Arja Salafranca. She’s taking time out from her day job as Sunday Independent Arts Editor, and Editor of Sunday Life. After reading many of her haunting poems, I spoke to Salafranca about her poetry.

Although all poetry requires that a poet takes a distanced view of the world, the sense of Salafranca being an outside observer is quite profound. I wondered where this came from.

“I think it comes from both my natural personality as well as the circumstances of my birth and upbringing,” Salafranca answers. “I was born in Malaga to a Spanish father and a South African mother. She couldn't speak Spanish. When I was four we went to live in Israel. Again we were outsiders and battling to learn Hebrew. When I was five my mother left my father and returned to this country. Even though she was born here, everything had changed. In addition, my mother has always gone beyond the establishment. Although brought up Jewish, she had a child with a Catholic man. She instilled that same healthy disrespect for the establishment and tradition in me. So I was always looking at the world with questions, an outsider looking in.”

Salafranca’s poetry often takes a moment in history as its starting point. Poems such as Kissing the Wall and Nat Guntman’s Wife are snapshots of real events blown up to life size. Why is Salafranca drawn to moments which depict social phenomena?

“I am naturally more interested in the personal histories that are not documented in history books,” she answers. “I once saw a book about life in a village in France in the 1800s. The book was about their everyday life. I am far more interested in those experiences than whether Madonna can adopt again. I get drawn in by a photo or an image on television. I am interested in certain periods of history always spurred by images.”

Salafranca wouldn't consciously call herself a social commentator although she supposes that writers do comment on the world around them. “It's the nature of writing fiction and poetry.”

Some of Salafranca’s personal poems show the detached observer watching people making unwitting fools of themselves. This made me wonder whether personal poetry can serve as revenge at times.

“I suppose it can,” she answers, “although I haven't and don't use my poetry as revenge. But others, who are depicted in the poems or short stories, have sometimes felt that they want to tell their side of the story. Fair enough. They should do so. But they should also realise that once an incident makes its way into a poem or story it's no longer strictly true. A writer manipulates the truth, using life to produce art, so nothing is literal. I think personal poetry serves as more of a catharsis actually, and then once you've written about something, if it touches readers, it becomes more universal. Others can relate, take comfort or find their own sense of catharsis from it perhaps.”

Salafranca won the Sanlam prize for poetry when she was just twenty two, and later won the Sanlam prize for short stories when she was twenty seven. I asked her whether winning an award at such a young age felt like reaching her zenith very quickly.

“Yes it did feel like that,” Salafranca says. “I learnt, really quickly, that winning awards makes other writers jealous and sometimes unexpectedly malicious. I was warned about that by Tatamkhulu Afrika and boy was he right! But it always serves as an impetus. I feel spurred on to create more so for me it doesn't hinder the creative process. What hinders it is for me is moving around so often - I have just moved again - and of course coping with the demands of a full-time job. Would I be more creative if I was filthy rich and had all the time in the world? I'd like to think that I would take six months off, travel like mad, read countless books and then I would settle down and produce storms of copy. Who knows?”

Salafranca has written poetry since she was ten. “I don't know why I started. It seemed like an ‘easy’ medium - I hear the howls of outrage now!” she says. “And it remains an ‘easy’ medium for me. A poem is written quickly, and is revised quickly. You can distil an experience in a few lines. I do find writing easy, and I am a quick writer so the other forms of writing that I do are equally enjoyable: the short stories, the journalism and essays. But writing poetry is a magical process, so satisfying as long as I mix it with doing other writing. Poetry can be quite marginalized and people do think you live in the clouds if you say you're a poet. Maybe poets do, some of the time, but it's a better place to be than stuck in gritty traffic on William Nicol Drive at peak hour!”

At the Cape Town Book Fair, 2008

With Liesel Jobson, Jane Bennet and Allan Kolski Horwitz in a panel discussion on short fiction in South Africa.
Courtesy of Book SA.

With Harry Kalmer

At a panel discussion and reading at the Wits Writing Centre, University of the Witwatersrand, 2008.

Courtesy of Book SA.

Reading at Poetry Africa 2007

Courtesy of The Centre for Creative Arts.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Creative nonfiction: a new approach to journalism

Writer Chuck Palahniuk is off to interview movie star Juliette Lewis. Afterwards he’s going to write a profile of the actress called ‘In her own words’. A bold promise is implied in that title, but in his piece Palahniuk more than lives up to that promise...Read more here

Death Camp

Spring day in Munich. Still we are bundled in coats, wrapped tight against the German weather. Huddled around a few benches at the station, a Swedish man and his wife hug each other; a New Zealand woman travelling the world is absorbed in her cellphone; two men from Istanbul wait quietly. We're soon to meet our guide, and share an experience that none of us will forget. Days later, I will be unable to view the pictures on my digital camera. They're there, but the horrors are hard to look at again. It is so much easier to download, then hit delete on the camera card...Read more here

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Diary extracts (1995-1998)

Monday November 20 1995

I prick my face in desperation, squeezing till it’s hot pink, creating scabs. They heal, and I go at it again. I eat. I no longer try to control myself. At one stage I thought, I’ll lose 10 kilos if Michael’s interested in me. Now I go for the cake, the calorie-laden meat sticks and sweets and pastas and chocolates, the cold drinks full of sugar. I eat, eat, eat, not out of hunger, but this need to grab things, fill myself up. That chocolate cake on Friday night was no substitute for my life – but it made me feel good for a while. Eating out of a kind of desperation, crying, berating myself, saying, I deserve this. Doing things with Michael on Saturday night (not full sex because of my period) and telling myself, This is my choice. Sex without love. If you want it go for it, but don’t blame me if you get hurt. This is what you’ve chosen and you must live with the consequences. And feeling so hurt about everything. Thinking of Michael and his lack of caring for me in that one respect and just feeling so hopeless, so sad, so stupid. Wanting to rush off and latch onto a boyfriend, anyone, and yet really only wanting Michael.

Tuesday February 13 1996

It’s over.

It hurts so much. Does it ever stop? When will it stop? Everything is a painful reminder of him, or time spent together. I want to cry, I think of suicide, I eat too much and don’t care, and every night I wake up in the darkness and recriminations and fears attack me. Tonight I eat spinach and remember a supper at The Tankard, where Michael and I used to go, and where my calamari was served with spinach. I walk into work and remember a time when Michael used to phone me almost every day. The past survives as a series of snapshots in my mind, I take them out over and over again.

When will the fears go away?

Sunday March 9 1997

Metamorphosis. Images of Michael washing over me as I dreamed this morning. In my dreams we’re on holiday somewhere – him, me, Kay and somebody else (Kay’s boyfriend?). But Michael and I only look at each other from afar, and don’t talk. He has a girlfriend: we watch black and white movies of the two of them. They sit on the banks of a river, at some kind of picnic with friends. She is not particularly beautiful, but she is slim, trim, no fat bulges on her. I mention this as we watch the movie. At another point in the dream I am at some kind of writing class. Michael is there in the distance.

“Tell us about yourself,” says the instructor.

“Personal stuff?” I ask.


And then the regrets catch up with me. And I regret the sad sorry way I handled it: Michael powerless to help, trapped in and by his own insecurities. And I regret that there was no actual end beyond the slamming down of the phone, after I phoned one last time, trying to sort it all out. That we didn’t finish what we started: only backing away, on his part, still hurt by his relationship with his ex-fiancée, still trying to recover from that. Me reacting emotionally to all of it, unhappy, hurt traumatised. And perhaps, in some part of me, I acknowledge that I loved him. And love doesn’t go away – it stays neat and whole through the years. Like a small, red, glittering stone.

Sunday June 8 1997

It’s almost exactly a year to the day since I wrote Patterns, the story of the relationship of me and Michael. I started another short story last August or September and a member of the writing group called it “vomit from the unconscious”. Perhaps that scared me, put me off, made m decide that I couldn’t write. Or made me afraid that everything might be vomit from then on. It all makes very little sense, I’ve published poetry and short fiction, I’ve won two awards. I can write. But for some reason I’m holding back, fearful about going to my computer and typing – or even doing the pre-computer route of longhand, which worked so well.

Monday October 6 1997

So: my life. Working as a layout sub-editor at The Good Weekend at the Saturday Star. Working. Home. Going out. The weekends seem to be a rush of activity. It carries on. My birthday month. I turn 26. I feel I must have a boyfriend. In my fantasies men turn into women. Women turn into men. Sometimes men remain men. I am feeling dead-ended. I’m even and calm, emotions neutral, life on a flat surface, sometimes a bump.

Saturday November 1 1997

I drink cappuccinos out of sachets in order to stay awake. I eat crackers and cheese to try and get and stay thin. I’m 26. I work as a layout sub on a large newspaper and envy those who get bylines and meet exciting people – the journalists. But, at the same time, I don’t want the slog of being a newspaper journalist again. I take pills with chromium in them to get thin. I must admit they keep the lost weight off, but further weight loss proves agonisingly slow. I envy those who stay thin without really trying. My body, or my mind, betrays me with its soft, fleshy parts that jut out.

My life seems an endless battle for sleep, rest, time and inclination to write. I put up these restrictions: can’t write tonight, you’re going out in a few hours; can’t write on a week night, have to get up early and be bright and cheery. I have dreams about sex: men’s bulging bits, faceless figures. I feel a rush when I look at women’s bodies, but that’s only when I’m awake. At night I dream ordinary, conventional heterosexual dreams. I go out to movies, theatre, restaurants. I enjoy myself, the entertainment is good, the food is tasty.

Saturday July 5 1998

Picked up Kay yesterday and we had cake at Keith Kirsten’s nursery along DF Malan Drive. We sat inside, among English country-style tables. Kay’s moving out of the townhouse she shares with her boyfriend, Brian, and has found a cottage for her and her eight-year-old son. Ironically though, she and Brian are getting along better than ever. Spoke of my desire to be in Europe and London, and all that’s waiting for me there, of the string that is pulling me there. And of not wanting to start something with anyone here because I don’t want to be tied down. We had both briefly thought of Michael at one point, it felt as though he was there in the shadows. That’s the thing with old friendships – your shared histories that lie between you like a river. I still wonder what Michael is doing, and whether he is happy, and has he got married yet? I remember reading off his engagement in the paper in January this year.

Dropped Kay off, again we’d skimmed conversation, not really getting into the nitty-gritty of anything. Am I at fault, wanting to maintain a calm neutrality after all our blow-ups and disruptions of the past? Same old ease. But it takes time to trust each other again. It’s hard, if not impossible, to go back to where we were.

Monday September 28 1998

Just under a month to my twenty-seventh birthday. Panic. Sleepless nights, menacing dark thoughts in an empty bed. All those things I’ve written about in short stories. Twenty-seven on October 27. That’s really, really adult – even more adult than twenty-four or twenty-five or twenty-six. It’s twenty-seven – three years to thirty. It means that you’re no longer on the edge of teenager hood, or just skirting the parameters of emerging adulthood. You’re an adult, slap-bang in the middle of it. But there’s more to it, of course, my inability to get over Michael, and that my friendships are often fragmentary, troubled, incomplete and unsatisfactory. This really disturbs me. I know the solution and have finally made an appointment to see a therapist. I moved out of home this year, made another home for myself, and that pleases me. But my life has not really changed. I do the same things as before: go to work, go out, try to eat fruit and vegetables every day, see movies, plays, musicals, eat out, cook for friends (ok, cooking is a new thing). I seem to be locked into a solid as ice pattern of fear, rejection, being hurt, retreating. These things come rolling up to greet me when I go to sleep.

Wednesday October 7 1998

I wrote a short story* on Monday night. The opening scene occurred to me one night last week. I dashed it off by hand, left the characters brewing in my mind, Monday night I could not put it off anymore. Came here, typed those first few lines and the rest just flew. 5000 words later, near 12, hair washed sometime in between. It’s the story of me and Oliver, observed at the beginning and at the end by a middle-aged woman who turns out to be the younger female character. It’s set in Knysna, where the “opening” of the affair took place. It isn’t the way I would consciously have chosen to tell the story – but I like it. It flew, propelling itself, just pouring out of me. I write fast when I do write. I liked the feeling of it. I hope it’s good. No name for it yet.
It’s as though the floodgates were opened, as though I had given myself permission to write again. Had thrown off the inner censor that said, “Where the hell are you going to publish this?” and just went for it. The point is to write – not to give a fuck about where to publish.

*This story, titled Couple on the Beach, won the 1999 Sanlam Award for an unpublished short story. It was subsequently published in New Contrast and in Post-Traumatic (Botsotso, 2003) and has been translated into Danish and Italian.

(Diary extracts was published in Bleksem No 7)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

London diary: extracts

4 Lowick Road

January 2002

I go out into a wintry landscape. Frost covers the grass, the trees, the shed and the bench in the garden. It looks like snow; it looks so northern.

The streets are icy; the pavements are icy. I crunch along, trying to avoid the ice patches. The cars in the street still have ice on them at one in the afternoon, and there are messages written in the ice. It melts slowly; then it’s night again, and the ice reforms.

A clear, cold day: the sky is blue, almost cloudless. Aeroplanes taking off leave two streams in the sky as they ascend.

At night, the streetlights shine a dull orange into the room. Trains rattle off into the dark, busy, fast, speeding off importantly, a hard steady rhythm, unstoppable.

Walking into Harrow shopping centre yesterday I passed big yellow notice boards warning of a kidnapping that had occurred at the corner of Radnor and Nibthwaite Streets. An Asian man was bundled into the back of a car on December 15. Police are appealing to witnesses to come forward with information. I wonder if they’ll find the man.

It’s a sharp, yellow reminder of crime. It happens here, just like at home. Except here they erect big notice boards.

The street is silent as I cross over, not a car in sight. Despite this we walk to town, to the stations to catch buses and trains, to walk home with parcels bulging. It is still a safe society. There are ATMs built into the walls on the outside of banks, and I use them as freely as everyone else. There are no double security doors at the entrance and no security guards at the ready. Not as there is in Johannesburg. And this is what we’re going back to, what we’re choosing to go back to. It all seems so unreal.


Friday night in Harrow. I am restless, seemingly far too restless to write and think. I want to be home now. I’ve had enough of London, living in limbo, reading, reading and reading. It’s the cheapest thing to do. Occasional visits to the centre of London. It’s too expensive to go more often. So, we go into Harrow, visit the internet café, buy food at Tesco’s, wander around the shops, check out the movies showing at the mall, but so often they show junk: Hollywood thrillers and action movies. So here we are, in Harrow until January 31.

It turns out we travelled illegally out of South Africa because we used our EU passports. When we went to the High Commission we were told we would have to apply for temporary SA passports. The clerk said we might have lost our South African citizenship by using the EU passports, and that they might have to write to SA to get proof that we were still citizens. That could take a month. And only then could we apply for temporary passports, which takes about two weeks. We left the High Commission shell-shocked. We walked around Waterstone’s bookshop in a daze, had something to drink there and agreed we’d have to get jobs, any jobs, just to pass the time. We couldn’t be here till the end of February still not working, using up our money, bored and idle in Harrow.

We went to the National Gallery, still stunned by the news. We gazed at sixteenth and seventeenth century paintings. We went to look at the Impressionists: there was Van Gogh’s ­famous sunflowers, Monet’s paintings, but much as we tried to appreciate it, it was hard. At the back of our minds was the thought of having to remain in London till the end of February, of perhaps having lost our citizenship. It seemed bizarre.

Standing in the queue at the High Commission the next day, we clutched our now completed forms, our birth certificates, IDs, passports, my SA naturalisation papers, Gary’s permanent residence, hoping the news would be different this time.There was some hassle with the translation of my Spanish birth certificate: it didn’t seem to state clearly that I had been born in Spain, or that my mother had been born in South Africa. But the woman behind the counter took our papers. The news was good. We were allowed to apply for temporary passports. We had finger and handprints taken and were told we could collect the passports on January 29. It was such a relief. I felt buoyant, exuberant, like we had been given a reprieve. We had an expensive lunch at the Pizza Hut — pizza and pasta, we had cold drinks and shared an ice cream, and it came to a whopping £14. Still, we never do it and it was nice to sit indoors and eat a warm lunch instead of eating our packed sandwiches outside, wind flapping, cold air biting.

Back to the National Gallery to see the RB Kitaj exhibition. I especially liked his later series: paintings of lovers, done on canvas, bright splashes of colour between the black lines representing the figures, and the white canvas showing through it all. I found the rest of his work bright too, but also slightly messy and chaotic. Almost too simple, although the more I looked, the more it seemed to flow together. We went through the rooms showing older paintings, the heavy formalism, the subjects of the portraits sitting there stiffly in their old-fashioned clothes; we looked at the Impressionist landscapes of Turner. We sat in the coffee shop almost until closing time before setting out for Covent Garden.

It was rush hour and London’s workers were going home, storming past us, dashing for buses and trains, in such a hurry to get home. We passed a mad old man weeing on the pavement and hurried on.

We found The Poetry Place, a café with an underground basement where poetry readings are held. It was packed with people who had come to hear poetry, poetry that seemed so trivial. Poetry that spoke about catching buses back to the 1960s and about working-class people eating at working-class cafés. A woman sang a satirical song about Margaret Thatcher. Some poets forgot the words to the poems they had learned off by heart, or not so off by heart, it would seem. An Icelandic man, Maunie, which meant moon, ‘so now you all know one word of Icelandic’, read and sang and bantered with the audience. The best was a poem about a race in which hunger and poverty and HIV virus and other calamities raced against each other on a racecourse; it was recited like a racehorse commentary. It was clever and it worked.

After we walked quickly to Southampton Street to catch a bus to Euston train station. Again, there were people on the streets, a long line of people stood in the cold, waiting to get into a club. We caught the bus, exhilarated at being out at night, catching buses at half past ten. It’s so liberating. It’s one thing we’re going to miss. Arriving in Harrow, we walked quickly home. There were no other people around, we still had all our documents with us, and were still not convinced of the safety of walking home late at night.


Saturday afternoon in Harrow. A grey, cold day. Dusk in about an hour or so. We only woke up at 12 and had breakfast/lunch at one. It was like we had both been drugged, we simply couldn’t surface. We had set the alarm for nine to go into the city, but I didn’t hear it and Gary simply turned it off. I just wanted to go home last night. Today I feel a bit calmer, slightly more patient. I’m just going to have to let the time go.

Gary looks forward to having beers on the balcony, watching a brilliantly coloured African sunset. We both look forward to the freedom — what an irony — of being back in South Africa.
We won’t be prisoners of money that doesn’t go very far. Here we are trapped by our limited pounds, not earning, having bought our pounds with rands. We’re also limited by our own lack of knowledge about this city. We are alienated by London: it’s a big, anonymous, unfriendly city.


Christmas had been lonely. On Christmas Eve one of Gary’s fillings fell out. He couldn’t get to a dentist till after Christmas, the city was shut. We ate a prepared chicken from Tesco’s, sweet potatoes and vegetables. It felt odd, as though we had been left out. We had bought books for each other. Things weren’t that bad, but I still ached to be home, ached to be in warm sunshine, surrounded by people. Plus, there was the worry of Gary’s tooth and how much it would cost and what would have to be done with it. The National Health isn’t that free over here. There was no public transport on Christmas Day. In the end, we found a dentist and Gary had a temporary filling put in; it was £25. The dentist recommended a crown and Gary said he would sort it out in Johannesburg.

On Friday we finally went into the city after being cooped up in Harrow all week. It was icy and there was a strong wind. We went to the Tate Modern, I had discount vouchers to see the Surrealist art exhibition, Desire Unbound. But the show was disappointing. It was overheated and crowded, and you weren’t allowed to go back into the rooms where the exhibition had been mounted. Too many people meant you had to fight your way to the exhibits; otherwise you just couldn’t see anything. English people are rude, not polite, as you would expect. Perhaps on an island of 60 million people you learn to shove, otherwise you just don’t get anywhere. The exhibition showcased paintings as well as writings of the surrealists, and also interesting commentaries on the exhibits. There was a Frida Kahlo painting, some Salvador Dali.

Afterwards we sat outside eating, our fingers turning numb in the cold. Gary had a sandwich brought from home; I had a tasteless wet pasta tuna salad. We bolted lunch down, dashing back inside the Tate for some warmth. Then we walked along the Embankment, huddled against the weather. A man was selling roasted chestnuts, and I enthusiastically bought a packet, remembering eating them 10 years ago in this city. We threw the shells to the cold and ate quickly, overlooking the grey river. The chestnuts were nice, but not as magical as I had remembered them. It’s amazing how worry and anxiety cloud your enjoyment of things.


We could have had a better time in England if we’d had jobs or rent-free accommodation or had been visiting and had jobs to return to. In the meantime our experience of London is murky. Much as we try to forget we’re living off our savings, and have to look for jobs at home and hope we’ll find good ones, with good salaries, it’s still difficult to let go and enjoy the views from the Embankment, or the Poetry Library.

On Saturday we met Jane at the British Library. Gary and Jane used to work together. Jane worked in the UK for two years previously, and was one of those who had told Gary that there were loads of media jobs here. She has a South African passport, and is here on a work permit. Her job involves writing cellphone manuals.

We walked around the museum of manuscripts at the ­Library, gazing at a page of a typescript of a Virginia Woolf novel, at the only known piece of writing by Shakespeare, at versions of the Bible, the Magna Carta, old Hebrew books, fourteenth century manuscripts illustrated by monks. It’s a special feeling to be among such antiquity. On the audio panels I listened to Virginia Woolf droning on in an aristocratic accent, drawing out the words, such as ‘my-ster-ious-ly’, talking slowly and pompously. Clearly people spoke slower then, perhaps they had more time. I listened to a recording of Florence Nightingale done in the late 1890s. The woman announcing her said, “Eighteen hundred and ninety...” (then whatever the exact year was, I cant remember) and her voice was all high falsetto. Nightingale’s voice was also slightly distorted, too high for the microphone. She too spoke slowly, pompously, it sounded deliberate, as though she thought she wouldn’t be heard if she didn’t drag out her words.

Lunch with Jane in the Library café afterwards. We ate and spoke about what we missed about South Africa. She said London had everything; you just had to know where to look. We replied that there was a lot about Johannesburg we hadn’t appreciated, but Jane pooh-poohed any good in that city. She was in London now, and was determined to make the most of it. She didn’t want to go back — and so it was easier to dismiss SA, easier to acclimatise if you insist you left somewhere dull and going downhill. I think she thought we were mad to be returning, but could see for herself that the job market isn’t as rosy as it once was. Most of her friends have emigrated too; she hasn’t got many left in SA.

New Year’s Eve we stayed at home. We didn’t fancy going out, spending money, plus it was minus eight degrees outside. The streets were icy, weather forecasters warned motorists and pedestrians to be careful. I don’t have the clothes for that kind of weather, and we didn’t want to get sick. So, it was slightly disappointing but we stayed in and watched Pleasantville on TV and celebrated 2002. The New Year means nothing to Gary; it’s an arbitrary manipulation of time. I know that’s true — but time is what we’ve created on earth, and I enjoy the promise of the fresh new beginning that a new year offers.


Of course, there are things that we’ll really miss about this city — things you don’t get in Johannesburg, or only in limited forms. I’ll miss the incredible bookshops and sheer variety of books: the short story anthologies, the travel sections. The theatre that is being staged — although we haven’t had the money to take advantage of it, the advertised writers’ meetings and readings, all the happenings listed in Time Out. But all this doesn’t translate into jobs, nor take away the drudge aspects of living in this city: the miserable weather, the public transport, the drab cafes, the indifferent food (unless you have the money to go out to smart restaurants).

Last Sunday we walked up to old Harrow, up the hill to Harrow School, which Byron attended. The school dates from the Middle Ages. We sat in the garden, hearing the organ playing in the church. We sat on the benches in the green gardens with a sprawling view of London before us. It was peaceful, sweet. This is how I imagined England: quiet, green, graceful, traditional, history talking at you from the old walls, ancient stones and plaques. We crossed the road to St Mary’s Church. The church is old, there are fortifications remaining, and around the front there are those same burial mounds we saw at that church in Aversham. The mounds were small, short, indicating again that the people buried in them were short. But this time the gravestones were unreadable, the words washed away by rain or the simple accumulation of centuries.

As a schoolboy, Byron used to enjoy the solitariness and the views from this churchyard high on Harrow Hill. There is a plaque indicating where he used to sit, and the plaque contains lines from his poetry about the view. The view today still stretches out endlessly, a view that’s misty blue-green, showing roads and packed-together houses.

We wandered around the cemetery, reading the inscriptions on the tombstones of people who died in the 1800s. Byron’s illegitimate daughter was buried here in an unmarked grave. There were whole lists of names: wives, sons killed in battle or of typhoid, people dead at young ages, a son of nine dearly loved and missed. There were more graves lining the quiet hills, but it had been raining and the path was muddy and slippery. We walked near the church again, pausing at a gravestone, and read the inscriptions. Suddenly I pictured the mourners, small, short women in black nineteenth century billowing dresses, clutching each other in comfort, grieving. The day heavy with death, sadness, loss. I said nothing. A few minutes later Gary remarked that you could just see it: the mourners, the men shovelling dirt onto the coffin. It was like we had both glimpsed a bit of the past.

We walked along the narrow streets of Harrow, the streets were barely wide enough for one flow of traffic to pass through. We had drinks and English muffins at a tearoom, Tea at Three. Next to our table a boy sat in school uniform, his parents in their forties, a younger son, also eating English muffins. At other tables too sat schoolboys in uniform. Again, it was like another vision of quaint old England. I kept staring at this family across from us, the mother blonde, American-sounding, tall, her manner slightly stern. The father looked like a businessman. The schoolboy slouched in his seat, eating; the younger son seemed slightly in awe of all that went with his older brother’s schoolboy position: in uniform, being visited. I tried to imagine their lives, thought how odd it is to send your children away to school, seeing them only at weekends and during holidays.

Afterwards we wandered along some of the streets. Peering into homes, an inscription on the wall of one read 1720. A black and white cat followed us. A ginger cat stared out of a window, eyes hooked on the free cat in the street. Two schoolboys in muddy shorts and tops passed us, carrying sports bags.


Keats’s house in Hampstead. A bus ride to Golders Green; another to Hampstead, clearly a plush area with its big houses and driveways, some homes had four storeys and a basement level. The cars driving by were smart and expensive. This was one area we felt we could live in.

Keats’s house was a bit of a disappointment. Originally two semi-detached houses, the dividing wall had been knocked out, making one biggish house. It was sparsely furnished. A group of American tourists were also visiting, one woman loudly commented on everything: the chairs, some of which you could sit on, some not; talking about the shade of green in the diningroom. The rooms were annotated, detailing the biographical facts of Keats’s life. Strands of Keats’s hair was kept in two lockets, one brown, and another a faded sandy colour, bleached by years of exposure to the sun. The kitchen still had a coal-burning stove, but little else, the room was bare. Another tiny room had a washbasin or sink without taps, and another, smaller stove at eye level. A damp, cold storage room led off from it.

Up the steep stairs, we found Keats’s bedroom, small and cramped. It had a canopy bed of the type he may have slept on, and a stand holding a commode. His friend’s room was bigger, and had a double bed. In another small room we read photocopies of Keats’s letters to Byron, to other friends, and to Fanny, his fiancée. But there seemed to be little sense of what the place was really like in Keats’s time, what the kitchen would have looked like, or the sitting rooms. There seemed an absence instead of a presence of the poet.

Rushing to get things done, shopping at Foyles. Going to Kensington, Selfridges, gazing at the opulence of Harrods, where I found ripe figs and Spanish mantecados. Closing bank accounts so recently opened, withdrawing diminishing funds. Packing up a suitcase to send home as unaccompanied baggage. We go to the Transport Museum. We return books to the Poetry Library at the Royal Festival Hall and gaze at the darkening Thames as night falls. Lights reflect on the water, glittering London winks across at us over the expanse of ­water. Hanging over railings, we listen to the remains of a concert in the foyer as the real Londoners drink and eat at the café. We go to the British Museum and look at antiquities. A friend comes from Manchester to say goodbye, she’ll see us next at Christmas in Johannesburg. The days fly by. On the last few nights, we trundle through London on buses, saying goodbye, discarding the brief lives we have created here in only a few months.
(Published in Green Dragon 2)