Saturday, September 26, 2009

Search for alarm clock shows I may be out of time

According to a report in last week’s Daily Telegraph, the alarm clock may well be going the way of the dodo. Apparently more and more people are using their cellphones as alarm clocks – that’s in addition to their multi-use as cameras, access to e-mail and the internet and so on.

But I didn’t need to read that article to know that alarm clocks are hitting the skids.

I searched for one for months, yes months, a seemingly ordinary thing that has become harder to find than, well, VHS video tapes. Because yes, I do still buy those. I’m one of the few people left who doesn’t have a PVR, doesn’t see the point of one when my ancient dual view machine is still functioning, and yet has to record just about everything to accommodate a crazy schedule.

So yes, I can still find VHS tapes – although that does take perseverance – but alarm clocks are becoming just about impossible to buy. My search for an alarm clock wasn’t prompted by a reluctance to use my cellphone as an alarm clock. I recently acquired a new touchscreen cellphone with a 5MB camera – and my big bulky digital Nikon has barely seen the light of day since.

I’m all for small is big and I am just about umbillically attached to my technology. In fact, I love the alarm tone on my cellphone – it’s a cheery happy party-like ring and you wake up not groaning but smiling It’s a real “come on, let’s get up and party” type of ring tone. I wish more cellphones or, ahem, alarm clocks, would incorporate this fun tone in their repertoires. Instead, my search has been prompted by the plethora of SMSes that come to me throughout the night and pop up alarmingly early in the morning, disturbing my precious beauty sleep.

There are the usual suspects: my service provider sending me a note to tell me I have used more than half my free minutes and it’s only the 5th of the month, or again, my service provider sending me a little recording with dancing characters, letting me know about the latest, greatest specials on offer. Never mind the offers I receive to purchase discount furniture, discounted theatre tickets and to view property – all of which come cheerily bleeping through at odd hours of the morning.

Add to that the messages I receive from my friends, to whom, dear as they are, SMS etiquette does not seem to exist. I have had SMSes at two in the morning – from a friend who couldn’t sleep and was contemplating a job change in the dark and needed to tell me about it. Or another who knows that I don’t exactly keep normal hours and made a cartoon of a photo she had taken of me and sent it at midnight. Or the SMS I received, complete with picture, from another at 1am telling me she was just catching the midnight sun in some Arctic place. Then there are the 7am SMSes on a Saturday or Sunday asking if I would like to see a movie that night. 7am on a Saturday? Who could possibly be up at that time, never mind planning their evening?

So, my next solution was to turn the phone on to silent, but what do you know, the thing vibrates everytime a message comes through, and wakes me, and no amount of fiddling with buttons and controls seems to turn off that vibrate function and, believe me, I have gone through every menu and submenu on that phone.

Hence the search for a cheap, ordinary alarm clock. Finally, after weeks of searching I found a big ugly thing, rather primitive looking and without even a light you can touch should you be up at 3am turning on your cellphone just in case a really, really important message has come winging through the ether…

(Published in First Words, Sunday Independent, September 20 2009)

Sunday, September 6, 2009


The statue of starving, granite figures
grasp against the Bavarian blue sky.
I stop there, pause,
can't go on any longer,
hit delete.

Germany glides past me.
Tall, long-storied houses
line the banks of the Danube.
We drift, at night,
I imagine I live long ago,
and that I row a boat with my goods
past houses shuttered to me.

I can't look anymore.
Download, then hit delete,
usually I check, look one more time,
but not this time.

Days later, and I can't look.
I thought it had not affected me.
Walking around, taking notes for a story,
taking photos of a place that is not beautiful,
listening to a guide tell us of the horrors.
Only once, alone in the cement corridor
of the VIP prison unit did I feel
what went on here.
And I almost ran towards the light
coming from the door ajar at the end of the corridor.

Even at night, alone in a hotel room
with the TV in German for comfort
and an empty bowl of tomato soup,
I did not feel it.

Then aboard a luxury river liner,
with too much food served and prepared,
I can't look.

Months later, the words still won't come.
The article is unwritten,
there are too many words to express it.

By day you feel the long forgotten brown buildings,
long torn down,
at night, one can only imagine what you'd feel.

Churches, a synagogue line the end of it,
prayers for peace, prayers to cleanse the ground.
There's a statue, yet another, of a prisoner,
skinny in his garb of oversized coat:
'Den toten zur ehr
Den lebenden zur mahnung'

A homage to the dead,
a warning to the living.

Hit delete, once, over and over again.
The brown buildings exist.
The houses glide past.
I imagine I'm a man in another life.

(Published on Big Bridge 2009 issue)

Friday, August 14, 2009


It was ten to six, and the sun was still hot. It would be another hour before it would go down. Around us, in the outdoor coffee shop, children played, people walked, cars reversed in the parking lot. It was time to leave. We'd been talking barely an hour and it was time to leave. I got out my notebook and asked Athina to write down her address and telephone numbers so we wouldn't lose touch again. I wrote my details down too, even though my email address hadn't changed in ten years, and she could have got hold of me anyway...Read more here

Friday, July 24, 2009

What matters

What matters is not
whether seize is spelled correctly,
or you use an ellipsis instead of an em dash;
not whether you used 500g of butter, when the recipe called for less.
Not the vendetta of the neighbour,
nor the spite of the colleague in the corridor.
What matters isn’t whether you wear horizontal stripes instead of vertical,
or the wrong colour camisole beneath your jersey.
What matters isn’t the power plays, the corporate games,
the stalled computer and the dropped connection,
or who will be the next leader to lead the free world.
What matters is the neutral breath, the needle-like teeth,
brushingaway the layer of dust, restoring your black coat by wiping it clean
with hands or kisses.
What matters is your world, reduced to kisses,
turkey mince on a plate, fresh air, the expectation that everything will be alright,
the pure wide-eyed surrender, your rush at life.

(Published in Illuminations, USA)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Chapped heart

Nearly thirty seven,
and there’s a chapped heart on my chest,
paint peeling off the red silk-screened t-shirt.
My toe is pink and swollen from a bee-sting,
no bee in sight, just a sting left on a carpet.
A deepening of my face.
Evening implies a quickening of the pulse.
Summer nights are beautiful, I’ve discovered,
now savouring the cool air,
as though it were sweet ice-cream.
A wet rag brushes away the day’s oily accumulation.
The carpet in the bedroom needs replacing,
the colour’s all wrong
and the kitchen needs updating.

And the heart, the chapped heart,
well, it’s harder to deal with that.
Scrape a few more flaky bits off,
see the still-good t-shirt appear from beneath.
I’ve had it for over ten years now,
it’s worn well, never lost its shape or colour,
only the heart, scraping off now, chapped,
scored through,
indicates time’s passing.

(Published in Green Dragon 6)

Inside and Outside

Sitting inside I type,
analysing novels.
I learn about the secret Muslim marriage
called a sigheh, recalling seventeenth-century Persia.
There’s a psychiatrist detective hero with Parkinson’s,
a Swedish writer who died too young,
an ex-memoirist who’s astounded his critics
with his breathless first novel.
I conjure up other people’s fictional worlds,
I tell people whether to spend their money
on eight new novels.

Outside a grey bird, wrapped in a brightly coloured bathmat,
stops breathing, wing broken.
My cat, tired from the chase and capture,
eats his supper of mincemeat.
Outside his prey lays his head in his
wing, and quietly gives up the fight.

(Published in Green Dragon 6)

Friday, July 3, 2009

Load Shedding illuminates South Africans’ lives through shared experiences

Toward the end of 2007, editors Liz McGregor and Sarah Nuttall, under the auspices of Wiser at Wits, brought out At Risk, a collection of essays which portrayed life in South Africa. I wrote then that we needed more books of this kind: essays by a variety of writers which shine a light on facets of the past and issues of the present. I’m delighted that this second volume, Load Shedding, showcases the same depth and quality of writing, again by a range of writers....Read more here

Saturday, May 23, 2009


“Why don’t you smile at the customers?” Tammy asks her. “Smile at them, make them feel welcome, comfortable. Smile, then ask them if you can help them.” Tammy is talking to Hazel, her newest employee, friend of a friend. It had been a favour to hire her, this young, tall, yet sullen looking woman with the black hair that hung in flat sheets on either side of her head. Hazel stares blankly back at Tammy. “OK,” Hazel murmurs. Hazel tries to smile that day. But the action doesn’t come easily. Who cares, she thinks. What do the customers care if she asks them if they need help? If they want something like chocolates they can’t find, or need a brand of cigarettes, then they’ll ask for it, surely. Hazel has a five-year-old child, Jasmine, who waits for her at the end of each long day. When Hazel appears, Jasmine rushes to greet her. At night Hazel dreams of the shop, she dreams of Tammy, unhappy because Hazel doesn’t smile at the customers. But Hazel can’t lose this job. It is all that stands between having to move back in with her parents with Jasmine. At times Hazel dreams of the markets in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. She dreams of the Israeli kibbutz they lived on: she dreams that she is, once more, ironing hundreds of pairs of pants in the kibbutz. And she dreams of Federico, tall, violent Federico with his jet black hair and thick black eyebrows, and that powerful, maniacal look in his almost black eyes. Once more, in these dreams, Federico lunges at her, angry, stoned, wanting her to yield, have sex when she is not ready. When she is not, he hits out. She awakes from these dreams, breathless. She smokes at three, four in the morning then, the tip of her cigarette glowing in the greyness. She does not turn on the light, Jasmine sleeps a few metres away in a cordoned off corner of the studio flat they share. Five months later, Hazel is a waitress at a restaurant, The Doughnut. The days are as long, and more tiring, but the money is better, and she is busier than at the sweet shop. Hazel complains to her parents that she never sees the sun. She goes to work and comes home, and by then the day is gone. “I could be working underground,” Hazel complains to her mother. But her mother Evelyn replies: “It’s what you chose. Your father and I warned you not to go after that man, but you did. Now you have a child and your responsibility is to look after that child. Your life is over now, your child is what is important.” Hazel is thirty-five, and does not, obviously, want her life to be over, does not, in fact, feel that her life is over. But there’s nothing now, but the huge relief of waking up without Federico every morning, without the fear, the tiptoeing around a man who could be violent or gentle and sweet, depending on his mood or whether he had smoked grass the night before, or had got high on speed. And the fear that he would discover the places she had stashed their money for the month and spend it on drugs. And then, writing home, begging her parents to send money for food, medicine, rent. She took jobs: once she was a maid to a German woman who had moved to Tel Aviv after the war, another time she tried to work in a supermarket, but Hazel’s Hebrew was too poor for dealing with customers. Federico did not work. He hadn’t worked in years. When the money finished he too wrote to his parents, and they too wired him cash, but they were poorer than Hazel’s parents. She had met the tall, exotic-looking Spaniard at a beach party at the beginning of the seventies. Everyone was stoned at the party, including Hazel. They smoked grass or dropped acid, and lay on the beach and talked of psychedelic colours. Hazel had sold the car her parents had given to her as a wedding present, divorced the man she had married at twenty-one and bought a one-way ticket to Europe. In Spain Hazel had gone to a party at a large house on the beach and met Federico. He was tall and exotic. He spoke English with the rough, yet musical accent of the Spanish. He painted. He spoke six languages fluently. Hazel fell in love, with Spain, with a Spanish man, with the possibility that life could be different. No one who Hazel met through Federico seemed to work. They lived cheaply. That in itself was a type of freedom. She felt the ties of the past unloosening, she felt single again, not divorced, but single. She and Federico moved often, never staying more than a month in one of the beach cottages. They moved crablike along the southern coast. “You need to be free,” Federico would exclaim, “You can’t be free with a job,” he said. Hazel knew she was she was pregnant. Her periods had stopped, and she was gaining weight she couldn’t lose. The flat days stretched out: Federico spent them lying on a mattress. She thought she could feel the presence of the baby around her, watching, waiting. It was going to be a girl; she knew that, and this time she wasn’t going to get rid of it. “Let’s go to South Africa,” Hazel suggested. But it was a disaster. Her parents disapproved of Federico. He wasn’t Jewish for one thing, and he was foreign. Their daughter was pregnant, and not married. It was a scandal. One night her father, Herman, took Federico out. Her parents were talking about forcing her to have an abortion, if they could declare her insane, they could force an abortion on her. At the restaurant lounge Hazel’s father, Herman impressed on Federico that South Africa wasn’t the place for him. He left. Herman paid for the trip, and when Hazel found out she slammed her fist through the glass balcony door. Her father came home to shattered glass, her mother crying hysterically while Hazel sat stoic, unmoved, eyes glazed as though anaesthetised. There, she was given a choice: have an abortion voluntarily, for her own good; or it would be arranged that she would be committed to an insane asylum, and the state would force her to have an abortion anyway. The night before the abortion she had come home after a day out with friends to find two strangers sitting, waiting for her in the lounge of her parents. They carried out the threat. They committed her. In the six weeks she was there she learned to control her temper, to be quiet and acquiescent. The psychiatrist asked her gently if she wanted an abortion. No. When they released her they didn’t tell her parents. She met up with an old friend and fled. How do you measure pain and fear? The rain drummed against the windows of the aeroplane droning on towards Europe. “I’m coming,” she had said over the phone to Federico now in Spain, “do you still want me?” “Yes,” he said. “I’m still pregnant,” she said. The first time he hit her she was six months’ pregnant. She lurched and fell against the wall, knocking her head, her glasses flying across the room. He was contrite, apologetic, gentle after that. He got so angry at life, sometimes, and he just couldn’t control it. His eyes were soft, slightly rimmed with tears; he was sorry; he said he wouldn’t do it again. It happens in increments. The first time there is disbelief, wild, unyielding incomprehension. There is forgiveness. And then there is more forgiveness. It has to be that way. You do not fall out of love so quickly, so easily. Perhaps you never do: love so slick, so illogical. Perhaps you never do: perhaps a part of you will cling, always, to that hope, that illusion. Even when bones have been broken, and eyes have been smashed, and bruises purple into the shape of clenched fists. The illusions shatter, disbelief sets in. Conversation stops after a while. Federico promised he would get a job, and asked his parents for money. They moved back to Spain. They moved into yet another house, this one in the hills surrounding Málaga. Hazel gave birth at La Cruz Roja. She wrote to her parents, sending them pictures of their first grandchild. There was a thaw, babies melt hearts. There was guilt. And so, it started, the letters exchanged, the money wired. When Jasmine was eighteen months, Hazel’s mother came to visit. The visit was successful, in its way. There was more money after that: “You should see how they’re living!” Evelyn told Herman. “They live in houses without electricity sometimes! Last year Hazel had to draw water from a well! Can you imagine it Herman? She’s gone and made such a mess of her life; the least we can do is help out with some money. It’s the child I’m thinking of, of course.” Federico could not hold down a job. For a day or two he would get up early, wash dishes at a bar, be a waiter at a restaurant, say he would try and teach at the language school in Fuengirola, but after a day or two he stopped going to work. He was tired; he wouldn’t get up till ten, eleven, noon. Days pass. By the time Jasmine was three, Federico still could not support his family and yet he wanted more children. One day Hazel came home to find him boiling her diaphragm, trying to damage it without her seeing. She eventually married him before they left for Israel. You know when you’re making a mistake. You know when what you’re doing is wrong, but it’s a last ditch effort to save something; begin something else. Years later, she’d say: “But I still thought he would change, might change, away from the domineering influence of his parents, his mother especially. She had mollycoddled him from birth. He was her youngest son, and he couldn’t do anything wrong, I thought he might learn to take responsibility if we went where we were both strangers. I thought he might have a bit of pride then.” On the first kibbutz, he was assigned the job of milking the cows at five in the morning. It lasted a few days. Then they said he could pick fruit instead. It lasted a week. The director of the kibbutz was sorry, but all members had to work, he said, as he told Hazel they had to leave. They moved to a hostel in Tel Aviv. It was a year before they were accepted on another kibbutz, a year in which love died. The days were spent before they had begun. Hazel’s parents still sent money, but it was never enough. The coins piled up on the bookcase seemed like a lot of money to Jasmine, but her mother said they weren’t. Hazel took cleaning jobs, climbing up stepladders to clean chandeliers, washing out stranger’s kitchens. There was no more pretence: he did not look for jobs, When he hit out at night, the neighbours heard the sounds of crashing, thumping. Jasmine mostly slept through, but the times she did not, she awoke to see her father flinging her mother’s head against the walls. The look was resigned, her mother silent as Federico expended his energy. Federico was always contrite, sorry, mortified almost. When he said he’d never do it again, Hazel no longer believed him. But where else could they go? To go back to South Africa meant admitting defeat to her parents, it meant relying on them. They were accepted onto another kibbutz. Once more Federico did not work, but they were lenient here, more willing to understand that Federico was “sick” and couldn’t do an eight-hour day. Instead he went more and more often to the seaside resort of Eilat. Hazel began to suspect he had someone there. Sometimes he stayed away a week at a time, and the freedom was blissful, sweet and refreshing. Hazel hadn’t realised how tightly wired she had become. With Federico around she was tense all the time: she was tense in the morning when she awoke, and she was tense getting ready for her work in the kitchens, telling Jasmine to keep quiet as they dressed. And she was tense at night in bed. If she refused, he burst his way in, and she, silent, so that the child would not be woken. She wrote to her parents. At first they refused. No, they would not send tickets for her and her child. She had got herself into this mess; she could get herself out of it. She sent letters back, longer, more pleading letters. “I’m afraid he’ll try to kill me and Jasmine,” she wrote. “The other day he said when she turns twelve he’ll rape her and force me to watch. What sort of a man would say this?” They sent tickets. Only on the plane did Hazel relax, each passing mile beneath the window the distance growing longer and longer. In the end he signed the divorce papers, relinquishing all custody or visitation rights to see Jasmine when Herman agreed to pay off all of Federico’s debts. Sometimes Hazel and Jasmine go to the swimming pool in the townhouse complex where they move when Jasmine turns six. At The Doughnut Hazel became a manageress. Soon after getting the job as a waitress, she learned how to smile, and was promoted. Smiling mattered; seeming to care about the customers mattered. And then it took over: she cared that the orders were right, that the fat man who ate breakfast at the counter every morning had his bacon crisp, not soggy; and that the two secretaries who ate lunch every day shared dessert and received two spoons or forks for the dessert. It seemed as though the world simultaneously narrowed and opened up as she cared. Life narrowed to a tight focus: she cared about the job, and strove to do as well as she could; the heavy dark blankness filled with kitchen orders, smiles from customers, an offer to become a manageress. There are strict divisions to her day: there are the breakfast regulars, the 10 o’clock housewives who come for cake and tea with friends before going shopping, the lunch time crowd of office workers, the mid-afternoon pensioners. Hazel phones Jasmine in the afternoon, her domestic worker picks the child up from school. It is all so far away so different from the life she led before. Life is strict, ordered, a patchwork of routine. By cutting the day into slices, like a cake, she goes forward in increments, and there are crumbs of vague understanding of the past. (Published in Breaking the Silence: Journeys to Recovery POWA Women’s Writing Competition 2008 Fanele, an imprint of Jacana, 2009)

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Spicy blend of personas stirs the emotions

There’s something on the boil at the Market Theatre in the form of Curry Tales, a one-woman show written and performed by Rani Moorthy. Prior to seeing the show, I knew little about the production except that the actress cooks on stage. Sounded rather light and fluffy to me. Well, it is light, in the sense that there are laughs aplenty, but this is no mere parody of a cooking show.

Moorthy has fun with her audience, teasing and cajoling them in an intimate and yet also nonthreatening way. If you’re scared of interactive theatre after having been lampooned by the likes of Mark Banks, put your fear aside. Book a front-row seat, because, yes, Moorthy cooks and you’ll be one of the first to taste the dishes if you’re right up there.

In Curry Tales, Moorthy takes on a number of different personas, cooking up a dish to go with each. The dexterity and the feat of cooking while acting and taking cues from the audience is quite something to watch. “In any one-person show, the audience is the other character,” says Moorthy as I chat to her after having seen the show.

Now resident in London where she first conceived and wrote the show, Moorthy explains how she adapts performances to local mores in each country she plays in. Moorthy is something of a chameleon on stage. She first appears as socialite Mrs Dimple Melwani, a middle-aged New Delhi matriarch who commands the stage with her presence and sassy personality. Ah, this is an actress in her 40s, I thought, but, in the next scene, Moorthy bounds on to the stage as the fiery Trinidadian Rosemary, showing a leg, blasting the man (or men) in her life while stirring a hot curry to feed the audience, and I am reappraising, thinking, no, this is a much younger actress. Moorthy inhabits each character so thoroughly, which is obviously what good acting is about, that you are completely swept away and taken in.

You do chuckle throughout, but there is also an underlying pathos beneath each story. In another sequence, a young Indian woman, Kalvinder, is making curry for her British in-laws.Her husband has forgotten to pick up the mutton, so she is forced to improvise. She hits on the idea of using eggs instead of meat, but while she is chopping and boiling, she tells us about growing up as a barren woman. An Indian woman who cannot have children, reviled by her own mother. This achingly sad sequence goes to the very heart of what constitutes a woman in certain cultures, and how anything that is different from the norm is unacceptable. The heartache this causes in Kalvinder is painful to watch.

But equally moving is the beggar scene in which Moorthy plays a Tamil-speaking beggar, Kali. She doesn’t speak a word of English in this scene, and yet mime, gesture and our own natural human empathy mean we understand every word. The scene ends with the beggar sharing her bowl of curry with the audience. “She hasn’t eaten in two days,” Moorthy says as we discuss this scene, “and yet she gives of her bowl of food. “This just shows that the onus of giving is not one that only the rich can monopolise, it’s a sense of taking power from the act of giving.”

Another powerful scene is that of Mrs Wong, an Indian woman brought up in China and now living in riot-torn Malaysia. She’s chained to her stove by her eldest son, lamenting the fact that she hasn’t learned the words to the national anthem, and recalling a life shaped by emigration. Moorthy is Mrs Wong with a very passable Chinese-inflected accent. Here Moorthy taps directly into her past experiences. Born in Malaysia, she was educated in Singapore, as her parents wanted her to be taught in English. This meant she carried a passport to school every day. Moorthy became a drama lecturer and also hosted a talk show in Singapore. Marrying Briton Arthur Smith meant negotiating a commuter relationship. Deciding to move to England to be with her husband in 1996 at the age of 35 meant starting all over again.

She talks of finding a new voice. “Yet, I think it’s important for artists to leave the artistic homeland, to leave the comfort zone. I didn’t think I would have an audience in Britain.”

Instead, Moorthy had to create another career, cultivate another voice. From this was born a series of plays, including Pooja, which explored ritual in a Hindu woman’s life, Curry Tales, and Shades of Brown, another one-woman show that looks at skin colour and the effect of being perceived as too dark or too light (as in the character of the South African albino). “I invite the audience to look at the discomfort around skin colour, and how we are being prejudiced [by perceptions].”

It’s not a topic that is always openly discussed and Moorthy relates how her own darker skin colour led her family to joke with her not to go out into the sun: the psychological impact of colour. Moorthy has also explored the impact of the Muslim bombings in London in Too Close to Home, a play set in a British Muslim family.

Future projects in the pipeline include further explorations of emigration in writing about gangs of Tamil boys in London who feel disenfranchised in the West as well as a play that looks at feminine energies and what happens when people are taken away from the country of their birth.

Moorthy admits that she is sceptical about nationhood, but “I find it liberating that I am not particularly of any one culture. I can borrow from cultures, telling stories that are human, that people can return too.”

(Published in The Sunday Independent Feb 2008)

Monday, April 27, 2009

Joburg pix, not taken

A man, having his head shaved,
highlighted by the dusk of early evening.
All around him, gathering darkness, except his head,
this small stall, lit by phosphorescence,
haloed by a weird greenish purple light.
A flash of colour.
I drive on.

Another man, lurching across the road.
Perhaps forty, mouth already gummy,
long brown hair scraggly,
head shakes, words spill out,
but they mean nothing.
I let him pass, a smile of gratitude,
before he reverts back.

A woman, whose breasts are wide and flat,
fat bulges under her cheap beige knit.
She strolls, slatternly, slowly,
I must wait, gunning my engine.

The man who puts his hand through my window.
Takes hold of my keys: Give me money now.
No, I say, surprised. No, again. I won’t give you my keys.
Eyes darting, afraid, he runs away.
No, I carry on, although no-one can hear me.
Money in the boot, not much.
I don’t carry much these days.
Money, along with camera,
tucked away in the boot,
where they can hurt nobody.

(Published in Iodine Poetry Journal, 2009)

Deftly summons human frailties of New Yorkers

Review of The Last Bachelor, Jay McInerney, Bloomsbury

This is the latest collection of short stories by Jay McInerney, who shot to prominence in 1984 with the publication of Bright Lights, Big City.

The collection, largely peopled by those who call New York or its neighbouring environs home, is clearly set in a post 9/11 world. While one story, I Love you, Honey, directly deals with the events of that day, there are oblique references to the day that changed America forever, and scarred that country and New Yorkers. But this is not a collection about that tragic day, or its aftermath. It’s a book peopled by ordinary people doing all the things that people do: bruise and punish each other with their infidelities, set out to marry rich men and have Thanksgiving parties where the muck of the past is raked through with regularity.

Although it’s set mainly in New York, several of the characters have roots in the South, and the languid, humid South is contrasted with the more frenetic, neurotic mores of the north. There are some lighter, fun pieces too, and McInerney shows a witty hand in Summary Judgement in which a social climber who has “passed the first blush of youth”, sets out to capture a rich man after the death of her husband leaves her in debt. The story is cattily delicious: there are hints of impropriety in Alysha de Sante’s past, there are underhand dealings as she sets out to snag a businessman, and we watch as she reels him in, and cheer when she makes a fatal error.

Infidelity and its effects are dealt with in three of the stories, the aforementioned I Love you, Honey, Invisible Fences and Putting Daisy Down. In each of these tightly constructed tales, the married couples punish each other in ways that are scarcely imaginable. A woman has abortions to punish the wandering eye of her husband in the ironically titled, I Love you, Honey; in Putting Daisy Down, a title that gives away the ending, a woman demands her husband put his 10-year-old cat to sleep, but pays the price as the story closes, and again we cheer. Meanwhile, in Invisible Fences Susan must pay the price for her infidelity as she and her husband start picking up men in bars to take home at night. Observes her husband Dean: “When you’re playing outside the regular borders, it’s important to have rules and boundaries.”

But playing outside of the rules doesn’t always lead to happiness: “I made her tell me everything. I was tortured by visions of her treachery, by my own roiling filthy imagination … until we both realised that the actual circumstances would never be enough to match the visions in my head.”

In The Madonna of Turkey Season we are introduced to a family who have lost their mother and wife to cancer. The scene is played with yearly frequency: the father becoming maudlin, the brothers pushing against each other in ways that cannot be forgiven. At the heart of the story is the unhappiness the family feels over one of the brothers, Brian, who has written a play, subsequently made into a film, which explores the death of their mother and introduces a note of infidelity in the relationship of the parents. It’s hard to make doubt disappear once the seed
has been planted, and hard to forgive the brother for planting the seed. Hard too, not to believe that Brian may have been privy to a deathbed confession none of the others were witness to. And it’s hard to see the failings of a mother who has died too young: “We always believed in you Mother, more than anything, but we never for a moment thought you were human.”

In Penelope on the Pond a woman waits in a remote pond for her lover, a senator campaigning for the president, and yet to announce a forthcoming divorce. Out of sight of the tabloids, it’s ultimately not the blogger journalist who will drive a knife into their relationship, but the smooth-talking wannabe president himself.

In the quietly thoughtful The Last Bachelor Ginny encounters her long lost lover, AG, in the weekend before his marriage, for the first time, at the ripe age of 40. The story passes back in time, detailing the dalliances of AG, who feels it’s time to finally settle down. When he visits Ginny the night before his nuptials, bringing lines of coke, old secrets are revealed, old loves given an audience. This is a tender, wise story, somewhat sad in execution. And sometimes, seems to be the message of the story, it really is too late to do the right thing.

Pubished in The Star, February 26 2009

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Mixed bag from Africa

Review of The Obituary Tango: A selection of writing from the Caine Prize for African Writing 2005, Jacana.

The settings are familiar: overloaded minibuses careening around Kenya, a car hijacking, a dead zebra lying in brown dust in the bush. Familiar and yet unfamiliar, The Obituary Tango collects stories from north of our border and presents another Africa to us South Africans. Read more here

A homegrown tale to flow over the reader, like a song or a poem

Review of Quarter Tones by Susan Mann, Random House

The only regret I had, after finishing this second novel from local writer Susan Mann, was that I hadn’t read her first: One Tongue Singing. It garnered extraordinary praise when it was published, and it would have been useful to compare the two. But, after Quarter Tones, this is one reading omission I aim to make up for.

Mann’s writing is ethereal and lyrical: you slip through this novel as though in a dream. Yet it’s anything but, being rooted in everyday reality. Mann writes with such sensitivity, such almost-poetic nuance, that the writing flows over you like water. Add to that Mann’s lack of quotation marks for dialogue and the novel becomes even more mythically dream-like in style.

The story centres on Ana Delaney, back in Cape Town after a decade of living in London with her husband, Michael. Her father, Sam, has just died and she has returned to pack up his belongs and wrap up his estate. But her flight from London, from a strained marriage and a failed career as a musician, becomes a journey into a new future.

Ana’s solitude is broken when she meets Franz van der Veer, her architect neighbour, and her friendship grows with this lonely, complex man. Life becomes even more complicated when Franz’s brother Daniel returns home, mysteriously bearing a baby, Tapiwa. She is drawn to both brothers, and thus the scene is set … with the addition of other minor characters. This is a story about the struggle over whether to remain in South Africa, and a story about memory: images of Sam – Ana’s father – play out over and over again. And, ultimately, it’s also a story about letting go of the past, of the ties that may bind, rather than free you for a life of expression and fulfilment.

Ana and Michael were teenage sweethearts. They left the country when she was 18, after briefly studying music. Ana is a flautist. But a career as a musician has remained elusively unattainable in London, and after so many failed auditions her hope is gone. While Michael works she has simply existed. Doing what, we are never told, and this is the one false note in a story that otherwise flows seamlessly and believably. While Ana is certainly reticent, somewhat in Michael’s shadow, all the same you keep coming back to those missing years, thinking: Well, what did she really do with the time? It’s a small niggle, and I suspect it might not bother all who read it.

But people change – and it’s this change, prompted, or aided, by Ana’s return home that causes her to re-examine whether she wants to stay in South Africa or return to London and be with Michael, who is dead set against the idea of returning. The arguments are familiar and go back and forth: “But affirmative action is just inverse racism, he’d said. That’s not progress. Not equal opportunity. Show me what’s in place for the poor, across every sector. Otherwise it’s just the same story, different colour.”

Later on, Ana makes the plea that enormous strides have been made since 1994: “Whatever your personal feelings, you can’t deny that things are working here. You need to come back to see how things have changed, in a pretty short space of time.”

Michael too, has changed: returning is not an option. When Ana is mugged, that is more justification for not returning. “A country of ostriches. It hasn’t changed one bit in that respect,” he says, adding further on: “You know, you really need to get out of there. Get some perspective. South Africa tends to do that to you, I remember. Tends to suck you in, shows you the world through blinkers. Nothing ever seems possible when you’re there.”

Tapping into the peculiar blinkers we South Africans seem to wear: life in this country has been strange and distorted by the policies of the past; who hasn’t felt like they have been staring at the world through a bell jar?

When Michael arranges for Ana to finish her musical degree at the Sorbonne in Paris, organising an audition for her, it’s crunch time. Ana goes strolling “… in Paris, where she did not know French, she could hide. Without expectations, a fixed address, recognisable words that identified her world, there were no mirrors to reflect her… The most important things are hardest to find words for, her father once said. That’s why people make music.”

But will Ana take up the Paris offer or is it already too late? Taken up with the lives of Franz and Daniel, Ana also finds herself babysitting the young Tapiwa, falling as much in love with her as with the idea of returning to her roots. In one conversation with Daniel she probes the idea of being a South African or an African: “Well, do you know what it means to be South African? People say they’re South African because of their roots, or their hearts. You know, the ones whose ancestors were killed in Anglo-Boer wars, or in Zulu wars, as though family blood in the soil gives entitlement … But it seems to me we’re missing a trick if we spend all our time arguing about who has a right to be here and who doesn’t, who belongs and who must leave. Isn’t it more about getting to grips with the business of being an African? Issues of belonging seem almost indulgent compared with Aids, poverty, illiteracy.”

Quarter Tones is not the first novel in recent years to deal with this conundrum, this push and pull factor. In the past year alone Emma van der Vliet’s Past Imperfect and Marita van der Vyver’s Time Out, to name just two recent examples, have had as protagonists women who must decide whether or not they can and will return to the country of their birth. The results seem to be almost a foregone conclusion. And, dangerously, a form of political correctness seems to be seeping into this issue. There are rumblings and undertones. The question of whether you can really call yourself an African appears, and it is also implied that you cannot really call yourself a South African if you’re indulging in London’s riches instead.

In a way that may be true: expats are removed from the social swirl in which they grew up; you cannot always adequately follow the eddies of life back home when you’re catching the Tube every day and reading newspapers that tell you about the problems in your adopted country rather than in your place of birth.

Mann’s writing is too subtle to ram the point home. Ana will stay in character and do what she must when making her decision, just as Van der Vyver’s and Van der Vliet’s characters choose the paths that reflect their own development.

These are skilled novelists who do not, as other South African writers have done, use their protagonists as vehicles for their own ideologies. But still, it’s there, this sense that to be truly African you cannot reside overseas, that in a sense you are betraying your country if you do, and these novels are tapping into something much larger, bringing it to the fore.

“Quarter tones” is a musical term, and the thread of music certainly flows through this narrative. It’s music ultimately that will draw her back and Mann infuses the story with references to music that do not seem intrusive, even to those for whom the words “interval tone” mean absolutely nothing at all.

As I mentioned earlier, the words flow over you, much as poetry or music would, and the story moves quietly toward resolution.This feels like a quiet story, yet it is anything but, dealing as it does, variously, with Aids, crime and the ruptures of past and present. However the tones are gentle, and move you along on a quiet rhythm.

Mann is a skilled master of the form: you’re moved along, wanting more, looking forward to the furtherdevelopment of a significant talent.

Published in The Star, April 19, 2007

At Risk: writing on and over the edge of South Africa

Review of At Risk: Writing on and over the edge of South Africa
edited by Liz McGregor and Sarah Nuttall, Jonathan Ball

This diverse collection of essays from South African writers, academics and journalists is loosely themed around the topic of “risk”: looking at those who have taken risks in their personal lives, such as Rain Queen Makobo, Queen Modjadji VI, or those who experienced the risk that crime imposes, such as Justice Malala writing from first-hand experience.

There are some outstanding essays that stay with you, such as Graeme Reid’s Moving In, Moving Out, about living as a gay man in the township of Wesselton in Ermelo, Mpumalanga, or Sarah Nuttall’s poignant account of losing a baby in What the Blood Remembers.

Collections of essays are rarely published in this country … and what a pity that is. This collection shows there’s a wealth of untapped experience waiting to be written down, and read in the short, sharp bites offered in an anthology.

The first, Liz McGregor’s Who Killed the Rain Queen? is not quite as short or succinct as the others, but still keeps you reading. McGregor repeatedly travelled to the Modjadji area in north-eastern Limpopo in a bid to find out why the current Rain Queen died at just 25. What killed her? McGregor unearths the truth, sort of, thwarted in her investigation by elders who don’t want it known. Rumours of Aids abound, also that the Rain Queen took a huge personal risk by choosing a lover, rather than sleeping with a family member chosen for her. It’s a fascinating investigation into secrets and cover-ups.

Aids rears its ubiquitous head again in Deborah Posel’s aptly titled A Matter of Life and Death. Posel writes about intervening in the life of Phina, a young HIV-positive woman living in rural Limpopo. Posel helps to organise transport so that Phina can obtain antiretroviral drugs, but the fact that she is HIV-positive, and taking the medicine,must remain a secret. Her uncle has arranged a cure for Phina’s mysterious illness from a witch doctor, and when Phina appears to be getting better (as a result of taking the antiretrovirals), she must keep quiet. To speak out would mean her uncle would lose face, while to mention that she is HIV-positive is impossible. The stigma is so ingrained that Phina watches her sister wasting away from what is assumed to be the same disease, but cannot speak. To do so might save her sister’s life, but it would also shatter taboos. A shocking, terribly sad story.

Makhosazana Xaba and Tom Odhiambo explore their neighbourhoods in essays moving from Bellevue East to Braamfontein. Both explore the notions of belonging in very personal,readable essays. Xaba talks about life with a difficult white neighbour; while Cameroonian Odhiambo explores his response to the new South Africa.

The real stand-out is Justice Malala’s Losing my Mind, a gripping, terrifying account of the effects of crime. Having been a victim of crime, Malala and his wife are renting a nearby flat while their home is renovated. His wife can’t wait to move back, but Malala wants to stay in the safety of flatland. He keeps recalling the night of the incident, a shooting, and lies awake, listening to burglar alarms and driving his security company mad with repeated callouts.

But the fear’s deep within him now. The essay moves beyond the personal, and takes a look at others who, terrified by crime, whom have been raped or assaulted, have chosen to leave the country. This is a chilling, excellent examination of what happens emotionally when you’re a victim of crime, and how that fear worms itself into you.

At Risk offers a window into where we, as South Africans, are right now. The scenes are varied, real, full of danger and yet also alive with humour. We can only hope there will be more windows, more anthologies.

(Published in The Star, September 20 2007)

Monday, March 2, 2009

Soweto Crawl

If you’ve done the Soweto Heritage route, seen Mandela’s house and the Hector Peterson Memorial, there’s something new on the tourist map. Take a Soweto shebeen tour with the Soweto Rhubuluza. Boarding the minibus you get a goodie bag with a tomato-red vuvuzela, some wors, a cap, a CD with an eclectic sampling of music. Hang onto the vuvuzela, you’ll be making a lot of noise, and that’s all part of the fun. Start drinking on the bus, the cooler box is packed to the brim. It might also be a good idea to include some hangover remedies, guys.

Billed as a team-building exercise for companies, Andrew Law, director of Simkile, who runs the company, showed our media group a DVD of a rather rowdy bunch of workers who had been taken on the shebeen crawl for the day. Bonding there was aplenty.

The shebeen crawl takes you to six shebeens, all varying in style and sophistication. Mathula’s Inn had a few regulars propping up the bar on this Friday afternoon. Situated in Diepkloof Extension (or you may want to say Diepkloof Expensive), it’s all rather dark and gloomy at first, but that just adds to the slightly dingy atmosphere of the place. En route to the next shebeen, you drive past the Ellias Motsoaledi squatter camp, as well as the brightly coloured Soweto cooling towers, icons in their own right.

Next stop is The Shack, the appropriately and delightfully named shebeen. Set at the back of a house in a real tin shack, you can shoot a few rounds of pool, listen to the blaring music, or take a load off outside under the green awnings. A sign tells you to leave your problems at the door, and that doesn’t seem so very hard to do here. Next up is Wandie’s Place. It hardly needs an introduction – Wandies seems as well known overseas as locally.

Wandie’s is lined with messages from all its patrons, as well as curling bank notes from all over the world, and business cards that have been stuck to the walls. Food is rice, as well as green salads, pasta salads, cold sweet potato salad and fish. In Mofolo North you’re taken to a traditional shebeen, Bra Pat’s Place, for a sip, in my case, of sour beer, or Jozi beer. This shebeen is behind an informal spaza shop, right in a dark corridor behind a house. Sit on the rough wooden planks along with the other patrons. It’s late Friday afternoon and the drinking had started hours ago. As dusk fell over Soweto, and the township started humming with commuters and dwellers returning home, we made our way to The Rock for sundowners.

“Everybody goes to the Rock,” said tour guide Gugulethu Buthelezi. Started seven years ago, this nightclub has a huge roof area for jolling the night away, as well as alcoves for smokers. Owner Tebogo Motswai said The Rock attracts 50 percent of its patrons from outside Soweto, a figure that pleases him as it means people are partying in the township even if they don’t live there. “Decision-makers come to Soweto,” he said. “People get tired of town,” he added, referring to anywhere outside of Soweto as town.

We didn’t stay long enough to really see the place pumping, it was early still as we headed back to the bright lights of “town” – but as Tebogo cheerily waved us goodbye, you could tell the night was still young.

(Published in The Sunday Independent, June 2006)

On Tour in Alex

You’re warned that this is the real deal. This is not sanitised, touristoriented Soweto with its B&Bs and museums ready for the public. This is Alexandra where narrow streets are lined with slums, three hostels rise like hulks over the sprawl, and a squatter camp clings to the banks of the Jukskei River. I was told that some foreign tourists are too scared to get out of the minibus, which is pity. Still, you’ll also find your posh areas with fancy copperycoloured gates here, real brick houses, and no squalor or signs of poverty.

Alex is readying itself for tourism. Gone are the days when Alex was called “Dark City” because it didn’t have electricity, or “Nobody’s Baby” because the apartheid government considered it a blight. For years there were plans to demolish Alex, the township in the heart of the northern suburbs. Now there’s a spanking new Mandela Museum set to open later this year or early next, a shopping centre is being planned, and other projects are on the go.

But I was here to be a tourist. Alex may lie a few kilometres away from the wealthy heartbeat of Sandton, but, like many whites, I had never been. Back in apartheid days, Alex had only one entrance, a bridge over the Old Pretoria Road with a sign proclaiming “Whites enter at your own risk”. Today, tour guide Abey Sechoaro, of Bosele Township Experience, told me that there are many entrances.

The day was a typical autumn one, sunlight bright Jo’burg’s roads were packed with cars. “You can take these off,” joked Sechoaro, referring to our seatbelts, as we crossed the bridge and entered Alex. It was a joke alright, referring to the huge division between Alex and out there. It is still like entering a foreign country. From manicured Sandton you glide into narrow streets lined with hawkers, shops selling cheap furniture and other goods, and live chickens are on sale in cages, one for R10, special, two for R17.

And then you enter the oldest part of Alex with makeshift tin shacks, electricity wires spanning the roofs, a bunny aerial dangling from a wire, catching TV signals. Lorded over by one of the men’s hostels, the contrast of poverty and institutionalised building is surreal. Goats scratch among grassy knolls, and a security door is firmly attached to a shack and padlocked. The narrow streets hum with people; informal stalls trade in telephone call units, fruit, vegetables, sweets and canned foods. People sit and chat in the streets, hanging up washing, a group of women were talking companionably as another plaited a woman’s hair.

The atmosphere was languid, but the large amount of people in the streets did point to a more sinister problem: Alex has a high unemployment rate. Those who can trade informally do, opening stalls and spaza shops, others wait. A butcher at the outdoor butchery was hacking away at a dead animal’s head: a clean jawbone lay nearby as smoke from cooking fires rose, the pulpy mass still bore a resemblance to a head. I watched kids playing among the narrow alleyways and paths through the shacks. I entered one where a man stood ironing in a small, dark room. The room was everything: kitchen, bedroom, living area, all in a space somewhat like a jail cell. On the wall, neatly glued pieces of red and white typing paper covers decorated the walls. The air of quiet pride was palpable.

I was taken to Nelson Mandela’s old home – a small brick structure now part of a compound of a group of families. One tap and one toilet sometimes serve up to 40 people. The ugly reality of poverty hits you then, and much of Alex is still mired in it. Inevitably you start to shake your head, that people should still be living like this, queuing for one toilet, making their homes in basic shacks.

It’s not new, this scenario, but glimpsed on the TV, or read about in countless news reports, it doesn’t touch you. You need to enter a shack, feel its cramped confines; you need to enter a compound where you can imagine people lining up before sunrise, waiting to use the facilities before rushing off to catch one or two or sometimes three minibuses to get to work by eight. Only then do you really start to get an understanding of poverty, and its wearying effects.

“Let people come to Alex,” Darlene Louw told me over lunch at Joe’s Butchery. She and Liezet Loubser are working on the Alex renewal project. She’s enthusiastic about what the township has to offer tourists, and suggests that some should do a stayover: “There’ll be some who miss their BMWs when they’re waiting for their taxis in a long line.”

“Not to mention those with beat-up Toyotas too,” I added. No matter how old your car it still beats waiting in long queues and spending hours going home. But Alex is not just about shacks and poverty, of course. There are posher areas, there’s also a gym, Ikasi gym, powered by Virgin Active. Here I saw an array of gym equipment and met a young artist, Tumi Masite, hawking striking paintings. The gym is attached to a side of a house. In a cheeky bit of humour a sign on the opposite sign of the road points to a rock painted with South Africa’s flag and warns passing pedestrians, “Don’t piss here”. In a corner shop I read another sign offering snoopy juice and vanilla mayo, but patrons were ordered not to read the sign without paying.

I visited an RDP house, built in 1999, but was told the walls were cracking and the roof leaked. This house belonged to another tour operator, Patrick Gumede, a friend of Sechoaro’s, who was busy on his laptop when I barged in, wanting to see his home. He was cheerful about this unexpected intrusion, however. At Borch’s Place we met up with some late morning patrons who also cheerfully obliged me in posing, and drinking while I took photos. This shebeen is being upgraded and is run by Monica Borchardt.

We travelled through Phase One and the East Bank, newer areas with proper housing. As we drove Sechoaro told me about his passion for encouraging tourism in Alex. Still a resident of the township where he grew up, he started his tourism business four years ago. He does all sorts of tours – from Pretoria to Soweto to Alex and beyond – but it’s Alex that he really is passionate about. It was a sentiment echoed by Darlene. “Alex has a vibe, you’ve got to look at how to sell this vibe. If tourists want to see night life in Alex, then each shebeen will offer them a particular type of vibe.” In addition a community hall is being turned into a theatre. It seems Alex gets into your bones; Sechoaro was almost speechless in trying to impart what it was about Alex that continued to grip him. Somehow the words “a special place” don’t quite do it justice.

I picked up a copy of the knock-and-drop Alex News at a corner shop. The headline that morning was, appropriately enough, “Revival of Alex on track”. According to the paper, living conditions were continuing to be improved, while construction of the Alex stadium should resume. A letter from a proud Alex resident, Monde Mbingeleli, seemed to sum it up when he proclaimed that “an Alexandrian is anyone with a place to stay in Alexandra, whether living in a shack or a house”. As we left I saw yet another sign: “It’s happening in Alex!”

(Published in The Sunday Independent, June 2006)

Monday, February 16, 2009

A place of sadness

On a trip to Cape Town I decide to join the tourists and take a trip out to Robben Island. It was opened in the late 1990s as a tourist destination, but I’ve always flown in and out of the Cape in a monumental hurry, the island lying out to sea marked into a future agenda.

I purchase tickets at the Nelson Mandela Museum Gateway, located in the Cape Town Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. You walk through tourist-kitsch shops, and get mistaken for a tourist. Perhaps it’s the big camera you’re lugging. When you discover that your camera’s batteries are dead and rush into a camera shop to buy more , the salesman informs you that you can go reclaim VAT at the shop upstairs. Smiling and saying no, I’m from here, I mean South Africa, well Johannesburg, as though Johannesburg were really a foreign country and we both smile together as the man says, “You’re lucky. We’re lucky to live in such a country, aren’t we?” Aren’t we.

The first taste of Robben Island comes in the mini museum at the Gateway. Waiting to board the ferry, I rifle through the past. Opening up a cabinet I find old notebooks kept by the prisoners, there are old accounts: R20-odd collected by them for a prison jazz club in the 1960s.

The ferry leaves. The scenery is picturesque: from the bulk of Table Mountain forming a backdrop to the working harbour, to the prettified buildings in colourful pastels, Victorian style. Cape Town’s famous miserable winter hasn’t arrived, the weather is mild, the sun out.

The boat dips and dives toward the island, a journey of a half an hour.

Once on the island, it’s off the ferry and onto a bus for a guided tour. Our guide, 21-year-old student Craig van der Horst, is enthusiastic, witty and extremely knowledgeable. Life was harsh for prisoners on the island, of course, it was meant to be. Visits by family members were sometimes allowed once a month, sometimes only every six months. They lasted 30 minutes, and the conversation could only be conducted in English or Afrikaans. A guard was always present, and the prisoners weren’t allowed to discuss prison life or conditions, or any other prisoners. Their subjugation began the moment they arrived on the island. They were already chained at the ankles, short men paired with tall so that the chains chaffed, making their ankles bleed, humiliating them from day one, a painful introduction to life as a prisoner.

A brief history of Robben Island follows, from leper colony from 1846 to 1931, to prison. There is a leper graveyard that serves as a reminder of those who were banished here. When Craig asks if anyone knows who Robert Sobukwe is, only the handful of South Africans raise their hands.

“It’s a sad story,” says Craig, “he has been forgotten.” Sobukwe was responsible for organising the mass rally to protest against the carrying of passbooks that turned into the Sharpeville massacre on March 21 1960. It was a strong show of defiance against the apartheid government, a turning point. The struggle went underground, became militant, and the eyes of the international community were opened to the brutalities that were taking place. Sobukwe was arrested, and kept on the island indefinitely. It was that first time that parliament introduced a law that would ensure he was kept there. He was not allowed contact with anyone except parliamentarians, who would make yearly treks to persuade him to apologise and renounce his ways in exchange for his release. When he didn’t, they would extend his stay. Four years of silence damaged his vocal cords. Sobukwe died of cancer.

Past the leper graveyard and onto the small village. There is, of course, a Church Street, as there is in every town in South Africa. The village housed the children of the warders, and a primary school was built to educate their children. From 1963 only white wardens were allowed to work on the island. You begin to wonder who these wardens were. What were their children like? What was it like to live on a prison island – never seeing the prisoners, yet always aware of what must have seemed a hidden menace?

A church built by Sir Herbert Baker in 1895 still stands in stone grandeur, now owned by the Anglican Church. An older church, the Garrison Church, built in 1841, is a popular wedding venue today. There’s a twinkle in guide Craig’s voice as he says: “Last year 28 people got married there on Valentine’s Day.”

The old Commissioner’s Residence, in cheery red and white, is now a guest-house. “So if you miss the ferry you’ll be quite comfortable,” says Craig.

And then there are the animals. There are four frustrated male ostriches without a mate. Buck roam. Parts of the island are now restricted sites, hence we’re not allowed off the bus. A nature reserve for the African oystercatcher bird. A lighthouse built 30m above sea level hasn’t always prevented shipwrecks. Prisoners tried to escape. One man tried three times and was caught on the other side every time.

The lime quarry was where prisoners like Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki and other political prisoners, housed in Section B, toiled in blinding glare, with no protection, damaging their eyesight.

“Today Mandela cannot cry because his tear ducts are damaged, and you can’t use a flash when photographing him,” Craig tells us. Guards patrolled the piercingly white quarry; a policy of shoot to kill existed. The toilet was a hole in the wall, a confined space where, everyday 32 prisoners relieved themselves, uncovering each others’ waste. Yet more humiliation and degradation. They worked and slept in their clothes. Now empty, but still emitting a blinding glare, the place feels harsh, forbidding, lifeless. You could just about imagine the prisoners still toiling, the guards patrolling as Craig describes it.

“This was the birthplace of the new South Africa,” Craig intones. “In the quarry they had contact that was denied to them in the cells. They gave each other hope. They were planning the new South Africa.” Pause. “This is the birthplace of the new South Africa. Welcome to parliament.”

A silence on the bus. Has Craig gone too far now? This has become theatre, it’s slightly uncomfortable, not propaganda exactly, but something mawkish, fawning, adulatory. Once inside the prison, a former inmate Glen Ntsoelongoe, prisoner No 3884, takes over the tour. Standing in the cold blue stone courtyard Glen addresses a too-large group, of mostly foreign tourists.

Robben Island was used for only political prisoners, the minimum sentence was five years, the maximum was life. White political prisoners served time in Pretoria. Up to 60 prisoners shared a communal cell. The section we’re standing in, outside Section B, was known as the “high command”, the place where Mandela and the other Rivonia trialists had their cells. The walls of the courtyard are built from “blue stone”, mined on the island, which lends a cold, grim prison-like feel to the courtyard.

We are finally taken inside, to see Mandela’s famous cell, Block B, number five. It’s a small, cramped cell, like all the others, wide enough for an iron bed, the length just about equal to that bed. There are cold, green bars, a grimy blanket still covers his bed. I take some really bad photos, there’s too much jostling and elbowing. The foreign tourists stand in front of the cell and pose for portraits. It feels like a travesty. This was a man’s cell; he was incarcerated here from 1964 to 1982. And here are these tourists smiling happily for the cameras, wanting this as a memento, as proof of their visit: photos in front of the great man’s cell. It feels sick. I walk away in disgust, my friend following me. We have no desire to pose and smile. Perhaps it’s because we’re South Africans, and lived through and remember the apartheid that allowed this prison cell to exist. We can only try to understand the tourists – for them this is another stop on the agenda of things to do while in the country. There are no memories for them. I wonder if we’re being oversensitive.

When, days later, I finish reading the novel The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank, by Ellen Feldman, I find an echo of what we have experienced. The novel tells the imagined story of what would have happened had Peter van Pels, one of those who hid in the Secret Annexe with Anne Frank, had survived and immigrated to the US. In a scene towards the end of the book Peter visits the Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam, and it all feels wrong. Instead of silence, people whispering and the stench of fear, there are gawkers tromping loudly through the cramped annexe, gaping in awe. Outside a young girl poses next to a statue of Anne Frank. For Peter this is all still wrong; for him this place means so much more than a tourist site. To a lesser degree, certainly, that’s what two South Africans feel looking at tourists being snapped in front of cell number five.

The tour is rushed, and we hardly have a chance to get a feel of this grey place. We have little time to peer in the cells, to wonder what life must be like when freedom is taken away from you. There are photos of previous occupants, and their stories. In Saths Cooper’s cell (1976 to 1982) I see a single tatty brush displayed and the story behind it: “It was a problem getting this brush because the prison authorities only allowed combs to be brought in. I had to make application after application until, eventually, in my second year of imprisonment on Robben Island, they took an order for a hairbrush and it is a fairly hardy brush, appropriate for Robben Island weather.”

Other stories: refusing to dig in a particular quarry results in having privileges denied for a year, and isolation from other prisoners. Tokyo Sexwale’s cell (1978 to 1990) has a soccer ball mounted in a wooden grip. Referring to the popularity of sport in the prison, he writes: “This thought, that we are part of the global village, our isolation notwithstanding, was the driving force of our existence.”

But there’s little time to really read the plaques. I rush on, with the rest of the group. Glen takes us to the communal cell where he was incarcerated with others. There’s a board detailing the differences in food rations for allowed for “Asiatics/Coloureds”, the B group, and the “Bantu”, the C group. Breakfast is the same for both: but fat is an ounce for B group and half an ounce for blacks. The disparities continue: six ounces of meat for the coloureds, five for the blacks. Jam syrup was denied to the blacks, sugar was also regulated, two ounces for all except the blacks, they have to make do with one and half ounces. Who made these arbitrary decisions? No mention of fruit or vegetables, and the only protein those ounces of meat.

Guide Glen shares a small part of what life must have been like. He says: “We were only allowed to write one letter a month of 300 words, in English or Afrikaans. As in the visits, no political mention was allowed in the letters. Censorship of them was by scissors or blackout with a marker. You weren’t guaranteed 12 letters a year – it was up to the head of the prison whether to post that letter. I had only four visits in the time I was here, from 1984 to 1991. But I wrote and received lots of letters.”

Soweto-raised Glen left for Botswana at the age of 15, joined the ANC in Tanzania and was trained in guerrilla warfare and the use of explosives. In 1983 he and a team had instructions to infiltrate South Africa. But it turned out that the supposedly “safe house” was swarming with security personnel. Glen was captured and tortured for six months.

“Torture didn’t keep regular hours. It could happen at 2am, 9am, 5pm. We were kept naked as it took too much time to take our clothes off. I don’t remember a day I was not bleeding. “We were charged with treason. We knew we were going to be found guilty. I was sentenced to 25 years. I came here on December 23rd, 1984. Life was never the same again. “I left here on May 17th, 1991. I continued working in the ANC. In 2003 I came here to do this job, to be a guide. I stay on this island for some reason. I have no regrets. This had to be done or I would only be leaving in 2009. That would have been a very long time.”

We stream out to catch the ferry back. We want to take a look in the souvenir shop and find it closed, even though it’s before 5pm. The shop assistant slams the door in our faces. We’re shocked, outraged. Robben Island is a sad place to be: the sadness seeps out everywhere. It underscores the visit, lies around us like a cloud. As the vista of blue sea spreads before us it is disturbing to think of what had been going on here while people like us were leading ordinary, unfettered lives.

(Published in The Sunday Independent, July 2006)

Monday, January 5, 2009

Nat Gutman’s Wife, Warsaw 1938

Nat Gutman’s wife
was twenty-six when this one was taken.
She stares out at the stale crusts of bread
and bits of herring that are supper tonight,
and seems unable to resign herself.
Her forehead is already deeply wrinkled,
and there are brooding shadows beneath
her eyes. She worries. Her beautiful, full lips
are closed, settling into some expression
she won’t like if she gets old.

Nat Gutman’s wife looks at the stale bread,
the bits of herring, and thinks of
how to make it stretch.
Today her child played in the street
with a bandage wrapped from jaw to skull.
Awakening at four with a toothache,
she tied a bandage around the child’s head. The child
cried with pain. There is no money for dentists,
when your husband loses his job because he’s a Jew.
The child is quiet now, waiting to eat its evening meal
when darkness has fallen.
Such are the markers of meal times
when hunger is day long.

Nat Gutman’s wife is worried,
her world narrows down to a day,
and perhaps the next, and the struggle
to feed a family.
Nat Gutman’s wife’s has lost her name
in the photographer’s memory.
A woman who lives while the photograph lives.

She has a name, Nat Gutman’s wife,
it’s hiding there, just beneath the heavy
lidded eyes and the high cheekbones.
Just beyond the frame.

(Inspired by a photograph in Roman Vishniac’s A Vanished World)

Published in Fidelities XII, October 2005

Wear red, play dead

The invite said: Wear red, play dead,
Put your head in a gilded cage.
Come as your favourite rock star.
Wear black, change your name,
buy a dress made of safety pins.
Come as your favourite Disney character.
Come, even, as yourself.

She stared into the mirror, smoothing her face,
Angling her cheekbones in shades of naked dusk
Her hair curled out of its chignon, along her neck.
Would he be there?
Now, this time, after so long?
Would he recognise her?
Her lace-gloved hands fondled the glass stem of the wineglass.
Gently, she lifted it to her mouth.

The combination of lace, leather, thigh and bottle.
On six-inch heels she grew tall and bold.
As she stepped out of the car, her dress rode up her thighs.
Transformation was complete.
Ahead the lights ribboned across the garden
like snakes of desire,
Twinkling a path to the front garden.
You came! They air-kissed, she and host.

There was the taste of salt and sugar, crisps and wine.
Corks popped, gold foil curled among the trays of party food.
How have you been?
Where have you been?
Had it really been so long?
She drank, she danced, she answered questions and flirted.
The night ticked on. The new year was approaching,
And now she was spinning, flying ....

He found her there – on the soft white carpet, shoes kicked off,
Head under the table. A Mickey Mouse mask grinned next to a shoe.
Streamers draped across the table,
balloons lay plump and purple.
Where have you been?
Where, and not why.
It’s been such a long time.
I’ve missed you.
You’re so beautiful.
What was Nepal like?
Did you find yourself?

He’d found her instead in a suburban house
with an A-frame pitch.
His hand curled around her thigh,
the leather dress crinkled.
They leaned into each other,
she arched her neck against his face, the beard prickling through.
He wrapped his hand against her smooth, flat abdomen.
Again he said: I’ve missed you
They heard the countdown in the distance
a faint sparkle of hope entered the room they stood in.
She leaned into him, whispering now as cheers filled the night.

Published in Cape etc magazine, December 2007/January 2008

Pet shop in Málaga

It’s the kittens in the window
that draw us together, a grandmother with
grandchildren, and me, passing through.
We bend close, she shows the children
the fluffy animals, and we all smile together,
Bonita,” I say, and the woman’s face falls,
just a fraction, it’s barely perceptible,
but now she knows. I’ve opened up my mouth,
revealed I’m an extranjera, a stranger, and she
moves away. I fooled her, perhaps, with my looks,
but the spell is broken,
I have betrayed her trust with my accent and faulty grammar.
She moves away, eyes wary now, and I’m guessing
she doesn’t even know why.

I’m one of them.

She scurries away into the night,
and I, too, move on.

Published in Green Dragon 5, 2007

Foreign ice

Frost covers the grass, the trees, the shed,
the benches in the garden.
It looks like snow.
The pavements are icy.
I crunch along, leaving footprints.
The ice melts slowly, but appears again by morning.
The sky is almost cloudless,
aeroplanes take off, trailing two
white streams as they ascend;
these curve across the sky and fade.

My boots are ten years old.
A decade ago they also walked London’s streets.
But it was different then,
it didn’t seem so blue and sunny.
I was warmer then,
was twenty, a student
in love with being a foreigner.
I was seeing it for the first time,
and nightmares came only at night.
This time the exile seems so cold
and uncomfortable.
London is strange and foreign.

This time I choke on English bread,
and can’t find the foods I am used to.
This time I tread resentfully on
foreign ice, wanting to make my flat vowels
stand out among clipped ones.
This time the weather is cold,
a bright, brittle cold.
This time I have to live here.

Exile’s icy. You will never be English.
You will never be a Londoner
rushing along the pavements at
breakneck speed to catch a train.
You will never share memories of frozen childhoods
with people who spent winters wrapped in parkas,
hands wrapped around mugs of sweet tea.
You don’t know about making snowmen,
or days when school was cancelled
because of raging snowstorms.
Instead you listen incredulously to a woman on TV
complaining that there aren’t enough types of contraceptives available.
But you come from a place where contraception is not always a given,
where bread and butter is exactly that: a meal,
something to avoid starving,
not a debate on TV among sophisticates
who have never been hungry,
and want, instead, a supermarket of contraceptives.

The ironies lie there, in the crunch
of boots, the jarring clash of
haves and have-nots,
slam up against
my amazement at the complaints when
trains are late
(aren’t they grateful they come at all?),
or that the national health system is in tatters
(aren’t they glad to have one?).

In Harrow the shopping district
has been closed off to traffic
and cinnamon pancake smells fill the air.
Familiar shops cluster along paved walkways:
Marks and Spencers, Next,
New Look, Barclays Bank.
We huddle in our jackets
at one with the crowd of shoppers,
people on leave, buying Christmas presents.
At one and yet so separate from these shoppers
with their jobs and accents,
and shared memories of English winters.
We stare from the outside,
spending pounds, handling the Queen’s face.

Harrow becomes a part of us.
I’ll remember it months later,
recreate it in dreams.
So quickly that transition from winter
to summer, only a flight away.
I’ll never be a Londoner,
I realise this as a bus takes us down
an unfamiliar street
on a cold English day.

Published in Isis X, Botsotso Publishing 2003, edited by Alan Kolski Horwitz

Carnival City, Brakpan, South Africa

Waiters in plaid shirts and cowboy hats
take our orders for hamburgers, ketchup, French fries.
At the fish restaurant there’s a queue
twenty minutes deep.
Lights flash, girls dance on the counter of the bar,
faces bared in lascivious grins. Midriffs bare.
A man gyrates on the counter,
a Stetson on his head.
Machines roll through the possibility of numbers,
apples and oranges flash among the digits.
In the smoking zone I watch, glass protected as
gamblers suck urgently on their cigarettes,
desperately clinging to something.
Tapping ash with one hand, eyes mesmerised,
focused on the flashing racing numbers.
A man in sneakers and combed-over hair stands,
bigger than the machines,
dominator of his destiny.
In two weeks time a group I’ve never heard of will
sing Afrikaans songs in the theatre.
And after that, a famous American comedian
will hold the stage.
In the sweet shop I look for liquorice All-sorts
and buy a can of Coke.
Eleven at night, there are more people coming in
than going out.
Electric heaters line the walls outside,
heating up nothing in the chill night.
I remark on this as we turn to look back,
candy-coloured turrets brighten up the black sky,
a candy floss wonderland,
we could be Anywhere, USA.

Published in New Coin 44, number 2, December 2008

Wits in Winter

The sky is as high and blue
as it was all those years ago.
The air is crispy, crunchy clean,
sharp. Campus is quiet,
students sit on the benches I sat on. Read books.
carry the heavy bags as I did. They stroll in groups.
The air is still: stopped. Life here
exists outside of the rush of work
and traffic, it’s an oasis, calmed on the
edges of the city.

Climbing the spiral, outdoor stairs,
I cling to the railing, don’t look down,
slightly full of vertigo,
as before. Memories come back suddenly,
alarmingly. Twists of the past, intertwined with now.
I could be eighteen, nineteen, twenty again, slightly too
plump in black leggings and oversized top.
But, I’m not. A lecturer passes and I’m closer in age
to him that the students surrounding us .

But it’s there, making me catch my breath,
as though there isn’t enough oxygen here.
Caught between then and now, I’m finally time-travelling,
poised on an edge, here, but somehow there too.
aching, pained, unhappy, lonely,
her face young and bare of make-up, too pale for the day that awaits.

Published in New Coin 44, number 2, December 2008

That Night

There were sixteen years between us,
three children, your wife, a whole life.
There were thirty kilos between us, a couple
of hundred thousand rand, not to mention the house.

All day we drove, through Pretoria, and then on
to Sun City to watch a blue movie. The Chinese porn
star had stretch marks on her hips.
And, then, on and on. We ate dinner at a
Mexican restaurant, and you said you’d drop me off
but there was just something you needed to get
from your rented cottage.

The night was like black dye, soaking us up.
You had car magazines in your lounge, and
copies of Getaway magazines by your bed.
You didn’t believe that I could be a virgin,
or that you could be my first.

The next morning stars exploded, the world had
changed, even though you still weren’t my first,
never would be.
I wondered if everyone knew about this secret, this thing.
I felt initiated, finally, even though, as I said,
you weren’t the first.

That night I drove. Three in the morning,
and in fifteen minutes, running stop streets,
I had brought us home.
The journey should have taken half an hour.
Exhilarated, gunning the engine,
flashing through the night.

Yet, years later,
when I’m almost the age you were, then,
all I feel is that sick thing,
that nausea, that slightly ill
bilious feeling, when I think of you,
that night.

Published in New Coin 44, number 2, December 2008