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)