Thursday, December 23, 2010

Review of The Thin Line - Joan Hambidge in Die Burger

The Thin Line is ’n versameling kortverhale wat ’n mens eenvoudig nie kan neersit nie.
Arja Salafranca ondersoek die subtiele verbintenisse tussen mense, soos vroue wat saam koffiedrink, maar mekaar sonder woorde kritiseer, of, met giftige uitinge aanval; eks­geliefdes wat saamreis en in ’n vreemde landskap ontdek die verhouding werk nie meer nie, en sal nooit weer werk nie; ’n “verhouding” tussen twee mense wat liefdeloos is en tog uitloop op ’n desperate seksuele verkenning; ’n vrou wat haar manlike geliefde se eks-meisie seksueel begeer, najaag en ’n slot wat uitloop op ellende; ’n ondersoek na vetsug met ’n jong meisie wat haarself letterlik doodeet as die subteks . . Read more here

Monday, December 6, 2010

Short story short-listed for the Thomas Pringle Award

My short story ' Strangers', published in New Contrast literaty journal in 2009, has been short-listed for the Thomas Pringle Award by the South African English Academy. Read more here

Friday, December 3, 2010

BookEx, Sandton Comvention Centre, Johannesburg, November 2010: Discussion panel on short fiction

Arja Salafranca and Lauren Beukes

David Chislett and Arja Salafranca

David Chislett, Arja Salafranca and Lauren Beukes

From left: David Chislett, Arja Salafranca, Lauren Beukes, David Medalie and Louis Greenberg.

BookEx, Sandton Comvention Centre, Johannesburg, November 2010: Short fiction discussion panel

From left: Arja Salafranca, David Chislett, Lauren Beukes, Louis Greenberg and David Medalie.

Photo: Helen Holyoake.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Nature proves you can step in the same river twice

There's the old saying that you cannot step in the same river twice. It’s credited to Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher who lived from 540 BC to 480 BC and the full quote is: “You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you.”

Meaning, of course, among many other explanations, that you can’t try and retrieve or recover the past – the current has flowed on, there is another sense at play, you are a different person, you cannot grab at the intangible, at what has been and is over.

I thought so, too. Recreated experiences fall flat and yet, I think, after several experiences this year, that you can succeed in nabbing back a bit of the past, and making sense of what has been.

The experience will be different, you look on with older eyes, perhaps less naive, and you must make peace with that. For you can step in the same river twice, and sometimes the experience is ultimately satisfying. I attended a 20-year school reunion earlier this year – and found that while we had all moved on, a different sort of connection was achieved and ultimately cemented.

A few weeks ago, I returned to Utopia. I first went there at the age of eight with a large crowd of adults and children. Set within the mountains of the Magaliesberg, there are more than 100 self-catering, rustic A-frame chalets dotted around the wild nature reserve.

A river runs through it, you can hike the nearby mountains, swim in the pool, play tennis near the clubhouse. The name Utopia is aptly chosen – it’s an idyll. And never more so than for an eight-year-old child running wild, swimming the river that’s flanked by dusty pink and golden rocks.

I’ve never forgotten my time there, through all the years and subsequent travels to other places and other continents, although I did not consciously plan to return.

But a few years ago I was asked to write a short story for an anthology, and the place came back in my imagination. It had been too long – the story didn’t gel, memory really had dimmed the tarnish and the details – but the seed had been born.

I had to go back. Instead I went overseas a handful of times, travelled around the country, and always the memory of Utopia remained, I even Googled it a few times.

But the idea had taken root and one day I was explaining this place called Utopia to a friend, telling her all about it. She interjected – she knew the place well and had been going since a decade before. She had bought one of the units with her husband.

A hushed silence followed this statement. A plan was born.

Weeks later, we made our way to Utopia for a weekend. As soon as we drove through he gates and I looked at those strange, almost eerie looking -frame homes, most constructed of stone mined from the area, and topped with charcoal wigs of hatch, I remembered. Entering her unit, the place simple in its usticity, views of mountain, bush, trees, I remembered.

We scrambled down to the river to swim after lunch, and there was the same road, undulating slabs of rocks, the deeply flowing river, the natural cool of water, darkly inviting. I remembered. I had stepped back in time in some strange way.

I had managed to step in the same river twice.

Yes, it was 30 years later, but memory had sustained me, vague and shimmery as it was. I really had stepped back into the same river twice, and found the same source, the same strength. There are times when you experience nature in ways that you can’t quite describe. Going to Death Valley in the US produced a similar feeling in me: a sense of awe, a sense of homecoming, a stillness, and also a deep longing to return to that place of parched landscape and salt flats.

Similarly, sitting on the rocks at Utopia, taking photographs of the clouds moving across the water, the green reeds shimmering hazily in reflection, I’d stepped back, and yet also forward.

(Published in The Sunday Independent, November 21, 2010)

Elephant back at Camp Jabulani

We’re walking across a plain at night. I’m in a group consisting of 16 elephants and just as many people, visitors as well as elephant handlers. It has just grown dark and we’re ambling at an elephant’s pace through the veld at Kapama Game Reserve, which edges the Kruger National Park.

We’ve just passed a lion sitting majestically in the plain, watching as this procession of grown elephants, baby elephants and humans winds through the bush.

Flashlights illuminate the way, flicking constantly from side to side. Above us the Milky Way comes into view, obscured by the bright, nearly full moon.

There’s a canopy of stars above, almost like a blanket covering us. We move on, beyond the lion, the ground sloping gently upward. Ahead we see a herd of wildebeest, moving through the veld, ignoring us. On elephant-back we’re part of the veld, part of the world of the animals, part of something ancient, timeless and even nameless.

As we move through the night, on the way to the elephants’ stalls, I feel I’m lost in time, as if I’ve gone back thousands of years, before cars and technology, noise and light, rush and movement.

Back to the way humans used to move across the earth, on the backs of animals, on elephant, horses, mules, donkeys, following the slow rhythmic movement of the animals, going as fast as hooves would allow. There’s no rushing the process.

We will arrive when we arrive. It’s a slow procession across the land, walking and silence, almost a meditation. I’m reminded of Robyn Davidson’s excellent travel book Desert Plains, published in the mid-1990s, in which she travelled with the Rabari, a tribe of Indian nomads, riding camels as she had in her bestselling Tracks. Using an ancient form of transport – a slow form that guides and shapes your days in a way that is no longer available to us in everyday life.

Tonight I’m riding the female elephant Tokwe, named, like some of the elephants at Camp Jabulani, after rivers in Zimbabwe. She moves slowly, slower than the bull Mupfuri that I rode last night on a sunset ride.

As we move, I get a sense that she’s tired, somehow. Her baby, the male Limpopo, stays close by, occasionally breaking away to tear at branches to chomp along the way.

In fact, the noise of the elephants, tusks outstretched, reaching out to tear a tasty morsel of tree or branch, along with the quiet clumping along the path and the occasional murmuring of the other elephant riders, are the only sounds that accompany us as we move through the plain.

Arriving at the elephants’ stalls, we dismount, one by one. By riding elephants tonight, we have gone back centuries, we’ve reconnected with something we hadn’t been aware of previously.

We’re each of us moved in different ways. We exclaim excitedly as we dismount, “awesome, amazing, unbelievable” – the quotidian adjectives don’t do the experience justice, but they are all we have.

Once the elephants have been led into their stalls, Ian Crichton, the elephant master, takes us through and explains the differences in their personalities.

Fishun sports a big scar. He was treated by vets using the ramp that we use to mount the elephants. As such he’s developed a phobia about going near the mounts, and cannot be ridden.

“So, he’s just a freeloader, doing his own thing,” jokes Crichton affectionately.

We’re led to Tokwe, the elephant I rode tonight, which, Crichton says, is a type of mother aunt to the other baby elephants, which often cluster around her during the day.

Most heartbreaking is the plight of Kumbura, an orphaned elephant, which has no mother, and when she needs protection, none of the other elephants shelter her as she doesn’t “belong” to them. Instead she takes refuge under the powerful presence of Jabulani, after whom the camp is named. We cluck sympathetically.

Other elephants don’t like being touched and as Crichton leads us outside, I’m struck by the differences in personalities and temperaments between the 17.

Then there’s Joe, absent Joe, who took off one day, deciding that he didn’t want to live in the stalls, and left to join a wild herd. The camp owners have respected his decision.

Camp Jabulani is all about the elephants, and respecting their needs and wishes, explains Crichton. The camp itself, a luxury lodge, is named after one of the elephants, Jabulani, and the herd at the camp were saved from death.

Jabulani was the first to be rescued, in 1997. As a four-month-old, Jabulani arrived at the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre. Dehydrated, he’d been abandoned by his herd and been found stuck in the mud of a silt dam. It took a year for him to recover.

In 2002 the Roode family, who have been involved in conservation since the 1970s, heard about the plight of 12 elephants in Zimbabwe. The owners of the farm in that country were having their land expropriated and the elephants faced death. The Roodes set off for Zimbabwe, returning with the elephants, and amazingly Jabulani was immediately accepted by this new herd.

Camp Jabulani was created with the aim of supporting these elephants and offering the opportunity of interacting with them as well as riding them.

Says Adine Roode, managing director at Camp Jabulani: “Should I have had a choice and if it was easy to release domesticated elephants into the wild, it would have been an option to release these elephants, but unfortunately it was not possible. We were able to save the animals from a gruesome death and at this stage we provide safaris to sustain the operation by giving guests an experience.”

On the safety of the rides, she says: “The time of the day doesn’t really have an effect on the safety aspect for the elephant-back safaris. I’m more of the opinion that the experience of the handlers is of paramount importance.”

The handlers came with the elephants from Zimbabwe and have 30-plus years of experience. Each elephant has its own personality and the handlers have to interpret their moods.

“Elephants have a lot of similarities to humans and their emotions must be respected and understood by us. The amount of time the handlers spend with the elephants is vital as this creates a bond and trust between the two,” says Roode.

“Our senior grooms are on th e ground overseeing proceedings and have a wonderful relationship with the elephants. We would not be able to continue such an operation without these handlers.”

We leave the elephants in their stalls for the night, heading back to the lodge for supper. Although it has been a full day, we remain energised, the remarkable stories of the elephants, of their distinct differences, their rescue and the creation of a camp remain with us as we sit down for dinner.

This will be our last interaction with the elephants before we go home the following morning.

An equally remarkable sunset elephant-back ride had been our introduction to the rides, starting in the golden light of late afternoon the previous day.

We also pay a visit to the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre where Jabulani had first been brought as a dehydrated baby. The centre, in Hoedspruit, rehabilitates and cares for injured and orphaned animals and is dedicated to the survival of rare and endangered species, especially the cheetah.

On arrival we watch a DVD which explains the work of the centre.

At the curio shop I buy a paw print cr eated by a playful cub. A drive around the centre introduces us to wild dogs yipping excitedly for their food, allows us to stroke an ambassador cheetah and park expectantly in front of the “vulture restaurant”, where a rotting smell of old meat and bones comes from the pit. This is a concrete rectangle filled with old as well as new bones, a veritable orgy of death.

The vultures gather, the student volunteers drive up and tip kilos of meat in and the vultures roar in, a spectacular, swirling mass of feathers in browns, greys, beiges, a whirlpool of birds feasting.

On the last morning before going back to Joburg – a five-hour drive – we opt for a quick, lateish game drive.

Our last, spectacular sighting is of a leopard perched high in a tree, camouflaged by the golden yellow colours of the leaves. It is a rare, elusive, a prize sighting.

Next to our game-drive vehicle, a large lion lies sleeping in the sun. Our ranger surmises that the lion would have chased the far smaller leopard up the tree as both big cats compete for food, resources and, ultimately, territory. It may be a long wait before the leopard can come down.

The sun climbs high in the sky, it gets hotter, and we take off in a roar of petrol, noise, urgency and haste.

We drive off but the ending to this story hasn’t yet been told, it’s still somewhere out there in the future, unknown.

(Published in The Sunday Independent, November 21)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

At the launch of Ingrid Andersen's Peace Work and Phillippa Yaa de Villiers' The Everyday Wife at Love Books, Melville

Eyes wide open: Gay in Jerusalem

Sset within the cloistered community of an Orthodox Jewish world in Jerusalem, Eyes Wide Open is a quietly tragic film about the devastating effect of homosexuality on the lives of its two Jewish protagonists.

Aaron Fleishman (Zohar Shtrauss) takes over the family kosher butchery after his father dies. A married father of four, he’s a sombre, silent man who spends his mostly solitary days in the grim-looking shop. It’s a grimy place, washed over in cold fluorescent light which throws an unforgiving glow over all.

Life changes irrevocably when a young Yeshiva student, Ezri (Ran Danker), enters the butchery and becomes his assistant. The two are immediately drawn towards each other – and the concept and its consequences is a frightening one, especially for Aaron, who is married and a pillar of his community.

Ezri, it could be said, is just passing through. There will be consequences for him too, but they are lesser, he can move on.

Love plays itself out in this cold, harsh-looking shop, taking place in a room above with its sagging bed and peeling ceiling, or in the depths of the vast fridge below. With dead meat hanging from hooks in the ceiling, you can just about smell the decay of the carcasses and it’s not hard to make the leap to the metaphor filmmaker Haim Tabakman implies in this film.

There’s stagnation and death, and seemingly no solution, or proper outlet, for the love the two men feel for each other.

In an interview, Tabakman has commented that “religious people do not consider homosexuality a sin, it just does not exist. So how can you deal with it if somewhere it is written that it does not exist? To them, it’s just an evil urge. Being homosexual is like a disease that you can easily get rid of. It cannot be part of a human being’s essence.”

Eyes Wide Open takes us into the very heart of the Orthodox community, a world of conformity and compromise. From the butchery, to the small narrow streets of old Jerusalem, to the stifling confines of a flat that is too small to contain the family and this momentous series of events.

We watch as Aaron and his wife Rivka (Tinkerbel) eat a plain supper together, the children in bed, the silence lying in shafts between them. It’s clear that Rivka knows only too well what’s taking place between the two men.

When Aaron and Ezri go off to a small dam, finally away from prying eyes, swimming together, there’s a sense of a breath of fresh air, of freedom, albeit fettered and brief. While the butchery is an unforgiving cold place, the dam is bathed in a stark, azure beauty.

Secrets will out in this small, tightly-knit world, and the community is outraged. Things cannot continue as they are. Aaron and his lover Ezri will be forced to choose.

Watching the choices being made is harrowing – the film keeps you on a knife’s edge and is a gripping piece of narration. This is a bold, compelling film which casts a hard, judgmental light on the world of orthodox Jews, and its truths make for unsettling viewing.

(Published in The Sunday Independent, Novemver 14 2010)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Writing in pictures brings daily life into crisp focus - Tanya Farber

Local award-winning writer Arja Salafranca has been brewing a collection of short stories over the years, and recently it came together in its collected form as The Thin Line. Luckily for the reader, not an ounce of pretentiousness got thrown into the pot along the way, and the result is a subtle yet gently haunting literary experience.

Salafranca's style in this collection is best described as cinematic. Each story plays out like a camera lingering on minutiae which, brought together, tell the reader a great deal about the characters and situations which form the subject matter.

"The earliest story was written when I was 18," she says, "and though I have written and published a number of short stories since then, there has been a lot of culling and pruning of my material."

The most striking - and refreshing - aspect of this collection is that it bears no trace of the albatross that many South African writers find tethered to their neck: the burden of our past, the issue of "representation", and the pitfalls of stereotyping and political correctness.

Salafranca casts all that aside in favour of an unashamed microcosmos of experiences. There is no attempt to be "definitively" South African.

"As a short story writer, I don't have a responsibility to show how awful society is or can be," she says. "But if someone changes how they think for having read it, then that is simply the beauty of writing."

She says local writers should never tell themselves that they need to send out a message. The mission, instead, is to move someone.

"If politics or a comment on society or the law comes into my stories, it is by the way," she explains.

And that is precisely why the collection makes for such thought-provoking reading: one is able to delve into the subtle detail of atmosphere, character and feeling without being bashed over the head with didactics.

Even in a story such as "A Car is a Weapon", Salafranca deals with the issue of fake drivers' licences, but at the heart of the story is the characters and the moral dilemmas that are thrown up, and Salafranca avoids lacing the text with her own opinion on the issue.

In terms of the process of her writing, she is often inspired by a photograph or an image in her mind. From there, the story develops a life of its own.

"When I start writing a story, I have an image in my mind. I usually know how it's going to end, but not how I'm going to get there."

Judging from the nature of each story, it appears that that image in her mind is usually the main character in clear focus, with a blurred background which slowly comes into sharp focus itself as the plot moves forward.

"The characters come through the story but it's not a conscious thing," she says.

In A Man Sits in a Johannesburg Park, for example, the story opens with a cinematic description of a man and his dog: "A man sits in a Johannesburg park on a late summer's afternoon. He releases the lead attached to his spaniel's collar and she bounds off to sniff trees and play near the river, perhaps the dog will even go for a swim again."

From here, the story gently rolls open to reveal a dilemma about emigration, and as this happens, the image of the man on the park bench acquires more meaning.This story, as well as the others, depict what Salafranca describes as the way in which we experience other people in our daily lives.

"You arrive in someone's daily life as you meet them for coffee, for example," she says, "and then after an hour or two you are apart and encountering someone else. You don't first come across their background information. You meet them during a slice of your life and it is a slice of their life too."

In terms of the publishing process, she says it is challenging for an unknown writer to get a collection of short stories published as there is "an assumption that you should get your novel out first".

But, she says, when booksellers say that short stories do not sell, the downfall is in the marketing.

"We have to throw short stories at the public the way we threw South African literature at the public a short while back. We were shown how great it was to read about ourselves."

She says she has heard it takes most people approximately three weeks to finish a book.

"Why not spend those three weeks with a short story book?" she asks, adding that in our busy lives, there is the advantage of dipping in and out of different stories.

If you agree with that philosophy, or are tempted to do so, The Thin Line is an essential read.

Published in The Star and Pretoria News, October 28 2010.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

At Hoedspruit with cheetah

Venise Germanos and Arja Salafranca, September 2010, Hoedspruit

At Hoedspruit riding an elephant

Memories of the way we were . . .

Arja Salafranca spoke (via e-mail) to local author Damon Galgut about his latest novel In a Strange Room which was shortlisted for the MAN Booker prize, and she takes a closer look at the author and his writing

A man goes on a journey in these three inter-linked novellas set across time. The man’s name is Damon. He observes, meets another, grows older, is touched and changed by the experiences. He watches the world, the world in turn watches him. Yet, who is Damon? On first being introduced to the narrator and also participant of these three pieces, there’s a jolt. Damon the author, the centre point of the stories? The author isn’t going to say.

What Damon Galgut is doing in this book amounts to play. Between the layers of seriousness, there’s an artful play at work. Galgut is asking questions, challenging our preconceived notions of fiction. It’s a book which keeps you, as reader, perennially on your toes, and yet supremely interested, too, in the events that are unfolding within these sparsely, almost dryly written pages.

This is a story of memory, according to Galgut, but this is also an examination of the nature of travel – and how we change and evolve as we leave what’s familiar for the unfamiliar, even if, like Damon, we are not natural travellers. “The truth is that he is not a traveller by nature, it is a state that has been forced on him by circumstance. He spends most of his time on the move in a state of acute anxiety… he’s constantly afraid of dying.”

Galgut summons up the story of a journey: “A large part of travelling consists purely in waiting, with all the attendant ennui and depression. Memories come back of other places he has written in, departure halls of airports, bus-stations, lonely kerbsides in the heat and in all of them there is an identical strain of melancholy summed up in a few transitory details. A paper bag blowing in the wind. The mark of a dirty shoe on a tile…”

What follows is a short description of plot, because plot is not central to this series of novellas. In the first novella, The Follower, Damon meets a man, Reiner, while travelling in Greece. When Reiner visits him in South Africa the two undertake a disastrous journey to the isolated mountain kingdom of Lesotho. It’s made disastrous by Damon’s passivity, and a sense of threat emanating from Reiner.

In the second novella, The Lover, the same passivity follows Damon as he travels through Africa years after his journey through Greece. While in Zimbabwe he meets a group of European travellers, and keeps meeting up with them, despite trying to go his own way. One of the travellers, Jerome, exerts a strange pull and Damon will travel to Switzerland, but the end is concluded, again, by Damon’s nature.

However, in The Guardian, Damon is propelled into action in turn by the wild actions of his friend Anna. They have travelled to India together, in some sort of hope that the wildly unstable Anna will be calmed and soothed by being away. It reads like a high-action thriller as Damon’s passivity is thrown off. This was a deeply compelling piece, made unbearably poignant by what happens to Anna and Damon.

The writing is tight and spare; landscape forms a backbone to all three stories, suggested rather than painted in primary colours. The real surprise is when Galgut chooses to invert the traditional method of telling a story, first person morphs into third and back again. At first, you’re jolted by the device, then it becomes part of the telling, and is a surprisingly effective device and not at all disruptive to the reading. Here’s an example: “What is he looking for, he
himself doesn’t know. At this remove, his thoughts are lost to me now, and yet I can explain him better than my present self, he is buried under my skin.”

Intrigued by this device, I ask Galgut what he means by it. He writes in an e-interview from Italy: “The real subject of this book is memory. In the writing, I have tried to capture something of the quality of the way memory works. That’s the reason for the switch – in memory one is sometimes an ‘I’,back in the moment being recalled; then at other times a ‘he’ or ‘she’, a stranger observed from outside. And sometimes also a ‘you’, somebody one can address over the intervening time. It sounds cumbersome, but I hope it reads effortlessly, because it’s something we all do unconsciously in our heads the whole time. Of course, memory is another sort of story we tell ourselves, which is why the book is written as fiction.”

We’re on to the territory between fact and fiction here. I’m going to ask the inevitable question of the line between autobiography and fiction in a writer’s work.

I recall the lines in the second novella, The Lover, when Damon is recalling the Swiss Jerome: “…Because in every story of obsession there is only one character, only one plot. I am writing about myself alone, it’s all I know and for this reason I have always failed in every love, which is to say at the very heart of my life.”

Galgut answers: “All writers are drawing on their own lives to some extent, though, of course, some experiences sit closer to home than others, as I hope this book makes clear. I think the borders between fiction and nonfiction, imagination and ‘truth’, are extremely porous. Sometimes there’s no distinction at all.”

The line dissolves: in the second novella, Galgut writes that, “a journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it’s made… things happen once only and are never repeated, never return. Except in memory.”

And memory remains – through all its twists and turns, what is remembered one way one day is remembered a completely different way in another light, or in another emotion. Galgut’s In a Strange Room offers a remarkable encounter with memory and meaning of travel and the games we unwittingly play as we attempt to make sense of the knotted strands of our journeys, both external and deep into our own selves.

(Published in The Star, October 14 2010)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The fire in which we burn is now available as a free ebook

My second collection of poems, The fire in which we burn, published by Dye Hard Press in 2000 and now out of print, is available as a free ebook here

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Writers Talk Short Fiction with Ben Williams at the Cape Town Book Fair

Ben Williams, editor of BOOK SA, led a panel discussion at the Cape Town Book Fair about the reading and writing of short stories between local authors and BOOK SA members Henrietta Rose-Innes (Homing), Arja Salafranca (The Thin Line), Sarah Lotz and Meg Vandermerwe (This Place I Call Home). Noticeably absent from the panel was Louis Greenberg, editor of the collection Home Away, who was unable to attend this year’s fair...Read more here

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Best American Travel Writing Series: a review

Take one short story writer and teacher of creative writing and show him Dubai. Send him on assignment for GQ magazine, send him on a ubiquitous press trip, and the result is George Saunders' wonderful piece: "The New Mecca". Published in the 2006 issue of The Best American Travel Writing Series, the volume edited by travel writer Tim Cahill, this piece alone makes the price of the book worthwhile and is just one of the reasons I love this series....Read more here

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Big Book Chain Chat #9: Short stories

In 2008 I researched and wrote an article on the genre of the short story for The Star. I opened with the opinion that “short stories are commonly called the Cinderellas of the literary world. Publishers complain that readers don’t buy short story collections, and so publish few volumes, then bookstores don’t stock them in great quantities. All around it seems to be a Catch-22 situation. But, are things changing? After years of drought, in which you found just a few local volumes published, whether of anthologies or of collections by single authors, 2008 has seen what some are referring to as a renaissance of the genre in South Africa.” I then reviewed four collections of stories that had recently been released, including Liesl Jobson’s flash fiction collection 100 Papers and Zoe Wicomb’s The One that Got Away... Read more here

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Women’s Words: African Worlds, a Promising “Think-fest” for Those Who Knew About It - Liesl Jobson

The “Women’s Words: African Worlds” think-fest was a sensational idea, one with the potential to be a real opportunity for women writers from South Africa, Africa and the Diaspora in this, the African Union’s recently declared Decade of Women.

The sub-title, “renewing a dialogue between African women writers and women of African descent”, was bolstered by a line-up of substantial talent: elders Miriam Tlali and Lauretta Ngcobo, leading activists Elinor Sisulu and Zubeida Jaffer, academic Veronique Tadjo, as well as journalists, Maureen Isaacson, Gail Smith, Nokuthula Mazibuko and Arja Salafranca, and BOOK SA regulars Zukiswa Wanner and Henrietta Rose-Innes. These were coupled with a stellar guest-list of writers from abroad that included 2010 Commonwealth Writers Prize winner Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani. It promised to be a propitious space for the vital reconnection and reclamation of women’s voices on the more here

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Do we still need a Women's Day in 2010?

Why do women have a special day? This is the disgruntled question I’ve heard through the years.The usual retort is that men have 364 days – why not have one day for women?

But, I wonder if we still need a Women’s Day in 2010? Do women’s issues then conveniently get set aside because we’ve already celebrated and discussed women’s issues, so let’s now move on?

My women’s month started when I read poetry with a group of other women at the Jozi Book Fair on August 9.Women of all persuasions stepped upto the forum to declaim on a range of issues – from being single to hymns to grandmothers. I then found myself as part of the celebrations for the launch of a book by women writers only. Asked why there was a need for women-only publishers, I suggested that if men felt the need, why not put together a book of stories by men on the same topic?

But the point remains that men are perhaps starting to feel excluded.We may argue that women have just one day a year, but men’s issues – and they too deserve serious consideration – aren’t often on the agenda either. At the writers’symposium hosted by the Department of Arts and Culture, I was on a panel with the novelist Adaobi Nwaubani. She brought upthe point that women novelists were experiencing aflowering and being published, but was there not a danger of excluding men, or of men feeling excluded?Such a comment might provoke howls of outrage from women – and some men. But are we shooting ourselves in the foot with Women’s Day? Surely weshould place women’s issues firmly on the agenda,whatever the month, whatever the day?

I write, and live, from a position of relative privilege– although the finances of a single mother precluded me from private school, I still attended a government school that was highly regarded. I’vemoved through my working life without encountering a barage of sexism, although I’ve certainly brushedagainst sexist practices.

I’m lucky in that I entered the workforce in 1994,the year of democracy and change.When I started my first job as a community reporter, the editor was male, smoking was allowed and it was only the women reporters who wrote on the Womens League.When I left a few years later the editor was female, smoking had been relegated to the balconyand we all attended Womens’League meetings.

I have always felt myself to be valued by everyone with whom I have worked. Perhaps the tide has turned and we are now blessed to be working with men who have been enlightened by the fires feminism ignited.And my feeling is that we need to recognise this within men themselves. Although I welcome the attention afforded women during thismonth, I also lament that since we have a month to ourselves, so to speak, we don’t yet have the year.

(Published in The Sunday Independent, August 29)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

African women writers 'renewing dialogue in own words'

by Edward Tsumele

Leading writers from South Africa, the rest of the continent and the diaspora are meeting at a women's symposium, called Women's Voices Unite, in Johannesburg tomorrow.

The symposium, sponsored by the Department of Arts and Culture, will be opened by Arts and Culture Minister Lulu Xingwana.

Some of the writers who have confirmed their participation include the award-winning jazz poet Jayne Cortez, Lola Soyinka - poet and novelist (married to novelist and literary critic Wole Soyinka's son ), another Nigerian writer, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, and Tsitsi Dangarebga from Zimbabwe.

They will share the stage with South African writers who include Miriam Tlali, Fiona Lloyd, Margaret Busby Obe, Lauretta Ngcobo, Henrietta Rose-Innes, Karabo Kgomotso Kgoleng, Luli Callinicos, Arja Salafranca and Masechaba Moshoeshoe.

The theme of the symposium is "Women's words: African worlds: Renewing a dialogue between African women writers and women of African descent".

It is hosted by the department in association with the Windybrow Theatre now also known as the Pan-African Centre for the Arts.

Lisa Combrinck, spokesperson for the department, says that this "think-fest is an African indaba" that will bring together women from South Africa with their sisters from the wider continent.

Some writers come from Ivory Coast, Algeria, Nigeria, and the African diaspora.

She said they hoped to strengthen women's voices through networks.

They will also prepare for the 2010-2020 African Decade for Women, initiated by the African Union.

"Theatre and poetry will also feature prominently in the programme. This is because with writing, debating and singing, in addition to our daily chores, we become fully women," Combrinck said.

Published in The Sowetan, August 24, 2010

Reading at the Jozi WordJam, August 2010

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Reading at the 2010 Jozi Book Fair

At the Johannesburg launch of the Bed Book of Short Stories at Love Books, Melville

At the Johannesburg launch of Modjaji Book's The Bed Book of Short Stories at Love Books in Melville, chatting to Hamilton Wende 

Rita Britz, Arja Salafranca, unknown, Jayne Bauling, Lauri Kubuitsile, Isabella Morris

Arja Salafranca, Isabella Morris and Lauri Kubuitsile

Isabella Morris, Jayne Bauling (with microphone), Arja Salafranca

Sunday, August 1, 2010

At the Cape Town Book Fair 2010

Asking a question at a discussion on South African chick-lit at the 2010 Cape Town Book Fair.
Photo: Maire Fisher

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Interview with Arja Salafranca at The Dye Hard Interviews

Dye Hard: Short fiction has been referred to as a sort of poor relation of the novel. What are your thoughts on that, and why do you prefer short fiction over the novel?

Arja Salafranca: I think short fiction is certainly the “poor relation” to the novel, but only in the way it is perceived by the majority of publishers, readers and booksellers. The majority, not all, otherwise we would have no collections by single authors out there at all! It’s been all a bit of a catch 22 – with stories not selling in significant volumes, publishers seem to have cut back on publishing collections by single authors in the last ten, fifteen years...Read more here

Friday, July 16, 2010

Arja Salafranca wins prestigious DALRO award for poetry

The prestigious Dalro (Drama and Lyrics Rights Organisation) Award for 2009 has gone to Arja Salafranca for her poem 'Steak' in the literary journal New Coin. Read more here


There’s a perfection in the sharp knife,
handle thick and satifying to hold.
It eases through the meat, parting it
like the Red Sea.
A thin trail of red juice eases out,
I spear the soft buttery steak
with a mushroom, add a half-moon of avocado,
a quartered tomato.
The food shatters in my mouth.

There’s something about summer nights,
the kind of nights that follow days
in a city that reeks of boiled bodies
crisping under the sun’s glare.
There’s something: the lack of breeze,
the water in the pool. gleaming bluely,
the soft murmur of traffic.

It’s an island, an oasis, the lawn jewelled green.
Candles illuminate our faces
the silver, the sparkling cutlery,
the sheer perfection of knife, fork, crystal glass,
steak, salad, speared food, shattered tastes.
At the bottom of a garden,
in the heart of Johannesburg.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Invite to the first Jozi WordJam - Friday 23rd July

Featuring four poets
& open mic

Join us every 3rd Friday for an evening of great food and wine and the spoken word.

Friday 23rd July - 7pm (R20 cover charge)

Gail Dendy was first published by Harold Pinter in 1993, and her six collections of poetry have appeared variously in SA, the UK and USA. She is an internationally trained dancer, and helped pioneer Contemporary Dance in SA between the late 1970s and the early ‘90s. Other passions are environmental- and animal-rights issues. She lives in Johannesburg together with family, pets, a law library, and a huge collection of Rock ’n Roll.

Marcia Nonkululeko Tladi is a writer of poetry and prose. Her poetry is collected in Timbila journal and in Words Gone Two Soon (Umgangato), a tribute to K. Sello Duiker and PhaswanevMpe. Marcia is a contributing member of the Miriam Tlali Book & Reading Club, a brainchild of Write Associates where she helps to run the Children’s Club. She has also worked with the Johannesburg Library and Information Services, adjudicating in their writing and poetry competitions.

Khulile Nxumalo was born in Diepkloof, Soweto, in 1971. He lives in Johannesburg and pays the rent by working in television as a writer, researcher and director. His poems have been published in South Africa, Canada, the UK and US. His first collection, Ten flapping elbows, mama, was published by Deep South in 2004. He is working on two manuscripts of poetry.

Alan Finlay founded and edited the literary publications Bleksem (1994) and donga (with Paul Wessels, 2000), and also edited New Coin poetry journal (ISEA) for four years from Dec. 2003 - Dec. 2007. In 2003 he co-edited glass jars among trees (Jacana) with Arja Salafranca. His poems have appeared in various journals locally and abroad, and short selections of his poetry have been published by Dye Hard Press (1994, 2002), Botsotso (1998), and online at Southern Rain Poetry (2009). A new collection of his poems is due out by Dye Hard Press in 2010.

Contact 011 615 7531 – The Bell Pepper, 176 Queen Street – Kensington

See link below for map

To take part in future readings and a series of planned literary salons in the coming months please mail Gillian or Arja at

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Review of Speaking for the Generations: an anthology of contemporary African short stories

Edited by Dike Okoro, this anthology aims to represent the best of contemporary African short stories written in English. Familiar names such as Benjamin Kwakye, Tijan Sallah, Zahra Ramij, Freddy Macha, Arja Salafranca, Odun Balogun, Tanure Ojaide, Jackee Budesta Batanda, Lola Shoneyin, Mohamed Said Raihani and Omar Akikli are more here

My short story 'A car is a weapon' is published in Speaking for the Generations. It is also published in my debut collection of short fiction, The Thin Line.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Bed Book of Short Stories - a review by Janet van Eeden

A review of The Bed Book of Short Stories, edited by Joanne Hichens and recently published by Modjaji Books, containing my story 'Desire, with Borders', can be found here.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Kate Turkington on The Thin Line

Arja Salafranca is one of South Africa’s best up-and-coming young writers. She has twice won the Sanlam Literary Award, and her new book of short stories The Thin Line (Modjaji Books) will further enhance her growing reputation. 'Ten Minutes to Hate' tells of an armed robbery in a packed theatre, and its effect, emotionally and psychologically, on two of the people involved. 'Collage' is the story of a possessive love so fierce, that only death can resolve it. Searingly honest, sometimes painfully so, for both writer and reader, these stories will pop up in your head to haunt you long after you’ve turned the last page.

(Published here)

All about short stories - Colleen Higgs

Last Thursday saw Arja Salafranca’s new collection of short stories The Thin Line launched along with Meg Vandermerwe’s collection, This place I call home. The vibey launch party took place at The Boekehuis in Jozi, hosted by Corina van der Spoel. It was also Modjaji’s first Jozi launch party. Joburg was pretty wild that night, with at least two other launches taking place, hectic traffic, road works, but nevertheless we drew a good crowd. Sue Grant-Marshall interviewed the two writers in a lively, engaging way, and we sold lots of books...Read more here

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Review of The Thin Line and interview with Arja Salafranca by Janet van Eeden

Arja Salafranca has written an eclectic collection of short stories which dwell on the intimate nature of human relationships. The frail strand of connections, the thin line, as Salafranca calls it, between human beings is examined by her searingly honest exploration of human motivations. Whether characters are aware of their own agendas or not, the author delves into their psyche with relentless perspicacity...Read more here

Thursday, May 13, 2010

From recycling to royalty,London has me rather foxed

Last week I was shopping for food at 10 at night. With only one teller available at Tesco, and two self-service machines available, I nervously approached them and did what I had seen others do ahead of me.

Scanning my own groceries – who would have thought! I did have a minor moment of, “Now what?” when I got to the vegetables and fruit – after all they have no barcodes – but there was a friendly, if rather harassed employee, on hand to help me.

I packed my groceries into the hemp-like bag my cousin had provided me with and made my way home in the dark.

Lager louts crowded the narrow streets of Richmond, slouching in low slung jeans, women with bare arms tottered in heels; music blared from a pub and I wrapped my coat firmly around me.

I came home to Johannesburg: rubbish piled high outside my complex, potholes which I instinctively avoided, and the talk on the radio was all about the power outages affecting the city of Johannesburg. This came as winter had arrived with a vengeance, freezing temperatures and unseasonable rain.

I was exhausted and couldn’t understand why.

After all, they do speak English in London, and having watched British TV and movies, read novels set in that country you generally think you’re au fait with the norms and customs in that culture. But as a friend pointed out soon after my arrival, “No wonder you’re tired, London’s another world entirely.”

And it is. This was my third visit – and each time I spend time there I feel as if I am only peering through a tiny window, barely scratching at the surface of this vast city.

Each visit means a reacquaintance with the Underground, of course, it’s all a bit of a maze at first with west-bound and east-bound trains causing a small headache until it’s the last day and suddenly you know what you’re doing and you’re racing along like the Londoners, crystal sure of your direction and in just as much of a hurry to get there as everyone else.

And yet, it’s deceptive, this feeling, as though you know your way around or that you know the city. Take the language. They may speak English, you may speak English, but the way you talk is sometimes cause for amusement.

My Swedish cousin made her home there six years ago and is fully bilingual; bilingual enough to comment that both I, and other South Africans she has met, seem to talk a sort of antique version of the language.

We’re not just talking about stoves versus cookers here either. And although I never quite said the words “blooming marvellous” she almost expected me to come up those quaint words. In any case, when I used the word “foxed” all at the dinner table burst out in embarrassed laughter. Never quite got that.

I was foxed in other ways too. While we South Africans know all about recycling – for most of us it’s a rather academic understanding, sadly – but in the UK they have it down pat.

Getting my head around four places to put the rubbish – from paper to tin to vegetable and other organic-like matter to a plain old dustbin – was another learning curve.

I more or less got it right, but even so a banana peel sometimes landed up being flung in the wrong bin. I assuaged my shame by buying not only free-range eggs but also made sure they were organic. See, some things do rub off.

There were other out-of-this-world experiences, of course. Rowing on the River Thames, enjoying those long golden dusks, and finding the greens and the banks of the river filled to bursting with Brits catching the first rays of the season’s sun. They seemed to exhale happiness as they sat basking there.

And then, queuing, yes, queuing politely at the bar for drinks.

I had always thought the British sense of fair play and politeness was somewhat exaggerated, but no, it lives on, although I did feel a little restless and a desire to be pushy as politeness meant a wait of 10 or so minutes just to be served.

And then, on my last day, the sky as blue as a cliche, we went to Windsor Castle. Planes roared over every few minutes – the cloud of ash had at last dissipated and I realised how noisy the skies of London could be. Windsor Castle has been inhabited since the 11th century.We walked among history, marvelled, yes, marvelled at China plates displayed behind glass and Queen Mary’s massive room-sized doll’s house.

And then, leaving, we noticed groups of expectant people, smiles hovering around their faces, massed behind a rope, waiting. Prince Charles was leaving the castle – a small part of it is open to the public, otherwise today’s Royal Family still lives there now and again. I caught a glimpse of a grey head as he ducked into the interior of the car, enough of a glimpse to say that I had hobnobbed with royalty.

Indeed, another world.

(Published in The Sunday Independent, May 2, 2010)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Creative non-fiction: a new approach to journalism

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

“One time,” Juliette Lewis says, “I wanted to get to know someone better by writing down questions to him…”
She says, “The questions are more telling about me than anything I could write in a diary.”
She’s holding a handwritten list she’s just found and reads:“Did you ever stab someone or cut them intentionally with a sharp object?”
She reads: “Do you like asparagus?”
She reads: “Do you have a middle name?”
“Do cats frustrate you as pets, or do you admire their independence?”
Over the past twenty-four hours, she’s talked about her family, her father (Geoffrey Lewis), her career, the Scientology thing, getting married and writing songs. The songs are important because after years of being scripted, these are her words now.

Whenever people ask me what creative non-fiction, or creative journalism is, I point them to this essay. In 10 pages Palahniuk gets under the skin of Lewis, and whether or not you’re interested in the actress, and I wasn’t and am not, you keep on reading. There’s an immediacy to this piece achieved by the use of present tense throughout. Palahniuk talks to Lewis’s mother, follows her as she grinds coffee beans, and is there when the VCR breaks down. Throughout Palahniuk sprinkles the narrative with Lewis’s handwritten notes: “What’s the first image you have of the female body?” and “Do you look more like your father or your mother?” and “Did you ever fall in love with an animal in a way where you wished you could talk like human friends?”

Lewis is right: these questions reveal as much about her own preoccupations, concerns and interests as they would about anyone else. Palahniuk is playing interviewer, but so is Lewis. And you get a picture of this woman who is living in a rented house in Hollywood Hills, stark modern and yet filled with antique furniture. Juliette Lewis is alive in this piece – Palahniuk gained an unusual access to her life, an access that is rarely granted to most journalists. But he’s used it well: he hasn’t written a standard profile – he glosses over the “Scientology thing” as though it doesn’t matter, and only later driving past the Scientology Centre does he describe why she is into the religion. A regular, magazine or newspaper profile would have, I believe, leaped right into the Scientology thing, that’s the sensational part, “our readers would be interested in that aspect,” you can hear an editor saying. Imagine the coverline on a glossy mag: “Lewis says Scientology keeps her sane.” Would you want to buy it?

And yet, narrative journalism, creative non-fiction, call it what you will – it has a lot of names – is about much more than sensationalism. It’s about getting to the heart of a matter, or a person; it’s about using fiction techniques to tell a non-fiction story, it’s about making a piece of writing sing and spark, it’s about using words in a way that few writers of non-fiction dare to. In part that’s because it’s not expected of them. In South Africa, particularly, we have such a limited, unadventurous sense of journalism and reportage that creative non-fiction feels like a breath of fresh air. In the US you can subscribe to a journal called Creative Non-fiction, where all these techniques are used to astounding effect.

In an anthology called In Fact: The Best of Creative Non-fiction, I read ‘Finder’s Keepers: The Story of Joey Coyle’ by Mark Bowden. In 30 pages of writing the pace doesn’t flag once. You could be reading a gripping crime story. This excellent piece reads like fiction because Bowden uses direct speech, lively description, and rounded character observation. See for yourself.Here’s an extract:

Day One
Coming down made Joey Coyle feel desperate and confused. When he was high the drugfilled his chest and head with gusts of power so great he could barely breathe or think fast enough. This was how Joey spent his nights. When he slept it was during the day.

You don’t get more immediate than that. You’re inside Joey’s head now, 28-year-old Joey, working on the docks in Philadelphia in 1981 and still living in his mom’s house. The story is about Joey and two friends who find $1.2 million that had fallen out of a truck. They try to get away with keeping the money, even though they were spotted taking it. The story follows Joey’s increasing unease and obsession with trying to find a safe place to stash the money. Writer Bowden is right there, we’re there, in Philadelphia with the cops cruising the streets, looking for the make of car Joey and friends were driving, watching as Joey hides the money in first one place then another. In the notes which follow this piece, Bowden writes: “Scenes, dialogue, characters, plot, foreshadowing, metaphor, interior monologue … you name it, I use every technique I’ve ever read and admired.”

There are all sorts of narrative journalism, you can just as easily describe a Jewish divorce ceremony as the process of being shunned by your community or describe a misdiagnosis of cancer. These are all personal essays also found in this anthology and all take a different approach to telling their stories. Yet each is gripping. We’re not talking static essays here, such as the type most of us remember being forced to write at school, the type many of us run away from reading. “Essays are boring” seems to be the implicit assumption, and yes, they can be and sometimes are. But that’s only because the writer hasn’t gone to enough trouble, hasn’t taken delight in the language, hasn’t played with the process of writing and has simply stated facts in old boring ways. It doesn’t have to be like that.

The writers here know it, US novelist Barbara Kingsolver knows it, South African writer Don Pinnock knows it.

In her 1995 book High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never Kingsolver weaves the personal with more wide-ranging subjects. She uses humour and colloquial language to talk about some serious stuff; you never feel you have to wade through this because it’s really worthy and you really should be reading something other than all those escapist novels. She has a child (she’s since had another), and this child peppers many of her essays. “Civil Disobedience at Breakfast” begins with a description of their lives together:

I have a child who was born with the gift of focus, inclined to excel at whatever she earnestly pursues. Soon after her second birthday she turned to the earnest pursuit of languor, and shot straight through to the ranks to world-class dawdler. I thought it would be my death.

Like any working stiff of a mother keeping the family presentable and solvent, I lived in a flat-out rush. My daughter lived on Zen time. These doctrines cannot find peace under one roof.

But this isn’t a personal essay about life with a daughter on Zen time; it’s more wide- ranging than that. This is an essay about raising children, about giving them independence (or not), about reliving your own childhood as a parent, about the effect of parents’ behaviour on their own children, about the pull between wanting to be creative and having to watch another theatrical performance where the monster is tied up with Day-Glo shoelaces and pantyhose.

Kingsolver writes about nature, the Dewey decimal system, about divorce in a personal sense as well as a more abstract one travelling, and living in another country, the Spanish islands, the Canary Islands.

How’s this for the opening of a travel piece from ‘Somebody’s Baby’:

As I walked out of the street entrance to my newly rented apartment, a guy in maroon high-tops and a skateboard haircut approached me, making kissing noises and saying, “Hi gorgeous”. Three weeks earlier I would have assess the degree of malice and made ready to run or tell him to bug off, depending. But, now, instead, I smiled, and so did my four-year-old daughter, because after dozens of similar encounters I understood he didn’t mean me but her.
This was not the United States.

And then there’s Don Pinnock, associate editor at Getaway magazine, which means he gets to go lots of places and send back emails saying he’s in Paris this week, or wherever. It also means he gets to meet a lot of interesting people, to write columns on travel and the natural world, and makes even earthworms sounds interesting. Or bats. Bats? Yes bats. No fan of them myself, although that’s my own prejudice and ignorance, I kept on reading about them and other subjects I wouldn’t even have given a second thought to in essay after essay in Natural Selections and Love Letters to Africa.

In “Notes from Heaven” Pinnock finds himself in the Umfolozi wilderness:

The ripple of frogs counterpoints a night so still the ants seem to be walking on tiptoes. High overhead, tamboti and knobthorn trees are catching stars and a comet or two in their interlaced branches. … It feels good to be down on the naked skin of Africa in the small hours. I’m on night watch, probing the perimeter with a torch somehow less bright than my imagination, peering for predators and unwelcome ungulates: wishing them absent; hoping they’re there…

This is not common garden-variety travel writing. This is not the type of unadventurous story that recounts a trip from day one, arrival, to day 10, departure, and a sun sinks into the horizon type of story. Pinnock not so much pushes the boundaries as creates new ways of saying things, of making seemingly dry facts palatable, interesting and fascinating. From camels to dams to mediations on global warming, you’re with him all the way, urged on by his humour and his chatty tone.

The writers I have included here have created their own styles of writing. Each has a distinct voice, one that urges you with its creativity and uniqueness. And this is the type of writing that should be gracing our newspapers and magazines. It’s writing that lives beyond that day’s or that month’s deadline, it’s writing that makes you want to read while opening a window on the world.

Some books to look up:
Non-Fiction: True Stories by Chuck Palahniuk
Natural Selections: The African Wanderings of a Bemused Naturalist, Love Letters to Africa and African Journeys by Don Pinnock
In Fact: The Best of Creative Non-fiction Edited by Lee Gutkind
High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never by Barbara Kingsolver
Small Wonder: Essays
The Best American Essay series, published annually by Houghton Mifflin Company
The White Album by Joan Didion
Holidays in Hell by PJ O’Rourke

(First published as Dye Hard Press Newsletter 10)

Friday, April 30, 2010

London Book Fair 2010: Day One

Antonia Byatt, director of the UK Arts Council chaired this discussion this morning. She was joined by Isobel Dixon, poet and litearry agent, Kate Mosse, author of the best-selling Labyrinth, who founded the Orange Prize 15 years ago, and Alison Samuel, who joined Chatto and Windus in 1985 and was publishing director at Secko from 1998 until retiring recently.

Book publishing is a gamble, all agreed, but the role of the independent presses is not be discounted, said Mosse. Four out of the six Orange Prize shortlisted authors are from independent publishing houses. "Prizes matter more than ever," she said, citing the recognition that these awards bring.

However all also agreed that although British literature hasn't become risk averse, the book buying public has, retailers have as well as publishers. Said Dixon, "There's a lot more caution now compared to ten years ago. If your books haven't sold, it's two strikes and you're out."

"Let's be pragmatic," said Samuel, "All publishers have to make money, it's a business, an industry." She added, "Publishers are mad, when you consider that four out of five books don't even hot their budget sales, so what would you conclude from that?"

Lamenting the demise of book reviewing pages, it was agreed that from blogging to Twitter to Facebook, the networks still exist to spread the word about books. "I have no idea what is going to happen," said Samuel, "since I was in publishing I've been hearing about the death of the novel, but the words will still always be there."

(First published here)

London Book Fair 2010: Why Buy South African?

What emerged from the Why Buy South African seminar is that South African books have "panache" as Isobel Dixon put, from cover design to content - it seems perhaps better to ask: Why not buy South African work?

Joining Dixon, literary agent and well-known poet were crime writer Deon Meyer "crime writers are here as comic relief", South African novelist and short story writer Henrietta Rose-Innes, and Rebecca Servadio Kenan, scout for South African works for publishers, "the ears and eyes of publishers".

Meyer agreed that South African writing has exploded in the last 5 years, and there is a blossoming in the arts generally, spreading from literature to music. Rose-Innes agreed that since 1994 there has been a "wild proliferation of fiction, and a growing sense of fun and play that was never a characteristic of South African writing before". Further hope: Dixon pointed out that Foyles. the UK bookstore, has 1.6million customers per year while the South African reading public number 800 000 - not bad for a country with a significantly lower reading public!

Talking poetry and short stories - two orphans of the literary world. Rose-Innes mentioned publishers are generally reluctant to publish single author story collections with pressure from publishers to get off the training bike of the story and onto the grownup bike of the novel. True enough. She did mention that Colleen Higgs of Modjaji Books is bringing out several collections of short stories, including Meg Vandermerwe's and my own - and praised Colleen Higgs in this regard. Servadio Kenan said she uses short stories as a scouting tool, "I read a lot of short stories in literary magazines," she said. Dixon pointed to the existence of the Caine Prize for short stories as a welcome platform for writers.

Talking poetry - Dixon said that poetry was part of South African culture and that SA has a great online community and bookshops which regularly hold reader and book-related events, including poetry readings.

And finally, a mention of the Not the SA Book Fair event held at The Book Lounge last night .... pointing to the resilience of South Africans. All the absent, stranded authors are sorely missed here .... but how amazing to make the most of an ashy situation. Looks like you all had a ball.

(First published here)

London Book Fair 2010: Day Three

Day three, and it's all beginning to blur. Information overload has overtaken me. Really enjoyed hearing Ian Rankin chatting to a good-sized audience yesterday. Talking books and reading and how at the age of 17 "the best thing to be was in my room, reading, writing and listening to music." Lovely to hear of Rankin's early days as a struggling writer - well encouraging to hear that we all have to start somewhere. He made us laugh with his descriptions of moving to France with his wife, with no money and trying to make it as a a writer. He's just finished a graphic novel, which he describes as hard work, working with an illustrator and having to explain everything. "I could have written three novels in the time it took me," he said.

Then listening to Lisa Appignanesi talking about English PEN objectives with Robert Sharp and the changes that PEN has been able to effect and still wants to effect. Today I went to hear the Irish children's writer Eoin Colfer, once a teacher, "It's a young person's game" chatting about conjuring up the 80s by listening to Kate Bush.

This morning I caught up with PEG, the South African Professional Editors Forum, who held a seminar in the South African networking pavilion. Taken by John Linnegar, head of the organisation who outlined its objectives, namely to promote high standards of editing and proofreading and to show that South African editors are a favourable option for UK publishers. We use the same English, more or less, same time zone more or less and offer value for money when you consider the exchange rate. See a list of editors at John also mentioned the first ever editors conference to be held at the Franschoek Festival in May. I'll be there chatting on editing non-fiction narratives.

Quick chat with travel writer and photographer David Fleminger and Chuma Nwokolo,of African Writing Online, nice to meet after all these years .... and then ....

And then a dash off to a talk on the future of e-books. As Beverly Tarquini, publisher and chair mentioned, five years ago the question would have been IF there is a future for e-books, today, of course there are so many, it's not a question of IF. It's a question of which one will win out in the end, which format and how to protect copyright. From Adobe Jonathon Ferman spoke about the latest InDesign improvements and how these will help e-books. Textbook publisher Alison Jones spoke about how there once was a time when people thought e-content should be free, but we've come a long way. Meanwhile publisher Robin Harvie agreed that publishers were making a lot of mistakes, but "we also need to celebrate those mistakes. To see what is possible".

(First published here)

London Book Fair 2010: World Cup discussion at the Southbank Centre

"I may have kissed a few guys I didn't know the day that Seth Blatter that envelope," said writer Zukiswa Wanner at the Southbank on Wednesday night. The discussion on what some South African writers feel about the 2010 World Cup as "referrreed" by Mark Gevisser. It was an interesting and lively discussion, despite Henrietta Rose-Innes and Nadia Davids declaring that they both weren't sport mad. Also joining the panel was Andrew Feinstein, who said that he was a passionate football fan and felt that although the World Cup will provide short-term jobs, the event will either be "disastrous or exceptional".

Rose-Innes confessed she hadn't wanted to be part of the panel, having even left her note-taking for the discussion for the last minute. She mentioned that she had been published in "Elf", a German-language book of short stories on the World Cup by 11 South African writers - and yet no South African publisher was interested in printing it in English and there was no interest from the government. The arts seemed to have been neglected in reference to the World Cup.

Nadia Davids was similarly uninterested in football although she professed an intense patriotism, even when just hearing Nkosi Sikelel' iafrika being sung.

She said she was cautious about the World Cup - that we're spending millions making the country comfortable for foreigners, yet there is still so much inequality in South Africa.

Njabulo Ndebele said he had been a soccer player in "my great days" and said that the country had to put up a great show. "We're the first in Africa, and we've got it now. It's got to work. It's about our self-respect, and making the best of it in a sustainable way." His words kept echoing with their truth: "If we don't win maybe it will make us stronger and more focused on achieving."

Davids added that the mythology of the rainbow nation meant that there were huge expectations on South Africa. She remembered talking to a Zimbabwean man who had told her: "We need you to succeed. All eyes are on you."

The discussion moved on to the fracas that erupted over choosing musicians for the opening concert and how so many local musos were sidelined. Wanner added that artists and small traders had not benefitted from the World Cup with Fifa imposing limitations on who can and cannot sell goods in or near the stadiums. Feinstein added that it's the poor who will have to deal with the economic consequences of the event -for example, Joburg is bankrupt with building the stadium.

But the evening ended on a positive note. Feinstein said it wasn't the best way to spend resources, but to make the best of it, while Rose-Innes said she found happiness was a "valid initiative". Davids cautioned that some of that will is needed elsewhere, as in building houses. Gevisser had the last word: "The must be a balance between dignity and happiness. Hopefully we will see a vision about what itmeans to be South African emerging from this event."

(First published here)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Arja Salafranca and Chuma Nwokolo: London Book Book 2010

Arja Salafranca with Nigerian novelist Chuma Nwokolo at the London Book Book Fair, April 2010.
Photo coutesy of BookSA

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Thin Line

My debut collection of short fiction is to be published by Modjaji Books in April 2010.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


In 1781, Emperor Josef II announced an Edict of Toleration for the Jews which established the requirement for hereditary family names. Jews were required to assume German-sounding surnames. Rivka Shlomo comes in and says, “Here, you’re a Schmalz.” Thrusts a piece of paper at me – not that I can read it – and says, “Look, says it there. You’re a Schmalz. So if you need to tell anyone, not that you will, you tell them Schmalz.” Schmalz. Grease. Chicken fat. Schmalz! “That’s not what Dora and her family got!” I go outside, the piece of paper with the scribbles in my hand. “They’re Goldfarbers! How did they end up with gold in their name and we’re just grease?” Read more here

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Instamatic school memories come to life in technicoloured reality

It's déjà vu with a twist; it’s like seeing double, vision telescoped into now and then. It’s the high school reunion: an enterprising school mate has organised a reunion off her own bat. Just as well as our high school waved sayonara 20 years ago. Thank goodness for Facebook, and modern technology, which is how this all came together.

Arriving at the venue, there are pictures posted up from our years in high school. There are veld school photos in which one classmate urges another to put a spider on her face to earn extra points, pictures of us in our blue blazers and cheap blue dresses, captured on rinky compact cameras from the 1980s. It’s like looping back through a time warp. Add to that a video of the matric dance that has been unearthed. The colours are blown, the quality from the stretched tape is atrocious, and the dresses and hairstyles are enough to embarrass the hardiest of individuals. There are puffed skirts and equally puffy hairstyles, and who decided that Dynasty-era shoulder pads were flattering?

And then a flashback to the controversy of that matric dance. It was held at the Carlton Centre – back when the Carlton Centre signalled a certain larniness and our little old matric dance event made the Sunday newspapers. There was outrage that a school was spending so much on a venue. What was wrong with the school hall? Well, for starters, it was a school hall. Another sign of the times. Today matric dances are regularly held in fancy places and the dresses can be even more outrageously priced.

And so, one by one, the greetings, the whoops of recognition, and it’s like watching a split screen. In the same instant that you’re talking to an old classmate, you’re flashing back to the way you remember them in a not so innocent teen era. Girls with jerseys wrapped around their waists, boys who once sported blazers now slouching in T-shirts. This weird kind of here and there feeling carries on all night. You’ve stepped back in time, and yet, you also haven’t.

That is, of course, when you’re talking to those you remember. It’s even more disconcerting when you’re confronted with a familiar face and you know that you knew their name at some point, and here they are saying “Hello” and your mind’s a complete blank.

The questions are inevitable, predictable. After you’ve got what do you do out of the way, it’s time for “Are you married, do you have children?”

I’m surprised at how many singles there are, and also how many are divorced. I shouldn’t be, divorce is a ubiquitous part of modern life, but there you are. You know these people as teenagers – how could they have done such an adult thing as divorce?

Sadly, and also inevitably, the class has been thinned out by emigration. Two thirds have left the country for one or another reason, and two have already passed on. It’s an evening of fun and jocularity but we remember them.

Time warp continues: looking at the sea of faces we’re lily white. We’re talking of a government school in the 1980s, the only difference between us lay in religion; you were either Jewish or Christian. Other races didn’t, seemingly, exist.

You reconnect with a friend and spend hours reminiscing about the conversations you used to have at break on philosophy and psychology and wonder why you ever lost contact. You reconnect with others, and find yourself reaching across time to engage in conversation with those you never spoke to while at school.

“Don’t let’s leave it another 20 years!” says a class mate with an infectious laugh that you’ve never forgotten. The next day the photos are already up on Facebook, there’s talk of converting the old matric dance video to a DVD, and as you click through the old photos posted online, you feel, once again, as though you’re peering through a time vortex.

First published January 31 2010 The Sunday Independent

Thursday, January 7, 2010


Freedom is a man with one arm,
a happy smile showing perfect white teeth,
a man who answers the phone in Maintenance with a chirp in his voice.
I am asking for my window to be raised.
After years of being shut against the noise and chaos of the city
it’s rusty and won’t budge.
But Freedom can’t help, will have to call someone.
I only have one arm, his smiling voice says.
Hurriedly, I put some levity in my voice too.
Ok, thanks, whenever.
But no-one ever comes to fix the window.

Some accident in a lift shaft, says the secretary.
He was alone in the lift, had his arm out,
the lift suddenly fell, his arm ...
Workers’ compensation.

Months later I still see Freedom walking
around the building, face still set in an endless smile,
arm still bandaged, the stump ends below the elbow.
Sometimes it dangles, the bandages crisp and white.
Sometimes he uses it rakishly, crooking into the corner of his waist,
and always that smile as he saunters around the building, helps out
where only one arm will do.

(Published on African Writing Online)

I'll always miss dreaming my dreams with you

Marianne Faithfull on YouTube takes me back.
It’s the 70s, green eye shadow colours her lids
and her blonde hair is flipped sweetly back.
Swaying gently, she’ll always miss
dreaming her dreams with you.
Saying, someday she’ll get over you.

Your birthday’s in two days.
Did you ever think you’d reach that age?
I imagine you with two kids, a wife,
in the wintry north of Canada.

Takes me back.
The night we celebrated
your twenty-seventh in an Italian restaurant
and had carrot cake with your family after.
The only birthday of yours we celebrated together.
How many since?
I doubt you count, or know any more.

I’ll always miss dreaming my dreams with you.

(Published on African Writing Online)

You're only ten weeks old

You’re only ten weeks old,
and yet you were born
thirteen years ago,
out of the death of one relationship,
a cat was acquired. A birthday gift.
Then another. A cat unloved looking for a home.
Then you, escaping life as a feral,
reared away from your wild mother.

But I waited, how long,
thirteen years, I counted the other day.
You had your genesis then, in the break-up
with a man allergic to your kind.
What would we have done?
But we didn’t do anything, and
instead you emerged
all these years later, black and white and pink.
But you take me back.
I look at you and remember him,
the man who could not tolerate cats.
Knowing how different life would have been.
You wouldn’t be here.
I wouldn’t be wondering.
Perhaps I’d be sprouting a wedding ring,
or divorce papers.
Instead, ten weeks off, pushing into life,
two days to his birthday,
I remember your birth thirteen years ago.

(Published on African Wrting Online)

The English Cemetary

Catherine Charlotte Anne Eliza,
Graeme Hepburn,
and Henrietta Augusta,
dead, within months of each other.
Dead at two- and four- and nine-years-old,
within the dreadful year of 1851 going into 1852.
Beloved children of Patrick and Mary,
the words are still firmly chiselled, so clear and so
legible more than 150 years later
as I wonder through.
Dead and buried in the cemetery for
non-Catholics of long ago.
In times past they would have been
buried upright on the beach,
washed to sea at night, pecked by gulls,

Kicking through the hot Málaga morning,
trying to make sense of yet another season
in the city of my birth, I step into the
English cemetery. A quiet in the heart of this now
roaring place where they’re now digging up the earth
to make an Underground.
I feel almost peaceful.

I find the graves of the writer Gerald Brenan,
amigo de España reads the gravestone.
Friend to Spain, the words are touching,
as though Spain were reaching out,
vulnerable, wanting to be liked.

His wife, dead in 1968,
‘Fear no more the heat of the sun’,
born in Malta, Gerald Brenan dies in Málaga,
described forever more as an escritor inglés, the
English writer.

Does language always define your nationality?

I wonder too, wandering. Kicking pebbles,
the ground is hard, tough, briny, the sun and
soil do not produce a natural green lawn
in this part of the world.
An urn lies empty beside Brenan’s grave.

Joseph Bertram Griffin dies at the age of forty-eight
in Torremolinos in 1968.
It’s not just in past centuries that people die young.
This time though, instead of a deadly childhood disease,
might it have been cancer?
The grammar is odd: ‘The love of your little Zizi,
the husband you was’.

A plaque for John Bevan who dies in 1816,
too early, before the formation of this cemetery.
Geoffrey Herbert Bruno is buried here in 2000,
even now the grounds are being used.

I look at the apartment blocks,
awnings pulled down against the heat,
and the familiar washing flutters from the lines.
Do they even notice the cemetery now, a fixture,
do they subconsciously avoid it at night,
because, after all, you never know?

What will it take to become Spanish?

In the shop I use my own language again,
it spurts out like vomit.
Effortlessly and without having to think.
The woman who answers me is herself a hybrid:
an Italian American who loves and lives in Spain.

Any donations welcome.
I am the only visitor today.
I don’t want to buy expensive soaps I can’t afford.

The woman runs the American club,
and the shop in this cemetery.
Her husband was a journalist too.
He died last year.

I scurry on, join a group of Spanish women
excitedly exploring the bullring.
I look at them, a tourist to their joy.

Home? A hankering for the crisp, clipped
vowels of the language I speak.
How long does it take before you stop
rushing off to English cemeteries
trying to catch something intangible?
Before you can stop plucking at a little heart of England
gone wild,
in this bustling little city?

(First published on African Writing Online)

Monday, January 4, 2010

When I was thirty-four I dialled your number again

When I was thirty-four I dialled your number again
sitting on a curb in the Spanish village of Nerja,
in the bright afternoon sun.
But when you answered there were awkward silences.
You said you had lost your English,
and I had to wonder if it was true.
You had a wife now, and even children, I think:
it would be convenient to lose your English.
I sighed. My Spanish wasn’t up to much.
And although I understood your request for me to
remember you to my cousin, it wasn’t
enough to hold a conversation.

It felt late, so very very late, that afternoon in a village in Spain,
there was only a bar open behind me
as the siesta snored on. I
t felt very very late
as I pressed the end call button
and sighed into the autumn air.

(First published on African Writing Online)