Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Yewande Omotoso, Arja Salafranca and Others Highlight Their Favourite Travel Spots

Ahead of the end of year break, IOL Travel has compiled a list of the ten best getaway spots as chosen by writers, editors and other industry professionals. Contributors to this list include Books LIVE members Yewande Omotoso, who recommends Caledon’s Cape Idlewild Country Cottage, and Arja Salafranca, whose number one travel spot is the Utopia holiday resort in the Magaliesberg...Read more here

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Arja Salafranca at Love Books,Melville

At the launch of Gillian Schutte's After Just Now at Love Books, Melville, Johannesburg. From left: Jill Nudelman, Arja Salafranca, Leigh Nudelman and Fiona Snyckers.

Friday, November 25, 2011

You simply do not exist unless you ‘like it’ online

I left my cellphone at home. Racing out to an appointment mid-afternoon, and then I was off to a writers symposium that began at five, there was no time to retrace my steps, although I thought of doing so and knew that I’d be caught in hideous peak hour traffic and would no doubt be late. So, reluctantly, I accepted that I was going into the world naked, so to speak.
And naked I felt. As others around me clicked – taking photos, tweeting comments and images, uploading same – I sat there, feeling powerless and cut off...read more here 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

You can be anything you want to be

You woke up this morning
to hear that Freddie Mercury had died.
The brilliant blue light of dawn
came in through a parting in the curtain
and hurt your eyes.
You couldn't get back to sleep again.

In the background Freddie Mercury sang,
'You can be anything you want to be...'
over and over again.
You lay there,
remembering he'd told the press this weekend
that he had Aids.

Broken, cut-up lines of prose to
indicate our horror.
By hiding it in the background you
can forget about it,
stop worrying whether you can catch it from
a toilet seat or a kiss.

You make coffee and brush your teeth
watching the trees grow more emphatic
in the blue morning air.

He died of pneumonia,
it's all over the radio.

Can't smear blood over doorsteps to
indicate someone's died.
It's a clean antiseptic world,
you can't find the plague in filthy streets,
or engorged rats.
Instead you can watch the living corpses on TV.
Bared eyes enormous in concentration camp faces,
teeth large as rabbits.
The picture sticks like wet dough in your throat.
You shove it down with water
and try to swallow.

In the background Freddie Mercury sings,
You can be anything you want to be,
you can be anything you want to be.

The Milky Way fairytale

The constellation looked like a small cluster of cotton wool through the telescope. “Relax your eyes,” said astronomer Vincent Nettman. I didn’t know how to relax my eyes, I strained a bit more, clouds were coming, obscuring even the brightest object in the sky, the waning moon, and I joined my friends inside instead...Read more here

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Road to Publishing

I swung into Wits University’s Senate House in February a few years ago. It was a hot summer’s day. Clutching books, a bag, sunglasses looped around my fingers, the university was teeming with students, noise, life, there was a palpable energy to the place. I’d been given my student number – or rather, the faculty of Humanities had simply re-activated my old number, beginning with the numeral 90 – for 1990, the year I registered as an undergrad student at Wits. It was astonishing to realise that it had been 19 years ago that I had first became a student, started studying literature and psychology; and that some of these students milling around me had only been born that year, the year I was eighteen...Read more here

Friday, November 18, 2011

At the Vodacom Journalism Awards 2011

With Janet van Eeden, regional winner at the Vodacom awards, and veteran journalist Sophie Tema. 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Six poems on Peony Moon

Arja’s first poem was written at the age of ten – and detailed the grim effects of typhoid, a subject she knew nothing about. Things have changed since then. Her first poetry collection, A Life Stripped of Illusions, won the 1994 Sanlam Award, her second collection is The Fire in which we burn, while Isis X (Botsotso) contains a mini collection....Read more here

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Thin Line - Dividing line in human behaviour

A review of The Thin Line, by Dries Blunt 
This book combines excellent writing skill, an interesting choice of subject and a fine display of characters that become alive while reading. 
It also carries a message of love lost and gained and how fragile relations can be. 

At times I read this compilation of short stories as a number of real-life case studies which, in novel writing style, indicates the best possible portrayal of fictional reality.
There are 17 stories in which the thin line between lust and love, fulfillment and destruction and attraction are highlighted. 
Salafranca shows amazing insight in the psychological motivation of behaviour.  
The Thin Line is a collection with great impact, both delightful to read and valuable to have read.  
(Published in The Citizen)  

Review of The Edge of Things, in Wordsetc

An edge is the most exhilarating point for a story to place itself. Ask any reader. We don’t need cliff-scrabbling above a literal precipice; masters (and mistresses) of the form can hollow out spaces of mystery and risk beneath the most prosaic inner or outer landscape. But what we do ask, as readers, is that the threshold matter somehow and that we are surprised and, perhaps, even changed when the story crosses it.

The Edge of Things, then, is an enticing title and a flexible one too, stretching to cover all manner of brinks. Characters cross the endlessly fascinating boundary between innocence and experience, naivety and self-knowledge, one sharing his first kiss at the company picnic, another beheading her first chicken.

What would infidelity look like? one story wonders, while another shows us what looks like cheating but turns out, in the flick of a needle, to be bridal branding instead. Worlds collide: matter-of-fact house renovations clang against soul-exchanges in one story while in another an empty house invites a range of intruders, from teenage lovers to lowering-the-tone buyers to symbolic creatures, recalling District 9, that challenge notions of inside and out.

Liesl Jobson’s “tips for super pics” apply with wit and pain to parent-child relationships, tracing shifts that the photographer protagonist catches out of the corner of her eye while her lens is trained elsewhere. Beatrice Lamwaka writes about a schoolgirl who wants to win a race on sports day. She has, after all, trained hard, fleeing rebel soldiers who abducted her. “I outran them so that’s an A+ for me. If anyone needs more practice in athletics, I’m sure it’s not me.”

Sometimes, an edge is sharp enough to draw blood. Then there’s literary edginess, fun with texts, intertextuality. Iconoclasm (“I don’t like Coetzee”) meets homage, for example, in Jeanne Hromnik’s exploration of new-South-African father figures both lecherous and pathetic. Perd Booysen amuses himself, and us too, with the device of the discovered journal, inadmissible as historical evidence because of its fictional finesse.

In David wa Maahlamela’s playful bus ride across the fiction/non-fiction frontier, we meet both Wordsetc and its editor, Phakama Mbonambi. In the optimistic view of the narrator, also called David, writers who describe lived experience “know exactly the impression they are intending to give their readers”. But this is perilous terrain for less adept scribes.

An event that bit your heart for real needs just as much construction on the page as a situation you make up from scratch. You can’t refer to that day, you must weave it, as Bernard Levinson does in “Tokai”. We have no idea whether the story draws on his life or his imagination or some alchemical meld of the two. What matters is that he shapes place, time and action so fully, so deftly that, like the narrator, we are moved by the mysterious intensity of the last scene.

The Edge of Things is in every sense a mixed bag. Alongside Levinson’s story, gems include Salafranca’s unforgettable image of a mother in an iron lung and Pravasan Pillay’s characters, dialogue and spicy small-canvas family drama.

Silke Heiss’s “Don’t Take Me for Free”, arguably Best in Show, nimbly outstrips our expectations. Like its trucker-clown narrator, Vonny, the story “was built to change”.

In Vonny’s extended appeal to her lover, “All-I-Have, Azar”, the  language is as elating as the ride across ostrich and canola country in a bright-eyed van “with its massive, roaring heart and load continuing to doer ’n gone”.

The collection’s subtitle – South African short fiction – proposes that we read the stories as a kind of national sampler. (In a one-off slip, the introduction makes an unwarranted claim to be presenting writing “on our continent”.) Clearly, South African fiction has moved beyond the imperative to be earnest, political or even particularly South African. Mischief is now acceptable story territory, while Fred de Vries’s chilling tale could take place in almost any big city and Aryan Kaganof’s junkies claim that Amsterdam may as well be Durban, “there’s no fucking difference. Bars are the same everywhere. Drugs are the same everywhere.” But it is also true that, as per Hromnik, “the past is hungry”.

Several stories tackle a mix of  race and privilege, either head-on or obliquely. In “Telephoning the Enemy”, for instance, Hans Pienaar crosses the “what if ?” line for an intriguing revisit of apartheid-era violence.

Solitude, as Salafranca notes in the introduction, features in many of the stories. We glimpse various anxious, closed, self-referential worlds. A man sits at a cafĂ© table in the last story, telling himself consoling untruths and inking “NARCISSIST” into his crossword puzzle as he fends off contact.

What feels like a limitation, though, looking back over the collection, is neither inner landscapes nor low spirits (excellent fiction fodder) but rather a sense of stasis in some of the stories, a single note struck and held, Act 1 from curtain up to curtain down.

For these writers and for all the rest of us, Jenna Mervis’s story offers advice. Her protagonist “mentions nothing of … the fingernails of trees that have begun to tear at her corrugated roof in the night”. She looks for “a sign that … that the dangers outside have become manifest”. But by the end (and this won’t spoil it for you), she steps off the edge of the deck and plunges into the veld. Why not, writers? Instead of tamping down tension, why not let it explode? Approach the edge. Plunge. Leap.

REVIEWER: A Zimbabwean filmmaker and writer,  Annie Holmes has published short stories in the US and Zimbabwe and a short memoir,Good Red, in Canada. She co-edited, with Peter Orner, Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives

(Published in Wordsetc, Third Quarter 2011)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Arja Salafranca with Janet van Eeden at the Vodacom Journalism Awards 2011

Wearing my editor’s hat – with Janet van Eeden, regional winner for her column, at the Vodacom Awards on November 4 2011.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Voila! chatroom: an interview with Arja Salafranca, by Nikki Temkin

Arja Salafranca selected the short stories for The Edge of Things, a compilation of South African short stories. I chatted to her.

NIKKI:  What were the criteria for selection forThe Edge of Things?
ARJA: Firstly, a story had to move and touch me, make me feel something, reflect on some aspects of life and our experiences here. Secondly, I was looking at excellence in terms of telling a story, well-crafted stories that begin with something deep inside and move readers because these were tales that just had to be told.

N: What was the inspiration for this book?
A: The book was initially meant to be an edition of the literary journal, Green Dragon. I received nearly 100 submissions and then selected the 24 stories that make up the anthology. It was too large for a journal, so I suggested that it become a special short fiction edition. I decided to do it because of my own love of the short story – as both a short story writer and as a prodigious reader of the genre.

N: Can you tell us about some of the themes of the book?
A: Some of the stories centre on solitude – and the ramifications of that, from loneliness, to a sense of fulfilment that also results from time spent alone, some centre on relationships experienced, some are about the outsider from society. Some of the stories explore the mother-daughter bond, some look at childhood experiences, some reach deep into South Africa’s past, looking at how those experiences have shaped those in the stories. Others look at identity issues in post-apartheid South Africa, and my own story deals with polio and the mother-daughter bond.

N: What do you think of South African writing currently?
A: It’s extremely vibrant and healthy – certainly in terms of the volume of fiction being produced, and we have some world-class writers, both established as well as emerging. South Africans are now so much more receptive to reading local literature – and there’s also such a range – from literary, to science fiction to crime thrillers and more.

N: Who are some of your favourite local authors?
A: I love Damon Galgut’s fierce, spare, almost uncompromising vision; David Medalie’s collection of short stories The Mistress’s Dog as well as Henrietta Rose-Innes’s Homing. I also love the poetry of Eva Bezwoda Royston (sadly she committed suicide in the 1970s). It’s personal, confessional poetry full of rich, dark and vivid imagery.

(Published in Voila!, Issue Number 8, 2011) 

Monday, October 24, 2011

Bold and extraordinary

The headliner for the third leg of the Out in Africa fest this year is Howl, a film about a poem, rather than a biopic, which is what I was expecting.
Howl is epic in scope, rather like the poem itself, written by Beat poet Allan Ginsberg in the 1950s.
Spilt into four parts, Howl tells the story of the obscenity trial of 1957 when, bizarrely for a modern reader and audience, the poem was tried for obscenity. Interspersed with this is a rendering of the poem by James Franco in the title role as Ginsberg, reciting the poem in a smoky jazz bar to an appreciative audience...Read more here

Sunday, October 23, 2011

An unsteady flame of inner fire: a review of the film Black Butterflies

There’s tragedy in any suicide; and tragedy when the person who takes their own life is a creative person is that their voice is stilled, there will be no more work from them.
There’s tragedy too in that the memory of such a life is blighted by the violent, sad fact of their premature death. Recall the works and life of Ingrid Jonker, and immediately there’s the memory of the fact that she walked into the sea at the age of 31, leaving a daughter, a life, a foam of chaos behind her, including a litter of broken relationships. She also left a body of work that has been lauded and applauded both in her lifetime and in the years since....Read more here

Friday, October 21, 2011

A terrible taste for it, like salt

I’m driving to work when the beat of a favourite song comes pouring out from the airwaves. Surprisingly I struggle to place it and then the words, and the words, are familiar, so so familiar, I’ve been listening to them since my teens, since the 1980s. “At the age of thirty-seven she realised she’d never/ Ride through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair…” The song is going to end sadly, as we know it must: “The evening sun touched gently on the eyes of Lucy Jordan/ On the roof top where she climbed when all the laughter grew too loud.”
There’s more cause for suicide than simply loud laughter, of course, but the detail is in the poetry, the lyrics, the underlying beat. We weep and sing along as we hear the song, one touched in orange colours and white cars. She’s done it, she’s finally riding the streets of Paris with the warm wind in her hair…It’s romantic, it’s beautiful, and because of all that it’s also achingly sad. The song touches, haunts, remains popular. Whichever way you read the song – and Faithfull has said she didn’t intend it as a suicide ballad – the echoes of the end are unmistakeably there. And it’s a song that has always appealed with its desperate, quiet beauty. The unbelievableness of it all. Suicide made beautiful. The words are, of course, sacrilegious.
For me, there are other hauntings, other obsessions. Plath, Sexton, Jonker…the female “suicide poets”... Read more here 

Arja Salafranca reading at the Melville Poetry Festival, Johannesburg, October 15 2011

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Eclectic mix of local short stories, by Janet van Eeden

Book of the Week: The Cream of South African Writers
The editor of this eclectic collection of short stories, Arja Salafranca, sifted through over 100 submissions before she chose stories from the cream of South African writers. There was no theme as such, but it seems as if the stories chosen examine people who are in extreme situations,emotionally or physically.

For example, Arja Salafranca’s moving story about a woman forced to live in a restrictive apparatus in “Iron Lung” is a million miles away stylistically from Aryan Kaganof’s tale of decadence and debauchery on a night out in Durban in “Same Difference.” What is similar, though, is both stories deal with  someone in extremis. The narrator of Kaganof's story is the edge of the emotional abyss. The young woman watching her mother in "Iron Lung" is too. There is no easy way to contemplate a happy future when someone you love is crippled in this way.

There are many gems in this sparkling collection. The enjoyment comes not only from the juxtaposition of many different writers, but also from reading stories with such a variety of subjects.

For example, Liesl Jobson’s “You Pay for The View: Twenty Tips for Super Pics” is a series of verbal snapshots of pivotal moments of a mother trying to find a connection with her children. It is written with poignancy and deep longing. “Doubt” by Gillian Schutte is a study of how passion can seep out of a marriage once the chase is over and when feelings of irrelevance grow due to being part of a couple.

Jenna Mervis’s “The Edge of Things” explores paranormal paranoia in a tangible way and examines the valid fear women feel on a daily basis.

The eternal clash with “the other” is explored in Gail Dendy’s “The Intruders”.  Perd Booysen’s “Sinners and Sinkholes” is a delightful modern-day Hermann Charles Bosmanesque tale of ghost towns and gullibility in the arid wasteland of the Karoo.

There are too many stories to mention individually, and some lend themselves to rereading many times. This is the beauty of the colection: there is something to appeal to all astes. And, fortunately, the real star of The Edge of Thingsis the genre of the short story itself.

(Published in The Witness, October 12, 2011)

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Book Review: An Essential Map by Phakama Mbonambi

At the moment South Africa is experiencing a boom in book publishing. New writers are constantly minted and the stories they tell, whether in fiction or non-fiction, are as diverse as they are exciting. It all bodes well for readers as it means a greater choice of books to choose from. It also means that books compete fiercely for buyers’ attention. Which is why book reviews are regarded as essential maps to help buyers navigate aisles at bookstores.

With such vigorous book publishing taking place one would imagine that book reviews get prominent space in our media. Not so, say writers and journalists Arja Salafranca and Melinda Ferguson. Salafranca, a fiction writer, poet and editor, says: “Unfortunately book pages in some newspaper are shrinking; some papers have got rid of book reviews altogether, which is a huge pity.

"But we do still have papers (such as Mail & Guardian) as well as magazines (such as Wordsetc) and online journals (such as LitNet and SlipNet that give literary matters space and offer room for debate.”

Ferguson, a books editor at True Love magazine, agrees: “There are very few magazines and newspapers that dedicate meaningful space and respect to books, authors, book launches and so on. Perhaps it’s a reflection on what the population wants, for whom, if we look at stats, reading is not a top priority.”

Why are book reviews so important in the first place? What is their function? “Essentially, a review should serve to tell the audience whether a book is worth buying and why, without giving away too much of the plot. The nature of reviews varies. Serious literary or academic journals often run longer and more analytical reviews. By contrast, reviews in the mass media lack deeper analysis because of a shortage of space,” Salafranca says.

When reviewing books, neutrality flies out of the window. Whether in favour or against the book, opinions matter. “I like opinionated reviews, where the reviewer has a strong stance. It doesn’t matter whether I agree with him/her or not. I like these reviews because they encourage readers to see things in a new way,” Ferguson says.

On the other hand, reviewers can miss the point or can have opinions loaded with venom. Ferguson, who wrote two bestselling autobiographical books on overcoming drug addiction, Smacked and Hooked, knows this phenomenon too well. She vividly remembers the reviews Smacked got when it came out in 2006.

“Hardcore reviewers tended to get stuck in the horror [of the book]. Very few got further than the sensational aspect and reviewed it as a literary work. I was disappointed. There was even one reviewer who had some connection to my ex husband (who was in the book) and his family. She got quite personal and went on and on about how much I had hurt people and so on. She didn’t stick to the book at all. I was pretty irritated. But Smacked has sold brilliantly. I guess all the attention, whether the reviews were accurate or not, have worked for me in terms of sales.”

But, can a bad review truly harm book sales? Is the reading audience out there easily swayed by the subjective opinions of a reviewer? While acknowledging that book reviews serve as a “useful” tool to generate publicity, Salafranca believes that, ultimately, word of mouth and advertising are more potent drivers of book sales, which can help counter negative book reviews. “People may occasionally be put off by a bad review, but then again they may go into a bookshop and pick up the badly reviewed book and read it for themselves and think to themselves, ‘Hmm, I think I like the sound of this. To hell with whatever so-and-so said in the review.’ It’s important to have local books in our bookshops so that people can explore gems that may not have attracted publicity.”

It stands to reason that a vibrant book publishing environment needs quality book reviews. For Ferguson, book reviewing takes more than just going to Google, as some local reviewers are wont to do, or merely reading the back jacket of a book so as to regurgitate. She acknowledges, however, that “there are some very fine reviewers out there who do the job brilliantly”. She says: “I think Hooked is a better written and constructed book but I don’t feel enough reviewers have seen that ... But as a writer you never really feel like all people get you and you can’t force people to look at your book in the way you would like them to. As writers we land up being quite pathetically passive, panting for a drop of attention...”

Salafranca, who wrote a collection of stories The Thin Line in 2010 and recently edited The Edge of Things: South African Short Fiction, keenly follows reviews of her work. “Sometimes they focus on aspects you’d never considered. Other times you do feel they are missing the point. It’s all so subjective. We interpret anything from where we are standing, and our mood influences our responses to a particular piece. I’m generally happy that my work has attracted attention and reviews - and favourable ones. I am ready too to learn from what has been said or might be said.”

(Published in Rhodes Journalism Review, 2011)

Silence of the Bushveld

It lay surrounded by grassy yellow veld, hills forming a kind of amphitheatre in the distance. At first we couldn’t see much, with the other game drive vehicles clustered around. The sun slanted down sharply, an oblique wintry yellow, and then our ranger, Gerard Ramage, turned the vehicle around. The mound of the elephant lay exposed: it had died of old age, or so the rangers here surmised, four or five days previously.

Its trunk had already been nibbled at, its insides were exposed and spilling out, a mess of liver and other organs caught the sun. The huge curve of the ribcage with its immense greyish white bones lay open, flies buzzed around the form. It was incredibly moving to see this great animal exposed, lying down dead, motionless. We are so used to seeing elephants gloriously alive, moving through the grasses and bush, kings of the jungle in their own right. To see one hacked at by predators, reduced to a lumpen piece of meat, rather than animal, was inexplicably humbling. Nearby two lions stretched into and blended into the bush. Two brothers, they had taken to guarding the elephant, it was food for them, each taking it in turns to drink from a nearby waterhole, one always guarding the metaphorical kill.

“Hold your noses,” Ramage warned us as we turned around, moving away from the elephant to make space for other game drive vehicles. Down wind now, the stench hit us like a weapon. Noses shielded, each mentally urging the vehicle on, away.

At Tlou Dam the sun was setting, the trees in sharp black silhouette against the orange sky. Rhinos drank from the water, their shadows making pictures on the surface, birds and ducks skimming against the sheen of water, creating ripples and circles. The sun setting into the quiet: utter silence but for the click of cameras as the light faded, each trying to capture something of what you can see through the viewfinder.

In winter the animals are forced to come to the waterhole at the end of the day, as there are no puddles and patches of water where rain might have fallen, as in summer, so the sightings at the dam in winter are quite spectacular.

There were other animals on the drives: herds of buffalo, more giraffes, more buck, even another elephant walking on the verge of the dirt road. At night, Ramages swept his large torch from side to side, occasionally the beam picked out the other-worldly green glassy reflection of a buck’s eyeball, a bushbaby clung to a tree.

We’d driven up from Johannesburg to Tau Game Lodge in Madikwe Game Reserve, a drive of four and a half hours. Two American medical students were visiting from where they were studying in Botswana, a French couple were touring the country. The night crackled on as we tucked into the buffet, pea soup, kudu potjie, oxtail, vegetables of carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, finished off with melktert, malva pudding, panacotta.

That night I lay back in my curved triangular bath, in my chalet, the light dim. The silence and peace of being in the bush is always a welcome, needed respite against the heady rush of routine and regular busy days. My chalet was spacious – a king-sized bed, a lounge area, a viewing deck over a trickle of river water. Relaxation continued with a leisurely start to the day: in winter, game drives begin at a very civilised hour of 8am.

The next morning, back at the mound of elephant, a jackal nervously, quickly took bites of the trunk, watching out for the somnolent lions.

In a weekend of firsts, I also agreed to a massage by Pauline Mosadi at the Tau Spa Oasis. Years before I had submitted to my first massage, an experience that left me literally chilled, under the cold glare of fluorescent lights in a room silent but for the breath of the masseuse and my own anxiety, and equally chilly in temperature, I experienced a massage that was so painful, I vowed I’d never have another. When I had a leg massage as a part of a pedicure, I again found the whole procedure painful.

Still, third time lucky. And I was. Pauline asked whether I wanted a soft or firm massage. “Soft,” I said firmly. The room was well heated, there was gentle music playing in the background and I finally understood why it is so many people regularly book massages. My head and shoulder massage left me wanting more and left me utterly relaxed, left me knowing this was an experience to take with me, and repeat elsewhere.

That afternoon, on the third game drive, the third visit to the elephant, the most moving sight of all, and one not often seen, although read about. A bull elephant approached the carcass, mourning the dead elephant. The bull sniffed around the mound, trunk curling over the body, moving around it. Grief was tangible in its stance. The sense of sadness was palpable, visceral. The great animal walked around the dead one again, smelling, sniffing, it knew what it had found and there was no way of mistaking its behaviour for anything but grief. He mock charged one of the game drive vehicles that had gone too close. Then he spotted the lions and roared, chasing them away, ears flapping, trumpeting distress and anger.

We were all silenced by the sight as the game vehicle bounced away from the dead elephant, further into the reserve along the rutted tracks. We had long-johns on to protect against the biting winter air, scarves wrapped around faces, beanies on heads as night fell. Yet there’s an austere beauty to a winter game drive. The discomfort heightens the experience; the cold changes it.

On that night’s game drive moving into dusk, we encountered a herd of breeding elephants on the road, making their way to the dam to drink. Our guide, Ramage, put the vehicle into reverse and the older elephants formed a laager around the young elephants, protecting them. He backed off, a matriarch formed a barrier between us and the young ones as we watched from the sidelines. Just metres away, she looked threateningly at us. “Just keep quiet,” we were told. I needed to hear that.

Taking the opportunity, our ranger took us back to the dam via another route so we could watch the elephants moving in single file along the bank of Tlou Dam, shapes reflected against the grey-blue water, the herd of them: matriarchs, baby elephants, teenagers of the herd jostling with and against each other. The light gradually faded away, and the noise of the cameras clicking stopped as it grew.

Another surreal orange sunset deepened into night, far off we heard the splashing of gentle swoop of trunks dipping into the water, the herd seemingly oblivious to our presence on the far side, invisible and, for now, unseen.

(Published in The Sunday Independent, October 2 2011)

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Women writing for women during Women's Month

I’ve read two enormously different, but equally moving books in the past weeks – both of which reflect and affirm what I wish for women this month, and in particular women writers. The first was Reclaiming the L-Word: Sappho’s Daughters Out in Africa, edited by Alleyn Diesel (Modjaji Books 2011) and the second was Julia Cameron’s autobiography, Floor Sample: A Creative Memoir (Cameron of The Artist’s Way fame).

The same week I was reading Reclaiming the L-Word I was also reviewing Out in Africa films and documentaries for the Life section of The Sunday Independent...Read more here 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Thin Line on Peony Moon

The stories in The Thin Line hook the reader from the first one, and reel you in on that thin line. You will be haunted by the carefully drawn characters: by Corinna trapped in her huge teenage body, by Cleo in love with a married man after all these years, and poor skinny Mark, as he sees his lover teeter away from him. Salafranca is an accomplished, award-winning writer, this long-awaited collection is a box of jewels.

“These stories chart a new direction in South African fiction, where each line, each page – each story unfolds subtly, reaching deeper and more intimately into the tender spaces that exist in all our lives between love and doubt. Reading them kept me up late at night, wanting to know more about the characters’ lives. I was enthralled by the clarity and compassion of her insights; and moved by her obvious love for our fragile country and the fierce power of our unrelinquished hopes.” – Hamilton Wende

Read more here

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Wear Red, Play Dead

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

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

The combination of lace, leather, thigh and bottle.
On six-inch heels she grew tall and bold.
As she stepped out of the car, her dress rode up her thighs.
Transformation was complete.

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

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

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

Published on LitNet

Sunday, August 21, 2011

World of Darkness

Eyes are opened to the life the blind experience at the Dialogue in the Dark exhibition, writes Arja Salafranca

My name was reduced to three crystalline syllables. I said it into the dark, introducing myself to our blind guide. I stood there, first in line, holding a mobility cane, projecting my voice into the blackness. Usually the pronunciation of my name elicits comment – its pronunciation bears no relation to the way it’s spelled, and it’s a cause of confusion and puzzlement, especially once someone has read it on paper first.

But we were without sight here, my name reduced and, for the first time in my life, simplified. It was a taste of things to come – although I had no way of knowing that as I stood in the darkness.

I was part of a party of five experiencing the Dialogue in the Dark exhibition.

I was fearful at first. I had read about similar Dialogue in the Dark initiatives online – most specifically the experience of dining in darkness, being served by blind waiters. And I had read that Dialogue in the Dark was coming to South Africa and had been looking forward to it.

It was pitch dark in the exhibition, a darkness that at first assaults and feels terrifying, close and claustrophobic. You want to open your eyes wider, hoping to let some light in. The friend I had come with became claustrophobic and said she had to leave. We waited as she was led away.

Briefly put, Dialogue in the Dark is an exhibition in which you’re led into a midnight black space, with blind guides leading you into various places – from a garden-like atmosphere, to a cityscape and finally into the aptly-named Dialogue Cafe. The purpose is to experience – fractionally, and for 45 minutes – what it is like to live in a world without sight, a world where your other senses come to the fore, forced to the surface as you negotiate your way through a dark world without sight.

As my friend was led away, and we waited for our guide to return, I wondered if I, too, was going to succumb to fear. I wasn’t comfortable, and had difficulty breathing, no matter how I tried. I was taking shallow breaths as though I were at a high on a mountain altitude and struggling to breathe.

As though perhaps sensing my anxiety, our guide Hanif Kruger, having returned, paid special attention to me. Standing close, he offered to take my hand, or to let me hold onto his arm. I clutched at this lifeline.

With tiny steps I shuffled forward, unsure where I was going, which way to turn, or how to negotiate this world. The two men in our group were already rushing forward, eager to explore this strange new experience, less fearful, more adventurous. I wished I could be as daring – but I felt as though, in a sense, I’d been reborn, and my way of negotiating new experiences is a slower, more cautious way.

We were led over a small suspension bridge within a garden-like space. The two men had already dashed across it, and I heard the one commenting they had managed it; it had swayed slightly, but they were already exploring the trees and foliage on the other side. The bridge swayed. My fears were confirmed.

In the distance, there were noises of wind and what could have been waves. I was still too anxious to take in the sounds.

Hanif came close again, a voice in the dark. I hadn’t seen him and had no way of judging his age, or his looks, and thus coming to any sort of rash judgments that we are prone to in the sighted world. I had a voice to follow, a hand, a strong arm. “You can grip both rails of the bridge if you have wide arms,” said Hanif. I found the other rail, I gripped both firmly, somehow managing to retain my mobility stick, and made my way, crouched, and slowly, across the bridge. Again I shuffled, again I felt old, as though I had aged and could do little more than hobble.

Then I heard the high-pitched tone of my friend who had left. She had been persuaded to return, and had been advised to keep her eyes shut. She found it much easier. Leading her back into the exhibition was Danielle Dimitrova, director of global development. I had met her briefly outside the exhibition space as we had prepared to enter. All proprieties cast aside by my fear, I heard her voice next to that of my friend, didn’t recognise it and rudely said, “Who are you?”

She politely explained she had met me outside – a deep, French-accented voice. I clung to her voice, to the nearness of her presence. Again, I couldn’t reconcile her voice to the slight, slim figure I had met outside – and it was too confusing to try. It was as though I were meeting her for the first time – and in a sense I was. Without benefit of sight, I found sight makes you judge a person by appearance – and there’s little judgement when you’re in the dark, clinging like a child.

Danielle took myself and my friend in hand, encouraging us to form a chain. We linked up, more than occasionally bumping into each other, digging a finger into a waist, a breast, proprietaries again cast aside.

“What’s this? asked Danielle, encouraging me to feel my way around the surrounding: from a tree, to its papery leaves, to the plastic moulded lid of a dustbin. Sometimes it was near impossible to say what I was feeling, sometimes the realisation came slowly as my other senses kicked in, memory of touch and feel somehow taking over as I couldn’t rely on my eyesight.

There was a sense of triumph as we figured out what we were touching, calling out the names of the objects excitedly, at one point I giggled to myself – this was like charades in the dark. It was apt – we were reduced to childhood in some ways – to a time when the world was new, experiences were novel, and we needed to be led around, guided, have the world explained as we explored.

Danielle led us into a city space next, again, we shuffled forward, cane ahead, encountering angles of the exhibition space, waiting patiently like children to be shown this strange new world. “What’s that?” asked Danielle as we listened to the sounds invading our senses – buses, trains, a busy transport concourse? Again we groped through memories, and again we leaned heavily on yet another sense, that of hearing, placing a heavier burden on hearing than we are used to in our sighted world.

Again, we eventually guessed correctly, calling out correctly as we crossed the noisy world of a modern city. My senses were starting to feel assaulted – noise, unfamiliar noises, the movement of bodies around me, and always the lifeline of Danielle’s strong, clear voice leading us forward, clutching it like a rope, a lifeline.

We were in a market next, feeling fruits and vegetables in a bowl. Sense of smell was the next sense to be put to work – I couldn’t distinguish an apple from the other fruits without putting it to my nose and sniffing the aroma.

I marvelled at the strangeness of touching and smelling in order to work out what was in the bowl.
A pineapple was easy to guess at – its prickly-like leaves and outer shell easy enough. There were clothes hanging by a market stall, different fabrics falling between my fingers, a mannequin with a pregnant belly.

All the while there was Danielle’s strong warm presence leading us through, encouraging us to explore, to feel, to guess. I was struck by how this experience had revealed us all in psychological ways: both my friend and I are anxious types and explored through the veil of our fear.

When another friend went days later she found herself confronting and resolving her own demons, while my mother on her visit raced ahead, true to her daredevil sense of spirit.

We were now growing more confident. The fear had left me; my friend was even starting to make her way in this world of the darkness, had acquired a confidence, as though discovering a sense she hadn’t known before.

She moved quicker now, more sure of her steps, I was no longer shuffling as slowly as I had before, but was nowhere near as confident as she.

Our encounter with the dark ended with drinks and chips in the Dialogue Bar. I moved toward the counter and placed my order with two servers there. More voices in the dark. I gave them a R100 note, they knew exactly what I given them, and knew exactly what change to give me and how much. I took the clutch of notes and coins, I had no idea what I had been handed. I was too busy holding onto my mobility cane, my straw, my can of cold drink and packet of chips.

Noises were louder in the silence, crisp packers ripped through the darkness, opening a straw and inserting it into the can took longer than necessary. Tastes were intensified in the dark, senses now concentrated on flavour, seeking it out, making it work harder again than it ever has to.

As we sat Hanif passed us a “pimply” book – a book of Braille. We passed our fingers along the unfamiliar small dots on the surface of the paper.

I couldn’t imagine having to read through my fingers. Hanif spoke as we ate, telling us that he had been blind from birth, his optical nerves hadn’t been attached to his eyes.
He was married, his wife also blind. We tried to make sense of world without colour as he spoke, “To me a tree is a pole with more poles and leaves at the end of it.” I tried to imagine knowing a tree purely through feel and smell, and failed miserably. I imagine a tree and immediately I see the visual image before me.

“There are only a few things I wish I could see,” he shared, “a sunset, or a baby’s smile or the look of happiness on someone’s face.”

We greeted this with a poignant silence, each lost in contemplation.

And then, a chink of light, a faint glimmering of white, and Hanif led the way out. I was sorry to be leaving the darkness, and yet I breathed a sigh of relief as we were led out, the faint white giving way to the lit corridor and into the light.

Back into the world I knew, but why, paradoxically, was there also this sense of loss?


The Dialogue in the Dark is curated by the South African National Council for the Blind and the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre in Newtown and is now open to the public .Initiated by Andreas Heinecke in 1988, Dialogue in the Dark is a product of Dialogue Social Enterprise (DSE), an organisation whose key mission is to create innovative learning opportunities that improve the quality of human interactions. The underlying principle of the exhibition is drawn from the work of German-Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, “Principles of Dialogue”, which states that “The only way to learn is through encounter”. The Dialogue in the Dark exhibition has travelled worldwide raising awareness about human diversity while empowering people with disabilities. It has been presented in more than 30 countries and over 160 sites throughout Europe, Asia and America. Six and a half million visitors have experienced Dialogue in the Dark worldwide, and over
6 000 blind people have been provided with employment.

For further info: http://dialogueinthedarksa.blogspot.com/ and http://www.dialogue-in-the-dark.com

To follow the exploits of Hanif’s guide dog, Orli, visit Facebook and make friends with Orli Kruger

First published in The Sunday Independent August 21 2011

Monday, August 15, 2011

Out in Africa film festival

Gay movie festival highlights gays’ struggles, writes Arja Salafranca

Getting Out, one of the documentaries being shown at the Out In Africa festival, is a probing, hard-hitting documentary which looks at the raw face of homophobia in Africa. Ranging in space from Uganda to London, to Cape Town, filmmakers Alexandra Chapman, Chris Dolan and Daniel Neumann follow the lives of a number of Africans who have been forced to flee their countries simply because they are gay. With anti-gay laws being promulgated in Uganda, and practised in Malawi and Zimbabwe, gay people in Africa sometimes find themselves being raped in an effort to “correct” their perceived deviance, arrested, ostracised by their own communities, and forced to flee for their lives.

The documentary follows the stories of Ugandan gays Florence, Val and John, as well as Zimbabwean Tatenda, a transgender seeking asylum in South Africa and sexual reassignment surgery. The stories are harrowing.

Tatenda finds herself forced to leave her home in Zimbabwe, with her mother being aware her daughter must leave and powerless to help. In South Africa, Tatenda is penniless and homeless for a large part. Some of the more shocking scenes include the long queues of refugees at Home Affairs – over 500 people queue all night, only a handful are dealt with in the morning. Some refugees queue for over a year before they are attended to – and think death by returning home might be the only solution.

Stories of the corrective rape are horrifying – as well as the insidious treatment by British authorities of the refugees, with some officials advising the gay refugees to return home and “live discreetly” in order to escape the wrath of their communities and government. Such statements are outrageous.

There are some happy conclusions, and work by tireless lawyers in order to secure citizenship for these gay refugees, but the suffering undergone is equally shocking to hear.

In 80 Days (80 Egunean) two septuagenarians meet after a lifetime apart and a marriage in between, to find that sometimes society’s expectations force you into a mould you may not have inhabited if you had been born in a different time. We’re in the Basque region of Spain and encounter Axun (played by Itziar Aizpuru) and Maite (Mariasun Pagoaga). Maite, feisty, youthful in spirit, and on the verge of retiring, is visiting her sick brother, while Axun is, paradoxically, visiting her daughter’s ex-husband who has been wounded in a car crash. The daughter lives in California.

Liberated, determined to enjoy life to the full, Maite lives alone in her flat, surrounded by memories. She’s made peace with her trajectory of her life – and yet, life isn’t over yet, an attitude she exudes through her playful demeanour. Axun lives a quiet, uneventful life with her husband of many years. The quiet boredom and conventionality of her life is tellingly captured in a few choice scenes – from attending church with women friends she has known for many years, to silent evenings at home, cooking for her husband, her telephone calls to her daughter a lifeline out of the quiet desperation of her everyday existence.

When Axun and Maite recognise each other as childhood friends, a touching, strong re-connection follows. Maite soon takes Axun out for the day to an island, memories are rekindled, a childhood attraction comes to the fore – but it’s more than Axun can take. Uncomfortable feelings have been stirred up, and Axun remains ill at ease with the notion of lesbianism. Still, the burgeoning relationship continues – and when Maite reaches out when Axun comes to supper, the resulting scenes are inevitable.

This extraordinary film by Spanish writers and directors Jon Garano and Jose Mari Goenaga moves slowly and quietly towards its conclusion, and is brave in its telling. We don’t often see older people on screen, playing out games of sexual desire, but the writers rip the lid off this taboo. A beautiful, meditative piece about the choices we make, and the choices foistered on us by our own acquiescence to society’s demands.

Meanwhile, a very different story of lesbian experience is encountered in the local documentary, Waited For, directed by Nerina Penzhorn.

Waited For takes a look at lesbian couples who have chosen to adopt children, interviews and scenes of family life are interspersed with the wait for a baby by trans-race couple Kelly and Leigh-Ann. We watch as they are interviewed by social workers, visited in their home, and drive with them as they shop for their eagerly-awaited child. It’s an agonising experience: waiting for the phone to ring, waiting to hear if they will become parents. As gay women they are at the bottom of the adoption hierarchy.

Other issues come to the fore in the home of New Zealander Pip and South African Lee as they debate the benefits of leaving this country to bring up their children in a place where one daughter has already experience racism from a white New Zealand child. Single mother Paula talks openly about being a recovering addict and lavishes love on her adopted son. An engaging positive portrait of gay adoption emerges in Waited For.

We Were Here travels back to the 1980s and is an absorbing, eye-opening look at the impact of Aids on gays and lesbians in San Francisco’s gay district, The Castro.

Interviews with those who were there are interwoven with archive footage. In the 1970s The Castro was the place to be for America’s gay community, a safe haven of acceptance as gay rights took off, and gays took their place in the sun. But by the end of that decade and the early years of the 80s, menace arrived in the form of a strange “gay disease” in which sufferers wasted away, deformed by Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions.

Five Castro residents who were there tell their stories – stories of watching loved ones fall ill and die, all helpless in the face of this plague. Eileen Glutzer, a lesbian nurse who helped to administer many of the Aids trial drugs, is the only woman to be interviewed. Others are HIV-positive artist Daniel Goldstein, who lost two lovers to Aids, and speaks movingly of these losses, gay flower seller Guy Clark, Paul Boneberg and Ed Wolf. Ordinary men and women who lived through an extraordinary time.

With the advent of antiretroviral medication and the public surge of support for Aids sufferers which is more prevalent today, it’s hard to recall a time when Aids sufferers were treated like lepers through sheer ignorance. There was literally no hope, just palliative care as one by one friends and lovers died, the plague decimating a significant proportion of San Francisco’s gay community.

*This is the second season of Out in Africa, showing in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Other documentaries being shown include Lauren Beukes’s Glitter Boys and Ganglands, a peek behind the drag curtain. Other feature films included are Children of God, directed by Kareem j Mortimer, set in the heart of the Christian Bahamas, while Man at Bath (Homme au bain) is described as no-holds barred French film by Christophe Honore. See www.oia.co.za for the full line-up.

(Published in The Sunday Independent, August 14 2011)

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Poetry: South African women writing their bodies - Gillian Schutte

There has been a proliferation of poetry coming out of South Africa over the past few years – and much of this poetry has been scribed by women writing their bodies. From the wants and needs of their vaginas to the conflicting emotions that a period may bring on, to the inner stirrings of desire and lust – women are writing it all down and lots of it is getting published.

Says award-winning poet Arja Salafranca: “I think some of this has been due to the really sterling efforts of Colleen Higgs at Modjaji Books – she’s putting out a record number of poetry volumes by women writers – more so than any other publisher. This creates awareness and interest in the form.” ...Read more here

Friday, August 12, 2011

An apple in Munich

I think a red apple won’t be good enough.
A red apple plucked from a bowl on a luxury
river cruise liner, carried in my bag for two days.
An apple cratered on board in Passau,
placed in the industrial deep freeze and displayed
five days later in a white china bowl somewhere in rural
And then plucked by me, craving fresh fruit
after days of rich six-course meals.

But it languishes in the bowl in my cabin.
Until, packed, looking around, I grab it,
stuff it in my travel bag.
You never know when you’ll get hungry at airports,
said an elderly woman on board.
We fly from Budapest to Munich.
Catch a train to the city centre.
It’s a cool spring, but the city streets, flanked by
history and beggars, are still full of strolling Germans.

It won’t be good enough, will he take it?
I ask the Scotsman with me. Surely he’d prefer money?
But the Scotsman takes it, gives it to the beggar
huddled in a doorway and without hesitation
the beggar, not even looking up, bites hungrily
into the fruit, devouring it quickly, desperately,
without words of debate.

Published on LitNet

Short story form challenges and inspires writers: a report by Leila Bloch on the Cape Town launch of The Edge of Things

For an anthology of short stories, The Edge of Things includes both depth and scope, with several writers who seem (to varying degrees) unafraid of entering new literary territory. Published by Dye Hard Press, selected and edited by Arja Salafranca, these 24 stories are a special fiction edition of the literary journal Green Dragon.

At the launch, facilitated by Salafranca, a predominantly female group of writers clustered around a podium and steered the familiar how-and-why, question-and-answer session towards more spontaneous conversation. During the evening writers explained how they found inspiration while also skilfully adapting their writing to the short story format...Read more here

Thursday, August 4, 2011

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 on LitNet

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Report on the Cape Town launch of The Edge of Things

Last Thursday night saw the Cape Town launch of The Edge of Things, an anthology of South African short fiction selected by me and published by Dye Hard Press. This followed a month after the Jozi launch at Love Books in Melville.

Hosted by The Book Lounge, the launch was a chance for me to meet some of the Cape Town writers with whom I’d previously only had email dealings, as well as a chance to catch up with writing friends...Read more here

Friday, July 29, 2011

Review of A Book of Blues by Courttia Newland

This eclectic, diverse, and interesting collection ranges across countries – from the exotic African island of Lamu, off the coast of Kenya, to the heat of Miami, to the coldness of the underground to the gritty, roughly-hewn streets of London. In tone and style too, this collection offers a range: Beach Boy, which opens the book is an intensely lyrical piece; while in All Woman the narrator talks in a Caribbean patois-accent, and other stories zing with humour and sassiness.

I have to start with the achingly beautiful and memorable Beach Boy, a story of such poetry, it lingers on long after the first reading, and a story I wished would carry on..Read more here