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: and

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 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