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)