Monday, September 24, 2012

Home away from home

Cape Town - There are times when you feel like you’ve stepped out of your own world and into some alternative reality. A reality you could quite happily inhabit, if only the bank balance would follow suit. It helps that you’ve flown so many kilometres from the Big Smoke where you make your living, and you’re looking out at the view from your presidential suite.
The Sea Point Promenade is just beyond your window and the Atlantic Ocean splashing against the sea wall....Read more here

First cut is the deepest

There are many firsts beyond the obvious. The first time he comes bounding through your front window wearing a leather jacket at the start of winter, a jacket that you will remember through the years, the feel of it, and what it all meant. The first time you stay up till three, four in the morning, talking, and then more...Read more here

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Sunday, August 5, 2012

An urban fantasy

I’m sitting in what feels like a bachelor pad on the 16th floor of the Pepperclub Hotel & Spa. I’ve just been kindly escorted to my hotel – a long story that includes not taking proper directions or noting names of streets. So, at the garage, playing damsel in distress I’m asking where to go and looking suitably confused, when a man eating a pie, filling up with petrol, says it’s not far, and personally escorts me there....Read more here

Out in Africa 2012: a review

With the second leg of the Out in Africa festival now showing, the highlight for me was the headline act, Cloudburst. This stars big names Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker as two women who have been together for 31 years, co-habiting Dot’s home somewhere near the US/ Canadian border.
When the blind Dot (Fricker) falls out of bed and sprains her bottom, it’s apparently the beginning of the end of their life together. Her granddaughter Molly (Kristin Booth) sets in motion a plan to commit Dot to a frail-care facility, convinced that the 80-year-old Stella (Dukakis) can no longer care for her “special friend”...Read more here

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Thin Line is long-listed for the 2012 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa

The Lumina Foundation has released the long list for the 2012 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa, and Arja Salafranca's short fiction collection, The Thin Line, has been nominated.
The short list will be announced in August. Read more here

Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Car is a Weapon

“Eight thousand rand.” 
She takes a sip of tea. “It’s eight thousand rand to get a driver’s licence. And it’s two thousand five hundred to get a learner’s.”
“You’re not serious,” I say, “you’re not really going to do it.”
She shrugs, smiles, in her strange accented English she says, “You know I need a licence. Without it I can’t get a better job. It’s easier this way, quicker. I could wait years otherwise. What if I don’t pass my test?”
Pauli swallows the last of her tea, looks at her watch, another half an hour remaining before her lunch hour is over. She’s talking on condition of anonymity...Read more here

Friday, June 22, 2012

Launch of Inheriting the Earth: Jill Nudelman Discusses Her Debut Novel

The launch of Jill Nudelman’s Inheriting the Earth was held on 18 June at The Book Lounge in Cape Town. Adele Branch from UKZN Press welcomed the audience and introduced Nudelman and Arja Salafranca, who joined her at the launch to discuss the book.

The discussion started with Salafranca reading a précis of the book which is about Rose, a girl who was orphaned at a young age and adopted. She knows nothing about her biological family until her foster mother dies and she inherits a fortune along with a box of artefacts that provide her with clues to her ancestry... Read more here

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Edge of Things and The Thin Line on display at the Cape Town Book Fair 2012

The Edge of Things: South African Short Fiction, was published by Dye Hard Press in 2011 and The Thin Line was published by Modjaji Books in 2010. 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A-Twitter about books, talks and tweets

At best, what you’re left with after attending this dynamic yet intimate writers’ festival is an overwhelming swirl of words, sensations and stimulation enough to take you through the next few weeks. Plus, of course, an oversized suitcase weighted with the number of books you’ve bought after having listened to the various authors.
You also leave, perhaps, with a sense of loss and sadness. The charms of Franschhoek are beguiling – the village set within a valley offers an intimacy to the fest not provided when a writers’ fest takes place in a bigger city. You ditch the car, if you even hired one, and walk everywhere, day or night – it’s small enough for that...Read more here

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Arja Salafranca at the Franschoek Literary Festival 2012

From left: Joanne Hichens, Arja Salafranca, Colleen Higgs, (Unknown), Tracey Farren and Yewande Omotoso.
Photo: BooksLive

Monday, May 14, 2012

Bloggers and wine at Mount Grace

I’m sitting at The Rambling Vine restaurant at the Mount Grace Hotel in the Magaliesberg. I’ve been invited on a blogging weekend, of bloggers and partners and friends. We have our own hashtag: #mountgraceblog for Twitter and the cellphone flashes start as soon as the first course is served. If ever there was a weekend that was going to be preserved for posterity, this is it.
Also at the table a blogger who maintains no less than three accounts, has his iPad out among the silver cutlery and fine dining plates. Hard core about his blogging, he informs us midway through the eight-course meal that Cosatu’s just released a press release about the e-tag debacle...Read more here

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Elephant in the Room

This is an intensely uncomfortable play to watch, and in some way take part in, because you’re also intensely involved in it. It’s impossible not to be – the issues at the heart of Fat Pig reach deep into most of us in our image-obsessed world, whatever form that identification takes.
Written by American playwright Neil LaBute, the play has been brought to the SA stage and directed by Tamryn Speirs. The story grips from the beginning when plus-sized Helen (Chanelle de Jager) is standing in a cafe/bar eating her carbo-loaded lunch. The place is crowded and there’s nowhere else for Tom (Colin Moss) to eat...Read more here

Friday, April 13, 2012

All’s fair in love and war at the 2012 Franschhoek Literary Festival

The annual Franschhoek Literary Festival features an array of topics from hot politics to cool poetry, love stories to the horrors of war.

The festival takes place from 11 – 13 May.

Books are often the inspiration for movies, but in Rhumba, Michele Magwood talks to Elaine Proctor, a South African film-maker living in London, about the process of turning a film script into a novel about a boy’s search for his mother through an immigrant’s nightmare alleviated by friendship and redemption.

Happiness is a Four-Letter Word will have Arja Salafranca chatting to Cynthia Jele about the love story that won the 2011 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize Africa section.

Countless soldiers have fought and died in wars down the centuries. This year, several sessions at the FLF honour their sacrifices.

In 20th century wars, historians Bill Nasson and Mark Connelly will criss-cross the century from the Anglo-Boer conflict to the Falklands War. Angola’s long shadow will revisit the malignant scars of the Border War with Brent Meersman, Mark Behr, Johan Vlok Louw, photographer John Liebenberg and his co-author on Bush of Ghosts, Patricia Hayes. Mark Behr will also talk to James Whyle about The Book of War, set during the mid-19th century War of the Prophet in the Eastern Cape.

And there’s much, much more: eminent authors debating the direction of our country, some of SA’s top novelists, crime, satire and state secrets…

The full programme of the 2012 Franschhoek Literary Festival is online with bookings open on

Published at artslink

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Out in Africa reviews March 2012

Many of the stories in the latest batch of Out in Africa films both affirm the power of gay sex and identity, and show a way beyond ghettoes and life on the margins. It may take a certain courage to be true to yourself, but the results are dynamic, and the film-makers of these tales seem to take pleasure in that. And yet gay difficulties remain, and these stories remain faithful to the challenges that present themselves, too.

The Swedish film Kyss Mig, directed by Alexandra-Therese Keining (translated as Kiss Me in English, but also known by its English name of With Every Heartbeat) is one such film that brings that message to light.

Read more here

Communion with self: diary excerpts from Volume 40

I’ve kept diaries since the age of eleven – I can’t explain what compulsion made me begin. A friend of my mother’s gave me a beautiful red corduroy book to write my poems in, which I did, but the itch was there. After a few pages of poems I started – it was January 31 1983, and my large childish handwriting set out the details of my life: only child of a divorced single mother living in Orange Grove with three Maltese poodles, attending Standard Four at HA Jack Primary. And then onward, to a bosom friend, Leora, to a trip to California to visit family, through the teen years, university, first years working as a crime and entertainment journalist. First relationships, going to live in London briefly, and then back home to Johannesburg...Read more here

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Review of Willesden Herald New Short Stories 5, edited by Stephen Moran

This volume collects together the 12 finalists for the annual Willesden Herald short story competition. As with any anthology some will resonate and stand out more than others. Surprisingly for an anthology of stories selected from a wide variety of entrants, there does appear to be a unifying theme of interiority, meditation, threads of isolation and ways of dealing with grief running through the majority of these stories. What's remarkable too, is that many of these stories deal with tight, closed worlds, each world perfectly explored and described, and yet also, equally insular. While this feature is true of many short stories – the genre is one of brevity and a tight collection of characters – this seems especially pronounced in this selection. Perhaps the fact that many of the characters are locked up within worlds of grief and sadness lends weight to my overall impression. However this is by no means a negative comment: many of the stories were gripping, interesting, worthy pieces which linger on long after the initial reading, surely the mark of a story that rises above the rest...Read more here

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Meditative and moving

Reviewing Alice, five interlinked short stories by Judith Hermann 

German writer Judith Hermann examines the loss of a loved one through these five interlinked short narratives in Alice (The Clerkenwell Press). Her gaze is cool, detached, the writing style almost blandly obvious. The central character of Alice seems ephemeral: she appears in each story, death is linked to her through her relationship to each dying character: whether a friend’s husband is dying, or whether an old friend, a man in his seventies, is about to pass on.

We get to know and empathise with Alice through the layering of these stories, like burrowing down deep into the text, until, by the final story, the one whose loss recounts a man central to Alice’s existence, we feel we have, at last, become acquainted with the character who moves so centrally, so determinedly through these narratives. It’s gratifying, this slow peeling away at the onion skin of Alice; at last, there’s a sense of completion. Death is a character, a fact, early on, yet these stories are as much about loss as the central figure of Alice. 

The first of these stories, Misha, concerns the death of a young man, Misha, husband to Maja, father to his and Maja’s daughter, who remains unnamed. Alice is a sometime lover of Misha, and her relationship to Maja, the soon to be widow, is a rather awkward one.

Friendship would be too strong a term, acquaintanceship too distant. After all, acquaintances don’t take trains and temporarily relocate in order to help Maja care for her child in another city where Misha lies dying in a hospital. In fact, the uncertain boundaries of their relationship are never explained, but rather gently hinted at, a device Hermann uses often in this collection. 

Hermann’s gentle, delicate, almost watercolour gaze is reflected early on, the narrative reading at times like a dream. She eschews quotation marks for direct speech, which, for me, always adds a somewhat dreamy quality to a story.

Misha, the man, lies dying in a hospital not far from the flat where Alice, Maja and the child go through the motions of the days; death looms large, preparations both mental and emotional are being made. Yet this lends a rigidity and stiffness to the everyday actions of eating, drinking, visiting a dying man. Everything is not what it seems, although the mundanity of quotidian details belies this. 
When the threesome move to a bigger flat, they are greeted by their new landlords and Alice is immediately struck by the scars on the side of the man’s face: “It looked peculiar, but then everything seemed peculiar, had to be accepted for what it was. Alice carried her bag into the front garden and up the broken paving stones of the front path while the child on Maja’s arm kept saying, Rabbit. Rabbit. Rabbit. As if to calm everyone.” Through such almost throwaway lines Hermann indicates the strangeness of the wait for a young man’s death. Later on she thinks to herself, “astronauts. We’re just like astronauts, there’s no place to hold on to”. In this world of death and dying there are no rules, and nothing to grab on to. 

In the second story, Conrad, Alice travels with two friends from Germany to the Italian home of her elderly friends, Conrad and Lotte. She is travelling with her friend Anna (“she didn’t want to go anywhere without Anna”) and another male friend, simply called the Romanian. 

The setting is beautiful, the villa magical, the lake gorgeous with its cold water in the heat of an Italian summer, and yet, once more, death and uncertainty hover. When they arrive Lotte informs the trio that Conrad is a little unwell. A little unwell turns deadly, and once more a hospital becomes the centrifugal force for the action. While the trio enjoy their holiday, soaking up the sun, there’s the underlying awareness that a man is passing from this life. And yet, there’s little that is morbid or negative about this story, or any of the others that follow on. Death as a character, death as part of life, as Hermann appears to be saying. It lends an unsettling air to life, yet we carry on reading. Alice grows stronger, comes into focus as we read on, and our attention remains riveted on her; she is most certainly fully, and richly, alive as the narrative attests, and so while death is the link, it’s Alice’s life that leads us.

In the third, Richard, a friend is again in need. Richard, the husband of Margaret, dying of cancer in midlife, Margaret phoning, needing cigarettes. Through it all, the vibrant summer of Berlin swirls around Alice, introducing us to her live-in lover, Raymond. Once more we are being led further into Alice’s life. And further still in the fourth story, Malte, as Alice uncovers family history, finally researching the life of her unknown gay uncle Malte, who committed suicide. She meets Frederick, her uncle’s lover from the 1960s, now a man of seventy something, dignified in his sharing of secrets and reminisces. 

And then, the final story, Raymond. We witness Alice as an older woman now and her lover, Raymond, passes on. We’re deep into the depths of Alice’s character as she grieves. She matter-of-factly starts to get rid of his things, but grief catches you when you least expect it. She finds that “she couldn’t choose the memories; they came of their own accord; the memory of the garden, Raymond in the aviator jacket – soundless and yet part of it all”. When she discovers a dried piece of an almond horn, she crumples – small, everyday, innocuous objects have the power of memory, and remind one of loss, grief. This is a moving, meditative piece. 

This is the closest person in Alice’s life, as we move through the early, raw stages of her loss, “the days would never again be this clear and luminous; maybe she would have to learn how to find pleasure in it; any other way was impossible”.
First published in The Sunday Independent, January 22 2012

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Illuminating the poetry and horror of suburban life

Illuminating Love by Hazel Frankel

Illuminating Love (Jacana), by Joburg writer Hazel Frankel, is set in the heart of that city’s northern suburbs. The novel centres on Cally, a Jewish calligrapher, or soferet. Married to Jake, the mother of two children, Cally is engaged in making an anniversary present for her husband, as well as making a ketubah, an illuminated legal document that records a young couple’s wedding vows, for Aaron. In addition, she has discovered a number of poems written by her late Lithuanian grandmother, Judith. She’s transcribing them into calligraphy and reading each poem, which leads her deeper into Judith’s past, her pre-Holocaust life, her escape and her guilt at surviving, leaving, still living. 

These three strands interweave throughout the book: excavating the past through Judith’s words, making the illuminated document for the soon-to-be wed Aaron and his fiancée, while being reminded daily about the love and hope that goes alongside a new marriage, contrast vividly with Cally’s own life and marriage today. Because Cally is dead centre in the middle of an abusive marriage: a marriage once built on the same hope and love that Aaron’s was. But the years have served to erode: Jake remains haunted by his experience in the army, something he refuses to delve into or talk about, a subject that remains taboo within his household. And I use those words, his household, advisedly, as Jake rules his home with an increasingly authoritarian stance, a stance that Cally, still caught up in her love for him and yet increasingly fearful, finds herself unable to challenge. She tries – she goes away on holiday with just him, but Jake’s reactions and behaviour remain unpredictable: tenderness turns to violence all too often. Cally remains trapped. 

The only respite and refuge is her escape into calligraphy, a place where choosing the swirls and colours and a particular gold are consuming. Her platonic friendship with Aaron grows as the illuminated ketubah takes shape – yet this is further cause for Jake’s anger. Author Frankel is herself a calligrapher – and the book is rich in authentic detail in the subject – which makes for fascinating, and yes, illuminating reading. 

But while Cally’s crumbling, abusive marriage forms one heart of this richly readable novel, the other is devoted to Judith’s poems, with each chapter ending on a poem, which adds the third strand to this narrative. 

There’s a line early on which foreshadows what is to come:  “Until I started to learn about Judith, I had thought that history belonged to strangers. Now I know that it is also the personal experience of my family.” And through her past, Cally comes to some kind of understanding. The poems are yet another delight of this book, serving to illuminate (there’s that word again) a lost world, a lost generation, bringing it to life through poetry that’s simple, and yet richly detailed and vivid. 

Judith writes of Shabbos rituals, of love, of everyday domestic details, of the pain of leaving your home and country, and relief, and the guilt that follows survivors around. On love: “We do not speak of parting/but it sits between us. We do not speak of love, only/of the deer as it hesitates, one foot in the air, /waiting for the sun’s touch on the crisp snow./ We do not speak /of the train at the station,/ you leaving, me waving you on.”
On the dislocation of finding yourself in another country: “I breathed a world/ that knew mushrooms,/ field, forest; …/children sticky with blackberries,/ leapt into stars;/ here, I cannot find/ the path along my tongue.”

As Cally journeys further into her grandmother’s past, the present continues, and life unravels as Jake grows both more distant and violent. Things cannot remain as they are and the dénouement is both unexpected and surprising. There have been hints throughout of Jake’s inability to process his own past in the army, but they remain hints right up until the end, which makes for an awkward ending that, as a reader, you don’t quite feel prepared for, it’s all too much of a surprise, and I wish Frankel had prepared the groundwork on this a little earlier.
Plus, the ending and wrap-up feels a little too rushed and pat, and again, a vague sense of dissatisfaction results. We’re swept along, feeling empathy towards the likeable Cally, interested in her plight, while shuddering with revulsion at Jake’s increasingly unhinged personality. And while Jake is far from being a one-dimensional character, there remains scant exploration of the forces that shaped him. 

At other times, I felt the editing could have been tighter. A chapter on a holiday in Cape Town reads more like a journal entry, with very little advancing the course of the story, and could have been dispensed with in a few lines in perhaps another chapter. 

However, despite these criticisms, this remains a readable, gripping novel, filled with remarkable detail, and likeable, empathetic characters that ring true. Frankel, an EU finalist with her first novel, Counting Sleeping Beauties, moves the narrative along effortlessly and beautifully. The poetry adds to the charm, of course, and is a delightful, memorable touch to the story. Highly recommended.  

To read more of Judith’s poetry, see excerpts from the book at: 

First published in The Sunday Independent, January 22 2012 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Charm of the Bushveld

The journey begins with a propeller-driven De Havilland, the body of the plane is narrow, just two seats on either side of the aisle. We’re making our way to Simbavati Game Lodge, situated within the Timbavati Private Game Reserve near the Kruger Park. The engines throttle into life, the plane takes off, the noise deafening, drowning out all conversation till we reach cruising altitude. I feel like I’ve gone back in time, to the 1940s....Read more here 

Monday, January 16, 2012

A doctor in apartheid’s army

Battle Scarred: Hidden Costs of the Border War by Anthony Feinstein, Tafelberg

There is a world of sadness wrapped up in these walls. The psychotic patients, floundering in another dimension, are unaware of their plight. Their families see it all, though. When Mom and Dad arrive at the gates to pick up their lost son, their worry lines run deep, shoulders slump and anxiety makes their eyes dart like pinballs. The army knows there is no way back for these boys. Damaged goods must be returned.”

There are few choices for white men of conscript age in 1980s South Africa: choose to endure army training, and subsequent call-ups after that; proclaim yourself a conscientious objector and endure three years in jail; or leave, knowing you will never be able to return, or not without paying your dues to the state.

Anthony Feinstein trains as a doctor, and considers his options while taking violin lessons in Paris after winning a prestigious music prize. But the army has not forgotten him. He returns. He’s a doctor, two years should pass quickly. After basic training in which he learns that he is “lower than snake s***”, he chooses to go into plastic surgery, but the posts are full, and he’s assigned to psychiatry, the letters “PS” for psychiatry following just after PL for plastic surgeon. “The army decides I am to be a psychiatrist,” Feinstein writes, and so begins a meagre training in an army hospital, the place of sadness.

And then a different sort of hell begins. Feinstein discovers that he is to be posted to Oshakati in the then South West Africa, ordered to treat soldiers emotionally wrecked by their time in the Border War. It’s a place of unbelievable heat, and summer has yet to set in. But worse than that is the palpable sense of disillusionment and inevitability, “No one said war would be easy,” writes Feinstein. “Over and over this little homily is sung. It’s the stock response to every piece of bad news – landmine kills three, signalman hangs himself, sapper slashes throat, plane crashes, gas tank explodes.” The hot, sluggish days go on. Among the cases he treats, Feinstein encounters schizophrenia in a young soldier, and also counsels a traumatised abused wife of an army major.

Before long he finds himself in another hell in the bush, Tsandi, the baking pit of a tented camp, where he tastes fear as he’s flung into the heart of battle for the first time. The only escape: “You cannot step back from the group in Tsandi. There is simply no space for it. Only one’s thoughts are private and often they make bad company. So best to hang around the icebox and dip in for amnesia, which is what I do, following the lead of those more experienced.”

Throughout this powerful account of life in the army, Feinstein’s wry, witty and at times droll voice narrates the story in a compulsively, compelling manner.

The horrors of life in the army are laid bare, the brutality and the cruelty unfolding under his gentle pen. Musician, doctor, Jew, the combination couldn’t be worse in a regime designed to crush. Feinstein makes for a sympathetic character in his own real-life story; far from crushed, he nevertheless chooses to make his life elsewhere, beyond the borders of a SA gripped in rooi gevaar 1980s paranoia.

This memoir is a highly readable and recommended addition to the canon of stories emerging about life in apartheid’s army.

First published in The Sunday Independent, January 15 2012