Sunday, August 31, 2014

Arctic Summer

Arctic Summer is a fictionalised biography
of the novelist EM Forster
Arctic Summer – a fictionalised biography of the writer EM Forster – marks a significant departure for South African writer Damon Galgut. 

In prose that is rich and languid, with echoes of the early more formal twentieth century language that Forster himself used, Galgut sets this novel firmly in a milieu that is as far away from this country as his other novels weren’t. 

(Although his novellas, In A Strange Room, were partially set in India – that was in a more contemporary setting.) 

The novel opens in October of 1912 as the SS City of Birmingham steams toward India with the novelist EM Forster aboard. He’s 33, has four successful novels behind him. Travelling with friends, he soon meets up with a man, Kenneth Searight, who’s made his life and living in India, and who will open a small window on a world that Forster has been too timid to open himself.

EM Forster lives with his mother, an arrangement that will continue until her death in the 1940s. Independently wealthy from a small inheritance, this means he has no need to work, and can instead devote himself to his writing, as well as moving within the small circuit of society he finds himself in.

And, crucially, Forster is gay, or a “minorite” as he will term it in his own words. One of the reasons he’s off to India is to meet up with a friend of his, Masood, whom he met six years ago in England, while tutoring him in Latin for his law degree.  It will be Forster who will want to take this friendship beyond the borders of that relationship, and Forster who will remain forever disappointed by so many men in his life who, while leaning towards homosexuality, settle for the norms of heterosexuality, in a world where this is more than encouraged and in which the result of Oscar Wilde’s trial and imprisonment loom large over the consciousness of those who come to maturity in the early years of the 20th century. Sexuality frames this book – with each section being named after the men in Forster’s life, whether these were requited or unrequited encounters.   

Running along this seam is the story of Forster, a fictionalised biography that stays close to the facts, detailing both his struggles with writing, his difficult relationship with his somewhat domineering mother, (his absent father, dead) and his continual reaching out to the men in his life, his continual grasp at his sexuality, and search for a companion to share and open up with. This difficulty informs his writing too, and perhaps leads in time to the fact that Forster stopped writing novels after the publication of A Passage to India: “The problem was that he was writing about men and women, about marriage, which were subjects he knew nothing about. It was an ongoing vexation to feel that his true subject was buried somewhere out of reach, and could perhaps never be spoken aloud.”

The book runs back through time – from when Forster first meets Masood, as well as his occasional flirtation with another friend of his, who will seek comfort within the confines of a heterosexual marriage. Or an evening spent with an acquaintance where he meets another man who hints at his suppressed sexuality, and then commits suicide. All along the warnings are there – transgress beyond the norm, let it be known, and, watch out, there be dragons beyond that horizon.

His six months in India remain with him – living on through memories, growing slowly towards the completion of “the Indian novel” which nonetheless takes years. India comes alive within this section – a colonial India of ever-present heat and poverty, as England’s hold on the sub-continent begins to loosen and sway, as the country agitates for independence.

The First World War intervenes, which finds Forster taking a job for the war effort in Egypt. It’s here that he finally unshackles himself of his burdensome sexuality at the age of 37; and then enters into an unequal relationship with an Egyptian tram driver, Mohammed. “His loneliness was now so big that it had become his life...” A loneliness that is only assuaged, and that only in small measure, by this coupling. But there too – time and love, if love is what passes between them in this unequal coupling – is rationed, parcelled out, as life intervenes. Yet, it’s painful reading of this affair – an affair that seems as doomed as any of the unrequited passions Forster must undergo.

And, yet, alongside this, life continues. The war ends, Forster returns home to England, his mother and the stultifying life he leads there, where desires must be subsumed, hidden. Only the writing of his secret erotic stories provide some kind of relief.

The text is sprinkled with the names of the members of the famous Bloomsbury group – Lytton Strachey, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Lady Ottoline Morrell – and there’s a frisson of pleasure in encountering them within a novelistic setting.

Forster accepts a post a secretary to an Indian Maharajah, returning again to the sub-continent, older, yet, still struggling with his writing: “He’d brought the damned manuscript of his novel with him, thinking that being in India might wake the story up again. But the effect, strangely, was the opposite, the continent pressed on him so hugely that he could barely see it.” And, once more, he tries to find his way through his forbidden sexuality, this time enlisting the help of his boss and paying for it in a more visceral way than ever before. The barber, Kanaya, will serve. The couplings are passion-less; Forster gives vent to his frustration through violence, and for, the first time, one loses sympathy with the man, using his dominant position, subjugating the Indian man meant to please him in a way that is difficult to read about.     

The novel meanders to its conclusion – the publication of Forster’s last novel – which was a major success when he published it in 1924 and ends there. Forster of course lived on, dying in 1970 at the age of 91. There’s a sense of sadness that encloses you as you finish this read – Galgut’s writing is polished, yet crystal-sharp, effortlessly leading you on as the story continues its trajectory. A life unlived in so many instances – and yet who can say a life is truly unlived? Forster lived as he did – making what experiences he could, while caught within the bounds of his own timidity.

Galgut’s sensitively told novel reads as both monument to a man caught within his personality as well as the times he lived, while throwing a harsh spotlight on those times, the strictures and the fears, a time when practising anything but the norm of heterosexuality wasn’t always, sadly, worth the sacrifices.  

Arctic Summer illuminates the man, the writer and the sexual being behind the fame that came to accompany him, in a way that is both sadly enlightening while being compellingly readable.  

First published in the Pretoria News, June 17, 2014 

Ruminations on love and writing: interview with Athol Fugard

Athol Fugard as Oupa in
The Shadow of the Hummingbird
“This is the smallest play I've ever written, but it has generated more noise than the others. I never thought it would impact on people the way it has,” says playwright Athol Fugard. It’s an early weekday morning and I’m talking to him on the wide stoep of the guesthouse where’s he staying while he’s performing in The Shadow of the Hummingbird at the Market Theatre. He’s smoking on his pipe, and the sweet smelling tobacco wafts my way as we talk, mostly about this new play, and its genesis.  His partner, and collaborator on the play, Paula Fourie sits close by smoking.

At times, hadedas punctuate our conversation half way through, flying noisily through the air, screeching their presence at us, a far cry from the quiet shadows and suggestions of the hummingbirds which punctuate this latest play as motif throughout its gentle telling.   

On the surface, The Shadow of the Hummingbird is a quiet play. At just an hour in length, it’s set in two parts. The first sees an old man, a retired South African school teacher, Oupa, now living in retirement in California, played by Fugard himself. He’s kept notebooks for years – and is searching for a particular entry from among the clutter of books and notebooks in his room.

These excerpts are from Fugard’s actual unpublished notebooks – a habit he continues to maintain today. He likens the habit to what Virginia Woolf said about “capturing the image on the wing” and adds that keeping a notebook for writers is akin to the finger exercises of a pianist: “Writers must put pen to paper, capture the flower you’ve seen, the thought you’ve had. One of the questions I always ask young writers is whether they keep a notebook.” 

There’s something about a shadow that Oupa is seeking, and he can’t find it in the play.  He goes through many entries, reading fragments from each.  There are lists of bird sightings – Fugard is an avid bird-watcher – ruminations on death, on the meaningless of the turning of the new year, a paean to Port Elizabeth, love, the eager anticipation of having a grandchild, and the ever elusive search for the entry with the shadow, shadow as metaphor for life itself,  and then the final reckoning.

Paula Fourie, Fugard’s partner and
 co-writer of The Shadow of the Hummingbird
Fourie was responsible for writing the first section. Fugard had written the play, but it was too short to be performed, and it was decided that Fourie would edit and go through some of the notebooks, and combine them into the text, hitting upon the idea of Oupa reading the entries. Fourie worked through 20 years of unpublished books. However, as she explains to me, the process was an alchemy in terms of combining fiction and non-fictional elements. Oupa isn’t Fugard – so there were some changes, such as not including the notebook entries on rehearsals for The Captain’s Tiger, for instance. Fugard adds that this really is an example of the collaborative nature of theatre, that theatre itself is a collaborative form.

Fugard explains that there were two seminal images that served as the genesis of the play. When he was based in California, he was writing and kept being alerted to the shadow of hummingbirds flitting around the birdfeeder on the patio outside. “Every morning I watched the shadow for a few minutes.” He also remembered making an entry in my notebooks in the early 1960s when I was writing the Blood Knot – the last entry I read on stage – the seed stayed with me for days.”  

Returning to the play, Oupa’s search is interrupted by the arrival of his grandson, Boba (Marviantos Baker)  who instantly becomes part of a fun game the two appear to have played for years with Boba slaying his grandfather, now the teacher from the black lagoon! Fugard’s real grandson Gavyn served as the inspiration here for the grandson.

This was another opportunity to collaborate further, as Fugard notes. In the American version of the play, which was staged prior to its south African run, the role of the grandson was played by two 10-year-old twins alternating in the role – because of their youth, they served more as foils to the role of Oupa. But Baker, although being 23, could look 13, and thus became an older grandson, “which took the play to a new level, and opened up areas of the play, with Marviantos making his own contributions,” says Fugard. 

On stage, this fun banter and play turns to serious talk as watch the two navigate the realities of their relationship – Oupa is estranged from his “stupid” son – and bonds with his beloved grandson only through these secret meetings. The love between grandfather and grandson, the two is palpable and fierce.

Athol Fugard takes the role of Oupa alongside Marviantos Baker as
Boba, the grandson, in The Shadow of the Hummingbird
This is a cerebral work – and in this last section Oupa quotes an allegory of Plato’s to the boy, and then goes through War and Peace, holding up the book as a standard to this young child, who, in his youth, doesn’t always get all the allusions and references Oupa wants to impart. This is also as much a play about that bond as with the final reckoning and slow acceptance of what’s inevitable, after a long life.

But it’s the thread of love that runs through the play alongside the search for shadows that intrigues and I want to ask about the line of love in the story. In one notebook entry, we hear: “Living through another Death and once again I know that it is only through love that I will resurrect myself.” The vicissitudes and habit of love continue to echo through the story, and then, towards the end, Oupa quotes from Tolstoy’s War and Peace: “What is ‘love’? he thought. Love hinders death. Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists. . .everything that I understand, I understand only because I love.”  

Fugard says, “Love is the only energy I’ve ever used in writing – if I don’t love that individual on paper, it doesn’t work. But it has presented wonderful challenges, for example in Boesman and Lena, loving Lena, a victim of a dark and complex relationship is easy, and yet with Boesman, the character, I also fell in love with him, although that was a severe challenge. And, in writing, I have to leave negative emotions outside the door, hate, anger, jealousy, it leaves nothing on the paper.” 

For the future, Fugard continues to leave a trail on paper. There’s a new play due to be performed in March next year, and he has an idea for a second novel, perhaps to be titled, Dry Remains, the title taken from the five stages of decay the body goes through after death, from fresh to bloat, active decay, advanced decay and finally dry remains.  “Maybe we can look at a life in the same way,” he muses. (begin poss cut: His first, novel, Tsotsi, was turned into a successful film in 2005. 

But for now, Fugard is treading the boards again – an acting role he took on because, “I felt I could do a better job of Oupa than anyone else. He’s performed the role from the US to South Africa, and describes the first performance in the US as “like being in a holding cell of the gallows. But Oupa posses me so completely on stage. In a strange sense I know exactly what I’m doing.”

“Perhaps,” says Fourie, “Oupa is a version of you, what you could have become?” She’s referring to the fact that Fugard may have become a teacher.

“Partly that,” he answers, “there’s something else though.”

As he says goodbye and steps through the wooden doors of the guesthouse, I remember the other phrases he used early on in referring to himself, and the mix between him and character he plays. Eyes laughing he’d said, “It’s me in my various disguises – as an old schoolteacher or you can also call me Helen Martins in drag!” in an allusion to the play, A Road to Mecca. Or, another line he used to refer to himself, eyes, twinkling, taking delight in the strange twist of words of juxtaposition of thought: “A man who loves in strange and crooked ways.”  

First published in The Sunday Independent and Weekend Argus, August 17 2014 

Adults Only teaser: Q&A with Arja Salafranca

Joanne Hichens – editor of the Adults Only, the second annual Short.Sharp.Stories Awards anthology – interviews Arja Salafranca.
Arja Salafranca has published two collections of poetry, A Life Stripped of Illusions, which received the Sanlam Award for poetry and The Fire in which we Burn; a third is forthcoming in 2014. Her debut collection of short fiction is titled The Thin Line, and long-listed for the Wole Soyinka Award in 2012. She has participated in a number of writers conferences, edited two anthologies of fiction and non-fiction, and has received awards for her poetry and fiction. She is the lifestyle and arts editor at The Sunday Independent. Find her online
So… a collection of sexy stories… what’s your take?
Sex is everywhere around us – seemingly – on television and billboards, online and elsewhere – and yet, you don’t find much of it in literary terms, it’s something only partially explored in SA writing – and so I think this volume will be a welcome addition to the literary canon.... Read more here

Monday, June 23, 2014

A walk through times of colour and freedom

Arja Salafranca, Bongani Nkosi and Loyiso Sidimba reflect on the meaning of democracy and the events that shaped their social outlook.

It’s late Saturday afternoon in a house in Pretoria last month. I’m talking to an Indian woman married to a white woman. Together they have adopted a mixed-race baby, who at this moment is heading towards the sparkling blue pool, intent on splashing in it, even though autumn has started its slow creep towards winter.

“It has allowed me to have the family I have.”

The woman’s simple statement cuts through all talk and all reflection, philosophy becomes mute and falls away – it brings it all to the foreground. A gay couple who have adopted a child – the perfect poster children for Mandela’s vision. Is there anything more left to say? The sun’s shining, we’ve tucked into melktert and rooibos tea....Read more here

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Review of Queer Africa: New and Collected Fiction

Queer Africa: New and Collected Fiction, provides a snapshot view of fictional gay lives from across the African continent. In this volume, editors Makhosazana Xaba and Karen Martin have collected a range of fiction, published and unpublished, and a selection from acclaimed novels such as Richard du Nooy’s The Big Stick and Sello Duiker’s Chapter Thirteen.

The stories vary in tone and complexity, with a selection that ranges in more here