10 QUESTIONS: David Bristow

David Bristow, who served as Getaway magazine’s editor for 14 years, has authored more than 20 books, including Running Wild, an account of Zulu, the horse who became leader of a herd of zebras in the Tuli Block, Botswana.

David Bristow

Running Wild features a colourful cast. How did you identify and track down the humans that feature in the book so that you would be able to tell Zulu’s story?

I knew most of the characters before I started to research the book, having been to Mashatu [in the Tuli Block] numerous times before. I had even met Zulu on safari, although I did not really remember much about him from that time. The rest of the characters I had to track down. The research took the better part of a year.

What is the most inspiring thing for you about Zulu’s story?

Obviously the most WTF! aspect to the story is how was a domestic horse not only able to join a wild zebra herd, but become the alpha stallion. Answering the question was the crux of the whole book and most of my creative and research effort went into answering that question. I researched not only the actual life of Zulu, but everything I could about horses from Black Beauty to Exploring Equine Intelligence, Evolution and Behavior. Then I tried to work out what it is about horses that they become such almost magical creatures. For example, why will a horse obey its rider and charge into blasting canon fire without flinching? Or, carry a rider thousands of kilometres until it drops down dead? It is a mystery and I am still not a 100% sure if it’s because they are super sentient creatures, or really thick.

Can you tell us about the significance of the book’s setting, the Tuli Block?

I guess the story could have occurred anywhere, but it just happened that Limpopo Valley Horse Safaris set up shop there, and bought Zulu along with a few others from Onderstepoort as their start-up herd back in 1997. However, it had to be there or else the “great storm” would not have figured in the story, Zulu would not have escaped to “run wild” in the Tuli region and likely hitch up with the wild zebras there.

What are the most meaningful insights we can learn from Zulu and his life?

The most obvious one – did Zulu breed with the zebras – is one that will forever remain unanswered. When he was recaptured none of the humans took any notice of the zebra herd or checked to see if there were any offspring in attendance. Zebra males mating with horse and donkey females is known to be possible, but has always bred a sterile zonkey or zorse. But a male horse and female zebra mating, or at least producing offspring, is unknown. Not even the boffs at the Equine Research Centre at Onderstepoort could shed light on that one.

Then there is the matter of what knowledge Zulu brought back with him. He returned a horse extremely wise in the ways of the bush and survival. He would find predators in just about every ride. More than once he saved his rider from close encounters with elephants and lions, which any other horse would not have been able to do. Then there is the whole matter of African horse sickness and what Zulu taught his owners about its treatment. This knowledge is still being used to treat safari horses.

Are there any other examples of horses integrating with another species as Zulu did?

No, not so far as I know. Firstly, horses are extremely skittish animals; most domestic horses die from colic, which is essentially a nervous disposition. Then there is the small matter of horse meat: can you image how all the predators of the African bush would have loved to get a bite of that! How was it that Zulu was not eaten is amazing. In captivity horses can and will bond with other animals, but out there in the bush it’s every horse for itself.

If you could ask Zulu one question, what would it be?

Did any of the females in your zebra harem bear your offspring?

What was the most difficult aspect of working on this book?

To date I have written more than 20 books and I have always maintained that writing is the easy part, just like making bricks or bread. It’s selling them that is hard. I got 174 rejections from agents and publishes around the world before I got the “yes” from Jacana Media in Johannesburg. Even so, the research took a year as I mentioned, writing took another year, then a year to find a publisher and finally a fourth during which there were three rewrites.

What makes horses such compelling animals — both as companions to humans and as figures in literature?

Interesting that, and there is no easy answer. That is the question which is explored in the play Equus: why did a teenage boy stab out the eyes of several horses one night in the stable where he worked (true story)? I think mostly it has to do with horse anatomy. Horses are extremely powerful animals and when we interact with them, and ride them, this power is evident and can be overwhelming. They can run further than any other animal. They can jump astonishing heights. Most of these characteristics are derived from their unique back leg geometry; they have very light spring-loaded lower legs powered by extremely large buttock and thigh muscles which makes equids unique in the animal world. But the matter of the connection between humans and horses, that’s one I’m still working on. Best you ask a teenage girl.

To what do you attribute the human fascination with “being wild”?

We’ve spent the better part of the past 10 000 years or so trying to tame nature in order that we might lead more secure, predictable and increasingly comfortable lives. Suddenly in the past hundred years or less, taming has turned to destroying in our unrelenting urge for material comforts. It was not only Bob Dylan who said, but I remember he said it so well, that “I never knew what I had, till I threw it all away.” We’re a funny animal, in the worst way.

What is the next story you will tell?

No food for lazy boy! My next book is already on the store shelves. It’s called The Game Ranger, the Knife, the Lion and the Sheep and it contains 20 stories about some of the most curious characters I could find in South African history. And I’m working on the one after that, about 20 amazing places in South Africa, a kind of adventurer’s bucket list. That will be out around this time next year, and I’m already planning the two after that. I guess you could say I’ve got the writing bug. And lucky for me I finally found a publisher who encourages me to scratch that itch.

Running Wild is published by Jacana Media.

Love and Crime: in conversation with Consuelo Roland

FIONA ZERBST chats with Consuelo Roland author of The Good Cemetery Guide, Lady Limbo and Wolf Trap about sex, death, detective fiction, love, magic realism and what it means to write novels in the 21st century.

Consuelo Roland

Consuelo, let’s talk about how the importance of crime in Lady Limbo and Wolf Trap, the first two novels in your Limbo Trilogy. Daniel in Lady Limbo writes crime fiction and the books feature private investigators, detectives and criminal syndicates.

I remember going to the circus as a seven-year-old in a red-tartan-checked cape my mother made me (like Sherlock Holmes). I realise now that feeling like a detective (and a writer) makes me a detached observer of the antics of others. A writer is partly a detective, one who unearths and casts light on the hidden or secret worlds of others. Also, a detective starts from ‘point zero’ and works obsessively to reach the truth.

I like the fact that writing detective fiction becomes a trope in the novel.

I read a lot of French at one stage and French crime fiction is very popular. I like to play with some of the clichés of detective fiction. I think I like writing about crime because it illustrates very clearly the contradictions that form the basis of human life. Everything we do is based on the existence of conflicting forces inside us. Criminals live in a very clear world. For most of us, an act of crime would be immensely fracturing and harrowing, but it would be normal for a criminal. There’s juxtaposition between the criminal world and another world, a very ambiguous one.

Let’s talk about Paola’s transition from tough, organised career woman to impetuous, grieving sleuth in Lady Limbo.

One of the things I wanted to explore in Lady Limbo was the whole gender equality issue. I was that career woman for a very long time. I had power over others and I used it. I wasn’t a very likeable person because one is just so stressed, twelve to fourteen hours a day. You try to be the perfect woman in all ways. I used that experience to write Paola’s character.

It seems to me that Paola exemplifies moral ambiguity – she has doubts, she questions herself.

Paola likes to think that her life is rational – most of the time we fool ourselves about how clear everything is in our lives when it’s really not. A random encounter or choice made and everything can change. It sits somewhere between our normal lives and a life of crime. We like to think it’s a clear line, but is it? Paola has to navigate this territory from the moment she chooses to investigate Daniel’s disappearance.

Once she begins investigating, we find ourselves in a very dark world, one of sexual commerce, sex trafficking and so on…

The two worlds interest me – how we live our daily public lives pretending there is no sex, but we have rich sexual lives in private and in our thoughts. When you’re a novelist, you’re constantly observing how people relate to other people, often in a very sexual way. I think it’s easier to stylise sex in literary fiction where your readers give you quite a bit of leeway − I’m thinking of Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Atonement − or within a specific genre where sex scenes are expected. It’s tricky writing about sex because there’s often a mix of readers across the spectrum. I’ve had readers ask me why I write about sex and comment on how sexual the characters are. I don’t find them that sexual at all, by the way! It’s part of the story. Someone said the other day that I write about good sex and bad sex. I thought that was an interesting comment.

Yes, you skirt the Mills & Boon clichés.

But our lives are very much clichés. Marriage is a cliché. Parenthood is a cliché. Being a modern career woman is a total cliché! I think I write about the hidden so much because we deny it a lot of the time. It’s not to say I’m not terrified of that – I am – but I do feel we’re constantly on that edge. I am very drawn to writers like Atwood, Murakami and Irving because they explore the sexual relations of human beings. I don’t know how it can be left out of books!

Daniel’s a mysterious guy – it’s difficult to figure out his motives or get inside his head. How do you write a character like him, knowing that you can’t give the reader too much?

Daniel first came to me as a voice and I tried to write the book in his voice. He came as the instigator of the story, so to speak. I thought, “If he’s the one who wants me to tell this story, why am I not telling it in his voice?” It seemed that he wanted me to tell the story from Paola’s perspective, however; he was an enigma and he remains one to me. I do think living a double life makes an enigma of people. Daniel may not be at the forefront of the story, but he has huge power within it.

One never gets a sense that the characters will be completely immersed in darkness – there’s always a sense that good will prevail and there will be redemption?

Well, we know that, in general, readers want a drop of hope. We’re brought up knowing that books without hope, entirely bleak, are a shock to the system. It would be an interesting experiment to try a hopeless version! But I do think you need playfulness to come out of that darkness and write the next book. You can get lost!

Let’s go back to your first novel, The Good Cemetery Guide. To my mind, there’s a strong element of magic realism in the novel, which makes for much levity in the fact of death and decay. Was that a conscious choice? There really was something of Love in the Time of Cholera about the novel…

There is a magical and mythical element to the novel – the semi-magical world of a fictional Kalk Bay where a lonely man had been born into a funeral parlour. Anthony the boy likes to fall asleep in coffins. I think in magic realism you have to be able to let yourself go, be ridiculous and just go for it; it’s an exaggerated, augmented reality but it’s all possible; it’s not a fairy tale. Rushdie speaks about magical realism as an enrichment of reality rather than an escape. Kalk Bay, this place in the fictional ether of The Good Cemetery Guide with a railway line going through it, is like García Márquez’s Macondo or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. The idea is to capture real people in a real place and evoke something of their distilled particularity.

I’d like to ask you about your writing process and where it starts. Where does a book begin for you?

It’s different every time. Ursula Le Guin said something about a story being like trying on a role… one puts on a whole play of possibilities, to see what characters will do. For me it’s very much like that; it’s mostly impromptu. Writing is never easy for me. It’s like pulling teeth. I have to rewrite and rewrite until the writing has its own sound like a poem. Every word has to be right and in the right place. It takes me forever. I can rewrite a chapter hundreds of times.

Can we call your Limbo Trilogy books postmodern? You play with the idea of writing about writing and the reader is very much conscious of your writing process and how you construct your characters.

It all depends how you define ‘postmodern’ but it’s true that if you look at Irving, Murakami and Atwood, my guiding lights as a writer, certain attributes stand out. The divide between the fantastic and the real is permeable in their writing, even if as Marukami claims, it is very natural in Japan. In the Limbo Trilogy, characters have to constantly figure out what’s real and what’s not real, because of the blurring of truth and lies. Other postmodern touchpoints are the stories within stories, the existential leanings as characters try and find meaning, and the absence of a clear resolution or consistent universe. Ultimately I’d hope that the Limbo Trilogy is a riveting saga that opens up its own space for the reader’s enjoyment and interpretation.

The final novel in the Limbo Trilogy will be published by Jacana Media in 2019.

REVIEW: New Times

New Times, Rehana Rossouw’s vivid new novel about the early days of the Rainbow Nation, traverses familiar territory for YAZEED KAMALDIEN.

New Times by Rehana Rossouw

Although circles around myself and author Rehana Rossouw have intertwined, we’ve never met. Those circles would be obvious since we are both journalists but then it’s ironic that we haven’t met because we operate in a small media world in the same country.

While we may not have met, I did pop in at one of her book talks, held at the Goethe Institute in Johannesburg with her relative – my dear friend – Nasia Seria. And I’ve worked for a few years with Chiara Carter, editor of Weekend Argus newspaper, who spoke at the Cape Town launch of this novel and who is a mutual friend. Then there’s author Barbara Boswell who is also mentioned, along with Carter, in the acknowledgements section of this book, whom we also share.

We are connected through the people we know, but not directly. Maybe I should just add her on Facebook, if she’s on there. Anyway, at least now I feel connected with her after having read New Times, which takes its name from the newspaper title where the novel’s lead character Ali Adams works as a journalist. The point of all of this mentioning of interconnectedness is to entrench a bit deeper the fact that Rossouw’s book is terribly familiar territory to me. That stretches from her depictions of Ali’s reflections on life in a busy newsroom to the Islamic traditions in Bo-Kaap she participates in. And then there are references to Cape Town’s left-leaning crowd who forms parts of characters in New Times. We still see them at Cuban government events and Palestinian support rallies in the Mother City.

When Carter saw New Times on my desk at the paper’s office where I’m still doing some freelance journalism, she stopped to talk about the left crowd referenced in the book, although not named of course. Carter joked about how they were having conversations about who was actually who in Rossouw’s novel.

New Timesthus appears as a deeply personal work for Rossouw. It feels as if she has literally taken her diary from reporting on South Africa’s social and political challenges – particular understanding its post-apartheid identity – and published it here as the story of Ali Adams. I’m not sure if she has mentioned this in any interview or whether any book reviewer elsewhere picked up on this. I’ve chosen to avoid reading anything about New Times in favour of forming my own reflection without influence.

Back to the main character: Ali is a journalist who has direct access to Nelson Mandela during his second year in office as the country’s first democratically elected president.

Fresh out of apartheid, she has black friends who served time on Robben Island and works closely with a white journalist who had links to the apartheid military. She sees the many faces of the country, as journalists often do, and shares it through her newspaper writing.

Reflecting on Ali’s close proximity to her sources, I’m always sceptical of journalists who get too close to political parties and politicians but, OK, one can understand the context of those back-in-the-day times. Back then the post-apartheid South Africa was all mixed up – well, it remains still mixed up.

It was common for anti-apartheid activists to turn up in newsrooms while their comrades would turn up in government, right next to Mandela.

Rossouw shows us the life of Ali, the young journalist, not yet 30, who navigates ins and outs of Rainbow Nation lives to tell stories, fight her demons, make peace with her household and find peace with herself.

As mentioned, the novel appears autobiographical, and it does not pretend to make grander statements than what it reflects: the new times of a new country. And what it all means for a young, female journalist.

A line in the book that appears as a tagline for the new times reflected in this book appears on page 20: “Sometimes it’s hard to understand the choices people make when they’re finally free.”

And so Ali asks tough questions about how the African National Congress – regarded as the liberation party that shook South Africa free from white apartheid rule – has turned its back on the people who ensured its victory. (The ANC is referred to in the book as The Movement, by the way.)

The writing pace moves at the pace of Ali’s busy life. When she’s not at work chasing deadlines and fighting monster managers she’s enjoying simple moments of shared meals that her grandmother makes in Bo-Kaap – a community whose residents and history Rossouw depicts with great affection. It is portrayed with all its Islamic gatherings, patriarchy and laikoms (we will get to that later).

I really liked how Rossouw’s brushes off the patriarchy without trying to sound too self-righteous. She doesn’t need to go on That Angry Feminist Rant to make her point.

I’m not meaning to take a dig at that kind of non-inclusive feminism that demands women should not wear burqas because white women don’t wear it so therefore no women should. I’m just saying that I like Rossouw’s way of showing that Ali’s feminism isn’t about burning a bra. It’s about claiming her space in the world on her terms.

And as someone who knows the hell of newsrooms – and its accompanying patriarchy, chauvinism, and the way critical thinking can easily be trumped by knee-jerk reactionary drivel – it’s great to see a story about a female journalist of colour who kicks butt at her job.

We all know and can see that race and representation in media is still not as diverse as it could be. And racism is still an issue in the media, whether in newsrooms or in the endless reports of pathetic racism that erupts across South Africa and beyond.

To state the obvious: Rossouw is a woman of colour who wrote her story. She placed a character into the archive of our collective library that tells our stories. She writes without much fuss or pretence about navigating the journalism, politics, her community and race. None of it is blatant or pedantic, thank goodness. There is no political correct bullshit either. Rossouw has a sense of humour too, which shows in New Times.

Her Muslim, woman, journalist character is very real: she smokes, she swears, she prays, she loves her family, she tells men where to get off and she even does a shadow boxing bout with Mandela in Parliament. It’s a story that I’m glad has been told.

And when I do eventually meet Rossouw, I’ll greet her: “Laikom, Rehana.”

That’s the Cape Town version of the longer Arabic greeting Asalamu alaykom wa rahmatulahi wa barakatu.

New Times is published by Jacana.

Yazeed Kamaldien is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town.

BOOK CLUB: Rape: A South African Nightmare

Pumla Dineo Gqola’s Rape: A South African Nightmare is a harrowingly incisive analysis of one of South Africa’s greatest scourges, writes TARAH CHILDES.Rape

Consider, for a moment, our country’s label as the rape capital of the world and then reflect on your reaction to it. No doubt you will feel outraged, frustrated by your sense of hopelessness and perceived inability to help turn the tide against this “endemic” issue. And you would not be alone. As a society, we are overwhelmed by rape: we express our collective horror and shock at each new incident that makes headlines, but to what effect?

It is this repetitive discourse around the taboo, often mysterious and always complex subject that writer, feminist and professor, Pumla Dineo Gqola examines and challenges in Rape: A South African Nightmare – a worthy winner of the Sunday Times 2016 Alan Paton Award for Non-fiction.

In a series of succinct, analytical chapters, Gqola explores the culture of rape and its normalisation into our country’s social makeup, systematically interrogating our assumptions and attitudes from multiple angles and making sense of rape’s complex relationship to our past as well as its conflation with gender, sex and race.

Beginning by dismantling the idea that rape is a post 1994 problem, Gqola traces it back to its violent colonial roots and use as a tool of subjugation in our past slavocratic society —supported by a system that classified black women as legally “unrapable”, while simultaneously casting black men as sexually ravenous and dangerous. This dynamic continued to be institutionalised under apartheid — a time in which “no white men were hanged for rape and the only black men who were hanged for rape were convicted of raping white women”. This formed a patriarchal structure that supported “violent masculinity” as a means of control, rendering women compliant and silent.

The initial chapter creates a useful structure from which to tackle the rest of the book — in which Gqola explores high-profile cases that include the trials of Jacob Zuma, Bob Hewitt, Makhaya Nthini and the rapes of Baby Tshepang, Anene Booysen and Eudy Simelane.

She uses each prominent example not only to debunk prevalent myths about rape, but also to draw attention to our collective and individual reactions to each case, with alarming and unsettling questions about who we deem “rapable” and how and where we apportion blame. Most striking, she points out, is the way in which we demand rape victims to behave and to look — using our prejudice to discredit victims when they do not meet our expectations in what she terms a “violent system that forces victims to ‘prove’ their lived trauma”.

Gqola raises the issue of child molestation and rape to make two important points. The first, that rape is about sex, or that rape victims somehow invite or deserve to be rape because of what they wear or how they behave. The rape of Baby Tshepang, amongst others, defies this logic. The second idea Gqola tackles is our perception that it is somehow more depraved to rape a child rather than a woman. This, she states, diminishes the experience of so many victims and excuses the behaviour of certain perpetrators. “It’s a problem when we show that some rapes are more gruesome than others,” she writes. “What I want to show is that it’s the same thing. I want to show that all rapes are gruesome.”

Most illuminating was the fourth chapter entitled “The Female Fear Factory” – where Gqola details how our society is constructed in such a way that women and those who don’t confirm to gendered stereotypes are taught to fear rape and violence, and are thus controlled as well as devalued. She writes:

The manufacture of female fear works to silence women by reminding us of our rapability, and therefore blackmails us to keep ourselves in check… It is a public fear that is repeatedly manufactured through various means in many private and public settings.

She makes use of the responses to the rape and murder of Bredasdorp resident, Anene Booysen, to emphasise this point, adding that while we sympathised and mourned her tragic rape and death, we were quick to add that she shouldn’t have been out drinking at night, that she shouldn’t have walked the streets – “all behaviour that patriarchy says is inappropriate for good girls”. Rather than appointing blame on the perpetrators who brutally attacked and tortured her, we criticised the circle around Anene for not protecting her from harm — thus further entrenching the idea that it is women who should fear rape, instead of those who rape being made afraid or deterred from doing so.

The crux of Gqola’s book is the chapter on President Zuma’s rape trial — a time she describes as “a watershed moment for what it highlighted about societal attitudes that had previously been slightly out of view”. The rape charge was laid by the woman we know as Khwezi, a well-known HIV-positive activist and a daughter of a friend of Zuma’s. By examining excerpts from media coverage at the time, Gqola notes the way in which both Khwezi and the president were framed, and the worrying way in which we repeatedly diminished the importance of the rape incident, instead expressing views that shamed Khwezi and protected the president. Most troubling is the justice system that allowed Khwezi’s previous sexual history to be admitted as evidence in a bid to categorise her as “unrapable” while relabelling her self-identified status as a gay woman as “bisexual”.

Rape is not an easy book to read. This, of course, is not because it is not exceptionally well written—the academic language is refreshingly accessible and engaging — but because of the odious subject Gqola so methodically interrogates. I reflected on my own reluctance to read the book, identifying with the tendency to divert our gaze and thus enable “violent masculinities” to flourish under what Gqola terms the “cult of femininity”.

Gqola wisely offers no immediate solutions to our country’s complex and entrenched rape crisis. But, by interrupting the insidious and unspoken language of rape and rape culture, she helps us to envision a future in which rape does not exist — and that, as Gqola so emphatically concludes, is one we deserve, and one we must all fight to create.

Rape is published by Jacana. Read an extract of the book here.

GIVEAWAY: Win one of two copies of Rape. To enter, email competition(at)aerodrome.co.za, with the book’s title in the subject line. In the body of the email please include your full name, contact number and physical address (including the postal code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close on 15 November 2016. By entering, you agree to join AERODROME’s monthly newsletter mailing list.

EXTRACT: Mzansi Zen

An excerpt from ANTONY OSLER’s new book.

Antony Osler

The news tonight is a recital of collapsing infrastructure, financial mismanagement and violence. It feels as if we are sliding irreversibly towards a precipice. I am overwhelmed by discouragement.

Because I have nailed my flag to the mast of things as they are, I can’t pretend all is well when it isn’t. I can’t run away from the suffering or deny it; I can’t invent a silver lining. No going forward, no going back. I am stuck. So what now? How do I find my life in the midst of all this? Here is the only thing I know how to do – I get up from my chair, I take a deep breath, and I walk beyond argument into my Zen practice. When I am here, I sit very, very still. Then, without looking for any particular outcome, I let myself down like a plumb line, inch by inch right into the very heart of my discontent.

It is dark in here. Completely dark. I wait. And I wait. I listen – past what the voices are saying, tuning into the voiceless. The words grow softer, less insistent. The blaming subsides. And the fear. Faintly, in the far corners of my ear, a sweet and unnameable singing … slivers of blue sky appear, and possibilities – the healing balm of a wider, more forgiving, view. Once more I inhabit the sacred ground where my connection to the world is restored. From here I can open my eyes. It is true we have bad governance. It is true we have great music. It is true that my heart is beating and that the cat is sleeping in the apricot tree. It is true that the small boy at the corner of the supermarket in town has no shoes. Now I know that I am facing home. And from here the direction is straight forward and right ahead – right into the arms of the world.

Mzansi Zen is published by Jacana.

GIVEAWAY: Win one of three copies of Mzansi Zen! To enter, email competition(at)aerodrome.co.za, with the book’s title in the subject line. In the body of the email please include your full name, contact number and physical address (including the postal code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close on 15 October 2016. By entering, you agree to join AERODROME’s monthly newsletter mailing list.

BOOK CLUB: Mzansi Zen

Antony Osler’s exquisite Mzansi Zen gently reminds a travel-weary ALEXANDER MATTHEWS about the power of quiet attention.Mzansi Zen

At the end of July last year, I moved out of the flat I was sharing in Cape Town and became a nomad. Since then, I’ve visited Lesotho, Malawi and Zimbabwe once, Mozambique six times, and Swaziland five. In South Africa, the past year has seen three Kruger trips, a traversing of the Waterberg biosphere reserve, a few Cape Town visits, and too many times in Joburg to count. But the very first stop, marking the beginning of nomadic life, was a night spent at Poplar Grove, the farm where Antony Osler lives with his wife Margie.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Oslers lately, a lot about Poplar Grove, about sitting in the zendo listening to the roof gently expand in the morning heat. I’ve been thinking a lot, too, about the way I’m living my life — about how out-of-kilter it feels like I’ve become. Initially, the relentless movement was exhilarating — it felt right, a response to the wanderlust that had been coursing through me, wanderlust so powerful that it had made sense to stop renting in Cape Town in the first place.

But at some point in the past few weeks, the pendulum has swung. While I’ve been stimulated by all the places I’ve been to, all the people that I’ve met, I’m also flailing, slightly. After a relative lull, my OCD has flared up again: irrational, anxious thoughts bombard me like waves against a harbour’s wall, fuelled, perhaps, by the uncertainty and stress inherent in an itinerant lifestyle. Productivity is at best inconsistent — finding focus or establishing routines on the road has proven difficult. There is thinking, sure, but it’s often thinking of the murky, befuddled kind: the thoughts flow past, rather than being allowed to sink into stillness so that they can amass into something of substance. I’m growing tired of being a tumbleweed: there’s a yearning now that is perhaps almost the opposite of wanderlust — to become much more sedentary again, to put down roots again for a time — however shallow those roots may be.

I recently returned to Cape Town where a copy of Mzansi Zen has been waiting patiently for me — like a wise and gentle friend. I am grateful for it. It is exquisite: a vividly wrought, eclectic patchwork of poetry, parable and memory. In the acknowledgments, Osler says his wife read the first draft and told him, “Now write it as if you are telling it to me on the stoep.” He clearly followed her advice, because these stories brim with warmth and twinkly-eyed humour. Whether it’s about singing the then-banned Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika in a township community hall or his Indian friend, Raj, learning to play jukskei with a bunch of boere, each anecdote sounds as if it is being regaled to me while I sit on an old couch with a glass of whisky — as we did all those months ago — watching the last of the sun dance on the cypresses.

Mzansi Zen doesn’t shy away from life’s difficulties and complexities — instead, like a warm bath in a rainstorm or a cup of honey-sweetened rooibos, it makes them bearable. The book is no mere emollient, however. Like Osler’s previous works (Stoep Zen and Zen Dust), it is a gentle introduction to a way of life, a way of seeing the world, and a way of responding to it. You won’t find didactic proselytising, no shoulds and musts — it’s not a rulebook, not a manifesto. It is an example, an inspiration. It is a celebration of the power of attention, stillness, of being open, of being truly here and now. But unlike so much of mindfulness’s rhetoric — phrases which are sometimes used over and over till they are bleached of meaning — the power of the present is explored here in life, in colour.

Woven between snapshots of Karoo life are explanations of what unfolds on the weeklong silent retreats that the Oslers host on their farm. While there is listening, work, walking and eating, it is meditation which sits at the heart of these retreats — and at the heart of this book. Meditation is when we stop moving, stop searching and let the world come to us, letting it flood in, in all its richness. Osler shows us that by paying attention (on our breathing, on the sounds, however subtle, that we hear when we are seated), we are — as he once told me in an interview — strengthening “the muscle of attention”. The quiet concentration of such a practice strengthens our ability to inhabit the present in a fuller and more generous way. And as the book’s stories show, this naturally and inevitably leads us to find beauty in the quotidian, to acknowledge the remarkable in the ordinary. And as we learn to face “whatever is in front of us” — as we practise seeing it, acknowledging it — we become at peace with it; clarity emerges and we find a way to move forward.

As someone who compulsively observes our fraught political landscape with a mixture of fascination and alarm, I love the way this book embraces how tightly intertwined politics is with the personal in South Africa. Politics is close to home (and even closer to heart) in a way that it simply isn’t in many other countries. As he reflects on our country’s turbulent past and its uncertain future, Osler shows us how his Zen practice is not something adjacent to the broader social and political milieu we’re part of; it is not something divorced from the headlines we see, the radio’s murmurings, the highs and lows of a nation in transition — a bewildering state of corruption and decay, of courage and rebirth. He does not ask us to ignore our fears; instead he invites us to feel hope — hope in the warmth and the humour of the people he meets, in the beauty of a winter’s day.

I was particularly touched by this:

There are fistfights in parliament and police on the take, and past the window runs a small boy with water spilling from his hands and we ask ourselves what kind of world will we leave our children?

This question itself is the way. Our difficulty is our friend. We begin where we are, in our stuckness and helplessness and in our concern for the other. If we are patient in this, and willing to be surprised, we will wake up one morning to find that a gentle rain has been washing the leaves while we sleep. In this space our natural connectedness appears — with ourselves, with each other, and with the world around us. So, instead of trying to pull ourselves up by our bootlaces, let’s take off our shoes altogether, feel the earth under our feet and the sun in our hair. Then, when we step forward with helping hands, we will leave no trace.

Through his work as lawyer, and as the host of seasonal weekend retreats for local Karoo kids (many of whom have suffered from abuse and neglect), Osler has some inkling of the trauma, the seemingly boundless pain this country contains. What do we do in the face of this — overwhelmed, do we simply ignore it? He writes:

Of course there is still unhappiness and suffering on every corner. It doesn’t help to romanticise the children’s weekends, as if that is enough. Our work is never done. In Zen, that is called the Bodhisattva vow; as long as anyone is suffering I will keep going. This is not a vow of measurement, comparing the unthinkable magnitude of suffering with the smallness of my actions. It is just a promise to myself that whenever I am faced with pain I will not turn away.

Since I became a nomad, since that night in August last year, I’ve not yet had the opportunity to return to Poplar Grove. What I do have, though, is Mzansi Zen to remind me of what we carry within ourselves. While the Karoo is particularly conducive to silence and attention, these are elements that can practised anywhere.

I don’t know where the next months will take me or where I’ll be a year from now. I do intend, though, to move less and notice more. To focus on the what-is, rather than the what-is-not. To listen to the birdsong and feel the brush of breeze on skin. And to breathe, and breathe again, and again. I’m going to try set aspiration and dreaming and yearning aside sometimes, and revel in the moment — this, here, now — revel in it being enough, being everything, being nothing. Thank you, Antony, thank you, Mzansi Zen, for the reminder. It is enough.

Mzansi Zen is published by Jacana.

GIVEAWAY: Win one of three copies of Mzansi Zen! To enter, email competition(at)aerodrome.co.za, with the book’s title in the subject line. In the body of the email please include your full name, contact number and physical address (including the postal code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close on 15 October 2016. By entering, you agree to join AERODROME’s monthly newsletter mailing list.

EXTRACT: What Will People Say

An excerpt from the debut novel by REHANA ROSSOUW.

Rehana Rossouw

Kevin was waiting at the school gate when Nicky and Shirley strolled out arm in arm at the end of the school day. He stepped forward as they came near. “Greetings ladies, can I escort you today?”

Shirley giggled. “Of course you can, right Nicky?”

Nicky didn’t want Kevin walking with them. He was only after one thing. She hadn’t gone to the SRC meeting at second break; she was too busy sukkeling with Shirley’s problem. She still hadn’t found a solution. As she expected, it didn’t take long – two steps out of the gate and Kevin started on her.

“So Nicky, I was expecting to see you in the meeting this afternoon. There’s work to be done. We planning to bring the country to a stand still for the tenth anniversary of the ’76 uprising.”

Thick, dark irritation filled her face. What must she do to get Kevin to leave her alone? Nicky didn’t want him to escort her anywhere. She wanted to be alone with Shirley; she was planning on going home with her. Shirley shouldn’t be alone on a kak day like this. “I had other things on my mind, okay?”

“What can be more important than the struggle?”

Nicky stopped and planted her fists in her hips, staring daggers at Kevin. “A lot, you idiot. Shirley, for an example. She’s much more important than your blerrie struggle. She got a big problem. Her mother wants her to leave school and go work in the factory with her.”

Kevin turned to Shirley, his face squeezed up like a lemon. “You’ll be a semi-skilled worker fed to the machine to become another alienated unit of capitalist labour.”

Nicky felt like her head was about to burst open like a dropped watermelon, the irritation was so thick. No one could get to her like Kevin. “Speak English Kevin! This isn’t time for a political speech. Shirley needs help. She’s not an issue. She’s only sixteen and she must go work to feed her brothers. You such a blerrie fool!”

Kevin looked like a foster child on his way back to the orphanage.

“Of course I think that’s really kak, Nicky! There must be a way out. We must strategise, see what we can come up with.”

Shirley smiled at him. “You think you can see a way out of it?”

Kevin gave a couple of firm nods. “Let me think on it for a while. As Lenin would say: What is to be done? That’s what we must figure out.”

Nicky stared at their backs as Shirley and Kevin walked away without her. That boy had a nerve! Didn’t he see he wasn’t wanted?

She was going to come up with a solution for Shirley’s problem. They didn’t need him. Why was Shirley hanging onto his words like he was her saviour? She rushed to catch up with them.

The girls’ route home took them past the taxi rank at the Hanover Park Town Centre. The rank fed routes into town, Claremont, Wynberg and Mitchells Plain. Gaartjies shouted out destinations and ushered people into revving sixteen-seaters; pushing flesh and parcels inside as they slid the doors shut.

Nicky, Shirley and Kevin wove their way along the pavement between people streaming to the rank and the hawkers lining the sides. Most were selling vegetables, but there were also stalls with tinned goods, bags of bright orange chips and loose cigarettes. A bakkie blocked the pavement, its back piled high with snoek. A plump man covered with a red-stained, yellow plastic apron gutted and beheaded his silver, toothy catch while customers waited. The fish was wrapped in newspaper and exchanged for a five-rand note. Nicky could smell the sea on the bakkie as she walked past.

A toothless, skinny man jumped onto the pavement and blocked their way. He waved a packet of ripe, red tomatoes in their faces. He flashed his gums and offered an invitation. “Squeeze my tomatoes. Feel how firm they are. They lekker like your tette.”

Nicky jumped back as the hawker’s free hand reached out towards her breast.

Kevin stepped forward and shoved his chest into the hawker’s.

“Watch it, show some respect.”

Nicky pulled him back. “Leave him Kevin, is okay. He does the same thing every day. He don’t mean nothing by it.”

Another hawker pushed Kevin aside to wave a bag of onions in Nicky’s face. He promoted his goods in a singsong voice. “Uiwe, uiwe; juicy uiwe virrie meire.”

The girls giggled. Kevin relaxed.

Shirley bought tomatoes and onions. Kevin dug into his grey school pants and found enough coins for a bag of onions.

Nicky walked behind Shirley and Kevin as they left the town centre, listening to their conversation. Shirley was planning a beef stew for supper. Kevin was giving advice.

“The secret to a good stew is making a thick gravy. You must use at least two onions Shirley, maybe even three, ’cause your family’s bigger than mine. Braise it well at the start. The onions soak up the flavour from the meat. It melts as you cook and makes a lekker thick gravy.”

Shirley shook her head. “I dunno if that will work. It’s near the end of the week. My mummy don’t have much left, so I got only bones for the stew.”

“It will still work, I’m telling you. If you got little meat then it’s more important to have a lekker thick gravy. The onions will catch the flavour from the bones.”

There was nothing Nicky could add to the conversation. Mummy did most of the cooking. She and Suzette were only roped in on weekends; on weekdays they were expected to do their schoolwork. Mummy gave them the kak jobs like slicing onions and peeling potatoes. Most nights

Mummy stood up from the supper table and started preparing the next night’s meal. She finished the food off when she got home from work. Kevin walked with them all the way to Shirley’s house. Nicky didn’t know where he lived; she hoped it wasn’t nearby. He bowed over Shirley’s hand like the Count of Monte Cristo and kissed it as he was leaving.

Nicky finally had enough. Shirley had been talking nonstop with Kevin all the way home. She was all worked up about Shirley’s problem, but the blerrie fool was giggling with Kevin like she didn’t give a damn.

Her irritation burst out and poured through her mouth. “Must you be so tarty, Kevin? You must see how you look. Like a blerrie fool.”

Kevin wiped his smile off his face and took a step back. “Ladies, I’ll see you around.”

Shirley turned on Nicky as he walked away stiffly. “Sjoe, how can you be so rude? Can’t you see he’s just trying to be nice?”

Nicky stood her ground. “Why can’t he just leave us alone? Why must he interfere in everything? Every time I look up his face is in mine.

Can’t he see I’m not interested in joining his struggle?”

Shirley laughed. “He’s not in your face because of the struggle. He smaaks you. Everybody can see that. He smaaks you stukkend.”

Nicky’s chest went cold. “Who’s everybody?”

Shirley giggled. “Only everybody who looks in Kevin’s face when he talks to you. You so blind Nicky.”

Nicky shoved her hand into Shirley’s chest, sending her off the pavement. “Don’t talk rubbish! Kevin’s got a one-track mind. He wants me to join Cosas. He wants me to get involved in the struggle.”

Shirley sniffed. “There’s none so blind. The whole school knows he smaaks you.”

What Will People Say is published by Jacana and is the second title to be featured by our monthly Book Club: read our review.

GIVEAWAY: Win one of two copies of What Will People Say! To enter, email competition(at)aerodrome.co.za, with the book’s title in the subject line. In the body of the email please include your full name, contact number and physical address (including area code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close on 15 August 2016.
By entering, you agree to join AERODROME’s monthly newsletter mailing list.

BOOK CLUB: What Will People Say

TARAH CHILDES is enthralled by Rehana Rossouw’s quietly funny and heartbreakingly sad debut novel.

What Will People Say

Like the ceaseless Southeaster that whips through the desolate, concrete landscape that is Hanover Park, Rehana Rossouw’s words evoke emotions that carry the reader hurriedly through her debut novel, borne along by a sense of urgency and technical sophistication that make for a visceral, unforgettable read.

What Will People Say is set in the heart of the Cape Flats of 1986. And while its characters are undeniably affected by the evils of the gangs, the drugs, and poverty that surround them, as well as the struggle against apartheid, this is not primarily a story about the history of the Flats, or of the ineptitude of law, and cruelty of the oppressive regime of the past. Rather it is a close look at the dissolution of an ordinary family, struggling to maintain the tenuous bonds that bind them together.

The Fourie family — law messenger Neville, his factory seamstress wife, Magda and their three children — are the lenses through which we see the world of 1986 Hanover Park. The Fourie teenagers, Suzette, Nicky and Anthony, initially trapped in the banality of home, school and church, led by parents who are trying to “raise them decent”, are quickly plunged into the external world of politics, gangs and the lure of a better, moneyed life, forcing them to navigate their way through situations and choices they are frightfully ill-equipped to deal with.

Rossouw sets the scene with a sentence that any literary fan would relish. “The South-Easter lifted the smell of pig manure spread across farms in Philippi, crossed Lansdowne Road and dumped it like a wet poep over Hanover Park.”

The wind carries with it a set of problems that plague the Fouries, Rossouw deftly using her figurative language gift to foreshadow the coming trials.

The story unfolds in a first person narrative framework that allows us to experience each chapter from a different family member’s perspective.

We are introduced to Nicky, the middle child with academic ambitions who sees a future in law as her only escape route; Suzette — a beautiful and determined girl of 17 who drops out of matric to pursue her dream of becoming a supermodel; Magda – the churchgoing, conservative mother, more concerned with her family’s outward appearance than her children’s struggles, and Neville, a well-meaning but fallible and out-of-touch father, who spends more time with the Neighbourhood Watch than with his family. But it is Anthony, their naïve boy of 13 around whom the plot spirals. His fast and unwitting decent into the world of the JKFs — a local gang with whom he initially feels a sense of belonging — propels the story with a sense of urgency, as we witness the futile efforts of his parents to protect him from a world that ultimately leads to his inescapable destruction.

Rossouw, who has been a journalist for more than 30 years, has often been asked if her characters are real. And while they are all fictitious (aside from notorious gang man Jackie Lonte), the timeline is real. In a recent conversation with Professor Tawane Kupe, Dean of Humanities at Wits University, Rossouw explained the importance of 1986 – the year in which the South African government declared a national state of emergency.

“I still meet people in Joburg who firmly believe that there was no struggle against apartheid in Cape Town,” Rossouw said. “What about the launch of the UDF? I feel that the contribution of our comrades from Cape Town especially is being rewritten out of a lot of history today.”

While the political turmoil shapes and informs the plot on a macro and micro level, it is ultimately Rossouw’s skill with language and metaphor (a technique honed during her MA in Creative Writing at Wits University) that imbues her characters with so much life. Characters speak in unabashed Cape Flats vernacular, viscerally describing their feelings, reactions with onomatopoetic delight. Nicky huks when she cries, while Suzette ruks her arm away from a would-be skelm suitor.

And while I foresee a time where Rossouw will need to include a glossary of terms for foreign readers, and perhaps local ones too (should it ever become a set-work book for school), she describes her lack of appendix, and her refusal to italicise Cape Flats slang as an act of rebellion. In order to make her characters real, she had to “let them speak, the way that we speak.” “This is our language, and if I’m writing a book about us, the book should be the way we are.”

The result is a novel spectacular at engendering empathy for its central characters: quietly funny, heartbreakingly sad, and not easily forgotten.

While I found the dénouement to be somewhat abrupt and unsatisfactory, Rossouw has explained that she is open the idea of the sequel after multiple requests from likeminded readers. I certainly wasn’t done with the Fouries – and I earnestly hope Rossouw isn’t either.

What Will People Say was one of just three novels shortlisted for the 2015 Etisalat Prize for Literature – an accolade well deserved.

What Will People Say is published by Jacana. Read an extract here

GIVEAWAY: Win one of two copies of What Will People Say! To enter, email competition(at)aerodrome.co.za, with the book’s title in the subject line. In the body of the email please include your full name, contact number and physical address (including area code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close on 15 August 2016.
By entering, you agree to join AERODROME’s monthly newsletter mailing list.

WORK/LIFE: Thabiso Mahlape

Thabiso Mahlape is the publisher of BlackBird Books, an imprint from Jacana showcasing black voices that launched in August 2015.

What does the role of publisher entail?

Other than lots and lots of frustration?

In what ways has your work changed now that you run your own imprint?

I now have to think about operations on a global level as opposed to just worrying about getting the books out. It has challenged me immensely but I have also grown a lot, both personally and in my work. I also think more carefully about what I publish as this now impacts my brand first. What I enjoy most is the new license it has given me over my work, to experiment and take risks (up to a point) as I wish.

Continue reading “WORK/LIFE: Thabiso Mahlape”

10 QUESTIONS: Stephen Clingman


In your lecture titled Looking from South Africa to the Word: A Story for Identity in our Times, delivered at the ‘Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series’ at the University of Massachusetts you say, ‘I can say that my own searches in my professional life, my way forward has been a continual way of going back, to derive my topics from the world from which I came, to addressing them, to being answerable to them, both as an obligation and a way forward. For there is something here about accountability, giving account, turning an experience into something that counts. In that regard, I have written criticism about South African literature, I’ve tried my hand at biography of a South African political figure, and I’ve returned to criticism in the transnational arena. Underlying it all is the question of identity. How emerging from a broken world we might approach one another to make something more just and more human. The question came from the place of my birth and it has followed me here….The challenge of identity is not only my topic, it is my own challenge’. Birthmark is quite evidently a store of many personal, intimate, uncomfortable, nourishing and challenging memories; to what extent is it also an intellectual biography?

First, let me thank you for these thoughtful and searching questions, which I’m very pleased to have.

This first one is intriguing, and my instinctive response is to say that Birthmark is not really an intellectual biography: it’s a much more personal account, often written as if within the moments it describes. Much of it has to do with my childhood and early life. From those points of view it is the precursor, if you like, to the intellectual and professional life that followed.

However, the extract you’ve quoted from ‘Looking from South Africa to the World’ brings out another aspect, and another level, because there I make the case that it is impossible to separate the life one has lived from the intellectual pursuits one undertakes. Or, I should be more focused, more modest: it is hard for me to separate my life from my intellectual pursuits, as varied as these have been. But perhaps there are wider resonances. We all know the aphorism, or the truism masked as an aphorism: everything one writes is autobiography. But, truism or not, I think in various ways that is true!

But how, and in what ways? One way to think of intellectual (auto)biography is as a choice: this is my topic, this is what I am going to write about. That in turn implies a hierarchy: first comes the choice, and then what I select is the subject matter. However, if you take the other view, that autobiography is embedded in whatever one writes, then the hierarchy, and the notion of choice, gets inverted. From this perspective, it is deeply embedded, unconscious promptings that spark the writing one does, ranging from the most personal to (perhaps) the most academic. Or, at the least, that there is some combination of those promptings always mixed into conscious choices. So, I can say, there was no conscious choice to write intellectual autobiography in this book: it is very much a personal story. But in the very nature of the memories that came to me, in the whole way the book is structured, there is intellectual autobiography of another kind. This book is the product of the person who underwent all these experiences; these experiences made him the kind of person who would write this sort of book. From that point of view, the intellectual biography is something one discovers through the act of writing—and the act of reading. It’s quite important to me that the book, Birthmark, was an act of discovery as much as it was one of choice and creation.

If it is indeed an intellectual biography, to what extent was this a basis for selecting which reminiscences, anecdotes and observations to include in the text? Did you only select details from your past which bore significantly on the intellectual arc you have followed in your career? If this is the case, were there particular past events and memories which you consciously chose to occlude from Birthmark? I suppose what I am wondering is whether there is a paradox at the heart of your memoir: to expose one’s ‘self’ in such a frank way is a radical act of freedom. But what repressions were necessary in order to make this happen – specifically, which aspects of your biography have been excluded from the text? Can you see yourself writing another memoir including these unspoken elements?

I think I’ve answered part of this question in my remarks above, and I’ll say more about how the memories I’ve written about were not simply the product of a process of selection. My method overall was much more inchoate than that.

For the moment, though, let me focus on the issue of occlusion—whether there were aspects of my life that I excluded as I wrote, and whether this was the result of repression. You may be suggesting, very interestingly, that memory is itself inseparable from repression—that what emerges as we remember is outlined by what we cannot imagine or have forgotten. If so, and I don’t discount the possibility, by definition I do not and cannot know what I have repressed. Sure, there are details one can leave out, and here and there I have done so—to save others from embarrassment, perhaps, or to give figures who are not major characters in the book a degree of anonymity—something I feel they deserve. But there is the more challenging proposition about what I do remember, and remember publicly here. What is the ground against which those memories take place? What is there about my self that I do not know, or cannot remember? This is something I am fairly conscious of in the book, I think: at one point I ask the question, ‘How evasive is my honesty?’ This I feel is something we can never know—just how evasive we are when we think we are telling the truth. But the question of that evasion is built in, so at least it becomes an overt part of the story.

Overall, I would say the book is built around two major vectors: one is that of memory, and the other that of vision. A fundamental premise regarding both in the book is that neither comes to us whole or entire. And so memory/forgetting, vision/occlusion—these are intrinsically connected. If I were to write another memoir, it would only be if the previously hidden began to come into view. But if I do take to this kind of thing again, it might only be in another form.

A remarkable feature of Birthmark is the beautiful balance between chaos and order. Birthmark possesses a fractured quality: despite the calm, an occult freneticism percolates through the surface from below. The jumps across time, place and modes of address articulate – with the blend of wry and dark humour, poetic seriousness and the torrential flow of detailed remembrances – a kind of chaos. One can almost picture you hastily grasping at memories and putting them to paper before they flitter away. Nevertheless, each sentence is assiduously crafted and self-contained. Each signals a care at odds with the welter of form and memory. How did you manage to give form to your past without stunting the ecstatic flow of memory? Your prose is at once sensuous and languid as well as analytic and measured. How did you give order, but not too much order, to your past?

Again, you ask a probing and very good question, and I’m pleased that you have lit on the question of form, because that is an essential part of the book. I do like the idea that the flow and seemingly uncontainable current of memory is balanced by the structure of the book from sentence to sentence, part to part. That feels to me like a mix of past and present in a kind of combined perspective—and if the book does offer that, I couldn’t be more gratified.

As to the organizing principles of the book, I’ll say the following. I had only a few self-imposed rules while writing. One was that each segment should be relatively brief—only three to five pages double-spaced on my screen. And another was that each segment, each story, should end up somewhere other than where it began.

Why was that? To me, it had to do profoundly with the nature of memory—and a way of exploring it. For various reasons, I’ve become very interested in associative narrative, where one detail leads to another in a kind of unfolding journey; this is something I’ve explored in my critical writing as well. It seems to me that ‘travel’ is built into that kind of form. In Birthmark, it meant that the journey was built into each segment as it travelled down its own associative path. And of course, in the gaps between and across the segments, there is another kind of journey, which the reader as much as the writer is invited to undertake. I am sure memory works this way: it leads us on its wayward and unfinished paths all the time! And if we bring in the idea of vision, the fragmented and separate segments combine to create what I thought of, in writing the book, as a hologram: a series of perspectives from different places and times which fashion an image in space.

The order, if there is order in the book, then takes on a somewhat organic form as the memories and perspectives organize themselves and unfold. This may be what you refer to as ‘order, but not too much order’. At some level, one has to surrender control, but at the same time write each story with a sense of its own journey, its own view.

Did you keep to a particular routine, a daily regime, while writing Birthmark? Did you write in the mornings, afternoons or in the evenings? Where did you write? Did you have to develop certain strategies which put you in the right frame of mind for returning to the past, to fish for memories in the dark well of the unconscious?

As it happens, I did keep to a particular routine when writing the book. I’ve mentioned a couple of rules I followed in doing so. A third—not so much a rule as a habit—was that I would write only one segment a day (a habit I kept to for the most part, though on some days, when all was flowing, I wrote two). This would occur usually first thing in the morning. I happened to be on sabbatical when I started, so everything was auspicious from that point of view. I would write my segment, and then leave it. And then the next morning I would write another, and the following day another. What was the logic in this? Again, I feel it had to do with memory, and the unconscious promptings I spoke of, as well as the associative form. Though I was seldom sure, when I came to the end of each piece, where I would start the next morning, when I arrived at my computer, there it was, and I would begin. I don’t know how to think of this except as a kind of unconscious navigation, perhaps some of it aided by the night-time’s dreamworld, which would guide me on. One thing quite literally led to another. It was a self-fulfilling and perhaps self-probationary exercise in the associative method.

Your father figures more prominently in Birthmark than your mother – he seems to take up more time in the text, so to speak. Is there a specific reason for this? Was this a conscious decision? To what extent is this self-writing, autobiography, also other-writing, allography?

Yes, you are right: my father does take up more space and time in the book. There may be a number of reasons for this. One is that he is no longer alive, and so perhaps it felt more possible to write about him without too strong a sense of betrayal—though there was some of that, to be sure. Another is that, as you’ll know from reading the book, there was a certain drama in my father’s story which affected the rest of the family directly. This, in a way, was something I had to work through in my life, and so naturally my father’s story is there.

For all the complications, my father also taught me much that has stayed with me. For instance, when he taught me cricket, he did so through a kind of grammatical method—something I describe in the book. Although he himself was not a reader, and although for various reasons cricket disappeared for me, something of that underlying sensation of the ‘grammar’ in things has never left me. He was a confusing character, my father, lovable and sometimes hurtful, but in the end I was at peace with him, as I hope he is with me and all of us. And yes, he is, in that sense, very much a character in the book—one created in brushstrokes, suggestions, and fragments. I hope readers will join me in filling in the spaces to understand him.

You have written criticism about South African literature, you’ve written a biography about Bram Fischer, and of late you’ve turned your attention to literatures of the transnational boundary. These modes of writing have in common that the writer maintains a critical distance. As already mentioned, Birthmark covers tremendously personal as well as painful dimensions of your life, exploding that critical distance. Why did you choose to depart from the tried and tested and to share this intimate portrait of your life with the world now?

It may help to know that when I started writing, I wasn’t thinking of publication, or even of something taking the form of a book. Rather, there were a number of stories in my mind that I had always promised myself I would write, and so that was how it began. That released the pressure somewhat, and it meant I could write more personally. Overall, the writing became a form of exploration, to see where those stories would lead. As things developed, the book came into view, and I began to think perhaps it could be published, and in the event that is what happened. But it didn’t begin that way.

There are a couple of other relevant aspects, however. One may apply particularly to those who have travelled—who have ended up somewhere other in the world than where they began. Again, the impulse was partly personal, in that I didn’t want these stories of our lives to disappear. If my daughters, who are American, or if their children and children’s children want to know something of the world we came from, what would there be to tell them? In my case, the world of my grandparents and great-grandparents in Lithuania disappeared almost completely—because of the Holocaust and the virtually complete rupture it marked. But things can disappear for other reasons too. Underlying my book, at least at some level, is a cry of survival: this is how we lived, this is the world we came from. And so I wanted to record that in some form.

But still, why, as you say, share it more publicly? It is true that I have worked in more orthodox, perhaps less revealing modes, from literary criticism to biography. But underlying those works are some themes which are sustained—around identity, around boundaries, around connection and disjunction in an uneven world, around responsibility. Why not, then, tell that story more personally? Added to that were other impulses that come from my work as a literary critic and biographer, but turned in a different way. How does one understand the text and texture of one’s own life? What sort of narrative would one use? Could I write a book in which I was both inside and outside the story? Could I understand myself as a character—the story of just one life in the world, yet a story which may evoke something for others? From that point of view it was a bit like writing a novel, a bit like writing biography, a bit like writing history, but it was none of these things specifically. It was the book that it came to be. And I have to say, it was wonderful to feel free of the need for research—and the legitimacy of footnotes!

Would it be fair to say that in writing this memoir you entered into a form of self-administered psycho-analysis? If so, can you perceive any differences in the configuration of yourself and psyche before and after having gone through this process of writing and rewriting? What are these differences? Furthermore – given your conviction that life and vocation are existentially entwined – has it altered your intellectual focus in any way? Which boundaries have you crossed? Where do you find yourself now?

Again, very interesting, but let me take it from a slightly different perspective. In classic forms of psychoanalysis the relevant arena is the mind, its conscious and unconscious dynamics and relations. If the body comes into things, it is usually as symptom—the symptom that has to be cured through the analysis. However, in my case, things worked, if anything, the other way round. It was the experience of the birthmark, and the operation I had when I was two, that had various effects on both my body and mind. Mind and body, in other words, were much more of an integrated unit, and this book was an attempt to understand that.

One thing I will suggest by way of analogy, because psychonalysis offers itself as the talking cure, is that for me the book was a kind of writing cure. In many ways it was a liberating experience to talk about things so long unspoken, and while there was some trepidation about bringing it all into the open, somehow even writing the painful parts was therapeutic. That wasn’t the reason I wrote, but it was a happy byproduct. As to whether it’s altered my intellectual outlook, I suppose it has reinforced my feeling that body and mind cannot be separated in our analytic approaches. I am starting to do some work now on pathology in South African literature, but I am not really sure where that will go. I have also found other forms of writing, such as this book, very attractive.

Your project seems to take its cue from the starting point of psychoanalysis: we acquire knowledge about ourselves in relating to others. This is evident in the language of proximity you use in describing your relationships with family, friends and colleagues. It is also evident in your relation to books. In a section which touches on W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz you say, ‘as I read I returned to my own scene, of the operation on my eye when I was two, and some of Austerlitz’s sadness descended upon me. I relived those moments in my own place of recognition’ (205). Are there other thinkers, writers and specific books which have given you opportunities for self-analysis, recognition and growth?

Yes, most certainly there are books and writers who have led me on. These have ranged from the existential and relational—some aspects of Sartre and Buber early on—to the classics we can all think of. In the South African context it would run all the way from Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm to Gordimer’s The Conservationist, or Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K and Age of Iron, or Ndebele’s short stories and essays. One of the most powerful memoirs I have ever read is Amos Oz’s A Time of Love and Darkness. A book that affected me deeply is David Grossman’s See Under: Love; or more recently, his novel To The End of the Land. Not a semester goes by that I don’t hand out to my students something from Walter Benjamin.

What I find in Sebald, however, is something different: a consideration not only of lost and marginal stories but also of how to tell them through new modes of narrative that link first and third person, that develop a kind of circumambience in the telling. Austerlitz was so powerful for me for reasons I discuss in Birthmark. But my book has inevitably taken on inflections from some of the literature I have written about and which I teach: the constellated forms of Caryl Phillips; the nomadic forms and philosophies of Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines. These books for me fuse something important about how to live in our disparate times; and also about how to tell the stories of our lives, and the lives of others.

One of the most intriguing formal aspects of Birthmark is the recurrent ambiguity of address. Chapters often begin with hesitation and prevarication with regard to who it is you are referring to – yourself or a past version of yourself which is not quite the same ‘you’ of the present moment? You shift from first to third person and back again. For instance, many sentences like this appear: ‘The boy – me, I – is transfixed for reasons he can’t quite understand but which slowly rise within him’. In the space of a single sentence you have gone through three gears of address, referring to yourself, ‘Stephen Clingman’ as ‘the boy’, ‘me’ and ‘I’. I spent a lot time while reading Birthmark trying to understand why you make the shifts when you do. Are there certain memories, events and acts from the past which you feel more comfortable uttering from the first person rather than the third person perspective? What do these pronominal shifts intimate about how you understand the nature of personal identity?

Yes, that was interesting for me too in the writing. I think in the South African context (and beyond) everyone knows by now of J. M. Coetzee’s Boyhood, written entirely in the third person, as if he were writing about a different character. That form of writing has come to be known as autre-biography¬—writing the self as if it were someone other. As extraordinary as I think Coetzee’s book is, however, it felt a little relentless to me, perhaps even somewhat monochromatic in terms of its perspective. The reality felt different to me. We see our stories both from the inside and the outside. Am the same person I was when I was four years old, or ten? The answer is yes, and no. Certainly some things have endured—those first-person impulses and passions. But I also have a perspective now which is coloured by so many different experiences, shifts in time and space. From that point of view, the perspective is in the third-person, the tense is past rather than present. In a sentence such as the one you quote, there is a recognition that these perspectives are not separate, but layered together: we are first- and third-person, past and present, subject and object, inside and outside, all together, all the time.

In a nutshell, then, I think the answer, which may only be partial, to your question is that when I felt myself writing in the moment of the experience—for instance, of that operation I underwent—then my writing self was first-person, present tense. But when there was a need for a shift—to see myself from outside, to wonder how others saw me—then it would change. But still, it is very complex, with various permutations. When I scored that goal in one of my soccer matches, I am certainly reliving the event, but I do it in the past tense until it enters the present as a relived moment that has never left me. And of course the entire structure of the book has to do with seeing from many different angles, many different times, many different perspectives.

You describe your identity during the years of apartheid as partial and unstable. You say ‘we weren’t entirely white because we were Jewish; we weren’t entirely Jewish because we were white; and of course we weren’t entirely African because we were both Jewish and white’. How has being an émigré in America altered how you relate to your ‘Jewishness’, ‘Africanness’, and ‘Whiteness’? How has the fabric of your being altered? What has changed, what has stayed the same?

For a talk I am presenting later in the year, I have been looking at Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, where he remarks, ‘Today…it is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.’ That captures something extremely powerful: perhaps we cannot be, or feel, truly at home until everyone does so. Certainly it captures one aspect of the continuity for me from the South Africa I grew up in to my life in the USA now. For me, probably, there was always a dialectic involved, of both belonging and unbelonging, and that has continued in various ways. Strangely, for someone who has been away from South Africa for so long, I still feel remarkably attached to it. I love the feel of it, the landscape, the energies, the philosophical sharpness. And there are things I feel attached to in Amherst, where I live now, as well. But always there is that oscillation: belonging/unbelonging, being at home/not-at-home. And there are differences: being Jewish in America is not the same as being Jewish in South Africa. To what extent am I still African? Am I still trapped in my whiteness? Who knows: I would have to be outside my story to tell. But something I feel quite strongly, perhaps because of these experiences, is that belonging can also be in the spaces-between, the spaces of transition and navigation. No matter where we are, I think there is some truth in that for everyone.

Birthmark is published by Jacana.