EXTRACT: Navigate

Three poems from the new collection by KARIN SCHIMKE.
Karin Schimke

ii. not co-opted (From: Praxis – four steps to understanding change)

I give my mouth to no one.
I am the ears of everyone
and of my self. When you
shout, shells tilt. We nod.
We nod, the sea and I. We know.
We know. We lose ourselves in froth.

I will not staunch you.

I listen for a half beat,
a breath, and whisper back
the whispers of the waiting
gales. Pen-ink my voice
and silent so; willed to white,
whitened to bone. And flaccid.



those who are footloose
who roam to the ends
of untethered threads
those with battered bags
and make-do those
whose assertions
to place are brief or twee
those who are home-free:

how were they released?

me, i am planted here, awake
and calcifying. my roots ache.


What wedding is this?

This morning the mist-veiled
autumn mountain is all ours.

Leucadendrons’ pink muzzles
line the path like dewy bridesmaids
wearing sparkles. An orb-web spider
reigns from the middle of her wagon wheel
turned chandelier by drops of dew
and tufts of light.

What wedding is this?

In the dark bush, above the mist-slicked
rocks of the dry riverbed, moss grows
in the armpits of trees. Seed confettis the ground.
Older promises sweat from the stream’s vertebra,
and the mountain’s crotch smells like buchu and rooibos.

Oh, honeybush, this is not a wedding.
It’s an ecstasy.

Navigate is published by Modjaji Books. Read our review here.

BOOK CLUB: Navigate

LOUIETTA DU TOIT is entranced by Navigate, a dense and shimmering collection of poems by Karin Schimke.

Navigate by Karin Schimke

Karin Schimke’s Navigate sits on my desk for several weeks.  I gather, before having read it, that it is a deeply personal work and I intend to engage with it as devotedly as I imagine it was written. But amidst the incessant pulsing of my city and work life, an ideal bookended period of time to do this, does not arrive.

And then I am at the feet of the Waterberg, lounging on a redbrick stoep constructed by my grandfather almost three decades ago. I am here with my closest family on a celebratory weekend away – it’s my birthday soon.  More than we ourselves are able to, the unassuming landscape of the farm holds our shared history and each moment together offers something of this, interspersed with everyday wonder, affection and little traumas and distress.

As always, we move within the structures of this intimacy a little clumsily, but each with a somewhat refined steering method.

We are, perpetually, either finding each other, or trying to.

Navigate finds me here.

my lips blister, my tongue dries.
atonal winds, weather all wall-eyed.

Schimke’s evocative collection is woven on a number of distinct threads. It is a conscious expedition through roots and heritage and the complex, fluid meaning of home and belonging.  The refuge of nature in all its beauty and simplicity. And the becoming of a self – the poet’s finding, nurturing and placement of her voice – as a writer, a daughter, a woman and a citizen.  The implication that these threads are interwoven and interdependent, is strong:  a recognition which I greatly appreciate and resonate with.

A series of dichotomies, as striking as the natural metaphors Schimke employs throughout, appears – between the metaphysical and the earthly, the personal and the public, the private and the communal, the complex and the staggeringly simple.  The need for togetherness and simultaneously, an ever-present yearning to be separate. Together with these binary notions, a question is posed:  which takes precedence?  The answer I find is far from prescriptive – not one.

Instead, it is suggested that navigation, here so skilfully demonstrated through poetry, inherently requires a well-honed, multi-faceted attention and an ability to adapt.  This calls for a resolve to be acutely present in all conditions and Schimke appears willing to be exactly this – not only at the mercy of the “elements” she is faced with, but very much present within them.  She captures the heart of this process in Cleaning the wound:

the trick is to pull off the plaster
and look the wound in the eye
it’s not as bad as you think it will be
it’s just a doorway
a threshold to sweep
and polish and protect

It calls for what I find to be the most striking quality of Navigate– a down-to-earth-ness. The language of Cleaning the wound is both sincerely painful as well as reverent and nurturing. Rejection never emerges as an option. Only a flow and the willingness to receive it fully, to expand and retract, again and again.  In this way, human experience becomes, like this collection of poems, simultaneously tumultuous and beautiful.

As I am flung about, and taught, and held by Schimke’s dexterous wielding of harsh, methodical memories alongside deeply tender, redolent imagery, I am reassured by the grand coexistence of things which appear at first to be mutually exclusive.  This is the flood of the world.  The poet’s (and my) experience swings from an openness and delight to a shrunken, unanchored state and back, as does her sense of self and voice, her craft and her conviction within it.

The second section of the collection is prefaced by:

and now my mouth is small and hard
and now my tongue’s a fossil
now my lips are bone on bone
my chest’s an empty vessel

and she agonises in Taped Beak:

over and over
christ this chorus bores me
i’m doing whatever the verb
is for litany and grass grows
over my feet     i am that woman
that white that wash that
i am my own thick black
censor lines my hushing
terrorist up-shutter

Aside from the poet herself, the character of her father (the immigrant) is the most consistently present, whether as an explicit, literal subject or employed as a metaphor.  Schimke’s reflections on her father start off as a harsh, almost desperate disconnect, evolving through this exploration into something full and tender.  In parallel, her creative voice awakens, hesitates, expands and settles.  The father figure then becomes a marker on the map: the more foreign and inaccessible he is portrayed to be, the more tumultuous the conditions, the more untethered the poet appears.  But as we are granted a deeper access to and understanding of Schimke’s universe, a spaciousness grows around her father and around the poet herself.

We sweated.  You measured. You planned.
When I shifted my weight, you cursed.
Boredom grew.  I needed to pee.
My hands uncramped themselves.
My mouth excused me.
You shouted.  My fingers swore.
Relief is enough breath for one last stand.
You grabbed me by the hair

Retracing one’s steps also means deepening them.  I know this well.  But I also know and read again here that ultimately, through the process of revisiting and seeing, the old, deep traces of where we come from become less dire, less violent and less separate from where we are, here and now. This is indeed, on every implied level, a navigation from a state of Myopia (the title of the opening poem) to an uncomplicated belonging when the collection closes, intimately – My feet were at home in your lap.

Navigate – a most appropriate title for the narrative arc of this collection – offers neither injunction nor resolution.  Instead, it is an always tender and rarely sentimental telling.  In this telling a process emerges, divided into the four phases of the poet’s personal navigation.  These phases are not clinical, but emerge in the moment to moment unfolding, as do the beautifully crafted poems.  The resultant coherence is gradual and unforced.

Schimke writes her own trajectory amidst the elements, passing through conditions of chaos and turbulence, desolation, a palpable impasse where nothing moves, with eyes shut tight, waiting, and then into something akin to redemption, conjuring up an image of her standing, simply and gently, exactly where she is – in the eye of the proverbial storm.  The introductory verse of the final section signals this pause and arrival:

i knew no goodness till i’d trawled
the sky of his forehead for the bitter stars
and found none

It is a homecoming:  to the deep, safe waters of the other and the self.  And it is in this way that she can lay claim to the contours of her own voice:

I dream in
the alphabet of dance
where consonants
have fur
where vowels bleat
where vague
and precise
are the same

It may be worth considering to what extent one’s response to a literary work stems from a kind of confirmation bias – do we simply read into it what we wish or need to see?  Can we put it down to that old chestnut of the right thing at the right time?

Perhaps it is really a matter of this:  one true thing, at any time.  To me, this is the birthplace of poetry, of art.  It is born in a non-exclusionary exploration, in the artist allowing the force of the flood.

Encouraged, I tug my thoughts back down to earth.  As I read, I try to couch my response in terms as basic and true as the pale cement joining the red bricks, the rarely seen Piet-My-Vrou calling to its mate. It is late autumn and the Limpopo sun is modest now, casting the shadow of a wild olive tree over my hands and across each printed page which I trace and turn.  I am feeling more, wanting more.  I am reminded to open and soften towards my own experience, my people, every moment – so often met with judgement and apprehension.

The voice of the poet is not glorified here – life and art are very much merged, becoming together.

This dense collection is nothing if not heartfelt.  Schimke’s poetry leaves me with a sense of fragmented completeness and in this contradiction, a freedom.  A testament to the myriad elements of what it means to be human, each in their mundane and dramatic, exquisite and distressing way, I close Navigate in the comforting fold of a sentiment expressed by Gustave Flaubert – ‘There is not a particle of life which does not bear poetry within it.’  Yours and mine.

Navigate is published by Modjaji Books. Read three poems from the collection here.

Author photograph by Paul Reeves.

THE EDITOR: On women’s stories

As the aftershocks of #MeToo continue to reverberate around the world, ALEXANDER MATTHEWS reflects on the role of social media and publishing in the sharing of women’s stories.

Alexander Matthews

Days after revelations that movie mogul Harvey Weinstein had sexually preyed on dozens of women, actress Alyssa Milano invited women to respond with “Me too” if they had ever experienced sexual harassment or assault. Respond they certainly did. According to The Guardian, #MeToo was shared nearly a million times in 48 hours on Twitter while there were more than 12m comments and reactions to the hashtag on Facebook in 24 hours.

The viral campaign not only highlighted the devastating ubiquity of inappropriate – and in many cases downright predatory – behaviour towards women. It also illustrated how social media can be powerful platforms to share stories, giving much-needed oxygen to previously-hidden narratives, and becoming catalysts for listening and support among those affected as well as their friends, families and colleagues.

The sharing of these stories have emboldened many women who – fearing indifference, recrimination or retribution – had remained silent until now. New allegations of sexual misconduct have been levelled against a number of MPs and ministers in the UK, for example.

As I followed the aftershocks of #MeToo reverberating around the world, I started thinking about home. South Africa has a long, inglorious history of silencing and marginalising women. Sexual violence remains rampant, with many perpetrators going unpunished.

While fiction, memoir and poetry don’t have the power to stop the violence or destroy a patriarchy that cuts across race, class and culture, these modes of storytelling can, however, inspire change and connection and facilitate catharsis, healing and solidarity.

Recognising this, in 2015 radio presenter Nancy Richards established a dedicated Women’s Library in Cape Town through the NGO she founded, Women’s Zone. In addition to more than 1000 books (everything from self-help to fiction), the space at Artscape hosts panels, launches and workshops.

Richards says, “Not every woman is born to write a book, but every woman has a story. Our aim is to encourage as many as possible to share her story, through workshops or just by listening – for her own, or the benefit of others who may relate, learn and grow from it. If it gets written we will celebrate it. If it gets published we will launch it. We will always welcome it onto our shelves.”

A decade ago, Colleen Higgs bravely launched a woman-focused publishing press. Since then, Modjaji Books has published 16 short story collections, 21 novels, and 41 books of poetry – ushering new voices into the public consciousness – often books that mainstream publishers have deemed too risky to take on.

Encouragingly, those mainstream publishers appear to have increasingly diverse lists. Some of the most buzzed-about books of the year were by women writers of colour – and dealt with gender issues head-on. I’m thinking of the memoirs by writer/activist Sisonke Msimang (Always Another Country) and outspoken feminist academic Pumla Dineo Gqola (Reflecting Rogue). I’m thinking of Kwezi, Redi Tlhabi’s heartbreaking account of the woman who accused our president of raping her. And I’m thinking of Business Day journalist Rehana Rossouw’s second novel, New Times.

New Times is about a female journalist in Cape Town at the dawn of our democracy. When Rossouw was asked at her recent launch why she had chosen fiction to explore this epoch instead of memoir (after all, she was a journalist in the same place at the same time) she said: “The stories we don’t write are always more interesting than the ones we do.”

She explained that – paradoxically – writing fiction gave her the freedom to write the truth.

The risks of speaking out remain too great for some women, particularly when their abusers marshal considerable power and influence (as they often tend to). I was reminded of this when I discovered that a friend of mine had walked out of her high-powered job at a major brand because she could no longer bear being sexually harassed by her boss. She was advised to sign the nondisclosure agreement and accept the hush money she was offered – because her lawyer assured her that the company’s all-powerful legal department would crush her if she didn’t. She could see what lay ahead – an exhausting lengthy legal battle, her reputation shattered, with scant support from those in her industry with whom a relationship with this brand is more important than sticking up for what is right.

One day I hope she writes a novel about it. Because we need constant reminding of what we might know but choose to ignore: that in the age of equal rights, misogyny is alive and well. It might be more sophisticated and less obvious – but through bullying, manipulation, cover-ups and collusion – it is rife. Shining a light on it won’t make it disappear, but it will contribute to the groundswell of desperately needed change, as we work towards building a truly non-sexist society.

Visit www.womanzonect.com to find out more about the Women’s Library Cape Town.

This column first appeared in WANTED magazine.


MANOSA NTHUNYA reviews the new novel by Barbara Boswell.

“Her whole life it had been drummed into Grace that every living thing had its cross to bear.” This is what Barbara Boswell’s protagonist, Grace, lives with, and accepts, from an early age. It is the knowledge that life is difficult and therefore every single being has to bear something as long as they are a part of it. The perilous aspect of this is that one bears what one cannot anticipate and it is here that Boswell’s remarkable debut novel, Grace, shows how vulnerable human life is.

The first part the novel is set in the 1980s, a tumultuous time in South African history, in the Cape Flats. Grace is a teenager who has little interest in the political matters of her day. Even though other young people, including Johnny, her first love, are engaged in the struggle, she has been taught by her parents to respect authority and to therefore not participate in actions that challenge its power. This approach to political issues is, as the reader slowly learns, also tied to how she responds to events that take place in her own home. Grace’s father, Patrick, is an abusive alcoholic who does not tolerate dissenting views from his wife, Mary, or Grace. When the novel begins, Mary has made a decision to divorce him and it is this act that informs how the plot evolves. The narrative moves between their present lives and their past and in this way allows the reader to see the devastating impact that Patrick has had on them.

Boswell’s stunning novel is about the consequences of living in a world where power is distributed in a hierarchical manner and the dehumanising effects this has. Grace admires her mother’s beauty and often compares herself to her. What she sees, however, when she looks at herself is “a pleasant round face, nut-brown skin and adequately pretty eyes”.

There is, though, a contradiction between this figure that she admires and the abuse Mary has to endure from Grace’s father. In one moving scene, after another night of beating, Grace accompanies her disgraced mother to a cosmetic store where she is going to buy make-up in order to cover her injuries. Observing her mother, Grace is distressed at her mother’s “cowering” attitude towards the store’s white assistant when she is refused to test the make-up and instead told that as a coloured woman, she has to buy the product as testing is only reserved for white women.  It is no surprise then that “Grace wished her father would just die.”

When we meet Grace in the second part of the novel, in 1997, she seems to have a stable family; she has had the advantage of going to university and lives a lifestyle that makes her a part of the new black middle class. She is married and has a child with David, a man that she met at university and who gives her care and attention in a way that is vastly different to the relationship that she witnessed between her parents. She seems to be happy until her past returns to haunt her when her first lover, Johnny, who had mysteriously disappeared in the ’80s, returns and demands that they continue where they left off.

One of the questions that the novel asks is whether societies that have experienced trauma survive or will a traumatic history recreate itself in the new. The last paragraph of this novel attempts to answer this but is somewhat unconvincing. If individuals cannot anticipate what will happen to them, it seems impossible to see how one can claim to be free, as Grace does, even if they are in a process of reinventing their lives. Freedom will always depend on a constant negotiation with others, including those who might enter one’s life to question one’s assumption of freedom as Grace is consistently forced to learn. Ultimately, though, Grace is a beautifully written novel that interrogates the history of South Africa and its continued impact on personal lives with extraordinary effect.

Grace is published by Modjaji Books.

From bathtub to ocean


People often say that there is nothing worse than losing your own child. Death comes to everyone eventually, but to lose someone you would never expect to must be one of the most painful experiences for any human being, no less a proud and loving mother. This, then, is a difficult subject to brace and one which Tiah Beautement explores in her second novel, This Day.

Ella is a grieving mother, not yet in middle age, living in the seaside town of Mossel Bay. Her son, Kai, died in the bath when her mother in law left him there to answer a phone call. Her husband — Kai’s father, Bart — is severely depressed, refuses to get out of bed most days and eats very little. She has to force him to live when it is quite clear that he is not interested in life. Ella however remains steadfast, and refuses to be defeated by the tides of her life, doing her best to swim against the rushing waters and find her way to the proverbial shore.

The novel spans the course of a single day, and the tides of the ocean provide the titles to sections, measuring time but also keeping the reader aware of the patterns that inform Ella’s life. We see her go about various activities: a maternity shoot with her best friend, Kamala; her gardening ritual and the hiring of a new gardener; and a scuba diving excursion. All of these things serve only as background noise to what Beautement is really trying to get at: Ella’s mind as it reels in the mundanity of the every day and tries to come to terms with Kai’s death.

The exploration is a revealing one. Beautement weaves a complex picture of the mind of a bereaved mother. However, the prose at times feels too thin to carry the weight of Ella’s thought – the words chosen are reaching for something that they cannot quite grasp – and this leaves the phrasing feeling trite, and sometimes clichéd. With the focus placed so heavily on Ella, most of the other characters are not adequately developed either, leaving blank spaces where there could be revealing dialogue. The story demands a richer, more mature prose.

The novel is redeemed by its honesty, though. It confronts a harsh tragedy unashamedly, with a sense of bold confidence. The closing provides an excellent climax to the struggles of Ella’s day and we for the first time see her true pain revealed. The potent use of water and the sea as a metaphor (in Ella’s fear of the sea, the seaside setting, the way Kai dies and the continuous brewing of tea) is tied together well in the closing pages, and the reader does feel as though there is resolution for Ella.

This Day is published by Modjaji Books.


EXTRACT: The Blacks of Cape Town by C.A. Davids

C.A. Davids

The building that she walked from, 780 on Bloomfield, was a handsome turn of the century building in the Spanish Mission style, or so the advert on the internet had said. The walls were a pimpled white beneath overhanging red roof tiles. Black curled iron bars kept out peeping toms, an array of intruders and all sorts of unsavoury types that the news was always warning about. The News at Ten the night before had had such a feature: “Ten observations that could save you from your neighbours.” Apparently one in ten was likely to be a sex offender while five in ten were bound to be shoplifters, sex addicts, drug addicts, food addicts or would-be Islamic terrorists.

Zara didn’t think her neighbours were any of those.

It was just after Zara reached home from work, when the light had not yet retreated entirely, that she needed to hear children playing or feet shuffling down the brown-stained corridors. Instead the evenings were frighteningly peaceful. Yet when she placed her head on the pillow each night and tried to close out thoughts of home and the story that she had to tell, only then did the building awake and the shut, numbered doors began to reveal the depths of activities behind them. Someone flipped channels till the early hours of the morning, someone’s child had nightmares, someone else awoke at 1:30 every night to use the bathroom and didn’t flush or wash their hands. The couple next door hadn’t had sex for two weeks. Zara knew because when they did, the paper thin walls revealed the plumbing of their married lives. Zara never looked at the couple when they got into the lift with her.

That morning, Zara met none of these people in the deserted, dark corridor.

She walked past the store adjoining her building and as always heard the greeting before she saw the store owner.

“My friend, my friend. What lovely weather this is, wouldn’t you say?” He always came hurrying to the front of the store to catch Zara as she went by, his limp most noticeable when he rushed. The man’s silver hair was combed heavily to one side and his still thick moustache – a spirited black – was fluffed and buoyant like a feather duster. He always spoke about the weather and didn’t seem to mind that Zara always responded with the same curt reply.

“Yes, lovely. Good morning, Mr Ortez.” At least she assumed that was his name. That was what the sign on the storefront read: Ortez and Sons, Quality Tobacco Merchants since 1950. Was this Ortez the original? Zara wondered as she walked on, and was Junior waiting patiently or even impatiently somewhere in the wings? Or could this be the son whose life had so carefully, so distantly been laid out for him? She walked past the cluster of restaurants: Indian, Moroccan, Ethiopian, Thai and Vietnamese, already sending their spicy, sweet odours into the morning air to lure an early crowd.

“We make the third world more palatable,” the owner of the Ethiopian restaurant had said mockingly one evening as Zara found herself searching for a place to eat.

“Come, sit, we bring the rest of the world to you in nice bite-sizes, so you don’t have to get your shoes dusty…” he’d said, teasing and taunting the crowd of students and lecturers as they apologetically acknowledged the little they knew about his homeland and agreed they were not likely to visit anytime soon.

When the owner of the restaurant happened upon Zara, a fellow African, he had embraced her like an old friend, before quietly admitting that he too had never visited Ethiopia, having been born and raised in New Jersey. She passed the restaurant now, stopping at the coffee shop at the corner, where she ordered her second dose of caffeine for the day. Steaming paper cup in hand, she walked beneath overhanging trees, past the junior school that revealed the changing face of the area even more than the global eateries; past the same ancient man that she saw every day, who much like the oak in his garden, appeared to be rooted to the spot, until she reached the park and her usual place on the bench overlooking the green: a neat bit of land that stood before a forest of magnificent trees.

At the start of autumn the leaves had turned the softest auburn. But each day thereafter the trees became more agitated, growing bolder and louder until all that remained were forests caught up in mass hysteria – oranges, reds, purples. Complete madness.

The Cape’s autumn by contrast had always been mild and uneventful. At the worst, cardigan season; no more than an inconvenient passing from summer to winter. Unlike the North there was no turning of leaves to unimaginable colours. Zara pulled her coat tightly around her, felt the wind lift her hair off her shoulders and wondered what would happen next. It had been two months since she had received the letter from the government announcing that documents once sealed would soon be declassified and that her father’s name was amongst those whose deeds would finally be known, for history to judge. What those acts were had not been said. So it had been two months in which she had packed up all her things, moved across the world, and yet nowhere had she seen her father’s name – not in newspapers that she scoured online. Not on television or radio programmes that she listened to each day. Ritualistically, she did an internet search on her father’s name each morning, terrified of the day that she would find it and yet somehow hoping that when the truth was uncovered, at least it would be over. She didn’t know what to expect, the letter had given her no clues as to what this betrayal might be. All she knew, could determine from it, was that her father had done something in his past to earn him a dubious reputation amongst the current government. Something which made him, at the least, appear to be a traitor.

The Blacks of Cape Town by C.A. DavidsExtracted from The Blacks of Cape Townpublished by Modjaji Books.

The past is always with you


Straddling two continents, America and Africa, and shifting between time zones, from the mid-1800s to 2008, C.A. Davids’s ambitious first novel tells – as the provocative title suggests – the story of three generations of the Black family. Yet it is also so much more than a family history. It explores the madness of apartheid’s racial categories and how they still entangle us and how the past has been whittled down to a fairy tale-like story of saints and sinners devoid of complexity.

At the centre of the 237-page novel is Zara Black; a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Berwick in New Jersey and a third generation offspring of the Black family. Her life starts to unravel when she receives a letter from the South African government naming her late father, Bart, “among the traitors, conspirators and betrayers of their time.” The allegations spur Zara to dig into her family’s past in order to unearth the truth for herself.

The inquest begins with the life of her grandfather, Isaiah, the man who “had thrown a shadow on three generations” of the family. Born and raised in Kimberly during the high-tide of the diamond rush in the 1800s, Isaiah successfully passed himself off as white to avoid toiling like a slave underground and instead found a low-paying clerical job, ordering office stationery and making tea, at one of the mines. One day he stole ten uncut diamonds and stuffed them into his shoe and he fled to Cape Town. Once he arrived in the city, he opened a jewelry store and re-named himself Isaiah Black. The scandal, of Isaiah pretending to be European and abandoning the rest of the family, cloaks the Black family in shame.

Zara’s father, the last of Isaiah’s five children, is swept up in the struggle against apartheid. Until the arrival of the letter, Zara believed her father was an ardent anti-apartheid activist to the end. When she starts reconnecting with figures from his past a different story starts to emerge about who Bart really was. The question she is faced with afterwards, is can she still love him, even after all he has done? It her cousin Amy who provides the answer when she says:

“The country was not, contrary to all expectation, split into villains and heroes. Sometimes ordinary people, good people, fucked up, Zee. What if your father made a mistake? A horrible, regrettable mistake that would follow him for the rest of his life? This great struggle of ours – my God, what a legacy it has left us: we must not see anyone but the victor, the hero, the winning narrative. No we have painted over the past as it was, and replaced it with something which is pleasing to the eye. A one dimensional story!”

The Blacks of Cape Town is an astonishingly brilliant debut. Strikingly written, it piercingly illuminates South Africa’s failure to transcend apartheid’s racial categories.

The Blacks of Cape Town is published by Modjaji Books.