Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Memory is Fallible – Two Novels from Fact

In the twenty years since democracy, there has been a groundswell of South African literature. Once two behemoths – Gordimer and Coetzee – strode the land, but the freedom of the new South Africa has brought a freedom of creative thought and a wave of writing. Now we have South African crime fiction (rivaling that of the Scandis, so I hear from reliable sources), South African romance and young adult fiction, South African distopian fiction and even South African chick lit. Margie Orford, Deon Meyer and Lauren Beukes are household names to book lovers.

I have recently read two South African debut novels that are worth mentioning in their similarity of purpose. Both are novelisations of true events. In both books, the writer is both narrator and character, writing fiction out of fact.

The first is called False River and it is written in English by Dominique Botha, whose mother tongue is Afrikaans. False River tells the achingly tragic story of her older brother Paul, a poet and renegade whose brilliance could not be contained by an ordinary life and who died of an overdose in London when he was 27. As the first two of five children, Dominique and Paul were allies. The novel charts both Paul’s trajectory and Dominique’s as she goes from being adoring little sister to anxious guardian to one of his mourners.

False River is beautifully written. It contains passages of such breathtaking poetry, so deeply anchored in the landscape I know and love, that it is worth reading for the language and imagery alone. If Paul was a poet, Dominique is one now.

However, she is also a storyteller, and this is a novel. For the reader, there is a layer of tension, a discomfort, in knowing that it tells a story that is real. When asked in a recent SATV interview why she chose not to write a memoir, Botha said that “… memory is  incredibly fallible and we can’t rely on it, so when you go back and recreate something you either have to be incredibly factual or you have to acknowledge the fact that retrieving a memory is committing a first act of fiction.”

Asked why she took so long to write this first book, Botha said that at first she felt too much in his shadow to write. However, she realised many years after his death that his memory was fading and that she had a strong compulsion to put pen to paper and write it down. As someone who knew Paul and many of his friends loosely disguised in the novel, I am glad she did. Not only do we have a new voice on the South African literary scene and a story that is a gift to the reader, we also have a way to remember our friend. Here is a scene from the end of the book:

Time flies and time stands still. We pass through time. She is not swayed by us. The vlei spills into the pan. A moorhen glides. Willows drop braids into water. Buried flowers in the darkened garden strain against the soil.

By sunrise all the women from the stat were sweeping and cleaning around the house. They had come unbidden. Ma stood by the window watching them. Martha edged her upstairs to change.

The protocol of solace marked the hours.

The second novel from fact I have recently read is One Green Bottle by Debrah Anne Nixon. The narrator is a woman named Jennifer Hartley, whose idyllic life on a KwaZulu-Natal farm is marred by a series of panic attacks that eat away at her self-esteem and grip on reality. She is hospitalised in a local psychiatric ward. The novel charts her series of stays on the ward, the people she meets and endures there and, after losing her marriage and custody of her children, her eventual tentative recovery and release.

One Green Bottle is a searing account of mental illness and does a brilliant job of evoking the hopelessness of those caught in its coils. While it is less obvious than with False River that the narrator and the author are one, there are clues. The novel is dedicated to ‘fellow sufferers of mental ailments’, the main character writes pages of a novel while she is incarcerated and an afterword from a psychiatrist talks of Nixon’s struggle and catharsis.

However, for me it became evident in Nixon’s descriptions of ward life that this was no creative imagining of the despair, bleakness and grinding exhaustion that is long-term mental illness. I had to put the book down several times while reading, in order to regain the energy I needed to go back into the wards. Despite her simple sentence structure and compassionate and often loving descriptions of Jenny’s fellow inmates, Nixon pulls no punches. She is brutally honest and reveals a system that is failing its patients, both at a structural level and in the inability of psychiatry to do much more than throw experimental cocktails at their patients in the name of healing.

While two books don’t make a trend, it was interesting to read False River and One Green Bottle back-to-back. Both tell acutely personal stories cast as novels and, whether read as fact or fiction, both take the duty of care to show that while loss and tragedy are part of the human condition so too are hope and love. As Botha’s final poem says,

soil must subside

we may not


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Pouting and Reading

To quote the Sunday Times, I’ve been “doing a lot of pouting and staying in bed late”, not because I’m Madonna, but because I’ve had a three-day migraine. Germany’s top husband has, as the article says, been playing chef, diplomat and domestic fluffer, which has included his coming into the bedroom frequently and putting down the blinds to rest my eyes. About 30 seconds after he leaves I leap up, and roll them up again so that I can read. It probably prolonged the headache, but I can’t lie in bed during the day and not read. Also, the books were so good that I had to.

First up was Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book, which definitely rates as my third book of the year (first was Half of a Yellow Sun and second was The Lay of the Land). People of the Book is hard to define – it’s part thriller, part love-story, part historical novel and part something all its own. I got that shivery feeling on the first page that I was going to love it, and I did (no, it wasn’t the migraine). It tells the story of Hanna, an Australian book restorer who is called to Sarajevo in 1996 on behalf of the UN to restore an ancient Jewish manuscript – the Haggadah – which was rescued from destruction during the Bosnian war by its Muslim librarian. Hanna restores the text, but also finds objects between its pages – a grain of salt, a fragment of a butterfly wing, a wine stain – that give her clues to the book’s previous owners. Large sections of the novel are given to uncovering who these people, the people of the book, were and tracing the Haggadah’s journey from Spain to Italy and finally to Sarajevo over a 500-year period.

Geraldine Brooks was a war correspondent in Bosnia, Somalia and the Middle East and People of the Book is testament to her experience in parts of the world where many cultures meet and her journalistic ability to uncover and represent facts. The novel traces the history of the Jews in Europe, and thus the history of religious intolerance and prejudice, from the Spanish Inquisition to the Venetian Geto to the cultural richness that was Sarajevo before the World War II via characters who become curators and care-takers of the book. I found this part of the novel fascinating, and the way she winds it into the modern strand reminded me a little of Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth or Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian.

However, Brooks is also now a prize-winning novelist, and it is her ability to imagine characters that is her ultimate success. Hanna is a completely appealing narrator: she has a snappy, self-deprecating Aussie wit, an appalling relationship with her mother which provides a satisfying sub-plot and a penchant for heroes disguised as librarians. Her passion for restoration and detail, which in other hands could have been dull, illuminates the novel so that, as a reader, I felt as if I was on her journey with her, uncovering the people and the history of the book.

People of the Book is about layers and mysteries, about history and fiction, and about ordinary people who in moments of historical crisis, become heroes. Apart from being a superb read, it also strongly underlines the fact that religious intolerance and the struggle for Muslim, Jew and Christian to co-exist peacefully is an ancient one. However, since the curators of the Haggadah were, over the centuries, Muslim and Christian as well as Jewish, Brooks’ message is a positive one: that people who love the written word will try to overcome their differences in order to save books. For, as Hanna reminds us:

Book burnings. Always the forerunners. Heralds of the stake, the ovens, the mass graves.

That happy note leads me to the second book I read this weekend. It was a toss-up between the new Le Carre and, after a shuffle through my to-be-read pile, another Brooks’ novel The Year of Wonders. I decided on a feast of Geraldine, and I was rewarded. TYOW rests on Brooks’ twin pillars of historical veracity (the evocation of an English village in 1666, the Plague year) and compelling, believable characters. Having read March earlier this year, I am in awe of her ability to imagine herself into a distant world and make it real through a combination of exacting research and beautiful writing. Thanks to her, I forgot my migraine and stopped pouting, just for a while.


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A Woman in Berlin

Französiche Dom, Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin

I love Berlin. It is so fresh, vibrant and exciting that you feel you are soaking up innovation, ideas and history through your pores as you walk the streets. Berlin has not papered over its cracks, so you see remnants of the Second World War (the bombed-out carcass of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche) and the Cold War (the long, chilly footprint of the Wall) everywhere. I learned that none of the trees in the Tiergarten are more than sixty years old, because the previous forest was razed for firewood in the dying days of the war, and in the freezing winters afterwards.

But this is not about me. During my last visit, I fell upon an amazing book – A Woman in Berlin – a diary of a woman who details her life in the falling city as it was sacked by the Russian army. It starts on 20 April 1945 and ends on 22 June 1945. The writer, who has recently died, chose to remain anonymous when it was published, and the book received controversy, especially in Germany where it was accused of “besmirching the honour of German women.” As you read, you understand why the book might have been hard to swallow in the 1960s. Not only does she describes in exact and excruciating detail what it is like to live in a city under attack: the scrabbling for food, the nauseating fear of being bombed, the chilling anxiety of waiting for the Russians to arrive, but she deals very frankly with the mass rapes that took place, saying that the women began to ask each other not “Were you … ?” but “How many times … ?”.

According to the introduction, over 160 000 Berlin women were raped as the Russians swept through the city. They were considered an acceptable booty for the travails of being a soldier, and all women of all ages are targetted. People in the writer’s apartment building spirited their daughters away in crawl spaces, while only the oldest women ventured out into the streets to fetch water. The writer herself is not spared, and she finally makes a Faustian pact, singling out the most senior – and potentially most cultured and gentlemanly – Russian officer she can find to act as protector. In exchange for sexual favours, she receives food which she shares with the elderly and ailing residents of the building. What Berlin’s liberators come to call “forced intercourse” becomes her only method of survival.

The writer is a journalist and photographer, and her prose builds unforgettable images of war. This means the book can be hard going, since the subject matter is almost unbearable, but it is leavened with her salty sense of humour and astonishing courage.

Here is one excerpt that moved me with its prescience:

I barely glanced at the news from the western front. What does it matter to us now? Our fate is rolling in from the east and it will transfer the climate, like another Ice Age.

On hunger:

I found a letter wedged inside a drawer, addressed to the real tenant. I felt ashamed for reading it, but I read it all the same. A passionate love letter, which I flushed down the toilet. (Most of the time we still have water.) Heart, hurt, love, desire: how foreign, how distant these words sound now. Evidently a sophisticated, discriminating love-life requires three square meals a day. My sole concern as I write these lines is my stomach. All thinking and feeling, all wishes and hopes begin with food.

On the futility of technology:

Our radio’s been dead for four days. Once again we see what a dubious blessing technology really is. Machines with no intrinsic value, worthless if you can’t plug them in somewhere. Bread, however, is absolute. Coal is absolute. And gold is gold whether you’re in Rome, Peru or Breslau. But radios, gas stoves, central heating, hot plates, all these gifts of the modern age – they’re nothing but dead weight if the power goes out. At the moment we’re marching backwards in time. Cave dwellers.

This is a powerful and heart-rending book. It’s also an amazing piece of social history and now that Germany has learnt to be more open about its past, now that other countries have faced up to their roles in the making of war, this is a good time time to be reading this book. It may deal with a very short and very specific period in German history, but it talks to all of us about how far we will go when we are starving, about the bleak impact war has on civilians and about the small sparks of humanity that help people to survive when that seems impossible.


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Sharing the Love

I have to celebrate the fact that three of my blogging friends, none of whom I have met I must add, but one can hope, have had good news recently with regard to forging relationships with publishers and literary agents. This is so exciting, not only because I have been on the blog trail with the three of them for two years now, not only because I have shared the ups and downs of being a writer with them, but also because all three are superb writers and deserve to be published, lauded and admired for their efforts. Unlike some, who become famous for blogging and then write unremarkable books, but who am I to quibble?

First up is Nova, who lives in New York, and who writes about writing and her struggles to be published with wincing, gut-wrenching frankness in her blog Distraction No. 99. Nova pitched her tween novel to an editor at Simon & Schuster based on “30 pages and a plot summary” and has received an offer. She is now busily writing the rest of the novel, while still holding down her day-job, also in publishing. Nova, your dedication to and love of writing and books inspires me.

Then, there’s the incomparable Litlove, a UK academic who blogs at Tales from the Reading Room. Litlove has created a wonderful salon for people who love to appreciate, think about and discuss books. She is kind, inclusive and writes beautifully and incisively about the books she reads. Litlove’s idea for a book on representations of motherhood in literature has been accepted for representation by an agent in London, and I can’t wait to read it once it is finished.

Flushed from hearing that news, I wondered over to another favourite and long-term blog-pal of mine, BlogLily, to hear that her thriller set in Germany during the Cold War has also been accepted for representation by an agent. Lily is a mother of three energetic boys and is a full-time lawyer who wrote her novel in the cracks and interstices of her life, and she is my hero. She has just made herself a writing-space at home, and look what happened! She found an agent!

If you haven’t already, please visit these three writers and shower them with congratulations. I am so thrilled and delighted for them, and also for us, knowing that there are going to be three superb new books on our Christmas lists in the next couple of years. Who knows, I might even get a signed copy.

**********************************

On the topic of sharing love, I was bending down in a late-spring snow storm this morning zipping a six-year-old’s coat, when she whispered tenderly to me, “Do you know what, Mummy? In your ear, you have lots of little hairs!”

Hairily yours,

Charlotte


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Tales from The Web: The Endorphin Edition

It’s been a long time since my last edition of Tales from The Web. Things have got in the way, like writing a novel and developing a gym habit. I have discovered that an endorphin high from 45 minutes on the cross-trainer lasts a whole lot longer than the endorphin high from eating a 100 gram bar of Milka. Gym is my new drug of choice, and like any addict I get really crabby when I don’t get my fix. This week I’ve sick kids and have only been able to go twice, which has made me bad-tempered and irritable. My family have been practically forcing chocolate on me. “Eat this, Mummy! Eat this and smile again!”

As a form of virtual chocolate, I offer you the March edition of Tales from the Web. Consider it endorphins packaged especially for you, as feel-good as spring lambs gambolling in acid-green fields. And if that doesn’t constitute happiness for you, then imagine you’ve just come off the treadmill, all wobbly-legged and trembly, and you’re floating out of the gym on a cloud of hormone. Feels good, doesn’t it?

Let’s start with eye candy. I bookmarked this in December, but these cakes could be Easter cakes too. The blogger African Vanielje is a chef, baker extraordinaire, photographer and writer. Take a look at her Truly Remarkable Once a Year Cakes and wish you were a friend of hers with a birthday just around the corner.

I love the Wallace Stevens quote BlogLily has as her blog tag: “It must give pleasure”. On days when I’ve felt like posting something gloomy, self-reflective and sad, I remember BlogLily’s mantra. I do think it is a good one. I have chosen a classic BL post for your delectation here. It comes from her visit to London earlier this year, where she soaked up a lot of theatre. Apparently in London in January, “it was pouring plays about sex”. Have fun reading Is Eros All?

Now we all know that sex can lead to babies, and babies, though delicious, bring a host of unexpected complications with them. Next up is a post written in response to a desperate plea. I saved it because I was taken with the thoughtfulness and kindness that went into shaping the response, and because I was once that parent, with a co-sleeping, breast-feeding baby who didn’t want to sleep unless using me as a dummy. I know the desperation that went into that original email, and I would have welcomed the same kind of non-judgmental kindness that Bluemilk exhibits here in trying to find a solution. I include this in the March Tales from The Web: The Endorphin Edition because I want to show that the blogosphere can be a good place, not just a snarkfest.

The lovely Anna is trying to work herself out of a job. Her three boys are growing up, and her resolution for this year is to mother them less so that they can learn the life-skills they will need when they leave home. I am a big fan of her blog The End of Motherhood where she is documenting this process with her great sense of humour. The post I’m linking to today is not about parenting teenagers, but is a tip for raising smaller kids. It’s what she calls “a secret sauce for parenting young children” and you can read about it here. Fifteen minutes a day to stop tantrums and reconnect with your child. That’s feel-good isn’t it?

I can always rely on Emily to make me laugh. In this post she talks about how, although she loves writing, she goes through the five stages of grief when she has write a half-page introduction to her company’s maths catalogue. As a procrastinator, I can relate. Read it, then go forth and complete all your admin. You’ll be so glad you did.

Ian is funny. But that’s no surprise since he’s Emily’s brother. Check out his Geekfield’s Guide to English Literature, a hand-drawn compendium of English literature from Beowulf to Dan Brown. Who thought graphic text books could be so much fun?

Helen was considering giving up writing, but then she needed the loo. Read how The Most Inspirational Toilet in Sydney gave her her writing mojo back. Could I have one in Heidelberg please?

For all-around chickeny cuteness, go and check out Mandarine’s new tenants, the Orpingtons. We had bantams as children, and they caused us no end of happiness. Unfortunately, they didn’t last long, because the suburbs of Pietermaritzburg were a cut-throat place even then, and they were taken out by a hardened gang of vervet monkeys. However, that’s not going to happen to Mandarine’s chickens because (a) they live in France, and (b) they have a lovely house. Oh, and if you read French, which I can if I try really, really hard, you can read Mandarine’s new blog where he details his attempt to farm a garden big enough to feed his whole family. (Which means he one day may have to sacrifice an Orpington, but we’re not thinking about that yet.)

That’s the Endorphin Edition for now. If I don’t get to the gym soon, I’m going to have to eat one of these:


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2007 in Books

100: the number of books I fondly imagined I would read this year

81: the number of books I actually read

60: books of fiction

32: books by US writers

22: books by British writers

22: books that were new in 2007

21: books of non-fiction

8: memoirs

6: books by African writers or about Africa

6: books by Canadian writers

5: business books

3: sets of short stories

3: books by Indian writers

2: classic novels (one French, one Russian)

2: books by Afghani writers

1: book by a Libyan writer

1: book by Turkish writer

0: books by German writers

Books That Made Me Cry:

28 Stories of AIDS by Stephanie Nolen, Babylon’s Ark by Lawrence Anthony, A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, A Special Relationship by Douglas Kennedy, Two Lives by Vikram Seth.

Books That Made Me Laugh:

Eating for England: The Delights and Eccentricities of the English at Table by Nigel Slater, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, Mother’s Milk by Edward St Aubyn, Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips, Darkmans by Nicola Barker, A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian by Marina Lewycka, everything by Janet Evanovich

Books That Scared Me:

The Road by Cormac McCarthy, In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar, A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones, The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walsh, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Godwin, The Castle in the Forest by Norman Mailer, The Ice Storm by Rick Moody

Books That Left Me Gasping in Admiration and Thinking That’s There No Point Even Trying to Be a Writer:

Darkmans by Nicola Barker, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, Empire Falls by Richard Russo, The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers, Runaway by Alice Munro

These five also constitute my favourites for the year. You might notice that I haven’t reviewed them either, because they all left me stunned, too stunned to feel I could say anything of meaning or add to the body of words already committed to their superlativeness. I loved and admired their vast sweep, their intimate characterisations, their humour, their compassion, their politics and the way each and every one reflected the truth of the human condition.

Reading Goals for 2008:

* Even out the imbalance between classics and contemporary

* Even out the imbalance between Anglo-American writers and everybody else

* Attempt to read a couple of books in German

* Focus less on the prize-winners, and more on books recommended by bloggers and friends whose opinions I respect

* Read more Alice Munro

* Read with a pencil

* Aim for 100!

I wish you all a happy reading 2008. I have my nose in Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie right now, and I know already it’s going to be on my favourites list for next year.


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Memoirs

While sick, I’ve caught up on my reading, including two memoirs that are very different from each other. Both try to tease out the past, but one takes a journalistic approach and aims for veracity, while the other floats in and out of what I guess is creative non-fiction territory. In her foreword to The View From Castle Rock, a collection of stories about her family and herself, Alice Munro says:

I was doing something closer to what a memoir does – exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously factual way. I put myself in the center and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could. But the figures around this self took on their own life and color and did things they had not done in reality.

Her book is divided in two parts: one dealing with her Scottish ancestors and why they might have come to Canada, and the other with her own childhood and girlhood in Fifties Ontario. In the final section of the book, Messenger, she visits countryside near Chicago as an adult to seek out the cemeteries where family members who did not settle in Canada are buried. So she looks at her family’s past, her past and her present.

The book is beautiful; lively with attractive prose and depictions of settler life. I particularly enjoyed the part that dealt with the family’s sojourn on board ship – how fears of the youngest child’s being tossed overboard meant that they had to “tether” him at night (I think I would have done the same), the imagined relationship between an elderly and self-indulgent father-in-law and his matter-of-fact and acerbic daughter-in-law, hints of a love affair, dances and sightings of whales. While not wealthy or able to secure upper deck berths, the family are luckier than most and survive the journey intact and and well. It is only once they hit the shores of their new land, that their tragedies and dramas – possibly imagined by Munro, possibly not – unfold.

I also loved the section dealing with Munro’s childhood and girlhood in backwoods Ontario. The imagined and the real were threaded together imperceptibly, but I still desperately wanted to know which bits were fiction and which were true. While I enjoyed what she was doing, there was a part of me wanting clarification. She provides that in the foreword, saying that some characters “did things they did not do in reality”:

They joined the Salvation Army, they revealed they had once lived in Chicago. One of them got himself electrocuted and another fired off a gun in a barn full of horses. In fact, some of these characters have moved so far from their beginnings that I cannot remember who they were to start with.

Perhaps it is the journalist in me that wants to separate out fiction and non-fiction, or I must read more creative non-fiction and learn to go with the flow. As Munro asserts, they are just stories. Let me say, they are lovely stories, full of candid humour and insights into the oddness of the human condition. I’ve never read any Alice Munro short stories, but I guess they are full of the same.

I have also just finished reading another memoir, the craply titled Ja No, Man, by a young Canadian ex-South African called Richard Poplak. I sighed a little when I picked this book up. You know how movies set in the Eighties always have the same signifiers: someone playing with a Rubix Cube, people wearing day-glo clothing while Flock of Seagulls plays in the background? This book is covered with the same signifiers that shout Eighties South Africa to me, and its tag is A memoir of pop culture, girls, suburbia … and Apartheid. I thought it was going to be superficial, mindless and vaguely celebratory of what was really a horrible time to live in South Africa.

I’m glad to report that it isn’t. Poplak’s book is darkly funny, disturbing, and very well researched. He backs up his memories of growing up in Johannesburg in the Seventies and Eighties with acid offensives against the Apartheid state. He presents the eerie strangeness of being a child who only knows black people as servants, the indignities of Veldskool where he learnt about the immiment Communist threat and how to fold a flag, and the barbaric discipline of South African schools, where he was regularly sent for “six of the best”.

Poplak’s family left South Africa only a few weeks before Nelson Mandela was freed, so his book does not contain any reference to the miracle of the Rainbow Nation. While this might have eased his vituperative edge, it also means that the memoir is very specifically of its time and of its place. There is no sentiment, no schmaltz; Poplak addresses those two decades starkly. He makes no apology for not including black experience in the book – this is his experience and he presents it frankly, sometimes so frankly that I squirmed in uncomfortable recognition.

Towards the end of the book, he says:

It is a strange thing to be severed from the community of man – to be an island – as we were in South Africa. Isolation, both cultural and geographic, causes a certain kind of backwardness. The pastiche you create of the world, assembled from snippets of popular culture, hearsay, half-true news, and folkloric assumptions, is a patchwork quilt. Adrift, you create a world that only nominally hints at civilization. We were a quasi-democratic quasi-dictatorship, with a culture as anemic and as weirdly translucent as those deep-sea species of fish seen on the Discovery Channel. The flag Oom Piet raised with such reverence, the national anthems we sung with such forced gusto at assemblies – these were dead symbols for a dead country.

Richard Poplak and I and many millions of others are the products of Apartheid, and this dead culture. Thank goodness it is dead, and a new South Africa is rising from the ashes, but many are still paying the price of that cold grey time.

Poplak’s approach is very different from that of Munro. He says in his author’s note that it is both an act of memory and a work of journalism – if he remembered a certain tree as a jacaranda, he went back and checked that it was a jacaranda. He changes the names of teachers, certain schools and schoolfriends, and also clearly states that there are no composite characters, fictional places or made-up situations. His book is rigorous and factual, while Munro’s is swirling and exploratory.

It was an interesting experience reading these two different approaches to the memoir, neither better than the other, back-to-back. I would really appreciate any tips on good creative non-fiction, as it’s clearly a genre I want to explore more.


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Poets and Politics

When I was studying English Literature at U of Cape Town during the last dying gasps of the Nationalist government, there was an ideological battle going on between two poets on the department’s staff. One, Stephen Watson, advocated that poetry and literature can stand on their own and need not refer to politics, or the struggle for liberation, in order to be valid. The other poet, Kelwyn Sole, believed that if you live in South Africa it is your responsibility as a public voice to use polemic to educate people and open their minds. It was a debate that I, as an undergraduate, never resolved for myself. All I learnt is that if I wanted to get good marks from Stephen I should leave politics out, and that if I wanted to get good marks from Kelwyn I should put politics in. An object lesson in pandering to academic agendas.

However, the argument itself is a valid one, and it continues to inform South African literature now. The new government is in place, say some, liberation has occurred, so literature is free to soar without the shackles of having to be politically right-on. Others say, hang on, we may now have a legitimate government and one of the most humane constitutions in the world, but does that mean that women are free from sexism or that people on the poverty line have been liberated? Perhaps we still have a duty to point out the inequalities that have not gone away with our longed-for freedom.

I have just finished reading a novel called Strange Nervous Laughter by a young South African writer, Bridget McNulty. Set in Durban’s hottest summer, the plot swirls around six main characters, all of whom are eccentric, to say the least. There is Harry a dustbin man, to whom broken things, including broken people, attach; Mdu who is talented at everything he does, but only finds joy in speaking to whales; Meryl who wears an invisible corset that reigns in her feelings, and Beth, cashier turned motivational speaker who levitates when she is happy. There is also Pravesh, an undertaker obsessed with painting corpses’ toenails and Aisha, a withdrawn and silent orphan. All are seeking romantic love.

Every word I think of to describe this book sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise – it’s delightful, whimsical and quaint. It would make a great date movie. I could see Drew Barrymore as Beth, being cute and levitating. The process of reading it was satisfactory – I wasn’t gripped enough to stay up all night, but I wanted to finish it. I wanted to know if Beth would dump the self-centred Pravesh, if Harry could actually bag the glamorous Meryl.

In any other context, I would love the whimsy. If it were an Irish novel, or a Canadian one, I’d be yelling yay for the whimsy and the bits of magical realism, which I really rather like (the pearls that Aisha cries when Mdu rescues her from the ocean, for instance). But there is a part of me that still wants my South African literature gritty and that’s because life there is gritty. Durban is the epicentre of the AIDS epidemic, most of it is poverty-stricken and crime-ridden. Life there is dangerous, even if you have tall walls and trellidoors to live behind, and far more deadly if you don’t.

I realise that this is my need, and that, for South Africans who actually live in Durban rather than in the European diaspora like me, maybe it’s great to read escapist literature set in your home town. Maybe if you see the gritty realities on a daily basis, you want to read something that takes you away on a magic carpet ride. Maybe there’s room for literature of gritty reality and of charming whimsy and neither need cancel the other out. I’m sure that’s the case.

However, don’t read Strange Nervous Laughter as your guidebook to Durban and KwaZulu-Natal. You’d be in for a shock.

(Bridget McNulty blogs here. Apparently she’s attempting to break a Guinness Record by baking a one-metre wide cupcake. Sounds like my kinda gal.)