Of fishing and marketing

CONJURING UP A whole bunch of clichés regarding fishes and sustainability, Like Water is for Fish promises an insight into storytelling and the magic it tosses into our midst, yet it feels in so many respects like a tick-box exercise on a bucket list. Garth Japhet, the co-founder of Soul City and the founding chief executive of Heartlines, both South African storytelling non-government organisations, tells his story in this book which on so many levels is more of a Dale Carnegie-esque foray into what stories can do for you, than an earnest good read.

The work is at pains to declare that this is not a biography, but within the first 30 or so pages, you’ve got a detailed self-portrait of Japhet that is at once peevish, privileged and self-deprecating in a way that begs empathy and cloys. Written completely in the first person, the book, which promises to declare itself about stories, shifts the authorial focus from any of the so-called interviewees to Japhet himself. All the time.

While the writing is lucid enough and represents a quickish read, it is a work which is so cluttered with platitudes and fashionable snippets of pop psychology that very little is left of genuine stories. Also, there’s a ‘shopping list’ feel, when interviews are cited. It’s a question of this person said that, the next person said something else, and someone else said something further, and the flow of words and unique magic of individual voices is tossed to the wind.

Lacking in the kind of developed context that would give access to readers not familiar with the projects with which Japhet has been involved, the work promises relevance to a very small readership. Also, the writing is so dotted with phrases of the ilk of “And then I thought: ‘Wow!’” or “I said, ‘hello’”, that you turn away from the doggedness of the writing.

This is all a dreadful pity. Both the Soul City initiative and Heartlines, designed to give voice to personal experience realities and engage a broad audience through empathy, information and accord, are well meaning. Actors of the ilk of David Dennis and Lillian Dube – to name a few – are not given the elbow space and celebration that they warrant, as professional storytellers and central popular figures in Soul City.

Everyone cited is caught behind an impermeable Japhet filter: you get to ‘meet’ these characters through Japhet’s opinions of them, rather than being able to hear the nuances and idiosyncrasies of their own words. You get anecdotes and asides about Japhet’s loving family and support structures. About his opinions and errors and the point of the book’s promised premises is compromised and left unfulfilled. You yearn for a proper distance and fact-based reflection on both Soul City and Heartlines, but are alas, left with the feeling of being shaken by the hand of a man convinced of his personal greatness. This is a self-help bit of marketing doggerel that crassly takes an idea with potential and trumps it out of proportion with a larger than life authorial voice.  

Like Water is for Fish: The Power of Story in Our Lives by Garth Japhet is published by Pan MacMillan, Johannesburg (2021).

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