Angry black womxn

collectiveamnesia

THE FACT THAT this anthology of poems has to date sold over 2 000 copies, according to its publisher, attests to the need for inflammatory words of this nature, couched as they are, in the conventions of poetry and uttered by a young person – Koleka Putuma was born in 1993 and is an individual who wields the term ‘womxn’ with conviction and isn’t afraid to do so. It doesn’t however, mean that the work is completely flawless.

Peppered with incredibly beautiful and dangerous turns of phrase that shreds violence into laughter and duct tapes screams with staples, the 51 poems in this anthology take on the monster of memory: memory of being black and poor and a child, memory of the knowledge of violence perpetuated – against women, against queers, by religious values, by relatives – and memory that turns over the challenges of making sense of one’s body, one’s supporters and one’s terrors.

Unashamedly constructed in the first person, the work embraces everyone’s values and the popular political/cultural/historical references are as much about today and tomorrow as the newspaper or the internet might be. Indeed, the political edge is the nub of these works, which don’t claim to be poetic in the romantic sense, but pour themselves from Putuma’s keyboard into your sensibilities almost seamlessly.

The work is, however, slightly marred by subbing errors and a kind of self-conscious concreteness, where you see bullets used in the construction of a poem, words deleted, or words printed very lightly on the page. These render imminently readable poems into rubrics and games, and flaw the flow of the material, sometimes rendering them more list-like than poem like. But there are wordless poems in this anthology which vie with this kind of gimmick remarkably, raising them in astuteness and sophistication.

The work ‘Storytelling’, for instance, is footnoted: “How my people remember. How my people archive. How we inherit the world”, but it otherwise comprises a blank page, hits with a resounding force of devastating eloquence.

All these elements considered, Putuma is a voice to take notice of. Like the angry young men who populated early European Modernism, the proverbial fist she raises in fury and protest against the crooked way in which the world turns, for the voiceless people who live, love and die often ignominiously and anonymously, and against the heft of radical religious beliefs which can break the relationship between a parent and his homosexual child.

You may not have been schooled to read poetry – indeed, it remains the one literary form which still nurses a bad deal in terms of readability. But once you begin the foray into Collective Amnesia, it’s not only the way in which collective memory is thwarted and made to trip up by the universe that will grab you. Read aloud or not, the work flows rapidly, and the shifts and turns in Koleka’s focus horrify and traumatise you as they take you through forbidden sexual climax and into the realms of sexual violence. In short, you can read this cover to cover, or dip into it at will. But be warned: it’s angry poetry, unrelentingly premised on political assumption and the fire of youth.

  • Collective Amnesia by Koleka Putuma is published by uHlanga, Cape Town (2017).
Advertisements

Read this while it’s hot

Unpresidented

US PRESIDENT DONALD Trump invented the word “unpresidented” through his sloppy hold on the English language. He gave credence to the notion of alternative facts through his sloppy hold on ethics, and our very own President Jacob Zuma took the ball and has run with it, offering some of the most splendid material that contemporary humorists can cherry pick to create some of the most biting, hilarious and hard hitting comedy you can imagine. On this wave of impossible, yet real madness, Paige Nick has written Unpresidented which tears strips off current affairs, making you laugh in spite of the ugly way in which South African has been broken by “Number One”.

She niftily yet fairly obviously skirts around facts, constructing a “Muza” and a family of corrupt “Guppies” around the tale, characters who, so replete with grotesquely juvenile behaviour and naively dangerous repartee that you almost become fond of them, stripped, as they are, to reveal their silly bravado, grotesque understanding of the truth and utter inadequacy as adults. Nick pulls no punches in crafting characters who are believable in a comic book type of scenario: the most delicious being Bonang and Refilwe, the two remaining wives of Muza, who have used his time in jail to start new businesses for themselves and commandeer the ex-President’s former office.

It’s 2020, and Muza, the now ex-President of South Africa, has had his jail sentence reduced to house arrest on the compassionate strings pulled by an ingrown toe nail. A shamed journalist guilty of alternative facts in the telling of a story about a cancer patient, has landed the job of writing Muza’s memoirs, only the fallen icon in question has this annoying tendency to lie in such a bald-faced manner that the journo, a chap flawed by his own inadequacies and an overprotective, innocently racist mom, is utterly stymied. Add to the mix a Malawian drug dealer who gets a kick out of using Jewish slang, a series of double-double-crosses involving showerheads and lots of drugs, a couch stuffed with lots of money and a Homestead which has gone to wrack and ruin and you’ve a fabulous plot that will keep you riveted.

This fantastic tale of complicit behaviour, crooks which are almost too sillily villainous to believe (until you cast your eye back at the news), fashion design and tindering wives is a quick and delightful read which will have you in stitches, and there are passages in this material that are so perfectly made, they leap from the pages. It’s the kind of easy companion on the beach or commute, and it’s a refreshing take on a sordid state of affairs.

It makes reference to many scenarios which have trotted themselves out before our very eyes in the last few months, but doesn’t offer context and assumes that the reader knows the true horror of the situation to which South Africa has been privy. For this reason, it’s imperative that you read it now, while everything’s still simmering in the pot of misinformation, alternative facts and blatant shameless hustle.

Unpresidented: a Comedy of Errors by Paige Nick is published by N&B Books (2017), sales and distribution by www.bookstorm.co.za and www.booksite.co.za

Defiance in a place where there’s no darkness

suttner

AMID THE FLURRY of anti-Zuma material from across the board, this bracingly honest, almost painful to read reworking of a text that extrapolates on South Africa’s sense of humanity, stands out. Raymond Suttner was a bright young academic with great dreams for the liberation of this country, in 1975. That was the year in which he was first arrested by the apartheid government, for disseminating pamphlets that aimed to undermine the racist ideology. He first published the body of this text in 2002 – an account of the ten years in all, in which he was incarcerated, much of which was in solitary confinement, and detained without the possibility of trial whilst South Africa was in a State of Emergency.

The current version, revisited, some fifteen years later, is prefaced with a powerful and deeply angry introduction, which reflects on the politics of our time, right now – in a world where the leadership of organisations such as the ANC and the South African Communist Party are espousing values that makes someone as authentic and thoughtful, as committed and focused on the struggle as Suttner was, feel grotesquely betrayed, and he’s not afraid to say so.

It’s a hard-hitting and soulful extrapolation of the realities which we face right now as a society torn and bruised by corruption of our political leadership. For this, it is a very important work, and in the reading of it, you need to read the text from beginning to end, and then to read the introduction again. But further to that, Inside Apartheid’s Prison should be mandatory reading particularly for the generation of young adults – the so-called born-frees – coming into their own, as we speak. It offers lucid reflection on what was happening in this country through the brutality of apartheid and in its aftermath – and in doing so, it’s a readable work by a man who lived to tell the tale.

Suttner’s prose is clean of self-conscious rhetoric. It’s direct and unapologetically in the first person. And in the material, he offers you a revealing and frank self-portrait as he includes many letters which he sent to his close family and friends during the horrendous years of his incarceration. At times difficult emotionally to read, these are missives which make you privy to devastatingly private moments between a mother and her son, between a brother and a sister, a brother and a brother … moments that offer you insight into the very depths of horror in an apartheid jail – the torture, the isolation, the loneliness, the emotional crumbling and the very real attempts to hold it all together, with the aid of literature, sport and relaxation techniques.

Reading it, you are given to understand the damage that incarceration of this nature inflicts on the identity of an individual, and also the extent of privations inflicted on the prisoner – gestures of cruelty that cause – and are designed to cause – the fabric of a psyche to fray.

It’s a tale of a red-cheeked love bird called ‘JB’ (JailBird), and of a half grown female rabbit – animals that feel surreally out of place in the hard and grey and unrelenting environments of a South African prison cell. In being about the psychology and the emotions, as much as it is about the politics, it is a book that has deep soul. It’s a troubling, haunting read, but a vital one: Above all else, it’s a work of truth to values: the writing is pure and remains candidly and vigorously defiant throughout.

  • Inside Apartheid’s Prison by Raymond Suttner is published by Jacana Media, Johannesburg (2017).
  • Suttner is in conversation with Emilia Potenza (curator of the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg) at the Rabbi Cyril Harris Community Centre in Oaklands, on June 28, at 19:30. Booking: Hazel or René 011 728 8088 or 011 728 8378 (after hours); email rchcc@telkomsa.net or rene.s@telkomsa.net or visit www.greatpark.co.za

Here’s looking at you. And you. And you.

Recognition.jpgTHERE’S SOMETHING UNMISSABLY effervescent about a beautifully written short story. It has not only to do with its brevity, but with the way in which its writer crafts a whole universe in a few pages. And with a particularly good short story, it’s a universe replete with everything, a universe that will haunt you forever. This is the kind of experience you can anticipate with David Medalie’s latest anthology of South African short stories, Recognition.

There is not one of these hand- picked, lovingly formed tales that glares out for being under par or without a voice of its own. Cohesively, this anthology offers a uniquely South African voice. It is beautifully crafted, in spite of the fact that stories deal with a wide range of issues, from feeling unwanted to being broken, from remembering abuse to articulating violence. It’s a series of tales which give you insight into the soul of South Africa, from its youngest and most vulnerable to its oldest and most hard done by.

These 22 stories by a range of South African authors – living and dead, contemporary and historical – are powerful testimonies to our ability, as South Africans, to laugh and cry, disparage truths and describe things as they are. It’s the kind of collection that you must take a breath from, every now and then, so that you can keep the memory of each story pristine in your heart and not allow them to merge.

Loosely bound by the notion of recognition, the focus of this anthology splays wide across the Karoo as it burrows into the poorest, most humble township homestead. It’s a discourse about robbers frightened in rich estates and Muslims who digress from their faith and their family, and a series of essays on hunger and meeting strangers on a train. It’s about what might happen to the widows of apartheid’s leaders, and how a blanket feels to a man who has nothing.

Many of the stories are written in the first person, but this is not to say that they are autobiographical. This is South African fiction at its finest, offering you a taste of everything in a rich and fulsome smorgasbord. Medalie is to be celebrated for putting together this brand new collection – on some levels, it evokes Encounters, a book of South African short stories, also selected and edited by Medalie, that slipped into school curricula and first saw light of day in 1998. Recognition is  the kind of book – if it does become part of South African school syllabuses – with which you know your children will be in safe hands, if they are taught with it, or gravitate toward reading it of their own accord.

As you read this book, many diverse South African voices will fill your head. The brilliance of Medalie’s curation of this selection means that it doesn’t self-censor or mute itself around terminology that is no longer considered acceptable. It doesn’t skew itself apologetically away from racist caricatures or perspectives articulated by writers or their characters. It tells it like it is. And it gives the kind of recognition to South Africans large and small, rich and poor, good and evil, that we all need to read.

  • Recognition: An Anthology of South African Short Stories selected edited by David Medalie is published by Wits University Press, Johannesburg (2017). It features stories by Herman Charles Bosman, Achmat Dangor, Nadia Davids, HIE Dhlomo, Ahmed Essop, Damon Galgut, Nadine Gordimer, Dan Jacobson, Alex La Guma, Mandla Langa, Wamuwi Mbao, David Medalie, Kobus Moolman, Njabulo S. Ndebele, Lindiwe Nkutha, Pauline Smith, Can Themba, Miriam Tlali, Chris van Wyk, Mary Watson, Zoë Wicomb and Makhosazana Xaba.

How to make them come back for more

FreeAssociation

STEVEN BOYKEY SIDLEY has a most engaging gift. His writing flows with congruency and cunning, dipping and splashing through conceptual bumf, popular rhetoric and conventional trends, with wisdom and ease. It is searingly witty and hard-edged and reads with a fluency that makes you not want to put it down as it cuts to the heart of sacred cows in every paragraph. The narrative he constructs in this, his latest novel, plays with the values of the social-media-heavy world in which we exist, turning it this way and that, stretching its possibilities and madnesses tight and exposing its underbelly in a way which puts the reader in amongst the ‘in-crowd’. You know the flaws of the character, you recognise the secrets of his heart, and you’re there just to see how it all fits together.

And thus you get to meet Max Lurie. He’s a podcaster of 33 with credentials and history but scant self-belief as a therapist. A Los Angeles-based Woody Allen-type character, he’s excruciatingly self-deprecating. And often annoyingly so. Sometimes callous, he’s a loving son and brother who often masks his vulnerability with sheer bravado. During the slice of Lurie’s life that Sidley exposes us to, he’s rattled from side to side by issues of sex and others of lies, by violence and cruelty and by plots that don’t always pan out exactly as you might anticipate they do.

The book is constructed of interspersed podcasts and chapters which build up the narrative spine of the text very well, enabling you, as the reader, to engage with what Lurie’s listenership is being exposed to, not to forget the truths which he dilutes and dresses up in making them more palatable to said listeners. There’s a potent South African link in Lurie’s producer, a young man by the name of Bongani Maposa, who immigrated to the States and has found himself a niche and has the wordage to justify his every move and is not afraid to use it.

Then there’s a love interest with a shaven head and a tight grip on UX technology, and a couple of characters which are cast around the rapidly shifting world of hits and likes, shares and the ability to grab audience attention. Oh, and there’s also a schizophrenic homeless guy who is most likely a scientific genius, whose also the lynch pin in a tale that goes in a direction you really won’t expect.

But more than a tale about a man who makes his living out of entertaining a public to listen to his personal diatribes about nothing – the kind of thing for which Seinfeld is famous – the novel is a critique of the vanities of our world. Loosely drawing on the idea of free association which made the surrealists famous last century, his is a terrain where anything goes. It’s bitingly acerbic and surprisingly gentle in its engagement with everything from the Deep Web to Alzheimer’s. An illegal fire arm is tossed into the mix, as is a vial of Nembutal, the suicide drug.

This book, like Sidley’s play Shape, which he wrote with Kate Sidley in 2016, is an unabashed product of today. It engages with all the issues that are so central to the multiple personality disorders characteristic of our era, with charm. Words get inserted into characters’ mouths that enable them to reflect with wisdom and naiveté about the splendid and mesmerising cacophony of values and complete moral conundrums that this world is heir to. Free Association doesn’t let go until the last page: even the issue of misery making better ‘art’ than happiness comes under Sidley’s loupe, as he tears strips off the preciousness with which contemporary society views itself.

It’s a bracing novel, which dismantles nostalgia willy-nilly. Beautiful in its tightness and flippant in its sense of self, this kind of writing does fall in danger of becoming too slick, but Sidley keeps this aspect reined in. It’s a tight, easy read which has long and deep conceptual and contextual threads. You won’t be disappointed.

  • Free Association by Steven Boykey Sidley is published by Picador Africa (2017).

Unstoppable Syd and the things that matter

scarsthatshine

AS YOU BEGIN to read this book, a niggly thought enters your mind.  ‘Who is “I”?’ it says. Is it Syd Kitchen himself, or is it the book’s author Donvé Lee in the guise of Kitchen? And why? Did Kitchen give Lee the nod that she could do this? Was he indeed as unashamedly arrogant as he is often portrayed in these pages? The whole book is written in the first person, until the last chapter, and this presence of “I” is a conundrum which never leaves you, even though, as the narrative unfolds and you get cast away on the beauty of the words and the desperate rush against time in Kitchen’s life, you forgive it.

Syd Kitchen: Scars that Shine doesn’t pretend to be a serious autobiography, but it offers the kind of portrait of the man that brings him so close to you, you can smell his second-hand smoke. It is an exhaustive body of research, edited and honed into magical life with a deft hand and a great deal of empathy for the man, his music and the Durban-centred ethos of the South Africa into which Kitchen was born and came into his own. It pulls no punches in terms of how appallingly the music industry, particularly in South Africa, treats its own by often only celebrating them in their wake.

But indeed, there’s the rub: without the skeleton of a serious autobiography, without an introduction in which we get to understand Lee’s modus operandi in this work, something is both lost and gained. If you don’t know anything about Kitchen, or the maverick brilliance of his music and the context in which he was creating fretwork with his guitar that beggared belief, this might not be the ideal starting point. If you’re not South African, it might not either – the book lacks a resource, an index, an appendix, a section in which you can find people’s names and festivals, rather, equipped with no dates or context, you just have to go with the flow of the material.

It does all fit together in the end, but this book will arguably not comfortably become a part of the annuls of formal research, and for many this might mean that the whirligig phenomenon that was Syd Kitchen, who lived for 60 years, and wrote music and poetry and gigged all over the country and very much later, the world, may be lost to formal music history. With all the delicious and sad, real and gritty anecdotes,  the work lacks a basic skeleton that would position Kitchen in South African funk or rock or jazz or ballads.

Having said that, it’s an unstoppably beautiful read, in which you feel yourself accelerating and then imposing brakes on yourself as you feel it nearing closure. It’s a book which enables you to fall in love with Kitchen and his vulnerabilities, his idiosyncrasies and his stubborn clasping of his dreams, his ability to never let go of his self-belief, even in the absence of the support of anyone else.

It’s also a tale of drugs and smoke, of whiskey and cancer, but one which guides a pure and unapologetic trajectory through all the muck of addiction and intoxication to not lead to a stern moral voice but one that celebrates the gritty, dirty business of making art that matters. When you come to the end of this extraordinary book, you will feel that you know Kitchen, the fierce hippie, the skinny leprechaun, the magician at his instrument. And maybe that is all that matters.

  • Syd Kitchen: Scars that Shine by Donvé Lee is published by Tracey McDonald Publishers, Johannesburg (2017).

In honour of the three women in the photograph

LettersofStone

When you approach this book, you might think “Holocaust biography” and sigh with a sigh replete with a sense of been there, done that; what more could be said about the European Holocaust? But you’d be completely wrong. Steven Robins’s Letters of Stone is a beautifully constructed, imminently thoughtful contemplation of history, persecution and lost souls. Treading gently on well worn histories and narratives, this is an important publication, written by an immensely astute anthropologist, but also a deeply real human being. Not only is it positioned for scholars of the Holocaust, but it also takes on a vast litany of historical and persecution realities and offers a fresh perspective on the understanding of the rents that these multiple acts of genocide through Europe inflicted on individuals and on society.

Beginning with a haunting period photograph of three mysterious women that occupied a space on Robins’s parents’ sideboard when he was a young boy, the text offers an energised and well-written insight into Robins’s foray into the identity and lives of these three women, his grandmother and two aunts. But it’s not just a familial account: citing the thinking of Roland Barthes in his approach, Robins carves out a very rich understanding and representation of what a photograph means to us as human beings, and the traces and echoes of memories and life that this image on light sensitive paper evokes.

Further to that, Robins uses this photograph as a cipher not only to discover the very sad trajectory of the lives of his family members, who his father never spoke about, but he also uses it as a key, with which he accesses family letters as well as a reflection on the German persecution of the Herero community, of the faux science of eugenics, and a very intimately woven reflection on Jewish – or more broadly, xenophobic – persecution in general. Thus, the text is able to remain deeply intimate and personal, but also universal in its reach.

The book is emotionally revealing as it cuts close to the bone, considering Robins’s anthropological education and interests and how so much intersects with his being in South Africa, a country which closed its doors to European refugees, and also one that rendered apartheid a discriminatory tool. Touching on everything from the stolpersteine (the stumbling stones, established as public testament to the Jews removed from their homes) in the streets of Berlin to the journey he undertook to discover the story his father consigned to silence, this is a truly beautiful and tragic read, which is difficult to put down, not only because the prose is thoughtful and well formed, but also because the story is so heart wrenching and human.

Part of the problem with Holocaust testament is the enormity of the phenomenon. Some six million Jews were murdered during this period – and it’s a number impossible to understand. Rather than attempting to cast statistics and well-trodden facts at his reader, Robins broaches the history from within, and the three mesmerising women from his family sideboard become the tragic heroines which lend this book its inimitable texture and wisdom.

  • Letters of Stone: From Nazi Germany to South Africa by Steven Robins is published by Penguin Books, Cape Town (2016).