Friday, September 29, 2006

Virginia Woolf is haunting me. I have never liked her work - it seemed impossible to enjoy it somehow, and so much of what I tend to read is for escapism. One can hardly slip into her world and find a comfortable spot, or so I thought. I did manage to successfully deal with THREE GUINEAS when I was at university, but that was as far as I could go. Oh, and I was quite absorbed by Michael Cunningham's THE HOURS.

However, Susan Hill has decided to convert all of us ignoramuses, and is running a course for anyone who has never got on with Woolf. I recommend it: no credit, no grades, just guided reading at your own pace with a bit of an online chat with other readers. On Susan Hill's blog, click the BOOKS AND READING option on the left hand side of the main page, WOOLF FOR DUMMIES will appear beneath it. We've started with a chapter of Lyndall Gordon's VIRGINIA WOOLF: A WRITER'S LIFE for background reading and to place her writing in context; now we are reading her very first book THE VOYAGE OUT. I am pleasantly surprised - not quite what I was expecting. I borrowed my edition from the library. While their catalogue listed it as on the shelf, I couldn't find it. When I asked, the librarian disappeared off into the bowels somewhere (where the public is not allowed to enter) and came back with a nice sturdy 1975 Hogarth Press hardback edition. Of course now I want to know what else is down there . . .

Woolf has been dogging my steps in other ways too: Emma Barnes at Snowbooks has kindly sent me a copy of THE LONDON SCENE, a very prettily produced collection of Woolf's short essays. Should complement the Hill selection nicely, thank you Emma.

Not only that, but an interesting collaborative project is developing on the other side of the pond, with bloggers invited to set up a wiki where anyone can add footnotes and textnotes to a piece of literature. The test piece is Virginia Woolf's KEW GARDENS. Take a look at Dorothy's blog.

Susan has said not to read anything else so as to avoid preconceptions about Woolf. As always, I flipped through the book reviews this weekend and in the Sunday Times CULTURE what do I find, but a review by John Carey of Victoria Glendinning's LEONARD WOOLF: A Life. This paragraph caught my eye:
Bloomsbury was excited too. Virginia’s brother Adrian Stephen, who met Leonard when he came home on leave in 1911, reported that “he was very amusing about Ceylon. His descriptions of hanging were very interesting”. Glendinning thinks that, rather as Othello’s tall tales of travel captivated Desdemona, so Leonard’s adventures stirred Virginia. “He has ruled India, hung black men,” she gushed. All the same, it is hard to see why she married him. She felt “no more than a rock” when he kissed her, and his Jewishness was distasteful: “I do not like the Jewish voice. I do not like the Jewish laugh.” Taken to see Leonard’s mother, she wrote maliciously about “Jews in Putney”, mocking their clothes, food and manners. Anti-semitism was a Stephen-family thing. Adrian did comic Jewish imitations, and Virginia expressed horror at the prospect of sharing a room with “22 Jews and Jewesses” — Leonard’s family. “It’ll be as hot as a monkey house.”
She sounds the most odious creature. So Susan, you have your work cut out for you in trying to convince me otherwise.

In the meantime I have been totally lacking in self control and added to my "To Be Read" pile with a new haul of recently released African titles:
ALLAH IS NOT OBLIGED - Ahmadou Kourouma
THE BOOK OF NOT - Tsitsi Dangarembga
HALF OF A YELLOW SUN - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Monday, September 25, 2006

Even the dogs are quiet. They no longer bark up any trees because they must save their strength. They must walk, walk, all the way to the aid stations. Barking no longer has any meaning. They must walk, walk, walk.

. . . He reasons with himself in vain to remain stoic - he is unable to find an acceptable, even bearable, outcome for his life.

. . . Did he have a choice? Who had a choice? Even the dogs were silent. Nevertheless, there remain plenty of things for him to see, plenty of books to read, plenty of graves to dig or to watch over, plenty of babies to care for. This country has been despoiled, dismembered, desiccated. He is dis-patriated. Nevertheless there remain so many things to do: take care of the babies, help the columns of foreign aid workers distribute food, medicine, set up tents; also to act as an interpreter because he speaks four European languages with ease. Act as an interpreter. As for the rest - the moment of his death, that is - that will have to wait.

. . . Hell is not in the future, he says to himself, hell is here. Hell is where I live, he continues, before my eyes, in the eyes of my kin, those who died for a thousand unheard of reasons, like those shut away in the edifices of their fears. Like those processing into the foreign aid centers. Hell is an impregnable fortress, an unconquerable virus. It is Gehenna in the tropics where Hades, Satan, and their associates dance. It is Carnival behind the masks of Ogun, Baron Samedi, and the fat Mamawata. After fire comes flood, or rather its opposite, drought.

. . . Now he had finished the greatest part of his work. He had taken care of dying babies, he had buried hundreds of victims, he had sung and read as well. He had carefully avoided kissing any girls. He had acted as an interpreter for many an organization. He had done far too much work. It was now up to him to decide what was to follow in the events of his life . . . One sepia-colored morning, under the punctual sun, he took his own life. (extract from "Vortex", Waberi pp.76-79).
Last week I read one of the most unutterably depressing books in existence: THE LAND WITHOUT SHADOWS by Abdourahman A. Waberi. First published in 1994 (in French) it won the Grand Prize for the Francophone short story, administered by the Belgian Royal Academy of French Language and Literature and the Henri Cornelus Foundation. An english translation of one of the stories was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2000. This is the first english translation of the book as a whole, and is some of the finest writing about war.

It is a difficult book. I struggled, grappling with strange sentence structures, bizarre allusions, odd stories, and frequently a lack of plot entirely. Our reading group was universally deeply disturbed by it. But Waberi's account of Djibouti's experience of war led to wider discussion of dislocation, devastation and destitution. Assuming of course that this translation is worthy and reflective of the original writing, Waberi writes a book rich in its use of language. Far richer and denser, in fact, than many other writers of contemporary fiction. It is a book that has stayed with me all week, haunting my thoughts (to my great surprise, because I did not enjoy reading it at all). I confess that without the reading group as motivation to complete it I would have given up. Despite that, I am now going to reread it, this time with a dictionary in tow.

This week's African Nonfiction Reading Group has had a change of venue and date. We will now meet Tuesday September 26th (i.e. tomorrow) at 6:30pm in the "soft space" of the newly refurbished Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank, which is on the right as you enter the building. Discussing Michela Wrong's I DIDN'T DO IT FOR YOU.


Friday, September 22, 2006

Now that I'm a working-from-home sort of person, part of the morning routine is to wave the giri off to work. The neighbourhood marauding kitties have (of course) figured this out and most mornings there is at least one lying in wait at the front door, desperate to get in. Some mornings there are several, circling like sharks and eyeing each other with fake loathing in a competitive spirit (they know we won't let them all in at once). We have clearly become an extension of "their" humans - scritching and stroking on tap! I have just turfed out an extremely unhappy cat. He came charging in like a small buffalo as soon as we opened the front door, but made the mistake of dashing into the lounge (the sofas are, apparently, great scratch posts). Precisely because of the way he treats the furniture in there, out I threw him, and a very disgruntled cat he is. If looks could kill, I'd be dead.

Autumn is coming. The car in the morning is covered in wet dew and at night there's a chilly crispness to the air. The trees are all still in leaf, which is lovely, but some of the plants are thinking about settling in for winter. Pumpkins in the vegetable patch are huge, and in the borders the fennel is flowering again. One of my great delights this year were artichokes in amongst more formal border plants. Ours were dwarf, so not too big, although they have such spectacularly vibrant purple flowers that I might go slightly overkill next year and grow both dwarf in the border and normal enormous ones amongst the vegetables. We don't actually eat them (although if the harvest was big enough next year, we would), instead we grow them for insects - certainly the butterflies tend to get really excited by both them and the lavender bushes. Apparently they are great overwintering houses for insects so we've left all the brown shrivelled up heads for the moment.

There's still weeding to do . . . there's ALWAYS weeding to do . . .

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

I found an interesting article on Frank Kermode and the study of literature. The closing paragraph reads:
"I don't at all think that the time we spent on Theory was wasted. One of the great benefits of seriously reading English is you're forced to read a lot of other things. You may not have a deep acquaintance with Hegel but you need to know something about Hegel. Or Hobbes, or Aristotle, or Roland Barthes. We're all smatterers in a way, I suppose. But a certain amount of civilisation depends on intelligent smattering."
Excellent! So, no more guilt about having my nose in a book all the time - I am clearly an archetypal smatterer!

And now for some world affairs; yesterday Ashraf Ghani, former Finance Minister, was nominated by the government of Afghanistan for the position of Secretary General of the United Nations. Anyone interested in knowing more about him or seeing the line-up of candidates should take a look at

Are you interested in knowing what the pope actually said last week? Click here for the text of his address.

And now for some silliness:
THE THINKER - Anthony Delius, South Africa, born 1916

Round and round our lavatory
walks a depressed cricket
like a lonely manager
of a cement factory,

the huge cistern and bowl
and mysterious pipes above him,
and he worries, ticking with calculation,
troubled about production
and reproduction.

Every now and then, at unpredictable intervals,
comes darkness,
and seven-league boots, and enormous draperies
drop down from heaven,
and afterwards
a great roaring, an apocalypse of waters.

And the serpent holding the world
together unclenches its tail
and hisses-and boots and draperies
retreat reluctantly, thundering.

And the cricket thinks:
Well, there must be a rational explanation,
I suppose-but all the same,
it seems bloody queer.
from EXPLORINGS: a collection of poems for the young people of Southern Africa compiled by Robin Malan


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Like all incurably addicted readers, keeping a handle on my "To Be Read" pile is always a challenge. Lately mine has taken to galloping away from me about the house. This has not been helped by the fact that we gave away our biggest bookshelf (via Freecycle, that wonderful site). The bookshelf had two extensions to the main section, which we had to take off when we moved to this house three years ago. Unfortunately, the new study just cannot contain a bookshelf of this scope, so for ages I've had books double-parked on every shelf. Finally, we've accepted defeat and have asked a carpenter to build us a new unit especially for the space. In the meantime, since the original bookshelf is now gone, we have mountains of books piled in the study and laundry. Ultimately, of course, a new shelf will not really solve the problem that I have too many books! The eternal dilemma. . .

Recently, instead of having one or two books on the go, I've had five or six. . . or ten (I keep finding juicy sounding titles on other people's blogs, plus there's my "work" reading for the book I'm writing). I've decided this is probably too many as I am in danger of losing the atmosphere and character of each story. Yesterday I finished two love stories (don't groan, it is more encouraging than it sounds).

I picked up Peter Millar's FINDING HOPE AGAIN: Journeying Through Sorrow and Beyond from a second-hand sale last month as I was moseying home. Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that I had a big feeling sad blip last month when I wasn't coping too well with the loss of our baby. This book fell into my lap at a highly opportune moment. A good half of the book is about finding hope in other people and situations - I found this the weakest aspect but, to be fair, possibly because I wasn't in the mood. But Millar's reflections on finding his wife dying on their bathroom floor, struggling through the days, weeks, months, years that followed is really moving. It is, essentially, one long love song to his wife, to whom he was married for twenty-seven years. I suspect that you won't enjoy it if you are not practicing some sort of faith, as this is how Millar makes sense of his world. I found the sections on grief particularly strong, and helpful to me at this time.

On a lighter note, MARIANA by Monica Dickens started off slowly, but finally succeeded in running away with me (I stopped reading all the other distractions for a bit and just focussed on her for a day). Written in 1940, set in immediately pre-WW2 England, the period detail is superb. Dickens captures the agonies of teenage feelings perfectly (attachment to family homes, holidays and full of adolescent angst). There are some really funny moments:
In spite of the fact that she paraphrased 'Much have I travelled in the realms of gold' as 'I have made several expeditions to the gold-mine district,' and had to write a French essay on trees without knowing the word for leaf, Mary passed the entrance examination for St. Martin's High School.
She cried when she left Manton House, not because she minded, but because it was the thing to do. Miss Cardew kissed her in the hothouse temperature of the study and told her always to remember the School motto: 'Faint not nor fear,' to which Mary only just stopped herself from replying automatically: 'Half-time is near, then comes the biscuits and ginger beer.' (p.91)
A really sweet poignancy crops up from time to time. For example, I liked:
'Look here, it will be three minutes in a sec. and I haven't got any more money - I'm in a box.'
'Does it smell?'
'Yes. But that's not the point. I haven't said what I wanted to.'
'What, darling?'
'Pip, pip, pip,' said the telephone.
'I love you.' His voice was cut off and Mary went out of the box and walked through the corridor lounge, smiling a foolish, secret smile to herself. All along the gauntlet of armchairs, from behind the camouflage of knitting-needles and library books, peered the old eyes that never missed a thing. (p.331)
There are some exquisitely foreboding moments about the impending war, like this one from Mary's honeymoon:
When was it that it had first begun to matter when The Times came three days late? When had they first begun to puzzle out the news in the Roma, to try and get Daventry on the proprietor's wireless, crackling through storms in the Alps? Mary had not been bothering about the world. Her only worry up till now had been whether or not her shoulders were going to peel. From one day to another it seemed there was a crisis, and the English people in the hotel actually spoke to one another. . . It seemed impossible to think that anything really was the matter, when the sea off the Amalfi Coast was bluer than it had ever been, and the purple bougainvillaea was draped like a panoply over the terrace wall. (pp.368-369)
There is a slightly dreary period in the middle when not much happens (which is the point, and I hasten to add does not equate to dreary writing, rather beautifully paced contrast), but fills out into quite a fast pace - a wonderfully enjoyable read overall.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Saturday's Guardian Review carried an interesting piece by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (author of Orange Prize shortlisted Purple Hibiscus and the new Half of a Yellow Sun). In it she examines historical validation of/accuracy in fiction (specifically war fiction), and looks at some of the books which, despite themselves, taught her about a time and place while keeping her engrossed in the fictive story and characters. Adichie writes:
The novels I love, the ones I remember, the ones I re-read, have an empathetic human quality, or "emotional truth". This quality is difficult to fully define, but I always recognise it when I see it: it is different from honesty and more resilient than fact, something that exists not in the kind of fiction that explains but in the kind that shows.
She relates this to Shimmer Chinodya's excellent Harvest of Thorns:
What struck me most...was that I emerged from it with a complex portrait of Zimbabwe's war of independence from - at last - the point of view of black people without ever feeling as if I had been lectured.
This feeling of not being lectured I also agree is an important part of really good fiction. Pedantic, hectoring, lecturing fiction (particularly about issues, subjects or parts of the world I am not familiar with) is boring, and will definitely lead me to give up on a book. But a writer who manages to convey a richly textured background as part of the story, through descriptions of the landscape - both geographic and political - and also through the complexity of characters, now that makes for a great kind of fiction. Of course, can I think of brilliant examples right now off the top of my head?! I'll have a think, and let you know later.

An additional issue Adichie raises which has nothing to do with writing itself, except in passing as a common theme across African fiction and with an everyday emotional resonance across the continent, is this:
The wonderfully restrained sense of deep disappointment underlying Chinodya's narrative reminded me of how similar the histories of many African countries are, how passionately people believed in ideas that would disappoint them, in people that would betray them, in futures that would elude them.
In recent weeks, Archbishop Desmond Tutu (most recent book published is GOD HAS A DREAM: A VISION OF HOPE FOR OUR TIME) has frequently appeared in the British and South African press. I suspect this is in the run-up to the nobel laureate's birthday next month. In a recent article in the South African Mail & Guardian, Tutu echoes some of the disappointment Adichie describes:
"In the struggle, people overwhelmingly were altruistic. They were clear they were striving not to subjugate anybody but to throw off the shackles of oppression and injustice, to usher in a new age of freedom for everyone.

"I naively believed that come liberation these ideals and attitudes would automatically be transferred to how you operated in the new dispensation. And there's no question at all, it is a very disillusioning moment when you discover that we jettisoned very, very quickly those high ideals and this sense that you were there for the sake of a struggle and not for your own aggrandisement. The most devastating thing is discovering that we are ordinary, we are so human. We have succumbed to the same kind of temptations. We are not a special breed. We have feet of clay."

Weary and vexed as he is over such issues as corruption, crime and Aids, Tutu still raises a ringingly optimistic view of his nation's future.

"We are regarded with awe and admiration for showing the world that it is possible for those who had been involved in bloody conflict to evolve into comrades; to undergo the metamorphosis of the repulsive caterpillar into the gorgeous butterfly by opting for the path of forgiveness and reconciliation instead of retaliation, retribution and revenge. Let us become what we are, the rainbow people of the God, proud of our diversity, celebrating our differences that make not for separation and alienation but for a gloriously rich unity." - Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006
While dismay and disappointment at the antics of our politicians and leaders lies thick on the ground across the continent, I have found it is a mutual feeling in the west too, if less likely to cost you your life. South Africa, thankfully, in recent years is a country where opposing the incumbent government does not result in torture and death (which certainly cannot be said of the previous Nationalist government). But it is the strong, unwavering voices of people like Desmond Tutu that keep it that way. Long may he reign as the "nation's conscience"!

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Greyfriars Chapel in Canterbury is the last remaining structural piece of the first English Franciscan Friary ever built. Erected in 1267, the rest of the surrounding monastery was destroyed by Henry's rampages in 1538. I get a kick out of the fact that when the brothers settled here St. Francis of Assisi was still alive, and that despite Henry's efforts all those years ago (along with the destruction of the Cathedral shrine to Thomas) the brothers are back - they returned in 2003 - living quietly in the city.

On Wednesdays in the Greyfriars chapel there is an Anglican eucharist which I have started attending. Now don't get too excited father dear (for those of you you don't know, my father is an Anglican priest), this does not mean I have forgiven the Church's refusal to fully accept women priests and gay clergy, but merely that I have decided to temporarily declare a truce and see where it leads me.

One of my favourite memories of childhood is thumping around in the back of a bakkie (truck) - no such thing as "health & safety" in those days - as we banged through potholes and along dry river beds, twisted over rocky roads, stuck fast in muddy seasons and very often walked the last bit. Out of a brown suitcase would come the vestments, cross and bells (my favourite). I was a small shadow on regular trips to all eight rural parishes in the mountains of KwaZulu. Alan Paton has the best description of this area, which I return to again and again:

There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa. About you there is grass and bracken and you may hear the forlorn crying of the titihoya, one of the birds of the veld. Below you is the valley of the Umzimkulu, on its journey from the Drakensberg to the sea; and beyond and behind the river, great hill after great hill; and beyond and behind them, the mountains of Ingeli and East Griqualand. (CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY p.7)

Mostly I remember a great reverberating silence, itself sound, coming off the mountains; the long grass; bleakness; wind; a tiny ticking of insects.

I felt, when I climbed the creaking stairs to the Greyfriars Chapel, that I had come home - to KwaZulu, to this place of my childhood. It is simplicity itself. Bare whitewashed walls with the original wooden beams from 1267 exposed. Nothing on the floor except woven grass mats. Not unlike the wattle and daub churches on the mountain tops and valley sides so very far away.

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Monday, September 11, 2006

I wrote my final MA exam with a sense of growing irritation. Monitors and professors kept tiptoeing in, whispering conversations and stalking out again. Rather than a handful of people seeing us through the exam from beginning to end, staff kept changing over. It was annoying and disruptive. I remember thinking I wished that they would all just shut up and go away. Once the papers were finally collected, a senior professor announced that something very important had happened and we should all immediately go to the student bar below and watch the news (it had a large screen tv). As we gathered our belongings, he came to me and said it was imperative I do this immediately as the incident involved New York and he knew how many American friends I had there. I remember thinking 'What are you going on about?' and looking at him as though he had grown an extra head. We slouched downstairs, somewhat tired and disgruntled, as one does after a three hour exam and discovered the news. It was September 11th, 2001. For quite a few minutes I remember thinking it was a really well put together roleplay (the MA was in International Conflict Analysis - the irony) and how had they managed to get all the newsreaders I knew so well from my time in America to agree to do a roleplay for a British university department? One does think strange thoughts! Gradually comprehension dawned, and with it horror. My first phonecall was to the giri to ask if he'd seen the news; my next to our friend who worked in one of the World Trade Centre towers. No answer; and calling again and again and again throughout the night trying to get through to New York.

I suspect we can all remember where we were on September 11th, 2001, when our tv screens showed us extraordinary, unbelievable footage. The sadness for me, is the lack of application of the lessons we should have learnt from that experience. America, ironically and unnecessarily, has grown ever more isolated instead of capitalizing on the immense worldwide support which initially flooded in. For the US administration and many Americans, '9/11' became an American tragedy, instead of a tragedy touching us all; as if only Americans died or were affected. They (temporarily I hope) lost recognition of the interconnectedness of all humanity and in came the us vs. them, 'if you're not with us you're against us' mentality. I could go on, but (happily for you) I won't.

This morning I started Michela Wrong's I DIDN'T DO IT FOR YOU: HOW THE WORLD BETRAYED A SMALL AFRICAN NATION. As I read her foreword, it all seemed to click into place with what I was thinking about today's anniversary:
History is written - or, more accurately, written out - by the conquerors. If Eritrea has been lost in the milky haze of amnesia, it surely cannot be unconnected to the fact that so many former masters and intervening powers - from Italy to Britain, the US to the Soviet Union, Israel and the United Nations, not forgetting, of course, Ethiopia, the most formidable occupier of them all - behaved so very badly there. Better to forget than dwell on episodes which reveal the victors at their most racist and small-minded, cold-bloodedly manipulative or simply brutal beyond belief. To act so ruthlessly, yet emerge with so little to show for all the grim opportunism; well, which nation really wants to remember that.

The problem, as the news headlines remind us every day, is that while the victims of colonial and Cold War blunders do not pen the story that ends up becoming the world's collective memory, they also don't share the conquerors' lazy capacity for forgetfulness. Any regular Western visitor to the developing world will be familiar with that awkward moment when a local resident raises, with a passion and level of forensic detail that reveals this is still an open wound, some injustice perpetrated long ago by the colonial master. Baffled, the traveller registers that the forgotten massacre or broken treaty, which he has only just discovered, is the keystone on which an entire community's identity has been built. 'Gosh, why are they still harping on about that?' he thinks. 'Why can't they just move on? We have.' It is a version of the 'Why do they hate us so much?' question a shocked America asked in the wake of September 11. Eritrea's story provides part of the answer to that query. It is very easy to be generous with your forgiving and forgetting, when you are the one in need of forgiveness. A sense of wounded righteousness keeps the memory sharp. Societies that know they have suffered a great wrong have a disconcerting habit of nursing their grievances, keeping them keen through the decades.
(p. xii)
Perspective. Identity. Grievance. Acknowledgement. Humanity. So much food for thought...


Friday, September 08, 2006

Oh joy! The latest SLIGHTLY FOXED has come out. My local independent bookshop, The Albion, is tucked away down a side street leading to the main gates of the Cathedral. I adore the shop because it has creaky stairs, quite a good children's selection, and an eclectic assortment of books - you never know quite what you will find there - and of course (I can't resist) it is not part of a national chain. Anyway, as it happens The Albion stocks SLIGHTLY FOXED. I have a sneaky suspicion that I'm the only customer who buys it, but never mind (sigh).

This edition looks set to unearth some more delights - I've had a quick flick through and was transported back to my childhood with a piece on Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise books. My grandfather had a set which I read with relish - Modesty was an impressive heroine, quite unlike Nancy Drew, and I was awestruck. James Bond hadn't a patch on Modesty. I believe the series is currently being reissued in the UK by Souvenir Press and I will look forward to re-reading them and seeing what my adult perspective is. I suspect they are ideal for reading in the bath!

A piece by Julia Keay is also worth noting here. The book discussed is THE SPIRIT CATCHES YOU AND YOU FALL DOWN by Anne Fadiman. I had read Fadiman's EX LIBRIS with great enjoyment, a super present for someone who loves books. THE SPIRIT CATCHES... however, is in a league of its own. A truly superbly written and wrenching book, it describes a small Hmong child in America who is cared for deeply by both her family and the medical team looking after her, but nevertheless trapped by cultural misapprehension. The doctors diagnose epilepsy and want to medicate, while the family believe her soul has been frightened and trapped by a spirit (hence the book title). I am ashamed to say that I had never heard of the Hmong people before reading this, but since seem to see frequent references including the horrifying photo features the Sunday Times magazine has twice published in the past year of Hmong in Laos. Fadiman writes the history of the Hmong in an accessible and interesting fashion, so that the larger story of their devastating communal experience is intertwined with the riveting tale of little Lia. She deserves every award.

Our African fiction reading group meets next on Wednesday 20th September discussing Djiboutian Abdourahman Waberi's THE LAND WITHOUT SHADOWS, newly translated into english. A week later the non-fiction group meets on Wednesday 27th discussing Michela Wrong's I DIDN'T DO IT FOR YOU: HOW THE WORLD BETRAYED A SMALL AFRICAN NATION, her recent book on Eritrea. So, lots of reading to do! Any of you London-based lot who'd like to join us, the meetings are free and gather at 6:30pm in Oxfam's fairtrade coffee shop Progreso in Covent Garden. We'll be looking at what to read next so come along and have a say!

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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Sunday was a luscious day. For the first time in I don't know how long I traipsed up to London for the day - so much fun when you don't have to commute and are travelling up for a jol (party/enjoyment for those of you not used to South African slang). I have no idea how I managed to do that daily five or six days a week for four years! Deadly - loud people on mobile phones raised my blood pressure immediately.

I started out with breakfast at St Martin's Lane Hotel. Waiting in the foyer for my Australian friend to come downstairs was rather like waiting in an echoing gym hall with large molars scattered around (apparently trendy tables - see their website for pics). Luckily I had Persephone Books' current reading group title MARIANA to console myself and take my mind off upcoming dental checks. I mention the hotel largely because, rather bizarrely, the restaurant has Malik Sidibe photographs everywhere which seems very random but is a rather nice tribute as he is such an exceptional portrait photographer. Strange thing is that the restaurant is supposed to be Asian and Cuban inspired?!

I had forgotten how glorious London can be when you are visiting, rather than working nose to the grindstone. I strolled along the South Bank from Charing Cross to London Bridge, passing the new Foyles bookshop, the National Film Theatre, the second-hand booksellers under the bridge arches, the Oxo tower, Tate Modern, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, etc. My side of the river was full of folks enjoying the last gasp of a sunny summer; the other side was full of appalling architecture: post-war concrete blocks.

After much joyful catch-up conversation over leisurely lunch and cocktails (shameless, and too early in the day, but who cares?!) followed by coffee in the grounds of Southwark Cathedral, I returned home with a gift from the lovely Francofinn clutched in hand. I wasn't able to attend Ngugi wa Thiong'o's event last month but she had, and had got him to sign a copy of WIZARD OF THE CROW for me. "Peace," Ngugi wrote. Funny that. My Zulu name, Nokuthula, means peace.

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Trying to write a sunset without resorting to cliche, I was reminded of a poem today and went in search of it. Turns out that my memory is faulty - there is no sunset in it - but it is still a rather good poem. From EXPLORINGS: A COLLECTION OF POEMS FOR THE YOUNG PEOPLE OF SOUTHERN AFRICA edited by Robin Malan (thanks, mother dear, for introducing me to this all those years ago). Out of print now but still available on amazon and abebooks. The poem in question is WHEN I GO HOME by Damian Ruth:
When I go home
I'm going to find
a stretch of road
in the Karroo
that lies flat and straight for miles.
I will come
over the crest of a koppie
and in the distance see
the windmill and its reservoir
next to the road.

I'll sit on the koppie
and look at it.
On the other side of the earth
under the huge pale blue sky
will be a thin line of purple koppies.
I'll hear the insects scratching
and maybe a hot exhausted stone
finally splitting.

I'll walk slowly
towards the windmill,
sometimes on the sticky black asphalt
sometimes next to it,
kicking stones
and lifting puffs of dust.
I'll climb through
the barbwire fence,
strip naked
and swim in the reservoir.
I'll sit in the sun to dry.
After a while
I'll climb back
through the barbwire fence
onto the road again.

I lived in South Africa
for 25 years
and never did that once.


Monday, September 04, 2006

It goes without saying that the death and destruction of the people of Lebanon is of primary concern, but I am perturbed to note the bombing of the Saqi warehouse in Beirut. For those unfamiliar with Saqi Books, they are a bookshop on Westbourne Grove (near my old London stomping grounds) focussing on the Middle East. In recent years they started their own publishing company to complement the bookshop. Having run a specialist African bookshop I can tell you that this all makes perfect sense in the context of chain bookstores in the west unwilling to stock backlist titles on anything other than bestsellers, and particularly not about parts of the world deemed unpopular. For people of other nationalities it is these specialist interest bookstores that become a home away from home where finding a "rare" or "difficult-to-acquire" book is guaranteed.

Below I have extracted a few pertinent paragraphs from an article by the award-winning author Kamila Shamsie summarizing the incident:
Among the books stored in the warehouse were Hikayat: Short Stories by Lebanese Women and Qissat: Short Stories by Palestinian Women, two collections due in London in August. Soon after the war started, someone from Dar al-Saqi (Saqi’s sister company in Beirut) sent six copies of each book to Jordan with a friend fleeing the country -- the 12 books later made their way to Paris, just in time for a planned window display. The rest of the books, or what remains of them, are still in the warehouse...

She concludes the article with a description of what Saqi is about:

Despite the paucity of distribution channels, many of Saqi’s authors -- and books -- rapidly became huge successes. At the heart of its ethos is an understanding of the need for two-way exchanges: Western books translated into Arabic, Arabic books translated into English, constant conversations between Beirut and London, titles which demand that readers from different parts of the globe reconsider their perceptions of their worlds and also that they look more deeply into received wisdom about other worlds.

It is an ethos that has enabled Saqi to build up a list of exceptional writers. In addition to its unparalleled list of literary luminaries from the Middle East, Saqi publishes acclaimed writers such as the Albanian winner of the first international Booker prize, Ismail Kadare, Argentine-born Alberto Manguel, British writer Maggie Gee, Aamer Hussein from Pakistan and Croatian novelist Dubravka Ugresic.

Among the most poignant of Saqi’s recent publications is Samir Khalaf’s Heart of Beirut: Reclaiming the Bourj. The Bourj is a public square in Beirut described as an “open museum of the world’s civilisations”. During the Lebanese civil war and in the Israeli air-strikes that followed, this vibrant, cosmopolitan space was reduced to a no-man’s land. As the Saqi catalogue explains, Khalaf’s book “argues passionately that its reinvention is at hand, and must be encouraged: the Bourj must reclaim its disinherited legacy of pluralism and tolerance’’. It is among the books in the bombed-out warehouse in Beirut.-- © Guardian Newspapers 2006.

For the full article on the Saqi warehouse bombing by Kamila Shamsie click here.
Kamila Shamsie is one of the contributors (along with one of my favourite authors, Paul Auster, and many illustrious others) to Lebanon, Lebanon, an anthology published this month with all proceeds going to Save the Children, Lebanon.

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Friday, September 01, 2006

Either we have hope within us
Or we don't.

It is a dimension of the soul, and
Is not particularly dependent
On some observation of the world.

It transcends the world
That is immediately experienced
And is anchored somewhere
Beyond the horizons.

In the deep and powerful sense
Is not the same as joy
That things are going well
Or willingness to invest in enterprises
That are obviously headed for early success,
But rather the ability to work for something
Because it is good.
Not just because it stands a chance to succeed.

Is definitely not
The same as optimism.
It is not the conviction
That something will turn out well,
But the certainty
That something makes sense
Regardless of how it turns out.

It is hope
Above all, which gives us the strength to live
And continually try new things.
Vaclav Havel, Living in Truth