Sunday, July 29, 2007

More from Zambia Mail's TELL ME JOSEPHINE:
'Should I marry a rich old man who is a trader in the village, who can give me sheets on the bed, and dresses? Or shall I have the handsome young man who has no money? Who would you pick, Josephine?'

I'd prefer a handsome young one with money! But it all depends whether you want love or sheets when you go to bed.
from Barbara Hall (ed.) TELL ME JOSEPHINE, London: Pan Books, 1967


Friday, July 27, 2007

I nipped over to Brighton last week for the launch of the SMALL PRESS REVIEW, for which I will probably begin writing soon. Thanks to Kimbofo over at Reading Matters for drawing my attention to this, "a magazine devoted to the English language small presses." Since the vast majority of books by African writers come from small presses, my interest is quite logical. The first issue has just come out...

Brighton is an interesting place for visitors - impressive architecture and the most stunning sea views as the sun sets pinky-red over the pier, lights twinkling on as the sky darkens.

The Kemp Town Bookshop is a wonderful independent with an interesting and eclectic range of books, cards and puzzles ranging over three floors. Upstairs is a light and airy cafe, and they've started to sell art as well (Bookroom Art Press), the young woman I spoke to said they were hoping to soon produce a range of Edward Ardizzone prints. A perfect spot for a rainy morning.

Meandering through the Lanes there are numerous secondhand bookshops of varying quality. I couldn't possibly visit them all in the time I had, but I lucked out at the Oxfam Bookshop, where I found some out of print African Writers' Series titles to add to my collection (descriptions below taken from cover blurbs):

First published Nigerian Printing & Publishing Co. Ltd 1959; AWS edition 1967
The village of Isolo has great difficulty in accepting the missionary concept of 'one man, one wife': this is the story of how a large portion of the village populace becomes disillusioned with mission Christianity and returns to the worship of the old gods.
A NAKED NEEDLE by Nuruddin Farah, the celebrated Somalian author, 1976.
Koschin has idly, far away and two long years ago, agreed with Nancy, that they should get married if they have not found anybody else in the meantime. It had been easy to give such a promise to her in London before he returned to teach in Mogadiscio. Now he receives a telegram to say that Nancy is coming to share his life in Somalia in a society she does not know.
THE AFERSATA by Sahle Selassie Berhane Mariam, 1968; AWS edition 1969.
'The night Namaga's hut was burnt down all the inhabitants of the thirty villages of Wudma were asleep.' Who is the culprit? The men set about finding out by means of the ancient institution of the Afersata, the traditional Ethiopian way of investigating crimes.
What is particularly exciting about these three books, is that they are titles I knew existed but have never laid eyes on before as they are long out of print! All in clean, neat condition. The cover art is sensational. One of these days I must get a digital camera so that I can post the covers here.

My final stop was my favourite source of African books (no bias here, of course!), the Africa Book Centre. Floor to ceiling titles from across the entire continent - so satisfying. I was extremely restrained, but still managed to purchase a few things. They deserve a little closer attention, so I'll blog in more detail about them shortly.


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

I am rushing off to London for my terrifying Tamil class. All the other beginners dropped out, so I've been incorporated into an advanced class that swooshes merrily over my head. As a result, I can't think clearly about anything much on Wednesdays - so have a poem from one of my favourite South African poets:
Overseas Visitor - Chris Zithulele Mann, South Africa, born 1948

It happened in my sister's backyard in Johannesburg.
I'd packed my bag, was late for the plane back home
and rushing to say goodbye to her husband and young.

Their guest, gentle, humorous, urbane of speech,
the poet and novelist from Delhi, Vikram Seth,
was jetting round the linguisphere of Planet Earth

to plug into its scattered English-speaking nodes
his latest chip, a macro-byte of India's dharma.
With hands on hips, stretching a troublesome back,

he stood beside the tumble-drier, holding a shirt,
drifting, as often that week, back into a privacy
I thought I recognized, where shades emerge and fade,

where present hopes and old regrets, fresh hurts
and solitude are reconciled and generate new dreams.
Mandela being out of prison, the first elections

still a mirage on a wavering, smoke-smudged horizon,
history was breaking out, around and within us.
Standing in the doorway, I started to say goodbye,

remembering a novel set in the raj, rough terrain,
an Indian and colonist on horses, near friendship,
the author, the era stating No, not yet, not there.

A lifting of eyelids. A smile. And then, suddenly,
the dharma, around and within, was urging Here, Now.
I dropped my suitcase on the threshold and embraced.
from THE NEW CENTURY OF SOUTH AFRICAN POETRY edited by Michael Chapman.


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

I once knew a young man (we'll call him Sifiso, although that is not his real name), a gentle and kind soul. He was often confused, and prone to wandering off. I imagine that all the single women within a 5 mile radius had had their hand in marriage requested by Sifiso, several times over. He would gently but firmly take your hand, make sure he had your attention, and propose. Turning him down didn't seem to dent his pride. Sifiso's mother was a hardworking seamstress who lent me fluffy novels (Macmillan's Pacesetter series for example, which incidentally are still available and can be ordered from the Africa Book Centre - hooray!). Sifiso's brother is one of the many disappeared - he did not come home one day, and there were whispers of alleged travels North out of South Africa to find external ANC training camps for freedom fighters. He has not been heard from since, and no news came for his family during the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The not knowing is so endlessly cruel. Sifiso himself was tortured by Apartheid security police past the point of sanity - hence the quiet confusion, the dizziness, paranoia and meanderings.

Fettouma Touati's DESPERATE SPRING begins:
Abdelkader and Sekoura had twelve children altogether. Five died in infancy. One boy was carried off by typhus but his mother claims he was killed by one of her enemies who put the evil eye on him. They had two married daughters, mothers of numerous offspring, who lived in Algiers. Another daughter, Djohra, was widowed at the age of twenty-four and was the mother of three children: Salah, Yasmina and Fatma. Sekoura's second youngest son, Said, lived in France with his wife Aicha. The youngest, Mohand, returned from the Resistance half mad.
I'm not sure if it is picturing Sifiso in my head while reading this, but I found Touati's storytelling riveting, especially her descriptions of the lives of those immediately around Mohand. War and torture, while never directly discussed, live on in the shockwaves rippling out into the wider family, starting with the implosion that knocks his wife, children and parents off their feet.

I (shamefaced) know very little about Algeria, although as a direct result of reading DESPERATE SPRING I am hunting down other fiction from there (Assia Djebar and Aziz Chouaki for a start) and will blog about them too in the fullness of time. I felt slightly at a disadvantage because of my ignorance of contemporary Algerian society. It is unclear to me whether some of the background to female experience described here is the same as it was in the early 1980s when this book was published. But that is just me responding to a desire to know more about Algerian society - the book needs no prior knowledge of Algeria's history.

This book is all about the lives of young women and girls as circumscribed by their marriage prospects. It is an angry book - the dark side, if you will, of books like Faiza Guene's NOT LIKE TOMORROW). Here Touati describes life in Paris for Malika:
Weary of living a lie, she left to live alone with her son. She got up at half past five, washed and dressed, had her breakfast, woke the child and fed him. Then she rushed him to the childminder and caught the bus. At lunch time she had a sandwich as the canteen was too expensive. In the evening she picked up her son, changed him, fed him and put him to bed. Then she did the housework, freshened herself up and finally went to bed at nine thirty with a book. This moment was sacred. What with the childminder, the rent and fares, all she had left over was a few centimes and a few hours' sleep. She wanted to live, even if it was for only one hour a day!

She spent a year living like this. Her mother urged her to come home. Her father remained angry for five years. For the first two years, he went around with a gun in his pocket, hoping to bump into her and cleanse his honour in blood.
It is the jolt of this last sentence which characterizes Touati's writing and keeps us reading in fascination. She does have occasional lapses into a somewhat unfortunately lecturing, educative style, but always lurking are startling descriptive passages.

Malika returns to Algeria, having been raised in the banlieue existence of so many North African immigrants to France. Can she adjust to Algerian life? Is it any better, less difficult, lonely and alienating than she has found French society? You may need to create a little family tree as you read along (I did) to keep track of who is who at the beginning, but you soon have them all straight and are captivated. In describing the lives of a large extended family Touati reflects Algerian society as a whole, and it is extraordinary.

Thank you francofinn for lending me DESPERATE SPRING, and for forgiving me since I've kept your copy so long! Published in French in 1984 (L'Harmattan, Paris) and in English by The Women's Press in 1987, Touati's book is sadly out of print, but there are still plenty of copies available secondhand (try abebooks).


Saturday, July 21, 2007

Last month in Rochester's Backroom Bookshop (43 High Street, ME1 1LN; Tel: 01634 308035; no website) I discovered the rather startling TELL ME, JOSEPHINE edited by Barbara Hall. Published originally by Andre Deutsch in 1964, and in paperback by Pan Books in 1967, it is a collection of agony aunt letters to Josephine (Barbara Hall) of the Zambia Mail. It even has a foreword by Kenneth Kaunda, the then Prime Minister of Zambia. Here's a taster:
'On the train from Bulawayo I met a girl. She gave me her address and I sent a missive concerning great love. She replied saying, "You are too young to love a big girl like me."

'What can I say to that?"

Tell her you are growing older every day.
I'll entertain you with a few more as I read on...

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Friday, July 20, 2007

My mother has emailed me a wonderful response to my post two days ago on the birthday of Nelson Mandela, so I thought I'd share it with you:
On Madiba's 70th birthday, we went to Exclusive Books "Going for a Song" booksale and S and I stood in the front of the shop and sang 11 songs for the 33 books we had chosen for our township library. Our last song was "Happy birthday to you" in honour of Madiba who was then still in prison, and I remember that the whole shop joined in.
On his 80th birthday I took a large chocolate cake to school and the children put 80 candles on it, each child coming up 4 times to add yet another candle. When we lit them all it made so much heat that the icing melted.
This week on his 89th birthday my class and I made a very tall poster with his picture on top, and the children cut out paper candles and stuck them on in ascending rows of 10 candles each. I wrote their names next to candles number 5 and 6, and staff and parents have been coming in and writing their names next to the candle that represents their age. Of course, Madiba outstrips us all!
Why, perhaps she needs to start a blog of her own (hint, hint)!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Last year we planted espallier cherry and apricot trees, the idea being that eventually they will screen the "working" vegetable and herb patches from the rest of the garden. Amazingly, we've had fruit! The hazard of cherry growing is knowing when to pick - leave them until they're fully ripe and you run the risk of little critters getting there first. Last year a squirrel sat quietly and munched the whole lot, leaving the stones in a neat little pile. This year we had masses of cherries, but a blackbird snuck up while I wasn't looking, and we only ate a quarter of the crop. Next year I'm buying some sort of fleece to keep them all off!

We've just eaten the apricots - delicious, beautifully coloured and with that tanginess that takes me right back to my childhood and sitting up in the apricot tree, eating straight from the branch, ducking wasps.

THIS IS JUST TO SAY by William Carlos Williams, 1883-1963

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold


Wednesday, July 18, 2007

For 27 years the name Nelson Rolihlala Mandela held mystical sway over South Africa's population. For some he was considered a dangerous criminal - to the rest of us he represented everything we hoped for. A terrible burden, really, to carry the weight of a nation's expectations.

As a maximum security prisoner on Robben Island, Mandela could not be quoted in the press. No photographs of him were allowed. We all knew what he'd looked like as a young lawyer before his imprisonment, but several decades meant it was unclear what he actually looked like. Myths and legends abounded. There were claims that people had seen him, including at least one account of him picnicing by the side of the road in the Cape - fanciful nonsense. Or was it? Years later prison officials confirmed that there were occasional excursions to the mainland (mostly to meet with the then state president), so it is possible that someone did actually see him.

The announcement of Mandela's impending release caused shockwaves across the country even though we'd been hoping for it with the release of several other high profile political prisoners in the months before. In the township where I lived, celebrating teenagers ran up and down the street for hours hitting the iron and steel poles of traffic lights and fences with a dull reverberation. The occasional firework soared upwards.

The day of his release we gathered across the road in our neighbour's lace curtained front room (we didn't have a televison) and watched him walk to freedom. Still tall, still recognizable (quite similar to artists' impressions actually), so gracious.

A few months later I helped cook his lunch the day he came to speak at a rally celebrating his release - 80 000 jubilant people turned out to hear him speak. I remember watching from the stands with friends. Present were many Umkhonto we Sizwe fighters (the military wing of the African National Congress) formerly undercover or on the run and now, only months later, out in the open. A surreal experience.

We have a long way to go yet in South Africa. Like anywhere else in the world, the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. But Mandela provided strong and steadfast leadership at a crucial point in our history and I will always be grateful for that. Halala Madiba! Happy Birthday to the father of the nation - 89 years old today.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Musical Dave forwarded this article which has me frothing at the mouth - am I the only one appalled by casting Americans as Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi in the film of Alexander McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency?! No offense to you Americans out there, but are there really no Southern Africans who could take on these roles? I find that very hard to believe! Grrr...

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Just back from Ireland, that exceedingly green and pleasant land. We had a wonderful rest - hiked up waterfalls and down country lanes; explored beehive huts, standing stones, stone circles, and ancient christian architecture; sat and gazed at the view; ate well...more later.

My parents are here for another week, so expect erratic blogging until then, but I did wish to point out the big news in the African fiction world: the announcement of the winner of the Caine Prize for African Fiction 2007. Congratulations to Monica Arac de Nyeko of Uganda. Her winning story 'Jambula Tree' is in the collection AFRICAN LOVE STORIES edited by Ama Ata Aidoo.

Strangely, the Caine Prize website has vanished into the ether, but keep trying back if you are interested, at

Africa Beyond has an interview with Arac de Nyeko
the BBC reports on the award
The Guardian reports here
as does The Independent