Friday, 21 July 2017

Can we talk about Enid Blyton?

A picnic with my two lovely girls at the Botanical Gardens got me thinking about Enid Blyton. We packed some snacks, a blanket and some books, one of them an Enid Blyton classic, The Secret Seven. The kid (who is now seven) has become enchanted by the Faraway Tree and The Secret Seven. If I read her a chapter, she will soldier on determinedly on her own, eating up the story word by word, a finger marking the steady progress. I never thought that watching a fledgling reader could make me feel so happy, but it does.

Which brings me to Enid Blyton.

The Wishing Chair, The Faraway Tree, The Famous Five, The Secret Seven and all those page-turning adventure stories made up my reading childhood. I discovered the heady addiction of stories, the desperate need to find out what happens next even after lights out, through these books. I was eight when I started to read in English, having just moved to South Africa with my parents. Enid Blyton books quickly became part of my reading diet and continued to be favourites for years. Reading them felt a bit like making friends in a new place. A lot of it didn't make sense to me or reflect my new life in South Africa. I still have no idea what sort of meal "tea" is. Green meadows and lanes, and the cold, misty, rainy weather all took on mythical qualities in my mind. The humidity and heat, the lush, out-of-control coastal vegetation with its troupes of vervet monkeys, the street vendors at the intersections, the rickshaw drivers at the beachfront, the intoxicating multiculturalism were all absent in the stories I picked up. But it didn't matter. I loved reading them anyway.

Much criticism has been leveled at Blyton for her culturally insensitive, gender-stereotypical stories, but for all that she did wrong, she certainly did something right. Children, pretty much everywhere, love her stories. And this raises a very important question, one I often engage with, namely, who determines what "good" children's literature is? Good according to whom? Who decides? Children or adults? Are adult critics even qualified to do this?

The lack of working mothers, touches of racism and xenophobia, the obvious classism are sometimes hard to overlook as an adult now rereading some of my childhood favourites, but then I watch my fledgling reader's growing hunger for them and suddenly I don't feel so qualified to tell her what she can and can't read.

I think Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Ted Talk The danger of the single story is particularly relevant to children's literature. Perhaps the solution to the Enid Blyton problem is not to eliminate her from children's reading diets, because she certainly has earned her place there, but rather to feed them a rich variety of stories from different places and backgrounds. In other words, offer them a balanced diet with a healthy sprinkling of magic.

So, what are your views on Enid Blyton?

Monday, 13 March 2017

Writing in snippets

So sometimes I get a bit sad because I never seem to have time to write my blog these days. Gaping ravines appear between posts that remind me of how quickly time seems to wash away. Before I know it, the next month is already here and there is a long list of things I haven't managed to get to. Between working and life and two little ones, I guess I must make peace with that.

But in the interim, the defiant part of me decided to set up an instagram account for this blog, sort of as a way of tiding me over in little snippets until I have time to write something more substantial here. So for now, this is where I can be found: here.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Hello new year

Well, here it is. 2017. 

I always become pensive in the space between the end of a year and the beginning of a new one. I feel the build-up of days and years more acutely then. I suppose in a way it's a natural place for a pause, to take a moment to wonder: have I done enough? What have I made with this length of time called a year? What will I make of the next?

I look at my two girls and at the growing that has taken place, the many things learned and done. The kid: beautiful, wispy and suddenly so big, but still fragile, standing bravely at the precipice of formal schooling, the preschool chapter closed and left behind in the last year. My baby, with her halo of curls, bursting into toddlerhood with a fierce determination and yet still so soft and small when her outstretched arms reach for me.

I look at these two girls and think about that year that trails away behind me, how my path has determined theirs, what the marks and prints are that I've left behind on them. How I shape them.

And sometimes it overwhelms me because a childhood is a very precious thing to hold in your hand.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Christmas in summer

It's noticing the sweaty discomfort of Father Christmas in his woolly suit suffering through the humidity, the fake snow spray-painted on windows and the foreign irrelevance of sleighs and reindeer and holly, that makes me think just how Christmas in South Africa is a season of contradictions and incongruity. The holiday doesn't seem to fit right, like some hand-me-down item of clothing. The cracks show easily: in the heat that makes all the cosy Christmas cheer a bit unpleasant to carry out in real life, in the pictures of snowmen hastily coloured-in before children have another splash in the pool, in the wild greenness of a Durban summer paling the evergreen of the Christmas tree.

But I also kind of love that no one cares about the details, that the incongruity doesn't matter. I love the enthusiasm in a Hindu colleague's talk about how she is so excited to celebrate Christmas with her new little son. I love the chaos and colour and contradiction of hybrid-Christmas narratives springing up around me. The point being that it doesn't have to make sense.

While I did spend most of my formative years enjoying a cold Christmas, where the hot food and candles and Gl├╝hwein and Christmas decor made sense, I've come to love what a subtropical holiday season feels like too, but it's largely underrepresented in all things Christmas. So in the interests of celebrating the holiday season in a local way, here's my list of things I like about this time of year:

  • heat-soaked, lazy days after a busy year of work
  • the merciful whir of air-conditioners
  • the chaotic green everywhere and the carpet of Frangiapani blossoms on the patio
  • mangoes and paw-paws and litchis 
  • outside dinners when the day starts to cool down slightly
  • the feel of cold water on hot skin
  • being barefoot 
  • the clink of ice-cubes in white wine shared with friends
  • having an excuse to bake something delicious despite the heat and having a cold shower afterwards
  • (literally) cool desserts 
  • cutting off a bunch of bananas from my little cluster of banana trees in the garden
  • the ingenuity of beaded wire Christmas decorations made by industrious street vendors
  • finding local substitutes for ridiculously priced nuts and berries
  • and like everywhere: time with my people ☺

Sunday, 4 December 2016


Sometimes words leave you. They disappear somewhere and remain obstinately out of reach. I've been feeling a bit like that recently. Sitting there, self-consciously, waiting for them to come home. Maybe it's the effects of a busy and well-worn year coming to an end. It's difficult to not feel completely depleted. 

At least I've been doing a lot of reading, absorbing a whole range of words, enjoying the pleasure of them and appreciating the effects of unusual arrangements. I found this list of strange and beautiful words (some English, some borrowed) via Buzzfeed . These are some of my favourites! 

Thursday, 3 November 2016

For the Mercy of Water

Well, after the last post, I did finally find something to read. And it still hasn't let me go. Perhaps it’s the reality of recent water restrictions, of taps running dry in the middle of the day in some places that I still feel faintly haunted by For the Mercy of Water by Karen Jayes.

Set in a believable drought-ridden future, water has been privatised and is controlled by “the company” and its violent militias. Society is polarised into cities that are serviced by the company and the parched rural areas that have been largely abandoned. This novel occupies a strange position between the real and the allegorical. Although the country (and most of the characters) remain unnamed, I recognised in the scarred landscape a shadow of the current South Africa. As a critic stated, "A society that has lived through the Marikana massacre and the slaughter of Anene Booysen should recognise something in both Jayes's projection of rural districts subordinated to corporate imperatives, and in the repeated depictions of gender violence and rape, never lurid but clear eyed, or be ashamed."

The bleak yet startling quality of the writing reminded me of Andre Brink. It's the kind of writing that can flip from words that are spiky and cruel to starkly beautiful in a sentence.The right to water, gender and sexual violence, are themes that play out on the body and the landscape described through Jayes's visceral prose. The language of the body and the landscape are devastatingly, beautifully intertwined. Another critic points out, "For the Mercy of Water draws on enmeshed metaphorical relationships between the categories of female, the body and nature on the one hand, and the categories of male, the mind and culture on the other. In this sense, the war waged over water (nature) is also a war waged over the female body."

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Finding something to read

Between the haze of end of term madness, a second birthday party to plan, an old dog put to sleep forever, relentless rain and unexpected cold finally breaking the dry season and months of storing bathwater in buckets, student protests and futures hanging tenuous and hesitant.  I feel adrift. Just randomly moving. No real sense of purpose.  No roots to my days. Too fragmented to pick up anything and read it.

Rebecca Solnit on books (found via brainpickings):
"The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another. The child I once was read constantly and hardly spoke, because she was ambivalent about the merits of communication, about the risks of being mocked or punished or exposed. The idea of being understood and encouraged, of recognizing herself in another, of affirmation, had hardly occurred to her and neither had the idea that she had something to give others. So she read, taking in words in huge quantities, a children’s and then an adult’s novel a day for many years, seven books a week or so, gorging on books, fasting on speech, carrying piles of books home from the library."


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