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."

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Just one more word

The nightly bedtime story ritual at the moment goes something like this:

Me: "Okay, that's the end of the chapter. We'll have to wait until tomorrow to find out what happens."
The kid: "Ohhhh, don't, don't, no, no!"
Me: "No really, it's the end. You agreed just one chapter, remember?"
The kid: "Noooo! PLEASE just one more story. PLEASE!" (Looks hurt, as if I'm an abusive parent.)
Me: "No, we agreed we would finish at the end of the chapter." (Feels like an abusive parent)
The kid (distraught, on the verge of tears): "PLEASE Mama, just one more WORD!"
Me: "A word is very short. It won't help."
The kid: "Please!"
Me: "Okay." (reads one more word)
The kid (wailing): "Noooo!"
Me: "That was one word."
The kid (looks greatly hurt and disappointed): "Fine! I just won't give you any more goodnight kisses then!"

Sunday, 21 August 2016


It's so scarce. It slips away too easily. Before I know it, it has disappeared. I feel drained of it when all the chores are done, the needs met. I watch the day's dust settle, wondering what impressions remain that I can hold on to. Wondering if the only measurement is in well-worn routines that dig their trenches into our days. What routes has time left on me?

I wonder where it goes. What's happened to it. How we got to now, from then. How the little one suddenly turned into a running-about toddler, how the kid slipped into this wispy, wise girl with laughs and such earnest eyes. How I became a mother to them. And always, always how it is that I deserve their laughter, their outstretched arms and squeezes, their love. 

I know that years from now that taut rope of time will slacken again. I'll feel it ease up. I'll catch my breath. And I'll look back at this time of chaos, of exhaustion, of work, of never-ending demands and I'll smile because there, etched into me, will be the sounds of two giggling half-undressed girls running around the house avoiding bath-time, their joy and exuberance infectious despite my desperation to make bed-time happen. I'll still feel chubby little arms and legs wrapped tightly around me when there are tears and sobs or feel the kid's hand slipping quietly into mine as we go about errands. I'll see them when they're sleeping as I go and check on them before bed, all soft cheeks and gentle breath, their smallness and vulnerability so present in the glow of bedside lamps.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Scenes of everyday ordinariness

Weather that can't quite make up its mind. A chilly wind. Patches of sunlight. One kid crafting colourful paper garlands with buttons. A dusting of paper snippets and glitter under the table where she works. One basket of freshly-brought in laundry. One old dog lying on the mat, paws twitching. Some forgotten bits of stolen fruit left scattered on the back lawn after a visit from a troupe of vervet monkeys. A pot of soup prepared early, cooking on the stove. One little one asleep in her cot. Some half-forgotten games left scattered around the house. One laptop accusingly open and unattended. 

This is how the hours of the day are tallied up. 

How one more day slips by.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Devouring books

It's holiday time.

Days loosen up a bit. There's suddenly more space. There's time to read, not just in the usual bite-sized chunks of busy work days, but time to really devour books. That's how I've always viewed the holidays: a decadent, perhaps greedy, opportunity to consume as many books as I can.

In a very interesting article on the relationship between food metaphors and reading, Louise Adams explores the question of whether devouring books is a sign of superficiality in the reader. She states:
"This metaphor, however, hasn't always seemed so benign. Two hundred years ago, describing someone as 'devouring' a book would have been an act of moral censure. The long, turbulent relationship between reading and eating is invisible to modern eyes, yet in our media-soaked culture, it is more pertinent than ever. The unexamined language of 'devouring' idealises one kind of reading at the expense of others, leaving readers impoverished."
History has shown how different types of texts and different ways of reading were not all seen as equal. From Renaissance scholars like Francis Bacon, who stated that "some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed" to 18th century writers who distinguished between appetite (connecting reading with the physicality of the body) and taste (which connected reading to the mind). Coming out of this background then, devouring a book would appear to be crude and vulgar. The speed associated with devouring a book would also have been seen to lessen the nourishment gained from the text.

These ideas have not been completely sustained in the modern world, where speed is an essential quality of survival. 'Devouring' has come to denote enjoyment and fast-paced, popular consumption. However, many of these ideas are relevant today, particularly because our need to 'devour' literature quickly means we often sacrifice time for slower reflection. (As I've argued here).

When I think of the word 'devouring' in relation to books, my associations are overwhelmingly positive. I see it as good, as it shows that books are being read and this is a point that Adams also makes in assessing where 'devouring books' leaves us today:
"This defensiveness about popular reading now coincides with another phenomenon: the fear that reading might lose its cultural potency completely. This is why the language of reading-as-devouring is rehabilitated, with its unprecedented positive spin. 'Devouring' is reclaimed because, at its base, it signifies interest. And in a world where Facebook, WhatsApp and Netflix compete for our attention, any interest in good old-fashioned reading is encouraged at all costs."
I guess the point being made is that reading cannot be seen as one homogeneous activity, but rather as something that takes on diverse forms and functions depending on context and on the different times in our lives. As with food, I suppose, we sometimes snack or binge or savour.

What Adams suggests is this:
"The language of digestion encourages slowed-down reading habits (along Slow Food lines). It reminds us to be more attentive to the subtle ways in which texts have been put together by their creators - to think before just bingeing upon pages."

Monday, 13 June 2016

Another Monday morning

I climb out of bed, senses blunted by the winter darkness. There's just a hint of day in the pale cut-outs of the windows but it still feels like night. I pick the little one up out of her cot and we stumble through to the kitchen. Automatically I switch on the kettle for tea, still trying to regain my senses. I give her her milk while I sit down for a moment with my warm mug. Just a brief pause before another day fully claims us.

I can't believe we're in the middle of June already. When did that happen?

Sunday, 8 May 2016

In search of a reading culture

Image from here

It's often struck me that books are not part of the fabric of everyday life in South Africa. You're unlikely to see books occupying people as they wait in queues or for taxis or snuck under the tables during lectures or resting on restaurant tables. Phones on the other hand, are everywhere, all levels of society equally obsessed and constantly connected. On a functional level, magazines and newspapers are read, but it is not often that one sees someone lost in a book for the pure, simple enjoyment and escape it offers.

Reading for pleasure is just not a priority, both in homes and in the classroom. It gets drowned out by more desperate, immediate things like focusing on the mechanical ability to read rather than wanting to read for enjoyment. Most homes are not filled with books and sadly, the same can be said for most schools too (read an old post about this here). As a result the culture of reading doesn't develop, which has far reaching implications for education. In a paper on implementing a communal reading project at the University of Johannesburg, Janse Van Vuuren describes the typical first year student:
"A high percentage of these learners are from very poor environments where buying books is not an option with the result that they grew up without the benefit of access to books. Many of these young people who are currently enrolled at universities are battling to overcome the disadvantage of growing up without books and an established reading culture. Academic staff at South African universities increasingly comments on the fact that students lack sound reading and writing skills."
That culture is so important, but not acknowledged. Students wonder why bother to read the book when one can just as well watch the movie, missing the point entirely. And so the cycle continues because books are so absent, so missing; considered relics that belong into some other world and have no relevance for the rhythms of daily life. So I was incredibly happy when I came across this heartwarming story of, Philani Dladla,  a homeless man who sells books on the streets of Johannesburg to make a living. On my average drive to work, each time I stop at an intersection I get offered phone chargers, seasonal fruit, plastic coat hangers, and outstretched hands cupped around the empty nothingness of desperation. I am even offered the opportunity to have my windscreen cleaned for some loose change while I wait for the green light. Depending on where you drive in town, you can probably buy anything through your car window.

But books are absent from that picture.

They're not part of the economics of survival. They're not a feature of the vibrant informal pavement trade. Yet, here is the story of a man who lives hand-to-mouth, who takes his stack of books to grubby city intersections around Johannesburg and peddles reviews and books through car windows. A simple act of survival with stories as his tools, that suddenly becomes so much more...

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

What do children want to read?

Children and stories and reading go together. I like seeing a pile of books next to the kid's bed, or finding her asleep, her hand still resting on a current favourite, or tripping over them on the carpet, or seeing them piled on the coffee table.

But sadly this seems to be the exception. Children don't read anymore or, at best, don't read enough. We hear this repeated throughout the various loops of educational circles. The remedy it seems, is more regimented reading programmes and carefully manufactured books. However, Jack Zipes, expert on the fairy tale and critic of Disney, argues that our response to this decline in reading among children and young people is based on "misreading" the situation. This misreading has resulted in the state, its education departments and the publishing industry ushering in an array of reading programmes and an unhealthy quantity of books without substance.

His is an interesting argument that challenges the response to the reading crisis and one that cautions us about the direction these interventions have taken. In particular he takes to task national reading surveys (for example the National Endowment for the Arts in the USA which looks at the decline in reading for pleasure) for not discussing the quality of books that are being manufactured for young people. He points out that we are simply looking at a skeleton of numbers.

I'm particularly interested in the questions Zipes asks, those questions that the skeleton remains mute on: "What is a book for children? How are children exposed to reading materials and taught to use them? What are the diverse socio-cultural contexts in which children read? Do other media complement the reading of books? Hasn't the screen replaced the book to produce multimodal reading? Why read what we read, and do we have a choice? What role does social class, race, and gender play in learning how to read?" (2009:31).

So what should children be reading? I've written about my disappointment with what is on offer in most toy stores in South Africa before, with the narrowing of literature to easy-to-sell products. When it comes to access to books the range is incredibly limited, which doesn't do much for answering the question of what children should be reading.

Zipes takes Disney to task for making the book a product that is pushed onto children. The Disney approach moves seamlessly from movie to book to toy to CD. Disney artifacts are everywhere and the stories are lost somewhere among them. Tinkerbell is appropriated and repackaged and lost to J.M. Barrie. Cinderella and Belle and Snow White are transformed into two dimensional shadows of their former selves and children loose touch with the roots of those old stories.

Zipes states, "One might argue that the example of Disney is not typical of the book publishing industry for children. But that is not true. The impetus to produce books that will replicate themselves, books to produce films that replicate the books, films to produce books to replicate the films, books that will sell books of the same category - this impetus can be found throughout the industry. As far as the publishers are concerned, books are to be manufactured to sell other books, and in the process, the tastes and values of children are to be molded to suit the tastes and values of the culture industry en large, for a book is no longer a single commodity but closely connected if not intertwined with other similar products. If children are to read, they are basically encouraged to consume more and more of the same."

I'm a bit torn on this one. Part of me says read... just read... anything that takes your fancy... it's okay to just wander. Another part wants to direct, to map, to plan out the journey of the reader. More of the same might be comfortingly familiar, particularly to the developing reader, but in order to grow we have to try new things... pick up that unfamiliar story not associated to a familiar TV character or the well-worn spin-off from a movie.

That is where the problem lies and Zipes' argument is that the book as commodity can't solve our reading crisis, that in fact, if anything, it deepens it. 

Saturday, 6 February 2016

It's February

It's February. Days clamoring hot, sitting too close and intimate in the week; one day melting into the next. The whirring of aircons is a constant, like some mechanical breath. A temporary coolness. Beyond its reach the air, moist and soupy, condenses on your skin. Slippery. Damp. It's the month of moisture, where nothing ever feels really dry. We prevail, as everyone must, with daily tasks, punctuating them by dipping in and out the cool circle of our plastic pool:  after breakfast, before school, after grocery shopping, before work, after cooking, before sleep. On hot afternoons, we watch from the veranda the air thickening with the promise of a storm. All too frequently clouds of clenched fists hold spitefully onto the rain. Thunder grumbles, no relief comes. We wait...

Over the last couple of weeks, I've had to acknowledge a dip in my productivity. This blog has become a somewhat silent place. I'd like to blame February (my accusation is that it's too hot to think). Writing, like most end-of-the-day tasks, gets neglected, and finally ignored.

But of course it's not really February. It's not the heat or the sapped energy.

It's the reality of living and working and mothering. It's a finite amount of time sliced thin. It's the lived modality of the "musts" before the "would like to's". So, instead of feeling constantly defeated by it, I have decided to post less often here. I'm sure I will get to the "would like to's" again soon, but for now there'll have to be a pause.

Dear readers, thank you for your support and kind words so far. I hope that you do stick around for posts that emerge sporadically, spontaneously, as and when there's a moment to spare!

Friday, 15 January 2016

Half of a Yellow Sun

It feels like January is whizzing past with a rustling of hot wind ringing in my ears. The newness of the year and all its demands has kept me rather busy of late. But in that time, somehow, there have been pauses well spent with Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a book that you can feel viscerally, in your gut. Gracefully devastating, tragically human, humorously hopeless, it makes its mark on the postcolonial literary landscape.

It is set in the 60s, in a newly independent Nigeria bearing the deep tribal scars of colonial rule, and tells the story of Biafra, a country that existed for three years from 1967 to 1970 and represented the nationalist aspirations of the Igbo people. The novel centers around the Biafran war (or Nigerian civil war as it's also known) which gave the world the tragic images of starvation as two million people starved to death due to Nigerian blockades. It is deeply disturbing to think of starvation being viewed as a legitimate weapon in war.

As much as the story is about this segment of Nigerian history, it is also about three characters whose lives intersect: Ugwu, a boy from a poor village, who works as a houseboy for a university lecturer; Olanna, a young, beautiful woman who rejects her wealthy parents' life of luxury in Lagos to live with her revolutionary lover (the university lecturer); and Richard, a shy Englishman who falls in love with Olanna's enigmatic twin sister. It is the force of these characters that drives the story forward, and you follow, even if you sometimes don't want to go, because you must find out what happens to them. And this curiosity is not simply for how they survive the war, but how they live: how circumstances shape and change them and their relationships with each other. Of this emotional truth that shines through the ground of history, Adichie states, "If fiction is indeed the soul of history, then I was equally committed to the fiction and the history, equally keen to be true to the spirit of the time as well as to my artistic vision of it."

I think what was so tragic about it was the sense of pointlessness - of a dream that existed for three years in the grotesque and brutal form of war, and yet, remained one that people still, somehow, had the heart to believe in. Of that, Adichie states, "the wonderfully restrained sense of deep disappointment reminded me of how similar the histories of many African countries are, how passionately people believed in ideas that would eventually disappoint them, in people that would betray them, in futures that would elude them."

While there's something horribly familiar about the postcolonial tragedies that litter Africa, Adichie's novel doesn't completely fit that label. In the heartache, there is humour, in the devastation, pockets of resilience. It was one of those reads where I felt devastated to turn the last page and know that it was over.


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