Saturday, November 5, 2011

on Coldplay

Coldplay’s latest music video (“Paradise”) contains scenes of my very own Johannesburg, the Johannesburg that is within walking distance of where I live.  As a journalist recently remarked, the elephant (that is really Chris Martin) does not even get mugged or end up getting his unicycle stolen.  “Paradise” is a pretty, catchy tune.  I even find it moving, though perhaps that has a lot to do with my patriotic little heart being swept up in the familiar panoramas.  It also contains scenes of Coldplay’s very recent Johannesburg concert, and somewhere in those crowd shots are multitudes of my friends, all thrilled and thoroughly enjoying themselves.  I was not there, however.

This is because my appreciation of “Paradise” (or almost any of their songs released since “Rush of Blood to the Head”, their second album) fades when I listen to “Parachutes”, their first album.  It came out when I was fourteen.  My brother bought a copy when he was visiting from London, and played it almost perpetually when he stayed with us.  After he left, taking the CD with him, I went off to the nearest Musica and bought my own.  Up until then, I had invested almost purely in compilations and soundtracks, as many of the artists I knew about or had access to at the time only produced one or two songs that I liked.  Coldplay was different from the start.

My favourite song on “Parachutes” back then was “Shiver”, the second song on the album.  It is about unrequited love, rejection and yet desperate devotion and longing.  The song has an incredible momentum, chords crashing and early stirrings of the arpeggios on which they have come so heavily to rely.  Martin’s voice is unbelievably expressive: his falsetto is soaring and his lower notes are occasionally breathy and always raw with emotion.  It was the perfect song for an awkward yet imaginative teenager.  Its passionate statement of constant love from afar thrilled me and while I am not so awkward or filled with desperate love longings anymore, it is still one of my favourite songs to sing along to.

The next songs to become my favourites came in a pair, mainly because they were hits, but also because they were a little literary.  “Yellow” and “Trouble” are the only two songs most Coldplay fans (or people who say they are Coldplay songs, humph!) know from the album.  “Yellow” is unbearably sweet and borders on synaesthesia, reminding me years later of Gatsby’s “yellow” cocktail music.   “Look at the stars, look how they shine for you and all the things that you do”.  The infinite appreciation of small intimacies are seldom so simply and beautifully expressed in popular music.

“Trouble” was always wonderfully melancholic.  The small hesitations in the piano line and the nuanced differences they made to each repetition of the verse give the song the power of a dramatic monologue.  The sliding, mournful guitar chords at the end still jolt me.

My next favourite, and perhaps, the eternal favourite of my heart, is “Sparks”.  It is a slow-moving song and the gentle, almost lazy-sounding guitar chords seem to bring a physical warmth to my innards when I hear them.  When I think of the chorus, “I saw Sparks”: my literal interpretation is of magical golden sparks showering over the landscape against a deep, velvety night.  The metaphorical implications shift every time I listen to it.  The lyrics are again, very simple but also personal and acknowledge fallibility.  “My heart is yours, it’s you that I hold onto.  I know I was wrong, I won’t let you down, oh yeah I will yeah I will”.

The song I under-appreciated for a long time was the opening song, “Don’t Panic”, a kind of fragment of apocalyptic pessimism in the verses, “Bones sinking like stones, all that we’ve fought for...” contrasted with the chorus: “We live in a beautiful world”.  The melody line swells and ripples, and the rhythm section drives the very meaning onwards.

 “High Speed” does not move me.  “Spies” is a little obscure (what is this song about?) but it is atmospheric and the instrumentation is exciting.  The eponymous song, “Parachutes” is a beautiful sliver and “We Never Change” is relatively abstractedly cheerful.  While they may never be favourites, they soothe me and I feel uplifted after the final chords of the album have faded away.

“Rush of Blood to the Head” was more polished, you can hear the band all went out and got some extra music lessons.  The emotions are still mostly there.

It is almost everything since then that makes me sad.  I am not some hipster that got upset when everyone else discovered “their band”.  I can appreciate the waves of electronics, catchy tunes, endlessly repeating arpeggios and hallmark physcho-babble of their recent offerings that may have roots in interesting concepts.  They cannot, however, match the raw brilliance of the earlier songs.  Rather than feeling uplifted after hearing their swathes of feel-good pop-inspired tunes, I feel a little depressed and like I have been offered something that feels (to me at any rate) cheap, shiny and packaged.  So I couldn’t bring myself to go to their concert.  I went home and skyped a friend instead.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

NaNoWriMo: Day One

A short two years ago, I too was asking, "What the heck is that?".  Well, "NaNoWriMo" stands for National Novel-Writing Month.  It started in the United States, but unlike so many of their compatriots, they wanted to share this great idea with the world, so perhaps it should be renamed InNoWriMo (you can guess why).

On the first of November all over the world, writers begin writing a novel (of minimum 50 000 words) that they have to finish on or before the 30th November.  I have never been really interested before, mainly because I thought that that was no way to write a novel.  Maturity has brought reason, however, or perhaps just the bitter realisation that I can never carry my novels further than their opening descriptions because I am a complete perfectionist (read: "egotistical coward").

I am terrified to write something, my brain goes into a freeze and won't come up with more than a striking opening image or situation.  I write a page or so, feel dreadfully proud at the quality of my own writing, and begin to dream dreams of writing a truly brilliant novel.  Then I read it the next day and realise it is trite and the images are cliched.  I fiddle with what I have, I wrack my brains for some more plot, squirm at my inadequate direct speech and then, ooh, what's that?  A movie that I haven't seen for at least a week.  I had better watch that, get some inspiration.

Needless to say, my novels never develop to anything more complex than a sapling.

I procrastinated (a little) before starting this evening, but I wrote the required 1666 words without the wave of crushing inadequacy I usually feel hovering above my head.  It's really late now, which will come back to bite me tomorrow, but for now, I feel just the teeniest stirrings of something like euphoria.  I have begun.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Free Jazz

Last night, Zwe took me to this great little corner restaurant in Melville, Jozi called "Wish!". It was not great for the awe-inspiring food (it was good, but not amazing), nor the decor, which is actually really pleasant and suitably artsy. They have abstract paintings that are awash with colour on the walls, and red chairs that look like they come from an alternate time that never actually existed. If that makes sense. And our waiter was more than a little distracted as a famous DJ was sitting at the table behind us.
The reason it was such a gorgeous evening was because there was a live jazz band playing there that you could listen to...for free. Not just any jazz band, a jazz band consisting of Marcus Wyatt on trumpet and fugal horn, Afrika Mkhize on keyboard, someone called Clement Benny on drums and Thembi Nkosi on a huge, gleaming double bass (in my next life, I will be a bassist. No question). Benny is a drummer who seems to make the rhythm section melodic, and Mkhize is prone to flights of incredible, fragile beauty on the piano. Nkosi thrilled me down to my toes with his masterful handling of his bass throughout, and Wyatt is, well, there's a reason he is such a famous musician.

They played a standard or two, but their real strength last night seemed to lie in the music they had worked on together. After a particular passage, several listeners (including my own dear boyfriend) actually shouted with joy.
Being able to sit a few feet away and listen to such great music is something we all experience too rarely in these days of widespread recordings and such easy access to the music of almost any band one could wish to hear. Seeing a band live in such an intimate setting is really exciting. You can hear the scatting Mkhize sometimes does to accompany his playing, and Benny's zen-like expression that seems to be completely unaware but is actually taking in all the subtleties of his fellow musicians. You can tell when someone has lost their place because of the sheepish smile that creeps over their face, and you could watch Wyatt pacing and soloing nonchalantly from the door, or taking his place as frontman.
The four players achieved excellent balance last night, not something I have often been fortunate enough to hear. Each note of each instrument contributed to a seething Jazz whole (jazz music can never simply be "whole": that implies some kind of completeness. Jazz is never complete) and I enjoyed being able to hear the bass in particular, which is often drowned out in live performances.
I was particularly pleased to see that there is free jazz at "Wish!" every Wednesday night. Whether or not next Wednesday brings the same excellent quartet or another band, I am looking forward to returning.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tutoring: A Series of Unfortunate Events

Working with students is an education.

I have been receiving essays on the English Renaissance sonnet and lyric over the past two days from my tutorial groups and I have seldom ever experienced such disorganisation and misunderstanding.  I have clearly over-estimated our country's school system and it ability to teach students anything about poetry, and about the ability to learn new things.  I discovered on Friday that several of my students had never done poetry at school.  More than this, after almost an entire year at University (three-quarters of which involved two tutorial sessions a week on various poems) a student had no idea what I meant when I had talked in class about abab rhyme scheme.  She said none of her friends had been able to explain what it meant either.  Her previous tutors had told her not to worry about it if she didn't understand it.  Anyone who has ever studied Renaissance poetry (even if it was just a Shakespeare sonnet in high school) will know that the rhyme scheme is an important component.

Once I had explained the concept to her (it took less than three minutes) she caught on immediately and was able to apply the principle to another poem.  She is not stupid, she had just never been taught about it, and was obviously too terrified of something which seemed so abstract to work it out.

Since all the essays have been handed in, I have had one essay comparing two sonnets from the Harlem Renaissance (from the wrong century and the wrong continent) and another that is not an English essay, but a history essay: handed in a day late to the wrong place.

I have had two essays, however, where students have taken their own initiative to do relevant extra reading and have drawn parallels that surprised and pleased me.

There is much (or at least some) that is not yet lost.

Monday, October 17, 2011

On re-reading "Pride and Prejudice"

I was rereading Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice the other day.  It was strange to re-read because I can still remember the last time I read it so clearly.  I was fourteen and living in Durban on the Berea.  I was sleeping in my sister's room because we had a guest staying with us, which always meant I had to move out of mine.  Sarah and I would argue quite a lot: mainly about mess, always mine.  I stayed up until 2am to finish it, and was really tired at Sunday School the next day but I felt really proud that I had stayed up so late to finish something I considered to be high literature.I had already read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and I considered Pride and Prejudice to be my next foray into the world of really adult literature.

That was the first year I'd had boy friends since I was nine years old.  Going to an all girls' school and it only being my sister and I at home meant I never spoke to boys, never mind made friends with them.  It was also around this time that our parents would take us to see the strange, wizard-like house next to the ocean on the South Coast and everything would change when we moved there.  And then everything would change again when I left small-town South Coast for the smaller Grahamstown and Rhodes, and then again for Pretoria and finally when I landed in Johannesburg for Wits.  Starting over again in a new place again four times over will change things, never mind the change in years and situations.

Yet some things don't change that should have.  I had a strange sense of travelling back in time reading this book.  I have found, over and over again that though I considered myself to be pretty advanced when I read classics at relatively young ages, I understood very little more than what I had garnered from their movie versions.  While I have watched the BBC Pride and Prejudice many times, for the excellent Jennifer Ehle as Lizzie as much for the sublime Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy (did anyone else notice they were both in The King's Speech as well?), this is the first time I have re-read the book since my raw fourteen year old self finished it in the wee hours of the morning.

I still appreciated the charming romances and brilliantly drawn characters.  The jealous Caroline Bingley is a treat,  as is Mr. Bennet who is far shrewder and funnier on the page.  The relationship between Jane and Lizzie is also an inspiration to me.  I love my sister dearly, and can appreciate the celebration of sisterly support.

What really intrigued me about the book was its unexpected wisdom.   Jane Austen is very astute about human nature and, as I discovered re-reading this book, human failings.  I don't mean the kind of human failings that mean you lose your sports match, are missed for promotion or fail to make it into the course you want to do.  I mean moral human failings.  I found her exploration of the "pride" and "prejudice" of the title nuanced and engrossing, and her portrait of the effect of a selfish, indolent mother and self-involved father and their unhappy marriage on the family was, as always, quite astounding.  What really moved me, however, was Lizzie's own regret at her gossiping about Mr. Darcy.

The one thing that has not changed about me since I was a self-important fourteen year old is my penchant for a gossip, and for simultaneously holding grudges.  I have often deeply regretted what I have said (always after the event) when both friend and foe alike have been at the mercy of my occasionally vicious tongue, and could not understand why I enjoyed indulging in either more often than I want to.  When I read Lizzie's own reason for gossiping about Mr. Darcy, I realised why:

"And yet I meant to be uncommonly clever in taking so decided a dislike to him, without any reason.  It is a spur to one's genius, such an opening for wit, to have dislike of that kind.  One may be continually abusive without saying anything just; but one cannot always be laughing at a man without now and then stumbling on something witty"

I have always treasured my intelligence (perhaps too much) and holding a grudge and gossiping about someone is an easy way to show it off.

So from now on: an undertaking to be humble about what intelligence I have, and so avoid other dangerous pastimes.

And to read more Jane Austen instead.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

my favourite things

One of the few songs I still know off by heart is "My Favourite Things" from "The Sound of Music". In fact, musical songs, a few old hymns (and Avril Lavigne and Britney Spears gar!) stick in my head, when everything else cooler (think opera arias and Radiohead ballads) seem to leak out somehow. But what makes knowing those particular songs (barring Britney Spears and Avril Lavigne) one of my "favourite things" is singing them with my friends whenever I go back to KZN. Somehow, in the course of hanging out together, usually at someone's house, or out at Oribi Gorge, or even sitting 'round a kitchen table, we will sing together, different people taking the lead according to whoever knows the song best. There's something about the sound of all our voices raised together - even in the wholesome tones of Julie Andrews - that warms my heart every time it happens, re-establishes a connection.

So I want to write about the little things - like spontaneous singing together - that warm me. Big things are great: going overseas, meeting famous people I have admired for years, getting awarded a degree, going to a wedding or seeing the nation united in a sea of yellow. But there are little things too, the proverbial "snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes" - just like the song people! - that also make my life silly and sweet.

So here, in no particular order, are my favourite things:

1.) Popcorn and cheese
When I have had a particularly long day (usually a particularly long few days), I curl up on my narrow residence bed under my north-facing window in the sunshine or the pink cast of the sunset, and have a few bowls of popcorn and cheese. Zama (my boyfriend's sister) first told me about this, and I thought it sounded a little odd. Until I popped myself a pot of kernels (I make things the old fashioned way) and cut a few slices of cheddar cheese and discovered it was my ideal comfort food. I suppose ideally the cheese would be grated, but I don't own one (the student life) so a nibble of cheese with a few popcorn kernels and I am all set to unwind.

2.) My Kindle
When I am curled up on my bed with popcorn and cheese in one hand to unwind, I always have a book clutched in the other. That is, until I acquired my *Kindle*. Every time I pick it up, I marvel at its brilliance. I hold it lovingly, I treasure and baby it in case anything happens to it and I take it EVERYWHERE (except Central Joburg. That would be silly). I read it in shopping queues, in the car, aloud to my boyfriend, and I marvel at its light weight. Everyone who experienced the horror of my bag this holiday will appreciate how many books I usually carry with me. Now, I can carry hundreds. If I were Jerusha, I would write an adoring, rhyming poem to it.

3.) Flossing
I only started flossing in earnest last year and I am never going back. My teeth got whiter, my breath got fresher everything just feels so much cleaner. If you don't like flossing, you haven't tried the right floss. Oral B is great, and so is Jordan. The others are distinctly unpleasant. Now go forth and try it yourself...You'll thank me when you're sixty-six and you don't lose your front teeth.

4.) Grilled Sardines on Toast
I recently became a pescetarian, and somehow, I really crave the oily fish. This is a Dad thing, as my father has had grilled sardines on toast at least once a week since forever. I used to turn up my nose at it, but now I relish the crunchy, oily deliciousness. Mmmm...

5.) Psalm 107 (King James Version)
Even if you aren't Christian or even religious, you can appreciate the music in these lines.
Psalm 107:9
For he satisfieth the longing soul,
and filleth the hungry soul with

6.) Long, juicy phone calls (skype or otherwise)
I believe birthdays should be celebrated, just so that you can hear from all your friends. The best presents I receive are the phone calls: chatty, joyful with a good dose of catch-up thrown in. Of course phone calls any other time of year are always welcome (I feel as though the thirst of my very soul is slaked) and - y'all know who you are - thank-you for every phone call I have ever received. It was special.

7.) Making cards and wrapping presents
This is a Mum thing. All the years I was at Rhodes, my Mum would send me parcels (wrapped up like a fortress) full to the brim with goodies. Whether it was food, clothes, books, an interesting card or newspaper article scrap, all the little bits and piece (and fights I had with the post office people) really enriched my time in Grahamstown. When my friend Marco made me a card last year for my birthday, I was so touched I decided to do a little spoiling of my own. It's a really rewarding kind of art, because it is the kind that you give.

8.) Napping in the sun
I read recently about a philosophy professor who believes that an afternoon siesta should be compulsory. Apart from renewing all one's senses, he says that it is a form of independence and rebellion against a mechanised society that, if it could, would squeeze every drop of blood from one. I don't often get the chance, but when I do, it does feel extremely luxurious. Perhaps even more so because I feel like I am emulating Hobbes (as in Calvin and).

I often think if we all listened to Hobbes (and all other sensible tigers and cats) life would feel a lot more luxurious. Especially in the little things.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

love and marriage in New York

A little while ago, I posted an incredibly powerful speech from In it, straight senator Dianne J. Savina from New York State was arguing for gay marriage. The bill allowing gay marriage was not passed, and as a result, every time someone told me America is the land of the free where you can become who you want to be, I gave a bitter little laugh.

And then I happened to glance at the Guardian online this weekend (I'm sure you can guess what my favourite online paper of the moment is) and I see that they have now passed the bill allowing gay marriage. To quote Jen Thorpe (feminist commentator and, if I'm not mistaken, ex-Rhodes student), "HOORAY!!!!"

Many couples lined up in matching suits or dresses to get married and there is a slideshow of eight photographs that made me get all warm and fuzzy inside. I was going to say that photograph number three is my favourite. It is a picture of Phyllis Siegel and Connie Kopelov, 76 and 84 years old respectively. They have just been pronounced wife and wife, and Phyllis is kissing an overwhelmed Connie's cheek adoringly whilst the friends and family smilingly applaud in the background. They have been together for twenty-three years.

But then I saw the next one, Myron Levine and Philip Zinderman (who is holding a little bouquet of flowers) striding out of the relatively ancient looking "New York State Building" together, holding their joined hands aloft and laughing. There is a friend on either side of the door, a man and a woman, preparing to shower them with rose petals. They may have been together for fifty-three years, but the expressions on their faces are as excited as any young newly-weds.

Douglas Robinson and Michael Elsasser have each other in a close-knit embrace, each head buried in the other's shoulder so that you cannot see their faces. When you look at their evident happiness, you don't need to. One women is leaping down the steps with her partner (perhaps she is dancing?) and her is flying out around her in excitement. There are two men in Business-type suits sitting in adjoining chairs. They are holding hands and the one is kissing the other's cheek, so coyly and lovingly that it makes me wonder whether a "blushing bride" is a term that is necessarily exclusively female.

These New York marriages, so long fought-for, arch over these couples like blessings, softening every line on their faces with love.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

for those who no longer have words

One of the stories that has haunted me (along with the rest of the world) is that of Anders Behring Breivik. The first photograph I saw of him showed me a good-looking man, some might even have said beautiful. He has well-defined bone structure, good skin and golden blonde hair with deep blue eyes. He was dressed as a policeman when he stood on a rock and beckoned the young adults, who were swimming around the island to come towards him. Even in South Africa, I believe, where many of us fear the police, he would not have seemed a threat. After all, for many people (Annelie Botes and Donald Trump among others), a brown skin is the first signal of danger.

There have been many articles about him: his extremism, his religion, his Islamaphobia and the possibility that he is clinically insane. He is living proof of the damage violent extremists do to everyone, even their "own kind" (whatever that is), the ones they profess to be protecting.

But he still has words and voices at his disposal. The dead do not. Their stories are the ones that need to be told.

When the people at the camp swam towards the handsome, beckoning "policeman", he opened fire on them, killing sixty-eight people. His bomb killed a further eight people (at last count). The number is equivalent to over two South African government school classes, or three private school ones. If you go to the Guardian Online website, you can see the pictures and read some information about the people who are dead or missing presumed dead to have been identified thus far.

There is one man (barely a man, he is only twenty-three) named Gunnar Linaker. He has a roundish face and flushed skin that makes me think he was once part of a debating team. He positioned himself in front of the younger people (most of the dead are teenagers) to shield them. He survived the attack but died in hospital.

Hanne Annette Balch Fjalestad was one of the older people who died in the attack. She had come out to the camp from Denmark with her twenty-year old daughter. She also died protecting the younger ones, including her daughter, who survived. Hanne leaves beyond four children.

Ismail Haj Ahmed had appeared on "Norway's Got Talent". His picture is a publicity shot and he has a fresh Disney smile of an untarnished High School Musical star. His brother found his body on the rocks.

The photographs and the anonymous silhouettes where faces should be looks eerily like facebook: a group of smiling young people and a few of their parents. No doubt if the camp had a facebook group the album photographs would look something like it. Except that this is a group of people were put together because none of their smiling faces are alive anymore.

In South Africa - I am not sure why - when something bad happens to someone, even if we did nothing to cause it, we say sorry, perhaps because some hurts move beyond complex statements of compassion.

So I'm sorry.

I'm sorry.

I'm sorry.

I'm so sorry.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

blogger's block (and my soution)

The more I blog, the less I feel able to. In part, this may be a writer's problem. The words overwhelm one. How can one find the right words when there are no right ones? My experiences and feelings can never be teased out in language, the subtleties cannot be expressed. They can be hinted at, or expressed in a particular way but actually come to mean something completely different. Sometimes the life I want to describe seethes with vibrancy and infinite riches before my eyes and I feel clumsy and rough, having to shatter what I see in order to smear the oozing remains onto the page. And yet language does communicate. Having caught up on friends' blogs, I am enlightened and lifted and made to see differently. I am sure that sometimes my writings (if I work on them conscientiously enough) do the same.

It may also be because I flinch from the continuous sound (metaphorically speaking) of my own voice. Too often, debate or public speaking can become nothing more than a tirade of repetitive shock-slogans, and those who speak the loudest are the best heard. I maintain that one of the best ways to deal with Julius Malema is not to give him so much free publicity (although the recent publicity about his trust fund makes me thrilled). South Africa has so any wise people who are doing good work, why cannot we have their revelations on the front pages or discussed and picked over in the media? Perhaps, in part, because wisdom cannot always be arrived at in a headline or a twitter feed. I am uninitiated to the world of twitter, but it does make me shudder like the ancient, pedantic English teacher I'm sure I am on the inside. Even the name makes all my toes curl. "Twit" (as in Roald Dahl's "The Twits"), or to "twit" someone has never been a good thing. Perhaps the joke is on us: millions of people signing up for the right to be called a "twit-ter".

As I just illustrated (most effectively to myself), I can easily be betrayed into a tirade. But what is the difference between an educated, interesting opinion and a tirade? At what point do my opinions stop trying to effect good in the world and turn into statements designed to wound and simultaneously make myself look self-righteous and superior? I am sure many people can come up with pithy statements on twitter, just as many people write, um, not-so-pithy things.

Perhaps I do sometimes betray myself into wounding rather than challenging constructively, but what I do love doing (without regrets, although I always wish I could describe them better) in these blogs is telling people's stories. There are such interesting people walking by me every day that when life slows down a little (or when I slow down enough to stop and really see) I have really nourishing encounters.

I've just been on holiday to three different provinces (KwaZulu Natal, the Eastern Cape and Mpumalanga) and what really struck me was the wonderful men I met. Feminists are not completely round the twist when they say that we still live in an unequal society. Female lecturers at Wits (for example) are more often that not paid less than their male counterparts. I also meet women (more often than I would like to) who still do all the housework and cooking despite the fact that both partners have full time jobs. Then there are also men who are brought up with very specific ideas about what masculinity is, and when they are unable to fulfil these expectations, are left feeling emasculated and angry. Sometimes this can make women (myself included) and men bitter about the state of gender relations.

Yet on this holiday, I found so much evidence of men who were negotiating this world with such verve and sensitivity that I have returned feeling inspired. There are two of the men I went to school with, Richard and Malcolm. I saw them on the last leg of my trip as Malcolm was getting married (what a beautiful wedding and a meaningful and thought-provoking marriage service). Richard cooked a few delicious meals for all of us, and always treated his girlfriend, Tarryn with the utmost respect. He is endlessly curious and energetic, always wanting to learn more about all of us and what we are interested in, never arrogantly dreaming that he knows everything or intimating, however subtly or unconsciously, that he would be smarter because he is a man(despite being a really talented computer scientist). He reminded me of how important it is to be curious about everything, and how much more you can learn and grow because of it.

Malcolm, who was getting married to his wonderful wife, Jess, made clear throughout the ceremony and reception that he was so fortunate to be getting married to such a special person. The absolute love and respect he has for his wife, and the fact that he was unashamed to show the enormity of his emotion was an incredibly beautiful thing to see.

Then there is Markus, a bird and mammal guide extraordinaire. He made me think almost all the time: openly challenging me to be sharper, more aware and even more moral. "Moral" is a bit of a self-righteous word, but hang in there. It's because he listened closely to whatever I said, and pulled it apart. I had fallen into the habit of speaking unthinkingly, and of saying (among other things), "I promise" when I wanted to emphasise a point, implying (as he rightly said) that what I usually said was untrustworthy or not worth listening to. As a language person, thinking about how I use language before I say anything is immensely important. Language is powerful. Travelling with a wildlife guide also made me more aware of how much I miss all around me every day. I walked to work through Wits campus (the centre of South Africa's biggest city) the other day actually looking for birds and I found the kind of strikingly beautiful birdlife I only dreamed was possible in game parks. I have been walking around half-blind.

This blog is for those men who do make a better way forward in this "monstrous and wonderful, banal and bizarre, ordered and chaotic"* world. It's also for my boyfriend, the intensely private man who I haven't described in detail here, but who is living proof for me every day that men and women do not always have to tear at each other, but can nourish and better each other in every infinitesimal way.

Monday, June 13, 2011

teaching about the blacks

I am a tutor and the other day I had a bit of a rave at my South African poetry students that I thought I should share with the world (or the part of the world that reads my blog). It was about how one talks about race in texts that reference older mindsets, and (because these things always spill over into real life from literature) how we use or refrain from using, the leftover prejudice language in everyday situations.

Me: What's with the blacks and the whites, folks? I feel like I am talking about playing cards or some alternate graphic novel universe with warring art-deco, mechanical mafia clans. Surely in this day and age (unless you are being ironic) one should talk about Black people and white people? It's like talking about the gays. How much more can one objectify a group of people? I mean, you wouldn't talk about the "Amy"s, you would talk about the tables.

I have clearly not made my point however, as some still talk about the "blacks" and "whites" in their essays, even when there is no such objectification (ironic or otherwise) in the text. They just put quotation marks around them. So I need to get it through to them a little better.

I got my other point about race across to everyone perfectly clearly. I'm sure it will remain crystalline in their minds. Some of my tutlings (they were writing about Herman Charles Bosman) wrote about the "kaffirs" (which are written just like that in the stories) but without quotation marks. If you are referencing an older, more conservative time directly, one needs to quote this word in context and acknowledge its inherent ugliness, but they just inserted quite happily in their arguments with barely a shudder. I was able to illustrate to them - using, I think, one of my more memorable illustrations of a point why (apart from the obvious) one would not use incendiary and prejudicial terms in formal arguments. It went something like this:

Me: I mean, you wouldn't talk about the motherfuckers in your test unless you were quoting directly from the text would you?
Class: scattered laughter and a one or two gasps. A few light-bulbs go on.
Me: (smiling serenely and thinking, "won't forget that one will you?")

So if anyone can think of a similarly pithy example of why one should not talk about the blacks and whites, I would be eternally grateful. Maybe I will inflict it on next year's batch...

Thursday, June 2, 2011

I'm coming out of the closet...

For me, telling people I'm a Christian is like coming out of the closet. It's liberating to tell the truth about myself, but there is always that chance that people will turn away, repulsed by the thought of what I do (or what they think I do) in the privacy of my home or church. There's sometimes a sense that I can do what I like as long as I don't do anything in public, where others may be disgusted by my displays of affection for the one (or in my case the One) I love.

In other cases, even being a Christian in the privacy of my own home is too much for people. It is deemed morally reprehensible and irresponsible: I must acknowledge that I am deluded and more importantly, be prevented from spreading my delusions and my lifestyle to society at large. At least Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens think so. Much of society is not Christian friendly. And yet, a friend of mine is an atheist, and she has experienced the exact same thing. Her family ostracize her, and friends look on her with patronising pity. Another fellow blogger, a Muslim, has also expressed the belief that society is Islamaphobic (I actually agree with him there. Even in England - the least racially polarised place I have been so far will come out in full force to defend their cities against some kind of "Islamic Invasion").

So it seems no one is safe. We're all being targeted by society. But if everyone is being targeted by society, who is left in the society to other us? It appears it is no particular group that started all the hatred. It is rather, people in general who find a particular channel for hatred and exclusion.

An atheist would argue that it is the fault of religion for causing such divisions. If I wasn't Christian, the Muslim fundamentalist would have no problem with me because I would not be Christian, and the fundamentalist would not be Muslim. We would be siblings on this earth with no divisions...except for our different race, class, culture, sexual orientation, language and gender.

We are all different, religious or not. Sweeping away religion will not change us into accepting human beings, living together as one. Christopher Hitchens is an atheist but that does not stop him from being misogynist, as his pompous declaration that women aren't funny proves.

Obviously religion can divide people violently against each other and commit great evils. Churches burn Korans and legislate violent anti-homosexual legislation, and Muslim states stone adulterous women and prevent anyone from worshipping any other gods.

It is not religion however, that causes the major wars, but greed and a will to power. The First World War was a mess of countries trying to out do each other and prevent smaller countries from gaining independence. The Second World War was caused by the problems of the first and race hatred. Even so-called religious wars are frequently run through with longing for riches, self-determination or power. I'm over-simplifying the causes more than a little, but anyone can see the Crusades were not just Christians going out to defeat the "infidels" and convert or kill.

In its best form, however, religion unites. When I go to church on Sunday, I am amazed by the cross section of people sitting in the pews. People of all colours, ages, and fashions, heck even people of different beliefs. I seldom - if ever - see gatherings of this diversity anywhere else. Even at universities, the most liberal pockets of our society, there is a narrow age range and of course, a group of people who are school-book smart. There are no plummers or factory workers, shop assistants or floor cleaners who associate with students on equal footing. Our still-present apartheid land act ensures that not many churches include people of all classes and races, but the church I attend in Braamfontein, next to the university and across the bridge from a taxi rank, is home to people of all sorts. We all say the same liturgy, sit in the same pews and drink from the same cup. We all have to admit publicly, that all of us are equal in the eyes of God. Anyone who has ever worshipped in a mosque, synagogue, temple, outdoor circle or church may have experienced something like this.

One of my favourite illustrations of the nature of prejudice rather than the nature of religion is a series of documentaries made in the 1950s on apartheid that you can find on Youtube (riveting stuff).

Two priests are interviewed. One is a Dutch Reform priest, and he asserts that reasoning behind apartheid is in fact written in the Bible. The second looks like an Anglican priest, and he states that if one is a true Christian, apartheid is completely opposite to Christian morals.

I am still a baby Christian, it is true, and not an orthodox one. I am wrestling with my own problems with this exhilarating, nourishing and incredibly complex thing called faith. But what I know for sure is that it is human prejudice, and not considered, questioning, meditative faith or morally grounded unbelief that causes people to hate and fear one another. It is people who are evil, and use religion or militant atheism for their own means to power. They play on many people's innate prejudice and fear. Anyone who ever looked at the bank account of Richard Dawkins or a charlatan preacher or seen a poor religious militant's heady sense of power over his followers could see why.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

I didn't vote...but perhaps I should have

I have a confession to make. I did not vote in South Africa's municipal elections. But before you start stoning me, hear me out.

I feel a fair amount of guilt over this (yes, I know feeling guilty doesn't make it better. Keep reading, I'm getting there). I know that women fought to get the vote: literally fought. They starved themselves in prisons, went on marches, got themselves dragged behind horses and avoided censuses to show that they wanted to be counted in the most important way: to have a one person one vote policy. I am a woman, people struggled so that I could vote.

I also know that apathy is a serious problem. Many people sit and complain, or drink and complain or act irresponsibly and for the detriment of others, thinking that someone else will fix the problems. People should get actively involved in the problems plaguing their communities. The problems in the education systems, the corruption, the inefficient billing systems and the lack of real change for South Africa's poor are problems we all need to lend a hand in fixing. I read an article that said the number of poor white people has doubled since 1994 (to 3.6% of the white population) which is horrible. In 1994, 50% of the black population was poor. That statistic has not changed. I don't doubt we need our government to do a better job. I didn't decide not to vote because I am apathetic. I just think my voting isn't going to do that.

The problems I have detailed above are - undeniably - a fault of the almost fifty years of apartheid, and the ANC, who rules and has ruled most of South Africa since 1994 and is therefore responsible for the failures. Corruption is rife (as we have seen with endless Arms Deals and first-class tickets to Switzerland for "personal reasons" paid with taxpayer's money)and the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. The party who claims to cater to South Africa's poor clearly doesn't. Despite what Julius Malema may say about how much he donates to poor children.

So I should vote the other big alternative: the DA, right? ANC bad, DA good. That the DA had to be ordered to court before they would enclose toilets means that they don't seem to care about South Africa's poor either. This toilet saga was a big deal. And after seeing the pictures, I understand why. I thought "open toilets" meant a long drop rather than a flushing toilet. Turns out, an "open toilet" is flush toilet built in the back yard, practically springing out of the grass. As most households in poorer areas don't have walls, that means that to go and take a dump means doing so in full view of the neighbourhood. Way to go for fostering a sense of dignity. That the ANC built similar toilets doesn't make the DA any better: if anything, it links the two in disappointing ways.

And I've been to Cape Town. The DA may have had a multi-racial campaign (for which I applaud them) but in practise, Cape Town is the most racially divided, class-conscious place I have ever been to, and that includes Festival Mall in Benoni. Perhaps I shouldn't blame the attitude of the municipality on the DA, but South African author Ivan Vladislavic made a pertinent point:

"One of the things to be said about the Soccer City stadium is that it serves Soweto and is the home of soccer for many black supporters. It’s significant I think that this particular stadium has been upgraded and is being used for both the opening ceremony and the final game. The stadium in my area, Ellis Park, is traditionally a rugby stadium, although it has been home to one of the local soccer teams for the last few years.

By contrast, the Green Point stadium in Cape Town always felt like an unnecessary expense to me. Cape Town didn’t need a new stadium, certainly not in that part of the city, in my view. The money would have been better spent upgrading an existing stadium and building some sports facilities in areas more accessible to the poor, to the city’s black population".

Once again, a fail on the DA's part.

So why should I vote if I don't believe my vote will change the status quo, no matter who I vote for? I believe an initiative like LeadSA will make more of a difference to South Africa than its government(s). In other words, ordinary citizens doing their part in every way will have to make this country better, because governments and political parties are (at the end of the day) sullied by empty electioneering and simply, politics.

I did vote in 2009, not because I believed in any of the parties (although I believe I had a little more faith in Helen Zille back then) but because I was doing my part to ensure South Africa did not become a one party state. Perhaps something can also be said for voting for a smaller party with a really good candidate, but then - I reason - why vote for someone who has no chance whatsoever of representation? How am I helping effect change (if indeed I believe the candidate would effect change when voted in) if the candidate will be swiftly forgotten after they lose by a landslide?

Another argument for going to the polls was that if you didn't like any of the parties, one should spoil one's ballot instead of not voting as a sign of protest rather than apathy (which is apparently, what not voting means). I think spoiling my ballot will only make the IEC believe I made a mistake and will not really send any kind of message (as fellow blogger Mohamed Fayaz Khan so eloquently argues).

So I am not - by any means - apathetic about what happens in South Africa because I didn't vote. I read the news obsessively and do my best to find challenging, literary material for those I tutor. I care very deeply and wish to make my mark by being a brilliant educator. I don't believe I can make my mark and change South Africa for the better by voting for someone who will not make the necessary changes.

But I've been thinking. Short of joining the DA or ANC and becoming the political change I wish to see (not exactly in my career plans), how else can I contribute to the running of the country besides by voting, even if for the lesser of two evils? Also, why shouldn't I get involved in my community as well as vote. Surely (as long as you don't believe that your civic duty is done for the next five years once you have cast your vote), the one does not preclude the other.

Recently, I know of two examples when voting did make a difference. In Knysna, a community voted for an independent councillor who broke away from the ANC because she wanted to effect real change. Perhaps she will now be free to uplift her community, unhindered by dirty party politics. Perhaps there will be other councillors like her one day in other communities.

The second example was when I took a little time out to sign a petition on Facebook. I never believed those did any good either, until the petition I signed - the petition against corrective rape in South Africa - had so many signatures it reached the attention of government and the media. Sometimes something as simple as signing your name or (dare I say it) crossing a cross on a ballot can make a positive difference, or at least create awareness of a problem that may one day lead to its solution.

I do know also that voters' queues bring people from all walks of life together to cast their vote: one of the few times when South Africans unite. Perhaps for this reason alone, I admit I was mistaken and - despite my reservations - will go to vote next time.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Earthlings and the disappearence of bees

I've been writing blogs for weeks, although none of them have been published. The problem is that I can't figure out how I want to say what I want to say. I have seen some disturbing material over the last few weeks, have had some transcendent experiences and even started writing a descriptive short story involving a harpy.

Perhaps the problem is that the things I want to write about make me so angry I don't know how to articulate the point without baring my rows of shark teeth and scaring everyone away. This isn't even a good analogy (see my writers block???). I don't mind scaring people (in fact, I positively enjoy it. Everyone needs a good scare sometimes) it's that I don't want to sound like I'm whining because how does that change anything.

Take Earthlings. It is a documentary dubbed "the vegan turner" because the footage of slaughterhouses, puppy mills (you think I'm joking? Where do you think those pet shop puppies come from? Some nice lady with a big garden and a dog who has a whoops every few months?) and fur farms are so graphic they made me want to be physically sick. Joaquin Phoenix (the narrator of Earthlings) keeps intoning that if we had to kill our own animals we would all be vegetarian. This is a silly statement. Human beings are the ones who watch chickens and pigs in overcrowded stalls get cage madness and eat each other (and then we eat the cannibalistic animals: healthy living, folks) and who skin (and by that I mean pull off the skin and fur from the tail over the head, not shave it off like you would a sheep) live animals so that the viewer sees shots of a muscle and bone bloodied animal blinking.

Many people don't want to watch it because they don't want to become vegetarian, they don't want to be put off their meals. The problem is that the meal was off before they got to it. I mean, eat meat if you want to, but know where what you are putting in and on your body came from. I suppose it all boils down to what you can live with (or in this case, what pigs can live with, which is a lot. Most of them are still alive when they are boiled and then when their gristle is burnt off them with a blow torch. Farms sure ain't what they used to be like when babe became a sheep-pig).

When I write that, my hands go cold and I can hear a roaring behind my ears. I understand that some people don't think of animals as equal to people and that we are omnivores and should be eating meat. I even see that some people don't care that animals live in a constant state of excruciating pain from the time they are born because they are "just animals". I don't agree with it, but fine. Even on this most egocentric level however, we should not be eating animals killed in this condition because it is really bad for our health (never mind that of millions of sentient beings who live in terrible pain. Deep breath: take it from the anthropocentric perspective...) It's also(but we all know this right?) really bad from the planet. Too many cows=methane=bad?

We all know we're messing up the planet but I read of another disturbing trend. Bees are disappearing in entire hives (called Colony Collapse Disorder) because of a strange disease no one understands. Some have said it is owing to mobile phones, others say it is caused by insecticides. Either way, we've caused it and it will bring big problems. No more bees=no more pollination=very bad.

Albert Einstein said "If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live". I can only hope we can begin to fix this mess.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Today I feel almost ridiculously happy. Someone is having a post-graduation party just down the hall from me and I can hear the cheesy music practically making the floor vibrate. Apart from the fact that is so nice to hear someone having fun in this ghostly residence, Graduations make me happy. This week, I've seen women walking carefully over the uneven paving in shiny black high heels and a whole family - red cheeks from the cold - sitting on a low wall and laughing together: from grandpa and granny to grandchildren newly graduated. Everyone is dressed to the nines and looking breathlessly proud.

Then there is the fact I have just done my aerobics dvd. If you've read my ridiculous post, you'll understand why it makes me so thrilled. Even better, it was free, from Women's Health Magazine. I have so much respect for this publication: even if it is just because they published an article on intersexual people in one of their first issues. There is only so much one can read when it comes to health issues before you start guilt-tripping or the information starts being repeated, but if you want a magazine that gives you sensible health advice, delicious recipes (rocket, strawberry and goats cheese salad soaked in balsamic vinegar with salt and black pepper anyone?) and the occasional free aerobics dvd, then Women's Health is it.

I also had a really productive day. I am planning for my classes and am feeling really excited rather than overwhelmed, which is a very. good. thing. I have two classes of twenty-five students each, and I see them twice a week. There are no happy tutorial sheets prepared by the department. One just arrives and - in theory - answers questions that students have prepared. I envision myself making completed lesson plans and making this the most educational experience for them EVER. I need to channel some Zoe with the guru-ness that is Lumumba.

I did a teensy bit of thesis work too. I am now defrosting my fridge. I have never done this before. In the digs at Rhodes University, our fridge was almost warmer than room temperature. I think biologists would have found really interesting plant matter growing along the sides and in the darkest corners of the drawers...but this fridge froze over when I was away for a week. I ate cup of soup tonight because all the nourishing food I could eat is frozen into the freezer. This has still not dampened my mood. I feel like an adult now. Defrosting my own (well, it's sort of mine) fridge...

And I'm catching up with far-away friend Indra tonight.

Sometimes it's the little things...

Thursday, April 7, 2011

the second-hand book

At Wits University, wedged between a parking lot and the wide green lawns is a great library that houses row upon row of Africana (i.e. books by Africans of various descriptions). It is called the William Cullen Library and was the first library to be built on campus. There are high ceilings and book-cases set against the walls that you have to climb up stairs to get to. It reminds me a little of the beautiful Port Elizabeth library with the statue of Queen Victoria that still holds her position in front of it (I can't say it welcomes you. Queen Victoria is very severe).

Back to William Cullen: there is a brightly-coloured painting spanning almost the whole of one wall that depicts a kind of magic-realist South Africa. Colonisers arrive in strange masks, and animals people the landscape, larger than the ships sailing in from the horizon. The trees are abundant with fruit, and the San and Khoi mingle with the settlers, who seem very settled already in this surreal landscape. There is night on one side of the painting and day on the other with the ocean surrounding the land on both sides. I hope many people studying at the long tables have happened to glance up and notice this singular artwork.

One of my (other) favourite things about this library is the bathroom. The Wartenweiler Library (which is now the main library) has chip-board cubicles and basins set so close to the cubicle doors that it's really difficult to move in there. It is also windowless and has that distinctively unpleasant closed-in public bathroom smell.

When I step into William Cullen, it is as though I have stepped into another world because it is so old. The fittings are all made of thick porcelain and are cleanly white and solid-looking. The doors are made of varnished wood and the windows let dappled sunlight into the airy room. There is even a a long, dark-wood table set into the wall with chairs in front of it. I feel like I should adjust my hair net and hat and perhaps touch up on my lipstick while having a good gossip with similarly attired friends, rather than adjust my backpack and twenty-first century jeans.

What really entrances me is that they have a small selection of books for sale: all R5. I am a compulsive book buyer, and I had sorted through them for weeks (finding Dame Edna Everage's Bedside Book amusing but not necessary) before I came across one that caught my eye and generated a tumult of conflicting thoughts. The first is called "Readings in South African English Prose", compiled by A.C. Partridge of the University of Pretoria and it was published by Van Schaik in 1941. It is a first-edition and looks impeccable, but more importantly, it was a present: "To dear Dad Love from Marj, Xmas 1944".

Second-hand books with inscriptions, (particularly old-fashioned, spidery ones in that good-quality black ink) make the cockles of my heart warm (I've been reading Dickens recently, can you tell?). The pages are thick and yellowing, and the preface is cringingly full of terms like "native mind" and phrases like "For whilst it is no doubt true that all good literature is universal". Nevertheless, it was someone believing in the literature of the country enough to compile a book about it. All the writers are white (Sol Plaaitjie was clearly not English enough)but there are a host of names I had never heard before along with other more familiar ones. Olive Schreiner, C. Louis Leipoldt, Lady Anne Barnard, Thomas Pringle and Kingsley Fairbridge among others are included.

The inscription was what decided me to buy it: "To South Africa, and all its people of both races, this book is dedicated, in the hope that enlightened co-operation may soon be at hand".

An academic from Pretoria (never a city with a reputation for housing liberals) produced a book - in 1941 - with an inscription like that. It made me really excited and yet at the same time made me a feel desperately sad for wasted potential. Just seven years later, all those hopes were dashed for almost fifty years with the introduction of institutionalised apartheid. I wondered if A.C. Partridge had lived to see the end of apartheid, and what he was doing so that his hopes about "enlightened co-operation" may be realised.

Then, I thought a little more and read a little more into the book. He says "both races". Back then, the all-inclusive term "black" had not come into usage to describe everyone who was not white. So, there are then several races in South Africa. Why does he say "both"? I then realised (in this collection of "South African English" prose that proves the English are as South African as their Boer counterparts) that there are two white races. Is he talking about less enmity among whites in a new white super-era? I mean there is a section in this book titled "Native Sketches". But the ANC was originally titled "South African Native National Congress", so in the past, even black people called themselves "natives". In what year did this term become questionable? Have I purchased a questionable book?

And then I relaxed and gave myself a mental slap on the wrist. I was reminded of my trip to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford when I confronted the curator with the fact that the labels on the anthropological artefacts were completely outdated, "Native Rhodesian Drum" for example. She smiled patiently and explained to me that the labels (made by the curators or explorers at the time the object was found) are historical and anthropological objects in themselves. They reflect a part of history that should not be forgotten.

Being politically correct can lead to missed opportunities for knowledge and a more complete understanding of the subtlties of the past. I think I will learn as much by reading the prejudices and baby steps towards understanding of the compiler as I will about the decades of South African English engagement that have been compiled. Perhaps I will even breathe in something of the spirit of the man who received it as a present in 1944. And I could never get such an experience from between the matt-finish covers of a new book from the morally fortified shelves of a new bookshop.

Nor could I buy it for R5. Reading (and buying) second-hand books really is an affordable education.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

the bus: waiting

Seven hours. It's the amount of time I (and my friend Gwynlyn along with a few other Rhodents, i.e. Rhodes Students) spent on a pavement on the shady side of Grahamstown, waiting for our first bus in first year. We had packed everything in our wheeled suitcases, Gwynlyn had been told to buy enough sweets to feed an army by the Livingston (her res) girls so thus arrayed, and gigglingly happy to be going home and having an adventure, we walked down high street to the bus. We met a few other happy first years also waiting for the bus and we all sat on the pavement and got started on our bus food (and on Gwynlyn's bus food which became our treasure trove in the hours to come).

7.30pm (the departure time) came and went, and my paranoid mother got very worried about her poor darling sitting down on the street opposite the Frontier Hotel in all its decayed, seedy glory. The street is also frequented by truckers, buses, drunks from "The Copper Kettle" (the dodgiest bar in Grahamstown) and street kids who try their luck for some money every now and again. She phoned every hour to see what had happened, and it had broken down in Port Elizabeth. We were told it would be coming in the next hour every time so - not wanting to be left behind - we stayed on that pavement, wrapped ourselves in blankets, ate yet more food and chatted about absolutely everything. When the bus eventually did arrive, it was close on 1.30 am.

Translux eventually shortened their arrival time over the years. The next time I caught a bus it was only five hours late. I have also had to wait three hours, two hours...when it got down to one hour I was really impressed. These days, the Translux bus comes exactly on time and they even have a kind of bus host or hostess like they do on Greyhound, rather than leaving the eccentric range of driving teams (there are always two drivers on the bus for those who don't know) who man the buses to handle the frequently irate and edgy passengers.

Waiting in small towns is always interesting because there is never a station, just a landmark that frequently ceases to exist. So in Grahamstown, you are told you have to catch the bus at the "Conference Centre" (which is actually the worn-down Frontier Hotel), and in Port Shepstone, you have to catch the bus at the "Spur" which closed down and has been half-way demolished for the past two years. I was fascinated the first time I took a bus from a city (Greenacres Mall in Port Elizabeth) and there was a little room with chairs. Even more fascinating is the bigger cities where they weigh your suitcases before you get on. I really appreciate travelling by bus because you can have super-heavy suitcases and you never have to pay extra. Useful knowledge for avid readers who like to take an extra few books "just in case" and come back with a few more they managed to find wherever they were visiting (I don't know why I'm even talking in the third person. The person who carries and then acquires an additional library wherever she goes is me).

Park Station was my most pleasant surprise. I was nervous because one always hears terrible stories about that side of Johannesburg. But the scariest person there was a gaunt white man wearing baggies and slops (in the middle of town!) and smoking a cigerette ominously. The scariest bus was Roadlink, which we could hear squealing from miles away as it pulled into the station. It was leaning to one side. This was several months after they were pulled off the road and then allowed back on again after all the accidents. Hmmm... I caught the bus at 8pm, and the station was clean, quiet and relatively empty. Everything worked really efficiently and it felt a little like an airport. It is when you get outside to where the buses stop that it feels like chaos. There are lanes stretching almost as far as my eye can see and you have to find where your bus is when you walk out. There is a thin, coloured woman with a loud, activist's voice who gets on every bus before it leaves with shiny pamplets and AIDS ribbons who makes requests for donations for the shelter she is involved in.

Most of the time (these days) I take the bus from Pretoria station. The first time I caught the bus there, I had to catch a cab and then wait a few hours by myself for the bus to arrive. My friend at TopCD (a Venda prankster called Shevon who is contually astonished by the fact that I am a white person who doesn't hate black people. Pretoria: it'll do that to you). She looked at me and said, "Ooh, Pretoria Station is not a nice place for a little white girl like you".

When I got out of the cab, I was clutching all my possessions to me and looking as forbidding and streetwise as I could. Actually, Pretoria Station is like a particularly fascinating market. For a start, it is outdoors with a few extended rooves, and some benches. You can wait for the bus whilst savouring the sun on your face. There are hawkers lined up waiting for buses to take them back to Zimbabwe or Zambia with the largest hessian bags you have ever seen filled with necessities to take home. There are chip and sweet sellers who sell those ones that - urban legend has it - make your intestines expand they are so unhealthy. Enterprising teenagers and men in the early twenties have shopping-trolley like vehicles on which they load bags to help over-burdened passengers. I can perch myself on my suitcase and lose myself in the book I have brought along, conscious of the chatty, industrious movement of people bustling around me.

My favourite moment however is always the moment when the bus has arrivied and I can get on. Soon - I know - familiar landscapes will be flashing past me and I will be on a journey that will contain both the solid sense of the ground I cover from place to place that is so sadly absent on a plane flight and sights of the vastly different environments we travel through. The adventure will begin.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

the bus: seat mates

Next time you are looking for an interesting place to go, get on a bus. It doesn't matter where you are going or which bus service you use, it is the bus trip itself that is so interesting. I travel on the Wits bus sometimes, and it is usually crowded. It was unsurprising that today there was only standing room for me. As the bus took off (like a space shuttle! I wish...) I happened to look down at an Indian girl typing an sms. She was a little round, but prettily so, with long dark hair falling thickly over her shoulders and dull-gold eyeshadow accentuating the slanting shape of her eyes. What caught me however was her rapidly changing facial expressions as she typed the sms. Her face was flirting. She gave little half-smiles and her lips formed words sometimes. Her fingers moved rapidly across the keys, and the clear pleasure at saying something clever and attractive and a little naughty was so plainly written on her face I couldn't help but be fascinated by this intensely personal exchange that was happening - strictly speaking - with the cellphone clutched between her fingers. People - for me - are always interesting, even if I never exchange a word with them. Admittedly, seat mates are not always pleasantly interesting. I sat next to a man once who carefully decanted brandy and coke into one glass after another as he steadily became more talkative and intrusive. Even in sleep he intruded on my space as his body sprawled outwards onto my seat, pushing me into the aisle. I spent the night fitfully, eventually pushing his partly comatose form back onto his side. The most important etiquette on a long bus trip is to give the person next to you their space. Unless it is impossible, as happened on a Cityliner bus trip I was on once during the Translux strike. The seats were so small and the bus so packed that the black woman sitting on the aisle seat had to strap herself into keep from falling off. It was so uncomfortable, we could do little more than dose, and woke frequently in the night to have long conversations I don't remember now. Not all intrusions are an affront. A blonde, handsome teenager sat next to me on his first bus trip and after asking me what grade I was in (not the best start) turned out to be really friendly and a biltong-maker. After a long chat (and an attempt to buy me some food from one of the garage stops) he said he was going to sleep and promptly settled himself on my shoulder. He clearly had no idea one doesn't sleep on strangers' shoulders in buses. I felt strangely protective of this naive boy who happily placed his sleep (such a vulnerable activity in a public space) in my hands. Foreigners (I've discovered) love to act with chivalry (or something) and often buy me food despite my numerous and vehement protestations. A sweet, silent Mozambican returned from the garage once with a coke for me without us having exchanged more than a few sentences. Another foreigner (I think he was Nigerian) bought me a jar of Lays Stax and offered me a job working in one of his uncle's clothing shops after a lengthy conversation about the nature of business in South Africa. There was another girl - friendly and self-assured - who spent most of the bus trip telling me how wonderful being a Jehovah's Witness was, and probably trying to convert me. We got on so well (chatting over her well-thumbed bible) that we even exchanged numbers but neither of us ever kept in touch. Some passengers want your number for no good reason. There was a large black man from Durban who I spotted talking to the only other white girl on the bus when we stopped for a midnight break at a garage. She left, and he then started talking to me. Quite early on in the conversation he asked for my number because he said he wanted to be my friend. I managed to convince him that although he looked like a friendly person, I am not in the habit of giving out my number. He finally gave a great laugh and said that he would ask me again when he got off the bus in Durban. I half expected him to follow through, but thankfully he left without a murmur in my direction at Durban Station. There was also an over-confident, thin white boy from Grahamstown who tried to get my number and get me to commit to going out with him after we got there. His pick-up line logic needed a little work. He began by telling me that he believed beauty was on the inside (no really, he did believe it). Only a little later (after he discovered I have a boyfriend) he said sadly, "All the pretty girls are always taken". I was flattered but almost disappointed at the ease with which his lines were shown up. I've had to entertain a little red-headed eleven-year old (thank-goodness I've seen the Twilight movies or I would have been in trouble) for a whole day while her mother kept her satisfied with one snack after another packed with refined sugar; I listened to a mentally slow white racist rant halfway from Maritzburg; and listened to another white, sporty teenager tell us (a group of us sitting near the front of the bus) her entire life story, including the intimate details of her mother and sister's sex lives. Perhaps the most interesting conversation happened in the throes of Joburg traffic. I was talking to a Nigerian Cage Fighter about religion and anger management. He was suffering the most excruciating head pains from being on the bus for too long, and I was trying to keep him distracted by chatting. He said that he was a religious man, but also a hard-core cage fighter, and that he had issues with road rage. He said he actually got so far as to get out of his car once to remonstrate with someone but stopped himself before it was too late as he said he didn't want to cause any damage. Towards the end of our conversation, he smiled at me and said I was a good person. Sometimes truth really is stranger (and more fun) than fiction. P.S.- for some reason, my "enter" button refuses on register on the Wits server. Apologies for the whack layout.

Monday, March 14, 2011

promotheus (self-inflicted)

Emotion spills, gushes and congeals in corners, in clumps like tumours. I could - instead of my usual constructed arguments and careful blend of personal and social anecdote - throw out words like blood spatters, emptying out my too-painful entrails so that I would no longer need to bear the weight of them moving in my breast. They would make chaotic violent spatters, pulpy and odorous, sticky to the touch deeply and almost ridiculously red. How can I tell where one emotion begins and my thoughts end? Perhaps I will pull too much out by mistake, perhaps cause an explosion. My central skeleton would shatter, sharp fragments of bone thrown outwards to embed themselves in the page, the soft tissue of my lungs indistinguishable from the bloody mass. I would be left not only free of the pain but unable to breathe, a ghost unaware of the terrible, fibrous hole between the breastplate and the pelvis.

But by the time the words are read they would be the mundane colour of rust, dried out and flaking off. Crawling creatures in need of such vital sustenance will have consumed the more substantial clots, only a sour smell and something metaphorically insidious and intangible would remain.

I cannot feel whether it would be a relief to be rid it (how can it be qualified) or whether my internal organs would grow back in the night, excruciating and raw, ready to be torn out and mounted once again for display.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

astronomy lessons

Last Tuesday night, I made my way across to the Johannesburg Planetarium for the first "Introduction to Astronomy" course. I thought it would be about the same size as my Latin class at Rhodes: an older person who always wanted to learn this but never got around to it, some really smart students, maybe the odd science student dabbling in astronomy and me getting all misty-eyed about the awesomeness that is the Planetarium.

The courtyard was swarming with people: couples, students, solitary people trying not to look awkward in the throng, pensioners, married people holding hands as if the kids just left home and me, staring wide-eyed at the long queue in front of the registration table.

The course has been completely worth it. I have learnt about constellations, planets, eclipses (bookmark the 15 June, 2011. There is a total lunar eclipse and it is happening between 8pm and midnight), an idea of how big the universe is and how to find out when satellites will be crossing the sky. We also get to see fun little snippets NASA videos. There was one of a man trying to explain what zero gravity does to playing basketball (he could do five spins in the air before getting the ball into the basket. Which is actually quite tough in space as the ball just floats upwards out of the basket). There is another video about the different areas they could land their next Mars explorer: a robot called Curiosity. My favourite fact was that the wake-up call for astronauts on the space station is the Star Trek theme song. Life imitating art?

Sometimes, Astronomy even makes me think about other things that the stars and planets could teach us about life in general. What completely blew my mind last night was a little lesson on perspective and how two people can have a totally right, totally different answer, depending on the different places they are standing. If a person stands in the Southern Hemisphere, "looking up" (so to speak), the earth is spinning in a clockwise direction. If another person stands in the Northern Hemisphere, "looking down", the earth is spinning in an anti-clockwise direction. In other words, which way the entire earth is spinning depends on which part of the earth you are standing on. Learning this is - for me - one of the best examples to explain how the world is full of vastly differing yet almost all valid opinions: they are right from the perspective one has according to where one comes from. How can two people have different answers about which way the earth (the huge (compared to us) planet we live on) is spinning and both have the right answer? It is mind-boggling.

One has to say "almost" though. Every society or cultural group always has one or more (metaphorical) equivalents of the flat earth society. Some things can't be right no matter where you stand because the place where you think you are standing doesn't exist.

"Introduction to Astronomy": Learn about everything. No, really. Everything...

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

on book lists

One of the things that always fascinates me is what books make it onto "those" lists: those lists that send you scurrying away feeling mortified that you never read One Hundred Years of Solitude or Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance. I suppose I don't have a problem with most of what is on these lists: the books I have read were brilliant (except I couldn't finish The Lord of the Rings or Catch 22. Yes, that does make me a cretin). And books like Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code sneak into one or two of them. Sigh. The problem - for me - is what they leave off those lists.

A little while ago I got such a list on facebook. Apart from the annoying way they made "(36)The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe" and "(33)The Chronicles of Narnia" and "(14) Complete Works of Shakespeare" and then "(98) Hamlet" like they were mutually exclusive; it is the assumption that those books are the measure of a person's intelligence or erudition.

In some way, they (yes, "they" and "them": like the hegemonic publicity team of Exclusive Books who publish a must-have list at the end of the year that you have to pay to be on) are trying to tell me what to read. If I just followed those must-read lists, I would miss out on SO much. So I am going to write about some of the books that aren't on this list that are really worth reading (in my opinion. Not telling you what to read, I promise. Except for Country of my Skull. Hypocrisy can be worth it to say you have to read this book).

1.) Beloved - Toni Morrison

I picked up this novel one afternoon at about 3pm as I had bought it second hand at a flea-market I went to with my friend Marijke. I put the book down again at 11pm after having devoured every word. I was shaking with the powerful emotion and raw beauty that this novel of slave-era USA communicates. It is phenomenal because it describes the events in a way that left me deeply moved (I could say it rocked my foundations) and brought me to an awareness of the legacy of suffering that forms part of America's present.

2.) Poetry. by almost anyone. 'cause there is nothing on the list.

I am more of a prose girl myself. One of my biggest problems studying Wordsworth's The Prelude was that I kept falling asleep over it. I would - however - never cut out the poetry I have studied. Byron's Don Juan is a comic and satirical work of genius. Admittedly you have to know the background before you can appreciate it, but it is bawdy, sophisticated and beautifully written all at once. I am also sure Dr. Margot Beard had no small part in making it so wonderful for anyone who studied it.

Then there is the madness of William Blake; the quiet sublimity of William Carlos Williams and Sydney Clouts and the infinite sweetness of e.e cummings. Tennyson's "Maud" was a recent find for me: melancholic and densely evocative. Then there are those sticky Shakespearean sonnets and the holy trinity of metaphysical poets: John Donne, George Herbert and Andrew Marvell.

I'm sure you get the point: how can one leave out the poets???

3.) Country of My Skull - Antjie Krog

As I read it (for the second time) this past week, I couldn't help thinking that every white person should read this book, and possibly every other person in South Africa too. Krog weaves fictions about her own life and research and philosophical musings (at times agonised questionings) around the facts and stories of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in order for the telling of this story to be true, and the result is that each piece of narrative is like a beautifully wrapped parcel. I learnt so much about our country. Like the wages of black workers didn't change at all between 1911 and 1970. In fact, wages for black miners were less in 1972 than they were in 1911. The terms "minimum wage" takes on a whole new meaning after that. And when some black, female farm workers came to register to vote for the first time in 1994, they had no fingerprints because their hands had been worked smooth. It also shed some light on the sad state of the Eastern Cape:
1.) Queenstown had the highest number of necklace killings.

2.) Mdantsane is the second-biggest township in the country (bigger than the city it feeds, East London) and yet it has no library (that wasn't from the book. That was a scary fact from my old opera coach, Mkhululi, resident of Mdantsane).

3.) All the crazily-violent ex-army men (black and white) who came back to the country from service in Africa were hidden away in the Eastern Cape to work there. As a result, some of the most senseless torture and killing occurred in this area.

The book is a heady mix of violence and depression; anger and futility; hopefulness for the future and a complex exploration of everything surrounding guilt, complicity, reconciliation, compassion and fear. Most of all, what is a common thread is the importance in the healing proess of people being given a voice to tell their stories. I will leave you with the closing words of Lucas Baba Sikwepere from the Eastern Cape. He was shot many times for approaching the white van of a policeman and asking what was going on. He still has bullets lodged in his neck and face: some of them visible. He was a big man before he was shot, but now he has numerous ailments including excruciating headaches and has "lost all [his] body". He does not really know what he looks like now though, because he is blind.

"I feel what - what has brought my eyesight back is to come back here and tell the story. But I feel what has been making me sick all the time is the fact that I couldn't tell my story. But now I - it feels like I got my sight back by coming here and telling you the story".

Thursday, February 24, 2011

on (English) white liberals

Near the beginning of last year, a Mail and Guardian journalist named Verashni Pillay wrote a column called "The Indian Cringe List". Many people wrote in to say how much they enjoyed the column and its comedy with a pointed purpose, many of them white people. Then, just a few weeks later, she wrote a column called "Stuff White Liberals Say and Do". The same people who congratulated her on writing about Indian people turned around and wrote what borders on hate speech because she had dared to criticise the great white. I didn't have a blog back then, so maybe I would have written this in support a lot earlier. As with my moon cup blog, I suppose it is better late than never.

Even the words "white liberal" make me twitch a little with distaste, even as I admit that I am one. I wear African print skirts and I went on a march or two about human rights and Zimbabwe. I continue to try (unsuccessfully) to learn Zulu and I am writing my thesis on South African literature. So far so liberal, but these harmless pursuits are not what makes my skin crawl about being associated with (English) white liberals.

Firstly, the white liberals I'm talking about are (English) precisely because we are liberal towards everyone except Afrikaners. And Christians. And everyone who can't speak English "properly". And orthodox Muslims ('cause all Muslims treat women really badly). And "Twilight" readers. And black people who call us racist (we're not racist! We have lots of black friends) or black people who take "our" jobs. And people who associate us with fake white liberals who are just hiding under a veneer of liberality. And "stupid" people, which is pretty much everyone except me and my coterie of friends. But apart from that we are, like, totally accepting.

Let's start with first things first: Afrikaners (also known as "Dutchmen" or "Rock Spiders"). We all had to learn Afrikaans at school (most of us learnt it badly) but we don't really care because it's just Afrikaans. There are much more important languages to know, like English and Zulu and...all those other African languages (but English is still the most important because it is an "international" language). Afrikaans people legislated Apartheid so they are automatically more responsible for all racism. All English people just watched helplessly as atrocities were carried out and were not complicit at all. Even worse, Afrikaans music is kitsch, and Afrikaans people are probably not so smart because they say things like "jean pant" and "I'm going to frow you wif a stone".

Ditto black people with black accents. Trevor Noah has already covered this topic really well in his show, Daywalker. Nevertheless, it must be said that if our black learners or our black leaders mispronounce words (in their second, third, fourth or fifth languages) they also must be stupid and incapable of learning what they are taught or leading our country (in which the number of native English speakers tie joint fifth out of eleven official languages). Obviously English is the language of business and politics in South Africa, so politicians and businessmen must learn to speak English properly (because there is definitely a proper English that all proper English people speak all over the world and it all sounds exactly the same). I mean, when French businessmen or politicians conduct business in English with French accents it isn't because they're stupid, they just have a different international language. So, French people with accents are smart, it's just that Zulu people or people who speak...all those other African languages who have one of their accents when they speak English aren't smart (? oh dear! Moving on...)

It's like Christians, you know? They all believe that evolution is a myth and that dinosaurs are a conspiracy to test faith (they didn't really exist). I mean, how stupid can they be? It's almost as bad as that Mormon woman churning out Vampire romances that aren't even about proper vampires, they glitter in the sunlight. I mean that's so gay (not that we're homophobic! It's just a word...)

And Muslims are almost as bad as Christians. I mean, at least they don't hound us to try and convert us, but we know they treat their women really badly and they have a tendency towards fanaticism and bombing buildings.

Don't even get us started on black people taking our jobs. It's so hard to get a job now, and they will probably just give it to some unqualified buffoon for window dressing. I mean, life is hard, hey (takes another sip of beer and takes out blackberry to check new messages. Pulls Diesel jacket a little closer).

But seriously: I know putting unqualified people in jobs is a problem: the millions of unspent money in the Government Health Department is proof of this. I would still nevertheless argue that it was easier for me to get a job in retail last year than it would have been for a black woman with a black accent. I may not have diesel jackets or a shmart cellphone, but my rounded English tones and non-threatening short, white body ensure that my life (certainly) is really not that hard. At the same time, I don't wish to trivialise people's problems. Many families - white and black and all the shades and cultures in between - are struggling in the recession.

What I am really talking about is - in part - my own personal journey of self-realisation. I have held many of the prejudices I write about and have been embarrassingly ignorant about the complexity and variety within cultures other than my own. One of my earliest memories (I must have been about five) is telling my mother how I knew black people were all dirty and all criminals. She quickly put my young mind straight, but it makes me realise that racist propaganda was being pumped into my ears somewhere: whether it was at my beloved pre-primary school or at the houses of friends. Maybe a peer or an adult had instilled this belief in me, but either way I rattled it off because it made me a part of a group to hold the same (misguided) beliefs.

Some English white people are past and beyond my level of investigation into the nature of my inherited prejudices. A (fortunate few) never held these beliefs. There are - however - still too many (English) white liberals who fall into the kind of reasoning I have detailed because their prejudice binds them together in an exclusionary group where they feel a sense of belonging and superiority over others. Perhaps I should say "our prejudice binds us together in an exclusionary group" because no doubt I will continue to find more slippery and subtle prejudices and superiority complexes residing in my own breast that I will need to root out.

What makes it so difficult to change these habits is perfectly put by Karen Armstrong: most people (and I'm not restricting this statement to English white liberals) would rather be "right" than compassionate. Admitting one is prejudiced means admitting that one is wrong, or at the very least clumsily judging others. Never mind getting a job, this is one of the really hard parts of life: to go through this painful process and come out the other side a little less superior. But then, the less superior you are, the less hard it will get. And that is something to look forward to.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Krista Tippett: Reconnecting with compassion | Video on

Krista Tippett: Reconnecting with compassion Video on

A few people have asked what I am writing about in my thesis. I am writing about compassion and the haze of emotions associated with it. I can't write too much about it yet as it needs a lot of work before I can do such a complex and important ethic even the smallest bit of justice, but this TED talk inspired me and so I wanted to post it and get it out there, because it is lovely.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

what I'm reading

I've thought up the perfect description for how my eyes feel after staring at the computer screen for too long. They begin to feel like teeth feel when you wake up in the morning and (for whatever reason) you never brushed them the night before. There is that thin, unpleasant furry yet slimy sensation when your tongue runs along them. That is how my eyes feel now because I have speant the past few hours looking for intriguing blogs written by complete strangers to follow. I found surprisingly few. Maybe I am not looking well enough, but I found so many blogs that were little more than "watch this video of ...[include link to YouTube] hahaha. Or pseudo-poetry accompanied by stylistic/artistic photos of really thin models looking "pensive" (to quote the fabulously facile joke at Joey's expense in 10 Things I Hate About You. Dont you dare judge me for referring to this movie. It's wickedly cool: partly because the geek gets the girl without undergoing a geek-to-cool transformation. I mean geeks are cool already). Even the many SA politics blogs begin to annoy me. They all sound like Mail and Guardian articles. I love the Mail and Guardian the Mail and Guardian. Surely blogs should experiment with different styles?

Anyway, enough whining. The point is that I eventually did find a cool blog by Mridu Khullar Relph: an independent journalist from India. As I am a technological retard, I can't actually figure out how to follow her page, but I'm going to add it to my favourites and see how that works. I digress, the point is that she has a regular blog called "What I'm reading" that lists a whole host of things she is reading without the pressure of having to produce a formal book review on the particular book.

So, in the spirit of Mridu Khullar Relph,
What I'm Reading (or rather, what I've read this month so far):

The Devil's Chimney - Anne Landsman

I wanted to like this book. It is written by a South African woman, set in South Africa and is about South African women. It is a "magic-realist" text and is set in the Karroo, one of the most mysterious and eerie South African landscapes.

But I didn't like it. Anne Landsman lives in New York (since 1981). I only read this after I had put down the novel and had felt profoundly dissatisfied. Some of my dissatisfaction suddenly made sense because I felt like it was written like a white trauma-experienced-by-women-by-numbers text, not an intricate engagement with the subtlties of South African interactions, something which has to be experienced on the ground.

There were great moments and the effort to focus the text through a poor white, alcoholic woman with a rich imagination unschooled by academies was startlingly orginal. I started losing faith when it became more and more depressing (I don't mind difficult and depressing: I love J.M. Coetzee and Sello K. Duiker) but then ended with a unconvincingly happily: alcoholic woman embraces alcoholic abusive husband after forty (?) years of non-conversation after the (deeply movingly rendered) loss of their child. Because all the years of masculinity-issues abuse and dangerous drug abuse will suddenly cease because of a hug. Then there are some mystical black folk thrown in who have (equally mystical) relations to the San. Fail.

Thirteen Cents - K. Sello Duiker

This book - by contrast - was unremittingly disturbingly brilliant. It is the tale of a street kid in Cape Town who discovers just how soulless the city can be. The so-called liberal "gay capital" of South Africa is shown to be a misnomer: how gay-friendly is it when this kid makes a lot of his money having sex with in-the-closet, married businessmen who have no problem having sex with a thirteen-year-old? All his efforts at improving himself are betrayed by adults he should be able to trust and friends who constantly betray themselves because of crippling addictions.

One of the gang bosses enforced on him tells him his mother never loved him and that he (the gang leader) is the only one who ever did. Azure - the name of the protagonist - loves Cape Town: the "mother city" of South Africa. The novel shows that Mother Cape Town sure doesn't love Azure and other black people like him.

The Power Book - Jeanette Winterson

I love love this author. Really, words escape me and I am reduced to the gibbering idotish "I love love". I will just quote her and you can see for yourself how revolutionary (I mean that word in its best possible sense) she is. Hopefully, reading these quotes will direct you to her website full of insightful articles and prose.

"The heart. Carbon based primitive in a silicone world" (40).
"That's the size of [love], the immensity of it. It's not proper, it's not clean, it's not containable" (51).
"Did I write this story, or was it you, writing through me the way the sun sparks the fire through a piece of glass?" (209).

And finally, the favourite that I have placed at the top of this blog:
"The world is a mirror of the mind's abundance" (223).

Reading is a large part of what makes my mind abundant enough to see riches in the world. I can only hope that with time and reflection, it will only increase.