Monday, August 6, 2012

Walter Benjamin

I have a dilemma today as I really wanted to post but what I wanted to write about is not ready.  The reason for this is partly because I had the most marvellous weekend reading bits and pieces for my next thesis chapter about Ivan Vladislavic's Portrait with Keys.

This is therefore not so much a blog post as an introduction to a quite extraordinary writer I read in the process.  His name is Walter Benjamin.  He dabbled in many different kinds of writing (much about cities, which is why I am reading him) and his life was cut tragicaly short because he committed suicide rather than be captured by the Germans during World War II.  Go look him up and read his stuff: I find reading over his sentences is like running one's fingers over particularly beautiful jewels.  I introduce you to him via this quote about the imagination (which I hope will lead smoothly to the troublesome blog post about my writing):

*"the faculty of imagination is the gift of interpolating into the infinitely small, of inventing, for every intensity, an extensiveness to contain its new, compressed fullness, in short, of receiving each image as if it were that of the folded fan, which only in spreading draws breath and flourishes, in its new expanse, the beloved features within it". (75)

*Benjamin, Walter.  One Way Street.  Intro. Susan Sontag. Transl. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter.  Noldon: NLB, 1979.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Meet Dresden

Meet Dresden.  He is the Clivia who lives at the foot of the stairs.  A Clivia, in case you didn't know, is a flowering plant indigenous to Southern Africa and is quite simply gorgeous.  Clivias are also really good company because they do not like skulking around on your balcony.  They like to live in your house because the sun will burn their leaves and they go brown and shrivel up.  They thrive out of direct sunlight.  I discovered this because at first, I left Dresden out on our balcony keeping Mabelline company.  It didn't work out so good (sorry, Dresden).  He is much happier now, smiling up at us as we pass him on our way up and down the stairs.  And I know he is smiling because he is flowering bright orange flowers.  Duh.

Dresden is named after Harry Dresden.  Harry is a wizard from Jim Butcher's series, "The Dresden Files".  He is called Dresden because my friend Gwynlyn, who is obsessed with the Dresden files and can quote witty passages from it, gave the plant to us because we had her to stay over the holiday.  It was from then that Dresden joined our community of plants (a community which, at the time consisted of two).  The other is Mabelline, so named for the Chuck Berry song.  Except, unlike the song, Mabelline is remarkable true to us because she flowers even when we forget to water her every two days.  No, I don't remember what kind of plant she is, but I know bought her the last time I lived in Pretoria (2010).  I would maintain she has survived this long because I talk to her when I do get around to watering her.  It's the little things...

My plants really do feel like a family.  It might be because I have no pets, but I think it is also because it is actually really exciting when something is growing and changing in your house.  All you had to do was water it (and talk to it, a little, when no one can hear you) and then, voila!  The thing is flowering and growing new shoots and developing.  It's magic, I tell you.  I think you should go and get a plant too.  Maybe even a Clivia.  They're really good company.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

In honour of Mandela's 94th Birthday

Today in South Africa, everyone (and I really mean practically everyone) is celebrating Nelson Mandela's 94th birthday.  Everyone is celebrating the man, but more than that, they are celebrating what he stands for and what he represents.

Rather than explaining what exactly this is in my words, I would like to use some of his.  I could write a story about how this quote is relevant to me, or about the myriad of impressions I was receiving when I found this quote a week ago on the wall of the Nelson Mandela House Museum at 8115 Vilakazi Street in Orlando West, Soweto.

I think this quote needs no stories or any more of an introduction than the one I have given.  I would not want to shape the form it takes in your brain or in the way it affects your spirit.  All I can hope is that it settles in comfortably and enlightens and inspires you as much as it did me.

In judging our progress as individuals, we tend to concentrate on external factors such as one’s social position, influence and popularity, wealth and standard of education...but internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being: humility, purity, generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve your fellow men – qualities within the reach of every human soul.

Nelson Mandela in a letter to Winnie Madikizela Mandela, 1977.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

What I've been reading in June and July

When I’m reading, I like to be able to dip into a whole variety of things and mediums.  I read my kindle books on the Gautrain because they are so light.  I read my heavier (literally) volumes on the couch or in bed and then I am usually reading and then re-reading for my thesis work at my desk (or lying on the couch in the winter sun if I am feeling luxurious).   So the following is deliciously diverse...
Alberto Maguel’s A Reader on Reading (2010): I have been reading this volume (it is a kindle book), essay by essay for months after I bought this for my mother for Mothers’Day.  This man is erudite and well-travelled (and old) so he actually knew writers like Jorges Luis Borges and can write about their lives and work from a personal perspective.  He has fascinating things to say about the role of writers and their literature in society.  After feeling quite stifled and nihilistic about literary study sometimes, this writing renews my vigour and belief in the power, importance and ineffable pleasures of sustained engagement with literary texts.

Jonathan Franzen’s novel, The Corrections (2001) manages to convey some of that literary studies claustrophobia by beginning the novel from the perspective of Chip, a disgraced literary studies lecturer.  Before my non-literary readers run away screaming, let me assure you that the perspective continually shifts between Chip, his brother Gary, his mother Enid, his sister Denise and his father Alfred, who is suffering from Parkinson’s.  Alfred’s passages are perhaps the most difficult to read but also the most surreal; so much so that I had a nightmare last night stemming from one of his hallucinations.  Other parts of this novel are bitterly funny, sad or bitingly satirical.  This is definitely worth a read.

And (to quote Monty Python) Now For Something Completely Different, Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859).  Dickens is a tricky author.  He is anti-Semitic, drippingly sentimental and his characters are all clearly polarised: his good characters are angelic and his villains are very very bad.  Yet his descriptions are sheer comic genius, his characterisation unforgettable and his plots twist and turn and keep you quite enthralled.  Dickens, for me, is a good example of why you shouldn’t censor writers because they had prejudices nor canonise their every word and opinion. 

For my final magic trick, (or final thesis chapter, which sometimes feels as if it requires similar levels of dexterity) I have been re-reading Ivan Vladislavić’s Portrait with Keys (2006).  I am writing my thesis on three of his texts: The Restless Supermarket, The Exploded View and Portrait with Keys.  As I write on each one, I tell myself this must be my favourite.  Portrait with Keys is not a novel, but is rather a semi-autobiographical love letter to Johannesburg.  It is told unflinchingly in small and not-so-small incidences of kindness and violence, revealing forgotten corners and revelling in everyday detail.  I love this book because it seeps into your subconscious so that the next time you are walking or driving around what he has said will come back to you and you will have fresh realisations about ordinary things or ways of thinking you never really noticed before.

I recently watched Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris which is, among other things, about engaging with a city.  I loved a line by Owen Wilson’s character,

“You know, I sometimes think, how is anyone ever gonna come up with a book, or a painting, or a symphony, or a sculpture that can compete with a great city. You can't. Because you look around and every street, every boulevard, is its own special art form”.

Of course, Allen is writing about Paris or New York, and part of the beauty of those cities is that when we look at them, we are seeing them through the eyes of artists.  How then should we see a city that not even many tourist brochures immortalise?  I leave you with some words of Vladislavić’s to ponder.  Appropriately, he is comparing his own process of writing about cities to that of Dickens, one of the authors who immortalised London:

“Dickens was blessed to live in a city that offered the walker ‘miles upon miles of streets’ in which to be lonely and ‘warm company’ at every turn once his loneliness had been satisfied.  Moreover, to live in a city that collaborated enthusiastically in its own invention.  I live in a city that resists imagination.  Or have I misunderstood it?  Is the problem that I live in a fiction that unravels even as I grasp it?”*

*Vladislavić, Ivan.  Portrait with Keys: Joburg&what-what. Cape Town: Umuzi, 2006 (54)

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Check out these blogs...

So a little while ago, I explained that one of the things I have loved about winter is settling in and finding interesting things on the internet.  Some of the things I found through pure procrastination (which, after I found these blogs actually felt pretty productive retrospectively) and others were found in the thickets of brilliance on other blogs.

I faffed around on Facebook (and “faffing” – that over-fed sounding word – is exactly what one does when one sits and scrolls down the news feed of every photograph and half-explained status (“What do you want from me?” or “I will never forgive you for all the things you said. #sohurt”.  What is with that????) when one could be doing something far more productive) but this time (if you managed to find your way out of that really long double aside that probably should have been a footnote) I saw a link to this great blog called “Hyperbole and a Half”. (Thanks, Sindile).

The post I started with is called the “alot”, which is a must-read for anyone who has ever come across that creature.  The concept of this blog is that each post tells a story (hyperbolically) and is then animated in large, colourful and child-like drawings.  Her animations are really affecting and her self-deprecating sense of humour and her abstract jokes really tease your brain for a while after you’ve read them.  

Then, I logged onto BlogLovin’ (of which yours truly is a member) and had a look at the blog feed.  I saw many many fashion blogs which are not my favourite things: endless pictures of people looking soulfully into the iphone-camera-instagram-app-created-picture...but Jerusha has already summed up why this is annoying really well.  Go read her description.

But then I saw a title that was made for me in that very moment: “100 Things to Do Instead of Procrastinating on the Internet”.   Needless to say, I bounded off in that direction (metaphorically speaking).  What did I find, apart from a really awe-inspiring yet totally do-able list, but one of the most stylish people I have ever seen.  Her name is Gala Darling, and she is an ex-New Zealander who now lives in New York City.  I like a lot of things about this lady: she has two rescue dogs, pink sparkly high-heels, two kick-ass half-sleeve tattoos and a seemingly endless assortment of rad head-gear.  I am not sure I buy completely into her “Radical Self-Love Project”, (anything self-helpy makes me a little squeamish.  And she quotes Ayn Rand.  Hmmmm) but I almost always feel determined to do something life-affirming after I have read it.  So there must be something in it.

AND she has this great weekly feature where she features articles she has found interesting over the week.  It was in this way that I found my next blog: “The Beheld”.  It is all about concepts of beauty and body image, and is particularly intriguing because it is written by a woman who has been a copy-editor for women’s magazines for many years so she knows the inside of the business.  Her latest posts have been about compliments and their role in facilitating or restricting meaningful social exchange.

She also has a weekly post where she writes about articles she has read, ranging from people’s blogs to mainstream newspaper articles.  She even drew my attention to this article in the Sowetan about the upcoming black hair show.  As someone who struggles with my appearance (you can read about why, here) I really appreciate this woman’s insight and effort that straddles scholarship and pop culture.

What blogs do you like following?  Let’s share the <3 everyone...

Monday, July 2, 2012

on baking

One of the other things I decided to learn to do in my financially strapped and car-less state was learn how to bake.  I was one of those spoilt white children who didn't learn how to cook until she was almost twenty, and even then, I only learned what I wanted to cook (This did result in someone from the EastCape Opera Company teaching me how to scramble eggs a few weeks before my nineteenth birthday).  So while I baked a few things when I was younger and I got into the habit of making banana bread and whole-wheat bread that crumbled when you cut it in my last year in Grahamstown, this year, I resolved to become awesome.

And awesome I have become.  (At least my friends and family tell me so.  Bless)  I must admit, this is probably not due to my precocious baking skills but more due to:

1.) my pedantic recipe following.  Learning how to cook late has ensured I follow every recipe slavishly as I have had (until recently) very little faith in my own ability to make a meal taste great.

2.) My mother's amazing recipe book.

This is called "The Blue Ribbon Book of Beautiful Baking" and was published just towards the end of apartheid.  I know this because there are pictures of the three women who contributed recipes in the front and two of them are white and one is black (rainbow nation, y'all).  The white women have perms and are wearing white lace blouses (a "blouse" is the only accurate description) and the black woman contributed, in particular, her knowledge of baking using Maize products.  I will say no more.

The design may be old-fashioned, but even that suits me because it means the portion sizes are just right (no super-sized cake slices in my kitchen!) and the icing on the cakes is modest, not a tower of added sugar that is my absolute downfall.  You won't miss the taste, though, because the actual cake has so much flavour and just the right texture.  The recipes are just wonderful  because they are like the ones your mother used (or at least, your mother would have used if you are around my age and you grew up in KwaZulu Natal. I have two friends whose mothers have the same book).  All the measurements are in cups and spoonfuls (none of this tricksy gram nonsense for which you need an actual kitchen scale) and they give you handy tips about how to measure margarine or what measurement exactly is a "pinch" of salt in the front.

I enjoyed my first foray into baking (Beer Bread: so brilliant all you need is flour, beer and some salt) but what really hooked me was standing in the kitchen in the slanting sunlight after a really hectic week of work with my hands in a pot of flour (we don't have bowls big enough to accomodate the buttermilk rusk recipe!), kneading the margarine in.  After a week of engaging with my computer and with abstract concepts, it is really therapeutic to work with my hands and enjoy making something tangible.  It is also gratifying to feel I am acquiring a useful skill.

It has also been absolute joy to give people things that I have made myself.  I have already blogged about how much I enjoy wrapping presents and making cards for people, and being able to fill a jar with biscuits I have made with my own hands and give them to friends feels like I am giving them a jar full of homely happiness.

Part of the reason I only wrote one blog last week was that I was baking up a storm.  I made

1.) scones (with jam and cream I whipped myself (sort-of with a blender))
2.) Peanut-butter biscuits
3.) marble cake.  In a ring tin nogal.

It even resulted in my first Zulu birthday card.  I have been trying to get around to learning Zulu for about a decade, so this is a big acheivement:

So, to you, dear readers: Nginifisela impilontle nempilonde*.

*Seriously hoping I got all my prepositions right...

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Things to love about (a South African) Winter

Growing up in sunny KwaZulu Natal, I didn’t really know what winter was.  It gets cold there, but only cold enough for some decorative jerseys or scarves.  Grahamstown (and the wilds of Hosback) initiated me into real winter (as well as a first snow fall for the three of us (Yemu, Natasja and I) in this picture: ah, bliss!)  I have since come to love some things about winter.  So for those of you out there hankering for the summer months already, here are some things to savour:

    1.)    (this one is paradoxical) The sun
Winter sunlight does not scorch your insides or burn your skin.  It provides tempting nooks in your house for you to lie in, soaking it up reptile-style.  You will miss it when summer comes and every time you step out the house you have to smother yourself in layers of sunscreen (or avoid stepping outside altogether).
2.)    Hot water bottles
Getting into bed and curling your cold toes around something warm until your feet are toasty and then hugging that delicious warmth to your chest whilst reading a chapter of a book with only one hand out of the covers: it is the stuff of hallmark cards, I tell you.
3.)    Gluhwein
Spicy red wine served still steaming in a mug providing all the comfort of tea with a spicy alcoholic kick.  If you are in Grahamstown for the National Arts Festival, get yourself to Yellow House for a mug of authentic German stuff. Mmmmm.  Which reminds me...
Yup, this happens in winter in miserable Grahamstown.  It just wouldn’t be the same in warm weather.  In some corner of my brain, winter means shrugging yourself into four layers and a heavy coat and walking briskly to the nearest theatre or hall that has been turned into a theatre and watching some AMAZ!NG.  Then it means ambling over the Village Green for some fantastic, nutritious Vegetarian food and wandering amongst the colourful stalls until it is time to start bar hopping until everything else but the Long Table has closed and you end up having thought-provoking conversations with people until four in the morning, when you finally shamble out into the cold and make your way home through the deserted streets of Grahamstown, only to start the whole process again the next morning.
5.)    Fingerless gloves
I love these things.  I can keep reading or writing without my fingers freezing off and I think they look rad.  I have a stripy pair and a grey pair that extend up to my elbows for extra warmth.
6.)    Spending more time on the internet
I recently blogged about my issues with the internet.  At the moment though, it is too darn cold to do much else in the evenings.  So I have been spending time finding some mighty interesting blogs out there.  More anon...
7.)    Tea
Oh wait. I’ve blogged about this already. Twice.  J

(ADDITION: I had some input and am remedying some omissions.  A warm thank-you to Yemu, Robyn and SJ.)

8.)    Soup

A bowl of soup is a beauty to behold.  I love the way the steam rises from the top and the way it is just packed full of hot, vegetable nutrients.  My favourite memory of soup is, once again at the festival, but this time working at Wordfest and enjoying cup after cup of pumpkin, chilli, orange and tomato soup from (the now sadly closed) Reddits.

9.)    Rusks

I have four words for you (or five words or three words and one hyphenated monster word, I guess): hot-cross bun flavoured rusks.  They taste exactly like hot cross buns, but they are rusks.  Best. Idea. Ever.  And soon, I will be attempting to bake health rusks.

10.)       Snuggling under the blankets by the fire and having good catch-up chats

Well, you need a fireplace for this, technically, which is in no short supply in Hogsback, I can tell you.  On the Opera Company camps, each cottage had its own woodstove (one of those old-pot-bellied stoves that they rescued from the scrap heap) that would belch smoke so we would smell like woodsmoke for the entire time we stayed there.  We would have to tend that fire as carefully as a baby.  But golly, it kept us warm and having brilliant, long conversations and storing up our strength for the summer.  I am not there this year, but that memory has a rosy glow around it, and somehow just remembering made me feel that little bit more restored.