Category Archives: SA Fiction

The Yearning by Mohale Moshego

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There are many young black people caught between a world of achievement, consumerism, fast-living and the world of their ancestors. There is a yearning to add meaning to life, to tap into the old ways and find a spiritual home. Western values dominate and the party is not stopping. Whispers from the shadows of a whirlwind life insinuate into the subconscious; memories and dreams and snatches of a different culture make their presence felt.

This subconscious struggle between the spiritual and material worlds is skilfully laid bare in The Yearning. The protagonist, Marubini, Maru or Rubi to her friends, works in the marketing department of one of the oldest Cape wine farms in the country. The narrative shifts between memories of her childhood and snippets of her current life. The diction shifts with the context, in that the adult Rubi uses slang and contemporary speak while the narration of her childhood memories are more formal. Both are sprinkled with isiZulu and Sepedi and sometimes Afrikaans which adds colour and texture to the novel. One of the delights of this novel is the writer’s use of language, such as her description of Marubini’s physical sensations when she is feeling turned on by her lover;

There is a visitor making her way to me, and I can’t wait. She packs her bag at my stomach and slowly slides down to where she knows she needs to be. She pulls the rope and the bell in my heart starts ringing, beating faster and faster. The visitor starts unpacking her bags and I smile with anticipation.

As is often the case with daughters and mothers, Maru’s relationship with her mother is a little fraught; her mother still lives in Soweto, where she grew up, and places many demands on her. She expects her to drop everything and visit home for a family wedding and does not seem to understand the pressures of Maru’s job. Maru pays for her brother’s expensive boarding school but her mother still thinks she is selfish if she does not prioritise family affairs. She misses her father who she says she loved “before and after he became a snake”. This type of remark gives the reader clues that there is something special about her father but it is only revealed later. This device adds to the dramatic effect of the novel.

Maru begins to have strange episodes; dizzy spells, nausea and the sound of children singing in her head, in Sesotho, to the tune of Frere Jacques. This continues while she is presenting to sales reps about the new emerging market. Later at home she experiences strange sensations, glimpses of another place, other voices penetrating her consciousness until she awakes in hospital. The doctor suspects a seizure but she begins to question her own sanity. She knows there are secrets in her past but she cannot grasp them.

Her mother “is MoPedi and her father is umZulu”, so there are trust issues between the different sets of grandparents. Both are very  important in her life and care for her when her mother is not able. Although she is seeing a psychologist to assist with her strange episodes, it will be her family who are best able to help her heal.

As the parallel stories of childhood and adulthood unfold, the pieces eventually come together and much, but not all, is explained. Healing cannot occur without memory and love cannot flourish if aspects of self are denied. During the narrative there are memorable scenes that will remain with you long after you have closed the book. Whether describing racism in the workplace or sacred rituals, the novel is candid, convincing and a beautiful read.

Tjieng Tjang Tjerries by Jolyn Phillips

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Tjieng, Tjang, Tjerries is a short story collection that lives up to its intriguing name. Yet all is not as it seems. The reader discovers in the title story from which language the phrase ‘tjieng, tjang, tjerries’, is derived; or do they? The stories have a large sprinkling of the colloquial variant of Afrikaans that is spoken by Cape ‘Coloured’ people.  If you know what this accent sounds like, it is difficult not to hear it in your head as you read.  Language is indeed akin to being a character in these interlinked stories.

The stories centre around colourful characters that live in Gansbaai, a small coastal town in between Hermanus and Agulhas, where the author grew up. Her intimate knowledge of the community is evident, as is her insight into what lies beneath the surface. Tough lives give people tough exteriors that belie the love they have for one another. Small triumphs seem to outweigh the hardship in families that experience violence and sorrow.

The sense of place is ever present; the fynbos, the ocean, the fishing boats, ‘kapstyl’  cottages and the weather. The writing appeals to the senses in the sound of “seagulls swearing and “the smell of fish guts”, the morning mist, ‘bak brood and moer koffie’. Most of all, the characters are real, flesh and blood people, depicted through their dialogue and relationships more than through their appearance.

There are thirteen stories, none of which are very long. The focus is mainly on different family relationships and how tragedy, secrets, alcohol and poverty affect their lives. Even though most of the stories are about different people, nevertheless, they seem interlinked through their proximity to each other. The matter-of-factness and humour inherent in the dialogue counters the sadness of the different events. The stories range from the death of a loved son to the ‘dronk verdriet’ of a runaway husband; from the girl that schoolteachers thought was stupid because she could not see, to the girl whose parents die and those who look after her, abuse her; to mention but a few. The one that pulls at my heartstrings the most is The Fisherman. It tells of Andrea, a young woman who did not want to be relegated to working in the fish factory because her calling was to be a fisherman like her Pappa, not a fish packer.

Quite a few of the stories are from the perspective of a child. The naivete of children who are exposed to much that they do not fully understand exposes the goings on of the adults. There is Mollie who is ‘n bietjie mal’ (a bit mad), Hennie who ‘murdered all his brain cells with the papsak’ (box wine) and Ouma, who loves funerals and gives funeral crashers ‘the stink eye’.

Trevor Noah said in an interview that Coloured in South Africa says more about a culture than it says about a race. I know this is a highly contested area as it speaks to identity; some reject the use of the word ‘Coloured’ while others use it with pride. These short stories celebrate the expressiveness of the language, a bearer of the culture, and are an absolute delight.

Things Unseen by Pamela Power

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Beware! Once you start reading this book, nothing else will do but to finish it. It is a page-turning thriller which also tackles issues of abuse. Damaged people in families wreak havoc especially when memories are suppressed and secrets are kept.

We meet Emma at a function with friends; it soon becomes clear that her friend, Gay, hates Emma’s husband, Rick, and is delighted at the presence of Craig, the man Emma nearly married 15 years ago. The banter between the friends is lewd, catty and fun though undercurrents soon begin to surface. Emma is worried about her mother so they leave early.They get home to find she has been brutally murdered.

The police believe the murder was committed by the Zimbabwean gardener, Surprise, but Emma refuses to believe it. Her down and out brother, Ross arrives for the memorial service and the family dynamics play out between the three men. Emma is torn between conflicting emotions; her mother’s death, her brother’s aggression, her husband’s egocentricity and the strong attraction she still feels for her ex-lover. Yet she also feel she has no-one to turn to as they all believe the police’s verdict.

Interspersed between the the chapters are flashbacks in which a little boy is abused by an adult man. Throughout the novel, one is never sure who this is. This adds to the suspense because potentially it could be any of the three men or someone else entirely. Emma also has flashbacks now and again but they are so quick that she cannot quite grasp them.

The cast of characters are fairly typical middle-class white people living in Johannesburg with the requisite servant and comfortable lifestyle. Despite this the characters are real as they fluctuate from being hilariously funny to making wrong decisions to behaving badly.  I liked the awareness Emma showed with regard to her privileged lifestyle and the criticisms she made towards her husband when he spouted racist comments. The dialogue throughout the novel is so natural that the reader feels like a fly on the wall. So are the sex scenes which are raunchy and passionate.

The plot is very well-constructed with various twists and turns that drive the action forward. One is never quite sure who to suspect or what will happen next. Is Rick just a bombastic idiot or is it more sinister than that? Is Craig really as good a guy as he seems? Is brother, Ross just a loser who does not pay maintenance and cannot hold down a job?

Once the truth unfolds, the question is asked regarding who to blame; or is everyone complicit in looking the other way? Things Unseen combines humour, darkness and normal life very convincingly. An excellent read.

Should you wish to order it online, use this link: http://clockworkbooks.co.za/product/things-unseen/

 

After Tears by Niq Mhlongo

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Niq Mhlongo has a wonderful knack of writing about important themes with a light hand and wicked wit. After Tears is no exception; I find myself switching between laughing out loud, wringing my hands, hurting and being appalled. He is not afraid to show the worst of people yet this is done with an affectionate touch as well as insight into the context of their actions.

Bafana, the ostensible protagonist of the novel, returns from Cape Town in November 1999, without having passed his law degree. He is met at Park Station, Johannesburg, by his uncle and three friends. Before he is able to divulge the bad news, Uncle Nyawana or Jabu, who calls him Advo, is already attempting to trade on his future success, a fait accomplit as far as Uncle is concerned. Bafana also fails to be honest with his mother and tells her the results have been withheld due to non-payment. She decides to sell their house to pay the fees and Bafana is stuck in his lie. Throughout the rest of the novel, this action sinks him into an ever-deepening hole from which he cannot extricate himself without further lies.

Despite Bafana’s actions driving the narrative, I refer to him as the ostensible protagonist, because he has so little agency. His role in the novel is as a foil to the other characters. He is merely buffeted about by the decisions that others make. The uncle and his three friends, dominate the novel. They are brilliantly characterised both in descriptions and through their dialogue. The funniest thing is that Uncle has a dog called Verwoerd who he regularly tells to ‘voetsek’,  a stroke of genius. He has one leg because he was pushed off a train when trying to steal a woman’s money and he plays fah-fee, using dreams to determine which numbers to play. His three friends, Zero, PP and Dilika are respectively a taxi driver, a carjacker and a teacher. If you want to understand what rape culture is, these four men typify it. According to Zero, “there’s a minimum of five chicks for every dick in Soweto”. Their reprehensible behaviour is counterpointed by Bafana’s Mama and her friend, Zinhle, who do their best to curtail them. Mama warned Bafana that “in Zero and PP’s universe, a man was a man according to the number of ladies he was dating.”

Although it is shocking to read about the way women are objectified, abused and disrespected, it is important that topics which are not often spoken about openly, are exposed in this novel. There are many women that have to endure this treatment, some who do not even realise it is wrong.

Another theme in the novel, is the fraught housing situation. John Sekoto visits Mama to inform her that he is laying claim to the house as he is the rightful owner. This creates a furore in the family especially as Mama is trying to persuade the other family members to allow her to sell. This reveals the different family traditions as elders have to be consulted but also exposes some RDP housing scams.

Soweto is brought to life by the characters and their daily lives. The reader rollicks from Christmas to New Year festivities until brought back to earth by a funeral. These events are vividly represented and add to the sense of authenticity engendered by the writer’s intimate knowledge of ekasi life. The older men often reference apartheid laws and conventions with cynical humour. At the ‘after tears’, PP complains that AVBOB is chosen as the funeral service; when Bafana says he thinks they have handled it well, PP explains:

Look at the name AVBOB itself. You know what it stands for? The name is an abbreviation for Almal Vrek Behalwe Ons Boere. These Afrikaners are here in the township to continue what they have been doing for centuries: killing abodarkie. The only difference is that these days they’re making a huge profit out of it because they kill you today and bury you tomorrow.”

Everyone laughs; it is funny and it expresses things that are truths to them. The corruption in which so many are steeped is linked to the way people had to survive under apartheid. This point is not hammered home but the link is clear.

These are real people muddling through life as best they can; in this novel the dichotomy of family life reminds us that the ones we love are not always saints, that life in Soweto is tough but vibrant and that though humour is often laced with uncomfortable truths, laughter is the best medicine.

Affluenza by Niq Mhlongo

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The currency of these short stories is money and status as depicted by the fifty rand note that graces the cover; an inspired choice. Dip your toe into the psyche of South Africa today where the pull of glamour and glitz allure the characters into bad decisions. The settings range from urban to rural, covering themes such as land grabs, corruption of tradition and cheating men, all served with fat dollops of Niq Mhlongo’s characteristic wit and cynicism.

As with any short story collection, some stories are meatier than others. My usual frustration with this format is that when the story ends, I feel as if I am getting to know the characters and there is more to find out. The same is true of these 11 stories, some more than others. Two of the stories are a little weak but, of the other 9, it is difficult to pick a favourite.

The Warning Sign is a stark and violent stab at the ever pertinent land issue, in which an ex-Zimbabwean farmer spouts his racism and hatred to the land committee that threatens to grab his land. On a lighter note, Four Blocks Away is set in Washington DC where a gumboot dancer is on a cultural exchange; the woman he has been hoping to bed for months is in town but her rule of “no glove, no love”, sends him into the streets wearing nothing but his hospital gown and boxers, trying to get hold of condoms. The consequences are hilarious as he faces up to American police bigotry. Hilarious yet infuriating in its depiction of prejudice.

Another favourite of mine in this collection is Catching the Sun, where the Maja family who live in a village near Phalaborwa, receive unexpected visitors with unwelcome news from the Eastern Cape. They fling insults at their Xhosa visitors in very colourful language and make unreasonable demands. Superstition, cultural traditions and greed fuel their actions in this tragic tale.

My Name is Peaches, Affluenza and The Baby Shower respectively deal with how the superficiality of modern life and the shallow aspirations of many lead to heartbreak, death and destruction. These stories are laced with poignancy in their depiction of human weakness. The writer is never afraid to show his characters in the worst possible light nor does he sugarcoat their actions.

The different range of voices that Mhlongo represents through excellent dialogue makes every story unique; from the rural man who speaks in idiom to the high-flying couple who call each other ‘babe’. Every story touches in one way or another on serious issues of our times yet this is not experienced as dark and depressing. Look into the mirror of Affluenza, go globe-trotting with Niq Mhlongo and see for yourself.

 

 

And They Didn’t Die by Lauretta Ngcobo

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Jazile is the heroine of this historical novel, set in a rural area near Ixopo. Heroine is a word that is not often used these days. We speak of protagonists and narrators. Perhaps it is an archaic word as hero is now used for both genders. Nevertheless, I feel the need to reclaim it to describe Jezile. She is brave and principled; she fights for what she believes in; she is also sometimes timid and naive but she overcomes herself and struggles against great odds to survive. I greatly admire her and all the women she represents.

The novel is set mainly in the late 50s to early 60s; the time when black women were resisting being forced to use passes. Prior to the 50s, black women had not been required to carry a pass. Jezile lives in the Sabelweni Valley; she is married to Siyalo who works in Durban. He sends money home to her but they only see each other in the December holidays which makes it very difficult for her to fall pregnant. MaBiyela, her mother-in-law, puts immense pressure on her by making constant comments about her barrenness. Their relationship is very strained but there is nothing Jezile can do because the culture demands that she must do MaBiyela’s bidding. She has no idea how to handle this hostility so retreats into silence. She wants to go to Durban to be with Siyalo so that she can fall pregnant but for that she needs a pass. The women of the area have all agreed that they will not comply and will not apply for passes.

They have regular meetings and Nosizwe is the main spokesperson and ringleader. She is a doctor and is knowledgeable about the apartheid laws. She communicates all this to the women; how the system is designed to drive them further into poverty; how all the so-called Betterment Schemes do not help them at all; how the land and cattle issue is also designed to destroy them; how their own chiefs are being used against them to divide the communities. The inside story of the 1956 Women’s March is thrilling.  The writer uses the speeches of Nosizwe and others to tell the history of the time. These speeches can be a little didactic and I could not help but wonder if the speeches would have been quite as formal and content-rich in reality. However this flaw is compensated by the atmosphere that is generated. The description of the women singing hymns passionately, praying together with emotion, all the while being watched  by white policeman is powerful.

Jezile’s struggle continues through protests and prison, drought and despair. It epitomises that of all rural women as they fight the oppressive white government but are also incapacitated by the patriarchal culture. This renders them voiceless in different ways but does not weakens their resolve. Their imaginary lives are as real as the historical context in which the story is placed. Despite the grim reality of everyday life there are glorious moments of love and passion between Jezile and Siyalo. The solidarity between the women transports the reader into an energetic mass of singing and praying.

Anyone who wants to understand why the land issue today is still crying out to be resolved need look no further than this novel. The land that was essential to their livelihoods and way of life was grabbed by the implementation of unjust laws and the collusion of chiefs imposed on the communities. It is one thing to read this in a dry, dusty article but when brought to life through fiction, it cannot help but move the reader. In the same way, it is hard to read of the cruelty and inhumanity meted out to people by the apartheid police and officials but this is our tainted past. Not to be denied.

Dog Eat Dog by Niq Mhlongo

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Niq Mhlongo just published a collection of interlinked short stories, called Affluenza. Danyela Demir interviewed him at the recent Time of the Writer Festival and it intrigued me. His use of the word affluenza apparently appeared first in his debut novel, Dog Eat Dog, published in 2004 and set in 1994. I determined I must read this first. What a book! what a protagonist.

Dingz has finally made it to Wits after writing matric twice to achieve university entrance marks. His funding has been turned down and he is not taking it lying down. It is 1994 and the day of South Africa’s first democratic elections is around the corner. Dingz creates a commotion at the Financial Aid Office but he has performed some research so, despite trying to stonewall him, they are forced to attend to him. This episode plunges the reader into the mind of Dingz. He is aggressive and short-tempered but sharp too. He is frustrating because he does some very stupid things, like drinking in public and then having a run-in with the police. He lurches from one crisis to another and one party to another; a typical student thrust into a new world, rebellious, hating petty rules yet wanting to get ahead and get his degree.

Reflections on his father and the times during apartheid when his family’s home was regularly invaded by violent, brutal policemen intersperse the narrative. No matter how often I read of incidents such as these, they never fail to stab me in the heart. Dingz also encounters rich, white students for the first time and the contrast between the ease of life for them, where the injury to a dog receives more medical attention than any of his family or friends could dream of, is a bitter shock. These encounters are interesting because of the contrast between the way the black students talk about white people in their absence and the way they speak to white people in their presence is stark. I love the hard-hitting honesty.

Despite the seriousness of the topics, this novel is not a depressing tale of woe. It is written with humour and irony. It is vibrant, loud and colourful with smatterings of tsotsitaal (the vernacular spoken in Soweto where so many languages collide). The scene in the train to Orlando West where a preacher uses the opportunity to try and convert commuters is really funny. The writer has a wonderful knack of creating atmosphere through the use of dialogue and songs. Music accompanies everything, with lyrics included.

Even though it is now 12 years old, this novel is still highly relevant. If #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall came as a surprise, this novel will make you wonder why it took so long.