Literary Postmortem: Memoirs of a Born Free

I remember being insanely jealous when I saw this book being advertised when it was first published in 2014. Watching Malaika wa Azania doing interviews about the book, thinking “that’s what I wanted to do, surely that should be me”. I’m so glad the universe gave her the gig because this is honestly one of the best books I have read about the state of South Africa – now more than ever really.

This nation’s students stood up last year to say enough is enough and more importantly stood up for themselves when nobody else would. This book reads like a brilliantly timed prologue to what we have seen happen in the past few months at universities across the country.

I was part of the generation that has witnessed the end of our people being oppressed and trapped by the false belief that they owed their eternal gratitude to you (the ANC), and that there would be none brave enough to take you on. (page 167)

For the longest time, until recently,  people have expected and have thought about “born free’s” as one homogeneous group that is “non-racial”, not oppressed and has countless opportunities to drag themselves out of poverty and joblessness. This has never been true in this country and remains untrue today. This book made me acknowledge the nuances of inequality in this country, I’ll explain by way of example. memoirs of a born free

Malaika and I are exactly the same age. The schools we went to were relatively similar. We both fell in love with books an words in ways that changed our lives. Our experiences of whiteness in high school were quite similar. Our thoughts about this continent and it’s people on par. But even though we share some experiences there are a lot, too many that we don’t. And that is our reality. My heart almost broke when she shared a story about taking a friend home from school one afternoon. They ate and did what they did very other afternoon when they went to one another’s “houses” (I say houses like that because a shack isn’t isn’t a house). It started raining. Heavily. The topmost form of zinc protection between them and the heavens caved in from the rain. The shack flooded. Pots and pans floated around the girls. We see similar images on news bulletins every now and again but being inside the head of that little girl who was embarrassed that she had a friend over as they and everything her family owned took an involuntary swim. Some people routinely experience such things as  drainage systems and plumping systems are non existent in the places that house tin enclosures.

Merely by being born black in this country you had problems. I didn’t think I’d need therapy to cope with my own circumstances. (page 104)

Her life was rough, she dealt with and took on so much just to survive. There are some who would look at her story and begin telling the “magic negro/against all odds” narrative, that instead of speaking to and addressing the conditions that make people have to trudge through hell just to eat or have a place to sleep or gain entrance into an institution of further education, praises this magical black person who “overcame” those challenges and puts them on a pedestal with a placard reading “HARD WORK PAYS” as inspiration for the other lazy blacks – who are obviously poor because they don’t work hard enough, lol.

She has an amazing mind and can so easily put forth her observations in ways that had me screaming out yes on the train while I was reading this. It was like having one of those heated debates in a politics lecture that I miss so much, affirming and teaching me things at the same time. She speaks to the reality of now, the discord between the state and us, the animosity between black and white and the poverty keeping the majority of our people scrapping at the bottom of the barrel.

There are times when the only weapon a black child can use to fight against a system that dehumanises her is to be so angry that she is left with no choice but to dare to be alive.

While I bemoan the resilience narrative, I also found her political resilience inspiring. Fighting “the system” is an uphill battle with assured losses along the way, choosing to keep on fighting is necessary to achieving any kind of change. It’s not about winning or reaching a point where you get something that you want, like the vote, thinking that you have attained freedom once you have it. It is a journey, a continuous one that will not end any time soon if we rest at historical pit stops for a feast.

But comrade Malema was the closest thing to ourselves than anyone else at that point. (page 114)

I was particularly saddened by her account of what transpired while she was part of the EFF, the way they treated her really hurt and frightened me considering their trajectory and my allegiance.  Either way this woman is a fighter and I can only hope that one day I can follow in her footsteps in using words to paint truth bombs for pictures.

In other words, a must read.

 

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Literary Postmortem: Two Thousand Seasons

Immediately after finishing this read last night, I almost felt like I had never really read a novel before, that’s how incredibly remarkable it was.

It was my first Ayi Kwei Armah reading and it definitely won’t be my last. What a man. To call this a book would be reductive it’s a piece of brilliant literary work – something that should be at the very top of all those narrow “50 books to read before you die” listicles.

“Beyond that he taught us not to fear the power of the destroyers’ weapons but to learn quickly the use of that power against the destroyers themselves.” – pg 147

So what happens? Basically the book is a narrative account of slavery thrust upon this continent, first by the Arabs and then later by the “white destroyers from the sea”. There is nothing vague in this work, people are called what they are and the terrible acts performed by these destroyers described in all their grotesque wickedness are laid bare. Of people being forced to fornicate with horses as punishment, of people being branded, of the raping of young boys by old men, of being shot at  and dumped overboard and much more. It felt all the more real because Armah had made you (the reader) a part of this world, on this journey with these people’s in the grips of a terrible destruction.

But beyond this is also offers an insight into “the way”, our way before we were so rudely interrupted, and interestingly he doesn’t paint it as some utopia either but there was much more respect for one another and the spaces we occupied.

It’s a difficult read, with a lot happening on every single page, so I took my time reading it. Every word counts and if you miss a line you will be the lesser for it. It was a truly devastating read but in the best way possible, I will never be the same and I am the better for it.

“A mind attacked and conquered is guided easily away from the paths of its own soul,” – pg 28

What I loved most was that he didn’t just outline and highlight what the problem was/is but he proffered practical solutions. I think that is what kept me from complete ruin by the works close. Yes, I cried in many, many places, but towards the end when one of the most important characters meets his end, I was sad but I knew it was coming and I also knew that his death would not render those like him immobile, incapable of carrying out their planned action without him at helm to lead the charge.

I was left with a real sense of hope, a real sense of knowing that I will not be the answer to today’s destruction but I can in whatever way I can, CREATE something that will help to bring the end of our destruction closer. And that is all I need, all I want really.

“No illusions brought us here, none support our work. We offer none of the comfort destroyed mind finds in lies.” – pg 183

Of this reading experience I would say this: As a student of history I know things and stuff about slavery in its many forms, when it happened, to whom etc. I’ve read the books, watched the movies and written the essays. But all in a semi-detached way because those accounts are rarely ever personalised, Armah made the facts breathe.

I’ll use a short analogy to elaborate: I was unplugged from the Matrix like Neo, I had already puked from the knowledge being forced down my throat and into my ears. Eventually as he began to accept the truth about the world and who he was, that was all flipped upside down when he met the architect. This book was my architect. Laid everything bare, didn’t hold back on anything, showed its disdain and even gave me a way forward.

Nothing and no one have done that for me before, I will forever be thankful for this piece of work. It gave me real and more importantly, practical advice on how to press on. I will have to read and reread it many more times, it’s too dense a work for me not to have missed things.

Literary Postmortem: Americanah

I will start by saying “long live Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, long live”. What a woman, what a storyteller.

There is nothing I didn’t love about this novel. Well at first I looked at the tiny bible-like print with a bit of a side eye but it grew on my eyes.

In the past two to three years, I have made a conscious effort to read more African authors because frankly even though I was an English Literature student, I was starved for stories told by my people, about my people for my people. This novel lived up to this preference through and through.

From the very first paragraph to the last one on page four hundred and something – she had me. Not to compare, but Americanah filled the historic/political/social gap I found in NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names.

In Americanah there is an effort made to make the reader truly see and understand Nigeria, its people and its politics. In no way forced or didactic, but rather she chose to edify us by way of conversation. The whole book felt like a collection of stories told by that very interesting person at the party who has everyone in the room enthralled. It almost felt like a very long, well-written, witty blog post – which I loved.

In a nutshell the story follows Ifemelu – a woman you will come to love and hate – from her childhood and teenage years in Nigeria, to her years spent in “exile” in America-land. I say exile like that because she really only went there because life in her home country was not conducive to her growth at the time, which is what going to exile is partly about. People leave because they have to not because they want to – it’s about fleeing from restriction really (well to my mind).

The bulk of the book speaks to two of my favourite topics, love and race. It’s a great love story, one that had me falling in love with Obinze (the love of her life) chapter by chapter. He is perfect because of his imperfections and somewhat simple nature. He loves her in an all encompassing way but never smothering. Their story is weaved into every corner of the book, much like her longing for him when they are apart. Without quite knowing it until the very end, he is everything.

I found it fascinating that race only became an issue for Ifemulu when she stepped off this continent full of people who look like her without question. I like that she tackles race head-on in her personal life and goes as far as to start a blog dedicated to confronting the race problem in America. She puts excerpts of the blog in the book, which was another highlight while reading.

Her characters are complicated, irritating even frustrating and that made for a more authentic read. I liked that i didn’t like everyone all the time because that is our reality. People are disappointing, fearful, childish, racist, arrogant and and and.

If my opinion counts for anything I would say in fifty years this will be one of those books we call classic, hell I’ll call it that now. Read it. Re-read it. Make people you love read it.

Literary Postmortem: The Reactive

My excitement and expectations going into this book were quite high and I must say I was not disappointed at all. This debut novel by Masande Ntshanga, is one of the best things I have read in a long time. He is a young, black writer from the Eastern Cape aka everything I want to be one day (save for being from the Eastern Cape).

Anyway so late last year I attended an event where he read an extract from the book and I knew then that I had to read the book. He writes in a way that demands you to carry on reading. If you plan on reading the book and want to be surprised don’t read this – there will be spoilers.

Right.

So I mentioned the high expectations – shattered not long after I had settled into this read. I expected to read about his younger brother, Luthando dying at an initiation school and the guilt his older brother, Lindanathi felt over his compliancy in that. That’s actually why I was so interested in the story to begin with. It’s a horrible thing that happens to young boys out in rural areas in our winter. Luthando’s death is always lingering throughout the book but I still felt I needed to know more about his death.

Initially I thought the immense guilt the protagonist (Lindanathi) feels throughout the book irrational because you know things happen, right? But then the more I read about his drug induced hazy days in Cape Town with his two friends Ruan and Cecelia, the less empathy I felt.

They did drugs. Often. A lot of drugs. Often. It scared me. Scared me because it just happens so easily, they are at the point where it’s routine, they need the drugs to peel themselves off Cecelia’s apartment floor. It also scared me because Ntshanga writes about the drug use/dependency with far too much accuracy to not be drawing from personal experience (or so I think). There’s also quite a bit of kinky bordering on messed up sex, group sex with masculine porn endings *purses lips*.

But anyway in a nutshell, these three are drugged up all the time and sell pharmaceutical drugs (ARVs) on the side – they lead a life that looked like absolute chaos to me. But there are reasons for why they are the way they are, some which we don’t really get to learn about. Personally, Lindanathi making himself reactive was the most chilling for me. There’s a lot of ambiguity in the book, shielded by absolutely beautiful imagery and sentences. I can’t recall how many times I had to stop reading to re-read and mull over the perfect sentences.

To me, Lindanathi redeems himself towards the end of the book when he decides to stop running from his problems and avoiding his family. He goes back to do the thing he promised his brother he would do with him. He decides for a change to look his life in the face and show up. Then we meet Esona, ah I would have loved to have one more chapter for their story – she sounds like the thing he has needed for a long time.

The way the book ends is comforting, still sad (yes, I cried) but it feels like things happen as they should. It really was a brilliant read, it felt extremely honest, therefore heartbreaking but also so necessary.

I am just a girl with a blog who read a book but I would definitely recommend The Reactive.

Literary Postmortem: The Flowers of War

No one ever thinks of war with an air of pleasantry, but I must admit I never stretch my imaginings of the true horrors far enough – a realization that came to me quite early on reading this book.

Everything I assumed would happen never did and every single climatic moment in the novel came as a shock, often accompanied by tears. It was a heart wrenching read. I suspect that it is why it took me so long to read (about five months I think).

It isn’t a long read at all and it’s beautifully written, with a flow that hooked one instantly, but I could only deal with it in small chunks at a time. A way to apportion the pain I think. It was astounding to me how inhumane people became with the power of gunfire in their hands and a band of cowards behind them, cheering their brutish behavior on.

The novel written by Geling Yan is set in China in 1937, during their occupation by the commanding island that is Japan. The novel is set a few months after the Second Sino-Japanese War started – a war that lasted almost ten years. Although the novel is a brief glimpse into a short time during the war, I loved how Yan mixed fiction and history – simultaneously educating and entertaining me.

Yan focuses on a singular location in the novel, an American church in Nanking which is housing a number of orphaned teenage school girls who had not managed to escape the country in time. Throughout the entire book I was under the false illusion that because of where they were the girls would be safe. But chapter by chapter, as the Japanese soldiers’ stomped their way through the pages, that hope waned. I soon realised that these girls couldn’t possibly evade the Nanking Massacre that was happening around them.

Things got all the more dangerous for the girls when a group of prostitutes and wounded Chinese soldiers turn to the church for refuge. What follows are scenes I have had bad dreams about for the past few nights. I recall one particularly grisly chapter set at an execution ground. Shucks, I was never ready for that chapter.

Every death was a blow, as it should be. It’s so easy these days to shrug off death at the hands of violence because “we know it happens” or it’s just all around all the time. But it shouldn’t be like that. It’s not normal to live in a perpetual state of continued violence. I think what this novel taught me was that yes war time is horrible, but it made me realise that maybe wars don’t really end. Yes soldiers leave and there are treaties signed and what not but people don’t necessarily stop living in horrible conditions without the threat of rape and murder. But I digress.

On the positive side this was the second book I have read about women in war and again I was shown what resilient beings we can be. The women in this book were very inspiring, they were “naturally” the most vulnerable people throughout the novel but somehow they survived it and not by chance either.

Anyway this is one I would definitely recommend, for both your intellectual and social edification.

Literary Postmortem: The Secret Life of Bees

downloadI finished reading the novel (The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd) last week and have been having a bit on an internal debate about whether I should write about it or not. A gap in my schedule presented itself so here I am.

Recently started a book club with some friends and this was the book I got in our first swap. I chose it as soon as I saw it on the table because I vaguely remember liking the movie when it came out a few years back.

Sometimes I do enjoy reading the book after the movie because I don’t have to create characters in my own head that I will probably be disappointed in when I see the movie after the fact. But only sometimes – this time for sure. I could see the action in the book more clearly because of it this time.

It was a good read, short and engaging – one of those page turners we always yearn for. It was full of colour and emotion. There were quite a few things I had forgotten from the movie that caught me by surprise, which was fun.

The only thing I found unpalatable was the main character – Lily Owens. I understand that she was young and my impatience with her was probably unwarranted. I also understand that the book is set in a certain time and political climate in America, but I still couldn’t reconcile with some of her racism and selfish behaviours.

I enjoyed the Boatwright sisters and Rosaleen the most because I could relate to all of them in different ways. Through them I got to feel a kind of hope for change that I didn’t get from Lily – even though she “dated” a black guy. But her love story was also another highlight for me – the way she spoke about Zachary Taylor was the only times I felt a bit of connection with her.

I would recommend it but I don’t rate it as something you must read before you die.

Literary Post-mortem: Q & A

My first encounter with this novel was in my second year at University when I was buying my textbooks for the year. Q & A had just become one of the required readings in the first year set work. I was gutted that I wouldn’t get to study it and by the fact that I couldn’t afford to buy it at the time.  1388439205768

I had watched Slumdog Millionaire when it came out as well, but had a very poor recollection of it by the time I began reading this (which I was thankful for).

From the very first word in the prologue to the very last word in the epilogue, I was with, for and enthralled by Ram Mohammed Thomas, the protagonist in this brilliant read. One of the first things that stuck out to me was the structure of each chapter in the book. Each chapter revealed more about some of the harsh circumstances in which Ram grew up but on the flipside also revealed how going through those very specific circumstances helped him answer the game show questions posed at the end of each chapter.

Perhaps I should explain a little here – Ram was a contestant on game show modelled on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, but in his case one billion rupees were up for grabs. He miraculously answers all the questions right and wins the one billion. Each chapter of the book serves as an explanation of sorts as to how his street smarts enabled him to answer the questions asked on the show.

This quote from the first chapter in the book speaks to his University of Life degree:

“A quiz is not so much a test of knowledge as a test of memory.”

The world being as it is, the powers that be behind the show try to frame Ram as being a cheat because they cannot afford to pay him the money owed to him for winning. He is arrested shortly after the show is recorded and that is how this novel began. A genius start I rate, I don’t know if it would have worked if it had started there.

Structure aside, each chapter tackled very tough themes – everything from disability, to rape, murder, poverty, and even love. There was a twist in every chapter that had me gasping and exclaiming in sheer shock or in some cases just setting the book down for the day because what I had read was just too much. There were some truly terrible moments littered throughout the book, moments that made me realise how universal injustice and suffering are. Even though I knew the stories to be fictional, I know that pain like that isn’t only imagined, it is some peoples, too many peoples lived realities.

Ram speaks about heroes throughout the novel but never seems to think of himself as one. His chequered past seems to be in the way of that. But he is one, through and through. Even when he makes mistakes, they are often done trying to protect others. He is one of the nicest characters I have ever encountered, despite all the things he goes through. That was really inspirational to me, that someone who had been abandoned, cheated and treated less than human over and over again, could strive to get through it all and never give up even in the face of the most trying situations.

It was masterfully written and I applaud Vikas Swarup for this magnificent piece of literature. As depressing a read as it was, it also left me with so much hope and taught me a thing or two about perseverance and fearlessness. Another important thing I learnt was to never let ‘The Man’ win –  to challenge him and perhaps beat him at his own game.

Literary Post-mortem: The Art of Seeing

I’ve decided to do this review a little differently than the others. At the end of this book I found a reading group guide with a number of questions for discussion. Instead of telling you all what the book was about, how it affected me etc – I’ll simply answer some of the questions.

(Note: Most of the questions are very lengthy so in some places I have only concerned myself with parts of the question)

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Q: Why does art play such an important role in the novel? In what way does art define life for Jemma and Rozzie?
A: As a photographer, Jemma uses her way of seeing the world to inform the direction of her art. Her art is one of the most important things in her life and pushes and pulls her in various directions throughout the novel. As an actress, Rozzie was propelled into an artistic industry at a very early age. Her acting ability is her art and it too has a lasting and often overwhelming effect in her life.

Q: Jemma says: “Anecdotes about the rich and famous make people cough into their fist or refold a napkin, staring into their lap…” What is it that makes people uncomfortable? How does society respond to fame in the novel?
A: I think people feel uneasy because of the excessive lifestyles, of the narcissism anf just of the impossible and unimaginable lifestyles the rich and famous lead. In the novel people close to it are mostly uneasy about it and try to keep their distance where possible. Those who don’t have personal proximity with fame are enamoured by it because it doesn’t affect their lives in a real way.

Q: How does Rozzie’s fame affect the way Jemma sees herself and others? How does fame diminish those who are famous and the people around them? How does it build them up?
A: Jemma lives in her sister’s shadow, at some point she stops actively being her sister and becomes one of the many people watching her in awe. She has an inability to connect with other people because of it – she doesn’t seem to think much of herself, she shrinks behind her sister’s brilliance. Rozzie pushed her family away in pursuit of fame, she allowed herself to be influenced by people who didn’t even care about her. I think that’s how it diminished them both. It built Rozzie up in that she was widely adored and admired. For Jemma her sister’s fame helped to build up het career.

Q: Discuss the different paossible meanings of the novel’s title. What is the relationship between art and seeing?
A: It’s a play on Jemma’s photography and Rozzie’s blindness. Both have adapted to alternative ways of seeing the world they live in. I think the relationship between art and seeing is that the way we see is in itself an art. Along with this that art extends beyond physically being able to see, that it’s about making people feel something as much as it is about making them feel something.

Q: Why is Jemma’s story told in first person and Rozzie’s in third person? How does this narrative structure shape our ability to understand each character?
A: I don’t know why but I imagined that it might have to do with the author identifying more with Jemma. The narrative structure made me immediately take Jemma’s side, feel her pain and loneliness more than her sister’s. I felt like the entire story was more about her because of it.

Q: Why does putting on Rozzie’s clothes give Jemma a feeling of protection when she removes her pictures from the gallery? Who is Jemma trying to be?
A: Jemma is a very insecure, meek character who rarely does what she really wants to. By putting on her sister’s clothes she takes on her brave and daring persona. She used the clothes as a mask to allow herself the freedom to do as she wished. She ultimately tried to be het fearless sister for a while.

Q: Why does Rozzie’s relationship with Daniel remain so important to her over the years? What does he give her that no one else can?
A: He was a first – her first lover, first mentor and the first person to truly believe in her and her talents. As this person he provides her with a genuine reassurance in her abilities and when she’s with him she can be her old self. He is her comfort zone.

Q: Jemma says of Rozzie: “My whole life has been shaped by the stretch of her light”, and that, “in my head, she’s always been a celebrity.” How do these statements reflect all sibling relationships?
A: I suppose there’s always one sibling who is the leader and one who follows. In this case Jemma’s whole life was shaped by the way Rozzie’s unfolded.

Q: At the end of the book, Jemma says, “Maybe [Rozzie is] an actress because I made her be one.” What does Jemma mean? How might she be correct?
A: Linked to the previous answer, she always let Rozzie take the lead, forcing her to always be the strong one, the brave one etc. Rozzie had to step up to her baby sister’s expectation, always had to make a show of things.

Q: In what ways does Rozzie’s blindness help both sisters gain more control over their lives? And how does it change their relationship?
A: Rozzie’s blindness forces her to become self dependent and this allows her sister to start building her own life. Even though at first her work is centered around Rozzie, she embarks on a journey of self discovery.  Because they both go their separate ways for a while, they allow themselves to slowly repair their relationship.

Literary Post-mortem: Intimate Enemy

Intimate Enemy: Images and Voices  of the Rwandan Genocide

It has taken me a few weeks to get through this book. Not becaause I was bored or at all disinterested but because it was difficult to read what had actually happened.

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The Rwandan Genocide is something I learnt about from Hollywood and a worksheet or two back in high school. I’ve known for a while now that I needed to school myself further on the subject.  To broaden the narratives I’m privy to on this tragic moment in African history.

Before I started this I had read To See You Again: The Betty Schimmel Story, a remarkable and heartbreaking account of living through the Holocaust. I imagined that reading that had readied me for another tragic and positively horrifying read, I was sorely mistaken.

An Intimate Enemy is a joined effort by Scott Straus and photographer Robert Lyons.

Combined then testimony and images offer a largely unmitigated and intimate view of the Rwandan genocide.” ~ Scott Sraus

Straus explains his mission and objectives in an emotive and rather educational introduction.  In short, he wanted to start to figure out who and what had led to the genocide. His interviews in the book are with men who were both perpetrators and victims during that time. He stressed that his aim was not to other anyone but to begin to understand ordinary human beings were turned into killers literally overnight.

The images and testimony present in the book are from prisoners in a number of prisons in Rwanda, mostly male because women only made up 3% of the prison population at the time.

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Before the advent of colonialism in Rwanda, Hutus and Tutsis lived side by side in relative harmony. Colonialists exploited the slight differences between the two groups to sow divisions of which they would reap the benefits. The usual thuggery of making one group feel superior and another inferior, affording opportunities, jobs et cetera to the superior group of people.

Straus does a good job of making the historical context of the genocide very clear. As a South African the genocide in Rwanda is particularly harrowing because of the stark change that was happening at home, while others were being hacked to death.

The interviews he conducts with the prisoners and the testimonies they give are worse than any movie or any one thing I’ve ever read. About three interviews in I had been shocked to the core, heartbroken and utterly defeated.  In most cases people literally became killers overnight, some killing their own family members for their own survival. The speed at which things happened is what struck me the most, it always has even where the Holocaust is concerned.  People can turn on one another in a heartbeat and that more than anything scares me about my species.

As I said I went through the testimonies very slowly, as a way of reading them as historical documents and committing them to my meomory.

Robert Lyons work starts to come up more often towards the end of the interviews.  All black and white photographs, mostly portraits. His aim was to capture a side of the genocide that wasn’t sensationalised and didn’t frame a particular narrative.  The exclusion of captions is an extention of that aim.

“I felt that somehow there must be a way to show the horror of genocide without making sensationalistic imagery.  I wanted to explore the space between the victims and perpetrators.” ~ Robert Lyons

Looking through his photographs brought home Straus’ point. I tried but there wasn’t a person I could point out as a killer, I saw mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. Old and young, male and female. Having the knowledge of those testimonies made it all the more trying.

Hands down the toughest thing I’ve read this year.