Jy blaai in die argief vir 2010 Oktober.

#16 Someone came knocking – Shaida Ali

Oktober 29, 2010 in Sonder kategorie

Some one came knocking
    At my wee, small door;
Some one came knocking,
    I’m sure – sure – sure;
I listened, I opened,
    I looked to left and right,
But naught there was a-stirring
    In the still dark night;
Only the busy beetle
    Tap-tapping in the wall,
Only from the forest
    The screech-owl’s call,
Only the cricket whistling
    While the dewdrops fall,
So I know not who came knocking,
At all, at all, at all.

– Walter de la Mare (source)

My mother memorised this poem during her first year at school. A lifetime later, when I was little, she’d recite it to me during the day as she completed domestic chores distractedly and sewed exquisite creations on an elderly black Singer, with zeal. Her performance of “Some One”, her repetition and rhythm always elicited goosebumps of delight.

During my childhood my mother never read to me. She’d been brought up to believe women who read were avoiding household tasks. Reading was an extravagance. Writing, by extension, was an unimaginable transgression. Instead, my mother told me the kinds of short stories I love to read today. Her stories allowed me to be, as Arja Salafranca wrote, “transported briefly to a place”.

I preserve intimate memories of her grandmothers, both long dead before I was born. I’m familiar with their foibles – their predilections for sinful cigarettes or perfectly laundered crackling bed linen bleached by the sun and embroidered, beribboned, well-ironed, white nightgowns.

I wove the images from my mother’s tales (enhanced by my annoying imagination) into a precious word-quilt, a gudri, heavy with warm layers of vibrant stories.

I am my seven-year-old mother, escaping abuse at the hands of the corner chemist. I am her eyes watching him as he begins to shut the shop’s door. I am the voice in her ear urging her to run. I am the feet on which she flies home.

I am her beautiful widowed aunt who chooses her second husband unwisely and grows slovenly to avoid his attentions.

I am my generous and gifted granny exiled to a foreign land and culture for two decades by a jealous, philanderer husband.


My mother attaches no significance to her stories; to her they are without value. She’s amazed that anyone would want to read books about Muslim women in general, and in particular about Muslim women in Cape Town. She asks me if my next book is about Muslims. I nod my assent. She gives me the kind of look she’d offer the family cat if she found him scoffing a mouse with a silver fork.

Ingrid Andersen wrote: “While my studies broadened my understanding, they narrowed me as a writer. (…) [I]t took the study of literary criticism to silence me.” Like Andersen, I was similarly burdened and I carried the additional weight of my mother’s belief that her tales, our stories, were without value.

Then “Some one came knocking” and “I listened, I opened”. That someone was Anne Schuster, a facilitator of writing workshops for women (www.anneschuster.co.za).

Colleen Higgs wrote that she “chose to be a publisher, to make a space for the voices of women”. Anne Schuster makes that space for women writers. She does this calmly, without fuss, sans fanfare.

“Women often have to snatch time and write in the cracks of their lives …”
– Anne Schuster

However, at my first writing practice in a group called the Monthlies, I was uneasy. I was in the city of my birth, it was the 21st century, but I felt foreign, particularly when another participant, a local white woman, asked me what my nationality was. I gulped my coffee (Anne always provides excellent coffee) and focused my alien-self on Anne.

She began the class with a writing prompt. She told us to free-write, without pause, for ten minutes. She set her timepiece, a clockwork egg timer. Ten minutes sounded like an eternity. But. I wrote. We wrote.

“Something indescribable happens when women write together …”
– Anne Schuster

We wrote. Without lifting our pens from the page. We wrote. Without self-conscious analysis. We wrote. Without searching for heady synonyms. We wrote.

We did not weigh our words as though they were out-of-season strawberries. We wrote. We did not hold up our words to the light to check for thumb prints. We wrote. We did not examine our words for bruises. We wrote. I wrote. My fingers fled over the page. I felt the same tingles of joy that reading brought, a lightening of spirit.

“In writing with others, without pretension, without competition and without trying to impress, there is an extraordinary connection of creative energies.”
– Anne Schuster

The alarm on Anne’s timer brought us back from our separate journeys. In her gentle voice she told us to underline, using the lurid kokis scattered on our desks, the words or phrases we liked. I found her suggestion startling. Although I’d loved writing in the allotted time, why did she imagine I’d be fond of the scribbles I’d spread across the page? Besides, school had taught me that errors were underlined. Not words you chose to cherish.

Still, along with the other women in the class, I highlighted a word here, a phrase there – in bright purples, pinks and oranges. Those words and phrases became prompts for all of us to write further. Our words took us on voyages to distant worlds. We’ve written short stories, poems, novels, memoirs.

(For a list of Anne’s “graduates”, click here.)

There are other Someones knocking on my door. They’re light and gloomy, they’re funny and twisted. They’re the untold stories, both true and imagined, of my mother and other women like her, like me, like us.

They want to be written. They want to be read.

#15 Sustaining creativity – Chris Marnewick

Oktober 19, 2010 in Sonder kategorie

Helen Brain wrote: “So if you’re engaged in an everyday job that isn’t very satisfying, how do you keep your creativity fresh?” I can see the problem. Boredom at work may lead to boredom at home. And elsewhere. I would like to pose – and answer – the question turned on its head: Does being engaged in a satisfying and even challenging job facilitate creativity in your writing?

It does. There seems to be a strange phenomenon at work here. I spend my working days reading and writing and talking to people and listening to them. I spend on average one day a week in court, listening to people and talking, after a good deal of reading – research and preparation – and writing court documents. The work is often challenging. Some cases are emotionally and physically draining. Some are over quickly, while others take years to resolve. Frequently a case comes around that is so difficult that it behaves like a tapeworm that consumes every ounce of your best energy, leaving nothing for other pursuits – not for the wife, not for the children, not even for a good night’s sleep. The adrenalin levels are high, most of the time. The job is never boring.

The law is about relationships between people, and so is the novel. Every court case is about some conflict or dispute or other that involves legal or moral issues, and so it is with the novel. My job is also about persuasion, finding probabilities in strings of events, frowning upon the coincidental. Lawyers distrust the deus ex machina as much as writers do. In court the judge has to provide the answers, but in the novel it is for the writer to resolve the issues in a credible and convincing manner.

What energy could there be left then for creative work after an exhausting day’s work? This is where the strange phenomenon I mentioned earlier comes in. I think creativity comes from my emotional or instinctive mind rather than my rational or intellectual side. And the instinctive part of my mind takes over when things get really rough at work. It acts like a self-preservation valve. For a reason I can’t quite fathom, the human mind functions better under stressful conditions. The body does too, of course, and perhaps the analogy needs to start there.

Years ago, when I was much younger, I ran marathons and had to train very hard. I also played squash and tennis. Some days I had squash or tennis after a long run or even a race. What I noticed was that I played my best tennis (and squash) on days when I had run at least 10 kilometres in the morning. When I started doing triathlons, it became even more noticeable. A two-kilometre swim followed by 110 kilometres on the bike and a 10- to 15-kilometre run produced my best tennis that afternoon. What the state of near exhaustion after the running did was to slow me down so that I was forced to play a cleverer, more tactical game. I later noticed that when I arrived for tennis from an exhausting day in court and with my nerves quite ragged, I also played my best tennis.

So it is with my writing. The more stress I have at work, the greater the productivity when I pick up my pen to create. The cliché, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”, works for me.

My job is interesting and challenging. And that – no pun intended – works for me.

#14 A quick read but certainly not fast food – Meg Vandermerwe

Oktober 13, 2010 in Sonder kategorie

A few years ago I read an excellent article by the scholar and feminist Germaine Greer in which she condemned pornography, not simply because it debased and objectified women, but because it pandered to our increasing fast food culture. Pornography, for Greer, is the Big Mac of the love world: immediate satisfaction but zero nourishment. Those who “consume” pornography, Greer argued, ultimately leave the banquet feeling empty, with a greater hunger than they arrived with.

What has this got to do with the short story? Well, I have heard similar criticisms levelled against the short story. There are those who claim that rather than emerging from the experience of reading a short story feeling satisfied, they find themselves only hungry for the main course.

Perhaps it is a matter of taste. There is a luxury to sinking into a good novel. The luxury of two hundred pages with a character is a bit like the luxury of a lazy four-course Sunday lunch with good friends. It is not something many of us have the time to do often enough, but when we do, we swear that nothing compares with it.

And yet, to call the short story a crumb to the novel’s cake is a great injustice. I have read stories (many of them) which continue to resonate with me as profoundly and with as much longevity as any novel. When I was still living in London, I remember missing my tube stop because of a particularly breathtaking story. I then gave the same short story to a friend to read a few weeks later, and she proceeded to miss her tube stop too. (The story was Grace Paley’s “Zagrowsky Tells”, in case you want to put it to the test yourself.)

I am not saying that the short story is better than the novel (or indeed any other genre). It is different. Perhaps those of you who still feel that the short story is only an appetiser to the novel’s main course have been eating from the wrong menu. I would be happy to suggest a story or two that may leave you feeling perhaps not like you have had a long lunch with a good friend, but certainly like you have just tasted something unique and spectacular for the very first time and that from now on you and your taste buds will never be the same again.

#13 To read or not to read… – Harry Owen

Oktober 7, 2010 in Sonder kategorie

There’s a debate going on in certain quarters at the moment – indeed it’s been going on in one form or another for a long time – about whether poetry readings in public are A Good Thing or A Bad Thing. And much academic discussion of this (pseudo or otherwise) centres on exactly what poetry is or is for.

Zzzzzzzzzzzz!

This is much like the argument that might be made about whether breathing is a good thing or a bad thing. On the whole, we tend not to consider the matter: we just do it and accept the benefits as self-evident if we expect to go on living. But when we’re forced to consider it, the general feeling seems to be that, yes, it’s pretty good. That is my position too – both about breathing and about poetry readings.

It’s fair to say that there are many – too many – poor readings (and readers) lurking like would-be muggers out there. I have sat through more than my share of tedious dronings produced very often by poets whose view of their art seems to be that it has to be delivered (and there’s a word to debate!) in a mumbled monotone as if it’s somehow separate from the rest of language. This feeds and is fed by the misconception that poets are actually divorced from real life, that they are not real people at all but linguistic priests, seers, incantatory demigods borrowed from another world. What rubbish!

Point 1: Poets are real people.

There’s also another insidious belief that poetry has to be, if it’s worth anything at all, somehow “good for you”. Like kaolin and morphine or syrup of figs it will probably taste horrible but the benefits of the medicine are expected to outweigh the unpleasantness: a good dose of poetry now and then acts as a purgative or tonic, a colonic irrigation of the soul. This implies, of course, that any public reading of poetry, wherever it crops up, is almost inevitably going to be at least boring and in all probability painful as well.

I disagree. I am absolutely passionate about poetry’s place in the world. (Note that: in the world.) In fact, poetry is the most expressive and most essentially human of all the arts (which are themselves the essence of everything that is best in human endeavour, much undervalued in societies that define growth solely in terms of financial profit).

Good poetry readings, then – by which I mean well-organised, exciting events populated by a wide spectrum of real people who take genuine pleasure in sharing their delight in language with others of similar passion – are some of the most enjoyable occasions I have ever attended. And the best readers tend to be sensitive both to the language and to the needs of their audience.

So point 2: Poetry is not a medicine.

When I became the inaugural Poet Laureate for the English county of Cheshire in 2003, I accepted the post with a mixture of honour and trepidation. It is always nice to receive acclaim for what you do: it’s a recognition both of your art and of your perceived ability to do it. But it can sometimes be a double-edged sword. I accepted the position on the understanding that: (i) although I would have to write a number of “core commissions” based on the county’s calendar of events, I would not produce tarted-up advertising jingles masquerading as poetry; and (ii) I would try to broaden the scope of poetry across Cheshire, and beyond to include those many disenfanchised “closet poets” who I believed existed in the community but who were not currently being given a chance to express themselves.

At that time I already hosted, in a local pub, a successful bimonthly open-mic event called Poems & Pints and this template soon spread much more widely as my new profile enabled me to give poetry the publicity it had lacked before. Suddenly, the world seemed awash with poetry – and with poets! – and the platform was a public one of acceptance and opportunity. I don’t think this diminished in any way what poetry “is” (whatever that means).

There was, it is true, a great deal of (how shall I say this politely?) mediocre verse unveiled by all of this, but there was also a tremendous amount of excellent stuff produced. All of it had its place and all of it was allowed the right to be. The great thing about the public forums where such work began to be heard was that they were wholly inclusive and democratic: no one was excluded or left without a voice. And it was based on that most essential of qualities: passion.

I tell you this not because I think public recitations of poetry are a panacea for the world’s ills, or indeed that they can suddenly change attitudes to literacy and reading, but because nothing changes without opportunity. Occasions like Poems & Pints in Cheshire and now Poetry @ Reddits, a monthly open-floor event I host in Grahamstown, have proved to me just how valuable such opportunities are. And the best thing of all is that they are simply fantastic events to be part of!

Point 3, then: Poetry is fun.

So, finally, I would offer these two pieces of advice:

  • Give yourself a taster: if you are not sure about poetry readings – either listening to them or taking part yourself – resolve to go along to one soon and find out. If you are ever in Grahamstown on the last Friday of the month you are always welcome at Poetry @ Reddits, and there are many similar events in other places.
  • Read lots of poetry, and especially modern, contemporary South African poetry. This will not only help to develop your own poetic voice if you are a writer (rather than one carried over from 19th-century England) but also give you immense pleasure.

The debate about whether poems written for public performance and consumption are better or worse than those written for the page and for quiet, meditative engagement is one that will rumble on. “Better” and “worse” are flexible terms anyway. Why can’t we enjoy both?

I know I do.