#1 Introduction – Janet van Eeden

Julie 30, 2010 in Sonder kategorie

LitNet’s Big Book Chain Chat is an ongoing discussion on (South African) books and writing. LitNet invites publishers, authors, literary agents, reviewers, translators, marketers, anyone involved in the (local) book industry to write on any relevant topic from any angle in any format. Contributors can either comment on a previous post – or introduce a new thread. Although we’ll be issuing the invites, the blog-format allows for comments by everyone! Feel free to mail Imke van Heerden at [email protected] to contribute or for more information.

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Big Book Chain Chat kick start by LitNet-reviewer Janet van Eeden

The ground was hard, the air was still, my road was lonely … I was a mile from Thornfield, in a lane noted for wild roses in summer, for nuts and blackberries in autumn, and even now possessing a few coral treasures in hips and haws, but whose best winter delight lay in utter solitude and leafless repose. If a breath of air stirred, it made no sound here; for there was not a holly, not an evergreen to rustle, and the stripped hawthorn and hazel bushes were as still as the white, worn stones which causewayed the middle of the path. Far and wide, on either side, there were only fields, where no cattle now browsed; and the little brown birds, which stirred occasionally in the hedge, looked like single russet leaves that had forgotten to drop. (Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë, pp 112–3, Penguin, 1994.)

The whole country about them abounded in beautiful walks. The high downs … were a happy alternative when the dirt of the valleys beneath shut up their superior beauties; and towards one of these hills did Marianne and Margaret direct their steps, attracted by the partial sunshine of a showery sky […] They gaily ascended the downs, rejoicing in their own penetration at every glimpse of blue sky; and when they caught in their faces the animating gales of a high south-westerly wind, they pitied the fears which had prevented their mother and Elinor from sharing such delightful sensations. (Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen, pp 38–9, Penguin, 1994.)

The above two extracts illustrate the inner landscape of my childhood and early womanhood. Growing up in a home where the so-called classics were read was a privilege in so many ways. My mother, orphaned at a young age, was brought up in a convent under the wing of an extremely well-educated nun, Sister Albertine. She taught my mother to love classic literature, and this gift was passed on to me. So I’d shut myself away in my room during my troubled adolescent years to withdraw into the world of wind-swept downs with very occasional glimmers of bright skies. While I was growing up under the harsh African sun, my inner world was paradoxically papered with images of British landscapes such as those described in the two extracts above.

I absorbed and loved everything about the novels and plays I read. And our high school teachers encouraged us to believe that European was the only real literature. This focus on all things European continued through my studies in English and drama at university, although one or two weighty African works were sometimes introduced into the syllabus by progressive lecturers. My studies were laudable in giving me an excellent grounding in dramatic writing style, structure, and language. I’m eternally grateful to have had such a solid background in the classics.

The only problem was that I grew up with an awareness that the environment I lived in wasn’t quite as good as those I’d read about. Especially as I grew up in a rather barren area of the Orange Free State.

It was only after living in the UK for almost five years, where I walked through windswept downs and bird-filled hedgerows on a daily basis, that I remembered where my heart belonged. It belonged on the wide open veld of the Free State, alongside an exploding field of impossibly yellow sunflowers, under the clichéd blue canopy of sky.

The first democratic elections in this country seemed to make everyone else aware of the fact that it was time to root our allegiances in this country. We no longer had anything to be ashamed of (well, not as much as before) and we could celebrate ourselves and our country without guilt. Since then South African literature has come into its own. At last we can revel in landscapes which are familiar to us. Instead of windswept downs and gently winding hedgerows we have:

It was a warm, windless evening and Kalk Bay was awake as if it were daytime. A convivial row of fishermen on the pier cast out their lines. Sons and daughters helped to attach wriggling bits of bait to hooks; wives unpacked large bottles of fizzy cooldrink … We like Kalky’s because it has no pretensions. Whether you order crayfish or hake it is slapped on your picnic table in the same Styrofoam container. The tomato sauce is served in a sawed-off plastic juice bottle. (What Poets Need, by Finuala Downing, Penguin, 2005)

I’m on my way home from the road. I walk along the pavilion bridge cause it’s still hot, hot and it helps me to see the sea. Down on the beach, dark brown mamas wash up like whales. In huge D-cups, I’m talking humongous. Tent panties, totally see-through. They let the sea take them, drag their hands in the sand. Laugh their heads off. Carry on like it’s Christmas. (Whiplash, by Tracey Farren, Modjaji, 2008).

These two extracts are not exactly romantic, but the images they conjure up are as real and tangy as sea salt. We recognise the people of our country in them. We know them. Our inner landscapes reflect our home.

And here are two more extracts redolent with the sights and smells of Southern Africa:

Behind the cottage, beyond the vines, the two children have discovered the vague hint of a path. They already know that if you follow it carefully a short way, it will take you over the coarse mountain grass till you reach a clear, shallow pool of water, the base of a small waterfall. This haven for rock rabbits and tadpoles and the occasional wildcat, hidden among trees and boulders, has become their secret, close enough to the cottage for them to hear Camille calling, yet far enough from things too ordinary for the serious business of make-believe. (One Tongue Singing, Susan Mann, Random House, 2004)  

I met Ikeji at the Women’s Agenda Forum, on one of those sweltering summer days with the clouds making empty threats and the air thick with the smell of rain. A plump woman emblazoned in African attire with a high perm on her head was addressing the crowd. The air was stale, unaffected by the fans sputtering overhead. I ached for the chill of winter, the way I always yearn for a slap of sun when my cheeks freeze in June. The woman seated next to me stank of sweat and I waved my programme vigorously for relief. (“In Bed with Ikeji”, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, from The Bed Book of Stories, edited by Joanne Hichens, Modjaji, 2010)

Here we have Africa reflected in just a few of her guises: the smell of sweat on a hot day, fish in a Styrofoam container, mountain paths surrounded by coarse grass, large women swimming in the sea with abandon in only their underwear. Our stories resonate now with our daily lives.

South African writing has at last achieved a fine sense of itself. Finally our writing can stand, unapologetic and proud, alongside those European forerunners. South Africans of all races and sexes are making their voices heard. And I’m truly grateful to be here to enjoy the renaissance of South African writing.

2 antwoorde op #1 Introduction – Janet van Eeden

  1. I am really enjoying following this chain, starting with Janet’s contribution – much insightful material which highlights especially the diversity of South African writers and the issues they are individually focussing on.

  2. Thanks Joanne! I’ve actually just been involved in a debate about this very topic with Phillippa Yaa de Villiers who criticized the BBC list of Top 100 Books as being too European. It is. And thankfully South Africans are now able to make their own lists. We have enough literature to fill 100 best reads at last! I’ve challenged a few people to compile this list. Hope they get there soon.

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