April is truly the cruellest month. Almost two years ago, on a day of sublime light and stillness, came the news that the poet Stephen Watson had died. The beauty of that day was both salt and balm. Thursday, another day of air and light like champagne, was ruptured by the appalling news that Carolyn Holden (Carolina Rosa), director of La Rosa Spanish Dance Company, had died suddenly of an aneurysm.
Stephen’s death was an expected shock – terminal cancer got him in its jaws and carried him off with terrifying speed, but Carolyn’s death was the proverbial thief in the night. No warning, no hint that fate was about to pounce. Her last Facebook post – “where did the day go?” – is unbearably poignant. Stephen left a widow and two small children; Carolyn, a single parent, leaves her three-year-old adoptive daughter. The fact that this little girl has been orphaned twice in her short life makes me so angry I can barely breathe.
The photo below (click on it and it will enlarge) shows Carolyn as I first encountered her – as a tireless, dedicated teacher of flamenco. I know a good teacher when I spot one – that blend of absorption and patience – and she was that rare one who was as engrossed working with a beginner as she was with a professional.
Flamenco and I go a long way back – as a teenager, I sang Spanish folk-songs for performances orchestrated by such grande dames of Spanish dance as Miranda Keet and Mavis Becker. I fell for flamenco with all the pent-up emotional angst of a profoundly unhappy teen. But it never occurred to me that I might ever dance flamenco. I have two left feet, and not even the blindest of lovers could describe me as graceful. When I tentatively approached Carolyn in 2005 about lessons, I was not only clumsier than ever, courtesy of a tumour that had blitzed the balance cells in my left inner ear, but creaking with a chronic arthritic condition and slowed by early menopause. “Of course I can teach you, if you just want to dance for pleasure,” she said.
Flamenco is gorgeously sensual. At first I felt anything but, skulking at the back of class so that I didn’t crash into more nimble dancers (I was notorious for falling over when doing turns). I once made a disparaging remark about my body in Carolyn’s hearing, and she pounced: “You have gorgeous womanly curves. Your body is perfect for flamenco. I don’t ever want to hear you say anything like that again.” It was one of the many encouraging things she said to me as I soldiered on.
I came to love classes so much, I stamped and twirled with a beatific grin permanently on my face, and she remarked on my obvious pleasure so often (she once told a technically perfect but stony-faced nymph “why can’t you smile like Helen?”) that I put her words into the first short story I ever had published.
She gave me the confidence to take my two left feet to an Easter weekend workshop with one of Spain’s leading exponents of flamenco – where despite being twice the age and the weight of most of the limber UCT ballet students attending, I felt not shamed, but entranced. Carolyn had opened a door into a world that would normally have been light years from mine.
It soon became clear that La Rosa was special. I’d only been there a few months when Carolyn organised a benefit performance at Obz Café for one of her principal dancers, whose grandmother had just lost her home in a Khayelitsha shack fire. I had already noticed that her students and company were not only mixed racially, but (that incredibly rare thing in the “new” South Africa) across class lines as well. To get a sense of how Carolyn pulled off this nearly impossible feat, click here.
Carolyn somehow kept her company going in the face of endless funding and admin crises, by sheer force of will. She was the centre that held. She was so NEEDED, dammit.
Superficially, we were very different – she was blonde, dainty, disciplined and ferociously organised – but we both desperately wanted children, and couldn’t have them, and that tugged me towards her. It was typical of her courage that as an artist in a country increasingly hostile to the arts, with all the financial uncertainty entailed, she adopted Eli-Rose as a single parent. I was thrilled for her when she became a parent, and also in awe.
She was one of the very, very few people I could talk to honestly about childlessness and adoption. So many people who have their own biological children see adoption as a perfect solution to the problem of infertility, when in truth it is another narrative altogether. She was one of the only people who understood – who could understand the emotional terrain involved.
Tragically, her fate is all the reasons I haven’t adopted rolled into one gnawing question: What if something happens to me? I have terrible health, whereas Carolyn was as robust as pressed steel – or so we thought. The awful irony is that with all the timebombs ticking inside me – my ruined ovaries and ruinous blood sugar, the family history of cancer and suicide, my body’s tendency to generate sinister cysts and growths – I might live to be ninety, childless – while Carolyn, who seemed indestructible, has been snatched away.
We were becoming friends. I promised to read her Masters thesis – but I never did (she graduated with distinction). We were talking about my mentoring one of her staff. The last time we met for tea, she asked if I wanted to come and see her house. I was running late – “next time”, we said. The first chapter I wrote for the Girl series has a flamenco scene drawn straight from one of her performances. I couldn’t wait to show it to her. I never will now. So many nevers.
She had such a galvanising and warming effect on everyone she met, I cannot begin to imagine the grief of her family, close friends and colleagues, and my heart goes out to them all.
In one of those odd coincidences, yesterday in Clarkes I discovered a battered copy of Stephen Watson’s first poetry collection, the only book of his I didn’t already own. It made me think of the truism attributed to Maya Angelou: “People never forget how you made them feel”, and I realised that this is what good artists – whether poets or dancers – do: they make us FEEL – sometimes grief, sometimes discomfort, sometimes pure joy. And we never forget that.
So this is for all the artists, all the poets we’ve lost. It’s for Stephen and most especially for Carolyn. Yesterday I went out in my silver Errol Arendz sandals in honour of you. You taught me not just to walk in heels, but to dance in them. Your dancing, teaching, choreography, mentoring and friendship made people feel more deeply alive. You brought so much joy, with your trademark warmth and sparkle, your blunt honesty and your belly laugh. You were the most wonderful mother. Thank you. Go well.
There will be a memorial service in celebration of Carolyn’s life at the Baxter on the 16 April at 11am – all are welcome.
January was a monster of a month, so much so that I never got to post my usual booky retrospective of 2012. But the year rapidly receding was a doozy, sweet and sour. I had some of the best adventures of my life, and some of the worst shocks. I edited some brilliant books – spending weeks camping in the labyrinths of other people’s minds. And given that some of those minds belonged to Jamala Safari (The Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods), Lauren Beukes (The Shining Girls), Liesl Jobson (her short story collection, Ride The Tortoise, is about to come out from Jacana) and Makhosazana Xaba (Running and Other Stories is in production with Modjaji), you can imagine what splendours I’ve seen.
And I had many booky adventures – including claiming Lionel Shriver as my new BFF after she was a trouper on a panel I chaired (she let me give her a copy of Strange Fruit! She said nice things about the cover!), and getting to interview the staggeringly inventive poet Cathy Park Hong, all as part of the Open Book 2012 smorgasbord. And then there was the crazy experience of my Women’s Day post going viral, and being named Hogarth’s ranter of the year.
The last two months especially have been so weird, so full of surprises and developments both wonderful and terrible, that everything feels a bit surreal – and that’s a story for another blog. But given that some of my 2012 posts were prompted by incandescent rage, I wanted to post something gentler – one of the loveliest things that happened to me last year. It’s VERY immodest to make it public, but it made me cry buckets, and reminded me of how very much I loved, and still love, teaching.
In my “Other” Facebook messages inbox, amidst the spam and the hate mail, I found a letter from a former student of mine, Irena Djuric, and with her permission to publish it, here’s what it said, unedited:
I am a former student of yours. You may not remember me, but I remember you well. Perhaps the only thing you might remember me by is a silly little poem that I wrote as an excuse for turning my final project in late. This was back in 2005; I was an American exchange student, and was only on campus for that semester.
This message, these words, may not express my thoughts as precisely as I wish they could, but I’ll try anyhow. Just know that what is written below conveys only a tiny fraction of the gratitude I feel for having had you as my teacher.
I have thought of you, and all you have taught me, countless times over the years. Just tonight, as I was shuffling through old papers, I came across the June 2005 UCT South African Poetry examination. I could never bring myself to throw it out, no matter how many times I’ve tried to “declutter” my life. The poems you had chosen – South African Valentine, when the first slave was brought to the cape [by Shabbir Banoobhai], Hope for refugees [by Karen Press] – were beautiful the first time around, in that exam room. But tonight, as I read them again, they brought me to tears. Funny how poetry reminds you of the bits of yourself you forgot existed! It’s as if a poem is a compass that reminds you of who you really are (or once were, or were once capable of feeling) when life, and its many distractions and responsibilities, conspires to make you forget!
Anyways, I always thought I’d send a note to tell you how much your class had meant to me, and tonight I decided to stop putting it off. I remember you telling us that poetry was one of the few luxuries we could always afford, no matter what. I can’t tell you how often I’ve remembered those words of yours, and how often I’ve paused and indulged in a poem because of them! Poetry had never had an effect on me before I met you. Really. But my life is so much richer now because of it. So thank you, thank you, thank you, for working your special brand of Moffett magic on my life!
When I look back on my college years, I think of you, and fondly, more than any other professor. It’s strange, because we only met a couple of times per week, for just one semester, and we never developed a relationship beyond that classroom. But you shifted my focus, my approach to life, the most. You taught me how to pay attention, to be more sensitive to nuance, to stop rushing (through life, through poetry) so much! And you gave me a bigger, bolder, and more beautiful palette of emotions, experiences, and ideas to play with.
You were a wonderful teacher, generous with your insights, fresh and funny, and always infectious with your enthusiasm. It feels so good to finally tell you all that, and I’m sorry for waiting seven years to do it!
Thank you again, Helen, for everything. If you are ever in the states teaching or lecturing (especially anywhere near Atlanta, where I currently am), I would LOVE to come hear what you have to say! Who knows how many more good things I could pick up from you!
Words fail to say how much this generous, kind note from someone whose name I had long forgotten moved and humbled me. Irena, thank you – also for agreeing to let me share this. Your letter was a wonderful reminder of how I feel about poetry, how I need not to let it drown under the strident noise of the world. And it’s a reminder to all of us that if we write that note or make that call that says “Thank you — I appreciated what you did for me”, you might not only make someone’s day — you could make their year.
[in which I swear only once]
Thank all the heavens August is done and dusted. Women’s Month has been absolutely, stinkingly awful for women – Verashni Pillay hits some of the lowlights here, as does Marion Stevens – not just here in South Africa, but across the globe.
Three young women were packed off to a Russian penal colony (polite term for gulag) for singing a song in church that dared criticize a patriarchal leader and a patriarchal religion. Todd Akin, a dingbat senator in the US, pronounced that women’s bodies had special powers that enabled them to halt pregnancy in its tracks as long as they were “legitimately raped”. This poor man clearly shouldn’t be allowed to cross the road without an escort, but his slip revealed the truly medieval values of the Republican Party – all of whose senior leaders believe that women impregnated by rapists should be denied abortions.
The horrors kept coming thick and fast. Someone spotted that in the US, rapists have the same rights of access to the children of their victims as other fathers in THIRTY-FOUR STATES. Sweden, that supposed bastion of gender equality, had its laxness in prosecuting rape exposed. Rape jokes were all the rage at the Edinburgh comedy festival. Oh, and our old friends the Taliban executed a bunch of folk for attending a mixed-sex party.
Right here at home, the spouses and children of the miners mowed down in what looks increasingly like a reprisal massacre at Marikana are being either ignored or exploited. And in all the blame-mongering, responsibility-dodging and handwringing, STILL not a word on the toxic combination of patriarchal structures and cultures that made this explosion of brutality and violence inevitable.
As the country reeled in the wake of this tragedy, our Prez appeared on telly blethering on about how women needed to marry and have children – apparently we need “training” or we risk being sad unfulfilled little creatures. Now if ANYONE should keep tjoepstil on matters of familial and marital responsibility, it’s a bloke who needs to be trained to use a condom when cheating on his multiple wives. He and Senator Akin should get together over a cigar or two: not only are both men stuck in a timewarp where it is eternally 1953, but they seem utterly unaware of the depths of their own prejudices. They don’t see anything amiss (or unconstitutional) in clinging to views that relegate us ladies to the status of chalices for carrying their holy seed.
And as anyone within yelling or wifi distance of me knows, this was the month Rape Crisis — currently the oldest organization of its kind not just in the country, but in the world — had to retrench its staff due to lack of funding. I’ve screamed myself hoarse about this, and it still feels like a kick in the guts, and I’m still waiting for a response from the powers that be.
Is there a silver lining to these clouds that are forking down lightning upon women worldwide? Well, yes. No-one will ever be able to use the word “postfeminism” again without being run out of town. Many moons years ago, at a lecture I gave in the US, a beautiful blonde student announced: “I can see why feminism was necessary for women your age, but I don’t need it. I’m not oppressed!” Today, I can’t think of a single place in the world where a woman could say this without being led away and gently quizzed about her mental health.
It’s becoming clearer that even in the most “civilized” countries, the notion that women are equal and independent human beings is at best a thin veneer. It’s becoming harder to disguise the underpinning of bigotry and cruelty and stupidity and insecurity that sustains all patriarchal cultures. We have learned, the hard way, that the feminist revolution needs to start almost from Ground Zero, or risk losing the gains made during the last four decades of the twentieth century.
And this revolution has to include men, not least because they’re paying a hideous price for the dubious “privileges” patriarchal society confers on them. In a column prompted by my initial rant, David Moseley writes movingly of his worst fear: getting the news that the woman he loves has been raped. Others have pointed out how awful it must be for men who are NOT rapists or abusive or violent (sadly, a smaller category than you might think) to be constantly suspected of evil intent.
To go back to my blonde student who didn’t feel “oppressed”: for years I have felt guiltily critical of those younger women who seem to think that feminism means the freedom to get falling-down drunk in public, hire male strippers for hen parties, or “choose” to hook a wealthy sugar-daddy. But to my great joy, there is a new generation of young feminists, and best of all – they’re funny. As the gloves come off, more and more folk are responding to idiocies like those listed here with a horse laugh.
Given that this is after all a book blog, I’m going to insist that everyone read Caitlan Moran. She’s rude, eye-wateringly funny, very clever, brutally honest and moving. Did I mention funny? Her How to be a Woman should be prescribed reading for senior high school pupils, girls AND boys. Writers like her and Jessica Valenti (don’t miss her Seven Stages of Feminist Grief), along with websites like Jezebel (it’s not just schleb schlush, check out their regular columns on rape, Roe v. world, race and such-like), are using fresh tactics to tell old truths. Like me, they’re appalled at how little has changed since women were all expected to be barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. But they have new angles and approaches, and even though they’ve encountered thousands of fuck-witted men (and not a few brain-dead women), they don’t assume men are the problem – they know it’s much bigger than that.
The magnitude of the need for change is made clear in this punchy blog by feisty local writer Zukiswa Wanner – and this is where it all gets extremely unfunny, I’m afraid. We can’t afford fence-sitters anymore. You either believe women are human beings, and that men should behave like human beings, or you’re supporting a status quo in which millions of women and children are being raped, trafficked, enslaved and abused, right now, right here. Our survival as a continent depends on whether we jump over to the right side of the fence. So join the groundswell Zuki talks about — I promise our jokes have gotten better. And why not start by donating to Rape Crisis — here’s the link.
Dear Minister Lulu Xingwane,
I am writing because in the Sunday Times of 12 August, when you were asked what you were doing to support NGOs working with rape survivors, you said you were launching a national council on gender-based violence. But that you couldn’t fund these NGOs, because the government wasn’t “made of money”.
Maybe not, but it sure knows how to waste money. And this council will waste more. You might as well burn the money it will cost right now, and I can tell you why.
South Africa has many women (and some men) who have been studying gender-based violence for decades. They are academics, health-care professionals, activists, practitioners, and for a long time, they have been (1) warning that South Africa’s men are waging a civil war on women and children; (2) asking what fuels this gender civil war.
I know this because I’m one of these scholars. Have you ever read anything I’ve published on this topic, Minister? I’ve researched why South Africa’s men rape. I ask what the connection is between this scourge and the social structures of apartheid. I ask why we are so violent as a society, and why this violence so often has a sexual component. My colleagues and I could present this information to you in a single day. There is absolutely no need to reinvent the wheel by sitting a whole lot of expensive talking heads around a table for months on end. We already know why the problem is so intractable.
Historically, the liberation movements supported the idea of gender equality while refusing to criticize or dismantle patriarchy. The latter was always sheltered behind the skirts of “culture”. This is the dinosaur in the room. Claiming that women are equal citizens while maintaining and protecting patriarchal principles and social practices is similar to insisting that all races are equal while refusing to dismantle slavery on the grounds that it’s a “cultural” practice.
And so we have the schizophrenic situation in which women are present in our government in far greater numbers than in most Western countries – and a President who thinks that having unprotected sex with a HIV-positive woman (thereby putting all his other wives, fiancées and girlfriends at risk) is perfectly normal male behaviour, that fathering two soccer teams worth of children he couldn’t support is just one of those “guy” things.
I’m not even having a go at Mr Zuma in particular; his predecessor’s insistence that AIDS was some sort of Western con was a hugely patriarchal delusion, given the disproportionate harm it did to women and children. And we’re all equally guilty, because we didn’t think the attitude of these men to women mattered when we chose them to lead.
We tell ourselves that women are equal under the Constitution at the same time that we buy the myth of the “benign” patriarch. Meanwhile women and children (and even men) are paying a hideous price for our refusal to recognize that patriarchy is as evil a social system as racial apartheid, for our insistence that dangerous and dehumanizing practices are “cultural” and therefore untouchable. Our heads are so deep in the sand that only the soles of our feet show.
This is clear as we reel in horror at the events of Marikana. In all the words that have been spilling almost as fast as the blood of those awful days, in all the discussion of race and class and capitalism and poverty, no-one has pointed out that all the protagonists – miners, police, mine management, union members – were men. No-one is commenting on the obvious: that we are a nation that enables and encourages men to be violent. We refuse to recognize that if our President prances around singing “Umshini Wam” every time he feels threatened, real machine-guns are eventually going to come into play.
We were a violent patriarchal society under apartheid, and we are a violent patriarchal society now, and that is why these events are so nightmarishly familiar.
And this is what any council worth its salt will conclude about gender-based violence. And government will pretend it didn’t hear that to tackle the problem of the war South African men are waging on women and children will mean a social revolution. We’d rather tiptoe away from the rape survivors of this country than connect the dots. We don’t want to see the link between the fact that the Zuma rape accuser was a black lesbian and the ongoing murderous rapes of black lesbians. We’d rather not think about the link between his assumption that if a woman wears a kanga, she’s asking for a good shagging, and the belief held by some of our men that if a woman wears trousers, she’s asking for a good hiding.
So all this money, time and expertise will be swept under the carpet. And that is why – as the Times Live poll on 13 August showed – the majority of taxpayers want you to take the money (their money) you’re going to waste on a toothless council, and use it to fund the organizations on the ground.
Tell me, Minister, when a fourteen-year-old girl in Lavender Hill is raped on her way home from the shops, is her distraught family going to be able to ring your council? Is it going to send someone to hold her hand as she goes through the awful process of the medical examination, the collection of forensic evidence, laying a charge with the police? Is it going to give her a safe place for the night, a comfort pack of clean panties, soap, cotton wool and a soft toy? Are you going to counsel her when she has screaming nightmares, encourage her when the PEP drugs have her retching? Will your council accompany her to court two years later, sit with her through the six times the case is postponed, support her when she finally has to relive the entire nightmare in front of a room full of strange men?
Which do you think she needs more, a skilled NGO on the ground (which has the confidence and participation of local communities), or your national council? Yet these NGOs are either closing or under threat because your Department (which isn’t “made of money”) would rather blow billions on pointless ceremonies, holidays, conferences that reinvent the gender wheel, monuments, statues and other empty gestures.
And so I ask, on my knees: please PLEASE ditch this council. Please pledge its budget towards supporting those NGOs that do the REAL work of supporting the casualties of our gender civil war.
Dear Helen Zille,
I’ve been wanting to write to you as a follow-up to my Women’s Day roar of rage, but like the rest of the country, I have been too horrified by the Lonmin mine massacre to think straight. But the sexual violence that stalks this country isn’t going away, and so I have to say this.
You know that Rape Crisis is retrenching staff and shutting down most of its operations after 35 years of supporting women, children and increasingly men in their most desperate hours and months and years of need: reconstructing lives shattered by rape. As the Premier of the Western Cape, this is happening on your watch; and apparently the official response when you were approached was “Get in line – there are thousands of NGOs desperate for funding, all equally needy.”
This makes me want to bang my head against a wall. Do you not realise you need Rape Crisis as much as they need you? I know this is an unpopular thing to say, but not all NGOs and charities are equal. Many rely on volunteers. And if someone wants to donate blood, plant a tree, help at an animal shelter, read to the blind, make food for the hungry, even build a house, all that’s needed is time and willingness. No special expertise is necessary. If a soup kitchen closes down, it’s awful, but anybody can still make and distribute soup to the hungry. Civil society really can just get stuck in.
But training a Rape Crisis counsellor or court supporter takes months of intensive specialist work. They get more training than the average security guard or kitskonstabel. They are carefully supervised, and their training is constantly updated, because the treatment and forensic protocols and the legal issues surrounding rape change all the time. And the truth is that providing expert, professional support to a woman who’s been gang-raped, or a child whose uncle has sodomized her, is NOT in the same league as organizing a school outing.
People working for Rape Crisis represent an incredibly rich source of medical, psychological, forensic and legal expertise – especially because of their long history. If Rape Crisis shuts down, 35 years of desperately needed skill and experience, of community trust and participation, just disappears. Lost and gone. It’s an insane waste of capacity – that buzz word for people who actually know what they’re doing – that this country, this province, this city needs more than ANYTHING else.
I know you’re not personally responsible for the eleven billion rand local municipalities managed to waste in one financial year. I know it’s not your fault that the country is in hock unto the fifth generation for the mind-bendingly expensive pieces of scrap metal currently in dry dock at Simonstown. I also know that as Premier, you had an awful Women’s Day weekend, what with most of Cape Town’s poorer areas ankle-deep in water, along with riots and stonings that left five blameless people dead.
But I need you to understand how urgent this is. Cape Town is not the deaf/ leukemia/ malnutrition /diabetes capital of the world. But it IS the rape capital of the world. Not only are we Rape Central, we have the worst gang rape and child rape figures of any city in the world. The world! There is not a family on the Cape Flats that isn’t affected. And the only silver lining is that we HAVE an organization that’s been dealing with this since 1976, that takes a huge weight off your hospitals, police stations, forensic labs and courts. (Did you know that some prosecutors insist on working with Rape Crisis because their conviction rates jump by 80% when they do?)
Do you have any idea of the economic cost of sexual violence to the state? The medical and social fallout (injury, unwanted pregnancies, HIV and STD infections, depression, panic attacks, suicide attempts, marital breakdown, job losses, families torn apart)? By tackling these problems, organizations like Rape Crisis and the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children literally stand between the provincial government and a leaking dam of so much brutality and trauma and suffering, it makes my head spin.
But you want Rape Crisis to “get in line” with other charities, as if lifting a massive burden off the state by providing services to rape survivors is the same as stocking libraries or providing soccer uniforms. Aikona. I hate it (and so do you, I’m sure) that NGOs have to scrabble for the same crumbs from the table, but effectively telling women to “get in line” is unacceptable. It’s part of a centuries-old pattern of making women feel guilty for daring to demand attention or compete for scarce resources (“Think of all the OTHER needy people, you selfish hags!”). It’s the old trick of expecting women to be meek and mild and grateful even as we’re being thrown to the wolves.
I believe national government should fund crisis organizations that support rape and abuse survivors, and should provide the province with the means to do so, and I am writing some choice words to the Minister of Everyone Except Able-Bodied Men on the subject. But until then, I am begging you: do the right thing. Do not make us face the bitter irony of seeing this kind of capacity and expertise tossed onto the scrap heap under a female Premier and a female Mayor. Do not cut the few lifelines that exist for women and families devastated by a trauma for which we are notorious around the world.
To donate to Rape Crisis: http://rapecrisis.org.za/support-us/donate/
To tweet Helen Zille: @HelenZille Rape Crisis is shutting down during Women’s Month. Insane! Fund it now! #SaveRapeCrisis
[Warning: this post contains a lot of bad language and shouting. My parents should stop reading now.]
Dear Government (big, small, national and local),
Here’s an idea. Take your pathetic, meaningless, mind-blowingly expensive and stomach-churningly patronising Women’s Day and cancel it. Cancel the entire idea of “women’s month”. Tell me, what is the FUCKING point?
Trash that ridiculous, pointless, bloated Dept of Women, Children and People with Disabilities (how’s that for neatly categorising us little ladies – not only does possession of a vagina constitute a disability, but vagina-owners are as powerless and lacking in agency as children). It’s no more than a particularly sanctimonious event-planning agency. The departmental mission? “Ooh, women and children are getting raped and abused, they bear the brunt of criminally lousy education and brutal poverty: LET THEM EAT CUPCAKES! Plus we’ll throw in some glossy leaflets, and send someone in a designer suit to pat heads and make a speech full of platitudes before we jet off for another shopping trip er international conference.”
So ditch the pointless sodding public holiday (estimated cost to the economy: SEVEN BILLION). Stop bleating about the month of women. It’s PATHETIC, considering it’s open season on South African women 24/7, year in, year out. Our rape stats are a global disgrace (Goddess, how many times do I have to FUCKING say this, the WORST in the world for a country not at war – the scale is unimaginable, the suffering ditto), black lesbians have “carve me up and smash my brains in” signs stamped on their backs, rural women and children live in relentless, grinding misery and poverty HUGELY exacerbated by patriarchal strictures, which are of course absolutely sacred (and the fact that the Traditional Courts Bill, which would render these women even more helpless and wretched, is actually allowed to pollute national airtime is a bloody disgrace). We are failing, no, betraying, no, ABUSING children by callously pissing away their only shot at an education, their ONLY chance of a life of decent employment, a form of abuse that will affect girls worse than boys; we’re losing ground in terms of infant and maternal mortality; women without cash are being denied C-sections at state hospitals and giving birth to stillborn babies on the floor as a result. SO DON’T TALK TO ME ABOUT FUCKING WOMEN’S DAY YOU BOZOS.
Here’s a better idea. Instead of the jamborees and a long weekend of more boozing and beatings and rapes, take the money – the obscene piles and piles of it you intend to waste – and use it to fund Rape Crisis, which is having to CLOSE ITS FUCKING DOORS because you don’t think it’s worth supporting, never mind that it does priceless work, not just in enabling women and their families to pick up their lives after they’ve been blown apart, but in taking an enormous burden off both the public health and criminal justice systems. Fund the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children, which is literally having bake sales to keep running. All those NGOs that have lost their overseas funding because of the economic crisis – how about funding them, the hundreds that work with the poorest of the poor (which, SURPRISE! equates women and children), which do invaluable work for women with TB or Aids, which support women who are raising grandchildren, running crèches, soup kitchens, micro-employment schemes, food gardens, hospices and all the heroic things that South African women do to keep this country running, NO FUCKING THANKS TO YOU.
Stop whining about the Lotto (an additional tax on the poor) and big business, and how “they need to come to the party”. International funders have been warning for South African NGOs for years, you’re not a baby democracy any more, YOUR government needs to start picking up the tab for this. And so you bloody well ought. What’s next, asking the Lotto or big business to supply the state with ambulances?
So grow the fuck up. Cancel the froth and bubbles. What you have reduced the 1956 Women’s March to is a travesty. That was an occasion of extraordinary dignity and power, and we’d like to remember and honour it without having to use sickbags, please. Lilian Ngoyi and Albertina Sisulu and the thousands of brave women who took part that day are squirming in their graves at your appalling, ongoing, almost CASUAL abandonment of this country’s women, especially the poorest ones. The public spectacle of hypocrisy that is Women’s Day is just rubbing salt into their wounds.
*Never post in a rage. But sometimes rage is appropriate.
Update, Friday, 3pm: I’m stunned that this has gone viral. Thanks to all for the support and interest. If this has touched a nerve then PLEASE copy, post and tweet Helen Zille, premier of the Western Cape, as follows: @HelenZille Rape Crisis is shutting down during Women’s Month. Insane! Fund it now! #SaveRapeCrisis
… that letter from your publisher telling you that a book you wrote is to be “remaindered or pulped”. The stomach does a nasty little wobble and drop, the clouds over the mountain suddenly look grim and dank. It’s the horrible grown-up side of publishing a book, a risk you never think of back in the honeymoon stages of getting the first copies back from the printer.
In this case, it’s my much-loved little landscape anthology, Lovely Beyond Any Singing, that is due for the chop. I have dried my tears — it’s had a good run, six years in fact, and in fact the entire imprint is being decommissioned, so I’m not the only one. Because this book has many contributors, Juta have kindly agreed that anyone who contributed is welcome to buy it at cost. In fact, anyone who wants to buy it at cost is welcome to do so, as long as they do it through me (i.e., you have to pay me, and I’ll get it to you).
It’s being offered at R17.25 plus VAT, so basically twenty bucks. This represents a brilliant opportunity to get it into a market that previously couldn’t afford it — school libraries, which rely heavily on donations. My wonderful-beyond-words friend Elinor Sisulu has already offered to buy a pallet to distribute to schools in Gauteng and parts. If anyone feels that generous — i.e., you have a mad notion to buy 50 or more to donate directly to an organization like Equal Education, then you can approach Roy Mansell, the business manager at Juta direct (write to me for his e-address) and they will post them at no extra cost.
For every kind person who might want smaller amounts or even just one, I’ll ferry it to you if you’re local; if you’re from outside Cape Town and are of a patient nature, I promise I will get your books to you (via Book Fairs, etc) eventually.
In a nutshell, if you’d like to buy this book for R20 (*Incredible Opportunity! Knockdown Price! Hurry Now!*), let me know: it’s a Quality Street assortment of South African writers on landscape (including not a few Bookslive members): Henrietta Rose-Innes, Chris van Wyk, Mike Cope, Ivan Vladislavic, Pamela Jooste, Sindiwe Magona, Zakes Mda, Sol Plaatje, Athol Fugard, Es’kia Mphahlele, Kelwyn Sole, Jonty Driver, Jeremy Cronin, Stephen Watson, Bloke Modisane, Nadia Davids, Rustum Kozain, Richard Rive, Herman Charles Bosman, Wally Mongane Serote, Mxolisi Nyezwa and lots lots more.
The idea was to take a tour around the country, as seen through the eyes of those who’ve written about it — it’s not an academic overview, or an exhaustive account. Mostly just me having fun with favourite passages. Here’s a page that will tell you more — click on this link.
Here’s a (very kind) review.
As always with remaindering (can’t bring myself to repeat the p-word, horrors), time is of the essence. Juta want to know how many to save by 15 June, so please let me know asap if you want a copy, either for yourself, or a library or school you’d like to support. Or both.
My little book and I will be grateful.
Stephen Watson died, much too soon, a year ago today, only months after launching what was to be his last work, a cerebral and celebrated collection of essays, The Music In The Ice.
I wrote this poem after returning home from a GIPCA memorial reading held in his honour last October. I seldom take my poems out in public until at least a year after writing them, sometimes longer if they’re written in the grip of strong emotion. But a friend said something lovely at the time: that as a poet, Stephen got to be authentic for a living — which meant risking telling people, in writing, how he really felt about them, the world, what was inside his head — and that it was fitting that the death of a poet should trigger poetry. And I wanted to do something to mark the anniversary of his passing. Hence this risk.
Eleven things not to do when newly reborn
Don’t go to a memorial reading in honour of a friend lost too early.
Don’t listen to his words, read by others (some gruff with tears) and remember his voice, his dark-blue eyes, the curve of his mouth as he spoke.
Don’t listen to any poems. Stop your ears. Or accept that you will come unravelled.
Don’t embrace people from other lives, people that you remember you miss.
Don’t kiss any cheeks, much less with tenderness.
Don’t stroke his widow’s back in lieu of words.
Don’t drive home via the Atlantic coast, the last of sunset separating the blurred grey sky from the ridged grey water.
Don’t swing round curves in the road under the Twelve Apostles.
Don’t remember that he’ll never see fynbos, now a show of pelargoniums and aristeas, shifting from spring to summer again.
Don’t look back at Hout Bay with Hangklip shadowed on still sea, the lights of the old fishing village starting to bleed across the water.
Most of all: don’t do any of these things when you’re alive again, naked as a newborn, after the longest winter.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that editing other people’s writing murders any efforts to write oneself. I salute, with awe, those who manage to do both. I’m also grateful to those who constantly ask me “What about your own writing?”, even if my usual response is a horse-laugh.
However, the one thing that drives me to write is physical extremity. Right now, as a precaution against cancer and other nasties, I have to take progesterone every three months, in spite of the fact that it makes me insane by any legal or medical definition. This morning it brought me to a pitch of desperation that could only be assuaged by writing. Some dim part of me is also aware that the scenarios it creates have a certain savage comedy.
Last night Colleen Higgs, my very dear publisher, told me that for the umpteenth time, she’d gotten mail from someone who’d read my poetry collection Strange Fruit (in which I write about being infertile), and found it comforting. I get this kind of feedback regularly, even nearly three years after it came out.
Colleen gets letters like these all the time about Malika Ndlovu’s Invisible Earthquake (on stillbirth), and Beverly Rycroft’s Missing (about surviving breast cancer). Finuala Dowling apparently gets similar responses to her books that deal with the loss of her mother to dementia — her poems Notes From the Dementia Ward, and her novel Homemaking for the Down-at-heart. These books — novels and poems — help people.
So, in the interests of (a) recording those fragments of my writing that aren’t related to my day-and-night job and (b) letting others in the same pickle know they’re not alone, here you are:
Day six on progesterone: Wake, for the second morning running, convinced that my cat Lily has drowned in the landpersons’ pool. So, like yesterday, the day begins with me stumbling down the garden, calling her hysterically. After a few minutes, it dawns on me that both Lily and Meg are trailing me, a tad concerned about their wild-eyed mother. I play with them for half an hour while the sensation of imminent heart attack recedes. Remember lovely evening before. Calm, calm…
This fortifies me for a daunting morning: I have to visit bank, post office, pick up mended shoes, get cat food and human food. This means Long Beach Mall on a Saturday morning. I manage most chores, and apart from being unable to locate familiar shops and shelves when I’m standing in front of them, the only sign of instability is when the musack system plays the Beatles’ “Let It Be” and I start crying.
I spend a small fortune on Vit B6, magnesium, borage and omega oils and buchu capsules, the pharmacopoeia I remember from another lifetime, when I had such bad PMS my doctors told me I posed a risk to myself and others. Feel righteous: I am Taking Charge. Quell the thought that I am spending money I don’t have, with no guarantees of any improvement.
I’m almost ready to leave the mall when I am suddenly overwhelmed by the conviction that my breasts are too small. (Yes, I know. Jaw-dropping.) I charge into Woolies to look at push-up bras. Get grip. Lean against pillar, panting with horror at near-loss of mind. Am distracted by jeans on sale and haul them, plus all my shopping, into change-room. Where I discover I have lost my car keys. Empty handbag, wallet and all shopping bags onto floor, and search — in vain. Sink down onto seat weeping at the thought of revisiting bank, post office, etc. Become aware that something is digging into me. I am sitting on my keys, which are on the seat where I put them down upon entering the change-room.
And it’s not even lunchtime yet.
NB health warning: there’s a name for this condition — progesterone intolerance — and it’s quite common. Unlike me, most sufferers do NOT have to endure it. See Megan Kerr’s handy blog, and consult your doctor if you too lose your marbles on progesterone.
PS: As I’m in this for the duration, my thanks to the lovely friends (you know who you are) who comfort me when my teeth turn to fangs.
One thing I love about the internet: everybody knows what a meme is (I like the punning angle too, me-me). There’s been one doing the rounds for about a week (which means it’s probably already had its day), a poster describing a profession from the perspective of society, parents, friends and the person doing the job.
Here’s the one for publishers, for example.
Some folk are already sick of the meme, and there are some lovely parodies as well, but it really tickles me.
I think this is because I love what I do so much, and yet it isn’t immediately clear to folk what I mean when I say I’m an editor. I sat next to a very clever British engineer at a wedding this week, and upon hearing what I did for a living, he said “So you correct people’s grammar, then?” Sarah Lotz overheard, and zinged back, “She tells authors to cut the crap, and that they can do much better.” Cue confusion.
So I went home and collected the following images, which Rustum Kozain very kindly made into a poster so I could put it on my Facebook wall. (Thanks, Mr Grondwerk — it’s much appreciated.) And so this, my dear ones, is what I do, what I love doing, and what I will be doing until I drop in harness, or the world ends, whichever comes first.
Here’s Rustum’s poster:
Here are the pictures (a little different):
This is what society thinks I do:
This is what my friends think I do:
This is what my mother thinks I do:
(What my mother, my friends and society all think I do is pretty interchangeable, I should add.)
This is what publishers think I do:
This is what my authors think I do:*
This is what I think I do:
This is what I really do:
When I’m not doing this:
* True confessions: I put together this entire post just so that I could publish this picture.