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Helen Moffett

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Women’s Day 2016: This year, I wrote a book, not a rant

I was dreading Women’s Day — hell, the whole month — this year. Here we were, the 60th anniversary of the historic women’s march on the Union Buildings barrelling down on us, and almost every single thing about the status and treatment of South African women that’s had me frothing at the mouth for decades is so firmly entrenched, it feels like it’s been set in concrete.

So this was me every time I thought of Women’s Month:

grumpy cat nope

Right now I’m out the country, which has been an effective way of dodging the usual infuriating, patronising, tone-deaf, saccharine, sexist, and generally asinine things that government, media and corporations do and say at this time of year. In case you aren’t quite sure what I’m referring to, see Rebecca Davis’s savage pink list here.

But for the first time in a long time, I feel a little wriggle of hope. Why? Because even on another continent, it’s been impossible to miss news of the protest by four women who stood before Number One as he tried to heh-heh his way through a post-election debriefing, holding up placards commemorating one of the lowest points in South’s Africa’s then adolescent democracy: the Zuma rape trial and acquittal, which openly endorsed and entrenched South Africa’s particularly noxious brand of rape culture. Their strategy was brilliant — four young women in elegant black dresses stepped to the front of the auditorium and stood between the president and his audience in silence, their backs to him, literally replacing his words with the ones written on their placards.

Millions must share my relief at knowing that Khwezi, the name given to the Zuma rape accuser, has not been forgotten, that young South Africans recognise the price she paid (nothing less than exile), that the unashamedly sexist, irresponsible and dangerous.behaviour modelled by a man then about to seize leadership of the country has not been swept under the carpet. For an excellent commentary on the significance of their actions, read the unfailingly reliable Sisonke Msimang. If this is the calibre of young activists today, then we can breathe a little easier.

And there have been other glimmers. Prof Pumla Dineo Gqola wrote an electrifyingly good book on rape in South Africa — angry, articulate, breathless with momentum and bristling with signposts to alternative ways of living our lives without fear. And then she won the Alan Paton award — South Africa’s most prestigious prize for non-fiction — for it. Michelle Hattingh wrote a memoir (I’m The Girl Who Was Raped) that made for bleak reading, but spelled out clearly and without shame, the multitude of ways the criminal justice system, the medical profession, and society in general, utterly fails rape survivors. Less solution-oriented than Gqola’s book, it still makes it crystal clear that our current models for dealing with sexual violence are abject failures; that as long as we deplore rape while accepting and/or encouraging rape culture, nothing will change.

I marked this 60th year since our foremothers massed into one brave cohort and marched on the citadel of apartheid by digging out my research on sexual violence for the umpteenth time, and trying to put the bits I’ve published into a single manuscript. This time, it actually got off to a publisher. A book doesn’t have the immediacy of a rant: but there is so much to say, so much to be undone, unpicked, re-imagined, I had to give it a bash.

So, this year, take the swearing and the fury as a given. And hopefully, next year there’ll be a book with constructive analysis, as a tiny token of honour and respect for South African women, and the heavy lifting they do. And as always: donate to Rape Crisis, who do the hard stuff, the life-saving work.




A Dashing Day: the magic of making books for children

Dueling Darth VadersSpend a day creating children’s books, and this is what you might encounter. A platinum blonde with electric bunny ears. Two poets in Darth Vader masks duelling each other with fairy wands. A little boy in a scarlet petticoat and ladybird wings. A trio sporting fake eyebrows and moustaches. And that’s just the people making the books.

At long last, I got to attend my first Book Dash day yesterday. The impetus: South African (and African) children don’t see nearly enough of themselves or their stories on the pages of books — or if they do, the books are commissioned with the education market in mind, often worthy/preachy, poorly designed and illustrated, and about as light as poured concrete. Besides, for poor families, spending money on a child’s book for recreational reading is out of the question.

The brains (and great big hearts — Arthur Attwell, Michelle Matthews, Tarryn-Anne Anderson, Julia Norrish) behind the Book Dash concept believe that it’s vital for very young children to have access to books, something borne out by decades of research on early childhood development. So they make it happen through a truly genius system: they ask teams of three (writer, illustrator and designer) to give one day of their time to create a book for free. Teams are supported by editors, tech advisers and logistical crew, and provided with vast amounts of delicious food and drink.

All the books are licensed under a creative commons agreement, so that anyone can download or print out the books for non-commercial use. This means they can be translated into any language in the world — for free. So no royalties or copyright fees.

The infrastructural costs of running a Book Dash day, at a central location (itself often donated), are met by corporate sponsors. (Yesterday’s marathon was sponsored by Decorland: muchas gracias!) Fundraising campaigns aim to meet the single biggest expense — printing. (See here for Lauren Beukes’s brilliant means of raising enough money to print 50 000 books. Yes, that is the correct number of zeros.) Structures such as NPOs and educational initiatives that have the capacity to distribute the books are identified. Et voila, little children get to own their very first books.

I arrived both stressed and excited: how was I going to provide editing support to three teams for stories that still had to be written? I needn’t have worried. When, for instance, I told poet and storyteller Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa that her 800-word folktale source needed to be a maximum of 120 words for this age group, and its rich assembly of characters needed to be cut to three, she sat down and knocked out a perfect story in an hour. I fell upon her neck, proposing marriage.

Maya Marshak, the artist on the team creating Katiita’s Song, had flu, but still painted delicate, empathetic panels before being sent home to bed, with designer Kirsten Walker stepping into the breach and making sure we had something exquisite to present at the end of the day. Philippa composed a song that Maama sings to her little daughter, Katiita, and performed it for us, complete with growly gorilla voices, at the Show and Tell session — this might be Book Dash’s first audio-book.

I mostly just hovered appreciatively around “my” other teams: The Best Thing Ever, created by Melissa Fagan (writer), Lauren Nel (illustrator) and Stefania Origgi (designer); and Little Sock, created by Chani Coetzee (designer), Lili Probart (artist) and Jon Keevy (writer who should be doing stand-up, if he isn’t already). The Best Thing Ever is about Muzi, a small boy who discovers the magic of found objects on a trip to his Gogo. I was so busy clasping my hands in delight over the charm of the story and the paintings Lauren Nel was doing, I only registered the subtle messages about the environment, imagination and transformation later. Likewise, the story of Little Sock was essentially “The Odyssey, but with a single sock” — the kind of story that delivers both to adults and littlies. It was funny and quirky, off-the-wall and underground, and I loved it.

It’s impossible to describe the atmosphere of a Dash Day. Part of the magic is that people who give this kind of time to make children’s books are special. I’ve long known that anyone, esp in SA, who cares about and creates children’s lit deserves a special place in heaven. Then there’s the feeling of being in a huge adult kindergarten. State of the art tech shares space with pastels, crayons, craft paper, paints. Writers tell their tales, an artist picks up a paintbrush and an idea blooms on a page, in colour. It’s lump-in-the-throat stuff, especially when writing for this particular age group (yesterday’s efforts were for 3-5 year-olds). Make no mistake, it’s hard writing for kids: they can’t be fobbed off with cheesy, preachy or boring.

Everywhere I looked, there was something truly wonderful happening. Jacqui L’Ange wrote a story about a shongololo’s disappearing shoes that had layers of wit and heart. Martha Evans, wearing an author instead of an editor hat, said of working in tandem with an illustrator and designer: “It’s like that moment when you get a perfect cover — but over and over.”

The shrewdly planned catering involved an endless supply of delicious goodies, featuring masses of protein, no refined carbs or sugar until after the 3pm slump (at which chocolate was introduced into the mix). Endless tea, coffee, Red Bull (I had my first: cherry liqueur meets Iron Brew — yuk, but what a caffeine rush), with wine broached at 5pm. The cheerleading and support staff were also amazing: special thanks to Noélle Ruby-Mae Koeries and Tarryn-Ann Anderson for cups of tea, TLC and well-timed hugs.

I’m glad Philippa spoke about the elephant in the room: the preponderance of white (and female) faces. She was disappointed, but it was partly circumstantial; seven black would-be participants couldn’t make the specified date. Then there are the factors that should be obvious, but often aren’t: asking people to work for free for a 15-hour day (if you include travel) takes a middle-class layer of resources, as well as ease of access to a central urban location. And in spite of being a small sector of the population, white Saffers have a dense concentration of specialist skills by definition, because of the affirmative advantages our education and access have bestowed on us. But there are plans afoot, including attracting funding so that Book Dashes happen in other African countries.

IMG_4518There was a moving moment when Maya showed us her painting of the character, Maama: we were exclaiming over the beauty of both the artwork and the character, when Philippa said “I’m not used to seeing my face — a black woman’s face — rendered as a model of loveliness and goodness. We’re presented with so many Western ideals of beauty that it’s a pleasant shock when I see a representation of myself as someone beautiful, a heroine.”

And meanwhile, the fairy-dust kept swirling in the air: I made new friends, learned new things, and bopped with two Sams — one of whom, Sam Wilson (of Zodiac fame), helped co-create a book without words or text — tricky, but invaluable for this age group — and presented the book to an appreciative audience via interpretive dance. But to get a taste of the energy, colour and zing of the event, look at the photos.

To my delight and surprise, I won a prize for being Book Dash’s Number One Fan. But believe me, taking part was the prize. I can’t wait to do it all again.

I Heart Cape Town

Wedding photograph Rhodes MemThis piece was commissioned for and published, slightly shortened, in the 2015/6Collector’s Edition of the Big Issue, a magazine that features good journalism (not to be sniffed at these days) and provides homeless and vulnerable vendors with employment. They’re currently looking for regular donors to keep their projects (education, training, housing, health and creche services, and more) going — please help if you can.

Well, this is an awkward topic. Delightful, but awkward. Everyone who hearts Cape Town is also embarrassed by it, unless they’re too medicated or dof to take on board that it’s a racist city with a slave past, and that these elements of its history are embossed on its lines and curves everywhere we look. Some of its most beautiful places hold reminders of a truly vile history. Kirstenbosch has the remnants of the wild almond hedge Van Riebeeck built first to displace, then to repel the local Bushmen; the CBD is bordered by the Castle (a military installation with scary dungeons) at one end and the Slave Lodge (the worst kind of brothel – in which women were available for rape) at the other.

And if that isn’t downer enough, Cape Town has done terrible things not just to humans: what are now halogen-lit streets once teemed with hippos and leopards and proteas and Afromontane forest. I’m old enough to remember when the Cape Flats were a vast marsh bursting with birds and arums, haunted by wild ponies, rather than a massive urban sprawl that’s chronically damp and TB-producing all winter long, and lashed by sand and wind throughout the churning summer.

But I do love Cape Town. Even though, as a friend newly arrived from Joburg said, “What’s with all the white people? It’s freaky.” It has places and moments of such contradictory connection, my emotions are constantly tangled. I drive from town home to Noordhoek via Chapman’s Peak, with the windows down and fynbos warmth blowing around my face, and that moment when I round a corner and see the lighthouse beam at Kommetjie feels like a lover’s arm hooked around my waist. And then I remember that the pass was built by prisoners-of-war.

Thinking about why I love Cape Town, I juggled the topic. What is the heart of Cape Town? Does it have one? Perhaps its real heart is an absence: a ghost we pass every time we head into the city from the south. I’m talking about District Six, a gnarled grassland of scar tissue, its empty roads offering escape from late afternoon traffic jams. We can go to the museum and try to rebuild it in our heads. But pieces of a heart in a room aren’t enough to create that hubbub of voices and dogs barking and children running to the shops that were once characteristic of communities now muted behind walls.

There are other heart-spaces, too. One of them is a small patch of green on the False Bay side of the Rhodes Memorial Parking lot. And right away, there’s that clash: a bloody great granite Herbert Baker monument to Cecil John Rhodes, the imperialist whose statue at the focal point of UCT campus became an abscess that finally burst, prompting the first concerted student protest since I was drifting around campus nearly thirty years ago. I’ve never liked the scrofulous, damp monument, but I’ve always been fond of the dreaming lions that flank the stairs. I sat astride them as a student, admiring the flaring sculpture of horse and man by Preraphaelite artist George Watts. I wrote a thesis on a poet who knew Watts, and I never looked at the flanks of that bronze horse without thinking “the same hands that made this shook her hands, took a teacup from them, perhaps borrowed a pen.” See? Fishnets of stories – affection, horror, private meaning – tugging in different directions.

But alongside the monument and the restaurant that sprawls behind it is a little oasis that’s a favourite spot for wedding photographs on Sundays. It’s free, there’s plenty of parking, and it’s undeniably beautiful. A few steps up and along the paths, and you can see both sides of the peninsula, two oceans with a wall of clouded rock and sunbirds separating them.

And so the wedding parties spill out of polished cars. They take turns, waiting patiently to memorialise the occasion. You can separate them out not only by the colour scheme of the bridesmaids’ dresses, but by religious affiliation.

In the first group, the mother of the bride is wearing a heavily embroidered shalwar kameez and shawl. The bride’s dress is elaborate and covers her from chin to wrist to toes. From the path above, the white caps on the heads of the men look like paper boats.

The next party, joking and posing for each other’s cellphone cameras as they wait, are carrying bibles. The men are in suits, the older women wear corsages, and the bride is a creamy pudding snatching a quick cigarette.

And the cars just pulling in, festooned with white ribbons, have rosaries swinging from the rear-view mirrors. The aunts are wearing lace mantillas, and there are a dozen flowergirls and boys, and released, they run squeaking up the face of the mountain, too young to be daunted by the slope.


In March 2015, I paid a price for my own addiction to living on the slopes of a mountain around whose edges we have crammed a city. My home was threatened by fire. I learned what it was to have the things I valued most on standby for evacuation: my cats and their vaccination certificates, paintings by my parents, books signed by Albertina Sisulu and André Brink. This as Syrians and Libyans fled drought, bombs and tyranny enabled or advanced by human negligence and indifference. The reminder of how quickly and cruelly one can become a refugee, lose home and hearth, made me passionate with gratitude to those whose heroic efforts enabled us to stay. As a thank-you, a friend and I ran a workshop for volunteer firefighters. They told us: “I do this job because I love plants … animals … nature … birds … working outdoors … climbing mountains”.

And that is another kind of heart beating in this city described by the poet Stephen Watson as “more full of sky than streets”. Cape Town is that rare thing: a hot urban mess that has not yet smothered the wild. For better or worse, we cannot escape the force of the mountains and the sea dominating our horizons. And that’s probably why it is the only home I have ever known. I heart Cape Town because it’s home.

Photo credit: The beautiful photograph, taken by Jose Chavarria, comes from an album named “Lebo and Abel’s wedding” on the website of JCH Photography. No copyright infringement or intrusion is intended.


In Which I un-Grinch (a little)

Christmas angel courtesy Alison JanesAll my kith and kin know that I’ve boycotted Christmas since 1983. (This explains why.) But this year is going to be a little different. This time, I’m actually going to exhort you (gasp!) to buy presents.

This is partly because there are really lovely things you can do and get to signify a season of giving without participating in a vile, sweat-shopped, planet-destroying orgy of plastic and traffic fumes and bedlam malls. Never mind the obscenity of a middle-class frenzy of consumption in a nation in which so many are abjectly poor. (Right, obligatory ranty bit over.)

Also, spending a bit of time with Three Princesses aka the Adorable Gal Cousins while in the US this holiday season softened me up. Reading poetry and looking up fun stuff on Google and baking Christmas cookies and planning parties and decorating trees and trampolining with three girls between the ages of eleven and almost thirteen would melt the most dour Scroogeface. (The coconut-rum eggnog their dad made didn’t hurt.)

That tree-decorating thing. I learned all over again that if you MUST decorate for Christmas, get your kids to make their own ornaments, small pieces of art, origami. They enjoy it so much. One writer I know uses a bare white-painted branch that her children decorate with stuff they make. The Adorable Gals lovingly unpacked and hung pieces that had been in their families for generations, put up photos of loved ones and edibles. If you must shop, hunt down somewhere you can buy handmade local art and crafts. Make things yourself. I left almost an entire rural village in Maine supplied with jars of South-African-recipe apple chutney. It was FUN.

Stray-cover3-320x480To continue my worthy exhortations: if you haven’t already, go out and buy this book. The royalties go to TEARS Animal Rescue, and it is a beauty. Best cover of the year (I’m not at ALL biased) and wonderful reads inside, from Zukiswa Wanner to Damon Galgut to Finuala Dowling to Sarah Lotz. Exclusives, Kalk Bay Books and the Book Lounge should all have it, and I think the local TEARS shops have them too — ring first to find out. Oh, and Newport Deli in Green Point has copies. It’s suitable for teens and adults, and is the purrfect prezzie for animal lovers.

If you’re hunkered down at home, afraid to venture out, here’s a win-win scenario: buy an impoverished child their very first ever book via Book Dash. If you don’t know about this wonderful ECD project, click here — they issue very pretty personalised e-gift cards for you to send to the person on whose behalf you buy. I believe there is no gift as magical for a child as a book — this post explains why. Other (non-booky) prezzies I have a soft spot for, and which you can get online: olive trees for the Path out of Poverty peace grove at Goedgedacht; and if you have a special grand- or godchild far away, sponsor a donkey for them at Eseltjiesrus in McGregor — they send cute report cards and pics of “their” donkey to the lucky recipient.

If you’re looking for books that will take you to other worlds, try these two — because they’re short story collections, you can dip in and out, and there’s something to please everyone: the Short Story Day Africa anthology Terra Incognita, edited by Nerine Dorman (available on Kindle); and the Short Sharp Story anthology, Incredible Journey, edited by Joanne Hitchens (the Book Lounge has them, Goddess bless the Book Lounge).

And in my eternal quest to woo reluctant readers AND highlight stellar local books, here’s a selection of perfect stocking-filler books, all good for single session reads on the couch, or when you need to creep away from the madding crowd.

For everyone in your life who gets messianic or enraged at the mention of Banting or Tim Noakes (hell, for anyone you know who’s ever dieted), get Paige Nick’s Banting spoof, Death By Carbs. The good Professor gets bumped off on the first page. Easy, tasty, hilarious read with great local flavour. It’s available via Bookstorm, Amazon and (I don’t have to tell you) the faithful Book Lounge…

For all the cooks in your life, especially those whose enthusiasm outstrips their skill: Kathryn White’s novel-with-recipes, Anna Peters’ Year of Cooking Dangerously. I gobbled it up in one sitting. The recipes are all mini-cliffhangers — will they or won’t they work? The chocolate-chili cake is a have-to-try. This should be in book shops right now.

For your favourite political activists — not exactly a light read, but everyone I know finished it in one sitting (many then started again on page 1): Thando Mgqolozana’s hypnotic, eerily prescient novel of campus life, Unimportance. Must-read for those following or part of the #RhodesMustFall movement. In good bookshops, or via Jacana.

For any bloke getting skittish about mid-life, and the women who love them or want to throttle them or both, Darrel Bristol-Bovey’s One Midlife Crisis and a Speedo. Very funny self-mockery, with a surprisingly sweet and unsentimental love story. If not in (where else) The Book Lounge, Umuzi will get it to you…

For those family members perpetually plugged into their gadgets, Fiona Snyckers’s Now Following You. Creepy, compulsive story of a young woman who lives online, and the stalker who gets obsessed with her. Should be in bookshops, otherwise via Modjaji.

That uncle/aunt who doesn’t read, but loves birdwatching and National Geographic: Justin Fox’s The Impossible Five, an impossibly endearing account of the author’s search across Southern Africa for the five rarest mammals. Quick, easy, smoothly written, but with a serious message underpinning hare puns and pangolin pranks.

Readers: for a fat, satisfying, absorbing and sometimes heart-wrenching trip into a world that is mostly entirely invisible to us, get Sindiwe Magona‘s Chasing the Tails of my Father’s Cattle; and for a lush, carefully plotted blend of environmental issues, Brazilian santeria religion, rum, romance and Elizabeth Bishop poems, get the equally fat and satisfying The Seed Thief, by Jacqui L’Ange.

That’s enough for now: stay safe, stay sane, tell the people you love how you feel, be kind, pay it forward. And remember it’s OK (in fact normal) to have spots or spells of sadness or loneliness at this time of year, especially if this is your first holiday season without someone you love. Escape into a book (see above), go for a walk with friends, stroke a pet, plant something, do a little bit of good. I send a cyberhug and good wishes.

Pic credits: Craft angel photo courtesy of Alison Janes; cover of Stray designed by Joey Hi-Fi.



The Kindness of (Booky) Strangers: a Christmas Tale

It’s been a brutal and a bloody year for far too many. So here’s a story to cheer: a tale of the kindness of strangers, the generosity of writers, and the small things we can do to lighten huge sorrow. And it’s also a story about how sometimes, just sometimes, social media is more than a stream of bad tidings and trollery and triteness and and celeb “news” and grave apostrophe errors. Sometimes, it creates instant — and real — connections.

As everyone in the literary world not actually lost in the Hindu Kush knows, we lost André Brink early in the year. He died suddenly, on a plane soaring through the air above the continent of Africa. Those (many) of us who love his wife Karina have witnessed her making her way, with heroic courage and determination, through the wilds of widowhood — as I once told her, at times it’s been like watching someone running ahead of a tsunami.

As Karina’s Twitter followers (@KarinaMSzczurek) and the readers of her blog know, she has been honest and vulnerable in describing much of her journey. She has thrown herself into projects, friendships, writing. She’s had a hand on the tiller of South African literary history in the making, with the publication of the letters between André and the poet Ingrid Jonker. She volunteered for the labour-intensive job of co-editing the Short Story Day Africa anthology, Water.

But anyone who has been bereft knows, there are always empty hours waiting in ambush; bleak evenings or early morning wakefulness that can rack the most stoic soul. Mercifully, for the lucky literate among us, books can offer escape hatches. These do not have to constitute great literature: what is needed is a well-crafted, intelligently plotted vehicle that will get us across the abyss that gapes between midnight and 3am. And fairly early on in her mourning, Karina started reading Lee Child’s Jack Reacher thrillers, about the adventures of an ex-military policeman who drifts around America (and other countries) solving crimes, often in tandem with strong beautiful women. She explains what might seem a strange choice (given that we’re talking about someone who has a PhD on Nadine Gordimer) here. To keep her company, and because I also needed escape hatches, I started reading them too. I also signed up for Twitter (@Heckitty) partly so I could stay in touch with her while I travelled.

And about ten days ago, the following magic started unfolding: a Cambridge academic, Andy Martin (@andymartinink), published a book about Lee Child’s writing process: Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me. Karina spotted this article in the New York Times and posted it on Twitter. I responded that I’d get Andy’s book for her while I was in the US, where I’m currently on a writing retreat. Next thing, Andy (a MENSCH of note), who’d picked up our modest little Twitter exchange, offered her a signed copy if I would do the carrying. A few tweets later, he offered to get her copy signed by Lee Child as well, whom he was visiting in NYC. Then he offered me a signed copy, too.

Here I need to add that there is no mail delivery in the tiny Norman Rockwell-ish town of Castine, deep in eastern rural Maine, where I walk around at all hours and never lock my front door. And as a temporary resident, I don’t have a postbox. No problem! The friendly folk at Castine’s pretty little Post Office on Main Street offered to hold any parcels for me. And today, a nice fat one came from Andy. I ripped it open, the kindly gentleman who gave it to me almost as enthusiastic as I was. And in it were two copies of this:


And: they were personalised and signed, not only by Andy, but — as promised — by Lee Child himself.



So I’ll be coming home with a very special present for a very special woman who will soon be facing that gulp-making hurdle — her first Christmas as a widow. Right now (once again, courtesy of Twitter), I know she’s leaping around her kitchen, telling her cats about her great good fortune, as I burn the owl oil seven hours behind her. I’m going to resist the temptation to read my copy — and as an editor, you can imagine how fascinated I am by the notion of studying an author going through the writing process — until I get home, and Karina and I can read our books in tandem.

For now, the glow engendered by these acts of kindness will warm me for a long time. Neil Gaiman and J.K. Rowling have both said many times that reading builds empathy. Clearly, so does writing. I know from my experience of the Southern African bookish community (publishers, journalists, editors, writers) that there’s a camaraderie that fuels wonderful friendships and kickstarts worthwhile projects (just one example: local writer Lauren Beukes, not content with raising money for Rape Crisis, went on to raise nearly half a million for Book Dash, a non-profit that puts good local books into the hands of impoverished children), along with a great deal of fun.

But clearly, writers the world over can be a very special breed. Mr Child and Dr Martin: I salute you. And as I very much doubt I’ll ever be able to return the favour, I’m going to pay it forward, as the ‘Muricans say. Thank you. You’ve made me feel like this.

Contented Corgi


Plus ca change: for everyone at UWC

A keyboard is all I’ve got. I’m thousands of miles away from home, in the ridiculously scenic little vacation town of Bar Harbor in Maine, moseying around admiring toy mooses (meese?) in tourist shops and the last of the fall colours. I stop in a non-chain coffeeshop for a sandwich. There is a dollar bill stamped with “Not to be Used for Bribing Politicians” on the wall, and Fleetwood Mac on the radio. I tether myself to wifi, and open the window to home — to discover mayhem and madness.

On UWC, a campus I know well – my father once worked there, and I spent many school holidays in the herbarium he ran – riot police are charging (literally and figuratively) students, allegedly entering the residences, allegedly shooting. And some students (or are they really students?) are likewise allegedly hurling stones, bullying peers who want to write exams, trashing venues. Because our media has lost most of its teeth and its focus in the last few years, I’m reliant on social media for information, hence all the “allegedly” adverbs.

I CANNOT DO ANYTHING. Thirty years ago, I’d probably be marching. Now, those of that generation – who took part in campus anti-apartheid protests in the 1980s – watch in horror as we watch history hideously repeating. All I can offer, in the hope that it offers some insight – some sense of how relentless history can be in returning to its own vomit – are these a few memories of near-identical scenes at UCT in 1986.


Police have swarmed onto campus, gathering at the foot of Jammie steps. There are the dreaded Casspirs, the mellow yellows, the riot shields, the tear-gas canisters. Students are gathered, chanting, angry, waving placards. The Vice-Chancellor is in the middle, urgently trying to talk to leaders on both sides. Neither are listening.

I’m out in the throng today because I was teaching a class (on The Canterbury Tales, for God’s sake) when tear-gas started wafting through the corridors. I follow my students out the building, moving against the direction of the crowd – I think my plan is to get cigarettes from a colleague in the Arts block – cigarette smoke, ironically, is a good protector against tear gas.

Then I see him. A young black man running fast up behind the students, coming seemingly from nowhere. I notice two things: his shiny-white thick-treaded running shoes (a rare luxury at the time); and the half-brick in his hand. In the time it takes me to wonder where on campus he found a half-brick, it dawns: he is not a student. His clothing, his wiry body, his age – they’re all off-kilter. He hurls the brick with a javelin-throwing pitch, then turns and sprints away into the distance.

I hear what happens later from a colleague who has climbed a bollard in the middle of the melee. The brick lands smack between the cops and the yelling students, and the policeman in charge, a notoriously brutal and clever man, lunges into the back of a police van and emerges hefting a shotgun. My colleague yells in Afrikaans at the top of his voice: “DOLF ODENDAAL, LOS DAAI HAELGEWEER!” The officer pauses, then turns and throws the gun back into the vehicle. We can only speculate as to why he decided against using deadly force – possibly the use of his name?

The baton-waving cops wade into the crowd, scattering students, and start arresting bodies, at random, as far as I can see. I’ve run towards the front of the crowd, because my students are among those getting nabbed. Two of them – Andrew Brown and Sally Andrews – are today both writers, like myself. I cannot remember the name of the third of my students to be thrown into a van like a sack of spuds, but I will always remember the sight of her being arrested. She is tiny, birdlike, and she is up on the stone stairs at the side of the fray, just watching as far as I can see. A policeman goes over to her almost casually, smacks her down, then grabs one of her legs and pulls. Bump, bump, bump down the steps she goes, on her coccyx, her underwear on display. I can still feel the jolts in my own spine. My face is awash, tears making the stinging of the residual gas worse.

Somehow I find myself beside the VC, Stuart Saunders. I clutch at his sleeve: “Can’t you make it stop?” I beg. He tells me to go home. “I can’t,” I say. “Those are my students,” and he nods. A campus security guard presses my arm in sympathy. “There is nothing we can do,” he says. “Nothing.

I can’t remember what happens next. I think the arrestees spend that night in prison, because I remember them emerging, looking bedraggled, into the dock at Wynberg Magistrate’s Court, where I’ve gone to offer support. As my tiny student, supposedly a “dangerous communist rioter”, limps into view, even the magistrate sighs in frustration.


I’m back in Maine, on an extraordinarily pretty island, on Veterans’ Day (“Vets eat free today!” the local eateries declare.) My Twitter feed is even more schizophrenic than usual: adorable kitty gifs and New York Times book reviews, all mixed up with horror from home. And as I’ve been saying ever since the frustrations of a generation of students – who’ve been persistently lied to about “democracy” and “freedom” their entire lives – boiled over, plus ca change. And because so little has changed since that day on UCT, I offer this account here for all those traumatised (or re-traumatised) by today’s events. Please stay safe, everyone. Enough blood was spilled in the past: by the name of all that is holy, no more.


(Mostly) for men: what women want you to know about rape

This is for all the wonderful men I know who urgently want things to change, who truly care, who keep asking “What can we do?” – especially you, Richard de Nooy. I know you know most of this stuff already, but please pass it on. Note that this might be hard for some to read. So there is a fluffy kitty video at the end.

This Women’s Month, what do women want men to understand about rape, a trauma that affects one in three of us?

Everyday Good Guy: “I’m not a rapist. What’s this got to do with me?”

Well, that one-in-three figure, for starters. It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that you might know one or even two men who’ve been raped, but I guarantee that you know a woman who’s a rape survivor – probably quite a few. In 2012, journalist David Moseley wrote movingly about his worst fear: a call telling him a woman he loved had been raped. You don’t want to be that guy, either. Everybody with half a brain knows that men need to stop raping, rather than putting the onus on women to avoid it. The more you know, the more you educate, the less likely it is that you’ll get that call.

So: this is what we need you to know.

If you or someone you know is dealing with the immediate aftermath of rape (and I sincerely hope this is never the case for you), then Rape Crisis has step-by-step instructions on what to do next. They will also support you through every next step of the process. They are the ambulances and paramedics of sexual assault, and every day, thousands of families give thanks for them on their knees.

But assuming that this isn’t the case, here’s the more general “need-to-know” stuff on rape.

First off, penetrative rape hurts – physically. If the cervix doesn’t retract (a normal result of arousal), repeated blows against it feel very similar to being kicked in the balls. The shock waves travel up through the Fallopian tubes, creating even more pain. Meanwhile, vaginal tissue can tear. Wrap your head around this. Make sure your sons, friends and colleagues understand this.

Why the need to explain this? There’s not much research on rapists (big surprise there), and what there is is dated, but one thing it does prove is that a terrifying number truly believe that a woman can “enjoy” being raped, if she would just “relax”. The same sort of (il)logic informs the homophobic rape of lesbians (don’t, just don’t, use the term “corrective rape” in my hearing). It’s also worth noting that study populations of rapists complain that they find the assaults they carry out can be uncomfortable and even painful. About 26% of them don’t even ejaculate. Rapists, seriously: why don’t you just wank? Answer: because rape isn’t about sex. It’s an act of (covertly) sanctioned policing, intimate dominance and hatred.

Second, if you laugh along with rape jokes in the shebeen or bar, if you speak demeaningly of women and their bodies, you’re part of rape culture – the covert (and not so covert) social, religious, cultural, marketing and media messages that women exist for purposes of sexual consumption or as objects of temptation, while men are either slavering beasts or entitled to help themselves to the (dehumanised) booty. (I am not explaining rape culture further. Google will get you about 1,630,000 hits.) How do you get your fellows to shut up? In an ideal world, the only answer would be “Women are human beings. How is sexually assaulting and hurting them in any way a joke?” But you might need to be strategic, in which case: “Guys, that’s not funny. My wife/sister/mother/daughter/niece/granny/aunt/girlfriend/co-worker (one of these is sure to be true) is a rape survivor.”


Third, if a woman tells you she’s experienced sexual violence, don’t respond by: a) demanding to know if she went to the police; b) threatening to rip out the bastard’s throat; c) getting visibly embarrassed.

Re b) and c): Ninety-nine out of a hundred women who tell a man close to them that they’ve been raped then have to calm HIM down. This is not exactly helpful. Violent and angry words, no matter how righteous, are often the last thing someone who’s experienced violence need to hear. Chill. You can call a counsellor afterwards if you need to get stuff off your chest, but right now this is NOT about you.

Re a), the police question is infuriating, as if reporting is some sort of panacea, whereas it’s both extremely traumatic and often a pointless exercise. Thousands of rapists threaten their victims, or say “If you tell, I’ll just deny it, and everyone will believe me, not you.” (Sadly, both rapist and assaultee know perfectly well that this is often the truth.) In addition, a lot of men behave as if their criminal behaviour is consistent with a normal “romantic” or “hook-up” script, which can leave you wondering if you’ve gone mad. When I was sexually assaulted decades ago in the US, right afterwards (I physically fought the guy off, and when that failed, threatened to vomit on him), the fuckwit wanted us to hold hands and make dinner plans. Callow ignorant youth? He was in his forties, with an Oxbridge doctorate. Try to imagine reporting rape in a world absolutely enmeshed in this kind of narrative. Then there are all the other anxieties – “But I was drinking” or “I was dressed for clubbing” or “his sister is my best friend” – that pop up. Women are also marinated in rape culture.

Rape, like any other violent trauma, or bereavement, is an emotional earthquake that alters the landscape of our lives. It does terrible things to trust. Denial – the pretence that nothing happened – is a common response, especially as rape is a lot easier to keep hidden than more visible attacks or losses. I know women who’ve kept their fingers in their mental ears for months, years, decades, before being able to acknowledge or process what was done to them.

So, back to what you, Mr Everyday Good Guy, should be doing. Simple: we need you to LISTEN. You are not required to respond with the wisdom of the ages. Just say: “That sounds awful. I can’t imagine what that must have been like. I’m really sorry that happened to you.” Learn these sentences off by heart. And mean them when you say them. You can also try “How are you feeling about this now?” (but only if you really want to hear the response) or “This wasn’t your fault.” A wonderful police detective tells me this is the most useful first thing he tells ANY victim of ANY crime – the narrative of victim-blaming sets in that soon. (Once, when I was in extremis, the same cop sat me down and showed me pictures of his cat. Christian Cloete, wherever you are, I hope the Pope is speeding along with that sainthood.)

Learn to recognise symptoms of shock (shivering, numbness, dizziness, glassy eyes, rapid breathing). Wrap us in a blanket or something woolly and make us a hot, sweet drink. And remember that women’s tears are not kryptonite. We usually feel better after shedding them. What should you do when a woman weeps in your presence? Pass her the tissue-box. Wait. Stay quiet. This is NOT only “women’s stuff”. Learn to deal.

Remember, women usually talk to share the load, NOT to demand an answer or a solution. And in any case, you can’t solve our problems until you’ve really listened to them. I’m no Oprah pusher, but this is a truly helpful link on listening by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

The most powerful thing you can say to a woman: “I’m here for you.”

Please consider donating to Rape Crisis for Women’s Month: they do the heavy lifting.

PS: Want the references for the factual claims? Google my name and “rape”. There are several published papers, one journal article and a few book chapters out there.

PPS: And here are the fluff-bundles that cheer (I like to think these are Star Wars cats, but they’re actually Pallas Cat kittens in the wilds of Mongolia).

Women’s Day Must Fall

flaming hot kittySaccharine rhetoric and pink pampering offers for the ladies? It must be August! This year my brain started bubbling like lava before Women’s Month even started, what with the Marie Claire #InHerShoes debacle (the silver lining: these fab takedowns by Pearl Boshomane and Louise Ferreira) and a myriad other WTF moments, including the Department of Women’s high-heeled-foot-in-mouth Tweet “What is to be done with women who withdraw charges [against men who assault them]?”

What’s changed since I first lost my cool about Women’s Day in 2012? Way too little. The Department of Women no longer bundles together vaginas, minors and people with disabilities, but it’s moved under the sheltering wing of the Presidency. Whahahaaaa! WAIT, THAT’S FOR REAL? SERIAAS?

In 2012, I raged “Our rape stats are a global disgrace, 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…. We are failing, no, betraying, no, ABUSING children by callously pissing away their only shot at an education, 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.”

There’s no doubt that to solve systemic problems like these, WE NEED STATE SUPPORT. Instead what we get is the same old system of patriarchal patronage, the same cynical gauging which side of the gender divide the icing is spread. Lulu the Useless has been replaced by Susan the Shameless, whose main contributions so far have involved buttering up traditional leaders with gender attitudes apparently dating from the 1700s, and the novel idea of reinventing the wheel AGAIN: “We will be going on a nationwide campaign to understand the society we are living in and find out what makes men become so brutal and evil.”

It would be so easy to rant about this kind of GIBBERWITTERY. For starters, men are NOT brutal and evil. I could publish an entire essay on how this “monster” narrative of rapists demonises black and poor men and exculpates white and middle-class men, while masking a rape culture reinforced by a deeply hierarchical and patriarchal society, in which most of us are complicit. OH WAIT, I ALREADY DID. BACK IN 2001. Yes, FOURTEEN FUCKING YEARS AGO.

As for the “nationwide campaign to understand the society we’re living in”, THIS WORK HAS BEEN DONE. By a brace of tireless scholars, researchers, writers, activists and journalists: not only veterans like Nomboniso Gasa, Lisa Vetten, Mmatshilo Motsei (who paid a high price for telling home truths in her book The Kanga and the Kangaroo Court), Carol Bower, Sam Waterhouse, Elaine Salo, Jane Bennett, Makhosazana Xaba, Sindiwe Magona, Mary Hames, Farieda Khan, Pregs Govender, Desiree Lewis, Kopano Ratele and many more; but also a new generation of brilliant, social-media-savvy voices such as Karabo Kgoleng, Danai Mupotsa, Milisuthando Bongela, Sisonke Msimang, Michelle Solomon, T.O. Molefe, Zethu Matebeni and all the voices I’ve linked in this piece.

Meanwhile, there’s enough noodle-brained patriarchal bullshit in headlines and everyday life to dislocate my jaw. I expect to keel over with a rage-induced thrombosis around 2019, by which time the renamed Department of Ladies, Girl-Children and Self-Congratulation will probably be marking Women’s Day with free virginity testing and apron-stitching competitions. (See Rebecca Davis’s very funny and razor-sharp account of our Women’s Month as explained to a Martian here; also this poignant blog by Jen Thorpe for an account of how for too many women, the workplace is still a sexist timewarp.)

But I give up – for now. It’s no good trying to shame or swear the state into action. As sincere efforts at structural change seem about as likely as the rapture, let’s look at ways we can support the sheroes and heroes who battle the odds to provide practical support to those ravaged by patriarchal violence, whether the kind administered by fists and penises, or the socio-economic kind.

Which means I’d like a little word with South African businesses. WHAT THE FLYING FUCK ARE YOU DOING, OFFERING US DISCOUNTED TEA PARTIES AND SPA DAYS? You already get Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day to patronise us girlies and sell us crap chocolate and plastic shit from China.

I understand that there’s a recession and you need to make a living. I get that marketing is crass by definition. I realise advertising companies hitch their bandwagons to all our public holidays – I keep expecting to see “Come dressed as Hector Pieterson and get a free burger!” offers on Youth Day.

It’s the sickly sentimentality, the reverent hush as you grab at the coattails of that brave march by 20 000 women in 1956 that makes me nauseous. If you’re going to reference that iconic moment in South African history, could you not at least support the organizations which seem to be the ONLY structures trying to improve the lives of SA women?

Instead of offering us a discount, a free glass of plonk, a pink cupcake, ask us if we’d like to add R10 to our bill for Rape Crisis – and THEN MATCH IT. Instead of a half-price facial, ask us to donate sanitary pads for girls for whom menstruation means missing 20% of their schooling. And don’t even think of offering us some sort of fluffy pink deal unless you (a) employ women (b) pay them exactly the same as your male workers and (c) treat them all as human beings.

Finally, is there good news? Yes. Read the fresh voices I’ve listed here (there are many others), look at the multiple ways they suggest we tackle gender oppression (which affects everybody), and you’ll feel flickers of hope. Plus I hear an increasing clamour from men, both straight and gay: what can we do, how can we change this horribly broken system?

So this month, I’m going to focus on the practical stuff. For starters, I’d like for Rape Crisis to get enough funding donated this month to cover their operational costs for a year. Please give generously here. And go pounce on every business you see offering “Women’s Month Specials” and encourage them to donate, if not to Rape Crisis, to a local NGO/NPO offering support to women and/or gender-based violence survivors. In fact, to form ongoing funding relationships with them.

For my part, I’m going to give a fundraising party for Rape Crisis (I’d MUCH rather take the mega-mountains of cash sloshing shadily around the nuclear and fracking deals, and spend them on things like, oh I dunno, functional schools and libraries and decent reproductive health care and poverty alleviation, but I have to start somewhere).

And once a week this month, I’m going to write a blog about practical things we can all do to rid this country of the scourge of gender-based violence. Coming up next: what men can actually do about rape, and a shout-out to Pumla Dineo Gqola for writing one of the most important books you’ll ever read (and you ARE all going to read it, right?): Rape: A South African Nightmare.

Do you have good gender news? Ideas for practical, positive change? Please share them (but no harking back to patriarchal “utopias” or conservative religious and traditional frameworks). Let’s all roll up our sleeves and get stuck in.

A Letter to Elinor (& much obliged to Miss Austen for the introduction)

5-IMG_1840Pemberley seen as our carriage crossed the bridge, on a perfect late spring afternoon

My dearest Elinor,

I trust this finds you & yr family in excellent health and spirits. Today I took coffee at Pemberley,* although I was served in the stableyard. This was to be expected, given that I am as common as muck & part Irish to boot. But I was fortunate enough to tour part of the house, & spent several most pleasant hours rambling the grounds, which are extensive, & a tribute to Mr Capability Brown’s eye for aspect & vista. Each line of sight follows smoothly up to the rolling ridgelines, copses & pastures, currently gay with lambs & fresh green. The gravity-fed fountains & cascades are particularly fine. 6-IMG_1829
Proof of Mr Brown’s genius

The symmetry of the lakes, maze, greenhouses, sculptures & clipped box is well counterpointed by the Gothick wildness of the rockeries, pools, forests & coal tunnel, along with the broad winding river below the house, ornamented by a most graceful bridge. One could easily spend a week merely strolling & admiring nature’s canvas, as directed & decorated by human hand. Indeed, I came across several handsome cocks in the woods. (I speak of pheasants, my dear, there is no need for agitation.)

But the public rooms are themselves grounds for amazement. One is accustomed to little light in such great buildings, but these sparkle & glow with colour, in particular rich reds & jade-green, accentuated in marble & silk wallpapering. 3-IMG_1737
This style of decoration draws heavily on treasures from the Orient.

The Chinese painted wall-coverings in the guest bedrooms are a joy to behold, with their delicate rendering of foreign birds & soft colours. The deft use of mirrors pours light & space into already vast chambers.2-IMG_1764

Does a chamber like this not incline one to repose, dearest?

I searched in vain among the extensive family portraiture for a likeness of Mr Darcy, but nonetheless procured you a small memento adorned with his visage in the Gift Shoppe. I also encountered a most convincing sleeping lion in stone, which put me in mind of Miss Rose-Innes, herself no small practitioner with a pen.

The family were not at home, but visitors were most ably assisted in their perambulations by a well-informed team of men & women, who make it their business to impart knowledge of the property. I was also amazed at a series of modern chair-sculptures scattered throughout the house & grounds — most inventive, although I am not sure I approve. The library — ah, the library, my dear! I imagine that heaven is somewhat like that library.

8-IMG_1822The estate is clearly well-managed, with excellent principles of order & industry: it gives employment to some 700 souls. The vast kitchen garden is ornamented with a strange sculpture with mirrored tiles that revolve: it creates unexpected flashes of light, which deter birds from the beds, although the blackbirds seem cheerful enough.

p[;-['''The maze in which I nearly came to grief

My only time of alarm came in the maze: in my unsuccessful attempts to navigate to its heart, I lost my bearings, & my gown hooked onto yew twigs, which held me captive for a few uncomfortable moments. I had visions of gardeners having to cut me free. A ramble through the dark & dripping coal tunnel was far less alarming, I confess.

I am now reposing at a comfortable hostelry that goes by the unexpected name of the Craven Heifer, on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales. I have dined on pea-shoots, asparagus & artichokes, and am contemplating visiting the home of those strange girls, the Brontes, tomorrow.

Perhaps one day we shall drink tea at Pemberley together. We have been comrades in travel so many times. I remain, yours amiably, in sisterhood, & etc.

*Pemberley is sometimes also referred to as Chatsworth, I believe*


I can haz book tour?

Poets at Red DeerI’ve been meaning to update folk on my weirdly wonderful news for a while now. I suppose I’ve found it really hard to believe it’s all happening, but I get on a plane to fly halfway round the world tomorrow, so it must be real.

Strange Fruit: back coverI’m going on my first-ever book tour. Now this is the amazing, fairytale part. I’m going as a POET. This kind of thing does not happen to South African authors (or very, very few), and it almost never happens to poets. I’ve needed sal volatile ever since first being invited. I’ll be reading from Strange Fruit, and my current collection in progress. This coincides with National Poetry Month, and there’s a feast of events and gorgeous booky happenings going on in Western Canada. And elsewhere, but I’ll be skipping around Alberta and British Columbia for two weeks.

Okay, this is the schedule: I fly to Edmonton via Seattle on 14/15 April, and Peter Midgley of the University of Alberta Press and his spice Julie roll up in a glass coach (one with snow tyres) and take me off to the Rockies, to visit Jasper, Banff and the Columbian ice-fields. (Some of you may have come across Peter’s Counting Teeth, an account of a trip back to Namibia, his birthplace.)

Back in Calgary, on the night of the 20th, I give a reading (along with Kimmy Beach, author and poet who’s been the fairy godmother making much of this happen, and other Canadian poets) at Loft 112, as part of National Poetry Month.

Poetry potluck Calgary

The next morning, I give a workshop — on whether poetry constitutes fiction or non-fiction — also at Loft 112, under the auspices of the Creative Non-Fiction Collective Society of Canada.

On Monday, 20 April, Peter, Kimmy and I all read at The Olive in Red Deer. That’s them in the pic at the top of this post. Click on it to see them properly, then genuflect in their direction. They are amazing people, and have pulled this series of rabbits out of the hat, and they HAVEN’T EVER MET ME BEFORE. (Peter read Strange Fruit. He loaned it to Kimmy. And that’s what started this incredible chain reaction. The power of one little book of poems. POEMS, people. You know, those things that no-one reads, much less buys, anymore?)

T-RexOn the Tuesday, Kimmy whisks me off to the badlands of Alberta (no, I didn’t know there was such a place either), where I will be introduced to the world’s largest and most intact Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton. I will pass on your regards.

(1) Whiskey and Words from Wise Women - Mozilla Firefox 20150325 070307 PM.bmpOn Wednesday, 22 April, I join the whirl of the Edmonton Poetry Festival, with a cornucopia of fascinating events. I’ll be reading at one named “Whiskey and Wise Words From Women”. I’m hoping the whiskey will make me sound wise.

On Thursday, 23 April, something really special happens. There’s a big party, Literary Cocktails (inevitably known as LitCocks), at which the University of Alberta Press launches their spring books. Some of you may know that I spent November last year — a time when my brain was broken, and I was terrified I had lost my ability to work — editing an exquisite, intimate memoir: Myrl Coulter’s A Year of Days. (Click on the link to see the beautiful cover. It’s already getting excellent reviews.) Myrl (and Peter, who asked me to do the job) have NO idea how much that manuscript was like the parallel bars in hospitals patients use as they relearn how to walk. So that book will always be particularly special. Can you believe I will now not only be present at the launch — but MC-ing the event? There will also be two fascinating poetry collections launched that night: Small things left behind, by Ella Zeltserman; and Trying Again to Stop Time – Selected Poems, by Jalal Barzanji.

On Friday, 24 April, we all get up at some ungodly hour and fly to Victoria, on Vancouver Island. Where the Creative Non-Fiction Collective of Canada is having its annual conference. At which (pinches self, tries not to hyperventilate) I am giving a masterclass on editing. Fortunately, I do that on the first day, so then I can relax and enjoy the panels, parties, readings and general jollity.

tofinoRight, there is no way I can describe the rest of my itinerary without sounding like I’m bragging. Myrl and I are going on a roadtrip up the island to this place. Isn’t it faint-making? And that beach is called Long Beach. So I’ll be able to say I’ve walked on Long Beach in Noordhoek and on Vancouver Island. We’re going to spend two days walking and writing and breathing in the scent of sea and conifers.

Then I get on a ferry and thread my way down through the islands to Seattle. Then two days at Mount Rainier National Park, where there is no wifi, internet or cellphone reception, or even phones and TVs in the rooms — but they let you borrow snow-shoes for free.

Next (and this is really the stuff of bucket lists), I take the train right across the continental US of A. Clackety clackety clackety whoo-hoo … I adore trains. And they have wifi and laptop plug-in points, so I’ll stare out the window, then write. Then stare some more. Then write. Fact: it takes 24 hours to cross North Dakota.

CastineAirI arrive in Boston, and somehow squeeze four friends into the next 12 hours as I head north through New Hampshire and then Maine. The next bit is amazing and makes me a bit weepy. I will be attending — on Mothers’ Day — the memorial of a woman who was my de facto American mother, many years ago. I’ll be staying in the 18th-century sea-captain’s house she and her husband lived in, which overlooks Penobscot Bay, in Castine, Maine — which Rolling Stone (I think) once nominated as one of the twenty prettiest towns in America. Stephen King is close by over in neighbouring Bangor.

Another week of writing, and then I go down to New York City, where I’ll be hosted by the Coal Shop Brooklyn Creative Workshop, and giving a reading on Saturday, 16 May. Next stop is Reykjavik for two days (it is a loooooong story, but flying via Iceland is just about the only affordable way to cross the Atlantic one-way), where I’m taking our Girl publishers out for a LARGE drink. Which will probably cost R1000, and will be worth every penny. Then London, where I’ll attend a jamboree at Forbidden Planet being held for our old friends Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz. Then I go book-fairing with them, and finally settle down in Shropshire for some more writing. If all goes well, Paige Nick will join us in Ireland (it just seems like a good idea, and means I can stalk Daniel Day-Lewis), and we’ll all feed off each other’s creative energy. Or go for long walks and talk rubbish and recharge.

So you see why none of this feels real. I’ll be having the adventures of a lifetime (I haven’t said anything about the flamenco course in Granada, Spain, ahem — file under things Saffers do while their Schengen visas are still valid) AND writing.

It’s impossible to explain the extent to which this trip is going to be a waking dream. I’ve wanted to visit the Canadian Rockies ever since reading Hammond Innes’s Campbell’s Kingdom when I was about ten. Then, at fourteen, I fell in love with John Denver’s Rocky Mountain Suite, which begins with the words “Up in a meadow in Jasper, Alberta”. Discovering that my childhood sweetheart had been born there was the cherry on top. National Geographic photos of ferries trailing up and down the straits of British Columbia had me, a child of high bleached Karoo skies, tough bossies, sandstone mountains “with no fat in them” (Stephen Watson’s unforgettable phrase), imagining dense conifer forests, grizzly bears, islands thick with greenery, and above all, boats as a means of transport. And now I get to ride the magic carpet. And it’s all because Colleen Higgs of Modjaji Books opted to publish my first collection of poems. I am awash with gratitude.