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.