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Helen Moffett

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

March 2015: Four days of fire

DSCF3546It’s midnight in Noordhoek, 1 March, and the mountains above Muizenberg are burning. The air is smoky. Meg and Lily, my two cats, are uneasy. Two hours later, I wake to frantic hammering on my window: we’ve received orders to stand by for evacuation. My first feeling is relief that I know where the cats are; next, I wonder where their vaccination charts are (I find them in 60 secs flat).

The mountains that cup our estate have turned into walls of fire on three sides. The sight is so terrifying that I go numb. I get dressed, find my passport, keep watch with the cats and their basket. The eerie glow from outside makes everything feel unreal.

At dawn, I hear the welcome gudda-gudda-gudda of helicopters. An hour later, I watch footage taken by my landlord of the battle to stop our estate from burning – demonic scenes of exploding pine trees, raging vortexes of flame. As the smoke clears, I look onto a scene of devastation I can’t compute – the mountain is charred in all directions.

Tales of everyday heroism are pouring in. Local vet Karyn Levy opened her clinic at 3am, offering free board to animals, one of hundreds of acts of kindness and generosity. She promises to keep space for my cats. I’m also overwhelmed by the courage and efficiency of the firefighting teams and support efforts – the co-operation between the city, national assistance units, NGOs and civilians is a microcosm testament to how well this country could function.

Meanwhile, I pack valuables into my car, with a pang of insight into how refugees must feel. How to decide what to take? The girls, first and foremost. I load irreplaceable paintings by my parents and books with personal dedications by Walter and Albertina Sisulu and André Brink. The rest of my stuff suddenly doesn’t matter, although I copy the contents of my desktop to an external hard drive and pack my laptop.

Murphy’s Law being fully operational, the next day I have an unmissable appointment for a brain MRI — on the other side of the mountain. I cross Ou Kaapse Weg, which looks post-apocalyptic. I know fynbos is adapted to fire, but the black-and-grey devastation makes me weep. Helicopters are precision water-bombing Tokai and the Constantiaberg, tiny against sheets of fire, lump-in-throat stuff.

I return to desperate calls for help cutting a firebreak on our estate boundary. The volunteer command centre, which is being run with impressive levels of organization, sends me to provide refreshments to exhausted, filthy firebreak builders. I feel a bit like an air hostess: “Water or juice?” “Do you need a halaal sandwich?”

The neighbour whose house they’ve saved tells me how it felt watching total strangers risk flames, wield their own shovels and chain-saws, to save her property, animals and skin. I’m comforted not just by the selflessness of volunteers, but the professionalism of the firefighting services, their determination to stand firm. Meanwhile local businesses, organisations and individuals are donating everything from food to medical supplies to expertise – tree-fellers and snake-catchers are in demand. Humanity at its best.

At 1am, 3 March, disaster strikes – a howling northwest gale turns Chapman’s Peak into an inferno. Watch the flames billow and rage down the mountain is utterly petrifying.

We’re placed back on evacuation standby. Noordhoek looks like a war zone, with evacuating cars streaming out, firefighters and volunteers pouring in. Houses are burning in spite of magnificent efforts by firefighters. We’re all beyond tears and terror.

At 3am, a friend arrives, evacuated from his flat in St James just below Boyes Drive. He’s been standing in the street watching flare-ups threaten his home for the past three hours. I hope he hasn’t jumped from the fire into the frying-pan; if the wind shifts a few degrees, we’ll be directly in line. The sheet of flames, only hundreds of metres from our front gate, is the stuff of nightmares. I keep promising anxious family and friends to put safety first.

Next morning, I lie down to nap, and wake a few hours later to blessed rain – just enough to damp down the crisis, make the job of saving lives and property easier to manage. Relief.

PS: The photo, taken by me, shows the view from our property at 3am on 4 March. Apologies for the poor quality.

Death, be not proud

Snow-Leopard-black and whiteI keep falling down. For a split second my consciousness alters, like a flash migraine, and then I pitch forward, face first. Not often, but often enough to worry, to see a doctor, be referred for a small fortune’s worth of tests, get angry because the specialist I need to see (to exclude cardiac arrhythmia) can’t fit me in for another month.

The first time it happened, I had just had possibly the worst shock of my adult life. I was also severely hypoglycaemic, spectacularly sleep-deprived, and stoned on benzo medication. The second time I also put down to a combination of shock and hypoglycaemia. The third and fourth times, I started wondering. The fifth time I hit the pavement as I strolled along, happy, rested and well-fed, I got scared. Then I googled “cardiac arrhythmia” (damn stupid thing to do), and frightened the bejaysus out of myself.

So thoughts of my own mortality have been much with me. Then came the opening weeks of February, and the Grim Reaper, always busy in South Africa, swished his scythe through circles close to home. In the space of days, we lost André Brink, Robert Shell, Mikki van Zyl and Lesley Perkes.

I get irritated every time someone says André had “had a good innings”, because I always found him vital, fresh, acute – all qualities we associate (not always correctly) with youth. But the truth is that he did live to a ripe age. The same argument can’t be made for the others. They had done steady, committed, sometimes brilliant work in their various fields for decades, but they had productive years ahead of them.

If you’ve been living on one of the moons of Saturn and don’t grasp the magnitude of André’s contribution to South African (and world) literature, letters, learning and politics, start with this obituary. Or read Encounters with André Brink, or the man’s autobiography.

Wear a gag for Women's MonthRob was probably (in my non-expert opinion) our finest historian of slavery. Others (including André himself) found his work a bedrock for their own writings: Claire Robertson and Gabeba Baderoon are among those who acknowledge how much his research inflected their works (The Spiral House and Regarding Muslims). Mikki worked tirelessly as a feminist activist, doing invaluable work for Rape Crisis. Lesley galvanised an entire community of cultural workers and activists in Gauteng into making/performing public art. She gave so many of the Joburg artists and writers I know work, guidance, encouragement.

I was friendly rather than friends with Rob and Mikki, but they had been part of the fabric of my life since the 1980s in Mikki’s case, and 1992 in Rob’s – he and I overlapped in the rarefied air of Princeton, where I knew I could always rely on him for advice and support. I never met Lesley. But through Facebook, we’d become friends, started having real conversations – she gave me the prompt to write my 2014 Women’s Day blog (and permission to use this typical pic of herself wearing a doek as a gag). Her courage as she battled cancer was giddying – she was posting fighting talk (and Darth Vader cartoons) on social media only hours before she died.

So I’m angry. We keep losing good people, and I can’t feel remotely philosophical about it. Phillippa Yaa de Villiers reminded me of Edna St Vincent Millay’s “Dirge Without Music”:

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains, — but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love, —
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Zigactly, Edna — ZIGACTLY.

I’m in my therapist’s office, breathing in, breathing out. She asks me why I’m tying myself into pretzels trying to shield someone who’s treated me appallingly — why don’t I simply tell people what they’ve done? All I can think of is the hurt it would cause (both the guilty and the innocent) if I exposed them.

The Catholic in me feels a deep tug of anxiety about being struck down in the midst of sin or cruelty or even vengeance: a moral version of wearing clean undies in case one is in an accident. It’s not so much about setting things right with the Great Ceiling Cat: if the Goddess is all-merciful and compassionate, She isn’t going to care much about my peccadilloes should I fall down and not get up again.

No, I worry about my accounts with other humans. The people I’ve hurt, who’ve hurt me, the unfinished business. For me, forgiving and being forgiven is a matter of burning urgency. Especially given our frailty, the inevitability of our deaths, the shortness not just of our lifespan, but our conscious, cognitive adult lives. We get thirty, forty, maybe fifty years — if we’re lucky — to be productive as lovers, friends, parents, workers, creators. Even taxes can be evaded (if one is rich and venal enough), but death is breathing down all our necks. Mostly we’re in denial about this. But I distrust my own body too much right now to keep my own personal denial shield in place.

I’m sitting with a new widow, breathing in, breathing out. She tells me she is overwhelmed by grief. But that she has absolutely no regrets. Right now, I’m convinced this is the only way to face the final frontier of mortality.

A friend’s wife dropped dead – she was young, healthy — in the middle of a marital quarrel. Regret. Another friend drove her husband to hospital and peeled off to deal with admin as he walked down the corridor. She didn’t say goodbye. She never saw him alive again. Regret. Someone in my home town raged at her teenage daughter, who climbed onto the back of a motorbike and was dead fifteen minutes later. Regret.

André adored the figs that came from the huge tree in our garden – he called them “Adam’s vye”. Every year, they ripen in excess, splitting, falling squishily, sending the birds and squirrels into a bacchanalian frenzy. We eat and eat, and barely make a dent. And a few weeks later, they are all gone. All through the latter weeks of January, I meant to take a bag to André and Karina. I didn’t. Regret.

For my generation, it wasn’t the philosophers or priests that articulated the only antidote to regret: it was the musicians and hippies of the sixties: The Youngbloods with “try to love one another right now”, Paul MacCartney singing “Life is very short/and there’s no time/for fussing and fighting, my friends”, James Taylor crooning “Shower the people you love with love/ Show them the way that you feel”. Scruff-of-the-neck principles to live by, no matter how corny. I sometimes think the peace movement imprinted me as much as my Catholicism, making for a strange blend of idealism and anxiety about the uncertainty of all our futures.

How, then, do we cock a snoot at death, which will mow us all down in the end? How do we punctuate its pride if we lack the certainty of John Donne’s faith that “One short sleep past, we wake eternally/ And death shall be no more”?

While our hearts are still banging steadily and unremarkably in our chests, we can make things right with the people we love who are still here. And remember the ones who are not. We will never forget André’s work and letters, or his courage. We can honour Rob by reading his writings. For Mikki, it’s easy: donate to Rape Crisis. And for Lesley, Neil Gaiman’s words keep repeating in my head: Make good art. Do it for you, and for her.

André the Magnificent

DSCF7398I was woken early this morning by a text from one of my dearest friends: her husband had died in the night. André Brink had passed away on the plane journey back from receiving an honorary doctorate in Belgium. She asked me not to ring her — she was not yet able to speak.

I’ve been wide awake, pacing, drinking cups of tea ever since. Remembering André. And now I’m writing, stopping to wipe my eyes, and drink more tea, and remember some more.

It was on a dark and stormy night that I had my first meaningful encounter with André.

But first, a little history. Of course I knew André the writer long before I met André the person. At the age of twenty, I read A Dry White Season six times in succession. I read his other books as well, but nothing gripped me as much as that story of a “volksveraaier” simply too stubborn to shut his eyes to what was happening around him.

Years passed, and I went from reading books to teaching them to my students at the University of Cape Town. I was now a full-time Teaching Assistant in the department of English – these posts were held by PhD students like myself who had Masters degrees. Workloads were onerous, and it was constantly made clear to us that we were inferior to our tenured colleagues – some of whom were no more qualified than us.

So I wasn’t that excited to hear that André would be joining our department. It was unlikely that he would have any dealings with anyone as far down the food chain as myself. The first time I saw him, he was explaining his international lecturing and book tour commitments to the department secretary, and I remember thinking “I hope he’s actually going to do some work around here.” Which shows what a thumpingly ignorant young pup I was.

A year later, there was a smell of revolution in the air. Not just politically (it was 1993) – for the first time, students were being asked to evaluate their lecturers. In between the rants against notes yellowed with age, Mogadon-strength delivery styles, and incomprehensible theoretical disquisitions, I was mildly surprised to hear nothing but praise for André. He was teaching second-year English students George Eliot’s Middlemarch – at around 800 pages, an obstacle capable of bringing gifted lecturers to their knees – and experience had taught me that brilliant writers couldn’t necessarily teach. On the contrary, in this case. “He brings it alive,” enthused my students. One added innocently, “It’s such a boring book, and he makes it so interesting.”

Meanwhile, for several years I had lectured at UCT’s Summer and Winter Schools. I especially enjoyed the Winter school programme, which ran for six weeks, allowing for a more reflective pace. That year, I was teaching a course on Contemporary Literary Theories, which attracted a diverse and dedicated contingent of lay-folk interested in thinking out of the box. I became very attached to the folk who made their way to UCT on cold winter nights to pepper me with questions, and we had fun applying theoretical tools and questions to our daily experiences, especially of arts and culture.

And then came the night of the storm, one of those nights the Cape turns into a giant washing-machine, with battering winds heaving solid water in every direction, disrupting traffic, and causing untold anguish for shack-dwellers on the Flats. On nights like this, sensible people stay home. If forced to venture out, one drives slowly and gingerly, the windscreen a waterfall, eyes peeled for branches torn off trees.

Setting forth in the lashing rain, I wondered how many of my students would show up. I was lecturing on a favourite topic – post-colonial theory – and I had prepared carefully. At the venue, I stepped out of my car into a solid sheet of water – the parking area had become a minor lake. Umbrellas were worse than useless – the rain seemed to be spiralling upwards.

Nevertheless, almost all my students squelched into the lecture theatre that night, dripping wet and windblown. I was just finishing up the register when a latecomer slipped through the door. It was André. In the six years that I had taught Summer and Winter School, not one of my tenured colleagues had ever attended one of my lectures. Surely Prof André Brink had better things to do on a freezing, wet and windy night?

Then it hit me: I was going to have to give a lecture on post-colonial literary theory – a field I enjoyed, but was no expert on – in front of one of South Africa’s most senior and internationally respected writers and thinkers. I plunged in, talking about the concept of subversion, how I found that combining tools of feminist and class analysis with the principles of post-colonial scholars could provide a framework for reading literature from a flexible, yet specifically South African perspective. Halfway through, I dared to peep in André’s direction. He was taking notes.

I left the university soon afterwards, and didn’t see André again for years. But I told everyone who would listen that I had had at least one senior colleague who was sufficiently interested in what a very junior member of his department had to say to do battle with the elements on a dark and stormy night.

More years passed, and in one of those quirks of fate, I got to know Karina, André’s wife, an academic and writer of great imagination. The first time we met, she told me, poker-faced, that if she ever wrote a memoir, she’d call it “The Fifth Mrs Brink.” After that, there was no doubt we’d become friends — her sense of fun, her loyalty, her graciousness and loving heart were irresistible.

The first time I ever went to dinner at their house (it was Karina’s birthday), André was a little reserved (I later discovered he was shy — a trait shared by many people of great charisma and brilliance). Sven Eick was making pina coladas, a skill he’d perfected working on Caribbean cruise ships. I gulped one down rather recklessly, and then thought it a good idea to tell “knock-knock” jokes. “Knock, knock, who’s there?” I announced. “Sam and Janet. Sam and Janet who?” At which point I burst into song in a nasal American accent: “Some enchanted evening … you will see a stranger…” A row of polite faces looked at me, momentarily blank. And then there was a great roar from André. He was still giggling minutes later. He had such a wonderful giggle.

That's the spiritAnd that’s what I’ll remember most fondly: not the extraordinary legacy of books and writing and intellect and passion and political commitment, but the jokes, the laughter around the Brink’s dining-room table, the year we celebrated New Year’s and Sarah Lotz‘s birthday on the same day and all chipped in to buy a bottle of Veuve Cliqout — this was long before The Three, the Girl books, back when most of us were enthusiastic nobodies, and André took us all seriously. (I’ve dropped in a pic of Sarah and I taken that happy evening — very irreverent for a memorial post, but André would have loved it.)

The time André and Karina came to visit me, and I told them the news about the Girl books, still fresh and unreal — and he said, “If I’d known, I’d have worn a tie in your honour.” And then there was the lunch we had at Starke Ayres Nursery to celebrate, and it was raining again, and André sailed through the puddles standing on the running-board of one of those trolleys for carrying plants. The time we watched a video of the opera Lucia di Lammermoor, and André and I teared up at the same time, and he squeezed my hand in simpatico.

Possibly the dearest memory: it was once again a winter’s evening, and Karina and I were in front of the fire as I poured out my heart. It wasn’t strictly a private conversation, but it was an intimate one. Then the power failed, as Eskom took a load off. There was a cry of rage from André’s office: had his word processor just swallowed a freshly written chapter? Had he stubbed his toe in the dark? No, he had been cut off while watching Sevende Laan on television.

Karina and I continued to chat in the warm bowl of light created by the fire. There was plenty of red wine, cheese and steaming hot tea, which she had with foresight poured into a thermos. After a while we wondered why André wasn’t joining us, and called him. His head came round the door: he hadn’t wanted to “intrude”. In his own home, he had been sitting in the cold and dark so not as to interrupt our tete-á-tete.

I salute you, you magnificent, brave, generous, huge-hearted man. You gave grand hugs and endless encouragement. Wherever you are now, “in the slumber that does not remember or forget”, or poling across the River Styx and no doubt extracting a story from Charon the boatman, I wish you well on your journey. Our job now is to honour you by taking care of the living. I promise we will wrap your soulmate, Karina, in all the love we can muster.

DSCF0604PS: Have to add one more photo of a truly devoted couple: taken on a magical morning when Andre, Karina and I all coincided in Venice — they were there for the Rolex Mentorship Festival. They were staying at the Hotel Danieli, where we met for coffee. Afterwards, they escorted me to their suite overlooking St Marks’ Basin — I wanted to use the hotel as backdrop for some scenes for the third Girl novel, and they were kind enough to give me the grand tour. So I can say that I have bounced on the Brinks’ bed.

Acknowledgement: some bits of this post are taken from a piece I wrote for Encounters With André Brink, published by Human & Rousseau in honour of his 75th birthday. Put together by Karina and his friends, family and colleagues, it’s a wonderful bricolage “biography” of memories.

Banting, women and rage

mushrooms smallI’ve stayed clear of the great Noakes/low-carb/Banting debate-cum-frenzy that has seized South Africa and especially Cape Town, not least because Tim is a friend and co-author. He gave me the opportunity to help write Bob Woolmer’s life work, which we brought to completion (in large part thanks to our editor, Tom Eaton, and the wonderful team at Struik) after Bob’s tragic death. There was something rare and special about that experience, and it’s no exaggeration to say it changed my life. So Tim is not an ordinary colleague, and I’ve watched the fur fly over his latest enthusiasm from a distance only.

I haven’t read The Real Meal Revolution. But I know the Banting basics, and as someone with PCOS and fasting insulin levels through the roof as a result, it’s done wonders for me. For decades, I bought the fat-free myth, once going completely fat-free for six months – results: a pathetic weight loss of 1,5kg and a scolding from my gynaecologist (“fat is needed for oestrogen production!”).

The Noakes diet is pretty easy for me because it’s similar to one my family always followed: no trans-fats or junk foods (slurryburgers and their ilk, with their associated animal suffering), bare minimum of refined processed carbs and sugar, vast quantities of veggies and leaves. So all I really had to do was cut out toast when it was midnight with 2000 words still to write, and add fat – organic butter, milk and cream, cheese, nuts, avos, lashings of olive oil – and bingo, off fell the weight, most likely because I was no longer hungry All. The. Time.

But the diets of individuals are boring to all but fellow-sufferers, on a par with describing the details of your operations. Banting works for me, a 50-something woman who has two infertility-related chronic conditions that buggered up my pancreas. Unless you have my identical health profile, I have no idea if it will work for you too. Personally, my views on nutrition chime mostly with this sensible piece. I’m also interested in this blog by a Mpumalanga doctor, who, desperate to do something for her rural, poverty-stricken and obese patients, tried “Banting on a budget”. Fat is not just a feminist issue, but also an issue of class and systemic poverty.

So. This is not a piece about Banting, or the great Banting debate. This is about rage – the wrath that the Noakes diet, and Tim himself, have triggered. And to some degree, the messianic fervour with which both the man and the diet are viewed by its acolytes. The latter is something I see in context – I’ve been party to Tim’s enthusiasms and ideas for nearly three decades (those involved in the cricket book will remember him waxing lyrical about Donald Bradman’s “rotary batting style”, and the central governor mechanism in the brain). I’ve also learned that he’s often (not always) right, and he has no problem with being proved wrong.

I suspect the adulation has to do with dieters being allowed to eat real food again. No more polystyrene rice cakes. None of those vile catch-the-back-of-the-throat chemical-syrup salad dressings and sauces. No more fat-free factory-made products spiked with corn syrup or artificial sweetener (seriously, folks, how can you drink diet cola? It makes me feel as if I’ve been sucking on a car exhaust). Celery sticks and carrot batons can now be dipped in guacamole or cream cheese. Your chicken breast can be drenched in blue cheese sauce. And so on.

But the shadow side is the rage Banting invokes in so many. And this fascinates me, because I believe that one of the things feeding the vitriol is gender attitudes. The fury is often wrapped up with (no doubt sincere) concerns about the long-term health impact of the high-fat, low-carb regime, especially for those with cholesterol issues. But high-fat diets have been with us for decades (Atkins, anyone?), and there’s been nothing like this opprobrium. And remember those X Diet books that made fat the ultimate enemy, and insisted that pre-diabetics eat carbs? (frankly dangerous, in my non-medical opinion). The author would share how she’d binge guilt-free – “Look, no butter!” – on bread and honey, and no-one tried to run her out of town.

Hear this. Dieting is one of society’s prime mechanisms for controlling middle-class women and keeping them docile (yes, I know, men have weight and diet issues too. Another topic, as is the fact that these are largely middle-class and Western problems, although they’re transmitted almost virally across class and cultural boundaries.)

Women are taught since girlhood that to be fat is a fate worse than death, that their bodies are to be policed and controlled and punished. That appetites – for food, sex, life – are dangerous.

And we get these messages early. Emma Thompson was dismayed at a child actress’s refusal to drink milk unless it was skimmed – the prepubescent mite was “scared of getting fat”. A friend encountered a preschool classroom in which playing at being “mommies and daddies” meant that the daddies were all in meetings and the mommies were all on diet.

The result is a fucked-up world in which billions are spent on the diet industry, and factories churn out tons of processed diet foods – all while millions don’t have enough to eat from day to day. Also issues for another post.

Meanwhile fat is shameful, especially for women. It ALWAYS indicates lack of self-control (the great “calories in, calories out” bleat of those who have never known insulin resistance or experienced hypoglycaemic shock in their lives – my last hypo episode cost me my two front teeth).

It’s in the interests of capitalist patriarchal systems to keep women shamed, docile and constantly anxious about losing any kind of control. (Men who lose their tempers are part of the scenery, as long as they don’t actually kill anyone; a woman in the throes of primal rage terrifies people.) And making women feel wretched and uncomfortable about food, as well as hungry a lot of the time, is a powerful mechanism for keeping them preoccupied. And a complex web of social choices is inflicted on us as a result.

We’re all familiar with the coffee-shop or restaurant scene: the man of the house is tucking into a full fried breakfast while his wife is toying with the fruit plate or the muesli-yoghurt option. Or he’s chowing down a burger and fries while she chomps her way through a salad (“no dressing, please”). He orders a whack of pudding; she says “I shouldn’t really”, patting her tummy. He snacks on nuts and biltong in front of the soccer; she might nibble on a piece of fruit. He knocks back the beers; she sips white-wine spritzers. We see this pattern repeated daily in middle-class life, also nearly every time we switch on the telly or watch a movie. Women do not have the same freedom to make food choices as men REGARDLESS OF WHAT EITHER OF THEM WEIGH.

Now imagine being a fat woman in this scenario. Maybe she’s that way because she can’t resist second helpings. Or her parents rewarded her with food as a child. Or she’s hitting menopause. Or she’s insulin-resistant. Whatever. She’s always going on diet. She consumes a joyless round of fat-free milk and cottage cheese, diet cereals, brown rice, low-GI bread, cabbage soup, wholewheat pasta with diet tomato sauce (corn sugar in that too), endless salads (but no olives, feta or avo, oh no). Until the hunger and boredom become unbearable and she finds herself at the bottom of a large bag of chips. And she is shamed and guilt-ridden all over again, and is too afraid to go for her annual checkup because she dreads the inevitable finger-wagging (so she misses the early warning signs of cervical cancer, but that’s another story).

Now along comes Noakes: and all of a sudden, our heroine is allowed to eat cream with her strawberries, lash coconut milk into her curries, share hubby’s biltong and nuts. A spread of cheeses, soft squidgy Camenbert, sharp mature Cheddar? Frittata and Spanish omelettes? Roast chicken with the skin nicely crisped? Bacon and avo in salads, drizzled with fruity olive oil? Bring it on. She can even have cheesecake, if she forgoes the sugar and crust.

You have no idea how radical this notion is: that women are permitted to enjoy food. This is one of the (inadvertent?) principles of low-carb, high-fat. No more plastic stuff jimmied up with corn syrup, salt and MSG to try to beat the blandness. Goodbye to cardboard fat-free “foods” fiddled with in factories. No more shame in ordering eggs Florentine for breakfast. No more sideways glances or chiding remarks when daring to eat boerewors or chops at the braai, or dotting veggies with butter or ghee or oil.

And I believe this makes a lot of people – men and women both – deeply uncomfortable without even realising the source of their discomfort. Women aren’t supposed to give themselves over to sensual pleasure or indulge their appetites – especially not fat women, goddess forbid. The idea of women unrestrained by moral guilt (over what they eat, for crying out loud) disturbs many.

I don’t think this is the only or even the main reason the Banting detractors invest so much emotion in their protests, and it’s just a theory. But it makes sense to me. A guy put paid to a friendship of decades the day he decided, unasked, to go through my fridge and pantry: “You’re not allowed these!” he cried, waving half a bar of chocolate and a packet of cashew nuts at me. “And definitely not this!” as he pounced on an ice-cream tub. (It was actually home-made soup from a friend, but WHO THE FUCK CARED, and what the sam hill was he doing in my freezer anyway?)

I shouldn’t have gotten angry: he was simply voicing attitudes to women and their food choices that lie just beneath the surface of most Western cultures. For decades, we’ve had rigid, controlling and judgemental notions of what women – especially fat women – may and may not eat. And Tim Noakes has gone and turned those notions upside down, and BAD VERY NAUGHTY WICKED AND FORBIDDEN foods are now Superheroine foods, ones that women can choose without guilt. No wonder the feathers are flying.

FAQs (about working with me, editing and writing)

FAQsAlthough my email signature says that I don’t work for individuals, only for publishers and institutions (as does my LinkedIn profile), I get approached by people who’d like to work with me all the time. Which is wonderful, and I’m grateful, and one day I may be able to go back to taking on “lone rangers”, but not right now. Many folk ask the same basic questions, so I find myself writing the same email over and over. So, a list of FAQs and answers has been on my “To Do” list for a long time.

Q: I’ve just finished my first novel! Can you edit it for me?

A: Sadly, no. I tend to be booked up by publishers, institutions and authors I work for on a regular basis about six to twelve months in advance. I stopped working for individuals some years ago, mostly because I just don’t have the time. It makes sense to keep working with the same writers, and I have 28 (at last count) on my books (ha). One of them writes a book a year. A handful write a book every two years. The rest might only present me with a full-length work every four or five years, but they keep producing material — short stories, academic papers, grant proposals and much more, most of which goes through my hands. I can’t do justice to more than eight projects a year, given that I also work as a writer, trainer, researcher and academic. So you see the problem.

I do pursue talent, however, and try to take on a new author every year or so — but their work needs to make the hair stand up on the back of my neck with excitement. Often these are writers whose talent is already palpable (they’ve already had one or more books published, they’ve been placed in short story or poetry competitions, or appeared in anthologies), but their work IMO needs deeper and tougher editing. Or I’ve admired their writing and wanted to work with them for years, but the chance has never arisen. I also keep my eyes open for “undiscovered” talent, but this usually gets fed to me via other writers, mentors, even NGOs.

Another tricky thing about working with individuals is the occasional fuss about settling my invoice. Also, see my dilemma: let’s say someone pours their life and soul into their precious MS, and sends it to me for assessing or editing, trembling with hope and trepidation. Alas, it’s not very good. Or it shows promise, but needs a lot of fixing. I proceed to tear it to pieces, leaving the poor writer reeling — and then present them with a fat bill. This is no fun for any of the participants.

So I encourage writers who really want to work with me to find out if their publishers are willing to let me edit their MSS. Some will, some won’t, but it’s always worth asking. If the publisher agrees, they give me a brief (and often readers’ reports), mediate if necessary, and pick up the tab. It’s a more professional and humane arrangement.

Q: I’m prepared to wait until you have time. Six months, you say?

A: I know it doesn’t seem fair, but I don’t work on a queue (first-come, first-served) basis. It’s more of a triage system in which my regular authors, especially those with non-negotiable launch dates, tend to get bumped up the list. I try to carve out a fair shot of my time for everyone I work for, but there are always those emergencies when someone’s launch gets pushed forward by a month, or they have to finish all the edits before the baby arrives, or their agent is screaming for the first 20 000 words of their next novel in time for Frankfurt. And so on.

Q: Well, can you recommend anyone else?

A: I refer on to excellent people all the time. But first do your homework: put together a pitch, a synopsis, a sense of genre, a word count, a budget, and any readers’ reports or other feedback you might already have. Then go shopping for an editor that looks like a good fit with all of the above. Hunt around online, but bear in mind that word of mouth is an excellent way of tracking down a good editor who is also a good fit with your work. I’ll give ideas if you get stuck, but you need to do the initial legwork.

Q: What do you charge? I have a very tight budget.

A: By local copy-editing standards, I’m fairly expensive, and not a good choice if you are counting the pennies. However, as indie publishers know, if I’m tremendously excited by a MS or consider it a privilege to work for a certain author, I’ll bend my rate down. So sometimes there is a bit of wiggle room. (I should add, because money is always tricksy, that I haven’t increased my prices in five years, and that they remain tied to industry rates — which shrink each year. Recession, Amazon, etc.)

Q: I have a great book, but I can’t find a publisher. Can you help?

A: You’re going to have to do the work here. You need a writing group or beta-readers who will give you honest feedback, the ability to rewrite in response to feedback, deep familiarity with the local writing/book scene, including publishers’ lists and catalogues. I need to stress the latter — it’s surprisingly common for would-be authors to do only the most cursory or slapdash research into what publishing options are available. Sending your MS to the wrong publisher (a poetry collection to an imprint that publishes only crime fiction or school textbooks, for instance) is soul-sucking for everyone concerned, but it happens all the time. Finding the right publisher takes persistence and diligent, ongoing research. Bear in mind that publishers are not charitable trusts or benevolent institutions for showcasing talent. They run on business principles (and in this day and age, cobweb budgets and skeleton staff). Talent is no longer the only requirement for publishing — you need to be very aware of how to sell yourself as well. If you’re not already immersed in the world of reading and books, especially locally, there’s not much I or anyone else can do for you.

Q: I’ve finished my novel and decided to self-publish! Will you edit it for me?

A: Sorry, no, see above, but wait — did you say self-publish? And this is your first novel? Do LOTS of homework first. I don’t recommend self-publishing unless you’re very experienced at the publishing game. See all the links at the bottom of this note. I almost never recommend self-publishing a first work, unless it’s non-fiction for a highly specialist audience, or you’ve worked in the publishing industry for ten years and know most of the tricks in the book.

Q: Will you read my manuscript and give me some feedback? I can’t afford to pay you.

A: Usually, no. But if I’ve read your work before, admired it and expressed an interest, go ahead and ask. If humanly possible, I’ll say yes, although you’ll almost certainly have to wait a while for a response.

Q: Yay, thanks so much! I’m emailing you my MS.

A: No no no no. It will disappear into the bottomless pit that is my inbox and I will forget its existence. Plus I spend my professional life square-eyed in front of a screen — have some pity. If I’ve agreed to read your draft MS, you MUST send me a hard copy. That way it will sit reproachfully on my desk, nudging me until I crack and carry it off to read in the bath or a coffee-shop.

Q: Can you help me find an agent?

A: No. Am clueless in this regard. Google is your friend.

Q: But you have an agent! Can’t you introduce me?

A: I don’t have an agent. Helena S. Paige, of which I am one third, has an agent. HSP does everything by consensus, so I can’t go rogue and start attempting hookups as an individual.

Q: I have an academic monograph/collection of essays/series of conference proceedings that needs editing. Can you help?

A: Your odds are a bit better than the fiction-writing folk, because I use a great team of academic editors as subcontractors if I’m overloaded (there’s always complete transparency about this, and if I DO outsource some of the editing, you’ll know about it and deal directly with the subcontractor yourself — with me on hand to resolve any issues). This way I get to oversee or part-edit some interesting and important projects without falling into the great time-bog of editing footnotes and bibliographies.

Q: I have to submit my dissertation soon, and my supervisor says it needs editing. Can you help?

A: Sorry, no. I don’t edit dissertations unless the degree has already been awarded, and the work has been accepted for publication on condition that it is edited first. I’ll beta-read and comment on dissertations written by friends and regular authors, if possible, but no editing.

Q: I’ve got my Masters/PhD degree! But now I’m under the “publish or perish” gun. I need to turn my dissertation into a book or series of journal articles. Help!

A: Congratulations, and I have more good news. You’re going to join a great organisation called ANFASA (the Academic and Non-Fiction Authors’ Association of South Africa). For a very modest annual fee, you’ll get a free JSTOR key (worth the price of admission alone) and free advice on copyright and contracts. But these are the icing roses on the cake, because you’ll also get access to the transcript of my workshop on how to turn dissertation into various published works — journal articles, essays, monographs.*

Q: We have a project with a tight deadline where the authors/editors simply haven’t been able to deliver, or produce work of sufficient quality. Is there any chance you can overwrite the MS for us, or step in to provide the outstanding material?

A:  *Shrieks, flees the country on a false passport* This kind of work is so stressful, it’s not worth my while. I will no longer overwrite, under any circumstances, and I’ll fill in material where authors have gone AWOL only in very rare (humanitarian) circumstances.

Q: I have a collection of poems I’d like you to edit.

A: I don’t edit poetry. In the case of friend-poets with whom I have reciprocal reading arrangements (i.e., they show me theirs, and I show them mine), I’ll read and comment tentatively. But as an editor, I am notoriously tough, even ruthless. Margaret Atwood once said that “Being edited is like falling face-down in a threshing-machine”, so clearly she had an editor like me. Poetry is too tender, too personal, for me to thresh. But I can refer you to some really good people.

Q: I’ve met this incredible person with an amazing story, a real chunk of South Africa’s untold history, but she/he isn’t a writer. Could you work with them?

A: Sadly, no. I have ghostwriting form, notably for Bob Woolmer and Tim Noakes when we all worked on the cricket book, which I loved, but it’s not one of my primary skills. I find it hugely time-consuming, it demands that I know a lot about the topic, and it works out expensive. There are other SA writers — journalists, especially — who have far more experience and expertise at this sort of thing than I do.

Q: We know you worked on Elinor Sisulu’s biography of her revered parents-in-law. We have a biography project we’d like you to consider.

A: Thank you, and it might be possible, but when working on a biography, I need to find both the subject and the author compelling. The story of the subject needs to fill an important gap — and the writer needs to be an exceptional researcher and analyst with fresh insights (Elinor ruined me for life). Please send as much info about both (subject and author) as possible. Also note that I don’t work on private memoirs intended for self-publishing.

Q: A friend has survived appalling trauma and has put her thoughts into an inspirational manuscript. Or: I’ve triumphed over great tragedy, and I feel the need to tell my story, and share my lessons. Can you help?

A: I am really sorry you have had to endure great loss/violence, and salute your courage. Writing can be an extremely important form of therapy and catharsis. Alas, I never do this sort of work. Simply keeping up my own research and writing on sexual violence scours me raw — I do not have what it takes to do anything more personal, and I wouldn’t begin to know how to charge for this kind of work. (Also, time: see above.) There are a handful of brave, compassionate and intelligent writers who ghostwrite stories of triumph over disaster, or who run writing courses especially geared for survivors, or who host creative workshops aimed at healing terrible trauma. Most of these are easy to find, usually because they’re written their own books on similar struggles. Rape Crisis Cape Town and similar organisations sometimes run writing workshops specifically geared to giving survivors a voice. Good luck.

Q: My child/godchild/niece etc has written a book to rival Harry Potter, but publishers aren’t interested because she’s only 15. Can you help?

A: Not really. The children’s book market in this country is minuscule outside of educational publishing. If your child is really keen and talented, I suggest linking up with one of the excellent literacy NGOs putting out material (mobile phone stories, comics, apps, print books) designed to encourage young people to read. Google will help, but personal favourites of mine include Book Dash, Fundza Literary Trust and the Puku Children’s Literature Foundation. They’re on the lookout for good content, but there’s rarely any money to be made.

Q: I work for X charity/NGO/NPO. Can you help us with a writing/editing project for free?

A: I do some “pro deo” editing and writing, but there are two problems here: I have a list of organisations I support, and they get first dibs on my spare time; and I find that work I do for free keeps getting pushed to the back of the queue, so you might have a rather long wait.

Q: Couldn’t you just take a quick peek at this/ give me a bit of advice on [insert booky topic here] /help me become an editor/ etc? [subtext: for free, of course]

A: Sigh. The thorny issue of free advice. In theory, I’d love to help. Some of the best, most rewarding projects and relationships I’ve known have started with these questions. But some practical thoughts, especially as a close friend recently scolded me for “being an editorial soup kitchen.” First of all, in the words of the inimitable Ama Ata Aidoo, “GOOGLE, MY DARLLLLLING!” (Yes, Lord Google is not all-knowing and sometimes you do need advice from a human. But please, please, at least try online first.) Second (and this gets pointed out ad nauseum by every freelancer I know), etiquette-wise this falls into the same category as meeting a doctor or lawyer at a dinner party, and promptly asking them for their professional opinion on the nagging pain in your left big toe or your noisy neighbours. But most NB, we’re back to the triage system: I can only give so much time to free work. And the hours I spend responding to unsolicited emails count as free work. I like to reserve that time and energy — which is all too finite –for projects and people I truly, deeply care about and believe to be important. People get puzzled because they know I’ve helped X, so surely I’ll help them too? The bottom line: if I’m willing and able to work for free, I offer to do so. Or there are relationships of true reciprocity in place.

More questions? Check these blog posts of mine:

About editing: Stuff that authors (and editors) need to know 3

More about editing — LOTS more: The neglected art and craft of editing (aka a rather long rant)

About marketing: Dear lovely author: truths about marketing you need to know

About writing courses (out of date, but the principles remain): Stuff that would-be authors need to know 4: so take a course already

About book launches: Stuff that authors need to know 1.

More resources (all of which you MUST consult before mailing me queries):

This blog by Tiah Beautement.

Small Publishers’ Catalogue 2013, available here. (The 2016 one is about to be launched! Contact Modadji Books for this invaluable resource. Don’t ask anybody anything booky ever until you have imbibed every word of this.)

Almost everything you need to know about publishing (geared to international market, but much of it applies in South Africa, too).

And this is what I’d like every academic author to read.

Finally: every freelance editor in the world needs you to read this.

* Just checked, and the link to my ANFASA workshop notes is broken. Will try to get them to fix (still working on this), or post those notes separately.

Take your doek and knot it

Two years ago, faced with the hypocritical sham-show of Women’s Day, I went into full volcanic eruption. One year ago, I was in utter despair. Today, almost everything that enrages or grieves me about the standing of women in South Africa and the world continues unchanged, against a backdrop of humans behaving so badly — from the global to the individual level — that I’m almost beyond words. So this year, I’m getting some help from pictures.

This is how I feel all through August, a month in which women will go about their daily work (often backbreaking, often poorly paid), care for their families, run the usual risks of being violated and beaten and exploited and murdered — but with the additional bonus of being patronised by the saccharine-fest that is “Women’s Month”:

I had no great expectations that someone in government would say anything inspiring or helpful — I was expecting the usual sentimental blether — when the “wear a doek” campaign was announced by the Department of Arts and Culture. Women were asked to don a “doek” (a head covering traditionally worn by domestic workers and married women) on Fridays, take “selfies” and post them on social media — as a gesture of “social cohesion”. And bang went my resolution not to rant and swear this Women’s Month. WHAT THE FUCK WERE THEY SMOKING? WHAT BATSHIT TOMFOOLERY WAS THIS?

And even as I reeled, I read an article — on the 2nd day of “Women’s Month” — about how a rapist’s sentence was reduced because the 11-year-old girl he had repeatedly raped was allegedly “willing” and not particularly traumatised. At which point, this happened to my face: medusa

This kind of insanity — EVIL, in fact, and this link explains just how low a priority this is for the powers that be — is just the tip of the iceberg of what South African women and children deal with daily, and our Minister wants us to adorn our little heads with scarves associated with bringing Master his tea. Look, mocking this trite, patronising and spectacularly middle-class (“selfies”? “social media”?) little promo is like shooting fish in a barrel. I’ve spotted some wonderful responses: the writer Helen Brain Faulkner immediately posted a selfie on her Facebook page with a duck on her head. In her next pic, she was wearing a “dick” on her head, and it’s worth tracking her via social media to see THAT picture.

I’m sure there are bright postgrads writing papers on the potential subversion of the doek as a cultural symbol or political capital, or its appropriation as a fashion item, but the plain truth is that in South Africa, historically the doek has always been a sign of racial and gender subservience and subjugation. I may love headgear — hats, wraps, turbans, scarves, mantillas — as accessories, but asking women to cover their heads is almost invariably associated with conservative (“traditional”) political, cultural and religious hierarchies.

Here’s my doek selfie, with inspiration taken shamelessly from Lesley Perkes, who posted pics of herself on Facebook wearing a doek both as a noose and a gag. Lesley, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Warning: This photo is NOT prophetic. I may be mentally hoarse from shouting, but I’m not going to shut up. FUCK NO.

Here’s what I wish the Department of Arts and Culture had suggested instead: asking parents to enrol their children at libraries and take out books about South African sheroes — Ellen Kuzwayo, Albertina Sisulu, Ray Alexander, Miriam Makeba and hundreds more. Those are selfies I’d like to see, please: kids with books, stories about strong, interesting, flawed, brilliant and inspiring women. Oh, and please fill up our schools and libraries with those books — they’ve been written, for all ages, by the likes of Gcina Mhlophe, Sindiwe Magona, Elinor Sisulu, Makhosazana Xaba, Mmatshilo Motsei and many more.

In the mean time, here’s one last picture: Rahima Moosa, Albertina Sisulu, Helen Joseph and Sophia Williams delivering petitions to the heart of the apartheid machine.Women's Day march

See that, Minister? THAT’s what social cohesion looks like.

PS: For a Women’s Day gesture that will actually make a difference, donate to Rape Crisis here. They’re the ones doing incredible work against impossible odds, and they need every bit of support we can give them. And if you’d still like to take a selfie, get a book (not a doek) to donate to your nearest school or library, and take a pic of that.

We are family (2): Some of my children

IMG_0203I have recently been prostrated (hardly surprising) under a big, grey, lumpy cloud of post-multiple-project depression. So, as this is not exactly new territory, I am contemplating the things that make me happy. And writing a blog while waiting for the freezing rain to stop, so I can go for a sanity-saving jog.

As a pick-me-up, the knowledge that I have the best job in the world is second only to posting pics of my furkids on the internet. And in the last few months, some wonderful authors have published fantastic books, in which I have had a hand. And this blog is about these writers, all of whom give me tremendous joy. (The pic on the left shows me at the 2011 Open Book Festival with Siphiwo Mahala and Thando Mgqolozana, both of whose books — African Delights and Hear Me Alone — I had edited that year.)

A sudden thought: I hope it never comes across as patronising that I think of the authors I work with, and the books I edit, as my children. (But the truth is: they are.) I’d also hate to imply that editing is a one-way street — I learn from every writer I work with. Some writers mother me as much, if not more, than I them (this is especially true of my co-authors in the Great Girl Escapade, Sarah Lotz and Paige Nick). But an enormous amount of maternal energy does go into the work I do.

As I’ve said before, editing is a strange business: it can’t really be taught, and no two editors work the same way, or even the same way on different manuscripts (I work differently depending on whether I’m editing litfic, academic material, NGO reports or commercial fiction). Some editors are quite detached, or simply correct errors. Me, I’m what Bridget Impey of Jacana recently described as a “full-services editor” — a nice way of saying that I get Stockholm Syndrome while editing, becoming utterly possessed by the MS I’m working on. This has its pitfalls, but over the last seven or eight years, I’ve noticed a subtle change as I work with the same authors more than once (I’ve edited all four of Lauren Beukes’s novels, for instance), and my authors invariably become part of my life. I cannot begin to describe how satisfying it is seeing the leaps they take as they develop their writing muscles and talent, or how much pleasure it gives me when they get intelligent reviews, when they win awards, when their work contributes to important debates, and when they go out and conquer the world.

So: here are some of my children, in the order in which their books have been launched this year:

UNIMPORTANCE_low-res-190x300Thando MgqolozanaThando Mgqolozana — Unimportance. I try not to have favourites among my authors, but Thando gets two special monikers: Youngest Child and Lamb. These labels date from when we were working on his second novel, Hear Me Alone (which I would put on a top ten list of the finest South African novels since 1994). We started referring to each other as “Excellency” (you have to read the book to understand), and he was (and still is) my youngest author. Working with him is a spectacular learning curve for me: his brain is so unlike anyone else’s, I rely on him for guidance and navigation as I edit. Plus I am a White Lady of a Certain Age (old enough to be his mother), and so he is the one who leads me into pastures new. I adore him as a writer and a human being: his sidelong wit, his passionate flurries, his generous affection. I get excited every time I think of the career he has ahead of him — with three books written while still in his twenties, he will be the next Zakes Mda, hell, our next Laureate.

I read the manuscript of Unimportance in a single sitting, and my first thought was, “This is an African Catcher in the Rye“. But it is far more than a stream-of-consciousness journey through a single night: as layered as phyllo pastry, but far more nourishing, it’s both an insider perspective on student life (it already has a cult following among present and former UWC students) and a complex allegory on politics and integrity — with perfect timing, it was launched on the eve of South Africa’s general election. It also takes a particularly close and intelligent look at the ubiquitous scourge of South African society (including our campuses) — gender-based violence. To my great joy, it is being reviewed by readers who get it. See here and here.

Zendingsdrang_final_artworkRichard at Kalk Bay launchRichard de Nooy — The Unsaid. Richard, dear Richard, with his great heart and scouring wit: he had already made award-winning waves with Six Fang Marks and a Tetanus Shot, the first in a loose trilogy when I came on board to edit No 2, The Big Stick. I think Richard was a bit non-plussed at first: the Dutch version had already been published — what was I going to do? Well, I nibbled and niggled away at his text. I also acted as his travel and social planner on a trip to Cape Town; his location scout and wardrobe assistant on a photoshoot; and then there was lunch party I hosted for him, which will forever be remembered for the Infamous Incident of the Kitty Vomit. Yes, my author sat in a large puddle of it. You could say it was a bonding experience. Like being in a foxhole.

So it was with great delight that I edited No 3 in the series, The Unsaid — probably his tightest, most layered (and yet readable) novel, a bravura performance in which Richard makes complexity look easy. The structuring alone deserves praise: the way stories are embedded in a text full of notes, jottings, clinical reports, diary entries and remain effortless. Like his previous two novels, it’s been getting stellar reviews.

The ThreeDSCF4124Sarah Lotz — The Three. I can’t really lay claim to having edited The Three, as I was one of several folk who worked on the MS, both editing and proofreading it, but it’s incredibly special to me. Sarah bounced the pitch (along with several others) off me over coffee at the Food Barn (our neighbourhood local) one late winter day. A few days later:
“Guess which pitch Oli [the Agent] liked best?”
“Not the plane crash one? The research will give you nightmares!”
“Got it in one. Plus he wants a synopsis and an opening chapter in time for Frankfurt” (the Frankfurt Book Fair was just around the corner).
The rest is publishing history: Hodder & Stoughton beat down the door for world rights, in fact pre-empting Frankfurt — here’s the amazing pinch-me-I’m-dreaming story.

Sarah is a much-loved friend (she’s the one who persuaded me to move to Noordhoek) and the most profilic and hard-working writer I know. Because she adores collaborating and co-authors so many books, it’s hard to track how many she’s written or co-written, but I got 17 the last time I counted. The Three is extraordinary, so much so, Stephen King blurbed it. Intelligent, terrifying cross-genre thriller about four planes that go down on the same day, and the hysteria and paranoia that follow. Everyone who’s read it enjoys it (although it’s made US fundamentalists quite cross) — just don’t read it while flying. And for those who gobbled it up and are looking around for more, there’s LOTS of stuff by Sarah to read, and she’s already submitted the MS for a loose sequel to The Three.

Broken Monsters coverLauren Monsters launchLauren Beukes — Broken Monsters. I’ve told the story so often about how this blonde took me to breakfast en route to a surfing lesson, and asked me to edit her first novel. I explained I knew little about genre fiction and zero about branding (the theme of the book). “I’m a Luddite,” I confessed. “I wear second-hand clothes, for Pete’s sake.”
Determined blue eyes fixed on me. “Do you wear Crocs?”
“Er, no.”
“Thank God. That would be a deal-breaker.”
And that is how I got to whiz along on one of the most amazing rides of the South African books scene this century — the rise and rise of Lauren Beukes, who’s given this proud surrogate mother many gooseflesh moments, from when she stepped up (wearing a fake sloth) to receive the Arthur C. Clarke award for her second novel, Zoo City, to the runaway international success of her third, The Shining Girls, to the launch of Number 4, Broken Monsters. And each one keeps getting better — the reviewers agree — see here and here. Few writers respond to editing the way Lauren does — she never settles for tweaking when hearing “can do better” or “not quite there”. Instead, she rewrites vigorously — and something fresh and amazingly imaginative and strong always emerges.

Regarding_MuslimsLR-180x260Gabeba_interview_Victor_DlaminiGabeba Baderoon — Regarding Muslims: From slavery to post-apartheid. I am so glad this nuanced, tender, intelligent and humane monograph has finally been published. It represents work Gabeba began with her PhD, and its combination of breadth and intimacy make it especially fine. I’ve edited Gabeba’s writing before (although not her beautiful poetry — that I just read and admire), and you can imagine the pleasure of editing academic writing by a poet.

In terms of compassion and complexity, Regarding Muslims is everything that commentary on Islam should be (but sadly, seldom is), especially given the ongoing shock and horror of terrible world events. Gabeba has always believed in dialogue, and reading this generous and attentive book is like having dinner with Imraan Coovadia, Robert Shell, Rustum Kozain, Mary Hames, Pumla Dineo Gqola, Shaida Ali, the late Tatamkulu Afrika, Yvette Christianse, Shamil Jeppie, Berni Searle, Nadia Davids, and more.

So there we are: five bonny babies out in the world and bouncing. I feel better now, and the skies have cleared. Off to walk the kitties.

Photo credits: Sophy Kohler took the pic of me with Siphiwo and Thando, I took the one of Sarah, Victor Dlamini took the one of Gabeba. Please supply details if you know who took the others.

We are family (1): some of my sisters and me

karina beautifulinvisible-others-cover1I’m taking part in the blog-hopping challenge some of you may have seen going round, having been invited by Karina and Alex. First order of business: Karina has just had her exquisite first novel Invisible Others published — always a wonderful milestone, even though she has been a force for good as a short story author, editor, Gordimer scholar and reviewer ever since she came to these shores. Karina came to South Africa from her native Poland via Austria and the US (yes, she has stories to tell) and is married to Andre Brink. She is a Cat Person — I could say a great deal more about our friendship, but that alone explains so much. Here’s her blog-hop — enjoy.

ALEX-AT-BEAUTIES-LAUNCHdevilskeinfront-final-for-bus-cardThe other blogger who asked me to hop along is well-known in South African booky circles. Alex Smith, who’s produced three distinctly original (some would even say unusual) novels and a fascinating memoir of a year in China, Drinking from the Dragon’s Well, is about to release her latest novel, Devilskein and Dearlove. Alex’s literary output is mind-boggling (she is also a short story author of note, and has been shortlisted for the Caine Prize), especially considering she is the mother of a very active toddler, Elias, who has us all enthralled. Her own blog-hop piece is here.

Here are my answers to the blog-hop questions:

What am I working on?

As usual, Other People’s writing. Also as usual, revising stuff already in the factory, including bread-and-butter projects like a university textbook, updates to my MS on sexual violence (worthy but grim stuff I can only do in short bursts), and something lovely — a reprint of my poetry anthology, Strange Fruit. And final page proofs for the third book in the Girl Walks In series by Helena S. Paige (the pen-name under which Paige Nick, Sarah Lotz and I write erotica) have just arrived in my inbox — it’s called A Girl Walks Into A Blind Date. This is a funny stage — so much wrapping up at the same time as new ideas and projects are fermenting. I don’t want to jinx any of the new stuff by talking about it yet.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Girl wallpaperThis question made me giggle. I write academic essays and book chapters, poetry, short stories, a blog in which I swear like a trooper, commercial AND literary erotica, university textbooks, and compile anthologies. And I co-wrote a book on cricket and co-produced and scripted two cricket documentaries. When it comes to writing, my multiple personalities really do come out to play. So my general response to genre is “Aha! A new one to try!” In terms of difference, I rather like what the editors of a book on intellectual traditions in South Africa (coming out from UKZN Press later this year) said about my chapter: that it was “incendiary”. That does set quite a bit of my writing apart, I think. I hope so.

Why do I write what I do?

One word: deadlines.

How does my writing process work?

It depends what I’m working on. Because I was an academic writer before I was any other kind of writer, my first decades of writing always felt like homework to me. There certainly wasn’t a muse hanging about, and it was years before I felt that delicious sensation my mother calls “writer’s rush”. Truthfully, my passion lies with editing, itself a transmuted form of the joy I used to feel teaching university students. I get deeply absorbed by some of the more serious material I write, but what drives the process is either political conviction (as in my feminist writings) or a commission. But there’s no doubt that some of the writing I’ve done — certainly the anthologising — has been pure pleasure. Writing commercial genre fiction as part of a team over the past year has been an astonishing amount of fun, and I’d love to do more. Collaborating with other authors feeds into my writing in a way that’s intensely satisfying.

The only time I feel like a Proper Writer, however, is when a poem arrives — I find they fly into my head and flap at me until I write them down. At least half die in the process, and the other half need weeks and months of recrafting, and then about half of those I have the courage to show others, and a handful of those get published…

On to the next two women writers I’ve invited to join the hopathon:

robyn novelrobyn-250Robyn Goss published her first novel, And So Say All Of Us, with Oshun. She registered on my radar when I edited a short-story collection, 180 degrees, to which she contributed a wonderful tale about a woman supposedly undergoing “menopause” — but actually transforming into a cat. Robyn then had two children and moved to Switzerland, and am I now very slowly editing her next novel, parts of which make me wheeze with laughter. She is a genuinely funny writer, but don’t take my word for it: read her blog here, especially the posts about parenting. In fact, I insist you read this one.

London Cape Town JoburgZukiswaZukiswa Wanner really needs no introduction, especially as she’s just whirled through the country promoting her latest novel London Cape Town Joburg. I’m halfway through it, and as always, the pages turn themselves. I love the way she handles Deep Tough Chewy topics with entertaining ease. Interesting aside: both she and Robyn had their first novels (in Zuki’s case, The Madams) published by Oshun, an imprint of Struik that focused on publishing books for women. In her role as commissioning editor, Michelle Matthews launched not a few impressive writing careers — Zukiswa has three acclaimed novels and a comic non-fiction book, Maid in SA, under her belt. She lives in Kenya at present, but you can visit her blog right here. Here’s possibly my favourite of her posts.

Thanks to Karina and Alex for asking me to hop, and happy hopping to Robyn and Zukiswa.

The Year of the Girl

I don’t even know how to write about the past frantic, fairytale, bizarre year. I’ve wished over and over that I could just press “pause” long enough to process all the extraordinary, impossible things that have happened. The year 2013 plunged me into a writer’s fantasy: international publishing deals, enough money in hard currency to do that impossible thing — write more-or-less full time, at least for a year or two.

The day Sarah Lotz called to tell me that we had sold Italian rights for a book series that began as a feminist rant about Fifty Shades (“Why can’t women get to choose what they want sexually, in fiction at least?”), followed by a brilliant suggestion (“Let’s write some choose-your-own-ending erotica”) — over lunch with her and Paige Nick was, ironically, one of the worst days of my life. I was training Parliamentary researchers — draining, knackering work — with my dumbphone switched off, and there was no wifi in a guesthouse so awful I had had to decamp. My cat was in hospital. I had raging insomnia, and a bump on the head had left with me partial amnesia, a horribly disorienting form of mental quicksand. I was tearful and near-psychotic from sleep deprivation.

Everyone had been trying to reach me all day. It turned out that my inbox was full of the kind of messages writers dream about. The Italians had set off a domino effect — other European publishers were making offers. German and UK auctions were brewing.

Things snowballed from there. Our agent, the indefatigable Oli Munson of AM Heath, signed contracts on our behalf, and only then did I look at the delivery dates: we had to write three books in ten months, at the same time that I had to produce two textbooks for other publishers, as well as the usual editing. Sarah’s commitments were even more insane, and Paige still had a very demanding day job. Quite a few folk asked me if our experience was like winning the lottery, and with hindsight, I can now confidently say that the answer is no: it’s like being given a middle manager’s salary and then working harder than you’ve ever worked in your entire life. (This, I hasten to add, is not a complaint.)

Telling people was one of the most joyful things. It was also the hardest. Family and close friends were relatively easy (and huge fun): my father asked, in a somewhat strained voice, “Will your name be on the cover?” My sister’s unalloyed delight was wonderful: we promptly started planning a trip. Telling other writers — all the gifted, skilled, hard-working friends and colleagues who make this book lark bearable, who had encouraged and commiserated with and supported me for so long — tied me in knots.

It wasn’t until I heard Neil Gaiman talking about the survivor guilt and imposter syndrome that most writers feel when they stumble into success that I realised my response was normal. I kept thinking “Why me? Why not A? It should have been B. X works just as hard, and is much more talented. So is Y. And Z,” and on and on in the small hours. The fact that my lovely writer friends were so thrilled for me almost made it worse. Maybe my guilt was particularly acute because I’m fundamentally an editor — it’s my job to nurture talent, not write up a porn storm.

There were the inevitable wild rumours: a journalist heard “from a reliable source” that we had been paid a million POUNDS. We had a good laugh at that one. I’m told there were one or two snide remarks on Twitter. But mostly, we’ve been swaddled in a down duvet of goodwill and kindness, for which I am beyond grateful.

And so the year rolled on, and I discovered, once again, that one of the most rewarding and stretching things in this life is learning something fresh. Writing commercial fiction was new to me, and I now have barrowloads of respect for anyone who makes a go of it. I almost yearned at times for the freedom of litfic: in commercial fiction, plot becomes a shark that has to keep swimming — there are no pauses for meditation, philosophy, nuance, a perfectly realised description, a poetic line. Vocabulary has to be much smaller, tighter, predictable without being boring. Word echoes became the new bane of my life. And I quickly learned that rumpy-pumpy writers the world around need a sex thesaurus.

I also loved collaborating. Working with co-authors is often cumbersome (every small decision requires a three-way consultation), but it removes one daunting characteristic of the writing life — the loneliness of living inside one’s head. And for someone who still researches and writes about sexual violence, writing commercial erotica is an absolute romp, a breath of fresh, even wholesome air. Partly because of the relief of living in a parallel universe where sex is always about pleasure and fun, and the woman is always empowered and in charge — and partly because it just isn’t Serious. So much of my writing and academic and activist life is deadly serious — even a quick glance at my blog shows that 2013 wasn’t all about champagne and frilly knickers. There was loss and rage and grief too, sometimes way too much.

It feels as if I spent the entire year in pyjamas, eating toast at my keyboard at 4am (so much for glamour), but there were glorious, fairy-dust moments, and I hope I get some time in 2014 to look back and savour them properly. Selling rights in 21 countries, if you count Catalonia. The fact that I got to go to the Cotswolds and Venice to do research (as I interviewed wedding planners at one idyllic location after another, I kept expecting someone to leap out of a hedge, yelling “Fraud!”). The pretty, happy-making covers that keep rolling off the production line. The South African one is the loveliest — and to our delight, many of our foreign publishers think so too — so far, eight of them have used or adapted the local cover. Seeing that cover rolling round Spain on buses. (This still blows my mind every single time I think about it.)

Speaking of the cover, one lesson was learning just how high South African publishing production standards are by international standards. I’d like for everyone in the local business — editors, copyeditors, typesetters, proofreaders, designers, cover artists and more — to shrug off what a friend calls the “colonial cringe” — you have no idea how good you are, or how professional you are to work with. You are literally world-class. Galaxy-class. Really.

Generally, I found this list by Matt Haig very helpful in navigating entirely new waters. But the most helpful people were my lovely co-authors, without whom this (a) would never have happened in a bazillion years; (b) would have been an alienating, scary experience, instead of the most enormous fun. Thank you dearest Mrs P and Mrs S, for making me laugh till I almost burst (it got completely riotous at times) and teaching me SO much.

Speaking of gratitude, I’m itching to embark on an absolute screed of thank-yous, but there are literally too many names, and I am seized by dread of leaving someone out. Plus each of us has our own team propping us up behind the scenes, and I don’t want to speak for Sarah or Paige when I say “We couldn’t have done it without you.” But you know who you are — at least, I hope you do. So let me say a broad thank you to the lovely booky community, and especially Books Live. You all made me a writer. Some can do this words malarkey alone — I can’t. So muchas gracias and muchas smoochas to you all. I wish you all a happy, safe 2014, full of amazing and wonderful surprises — the Girl is proof they do happen.

The end of Mandela’s century

Just what the world needs – another commemorative Mandela blog post. But I can’t settle to anything else, so consider it part of the collective mourning process. I think Chris Thurman is correct in saying we have lost and grieved Mandela many times, but what I feel now is a sense of an epoch at an end.

I believe we have lost the last of the great statesmen-leaders of the twentieth century – leaders who espoused causes most right-minded people would consider noble – and to me it feels as if the twentieth century is now finally and irretrievably over, that the time of great ideas and single-minded purpose is gone. The world now feels cold, greedy and fragmented, a place that increasingly encourages an emotional register of cynicism and sentimentality only.

I was training for the Centre for Conflict Resolution on Friday, a day we’ll all remember as The Day After. On the way there, FMR was playing the Mozart piano concerto in D minor, and it made me weep. I walked in to find the receptionist swollen-faced with grief, and got the first intimations of the enormity of the emotional storm coming.

We talked about my sense of leaving behind a century in which Mandela dominated as a historical figure, even as the apartheid regime tried to render him invisible, and Kudrat, a bright young researcher, made the point that we were no longer just a post-modern and post-colonial world: we were now a post-moral world, especially politically. Modern politicians are now lackeys of big business at best and crooks at worst – the era of leaders driven by ideals is officially dead. We saw its last coda in the run-up to the first Obama election, and have been bitterly disappointed ever since.

A friend pointed out that some Latin American politicians and leaders still walk their talk, and indeed they do. But they do not attract global attention the way figures like Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Mandela did. It seems that battles for civil rights and self-determination, and struggles against oppressive regimes and the evil of racism are sexy and stirring: principled stands against poverty, economic inequality and environmental destruction are not. And I cannot think of a single leader who inveighs against gender inequality who is a universally known and admired household name. But I digress.


I witnessed the Mandela charisma first-hand once, at Walter Sisulu’s 90th birthday party (a joint celebration of the ANC’s 90th birthday), and also the launch of the biography Elinor Sisulu wrote of her revered parents-in-law. I was there because I had edited the book, an extraordinary adventure for which I will always be grateful.

At the party, thronged with the great and the good, I sat at a table alongside the guests of honour – Nelson and Graca, Walter and Albertina, the Mbekis. It was what my sister calls one of my Forrest Gump moments – that lucky privilege of wandering by as history is happening.I was too afraid of being a nuisance to ask Elinor to introduce me, but I remember this: that neither Mandela (in one of his trademark shirts) or Graca (in a fitted silver frock) carried an ounce of spare fat on them; they both had exceptional posture (I didn’t see Graca’s back touch her chair once through a long day of speeches); Mandela’s unfailing courtesy to every single person who approached him. Another flash of memory: Walter and Albertina intertwining their hands like teenagers under the table. *stops to wipe eyes*

Madiba got up to speak, carrying flashcards with large print on them. I remember the tone of affection rather than his words, the flashes of sadness, the sense that sometimes he and Walter were alone in a room full of ghosts, reminiscing. At one point, the order of the cards got muddled, and Mandela ground to a halt. It could have been awkward, but no. “Oh!” he said, starting to chuckle. “Someone has sabotaged me.” He kept up the patter as his PA raced to his side and re-ordered his speech. It was skilfully done, his charm irresistible.


To look at the outpouring of love around the world, you’d think that simply being in the same room as Mandela was to fall under his spell. But if, like me, you’re disgusted at the spectacle of folk like Dubya and David Cameron leaping on planes to attend the funeral of a man they considered an evil terrorist, here’s another memory – from a time when Mandela was silenced and reviled.

It was the eighties, I was a grad student, and a member of a tiny but vociferous Cape Town group called OPAS (Organisation of People Against Sexism), formed by women who were fed up with being alternately patronised and sexually harassed in the anti-apartheid movements. Every day, on the way up to UCT campus or onto the motorway, we twitched as we passed under the bridge over Woolsack Drive. Someone had painted “Hang Mandela” on it in enormous letters, and as the months passed and no-one did anything about it, we got steaming mad.

We thought it we could kill two birds with one stone if we painted out the word “Mandela” and replaced it with “rapists”. Long and serious debate ensued, because we were all opposed to capital punishment. But our plan was doubly illegal — vandalism AND “furthering the aims of a banned organisation”, and we would need to work fast, so the new slogan was approved. A young BCM student wanted to come along, but we nixed this: as women, if we were caught, we faced an uncomfortable night in police cells — but if he was caught, the risk that he would experience real physical harm was too high. (Yes, this was the world we lived in.)

We dressed as ninjas, armed ourselves with spray paint, and set out into the night. No-one challenged us (it seems astonishing now — we were hanging over a bridge in a fairly well-lit and populated area) and we accomplished our mission.

The next morning, green paint under my fingernails, I headed up Woolsack drive at about 9am. And there, perched above the heavy traffic, workmen were painting over the entire thing. And the thing that struck me, that still strikes me today, was that they weren’t municipal workers, but UCT’s. So this too was the world we lived in: it was a far worse sin (including in the eyes of my liberal alma mater) to publicly excoriate rapists than to call for the judicial murder of Nelson Mandela.


And now Mandela has walked free twice: from behind bars, and from the faded cage of his body. Thousands of others are summing up his legacy as I write, but I am still under the spell of something Nadia Davids wrote on Facebook: “What is there to say? There will be time enough in the weeks, months and years ahead when people will need to dismantle and interrogate the myth and the narrative, but for now, it is enough to remember that when it was it was terrible, when it was hopeless, when it was life or death, this man was prepared to take a stand, risk everything and stare tyranny down and give us all hope… So much gratitude for his life of courage, his example, his selflessness, his immense dignity, his tremendous capacity to love. Hamba Kahle Nelson Mandela.”

In the days of heightened public emotion and ceremony to come, I’m going to hang on to these words of Tom Eaton’s: “Don’t let the ache be translated for us by broadcasters. Our hearts are speaking to him, softly, privately, in the language of love.”