Category Archives: African authors
If ever proof was needed that it’s possible to have a thoroughly distasteful and objectionable protagonist and yet be totally engrossed in their story, look no further than Disgrace by J M Coetzee.
This novel, which earned J M Coetzee his second Booker prize win, features David Lurie, a university professor in Cape Town. He’s a white South African in his early fifties, intelligent and good looking but somewhat out of synch with his newly post apartheid country.
His field of expertise is modern languages but that specialism has been abolished as part of a nationwide rationalisation of educational resources. He is allowed to run just a single course (he choses the Romantic poets) and the rest of the time is spent lecturing in what he considers the preposterous world of ‘communications skills’.
Coetzee shows a man who views his students with disdain, seeing them semi-illiterate products of a mediocre education system and lacking a basic grounding in the context and sources of the literature which they are studying.
If his academic life is stalling he considers he is rather more successful in his private life. As he describes it:
For a man of his age, 52, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.
That ‘solution’ of which he is proud is a weekly visit to a prostitute with whom he believes he has more than just a financial relationship. Such an arrangement doesn’t stop him embarking on an affair with Melanie, a girl half his age and one of his students.
Lurie tries to elevate this to a grander plane by arguing it is the duty of attractive women like Melanie to share their beauty. “She does not own herself. Beauty does not own itself” is one of his mantras. But actually Lurie is a predator and this is a pretty unpleasant seduction. He plies the girl with drink until she is unable to withstand his advances and almost refers to himself as “Daddy” when he is with her.
Revenge for Apartheid?
Denounced and called to account by the university he admits guilt but steadfastly refuses to repent or to indulge in the public handwringing apology the university believes is necessary. He resigns, abandons his home and seeks refuge with his daughter Lucy on her smallholding somewhere in the Eastern Cape. There they are subjected to a savage attack and a fire which causes a deep rift between father and daughter.
Lurie cannot comprehend his daughter’s response to the attack. Why won’t she report it to the police? It’s clear one of the attackers is connected with a black farmer whose property lies along side her own but why doesn’t Lucy want the man confronted?
Even more puzzling is Lucy’s attitude that her rape is an equal exchange for the way white settlers treated the black indigenous population. She wonders if rape is the price she has to pay for staying on?
Perhaps that is how they look at it; perhaps that is how I should look at it too. They see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why should I be allowed to live here without paying? Perhaps that is what they tell themselves.
Lurie’s previous feelings of complacency are shaken by his daughter’s willingness to accept her fate particularly because his own resources have been diminished. His good looks were destroyed in the fire, robbing him of his sexual identity. His much cherished idea of finishing an opera about Byron now seems irrelevant.
In a move that seems to suggest he is seeking atonement he throws himself into work at a local animal clinic, helping to deal fatal injections to unwanted and homeless dogs before chucking them into the incinerator. He also begins a relationship the woman who runs the clinic. He doesn’t really desire her, in fact describing her as ‘remarkably unattractive’, but seems to view their love making sessions on the floor as some kind of benevolent act towards a single, lonely woman. The price he pays in a sense for his previous egotistical attitude towards the opposite sex.
Shift in Power in New South Africa
Disgrace is a novel which clearly has some big ideas; ideas about race, about colonial guilt and responsibility.
Running through it is also a theme about the balance of power. In the new South Africa, a different relationship exists between black and white, one in which the latter understand sacrifices of their old power may be required. For Lurie the chain of events which began in Cape Town brings him to an insight into the suffering of others and a shift in his relationship with Lucy. he can no more tell her how to live her life than the white population can dictate to the black South Africans.
‘How humiliating,’ he says finally. ‘Such high hopes, and to end like this.’
‘Yes, I agree, it is humiliating. But perhaps that is a good point to start from again. Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept. To start at ground level. With nothing.’
Lurie is talking about his own situation here but his comments could also be a reflection on the new reality of life in South Africa.
Disgrace is a dark novel in which the political and the personal coalesce. There are no resolutions here, the problems of the character’s lives are still open by the time we reach the final page.
Coetzee’s sparse style brings an emotional distance even though he deals with hugely emotive issues. Particularly impressive for me was that Coetzee makes us understand Lurie’s arrogance even if we don’t endorse his beliefs and shows us by the end of the novel that it’s possible to sympathise with a man who starts out as a thoroughly unsympathetic human being.
Disgrace by JM Coetzee: Endnotes
J M Coetzee was born in South Africa and lived there until 1962 when he relocated to the UK and subsequently to USA. He left the USA in 1971 having failed to be granted permanent residence status , in part due to his involvement in protests against the war in Vietnam.
He worked as an academic at the University of Cape Town until his retirement in 2002. That year he moved to Australia, becoming an Australian citizen in 2006.
J M Coetzee’s first novel was Dusklands published in 1974. He has twice won the Booker Prize – for Life and Times of Michael K in 1983 and Disgrace in 1999.
In 2003, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first author from South Africa to be selected by the Nobel Committee.
This review was posted originally in 2018. This is an updated version incorporating background info about the author and improving readability by shortening the paragraphs.
The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga
Scholastique Mukasonga’s parents and siblings were victims of the hatred directed towards members of the Tutsi minority in Rwanda. They were were forcibly relocated from their village amid growing violence perpetrated by the country’s Hutu majority.
The Barefoot Woman is Mukasonga’s touching testament to her mother Stefania; a fierce but loving woman determined to protect both her family and the ancient traditions of her people.
Like all the families who took refuge in makeshift huts at Nyamata, the Mukasonga family was on constant alert for Hutu soldiers. They regularly pillaged the houses, looking for weapons and people plotting to escape to nearby Burundi. Scholastique’s mother Stefania had only one thought:
… one single project day in and day out, one sole reason to go on surviving: saving her children.
She devised ever more ingenious places for her daughters to hide and ways for them to escape. Stefania left piles of wild grass in the fields just big enough to shelter three little girls, cut secret doors into the walls of their home and hid food supplies underground.
Over time Stefania “developed a sixth sense, the sense of an animal forever on the lookout for predators”. She left nothing to chance, often calling a dress rehearsal at night so that when the raiders came, the children knew precisely what to do. The hiding places fooled no-one, least of all the soldiers searching for the Tutsi “cockroaches”, but Stefania never relaxed her guard for a second.
Resolve and Determination
The Barefoot Woman is a dark tale of life in exile. Despite the constant fear of death and rape, the displaced families put their energies into re-creating some semblance of their past life. It took imagination and tenacity because the land selected by the Hutus for the displaced Tutsis was not very fertile. By tradition herders of cattle, the Tutsis had also seen all their cows burned by the Hutus.
But they still managed to sow, grow and harvest their crops of beans, corn, and sorghum, send children to school and arrange marriages for their children.
Mukasonga also relates how Stefania and the other village women try to protect their old traditions. They weave grass cradles for babies; tell stories around the fire in the inzu ( a family straw hut) and teach their feet to see in the dark so they can walk home at night without injury. But when the inevitable happens and someone falls ill, the women turn to their stores of plants, tubers and leaves to mix a remedy.
A Way of Life Destroyed
Mukasonga’s memories of these rituals and her mother’s insistence on keeping up the old practices, are suffused with affection. She brings the woman to life from the dry, cracked layers of mud on her feet to the pipe she smokes at the end of the day.
But it’s a way of life that has disappeared. There are precious few houses like Stefania’s left in Rwanda today, Mukasonga recalls, except for those in museums …
… like the skeletons of huge beasts dead for millions of years. But in my memory the inzu is not that empty carcass, it’s a house full of life, of children’s laughter, of young girls’ lively chatter, the quiet singsong of storytelling, the scrape of the grinding stone on the sorghum grains, the bubbling of the jugs full of fermenting beer, and just by the front door, the rhythmic pounding of the pestle in the mortar.
The Barefoot Woman is a tribute born from horror. Thirty-seven members of Mukasonga’s family were killed by Hutus in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Her childhood home of Nyamata saw some of of the greatest atrocities during that period with an estimated 10,000 people murdered inside the local church and thousands more outside.
Mukasonga escaped this fate because she had won education scholarships that took her out of the village. In 1973 she had fled to Burundi following a wave of attacks on Tutsi students at her college.
A Daughter’s Tribute
The Barefoot Woman is an attempt to fulfil via language the daughter’s duty she could not fulfil in person. In the beginning of the book we learn that Stefania would often gather her three daughters and tell them “A mother’s dead body is not to be seen. You’ll have to cover me, my daughters, that’s your job and no one else’s.”
But Stefania’s body was never found; her “poor remains dissolved into the stench of the genocide’s monstrous mass grave” so all her daughter has to offer are words/
I never did cover my mother’s body with her pagne. No one was there to cover her. Maybe the murderers lingered over the corpse their machetes had dismembered. Maybe blood-drunk hyenas and dogs fed on her flesh. …. And I’m all alone with my feeble words, and on the pages of my notebook, over and over, my sentences weave a shroud for your missing body.
This is a book written first and foremost out of love. But it exists also because Scholastique Mukasonga refuses to let her story and that of her family While its focus is on one family’s experience it is also the story of suffering by all minority groups forced to abandon their homes. Impossible to put down. Impossible to forget.
The Barefoot Woman: Fast Facts
Scholastique Mukasonga was born in Rwanda in 1956. When she was four years old her family was displaced to an under-developed district of the country. She left Burundi to settle in France in 1992, two years before the Rwanda Genocide.
Her 2017 memoir Cockroaches was a finalist for the LA Times Charles Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose.
Posted by Edward Colley
‘We don’t want to hear it’ is a cry shared by
over-sensitive souls and despots
In these days of hurt feelings, so-called snowflakes, the perpetually offended and those who see a slight or an infringement of their rights at every turn, it is sobering to reflect on the experiences of lives in less tolerant societies where issues such as freedom of expression or no-platforming are entirely in the hands of a government or military regime rather than a disgruntled student body or an online petition.
As the pressure group PEN International points out, writers and journalists around the world are targeted – and in some cases hounded and murdered – for their peaceful pursuit of free expression.
“Authoritarian governments are becoming increasingly emboldened and are targeting writers and journalists in ever greater numbers. Some are paying a heavy price for merely carrying out their work,” said Salients Tripathi, Chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee.
I’ve been researching this topic after reading about the experiences of a Kenyan who was incarcerated, tortured and jailed on a trumped up charge fundamentally because his attitude didn’t tally with that of the authorities.
Wahome Mutahi’s Three Days on the Cross, published in October 1991, is presented as a fictional account of everyday brutality by the security forces in Moi regime Kenya. But the scenes of torture at the hands of members of the notorious Special Branch are drawn directly from the author’s own experience following his arrest in October 1986.
Mutahi (1954 – 2003), a journalist and novelist widely read in East Africa, was known to be opposed to the brutal regime of his country. In 1986, during a clampdown on intellectual activities he was arrested and jailed. He was charged with neglecting to report a felony thus being guilty of sedition.
His captors said he knew people who were publishing seditious material – material critical of the government. The allegations were false; he didn’t know anyone engaged in such activities – he was a journalist on The Nation, just writing.
Special Branch officers went to his Nairobi office one Sunday morning and took him to the city’s Nyayo House, a respectable-looking office building for the police. But in its basement were interrogation rooms, cells and barbaric torture chambers. He was held there for 30 days accused of being involved in an organised movement.
In conversation with Paul Theroux (recounted in Dark Star Safari), Mutahi recalled telling his accusers: “If you have evidence against me, take me to court. That made them very angry. They stopped talking to me. They stripped me naked and beat me – three men with pieces of wood. They demanded that I confess.
“Then they stood me in my cell and sprayed me with water. My cell was about the size of a mattress. They soaked me – water was everywhere. Then they locked the door and left me.”
In the windowless cell Mutahi could not tell if it was day or night. “I was still naked and really cold, standing in the water, in the darkness. I don’t know how much time passed – maybe 12 or 15 hours.”
Then the door suddenly opened and he was brusquely asked if he had anything to say. He said no and was left again for a long time before the door opened once more and the same question was fired at him, eliciting the same response.
“I came to a situation where I was living in a nightmare. I hallucinated. I saw food in patches on the floor.” Waking from a fitful, troubled sleep, Mutahi was desolated to find himself ankle deep in water and shivering, not able to stand or sit. “My feet were rotting. I was on the point of a breakdown. I thought of suicide. When a week passed they must have thought I was dying because they put me in a dry cell.”
But the interrogation continued. He was blindfolded and taken to another room. After many sessions, Mutahi realised he was weakening and that he would rather serve a specific sentence than suffer not knowing when his confinement would end. And so he signed a ‘confession’. “I was given 15 months. It was something definite – not torture any more.”
Everyone who found themselves in such situations, said Mutahi, eventually pleaded guilty under interrogation, “provided they didn’t go insane first.”
The term ‘snowflake’ is pejorative and unhelpful especially when applied generally to students and millennials (though some of the more extreme proponents of safe spaces and no-platforming perhaps deserve a little ribbing).
Nevertheless it’s clear that there is an increasing tendency to shy away from some of the less pleasant realities: law students excused lectures on sexual abuse for example or medical trainees allowed to opt out of witnessing distressing procedures.
Such over-sensitive souls refuse to hear an opinion contrary to their own and in this, in a horrible irony, they link to those despots around the world who find ideas with which they disagree frightening and threatening. They don’t want to hear – and for them the solution is not a safe space but a torture chamber.
Want to learn more?
The world of literature abounds with tales of love triangles but I’ve never before come across one involving rivalry for the affection of a whale. Yes I do mean whale as in marine mammal.
How can anyone be jealous of a whale you might wonder? Well this one is special. She’s a large Southern Right who swims each year close to the coast of South Africa on her migration from waters close to Antartica to warmer climes further north. The path takes her near to Hermanus on the southern cape, home to a man who’s become rather attracted to her: The Whale Caller.
This is a man so enchanted with these creatures that he’s perfected the arm of using a kelp horn to communicate with them. One in particular, that he names Sharisha, seems to respond to his calls, showing off by loptailing and rolling and blowing in time with the horn. He becomes rather obsessed with her, sinking into despondency when she swims away, not to return for months.
On the morning of her departure, the Whale Caller is at the rocks to bid her an emotionally charged farewell.
Sharisha responded with her own love calls. She rocked in the water in a mating dance. The Whale Caller stood up and rocked on the rocks. He raised his left leg, turned and twisted on one spot, then sampled the foot down. He did the same with the right leg. he repeated the dance in rapid success for a long time, whilst blowing the sounds of the whining winds. ….Sharisha did not seem to tire either. She was creating a whirlwind on there water by making a complicated combination of rocking, breaching and lobtailing.
As the Whale Caller progresses he becomes the object of affection of a woman from Hermanus. Saluni is the village drunk, a wild-looking woman with missing teeth and laddered stockings, who seems to be everywhere he goes. Despite her disapproval of the Whale Caller’s obsession with Sharisha, the pair end up as an item sharing a tiny dwelling he calls the Wendy House.
It’s rather one sided relationship. Throughout the novel the Whale Caller experiences conflicting emotions — he tries to love Saluni but every time the lure of Sharisa proves too strong. Saluni tries every trick in her book to win over this man — seducing him, tantalising his taste buds with window shopping in grocery stores — but it’s to no avail. His mind is filled with Sharisa. Saluni decides to change tack, she will not be beaten by a creature she sees as nothing more than “a big fish”. As she executes her revenge the becomes significantly darker: blindness, a catastrophic storm; desperate attempts to save a beached whale and a murder all ensue.
It’s this vengeful element which occupies the second half that won me over to the novel. Until then The Whale Caller felt somewhat unbelievable as well as repetitive. But Zakes Mda turns up the emotional dial, showing how love can so easily become malice. The Whale Caller irritated me early on. How could he not see that the love of a living, breathing real woman was infinitely better than a few tricks by a whale whom he sees for just a few months a year? But then we begin to feel his genuine pain and sorrow at what happens to his beloved Sharisha and his sense of a personal responsibility.
The Whale Caller isn’t simply a love story albeit a rather unusual one. It’s also a reflection on man’s relationship with nature. The Whale Caller has a genuine love for these creatures and despises the tourists who flock to Hermanus to watch them for a short time before heading to their next destination. It’s good news for the local businesses but the visitor’s desire for thrills threatens the very thing they have come to watch. Whale watching trips become so popular the government has to introduce regulations to ensure boats don’t get too close to the whales. The Whale Caller feels a sense of foreboding at what this portends dismay.
There is no doubt that this boat-based whale watching will be abused. And no-one will be out there at sea to enforce the regulations. Soon the ultimate prize for a boat trip will be the touching of a whale. … As far as he is concerned these boat-based whale watchers are no different from the whalers of old. They might as well carry harpoons and tryputs in those boats.
it’s a prescient warning and one which can apply just as much to other situations in which man and nature come together. African safaris are now unfortunately spoiled in many cases by enthusiastic mini bus drivers who crowd around a lion and her cubs, hemming them in and edging ever closer so the tourists on board can get their Instagram shot.
I’m not pretending to be holier-than-thou. I’m just as fascinated by seeing these magnificent creatures but have no desire to get so close that it frightens them nor do I have any interest in petting baby cheetahs and ‘tamed’ leopards. Nature deserves respect, not to be treated like some interactive display in a theme park. A sentiment with which I suspect Zakes Mda would heartily agree….
The Whale Caller was published by Penguin Random House South Africa in 2005 and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize. It’s the fifth novel by Zakes Mda, who was born in the Eastern Cape of South Africa but spent his early childhood in Soweto. He is a prolific writer whose work has been translated into twenty languages. he is based on Ohio, USA, where he is a professor. The Whale Caller was released as a film in 2017 . I read this book because it was recommended by an assistant in a bookstore in Stellenbosch, South Africa when I walked into the shop in December 2017 and asked for recommendations of local authors. It proved a good decision…
Books frequently have deeper resonance for me when I read them in the country in which they are set. This was particularly true in the case of Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist, a 1974 Booker prize winning novel set in South Africa. Last year as I drove across the vast dry plains of the Klein Karoo, empty but for a few isolated farms, we were looking upon a landscape which is a key point of reference in this novel.
Gordimer’s novel is a character study about a rich, white South African capitalist who buys a 400-acre farm as a tax dodge and a love nest for assignations with his mistress. Mehring soon becomes absorbed in the mechanics of running a farm, making excuses to get away from business meetings and social occasions so he can spend more time on his land. He believes he is a good steward of his land and a fair and generous employer.
We see him in a very different light however.
His shoes and the pale grey pants are wiped by wet muzzles of grasses, his hands, that he lets hang at his sides, are trailed over by the tips of a million delicate tongues. Look at the willows. The height of the grass. Look at the reeds. Everything bends, blends, folds. Everything is continually swaying, flowing rippling waving surging streaming, fingering. He is standing there with his damn shoes all wet with dew and he feels he himself is swaying….
Although The Conservationist concentrates on one man, it’s clear that Gordimer sees Mehring as a representative of a particular type of South African. One who reads the signs that change might coming but has no desire to take any action himself to end discrimination or improve the lot of his workers. He simply doesn’t see there is any need for change. If ever he needs a signal that he is wrong and that hold on the land is but a tenuous one, it is the body of a black man that refuses to remain buried. The corpse is the real possessor, the real guardian of the land; not Mehring.
I respected what Gordimer was doing but can’t say I particularly enjoyed the book.
If you’d like to see another view of this book, take a look at Lisa’s review at anzlitlovers.
About the author: Nadine Gordimer is one of South Africa’s most respected authors. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. Over a career spanning some 60 years she dealt with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid in South Africa. She was active in the anti-apartheid movement, joining the African National Congress during the days when the organization was banned, and gave Nelson Mandela advice on his famous 1964 defence speech at the trial which led to his conviction for life. Gordimer’s writing dealt with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid in South Africa.
The book: The Conservationist was joint winner of the 1974 Booker Prize, sharing the honour with Stanley Middleton’s Holiday.
Why I read this book: It is one of the few remaining titles on my Booker Prize project.
When Yaa Gyasi published her debut novel Homegoing, she collected an astounding array of awards and accolades.
Homegoing won the NBCC’s John Leonard First Book Prize and NPR’s Debut Novel of the Year; was named a New York Times 2016 Notable Book and one of Time‘s Top 10 Novels of 2016. Oprah picked it as one of her 10 Favourite Books of 2016. With all those commendations I was expecting a very special novel.
Homegoing was certainly an ambitious undertaking, tracing multiple generations of descendants across two continents and four centuries. Holding the narrative together is the issue of slavery which casts its shadow over not just those individuals who are captured but also those who are responsible for the trafficking of humans. It’s an issue that sadly still resonates in the 21st century. Only last week the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported that nine African and Asian men had been taken into safety, suspected of being the victims of slavery aboard British scallop trawlers.
Yaa Gyasi’s portrayal of the effects of fate and the physical and mental scars that last through the generations, is breathtaking in its scope. But I still couldn’t help feel disappointed by the book overall.
The main problem is actually the broad scope of Homegoing. It opens in a village on the Gold Coast (we know the area today as Ghana), home to the Asante tribe and its powerful leader “Big Man”. When a British slave trader takes a fancy to his beautiful daughter Effia Otcher, Big Man sees an opportunity to cement relationships with the British rulers and get one up on the rival Fante tribe. Effia goes to live in a fort overlooking the sea. Under the castle, the dungeons are stuffed with slaves awaiting transit to Americas and the Caribbean. Unknown to Effia, among them is her older half-sister Esi Asare, captured during a raid on her own village. Effia stays behind in Africa, protected as the wife of a British official while Esi, once her father’s darling, is transported to America.
Each chapter of the novel is narrated from the perspective of a descendant of either Effia or Esi, one representative for each generation, via chapters that alternate the two bloodlines alternate right up to the 21st century.
And there you have the crux of my difficulties with this novel. Every chapter starts in a new location and time and introduces us to a completely new set of people with only a few references connecting one generation’s narrative to its predecessor. Gyasi does a superb job of creating characters that resonate but it seemed that no sooner had I warmed to this individual and picked up the threads of the history of their family, the ongoing rivalry between Asante and Fante tribes and subsequently the fight for freedom and equality among the enslaved in the USA, then it was onto the next chapter. I appreciated Gyasi wanted to give a panoramic perspective but it meant she had little time to develop any theme in depth. She touches on ideas but then glances away before they really have time to mature or for her to say anything remarkably new. Reading the book made me feel I was experiencing a continuous supply of appetisers instead of a full meal of a novel
To overcome the problem of such a discontinuous narrative and avoid Homegoing becoming more of a series of linked stories than a novel, Gyasi relies heavy on recurring symbols like the stone pendant the sister’s mother gives to each girl. Effia’s pendant is passed from generation to generation but Esi’s stone is dropped into the filth and excrement of the castle dungeon into which she is thrown upon her capture and is never recovered, a metaphor for the way slavery removes the individual’s connection to their past and robs them of their heritage.
I realise I am sounding very negative about this novel which is unfortunate and misleading. I did enjoy the book, most particularly because some of the characterisation was excellent. I also gained new insights about the ways in which tribal conflict played a significant role in facilitating the capture of individuals to feed the slave trade. Gyasi more than convinced me that she’s a talented author but I’m equally confident this is not the best she is capable of producing. I’m going to watch with interest what she does next.
About the author: Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana but moved with her parents to the United States when she was two years old so that her father could complete his PhD studies. Homegoing was inspired by a 2009 trip to Ghana, after completing her sophomore year at Stanford, her first trip to the country of her birth since leaving the country as an infant.
About the novel: Gyasi started to write Homegoing shortly after graduating from Stanford, when she worked at a startup company in San Francisco. She continued working on it while studying for her MFA at Iowa university. It took Gyasi six years to write the novel. She received several offers from publishers but ultimately went with Knopf who gave her a seven-figure advance.
Why I read this book: I asked for this book as a Christmas present two years ago having heard so much about it but then didn’t get around to reading it until I joined a new book club this month which had chosen it for their December meeting.