Saturday, 26 January 2019

No 77 -: Makanda Unravelled 3: Roja’s People

 [A third, wholly fictional vignette, imagining Grahamstown-Makhanda cut off from the world in - shall we say - late 2019.]

Hill Street, flooded. (c) Dan Wylie
Roja’s furious barking brought Rebecca Inglis to the kitchen window. It was still raining, though apparently the worst of the cyclones were over for now. She could make out a huddled figure, or figures, outside the gate-that-wasn’t-automatic-now, chained and padlocked since the power had gone down. She was a bit more paranoid about security since the blackout: various neighbours’ evacuated properties on Hill 60 had been raided or illegally occupied.

And she was alone, apart from Roja.

Moreover, her cellphone had run out of juice, so if she were to get into trouble there was no way to contact anyone. She was reluctant to charge it in the car, since she had very little fuel left, and wanted to use that to get up to the soup kitchen in Duncan Village the next day. In fact, she’d been contemplating walking over to the university, where she could hook up to the Pharmacy generator, the only one still running for restricted hours. Though the university had been formally closed since halfway through the six-month drought, a few hardy or perhaps just foolishly loyal academics hung around. It was comforting to gather occasionally in the Pharmacy tearoom and swop stories and survival tips; in fact Rebecca, in normal times rather stuck away up the hill in Journalism’s media centre, had found herself chatting to lecturers from disciplines she would never otherwise encounter – Accounting, Botany. Not that they talked academia much: in these straitened times, the utter irrelevance of so much of it had become as stark as a starveling’s rib.

And Roja was still barking at immediate reality.

As Rebecca peered through the rain-frosted window, the figure at the gate spotted her, and waved. A woman, rotund in the classic Xhosa way; and Rebecca could make out one of those big checkered fibre bags at her feet. Then a smaller figure detached from the woman’s side, a child.  Sisi Mpumelelo, that’s who it was, with her little grandchild – what was her name again? Rebecca had met the somewhat forbidding, often harshly vocal Sisi Mpum’, as she was known, just a few times at the soup kitchen; she was a stalwart of the Sacred Heart church up in the location, and like so many oldsters had taken over raising the child of younger parents who had died or absconded. A situation only intensified by the drought and the floods, the substantial exodus in which mostly the men left for work in the Cape or Joburg – as if the old migrant-labour system had never really stopped.

Rebecca couldn’t imagine why they were at her gate, or even how they knew where to find her. Mysterious township networks. She slung on a poncho and went out; the pair looked bedraggled and forlorn and she brought them quickly under the shelter of her porch. The child – Khaya, she was reminded – was terrified of Roja, though in fact Rebecca was trying to stop the retriever from licking the little girl to death.

“Actually, Roja adores children,” Rebecca laughed, but the terrified child buried her face in her grandmother’s skirt.

And then there seemed nothing for it but to invite them right in, offer towels to dry their faces, and put the kettle on. (Fortunately, she still had gas, which she’d always cooked on.) They sat in the kitchen and had tea with the longlife milk Rebecca was now pulling out of storage. Sisi Mpum’ was reticent at first, characteristically grumpy, but gradually Rebecca pieced some of the story together.

Sisi Mpum’ had always lived in Joza, it seemed, and must be pushing seventy now. She had had four children: one dead in childbirth, one son killed in a bar brawl at twenty-one, and a third, successful as things went, had found his way overseas and not been heard from since. And the fourth, Khaya’s mother, had fallen pregnant out of wedlock to a feckless individual who had absconded, before she herself died of AIDS. Khaya, left with her grandmother, was nearly nine but looked about six; the last year of drought and strain couldn’t have helped her growth, Rebecca reflected. And her own, much older husband was dead now eight years or more. Sisi Mpum’ tutted and groused from under her damp doek; Rebecca wondered how one person could withstand so much tragedy.

“Hm, men,” she was concurring. “My husband left, too, you know?” Sisi Mpum’ affected surprise. “He never liked it here, but I did; when the drought came, he wanted to leave, but I did not. Then when my daughter’s school closed, she went to join him in Pretoria.” Sisi Mpum’s English was none too good, so Rebecca kept her words simple, and interspersed with such isiXhosa as she knew. Of course the situation had been more complicated, the breakdown of the relationship more gradual and entangled. But the drought had proved the snapping-point, the subject of the last furious argument – their marriage a victim of climate change. As for their fifteen-year-old, Simone – she had stayed until even her relatively self-sufficient school had succumbed to lack of water and sewerage; she had hung in, sort of home-schooling, until the cyclones hit. The extended power outage was the proverbial last straw: when kids could no longer easily access social media by phone or iPad, their entire social world, their very sense of identity, collapsed; Simone had been almost catatonic with the feeling of loss. So just the week before, they had found her a lift out of town with friends with a 4x4 that could negotiate the damaged Bedford road, and she too was gone.

And now, while Rebecca rattled disconsolately about her large house, Sisi Mpum’, apparently, was suffering a rather more dramatic loss: her home had survived the dust-storms but not the cyclones, her roof ripped off, her little garden stripped bare by vandals and buried under mud.

“We want to stay here,” she said bluntly.


Rebecca mused briefly on the town’s – the country’s – history of division, hatred and misunderstanding, For all her work with the Black Sash in the apartheid years, and more recent charitable efforts at the soup kitchen and reading groups, her social interchange with Xhosa folk had remained superficial and desultory. She had occasionally entertained folk from the townships, but never had anyone stay overnight. Suspicion had, if anything, intensified under the latest climatic upheaval. Rebecca had the sense that the 1819 Battle of Grahamstown – which in some low-grade fashion had perhaps never ceased – was being renewed as Xhosa destitutes increasingly raided westwards into the ‘white’ suburbs.

Now, however, there seemed no question of turning her visitors away. She recalled Mrs Curran, the protagonist of J M Coetzee’s novel Age of Iron, her discomfiture at the invasive presence of the vagrant Verceuil. But this was different: Rebecca in fact felt a bit relieved, trusting, companionable, even a bit self-congratulatory as she installed them in the spare bedroom. Khaya wanted to sleep with her gran, as she was accustomed to.

They returned to sit at the kitchen table, which at this time of day seemed more appropriate than the lounge, or leaving the still somewhat awkward guests in the bedroom. Rebecca wondered what now to do with the rest of her day. There were limits to how much ‘entertaining’ she could do. Maybe just go to the university as she’d intended, even take Khanya; or retire to her study to work on a PhD chapter (she was working on a study of sexism in selected Zimbabwean newspapers of the 1990s, though nothing seemed more irrelevant right now).

There was, for example, what to have to eat, since the supermarkets had been eviscerated. In truth, Rebecca had stuff still in storage, tinned and dried foods. Her husband Jack had been a troubled and troublesome character in many ways, but in his favour he had been pragmatic and prescient, in a gloomily apocalyptic sort of way. “El Nino is looming,” he’d say. “The desert will encroach,” he’d say; or “This municipality will never get its act together”; or, “Mark my words, Eskom is in a death spiral.” Hence he had stockpiled food and a bit of petrol, installed an array of rainwater tanks and solar panels for LED lights and water-heating, and a small gas fridge for emergencies. He had left Rebecca a lot better off than most townspeople, who had generally done little to hedge against even a mild disaster. Even so, now in the third week of the province-wide power outage and the reduction of fuel and food resupply to an ad hoc trickle, her margins felt exceptionally thin. Only water was suddenly abundant again.

But Sisi Mpum’ was opening up a plastic bag onto the kitchen table: a carton of Cokes, packets of two-minute noodles, cans of chakalaka relish, crackers, some carrots, teabags. She did not, evidently, intend to stay for nothing, without the dignity of contributing.

“Goodness,” Rebecca exclaimed, “how did you get this stuff, not from shops, surely?”

“I have friends, the taxi-drivers,” the old woman said. “They go to the break in the PE road, then they walk to the other side, they come back with these things.  You want batteries, I can get; even petrol, I can get for you. Sometimes expensive, but we can get.”

Boer maak plan,” Rebecca quipped, and they had a little warm chuckle together. Always, in times of stress and even violence, some people got together, forged unlikely alliances, gave with uncommon generosity. Out of the blue, for example, one of her students,  Jesse van der Vleis, a boy she scarcely knew, had several times now taken it upon himself to bring her biltong, once even some fresh venison he had shot on his parents’ farm, and declined recompense. Around the soup kitchen, too, as vicious depredations and even death – a Zimbabwean storekeeper had been murdered just two days before – swirled around, sweetness and sharing also blossomed, like flowers in the Richtersveld. What was that book by her namesake, Rebecca Solnit, something like Building Paradise in the Middle of Hell – about such generosities and beauty in the midst of disasters?

“You might like to come with me to the soup kitchen tomorrow,” she said to Sisi Mpum’, you could help me a lot just by being there.”

“I will come,” the Xhosa woman replied.  “You are a good woman, Mama English.” They looked at each other across the table, then reached out and held hands for a moment. “We are together, ne?”

Roja barked, as if in agreement, and for some reason that made even Khanya laugh.


Wednesday, 23 January 2019

No 76 - John Eppel publishes "O Suburbia": a review

When I started teaching at Rhodes University in the 1990s, we entertained (and still do) a substantial number of Zimbabwean students, some of whom had come through Bulawayo high schools and recalled with both fondness and hilarity their former English teacher, Mister Eppel.  At once warm, maverick and acerbic, John Eppel, now retired, still teaches on the side, runs writing workshops – and continues unabated to produce and publish poetry, short stories and novellas. I think it is safe to say that his accumulated works are the most substantial by any single author in Zimbabwe since Doris Lessing.

Eppel sprang to prominence with his satirical schoolboy novella DGG Berry’s Great North Road, and with his first substantial volume of poetry, Spoils of War (1989). Most of his work is locally set in or near Bulawayo’s suburbs or school environs, so familiar to Eppel; and most is acidically satirical in nature, a feature almost designed to marginalise him. Satire generally has not been a prominent or easily assimilable mode in Zimbabwe’s literary traditions. Eppel’s coruscating portrayal of his ‘own’ white settler society has not always endeared him to his peers; and subsequently ZANU-PF’s cultural commissars have narrowly misconstrued as racist his satirical take on all Zimbabwe’s groups, from political leaders to suburban madams to NGOs.

His poetry, while generally less bitingly or lewdly satirical than the stories, has also incorporated two ‘traditional’ elements which have not been kindly received by Zimbabwean commentators and the occasional post-colonial scholar. The first is the consistent if varied use of traditional English stanzaic forms, as well as the sonnet, sestina and villanelle; the second is a high degree of concentration on the poet’s relation to the natural world. Both of these have laid Eppel open to accusations of an anachronistic adherence to foreign, imported models of poeticisation, especially the English Romantics. While Eppel acknowledges his indebtedness to the Romantics, and insists on the primacy of crafted form as a vital element in good poetry, to confine a reading of him to these elements alone is, I believe, to do the work a considerable disservice. Most recently, Eppel has responded to current events in two ways, one by writing more trenchant and undisguised gripes about politics, Mugabe’s autocracy, and municipal failings; secondly by collaborating with other Zimbabwean writers, notably Together (with the late Julius Chingono, 2011), and Textures (with the young, highly intellectual poet Togara Muzanenhamo, 2014). They make for interesting conversations across racial, cultural and age categories, and signal an increasingly wide acceptance across former divisions, including amongst academics.

O Suburbia, now out from Weaver Press, revisits many of the themes and motifs of earlier collections; indeed, to judge by the dates attached to some of the poems, they may be resurrections or rewrites of poems written decades ago. But Eppel also brings us up to date, as in one poem alluding to the deaths of civilians during last year’s ‘coup’. (Events overtake us so fast, as of course there has been another flurry of repressive violence in Zimbabwe this past week. Anyway, it’s ‘situation normal’, only more so – securing the ongoing relevance of the poetry despite its topical references.)

The collection, indeed, is a bit of a rattle-bag, with no discernible order: childhood memories jostle with political satires, haikus with villanelles, gentle love-poems with hard-edged critiques. A poem about a dog-meat vendor rubs up against a meditation on teaching King Lear; something scatological up against a light-hearted philosophical squib. Some readers might enjoy this anarchic feel; others might wish that some sort of shape had been imposed on the whole. If there is a common thread, it may be that Eppel just revels in language itself – we live inside language, as he says in one poem – and he wields his linguistic and literary resources with both glee and precision.

Where ‘shape’ continues to be prominent is, as ever, at the level of the individual poem. Eppel is truly gifted at constructing a finely-tuned machine of a poem, rigorous in rhyme and even syllable-count, while maintaining so fluid and chatty an air that the mechanism is all but invisible, especially when read aloud. This is less so with the several villanelles included, which are intrinsically rather more stark in their repetitions-with-minor-variations. Villanelles are clever, fun to construct in the manner of good crosswords, but I find them less satisfying than some of the many sonnets, a favourite form of Eppel’s.  To give you a taste, here is one especially beautiful yet playful one, “Waxbills” (he has of late very often written about birds):

Like my safari-suit, same powder blue;
like the plumbago (Cecil’s favourite
flower) that hedges me in; like the few
remaining stills of my father’s eyes; bit
by bit, little by little, hippityhopping
from place to place; pecking at shame,
at stubble, at grains of time; frequently
splashing your chums in the bath; far too tame
for your own good (my cat is on a quest);
like Bulawayo skies… you absorb me.
My home sits also near a hornets’ nest:
will they impound it? Will they let me be?
Underneath the thorns, you pick and you choose;
your tremolo gets me singing the blues.

As always, Eppel is intimately observant of the natural world around him, as here in “Tracks I Remember”:

Paths with banks of tick-heavy grass tilting
to caress the thigh; roads where dipping
hornbills lead the way, mopani scrub on
either side; tok-tokkies doing headstands,
their fused wings harder than fingernails, taptapping
messages of love; antlion
larvae (doodlebugs) crafting pits of death
where the critical angle of repose
slides crawling insects to their doom;
stink of formic acid, of resin, of
crushed locusts, wings in threatening display.

But Eppel is no displaced Wordsworth-like Romantic just revelling in natural diversity or beauty (though he does that, too): the second stanza of this poem is about human violence, warmongers and soldiers dying and laying their own death-traps. And at times, the natural is deployed to political ends, as in “Winds behaving badly”, where the final bombshell line reveals that the image of the wind has been symbolic all along:

The clouds descend, the firmament grows grey,
a churning wind, bone-cold, assaults the trees,
blowing petals and little girls away
before relaxing to a shirtless breeze.
Again it rises flapping doeks and scarves,
banging casements, matrons, widows, wives...
whistling through cracks, keyholes, while it carves
that look in daddy’s eyes. Run for your lives.
The clouds ascend, the firmament blows blue,
the rising wind lifts skirts and lashes hair –
what’s true is false, my child, what’s false is true –
the white sheets shaking, raking underwear.
Behaving-badly-winds will not subside
till you, my dears, commit tyrannicide.

This kind of observation is, for some in the decolonising camp, hard to stomach, coming from a white “settler” – a word Eppel still uses to describe his status in Zimbabwe. But he seems to have reached a point in his life where he is defiant about this, as in “A Settler’s Taunt”:

You can deny me
my birth status but
you cannot deny
me my death status:
death will fix me in
the soil forever.

Eppel knows – and as this collection shows – he has written with a wry humanity about members of all sectors of Zimbabwean society, has sent up the pretensions of all groups, not least his own – and not least himself: he is willingly satirical about his own “will-to-form”, for example. He has, in some exemplary ways, transcended a narrow ‘settler-dom’.

It is impossible here to really exemplify the full richness and variety of this collection, which at times shows off Eppel at the height of his humane powers, at other points descends unabashedly into bathos and brief whimsies. It is substantial, at over 80 pages, and as welcome on the subcontinent as anything Eppel has ever written.


Friday, 18 January 2019

No.75 Dogs in Southern African Literatures: A new book of essays

Nearly three years ago, I wrote a piece about dogs in some eighteenth-century South African art and travelogue (Blog no.19). The dog theme has bubbled and steamed along since. Piggy-backing on Wendy Woodward’s highly successful Animal Studies colloquia at the University of the Western Cape over the last few years, we cooked up a conference on dogs in Southern African literatures. The organisation of this was bravely taken on by Andries Visagie and Joan-Mari Barendse, and efficiently carried off at Stellenbosch University in April 2017.

Finally, we have worked up a fascinating special edition of the journal Tydskrif vir Letterkunde (55.3), published also as a book by van Schaik Publishers, edited by myself and Joan-Mari.  Nothing quite like this has been done in South Africa before – nor, indeed, for the literary presence of any other animal in South Africa. We have fond hopes of setting a trend.

After a Foreword by prominent American dogs-scholar Karla Armbruster from Webster University, who delivered the conference’s keynote lecture, the volume looks like this:

The collection opens with an essay by Cape Town artist Wilma Cruise, one of whose sculptures adorns our cover. Cruise ruminates on her own art in relation to contemporary theory on animal communication, and communication with animals, including that which lies beyond spoken and written language.
Australian scholar Henrietta Mondry’s article startlingly levels J M Coetzee’s novel Disgrace against a Ukrainian-set documentary about an isolated dog-rescuer. Both texts are unsettling borderland narratives that question all kinds of former political and ethical assumptions and positions, and are linked by the mythological trope of the “Dog-man”.
            A second north-south comparison is offered by Catherine du Toit, whose article investigates parallels between Michel Houellebecq’s French-language novel, La Possibilité d’une île (2005) and Op ’n dag, ’n hond (2016) by John Miles. Du Toit also takes us back to the millennia-old trope of the dog as guide.
            Wendy Woodward’s contribution treats of a genre too much neglected: lyric poetry. She dips into what is doubtless an extensive archive of dog-related poetry, showing how human-canine entanglements, both convivial and adversarial, manifest in the works of poets ranging from Ruth Miller to Mongane Serote.
            A number of articles treat of canid appearances—domestic dogs as well as wild hyenas and jackals—in Afrikaans literature in particular.  They explore facets of dog entanglements with Afrikaans identity itself, and range from the earliest works in self-identifying Afrikaans to the most recent. A useful ‘book-end’ is Willem Anker’s recent novel Buys, which re-imagines the peripatetic, morally challenging 1840s’ career of the maverick Coenraad de Buys. Anker (who attended the original conference himself) anchors the final section of Gerda Taljaart-Gilson’s article, which provides a useful survey of a range of Afrikaans works.  Most intriguingly, Gilson shows how these dog tropes owe as much to African as to European folkloric or mythic antecedents.
Jacomien van Niekerk, like Taljaart-Gilson, looks both to wild canids and to African —specifically Khoi—folklore as the origin of the Afrikaans jakkals and wolf (hyena) stories gathered and published by G. R. von Wielligh, and then circulated and re-told in numerous forms so as to become almost ineffably ‘Afrikaans’. 
Joan-Mari Barendse then analyses in intimate detail a single work, Oswald Pirow’s 1955 story, Ashambeni, one of the few works explored in this collection which is named for and centred on a dog-character. It is, importantly, a reminder that not all cross-cultural or cross-species imaginative ventures are intrinsically benign, inasmuch as Pirow depicts an African man’s story through a thoroughly offensive right-wing lens—an aspect of Afrikaner identity now for many uncomfortable to recall.
Even more discomfiting in this respect is the work of Eben Venter, whose novel Wolf, Wolf is examined by Wemar Strydom.  Strydom attends to conjunctions between racism, sexism and speciesism—in Venter’s case refracted through canine masks, games and actual animals.

Finally in this Afrikaans-related set, Bibi Burger takes us into the futuristic nightmares of Deon Meyer’s recent thriller Fever, in which dogs, especially a roaming and uncontrolled pack of dogs attack the protagonists; this attack provides an opening for Burger’s meditation on crucial contemporary debates about humans’ capacity and propensity to control nature (exemplified by the domestication of the dog) as opposed to recognising our more complex entanglement with its wildness.
Mathilda Slabbert focuses on two very recent short stories, one by Ken Barris, the other by Sally-Ann Murray. Both feature dogs strongly as metonymic of their human protagonists’ politics, gender conceptions, and senses of belonging in a divisive and racialised suburban South Africa, and symptomatic, in Slabbert’s view, of South Africa’s communal failure to address the needs of the vulnerable.
            A trio of essays takes us north of the Limpopo. Innocent Dande and Sandra Swart provide a wide-ranging survey of canine representations in Zimbabwean archival sources, popular media formats, and Shona-language literatures. They show how dog evocations in traditional and proverbial lore ramify complexly into the politics and literatures of unfolding phases of Zimbabwe’s conflicted history.
Pat Louw takes just one short story of the Nobel Prize-winner Doris Lessing’s extensive oeuvre, “A tale of two dogs”. Louw shows how the differing treatment of the dogs therein reflects tensions and flaws within Rhodesia’s colonial society, and argues that even in this early piece Lessing exhibits what might be termed a post-colonial stance.
Finally, I bring us into the contemporary period, examining two novels set in the turmoil of Zimbabwe’s post-2000 land acquisitions, Graham Lang’s Place of Birth and Ian Holding’s Unfeeling. This exploration exhumes the ever-present role of dogs on all sides of the farm takeovers, and argues for contextualising them within a more comprehensive multispecies history. Above all, dogs emerge here as victims.

Any exploratory collection like this one leaves many gaps and suggestions: many periods – the eighteenth century among them – and many regions need further attention. Namibia and Botswana’s dogs are conspicuous by their absence. So is the role of dogs in various of the subcontinent’s indigenous cultures’ literary productions. And surely there ought to have been a new postcolonial reading of Jock of the Bushveld? This remains for some adventurous scholar to do. Still, we think the collection offers some useful parameters and theoretical stances, and opens up numerous passages for further exploration and argument.

Hovering behind all this, of course, is the question: Why bother to study the literary role of animals at all? For me, it’s a sub-section of the study of animals’ role in our lives more broadly. Dogs are something of a special case, to the degree that they are our closest non-human companions through history – as predators, fellow-hunters, companions and symbols, appearing as bothersome strays and police co-oppressors, trackers of thieves and guides to the blind – and offering, of course, the closest we are likely to know of unconditional love.

What the cat thinks of dogs
But every species is a special case, each with unique properties and functions. Humans are just another unique animal case; indeed, the critic Jacques Derrida went so far as to call the conceptual division between “animals” and “humans” a crime. It is a crime because it has led to our unthinking and unabated destruction of perhaps 70 percent of all non-human species –  mammals, birds, fish and insects alike – with incalculable impacts on the sustaining ecosystems which depended upon those animals to be sustaining. Instead, we have replaced functioning ecosystems with grazing and housing for billions of captive animals bred solely for slaughter and consumption, bolstered by poisons and hormones, while giving absolutely nothing back.

So any initiative or study which helps raise consciousness of our current relationships with animals, both wonderful and damaging, can only be a good thing. You can help by spreading the news about this book, and carrying the work a little further.