Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Today’s Papers

I love newspapers. What I love most about reading newspapers is my running dialogue with them. I rant and rave and laugh and shout and write letters of protest I never send. I interact with them, and that’s fun. This morning was an exceptional newspaper day. I am behind in my reading thanks to my trip to Gaborone, and the recovery from said trip so I am still reading Friday papers, and oh what papers they were. Let’s start with the happy, jump up and down news.

Friday’s Mail and Guardian has quite a big article about Fourth Child by Megan Hall, a book of poetry that was the first title published by Modjaji Books. The book has won this year’s Ingrid Jonker Prize for English poetry. Yahoo!! All you naysayers out there who have bad mouthed Modjaji’s policy of publishing only women will have to eat your words. A little bird told me that such talk was flying at this year’s Caine workshop. Colleen Higgs is using her vast experience in publishing for good. She is capitalising on all of the advantages of a small publishing house in such an exceptional way; giving voice to those the big houses wouldn’t touch. Taking big risks, and reaping big rewards. Let her success continue.

There was also a nice article by Allan Kolski Horwitz from Botsotso in which he discusses some of the recent issues that have been at the front of my mind; most especially this vile tendency to force writers to be entertainers and TV personalities. He says, “Added to this is the phenomenon of the ‘celebritisation’ of writing, in that writers are now forced to become media personalities to draw attention to their work; those who do not wish to position themselves as a ‘brand’ risk public indifference and marginal critical attention.” He goes on to say “There is also more space given to vacuous interviews with writers than to engagement with the work itself.” Mail and Guardian should pay attention to those words with its formula interview that writers are given with such questions as “Describe yourself in one sentence.” Why? What does it matter? Kudos for Mr. Horwitz for speaking the truth- now is anyone listening?

In the same M & G is a slashing review of Unbridled by Jude Dibia reviewed by Percy Zvomuya. Of course I disagree with most of it. I liked Unbridled and I tend to question comments such as “hackneyed tale”. He goes on at length questioning if Dibia is able to write from a female perspective. He picks out a place in the book where Ngozi’s brother tells her not to question their father’s behaviour and Ngozi realises that men are not going to be her allies. Zvomuya says Dibia approaches Ngozi’s thoughts on this matter lightly and that a woman would not do that. He says that such ‘sparse prose’ would not have been used by a female writer to explain this emotional transition. I’m thinking Percy is a man too. Sometimes women choose to float along the surface of pains that entered too deep might pull one down forever. I find Dibia’s choice there not ‘male’ but rather human. Anyway, in the end, a review is one person’s opinion. Mine and Mr. Zvomuya. I’m surprised he didn’t mention Jacana’s poor editing of the book. I skipped it in my review as I’d already hammered them with Bitches’ Brew, I’d hoped someone else might give them a shot. Guess it didn’t trouble him. Hmmm?

As for opinions, Friday’s Mmegi had a review of The Pursuit of Xhai that I found, frankly, odd. It’s surprising for two reasons. Firstly, it was written by Sheridan Griswold, who almost never bashes a book, even one that thoroughly needs a bashing. Secondly, the author, Gasebalwe Seretse, is a writer for the same paper and I thought perhaps if Griswold didn’t like the book, as a professional courtesy, he might have not reviewed it at all. For me, the review smells of bitterness stemming from where I’m not sure.

Griswold contends that the events in the book which is set in 1965 seem to come from 1885. Why 1885 I don’t know, but his reasoning is that such vicious racism against the Basarwa would not have been allowed in 1965. He speaks from a position of ignorance. Such things are going on even as I write this (the reported torturing of alleged poachers by wildlife officials as one example) and in 1965 it was worse. He mentions that Seretse flawed in his research by not stipulating from which Basarwa tribe Xhai and his family came from. In actual fact he seems to have missed the point entirely. It is irrelevant to a Mongwato of the type described in the book what tribe a Mosarwa comes from. A Mosarwa is a Mosarwa. Griswold mentions how saying Bantu instead of Bangwato is wrong, but he doesn’t seem to get that that is actually the point.

I find it especially annoying when Griswold says, “It is usually difficult for an author to write about another group that he or she does not belong. Bessie Head in ‘Maru’ succeeded, perhaps because she too was an outsider.” Firstly, Seretse is not writing as an outsider; he is a Mongwato. As a writer who writes from many identities myself, I take absolute exception with Griswold’s line of thought. If all writers followed Griswold’s advice how would we have Harry Potter, for example. As far as I know J.K. Rowlings has never been a wizard. Fiction allows us to take on everyone’s skin, that is the beauty of it. Why Head’s outsider-ness would make her more positioned to write about Basarwa I really don’t understand. She was outside of her community for entirely different reasons that had no historical legacy to it. If anything, her mixed race parentage gave her an upper hand in a society where white is better thanks to residual colonialism.

Overall, a very satisfying newspaper morning. Now to work.


Anonymous said...

Well, I totally applaud that small publishing house. That is fantastic.

I couldn't agree more about putting a stop to turning authors into celebrities. I can think of nothing worse than having to do press and the like. Sadly, it seems to be the way of the world at the moment. I can't picture myself doing a talk show ever. Uuuggghh!

Lauri said...

I am so with you Selma. I am a nervous wreck for even the most limited public speaking and then afterwards I re-hash every detail a thousand times. I also always wonder- should I be myself or "the witty, erudite writer"? I usually choose myself and it just doesn't seem to measure up, which then gets me furious at THEM. It is appalling.

Another writer friend believes that looks matter more than writing. She has won many important contests and is a mind blowing writer but says when she met an agent in person that had been enthusiastically stalking her in email, he suddenly lost interest. I don't buy it but anyway if it is the case that an agent behaves in such a manner it is better he goes. Why give a slug 10% of your tiny purse??

percyzvomuya said...

Hi, my name is Percy and i reviewed the book. Yes, i am a man. And men are able, if they are sensitive enough and listen to their feminine side, to deal with female issues tenderly.

I am glad someone liked the book, which i found so tedious its a suprise i managed to finish the book at all.

I found the book dry, I think in the review i used the word "sparse". You said sometimes women choose to float or something. I assume you mean they choose to let it be and get on with their lives. But Ngozi is quite an emotional kind of person who wouldnt do that...at least that's what i feel.
The editing at Jacana...I cant defend them, i hold no brief for them but i think Jacana jumped onto the book because it had won a prize. Maybe they assumed the job had already been done for them.

But as you say its my opinion at the end of the day. But thanks for the feedback

Lauri said...

Hi Percy, thanks for stopping by. What I meant about Ngozi was that sometimes to feel things too much might kill us so we float over them. Her father was molesting her, she hoped that her brother would save her and instead he joined the wrong team. That would be devastatingly spirit killing if you let it affect you completely, so you shut down and float away. That's what I meant.

I certainly agree with you that men can write women and I even agree with you more that Never Let Me Go is a perfect example.

I should be honest too, the reason I did the review only on my blog is that I work with Jude elsewhere. I think that conflict of interest should be noted. It doesn't diminish the fact that I thought the book was a good read.

Off topic sort of- I wonder how people approach a review when they know the author and the book is crap. I have a book right now that is horrible. I think it's better to write nothing. Let other people sort it out. But perhaps that is a lack in journalistic integrity or just plain cowardice.

percyzvomuya said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
percyzvomuya said...

I try not to review books by friends-not that i have many writer friends... Because at play will be two loyalties: one to your friend and the other to your profession...
I try to be as honest to myself as possible and to be sensitive and try to see whether the author succeeds in whatever he set out achieve and judge him(his work) by those standards.

The standards i use when reviewing high brow fiction are not the same when i am reviewing popular fiction.

percyzvomuya said...

Sorry Lauri for abusing your blog but i thought this would be of interest:


Following the success of the HSBC/SA PEN Literary Awards,

SA PEN announces a call for entries for the new

PEN/STUDZINSKI Literary Award.

Writers from African and SADC countries are invited to submit original,

previously unpublished, English-language


The best entries will be selected by an editorial board for inclusion in

a book to be published next year, under the working title


Three prize winners will be selected by

Nobel Laureate J M Coetzee

Prizes, given by John Studzinski, will be awarded:
£5 000, £3 000 and £2 000

Rules for submission of entries:

+ Entrants must be citizens of an African or SADC* country.

* Stories, on any subject, must be in English; length should be 2 500 to 5 000 words.

* Entries must be previously unpublished. More than one entry may be submitted.

+ Entries must be typed, in double spacing, on one side of A4 paper. Pages must be numbered and securely fastened together. Three copies must be submitted.
+ No name or address should appear on the typescript, but each page must carry the title of the story. The identity of authors will not be revealed to judges.
+ A covering letter with the name, e-mail & postal address, contact numbers, and photocopy of the ID of the entrant (as proof of citizenship) must be included. Entrants may currently reside outside of Africa.
+ Submission of entries implies adherence to all rules and conditions of this award, including that of copyright.

* Closing date: 30th September 2008

+ Send your entry to: PEN/STUDZINSKI Literary Award, P O Box 30327, Tokai, 7966, Republic of South Africa. Fax and e-mail entries will not be accepted.

Lauri said...

Actually I've already blogged about the SA/PEN contest but thanks.

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