Monday, February 22, 2016

I’ve Come to Take You Home by Diana Ferrus, a review

Diana Ferrus is a writer, poet, performance poet and story-teller who lives in Cape Town. She writes in both English and Afrikaans. This book, I’ve Come To Take You Home, is a collection of poetry in English. The title poem is written to Sarah Bartmann, the Griqua woman who was taken to Europe and shown around as a “freak” and whose remains (her brain and private parts) were put on display at the Musee de L’homme in Paris after her corpse was dissected. When the French were trying to pass legislation to return the remains of Sarah Bartmann to her home in South Africa, the legislator presenting the bill in their parliament found Ferrus’ poem online. It inspired him so much that he included it in the actual bill, and in fact it is part of the French law that released her remains to be buried properly in South Africa. The only poem incorporated into a law in France. Ferrus accompanied the remains on their way back home. And there is a fantastic story to tell people who think poems and stories don’t matter— they can change the world!

The title poem I’ve Come to Take You Home is a victory song as much as a condemnation against the abuse that Bartmann suffered. The last stanza of the title poem resonates with the sadness of Bartmann’s life and her bittersweet return, but also with the salvation of the poet herself and the battered people:
“I have come to take you home
where the ancient mountains shout your name.
I have made your bed at the foot of the hill.
Your blankets are covered in buchu and mint,
the proteas stand in yellow and white—
I have come to take you home
where I will sing for you,
for you have brought me peace,
for you have brought us peace.”

Ferrus’ poetry is my favourite kind, where she uses solid words to create powerful accessible images. Many of the poems in this collection are biographical, such as the ones about her parents and her childhood, or touch on important social and political issues. One of the most haunting is The Journey, about a man on the train who, along the way the poet discovers, is unable to read so doesn’t know where his train stop is. The poem has a repetitive refrain of— It was on the train to Bellville, the one from Cape Town at a quarter past three —that adds to the overall sadness of the poem:

“It was on the train to Bellville,
the one from Cape Town
at a quarter past three
where I saw him looking
through the clear shining window
anxiously clutching the bag in his hand.”

Ferrus, a coloured woman born in 1953, lived through all of the brutality and inhumanity of the Apartheid system and many of her poems reflect this.  She includes poems about iconic Apartheid fighters like Ruth First and Nelson Mandela, as well as hopeful ones like That Day which tells the story of Ferrus and her mother going to vote in the first democratic elections in South Africa.  

Once a Girl looks at the effect of life and its struggles and disappointments on the innocence of the child we all once were:
“She was once crying and others
thought her naughty.
She was once quiet and others
thought her moody,
but she was only a girl
with a message in her eyes.

She is a young woman now
but she was once a girl
who left and never came back.”

Ferrus often uses repetition in her poetry effectively. A good example is her poem Obsession:
“Who do you love
so desperately
that your eyes keep wandering
over the head of the moon
and then speak
to the void in the night?”

Ferrus has a series of short poems dealing with romantic love, the impermanence of it, the joy and sadness of it. She manages so much in this tiny six line poem, The Healing Heart:

Awake at four,
I feel the sheets
ice cold and clean—
my lifeless nipples undisturbed.
I dreamt of you

The glossary at the back of the book is not one you’ll want to skip over, my normal practice. Ferrus has explained more about the birth of some of her poems, as well as explaining words and their meanings to her and the poem referenced. I found that quite fascinating. This is an accomplished collection of poems. 

(This column first appeared in my column, It's All Write, in Mmegi newspaper on the 19th Feb 20116)

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Looking for Love in All the Right Books

I’m a sucker for romantic love. Nearly everything I write has a love story brewing in the background, often in the foreground too. In my reading, I also gravitate to love stories— not always with happy endings though. I like love in all of its messy forms.  Love is problematic and soul-damagingly painful sometimes, but only when you truly take the leap with a wide open and vulnerable heart is there the option of that incredible joy and connection that only a handful ever find. That hope lives in all of us I think.  I thought to celebrate Valentine’s Day this year I’d give you some books about love I’ve been reading lately. 

1. The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
Charmaine loves Stan and Stan is pretty sure he loves her back. They have been through a lot together. Even when they were living in their car, Charmaine knew for certain her love for her husband was strong and, with that love, they could survive anything. But then they are offered a place in a social experiment called Consilience where they are given a lovely new suburban home and a shiny new suburban life, but every other month they must spend in a prison as prisoners. The love Charmaine and Stan were so certain of is strained to horrible ends. The title of the book has multiple meanings, but I think it also speaks of the resilience of love, even after all that poor Stan and Charmaine go through- and they go through a lot.

2. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
This book is a long roaming letter from a father to a son. The father is elderly and dying and the son is only a child. It speaks of many things, the things the father had hoped to tell his son as he grew up but won’t have the chance to do now, especially about their family history and how they got from there to here. In the back is the thankfulness of this old man for the love of the boy’s mother; a quiet, gentle love coming into his life when he least expected it, healing his wounded heart. A touching story. 

3. Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut
Arctic Summer is Galgut’s fictionalised biography of the writer EM Forster, author of Howard’s End and A Passage to India. For Forster, romantic love is a tortured affair. Throughout the parts of his life covered with this novel, it appears that Forster struggled to find a way to live that made him happy, but sadly he seems to have failed. Born in 1879 and growing up in conservative England, his homosexuality was something that could not be accepted.  Forster’s great love was Masood, a young man from India who Forster met at university. After school, Forster follows Masood to India hoping, finally, that his love can be revealed but he is shown that it will remain unrequited, for Masood there is nothing more than a deep friendship between them. During the war, Forster is posted in Alexandria and starts an affair there with an Egyptian tram driver, El Adl. Though he loves him, the differences in their social status make for a troubled relationship that can never bring complete fulfilment to Forster. A gorgeously written book. 

4. The Keeper by Marguerite Poland
Marguerite Poland is well known in South Africa because many of her books have been set work for years. Sadly, this talented writer seems to find a wider audience and many readers are lesser for it. Her prose is breath-taking. I first met her in her novel Recessional for Grace, another tortured love story I’d recommend highly. 

The Keeper is a layered story, going forward and backward in history and covering the life of Hannes Harker, one of the last lighthouse keepers posted on a very remote island in the Atlantic. He comes from a family of lighthouse keepers and knows no other life. He has fallen and broken his leg and has been taken from his isolated post to a hospital in Cape Town. There he tells his story to a kind nurse, Sister Rika. The story of his marriage to his young wife Aletta, and the mysterious life and death of his mother. A book about isolation and love, beautifully written and told.

And a HUGE shout-out!!-At the recent Bessie Head Short Story Award’s ceremony Diamond Educational Publishers announced that they are upping their sponsorship of the awards from P2500.00 to P20,000.00! What a fantastic way to really support literature and writers in the country.

(This first appeared in my column It's All Write in Mmegi 12 Feb, 2016)