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Liesl Jobson

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Dear Writer in Africa

“Dear Writer in Africa”, wrote Rachel Zadok.

How nice, I thought, to be able to claim the title of an African writer. Really a welcome point to consider. It’s not that one forgets, exactly, but one does fail to remember that as an African writer, a person in most excellent company!

What a privilege to claim a heritage alongside the foremothers and fathers who put African literature on the map. It is a great point of celebration to know that Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Steve Biko, Ama Ata Aidoo, Nuruddin Farah, Breyten Breytenbach, Nadine Gordimer, Buchi Emecheta, John Coetzee and Okot p’Bitek have laid the tracks before I came along. It is amazing to point to my writer sisters from across the borders, Petina Gappah, NoViolet Bulawayo, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Lola Shoneyin and Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, knowing they are finding ways for their voices to be heard in the world.

Ride the TortoiseSo now, bringing my short story collection, Ride the Tortoise, to its place at The Interview table…

Do you actually enjoy writing, or do you write because you like the finished product?

Do you like sweating blood? I know this question shouldn’t particularly elicit a snarl, but it’s one of those days that writing feels like flaying oneself alive. It is an exceedingly narcissistic and simulataneously masochistic endeavour. It really is no fun.

What are you reading right now? And are you enjoying it? (No cheating and saying something that makes you sound like the intelligensia).

I’m reading Lewis Pugh’s 21 Yaks and a Speedo and thoroughly enjoying it. I’m plodding along, trying to love Roger Webster’s At the Fireside: True Southern African Stories, but not managing either the content or the style too well. Robert Bly’s Talking Into the Ear of a Donkey is fabulous – I’m presenting a creative writing workshop tomorrow in aid of the Eseltjiesrus Donkey Sanctuary, based on the title poem in Robert Bly’s collection. Antjie Krog’s Skinned is powerful and visceral. She reminds me why I am also a poet.

Have you ever killed off a character and regretted it?

Killing isn’t my thing. I tried to write a crime story for Joanne Hichens’ short sharp stories competition, but I couldn’t actually kill the character, so I never finished the story. Do I regret that? Not so much. It’s important to write what you know and I don’t think I can stretch to that.

If you could have any of your characters over for dinner, which would it be and why?

Much as I wish to retain the notion that my fiction is fiction, it is not. I have failed dismally to write of purely invented realities. My character is always an extension of myself, so my dinner guest will be me – and as I rather like my own company that would be no hardship.

Which one of your characters would you never invite into your home and why?

I wish I could say that I would never invite the former lovers over for fear of the reprisal of their jealous partners, but there is no such drama I can lay claim to. Truth is that I don’t like children very much so I probably wouldn’t invite those characters in. Their music doesn’t appeal and they always gobble the biscuits. There is a tramp in one of my stories. I definitely wouldn’t invite him back. It’s the smell of the street that distracts me so.

Ernest Hemingway said: write drunk, edit sober. For or against?

Alcohol is such a vexed matter. I do love to drink. I enjoy getting drunk, but it plays havoc with my mood, ruins my sleep and I get fat at the drop of a cork. So, no booze for me, writing or doing anything else. But I do feel sad, saying that.

If against, are you for any other mind altering drug?

Ritalin about three times a year when I absolutely have to get something done and my concentration needs a chemical straightjacket. Sugar is a good drug. It makes me happy, then sleepy.

Our adult competition theme is Feast, Famine and Potluck. Have you ever put food in your fiction? If so, what part did it play in the story?

I really a hard time remembering what is in my stories. In fact, I try to forget them as I have a visceral squeamishness about my content. Well-meaning people keep reminding me, so I redouble my efforts at forgetting. I am grateful that they want to talk about my stories at all, so don’t actually point out that I haven’t remembered too well what they’re talking about. Food in stories. I think there was an anorexic patient in one. See? Now why would you want to go back to that?

What’s the most annoying question anyone’s ever asked you in an interview?

A lot of questions are annoying at heart, but talking about the writing is inherently difficult. Also, most people ask with pure intentions so I jolly myself along, grateful for the attention. It is usually worth remembering that people talk to writers because they want to write themself. When I find myself feeling annoyed, I usually turn it around and ask the person what they are writing. I might ask the questioner how he or she would answer their own question.

If you could be any author other than yourself, who would you be?

That is tricky as nobody can write another’s narrative. I envy the style of other writers. I wish I had the flair, wit, style, humour and elegance of Diane Awerbuck (read her 21 Questions here), Alice Munro, Henrietta Rose-Innes, Annie Proulx, George Saunders and Etgar Keret, but they are probably wishing that had Soweto police band stories up their sleeves, the very sort that only Liesl Jobson will ever have. In fact, they probably whatsapp each other all night long, because they will never have my particular blend of cluelessness at the contrabassoon.

If you could go back in time and erase one thing you had written from your writing history, what would it be and why?

No. Not allowed. You have to take ownership for every written fuck-up you ever penned. Everything has made you what you are: the mean note about that fat girl in Standard Three that made her cry when she found it, to the bumpy first poems that somehow made it past an editor to an online journal in 1997. Now you can rewrite them in a kinder light, in a smoother line, but you can never un-write them.

What’s the most blatant lie you’ve ever told?

Many. Far too many to recall specifics.

If someone reviews you badly, do you write them into your next book/story and kill them?

What is a bad review? Somebody doesn’t get your work? Doesn’t like it? Doesn’t fully appreciate your genius? They tell you why you suck? If your work is weak, you probably know this already, so a reviewer who points it out to you is only the messenger. Sharpen your pencil and put it back to the page, not through the reviewer’s eye.

What’s your favourite bad reviewer revenge fantasy?

See above. Revenge is not on the menu.

What’s the most frustrating thing about being a writer in Africa?

Answered in full over at the Short Story Day Africa blog

Have you ever written naked?

Regularly. I write in bed and the laptop is hot. Despite wearing nothing it is still a battle to keep the bones of my sentences bare. I have a tendency to bulk things up and spend a lot of time removing overstatement.

Does writing sex scenes make you blush?

Not particularly. If you write what you know it’s easier. Shame is costly. It serves no story well.

Who would play you in the film of your life?

Grethe Fox.

If you won the Caine Prize for African Fiction, what would you do with the money?

I’d buy some time in a quiet place in order to write more short stories. Time is hard to come by. Quiet is a precious commodity. Or maybe I’d be an ocean-going single scull, which is another way I restore myself.

What do you consider your best piece of work to date?

The unpublished story I’m working on now. Self assessment isn’t my strong suit though, so it’s hard to say.

What are you doing on 21 June 2013, to celebrate Short Story Day Africa?

Answering these questions and driving to McGregor to celebrate the poetry festival there.

Book details

Invitation to Launch Ride the Tortoise and Toast Her Frank O’Connor Ambitions

On the invitation below is a photo of me, toothily grinning. It was taken well before I heard that Ride the Tortoise had made the long list for the Frank O’Connor Award International Short Story Award, but it serves pretty well to show how pleased I am to be rubbing shoulders with my absolute favourite authors – Joyce Carol Oates, Deborah Levy, Junot Diáz and Steven Barthelme.

It would be terrific if you could attend one of my Cape Town launches in the next few days, where we’ll be raising a glass, courtesy of Leopard’s Leap, to welcome the Tortoise to the world and wish her a steady plod onto the short list!

Invitation to Ride the Tortoise

Please note RSVP details on the invitation.

Book details

* * * * * * *

Ride the Tortoise has been published by the Jacana Literary Foundation (JLF), which seeks to promote and foster excellent writing from South and southern Africa, and to advance the writing of fiction in the region. This has been enabled by generous funding from the Multi-Agency Grants Initiative (MAGI)

Ride the Tortoise steps out on The Next Big Thing

A sage friend with 30 years’ publishing experience sat me down recently, just as Ride the Tortoise was about to hatch. She reminded me of my staggering good fortune: getting a book published in this day and age is a big deal. “It comes with responsibility,” she said in a tone that brooked no shilly-shallying.

“Your job is to promote your own book… to sell it,” she said, shuddering as she recalled me giving away all my author’s copies of 100 Papers. “You don’t write for love, do you?” I blinked. The question wasn’t rhetorical.

“Times have never been tighter; marketing budgets have shrunk to invisibility.” Barely suppressing a wagging finger, she cautioned: “If you do not endeavour to publicise Ride the Tortoise with every recalcitrant fibre of your being, it will drop like a stone down a well, never to be seen again!”

Strong words indeed. Suffice it to say that being tagged in The Next Big Thing by the American poet, professor, and co-editor of The Ecopoetry Anthology, Ann Fisher-Wirth, was just the prompt I needed to initiate my promotional effort.

What is your working title of your book?

The working title was “The Edge of the Pot”, which referred to a Zulu idiom featuring in one of the stories. However, a recent short story collection edited by Arja Salafranca came out with the title The Edge of Things, so my editor put on her thinking cap and recommended Ride the Tortoise. Rather pleased with the new title.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

A great motivator for getting things done is to make it a game, to enter a competition. Writing for the sheer love of writing, doesn’t wash, perhaps because it’s so damn difficult. Writing for the purposes of fame and glory, however, usually gets me started. To that end, I put together a handful of published stories and sent them off to a couple of writing competitions where the prize included publication. Happily, this manuscript was awarded an “Honorable Mention” the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Competition. This coincided with the invitation from Maggie Davey to submit the collection for consideration.

What genre does your book fall under?

Short stories. Literary fiction. South African interest.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

In Werner Herzog’s 1976 classic, Heart of Glass, all the characters appearing in the film, except one, have been hypnotised. I’d leave it to Herzog to decide who would play leading roles in a movie made from the title story – as long as they’re all in a trance. In fact, I’d let Herzog decide whether to present the narrative as a movie or an opera – which another interest of Herzog. Perhaps the female lead could present her bewilderment as an extended aria. There’s enough Mahlerian angst in the collection for that.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

In each short story the narrator picks apart her experience of contemporary South Africa in all its beauty and horror, emerging sufficiently intact, despite the odds, to tell the tale with a pinch of wit and a modicum of redemption – even if I say so myself!

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Self-publication is for those who are made of far stronger stuff than I am. I daily rain blessings down upon the team at Jacana Media, who invited me to submit this book, endured through my foot dragging, and chivvied good-naturedly. In particular thanks to Helen Moffett for holding my hand through the final push of this sweet little beast entering the world. May they live long and grow strong. May they have many fine books go out into the world and make pots of money.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

My first literary endeavour, aged eight, was an account of the near drowning of my silkie hen and her nest of chicks when the Umbilo River rose and flooded our cellar. It was published in Fair Lady and contained the seeds of every other story of terror and redemption that I’ve ever written. I’m almost fifty, so shall we say the drafting process took a round forty years?

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Diane Awerbuck’s short story collection, Cabin Fever, is an utterly exquisite book. I love her quirky, whimsical narratives that slice through the shifting psyche and expose what remains when there’s little left to lose. Karin Schimke, books editor of the Cape Times, one likened my short stories to those of Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You. I’m still dining out on that.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The need to comprehend this bizarre country is at the heart of my book. How else, but by writing about it, does one make sense of its disturbed inhabitants, their collective unconsciousness and schizoid amnesia? Equally baffling is the weird resilience, the unanticipated acts of grace that permit ordinary people to transform a brutal history and hideous present into lives yet worth living.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Ride the Tortoise roves through territories that are deep and wide, personal and collective. Whether the lens is on a teen tending her sick parrot or a photographer stealing an image, a sex deprived wife swallowing her rage or a would be émigré to Canada, these stories aim to transcend the barriers of religion, culture, race and nationality. They are, hopefully, universal.

* * * * * * *

As this is a blog roll, I’m handing over to Diane Kendig, Consuelo Roland, Martinique Stilwell, Jo-Anne Richards and Pat Fahrenfort. Check their blogs next Monday for the next installment of The Next Big Thing.

Ride the TortoiseBook details

Finding Rome on the Map of Love by Estelle Jobson

It was a snow day in New Canaan, Connecticut, when my youngest sister first left home at age nine. She carried a teddy bear and wore a lightweight jacket as she headed off to Fairty’s Orchard in a justified fit of pique. Another sister was unbearably irksome and as the oldest in the family it fell to me to arbitrate – in the absence of our parents – and to persuade her that this understandable bid for freedom was premature. Trudging after her through the snow laden field, I promised she could leave home the next day. I would help her plan it better. Food, for example, would be good. The following day, it would probably not be snowing…

Estelle left home many times over the years, although she waited until she’d graduated and had launched a career in publishing. She travelled to Holland, Switzerland, New York (sending harrowing accounts of the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11), Iran and Australia. Entirely without any assistance from me, let it be said, she went around the world, exquisitely turned out as the photo record of her travels would attest.

The highlights of her journeys were the written accounts she’d send, initially a pale blue onionskin letter in an airmailed envelope, but later via email. Estelle showed the world she’d seen from a different angle in sparkling missives, replete with flamboyant observations, hilarious conversations overheard, and spicy accounts of encounters with weird locals. Estelle always told her story from a bold and bizarre perspective.

The last time Estelle got itchy feet was in 2008, when she left her home, then Johannesburg, to follow her Italian diplomat partner to Rome. Soon enough the first email arrived. On 28 October Estelle wrote to her family and a handful of friends:

I’ve been exploring our neighbourhood, Monte Mario, which is turning out to be very user-friendly – lots of shops and services within walking distance, and plenty of friendly neighbourhood characters, including busy bodies and an eccentric lady who wears a furry blue hat, many of whom congregate a coffee bar right downstairs at Bar Claudia. The agents who sold us the flat are a very helpful, highly odd and entertaining pair (big, strapping Umberto and small, plump Beppino, both in their seventies) and I can pop in and ask them for any assistance at all, be it to loan a drill or to get the verdict on whether cycling about town would be a good idea. (No, it wouldn’t.)

She promised to write again, a “more beautifully composed email when am not in an internet cafe with a TV broadcasting theatrical episodes of childbirth!”

And then they came, every few weeks, beautifully composed emails detailing the remarkable journey Estelle had undertaken. Every email was another jewel that inevitably made me laugh till tears formed. Soon enough the suggestion was made to put them in a book. In fact, everybody who received Estelle’s emails kept repeating the plea to make them into a collection. This has finally happened and Finding Rome on the Map of Love now exists as an exquisite paperback with an arresting turquoise cover. It has also arrived punctually as an e-book. After just six weeks in the world the paper version is going to its first reprint!

Earlier this year my intrepid sister got tired of waiting for a publisher to wake up to her remarkable MS and so, she stepped out on her own once again. Never shy to undertake a challenge, Estelle applied her 15 years experience in the publishing industry to embark on the journey of self-publishing. With gorgeous book design, layout and cover design by Nicoletta Forni, this entirely lovely book is worth reading. Estelle is now marketing and distributing Finding Rome on the Map of Love via her Facebook page and dispatching gift-wrapped copies from her new place in Geneva. This would make a perfect Christmas gift to any with a yen for travelling to Rome. Make that anybody with a yen for travel because while the focus is Rome, it is as much about being a stranger in a foreign country and the resourcefulness that is required to learn a language, understand the customs and become familiar with the ways of any new place.

Finding Rome on the Map of Love is an utterly enchanting and fabulously funny journey outwardly, into the city of Rome, but inwardly, Estelle bravely squares up her options in love and life. Her sharp eye investigates the real and the imagined and her inimitable voice always rings true.

Enjoy a free chapter extract from ‘The Socialization of the Italian Man’ on “the Italian Intrigues blog” or look inside the Kindle edition on Amazon. Email findingrome [at] to obtain a hard copy.

Nanofiction inspired by Lauren Beukes

Shya ScanlonI’m not entirely convinced that this story constitutes high art and I’m also not sure it isn’t procrastination disguised as woolgathering, but that is a separate issue, one I’m attending to in my new years’ resolution.

Nevertheless, this 50-worder – which is technically not nanofiction if you’re from the school that stipulates that nanofiction is exactly 55 words – feels like it could be the start of a longer story. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s what counts. Prompts, games, contests, whatever it takes to get and keep me writing, these are what interest me.

When The Broad Set Writing Collective announced a nanofiction contest with an opportunity to win Shya Scanlon‘s Forecast, which has stylistic elements in common with Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland and Zoo City, I couldn’t resist.

Inspired by her recent post, ASSASIN I HAVE BEEN PAYED TO TERMINATE YOU, which opened the door to a whole other way of being in the world, I wrote this:

On the Day Our Father the Scambaiter Discovers LAN Isolation Is Not the Sole Cause of Grief

When he opens the server’s back-end, randomly jabbing ping tests, object variables and disabled traffic, back away sharpish. Offer no reflection, no suggestion. Resist eye contact. Resist looking at the parrot. Scan the room, removing hammers, screwdrivers and pliers. Hum the Nigerian national anthem. Pray for locusts, owls and snakes. to that which keeps one going as a writer, I discovered the Write 1 Sub 1 initiative, which is a year-long writing experiment in Ray Bradbury’s shadow. I have to confess to never having read any Ray Bradbury, but that’s a minor detail that shouldn’t skew the process. The notion of daily diligence and regular writing practice appeals.

Having a monthly goal might just be the Open Sesame! to getting a novel completed. After all, if I can write a nanofiction every day, bundle it together with like-minded companions into a short story, once a month. Stitch these to related friends, perhaps into an inter-related collection, this could be one way of growing the novel.

Read the full post here

The Year of Bobotie at NOÖ Weekly

Just to say that I think Kim Chinquee and Grant Bailie are the bee’s knees, so I’m happy to be in their company, over at the online journal, NOÖ Weekly.

This issue was edited by the Australian writer, Girija Tropp, who was a recent contributor to Chimurenga. It was lovely to have her incisive suggestions on trimming the excess and the placement of the last line.

Kim Chinquee has taught me just about everything I know about writing flash fiction. She’s also taught me a lot about writing: keep at it every day, don’t quit, write like you speak, write from your life, and give your work to people you trust for feedback.

Kim is the author of two delightful flash fiction collections, Oh Baby and Pretty, which just got a rave review over at The Rumpus.

Well, if you’re feeling hungry, here’s a sample from my next collection of flash fiction:

IN THE year of bobotie we are the Rose and the Ostrich Feather, faded beauties from a bygone time. The Rose, adding raisins soaked in orange juice, says, “How did we get here so quickly?” I pat her to soothe her but she is too deep in the recipe written in a schoolgirl’s cursive fifty years earlier, or was it sixty?

My coffee-coloured sunspots remind me of my mother’s hands that repaired dolls, stitching flesh of cloth and soft, stuffed bodies. My own, that once scraped the unborn from so many girls’ wombs, now throb with arthritis, useless in my lap.

Not the London Book Fair, Youtube and Me

My original plan for this long weekend was to visit my sister, Megan, in Manchester after spending the earlier part of the week at the London Book Fair with my sister, Estelle, from Rome. We were going to cover the South African Market Focus, live-blogging the events for BOOK SA.

As it happened, I spent a lovely weekend with Megan in Cape Town. Her travel plans had also been thrown into disarray and was unable to return to the UK. On the upside it meant she was present at Not the London Book Fair held at the Book Lounge just a week ago. My account of NTLBF appeared in the Sunday Independent yesterday, albeit in a truncated form.

Because the uncut version gave a fuller account of the celebration, I’m posting my original here:

Leaving the UK’s visa agency in Adderley Street on Thursday noon with my freshly minted visa and DAC-sponsored ticket to the London Book Fair, the first whiff of impending calamity arrived by phone.

My sister in Rome, scheduled to join BOOK SA, the exclusive media partner covering the South African Market Focus, sent an email headed “Volcanic surprise”. She’s pregnant, I thought. She will be cross. But her message had news of a different baby altogether. Ash? Volcano? Iceland? Say what?

Soon, with 100-odd other writers and publishing industry professionals who’d invested thousands of hours preparing for this unique opportunity, hope was icy shards, stratospherically distant.

The emerging phenomenon was of such outlandish proportions. How would Mother Earth’s exhalations play out? A far-out proposal for a generous benefactor and a specially chartered flight for the stranded participants popped up, but not even Richard Branson could have saved the day.

Contingency arrangements sweated through the ether. Breathless conversations with volunteer back-up personnel advised how to set up stands and collect material freighted earlier. The show must go on, said Alistair Burtenshaw, the London Book Fair’s director.

Those who’d lingered in foreign departure halls returned, exhausted, only to discover rumbles of an underground event on the cards. By noon on Friday indie bookstore proprietor, Mervyn Sloman and BOOK SA’s Ben Williams were rapidly hatching a plan to channel the peculiar turn of events into something other than a stillbirth.

“Not The London Book Fair” would go off with a bang at the Book Lounge. South African literature would party, regardless. It would be live-blogged and videoed, linked to London. It would happen in reverse; a breech delivery, but a live celebration nevertheless.

Twitter. Facebook. Skype. Emails whizzed. Tickets were booked. Online friends offered their homes. Soon Victor Dlamini, Fiona Snyckers, Kopano Matlwa, and Phakama Mbonambi were flying from Joburg; Ingrid Anderson pitched from Pietermaritzburg.

Helen Moffett, just back from breaking the news of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in Delhi, was instrumental in organising an event that testified to the resourcefulness and resilience of South Africa’s literary community.

The evening kicked off with a video message from Alistair Burtenshaw and Amy Webster, expressing their dismay at the outcome. They promised to keep the pavilion going on behalf of those with scuppered plans. “There is a Joburg- and Cape Town-shaped hole at the fair this year,” said Webster.

Antjie Krog’s poem set the tenor of the evening: I belong to this land,/ it made me./ I have no other land but this one./ I do not believe in miracles but the existence of my country is a miracle./

Imraan Coovadia read an engaging extract on taxi poetry, Victor Dlamini’s insights and probing questions drove to the nub of of seriousness in which our literature breathes.

Coovadia reflected on how SA lit has been determined from outside for too long. “We’ve been told what to read from those who know what’s good for us. But all the interesting stuff, reflecting the different parts of South Africa that makes society interesting, isn’t on that list. If you read Coetzee, you don’t have a sense of walking down a Cape Town street.”

After readings by Liesl Jobson, Kopano Matlwa and Fiona Snyckers, Colleen Higgs spoke about Modjaji Books, an independent publisher that focuses on women’s writing, including the “unpopular” genres of poetry and short stories.

She had been looking forward to networking with other independent publishers – in particular the Norwegian who has bought the translations rights to Whiplash, the novel by Tracey Farren that was shortlisted for the 2009 Sunday Times fiction prize. “I’ve been practising so hard to be a ‘real publisher’,” she said.

Matlwa, whose second novel, Spilt Milk, was due to be launched at the fair, said she wanted to tell Londoners how excited she was at the wealth of stories coming from the country. Snyckers spoke of how vibrantly alive women’s fiction was. “From high literature to bright pink ‘chic-lit’, poetry and everything in-between, our writers are world class.”

The final event concluded with a panel comprising Arthur Attwell of Electric Book Works, Phakama Mbonambi, editor of Wordsetc, and Williams. They spoke about the challenges of raising the profile of South African literature internationally.

Mbonambi, who was hoping to secure subscriptions ‘in pounds’ for his magazine, said “We’ve put on a brave face. All is not lost.”

In true mythic style, several fairy godmothers attending any proper ceremony were present. The Annexe, Kalk Bay Books’ new arrival, provided a plethora of scrumptious treats to keep the festive hoard well nourished, and Leopard’s Leap not only furnished wine, but also created a video message of support featuring Not the London Book Fair attendees that was sent to London on Tuesday morning. At Not the London Book Fair, the link up happened at every level.

And how it has been my week for arriving on Youtube. Much to my surprise. After a life time of hearing myself from inside my ears, I find myself gazing at video clips on the net.

First, at the launch of Home Away, then, sending my best wishes to London. And now here:

Did I agree to this? I can’t recall that I did. Had I known how odd I sound, how peculiar I look, I’m not sure the self I recognise as my own would have consented had anybody stopped to ask.

Do others who discover themselves similarly caught and digitally rendered also peer through their fingers in morbid curiosity?

International Women’s Day – a day of gratitude

A string quartet plays in the garden this International Women’s Day and camellias are floating in the pond, the champagne is chilling on ice. Metaphorically, of course. It’s the garden party of my heart.

So I’ve lit the candle-lanterns that swing in the summer heat and the kids, allowed up after dark, wave sparklers and scoff brownies. Before the night’s out I’m raising a toast to the savvy, smart, honest, beautiful, funny, generous and wise women who people my tribe in the broadest sense of the word.

To those sisters in writing who raise families and manage lovers, hold down day jobs and edit journals, write their own work and publish others’ work, who stay with the schlep that is the writing life, and still glow in their wit and humanity, I can’t pass up this chance to wish you all well.

So many women writers show me all is not lost in my messy words; they patch up my muddles and drop me emails; they talk me down off high ledges and send me straight talk; they bail me out for the day, or sometime just a minute; they write their own shimmering texts that make me proud to know them; they believe that what we’re all trying to do is worth staying with even when it sucks, the whole indecent catastrophe. And of late it has sucked, sharp stones in spades.

Tonight this huge party is for all the women around the world who have made a difference to each other, hand-holding and cheerleading, proffering tissues and tips, reading first drafts and attending readings, and kindly souls who help me go on when I’m ready to quit.

The music is sublime at the party tonight, and the fat lady is singing for those dear hearts and far darlings whom I appreciate so much. Thanks for the sweet hours, the kindly encouragement, those brief minutes even that mean so very much. You have saved the day, you’ve saved my ass (those dismal poems that aren’t haunting me in Cyberia). Thanks for all that; this one’s for you:
Yvette Christiansë and Gabeba Baderoon, Karin Schimke and Ingrid Anderson, Helen Moffett and Alex Smith, Jo-Anne Richards and Colleen Higgs, Karina Brink and Ingrid de Kok, Sophy Kohler and Diane Awerbuck, Finuala Dowling and Henrietta Rose-Innes, Antjie Krog and Ann Donald, Karen Press and Estelle Jobson, Joanne Hichens and Corina Van der Spoel, Tania van Schalkwyk and Melissa Butler, Zukiswa Wanner and Sarah Frost, Megan Voysey-Braig and Hazel Frankel, Dawn Garisch and Erica Emdon, Margie Orford and Jennifer Ferguson, Liz Trew and Verushka Louw, Isabella Morris and Sarah Lotz, Lauren Beukes and Pamela Nichols, Moira Richards and Maire Fisher, Crystal Warren and Isobel Dixon, Madea le Noble and Sarah Ream, Anindita Sengupta, Michelle McGrane and Susan Kigali; and my best best writing teachers: Kim Chinquee, Tiff Holland, Claudia Smith, Utahna Faith, Carol Novack, Ellen Parker, Heather Fowler, Gail Siegel, Jennifer Pieroni, Avital Gad Cykman, Darlin’ Neal, Liz Cashdan, Ann Fisher-Wirth, Patricia Fargnoli, Ann Hostetler, Louisa Howerow, Alicia Ostriker, Girija Tropp, Kathy Fish, Rishma Dunlop, Tricia Dower, Lydia Copeland, Kay Sexton, Maryanne Stahl and Mary Akers.

And thanks also to Annie Finch who started WOM-PO and Amy King who keeps it running. This Women’s Poetry Listserv has given me more to think about than there is space in my head for thinking.

And because Lucy Pijnenburg, over at Poetry International, has focused her attention on this cause for celebration, and how women’s poetry still doesn’t get equal air time, it makes sense to link to her article:

Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young’s 2007 article ‘Numbers Trouble’ highlighted the fact that women poets are still underrepresented in publishing in the USA. In countries where more male poets are published, the publication of a poem by a female writer, even if it is not an overtly “political” poem, can be seen as a political act in itself. Should a 50:50 men to women publishing ratio be aimed for? Are there simply fewer women poets writing and trying to get published? And if so, why? ‘Numbers Trouble’ shed new light on how editors go about representing women whilst ensuring that the aesthetic merit of poetry is kept.

Call Out the Hatemongers

Update on 18 August 2010:

On 12 November 2009 I published this blog in which I made reference to, inter alia, Bert Oosthuizen. The allegations made of and concerning Bert Oosthuizen were made in error. I retract these and apologise to Bert Oosthuizen for any harm that my statement caused him.

Because there is more nonsense out there than a body should have to endure – David Bullard, for example, who truly should know better – it is gratifying when hatemongers get called out on their caustic prattle.

At the same time when the so-called brains behind the South Africa Sucks blog was arrested last week, the hackles rose: is Big Brother finally coming to pluck out the tongue of Free Speech?

“The so-called Uhuru Guru,” writes Women.24′s Lili Radloff, a regular target of his bile, “has been identified as a certain Bert Oosthuizen who lives in Joburg.” There’s more to his dollops of meanness than meets the eye.

Lili puts it very nicely on her blog:

Now I think it’s fair to say that Bert doesn’t like South Africa, the government and black people in general. And he also doesn’t like me much.

To which I can only say, take a number and stand in line, buddy.

The baser part of me thinks people like Oosthuizen should be locked in jail. And yet, being a believer in a free society I was rather alarmed at the thought that the police can apparently just barge into your house, confiscate your happy-making interweb shit and throw your ass in the chookie.

Sometimes I really curse the fact that I believe in freedom of speech. Because God knows, not everyone deserves a voice.

    However this opens out, I hope that SA Sucks gets turned off, once and for all. Maybe in its wake we find a platform for people explore their fear without resorting to the dehumanising racism that needs to be ended.

  • Read Lili Radloff’s full piece here

RIP Oscar Paulo, Touch of Madness & Off the Wall

Oscar PauloLast night I attended the Cape Town launch of Antjie Krog’s latest book, Begging to be Black. The first person to greet me as I walked up the stairs was Hugh Hodge, who edits New Contrast, and who runs with Karin Schimke, “Off the Wall”, the weekly poetry gig in that has met over the years at Touch of Madness in Nuttall Street, Observatory.

He greeted me with the horrible news that Oscar Paulo, the waitron originally from Angola, who always greeted everybody with the warm appellation: Daaaaaaarling! had been stabbed last Thursday while talking in a phone booth.

Oscar seemed always to have first dibs on the poetry gathering, setting up the room, bringing drinks in during the reading, clearing up afterwards. He’d always remember me, even though I attended only occasionally when I lived in Joburg. Oscar had a welcoming presence that genuinely embraced the poets and poetry lovers he served.

Off the Wall, the weekly poetry forum that has hosted poets from near and far, was started by Ronnie Levitan, a gifted architect and photographer, who was murdered in 2005.

There will be a memorial gathering for Oscar at Touch of Madness on Saturday at 2.00 pm.
Leave a message of condolence on the Touch of Madness facebook wall