POEM: Insomnia


The moon is gentle on the windowsill,
keeping a wake for me as I lie in my bed
In this short watch and out of time,
eyes close, but other senses are not stilled.
There is a smell of soil and leaves and dampish fur,
my terrier snuggling warm behind my knees.

Ears buzz in rhythm with black waves
that pass across from left to right.
Words in my ear −
“A shallow lake with water birds,”
Where did that come from?
Who said that? John Berryman?
one of his dreams, I think.

Today the vlei was shallow
and the tide was low.
The kingfisher was back, the heron too
and there were far more terns than gulls.

Is it my turn to read in church on Sunday?
I’ll have to check tomorrow; now
I turn onto the other side,
pull up the duvet, tuck in arms.
Instead of sheep count egrets
coming in to land.

WORK/LIFE: Nthikeng Mohlele

Nthikeng Mohlele

The Johannesburg-based Nthikeng Mohlele is the author of four novels including The Scent of Bliss and Small Things; his most recent, Pleasure, was published by Picador Africa late last year. Mohlele was listed by Bloomsbury Publishing, the Hay Festival and the Rainbow Book Club as one of the 39 most promising authors under the age of 40 from sub-Saharan Africa and the diaspora.

What does “writing” mean?

Writing means artistic engagement with the universe through literary means. It is, in many ways, also immersed reading and reflection on life in its generalities and peculiarities, its grand themes and its minuscule irritants. It is quite possible and plausible that writing and authorship are also pedestals of civilised arrogance – the urge to play God, to create.

Which book changed your life?

I have come to realise that books cannot, strictly speaking, change my or a life. I think of life trajectories as set, unknown and often oppressively rigid things at times. Not even atom bombs can impose a “change” in a life. They can manufacture fear, maybe, but that is not the same as changing what people believe in. A book can nudge a reader into new experiences and ways of thinking and perceiving – but I am not sure that is sufficient to “change a life.”

Your favourite fictional character?

Michael K in Life and Times of Michael K. 

What are you working on at the moment?

I am working on a novel.

Describe your workspace.

My workspace is my iPhone – 99.9% of the time. It’s a gadget designed by Apple in California and assembled in China. That implies that my writing spaces are many and varied, as long as I have a reasonably alert mind and my fingers are still attached to my hand.

The most important instrument you use?

An iPhone 5 and 6 S. Sometimes just my eyes and ears – if those qualify as instruments.

What’s your most productive time of day?

My writing is not governed by work schedules at all. My work impulse is like watching moving clouds. I have something to write when the clouds move – and nothing when they are still. By clouds I mean that much abused word: inspiration.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

I wait for the clouds to start moving again. They seldom resist for long spaces of time.
How do you relax?

Music on headphones. Guitar lessons. Reading. Pockets of time with family. Cooking. Long chats with my son, who is eleven this year. Long scenic drives.

Who and what has influenced your work?

The urge to interpret life and the world in my own terms. I owe a debt of gratitudes to musicians, exploited human beings and poets.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

That came from the national Poet Laureate: “Write in such a way that nobody can shift a word or punctuation without messing up your work.” That was and is very empowering.

Your favourite ritual?

I am not a ritualistic person. I participate in social rituals that I found in the world – some of which have been going on for centuries. A night at the theatre – maybe.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Everything about writing is extremely hard. Absolutely everything. Intellectually, emotionally, physiologically. It is a lonely and demanding art. But it can be done.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

Being a perfectionist. The world is not wired like that – necessarily.

What are you afraid of?


What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

None that is elaborate. Just work. Hard. And take advice and criticism.

What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?

There are many. Of taking care of my aging mother is one of them. September 7 also marked one year of me having stopped eating meat. Vegetarianism purifies the soul in unexpected ways. Mind, body and soul also connect better – having stopped feeding on dead animals. Well, to a point.

FICTION: Funky House Won’t Save Your Life


“Finally! I’ve been trying to reach you since eight! Are you OK?”

Joyce’s voice sounded strained on the other end of the line.

“I’m so sorry! I’m on my way. I wasn’t feeling too well this morning but I’ll be there within the next hour.”

Joyce would know what “not feeling too well” meant. She would understand. Though what if she didn’t?

Stop this train of thought. Now. Take a deep breath, don’t let the tears roll out. Deep breath in…and out, just like in the YouTube yoga videos.


After the call, Rebecca leaned against the wall in the entrance hall, her palms flat on the cold surface. She looked down at the pointed high heel shoes that were already pinching her toes and distractedly straightened up the pencil skirt she had selected to match with her purple headdress.

She closed her eyes to visualise the journey to All Saints Cathedral, a trick her therapist had suggested at their last session. Exit Ngumo estate, take Mbagathi Way, go straight on at the Kenyatta Hospital roundabout, drive all the way down Valley Road and take a right to enter the church’s parking lot.

Breathe in, breathe out.

It wasn’t working. She could feel her heart fluttering in her chest as she pictured horrible images of drive by shootings and falling trees and a chandelier crashing over Joyce’s radiant smile. Great, now she was shaking.

Time to go, shaking or no shaking. She picked up the pastry box from the kitchen counter and rearranged the pink ribbon that had been artfully wrapped around it; that was an image to hold on to. Traffic was dense but nothing unusual for lunchtime on a Saturday. She played an upbeat funky house mix in the car, the kind of music that usually lifted her spirits, but today the mist that was hanging over her head wouldn’t dissolve so easily. The cake was nestled in the passenger seat like an accusatory sign.

It was meant to be her home-baked, personalised wedding gift to Joyce and Patrick. The night before, she had carefully traced the initials J + P in chocolate sauce on top of the perfect vanilla frosting. When she was done, she had cocked her head with a smile of satisfaction. But right now, she had a sinking feeling that something was going to go wrong.

What if Joyce didn’t like the cake and suddenly decided that they couldn’t be friends anymore, that she didn’t need all this inexplicable drama Rebecca always brought into her life?  That would be such a disaster.

Keep your eyes on the road. Eyes on the road!


Her internal monologue didn’t let up until after the ceremony, when the emotion of seeing two of her best friends married submerged her. At least her teary eyes weren’t out of place here among the crowd of friends, relatives and colleagues assembled to celebrate the union.


The music was blasting in Joyce’s mum’s living room, the reception now in full swing after a heavy meal of lamb pilau and the obligatory series of tedious speeches. Joyce had insisted on having the reception at home in Kilimani, partly to save money, partly to craft an intimate gathering rather than a show of married bliss at some fancy resort.

Rebecca imagined floating in a sea of velvet. She danced furiously to extirpate the destructive thoughts out of her body.

The December holidays were around the corner, which meant facing long weeks of solitary lesson planning for the following semester. She tried to imagine what her students were doing but she had a hard time picturing what their homes looked like or where they might be going during the holidays. Joyce was going to be away in the Seychelles on her honeymoon and Nairobi would be at its quietest.

Everything faded at the end of the year, the litany of “It’s December” ringing in everybody’s ears as a shorthand for “Let’s get away and forget about work until next year”. She should get away too, forget about it all.


Over the eight years of their friendship, Rebecca had wondered many times about the nature of her feelings for Joyce. They had once taken a trip to Nakuru together, a “girls’ weekend out” as they called it, and in the spartan hotel room, Rebecca had flashes of what their lives would be like if they were to move in together. As Joyce was tying her headscarf for the night, Rebecca had wanted to stroke her cheek, place her hand in the small of her back and pull her into an embrace. Instead, she made a lame joke about the receptionist’s thick accent.


She caught Patrick’s eye at the drinks table. She could see that he was feeling hyper, high on life and a little booze. Joyce was chatting with a group of her mum’s friends, flailing her arms in the air in a familiar gesture of excitement. Maybe she was telling them about their honeymoon plans.

The emotions were threatening to bubble to the surface again so Rebecca went to the bathroom and sat on the toilet seat, staring at her Twitter feed without taking anything in. When she looked up, she saw the nail scissors by the sink. Tuft by tuft, she started cutting her hair in front of the mirror, and it fell down in little bundles on the bathroom floor until half of her head was free.

In a few hours, the house would be silent, emptied of its guests, with the paper plates in the bin and the leftover wine in the fridge the only signs of their passage. And she, Rebecca, would be on her way to a new life.

POEM: Tools


Poetry is for example a tree.
Argentina suddenly on the Pacific Coast.
The August sun over icy water.
The same tree.
The mountains.
The gaiters on the slope.
A bridge.
A Petite Mort, there, then.
(and another, and another, and another, and another, and)
A hue.
The origin.
The origin of everything.
The sun.
The son.
Because everything is already said
(in the son).