has a beautiful floral garden
in his house, he spends at least two hours
on it before the sunrise
and after the sunset to cultivate
the soil and irrigate his plants and so forth
During the day he ambles around the
garden admiring his blossoms, pulling out
weeds and spraying insects away.
His old friends call him “the garden boy”.
Yesterday we went to visit
my grandmother’s grave. I for the first time
saw her name on the tombstone:
Mapalesa Rose Yatlholeho
and it all came together
We did not have enough space
for Christmas trees in our home
The only empty spaces that we had
were our moaning stomachs, and brains
starving for knowledge.
We were nothing else but young faces
wearing dusty veils made of thousand smiles
GARETH LANGDON reviews Marcus Low’s quietly devastating debut novel.
Post apocalyptic motifs are overdone. Between The Walking Dead and The Hunger Games, contemporary media seems to scream the need for us all to be prepared for the worst – for the coming of the end. Whether or not this is a universal set of fears, or something unique to Hollywood is not much of a question. What matters is that it is a tired trope, and that anyone hoping to tackle the genre is going to have an uphill battle.
Marcus Low makes light work of this challenge in his debut novel, Asylum. The novel follows, through a series of eloquent and detailed journal entries, the plight of James Barry. Barry has been diagnosed with a fatal lung disease – likely tuberculosis – and finds himself incarcerated in a treatment facility or modern day sanitorium, in the middle of the Karoo. His days drag on at a snail’s pace as he gazes out of the window at the dry bones of the earth, watching nothing happen, and writing regularly in his notebooks. He has made some friends though, and as inmates are want to do, they begin planning their escape. The novel traces Barry’s internal struggles as well as the planning and execution of their proposed escape. Composed of notebook fragments and interjected with editor’s notes, written from what is ostensibly the point of view of whoever discovered the notebooks, the novel has an intensely personal feel.
Asylum is at once apocalyptic rendering, and psychological exploration. Barry is a sensitive character, with a painful yet mysteriously unsubstantiated past. His voice reads as hurt rather than angry, as resigned rather than determined. The notebooks function as both a solace for him, and as a way of leaving a legacy – one which is, at times, deliberately skewed. The choice of setting in the Karroo works well for this genre as the vast expanse of the landscape, as well as its dry, dusty harshness, create an atmosphere that lends itself to a story of loneliness, longing and resignation.
The plague in Asylum is more insidious however. Rather than go the obvious route of monsters or Orwellian dictatorship, the author has chosen a silent killer – a lung disease, airborne – that slowly causes deterioration in its hosts, presenting as coughing up of blood, tiredness, and the odd hallucination. Low seems far more interested in the interior conflict of Barry however, and the lung disease serves more as a measure of time, counting down the days to his death as it progresses, and as a parallel to his mental deterioration.
Like the disease that afflicts Barry, the sense of this novel overall is also insidious. The reader has the sense all along that something is very wrong, but that what’s wrong is less important than the characters’ experience of it. What matters to Low is what is going on in their heads – the humanness of it all – which explains the use of journals as the primary medium in the novel. Cleverly, by focusing on a single point of view, Low avoids many of the traps of modern end-of-the world fiction, the distractions of monsters and dictators. Instead, we are presented with a very human experience in an inhumane world, and are made to appreciate the moments of light that make our own experience bearable, even if for Barry as for some of is, these come in the form of dreams and hallucinations rather than genuine human experience.
Rather than offering escapism, Low is brave enough to dig deeper. He explores humanity without sacrificing the enticing nature of mystery that many apocalyptic-genre novels do well. The choice of the Karroo as a setting also eases the imaginative leap that a South African reader has to make, a feeling all too close to home running throughout the narrative.
As a debut, Asylum is cleverly crafted and engaging – an encouraging sign of things to come for an exciting South African talent.
“If you are unwanted, then you are still alive”
Is written on the inside door of the ladies’ bathroom stall
The last time I was reminded of rejection, I was fully clothed in the kitchen
Stuffing leftover lasagne into my cheeks for the journey home (to my room upstairs)
It’s different with your knickers around your ankles, innit?
It reminds you that everything that comes from you is warm, at first
Eyes darting from ‘unwanted’ to ‘alive’ Cheer up bitch, you could be wanted and dead
I’d like to add, but it’s not my poem to interfere with
Next to this is a tampon advert, for a quid you can bleed quietly
There’s a massive queue outside of women waiting to come across this sentence
I stare at the message for longer than is necessary, because of him
It wasn’t love, just a chemical reaction to a fake smile on a real mouth
You see, my loose heart yearned for something secretive to hold
The steady ground or his shoulders
Either one connected it to the soil of the earth
Five days later in a Debenhams toilet, my face still smells of his mouth
His breath reeks from my bottom lip
I cut my fingernails as a way of letting go
Yah know, the only thing that kept him inside me was gravity
A brief journey of him coming without taking me anywhere
In the end, love is just thrusting towards trust
His sharp irregular breath on my collarbone, wheezing like
A dirty old man running away from something old
or not catching up to something new
Now I’m unwanted and he’s still alive
Nancy Richards, executive director of Woman Zone, tells us about The Woman’s Library Cape Town which the NGO launched in 2015.
Firstly — why a Women’s Library?
Why not? Women’s Marches, Men’s Clubs… it’s a focus. But it’s more than a Women’s Library: it’s a hub – a meeting, workshopping, sharing space. And just to be clear, at this stage, it’s a reference not a lending library.
How did it come about, and who was involved in getting it up and running?
Working on a woman’s magazine and a woman’s radio show for many years, as a journalist (and founder of Woman Zone), I acquired a huge amount of books relating to women. As a collection and a resource, they cried out for a room of their own. The Woman Zone team – whose goal is to unite the women of Cape Town and celebrate their achievements – looked long and hard for such a space. Eventually, after partnering with Artscape and their Women’s Humanity Festival, CEO Marlene le Roux kindly offered us the cube-shaped office we occupy now, conveniently next to the Box Office on the ground floor of the theatre complex.
How many books are there and where were they sourced from?
We’ve stopped counting, but well over 1000 and the figure rises. So they’ve come from my original original collection, from donations, and authors who have had launches at the Library. Initially we had no shelves – just lots of boxes and a small mobile tin unit, courtesy Qualibooks which held 100 or so volumes, and at the launch guests sat on the floor! When the Cape Town World Design capital team broke up their office space at the end of 2014, they donated us some furniture and Steven Harris of Furnspace donated us book shelves. We’ve since bought more – but still more are needed (if you have any to spare).
What kind of books have been selected and what were the reasons for theirselection.
Like many of the best things in life, they were less selected than happened. As mentioned above, they are the fruit of collections and donations. Having said that, there are some we have declined, as you can imagine. What kind of books? Hmm, how do we single any out without showing favouritism? Well, there are books that can help – on law, self-assertion, rape, divorce, cooking etc. Novels that can inspire, transport, delight, reveal, charm, make you understand or angry. A very good selection from most of South Africa’s best known women writers – Antjie Krog, Matshilo Motsei, Rehana Roussow, Ingrid Jonker, Angela Makholwa etc etc – as we speak, the very latest addition is Always Another Country: memoir of exile and home by Sisonke Msimang. International authors are also well represented. But special are the ones that have been donated by the authors – sometimes self-published. Like Surviving Lavender Hill – a collection of personal stories from the women living there and facilitated by the New World Foundation. And although we don’t have a hard copy, Frances Brown from Atlantis came in recently and brought her Afrikaans science fiction novel on a flash stick, motivational speaker Makini Smith from the US came to launch her book and leave behind copies and another woman popped in to drop off her sister’s book written in isiXhosa… the list goes on. Modestly, might we add that you can also buy here a copy of our own book, Being a woman in Cape Town: Telling your story (Cover2Cover).
What kind of events are hosted in the space?
Glad you asked that question – because for the last year we’ve been hosting a series of Story Cafés. It’s a blanket term, coined by chief librarian Beryl Eichenberger, to cover book launches, panel discussions, story sharing, informal gatherings, writing and poetry workshops, tributes, book clubs, presentations etc. They’ve been very successful and we look forward to more. Our database and Facebook page keep everyone informed about what’s upcoming and the press have been good about putting out word.
Woman Zone is also working on the Everywoman Project – a collaborative textile artwork made out of fabric yo-yos. Yo-yo making workshops have been happening at the Library and elsewhere.
What have been some of the main challenges in getting the Library operational?
A: The challenges have been outweighed by the joy of having a home for the Library, especially at buzzing and creative Artscape. But it took a while – for a couple of years the books languished in plastic bags in a friend’s garage. Until we were donated the shelves, they burst out of boxes and the mobile tin unit – and even now they’re doubling up on shelves like refugees in an overcrowded tent. A big challenge was cataloguing them. Then a pair of winged libris angels came along – Anna van der Riet and partner Ilse Arends rallied a team of retired librarians who corralled the titles into the Dewey system, dotted and stamped every one and add to the list with every fresh intake. Phewy, thanka guys. Biggest challenge however is woman-power. Volunteers open up from 12-2 Thursdays and Fridays – for Story Cafes and other events or ‘by appointment’. Monday and Wednesdays mornings the Library is used for beauty therapy workshops. More volunteers mean more opening hours – and maybe, one day, lending facilities.
What has been the most rewarding moment of working on it?
Having people pop in and discover us. Hosting a Story Café workshop once, a woman got up and said ‘I’m so glad I bothered to get out of bed and come here today, it’s changed my life.’ I mean…!
Describe the library’s typical user.
Women of all ages, colours, backgrounds, beliefs and persuasions have been in an out of our Library. It kind of validates the Woman Zone mandate which is officially to “bring together all women from the Mother City’s cultural kaleidoscope. To get to know one another better, to share stories and experiences, work together, learn from each other – and above all to highlight and promote their past, present and future achievements, not their victimhood. Cape Town’s women are for unity.”
Are there enough women writers in SA? And if not, how can we change this?
How many is enough? Who knows. What we do know is not every woman is born to write a book, but every woman has a story. Our aim is to encourage as many as possible to share her story, through workshops or just by listening – for her own, or the benefit of others who may relate, learn and grow from it. If it gets written we will celebrate it. If it gets published we will launch it. We will always welcome it onto our shelves.
What’s your vision for the Library’s future?
To take the concept of sharing stories, spoken or in print, into other communities around Cape Town. We call it “sistering”, a female form of “partnering”. We did it in 2014 – every month for the year we went to a different community from Muizenberg to Nyanga, Woodstock to Kuils River and in each, listened to one woman tell her story. We recorded and transcribed them into our book (co-edited by myself and Carol du Toit, designed by Lorraine de Villiers). We would like to do more sistering – so get in touch if it can work for your community. We would also like to become a lending Library – and like our inspirational sister, The Glasgow Women’s Library in Scotland, grow into a bigger and still bigger space to become a fully-fledged women’s centre with exhibition and archive space. Imagine that for the Mother City! Our other role model is the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics. Breathtaking in its scope. If ever you’re in London, do visit. Meanwhile, if ever in Cape Town and you’d like to visit our own Women’s Library, give us a call on 083 431 9986/082 490 6652 or mail firstname.lastname@example.org.