REVIEW: New Times

New Times, Rehana Rossouw’s vivid new novel about the early days of the Rainbow Nation, traverses familiar territory for YAZEED KAMALDIEN.

New Times by Rehana Rossouw

Although circles around myself and author Rehana Rossouw have intertwined, we’ve never met. Those circles would be obvious since we are both journalists but then it’s ironic that we haven’t met because we operate in a small media world in the same country.

While we may not have met, I did pop in at one of her book talks, held at the Goethe Institute in Johannesburg with her relative – my dear friend – Nasia Seria. And I’ve worked for a few years with Chiara Carter, editor of Weekend Argus newspaper, who spoke at the Cape Town launch of this novel and who is a mutual friend. Then there’s author Barbara Boswell who is also mentioned, along with Carter, in the acknowledgements section of this book, whom we also share.

We are connected through the people we know, but not directly. Maybe I should just add her on Facebook, if she’s on there. Anyway, at least now I feel connected with her after having read New Times, which takes its name from the newspaper title where the novel’s lead character Ali Adams works as a journalist. The point of all of this mentioning of interconnectedness is to entrench a bit deeper the fact that Rossouw’s book is terribly familiar territory to me. That stretches from her depictions of Ali’s reflections on life in a busy newsroom to the Islamic traditions in Bo-Kaap she participates in. And then there are references to Cape Town’s left-leaning crowd who forms parts of characters in New Times. We still see them at Cuban government events and Palestinian support rallies in the Mother City.

When Carter saw New Times on my desk at the paper’s office where I’m still doing some freelance journalism, she stopped to talk about the left crowd referenced in the book, although not named of course. Carter joked about how they were having conversations about who was actually who in Rossouw’s novel.

New Timesthus appears as a deeply personal work for Rossouw. It feels as if she has literally taken her diary from reporting on South Africa’s social and political challenges – particular understanding its post-apartheid identity – and published it here as the story of Ali Adams. I’m not sure if she has mentioned this in any interview or whether any book reviewer elsewhere picked up on this. I’ve chosen to avoid reading anything about New Times in favour of forming my own reflection without influence.

Back to the main character: Ali is a journalist who has direct access to Nelson Mandela during his second year in office as the country’s first democratically elected president.

Fresh out of apartheid, she has black friends who served time on Robben Island and works closely with a white journalist who had links to the apartheid military. She sees the many faces of the country, as journalists often do, and shares it through her newspaper writing.

Reflecting on Ali’s close proximity to her sources, I’m always sceptical of journalists who get too close to political parties and politicians but, OK, one can understand the context of those back-in-the-day times. Back then the post-apartheid South Africa was all mixed up – well, it remains still mixed up.

It was common for anti-apartheid activists to turn up in newsrooms while their comrades would turn up in government, right next to Mandela.

Rossouw shows us the life of Ali, the young journalist, not yet 30, who navigates ins and outs of Rainbow Nation lives to tell stories, fight her demons, make peace with her household and find peace with herself.

As mentioned, the novel appears autobiographical, and it does not pretend to make grander statements than what it reflects: the new times of a new country. And what it all means for a young, female journalist.

A line in the book that appears as a tagline for the new times reflected in this book appears on page 20: “Sometimes it’s hard to understand the choices people make when they’re finally free.”

And so Ali asks tough questions about how the African National Congress – regarded as the liberation party that shook South Africa free from white apartheid rule – has turned its back on the people who ensured its victory. (The ANC is referred to in the book as The Movement, by the way.)

The writing pace moves at the pace of Ali’s busy life. When she’s not at work chasing deadlines and fighting monster managers she’s enjoying simple moments of shared meals that her grandmother makes in Bo-Kaap – a community whose residents and history Rossouw depicts with great affection. It is portrayed with all its Islamic gatherings, patriarchy and laikoms (we will get to that later).

I really liked how Rossouw’s brushes off the patriarchy without trying to sound too self-righteous. She doesn’t need to go on That Angry Feminist Rant to make her point.

I’m not meaning to take a dig at that kind of non-inclusive feminism that demands women should not wear burqas because white women don’t wear it so therefore no women should. I’m just saying that I like Rossouw’s way of showing that Ali’s feminism isn’t about burning a bra. It’s about claiming her space in the world on her terms.

And as someone who knows the hell of newsrooms – and its accompanying patriarchy, chauvinism, and the way critical thinking can easily be trumped by knee-jerk reactionary drivel – it’s great to see a story about a female journalist of colour who kicks butt at her job.

We all know and can see that race and representation in media is still not as diverse as it could be. And racism is still an issue in the media, whether in newsrooms or in the endless reports of pathetic racism that erupts across South Africa and beyond.

To state the obvious: Rossouw is a woman of colour who wrote her story. She placed a character into the archive of our collective library that tells our stories. She writes without much fuss or pretence about navigating the journalism, politics, her community and race. None of it is blatant or pedantic, thank goodness. There is no political correct bullshit either. Rossouw has a sense of humour too, which shows in New Times.

Her Muslim, woman, journalist character is very real: she smokes, she swears, she prays, she loves her family, she tells men where to get off and she even does a shadow boxing bout with Mandela in Parliament. It’s a story that I’m glad has been told.

And when I do eventually meet Rossouw, I’ll greet her: “Laikom, Rehana.”

That’s the Cape Town version of the longer Arabic greeting Asalamu alaykom wa rahmatulahi wa barakatu.

New Times is published by Jacana.

Yazeed Kamaldien is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town.

EXTRACT: Navigate

Three poems from the new collection by KARIN SCHIMKE.
Karin Schimke

ii. not co-opted (From: Praxis – four steps to understanding change)

I give my mouth to no one.
I am the ears of everyone
and of my self. When you
shout, shells tilt. We nod.
We nod, the sea and I. We know.
We know. We lose ourselves in froth.

I will not staunch you.

I listen for a half beat,
a breath, and whisper back
the whispers of the waiting
gales. Pen-ink my voice
and silent so; willed to white,
whitened to bone. And flaccid.

 

Weed

those who are footloose
who roam to the ends
of untethered threads
those with battered bags
and make-do those
whose assertions
to place are brief or twee
those who are home-free:

how were they released?

me, i am planted here, awake
and calcifying. my roots ache.

 

What wedding is this?

This morning the mist-veiled
autumn mountain is all ours.

Leucadendrons’ pink muzzles
line the path like dewy bridesmaids
wearing sparkles. An orb-web spider
reigns from the middle of her wagon wheel
turned chandelier by drops of dew
and tufts of light.

What wedding is this?

In the dark bush, above the mist-slicked
rocks of the dry riverbed, moss grows
in the armpits of trees. Seed confettis the ground.
Older promises sweat from the stream’s vertebra,
and the mountain’s crotch smells like buchu and rooibos.

Oh, honeybush, this is not a wedding.
It’s an ecstasy.

Navigate is published by Modjaji Books. Read our review here.

BOOK CLUB: Navigate

LOUIETTA DU TOIT is entranced by Navigate, a dense and shimmering collection of poems by Karin Schimke.

Navigate by Karin Schimke

Karin Schimke’s Navigate sits on my desk for several weeks.  I gather, before having read it, that it is a deeply personal work and I intend to engage with it as devotedly as I imagine it was written. But amidst the incessant pulsing of my city and work life, an ideal bookended period of time to do this, does not arrive.

And then I am at the feet of the Waterberg, lounging on a redbrick stoep constructed by my grandfather almost three decades ago. I am here with my closest family on a celebratory weekend away – it’s my birthday soon.  More than we ourselves are able to, the unassuming landscape of the farm holds our shared history and each moment together offers something of this, interspersed with everyday wonder, affection and little traumas and distress.

As always, we move within the structures of this intimacy a little clumsily, but each with a somewhat refined steering method.

We are, perpetually, either finding each other, or trying to.

Navigate finds me here.

my lips blister, my tongue dries.
atonal winds, weather all wall-eyed.

Schimke’s evocative collection is woven on a number of distinct threads. It is a conscious expedition through roots and heritage and the complex, fluid meaning of home and belonging.  The refuge of nature in all its beauty and simplicity. And the becoming of a self – the poet’s finding, nurturing and placement of her voice – as a writer, a daughter, a woman and a citizen.  The implication that these threads are interwoven and interdependent, is strong:  a recognition which I greatly appreciate and resonate with.

A series of dichotomies, as striking as the natural metaphors Schimke employs throughout, appears – between the metaphysical and the earthly, the personal and the public, the private and the communal, the complex and the staggeringly simple.  The need for togetherness and simultaneously, an ever-present yearning to be separate. Together with these binary notions, a question is posed:  which takes precedence?  The answer I find is far from prescriptive – not one.

Instead, it is suggested that navigation, here so skilfully demonstrated through poetry, inherently requires a well-honed, multi-faceted attention and an ability to adapt.  This calls for a resolve to be acutely present in all conditions and Schimke appears willing to be exactly this – not only at the mercy of the “elements” she is faced with, but very much present within them.  She captures the heart of this process in Cleaning the wound:

the trick is to pull off the plaster
and look the wound in the eye
it’s not as bad as you think it will be
it’s just a doorway
a threshold to sweep
and polish and protect

It calls for what I find to be the most striking quality of Navigate– a down-to-earth-ness. The language of Cleaning the wound is both sincerely painful as well as reverent and nurturing. Rejection never emerges as an option. Only a flow and the willingness to receive it fully, to expand and retract, again and again.  In this way, human experience becomes, like this collection of poems, simultaneously tumultuous and beautiful.

As I am flung about, and taught, and held by Schimke’s dexterous wielding of harsh, methodical memories alongside deeply tender, redolent imagery, I am reassured by the grand coexistence of things which appear at first to be mutually exclusive.  This is the flood of the world.  The poet’s (and my) experience swings from an openness and delight to a shrunken, unanchored state and back, as does her sense of self and voice, her craft and her conviction within it.

The second section of the collection is prefaced by:

and now my mouth is small and hard
and now my tongue’s a fossil
now my lips are bone on bone
my chest’s an empty vessel

and she agonises in Taped Beak:

over and over
christ this chorus bores me
i’m doing whatever the verb
is for litany and grass grows
over my feet     i am that woman
that white that wash that
i am my own thick black
censor lines my hushing
terrorist up-shutter

Aside from the poet herself, the character of her father (the immigrant) is the most consistently present, whether as an explicit, literal subject or employed as a metaphor.  Schimke’s reflections on her father start off as a harsh, almost desperate disconnect, evolving through this exploration into something full and tender.  In parallel, her creative voice awakens, hesitates, expands and settles.  The father figure then becomes a marker on the map: the more foreign and inaccessible he is portrayed to be, the more tumultuous the conditions, the more untethered the poet appears.  But as we are granted a deeper access to and understanding of Schimke’s universe, a spaciousness grows around her father and around the poet herself.

We sweated.  You measured. You planned.
When I shifted my weight, you cursed.
Boredom grew.  I needed to pee.
My hands uncramped themselves.
My mouth excused me.
You shouted.  My fingers swore.
Relief is enough breath for one last stand.
You grabbed me by the hair

Retracing one’s steps also means deepening them.  I know this well.  But I also know and read again here that ultimately, through the process of revisiting and seeing, the old, deep traces of where we come from become less dire, less violent and less separate from where we are, here and now. This is indeed, on every implied level, a navigation from a state of Myopia (the title of the opening poem) to an uncomplicated belonging when the collection closes, intimately – My feet were at home in your lap.

Navigate – a most appropriate title for the narrative arc of this collection – offers neither injunction nor resolution.  Instead, it is an always tender and rarely sentimental telling.  In this telling a process emerges, divided into the four phases of the poet’s personal navigation.  These phases are not clinical, but emerge in the moment to moment unfolding, as do the beautifully crafted poems.  The resultant coherence is gradual and unforced.

Schimke writes her own trajectory amidst the elements, passing through conditions of chaos and turbulence, desolation, a palpable impasse where nothing moves, with eyes shut tight, waiting, and then into something akin to redemption, conjuring up an image of her standing, simply and gently, exactly where she is – in the eye of the proverbial storm.  The introductory verse of the final section signals this pause and arrival:

i knew no goodness till i’d trawled
the sky of his forehead for the bitter stars
and found none

It is a homecoming:  to the deep, safe waters of the other and the self.  And it is in this way that she can lay claim to the contours of her own voice:

I dream in
the alphabet of dance
where consonants
have fur
where vowels bleat
where vague
and precise
are the same
impossible
achievement.

It may be worth considering to what extent one’s response to a literary work stems from a kind of confirmation bias – do we simply read into it what we wish or need to see?  Can we put it down to that old chestnut of the right thing at the right time?

Perhaps it is really a matter of this:  one true thing, at any time.  To me, this is the birthplace of poetry, of art.  It is born in a non-exclusionary exploration, in the artist allowing the force of the flood.

Encouraged, I tug my thoughts back down to earth.  As I read, I try to couch my response in terms as basic and true as the pale cement joining the red bricks, the rarely seen Piet-My-Vrou calling to its mate. It is late autumn and the Limpopo sun is modest now, casting the shadow of a wild olive tree over my hands and across each printed page which I trace and turn.  I am feeling more, wanting more.  I am reminded to open and soften towards my own experience, my people, every moment – so often met with judgement and apprehension.

The voice of the poet is not glorified here – life and art are very much merged, becoming together.

This dense collection is nothing if not heartfelt.  Schimke’s poetry leaves me with a sense of fragmented completeness and in this contradiction, a freedom.  A testament to the myriad elements of what it means to be human, each in their mundane and dramatic, exquisite and distressing way, I close Navigate in the comforting fold of a sentiment expressed by Gustave Flaubert – ‘There is not a particle of life which does not bear poetry within it.’  Yours and mine.

Navigate is published by Modjaji Books. Read three poems from the collection here.

Author photograph by Paul Reeves.

REVIEW: Free Association

GARETH LANGDON finds Steven Boykey Sidley’s Free Association uncomfortably enjoyable.Free Association

I am sometimes troubled by the books that I enjoy the most. Not because of any grotesque obsession with violence, or taste for obscure melodrama or science fiction – but because the books I like the most highlight my personal shortcomings.

Free Association is a fantastic novel – but I’m not entirely sure that the reason I feel that way is simply because it is my kind of novel. Steven Boykey Sidley’s fourth novel follows the mind and life of Max Lurie, a down-and-out white male, mostly unsuccessful once-off novelist, now host of popular podcast ‘Free Association’ in which he speaks freely about life, love, and personal distress. It screams white privilege, something which Sidley cleverly highlights by juxtaposing Lurie with his South African producer, Bongani. The novel is structured around extracts from the podcast itself, in-between which a third person narrative takes over to provide the context for Max’s freely associated, pre-recorded ramblings. This style provides a careful insight into the character’s mind, while not neglecting the circumstances which give rise to his thoughts.

Free Association made me feel uncomfortable in how much I enjoyed it. Max Lurie is undoubtedly the epitome of white privilege, living comfortably in Hollywood and free to choose podcasting as a sustainable source of income – an unrealistic choice for most ordinary humans. However overwrought the character of Bongani might be (black, gay, immigrant, foreigner all at once), placing him in opposition to Max allows the reader (especially this reader) to be both disgusted and challenged by Max’s behaviour.

Max’s treatment of women is no different. The podcast speaks often of Anne, his “girlfriend” who is herself a total fiction. As a projection of Max’s psyche, she demonstrates his obvious assumptions about Women as group – she is always somehow against him, he can never seem to please her, he is conflicted by what she thinks about him – all of these reflections solipsistic to the Nth degree and stark indictments of Max’s gender bias. Several other prominent female characters provide little departure from Anne. Roxanne (or Ava to the podcast listeners) is a nubile co-worker with radical political beliefs and a shaved head who somehow overlooks Max’s chauvinism long enough to have sex with him, date him, and fail to reform him as a man in any meaningful way – instead she seems to concede to him in the classic motherly, pitying sense. Pixel aka Bethany is Max’s high school ex, a paragon of corporate female success, writ as disinterested in men, obsessed with her career and money, and powerful enough that Max’s penetration of her deepest vulnerabilities leaves her the expected cliché of a woman – powerful, but still weaker than any one man. This is most evident when Max has to rescue her from a mugger, getting stabbed in the process. You can only imagine the self pitying that went on on the podcast after that.

What made me so uncomfortable about how much I liked this book, as I may have mentioned, is how much of Max Lurie I identified with – I was sucked into each and every one of his self-absorbed rants on the podcast, dying to hear more about what he thought about himself and his world. I felt myself internally nodding, and proclaiming “YES! Exactly!” as I read, chuckling to myself at Max’s darker moments as an act of solidarity. Max, when you think about it, is a vile character – self-obsessed and devoid of self-awareness, uncritical, chauvinistic and a little bit racist. But I loved him.

The novel’s climax is slowly introduced through another ostensibly middling character, initially hidden in Max’s periphery, but soon brought to the fore by a series of shocking events – Jake. Jake is a homeless man, evidently schizophrenic, dirty and alone. He lives in the alleyway near Max’s home and was happily minding his own business until Max felt the need to “help”. Max soon learns that Jake is a failed physicist who, once on the brink of tremendous scientific breakthrough, unfortunately succumbed to severe mental illness, his tragic downfall leading to a life on the street. Jake is probably the most intelligent and level-headed of all the characters in the noveln and thanks to that is keenly aware of the dynamics at play in Max’s life and the world at large.

Max waxes lyrical about Jake on the podcast, but some of his creative licentiousness proves very upsetting to Jake, who snaps. Without giving the rest of the story away, the events which transpire lead Max to a kind of epiphany where, after long conversations with Bongani (remember him, the black friend?), he decides to change tack with the podcast. Now it will be called ‘Outsiders’ and will take a careful look, through interviews, at the lives of everyone on the “outside” – the old, the poor, the mentally ill, the immigrant.

But Max’s progression is undoubtedly set to reinforce the exact same tropes which were reserved, mercifully, for his own mind in Free Association. What Max and Bongani sadly don’t realise is that turning the attention of the podcast outside – hell, even the name ‘Outsiders’ – far from doing those on society’s periphery a service, does little more than solidify the existing prejudice which led to their exclusion in the first place. It will highlight their difference, making them even more weird and esoteric, and even more excluded.

Free Association was a challenging read because it made me mad at myself about how I view the world as a white man. I was mad at Max, but I could see myself in him, and that is the power of any good novel – through identification with character we are made to, more and more, question our own core beliefs. Sidley’s great achievement in his fourth novel is that, while catering to the rather narrow tastes of a self-absorbed white, male, millennial reader, has also brought into stark revelation the shortcomings of that reader’s worldview.

Free Association is published by Picador Africa.