BOOK CLUB: Firepool

Firepool, Hedley Twidle’s outstanding new collection of essays, is an exquisitely observed snapshot of contemporary South Africa and a deeply personal journey into the mind of its author. By GARETH LANGDON.

In an age of social media, blogs and easy self-publication, the idea of the personal essay (and indeed, essays in general) has become almost repulsive to me. As Jia Tolentino opined in The New Yorker earlier this year the genre, which came to be dominated by whiny 20-something white women with a MacBook and a Lena Dunham poster on their wall, has largely faded away leaving in its wake a scorched earth of forgotten blogs and silenced millennials.

However unpopular it may be, the essay provides a unique lens through which to view the world. A good, well-written essay situates the author in the world in a particular, subjective way – providing a personal spin on a set of ideas or an argument that novels sometimes can’t do. In Hedley Twidle’s new collection of essays, Firepool, he does exactly that.

When I took Twidle’s English classes as a first-year student at the University of Cape Town, I found his teaching always engaged students in a way that was more casual, more inviting, and more human than the more formal lectures I was accustomed to elsewhere in the department. Twidle has done a good job of achieving this same comfortableness in his essays, without losing any of the intellectual rigour or political punch so necessary in a country as fraught as South Africa.

The collection moves, somewhat chronologically, from the author’s days as a young pupil at boarding school in KwaZulu-Natal, through to his years as a student at Oxford, his years as a lecturer at UCT, his personal experiences travelling through the country and some views on the contemporary politics of South Africa. The collection is named after an essay about the tragicomic “firepool” saga in which President Jacob Zuma used an exorbitant amount of taxpayer money to pay for additions to his private homestead in Nkandla. He claimed the lavish pool area, complete with auditorium style seating, was a “safety precaution” – the water there to be used in case of a fire breaking out among the many thatched rondavels of the homestead. The joke was aided by the performance of firemen pumping water from the pool to demonstrate its usefulness in an emergency. Twidle deals eloquently with this issue, and what it really says about our country and its leaders, in the final essay of the collection.

But “Firepool” is not a political opinion piece. It is not a criticism of South Africa and its many faults, nor is it explicitly an examination of the country’s many good qualities. What made “Firepool” an enjoyable read for me was how it placed the author’s personal experiences of the country in a broader national context. Novels, as Twidle notes, are protected by the golden rule of literary criticism: “This is not a book about the author, don’t read into it”. But the essay removes that veil entirely and in fact embraces the personal as a central part of its conceit.

Twidle is at his most deft in an essay about his hike along the Otter Trail, a five-day hike along South Africa’s coast. One of Twidle’s party is unashamedly racist; the essay carefully exposes the flaws in this man’s arguments, and the many frustrations the author suffers when engaging with him. It concludes amicably, noting the humanity of each attendee on the hike, despite their flaws. For Twidle, alongside a necessary self-awareness, is the empathy required to engage effectively in post-apartheid South African discourse – to be human in the face of hurt across racial divides.

The majority of the essays in the collection run in this fashion, placing the author in a seemingly typical situation – on campus, on a hike, writing or discussing literature, or thinking about his own position as a writer and teacher in South Africa – but manage also to look inward, relating the external to the internal. This kind of subjectivity speaks volumes of Twidle’s self-awareness and his desire to speak up and speak back to the national condition, something which is sorely needed in a society that all too easily loses perspective. Sucked up in the news cycle, from disaster to disaster, we can so easily forget about human emotion and its relationship to political experience, and its important role in the creation of a better future.

Without delving into each essay in detail here, I would go so far as to say that as a snapshot of contemporary South Africa, and as a deeply personal journey into the mind of the author, Firepool stands out amongst its peers. Twidle shows that it’s time to wrench the essay medium from the hands of the millennials, and bring it back to the bestseller shelves. For the right reasons.

Firepool is published by Kwela Books. Read an extract from the book here

EXTRACT: Rape: A South African Nightmare

An excerpt from the book by PUMLA DINEO GQOLA.Pumla Dineo Gqola

The manufacture of female fear uses the threat of rape and other bodily wounding but sometimes mythologises this violence as benefit. Under capitalism work is codified as respectability. Those who are without work are shamed while those who work are said to have dignity. To want to work redeems the worker from a fate of uselessness, dependency and laziness. Those who seek to take the factory apart, want to determine compensation or want to own their labour are demonised.

Like a real factory, it takes up public physical space, requires many bodies and different components. Like an assembly line, it involves movement with the addition of components as the belt moves seamlessly from post to post. It is a machine set to work in one direction and one that could injure those who get in the way. Interfering promises injury to any body parts that attempt to interfere with the process. It needs a power source and is a very effective process of production. Its products are for ready consumption and although harmful it finds such high circulation that it seems normal. Although the product is female fear, its products are generalised fear in all audiences.

The threat of rape is an effective way to remind women that they are not safe and that their bodies are not entirely theirs. It is an exercise in power that communicates that the man creating fear has power over the woman who is the target of his attention; it also teaches women who witness it about their vulnerability either through reminding them of their own previous fear or showing them that it could happen to them next. It is an effective way to keep women in check and often results in women curtailing their movement in a physical and psychological manner.

The manufacture of female fear works to silence women by reminding us of our rapability, and therefore blackmails us to keep ourselves in check. It also sometimes works to remind some men and trans-people that they are like women, and therefore also rapable. It is a public fear that is repeatedly manufactured through various means in many private and public settings. This chapter, on the female fear factory explores the many sites wherein female fear is manufactured. South Africa’s public culture is infused with this phenomenon.

The manufacture of female fear requires several aspects to work: the safety of the aggressor, the vulnerability of the target, the successful communication by the aggressor that he has power to wound, rape and/or kill the target with no consequences to himself. Women are socialised to look away from the female fear factory – to pretend it is not happening and to flee when ignoring it becomes impossible. Patriarchy trains us all to be receptive to the conditions that produce – and reproduce – female fear, especially when it is not our own bodies on the assembly line.

Examples illustrate best, they can work as evidence, and it is to four examples that I now turn for recognition and illumination

In the winter of 2013, feminist Lebo Pule shared a story about being in a shop in the Johannesburg CBD where a young man harassed a young woman. It is a familiar site where violence, gender and sexuality rub up against one another. As Pule looks on, the young man tries to get the young woman’s attention by calling out to her, addressing her in increasingly direct ways. When she continues to ignore him, his aggression grows, he starts to goad her.

Although she does not utter any words, she communicates her disinterest in his attention through her body language, a language that is recognisable to Pule and the other spectators in the shop, and also one clearly understood by the young man in pursuit. She does not speak back. When he persists, she walks away, all the while refusing to return his gaze.

In various ways hers is an attempt to pretend he is not there, to wish him away and to create distance between them. This clearly communicates that his attention is unwelcome. When she realises that none of this will have the intended effect, the young woman turns around and pointedly informs him that she is not interested in talking to him and that he should leave her alone. She tells him to go away.

He says, “That is why we rape you.”

An enraged Pule intervenes, interrogates the man asking him first, “How is that why you rape women?”, and then “How many women have you raped?”

Increasingly the rest of the shop watches in slight shock at Pule’s confrontation of the young man. They find her behaviour strange, are surprised that she intervened and will not let it go, making the young man uncomfortable.

They are so accustomed to this kind of behaviour that it is not the young man’s threats that are strange, but Pule’s refusal to let him continue.

The shopkeepers keep quiet.

The harassed young woman turns around and tries to console and reassure Pule, telling her “Don’t get yourself so worked up, my sister, we’re used to these dogs speaking like this to us. They are rubbish.”

Various versions of this story play themselves out in public spaces several times a day. At the same time, there are specific special aspects to this particular incident. The first is the refusal of the young man to take ‘no’ for an answer. While the woman knows his is a refusal rather than a misunderstanding, she is determined to communicate her ‘no’ in various ways, with increasing levels of assertiveness. She is unequivocal. He cannot claim to have misunderstood. At the same time, the young woman knows that she is not safe even in this public place with several other people present. Consequently, she tries to escape first his gaze by looking away and pretending not to hear him. When this attempted symbolic escape fails, she tries to escape again by walking away, moving away from the unwanted attention.

If she is determined to reassert her refusal, he is determined to remind her of its insignificance. She cannot escape and he knows this. In case she does not know it, he will remind her. With increasing aggression, he reminds her that she cannot get away from unwanted attention, that he feels entitled to her time, her mind and her body. When she tells him to go away, he reminds her that he does not care about what she wants. She does not matter. She is not entitled to her body. He is entitled to everything: her attention, her body, and everyone’s eyes and ears in the shop.

The directness of his allusion to rape is the finishing touch. He will have her regardless of what she wants. He reminds her of his complete power and her powerlessness. The use of the plural is particularly striking here because it renders in explicit, crude language publicly what often appears only by implication: both he and she belong to types, are representative. It is the ultimate expression of men’s entitlement to women’s bodies: she can surrender to his advances or she can be made to submit. Either way, he has power over her.

Rape is published by Jacana. Read our review of the book here.

GIVEAWAY: Win one of two copies of Rape. To enter, email competition(at)aerodrome.co.za, with the book’s title in the subject line. In the body of the email please include your full name, contact number and physical address (including the postal code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close on 15 November 2016. By entering, you agree to join AERODROME’s monthly newsletter mailing list.

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FICTION: to the mexican i met in maputo

BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS

the wine is finished and our friends have gone to bed and now it is just us seventeen floors above maputo on a balcony it doesn’t matter what we’re talking about i’m just thinking about how i want us to kiss you mention your haircut and i brush the side of your head as if i’m critiquing it and this is somehow a sign we both narrow the gap between us and are kissing now and huddled against each other like we’re battling a storm together eyes closed the city is silent and black my eyes open and i ask you if you want to take me home and you say there’s a spare bedroom here so i say whatever suits and you say actually yes you would like to take me home you tell me you knew this would happen the moment you saw my veldskoene which are just like yours even though yours are from buenos aires and mine were made in ottery we plunge down to earth in the rattling lift and drive through the quiet streets and you ask if i have my passport in case the police stop us i do and they don’t and ten minutes later we are climbing staircases and you’re leading me through a dark lounge apologising for your messy bedroom i tell you not to worry inside you put the light on and we are on your bed kissing again softly and slowly the strip-duet till we are both naked and in each other’s mouths and i’m nuzzling your balls and neatly shaved pubes we jerk each other off i marvel at the sheer effort of this am i lazy perhaps yes you shove a finger in my ass the look of concentration as you do this is quite beautiful the dry force of the finger a little brutal and i am wondering what do you like do you want me to fuck you do you want me to finger you is what you’re doing to me a mirror of your own desires and are my own attempts at pleasuring you working shit we are dancers that know the sequence of the steps but not the rhythm the spit has helped and i am coming and you are sitting on my thighs gripping your dick asking if you can come i am surprised you felt you had to ask i say yes the spattering pearls my tummy mixing with my own cum i try to make sure it doesn’t rivulet down onto the sheets you get up and go to the bathroom you’re there forever but eventually you return with not enough toilet paper and i mop myself up now here is what seems so elusive and fading the slight tenderness did we kiss goodnight when the light went off there must’ve been please just a kiss on the lips i think you asked how i was and i grinned and said i was fine because i really was although i ached for a cuddle and now we’re in the dark and you are lying next to me and i want to hold you but i’m worried that’s invasive somehow i keep to my side of the bed sleep takes me finally i wake up occasionally and then about half past five i’m fully alert and can hear the voices and the cars from the street seeping through the curtain you are still asleep though later on you will wake up and turn over and return to sleep and this repeats itself as i lie next to you bored craving not more sex but a fucking cuddle at eight i kiss your shoulder and chest and you sleepily smile and we kiss each other on the lips good morning and you cat-stretch your way to standing and go to shower while i read emails on my phone on our way out of the apartment your french flatmate is sitting in the lounge i wave at him sheepishly i wonder if he’s used to this we stutter between txopelas and taxis and onto kenneth kaunda not saying quite enough to fill the emptiness between us you drop me off at the roundabout next to the hotel and extend your hand and i shake it and tell you to let me know if you want to do that dinner tonight and you tell me you’re probably working late with your boss who’s in town and when i’m outside striding through the glare i smile at this old cliché and i cringe at the handshake a fucking handshake eight hours after i had your penis in my mouth and i wonder between that moment and now where the hell i went wrong

BOOK CLUB: Rape: A South African Nightmare

Pumla Dineo Gqola’s Rape: A South African Nightmare is a harrowingly incisive analysis of one of South Africa’s greatest scourges, writes TARAH CHILDES.Rape

Consider, for a moment, our country’s label as the rape capital of the world and then reflect on your reaction to it. No doubt you will feel outraged, frustrated by your sense of hopelessness and perceived inability to help turn the tide against this “endemic” issue. And you would not be alone. As a society, we are overwhelmed by rape: we express our collective horror and shock at each new incident that makes headlines, but to what effect?

It is this repetitive discourse around the taboo, often mysterious and always complex subject that writer, feminist and professor, Pumla Dineo Gqola examines and challenges in Rape: A South African Nightmare – a worthy winner of the Sunday Times 2016 Alan Paton Award for Non-fiction.

In a series of succinct, analytical chapters, Gqola explores the culture of rape and its normalisation into our country’s social makeup, systematically interrogating our assumptions and attitudes from multiple angles and making sense of rape’s complex relationship to our past as well as its conflation with gender, sex and race.

Beginning by dismantling the idea that rape is a post 1994 problem, Gqola traces it back to its violent colonial roots and use as a tool of subjugation in our past slavocratic society —supported by a system that classified black women as legally “unrapable”, while simultaneously casting black men as sexually ravenous and dangerous. This dynamic continued to be institutionalised under apartheid — a time in which “no white men were hanged for rape and the only black men who were hanged for rape were convicted of raping white women”. This formed a patriarchal structure that supported “violent masculinity” as a means of control, rendering women compliant and silent.

The initial chapter creates a useful structure from which to tackle the rest of the book — in which Gqola explores high-profile cases that include the trials of Jacob Zuma, Bob Hewitt, Makhaya Nthini and the rapes of Baby Tshepang, Anene Booysen and Eudy Simelane.

She uses each prominent example not only to debunk prevalent myths about rape, but also to draw attention to our collective and individual reactions to each case, with alarming and unsettling questions about who we deem “rapable” and how and where we apportion blame. Most striking, she points out, is the way in which we demand rape victims to behave and to look — using our prejudice to discredit victims when they do not meet our expectations in what she terms a “violent system that forces victims to ‘prove’ their lived trauma”.

Gqola raises the issue of child molestation and rape to make two important points. The first, that rape is about sex, or that rape victims somehow invite or deserve to be rape because of what they wear or how they behave. The rape of Baby Tshepang, amongst others, defies this logic. The second idea Gqola tackles is our perception that it is somehow more depraved to rape a child rather than a woman. This, she states, diminishes the experience of so many victims and excuses the behaviour of certain perpetrators. “It’s a problem when we show that some rapes are more gruesome than others,” she writes. “What I want to show is that it’s the same thing. I want to show that all rapes are gruesome.”

Most illuminating was the fourth chapter entitled “The Female Fear Factory” – where Gqola details how our society is constructed in such a way that women and those who don’t confirm to gendered stereotypes are taught to fear rape and violence, and are thus controlled as well as devalued. She writes:

The manufacture of female fear works to silence women by reminding us of our rapability, and therefore blackmails us to keep ourselves in check… It is a public fear that is repeatedly manufactured through various means in many private and public settings.

She makes use of the responses to the rape and murder of Bredasdorp resident, Anene Booysen, to emphasise this point, adding that while we sympathised and mourned her tragic rape and death, we were quick to add that she shouldn’t have been out drinking at night, that she shouldn’t have walked the streets – “all behaviour that patriarchy says is inappropriate for good girls”. Rather than appointing blame on the perpetrators who brutally attacked and tortured her, we criticised the circle around Anene for not protecting her from harm — thus further entrenching the idea that it is women who should fear rape, instead of those who rape being made afraid or deterred from doing so.

The crux of Gqola’s book is the chapter on President Zuma’s rape trial — a time she describes as “a watershed moment for what it highlighted about societal attitudes that had previously been slightly out of view”. The rape charge was laid by the woman we know as Khwezi, a well-known HIV-positive activist and a daughter of a friend of Zuma’s. By examining excerpts from media coverage at the time, Gqola notes the way in which both Khwezi and the president were framed, and the worrying way in which we repeatedly diminished the importance of the rape incident, instead expressing views that shamed Khwezi and protected the president. Most troubling is the justice system that allowed Khwezi’s previous sexual history to be admitted as evidence in a bid to categorise her as “unrapable” while relabelling her self-identified status as a gay woman as “bisexual”.

Rape is not an easy book to read. This, of course, is not because it is not exceptionally well written—the academic language is refreshingly accessible and engaging — but because of the odious subject Gqola so methodically interrogates. I reflected on my own reluctance to read the book, identifying with the tendency to divert our gaze and thus enable “violent masculinities” to flourish under what Gqola terms the “cult of femininity”.

Gqola wisely offers no immediate solutions to our country’s complex and entrenched rape crisis. But, by interrupting the insidious and unspoken language of rape and rape culture, she helps us to envision a future in which rape does not exist — and that, as Gqola so emphatically concludes, is one we deserve, and one we must all fight to create.

Rape is published by Jacana. Read an extract of the book here.

GIVEAWAY: Win one of two copies of Rape. To enter, email competition(at)aerodrome.co.za, with the book’s title in the subject line. In the body of the email please include your full name, contact number and physical address (including the postal code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close on 15 November 2016. By entering, you agree to join AERODROME’s monthly newsletter mailing list.