POEMS: Notes from India and Pictogram

BY RAHUL D’SILVA

Notes from India

I

After school each day I eat mangoes
from the street vendor’s cart.
Salted unripe pieces – the tart taste
makes my lips smack and thirst
for something cold and fizzy.
We aren’t supposed to eat such snacks –
Germs! They say.
You’ll fall sick!
When we get home, we eat the sweet ripe slices.
The juice dribbles down our chins.

II

On Sundays, my grandfather prepares
his special biryani.
The smell of cloves lights up the house
until we can’t focus
on our games of cards.
He makes it his way,
thick and spicy,
till the day he has a stroke.
In the hospital the blood seeps into his brain
like cardamom wafting into the ceiling.

 

Pictogram

My penis a sleeping seahorse
curled against your thigh,
your breasts two mangoes
nestled against my chest.

POEM: Try being a poet in the midst of flying bullets

BY WUDZ

                     For the Nuba people, North Sudan                  

The heat here melts the fat in your neck into liquid necklaces. It’s a furnace of Elo the forgotten god of this land.

Here, children write their dreams in sweat: the indelible ink of their brow. It’s the only way a father’s bullet scar can mean something.

Here, a book is a full plate to a starving mind. And eyes are spoons. Every sentence is a road leading home. And all brackets look like a parent’s open hug.

Here, hills speak in silent tones, as trees eavesdrop in defiance. Trees sejera and ardhef are stubborn children; accustomed to the indifferent beatings of the sun.

Here, if you were to study an old tree, you would imagine its branches when it was young, green and naive to the civilized ways of shemis (the sun).

You would imagine this tree as a virgin; before bees deflowered her and sold her innocence to the birds and the dry gush of wind.

You would imagine its naked branches resignedly spread, like the arms of a one-legged Indian dancer.

You would imagine the life it breastfeeds to the starved beaks of the rocks sprouting across these Nuba hills. Hills that bear bullet scars.

And then, beneath its shadow, there’s a quick-sand footpath that leads to small tombs of children strutting to school in missing arms.

THE BOOKSELLER: Griffin Shea – Bridge Books

Griffin Shea

Griffin Shea is the founder of Bridge Books, which recently opened in Joburg’s CBD. A retail store with a thoughtfully edited selection of predominantly African titles (both new and secondhand), Bridge Books also sells to the inner-city’s street booksellers.

The book you’re currently most excited about selling?

I’m loving Nomavenda Mathiane’s Eyes in the Night. It’s her retelling of her grandmother’s experiences as a child during the Anglo-Zulu war, and the story is part of the of amazing work that South Africa as a whole is undertaking in understanding history from more points of view.

Which title gets shoplifted the most frequently?

Actually, not a single book has been stolen yet. I think this is partly because we run a “pay it forward” scheme, where customers buy books to give away to others. Also, if anyone asks, I’ll loan them a book for a R20 deposit if they promise to write a review.

Once someone did lift a copy of Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like from a pop-up we ran in Soweto on Youth Day. But when we asked if anyone had seen it, he returned it the next day. He’d thought we were giving away the books as part of the Youth Day events.

The biggest seller of the past year?

I Write What I Like, by Steve Biko, which sells consistently week after week, on both the retail and the wholesale side. We run a wholesale trade to connect small booksellers (even smaller than us!) with publishers so they can get new books, and Biko is always in demand.

The most underwhelming book you’ve read in the last year?

It’s hard to narrow it down to just one, only because I did a lot of reading for my PhD work at Wits, which focuses on South African young adult novels. Unfortunately, that means I read a shocking number of heavy-handed, preachy books that we inflict on our young people. Also, of course, several real gems. But it’s no wonder young readers gravitate toward “adult” books if they have any passion for reading at all. The books aimed at their age bracket often talk down at them from a very high pulpit.

Which book do you wish all your customers would read?

Devilskein & Dearlove by Alex Smith. Like the best young adult books, it explores themes too big for most adult fiction: the nature of evil, the legacy of trauma, the difficulty of change, the hidden layers of meaning in everyday places. Think The Secret Garden or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe set on Long Street in Cape Town.

The last thing you read that made you cry?

Wishful Drinking, by Carrie Fisher. The Star Wars films leave me cold, but when the latest one came out and the world was awash in commercials and merchandise, I decided to read Carrie Fisher. I laughed so hard, tears squirted out of my nose too.

Is there a book you’d never sell? If so, what is it, and why?

A couple people have asked for Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal. But I can’t carry it. He’s the antithesis of everything Bridge Books is trying to do. And honestly, even the ghost writer Tony Schwartz has renounced it.

What’s the most surprising thing about your bookshop?

This building was originally Barclays headquarters for South Africa. The vault is still downstairs. Also, we have a great roof space for readings under the stars.

The three writers you admire the most?

Toni Morrisson, whose books often explore love and its boundaries. She’s shaped the way I think about human relationships, and the reasons we treat each other the ways that we do.

Assia Djebar, who writes about the ways we can seek freedom, including through storytelling. She also introduced me to the idea of the Bechdel Test, before that phrase was widely applied to the idea.

Mark Twain. Did you know he’s really funny? I’ve been reading Huckleberry Finn out loud to my 11-year-old son, and it’s funnier, sharper and actually quite a lot darker than I remember it being.

The biggest challenge you face in bookselling?

Geometry.

Running a bookstore is a lot like Scrabble: it’s a math game masquerading as a word game.

Our indoor shop space is only 60 square metres. We have 12 bookcases. The limits of that geometry and its implications for which books we can carry continue to confound me.

Describe your archetypal customer.

Twenty-something, smart, creative, professional. Oh, and black.

The best part of being a bookseller?

The readers who come shopping, or simply visiting. I meet so many new people every day, and I love hearing their stories and the stories they’re looking for.

And the worst part?

You open a bookstore thinking it’s going to create this glorious life of the mind. And that’s true, but frankly it’s just as much about quads and glutes. There’s a lot of carrying heavy boxes up and down stairs.

Read more about Bridge Books over on 2Summers and in the Mail & Guardian.

POEM: Remember to Breathe

BY EMMA LEE

Of course all the traffic lights were red, even the pedestrian
ones as my fingers drum the steering wheel in
rhythm to that urgent voice that urged
me into this rabbit hole of gridlock. I
can’t answer my mobile but know
it would be that same voice
again. Didn’t it get traffic?
Finally I exit into the
car park, swing into
a space, run four
flights two stairs
at a time, spurred
on by nurses
avoiding
eye contact
and

you
still breathing,
watching the breeze
ruffle the leaves on the cedar tree
confident I wouldn’t let you do this alone.