REVIEW: Grace

MANOSA NTHUNYA reviews the new novel by Barbara Boswell.

“Her whole life it had been drummed into Grace that every living thing had its cross to bear.” This is what Barbara Boswell’s protagonist, Grace, lives with, and accepts, from an early age. It is the knowledge that life is difficult and therefore every single being has to bear something as long as they are a part of it. The perilous aspect of this is that one bears what one cannot anticipate and it is here that Boswell’s remarkable debut novel, Grace, shows how vulnerable human life is.

The first part the novel is set in the 1980s, a tumultuous time in South African history, in the Cape Flats. Grace is a teenager who has little interest in the political matters of her day. Even though other young people, including Johnny, her first love, are engaged in the struggle, she has been taught by her parents to respect authority and to therefore not participate in actions that challenge its power. This approach to political issues is, as the reader slowly learns, also tied to how she responds to events that take place in her own home. Grace’s father, Patrick, is an abusive alcoholic who does not tolerate dissenting views from his wife, Mary, or Grace. When the novel begins, Mary has made a decision to divorce him and it is this act that informs how the plot evolves. The narrative moves between their present lives and their past and in this way allows the reader to see the devastating impact that Patrick has had on them.

Boswell’s stunning novel is about the consequences of living in a world where power is distributed in a hierarchical manner and the dehumanising effects this has. Grace admires her mother’s beauty and often compares herself to her. What she sees, however, when she looks at herself is “a pleasant round face, nut-brown skin and adequately pretty eyes”.

There is, though, a contradiction between this figure that she admires and the abuse Mary has to endure from Grace’s father. In one moving scene, after another night of beating, Grace accompanies her disgraced mother to a cosmetic store where she is going to buy make-up in order to cover her injuries. Observing her mother, Grace is distressed at her mother’s “cowering” attitude towards the store’s white assistant when she is refused to test the make-up and instead told that as a coloured woman, she has to buy the product as testing is only reserved for white women.  It is no surprise then that “Grace wished her father would just die.”

When we meet Grace in the second part of the novel, in 1997, she seems to have a stable family; she has had the advantage of going to university and lives a lifestyle that makes her a part of the new black middle class. She is married and has a child with David, a man that she met at university and who gives her care and attention in a way that is vastly different to the relationship that she witnessed between her parents. She seems to be happy until her past returns to haunt her when her first lover, Johnny, who had mysteriously disappeared in the ’80s, returns and demands that they continue where they left off.

One of the questions that the novel asks is whether societies that have experienced trauma survive or will a traumatic history recreate itself in the new. The last paragraph of this novel attempts to answer this but is somewhat unconvincing. If individuals cannot anticipate what will happen to them, it seems impossible to see how one can claim to be free, as Grace does, even if they are in a process of reinventing their lives. Freedom will always depend on a constant negotiation with others, including those who might enter one’s life to question one’s assumption of freedom as Grace is consistently forced to learn. Ultimately, though, Grace is a beautifully written novel that interrogates the history of South Africa and its continued impact on personal lives with extraordinary effect.

Grace is published by Modjaji Books.

“If only they had the chance”: an interview with Don Pinnock

GARETH LANGDON chats to Don Pinnock about his new book, Gang Town.Don Pinnock

Residents of Cape Town are well aware of its two faces. On one side, the picturesque coastline that runs around the peninsula, Table Mountain watching over lithe bodies sunbathing on white sandy beaches. But travel far enough beyond the green mountain slopes, and you arrive in the Cape Flats, an apartheid relic built to rehouse coloureds and blacks under the Group Areas Act.

Don Pinnock ventures deep into these neighbourhoods to provide a detailed analysis  of their gang violence, poverty, drugs and lack of policing. His City Press/Tafelberg Non-fiction Award-winning book Gang Town is an exploration of gangsterism in the Cape Flats, but is also a journalistic and criminological study, owing no doubt to Pinnock’s background in these areas. He lays his examination out in six parts, including a lengthy appendix which gives it the feel of a doctoral thesis rather than a book, but the structure provides direction for the reader and prevents the boredom that can occur with such lengthy non-fiction works.

What is most interesting about Gang Town is Pinnock’s focus on adolescence, mostly male adolescence, and the role it plays in forcing young boys to turn to gangsterism. This makes sense in light of Pinnock’s background in criminology, and in his work with the Usiko Trust, but the core of Gang Town actually came to him in a dream:

One night before starting work on this book I dreamed I’d been allocated a house in a rural village. It turned out to be a single wall with an old door and dirt floor, nothing else. I spent some time cleaning the floor and, as evening fell, there was a knock on the door. I opened and a horde of ragged, hungry-looking local children flooded in. I thought: ‘I have nothing for them.’

They were very sweet but rowdy, so after a while I asked them to leave, but they wouldn’t. Eventually I shoved a few through the door saying: ‘Go outside now.’ A boy looked at me then at the sky where the roof should be and the sides where walls should be and said: ‘There’s no inside.’

When I woke up the meaning of the dream was clear. For around 30 years, on and off, I’d been highlighting the plight of young people at risk in Cape Town in books and lectures. I had co-founded an organization, Usiko Trust, to take young men from distressed families to beautiful wilderness places and help them build resilience in the face of absent fathers, poverty, shame and the hyper-masculinity of gang life.

The message from the world of dreams was that this was just a start. So far all I had was a wall with a door through which children could enter. The structure was incomplete with no roof for protection from the elements. There was still a lot to do before the building was habitable. And children in need were not people against whom I could shut the door.

The obvious explanations for adolescent gangsterism remain – poverty, crime, a lack of adequate role models and education – these are all neat explanations for why someone would join a gang like the Americans or the 28s, but Pinnock notes a more interesting nuance. He notes how, young men, during their most vulnerable stages of development, crave adult attention and have a natural tendency towards aggressive and territorial behaviours.

“People see gangsters and I see kids with enormous potential if only they had the chance,” he says. “I treat them with the respect they deserve and they respond with warmth and trust. So many burn up and far too many die before 25.”Gang Town

In the past, traditions served to curb teen boys’ dangerous tendencies, but in a society where family has disintegrated and children are largely left to their own devices – their parents on drugs, in jail or even dead – these traditions fall away, and new rituals take their place. Here we find the gang symbolism, initiation rituals and strict rule books that govern these gangs. For Pinnock, gang ideology is simply a replacement for what is lost when society breaks down – albeit a dangerous and criminal replacement.

“The most frightening thing is the way far too many young people in high-risk areas are dealt with by mothers and especially fathers unconcerned or unaware of the impact of their poor parental care,” he says. “And also pretty scary is the failure of government – local and national, pre and post apartheid – to provide decent conditions for kids to grow up in. We are thereby really cooking trouble in the future.”

This danger is clearest when Pinnock enters the Flats to observe children as young as 5 and 6 playing in the streets. When asked to draw something, they draw a gang symbol. When asked to name a role model, they name a gang leader. When asked what they want to be when they grow up, they say gangster. Their games are about territory and shooting, stick fighting to emulate their panga-wielding older brothers and fathers. Rescuing these adolescents, catching them as young as possible, is the solution Pinnock proposes – one which goes beyond the vast societal problems which the individual is powerless to defeat, and focuses on what we can do to help the kid on the street, slowly preventing gangsterism one kid at a time.

The lack of an elderhood of men seems to be what, according to Pinnock, is most lacking in these poor areas. One of the most uplifting stories he can recall centres around a teenage boy finding the belonging and pride he so desperately craves from older male role models:

In Nguni culture, when a young man is a kwedien – uncircumcised – his opinions aren’t valued. When he speaks he’s tolerated but not regarded. He’s a child. The makweta ceremony is the time of manhood. In traditional areas, several weeks into the ceremony, there’s a time when the young man is invited to a beer drink.

I attended one while researching adolescent traditions in the Quamata area of Transkei. There were about 50 men sitting in a circle on stools and upturned tins passing a large can of beer. I watched the young man come down the mountain and approach the group. He was nervous. His eyes were downcast.

As he walked up to the circle the men made space for him and he sat down. They continued talking. He just sat there and nobody paid him any attention. But when the beer came round it was passed to him and he drank and handed it on.

After about 20 minutes – I guess he was plucking up courage – he said something. Nothing special, just a comment in the flow of conversation. But every man stopped and listened to him. Then they nodded, agreeing with him and the conversation flowed again.

I was watching him closely. His shoulders straightened, his eyes brightened and he looked the men in their faces. In that moment, in that instant, he became a man. His story had been heard. He’d been accepted.

Larger issues of this kind are often difficult to address in a society strangled by bureaucracy and poverty, but Pinnock notes that there is still progress being made in certain areas. The key is knowing where to start:

“Cape Town has started by looking at systemic solutions and, rather gratifyingly, it is using Gang Town as a reference text,” he says. “Working one-to-one has great value for both the healer and the healed, of course, but solutions can only come from the underlying systems and failures of those systems that underpin what I call life-course-persistent deviance. I would start by utterly changing the school curriculum (it’s neck-up and boringly impractical), decriminalise drugs (it would halve the prison and court population) and turn prisons into educational centres and not the hell-holes they presently are.”

While Pinnock’s prose is at times stiff and dense, the interspersal of interview extracts, the words of real residents of the Flats as well as police officers and jail wardens, helps to break the monotony and provides detailed context for the more academic passages. Pinnock has also included pictures he shot, as well as archived images, of District 6, the Flats and Cape Town youths which are a nice touch.

For a reader seeking a detailed exploration of gangs in Cape Town, one which goes deeper than the conventional media circus often associated with these myths, or indeed the total silencing of these desperate communities, then Gang Town is a good place to start.

Gang Town is published by Tafelberg.

EXTRACT: What Will People Say

An excerpt from the debut novel by REHANA ROSSOUW.

Rehana Rossouw

Kevin was waiting at the school gate when Nicky and Shirley strolled out arm in arm at the end of the school day. He stepped forward as they came near. “Greetings ladies, can I escort you today?”

Shirley giggled. “Of course you can, right Nicky?”

Nicky didn’t want Kevin walking with them. He was only after one thing. She hadn’t gone to the SRC meeting at second break; she was too busy sukkeling with Shirley’s problem. She still hadn’t found a solution. As she expected, it didn’t take long – two steps out of the gate and Kevin started on her.

“So Nicky, I was expecting to see you in the meeting this afternoon. There’s work to be done. We planning to bring the country to a stand still for the tenth anniversary of the ’76 uprising.”

Thick, dark irritation filled her face. What must she do to get Kevin to leave her alone? Nicky didn’t want him to escort her anywhere. She wanted to be alone with Shirley; she was planning on going home with her. Shirley shouldn’t be alone on a kak day like this. “I had other things on my mind, okay?”

“What can be more important than the struggle?”

Nicky stopped and planted her fists in her hips, staring daggers at Kevin. “A lot, you idiot. Shirley, for an example. She’s much more important than your blerrie struggle. She got a big problem. Her mother wants her to leave school and go work in the factory with her.”

Kevin turned to Shirley, his face squeezed up like a lemon. “You’ll be a semi-skilled worker fed to the machine to become another alienated unit of capitalist labour.”

Nicky felt like her head was about to burst open like a dropped watermelon, the irritation was so thick. No one could get to her like Kevin. “Speak English Kevin! This isn’t time for a political speech. Shirley needs help. She’s not an issue. She’s only sixteen and she must go work to feed her brothers. You such a blerrie fool!”

Kevin looked like a foster child on his way back to the orphanage.

“Of course I think that’s really kak, Nicky! There must be a way out. We must strategise, see what we can come up with.”

Shirley smiled at him. “You think you can see a way out of it?”

Kevin gave a couple of firm nods. “Let me think on it for a while. As Lenin would say: What is to be done? That’s what we must figure out.”

Nicky stared at their backs as Shirley and Kevin walked away without her. That boy had a nerve! Didn’t he see he wasn’t wanted?

She was going to come up with a solution for Shirley’s problem. They didn’t need him. Why was Shirley hanging onto his words like he was her saviour? She rushed to catch up with them.

The girls’ route home took them past the taxi rank at the Hanover Park Town Centre. The rank fed routes into town, Claremont, Wynberg and Mitchells Plain. Gaartjies shouted out destinations and ushered people into revving sixteen-seaters; pushing flesh and parcels inside as they slid the doors shut.

Nicky, Shirley and Kevin wove their way along the pavement between people streaming to the rank and the hawkers lining the sides. Most were selling vegetables, but there were also stalls with tinned goods, bags of bright orange chips and loose cigarettes. A bakkie blocked the pavement, its back piled high with snoek. A plump man covered with a red-stained, yellow plastic apron gutted and beheaded his silver, toothy catch while customers waited. The fish was wrapped in newspaper and exchanged for a five-rand note. Nicky could smell the sea on the bakkie as she walked past.

A toothless, skinny man jumped onto the pavement and blocked their way. He waved a packet of ripe, red tomatoes in their faces. He flashed his gums and offered an invitation. “Squeeze my tomatoes. Feel how firm they are. They lekker like your tette.”

Nicky jumped back as the hawker’s free hand reached out towards her breast.

Kevin stepped forward and shoved his chest into the hawker’s.

“Watch it, show some respect.”

Nicky pulled him back. “Leave him Kevin, is okay. He does the same thing every day. He don’t mean nothing by it.”

Another hawker pushed Kevin aside to wave a bag of onions in Nicky’s face. He promoted his goods in a singsong voice. “Uiwe, uiwe; juicy uiwe virrie meire.”

The girls giggled. Kevin relaxed.

Shirley bought tomatoes and onions. Kevin dug into his grey school pants and found enough coins for a bag of onions.

Nicky walked behind Shirley and Kevin as they left the town centre, listening to their conversation. Shirley was planning a beef stew for supper. Kevin was giving advice.

“The secret to a good stew is making a thick gravy. You must use at least two onions Shirley, maybe even three, ’cause your family’s bigger than mine. Braise it well at the start. The onions soak up the flavour from the meat. It melts as you cook and makes a lekker thick gravy.”

Shirley shook her head. “I dunno if that will work. It’s near the end of the week. My mummy don’t have much left, so I got only bones for the stew.”

“It will still work, I’m telling you. If you got little meat then it’s more important to have a lekker thick gravy. The onions will catch the flavour from the bones.”

There was nothing Nicky could add to the conversation. Mummy did most of the cooking. She and Suzette were only roped in on weekends; on weekdays they were expected to do their schoolwork. Mummy gave them the kak jobs like slicing onions and peeling potatoes. Most nights

Mummy stood up from the supper table and started preparing the next night’s meal. She finished the food off when she got home from work. Kevin walked with them all the way to Shirley’s house. Nicky didn’t know where he lived; she hoped it wasn’t nearby. He bowed over Shirley’s hand like the Count of Monte Cristo and kissed it as he was leaving.

Nicky finally had enough. Shirley had been talking nonstop with Kevin all the way home. She was all worked up about Shirley’s problem, but the blerrie fool was giggling with Kevin like she didn’t give a damn.

Her irritation burst out and poured through her mouth. “Must you be so tarty, Kevin? You must see how you look. Like a blerrie fool.”

Kevin wiped his smile off his face and took a step back. “Ladies, I’ll see you around.”

Shirley turned on Nicky as he walked away stiffly. “Sjoe, how can you be so rude? Can’t you see he’s just trying to be nice?”

Nicky stood her ground. “Why can’t he just leave us alone? Why must he interfere in everything? Every time I look up his face is in mine.

Can’t he see I’m not interested in joining his struggle?”

Shirley laughed. “He’s not in your face because of the struggle. He smaaks you. Everybody can see that. He smaaks you stukkend.”

Nicky’s chest went cold. “Who’s everybody?”

Shirley giggled. “Only everybody who looks in Kevin’s face when he talks to you. You so blind Nicky.”

Nicky shoved her hand into Shirley’s chest, sending her off the pavement. “Don’t talk rubbish! Kevin’s got a one-track mind. He wants me to join Cosas. He wants me to get involved in the struggle.”

Shirley sniffed. “There’s none so blind. The whole school knows he smaaks you.”

What Will People Say is published by Jacana and is the second title to be featured by our monthly Book Club: read our review.

GIVEAWAY: Win one of two copies of What Will People Say! 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 area code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close on 15 August 2016.
By entering, you agree to join AERODROME’s monthly newsletter mailing list.

BOOK CLUB: What Will People Say

TARAH CHILDES is enthralled by Rehana Rossouw’s quietly funny and heartbreakingly sad debut novel.

What Will People Say

Like the ceaseless Southeaster that whips through the desolate, concrete landscape that is Hanover Park, Rehana Rossouw’s words evoke emotions that carry the reader hurriedly through her debut novel, borne along by a sense of urgency and technical sophistication that make for a visceral, unforgettable read.

What Will People Say is set in the heart of the Cape Flats of 1986. And while its characters are undeniably affected by the evils of the gangs, the drugs, and poverty that surround them, as well as the struggle against apartheid, this is not primarily a story about the history of the Flats, or of the ineptitude of law, and cruelty of the oppressive regime of the past. Rather it is a close look at the dissolution of an ordinary family, struggling to maintain the tenuous bonds that bind them together.

The Fourie family — law messenger Neville, his factory seamstress wife, Magda and their three children — are the lenses through which we see the world of 1986 Hanover Park. The Fourie teenagers, Suzette, Nicky and Anthony, initially trapped in the banality of home, school and church, led by parents who are trying to “raise them decent”, are quickly plunged into the external world of politics, gangs and the lure of a better, moneyed life, forcing them to navigate their way through situations and choices they are frightfully ill-equipped to deal with.

Rossouw sets the scene with a sentence that any literary fan would relish. “The South-Easter lifted the smell of pig manure spread across farms in Philippi, crossed Lansdowne Road and dumped it like a wet poep over Hanover Park.”

The wind carries with it a set of problems that plague the Fouries, Rossouw deftly using her figurative language gift to foreshadow the coming trials.

The story unfolds in a first person narrative framework that allows us to experience each chapter from a different family member’s perspective.

We are introduced to Nicky, the middle child with academic ambitions who sees a future in law as her only escape route; Suzette — a beautiful and determined girl of 17 who drops out of matric to pursue her dream of becoming a supermodel; Magda – the churchgoing, conservative mother, more concerned with her family’s outward appearance than her children’s struggles, and Neville, a well-meaning but fallible and out-of-touch father, who spends more time with the Neighbourhood Watch than with his family. But it is Anthony, their naïve boy of 13 around whom the plot spirals. His fast and unwitting decent into the world of the JKFs — a local gang with whom he initially feels a sense of belonging — propels the story with a sense of urgency, as we witness the futile efforts of his parents to protect him from a world that ultimately leads to his inescapable destruction.

Rossouw, who has been a journalist for more than 30 years, has often been asked if her characters are real. And while they are all fictitious (aside from notorious gang man Jackie Lonte), the timeline is real. In a recent conversation with Professor Tawane Kupe, Dean of Humanities at Wits University, Rossouw explained the importance of 1986 – the year in which the South African government declared a national state of emergency.

“I still meet people in Joburg who firmly believe that there was no struggle against apartheid in Cape Town,” Rossouw said. “What about the launch of the UDF? I feel that the contribution of our comrades from Cape Town especially is being rewritten out of a lot of history today.”

While the political turmoil shapes and informs the plot on a macro and micro level, it is ultimately Rossouw’s skill with language and metaphor (a technique honed during her MA in Creative Writing at Wits University) that imbues her characters with so much life. Characters speak in unabashed Cape Flats vernacular, viscerally describing their feelings, reactions with onomatopoetic delight. Nicky huks when she cries, while Suzette ruks her arm away from a would-be skelm suitor.

And while I foresee a time where Rossouw will need to include a glossary of terms for foreign readers, and perhaps local ones too (should it ever become a set-work book for school), she describes her lack of appendix, and her refusal to italicise Cape Flats slang as an act of rebellion. In order to make her characters real, she had to “let them speak, the way that we speak.” “This is our language, and if I’m writing a book about us, the book should be the way we are.”

The result is a novel spectacular at engendering empathy for its central characters: quietly funny, heartbreakingly sad, and not easily forgotten.

While I found the dénouement to be somewhat abrupt and unsatisfactory, Rossouw has explained that she is open the idea of the sequel after multiple requests from likeminded readers. I certainly wasn’t done with the Fouries – and I earnestly hope Rossouw isn’t either.

What Will People Say was one of just three novels shortlisted for the 2015 Etisalat Prize for Literature – an accolade well deserved.

What Will People Say is published by Jacana. Read an extract here

GIVEAWAY: Win one of two copies of What Will People Say! 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 area code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close on 15 August 2016.
By entering, you agree to join AERODROME’s monthly newsletter mailing list.