EXTRACT: Mzansi Zen

An excerpt from ANTONY OSLER’s new book.

Antony Osler

The news tonight is a recital of collapsing infrastructure, financial mismanagement and violence. It feels as if we are sliding irreversibly towards a precipice. I am overwhelmed by discouragement.

Because I have nailed my flag to the mast of things as they are, I can’t pretend all is well when it isn’t. I can’t run away from the suffering or deny it; I can’t invent a silver lining. No going forward, no going back. I am stuck. So what now? How do I find my life in the midst of all this? Here is the only thing I know how to do – I get up from my chair, I take a deep breath, and I walk beyond argument into my Zen practice. When I am here, I sit very, very still. Then, without looking for any particular outcome, I let myself down like a plumb line, inch by inch right into the very heart of my discontent.

It is dark in here. Completely dark. I wait. And I wait. I listen – past what the voices are saying, tuning into the voiceless. The words grow softer, less insistent. The blaming subsides. And the fear. Faintly, in the far corners of my ear, a sweet and unnameable singing … slivers of blue sky appear, and possibilities – the healing balm of a wider, more forgiving, view. Once more I inhabit the sacred ground where my connection to the world is restored. From here I can open my eyes. It is true we have bad governance. It is true we have great music. It is true that my heart is beating and that the cat is sleeping in the apricot tree. It is true that the small boy at the corner of the supermarket in town has no shoes. Now I know that I am facing home. And from here the direction is straight forward and right ahead – right into the arms of the world.

Mzansi Zen is published by Jacana.

GIVEAWAY: Win one of three copies of Mzansi Zen! 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 October 2016. By entering, you agree to join AERODROME’s monthly newsletter mailing list.

BOOK CLUB: Mzansi Zen

Antony Osler’s exquisite Mzansi Zen gently reminds a travel-weary ALEXANDER MATTHEWS about the power of quiet attention.Mzansi Zen

At the end of July last year, I moved out of the flat I was sharing in Cape Town and became a nomad. Since then, I’ve visited Lesotho, Malawi and Zimbabwe once, Mozambique six times, and Swaziland five. In South Africa, the past year has seen three Kruger trips, a traversing of the Waterberg biosphere reserve, a few Cape Town visits, and too many times in Joburg to count. But the very first stop, marking the beginning of nomadic life, was a night spent at Poplar Grove, the farm where Antony Osler lives with his wife Margie.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Oslers lately, a lot about Poplar Grove, about sitting in the zendo listening to the roof gently expand in the morning heat. I’ve been thinking a lot, too, about the way I’m living my life — about how out-of-kilter it feels like I’ve become. Initially, the relentless movement was exhilarating — it felt right, a response to the wanderlust that had been coursing through me, wanderlust so powerful that it had made sense to stop renting in Cape Town in the first place.

But at some point in the past few weeks, the pendulum has swung. While I’ve been stimulated by all the places I’ve been to, all the people that I’ve met, I’m also flailing, slightly. After a relative lull, my OCD has flared up again: irrational, anxious thoughts bombard me like waves against a harbour’s wall, fuelled, perhaps, by the uncertainty and stress inherent in an itinerant lifestyle. Productivity is at best inconsistent — finding focus or establishing routines on the road has proven difficult. There is thinking, sure, but it’s often thinking of the murky, befuddled kind: the thoughts flow past, rather than being allowed to sink into stillness so that they can amass into something of substance. I’m growing tired of being a tumbleweed: there’s a yearning now that is perhaps almost the opposite of wanderlust — to become much more sedentary again, to put down roots again for a time — however shallow those roots may be.

I recently returned to Cape Town where a copy of Mzansi Zen has been waiting patiently for me — like a wise and gentle friend. I am grateful for it. It is exquisite: a vividly wrought, eclectic patchwork of poetry, parable and memory. In the acknowledgments, Osler says his wife read the first draft and told him, “Now write it as if you are telling it to me on the stoep.” He clearly followed her advice, because these stories brim with warmth and twinkly-eyed humour. Whether it’s about singing the then-banned Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika in a township community hall or his Indian friend, Raj, learning to play jukskei with a bunch of boere, each anecdote sounds as if it is being regaled to me while I sit on an old couch with a glass of whisky — as we did all those months ago — watching the last of the sun dance on the cypresses.

Mzansi Zen doesn’t shy away from life’s difficulties and complexities — instead, like a warm bath in a rainstorm or a cup of honey-sweetened rooibos, it makes them bearable. The book is no mere emollient, however. Like Osler’s previous works (Stoep Zen and Zen Dust), it is a gentle introduction to a way of life, a way of seeing the world, and a way of responding to it. You won’t find didactic proselytising, no shoulds and musts — it’s not a rulebook, not a manifesto. It is an example, an inspiration. It is a celebration of the power of attention, stillness, of being open, of being truly here and now. But unlike so much of mindfulness’s rhetoric — phrases which are sometimes used over and over till they are bleached of meaning — the power of the present is explored here in life, in colour.

Woven between snapshots of Karoo life are explanations of what unfolds on the weeklong silent retreats that the Oslers host on their farm. While there is listening, work, walking and eating, it is meditation which sits at the heart of these retreats — and at the heart of this book. Meditation is when we stop moving, stop searching and let the world come to us, letting it flood in, in all its richness. Osler shows us that by paying attention (on our breathing, on the sounds, however subtle, that we hear when we are seated), we are — as he once told me in an interview — strengthening “the muscle of attention”. The quiet concentration of such a practice strengthens our ability to inhabit the present in a fuller and more generous way. And as the book’s stories show, this naturally and inevitably leads us to find beauty in the quotidian, to acknowledge the remarkable in the ordinary. And as we learn to face “whatever is in front of us” — as we practise seeing it, acknowledging it — we become at peace with it; clarity emerges and we find a way to move forward.

As someone who compulsively observes our fraught political landscape with a mixture of fascination and alarm, I love the way this book embraces how tightly intertwined politics is with the personal in South Africa. Politics is close to home (and even closer to heart) in a way that it simply isn’t in many other countries. As he reflects on our country’s turbulent past and its uncertain future, Osler shows us how his Zen practice is not something adjacent to the broader social and political milieu we’re part of; it is not something divorced from the headlines we see, the radio’s murmurings, the highs and lows of a nation in transition — a bewildering state of corruption and decay, of courage and rebirth. He does not ask us to ignore our fears; instead he invites us to feel hope — hope in the warmth and the humour of the people he meets, in the beauty of a winter’s day.

I was particularly touched by this:

There are fistfights in parliament and police on the take, and past the window runs a small boy with water spilling from his hands and we ask ourselves what kind of world will we leave our children?

This question itself is the way. Our difficulty is our friend. We begin where we are, in our stuckness and helplessness and in our concern for the other. If we are patient in this, and willing to be surprised, we will wake up one morning to find that a gentle rain has been washing the leaves while we sleep. In this space our natural connectedness appears — with ourselves, with each other, and with the world around us. So, instead of trying to pull ourselves up by our bootlaces, let’s take off our shoes altogether, feel the earth under our feet and the sun in our hair. Then, when we step forward with helping hands, we will leave no trace.

Through his work as lawyer, and as the host of seasonal weekend retreats for local Karoo kids (many of whom have suffered from abuse and neglect), Osler has some inkling of the trauma, the seemingly boundless pain this country contains. What do we do in the face of this — overwhelmed, do we simply ignore it? He writes:

Of course there is still unhappiness and suffering on every corner. It doesn’t help to romanticise the children’s weekends, as if that is enough. Our work is never done. In Zen, that is called the Bodhisattva vow; as long as anyone is suffering I will keep going. This is not a vow of measurement, comparing the unthinkable magnitude of suffering with the smallness of my actions. It is just a promise to myself that whenever I am faced with pain I will not turn away.

Since I became a nomad, since that night in August last year, I’ve not yet had the opportunity to return to Poplar Grove. What I do have, though, is Mzansi Zen to remind me of what we carry within ourselves. While the Karoo is particularly conducive to silence and attention, these are elements that can practised anywhere.

I don’t know where the next months will take me or where I’ll be a year from now. I do intend, though, to move less and notice more. To focus on the what-is, rather than the what-is-not. To listen to the birdsong and feel the brush of breeze on skin. And to breathe, and breathe again, and again. I’m going to try set aspiration and dreaming and yearning aside sometimes, and revel in the moment — this, here, now — revel in it being enough, being everything, being nothing. Thank you, Antony, thank you, Mzansi Zen, for the reminder. It is enough.

Mzansi Zen is published by Jacana.

GIVEAWAY: Win one of three copies of Mzansi Zen! 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 October 2016. By entering, you agree to join AERODROME’s monthly newsletter mailing list.

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.