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.

WORK/LIFE: S.A. Partridge

S.A. Partridge is a three-time winner of the M.E.R Prize for Youth Fiction and has been shortlisted for the prestigious Commonwealth Writer’s Short Story Prize. Mine, her fifth novel, has just been published by Human & Rousseau.

What does “writing” mean?

For me, writing means making sense of my life and my perception of myself and the world around me. All writers try to capture that, I think, from the humble slice-of-life stories to the hard-boiled crime thrillers. Every story allows us to look deeper, think differently and understand more about the world.

Which book changed your life?

This is a very difficult question to answer as there is no one book from my childhood that stands out. I read everything. Our house was filled with books. My parents read. We visited the library weekly. So, growing up I was always surrounded by books. My tastes also varied widely, so in one month I could read anything from Stephen King, JRR Tolkien and Terry Pratchett to Agatha Christie, Roald Dahl and Thomas Hardy.

Your favourite fictional character?

This is another tough one. There are so many – mostly detectives, like Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes. I like strong, memorable, charismatic characters with a bit of an eccentricity. Even Christie’s Ariadne Oliver counts among my favourites for her absent-mindedness and peculiar obsession with apples. I lean towards characters that stand out, like Dracula.

What are you working on at the moment?

Two different projects, which is not unusual for me. So, I’ve got a crime novel and a young adult novel going at the moment.

Describe your workspace.

I have a desk, covered in the usual writer paraphernalia. Sadly, I don’t spend a lot of time there and mostly write on the couch.

The most important instrument you use?

My first instinct was to say thesaurus.com but it’s actually a ruled notebook, for capturing images and snatches of conversation as well as the occasional doodle. I carry it with me everywhere, along with plenty of spare pens.

What’s your most productive time of day?

The morning, from around seven to midday. I like starting the day with a clean slate and devoting that time to writing. The afternoon is for everything else.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

I read or walk around beautiful places with some sort of historical significance – the harbour, Simonstown, Babylonstoren. I love the “old town” feel of Cape Town and actively seek out the bygone buildings. It inspires me and gets me into that creative state of mind.

How do you relax?

I read or cook. I love preparing a meal at the end of the day with a glass of wine. It’s a nice way to end off the work day.

Who and what has influenced your work?

I was a prolific reader as a child, so I was constantly surrounded by words. But if I had to choose I would say Stephen King’s early work really inspired me to write my own stories. I devoured his books as a child. It was wonderful to discover that stories could be simple things, and that you could just put pen to paper and tell a story from start to finish and not worry about all the complicated rules in-between.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Three things actually. Up the ante wherever you can. Show don’t tell. Imagine you’re writing a movie script. All three tie in together beautifully as they all require you to bring the characters to life, to add an explosive quality and to raise the stakes at every opportunity. It makes for very vivid prose.

Your favourite ritual?
When I’m lucky enough to have full day in front of me to write, I like to ensure the room is clean, I’ve had a small meal and a coffee, and that my diary is completely free. I love the natural light in my apartment. I’m fortunate to have a huge arched window that bathes every corner in wonderful natural light. So, when its quiet, and the light is good, there is nothing better than disappearing into a manuscript.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Finding quality time to write. By quality time I mean long, uninterrupted stretches – a rarity for me. I work in a busy office as a copywriter which takes up my whole week. Weekends are for admin and chores and seeing friends. It becomes a treasure hunt for snatches of time.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

Laziness.

What are you afraid of?

Failing myself and my family. That after years of striving and selfishly pursuing my dream to write it all comes to nothing and I have to start over from the beginning.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

Give in to your ambition. Believe in your talent. Know that it’s a hard road full of rejection and disappointment but all that matters is the art – whether you make it or not.

What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?

Not giving up.

REVIEW: Asylum

GARETH LANGDON reviews Marcus Low’s quietly devastating debut novel.

Asylum

Post apocalyptic motifs are overdone. Between The Walking Dead and The Hunger Games, contemporary media seems to scream the need for us all to be prepared for the worst – for the coming of the end. Whether or not this is a universal set of fears, or something unique to Hollywood is not much of a question. What matters is that it is a tired trope, and that anyone hoping to tackle the genre is going to have an uphill battle.

Marcus Low makes light work of this challenge in his debut novel, Asylum. The novel follows, through a series of eloquent and detailed journal entries, the plight of James Barry. Barry has been diagnosed with a fatal lung disease – likely tuberculosis – and finds himself incarcerated in a treatment facility or modern day sanitorium, in the middle of the Karoo. His days drag on at a snail’s pace as he gazes out of the window at the dry bones of the earth, watching nothing happen, and writing regularly in his notebooks. He has made some friends though, and as inmates are want to do, they begin planning their escape. The novel traces Barry’s internal struggles as well as the planning and execution of their proposed escape. Composed of notebook fragments and interjected with editor’s notes, written from what is ostensibly the point of view of whoever discovered the notebooks, the novel has an intensely personal feel.

Asylum is at once apocalyptic rendering, and psychological exploration. Barry is a sensitive character, with a painful yet mysteriously unsubstantiated past. His voice reads as hurt rather than angry, as resigned rather than determined. The notebooks function as both a solace for him, and as a way of leaving a legacy – one which is, at times, deliberately skewed. The choice of setting in the Karroo works well for this genre as the vast expanse of the landscape, as well as its dry, dusty harshness, create an atmosphere that lends itself to a story of loneliness, longing and resignation.

The plague in Asylum is more insidious however. Rather than go the obvious route of monsters or Orwellian dictatorship, the author has chosen a silent killer – a lung disease, airborne – that slowly causes deterioration in its hosts, presenting as coughing up of blood, tiredness, and the odd hallucination. Low seems far more interested in the interior conflict of Barry however, and the lung disease serves more as a measure of time, counting down the days to his death as it progresses, and as a parallel to his mental deterioration.

Like the disease that afflicts Barry, the sense of this novel overall is also insidious. The reader has the sense all along that something is very wrong, but that what’s wrong is less important than the characters’ experience of it. What matters to Low is what is going on in their heads – the humanness of it all – which explains the use of journals as the primary medium in the novel. Cleverly, by focusing on a single point of view, Low avoids many of the traps of modern end-of-the world fiction, the distractions of monsters and dictators. Instead, we are presented with a very human experience in an inhumane world, and are made to appreciate the moments of light that make our own experience bearable, even if for Barry as for some of is, these come in the form of dreams and hallucinations rather than genuine human experience.

Rather than offering escapism, Low is brave enough to dig deeper. He explores humanity without sacrificing the enticing nature of mystery that many apocalyptic-genre novels do well. The choice of the Karroo as a setting also eases the imaginative leap that a South African reader has to make, a feeling all too close to home running throughout the narrative.

As a debut, Asylum is cleverly crafted and engaging – an encouraging sign of things to come for an exciting South African talent.

Asylum is published by Picador Africa.

BOOK CLUB: The Power

TARAH DARGE lauds the thrilling thought experiment that is Naomi Alderman’s latest novel, The Power, winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

The Power

I am reading The Power while watching the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, and man it’s messing with my mind. Like two sides of the same coin, both are set in dystopian future and both concern womankind’s fate. But while Atwood depicts a patriarchal theocracy in which women are enslaved and subject to endless horrors, Alderman envisions the status quo reversed to a dramatic effect almost too audacious to imagine.

The ripple of change begins with teenage girls. Worldwide, they awaken to a new power that allows them to emit shocks from their fingertips that can hurt or even kill. Videos of electric outbursts flood the internet, schools are segregated to protect boys, and men are warned not to venture out alone at night. Soon it spreads, in a collective swell that involves not just girls but older women too until nearly the entire female population is zapping their way to the top. As a female reader, there is an immense but barbed sense of satisfaction. Rapists, abusers and oligarchs get their comeuppance and women previously shackled in so many varied ways are suddenly free. However, this is no utopia, but rather a study in the corruption of power, whoever happens to wield it.

The story unfolds through the lives of four main characters, representative of the religious, political, cultural and criminal impact of the growing ‘crisis’. There is Allie – the American foster kid who refashions herself into the new world faith leader ‘Mother Eve’, Roxy, the tough-as-nails daughter of an infamous London mobster who uses her immense strength to rule the drug and arms trade, Margot – the ambitious senator with eyes on an increasing larger prize and Tunde – the lone male character who documents the tide of change as it happens across the globe, posting his vlogger footage on a YouTube-esque channel while the growing vitriol from disenfranchised men rages in online forums.

The structure is set to thrill, each chapter a countdown towards the global cataclysm, while the book itself is presented as a ‘historical novel’ – written by one Neil Adam Armon thousands of years into the future. In it, he questions how women came to be the dominant sex, and, in a playful spin, writes to lauded novelist ‘Naomi Alderman’, who, in turn, rejects his notion of a patriarchal society in a brilliant suggestion that cements the inevitability of the dominance of women. ‘With babies to protect’, women have always had to be ‘aggressive and violent’. There are also jabs at the male dominated publishing industry that hit home – an extra nail surely inspired by correspondence Alderman might have actually received.

Where it falls down in places, is the dialogue. The rough speak is a little twee and excessively sweary, with the action sequences reading more like the TV adaptation it’s bound to become partially obscuring the nuanced criticism it offers. But if Sci-Fi, comic-book like battles are your bag, it’s compelling, as is the well-researched commentary on rape-culture, porn, religious extremism and mercenary armies.

Zaps, fucks, and mafia rule book lines aside, The Power is fast-paced, important thought experiment and deft at illuminating the absurdity of our gender inequality gap, bound as we are in a world where the dysfunction is all too real.

The Power is published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.