Behind the Shadows – The Conception of an African-Asian Anthology

London Book Fair 2010. Focus Nation: South Africa. BEHIND THE SHADOWS(1) Thanks to the South African Department of Arts & Culture, the British Council, South African Publishers Association (these three are the ones that sent me emails) and let’s not forget FIFA World Cup. It was because we were hosting the World Cup that we became the nation focused on. As writers from South Africa, we were ambassadors of sorts. South African writers were there to show what Brits we encountered that we are normal, law-abiding, booze-guzzling writers – ‘just like you, see? We won’t kill you if you come to our country for FIFA World Cup.’ We were there to hopefully meet up with an international publisher who would say, ‘I love your book, can I translate it into English…wait…it’s already in English err, well, interesting book. Could you perhaps rewrite it a little, make it more err African?’ South African writers were excited about this one. Many of us were going. It would be a week of book discussions during the day, and partying at night with all our favourite friends and writers. What’s not to like? I was to leave earlier than others because of a fundraising dinner for Read SA (it never happened thanks to absence of writers). Prior to my departure, I had received an email asking me whether I wanted to meet up with a British writer. I am polite, so I said yes. In my mind though, I was hoping this was not another way of the Brits trying to neo-colonise me, ‘let’s give this poor African writer a mentor so she can write good Queen’s English. Not that South African English she writes.’ If that was their plan, they and their bloody agent writer would fail dismally. I would tell her it was 2010 and not 1910 – no more Union of South Africa as part of y’all. Sovereign nation (sort of) and very sovereign writer and all that. The n I flew out on a Saturday and the rest of the writers were to follow on Wednesday.
On arrival in London, I checked my email and there was an introduction to an English writer. Rohini Chowdhury. Phew. Not exactly English sounding name. I figured if conversation got absolutely dull and all else failed, we could always resort to talking about Gandhi in South Africa, the Dutch East India Company, and the caste laws… ‘oh my goddess, we also had the caste laws. We called it apartheid. We are still trying to get over it, really.’
Rohini was gracious enough to come to the hotel and meet up with me that Sunday. Our brief chat was fun and if she did not have to go home and be a mother, we would have talked for hours. She had already read some of my stories in short story format and she now took home a copy of The Madams to familiarise herself more with my work. Before she left, and I then thought, having decided that I would not corrupt her daughters because I was a model of virtue, Rohini invited me to her house for dinner.
Meanwhile, apart from Margie Orford, Njabulo Ndebele, Nadia Davids, Miriam Tladi, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Andrew Feinstein, Mark Gevisser and a few others, the rest of the South African writers were stranded thanks to the volcanic ash (remember it?). Their absence was sad on so many levels but it also brought with it one or two pleasant outcomes. I would never have been able to do that fun television interview for one of the BBC’s with Njabulo Ndebele had everyone been there. I was not scheduled to do an interview with him. Also, I may have ended up cancelling my dinner date with Rohini as South African writers tend to discourage any dates at literary events where one does not go with them.
And so I went to dinner at Rohini’s house. Her daughters were at school (so much for my saintly mien) and I would only see them briefly as I was about to depart. Rohini was not your typical British person because the food was delish. We talked books and more books. We talked men, women, children. We talked politics, though we did not get into BRICS. Yes, we satirized Mandela and Gandhi like any normal people of South African and Indian origin would. And then we talked about the possibilities of a collaborative literary effort.

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Letter to My Teenage Self

Hey Zooks,
It is 2012. Unless you count electronic mail, no-one really writes letters anymore. I communicate with my friends via BBM, WhatsApp, and Facebook (you will know what this is when you come to the future). So, don’t waste your time paying attention to Sister Aloysius in English on the ‘art of letter writing’ but, you do need to pay attention to everything else in English class because your future job is as a writer. And on that writer note, you will hang out with some of the big names right now, and be friends with some future literary giants. Seriously.
Lose the Hammer pants. I know you think they are cool now but when Susan Chiutsi shows you photos of yourself wearing those Hammer pants as an adult, you will be wondering what was wrong with you. In other words, you will find out that you do not have to follow fashion all the time.
Kiss that St. Ignatius boy you have a crush on next time you go to the disco already. When you are grown, you will finally kiss him based on this crush. You will find out he’s a lousy kisser. You will realize that if you had kissed him earlier you would have known this and got over him faster. And still on boys, you are NOT going to marry your first boyfriend. Chill on ingratiating yourself to his parents and siblings because when you break up it will be difficult to break up with them.
When mom gives you money for computer classes during the holidays, lie to her that you are going. Instead, use the money to go to the movies, buy books, or even an afternoon session clubbing at Turtles. MS-DOS and Lotus 1-2-3 will not help you in future. Right now, the teenagers who are reading this are asking themselves what that is.
You know how everyone is writing in their auto books Dreamland: Hawaii? Well you, lucky girl, will actually get to stay there and make some lifelong friendships. There is a guy called Barack from there who will become the first black President of the United States. Sorry. He will not be one of the people you will meet during your time in Hawaii. You will hang out with his wife later when you are an important writer though (well, sort of).
If you think your mom is cool now, wait till you meet her at 60 something…she will have a cooler music collection than you.
That bald head that looks so happening on R.Kelly right now? It shall no longer be something that just looks good on him and Aaron Hall. In your later life it shall be de rigueur for both genders. You too will sport it. And everyone, apart from your son who wants you to have a weave like other mothers, will think you are totally rocking it.
Oh, and no matter how old you get? You will never have any certainty to that question that you and everyone at St. Dominic’s keep discussing: Whether Father Berridge and Sister Elaine really had anything going on or were just good friends.

Cheers,
Your Thirty Something Old Self.

My Breakfast with Michelle Obama

Last year, Michelle Obama was in Johannesburg. And she wanted to meet me. Ok, maybe I was being a tad delusional. The invitation read:

The U.S. Mission to South Africa cordially invites you to
A Young African Women Leaders Forum featuring
The First Lady of the United States of America, Mrs. Michelle Obama,
on Wednesday morning, the twenty-second of June
from six-thirty a.m.
Venue: Regina Mundi Catholic Church
1149 Khumalo St., Soweto

I was just at the end of my youth year and I have an inflated sense of myself so it could only be natural that I would be one of Young African Women Leaders that Michelle wanted to meet. I ignored the Forum bit. If Michelle and her peeps wanted to say I was part of a Forum then dammit, I would be. Later that week, I had an upcoming meeting with my publisher from Cape Town so when she emailed confirming details of our meeting, I could not help slipping in that I (and not her), and one of her other authors Cynthia Jele were going for an inclusive breakfast pow-wow with Michelle O.
I thought of the conversations I would have with Michelle. The stuff we have in common: her man grew up in Hawaii, I partied in Hawaii errm, went to university there; I am a mother as is she. Then there were other not-so-obvious things. Like, she is a lawyer and, well, I wanted to be a lawyer when I was in high school. Even read John Grisham and everything. Oh, and she has a daughter called Malia, and I have a Hawaiian friend called Malia. See, so much in common. I imagined we would probably be about twenty Young African Women Leaders sitting on a round table with Michelle and chatting about how we are solving Africa’s problems while having breakfast. I had planned that I was going to be a loyal South African and even though she would probably be having coffee, when asked what I wanted to drink, I would say ‘rooibos please,’ in my most refined voice. I did not mind that I had to scan my ID so that a security check could be done on me by Special Forces, the CIA or someone. I was having breakfast with Michelle, see? And because I am awesome like that, I went across town to meet up with fab writer Fiona Snyckers for autographed copies of her Trinity books because I was absolutely certain that Malia would enjoy this taste of Africa. I am considerate like that. So far, so good.
On the day in question, I woke up early, was all dressed and ready to go by 5.30am, then went to wait for Jele at Southdale as I was hitching a ride with her. When she arrived, we made our way to Soweto discussing just what we would talk to Michelle about.
Except
When we got to Maponya Mall in Soweto, there were tents to the right verifying security information. There were also at least five buses waiting to pick people up to take them to Regina Mundi where it seemed my expected tete-a-tete with Michelle and nineteen other ‘chosen’ was actually going to be a rally. I realized I was not the only person who had assumed this was going to be a cozy little gathering with Mrs. O. Spotted Ferial H over there; and that side June Josephs Langa; and behind Cynthia and me, Lindiwe Mazibuko. Having Lindiwe close to us provided my first entertainment of the day.
Jele: I know you from somewhere.
Me (to Lindiwe): Actually no. Do you know who she (pointing to Jele) is?
Lindiwe (squinting eyes and trying to be polite): her face seems familiar…
Me: Yes, but do you know who she is?
Lindiwe shakes head uncertainly.
Me: So how do you hope to run the next government when you don’t know some of your country’s most celebrated writers? This is Cynthia Jele, winner of the Commonwealth Best First Book…write her name down and when you are going back to Cape Town make sure you get her book.
Lindiwe looks a little sheepish.
Jele: no man, but this girl is very familiar Zooks, who are you?
Me (jumping in so I can seem clever): Hhawu Jele, this is Lindiwe Mazibuko, DA Spokesperson Lindiwe?
Jele(light bulb): Ah-ha. The Tea Girl! How are you?
Lindiwe took the Tea Girl thing in her stride and we had one of those ‘standing in line with strangers’ chats.
We showed our IDs again, registered, and then we got on the buses and off to Regina Mundi a few minutes away we went. When we arrived, we had to stand in line again. There was a search, we had to switch our phones off and on to show that they were real phones, and then we got to the secure section. On arrival, we each received a bottle of water and some security guy advised us to use the Port-a-Loo if we needed to go because once we entered the church, we would not be allowed to get out. So we dutifully did as suggested and we were soon in Regina Mundi church. Ja sies!
Twas a sea of humanity in there. Ok, maybe not a sea but there were over a thousand people in there. At about 9am (we had been in the place since 7.30 so perhaps I should not complain as a certain President Kibaki has been known to arrive at 2pm for an event with a time plan of 10am), a bevy of young ladies walked in and we all had to stand up and clap for them. Turned out these were the Young African Women Leaders to be celebrated and not Cynthia, Lindiwe and the rest of us almost unyouth.
There was a speech from the Gauteng Premier, Nomvula Mokonyane, followed by Baleka Mbete on behalf of the ANC, and then we heard from Graca Machel. All the speeches were of the ‘sisterhood’, ‘sister Michelle is back home’, ‘how these brilliant young ladies should emulate this wonderful woman’ variety.
And then Graca called Michelle. And as Michelle walked up to the podium, there was a standing ovation and lots of whooping and yelling. Yup. This being my first rally-type thing, it was only then I understood the elation of the mob. Flip, I certainly understand the Republican and Democratic national Conventions better now.
Michelle celebrated the Young African women Leaders. These were young women from all over the continent who have served their communities and Africa in ways that are humbling. Hearing some of the tales I wondered at my arrogance to think I could even be considered one of them. Among them was one of the most beautiful young people I know, Dr. Kopano Matlwa – writer, medical doctor, founder of an organization of student doctors imparting primary health care to poor communities, winner of so-many literary prizes etc etc and all this before she was 25. And there were other over-achieving little upstarts like her from all over the continent. Forty in all, I think the number was.
I was also taken by how Michelle is probably Barack’s biggest p.r. officer. she constantly began the next paragraph of her speech with, ‘my husband says…’ and of course right at the end she told all assembled that we should all learn from the young women assembled and not allow anything to stand in our way. If anyone felt they were failing and wanted to give up they should remember her husband’s words and say, ‘YES WE …’ yup. You guessed it.
And that was the end of the show.
At 11am, hungry and tired after waking up at an ungodly hour to prepare for the breakfast that almost was, Cynthia and I walked out of regina Mundi to get back on the bus to Maponya Mall and look for breakfast.
And the books?
I gave them to Baleka Mbete who I hope delivered them to Michelle for Malia. But should the books not have arrived to Malia, a word to all of you. If you have a teenage daughter, niece, friend the one thing you could do for them this National Book Week is get them Fiona Snyckers’ Trinity Rising or Trinity on Air. You will seal their love for books in one purchase.