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Siphiwo Mahala

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Lost in Translation

Today marks the end of my favourite period of the year—when we get public holidays in almost every week for four consecutive weeks. It is national Worker’s Day which we celebrate by not going to work. Four days earlier it was national Freedom Day and before that it was the Easter Weekend. As if that’s not enough, this year we had a bonus of another day as the whole country went to the polls on the 22nd of April.

What I like most about public holidays is that I get to do things that are impossible to do when I go to work. Today I watched Morning Live and Vuyo Mbuli was making fun of some nicknames and in some instances names that get lost in translation. He made reference to some former soccer player whose surname is Padayachee, and was popularly known as Naphakade, which can be loosely translated as omnipresent in Xhosa.

This reminded me of my own predicament back in 1997 when I was doing research in the farms in the area between Grahamstown and Port Alfred. Using a map to follow directions I came to the spot where the farm Pinelands was supposed to be but residents there did not seem to know the farm I was referring to. It was much later when one old man asked if what I was looking for was not what the locals called KwaPamlenze. It appeared that I was indeed at Pinelands.

The loss or change of meaning between languages was back to haunt me as I was writing the Xhosa version of my novel, When a Man Cries. In the first instance I grappled with the title itself. The direct translation for “when a man cries” would be “xa indoda ikhala” and this did not resonate well in my language as a book title. So, I found the most suitable cultural relative as Ingakhal’ Indoda. Which means….well, I don’t really know the direct meaning except to say it’s quite close to “when a man cries.”

What I also found particularly interesting is that there are things that one can say without trepidation in English but the same things are culturally reprehensible in Xhosa. Now that I have finished the first draft of the novel I realise that as much as a lot may be lost in translation, much more has been regained. I find the process of writing the Xhosa version of the novel as actually the reclamation of the original thought and idiom transmitted through the English language in When a Man Cries.

A Writer’s Ego

“Writers have egos,” a colleague argued the other day. “You must be moderate when you criticize their works,” he continued cautioning our book club members ahead of a session where we were due to host an author.

Although I didn’t agree with him at the time, I tend to echo his sentiments nowadays. I hate to admit it, but I am egotistical. And apparently I am not the only one. The legendary James Matthews writes somewhere about how, some five decades ago, one guy on noticing him at an intersection in the opposite car lowered the window and started reciting one of his poems. I tried to get the old man to elaborate on this the other day and he said it was nothing compared to how he felt when he first had a copy of his first published book in his hand.

On his way from the post office where he collected the book, he decided to sit down in the middle of nowhere and page through. That was because he couldn’t wait until he got home. He imagined that the passersby must have thought he was on some substance because he just sat there alone and started laughing his lungs out. It seems like that tradition still continues. I remember pulling over from the N2 highway to open the box after collecting the first copies of my book from a post office in Midrand, Johannesburg.

But again, this cannot be compared to the experience of seeing someone for the first time picking my book from the Exclusive Books shelves, browsing through and buying it. Now, don’t think of me as a stalker but I do remember keeping an eye on the lady every step of the way. Seeing her buying and actually reading the book immediately afterwards gave me the same kind of sensation I had when I first shook hands with Madiba. I considered telling her that I wrote the book but I thought better of it. I have had many such moments ever since.

One of the fascinating stories that boost one’s ego to the extreme is that of a widowed neighbour in Grahamstown. The old woman decided to buy my book with her pension money even though she can barely read a word of English. She has adult children who have good jobs but are not fully acquainted to the culture of book buying. She allows her children and grandchildren, their friends and other neighbours to read the book at a fee of R20. In return they have to narrate the story to the old woman. They have learned to buy their own copies since then!

I have heard many other interesting anecdotes from my fellow scribes. Among others my friend, Zukiswa Wanner, who happened to sit in a taxi next to a lady that was reading her debut novel, The Madams. Well, she couldn’t suppress the urge to tell her that she wrote the book to which the lady responded with a frown and gave her that look that says “you must be crazy.” Seeing that Zukiswa was adamant that she actually penned the novel, the lady just asked, “Manje, ufunan’ etaxini?”(and now, what are you doing in a taxi)?

I had a similar experience this past weekend. I was busy talking on the phone when this lady smiled and mumbled something curiously pointing at my books. I had a copy of When a Man Cries and Bessie Head’s When Rain Clouds Gather in my hand. I had to end the call and hear what the lady had to say. “That’s a nice book,” she said pointing at the books. I asked which one and she said “That one, When a Man Cries, I read it last year and I really enjoyed it.” She was smiling from ear-to-ear all the time and spoke with a somewhat childlike excitement. “I wrote the book,” I said and she immediately grabbed the book from my hand and compared the face in front of her with the picture on the back cover of the book.

What followed was me interviewing her about how she came across the book given the limitations of our distribution channels and the sad reality of the lack of a culture of reading. I was pleased to hear her saying she makes it a point to read South African literature. I realised then that it is fulfilling to have one’s ego pampered by a total stranger every now and again. I wonder how many writers “google” their names just to see what the world has to say about them and their works. I may be the first to admit it, but I have a strong suspicion that many writers have had such self affirming moments.

First Anniversary of the DAC Book Club

The following article appears in the December issue of Kha ri Ambe, an internal newsletter of the Department of Arts and Culture:

“Book Clubs are mainly for recreational reading, but even as recreation, it is possible to implant the habit of reading as a means of acquiring information and knowledge amongst millions of people,” argued Dr Z. Pallo Jordan, Minister of Arts and Culture. This statement can be the summation of the objectives of the DAC Book Club, whose first anniversary was celebrated at the National Library on Tuesday, 25 November 2008.

Established a year ago, the DAC Book Club was formed with a view to encourage the culture of reading and writing among the employees of the Department of Arts and Culture. Since its establishment, the DAC Book Club has not only become one of the simplest and most dynamic means of encouraging the culture of reading, it is also a powerful vehicle for promoting South African literature. Since January 2008, the DAC has hosted twelve guest authors whose books were discussed among the DAC personnel.

The lack of a culture of reading remains one of the major challenges that confront the South African society today. Literacy underpins development in all sectors of society and to invest on the development of a culture of reading is to contribute towards building a prosperous nation. To paraphrase Minister Jordan, if our society is to become a successful nation, “we must open up that treasure trove of humanity’s achievements, dreams, aspirations and folly that is carried in books, to our people.”

The Book Club has indeed transformed many lives as several members have read more books in a single year since their school days. As a result, the members of the book club appreciate books even more and have become regulars at book shops since the establishment of the book club. Officials in the Department are encouraged to take the idea of book clubs to their communities, where they can encourage their families, friends and relatives to read.

It is fitting that this occasion was held at the National Library which, in line with its mandate, is “home” to all South African books. This sentiment was articulated by Minister Jordan as he remarked, “A Book Club in a department like ours can have a most significant impact precisely because we are the custodians of our nation’s cultural heritage.” It is also strategically significant that the DAC embarks on this initiative with the aim of encouraging other government departments and related institutions to do the same.

The DAC Book Club embarks on this initiative at an opportune time when South African literature is burgeoning at unprecedented heights and a number of writers gaining wide recognition. In attendance were award winning writers including the latest winner of the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa, Zachariah Rapola, South African Literary Awards recipients, Prof DBZ Ntuli and Chris van Wyk, among others. As our literature flourishes, the need for engendering wider audiences becomes more crucial.

The programme was also dedicated into celebrating one of the living custodians of South Africa’s literary heritage and a founding member of the Book Club, Prof Keorapetse Kgositsile. President Kgalema Motlanthe recently recognised Kgositsile, who is also the reigning Poet Laureate and Special Adviser to Minister Jordan, with the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver for his exceptional contribution to Literature.

In paying his special tribute to Kgositsile, Minister Jordan remarked, “In addition the outstanding contribution he has made to South African poetry, Willie Kgositsile has been a political activist all his adult life. He is, and I say this with some trepidation, perhaps one of the few poets who have always been able to blend his politics with his poetry without compromising either.” Also paying special tribute to Kgositsile was the legendary musician, Vusi Mahlasela, who did so in the best way he knows how. He performed some of his classic tunes, including a song that was originally written as a poem by Kgositsile.

Kgositsile shared the stage with young and dynamic poets like Vonani Bila, Phomelelo Moshapo, Mandisa Phandliwe and Masoja Msiza. The occasion was indeed a feast of creative explosion to literary enthusiast and a new leaf of literary exposure to those who were not avid followers of South African literature.

Meeting a Writer

Nostalgia is getting the better of me. I miss everything about South Africa. I’ve been in Algeria for about a week now and people here speak Arabic and French as the main languages. I miss one of those conversations I would have in my language with a total stranger I happen to stand in a bank queue with. Any conversation as long as it is not about death!

The entire South African delegation has been cursing death the whole day. We are devastated by the news of the passing away of Prof Zeke Mphahlele, the doyen of African letters. One way or another we were all inspired by him and we won’t be there to pay our last respects to him. I first met Mphahlele when I was an African Literature student at Wits University in 2002. He was soft-spoken and unassuming but it will be too embarrassing to tell how much I was overwhelmed to finally meet the man that I had read so much about. Ironically, young people in the small township of Lebowakgomo, where this national treasure lived for many years, did not seem to know much about him.

In 2005 I went to Lebowakgomo to pay Mphahlele a visit with two other literary activists from Joburg. There is one thing about Joburg people, they always get lost in small places like Grahamstown and Lebowakgomo. It was my first time in Limpopo province and my SePedi vocabulary was very limited at the time, so I had to follow my companions’ orders and let them ask for directions. The common response when we asked if anyone knew where Prof Mphahlele lived was “Where does he teach?” It was only in one of the shebeens in the area that one patron in a drunken state asked if we were referring to the old man with colourful shirts. It turned out that for more than an hour we were within 100m radius of Mphahlele’s home.

A few weeks ago I had an affirming moment when someone was similarly overwhelmed to know that I’m a published writer. It was on a Friday morning and I was in a One Time aircraft from Joburg to East London. I got to the seat first and realised that I was allocated the aisle, which I prefer most of the time. You see, when I get into the aircraft there is always the curiosity of trying to imagine what type of person would sit next to me. There are those who will not even look at you even though you’ll spend about two hours sitting next to each other. Some would be all grumpy when you try to pip through the window to steal a view of the sea before landing. There are also those who’ll start talking to you because you are sitting on the aisle and they want to go to the toilet.

On this day I was not looking forward to striking a conversation with a stranger as I was in the company of Holy Hill, a novel by Angelina N. Sithebe. I was also hoping that my neighbour would be kind enough to allow me to perform the sea viewing ritual before the plane landed in East London. While my nose was still buried into the book, I noticed white sneakers parked next to my seat. I lifted my head and my eyes landed on a beauty whose plump face was beaming with a genuine smile. I mumbled my apologies and got up to allow her to take the seat. She thanked me as she walked across to her seat.

She was very quick to introduce herself and I had to do the same and immediately took refuge in my book both to maintain the momentum and to show her that I was busy. “Do you work in the Eastern Cape?” that was a fair question but it was still destructive, I thought to myself. I told her that I work in Pretoria but I’m originally from the Eastern Cape. Big mistake, she told me that she was from East London and gave me the whole history of her coming to Joburg as a student and the various jobs she has held since then. Seeing that I was not too keen to talk about myself, she went on to tell me about her family, how many siblings she had, getting married, and many other things that my mind did not have enough capacity to keep. All along I had my book in front of me to show her that I was determined to continue with my reading.

Every time I tried to read she would tell me one more story about herself, her family or friends. And then it was all about her job at the airport and how she and her colleagues judge character by watching people’s deportment as they disembark from aircrafts. They could tell if one is getting divorced, or if some business man was away with a mistress, or if one is a single mother rushing to get home to take care of her little brats. Being a good listener earned me the privilege of being seated in business lounge in my next trip. “Just call me and I’ll arrange for you,” she generously offered. The offer obviously came with assumptions that we’ll exchange numbers and that I did not have access to business lounge. Needless to say, she got it all wrong. I just played with my face, frowning as if reading an emotional scene in the novel. It was my way of inviting her to ask something about what I was reading.

Instead of commenting about my reading, she asked if I liked any movies. Determined not to let the opportunity slip away, I stated categorically that I was not into movies and that I preferred reading. I thought I was sending a message that she should leave me alone so that I could read but clearly the message did not get through. She started telling me about movies that she liked and even though I had seen some of them I told her that I had no idea of what she was talking about. It was well over forty minutes when I realised that my attempts at reading a novel while my neighbour was still there would prove to be a futile exercise. I closed the book and gave her my full attention.

“You seemed so engrossed in that book. What is it all about?” it was only then that she showed interest in my reading. I told her that it was an interesting novel by a South African writer. Before I could say more, she confessed of not having read anything by a South African writer since high school. I told her that I could recommend her at least ten books by South Africans. She promised to visit the book store at the airport and get some of the books. After landing I reached for my hand luggage in the stowaway cabin and pulled out a copy of When a Man Cries. As I gave it to her my index finger directed her eyes to the author’s name. The response was, “Oh, my God! You are a writer,” my face beamed with a self affirming smile followed by a nod. As we walked out of the aircraft, she kept explaining how happy she was to have sat next to a writer.

I did not check-in any luggage so I had to bid her farewell as she was waiting for hers at the conveyor belt. As we parted ways she was smiling from ear to ear and said, “I’ve never met a writer before.” With that I got a pinch on the shoulder.

On Friendship

As I’m writing this note I’m sitting in the business class lounge at the East London Airport. Yes, life has become about classes and for once I happen to fall on the right side, if the elite component is right. People around me are either busy with their laptops (as I am doing) or helping themselves on the refreshments, if not both. Not much human interaction!

This is a complete anticlimax to the experience I had earlier today. I had a meeting in Alice, my second home, where the remains of my grandparents are buried. I lived over five years of my life including one and a half years of primary schooling and four years of university education in this small town. I’ll save the story of me spending one and a half years in Alice for another day.

I fathom that the visit to the Eastern Cape provided me with some kind of escapism from my every day pressures, especially work related ones. Of course, some may not believe this but there are pressures in the public service especially when you are passionate about what you do. I work in the Books and Publishing unit, which is related to what I studied at University and an area that I am actively involved in as a practitioner. I normally leave my house, which is about 30km from Pretoria, at 5h30 every morning and only return at 19h00 in the evening. With that kind of a schedule one barely has enough time to spend with family, let alone friends.

My meeting in Alice finished at 14h00 and the plan was to get to East London at about 17h00. That meant I would have two hours to play around with before checking in for my 20h00 flight. So I decide to take full advantage of the bit of time in my hands. The first thing is to pay a quick visit to my family homestead in kwaMavuso village before heading back to East London where I would meet with three of my old friends and a newly found one. I arrive in East London at exactly 17h00 and drop-off a colleague who has to check into a hotel. While he is still busy signing documents I put my mobile phone into good use and get in touch with my friends across the Eastern Cape. It is at this moment that I get a call from X-Man, a friend from Grahamstown who tells me that he is visiting East London.

I ask him where he is and he says he is at a garage in Vincent, a popular hangout suburb not too far from the city centre. Well, the obvious question would be to find out what the name of the garage is and he tells me that it’s the one where Chicken Licken is. It is only at this moment that I realise that I’m dealing with the vintage X-Man here, a man we referred to as “Problem Child” before he married two years ago. He is a funny man, this X-Man friend of mine. We met as running mates about fifteen years ago and have been good friends ever since. A fairly short man with a lean body, X-man is a fast runner as much as he is a fast talker and thinker.

On arriving at Engen garage in less than ten minutes, I find X-man’s car in the parking area but he is nowhere to be found. I call him on the mobile phone and he responds to say he thought I’d be there sooner so he had decided to attend to some business and he’ll be back in two minutes. Well, I know what two minutes means to my good old friend. Ten minutes later he calls and asks what kind of a car I’m driving. I begin to wonder if that would make any difference because the garage is fairly small and we are bound to see each other when he gets there. In fact, I know it very well that this is X-Man’s way of saying “I’m almost there.” Nevertheless, I tell him it’s a white VW Pollo. Ten minutes later he arrives with another friend by the name of Ray, whom I had heard about but never got to meet until today.

Ray was introduced to our circle of friends by H, with whom I have been friends for over twenty years. H was my classmate at Standard Four and we shared the common passion of drawing. Apart from his love for art, H was a clown of note, admired by the prettiest girls in class but never dating any although he always claimed that they fancied him. After higher primary school H went to do his high school in Port Elizabeth while I remained in Grahamstown. He retuned to Grahamstown later in life, a year before I moved to Gauteng.

A few minutes later we are joined by B, a friend of mine whom I met at University twelve years ago. B is a qualified attorney who worked for an NGO in Grahamstown for over five years before he decided to ply his trade in the public service just over a year ago. He recently bought new wheels, a black GTI Golf with leather seats and all. Now, this is the thing about B, he is quite an introvert—shy and unassuming but very talkative when it suits him. He is the exact opposite of X-man, no wonder they get along so well. While I am fascinated by his new wheels, B suggests that we get something to nibble. But that is not before Ray excuses himself because he’s got to see his wife before going to the gym.

While we are still having our meal Sbu, another childhood friend from Grahamstown arrives. I first met Sbu over 20 years ago when his family moved to a new suburb (by township standards) across the road from my family home. He was easily distinguishable from the township riffraff because of his quiet and humble demeanour. We were never really close friends with Sbu although we would talk every time we ran into each other. This was until February 2002 when I came across him at Wits University in Johannesburg and where we were both pursuing postgraduate studies. Our friendship was inevitable as he was the only person who had the patience of listening to my nostalgia induced stories.

Sbu is now a well known TV personality who has quite a number of female fans. Okay, may be I’m imagining things here but I think I saw several female customers stealing glances at Sbu as we sat chatting and munching on the roasted chicken. Well, they’ll be disappointed to know that Sbu is getting married in about four weeks. Talking about marriages, another friend of ours, Mzee, is getting married two weeks after Sbu. So, this is where the modern technology comes to play. We call Mzee, who is based in Grahamstown, and have a teleconference of some kind.

Now, Mzee is another strange fellow. He has several karate belts and a body to show but he would never hurt a fly. He was the quiet boy in class and we only started taking notice of him after he was top of the class during the midyear exams. He got all the attention from the girls but the fool only had time for books. He never even played soccer. I remember at high school there were class games and every boy had to play soccer to fill the team. Instead of jumping for a header, Mzee decided to release one of those Bruce Lee kicks and missed the other boy by an inch. The only additional trait to the quiet and intelligent boy of twenty years ago is that he is now a loving fiancé and a born again Christian. So our place is guaranteed in the next world!

After 30 minutes of eating and traveling down memory lane it is time for me to head back to the airport. As soon as I’m alone in the car I start reminiscing about the great time I have had with my friends and how in just 30 minutes I was able to forget about all the troubles in the world. Now I realise that this is what I have been missing in my life—a moment with friends and not spent maneuvering the Joburg traffic after a long working day.

I also realise that this is the value of human relationship that Prof Keorapetse Kgositsile was talking about a couple of weeks ago. He was disturbed by a remark made by a female activist who argued that she does not need a man just because she does not want any more babies. Prof Kgositsile’s argument was that she seems to be missing an important point—that of human to human relationship. He argued that the value of human relationships is not just mechanical and therefore cannot me measured on physical needs only.

Now I hear the last call for boarding and I have to switch off the laptop and head back to Johannesburg. The prospect of driving from the OR Tambo airport to Pretoria is not that exciting especially after such a long day. But one thing that makes me look forward to the journey is that I’ll be with my wife and kids tonight. I do not need a reason to miss them. It’s in human nature that life is best enjoyed when you are with your loved ones. The wonderful time I spent with my friends this afternoon bears testimony to this fact.

Black South African Women Novelists

The following extract is from an article that I wrote in 2006 lamenting the paucity of published novels by black women writers in English language. Since then we have seen novels by writers such as Kopano Matlwa, Zukiswa Wanner, Angela Makholwa, Angelina N. Sithebe, etc.:

As South Africa is witnessing the bourgeoning of new writings, women voices are a critical component of this development. Casting a view on gender representation in our literature of English expression today, one realises that there is paucity of black women’s voices with regard to novel writing. Women’s voices are a fundamental factor in the renewal of a society, and more so in the reconfiguration of a nation’s literary contours.

The emerging black women writers have not been robust in exploring the novel genre as a form of creative expression. Most significantly, the current generation of women writers such as Lebogang Mashile, Makhosazana Xaba, Phillippa yaa de Villiers and many others take to poetry (both performed and written) as a form of creative expression. Although novelists such as Zoë Wicomb do exist, we have not seen the emergence of female novelists as we have witnessed with their male counterparts such as Zakes Mda, K. Sello Duiker, Phaswane Mpe, and most recently Niq Mhlongo, Mtutuzeli Nyoka and Fred Khumalo.
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DAC Book Club

when-a-man-cries-1.JPGwhen-a-man-cries-24.JPGSome of you may have heard about the launch of the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) Book Club in November 2007. Today I had the pleasure of becoming the seventh guest author in as many months to be hosted by the DAC Book Club (in spite of the fact that I am the convener). Suffice to say, with half the Department having read my book, When a Man Cries, we had one of the most vibrant discussions.

The focus of the Book Club is local content, and so far we have hosted writers such as Nape ‘a Motana, Angela Makholwa, Kgebetli Moele, Mmatshilo Motsei, Niq Mhlongo and Zukiswa Wanner. The Book Club meets fortnightly and we host a writer in every second meeting. The target is to host 12 writers by the end of the year. What this means is that by December 2008 each member of the Book Club would have read at least 12 books. That may not seem very significant but considering the fact that many of our members confessed of having last read a book in high school, walking to a book shop and buying a book for the first time is a remarkable experience!
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The Suit Continued

It is annoying when people keep telling the same story of a woman who was tormented by her husband because I left my suit in his house. You know, people think that she was the only one who suffered. In fact, I don’t blame them because that’s how Can Themba wanted them to feel. The only thing he mentioned in his propaganda story entitled, The Suit, is that I ran away. Did he think that that was the end of the story for me? Did he think that I, being a respected schoolteacher, enjoyed running around the streets of Sophiatown in underwear? Did he think that I felt no remorse when the woman decided to put an end to her life afterwards? No, I couldn’t ignore it. Those things could not just happen and leave me feeling no shame. Besides, I had my humiliation to deal with. I’m neither a writer nor a journalist as Can Themba was, but I thought I should jot down a few lines so people know my side of the story before I sink six feet under the soil. This is not a confession but a testimony.

First of all, it was never my style to have dealings with married women. You see, there is this thing about a woman: if she wants you, she is sure to get you. Unlike us, if you want her, you have to go a long way trying to impress her. Somehow I feel that women do take advantage of us men. In fact, women of those days had a great deal of advantage over us. When I met this girl, I had had a few tots of brandy. I was not really drunk; the purpose was to cure my body after a Sunday afternoon of heavy drinking. Please note that I’m addressing her as “a girl” because that’s what she looked like on the day I first met her. She didn’t seem like a married woman at all. I know when alcohol registers itself in a man’s head, even the ugliest woman suddenly becomes attractive, but this was not the case. She caught my eye with her red mini-dress that girls used to wear in those days. Ag man, I forgot that you young people wouldn’t know those dresses. Let me just say, they are seductively equivalent to the tight shorts and the skimpy blouses that young girls wear these days. When I see these girls, I feel like getting young again. I may have a bald patch and a wrinkled skin, but my heart feels as young as ever.
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