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South Africa

A year in books

4 January 2019

In December everyone was posting their yearly reading wrap-ups but I couldn’t bear to post mine until I’d squeezed every last reading minute out of the year.

My 2017 wrap-up was rather ad hoc because my phone failed me and I lost several years worth of reading records. Thankfully this year there has been no calamity. So I can confidently tell you that I read a total of 99 books. Can’t believe I didn’t crack the hundo! That said, the lines are rather blurred as I also read many literary journals and all manner of books with my children — neither of which are included in that figure. Plus I spend my days reading and editing manuscripts, so the real count is far higher.

Nevertheless, it’s the number of books that I’ve read for pleasure, and there were some damn fine books among them. Fifty-seven of them were by women and 42 by men. I’d say this split is generally reflective of my reading in any given year, though I have no data to back it up (I am still cursing what shall be known as The Great Phone Fail of 2017).

In 2018, as in all years, the majority of books that I read were by Australian authors (53%). I read equivalent numbers from the United States (13%), United Kingdom (14%) and Africa (15%). In 2017, I read many books from Asia but in 2018 they made up only 5% of my reading. I intend to remedy this in 2019.

Throughout this year I’ve been recording a Book of the Month, and if you’re interested you can find links to them in my quarterly wrap-ups. But today I thought I’d pick a favourite book from each different region.

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Australia — The White Earth by Andrew McGahan
To pick just one book when more than half of my reading came from Australia, especially when there were so many crackers among them, seems unfair. But I’m forcing myself to meet my own challenge! The White Earth is a book that I read right near the beginning of 2018, in fact it was my fourth book, but it has stuck with me. In my quarterly wrap-up I rightly called it a ‘masterpiece’. Sadly Andrew McGahan has terminal cancer but he has continued working on another book which is due out later this year. It’s on my must-read list for 2019.

United States — An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
I was tempted to pick Lincoln in the Bardo but since I wrote about it recently I’m going to instead pick An American Marriage, which I devoured. The story centres on Celeste and Roy, a black, middle-class, newlywed couple whose lives are bursting with promise and possibility. That is until Roy is falsely arrested and sentenced to 12 years for rape. The book is intimate and nuanced as it deals with the slow but devasting changes that occur within the family. It is also inextricably bound up with racial issues in America, making it a quiet but powerful political novel.

I want to also mention Andrew Sean Greer’s Less, which I adored. It is a comic novel that is genuinely funny (let’s face it, plenty aren’t) that follows struggling mid-list author Arthur Less around the globe from one literary event to the next. It won the Pulitzer Prize which surprised me because it doesn’t fit the mould of the ‘serious’ books that the Pulitzer usually awards. But perhaps they couldn’t resist being charmed by the familiar world of publishing that it explores. (And now I have definitely broken my own rule and snuck in two extras!)

United Kingdom — Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
I wrestled over whether to place this one under Asia, since so much of the book focuses on Pakistan, but as Shamsie resides in the UK, and much of the novel is set in London, I decided to include it here. Whatever, this novel is brilliant. Like all the books listed here is has remained vivid in my mind. It made my second wrap-up if you’d like to read a little more about it.

Africa — Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This novel also resists categorisation. Adichie is a Nigerian, living in both Nigeria and America. The book is also set in both countries, but as it details the Nigerian experience in America I decided to include it in my African reading. You can read my brief review here.

I want to also mention Red Dust by Gillian Slovo which is much less troubling in terms of categorisation. It exposes the flawed process of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission through the fictional case of Alex Mpondo who has been tortured and killed by the police. It is beautifully written with the pace of a crime novel. Ultimately, it painfully concludes that the truth is a slippery beast and may never be pinned down.

Asia — Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
I’ve picked up a couple of Murakami books over the years and never been able to get into them. I have felt this as a failing on my part; afterall many of my reading friends adore his work. Norwegian Wood was given to me by a dear friend and it is apparently the ‘straightest’ of his novels. Perhaps this is why I loved it so. It focuses on 30-something Toru Watanabe and is a coming-of-age story that deals with the agonies of life, love and death. I’ve been advised by several excellent readers that Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle should be next in line.

I’ve got a batch of books ready to kick off a new reading year. But Sally Rooney’s Normal People has been so widely and extravagantly praised by many readers whose taste I admire that I am nervous to open it. Surely it cannot live up to expectation? I think I’ll hold out a little longer until some of the hype has died down. The same goes for Milkman by Anna Burns which won the 2018 Man Booker Prize. It’s been receiving lots of hype post-Booker and looks like my kind of book, but I’m going to wait until I don’t have everyone’s words of praise ringing in my head.

I’m also really looking forward to reading The Girl on the Page by John Purcell, Director of Books at Booktopia. It’s set in the publishing industry with a young editor as the main protagonist. How can I not love this novel?

And I’m keen to pick up a bunch of books by South African authors when I visit the country later this month. I’ve found it very difficult getting hold of many African titles in Australia, so it’ll be a good opportunity to fill my suitcase. First on the list is a collection of stories by Niq Mhlongo, Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree.

I could go on, but I will stop there and wish you all a peaceful 2019 full of all the good things. May your reading pile be plentiful!

A year between pages

15 December 2017

It’s that time of year where writerly types reflect on their 2017 reading highlights, but I have one small problem. A few weeks ago I upgraded my phone and lost the note in which I have been carefully recording every book I’ve read for the past three years. I didn’t lose any other notes, just that one. Random fail.

So I certainly won’t be giving you comprehensive stats like Jane Rawson (seriously, check this out). Instead expect a hazily recollected and likely inaccurate (was that 2016, or 2017?) offering.

One thing I know for sure, this year I read a ton of novels set in other countries. As a travel addict I love to explore new countries on the page, even if it usually increases my wanderlust to explore them on foot. India was a particular focus, probably because it’s high on my bucket list. I started the year with Gregory David Roberts’ epic novel Shantaram and went on to read The Permanent Resident, a short story collection by Perth author Roanna Gonsalves. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness followed, Arundhati Roy’s long-awaited follow-up to The God of Small Things, which blew my mind when I read it as a creative writing student all those years ago. Perhaps because of that, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness didn’t quite measure up. I enjoyed it, and Roy skilfully breaks several key writing ‘rules’ which was interesting, but I didn’t fall madly in love with Ministry. My favourite Indian novel was The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2008. It’s told by a village boy called Balram Halwai and follows his struggle to transcend the ‘Darkness’ of his lowly caste. The novel delves into India’s underbelly and is full of dark humour and suspense. I found it utterly captivating.

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The other country to feature even more heavily in my reading was South Africa. With a trip there in September, I read both fiction and nonfiction before leaving, and I am still following that literary trail. I loved Daman Galgut’s brilliant The Imposter and discovered Sowetan author Niq Mhlongo’s Dog Eat Dog. I pored over photographic books like Peter Magubane’s Soweto: Portrait of a City and Jodi Bieber’s Soweto. (Are you sensing a theme?) I read Doing Life with Mandela by Christo Brand after picking it up at the gift shop on Robben Island, the place Nelson Mandela was notoriously incarcerated for 18 of his 27 years, about the relationship that developed between a prison warden and his most famous prisoner. I won’t bore you with my full South African reading list — it was long, and it’s growing longer by the week — but I’ve had rich and thought-provoking travels of both body and mind through this complex and fascinating country.

I also read books set in Indonesia, Japan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, New Zealand, Nigeria, Kenya, America, England, Ireland, Scotland, Spain, Greece, Norway, Antarctica, and probably a bunch of others that I am forgetting. However, the majority of my reading tends to be by Australian authors, predominantly female authors. Two standouts this year were The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose and Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar.

The Museum of Modern Love seems to have resonated with artists everywhere because it speaks to the challenges of the creative process, and the transformative ability of art. The book pivots around Marina Abramovic and her performance at New York’s MoMA, but really it is a meditation on art and life. I love this quote from the book: ‘Artists are stubborn. They have to be. Even when nothing is happening, the only way through is to work and work.’ And knowing that Rose wrestled this book into being over 11 long years makes this statement even more potent.

Incidentally The Museum of Modern Love won the Stella Prize which is my favourite Australian prize, of course because of what it stands for (‘to raise the profile of women writers and address their underrepresentation in the literary world’), but also because every winner has been among my favourite books of that year (with the exception of Clare Wright’s 2014-winning book, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, which I haven’t yet read).

Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek also won a bunch of awards and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, Australia’s most prestigious literary award. And rightly so. I came to it a bit late (it was published in 2015) but it’s a stunning debut that takes us into the unforgiving landscape of colonial Australia and the devastation of Indigenous displacement. It’s a beautiful and unflinching book that should be on every high school reading list. But fair warning: it’s a real heartbreaker.

Non-Aussie favourites this year included English (but, incidentally, Johannesburg-born) author Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk and Scottish author Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Interestingly, both these books inhabit the lives of quirky characters, and both have strong and distinctly unique voices. Highly recommended if you need a new read.

Well that’s my somewhat sketchy wrap for the year. Let’s hope technology doesn’t fail me again in 2018.

South Africa feels

15 October 2017

I am just back from South Africa, a place I have dreamed about travelling to for almost three decades. It is a complex country, full of contradictions, and I experienced all the feels. I thought I’d share a little of my grand adventure with you through a handful of the thousands of photos that I took. I travelled with my youngest brother and we started in Johannesburg, where our dad grew up, then went on to Soweto, Kruger, Blyde and Cape Town. We rode planes, trains and automobiles, and had a bloody fantastic time. So here’s a nonsequential version of how it went…

We met wild endangered penguins who looked super cute but were super smelly.

We drank excellent five-dollar mojitos as the sun set over stunning Camps Bay.

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Our hearts were broken, and then uplifted, on Robben Island where Mandela and his fellow anti-apartheid activists were jailed.

We took a train along the Western Cape that rattled through the dunes and travelled so close to the ocean that we felt the spray on our faces.

In Kruger National Park we saw everything we could have hoped for. We stopped for elephants more times than I can count…

and lions…

and rhino…

and a real zebra crossing.

We were fortunate to spend time with the elusive cheetah. There are only 400 in Kruger, which is the same size as Wales, and these two gave us every pose in the book.

I could fill this whole post with animal pix, but let’s move on.

In Soweto we made new friends wherever we went. I have never been so warmly welcomed in any place around the world, or given so many high fives to strangers on the street. Don’t believe the hype about Soweto. It was one of the most brilliant experiences of my travelling life.

It was also one of the most heartbreaking. In Kliptown, one of Soweto’s oldest suburbs, there is no infrastructure, including electricity, sewerage and garbage removal, and only a few communal taps to serve the whole area. The rivulet you see here is sewerage.

We took the overnight train from Joburg to Cape Town. It was exhilarating and beautiful and hilarious. We often felt like we’d fallen into a slapstick comedy.

We climbed the sheer cliff face of Lion’s Head Rock, and took the cable car to the top of Table Mountain where we almost froze gulping up the gorgeous views.

We drooled over bubblegum-coloured houses in Bo-kaap.

And we hiked around and down into Blyde River Canyon where we saw barely a soul. It is the third largest canyon in the world but in a beauty contest it would beat the Grand Canyon hands down. No photograph can do it justice.

So there you have it. That’s one photo story; I could tell many others.

And now I’m going to take the words that I recorded in this pretty notebook and use it as the springboard for fiction. I don’t know what it will be about yet, or what form it will take, but I am going to start somewhere.

Off adventuring

18 September 2017

If there’s one thing that I love as much as writing and editing, it’s travelling. When my kids are all grown and off doing their own thing, my version of heaven would be to spend three months of every year living in another country. But, if that is even a vague possibility, it’s certainly not on the cards for a very long time. In the meantime my kids are old enough that I can steal a few weeks to go adventuring when funds permit. And that is exactly what I’m about to do.

South Africa has been on my travel radar ever since I was fifteen. My dad grew up in Johannesburg and I have long been fascinated with the country. As a teenager I read obsessively about the place, through fiction and nonfiction. At the time I was warned off travelling to South Africa. It was too dangerous, everyone said. I made it to neighbouring Tanzania and Kenya in my early twenties, but never further south. I’m still being warned off travelling to South Africa, but I will no longer be deterred.

So, I’m setting off. I’m excited about exploring the country, and I’m also excited about the stories that might grow from the place. Because for me travelling and writing are entwined.

Wish me well!

If you would like to follow my travels through pretty pictures, join me on Instagram.

words and wanderlust

28 April 2017

I have a small problem. I am a travel junkie and a voracious reader. Combine the two and the result is an endless itch to jump on a plane.

I recently read Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts and was overtaken once again with the desire to visit India that first gripped me after reading Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Not because I want to join the violent Mumbai underworld that Roberts explores of course, but because the writing so vividly evoked the place and its people. It brought alive the sounds and smells and vibrancy and colour of a country. It made me want to explore it for myself.

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For me, fiction does this better than any other form. On the Road by Jack Kerouac is perhaps the most well-known travel novel, but I have also been to Nigeria with Teju Cole (Every Day is for the Thief), to Indonesia with Madelaine Dickie (Troppo), to Spain with Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises), to Cambodia with Laura Jean Mckay (Holiday in Cambodia), and to Columbia with Gabriel García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude). The list is long, and I could go on and on, but you see what I mean. Books can be grand adventures.

Later this year I’m headed to South Africa, and not just through the pages of a book. As the birthplace of my father, it has long held a fascination. I explored Tanzania and Kenya in my early twenties, but it has taken me more than two decades to finally make it to South Africa. Let’s just say anticipation levels are pretty high. I’m hoping that I will find the spark of a novel there, but at the very least I know I’ll find a short story or two.

For me, travel is always entwined with reading and writing. In 2015, an artsACT grant sent me to Thailand as research for a children’s picture book. I returned not just with a finished manuscript, Seree’s Story (forthcoming from Walker Books), but also the seed of an adult novel. In early 2016, this time thanks to a CAPO grant, I returned to Thailand to undertake the research for that book. While in Kanchanaburi I read Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, based on the Thai–Burma death railway, perhaps standing on the very spot where characters in his novel died, where real men died. Needless to say, it was a profound experience. After my return to Australia, I spent the rest of last year writing the first draft of my novel. Hopefully it will soon be ready to go on its own adventure out into the world.

But back to South Africa, my next stop on this planet. I first fell in love with the country through fiction, as a teenager. I started with The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay, which has since sold over eight million copies. To my adult sensibility it is an idealistic, romanticised and overly sentimental representation of the struggles of apartheid, but at the time I fell in love with the hero, Peekay, and felt righteous indignation about the situation still facing Africans at that time. It led me to read my way through nonfiction about Mandela and Biko and Sobukwe. To fiction by Doris Lessing and J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer.

Last year I finally read Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country which had been on my To Read list for far too long. The novel subtly explores the tensions and issues that gave rise to apartheid. It reveals deep truths and creates empathy for multiple perspectives. This is what fiction has over nonfiction. We can walk around in characters’ shoes and see what they see, feel what they feel.

Now I intend to explore the fiction of South Africa in greater depth. I picked up the Granta Book of the African Short Story as a starting point and have discovered a new generation of writers whose novels I am rounding up. I’m travelling into the complexities of the place, while curled up in bed with a cup of tea. But come September I’ll be avoiding tourist trails and attempting to go beneath the surface, hoping to connect with the heart of the place and its people.

Like pretty much every writer except J.K. Rowling, I am not flush with cash. This means I must ration my travel. But while my feet remain firmly in Australia, there are novels to transport me. Even if they make me want to scratch that itch harder.

This post first appeared on Noted Festival’s blog here.