Sue Grant-Marshall, the radio host of the wonderful show on Radio Today called Reading Matters, interviewed me about A Hill of Fools. Click HERE to listen to the podcast.
Sue Grant-Marshall, the radio host of the wonderful show on Radio Today called Reading Matters, interviewed me about A Hill of Fools. Click HERE to listen to the podcast.
I attended yet another book fair this past weekend. I was certain it would be an anti-climax compared to last weekend’s august affair in Franschhoek. Also, my mind was certainly not on books but watching the all-German European soccer final between Bayern Munich and Dortmund. Perhaps if I had not been in the program I would found some excuse to give this event a miss…and what a truly outstanding day I would have missed out on.
The program was packed with outstanding writers who were equally quality speakers. I found Hamilton Wende’s discussion on war and its inextricable relationship to man riveting. I have always been interested in wars, great soldiers and warriors from my school days, and I couldn’t resist buying two of Wende’s books on the subject. Wende has reported from war zones for many years, and managed to get into the minds of those who make wars, and the brave young men and women who fight them.
I was in agreement with his conclusion that man, together with the lion, was one of the deadliest predators on earth. He indicated that we were no different from the barbarians of the ancient world in our love for bloodshed, perhaps the only difference was in the manner we now killed each other.
Hlumelo Biko and Tony Leon’s discussion on the state of the nation was perhaps the highlight of the program. Every thrust and parry of their debate was exciting. When Steve Biko died I was just a school-boy. As a banned person at the time, his words and mind were hidden from most of the public, and many people never got to appreciate his extra-ordinary qualities. With the inquest into his death in the 80s, a lot of about his life emerged but this was not the same as hearing directly from him.
This past Saturday I heard from his son, Hlumelo Biko. Strangely it seemed for the first time in my life I was looking through a window directly into Steve Biko’s soul. Hlumelo is undoubtedly his father’s son. All the eloquent erudition I was told his father had, he displayed in abundance. He brought to the debate the calm clarity of his words.
His views on issues of race, education and the vast economic imbalances in our country were illuminating. There is no doubt that throughout his life there will be the inevitable comparisons made between him and his parents: his father Steve Biko and his equally formidable mother, Mamphele Ramphele. But I have no doubt he will chart his own path in life, and leave behind his unique and indelible footprints.
Tony Leon still packs a very stiff verbal jab, and has a more than useful counter-punch. I found him very amiable. Unlike in the past, he is now less inclined in debate to go for the jugular, and seems content to allow his opponent to fully recover after a flurry of blows. He brought a lot of useful and witty insights to what was a riveting discussion on the future of our country.
Nik Rabinowitz had us all in stitches for an hour. The large hall was understandably packed to the rafters. There is something about Nik’s humour that makes you laugh even before he utters a single word. He takes the mickey out of all of us, and easily succeeds to make South Africans laugh at themselves.
My session with Achmat Dangor, the CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, chaired by the inimitable Denis Beckett kicked off late in the afternoon. The venue was smaller but full despite the lateness of the hour. The discussion was once again lively, and went on for longer than the allocated forty five minutes. It was intimidating and flattering to see the legendary human rights lawyer, George Bizos, in the audience for our session.
Congratulations to Kingsmead College for what was an outstanding afternoon.
I was asked by the organisers of the Franschhoek Literary Festival to speak at the opening cocktail evening of this year’s event, and below is a transcript of my speech.
To all the writers, publishers, editors, the organisers of this highly esteemed event, the press, friends and family, honoured guests, and all the many people who, unseen and unheard, quietly make it possible for the book industry not only survive but thrive in our country, I greet you.
It is both a pleasure and a privilege for me to be standing in front of all of you today, and I should first express my gratitude to the organisers of the Franschhoek Book Festival for their invitation to me to speak here tonight.
I am particularly grateful also to the Pan Macmillan team for taking a risk on me and publishing my book. It was always a joy to work with Andrea, Sharon, Laura, Smangele and the other members of that extra-ordinary team. I must also express my gratitude to the late Glen Cowley and UKZN Press who took a risk and published my first book.
Let me then turn my attention to what I have been asked to speak on tonight and that is my journey as a writer. It is of course a subject that I approach with much trepidation since writing exposes not just ones gifts but ones weaknesses as well. What might in the end look like a carefully written story is preceded by so much self-doubt, fear, internal discord, and loneliness. It is a journey in which ones powers of the mind, or lack of them, are examined.
My literary calling began in my childhood in the home in which I grew up in Port Elizabeth.
I believe it was not by accident that I was born in a home filled with books, and raised by parents who enthroned knowledge and that from an early age I fell in love with learning and the world of words. The books carried my young mind beyond the horizon; beyond the frontier of the small and closed world that I lived and grew up in.
They made me realise that there was a world, other cultures and societies beyond mine. They were the lucent edges of a memorable childhood. From those early days of reading my father’s books, my love for reading remains as strong as ever, and my thirst for learning as impassioned as any.
Even today, as it was when I was young, I am still exhilarated by the limitless power of words, and still staunchly devoted to learning. It is this vast emporium of words that had left a great impression on the mind, but also to a large extent it is reading that shaped my destiny as a writer.
My first book was I Speak to the Silent. Its seed was sown in the late 80s when political parties were unbanned in our country and some of the returnees found refuge in Ponte City, a large apartment building that once shimmered with beauty, buzzed with life, but now is perhaps a shadow of its former grand self. I was a tenant then in room 1309, a trainee specialist in the Department of ENT at Wits.
Since exile, perhaps more so than ordinary life, is often accompanied by many medical and psychological illnesses, word soon got around of my presence and residence in the building. In no time I became a resident physician to many of the returnees, the highest and lowliest, the heroes and heroines of our struggle. I ferried many in the middle of the night for the treatment of many ailments.
I would smuggle some into the wards at the Hillbrow Hospital to avoid the ever present and watchful members of the feared Special Branch of the South African Police force. I searched the hospital’s medicine cabinets for whatever drugs or remedies I could get to treat the many and varied ailments this group had. The ultimate reward for me, as it would be for any doctor, was to help those who were in need.
But there was also another gift: that of friendship to many. In some instances I became someone to confess to about the many and heavy burdens of life in exile. To say I was badly affected by the trauma they shared with me and the sadness of their narrative would be an understatement. Nothing in my then short life had prepared me for what I heard.
This is how the idea of I Speak to the Silent was formed. I could never of course divulge the names of those who trusted me with their pain and even weaknesses. I had to fictionalise their experience. In the end I had to write the book, if only to help myself heal. There was so much else that I was told that was just too painful to dwell upon, and I saw no need to write about most of those things.
Since the book was released there has been gratitude, repeatedly expressed, by many who shared their painful secrets with me: in some instances others, whom I had no contact with in my life, but with similar experiences, called and openly shared them with me. Victims of similar abuse called from all over world. It seemed that in writing the book and dealing with my own trauma I had touched people’s lives.
For this, and the rewarding experience of writing my first novel, I shall always be grateful. It is a book that will always be special to me. Like most affairs in life, in this story things are not always what they seem to be.
With regards to my second novel, A Hill of Fools, I suppose my interest in slavery was piqued in the 80s when I laid my hands on a banned copy of Roots – Alex Haley. I think I was both stunned and fascinated that money could buy human beings as property.
Since then I have steadily devoured most of what I could find on slavery, what my late school principal once referred to as ‘the worst affliction visited on any continent in the last millennium’, not for the purposes of academic learning, but out of interest in the history of the continent.
Of all the material I have read through the years: Up from Slavery – Booker T. Washington, Incidents in the Life of Slave Girl – Harriet Jacobs, Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Harriet Stowe, Amistad – David Pesci, and others: Alex Haley’s book still remains to me the most important book on the subject ever written.
A lot of documentaries and books on African slavery focus on the victims’ fate after they have been snatched from their homes and shipped to the new world. They dwell on the horrors of slave plantations, and the degrading humiliation of slave auctions in foreign markets.
Others deal with the harrowing ordeal of that final journey to the new world – what is often referred to as ‘the middle passage’. But I had to find out about how slavery enacted itself on our continent. I set out to discover the instinctive reactions of the ordinary African men and women to the extreme burden of slavery. I have therefore based the story entirely on the continent.
My main purpose though for writing this book was to highlight the rather pervasive inability of many African nations to deal with the responsibilities of the freedom they had won. As a child of the Cold War era, I know the joy of seeing small and weak nations free themselves from the yoke of oppression.
I had been inspired by the gallantry of a few, in their quest for the liberation of many. We, as Africans, were at first mesmerized by the native leaders – thinking that they were the true keepers of some sacred revolutionary flame. However, with power assumed, and with the exception of a few, keeping promises made to their people suddenly became an inconvenience. The colonial bullies seem to have been replaced by native czars.
The constant theme and the truth that is cunningly and brazenly unconcealed throughout the story is that of shepherds who have betrayed their flock. The book is an expression of my own outrage at the betrayal of the African dream. More than a half century of self-rule has passed that cannot clearly be celebrated, nor does it mark the dawn of a reborn continent.
So much then for my books and the rather difficult journey it took for me to get where I am. I cannot pretend that writing is easy for me. It is actually difficult. This is made worse by the ever growing demands of my medical practice. I cannot easily explain how I manage to balance my life between the two. It is something that I seem to do almost by instinct.
Perhaps it is something that I can explain by once again going back to my childhood when I often followed my father during his hospital rounds, and fell in love with the world of healing, of medicine and serving humanity. In becoming a medical doctor, the intellectual life of books that I loved and the life of service that I adored, just simply came together: and the two gave a unique meaning to my life that very few things would ever match.
As if these responsibilities were not enough. I wrote A Hill of Fools during 2007-2011.
For three of those years I was leading both South African Cricket and African Cricket, and for the last two years of my tenure I was dealing with a crisis that was public and traumatic. It was an experience that shook my life in a way it has never been before.
And yet even during the turmoil and storms of that time, I still could find time and inspiration to write creatively. It was as if writing provided a sanctuary and cover from the storm. The psychiatrist Anthony Storr wrote: “creativity is the successful resolution to internal conflict.” Writing was one of the few things that tamed the demons and tigers of that time in my life.
I cannot of course leave out the importance of my children in this story. They have largely given me the space to do the things that I love and I am very grateful to them. I have not always been present when they needed me. But we all know the love we have for one another even during the dark plateaux of life. I have therefore dedicated both my books to my children uSiyolo and Nonceba.
In time I feared that when the sum experience of their lives give them authority, they would ask themselves the question, what was our father? This is a point where all children are most vulnerable, their need to respect their father as a man. This is something that every father dreads.
But I hope I have begun to answer that question. It is of course my wish that both will have more than just a passing interest for words and literature.
My life therefore has been immensely blessed. I have a large and a generous family. I have my medical practice which is a source of great joy. I have an impassioned love affair with reading and writing which I hope will give me companionship and the intellectual challenge into a ripe old age.
I have the irrationality of my Christian faith which serves as an unerring compass, and allows me to always walk in hope. Because of it I see beauty in most of God’s creations. Then I have my children whose every doing is a source of great fascination and happiness. That is the brief story of my life as a writer.
I do believe the state of South African literature is very good. I have seen its growth during the entire course my life. Our country boasts not only a Nobel Laureate for Literature in Nadine Gordimer, but also two–time winner of the Booker Prize in J.M. Coetzee.
This is testimony to the good health of literature in our country. There are of course so many of our writers, young and old, black and white, who have been a source of great inspiration to me. The scope for more growth remains especially for books in indigenous languages.
Once again I am grateful for and humbled by the invitation to be here this weekend. We are grateful to the friends and families who have come to support us.
I love the road that I am travelling even though its destination remains a mystery. I still go back to my home in Port Elizabeth. Now I am no longer a child, I go back as an adult, and as a father of two wonderful children.
I am still humbled by the might of the ocean nearby and in awe of its power. As I look at its vast expanse I no longer think of the different societies that live beyond it, but of the similarities that exist amongst man. I see the needs of humanity as being remarkably similar and their fears and anxieties no less different. Nowhere is this obvious than with us in this country: people whose future is inextricably intertwined and whose destiny is the same.
Our children no longer play apart; no longer grow apart and no longer school apart. Even with us as adults, with all our prejudice, a product of growing up in an abnormal society, we are beginning to find our place in this new society. We realise that this is a new era and no longer can we pass our bias to our children. The books that we write must make an attempt at balance, and not seek to raise the racial tension to new peaks.
That even though our bodies and our souls are still bleeding from a thousand wounds, there is a need for humanity. Even though I have always admired the ocean for its might and its strength, but what the ocean in essence does is to give life to humanity, and there is a need for us to do the same to one another to show compassion.
Once again, I am also grateful for the opportunity to speak here tonight, and to be in the presence of some of the wonderfully gifted people and writers in the country. I sincerely hope that you all enjoy what promises to be a unique and extra-ordinary weekend.
I thank you.
This past weekend I attended the Franschhoek (French corner) Literary Festival. It was three days of sheer delight with many of the luminaries of the country’s literary world present. I had never before been to Franschhoek wine valley, a small heaven just an hour’s drive (83kms) from the Mother City, because like many I believed the world came to an end in Cape Town. Surprisingly, the more west one drove the prettier things got.
Franschhoek is a little gem with its beauty evident in its people, manifest in every home and building, and displayed in the many works of art housed in the galleries that line its main street. It is an oasis of colour, charm and of course wealth. Like the great cities of the ancient world, with the high walls to keep the invaders out, it is surrounded by mountains (an ancient mountain range believed to have been formed some 250 million years ago) as if to protect it from the cynical gaze of the world. Surely, this is what paradise is supposed to look like.
It is situated on sections of two Hugeunot farms – La Cotte and Cabriere. Its beauty notwithstanding it has had its fair share of conflict. It was once the site of several battles between the indigenous population and European settlers. And during the Anglo-Boer war a large military camp was established roughly where the present day museum and cemetery are.
I was invited by Andrea Nattrass, my publisher, to give an address at the opening event arranged by Pan Macmillan SA held on Friday at the Ebony gallery. The latter, with its colourful and beautifully decorated spaces, had what in my untrained eyes were fine modern pieces of art, and interior furniture on display. The evening went very well not because of my speech but the excellent food and wine, together with company of men and women who graced this special occasion.
I had planned to go and listen to Vanessa Goosen the following morning. I had followed her story with keen interest in the 90s.
The arrest of a former Miss SA in Thailand on drug charges had grabbed the attention of the whole country. Whether guilty or not, most of us sympathised with her. She was young and pregnant and didn’t seem to deserve a long jail sentence in a foreign country.
Her talk was moving and painful, and I was very happy to get an autographed copy of her book. Soon after, it was my turn, during a lunch time session, to talk about my second novel A Hill of Fools. It was satisfying that the venue was sold out, and that a lively debate followed on the book’s message.
The Sunday Times dinner at the La Cotte wine farm was the highlight. However despite the brilliance of the setting, and of those who attended, it was Jenny Crwys-Williams who captured the house. She was in fine form and her enthusiasm as infectious as ever. She is worthy of a novel in her right. The nominees for the Sunday Times Literary Awards were all worthy of their nominations.
After a late Saturday night I indolently slept in on Sunday morning. I consequently missed out on the morning book discussion sessions with the authors – some of which would have been interesting to attend. I eventually woke up to a brilliant summery day, and after a late breakfast, I patiently waited for my last session with the poet Oswald Mtshali, to be chaired by Professor Ndebele. It was once again a riveting session with the Professor adroitly controlling the discussion.
In the end it was an impressive and a thoroughly enjoyable weekend that left me asking for seconds. I hope to be back next year. For those who missed this one, there is good news: there is another one next year.
Congratulations to the organisers and the many hardworking people who made this event a success. I sincerely hope more people, particularly black South Africans, will attend in future. The winner of course was Franschhoek – for its engaging beauty, for its understated charm and for its generous hospitality.
“For a brief moment,” the report in the papers state, “Phakama Ndlovu’s eyes locked onto those of the man who was trying to save him.” But Phakama did not respond, he had been shot in the head and later slipped into a coma. His mother was first shot several times in the chest and died on the spot. Phakama who was with his mother, and had tried to come to her aid, was shot in the head and died several days later. A shop-owner in the area, who had accompanied the first person to the scene, claims to have heard eight shots.
I attended the memorial service for Phakama held at the school. I was early but found the chapel crammed. There was a huge concourse of school children with their parents- friends and colleagues who had to come to grieve and support Phakama’s family. I sat outside, and did my best to ignore the chill, with boys from another school.
The service started with a moving tribute to Phakama by the school principal. He was followed by several of Phakama’s friends who all spoke lovingly and highly of him. Though there was occasional laughter, the service was marked by tears not just from friends but even those who, like me, did not know Phakama.
“I am not supposed to come here and talk about the death of one of our young people,” said the priest, an eloquent sage with the most soothing voice. Indeed the death of one so young is an indictment of our society.
South African society is violent beyond description. We have been numbed even to the horror of death. It is a violence that constantly robs our country of its future and of its talent. Our homes have ceased to be our sanctuaries. Even there, violence can crawl in like a snake and bite you.
When ordinary citizens try to raise the alarm there is the inevitable reference to statistics that indicate a slight drop in violent crime-something that should not obscure that we are still one of the most violent countries in the world. The one statistic that is consistently overlooked is that our violence has got colour and race-both victim and perpetrator are overwhelmingly black. We continue, as a nation, to sin against ourselves. We are plagued by the very perversity that we tirelessly blame on others. Like the mighty Romans before their fall, we are blind to the fact that our biggest enemy lies not without but within.
Americans are in dialogue with each other, and battle about how to deal with gun-related violence in their communities. It is a healthy undertaking led by their leaders to prevent the country, one of the most powerful forces in the history of man, from destroying itself. We need to do the same. Much as we may seem powerless to effect change, we must always refuse to accept the unacceptable crisis of violence in our midst.
At the conclusion of the sermon by the priest, Phakama’s friends did the school war-chant. It was not as loud as usual, but it was still a roar of defiance. Thucydides wrote: “Do nothing or be free’, by this he meant that if we don’t defy what is manifestly evil we shall all be engulfed and destroyed by it. These chanting children seemed to be teaching us this simple lesson with their strident outrage.
The boys then hugged each other almost in total silence. But the sounds of their cries, and the sight of their tears were unbearable to watch. I left without seeing my son, something that I had desperately wanted to do. I desperately wanted to hug him. I desperately wanted to tell him how much I loved him. Phakama’s death had, among other things, reminded me of transitoriness of life. It made it more urgent not just to love others but also to enjoy every moment that we are alive.
I cannot imagine the pain that Phakama’s family feels, or that of the grieving father who had his son and wife so brutally snatched from him. But I am certain they are thankful for the school’s effort in comforting them. It was a sincere and a loving tribute, reminding us of the goodness and decency that still prevails in our country. So despite my anger and frustration at society I continue to hope. The children’s defiant chant gives me hope.
Fare the well Phakama, my dear son and brother: a young man who by most accounts was blessed with many and varied gifts, a rare caterpillar who never became a butterfly. May the Almighty God bless yours and your mother’s soul.
It was twelve years ago this month that a friend of mine called to tell me that her daughter, Nomonde(not her real name), had committed suicide. It was shocking news since I knew the girl well, and had known her for most of her short life.
She had been a patient for several years, and was one of the most enchanting female specimen I had ever encountered. She was charming and captivating. A 13 -year old girl with a fund of wit. A born rebel with a mind of an adult.
What I had missed in the many visits she and her mother had made to my rooms had been her sadness. It had been hidden below the veil of her beauty and her singular personality. Thus despite my experience as a clinician I was oblivious to her suffering. For several years she was nothing more to me but a beautiful little girl with a blocked nose.
I knew Nomonde’s mother better. What I knew of her was that for most of her life she had been sexually abused by father (Nomonde’s grandfather)-a senior policeman who was highly respected in his community. Her first sexual encounter had been with her father. Nomonde’s grand-mother, had witnessed her daughter’s abuse, but soon died before her daughter was fifteen years old.
Then a series of her father’s girlfriends and stepmothers drifted in and out of my friend’s life until she eventually left home in her late teens. Nomonde was born during this time. She had committed suicide, it seems, on learning that her grand-father was also her father.
Her bubbly personality notwithstanding, she could not overcome the grief that came with the knowledge that she was the product of an incestuous relationship. At thirteen years of age she thus mustered the courage to slit her wrists and ended her life.
Despite the knowledge I had of her mother’s painful childhood I failed to discern the wound that this tragedy had inflicted in Nomonde’s young soul. I had missed the sorrow and the mist in her eyes. I had missed the air of melancholy about her: for if I had seen it, I could have raised the alarm and possibly saved a life.
Perhaps I was pre-occupied by the unending shower of patients that flooded my medical rooms, and perhaps too complacent and blinded by the success of my practice.
I vividly remember our professors’ repeated counsel at medical school that our patients were far more than just the sick chests and tummies they complained about. We were taught to always be aware of the entire human being. But all I saw of Nomonde those many years ago was her beauty, a radiant personality, and her blocked nose: a little girl with force and presence.
I remember advising Nomonde’s mother to go for counseling following the girl’s tragic death. I am not certain if she heeded my advice. I never followed up. With hindsight I should have, and even insisted that she does. How casual we sometimes are even with matters of life and death.
Nomonde’s memory (and that of her mother and grand-mother) hovers enormously in my mind and with it the reminder of the huge responsibility we have as clinicians. No matter how fulfilling our successes, our mistakes can be utterly devastating. Our skills count for little without the patient and careful observation of the hidden and deadly signs that lurk below the façade of a “normal family”.
In the medical profession tragedies such as this are unfortunately our teachers, a prism through which we view our challenging profession, and a foundation for all the lofty aims of scholarship and learning.
Thus after 28 years of medical practice, as if to do penance to the ghost of that young life, I still remind myself to listen and observe carefully. There can no better lesson and no worthier endowment to any aspiring clinician than that.
Exclusive Books has put together a wonderful selection of unique South African perspectives in this year’s campaign – click HERE to see the full list of books chosen for 2013. And, if you are a Fanatics member, you can earn bonus points to the value of R20 on every Homebru book purchased.
I am sometimes asked where my love and inspiration comes from for writing. I think this has been continually nourished by a life-time of reading. I have had the stupendous fortune to grow up in a home filled with books. They were the lucent edges of a memorable childhood.
I remember the enchantment, and the sweet thrills that books brought, and still do, into my life. Not only was my mind nourished and my spirit refreshed, but each book beckoned me to another, and another. These treasures all led me to a vast Eden of knowledge.
However reading as a writer is different from that of leisure. As a writer you have to go beyond the story and learn not just the vocabulary but also note the style of the author’s writing. You discover that words can have melody and rhythm. You learn to appreciate the beauty of simplicity and the importance of brevity and clarity. With time, as your own writing improves, you realize that writing is not perhaps a gift that one is born with.
It is not an art, as William Zinsser points out in his book On Writing Well, but a craft that can be learned and honed. It is hard work. It requires one to impose rigorous self-discipline. Every word in a sentence must express an idea and have meaning, or better still be a pearl, and the superfluous ones be mercilessly culled. .
What type of books is the other question that people frequently poise? Perhaps this is personal. I have tried to read poetry but I often found it hard. I read a lot of history, from ancient to contemporary works, and lots of biographies. Maybe the reason for this is that for me writing is not only about the language or just telling a story but also about the great forces that shaped people’s lives and the causes they stood for.
Day after day a writer has to study the vast landscape of the human drama. The writer’s mind is always working as he studies and stores away the form and mannerisms of man. The writer has to always observe, collect and critique things.
But just as important as everything I have already observed, is to tell a story that is worth reading. The very best books, whether fiction or non-fiction, have for me been able both with language and the plot to instantly grab my attention and pull me along excitedly to the very end, leaving me in a state of an almost unending climax. These books, throughout the story, had pace and cohesion.
The best way therefore for me to write was just to write: it was to do so with unceasing diligence, passion and sincerity.
As the love affair with writing matures, I have found that the beautiful prose that has often eluded me is, though fitfully, now emerging. I now relish the written word and am smitten by language. Because of the wonder of words and the beauty of language most things in my life now seem worthy.