Friday, December 6, 2013

We Need New Names

Much has already been said about NoViolet Bulawayo’s Man Booker Prize-nominated We Need New Names, but I arrogate to myself the right to add my two-pence worth: it is beautifully written.

Ok, I realize I have to say a little bit more. We Need New Names is a thinly disguised tale of political and economic disempowerment in Zimbabwe, told through the eyes (and ears) of the juvenile, witty and humorous Darling and her fellow urchins Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Stina, and Sbho. Narrated by Darling in the first-person, it follows her and her friends’ tribulations first in their poverty-stricken home area, ironically named Paradise, through to her emigration to America to join her Aunt in “Destroyedmichygen”, where she nevertheless finds that life isn’t as she had expected.

“So where are the twists in the story?” you might ask. Well, there aren’t. It is sort of an engaging commentary that brings up issue after issue, discarding them once they have been presented to you, presumably to solicit your empathy, or, if you are prickled enough, your outrage. Easy – just think of any problems that may be there in Zimbabwe, and you’ll find them in this book. Poverty, political and economic marginalization, emigration to South Africa and other places (principally America and the UK), HIV/AIDS, rape (Chipo is pregnant as a result of being raped by her grandfather), longevity of Mugabe in power, difficult lives and dislocation in exile, and many more (such as devious, greedy preachers, and even China in Africa). It is no wonder Nigerian Novelist Helon Habila notes “a palpable anxiety to cover every "African" topic; almost as if the writer had a checklist made from the morning's news on Africa.”

“Poverty porn” critics have had their feast on this book already. However, what would writing be if it weren’t from the heart, from what you see and feel and hear? If what you observe is devastating or disconcerting enough for you to write about it, why should you gag yourself? Anyway, enough of my little rant. If you shut your eyes to this little “checklist” hypothesis, you will be hit right in the gut by refreshing, innocent and keenly observant wit and humor that can only come from cheeky juveniles (Darling and her crew). If you are still standing, more will come and knock you down. That’s what saves this book and makes it very readable – tackling heavy issues through humorous and innocent-witted observant kids.

For instance, a twelve-year-old kid would leave you cross-eyed if she told you this:
“If you’re stealing something it’s better if it’s small and hideable or something you can eat quickly and be done with, like guavas. That way, people can’t see you with the thing to be reminded that you are a shameless thief and that you stole it from them, so I don’t know what the white people were trying to do in the first place, stealing not just a tiny piece but a whole country. Who can ever forget you stole something like that?”
We Need New Names is bittersweet. You will find yourself laughing then catching yourself, or just being unsure whether to laugh or not, trying to uphold your indignation but finding yourself unable to clamp that laugh that forces itself out with a snort:
“I remind myself I have decided that praying to God is a waste of time. You pray and pray and pray and nothing changes, like for example I prayed for a real house and good clothes and a bicycle and things for a long, long, time, and none of it has happened… I’ve thought about it properly, this whole praying thing, I mean really thought about it, and what I think is that maybe people are doing it wrong; that instead of asking God nicely, people should be demanding and questioning and threatening to stop worshipping him…”
Beneath every startling and witty observation is a heavy theme or issue that sneaks up on you. However, Darling’s wit and humor somewhat cools down as she grows older and moves to America to join her aunt. With that, the book’s sparkle and energy fades off slightly and becomes a bit laden by the theme of displacement and dislocation. Darling finds new problems in America. For instance, while she gets more food than she can eat, “there are times, though, that no matter how much food I eat, I find the food does nothing for me, like I am hungry for my country and nothing is going to fix that.”

NoViolet Bulawayo (Zimbabweans have colorful names indeed, her real name isn’t as colorful but she just had to do it on her pen name) doesn’t present an epic, astounding, or sweeping work of literature. This book’s appeal lies in its subtle trickery: You will read through heavy themes without feeling overburdened by them. You will feel involved. Sometimes you will laugh with Darling and her gang; sometimes you will feel like reprimanding them, or feel sorry for them and wish you could do something for them, or you would simply appreciate being part of them and sharing their sad or silly little secrets. This is the magic of writing.

Picture Credit: Goodreads

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred

I have had the honour of listening to former South African President Thabo Mbeki deliver a couple of lectures. He shuffles and fidgets as he speaks, his beady eyes focused on either his script or on the audience. Looking at him speak, one gets the feeling that the wealth of knowledge and intellect cannot, will not, be hemmed in, and he fidgets and shuffles even more to let them out. His mildly impassioned baritone voice entrances as much as it holds attention – it holds your hand as it takes you on an intellectual high, and in the end one really doesn’t have a choice but be impressed. He exudes quiet but profound confidence that belies his short physical stature. After all, he is a man who caught the attention of the intellectual bigwigs of the African National Congress (ANC) when he was just a teenager.

Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred tells the extraordinary story of an extraordinary man. It is a detailed account of the life of a man who, drawing attention from an early age with his precocity, gave his life to the ANC, through exile during the struggle and in independent South Africa.

A common result of apartheid was the utter destruction of family life, but in the case of Thabo Mbeki, it became something akin to an understated tragedy. The ANC was his family. His father, Govan Mbeki, caught up in the early hints of an anti-apartheid struggle, was hardly around for his children as they grew up, and was then sentenced to life in prison on Robben Island together with Mandela. His marriage to Epainette, Mbeki’s mother, fell apart. Mbeki thus grew up with the imperative that the struggle was more important than family; his comrades were his family. Throughout the struggle, even when faced with the disappearances of his own son Kwanda and his brother Jama, he placed the struggle on a pedestal – all else came secondary.

This is the running theme in this biography by Mark Gevisser. Mbeki has often been described as aloof, cold, unfeeling, but this book dissects his motivations and presents him as someone who couldn’t, given his background, have lived any other way. I was however a little exasperated. I thought Mbeki and his family could have done something regarding his brother, for instance, who disappeared in Botswana, and at least have his remains brought to South Africa for proper burial. But then I caught myself: it is easy to be judgmental when the implications of situations and events aren’t fully apparent, no matter how much you may picture them in your head as you read.

Indeed, Mbeki lived through a time when dedication to the anti-apartheid struggle and movement was expected to be unquestioned. Even to his own father, he was no longer a son but a comrade. To Mbeki, his father Govan was no more than his mentors Duma Nokwe, Oliver Tambo, and finally Nelson Mandela. Thus Gevisser explores the not altogether warm relationship between father and son, tempered by the imperatives of struggle. In fact, Mbeki is shown to have had more of a father-son relationship with Oliver Tambo than with his own father.

An offshoot of this thread is the fact that Mbeki was seen as a favored child of the ANC as soon as he was noticed. We are cautioned however that, while he carried the Mbeki name, it was his precocious intellect that stood him out from the rest. He nevertheless faced some antagonism from fellow comrades of his age, most notably the late South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani, who felt slighted by the perceived favoritism. Indeed, Mbeki was coerced into scholarship in exile (London and Moscow) against his wishes (he wanted to join the struggle immediately after High School), and then made the then ANC President Oliver Tambo’s Political Secretary in Lusaka. Mbeki’s life therefore became a series of mentorships, the most prominent of which was with Tambo. In the latter part of the book Mbeki is shown to have come of age finally, winning the ANC Presidency unopposed on his own (without the loom of Tambo), delivering the highest percentage win of the ANC in national elections, and overcoming a difficult relationship with Nelson Mandela.

Whether as a result of prolonged exile or a natural aversion to violence, Mbeki’s approach to the struggle in the late 1980s and early 1990s favored negotiations above all else, and this antagonized him further with more militant comrades led by Chris Hani.

Gevisser suggests that perhaps Mbeki was caught up in the tensions and confluence of the three main arms of the movement – exile (in which he belonged), prison, and “underground” (those who remained in South Africa but managed to operate without being arrested). Some form of mistrust festered, even among the exiles, some of whom were in the “trenches” in Angola and Mozambique while Mbeki trotted the world defending the movement. He was thus seen as an untested comrade who insisted on talks, even talks about talks, at all costs, and was viewed with suspicion. Further, Mbeki is shown as being disdainful of establishing a home base, as Chris Hani and Jacob Zuma had done with their respective ethnic communities. The perception was therefore reinforced that he was out of touch with the masses and wasn’t a “people’s person”.

Thus we see that Mbeki has always been set apart, or set himself apart, from the rest, a fact that caught up with him in the ANC National Conference in Polokwane in 2007 when he was ousted as the Party’s President. There were no longer the shadows of Govan Mbeki, Duma Nokwe or Oliver Tambo to watch over him. The ANC, his comrades, his family, rejected him after having given over fifty years of his life to the movement.

Mbeki is presented in this biography as someone who has deep confidence in himself and his abilities, and who maybe, as a result, somehow needed to prove it again and again. He has always taken great exception to subtle racism, real or perceived. For instance, he resented what he called the “Mandela exceptionalism”:
“Mbeki called this attitude “Mandela exceptionalism” when he was being polite; the “one good native” syndrome when he was not. The argument went like this: Africa was irredeemable, and Mandela was the only good leader to ever come out of it; once he left office, South Africa would sink like the rest of the continent into the mire of corruption and decay, as Nigeria had. It seemed to Mbeki that Mandela was actually colluding in the world’s impression that he was the “one good native”, the consequence of which was the perception that all other black leaders – Mbeki foremost – were incompetent…”
Mbeki’s prickliness at these “subtle” and “unstated” forms of racism by the West was perhaps what hardened his resolve against anti-retroviral drugs, an unfortunate blight on his distinguished career, or what motivated his decision to defend Robert Mugabe, perhaps rightly so. Perhaps it is because he thought the black man is not really free, that the dream has been deferred, that he saw racism where it could have been implausible. It motivated his African Renaissance philosophy to keep the deferred dream alive.

In summary, this book is an extraordinarily well-written and detailed account of the life of one of the ANC’s foremost fixers – he always got the job done, whether as a diplomat, a charmer, a recruiter, a negotiator, or as President. It is a tribute to Mbeki’s lifelong dedication to the Party, his well-meaning motivations, and his pursuit of the dream deferred.

Picture credit: Goodreads

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Tender Hairs Bristle

Tender hairs bristle, on my neck
And recoil. Blood rushes, and rushes back
Heart beats, thunder in my ear
Eyes bulge, lip drops
A word forms on it. I stop it –
It’s hopeless. I slump, and resign.

I wait. I look, and look again
Words won’t come, and I’m crushed more
Shrinking, sinking, drowning, wishing
Eons pass. Time is heavy
Heart breaks, more than the heartbroken
Feeling, feeling, feeling.

She looks one more time, and turns
Gone. I know, I understand, I stun
Eyes speak beyond words – her eyes
I turn. My eyes now speak
She gathers. Hurried. A flash of skin, and gone too
I look again. I’m all alone.

Picture credit:

Monday, December 2, 2013

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Idris Elba doesn’t look like Nelson Mandela. Neither does Naomie Harris look like Winnie Mandela. If there ever was a contest about who most closely resembles the two icons of the South African liberation struggle, Elba and Harris wouldn’t even come close. The audience in the theatre where I watched the biopic on its opening day seemed to have accepted the incongruity of Elba’s appearance compared to Mandela, aided in large part by his height and Mandela-like voice (how did he do that?). However, gasps ran through the theatre as soon as it became clear that a scrawny-looking but pretty lady, who I’m sure many (including myself) thought was just another to-be conquest of the womanizing – that’s right – Mandela, was actually playing the role of Winnie.

And yet their performance is nothing short of moving, profound and powerful, truly special if you consider the small matter of non-resemblance. I suppose it takes great courage and no small amount of self-belief to play the larger-than-life Mandela and the equally complex Winnie. In her own words, Harris, who has played Bond girl in Skyfall, admits that playing Winnie Mandela “is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” The two non-South Africans had to overcome language and accent obstacles to inject realism into the film. The audience cheered, rapturous no doubt, when Elba spoke a few words of Xhosa in a scene where Mandela is visiting his mother. More than anything else, it is their reassuring performance that infuses acceptability into the biopic.

Which isn’t to say that the other actors don’t do their job. Tony Kgoroge (another incongruity), who plays Mandela’s long time comrade Walter Sisulu, and Riad Moosa as Ahmed Kathrada, both deliver credible performances, as do the rest of the cast completing the Rivonia accused as well as other important figures in the struggle. For the straightforward reason that this is a biopic about Mandela, and perhaps in an effort to make it as intimate as possible, the focus isn’t much on Mandela’s comrades apart from Sisulu and Kathrada. Hence I presume it would be unfair to say the movie diminishes their very important roles in the struggle. It is however curious that some high profile South African actors were given these roles that were very much in the background, such as Fana Mokoena (Govan Mbeki), Sello Maake ka-Ncube (Chief Albert Luthuli), and Jamie Bartlett, who plays Mandela’s prison officer James Gregory.

There is another small matter - I (and I heard loud whispers from others in the theatre too) would have preferred Elba to be in Xhosa attire when he utters Mandela’s famous words in court, as Mandela himself was, to display his proud Xhosa royalty. Other key events, such as Mandela’s childhood, arrest, walk from prison upon his well-planned release, as well as the negotiations with the de Klerk government are a tad low-key, and some feel almost rushed, especially his childhood. It’s hard to fault this – it is not a small feat to compress Mandela’s eventful life in a 146-minute flick. If you are inclined to fastidious detail you should probably read (or re-read) the book.

However, apart from these small matters (which are forgivable, really), you will be deeply and emotionally moved by the depiction of the collapse of family life under apartheid, such as the last hand clasp between Mandela and Winnie in court after his sentencing; Mandela’s grief at not being able to attend his mother’s and son’s funerals; Winnie’s detention, leaving their two young daughters all alone, and her courage in the face of police harassment; and their daughter Zinzi’s reading of her father’s letter at a release-Nelson-Mandela campaign rally, among other scenes. Prepare yourself and don’t choke on your popcorn when those lumps fill your throat and a teary mist covers yours eyes.

It is by no means a bleak or depressing biopic. Humor and wit, well-known attributes of Mandela, counterbalance the emotional scenes. Mandela and his comrades celebrate in prison when they score a “big” victory – being given long pants in place of schoolboy shorts. Mandela’s romance with Winnie, especially his proposal, is very heartwarming. And don’t be scandalized by the portrayal of Mandela as a womanizing and wife-neglecting man before he meets Winnie.

This is a very honest and intimate depiction of the Nelson Mandela, the man and the icon; his journey from being a carefree lawyer having the time of his life in Johannesburg, to being the face of the anti-apartheid struggle amidst his personal guilt for having “abandoned” his family, and finally, to being released and inspiring his nation to freedom. It is criminal, I believe, not to watch this film.

Picture credit: Hitfix Awards

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Sleeper's Wake

Picture life in a remote and idyllic coastal village, lush with greenery and poetic in the lazy back and forth of its bordering sea. Here, the drag of time complements the ponderous quiet. The sweet songs of the birds, and not the din of the traffic, adorn the crisp air. In such an environment, it is easy to fall prey to romantic entrapments, or just plain lust – in most cases one can’t tell the difference. Every addition to the sparse population is an object of open and unabashed interest, a promise of a break from the norm, an escape door. The irony intertwines in a strange dance: the incoming look to escape to the serenity, and the locals look to escape a life that has become banal to them. Add personal tragedy and trauma to the mix, and you have a compelling story of how situations, circumstances, and environments shape man’s actions.

Sleeper’s Wake, based on a novel with a similar title by Alistair Morgan, is a South African movie with pretty much this setting. John Wraith is in his mid-forties and has just lost his wife and daughter in a terrible car accident. His trauma feels worse as he fell asleep on the wheel, causing the accident. He retreats to the remote coastal village, where he gets involved with a family mourning its own loss: Roelf, his teenage daughter Jackie and her younger brother Simon. They are reeling from the loss of their wife and mother in a horrific home robbery.  A shared trauma, an idyllic environment, and various forms of escapism lead John to fall for Jackie’s audacious seductive games, and what unfolds, albeit painstakingly, is a gripping psychological thriller.

You wouldn’t enjoy this movie should you watch it immediately after the latest Fast & Furious, as the plot reveals itself slowly, which is remarkable since the movie runs for just about eighty-eight minutes. A good deal of effort is made to induce a touch of poesy in the screenplay – picturesque scenes are displayed for a tad longer than normally, accompanied by soft piano soundtracks. Perhaps this is necessary as the plot appeals primarily to emotion and psyche. The overall effect is almost literary, almost because the development of the plot is somehow disjointed and doesn’t flow as effortlessly as one would expect.

There’s slight disappointment however in character development. Jackie’s brother Simon only plays a peripheral role and later disappears, presumed to have escaped from their controlling father Roelf. The movie ends without him being found. It is also not clear what role a domestic worker plays after she appears at John’s house seeking employment, and, apart from chancing in on Jackie and John after one of their romps, she virtually fades away.

The acting is above average, particularly by Jay Anstey (Jackie), who has made a notable transition from acting in the SABC TV drama Isidingo to the big screen. Lionel Newton’s portrayal of the troubled John is also profound.

If you have a taste for the slightly morbid and unorthodox, as well as a literary taste, this could be a movie for you. I would recommend it as a fairly good flick.