Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Pick n Read in South Africa

In a recent piece on The Bookseller, Graeme Neill reported that UK supermarket chain Tesco aims to double book sales to £200m within three years. Tesco has a 6% share of the UK book market by value and 10% by volume, which puts it close to overtaking Borders and becoming the UK's fourth-largest bookseller behind Waterstone's, WH Smith and Amazon.

In view of the aim to boost a book-reading culture in South Africa, I wondered what would happen if South Africa's national supermarket chain Pick n Pay started stocking books...Read more here

Tuesday, 22 July 2008


Saturday, 19 July 2008

Your sex drive

Powerful exposé of a prostitute’s life

A review of Whiplash, Tracey Farren, Modjaji Books

Whiplash is a first-person narrative cast in the form of a letter from Tess, a Muizenberg prostitute and Syndol addict, to her mother. In the beginning of the book, Tess assures her mother: “I’m gonna tell you all about it, Mom. I’m gonna tell it like I’m on the end of the bed, talking to you. I’m not gonna cover up ... I’m warning you, Ma, this is the truth.”

This introduction encapsulates the tone of the book: intimate and frank, simple and colloquial, as well as cold and brutal, hallucinatory and complex. The world of prostitution is, after all, often one of violence, abuse, addiction, neglect, desperation and rejection.

As Tess recounts her daily experiences of picking up clients, we learn what it is like when you have to give freebies to the police to avoid a R500 fine for loitering or how a quick R50 blow job means the rent will be paid in full that month. Every time Tess gets into a client’s car there is also the risk of being beaten up, raped, contracting HIV or worse, as in the case of her friend Amanda, who was murdered. But this is a risk prostitutes take, as is the risk of pregnancy when a condom breaks, which is precisely what happens while Tess is giving a freebie to the policeman Hanif. For Tess the only option is to have an abortion at the government clinic.

A key theme in the novel is vulnerability, especially that of the outcast in a cold, corrupt and uncaring society. In the opening paragraphs Tess recounts how her mother told her “keep your fanny closed, else the birds can fly in”. But birds here are not just an obvious phallic symbol, but also one of aggressive and destructive intrusion.

Throughout the novel, Tess recounts memories of her childhood in KwaZulu-Natal, of her ailing mother and her stepfather Graham, the domestic worker Gladys and her best friend Dumi. It is, in many ways, a familiar story of innocence betrayed, but in Whiplash it is made more horrific by having some unpleasant and ugly truths thrown in our faces.

Some of the brutality depicted in the novel comes close to feeling like a physical blow, as in the description of Amanda’s murder and the discovery of her body: “Shit, some guy split her from her throat to her belly button. Popped out her eyes. Left her buried in the sand at Clovelly. Some mom was collecting sand for her kid’s sand pit. Dug up her loose eye...”

The description of a four-month-old foetus being aborted is worse: “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle kid. Tiny thighs, perfect feet. Torn off arms. Some messy bits that are maybe its tummy, mashed up ...”

However, the violence is not restricted to Tess’s environment. There are references to the war in Iraq and we are reminded of the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo through the painful memories of the refugee Madelaine. There are some strong, colourful and haunting characters in the book, such as Tess’s friend and fellow prostitute Bonita. There is also the prostitute Annie, the policeman Hanif and the impotent client Limp Lennie, as well as Tess’s mother, Graham, Gladys and Dumi.

Whiplash is a powerful, often disturbing book. It was rejected by a number of commercial publishers which felt its brutality and frankness would be too strong for the local market. Instead, it has been taken up by independent publisher Modjaji Books and already sales are being negotiated for Australia and the UK. Tracey Farren’s debut novel could well become a bestseller.

(First published in The Weekender, July 19, 2008)

Drawing 11

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Tuesday, 08 July 2008

Velvet to be screened at the KZNSA Gallery

Aryan Kaganof’s film Velvet is based on a cut-up prose sequence called April in the Moon-Sun by poet Gary Cummiskey.

Composed in 2002 and originally published on the online literary journal, donga, April in the Moon-Sun is characterised by astonishing surreal images that shift between London and Johannesburg. Throughout its hallucinatory pages lurks the whore-spirit, Dirty Girl.

When donga went offline in 2006, Cummiskey published April in the Moon-Sun through his Dye Hard Press. The print run was limited to 100 copies, one of which was sent somewhat belatedly to Kaganof.

Towards the end of 2007 Kaganof announced his intention to make a short text film which would be his interpretation of the work. In January this year, Velvet was born.

Lasting 11 minutes and 32 seconds, containing electronic music by US experimental duo Matmos and culminating in what Kaganof describes as “physical poetry” by US porn star Taylor Rain, the film begins in total darkness with background sounds reminiscent of John Cage’s work, and which hint at what is to come.

From darkness – nothingness – is born the word, as the text of April in the Moon-Sun starts to appear on screen. The music of Matmos, a track titled Burroughs, reflects the cut-up nature of the work. The spirit of Dirty Girl is invoked as she starts to appear in the narrator’s brain.

From the word is born the image – the physical manifestation of Dirty Girl, played by Taylor Rain, who engages in some naughty, dirty exploration. Dirty Girl’s sudden appearance after about six minutes of text comes as a shock to our eyes just as her activities may come as a shock to our bourgeois sensibilities.

Velvet will be screened at the KZNSA Gallery, in Glenwood, Durban, from August 5 to August 24.

Drawing 10

Wednesday, 02 July 2008

Three into one just about goes

The number of visitors to the third Cape Town Book Fair climbed by 1,000 on last year to 51,000 – a welcome increase, especially as the fair seemed to have got off to the slow start. This is encouraging, and so congratulations to fair director Vanessa Badroodien and her team.

The fair consists of three components: a trade fair for the publishing industry, a retail fair to the public (which started up only last year), and literary discussions and talks which can be enjoyed by writers and readers alike. This is a huge, challenging task which requires outstanding organisational skills, and it is hard to please everyone...Read more here