Thursday, 17 December 2009

Focus on South Africa

The London Book Fair is now just a few months away, and there is considerable excitement in publishing circles here about the South Africa Market Focus that will be part of the fair.

In preparation for the event, the London Book Fair and the London organised a three-day workshop for representatives from South African publishers in order to prepare and orientate them for the event, as well as to guide them on how to maximise opportunities at the fair...Read more here

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

The Kindle arrives in South Africa

As of October, Amazon's e-book reader Kindle was made available to South Africans, and even the company's director of Kindle Books, Laura Porco, arrived in Johannesburg to announce the reader's availability...Read more here

Monday, 07 December 2009

Random thoughts and an incidental notquitereview - Haidee Kruger

I’ve been putting off reading poetry for a while now. Mostly because I’ve spent most of my time stumbling around the weird stitched-together monster that this year has been. It’s been half glutted days of bodily fluids and the dazed plumpness of new flesh, half excess of dead words that had to be hauled around and reconfigured in various positions. Sometimes I had to break some bones since rigor mortis had already set in.

So I’m feeling somewhat fuzzy at the moment, and queasy, and a bit patchy. There are stunned bits of me all over. Given this I figured I’d better stay away from poetry for a bit. It’s not for the weak of spirit. Instead I bolstered myself with some bland pap: magazines, baby books, some mostly nondescript novelly things. I know.

It’s just as well I waited before reading Gary Cummiskey’s new poetry chapbook, Romancing the Dead, published by Tearoom Books. Sure, there’s plenty of razorwire, but it’s not the razorwire that will get you. It’s the big, hollow, echoing melancholy below the jagged, surreal surface. Gary’s deadpan surrealism is December on the Highveld, with its blisters of hot tar and endlessly bleached afternoons that hide the sinkholes quietly opening up below.

(And I love the cover, with its austerely retronostalgic look. The design sensibility over at Tearoom Books is totally lovely.)

First published on Messy Things With Words

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Writing on the Margin from the Margin: Sinclair Beiles

From left: Gary Cummiskey, Michael Titlestad, Eva Kowalska, Fred de Vries.

Eva Kowalska and Fred de Vries

Eva Kowalska and Fred de Vries

Fred de Vries

Fred de Vries

Gary Cummiskey and Michael Titlestad

Gary Cummiskey and Michael Titlestad

Gary Cummiskey

Gary Cummiskey

All photographs courtesy of Arja Salafranca

Saturday, 07 November 2009

Romancing the Dead: A Sharp Cunt Dripping Honey, by Aryan Kaganof

Pravasan Pillay’s Tearoom Books has published the chapbook of the year.

There’s no escaping it.

The moment you see Gary Cummiskey’s face you start screaming


there is fire in the enema of art

he put it there


not yet free of the dream nor of the memory of when you came to me not wearing panties beneath your light summer dress

but the moment you got on top of me and you saw my face you started screaming

As far as South Africa is concerned a reason for Gary Cummiskey’s neglect may stem from the fact that he spent almost 20 years in Randburg, and by the time he returned to settle down in Sandton, the political situation had changed and so Cummiskey’s surrealist work seemed out of place. Thus Gary had become a marginalised figure as a result of both psychogeographical and cultural factors.

He writes in “European Writers” “Some people became poets after corresponding with European writers. I became a poet after sleeping on a razorblade.”

And this means that Gary is sharp.

He’s busy looking for a magic wand - no strings attached.

Another problem that may account for the relative obscurity of Gary’s work is the difficulty of placing it within the various ‘movement’ categorisations. While Romancing the Dead contains a number of poems dealing with the colonial city scene in Joburg, the rest of his work does not particularly reflect the social context in which it was created.

In the end it boils down to the “Painting”:

I am hungry and dirty.
My feet stink.
I want to brush my teeth.

However, it can also not be ignored that Cummiskey’s illness sometimes made him an extremely difficult person, and most publishers and editors were reluctant to deal with him. For this reason alone Pravasan Pillay must be commended. Despite there being no physical attraction Pillay liked Cummiskey as a friend.

Gary was aware of his outsider status, and openly declared that he did not wish to fit in with any particular group or category. But there is a difference between being an outsider and being marginalised to the point of neglect - and Cummiskey’s work is neglected. (Although Stephen Gray would probably not agree).

Romancing the Dead is a funeral ceremony and all Gary’s sleeping relatives sit on the floor of the bathroom around the bath where his corpse is laid. Once the sleepers have been given the pills to swallow when you left you took them out from your handbag and slipped them back on.

Some people become poets after sleeping with European writers.

Gary Cummiskey is a razorblade.

Very sharp.

Tearoom Books isbn 978-0-620-44717-1

First published on Kagablog

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Writing on the margin from the margin: Who was Sinclair Beiles?

Dye Hard Press, in conjunction with WISER, invite you to

Writing on the margin from the margin: Sinclair Beiles

Who was Sinclair Beiles?, a compilation of writings about the South African Beat poet who died in 2000, was recently published by Dye Hard Press.

Co-editors Gary Cummiskey and Eva Kowalska, along with contributor Fred de Vries, will discuss issues about the book, such as:

· Why has Sinclair Beiles’s work been neglected in South Africa?
· Why has there previously been no serious attempt to evaluate his work, and why has it fallen to a small publisher to make the first attempt at doing so?
· What are the challenges involved in trying to evaluate a marginalised writer such as Beiles?
· What is the purpose and relevance now, in 2009, in writing about Beiles?

The panel discussion will take place in the Seminar Room at WISER, 6th Floor, Richard Ward Building, East Campus, Wits University on Monday, 9 November 2009, at 18:30

Copies of Who was Sinclair Beiles? will be on sale at the event

Mots souples

Couché près de toi
en silence pendant que

le vent frappe
le rideau à côté

traduit par Dionysos Andronis

(translation of 'Soft Words', from Bog Docks, Dye Hard Press, Johannesburg, 2005)

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Portrait of Gary Cummiskey by Jenny Kellerman Pillay

Gary Cummiskey: Extreme Romantic

Aryan Kaganof, in a recent review of Gary Cummiskey and Eva Kowalska's Who was Sinclair Beiles?, drew an insightful parallel between Cummiskey and Beiles and, rightly, highlighted the scandalously fact that Cummiskey remains uncelebrated in South Africa....Read more here

Friday, 16 October 2009

Wrong side of the tracks?

For the past two years, an issue that has cropped up about the Cape Town International Book Fair has been the extremely high cost it involves for out-of-town publishers – and particularly small publishers - to participate in the event. In fact at this year’s fair the number of small publishers – whether from Cape Town or elsewhere in the country, was no more than a handful.

It was perhaps with this mind that independent Johannesburg-based Botsotso Publishing and NGO Khanya College teamed up to organise the Jozi Book Fair, which took place on August 8-9. Of course these two organisations did not have the benefit of two very powerful sponsors that the Cape Town Fair has – namely the Publishers’ Association of South Africa and the Frankfurt Book Fair – so it was obviously going to be on a far smaller scale – there were only 41 exhibitors – with fewer trimmings, bells and whistles.

Unlike the Cape Town fair, which takes place at the Cape Town International Convention Centre, surrounded by plush hotels, the Jozi Book Fair took place at Museum Africa in Newtown in downtown Johannesburg. This difference in location was not only indicative of practical financial considerations, but also of cultural if not political considerations. Indeed, the catalogue to the Jozi fair states that the event “is open to publishing houses which are committed to a social justice agenda and who feature contemporary and cutting-edge writing internationally and regionally”.

The two-day fair also hosted a number of seminars, launches and readings, and was preceded by a two-day workshop looking at establishing alternative means of distribution for small publishers in Africa.

On the opening of the fair itself, however, things got off to a slow start with the crowds coming in only about 11am, although the fair had officially opened at 9am. A key problem – which I heard about continuously over the next two days – was that promotion and advertising had not only been sparse, but last minute. As one bookseller told me, if he had been aware of the fair a month in advance, he could have advertised on his newsletter to customers.

Another problem was that the fair was situated on the second floor of the museum, and so visitors still had to find it, whereas the ideal would have been a venue where visitors would simply walk through the main doors to be in the exhibition hall.

Nevertheless, it was great to meet up and chat with some of my fellow small publishers again. It was wonderful to see Modjaji Books’ Colleen Higgs, Kotaz’s Mxolisi Nyezwa, Botsotso’s Allan Kolski Horwitz, Timbila’s Vonani Bila, as well as Chimurenga, Wordsetc and distributor Stephen Philips. Mid-sized independent publisher Jacana was there, as was art-book publisher David Krut Publishing. It was also good to finally meet Robin Malan of Junkets Publishing. There were also quite a few NGO publishers, and one or two publishers from other African countries.

As I said, by 11am the crowds started pouring in and at one point I had about seven people around my stand, which I was sharing with Deep South. Sunday, however, had only a trickle of visitors. Some of the exhibitors – including Frank Talk Press – did not even pitch up on the Sunday.

Some of the Jozi Book Fair’s critics described the event as a damp squib, if not a disaster. I think this criticism is a bit harsh. Plus small independent publishers in SA have for some time been talking about the possibility of having a separate book fair, as opposed to the large-scale commercial Cape Town event, and it is only natural there would be teething problems.

But we have to get the public in and so publicity and promotion is crucial.

(Published in The Bookseller September 25, 2009)

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Stephen Gray and Sinclair Beiles: which is the real literary con man?

Stephen Gray, in his review of Who was Sinclair Beiles?, (Mail & Guardian, 07/09/09) implies that Sinclair was “some sort of impostor? A scam?” Gray’s egregious insinuation is further developed in the article: “In the classic accounts of the period, James Campbell’s The Beat Generation and Barry Miles’s The Beat Hotel, “our boy” merits only a footnote or two, and no listing of his works, if there were any, in the bibliographies.”...Read more here

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Interview with Gary Cummiskey and Eva Kowalska about Who was Sinclair Beiles? on Litnet

Interviewer Janet van Eeeden: I found Who Was Sinclair Beiles? a fascinating read. It was so interesting to read about Sinclair Beiles, someone I didn't know much about, from so many different perspectives. The interviews between Beiles and Gary Cummiskey and Beiles and dawie malan especially throw much light on the nature of the man himself. The essays by Cummiskey, malan, Earle Holmes, Alan Finlay, Eva Kowalska, George Dillon Slater and Fred de Vries serve to delve behind the man's words and give us a glimpse into a unique character. I'd be grateful if you answered a few of my questions about this enigmatic man....Read more here

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Berold on Beiles

Poet Robert Berold writes about Who Was Sinclair Beiles?:

I thought the Beiles book was excellent - nice balance of interviews and essays, thorough bibliography, well edited, good design, readable and inviting. And as far as I know the first non-academic book about poetry to appear in South Africa for years (ever?). Definitely not a booklet as Stephen Gray called it in his M&G non-review. I wish all our poets got such attentive treatment.

It's sad that Beiles's work and his mental state went kind of downhill. But he did write some good poems - the best of them of full of startling images, going off on tangents in interesting ways. An aesthetic that no other South African was doing. And he wrote about his madness with courage and humour.

I had a few meetings with him, and like everyone else, had to deal with his erratic attitude (which started with his proclaiming me a great poet and degenerated over time to the death threat 'by spells' quoted in Dawie Malan's essay).

Once when I was visiting him, he said "Would you like a suitcase?" and produced a very battered very heavy leather suitcase. Which my computer monitor now sits on - so I live with a reminder of Beiles every day.

Perhaps in his later years, his real creation was a character called Sinclair Beiles. But I hope Dye Hard will prove there was also a poet called Sinclair Beiles by publishing a 'best of' selection.

More praise for Green Dragon 6

Respected writers such as Kobus Moolman, Aryan Kaganof and Kelwyn Sole feel that Green Dragon 6 is the best issue yet produced!
Contributors to this issue of Green Dragon are Alan Finlay, Arja Salafranca, Haidee Kruger, Janet van Eeden, Joop Bersee, Kelwyn Sole, Kobus Moolman, Tania van Schalkwyk, Megan Hall, Cecilia Ferriera, Anton Krueger, Allan Kolski Horwitz, Goodenough Mashego, David wa Maahlamela, Vonani Bila, Mphutlane wa Bofelo, Aryan Kaganof, Neo Molefe Shameeyaa, Colleen Higgs, Gus Ferguson, Brent Meersman, Kai Lossgott, Daniel Browde, Ingrid Andersen, Gary Cummiskey, Mick Raubenheimer and Mxolisi Nyezwa. Lyrics from Durban folk group The Litchis.
Green Dragon 6 will soon be in selected bookstores throughout South Africa for an estimated retail price of R80. You can, however, obtain a copy from the publisher for R65 a copy, inclusive of postage (add on R15 for overseas orders).
Write to for order details.

Thursday, 03 September 2009

New from Tearoom Books: Romancing the Dead by Gary Cummiskey

Tearoom Books is pleased to announce the publication of Romancing the Dead by Gary Cummiskey. This small collection of 11 prose poems from one of South Africa's leading underground poets displays writing that is laconic, unfussy, surreal, morbidly humourous and unsentimental.The world presented in it is one where the rules of causality have either broken down or are on their last legs. It is thus an absurd world, but, and this is Cummiskey's talent, it is also a world that is instantly and, in some cases, frighteningly recognisable.

Available at R40 including postage (R50 for overseas orders). For order information, contact

Tuesday, 01 September 2009

Kaganof on Who was Sinclair Beiles?

eventually one has to love gary cummiskey. he does not give up. he’s the kind of irascible soul that always draws trouble. something about his pugnacious nature attracts difficulties. if it can go wrong at a printer it will. twice. gary’s often stuck in traffic. the waiter dusts more flies into his soup. but unlike most people you’ve ever met who share this streak of disaster-attraction - cummiskey hasn’t got it in him to throw in the towel. you would have thought after years of publishing small press editions to little or no acclaim from the precarious south african literature “establishment” that gary would see the light and stop bothering. thank the gods he’s not that sort of bloke. gary persists. his persistency is the stuff of local literary legend.

green dragon 6 is the best edition of his literary journal to date. and this volume about the late yeoville beat poet sinclair beiles is worth its weight in genetically modified stem cells. it keeps beiles alive. a collection of essays by the likes of alan finlay, fred de vries, co-editor eva kowalska and gary himself, the book sheds shards of splintered, diffused and hazy light on the figure of beiles whose reputation is based largely on memories of his surly frame sitting truculently outside coffee society in rockey street, chain smoking irritably - has anyone ever read any of his poems?

in yeoville in 1994 to film nice to meet you, please don’t rape me i was introduced to beiles by my co-screenwriter peter j. morris, himself an equally taciturn, sour-bellied type. the two of them found things to grumble about. it was impossible for me to talk to beiles. he just seemed too far gone in a vinegary disposition exacerbated by the brutal disappointment of never having ‘made it’ (whatever that means to a poet). but this volume opens the man up. dawie malan’s exquisite essay “the trouble with sinclair beiles” resuscitates the poet, gives him a fragile, vulnerable soul - and reveals librarian dawie to be one of our most sensitive writers.

this book is essential. one day somebody will be collating a set of essays asking the question “who is gary cummiskey?”he deserves better. he deserves to be lionised now.

First published here

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Forthcoming from Tearoom Books: Romancing the Dead by Gary Cummiskey

Forthcoming in September 2009. Romancing the Dead, a small collection of prose poems from underground legend Gary Cummiskey. Available at R40 including postage. For order information, contact or visit Tearoom Books.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

David wa Maahlamela reviews Green Dragon 6

David wa Maahlamela likes the look of the sixth issue of the “resurrected” literary journal, Green Dragon, edited by Gary Cummiskey. A veritable treasure trove for literati, the issue includes works by the likes of Allan Kolski Horwitz, Kelwyn Sole, Mphutlane wa Bofelo, Mxolisi Nyezwa and English Academy Medalist, Gus Ferguson, among others..Read more here

Sunday, 02 August 2009

Beauty Came Grovelling Forward: a selection of South African poetry and prose at Big Bridge

The work contained in this Big Bridge feature is by no means a wide representation of contemporary South African writing. It is rather a bringing together of some writers whose work I respond to, and there are many fine writers whose work is not included. It is therefore not a general "anthology of South African writing". It is nevertheless hoped the selection will give readers an insight into the diversity of creative voices in South Africa; a diversity that is in part reflective of the multicultural nature of South African society.

The voices range from established names such as Kobus Moolman and Kelwyn Sole, to newer ones such as Neo Molefe Shameeyaa. There is the performance-orientated work of Richard Fox and Mphutlane wa Bofelo, and the socio-political voice of Vonani Bila. There are mavericks such as Aryan Kaganof and Goodenough Mashego, and the subjective lyricism of Alan Finlay and Mxolisi Nyezwa. There are also several women represented: Arja Salafranca, Haidee Kruger, Janet van Eeden, Megan Hall, Colleen Higgs, Makhosazana Xaba and Neo Molefe Shameeyaa.

The short fiction selection is only a handful of pieces, but again it is hoped they will indicate the diversity of short fiction writing in South Africa: from the poetic prose of Haidee Kruger and fantasy of Silke Heiss, to the playfulness of Liesl Jobson. There are the parables of Allan Kolski Horwitz and the exploration of relationships in the realistic work of Colleen Higgs and Arja Salafranca. Pravasan Pillay's story is a sensitive study of early adolescence while Gary Cummiskey's surreal horror story touches on issues central to a historically divided society: isolation, the Other, uncertainty and violence.

Saturday, 01 August 2009

When second-hand becomes a crime

Any law that aims to reduce crime in South Africa is always welcomed by most people, but legislation passed on April 1 is set to create havoc for the county’s substantial second-hand bookstore industry - at best, introducing an administrative headache for book dealers and, at worst, resulting in the demise of the industry.

The Second-Hand Goods Act aims to reduce the trade of stolen goods, and focuses on items such as scrap metal, mobile phones, motor vehicles and parts, antique goods, household and office equipment, and, believe it or not, books.

Among other things, the Act demands that:

• Second-hand book dealers register with the South African Police Service (SAPS) and obtain a licence that is valid for five years, is not transferable and must be displayed in the shop at all times
• Second-hand bookstore owners have to be fingerprinted
• Customers who buy books valued at more than R100 will have to provide proof of identity, as well contact details such as telephone numbers and residential address
• People who sell books to dealers also have to provide their details
• Dealers are not allowed to remove stock to another location, such as their home
• New stock is not allowed to be offered for sale for seven days
• Second-hand bookstores will be subjected to inspections by the SAPS
• If stores are found not to comply with procedures, the SAPS has the right to close them down

The bill was originally drawn up in 2005, but did not get the attention of second-hand book dealers until last year, when newspapers carried reports that certain second-hand bookstores in Long Street, Cape Town had been raided by police on allegations that stolen books were being sold. Even more disturbing were subsequent reports that Long Street book-dealers continued to be harassed by the police, when the bill had not yet been signed into law.

To address the matter on behalf of the industry, the Southern African Book Dealers’ Association made a submission to the government requesting that books be removed the items targeted. The arguments behind the request included that books generally have low commercial value and are not targeted by organised crime, and that books are generally mass produced and do not carry individually identifying features. It was also pointed that the administrative burden placed on book dealers would discourage opening new stores, thus hampering the growth of the industry and possibly even closing some stores. It was also highlighted that second-hand bookstores play a huge role in providing textbooks to students at affordable prices. Textbooks are also often required by students urgently and the seven-day holding period on new stock would prove detrimental to both bookstore revenue and students.

All this was to no avail, however, as the government was adamant books would remain on the list.

Ian Balchin, head of the Southern African Book Dealers’ Association, says that from now it is a matter of entering into a consultative process with the legal services department of the SAPS. This will involve drawing up the regulations for the industry and it is hoped that the association will be able to negotiate better terms and ease the administrative burden for book dealers.

Of course, a big question is whether the police have the resources to run around checking up on South Africa’s roughly 300 second-hand bookstores.

A few second-hand book dealers I have spoken to in Johannesburg are obviously very concerned about the effects of the Act, while two smaller bookstores didn’t seem to know too much about it.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Friday, 17 July 2009


Poem by Gary Cummiskey, art by Cecilia Ferreira, from Rash Mag 2.


Poem by Gary Cummiskey, art by Cecilia Ferreira, from Rash Mag 2.

Correction: Alan Finlay's poem 'return' in Green Dragon 6

Due to a production error, the two final lines of Alan Finlay's poem 'return' in Green Dragon 6 were deleted. The correction version of Finlay's poem reads as follows:


i am scared. The leaves fall hard to the ground
branches break their shadows above my head
the ground confuses me with its clouds

i’m scared. voices fall
then stop, and turn, and look wait
they do not want to go through the door

i’m scared. the light is breaking
back towards me, clouds are passing
water smashing open the rocks.

Dye Hard Press apologies for the error.

Friday, 03 July 2009

Cape Town Book Fair 2009: Finding its feet in Cape Town

With the word "recession" on almost everyone's lips, there had been some initial scepticism about the success of this year's Cape Town Book Fair in June, and 60 fewer stands in the exhibition hall added to that scepticism. However, from the first hour of the fair, the public began pouring in and by the end of the four days it was reported that a record 57,000 visitors had attended – an increase of 6,000 on last year....Read more here

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Selling the idea of a genocide in Sudan

Saviours and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror - Mahmood Mamdani
HSRC Press

The conflict in Darfur has been in the forefront of the media for the past six years, with human rights organisations, politicians and celebrities calling for intervention in what has widely been regarded as an act of genocide.

But in his new book, Saviours and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror, published in SA by HSRC Press, academic and author Mahmood Mamdani offers a controversial insight into the workings of this demand for intervention, as well as providing a detailed account of historical factors that ultimately led to the conflict.

Uganda-born Mamdani is the Herbert Lehman professor of government in the departments of anthropology and political science at Columbia University in the US. He is also the director of Columbia’s Institute of African Studies.

He is in SA to promote his latest book, with a lecture tour, seminars and discussions around the country.

“The idea for the book arose when I started to question why the conflict in Darfur was being reported differently, and in more detail, than conflicts in other African countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda,” Mamdani says. “The conflict there exploded into the news quite early and so I started looking for the reasons.”

In his book, Mamdani says reporting from Africa is a low-risk job: “Not only are mistakes expected and tolerated, but often they are not even noticed.

“When it comes to mainstream media, there are no Africa specialists.”

When he asked himself what made Darfur different, he realised that this was not the fault of the media, but rather of a US advocacy group, the Save Darfur coalition, “which had ‘packaged’ Darfur, very much like an off-shoot of advertising”.

“There was little concern for the realities on the ground, little regard for accuracy, but there was an appeal — but whom or what was it appealing to? When I discussed the situation in Iraq with my students in the US, they had a strong sense that Iraq was political, that it had a geography, that there was history. But with Darfur, there was no sense of history, it was as if Darfur had just emerged from nowhere. Darfur was just about atrocities, with no room for history, politics. There seemed to be no need to contextualise.

“And when asked why they believed genocide was taking place in Darfur, it was because they had been told so. ”

In his book, Mamdani writes: “Only those possessed of disproportionate power can afford to assume that knowing is irrelevant, thereby caring little about the consequences of their actions.

“Not only is this mind-set the driving force behind the War on Terror … it is this shared mind-set that has turned the Save Darfur movement into the humanitarian face of the War on Terror.”

He does, however, emphasise that this sharing of mind-set is not necessarily intentional. “I don’t believe that there is a conspiracy here, it is simply the sharing of a view that sees causes of conflict to lie with the perpetrators.

“Violence is seen to be its own explanation. This emerged particularly after September 11 2001, where there was a refusal to look at issues, at reasons for violence.

“I have looked at human rights organisations’ reports on Darfur. There is little about the history of the region, just details of atrocities and calls for punishment against the perpetrators.

“Again, there is no attempt to look at issues. This is different to responses to conflicts elsewhere in Africa, where there has been a drive towards reform, not to criminalise people. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in SA is an example.”

In his book, Mamdani refers to a 2004 World Health Organisation report that put fatalities in Darfur at 70000 and found that most deaths were not the result of direct violence. Death due to direct violence had been restricted to “adults between 15 and 49 years of age”, but not across all age groups.

This finding alone, Mamdani says, challenged the hypothesis of genocide. The report had found that the main cause of death reported during the period of the survey was diarrhoea, as a result of poor environmental sanitation. There was also the issue of severe drought in the region.

Mamdani also points out that the Save Darfur coalition was created through the joint efforts of the Committee on Conscience at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the American Jewish World Service. “I don’t think that the fact that these organisations are Jewish is important in itself, but what is notable is that they are religious organisations. The thrust of the campaign was a moral one, not political. It worked as an interreligious coalition, and offered ‘faith action packs’ which were divided according to religious grouping — Christian, Jewish, interfaith and general faith.

“This was at a rally calling for military intervention in Darfur. Later, a Muslim faith action pack was added.”

The Christian action packs spoke of “divine empowerment” and “the burden to save”, while the Jewish pack highlighted “the special moral responsibility of Jews as ‘quintessential victims’ to identify genocide, wherever it occurs”. The Muslim action pack dealt with, among other items, “how to avoid being oppressive, and intervene where other Muslims oppress”.

“But why did these religious groupings come together, and why at that time, in 2004?” Mamdani asks. “Mainly because it was the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. The general feeling about Rwanda is that the west acted too late, that it first sought to understand — that is the lesson.

“There is also the lesson of Holocaust, of ‘never again’.

“There is an absence of wanting to stop to ask why.

“The Save Darfur movement may have initially made a positive contribution, but eventually it became part of the problem. After there had been a dramatic drop in fatalities in 2005, to the point where the United Nations no longer regarded the situation in Darfur as an emergency, the movement’s rhetoric increased, with its call for action growing louder and louder. It was determined to go on with its campaign.”

In his book, Mamdani writes: “The description of the violence as genocide — racial killing — has served to further racialise the conflict and give legitimacy to those who seek to punish rather than to reconcile. Thus, the movement , which initially had the salutary effect of drawing world attention to Darfur in 2003-04, must now bear some of the blame for delaying reconciliation by focusing on a single-minded pursuit of revenge as punishment.”

Another factor in the Save Darfur movement was the involvement of celebrities, notably George Clooney and Mia Farrow.

In his book, Mamdani recounts that the footage of a trip Clooney made with his father to Darfur, and which he showed on The Oprah Winfrey Show, included images of Darfuri child refugees shouting “Hi, Oprah!”

Then Farrow, a Unicef goodwill ambassador who had visited Darfur in 2004 and 2006, branded the Beijing Olympics as “a genocide Olympics” because of China’s links with Sudan.

This stance was followed by Steven Spielberg, who withdrew as artistic adviser to the Beijing Olympics.

“But by this stage,” says Mamdani, “the death rate in Darfur had dropped considerably. These celebrities seemed ignorant of facts on the ground.

“This is another way in which the Save Darfur movement is different from other previous mass movements, such as the antiwar movement or the anti-apartheid movement. There was no attempt to bring educators into the movement. In terms of seeking support, the movement also turned from colleges to schools, where children would be less likely to ask questions.”

It is no doubt because of this “ignorance of facts on the ground” that the backbone of Mamdani’s book focuses on placing “Darfur in context”, tracing its history from precolonial times to the present. He explains how the conflict in Darfur began as a civil war in 1987-89 between nomadic and peasant tribes over fertile land in the south of the region, triggered by a drought that moved the southern perimeter of the Sahara out by more than 95km in 40 years.

There is also the effect of British colonial policy and the artificial tribalism of groups in Darfur, dividing its population into “native” and “settler” tribes and creating homelands for the “native” groups at the expense of the “settlers”.

He looks at the rise of rebel movements and the insurgency of 2003, which led to the Sudanese government’s brutal response.

He also examines regional influences, particularly how the Cold War prolonged the 20-year civil war in neighbouring Chad, which spilled over into Darfur.

Then there are also the contemporary superpowers at play, with US oil interests in Chad and Chinese oil interests in Sudan.

But despite the arguments about causes and history, ignorance of details and facts, disputes about numbers of fatalities, and well-intentioned but misinformed celebrities, the bottom line is that atrocities took place in Darfur.

The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for crimes against humanity, but has found no evidence of genocide.

“There is no doubt,” says Mamdani, “that a mass slaughter occurred in Darfur in 2003-04 and that the Sudanese government of President Al-Bashir should be held accountable, though I suspect that if it went to trial some of the ‘facts’ on the charge sheet would be found to be exaggerations.

“But is the issue political or criminal? Is the court political?

“Just as it is important to hold perpetrators of violence accountable, it is also important to ensure that enforcers of justice are held accountable. Any intervention in Darfur must be a regional one, by neighbouring countries with long-term interests in seeking a peaceful and stable solution.

“It should not be by other powers, intent on demonising perpetrators and advocating good violence against bad violence.”

(Published in The Weekender, June 27, 2009)

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Cape Town Book Fair 2009: Authors discuss literary prizes

Literary prizes are often seen as an endorsement of a book’s value, and may be regarded as something hankered after by authors.

In a discussion at the Via Afrika forum on the first day of the Cape Town Book Fair, four authors — all of whom have works under consideration for literary awards — debated the question, “Literary prizes — praise or prattle?”

Julia Martin, author of A Millimetre of Dust, set the keynote, saying there is a part of her that likes the idea of receiving a literary prize — they are like presents given to a child for doing well. Everybody, after all, likes praise. The receipt of a prize also helps to sell books and so publishers as well as authors like them.

But another part of her questions the awarding of prizes and asks how much of it has to do with business and branding rather than creativity. The creative spirit, she says, does not concern itself with receiving prizes.

And then there are questions about whose interests are served by literary prizes, how judges are selected, and who pays for the prize money. Still, Martin concedes the possibility of winning a prize does act as an incentive, especially for new writers, but overall she does not feel prizes should be taken seriously.

Zukiswa Wanner, author of Behind Every Successful Man, favours literary awards but criticises the amounts paid to writers, which she says are a clear indication that writers are not appreciated in SA.

The Rowing Lesson author Anne Landsman takes a similar view to Martin, that generally writers write because they have to write, it is part of their blood, a vocation, and literary prizes are a byproduct of the creative process.

She also questions the segmentation of literary prizes — such as prizes for women’s writing — but agrees that it is not a bad thing to endorse a literary work as much as possible.

Finuala Dowling, author of Notes from a Dementia Ward, feels literary prizes involve a clash of worlds — the one materialistic, the other a world of solitude and creativity. She feels awarding prizes is like trying to put a price tag on creativity, and as literary prizes in SA involve relatively small amounts of money, this makes her even more cynical about their value.

However, she agrees that prizes can motivate new writers, and help them to become better known as prizes do boost sales.

Across the table there were concerns about prizes being, as Martin says, short-cuts to branding, and about how judges decide which work wins. There were also questions about the absence of literary awards for crime writing and light writing in SA, despite the popularity of both genres.

The size of the prizes in SA was clearly a concern, but as presenter Ben Williams, editor of Book SA, pointed out, some longstanding, prestigious literary awards such as the Olive Schreiner Award might offer only a couple of thousand of rands, depending on what the English Academy of Southern Africa can afford in a given year, while relatively new awards, such as The Sunday Times Literary Awards, offer far more.

The M-Net Literary Awards recently paid out a total of R350 000 — but, as Williams pointed out, the Impact Dublin Award pays €100 000.

In conclusion, Martin and Landsman again warned that literary prizes should not be taken too seriously, and Dowling warned against the dangers of writers and writing becoming commodified.

Wanner, however, still came out strongly in favour of prizes — but with more money.

(Published in The Weekender, June 20, 2009)

Cape Town Book Fair 2009: Poets compete with soccer fans

Cape Town small publisher Modjaji Books launched four collections at the Cape Town Book Fair.

Burnt Offering is Joan Metelerkamp’s seventh poetry collection, and she read the poem Penelope at the launch, weaving rich images and motifs from classical Greek mythology into a contemporary, domestic setting.

It reflects her concerns and preoccupation with the depth and complexity of life, rather than being interested in writing “book club ladies’ books”. Metelerkamp’s confident, steady reading was thankfully not too disrupted by cheers from a 2010 Soccer World Cup stand just a few aisles away.

This was followed by a reading from Helen Moffett’s debut collection, Strange Fruit. Moffett started off by reading some short and relatively light poems from her collection, saying she hoped nobody scored a goal while she was reading — but then someone did.

Nevertheless, Moffett continued, reading the lighthearted We will fight them at La Playa, which opens with the lines: “You and I are at the Waterfront/on a secret mission:/it may look as if we are drinking coffee/and eating Florentines;/but in truth we have bazookas,/and are shooting every twosome/we see holding hands”.

But not all Moffett’s poems are lighthearted fantasy: several trace her painful journey to acceptance of the fact that she cannot have a child, and poems such as Baby shower, The ultrasound, My daughter, and Envy are the evidence. Moffett read from The ovary in the arm, which contains the lines: “All I wanted was natural, normal/the everyday stuff;/conceiving in passion/…an ordinary breeding and birthing./ So little to ask for;/beyond impossible to get.”

Please, Take Photographs is the first poetry collection of award-winning author Sindiwe Magona.

Magona’s gift as a storyteller shone through as she read the delightfully warm narrative poem For Maria, tracing the life of a woman from her first to ninth decade, as she marries and has children and then watches her children in turn become adults.

It is a life in which she sees “all those brilliant/Moments of loving,/Of giving to others”.

The poem ends hilariously, with the 90-year-old narrator demanding: “Pass me that damn bottle of wine, will you?” — which drew much laughter and applause from the audience.

The fourth book launched was Oleander, which is the fourth collection of Fiona Zerbst who, while present, declined to read, and so poet Malika Ndlovu read a selection from the volume.

The poems ranged from the tense Remembering S-21, Cambodia, which opens with the lines “This was a school/before it was wire and silence”, opening out to the wider world of Possibilities , where “The possible is/a room like the cell/of a monk. No dust./A bed. A chair./Anything happens”.

There was also the powerful, closing poem of the collection, Beside the Nile, which contains the haunting lines: “I hold out my hand/and here you are,/Nile that watches the watcher/look at the water;/Nile that knows/a hundred crimes, excuses”.

Ndlovu’s poetic book, Invisible Earthquake — A Mothers’ Journey Through Stillbirth, was published by Modjaji earlier this year and on Monday at the book fair she gave a moving reading.

Ndlovu explains that for some time after she lost her child she was haunted by a sense of a void, and so created the book to fill that void. Her performance was attended by about 120 people, some of whom were visibly moved by the experience of loss and pain that she recounts in her brief but powerful work.

(Published in The Weekender, June 20, 2009)

Cape Town Book Fair 2009: Jacana uses guerilla tactics

Rumours were circulating last month that Joburg-based publisher Jacana would not be exhibiting at the Cape Town Book Fair this year.

Jacana director Bridget Impey cryptically let on that while Jacana would be participating this year, the nature of its participation would be different.

Come June 13 and all was made clear. Jacana was present at the book fair, but did not have a stand in the exhibition hall.

Instead, the publisher was present either through organised book events and readings, or by unscheduled, guerrilla-style flash appearances at retailers’ stands.

Visitors could be notified of these flash appearances by registering with an SMS service, though this unfortunately fell flat on the first two days due to network problems.

Not that this was a train smash, since Jacana — which organised its office in the foyer of the convention centre — had staff circulating flyers to visitors shortly before the events.

Publishing director Maggie Davey says Jacana felt a need to adopt innovative marketing, though she agrees it could be seen as a cost-cutting measure. “Jacana felt a need to use more innovative, less conventional methods to put our authors forward and reach audiences,” she says.

Director Mike Martin says: “We asked ourselves why we were participating at the book fair, and what we wanted to get out of it. When you start by asking yourself that question, you start thinking out of the box, and wondering if renting a stand is necessary.”

There were also a number of practical business considerations. Impey points out that at previous book fairs, when Jacana had a stand, it would be selling books in competition with retailers who were their biggest clients.

So this year, rather than selling books, Jacana partnered with retailers on scheduled and unscheduled events.

“And it hasn’t been easy,” says Davey. “It is a lot of hard work. You have to work a lot harder than if you are just at a stand.”

Last year, there was concern among some exhibitors that the trade aspect of the fair was being drowned out by the retail and literary event components, and some would prefer that a day be devoted to trade, with the fair closed to the public.

Davey still holds that an exhibitor’s stand has its value, but says trying to create business within the exhibition hall is difficult, particularly because of the noise and the amount of human traffic.

Martin believes that a problem with the Cape Town Book Fair is that it is becoming repetitive. “It is the same thing every year, the same exhibitors, the same stands. There is nothing new, nothing to really knock your socks off.”

Added to this is the cost of participating in the fair, and looking at what benefits are being received. One solution for players from outside the Cape is the possibility of creating a Johannesburg book event.

Martin says: “In Johannesburg, publishers could reach bigger audiences; in Cape Town it is always the same audiences. With a Johannesburg book fair, publishers could grow their market.

“It is also a matter of rethinking the concept of the book fair and of placing it on a more human scale rather than in a huge convention centre. We should stop trying to be London or Frankfurt, and create something unique.

“People are already talking about what Jacana has done by not having an exhibitor’s stand, and if we have got some debate going, that is a start, as other people will also start thinking out of the box.”

By Monday afternoon it seemed that Jacana’s guerrilla approach had annoyed a fellow publisher, who lodged a complaint with the fair’s organisers, accusing Jacana of “pamphleteering”, and that the publisher was ordered by security to leave the convention centre. However, it turned out there had been some misunderstanding, and Jacana was assured it could remain at the fair.

(Published in The Weekender, June 20, 2009)

Cape Town Book Fair 2009:The world of ideas is alive and well

There might have been some initial concern about the recession’s effect on the success of this year’s Cape Town Book Fair, and with 60 fewer stands in the exhibition hall than last year, those concerns may have seemed well founded.

However, from the first hour of the four-day fair, the public began pouring in and the organisers might well find that the previous record of 51000 visitors has been matched. The drop in the number of stands seemed to work better, as the hall was less crowded and the event seemed more manageable, with room to breathe.

There were also some initial concerns about the programme this year, with several people feeling that it was flat and uninspiring, placing an emphasis on issue-related discussions rather than opportunities to meet a wide range of authors. But this did not deter the crowds. There were a few repeat events, such as eight book-signings by Spud creator John van de Ruit , but, judging by the long queues of people wanting their copies signed, this was absolutely necessary.

One of the highlights on the first day was a discussion on cartooning as social and political commentary in SA, with Jonathan Shapiro, Andy Mason and Antjie Krog. Krog started out by highlighting the admiration she has for Shapiro, whose work involves putting himself at risk daily, particularly in such a divided society as SA.

There has been criticism that Shapiro is not “a real cartoonist” since he is “fighting for something”, and Krog asked him whether he felt he was still fighting, or whether he was now “an official cartoonist”. Shapiro’s response was that he felt he was still fighting but with a subtle difference and that he had become more of a commentator, a social analyst or “shit stirrer”.

He did, however, feel that he was no longer an activist, and that the political landscape of SA had changed, particularly as his critics have forgotten how critical he was of the previous regime.

Shapiro said a big challenge was how to be critical of the government and at the same time avoid becoming a tool of neoliberals, or worse, the right wing.

He has been particularly concerned to find some of his cartoons on right-wing websites, posted without his knowledge and taken out of context. The most difficult issue, however, has been dealing with the controversy of the “rape of Justice” cartoon, but Shapiro said that while he could defend a cartoon he had created, he could not take responsibility for readers’ interpretations.

An interesting panel discussion at the Via Africa forum on Sunday was with the editors of the book Load Shedding — Liz McGregor and Sarah Nuttall, with contributor John Hyslop — and Kevin Bloom, author of Ways of Staying.

Both books look at contemporary SA, with themes of personal loss and how to continue living in such a violent society. There are concerns about how to come to terms with painful events, especially where loved ones have been lost as a result of violent crime, and how to deal with the hatred that leads to violence, including self-hatred, which sometimes leads to xenophobic violence.

The topic of crime and violence continued in a slightly different vein at a discussion among local crime writers Mike Nicol, Deon Meyer, Joanne Hitchens, Margie Orford and new crime writer Roger Smith.

One focus was the rise of local crime writing as not only a popular genre, but one that is now being taken seriously and being respected. Orford suggested that one of the reasons crime writing is proving so popular in SA is that it is escapist literature. It is different from crime depicted in novels such as JM Coetzee’s because in crime fiction there is a resolution and criminals are brought to book.

Sunday was just as busy, if not busier, than the first day, and by 6.30pm the exhibition hall was far from deserted. There were, however, some complaints about noise levels , particularly with fans cheering on their teams at a 2010 Soccer World Cup stand.

While Monday seemed slightly quieter than the weekend, the aisles remained packed, and there were also a number of schoolchildren in attendance.

In collaboration with the Goethe Institute, the fair this year also ran an Africa Invitation Programme, bringing to Cape Town publishers from other African countries such as Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Libya. However, their stands seemed to be mainly unattended.

On Tuesday, the public holiday and the final day of the fair, there seemed to be a drop in the number of visitors, but only slightly.

One highlight of the morning was a well-attended talk at the Dalro Literary Forum by Mahmood Mamdani, whose new book — Saviours and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror — has just been published in SA by HSRC Press.

Mamdani examines why, when conflicts in Africa are so often reported about sparingly and shabbily, the conflict in Darfur has received such detailed attention in the media.

Debates continue over how many deaths have occurred in Darfur as a result of direct violence, and how many from disease and drought, but still there is often a refusal to look at the real causes for the conflict, to study the historical context and find peaceful and constructive resolutions.

Instead there is an attempt to demonise the perpetrators, and to advocate “good violence against bad violence”.

It was also extremely encouraging to note that while previous Cape Town Book Fairs have tended to be mainly middle-class white affairs, this year there was a noticeable change in the demographics of visitors.

(Published in The Weekender, June 20, 2009)

Saturday, 20 June 2009

New Dye Hard Press publication: Green Dragon 6

Dye Hard Press is proud to announce the publication of

Green Dragon 6


Contributors to this issue of Green Dragon are Alan Finlay, Arja Salafranca, Haidee Kruger, Janet van Eeden, Joop Bersee, Kelwyn Sole, Kobus Moolman, Tania van Schalkwyk, Megan Hall, Cecilia Ferriera, Anton Krueger, Allan Kolski Horwitz, Goodenough Mashego, David wa Maahlamela, Vonani Bila, Mphutlane wa Bofelo, Aryan Kaganof, Neo Molefe Shameeyaa, Colleen Higgs, Gus Ferguson, Brent Meersman, Kai Lossgott, Daniel Browde, Ingrid Andersen, Gary Cummiskey, Mick Raubenheimer and Mxolisi Nyezwa. Lyrics from Durban folk group The Litchis.

Green Dragon 6 will soon be available at bookstores throughout South Africa, estimated retail price R80. If purchased directly from the publisher, the price is R65, including postage (South Africa).

E-mail for more details.

New publication from Dye Hard Press: Who was Sinclair Beiles?

Who was Sinclair Beiles?
edited by Gary Cummiskey and Eva Kowalska


In 1960, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Brion Gysin and Sinclair Beiles collaborated on the now legendary collection of cut-ups, Minutes to Go. Readers of Beat literature know of Burroughs, Corso and Gysin, but who was Sinclair Beiles?

Sinclair Beiles was a South African poet and playwright, born in Uganda in 1930. He moved to Paris during the 1950s, where for a time he was an editor at Olympia Press and a resident at the Beat Hotel. He later spent several years in Greece and his first poetry collection, Ashes of Experience, won the first Ingrid Jonker poetry prize in 1969. Many other collections followed, published either overseas or in South Africa, to where he returned in the late 1970s. Beiles died, generally ignored by the mainstream South African poetry anthologies, in Johannesburg in 2000.

Who was Sinclair Beiles? brings together a collection of interviews, memoirs and essays about Sinclair Beiles and his work, by Gary Cummiskey, dawie malan, George Dillon Slater, Earle Holmes, Eva Kowalska, Alan Finlay and Fred de Vries.

The book also includes previously unpublished photographs of Sinclair Beiles. Perfect bound, 136 pages.Beiles's work is in danger of sliding into obscurity forever, and it is time for a renewed assessment of his contribution to South African literature.

Who was Sinclair Beiles? will soon be available at bookstores throughout South Africa, estimated retail price R160. If purchased directly from the publisher, the price is R100, including postage (South Africa).

E-mail for more order details.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Small players feel the whiplash

Since 1994 there has been an increase in the number of small, independent publishers in South Africa. A more recently established venture in Cape Town is unique in that it focuses solely on southern African women’s writing, and one of its titles, Whiplash, by Tracey Farren was last week short-listed for the prestigious 2009 Sunday Times Fiction Prize.

Modjaji Books was launched in 2007 by writer Colleen Higgs, when she published Megan Hall’s debut poetry collection Fourth Child, which went on to win the Ingrid Jonker poetry prize. Higgs had been working as project manager at Cape Town’s Centre for the Book at the time, and felt she was ready for a new challenge.

She explains how by managing the centre’s award-winning Community Publishing Project, she was constantly giving advice to others about how to go about publishing.

“I wrote the book, A rough guide to small-scale and self-publishing, as part of my work, and as a way of putting down the frequently asked questions and the basics of publishing,” Higgs says. “My work was an in-depth research project into publishing - all the aspects from commissioning, finding authors, production and printing, design, marketing and distribution. I built up good networks and started to feel that starting my own press was doable. I needed a new challenge and wanted to be able to work more flexibly.

“Most small presses are run by men, so I wanted to do something for women, to open up a different aesthetic. Publishing is full of gate-keeping, it has to be. Resources are always limited and there are lots of writers looking for a break. I wanted to give a new set of writers - and a new set of aesthetics - a chance.”

Higgs acknowledges that small press publishing is fraught with difficulties, but this is something that goes hand-in-hand with an approach that does not cater for a commercial market. Indeed, Higgs sees the role of Modjaji Books, as a small publisher, as being concerned with publishing new voices and taking risks. She aims to “publish purely out of love or passion and because I resonate with a writer or her work. Not because she is marketable or worthy.”

Whereas small publishers have traditionally focused on publishing poetry, Modjaji Books is also devoted to publishing a fair amount of fiction. “Fiction is more successful,” she says, “but you still have to get the numbers right in terms of print run and how much to spend on a particular book. Publishing is a calculated gamble. I don’t want to only publish poetry. I’m interested in short fiction, essays, novellas, books that experiment with form. One forthcoming title, Hester se Brood, by Hester van der Walt is a recipe book, but not in the conventional sense. It is also a memoir, an exploration of the meaning and history of bread and bread-baking.”

Last year Modjaji Books published the controversial novel, Whiplash, which has been short-listed for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize. Dealing with prostitution in Cape Town, the novel had been rejected by several commercial publishers before finding a home at Modjaji Books. The decision to take on its publication resulted in Higgs taking the leap and resigning from Centre for the Book to focus on publishing fulltime. This was courageous, especially since many take the view that it is near-impossible for a small publishing venture to generate a full-time income, and that it should be best treated as a part-time hobby.

Higgs muses: “I haven’t earned a salary for myself out of Modjaji Books so far, although it has begun to cover its own expenses, including phones, petrol, printing costs, design and so on. I hope as I build the list and develop better strategies for getting the books into stores and build up my direct sales too, that it will begin to become sustainable. I’m beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel for next year. In the meantime I also do freelance work, give advice about publishing for which I charge an hourly rate, do manuscript assessments for writers, do some journalism and other work. I’ve also cut back on luxuries, though it is enough of a luxury to do what I am passionate about, to have flexible time to spend with my child, and to be my own boss.”

The issue of financing publications is always paramount, and obtaining funding is not always as easy as it may initially seem. Higgs says that so she has not been successful in obtaining state funding, “but I have received funding from the Cape 300 Foundation for poetry collections by Joan Metelerkamp and Sindiwe Magona, which are to be launched at the Cape Town Book Fair, along with collections by Fiona Zerbst and Helen Moffett, also published by Modjaji. I keep writing proposals and look for sponsorship opportunities. Hester se Brood is a likely candidate for sponsorship. I am also looking for sponsorship for an anthology of short stories that Modjaji Books gathered last year. I want to pay an editor to work with the writers and I need funds to pay for the printing of that book.”

Marketing and promotion can also be particularly difficult for a small publisher with limited finances, but again Higgs turns to innovative, relatively inexpensive means, such as blogging on the Book SA website or promoting on Facebook.

“I have found online marketing to be very successful. All of the events and launches I have organised have been very well attended. We sold over 80 copies of Whiplash at the launch, even a large publisher would have been pleased with that. I use Facebook to build relationships with people who are interested in my work and in whose work and profiles I am interested. Recently I have started on Twitter, which I find far more useful as a way of learning things, but do also use it to share ideas and finds and to market what I am doing, or just to build awareness of Modjaji Books”.

In the midst of this, however, the economic downturn has put the dampers on publishing worldwide, and in SA many publishers and bookstores are adopting a cautious approach. Tremendous challenges are raised for small publishers in particular.

Higgs sees two main challenges ahead: “The first is how to increase the profitablity of what I am doing, to make it sustainable. Secondly and related, is how to get the attention of book sellers while I don’t have a sales representative who is dedicated to promoting my titles. I wish all booksellers kept up to date with Book SA, but I fear many don’t. I also think that they often have conservative tastes about what their readers will like. Small presses need to hand sell and build relationships with independent booksellers and readers and hope for the best with the rest.”

Always resilient and determined, Higgs is already committed to several more titles in the next 12 months. “I plan to publish Hester se Brood, four collections of short stories – by Arja Salafranca, Lauri Kubuitsile, Meg van der Merwe and Wame Molefe, as well as a novel by Makhosazana Xaba,” she says.

“I am also hoping to compile a 2010 South African Small Publishers’ Directory in collaboration with the Publishers’ Association of South Africa and the British Council, which will represent small publishers at the London Book Fair next April. I am just waiting to hear about the funding for that.”

(Published in Busness Day, June 12, 2009)

Photo of Colleen Higgs: BookSA

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Fair trade in South Africa

The Cape Town Book Fair, which will take place from 13th June to 16th, is now is its fourth year. Organised in collaboration with the Publishers’ Association of South Africa and the Frankfurt Book Fair, this year there will be a total of 250 exhibitors from 29 more here

Tuesday, 02 June 2009

Monday, 04 May 2009

Call for submissions to special short-fiction edition of Green Dragon

Green Dragon 7, to be published in May next year, is to be a special edition of short fiction only, and will be guest edited by Arja Salafranca.

Submit, by hard copy, no more than three items of short fiction, in English, between 2500 and 6000-7000 words. There is no theme.

These should be mailed, with an SASE included, as well as a contactable day number and an email address to Arja Salafranca, PO Box 1171, Bromhof 2154, South Africa.

Manuscripts without an SASE will not returned, and no correspondence will be entered into about rejected stories.

Submission deadline is the end of October 2009. Successful authors will receive a contributors’ copy.

Friday, 01 May 2009

South Africa unbowed

South Africa may have so far escaped the worst of the global economic crisis, but its effects are certainly being felt. Businesses are struggling and redundancies are on the increase. Late last year, the local book trade got a bit of shock when the Fascination Books chain went into liquidation. After all, with its 43 stores and 400 staff, Fascination was ranked the third-largest book chain in South Africa.

But one also has to contextualise the situation. First, Fascination Books was an independently owned chain and had been struggling financially for some time. Second, it focused on Christian and Afrikaans titles, thus aiming at a niche market. The books it stocked were also mainly remainders, with very few new titles. Yet while Fascination’s collapse is obviously not indicative of the state of the book market as a whole, some booksellers have viewed it as a wake-up call.

For the year ahead, local publishers are taking a cautious approach. Stephen Johnson, managing director of Random House Struik, says that there are no plans to cut back on existing projects, but new projects will be considered very carefully. Random House Struik has not seen a drop in sales of big titles, but as far as backlists are concerned, there has been a decline in orders.

Bridget Impey from independently owned Jacana Media takes a similar view in that while the publisher does not intend dropping the number of books it plans to put out, at the same time there can be no question marks about the success of a prospective title and there cannot be nice-to-haves. Whatever Jacana publishes this year has to work and there can be no risk-taking.

Impey does, however, point out that the book industry is protected slightly during an economic downturn, as while consumers will have to cut back on expensive luxuries such as overseas holidays, they can still buy books. “It’s the lipstick effect,” says Impey. “It makes you feel good and it doesn’t cost much.”

This cautious, but certainly not pessimistic, approach is also evident among the bookstores. Andrew Marjoribanks, managing director of the Wordsworth book chain in the Western Cape, says that bookstores in South Africa, unlike those in the UK for example, do not have to contend with competition from the supermarkets, so there is a bit of a cushioning effect.

Exclusive Books marketing manager Batya Green-Bricker also says that the national chain has not experienced much of a drop in sales. Book clubs are ordering fewer titles, but are definitely still ordering, and there has been an increase in sales of popular, bestseller-type titles. Book buyers are playing it safe, says Green-Bricker, buying well-known, established authors such as Wilbur Smith rather than new names.

So for most of the book trade, it looks like business as usual, but with caution required all round.

(Published in the print edition of The Bookseller, April 10, 2009)

Wednesday, 01 April 2009

Interview with Philip Hammial

This is an interview I conducted with Australian poet, publisher and artist Philip Hammial for the fifth issue of Green Dragon in 2007.

Philip Hammial was born in the US and emigrated to Australia in 1972. Two of his 20 collections of poetry have been shortlisted for a New South Wales Premier’s Award. He is also a sculptor and the director of The Australian Collection of Outsider Art.

GC: You were born in Detroit, but after graduating from university you travelled the world for 10 years then settled in Australia. It was a very different time and world travel seemed a lot easier to do. It was part of the whole counterculture scene. How did you relate to that, and why did you choose Australia in which to settle?

PH: At 12 I decided I wanted to see the world, this after reading the adventures of Colin Glencannon, Scot engineer on a tramp freighter; Richard Haliburton’s adventures & hearing Lowell Thomas’ radio reports on his trip into Tibet on foot shortly after the end of the Second World War. So when I graduated from high school I decided to get a job on a salt-water freighter only to discover I was too young. Telling a visiting uncle about this problem, he suggested I join the US Navy, which I did, the next day. Three years (1954-57) in the engine rooms of two ships, it was a great beginning.

I then went to college (university later) & spent two summers hitchhiking around Europe, staying in youth hostels & cheap pensions & reading the collected works of Nietzsche. My third trip (with my first wife) lasted two years. We went around the world for US$1000 each, $500 a year. The US dollar was very strong, & there were black markets in Turkey, Pakistan and India. Anyway, I’ve managed to travel in 74 countries for a total of 10 years – India (4 times), Tibet (twice), China (4 times), much of Africa.

I left the US for the last time in 1969 for two reasons; to travel & because I was totally disgusted with the domestic security & foreign policies of the US government &, needless to say, still am. After living in Bali for a year (money almost gone & not possible to again renew our visas) we flipped a coin – Japan or Australia – to see where we would go to work. Tails, we arrived in Australia on tourist visas in 1972 with $100 between us.

A predictable question: when did you start writing and why? I’m curious about your work in sculpture. You said this started up when you had a broken leg and was stuck at home. Why sculpture and not other visual art forms?

Having had a successful career as a juvenile delinquent and three years in the navy (where I came to the realisation that I was a pig-ignorant fool & probably headed for prison) I managed, in spite of my poor high school grades, to get admitted to a small college in Michigan. It was there, thanks to some inspiring teachers, that I started writing poetry, plays, short stories & a novel as well as painting & playing a sax. Couldn’t do it all, so eventually settled on poetry & sculpture. Yes, the broken leg, in three pieces. In plaster from one foot to armpits & taking painkillers, I was too groggy to write poetry. A compulsive creator, what to do? One day my mates loaded me into my Plymouth sedan & took me to a tip where, with me pointing to objects, they filled the boot, then spread all of those wonderful bits & pieces over a big table in the basement of our house in San Francisco. Hobbling around on crutches, three or four months later I had 40 pieces of sculpture. Not sure why sculpture, probably because I discovered I’m not much of a painter. Also, like poetry, I can make a piece of sculpture in one hit – an hour or two & it’s done.

You started up Island Press in the middle 1970s – what is your experience of publishing in Australia? What is the attitude of commercial publishers towards poetry?

Publishing poetry in Australia is a mug’s game. One would have thought after all these years that I’d have smartened up & done something worthwhile. I think I finally have – no plans for any further publications. Since the time of Bob Hawk, both Labour & the Liberals have been cutting funding to the arts, with poetry right at the bottom of everyone’s priorities. In any case only a handful of Australians read poetry. Most of my friends are visual artists & musicians & only two or three of them have poetry books on their bookshelves. What hope for the rest of the population?

I’d guess that only one in ten thousand homes would have even a single volume of poetry tucked away on a bookshelf.

We’re a nation of sports spectators. With four or five exceptions, finding a book of Australian poetry in a Sydney bookshop is like finding a needle in a haystack. If, as a person from a small poetry press (not a bona fide rep), I walk into a bookshop in Sydney with books to sell I’ll be out the door before you can say Jack Robinson. Island Press had a distributor for three years. That distributor was worse than useless & took a 65% cut. In the whole of Australia there are, as far as I know, only four distributors that will touch poetry, all of them useless. The large Australian
publishers no longer publish poetry; there’s no money in it.

What are your feelings about literary journals in SA that you have seen? What are literary journals like in Australia?

I’ve only seen Green Dragon & Carapace. As I know that you & Gus are publishing on a shoestring you have my sympathy & respect. Literary journals in Australia cover the whole range from elegant to awful, from journals with very good writing to very bad writing. The big academic journals keep battling on. Most of the small magazines have gone under for the reasons listed above, many of them only lasting for one or two issues. To get funding for a magazine from the Literature Board one must prove that one has at least 500 (if I remember correctly) subscribers, a very difficult if not impossible task.

Many small publications in SA are dependent on funding of some sort, whether public or corporate funding. Corporate funding can be a bit dodgy as the companies are likely to want marketing leverage, which risks interfering with the publisher’s integrity. However, obtaining government funding isn’t always that easy, either. What is the situation with regards to funding in Australia?

I can’t think of a poetry publisher who would even think of approaching the private sector for funding. It would be a waste of time. Australian companies aren’t known for their generosity. A few support sports, but the arts ... It’s possible to get subsidies for poetry from the Literature Board of the Australia Council if one has a good track record. Island has received several subsidies over the years, from AUS$500 to $2500 per title for up to four titles. Today it costs about $2300 to publish 500 copies of a good quality 80-page book with a two- or three-colour cover. A book of poetry now costs about $20. Why would anyone buy 80 pages of poetry when one can have a 300-page novel for the same price? As I said above, the federal government only just supports the arts (the Australia Council) & most of that funding goes to the Opera House. Poetry gets the crumbs. By way of contrast, the government of France devotes 4-point something of its annual budget to the arts. Australia? – less than 1%.

A concern in SA is the issue of poetry audiences – how poetry should be shared with an audience. Poetry performance is popular, with the emphasis on active engagement with a physical audience – not the same as publishing a book of poems and hoping someone will read it. You have had texts set to music by Australian world musician Colin Offord; in a sense, this is like poetry returning to its origin, with its basis in song, not as words on the page.

I’m all for getting poetry out to an audience by any means – performance, books, CDs. But Australian poetry audiences, unlike audiences I’ve experienced in Durban, Tokyo, Paris, NYC and Quebec, are usually small, very small, & lazy. To get through to them one must spoon-feed them pabulum. And don’t expect any feedback, positive or negative, after a reading. Much too cool & sophisticated. Australian poets are terminated by indifference. As for performance poetry in Australia: the few performances I’ve seen have been by testosterone-driven adolescents, not my cup of tea.

Your poetry shows the influence of surrealism, and the blurbs on your books usually refer to the influence, but you have said to me you dislike the label, because in Australia the critics use it as an excuse to classify surrealist, or surrealist-inspired, work as outdated. I’m not sure if the situation is different anywhere else in the world, but at the same time it also hints as an establishment conspiracy against any work that is prepared to take risks with language and challenge the status quo.

I’m not a fan of conspiracy theories; but, yes, I dislike the label because (A) surrealism as a movement was officially disbanded in 1967, (B) I don’t practice automatic writing or play surrealist games & (C) it allows my poetry to be dismissed – don’t read Hammial; he’s a surrealist, i.e., difficult, incomprehensible. Australians, like most people, are deeply conservative. And so are most of our poets. We’re still basically a colony. We still kowtow to the Queen of England. We still suffer from the Great Cringe (if it comes from overseas it’s better) and the Tall Poppy Syndrome (stick your head up above the crowd & it will be cut off).

This may explain why 98% of Australian poetry is derivative, based occasionally on a British model & usually on a US model – Iowa, Black Mountain, NY, New Lyric, L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E, etc. Our poets, especially the males who fear ridicule from their mates, play it safe, very safe. Where is the excitement, the journey, the sense of adventure? Not here. Also, for whatever reasons – the old copyright laws, high cost of books, lack of information – only a handful of Australian poets have done any in-depth reading in the original or in translation of poets who write in languages other than English.

Your poetry is often a collage of elements: bits of autobiography, word play, but also social comment and political criticism. Your poetry clearly engages with the world around you, dealing with your concerns about the environment, violence, abuse of power and political manipulation. What is your approach when writing?

As a young poet I wrote most of my poems in what might be described as a deep trance, much thrashing about, 20 to 30 poems in one one-hour session. Now, in my dotage, I’m lucky to get two poems from a light trance. In any case, most of my poetry comes from the unconscious or, if that term is problematical, from the subconscious. There’s little or no conscious input. The social commentary, autobiographical bits, word play, etc. simply come up with the rest of the material. That said, most of my prose poems are consciously made, usually in two or three minutes.

A few years back you published a book of prose poems, Swan Song. You use the prose-poem form fairly often, but it tends to be somewhat neglected these days. In various respects I feel there is more freedom in the writing of prose poetry, less of a concern with structure and form that one deals with in verse poetry.

Prose poems are much in evidence in Europe, Latin America, North America, Japan and Australia. I don’t concern myself with structure. It simply happens. I’ve been writing for so long that the poems come out finished in whatever form they need to take.

You formed, with Anthony Mannix, the Australian Collection of Outsider Art, and have organised exhibitions throughout the world. What has drawn you to outsider art? I have noted both you and Mannix have quoted Henri Michaux: “He who hides his madman dies voiceless.”

We have organised 26 exhibitions & only in France, Germany, Belgium, the US & Australia. Contemporary mainstream art the world over all looks to me as though it was produced by the same three or four art school clones. Outsider Art/Art Brut on the other hand speaks to me powerfully. It intoxicates me. It doesn’t cringe. It’s not derivative. It doesn’t care if it’s accepted. It simply is because its makers are compelled to make it. Having worked in a psych hospital, become close friends with several “mad” artists and studied the productions of the “insane” for many years I think I have a fair notion of what it’s about. With respect to poetry: for me most English language mainstream poetry is too sane, too controlled, too predictable, too entrenched in “ordinary” reality, too concerned with craft, too polished.

What about aboriginal art? Has that had an influence on your work?

Not at all.

You came to SA in 2000, to read at the Poetry Africa event in Durban. What were your responses to SA? What did you feel about SA socially and culturally?

As I was only in Durban & only there for ten days my responses would be hopelessly superficial. Instead, let me tell you about my response to the Poetry Africa festival itself. It was wonderful, one of the best experiences of my life. Peter Rorvik & his staff deserve our utmost praise & support. The events were in great venues, very well organised, started on time, employed sate-of-the-art technology ... And what beautiful audiences. People arrived on time, didn’t make noise, listened to the poetry, were very respectful, gave feedback at the end of the readings & even bought books. What more could a poet want? And what an excellent idea – to take poets to schools, rich & poor, to a prison & to a street kids’ refuge.

I’m still in touch with some poets I met at Poetry Africa 2000. US Poet Laureate Rita Dove & her husband Fred stayed overnight at our place in the Blue Mountains on a recent trip to Australia. I’ve had letters from Thomas Tidholm (Sweden), Susan Kigali (Uganda), Peter Kantor (Hungary), & Benjamin Zephaniah (UK) & have traded a couple of books with Kelwyn Sole. I often wonder how Otis Fink is going. He was doing good but potentially dangerous work. And Eric Hadebe, where are you? I’d love to hear from you.

A poetry festival like Poetry Africa has never happened in Australia & probably never will. Our pathetic Sydney Poetry Festival, which only happens every other year, only had a budget last year of AUS$30 000 & only drew an audience of about 200 over a three-day weekend. And the Sydney Writers Festival is all about money, about promoting trendy, flavour-of-the-month books. Poetry is ignored, a few poets, always the same poets, being invited to sit on a few panels.

What are your feelings about the future of poetry, and of poetry publishing, in Australia?

When I arrived in Australia in 1972 the future of poetry/ poetry publishing was bleak. It still is.