Dog Walk Diaries

I’m sick of my own opinions so let me tell you about the best part of my day, which is taking Sprite to the park. We can’t do this at the moment because the car is at the panel beaters, so let’s have an imaginary dog walk.

Into the car, tail wagging. Sprite’s barks grow sharper and I have to avoid her taking the wheel or indicating for me. Reach the park and she’s out before I have got one leg on the ground, and into the grass and air.

Greetings to Phillip, the bead and wire sculptor, currently at work on a monster gecko. Greetings to Gin and Tonic, the kind car guard who looks after lost dogs and children. Greetings to Valeria and the basket ladies from Swaziland, who tell me who is already in the park, don’t I want to buy my 10th laundry basket at a discounted price and will I give them a lift home afterwards? And then I obey the intense fox/wolf command of my border collie and start throwing the ball.

The park is like a clockwork village: you meet the same people at the same time at the same place.

Here’s Adam for instance, big, tall and tottering, wearing two hats, carrying a knobkerrie and hailing us. Straight away we are in his last current of conversation. Adam once studied to be a rabbi and he would have been a brilliant one, because he doesn’t judge, does listen and tells very good, evil-blasting jokes.

Like the time we were walking behind my friend and her doctor husband Karl, and were joined by a loud man who while talking about his recovery from a serious accident blurted out that he wished he was a German because Germans feel no pain. I had been concentrating on my ball throwing duties but started at that and Adam felt my start. “Let’s ask Karl” said Adam and so with perfect aim made loud mouth quiet, me laugh and nasty smell in air disappear. I like German jokes, said Adam the beatific, meet Herr Dresser.

Another time: walking with Digger the tough and wonderful Australian cattle dog and (after thought) his owner Peter. On our circuit meet a Popeye type, T-shirt sleeves rolled up to allow his biceps to expand. Popeye pulls on his dog’s lead and eyes Digger with aggression. “Your dog always goes for mine” he hisses. Adam, in mid-sentence turns, looks over his glasses and says “Must be personal then.” Popeye goes red and snorts and Adam sails on serene.

[NB All human names have been changed to protect their dogs from embarrassment]

Readings that work

The other day we had a beautiful evening at the Wits Writing Centre. We had planned a small party for our writing consultants and to welcome Mbongisi, returned briefly from studying African philosophy in Kansas, Retsepile returned perhaps for longer from her jet-setting writing career in London, Mehita returned from lecturing at London University to Wits and Beth returned from freelance journalism in Johannesburg. So we had much to celebrate as well as the recent PhD for Thabisani. It also happened to be the shortest day of the year and national short story day. So, in addition to the cheese and wine, we asked the mentor protégé group to entertain us with readings from the People Power collection.

 And to my mind it was perfect: people happy to see each other, returning to a familiar space, interested in the work of their friends. It wasn’t very planned but everything seemed to work.

How do we have more readings like this? Events which are not initiated by the PR departments of big institutions but which are firstly a party and then an interest in hearing about recent creative travels? As a meeting of friends it wasn’t public. But could we take the friends’ meeting as a kernel, so as to grow the group in some organic way and so make it more public? Word of mouth, even if it is via facebook, invitation from someone you know, seems to be the best way to get a receptive and engaged audience. The subsequent performance or reading, needs then a created space in which no one person or view dominates. A space or moment which allows imagination to grow through juxtaposition and dialogue.

Readings from the mentor protégé group were the focus of our party on June 21st and their writings are getting better and better. I think the group is benefitting from Allan’s experience and strong writing, from Kgaogelo’s experiments with mixing languages and representing violence, Mbongisi’s relentless intellectualism and quirkiness, from Vuyo’s wickedness and punch, from Dina’s cleverness in capturing Jo’burg conversations. These writers and their writings are developing at least partly in dialogue and finding their voice against each other.

I’d like to celebrate the mentor protégé group and tell you to read their writings and come to the next party/event. Perhaps we can find alternatives to the cliques and ghettos by nourishing our writers and ourselves with open meetings of developing voices, which are respectful, inclusive and creative.

Infantilizing writing in African languages?

I was at a reading of Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome To Our Hillbrow and K. Sello Duikers’ Thirteen Cents and The Quiet Violence of Dreams yesterday, as part of the Keleketla Library’s contribution to WALE, the Wits Arts and Literature Experience festival. The Keleketla investigation of the legacy of Mpe, Duiker and Moses Molekwa is part of ‘Dislocating the Studio’, a residency programme in the Wits School of the Arts. Siphiwo Mahala and I were re-reading these books of our friends and I think we all found that they still speak to obstacles to freedom, to limitations on our literary imagination.

For example did you know, as Welcome To Our Hillbrow tells us, that if you write a book in an African language, you are likely to be asked to tone it down for a young audience? That’s because supposedly, the only economically viable readership for a novel in an African language is schools; and therefore the book must be edited according to what educational publishers deem appropriate for children to read. Phaswane’s narrator comments that our whole system of reviewing and publishing confuses writers by making them believe that “euphemism equals good morals” and that “Calling shit and genitalia by their correct names in Sepedi was apparently regarded as vulgar by these reviewers, who had for a long time been reviewing works for educational publishers and who were determined to ensure that such works did not offend the systems that they served.”

We are still in the process of replacing those systems, and it seems as if we haven’t completely shifted this outrageous assumption that novels written in African languages have to be infantilized before they can be published. Siphiwo Mahala is one of the very few writers who ahs published his novel, When a Man Cries in English and in isiXhosa and had the latter reviewed in the English mainstream press. Yet, he said that he had to tone down the sexually explicit parts of the isiXhosa novel, as if “euphemism equal good morals.” How do we persuade the public and the publishers and the reviewers that there are readers for good, innovative new writing in African languages? How do we continue the libratory work of Phaswane Mpe and K Sello Duiker?

The Keleketla performance for WALE is called Nonwane and will be held in Hillbrow May 11 at the Summit Hotel For more details contact Ra at WWC events for WALE include the launch of the play The Pump Room by Allan Kolski Horwitz on Wednesday May 11 at 18h30- 19h30, Graduate Seminar Room, South West Engineering building; People Power, readings of new writing from the mentor protégé group sparked by recent events and an invitation to write, on Thursday May 12, 16h30 -18h30, at the Wits Writing Centre; launch of the novel Ngiyolibala Ngifile (I will forget when I am dead) by Dumisani Sibiya on Friday May 14 at 17h30 -18h30 at the Graduate Seminar Room, South West Engineering building; and lastly launch of the poetry cd Roots and Branches, featuring performances from a treasury of Johannesburg poets, including Lionel Murcott, Ike Muila, Siphiwe Ka Ngwenya; Myesha Jenkins, Khanya Magubane, Yoliswa Mogale, Phillippa de Villiers, Lesley Perkes, Allan Kolski Horwitz, Mark Espin, James de Villiers, Chantal-Fleur Sandjon, and Mphutlane wa Bofelo.