This is a light easy read but makes sure you know full well the journey is not sometimes so easy for the travellers. Anyone looking for adventure this is a good place to start.
forty years threw a searchlight into a way of life that many of us young white women didn’t know, or didn’t want to know much about – and certainly didn’t understand.
Nearly forty years on, here comes Poppie again in a newly released edition, with a cover image of Clementina Mosimane who plays Poppie in the film released earlier this year (2020). But ‘Poppie’ has had a remarkable history in the intervening years. Elsa Joubert translated her original 1978 Afrikaans book into a wonderfully vivid English in 1980. It went on to be translated into 13 languages and was acclaimed as one of the most important books to come out of Africa in the 20th century. Over and above which it was made into a play starring Nomsa Nene as Poppie, performed at the Market Theatre and later on Broadway in the US in 1982.
But aside from the story of the book, what is the story of Poppie herself? Her real name was Ntombizodumo Eunice Msutwana, born February 28 1936 in Upington and raised in a township called Blikkies. Her Xhosa name means ‘girl born from a line of famous women’. Joubert now 97 and something of a legend herself, knew Ntombi for just two years before she wrote the ‘Poppie’ story – and remembers that ‘she was an intelligent person with a great memory for detail’ (I quote an article in the Sowetan). In a note ‘To the reader’, she says ‘This novel is based on the actual story of a black woman living in South Africa today. Only her name Poppie Rachel Nongena, born Matati, is invented. The facts were related to me not only by Poppie herself, but by members of her immediate family and her extended family or clan, and they cover one family’s experience over the past forty years.’
I’m presuming that inscription was included in the original edition of 1978. But the truth of the matter is that whilst the story of this ‘black woman living in South Africa today’ would not be the same in 2020 – the stories of so many ‘black women’ whilst different, may not be much better.
The Poppie journey starts with her childhood in Upington where she ‘looked after mama’s children till I was thirteen because at thirteen the factory took children to work as cleaners’. From there to Lambert’s Bay, forcibly removed to Cape Town then to Mdantsane in the Eastern Cape and back to Cape Town. All the while dogged by the impossible apartheid laws. It’s an education in so many ways, not least of which is the ability of a woman to love and care for her husband, her children, her extended family, despite all.
But what is special about the Poppie story, then as now, is that you can hear her voice and that of her family members so very clearly. You can understand and empathise with her challenges, her traditions, her humour and her love. All of which is a testimony to the quality of Joubert’s listening skills as well as her writing. It’s an absolute must read.
The real ‘Poppie’, mother of five was only 56 when she died of cancer in April 1992 in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. At 97 Elsa Joubert recently published 'Cul de Sac' 'a memoir 'exploring the continent of old age.'
I really do think a book resonates because of what you are seeking or feeling or intrigued about at the time. Or it unlocks something you didn’t even know you were storing.
(Confession two: I seldom feel compelled to write book reviews but this one grabbed me by the throat.)
Strangely enough, this book, The trouble with my aunt, was not one that I intended reading at the moment. But somehow, when the Jewish Literary Festival was cancelled, along with so many other literary events, I was fortunate enough to have picked up a copy of this book.
And I have loved every single minute of it. Even prolonging the end because I wanted to savour it for longer. I hope I can do it justice here:
At the centre of novel is Leah, who has always been intrigued by the condition of her aunt Vi, her mother’s sister, who presented with habits and traits of a person who most of us would have described as ‘mentally challenged’ or ‘disabled’ but not quite known exactly why. But when Leah’s casual encounter with a work colleague, Steve, in a steamy start to the novel leaves her pregnant, Leah’s quest to understand her family history really begins.
The story is carried by a perfect pace with easy dialogue and characters are simply all lovable, including the awkward and flat-footed aunty Vi who repeats herself constantly and delights in her weekly visits to have her hair permed and addresses any object of her affections as ‘Toozazee’. The bond of family is the overriding theme: between mother, daughter, and the matriarchal glamorous granny Sadie, but also between mother and her new-born son. And then of course, how to deal with the troubles of Vi.
And then there are other delightful characters like Granny’s best friend Lily Gerber, who I wished I’d known but who we all have somewhere in our midst, I think.
But I also have to mention the Yiddishms which punctuated this story: the fahribbels, the Meshuggehs, and the chalisching which goes on amongst people who are generally identified by their unfortunate schnoz’s! (And you’ll have to read the book if you don’t understand these!)
Perhaps it was the recollection of giving birth which is described in such heart-warming honesty, or the eating habits she mentions in her descriptions which I recalled in my own home- the half grapefruit and kippers for breakfast,- or the fact that Toozazee is close to the nickname of my own mother (Toozie) amongst so many in our family, but I honestly think it goes far deeper than that.
Because in fact many of us know people like Vi, and we really have no idea how families have dealt with the repercussions or family dynamics that these special individuals bring.
I can highly recommend this book. Start by looking carefully at the beautiful cover of self-drawn images by the author and then open and enjoy. I wish I could start all over again.
Perhaps Gus Silber says it best… ‘it grabs you by the heart and never lets go’.
From the moment you start reading it until the unpredictable end this is a story that grips and won’t let go. What would you do if you woke one April morning and could not remember what had happened over the last two months? No-one not even your husband can fill you in. Or won’t is the bigger question – and what is he hiding? Primary school teacher Erica and her husband Kenneth have a good life: Erica is doing the job she loves, she is married to a man who loves her and the future looks bright – until that morning when she wakes up and finds that the last two months are a complete void.
Is this her brain reacting to an unpleasant experience – it’s happened before – something that Erica is unaware of – and what could have derailed her life now? After her horrific experiences at high school as the object of vicious bullying Erica has rebuilt her life. Her only obvious flaw is that she is fat which, as we know can be the perfect launch-pad for toxic teenage girls. Their reign of terror had encompassed Erica’s whole young life, her first boyfriend, her family, a car accident and an almost-tragedy.
But that was then: today she is confident and while she doesn’t have a huge circle of friends - after her experience at school she is wary of getting too close to people –those she has are loyal.
How do you recover from the bullying? Repression is a good tool and Erica doesn’t think too much about that time. Instead she embraces her adult life and the good fortune she has encountered. She is a strong, kind and happy person who is ‘abundant’ rather than fat – adored by the loving Kenneth.
Sarah Schmidt’s approach is just as fictional, as she re-imagines the unsolved murder. Skipping between characters Schmidt takes us into the very thought processes of Lizzie, her sister Emma, their housemaid Bridget, uncle John and a mysterious stranger named Benjamin. That last character is totally made up, but all the rest were real.
The story Schmidt has created is just as made-up, but the meticulous way she lays out the story through the eyes of the various characters makes it feel very, very real.
It is equal parts disturbing and commonplace and gory. Written in a very pragmatically descriptive way with clinical descriptions of Sarah’s cleaning routine or Emma’s ruminations on missing out on her own life, it is nonetheless eerie too.
Despite the very icky descriptions of how the Bordens were killed, the book is an engrossing read. It is a beautifully crafted piece of fiction that questions through all the characters the concepts of female agency and familial interdependence. It’s not so much that Schmidt ignores the historical facts, as that she holds up the people and really looks at just how much power they had over their own lives. Did Lizzie kill her parents because of the stifling constraints of Victorian mores on a single woman living her parents’ home? Was she acquitted because the jury of men simply could not conceive of a woman murdering her own parents?
Schmidt paints a picture of people living in discomforting proximity, dependent on each other in a weird sort of way. This is the dark side to Victorian literature - there’s jealousy, anxiety, irritation and cloying co-dependancy.
This retelling goes much further than Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea ever did with mad Bertha in the attic, in extrapolating a possible intention for Lizzie Borden. It also tells us a whole lot more about our contemporary relationship with feminist revisiting of old events than it does about the event itself. And, while Schmidt never comes down on way or another in pronouncing Lizzie’s guilt or innocence, the book is worth a read because it never reduces her to just those two sides of a coin but makes her as complex, and yes strange and not exactly nice, as a woman can be.
Tannie Maria, her beau Henk and the team from the local newspaper embark on a rollicking journey that only requires a tin of buttermilk risks to chew through as you turn the pages (and the recipe is at the back ) so what more could you want?
Love, murder and some surprising revelations romp through this story. Andrew introduces us to the tall dark stranger Zabanguni Kani who arrives with a flourish on a Ducati motorbike. A journalist whose political exposés have put her in mortal danger she seeks refuge with Tannie Maria and then takes her on a journey to the country’s northern parts where a past that Maria has tried to forget is finally unravelled – with surprising consequences.
Andrew’s special brand of writing conjures up a wonderful picture of a Karoo road trip, the emotions that run with family connections and how food can be a saviour in all situations. This is a story that is deliciously addictive and you’ll be hooked from the start.
Using real life financial scandals as her inspiration plus her years as a brand manager in Sandton, Jacobsen has woven together a story that marries the sophisticated corporate world with traditional African superstitions in a very accessible and believable way.
Characters are finely penned and whilst not literary fiction this is a contemporary story that can be read with speed, delight and recognition.
Meet Georgie, marketing manager for a large corporation. Sophisticated and feisty she is respected by her peers and lusted by her boss. Her integrity is unquestioned and her empathy reaches into the dark corners of her more traditional African associates. But something is off at her place of work and she can’t put her finger on it.
It is the shadows that are lengthening and moving, but only for Sindiwe and Kensington who are finding their presence more and more terrifying. These tokoloshes have something to say, they are gathering for the kill; a sinister warning in the plush offices of the firm. Something is very wrong at the corporation and, as the shadows move and re-group, Sindiwe is forced to go home to her rural village to seek answers.
Clinton, young, keen, and bright but still on the lower rungs, is asked – no told - to do something that is against his ethics and seeks advice from Georgie whom he trusts implicitly. And then there is the handsome, magnetic boss from England, Jake, whose personal life is something of a mess and about to get messier.
Jacobsen’s style is unpretentious and she describes the corporate world with honesty. I particularly liked the short chapters. Jacobsen has learned the art of persuasion in writing - pushing you on to read the next chapter, and the next in search of answers.
A malevolent Board intent on its own agenda, dark forces and disruption, tokoloshes and tea, some sex in the city and rural Africa combine to provide a satisfying read with a clear question that is as disturbing as it is real. What about the rural consumer – how do they eke out a life when it is often governed by the collusion of greedy corporates whose bulging pockets are about to get bigger. Scrutiny that needs to be ever more vigilant, and reported to the Competition Commission who is credited with doing a good job.
We enter the rooms of Kate’s mind as she wrestles with her inner anguish using her routine chores to cover her turmoil. Making cheese, running the farm and restaurant, dealing with her dementia addled father, a manipulative ex-husband and a besotted neighbour take us step by step through this day in vivid prose. Mothers united in their fear, Kate and Nosisi whose son Luzoko is undergoing initiation, work side by side in silent contemplation.
Highly emotive, the novel is an evocative and thoughtful exploration of confrontations, loss and ultimately acceptance. Incisively Garisch cuts through to the core of motherhood and relationships between humans, animals and the environment and uses all her very impressive skills as a writer, poet, playwright, mother, doctor and member of the medical humanities movement to set the scene.
Garisch has the vision to show the connections and separations that are part of all our lives. It is a beautifully crafted book with a rhythm that is almost like a heartbeat.
Neni came to join him filled with hope, and with dreams of getting a college degree and becoming a pharmacist. They live in a tiny fifth floor flat in Harlem with their young son Liomi. Life is not easy, but it’s not Cameroon. Imbolo traces out the minutiae of their lives – the dignity and indignity of being black, poor and waiting for ‘papers’ – and their relationships, with each other, with their friends and importantly, with Jende’s wealthy employers. Clark Edwards’ troubled wife Cindy plays is a key role, as do the Edwards sons, Vince and young Mighty. Things change when Neni falls pregnant with baby Timba. But things really change, and for the worse, when the stockmarket crashes. It’s 2008. Jende loses his job – but not necessarily for the obvious reasons.
On her facebook page, I read that Imbolo recently spoke on Maine Public Radio in an interview about cultural appropriation, asking is it right for artists to ‘dip their pens into other people’s blood’. In it she says ‘people are more likely to tell their own stories with empathy’. As I see it a writer can tell other people’s stories with empathy too – if inevitably through the prism of their own lens and experience. But as neither a Cameroonian nor a New Yorker, I come away from this book with empathy for both. I feel doubly enriched by reading a story that shares both first and second hand experiences with care. Simply it’s a book about cultural exchange, clashes and coming together. And finally, about home.
. Behold the Dreamers is a new title in the Woman Zone African women writers section. Due out later this year is Mbue’s new title: How Beautiful We Were.