Planning to See a Giant Puppet? Read Me First.

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No liquid I will ever consume can live up to the pint of Carling I drank on the patio of Liverpool’s Britannia Adelphi Hotel in the early afternoon of July 25
th, 2014. I’d been dying of thirst since 6:00am and when I put that beer to my lips, I audibly moaned. The second one went down just as well.

~~

I had completed a third draft of a novel
(Nuala: A Fable, UAP, 2017) about a giant marionette when I had the opportunity to see some live. In the two years previous, I’d scoured the Internet looking for giant puppets, and it turns out that the world is lousy with them. They appear all across the globe, and companies like Royal de Luxe, La Machine, The Lantern Company, and The Handspring Puppet Company create and tour their puppets internationally: in some cases as free street theatre.

A few months prior, I’d been lamenting that I’d not been asked back to teach for a third year at a summer writing school, and called a friend to whine about it. She said to buck up and that she was sure something would happen that would be even better. Better than my dream job? That’s a tall order. But a few weeks later, I heard that Royal de Luxe would be taking three of their giant puppets to Liverpool the exact week I would have been at the writing school, working fourteen hours a day and picking ticks out of my hair.

As I’d already written the book, I thought that seeing a giant puppet in real life would help me finish the creation of
my giant puppet in a convincing way. What I needed was to see one in action, to watch how it was manipulated; to note the tech specs on how these monstrous things get moving. I also love Liverpool and will jump at any excuse I can find to go there. I found an airbnb bachelor flat in the city centre, booked plane tickets for my husband and me, and prepared.

~~

This coming July, La Machine will bring their giant spider to Ottawa, and Royal de Luxe is bringing two of their giant creations to Montréal. Their most famous marionette, Little Girl Giant and her uncle will be there later this month. Details and route maps for the Royal de Luxe visit are now available
here.

Having learned a few things about how to best experience a giant puppet, I want to share some of my strategies for how to see them.

Most importantly, seeing one of the Royal de Luxe puppets up close and personal is not for the casual traveller looking for a diversion while missing a plenary at a Montréal conference. It’s real work. Afterward, my husband said to me, “That’s the hardest I’ve ever worked on a vacation in my life.” We were exhausted at the end of the Giants’ visit and spent most of the next day in Liverpool sleeping.

A Facebook friend said that she was looking forward to seeing the Royal de Luxe Giants in Montréal on her lunch break during the conference she’s attending there at the same time. I said, “Honey, it’s one or the other. You can’t do both.” Another friend teased me about the time I was spending preparing to see the puppets. “They’re giants, Kimmy. Of
course you’ll be able to see them.”

Well, no. While it’s true that Little Girl Giant is thirty feet tall, it’s also true that if you are standing a half kilometre away from her, with 100,000 people between the puppet and yourself, you are not going to see a dang thing.

~~

At 5:30am on a Friday in late July, my husband Stu and I walked from our flat in Rodney Street to the Queensway Tunnel entrance near St. George’s Hall in the heart of Liverpool. Little Girl Giant’s grandmother slept in her wheelchair outside the Hall and we stopped there first to have a look at her. I was focussed solely on Little Girl Giant, but my husband is the make-friends-everywhere type. He was chatting away with a lovely couple from who-cares-where. The clock was ticking. I finally tugged his shirt and told him I was going around the corner. I’m not good at being rude, but shut up, new friends. If you make me miss getting the best spot to see the giant girl waking up…

She was asleep sitting up, her dog’s head in her lap. She was not scheduled to wake up till 10:30 or 11:00, but by 6:15am, there were hundreds of people lined up at the barricades surrounding the traffic circle. Stu and I snagged the best standing room possible, directly across from the puppets and right at the barriers. A BBC reporter had caught wind that there were people from Canada who’d traveled to see the giant. “Why?” he asked me. “Why not?”

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I’ve never been less bored for five hours watching absolutely nothing happen. At periodic intervals, Little Girl Giant and her dog would sigh, snore, and their chests rose and fell as they slept. The hypnotic repetition of that lulled us into a kind of trance while we stood, waited, and made polite conversation when we had to.

Parents began to sneak their children past us and I was constantly aware of my legs being brushed by grubby hands. A little boy had been in front of me, bashing his head back into my thighs for ten minutes, when my husband said, “That’s enough of that,” and gently moved the charming toddler back to his mum, where he decided we were mean and burst into tears. Suck it up, kid. I was here first. We spread our arms and legs and stood our ground.

We’d both brought plenty of water, but as the sun hit our heads and we were starting to feel parched, we realized that we could not drink it. By 10:00am, according to
The Liverpool Echo the next day, an estimated 300,000 people had gathered at Liverpool city centre to watch three giant puppets wake up. The porta-potties were a sweet and distant memory several blocks behind where we stood. There was no way either of us could hope to get back to our front row spot if we went to pee. We could have told the 100,000 people in the park next to St. George’s Hall that we were at the front as we tried to elbow our way through. Who would believe us? I wouldn’t believe a crock like that from someone who clearly just wanted to get closer, and to do it in an underhanded fashion.

The minutes ticked by and the crowd got more oppressive. The sun pounded down on our baseball caps, we tried to produce saliva, and we found ourselves in a permanent defensive stance: feet spread and elbows out. At the four-hour mark, a few jerks jumped the barricade and stood directly in front of us.

Like all good little Canadians, I like to think of myself as polite and sweet. I don’t like confrontation and will avoid it at all costs. Because this is a family-friendly site, I won’t tell you the words that rolled off my tongue to the people in my way. I’d made friends with the woman next to me and she jumped to my defence to tell them I’d come all the way from Canada and that they should “sit the *&%$ down!” A very large Marshall and several burly crowd-control volunteers made that happen in short order.

That state of affairs didn’t last, and by 10:15, a hundred people were seated across the barricades in front of us. Where did they come from? Stu and I took great pleasure in policing their every move and yelling when appropriate. One young man had the temerity to stand directly in front of me and hoist his four-year-old kid onto his shoulders, obliterating my view. Not on my watch, soldier. I don’t know that I’ve ever yelled at someone that ferociously. I have to admit that it felt pretty good.

Children all along the barriers had begun a spontaneous chant of “Wake up, Giants!” We joined in. And at 11:00am, they did.

~~

Everything fell away. I was suddenly unaware of the crowds, the heat, my thirst, and my every cell was focussed on Little Girl Giant’s most minute movements. Xolo woke first, and licked her hand. She woke up, bit by bit: eyelashes first. Through a series of slow and mesmerising motions, it took her a full ten minutes to stand. When she reached her full height, there was a deafening, thunderous roar of 300,000 people who’ve never seen anything like it in their lives. I wished I had more eyeballs. I asked Stu to video it, as I wanted to live the moment.

It was the most spectacular theatre I have ever experienced: street or otherwise. I forgot completely that I’d planned to watch how she was propelled. I simply didn’t care. With the help of her puppeteers (rather obviously called “Lilliputians”) and the truck-and-crane assembly holding her up, she walked around the traffic circle, coming to within twenty feet of me. Like a child, I was waving and crying when it seemed that she made eye contact with me. I felt my insides melting and for a moment, there was nothing but that giant puppet and me looking into one another’s eyes, as she finished her walk around the circle.

And then—two minutes later—she was gone. We watched her get smaller and smaller as she walked up St. John’s Lane. I felt like I was in some kind of surreal, sun-soaked Neverland of shoving bodies and Giants who stride casually across roundabouts and then vanish.

Her Grandmother awoke at the same time and was making her way to where we stood. An hour went by. We all got grumpier. Our tongues were stuck to the roofs of our mouths and still no Grandmother. Finally, just after noon, she appeared. I was less interested in her but I didn’t mind waiting for Grandmother, and there was no getting out from where we were until she walked by and the crowd dispersed enough for us to move.

Our leg muscles were trembling and we were feeling the heat and our thirst acutely. I’d never been thirstier in my life. As the crowd began to break up, the barriers were removed, the street was reopened, and within minutes, cars and busses were whizzing by as though nothing had happened.

In the mass of people heading for food and drink, we managed to be about eighteenth in line at the bar in the Britannia Adelphi, one of Liverpool’s old, stately hotels. Our turn came surprisingly quickly and we each ordered two pints of Carling. We found two spots at a communal picnic table on the patio, and took our first sips. So glorious. Now that we weren’t trapped in the biggest crowd either of us had ever seen, we each drank a litre of water in very few gulps. I finally allowed myself a bathroom break, and while I was washing my hands in the lobby washroom, a cockroach skittered by. Despite the Adelphi’s former grandeur, I thought, the old girl is falling apart.

~~

Now that we were pros, our task was to spread out our maps of the Giants’ routes for the rest of the weekend, sip our beer, and plan how best to see them again. We didn’t fly to England to stand at the back of crowds of people three times the population of the city we live in. Front row or nothing for us. We determined that our best course of action would be to station ourselves at the top of Rodney Street when she woke after her nap at the Chinese Arch. A policeman said she would pass by us about 3:30 on Upper Duke Street, which conveniently connects with Rodney Street, the street in which we were staying.

Even better, we found a window ledge in the
shade. I’m a shorty, so it was lovely for me to be able to stand and to look over the heads of those in front of me. But even more wonderfully, we could sit while we waited. For two hours, we took turns holding our spot, reading books, and allowing others to join us on the ledge until there was no room left. I turned back to see if we were blocking anyone’s view from inside, but the office was empty of people and furniture. I stood with impunity, damn it. The best part of this situation was that we could take turns walking the several steps to our flat to use the washroom and have a sip of Strongbow while we waited. Luxury!

As the afternoon progressed, the crowds overwhelmed the street and there were people three and four deep on the sidewalk as far as we could see in either direction on Upper Duke Street. We saw her coming—seated and riding on top of a car—from several blocks away and again, the excitement of the crowd grew palpable as she got closer. Every balcony, every window was crammed with people. It appeared as though the people living in the flats along the street had thrown their doors open to let whoever in to sit on their balcony and watch the Giants pass. If you know anything about the kindliness of the Liverpudlians, this will surprise you not at all.

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The parade moved at a good clip, and a puppeteer with a megaphone announced regularly, “WE WILL NOT STOP.” I could imagine the chaos if that herd of people decided to crowd the Giants all at once.

Once again, in less than two minutes, she was gone. The crowd dispersed, the roads opened, and we headed back to the flat for a nap.

~~

That evening, we treated ourselves to dinner in the restaurant next to our flat. In the middle of the meal, almost everyone in the place—customers, wait staff, chefs—ran into the street leaving Stu and me in a nearly deserted restaurant. I sipped my wine and said to him, “Bet you some giant is walking by.” Sure enough, Grandmother had just made her fifty-foot way past the end of the street.

That night, we slept like trees. I dreamed of giants while the all-night seagulls screamed from the River Mersey.

~~

We had planned to see the finale performance Saturday night at Clarence Dock; the Giants were to meet up there at 8:00pm, and perform together in one place for forty minutes before being tucked in for the night. But after lunch, Stu said, “Do you want to try to see her down at the traffic circle again?” The map said she’d be walking down to where she’d woken up the day before, and she’d be having a nap there that afternoon. “Why not?” I said. We strolled down to Lime Street Station and could already see that there was a crowd larger than the one we’d experienced the day before. The
Echo estimated a crowd of 3-500,000 at each of the large gathering places along the route. I’ve been jostled, but this was world-class jostling.

Little Girl Giant and Xolo were to arrive at about 1:30pm so that’s when we did too. If this had been my only view of her, I’d have been bitterly disappointed. You simply cannot see a thirty-foot tall marionette from a distance of nearly a kilometre. We were aware of not getting in front of anyone whose Very Grumpy Child™ indicated to us that they’d been standing there for hours. We knew how that felt. We found a spot at a great distance where we weren’t blocking anyone’s view. And we saw nothing. We had seen her up close twice and had determined that if that was it, then that was it. No regrets.

Once the crowd broke up, Stu and I went to the Adelphi for a beer. The place was stuffed with puppeteers and staff, and we made friends with a couple of the crowd-control volunteers. I was shy to approach the puppeteers, but their tired faces, and their downing of beer on their two-hour break from their hard work in the sun gave me pause.
I hoped they were paid well.

~~

At 3:00 that afternoon, we started our walk to Clarence Dock for the 8:00pm show. From a distance, we could see the yellow cranes used to lift the puppets and were taken over with little thrills. Stu was not only susceptible to my energy, but he found himself attracted to these puppets and the feelings they produced in grown-up adults. He frequently had tears in his eyes. Every crowd we stood in was peopled by bored or sleeping children, and grown men and women weeping and waving. It was the most extraordinary reversal of roles.

I often think that people who make puppets—giant or otherwise—aren’t making them for children, but for adults. The whole weekend reminded me of the best joke in
Toy Story 2. At one point in that film, the Evil Emperor Zurg says to Buzz Lightyear—in a deep, wheezy Darth Vader voice—“Buzz. I. Am. Your father.” The theatre was crammed with adults spitting up their pop and laughing out loud while their children looked on, bewildered at what was so funny. I felt exactly that way seeing the puppets. For the most part, the children didn’t care because they were tired and hungry and thirsty. It was the adults who were moved by what they were seeing.

The Dock gates remained resolutely shut for three hours, as the guys behind them seemed to taunt us by waiting till the last minute to open them. We were among the first to arrive and made a friend or two. We asked how to get the best place, as there were now hundreds of people behind us waiting to be let through. One of the women we’d befriended said, “Get through and then
leg it! If we get there first, we’ll save two spots. If you get there first, do the same for us.” Deal.

The gates opened at 7:00pm and a sea of people ran through the dusty gravel to get a spot close to the front. We arrived at the same time as our new friends and once again performed the ritual of taking a defensive stance against the barriers and keeping people from jostling one woman’s disabled mum. We all made sure she was front and centre.
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In the book commemorating the Giants’ visit, I can see Stu in the front row in a photo of the crowd. Behind him is a blurry ocean of people that seems to stretch for miles. The finale performance overloaded my senses and emotions and I was unable to process it all at the time. Stu made several videos of the evening, and I’ve watched them over and over, reliving it all each time I do.

The rain started just as the Giants were being tucked in and kissed by their puppeteers. We had an hour-long walk back to our flat. We were exhausted, dehydrated, and completely happy. On that walk, we both remembered that we’d each bought a half bottle of wine somewhere, and we had put them in my backpack. We stopped at a bench, and in the pouring rain, we clinked our plastic bottles together, and toasted ourselves. We decided as we trudged up the hill—still a half hour from our bed—that we were not going to go down to the waterfront for the Giants’ send-off the next morning. They were to be loaded onto barges and floated off down the River Mersey.

“If I have to sit in the sun and be jostled for six hours for the pleasure of seeing them for eight minutes,” I said, “count me out.” I was aware that I’d seen them up close three times, it was an insane amount of work, and that if I tried to do it again, there was a possibility that I would be grumpy about it. We agreed to give it a miss. Too much of a good thing and all that.

~~

Giant walking puppets are a (perhaps surprisingly) regular occurrence in major centres like Liverpool but even so, some one and a half million people saw them that weekend, and I think I was jostled by every one of them. Of that number, the Transit Authority estimates that at least 100,000 of those people (the population of Red Deer) arrived by train from outside the city, given the delays at Lime Street Station after the Giants sailed off down the Mersey Sunday morning.

~~

On our first morning, standing at the entrance to the Queensway Tunnel watching a girl and her dog sleep, a woman moved in next to me for a moment, and half-heartedly took a picture. “Damn puppets,” she said. I was taken aback, naturally, as I’d flown here to see the “damn puppets”. Doesn’t everyone love the damn puppets? As though she’d read my thoughts, she told me, “I’m late. I work in that library, there are no busses running here this morning, and I couldn’t get through the people in time to make my shift.”

I have no doubt that the Royal de Luxe Giants and the puppets from La Machine will attract huge numbers when they come to Canada this spring and summer. Hundreds of thousands of people will be delighted and amazed by something they’ve never seen before. Others will wish that the road closures wouldn’t make them late for work. May I always be the child grown older and see these magnificent creatures as the wonders that they are, and not an inconvenient barrier to my getting from Point A to Point B. I wish the same for you.




_______________________________________

Guides, Drinks and Stacks of Books: My Journey into South African Literature


By Kimmy Beach

(
first published in WestWord: Magazine of the Writers’ Guild of Alberta, 35:6)

"What Father's death meant to Mother, I do not know, for even during those last years of her life no familiarity ever developed between us."

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We’re at our favourite table in a bar called The Glass Monkey. He orders a Stella and asks the server to bring me a Pinot Grigio. He pushes his copy of This Life across the table toward me. The drinks arrive as I’m reading the back cover.

“Why this?” It doesn’t sound like my kind of book. An old woman recalling her life from her deathbed. I never went for that whole
Stone Angel thing, and this looks similar.

“You’ll figure it out.” He sips his beer.


This is typical. I’m working on a new book, and this pattern is now familiar with this man. He hands me a book he thinks will help me in some way with my current project, I ask why this one, and he won’t tell me.


The passage above is from
This Life: the least tell-y novel I have ever read. The book (Hierdie Lewe) is by South African writer Karel Schoeman, and is translated from the Afrikaans by Else Silke.  It took me a long time to find my way into this book and I started reading it several times before I finished it. The presentation isn't what I'm used to, and it drove me crazy. This Life's narrator, Sussie, recounts her life and discusses important historical events such as The South African War as almost peripheral happenings: only in terms of how they affect her own life.  She is insular and maddeningly withholding. She never leaves her own mind. Everything she reports is observed, and so she is unreliable. Unreliable narrators are nothing new, and are certainly not restricted to a certain country's literature. But Sussie made me work to understand what was going on around her. We see the actions of the other characters only through her limited vision.

If Sussie observes an external movement or tone of voice, the reporting of it is always directly connected to what she herself is experiencing in that moment. Schoeman writes, “For days Dulsie muttered crossly about these events about which she remained in the dark but, as I have said, it was no concern of mine. To push the kettle over the fire for the water to boil, to turn the bread out of the pans and to feel whether the iron was hot enough, those were my duties in life, and they measured out my entire existence” (145). Sussie notes repeatedly that conversations and goings-on were “no business of” hers, and so the reader is left to conjecture, to guess, to piece together what might be happening around her.


In some ways, she is me. I rarely worry about what other people think of me, because I recognize that if most people are like me, they're thinking about themselves most of the time. I am aware of what’s going on in the world and I do think of myself as a thoughtful, generous person, but unless someone needs me, my thoughts—at times—are of myself and my own daily struggles and joys. As I see it, Schoeman's vision of Sussie is exactly this: that my life is dictated by my own thoughts and whatever happens around me is often external unless it directly affects me.


Why was I was finding Sussie's limited view so maddening and so difficult to access, even though it mirrored my own view of the world in some ways? As soon as I hit it, I started reading the book again and understood. Sussie doesn't assume anyone else's thoughts. She does not infer what anyone else is feeling. There are no long passages describing the eye movements of those around her. Unless it applies directly to her life, Sussie doesn't report it. As she says, it’s none of her business.


I'm not used to this kind of authorial style. I'm not accustomed to this brutally honest narrative point of view that so openly draws this sort of self-absorbed character. And while I would never say that CanLit doesn't use this method of storytelling—at times, it certainly does—Sussie's voice was so strange to me, so inaccessible at first because of its self-absorbed honesty, that I had to use vastly different parts of my brain to find my way in.


And once I did, I loved it. Everything is shown; nothing is told, and I worked my ass off to sort through it. In noticing how
telling-free Schoeman's novel is, I recognized that my current manuscript was so full of that very telling that the story was getting stuck. This Life could be the primer for writers who want to finally figure out how to stop telling in their work, and start showing. I love everything about this book, but for that reason alone, I recommend it to anyone who writes.

I met my friend for a drink a month later.


“I get it,” I told him.


“Good. Now read this.”


*


This Life
is one of about 60 African books I've read in the last two and a half years. I stick mainly to South Africa, but I've also read books by authors from Nigeria, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, The Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania. I'm fortunate in that I have guides: three friends from South Africa who lead me through past decades and through the dozens of texts published this year. I have them to lead me through what’s being published right now, through what one of them calls the ”golden age” of literature in that country. My guides are editors, writers and teachers, and I think they like to guide me because I am willing, open, and ravenous for the writing of their country. I'm not a dabbler; I cannot get enough, and it feels like more books come out of South Africa in a month that I can read in a year.

My Cape Town-based guide—a writer and editor—visited Canada in the spring, and I had the great good fortune to host her over the course of a week. She stayed in my home, we did some readings together, we shared a B&B in Drumheller, and we spent hours in my car on long prairie and parkland roads. The talk was heady and at a high level. I had the marvellous luxury of this woman’s literary mind for hours at a stretch. Our talk—when it wasn’t about where she could next quench her tea craving—was almost exclusively of South African books and authors: those I knew, had read, and could discuss, and those I’d not encountered yet. She wrote book titles and authors’ names on the backs of whatever teashop receipts she could find in her purse, and tucked them into my backpack to sort through later.


At the end of our week together, I had dozens of new books to seek out, and hours of priceless conversation to cherish. That time was invaluable, and since she’s returned to South Africa, our conversation continues. She’ll be struck by the name of a book I need to read “immediately!” And unlike my Edmonton-based guide who gives me books with next to no explanation other than he feels I’m ready for them, she tells me precisely why the book popped into her head as something I needed to read.


*


Last year, I flung a half-read American novel at my living room wall. Twice, I had tried to read it, and finally I had to give up. The telling was so relentless that the book could have been half the length it was. The author described every head turn of every character in loving detail, along with any and all possible
meanings of that head turn. The writer told me every time someone blinked before they spoke. Oh my god! This author didn't trust me—as a reader—to be able to infer anything that was going on.

I don't want to be led. I want to stumble in the darkness with the characters. I want to be shocked when they are, laugh when they do. I want to be as surprised and horrified as they are in the moment they experience those emotions. I want to be shoved away and drawn back in. In short, I don't want to be
told anything.

A second reading of
This Life made me cut even more of my own work. Taking up that novel again made me scrutinize my every phrase to make sure I was letting the reader discover the world I'd built. In the year that's passed since I started studying This Life, my work has changed dramatically, and I find myself cutting large passages I once thought indispensable; they were indicative of my lack of trust in my reader to ”get it.” I don't think this lack of trust is unique to me, or to CanLit on the whole. Neither is it absent from South African writing (Wilbur Smith’s novels, for instance, put me into a stupor with their nearly unbelievable reliance on telling, his purple prose, and more adverbs per page than is legal). But what I've found is that the more African books I read, the more I notice how different some of them are from a lot of North American books in this showing/telling way. Much of modern South African writing, in particular, comes from the place of deep oppression that was apartheid. On the long car ride from Drumheller to Edmonton this past spring, my tea-addicted guide explained writing during apartheid-era South Africa like this: when you can't say what you have to say (under threat of incarceration, banning, or death), you have to find a way to say it without saying it. To me, that's perfect, and it amounts to the exact opposite of telling.

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These friends got me started on this path of discovery into the literature of another country, but they guide me still. Though I now have a solid handle on the books and authors I want to read, they continue to push me, to lend and gift me books, to make recommendations they feel are right for me at particular times. Occasionally, they will send me to books they know I'm not ready for: an indecipherable (to me) poetic text, for instance, the nuances of which only a speaker of both English and Afrikaans could fully grasp. But even these are not wasted on me. In a failed attempt to understand
Where White is the Colour, Where Black is the Number by Wopko Jensma, I saw my own failings as a reader. That book turned its back on me and said, "You will never understand me until you learn to read Afrikaans. You will never understand until you have read the foundational texts of this country."

And so, my roads branch outward. I am learning Afrikaans, and I am beginning to dig into the country's foundational works. This journey is slow and—at times—almost unbearably painful. But I think there was no real way for me to understand
Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee without having read Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela and Antjie Krog's almost-impossible-to-read Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa. Though we’ve met only once—through my Edmonton-based guide who is a mutual friend—over a few bottles of wine in a pub at Euston Station last year, my London-based guide and I connected over literature immediately, we chat weekly about art, music, and books, and he is open and generous with his painful experiences as a white South African growing up during apartheid. He insisted I needed to read Krog’s book if I was to understand anything at all about South African literature and culture. He warned me that it would be a difficult read, but that it was absolutely necessary to my education. I was aware of this narrative of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission proceedings, but had avoided it, knowing how terrifying it would be.

After I'd struggled through that text—and, for my self-preservation, having to set it aside many times over the course of a few months—I read Coetzee's
Disgrace, and was able to fully see its allegorical nature: its almost-fabular treatment of the TRC. I doubt that book would have reached me to the depths that it did had I not read the foundational texts that underpin it. I may be able to return to Jensma one day, but not yet.

Though Jensma eludes me still, this reading journey gives me an enormous sense of intellectual satisfaction, even when the material is as dense and horrific as Krog’s narrative of the TRC, and even when—in the case of Jensma—I can’t get near it. What more intoxicating mental high than reading and
understanding the texts of a different country? It’s at moments like this that I’m most grateful for this brain of mine, the way it learns, and the people who help me expand my thoughts and my reading. I’m doing something extraordinary for my own mind, and correcting, retroactively, my own insularity growing up as I did.

In 1982, I was in grade 12 and worried about whether I could get Greg Rice’s attention in band class. The total of what I learned about apartheid in Social Studies class that year can be summed up in two words: It’s
wrong. We simply did not learn about it.

*


It has occurred to me that my love for South African literature is a response to my life-long ignorance of the country: my life-long Canadian privilege I never thought about. How in the world did I arrive at nearly 50 without having read Steve Biko? I think this reading journey is my way of acknowledging that monstrous hole in my education and making up for never learning about it properly. At times, I feel like I’m five years old, just learning how to read. But it’s what I can do. I can only correct the lapses in my own knowledge, and perhaps tell others about the books I’ve read to try to fill those gaps.


The first South African book I read was
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela. (I knew even then what a cliché move that was. Everybody reads that book.) But then there are poetry collections like Body Bereft by Antjie Krog, a text I would have thrown at the wall a hundred times if it hadn’t been the beloved possession of one of my guides. It maddened me with its craft, and made me call myself a hack in complete sincerity. Never have I felt so inadequate as a poet. And what in the hell was I supposed to do with Wopko Jensma but feel stupid and uneducated? For a while, I was none too pleased with the guide who handed me that book, as he had to have known that I would not understand it.

When I put Jensma aside, I nearly resolved to stop all this nonsense. No more South African books. Why was I was doing this to myself? Why was I willingly making myself feel like I’d never read a book in my life? One of my guides would call or email about a book he or she wanted me to read. I said “no” for a long time, pleading busyness, when really, I was drowning. I said to one of my guides that I was incapable of reading one more South African book in the foreseeable future. I reached a low point as a writer. Who the hell do I think I am, cranking out my little pop culture books? Against the horror and beauty I was reading every day, who cares about my pop-camp output?


I was also lost as a reader. If I had to get through one more narrative in which someone was imprisoned in a tire and immolated, I was going to lose my mind. Incidences like these began to take on a surreal quality and I started to feel a numbness to it all: the saturation of images of hatred and death that I couldn’t unsee.


But then:
Praying Mantis by André Brink arrived on a pub table next to my wine, and I was back on track. This is a sweet, funny novel that had me chuckling and remembering that yes, I do know a little about this stuff, that no, I’m not a hack, and that some day—once I’ve written as many books as Brink had—I too might produce work as stunning as this.

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Though they occasionally infuriate and frighten me, I need my guides. While I suppose it's possible to wade randomly into the literature of another country and hope to hit on the “right” books, I find that having guides helps me sort through the stacks, and find out what I respond to. I'm treating my education in African literature as a master class with three instructors, though I'm a bit backward in places. For instance, it wasn't until I'd read three dozen South African books that I felt I was ready for Steve Biko's 1960s and 70s work. In a master class, he'd surely have come before many of the books I'd read to that point. We're aware of the violent nature of Biko's death (or we became aware of it when the police officers responsible confessed to it in 1997. They were not granted amnesty under the TRC), but I'd avoided his writings and the transcripts of his trials. The best reason I can give is that looking back, I don't think I was prepared for the levels of abuse and racism he (and his colleagues, family, and friends) was forced to swallow. My Edmonton guide knew when I was ready: when I’d read what I’d needed to in order to understand—insofar as I am able—Biko’s idea of Black Consciousness. Growing up as I did in a part of the country where I was largely unexposed to racism, the true horrors of it seemed like a fictional dystopia. I had to remind myself repeatedly while reading Krog and Biko that this shit is real. That these horrors actually take place. Reading Krog’s
Country of My Skull and Biko’s I Write What I Like was an endurance race just to make it to the end without giving up on humanity entirely.

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None of that is to say that South African writing has to be instructional or horrifying in nature. Some of it is, but it's also wildly entertaining—or unbelievably cathartic—at times. My Edmonton guide says that there is always a political undertone to South African work, and I see that, but now and again, a purely delicious book of marvelous storytelling will land in my hands and give me no end of pleasure. The work of Finuala Dowling,
Praying Mantis by André Brink, Buckingham Palace District Six by Richard Rive, the erotica of Helena S. Paige (one of the authors of which is my Cape Town literary guide), and the hi-tech sci-fi of Lauren Beukes. While all of these texts have undertones (or overt narratives) of apartheid- or post-apartheid-era South Africa, they're also damn good stories.


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In 2011, after 30 years in my family, my stepdad, Sig, was diagnosed with leukemia and died within four months of us finding out. I spent the next few years regaining my sense of self and balance without him, along with my family—all the members of which were finding their own paths through their grief. I had discussed what I thought were all the facets of that loss with my family and in therapy, until I was able to get through the days with some level of joy now and again. Then, Eben Venter entered my life.


With a title like
My Beautiful Death (Ek Stamel Ek Sterwe), one should not expect a happy story. In Venter’s novel, a central character narrates his lucid, drug-free thoughts until the moment of his death. The night he died, my stepdad was comfortably medicated, at home, and surrounded by his family. It had not occurred to me what might have been going through his mind in those last hours. Or, more truthfully, I had never allowed the conscious thought to enter me. Did he know he was going to die within hours? Was he frightened? I had never thought about it, but it crashed into me as I read Venter. I thought I now knew what had happened in my stepdad’s mind; Eben Venter had written it all down for me.

I closed that book and wept like I have never wept before: more than I had the night my stepfather died before my eyes.


No Canadian book (or any book from any country, for that matter) has ever moved me like this one. No book has ever brought out this level of emotion, of catharsis, of having to face thoughts I’d buried for years.


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With a couple of months left of 2015 ahead of me, I plan to take in as much South African writing as I can manage while still having a life outside my love for this literature. Never have I been so energized by a reading project, and never has one brought me this kind of joy and sorrow mixed. My South African list for the rest of the year includes books by Sol Plaatje, Finuala Dowling, Kobus Moolman, Herman Charles Bosman, Thando Mgqolozana, Mark Winkler, Beverley Rycroft, Ivan Vladislavic, Niq Mhlongo, Ingrid Winterbach, Paige Nick, Sarah Lotz, André Brink, Zakes Mda, Mongane Serote, and Karel Schoeman: always Schoeman. Clearly, no one will see me until January.