Tag Archive | South Africa

Three Hearts & an Angel

The frenzied activity of the last few months has finally slowed down to a more manageable pace. I’ve settled well into my cottage and now that the weather is warming up I have more energy because I don’t feel so cold all the time. I think my cottage is going to be lovely in summertime.

I’ve started a potted herb garden and bought some outdoor furniture for my veranda. The birds are chirping and making nests in the newly greening trees. If my cat gets too close the larger magpies swoop down to warn him away…

Above my bed I have hung some trinkets on the arms of the light fitting. All of these – in the true Marie Kondo sense – spark joy in me when I see them moving gently in the breeze.

A double heart made by my friends Mark and Tarryn, which they gave to all their wedding guests in South Africa back in 2012. It used to hang from the rafters in my Durban cottage. Mark and Tarryn moved to Australia long before I did, and they received their Australian citizenship this month. Their double heart is not only a reminder of the two of them, but a beacon of hope for that far off day when I too, will become a citizen.

The second heart was made by another friend, Shelley, for everyone in the cast and crew of the KickstArt theatre production of the musical Annie in 2014. This small ceramic heart brings to my heart a reminder of the fortitude of my friend Tina. She designed the most beautiful lighting for this show, after surviving a violent encounter which could easily have ended her life. She was determined to let nothing prevent her from creating beauty in the world, every single day, against all odds.

The third heart is one I purchased here in Australia at one of my favourite shops – Ishka. It is hand carved and comes from Indonesia. For me, it’s a reminder of the many hand-carved wooden objects I had to leave behind in Africa due to Australia’s stringent rules and regulations, and it is also a symbol of hope and love as I move forward with my new life here.

The last object – delicately packed for its journey from South Africa by my friend Penny – is a small glass angel given to me by one of my parents’ oldest friends; the same lady who came to break the news to me of my father’s death back in 1985. She gave me this angel about twelve years ago when she visited my mother and stepfather just before Christmas one year.

I’ve never hung it on a Christmas tree because it’s far too delicate. Instead, and because angels are not just for Christmas, it used to hang all year inside a glass-fronted dresser which I no longer have. Now, it will hang permanently above my bed, moving gently in the light breeze which passes through my bedroom. A reminder that sometimes we need to spread our wings in order to fly more freely than we once did.

Advertisements

The Finishing Touches

In my early working days during the 80s and 90s, every time I moved house, it usually took me four or five months to get around to hanging up my pictures. Because I always rented, my choices were limited to where existing picture hooks had already been hammered in by previous tenants.

Only once, when I bought my own flat in Johannesburg in 1997, did I finally splash out on buying a drill and hanging my pictures exactly where I wanted them. Along with shower rails, curtain rods, pot plant holders and anything else that took my fancy.

When I moved to Durban in 2000, it was to rented accommodation again, but the landlords I was lucky enough to rent from in the next fifteen years were quite happy to let me put up whatever I wanted.

Even so, it always took me a while to decide on the correct look and atmosphere of each room before hanging the pictures. I had to be sure that everything else was in the correct place before executing those finishing touches.

In South Africa, you drill holes into brick walls, shove in plastic plugs and screw in screws strong enough to take the weight. Not so in Australia, where the process is a little more tricky. Here the houses are not built of brick, but of timber framing, covered inside with plasterboard, and outside with any kind of veneer you can imagine. This means the walls are hollow, with wiring and piping running through the gap between inner and outer cladding.

Believe it or not, I’ve now been in my new cottage for four months. Lately, I’ve been planning the placement of my pictures. Of course, I didn’t bring all of them with me; only the most significant and precious. Such as a set of five black and white photos of District Six, taken by Jansje Wissema back in the 1960s. After carrying these in a folder through two moves, I finally framed them myself in Johannesburg, before drilling holes in my own wall with my (then) new drill. Where I go, they go.

Likewise two of my niece’s paintings which I am hoping to frame; a beautiful water colour painted by a writing friend; a framed pencil sketch that I’ve had for twenty-seven years of a cat drawn by my friend Jackie; and a cute cat-shaped blackboard made by my friend Mandy before she left for Ireland in 1997. Other favourites include my four huge framed movie posters.

One of these bears the legend: “If adventure has a name… it must be Indiana Jones” which became symbolic of my own adventure when I was packing up three years ago. Where I go, Indy goes too…

Last week I retrieved all these and more from the roof of my sister’s garage where they have been stored for the past three years. Some calculations and planning had already been done because I had most of the measurements among my immigration paperwork, but the real fun only began when I was able to unwrap them from their protective bubble wrap shrouds and let them live again.

Yesterday I spent the day putting up the larger ones. My cottage here has quite a lot of hooks in the walls, which was lucky for me because it meant I didn’t have to excavate new territory and risk hitting water pipes and live electric wiring. I also have a neat little device called a Stud Sensor, which detects both timber and metal frames, and has a red flashing light and a loud beep whenever it senses electricity.

Unfortunately, that little beep sounded a lot yesterday as I discovered that several walls which I had earmarked for pictures were more “live” than most power stations. Consequently I have had to keep some of my artworks in bubble wrap until I maybe one day move to a bigger place, or until I work out a way of attaching them to just the wall paint and plasterboard. Or doors, or ceilings. Or whatever.

Either way, for the most part I am pleased with the results. My cottage is starting to look more and more like the home I have visualised for so long.

Easing Back into the Stream

It’s been ten weeks since I moved into my cottage, and I’m finally slowing down and getting back into a normal routine. I’ve had fun unpacking all my treasures from the past, buying some new ones, and making others to suit my new environment. In the meantime, work has carried on like a steady underflow beneath it all, satisfying my need to earn and more importantly, underlining my need to belong and carve my own path.

Winter has set in with a vengeance and my cottage is cold, to say the least. Fortunately I have two heaters and an electric blanket. I look forward to the warmer months, when I intend to expand onto the veranda which is the perfect space for writing. There are brackets on which I can hang pots of flowering plants, and my view across the garden will be enhanced by a light breeze coming up the hill instead of the winter frost, mist, and ice on my car windows each morning.

In the meantime I have hung two sets of wind chimes out there on my veranda, and the sound – as always – comforts me and reminds me of places far away and friends left behind.

Five years ago I stood at the top of a hill in KwaZulu-Natal, listening to wind chimes at the Culamoya Chimes factory and shop on the Midlands Meander with my friends Tina and Jackie. I decided on a beautiful, melodic, deep-toned one. When I packed up three years ago, it came too.

On another occasion, at The Ugly Duckling in Rosetta, in another part of the Midlands Meander, I stood on a rise with my friend Tina while Jackie was riding in a cycle race. Together we listened to the various bamboo chimes before I made my decision. Sadly, I wasn’t allowed to bring bamboo into Australia, so I gave that one to Tina before I left.

Last week I found a set of bamboo wind chimes here in Australia, at Ishka, and bought it. It doesn’t have the same melodic tone, but it’s rustic and cheerful and the clackety-clack sound it makes is pleasing to my ears because it reminds me of my friends.

Life goes on, and we move with the currents and tides. Part of me thinks about the final line of The Great Gatsby, but the rest of me knows that I’m not beating against the current; I’m easing out into the stream to claim my place in the flow, and taking bits of my past with me.

Hiatus Before the Countdown

I find it hard to curb the rising sense of panic as I face my final week before the container arrives to take my worldly goods to Australia. A thousand questions bother my troubled mind hourly and I can scarcely think about anything else. The few hours each day in which I have to go to work are a relief because the show I am working on is complicated and highly technical, and thus requires my full concentration for those hours. The twenty-five minute drive each way provides a twice daily period of transition in which to wind down with the music in my car and ease the switchover between my two current worlds.

In three weeks I will be part of another world, and every now and then I allow myself a few minutes to dream of it. I find myself telling an old school friend about how beautiful Melbourne is, or I see a video my sister has shared on Facebook and my heart soars to think of the new life awaiting me.

But first I have to pace myself through these last few weeks.

The first minutes after I wake up each day are quiet, and it is this time that has always been my favourite writing time. In the past it was reserved for novels, short stories and competition entries, but in the last six months it has been for lists, schedules and deadlines. Like the calm before any storm, I have reached a period of hiatus – some would say paralysis – and I find that those moments of quiet have returned to me in the last few mornings.

On the surface, there’s not much more to do – throw the last few things into boxes, check that those boxes will fit in the small space allocated, label everything and cushion it all with bubble wrap, rugs and bags of clothing. Wave good bye as it pulls out of the driveway and forget about its torrid journey on the high seas until I unpack it in Melbourne in three months’ time.

Beyond that, my thoughts must turn to the two more weeks of limbo beyond container D-day, in which I will have to sell the last few pieces of furniture and my car, put my cats on a plane, squeeze the remainder of my clothing into a bulging, heavy suitcase and say good bye to my friends.

That last one will be the hardest part, I know.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between my own situation and all the others who have not had it so lucky. From my own sister – who packed up everything she had ever known four years ago and moved to a land she had seen only in books, photographs and on television – to our ancestors who came from the northern hemisphere one hundred and thirty-five years ago to Africa on a crazy, doomed settler scheme.

Apart from our own family, I have also thought about the thousands of unfortunates who were packed into ships from those same northern parts during the earlier 1800s and sent far away to the penal colonies of Botany Bay and Van Diemen’s Land, never to see family or friends again. To say that they began life anew is to barely scratch the surface of what those people went through.

My thoughts have also turned in recent months to the victims of xenophobia right here on my own doorstep. Innocent men, women and their children from other parts of Africa who have already forged a new way of life far from their original homes, and who were suddenly subjected to the mob violence that Africa is famous for. They had their houses and shops looted, burned down and were lucky to escape with their lives and the clothes on their backs. Not all were that lucky. Where were our country’s law-enforcers during this? For the most part, it seems, they turned their backs or pitched up late.

On the whole, I am having an easy time of it!

First of all, I want to go to Australia. No one is forcing me. I am going because I am all that is left of my immediate family in this land – this land that is becoming increasingly difficult for everyone to live in. Having a pale skin has become undesirable both in the workplace and on farms in the last twenty years, but even more worrying than that, is the fact that no one – regardless of their skin colour – is safe in this culture of lawlessness that oozes down from the top like a toxic, leaking, syphilitic volcano.

Our so-called leaders have perfected the art of feathering their own nests with fire pools and luxury estates, squandering the funds that should have been used to help the poorer people of this land to get humble two-room houses, basic education and primary health care. Like a dynamo, twenty years of corruption has escalated into a whirlwind, a downward spiral, a snowball gathering momentum – call it what you will – and there seems to be no stopping it, ever.

Our leader laughs and chuckles openly when confronted by watchdogs who try to make him accountable for his abhorrent actions, and his has become the most loathed face on our television screens. Never mind who is winning or losing on Game of Thrones, our own reality is more bizarre and terrifying than any concocted by Hollywood. As the corruption increases, so too does the threat of measures to silence those who try to fight him. It’s like the old days, only worse…

Many South Africans have had enough and are searching their family trees or their skills for other places to go. The exodus that began slowly steps up a few notches every year – rather like our inflation rate, our unemployment rate and our crime rate.

In fact, that infamous crime rate was the initial spur that nudged the first part of my extended family to move to Australia. Having a gun shoved into his face, and having that gun fail to fire when the trigger was pulled was all the impetus that first family member needed to start thinking about returning to the land of his birth, in order that his own children might grow up in a safer country. In due course, his parents and his siblings followed him, including the one who is married to my sister.

Which brings me to my main reason for going there. Our parents have passed on, and I have no partner or children, so most of the living components of my life are centred in Australia or New Zealand. I just want to be part of my family again.

Three weeks and counting…

Just a Dash of Serious…

One of the reviews I received on Amazon for my first novel The Epidaurus Inheritance ended with the line: “This might be to the taste of those who like their adventures more Hallmark channel than cable, which is perfectly fine, but this just didn’t ring true to me.” At first I was hurt by this, until I realised that the reviewer had a good point. I had obviously categorised my book in the wrong genre.

My novels are not serious. I write ditzy heroines who step in a bit too deep and have to sink or swim. There is always a macho flawed hero who reluctantly helps out the heroine against his better judgement, or against hers. And yes, as I have said on my website: I do like happy endings. I enjoy writing something that is far-fetched but I’m not the next Dan Brown. I don’t like violence – neither in real life nor on my screen (be it Kindle or TV), so I suppose I am a Hallmark kind of a gal.

I have a close friend who, after reading that first novel of mine, introduced me to the works of Mary Stewart. I was delighted to find a writer who not only wrote the kind of stuff that I love to read, but the kind of stuff that I love to write as well. Bearing in mind the negative review I had received on Amazon I went back to my book’s product page and re-worded my blurb so as to leave a prospective reader in no doubt that my book is “a light holiday read with a mixture of adventure, mystery and romance, written in the genre pioneered by Mary Stewart – Romantic Suspense.”

A year or so later, the same friend who had introduced me to the Mary Stewart books (let’s call her L) lent me an Amelia Peabody book, written by the wonderful Elizabeth Peters. I have since worked my way through almost the entire series – some of them twice. I just love that family of Edwardian Egyptologists! They get into scrapes between the pyramids, discovering both ancient mummies and fresh corpses, all against the backdrop of the First World War and the days before Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb.

My own novels always feature a South African woman travelling in exotic places, and stumbling across some crime or mystery to solve; a sort of fish-out-of-water story in which she has to rely on her South African wits to stay ahead of the Bad Guy. The latest of these is slightly different in that this protagonist has already settled in Australia but discovers some unfinished family history and has to return to South Africa to solve it, bringing with her an Australian who is now the fish out of water. I have been getting good feedback from beta readers on this WIP, but one of those came as a bit of a shock.

My friend L didn’t finish reading it because the South African situation depressed her too much. I was disappointed at first, and then I realised that I was actually disappointed in me, not in her. At first she avoided telling me until finally we thrashed it out last week. (Okay, maybe I bullied her just a little bit. Sorry, L!) The main reason for L’s dislike of my novel was a lot more useful to me than the nice things she had said about my characters.

I have realised three things from this:

One: I am a bad friend and shouldn’t bully people. I had strayed from the straight and narrow path!

Two: I had strayed from my writing path too. I don’t like serious writing. I never have, never will, and I should probably not have tried to bring more depth to my novel than the bare essential backstory I usually include. L, besides getting me onto reading both Mary Stewart and Elizabeth Peters, is herself a writer of fantasy and sci-fi which is the ultimate in escapist reading. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not implying that L’s stuff is light and fluffy. Far from it. It’s a lot more complicated than anything I write.

Personally I don’t read sci-fi because I struggle to understand the technological bits, and my version of fantasy seems to be a genre or two removed from the accepted definition of that word. The Mary Stewart and Elizabeth Peters books that I have read so far are neither fantasy nor sci-fi, but both writers have penned far-fetched adventures; escapist stuff which is definitely my cup of tea.

Heavy South African literature is not. There are plenty of excellent South African writers who are brilliant at that type of stuff, but I am clearly not in their bracket and nor do I want to be.

Three: I should just stick to what I’m good at: light-hearted, frivolous romantic stuff with a bit of a mystery to solve and some interesting places to explore along the way. I need to return to my MS with a keen critical eye and examine just how heavy and depressing the text is. It’s good to have a bit of gravitas, but how much is too much? So far, my readers seem to enjoy the light-hearted adventures of The Epidaurus Inheritance and Benicio’s Bequest and so do I. That’s why they read them and that’s why I write them. However, the light-hearted stuff often needs to contrast against a darker background. So that’s what I’m going to be looking at in my eighth draft. I don’t want to lose the South African flavour, but perhaps it needs to be added with a lighter touch. After all, to my overseas readers, South Africa is a foreign, exotic place.

Like many South Africans, I find myself bogged down in our day-to-day struggle against crime, corruption, unemployment and poverty. My friend L isn’t the only one who wants her reading to take her away from it. All my life I have enjoyed reading books that take me elsewhere.

I guess the word “elsewhere” is the key. I don’t want to go to other planets or battle scientific things I don’t understand. Neither do I want to meet supernatural, paranormal beings whose worlds I don’t believe in, but I do want to go somewhere slightly exotic on this planet and have adventures that I wouldn’t normally have in my own life, but which could be believable if the world was a kinder, more romantic place.

I’m not averse to killing off a character or two along the way of course, but most of the time they have been written in purely for that purpose and the odd shocking death moves the story along, cranks up the tension and helps to increase the reader’s belief in the serious evil of the Bad Guy.

What I’m saying is that I like far-fetched stuff, with just a dash of serious. The question is: how much is a dash?

IMG_1821

Research and the Art of Procrastination

I’m between novels at the moment. The last is written but still being read before new edits, and the next hasn’t yet been thought up. For the last two months I have dabbled with the idea of dredging up my two long-lost trunk novels and rewriting one of them, but my interest has waned somewhat. Why is this? Possibly because all the research I did for them at the time when I first wrote them has already been done. Boredom has set in and if I’m bored, I don’t want to pass that on to my readers.

For me, there’s something tremendously exciting about doing research for a new novel, and in many ways it may rival my enthusiasm for Setting. I’ve always said that a good story is a triangulation between three things – Characters, Plot and Setting – and that all three are equally necessary because two out of three will not do the job.

A strong triangle forms a good base, but if you want it to be a worthwhile structure, it needs a fourth element: Research. This addition doesn’t turn it into a square, but provides the extra dimension that makes a flat triangle stand up in 3D.

But what happens when you don’t yet have the first three elements of that golden 3D triangle? Where do you start the next project when you are totally, blissfully clueless and purposeless? Why, with research of course!

One way I like to research is to watch movies. This is my favourite form of procrastination and allows me to soak up the atmosphere of the time, whether in terms of place, period, clothing, music or language – it doesn’t matter which, all is grist for my mill.

Another way to research is to turn to my own bookshelves. Back in high school I received a book prize – A Newspaper History of South Africa by Vic Alhadeff. Recently I dug it out for inspiration. Among the many landmark historical incidents that make up South Africa’s chequered history, it is the smaller, bizarre stories that have always appealed to me, and right now I am enjoying exploring these in the hopes that something may spur me on to write a novel based on – oh, I don’t know – the phenomenon of Dr James Barry; the infamous Foster Gang; the shooting of the racehorse Sea Cottage; or the poisonous crimes of Daisy de Melker.

Dr James Barry was a female surgeon who lived her life as a man. She practised medicine in the British army in both India and the Cape Colony in the years following the Battle of Waterloo, during that infamous period of British colonial expansion. The Foster Gang perpetrated their crimes in Johannesburg around the time when South Africa was divided about whether to support England or Germany in the First World War. Sea Cottage was shot on the Durban beachfront by a petty criminal paid by a syndicate of gamblers in June 1966. And Daisy de Melker poisoned two husbands (allegedly) and her son (definitely) in Johannesburg between 1923 and 1932.

I’m researching all of these at once. Who knows – a connection between them may pop up somewhere before I have to admit that I might just be suffering from writer’s bombardment. That’s the opposite of writer’s block, by the way – so many stories, so little time to tell them.

What to do next, what to do…