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Posts Tagged ‘South Africa’

Habitat for Humility

June 22, 2016 | by

Voluntourism in Lesotho, Africa.

Via Pixabay.

Lesotho landscape. Image via Pixabay.

Lesotho is a tiny country surrounded completely by South Africa, and that’s about all I knew about it when I arrived in the summer—their winter—of 2005. I was a college sophomore, and I’d come with fifteen or so classmates for five weeks of volunteer work and research, or what passes for research among college sophomores. I was minoring in Africana studies in those days, originally as an excuse to read more James Baldwin, but the prospect of actually traveling to Africa enthralled me—it didn’t matter where. The paper I produced at the end of the trip, with feminist intent but offensive result, was titled, “No Bras to Burn: A Time of Change for Basotho Textile Workers.” Read More »

Portraits by Kitty, and Other News

June 21, 2016 | by

A 1978 photo from Kitty’s, a South African portrait studio. Courtesy the Walther Collection. Image via The New Yorker.

  • I don’t keep a diary. I prefer the raw material of anxiety, guilt, and neurosis—my “special sauce”—to remain entirely unprocessed in my brain. But for those who diarize with reckless abandon, there emerges a question of audience, as Elisa Segrave writes: “Compulsive diarists are ambivalent: we want to be private but we want our thoughts to be appreciated. When Jean Lucey Pratt, some of whose diaries have been published as A Notable Woman, began her first in 1926, aged sixteen, she wrote: ‘This document is private.’ But as her life unfolded and she realized that her career as an author was not going to take off, she started to treat her diaries more seriously. On Christmas Day 1934, she wrote: ‘7 p.m. A diarist must do what other writers may not … His purpose is special and peculiar. He has to capture and crystallize moments on the wing so that future generations will say as they turn the glittering pages, ‘This was the present then. This was true.’ ”
  • Charlotte Brontë and Thackeray met once for a tremendously awkward dinner, and in the 165 years since, people have clucked at the severe dress she wore to the encounter: plain blue and white, buttoned up to the neck. (Her contemporaries would’ve gone in for something more low-cut—in silk, maybe, or velvet or lace.) New analysis suggests that Brontë had better fashion sense than history has credited her for—but the dinner itself was still nothing to write home about. “The dinner, with other literary and artistic guests invited to meet the best-selling author, was an abject failure. Conversation faltered, and [Thackeray] later recalled her shocked look as he reached for another potato. One guest recalled it as ‘one of the dullest evenings she ever spent in her life’ … One guest, desperate to break the silence, asked Brontë if she was enjoying London. After a long silence, she finally replied: ‘Yes; and no.’ ”
  • Luke Mogelson teases out that nauseous link between journalism and Schadenfreude: “I do my best to observe things firsthand … This approach, despite its obvious journalistic advantages (you’re less likely to get stuff wrong), can frequently put you in awkward positions. You can find yourself, for instance, visiting a river every morning hoping to find a murder victim. Most foreign correspondents I know would probably object to my use of that word, hoping. They would probably say that we don’t want bad things to happen; we just want to witness them if they do. It’s a legitimate distinction, but one that, in the field, can feel semantic. In the field, we are actively, aggressively seeking to see with our own eyes the reality of war, famine, disaster—and who isn’t at least somewhat gratified when he discovers what he’s sought, at least somewhat disappointed when he doesn’t?”
  • I see you’re smiling, Internet user—you’re probably pretty jazzed about that new form of creative expression you’ve found! But I’m here to tell you that it’s doomed to commodification. Witness the death of the emoji and the GIF: “When emojis and GIFs are filtered through the interests of tech companies, they often become slickly automated … Buying into these features means giving tech companies the power to shape our creative expressions in ways that further enrich the companies themselves. A limited emotional range helps collect data on users’ states of mind. Twitter advertisers can now target users based on the emoji they tweet … The commodification of digital culture has engendered more explicit corporate branding, too. On Snapchat, where users embellish their selfies with emoji, crayon scribbles, and elaborate ‘lenses’ that cover their faces with virtual masks, marketers like McDonalds are seizing the opportunity to write their messages across people’s faces.”

Staff Picks: Cairo, Cruising, Chrissie, Kmart

October 9, 2015 | by

Fire in Cairo.

“How many reasons have I for going to Moscow at once! How can I bear the boredom of seven months of winter in this place? … Am I to be reduced to defending myself—I who have always attacked? Such a role is unworthy of me … I am not used to playing it … It is not in keeping with my genius.” Thus Napoleon in 1812 in Lithuania, on the eve of his disastrous Russian campaign, which would destroy the French army and cost more than a hundred thousand French lives. The whole time, Napoleon’s aide-de-camp Philippe-Paul, Count de Ségur, was taking notes. His inside account of the debacle—now known in English as Defeat—was a best seller when it appeared in 1824 and became a key source for War and Peace. Readers will recognize scenes from Tolstoy’s novel, but Ségur’s Napoleon is, if anything, even more vivid, because Ségur loves him and believes in him even when his genius lets him down. —Lorin Stein

The carnival that erupted in Cairo’s Midan Tahrir in 2011, and continued in one form or another for two and half years, has spawned any number of books and films. Maybe because the initial skirmishes were so chaotic or because the outcome of the revolts is still unclear—although a Thermidorian reaction now stretches into the foreseeable future—a documentary approach to this history has often seemed like the best one. Matthew Connor’s book of photographs, Fire in Cairo, goes in a wonderfully different direction. Taken during the spring of 2013, prior the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, Connor’s photos are aslant and at times surreal. The violence of the revolts is present, even omnipresent, but as a mood rather than something concrete to look at. His shots, which have no captions, are full of fog, lasers, and common Cairene objects made mysterious through close-ups. There is also a gallery of portraits, many of whose subjects have their faces covered—by veils, helmets, or homemade gas masks. The effect of the book, for me, was to make the revolution strange again; it brought me back to that exciting time when none of us knew quite what we were looking at. —Robyn Creswell Read More »

More Sweetly Play the Dance

October 6, 2015 | by

William Kentridge’s elaborate danse macabre.

William Kentridge, More Sweetly Play the Dance, 2015, eight-channel video installation with four megaphones, 15 minutes. All photos © William Kentridge, courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery

Dance has always been aware of death: it lingers just off to the side of the stage, waiting for the performance to end. William Dunbar’s 1508 poem “Lament for the Makers” describes two “state[s] of man”: “Now dansand mirry, now like to die.” In other words, you’re either dancing or dead. Death in the poem is personified as a sort of efficient businessman, doing his best to knock people out of the dance. The more familiar character of Death—the cloaked, scythe-bearing skeleton who fulfills his duties like an overworked godly employee—was around even before Dunbar, an invention of the medieval period, which remains the most productive time in human history for imagining deathly personifications. People then seemed less resistant to death than they are now, perhaps because the threat was omnipresent: one could die from the plague, childbirth, decapitation, infection, or even of indigestion, as Martin of Aragon did at a feast in 1410.

The danse macabre, or death dance, another medieval invention, was an allegorical way of resisting as well as respecting the force of death. It comprises a chain of dancers, some living and others skeletons, moving together toward a grave—death being the equalizing force that brings all of us together, finally. Some more modern dances, like the tarantella, present themselves as assertions of survival, proving that one is still alive despite mortal injury. When we dance, the thinking goes, we are at the most alive we can be. Likewise, when we stop dancing, we die. Read More »

Nadine Gordimer, 1923–2014

July 14, 2014 | by

gordimer-n

Nadine Gordimer died yesterday in Johannesburg; she was ninety. Jannika Hurwitt described her, in an Art of Fiction interview published in our Summer 1983 issue, as “a petite, birdlike, soft-spoken woman”:

Gordimer manages to combine a fluidity and gentleness with the seemingly restrained and highly structured workings of her mind. It was as if the forty-odd years that she had devoted to writing had trained her to distill passion—and as a South African writer she is necessarily aware of being surrounded by passion on all sides—into form, whether of the written or spoken word.

As the Times obituary notes, Gordimer’s oeuvre constitutes “a social history as told through finely drawn portraits of the characters who peopled it … But some critics saw in her fiction a theme of personal as well as political liberation, reflecting her struggles growing up under the possessive, controlling watch of a mother trapped in an unhappy marriage.”

The Paris Review published three of Gordimer’s stories. The first, from 1956, is “Face from Atlantis” which appeared in our thirteenth issue, revealing her striking gifts as a portraitist:

Eileen had a favorite among the photographs of her, too … The photograph was taken in Austria, on one of Waldeck’s skiing holidays. It was a clear print and the snow was blindingly white. In the middle of the whiteness stood a young girl, laughing away from the camera in the direction of something or someone outside the picture. Her little face, burnished by the sun, shone dark against the snow. There was a highlight on each firm, round cheekbone, accentuated in laughter.

Children with the House to Themselves” appeared in 1986, as part of our hundredth issue, and “Across the Veld,” from our Winter 1989 issue, is full of the carefully observed, intricately drawn tensions that animate Gordimer’s work—as in this paragraph below, in which Hannah, the protagonist, ventures, in a bus full of whites, through a black township:

An avenue of black faces looked into the windows, pressing close, so that the combis had to slow to these people’s walking pace in order not to crush them under the wheels. No picnic party; the whites surrounded by, gazed at, gazing into the faces of these blacks who had stoned white drivers on a main road, who had taken control of this township out of the hands of white authority, who had refused to pay for the right to exist in the decaying ruins of the war against their presence too close across the veld; these people who killed police collaborators in their impotence to stop the police killing their children. One thing to read about these people, empathize with them, across the veld. Hannah, in her hide, felt the fear in her companions like a rise in temperature inside the vehicle. She slid open the window beside her. Instead of stones, black hands reached in, met and touched first hers and then those of all inside who reached out to them. The passengers jostled one another for the blessing of the hands, the healing touch. Some never saw the faces of those whose fingers they held for a moment before the combi’s progress broke the grasp. From the crush outside there were the cries “AMANDLA! VIVA!,” and joy when these were taken up by the whites. In the smiling haze of weekend drunks this procession of white people was part of the illusions that softened the realities of the week’s labour and made the improbable appear possible. The crowd began to sing, of course, and toi-toi in a half-dance, half-procession alongside the convoy, bringing, among the raised fists of some in the combis, a kind of embarrassed papal or royal weighing-of-air-in-the-hand as a gracious response from some others.

“I would like to say something about how I feel in general about what a novel, or any story, ought to be,” Gordimer said to end her Art of Fiction interview. “It’s a quotation from Kafka. He said, ‘A book ought to be an ax to break up the frozen sea within us.’ ”

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Sugar Rush: Letter from Cape Town

February 26, 2013 | by

120614sugarman_6349050Grand West Casino is decorated in the theme of “Cape Town’s Maritime Tradition.” A tradition which involves, for the most part, magenta skies painted on oppressively low ceilings, so that your subconscious incessantly implores you to hunch. At Grand West you may gamble or ice skate or play miniature golf or watch a show. We’ve arrived—my sister and I—for option four. I’ve option foured here a few times, most often with regret. South Africans have a certain obsequious gratitude when it comes to international acts (a holdover, I assume, from three decades of cultural boycotts), so that we now seem to provide palliative care for washed up music careers the world over, one rung above, or perhaps below, the cruise ship circuit. In the last few years we’ve offered our gushy services to Helmut Lotti, Belinda Carlisle, Gladys Knight, Roxette, and, incessantly, Michael Learns to Rock.

But not tonight. Tonight isn’t the usual Southern Hemisphere rent-a-crowd. Quite the opposite. Because tonight we’re here for the grand reunion of the guru and his gurees: it’s Wednesday, February 20, and Rodriguez is on his first tour of South Africa since all the hullabaloo around Searching for Sugar Man. Letterman hullabaloo, Leno hullabaloo, iTunes hullabaloo, Oscars hullabaloo. They say the first audience at Sundance was laughing and sobbing and talking in tongues. What a story; what a man. Stoic. Poet. Prophet. Maybe a bit of an alcoholic, rumor has it, but who isn’t? I tell you, as a South African, to finally see him get international recognition ... it’s pretty irritating, actually. Read More »

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