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“The Fat Black Women Sing” is brilliant

I might be one of the last people to see this play/musical in its run at the Market Theatre, due to a range of life issues, but I sure am glad that I did. It is on an extended run until March 29, 2009 due to popular demand. I can see why, and if I manage to, I will see it again this week.

[Warning: Please note that this is not a review, because regular readers know I have that weird love/hate relationship with reviews. It is a series of reflections on my most recent obsession. Most reviews I have seen have spent more time telling you how fabulous Napo Masheane is, which she is, than on the actual play. One misses the boat completely and thinks that women only conversations are the terrain of victimhood.]

Napo Masheane’s play is billed as an adaptation of Grace Nichols’ _The Fat Black Woman’s Poems_. I don’t quite agree. I love, love, love Grace Nichols’ work. Napo Masheane may just be the most exciting playwright working in South Africa today. Ms Masheane is a magician with words, and she has that very enviable talent of weaving magic across layers of language. Most of us do our best writing in one language, and maybe write well in another one or two. Not Ms Masheane. Even in her Feela Sistah days she would deliver exquisite poetry in English and elegant seSotho/seTswana.

Masheane’s play is clearly in conversation with Nichols, and ideologically both pieces are in the same conceptual world. Masheane’s play, however, works very differently stylistically and this is not just because of the different genres adopted by the two Black women writing.

Starring Nomathamsanqa Baleka, Sheila Katende, Tumelo Moloi, Bomsa Buthelezi and Simphiwe Zungu, the play is a journey into the worlds of Black women’s diversity. The acting is phenomenal as these women take us deep into the fraught business of beauty, sex, relationships, abuse, pleasure, language and self-esteem. The four “fat” and one “thin” woman banter, allowing us see the various ways in which beauty is elusive. The fat women are harassed for being women and for being fat black women in the streets of South Africa as they mind their business. The thin woman is shunned at school because boys consider her too skinny. But these are not victims who suffer and then tell tales of woe to a patient audience. Rather, these are performers in a double sense, making us aware of the very many layers that exist in how Black women are talked about in various narratives.

The bulk of the play is in isiXhosa/seSotho/seTswana with occasional isiZulu and some English. It is not an English play. The friend I watched it with speaks isiSwati and English but enjoyed the play sufficiently, even though I only translated some of the seSotho/seTswana dialogue. Language is a very important aspect of the play too. Masheane uses language to do more than cover all the basics and bring exciting contemporary content to our languages, as crucial a project as this is. She does this well too. However, language is a character in the play itself. There are things, names, textures of this play that simply cannot be captured in the standard English we speak. There are character types and forms of familiar strangeness that would make no sense in English. Yes, the play can be translated. But my friend and I comcurred that it would have to be into some African American dialect or Westindian creole. But then it would not be about South Africa.

There are things about relationship that are negotiated through language, so that women’s exchanges are not romanticised. The Xhosa character, for example, has some wit that resonated and reminded me of a specific type of sophisticated sister, not a single hair out of place, has her life set as she seems to want it, who every now and again reminds you, as did the character, that yena uliqabakazi lakuQumbu. And there is a hint at some tension that complicates sisterhood when she doesn’t quite “pronounce” things properly.

You know the historic rumour about how Xhosa people don’t pronounce English and other African language names properly. Well, it is flirted with here, but also cleverly undermined and questioned in the dialogue. This is just one of the many, many ways in which the language is layered and recognition is key to the play. There are turns of phrase that take you back to some place you haven’t been to in a while. And you find yourself wanting to join in the conversation.

I am not quite a “fat black woman”, most of the time. But I was once a fat Black girl and as I try to lose the excess pregnancy weight, I have thought of myself as a “fat black woman” at times. As I watched the play, there were multiple moments of recognition that are not premised on beng a fat black woman necessarily. How many of us do not know the discomfort that comes from your inner thighs rubbing against each other painfully? Or the fertile ground that is the anticipation or arrival of the first period. And here, I did wonder whether Ms Napo had actually used my story as I listened to one of the women tell of the bizzare interpretation of the first period. I tell it often in friend’s homes when the conversation turns in that direction, and I know I have told it in Ms Mash’s presence before. I’ve also shared it with Lebo Mashile and audience in the L’atitude episode on menstruation. Masheane is more than welcome to my story and well edited and used too. You can go and watch the play and wonder which story is mine. If you are a friend of mine, you’ll probably recognise it.

Zoe Wicomb says you can’t trust writers with anything because you might see yourself in her work. Makhosazana Xaba reminds us that we are not so special that we have original experiences. Whatever we think is ours has happened to someone else. So, maybe ‘my story’ is not just mine alone.

And this is part of the utter beauty and joy that comes from watching this play. Even the stories that were not strictly my direct lived experiences are mine. It is one of the few times I have watched a beautiful piece of art and felt completely seen, and at home. I loved this play so much I can’t stop thinking about it.

I liked it so much that if I can get a script out of Ms Masheane, I want to write a longer piece on the play.

There are a few other people who wrote about why they loved this play, and how it was about them too. In a beautifully written review, Chisanga Kabinga said the songs were a soundtrack to her life. Jabulile Ngwenya writes a fun, if somewhat journalisty take, on the play. There is nothing wrong with journalisty writing. And award winning reviewer, Chris Thurman offers his take here.

As I left with my friend, I could not have been more grateful to the friend who watched my baby that evening so I could take this wonderful piece of art in. I left feeling like I’d been hanging out with a group of crazy friends.


Loving Chris van Wyk

The great poet, memoirist, novelist, essayist and biographer, Chris van Wyk spoke to my English 3 class (elective: postcolonial humour) this week on his Shirley, goodness and mercy. The class was a huge success and many things associated with van Wyk tend to be.

Indeed, even some of my most hesitant students were animated by his address and his answers to the questions they posed. Now, it does not matter how many times I teach this text, and I was probably one of the first person to teach it, just as the first reviews were coming out in the local press. Each group of students I have taught it to have loved it, even though the areas I have focused on, and the kinds of courses I have prescribed it for, have differered significantly.

It is both a wonderful and challenging text. The first challenge results from having to teach it alongside another work of creative writing. It is a firm favourite no matter what other text I teach it next to, so this year I scheduled the lecture series on the memoir last. At both institutions where I have taught it, students inevitably want to write their essays, assignments, focus on it for their class presentations and answer exam question on van Wyk’s incredible text.

The second challenge results from the sheer enjoyment that comes from reading the text. Challenge, you ask? In a discipline, literary criticism, that is about the analysis of written creative texts, the actual pleasure of reading the text to be analysed is nonetheless undertheorised. Van Wyk’s memoir hard to put down even upon third and fourth re-reading. I talked about my lecture series this year as the paradoxical exercise of “taking humour seriously”. In these classes I sometimes grapple with a way to “take humour seriously”, in other words, a means to pay attention to it, its uses, its variances, etc without spoiling the humour in my discussion of it.

For, van Wyk’s text, although immensely enjoyable, is also a finely crafted piece of literature. Although it is humorous in parts, it is also carefully moulded to sometimes use humour for politically sophisticated ends. As I work through the meanings and strategies embedded in/enabled by the humour, I hope that I do not leave my students behind – and that they will be able to return to the text several times over, after they have left the course.

I really do believe it is a wonder of a book, and the answer lies between the covers. In a country where “most people choose not to read” for leisure, and where bestseller stats start at 4500 units sold, the memoir has sold over 20 000 copies as at last count, according to van Wyk. When the Market Theatre put on a play based on the memoir, van Wyk’s magic broke another record: the theatre was filled to capacity for weeks on end. Getting tickets was quite a mission. Yet, this is the same country where we are told that Black people don’t watch theatre. Shirley, goodness and mercy was sold out to predominantly Black audiences for well over a month.

This makes you think, doesn’t it?

march against xenophobia (jhb)

Social Movements Indaba

March against xenophobia and hate

21 May 2008

The SMI is mobilising social movements, immigrant communities, NGOs, unions, concerned residents from poor areas around the province for a march this Saturday, 24th of May. The march will gather at Pieter Roos Park (Empire and Queens Road) from 9a.m., proceed through Hillbrow and stop at the Departments of Home Affairs and Housing before ending at the Library Gardens. The message marchers will be conveying is that our struggle is common and knows no borders. Everyone who wants to make their voices heard should join us – our struggle knows no borders.
— No one is illegal —
For directions or other enquiries, please contact Silumko Radebe on 011 333 8334.
For comment, please contact: Silumko Radebe (APF) 0721737268; Mhlobo Gunguluzi (Khanya College) 0843773013; Brian Burayai (Refugee Fellowship) 0732865667
The Social Movements Indaba includes amongst other organisations: the Anti Privatisation Forum, Jubilee South Africa, Imbawula Trust, Sounds of Edutainment, Umzabalazo we Jubilee, Lesbian and Gay Equality Project, Inner City Resource Centre, Kliptown Concerned Residents, Khanya College, Earthlife Africa (Johannesburg), Palestinian Solidarity Committee, Golden Triangle Crisis Committee, Samancor Retrenched Workers Crisis Committee, African Renaissance Civic Movement, Group of Refugees Without Voice

Buy Pregs Govender’s Love and Courage

I generally don’t like to do reviews on this site or anywhere else. There are various reasons for this. First, they take too long and then you get asked to do more and more of these. Secondly, they put pressure on you to think a certain way while you read the book. So, I steer clear of them most of the time and only agree to write one if it applies to a book that I would want to read anyway — or one by a writer whose work I simply love. Third, I have so many writing commitments at any given time that it seems as though cutting down on reviews is a guaranteed time-saver.

At the same time, as a writer I know that it’s wonderful to know that you are read, but even more affirming to see what people say about your work — even when they don’t particularly like what you have to say.

Nonetheless, this is not a real review, just excited blogging about a book I love written by a brilliant and daring woman.

I went to Pregs Govender’s book launch straight after opening “Face Her”, the exhibition in Newtown for this year’s South African women’s month. Needless to say I missed the bulk of the speeches and proceedings for the evening. But I did get a book and managed to have the author sign it.

I then proceeded to spend the ENTIRE day on Women’s Day — save for the SABCAfrica appearance — in bed with Govender’s fantastic book. I literally could not put it down. Each time I needed to get up for food or drink, I had to tear myself away.

I have to admit that I am a long-time fan and avid reader of the work of the fiya feminist Pregs Govender. Her memoir does not disappoint, even though I opened it with very high expectations that she would deliver in her usual style.

Govender writes her memoir, love and courage: a story of insubordination, in six parts (Life, Politics, Power, Choices, The Arms Deal, No HIV/AIDS) in attempt to frame episodes in a life that cannot be compartmentalised. It is a touching narrative of a principled life lived as an activist through different eras in our country’s past: apartheid, transition, post-apartheid, etc. Govender’s elegant prose seems to hug her reader to the page, so that she may not turn away even when the material under discussion is as difficult as Govender staring death in the face.

That phrase about staring death in the face takes on a variety of meanings in love and courage since it encompasses the dangers activists faced under apartheid from a hostile and brutal state, going into hostile territory as a unionist, facing hostile principals and other officials of the apartheid education state as a progressive teacher, escaping attempts to have her killed by others she considered comrades, and taking principled stands on HIV/AIDS and the infamous SA arms deal. Through all of these triumphs, she emerges scathed but affirmed by her ability to stand up for what she believes in no matter who she has to stand up to and against.

This book is an amazing example of what it means for the personal and political to be lived as the same thing in both private life and public activism. I know that it is a book I will return to, to read again and again.

Sindiwe Magona on HIV/AIDS & sexual pleasure

An evening with Sindiwe Magona was an intimate gathering at Wits, where she read from her forthcoming novel, The green freedom of a cockatoo, took questions from the two hosts and then had an exchange with the audience.

It was remarkable to see people’s responses to both the reading and to her earlier novels. A young woman from the floor, who identified herself as Puseletso, talked about how inspired she was by Magona’s decision to broach unfashionable but important topics. She wanted to know about how to maintain the kind of courage that would allow her to speak her own truth no matter what the response was that is elicited.

She spoke about HIV/AIDS at great length because it is at the core of her new novel, which is about Blackwomen in SA and HIV/AIDS, stressing that open discussions of pleasure and entitlement for/by Blackwomen were the only way out of the HIV/AIDS quagmire.

Provocatively, and to great applause, she suggested two approached to curbing the spread:

a) that when a long time partner suddenly suggests the use of a condom for sex, after years without, the least appropriate response would be “why?”. Asking why was the route to trouble, since the answer would be unpleasant no matter what is was. If the condom was necessary because of previous infidelity on the offering partner’s part, or suspected infidelity of the offered partner, issues of trust would surface. However, what such a person may be offering is a chance to remain uninfected, or as Magona put it, “your life on a platter”;

b) when your daughter turns 18, buy her a vibrator as part of the birthday present pack, which also contains a book or two. In this way, you would be further opening up the dialogue on sexuality and pleasure with her, as well as showing her an example that although she is entitled to sexual pleasure, she is not supposed to die from it.

The conversation concentrated on women’s entitlement to sexual pleasure, and later, how valuing conquest in the socialisation of men often excuses promiscuity. The novel sees a faithfully married woman die from AIDS, something Magona pointed out as not rare. If men only had sex with, and made children with their wives, all of this could be abetted, she insisted. In the meantime, don’t ask why when a condom is offered and use that vibrator that every woman should have.

The evening was enjoyed by all in attendance, and all the Magona books on sale from the Xarra books stall were sold out.

Books by Sindiwe Magona

To my children’s children (1990) — autobiography
Living, loving and lying awake at night (1991) — short stories
Forced to grow (1992) — autobiography
Push-push and other stories (1996) — short stories
Mother to Mother (1998) — novel
Imida (2007) — essays
The best meal ever ( 2006) — children’s book
(also available as
Ukukhala kwezilwane (2006) with Gcina Mhlophe — children’s book
Le nna, ke tseba go bala dipalo (2006) with Gcina Mhlophe — children’s book
Lumkela ingozi (2006) with Gcina Mhlophe — children’s book
Mollo (2006) with Gcina Mhlophe — children’s book
Indoda nengwenya (2006) with Gcina Mhlophe — children’s book
Ngabe ithini iminwe? (2006) with Gcina Mhlophe — children’s book
Umvuyeleli uBonke (2005) with Gcina Mhlophe — children’s book

Sindiwe Magona @ Wits – 29/05/2007

Sindiwe Magona is coming to Wits! She will be reading from her latest novel, and have a conversation with Dr Siphokazi Koyana and A/Prof Pumla Dineo Gqola, followed by a question and answer session with the audience. I am quite excited because I have been following her career for longer than I have been writing (academically/critically) on her work. I have also thoroughly enjoyed teaching her novel, short stories and autobiographies to different levels of university students in the last decade.

Rather than writing a full entry for today, I have incorporated the poster for the event, in case some people see it here who did not receive other notification. Entrace is free, and there is no need to rsvp in advance. Click below to view the poster:

Sindiwe Magona public reading at Wits

Siphokazi and I are hoping that this will be the first in a long line of readings and public conversations with Southern African writers.