Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Why I Read by Bryony Rheam

I don’t know why some people like reading and others don’t, except somewhere along the line I think those who find reading boring haven’t been pointed in the right direction.  When I say ‘the right direction’ I don’t mean towards what is considered ‘good’ or high-brow literature, but what is enjoyable, what makes you sit immersed in another world for hour upon hour, hesitant to re-join reality.
As a child, I devoured books.  I remember reading so much, my mother worried about it.  I loved adventure and mystery; far-off lands where magical things happened. My first forays into literature were with school set texts: Animal Farm and The Mayor of Casterbridge, stories that have stayed with me for years, perhaps because I had to learn huge chunks of quotes!  Mrs Dalloway was one of the first literary books I chose to read myself.  I read it in the holidays before I left school.  It was August and I was working at a plant nursery.   The combination of Spring, the blossoming flowers and the exquisite beauty of the words had a lasting impression on me.
It’s exactly that beauty, that power of the word, that I try to infuse my own writing with. It’s impossible to write anything new: love, death, war, loss (and the rest) are subjects that writers have grappled with since the beginning of time.  What is important is how we tell the story. Graham Greene once said that a writer writes from their subconscious, a place deeply influenced by experience. Part of this experience will, of course, be reading, which is not to suggest plagiarism; rather, that what one reads is an inspiration for one’s own writing. Is it even possible to be a writer if one doesn’t read?
I have yet to meet someone who neither enjoys reading nor watching films or following a series on television.  Even those with no access to the printed word or technology will enjoy listening to someone telling them a story.  The worst form of torture must be to be locked in a room with nothing to read! The human need to escape into a different reality is very firmly entrenched in our being.  But it’s the written word that connects us to so much more than the passing moment.  It links us to culture, to history, to the world outside and the world within. I read because it’s part of who I am – and that’s no exaggeration.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Music and Literature

Mbira Music

Some thirteen years ago a friend, a Chinese doctor of traditional medicine, told me I was never too late to learn. An old adage which in this situation referred to starting tai chi. He was right as I still practice tai chi and have taken up ku fu fan and a couple of sword forms. Not very good at any but enjoy it and it’s healthy exercise - as opposed to unhealthy! The adage continues to be true as I have now discovered mbira music. It’s so full of life, whatever the tempo.   A variety of percussion instruments reflecting a long tradition and culture. All the exponents I watched and listened to on YouTube reflected the sheer enjoyment of its exponents. In one example it seemed to be almost jamming but maybe rules have developed over the ages. Don’t know enough about this genre so that is meant as a compliment! There was a unity and interplay amongst all the musicians .Am listening to it as I type although I keep wanting to get up and move. It has that almost hypnotic effect on you.
Also discovered sungara music which also makes you want to get up and dance as well, although not sure I could replicate such energy now - not sure I ever could move so fluently. The dance movements are as harmonious as the perfect song harmonies which come across as natural.
What am I on about you may ask? Well, I discovered all this new enjoyment as a by-product of reading:

‘The Maestro, the Mathematician and the Magistrate’ by Tendai Huchu

 How often are writers advised ’Write about what you know’? Mr Huchu certainly knows Edinburgh which almost becomes a character in itself. We walk the city with the characters. It becomes alive. The music is by no means a by-product but is very much integral to the novel as a whole, in particular the voice and character of the Magistrate who now lives in Edinburgh with his family and has to come to terms with loss of standing and cannot help comparing that life with his present life. Another M is a younger compatriot, the Mathematician, who takes full advantage of the life he can access in Edinburgh but does intend to return to his country. The third M is a young man who tries to escape a life with which he is not at ease through reading books.  Mr Huchu depicts a place where a shared nationality forms tenuous ties that do not necessarily equate to loyalty or kinship. A shared nationality, all dealing with a sense of loss or identity  but with different, contrasting values.
Three disparate men, three different voices. This could lead to confusion but doesn’t because Mr Huchu is in full control. The overlap of their lives may be surprising but totally believing for such is life. This intertwining is not foreshadowed, is cleverly devised and not at all contrived. The book has many layers and may be read on different levels. Serious matters are addressed but both subtle humour and incisive wit percolate. I loved the ‘cameo’ appearance at the party!
I couldn’t predict the ending at all with any certainty and had to re-read the book - after a space of a few weeks - to see it with fresh eyes. The fresh eyes led me to the conclusion that Mr Huchu is quite the philosopher.
How pleasing to come across a book of literary merit, an enjoyable read but one that does address modern issues. Thoroughly enjoyed it as I did ‘The Hairdresser of Harare’, also by Mr Huchu. Both very different books but both well worth a read.

by Mary Irvine,

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Why I Read by Bongani Kona

Bongani Kona, photo courtesy of the Caine Prize

In December 1999, as their final act before the turn of the millennium, TIME magazine published a special issue profiling the hundred most influential people of the 20th Century. I remember casually paging through the issue and being drawn by the brief entry on Philo T. Farnsworth, the man who invented television. What really caught my interest was not the entry itself – Farnsworth died in relative obscurity, dogged by lawsuits and in debt – but the caption that ran underneath the photograph, of a man sitting with his back turned to the camera, in a room surrounded by screens. It said Farnsworth was unhappy with what he saw, even before 500 channels.
Perhaps because I was going through puberty and its attendant flux of emotion – I was fourteen that year – I felt a sense of kinship with Farnsworth. I could relate to that difficult-to-explain unhappiness, even as a teenager growing up in Harare. In hindsight, the reason I’ve never forgotten that episode is because I understood for the first time something I’d always felt but had been unable to name; what it means to be alone.  
I’m trying to explain to you, in so few words, why I was drawn so much to the world of books. Reading made me feel less estranged from the world. My favourite scene in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is when Holden Caulfield goes to visit Mr. Antolini and he says to him: “Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them – if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry.”

In short, reading has been my way of connecting with the world. My way of understanding what it means to be human. I can’t offer an equally coherent explanation for why I write. Writing is difficult and it’s the only line of work I know of where you’re guaranteed to fail more times than you succeed and there have been times when I’ve given up. The only reason I keep going is because I want to give to someone else what books have given to me. A way out of loneliness.

Zimbabwean writer Bongani Kona was shortlisted for the 2016 Caine Prize for African Writing with his short story 'At your Requiem'. The story is published in the 2016 Caine Prize anthology The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things, published by amaBooks in Zimbabwe, New Internationalist in the UK, Jacana Media in South Africa, Interlink Books in Nigeria, Kwani? in Kenya, Sub-Saharan Publishers in Ghana, Gadsden Books in Zambia, Femrite in Uganda and Langaa in Cameroon. 'At your Requiem' was first published in South Africa by Burnet Media in Incredible Journey: Stories That Move You.
Bongani is a freelance writer and contributing editor of Chimurenga. His writing has appeared in Mail & Guardian, Rolling Stone (South Africa), Sunday Times and other publications and websites. He is also enrolled as a Masters student in the Creative Writing Department at the University of Cape Town.