& occasionally about other things, too...

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Witchdoctor's Bones - I

Guest Post by Lisa de Nikolits

This, The Witchdoctor’s Bones, is my fourth novel, and, without doubt, it is my most ambitious book to date – and by that I mean that I wanted to do so much with it, and achieve so much.

A recipe for disaster you might think and for the longest time, you’d be absolutely right. Let me backtrack a little.

That I am, and always will be an African, is an indisputable fact. How deeply do I love the country of my birth, how I revere her forthright bold colours, her vibrant, charismatic people and the power and force of her warrior spirit.

Lisa de Nikolits
But while it was the land of my birth, it was never my land and I knew it instinctively, long before I needed anyone to tell me. I grew up in White apartheid South Africa and even as a very young child, I knew that our beloved country was borrowed, stolen, from those who should have had rightful dominion over it, and I knew that one day, they would own it again.

But knowing that a terrible injustice had a hold on our land was not enough, and I always felt, as a teenager and young adult, that I should do so much more to help the cause – but, do what? March more? Protest more? I know I did what I could but I always wanted to do more.

And that is what this book is, for me. It is my voice in helping spotlight the injustice that White rule brought to Africa, primarily with regard to the Bushmen.

It was while walking through the veld grass in the valley of the Underberg mountains, with the steep Sani Pass behind me, and Lesotho to the north east, that it came to me that I needed to write about the people who had walked this land before me.

No, not the Zulus, or the Xhosas but a quieter hero – the Bushman.

I had just returned from a trip to Namibia and I had learned much about the Bushmen there, but I had no idea that the San had in fact also lived in the very place that my father had a forty-hectare farm; in the wild foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains, and you can imagine my astonishment when research revealed this to me. It was one of those gifts from the writing gods and I knew that I simply had to write this book, and that it would be my tribute to the Bushmen, my homage to them.

Now, one cannot say that modern-day Africa is perfect – it is flawed for a whole bunch of reasons and I also wanted to bring those atrocities to the readers’ attention; the horrors of child abduction, the unspeakable crime of muti murders and the barbaric practices of modern day witchcraft that are still very much in evidence today.

To say that I wanted to ‘document’ all this would be erroneous because this is not a history book; it is a psychological thriller and it is also a story of bold adventure, camaraderie, friendship, romance and travel.

I also wanted this book to be a gripping read in the tradition of an Agatha Christie, with murder and suspense and characters vile and headstrong, coming head to head with ones that were heroic and brave.

So you understand what I mean when I say that I wanted to achieve a great deal with this book and you can also understand why it took six years of rewrites and edits for it to finally see the light of day in print!

I admit, yes, I put too much into it; I put my heart and soul and too many characters and endless descriptions and then I took out the wrong things and had to put them back in again. I had to walk away for a bit, and I admit I even nearly gave up; such was the immensity of getting this book right. What started out at 220 000 words had to be halved and I thought, more than once that it might be impossible to achieve my dream.

But in the end, I simply couldn’t give up. I had too much faith in it, and too much hope for it, and with the excellent and patient guidance of my publisher, the book has now been published.

On a final note, I have often wondered what the common denominator is, if indeed there is one, in my writing and I have realized that for the most part I have a fascination with morality. I am fascinated by the question of our innate versus our learned or controlled, if you will, morality, do we have an innate morality at all?

And what happens to our morals when they are challenged? And for me, this is largely what this book is about, morality. In this book, a holiday becomes a true test of moral fortitude but equally, the book is a psychological thriller and I very much hope that readers will enjoy taking this journey alongside some of my most unusual characters to date.

I’d like to conclude this rather long blog post (and I thank you for your patience!) with a piece that wasn’t included in the final edits but which I found fascinating, and I hope you will too.

Thank you!

Continued in the post below

The Witchdoctor's Bones - II

Continued from the post above

Marika sat with her hands tucked under her legs. “I read that the Bushmen’s tracking skills were so great that they were recruited by the army and also, that they have now been asked to go back to the Drakensberg to help track down poachers,” she said. “This, after they were systematically and officially killed, by both blacks and whites alike. If I am correct, the last official Bushmen hunt was organized by the Natal authorities as recently at 1863 and then in 1881, a tribe of Batloakoa people were allowed to settle in the Kubelu valley by Chief Letsie on the condition that they killed the remaining Bushmen, and from what I read, this was carried out with a lot of enthusiasm and great cruelty. And now, that very area is trying to get them back. And good luck with that, since there are so few still around.”

“You know a lot,” Jono commented. He had been eager to bring the evening to a close but when Marika spoke up, he changed his mind and happily seized upon the commonality of their knowledge to engage with her. “And you were right about the army, it played a big role in the lives of the Bushmen. In 1974 the South African Defence Force decided to incorporate two Bushmen tribes into the army; the Barakwena and the Vasekele.”

He laughed, a bitter sound. “This Africanization was good marketing material for the army because it could conveniently claim that race discrimination no longer existed and that blacks were now legally allowed to bear arms. Oh yes, the SADF was very proud of itself, and it announced that it had abolished race discrimination, that both white and non-white soldiers received the same wages and the same opportunities for promotion but this was clearly not true since the highest rank a Bushman could achieve was staff sergeant; so much for equality.

“And yes, their tracking powers were very good but a lot of the stories were urban legends, with some white soldiers claiming that a Bushman could ‘follow a faint spoor at a run for 30km or more, he can predict his prey’s behaviour as if he is clairvoyant—but he can also read and write.’

“Another story said that if a patrol has a Bushman in it, then it is unnecessary to post guards at night because even if the Bushman goes to sleep, he will wake even if the enemy is still far away and will raise the alarm. The SADF hoped that stories like this would create a psychological advantage for them, to their enemies who feared the Bushman powers.

“Now Marika,” Jono continued, “some of your love for the Bushmen probably came from what you may have read in the newspapers or maybe what your parents read and told you. Because, during this time, the white Afrikaner press was in love with ‘these beautiful people’ and the problems they had in adapting to white society were misrepresented in many newspapers. All the things that were in reality very shocking and terrible were recounted as if they were quaint and charming. The Bushman’s aptitude for mathematics, their athletic skills, their love of singing; all of that was presented as fairy-stories. It was considered charming how many of the students in primary school were married with babies of their own by the time they were fourteen. Yes, very charming.” Jono was sarcastic.

“So,” he continued, “the army claimed they were doing a good thing and the press supported them and it looked good but in reality, the Bushman was moved ever further away from his natural life. He drank more, alcoholism increased and soon the whites learned to track as well as they did, so their unique skills were not unique anymore. Also, they weren’t in their natural environment enough to keep their skills fresh. Their children were sent into the bush for few weeks every year, to help them train in their natural ways, as if it could be learnt like that, so quickly.”


Readings on YouTube:

Pinterest Moodboard: http://bit.ly/1f56CCG

Twitter: @lisadenikolits

Book trailer: http://bit.ly/1gNPYeB

* books can be ordered (or pre-ordered) at Amazon.ca or from inanna.ca and can also be found in select bookstores. If you have any trouble ordering a book, please contact the author, Lisa de Nikolits, at lisa@lisadenikolits.com

Friday, April 18, 2014

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014)

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014)
Generally speaking Nobel Prize for Literature is granted to three kinds of writers – the first is the category of writers who have earned global fame for their creation, and the Nobel recognition serves as an ultimate endorsement of their creative genius. Alice Munro and Vidya Naipaul belongs to this category.

Then there are writers who are known only to a select few connoisseurs of literature, and the Nobel momentarily widens their appeal, but then they revert to obscurity – Tomas Transtomer, the Swedish poet who won the Nobel in 2011, and Rabindranath Tagore who won it in 1913, are in this category. They remain largely unknown outside their own cultures, and ignored within. I’d say a majority of Nobel Prize winners belong to this category.

The third category is of writers who attain global fame because of Nobel Prize, and enrich the lives of millions of readers in different parts of the world with their creation. Gabriel Garcia Marquez belongs to this category. 

His Nobel in 1982 introduced the world to magic realism and the power of Spanish literature – the Latin American boom that included besides the Colombian Marquez, Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa, Argentina’s Julio Cortazar, and Mexico’s Carlos Fuentes.  All four deserved the Nobel, only Marquez and Llosa actually won it.

For readers of a certain age, Gabriel Garcia Marquez epitomizes everything that is truly exquisite in literature. Almost everyone who’s over 40-years-old and reads books would have read One Hundred Years of Solitude sometime in the early 1980s.

Many of us who read it with great enthusiasm didn’t actually get it. All that we liked about it was its similarity to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children – the same sweeping canvas, the multiplicity of characters, the amazing twists and turns in the story, and ghosts thrown in for good measure.

It was only many years later upon reading it the second time, and knowing a bit more of the region’s tortured history did the magnificence and the depth of Marquez’s masterpiece really begin to sink in, and yet it wasn’t as if we completely understood everything we read.

However, by then (in the mid-1990s) Marquez’s significance was known to all – One Hundred Years was considered one of the most important pieces of literature of the last century, with Pablo Neruda (another iconic Latin American litterateur with a huge fan following in India) proclaiming that One Hundred Years was “the greatest revelation in the Spanish language since Don Quixote of Cervantes.”

I'm well and truly old. Whenever someone who was integral to my youth dies, I'm reminded of Pink Floyd's line from the masterpiece Time: Shorter of breath, one day closer to death...

Portrait by Alejandro Cabeza (from http://www.artvipgallery.com/profile/AlejandroCabeza)

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Art & War

It was Robert Capa’s photograph of The Falling Soldier that changed the perception of people about war photography. Capa shot the photo in September 1936. Wikipedia informs me that war photography began nearly eight decades before Capa’s iconic photograph – in the Crimean war of 1853-56, when Roger Fenton became the first ‘embedded’ photographer to capture the action in Crimea. The entry on war photography claims that first war photographs were shot by a British army surgeon during the second Sikh war in the Indian subcontinent (now Pakistan).  

War photography brought the horrors of the war into the living rooms and on the breakfast table through the newspapers. Photographs such as Eddie Adam’s impromptu shot of General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan shooting a Viet Cong spy on the streets of Saigon, or Nick Ut's photograph of Kim Phuc and other young children running after being caught in a napalm attack changed the complexion of the war in Vietnam, and turned the public opinion decisively against the American misadventure.

(Incidentally, Kim Phuc is now a Canadian, living in Ajax, Ontario).

The Gulf War and the advent of CNN changed not only war coverage but also the media. Technology enabled the horrors of war to be telecast into our living rooms as they happened. Among the most memorable television images of that era are of CNN’s live coverage of the coalition campaign’s bombing of Iraq captured through night vision camera. Peter Arnett, CNN’s reporter in Baghdad, became a globally known journalist. Arnett had also won a Pulitzer for his Vietnam coverage.

The attack on the twin towers, the saturated coverage of the tragedy globally, and the second Gulf War was the beginning of a new era in war photography. For the first time, media’s coverage of the war was regulated, and surprisingly the powerful western media that had set global standards of free speech, acquiesced.

Rita Leistner
In a deeply insightful review (published in Literary Review of Canada, March 2013) of Michael Maclear’s Guerrilla Nation: My War In and Out of Vietnam, Rita Leistner, internationally renowned photojournalist and an author, says, “Humans have always used the most recent technology available to document war – the history of every war has a parallel story of its emerging, dominant technologies. The Crimean War was the first war to be photographed; the Iraq war was the first to be defined by digital cameras and same-day transmission of media by internet and satellite; the Arab Spring changed the game entirely when civilians documented the uprising from within using their own smartphones; today, the World Wide Web is rapidly replacing newspapers and television altogether.”

Rita Leistner was one of the participants at an engaging discussion on Art and War organized as part of the Spur Festival – a festival of politics, art and ideas – last week in Toronto by Helen Walsh and her team from Literary Review of Canada and Diaspora Dialogues.

James Wellford
Michael Kamber was the other photojournalist, and James Wellford, Newsweek’s photo editor, was the moderator.  The discussion was “not just the practicalities and ethics of capturing images in the midst of conflict but also the stories that emerge from it.” When intelligence is mixed with experience and a shared perspective, it results in a scintillating exchange of ideas that is at once enthralling and disturbing because of what is said, and also for what is implied.

Rita and Michael are amazing raconteurs, and James a minimalist moderator who infrequently prodded the panelists to gently guide the discussion into a different dimension (and being a New Yorker couldn't help himself from using the f word at least once during the discussion). Disturbing though it may seem, both the photojournalists agreed that there is a deep aesthetic involved in the depiction of carnage; “people expect to see visually arresting and clinically composed photographs.” Both also agreed that extreme mastery over what was essentially a mechanical craft was essential for success.

Michael Kamber
The discussion was interspersed with photo slides of Michael’s and Rita’s works (mostly in Iraq, but also in other parts of the Middle East and in north and West Africa). Both extensively covered the Iraq invasion and captured the horrors of the war in their own individualistic (and artistic) ways. Nearly a year before the Abu Gharib torture photographs were published, Rita had documented photographic evidence of torture, but couldn’t find any takers for her work. It was only after Associated Press exposed the Abu Gharib torture was she able to get her work widely published. Similarly, Michael also found a lot of his work censored by the US military.

And yet, rather surprisingly, both were not totally opposed to embedded journalism. “Without that (protection offered by being embedded) you couldn’t possibly last till the first afternoon,” Michael said rather impatiently to a question about the ethics of embedded journalism from a member of the audience.

Both reacted differently to the extreme physical and emotional stress they encountered on assignment. “I wanted to shoot everything, without really thinking about what I’d use. You realize that you’re in a part of history that’s soon going to pass,” Michael said, and confessed, “I was terrified the whole time. My hands were shaking when I took the photographs.” (of a soldier who was cut into half from waist when he stepped on a hidden explosive).

Similarly, Rita also confessed to emotional trauma but insisted on returning to the war harbouring the hope that just by capturing the carnage, you believe that somehow you can stop it in some way; that brutality could be stopped or scaled back after the photographs were published. Both also agreed to absolute necessity of protecting the context of the photographs and rights of the subjects of their photographs.

Michael’s photographs from Liberia and Rita’s photographs from the asylum in Sadr city (a Shia suburb of Baghdad) were the images that conveyed – without the necessity of words – the true meaning of war and art.

The video recording of the debate:

(Panelists' photographs from Spur website: spurfestival.ca