Applying for visas when your family is, erm, unconventional

"Please provide evidence of family members remaining in your home country whilst you travel."

Dear Humans of Great Britain,*

We strongly disapprove of our mother’s intention to travel away from us now and again, even though she assures us this is necessary if she is to keep us supplied with our preferred cat food (she says it is clearly made from lobster and caviar, with a sprinkling of diamond dust – we think this is what you call sarcasm).

We approve of her writing books for a living (she’s on Number 19 at the moment), as it means she stays home and we can entertain her by rolling all over her keyboard or demanding snacks when she’s on deadline. We are rather more frosty about the fact that she needs to visit her UK publishers and London agent every other year or so. She will shortly be launching a historical novel, Charlotte, which, she tells us, means she will have to attend book launches and literary festivals in the UK and Europe. Frankly, we think it sounds like an excuse to drink wine with other writers. Then the entire exercise will repeat in two years’ time when the sequel is published. Hmm.

However, she can’t stay away TOO long. We enjoy our catsitter, a most affectionate damsel, but our mother says she costs a bomb. And so she ought: because one of us is a special-needs kitty with a missing front leg and other damage, he needs someone with veterinary nursing experience to look after him when Mum is away. Frankly, we like her because she is the best, and of course we deserve the best. But her meter does run up in a way that makes our mother rush home to us as soon as she can.

So we are not going anywhere (our nice big garden is full of mice and SUNSHINE). This means Mum isn’t going anywhere, either. Or never for very long.

Yrs purrfully,

Boychik (age unknown, found desperately injured at the side of the road and rescued)

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Meg (ten years old)

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Lily (ten years old)

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*Actual letter submitted to the British Embassy

Helen Moffett
No. Just no. #NoNightShoot
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Dear Department of Defence,

So you stole a march on us, and for several hours yesterday afternoon and evening, the False Bay coast was pummelled by shooting that had windows shaking up and down the peninsula. The noise levels were off the charts: guns fired on Muizenberg's Sunrise Beach could be heard as far away as Langa and Hout Bay. And that was just the rehearsal: today we're going to have it much, much worse, with jets screaming and more guns thudding.

This is INSANE, inhumane, and a massive show of contempt for local residents, most especially those on the Cape Flats, many of whom live with constant trauma and fear of gangs, and for whom gunshots and loud bangs must be triggering and terrifying. How do you explain this barrage to a dog pissing itself in terror, a toddler screaming more hysterically with every explosion? How do you get the baby to sleep, the kids to do their homework? What if you need to rest before heading out to your midnight shift as a security guard or nurse? These are WEEK NIGHTS, you bozos.

I shouldn’t have to explain how utterly inappropriate this is. It's not just the cozy seaside suburbs being pummelled, but townships and low-income neighourhoods only a hop and a skip away -- places where folk can't afford ear-protectors or trips to the vet to get tranquillisers for their animals. Only four and a half kilometres from the beach where taxpayers’ money (yet more of it) is literally going up in smoke, we have Lavender Hill, an area so riddled with violence and guns that the death of children caught in gang crossfire is almost normal.

But hey, you’ve presented yet more guns as entertainment! You’ve even provided parking instructions! This is a particularly ugly version of "let them eat cake" to those who live in Grassy Park, Capricorn, Philippi, Rocklands, Lotus River, Mitchell’s Plain, Khayelitsha and other areas deafened by last night’s performance of machismo.

It’s the arrogance that’s so breath-taking. We know by now that the state’s attitude to the poor is “hmm, where shall we kick them today, in the teeth or the ribs?”, with the occasional murderous foray into abysmal human rights violations like Marikana and Life Esidimeni: but this is a boot to the groin for locals.

I don’t suppose the testosterone heads who dreamed up this shoot thought of the impact on poorer local residents, especially women (it will be mostly them walking up and down tonight, exhausted, crying children in their arms).

There is a very good reason not to stage military exercises in civilian zones: these are RESIDENTIAL areas. People have lives — social media is full of queries, from a new mother worrying about how to protect her week-old baby’s ears, from folk stumped about how to protect their pets given that they only get home from work late, or another night of trying to get the kids to bed when bedlam is breaking out.

There's also a high proportion of old-age homes for all income brackets in this area, and a state hospital in Fish Hoek -- how to explain to dementia patients in frail care that no, war hasn't broken out?

The impact goes beyond human beings. Whose spectacularly rotten idea was it to plan a massively disruptive military display in a sensitive marine area, featuring the few nature reserves still operational in low-income neighbourhoods?

I wrote to the City of Cape Town yesterday and got this mealy-mouthed response: “You are advised to request the SANDF for the Environmental Management Plan (EMP). The EMP puts in place a range of actions and measures to ensure that the event is sustainable, safe and that environmental concerns are addressed.”

This is almost Orwellian: firing live ammo into a fragile marine environment and over a nature reserve is SUSTAINABLE? Also please note: nothing that requires children and babies to wear ear-protectors and animals (and some humans) to be tranquillised can, by any stretch of the imagination, be described as "safe".

And don't give me that "everyone only cares about the animals" crap either. You may have noticed that the environment, both locally and globally, is on its knees. Why batter it further? Many domestic animals experience excessively loud noise as pain. You might be OK with the army choosing to administer an extended thrashing to your bewildered and petrified pet, but thousands aren't. 

What dick-swinging arrogance is this, when the national power supplier can't even keep the lights on? If ever there was a time for the state to make a public show of austerity, it is now. The Navy just around the corner can't even maintain its rusting submarines, or put a stop to the poaching that finances organised crime around the country. Meanwhile, the City of Cape Town is merrily flushing shit into our oceans, so it’s hardly surprising that they’re not too bothered about a chaser of explosives.

But if money was going to be spent on a military show, you had so many other options: partnering with local firefighters to put on displays (dunno if you’ve noticed, but fire is a major problem in our drought-stricken country); marching bands and musical drills (for someone young, poor and musical, the Army is one of the few places of opportunity); civil emergency performances -- why not an exciting simulated sea rescue, with daring young people swinging from helicopters? The worst missed opportunity: the chance to stage a big, optimistic, educational anti-gangs and drugs display in nearby townships reeling from these twin poisons. You could have chosen to show young people trapped in misery zones like Lavender Hill and Manenburg that there are options for carrying weapons that involve pride, dignity and public service.

So the SANDF had an opportunity to present itself as a force for good: somewhere young people could go if they wanted jobs safeguarding their fellow citizens and their fragile environment -- instead of thumbing their noses at the former in a bullying show of sheer contempt, while blowing the latter to smithereens.

Simply in terms of self-interest, this is a spectacular PR fail. There’s an election only a few months away, and you pick this moment to alienate hundreds of thousands of voters? You’ve taken all that ordnance (paid for by us) and fired it into your own feet.

My only hope is that you spark massive civil disobedience tonight. I’d like to see thousands marching, a flotilla of small boats appearing on the horizon, swimmers and surfers in wetsuits in the firing zone. If I had the money, I’d pay the Mavericks plane to buzz up and down the shoreline with a banner reading STOP THIS WANK FEST.

Helen Moffett
Poetry is for days like this
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It was the most glorious day today. Water crisis, climate catastrophe and all, there are days that come in April when the light is so radiant, it almost hums. And April light makes me think of Stephen Watson, the poet and mentor to many who died seven years ago this month. Every day in April I am grateful for the words he gave us to corral the feelings I have about this conflicted, tormenting, afflicted and staggeringly beautiful city: stuck in traffic along the False Bay coast this afternoon, fragments of his writing kept running through my head, his words about this city "almost en-islanded by one rough mountain, two cool porcelain seas", and its light at this time of year: "Astringent, like lemon in fresh water, this light distills."

The other reason Stephen Watson has been in my mind is because I recently acted as a judge for the Ingrid Jonker Prize for a debut collection of poetry. Judging poetry is a truly impossible task, because good poetry puts the reader's own feelings into words, or as a wonderful poet once told me, "It travels direct from the eye to the heart". So how do you place merit and value on that which plays your heart like a jazz drummer, each volume, each poem tapping out a different rhythm? Do you reward the words that make you weep, or laugh, or both?

I'm hoping to write reviews of the collections I really loved (there were a lot!), but one of the ones that swept me off my feet was Stephen Symons's Questions for the Sea (uHlanga Press). There are a dozen aesthetic and literary reasons to praise this exquisite collection, but my response to it was first and foremost emotional: something about his voice reminded me of Stephen Watson’s. In some ways, Symons's spare and understated lines are very different, but something about the way he looks at a beautiful location and holds time still in it; something about the way he captures light: these are familiar, these I love. 

But don't take my word for it: just read this.

Tietiesbaai

This bay
searing
                         in calcium whiteness
                         a midday rise of talcum

shell-white
beneath
                        bare feet desecrating
a wind-broken boneyard

of angels.

 

From Questions for the Sea, Stephen Symons, uHlanga Press, 2016.

Helen Moffett
Book Dashing (aka making magic happen)
One of the reasons Book Dash exists.

One of the reasons Book Dash exists.

We're in the appropriately sunny Sunflower Library at Zonnebloem Primary on the edge of District Six in Cape Town, and it's exactly like stepping through the back of the wardrobe, except that this very South African Narnia is a completely happy place.

For me, taking part in a Book Dash day -- when groups of creative professionals get together to create free, open-access online and print books for children all around the world -- is worth a truckload of therapy and happy pills. The mission is simple: to put good books with local content into the hands of tens of thousands of small children, with the goal of every child owning a hundred books by the age of five. Does that sound impossible? Not if the Dashers have anything to do with it. Not only are the print books free, but you can download them onto a phone or tablet, translate them, print them and distribute them anywhere in the world.

How does it work? The rest of this blog will rely on pictures to convey the energy and yes, the magic.

Julia welcomes the teams: each consists of a writer, illustrator and designer. With the help of an editor and amazing logistical support, they create an entire book in one day.

Julia welcomes the teams: each consists of a writer, illustrator and designer. With the help of an editor and amazing logistical support, they create an entire book in one day.

It takes four generous and creative souls to make a good children's book. Here's Team Five putting together  The Dream Pillow.

It takes four generous and creative souls to make a good children's book. Here's Team Five putting together The Dream Pillow.

Make no mistake, this is serious work. Here's Team Eight, creating  The Fish Who Couldn't Swim .

Make no mistake, this is serious work. Here's Team Eight, creating The Fish Who Couldn't Swim.

Everyone cares about what they're doing. Matthew and Ingrid ponder  Grandpa Farouk's Garden .

Everyone cares about what they're doing. Matthew and Ingrid ponder Grandpa Farouk's Garden.

"Quick! Catch that idea before it escapes!" Team Six pinning down  You! Yes, you!

"Quick! Catch that idea before it escapes!" Team Six pinning down You! Yes, you!

Writing runs on coffee. Harry doing a great job of keeping us fueled.

Writing runs on coffee. Harry doing a great job of keeping us fueled.

Something the support team always gets right: very superior snacks for all.

Something the support team always gets right: very superior snacks for all.

There's a lot of laughter: Mazi and Clyde joke around, and that's Alex chuckling in the background too.

There's a lot of laughter: Mazi and Clyde joke around, and that's Alex chuckling in the background too.

It helps when the support team keeps smilling: here's Neo live-tweeting the event.

It helps when the support team keeps smilling: here's Neo live-tweeting the event.

When you score one of the country's best children's book illustrators for a story you've wanted to write for EIGHTEEN YEARS. Alex Latimer busy drawing scenes that existed only in my head yesterday.

When you score one of the country's best children's book illustrators for a story you've wanted to write for EIGHTEEN YEARS. Alex Latimer busy drawing scenes that existed only in my head yesterday.

And the brilliant Jennifer Jacobs neatly and efficiently turning ideas and images into a Real Live Book. Meet  Toast , everyone!

And the brilliant Jennifer Jacobs neatly and efficiently turning ideas and images into a Real Live Book. Meet Toast, everyone!

Helen Moffett
A Wandering Star: Catching up with Alexandra Fuller
Photograph of Alexandra Fuller in Wyoming by Laure Joliet,  The New York Times /Redux. No copyright infringement intended.

Photograph of Alexandra Fuller in Wyoming by Laure Joliet, The New York Times/Redux. No copyright infringement intended.

I met Alexandra (Bobo) Fuller for the first time at the Franschhoek Literary Festival in 2009. It was a blustery wet night back when winter still delivered plentiful rain. The fanfare accompanying her memoir of her Zimbabwean childhood, Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight, preceded her everywhere. So I was star-struck, and even more so when overhearing someone ask her how her visit to Zambia had been – she’d just come from visiting family there: “My parents are fine, and there was a puffadder living under my bed.”

I had grown up with boomslangs in the attic. Common ground? I loitered closer. And then the kind of opportunity fans dream of presented itself: Fuller continued, in the carrying tones of those educated in anglophone boarding schools: “I’m having the most appalling period pains. I want to curl up and howl. Truly, I might be dying, and I’ve got this whole effing evening to get through.”

Hallelujah! In my handbag I carried extremely effective meds for this very purpose. I stepped forward and offered them. I gave her one to take immediately, washed down with the glass of red wine in her hand, another to swallow if no relief within 30 minutes, and a third for the next day. She gulped down the magic pill with profuse thanks and zero qualms about accepting drugs from a stranger, and then tides of people took her away. Half an hour later, there was a tug at my arm. “It’s a miracle! I feel human again.”

So after that bonding experience, there was affection and connection whenever our paths and years crossed. She came across an anthology on landscapes of Southern Africa (Lovely Beyond Any Singing) that I had compiled; living thousands of miles from her heart-home, it became a portal to Africa for her. Meanwhile, I gobbled up everything she wrote.

Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight introduced readers to her piercing combination of honesty and generosity (“she looks back with rage and love,” said one reviewer), as well as a sometimes near-hallucinatory style. I found Scribbling The Cat, an account of her travels with a veteran of the “Rhodesian War” too intense and unguarded to bear, but her next book, The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, is a small masterpiece of biography. In it, she tells the true and haunting story of a young Wyoming roustabout who fell to his death from an oil rig because the drilling company had failed to install safety rails.

She told me she’d written her first three books because silence has never been an option for her: the first was an attempt to give voice to what had until then been unspoken, the second the unspeakable (“an impossible project”), and in the third, she tried to speak for the speechless dead.

It’s hard not to admire the honesty with which she writes of a dysfunctional (“operatic”) but loving home, of the struggles to locate herself within adopted, adored and ultimately alien countries. Her Africa memoirs culminate in Cocktail Hour Under The Tree of Forgetfulness, a loving account of her mother’s extraordinary, messy and bravura life. One of the most striking scenes involves Nicola Fuller, who insisted on flying lessons, singing “Fly Me To The Moon” under a swollen gold moon as she comes in to land on a patchy Zambian airfield. 

Relocating to Wyoming after marrying an American, Fuller forged ahead with writing the stories of yet another adopted home, and so came The Legend of Colton H. Bryant and Leaving Before the Rains Come. When she read from the former at the Cape Town launch at the Book Lounge, her audience held cans of Mountain Dew in one hand and tissues in the other.

Until I read her most recent work, her debut novel Quiet Until the Thaw, I found Leaving her most absorbing book: a memoir of the corrosive effects of unresolved trauma, displacement and financial disaster on two generations of family. But this is no kitchen-sink drama; the book charges towards a cliffhanger that would be improbable in fiction. Against the backdrop of their crumbling marriage, she fights like a tiger to save her husband’s life after a riding accident leaves him on the point of death. It’s clear that even if she made a lousy wife (she is brutally honest about her failings), she’s a very good person to have in your corner when things go wrong.

Now, after producing memoirs of a range of unforgettable people, ranging from her closest kin to a stranger, she has turned to fiction. She is in South Africa to attend Stellenbosch University’s Woordefees, a festival that celebrates and attracts a wide range of cultural and literary artists. This gave us the chance to spend an hour talking about the past, her new novel, and the life she has recrafted in Wyoming, where she now lives in a yurt: “Impermanence has become important”, she says.

                                                            *****

The thing about Alexandra Fuller is that if you ask her how she is, she will tell you. She is unflinchingly, almost unnervingly truthful. We pick up from our last conversation as if years, an ocean and two books haven’t intervened. She tells me of the shattering breakdown that followed the death of her father, to whom her novel is dedicated: of the family upheaval that followed, the self-medicating with alcohol, the flashbacks to childhood traumas, the struggle to come to terms with her parents’ failure to protect her from a predatory neighbour, which for her is wound up one of her lifelong tasks: comprehending and atoning for the complicity of her settler history and its embedding in colonial racism.

The connection might not seem obvious to the casual bystander, but it’s all about cycles of violence, she keeps telling me. They keep repeating, and so we have to understand how deep they run, the places they have their roots. Few people hold so squarely in their sights the mechanics of how patriarchal exploitation and abuse of women and children is tied into the structural violence of racism and colonialism, of the exploitation of the planet’s resources to the extent of making our only home uninhabitable, of genocides and the way military, political and cultural forces enact these, and then blame the victims for the host of ills that follow.

This brings us to her most recent work and first novel, Quiet Until The Thaw. Set on an Indian reservation (“The Rez”) of the Lakota Oglala Sioux Nation, in South Dakota, it tells the story of cousins who choose different paths in response to their experiences of being pushed to the barest margins of society in their own country. Written with deceptive simplicity, it engages with all the issues mentioned above, most especially the perennial problem of violence, and the only solution: to recognise the interconnectedness of all things and peoples, and thus to grasp that any violence we perpetrate will haunt, twist and scar us, and our children, and their children.

When giving testimony against the oil company on whose rig Colton H. Bryant died, she discovered that different procedures were followed when drilling on Indian land. She began to visit, to listen, joining in endurance rides where she was “invisible”. I tease her about rushing in again where angels fear to tread: a white woman, a double settler, trying to tell the story of another culture, another way of life. She acknowledges the enormity of this task, that she strove above all “for humility”. It shows in her writing.

I ask how it felt, making the jump from memoir to fiction – a stumbling block for many writers – and she laughs: “This is the most autobiographical thing I’ve ever written.”

This might seem strange, especially if one reads the blurb on the back cover, which repeats all the familiar tropes of a multi-generational Cain-and-Abel story, of “broedertwis”, giving the impression one has picked up a family saga with an extra dollop of liberal earnestness. Nothing could be further from the truth: the book has no epic thrust or sprawling narrative. Instead, it is a series of beautifully wrought vignettes, written in chapters of no more than 250 words at a time, with chapter headings that advance the story. These near-fragments are funny, searing, lyrical and wise.

“They’re all true,” she tells me. “Everything in that book, all the characters: they’re real – it’s all reportage. I just listened and stitched the pieces together.” She goes on to explain that the structure of the book is modelled on Indian storytelling, where one voice will speak, and another will chime in with a detail or the addition of a character or event, and then another; the story belongs to all. Even when creation myths are told, they are spoken quietly to sleeping children.

One of the pleasures of the book is Fuller’s trademark lyricism: “Snow around the tepee became like mashed sweet potatoes, then like kernels of corn, then granular sugar, and finally it melted completely and puddled up in the tufts of last year’s old grass.” Even the throwaway phrases – “tiny wrens with their big songs” – are polished to perfection.

This is not to say that Fuller doesn’t also recount the bad, the ugly, the bleak and the frankly hideous: she pulls no punches about life on an Indian reservation, and the ills that bloom like black mould in these contexts of despair and deprivation. She manages that rare trick: effective sarcasm, and although the book spans seven decades, from McCarthyism to Standing Rock, trenchant commentary on current events is never far away: for instance, she writes that the absence of incest taboos among white settler Americans eventually created “a class of chinless, insecure, wig-wearing golfers”.

The book distills a great deal of wisdom, but this extract showcases both the extreme pragmatism and idealism Fuller learned from the Lakota – the “much madness [that] is divinest sense”:

Even if we stopped everything right now, all the war and abuse and hurt and injury, and treated each other with nothing but love.

We’d still have generations to go before we settled into real peace, but it would be real peace.

The question isn’t “Why bother?”

It’s “Why not?”

Perhaps the answer is that most people don’t believe in themselves enough to imagine one or two or seven generations down the line, the way the Lakota are trained to think. Perhaps they refuse to entrust the possibility of peace to some as yet unborn descendants because their own ancestors no such respect for their possibility of peace. An eye for an eye in ever-increasing cycles of violence going all the way around to where this all ends, and all begins.

So when I ask her about recent events in Zimbabwe, her message remains the same: while she is encouraged, even overjoyed by the departure of two Southern African despots, Robert Mugabe and Jacob Zuma, her question is: will these changes, upheavals even, break what in a National Geographic interview she calls “the half-life of war”, the pattern of violence that haunts both countries?

We also speak about the water crisis afflicting Cape Town in particular, but with the drought so severe that three South African provinces have been declared national disaster zones. We speak about the myopia of the middle classes, the consumerist grasshoppers who go on devouring resources as if they were as limitless as our appetites for stuff, for profligacy, for waste. This numbness, the profound disconnection between we who live on the earth and our immediate surroundings, as if we are not interlinked and inter-dependent, is something she tackles head-on in Quiet Until The Thaw.

We return, finally, to the yurt that is now her home. I tell her that she has come full circle: that after a life of wandering, she is now a permanent itinerant. She yelps with laughter: “I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you’re right.”

I wish her the peace she deserves. And look forward to reading about her future inward and outward journeys.

 

 

 

 

Helen Moffett