LIFE RIGHTING COURSES
BOOK REVIEW: Opening up on past experiences makes for compelling reading
This is how it is: True Stories from South Africa is a collection of more than 50 narratives by attendees of the Life Righting Courses
A woman meets a man in England: he’s married, she is no longer married. They have known each other for years and are drawn to each other again. But this must be their final time together.
Another woman recalls the man who answered an advert as a housemaster for a school in Grahamstown. He drove there from Pretoria and charmed everyone he met, before he revealed his darker side. A girl makes up a poem to recite at school, and the repressive might of apartheid thunders down on her enthusiasm.
These, and more than 50 other narratives are collected in This is how it is: True Stories from South Africa — the inaugural collection of work completed by attendees of the Life Righting Courses over the past nearly 10 years.
The workshops are run by writer Dawn Garisch. They take place over three to five days and participants are encouraged to dig deep into themselves in this memoir-writing course. This collection represents a sample of the work produced.
While edited and polished for publication, the immediacy of each piece is apparent, and presents a compelling view of the workshop participants’ lives. Many hark back to childhood — hardly surprisingly, as it forms the basis of human influences — while others shine a spotlight on adult experiences.
The result is a fascinating portrait of South Africans at various points of their lives. Written predominantly in English, there are some pieces and poems in Afrikaans.
While most are written in the first person and are clearly autobiographical, the story that opens the collection, Mrs by Linda Kaoma, is written in the third person and is a charming tale of a five-year-old.
Her nickname is Mrs because she’s unlike most girls her age. She spends her days taking tea with her elders, dressing up in her gloves and princess outfit. Her ambition to be grown up and to become a Mrs is divorced from marriage, however. She’s a lady personified: "Everyone knew to offer her some tea in a teacup and a matching saucer. She always insisted you take out the crockery you used to serve important visitors, she frowned upon anything less.
"And you had to have biscuits: biscuits guaranteed more visits. Everyone in this dusty neighbourhood tolerated her inexplicable demands."
But the story turns on a loss of innocence — ironic in terms of Mrs’s desire to be an adult and privy to their knowledge.
Dela Gwala’s The First Decade also looks back at childhood. It is a joyful recounting of the first 10 years of her life in vivid detail, from birth to playground politics and the arrival of a brother.
Kerry Sandison’s Stitches Through Time is a poignant meditation on a young girl who hates needlework, is left-handed but forced to make tiny, neat stitches.
"I am surprised I don’t see salt licks of tears captured in the threads," she writes. Yet, looking back from the vantage point of being 66 years old, Sandison provides another way of looking back at her long life.
Poems in the book include Giles Griffin’s Gone Viral in which a gay man goes to a clinic, where he is confronted by a health-care worker asking when last he had an HIV test. His narrative poem is a tense, taut look at the menace that still lurks, despite the reprieve offered by antiretrovirals.
Robert Hamblin’s He Loved Her presents another view of gay life, this one chilling. The writer is "a very gay man", who at 17 is discovered playing in a gay piano bar in Hillbrow by his father and brother. The discovery leads to a beating that carries on "until his face loses the lines that lead one from mouth to nose to eyes".
Young love is thoughtfully remembered in Patricia de Villiers’s Bronco Lane and His Part in My Downfall, in which the narrator recalls a beautiful lover in London in the 1970s, an affair doomed by many factors, not least the fact that he’s more beautiful than she.
The woman having a long affair with a man over continents and years is found in The Last Time by Ronélle Hart. This beautiful and sensitive story is full of the sights and sounds of the last time the lovers will be together.
The story about the young girl who writes a poem and feels the wrath of apartheid crush her spirit is found in Beauty Bokwani’s memorable Children of the Light.
A young child starts attending school in Sutherland, where she cannot be taught in her mother tongue, Xhosa.
She notices that great people are writing about this town with the great observatory. "They mentioned the whites, the coloureds, the Namas and the temperature….
"No one ever mentioned the Xhosa," the girl observes.
When asked to recite a poem in class, she excitedly starts to recite one she has written called The Sunbeam. She is not allowed to finish it; her teacher’s angry voice cuts through her, causing a wound that slashes her childhood in half.
The woman who runs an advert for a new school house-father is written by Esme Goldblatt in How I Met Dirk.
It is a well-told story about a seemingly charming man’s arrival in her life and how appearances can turn out to be shockingly deceiving.
Medical procedures, the threat of cancer, loss and grief, love, the effects of ageing, the love for a mother, family therapy – this collection of memoirs offers a rich, gripping kaleidoscope of experiences. Highly recommended.