Review of ‘White Dog Fell From The Sky’ by Eleanor Morse

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­whitedog1A book that deals with apartheid will always tread on treacherous ground – who has the right to write about such a dark and difficult time? And how do we do it without cheapening or misconstruing it? Eleanor Morse is a white, American woman who spent some time in Botswana in the 70s, and according to her bio has spent some time volunteering in southern African prisons. Whether that covers prisons during apartheid is not clear, though I doubt that anyone who wasn’t a prisoner, guard or government member was allowed into those heinous places. I raise this issue because while White Dog Fell From the Sky demonstrates superb technical ability, it still somehow manages to miss the point a bit. Well, by a mile, really.

Briefly, Isaac flees from South Africa after his friend is arbitrarily murdered by members of the South African Defence Force, and he fears they may decide to kill him too. (This is the reason given, but it is incredibly weak. The soldiers don’t know or recognise him, so why run?) He gets into Botswana by hiding in the base of a coffin and awakes on the other side of the border in a country with no apartheid. There’s also the eponymous white dog, a sledgehammer of a metaphor that starts off being cute and gets pretty tired by the end. 

Now, Isaac is a fourth-year medical student and capable of rational, intelligent thought, but the narrator feels that he should have a dumbed-down, ‘look at the native storyteller’ cadence despite his advanced education. The level of what is rightly called pathetic fallacy is rather insulting. The two protagonists are not far apart in education, but the white female protagonist Alice enjoys the full expressive powers of the author whereas Isaac is only able to relate his pain to basic human anatomy. “The sadness told his belly not to eat”, or “He was a monkey, cornered by a lion”. (I thought it was universally acknowledged that it is pretty racist to call people monkeys.) This may sound like a minor hiccup, but this makes up nearly half of the book. Add to this the subtle undertones of white people saving the !Kung people and poor people like Isaac, and it just rings hollow for South African readers. All of the gushing reviews seem to be from the US or the UK, and only Kirkus touches on the treatment of the black characters as noble victims while all of the white characters enjoy both agency and full characterisation. To illustrate my point, the white pharmacist gets more characterisation in five pages than Itumeleng, Alice’s housekeeper, who is present throughout the novel.

After the kind of truly brilliant anti-apartheid novels our own authors have produced, this seems flat and forced. No doubt Morse is a gifted writer – the book does have moments of stunning description. Still, it feels like the tourist’s view that it is, and while undoubtedly authors can write about places they’ve never visited, the subject of apartheid must always be afforded full gravitas, especially when told from the views of those oppressed by it. Compared to authors such as Zakes Mda, Athol Fugard, Ingrid Jonker, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, this is just a bookclubby attempt at handling delicate material, weighed down by its sentimental treatment and white messiah complex. Ultimately, Morse fails to give her African characters the depth they require for her story to really have authenticity.

Review of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

the-twelve-tribes_custom-6a80054024c857973e6515991a8ed02933f28957-s6-c10The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis arrived with a great deal of literary street cred: it had been recommended by Oprah, who can still make or break books with nary a blog post. It came with a stunning recommendation from Marilynne Robinson, Orange Prize and Pulitzer Prize winner. Comparisons are being made to inimitable Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison.

Does Twelve Tribes of Hattie live up to these extraordinary claims? This book is an easy shoo-in for my top 13 for 2013, and is unlikely to be booted out of that list any time soon. While the Toni Morrison comparisons are not unfounded, I feel this book deserves more than being lumped in the ‘black female writer’ bracket and being treated as a progressive read by lily-white book clubs. This book, while touching on race, also deals with everything from family to gender to psychosis, while stopping by to discuss religion as well as music. There’s even a brush through midwifery and traditional healing. It is, quite surprisingly, more of a collection of short stories than it is a traditional novel. Through the twelve children of Hattie we discover twelve stories of twelve people, beginning with the heartbreaking departure of Philadelphia and Jubilee and the salvation of Sala.

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Eponymous Hattie is triumphantly drawn, though her life is a wide collection of pain and sacrifice. Called The General by her children, she is a hard, tough, strong woman who bears the pain of losing her children in every manner, who has a husband who is “the greatest mistake of her life”, who somehow manages to feed and clothe and raise a veritable horde of children, each of which grows into and inherits their share of trouble. Each chapter is a look through a prism at Hattie, and her impact on the lives of her children. She is never far from the foreground, and even if she doesn’t appear in the action, she appears in every chapter. Mathis has drawn a remarkably complex woman that one struggles to like or hate, though her strength is easy enough to love.

Ayana Mathis

Ayana Mathis

The novel asks: how do you prepare your children for a world you know is cruel? Through Hattie the reader explores the burdens of parenting, of growing up in the shadow of a mother’s pain and how even the very best intentions can go horribly awry. Add to this the difficulties of racial tensions and outright hatred in America between 1925 – 1980, of being black and gay, of being black and ill, and the novel is filled with complicated troubles and unsentimental discussion. This isn’t a misery memoir but it is filled with great sadness, as it is also lightened by moments of happiness and growth.

Pick this up because you will weep for Hattie, and all she endures for so little thanks. For all she loses, and for all that her children suffer, and for the outstanding depth and maturity of this debut author’s prose.

Read more:

Oprah Interviews Ayana Mathis

Sarah Churchill reviews Twelve Tribes for The Guardian

 The Sunday Times: Three Writers to Watch

 The Atlantic: The Russian Poetry that Inspires Ayana Mathis

A Stirring Portrait of Family, Loss, and Endurance: The Everyday E-Book

The New York Times Sunday Review

VIDEO: Ayana Mathis’ 3 Greatest Writing Lessons

The Hobbit HFR 3D Review

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So, I was fortunate enough to get a preview ticket to see The Hobbit in very sexy HFR 3D. This luxurious new 3D format actually delivers what it promises: increased depth (which sometimes creates a weird soap opera feel) and no more blurriness. Thankfully, it is also much, much easier on the eyes. I was pleased that I didn’t have a headache after nearly three hours of 3D. For that alone, the new format is worth your time, especially for epic battle scenes.

The-HobbitNow, onto the movie itself. I read The Hobbit a long time ago, like most people, and haven’t reread it since for a number of reasons. Mostly because a) I very rarely reread books when there’s so much out there that should be read and b) I find fantasy the most boring genre in the world. So, the movie should ideally be a distillation of the best parts of the book to encourage people to explore the book further while making the movie a manageable, digestible experience.

Does the movie deliver? The action scenes are sublime in their direction and excitement. The post-production clearly cost a great number of millions. Gollum made an excellent appearance and his facial rendering now severely dates the Lord of the Rings trilogy in comparison. Martin Freeman, while a bit stilted initially, (basically Watson with no shoes on) still makes a great action hero. The dwarfs are fun, and of course Gandalf can save the movie by himself. The art direction is outstanding, the clothes are most beautiful. Taken on the value of those things, the movie is worth watching just for how it looks.

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But you knew that I was going to find something, and I hear the nitpick train coming into the station. The Hobbit is a product of the 50s, and it is going to be inherently problematic. Like Game of Thrones, it too is about a bunch of white men running around having adventures. (Thankfully, less rapey, gratuitious sex.) There is ONE speaking role for a woman in three hours. She mostly glides around like a lost bride and doesn’t really inspire much awe or even interest. As you can imagine, everyone is pretty much lily-white. Men are brave and manly and smoke a lot. It could have been mistaken for a tobacco ad, at times. I don’t see how problematic it would have been to have the dwarves being of different skin colours. (But you only have to look at the backlash about Hunger Games having a few black actors to see where the problem comes in).

The-Hobbit-550x281So, that’s the BA part of me speaking up. Now for the writer part. Dear god, did this one average-sized book have to be split into three movies? There’s still too much walking. There are goddamn musical numbers, which should have been left in the book. They were as trite and folksy as they were in the 50s; they have no right being in a movie now. (Also, sometimes sound editing dropped the ball and the lyrics weren’t very clear.) They jar with the whole movie and should really have been left out. There’s a lot of scenes that could have been left out to make a more coherent, interesting whole. Peter Jackson, like James Cameron, is dragging the viewer into his special circle-jerk. Sure, I can imagine the hardcore fans appreciate the thousands of details in Orc costumes that are only on screen for a few minutes. But what about those of us who want a better version of the books? With less walking and tedious descriptions and complicated family trees that make reading the books like chewing concrete?

My opinion of The Lord of the Rings trilogy has always been an unpopular one, but I stand by it. And unfortunately, the problematic things about the books have made their way into the films, the one chance the books had to get better. The movies are interminably long, as are the books. More writing is not necessarily good writing. Just because I want cheesecake, it does not mean I want to eat one the size of a dustbin lid. The racism and elision of women could have been addressed. After all, the idea of some races being better or smarter qua race is at the very foundation of this. Hobbits are lazy, Elves are smart, Dwaves are drunken and strong, etc.

Sherlock 2 Specials

The best example of a canon evolving is Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes the character (as written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the 1880s) was a racist, misogynist asshole, for all of his smartness. But the two most recent iterations of this phenomenon have changed Holmes for the better. BBC’s Sherlock has kept the asshole tendencies but at least he isn’t hardcore racist. I’m ambivalent on the sexism issue. Sherlock-Holmes-A-Game-of-Shadows-Poster-007Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes works with women and has lost the general dickishness of the character as developed in the 1960s and onwards. I don’t think this has harmed the character: if people can change and grow, why can’t characters?

The inherent problem with Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit is that it has one of the most puritanical fanbases (just like Jane Austen fans). They don’t like change, and they don’t like upgrades. Surely the core message can survive a little updating? Ultimately, the books are about being good, doing good and being brave regardless of size or strength. What difference does it really make if Sam had been a female hobbit? Or black? And if Tolkien couldn’t have done it then, surely Jackson could have done it now? If the characters are really defined by their personalities, there’s no reason race or gender could be an issue. Unfortunately, it is still edgy to to have a female lead. Or a gay one. Or a black one.

Alright, so segue aside, do you need to see the movie? If you can see it in HFR 3D (the Nu-Metro rep said that only four screens will have it nationally), then go see it just to enjoy the new tech and experience. If you’re a Hobbit/Lord of the Rings/fantasy fan, nothing I say here will dissuade you. The problems I have are not the ones everyone else will have. It is the holidays, and it isn’t the worst movie you will ever watch (because that movie is Sex and the City).

Read what others thought here:

Slashfilm.com – ‘Rousing, yet Repetitive’

Butter Scraped Over Too Much Bread: Robbie Collins

Variety.com – No kinder on small bladders or impressionable eyes

The Trilogy Will Test the Stamina of Non-Believers: The Guardian.co.uk 

Misty Mountain Out of a Molehill – The Daily Mail

Feels Twice As Long as Half a Movie Should – Film School Rejects

Bad Humour

While I might not agree with Ivo Vegter at times, he is the closest thing we will get to a PJ O’Rourke in this beautiful and tormented country. In this article he discusses the potential blowback we may get as a result of Juju Fridays.

I understand the frustration that Malema arises in the best and worst of us, and while I still find him as puerile and insultingly bourgeois as the next person, doesn’t it seem a bit ridiculous to everyone to launch an entire day dedicated to making jokes? As Ivo pointed out, those who contributed to Juju fridays have handed him all the ammo he needs to mislead those who are unfortunate enough to follow him because they lack the education and tools.

Of course only the rich in this country can really afford and contribute to the Twitter campaign. Of course its not going to look good that an elite group is taking the piss out of someone who still holds some thrall over less-educated South Africans. We know that it was just satire and frustration and maybe a little meanness coming through. While I’m not calling for the policing of Twitter or any kind of social media, a little common sense would have been welcome.

Unforutnately, we still live in an age where white people think its funny to tell black jokes with that particular accent, and say ‘its harmless’. Of course, being a white, straight English-speaking male means that there are very few jokes directed towards that group, so it is easy to take the piss. Let’s consider the following joke types:

Stupid Afrikaner (Van Der Merwe), dumb female blondes, gay jokes, lesbian jokes, Muslim jokes, fundamentalist jokes, poor/ignorant black jokes (Philemon/Sixpence), disaster jokes (based on the suffering of others in natural disasters or others) and the list goes on.

So, when my white friends tell Philemon jokes, or dumb blonde jokes, then wonder why they’re just not that funny after standard 6, maybe they will understand how unfair it seems when its your gender or group that’s always having the piss taken. I don’t really like that the blonde jokes are always about women. I also really don’t find gay/lesbian jokes funny, as I am sure that they don’t either.

Of course there’s always place for humour, but some jokes are just downright mean. And while I myself am partial to a great joke that takes the piss out of something as indefensible as Shariah law or a sex joke, making fun out of someone for their hair colour seems a bit retarded. Especially since its always a woman.

Likewise, we should all just have the maturity to just ignore Malema. Like the child he is (calling other adults ‘cockroaches’ is not the most fabulous sign of maturity), he should just be ignored. He’ll eventually realise that there are better ways of getting attention. Speaking nicely to people is a start.

It’s all turned into petty name-calling, and a lot of people fail to see the danger of handing a child more sharp sticks to poke back with. Malema’s danger is that his wealth is not an insult to all of us. There are people who see him as successful, not corrupt, and there are enough people who are still ignorant enough to believe the tripe that comes out of his mouth. South Africa is one of the least literate countries in Africa. We are ranked 107th in the world for literacy rates, which is pretty fucking pathetic. Without going on a sidetrack about the failure of the education system, one of the by-products of failed education is the susceptibility of those who don’t have adequate education to the manipulation of politicos. There are some people who think raping babies and virgins cures AIDS because their traditional healers tell them so, and they unfailingly trust their authority. In the absence of education, structures like authority and tradition still hold sway. Churches and elders still have an influence regardless of their superstitious and backward ways. For the love of biscuits, we still allow polygamy. The fact that no one is marching in the streets to protest that our taxes support the president, his wives and 22 children is proof that, for some people, there’s nothing wrong with it.

So, let’s consider how Malema might use the ammo given to him by Juju fridays to show his following (shrinking but still enough to be worried about) that people use the internet to be racist. Because that is what it will be reduced to, and the intricasices of the argument will never go across. Could you sit and explain to people who don’t even have a standard six the full implications of free speech, the vivacity and turbulance of social media, as well as the signs of Malema’s aspirations to start something disturbingly like the SA or SS? We know there’s enough hatred rolling around in his oddly shiny head to make anyone worry. While we shouldn’t have the same approach to him as Chamberlain did with Hitler, there needs to be an informed, mature and firm response to Malema. I don’t promise to have all the answers, but I think that it would be more effective to organise a march to raise awareness around his ill-gained wealth, or launch an education campaign.

There has to be a better way to do this than name-calling on Twitter.