A wry and delicate novel about the ancient human fact of migration.
Journey's End. Review of Mohsin Hamid, Exit West. Financial Times, 25 February, 2017.
The tragedy of Europe today, Mohsin Hamid has suggested in his essays and journalism, is an inability to articulate a desirable future. Whether in Discontent and its Civilizations, his collected dispatches from New York, London and Lahore (the three cities he has called home), or his reflections on Britain’s response to refugees, he sees modern nation states as mired in an illusory nostalgia that forgets an ancient history of human wandering and scattering, of border-crossing and diaspora.
So what might the future look like if the free world extended real freedom of movement to the millions of people who choose to (or have no choice but to) leave their homes and seek a life elsewhere? This is the question that underlies his latest novel, Exit West, a thought experiment that pivots on the crucial figure of this century: the migrant. Read More
Introducing the Bodley Head / FT essay competition.
Financial Times | 11 November 2016.
Just before I turned 30 I was homeless for a while. Homeless is the wrong word, an exaggeration. But I was in Edinburgh with little money and nowhere to live – and the days were getting shorter. So I took myself off to the Scottish islands with a bike and two red waterproof panniers. The plan was to stay in bothies – stone cottages that shelter hikers and climbers, remote structures in the hills where you just arrive and take your chances.
I started in Oban on the west coast, then pedalled south to the ferry port on Loch Tarbert – one of the long fingers of ocean that reach deep and diagonally into Argyll. This was a mistake, since there was too much traffic on the mainland. Massive cold fronts broke in off the Atlantic, one after the other. I tried to cycle in the lulls between showers but was soaked through my Gore-Tex by rain and truck spray. I found myself unable not to take the headwind personally. I would burst regularly into tears on the hard shoulder – homeless, jobless, indebted and drenched.
Things improved when I boarded the ferry to Islay (pronounced Eye-La). A couple bought me lunch because I fixed their punctures. All us cyclists rolled off the boat ahead of the vehicles – we would encounter each other at different jetties and pubs and bunkhouses all through the isles: instant camaraderie. I visited distilleries and hiked to a bothy in a remote cove. The cottage was full of other people’s leavings: oatcakes and freshly cut peat in a creel, shiny cutlery and coffee pots all arranged there like the Marie Celeste. I half-expected a party of spectral hill walkers to come back any minute, but no one ever did. It was just me, myself and I – pinned down by (another) frightening Atlantic storm for three days and three nights.
When it subsided, I crossed to Jura: a wilder, emptier place where you must constantly check yourself for ticks, since the island is full of deer. Jura is also (I learned) the place where George Orwell lived in a remote cottage towards the end of his life, where he had written Nineteen Eighty-Four, and worked on the memoir ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’. This triumphantly miserable piece about his schooldays is one of my favourite pieces of non-fictional prose – and I have always taken it as significant that this was the essay he was revising on his deathbed. Orwell would come here to retreat from literary London, and was once almost drowned in the famous whirlpool of Corryvreckan off Jura’s north coast. You could hear its thunderous sound from where I camped – boulders being stirred on the ocean bed, like the long, drawn-out roar of a passing plane. Read More
Visiting William Kentridge at his Johannesburg studio.
Profile for Financial Times magazine | 2 September 2016 | [PDF].
My (longer) edit, with The Nose reinstated:
I knew I was at the right place because of the cats. Two sculpted, spiky creatures faced each other atop the gates in Houghton, one of Johannesburg’s wealthy, jacaranda-shrouded suburbs. I recognized them from drawings, etchings and films – in which cats emerge from radios (Ubu Tells the Truth), curl into bombs (Stereoscope), turn into espresso pots (Lexicon). Now they had become metal, swinging open to reveal a steep driveway and above it a brick and glass building perched on stilts amid foliage: the studio. A gardener directed me past some cycads to the right entrance and there an assistant ushered me in to meet William Kentridge. He was wearing a blue rather than a white collared shirt, but in all other aspects conformed to his self-appointed uniform: black trousers, black shoes, the string of a pince-nez knotted through a button hole, the lenses stowed in a breast pocket when they were not on his nose. Read More
Curriculum change: problems and possibilities.
What is this thing called ‘literature’, and how does it work? What does it mean to read the classics from where we are – Shakespeare and 19th-century novels transplanted to southern Africa like those street signs, DICKENS, COLERIDGE, KIPLING, set down incongruously in the suburbs of Woodstock, Observatory and Salt River? Are we dealing with ‘English literature’ or ‘literature in English’? What is the purpose of it all anyway, when others in the university are working on solar panels or vaccines for drug-resistant TB? What will be in the exam?
These are questions that all of us teaching in the big undergraduate courses must field and grapple with each year. We have to think hard about how to broach the core ideas of literary studies over thirteen weeks. How to do this in a way that is engaging and critically astute, but also so that it will not exclude any members of the student body? It is all very well to talk about how the literary work might ‘estrange’ what we think we know, and make the familiar unfamiliar. But how can theoretical ideas of productive artistic difficulty be explored in a way that does not estrange members of the student body – many of whom, at least in first year, do not have English as a first language. Read More
A visit to a deconstruction site.
Diary, Financial Times, 15 April 2016. [PDF]
Deconstruction: a notoriously hard-to-define mode of textual analysis associated with the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, distantly descended (my Dictionary of Critical Theory tells me) from Friedrich Nietzsche’s dictum that there are no facts, only interpretations.
But also, I recently learned, a term in architecture and building. Deconstruction means the selective dismantlement, repurposing and reimagining of existing physical structures. The other day I was shown around a deconstruction site in the docklands of Cape Town, where a 90-year-old grain silo complex is slowly being converted into the biggest museum for modern art on the African continent.
Taking as its centrepiece the collection of businessman Jochen Zeitz, the Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary Art Africa) may sound a bit like a German-engineered coffee maker. But this not-for-profit institution, set to open in September next year, is being touted as our answer to the power station that became Tate Modern, or the Nabisco factory on the Hudson river that is now DIA Beacon. Read More
A walk through South Africa's nuclear pasts and futures.
Power Trip: Where will Zuma's nuclear dreams take us?
Sunday Times, 7 Feb 2016 | Photographs by Neil Overy (above) and Barry Christianson.
Recently I took part in a "walking residency", making my way from Cape Point to the centre of Cape Town. Writers, artists, archaeologists, architects, academics - 12 of us hiked along coastlines and firebreaks and through informal settlements.
We visited ancient shell middens and ruined stone cottages, the site of forced removals. Huge cloudbanks filled up False Bay and broke against the landmass; weather systems came and went. We got sunburnt, argumentative, sentimental, sunburnt again. Read More
A journey through the public pools of greater Cape Town.
Solitary but sociable, easeful but dangerous, gloriously escapist but inescapably political - a swimmer’s progress is full of paradoxes...
Openings column | Financial Times, 8 January, 2016.
Waterlog #3 | Sea Point Pool | 19.01.16
Since Silvermine there have been terrible heat waves; fires leaving smoke all over the city’s horizon; helicopters toiling through the night, scooping up water from the reservoirs, dropping it in tiny white plumes on the shoulder of Devils’ Peak.
A banner appeared, taking up the whole face of an apartment building at the top of Long Street: Zuma Must Fall. Then an ANC-led march ripped it down, turning on a man who (allegedly) called out Zuma se ma se poes! On social media, self-appointed pundits explain that singling out the President is tantamount to racism, and that mob violence is only to be expected. People can only be insulted for so long.
Can you blame a man for wanting to go to the water? Read More
Fragments from a walking residency across the Cape Peninsula.
Three images from our walking residency, 6-12 December 2015. The first is the official prompt for this exercise (me and Meghna at Smitswinkel Camp). The second is one I asked Barry to take for me (a brass dial, or is it a toposcope, at Cape Point). The third (me giving a talk on Dias, Da Gama and the Khoikhoi in the shade of a windskerm at Buffels Bay) is one he sent me because I wanted photographic evidence of scholarly pursuits.
So, five quick impressions…
1) The minimalist, slightly spartan décor of the camps. Slats of wood and stone; no cushions. Rigorous, good for reading and writing, not for reclining. The limited colour scheme, shrubs deformed by wind, a landscape always on the verge of mourning. Meghna and I both seem withdrawn, inward, even a little sombre. Why? Perhaps because we have both stayed here before, and we know about the tent flaps that will keep us awake all night, flapping in the permanent wind. Or perhaps we have already spent a night here, and have, like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, awoken from uneasy dreams… Read More