The tarmac had disappeared under the carpet of creatures, slick as mermaid’s tails in the bright light of the moon. They crouched like athletes, legged over one another, tumbled, regained their balance, and leapt. And leapt and leapt and leapt. It confused the brain. You had to choose one frog and watch it to see what they were all doing, otherwise it was like watching James’s kernels popping in the pot. They were rasping out quick grunting snores that scratched and rasped at her eardrums.
She wasn’t the only person who’d stopped to watch. There were other cars parked on both sides of the verge, making a deliberate corridor for the frogs like the guard of honour Joanna and Jan had walked through at their wedding. Some of the cars had big stickers in their rear windows. She stuck her head out of the window. TOADNUTS! said one sticker. NOORDHOEK UNPAID TOAD SAVERS! Another sticker said Rainy Nights! There was a coy picture of a toad looking back over its shoulder. It was outlined in a large red triangle like a road sign. The script at the bottom read: SAVE THE WESTERN LEOPARD TOAD!!
The whole road had been cordoned off. Here came a man in a yellow slicker and gumboots. The reflective tape on his long coat flashed at Joanna, blinding her. She brought the Golf to a complete stop.
The man leaned familiarly into the driver’s window. Joanna looked around, but there were no police on the scene. She couldn’t see anything that identified the man as an official. She half-expected him to thrust the torch under his chin and gibber at her.
“Sorry, but you’re going to have to go back. Use Boyes Drive if you need to leave The Valley.” He was pop-eyed with excitement and breathless, gasping out the words. He had to half-shout to make himself heard over the rain and the susurration of the frogs.
“What’s going on?”
“Toad moon!” He pointed up through the clouds that were clearing a little overhead. Pant, pant.
“Excuse me?” Joanna wasn’t sure if she’d heard right.
“It’s mating season! The toads are crossing! They’re trying to reach the wetlands!” Red with high drama, the man threw his torch arm over his head, showing Joanna Silvermine in its entirety. She heard it again—the indecent growling croak that was the sound of a thousand Western Leopard Toads trying to get where they needed to go. The two humans were in the very middle of the migration: even with the road closed the toads were steamrolling any obstacles. It reminded Joanna of the U2 concert she had once been to in Green Point Stadium. Stunned into silence in the face of that snore-roar, she was glad that she had stayed in the car. Toads were streaming over the vehicle, legions landing on the roof, scrabbling at the passenger window as if they were trying to get in. She hunched instinctively against the thuds, goggling at the flying legs, the pale plopping stomachs, the sheer determined hordes that made up the miracle. And each toad knew that he was special, was different, was fated to make it to the mating pools!
Joanna stared. Each one was different, actually. The markings were like fingerprints.
“Happens every August,” said the man, with satisfaction. His breathing was finally slowing. He didn’t seem to mind standing in their path. He added, unnecessarily, “They’re endangered, you know. We have to stop the cars from, from, massacring them.” He didn’t say you people but that was what he meant, thought Joanna. He was this close to calling me a murderer! And he looks so normal. Nothing about the man says TOADNUT.
“Do you want to touch one?” he shouted.
“Do you want to hold a toad?”
from Home Remedies by Diane Awerbuck
Diane Awerbuck is a much honoured writer. Her story “Phosphorescence” was shortlisted for the prestigious Caine Prize in 2014 (it was first published in her collection, Cabin Fever, in 2011). Her first novel won the Commonwealth First Book Regional award for 2004. Just this year, 2017, she was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
We meet in Muizenburg, a beach community stretched out along the coast, a train trip away from Cape Town. Like so much of the Cape Town area, it’s beautiful, hills by the sea. We have a nice lunch in a bakery. The transcript of the interview can make her sound opinionated and sharp, but in person so much of what she says comes with a chuckle and a smile of self-deprecation. She’s taking the mickey out of herself.
Later, she gives me a lift along the coast. We pass some of the Cape’s oldest buildings and the constructed tidal bathing pools full of kids, which I recognize, I think, from her story “Phosphorescence.” Seeing the pools helped me appreciate the “African” content of the story, which is about a white grandmother and granddaughter going swimming in a seaside pool.
In the London ARG! (“African Reading Group”), one of our few African readers didn’t like the story. What, he asked, is distinctively African about this story? It could be set anywhere. That led to a fruitful (though familiar) conversation about whether there could or should be anything that is thought of as distinctively African. Does “African” content make a story by an African more African?
Like many South African writers, Diane Awerbuck feels barriers in her way.
Diane: “It was a review of the Short Story Day Africa collection (Terra Incognita) and the story ‘Leatherman’. A white person reviewing it gave me a passing reference and then focused on the black writers, which is something you just get used to, but the implication was that as a white person I’d taken a black belief about the tokoloshe, and I colonized it. It was actually quite rude, I thought. He doesn’t know anything about me or my background. He just looked at my name and assumed I was white and English. The tokoloshe was a very vivid, very terrifying, a very real part of my childhood, something I believed in. I believed that the tokoloshe was real.
“The tokoloshe changes from region to region, like Baba Yaga, or the idea of the witch. It was probably a sexual image, like an incubus or a succubus. It would come to someone at night while they were in this altered state of consciousness. To punish them but also reward them. If someone is coming for you in your sleep, it’s not you who are to blame for this other kind of emotion you are experiencing.
“I’m from Kimberley in the exact centre of South Africa, the exact centre geographically. It’s famous because it’s the largest man-made hole in the world and the first place in the Southern Hemisphere to have electric streetlights. Whoo-hoo! It’s a giant resource bank of stories about the diggers and the diamonds and all of that stuff. It’s a really haunted place and has been through the centuries, through the decades.
“It’s hot and parched. There’s very little there on the surface, very hot, very dry but amazing bird life, which I didn’t take much notice of as a child, but going back as an adult, I saw all these olive trees planted alongside the pavements and I asked who’s been doing this, and they said, the Municipality has been doing for years. So we went and picked the olives. Really weird little things like that.
“Kimberley is quite rich archaeologically. There’s a famous museum, the MacGregor. No dinosaurs or anything like that, but human remains ... there were Bushmen, the San. Not the Khoi, who are Iron Age farmers. The San predate the Khoi and get called Bushmen. They are sometimes grouped together as the Khoisan, because there has been so much intermarriage, but don’t listen to anybody from this country who says that they know their lineage and that they are pure. It’s a giant melting pot.
“The language that is most understood in South Africa is Afrikaans. It’s not the mother tongue of everybody, but 80% of the country can speak it or understand it, and obviously it springs from the Dutch colonizers.
“It means that almost nobody is writing in English as a mother tongue. I used to be a high school English teacher, so that’s where I’m coming from in terms of linguistic groups and influences of home languages.
“About five years ago Xuecun Murong’s book Leave Me Alone came out, one of my favourite reads in the universe. Another writer reviewed it and was confused by some of the editorial choices that had been made. He said the style was clunky, but what had happened is that the isiXhosa language had been directly translated into English. One of the rich rich layers that has been added to South African literature is this acceptance of mother-tongue influence on English. Idiomatic language at the moment is enjoying a real resurgence. There’s a long tradition of African writing in South Africa for 150 years at least. Sol Plaatje had his 140th birthday celebration in August of this year (2016).
“Writers have to be readers first and I think a lot of young people writing now haven’t researched their genres properly, and aren’t aware of the history behind them, so for them it’s new and exciting, but they are recreating old tropes. It’s a kind of intellectual laziness. There are lots more people writing now, but not that much new writing.”
We talk about all the different kinds of writing coming out of African countries. Awerbuck, like so many African authors, writes in many genres.
Diane: “I’m not primarily a fantasy or science fiction writer, but I’ve just finished (September 2016) a two-book apocalyptic cowboy novel series under a pseudonym of Frank Owen.
“They are South African characters, but it’s set in Colorado. My co-writer is Alex Latimer. His first novel was called The Space Race, which was set entirely in America and based on real events as well. So. The new books are called South and North. It’s not the America we know, it’s an America but a parallel history, with North and South literally divided by a wall—and this was before Donald Trump started talking about this. The first one, South, is already out in August, here and in the UK.
“The people have been chemically virally neutered—there’s something in the water. There is a small pocket of resistance in the North and in the South. South is about how they connect. And North is exploring the revenge sequence. There’s some interesting stuff there about traditional remedies, real-time African remedies. There’s a character who has exiled himself from South Africa.
“There are two secrets in the story. One is about mushrooms, which is true. The other is that the viruses are compatible and they cure each other. If you are lucky you will meet your cure, together you are a cure.”
One of the inspirations for the novel was health issues in South Africa.
Diane: “During the change of seasons in Cape Town, everyone gets really sick. The wind patterns change. There’s a lot of pollen, and a lot of old quarries so a lot of dust in the air. Alex had a sinus infection that would not go away. He was taking quite hardcore medication for it, seeing specialists, but there was nothing anyone could do. And HIV is always hanging over everybody. It’s a founding narrative for us in the twenty-first century. We just assume it’s there. We were thinking about how people deal with disease psychologically, biologically, and spiritually.”
GR: “How did America come in?”
Diane: “We wanted a cowboy angle, and a Victorian angle; and the fascinating thing is that about a third of the cowboys who settled the West were black. As soon as you see photographs of them, you want to write about them.
“The two main characters, one’s black, one’s white, one’s male, one’s female. We’re sticking to the old heteronormative text at the moment. It raises issues of identity and who gets to write. Is it OK for us to write a black character? And the answer is—obviously—people say, ‘Hey, that’s my story,’ and you say, “OK, it’s your turn.” But you have to write about everybody.
“It’s very liberating to write with another person. It always ends up so completely different to how you imagined it. Science fiction is easy to write badly, very difficult to write well. It means that whatever you write has to have a coherent, cohesive universe, which is very hard to do, especially when you are starting out. If you are very lucky, that kind of stuff is instinctive. I think with Alex, he really does have that facility that I don’t. I am essentially a stylist. I find it very hard to put something very big together.
“In terms of social media, the landscape’s changed since I last published, and it’s disturbing. I really don’t mind reviews, but I do mind them when they are by people who don’t know anything. They do have to be by people who are cleverer than I am; and just seeing how the publishers, mainstream publishers, handle sending out review copies, it’s quite discombobulating. The bloggers get a say. They’re amateurs. It’s a weird industry. Every other industry, you need to know what you’re talking about.”
I ask her about her childhood reading.
Diane: “I read about the Tokoloshe. We had quite dark fairy tales, a lot of Christian stuff, and a lot of Jewish stuff. My dad was Jewish, so I had Judaism-lite. I’m very interested in it now because it’s so dark. I want to write a book called Baal the Dragon. Judaism happened because Yahweh won the war.
“I always loved reading SF. And horror. Those horror compendiums are still my favourite things to read. They’re all called Dark something, edited by Stephen ... Stephen Jones. There was a story called ‘Featherweight’, about the cupids from oil paintings, but they are angels of death. (‘Featherweight’ by Robert Shearman, in Visitants, edited by Stephen Jones.) And they’re evil. Everybody thinks they’re so cute.
“Kimberly did have two amazing libraries, and they stocked a lot of Ray Bradbury, and all the classics, and Alice Walker. Bear in mind it was South Africa in the '80s, and there wasn’t a whole lot of black writing going on visibly. So I think Alice Walker was my first revelation. Revolutionary Petunias ... not the prose so much as the poetry.
“And I read Dracula. Ah, teenage girls. I read it again recently and found it was entirely first person or epistolary. I’d misremembered. I thought the diary aspect fell away, that it merged into a third-person narrative all the way through, but it’s not, it’s epistolary all the way through. That’s a hell of a thing to do as a writer.
“And I loved Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker. That kind of writing with the joy of the language. Its kind of quirkiness has ended up in a lot of writing for TV.”
When I mention Tolkien, I hit a nerve.
Diane: “My husband’s favourite book is The Lord of the Rings. I’d never read it and last year I thought I’d bite that silver bullet. It was horrendous. It took me a year. Punishment. Awful. You’re in a bar and a man is drunk and he’s backed you into a corner and he going to talk at you, until closing time. That’s The Lord of the Rings. It doesn’t matter that it’s smart and amazing and a complete universe with all those characters. It’s too much. Poor execution. That shit would never get past ... If that book came to you from your students would you pass it?”
GR: “Actually yes, I would.”
We start to talk about teaching, university and workshops. As a Caine Prize nominee, she’s taken part in the workshops they run in Africa. She loved the cooperative aspect. “It’s very African. It takes a village to write a story.”
Did she always want to be a writer?
Diane: “No. I wanted to be a politician. It’s not too late. I’m a teacher and I can tell you it’s true, South Africa is absolutely failing its children. I still want to be a politician. I could fix this country. Get the writers to run the world.
“I got a bursary to train as a teacher. Teachers and nurses get state bursaries. So off I went to study linguistics and psychology. I didn’t do very much English, actually.
“I was an English and history teacher for six years and then I went to performance school, film and live performance. Dear God. I have written scripts. I’m very bad at it; I only did it as an exercise for the course. The hardest kind of writing. Absolutely. If you can do that, you know you’re a writer. Dialogue is hard; it’s very very hard to do. The way people speak is not how it turns up on the page. You have to have an ear.”
Her first novel, Gardening at Night, won the 2004 Commonwealth Best First Book Award for the region.
“That came out of the writing course I took under Andre Brink at the University of Cape Town. Without my knowing, he took the novel to his publishers, and they accepted it, God knows why. And part of a new wave of SA writers, I guess, nothing organized, just those of us who came to term after apartheid.”
So what South African writers would she recommend?
Diane: “Efemia Chela. Total whack job, but she’s fantastic. Just read a new short story of hers recently knocked my socks off. Only met her after reading the work, and I thought her story in the Caine Prize collection was fantastic (‘Chicken’ in Lusaka Punk, the Caine Prize Anthology). She’s one of the truly creative people. She’s got it all.”
Diane agrees when I say that she plainly identifies as an African writer. I ask how that shows up in her work. She goes on to talk about her novel Home Remedies (2012).
Diane: “I wrote Home Remedies because I was fascinated by the weird valley I’d just moved to, but also because I wanted to talk about who gets to be African, and what that means: history and responsibility and enlightenment. Plus I wanted to write about Ntunjambili, which was my favourite childhood story, about a huge cleft rock where outcast creatures go to be nursed by the little people.
“It’s a thriller, I hope, as well as horror. The hero is Joanna Renfield, who works at the Fish Hoek Valley Museum of Natural History—which doesn’t actually exist. Things get strange when DNA testing links the museum’s only claim to fame, a (real) twelve-thousand-year-old skeleton nicknamed Fish Hoek Man, to the real Saartjie Baartman—the singer who was exhibited as The Hottentot Venus in France in the 1800s.
“Joanna gets a Struggle veteran boss who, it turns out, had a pretty terrible time when she was in exile during apartheid, and is unhinged but undiagnosed. Trauma doesn’t go away because it’s over. Anyway, the two women have to go head to head over Saartjie’s remains.
“I didn’t realise until afterwards that there are zero interesting male characters in the book.”
I’m not sure what she means by “history and responsibility.”
Diane: “White people have a weird beef about this country. There is a set of assumptions about how much money you have, your education level and your responsibility to other people in this country. Those are the things that J.M. Coetzee was exploring in Disgrace. But the more you have, the more you are supposed to give. That’s how it works. And those resources can be financial, or social, or skills based. It’s a responsibility. You can call it privilege if you want. It’s pretty cool, in Cape Town especially; it’s pretty cool not to care about anything. Just to pretend that this is not your problem, that you don’t need to be invested here in any way, shape, or form.
“But yeah. I am here as a force for good. God damn it! I’m not ashamed to say it. It’s uncool. It’s uncool to be a force for good.”
As with so much else in the interview, she says this laughing with a self-deprecating smile.