Hard to believe it’s been five years since For the People was released as an e-book. Back then, I was interviewed by Eon Engelbrecht on Knysna FM as part of my mini-publicity tour. As I gear up for the launch of the paperback this week and next, here’s that blast-from-the-past interview on Soundcloud.
I will be in the Knysna area from 14 – 22 June, doing various signings and interviews in Knysna, Plett and George. Do stop by to say hello and get your signed copy of For the People.
Saturday 15 June: Harkerville Market 09:00 – 12:00
Monday 17 June: Bargain Books, Knysna Mall, 12:00 – 14:00
Tuesday 18 June: Wordsworth, Garden Route Mall, George 12:30 – 15:00
Friday 21 June: Village Bookshop, Main Road, Plett 11:00 – 13:00
Can’t wait to come home.
I will be launching For the People at the Thursday Club at Buitenverwachting Restaurant in Constantia, Cape Town, at 12:00 on 13 June.
For more information and to book your place at this special luncheon, click here.
The paperback cover, with thanks to the team at Harper Collins. Should be getting my advance author copies very soon – watch this space.
I created this video for the folks at Harper Collins to give them a taster of the story and structure of For the People.
I am over the moon to announce that For the People will be published by Harper Collins on their HQ imprint, and distributed in South Africa by Jonathan Ball, publishers of books by Malala Yousafzai, Sir Percy Fitzpatrick and Stephen Hawking, in June 2019. Huge thanks to the team at Harper Collins UK for making it happen.
I’ll be heading over to South Africa for the launch – more details to come, so watch this space.
On Wednesday 7 June, 2017, Knysna went up in flames.
I first found out about it here in New York when I woke up to Facebook posts, pictures and videos from friends mentioning fires around our home town.
One friend had posted a report from the local municipality that detailed multiple fires, but they were in areas I’m not all that familiar with, or don’t know at all. Hooggekraal. Springveld. De Hoop. Fires high up in the mountains and in plantations. Fires far from home.
But further up my Facebook feed, friends in Knysna were starting to panic. Back roads were being closed. Houses on the outskirts of town were being evacuated.
At 9am EST I spoke to my mother, who confirmed the fires were spreading but reassured me their neighbourhood of upper Old Place was out of harm’s way.
“There aren’t that many trees around here,” she said. “We’ll be fine.”
“Why don’t you at least pack a suitcase so you’re ready in case something happens?” I said. “With things like your passports and IDs.”
“Ag, there’s no need for that,” she said.
She sent me a few pictures she’d taken of the smoke-filled sky, some from the middle of town, some from the balcony of our family home, overlooking the lagoon. Curious-onlooker pictures.
It looked bad, but still distant.
But the panic on my Facebook feed spread as fast as the fire. Posts became more frantic as the local authorities closed the N2 on both sides of town, isolating the residents within. Videos showed lines of cars trying to get out against a backdrop of flames and smoke. Friends who, like me, are thousands of miles from home in places like London and Washington and California started begging for information about families they couldn’t get hold of.
I called my mother again. This time, she said my father had connected the hose pipe, “just in case.” The fire wasn’t near them yet, but gale-force winds meant it was out of control and helicopters were unable to take off to help.
At 2.35pm EST, I got the news that my parents, too, had been evacuated. On their way out, I found out later, they had grabbed my father’s medication, a few sets of underwear and Tess, the cat. Remembering my advice, my mother grabbed their passports too.
For the longest hour, I couldn’t get hold of my mother after her cell phone battery died. The last message I got through to her was “Keep dad’s phone on!” The last message I got back was “We left it behind.”
I had never felt more helpless, or further away from home.
In the end, my parents were lucky. Their home survived, despite two houses burning to the ground just a street or two away.
But so many others were less fortunate.
Hundreds of people in and around Knysna have lost their homes, their businesses, their farms. Five people lost their lives.
That number will no doubt go up, as the losses in Knysna’s townships haven’t been accounted for yet. My mother says at least 80 homes burnt down in one township, some of them shacks, some of them brand new RDP houses built as part of the government’s Reconstruction and Development Programme.
My heart breaks for everyone in Knysna who’s lost everything, and for everyone in the towns further along the coast as the fire continues to spread.
But in the aftermath of this horrific disaster, love, kindness and generosity are spreading too. From all over South Africa, people are coming to Knysna to bring food, clothes, supplies and support. Locals are opening their homes to strangers. Volunteers are going round rescuing pets that got separated from their owners.
Knysna’s spirit continues to burn bright.
“How did if affect you, having your mother do that work in the townships back then?”
The question came from a social worker at my book launch in Knysna last year.
I laughed it off. “It didn’t affect me at all,” I said. “Except maybe that my mom often worked late, and there were many afternoons that I waited for her outside the library after it had closed. So now I’m paranoid about being late for anything, because I know what it’s like to be the one waiting.”
Recently, the same question came up again. I was out with an old friend: an ex-investigative journalist who’d discovered therapy – a dangerous combination when you”re on the receiving end of his probing questions.
I gave him a similar answer to the one I’d given that social worker, adding that even if my mother hadn’t been around much when I was little, my dad always was.
My friend didn’t buy it.
“There’s no way you weren’t affected,” he said.
I ignored him, and the conversation moved on to work; life in New York; the usual. And then somehow we landed on the topic of me and my ex-husband, and the marriage that was no more.
I told him about an incident years before, when my husband didn’t come home from a night out with friends. He’d texted me at midnight to say he was on his way, but when I woke up at 4am, he still wasn’t there. His phone went straight to voicemail and I didn’t hear from him for another five hours.
He was fine, of course (the clue being in ‘ex-husband’, not ‘late husband’). He’d had a few more drinks after the midnight text, and spent the night at a friend’s house rather than drunkenly manoeuvring his way home on a night bus.
But for those five hours between 4am and 9am, I was convinced that he was dead, imagining him being mugged and stabbed and bleeding to death on a dark street somewhere in South London.
By the time I got to work, my brain had processed the information, got over it, and gone to a strange, calm place where I was considering when to phone his parents, what to say to them when I did; even how to get into to his bank account to pay his half of our rent.
By the time he finally called, I was googling “stabbing South London” to verify my conviction.
“The thing is,” I said to my friend, “It wouldn’t have been such a big deal if he hadn’t texted me to say he was on his way.” I could feel myself getting worked up. “Because he knew that’s a thing in my family.”
My friend looked triumphant as memories long forgotten came back to me all at once, falling into place like Tetris blocks. I’m five years old, sitting on my haunches in the corridor above our dining room, peering through the wooden slats at my dad below. He’s on the phone, calling the police, the hospital and eventually the morgue. All because my mother wasn’t back from the townships at the time she’d said she’d be.
When I saw my brothers last Christmas, I told them this story.
Being older than me, their memories were even more vivid. “Do you remember you and me, standing in the kitchen crying?” asked Rudolph. I genuinely didn’t.
“Ons het gedink Ma was dood,” he said. We thought Mom was dead. And the whole time, our father was on the phone, making those calls. Call after call after call.
Suddenly it all made sense; not just my reaction that night in London when my husband didn’t come home, but also the incredibly tangible fear that had set in from the moment we’d got married: that he would die. Because in my mind, modelled on my parents’ example, that was what marriage was: the constant fear of one of you dying; a fear that, at a time when my mother was going into a conflict zone during riots and unrest, was all too real.
Having realised this, I don’t exactly know what to do with the information.
But if I ever overreact when you don’t turn up after you’d said you were on your way, I hope you understand.
In 2014, I was invited to contribute an essay to a special Mandela issue of the fantastic South African design magazine, ijusi. It was to be featured, along with back issues of ijusi, in the exhibition Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA).
The brief was to write an “alternative essay on Madiba – even if negative of controversial”; not the “‘he gave meaning to my life’ or ‘the greatest human who ever lived’ bunkum.”
The assignment terrified me, not only because of the sense of responsibility to pay a fitting tribute to, quite frankly, the greatest human who ever lived, but because I didn’t have a Mandela story to tell.
So that’s what I wrote about.
Garth Walker, the man behind the magazine and an old friend from my days at Ogilvy & Mather in Durban, had this to say about my essay:
“Fuck me. Nice. A story about nothing, that’s about something.”
You can read that story here.