Making contact

Jane Rosenthal discovers a rich interpretation of the human touch in a South African anthology of short fiction

Touch edited by Karina Magdalena Szczurek (Zebra Press)
You Pay for the View edited by Sindiwe Magona (Maskew Miller Longman)

Touch is a remarkable collection of short stories by 22 South African writers and offers something for everyone. The common theme is given in the title and in her preface, the editor, Karina Szczurek, says: “Touch or its absence defines all human interaction.” Some of the writers are well known (Ivan Vladislavic, Imraan Coovadia, Jonny Steinberg, Nadine Gordimer, André Brink), others much less so, with wide-ranging interpretations or uses of this theme.

All royalties will go to the Treatment Action Campaign to fight HIV/Aids. And not only are the stories lovely (bizarre, rich, resonant), the physical book is beautifully made.
It’s a hardcover, elegant, with a quietly sombre yet simple cover photo, slightly creamy paper, wide margins and a red satin ribbon bookmark.

My personal favourites among these stories were Nymph by Liesl Jobson and Coovadia’s lengthily titled File Under: Touch (Avoidance of, Writers); Love (Avoidance of, Writers) (1 000 words).

In Nymph a woman steals a moment of quiet and privacy in a coffee shop and thinks about her partner, Jonah, who, for some unspecified reason has degenerated and needs her care. He is hopelessly clumsy and endlessly apologetic, not the man with whom she started out. But she still calls him her blessing. Appraising other men, she even imagines life with a hobo she watches sitting outside the coffee shop. Into this penetrating sliver of a story—three pages—Jobson compresses a whole quandary of need, gratitude and desperation.

Coovadia’s story is about a writer who seems a little madder than most. In 1 000 words (I’m taking Coovadia’s word for it) and 13 numbered paragraphs he describes two failed marriages, two indexing categories in which touching is reduced to zero in both marriages—hence the impression of madness. Coovadia has made many observations on marriage previously and this clever and affecting story must be his most unsettling reflection on this theme to date.

Among the ongoing debates and discussions on the global village, emigration and such, the notion of transnationalism has a positive ring, especially when it releases people from having to subscribe to a particular “home” or birth nationalism, if it allows one to be “both and” rather than “either or”.

But emigration and living abroad have their difficulties too. Interestingly, this collection of stories includes three in which mothers are close to death on a different continent from the protagonist or narrator. Not everyone is done with their mother country, or indeed with their mothers. Brink’s protagonist in Surprise Visit arrives, after a two-year absence, to see his mother in frail care. This is a complicated and wryly funny story in which alienation and indifference rub shoulders with smug self-satisfaction.

Then there is Willemien Brümmer’s story, A Cat of Many Tales, in which she writes about the healing properties of contact with cats, as well as an incident in which a strange cat appears to convey information about a mother’s death, spends a few hours with the bereaved son and then disappears.

Steinberg’s piece, Sheila, seems to be autobiographical, which tells of the trauma of hearing that his mother is desperately ill in Johannesburg while he is in England. He feels compelled to fly home. While seated at his comatose mother’s bedside, he thinks of a gay men’s sauna in London where, he tells her, the people are truly “motherless”, “have no quiddity”.

It is Ann Landsman’s story, also seemingly autobiographical, that provides a mother’s point of view. She helps out at a riding class for disabled children in New York city during the summer and gives us a characteristically fearless and moving account of her experience of being a mother in a family still together. This contrasts with her novel, The Rowing Lesson (Kwela), which is an extended exploration of the life and death of a father living on another continent. In both she continues to manifest a positive take on living on two continents, though one has to wonder at such emotional strength. Her writing skirts mourning with new promise and the ongoing “comfort” of touch wherever one is being human.

If any book should be exempt from VAT it should be this one; buy a copy or two, you’ll not regret it.

The second of the collections, You Pay for the View, is intended for use in schools and is aimed at a younger readership.

I have one serious problem with this book: the layout is seriously offputting. Even though the avowed intent is to encourage reading, this book may have the opposite effect because of its page design. One glance will tell the kids “this is work, not fun”. Hopefully, in a second edition the obtrusive notes can be moved into sidebars and done in a smaller font size. And the exercises that follow each story should either be removed to the back of the book or dealt with more stylishly. The cover, however, is an attractive Eric Laubscher painting, which helps.

Sindiwe Magona (editor) and Diane Awerbuck (notes and activities) are both known South African writers, as well as teachers of note. The 21 stories have been selected not only for their literary quality (a little uneven) but also for their capacity to provoke debate and stimulate thinking in young readers.

Karen Jennings’s unusual and startling story, Mia and the Shark, which is set in a fishing community in Cape Town, deals with poverty, broken families and rape. Becky Apteker’s Asset Management tells of a faked armed robbery. Farida Karodia’s The Red Velvet Dress bristles with incest, race and the old Immorality Act.

It’s a wonderful story, as is The Doll by Nokuthula Mazibuko, which will provide the opening for debate on identity as Nheti (7) only wants a doll with long golden hair that she can brush. Other writers include Ahmed Essop, Nadine Gordimer, Zachariah Raphola, Ronnie Govender.

There is much to enjoy in this collection that has excellent notes and interesting creative writing exercises.

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