Friday fessing

Well it’s been an up-and-down week. The cold and the rain was a downer and the upper came in the form of a quite surprising date which I don’t want to jinx by talking about here! I will say that dating is a terrifying (and also great) experience. The joy of a returned email (with promising signs of more dates), the anxiety of further dates and the despair of long delays. I think Emily is right when she says men are a romantic lot. I’m sure the object of all this emotional turmoil is happily going about her day and not sighing dreamily and wondering what she’s going to say at the wedding 😉

On the writing front, things are progressing slowly (distractions aside). One article down this week, one to go (and then a few next week). In line with Charlotte’s goals, I want to exercise more, which I’m convinced will give me the energy to write more as well. (We’ll see.)

On the reading front, Phillips got bumped out of the way by the latest edition of the London Review of Books. To my horror and fascination, an author who I quite admire had some quite scathing things to say about Cape Town. You can read Jenny Diski’s article on her “awful, really awful” trip here.

My reaction was mixed. On first read I thought “she’s right” and asked myself if I really shouldn’t be making plans to live in a better country. But then I talked to my mom and dad about the article and thought about it some more. I’m still not sure if Diski dislikes all white South Africans or if she just had a bad holiday or if she thinks South Africans generally are just awful.

But in true South African fashion, I think I was pleased that someone (a prize-winning author) bothered to write about us at all. And I respect the fact that she was being honest about what she experienced. Cape Town is a city of contrasts and the legacy of apartheid — economic disparities, discrimination (now going the other way in terms of affirmative action), racial tension, fear of crime, poor leadership, a culture of entitlement, poor standards of education (at the lower levels) and so on does not make for a lot of good-feeling when you think about it.

But equally depressing (perhaps from a UK perspective) was the fact that the main (apparently racist) white person she spoke to had retired here from the UK eight years before. I think part of the awfulness of her trip, as she acknowledges, had to do with the fact that she came here with high expectations. This was the country where Nelson Mandela walked free from prison, a “place where minds had been changed”.

I find myself becoming defensive when reading articles like this. I think that it’s quite easy to fit one’s experiences into a pre-existing, Afro-pessimist framework. And, yes, she could have spoken to more people and had a different experience. But perhaps South Africans should also be doing more to tell a varied and nuanced story to each other and to the world. I think we focus too much on the natural beauty and not enough on what it’s like to actually live here. A destination is only as good as the stories it generates. What different stories are we managing to tell?

Incidentally, I see Jenny Diski has a blog (not updated) here. And I’d be interested to read her travel-writing in On Trying to Keep Still. Her website has this to say:

Jenny Diski’s two most recent works of nonfiction, Skating to Antartica and Stranger on a Train, described what were as much inner as outer journeys, journeys of the mind. In these books, she confessed that she is never so happy as when she is at home, and that her urge to travel is a contrary one, something she is not sure that she herself understands. In On Trying to Keep Still, she explores her own contrariness in new and challenging ways. Inspired by Michel de Montaigne, who retired to a tower in southern France in middle life and hardly ever left it, writing timeless essays which have since become famous, Jenny sets out to record her own state of mind in places as varied as New Zealand, deepest Somerset and inside the Arctic Circle.

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7 Responses to Friday fessing

  1. seachanges says:

    I like Jennie Diski’s writing: a form of lifewriting that is clear and unapologetic. I’ve printed the article you link to and will sit down and read it in my own good time. Yes, I can imagine that it hurts when your own experiences are so quite different, I still find that when, for example, there are derogatory articles on Iranians (I lived in Iran for some four years and loved it, but then it all went wrong…) and I want to say, but they aren’t like that at all! It is about people telling their different stories, you’re rigth.

  2. verbivore says:

    I’ve become quite interested in South Africa since becoming so involved with Nadine Gordimer’s fiction. I went to her writing mostly to learn about style but in the journey of reading all of her novels in the order they were written have come away with her particular vision of South Africa since 1948 (her first novel is set in that year, although published in 1953).

    I like the honesty in your reponse (being defensive) as well as your willingness to discuss both sides of South African culture. Its not exactly the same but I’m an expat American and my feelings about my own culture are quite conflicted. It’s hard enough to sort through what I feel, sometimes harder watching someone else (friends, writers) struggle with their own observations and criticisms.

  3. Dorothy W. says:

    I enjoyed Diski’s blog when she was updating it, and I’d love to read some of her nonfiction. I can see, though, that you might feel ambivalent when she turns her scathing wit and insight on something you know well — I might not like it terribly much either.

  4. litlove says:

    What a romantic you are, Couchtrip! I can only think that would find favor with any woman. And I’d also like to read Jenny Diski’s work (I know her partner who works at the university here). But I don’t really think it’s right for people to diss another country on the strength of one visit. Of course one needs to record travel experiences honestly and accurately, but it’s surely wise to acknowledge the partial and incomplete nature of such experience? Living in a country can be startlingly different to visiting it.

  5. Pete says:

    Seachanges – Yes, I also like the clarity and directness of her writing. And your Iranian experience sounds interesting. I’m sure that will get a mention in your 51 stories.

    Verbivore – I’m impressed that you’ve read all of Gordimer. I enjoyed “July’s People” but haven’t really taken to her other books. I liked your comment about conflicted feelings and watching other people struggle with their reactions.

    Dorothy – yes the scathing wit is always much more enjoyable when directed elsewhere. I think she was quite on target when she talks about the “beaded animals and bracelets …. that all look like they’ve come from the container marked “Africa” in the Great Central Tourist Warehouse somewhere in China”.

    Litlove – Thank you for your kind words as ever. I hope the woman in question sees things the same way! And I agree re the partial and incomplete nature of any such experience. Perhaps that’s what was lacking – a willingness to accept that things could be different for people living here. But she raises some good points which I think South Africans would be well-advised to listen to.

  6. Emily Barton says:

    Oooo, good luck with that whole “what she’s going to say at the wedding thing.” Meanwhile, I’m now intrigued by Diski whom I haven’t read. However, I don’t believe in bad-mouthing an entire country based on one trip. Must go read the article now.

  7. Make Tea Not War says:

    I’ve just read the first part of Diski’s “Trying to Stay Still” where she visits New Zealand. I was somewhat worried she would slam it after reading her article on Cape Town (which you linked to) but she didn’t have anything all that scathing to say and commented favourably on the scenery. But I actually thought her observations on the country were rather superficial and kind of equivalent to interviewing the taxi driver on the way to/from the airport. eg. She talks about bungy jumping at length but that is really just something that tourists do. It’s not actually integral to what New Zealand is about. Regardless of what she implies in that Cape Town article I think you DO have to live somewhere to get it or at least be open minded and do lots of research and interviews with a lot of people if you are going to write a worthwhile travel piece. And fair enough if she primarily wants to chronicle her inward journey but in that case she might as well leave out all the superficial descriptive bits of her chats with hotel receptionists.

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