In my first full year out of an academic environment, I tried to make sure that I kept up a steady diet of reading. My friend Brian, who graduated a year before I did, wrote on his blog earlier this year, that he felt that his reading patterns were relatively scattershot shortly after graduating, but were tending to become more focused around specific subject areas. So over the next few days, I’m going to try to think out loud about some of the books I’ve read this year, and see what kinds of trends may or may not be developing.

I find that people with a heavy interest in public policy and related fields tend to view fiction as a bit of a diversion. Literary public policy types may view fiction as a necessary diversion, but ultimately, still a diversion from the more concrete stringency of policy, political history, etc, that dominates bookstores in places like Washington, DC. Though I work in what may be most clearly seen as the “non-fiction world” — a mix of journalism, policy, and advocacy — I have tried to keep my personal reading grounded in a more intentionally balanced mix of fiction, non-fiction, and books centered around the inquiry into ideas. As a not entirely unrelated aside, the one place I am sorely lacking is women’s voices. Almost time for some New Year’s resolutions on this score.

South African fiction

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that this was a year in which I moved to South Africa, much of my reading in all three areas was focused on this general area of the world. I read a collection of short stories and articles from Drum magazine in the 1950s. Drum symbolized a period of intellectual and artistic vibrancy in the Sophiatown neighborhood in Johannesburg. The stories in The Drum Decade, edited by Michael Chapman, are concerned with the grit, life and music of that place and time, held by many to have been a golden age of black life in the city.

Es’kia Mphahlele wrote for Drum and went on to a storied career as an educator and writer in South Africa, in exile, and upon his return home towards the end of his life. Down 2nd Avenue gets at a lot of the troubles of impermanence and harshness of growing up as a young black man in the urban centers of present-day Gauteng province. Mphahlele’s sympathetic eye for his own emotions and those of others is a good lesson for writers and readers anywhere. His description of his decision to go into exile illuminates the dilemmas faced by many South African writers and artists especially during the 1950s and 1960s. I think this may be a set work in most South African schools, but if you’re in a new place, sometimes you have to start with the basics!

Niq Mhlongo’s Dog Eat Dog was a fun, insightful look into the mind of a student at Wits in Braamfontein, the neighborhood just north of the Johannesburg city center that is also home to my office. My impression is that some of the discussions about race relations in the immediate aftermath of Nelson Mandela’s elections have become more complicated and perhaps not such an obsession fifteen years later. On the other hand, universities in South Africa still have a lot of old white men (and women) running the show. I can imagine the opening scene between Dingz — the main protagonist — and a stodgy white lady in the university bursary office to be just as likely today.

Mandla Langa’s The Lost Colours Of The Chameleon is an unabashedly political novel. But it comes at the psyche of dictatorship, corruption, and the crumbling of a family dynasty from a highly personal level. More insightful than the pop-psychoanalysis of an actual, non-fictional leader like Thabo Mbeki that Mark Gevisser did in his A Dream Deferred last year (published in the USA in 2009 as A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki And The Future Of The South African Dream). And yes, I did read the full version of the Gevisser book — none of this “abridged” nonsense!

Elsewhere in Africa

Dambudzo Marechera’s Black Sunlight was republished this year. The Zimbabwean “enfant terrible of African literature” lived up to such a billing. The novel really gets inside the madness of an unnamed city under seige. Avoids being hyper-politicized by including a spoonful of sexual desire on the part of the narrator.

I didn’t know until recently that Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene also published books during his prolific life. I recently finished a collection of two novellas, White Genesis and The Money Order (no link — I bought it used and I think it is out of print). The first is about the societal effects of polygamy and male dominance in traditional Senegalese society, the second about the intersection of inept, low-level bureaucracy, migration, and urban poverty in Dakar.

United States

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee is not really fiction, but it is so experimental in terms of form that I think it is alright to include it here. I read this as part of a long-term syllabus I am crafting for myself for writing about poverty. Perhaps we can excuse this as being of its time, but I don’t think a writer from a position of privilege need ever spend so much time emoting about his own guilt if he aims to really engage with the circumstances of his subject. Crass sympathy (“oh, poor them”) is not a good substitute for truly engaged empathy. Still, this was well worth reading and I’m happy I didn’t do it as part of a college course, as many American students do. It demands a more unconventional kind of reading for which there is rarely time in college.

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or Evening Redness In The West was by far the bloodiest, most violent book that I have ever read. I will always be down with McCarthy’s totally morbid vision of human nature and the particularities of how that plays out in the American context.

Outsider Europe

I read a couple of Russians this year basically on a whim and my feeling that I have a natural affinity for 19th century Russian literature, even though I have not read so much of it. A friend gave me The Brute and Other Farces by Anton Chekhov just before I left for South Africa in March. A good read for a year of farces encountered both personally and throughout the world.

Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls has a lot of farcical aspects to it as well. A crazy traveling entrepreneur laughs in the face of landowners throughout the Russian countryside. Good stuff.

Finally, this would have been a great year in fiction reading if only because my favorite writer of all time, Orhan Pamuk, finally came out with his new masterpiece, The Museum Of Innocence. An incredibly obsessive character portrait of a self-described “anthropologist” of his own life. Turns out this means that the main character, Kemal, constantly feeds his obsession for his almost-there love, Fusun, and the city where he suffers, hates, and loves: Istanbul. Also, before I left the United States, I picked up Pamuk’s collection of essays, Other Colors. It was great to read him find fragments of his city, his book collection, and his own novels.

I don’t want to make a habit of criticizing every foreign report about South Africa that gets something wrong, but an occasional missive in the subject area seems reasonable, no? There are some overused, unuseful tropes that Westerners use in their reports on almost anywhere in Africa. Douglas Foster’s profile of Jacob Zuma in the new issue of The Atlantic trucks in a few of these.

On the whole, the piece does a better job than many of explaining Zuma’s backstory, as well as some of the political machinations of the ANC that led to Zuma’s rise. I do think that in terms of this political intrigue he does readers a disservice by treading lightly on Thabo Mbeki’s role in much of the controversy that has surrounded Zuma. For instance, in Foster’s depiction, Mbeki avoided a constitutional crisis by accepting the ANC’s decision to recall him from the presidency. Mbeki created the potential for a different kind of institutional, if not constitutional crisis, by standing for the party’s presidency to begin with (let alone his clear political meddling in the pursuit of the corruption case against Zuma).

What struck me beyond the political analysis contained within the piece, which generally toes the Western “what does it mean for business? / who is this uncouth singing, dancing, tribal polygamist?” line, is his insistence on physical description as a substitute for hard analysis about this highly compelling political figure. Take for instance this second introductory paragraph:

Zuma is a large-boned man with a shaved, bullet-shaped head. He carries himself in the loose-limbed manner of a natural politician, and the edges of his mouth regularly turn up in a Mona Lisa smile, as if he’s just remembered an old joke. His cheeks are full and his skin unlined; he looks far younger than his 67 years. Tinted wire-rimmed glasses shade his heavy-lidded eyes, so it’s hard to know when he’s pulling your leg, or getting angry at the drift of your questions.

Okay, maybe a little physical description is helpful. I don’t have the print edition, but maybe there wasn’t room enough for a good picture to allow readers to size up the man. Maybe the description of his smile tells us something about his character. Otherwise, what do his “large bones,” “bullet-shaped head,” and “full cheeks” tell us except that he’s a big, fat black man? I’m surprised that a later reference to his “reptilian” facial features (and “cold-blooded” determination) didn’t slip into something more “elephantine.” Somehow I doubt that the second paragraph of a major feature on Barack Obama (recall the outcry when Joe Biden so tactfully reminded us was so “clean and articulate” … for a black man) or really any major Western leader would be so consumed with physical description.

Let’s give Foster the benefit of the doubt here. I’ll admit, Zuma does have a unique physical presence. Still, what does that have to do with his charm offensive to American businessmen last year — especially as it’s portrayed in this article?:

South Africa needed “balance,” he said, pushing his belly into the table. The economy would continue to require active intervention because the market still hadn’t corrected for historic patterns of race and class bias.

What?! I think I’ll leave that one stand on its own. “Pushing his belly into the table”? I’m no expert on body language, but the greater implications of that physical description are lost on me besides perhaps juxtaposing the image of, again, a big, fat, black man in a board room with the civilized U.S. bankers. I am left wondering, though, how Zuma got pegged as the fat guy in a room full of Wall Street “fat cats.” Ba-dum-chuh.

I admit, that on its own this criticism may appear frivolous. What is not frivolous is that this kind of crude reliance on physical descriptions is accompanied by an unwillingness to engage with the obvious infrapolitics of the ANC, and their implications during the election. Foster has a reasonable explanation of the Polokwane conference, clearly a watershed moment in post-1994 South African politics. So then why is he left so mystified at the end of the article?

When his dance was done, Zuma shimmied down the gangway, hands up and palms outstretched, lofted along by the cheers. He and his traveling companions quickly slid into a motorcade of luxury SUVs and BMW sedans. Sirens wailing, they zipped off. The woman with the large cross now had it wedged awkwardly beneath her arm. It struck me that her hero hadn’t explained to her why the ANC government had bungled the fight against AIDS or failed to create widespread opportunities for economic mobility.

For many South Africans, the answer is obvious. The Mbeki cohort within the ANC was gone. The grassroots of the party threw out the bums at Polokwane, the view goes. You don’t have to agree with the result to understand that this past election was not irrational. There were clear reasons — of policy, politics, and personality — why Zuma won. For international journalists, especially those with the access that Foster clearly had in writing this article, to omit to explain these to their readers is a disservice. To waste so much time on crude physical description is a failure.

Now that the NPA has dropped the government’s corruption charges against Msholozi aka JZ aka Jacob Zuma, I’m nursing a fascination with the whole “Umshini Wami” phenomenon. The song is from the ANC’s days in exile, and was a song of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). “Umshini Wami” roughly translated means “bring me my machine gun,” and the song is Zuma’s near-official theme song. Crowds have sung it at ANC rallies, after his acquittal on rape charges, and the last couple of days since the NPA gave up his prosecution. I heard it for the first time when I followed a group of ANC volunteers going door to door in the Klipspruit area of Soweto.

Mosuia Lekota, leader of the opposition COPE party, referred to it in his initial announcement of the party’s break from the ANC late last year. Regardless of his chiding of Zuma for continuing to sing the song, its popularity appears to have not abated. I went searching for some videos of the song, and this video from the key Polokwane conference in 2007 seems to tell the tale of how it all went down that fateful December. Thabo Mbeki looks a potent mix of disgusted and crestfallen. Zuma is thrilled with himself. Strangely, Lekota, standing by Mbeki’s side, appears to be enjoying the spectacle as well. Maybe he’s just laughing at it instead of with it.

Without even beginning to judge the man in terms of his worthiness for the office of president, Zuma’s credentials as a performer are strong in this mesmerizing rendition of the anthem. He seems reluctant initially to sing along with the crowd, but soon launches into the song with full energy, waving his arms around his head as though he has been totally overtaken by the tune. As I joked to a friend recently, if I could vote, I may or may not choose to vote for him, but I would definitely be first in line at the record store if he released an album.

To be accused of being an agent of the CIA may seem a bit of a rude welcome to Johannesburg. From the mouth of Evita Bezuidenhout, the fictional former South African ambassador to the non-existent homeland called Bapetikosweti, the accusation was more a friendly hello. Tannie (Aunt) Evita is the Afrikaner socialite alter ego of long-time leading South African satirist Pieter Dirk-Uys. He was performing last night in his new show about the South African elections, “Elections and Erections.” During each performance of the current show, Dirk-Uys, in his Bezuidenhout character interviews a leading South African politician. Before interviewing the former Transkei general, African National Congress leader, and current head of the breakaway United Democratic Movemement Bantu Holomisa, she asked if there were any foreigners in the crowd who did not understand her Afrikaans asides. I tried to avoid her gaze and did not raise my hand, but when she asked if there were any Americans, I was finally found out. Welcome back to SA.

The first half of the show consisted of a number of different character sketches. Dirk-Uys’ ditzy woman trying to get a passport at the Home Affairs office was the perfect take down of South African white liberal neuroses. His ventriloquist act of P.W. Botha – replete with classic finger wagging – talking to a dummy of Thabo Mbeki was a devastating account of Mbeki’s years as president. Botha’s conclusion: “At the end of the day, your name will be remembered as an anagram of mine.” At first glance, it might seem a little rough to put up Mbeki’s misdeeds against Botha’s full-scale onslaught of Apartheid in its cruelest form. Then again, a little AIDS denial and Mugabe mollification can go a long way.

The overall thrust of the performance is a reminder not only that no politician is sacred, but also to inject a sense of optimism about this young democracy. Dirk-Uys wants his audience to leave feeling like they’ve had a chance to vent about their frustrations with the seemingly bleak political landscape here, but leave excited about the possibilities of voting. This is catharsis in its most constructive and artistic form. One moving act of the performance is when Dirk-Uys does his only performance not in another character. He tells of being a gay white man in 1967 sneaking behind the doors of white, Cape colored, and black alike in his earliest sexual experiences, hiding from morality laws that banned gay sex, as well as interracial relations gay or otherwise. By the end of the night it is clear that he has brings this up not just as an interlude, but to remind the audience of the sheer evil of Apartheid, and the continuing promise of freedom and democracy.

That Dirk-Uys might feel it necessary to make this reminder could seem troubling. His performance is an optimistic, even courageous reminder in the face of white emigration, xenophobia, and overall frustration with the broken promises of the ANC when it comes to service delivery, corruption, and poverty alleviation. One theme that I think will characterize my time here is how South Africa is at a defining turning point. The sheen of the peaceful transition to democracy and the Mandela years is long gone. The Mbeki technocratic and perhaps autocratic days have passed. The country must now choose how and if it can prop up its democratic institutions. We can evaluate this progress not just through elections, but by looking at the strength of NGOs, community groups, media, and other parts of civil society. The arts will have a key role to play as well. The next few years may very likely determine the course of the country’s development for years to come. Irreverent, incisive voices like Dirk-Uys’ are just the kind of thing this country will need for positive results.