Yes, it’s been a while. Since before Being Kari was published actually, and she’s been traipsing around for five months already. In that short time she’s introduced me to so many lovely people and taken me to such interesting places that it’s a little crazy to think of all that has happened – and all of it just a big black hole on this blog. Never mind. Today I went to Mamre Community Hall, invited as a speaker to Mamre Library’s 21st birthday celebrations. Jammed in on the day between my mom’s birthday and mine, our first birthdays since her death in December, it was destined to be a special outing for me. I’m so glad I went. The people were kind and warm. The many librarians were inspiring and generous. The politicians played their part in recognizing the magic that is hidden in books. And the children in the school choir totally stole the show. Me and my twenty minutes worth of talk had many hard acts to follow! It certainly stretched my public speaking comfort zone. But now that it’s done, I thought I’d share my notes since I’ve never had any of those before – everything else related to Kari has been interview or discussion based which is unprepared. I tried desperately to not just read my notes but I’m not sure how successful I was at that! The theme of the day was ‘Freedom’, the Long Walk to Freedom having been published in the year that Mamre Library opened, and of course ‘Libraries’. Thank you, Mamre Library, for a lovely morning, for showing me yet another world in our beautiful city, and for helping me to rediscover a poem I’ve long loved. (The poem is right at the end if you are curious.)
To my friend Lee who came along for the ride today; everyone should be so lucky to have a friend like you.
All the best my friends in the computer, hopefully I will be back here sooner rather than later!
Freedom, Libraries and Mamre Pette
Thank you for the welcome and the introduction. I am so happy to be here.
As you’ve heard I live in Melkbosstrand which is only half an hour from Mamre. But I’m a true Capetonian … we live where we live and we work where we work and everywhere else is just too far away for us to drive. So I’m born and bred Cape Town but I’ve never been to Mamre. But Mamre itself, you might be surprised to know, has always caught my imagination. As a primary school student at Zonnebloem Girls in the old District Six area, I learned Antjie Krogs Lied van die Fietsers and read about “die sigeuners met n swartlandse bry … met skewe mamre pette … met rugsakke wat klou soos ape.” The image of “skewe mamre pette” stuck with me even as an adult when I’d long forgotten the rest of the poem or that Antjie Krog had written it. It was something that left me curious about your town in a way that only words and poetry and a young child’s imagination can live on in a grown up. Over the years I asked many Afrikaans speakers, my husband I definitely asked too many times, if they knew the poem about the “Mamre pette.” I never had any luck. I think everyone thought I was making it up and truthfully I didn’t try any harder than that. But this month when Nizam Bray of Mamre library invited me to Mamre, I immediately became obsessed with finding that Mamre pette poem. Lucky for me it has a happy ending and I now have the pleasure of reading the whole poem* again – and of proving to my husband that it actually exists. But you know, along the way I realized that as much as I was curious about Mamre, it has taken me 30-odd years, half of them in Melkbos, to travel the hour from that primary school in District Six Cape Town to Mamre Town hall. Must be a new record even for Slaapstad! So, thank you Nizam Bray, my visit here is very long overdue.
I met Nizam at the Melkbos library earlier this year when I did a little interview on my novel, Being Kari. The room was full of very nice tannies and the odd oom, and then there was Nizam in his pink braces supporting Women’s Day. We talked after the interview and we laughed a bit at how a boy from Cravenby would meet a girl from Walmer Estate in a Melkbos library. When he invited me to Mamre I couldn’t say no! I mean … Pette and a Mamre Bray in pink braces half an hour from my home. I thought he would want me to give another interview about my book. No, he said. Please do a talk. The theme is Freedom. And Libraries. Talk about that and about yourself and then about your book.
When I heard that I nearly said no. To get up and speak your thoughts can be a difficult thing when you are used to writing them. But Nizam emailed me so very nicely that now I am here and I’m going to try really hard to not just read from my notes!
As I thought about Freedom and Libraries and what those things mean to me, I realized that my very first freedom came through reading. My parents were not particularly enthusiastic readers, they weren’t writers, but they believed in the value of the reading, and because of this my mother took my brother and I to the Central Children’s library in Cape Town City Hall. Nearly every Saturday we went, the threat of having to pay our own library fines making us scramble. None of us knew it at the time, but this Saturday routine – one my parents never had themselves as children – was probably one of the single most important things that they did for me. I found that I loved reading. I would read anything and everything at any time I could. The words and the stories created different worlds, different possibilities, freedoms if you will, that I couldn’t get enough of. I remember how as a young girl the world of Nancy Drew took me to a place where a girl could travel, have adventures, solve mysteries. That’s not always the story that girls were told then, or now. I’ve read lots of books since Nancy Drew but it’s still the kind of story I think is most worth reading.
For me, reading and libraries go together like koek and suster. Okay so my Afrikaans is not that great, but I can do a bad Afrikaans joke! But the Children’s library was the just the start of it all. As a high school student in the years before google, I graduated to the Adult Central library at the City Hall. The entrance to that library was also the very same one I watched, waiting in the crowds for Nelson Mandela to give his first speech from City Hall on his release in Cape Town in 1990. A moment for everyone but also an extra small bit of pride for me. He was on the steps of my library! I was 16 years old then. My next library stops were the UCT general library, then UCT Law Library followed by the business libraries of law firm ENS, financial companies Allan Gray, BoE and Sanlam where I was responsible for the legal functions of the investment businesses. Being in all of those libraries were not just milestones for me, but also for my family. As the first to graduate university, I was the first to gain a professional qualification and to work as a professional.
And it all started simply with loving to read books from the Children’s Library on central Cape Town. Libraries have been significant for me, and I am beyond happy that something I have written will be in a few libraries. Now a parent myself, I also see the significance of libraries for my children. They belong to our local library and their own school libraries and there is always some excitement about a new book discovered on the shelves. That is of course the magic of books … you never know what it will start, what it will trigger, where it will take you. Reading, as it were, triggered my first freedom of the imagination. But that freedom lived in my head and as a South African, Freedom obviously also means something more specific to me. It means real physical freedoms – ones my parents certainly didn’t have when they were children. Like the sheer luck of having parents who thought to take me to the library, I have had the sheer luck of being alive in a time where my 16-year-old self could watch Nelson Mandela be freed. I had been born and raised and schooled in the time of apartheid but because of him, and a vast number of others, including my parents, who struggled and sacrificed, I have freedoms my parents didn’t. In simple terms; I could study where I wanted to, become a lawyer as I wanted to. I married who I wanted to. In my parents’ time my marriage and my children would have been criminal. Today I live in an area and I go to beaches my parents would not have been allowed to take me to as a child. I am grateful for these freedoms. But in today’s South Africa these are not just freedoms, these are all our rights. Freedom to me as a South African means having the rights that all South Africans are entitled to by law. Living where we want, in the way we want, with whom we want is how a Mamre Bray, a boy from Cravenby in pink braces, meets a girl from Walmer Estate in a Melkbos library, and brings her to Mamre to hear the bry and look for the pette.
Now that’s enough about me and my ideas on Libraries and Freedoms. What does it have to do with the book I wrote, called Being Kari? Being Kari is the fictional story of Kari, a Cape Town woman in her early thirties, who lives in Bloubergstrand. The novel opens on Valentine’s Day as she is waiting for her husband to get home. Their marriage is under a bit of strain and she is hoping that Valentine’s love and romance is going to fix it. Instead her husband Dirk, an Afrikaans man from Pretoria, tells her that he has had an affair. She is devastated, but before she can recover herself she finds out that her grandmother has died. Her family, who lives in Walmer Estate in the centre of town half an hour away, calls her to come home. She hasn’t seen them for 10 years and this is when we find out that Kari is short for Karima, and that she is from a Muslim family. As Kari she returns to her family who doesn’t know about her marriage, or about how she much she has changed in her 10 years away. The novel follows her over a few weeks as she comes to terms with her identity, her marriage, her family and friends. Being Kari is a novel written for entertainment, in other words for my and your enjoyment. It is written in English with enough swear words and some very bad Afrikaans jokes which you already know I am capable of. You will find places to laugh and also some places to cry. But at its heart there is the story of a girl called Karima who took some freedoms. The freedoms were hers for the taking, they were rights she had as a South African, but they were not freedoms her family approved of. It is her struggle to match the freedoms she has taken with where she comes from. Being Kari is a very South African story, it has the background of the different worlds within our city, our country, that the characters come from. At the same time, it is also the universal struggle of how to be yourself in a changing world. It can be understood anywhere. I’m happy to say that the German translation rights have been sold so this South African story will be travelling, soon Kari will be making bad Afrikaans jokes in German too.
Nizam asked me to read a few pages of Being Kari, and he has picked this scene where Karima returns to her family home after her granny has died.
Read 28 – 33
Thank you, Nizam Bray, for inviting me to Mamre, and to all of you for listening to me