Posts Tagged ‘South Africa’

Fact or Fiction? Travel Literature – Armchair Travel Versus Native Fiction — Which is Best for You?

Friday, November 6th, 2009

I read with great interest the recent blog post by Antonia Malchik of, spotlighting our most recent Traveler’s Literary Companion, South Africa. She offers a thoughtful assessment of whether this type of collection was the best book to take on a visit to South Africa.

Malchik maintains that “novelists are often better writers of ‘place’ than travel writers are” but what our collection brought to the fore for Malchik was that “travel writers can give a deeper sense of context than a native essayist or novelist. Context is so often what the traveler needs.”

I second Malchik’s praise of the travel writer’s perspective. Travelers who have broad knowledge of culture and history, who can capture a strong sense of place, and who are talented writers—Paul Theroux, Jan Morris, Pico Iyer, to name a few—can significantly broaden our vision of a place, even when we are not physically traveling there. In fact, the perspective of the foreigner can often offer great insight even to native readers (Americans’ longstanding appreciation of de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America being a prime example).

Our books are mostly short stories (plus a few excerpts from novels), and they are arranged geographically, much like travel guides. And while there is a brief author bio at the beginning of each story (earlier titles had that info at the back of the book) that may provide some context of the piece in terms of the writer’s life or the country’s literary landscape, our editors do not go into detail to explain how a story points to cultural trends or highlights historical events. There is no hand-holding to ensure that readers take home a predefined knowledge of the place. We specifically decided against such guidance, allowing readers to explore and discover on their own. Add to that the complicating layer of a translation (our Ireland and Australia books being exceptions of course, although Australia does have a glossary), and readers may find the literary terrain to be even more rugged.

We find that our most enthusiastic readers are in primarily two camps: those who are excited about going to a place for the first time and immerse themselves in our book before they travel there, and those who have returned from a place and want to extend and add depth to the experience of traveling. These latter often think of themselves as more than just tourists.

After reading the Traveler’s Literary Companion to South Africa, Malchik compared it to travel writing: “I didn’t feel . . . that I was breathing the place as I read the fiction.” Obviously only Malchik can accurately describe her own experience, but I wonder if by “breathing” she means something a bit more cerebral. I believe that when you read stories about a place written by its natives, you actually come closer to “breathing the place” than when you read stories written by foreigners. At first reading, you may not fully understand or appreciate the complexities of the world you’ve entered—that may come later—but I find that these stories stick with me, and resonate more fully as I get to know the place better.

Malchik also wrote: “to really know a country you need to read its literature; but … travel writing is [necessary] for understanding.” I think this difference between “knowing” and “understanding” is key. One is not superior to the other, but complementary.

So, where does that leave us? To truly navigate, understand, and know South Africa, you may want all three of these books in your carry-on bag: Rough Guide to South Africa (to navigate), Dervla Murphy’s South from the Limpopo (to understand), and South Africa: A Traveler’s Literary Companion (to really know).

What do you take to read when you travel?

Check out Perspective Travel: for wonderful travel writing from great writers!

Dogs, People, and Apartheid in Mphahlele’s “Mrs. Plum”

Monday, October 19th, 2009

My Madam’s name was Mrs. Plum. She loved dogs and Africans and said that everyone must follow the law even if it hurt. These were three big things in Madam’s life.

The “three big things” listed by Karabo, the young African woman who narrates Es’kia Mphahlele’s short story “Mrs. Plum,” have a distinct order to them. Mrs. Plum treats her dogs better than her black African servants. The dogs, Monty and Malan, sleep on pink linen sheets in Mrs. Plum’s bedroom and are pampered with brushings and meals. Mrs. Plum tries to be a mindful, politically progressive employer of Africans, and, as we will discover in this tale, she has more respect for her African help than she does for the law.

The magic of a short story is that the author can show us, through a portrait of ordinary days and lives, the values and conflicts that fracture lives and even whole cultures. In this seemingly simple tale of employers, servants, and dogs, we can see, in close-up, the world of Apartheid and its stratifications that even now divide South African society. As readers, we can notice that the seemingly nonchalant opening of a short story can, in the order of a list, speak volumes about character and what lies ahead.

“They make me fed up when I see them in their baskets, looking fat, and as if they knew all that was going on everywhere,” says the young servant Karabo of the dogs. The exalted position of the dogs over the servants poignantly illustrates the everyday inequalities integral to domestic life during Apartheid. Perhaps for this reason, much of “Mrs. Plum” centers around dogs. Monty and Malan, spoiled as they are, are not the only specimens of their type in Greenside:

In winter so many families went away that the dogs remained the masters and the madams. You could see them walk like white people in the streets. Silent but with plenty of power. And when you saw them you knew that they were full of more nonsense and fancies in the house.

Regardless of Mrs. Plum’s good intentions on the subject of race relations, she distrusts the gardener whose job it is to care for her dogs. This gardener’s name is Dick, and his fear of white people makes his manner uncertain. His relationship with the dogs and with the dogs’ owner is strained.

Although he had a long heart, Madam was still not sure of him. She often went to the dogs after a meal or after a cleaning and said to them, did Dick give you food sweethearts? Or did Dick wash you sweethearts? Let me see. And I could see that Dick was blowing up like a balloon with anger. These things called white people! he said to me. Talking to dogs!

Karabo, Dick, and other black servants find themselves keeping secrets from their white employers. Dick must keep his resentment of the dogs in check, Karabo attends lectures and lessons at the near-revolutionary Black Crow Club without revealing their true subject matter to Mrs. Plum, and Karabo’s friend Chimane gets an abortion in secret to keep her job and preserve her reputation.

Mrs. Plum, however, does have good intentions. She makes Karabo eat at the table with her and her daughter Kate, holds dinner parties with black guests, and belongs to a group of women who protest interracial violence in front of government buildings. Even Dick is occasionally a beneficiary of her half-hearted crusade for Africans’ rights: when the police, searching for loafers, begin berating him in the back yard, Mrs. Plum soaks them with the garden hose, landing herself fourteen days in jail. She refuses to pay the bail, despite the small sum, and stays out her time to prove her point and stay true to her political ideals, proving at the same time that her own injunction to “follow the law even if it hurt” is less important to her than her “love” of Africans.

It is to Mphahlele’s credit that he could write such a believable account of a respectable housewife turning a hose on the police. In this portrait of a strictly hierarchical society, the characters are sympathetic and believable, and the most outrageous of social norms are deftly illustrated in incidents and details. In Apartheid South Africa, the almost comic image of Mrs. Plum soaking a couple of sputtering policemen represents something far more nefarious and far-reaching than a backyard dispute over a servant’s rights.

South Africa: A Traveler's Literary Companion

South Africa: A Traveler's Literary Companion

You’ll find the story “Mrs. Plum” in our collection, South Africa: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, edited by Isabel Balseiro and Tobias Hecht.