Take-outs from Jonathan Franzen’s Cape Town talk, or: How NOT to interview a world-famous author

“For the first time in six months, she shaves her legs. Well, of course, Jonathan Franzen is in town.”

My friend’s Facebook status summed up how big a deal it was that Franzen would be in Cape Town to talk about his last book, Purity, at the city’s favourite indie bookshop on 3 November 2017.

It’s not that that nothing bookish happens in the Mother City. Lots does.

Each year, the Book Lounge (the bookshop in question) hosts the Open Book Festival, which has seen the likes of Patrick Gale, Earl Lovelace, Alan Hollinghurst, Lionel Shriver and Joanne Harris pass through. Nearby, in the Cape Winelands, the annual Franschhoek Literary Festival also draws a notable international line-up.

But we’re talking Franzen. He alone, at a talk in the bookshop down the road, for no festival, on an arbitrary date on the literary calendar.

Jonathan Franzen on Time magazine

Turns out he wasn’t here just to bless us with the biggest non-festival-related book event of the year. He was on assignment, doing a report on sea birds for National Geographic. (Apparently, “If everyone would do what South Africa has done [for sea birds], they’d be in less trouble,” Franzen says.)

The talk got so many RSVPs, the hosts had to book a nearby school hall for the crowd. Afterwards, the friend-who-shaved-her-legs updated her post, saying while the convo was “a cringe a minute” (more on that a little later), she “liked” Franzen.

I did too.

He came across far warmer than general impressions suggest (that he’s “a weird, reclusive dick”), despite having spent the whole day doing interviews. From his opening joke at the size of the crowd (“I expected maybe 20 people. Speaking very personally, it speaks well of Cape Town”), to his closing thanks, in which he said he thought the school venue was “great” (despite its child-like crudeness possibly making the organisers blush), he was open, gracious − even cheery.

Below are some take-outs from the talk, followed by some tips on what NOT to do when interviewing a literary heavyweight on stage.

ON HIS LAST BOOK, PURITY

“Purity is essentially about the search for a missing parent, which is a totally nineteenth-century trope … Today, secrets still exist, but I thought it would be interesting to set a story in a regime in which secrets are no longer possible.”

“Purity started from something that wasn’t working for Freedom. I felt it was too shameful, which was the narrative of a marriage deep in the book – I piled up as many easier-to-take pages before it, so there’s a lot of padding – or should I say, ‘muscular storytelling’ [laughter]. I wanted to find a story to place that psychological narrative in, to offset its hard-to-takeness.”

Purity by Jonathan Franzen

ON WRITING

“I don’t write books that argue anything. I’m really just trying to tell a good story. I’m writing for people like myself who want to read someone writing about the world in an interesting way.”

“It does start with things kept in a drawer. My advice for someone wanting to write a novel: It’s good to try join point A with point B … and if point B is rather distant from A. And in general, as a reader, I enjoy the experience of not knowing where a story is going. You want a sense of: Oh my God, where is this going?”

“Process wise, one way of doing that is not knowing yourself. Have a destination, but how you’re going to get there … if it’s a stretch, it’s more enjoyable. There’s this mystical faith I have that things that are fun to write – fun in a real way, not a masturbatory way – translate into a sense readerly fun. With my books, I’ve tried to write the book I’d like to read.”

“It’s not socially useless to do the entertainment [as well as confront social issues in non-fiction] … I do think there’s an arguable social utility in continuing to write literary fiction and personal essays. The parts of being human I appreciate – our capacity for self-doubt, self-reflection, empathy – find a home in literature.”

ON THE DIGITAL AGE

“I think some of my worst fears of social media have been richly borne out by political events in my country. I’m still a bit of a techno sceptic, because it represents the hyper-capitalist, hyper-consumerist model.”

“There’s a lot of good writing by young writers out there [online], and I’m not worried about it. I’m more worried about the pressure to promote. The internet is the latest guise of consumerism. The persona/e itself becomes the thing to be marketed. I’m that rare person, my pulse rate lowers when I see an audience – as long as I get to be alone in my hotel room afterwards … but it’s hard for other authors. Having to bend your personality into something that’s likeable, that’s where I hear the cries of young writers. The production [side of writing] has changed. I think social media is bad for fiction writers. My criticism of social media is in defense of the novel.”

ON JOURNALISM

“Post Trump, people suddenly seem to appreciate journalists. Turning journalists into heroes takes some doing, but I believe in journalism. It’s an expertise, to separate signal from noise … there’s no algorithm for that; that’s a human skill.”

[Doing long-form journalism is] “a real job as opposed to being like a sick child in a bedroom … I got to save my receipts, and was forced to pick up the phone.”

“When you’re writing a novel, the facts are in the way. It’s completely the reverse with journalism. There’s also a sense of patience that comes with it.” [When gathering information for a story]. “You float through, then the thing happens. The waiting part of journalism is really the fun part.”

[The above was in relation to his experience of writing this New Yorker story, the journalism piece he is most proud of, “from a process point of view”.]

ON THE TOPIC OF SHAME

“Shame has become a verb in social media and online discourse … For some writers, it’s THE problem. We have these carefully crafted online personae, but there’s still something behind that façade that’s potentially full of shame. The argument I have regarding real writing is that it’s done by the writer who goes to the shameful places and then tries to make something of them that isn’t unbearable to read … Even if it resonates with just one other person who feels the same, the writer has succeeded.”

ON HIS BIRD OBSESSION

“People think I write too much on birds. My agent says they do, she says readers flinch when I mention birds, and I feel like saying, ‘You mean wince?’”

ON ‘THE NEXT BIG THING’ IN BOOKS

“Bill Finnegan’s book on surfing, Barbarian Days. He went around the world chasing waves.”

Book Barbarian Days A Surfing Life

And … HOW NOT TO INTERVIEW AN UBER AUTHOR

While the overall impression of Franzen was warm, the overall impression of the event was less about Franzen, and more about the awkwardness of the interview itself. It was all I heard from people after, and in conversations overheard from the departing crowd.

As another friend put it so succinctly, also on Facebook:

“This was supposed to be an author interview between a great American writer and young local literary mind. But it turned into a dick duel between two dudes. Franzen, of course, sliced [the interviewer] into tiny neat pieces. #awkward”

Jonathan Franzen on stage

Franzen being introduced to the crowd, 3 November 2017 in Cape Town.

Apart from Franzen’s response to the interviewer’s first convoluted question (“I’m trying to find the question … give me something to work with here…”), the awkwardness didn’t make me squirm as much as it clearly did others. Part of why I like going to book talks are the moments of chemistry and little frissons of tension between whoever’s on stage. But also – empathy.

I’ve been up there before − admittedly NOT to interview a name as big as Franzen. But I’ve had one-on-ones with bestselling authors in front of many sets of eyes. Fortunately, they went well. But as an introvert, I’ll admit the build-up … wasn’t fun.

The up-and-coming poet/author/publisher interviewing Franzen was likely both star-struck and intimidated. Who wouldn’t be? This is the man who famously snubbed Oprah (more on the truth behind that, from Franzen, here).

Oprah Winfrey and Jonathan Franzen

That time they kissed and made up (oprah.com).

Still, there are lessons to be learnt from the failure of others. Below, as both a ‘note to self’ and advice for anyone who may need it, are some tips for interviewing authors, based on what NOT to do.

DON’T make it a battle of egos

Sure, from a psychological viewpoint, putting your ego aside is easier said than done. We need that pesky thing so many self-help columns diss.

But to stop it from tripping you up, remember the event isn’t about you − it’s about the person the audience came to see. This guide-on-the-side approach actually helps by taking any sage-on-the-stage pressure off of you.

Don’t show off. Don’t overcompensate for feeling insecure by boasting of your own travels/writing. Don’t resort to snorting cocaine in a panic. Just focus on bringing out the best in the author, for the audience’s sake.

DON’T ask long, layered ‘questions’

The process of prepping for an interview is a bit like the process of writing itself. You research, generating information; then you distil all the info, reducing it right down into direct yet nuanced questions. This takes time, some of which must be spent AWAY from the research, so you can gather your thoughts on the themes it has generated.

Allowing time for digestion/incubation can be hard when there’s an event deadline and you’re so worried about stuffing up, you’ve way over-prepared. Your head is buzzing, and all the little threads you’ve gathered have turned into a ball of energising yet confusing half-formed thoughts.

But the layering of such thoughts in a philosophical soliloquy, rather than a direct question, can aggravate an author, especially when they’ve been talking all day.

As Aussie commissioning editor and professional reader Angela Meyer says: “It’s OK to lead in with a little bit of info that will help to place the question, but if you analyse an aspect of the book and then just ask: ‘what do you think about that?’ you often don’t give the author much room to move …”.

So leave the bits and bobs ‘on the cutting room floor’, and go in with some key, clear questions. Don’t fear: the research won’t have been in vain. As SA author of The Seed Thief, Jacqui L’Ange, said on research at #OpenBookFest2015: “The ghost of what you cut from your novel remains there – it adds authenticity”. The research helps give you go ‘off script’ confidently, whether to follow an interesting tangent the author’s answer has raised, or to push further on what seems to be an insight.

DON’T reveal what really went on behind the scenes

In what was possibly an effort to be self-deprecating, or anecdotal, the interviewer spoke of his friend shoving one more thing about Franzen at him, which he read that morning in bed.

Avoid doing something similar − no matter how late you were up reading your notes, how close you came to unravelling, how last-minute your arrival may have been, etc. Keep the messy details to yourself.

And use cue cards, rather than concertina-like folds of A4 paper that will distract both the author and audience when you read from them. (When Franzen grabbed the interviewer’s notes to see the quote he was reading out for himself, the interviewer must’ve died a little. Who knows what hot mess of scribbles were set down there?)

DON’T forget your place in the pecking order

As authoritarian as that sounds, there are times in life when you need to graciously defer a little. As one book reviewer was overheard saying after the talk: “You don’t speak to someone of that level as if they’re your equal!”

This is not to say you shouldn’t hold your own beside someone higher up in the hierarchy. Or to suggest that you suck arse the whole way through (“don’t ‘verbal hug’ the author/s too much,” as Meyer says).

But do listen, more than talk; and acknowledge your place, to yourself.

In the words of Maya Angelou: “You don’t want modesty, you want humility. Humility comes from inside out. It says someone was here before me and I’m here because I’ve been paid for. I have something to do and I will do that because I’m paying for someone else who has yet to come.”

I suspect women, long raised to be more aware of social pleasantries and what not, may have been socialised to be better at this. While I can see why the organisers chose an up-and-coming male literary author to interview Franzen – and just before the interviewer’s own book release, effectively killing two publicity birds with one stone − a more mature woman book reviewer, perhaps someone with the broadcast experience to steady any wayward nerves, would’ve been a better choice here. (It would’ve eliminated the ‘dick duelling’ aspect, in any event.)

DON’T beat yourself for any ‘oopsies’

So you’ve made a gaffe or generally stuffed up the interview.

Get over it. Don’t nurse that ‘loser’ wound.

This can be hard to do, especially if you’re an introvert and the failure has been publically witnessed. But while your error may loom large in your mind, it’s likely quickly forgotten by others. And if not, at least the lesson you learnt may also have allowed some vicarious learning in others.

Just do better next time. Or wait until it’s your turn to be the star in the spotlight.

(I have no doubt that the interviewer in question here will one day command the same size crowd. He’s done brilliantly onstage at literary events before, and is a great writer. This just wasn’t his best effort at showmanship.)

*BONUS MATERIAL:

Advertisements

In Praise of Sound City on #Netflix

Fans of contemporary music history should give Sound City, one of the ‘older’ doccies on Netflix, a go. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

SOUND-CITY.jpg

I’m loving Netflix, but it’s proving that whole theory about how having too much choice makes choosing a chore.

So, on a break from Stranger Things Season 2 – a rather rare case of me delaying gratification – I turned to some of their documentaries NOT #CurrentlyTrending.

A documentary buff friend recommended Sound City (2013), so I’m passing the good vibes along.

The film was created by Dave Grohl, of Nirvana and the Foo Fighters, who got the idea when he bought recording equipment from Sound City, the infamous LA recording studio.

grohl

As a former 90s ‘grunge kid’ (oh how we hated the term at the time), it really got me in the feels. It features some of my favourite bands and musicians – think Fleetwood Mac, Rage Against the Machine, Frank Black, Trent Reznor and Nirvana. And its narrative structure takes you on quite the emotional journey.

“Sound City hits you like a shot in the heart”
−Peter Travels, Rolling Stone

There’s euphoria, sex appeal, sadness, philosophical depth, nostalgia, trippy moments and some epic jams with heavyweights including Paul McCartney. And it’s very much a tribute to the analog era.

I particularly enjoyed the behind-the-scenes insight it gives into the muso subculture – how the musicians talk in code, instantly getting what they mean when they communicate with sounds, not words. I admired their completely unself-conscious, joyous freedom to express themselves. Seeing Stevie Nicks singing sensually. Watching McCartney and Grohl rough-and-tumble affectionately after a successful recording. And the startled look on Reznor’s face at the moment Grohl interrupted their jam to say, “This is awesome” (or something along those lines). To which Reznor replied that they should just “get back to it” then. Don’t push him out of The Zone!

To remember magical musical moments in time, and feel the rush of powerful tracks from the past (won’t lie, I found myself doing a version of headbanging more suited to my age to RATM), put today’s trending series aside and get lost in Sound City.

*BONUS: Here’s a short interview with Grohl on the studio.

Sound City 1

Must-Read: The Finch in My Brain

Fan of triumph-over-tragedy medical memoirs? Check out this inspiring story, by a buddy of Russell Brand.

The finch in my brain Martino Sclavi

If you, like me, are a fan of ‘neuro memoirs’ like Brain on Fire, My Stroke of Insight, the work of the late Oliver Sacks, or just the tense surgical scenes of McDreamy working his medical magic on Grey’s Anatomy, you might want to read The Finch in My Brain: How I Forgot to Read but Found How to Live (Hodder & Stoughton), by Martino Sclavi.

Scali, an Italian-American film producer, credits his friend, the comedian Russell Brand, with saving his life. For a brief background, check out this YouTube video by Brand, in which he and other friends of the author talk about his story.

They remember him saying he wanted to “lie down and have a rest” while they were working on a film – something completely out of character for him. Brand talks about having to phone Sclavi’s family when he was going into emergency surgery (conducted while he was awake!), saying, “It was a bleak confrontation with mortality”.

So why the FINCH in his brain?

Martino Sclavi The Finch in my brain

Sclavi image from the author’s website.

Well, the grade-four tumour was apparently shaped like the bird. And while they cut most of it out, they also had to remove parts that enable him to read. Every reader’s worst nightmare, right?

But it’s not nearly as bad as the prognosis he received at the time: Doctors in both America and Italy said there was a 98% chance he’d die within a year and a half.

(That was something like six years ago. Oh, the miracle that is the human will to live!)

In an article in the UK Guardian, he says of the loss of his reading ability:

“It is a terrible loss. I was a film producer. Screenplays, the rights to books: my life depended on these things. But I don’t think grief is allowed: I was supposed to be dead, and I am alive.”

In spite of, or possibly because of, his prognosis, Sclavi wrote a book chronicling his medical journey, typing with his eyes closed and using audio software to have parts ‘read back’ to him as he progressed.

He told The Guardian:

“I started it just before the second operation because I was afraid I was going to die. I had been sending emails to old friends, and Matt Morgan [comedian and Brand sidekick] said to me: ‘This feels like gonzo journalism for oncology.’ I liked that, so I carried on … it saved me, psychologically.”

While the Guardian reviewer describes the memoir as “odd”, given the author’s condition and the fact that his first language is Italian, I’m going to decide for myself. My favourite books are those about real-life resilience, triumph over tragedy, and the “rage against the dying of the light”.

Give it a go and let me know what you think.

*BONUS: To get a feel for the book, check out the eccentric author, his friends, and his computer-voice ‘reading companion’, Alex, read from Chapter One here.

Current favourite #BookMeme

The choice of author name is particularly amusing, given the apparent beef between the two 80s alternative musos 🙂

Book meme

Must-read: This biography of South Africa’s legendary ‘Afro-saxon’ muso, Syd Kitchen

You may not know of him, but everyone from Durban, like me, does. Thankfully, a just-published biography by Donvé Lee introduces readers to the poetic misfit who mentored many musicians.

mural-syd

A mural of Syd, which was at Durban’s old Corner Cafe

When I heard that a biography of Syd Kitchen was being published,  I immediately marked it as a must-read. I’d seen him perform at Splashy Fen, where he played every year from its start before he died, and had seen him around. With his long hair, floppy hat and bare feet, he looked the quintessential hippie muso − no doubt with plenty stories to tell.

Here’s the book’s blurb:

“Skollie, saint, scholar, hippest of hippies, imperfect musician with a perfect imagination, Syd Kitchen was, like all great artists, born to enrich his art and not himself. Plagued by drugs, alcohol and depression, too much of an outlaw to be embraced by record companies, he frequently sold his furniture to cover production costs of his albums, seduced fans at concerts and music festivals worldwide with his dazzling ‘Afro-Saxon’ mix of folk, jazz, blues and rock interspersed with marvellously irreverent banter, and finally became the subject of several compelling documentaries, one of which −‘Fool in a Bubble’ − premiered in New York in 2010.”

scars-that-shine-cover

The book’s title is a reference to Syd’s poetry collection of the same name, published in 1974. I have a signed copy – I pounced on it when I spotted it at the Milnerton Flea Market several years ago. See below … I wonder who the mysterious Michelle was?

 

Syd Kitchen poetry book

“Michelle, Thanks for the past help regardless how small. You’re a pretty lady. Luv on ya. Syd”

In the foreword, the late veteran journo Owen Coetzer, who helped run the Durban Folk Club back then, wrote:

“Syd Kitchen is the poet. The seeker. His touch is masterful. His omni-luminescent eyes see it all. His words tell the rest. But more important, he is a musician in the tradition of the ancients – the storyteller who journeyed from land to land singing of the past, the present and the future. The minstrel who laboured for love, and who found peace and satisfaction in the giving of himself and his art.”

When Syd passed away early in 2011, many obituaries followed. In one of them, Owen’s daughter Diane, a music journalist, shares her childhood memories of Syd, and laments the fact that he never received proper recognition, both when alive and at his death.

“To a child, he was a fascinating creature: His hair was long, he sometimes struggled to talk through a stutter, he wore outlandish clothes and, even for children used to being around musicians, Syd seemed to us to carry with him something magical …”

“[His] remarkable 40-year music career, filled with live gigs, songwriting, and albums […] simply never benefited from the mainstream business – not just the labels that never signed him, but retail outlets that never stocked his records and radio that never played his songs […] And, looking at the artists who’ve emerged from under his wing in KwaZulu-Natal especially, it’s easy to see where Syd’s musical legacy will reside, outside of his recordings and songs.”

This is where the book comes in. At the launch at the Book Lounge, we were treated to a performance of Syd’s song Walking, by two muso friends of his. Then Donvé was interviewed by Stephen Segerman, one of the men who ensured ‘Sugar Man’, the musician Rodriguez, finally got his story told.

Donvé spoke of the research she did to compile the book – interviewing over 120 people, pouring over Syd’s lyrics and letters to an old girlfriend etc. – and how she tried to make Syd’s voice prominent. In the “magical process of giving over to his voice,” she admitted the boundaries at times blurred: Syd was under her skin, in her head.

donve-lee

The biographer

This seems appropriate, given that Syd once asked her to write a book on him. In response to an audience member’s question about the ethics of creating Syd’s ‘voice’, Donvé said the book is “artistically true, not literally so. I put words into his mouth, but they’re what he could’ve or would’ve said … I think he would approve.” At this point, Syd’s daughter, Sev (I think), nodded from her front-row seat.

The biographer had the full support of Syd’s family, and she didn’t shy away from depicting the good, the bad, the ugly. “I had to make it honest,” she explained. And “in the darkness, beauty has its depth”.

syd-kitchen-b-w

Syd’s lack of acclaim and recognition was mentioned, as was a high point in his musical career: Travelling to Scotland to be one of the featured artists (along with the likes of The Cure’s Robert Smith, Beck, Morcheeba, Snow Patrol and Paolo Nutini) on a tribute album to the late John Martyn, who was a Syd Kitchen fan.

It’s hoped that the book will revive interest in Syd’s music, and apparently the Kitchen family will soon be in talks with Robin Auld to see what can be done about, perhaps, getting his music reissued.

For now, you can get the book at all major SA bookstores and online. Or follow the links below to learn a little more about the man and his music.

Here’s a clip of Syd with Die Antwoord.

Here’s the trailer for the documentary on him, called Fool in a Bubble.

You can listen to the MixCloud tribute to him by Mabu Vinyl (called ‘The last of the bohemians’) here, and there’s also plenty more to read on him here.

fiab-flyer-front

I’ll leave you with a short but sweet poem, from page 15 of Scars That Shine (1974).

SPOKE THE WIND
By Syd Kitchen

You have your eyes
as green as the sea,
you have Life
you have Love
you have Word
speared by me.
What more could your soul
set its sights on to be,
but a creature so fair,
so lost,
yet so free?

 

A wonderful, wool-filled secret

If you’re based in Cape Town and are new to knitting or crocheting, I’ll tell you a secret that’ll help you fulfil your crafty ambitions…

I’ve joined the weekly Stitch n Bitch crochet circle at the revamped A Touch of Madness in Observatory. (Have you been recently? My friends Olivia and Richard Andrews have done it up so it’s less of a scruffy student spot, but still very eclectic. On any given night you’ll see people of all types listening to live music or shooting the breeze over cards or boardgames. Take a look at their Facebook page for events, like film nights, silent discos and so on.)

atom

A Touch of Madness, 12 Nuttall Road, Obs

So I needed wool – not so easy to find these days, especially in the City Bowl. But thanks to this blog post by crafter Jill Goldberg, the other day I discovered that I needn’t drive out to Woolworld in Woodstock – or further – for supplies. Orion Wool & Crafts in Oranjezicht is just round the corner. It’s tucked away in a residential road, though, in an unassuming little house among large angular houses, so you can easily miss it.

Pass the Engen garage, go up Orange Street towards Table mountain, turn right at the DeWaal “dog park”, then left up Molteno Road beside the reservoir, and when the road
gets very steep near the foot of the mountain, turn right into Woodburn Crescent. At the road bend, on your right you’ll see a little white house with a small sign, like those used to alert you to a hush-hush outdoor trance party, which directs you down a narrow flight of stairs to the basement.

There you’ll find a teeny-tiny super-clean shop filled with wool and thread and hooks and needles and embroidery and buttons… a delightful dinky cave full of fluff and colour.

You’ll be served by a tall and kindly gentleman who looks like he knows how to make
a really good cup of tea and is able to decipher what you need from your pattern. Roger read what I needed for my beginner snood pattern, found the closest types of wool in stock and just generally made my day. (Take a look at what I got – pretty, right?)

progress

My progress so far. The wool comes from Turkey:
DiMeks Candy Floss in 305, Lot 02

To find a knitting group or crochet circle in Cape Town, visit the Facebook page for
South African Crafters for Good.

For workshops related to weaving, spinning, knitting, felting and dyeing, try the
Cape Guild of Weavers.

Whale song: An evening with The Story Club, Cape Town

whales cape

Last month, I finally got to one of the storytelling gatherings hosted by The Story Club, Cape Town, every month.

My friend Lisa Cohen, a talented storyteller with just the warmest heart, is one of the organisers. When she sent me the flyer for the February event − Whale Song, with Sue Hollingsworth, from the International School of Storytelling in the UK (currently hosting a storytelling workshop here in South Africa) – I knew I had to go.

whale flyer

Lisa is a “co-dreaming” friend, so when she asked: “Have you also been dreaming of the sea and its creatures lately?” I wasn’t surprised that the answer was YES. Like Lisa, I’ve been flooded with images of the sea during dream-time of late.

Whales and the sea call me strongly, especially since moving to the Cape. Here, I feel closer to whales than ever before. Every year, Southern Right whales migrate here to calve and nurse their young, so whale-watching is a popular tourist attraction. I’ve seen many whales here; yet each time is an awe-filled delight.

The intimate monthly Story Club events work like this: After an open-mic session, in which anyone can get up and tell a story, even in another mother tongue (with a quick synopsis in English), a guest storyteller takes to the “stage”.

The setting is usually St Mark’s Anglican Church in District Six, a church with a spine-tinglingly significant history. Read the history below, from their website:

There is a stone church on a hill in Cape Town that shines like a beacon flame in our city’s history. It was built in 1867 in District Six and has served the Anglicans of that community since then to the present day.

You may ask how that can be when, between 1969 and 1984, some 40 000 District Six residents were evicted by the Group Areas Act, and relocated in houses scattered all over the Cape Flats, their homes demolished.

Faced with the prospect of their church being de-consecrated, the St Mark’s congregation firmly rejected the Government’s offer to rebuild the church, stone for stone – an exact replica – in Athlone, and returned the two million rand compensation cheque. At the same time they decided that, regardless of distance, “they would, as far as possible, continue as before.” And so they did. Which is why, each Sunday, 30 years on, cars travel to attend the 9 0’Clock service from as far afield as Kuil’s River and Bellville, Mitchell’s Plain and Athlone, even Strandfontein – to honour their undertaking, and that of their parents.

In St Mark’s District Six the spirit of the Community lives on, and is now known throughout the world. Like the District Six Museum in Caledon Street, it will become a pilgrimage for all who truly love Cape Town.

The section they host The Story Club in is a small Heidi-like wooden enclave. It’s set up with candles, flowers and carpets, and with tea-time at interval, it’s all rather cosy.

During the open-mic session, a lively American guy named Greg, a former maths teacher now doing Sue’s “Storytelling in the community” course, told a funny old folk tale. Then a woman stood up to do an animated retelling of “Seal Skin, Soul Skin” by Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estes. A young man told of a palace somewhere between Orania and Bagdad – in which we met an Afrikaans king and his right-hand man, Abdul, who had a brush with Mr Death in the market.

Next, veteran SA journalist Nancy Richards, who hosts the SAfm Literature show, stood up to tell an impromptu tale of a warm-hearted “salty sea dog” kind of man and his daughter. I’m familiar with her written and spoken voice from print and radio, but it was special to watch her tell a story in person – like sitting across a table from her, sharing yarns after a few glasses of something special. Her story ended with a great twist – the story she’d shared was actually true; about a moment she shared with her father when she was being courted by her husband.

Nancy+Richards+SAfm

After a fortifying cup of tea – taking in some fresh air, gazing at the green lights on the towers of the nearby mosque and the Church’s statue of Mary holding a cross while the evening clouds drifted by in that lazy, luring way that’s so hard to tear your eyes away from – Sue was up to regale us with her tales.

Sue Hollingsworth

Like most who are well travelled, Sue has many stories to tell. Hers took us across the oceans of the world – fitting for an evening devoted the sea’s largest sailors, whales.

We were taken to a Lamu café, where Sue first heard a man tell a whale story that she spent years tracking down. The creation story was the Swahili tale of Chua the whale, and how the low and high tide came to be. Clue: it was to do with the enormity of the whale’s grief.

Then, she told us of her first whale sighting, aboard a ship in the Galapagos islands.

From there we moved to NZ, to share a sighting of a whale she surreptitiously shared with a stranger.

Next, Sue brought the memories of her late husband into the rapt room. In 1976, he was part of the epic Clipper Race, aboard Great Britain II. On Christmas day, in icy Arctic waters, he saw his first whale. Reading from his diary entry, we heard how he felt forever changed by the moment he looked into the grand creature’s eye.

Sue then recited the most appropriate poem, by Mary Oliver.

Humpbacks
by Mary Oliver

There is, all around us,
this country
of original fire.
You know what I mean.
The sky, after all, stops at nothing, so something
has to be holding
our bodies
in its rich and timeless stables or else
we would fly away.

Off Stellwagen
off the Cape,
the humpbacks rise. Carrying their tonnage
of barnacles and joy
they leap through the water, they nuzzle back under it
like children
at play.

They sing, too.
And not for any reason
you can’t imagine.

Three of them
rise to the surface near the bow of the boat,
then dive
deeply, their huge scarred flukes
tipped to the air.
We wait, not knowing
just where it will happen; suddenly
they smash through the surface, someone begins
shouting for joy and you realize
it is yourself as they surge
upward and you see for the first time
how huge they are, as they breach,
and dive, and breach again
through the shining blue flowers
of the split water and you see them
for some unbelievable
part of a moment against the sky–
like nothing you’ve ever imagined–
like the myth of the fifth morning galloping
out of darkness, pouring
heavenward, spinning; then

they crash back under those black silks
and we all fall back
together into that wet fire, you
know what I mean.

I know a captain who has seen them
playing with seaweed, swimming
through the green islands, tossing
the slippery branches into the air.
I know a whale that will come to the boat whenever
she can, and nudge it gently along the bow
with her long flipper.
I know several lives worth living.

Listen, whatever it is you try
to do with your life, nothing will ever dazzle you
like the dreams of your body,
its spirit
longing to fly while the dead-weight bones
toss their dark mane and hurry
back into the fields of glittering fire
where everything,
even the great whale,
throbs with song.

To end off, Sue sang a Pete Seeger song.

I left that night feeling content… comforted by human voices and expressive bodies that told tales full of images of kayaks and seers, of seal eyes and whale bellies, of dancing women and glittering stars…

TO LISTEN TO AND SHARE STORIES IN CAPE TOWN