Never have I been so vividly held captive by the intricate balance of metaphor and narrative as I have with this new work-of-art compilation of travel writing that is Home Away. This spectacle of South African writing is anything but isolated lekker local stuff; rather it reveals the truly global flavour of being South African at home in the world at large.
Edited by Louis Greenberg of ‘The Beggar’s Signwriters’ fame, twenty-four writers have been handpicked, each to envisage an hour in a day in a particular city in the world. It is as Greenberg suggests, a collection of ‘…stories (that) blur fact and fiction; they contain a dozen languages and two dozen versions of the truth. Together, they write a South Africa for tomorrow that yesterday would not allow.’
At the very beginning, the anthology kicks off with the excitement of this whirlwind tour around the world in just one text. Vikas Swarup sets the scene as your conductor to begin this journey; be prepared. In addition you will meet an alter ego in each writer as you move along. You will be whisked through Nairobi at midnight, with a plot to kill a politician, and then taken briskly through Mauritius, Amsterdam, Sydney and Mainz before you can think of drinking sunrise. Havana is the last of the poetic night rendezvous; you wake up in the warm arms of Kampala. Not white. Not black. Purely African.
Through the morning you are swiftly guided through Lagos, Maun, Ushuaia, then onward to Oxford, Tokyo and the City of Angels, Los Angeles. After lunching in British Columbia you will commit the perfect crime in Moscow before being shown how to juggle odds in Dakar. It’s mid-afternoon in Patmos and Peru before you know it and you’re treated to glimpses of London and Austria. Ivan Vladislavic enlikens Oklahoma City to the Free State. A flavour of being South African lingers through the mind of each writer, each voice displayed here. The evening is rounding up. But it’s not over yet. Fairbanks greets you before you rush off to Paris.
Finally, a happy ending awaits in Hong Kong. The clock strikes midnight.
You may raise a glass of the finest. You’ve earned your wings!
And so at once, the reader is made aware upon opening these pages, that it’s a good idea to keep your seatbelt fastened until the aircraft has come to a complete stop. This is only going to happen when you have finally reached the last page.
Home Away occurs as a series of freeze frames. Rather, it feels as though you’re watching twenty four short films through the eyes of twenty four actors; each on cue waiting their turn to play their part on this wordy stage until the hour hand on the clock has made not one, but two complete circles. A day slips through the sands of time.
I had the pleasure of attending the Johannesburg launch of this new masterpiece on May 13. About ten of the 24 authors were present, including Greenberg, the editor and creative genius behind this work. While it’s true that these 24 hour segments occur as flashes from 24 different cities around the world, it also bears mentioning that these 24 writers capture very different temperaments, flavours and energies linked to their respective stories.
In this gem of a collection is to be found more than varied armchair travel, and much more than you bargained for if you were looking for entertainment. These narratives also tell much about the sense of place and displacement that comes of traversing geographical boundaries, sometimes out of choice, often because of some extenuating circumstance. A war, a heartbreak, a recession, an escape. Something might happen that causes a land of promise to turn hostile. And so you leave.
Our love affairs with land and country can be quite fickle. This love-hate relationship with our environment is vividly shown to mirror our ways of relating to people in Home Away’s string of motion picture type stories. We learn that how we create our identity is strongly linked to where we imagine we belong in the world.
And that the fluidity of both our identity and where we might be situated in the world, is a fuel to each other. Sometimes we want to stay where we are. Sometimes we just have to leave. We have to move on. And yet other times, we know that we will inevitably find our way back to the place we always called home.
The twenty-four resounding voices in Home Away echo one thing: that our sense of place and feeling at home in the world will always be foreshadowed by the ability to feel at home with ourselves. These ideas resonate throughout the book and its chain of narratives.
It’s impossible to choose favourites in such a harmonious treasure of writing, but I would like to share just three sips from the ocean of Home Away. The reader has to read the entire collection to be truly quenched:
‘In Kampala there are moments when I forget that I am white. The woman who is here doesn’t feel like a middle-aged, white South African woman. The light is muted. The air is warm. She imagines she is black, that she has lived here all her life, that she is truly African.’ The warm arms of Kampala by Colleen Higgs
‘In this perfect stillness, noise is obscene. I know this because a loud thump has jolted me out of my slumber. Even before I am fully awake, my Palaeolithic self is in full panic, flight-ready: adrenaline surging, heart thumping, muscles rigid, ears pricked for the slightest clue as to the source of the sound. I wait.
… I haven’t been back in Sydney for long. Evidently, this is my Joburg self reacting: naked feral fear, fear so habitual that you no longer notice it’s there. It takes a while to learn to let go of the unceasing anxiety… Here, in the dark of the middle of the night, I must learn to be an expat again. Remind myself that I have nothing to be afraid of, congratulate myself on my escape.’ Redundant by Sarah Britten
‘With or without electricity, my favourite city in the entire world is not dissimilar to a series of quick, sharp slaps to the cheek… My first slap comes at 7:01. I wake up suddenly to the sound of a street fight brewing outside my open bedroom window. I listen intently; the fog of sleep quickly lifts and my mind and body are alert, ready for a day in Lagos.’ The Generator Man by Moky Makura
Note: Royalties from the sale of Home Away are being shared between the Adonis Musati Project and Kids Haven. Both organisations deal with the needs of refugee children and families.
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