REFLEXIONS: READING IN THE PRESENT TENSE
In celebration of literary imagination and creativity in times of crisis
As a testament to the natural diversity of human thought and literary creation, these are diverse writers traversing diverse subjects in stylistically diverse books.
The second series of Maverick Citizen’s collection of essays, Reflexions: Reading in the Present Tense, has appeared weekly over the past two months. Today, a few days after the birth date of Erich Maria Remarque whose novel All Quiet on the Western Front fictionalised another time of human-induced conflict and trauma, we publish this collection of thoughtful book reviews to bring the series to an end.
The idea for the series came in January from Ingrid de Kok, partly catalysed by reading my review of Douglas Stuart’s Booker Prize-winning novel Shuggie Bain. Back then, all of us were trying to combine the desire for celebration of a new year with the experiences of death, dread and despair brought on by a rising second wave of Covid-19 in South Africa. Hopes for a return to “normality” in 2021, whatever that means, were soon stillborn.
Very few people wanted to go back to the ugliness and inequality of the past. However, we did want to resume the comfort of touching friends, of social togetherness, freed from risk to ourselves and others. But such simple pleasures were denied by an invisible virus.
So how do we keep optimism alive? How do we ensure moments of slowness in all the speed? How do we sustain connection with others?
Ingrid had an idea and wrote to me:
“[P]erhaps we could contact writers to ask them to write a short piece… on a novel, poem (or book of poems) or short story which has affected them in the last year. In a way it is to find out how and what fiction affects people who are writers, in a time of crisis. The books would not have to be contemporary, they could be from any period at all. I think people are always interested in what writers read.”
She suggested as a title, “Reading in the Present Tense, which gives the idea of the present moment, tension and anxiety and the personal voice”.
One of the great attributes of being human is the ability to imagine; and then, with an idea in mind, to set about constructing that imaginative vision.
Imagination is power.
Yes, it can be used for evil, but far more often it is used for good. Imagination is the bedrock of all forms of literature.
And so, on the wings of the imagination of the writers we invited and the books they wrote about, Ingrid’s idea came into being.
The first series of Reflexions was collated in a special newsletter that we published and distributed on 23 April. Below are the titles of the essays we have published in this second series.
- The Chanting Goshawk by Julia Martin
- Memory Bandit by Jacob Dlamini
- Angola and the Republic of Dreamers by Angelo Fick
- Giving Thanks in a Pandemic by Finuala Dowling
- The Narcissism of Small Differences by Mark Heywood
- Sol Plaatje under Lockdown by Jane Taylor
- Finding One’s Place in the Present by Rehana Rossouw
- What is a Voice? Lamentation and Elegy in Conditions of Crisis by Ingrid de Kok
We are grateful to the writers; mine is not to try and summarise their book reviews. I would only do damage to their carefully chosen words. As a testament to the natural diversity of human thought and literary creation, these are diverse writers traversing diverse subjects in stylistically diverse books. The essays range through memoirs about nature; archives and memory; beauty and barbarity; novels telling stories of Angola to near future science-faction of the exploding climate crisis; from Aldous Huxley and Oliver Sacks to Merwin and the Book of Job. They end with Ingrid de Kok’s own lockdown reflections, an essay infused with a sense of life and loss written after the death of her partner, the writer Tony Morphet, and her brother Kenneth de Kok, also a writer.
We hope that they allow you some moments of slowness and point you down pathways to further reading and thought as we continue contending with Covid-19 and imagine a better world. DM/MC
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