Category Archives: South African

Salem Brownstone: All Along the Watchtowers by John Harris Dunning, art by Nikhil Singh

Salem BrownstoneSalem Brownstone, once the proprietor of the Sit & Spin Laundromat, gets an ominous telegram (on Halloween, naturally) calling him to New Mecco City, Azania to “take immediate possession of his [late father's] house and the contents therein.” His mourning – “[a]fter all these years of wanting to know my father, now it’s too late. I’ve lost him” – is short-lived when he discovers an intruder in the manse …

Before Salem has time to get better acquainted with visiting Cassandra Contortionist, who knew his father, the Shadow Boys descend. Uh-oh. Cassandra passes Salem the “scrying ball” which belonged to Salem’s father, with warnings that he must always keep it safe. Injured during their escape, Salem wakes up surrounded by the many creatures of Dr. Kinoshita’s Circus of Unearthly Delights. As Salem recovers, many strange occurrences happen, not the least of which include evil, dark plans to take over the universe. Salem, of course, holds the key – I mean the ball – to keeping the world in balance.

While the plot follows a rather straightforward good vs. evil narrative, the art is anything but predictable. As revealed in artist Nikhil Singh’s bio notes, the panels were seven years in the drawing with a major move in between for both creators from South Africa to London. From Salem’s single expressively squiggly eyebrow, to the mysterious Lola Q’s eyepatch, to Ed Harm’s stages of mutant transformation, and so much more, Singh’s irreverent, protean imagination is clearly manifested in the myriad tiny, peculiar elements of each panel.

Reading swiftly through will restore your sense of goodness and safety, but you’ll find you need to go back again and again)to make sure you haven’t missed any important details. After all, the fate of the universe lies between these glorious, mercurial pages.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2010 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, British, British Asian, South African

Lila and the Secret of Rain by David Conway, illustrated by Jude Daly

Lila, her family, their animals are all too hot. Their Kenyan village has not had rain for far too long. The well has dried up, and the crops are failing. “‘Without water there can be no life,’” Lila overhears her mother’s worry. Then her grandfather shares his rainy-day secret: “”You must climb the highest mountain,’” a man once told her grandfather when he was a young boy, “‘and tell the sky the saddest thing you know.’”

Up she clambers to the highest peak the next morning, to tell the sky about her brother’s cut leg, her burnt fingers, and all the other “saddest things she knew.” But still no rain. Her desperate concern for her family, their animals, the crops, makes her sob: “‘Without crops there will be no food, without food the people in the village will become sick, and without water there can be no life.’” As Lila weeps, darkening clouds gather, “until the sky was ebony with emotion.” Lightning, thunder … and by the time she reaches home, “all the villagers were celebrating the rain with music and dancing.”

Award-winning British children’s author David Conway‘s unembellished text introduces a serious subject with just enough gravitas for younger readers. But what lingers most are Jude Daly‘s illustrations: her elegant, elongated figures populating minimal landscapes create beautiful tableaus on every page, threatened by the golden sun which looms closer and closer into Lila’s parched world.

Even in DC, we’ve had such a stretch of unseasonably hot weather (what happened to winter? did we miss spring?), that a rainy weekend just seems out-of-place. Lila provides a perfect antidote for kiddie cabin fever … not to mention a good excuse to crank up the tunes and go dance in the rain!

Readers: Children

Published: 2008 (United States)

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, African, British, South African

Playing in the Light by Zoë Wicomb

“Playing – as others would call it – in the light left no space, no time for interiority, for reflecting on what they had done. Under the glaring spotlight of whiteness, they played diligently, assiduously; the past, and with it conscience, shrunk to a black dot in the distance.”

As the only daughter of the now-deceased Helen and quickly aging John, Marion Campbell has never had to question her whiteness. Blonde and light, the adult Marion runs a successful travel business, is enjoying the promise of a new relationship, and living in a stylish apartment by the sea with all the trappings of outward success. But when she finds a left-behind newspaper in her office lunchroom with a disturbing picture of a tortured woman, she cannot turn away, shocked by haunting recognition.

Small step by small step, Marion begins to confront her troubled past. With the initially begrudging help of a young new employee – the first black woman Marion has ever hired to work in the front office – Marion begins to search for the truth about the dark family servant whom she remembers with the greatest love. In the big city of 1990s Cape Town, post-apartheid race politics lie just below the grimly smiling surface. But life for her parents was anything but tolerant  … and their lightness was all that offered potential acceptance, not only for themselves , but more importantly for their never-knowing daughter.

Wicomb, a South African native who chose voluntary exile for two decades, creates an initially quiet novel that quickly exposes the seething, instantly flammable racial divide of her homeland; that she is somehow able to write with such deliberate control throughout is astonishing.

Wicomb seamlessly weaves Marion’s discoveries with Helen and John’s choices, allowing the reader to always know more than her characters … and as a parent, I found myself aching for Marion, who can hardly forgive the deception, who will never fully understand the details of why and how her parents broke all their family bonds in order to have a chance at living less restricted, more human lives.

As a racially-reverse companion piece, might I suggest the must-see film, Skin, based on the book, When She Was White: The True Story of a Family Divided By Race by Judith Stone about the real-life Sandra Laing, born the colored daughter of white parents, whose life was shattered by her own family’s unrelenting race politics. Both Wicomb’s novel and Laing’s story (in either paper or celluloid) are unforgettable, highly recommended lessons as to the powerful, inexplicable control race still holds in our everyday lives.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2006

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, African, South African