KENDALL BEHR

The UP library hosted a webinar where four presenters discussed a book that had “a profound effect” on them, according to Lindiwe Soyizwapi, the Director of the Department of Library Services at the University of Pretoria, who introduced the speakers. It was moderated by Professor Molly Brown, Head of the English Department, and the Vice Chancellor, Prof. Tawana Kupe, was the first to present his mind-altering book recommendation. He was followed by Professor Elsabe Schoeman, the Dean of Law, Professor Fraser McNeill, a senior lecturer in Anthropology, and Doctor Nedine Moonsamy, a senior lecturer in English.

Soyizwapi launched the webinar by saying that she celebrates heritage month by “honouring all the authors, all the readers, and all those who buy books” in South Africa. She mentioned a statistic from a study of British children, which showed that children who read frequently and for pleasure have four times as much of a chance of being academically successful than if they have even one parent who has a degree, and said that “in a country with the inequalities that we are struggling with[… ]we should be doing whatever we can to share books[…]to allow other people to understand what we enjoy about them”. She also cited a recent Washington Post article that showed that Humanities graduates really change the world, and that while “Engineering graduates are good at the sprint” and may start out earning higher figures than Humanities graduates, “English graduates endure”, and by the age of 40 are often earning more than Engineering graduates.

Prof. Kupe’s recommended book was God’s Bits of Wood, by Ousane Sembène, the father of African cinema. According to Prof. Kupe, the book is about the 1948 railway strike in colonial Senegal (Sembène himself was a dockworker and a railway worker). Sembène, unlike many early African authors who wrote around the same time as Chinua Achebe, did not have higher education, and in fact did not even finish high school. The reasons why Prof. Kupe presents God’s Bits of Wood as a mind-altering book are that it is “the most nuanced, complicated, and intersectional understanding of representation of the influences of Marxism and feminism on an African male writer who was not literate”.

Prof. Kupe’s recommended book was God’s Bits of Wood

“It is one of the eminent feminist works of African literature. At the heart, it is a representation of how women gain consciousness and participate in this strike”. Prof. Kupe also said that the influences of Islam and the patriarchy on the Senegalese women are subverted by them joining in the march and making the march successful. Colonial narratives are usually centered around men, but Sembène centered on women and their role in the liberation of the Senegalese people in this book.

It is prescient of many other African struggles for liberation. By rebelling against the railway, this book is striking at the heart of the colonial imaginary of being able to take resources as quickly and efficiently as possible out of colonies like Senegal.

Prof. Schoeman’s mind-altering book recommendation was My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. Ferrante is a pseudonym for a very mysterious author, and according to Prof. Schoeman “no one knows who she is (I believe it is a she)”, which adds to her enjoyment of the book, because of the mystery of knowing nothing about the author. The book is set in Naples after WW2, about a woman whose brilliance, according to Prof. Schoeman, “is almost destructive”. It’s an Italian generational drama about two women who negotiate their way through very different social classes and their friendship with each other. This book is mind-altering because it shows the importance of libraries as the character who doesn’t complete her schooling career is educated because she borrows books from the library, and educates herself. Prof. Schoeman says this shows that “access to books is very important” for young people.

Ferrante was one of the first people to write authentically about the power of female friendship. Books that show female friendship are often seen as “chick lit” and unimportant, but the novel presents female friendships are a powerful force for change.

Prof. Schoeman’s mind-altering book recommendation was My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

It changed her impression of the city of Naples. She visited the city of Naples before reading the book and found it to be a very boring place, but now she would like to go there again and see the city through new eyes. Books often have a way of changing how we look at the physical world, especially through historical fiction.

Prof. McNeill’s mind-altering book recommendation was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson. This is a controversial book by a controversial figure who was “infamous for his indulgence”, said Prof. McNeill. Thompson had his ashes blown into orbit, by his friend, Jonny Depp (who also portrayed Hunter Thompson in the film by the same name), after he died, so he’s “currently circulating around the world” said Prof. McNeill. The book is about a journalist who travels to Las Vegas to report on the Mint 400 motorcycle race, but Prof. McNeill said the book is less about the motorcycle race than the people, “which are described in phenomenal detail”. Prof. McNeill said that he sees this book as a helpful research tool, as an anthropologist, because it helps him think about how to write about people, and how to observe them. He prescribes the book to his first-year students to teach them about how a researcher can become what they’re trying to research, and to think about whether or not that’s a good thing. This book is mind-altering because it blew McNeill away by the “extent to which [the author]… tells the story in different ways” and every time he reads it, he “gets things in different ways”.

It displays a writing style called ‘gonzo’, developed by Hunter S. Thompson, which is “fluid, really in your face[…] not trying to be[…] purest prose”.

“It shows us that the real story is often hidden, but at the same time, it’s staring you right in the face” and that “we’re all potentially anthropologists if we pay attention” said McNeill.

Prof. McNeill’s mind-altering book recommendation was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson.

Dr Moonsamy’s mind-altering book recommendation is The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutola. This book is the first African novel written in English and published internationally, and Dr Monsamy mentions that it “unleashed effects that Tutola himself couldn’t have expected” because it was popular internationally, but was “received in a contentious manner” locally. Tutola himself simply wanted an archive of local Yoruba folktales. The book is about “a laid-back guy”, the palm-wine drunkard, who enjoys hanging around his house drinking palm-wine all day, until one day his palm-wine tapster dies. He decides to bring his tapster back from “deads town”, and we follow his quest through the spirit world until he finds his tapster. It is ironic that the hero is successful in his quest, by finding his tapster, but the tapster cannot return, because he is dead. It is still a successful quest, because when the hero returns to his home village, he has become a produber of society who provides for his community with a magical egg that produces food. This book is mind-altering because it uses English in a very interesting way. Dr Moonsamy said that it’s use of English was “extremely polarising”, because it is written in a pidgin form of Nigerian English, with non-English words like ‘drinkard’. This made other Nigerians feel that Tutola was making it look like Africans cannot use proper English. Dr Moonsamy said that “the English adds to the strangeness of producing a [fantastical] world”.

“It’s a form of postcolonial horror”, said Dr Moonsamy. Horror is often seen as a Western genre, but The Palm-Wine Drinkard captures anxiety about Western modernity through “bizarre creatures” like The Complete Gentleman, a skull which rents body parts from local people to make a complete body, much like the colonisers built up their own nations by removing the resources of colonised nations.

It allows us to experience what it means to be human. Because this novel uses time and space in a fantastical way, it builds on African epistemological systems of time and cosmology rather than Western ones. This looks at how humans can experience time outside of the Western and capitalistic models of time, which always pushes us to use our time in a linear way to be productive.

At the end of the Webinar, a question was posed to the panelists from the audience about how to cultivate a personal culture of reading.

Prof. Kupe cited that you should build a habit of reading together as a family, or if you live alone, share your appreciation of the book you’re currently reading with someone else. This will motivate you to continue reading. Prof. Schoeman suggested that individuals should visit the library regularly, as the pressure of needing to return a book will help you to read it. She also cited the importance of reading aloud to children. Prof. McNeill mentioned that reframing the reading process aids in cultivating a culture of reading, as text can be intimidating, asserting that “if you think of reading as traveling to a new land or city, then it becomes pleasure rather than work”. Dr Moonsamy articulated that we should allow ourselves to read books that we find interesting, rather than trying to read books that we think we “should” read. Prof. Brown echoed this sentiment by mentioning that one must not force themselves to read things one does not want to read, advising that individuals set up a specific time to read every day.

Illustration: Promise Zulu

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Hi, I'm Kendall and I'm a book lover, writer, and editor from Pretoria. I have a degree in Creative Writing and I'm finishing up my Honours in English Literature. I'm passionate about editing for South African writers because I think we have our own unique set of circumstances that influences how we read, write, and produce text.