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Coping in the Cape
by Fiona Zerbst
2009-02-11 10:01:11
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Written by Rozena Maart
2006, David Philip, Publishers

Rozena Maart, winner of the Journey Prize for emerging authors, offers five intriguing short stories in her debut collection Rosa’s District 6.

District 6, apartheid South Africa’s famous home to non-whites, children of immigrants and former slaves, is the setting of these heart-wrenching stories. Each story looks at crises of identity, race, class or sexuality in the characters’‚ lives and Maart does not shy away from drawing painful conclusions. However, the stories are lightened by the presence of Rosa in each of them – Rosa, a precocious child who sees and hears everything and who keeps a writing slate around her neck on which to record her impressions. She is the mini-author of these stories, drawing them together and standing as the not-quite-innocent witness of family heartache and striving.

Rosa’s District 6 is, after all, a place of sadness and imprisonment as much as a home for its pleasure-loving residents, who seek to blot out the anguish of apartheid’s strictures with drugs and alcohol on the one hand, and faith in God and the a sense of community on the other.

Loss and the past are plaintively evoked in The Green Chair, something of a ghost story, while the legacy of sexual violence haunts and affects two families in Ai Gadija. The Bracelet is possibly Maart’s most probing story, examining the crushing effects of a gay married man’s double life.

Maart’s realism is tempered with a fascination for tales of spirits, erotic awakenings and mental illness, exploring the effects of day-to-day pressures on people’s psyches. As such, these stories do more than offer straightforward narratives – they dig deeper, and the effect is sometimes macabre, often shocking. You will find yourself catching your breath frequently as you read these stories. The dangers and pleasures of life are laid bare and Maart reopens the various wounds of District 6 living, but in such a way as to make a new place of this Cape Town legend.

A glossary of South African idioms makes the book more accessible to an international readership; unfortunately, though, the book’s numerous typographical errors detract from the overall compelling effect of the stories.

Fiona Zerbst is a South African poet. She has had three poetry volumes published and her work has appeared in various South African and international anthologies. She works as an editor in Cape Town.

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