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Tatamkhulu Afrika’s ‘Bitter Eden’: Book Review


On the first page of Tatamkhulu Afrika’s intense and passionate novel, the narrator, Tom Smith, receives a package from a man he hasn’t seen in half a century. What it contains will send him back to the years he spent in Italian and German POW camps during the Second World War, camps that, for all their horror, Tom remembers as a “Bitter Eden.”

Bitter EdenThe book’s depiction of the day-to-day life in those camps is extraordinary. Captured in Northern Africa, Tom finds himself in a desperate world of starvation and ingenuity, of lice and cigarette economies and amateur entertainments. It’s “a place where anything unclaimed is everyone’s prey,” and where in their hunger men become nothing more than “meat wanting more meat so that it can go on being meat.” It is a brutal place, and yet it allows for intimacies and affections the broader world prohibits.

In this exclusively male world, men pair off with their “mates” to form ambiguous domestic relationships. The heterosexual Tom grudgingly allows himself to be claimed by Douglas, who disgusts him with his “almost womanliness,” and whose eagerness for Tom’s friendship reminds him of “a drowning clown or a tart desperate for trade.” That such relationships are often sexual is an open secret, and Tom’s cruelty to Douglas is a way of keeping at bay what he fears is Douglas’s desire for more intimacy than he can offer. 

This uneasy domestic arrangement is disrupted when Tom meets Danny, a British prisoner who makes Tom question what he thinks he knows about his own desires. “Sometimes I try to face up to the amorphous beast of how I feel,” Tom says, “lend it shape, substance, of which I can ask questions, have hope of a reply.” Increasingly anxious, he asks himself, “Am I one of them? Am I in love with a man?”  

The triangle between Tom, Danny, and Douglas will eventually turn tragic, but the book is most interested in the love between Tom and Danny, which will surprise both of them with its ferocity. That intensity is reflected in Afrika’s prose, which often takes on a hothouse lyricism that throbs with emotion.

In the book’s most beautiful moment, Danny wakes Tom to an eerie midnight scene: “a host of thousands of us are standing between the huts, motionlessly and silently as though bewitched, faces upturned under the full moon to the flank of the nearby hill.” Tom is confused until he hears the song of a nightingale, whose beauty has drawn the men from their beds: “‘So small a throat!’ I am thinking. ‘So small a throat!’ as the soaring gusts of sound, pitched a note’s breadth this side of sense, flood, copiously as the moon’s light, effortlessly as that which needs no struggling breath nor fiddling hand, out over hills, churches, shrines, our ragbag selves.”  

Afrika has a distinctive voice, a strange mixture of coarseness and composure, with a cadence informed by the Old Testament. At times, especially as he describes the deprivations of the camps, his sentences fall into a psalmic lilt: “and the skeletons we pretended we did not have begin to show, and our lips crack like the old mud’s heaving apart, and our tongues are the tumescences our loins no longer need.”

Tatamkhulu AfrikaWhile the book has met with great acclaim, some reviewers have complained that it suffers from melodrama, and it’s true that Afrika is drawn to extreme situations and the emotions they evoke, emotions he isn’t inclined to express with understatement. But I found myself increasingly entranced by this novel, which draws on Afrika’s own experiences as a POW. In its final sections, which recount first a forced march and then Tom’s initial days of freedom, including Danny’s remarkable and surprising courage in facing up to what he feels, I found myself harrowed and extraordinarily moved.

Bitter Eden appeared in the UK in 2002, just weeks before Afrika’s death. It has taken twelve years for the novel to reach the United States, and this very handsome hardcover edition is a labor of love for Stephen Morrison, the head of Picador, who wrote about the book’s long journey in Publishers Weekly. American readers are lucky to have the chance to read this beautiful book, a record of a man’s attempts to explore “the unpredictable thickets of my self,” where he finds that “a nothing that is everything is continuing to be said.” 

Previous reviews...
Rabih Alameddine’s ‘An Unnecessary Woman’
Edmund White’s ‘Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris’
Randall Mann’s ‘Straight Razor’
Janette Jenkins’ ‘Firefly’

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. His new novel, What Belongs to You, is forthcoming from Faber/FSG in May 2015. He lives in Iowa City, where he is an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.


Gay Man Beaten, Set on Fire In Horrific Hate Crime

A 28-year-old man has been arrested for the brutal torture and killing of a gay man in South Africa. Even more disturbing, several teenagers, aged 14-18, stood by and watched the the unspeakable hate crime - even as the victim (21-year-old David Olyn) was set on fire by the suspect.

Mamba Online reports:

DavidOn Saturday evening, the youths from the Belle Vista neighbourhood were drinking near a local dam when they were invited by a man to watch how he was “going to kill a moffie [fag].”

They arrived on the scene where they found the victim already covered in blood and tied up with wire. The teens were urged to watch as the alleged attacker bashed Olyn on the head with a brick and jumped on his face while shouting in Afrikaans, “voetsek” ["fuck off"].

Throughout the ordeal, Olyn only made groaning noises, said the teenagers. The alleged killer then placed branches around the victim and set him on fire.

According to the Independent Online, local activists have denounced the heinous murder.

Funeka Soldaat, founder of Free Gender, a human rights and black lesbian organisation, said the killing of Olyn marked a sad time for gays and lesbians.

“South Africa is a scary place for gays and lesbians to be,” she said. “It is disturbing to hear the way in which people are killed because of their sexual orientation. Sadly, homophobia will never go away.” Soldaat has appealed to political parties to invest more money in raising awareness of homophobia. “I am concerned about the future of our communities if we continue to harbour so much hate.

The Justice Department is investigating the crime and have stated that "the department strongly condemns all acts of violence against gays and lesbians." 

The suspect will go before a judge on April 3.

New Gay Rights Party to Make Parliamentary Bid This Year in South Africa

The Equal Rights Party, a new party that will stand on a platform of protecting the rights of LGBT people, will make a parliamentary bid in South Africa this year, the Sydney Morning Herald reports:

Southafrica"We need a voice in parliament to protect women from being raped because people want to cure them from being lesbians," Michael Herbst of the Equal Rights Party said on Saturday. "We need someone in parliament when boys are bullied at school because they are thought to be gay," said the retired professor of health studies at the University of South Africa.

...Mr Herbst also said lawmakers for the new party would have a platform for speaking out against violations of gay rights in countries such as Russia, Nigeria and Uganda. Asked what he thought the party's chances were in the elections slated for the second half of the year, Herbst said: "We can definitively make it".

A Record 1,004 Rhinos Were Killed in South Africa in 2013

(photos andy towle)


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The rhinoceros has become the cause du jour in South Africa, its image emblazoned on everything from wine bottles to shopping bags to rhino-shaped candles and rhino hoof-shaped gummy sweets.

Cars have kitschy plastic rhino horns strapped to the front and “Save the Rhino” bumper stickers plastered on the back. You can even buy bracelets adorned with tiny silver rhinos. They’re all part of the ever-expanding fundraising effort to help protect these iconic animals from ruthless poachers who kill them and hack off their horns.

But South Africa is losing its battle to save the rhino.

Hunted to near extinction in the 19th century before being rescued by conservationists in South Africa in the 1950s, the world’s biggest rhino population is once again under threat. Despite a myriad of efforts to raise money and awareness, the poaching wave that began in 2008 is only getting worse, year after year.

Government officials announced Friday that a record 1,004 rhinos were killed in 2013 — a significant jump from 668 the year before.

Experts say that with international organized crime syndicates behind the poaching, the problem is much bigger than South Africa, and that not enough is being done outside this country’s borders to stop it.

3_rhinoMike Knight, who chairs the Rhino Management Group for southern Africa, said the poaching can’t be stopped without addressing the source of the problem: demand from countries like Vietnam and China. There, rhino horn is a pricey “medicine” ground up and ingested in the false belief it can cure everything from cancer to a hangover. Recently, rhino horn has also become a trendy party drug for the rich, despite its lack of any measurable effects.

Knight said there needs to be more intelligence-sharing between countries to counter poaching syndicates. The gangs behind the trade in rhino horn, he added, are also involved in trafficking guns, drugs and people.

“We’re trying to do as much as we possibly can here to slow down the rate of increase in poaching. But we can only do so much,” Knight said.

“The rhino crisis is not an African issue, it’s an international issue. If we do not have the full cooperation of regional and international partners, we are basically fighting a losing battle.”

Already in 2014, 43 rhinos have been killed by poachers, nearly all of them inside Kruger National Park, a popular safari destination for tourists. Of the 1,004 rhinos killed last year, 606 were in the park, a protected area.

Mozambique, which borders the Kruger reserve, has emerged as a transit point for rhino horns being smuggled out of Africa, and as a base for poachers crossing into the park.

South Africa's national parks authority said that more than 80 percent of incursions by poachers come from the Mozambican side of the park. Up to 15 heavily armed groups of poachers operate in the Kruger reserve at any time; they're especially active during full moons, when it is easier to see targets at night.

This has turned the Kruger park into a battlefield. Already this year, 11 suspected poachers have been killed in shootouts with park rangers and soldiers stationed at Kruger to protect the rhinos, officials revealed on Tuesday.

Tom Milliken, rhino expert for TRAFFIC, an organization that monitors trade in wildlife, said that both South Africa and Mozambique need to “decisively up their game” if they hope to stop the killing of rhinos.

“Rhino horn trafficking and consumption are not simply environmental issues, they represent threats to the very fabric of society,” he said in a statement.

Julian Rademeyer, author of the book “Killing for Profit: Exposing the Illegal Rhino Horn Trade,” said the poaching crisis is likely to get worse this year due in part to South Africa’s inability to tackle organized crime groups.

“If the trend is anything to go by in recent years, we’re going to see a lot more than 1,000 rhinos killed,” he said. “We don’t have a handle on organized crime in this country.”

Rademeyer said there is also a lack of urgency on the issue internationally, with plenty of meetings and conferences held to discuss the problem but not much action.

“The crisis is at the point where we have just about run out of time,” he said.

Then he amended his statement: “We already have run out of time.”

With Mandela Gone, Gays in South Africa Worry About Potential Rollback of Rights: VIDEO

Screen Shot 2013-12-16 at 11.36.48 AM

As the only country in Africa with marriage equality, gay and lesbian South Africans have arguably enjoyed more expansive freedoms and rights than most other LGBT individuals across the continent.

Screen Shot 2013-12-16 at 11.38.53 AMSouth Africa's unique situation is, in no small part, thanks to Nelson Mandela and the human rights reforms he set into motion as president during the 1990s.

Now, with Mandela's passing, some gay South Africans are concerned about a possible rollback of LGBT rights. In a video profile, The New York Times interviews an interracial, gay South African couple to get their take on Mandela's passing and what it means for larger challenges related to the intersection of race, class, and sexuality in the country.

Check it out, AFTER THE JUMP...

Continue reading "With Mandela Gone, Gays in South Africa Worry About Potential Rollback of Rights: VIDEO" »

Nelson Mandela Dead at 95


The great South African leader and defender of equality Nelson Mandela has died at 95.

South African President Jacob Zuma announced the sad news:

"He passed on peacefully in the company of his family around 20.50pm on the fifth of December 2013,” Zuma said. "He is now resting, he is now at peace. Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father. Although we knew this day would come nothing can diminish our sense of a profound and enduring loss. His tireless struggle for freedom earned him the respect of the world. His humility, his compassion, and his humanity earned him their love. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Mandela family. To them we owe a debt of gratitude. They have sacrificed much and endured much so that our people could be free..."

The world has lost one of its bravest souls and greatest champions of freedom. May his legacy continue to inspire new generations.

Obama's statement:

The Human Rights Campaign mourned Mandela's passing:

“Nelson Mandela tore down oppression, united a rainbow nation, and always walked arm-in-arm with his LGBT brothers and sisters—and with all people—toward freedom," said HRC President Chad Griffin. "Though every man, woman and child who seeks justice around the world mourns this loss, his vision of an equal future lives on undimmed."

Mandela, who was South Africa’s first post-Apartheid president, was an outspoken advocate for LGBT equality. He appointed an openly-gay judge to South Africa's High Court of Appeal and during his presidency, South Africa became the first nation in the world to constitutionally prohibit sexual orientation-based discrimination. Mandela will be remembered for his social justice activism and commitment to equality for all people.


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