by Liesl Jobson
Botsotso Publishing, (2008)
Reviewed by Lalo Fox
"The shorter the form, the more difficult to write well." That's been an axiom of mine for a long time. It was reinforced during the couple of years that I workshopped and participated in what we call "flash": extra short, rough-drafted in an hour and posted for comment. Often, one either ends up with a killer opening to a much longer story, or a character sketch with no plot, or a piece of scenery. Providing a beginning, middle and end in fewer than 1000 words is a daunting task.
I met Liesl Jobson in one of those online workshops, accepted her invitation to join another, and have been a friend — and occasional editor — for eight years. From the very beginning, with her poetry as well as her prose, I have always been impressed with the power she can evoke and contain within the shortest of forms. The subjects of the stories are the source of their power. A great many things have happened in Ms. Jobson's adult life, and more of the insights to be found in her work come from direct experience than one might at first imagine. Her skills are in the containment and release of that power to affect the reader.
Someone familiar with Liesl's body of work in various venues on- and off-line may recognize many of the thematic threads she has returned to over the years. Trauma, PTSD, and maltreatment by psychiatric medication; emotional abuse by a spouse; divorce and the frustrations of non-custodial motherhood are just three. She is also a musician (and yes, her husband really is a church organist). She has a healthy sense of play, as well, and even turns her talents to erotica… her writing talents, of course.
A great many things have happened around Ms. Jobson's life, too. At the same time as she brings her broadly experienced voice to universal themes whose stories could admittedly be set anywhere, Liesl is a strongly South African writer. Life in that nation has been, and continues to be, unlike anywhere else on the planet. To fall back on the word apartheid would do injustice to the country and its many peoples by oversimplification — nevertheless, let it stand as an awkward summary of unfathomably complex issues. Once again, her perspective is unique: a liberal white woman, a minority within a minority within another, and once again, she has brought us her insight through tales told from the most personal of human interactions. Granted, "race relations" as a theme is also universal, especially in this century, but it is all upside-down in South Africa after the end of minority rule. There is the incompetence of the current government, the lack of funding for education, well-meaning but misguided attempts at philanthropy, the emergence of suppressed cultures and histories… and the unspoken prayer that they will not follow Zimbabwe down to Hell. Over, under, and through all of that is the slow-motion devastation of the AIDS epidemic.
Finally, and very deservedly, a print publisher has collected an even hundred of Ms. Jobson's flash fiction and prose poems — first prepared, with slightly different content, as her MFA thesis — titled simply 100 Papers. Seventy-nine of them were published previously; many of those online, and at the end of this review you will find a sampling of links that are still "live" at this writing. Unfortunately, you may have to rely upon those links to represent the total collection, for a time. This book's publisher, Botsotso, doesn't have a means of selling any of its catalog online, let alone this offering, nor has the book been picked up by any of the multinational re-sellers with a tentacle in every form of entertainment (such as the one named for a Brazilian river). For now, at least, the only way to obtain a copy is to be in the right bookstore in Jo'burg or Cape Town, or to have a friend who can be. It is frustrating to wish to recommend a "must read" book when very few actually can read it. Meanwhile, if you do not know her work yet, begin with the list of links below, then squeeze Google 'til it's dry, and don't neglect her poetry.
Another thing about this book I must mention in passing: It has no glossary. South African English is so absorptive of words from the other languages with which it shares the land that it cannot be as easily deciphered by others in the Anglophone world as its British, Australian or American cousins. If Botsotso contemplates opening it to a wider market, as I hope they do, they'd do well to glean the glossaries Ms. Jobson kindly provided to accompany the online versions of the stories, for us poor buggers unexposed to Afrikaans, Swahili, Zulu, !Xhosa, as so on. In defense of the stories themselves, I hasten to include that many unfamiliar words can be sussed from context… even in such a piece so shot through with Afrikaans as "The Organist", one of my favorites. (Hint: recall that English is a Germanic language, and has more cognates with its relatives than one might first believe.)
Another of my favorites is one of those still available on the Web: "Fist Mountain", (Mytholog, Summer, 2003). It's a perfect example of how Ms. Jobson, at her best, can take us along on her deeply personal journey through bafflingly multicultural surroundings, through despair to a wistful hope, using astoundingly few words.
Finally, for a sardonic look at life in modern South Africa, I have Ms. Jobson's kind and generous permission to offer this as its online premiere. It's a more fitting conclusion than any I might write:
Our relatives fly back from Melbourne and Sydney and Perth at Christmas to Johannesburg, and note on the road from the airport how even more beggars scour the landfill dump than there were before. They sneer at hawkers at intersections, comment on the razor wire atop our wall. They brag about their picket fences and clean streets, their ordered traffic. We reassure them that life is not so bad, that some fancy London designer is ordering loads of African beadwork for her High Street fashion boutique, that Manchester United is going to visit next year and Tsotsi just won an Oscar. Things are getting better, we have Broadband now. We can Skype around the world for less than the cost of a McDonalds burger. But we have to agree that no, we don’t walk in the streets, and yes, rolling blackouts suck and the water gets turned off every now and again (and again) and yes, our Vice-President raped a young woman with HIV and got off scot-free, and sure it’s open season on our women now. We don’t love our country so much when the Aussies are here, but our farewell embraces three weeks later leave us feeling better. Driving home from the airport with our boots empty, our guest rooms clear again, we feel freer, somehow.
Liesl Jobson is a South African writer. Her work appears in South African and international anthologies and journals including Chimurenga, New Coin, New Contrast, Fidelities, Green Dragon, Kotaz, The Southern Review, Mississippi Review, Sleeping Fish, Temenos, Per Contra, Wigleaf, elimae, Night Train, Smokelong Quarterly, FRiGG and The Rambler.
In 2005 she won the POWA Women's Writing Poetry Competition and the Ernst van Heerden Award. In 2007 she gained a special mention in the Pushcart Anthology. She also earned a publishing grant from the National Library of South Africa's Centre for the Book for her poetry manuscript, View from an Escalator.
She edits Poetry International Web South Africa and BOOK SA, the South African literary website.
Stories from 100 Papers:
, archived at Konundrum.
"Green Socks, White Lies"
, and "Shopping List"
in Smokelong. The last of those is the first in the collection at hand, as well as the inspiration for its cover.
in Green Tricycle. "Spider Salad"
, and "Goggles"
all on the same page at Unlikely Stories.