archive - issue 14

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  • /

    By Ruth Barker
    On the QWERTY layout of my computer keyboard, the symbol / appears beside the questioning symbol ?. They are represented together on the same key, and
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  • Apartment / Containers

    By Vincent Bezuidenhout
    These diptychs are the start of a series of images I have been working on regarding the visual landscape we choose to surround ourselves
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  • I returned home after my first year in college to discover my younger sister had turned gorgeous. This was a disappointment, but not an
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  • Butterfly

    By Adriana de Barros
    The pupa, a silk wrap of emotionsIsolated, within breathing, wanting to bethe intense pronoun of selfIt is silly to be one's own pronounShe giggles
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  • Collage

    By Claudio Parentela
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  • Drag and Snap

    By Leigh-Anne Niehaus
    This series is inspired by the childhood game of "snapdragon", which allows for simplistic and delightful decision-making through random selections of colour and number.
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  • Evidence of Life

    By Tamlyn Martin
    Below is an extract from a series of 11 poems created in parallel with visual artworks. 5. Memories laced with visceral realityFlooding herThe gentle
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  • Forward! Slash!

    By Travis Lyle
    You think you're a forward-thinking kinda person, do you? Lemme be the one to break it to you, sunshine – you're as lame as the
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  • Human/Nature

    By Lydia Anne McCarthy
    This series explores moments between nature and human beings that are at once idealistic and unsettling. Each picture is an independent narrative, but placed
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  • Immigrants

    By Stanley Onjezani Kenani
    you want to livenothing leaveto liveyou swimor like fresh sardinesyou are packedin boatsyou leaveto live.  you leavegold in the belly of Africaoil in
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  • In Between

    By Tania van Schalkwyk
    Raised in an Arabian land of heat, fire and temper,sometimes the calm of England clamps downlike damp in a bathroom with no windowand a
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  • Letter to the Editor

    By Elan Gamaker
    Dear Sir/Madam I should like strenuously to object to the subject matter ("/") of your current issue. It must first be mentioned, however, that it
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  • Or: a line drawing

    By Gabeba Baderoon
    Pencil and nothing. Her face turned almost entirely away. Forehead, cheekbone,jaw,the bun low in her neck,shoulderand down,the long linejust enoughthen left alone.
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  • p u n c t u a t i o n

    By Ula Einstein
    Einstein works with a diverse range of media, including drawings and installation with fire, thread, and blades. The series of drawings and installations with
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    By Sean Hampton-Cole
    Keys. John speaking. 'Lo?Good morning. May I speak to Bob Mitchell please?Bob in Bonds?I'm not really sure. I'm trying to...You want extension 125. This
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  • Pretty Babies

    By Peregrine Honig
    With the premise that "/ " presents what is IN and what is OUT, the "Pretty Babies" series explores the fashion industry's well-published and syndicated DOs
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  • River Bank

    By Mario Sughi
    The symbol / is intended initially as a symbol of division. A real or unreal line divides the girl from the water, the girl from
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  • Scissor

    By Charlotte Gait
    There was a time when you and I were connected by iron, acid, vitamin and blood. Where every mouthful I took was with the
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  • Seasaw

    By Sol Kjøk
    Here, the motif is conceived of as a seesaw (the typo in the title is intended, as this drawing is part of a series
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  • Series Seven Up

    By Noel Fignier
    Text by João Branco Kyron, HipnóticaThe collision is imminent and in the fraction of time left, the eyes shut and the vision is superbly
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  • A battle over samoosas between the snobbish Cinderella and a homeless electrician is mediated by Cinderella's boyfriend JJ. The samoosa battle is conflated with
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  • Wayne Porter, freelance journalist, donned his anthropologist's birthday suit and hit the bowling alley. Bar the bowlers hat tipped gently off centre, the man
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  • The Incised Wound

    By Joanne Hichens
    "Please, for me, Dave," I placed my hand on his, and really, no begging, just asked him nicely, "Lay off the booze tonight." Whether
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  • He had been driving for hours through that unstable, somnambulist night when he fell asleep at the wheel. He awoke with a start and
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  • The space between.

    By Mehita Iqani
    It's a handy little line, the one that we use to make our options known. Either/Or. Paper and ink or binary code? Its clichéd,
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  • Un Hombre Fuerte

    By Tamo Vonarim Written these words are, at times of a subconscious flow – whether they are mine, I don't know. All I know is that I
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  • Unbroken Awareness

    My life is now a floating shellI am a vessel on that river.The storm, the ship, the sea,Whose shores we lost in crossing.  I
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  • Untitled

    By Wilhelm Saayman
    This series of images, made using pen and ink, photographs and Photoshop, explore alternate/dream realities.
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  • Untitled

    By Aryan Kaganof
    /At R550 rand I thought I'd rather die/ My mother: can I trust this woman?/ I thought the Romans were coming, dinkum/ …and always
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Monday, 30 April 2012 02:00

The Big Stick

By  Maya Fowler
    The Big Stick (2011)

"Fear is the problem," says Wynand Greefswald, (fictional) former SADF aversion therapist, of the protagonist Staal, and the homosexuality of which he was trying to cure the boy with the blessing of his family. His words are echoed throughout the novel in a chorus of voices, including Staal's step-brother Wessel, who tells us that it was fear that indeed killed the young man. It as the novel progresses and the reader gets to inhabit Staal's world, however, that the boundaries shift between who is fearful and who fearless.

It is with fear in her heart, certainly, that Alma Nel, mother of Staal - provincial, unsophisticated, ignorant and deeply conservative - arrives in Amsterdam to retrieve the body of her son, who has died under mysterious circumstances. The son she sent away from home somewhere between the time he finished school and was due to be drafted for military service. It was after the visit to Barry's Men's Wear - the final test - and somewhat longer after the aversion therapy ([w]ith electric shocks, yes, p. 41) bestowed on the schoolboy as a family favour. It was the mid-80s.

Sparkling, absorbing and direct prose, characters that display a range of emotion and an engaging narrative technique make The Big Stick a compelling read. The kaleidoscopic narrative is orchestrated by the if-not-omnipotent then, by the end of his newsgathering, omniscient JR Deo. Through his own second-person recollections and a series of interviews with friends, family and psychologists he pieces together Staal's life: the treatment he endured at the hands of an ignorant family, community, school; his metamorphosis in Amsterdam and what, most likely, happened at the end. Interviews with multiple characters offer radically different perspectives, the contrast in some cases humanising "villains", in others making them more deplorable. The latter can be said for the sister Elana ("When I found that out, I gave him a fat slap. But let me tell you: I would have done the same with my own children. Out of love." p. 63) and Staal's step-brother Wessel. Neither of them displays growth or regret. And Wessel certainly has his mind made up: "Fear. That was his bloody problem. Always the fear." p. 117); "Okay, it would have been easier if he was normal, but that wasn't the problem. It was the fear, you understand? Jesus, it used to piss me off." p. 118); "But I'll tell you what killed him, my friend, fear. That's what killed him." (p. 124).

As Alma negotiates the Amsterdam gay scene dressed, a detective says, like his grandmother on her way to church, she is surprised to be met with hostility. She is offered a mirror of her own actions and is met with rage when she asks whether her son "talk[ed] bad about [her]" (p. 107).

One of the novel's most touching aspects is how it is a Bildungsroman, not only for Staal, who learnt to be himself among "[his] pack, [his] pride" (p. 45) but also for Alma, who is at heart a staunch racist - with more than a touch of naïveté - "[i]t was like my dog was suddenly walking round the house on his hind legs, you know? Talking and cooking and thinking for itself," she says about meeting Staal's lover Thierry, who happens to be black (p. 133). While she doesn't change her spots completely ("You know what blacks are like here, hey", later on the same page) she does concede that she had more in common with Thierry and her (black) coke dealer-guide than she does with the Dutch and that when she met Thierry she "knew why Staal had fallen in love" (p. 134), even conceding that she finds both Thierry and Sheikh attractive. It's the tension between Alma's emerging humanity and her ingrained conservatism, the impulse to judge, and judge harshly, the fear and therefore loathing of what is unfamiliar, "abnormal" that makes her such a compelling and believable character, and sadly, so lifelike.

The words of Wessel and the psychologist take on the ring of irony. If it is true that fear killed Staal, it was certainly not his own fear that did it. And if one had to pinpoint one act, one decision that led to his downfall, it would be this act of betrayal: his own mother sending him away in condemnation, without even a proper goodbye at the train station, because she wouldn't accept him as he was. De Nooy puts this most beautifully on page 6: "She was like the wily jackal that gathers wool in its mouth and then backs slowly into the river until all the fleas have fled into the fluff. Then it drops the wool and takes off like a flash, outwitting the fleas. You were the wool, Princess, floating on the river, the memories, like vermin on your skin."  

  Richard De Nooy
Richard De Nooy

The Big Stick
Richard de Nooy
Jacana Media, 2011
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