Monthly Archives: Jan 2019

Teaching English in South-East Asia – with difficulty

There Goes English Teacher – a memoir, by Karin Cronje (Modjaji Books)

VIVIEN HORLER

english teacher

Karin Cronje with her book.

Anecdotally it would seem that hundreds of young South Africans have gone to South-east Asia to teach English. The money is good, prices are cheap, and the social life with South Africans and other expatriates is fun.

Karin Cronje did it too, but she was 49, she went to a small village in South Korea where virtually no one spoke English – her Korean was non-existent – and there were few expatriates with whom to bond socially.

As for making friends with Koreans, that was a pretty hopeless task. “It’s just too foreign. The society is fundamentally different from the way we are. They won’t let you in, you will forever be this outsider to whom they are mostly very polite, and that’s it.”

Cronje had planned to stay in Korea until what she calls her decrepitude, building up her pension, saving money to put her son through his architecture degree and also raising money for her former domestic worker’s pension. “I was going to make loads of money and spend a substantial chunk of my life there, like 15 years or so.”

She discovered that while the money was good for young people who had just finished their studies and needed to pay off loans, it wasn’t really enough for a woman entering her 50s who had more extensive goals.

In fact she stayed for just two years, returning to South Africa in time for the publication of her second Afrikaans novel Alles mooi weer.

“There’s a line in English Teacher that says you have to go home before home isn’t home any more. I saw expatriates in Korea who had completely lost touch, with home and with themselves. They never settle there properly, and they become floaters. One woman who had been in Korea for five years summed up the danger – she said she was not at home in her own country any more, and she was certainly not at home in Korea.”

One of the aims Cronje wanted to achieve in Korea was to rewrite Alles mooi weer, whose protagonist, Hilette, was so obnoxious even Cronje couldn’t stand her.

“It’s one thing to have an anti-hero – I enjoy anti-heroes more than beautiful heroes – but I had such a deep hatred for Hilette. Every negative feeling I had about myself and my culture I projected on to Hilette, and I thought going away would help me change the tone of that woman. In that sense Korea was a success story because I started to have some empathy with her – I must have been feeling more at ease with aspects of myself.”

And the book, when it appeared, was critically acclaimed, winning the Jan Rabie / Rapport prize.

There were, says Cronje, beautiful moments in Korea. She became close to Dae-ho who taught meditation and with whom she connected on a spiritual level: “Without that man, that gentle man, I don’t know how I would have survived.” She also made a couple of Korean friends.

But the work wasn’t satisfactory. Her first job was at a private after-care centre for children whose parents were paying a premium for them to learn English, and the children would be there till all hours of the night after a full day at government schools. There was far too much emphasis on rote learning and ticking off boxes, and too little on really learning to speak English.

Her second job was at university which was better, but a she was unnerved by what she calls the cesspool of gossip among the expats. As a result of trying not to stand out like a sore thumb among the tiny and reserved Koreans, and not getting involved in expat politics, Cronje increasingly isolated herself and shut herself down.

She returned home to Cape Town and had to find somewhere to live as she had tenants in her Newlands home. Then followed an unsettling period staying with various friends, trying to find her scattered boxes, and coping with some of the dodgy friends her son Marko had made in her absence.

She had changed, but her friends hadn’t and relationships suffered. She worried about money, about getting older, about her relationship with Marko, and whether she would ever have sex again. One night, while staying in her friend Dorrian’s cottage, she had a meltdown. Her description sounds like a nervous breakdown but Cronje says no, it was a breakthrough.

“There had been the two years in Korea where I had to be silent and make myself small. Then back here people messed me over while I was trying to fit in and not connecting, making me not me, and on top of all that being exhausted. And then that night in Dorrian’s cottage I thought, f*** that! I found my voice again. That’s what broke through.”

After years of staying in other’s people’s houses, renting here and there, today Cronje lives in a light, bright house she has bought in Simon’s Town with sweeping views of False Bay. Marko is married to a wonderful woman and Cronje now has two small grandchildren. Life is looking good.

There Goes English Teacher is both highly readable and brave. Not many of us would lay ourselves open the way Cronje has. But she has no regrets.

“I was happy to reveal the Korean experiences, even though I was writing about personal and intimate things. But the stuff I wrote about life after coming back – that gave me sleepless nights.

“However, the worst thing that can happen for me is self-censorship. If I start censoring myself then I don’t want to live any more. I expect the world to do that, but bloody hell, if I start doing that to myself, it’s like cutting out my tongue.”

  • This review/interview also appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday January 27 2019.

 

Radical revisionist history of part of the Anglo-Boer War

Reviewer: Archie Henderson
The Natal Campaign: A Sacrifice Betrayed by Hugh Rethman (Amberley)

natal campaignJust when you thought you knew everything about the Boer War, along comes Hugh
Rethman. His book is a radical revisionist history of that war fought at the turn of the
last century and which so dramatically shaped South Africa.
None of the usual suspects come of Rethman’s book well. Paul Kruger,
puritanical Old Testament president of the ZAR (the Transvaal) and General
Redvers Buller, the indecisive commander of the British forces, we expect, but Jan
Smuts? And even Louis Botha? The latter pair, heroes of the Union of South Africa,
are treated dismissively by Rethman. And Denys Reitz’s father, FW Reitz, who has Continue reading

Unsung SA photographer’s (almost) forgotten world

Review: Shirley de Kock Gueller

Constance: One Road to Take – The Life and Photography of Constance Stuart Larabee (1914-2000), by Peter Elliott (Cantaloup Press)

 

Title: Ndebele Design. Contained in Constance Stuart Larrabee photographs, 1935-1988Ndebele DesignNear Pretoria 1946. EEPA 1998-060388, 1998-006, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, Constance Stuart Larrabee Collection, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution 

Constance Stuart Larabee, raised in South Africa from soon after her birth in Cornwall, is perhaps one of South Africa’s least known photographers,  and sadly so. This may well be because she left little of her oeuvre here. And that’s a pity, for the photographs that Elliott has chosen to illustrate this valuable addition to South African art and its artists show what an outstanding and evocative

portraitist she was.  

After studying in England and Germany,  Larabee returned to South Africa, where she had already shown that she was serious about photography when she was 16, taking the honours at the Pretoria Agricultural Show in 1930. With an interlude when she left to cover World War II in parts of Europe as South Africa’s only female war correspondent, she lived in South Africa from 1936 to 1949.

Title: Ndebele Child, Near Pretoria 1947 EEPA 1998-060411, EEPA 1998-006, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The book chronicles three distinct periods of her life – all encompassing Southern Africa, the war in France and Italy, and the United States (the beauty of Chesapeake Bay in particular). It was in America that  she married and lived for the greater part of her life, becoming eventually more a custodian of her prints and negatives and arranging exhibitions (two in South Africa in 1979 and 1983) than continuing her photography.  

It is, of course, the  section on Southern Africa that is the most compelling. It’s as diverse a portrait of the region  as one could wish for, in pre and early apartheid times – the Ndebele, the Lovedu, Sotho, the British Royal visit to Basutoland, the Xhosas, the San, the people of the Bo-Kaap, Afrikaners and the English speakers, poor whites, Alan Paton and his milieu, the rural and urban, Johannesburg’s street and townships, the miners and much more. It illustrates the divisions that existed in the country, and on which she was, perhaps normal for the time, silent on the disparity which even then was obvious. A white woman photographing, though not exclusively, the black community, surely must have caused some interest and required some comment.

Elliott has managed to unearth vast amounts of information about her, a woman who guarded her privacy and revealed little even in letters to her husband. This book, he notes, is an attempt “to reveal her approach to photography and, and to unravel some of the stories she developed in order to keep her questioners at bay”. He writes of her confidence that she had “an eye” which enabled her to get just what she was after in just a handful of shots of one subject; he  writes how Noel Coward said she never posed her subjects but allowed them to pose themselves, resulting in just the right shot. This is a book of both historical and social value, comprehensive and well researched with detailed notes and sources, and it makes one regret deeply that Larabee, at her death and with an estate of nearly $2 million (in 2000), left her Southern African work to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art and her American work to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, also in Washington, and a handful of other museums and institutions.   

There are, Elliott says, some prints in  collections in South Africa – at the US Consulate General  in Johannesburg and the Brenthurst Collection (a couple of dozen prints each),  while the Pretoria Art Museum and the SA National Gallery in Cape Town have a few. Other prints that have come to light more recently are at the Johannesburg Art Gallery and the Bensusan  Photographic collection. Although the online links that Elliott provides to the collections in the US are for researchers, hopefully his book will stimulate increasing interest in the work of this amazing photographer.

Elliott can be contacted at peter@peterelliottbooks.com

 

 

Is this absorbing crime thriller worthy of the Man Booker longlist?

Review: Vivien Horler

Snap, by Belinda Bauer (Penguin)

snap bauerIn the British summer of 1988 Marie Wilks, 22, was driving on the M50 motorway when her car broke down.

In a pre-cellphone world, the pregnant Wilks told her 11-year-old sister to wait in the car and watch over her infant son while she headed on foot to the nearest emergency phone. She was gone for what seemed a long time, and eventually the sister picked up the baby and walked along the hard shoulder to look for her.

Police records showed Wilks made the emergency call, but broke off in mid-conversation. The receiver was later found dangling.

A day or two afterwards her body was found below the motorway embankment with stab wounds to the neck. A nightclub bouncer, Eddie Browning, was jailed for life, but acquitted on appeal in April 1974. The case has never been solved. Continue reading