Home Page African-Writing Online
HomeAbout UsNewsinterviewsProfiles of South African Women WritersFictionPoetryTributesArtReviews

  Alex Smith
  Amanze Akpuda
  Amatoritsero Ede
  Amitabh Mitra
  Ando Yeva
  Andrew Martin
  Aryan Kaganof

  Ben Williams
  Bongani Madondo
  Chielozona Eze
  Chris Mann
  Chukwu Eke
  Chuma Nwokolo
  Colleen Higgs
  Colleen C. Cousins
  Don Mattera
  Elizabeth Pienaar
  Elleke Boehmer
  Emilia Ilieva
  Fred Khumalo
  Janice Golding
  Lauri Kubuitsile
  Lebogang Mashile
  Manu Herbstein
  Mark Espin
  Molara Wood
  Napo Masheane
  Nduka Otiono
  Nnorom Azuonye
  Ola Awonubi
  Petina Gappah
  Sam Duerden
  Sky Omoniyi
  Toni Kan
  Uzor M. Uzoatu
  Valerie Tagwira
  Vamba Sherif
  Wumi Raji
  Zukiswa Wanner

   Ntone Edjabe
   Rudolf Okonkwo
   Tolu Ogunlesi
   Yomi Ola
   Molara Wood

August Debut

Issue 2; October/November


Eliz Pienaa

Elizabeth Pienaar

Pienaar is an architect and writer living in Johannesburg. She won the 2005 HSBC/SA Pen Award, and was placed second in the HSBC/SA Pen Award 2006. Her novel, Ahkenaten's Garden was one of five short-listed for the 2006 European Union Literary Awards. Her novel The Gift was also on the long-list for the 2007European Union Literary Award. Pienaar was placed in the Shell /The Economist Travel essay awards in 2001. Her work has been published in poetry anthologies, Over the Rainbow (1996/7) and Under African Skies (1997/8) and short story anthologies, African Compass (2005) and African Road (2006), and the Caine Prize for African Writing (Jungfrau and Other Short Stories, 2007). Her work has also appeared in the International Pen Magazine. Her latest story is due out in Oshun's 2008 erotica collection, Open.

 Meeting Lucy
I was born in Ulm. Not-Bavaria. As a child, many times I stood and watched the robins, from the very top of the steeple. I watched the lands rolling out past the rigid houses, so soft, so buoyant, so full. I have looked over the steep tiled roof of that ancient cathedral when the trees below were garlanded in fresh emerald. And I have seen the same roof splashed white, with only small dashes of terracotta scraped free by wind. When the ice sets, you may not climb the steeple. No matter. I climbed. When you have a need to see a vista, nothing else will do. This is the way I have always been.

To get past the warden was easier when I was small. As I grew taller and bigger, it became more difficult to slip beneath the chain which prevented access to the stairs. Getting caught also carried more consequence because as you grow taller, you are expected to grow as well in 'knowing better.' But the most difficult thing of all in my life, as I grew taller, was to move past the thin voice within me which said, always, that I was wrong: I was just a foolish youth, the wind spiralling up this frozen spire could make my hands numb, the ice on the smooth black stairs was so treacherous, I would surely fall, I would die, as my father said to me, and anyway, after so many times, didn't I know what I would see when I got there?

It was the thrill. It was dislike of the thin voice. It was the deep knowing that, always, I must be where my heart has called me, on a whim, in an unguarded moment, no matter. And always, as I turned the last corner, careful of betraying ice, onto the thin balcony, as I glimpsed the mists heaving below, in that instant, my heart leapt and remembered it was alive, and the vista rewarded me for following. Following Heart. No matter the price to pay later.

So it has been all my life.

Many times I knew the lands would be burdened, pressed flat by the mists. At such times, the crisp and uninviting houses would seem, in contrast, to be very jolly, with their bright electric lights. But at Christmas time the square was full of little stalls selling stollens and decorations and fine sausages. And then these rough wooden structures became the real buildings for me, the way I felt the buildings here should be. I hated the flat sad-eyed structures which confined this square through the rest of the year. But these could not be helped. After all, we had the war.

Ulm was the home town of my father. My mother came from Hamburg. As a child I was puzzled why they reminded me so often, that the Donau separated Ulm, and us, from what lay across the other side. Ulm was part of Baden-Wurttemberg, and I must remember, therefore, most importantly, Not-Bavaria. And so, many years later, when I understood why they were always telling me this, I understood a little bit better why I always had to climb. Even if the warden said no. It was, for me, about not-fitting. Not-fitting so very badly that I was driven to do what inside me said to do, there was no other way to fill the very big white emptiness inside.

For Frederick growing-up, inside was snowy and white so much of the time, that I would do anything no matter the consequences, to catch a glimpse of emerald green; the brief view of red robin before he flew off into the mists. One day I would follow red robin; one day I would fly far away. Red robin went to a warm place full of sunshine. This I never doubted.

I was a lonely only child. I was a weakling. I was always the smallest. Even as I grew taller I was pale and ill-looking. I was no good at anything that required physical attention. This does not mean I was a bad sport in terms of sports. For by the time I reached my teenage years I already enjoyed seeing the other boys in my classes getting undressed: showering, rubbing their shiny wet bodies with lathery soap. It was enjoyable to me, to be in the change rooms full of boy-sweat and smelly running shoes. Just not to be on the athletics track in those smelly running shoes, coming last. My father was not pleased. My father badly wanted to have an athlete for a son. It is one of those small amusements that life throws casually, that once I found these warm days and the special cool hovering as day breaks, so also, I found I could run. And run. And run. I could not run fast, but I could run long. In this country, quite literally, from ocean to ocean. In leaving behind fatherland and father, I discovered after all that my father had an athlete for a son.

I sent him newspapers. I wonder - was it enough?

I went to Berlin to study. This also did not please my father. In Berlin, I met a woman. A wonderful woman. She liked me for being small and scrawny. She also liked my endless scratchings over paper with ink and pastel. She laughed marvellously, her head thrown back and the sound rolling out from her throat. The sound was deep, hoarse, thundering around her, making her curls shake about her face. She did not think I was a strident young fool when I tore apart the barren movie-set stereotypic reconstruction pastiche that passed as built form in my country. She did not laugh when I saw a vast American conspiracy invading our cities, over-scaled, unyielding urban grids which gave no recognition to our ancient space, our ancient hearts, our towns rebuilt in the likeness of cartoons, like sets of Hollywood's Westerns, to make good pictures for chocolate boxes. Fraudulent, and flat. My professors thought I was a budding theorist, born to critique. Soon I was publishing in the journals. Precocious. Encouraged, egged on, by Ansche.

My father wanted an engineer. To go behind his back and apply for a different training, you could tell, I was not at all the kind of child his heart could be moved by. This was softened, just a little, by the results I brought home. And that he could say on Sunday after church to the Pastor, "Oh, Frederick has had, again, such-and-such work published in such-and-such Journal. Pause. In Berlin."

Until I sent him some journals.

For my father I was a cross to shoulder, a burden sent to punish him by the austere Lutheran god which called him, every Sunday, scurrying to rigid benches and warnings of doom. And secrets murmuring in his heart. I have said, we had the war.

It was inspiration, malicious inspiration, to send to him a picture with Ansche, draped all over me. She looked comely, very sexy indeed, in hotpants, and billowing lace. Like a pirate shirt: at her wrists. Not her throat, no, no, not where Papa would have preferred. Ansche had cleavage. What point to deny it? I looked, of course, ridiculous, sitting bare-chested with a beer bottle in my one hand, and a cigarette in the other, which squeezed her thigh. It gave me an extra little bit of pleasure, to know the cigarette was not tobacco. When I was twenty-one or two, such small things gave me that extra pounding in my heart. Affronting my father was simply the biggest rush, no matter what other substances were around.

After the photograph? A very long silence. Eventually, a note came from my mother to say they were pleased I had found a girlfriend at last. But they did not invite Ansche for the holidays. I endured Ulm the usual way, by spending most of my nights in the discos of Stuttgart. I found I attracted considerable attention. In Berlin, with encouragement from Ansche, I had learnt I looked quite delicious in tight leather. Going out, I added black eyeliner, and a little bit of mascara. For the first time in my life, living with a woman, I did not feel dirty because I liked boys.

Ansche. I adored her. She was eighteen years older than me. This, my father learned to his undying shame, when he arrived unannounced to visit his son. My Ansche entertained him. Impeccably. Tea, warmed over a gentle flame, cake, and Herr Steinmuller will stay the night? My father did not stay the night. There was very little he could do, except to tell everyone that his cross had grown heavier. You see, I did not need him. I thanked all of the gods of social services; and if this was not quite enough for me to live by, no matter, my sharp-tongued essays brought good lining to my pockets. All of which was irrelevant. Ansche had enough. For both of us. All of us.

Sometimes my boys stayed for a while. Sometimes they stayed with her. Sometimes there were other girls. It didn't matter. It seemed natural. I loved her.

Gradually I cast away the skin of the pigeon-toed, bony youth who could do nothing to my father's satisfaction. Gradually, also, I discarded the skin of the leather-clad, angry youth who spent so much time ensuring his father's dissatisfaction. As the years went by my father became smaller, a shrunken man condemned to a strange confinement between his fears and his quite futile rituals in dark pews. But my mother's eyes grew softer, and held more space for me, and also for the sadness of so many possibilities left unexplored. I came to understand this as I came to understand what my father had meant, all the years of my growing up, when he said that my wayward inclinations came from her. Later, it was to be my headstrong independence which was leading me to hell, that I got just from her, hapless, stranded so far from her once-free city of the North.

Six, nearly seven, years with Ansche and I emerged a little insolent, a little arrogant, I see that now, although then I thought it was a prerequisite part of confidence. I had always known I was different. But now I did not care. Now, I felt safe, being different. I was strong.

And then, one fine April morning, I wake up and Ansche is cold beside me.

There is nothing more I can discuss. But you see, I do not ever joke when I tell these foolish young students: you play too much with all that stuff, too often, and too much at once. It would help, also, for other members of the faculty to not look at me like I am merely adopting a fashionable pose, when I tell them, be thankful for the plants that do grow freely here, that it is cheap and plentiful and most people do not have to bother with other things.
I wake up and my Ansche beside me is cold. My life is blank, in the random turn from night to day. Nothing helps. No-one comforts. I cannot stay in her house. I cannot stay in her city. I find, even, that I cannot stay in her country, no, not on her continent.

I wake up, another random morning. The sunlight seems not too different from that past, ever-present morning. The sheets are surely the same shade of cream, and they feel the same against my skin. I follow the same waking ceremonies. I piss. I bathe. I drink my espresso. Nothing is different. Give or take a continent. Give or take the years running madly, running very scared and cold and clean, running the cliched route, rebuilding my health like a fanatic. No drugs, no drink, no meat. No sex, but that is easy, for I can look at nobody, not boy, not girl. Ansche, what else is left?

I run.

I send newspapers to the old man. I wonder - is it enough? In losing my whole life, my world, my centre, my safe space, Frederick fleeing deranged through wastelands, Papa, have I suffered enough? I send the old man pictures, and I wonder, does his petulant god feel my pain, in the twist of my mouth, in the bite of my eyes, does he hear the howl of my loss? Does this lighten the weight of my father’s cross?

I no longer care. Even the worst things have their blessings.

So, there I am, past thirty. One random morning, I wake up. The sunlight is not too different from that past, ever-present morning. The sheets are the same shade of cream. They feel as they always do against my skin. I piss. I bathe. I drink my espresso. Outside the leaves are very brilliant, emerald green, and the freshness is giving way to heat. I have not yet gone for my run. I have slept in. Next to me is a young boy, dark, adoring. Slowly, he rubs my chest, he is peering at me from under long, Latin lashes. Now he takes the cup from my hand; now he makes a fresh cup for me. Expertly. Like Mama taught him. A joint is burning its sweet smell through all the rooms. He reaches to take it. I stop him. Let the thing burn itself out, no? When it is finished, I open the papers. I open the glass door and I fling what remains into the breeze.
Something rises, like a song within me. It is so sweet, very poignant, and it will not be stilled. A veil is falling, falling away from me, and I discover that I have reached somewhere I thought was a very long journey still to go: I am Frederick, I feel calm inside, for the first time, for the first time since. Since.

I decide on this day to build my house. I tell him, Vincent, I am going to build a house. In this country. I know it must be upon a mountainside, facing towards the sun. It is there already, I see it in my mind, completed, every detail of it. Stone and glass. Earth and sun. The veil is falling, falling away now, I have been working on this project for a long time; it is only that I did not know, I would not see myself.

For me, then, there has been proof: time heals. And further: everything depends on your view point. One day I am enduring. I am only just hanging on, in a strange, uptight country, in a small university in a job I have never examined. I am adopting the approach of my father: I do everything that is supposed to be good for me. I am sitting blindly in dark pews of my own.

Another fine day, astonished, I wake to discover I like this strange, twisted country. I have more space to be myself. In this small academic community which believes itself to be broad-minded and benevolent and European, I discover I am foreign enough to get away with everything that affronts their small minds. To my deepest surprise, I see I do like people more than the books or canvas or even buildings. I like teaching. I like very much to discover the special strength in a young, unformed talent, and to bring it out. Of course, working with students is being the boy in the change rooms all over again: I have so much opportunity. Do you know how the sunshine makes all of them beautiful? Scottish, Jewish, German extraction, olive-skinned Latin blood; the shine of dark chocolate skin - sunshine works the same miracle on them all.

Despite which, I stay with Vincent. Nearly three years pass. After he leaves the country, fleeing barracks and guns as so many of these fine sun-kissed youths must do, there is a lull. And then Lucy. Like sunburst after Spring rain.

A curious fact: Lucy’s face changed. The frightened face, with enormous, direct eyes peering out from the red leather benches of Pop's, that face was wholly Asian. Lucy needed the city to give permission to her European mouth and to give permission to her creamy skin. To integrate.

About Lucy, the other curious fact: everything was there before I met her. Everything that she was, she had made. It was in place. I, humbly, only made it possible for her to shine.

One late Summer evening I walk to Pop's. For me, this is not a usual thing to do. I am busy working through the first papers of the year. One session can perhaps take all day and all night. It is of no consequence; always, I complete marking in one session. But this night I am restless. And so, at nine o'clock, I am finding my way across the campus. It is still sweltering, in early March, and the mood is frivolous in the cafes. The cafes are full of new students eager to be seen and old ones looking with enthusiasm. In such moments, I can believe I walk through Paris, through Barcelona, again. On this evening, I long to be in Europe because I long to be with Vincent. I feel very alone in the midst of all this strutting, so much grand mating in the bright colours and strong scents of the night.

So I sit. I play with my beer. Tonight I do not want to look up. On this night, I look in. What I see is a trail like the light of a sparkler, glowing all the way back to my desk. This light moves across the grass. It moves through the smell of honeysuckle. It moves over the steps of Great Hall, through the sandy-coloured columns, and it follows my solitary route over the main road, into these bright lights. Expectation. Aah. Something. In my head, a tingling. Something... is going to happen. Always like this, I always know.

I wait. And in the waiting, I feel watched. I look up. I see nothing. So. Another beer. Pop comes over, as he always does, to talk to me, this big swarthy Greek man. I am somehow a reminder to him, of another place waiting for him to retire back to, a far-away continent - I, who can be no paler. And from the wrong side of the war. He talks. Then he nods. "What you make of that?"

The tingling runs all over my head. He is looking behind me. So I turn. And there is what I have come here to find: the frightened face. The very big Asian eyes. Staring. At me. At this time, it is still not usual to see the Orient on a Saturday night amongst these fine sunny specimens of Europe. What I do next is also not usual, not at all in my character. What I do is stand up. In the middle of Pop's words, I walk away.

“I am Frederick.” I extend my hand. The eyes do not move. “May I sit?” She is vulnerable, but, I see, also proud, also strong. So strong she does not hide her fear.
"Lucy Hoang." She extends her hand back to me. Quaint. Formal. It is a slender hand. She does not smile. She says nothing more. I feel I am blushing. How long will this girl stare at me? All the way down my neck, into my spine, the tingling. Suddenly: "Where are you from?"

So it is that she feels safe enough to speak to a foreigner. For in her mind, she too, is clearly a foreigner. An alien. I cannot know, now, how cramped and circumscribed her experiences of South Africa has been. But I can see that she is very young. I can see, for I have been in this place, how she carries some terrible loss, newly happened. Fresh to bear. How to do so, this is part of her pain. I can see she is alone. So this night I do not complete my marking. I take her home.

Copyright © Fonthouse Ltd & respective copyright owners. Enquiries to permissions@african-writing.com.