tight-lipped stanza

These poems are inspired by lines and phrases from the TLS. I’d like to think, as an occasional reviewer, that knowing that someone out there might be inspired by a line I write, might also inspire me to write better reviews. The reviewing process is one that I am increasingly puzzled by. All the material that has been written about Coetzee’s Summertime hasn’t helped, although there was one I did enjoy reading – James Meek’s in the Guardian Review a few weeks back. I’ve been a big fan of Meek ever since I read his The Museum of Doubt, a collection of fantastic short stories. Nevertheless, I think Meek was wrong to describe Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K as “an eerily colour-blind account of its eponymous hero’s odyssey from the city to the wilderness and back in a South Africa enduring an imaginary war”. No South African reader or indeed, no reader with some experience of southern Africa, could possibly read Michael K as a colour-blind text. From geography and time it is fair to assume that Michael K is, what the South Africans call, a Coloured. (Let me come clean with you here: I did a very unscientific survey of South African reader-friends, asking them what they thought and they all said, without doubt, that he is a Coloured.) I assume that what Meek means is that Coetzee doesn’t explicity tell us the colour of Michael K’s skin, which rather gives away (sorry Meek) the reviewer’s inevitable bias: that everybody is colourless (or white?) unless we are told otherwise. Perhaps I can try and articulate that a little clearer and suggest that white readers from countries with majority white populations (people, in other words, who rarely have to consider themselves as other and may never have experienced being a visual minority) shouldn’t need to be told what colour someone is so explicitly. There are other markers other than the pigmentation, which is what can make texts so interesting: they force us to understand race and identity from different and, I’d suggest, more interesting perspectives. Meek also doesn’t appear to have picked up on the racial identity of the student in Disgrace who is taken advantage of /seduced by the white lecturer. She, too, is a Coloured, and yet it might take a thorough reading and some hints from a South African for the foreign reader to pick up on the subtle uses of language that point to this. When I first read Disgrace, a lot of detail passed me by, including this. I had assumed the student was black until I was corrected by a South African who encouraged me to read the text again, a little more thoroughly and with a little more attention to discourse and language.


Talking of reviews, there is a fine Diary piece in the LRB last week about the state of Royal Mail which I can highly recommend. See, I’m not always critical of their diaries.