Going where the weather suits my clothes

Woke up from a dream in which a long forgotten short story rose up from its dusty grave and emerged whole and even plausible. Each paragraph was a rope ladder leading up into the irreproachable skies, knotted but easy enough to climb.


Listening to the music and lyrics of Harry Nilsson. A break from listening with intense and sometimes baffled concentration to Arvo Pärt‘s Da Pacem Domine, compositions of such staggering intricacy they give me toothache in my left temple.


The magnificent Dubravka Ugrešić

One has to earn the right to write, the right to “a voice.” I propagated an old-fashioned apprenticeship. I was a passionate reader from an early age. I studied comparative literature. I wrote about other writers. I translated them, too, from Russian to Croatian. I assembled anthologies. I edited, selected, and collected works of classical writers (Chekhov and Gogol, for example). I edited scholarly editions. I did a bit of literary history, criticism, and theory. I rediscovered some forgotten Russian writers (such as Leonid Dobychin and Konstantin Vaginov) and wrote about them. I think that the notion of a literary work ethic is extremely important, especially today when practically anybody can write, produce, and distribute his or her own work. This work ethic presupposes knowledge and a deep respect toward—and compassion for—your ancestors and contemporaries, toward your trade. It also assumes a deep awareness of what one is doing, why one is doing what one is doing, what the sense of the work is, what it brings to the cultural context, what it brings to the reader, and so on and so forth.


Expecting another major  cold front, snowfalls on high ground the day after tomorrow, taking out extra blankets and rugs. I fold up and put away my little white muslin cloth used to hang dripping balls of  homemade paneer or  grated cucumber for raitas. I look at the sodden garden strewn with broken twigs and piles of dog shit. The towels in the bathroom are damp and if the sun comes out I can put them out to dry properly. We’re going to eat spinach and mushroom lasagna tonight, a lasagna supper two days running because  it was very yummy and  can’t be wasted. Translate: I made too much.

Oh, this provisional perplexed existence.

And how quickly it is passing, how life itself is press-ganged by time so that I stop worrying about how life is supposed to work or be understood and just notice with alarm how life is getting away from me, the yesterdays flying off with a brisk flap of wings. After hours comparing  fonts, formats, cover designs, working out proportions, making notes on image quality (another project), I look up from my desk and  noon has come and gone, the morning vanished. The landscape outside is settling into afternoon, the unglam sturdy old oil heater warming the corner of the living room where the dogs sleep. Up, up, up! They must go out and  run about, get some fresh air, drink water, I must eat a slice of seed loaf with cheese or sliced tomatoes. Turning around in the kitchen, bemused by some  dialogue my characters have come up with all by themselves, hackneyed and  unusable, I see the shadows  deepen to blue under trees and it is evening, time to light the fire, put on the kettle, stop work. Answer the phone, reply to emails, chat and  settle to supper. And what is unrecorded is unremembered, the day heading off in haste like some acquaintance whose name I can’t think of right now, middle-aged day with a foreign name and a habit of blinking too hard when asked a direct question. So then, that was yesterday, not unlike the yesterday before. And did I  work hard enough, did I have fun?

Secrets of the wannabe vegetarian

How to always make (reasonably) great vegetarian food. Mushrooms are my secret, tiny field mushrooms  all buttery on toasted sourdough. Shiitake mushrooms, stir-fried with crunchy baby bok choy and  tofu, seasoned with soy, garlic and ginger. Big black earthy mushrooms in a chickpea curry or  in a black bean chilli. Three mushroom tagliatelle with garlic. My favourite standby, mushroom risotto with  dried porcini broth and fresh mushrooms. Delicate oyster mushrooms, a few wild mushrooms and goat’s cheese in a frittata. Portobello mushrooms in a Shroom Wellington with pastry. Vegan wild mushroom stroganoff. Spicy mushroom stuffing for  roasted butternut. Lentil and mushroom shepherd’s pie. Lentil and mushroom anything. Mushrooms, grilled aubergine, pesto and Parmesan topping for pizza.


Oh, and avocado. Because a ripe avocado makes salads sing. Guacamole in  summer. Mashed avo with a little lemon juice and black pepper is  bliss anytime.


I realised when I was travelling all around the world for work, mostly unhappily, that in South-East Asia and India most people are vegetarian or even vegan, and there are thousands of sophisticated extraordinary dishes that use only vegetables. Cooking vegan or vegetarian can be as easy as doing or as difficult as cooking meat dishes. Respect for the veggies is the first step.


My  initial  eureka moment was eating an atrocious  watery  cabbage and tomato curry in a communal student house in the early ’80s and  thinking, “Even I could do much better than this.” I couldn’t boil an egg when I left home and ate what I had grown up eating,  mostly grey mince on toast, flaccid burgers, greasy chips. Fortunately, I was a greedy little person and when I found a new and shockingly bursting-with-flavour food culture on a study tour of Italy, I  came  back home and began rethinking my relationship with food. I couldn’t afford to eat out and that was  how I learned to cook. It had never occurred to me then that you  did more  with veg than put them in a pot of  water, boil them and then dutifully consume them alongside the main attraction,  meat or fish. Vegetables were (depressingly) good for you. But that  vegetarian  curry disaster  showed me that I needed to  consider everything from turnips to tomatoes, coleslaw and kohlrabis.


Yes, there are ethical considerations, health factors and soapboxes for many  around this issue — but for me vegetables simply taste wonderful when cooked well. I feel lighter and yet satisfied.

The language of my family was silence

Grateful for that bright shivery nimbus of light from my little solar jar. Power cuts get me down, much as I love the tickling glimmer of tea lights in ceramic holders and coloured glasses. Rooms that  are all shadows and  pools of gentle light.

After a night without light, to see the cold brilliant glow of sunrise. What was known for centuries, how we waited in darkness and longed for the dawn.


Healing work — to reconnect with the side of my mother’s family that is black Zimbabwean and ostracised for many years, the scandal of  white men marrying tribal women. My family spoke several languages but mostly relied on silence,  what could not be mentioned at all. What wasn’t mentioned didn’t exist. This side of my family, though, are who that will go on living and belonging in Africa, not foreign interlopers or colonial intruders, those who  will see their children playing with clay toys in the dust of Kadoma, under the great rocks of Ruwa. Wondering, as a prohibited citizen barred from returning for good, if I will ever be free to live in the country where I was born, amongst my own people, speaking the Karanga tongue I learned as a small child, watching the msasa trees turn red in autumn. Panoda mwoyo, nzira haisviki. Where the heart longs to be, the path never reaches.


Thinking too of the first Kenyan-American president travelling in Kenya this week and visiting his father’s family, saying, “In the end, we are all a part of one tribe, the human tribe.” His speeches so badly misreported in the US media that it sounded as if he went around hectoring Kenyans on human rights, as if those debates were not already taking place across many African countries. I give up sometimes on  any notion of journalistic integrity.


Fathers and sons, differing identities. From Teju Cole’s Open City:


In February of my third year, my father was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and by April he was dead. Our relatives, my father’s relatives in particular, were hysterical, too present, too eager to help and demonstrate their grief, but my mother and I countered them with stoicism. This must have baffled people. But they did not know that our stoicism was disunited, my mother and I saying little to each other, our glances full of dark rooms. Only once did I interrupt that silence. I told my mother that I watned to see my father, but not the body in the morgue. I was asking to have him restored to me and to life, pretending to an innocence, that, at fourteen, I no longer had. Julius, she said, what is the meaning of this? It seemed to her a cruelty, this obvious pretense, and her heart was doubly broken.

The name Julius linked me to another place and was, with my passport and my skin color, one of the the intensifiers of my sense of being different, of being set apart, in Nigeria. I had a Yoruba middle name, Olatubosun, which I never used. That name surprised me a little each time I saw it on my passport or birth certificate, like something that belonged to someone else but had been long held in my keeping.


Zim road