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Edyth Bulbring

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The Meaning of Books, Blankets, Emily and Me

100 DAYS OF APRIL-MAY was released by Hot Key Books on 5 September and in honour of this here’s a post about books, blankets and my daughter.

Soon after my daughter, Emily turned fourteen years old, things turned rotten between us. I was complete rubbish for a mother and she was the most conflicted of teens. Between us, we managed to mess up one of the most important relationships two women could have. Emily counted the days until she finished school and left home. When she was gone, I wondered if she would ever want to come home again. I was chewed up with regret.

A couple of months after she started her Fine Art degree at the University of Cape Town – a blissful 1400 miles away from me – she phoned home. And no, she didn’t need money. She had been given an assignment that she thought might interest me. It was a tatty book – a Western if I recall correctly – and she had been tasked to make an art object out if it.

The piece of artwork should depict what books meant to her, her lecturer instructed. For sure this interested me. And Emily and I talked about her project. She told me that books were a sanctuary and a source of comfort. They were a place where she found warmth and security. They were her refuge. A place where she could hide and allow her imagination to rule. Emily remembered that when she was very young she used to make a hideaway den out of sheets and blankets. And crawl away into this safe place and be alone with her imagination and her books.

So she took the tatty Western, cut it up into strips and wove herself a blanket.


Emily gave me her book blanket for Christmas. It is the size of a single bed and I have hung it on my wall. Whenever I look at it, I think of Emily and how much we both love books. And how much I love her.

I think if I was to make an art object out of a book, I would make something like a bridge. A small bridge. I’m not very creative when it comes to this sort of thing. But for me, books are the bridge between me and the people I love.

100 DAYS OF APRIL-MAY takes place in 2010, the year the Soccer World Cup came to South Africa. And when a dog we called Alistair moved in next door and drove us crazy by howling all night. It was also that last rough year before Emily left home. When she was gone, I sat down to write 100 DAYS OF APRIL-MAY. I took many of the things that happened in our home during the previous year and turned them upside down and inside out and wove them into a book. It gave me an opportunity to make some of the things that had happened better.

In a few weeks time Emily will turn 21 years old. For her birthday, my mom, Emily’s grandmother has made her a quilt. My mother is brilliant with her hands, but not so good with words. She says things like: “Stop slouching” or “Take your elbows off the table” when what she really means is: “I love you.” The quilt has been made with thousands of tiny stitches and hundreds of small pieces of material and a couple of years of sewing. The quilt says those three words that my mother never says often enough to Emily. Just like all the words that I have stitched into my books.

You can follow Edyth Bulbring on Twitter @EdythBulbring, and read her 100 DAYS OF APRIL-MAY Q&A here!

This post first appeared on the Hot Key Books blog.

Barbara Trapido, Elvis and Me

Twenty-five years ago, when I was younger and arguably dumber than I am now, I boffed my professor at university. (Don’t you love the word boff?)

The professor (let’s call him Elvis) used to drag me to suppers with his colleagues. While they waffled on about paradigms and colonialism of a special type, I guzzled the wine. After an indecent amount of sozzling, I’d toss in my twenty cents’ worth – only confirming the view that I must be hot in the sack (lucky Elvis). Because let’s face it, there was never much empirical evidence of anything tick-tocking away in the grey mush suspended between my multiple ear piercings.

It is during one of these horrible suppers that I meet Barbara Trapido – she being the mother of the Brother of the More Famous Jack, among other novels, and literary icon among English lit majors.

She (let’s call her Barbara) spends most of the evening with her hands in her hair, making tortured noises as she describes the process of writing her new novel. And when she does condescend to say anything to me other than please stop hogging the wine, she says: “And so, what are you going to do when you grow up?” And then she gives me a look like I’m some silly student boffing above my weight. I don’t like her much after that.

This past weekend I attended a supper at the Franschhoek Literary Festival. And found myself seated at the same table as Barbara (now mother of Sex and Stravinsky). She still does the thing with her hands in her hair which makes me want to smack her knuckles. And I still hog the wine, which sets my mouth saying things that make me want to amputate my tongue.

So, after a few sips, I tell Barbara how she had scarred me all those years ago and she says: “Sorry, I was probably being ironic.” She can’t remember me, or the tedious supper, although she still knows Elvis, who is even older than he was, but now has a more age-appropriate partner (who is not a student and so is probably not as hot as me in the sack). And then she says sorry again (“It was irony, I assure you.”), because when she was fifty years younger she also boffed her prof (history guru Stanley Trapido) and all his academic chums treated her like a bimbo and made her feel like rubbish. So sorry yet again – we have shared a common pain.

I tell Barbara I accept her sorries and I’m over it now and it’s fine. And I like her a little better for being so contrite about something she can’t remember saying to someone she can’t ever remember meeting. I like her even more when she gets up to participate on a panel discussion with Zakes Mda (Sometimes There is a Void) and Peter Godwin (The Fear). Because she does what the majority of authors attending the Franschhoek Literary Festival wish they could do – she doesn’t give a monkey’s. She behaves like a fruitcake. And everyone adores her. Mostly everyone.

Imraan Coovadia (Professor), who is chairing the panel, drowns in front of our eyes. Whenever Barbara opens her mouth he stares at her the same way he gazed at me a couple of hours before when I impressed him with some of my more amusing tales (puzzled-despairing-horrified).

Poor Zakes takes refuge in his void while Peter looks like he’s awoken from a bad dream only to find himself sharing a sleeping bag with Robert Mugabe. But he bravely keeps the show on the road, showing no fear or favour to the comma or fullstop. “Random, just random,” he says the next day, still reeling. I guess they don’t get Barbara’s irony.

Barbara gets me thinking about the things we say that hurt or offend people. Things we say when we are being ironic or nervous or have had too much wine. And so instead of waiting twenty-five years, I’m going to say my sorries now. For all the things I said in Franschhoek that could have scarred some young or old soul.

This is a sorry to the very big guy at Taki’s Bar on Saturday night (after Barbara’s function) who I told to shut the fuck up in an ugly un-ironic way. You were irritating me and I was in a bad mood about something and I wanted to pick on the biggest guy in the room and start a fight. Sorry, I was just being mean (but you were loud and annoying).

I am sorry, Justin Cartwright (Other People’s Money). When we shook hands in Taki’s Bar (after Barabara’s malfunction) I wasn’t into it. Everyone had been pressuring me into meeting you and shaking your hand and I don’t like doing what I am told to do. And I was nervous, in case shaking your hand wasn’t as exciting as I had imagined. So if I told you that you were horrible and your previous book was crap (and didn’t just think it, like I’m still hoping), please don’t think too badly of me. I still have a huge literary crush on you even if you are as old as Professor Elvis. (And I do think you are lovely.) (And your last book wasn’t that crap.) (A big sorry.) (Imagine a very contrite face here.)

I am sorry to the very kind lady from one of my favourite publishing houses, who had to listen to me wailing (in Taki’s Bar) about how I would never be a real writer like Henrietta Rose-Innes (Homing) and Meg Van der Merwe (This Place I Call Home) and Doreen Baingana (Tropical Fish), who really are the real deal. I’m snot-boring when I feel useless (and on other occasions too, as Imraan can attest). So thanks very kind person for saying that you are sure I’ll write a decent book one day. You were nice to me and gave me hope and allowed me to smoke all your cigarettes (I quit in March last year – so really, thanks a bunch)

I am sorry Imraan for saying that I enjoyed the first half of your book Black Eyed Peas but not the second half. (People who don’t just totally love your books really suck, don’t they?) And you never corrected me on the title. Even when I said it twice. I was trying to be amusing and ironic. I know it’s really called Green Eyed Fleas. (I still prefer the first half of the book).

And there are probably a dozen more people I should say sorry to for being rude or inappropriate or whatever to in Franschhoek this past weekend. But I can’t. Mostly because I can’t remember, (so sorry-sorry-sorry) But there are one or two instances I remember well and I won’t say sorry because I am not. (You know who you are and I still think you’re a nasty piece of work and a bloody agent.)

And here are a few thank yous.

Thank you to the very big guy in Taki’s Bar for not punching me when I told you to shut the fuck up. You really could have taken me out (so who’s a chicken hey?).

Thank you Paige Nick (This Way Up) for always making me laugh and Ben Williams and Tymon Smith for looking even worse than I felt the morning after Taki’s.

And a very big thank you to all those people at Taki’s Bar who made more of a tit of themselves than me (you all know who you are and I think you are fabulous). And to James Clelland (Deeper Than Colour) who was not at Taki’s Bar but was very, very loud at that restaurant (I could hear you all the way from Taki’s, you Scottish lout).

And thank you Jenny Hobbs (Kitchen Boy) for having the Franschhoek Literary Festival and inviting me. And inviting Barbara Trapido who let me drink all her wine and behaved like she didn’t give a fuck and was off her trolley. I get you Barbara. You are truly ironic. I want to be you when I grow up.

Goodbye, I have left the building

I’m really crap at saying goodbye. Several years ago my father was dying of cancer and I went down to Port Elizabeth to visit him in hospital. It was clear that this would be the last time I would see him. One of the biggest indicators was the doctor advising my mom that he should be moved to Frail Care – a really grim place where patients have their watches stolen by people who don’t think they’ll need them anymore.

Out of the Mouths of Cellphone Addicts

The best and the worst part about writing a book is waiting to hear what people have to say about it once it’s published.

The Place of Stories

There’s a place I go to in the Cape to get my groove back. Sometimes I go there to hang out with my family – like I do these past five weeks over Christmas – and neglect to write this blog. And sometimes I go there to be alone to write books that quality bookshops hide behind their displays of Stephenie Meyers and Dan Browns.

The Naming Game

It’s not easy having the same name as everybody’s Great Aunt Edith. Especially when your parents get original and spell it wrong just to make sure your life is even more miserable.
I am called Weedy Eedy (in my skinny years) and Greedy Eedy (in my fat ones). And then there is Needy Eedy during those grim days when I eat school lunch in the cloakroom in case no one wants to sit with me at break. Warning: this tale gets sadder.

A few guilty pleasures

I have many passions. My top nine are: drinking tea, hardware shops, trees, Old People clothes, rude notes from teachers, a well tossed salad, a compost heap (well tossed), Gregory House and flannel pyjamas. The tenth delight, and possibly topping my list of obsessions, is….

Deon Meyer and Me

I have just finished reading Deon Meyer’s “Thirteen Hours”.

Deon (I am going to call him Deon even though we have never met, because that’s his name and he writes like the kind of person you want to call by his first name and make friends with on Facebook), ok, Deon, to put it bluntly, is a really good crime writer.

There are four things I like about Deon’s books: He makes me feel happy about living in South Africa, because he writes about the country with such respect and affection – even when shit is happening.

The second thing is that his cop-heroes always save the girl. And I like that a lot. These days it’s hard enough to get a guy to take the teabag out of his cup before putting it into the dishwasher, let alone getting him to save you from a bunch of brutes with murder in their hearts. Deon’s cop-heroes are very reliable, which is comforting.

The third thing I like about Deon’s books is that he challenges the way I think about people. Cop-people. After reading Deon’s books I always want to go out and hug a cop, which let’s face it, is about as appealing an idea as eating tofu or cuddling up to Helen Zille. But that’s the way Deon makes me feel about cops. Like they are real people you wouldn’t mind drinking a beer with. This is an interesting feeling for me and I like Deon for making me feel this feeling.

And lastly, Deon writes a really great story. The kind of story you want to read all day in bed when you should be cleaning out the cat box.

These are my thoughts on Deon Meyer after reading his book.

Finding the New Author Me

A few weeks before I go to the Franschhoek Literary Festival I turn old enough to know who I am and what I want from the rest of my life.

I return from Franschhoek after three days not being able to think very clearly at all. For this I blame Porcupine Ridge, one of the sponsors of the Festival, and a handful of authors who made me wish I was anyone other than boring old me – half way to being nearly dead*, writing books only my mother reads.

After my first session on Day One, I want to be French author-philosopher Muriel Barbery. She with the great accent, the endearing shrug – and the sales of her second novel (The Elegance of the Hedgehog). Perhaps if I get a doctorate in Philosophy and write my next book in French it will become a bestseller like Muriel’s? I think on this for about seventeen seconds and conclude I have a better chance of getting the grass stains out of my son’s soccer shorts. C’est la vie.

A couple of sessions later I decide if I can’t be Muriel, then I’ll be Damon Galgut instead. I practise clawing at my forehead in the mirror. I tell my reflection about the pursuit of truth’s grimy edges at any cost. I feel anguished and tortured and stare at myself with eyes that sigh.

Trying to be Damon makes me feel like an imposter in a strange room. I shake my fists in mute desperation when I realise I am too much of a fainthearted slob to be Damon. Angst like his needs serious work.

As darkness falls over Franschhoek I drown my frumpy, middle aged identity in a couple of cases of Porcupine Ridge. I find myself brawling with some lad called Brian, or is it Brad? – who may or may not have something terribly important to do with making the Spud movie. I snort at him like a demented horse when he says (or may not have said) that there is no way, absolutely not a chance in hell I can be The Mermaid or Boggo, or even Gecko – even if my balls have dropped. What is it with these movie people that they have to be so literal?

The next morning I punish my wannabee someone other than hungover me to a session starring Rian Malan, the bad-boy Afrikaner who makes a living saying things that get up people’s nasal passages and irrigate their bowels. Rian wears a hat that could only have been chucked out of a Hospice box. I wonder where I can buy me one.

I watch Rian burbling away. I hold my breath as he pauses for uncomfortable lengths of time. He clutches the air, as though trying to snatch goggas from the air. Is he hungry? Has he got stage fright? He seems lost in thought as he decides which view he should klap us with today.

I too want to defy millinery fashion and opine contrary views which I will piss on the next time I open my mouth. I could be the bad-girl English author, mumbling about in weird hat with attitude.

I’m not sure I can discipline myself to only writing one book every twenty years, so I transfer my identity crisis from Rian (oh my traitor’s heart!) to the more prolific Mark Behr.

I spend an hour with Mark in a hall scattered with people he slept with and lied to.

Mark talks and talks (and talks), wringing his hands and grating his soul – and my head – extracting every penny from my sixty buck entrance ticket in a group therapy session.

Mark makes me want to leap out of the closet and declare myself to be a bastard lesbian and a bloody agent. To confess to the world that I too have a shady past and spent my university career fruitfully ratting on my friends instead of eating cabbage and trying not to get expelled from the Women’s Movement for shaving my legs.

The moment passes. Quickly. And I promise Mark I will forgive him. I will, I will. If he will only stop talking and pass the disprin.

I end my search for the New Author Me over a cup of Five Roses tea with chiclit author Paige Nick. If there is one person at the festival I want to be – more than Muriel or Damon or Rian or even Mark – it’s Paige.

She is a million miles from normal with a sense of humour as warped as the headboard in a brothel and a laugh like a vuvuzela on helium.

If I was Paige I would get to write incredibly hot sex scenes. Sweaty, naked, sucking thrusting sex scenes. Which Damon and Rian and Muriel and Mark would read. And my mother.

I ask Paige to pass the teapot and I pour myself another cup of tea. With two sweeteners and a dash of milk. Just the way I like it.

* Edyth Bulbring is the author of Pops & The Nearly Dead (Penguin; March 2010)

The Festive Season Comes to an End

My nine-year-old son confesses to feeling sad this festive season. He says he doesn’t know why. The sadness creeps up on him without warning. Like a sneeze.

His cousins say he has two very good reasons to feel sad – his sisters. He is abused and kicked around by the two mean teens twenty-four-seven. Poor kid. His mother should do something.

I instruct the two ugly sisters to desist in the use of all words like idiot, fool, retard, imbecile and smelly when addressing their brother. And they should let him win at Monopoly and stop making him cry by hiding the television remote.

It’s not only the boy child who is getting the sadness this merry season. His granny is attacked by loud weeping one night when she’s told to get back into the kitchen and wash the dishes and stop dodging the pots. It’s a joke but Granny doesn’t laugh. Is this all she’s good for? I tell her no, she can also mop the floor when she’s finished the pots. I add ha-ha just in case she has sense of humour bypass twice in five minutes.

The 14-year-old sister gets the sobs when she trips over a tent peg chasing a boy and breaks her clavicle four days before Christmas. She refuses to lie flat on her back for two weeks to let it heal properly. She plays cricket and goes surfing. I tell her she’s going to end up with a knobbly clavicle to match the knob on her nose from when she came short on her bicycle. She says she gives figs. I pretend not to care either.

The children’s father has a bout of the griefs when the television set conks out and he can’t watch Manchester United beat Wigan five nil. I tell him to grow up and read a book. He tells me to write one that pays the mortgage.

I too have reasons to get sad. One of them is that I’m reading Cormac McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses and I know I’ll never be able to write like him. Ever. Even if I rode bareback with John Grady Cole from Texas to Mexico and home. Another reason is that even when his sisters don’t beat him up for drinking milk straight from the bottle, the boy child’s sadness persists. This makes me very blue.

He complains that his head feels heavy with these sad attacks. So heavy that he struggles to open his eyes. And he has an ache in the left side of his chest. He believes it must be his heart. It is terribly sore.

I start to panic. He’s too young for crazy pills and shrinks. I monitor the environment, trying to detect the incidents that are giving him the morbs.

We find an injured dove in the garden being eaten alive by ants. The blood is bright-red. We walk around a squashed frog on the road. The blood is dark-black. We find an unhatched egg on the lawn that contains a half formed bird. It is stinky-grey.

I tell the boy’s father that I suspect our son has realised that he’s mortal. Every second since the day of his birth he’s been slowly dying. He now knows that he’s a small cog in the circle of life. It’s making him sad.

I weep when I say this. The burden of knowledge upon such young shoulders must be intensely painful. I weep some more.

The boy’s father says I’m talking complete crap. The reason for the child’s sadness is a simple one – he’s finally figured out that Father Christmas doesn’t exist.

I’m not convinced. Evidence that he’s keeping the faith hangs in a letter to Father Christmas by the fireplace. Daer Santa I howp you have a mery crismas. I wood like .

One of the gift requests should be a dictionary. But no, it’s a rosary. I ask my mother where in hell am I going to find a rosary? She begs me to hold off for another year and save the child from Rome by taking him to an Anglican church for the next 52 Sundays. He can get a PlayStation game instead.

I analyse all the conversations between my son and me. Probing them for cynicism or doubt. Conversations about whether Father Christmas prefers crackers and beer to cookies and milk? And how Father Christmas will know where to bring his presents if we aren’t having Christmas at home this year. I detect no Doubting Thomas.

But it is the question: what are all those presents doing in the back of your cupboard? that hits the alarm button. There’s a kernel of truth to his father’s diagnosis. The boy has doubts.

I discuss how to deal with the Father Christmas issue with the teen sisters. The 14-year-old says it’s about bloody time the boy genius finally caught on to the con. She was beginning to think he was seriously slow. He should keep his sadness to himself and do what she did when she twigged at the age of five: keep pretending to believe. You end up getting lots more presents.

I tell her she’s not allowed to call her brother a boy genius in that tone of voice. Or in any of the 11 official languages. Else I’ll break her other clavicle.

The 17-year-old believes we should have a frank and open discussion about the whole Father Christmas issue. She’s going through a truth and transparency phase. I tell her she’s got the job. She says no ways, you’re mad (and fat and boring and all the other sad truths she’s shared with me during this full disclosure phase). We decide to leave it and rotate the suicide watch.

After Christmas has taken its course, and the boy has been allowed to hug his sisters (a twice a year occurrence – birthdays and Christmas) he and I are lying in bed chatting before sleeptime.

I carefully broach the Father Christmas issue. So, what are your thoughts on Father Christmas? I ask.

He says that he understands things were different this year. He knows we bought his presents and his father put them by the tree. He heard him stumbling about and scoffing the crackers. But next year we’ll do Christmas at home. Father Christmas won’t be confused and will know where to come. Things can go back to normal.

I put my arms around him and his skin feels gritty from the beach and he smells like sunscreen. And like a boy who tries never to bath or wash his hair. I breathe in that smelly boy smell and hold him tight.

He tells me to geddoff. Let go.

Fat chance, I tell him. And hold him tighter.

This article originally appeared in the Sunday Times