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Kgebetli Moele

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

A Seasonal Talk with the River


Six writers: writers in residence at the University of Iowa, valued guests of the International Writing Program and citizens of the UNESCO City of Literature, Iowa – by virtue that they are writers residing somewhere within the university library, the public library, the book shops and few, well hopefully many residential homes. Take a walk just to unwind on the Iowa River. He is lucky river, Iowa River, because he knows from the bottom of his heart somewhere on his river bed that he is a river in the City of Literature therefore a River of Literature because all the time during this season; fall. Every year for the past 44 years, 30 or so writers come to unwind at his banks, from jet lag. They claim.

Amongst these six writers is an African writer, Mandeletli. They characterise him as a fiction writer but unknown to the people – literates – we are in the city of literature. He is a persona fiction. Writers, used generally, which include authors, creative writers, journalist, the others and the politicians, write far better when they are high, stimulated by dagga – sorry we are in America – when they are induced by marijuana.

But Mandeletli is intoxicated by life giving oxygen; you just have to look at the guy. Look at him. The high level of oxygen in the Iowa City air is far better than the oxygen levels in Johannesburg because of the development of ethanol as a means of fueling cars in Iowa. The air in Johannesburg has too much carbon monoxide, which prevented Mandeletli from being evidently high to his fellow South Africans.

He went unnoticed too in the rural areas because the rural people cook primitively, paraffin, wood or coal. Worse, they burn tyres in winter to warm up, further strangling the oxygen in the air. Then he came to Iowa City, the City of Literature and the oxygen level in the air rises and so is the level of intoxication in Mandeletli. He is high.

Aware of this fact that he is inebriated by only life giving oxygen, he doesn’t drink any alcohol or smoke creativity inducing marijuana or take any of those legal drugs that Americans love so much.

Mandeletli is nothing at all. Short with an enormously huge empty head and cat whiskers for a beard. He thinks he is a man, a soldier who has seen it all and survived, but he is not at all. The world has defeated him long ago and forgot that he was ever a living being. He talks but he is not really sure what he is talking about. He writes. He is a writer, of course, but maybe the literati of the City of Literature are familiar with what he has written.

How he came to be part of the writers still beats his forever-intoxicated head basket. In Africa, he is a nobody who wrote two award-winning novels. About what? Nobody knows and, of course, nobody cares in Africa.

“You wrote two books? Good. You are representing.” His homeboys pat his shoulder.

“I saw you on television, by the way, how much did they pay you?” So his fellow countrymen ask him. In Africa, he is just a shadow. The “hobo with the manuscript”, they mock him continually. And yes, he has manuscripts gathering digital dust in his Chameleon Age IBM laptop as heavy as his head and as fast as a chameleon.

Mandeletli is saddened by the fact that he is staying at a 500-dollar-a-day hotel, let alone the stars. He just doesn’t know how to tell the IWP, convince them to give him all the money they will pay the hotel and let him stay at the basement of house number 430 South Clinton Street. 500 by 13. Damn. He converts it into rands then curses hard. Calculating the “what ifs”.

He is talking pictures of the unwinding walk on the banks of the ever-flowing Iowa. In his heart he has already bedded the short – a dwarf to be precise – thin, sexy Pablo Escobar. Though he fears to say anything to that effect to her. Rejection is a deadly thing to a defeated man’s ego because even though he has nothing to lose, he has himself to lose. But little Pablo does not disappoint him, she pauses for his camera and does as he commands.

Pablo is suffering from writer’s block. She wants to use the days in the program to produce something that would catapult her beyond just an author to a fucking bestseller. She has had it with being a poor writer. A writer in a country bedded by poverty and drug-dealers. She is hoping to capture the United States market but then she hates Americans. Anyway she is forgiven, with the understanding that money is money no matter where it comes from. She has had it with the mud hut that she lives in and time is running out, man pause is not far away and children need money, space and then love to grow.

Pablo is dreaming of India, the Ganges and her marriage vows. But India is a shit country as well, even Gandhi agrees, but Gandhi agrees with total love and devotion of her country India but she secretly wishes that the program was a lifelong program so that, she never again sees her “green eyed thief” that she was forced into marriage with from the day she was born. She even did away with the mark of marriage on her forehead with hopes of starting over. Gandhi wanted to buy her husband a sweater that read “I love my wife” but she knows that he would not wear it because he does not love her and even if there were no big leaves of palm trees, he would not wear the sweater. He would rather go naked.

Then there is Jackie Chan, who is still in disbelief mode; he refuses to believe that he is in America and thinks that he will wake up any moment. The fact that the military regime in Burma finally gave him a passport after denying him for 16 years brings him to tears. He is walking on the banks of the Iowa River that not so long ago was flooding a half mile high. He has cried so much in his hotel room and he is breaking up again, wiping away the tears that are flooding like the Iowa River was. The passport is the miracle of his life and it is the theme of the novel that he is going to write. Jackie is dreaming of taking political refugee status and building his fortune in this land of the free, the paranoid and the deadly bored.

But the greatest of them all is Diego Maradona; the self appointed leader of this pack of six poor-hopeful writers, she is pulling them by the nose. She has lost too much weight. She doesn’t believe that she is in the United State either. How did they let her in; it beats her because the United States hates drug addicts and they hate her. She doesn’t know. She wants to be arrogant as always but she is in the States and shit she needs a shot of Angel Dust down her nose or she will soon go crazy. She detests the idea of continuing lecturing masters of soccer to university students for her whole life. She needs to retire from football, sorry, soccer – we are in America. She too is hoping that she could write one, a novel that could make it on the top 10 of all time American bestsellers.

Last is Chairman Mao, she has subtitled nearly all the United States of America films most of her work life. She is confused because the United States she knew and fell in love with through subtitling films is not in any way near the Literary City, Iowa. She could be alright with a good Swazi spliff – sorry, Swazi marijuana. She wants to believe that she is 22 but she knows that menopause has come and gone. Her brain cells do miss a point now and then. Age has aged her. This is her year, her stars are all shining and all she needs to do is just claim the stage with a killer novel.

The literary river is listening not to them breaking the ice and the jetlag but to their thoughts. It responds but they are too jetlagged to listen; too busy unwinding to hear the river. Too absorbed with what they want out of their 90 days in the United States America to listen and take advice from the river, but it continues to flow, flow flowing in silent grace. Silently whispering conversations that all the six writers want to hear but none ever heard, as did other 1400 writers who walked this banks of the River of Literature because they too, were too consumed in their egos. As our six writers are frenzied by how are they going to capitalise to the maximum of their 90 day stay in the United States.

The river flows wordlessly
The river surges gracefully
The river murmurs beautiful words
It means beautiful, isn’t it?

First published in Chronic Books no. 004 – supplement of the Chimurenga Chronic


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