A Marvelous South African YA Novel: ‘Dreaming of Light’ by Jayne Bauling

You’re probably tired of hearing me mention that I spent 2 months in South Africa in 2011. Well anyway, I did, and I have a lingering infatuation with the country. So when I spotted the little paperback Dreaming of Light among the pile of IBBY 2014 Honour List books, I knew instinctively that I was going to have to read it. And I am so, so glad that I did.

Dreaming of Light by Jayne Bauling

Dreaming of Light is a mere 111 pages, but it’s richer than some novels twice or even three times that length. When I was nearly finished with the book, I read the brief author bio pasted within the front cover and was completely unsurprised to learn that Jayne Bauling is a well-known poet. The prose in Dreaming of Light is so simple, light, and beautiful that I knew no one except a poet could have spun those gossamer phrases. Fitting, then, that it was included on the 2014 IBBY Honour List for the quality of its writing.

Mostly I think about light, especially the sun’s light, but also all the other sorts of light there are. The light you get when you’re up there and outside at night — the white brightness from a big moon, or the thin smile of light when it still has to grow. The bristly points of light from stars, whole masses of them clustered close together, growing into a swirling spill like milk dropped in water. (p. 16)

The novel is narrated by an 18-year-old boy, a foreign zama zama from Swaziland (that itty, bitty, country just to the right of South Africa that people always seem to forget exists). Like the other illegal immigrants from Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Lesotho, as well as desperately poor South Africans eager for any work they can find, Regile Dlamini is more or less a slave, a disposable zama zama, known only by that derogative Zulu term used to describe the unfortunate men and boys who toil below the Earth’s surface in previously shuttered mines.

It troubles me when people make noise underground. These rock tunnels have their own sounds, the creaks and groans as troubling as explosions or the roar of rockfall. I imagine men’s noise competing against the earth’s voice, and the earth resenting it, and shifting to punish us. (p. 24)

When I started this book, I assumed that it was set 40, 50, even 60 years ago during South Africa’s mining boom. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. It seems that illegal mining has been on the rise in South Africa as recently as the past few years. An article in Bloomberg describes how an estimated 14,000 workers spend months at a time below the Earth’s surface, working to extract ever-more-difficult-to-find gold in mines that were long ago declared too dangerous to work in. This criminal industry generates $6 billion Rand a year, which explains why people are willing to break through the thick slabs of concrete covering mine entrances, force young men and boys recruited illegally from neighboring countries down into the shafts, and refuse to let them re-surface until months afterwards. As you can imagine, many of the workers die from being forced to live underground for weeks, either from exhaustion, poor nutrition, tunnel collapses, or carbon monoxide poisoning.

A substantial percentage of the workers toiling in the mines are children. Bauling’s conflicted hero Regile Dlamini is only 18, yet he has hardened far beyond his years. It is only with the arrival of a hopeful Mozambican boy, Taiba Nhaca, and his small friend, Aires, that the last traces of humanity are awakened within Regile.

Taiba waxes lyrical about the legendary Spike Maphosa, a former South African zama zama who allegedly escaped from the mine in which he was forced to work. Now Spike spends his time working to liberate other children from the same fate. Regile no longer believes that Spike Maphosa exists; indeed, neither do any of the other boys in the mine — except for Taiba. Eventually, Taibi wears through Regile’s tough exterior, reawakening the small kernel of kindness lodged deep within Regile’s largely hopeless existence.

Bauling has remarked that although her YA novels are quite dark, she suspects that they are helpful for children and teenagers facing many of the challenges discussed in her books:

I think teens want and possibly need to read about people their own age facing the same challenges as they do. It’s a way of knowing they’re not alone, and while my stories can be quite dark, I believe they also offer a spark of hope. (source: interview from For Books’ Sake)

The plot of Dreaming of Light might seem farfetched, exaggerated, blown out of proportion, but sadly it isn’t at all. It’s hard to imagine that level of desperation and greed unless you’ve seen it yourself — not that I really have; I’ve just come closer to observing it than some people, I suppose. One would think that by 2014, child trafficking for illegal and often fatal mine work wouldn’t be happening in South Africa, but it is. And perhaps most tragically, there doesn’t seem to be much compassion toward the illegal immigrants who flee even worse economic conditions in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland, and elsewhere for a chance at something like prosperity in the relative powerhouse that is South Africa. Just have a look at some of those comments on the Bloomberg article. Racism and xenophobia, that. I remember that when I was in South Africa, people always warned me to be on the lookout for “dangerous Nigerians,” who were supposedly criminal by nature. (I bumped into one at the beach. He wanted my phone number.)

Back to the book. As I’ve said before, it’s beautifully written. Here are a few more of my favorite passages:

Telling someone things about myself gives me a wrong feeling, as if some other person is using my voice, speaking through my mouth. (p. 14)

As if we aren’t facing enough dangers here, forcing the angry earth to give us its gold. (p. 30)

‘It’s a story like smoke, I think. No one can catch it because there’s nothing there. It changes all the time.’ (p. 31)

Will he have turned mad, lost his mind? Become a creature of the darkness? He must belong to the earth after so long. Maybe he won’t want to come out. Won’t want to leave the mine. (p. 43)

I lie on the mattress and stare up at the sky I haven’t seen for so long. The trails of massed stars look like swirls of foam. (p. 61)

‘His hope is in you, Regile.’ Katekani’s voice drops into such thoughts like the first plop of rain into the dust and the end of the dry season. (p. 95)

I don’t want to give away the ending, but suffice it to say that a few tears may have been shed. I was so relieved on Regile’s behalf; I never wanted him to have to go back down into the mine, ever again.

Dreaming of Light is undoubtedly a dark story, not least because everything that is described in the book is actually happening in South Africa. This is one of those rare cases in which I would advise sticking with the recommended age, 12+. It’s almost universally adored on Goodreads, and it is a quick, simple, moving — and ultimately, hopeful — read. Jayne Bauling has a newfound admirer in me. I hope to read many more of her YA novels, starting with E Eights and Stepping Solo.

Overall rating: 5/5

Clint Eastwood does South Africa: Invictus (2009)

Today’s review of Invictus marks the conclusion of  my mini-series on South African films.

Invictus movie poster

Unfortunately, last week’s film, Tsotsi, was clearly the peak of the series. I was skeptical about Invictus to begin with, as I am not a fan of cliche sports films. Yeah yeah yeah, the team is really bad and struggling at the start of the movie, and every game is touch and go, but of course you know that they are going to win in the end!

However, if you like sports films and you didn’t think that Moneyball, for example, was a complete waste of time and resources, then perhaps you will enjoy Invictus–provided you also like Hollywood melodrama and that undeserved warm tingly feeling that you get after watching this type of pat-yourself-on-the-back-because-goldarnit-humanity-really-is-great-at-the-end-of-the-day kind of film.

So, what did I like about the movie? Well, for one thing, it certainly does have a heavy sense of gravitas. The wide, panning camera angles are well-suited for the swooping shots of the stadium. Unfortunately, the camera doesn’t really ever change, such that EVERYTHING in the movie ends up looking EPIC, even the shantytowns. Yes, we get it, Clint Eastwood–a shitty rugby team gets inspired by Nelson Mandela and at the end of the film there’s a big golden trophy and everybody shakes hands and racism is over!!! Because sports.


Ok, tone down the sarcasm, Alina. Matt Damon’s portrayal of rugby captain Francois Pienaar is quite good, but that’s no surprise–he’s a consistently solid actor. Morgan Freeman looks a lot like Nelson Mandela, especially in profile, but his attempt at a South African accent is laughable. The subplot with the white Afrikaner security guards and the black South African security guards is corny and awful. I did think that the movie did a pretty good job of capturing Mandela’s slightly self-deprecating sense of humor, and I also appreciated that Clint Eastwood didn’t gloss over Mandela’s familial troubles–including his fraught separation from his wife of 36 years, Winnie.

That, however, is the extent of my appreciation. Instead  of continuing to whine, I thought I would try to find out how South Africans responded to the 2009 movie. What specifically did they take issue with? Well, just about everything:

  • This movie was an unbelievable let down. As a South African who experienced the new S.A. triumph for a great moment in the world’s eye, I was shocked to see how Eastwood made an effort, not to make an effort…Rubbish…Even though I always thought Freeman would make a great Madiba [Mandela]…He butchered Madiba’s middle name. His accent sucked!” (quoted from here)
  • As a South African die-hard rugby fan – and fan of Madiba of course – I vowed never to see this “Hollywood treatment” of one of my country’s proudest moments ever. Eastwood has no business making a one-dimensional, gushy, sentimental mockery of all I hold dear for his own soap-box purposes. Who the hell does he think he is?? And a rugby movie? For Americans?” (quoted from here)
  • “…this movie is…obviously made – well made, mind you – by people of a different age, place and time who have fused the authentic with something that isn’t quite right. The author is a British journalist who covered South Africa, the screenwriter is a non-rugby loving ex-patriate South African living in Morro Bay, California…the director and the two lead actors are American. As good a job as they did technically, something got lost in the mix. Instead of being too lively, this movie is, if anything, muted – even somber. You’d have to wonder what it would look like if a South African director had made it. What if, say, Gavin Wood (Tsotsi) or an up-and-coming African director had done it, how different would it would be?” (quoted from this excellent review; emphasis added)
  • Of course, we — my family and I — always get frustrated when Americans are cast as South Africans, when we know there are quality South African actors out there (especially in the wake of District 9), and that resentment was still present as I watched Invictus. While much of the supporting cast was comprised of genuine South Africans, seeing the leads go to Americans inevitably smarts a bit, regardless of how good a job they may do. Of course, we also realize the realities of the situation — unless you’re making a movie about alien invasions, it’s unlikely you’re going to do much business at the box office (the brilliant Tsotsi is the perfect example of that, a fantastic film that no one saw).” (quoted from another excellent review)

So, as you can clearly see, there are many, many troubling things about this movie. Just pretend this movie doesn’t exist and go watch Tsotsi instead!

Overall, though, I hope you’ve enjoyed this mini-series on South African films — even if there were a couple of duds thrown into the mix! The lovely Shelley from Travel-Stained suggested that I ought to watch some South Korean films as my next project, and I couldn’t agree more! I’ve hardly seen any of them, and that should be rectified. Cheers.

Overall movie grade: C

All the films reviewed: District 9 || A Dry White Season || Cry, the Beloved Country || Red Dust || Tsotsi 

Tsotsi (2005): Conscience of a Killer

This movie is wonderful. It also marks a historic moment on my blog: It’s the first film I’ve reviewed in full that will be awarded the ever-elusive “A” grade.

The word “tsotsi” means “thug” or “robber” in Sesotho, one of the 11 official languages of South Africa. It is the name given to the titular character, a deeply troubled young man living in one of the many shantytowns surrounding Johannesburg, and also the name of this extraordinary film. By selecting a generic term and using it as a name, the film becomes a metaphor about not just the particular “thug” on whom the movie focuses, but everyone who falls into that harsh and desperate category.

Tsotsi is a seemingly unredeemable thief whose depressed and nihilistic attitude towards life causes him to lash out uncontrollably, both at the subjects of his crimes as well as his closest friends. The opening sequence of the film shows Tsotsi and his three fellow thugs watching, following, mugging, and finally needlessly murdering a businessman on a crowded train in plain view of the public.

Tsotsi gang of 4

Later, at the local pub , Tsotsi’s educated friend–whom everyone teasingly calls “Boston” and “The Professor”–starts criticizing Tsotsi for allowing the murder of a decent man. The breaking point comes when Boston questions whether Tsotsi has any meaningful relationships in his life, and here we are afforded the first brief glimpse into the rage and sadness broiling beneath Tsotsi’s turbulent expression. He beats Boston brutally, then storms out of the pub in anger, recklessly hijacks a car in a rich neighborhood, and shoots the car’s owner, a woman, in the process.

Little does Tsotsi know the real reason behind the woman’s distress–after all, when there’s a gun in your face, how much does a car (even a very nice one) matter? The answer comes screaming a few moments later, when Tsotsi discovers something buckled into the backseat…

Tsotsi baby in the backseat

Tsotsi briefly considers abandoning both car and baby alongside the highway, but the little bit of conscience he has left forces him to turn around. He stuffs a paper shopping bag full of blankets, and carefully places the baby inside. The next morning,  he wakes up in his shack and remembers with a jolt what transpired the night before.

With a new, pure presence in his life, Tsotsi starts the slow, sputtering process of transforming himself from a bad man into a better one. The first test comes in the form of a jeering, crippled man who lives in the train station. It’s clear that Tsotsi is sorely tempted to kill him–but instead, he asks the man why, with his broken legs, he bothers to continue living. It’s a surprisingly touching moment, one of only many in the film.

Tsotsi soon realizes that he has no idea how to take care of a baby, and forces a young woman, Miriam, to breastfeed the stolen baby at gunpoint. She reluctantly does so, but eventually–over the course of many fraught conversations–is able to convince Tsotsi to return the baby to its mother. The dynamic between Miriam, who is empathetically portrayed by the beautiful Terry Pheto, and Tsotsi is another highlight of the film, as each slowly learns to trust the other.

Tsotsi Miriam

All the while, dark memories from Tsotsi’s past make their way to the surface. There are flashes of an abusive, alcoholic father; a wasted and AIDS-riddled mother; a beaten dog with a broken back; and an unhappy, rainy night spent sleeping in a concrete drainpipe.  It’s a credit to actor Presley Chweneyagae and director Gavin Hood for not making these sequences overwrought. Instead, they are used to effectively illuminate Tsotsi’s internal struggle, as well as reveal that beneath the discomforting quietness, there is a man grappling with more hardship than any single human being should be expected to recover from.

There are so, so many things that this movie does incredibly well, but I don’t want to spoil the ending. I do recommend, however, that you watch it immediately (it is streaming on Netflix). I will briefly discuss a few more of its strong points before signing off.

Tsotsi baby hill

Tsotsi is a moral story in more than one way. Woven into the exploration of crime is a critique of the vast inequality in South Africa. Tsotsi and his friends never claim that they commit crimes in the hope of becoming rich, for that is simply unrealistic; rather, they commit atrocities out of  economic and emotional desperation. The shantytown in which they live lacks paved roads and plumbing, yet just a train ride away is a gloriously rich neighborhood filled with mansions. When faced with insurmountable odds and that kind of dichotomy, what choice does one have?

The setting and dialogue are also extremely on-point. This movie looks like South Africa. It feels like South Africa. And, perhaps most important, it sounds like South Africa. The characters speak a mish-mash of Sesotho, English, Xhosa, Afrikaans, and who knows what other languages, often switching from one dialect to another mid-sentence. This is how contemporary South Africans speak; they express themselves in multiple languages, and select the right words to fit their meaning from a vast array of options. It’s quite beautiful when you think about it–as for me, limited to English as I am, it’s startling to realize that there are some ideas I can’t even contemplate  because words to describe them don’t exist in my language. The film’s authenticity in these and other aspects simply solidifies its moral message all the more.

And, like many of the films that I love, the ending of Tsotsi is ambiguous. I was watching the film with a group of people at the library, and it took considerable effort not to let the tears spill down my cheeks. When you have sorrow and hope working on that many levels simultaneously, it’s impossible not to be moved.

Overall grade: A

P.S. As I mentioned, Tsotsi is currently streaming on Netflix in the United States. Watch it before it goes away! Roger Ebert also gave the film a perfect rating, if you’d care to read his review.

Image sources:   1   2   3  4

Politicians Don’t Cry: Red Dust (2004)

Welcome to part 4 of my mini-series on South African films! Up for review this week is Red Dust, a not-so-well-known British film directed by Tom Hooper of The King’s Speech and Elizabeth I fame. Don’t get me wrong–I did enjoy those two movies. But Hooper was also responsible for the absolute catastrophe that was 2012’s Les Misérables. I am completely serious when I say that it is one of the worst films I have ever seen, which is a shame, because as Lisa’s heartfelt review of the novel proved, it’s a classic tale about “pure human kindness.” So, that said, I am not surprised that Red Dust failed to live up to its potential.

red dust movie poster

To be honest, this movie would have been greatly improved without the presence of Hilary Swank. I thought Swank was excellent in Million Dollar Baby and Boys Don’t Cry, but I am at a loss to explain her utter lack of acting ability in Red DustHer performance is cringeworthy; she takes lines that are already verging on the overdramatic and, in her barely-explained-away American accent, butchers them. In addition to the terrible acting, Swank was obviously cast because 1). presumably she would make the film more appealing to American audiences; and 2). she has a great body. She does. She looks fabulous in the film. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that if she had driven around South Africa in a BMW with the top down, and then proceeded to walk around by herself in kitten heels in a skin-tight dress with her hair blown out clutching an expensive handbag, she would have been mugged in about 0.1 seconds. Utterly. unrealistic. The astoundingly small-minded decision to involve Swank purely for her “sex appeal” also degraded the film’s serious subject matter. Swank aside, this film has many merits. It covers the fraught (not that there is really any period of time in South Africa’s history that hasn’t been fraught) period of time immediately after Nelson Mandela was elected President and the African National Congress assumed political dominance over the country. Under the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act of 1995, the new government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a unique “criminal court” in which perpetrators of violence during apartheid had to confess their crimes publicly in order to be granted amnesty. The key, of course, was full and total honesty. Many of the trials took place in Cape Town, where Red Dust was also set. I went back through my South Africa photos and, amazingly, I’m pretty sure this is the same city hall in Cape Town that was featured in the film: 

city hall, Cape Town

Photo credit actually goes to my friend Mike, FYI

The movie tells the story of Alex Mpondo, a prominent politician in the African National Congress who was brutually tortured for 31 days by a policeman during apartheid. He is portrayed by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor of 12 Years a Slave fame. As you can imagine, Ejiofor does a beautiful job expressing pain, and is very convincing as a man who has been so beaten down and damaged that his memory returns to him only in bursts, which are often excruciating to recall. He’s clearly suffering from a severe case of something like PSTD, and gives a meaningful portrayal.

The actress who I was most impressed with, however, was Nomhlé  Nkyonyen, who played Mrs. Sizela–a mother grieving her long-dead son, a victim of apartheid. Her acting felt natural, believable; a stark contrast to the shamble that was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) trial in the film. The dissatisfaction in the film is only a fraction of the dissatisfaction and betrayal that millions of South Africans must have felt towards the Commission. There are many who believe, even today, that the TRC did not do enough. Though well-intentioned, it did not bring a strong sense of closure to the years of suffering perpetuated by the apartheid regime. 20 years later–as those attending the movie screening pointed out–South African society is tainted by residual anger and a strong sense of injustice.  I could spend more time criticizing describing the film, but I think that there are much better ways of learning about this period of time in South Africa’s history (i.e., 1996-2000, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was active). If you would like a metaphorical take on the subject, then Jane Taylor’s play Ubu and the Truth Commission is searing in its criticism of the TRC’s shortcomings. (I actually had the chance to interview Jane Taylor–posted here if you are curious and would like to read). The play doesn’t have the highest rating on Goodreads, but I suspect that’s because it’s somewhat confusing. In addition, the documentary Long Night’s Journey Into Day has a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, though I haven’t personally watched it myself. Regardless, I can assure you that you will learn very little from watching Hilary Swank prance around in sunglasses and a crop-top. Overall rating (with Hilary Swank): C+ Potential rating (no Hilary Swank): B+ Next up is Tsosti, which I suspect will be much better. Check back next Thursday for the review! Cheers. P.S. Thank you again for all of the lovely comments on my last post! I was really quite hesitant about sharing it, but there was no reason to be. Everyone has a hair story, it seems 🙂