JOHANNESBURG — In the book store Boekehuis, people squeeze among the shelves as an Ivorian and an Angolan novelist discuss a troubling characteristic of their new homeland South Africa: a hatred of foreigners that has flared into violence.
Another day, another novelist is speaking about love and survival in a time of AIDS, when a black South African woman like herself must stand up to generations of patriarchal traditions to ask her husband to take an HIV test.
Tough topics, and in the gentlest of settings.
Boekehuis — Afrikaans for “house of books” — is in a Victorian-era home with walls a welcoming shade of toasted yellow, gleaming wood floors and a coffee shop dispensing lattes and scones to be consumed along with the latest poetry journals.
Manager Corina van der Spoel, a former literary journalist and book publicist, has created more than a shop. After nearly a decade, Boekehuis has become a comfortable place for South Africans to meet to define themselves as they grapple with what it means to be modern, multicultural and post-apartheid.
“A friend of mine calls it a salon,” van der Spoel said, at first brushing aside the idea with some embarrassment.
Then, after reflection, she decides: “It is that.”
Interviewed in the shop, van der Spoel repeatedly excuses herself, jumping up to hand a book to a customer in a wheelchair, hug a regular, check that all is well with a children’s book author’s appearance before toddlers sprawled on blankets and pillows in a sunny front room.
The 42-year-old Van der Spoel’s personal touch is everywhere. The books in English and Afrikaans fighting for space on tables and shelves reflect her interest in the humanities, philosophy and serious fiction. Her taste is so trusted, she’s been invited to judge major South African writing contests.
Sindiwe Magona, one of South Africa’s best known writers and author of the AIDS novel “Beauty’s Gift,” became a Boekehuis devotee after one reading. She had flown from her home in Cape Town, and says jokingly she’s angry with her publicist for scheduling the flight back the same night as her appearance.
“I was loath to leave that room,” she said. “The people were so warm, the audience so receptive.”
Magona said Van der Spoel “has created an arena where people can come to [have] an honest discussion about things they feel strongly about. It’s an arena where real dialogue can take place. It’s a brave undertaking.”
Magona said the bricks and mortar of such a space are planning, consistency and networking. Van der Spoel does it for the most part by word of mouth and e-mail. Boekehuis has no Web site. It doesn’t have enough staffers to maintain one, van der Spoel said.
Pamela Nichols was drawn into the Boekehuis network by a friend who saw parallels between van der Spoel’s project and a coaching center for young writers that Nichols was developing at Johannesburg’s University of Witwatersrand.
Nichols was mentoring black South African students who were the first in their families to attend college. Their leap into the unknown was a metaphor for a people trying to write its future together after the divisions of apartheid. In the discussions at Boekehuis — to which she now brings students by the car-full — Nichols found crucial questions being raised about race and identity.
“I can’t think of as welcoming an intellectual space,” Nichols said.
Most of van der Spoel’s guests are South African writers, evidence of renewed vigor in local writing in recent years. Van der Spoel said she started the readings simply to get people to come to the shop, which is hidden behind the modern headquarters of her employer, Media24, a major newspaper and magazine publisher. Media24 wanted to do something special with the house it left when it razed the rest of the block to build its business park, and settled, with van der Spoel, on a book shop.
Van der Spoel’s only retail experience had been a stint in an antiquarian book shop in London while also working as a correspondent for a South African radio station in the 1990s. She has a warning for the book lover who’s always dreamed of opening the perfect shop: Boekehuis does not make a profit. So far, Media24 has indulged the enterprise, paying salaries to van der Spoel and three other staffers. (The company seems inclined to continue.)
“It’s hard to make money,” van der Spoel said. “People who have to make money don’t always have the freedom to do what I’ve done.”
Van der Spoel sometimes tries to create intriguing juxtapositions. It doesn’t always work, she said, ruefully recalling an established writer who was less than gracious at the start of his reading when she introduced him to a young memoirist.
Other times, serendipity takes over, as when Angolan novelist Simao Kikamba broke into a folk song the night of the xenophobia discussion, his unadorned tenor expressing so much of the immigrant’s loneliness. An amateur videographer captured the moment and posted it on YouTube.
Van der Spoel organized the evening after anti-foreigner violence across South Africa last year left more than 60 people dead and forced thousands from their homes. South Africans in squatter camps and other impoverished areas had accused immigrants from countries like Zimbabwe of taking scarce jobs and housing. Sociologists say the deadly rage, which has exploded at other times, had roots in the apartheid era, when the white government’s propaganda about blacks from other countries took root in the minds of both blacks and whites.
Van der Spoel looks back on moments of “magic” at Boekehuis — Kikamba’s song, or world-renowned photographer David Goldblatt bringing listeners to tears with stories of growing up the son of a tailor who catered to the blacks and whites who worked Johannesburg’s gold mines.
“Love for books is a very special thing that binds people,” van der Spoel said. “I see that every day.”
YouTube: Simao Kikamba Sings the Immigrant's Lament at Boekehuis
Angolan novelist Kikamba broke into a folk song during a discussion of South African xenophobia at Boekehuis, and an amateur videographer captured it and posted it online. More »
S. African authors speak out on Africa's woes, triumphs
South African activists and writers Elinor Sisulu and
Sindiwe Magona came to Boston to participate in a series of
seminars to celebrate the children’s literature of their home country.
The seminars were part of the 10th anniversary festivities for South
Africa Partners, a Boston-based nonprofit organization that supports
relations between the U.S. and South Africa through education and
health initiatives. More »
The Bay State Banner
23 Drydock Avenue
Boston, MA 02210