August 2011


Rosetta Allan
Jenny Argante
Gigi Fenster
Helen Heath
Kerry Hines
David Howard
Andrea Jeftanovic
André Naffis-Sahely
James Norcliffe
Maris O'Rourke
Jack Ross
L.E. Scott
Campbell Taylor
Alan Wall
Hayden Williams

Issue 16 Guest Artist:
Tom Mutch

President: Peter Robertson
Vice-President: Sari Nusseibeh
Deputy Editor: Neil Langdon Inglis
Advisory Consultant: Jill Dawson
General Editor: Beatriz Hausner
Art Editor: Calum Colvin
Deputy General Editor: Jeff Barry

Consulting Editors
Marjorie Agosín
Daniel Albright
Meena Alexander
Maria Teresa Andruetto
Frank Ankersmit
Rosemary Ashton
Reza Aslan
Leonard Barkan
Michael Barry
Shadi Bartsch
Thomas Bartscherer
Susan Bassnett
Gillian Beer
David Bellos
Richard Berengarten
Charles Bernstein
Sujata Bhatt
Mario Biagioli
Jean Boase-Beier
Elleke Boehmer
Eavan Boland
Stephen Booth
Alain de Botton
Carmen Boullossa
Rachel Bowlby
Svetlana Boym
Peter Brooks
Marina Brownlee
Roberto Brodsky
Carmen Bugan
Jenni Calder
Stanley Cavell
Sampurna Chattarji
Sarah Churchwell
Hollis Clayson
Sally Cline
Kristina Cordero
Drucilla Cornell
Junot Díaz
André Dombrowski
Denis Donoghue
Ariel Dorfman
Rita Dove
Denise Duhamel
Klaus Ebner
Robert Elsie
Stefano Evangelista
Orlando Figes
Tibor Fischer
Shelley Fisher Fishkin
Peter France
Nancy Fraser
Maureen Freely
Michael Fried
Marjorie Garber
Anne Garréta
Marilyn Gaull
Zulfikar Ghose
Paul Giles
Lydia Goehr
Vasco Graça Moura
A. C. Grayling
Stephen Greenblatt
Lavinia Greenlaw
Lawrence Grossberg
Edith Grossman
Elizabeth Grosz
Boris Groys
David Harsent
Benjamin Harshav
Geoffrey Hartman
François Hartog
Siobhan Harvey
Molly Haskell
Selina Hastings
Valerie Henitiuk
Kathryn Hughes
Aamer Hussein
Djelal Kadir
Kapka Kassabova
John Kelly
Martin Kern
Mimi Khalvati
Joseph Koerner
Annette Kolodny
Julia Kristeva
George Landow
Chang-Rae Lee
Mabel Lee
Linda Leith
Suzanne Jill Levine
Lydia Liu
Margot Livesey
Julia Lovell
Laurie Maguire
Willy Maley
Alberto Manguel
Ben Marcus
Paul Mariani
Marina Mayoral
Richard McCabe
Campbell McGrath
Jamie McKendrick
Edie Meidav
Jack Miles
Toril Moi
Susana Moore
Laura Mulvey
Azar Nafisi
Paschalis Nikolaou
Martha Nussbaum
Sari Nusseibeh
Tim Parks
Molly Peacock
Pascale Petit
Clare Pettitt
Caryl Phillips
Robert Pinsky
Elena Poniatowska
Elizabeth Powers
Elizabeth Prettejohn
Martin Puchner
Kate Pullinger
Paula Rabinowitz
Rajeswari Sunder Rajan
James Richardson
François Rigolot
Geoffrey Robertson
Ritchie Robertson
Avital Ronell
Élisabeth Roudinesco
Carla Sassi
Michael Scammell
Celeste Schenck
Sudeep Sen
Hadaa Sendoo
Miranda Seymour
Mimi Sheller
Elaine Showalter
Penelope Shuttle
Werner Sollors
Frances Spalding
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
Julian Stallabrass
Susan Stewart
Rebecca Stott
Mark Strand
Kathryn Sutherland
Rebecca Swift
Susan Tiberghien
John Whittier Treat
David Treuer
David Trinidad
Marjorie Trusted
Lidia Vianu
Victor Vitanza
Marina Warner
David Wellbery
Edwin Williamson
Michael Wood
Theodore Zeldin

Assistant Editor: Sara Besserman
Assistant Editor: Ana de Biase
Assistant Editor: Conor Bracken
Assistant Editor: Eugenio Conchez
Assistant Editor: Patricia Delmar
Assistant Editor: Sophie Lewis
Assistant Editor: Krista Oehlke
Assistant Editor: Siska Rappé
Assistant Editor: Stephanie Smith
Assistant Editor: Robert Toperter
Art Consultant: Verónica Barbatano
Art Consultant: Angie Roytgolz

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. Buttons: An African Story by Gigi Fenster  


I think this is a sad story. Made all the more so because it is true. And because it concerns my father.

My father was, on the whole, a happy man and a playful father. The sort of father who makes your stewed-fruit bowl look like a clown, with liquorice mouth and lolly red nose. The sort of father who looks down into the ice-cream cabinet and says, "As I see it, you'll have to go for the extra double mega chocolate ultra expensive one." The sort of father who friends, with their grumpy or distant or working- too- hard fathers looked upon with a mixture of jealousy, wonder, and occasional disbelief.

But there were times when a great crushing sadness would fall upon my father. It fell, like a net from the trees, to trap him and pin him to his bed, pushing the air from his great booming chest.

My mother tended to him in his dark times. She kept us children quiet and she kept him going. She sat by his bedside or lay beside him and, like a mother wiping the brow of a sick child told him that "it will all be alright. You will get through this."

A traditional healer once told my father that he had moya — divine wind — the ability to channel the spirits and speak in tongues, to see beyond. I don't know whether my father believed this healer. My mother, an intensely rational, scientific woman certainly didn't. But what my mother admitted, what we all knew, was that in his silent room, from the darkness of his net, my father would sometimes revert to an earlier time, when he was a little boy. And, as that little boy he would speak the Yiddish of his beloved grandfather who had died (my mother checked this) when he was only four or he would chatter, in childish prattle, to his boyhood friends. Or he would sob.

"Don't cry," my mother whispers to the little boy curled up in her husband's body. "Don't cry."

"But the buttons," sobs my father. "She made me give it to him without them."

"It's just a few buttons. All will be fine."

Then my father's great body shudders, as if the little boy is trying to flee both the adult body which holds him and the net which traps it. "But how could she?" he bawls. "How could she make me give it to him?"

And my mother, softly, softly eases the story out of him. The story of the buttons which she will, many years later, tell me and which I am telling you now.

When my father was born there lived in a small shed in their garden, a house servant or, as my father's family would have called him, a house boy. This man worked in the house and in the garden and he sent money home, to the distant hills where his own family lived. You might think that such a man, with his own children far away, would resent the little prince born to the family that he worked for, but he did no such thing. He loved the new little baby and my father, as baby, toddler, child, and adult adored him in return.

Many years later, when my father had died, my mother and I talked about what made him. How a family such as his had created a man such as him. "There are many influences that make a person," my mother said. "In your father's case there was his curiosity, his friends, his studying and there was a servant. I think that man had more to do with his up bringing than… well, your father adored him. I met him only once. We drove to his village, before our honeymoon, to visit him. He died not long after that."

As I imagine it, my mother is still wearing her white wedding dress when she steps from the car and onto the dusty village streets. Her bridal train spreads out behind her and she points her satin toes, like a ballerina, over the potholes in the road. This, of course, is nonsense. She would have been wearing something quiet and comfortable and good for travel. My father would have opened the car door for her and she would have stepped, in sensible shoes, into the throng of barefoot children come to greet them and to lead them up to the maduna's hut.

The old man stands in the doorway. He is bent over his walking stick. His ancient chest is thin and exposed. His tattered, paint stained shirt flaps in the breeze.

"How could she make me give it to him?" my father wept. "How could she do that?"

"It's ok my darling. It's over now."

My father has just started school. His mother is cleaning out her husband's cupboard. She finds an old paint spattered shirt. She calls her son and hands him the shirt. "You can give this to the houseboy. Your father won't wear it any more."

My father folds the shirt over his arm and walks slowly, careful with his prize. He is swollen with pride. He has a gift for his friend.

"Hold on a minute," his mother calls him back. Give me the shirt."

She is holding a tiny pair of scissors.