In the shadow of the Springs I saw
Modjaji Books (2022)
I was born in Springs in the last century, but my family left for the Free State goldfields when I was two years old. I remember visiting my great-grandmother’s house only a few times in the years that followed. My memories are etched into reality by photographs of my five- or six-year-old self and my older brother running gleefully around the house, which had large bay windows and a wrap-around verandah. I am also close to people whose lives were shaped by that strange town, namely Jonathan Handley, Herbie Parkin and Henry Jantzen of the popular 1980s band, the Radio Rats. Musician James Phillips, Springs-born and bred, was iconic to me and many other South Africans at that time. I’d also been deeply impressed by Michael Cross’s superb documentaries about both James Phillips (The fun’s not over, 2018) and the Radio Rats (Jiving and diving, 2016), in which the city of Springs played a starring role.
For these reasons, I approached Barbara Adair’s book, In the shadow of the Springs I saw, with great anticipation. Perhaps I expected a nostalgic look back at a city I recalled from my childhood and as depicted in the two excellent documentaries. However, Barbara Adair’s work was not what I expected. Her book focuses on the ruins of the Springs I remember, obviously the “shadow” of the Springs in the title. Adair’s starting point is to explore the city from the point of view of the Art Deco buildings which have remained standing stubbornly across the decades. These were built early in the last century when Springs was in its heyday. The buildings and their current inhabitants inspired Adair to write a collection of fictional monologues and stories “voicing” the people and places she and her students encountered on their exploratory visits to Springs. These are interspersed by an imagined email correspondence between B and A, as well as many photographs of the Art Deco buildings which were. Poems and photo essays also make up this collection.
While the book doesn’t take the form of a singular narrative, the explosive bursts of story depict the daily life of post-democratic Springs, which is the unifying element. Adair refers to a motif of sorts running throughout the work which originates in ballet. As stated in a fictional email correspondence to B, “Did you know that the Art Deco designs and ballet often went together, Diaghilev created set designs for Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the one in which Nijinsky dances, the performance that was howled and booed off the Paris stage, but supported and loved by Coco Chanel, she was so excited by it that it inspired her to have a love affair with Stravinsky, was developed in a decorative and extravagant way, the Art Deco of the moment” (135).
Adair’s work is framed by the buildings which have borne witness to their original creators, immigrants from post-war Europe early in the last century, and which now house many hundreds of immigrants from all over Africa. She does not comment on the quality of life of the current inhabitants, who are often living hand-to-mouth in hijacked buildings, but rather writes dispassionately about their lives and their environment. There is no authorial judgement on their circumstances, but Adair recounts them in great detail so that the reader is able to pull together the threads of the routines of the occupants of Springs. While it is still a home to immigrants, life is more precarious than in the past, as drug dealers wield enormous power and women and children scrape by with whatever they can find.
The photo-essays and stories are evocative, and I believe that this is an important work, looking at the changes cities have undergone through the democratic era. Adair does not place a value judgement on which era is better, but she is rather the scribe/balladeer singing the song of South Africa in its current incarnation.
The Springs of my childhood is long gone, but the Art Deco buildings remain, much like they do in inner-city Durban, and hint at a time when art for art’s sake was all that mattered. Adair weaves a narrative of a community living in the remnants of buildings which have had the sheen of their original beauty gnawed away by the harshest conditions. Adair completed this work as part of her PhD in Creative Writing, and it’s an experiment with new narratives, with run-on sentences and with ethno-fiction, as Adair calls it. The book creates a fascinating tapestry of multifaceted lives in a town where survival of the fittest is the driving force. The photo-essays and stories are evocative, and I believe that this is an important work, looking at the changes cities have undergone through the democratic era. Adair does not place a value judgement on which era is better, but she is rather the scribe/balladeer singing the song of South Africa in its current incarnation.
I do have to mention that the font is too small for comfort for my eyes, even when using reading glasses. This is the book’s only flaw.
Barbara, what made you choose the city of Springs as the subject of your book? Was it solely your interest in Art Deco buildings?
The first time I went to Springs was with a friend, Marek, who spoke about the many Art Deco buildings there – almost as many as there are in Miami. When we went there, I was astounded. I already had a book in mind. The buildings tell stories, and the stories make the spaces alive. I love Art Deco architecture. I have been to Miami and looked at the buildings there, and now I am doing some work with a heritage group in Nairobi on the Art Deco buildings in Parklands, Nairobi. I believe that buildings are repositories of memory and stories. So, it is my interest in storytelling and buildings that formed the springboard for the work. Art Deco came about through the 1930s’ European and American depression. The buildings were ordinary square buildings lavishly decorated, cheap to build but opulent to look at. Those who lived in the Springs buildings previously were Jewish people escaping the aftermath of a holocaust and Eastern and Southern Europeans who were seeking a better life. Their ghosts still walk the corridors. Those who live there currently are African and Asian immigrants, also seeking a better life. The stories of the buildings are now framed within a different society and a different economy. They are recovering from a different kind of war. The self-expression has changed and found a new vocabulary. The voices and speech of the buildings are found in the lexicon of diverse languages, the smell of exotic spices, the coloured clothing hung out on washing lines strung between curved metal balcony railings, the perfume of frankincense drifting from a shop window, and a child of six who walks alone.
The stories of the buildings are now framed within a different society and a different economy. They are recovering from a different kind of war. The self-expression has changed and found a new vocabulary.
You call the type of entries in this book ethno-fiction. Were they all born from a conversation with a person you met in Springs?
Ethno-fiction is a bit like the work of Tobias Hecht, who wrote about street children in Recife, and, I think – but not all do – Jonny Steinberg. So, the stories were born from conversations with many people I met there. I spoke to them for not a long time, once, twice – ten minutes, sometimes longer – and then I wrote stories that I believed suited them. I believe that we all create fictions about ourselves that we believe and that we want others to hear. So, I wrote fictional stories, my perceptions of what I heard and what emerged from the people we spoke to.
I’ve listened to two interviews with you – on the lovely Shafinaaz Hassim’s Bookbytes, and a Morning Live TV show – so I have some idea of how you went about the creation of your work. Was this work in your mind when you went to visit Springs? Or did it evolve as you found the people and the places you saw?
I went there with the express purpose of writing this work. It was begun a while ago. In fact, I began it at the Mombasa Club in Mombasa, while looking at the ocean, hence some ocean motifs. And then it was finished during the lockdown. It forms part of my PhD in Creative Writing through Pretoria University, but it also clearly evolved depending on whom I spoke to and what we did when we were there. Kei Miller said, “I do not believe the novelist must make people say exactly what they would usually say. I believe the writer must give their characters things to say that they are capable of saying but which they might not have thought to say themselves. In this way, writing can give itself back to people.” This is what I hope happened. Kei Miller also said, “And if I am lucky, I can hear the sound of buzzing bees, and so I will form words that will form flowers that will form flocks of birds that will form the sky.”
You mention that you went to Springs with students. What was your motivation for taking the students with you?
I asked two students whom I work with at the Writing Centre, Sreddy Yen and Neliswe Mofutsanyana, to accompany me to the town, to walk the streets, take photographs and talk to the people. I wanted to write the stories of the people in relation to the space they live in, in relation to a heritage which is not their own, but which they have reclaimed, re-appropriated and reconfigured. The students and I walked and talked and fell in love with drug dealers, bought fake designer goods, ate on the streets and photographed the buildings. And it was great. We were three incongruous people who were no threat to anyone; we just hung out. But my motivations for going with them was severalfold. Downtown Springs is much like downtown Joburg, though a bit safer – but a little skanky. So, three people were better than just one. Also, we were a disparate threesome: an Asian, obviously gay boy; a young, black, trendy albeit naïve woman; and me, an older white woman. So, after a while, people began to recognise this weird group who asked them questions and took photographs. We weren’t a threat to them; we were just weird. I am not one who believes in the genius and originality of one person. We live in such an individualistic society that is all about “me, me, me”! But it is great to get the ideas and thoughts of others, whether this is in conversation or just in hanging out. So, while I wrote the book, all three of us chattered away about our experiences and shared our fears and excitement. Also, I don’t drive, so one of the students drove.
The text doesn’t read as a novel, as it is made up of extracts of poetry, stories, photos and email correspondence. Were you hoping to create a novel, or did you deliberately aim for a sociological exploration of a former mining town?
I believe in experimental writing. I am not one who writes well-formed characters or thinks that all books must have a plot or story arc. So, for me, the book is an experience, a visual as well as a word experience, and it is an experience of a town that has changed – not for the worse, as some will say, but just changed. And the philosophy or ideology behind Art Deco is this: changes in a time of economic downturns. And I liked experiencing and writing about this change.
Would you call the protagonist of the book Springs? Or is it the Art Deco buildings? Or something/someone else?
If I have to find a protagonist, to anthropomorphise, yes, the buildings are the protagonist. But then, for me, what is a protagonist? A leading character? We are all leaders in some form or another. As are buildings and towns. In the period since apartheid ended and democracy was introduced into South Africa, a complaint of many white people is that in many cities, the “white” or “European” heritage – and by this they mean the buildings – is being destroyed. Yes, many of these buildings no longer look as they did 30 years ago, but I am loath to agree with this narrative of complaint. So, in this book, I have tried to develop a new narrative, one that contains the stories of those who lived there previously – as I said, the European immigrants from Eastern Europe, Portugal, Greece and so on – and the stories of those who live there now.
If I have to find a protagonist, to anthropomorphise, yes, the buildings are the protagonist. But then, for me, what is a protagonist? A leading character? We are all leaders in some form or another.
In the stories and in the other parts of the book, I have tried to develop a picture of how space is social, and how the people who live there now live in a beauty which is not their heritage, but have nonetheless made it something of beauty in a different way. What is considered heritage is not being destroyed, just changed. Also, what I have tried to show is that in the midst of poverty and sometimes despair, there are ordinary people, and children, who are happy and sad; they are alive.
What is the next project you’re working on?
I am working on a book about bridges across the world – the bridge, and the stories of those involved in building them, walking across them, looking at them. This idea came about when I went to France and we drove the country searching for different bridges. Also, the Nairobi Art Deco book: stories about the area and the Asian community who lived there and built them. Also, I embroider pieces of art in bold and amazing colours – Andy Warhol in threads.
Here are a few interviews with the author:
Shafinaaz Hassim’s Bookbytes