I encountered Tatamkhulu Afrika in the mid-1990s, at Gus Ferguson’s monthly Poetry meeting, held at the Natale Labia Museum in Muizenberg. Gus Ferguson made an enormous contribution to poetry, and publishing of poetry via his Snail Press.  One of the poets he championed was Tatamkhulu Afrika, and it must have been on the occasion of the launch of TK’s poetry collection  in 1995, Lemon Tree, which is still on my poetry bookshelf.

I recall TA as a gaunt , white-bearded, old man, accorded much respect by Gus. I knew nothing at all about the poet or his extraordinary background. Which I have now remedied via Wikipedia – see link below. It’s a story worth reading.

This post is a short review of TA’s novel Bitter Eden , published in 2002, by Arcadia, a British publishing house. I borrowed the book from the Library, as part of my Read More African Writers in 2021 project.

Boyd Tonkin of the Independent’s quote  on the cover says: “Ordinary male relationships in extraordinary circumstances”.  That’s one way of putting it. I don’t know that I would have come up with the phrase, in describing the novel. Knowing the man’s poetry, his novel came as a bit of a shock! 

Briefly: the narrator (Tom Smith) relates his experiences as a POW in North Africa, Italy and Germany during WWII, and his male friendships. The aftermath of these frames the story, and provides one of the most explosive final sentences I have ever read anywhere.

That said, this is not a book for the faint-hearted because TA  is graphically straightforward about basic human functions and male genitalia.

The story tells  the progress of  difficult, emotional male friendships under brutal circumstances.  It also highlights the basic inhumanity of man towards man, and the horrors of war.

It’s not an easy read by any means. Did I enjoy the book? No.  But that said, its unforgettable. Not recommended for sensitive readers of any gender.


Ismail Joubert (7 December 1920 – 23 December 2002), commonly known as Tatamkhulu Afrika, which is Xhosa for Grandfather Africa, was a South African poet and writer. His first novel, Broken Earth was published when he was seventeen (under his “Methodist name”), but it was over fifty years until his next publication, a collection of verse entitled Nine Lives.

He won numerous literary awards including the gold Molteno Award for lifetime services to South African literature, and in 1996 his works were translated into French. His autobiography, Mr Chameleon, was published posthumously in 2005.


I’ve found another book to add to my list of Desert Island Books: The Broken Road From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos. It’s the long-awaited final book in Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s trilogy, and compiled posthumously by his Literary Executors and editors, Colin Thubron (another brilliant travel writer) and Artemis Cooper (PLF’s biographer). I would go to great lengths to pack this Travel classic, it’s a gem. I reviewed the book separately in March, on this blog.

Words on Bathroom Walls – Julia Walton. Thanks to our Book Club Challenge, I tackled this diarized account of 16 year old Adam’s struggle with schizophrenia and an experimental drug. Normally, I would have avoided such a book, but I bravely dived in and what do you know? I had a wonderful read. Sometimes its good to leave that cosy Comfort Zone. And I ticked the Challenge Boxes: Made Into a Movie, and Debut Novel.
I realised I never read any poetry in February, so I pulled out a book at random from my shelf of Poetry books and found a slender red book in my hand, The Lemon Tree – Tatamkhulu Afrika. I remember buying it at a Poetry meeting in the Natale Labia Museum, down in Muizenberg, organized by that indefatigable champion of local poetry, Gus Ferguson.  In fact, the collection was one of his publications, from Snailpress.  Tatamkhulu was present, and read some of his work.  I have a faint memory of a tall, skinny old white man, who was – to my astonishment – a Moslem; this was unusual in the mid 1990s. He told us a charitable Moslem family had taken him in, and he lived in an outbuilding on their property – again, highly unusual for South Africa at that time. Re-reading his elegant, quiet poems about his life I wish I’d paid more attention at the time. Too late now.

Badger on the Barge & other stories – Janni Howker. Short Stories.. A focus on adolescents; set in Britain. Perceptive and unusual.
Words on Bathroom Walls – Julia Walton. A diarized account of 16 year old Adam’s struggle with schizophrenia and an experimental drug. Very enlightening & a good read. Recommended.
The Distance – Zoe Folbigg. An entertaining light read. He’s in Mexico, she’s in Arctic Norway. Will these twin souls ever get together? It’s a cyber-Skype romance, and I enjoyed it.
An Open Swimmer – Tim Winton. His debut, prize winning novel. A coming of age story, moody and male but also filled with wonderful descriptions of sea, fishing, and coastal bush.
Where the Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens. An unusual story of a lonely abandoned child who grows into a shy reclusive woman, rooted in her marsh wilderness in North Carolina. Superb descriptions of marsh life birds, animals, marine creatures. Engaging human actors, a mystery, and a real kicker of an ending. Recommended.

The Broken Road. From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos – Patrick Leigh-Fermor. A travel classic brimming with history, colourful detail and characters. A must-read for Travel fans and lovers of good writing.

The Lemon Tree – Tatammkhulu Afrika.