The Art of Losing

My latest collection of short stories are pieces I have gathered from my experience of living on five continents, of living through war, dictatorships, a religious cult, working with refugees, of losing houses, countries, people and identities.

J.M. Coetzee claims that ‘all autobiography is storytelling; all writing is autobiography’. The interesting thing about writing these short stories – and you will know this if you have ever grappled with transmuting real life experience into fiction, or discovered that your fiction is more autobiographical than you first thought – is that the story form itself dictates the trajectory of the story. I have tried to follow the truth of the events I describe (down to the details of the glint of sun on the fender of the Volvo that the Iraqi man is washing an hour before his daughter is killed by a roadside bomb), but I have had to also follow the truth that emerges when writing a story, a deeper truth in a language I am only beginning to understand. A narrative may begin with an idea, an image, an intent or a
slice of lived experience, but the act of telling transforms it into something else – art. And by art I do not mean ‘Art’ with a capital A, but the skill of crafting, words. The art of losing is also a skill one acquires through failure, betrayal, heartache.

Most of these stories have been published in various literary journals around the world over many years, but as I gather them together, I find that they have common themes, strands that twine through them – survival, slivers of glass or debris embedded in skin, the weight of relationships, and
loss. Losing things is the quintessential human experience. Elizabeth Bishop’s poem ‘One Art’ (1979) was initially called ‘The Art of Losing’. On the surface, the poem is about how easy it is to acquire the skill of losing things. Start small, with keys, then move onto houses, continents, people. But she is being ironic – at a deeper level she is struggling with the pain of loss. ‘Write it!’ she says in the last line, and so transforms loss into art where writing about loss allows the author to regain something, ‘unlose’ it. After I wrote my memoir Soldier Blue (2008) about growing up in a civil war, for example, the PSTD and nightmares ceased. The past transformed through art into a thing of value, not a regret or a wound – but an artefact: art
as scar tissue, perhaps. These twenty stories lurch from continent to continent, from child to teen to adult, from past to present, from war
to peace, from me to you. Please accept my gift of loss, transformed by art.

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Failing brilliantly

From the intro:

We are all going to die. We are all going to fail. Life seldom goes as planned. So-called failures are an inevitable reality, yet how we see those failures is everything. We can let life’s unexpected outcomes defeat us, or we can reframe our ideas of failure and live brilliantly fulfilling and less fearful lives.

Despite your best efforts and learning from past failures, you have failed to become the success you dreamt of being. You have pasted “Never Give Up” signs on your bathroom mirror and you feel you have been at it 24/7 since you were at school. But after bad luck and a series of unanticipated disasters in this competitive world, you realise that there is the very real possibility that “this is it.” The successful life you have imagined for yourself may never materialise. So now what?

We live in a binary world of success and failure. Many of us wouldn’t just think of ourselves as “on the road”—living and facing adversity and making the best of what comes to us. We most often either think of ourselves as successes or as failures. But we’re caught in an illusion. We’re not on a journey to a single successful destination. We’re just on a journey, though we’re taught every day by society to measure our lives against our expectations and the expectations of others. And much of this causes us pain, from the time we set foot in a school classroom, to the time we don’t get the job we interviewed for, to the time we lose all our money on a tumbling stock market. We spend time beating ourselves up about poor decisions, about not succeeding, and we transfer that to our colleagues, our partners, our children.

Our mammal brains drive us toward the taste of success. Our so-called “failures” can paralyse us because we are wired to avoid things that cause disappointment. Though bloggers and psychologists rave on about the gifts of failure, it is still essentially a societal negative. The world frowns on us getting things wrong. We are constantly graded and branded according to the evidence of our successes: academic achievement, social standing, the cars we drive, how much money we make.

Yet the fabric of failure is an intricate and essential aspect of our existence.

New Negatives in Plant Science is a journal that publishes only “negative” results, because the “negative” results are still part of the whole story and belong alongside the “successes.” Big failures often result in side events that aren’t measurable: transformation, shifts in perspective and values—even if the goals themselves are never reached. From doomed explorers to aborted moon landings to novels that were rejected a dozen times, this book looks at failure as an integral part of human existence, and dissolves many of the illusions surrounding failure that we have come to believe. It reveals a new approach to contending with all kinds of failures.

Degrees of Failure

One significant problem we face is that we use failure as a blanket term, which can be very confusing because not all failures are created equal. When we talk about failure these days, we lump everything together as if a failed test or business venture has the same value or impact as a failed medical intervention or the failure of an aircraft to arrive at its destination.

So for the purpose of clarity, we have divided failure into three broad categories which allows us to look at these so-called failures in new ways.

First-degree failures . . .

are the most devastating. These are the failures that result in total disasters and loss of life—for example: planes that fail to make it to their destinations; medical errors that result in someone dying or being irrevocably harmed; failure of an emergency service to arrive on time, resulting in disaster; failure of justice, resulting in the wrong person being convicted of a crime.

These failures have irredeemable results. People die; things are damaged beyond repair. We can hardly celebrate these failures or commend the people involved as having failed brilliantly. If we learn anything from them, it is that at all costs we want to prevent similar failures from happening ever again.

Second-degree failures . . .

are those where a significant goal is set but not met. For example, the Apollo 13 mission to the moon, which was aborted but did not result in any loss of life, or Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-1916 doomed voyage across Antarctica—all twenty-eight men on the journey lived, though they lost everything and never achieved their goal of crossing the continent. These second-degree failures are the adventurous or scientific journeys where one outcome is expected but another unforeseen one occurs; they are the failures of artists and researchers and writers and anyone trying to create something that has not been created before.

These failures, unlike first-degree failures, often spawn unexpected innovations, collaborations, and new ideas, and lead to personal growth, development, hidden benefits, and lessons of a kind that only surviving the harshest circumstances can. These failures are commendable as having intrinsic value, as being catalysts for transformation, as bringing new and valuable knowledge to the world. They are worth celebrating. In fact, these failures should not even be termed failures, because they bypass all its carefully constructed definitions. ‘

Third-degree failures . . .

are the ones we decide are failures. They are distinctly subjective and our responses to them have as much to do with biology and physiology as with the actual failure itself. They are the failed tests, the failure to get into the university course of our choice, the failure to make enough money, or create a successful business, or be a successful writer, or meet specific targets set by our bosses or ourselves. These failures often make us feel terrible about ourselves. We are frequently unable to separate ourselves and our own value from these failures.

These failures have parameters that are randomly imposed by us, and the line dividing a so-called “pass” or “success” from failure is drawn whimsically wherever we think to draw it. For example, you may need 33.3 percent to pass an English exam in one school, 40 or 50 percent in another. In Queensland, Australia, the current benchmark for passing the final school-leaving exam is an OP, which is an overall position relative to everyone else who took the exam that year. So if you do well in a year that everyone else does badly, you end up at the top of the pile, but if everyone does well in your year, you slide downward at a rapid speed and may find yourself comfortably in the middle range, with an OP that makes you feel as though you’ve failed. When we set ourselves goals—personal, financial, academic—we unconsciously create a system of potential failures, and so it’s best to understand the risk inherent in aiming for success.

Malcolm Gladwell thoroughly points out in his book Outliers that the people, the athletes, the social entrepreneurs, the businessmen who succeed in terms of our material definitions of success in the world do work hard—but in every case he examines, there exists a lucky break, a chance meeting which led to that hard work paying off. And he demonstrates how there are those geniuses who never got the lucky break, still living their unremarkable lives despite their brilliance and hard work. Their incredible ideas and creations never saw the light of day or resulted in material success. It’s a fact: bad luck and twists of fate have prevented many talented human beings from being rewarded for their efforts, either financially or in terms of recognition. Most of us can probably identify with that to some degree.

There is an element of chance in every so-called “success,” and those of us who believe that we can achieve anything if we set our minds to it need to understand that life is full of surprises that may make our journey’s outcome entirely unexpected. So what do those of us do who have put in our ten thousand hours towards achieving our goal, and are not adequately rewarded for our efforts?

Dealing with these “failures” requires a complete re-think of the concept of failure—and, of course, the concept of success.

Life is failure. Our entire 4-billion-year journey through the universe is made up of all kinds of trials and errors. Our lives are full of stumbles and falls and unexpected outcomes which often do not lead to success of any kind.

We believe failure falls broadly into three categories. In this book, we explore how these play out in the world, examine the impact of failure on our own lives, and show how we can separate ourselves from a concept that causes unnecessary pain, by providing readers with revolutionary ways of thinking about failure.

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Young adult speculative novel series called PARALLAX (Zharmae Publishing) was first published because the publisher like the freckles in the book!

‘I recently signed a book called Parallax. I knew by the time I got to the word freckles that I was a goner. It was a done deal and I was less than 10 pages in. Did I read the entire book? Yes. Did I read it before I offered the author a contract? Nope. Because when you know, you know.’

See post:

I talk a lot about the process of writing this book in my Creative Writing lectures at the university of the sunshine Coast because it’s one of those books that came out of a question: what is animals really were equal to humans? Would we have to have an animal police to patrol and make sure animals were being treated fairly? Would it be illegal to eat meat (murder, cannibalism!) , or keep pets (slavery!). The book comes from when I was 11 years old and I really wanted to change the world and start the Animal Police. I hated cruelty to animals (and still do), and though we have made progress since  I was 11, I think we have a long way to go.

Freckles was a real girl (tom boy) called Jennifer, and we were inseparable at that age, having adventures and exploring caves (just like in the book). Gustave too is based on a real friend of mine who really did have a hole in his heart and was only meant to live a year longer.

I am fascinated by the prospect of parallel universes too: can we live parallel lives? Can we change the reality we live in by slipping into another universe?


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where art imitates life

In Cokcraco, Turner defends his hero poet Bantu from charges of plagiarism

‘Sizwe Bantu occupies the novel form like a hermit crab inhabits a shell,’ you say. ‘He borrows not only the form, but the words themselves. In this postmodern world, he samples, intertextualises, palimpsests …’

You can hear the snort. ‘You’re talking about his plagiarism? You
mean derivative?’
‘If you, sir, had read your Bantu carefully, you would realise that there
is no such thing as an original thought or an original word—they are
all second-hand. All that writers can do is juggle them around a bit.
Bantu uses plagiarism as a device. What Bantu is doing, sir, is merely
postmodernising, sampling, to use a musical image, not plagiarising,
but referring, connecting. Bantu samples, or extrapolates, or textualises,
or …’


Now check out the Australian



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Who is Sizwe Bantu?


The Great South African Novel (2006)

AfriKan Metaphysics (2007), Seven Invisible Selves (2008)

The Five African Senses (2009)

The Cockroach Whisperer (2010)

Cokcraco and Other Stories (2011).

Blurb from the back cover of The Great South African Novel (first edition, 2006,
reprinted 12 times; this edition, 2013)

Sizwe Bantu is considered by many to be the greatest living novelist in the English language.  Spanning five decades, his ambitious narrative project has been consistent in its focus to explore the “nerve centre of being” and “unveil the masks of our … civilization.” He has dissected the sexist, racist and speciesist “myths of our time” with intellectual courage and honesty, and has pushed the boundaries of the genres his fictions inhabit. He has won so many awards for his writing that it would be tedious to list them all. He is most renowned for his cockroach stories and his use of experimental second-person narratives and wry irony. He has succeeded in being both a popular and a literary writer, ploughing through that distinction with ease, and taking delight in leaving piles of overturned critics writhing on their backs in his wake. Simultaneously, he has attracted a cult following of
believers, fervent admirers who live and breathe Bantu, and carry rubber cockroaches in his honour.

A formidable recluse, Sizwe Bantu has never appeared in public, has never shown up to claim any of his multiple awards, and does not give interviews. No one knows where he lives, and though his novels are invariably set in the urban and rural thickets of KwaZulu-Natal, they have an allegorical, ahistorical air about them, as if he has never lived there.

Jones, JM 2008 ‘Anagrammic Dyslexia in Sizwe Bantu’ in Ubuntu! Vol. X, Summer,
pp. 34-43


From da kokroach point of view, humans are
irrelvant. Kokroaches no like em. Doan want
em. Do not even tink bout em. Doan care for deh
conversations. Books we like to eat, not read. We
wish humans dead so we can eat em too.
– Sizwe Bantu, The Cockroach Whisperer, 2010

Sizwe Bantu has never appeared in public and no photo exists of him. He has never shown up for his many awards, and has never given any interviews. His reclusive nature is the cause of much debate. One clue as to his identity (or lack of its presence ) is in his celebrated poem:

Am Eye white? Am Eye black?
Eye wear meye face backwards.
No one judges me by meye skin colour;
Sizwe is not meye name, because no shell can be me
Eye cannot be freed unless you
listen, read, open the door
And let me out.
Eye will not exist unless you imagine me.
Create me.
Mould me into existence with the
clay of your ‘I’magination.
– Sizwe Bantu, ‘Me, Myself, Eye’ in
The Five AfriKan Senses (2009)


Articles on Sizwe Bantu

Watt, T 2008 ‘Bantu Unveils the Masks of our So-called Civilisation’ in The Present
Tense, Vol. XXI Sept, pp. 3-45
Wesson, M 2010 ‘The Original and the Edited Bantu’ in Bantophilia Vol. 1, issue i,
pp. 55-65


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some cockroach poetry from cokcraco

I am
I am against
I am against kontradikshun
I am against those who are against kontradikshun
I am against those who are against those who are
against kontradikshun
I am against
I am


Am Eye white? Am Eye black?
Eye wear meye face backwards.
No one judges me by meye skin colour;
Sizwe is not meye name, because no shell can be me
Eye cannot be freed unless you
listen, read, open the door
And let me out.
Eye will not exist unless you imagine me.
Create me.
Mould me into existence with the
clay of your ‘I’magination.
– Sizwe Bantu, ‘Me, Myself, Eye’ in
The Five AfriKan Senses (2009)




‘The Afrikan I’
The Internet Is the solution to the spIrItual dIscomfort
we feel In a materIal voId. Here I am pure voIce, I can speak
wIth my cartesIan self, my dIsembodIed conscIousness wIthout
havIng to use vocal cords or accent or other blemIshes. No one
judges me by my skIn colour, gesture, habIt, nervous tIcs, sex,
century, but only by my thoughts, my pure mInd, my Idea, my true
“I” of ImagInatIon, Impulse, InstInct, IntuItIon and IndIvIdualIty …
The mInd’s “I”, the true“I” of sIzwe, whIch Is not my name,
because no shell can be ME—the nameless wordless “I”. I am a
novelIst because the novel Is pure “I” conscIousness.
Yet who am I wIthout my rainbow skIn, my hIstory, my tradItIon?
Whose I am I? BIll Gates’s voIce In AmerIkan chatspeak?3
No, to be AfrIkan means to rIp out the I’s of Korporate KonsumerIsm
So close your Is: None but ourselves can free our mInd’s I.

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What does Cokcraco mean?

It’s a typo. The Great Writer, in the haste to get the words out onto the page typed so fast that his fingers slipped on the keyboard and he wrote cokcraco instead of cockroach…

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What is Cokcraco about?

What is Cokcraco about?

Cockroaches, certainly.  Each chapter is about a cockroach and each cockroach is a motif,  symbol, theme for that chapter.

But it’s also about the tension between critical and creative writing

And about art, inspiration and the quest to find an illusive writer

About creating art writing art.

And its main premise: Art is madness. Art is a malfunction of the brain.


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From da kokroach point of view, humans are irrelvant. Kokroaches no like em. Doan want em. Do not even tink bout em. Doan care for deh conversations. Books we like to eat, not read. We wish humans dead so we can eat em too.

– Sizwe Bantu, The Cockroach Whisperer, 2010.


Sizwe Bantu is the Greatest African Writer of All Time – according to Timothy Turner, failed Australian academic and lover, who not only lives by Bantu’s words but keeps a giant rubber cockroach in homage to the writer of the renowned ‘cockroach stories.’

Inspired to travel to Bantu country, Timothy takes up a position at a university near the place rumoured to be the reclusive writer’s residence in the misty Zululand hills. Instead of moving closer to his source of inspiration, Timothy is drawn into a steamy world of campus politics and suppressed desire.

As Timothy grapples with the mystery surrounding Makaya, the academic he has replaced, and the demands of his students, particularly the attractive Tracey, he must confront his own paranoia, prejudice and insecurity in a search of the shocking truth.

Cokcraco is an exhilarating, playful and witty novel that explores writing, identity, politics and the nature of inspiration.

Publishing August 2013
ISBN: 9781922198082
Format: Paperback
Extent: 200 pages
Price: AU $20.00 / $22.00 incl GST
Publishing August 2013
ISBN: 9781922198099
Format: EPUB
Extent: 200 pages
Price: AU $9.10 / $9.99 incl GST
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Thank you! This last month May 2013 more people downloaded and read ‘Lost City’ than in any other month since its publication. Why? I am not sure. Mugabe’s demise is immanent, but always immanent, and this novel touches on his demise. It is also about the general election, and the hope that that always brings.lost city

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