Michael Cawood Green (1954 - ) was born in Pinetown, KwaZulu Natal. He attended infant, primary, and high school in Pinetown, after which he was drafted into the army and then spent a year in California as an American Field Service exchange student. He took up music seriously during this time, and achieved some recognition as a protest-oriented singer-songwriter when he returned and began his studies at the then-University of Natal. Funding his studies (and a music career that drew more attention from the Security Branch than the music industry) as a stoker on the railways, he eventually won a scholarship to study for his Masters Degree at Stanford, California. After completing this, he took up a post at the then-Rand Afrikaans University under the writer Stephen Gray. He continued to perform as a solo musician and in a range of bands, and in 1982 3rd Ear Music released White Eyes, an album of his songs which immediately sank into what David Marks has called the ‘hidden years’ of the oppressive times. A Commonwealth scholarship then took Green to the University of York to study for his doctorate. Not long after his return, he became a lecturer at what has become the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban. He later became a Professor and was head of English there. Green is currently a Professor in English and Creative Writing at Northumbria University.
Green has published a number of academic articles and chapters in scholarly books, mainly on the uses of history in South African fiction. This is the subject of his book Novel Histories: Past, Present, and Future in South African Fiction, published by the Witwatersrand University Press in 1997.
In the same year Penguin published his first work of historical fiction, Sinking: A Verse Novella (under the name Michael Cawood Green, his adopted name for creative as opposed to scholarly writing). Sinking has been widely reviewed in South Africa, and selections from this work appear in The Heart in Exile: South African Poetry in English, 1990-1995, Illuminations: An International Magazine of Contemporary Writing, and The New Century of South African Poetry.
Sinking was short-listed for the SANLAM award for unpublished fiction in 1995 and called a ‘most notable omission’ (Shaun de Waal, Mail and Guardian, March 20 to 26, 1998, p.30) from the shortlist for the M-Net Book Prize in 1997. It was awarded the University of Natal Book Prize in the ‘Popular’ Book Category in1998 and is on the reading list of a number of international universities.
Green is one of the founders of the extremely successful Poetry Africa Festival held annually in Durban, in which he has appeared as both presenter and performer. He has led a number of writing workshops and featured in several major literary events. He is the recipient of a University Distinguished Teacher Award, and initiated and heads the undergraduate and postgraduate creative writing stream in the English Programme. Through this students may pursue writing in a number of different genres from second year to Masters level. Green has also taught creative writing at the University of Texas in Austin.
In 1999, Green was awarded a Commonwealth Fellowship, and spent a year in London as a Research Fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Here he began his follow-up to Sinking, an historical novel (in prose this time) based on the Trappist monks who came to South Africa in 1878 and founded Mariannhill Monastery and the chain of missions scattered throughout Natal and East Griqualand. This novel was published as For the Sake of Silence (2008).
Green is modest in his novelistic ambitions: recognizing that international literary greatness is too fraught a business even to be contemplated, and that the Great South African Novel is either already written and unrecognized or is a myth beyond the realities of South Africa, he nevertheless stills aspires to write the Great Pinetown Novel.
Extract “Alone of All Her Sex”
… alone of all her sex She pleased the Lord. - Caelius Sedulius
The Witness – The Natal Witness, that is - announced me Like a birth: “The Girl Was A Boy!” My caption crowed On July 25, 1895 And I was brought into the world Much as I was brought before The Resident Magistrate of Durban, “A native, Apparently 18 years of age, Dressed in full female Garb.”
But you must be taught to dress Before you can cross-dress, And this I had learned Under the firm hand of the monks Of Mary-Anne Hill; For those silent men There was no doubt that Between trousers and salvation It was the trousers That came first.
They clothed me with their language too In their monastery school. But from the window of the schoolroom In which we sounded out the plagues of Egypt And the times tables in identical tones, A rifle-shot away I could see The red skirts (Designed by the Abbot himself) Of the Sisters - the Red Sisters, As they were known - Blinking through the white and brown Of the Fathers and Brothers Always about me.
The Sisters of the Precious Blood They were more properly called, And although I did not bleed I longed to join them, To do my work as faithfully For all the swirl With each pitch and yaw of work Of a long dress in the sun And to pray as earnestly In the candle-dark of church With the rich enfoldings of a skirt Beneath my prayer-bent knees.
He was not wounded in the war Good Captain Early; Dysentery brought this soldier From the Island of the Saints To the arms of this monastery Where they did not believe in medicine. Within those walls Water was the only cure Allowed. It was tin baths, then, Beaded with the cold Into which I had to lower him, Shivering and swearing Beneath the blankets I wrapped him in After stripping off His sweat-soaked clothes.
It did not take long for my work Of encouraging him into nakedness To become my prayer And his too. When healed, By touch or water I do not know, He followed his orders To India, Handsome again to the world In his red uniform That hid from me so much. But I followed him Just a little behind In a blue dress: His nurse, he said, Mary, he said, Because
“In her mercy, her sweetness, Her overflowing goodness, She is incapable of withholding her favours, If approached with the right courtesies And the correct salutations” - this murmured to me sometimes In real tenderness, Sometimes bellowed out in club or mess, A punchline to a drunken jest.
May God forgive him his confusion, For I was that other Mary, The one whose sins, Which were many, were forgiven For she loved much.
No matter: I lost my Captain Early In that tumble of heavy smells, And the sensuous drape Of so much beauty across the skin That was India; All my nursing could not save him And with the dying fall of his last caress I was left to the streets Hunger and cows everywhere And hands outstretched That mistook the disguise That had become me more than myself For wealth.
The Army was good enough: I could not be there to bury him, But they put me back upon the sea To the port they called Natal And I did too, now, For him whose breath Had once been mine In secret places. What else could I do Lost as I was, Like a Protestant Needing to be Reborn?
But it was just a Return. I landed there In my blue dress And made my way to the monastery In my blue dress For the sake now of Her, The sapphire who turns all heaven blue, Yet is a creature of drab earth And mediates between the two.
They took in Mary The penitent whore, And in my dress I gave myself to work And prayer anew, Until one day of blinding blue I was called from my needlework And taken aside. “It appeared that there were Some doubts as to ‘Mary’ being a girl,” The Witness said, “And it subsequently transpired that ‘She’ was not.”
I leave to you the actions buried In that passive voice - The lifting, the looking, The proddings and probings and punches, The white-hot anger and the filthy jokes; It is enough to say That day in their court Was the last day out For my blue dress. It billowed off me like smoke From a swaying censer, Sweet smell to one now gone And the last of my prayers.
Reduced to prose A confession, then, In one short column: “He said He had dressed as a girl From the time he went to India With Captain Early As a nurse, And he had passed himself off As a girl At the Trappists’.”
Why not? Say it all out loud; There is nothing left To betray.
At least I found at last In rough newsprint A truthful – could one say, A too truthful? - witness: “Standing in the dock,” The court report went on, “He looked a good specimen Of a native girl, Albeit his features were Too masculine For his role.”
For this sin, The abrupt ending of my story: “He was sent to gaol For a month.”
Ah, sweet Captain Early, I am sorry, It was never just for you; The touch of blue perhaps, But I hope you can now understand That there were times when all my need Was for the swirl of skirt about me.
And Sisters Precious, Yes, and Fathers and Brothers, I know that you will forgive me If for Mary, Mother and Magdalene, You too will but confess The many ways in which the soul No less than the body, Sometimes needs a dress.
1997. Novel Histories: Past, Present, and Future in South African Fiction. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press.
1997. Sinking: A Verse Novella. London and Johannesburg: Penguin.
2008. For the Sake of Silence. Johannesburg: Random House-Umuzi.
2010. For the Sake of Silence. London: Quartet Books