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Michael Cawood Green PDF Print E-mail

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Sinking was short-listed for the SANLAM award for unpublished fiction in 1995 and called a ‘most notable omission’ (Shaun de Waal, Mail and Guardian, March 20 to 26, 1998, p.30) from the shortlist for the M-Net Book Prize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.


“Alone of All Her Sex”

… alone of all her sex
She pleased the Lord.
- Caelius Sedulius

The Witness
The Natal
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

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
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,

“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

But it was just a
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


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