An Interview With Tim Richman, South African Co-Author Of Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Kak? The Whinger's Guide To South Africa From AA To JZ
A brainwavez.org Literary Expedition


South Africaby Mandy J Watson
Posted: 11 April 2008

Now that we're over this year's Valentine's euphoria (you know, the five of you that were actually experiencing it) and sugar highs from Easter chocolate, it's back to the business of cynicism. Although most of us at brainwavez.org are skilled practitioners of the art, we're not the only masters. Recently Two Dogs published Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Kak? The Whinger's Guide To South Africa From AA To JZ. We spoke to co-author Tim Richman about aspects of the South African experience that unite us all in a way that even Nelson Mandela couldn't.

Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Kak? The Whinger's Guide To South Africa From AA To JZMJW: Before we jump into the finer points of just how kak South Africa is I want to introduce the term to the site's non South African readers, who may not be familiar with it, before they lose interest and switch to my skydiving article. Since you wrote a book on the subject and that, therefore, automatically makes you an expert, would you like to explain to them what, to us, is so sacred about kak?

TR: Ah, kak - a very South African word. The straight translation would be "shit" or "crap" - and in the tradition of all great swear words it can be used as a noun, verb, adjective or exclamation - but it's a notch or two higher on the rudeness scale. I'd also say it's got a dash more emotion to it which probably has something to do with its pronunciation, "kuck" - there's some deep-seated primal Afrikaans annoyance in there. When [co-author] Grant [Schreiber] was interviewed on TV recently the presenter refused to say it, and just held up the book cover to the camera, so of course Grant repeated the title as often as possible.

At the same time, it's an everyday word in South Africa, which makes it appropriate for the book because, these days, there are so many everyday things, whether local or not, that are just...kak.

MJW: I'm very curious to know who that presenter was, although I'm going to make the wild assumption that it rhymes with "Fauxlene".

TR: No, no, it wasn't "Doh!-lene". It was an SABC 2 presenter, Sherwin Bryce-Pease. A bit of a strange decision, really, to have Grant on the show then not want to mention the very naughty word, given that he showed the title to the camera and a large percentage of the audience must presumably be able to read. He also possibly could have predicted above-average odds that Grant would mention the title of his book. Perhaps he was under orders from above. It's quite interesting to see how people react to the title: some laugh, others are horrified and others take it in their stride, almost as though it's a fair and rational question to ask in this day and age.

MJW: This does lead me to my next question, though. Although the cover credits two authors the book is written in first-person singular and everyone I talk to (okay, just one person) only ever refers to you as the author, so who is this Grant guy and what did he do?

TR: To introduce Grant, he is a director of SchreiberFord, the company that co-produces Two Dogs books with Struik Publishers. He came into work one day with an idea for a book: a South African take on a British title that whinged at the state of the world today. He wanted "kak" in the title and he wanted it to be specific to South Africans - a good idea, I thought, given our propensity to complain. Telkom, Eskom, Manto, quotas, affirmative action...this is all dinner-time conversation in South Africa. And besides, Grant is my boss so I had to do what he said. I ended up getting through most of the legwork, as you'd expect, while Grant would send me bursts of copy when he'd had a particularly aggravating day and felt inspired by the kakness around him.

The first-person singular was a tricky decision actually. We kept it second-person as often as possible, but sometimes the personal anger and annoyance just had to be presented in a first-hand account. And first-person plural, in many cases, would have started sounding very weird. "We always make a point of using the half flush when we've drained the monster" isn't quite right, is it?

MJW: Um...it could, perhaps, depend on where the toilet is located. Dare I say that? Perhaps not.... Anyway, before we jump into dissecting the content and debating the finer points of ultimate kakness, I had a question about the title - Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Kak? - has anyone ever told you that it's just you?

TR: Haha! No, not yet, although it has been suggested by the funny intellectual types who trawl about on book.co.za [where Two Dogs has a blog] that if we are claiming that everything is kak then it follows that we are kak too. We had sort of predicted the odd comment along this line, to be honest, but luckily the mainstream reviewers have chosen to pass on the opportunity.

MJW: So then it is just you, because everything's not kak?

TR: Considering that I think the book, for one, is most definitely not kak, then it's safe to say that indeed, everything is not kak. But it's not even just me (and Grant) then because I'm answering my own question with a negative.... Oh dear, I think I might have to add "hyperbole" to the sequel - it's been getting me into trouble lately.

MJW: Sequel? So you've already found more kak in South Africa? Admittedly I noticed a few items were missing that I could write reams about, given the opportunity. For example, you chose only to highlight the kakness that is banking in South Africa by referring to one institution (I won't spoil it for your future readers by saying which bank it is), yet they are all deserving of our scorn. Why did you decide to focus all your energy only on one bank (cleverly hidden under the entry "Bank fees")? Is it because they are pretty much interchangeable?

TR: Exactly. I bank with that particular financial institution, so I was speaking from recent personal experience. But I've dealt with all the big banks at one time or another and realise how equally aggravating and anti-customer they all are. The fee charged for an "insufficient funds" ATM transaction is their ultimate indictment. It really is difficult to believe that South Africans pay as much as they do in bank charges without collusion of some kind....

I also initially thought we would have covered most things, but space limitations on the first book meant we were left with a fair bit of leftover material. And a new suggestion seems to come along every day, whether from helpful readers or simply by opening the newspaper. So the sequel is a real possibility and we're discussing it at the moment - Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Still Kak? Or, given recent events, Is It Just Me Or Are Things Even Kakker? With Eskom leading the way, we could make it an annual.... I've already started the new list. What else did you notice that's missing?

MJW: Oooh. Steve Hofmeyr. Kurt Darren. Xenophobia (in all seriousness, but with humour). The way the voiceover in the one "KFC Friends campaign" ad pronounces jalapeño as "ja-la-peeno" instead of "huh-luh-penyo", and no one ever corrected it! Canal Walk. The interchangeable tastelessness Of Grand West and Montecasino. Tow-truck drivers. Ster-Kinekor (don't even get me started on that or I will never stop). The Coconuts - it's just not funny. Actually, any series produced by M-Net is usually disappointing - compare its Feast Of The Uninvited to SABC2's Land Of Thirst: Land Of Thirst was pretty good but Feast Of The Uninvited made me nauseous and put me to sleep. I was thankful for the latter but it came at a price! I've since sworn off all M-Net original productions.... Sorry - I digressed. Facebook application requests!

TR: How about Facebook, period? I am ashamed to admit that I am on it. I joined to try to market Two Dogs books (Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Kak? has its own group - 70 members!) and I like using the photo sharing, but how socially insecure have we become that we have to be "friends" with classmates we haven't seen in 14 years? And what's with poking people? How arbitrary is that? And "Hey, long time, what you up to?" messages? "Not much. You?" You twat.

We really should have included it in the first book but for some reason it slipped through the net. Like Tom Cruise, Valentine's Day and the "I'm-offended" bandwagon.

MJW: Tom Cruise! Of course! I don't know how I forgot that one. I write poems about how much I don't like him. On a more serious note, though, you take (deserved) shots at a number of politicians. Were you worried about backlash, especially considering that our politicians and their ever-ready machine guns seem somehow more frightening than, say, America's politicians, even though America has the CIA monitoring everyone's every move and, until recently, Donald Rumsfeld, who was just behind, you know, stuff?

TR: Yes, we were a bit worried, more about the legal ramifications than the possibility of being knee-capped or having our houses petrol bombed. We had to be quite careful with our specific wording in some cases, and we made sure the libel lawyer had a good look at everything before it went to print. In the end, we probably tweaked 10 entries on his advice, and if you read "ANC", "Jackie Selebi", "Hansie Cronje" and "Oversensitive religious groups", for instance, you can see where it happens. Occasionally it stepped on the humour, but mostly it was just annoying. We ended up giving "Libel Threats" an entry, as a result. Interestingly, the Jacob Zuma bit [under "JZ"] went through unchanged - for obvious reasons he was the guy we were most worried about so we went all metaphysical and wrote the libel problem into it. Clever, huh?

MJW: Very clever, yes. You used political wiley ways to get around political wiley ways and, er, potential mayhem. But now I want to talk a little bit about irony. I'm not sure if it's real irony or Alanis Morissette irony but feel free not to point out the difference unless you know for sure or are willing to face ridicule (not from me, because I have no idea). In the book you repeatedly refer to the crimes of bad grammar and punctuation, yet there are a number of mistakes in it (I am aware of this because, you'll be glad to know, I read the entire book). Would you like to defend your honour or are you just going to add a self-deprecating section entitled "Hypocrisy" to the sequel?

TR: Where?! I demand you list them all, with page and line references! Okay, but seriously, I picked up two mistakes, a missing full stop and a misspelt word (under "Telkom": so appropriate in an ironic way - not sure if it's Alanis ironic though). Both are rectified in the reprint, but I've read the thing so many times I may as well be doing it blindfolded. I could well have missed Jacob Zuma spelt as Adolf Hitler, amongst other things....

What I will say in my defence, though, is that, while grammar and spelling mistakes are always best avoided - the world would be a much better place without them - I am more concerned with the absolute lack of effort and/or knowledge shown in modern written correspondence. Even the Spectator lets through the odd literal (not trying to compare Kak to the Speccie, just saying...), but when I read blog posts or, worse, receive work-related emails that are error upon seemingly intentional error...well, there's a measure of frustration. I mean "woz" for "was" - come on, people! I can almost feel my brain atrophying when I read these things - and the alcohol is doing a good enough job already, so I don't need extra atrophying, please.

That all said, I am not averse to the odd bout of irony (though I at least try to steer clear of hypocrisy). For instance, we spend the whole book whingeing - intentionally; it's what we set out to do. Often about very South African things. And yet we had a full go at Bitter Expats who whinge a lot. I justified it by saying that you can't whinge about South Africa unless you call it home. It's like a guest complaining about the food at a dinner party. A very annoying guest who you want to set alight. But I would also justify it, in retrospect, like this: whingeing occasionally is a good thing (I'm actually quite a positive person, seriously) and it has its cathartic values. In a way, it's also about showing you still care, that you haven't become used to the mediocre. But Bitter Expat whingeing isn't about that; it's about self justification and immaturity. And I am, like, so mature. I like to think we have the moral high ground on this one.... But like I say, a bit of irony in there.

MJW: I fully agree. I liken it to people who whine incessantly about whatever political situation in the country is irritating them this week, but when I ask, "Did you vote?", they reply, "No". So shut up then. I don't care about your opinion. You've checked out. You don't get to take a moral high ground.

TR: Indeed, the moral high ground - an important possession when it comes to whingeing. It's why people listen when Nelson Mandela criticises something. And why they don't really bother when a C-Max prisoner complains that the jail he's in is nasty and soul destroying. Guess the multiple murders wasn't such a hot idea, hey tough guy? I like to compare bitter pathologically whingeing expats to C-Max prisoners.

As for voter apathy, I have to agree. Fine, don't vote if you don't want to, but then stop bitching about the guy in power because you've consciously contributed to his being there.

MJW: I've just realised voter apathy is not in the book. That's another one you could add, as it has universal appeal but has definitely been turned into an art form by South Africans in a sort of non apathetic kind of way (hence you could call it Non Apathetic Voter Apathy, although that might break a few readers' brains) but, to switch topics completely, lest this be considered a political rant rather than a literary discussion, in my circles we tend to refer to the book as "the kak book" because the title is way too long (which makes me want to contribute an entry entitled "Book Titles With Subtitles And Lengthy Essays On The Cover"). Do you get the warm fuzzies when you hear people discussing "the kak book" or does it instil fear in you that they may be discussing the quality rather than the content?

TR: The warm fuzzies, every time! After all, the only thing worse than being talked about....

In all seriousness, though, if people aren't discussing your book then they're not buying it. Actually, the fact that they're talking about it doesn't necessarily mean they're buying it, either, but at least it's a start. And I'm not so precious that I can't handle a bit of criticism here and there. Maybe if it was being mercilessly panned from all sides I wouldn't be so blasé, but luckily it seems to have pleased a few readers. Even if they were on the toilet at the time. Hey, it's not going to win the Booker - I've got pretty low aspirations.

MJW: Earlier you briefly mentioned reprinting the book, which I assume means it's been doing quite well, as such endeavours require budget. How have you promoted the book and what has the public response been like?

TR: Yes, it's sold pretty well in the South African context. It's no Jake White biography, I deeply regret to say, but it's done well enough to warrant a small second run and recently a larger third run. So that's good news.

I like to think that the sales are a 100% reflection on the brilliant content of the book but I suspect the title and the garish cover colours have something to do with it. Given South Africans' propensity for whingeing, we figured the title was a pretty good hook, and our sales over Christmas - the whingeing season - were great. We were sold out in most bookstores in the week before and after Christmas (while the distributors were closed), so we actually lost out on a fair bit of trade. Damn those bookstore managers for not placing bigger orders! As for promoting it, there hasn't been too much publicity over and above the review copies that were sent out to various media. That's par for the course for a small South African title. I'm always keen to market our books in interesting and innovative ways - for this one, I was keen to have bibs made for car guards with the title on the front - but that requires more budget. Which means it doesn't happen. It's only the no-brainer books that are obviously going to sell well that get actively promoted. More irony there.... But luckily quite a few print reviewers have picked up on Kak and put it in their publications. I imagine this is because it's quite short and easy to read, and journalists are generally lazy, but I'm not complaining because they've all been rather nice. My favourite response was the review header in The Star: "'Kak' funny, the beloved country'. There have also been really positive reviews in Sunday Independent, The Mercury, The Times, Men's Health and Women24. And the general response from readers has been that they really enjoyed it ("Dual-flush cisterns" is a favourite) but that we missed out on a whole lot of targets.

MJW: So basically your readership has been giving you lots of new material? Does this mean there will be a sequel, or were you just teasing me earlier? If you are secretly working on a sequel, you can also add "Always Having To Ask Kauai Employees To Give You The Smoothie Sticker You've Just Paid For" to the list of suggestions I gave you...although you might just want to call it "Kauai"....

TR: Ha! The big question. At this stage it looks "highly likely" there will be a sequel somewhere down the line. There really are a lot of topics not included in the first book. We ran out of space, so our leftovers list alone is about 30 entries long. Then add on reader suggestions we've received, not to mention ideas from this interview, and we're half way there. And there are also all sorts of new angles to add to some of the existing entries. For instance, Telkom: did it really only deserve a page? I don't think so. And JZ: we've come so far since November last year - I think he'd be disappointed if we didn't update him.

By the way, I really like the sound of Always Having To Ask Kauai Employees To Give You The Smoothie Sticker You've Just Paid For. I may need you to contribute that one, though....

MJW: Absolutely. I think my parents would be relieved to know that all my whingeing has resulted in something constructive. Are you going to differentiate new content from updated content in the sequel? I could see this turning into a cultural reference work with a new book that you tack onto the end every year, building your organic library of kakness.... Or is that just me?

TR: One of the suggestions (from the Struik MD) was that we add a "still kak" icon for the sequel, for returning entries. I like that idea a lot, although I am worried that it implies that everything else in the first book has now miraculously been un-kakked, which is patently not the case even if we don't want to write about them any more.

As for the annual edition, I actually like that idea. Or at least three. The third one could be called "Kak, kakker, kakkest". Then again, that could be pushing cynical sequelising - another entry, perhaps? - to its limits. There's nothing worse than a trilogy ruining a great two-hit wonder. Like Terminator 3. What was that all about? But Terminator 2 - all-time classic....

MJW: I've obliterated Terminator 3 from my mind. I wish they would show Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles on TV though...but that's totally not kak and completely irrelevant. My suggestion for the icon is to say "kakker" rather than "still kak". That's my contribution.

TR: Cool suggestion, Hansel. "Kakker" makes more sense than "Still kak". It's not like heat magazine or Sharks fans would have suddenly become un-kak just because they don't appear in the sequel. Thanks for that.

MJW: Neat. I'll look for my name in the "thank you" list in the next edition. It'll be a first. Usually people say "please go away". Speaking of which, have you been criticised for being cynical and bashing South Africa? There are a hell of a lot of people who don't understand satire.

TR: Yes we've had a little of that. Not much but a little. And I suspect there's a bit of it brooding here and there in unimpressed conservative Saffers who've seen the book on the shelf and been appalled by the offensive title and the hideous chicken-shit cover colour. My excuse is fairly simple: humour and mockery is a survival mechanism - and, with our current crime levels in this country, every survival mechanism counts. If you lose your sense of humour in South Africa...well, then it's going to be tough to put up with the place without going mental. I mean, Jacob Zuma is potentially our next president! The guy has publicly acknowledged at least 20 kids by nine women. If you can't laugh at that, then you're in for a tough time.

MJW: That sounds like a good message for the book to promote - we could all do with a reminder not to take everything so seriously - therefore, one final question: besides that sentiment, what do you hope readers take away from this book once they're read it?

TR: Well, ideally I'd hope that some hugely influential person in government reads it and instigates all sorts of sweeping policy reforms, cracking down on errant minibus taxis, sending drivers who cut in front of you to jail, abolishing Telkom, banning oversized sunglasses and unsolicited telemarketing and Manto Tshabalala-Msimang and so on. But in all honesty, I just hope that readers have a laugh and realise it's not worth taking life too seriously. And maybe throw away their Crocs.

MJW: I remain rather ambivalent on that subject. I am related to people that wear them. Thankfully I don't own any pairs myself. Anyway, Tim Richman, thank you for the honesty, insight, and a fascinating discussion that I definitely didn't find to be kak!

Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Kak? The Whinger's Guide To South Africa From AA To JZ, by Tim Richman and Grant Schreiber, can be purchased online at Kalahari.net, a South African e-tailer that ships worldwide, as well as at Amazon.co.uk. It is also available in South Africa at all good bookstores.


Key Facts
Author: Tim Richman, Grant Schreiber
ISBN: 9781920137205
Publisher: Two Dogs
Edition: First
Year: 2007
Format: Softcover; black and white
Pages: 144
Size: 128x198x12mm (WxHxD)


On The Internet
Official Page: Two Dogs | Struik


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