A Good Home, Art, Famous people, Furniture, Homes, Inspiration, Interior Design, Memorabilia, Nelson Mandela

Parting With Treasures

 For some of us, home is not a house or apartment, but our cherished belongings. Those personal belongings help create a feeling of home wherever we live.

Over the years, Sylvia Vollenhoven has collected beautiful pieces of art, furniture and memorabilia. She has an eye for beauty and history.

Riempie Bench

Blog - Ndebele ApronNdebele Apron

But the well-known South African journalist and television producer has decided to sell her cherished possessions.

“Tough times call for tough measures,” says Sylvia.  She says it without fuss or melodrama.

Blog - African dogon maskDogon Mask

People make sacrifices for all kinds of reasons: for those we love; for ideals that we believe in. And – sometimes – for the sake of being able to look at ourselves in the mirror and not gag. But it’s not as if this woman hasn’t made a string of big sacrifices already, many of them during the apartheid years when speaking out  against oppression or trying to do one’s duty as a journalist sometimes led to grave punishment.

After he was released from prison, Nelson Mandela told Sylvia that he’d admired her journalism and courage for a long time. Over the following years, he gave or signed for her a variety of memorabilia – precious items that she has cherished.

Blog - Sylvia and Nelson Mandela

Blog - Signed First Edition copy of N Mandela's book

Blog - Mandela 80th Birthday2

Today, Sylvia’s courage and her journalism have landed her in a costly legal fight.  The journalist who survived the vice-grip of apartheid is now fighting the national broadcaster, the SABC, for the right to broadcast a story about apartheid-era corruption.

The fight comes in the middle of the biggest project of her career: a multi-media project (a book, play and movie) that Sylvia’s small production company plans to start releasing next year. To keep fighting, and to keep producing, Sylvia’s company needs money.

I suspect that the sacrifice that hurts her most is having to sell the Nelson Mandela memorabilia. But for Sylvia, being “at home with oneself”  — and having the freedom to tell the stories of S. Africa that most need to be heard — are more precious to her than even the beautiful and historically significant belongings in her home.

With courage, strength and grace, Sylvia has announced the sale of her prized possessions. She says it will make her happy if each item finds a good home.

Blog - Masai Warrior PaintingMasai Warriors Painting

For further information:


VIA -Vision In Africa: + 27 21 762-4921

p.s. Some items are being auctioned at:


A Good Home, Authors, Book Festivals, Books, Famous people, Great books, Poetry

The Introvert at the Party

Photos by Hamlin Grange

What’s an introvert like me doing at a party with famous authors?

Feeling a bit lost among strangers, is what. The room is packed with authors – the very well-known and not-so-well known –  from around the world.  A quick look at the program book for the prestigious International Festival of Authors at Harbourfront in Toronto and you’ll see names like Margaret Atwood, Joseph Boyden and Margaret Drabble.

Blog - IFOA Reception

I, meanwhile,  am new to this author thing: my book, A Good Home” was only recently released. Hamlin Grange and Leonie McKnight-Copeland, a childhood friend visiting from Connecticut, are with me. As usual, several people recognize Hamlin from his frequent appearances on CBC Television where he was a news anchor and journalist. But none of us knows anyone here.

We join the line for appetizers and drinks.  I use a cane and  can’t manage it plus a plate and a glass, so Leonie and I head to a table in a connecting room while Hamlin  goes back inside for the drinks.

Finally, we return to the party. I once possessed the fine skill of mixing and mingling with strangers and celebrities at cocktail parties.  I’ve been away from that world for such a long time since the accident, I’ve forgotten how;  I’ve become an introvert.  But my eye catches a young woman who looks as shy as me, and I go over to say a warm hello.  Then I realize that there are other people with her,  so I move on.

My companions and I are glad to bump into a relaxed-looking man who greets us warmly.  We spend several minutes chatting with him.

Blog - With Attila

He turns out to be Attila Berki, associate publisher of Quill and Quire magazine. He says that the young woman I  approached was Eleanor Catton, the Canadian-born author whose book, The Luminaries, just won the Man Booker Prize.

Feeling a bit foolish, I return and apologize to Eleanor for not having recognized her.

“And I really should have, because I was very proud to hear that a Canadian-born author won the prize. You live in – is it Australia, or…?”

The moment I say this, I know I’m wrong, and Eleanor corrects me gently. “New Zealand,” she says.

“I know that”, I groan.

But Eleanor smiles warmly at me. We part, with me feeling only slightly idiotic.

And then it occurs to me that there’s a whole roomful of other authors who don’t know anyone else here either.   I force myself to smile brightly and say hello to everyone I come across who looks a little lost. Each person smiles back warmly, almost with relief, it seems.

Blog - Small group

Ironically, the only famous author whom I recognize is wearing someone else’s name tag. Going along with this little deception, I pretend not to notice.

“You have to come say hello to Austin,” Hamlin says, returning to my side. “He’s across the room.” I go off to see Austin Clarke, a huge smile on my face.

Austin’s sitting in a dark corner. The winner of the Giller Prize and several other prestigious honours sits by himself on a black leather bench, looking regal yet removed. “Like a sort of eminence grise?”  I tease him.

“Or the lion of Judah,” he offers, laughing softly. I slip my arm through his and we laugh together companionably. I’ve known him for years.

Blog - Austin and Cynthia

Austin’s new book of poetry, Where the Sun Shines Best, is nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award, and he’s at work on his memoirs. As we sit together, looking at the crowd,  I, the brand-new author, am honoured to be chatting quietly with this famous Canadian man of letters. We laughingly compare the canes we use to walk around, and I have to agree that his brown wooden African cane is much nicer. (See above photo, extreme right of frame)

A man who works at Harbourfront approaches, bringing Austin a more comfortable chair. He almost-kneels, almost-reverently, to shake Austin’s hand. He’s a fan of Austin’s Giller-winning novel, The Polished Hoe, and he greets Austin as if meeting a head of state.

Leonie and Hamlin join us to chat with Austin. No-one else approaches us, and I realize that this roomful of mostly younger or foreign authors probably does not realize that this black man with the shoulder-length grey dreadlocks is Austin Clarke, one of Canada’s greatest.

Hamlin, Leonie and I take turns giving Austin a goodbye hug.  As we leave, we look around for Attila, to say thanks and goodbye. We don’t find him. But it’s been a good evening, and – introvert though I am –  I am grateful to Harbourfront  and the IFOA for  inviting us to take part.

A Good Home, Arabella, Authors, Books, Famous people, Great books, Inspiration, Thanks

A Salute to These Kind, Fabulous Authors

A few weeks ago, I thanked all of you who’ve read my book,  A Good Home,  so far. (Many of you also take the time to send me letters and cards, which I love.)

But did I ever tell you about the authors who have also graced my journey? What a gift that’s been!

First, Louise Penny. This Canadian author is known for her Inspector Gamache/Three Pines mysteries.  Her lyrical, emotional, insightful writing has won several big awards and put her books on the New York Times bestseller list.

The day I discovered my first Louise Penny book was shortly after I’d turned in my latest feature story to Arabella Magazine. That feature story – written several years before – was titled Possession. It was about the deeply rooted hunger to possess precious things. Louise’s book, The Brutal Telling, was about a deeply-rooted hunger to possess precious things. I was amazed by the serendipity.

Blog - The Brutal Telling

Louise bravely explores that borderland place where the unexplained and the divine intersect with the here and now, the temporal. It’s something I try to do in some of my own writing.

But it was Louise’s own back story – and the similarities between her life and mine — that most surprised me.

We are, I discovered, both Ryerson graduates, both former CBC journalists. But that’s just the stuff that goes into resumes. As I read about her, I realized that we’d both also known what it was like to hit rock-bottom. I was still going through a harrowing fight against painful injuries from a car accident and the very painkillers that were meant to help me cope. Louise had fought a lengthy battle against alcoholism.

I took all these similarities as a sign from above – one of those borderland moments where the divine intersects with the temporal.  It was time, I decided, to get serious about the book I’d started writing a long time ago. But first, I wrote to Louise herself.

Blog - Louise Penny

“The publisher sent me the story layout for my final sign-off just one day before I started your book”, I wrote, referring to the Arabella story, “and as I read your novel, I thought – with a shiver – ‘this is another of my life’s unexplained coincidences’.”

She wrote me back right away: “We seem like sisters,” she said. “I’m glad you’ve discovered my books – and suspect you are a gifted, fabulous writer.”

Such kind encouragement. Louise’s next email contained advice for me as a would-be author. Before you send your manuscript to a publisher or agent, she urged, polish, polish, polish. It’s your one chance, so make it the best it can be.

As I neared the completion of the manuscript, other authors helped.

Blog - Yvonne Blackwood

Yvonne Blackwood, author of Into Africa: The Return, repeatedly helped me polish. She suggested small improvements throughout the text.

Lee Gowan, creative writing professor at the University of Toronto and author of Confession, paid me a precious compliment: he read the manuscript to his mother.

“It was a very moving experience, I can tell you,” Lee wrote.  “Often had a tear or two in my eyes and a hitch in my voice as I was trying to read through.” Lee also stopped me from editing out a whole section of the book that, it turns out, readers love.

Blog - Lee Gowan

When the book was completed, and in the hands of the publisher, I wanted to find out from an author what this next period would be like. Given my need to pace myself, and still attend therapy for long-term injuries, I wanted to make the best of limited resources. Enter Ann Preston, author of The No-Grainer Baker cookbook.

Blog - No Grainer Baker

She was introduced to me by a friend. Ann became a guardian angel, telling me what to expect, and, with her own book on its way to becoming a bestseller, sharing tips by the week.

Blog - Ann Preston

Jan Wong (who self-published her most recent book, Out of the Blue) had experienced both traditional and self publishing. She openly shared her experience with promoting and distributing her books, while I made notes of everything from postage rates for books to dealing with invitations for book readings.

Blog - Jan Wong

Authors Merilyn Simonds, Olive Senior and Donna Kakonge also encouraged me.

With wise words of support, small notes of caution, and precious bits of common-sense, these authors helped me to make A Good Home a success. Bravo and Thanks to them all. 

Famous people, Photographs, Portraits

Edward Gajdel – the Artist at Work

Edward Gajdel is regarded as one of the world’s best portrait photographers.  

He has photographed the great, the famous and the powerful, from artists such as singer-poet Leonard Cohen and novelist Margaret Atwood to world leaders such as former Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

So when I reached out to Edward to make my portrait for the back cover of my new book, A Good Home, I was thrilled he chose to do so. He and his producer, wife Djanka, pulled out all the stops to get me a spot in Edward’s schedule.

Blog Photo Edward Gajdel

But, on the day of the shoot, I’m hiding a secret: I’m in terrible pain. It’s one of those days when nothing helps and I can barely cope. Standing, sitting, walking – all are very difficult right now.

Still, come hell or high water – as my grandmother would have said – I’m going to Edward Gajdel’s studio on Queen St. West in Toronto to get my portrait taken today.

I arrive at his spacious, modern studio and Edward offers me a cappuccino and ensures I’m comfortable. The man is often described as a genius, but there is no big ego in evidence here.

On the tall walls are images of some of the famous people he’s photographed – Academy Award winner Christopher Plummer and the great jazz pianist Dr. Oscar Peterson.  The many prizes and awards Edward has won for his art, however, are nowhere in sight.

Blog phot Oscar Peterson

Edward knows about the long-term impacts of my car accident. But when he asks how I’m feeling, I lie through my teeth. “Great, just great,” I say.

Perhaps he notices that I’m gripping my cane tightly. That I’m not standing straight.  He doesn’t mention it. He hands me a drink and introduces makeup artist Victoria, a friendly woman who’s a great storyteller. The coffee and the storytelling, I suspect, are meant to help put me at ease, make me feel cared for. I’m grateful.

Soon it will be time for the shoot. I’m vaguely aware of Edward moving lights and tripod around on the white studio floor. Victoria keeps talking to me. Edward continues with his preparations, occasionally looking up to crack a joke.

It’s time for the shoot. I take a deep breath. Today I’m determined to look like an author. I will not look vulnerable. After all, Edward Gajdel is taking my photograph and it’s a wonderful privilege.

I remove my glasses. I put the cane away. It means shifting most of my weight to my left leg, and I pray I can keep standing. Falling would not help matters today.

Edward Gajdel is famous for his gentle, respectful manner. It’s obvious in the polite way he asks me to turn slightly this way or that. As if I might say ‘no’. As if I were someone very important: a prime minister, a famous novelist or jazz pianist.

My right side is ablaze with pain. But I’m doing my best impression of my strongest, calmest self.

Edward takes photos. He looks at them. He looks at me.

“Cynthia,” he says gently, and pauses, sending me a smile of encouragement. “Would you mind using your cane? It won’t be in the photograph. But I think you’ll feel more supported.”

It’s then I remember: Edward Gajdel, the famous photographer, is known for being deeply perceptive. Some people have said they felt he was looking into their souls, seeing part of them that others don’t. It’s one of the reasons his portraits are unique.

Edward has seen right through me, to the pain and the vulnerability. But he sees something even more powerful:  my great need to not be overwhelmed by them on this important day of my life.

Victoria hands me the cane. I accept it. Then she hands me my glasses. I put them on. I turn to look at Edward, and he smiles gently.  I smile back.

And pose for my picture.

Thank you, Edward!

Book Portrait