Technical difficulties

When the music suddenly stops playing and there’s that awkward silence, the stage looses it’s magic. At once, you’re just a fool in a bear costume that now feels hot and heavy and the audience’s eyes burn into you like flaming arrows. You look left for support from the stage manager, she shrugs and takes off the headphones. You look right for the director; he just threw down his clipboard and walked away.

The red velvet curtain inches down, creaking and pausing. Some idiot in the back starts a slow clap and the rest of the monkeys follow suit. Backstage’s dark belly finally opens up and swallows you whole.

 

“A Big Man’s wife”

The short story format is vastly underrated. If all you have is a couple thousand words at most, you must choose them very carefully in order to create full, believable characters and a satisfying character arc. If I’m to find my way as a writer, it’s important to read ferociously and to think critically about each piece. Yesterday I had the joy of reading Imitation by Chimamanda Adichie. It is a perfect example of how to give the readers a glimpse into the lives of full characters and explore heavy themes with precision and flair.

The story starts with shocking news; Nkem’s husband Obiora has a girlfriend. Over the course of the story we realise that his having a girlfriend is not that shocking, she too had dated married men when she was younger and single. Through this news Nkem’s eyes are opened to who SHE is and where her life choices have led her.

She has married a “big man” and he makes sure she is taken care of. She in turn must keep herself up to his standards. When he is about to arrive, she gets her hair done and has a wax so that she is perfect for him. With the revelation of his extra-marital relations, she impulsively decides to cut off her hair.

Oh boy! This is a well-known act of defiance, a move towards independence, cutting off what is expected of her, literally… Think Britney. So, perhaps not the most original plot point but evocative and effective.

Obiora collects African art (masks and other pieces of cultural significance), however, they are all imitations. As he orates the meaning and purpose of each new piece, he also explains how all the originals were destroyed by the colonialists or are on show in museums around the world. I wonder if she is saying that African culture has been compromised and there is no ‘original’ culture left?

Nkem sees that the life she has built in America is also an imitation and makes a bold decision to start living authentically. At the end of the story I feel Nkem still has a long way to go before she will have achieved authenticity and honesty in her own heart and mind. I appreciate that Adichie doesn’t try to give us all the answers but rather leaves it with the reader to figure out what happens next.

 

What’s in a name?

As an aspiring African writer, I thought it was vital to read as much African literature as I can while on my journey to being published. I’ve read the iconic novels; Things Fall Apart, Nervous Conditions and even a quick reread of The Heart of Darkness recently, but as for contemporary African lit..? Not much, Death by Carbs, aside.

This book has given me a great hope for African lit and also a rather large pair of shoes to fill. Shoes that I honestly feel totally incapable of filling. I am white. And African. Yes, it is possible. It’s an odd identity to have. So, here goes my ‘white’ review of a book set (partly) in Africa that deals heavily with culture, language and identity…

There’s a lot a person can talk about; Darling’s bizarre childhood, the devastation of racism and political injustices. The pervasiveness of male sexual deviance and the regularity with which young girls must face sexual assault. The American ‘dream’. But, for the sake of this blog I will focus on the use of names to denote culture and identity. Language, after all, is a vehicle for cultural propagation.

The thread that ties the fragmented story together is names, strange and sometimes funny names. Some of the stranger offerings are; Mother of Bones (I think this is a nickname?), Bornfree, Messenger, Godknows, Freedom and, of course, Darling. These names carry the essence of the culture but they are in English.

There are also a few Ndebele names; Tendai (Be Thankful) and Ncane (Little), etc. There is also the ridiculous Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro (he is as heinous as the name suggests) and the stubborn Tshaka Zulu who dies because he cannot surrender his culture or language.

As young children, Darling and her friends play many games that have deep political and social ramifications, however, their play is innocent and perhaps a very naïve. They play “ER” when Chipo (who is 11) is pregnant and they are trying to abort the baby. Sbho says “In order to do this right, we need new names” and they become ‘Dr. Cutter’ and ‘Dr. Bullet’.

After escaping the tragedies of Africa, Darling finds herself in an impossible situation. She can never belong in America. She explains it like this; “Because we were not in our own country, we could not use our own languages, and so when we spoke our voices came out bruised.” However, she can also never go back, she no longer belongs in Africa either.

The undocumented foreigners stick together mostly and when one’s name become too difficult to pronounce, they become known by their country instead. She feels a comradery with the other foreigners because they also have no place in America. Darling’s family visited very seldom, but when they did she “welcomed them to a home that was not ours”.

The break with her family is painful enough, she lies to them and promises she will come home soon but she can never leave; America is her prison and she “pulls tight the shackles”. The story seems to become allegorical at this point and Darling speaks for all illegal aliens explaining how names will forever shatter the next generation;

“And then our own children were born. We held their American birth certificates tight. We did not name our children after our parents, after ourselves, we feared if we did they would not be able to say their own names, that their friends and teachers would not know how to call them. We gave them names that would make them belong in America, names that did not mean anything to us: Aaron, Josh, Dana, Corey, Jack, Kathleen.” Pg 247

I think this is the crux of the story. She has sacrificed her identity so her children can grow up American but it means that she is forever in limbo, always an alien. Even in death, her ancestors will not welcome her. She says “the spirits will not come running to meet us, and so we will wait and wait and wait- forever waiting in the air like flags of unsung countries.” We only hear Darling’s full name once (Darling Nonkululeko Nkala) and by then she no longer holds that identity anymore. Nkululeko means “freedom” and Darling is not free!

Darling ceases to have a solid cultural identity. In America, she is an alien and only connects with other aliens. However, when she talks to Chipo, her friend from home, she is told; “Darling, my dear, you left the house burning and you have the guts to tell me, in that stupid accent that you were not even born with, that doesn’t even suit you, that this is your country?” The story of the power of names comes full circle in Chipo’s child (who they tried to abort), who is named Darling.

This idea of the power of names to convey culture and identity is furthered by the fact that ‘Noviolet Bulowayo’ in a pseudonym. Her real name is Elizabeth Zandile Tshele and she also moved from Zimbabwe to America as a child… Sound familiar? So, why does she choose to write under a pseudonym? I would like to think she is creating a new story for herself, a new identity and perhaps a new culture.

 

Beauty and the banal: “The journey of a raindrop”

“Jaynne? Jaynnie! Are you awake?” My mother bursts into my bedroom as I plop over and snort. “We’ve been called to the front line, Jaynne. You need to get up immediately!” she sing songs as she opens my curtains and pulls back the covers.

“Ugh, it’s still dark.”

“Come on, come on. It’s not up to us to decide when the clouds should burst… Oh, look at you! You’ve swollen tremendously! Your dad would be so proud.”

She waddles out my door and into my brother’s room, “Wake up my sweet little puddle…” Guess who’s the favourite?

Moments later the whole town is standing on the edge of the cloud ready for free fall.

“Now remember, my droplets, we’ll meet back here in 48 hours. Do you have your snacks?” There’s no time to answer her before the gates are flung open and we dive out. This is my favourite part.

For one brief moment I am beautiful; the sunrise light refracts through me, beaming a rainbow over the sleeping city. I swirl and dance through the gusts of wind like a ballerina. I am full, I am enough.

Without exception, the freedom ends. With an almighty bang I rupture myself on the ground. Dazed, I stare up at the gloomy cloud overhead and watch my friends, family and classmates follow the same path. They fly blissfully through the air for just a few moments of indescribable joy and land with an oaf on the dirty floor. The sand and gravel under me begin to seep into me making me brown and smelly. This is not my favourite part.

“Oh darling, look at that! I fell right next to you!” My mother gurgles from her puddle.

“I wish I could fall forever.” I lament to her.

“I know Jaynnie, we all do. Unfortunately we have other responsibilities too. Now pull yourself towards yourself and let’s go home.”

 

 

I’ve been told I read too deeply into things. I put too much meaning on things. Things that have no meaning. There is no greater purpose than the humdrum. Samsa became a bug searching for meaning, why couldn’t I become a droplet? 😉

My Metaphysical Guilt laid bare

Yolisa Qunta has explained in depth, how and why this anthology, Writing What We Like, came to be in the introduction and in interviews about the book. I agree with her that this type of literature is crucial right now and I also hope that it will spark conversations between all South Africans about who we are and how we treat each other.

I just hope we are a nation that reads??? Judging by the number of reviews I have found online, I worry that this critical analysis of South Africa’s status quo is going unread. So, being a white South African, I will cautiously offer some thoughts.

Throughout this book, I felt as though I was reading someone else’s diary or listening in on a private conversation that I had not been invited to partake in. It was disconcerting at best. I also had a sense that scales were being torn from my eyes with each passing essay. Facts that I have known all my life became truths that cut.

The title is an obvious reference to Steve Biko’s I write what I like, a collection of essays published after his death. It seemed prudent to read Biko’s collection before trying to understand the more recent anthology. I am embarrassed to say I had never made the time to read Biko’s essays before.

His writings are direct and unapologetic. For example, he says; “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” He places precise labels and blame, calling Africans to own their identities; “Black man, you are your own.”  His main subject matter is the propagating of Black Consciousness.

Steve’s words seem to echo through this new compilation… “Merely by describing yourself as black you have started on a road towards emancipation, you have committed yourself to fight against all forces that seek to use your blackness as a stamp that marks you out as a subservient being.”

I am passionate about the power of words and language in affecting change. Much of what this blog is about is using language to understand ourselves and to empathise with others. Many of the essays in Quanta’s collection speak of reclaiming language and longing for a sense of pride in an African identity.

Simphiwe Dana is ‘Re-dreaming Africa’ through linguistic relativity. Africans must be allowed to learn and express their world view through their indigenous languages. She quotes the philosopher MSC Okolo saying “Of all human inventions, language alone affects, structure, defines, interprets all other aspects of human life. Beliefs, ideas, ideologies, culture, knowledge, experience, values, prejudices are acquired and conveyed through language.”

‘Defining ourselves’ is very reminiscent of Biko’s words. Diakanyo affirms “Africans must reclaim and defend their identity, lest we revert to colonial days when defining ourselves was the task of others.” Then, ‘Mind your language’ shows how Africans are judged and pigeon-holed through their proficiency with a colonial language. Numerous essays call for Africans to embrace their indigenous languages once again.

‘Not just an ID’  grapples with individual identity and cultural belonging. Nama Xam concludes his coming of age tale saying “I believe in the power of self-love. After all, how can you love another, if you cannot love yourself.” ‘An Untold History Lesson’ questions the truth of African history as told in our schools. A re-adjustment of priorities is needed in our curricula.

In ‘White Supremacy vs Transformation’, my guilt as a white South African was served up in a way that I could no longer deny it. Siphokuhle Mathe holds no punches while exposing the privilege that simply being white has afforded me in my lifetime. Yes, I had to repay my university education for a number of years after graduating, but the truth is that I was accepted into the establishment far more easily than many of my African peers. We cannot continue to deny that there is a dichotomy at work. If Whites begin to feel uncomfortable at this undeserved privilege, maybe, just maybe, we can be part of the solution.

Yolisa’s essay, ‘Spider’s web’ is the perfect synopsis of this simmering and festering disease. It is not overt racism that says I am better than you. As she says, “it was more subtle than that.” She offers a striking image of what it feels like to encounter this kind of invisible discrimination and the look I imagine on her face is one I have seen before. Next time, it won’t pass me by.

She offers a possible solution, one that certainly would make a difference, if it could be implemented. Somehow, though, I think it might be a way off yet. Perhaps if we all (not only black South Africans), employed Sivuyile Ngesi’s philosophy in ‘That’s how we Toyi-toyi’, and deliberately boycott any establishment that condones even the most subtle racism, we can, at the very least, make a statement.

A few of the pieces mention how Whites have usurped Mandela’s words of peace and unity and turned them into silencers for those who feel the burn of systemic racism in our country. I have never thought about it that way and, honestly, I have used this argument myself. Yolisa’s piece about Mandela Day was also a breath of fresh air in the stuffy room that is self-congratulatory standard.

Also, as Lwandile Fikeni says in ‘Times are changing’; “Our former heroes have become potential adversaries, our former enemies likely allies”. This particular article echoes Biko’s ‘Black Souls in White Skins’ with a slight twist on “liberals”. Loyisa Gola points a comical finger at Jacob Zuma and the post apartheid  government. I agree with him, though, that the president should really consider doing any speeches in Zulu from now on.

In a letter to the SRC presidents in 1970, Biko explains why the creation of SASO was necessary. He says “It was felt that a time had come when Blacks had to formulate their own thinking, unpolluted by ideas emanating from a group with lots at stake in the status quo.” I feel that Qunta’s anthology has the same core function. As a white person, I am humbled and disgusted by the systemic racism that has slid so easily passed my consciousness without even raising a flag.

As philosopher Karl Jasper said about metaphysical guilt; “solidarity is violated by my presence at a wrong or a crime. It is not enough that I cautiously risk my life to prevent it; if it happens, and I was there, and if I survive where the other is killed, I know from a voice within myself: I am guilty of being still alive.”

I will continue to call myself South African and to be proud of this country. But now, I will stop denying endemic racism and allow Africans to make their voices heard.

As Mathe says later, “Black is rising. Azania is rising.”

Spring Flower

Tomorrow is the anniversary of my mother’s death. My heart is still torn open and hemorrhaging, perhaps this wound never heals. It helps to remember her though, and to imagine her now…

If I had to describe my mother in a colour, I’d pick yellow. Not that she looked good in the colour, her undertone was too pink. But the impression she left wherever she went was of bright spring days and flowers just starting to open. That was her destiny in this life, I guess. To be always opening, about to bloom.

 

She is the first blade of green stretching from winter’s barren heart

She is wind that blows the ice away

She is warmth, a hand on mine, like a cup of tea

She is the tender downpour of first rains

She is bright sunny days, the sun in my toddling scribbles

She is the closed bud on ardent spring bushes

She is plucked and gently placed behind an ear, a garland of new life

Now in full bloom, she sings praises to Jesus

Bows her head to the King of Peace

The Translator

Darfur, 2005; the fear, the hopelessness, the genocide. I can’t imagine a heavier topic. And yet, somehow, Daoud writes with a lightness and an ease that is disarming. Before you know it, you’re sitting under a tarp in the afternoon heat of the Sahara, engrossed in this harrowing tale of cruelty and bravery.

The story is written in a loop. He starts at the end, when he meets Phillip, a journalist. Before we can get to know either of them very well, though, he jumps back to his primary school days before the rumble of war could be heard. In the end, he and Phillip spend about 6 weeks in various jails, but the truth of the genocide has been revealed to the world.

This memoir was published in 2008 so I am 8 years late with this review. There are already scores of detailed plot reviews online, so I will rather talk about it from a literary point of view. Daoud is a translator, he is fighting in this war using words, languages. What a beautiful example of the power of words.

On Pg. 5 he spells it out for us; “Most of the young men I had grown up with were now dead or fighting in the resistance; I, too, had chosen to risk myself, but it was using my English instead of a gun.” In the story he is using language to bring international attention to the genocide that is happening and also to give victims of the violence an outlet for the pain of their stories. Through the medium of the book, he is again using language to immortalise his story and hopefully stop this from happening again, somewhere else.

Language is not always taken at face value, though. Daoud listens to what people say and then figures out what they mean. On pg. 10, Phillip says “Lucky thing really” and Daoud translates it to their driver as “God is good”. He explains this mis-translation with “which, indeed, is what I believe he was saying.”

He does this quite often; crediting a deity for luck, co-incidence and good fortune but is careful not to prescribe a specific name for his god. I guess this is a strategic decision so as not to alienate any potential readers. Also, his ancestors seem to be spiritual guides that appear to him in dreams at crucial points. Perhaps this was true but after a while it seemed formulaic. These were the only instances where I fell out of the story with a thump.

His name is a version of the Biblical king David. He identifies more with young David, though, in that he also faces a formidable and giant foe and must use his cunning and thrift to overcome it. But names can be dangerous in a place where news seems to travel on the wind. So, he changes his name to stay out of prison. One journalist comments on pg. 11 that “everyone has lots of names around here.”

The heartbreak and violence that Daoud sees is devastating, I feel nauseous even thinking back on what I read. The vilest of the stories is one about a father who loses his 4 year old daughter as she tries to stop his execution. It is heartbreaking. There are some words you cannot unread.

Later, the father (who is not executed after all) is given a traditional remedy for his broken heart. Words from the Quran are written on a wooden tablet. The tablet is washed and the inky water offered as a cure for his pain. Literally, he is told to drink the words of God! I haven’t read the Quran, but I have read (some of) the Bible. In it, we are told that Jesus IS the Word and he is our saviour. (The Bible also warns us often enough that words are incredibly powerful; the power of life and death are in the tongue…)

This book dealt with the most disgusting parts of humanity; greed, evil, violence and oppression and yet he ends with a challenge that could change the world; “What can one person do? You make friends, of course, and do what you can.”

It’s that simple. So, I commit to making friends and doing what I can to lift my people (all people) out of poverty and oppression. It is not enough to throw money at poor people. I’ve seen this response enough times. We must build relationships, listen to their stories and offer a hand up.

 

Fears of a dancing monkey

I am a dancing monkey, dressed all

in sequins and excess.

I spin and squeal, my audience to amaze.

Smile, monkey!  Twirl, monkey! Hold your gaze!

 

I am a dancing monkey

searching for applause.

I am a back up chorus-girl

chasing the spotlight’s pause.

 

In truth, I am a nobody

looking for a sign,

that I am worthy to be seen

and perhaps worthy of your time.

 

While this was very true of me when I was growing up, it is less true now. Now I am more wise, I understand the roles I am expected to play in this life. Does that make me less of a dancing monkey?

I’ve learned the steps and I know the song by heart. I swap my masks and try to fulfill all my roles while the little girl inside just wants to play and be loved. This blog, this is my playground, thank you for playing with me for a little while.