Friday, February 27, 2009

Reading South African novels: feeling the divide more than ever.

I have had quite a bit of time during the school holidays to catch up on reading, and I’ve really enjoyed it. There is a definite trend in my reading though: I am REALLY enjoying the African novels! As you can see on my reading list on the left, I have recently read three novels by authors in Southern Africa: "Three-letter Plague"," A change of Tongue" and "The Grass is singing". I have certainly gained much more enjoyment and thought stimulation from reading these three books than any of the others I have read.

I guess this is not surprising: I am of course missing home soil, and anything that can 'transport' me back there for a few hours a day will be enjoyable! But not only that. I think travelling opens up ones mind to looking at ones home and home country from a different perspective, and I think I that is how I have experienced reading these books. This perspective brings with it a strange mixture of critical, even negative, thoughts as well as nostalgic, overly-positive thoughts. I can't quite figure it out.

Let me try to explain: these thoughts about my experiences of reading SA books while in Korea sort of 'came to a head' whilst I was reading Doris Lessing's 'The grass is singing'. I read this most recently of the three, however, it is the oldest among them, having been published in 1950. Doris Lessing was the Nobel Laureate for Literature in 2008, and this is probably the reason I stumbled upon this book in a book store in Daegu.

Her writing in this novel is quite harsh: she describes the relationship between a white farmer's wife and her servant, Moses, in southern Zimbabwe. The blatant racism, injustice and even hatred of the whites towards their servants is well illustrated. Reading it from an almost 'international' perspective made me realise how 'immune' we as white South Africans have almost become to racism. It is so normal and part of our lives. So here I am, enjoying a novel set on African soil, the descriptions of the farm, sunsets, earth, bush, wildlife and people are so familiar and pleasurable to me as I read. But at the same time I am struck by the utter ugliness of racism. I think Lessing has done this very well: I truly have mixed feelings about being a white South African after reading this book. I feel blessed to have grown up in South Africa: such a beautiful country, such amazingly diverse people and a wonderful, easy lifestyle. I can appreciate these aspects of it even more now that I am living in Korea as a foreigner. On the other hand, I am almost ashamed of being a white South African, because of how much hurt, hatred and injustice 'my people' have inflicted upon our fellow black South Africans. So, as you can see, I am 'stuck' in my feelings!

To 'unstick' me I can turn to 'A change of Tongue' by Antjie Krog. This is certainly a more positive story, and is set in more recent times in South Africa. Writing almost autobiographically, Krog reminisces a lot about her childhood in Kroonstad, on the farm, in amongst white (racist) farmers. She writes also how she realised at a young age how racism was wrong, but also inescapable in most white communities, especially farming communities. She was an activist with the ANC in Kroonstad during apartheid and it seems that in this way she 'redeemed' herself from the racism so part of her family and community. Her writing was also a valuable way for her to express her feelings which were so contrary to those of the people around her. So one can be saved from this 'shame' of being a white South African. Or so she seems to say. Anyway, food for thought.

"Three-letter plague" has another tone and message completely: it is set in rural Transkei, close to Lusikisiki. This novel was 'closest' to me in terms of setting and I also felt I could identify with the characters more in this novel than in the other two. Maybe because of how much time we have spent in the Transkei: two holidays a year for most of my childhood and until now. The place, and the people, are very precious to me: we have a good relationship with a family down there who take care of our beach cottage for us in our absence, and who we in return help to clothe and feed. They live in incredible poverty, yet they are happy, open and warm people. There’s more to it though: the daughter of the family is HIV-positive, and my Mom has been instrumental in getting her to go to the clinic to have herself tested and put on ARVs. Her health is ever-improving and she has realized the value of this modern medicine. The clinic she went to is one of the clinics administered by Dr Reuter, one of the lead characters in “Three-letter plague”.

The story of Sizwe, the main character in this novel, really spoke to me. But once again, I start to feel guilty for being a white South African, Oh no, there it is, that horrible word: guilt. And ‘White Guilt’ at that. I have always thought I am quite good at not taking guilt upon myself unnecessarily: when things or wrong or I make a mistake I am usually quite good at thinking to myself: “that's life, these things happen, etc." But all of a sudden, here I am in Korea, reading books about South Africa, and the word (and I guess also the feeling) has snuck up on me! In this case, I was just thinking about how I go down to the Transkei for holidays (what a luxury) and Matewu and her family look after our house and we feed and clothe them: it is both a patronising and strangely bizarre set-up. But all it is really, is a clear example of the huge divide between not only black and white, but more accurately, rich and poor in South Africa. And I happen to be on the easier side of the divide. Lucky me. And Mattewu is on the other, more difficult, side of it. And that's life. And I guess all one can do, from our side of the divide is to be aware of it, to appreciate the fortunate situation one finds oneself in and to be compassionate and thoughtful towards those on the other side. (Thanks Mum, for taking one for the team for so long).

So, what all this reading of South African books is doing for me is making me think about what it is to be a South African, and since we’re on the topic, a white South African. This is also highlighted by the fact that so many people we meet in Korea say ‘South Africa????’, with a puzzled look on their face, when they hear where we’re from: ‘White person? South Africa???’ Makes one think! And explaining something as complicated as that to someone with very little English is quite difficult…

If anyone has any good South African novels to recommend/send, I’m ready!


EEbEE said...

Did you hear that they are making movies out of JM Coetzee's Disgrace and The Long Walk to Freedom.

i'd never have thought that these would have such an impact overseas (especially Disgrace which i thought was rubbish)

Unknown said...

I can recommend The Number by John Steinberg. It looks a the origin and development of the SA Prison Number Gangs (26s, 27s & 28s). Its really interesting and makes you think about the cause of some crime etc.
Also know Andrew has really enjoyed Max Du Preez's books - The Pale NAtive is the only one I can think of right now.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jess - I am not sure how to comment on your blog generally - is this a comment specifically about books? I want to comment generally - thatnk you for all your news, the lovely photo and the lovely personal details, which make your reports / stories so very special - keep it up!! Hope the camps are not too exhausting!! :-) love you lots!!