Correspondence with Lewis Nkosi, 2002

A long time ago I was fortunate enough to conduct an interview with the great, now late, Lewis Nkosi (1936-2010), via a series of emails. Below is that correspondence. It is forthcoming in a Festschrift for Lewis Nkosi, edited by Astrid Starck.

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E-mail correspondence: Lewis Nkosi and Lucy Graham, March – April 2002.

Lewis Nkosi to Lucy Graham, 25 March 2002

Subject: Mating Birds

Dear Lucy Graham,

I have your message via Janice Harris. Needless to say, I am delighted you plan to present a paper on MATING BIRDS. I would be happy to answer questions about my work but if possible would appreciate knowing in advance the questions you have in mind so that I can do a bit of reflection before the interview. The reason is that I am not a very articulate person.

Then we also need to discuss the kind of set-up you have in mind, date and time, etc.

My personal interest includes a consideration of the ways in which MATING BIRDS was received in South Africa in contrast to reviews outside the country, the social and political circumstances which framed these receptions. I am also in possession of leading reviews, from The New York Times Book Review and Washington Post, to British and Continental newspaper reviews.

Last week, Mating Birds was reissued in France by Muse Dapper in Paris and a German Publisher is to reprint the German translation in September.

Kwela Books is preparing publication of the second novel, UNDERGROUND PEOPLE in October. Let me know what help you may require.

Sincerely, LEWIS NKOSI.

 

Lucy Graham to Lewis Nkosi, 26 March 2002.

Subject: Mating Birds

Dear Lewis Nkosi,

Thank you for getting in touch! I was thrilled to hear from you, and was very pleased to hear that you agree to an interview.

I would suggest a series of emails, to which you can respond at your leisure. If you have any other ideas (e.g. emails and a telephone conversation or two) then please let me know. If you are coming to the UK for any reason, it would be great to meet up.

I am considering a doctorate, with the provisional title of my thesis: “Rape in South African Literature: Segregation, Apartheid and After”. Partly, I am examining the ways in which certain narratives were produced, circulated, used for political purposes, banned, legitimised, ignored or criticised in South African history.

I find Mating Birds to be a fascinating book, and particularly subversive when it comes to the so-called “black peril” theme. And your personal interest – the different responses to Mating Birds inside SA and abroad – happens to be my interest too. Andre Brink’s critique of Mating Birds is particularly problematic and amusing (in what it reveals about a white male SA critic).

The reviews you mention would be of great interest to me, perhaps you could list references, indicating where they may be found?

I am interested in correspondence you may have with the publishers of Mating Birds, in SA and abroad (esp. St Martin’s Press and Ravan). If you no longer have the correspondence, could you remember whether they suggested any changes to the original manuscript, before it was published? These changes may have been suggested in the name of prospective readers, and with the market for certain types of narratives in mind. I know for instance, that Doris Lessing’s publishers Alfred Knopf in New York tried to force her to make major changes to The Grass is Singing, which she refused.

I suspect that the subversive nature of the novel accounts for attempts by certain white critics in SA to dismiss aspects of it. Did the apartheid censors have anything to say about Mating Birds, before or after it was published in SA?

I look forward to hearing from you.
And of course I do not believe for one second that you are an inarticulate person (!).

Sincerely,

Lucy Graham.

Lewis Nkosi to Lucy Graham, 4 April 2002

Subject: Mating Birds

Dear Lucy Graham,

I wanted to reply to you sooner, but alas for the past three weeks and all through (appropriately if you believe that Christian story) Easter holy days, I have been undergoing a crucifixion of a kind rewriting passages of UNDERGROUND PEOPLE. I am bleeding, I am exhausted, with only Kafka’s DIARIES for consolation: “Headache, slept badly. Incapable of sustained, concentrated work.” Et tu Kafka! Again: “Wrote a little today and yesterday. Just now read the beginning. It is ugly and gives me a headache…wicked, pedantic, mechanical, a fish barely breathing on a sandbank.”

Your message is delightful in so far as it uncannily captures some of my many reflections on the plight of MATING BIRDS. The reception of the novel is a subject that deserves a paper by itself! Outside South Africa the novel was almost unanimously perceived as one of the best pieces of writing to emerge from South Africa. The novel was the Thursday’s weekly choice of the best new fiction by THE NEW YORK TIMES influential critic Michiko Kakutani (March 22, 1986); a lead review in THE NEW YORK TIMES SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW by Henry Louis Gates,Jr, (Sunday 18 May 1986); Critics’ Choice of the WASHINGTON POST and reviewed by Alan Ryan on June 8, 1986 who called it “very possibly the finest novel by a South African, black or white, about the terrible distortion of love in South Africa since Alan Paton’s “TOO LATE THE PHALAROPE”; Gabrielle Daniels of Stanford University, then teaching black women’s literature, in a review in the EXAMINER-CHRONICLE of San Francisco on May 4, 1986; Norman Shrapnel for the LONDON GUARDIAN 1.8. 1986, who after summarising the novel reported: “So stark an outline can give no account of the subtlety and skill that have gone into the structure of this searching – and remarkably, given its dire theme, undepressing – first novel.” From Hugh Barnes in the LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS (7 August 1986) to Margaret Walters in THE LONDON OBSERVER (27.7.86) and Paul Pickering in NEW SOCIETY  who thought “the moral implications of MATING BIRDS are as disturbing as the writing is brilliant.” And then was Channel 4 Book’s Choice reviewed by Andrew Hislop. In Holland was a best-seller that went into two printings; was chosen one of the best 100 books published in 1986 by the NEW YORK TIMES at the end of that year. Sweden, Norway, Finland, Italy and Germany got similar reception. Was not reviewed in France for peculiarly French reasons when it comes to foreign books by “Third World Writers” but got a review in CANARD ENCHAINE. To crown it all, finally an International Pen Prize.

I mention all the above not out of vanity. In fact, I find it unfortunate that the views of foreign reviewers should play such a decisive role in the shaping of our literature. All the same, there is something disturbing, to say the least, about the hostility shown toward MATING BIRDS by South African, almost all of them white, and surprisingly, most of them people of the left. Rob Nixon who has since tried to make amends by his favourable mentions of me in his book about Sophiatown and Hollywood tried to destroy the book in THE VILLAGE VOICE, calling it an exercise in nostalgia, etc., etc. Josephine Dodd’s dismissal of the novel as  rehearsing “some more old scripts from the patriarchal stockroom” is the kind of critical and “intellectual” disgrace that gives a bad name to South African “feminism”.

Jacqueline Rose, one of the editors of LACAN AND FEMINISM has been teaching the novel in seminar after seminar. This past year it has been taught in a Postcolonial Literature course at the Universities of Zurich and Basel by the feminist scholar Prof. Therese Steffen and author of a book on Rita Dove. Admittedly I am not a neutral reader of the novel but even so one is bound to ask why MATING BIRDS created so much animosity among WHITE South African “feminists”. Something smells here!

As for dear Andre Brink, my guess is that it was a revenge review. In the past I had given A DRY WHITE SEASON a bad review and a collection of his essays in THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT. What annoyed Brink even more was that in Sweden the big Sunday newspaper DAGENS NYHETER paired in a picture and interview in a rather mischievous way that suggested a struggle over literary representation was going on between black and white. In any case, Brink’s revenge tactics were so transparent and farcical he was reduced to attacking MATING BIRDS for having a scene of joyous mating while flying! No such birds exist in South Africa!  As if it matters. This is SUPER-REALISM gone crazy! There is an interesting book I have recently come across in the University of Basel Library called BIRDS IN LITERATURE by Prof. Leonard Lutwack (University of Florida Press) which cites the use of bird symbolism in literary texts around the world and mentions MATING BIRDS among others. Brink got so silly while scraping together my juvenilia he even thought my story in CONTRAST was set in South Africa and involved an interracial couple when in fact I had deliberately written a story of a white couple, one of whom is a writer, holidaying in the Caribbean. It was a light exercise in Jamesian irony about the possibilities of being undone by one’s assumed worldliness when it comes to chance encounters. But what is eating Brink about interracial sex since he deals in it all the time?! Suddenly he was behaving not like a literary critic but like a white BAAS protecting his women folk from the black menace! Your theory about the “Black Peril” seems to me dead on!

As for the interference with the text by St. Martin’s Press or Ravan Press I can truly say there was absolutely none. It so happens that MATING BIRDS was actually bought by a woman at St. Martin’s Press, Victoria Skurnik, who adored the book and was very proud of having acquired it. A senior editor, Skurnik was so careful with the manuscript that once or twice when she had occasion to break up a sentence that she said was over-long she had the changes sent over to me in Lusaka for approval.

Along with other writers like Angela Carter, Harold Pinter, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, etc., I donated the original manuscript to the Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa for the Anti-Apartheid Campaign. Ethel de Keyser was the person in charge of the sales. I mention these facts because it would have been very useful for you to compare the original manuscript with the published texts. I am extremely annoyed with myself. What I ought to have done is photocopy the typescript for preservation for future inspection. I don’t even know who the buyer was. If you are interested you could track it down.

I could fax some of the items mentioned if you are unable to track them down (interviews, etc) I have one or two letters from Victoria Skurnik somewhere but am too busy to look before sending this e-mail off!

Needless to say, I do not see MATING BIRDS as being about RAPE but certainly about the difficulties of policing desire where language was not allowed to act as a channel of communication between the sexes of different races. Without being able to ask “is it Yes or No” how are you supposed to know until it is too late? Surely, the scene in the tobacco shop on the beach is an attempt to spell out the mutuality of that desire and how it got to be perverted by the system of apartheid.

Thank you for the sympathetic things you say about MATING BIRDS.

With best wishes, LEWIS NKOSI.

 

Lucy Graham to Lewis Nkosi, 6 April 2002.

Subject: Mating Birds

Dear Lewis Nkosi,

Thank you for your wonderful response!

I agree with all your observations regarding the schism in responses to Mating Birds. I’m going to try and track down that manuscript, but in the meantime have a few more questions, though I must add that I’m reluctant to distract you from Underground People.

Anyway if you have the time:

1) from what you say – I gather that Mating Birds was not called into question by SA censors? why do you think this was not so?

2) I read somewhere that you were either present at Sharpeville or that you covered the story as a journalist. Could you clarify this, and comment on your reactions to Sharpeville? Was the massacre one of the reasons for your departure from SA?

3) If you have the inclination to answer this – I am also interested in your opinion/ comments regarding the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Have you been back to SA since your visit to Cape Town in 1994?

Though I agree that Mating Birds is not about rape (although the protagonist has been accused of rape), I am interested in Mating Birds as a subversion of “Black Peril” narrative. So, as well as responses to the novel, I would like to explore the ways in which it circles back upon a history in which a black man who had sex with a white woman would have been accused of rape.

I came across some articles written by you in the Southern African Review of Books and very much enjoyed your description of a visit to Cape Town and your encounter with (among others) John Coetzee:

“J.M. Coetzee, the novelist, looking skeptical, is mutely contemplating the dancers on the floor.” (!)

I wish you well with the rewriting of Underground People, in my experience writing is mainly rewriting.

Funnily enough I’ve also been reading Kafka’s diaries, and recently recommended these to a friend.

All the best,

Lucy.

 

Lewis Nkosi to Lucy Graham, 13 April 2002.

Subject: Mating Birds

Dear Lucy,

As for answers to your questions:

(1) The end of the 1980s was very nearly the end of censorship as we knew it in South Africa. Although I was on the list of proscribed writers (I think about 90-odd) some were already being taken off that list. The rest, like myself, required a special permission from the Censorship Board for a specified time or for a specific publication. I think Ravan Press asked and received permission to publish. I also think – but I am not sure – that some some laws like the infamous Immorality Act were being taken off the Statute Book or being inflicted on the victims with a fair amount of discretion! For some of these reasons I think MATING BIRDS slipped through the net relatively more easily than would have been the case before. After all Gordimer’s books, including A Sport Of Nature, were being sold openly.

(2) Yes, I experienced the anguish of being a witness to the Sharpeville Massacre and the public funeral later. Nat Nakasa and I were there on what we thought was going to be a routine journalistic coverage for our newspapers and ended up carrying bodies to nearby houses on stretchers improvised from blankets. I narrated all that for a short film shown on Channel 4. No, I did not leave as a result of Sharpeville. Interestingly enough I had no particular desire to leave the country just then; I was invited to forward samples of my writings to the Nieman Foundation at Harvard which had fellowships for journalists and once you got there you were allowed to pursue any line of study that suited you. The Government refused me the passport and Harold Wolpe who was later to escape from prison with Joe Slovo thought he would test South Afrcan law to determine if the Government could hold people in the country against their will if they wished to leave. As my lawyer he gave Pretoria a week to respond. The rest is history. I think I wrote about this in the special issue of the Times Literary Supplement in 1994.

I have been back in South Africa three times since 1994 when I wrote about my encounters with John Coetzee and others: for the Arts Biennale in 1997 when I was on the panel at the University of Cape Town named after my book Home and Exile; I taught a semester on African Modernism in the early part of 2001 at UCT and returned again for two months, this time to the University of Durban-Westville to participate on a CD-Rom project with Dennis Brutus to bring together our published works for the university archive.

(3) It’s hard to take an unequivocal position on the TRC. While I consider it important bringing to light what happened, I find obscene the way some of the perpetrators of torture can sound almost boastful when recounting these crimes with the certainty that they will not be prosecuted. Gillian Slovo gave me her book about the way her mother died, with pieces of her flesh spattered on the ceiling of her office in Maputo, and wondered if Ruth would have approved her murderers being allowed to go free and boast about it. Former Nazis are still being pursued and being brought to justice for their crimes. So it is with the war criminals in former Yugoslavia.

To circle back to your theme of the black peril, you are right, of course, according to racist lore (law) no white woman in her right mind could consent to having sex with a black man; if sex did take place her body or her mind must have been “raped” anyway. The cocktail of race and sex is so powerful that William Faulkner was able to put an interesting gloss on it in LIGHT IN AUGUST when Joe Christmas (whose white/black identity remains indeterminate) travels across the country sleeping or being kept by women; in Southern brothels if the women are white, to avoid paying them he tells them “I’m a negro!” Usually all he risked was a cursing from the woman and the matron of the house, though now and then he was beaten unconscious by other patrons, to waken later in the street or in the jail. That was in the South. But one night it did not work. He rose from the bed and told the woman that he was a negro. “You are?” she said. “I thought maybe you were just another wop or something.” She looked at him, without particular interest; then she evidently saw something in his face: she said, “What about it? You look all right. You ought to seen the shine I turned out just before your turn came.”

In 1991 during a visit to South Africa I suggested in one interview that for some white critics it was all right for white male writers to narrate on black bodies but for black male writers to narrate on white bodies was a bit too much even for some progressive white critics; when you described a white woman’s body too intimately in fiction you were actually fondling her body. Instead of being physically beaten unconscious like Joe Christmas you were critically ambushed and beaten unconscious by white critics.

But good novels are also about so many other things besides the themes that loll too readily on the surface. When I was writing MATING BIRDS (which actually started as a short story) I was thinking a great deal about the effects of the weather on human conduct, perhaps encouraged by a reading of Camus’ L’Etranger; then about the sea in Durban which always obsessed me both for itself as well as a route of symbolic escape from apartheid South Africa; all those ships coming and going on the blue waters of the Indian Ocean! Sexual desire and escape to freedom seem on reflection so intimately bound up. The sea, love and death in Venice! And rewriting Gordimer’s love bungalows!

With best wishes, LEWIS NKOSI.

 

Lucy Graham to Lewis Nkosi, 15 April 2002.

Subject: Mating Birds

Dear Lewis Nkosi,

Thank-you so much for all your comments, they are extremely helpful and insightful.

What you say about the morbid fascination of white male critics (and, for that matter, white women such as Pippa Skotnes in her “Miscast” exhibit) with the “black body” strikes me as entirely true. Have you read Brink’s T’kama Adamastor, and heard of Cyril Coetzee’s painting based on Brink’s book, now hanging in the Cullen library at the University of Witwatersrand?

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In Brink’s rewriting of the Adamastor story, “T’kama Adamastor” is a black male with a penis so long it has to be wrapped around his waist twice! So it’s very ironic that Brink criticises Mating Birds for exploiting “one the crudest myths of sexist racism, the size of the black penis”. In Coetzee’s painting, the size of the black penis is slyly suggested through the positioning of an ostrich’s neck, which juts out from behind the black male body.

Mating Birds seems to deal with the complex enmeshment between race and sex (or, as you put it, “the cocktail of race-sex”) in a more humanely ironic manner. And as you say, one of the central encounters is where Sibiya and Veronica exchange a glance that acknowledges, rather than denies, the other’s humanity.

Rereading Mating Birds in preparation for my paper of course reminds me that academic criticism can only clumsily approach and seek to apprehend the plenitude that is a good novel.

In particular, I am struck by the image of Sibiya remembering a view of the sea – watching the oceanliners on their way from foreign exotic shores, “in a mood of profound despondency”: “… I was thinking, planning, and dreaming of escape from South Africa, from the life of oppression and wretched exploitation. The girl, too, who appeared so unexpectantly on this strand of beach was perhaps part of this dream to escape. Life plays us so many jokes.”

I also agree with your view of the TRC. Behind the discourse of forgiveness lies the betrayal of justice. The obscenity of amnesty. This abomination of “grace” is well elaborated by Jacques Derrida in “On Forgiveness”. Did you hear that Wouter Basson’s TRC files “went missing” before his trial, and that he has just been acquitted?

About the weather, I’ve just read your essays in Home and Exile, and the account of the biting cold in New York. I’ve also just read the essay on Sheila Jordan – I saw her at Ronnie Scott’s in London in July last year, she was fantastic.

All the best,

Lucy.

 

Lewis Nkosi to Lucy Graham, 22 April 2002

Subject: Mating Birds

Dear Lucy,

It’s a disgrace I took so long to respond to your last message! The past week or so has been quite mad in Basel. The lITERAHAUS was hosting readings by African writers and private correspondence seems to come to a halt for a while.

I am so thrilled MATING BIRDS has you as its reader.

I was signing copies of the new French edition of MATING BIRDS across the border in France last week and we will be in Paris for more of that from Thursday.

No, I hadn’t read or seen Brink’s T’kama Adamastor; but the real shock was the news that Wouter Basson was acquitted. I had just read in the local papers that two members of the Secret Intelligence had secretly visited South Africa without informing their superiors and it was revealed that Basson had worked with Swiss Intelligence. So that caused quite a scandal.

What good news you provide! It’s  really wonderful you were able to hear Sheila Jordan and it made me quite nostalgic about nights in New York!

Way back I think I was more than responsible for Sheila coming to sing at Ronnie Scott’s for the first time. Armed with a proof copies of MATING BIRDS I used to badger Ronnie everytime we went to the club until he brought her over to London.

I hope your work is coming on fine. Keep in touch. I am hoping Durban-Westville is able to arrange for two visits for which they have applied for funding. Lindy Stiebel at Durban-Westville is (was) preparing an article with photographs in connection with my visit to Durban last year with a view to retracing the itinerary of the two main characters on the Durban beach. So we went back to the sand dunes of that fatal beach and got reenchanted by the armada of cargo ships queueing up to enter or leave the harbour but no sign of harassed Veronica or Ndi Sibiya except young people of many colours disporting themselves in the blue ocean!

With best wishes, LEWIS NKOSI.

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On linguistic citizenship

It’s a long time since I have been as fascinated by a theoretical concept as I have by the idea of “linguistic citizenship”. Developed by researchers at the Centre for Multilingualism and Diversities Research (CMDR) at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), “linguistic citizenship” reveals the faultlines of “linguistic human rights” by drawing attention to non-standardised versions of languages, and to the significance of language crossing, in formulating human voice, agency, belonging, resistance, disjunction, dislocation, and migration. While the Constitution of South Africa in theory guarantees “language rights” by recognising eleven official languages, “linguistic citizenship” offers a more fluid conceptualization of language, incorporating unofficial languages and language crossing, and drawing on utopian ideas in connecting language to citizenship and belonging. There is a danger that citizenship can harden into rigid and exclusive formulations of identity – if we lose sight of the promises of participation in political life, and of agency, insurgency and demands for a more inclusive socio-political sphere, that are part of the meaning of citizenship in its ideal or utopian form.

Based, as I have been, at UWC as an extraordinary senior lecturer since 2013 and as a Research Fellow since 2016, I understand why this university was a strategic site for the development of “linguistic citizenship” as a concept. The relationship, or rather disjunction, between standardized Afrikaans and the linguistic community around the university is stark. In this context, cultural forms such as rap and “conscious” hip-hop claim voice, agency and identity through a non-standardized version of Afrikaans known as “Kaaps”, which incorporates language crossing and multilingualism. These cultural forms, and the scholarly work done on them by commentators such as Adam Haupt, Chris Stroud, Quentin Williams and Warrick Moses, have drawn attention to the previously erased history of a complex and creolized language, created and spoken by “coloured” people in the Western Cape, that was captured and standardized (read: whitewashed) by Afrikaner ethnonationalists in the early twentieth century.

This disjunction between Kaaps and Afrikaans as a standardized language is vividly explored in J.M. Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country (1977), the first edition of which is a multilingual novel with first person narration in English and dialogue in Afrikaans. Published in the wake of the Soweto uprisings, which protested against standardized Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, the novel exposes the emergence of Afrikaans as an authoritarian and ossified patriarchal language, out of the flexible and hybrid “language of nuances, of supple word order and delicate particles” that the narrator, Magda, hears spoken by the “brown” workers in the kitchen. As opposed to this “nuanced” language, Magda has been inducted into an Afrikaans that is aligned in the novel with the authoritarian “law-of-the-father” defined by Jacques Lacan. Describing the language she speaks, Magda claims that “a law” has taken up residence inside her, subjugating her body to its “war of sounds”. She claims: “I was born into a language of hierarchy, of distance and perspective. It was my father tongue”.

Standardised versions of languages will always be profoundly melancholic. Contrary to the ways in which they appear to us, these languages are not discrete and pure systems, and globally dominant languages such as English and French are not exceptions. As Derrida states of French in Monolingualism of the Other; Or, the Prosthesis of Origin: “ – We only ever speak one language. (yes, but) – We never speak only one language.”

Chris Stroud and Quentin Williams of the CMDR have argued that although multilingualism has “served to silence, invisibilize, and sort speakers and languages hierarchically” (this was certainly the case under colonialism and apartheid), multilingualism can also interrupt and trouble the residue of colonial relationships, allowing for “new empowering linguistic mediations” where “the mutualities of our common humanity with different others” can be worked out.

Literary and cultural texts often reference and reflect multilingual realities, and fragments in interpenetrated or unofficial languages within these texts can contribute to scenarios of mutual exchange, or resistance. Zoe Wicomb’s “When the train comes”, published in You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town (1987), has the narrator giving a multilingual retort to the sexual harassment that she and other girls are forced to endure from boys while waiting for the train. After being targeted and treated with contempt by “a tall boy”, the young “coloured” narrator finally finds her voice and the story ends with her defiant, language-crossing question, that firstly sounds like rap or poetry, and secondly disrupts and mocks the male gaze:

“Why do you look and kyk gelyk/ Am I miskien of gold gemake?”

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Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to our Hillbrow (2000), arguably one of the most profound post-apartheid novels, is a metafictional text about languages that have been sorted hierarchically by an indelible history of colonialism and apartheid. One character, Refentse, writes in English “the story of a fictitious scarecrow heroine in an attempt to grapple with these profound questions of euphemism, xenophobia, prejudice and AIDs”, because he “knew the limitations of writing in Sepedi”. Another character, Refilwe, “did not know that writing in an African language in South Africa could be such a curse…. Calling shit and genitalia by their correct names in Sepedi was apparently regarded as vulgar by these reviewers, who had for a long time been reviewing works of fiction for education publishers, and who were determined to ensure that such works did not offend the systems they served.” Notably, the first epigraph of the novel is a quote by OK Matsepe, who changed the direction of Sepedi literature from “suitable” educational tales to epic narratives.
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Also notably, Welcome to our Hillbrow uses an English inflected by local idiom, and interpenetrated by Sepedi words and phrases, which the author explains in English, creating the effect that this is a text in and of translation.

Despite the dominance of colonial languages, I believe that translation is a space where multilingualism and linguistic citizenship can become activated in an exploratory and pedagogical interface that disrupts the ghettoization of African languages in the education system generally, and in the academy.

In 2016-2017 I was initiator and project manager of the Mendi Centenary Project, hosted by the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town. The project included a multidisciplinary exhibition, a choral tribute in isiXhosa by the Fezeka school choir, and a multilingual and diverse conference with a range of presentations by academics, archivists, descendants of the Mendi tragedy, military historians, autodidacts, and Fallist students. Papers were delivered in English but included contributions in indigenous languages such as seSotho, and presentations and discussions often switched  between English and African languages. Around this time I also worked collaboratively with UWC students, who are like myself from the rural Eastern Cape, on translations of S.E.K. Mqhayi’s poems about the Mendi in which we found very deep meanings about land and nation that are still relevant today. This is an ongoing project.

I believe that engaging students and researchers in collaborative translation (an under-theorised field in translation studies) can further a critical rethinking of the questions we should be asking, enabling imaginings of the reconstitution of a post-apartheid humanities.​​

Unexpectedly, my commitment to ending spatial apartheid in Cape Town led to my being adopted (or perhaps coopted) in the role of “translator”, by a grassroots movement called Umhla Wethu Development. Since 1994, English has become the dominant official and bureaucratic language, and this presents real problems for the majority of people who speak many languages but are not confident to write proposals and other documents in English. I was thus approached by Umhlaba Wethu to translate their visions and requests into official English. What I found interesting, however, was that after formal meetings (with, for instance, government departments) had been arranged through the use of official English, these meetings often shifted into isiXhosa, though they were then minuted in English.

In my academic work, I have felt increasingly confined by the limits of separate academic disciplines, and by the limits of English literature as a field of research. Just as English is not a discrete language, English literature is not a discrete tradition, but rather is influenced by and often has intertextual references to literature written in a range of languages. Moreover, literature often references other arts and media.

My work has shifted from a narrow focus on literary texts to consideration of cultural production more broadly: Visual texts, cinema, music and aural effects. Issues of language, multilingualism and linguistic citizenship are an integral part of the second major project I am working on, namely “Post-apartheid dissonance: the cultural politics of post-‘rainbow nation’ South Africa”.

As the title suggests, this project seeks to identity key fissures in the “rainbow nation” myth of multi-racial harmony that emerged in the 1990s, around the TRC. I am proposing that the idea of dissonance provides a way through the post-apartheid landscape that cannot easily be incorporated into narratives of redemption, forgiveness, closure, or even accounts where “the misery of blackness” can be readily fetishised. In this study I track cultural forms that converse with the way Cornel West describes jazz as “riding on the dissonance”. The study uses the idea of auditory discord and a multitude of competing voices, languages and sounds to engage with the complexities of “post-rainbow nation” South Africa.

A chapter on HIV / AIDS, Afrophobia and queerphobia shows how a discourse of “contamination of the rainbow nation” stigmatized and targeted supposed threats to the health of the collective, and how literary and cultural texts have addressed these issues.

There is also a chapter on the Jacob Zuma rape trial which discusses the ethnochauvinism that attached to the trial, and to Zuma’s use of Zulu during the trial. The chapter juxtaposes the judge’s bizarre rescripting of Kipling’s “If” poem in his judgment, with a poem by Khwezi, “I am Kanga”, that reclaims this word of East African origin, for an item of clothing associated with African women, from the misogynist meanings it acquired during her rape trial. Though written in English in Europe (effectively translating for her audience the meanings of “Kanga”), the poem bears witness to a history of exile and migration, but it is also an assertion of Khwezi’s belief in a world where “no one is above the law [and] where sex is pleasurable not painful”. The gesture of the poem is one that claims voice, agency, and linguistic citizenship. Shortly after delivering the poem, Khwezi returned to South Africa, claiming on social media: “This is also my home.”

A focus on cultural texts about the Marikana massacre comprises another chapter, examining a range of texts alongside the history of migrant labour on the mines. The isiXhosa or siPondo word “intaba”, meaning mountain, which recurs in documentary footage of the miners’ conversations with black police that take place otherwise in Fanakalo or in elementary Zulu, accrues particular significance. As I argue, the use of the word “intaba” for what was essentially a small koppie, was a means of integrating, into the miners struggle with Lonmin and the state, a long history of rural resistance that includes the Pondoland Revolt against the Bantu Authorities. As visual artists have suggested, this history also includes the story known as the “Cattle killing” of 1856-7.

The post-apartheid dissonance project also includes a chapter on Fallism; a chapter entitled “Mother City Blues”, about resistance to the continuing legacy of spatial apartheid in Cape Town; and a chapter on South African Jazz, entitled “Over the Rainbow”. The title of the latter chapter comes from Mandla Mlangeni. After hearing a set that he played with his Tune and Recreation Committee at Cape Town’s Slave Church Museum in 2016, I asked Mandla whether he had played a riff of “over the rainbow”. His answer: “Ja Lucy…. [long drag of a hand rolled cigarette] , we are so over the rainbow.”

I am also currently putting together a proposal for a project entitled “Debates on Decoloniality”, which aims to examine: local and global debates on the term “decoloniality” and implications for education/ pedagogy; Fallism as morphing in and out of being a “leaderless movement” under pressures of intersectionality; the role of white “allies” in the South African student movements; the relationship of Fallism to Soweto 1976 but also to much earlier protests in the black schools of the Eastern Cape dating back at least to the 1920s; and the Eastern Cape as a key historical area in debates on decolonization, language and education.

I am interested in the fact that many of UWC’s students are from areas such as the Eastern Cape. The Cape, broadly speaking, is a large and diverse area, rich in languages and local knowledge. In the face of divisive racial tensions, I would like to connect the Western and Eastern Capes – by reaching out to the community immediately around the university, and also to the histories, local knowledges and communities of other areas where our students, and I, have roots.

LVG Blog 1

Fifty shades of mad, bad, and dangerous

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At the end of the Fifty Shades trilogy by E.L. James, Anastasia Steele has succeeded in transforming a controlling, physically-abusive entrepreneur into a doting husband, father of her two children. Miraculously (for a married couple with children) their sex life is still smoking hot and they enjoy BDSM sex. Though not regarded as a great literary feat, the series has been compared to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), in which the heroine’s love reforms a stormy, melancholy Romantic bluebeard – replete with a mad wife secreted in the attic – into a somewhat domesticated chap with whom Jane can have a cosy and equal married relationship.

Considering that the Fifty Shades series has sold more copies on Amazon than the entire Harry Potter series combined, and that Jane Eyre is a well-loved text that has been prescribed in school and university curricula around the world for decades, it’s worth pointing out that the myths these works are purveying may not be too helpful for women trapped in abusive relationships. It’s also worth asking whether there are alternatives to the narratives they offer.

Enter gender relations in the novels of South African author Daphne Rooke.

All of Rooke’s major novels present male characters who are mad, bad, and seriously dangerous to know. But for women readers these novels offer a very different message than Jane Eyre and Fifty Shades of Grey.

I am going to focus here on Rooke’s Mittee (1950), mainly because it is a rewriting of Jane Eyre, and also because it is one of my favourite novels. You have likely not heard of Mittee before, though you may have heard of Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), by Jean Rhys, which is also a subversive retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s famous story.

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In a similar vein to Wide Sargasso Sea, Mittee is about a love triangle, from the perspective of a “Creole” woman. The novel is set in the Transvaal in the lead up to and during the South African War of 1899-1902, and told by Selina, the young and beautiful “coloured” servant of a young and beautiful white woman, Mittee. Selina begins by describing her peaceful life with her husband Fanie, before telling the story of her youth with Mittee in an extended flashback that comprises most of the novel. She describes how she was having an affair with Mittee’s fiancé, Paul, and it seems that she was in love with him, though he treats her dismissively and even hatefully at times. Her relationship with Paul must be kept as secret as Bertha Rochester locked away in the attic. Though she loves Mittee “as a sister”, Selina is often overcome by jealousy, and on one occasion rips up the silk for Mittee’s wedding dress, recalling the incident in Jane Eyre where Bertha enters Jane’s room and tears her wedding veil in half.

Like Bronte’s Rochester, Paul in Mittee is a dark and powerful Byronic character who first appears in the narrative on horseback. His demonic intensity and intertwined sadism and appetite for dark-skinned or ethnically-ambiguous women have much in common with Rhys’s Rochester.

On finding out that Selina is pregnant with his child, Paul seeks to marry her off to the brutal farm hand Jansie, who terrifies Selina. One evening Jansie comes around to Selina’s room, expecting her to submit to him. When she refuses him and he sees that she is pregnant, he attacks her, jumping on her stomach and causing her to lose her child. This attack becomes an excuse for Paul to kill Jansie, who was the only witness to the pregnancy. After Jansie’s death, Paul, already vicious and nasty, becomes even worse. During his marriage to Mittee they have a crippled child whom he smothers to death, as he cannot stand to see weakness in something that he evidently wants to view as a narcissistic projection of himself. When he begins beating Mittee, Selina stops him and he turns on her and rapes her instead.

While some of the brutal men in Rooke’s novels are seductive in the beginning of the narratives in which they appear, they deteriorate very quickly into violent doubles of one another. The horror is that these men are family: husbands, or potential husbands, and fathers.

When in an interview I asked Rooke about this, she responded that these men are based on stories she heard from her mother Marie (to whom Mittee is dedicated), about her mother’s first husband, Knevitt, a hard-drinking Welshman who was extremely violent to Rooke’s half-brothers and her mother. One night Marie and her three sons ran away. They heard Knevitt coming after them on horseback, with his two colt revolvers firing, and hid behind a waterfall, an incident that became the inspiration for the final major scene in Mittee.

Rooke claims that she grew up on these stories, but presumably there were other stories, and one may question the significance of her investment in tales of frighteningly violent men. After all, Rooke never knew Knevitt, and her own father, by her account a loving and benevolent man, was killed in the First World War, soon after she was born.

In The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime, Slavoj Žižek argues that fictions of “enraged paternal figures,” excessively phallic figures with their “wild outbursts of violent rage,” are essentially a fantasy, such that even the most obscene Urvater, “the rapist father,” is an invented defense against the suffocating and protective figure of parental benevolence. Following Žižek, it could be argued that Rooke’s childhood, growing up without a father in a household of women, may have perversely shaped her obsession with the fiery and violent men that she returns to again and again in her novels.

An interpretation of these excessively evil male figures as “fantasies”, however, would overlook their relation to the actual violence of the patriarchal order that Rooke was describing. In her memoir Rooke not only remembers growing up in a house of women, but also makes a link between apartheid and male “aggression.” As Zoë Wicomb notes: “Rooke is resolute in her exposure of the bullying male. The consoling words of an Afrikaner matron—‘Don’t be upset by the boys. All girls have to put up with it, Selina, probably he meant no harm’ reveal to what extent sexual harassment is institutionalized in that society.”

Through the portrayal of brutal husband-fathers, Rooke reflects on the patriarchal violence that was endemic at every level in colonial society and under apartheid. Her novels are poignant as we have inherited the legacy of these toxic masculinities today.

In Jane Eyre, the heroine chooses the fiery and arguably abusive Rochester, over St John Rivers, the kindly missionary. In Mittee, Mittee rejects Paul, choosing instead to live with her missionary, Doctor Besil, and Selina eventually lives a life of peace with her compassionate husband, Fanie.

It’s not my intention to claim that “nice guys” are incapable of being trash. Such is the nature of toxic masculinities that “nice guys” can transform into demonic versions of themselves in the blink of an eye.

But unlike Jane Eyre and the Fifty Shades trilogy, Mittee demonstrates that women cannot reform narcissistic men who are overtly “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”. Such men don’t get better. They only get worse.

 

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LVG pomes

 

Failed execution

 

Last request: a camera

Aimed at the man with the gun.

He lifts the rifle,

I click the shutter,

The photograph on the screen

Is bequeathed

To my father.

 

The bullet collides somewhere near

My heart.

I stagger home –

Ashamed

To be not dead.

 

Now the task is

To live

Furtively.

 

 

Boland Bluebeard

 

They were unruffled,

The artist and his mistress, when I arrived in a battered kombi

To save the wife.

 

But she had already disappeared.

 

Only pink water in a bucket and a bloodstain

That smelled of detergent and would not wash out

On the floor near the fridge.

 

It is happening to me now.

As I try to hide behind the rose bushes,

He says: “Did you really think you could escape?”

 

 

Fishing

 

Angling for water

The fish leapt

Under the bridge

Into my arms

A soft egg wounded

By gills

I knew it would die

Like that.

 

 

Tick bite fever

 

My knight in shining armour

Turned out to be a tick

With no eyes

Who crawled out of the veld and drank my blood until I became so sick

He had to turn to another source of life

 

What they don’t tell you in fairy tales

Is that there is nothing

Behind the polished armour –

Inside the shiny smooth body of the tick you will find only

Your own blood.

 

 

Defeat

 

I never thought

You could defeat me,

I always thought

My will stronger.

But you are a white man,

with white hair

And so you and your henchmen

burned me,

Turned me into something

Hideous,

A parody of myself –

Cast out.

 

Just remember:

I am not on the side

of your tribe.

And the past is not forgotten.

Cast out –

I stand with the miners of Geduld

who cough up

Pieces of lung in shacks

near Mthatha,

And with the Cubans

who fought against you

At Cuito Cuanavale.

 

 

Leonor (after Camões)

 

The day there were needles

in my body,

I took a bath, immersed to the

waist, like a shipwrecked Portuguese noblewoman,

in front of a group of young men.

 

To one of them I tried to explain

about the needles:

but no words came, only gestures,

and besides, he was laughing.

Some of the needles were still having threads in them.

 

 

The watcher

 

She is the one who died in the woods.

I was kneeling beside her as she expired

from that awful gunshot wound, and she looked into

my eyes,

and I held her close.

Somebody else was there,

but it was not you.

 

 

 

 

This wound

 

This wound inside

Most days sits quiet, seeping

As imperceptibly as a body breathing –

 

But oh how the merest thought or

kiss can tear open the thin membrane,

disgorging bits and then

 

I am on on the edge, almost falling

into that void –

the solar plexus.

  

 

Northern Hemisphere Haiku I

 

Under grey English

Skies in June, I miss the smell

Of frangipani.

 

 

Southern Hemisphere Haiku I

 

Over these dark waves,

Lion’s Head and mute Apostles,

Wheels the Southern Cross.

 

 

A Disappearing World

 

The forest is being razed

Turned into powdered dust

 

From a chasm of hewn vegetation

They drag a panda bear

 

And her cub

Bound for some zoo, or worse

 

I rush to the mother,

And reunite them

 

Then carrying both creatures I run

Though the forest, now busy with men

 

What shall I feed these skepsels

When I take them into hiding?

 

Suddenly in my arms they grow

Smaller and smaller

 

As if I have been carrying two insects –

Lost, they have fallen

 

I search the dusty ground but see nothing

If I had my cellphone here I could call for help.

 

 

Bloom

 

Tears

and stars

Bloom in darkness.

 

 

Settler’s hospital

 

I was 19 going on 20

when they put me into the hospital for settlers

I cannot remember why, though it must have been 

for something shameful

I remember the white ward

with two ancient white ladies, fellow settlers

one was dying

the other had lost her faculties

or at least some of her reason in the sense that

reason is focused on present coordinates

she kept rattling the end of her bed

like a cage and calling for “Florence”

and her little dog called Tover

Tover, Tover, where is my little dog

Tover

sometimes she swam into the present

and focused on her gasping companion

calling for the nurses to feed her grapes

as grapes are very digestible

sometimes I put my hands to my eyes

and feel the bones of my skull

it’s coming for all of us

the bones rattling their cage

wanting to get out –

after Tover escaped

there was just the fence

 

 

Sea Point

 

Tonight the wind is hags clawing at the windows

But this is unusual –

Sheltered as we are here from the South Easter.

It must be other weird sisters, borne on the air from the South West

 

No matter.

Tomorrow will be calm

A day of seagulls and bright blue,

Before the ocean

Softens into shades of pink and grey at dusk

 

I still remember the day I returned from New York

And saw an old Jewish man opening his car door

Outside the Piazza St John –

I felt like I belonged, after a time of exile

 

I did not even know then that my mother’s family

Were Polish Jews who escaped becoming burnt

offerings to racial supremacy

Before becoming assimilated, white, Aryan,

in Africa –

The irony.

 

And now I may have to leave

This place where I have belonged,

Where I wanted my ashes scattered

 

Because of provincial incubi,

vicious men,

the lies of bitter women,

and because of my mistakes,

convictions,

and loves gone wrong.

 

But I am trying to be Zen about all these things.