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Colleen Higgs

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Archive for the ‘Misc’ Category

“Waar was jy?” remembering and making sense of the past

Earlier this year, I wrote an article about memoir for Rapport Boeke. It was translated into Afrikaans. Here is the English version for those of you who might have missed the Rapport.

The autobiographies of Doris Lessing and Simone de Beauvoir entranced me as a young woman, they encouraged me to envision a different kind of life for myself because were women who were courageous, confident breakers of barriers.

We have been so divided, so separated from each other in South Africa, we want to know who we are living with and what their lives are like, have been like. We want to find out how others survived and how they have made sense of their lives. So we turn eagerly to biographies, “I read South African biographies because so much of our history is hidden; I want to better understand what happened,” says one reader. Another asserts, “Some of my all-time favourite books are memoirs, they connect us across space and time. They bring history kicking into the present. They represent our best efforts and our failures at dealing with the Big Questions: how we deal with race and sex and death and love and faith. They have a truth that transcends anything we make up.”

Lynn Carneson’s moving book about her parents, Fred and Sarah The Red in the Rainbow is her way of paying tribute to her parents, and to the painful lives they endured in participating in the struggle for freedom in South Africa. This kind of biography acts as a marker or memorial, ‘the lives of my brave parents shall not go unnoticed.’

Ronnie Kasrils’ book, The Unlikely Secret Agent is a long love letter to his late wife, Eleanor, which also works as a memorial to her. He tells the story of her arrest, detention without trial and escape from custody in 1963. The story is told simply, yet passionately and Kasrils refers to himself as Ronnie, the story is written in the third person about himself and Eleanor. This book and Carneson’s fill in some of the missing story about white people who were an essential part of the struggle against apartheid and reveal the price they paid for their commitment.

Many South African writers have played with the form and come up with something that is not exactly what we think of when we think of autobiography or memoir; they are not straightforward chronologies. In Native Nostalgia, for example, Jacob Dlamini writes the story of the Katlehong he grew up in, such that the township becomes the main character. He writes of the community and mores of this community, his own life and those of his close neighbours and family. But he also analyses wider trends, like the role of radio stations, and language, nuanced class identities within Kathlehong. As the blurb says, it is “part-history, part-memoir, part-meditation, and part-ethnography.” He explores the role of Afrikaans in Katlehong “…it was the language of colloquial expressions and …there is a deeper sense in which Afrikaans was (and is) the language of black nostalgia.” Dlamini goes on to refer to the phrase, “Waar was jy?”, a question to be asked about any number of cultural icons and references.

Antjie Krog weaves other stories into her own or her story into that of others, most recently in Begging to be Black, she weaves the story of Moshoeshoe I of the Basotho together with her account of a particularly frightening period in her own life in Kroonstad when she got involved in a situation, that was dangerous to herself and her family as well as to her own sense of morality.

In a panel at the Cape Town Book Fair this year, Sindiwe Magona and Jane Katjavivi, discussed their experiences of writing autobiographically. Magona said she wished she could write To My Children’s Children again, as there were many things she left out and glossed over too quickly when she iwrote it twenty years ago. As a publisher I would encourage her to write more. Katjajvivi explained that she started out writing a novel, but soon realised that if she wrote about the women she wanted to write about they would be recognisable as themselves to a Windhoek audience. So she decided to ‘tell the truth’ and set about writing accurate and detailed accounts of the lives of particular women who are her friends. She then realised that she was also writing about herself and her own life. For Katjavivi, the writing of Undisciplined Heart became a journey of discovery of what exactly it was that she was really writing about.

For the writers of autobiography they have chance for a second reading of experience, with consciousness added. Memory allows an objectivity which helps reveal the patterns of a particular life. Even though biographical writing is ‘true’, there is a fictionalisation: episodes and themes are selected and others left out. The description of the patterns in a particular life are interpreted by the biographer. Certain incidents stand for many other similar experiences or incidents. In well written biographies, the reader will be left with a clear sense of the life and times of the person, of his/her preoccupations, concerns, and the feeling tone will be accurate. As readers we get a privileged insight into the times and people who lived through those times, through their own autobiographical writings and through the writings of their biographers.

A small, tender memoir like Malika Ndlovu’s Invisible Earthquake tells us what it was like for her to experience the stillbirth of her baby girl. We are taken by the hand into her grief psychosis, and brought out of it on the other side. These books, some of which describe great pain, terrible suffering are medicinal to us readers, we find out that you do survive, and we learn again about the resilience of the human spirit and the courage of those amongst whom we live, often unaware of the challenges in their lives.

Helen Brain, author of Here Be Lions, says, “We write memoirs to be heard. To give our stories significance.” Sometimes there is a price to pay in ‘telling the truth’ of their particular story. Brain says, “[It caused] a complete breakdown of relationships with my family. Because I used my real name, and it was an ugly story, it impacted hugely on my family, who didn’t want me to publish it. I did it because perpetrators of sexual violence in families invariably get away with it, while the victim is forced to carry the secret or lose her family’s approval. I said ‘I refuse to carry the secret any longer.’’ In spite of the disruption to her life, she says, “It served as a turning point for me. It was very healing. Also extremely painful.” Brain says she learned “that there are a lot of women out there who have experienced the same, and are hurting.”

Undisciplined Heart

Book details

Begging to be Black

Native Nostalgia

The Unlikely Secret Agent


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A few random observations about Uganda

Men in uniforms with rifles walk slowly up the hill to their work
The Nile Perch has decimated the endemic fish in Lake Victoria thanks to the intervention of a clever Western scientist
In Lake Victoria you will find bilharzia and crocodiles
The staple food is matooke – mashed cooked green bananas served with a ground nut sauce
Uganda has no seasons. People speak English, especially in Kampala
MTN, Shoprite, ESKOM, GAME and Woolworths ply their trade
To get from A to B you can walk, take a bicycle taxi or a boda boda (scooter taxi), a minibus taxi, a bus or hire a ‘special car’
You can buy a handful of robusta coffee beans in a banana leaf twist, chewing a couple has the effect of drinking a cup of coffee (although it doesn’t taste as good)
Roasted grasshoppers and certain roots that enhance sexual prowess (perhaps the active ingredient for Viagra?) are available to buy
On the streets of Kampala you can also buy upholstered armchairs, silencers, bananas, airtime, colourful cloths, shoes, cooked food, four poster beds, roasted g-nuts, cold water in plastic bottles and many, many other things
You might see homemade wooden wheelbarrows
The man who collects the money on a taxi is called “conductor” and asked politely to stop up there
The traffic seethes like a river flowing in two directions, while rush hour is called “jam”
I didn’t see a motorway and the hotel International at Muyenga was built
before developers became obsessed with cost/square metre
The currency is the Uganda shilling
Mahatma Ghandi’s ashes were scattered into the Nile close to the Source where the river leaves Lake Victoria
Large billboards remind people to take the HIV AIDS medication, while others ask parents “Do you really want your young daughter to have sex with this man?”– the question is accompanied by a picture of a man in his 50s. The Queen of Buganda (one of the four regions) has taken a stand against intergenerational sex.
The national sports stadium is named after Nelson Mandela
I saw no cats and dogs, no donkeys, but many goats and chickens, crows, kites and mosquitoes


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Third edition of Wordsetc

wordsetc_3rd-edition.jpg

Phakama has asked me to spread the word – look out for the next edition of wordsetc, should hit the stores on Friday.

This edition is a women’s edition; it looks at gender issues through the prism of literature. Great essays and features.

The title sells at Exclusive Books and CNA nationwide, as well as at independent books stores such as Boekehuis (Jhb), Xarra (Jhb), Kalk Bay Books (Kalk Bay), The Book Lounge (CT) and Clarke’s (CT).

Wordsetc is for a discerning reader who enjoys a quality read. Our subscription is R170 for four editions (we’re quarterly).

Oh and there is an article by me, which is a publishing manifesto for Modjaji Books.


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