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Colleen Higgs

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Namibia’ 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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Ten things I loved about “The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo” (not a review)

I absolutely loved The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo by Peter Orner.

1. All the way through I had that feeling of breathlessness, a kind of rapture I only get from reading, that’s why a book like this is my drug of choice.

Except like any good trip it had to come to end, when I got to that last third of the book, I started to feel sad, the way you do towards the end of a wonderful holiday or a visit with a dear friend.

2. Orner writes absolutely beautifully. Some of the chapters are very short. He observes what he writes about so closely that you feel as though you might be doing something slightly indecent to the characters, that is getting to see and hear things you shouldn’t, being allowed in too close.

3. The book is set on a Catholic farm school in Namibia, the narrator is an outsider, an American volunteer from Cincinatti, Ohio. (I did a teaching prac in a rural school in what is now called the North West; and I was a foreign exchange student in Iowa; something about those experiences resonates for me in this book).

4. I loved all of the characters, they were so quirky and idiosyncratic and yet utterly recognisable. Obadiah, Kaplansk (the narrator), Antoinette, Auntie, Pohamba, Theofilus, Festus, Dikeledi,Tomo are some of them.

5. There is a terrible mounting tension in the story.

6.There is heartbreak, there is pleasure in the ordinary – a Fanta Orange on a hot day, there is the drought which seems to never end, there are goats, dust, stones, graves, distant mountains, school boys, a headmaster, a locked Science lab, there are 312 pages if you don’t count the Reading guide and there are 155 chapters. Each chapter is a poem. (I may have mentioned that already.) There is a love story. There is sex. There is friendship and camaraderie. There is a car that is going nowhere. Fences, donkeys, cows. No rain for a long time.

7. Chapter 11 is called Goas – here is the whole chapter:

Seasons at Goas, as much as you can call cold, hot, and more hot seasons, catapult into each other. Days too. Winter mornings bleed to summer afternoons. And memory is as much a heap of disorder as it is a liar.

The spiraled ash of a spent mosquito coil. A book with a broken spine lying facedown. A row of tiny socks drying on the edge of a bucket.

8. The storyteller stays in a single room in the Single Quarters.

9. Orner’s humour is dry, drier than Namibia. Here is Chapter 104, all of it.
Drought Stories

The Namibian had already been at it for months, quoting experts, statistics. The isohyets for mean annual rainfall have been falling dangerously … atmospheric and ocean circulation patterns consistent with … climatic change and variability remain constant … water surface catchment areas are shrinking throughout the central …
But drought being a negation, an unhappening, it doesn’t make for interesting copy.
We skipped those articles. It came every year. It was only a question of which region would get it worse. No drought was news. Extreme drought was news. Anything else was page 6, after sports. What emergency was duller?

10. Mavala Shikongo herself.


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