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Colleen Higgs

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Archive for the ‘Non-fiction’ 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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Thoughts while reading Ways of Staying

Ways of StayingWays of Staying made me think, it troubled me, made me wonder why I don’t think about leaving, made me wonder if I have ostrich tendencies. I wanted the book to articulate my reasons for staying, but instead it troubled me more about why I hadn’t really considered leaving.

I also wondered why I personally don’t know as many people who have experienced the kinds of violent attacks that are described in the book. Of course, everyone, or almost everyone, I know has had things stolen from them. Or violent encounters or close encounters of a violent kind, from which they escaped physically unharmed. For example, last year my car was broken into twice, once in my driveway at home and once at Rondebosch Common when my handbag was stolen, which took months of annoying errands to get myself back to almost square one. I still don’t have a car radio. So I haven’t been listening to SAFM, and have been even more out of the news loop than I was before. I pick up snippets from the headline posters on lamp posts – this week I discovered that Zuma is marrying another wife and that as a taxpayer I will be involved in footing the bill. I also discovered that cricket was being played in Cape Town. (I also learnt this from Facebook and from seeing all the cars parked along the roads near Newlands.) (I do usually buy the Mail and Guardian and sometimes a Sunday newspaper.)

Of course I know terrible stories of things that have happened to people. The most appalling stories that I know of were things that happened pre 94. Like Phindiwe who cleaned our house when I lived on a farm outside Grahamstown in the late 90s. She ‘fell’ pregnant when she was 14 and the doctor she saw at the time gave her a hysterectomy, he told her that her blood was wrong. She is still at the age of 60 married to Zwelenzima, the man who was her boyfriend, when she was 14. They both drink ‘too much’.

I liked meeting the people that Kevin Bloom introduced me, his reader to. I was especially inspired by Themba Koketi, the young man studying to become a social worker. I wondered if I would have been able to succeed at university under those circumstances. I doubt it. Timothy Maurice Webster interested me too, an African American who chose to come and live here.

I kept hoping that Bloom would give me a range of simple reasons for staying. But he doesn’t. Instead he interrogates the question of leaving or staying. Although I don’t think about living here as ‘staying’. This is where I live. For better or for worse. For richer or for poorer. Perhaps I am too fatalistic. I can’t imagine living elsewhere. Perhaps I lack imagination. I need the weird complexities, the impossible challenges, the peculiarity of here.

Ways of Staying mirrors for me the way I attempt to create something resembling a coherent understanding of my motivations and experiences by patchworking or collaging the bits and pieces together. In fact, it isn’t coherent, and underneath it all is something that is not really possible to put into words, to write in a book. And yet from reading Ways of Staying I get a strong sense of who Kevin Bloom is and what matters to him and why he stays.

Book details


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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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