Guides, Drinks and Stacks of Books: My Journey into South African Literature
By Kimmy Beach
(first published in WestWord: Magazine of the Writers’ Guild of Alberta, 35:6)
"What Father's death meant to Mother, I do not know, for even during those last years of her life no familiarity ever developed between us."
We’re at our favourite table in a bar called The Glass Monkey. He orders a Stella and asks the server to bring me a Pinot Grigio. He pushes his copy of This Life across the table toward me. The drinks arrive as I’m reading the back cover.
“Why this?” It doesn’t sound like my kind of book. An old woman recalling her life from her deathbed. I never went for that whole Stone Angel thing, and this looks similar.
“You’ll figure it out.” He sips his beer.
This is typical. I’m working on a new book, and this pattern is now familiar with this man. He hands me a book he thinks will help me in some way with my current project, I ask why this one, and he won’t tell me.
The passage above is from This Life: the least tell-y novel I have ever read. The book (Hierdie Lewe) is by South African writer Karel Schoeman, and is translated from the Afrikaans by Else Silke. It took me a long time to find my way into this book and I started reading it several times before I finished it. The presentation isn't what I'm used to, and it drove me crazy. This Life's narrator, Sussie, recounts her life and discusses important historical events such as The South African War as almost peripheral happenings: only in terms of how they affect her own life. She is insular and maddeningly withholding. She never leaves her own mind. Everything she reports is observed, and so she is unreliable. Unreliable narrators are nothing new, and are certainly not restricted to a certain country's literature. But Sussie made me work to understand what was going on around her. We see the actions of the other characters only through her limited vision.
If Sussie observes an external movement or tone of voice, the reporting of it is always directly connected to what she herself is experiencing in that moment. Schoeman writes, “For days Dulsie muttered crossly about these events about which she remained in the dark but, as I have said, it was no concern of mine. To push the kettle over the fire for the water to boil, to turn the bread out of the pans and to feel whether the iron was hot enough, those were my duties in life, and they measured out my entire existence” (145). Sussie notes repeatedly that conversations and goings-on were “no business of” hers, and so the reader is left to conjecture, to guess, to piece together what might be happening around her.
In some ways, she is me. I rarely worry about what other people think of me, because I recognize that if most people are like me, they're thinking about themselves most of the time. I am aware of what’s going on in the world and I do think of myself as a thoughtful, generous person, but unless someone needs me, my thoughts—at times—are of myself and my own daily struggles and joys. As I see it, Schoeman's vision of Sussie is exactly this: that my life is dictated by my own thoughts and whatever happens around me is often external unless it directly affects me.
Why was I was finding Sussie's limited view so maddening and so difficult to access, even though it mirrored my own view of the world in some ways? As soon as I hit it, I started reading the book again and understood. Sussie doesn't assume anyone else's thoughts. She does not infer what anyone else is feeling. There are no long passages describing the eye movements of those around her. Unless it applies directly to her life, Sussie doesn't report it. As she says, it’s none of her business.
I'm not used to this kind of authorial style. I'm not accustomed to this brutally honest narrative point of view that so openly draws this sort of self-absorbed character. And while I would never say that CanLit doesn't use this method of storytelling—at times, it certainly does—Sussie's voice was so strange to me, so inaccessible at first because of its self-absorbed honesty, that I had to use vastly different parts of my brain to find my way in.
And once I did, I loved it. Everything is shown; nothing is told, and I worked my ass off to sort through it. In noticing how telling-free Schoeman's novel is, I recognized that my current manuscript was so full of that very telling that the story was getting stuck. This Life could be the primer for writers who want to finally figure out how to stop telling in their work, and start showing. I love everything about this book, but for that reason alone, I recommend it to anyone who writes.
I met my friend for a drink a month later.
“I get it,” I told him.
“Good. Now read this.”
This Life is one of about 60 African books I've read in the last two and a half years. I stick mainly to South Africa, but I've also read books by authors from Nigeria, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, The Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania. I'm fortunate in that I have guides: three friends from South Africa who lead me through past decades and through the dozens of texts published this year. I have them to lead me through what’s being published right now, through what one of them calls the ”golden age” of literature in that country. My guides are editors, writers and teachers, and I think they like to guide me because I am willing, open, and ravenous for the writing of their country. I'm not a dabbler; I cannot get enough, and it feels like more books come out of South Africa in a month that I can read in a year.
My Cape Town-based guide—a writer and editor—visited Canada in the spring, and I had the great good fortune to host her over the course of a week. She stayed in my home, we did some readings together, we shared a B&B in Drumheller, and we spent hours in my car on long prairie and parkland roads. The talk was heady and at a high level. I had the marvellous luxury of this woman’s literary mind for hours at a stretch. Our talk—when it wasn’t about where she could next quench her tea craving—was almost exclusively of South African books and authors: those I knew, had read, and could discuss, and those I’d not encountered yet. She wrote book titles and authors’ names on the backs of whatever teashop receipts she could find in her purse, and tucked them into my backpack to sort through later.
At the end of our week together, I had dozens of new books to seek out, and hours of priceless conversation to cherish. That time was invaluable, and since she’s returned to South Africa, our conversation continues. She’ll be struck by the name of a book I need to read “immediately!” And unlike my Edmonton-based guide who gives me books with next to no explanation other than he feels I’m ready for them, she tells me precisely why the book popped into her head as something I needed to read.
Last year, I flung a half-read American novel at my living room wall. Twice, I had tried to read it, and finally I had to give up. The telling was so relentless that the book could have been half the length it was. The author described every head turn of every character in loving detail, along with any and all possible meanings of that head turn. The writer told me every time someone blinked before they spoke. Oh my god! This author didn't trust me—as a reader—to be able to infer anything that was going on.
I don't want to be led. I want to stumble in the darkness with the characters. I want to be shocked when they are, laugh when they do. I want to be as surprised and horrified as they are in the moment they experience those emotions. I want to be shoved away and drawn back in. In short, I don't want to be told anything.
A second reading of This Life made me cut even more of my own work. Taking up that novel again made me scrutinize my every phrase to make sure I was letting the reader discover the world I'd built. In the year that's passed since I started studying This Life, my work has changed dramatically, and I find myself cutting large passages I once thought indispensable; they were indicative of my lack of trust in my reader to ”get it.” I don't think this lack of trust is unique to me, or to CanLit on the whole. Neither is it absent from South African writing (Wilbur Smith’s novels, for instance, put me into a stupor with their nearly unbelievable reliance on telling, his purple prose, and more adverbs per page than is legal). But what I've found is that the more African books I read, the more I notice how different some of them are from a lot of North American books in this showing/telling way. Much of modern South African writing, in particular, comes from the place of deep oppression that was apartheid. On the long car ride from Drumheller to Edmonton this past spring, my tea-addicted guide explained writing during apartheid-era South Africa like this: when you can't say what you have to say (under threat of incarceration, banning, or death), you have to find a way to say it without saying it. To me, that's perfect, and it amounts to the exact opposite of telling.
These friends got me started on this path of discovery into the literature of another country, but they guide me still. Though I now have a solid handle on the books and authors I want to read, they continue to push me, to lend and gift me books, to make recommendations they feel are right for me at particular times. Occasionally, they will send me to books they know I'm not ready for: an indecipherable (to me) poetic text, for instance, the nuances of which only a speaker of both English and Afrikaans could fully grasp. But even these are not wasted on me. In a failed attempt to understand Where White is the Colour, Where Black is the Number by Wopko Jensma, I saw my own failings as a reader. That book turned its back on me and said, "You will never understand me until you learn to read Afrikaans. You will never understand until you have read the foundational texts of this country."
And so, my roads branch outward. I am learning Afrikaans, and I am beginning to dig into the country's foundational works. This journey is slow and—at times—almost unbearably painful. But I think there was no real way for me to understand Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee without having read Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela and Antjie Krog's almost-impossible-to-read Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa. Though we’ve met only once—through my Edmonton-based guide who is a mutual friend—over a few bottles of wine in a pub at Euston Station last year, my London-based guide and I connected over literature immediately, we chat weekly about art, music, and books, and he is open and generous with his painful experiences as a white South African growing up during apartheid. He insisted I needed to read Krog’s book if I was to understand anything at all about South African literature and culture. He warned me that it would be a difficult read, but that it was absolutely necessary to my education. I was aware of this narrative of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission proceedings, but had avoided it, knowing how terrifying it would be.
After I'd struggled through that text—and, for my self-preservation, having to set it aside many times over the course of a few months—I read Coetzee's Disgrace, and was able to fully see its allegorical nature: its almost-fabular treatment of the TRC. I doubt that book would have reached me to the depths that it did had I not read the foundational texts that underpin it. I may be able to return to Jensma one day, but not yet.
Though Jensma eludes me still, this reading journey gives me an enormous sense of intellectual satisfaction, even when the material is as dense and horrific as Krog’s narrative of the TRC, and even when—in the case of Jensma—I can’t get near it. What more intoxicating mental high than reading and understanding the texts of a different country? It’s at moments like this that I’m most grateful for this brain of mine, the way it learns, and the people who help me expand my thoughts and my reading. I’m doing something extraordinary for my own mind, and correcting, retroactively, my own insularity growing up as I did.
In 1982, I was in grade 12 and worried about whether I could get Greg Rice’s attention in band class. The total of what I learned about apartheid in Social Studies class that year can be summed up in two words: It’s wrong. We simply did not learn about it.
It has occurred to me that my love for South African literature is a response to my life-long ignorance of the country: my life-long Canadian privilege I never thought about. How in the world did I arrive at nearly 50 without having read Steve Biko? I think this reading journey is my way of acknowledging that monstrous hole in my education and making up for never learning about it properly. At times, I feel like I’m five years old, just learning how to read. But it’s what I can do. I can only correct the lapses in my own knowledge, and perhaps tell others about the books I’ve read to try to fill those gaps.
The first South African book I read was Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela. (I knew even then what a cliché move that was. Everybody reads that book.) But then there are poetry collections like Body Bereft by Antjie Krog, a text I would have thrown at the wall a hundred times if it hadn’t been the beloved possession of one of my guides. It maddened me with its craft, and made me call myself a hack in complete sincerity. Never have I felt so inadequate as a poet. And what in the hell was I supposed to do with Wopko Jensma but feel stupid and uneducated? For a while, I was none too pleased with the guide who handed me that book, as he had to have known that I would not understand it.
When I put Jensma aside, I nearly resolved to stop all this nonsense. No more South African books. Why was I was doing this to myself? Why was I willingly making myself feel like I’d never read a book in my life? One of my guides would call or email about a book he or she wanted me to read. I said “no” for a long time, pleading busyness, when really, I was drowning. I said to one of my guides that I was incapable of reading one more South African book in the foreseeable future. I reached a low point as a writer. Who the hell do I think I am, cranking out my little pop culture books? Against the horror and beauty I was reading every day, who cares about my pop-camp output?
I was also lost as a reader. If I had to get through one more narrative in which someone was imprisoned in a tire and immolated, I was going to lose my mind. Incidences like these began to take on a surreal quality and I started to feel a numbness to it all: the saturation of images of hatred and death that I couldn’t unsee.
But then: Praying Mantis by André Brink arrived on a pub table next to my wine, and I was back on track. This is a sweet, funny novel that had me chuckling and remembering that yes, I do know a little about this stuff, that no, I’m not a hack, and that some day—once I’ve written as many books as Brink had—I too might produce work as stunning as this.
Though they occasionally infuriate and frighten me, I need my guides. While I suppose it's possible to wade randomly into the literature of another country and hope to hit on the “right” books, I find that having guides helps me sort through the stacks, and find out what I respond to. I'm treating my education in African literature as a master class with three instructors, though I'm a bit backward in places. For instance, it wasn't until I'd read three dozen South African books that I felt I was ready for Steve Biko's 1960s and 70s work. In a master class, he'd surely have come before many of the books I'd read to that point. We're aware of the violent nature of Biko's death (or we became aware of it when the police officers responsible confessed to it in 1997. They were not granted amnesty under the TRC), but I'd avoided his writings and the transcripts of his trials. The best reason I can give is that looking back, I don't think I was prepared for the levels of abuse and racism he (and his colleagues, family, and friends) was forced to swallow. My Edmonton guide knew when I was ready: when I’d read what I’d needed to in order to understand—insofar as I am able—Biko’s idea of Black Consciousness. Growing up as I did in a part of the country where I was largely unexposed to racism, the true horrors of it seemed like a fictional dystopia. I had to remind myself repeatedly while reading Krog and Biko that this shit is real. That these horrors actually take place. Reading Krog’s Country of My Skull and Biko’s I Write What I Like was an endurance race just to make it to the end without giving up on humanity entirely.
None of that is to say that South African writing has to be instructional or horrifying in nature. Some of it is, but it's also wildly entertaining—or unbelievably cathartic—at times. My Edmonton guide says that there is always a political undertone to South African work, and I see that, but now and again, a purely delicious book of marvelous storytelling will land in my hands and give me no end of pleasure. The work of Finuala Dowling, Praying Mantis by André Brink, Buckingham Palace District Six by Richard Rive, the erotica of Helena S. Paige (one of the authors of which is my Cape Town literary guide), and the hi-tech sci-fi of Lauren Beukes. While all of these texts have undertones (or overt narratives) of apartheid- or post-apartheid-era South Africa, they're also damn good stories.
In 2011, after 30 years in my family, my stepdad, Sig, was diagnosed with leukemia and died within four months of us finding out. I spent the next few years regaining my sense of self and balance without him, along with my family—all the members of which were finding their own paths through their grief. I had discussed what I thought were all the facets of that loss with my family and in therapy, until I was able to get through the days with some level of joy now and again. Then, Eben Venter entered my life.
With a title like My Beautiful Death (Ek Stamel Ek Sterwe), one should not expect a happy story. In Venter’s novel, a central character narrates his lucid, drug-free thoughts until the moment of his death. The night he died, my stepdad was comfortably medicated, at home, and surrounded by his family. It had not occurred to me what might have been going through his mind in those last hours. Or, more truthfully, I had never allowed the conscious thought to enter me. Did he know he was going to die within hours? Was he frightened? I had never thought about it, but it crashed into me as I read Venter. I thought I now knew what had happened in my stepdad’s mind; Eben Venter had written it all down for me.
I closed that book and wept like I have never wept before: more than I had the night my stepfather died before my eyes.
No Canadian book (or any book from any country, for that matter) has ever moved me like this one. No book has ever brought out this level of emotion, of catharsis, of having to face thoughts I’d buried for years.
With a couple of months left of 2015 ahead of me, I plan to take in as much South African writing as I can manage while still having a life outside my love for this literature. Never have I been so energized by a reading project, and never has one brought me this kind of joy and sorrow mixed. My South African list for the rest of the year includes books by Sol Plaatje, Finuala Dowling, Kobus Moolman, Herman Charles Bosman, Thando Mgqolozana, Mark Winkler, Beverley Rycroft, Ivan Vladislavic, Niq Mhlongo, Ingrid Winterbach, Paige Nick, Sarah Lotz, André Brink, Zakes Mda, Mongane Serote, and Karel Schoeman: always Schoeman. Clearly, no one will see me until January.