Reneilwe Malatji is on record as saying: “We need stories that are told from the point of view of black people, we need stories from rural areas, we need stories from ekasi, ja genuine sincere stories.”
This debut collection of short stories, Love Interrupted (Modjaji) – written in partial fulfilment of the requirements for an MA in creative writing at Rhodes University – just about fits this description.
Malatji is familiar with the disjuncture between the rural poor and the privileged, educated class, and many of her stories explore the tensions this sets up.
Her strength lies in delineating particular situations, rather than in probing character and motive.
There is little sustained exploration of interiority, and little evidence of formal inventiveness, but the situations Malatji explores are often compromising or disturbing, and centre on dysfunctional relationships, marital abuse, and the irresponsibility of husbands or fathers. (A subtitle for the collection could be, “A good man is hard to find.”) There is, however, a flip side: what is the role of wives or mothers in apparently condoning or tolerating one-sided and often abusive relationships? What price marriage, one wonders?
The title story is one of the most powerful in the collection. Its grimly realistic narrative traces the decline and disintegration of a once-promising marriage between two school teachers.
How could things go so horribly wrong? It would be simplistic to blame any one person or one factor, although traditional expectations clearly have a role to play. The wife is “willing to go with the flow and be a good makoti”, yet, in the end, the story spares no one. All Anna (the wife) is left with at the end is “hope and faith”.
The two-part story concerning Lebo is a moral fable, or a rags-to-riches tale.
Born into a poverty-stricken family, Lebo “had always been a dreamer”. The story charts her rise from domestic helper, first for teacher Mangena, then for her mother’s white madam (who tells her she “looks like a white person dipped in chocolate”), and finally for Sindi and her husband, Lucky (both medical doctors).
Almost inevitably Lucky seduces the attractive young Lebo.
Not even falling pregnant is enough to sink her: she keeps the child (with the support of her mother and grandmother) and insists on pursuing her dreams. She passes matric and finds a white-collar job.
The sequel, It’s My Turn to Eat, shows Lebo at the height of her success: she runs a construction company (formerly owned by her mother’s employer, who needed a BEE partner). She has more money than she can spend, a fleet of cars and a luxury house.
In the eyes of people from her village she is a “demigod”.
In spite of all this she still feels insecure, and this leads to a fallout with one of the guests at her lavish housewarming party. The story hints at the human costs of her success – but Lebo is not one to give up. She now sets her sights on an engineering degree, despite her sense that there will “always be something missing”. The story seems to reflect an ambivalence about the unrelenting pursuit of material success and status.
The Things We Do for Love is a compelling story which lifts the lid on the amorality of some members of the political class. Ngwato comes home drunk one night, smashes his BMW into his Audi Q7, driving his Passat through the wall separating kitchen and garage. He conducts a prolonged affair with a younger woman under the nose of his wife.
He takes his cue from his leader and his colleagues: “At least I have only one girlfriend – most of the guys in the cabinet have several. The president has four wives and a girlfriend in every province… It is African culture.”
The story is a scathing exposé of the culture of impunity that exists in high places. In a stunning display of moral blindness, Ngwato explains to his wife, Mosima, that she is “a big man’s wife” and “needs to be discreet”. “Marriage at any cost” seems to be Mosimo’s motto: “I will never leave my husband over some cheap tickiline (sic)”.
Eventually, to avoid further embarrassment and public disclosure, a diplomatic solution is found: Ngwato is shipped off to Malaysia as an ambassador, taking his wife and children with him.
Many of the stories reflect on marriage and the extent to which it can be a trap for any self-respecting woman, especially where “infidelity is apparently ‘as commonplace as taking a bath in the morning’.”
Nor is the single state cause for much optimism: A Million Dollars in Grahamstown is a study in wilful blindness: how could Mapula (the narrator) not have seen the red lights flashing? Is our human need for affection in fact a weakness?
The men in this collection are almost invariably drunkards, serial womanisers or wife-beaters.
Inevitably some stories are slighter, or more one-dimensional, than others. Among these are Take Back the Lobola, the admittedly entertaining Bridal Shower, as well as Vicious Cycle, in which a Nigerian PhD student offers a sociological explanation for the failings of South African men as husbands and fathers.
Readers will have to judge for themselves how convincing – or useful – this explanation is.
The collection offers a sustained exploration of the options open to (usually upwardly mobile) women in contemporary South Africa.
One of its bleaker features is the absence of anything resembling a loving, intimate relationship. - published February 17.