Monday, 26 August 2013

Ode to rich tradition in Black SA writing

By Rob Gaylard

Siphiwo Mahala's African Delights (published by Jacana in 2011) and Russell Kaschula's Displaced (Unisa 2013) were recently launched together at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. Both authors are from or are based in Grahamstown.
Mahala writes with a welcome awareness of the rich tradition of black writing in this country, and intertextual play is a prominent feature of this collection of short stories. The most obvious precursor is Can Themba, the "poet laureate" of Sophiatown: his acclaimed short story, The Suit, provides the springboard for the first three stories in the collection. The narrator of the first, Terence, is the man who was discovered in flagrante in bed with Matilda by her husband, Philimon (acting on a tip-off). He is indignant that his peccadillo has been publicised by Can Themba:
"The only thing he mentions in his propaganda piece, The Suit, is that I ran away. Did he think that was the end of the story for me? Did he think that I, a respected schoolteacher, enjoyed running around the streets of Sophiatown in my underwear?"
The story bristles with inventive energy, and captures something of the spirit of the time: "Hangover was playing with me, I tell you. I knew the only remedy was to pay a quick visit to Thirty-Nine Steps." The note of righteous indignation, as well as the appeal to the reader (who is assumed to be sympathetic) are the keynotes of the story.
Readers of Themba's story will know that it has an enigma at its centre: why does Tilly, who has an adoring and attentive husband and a seemingly perfect marriage, commit adultery (not once, but over a period of three months). The woman's perspective (absent from Themba's story) is brilliantly captured by Zukiswa Wanner.
Her story provides plausible insight into Tilly's psychology (and frustration) and provides a compelling explanation for her attraction to her lover (seemingly a much less worthy man than her husband): "Yes. Terry is a drunk. Yes, he probably is a bad husband and as a teacher, a miserable role model for the children of Soweto, but Phil sweetie, Terry was EXCITING."

Her story is a convincing counterpart to Themba's story, and acts as a provocative commentary on it. What is more, her story fits seamlessly into the collection as a whole.
The third story in this sequence, The Lost Suit is more distantly connected to the Can Themba story. It explores the Sophiatown shebeen culture from the perspective of Stompie (Terence's brother). He is duped by Candy, a very attractive "pin-up girl" with whom he dances at the Thirty-Nine Steps. He wakes up in the early hours to find he has been stripped of his suit. The story revolves around his desperate attempts to find a substitute for the missing suit. Stompie, a self-confessed thief (or "redistributor" of expensive clothes) is really a trickster figure, and the story is more reminiscent of the short stories of Mbulelo Mzamane (Mzala and Other Stories) than those of Can Themba's. However, one feels that this is one story too many in this sequence; it pales in comparison with the two earlier stories.
The stories in Part Two (White Encounters) are refreshingly different. Here the presiding spirit is perhaps Njabulo Ndebele (Fools and Other Stories) rather than Themba or Mzamane.
Like Ndebele, Mahala explores the world through the eyes of a young boy, and this naturally has a defamiliarising effect. The first story takes us through a series of encounters.
First, the boy has a tooth extracted by a dentist. He is proud that he didn't cry. Then the boy accompanies his mother to the house of the white madam, where she works. When she allows her son to play with the madam's son (they are both six), an altercation takes place, and his mother walks out (or is dismissed).
In this story even ordinary events, like a walk to the bus stop, or a bus ride through the township, become interesting when viewed through the eyes of a child.
The final encounter with whites takes place at the child's home, when the boy's father is accused of stealing a car that is parked outside his house. A rude policeman invades their home and accuses the boy's father.
He even interrogates the young boy, causing him to wet his pants. The situation is rescued somewhat by the arrival of a second policeman, who apologises: it has all been a mistake.
Throughout this scene in the boy's home, one registers the love that the parents clearly have for him, and the young boy's partial comprehension of what is happening around him:
"Red car, red car, you are outside my home.
How I wished the car could be given to my father, if it was lost. He would learn how to drive it and would surely take good care of it. I once picked up a stray puppy and grew very fond of it. I named him Chomie because he became my friend. The same could happen to the car if it was lost. It was no big deal, I concluded."
The story is notable for its rendering of the boy's world, and for the way it conveys the family dynamics. The father offers advice and utters maxims in a way that is reminiscent of Uncle in Ndebele's story of that name: "You must value the soil," my father would argue. "It's God's gift to humankind. We, ourselves, are made of this dust down here." The boy has a great deal to learn about the world around him, but his parents' love provides him with a firm base from which to start.
Then next story, Bhontsi's Toe, is also strongly reminiscent of Ndebele's stories, particularly The Test, which also features a barefoot soccer match. However this story is transposed to the grim decade of the 1980s, where there was a state of siege in many townships. The boy (who is again the first-person narrator) has difficulty differentiating the various categories of actor:
"Police shoot people. People kill police. They make the police wear tyres like necklaces and set them alight. Sometimes they throw bottles filled with petrol and sand into police houses. Sometimes the impimpis are also burned to death by the people. The impimpis tell police where to find the people called terrorists... ."
This is a potentially terrifying world, although the boy's matter-of-fact tone conveys the way in which this state of affairs can come to seem normal.
Is it possible to live a normal life, as a boy, immune from the violence that plagues the adult world?
"I don't want to be an impimpi. I don't want to be a comrade either. I just want to be a child. I want to play soccer and be happy every day."
Against this backdrop a soccer match takes place between a bunch of township boys. Bhontsi, the local hero, with a protruding toe, is "not afraid of the soldiers". Instead of spreading mayhem and terror, the soldiers climb down from their Casspirs and take part in a harmless game of soccer! One of the boys explains that "they are not real soldiers. They are schoolchildren like us". In this way the story gently subverts to Manichaean divisions of apartheid society, and suggests that commonalities may exist in unlikely places.
The scene where some of the boys take out their slings and aim at some ducklings swimming in a stream demonstrates that the potential for violence exists in these boys too. The lines between the innocent and the guilty are deliberately blurred. All this prepares us for the final macabre scene, which drives home a sense of just how grim these times were: innocence seems hardly a possibility.
The third story in this sequence, Hunger, is an entertaining piece featuring Sipho, a young, opportunistic Fort Hare student, who gets what he wants from Kate, a rather naive trainee from Denmark, and from the registrar, Mr Mzila (with a little help from his grandmother, who lives in a nearby village). The story revolves around cultural misunderstandings and stereotypes, as these impinge on Sipho's relationship with Kate.
The three stories that comprise the third section of the book explore the different versions of "the truth" produced by each of three characters. Like the opening sequence, these stories explore the possibilities of intertextual play. However, unlike the opening stories, they do not refer back to a well-known, widely read and much acclaimed text, but to the author's own first novel, When a Man Cries.
As this is not a text that will be familiar to many readers, it takes some effort to understand the complex and very messy tangle of relationships involving the three central characters. The result, for the reader, is frustration, rather than insight: if one hasn't read the original, the whole exercise seems rather pointless.
The three stories in the final section, African Delights, comprise a rather disappointing finale. Part morality tale, part satire, they describe the rise and fall of a beautiful young woman, Zodwa, wife to ageing Struggle veteran-turned-businessman, Samson Mokoena. The author takes aim at some rather obvious targets - the corrupt new elite, the "tenderpreneurs" of the Youth League, the thinly disguised "Comrade TK" - but it is a rather laboured and predictable performance which does not do justice to Mahala's storytelling gifts.
Mahala is still discovering where his strengths as a writer lie. In his Afterword he generously acknowledges those who have helped and encouraged him in his writing career.
He writes with a sense of the tradition of black writing, and his collection has attracted high praise from some of our literary luminaries - Ndebele, Mandla Langa and Andries Oliphant in particular.
It is worth quoting Ndebele's comment (from the back cover) which certainly applies to the best stories in this collection: "I love these well-crafted stories, and welcome a new talent in Siphiwo Mahala, who knows how to affirm his world".  - published August 4, 2013 

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