Phillippa Yaa de Villiers - 2011-03-24 Untitled Document
“What was the most difficult was the fact that I was forced to admit something I had always hidden from myself, which the American Negro has had to hide from himself at the price of his public progress; that I hated and feared white people. This did not mean that I loved black people; on the contrary, I despised them, possibly because they failed to produce Rembrandt. In effect, I hated and feared the world ...” (James Baldwin, Autobiographical Notes)
In 2010 I had a case of writer’s block, a common enough complaint. Writing is a mental illness whose sufferers constantly try to turn it to profit. Whatever one might call one’s talent has a value which is completely arbitrary, like a piece of desert that might contain an oil well. We sit on our plots worrying over incessant bills, obsessively prospecting and speculating: abstraction is our real estate, writing is the deed.
Writing relies on a cheerful arrogance that most of us fake to get the words on paper. I struggled to find my voice, and then discovered how a desperate need to belong made me lose it. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit: I couldn’t write because I was so afraid of saying the wrong thing that I could say nothing at all.
Writing is lonely. I was and am still part of a community of black women writers. It was all fine until, in a moment of anger, one of them accused me of being a racist. This accusation threw me into a corner of my personal labyrinth, forcing my head under familiar but long-abandoned waters, testing my strength.
The loneliness of writing was small potatoes compared with the loneliness of being. Adoptees are encouraged to think of themselves as lucky; after all, we are the ones who were saved. Writing revealed to me that the deeper, undermining story of being given up by my biological mother was hiding behind the happy-ever-after story. For me as an adoptee the place for “authentic”, unquestioned, uncompromised existence is present only as its absence. Our identities are created by paper: signatures giving us up and other signatures accepting guardianship. From the moment of birth we are objectified and removed from our biological context.
Racism is such a feature of the South African landscape that we have developed sensitive instruments to measure it. But these instruments are made by humans so they reflect the blind spots of the makers. Many people are so emotionally damaged that the wound defines their reality. Sometimes accusations have a hidden agenda: calling a person a racist is a way to silence them or render them irrelevant. Even as we push ourselves to imagine a world beyond racial identity, we are not all in the same picture; we become caught in the crossfire of other people’s wounded projections. I wasn’t aware of how blinded I was by my anxiety to belong until I was told that I didn’t.
For example, I was born in 1966, and my memories of political action came in 1976. So I used to describe myself as a member of the ’76 generation. National Poet Laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile told me precisely that I was not. At first I felt excluded and hurt, then I honestly faced the fact that yes, in 1976 I was a black child, but I didn’t know that I was one; my physical social conditions were those of a typical white middle-class child, and in a sense I was trying to claim validity by identifying myself as part of the valorised generation. It would just be so much easier to not have the responsibility of being the perpetrator, the victor, the upper hand, the dominating identity.
I wanted to belong to the right team. I shared the alienation of white lefties who were sensitive to the contradictions, but I wasn’t white. The only experiences I could claim as a black South African were being kicked off the bus and thrown out of the movies and a bit of student activism during the ‘80s. Meeting the poets and writers who became my friends I was awakened to a less victimised black experience. In addition I discovered my father, a Ghanaian, with his own perspective on being black.
The pretension and expedience of having to own up to your genetics irks me because so little is known about a person, but as soon as we say “black” we think we know. We are all subjected to the popular views that if you’re white, you were privileged/guilty/poor/racist. If you’re black, you were misunderstood / a victim of racism / deprived / angry / conscientised activist. Writing is a call, our readers give their response. Individual identity is acknowledged and echoed in the collective song and dance, “We are because of others”, and according to Kgositsile, “Within the concept of being because of others, which is the major difference between the human person and the beast in the animal species, which is the only way we can claim to produce cultures, individuality is recognised and highly respected. Individualism is for the gullible.”
Some writers steer clear of black/white tensions by writing from a world where the “other” doesn’t exist. Others claim that race doesn’t affect them. I used to aspire to be one of them, but now I know better. “We are spirits in a material world,” sang Sting back in the ‘80s. And my material was relentlessly based in acceptance or exclusion, based on skin colour.
In October I was invited to China to launch No Serenity Here, the anthology of African poetry that I co-edited with Isabel Ferrin-Aguirre and Kaiyu Xiao. For our Chinese translators, tradition was so venerated as almost to render the artistic ego obsolete. The sense of original, veritable, trustworthy, reliable was steeped in 3 000 years of the Chinese literary tradition. And how did we contemporary poets find authenticity and purpose within our African context?
In the foreword to the anthology I had explained that African poetry and literature are traditionally oral art forms and the older poems that have been written down are published in anthologies published by the large multinational houses based in Europe and North America. We were short of time and resources, so we had to collect what we could lay our hands on: new poems from living authors whose e-mail addresses we had. If authenticity could be verified only by history, we were sunk.
The Chinese asked: what about work in African languages? Professor Kgositsile told us that his maternal language of SeTswana was almost unrecognisable when taught at school; under apartheid Bantu Education grammar, vocabulary, even counting from one to ten, was mangled beyond recognition of native speakers. In the pained silence that followed Kgositsile’s revelation I heard jazz – the way it opens wide doors of human expression with the imprint of specific experience.
The journey of African writing from the oral legends of the heartland to the songs of urbanisation was collected in the memory and writing of generations of storytellers and poets. We didn’t have 3 000 years of carefully cultivated tradition, but three hot centuries where the world was turned upside down. Placing Africa at the centre of this continent’s thinking wasn’t just the right thing to do; it was admitting an expression of an authentic reality that colonialism and racism were intent on suppressing.
Writing by indigenous Africans and other black South Africans has sat on the margins of mainstream writing for decades. Growing up in a white South African education system, I knew Eugène Marais but not Sol Plaatje, Ingrid de Kok but never Noni Jabavu, Roy Campbell but never Achmat Dangor. The faded remnants of the racist exclusion of black voices still echoes in the undeniable preference of Western writers by the commercial publishing machine despite the multitude of indigenous voices that have been unleashed since 1994.
For many white South Africans the country’s cultural about-turn was as uncomfortable as the political one. A dancer complained petulantly to me in 1996, “Why does everything have to be ethnic these days?!” I told her she was a racist. We as a nation were invited to share the heritage, the hundreds of traditional African dances and musical forms. Was I wrong to think that she was expressing racism, when she looked at this gift as a worthless publicity stunt?
In hindsight I was a bit harsh, but I was irritated with the whole thing, for another reason. I was being defensive of something that I didn’t even believe in myself: that yoo-hmmm mediocrity that goes as a catch-all for African culture nauseates me. Since apartheid days traditional customs were labelled as culture to sow division in the guise of celebrating national pride. To this day our definition of culture has more to do with custom or tradition, and less to do with more radical interpretations of the word. “Culture is the sum total of what is produced by a people’s collective genius. It is deeply influenced by the social and economic relations existing among the people that create it,” said Keorapetse Kgositsile in a conversation to which I have referred constantly.
So what is authentic South African culture? Is it shisa-nyama or braaivleis? They look pretty similar to me.
The culture from which I was excluded by the paradoxical privilege of growing up white was alive and well and living in a different part of town. It is now being gentrified and deodorised to attract tourists and remind South Africans of their heritage and, in the same breath, beg them not to vandalise it. I spent most of my adult life either escaping or apologising for my adopted families, the settlers, who ranged in political attitude from floridly prejudiced to effetely apologetic. I was one of those who fawned with guilt and lemming-like indulged in the elaborate rituals of artificial class suicide as a response to the discomfort of my material privilege.
As the world laboratory of racial identity, South Africans also are making another contribution: the daily work of recreating a new world with different compass points and lines of latitude and longitude. Freedom from apartheid meant putting African experience, African identity and African stories at the centre of our how we see the world.
Black writers and artists get hints, some broad and some narrow, that we are development projects. A prominent writer once told me and a group of “developing” writers (surprise surprise, we were all black) that we had to acquaint ourselves with the Western canon if we were serious about writing, because those works are considered universal. I felt that it was a narrow definition of universality, that it identified European culture as the golden mean of human expression. I found a home in Caribbean, African and Asian literature, some like the Nobby Stories by CLR James deeply involved with classical Greek and Roman mythology, but exploring it from the physical reality as black intellectuals.
Eloquent Baldwin wrote: “The most crucial time in my own development came when I was forced to recognise that I was a kind of bastard of the West; when I followed the line of my past I did not find myself in Europe but in Africa.”
When I was called a racist I was forced really to examine myself. I shut up for some time. I lost faith in myself and in my friends. I felt useless in a world that is bent on consuming and seeks always to be reaffirmed in its own materialism. I forgot what I owned – going to China simultaneously exposed the fragility of being a mixed-up African and the mind-boggling potential of being a citizen of the world, writing in one of its major languages: privileged.
The reason I was able to come back to writing after this hiatus of almost a year was finally because of Baldwin. I found myself in his authentic perspective on his race, his sexuality, his culture, his language, that simultaneously transcends all these things. He gave himself permission and at the same conferred the same on millions of writers: “I would have to appropriate these white centuries, I would have to make them mine – I would have to accept my special attitude, my special place.”
In Shanghai Kgositsile read a SeTswana poem exploring the loss of a child. With our Chinese hosts, I witnessed the magic of poetry: a man traced the chord of human emotion in a language that I don’t understand. He seemed to enjoy the roll and fall of his mother tongue moving through him.
Between the poles of the imposed and false stereotypes of racial identity I carve myself out of words and hurl them against the world’s wall. They disappear on impact. The wall has voices: sometimes it’s British, RP, cool and detached. It says things like: “God, identity! Who cares about that?” and “But really my dear, it’s not that bad is it?” Sometimes it’s American, edgy and intense: “But why did you keep denying your feelings?” Sometimes it’s the repressed rage of the newly empowered African: “You are privileged and your view is irrelevant.”
I can’t get to “authenticity” via the short cut of collective experience because I’m insane. I am paranoid. I fear white people for making me a token; I smuggle rage; I fear that black people think I’m inherently racist because I have obviously “white” tendencies; I am sycophantic. Every day on my way to telling a story, I have to find a place for all the contradictions of being privileged and abandoned.
Maybe I needed not to write for several months because I had to find a way to be. Because we have to live first, then write about it. Writers face monsters like the crippling need to be popular and the ugly secretive fear of failure. I discovered another thing I wanted to escape: the labels that society puts on us in order to judge our worth. I want to be Zen like Pico Iyer: “Writing is a form of meditation … a form that deconstructs itself, so finally you come to feel that writing is just the convulsive exercise you do to get to the place where all writing ceases …”
Keorapetse Kgositsile’s poem “No Serenity Here” has the following meaty provocation:
and please do not try to say shit about
ubuntu or any other such neurosis of history.
He says that “in the context of the poem, concepts like ubuntu are abused and/or exploited by the hustlers, who shit on the road, who glibly take advantage of the gullible.”
I find the idea that we are because of others fundamentally disempowering, and of no use to an artist whose consciousness is fuelled by contradictions and uncertainties as much as the pride and joy of creation. Words are spawned as much by individual experience as by collective memory. Authenticity can’t be decided by a committee. Perhaps the only certainty is change.
Meanwhile, I live in a community which is home to the other social refugees from Jewish, Wasp, Afrikaans, coloured, Indian, international and African ghettoes – in Troyeville we have made babies and lost ourselves to the world and found ourselves in our community. This is my context, this is my South Africa, and this is my authentic. This is my world on a good day. It doesn’t have the moral authority of Andile “blacks can’t be racist” Mngxcitama. In a relentlessly capitalist world we cherish socialist ideals, we are all ages, our cars are old, we are regularly burgled, few of us have medical aid, and we are all authentic South Africans, more authentic than those who move their lips in the anthem (you know who you are) and still can’t do the Afrikaans or the isiXhosa version.
Every day I join all writers, hacking away at the rock of their fears, boulders of ego and disdain, logs of prejudice … carving art, making a peace where words disappear and the world is revealed.