Flowers in Transit, Adderley Street by Gareth Smit
Hi, I’m no longer using this blog. Please see the link above.
if u say so
did I just take orders from a building
— Ian McEwan, “When I Stop Believing In Fiction”
Lena Dunham’s GIRLS seems to crystallise two paradigms through which we may view the lives of today’s young women of the West: one, not so new, is post-feminism and sexual freedom – something already explored in the likes of Sex and the City – and discussed in Margaret Talbot’s “Girls will be Girls”. The other, vastly different from Sex and the City and which many have argued give it the authentic look-and-feel which sets it apart, is, along with the awkward sex scenes, its naked honesty about the realities of the recession. Emily Nussbaum, also for The New Yorker, comments on the way the show explores the meeting point between sex and money in the lives of young women struggling for power and independence – while arguing that, in a way, GIRLS is nothing new.
Here is Margaret Talbot’s “Girls will be Girls”, originally appearing in the New Yorker, 16 April 2012.
The Republican assault on contraception and abortion rights seems to have revived an old question: is sexual freedom good for women? Other creaky perennial questions about a woman’s ambit have finally been laid to rest: virtually no one in American public life seriously worries that higher education spoils a woman, and fewer and fewer fret that working outside the home warps her destiny. But sex is another matter. In a world that always seems to need a woman problem of some sort, it’s as good as any, and more entertaining than most. The trouble is that a problem like this tends to engage the extremes—this time it’s the neo-Puritans, who imagine they can turn back the clock, and the exhibitionists, who hardly know that there is one. We’re left “between ‘Jersey Shore’ and Rick Santorum,” as the Wall Street Journal headlined a recent article on the sexual revolution.
For a more nuanced view, you could watch the new HBO show “Girls,” a series created by and starring the young director Lena Dunham, about post-college life in New York. The girls in “Girls” are fundamentally all right. They’re smart, verbal, and clearly the protagonists of their own lives, though in the way that Woody Allen used to be the protagonist of his movies, because—especially in the case of Dunham’s character, Hannah—they are neurotic and over-thinky, with a comic tendency to get in their own way. They have a fair amount of sex with boyfriends and sort-of boyfriends, and the sex is often awkward—“awkward” being a word that these young women seem notably attuned to. What disappoints them more often than boys do, however, is the post-recession economy: the regimen of unpaid internships, jobs that don’t match up with their estimation of themselves, and crazy rents.
At least, they have one another. In popular culture, women’s friendships are often foregrounded at times when there’s less of an organized feminist movement in the background: it’s a D.I.Y., cultivate-your-own-garden vision of female solidarity. The pioneering TV shows about young women in the big city, during the women’s-liberated nineteen-sixties and seventies, featured heroines who focussed most on their relationships with their boyfriends (“That Girl”) and co-workers (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show”). These women were independent types with dating lives but without a rich array of female friends. The women on “Sex and the City,” on the other hand, were a tight sisterhood. So were those in the gold-digger movies of the nineteen-thirties: the crafty chorus girls who shared digs and often beds (it was the Depression, after all), loved one another best, and took advantage of men. Like them, the girls of “Girls” are the center of one another’s emotional lives, and they work around the boys, from whom they expect a certain amount of lame behavior.
Over all, it’s a show that reminds you that the sexual revolution is a done deal, that few women today see sex as a bargaining chip in a bid for commitment, and that gender parity tends to go along with more sex. You can see that as a tradeoff or as a benefit, but studies have shown it to be true: societies in which the sexes are more equal are societies in which people have more sex. Still, to those disinclined to see this as a good thing, “Girls” offers some validation. Much of that awkward sex is awkward in familiar and timeless ways, but some of it is awkward very specifically. That would be solipsistic, niche sex that takes its expectations from porn, in which the man involved seems to feel weirdly and arrogantly entitled to the satisfaction of his particular fantasies—the guy Hannah is sleeping with has one about an eleven-year-old heroin addict with a Cabbage Patch-doll lunchbox—and to the coöperation of a partner who really isn’t that into them. “Guys my age watch so much pornography,” Dunham told the Times. “When I first started kissing boys, I remember noticing things, certain behaviors, where I thought, ‘There’s no way you learned that anywhere but on YouPorn.com.’ ”
“Girls” also paints a revealing picture because of what, or whom, it leaves out. The show’s young women are protected, in part, by privilege: they went to good colleges and, to a greater or lesser extent, have the financial and moral support of families that believe in them. The sexual revolution has mostly been a boon for upper-middle-class women like them, who have been able to use its freedoms to delay marriage and to find mates they can stay with for the duration, while enjoying active sex lives in the meantime. For the poor, the unmooring of marriage from childbearing has been much more damaging. You can’t take class and economic realities out of the discussion about women and sexual freedom. In fact, the more we learn, the more subtly these things seem to be entwined. A working paper released in March by the economists Melissa Schettini Kearney and Phillip B. Levine finds that poor teen-agers who live in states where there is greater income inequality are more likely to have babies. It’s not just that they are poor but that they see little chance for advancement if they stay in school, play by the rules, and avoid becoming mothers. Kearney and Levine write, “We speculate that the combination of being poor and living in a more unequal (and less mobile) society contributes to a low perception of possible economic success, and hence leads to choices that favor short-term satisfaction—in this case, the decision to have a baby when young and unmarried.” Teen birth rates have been falling in the United States for two decades, but they are still higher than in any other industrialized country, and perhaps economic inequality offers an insight into why.
When people talk about the sexual “revolution,” they can make the changes in sexual mores seem more intentional than they were, more like a strategically planned uprising with a neat manifesto. In some ways, it was: the feminist movement did call for, and then achieve, greater sexual freedom for women, and access to birth control and abortion as rights. But unintended consequences, and particularly economic forces, have played perhaps an even bigger role in arranging the new sexual landscape: certain moral barriers drop, and then capitalism rushes in with, say, Internet porn, stoking old desires and creating new ones. Like the young women on “Girls,” most young women in the real world are surely grateful for their sexual freedom, but they didn’t necessarily want it shaped by sleazy entrepreneurs. To paraphrase Marx, women make their own circumstances, but not under circumstances of their own making.
And here is Emily Nussbaum’s “Hannah Barbarica:”, originally appearing in The New Yorker 11 February 2013:
The HBO series “Girls” has been a trending topic all year, but in one sense it’s nothing new. Created, written, and directed by the twenty-six-year-old Lena Dunham, who plays the wannabe memoirist Hannah Horvath, “Girls” is merely the latest in a set of culture-rattling narratives about young women, each of which has inspired enough bile to overwhelm any liver. Among the most famous is Mary McCarthy’s novel “The Group,” from 1963, with its scene of a humiliated girl sitting in Washington Square Park with her contraceptive “pessary.” Women clung to that book like a life raft, but “The Group” was sniffed at by Norman Podhoretz as “a trivial lady writer’s novel,” while Norman Mailer called its author “a duncey broad” who was “in danger of ending up absurd, an old-maid collector of Manx cats.” (Lady writers, beware of men named Norman.)
This dialectic recurs again and again. There was Rona Jaffe’s dishy potboiler “The Best of Everything,” from 1958; Wendy Wasserstein’s plays of the seventies and eighties (a sweeter vintage); and Mary Gaitskill’s collection of kinky short stories, “Bad Behavior,” from 1988. (Not to mention the work of Sylvia Plath and every song by Fiona Apple and Liz Phair.) These are stories about smart, strange girls diving into experience, often through bad sex with their worst critics. They’re almost always set in New York. While other female-centered hits, with more likable heroines, are ignored or patronized, these racy fables agitate audiences, in part because they violate the dictate that women, both fictional and real, not make anyone uncomfortable.
Like “Girls,” these are also stories about privilege, by and about women who went to fancy schools. Wasserstein’s awesomely strange early play “Uncommon Women and Others” features the Hannah Horvath of Mount Holyoke: fat, sharp-eyed, horny Holly Kaplan, making late-night phone calls to a man she’s barely met. “The Group” was about Vassar graduates in lousy marriages to leftist blowhards. “The Best of Everything” starred Caroline, a Radcliffe graduate, who falls for an older drunk who might as well be “Girls” ’ sardonic barista, Ray (the great Alex Karpovsky). Because such stories exposed the private lives of male intellectuals, they got critiqued as icky, sticky memoir—score-settling, not art. (In contrast, young men seeking revenge on their exes are generally called “comedians” or “novelists” or “Philip Roth.”) There’s clearly an appetite for this prurient ritual, in which privileged girls, in their rise to power, get humiliated, first in fiction, then in criticism—like a Roman Colosseum for gender anxieties.
“Girls” has been attacked, and lauded, and exploited as S.E.O. link bait, and served up as the lead for style-trend pieces, to the point of exhaustion. The authors of these analyses have often fretted over privilege: the show is too white, Hannah’s a spoiled brat, or a bad role model for Millennials, or too fat to qualify to have sex on cable television. But when there’s a tiny aperture for women’s stories—and a presumption that men won’t watch them—when almost no women are Hollywood directors, when few women write TV shows, of course it’s the privileged ones who get traction. These artists have what Dunham has referred to as Hannah’s Unsinkable Molly Brown force. (Molly Brown, after all, was a mouthy rich woman who survived the Titanic.) To me, the whiteness of “Girls” is realistic, although the show is slyer and clearer about class than about race. But, as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote recently in The Atlantic, “the problem isn’t the Lena Dunham show about a narrow world. The problem is that there aren’t more narrow worlds on screen. Broader is not synonymous with better.”
The specificity of “Girls” also links it to earlier eras. In particular, it echoes a time when the legendary wildness of male New York intellectuals and artists was made possible by middle-class girlfriends who paid the rent and absorbed hipness from the kitchen. As Joyce Johnson, Jack Kerouac’s onetime girlfriend, observed in her scathing memoir “Minor Characters,” an account of kohl-eyed Barnard coeds fleeing to Greenwich Village, “Even a very young woman can achieve old-ladyhood, become the mainstay of someone else’s self-destructive genius.”
In a different time, Hannah and her friends are the bohemians, fresh out of Oberlin. Hannah, her uptight friend Marnie, her decadent friend Jessa, Jessa’s cousin Shoshanna, and an assortment of male friends and lovers live in shifting roommate arrangements, on the fringes of New York’s creative industries. With admirable bluntness, “Girls” exposes the financial safety nets that most stories about New York—and many New Yorkers—prefer to leave invisible. Last year, at Jessa’s surprise wedding to a finance guy, a scene that might have been the climax of an ordinary meet-cute romantic comedy, her cousin Shoshanna blurted out, “Everyone’s a stupid whore.” The show began with Hannah stealing a maid’s tip, and characters are forever ducking out on the rent or ogling someone’s brownstone. In an early episode, Hannah was humiliated when her hookup Adam masturbated in front of her; in a fury, she turned her complaints into a demented dominatrix routine, which ended with a demand for cab money, plus extra for pizza and gum. Then she took a hundred-dollar bill—likely the one that Adam’s grandmother sends him each month. It was a metaphor for her own confused ambitions: earlier, she’d sabotaged an office job she didn’t want anyway; now she’d turned her sex life into art and got paid.
“Was anyone ever so young? I am here to tell you that someone was.” - Joan Didon, “Goodbye to All That”
One dead, one imprisoned, one escaped
‘I have not yet decided what to do with these cockroaches I keep finding, so I’m keeping this one in solitary confinement for now,’ she said, standing squarely, barefoot, on the tiled floor. ‘I’m hoping to demoralise them.’ The cockroach, missing a leg, moved its feelers helplessly up and down the smooth glass that formed the panoramic window of his jam jar holding cell, its only variation the way the floor was slightly raised on top of a piece of triangular mosaic, and lowered when off it. The whole kitchen floor was covered in mosaic done by hand, with characteristic slices of brown wedged between the colours, so that everyone who walked through the house barefoot (and that was nearly everyone) ended up with wholesome-looking brown soles. Wholesome-looking brown soles for raising to the sun when, on golden afternoons, they lay on their stomachs in the wayward grass of the garden.
She was a single mother, her two sons from different fathers. In her house there was no meat, there was no poison. She did not hire labour, did everything herself. Today, leaving the cockroach under the jam jar on a corner of her floor, she floated through the kitchen, poised and muscular, her mouse brown hair looped around itself and brushing the dimples of her lower back. She was retrieving another old jar, this time for the droopy hot pink cuttings of a bougainvillea, offerings from the children in one of her classes.
She did not advertise her classes, did not use social media or the internet, or enlist the services of an amateur graphic designer who would embellish her studio’s name with a drop shadow and a pixellated impression of her face like some Remax ad. She did not need to; in the sleepy streets of her seaside suburb her studio was an institution. All who knew her knew her by face; she did not bother with an electric doorbell but preferred the tangible physicality of a knock the door. Life happened upon her, and she treated it gently as it passed – did not try to alter it, but did not reject it either. No newspapers were piled up in the recycling, but her shelves weighed heavily with various forms of left-wing analysis, some well-known prizewinners, others sensationalist – bordering on conspiracy theories. Today she selected one such book, said she had a quote for us before we left. With this we were transported to the turning point of 1994 – the moment when, according to the author, the new South African government abandoned the principles of the Freedom Charter and plans for economic re-distribution in favour of ‘Euro-pean, neo-liberal doctrines.’ A scene was set in which Nelson Mandela, already out of his depth, becomes the victim of bullying at a posh dinner where international leaders tell him to ‘leave that leftie mush, it’s a globalised world now, economies depend on one another.’ Disastrous statistics ensued, and, perhaps aware of the increasingly stifled atmosphere of the kitchen, she put the book back on the shelf with a sigh and a small shake of the head as if to say ce la vie. Her zealous days were over.
‘It’s a relief to get out of there, it’s a relief, I must say,’ my friend and I agreed. Gently we padded, still barefoot, over the prickly pavement. The weather was taking a turn for the worst – a vicious south easter blew large billows of ominously grey clouds over the horizon, and we had to shout to make ourselves heard. ‘She sure can talk, and lovely as she is, there’s something like a time warp about that house, it suggests the possibility of living completely physically, feet on the ground, doing it yourself. There’s something of the rebel in her, fuck you to the media and the government, we know your tricks, we know what you’re up to. It’s an outdated kind of paranoia.’
‘But there’s something of the draft evader in her too – you know, I’m not getting involved, I refuse to take up arms. I refuse to fight.’
‘Perhaps she’s just at that stage of her life. She’s content.’
‘She’s content with making no real difference and doing as little damage as possible.’
‘I know, it’s depressing.’
‘No, it’s not that. I don’t have any cash for coffee. Nowhere takes cards around here,’ I sighed. ‘Hold on a second, I’ll be right back.’ I left him on the corner and dashed across the main road, the rough gravel chafing my sensitive soles with every bound. The wind whacked my face as I paused for cars, and tears welled up from the salt air.
I huddled in the sheltered confine of the ATM. ‘We dream together, we win together,’ the screen saver proclaimed above a picture of a grinning Tshabalala. Bafana had recently united the nation in a brief moment of euphoria. I glanced away, and something caught my eye on the corner of the pavement. A tiny speck of movement mounting the curb – a cockroach, a luckier comrade of the one imprisoned.
Making my way to the coffeehouse where I was going to meet my friend, I recognised a face in one of the shop windows: black and white, photocopied, sellotaped. He was a local car guard. A criminal headshot. Oh no, I thought, imaging the kind of trouble he might have landed himself in, before I looked at the heading. ‘WE SUPPORT CHARLIE,’ it said. In every shop window I passed, Charlie’s face glanced back. A lowly car guard had been elevated to some kind of local celebrity. Well that’s nice, I thought.
I made my way down the curve of the road, past surf shops and internet cafes to the only open coffee shop, run by a surly dreadlocked vegan. ‘Hey,’ I greeted my friend, the only customer, and grabbed a newspaper. Again, Charlie’s face stared back at me. ‘Community unites behind local car guard,’ said the headline. Apparently he had been accused of accepting bribes. The details were fuzzy. ‘Hey, have you seen this?’ I asked my friend.
‘Oh know,’ he mumbled. ‘Bizarre.’
After a couple of coffees we paid our bill and dropped a healthy sounding R5 coin in the tips jar. The door flung open into the wind, and we started making our way towards my car.
‘Ah, fuck,’ I said, as I saw it. One of the small window panes in the back had been smashed. A hurried moment of risk, perhaps of panic, was crystallised in the CDs, flung across the seats and floor, and the cubbyhole still hanging open.
‘Damn tik fiends,’ said my friend. ‘Did he – or she – take anything?’
‘No,’ I said as I retrieved the CD player from beneath a pile of CDs. There was even a pair of sunglasses in the cubbyhole, untouched.
My friend and I surveyed the damage, bemused, for a couple of minutes. ‘It’s fine,’ I said, ‘insurance will cover it. I just don’t understand why they didn’t take anything. Why break a window?’
‘And it’s always the small ones – windows, I mean. Do you think it’s easier or do you think they’re being kind, like, they’re cheaper?’
‘Who fucking knows what goes on in these people’s – this person’s head. Who are these people anyway? I feel as though we’ve shared an intimate space and I know nothing about them. Did they have some kind of moral dilemma? Were they angry? Were they scared?’ I sighed . ‘Anyway, it doesn’t matter.’
We hugged goodbye, and my friend pressed his thumb on a small remote control, opening the electric gate in front of us. For a small instance his house was visible from the street. He walked in, turned around and waved once more. I smiled and waved back. I turned back to the car and gave it one more once-over, just to check ‘they’ didn’t steal any essential piece of it. I crouched at the tyres, checked under the bonnet. On the ground, showered in tiny, glistening pebbles of glass was a cockroach, dead, on its back. Its feet and feelers folded inwards, as though overwhelmed by the world – the sun and sky and billions of stars, invisible in the glare, with which it was now confronted.
Ruth Snyder being electrocuted; a news photographer smuggled a small camera into the death chamber strapped to his leg and took this sensational shot.
Review essay I wrote about Dana Snyman’s The Long Way Home with an introduction by Hedley Twidle -
What is a review? What is an essay? And what is a review essay?
We discussed these questions during a recent seminar on (so-called) literary non-fiction at the University of Cape Town. The idea was to explore more varied, public and perhaps more lucrative modes of writing about literature than the research “paper”, or end-of-term “assignment” – both rather insipid terms for the kind pieces that Honours and Masters students are required to produce.
In bald economic terms, postgraduate study consists in paying someone to read your work (sometimes a couple of external examiners too) and there it ends. But what about getting paid, and so contributing to a wider dialogue, all without sacrificing intelligence, rigour and (if necessary) difficulty? And how much self can one insert into an essayistic response to a text before it becomes self-indulgent?
A review generally supposes that the audience has not the read the book, and considers whether it is worth your (the reader’s) time and money. A review essay is less constrained by the need to judge, operating more at the level of an idea: “The Problem with American Male Novelists”, say, or “Pakistan”, or “Post-Apartheid Crime Fiction”. It may take its cues from the work in question – or (even better) a cluster of related works – but does not necessarily need to remain bound by them, or do them full justice. It is not really concerned whether you have or haven’t read them (in the New York Review of Books, it may even provide a digest of texts that you know you will never read). In any case, the review essay should be worth reading in its own right – but then again, so should a good review. Still, the “essay” component allows it to travel more widely, in a way that is looser and more personal than an academic article.
In the seminar, we drew up a list of words that were to be banned from the review essay: “discourse”; “intervention”; “problematise” (instant fail); “inscribe” (or worse: “reinscribe”); “grand narrative” (should have been retired years ago); “agency” (not very common when I was a student, but now spreading like wildfire); “interrogate” (why are academics always wanting to “interrogate” texts, as if they were in Guantanamo?)
So did this mean that such terms were then compulsory in the “research paper” component of the course, asked one of the wits from Creative Writing? This last phrase is one that I want to interrogate and problematise to the highest degree – it seems to imply that scholarly or academic writing cannot or should not be creative. So what does creativity consist of in scholarship? How can one avoid academic clichés, if you will, whether of diction, tone, subject or structure? How to stave off that sinking feeling when you can already anticipate, three lines in, all the conceptual moves that a dreary “accredited” article is going to make?
The point of is not to take cheap shots at academia – certainly not in a country where anti-intellectualism is so rife. But rather to challenge literary scholars to make their work matter: to make it readable, engaged with the wider social body, critical (in the widest sense of that word), unignorable – and so less likely to be axed by administrators who look for every opportunity to fund the what one campaigner for the Humanities in South Africa calls the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) at the expense of the NAIL disciplines (Narrative, Analysis, Interpretation, Literacy). See John Higgins in Business Day.
Such weighty interventions aside, the extracurricular (or “bonus disc”) part of the course explored that wonderful category of texts where the act of literary criticism produces another work in its own right – examples of what David Shields calls “the critical intelligence in the imaginative position”. This is a spectrum of engagements with loved/hated literary predecessors that range from the gloriously immature (Geoff Dyer’s, Out of Sheer Rage, in which he writes about failing to write about D.H. Lawrence) and frankly bizarre (Nicholson Baker’s obsessive-compulsive account of his relation to the work of John Updike, U & I) to the wryly serious (Janet Malcolm’s wonderful Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey) to the very serious indeed (W. G. Sebald’s, On the Natural History of Destruction, a mediation on the Allied bombing of Nazi Germany, and its literary repercussions).
Very different in tone and approach, each of these share a sense of literature as something lived by and through: a quality that can be difficult to smuggle into what counts as part of a “research output”. But one should try nonetheless, for as Dyer asks (after disgustedly burning a Longman Critical Reader given to him by someone who hears that he is “working on Lawrence”): “How can you know anything about literature if all you’ve done is read books?”
The review essays presented in this feature, written by members of the seminar, share this quality of liveliness and alertness to a world out there. They preserve (the privilege of the essay) a sense of immediacy and personal response – or rather, responsiveness – that can be lost in the academic article which must pretend that it knows everything. The essay presented in this, the first part of this feature, is by Anneke Rautenbach, who reads Dana Snyman’s The Long Way Home with a little bit of help from Rian Malan (and Freud), enticing us towards a fascinating text (recently translated from Afrikaans) that is, as she puts it, “part travelogue, part autobiography and, as is inevitable in South Africa, part national allegory”; but also “a kind of walkabout in search of a home, a reverse nostalgia in search of a future”.
Finding the Afrikaner’s Nkandla
The Long Way Home by Dana Snyman, Tafelberg, 2012.
“Afrikaners must find their own Nkandla,” said Jacob Zuma in an interview with Beeld (February 2011). He was referring, of course, not to a physical location but a psychological home – “where he’s safe and has the freedom and confidence to live and express the things that are important to him. […] For example,” says Zuma, “I work in Cape Town and Pretoria, but then I want to go to Nkandla [in rural Kwazulu-Natal]. That’s where I belong. I feel at home when I’m there. I can do the indlamu [a traditional dance for men], I can speak isiZulu…”
This is the cut-out of an article Snyman finds among his father’s things after his death. What, he asks himself, could have been his father’s motivation for keeping the article? Did the retired dominee want him to happen upon it, in his effort to prove to his son that even the Zulu president of the new regime believes that in South Africa, the Afrikaners are entitled to a sense of belonging?
The Long Way Home (recently translated from the Afrikaans Hiervandaan) is part travelogue, part autobiography and, as is inevitable in South Africa, part national allegory. Despite Snyman’s insistence that it was a personal project – “This book, like most, was written for selfish reasons. I wanted to explain the country and my place in it to myself” (175) – it also plays a role in continuing the narrative of the Afrikaner: the Afrikaner in the new nation.
By traversing the length of South Africa, Snyman seeks to answer whether this Nkandla, this psychological home, exists at all. From a physical journey comes an intense internal battle with his sense of identity in a country that is becoming increasingly unfamiliar to him.
I see tired old bakkies full of people, strugglers in scuffed shoes, beggars, queues outside government buildings, and I have no idea what these people’s lives are like. It’s making me feel like a stranger in my own country […] Sometimes I even feel out of place because of who I am: a white Afrikaner with a small-town upbringing. I benefited from apartheid and don’t know how to feel about it. (25)
It’s a sentiment that reverberates with many Afrikaners who straddle the old and new regimes and find themselves to have been complicit, however passively, in the events of the past. Snyman’s story of a journey in his bakkie – armed with some “clothes, a laptop, a camera, notebooks and a can of pepper spray for self defence” (26) – takes us from De Doorns to Kimberley, from Brandfort to Polokwane in a relentless quest to come to terms with the ordinary South African, to discover whether he “still belongs”. From finding out more about how people survive on government grants (R250 a month per child) by following the AllPay days of the small Karoo towns, to chasing after a bank robbery in Pofadder and a tragic farm murder in Lindley, small ironies and absurdities are gently laid before the reader: the bank robber who jumped into a corrugated-iron dam with a bag full of cash, the farmer’s sister-in-law arriving at the farm to feed the murdered family’s dogs. There is space for humour, too, in the ordinary and the bizarre: the mandatory peppermint on each motel bed, the absurdity of the four unexplained fire hydrants in Swartkop, or the switchboard operator who helped a late-night drunk reach Princess Diana at Buckingham Palace.
It is precisely this peculiar combination of pain and pleasure that marks Snyman’s sense of nostalgia. It is a nostalgia that manifests in F.A Venter’s Werfjoernaal, an Afrikaans travelogue from 1968, one that speaks of a simpler time, which Snyman reads on the road:
The story moved me for one reason in particular – the innocence of life in the platteland as Venter describes it. It could just as well have been a description of Danielskuil and its surroundings in the seventies. It’s a bygone farmers’ paradise of church bazaars, Sunday school picnics and jovial auctions. (59)
Interwoven with this story is another: the story of Snyman and his elderly father, a retired minister of the Dutch Reformed Church and one time chaplain-general of the AWB. Father accompanies son on his journey by means of regular phone calls, constantly trying to convince his boy to return home to Ventersdorp. It is through these conversations – in the clash between old-fashioned (though well-meaning) conservatism and progressive curiosity propelled by a sense of displacement – that Snyman’s convictions become clear. In trying to explain his aimless wanderings to his father, he is explaining them to himself. His conflicted relationship with his father (anger and frustration intermeshed with intense love) is also his relationship with his fatherland. And it is this conflicted relationship that brings forth the discomfort he feels about nostalgia, a discomfort about an affectionate longing for a bygone world – the world of his father – that is disappearing around him.
The term “nostalgia” was coined, Snyman explains, by the German doctor Johannes Hofer in 1688 when he observed the mental condition of soldiers fighting in a foreign country, longing for their fatherland. Hofer later noted that it was not just the ailment of soldiers but of anyone who felt they had lost their fatherland – or whose fatherland had become unfamiliar to them. Snyman says, for example, that he has never lived on a farm, but that somewhere inside him he sometimes feels there is one.
The farm in me is all the farms I’ve come across and got to know and learnt to love in my life. The farms in history books – farms where homes were burnt down – also help make up my farm. […] Is that why we feel a little sad whenever we see the ruin of a farmyard next to the road? Is it because we feel the farm inside of us is also changing? As if the life we’ve known ever since we can remember is disappearing? (69)
But what is the significance of this longing? Observing the past through the lens of nostalgia almost always accentuates the positive and eliminates the negative. Snyman warns against it, and is worried that his writing has come to be associated with such a move. “We’ll have to think carefully about what exactly nostalgia means and how it can stall one’s life,” he commented to Rapport. “We Afrikaners long for the past so much these days that we begin to forget things. It is dangerous.” It is the nostalgia of the Afrikaners, he explains to his father, that is making them feel like strangers in their own country – “our longing for the past is so strong it’s making us believe we’re innocent” (134).
Thus the conundrum for the Afrikaner remains: if nostalgia is to be avoided, what hope is there for the Afrikaner Nkandla, his psychological home – a sense of belonging that allows him the freedom to express what he desires, and to be comfortable? The quest for an Nkandla is a quest for culture – and if we are to accept the Hegelian idea of culture as no more than habit, by definition a repetition, then it is impossible to separate culture from the past.
This leaves the Afrikaner with a sense of displacement, which is typical of post-apartheid South Africa. Some, like Snyman’s father, defensively and vehemently cling to a sense of belonging, a culture, a way of doing things that is characteristic of the past – refusing to be displaced, despite general condemnation. Others were temporarily displaced – but ten years after democracy, wanted to reclaim a share of the country. Rian Malan, in an interview with The Guardian in 2007, commented on this phenomenon with reference to Bok van Blerk’s polemical song, “De la Rey”:
Afrikaners were so vilified in the latter years of apartheid that they just kept their heads down and put up with any shit for the first 10 years of the democratic experiment. Now they were not so sure. The song was being sung in bars and at rugby grounds like a national anthem; 100,000 copies of the CD had been sold. “De la Rey” suggested that the rainbow nation was once again threatening to break up into its constituent colours.
Yet others, like Snyman, embrace the displacement, despite the pain, and seek to negotiate a new dwelling place, a new Nkandla in a new South Africa. Again, the Germans prove helpful by creating a term that means the opposite of nostalgia: fernweh, a longing to be far – a type of “wanderlust”. How better to describe The Long Way Home than as a kind of walkabout in search of a home, a reverse nostalgia in search of a future: “[T]here’s a time for listening and a time for talking, […] and a time for hitting the road, for heading into the country (26).
Fittingly, when his father wants him to return to Danielskuil, where he grew up, Snyman changes course at the last minute to travel to the hometown of someone who is as far away from himself as possible: Julius Malema. Fitting, too, is that what finally affords him something approximating an Nkandla, is a little distance – both in the sense of space, and in the sense of perspective. Hence the title:The Long Way Home.
It is after his father’s death that Snyman finally decides to revisit some personal history. His great-great grandfather’s trousers are hanging in the museum at the Church of the Covenant in Pietermaritzburg, his father tells him. Oupa Coenraad, who fought in the so-called Battle of Blood River, was a very large man, who wore very large trousers. “They called him the Strongman of the Great Trek” (99). Standing squarely in front of the trousers, which like an old family member seem to welcome him, he reads the sign in isiZulu. Made clear is the legacy of the Afrikaners as an African tribe, one which honoured and even worshipped its ancestors: Kruger, De la Rey, De Wet – one and with a bloody history, yes, but what part of the South African past is not?
Perhaps the lesson of The Long Way Home is that it is counter-productive to shirk the past: nothing can be achieved if it is avoided. The past should not be dwelled upon, this story seems to say, as in the case of melancholic nostalgia. Rather, it should be embraced and accepted with a view to the future.
My Nkandla is (…) a toast to “tant Koek se hoender-haan” at a wedding. It’s in the calluses on the palm of a hand and in the worn sole of a Grasshopper shoe. It’s in the blanket covering a mirror during a thunderstorm, and in the long unbroken peel of an orange peeled with a pocketknife. (172).
With this embrace of the past, comes inevitable guilt and darkness – but such guilt, too, makes up the Afrikaner’s history and identity. It is through a reworking of the past that the future can be envisioned – in an embrace of nostalgia, as well as an embrace of guilt.
My Nkandla is wounded, it’s in the fingerprint powder on the windows of a car or a house, it’s in the white outlines around a lifeless body on the floor of a house. My Nkandla is burdened with the weight of guilt, of truncheons and guns and Casspirs, and hey, tata, go and live in a separate area, go and swim in another sea. But my Nkandla is remorse and forgiveness too. (172)
In a tribute to his late father, Snyman visits the town where he grew up, Memel. Memel, he says, was his father’s “putu pap and poor-boy flour-bag underpants and stories about going barefoot in the frost on a winter’s morning – stories that had a happy ending when he stood with his cold feet in a heap of warm cow dung” (156). It is thus with conviction that Snyman is able to claim his Nkandla when he responds to a question about where he is from: “I am from here,” he says, “Ek is hiervandaan.” This is where his Nkandla lies – somewhere between the past and the future, between Blood River and Polokwane.
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