When I met and married my South African husband, I knew we were going to end up living here. It was part of the deal: he had been living in London for fifteen years and wanted to come home. We made a few visits over here to his family before we tied the knot and I started looking for some South African novelists to read, to help me understand a bit more about this country I would be moving to.
Ask about classic South African novelists and you will inevitably end up with a selection of Nadine Gordimer for gritty, struggle, political angst and then some Dalene Matthee for ‘how it was back then in the early days of rural South Africa’ atmosphere. They are both excellent reads, but I struggled with Nadine Gordimer. Escapist she certainly is not and identifying with her protagonists was a challenge – too much gritty reality and human failings for bedtime reading. Dalene Matthee I enjoyed more, the characters sprang to life for me and gave me a sense of the history of this complex country. But I never found the South African equivalent of the English books that are my best reads: books about people, their stories, well-written but without an external agenda. Not surprisingly really, as the past century of South Africa’s history is cluttered with meaty agendas that affect everyone’s lives whether they are politically engagé or not.
Recently I stumbled upon two South African novels in the library that I really have enjoyed. Not because they avoided difficult issues, they were each set in a period of huge drama and political change when Apartheid was flexing its muscles, but because the story was about the people and their personal growth amid cataclysmic events.
Sweet Smelling Jasmine by Jenny Hobbs tells the story of a pivotal year in the life of a teenage girl, just south of Durban, parallel with her later life as a mother of three grown-up children, whose marriage has dried up, but who is embarking on a blossoming affair with a man from that year of her youth. Throughout the novel his identity is kept in the dark, as her teenage life unfolds towards the cataclysmic event that overshadows the whole story. This is small-town life where the races are not yet kept separate and a feeling of tension weaves throughout, but it is cleverly written from a teenage perspective so that more importance is given to the unattainable perfect dress in the shop window, than to the political machinations of the adults around her, though they filter through to her as viewed by her adult self. I loved this book for its human drama as well as the clear picture it paints of its place and time.
Dance with a Poor Man's Daughter by Pamela Jooste is also set in a time when cataclysmic events were taking place and is narrated by a teenage girl. This time the overhanging threat is the shameful razing of District Six in Cape Town, a government resettlement policy that has left a still open wound in people’s consciousness today, when a whole homogenous community, made-up of Coloureds, Jews, Muslims was evicted and resettled according to its component parts and the apartheid policy. It is recounted by a vivacious teenager, living in a family of strong women, whose men are all no good, according to her grandmother. She tells everything as she sees it, recounting adult conversation verbatim, and paints a vivid picture of the community and people, her family, her gangster cousin and her runaway mother, who returns a political activist to fight for their cause. The story is of resilient women, living their lives as best they can amid the changes that beset them and never losing faith in themselves or life itself.
Thinking about it, the difference between these two and my experience of Gordimer, is that both their protagonists grow through the story and retain hope for the future, despite the events that happen to and around them, whereas my memory of Gordimer’s books is of an atmosphere where despair has taken over and the characters disintegrate around it, perhaps at the end salvaging the barest, bleak bone of hope for a featureless future. This is not to say that you shouldn’t read her books – you should - they are excellent literature. But this is when I have to admit that I haven’t re-read any of her books over the last ten years. They are uncomfortable sofa companions for me and I prefer my realism with a little patina of optimism. A story doesn’t have to be sugar-coated, but, for me, there is enough doom and gloom about without voluntarily pulling more of it from the book-shelf.
Despair very soon sinks you in apathy, which gets you nowhere but sagging deeper into the sofa. To live in South Africa today I need to hang on to my hope, sipping it from small details of individual stories, one person at a time, keeping my optimism firmly rooted in the human will to survive and grow.