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‘Kist’ – did you know it’s a uniquely South African word?

Recently I finished writing a novel titled Orphan Country, which is partly set in South Africa in the Seventies and Eighties. One of my main characters, Ruth, is half-Chinese and was adopted at birth. She has little clue as to who her parents really are and part of the storyline is her finding out more about her family in apartheid South Africa (where Chinese were also marginalised). Later on, in the 2000’s, she encounters some of her Chinese family in Shanghai*.

For Ruth, one of the most important objects in her life is a kist that was given to her by someone whom she later finds out… Well, that’s a spoiler I will not give away in case my novel is ever published.

Writers draw on personal experiences. Ruth’s kist, made of imbuia, is really the one which belonged to my mother, who passed on in 2012. Remember opening your mom’s kist and the smell of folded linens? The feel and shimmering sound of a bridal gown as it is caressed, or the heavy, difficult-to-crack-open photo albums predating World War II? The slowly lifted handfuls of mysterious heirlooms from grandparents and their ancestors who were born outside of South Africa? There are South Africans who have cherished memories of kists that were passed down from their grandmothers and even much further back.

The images kists evoke? Remembrances of family bequeathals that are sometimes ritually taken out the kist just to be breathed in, or to be held in a special way that even our close ones are not held. But did you know that this word kist, other than perhaps in Scotland, is uniquely South African, especially in its sense of family tradition? It is.

This came as a surprise as I worked through parts of Orphan Country as my master’s thesis last year at the University of Auckland. No one knew what the word kist meant. Not even my advisor, a professor of English (and, of course, a very erudite person). None of my peers, who included people not only from New Zealand, but from Canada, India, Fiji, Wales and elsewhere, had ever heard of a kist. Amazed, I asked a number of people in New Zealand. No one knew the word (and therefore its meaning as a family bequeathment). Fellow South Africans were equally surprised that the word seemed unknown — outside of South Africa.

Many of my peers and my advisor delighted in the word, which was, for them, a newfound darling of a term. A sparkler with its own sound and suggestiveness, an item to be kept in a purse or drawer and taken out from time to time to marvel at. The word kist, my colleagues “reminded” me, sounds so much like kissed. I place “reminded” in inverted commas as the word is so much a part of “me” I honestly think I have “forgotten” the similarity of the sound to the act of touching a beloved person’s cheek with your lips.

Say it softy: kist.

Notice how your lips move over the sound. Oh kist, with your rosary of memories! Your fragrances and feels of the mind and heart rolled on the tongue, almost with the silken feel of that actual, often handcrafted chest. In simple utterance is sometimes found deep, untraceable identity. Kist: In the touch of tongue against the back of the mouth, which sounds the k, to the tip of the tongue touching the front of the palate, striking out the t, lies a wealth of remembrance and a celebration of the feminine in one its most cherished forms: motherhood.

I had no idea that “our” word was ours. Of course, simply knowing the dictionary definition does the particular resonance the word kist has, for a South African, no justice whatsoever. Therein lies its uniqueness.

As I was so moved by the singularity of this South African word, with its Afrikaans, Dutch and Scottish roots, the idea of a kist grew into something of a motif in my novel, especially in the third and final part. Kists suggest roots, identity, a sense of common ancestry to which you belong. My half-Chinese, half-European character Ruth, much later on in her life, does not feel she belongs in either of the countries she could stake a claim to (South Africa and China). In her quest for a place in the world that she can call home, she has her kist sent to her in Shanghai. In this passage, when the kist arrives, I try to capture something of what “our kist” means. Well, at least what it means to me. Here goes.


* * *


[Ruth] steps into her bedroom with the double bed and the new writing desk with built-in book shelves she has just bought from IKEA. Ying-Ying [her maid] texted her in Chinese earlier today to say she has opened the large carton that arrived from South Africa a few days ago and polished “the beautiful wood box” she found inside.

Ruth strokes the sides of her old kist. The surface feels so African, so homely and alien here half the world away. Around her neck on a slender gold necklace is a key and she uses it to unlock the kist. Slowly she opens the lid to look at the contents, which have not been disturbed much for many years. All she smells is her childhood.

Abruptly she closes the lid with a sob and locks it, her hands shaking. She holds her fists close to her face. Breathing in and out rhythmically, she opens and closes her hands. She was not expecting this sudden loneliness. It knifes her in the gut. Jesus, maybe it would have been better not to have had her kist shipped over.

But here it is and here she is.

She notices she is sitting on the kist like the bloody Thinker. She laughs. This is where she would always go to get away from men. Or rather, to recover from them. Two managed to get fairly close after Nick, and marriage was even discussed…

”That’s the story of my life,” mutters Ruth. “They always move on. Especially the men.” She strokes the imbuia [the kist], then chuckles bitterly as she realises this is a bit like rubbing a genie’s lamp.

Back in her bedroom, she sits next to her kist. A week ago the chest would have been in the cargo hold of a ship heaving on the seas between South Africa and China. She remembers her dream some nights ago about riverbanks of rose petals whispering in the kist. They heaved against the lid till it banged open like a burst of applause, and petals cascaded all over the ground for her to walk on.


* I lived in Shanghai for several years.

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