There is something about well-written childhood stories that can heal. They crackle with the marvel of being alive. Vladimir Nabokov once wrote about the magical act of writing: “The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamouring to become visible.” Children, and baby animals, are alive with this wonder, clamouring for things to become visible and at things for being visible, which we lose as adults. Wordsworth (too ambitiously) tried to capture this in Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. Here, broadly speaking, the poet wishes to capture what the wonder of a child’s spontaneous lebenswelt is and that it is lost:
But there’s a tree, of many, one,
A single field which I have look’d upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone.
More precisely, the poet depicts an adult yearning for the wonder that has been lost in a lebenswelt where everything has become routine, a wonder paradoxically still available to him, because, in poetic words, he can summon it up again. The yearning in the poem is immense, and justly so, for we all ought to stop and wonder at the creative play of children and baby animals. There are many writers who have captured well the unfiltered immediacy and sensuousness of childhood, reminding us of that birthplace and touchstone of our humanity. These writers help us reflect on the gifts we can so easily lose: our vulnerability, our open-mouthed awe at doing everything as if it were for the first time with great spontaneity. I think of Mark Twain, and two Canadian writers, Margaret Atwood (Lady Oracle) and Robertson Davies (The Deptford Trilogy). Or immortal books for children, be it Winnie the Pooh books, Tintin and Asterix.
The reader may think I am making heavy weather of childhood writings in a piece ultimately about the memoir, To Quote Myself. But the sub-genre is extremely pertinent in the world we live in, particularly the South African post-apartheid era, or what I prefer to call the apartheid-not-on-paper era. Khaya, in the opening parts of his book and in the closing chapter, where he revisits his home village, does the theme of childhood recollection and celebration great justice. His style is simple, unadorned, and yet is often vibrant with a depth of feeling and a richness of suggestion than more florid styles. I have read the first seventy-odd pages several times with great pleasure. His style and approach are of great value in the context of a country that has been torn apart, among other things, by what has been done to language in the name of one ideology or another.
The apartheid zealots used the Christian Bible and its language to sweeten their systematic policy of oppression and ruthless exploitation. The post-apartheid adults often use language to either make a racist of everyone, or, oddly enough, somehow expect whites to be the collective saviour of the country, if you read blogs like this carefully. That, by Sarah Britten, is an opportunistic piece about a flavour-of-the-moment “trending” racist tweet. Sarah’s piece, like many others, inadvertently highlights a language problem often found in popular South African opinion pieces (for example, here), where she, like others, abuses words such as “we” and “us”, making of them a fictionalised, collective identity. Or we get told that the ANC will stay in power till the second coming of Jesus Christ, regardless of shit-poor leadership. Or that all of Zuma’s many failings and betrayals of his country simply require “a different approach”.
Khaya’s use of language, on the other hand, particularly in his boyhood recollections, is simple, truthful and heartfelt without being slushy. His words are humorous and self-effacing without being judgmental and self-pitying about his poor upbringing. This is a writing with a big heart which the likes of Madiba, Bishop Tutu and Beyers Naude would be proud. This is the heart South Africa needs. It restores the belief – well for me, anyway – that good literature, such as well-written memoirs, do play a part – however small – in reminding us of the wonder of being human, and therefore can restore to us the sense of dignity and hope South Africans need. It is not a writing which accuses, or idly dumps people into various apartheid-not-on-paper categories, “we/us” and “you” or “them” as the Twitterati often do.
To reiterate from the previous blog, I did not respond well to Khaya’s corporate career path. My heart opened to the child growing up in his home, that dirt poor village, Dutyini and the young man in Cape Town who was homeless for a while as he tried to finish his studies at the AAA advertising school. This criticism says more about me than what Khaya is only honestly and very intelligently writing about. Me? Perhaps a middle-aged, grumpy white man who “left the country” (some would say deserted, some would say he wanted to see more of the world, I tick the second option) and wants SA memoirs to be about something other than the globalised tastelessness of corporate giants which we have the dubious pleasure of seeing splashed on billboards worldwide anyway. It says little about the reality of South Africa and its apartheid-on-or-off-paper and says nothing – to me – about me/us/South Africa. Should it say something? Khaya is not here to write about what I like, nor should he be.
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I was struck by the sense of sheer belonging Khaya had at Dutyini. Everyone knew everyone else. For example when he was five he was recognised by all the teachers at the school as “Nonceba’s [his mother’s] child”. The early chapters of his book are rich with stories about his mother, his grandparents and ancestors, all forming a long chain of deeply rooted belonging which makes me think of the theme of yearning in pieces like The Immortality Ode. Stories such as getting a toy bicycle … and starting a business by getting the other village kids to pay him to ride his bicycle! Or his mother poignantly defying Xhosa custom by riding a horse while all watch with jaws dropped. In these little anecdotes there is a sense of rootedness which I am not sure how many suburban first or second generation white children even remotely had. This is where Khaya’s Hemingway-esque prose knifes into me, pares from me my biography.
I had the “privilege”, the middle-class money. But my childhood was rootless, ghostly. I had a surrogate black mother whose back I grew up on and that wonderful mommy disappeared into a “location” every evening. My own mother was seldom present. Then, when I was seven, I went to a faraway boarding school for nine months of the year for a number of years. Boarding school has been aptly described as “children’s prison”. There was no love, no mommy or daddy or big sister. There was a lot of caning, a lot of fear and some bed-wetting. There were about twenty of us in the larger dormitory. There was no private space to be found in your narrow cot and a metal cupboard. There was no sense of homeliness or home. I came “home” to a “home” I only saw for not much more than two to three months of the year. How is that home? The family, friends and sense of ancestry in the rural Transkei gives Khaya’s upbringing the solidity of being anchored in a place. This, even though his home life was materially poor and he rightly emphasises not romanticising the poverty he grew up in.
Yes, for most of the last 150 words or so I have written about “me”, about a typical apartheid, white South African upbringing. This is the kind of thing a good memoir can do: it opens you up, brings to the fore your background, makes you examine your values, your old hurts and scars, your habitual ways of closing off others or opening up to them.
At the end of the book, as an adult, Khaya could still visit Dutyini. On the other hand, the farmland where I “grew up” a couple of months each year in 1970s Boksburg was destroyed and replaced by office parks in the Nineties. It was devastating to go back, expecting to have a nostalgic tramp around the fields where I ran among cattle, a lonely boy away from boarding school, with no real friends or any grandparents and family to visit because there weren’t any. (Partly because I was so often boarding. Partly because, like many whiteys, I was a mere second generation South African.)
There is something spiritual about the opening and closing chapters of To Quote Myself, its humble fin-de-siècle, that will have me reading them again, for that is where a young, deeply rooted black child can meet a rootless, privileged white boy, and shake hands across an immense divide.
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