What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons

 

In her debut novel, set in Pennsylvania, New York and Johannesburg, Zinzi Clemmons takes on big subjects. She explores cancer, death, race and sex in an unflinching, but not fearless manner. She is fearful. Cancer is frightening and relentless. Dying is painful and sordid. Racism is all around. And sex can be dangerous.

Unknown-1.jpeg
Zinzi Clemmons. Photo: Nina Subin

Thandi, as a light-skinned African American woman, challenges the way others see her. She describes herself as a ‘strange in-betweener’, one who never feels accepted. Her mother warns her not to make friendships with women whose skins are darker than her own, stating that, inevitably, envy will lead to rancour.

As she matures, Thandi chooses white boyfriends, often freckled and/or red haired. Clemmons doesn’t draw the obvious conclusion – that Thandi is attracted to those at the very end of the continuum between whiteness and blackness. But it may be that she would love to be, like these boyfriends, definitely something. Others are constantly confused by her appearance. Is she black? Or Spanish? Or Asian? Or Jewish? At one time or another she is assessed as all of these. She’s told that she’s not a ‘real black person’.

In terms of the boyfriends, there are gentler passages about skin and stroking but, on the whole, the descriptions of sex are pretty graphic. The language she uses is coarse and direct. Thandi loves sex and gets a lot of it, one way or another. It’s not a novel for the prudish.

Unknown.jpeg

The most important role in life is, Thandi believes, that of a mother. The account of her beloved mother’s death from breast cancer, is gruelling. No detail is omitted. And the void left by her mother’s absence is at the centre of the novel. Numbly she and her father mourn her, surrounded by dust and take-away cartons.

In looking at motherhood Clemmons discusses the extraordinary iteration of Winnie Mandela, otherwise known as Ms Madikizela-Mandela, who was involved, alongside the Mandela United Football Club, in the torture and murder of youths. Clemmons moralises that maternal models are inappropriate for peace-keeping.

kingsonmandela.jpg
Winnie Mandela with some members of the MUFC.  Image: BBC World Service

Other examples of the real world intrude. Political events such as Obama’s election are documented. These do not seem to be inserted to provide a contextual time-line, but rather to make some sort of philosophical point about life and death in a fundamentally racist world. It’s mannered and is a bit of a stretch from the overarching memorial/ memoir tone of the novel.

00251073-5826b7ccc064b70ed76f4ab3ed3a6d69-arc614x376-w285-us1.png
Image: allafrica

What We Lose is, perhaps, an attempt to emulate or match Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s work, such as Americanah: a love/hate song to Adichie’s two countries, America and Nigeria. It doesn’t really succeed though, for three reasons.

Firstly, it is too much like the sort of autobiographical piece submitted to ‘true story’ women’s magazines, entitled I Lost My Mum to Cancer or I Know What You’re Thinking When You Look At Me.

Unknown.jpeg

Secondly, although the blurb describes the book as moving and emotional, it really isn’t. The characters do not ring true. Even Thandi herself, a protagonist who is supposed to be entirely self-centred, is lacking in personality.

Finally, the prose is fragmented. The style is more blog or notebook. Chapters are so short as to be mere paragraphs. Linear chronology is sacrificed leaving the reader floundering. It almost seems like a series of creative writing exercises have been cut and pasted.  It’s a shame because Clemmons probably does have interesting things to say about cancer, death, race and sex. Perhaps she needs to move away from what seems to be fictionalised autobiography to achieve that.

Works cited

Ngozi Adichie, C. Americanah.  Alfred A. Knopf. 2013. Print.

Clemmons, Z. What We Lose. 4th Estate. 2017. Print.

A version of this review was first published on page 36 of  the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 22nd July 2017. 

 

 

 

 

Unquiet flows the blood.

Bridge over Blood River: The rise and fall of the Afrikaners by Kajsa Norman 

images-4.jpeg

Kajsa Norman, camping out in 2011, near Blood River in Kwa-Zulu-Natal, is unprepared for a fierce storm. Approached by a group of macho-looking Afrikaans-speaking men her English is ignored until she explains that she is Swedish. As a Scandinavian she proves close enough to their ancestral country of Holland to merit some friendly help. They beef up her tent and welcome her to the celebrations of 16th December. It’s the anniversary of the Battle of Blood River 1838.

More than 170 years previously, on the same site, a group of almost 500 Voortrekkers faced a more intense peril. They awoke to find their laagered waggons surrounded by thousands of Zulu warriors.   Soon after dawn, with the aid of buckshot-filled muskets and cannon, about 3,000 spear-carrying Zulus lay dead, leaving three Afrikaners wounded, but all their victors alive. And thus the Battle of Blood River and 16th December entered the cultural lexicon of the Afrikaners.

Bloedrivier.gif

Norman’s main interest, as a journalist, is conflict zones. Whilst South Africa is not exactly a theatre of war the country is regarded as very dangerous.

In the cities the black and white middle classes live in guarded compounds and carry weapons in their expensive cars. They do not drive at night and do not stop at traffic lights. There is little confidence in the police.

Unknown.jpeg

Norman attempts to embed herself in the segregated world of the Afrikaner: a world that has remained steadfastly closed to uitlanders since 1838. Reluctantly some accept her visits although she frequently comes across hardliners who will greet her in English once and then become silent waiting for her to speak Afrikaans.

She learns that one response to the current situation seems to emulate their forebears’ triumph at Blood River where, forming their crescent of wagons into a ‘shield wall’, they protected themselves from the enemy. Such a phenomenon is the republic of Orania.

images-4.jpegMiles away from anywhere, amid arid lands, pioneers have built a ‘European’ outpost.

One of their leaders states, ‘after World War Two, Algeria had three million white French. They are all gone. The Belgians who used to live in the Congo are all gone.   The Portuguese are gone. The English are gone. The Afrikaners are the last European people remaining in Africa’. The town council is aiming for a population of 20,000 in the next 20 years but recognises that 300,000 to 500,000 would be needed for a viable state.

Daily life in Orania is god-fearing and austere. Everyone is expected to work hard physically and the concept of Kafferwerk (having someone else do your work) is despised. At the petrol station white attendants fill the tanks of passing vehicles be the passengers white or black. But there can be no black or coloured residents.

7c5368ae29d7463087c92130400a664d.jpg

Watching families at leisure Norman finds them ‘almost nauseatingly happy’. She likens their milieu to Stepford, from Ira Levin’s novel The Stepford Wives. What is attractive about Orania is its wholesomeness, its rejection of greed and acceptance of sufficient. What is less desirable is its eschewal of everything that is not Afrikanerdom.

images-4.jpegElsewhere Norman finds other enclaves. There are still many Afrikaners working farms with the ‘help’ of black workers. According to the farmers these farmhands are unreliable and often fail to turn up to look after the stock. And, on the isolated properties, vicious farm attacks are frequent. Every farmer fears for his life and those of his family.

‘I don’t feel safe staying here anymore. It makes me uncomfortable’ says one farmer’s daughter. This woman’s life has been quite different from the accepted norm for Afrikaner women, and would, by most of her peers, be seen as shameful.

620x349.jpegHaving spent many years on cruise ships she returns home to her father, pregnant and rejected by the captain. Her father, taking her back into his home, thanks God for the fact that the child turns out to be ‘a blond and blue-eyed little rugby player who helps his grandpa care for the animals on the farm’.

Some Afrikaner farmers have left their home country to seek their fortunes in the Congo. On arrival these skilled farmers receive land and tax exemptions. Their new land is much more fertile than that in South Africa, making farming more productive. Other African countries attracting these commercial farmers are Zambia, Ghana, Somalia, Namibia, Botswana, Angola and Mozambique. There is a new form of Trekboer.

There seems to be a tension in Afrikaner culture. They respect the trekking instinct. Treks traditionally took place to find and establish ethnically homogenous free states. But as each settlement broke down or was destroyed there was a need to trek again. There is the need for movement and the opposing need for stasis.

Challenges to the Afrikaner race have come from commercial and political sources. If diamonds or gold were found on their land the Afrikaners would find their freedoms curtailed – mainly by English mining companies, supported by English government policies. Antipathy towards the English was rife, particularly as it was thought that the English could just go back home if things got difficult.

images-4.jpeg

There was, however, for the Afrikaner, only one homeland. The ‘Afrikaner language, history, traditions, calling and culture had all originated in South Africa and there was a strong sense of belonging attached to the soil’.

This feeling came to a head in 1939 when many Afrikaners sided with Germany in the hope that, after the Second World War, it would help them establish a viable republic.

Unknown.jpegThey founded the Ossewabrandwag, a pro-Nazi para-military organisation which had an elite wing called the Stormjaers.   The centenary of the Battle of Blood River made pride in the Voortrekker particularly acute.   Afrikaners had redoubled their belief in ‘self-reliance and a willingness to fight for survival’.

Given their historical relationship with the English it is unsurprising that Afrikaners opposed the Allies. Back in 1880 on their iconic date of 16th December, the Afrikaners had declared the Transvaal independent. Because of their annexing, for mineral rites, all the Boer republics except the Orange Free State, the English now were challenged to fight the first Anglo-Boer War, culminating in victory for the Afrikaners.

Paul-Kruger11.jpgTheir leader, Paul Kruger, ‘compared Afrikaners to the Israelites of the Old Testament – a people of God, fighting both black and white enemies to achieve their Promised Land’. But soon gold was discovered near Johannesburg and in 1899 the Second Anglo-Boer War began.   This time, through the deployment of a scorched earth policy as well as the use of concentration camps (in which 26,000 died) the British won.

Norman’s book shows Afrikaners to be a racist, cultish, tribal people, but in this fascinating tapestry, wefted by history and warped by anecdote, she also finds compassion for their plight.

Unknown.jpegIn the epilogue she writes movingly of the unfinished structure in Blood River, a bridge designed to connect Afrikaner and Zulu heritage sites to make one united cosmopolis. Bridge building equals assimilation and assimilation is anathema to Afrikaners.

Works cited

Norman, K. Bridge over Blood River: the rise and fall of the Afrikaners. 2016. London: C. Hurst & Co. Print.

 

A version of this review was first published in the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner in the Weekend section on 17th June 2017.