Grace Jones – the embodiment of Queerness

My adoration of Grace Jones started when I travelled to San Francisco for the first time. I was doing my Master’s in Minnesota when I visited San Francisco during San Francisco Pride. It was real a pilgrimage. I was wide eyed and intrigued. I had heard and read so much about the city by the bay and I was intrigued and mystified and absolutely thirsty for this gay mecca that everybody seemed to rave about. My imagination was obviously too limited to really imagine San Francisco, it was gayer, more beautiful, and so forbearing, than I could have possibly imagined. I had died and gone gay heaven.

When I was in San Francisco I met Kevin, who would become my guide to the city, my reason to go back to the city, and a very dear friend. When we met, one of the first things he said to me was how I reminded him of Grace Jones. He was the first of many people who shared this sentiment during San Francisco Pride that year. To put things in perspective, the Grace Jones references were fuelled by the hairstyle I had at the time. I had a flat top hair cut with red cornrows on the side, about three on each side of my head. This created a striking, almost square shaped face that was feminine yet still masculine. It created this androgynous look. I was born in the mid 80’s, so I was born when Miss Jones was at the pick of her modelling-acting-singing-performance artist career. And when I came of age she had decided to stop recording because of her dissatisfaction with music industry. So of course I would only make the connections, and realise the enormity of the compliment from Kevin much later when I started to learn more about Grace Jones and started to appreciate her art, her life philosophy, and just about everything about her. I was in my early twenties when I started listening to her records, and this was decades after her last recorded album.

Since then, I have followed Miss Jones and she has been more than just inspirational. She has been my guide to living a life according to my own rules, and not bowing down to the societal pressure to be normal and therefore average. Grace Jones’ memoir, I’ll never write my memoirs, is probably the best memoir I have ever read. Granted, I don’t read many memoirs; it’s not a genre I am particularly fond of. But Miss Jones’ memoir is not just any memoir; it’s a chronicle of a life lived without boundaries, dangerously on edge, and completely at odds with the mundane, the slow moving, and the expected. One of the stories that captured me is within the first 100 pages of the book is when Miss Jones describes her first orgasm. She writes:

 “Shaving my head led directly to my first orgasm. This is because I am fairly sure the man I had my first orgasm with was Andre, my hairdresser from Cinandre… These days they say DJ’s are god. Back then it was hairdressers who were God… He definitely knew what to do with me. My hair could be adjusted, changed, edited, in much the same way that later my whole body would be treated. He was the first one to style my hair short… I suppose it’s not surprising that my first orgasm was with Andre. His fingers on my scalp working their magic helped… I’d never had sex like that before. It was sex from another era, another solar system. It still started with the mouth but it ended up beyond the body. It made me feel like I was falling backward in time. He was very open-minded and creative, and that seemed to spill over into the sex. He bent me out of shape.”

To say that Grace Jones is sex positive would be an understatement. She celebrates her sexuality; she celebrates her body and takes her sexual pleasure seriously. The description of her first orgasm is poetic, all consuming, and infused with process of beautifying – her hair being cut. Her life is so art infused that even her first orgasm is artful. In the memoir she transports you to that moment, and for a minute I was searching my memory for my first euphoric sexual moment, and it failed to compare to the one Grace Jones had.

There is a refreshing honesty in the memoir. She doesn’t seem to hold back; even her mistakes and misfortunes are laid bare for the world to see. I suppose that’s the power of living your life with integrity, and being honest to yourself about who you are and what makes you who you are. She writes about her sexual encounters, the relationships, the breakup; the reasons for breakups, and of course the drugs. The laissez faire attitude towards narcotics is enlightening. Often when celebrities open up about their use of drugs it is filled with regret, and is linked to moral failure and repentance. Grace Jones’ approach to drugs seems to be ‘use but do not abuse.’ The legendary parties she used to throw had Grace Jones dubbed “the Errol Flynn of the 80’s” and these parties have now taken a mythical narrative. She says “at my parties, I would let people do what they want as long as the didn’t die. That was the number one rule. People could have all the fun they want, but no one should die. No overdoses, no drinking in the bathtub. No accidents. Don’t spoil the party. If you wanted to kill yourself you had to leave the house and walk across the highway.” The directive is very clear, and this is probably why to this day we have never heard of a drug overdose from any of her parties.

When miss Jones started out as a model, she struggled to establish her self in New York. Her “look” was rather too much for the American sensibility. She was dark skinned, boyish skinny, androgynous, and in no way representing classic or ordinary ready-for-vogue-beauty. So following in the footsteps of Josephine Baker, Nina Simone, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and many other African Americans, Grace Jones moved to Paris for a better chance at a modelling career. Indeed her modelling career took off in Paris with artistic magazine covers and photo spreads. It would seem the French and Europeans at large were much more excited about her “look” than the Americans. Although she didn’t speak French when she arrived, she had Latin roots through Spanish and she learned “French in three months flat.” Her attachment to Paris would last throughout her life. The Paris years were dreamy, although she was hustling, they are so mystical and glamorous and read like a movie script. It is also during this time that Grace Jones meets her lifelong friends Jerry Hall and Jessica Lange. I particularly loved reading about her life in Paris because I love Paris and all things French. It is a love that has been fuelled mostly by novels by African Americans who have moved there post World War Two. Grace Jones makes me want to live in Paris.

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 My obsession with Grace Jones has to do with my love for art and artistic individuals, because I see artists as almost supernatural beings. I am not an artist; at least I don’t see myself as one. Although one of friends once said that the way I put myself together could be considered art. The way she describes the creative process of how she came up with some of her songs with her collaborators is a marvel. There is something intriguing about learning about the genesis of songs like La Vie En Rose, My Jamaican Guy, and Slave to The Rhythm. There is no doubt about the commitment Grace Jones has to her art. She is heavily involved in all of her productions; she wants to have creative input if not full control of her art. She rejects being just a muse. She attracts artist who are interested in creating something new, something different, and something that has not been done before. She celebrates what makes her different, she lets others mine what makes her different and create something artistic out of it. She knows that she is not a conventional beauty, which is why she had to go to Paris to pursue modelling, but instead of hating her difference, she uses her unconventionality for artistic expression.

 Her unconventional beauty is matched by her unconventional approach to being a star or a celebrity. She goes as far as to say “I am not a Diva. I am a Jones.” She rejects fame for fame’s sake. She rejects being part of the pack, or a being grouped with other female entertainers. When she was coming up, and starting to make records, producers wanted her to sing like the superstars of the day, people like Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross and she rejected these proposals. The aim is not to be like someone else, the aim is to be artistically interesting, to create something original that has the potential to outlive the artist. The most quoted sections of the book by reviewers are the sections towards the end of the book where she talks about young stars, and what is lacking in female entertainers today. It’s very provocative how she names entertainers who she thinks have copied her. But all of this is done to demonstrate just how different she is, and how far ahead of her time she was. Her artistic philosophy is summed up when she writes:

“I come from the underground. I am never comfortable in the middle of the stream, flowing in the same direction as everyone else. I think people assume that’s where I want to be, famous for being famous, because as part of what I do there is a high level of showing off, but my instinct is always to resist the pull of the obvious. It’s not easy, especially when you have had any sort of success, because the people want you to repeat what it was that made you a success, even if your instinct is to move on, or to want to change, or have other ideas.”

Her disdain of being compared to or told to sing like other female entertainers by record companies is but one example of her living feminism. When you are Grace Jones and you have lived your whole life according to your own rules and have singlehandedly defied and redefined beauty standards of the modelling industry and used your body for sexual pleasure and to create art that challenges norms, you don’t need to go around saying you are a feminist. When you are Grace Jones your whole being and everything you touch is feminism and challenges patriarchy. The feminist thread is weaved throughout the book. The book is a feminist force of how to live a life that undermines patriarchy. When she signed a lucrative recording deal with a Capitol Records, they tried to interfere with her creative vision and she lashed out. She writes: “I was female, and they decided that I was rock and roll insane. Had I been a man, they would have considered I was retaining control, or professionally fretting about the details… You can tell why there are so few female film directors. It’s the same with any job that society has decided can only be done by a man: They find ways to undermine and undervalue a woman doing that job. And the fact that you end up saying ‘they’ makes you sound paranoid… What are the chances of a female president being elected? The men-only corporate reaction is: what about the tampons? Will she bleed everywhere? What if she gets pregnant? What if she is going through menopause? … It’s the same old caveman shit, a power thing. It’s why I want to fuck every man in the ass at least once. Every guy needs to be penetrated at least once. Do it yourself if you want. But that’s the vision – a woman lies there and the man goes in, takes control, whoosh. It’s all about power. The woman is always in the vulnerable position, and the man takes control. Come on. Everybody can be penetrated – mentally too. Slowly, slowly, it changes. Too slowly.” Grace Jones raged against the male corporate machine that wanted to exclude her from the creative process of her own music, and market her like any other female artist. This is what sets Miss Jones apart from her contemporaries and younger artists; she refused to be neatly packaged for commercial success.

Just like Grace Jones doesn’t go around talking about how she is a feminist, because it is painfully obvious, she doesn’t go around chest thumping that she is a gay icon. Grace Jones’ status as a gay icon is like everything else about her, underground. Her first encounter with a gay man is her brother, Chris, who she was very close to growing up. Grace Jones used to go with Chris to gay bars, so she was exposed to gay people and gay culture early in her life. Although Grace Jones has collaborated with gay artists, is close like twins with her gay brother, she was close friends with renowned gay artists like Andy Warhol, she performed in underground gay bars in New York in the late 70’s and early 80’s, she has never branded herself a gay icon. Her memoir is filled with stories about gay men she worked with and some she had crushes on when she didn’t know they were gay. And all of this is treated as but one of the many threads in Grace Jones’ life. And this for me makes her more of a gay icon than the chest thumping icons.

There’s a point where Grace Jones reflects on her friends who died too young in the 1980’s and early 1990’s due to HIV/Aids. It’s a sobering read because she had so many gay men in her life, so she experienced many deaths and the paranoia that followed. It was Tina Chow’s death that really shocked Jones. “Tina’s death made it seem closer than ever. You couldn’t help but think of the people you had slept with or, even more so, of the people who had slept with the people you had slept with. It had been easy to sleep around. In the places I was, everyone was so sexual. In Paris, it was food and sex. Wine, food, and sex. You can’t leave out the wine. Sex was a vital point of individual freedom. It was meant to lead to more life, not death.”

There is no disputing the queerness of Grace Jones. If queer is understood in the David Halperin sense where queerness is about the transformational power of the queer identity. Halperin speaks of a transformative potential of queer culture that Foucault also emphasised. According to Halperin queer is an identity without an essence, not a given condition but a horizon of possibility, an opportunity for self-transformation, a queer potential. This queer conception of identity aims to demolish boundaries; it sets no limits to the ways in which queers can potentially organize their lives. Halperin might as well have described Grace Jones. Grace Jones embodies the essence of queerness. She disrupts the norm; she challenges conventions of beauty, of womanhood, and sobriety. She is someone I look up to for inspiration for a life lived according to one’s own rules. It takes courage to reject the mainstream and to create one’s own path. It requires courage of conviction and a knowing of the self to live your truth without apologies. What a life Miss Jones.

Lwando Scott

Reflections: The Quiet Violence of Dreams

“Growing up is a treacherous activity. You never see it coming.” – Mmabatho

For my birthday last year, a good friend of mine gave me K Sello Duiker’s The Quiet Violence of Dreams. I had never read the book and my friend insisted that I read it, so he bought it for me. I often like to relate how books come to me because the journey of the book into my tiny library is often telling about the book itself. So there is a story about the book before I even get to the story in the book. Just before I started reading this book, I saw it was listed on “100 African reads” and so I was excited to start reading it.

The tittle is captivating, The Quiet Violence of Dreams, and it absolutely captures the essence of K Sello Duiker’s work. Mental health is one of the least talked about issue in black South African communities, and this book places it centre stage. Growing up people with mental illness were often referred to as people who were bewitched, and often they received no real treatment. Even today people with metal illness roam the streets of South African townships without any real medical assistance. This book shows up how people without mental illness are so ill equipped to deal with people who have mental illness.

We often think we know the line between good and bad, normal and abnormal, crazy and sane, but reality is a bit more complex than these binaries. When Tshepo, the protagonist, is admitted to a mental institution in Cape Town he makes this observation, which I thought was very telling:

“In here everyone knows that there are more crazy people out there, and that most of them are politicians, lawyers, judges, accountants & bankers. It seems only a matter of chance that we are in here and they are out there.”

Tshepo is spot on here about the unpredictability of life and how only so much is up to us and the rest we are left at the whims of the universe (whatever form the universe is represented in your life). The unpredictability of life and options being left to chance is revealed later in the book when we learn about the traumatic incident that Tshepo went through when he was a child living at home and the subsequent troubled relationship he has with his father.

I never knew Duiker personally, but reading this book I am inclined to believe that he was a feminist or believed in feminist philosophy. Through the character of Mmabatho we see the sometimes heart wrenching difficulty women have navigating relationships with men in a patriarchal society like ours. I treasured the moments Mmabatho had in dialogue with herself about her tumultuous relationships with men; it’s captured when she says:

“I’ve been carrying residual depression from failed relationships for too long… I’ve been kidding myself that I could tame love, that I could meet a man on my terms when it suits me. I’ve been reading too many magazines, listening to too much pop psychology and experts who only seem to have succeeded in leading me further into confusion…. And the sad thing is he will never know. He will never know the amount of preparation it takes to be a woman, the degree of caution. He will never know how I struggle with myself, with other women. To him I will be just another woman bawling her eyes out because women do that… A woman has to go far to look for herself.”

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Cape Town and its racial, spatial, class, gender, and sexuality complexities are a prominent feature in the novel, and brilliantly so. Tshepo even has a theory of Cape Town and it’s damning. His theory of Cape Town would support some of the recent accusations that Cape Town is racist and does not work for people who live in the Cape Flats and Gugulethu. The articles were published here, here, and here. When Tshepo, who is black, gets to know Chris, who is coloured, you see the residue of apartheid in the way they interact with each other. You see the boxes that South Africans put each other in, and how we don’t know much about each other, and seemingly don’t care to. Chris’s reading of Tshepo is comical and enlightening when he describes him:

“He’s a little spoiled, one of those darkies who went to larney schools and learned to talk to them (whites). He also dresses like them (whites). Doesn’t wear All Star tackies like the others (blacks), never eats white bread – you know how they (whites) are about health – and sometimes listens to 5fm.”

Although the forces of darkness eventually swallow the relationship between Chris and Tshepo, when Chris does the unthinkable to Tshepo, it is this relationship that we first experience the homosexual tendencies of Tsepo. Tshepo falls in love with Chris but never really lets Chris know. Reading the two pages dedicated exclusively to the way Tshepo feels about Chris, it stirred emotions in me, of when I used to fall for my straight friends growing up and not knowing what’s going on and how to channel those feelings. The realisation that you are in love is at once exhilarating and bewildering. Tshepo describes his crush on Chris:

“There is determination about his eyes, like someone madly chasing the sun even though it only wants to set peacefully. There is a do-or-die resolve about him. It is devastating to look at him. I just want to run towards him and be swallowed whole by his sensual presence. I want to disappear forever in his eyes.”

I am always in favour of stories depicting black men falling in love with other black men. It’s a narrative that is lacking in South African literature and it’s always such a pleasure to read such stories. Many have lamented that black men loving other black men is a revolutionary act, and I am inclined to agree.

One of the striking characteristics about Tshepo is how he lies to everyone. Almost everything in his life is concealed from the people who are his friends and acquaintances. I suppose he feels he can’t trust anyone with the truth, his truth, and so he is compelled to lie even about small things that do not really necessitate lying. This made me think of the culture of lying in this country and how pervasive it is, from the highest people in government to lay people on the streets. Even when telling the truth will not cause damage or embarrassment, people choose to lie.

Tshepo’s journey leads him to work as a sex worker at a male “massage parlour” in the gay district. Ironically (or maybe not ironic at all) it is during his stint as a sex worker that Tshepo discovers himself. This is where he explores his own sexuality, and how to be somewhat comfortable with that sexuality in the world. Through working at the underground escort agency he learns much about people and their different journeys through interacting with them as co-workers and as clients. One such interaction is with Afrikaans speaking West, a fellow escort employee who becomes a close friend, and says he became a sex worker because he “wasn’t prepared to be a casualty of mediocre.” And he describes mediocre as marrying, having children and then getting a divorce. Another arresting interaction is with a client called Peter, who says to Tsepo:

“The truth is I have become lazy, complacent. It’s an English South African thing… Back in the old days I learned that hating Afrikaans was a convenient way of suggesting you are condemning the government without having to do anything about it. It was cop-out because while the Boers took the blame we, generally, took advantage.”

K Sello Duiker really captures the intersection of race, class, sexuality that permeate South African’s experiences in this marvellous novel. He captures the hardness of South African society and the violent nature of restricting people’s identities and choices. He particularly captures the hardships that even “larney” middle class black people experience navigating the die-hard beliefs and stereotypes about blacks from apartheid years.

Towards the end of the book, the protagonist Tshepo says, “perhaps I sense that I will die young…. Death is begging at my heels in my dreams.” This is poignant only because K Sello Duiker committed suicide in 2005, and reading this book I was struck by the “life imitating art” sense of that passage. In that sense I can’t but agree with Siphiwo Mahala who described K Sello Duiker saying “Duiker is to literature what Steve Biko was to politics, both having died at the tender age of thirty but leaving indelible footprints in our collective memory.” And I would add, although under different circumstances, both of them somewhat professed their deaths.

What I take from this novel and what this novel represents for me is captured in the interaction between Tshepo and West after making love for the first time and going for a swim after. West says to Tshepo as they lie in the dark in different beds in the same room somewhere in Stellenbosch “you must go where love leads you, even when you are going towards trouble.” Imagine a South Africa where we all did that.

Lwando Scott

Reflections: Memoirs of a Born Free

                                               Malaika

Author: Malaika Wa Azania

Written by: Lwando Scott 

When I saw this book, I knew I had to read it. I have a thing for clever book tittles and I love smart book covers. There’s even a book covers archive that I visit more often than I should. Memoirs of a Born Free touches on subjects that almost every black South African will have experienced. Reading this book I could see myself and I could remember the experiences I’ve had navigating South African society. I could see the lives of thousands other young black people who have travelled a similar road as Maliaka Wa Azania.

Firstly I love how Setswana is peppered throughout the book. The use of the African language in this book is reminiscent of the way we speak; it is the way black people converse in everyday life. The code switching between English and multiple vernacular languages that is present in my everyday conversation with other black people is very much present in this book. Malaika Wa Azania succeeds in translating everyday reality, the everydayness of her life into paper and it is such a pleasure to read. She also tries to convert certain vernacular phrases like “njengamathe no lwimi” into English “inseparable as a tongue and saliva” and obviously it doesn’t sound as punchy in English as it does in the vernacular, but the message is sent.

Malaika Wa Azania’s battles with navigating white spaces and white culture is a recurring theme in the book. She addresses her dealings with white supremacists culture when she talks about how when she attended Melpark Primary School, which is a former Model-C school with predominantly white students and white teachers, and felt like part of her was left in the township of Meadowlands Zone 8. That part of her was not welcomed in this white establishment.

What connects me to this book is also what frustrates. On the one hand I am glad that I have someone who understands what it means to be young and black in South Africa, but it also means that there’s something horribly wrong with social structure of South Africa that young black people are experiencing similar racial and class problems. Black people navigating predominantly white spaces are constantly complaining about the need to assimilate in order to be taken seriously, or seen as part of institutions in South Africa. The irony of-course is that assimilation often results in just as much alienation and humiliation as non-assimilation.

Reading this section of the book reminded me of three studies that have been conducted at the University of Cape Town about black students struggling to navigate the former whites only university. These are the studies:

  1. Like that statue at Jammie stairs”: Some student perceptions and experiences of institutional culture at the university of Cape Town. By Melissa Steyn and Mikki van Zyle (1999).
  2. Not naming Race: some medical students’ perceptions and experiences of ‘race’ and racism at the Health Sciences faculty of the University of Cape Town. By Zimitri Erasmus and Jacques de Wet (2003).
  3. Coming to UCT: Black students, transformation and the politics of race.” HUMA Seminar presented by Dr. Shose Kessi (2014).

All of these studies point to the alienating and humiliating nature of former whites only institutions that are refusing to transform and culturally embrace the post 1994 student body. What Malaika Wa Azania’s experiences growing up as a “Born Free” is indicative of the experiences that black students on different schools and campuses around the country.

The alienation depicted in this book is worsened by the humiliation of poverty. Although Malaika Wa Azania writes about “drawing strength from poverty”, it is painful to be reminded about one’s poverty on a daily basis at predominantly white schools by whites and sometimes black kids from middle class homes.

While reading the book I had a laugh out loud moment when Maliaka was insensitive to a school teacher who was crying in front of her class over her dog that had recently died by laughing at the woman’s tears. Malaika couldn’t understand why someone would cry over the death of a dog, so different the worlds that Malaika and her teachers and fellow students lived in. The relationships white people have with their pets was humorous to a township kid who grew up with stray dogs. In the township even yard dogs never reduced their owners to tears when they died.

I personally identified with the struggle for education in Malaika Wa Azania’s memoir. She passionately discusses the impossible task of trying to get a decent education in this country if you are poor or from a working class background. The odds are against you in every possible way, and reading this book, I couldn’t help but think of my own quest for education which has not been easy, particularly when I was finishing matric and about to starting university. Just like Malaika Wa Azania, my mother lost her Pick n’ Pay job in my matric year, and the future was so uncertain at that time. I was anxious about a future that could possibly never be because all my hope was in getting a decent education in order to escape poverty. And in this country, a decent education requires a decent income.

Not having money to register at her first choice high school, Malaika ends up going to another school, and she was grateful that the school had proper facilities unlike the townships schools. The poor education and poor infrastructure that is common in townships schools inhibits the success of black pupils. In the past 20 years township schools have only deteriorated and some have shut down. Where I grew up in Kwazakhele, Port Elizabeth, about three schools close to my house have closed. The ones in operation, including the one I went to as a kid, are falling apart with toilets not properly working and sometimes with no running water.

Malaika’s mom valued education and she does whatever is necessary to ensure that her kids go to school, to the point where she worked herself into a psychiatric hospital. Whoever said hard work doesn’t kill, has never met black South African single mothers. It would seem that Malaika’s mother, just like my mother, took Nelson Mandela’s words to heart that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” These words have propelled me to aggressively pursue my education even in the hardest of times.

The one aspect in the book that left me feeling a little ambivalent was when Malaika Wa Azania was talking about being taught about apartheid by her family. I imagine that white young people are also getting a version of apartheid from their parents, and I am interested in how the white telling of apartheid would be similar or different from the black telling of apartheid. Although I think that apartheid history is important to teach and to be talked about, I am concerned about one-sided stories about the past from families. I wonder what this “family education” does because we need to be mindful of transforming South African society, and not create another generation of people who think along apartheid lines.

Malaika Wa Azania says that “merely by being born black in this country you had problems.” Malaika speaks to the ways in which our society is structured; that your blackness ensures that you are positioned at a disadvantage is South African society. Transforming this country is harder than people anticipated it would be in 1994. Memoirs of a Born Free is a book I want all my friends, my cousins, and my professors to read. This book is a reflection of our country told by a young black woman who is trying to find her place in the world and South Africans have so much to learn from it. Malaika Wa Azania chronicles the everyday struggles of young black people in the “new” South Africa. Malaika is the embodiment of Nina Simone’s “to be young, gifted, and black” and I am super excited that I live in a South Africa where young people like Malaika are taking their place.

Reflections: This Book Betrays My Brother

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Author: Kagiso Lesego Molope

I love the tittle of this book. And after reading the book you realise even more how smart titled this book is. This book was published in 2012 but I only read it this year after my friend Siphokazi posted a quote from the book on Facebook. I was intrigued by the quote and decided to buy the book. The quote:

 “First of all, any album worth listening to is released in December, and the songs often mention the time of the year. In northern countries songs are about summertime, but here you will hear “December.” One of the most popular songs the year before I left home for varsity starts with: ‘Hello! Hello, December!’”

When I read this I knew immediately what the author was talking about. I knew I had to get this book because it already referenced a part of my life with fond memories of dancing to TKZee. I was a senior in primary school, getting ready for high school, when Halloween by TKZee came out. It was the biggest Kwaito album of all time, and it remains a staple for dance floors across South African townships. I used to spend December holidays with my cousins in Motherwell, Port Elizabeth and the December Halloween came out was one of the best Decembers of my life.

So it is through Siphokazi that I come to this book. After reading This Book Betrays My Brother I remember thinking what a South African story. This is a story about how gender operates in South African communities. It is evident in the way Kagiso Lesego Molope lays out the story how she has been paying attention to the ubiquitous-ness, the taken for granted, and ultimately the destructive nature of a misogynistic culture like the one we have in South Africa. The detailing of the seemingly innocent ways boys are praised and girls are cautioned is revealing.

This is a story a sister tells about her brother who she idolises but then she is witness to a darker side of him. What Kagiso Lesego Molope accomplishes in this beautiful yet heart-wrenching novel is the detailing of the familial and societal structures that create her brother – Basimane – the man and the things he is capable of. The book opens with the details of Basimane’s birth that was so monumental it crossed country borders. His birth was like the coming of Jesus and then he was treated like a king throughout his life and Naledi his sister, who is the narrator, is basically invisible in his shadow.

The politics of social mobility in this book speak to the ambivalent place that some black South Africans find themselves. Naledi and Basimane and their family move out of the poor section of the location into the more middle class section but Basimane more than anyone else in the family retains strong affiliation with the “real” township to the dismay of his mother. The fissures that class creates amongst black South Africans are not adequately dealt with in everyday conversation and it is also absent in fiction. When black families move out of the township there are all kinds changes that need to be negotiated from new neighbours to the new relationship one has with the township one comes from and the people in it.

A very strong thread in this book is that the people we know and love are capable of some horrible things. It is really difficult to call to order family members for their wrongdoing. How does one call out a family member for doing something wrong to someone else who is not a family member without being seen as betraying the family? How does one hold an esteemed family member accountable when they have inflicted pain on someone who is not family, and you know the family member is wrong? These are questions I grappled with growing up when I would witness my uncles cheating on their girlfriends. It would be taken for granted that I would be loyal to my uncle and say nothing. I was both being socialised into the world of men and also learning about family loyalty; that you protect family even when they are in the wrong.

As an only child the brother and sister relationship between Basimane and Naledi and the loyalties that are expected of this relationship fascinated me. As Naledi grows older and she starts to experience the world as a young woman, she starts to see her brother in a different light and that dark incident one afternoon changes her view of her brother. This book makes you question how well you think you know your siblings and what they are capable of.

In the end it is Naledi who carries the guilt of what her brother does. The brother moves on while his family and his community protect him. He is unscathed by his own bad actions. In fact Basimane is defended by his family and by his community without really engaging the fact that he might be guilty of wrongdoing.

The author calls to attention the ways in which families and society nurture boys. This book calls into question the expectations we have of young men like Basimane. This book unveils the built in nature of the unequal gender system in operation in our communities; a system where women are already disadvantaged by the mere fact of being born women. This built in system of protecting male privilege at the expense of women is captured in laugh-it-off phrases like “boys will be boys” which endorse destructive behaviour. This is a South African story that exposes our troubled gender relations. This is a story that left me feeling like we have a lot of work to do in undoing gender. We have come a long away particularly with legislating gender equality, but we are far away from making constitutional gender equality a reality in women’s everyday lives.

Reflections: In Search of Happiness

In-Search-of-Happiness-Cover

Author: Sonswabiso Ngcowa

Written by Lwando Scott 

“This novel is dedicated to all young people who feel and know that they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex. Your love is as beautiful as love can be. One day all people will understand and respect love, however it comes.This time will come. Sometimes it is here.”

In Search of Happiness gripped me from the dedication page. The dedication is an affirming beginning and sets out the tone for the book. A book about self-discovery, family, loss, and ultimately love. Sonwabiso Ngcowa’s In Search of Happiness succeeds because of its accessibility, the book that can be read by teenagers and adults. It succeeds because it is a story about a black young woman, Nanase, and her journey from the Eastern Cape to the Western Cape. It succeeds because it is about discovering that you can find love in places you never thought it could be. This book succeeds because it centres the life of a young black woman who falls in love with another young black woman. This book succeeds because it centralises a love story that is often not seen as a love story in this country.

While many may still consider LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex) lives a taboo subject, Sonwabiso dares to go there. LGBTI South Africans are often depicted as people without friends, without brothers and sisters, without parents. They are rarely seen as parents themselves. Sonwabiso’s lead character, Nanase, is a young woman with friends, a grandmother that she loves, she has a mother and father, and she has siblings. Nanase’s story helps society see LGBTI people as part of social circles and coming from families and that homophobia doesn’t just hurt the individual but entire families.

There is something very real about Nanase’s journey of discovering her attraction to another woman when she moves to Masiphumelele, Cape Town. Although there is a sense of ambivalence in Nanase while she is in the Eastern Cape about her sexual identity, it is not until she moves to Masiphumelele and she meets Agnes that she fully comprehends what’s going on inside her. In Agnes she finds someone she can experience and experiment her feelings with that she had bottled up inside her.

Every chapter tittle in the book is in English but is accompanied by a Xhosa translation. I like this infusion of vernacular language in English texts; maybe we are moving into a time where English fiction will be heavily infused with the vernacular. That is after all how many South Africans speak. Sonwabiso captures the way people in the Eastern Cape view Cape Town. In the Eastern Cape, Cape Town is seen and talked about as the place of dreams, a place where people go and realize their dreams hence the popular phrase “iKapa lodumo” which translates to “the Cape of Fame.” Of course, like most people from the Eastern Cape, Nanase soon finds out that iKapa lodumo is not exactly what it is cracked up to be because it comes with it’s own set of challenges.

When Nanase comes out to her parents it is predictably a very tough conversation and is handled poorly by her parents. She comes out of the experience feeling confused and bewildered and it struck me how family and friends – straight people in general – make coming out all about them and ignore the emotional turmoil of the person coming out. Coming out is a very peculiar experience in the township because unlike in Western society, people don’t often talk about sex/sexuality regardless of orientation. So like Nanase, most LGBTI identified young people in townships struggle with a way to package what is going on in their lives in a way that won’t be read as disrespectful and foreign. Sonwabiso handles the coming out conversation in a relatable manner and I think we need more South African literature that deal with the messiness of coming in the South African context. If we can even call it “coming out.”

Sonwabiso gently manages the issue of difference in this book. South Africans pride themselves of being a diverse country, but at the same time South Africans are intolerant of difference. Difference in South Africa must come in neat and familiar ways in order for it to be palatable. As Nanase discovers that she is different and that her neighbour is also different, she has to deal with intolerance of the community and her friends at school. She has to deal with the mean spirit of people who refuse to constructively engage with difference.

This book is an easy read that touches on very complex issues that people living in townships of South Africa are dealing with. Sonwabiso touches on homophobia, xenophobia, sexual assault, and poverty. These are hard issues to deal with, but Sonwabiso manages to mindfully weave these things together showing us that they are connected. Where you find gender violence you are likely to find homophobia and where you find homophobia you are likely to find xenophobia and so it goes.

In Search of Happiness is aptly titled because we all share this quest for a happier and a more fulfilling life. Like the rest of us Nanase is trying to find her way through a world structured to her disadvantage. In Search of Happiness is the type of book I wish someone had given me when I was in high school going through my own self-discovery phase.

To say this book is timely would be an understatement. This is a must read for high school going young people. It is a must read for all South Africans who are interested in what it means to be young in post-apartheid South Africa. This is a must read if you are interested in stories about young black people written by young black people.