Chomi – the black gay experience

                                      chomi

Written by Lwando Scott 

The play Chomi was long overdue. The play focuses on the intricacies of the lives of four middle class openly gay black men who live in Johannesburg. The play was part of the 10th Anniversary Spring Drama Season at Artscape. The program brochure said that the playwright Pfarelo Nemakonde who wrote Chomi wanted to “explore the relationships, friendships and otherwise, experienced by black gay men and the complexities that arise.” Mr Nemakinde achieved this goal. It was exciting to see the lives of black gay men presented on stage in a nuanced and affectionate manner, something that happens very seldom. This play felt fresh, and nicely captured aspects of the black gay experience; it felt both affirming and largely true.

I loved seeing black gay men being represented on stage in mostly non-stereotypical ways. The characters were presented as having intricate lives that were emotionally complex. Yet it did not shying away from exploring the self-destructive tendencies of some of the characters.

Watching the four friends interact with each other on stage reminded me of my relationships with my own gay friends. It reminded me of the special bond I have with my gay friends, cemented by our common experience of homophobia and racism. The friendship between these four gay men reminded me of the “family” we often choose for ourselves as LGBTI people because we don’t always connect with our kin. It’s not going on limb to say that my close gay friends are my family, and they know me better than my kin family does. It was great fun to try and match the characters’ personalities in the play to the personalities of my friends.

Watching this play was like seeing my life and the lives of my friends reflected back at me and that was a powerful and affirming feeling. The representation of black gay lives in our cultural institutions and productions reflect a new maturity of our democracy. When the black gay experience becomes part of the cultural landscape of the country, we know that we are moving in the right direction in dignifying the experiences of LGBTI people.

Part of our marginalisation and oppression as black people and as gay people stem from the fact that we do not always see ourselves represented in mainstream culture (whatever that may mean). The politics of representation continue to “other” us – in gay publications, events, and gay clubs. We can’t underestimate the politics of representation because not representing the black LGBTI experience in the cultural realm reinforces an already strong narrative of LGBTI people being “unAfrican.” Not seeing representations of the black LGBTI experience, young black LGBTI youth are denied opportunities to develop positive images of themselves represented in cultural spaces.

When I say the play provides positive images of gay black lives, I do not mean sanitised and unrealistically idealised images of black gay men. These men have sex and talk about it. They have other types of fun too. They are real people: neither the stereotype of saintly, innocent victims, nor the stereotype of the hysterical, shallow pleasure seeker, has any place in this play.

The one gripe I had with the play is the way gender is performed. The play does not avoid the stereotypical notion that “tops” are masculine guys, and “bottoms” are feminine guys. Although these stereotypes do exist in people’s lives, there are other diverse ways in which gay black men live their sexualities and I wish there was a more nuanced take on gender performance and its link to sexual acts.

With that being said, I really applaud Mr Nemakonde for the way he scripted the sex and the sex scenes in the play. Although gay sex whether in theatre, television, or even in books has come a long way in terms of being visible, it is still a thorny issue. Remember the drama a couple of years ago when the local soap opera Generation had warning signs scrawling down on the television screen when the characters Jason and Senzo were to have their first onscreen kiss.

Scripting gay sex and doing it right can be tricky because of the tightly monitored boundaries of gender performance underpinned by a heteronormative framework of understanding sex and intimacy. This framework is often embodied in questions such as “who is the man and who is the woman”, “who is the bottom and who is the top” and these constructs are often limiting and they seek to imprison our sexualities within heterosexual binaries. One of the characters in Chomi really takes ownership of his sexuality. The character has a monologue where he goes on about his love for sex and loving being penetrated and I think that was a revolutionary moment because even in some gay circles bottoming has a negative stigma attached to it.

What Chomi has shown me is that we really need to be intentional about representing the black LGBTI experience in South Africa. We need to be conscious of and actively support the insertion of black LGBTI experiences in the cultural sphere. And most importantly we need to support these creative efforts. I want this play to come back. I think it needs to be seen and appreciated by many more audiences. Mr Nemakonde has created something beautiful and we should follow his lead and create more black LGBTI affirming productions in more plays and more books, where black LGBTI experiences are the centre.

Only after watching Chomi did I realise just how thirsty I am for black LGBTI storylines in books, on television, in theatre plays, in magazines; stories that appreciate the complexity of black LGBTI life in South Africa. Chomi really quenched that thirst and I want to thank Pfarelo Nemakonde for his work. I hope to see more productions like this not only from Mr Nemakonde but others as well. I for one am very inspired by Chomi!

Miss Uganda, Miss Gay Ekasi – constructions of African beauty

                  Miss Gay

Written by Lwando Scott 

I was recently asked to be a judge at the Mr and Miss Gay Ekasi pageant organised by the Desmond Tutu Aids Foundation. You can imagine my excitement when I was asked to be a judge at the pageant. The competition took place at the Delft Community Hall in Delft. After giving the crowd a Queen Elizabeth wave as I was introduced as one of the judges, I took my seat and waited for the contestants to come on stage in their casual wear. When I arrived at the competition I was under the impression that Mr Gay would be women in drag, as in dressed up as men to compete for Mr Gay and the Miss Gay would be men in drag. To my surprise both the Mr and Miss contestants were men. I suppose the Mr “Gay” and Miss “Gay” tittle should have been the first clue, but that will teach me to assume the gendering of gay pageants. Although after the pageant I couldn’t help but think about whether there are any Mr and Miss Lesbian pageants? I don’t ever remember attending one, or hearing that it’s taking place, which brings up a number of questions about gender in LGBTI pageants.

As soon as the competition began I realised that this was going to be a tough job, but I was ready and willing with my scoring sheets. The contestants strutted on stage trying to impress us in the second round with “wild life” themed outfits. The contestants came out in swimsuits and other “wild life” interpretations including what looked like goatskin. This round was followed by eveningwear, which was the last round the contestants could use to impress the judges. Throughout the competition the crowd was really not shy about whom they thought should win, and became more aggressive about it by getting closer to the stage towards the end of the completion.

After much debate and deliberation we, the judges, chose the top five Miss Gay and top three Mr Gay and after questions and answers we came to a conclusion of who should win.

The Mr and Miss Gay Ekasi pageant is community centred. It is an annual celebration of young LGBTI people who are living their lives, the best way they know how, under extremely harsh social conditions. In the participants I saw young people who are brave, who challenge their communities gender expectations and defining for themselves what it means to live free. In the participants I saw a determined spirit that I hope burns on in other areas of their lives. I was inspired to be in the company of black LGBTI people who are marvelling in each other’s presence. The energy in that Community Hall can’t be described it had to be felt.

I am not new in the world of beauty pageants. My fascination with beauty pageants began in the mid 1990’s when I still a primary school going little boy. I used to watch Miss South Africa every year and then watch Miss Universe and then conclude the holy trinity of pageants with Miss World. I used to have a note pad and a pen and I would closely watch the scores and write them down so I could predict the winner. I became very good at predicting the winners because after watching religiously I picked up on the patterns of the competitions. I think maybe these were the first signs of my interest in social science.

As I grew older and began to have a more nuanced understanding of the world, I began to see beauty pageants in a different light. Pageants are not divorced from the racialized ideas of beauty. The politics of apartheid ensured that black women were excluded from entering the national beauty pageant but after apartheid fell Jackie Mofokeng was crowned the first black Miss South Africa in 1993. The following year Basetsana Khumalo (Makgalemele back then) was named Miss Africa 1994.

It is important to note that the black women who win Miss South Africa in the post-apartheid era are women who closely resemble white ideals of beauty. These ideals include slender figures, relaxed hair or hair extensions, etc. By saying this I am not condemning black women who choose to straighten their hair and wear weaves, but what I am saying is that beauty pageants seem to ONLY accept this style of black women to enter and win. This was largely replicated in the Mr and Miss Gay Ekasi pageant, although the woman who won Miss Gay Ekasi had a shaved head, which was refreshing for the judges.

The racialized politics of beauty continue as we have seen with the crowning of Leah Kalanguka as Miss Uganda 2014/15 and the amount of abuse she has received because she is seen as “ugly.” On social media platforms Ugandans and other people have called Leah Kalanguka all kinds of derogatory names and have said that she does not deserve the crown because she is not beautiful. People often talk about beauty as if it is something that is “natural” but society is actively involved in the process of constructing beauty. The ways in which beauty is constructed in society, including African communities, does not take place outside of the notions of white supremacy. I would argue actually that current constructions of beauty are based on white supremacist foundations.

We live in a world where black people are obsessed with “yellow bone” beauty. I have written about the white supremacist foundations of the term “yellow bone” and I think calling Leah Kalanguka “ugly” is a manifestation of “yellow bone” narratives. I don’t think Miss Uganda 2014/15 is “ugly” she has dark skin and it is her dark skin that people are equating with ugliness. In a world of “yellow bone” beauty, where beauty is measured by proximity to whiteness, of course people will find her “ugly.” The statements made by people on social media platforms about Leah Kalanguka do not shock me. This is not a surprising at all. Actually, sadly, it’s quite expected.

This story about Miss Uganda speaks to the desperate need for black people to deprogram themselves of white supremacist notions of beauty. Although there are many platforms like magazines, books, websites, twitter accounts, Facebook pages that celebrate African beauty, the venomous colonial narratives of beauty persist. We live in postcolonial times on this continent, and post-apartheid in South Africa, and the possibilities of constructing African beauty according to our own ideals is infinite. As people who are working towards the realisation of an African Renaissance it would do us good to shed the limited conceptions of beauty, of love, of sexuality, of the good life, of success, of gender, of Africa-ness, left behind by colonialists.

Achille Mbembe articulates quite successfully the essence of what we should be striving for when he states “we need to reopen Africa to the circulation of ideas and mobility, against models of post colonial, internalised boundaries.” We need to break the narrow confines with which we work with to define African beauty and identities.

iGay, iLesbian, iBisexual – Xhosalisation of English

A few months ago I received an e-mail asking my advice about IsiXhosa equivalents of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender. IsiXhosa equivalents of these words do not exist, and I am not talking about derogatory terms. Growing up I had no language to talk about sexual identity; even the concept of having a “sexual identity” was a revelation in my late teens. Although visibly gay while growing up, there was no concrete articulation of my gayness as a sexual identity. I have often struggled with articulating sexual identity terms like gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) in my mother tongue.

I have had an on-going conversation with my close friends about the issue of not having a “language” to talk about LGBTI issues. The language we use to talk about LGBTI issues and the terms we use to classify sexual identity are English language words. When people use the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) in the vernacular people just add an “i” or “u” in front of the English word. So gay is then iGay (a gay) or uGay (he is gay), or iLesbian (a lesbian) or uyiLesbian (she is a lesbian). The same is done with all the other letters in L-G-B-T-I.

Now, although there are no specific terms, all of the terms in the L-G-B-T-I acronym can be described in the vernacular. Which is something people do when they talk about LGBTI people – they describe what gay people “do”. So if I am to answer the question – what is a gay man – in the vernacular, I would describe a gay man in the vernacular as “umntu oyindoda othandana namanye amadoda” which translates to “someone who likes or falls in love with other men” which means gay. There are multiple ways in the vernacular in which people say “gay” by describing what the term means – or what the person who is gay “does”. This is more or less the same process or application to the other letters in the L-G-B-T-I acronym.

Homophobes People have often raised the issue that because there are no equivalent specific terms in indigenous languages for L-G-B-T-I terms, homosexuality must be a Western import. This is a complicated point and needs to be addressed carefully. While it is true that the terms gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transgender are all from the English language, what these terms name and describe is a phenomena that takes place in many cultures around the world. So although there are no equivalent words in the vernacular for gay, lesbian, or transgender, that doesn’t mean that, there are no gay, lesbian, or transgender individuals amongst Xhosa people. So saying that because we don’t have a specific word for “transgender” in the vernacular therefore transgender people do not exist is lazy logic that won’t move us forward in making sense of the world.

Equally important is keeping in mind that the words gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual are also “new” words in the English language. The word “gay” and the word “lesbian” only become a reference for homosexuality in the late 19th century and increasingly in the 20th century. These words are less than 200 years old. The word “transgender” is even more “new” as a word because it comes to life in late 20th century and increasingly becoming part of our daily vocabulary.

New words are introduced into a language as new human phenomenon is discovered. New words are introduced as cultures find ways to explain people’s behaviours. Life is constantly evolving. The problem with IsiXhosa and other indigenous languages is that there are not enough people who are writing and producing knowledge in the vernacular, which is one of the ways new words are coined. The irony is not lost on me that I am writing this piece in English discussing IsiXhosa language issues. It pains me to admit that as awesome as my Xhosa is –I can read, write, and speak- it’s not as good as my English. It takes me twice as much time (if not more) to write a Xhosa piece than it does an English piece. Glancing over at my bookshelf I can’t spot a single Xhosa book. I used to read more Xhosa books when I was younger, but that changed as I grew older and went to mixed school and was required to read English books.

The language issue is a national issue, or at least it should be treated as such. IsiXhosa like all other indigenous languages of South Africa are not evolving by additional words being added in the language. Instead we see what my friends and I call the Xhosalisation of English words (which is a phenomenon that needs dissecting). Xhosalisation takes place in different ways, one of the ways it happens is the placing of the prefix “i” or “u” on English words. There is also the creation of “new” words by amalgamating English words with IsiXhosa words like the word “Xhosalisation.” Xhosalisation of English is useful for immediate everyday conversation but I wonder about its sustainability.

It is impossible to talk about language in this country without talking about the effects of colonisation and apartheid on indigenous languages. These systems of oppression have negatively affected the organic development of indigenous languages in epic proportions. Unlike English and Afrikaans, there are no structures in this country to ensure that indigenous languages continue to evolve. Universities like Stellenbosch are bastion of the Afrikaans language and ensure that the language is moving with the times. There are no equivalent indigenous language institutions.

The post 1994 government has also failed to prioritise education and indigenous languages continue to be neglected. I think we need to think of ways in which we can articulate the struggles with gender inequality, sexual identity, and the changing culture in this country in indigenous languages. We need to be able to articulate the complexity of human sexuality in indigenous languages and maybe this will lead us in a direction where people gain a better understanding of sexual diversity.

It is a big problem that no academic work takes place in indigenous languages, as this is where ideas and new ways of being are articulated. This is not to say that people in the streets are not contributing towards the evolution of language, but it is knowledge producing centres that coin terms for human phenomenon and in the process helps us understand that human phenomenon. A few years ago for the first time at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University a PhD thesis was written and submitted in IsiXhosa. The sad reality is that even if you wanted to write a sociological PhD thesis in IsiXhosa you will struggle to find supervisors who would be able to read it. Not to mention the struggle you would encounter with trying to explain “deconstruction”, “queer theory”, or “intersectional analysis.”

There are ways in which we could try and improve the language situation in this country but that demands political will and that is sorely lacking. Universities in this country are in a good position to create language/cultural centres for indigenous languages. This could start a project of taking indigenous languages seriously and slowly introduce knowledge production in indigenous languages. Universities could collaborate with people who speak indigenous languages to learn more about the languages and the cultures behind them. At times it seems to me that the 9 indigenous languages of the 11 official languages in this country are only decorative. Imagine if all 9 of the indigenous languages had a language institute.

Also as people who speak indigenous languages, we should really seek ways in which we maintain indigenous languages in our everyday lives. Imagine a South Africa with IsiXhosa book clubs and IsiXhosa reading rooms at universities in the Western and Eastern Cape. Imagine a South Africa where students can study sociology in the vernacular. Having IsiXhosa centres could also serve as great instruments in diffusing the alienating white supremacist culture of former whites only universities in this country because black people will then feel part of institutions and not just needing to adapt to a white world. What we need is a vision of the kind-of South Africa we want to live in and work towards that vision. Creating language institutes will probably not be easy, but creating a healthy South Africa that is content with itself requires hard word and an on-going conversation about our difficult past and where we want to go. We also need to make piece with the fact that the great South Africa we want to create will be enjoyed by future generations. Just like we are enjoying a democratic South Africa that was created in part by many people who died in the process of creating it and never had a chance to experience it.

Queer Consciousness

The on going homophobic hate crime attacks on black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people in various townships in South Africa, the rape and murder of black lesbians, and the anti-homosexuality legislation in Nigeria and in Uganda in recent months cloaked as protection of African cultures is enough for you to loose hope. As LGBTI Africans we are often told that we come out of nowhere, that we do not have a history in Africa, and that we are a western invention. We are often depicted as people who are ruining African cultures, cultures falsely assumed to be without homosexuality.

As LGBTI people, just like black people during colonisation, and during apartheid, we have internalised that we are less than human. We often adopt the inferiority complex projected on to us by society. Our lives are riddled with shame because of our sexual identity. Anecdotal evidence and studies show that LGBTI youth are more likely to be homeless than non-LGBTI youth because of homophobic families who make home life unbearable. Many transgendered youth turn to prostitution to make a living because they can’t find employment.

Living in a world that discriminates against you, a world that denies you the right to exist, how does one develop a healthy self-view? The feelings of shame that LGBTI Africans harbour about themselves can be self-destructive. The feelings of unworthiness can and have led many LGBTI to endanger their lives with drug and alcohol abuse and high-risk sexual behaviour, and experience trauma and mental health issues that impact personal growth.

How do we then counterattack the seemingly ubiquitous homophobia in this country, indeed continent? How do we as LGBTI individuals and communities face up to the prejudice we experience in society? While there are many things that we need to be doing, and many we are doing, like protests, supporting LGBTI organisations, supporting LGBTI art and scholarship etc., we need a way to think about ourselves that moves us away from internalised prejudice towards a Queer Consciousness.

Queer Consciousness entails understanding that sexual diversity is part of the human experience. It is the self-acceptance of LGBTI individuals with full knowledge that there’s nothing unnatural about being Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and/or Intersex. It is learning to be comfortable with yourself and your sexuality while learning about other people’s sexuality and ways of being. Queer Consciousness is about fostering LGBTI communities that are underpinned by pride, solidarity, and a steadfast approach to LGBTI Rights and wellbeing.

Firstly we have a responsibility to ourselves, secondly to our communities to reject the inferiority complex we have adopted. We have to reject negative images and assumptions about ourselves that we have come to believe that have been created by society in their aim to demonise us because of who and how we love. In the same vein as Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness, Queer Consciousness recognises “that the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”

As LGBTI Africans we need to discard the psychological grip that homophobic rhetoric has on us by vehemently rejecting the constructions of homosexuality as “un-African” and subsequently Western, as immoral, as unnatural. Queer Consciousness is more than just a fleeting verbal assertion against false constructions of homosexuality, but must translate into our deeds, into the way we approach life, into the way we relate to each other as LGBTI, and the way we take pride in our sexual identity as both individuals and as a community.

Queer Consciousness can impact society as a whole. Perhaps this consciousness can impact both LGBTI and broader society, and perhaps be adopted by people who are not LGBTI. In sync with feminism, Queer Consciousness questions the way we think about, talk about, and “do” gender. It is an attitude that embraces, celebrates, and encourages the disruption of gender norms. It encourages the blurring of the lines of what is expected of women and of men.

Queer Consciousness confronts the complex intersection of race, class, and gender that makes black lesbians vulnerable to ‘corrective rape’ and murder. It is the recognition that black lesbians are victims of hate crimes because of their gender non-conforming behaviour that challenges patriarchal dominance. It is a stance that challenges the dominant forms of masculinity not only in the larger society, but also within LGBTI communities. Queer Consciousness is therefore at odds with patriarchal structures of society and it is constantly wrestling with these structures.

Homosexuality is not at odds with African-ness. Queer Consciousness is about understanding that one can hold an African identity simultaneously with a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and/or Intersex identity. It is about knowing that difference is not something to be feared but something to be engaged with because we grow by learning things we have never encountered before.

The discovery of someone’s unorthodox sexuality is an opportunity to learn about the fabulously complex myriad ways in which we love, lust, and sex. Queer Consciousness is about opening yourselves up to other people’s life experiences, because we take different paths to get where we are. We cannot sanitise the complexity of life by legalising anti-homosexuality bills and by terrorising people who are assumed to be homosexual. The stifling of people’s gender and sexual expression is really the stifling of people’s humanity. A Queer Consciousness outlook understands that sexuality is as complex as human existence. That we do not have a hold in the multiple ways that people’s sexuality develops.

Queer Consciousness is recognising that the way LGBTI communities structure their relationships has the potential to educate us all about gender, about shifting the boundaries that society places on sexualities, and about liberating people’s sexuality, including heterosexuality. An unintended consequence of homosexuality is the liberation of heterosexuality, that society might see heterosexuality as nothing static, but adaptable and influenced by other sexualities.

Queer Consciousness demands that we in LGBTI communities be very vigilant about the ways in which “new” normative standards of establishing relationships and life in general can be used to subjugate others within LGBTI communities. Same-sex marriage is legalised in South Africa, but Queer Consciousness demands that we as LGBTI communities emphasise that forming personal relationships goes beyond the “one guy, one guy” or “one woman, one woman” relationship structure modelled after heterosexual coupling. Queer Consciousness is knowing that there are myriad ways in which people can organise their relationships, and that the simplistic ways in which marriage laws are structured are inadequate to fully capture the ways in which people love.

Queer Consciousness is about letting the imagination run wild in trying to answer the existential question of “who am I?” It is a way of thinking and seeing the world that encourages and nurtures the creative fashioning of the self. It gives you the ability to reject the models of “how life should be” from the everyday and gives permission for new ways of being in the world. Self-invention is at the centre of Queer Consciousness.

Self-invention becomes that much more prescient because we are busy with the postcolonial project of Africa’s Renaissance. The spirit of the African Renaissance revived in recent years by former South African president Thabo Mbeki emphasises a creative, intellectually stimulating, and self-directing Africa. He asserts, “They (Africans) are determined to define for themselves who they are and who they should be.” If we are truly invested in Africa’s Renaissance we cannot prescribe the ways in which Africans should express themselves and live their lives in a free postcolonial Africa.

Binyavanga Wainaina’s recent coming out and the videos he subsequently released talking about how “we need to free our imagination” capture the spirit of Queer Consciousness – we need to step out of the boundaries of what we know and into the creative world of imagining. The blue prints of how life should be, left behind by the colonial and apartheid administration are inadequate for life in postcolonial times and beyond. Our imagination in fashioning our lives in 21st century postcolonial Africa needs us to be without boundaries. The human potential is infinite and if we are to prosper as countries and as a continent we cannot limit the possibilities of innovative self-identities.

Written by Lwando Scott 

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.