Reflections: This Book Betrays My Brother

brother

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.