Tuesday, August 17, 2010

This Place I Call Home

Book Review: This Place I Call Home by Meg Vandermerwe (Modjaji Books, 2010)

Home is a place of rest. For an observant South African writer, spanning the expanse of time, history, culture and landscape, the concept of home is also a thematic vehicle.

Meg Vandermerwe’s debut book, ‘This Place I Call Home’ is a collection of ten stories that easily captures the feel of what it is to be South African from just as many points of view. Peering through the eyes of a hijack victim, a hunter, a domestic maid, an exile about to return home and a range of others, the reader is made to see how identity is constructed, altered and challenged in a country that has seen many versions of reality in its time and across the reach of its political horizons. In addition, it also captures what it is to be a foreigner in South Africa especially with the spate of xenophobia that we witnessed not too long ago. Needless to say, each of the protagonists grapples with haunting emotional challenges in their personal spaces that are inevitably reflected by the socio-political landscape. These stories tell us much about where we have come from as individuals, separated by the colour of our skins, the hierarchy of our place on the social ladder, and the baggage that we carry as we move forward as South Africans.

Vandermerwe also manages to capture the authentic voice of each of the protagonists in her stories, which is an impressive feat on the one hand, but can be a bit jarring for a reader moving through the stories one after the other. One has a sense of listening to a line-up of ten people narrating each of their encounters, or reliving a particular moment that was formative or impactful, and then it’s on to the next one. More so because of the shift in timelines. But it is also precisely because of this that the many colours of their narratives standing side by side, tend to blend into a remarkable anthology of South African-ness that makes for a must-read for historians and anthropological enthusiasts.

But there’s more. We all have significant markers of identity and home. That is, how we make sense of both where we are, and who we are in the world is determined by the associations we make with particular things, specific encounters. Vandermerwe highlights these and the reader will find it easy to draw on the nostalgia that these markers evoke: a mango tree, a dictionary, the anticipation of a holiday or having heard of the story of someone returning home from exile. There are stories of loss and grief and hope and redemption to be found in this little gem of a book. Protagonists are challenged by disease, broken promises, xenophobia and a range of subjects that the reader is able to identify with; these stories will carry forth from the local to the global context an authentic flavour of the multi-coloured African dynamic. And the resounding theme of what it has meant to be South African, over the span of time and politics, comes through in the sentiments expressed by each of the protagonists; a domestic servant, a madam, a hunter’s aid and his master.

Vandermerwe deals in astounding detail with the issue of HIV/Aids, the inevitable cloud of superstition that surrounds the disease and the reliance or the faith that people place in traditional vs. modern medicine. The Red Earth is probably my favourite read in this anthology. Its characters don’t jump out at you; rather they sit beside you and allow you a peek into their deepest thoughts. They reveal their fears and prejudices. To me, that is the most remarkable accomplishment of the fiction writer; the ability to give the reader the opportunity to more than identify or sympathise with the character, but to really walk in their skin, taste and feel and dream as they might.

I particularly noted how Vandermerwe is able to denote class struggles in the local context, and the resultant mindset that arises from having to know your place. Inferiority is a powerful voice. Often more so than superiority. It reminds you mostly of the things that you do not deserve. And that you should know your place. This is the marvel of the post-colonial era. And it continues to be echoed in the economic reality that separates the haves and the have-nots. The writer achieves this balance in portraying both the yearnings of those on lower rungs of the social ladder as well as the expectations of those who teeter on the edge of the higher rungs of this shaky ladder. And so the reader is made to see at once the numerous layers of South African history as well as contemporary South African society beyond the shining tourist manuals. We also learn that if there are spaces that are sometimes unforgiving to South Africans, that these spaces can be even more threatening to ‘aliens’. In our insistence to claim our place, our home, we label the outsiders mercilessly. Strong notions of other-ing resound through the narratives. And we are made to ask questions of whether our existence is validated by this defining of ‘other’ and the subsequent removal of the alien other from what we claim to be our space. Narrative is a safe yet interesting way for these themes and debates to emerge. This Place I call Home is a book that manages to do this.

That the reader is made to read in the authentic voice and viewpoint of the character with such ease is the most enduring and positive attribute of this writer’s art. And this is what brings these stories home for us.

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