On Family, Marriage and African Reads

Durban, June 2015

Durban North Beach, June 2015

“I never understood it before, when people said love leaves one feeling vulnerable.” (Wanner, London – Cape Town – Joburg)

One of my goals after moving to South Africa has been to read more literature set on the continent, and in particular, to understand Joburg better through reading stories about and located in the city. In October I read Onion Tears by Shubnum Khan and Riding the Samoosa Express edited by Zaheera Jina and Hasina Asvat and I spoke about my experiences reading both books on the Seriously Planning audio stories series.

“They’d loiter in the hall, outside the half-open door, giggling softly, whispering loudly to attract his attention, then peer in to see if he’d look up from reading his peer-reviewed journal, which he wouldn’t to teach them. It was a logically flawed experiment. He’d have told them if they’d asked. His devotion to his profession kept a roof over their heads. It wasn’t comparative, a contest, either/or, job v. family. That was specious American logic, dramatic, “married to a job.” How? The hours he worked were an expression of his affection, in direct proportion to his commitment to keeping them well: well educated, well traveled, well regarded by other adults. Well fed. What he wanted, and what he wasn’t as a child.” (Selasi, Ghana Must Go, p.47)

The Seriously Planning bookclub pick in November was “Ghana Must Go” by Taiye Selasi.  This novel revolves around the story of the Sais, a family in which the father Kweku dies in Ghana, several years after he abruptly leaves his family. The repercussions of his actions can be felt for years, and his departure impacts each member of the family differently. The book is about how his death brings his family together once more and our bookclub conversation revolved around the book’s ideas of family and love and masculinity and marriage and commitment and failure and cowardice. Why doesn’t Kweku as a father and husband speak openly about his fears and failures? How and why do the unspoken agreements and sacrifices of a marriage chip away at its foundation? What are the stages of love in a marriage, and if love is not enough to sustain a relationship, what ensures the success and survival of a family? Kweku’s wife Folasade gave up her dreams and goals of law school so that Kweku could pursue medicine, and the exchange of her sacrifice for his success is too much weight for their marriage to handle. When his success crumbles, he takes steps that result in their marriage crumbling as well. It was a rich and vibrant conversation, and I’m so glad we were able to discuss the book in a community space. Reading transforms when it turns from a private to a public activity, and I love the bookclub because it allows me to strengthen my own understanding of what I read through hearing the insights of others.

“Sadness, tension, absence, angst, – but fine, as she birthed them, alive if not well, in the world, fish in the water, in the condition she  delivered them (breathing and struggling) and this is enough. Perhaps not for others, Fola thinks, other mothers who pray for great fortune and fame for their young, epic romance and joy (better mothers quite likely; small, bright-smiling,hard-driving, minivan mothers), but for her who would kill, maim and die for each child but who knows that the willingness to die has its limits.
That death is indifferent.
Not she (though she seems), but her age-old opponent, her enemy, theirs, the common enemy of all mothers — death, harm to the child – which will defeat her, she knows.
But not today. (Ghana Must Go, p.100)

For me, what made “Ghana Must Go” shine was its beautiful prose and stunning paragraphs, not its plot. At some points the prose felt too much, but there were other times when the long expositions about life and love and survival contained real gems. In one part a character describes being a “native to brilliance but a stranger to privilege” which seemed to so aptly describe the situation of so many South African students right now who are involved in the ongoing campaign for lower fees and greater access to higher education. Whether it is the way Kweku describes his love and wonderment at his second wife (who does not demand that he become more then he currently is, but is simply happy), or his desperation to succeed to make his first wife’s sacrifice worth it, or his surprise and astonishment that he was more than simply a survival story but someone who was loved and known and wanted by another, the insights and feelings of the characters of this book make “Ghana Must Go” a difficult book to forget. I was taken aback by some of the events in the novel (the plotline of the twin siblings) but overall, I recommend the read.

After “Ghana Must Go”, I read Zukiswa Wanner’s book “London – Cape Town – Joburg.” The book caught my eye at a local bookstore because the cover of the book is the skyline of each of the three cities it describes, and I found my copy at the Sandton Public Library.

The story opens with Germaine Spencer, wife of Martin O’ Malley, mother of Zuko Spencer – O’Malley grieving and furious over the death of her thirteen year old son who has taken his own life. She finds him on his birthday dead in the bathtub with his wrists slit and a suicide note addressed to his father in his room. She interprets his silence to signal anger with her, and she hates her husband for being the one that her son turned to in his final words. The book then shifts to her husband’s perspective of his son’s death. Neither character explains why their son has died, and the book then goes back in time to London 1994, where the two characters first meet. London, 1994 -1998 is the first section of the book, and takes up about half of the novel. Cape Town 1998 – 2008 is the second part of the novel and Joburg 2008 – 2011 is the final section of the book. Cape Town and Joburg together compose the other half of the novel. Because the novel is set in different time periods the reminders of time period feels a bit excessive at times (the characters listen to cassettes and save files to floppy disks for example) but the reminders didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the novel.

The structure of the novel is a description in London of the characters meeting, their journey of coming together, their reflections on identity and South Africa, and then a transition to Cape Town and Joburg as a married couple. Germaine is white and not South African, and though she has visited her mother in law before they move, South Africa is largely a new place to her, and she has a lot of adjusting to do and learning to do about her new home. From language learning to understanding the politics of race to building community to developing an understanding how she can best contribute as an artist to her new home, there is much for Germaine to experience and adjust to, and the book chronicles it all.  Martin too adjusts to living in a new post-apartheid South Africa, negotiates corporate life and racial identity, and has a shared but separate adjustment path from Germaine. The journey and voice of both characters is interesting and distinct, as are the journal entries of their son Zuko, who seems like a very believable child-like voice. Like Ghana Must Go, this book looks at the life cycle of a marriage, its highs and lows, its tragedies and successes, and the obstacles that a relationship must go through that have little to do with the love two people have for each other in their hearts. And like Ghana Must Go, this book is not about starvingr characters or characters in conflict situations, it is a story about family and a zoomed up look at the history of one family in particular.

Eventually both characters move to Joburg, and what I loved about this part of the novel is that so much of what is described of Joburg feels familiar. The characters have braais, they go to Rosebank coffeeshops, they drive on the M1, they get lost on their way to the Market Theatre and end up in Woodmead. They debate politics, discuss xenophobic attacks, say phrases like “neh”, and live in an area that is nice but very close to Hillbrow. It changes your reading to encounter characters who have crossed the same streets that you have, and who are describing sights that you too have seen and you are left richer after such a reading experience.  Despite its fascinating characters though, for me the major problem with the novel was the ending. After hearing at the beginning of the novel that Zuko has killed himself, it is only in the last few pages that you discover the horrifying reason why. Once you learn why, the novel abruptly ends, and there is no resolution of the events that have led to his death. Still, both Ghana Must Go and London – Cape Town – Joburg, are interesting important books, and I’m glad that I read them. I look forward to seeing where my reading takes me next!

Our next bookclub book is Orhan Pamuk’s book “Istanbul: Memories of a City” and will be held at Cafe Europa in the Rosebank Mall on December 8th from 6 – 8pm. To attend, please email seriously(dot)planning(at)gmail(dot)com

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