REVIEW: Grace

MANOSA NTHUNYA reviews the new novel by Barbara Boswell.

“Her whole life it had been drummed into Grace that every living thing had its cross to bear.” This is what Barbara Boswell’s protagonist, Grace, lives with, and accepts, from an early age. It is the knowledge that life is difficult and therefore every single being has to bear something as long as they are a part of it. The perilous aspect of this is that one bears what one cannot anticipate and it is here that Boswell’s remarkable debut novel, Grace, shows how vulnerable human life is.

The first part the novel is set in the 1980s, a tumultuous time in South African history, in the Cape Flats. Grace is a teenager who has little interest in the political matters of her day. Even though other young people, including Johnny, her first love, are engaged in the struggle, she has been taught by her parents to respect authority and to therefore not participate in actions that challenge its power. This approach to political issues is, as the reader slowly learns, also tied to how she responds to events that take place in her own home. Grace’s father, Patrick, is an abusive alcoholic who does not tolerate dissenting views from his wife, Mary, or Grace. When the novel begins, Mary has made a decision to divorce him and it is this act that informs how the plot evolves. The narrative moves between their present lives and their past and in this way allows the reader to see the devastating impact that Patrick has had on them.

Boswell’s stunning novel is about the consequences of living in a world where power is distributed in a hierarchical manner and the dehumanising effects this has. Grace admires her mother’s beauty and often compares herself to her. What she sees, however, when she looks at herself is “a pleasant round face, nut-brown skin and adequately pretty eyes”.

There is, though, a contradiction between this figure that she admires and the abuse Mary has to endure from Grace’s father. In one moving scene, after another night of beating, Grace accompanies her disgraced mother to a cosmetic store where she is going to buy make-up in order to cover her injuries. Observing her mother, Grace is distressed at her mother’s “cowering” attitude towards the store’s white assistant when she is refused to test the make-up and instead told that as a coloured woman, she has to buy the product as testing is only reserved for white women.  It is no surprise then that “Grace wished her father would just die.”

When we meet Grace in the second part of the novel, in 1997, she seems to have a stable family; she has had the advantage of going to university and lives a lifestyle that makes her a part of the new black middle class. She is married and has a child with David, a man that she met at university and who gives her care and attention in a way that is vastly different to the relationship that she witnessed between her parents. She seems to be happy until her past returns to haunt her when her first lover, Johnny, who had mysteriously disappeared in the ’80s, returns and demands that they continue where they left off.

One of the questions that the novel asks is whether societies that have experienced trauma survive or will a traumatic history recreate itself in the new. The last paragraph of this novel attempts to answer this but is somewhat unconvincing. If individuals cannot anticipate what will happen to them, it seems impossible to see how one can claim to be free, as Grace does, even if they are in a process of reinventing their lives. Freedom will always depend on a constant negotiation with others, including those who might enter one’s life to question one’s assumption of freedom as Grace is consistently forced to learn. Ultimately, though, Grace is a beautifully written novel that interrogates the history of South Africa and its continued impact on personal lives with extraordinary effect.

Grace is published by Modjaji Books.

BOOK CLUB: Rape: A South African Nightmare

Pumla Dineo Gqola’s Rape: A South African Nightmare is a harrowingly incisive analysis of one of South Africa’s greatest scourges, writes TARAH CHILDES.Rape

Consider, for a moment, our country’s label as the rape capital of the world and then reflect on your reaction to it. No doubt you will feel outraged, frustrated by your sense of hopelessness and perceived inability to help turn the tide against this “endemic” issue. And you would not be alone. As a society, we are overwhelmed by rape: we express our collective horror and shock at each new incident that makes headlines, but to what effect?

It is this repetitive discourse around the taboo, often mysterious and always complex subject that writer, feminist and professor, Pumla Dineo Gqola examines and challenges in Rape: A South African Nightmare – a worthy winner of the Sunday Times 2016 Alan Paton Award for Non-fiction.

In a series of succinct, analytical chapters, Gqola explores the culture of rape and its normalisation into our country’s social makeup, systematically interrogating our assumptions and attitudes from multiple angles and making sense of rape’s complex relationship to our past as well as its conflation with gender, sex and race.

Beginning by dismantling the idea that rape is a post 1994 problem, Gqola traces it back to its violent colonial roots and use as a tool of subjugation in our past slavocratic society —supported by a system that classified black women as legally “unrapable”, while simultaneously casting black men as sexually ravenous and dangerous. This dynamic continued to be institutionalised under apartheid — a time in which “no white men were hanged for rape and the only black men who were hanged for rape were convicted of raping white women”. This formed a patriarchal structure that supported “violent masculinity” as a means of control, rendering women compliant and silent.

The initial chapter creates a useful structure from which to tackle the rest of the book — in which Gqola explores high-profile cases that include the trials of Jacob Zuma, Bob Hewitt, Makhaya Nthini and the rapes of Baby Tshepang, Anene Booysen and Eudy Simelane.

She uses each prominent example not only to debunk prevalent myths about rape, but also to draw attention to our collective and individual reactions to each case, with alarming and unsettling questions about who we deem “rapable” and how and where we apportion blame. Most striking, she points out, is the way in which we demand rape victims to behave and to look — using our prejudice to discredit victims when they do not meet our expectations in what she terms a “violent system that forces victims to ‘prove’ their lived trauma”.

Gqola raises the issue of child molestation and rape to make two important points. The first, that rape is about sex, or that rape victims somehow invite or deserve to be rape because of what they wear or how they behave. The rape of Baby Tshepang, amongst others, defies this logic. The second idea Gqola tackles is our perception that it is somehow more depraved to rape a child rather than a woman. This, she states, diminishes the experience of so many victims and excuses the behaviour of certain perpetrators. “It’s a problem when we show that some rapes are more gruesome than others,” she writes. “What I want to show is that it’s the same thing. I want to show that all rapes are gruesome.”

Most illuminating was the fourth chapter entitled “The Female Fear Factory” – where Gqola details how our society is constructed in such a way that women and those who don’t confirm to gendered stereotypes are taught to fear rape and violence, and are thus controlled as well as devalued. She writes:

The manufacture of female fear works to silence women by reminding us of our rapability, and therefore blackmails us to keep ourselves in check… It is a public fear that is repeatedly manufactured through various means in many private and public settings.

She makes use of the responses to the rape and murder of Bredasdorp resident, Anene Booysen, to emphasise this point, adding that while we sympathised and mourned her tragic rape and death, we were quick to add that she shouldn’t have been out drinking at night, that she shouldn’t have walked the streets – “all behaviour that patriarchy says is inappropriate for good girls”. Rather than appointing blame on the perpetrators who brutally attacked and tortured her, we criticised the circle around Anene for not protecting her from harm — thus further entrenching the idea that it is women who should fear rape, instead of those who rape being made afraid or deterred from doing so.

The crux of Gqola’s book is the chapter on President Zuma’s rape trial — a time she describes as “a watershed moment for what it highlighted about societal attitudes that had previously been slightly out of view”. The rape charge was laid by the woman we know as Khwezi, a well-known HIV-positive activist and a daughter of a friend of Zuma’s. By examining excerpts from media coverage at the time, Gqola notes the way in which both Khwezi and the president were framed, and the worrying way in which we repeatedly diminished the importance of the rape incident, instead expressing views that shamed Khwezi and protected the president. Most troubling is the justice system that allowed Khwezi’s previous sexual history to be admitted as evidence in a bid to categorise her as “unrapable” while relabelling her self-identified status as a gay woman as “bisexual”.

Rape is not an easy book to read. This, of course, is not because it is not exceptionally well written—the academic language is refreshingly accessible and engaging — but because of the odious subject Gqola so methodically interrogates. I reflected on my own reluctance to read the book, identifying with the tendency to divert our gaze and thus enable “violent masculinities” to flourish under what Gqola terms the “cult of femininity”.

Gqola wisely offers no immediate solutions to our country’s complex and entrenched rape crisis. But, by interrupting the insidious and unspoken language of rape and rape culture, she helps us to envision a future in which rape does not exist — and that, as Gqola so emphatically concludes, is one we deserve, and one we must all fight to create.

Rape is published by Jacana. Read an extract of the book here.

GIVEAWAY: Win one of two copies of Rape. To enter, email competition(at)aerodrome.co.za, with the book’s title in the subject line. In the body of the email please include your full name, contact number and physical address (including the postal code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close on 15 November 2016. By entering, you agree to join AERODROME’s monthly newsletter mailing list.

A shadow of a woman

BY SAMANTHA GIBB

Meera, the protagonist of ZP Dala’s novel, What About Meera, is a broken being; a shadow of a woman. Her poverty-stricken childhood was rapidly succeeded by a marriage at 18 which showed signs of disaster as early as the wedding day. Regularly violated and beaten by her new husband and abused by his dysfunctional family, Meera longs for change. After far too long an existence in such a destructive environment, she musters the strength to leave. However, the relentless darkness of life follows her. Ridiculed and abused by family and strangers alike, Meera is an unwanted outcast with the ugly branding of a divorcee — yet another stain on her already fragile psyche. Ultimately, realising that her reputation and existence will forever be tarnished and broken, she escapes.

In Dublin, Meera is presented with a chance to begin anew. She has secured a job assisting autistic children. Despite feeling disillusioned with her work and numb to the suffering of the children, Meera finds love. Unfortunately, the recipient of her emotion is the father of one of her charges, and married. The relationship is nothing more than an affair, ending messily and taking Meera’s heart and last semblance of sanity with it, as she reacts by performing an unspeakable act, which dooms her to travel further down the path of self destruction.

What About Meera is frustratingly melancholic and as gloomy as the Irish weather it describes. Reading this book is like diving into an icy, murky pool. Meera’s journey is a constant evolution of negativity in which life betrays the living. However, the book is unnervingly beautiful despite its depressing and unsettling content, which makes it all the more disturbing — a true wolf in sheep’s clothing. The narration warbles precariously between third-person perpectives and a strained stream of consciousness which is desperate, confused and garbled, akin to an erratic nightmare. Yet it is precisely this darkness in content and style which makes Zala’s a vitally imortant book. The gloom serves to illustrate the plight of abused women and the restrictions placed on them, as well as the dehumanising consequences of duty at any cost. Meera’s abandonment and inability to make more of her life are a direct result of the tortures she endured, which were dismissed by her family and society alike. Her silent suffering is the very mechanism which screams of the suffering of others; it is raw and unrelentless, and refuses to be ignored.

ZP Dala has created a work of art in which the protagonist’s shame and less than honourable existence force the reader to acknowledge greater societal imperfections and the terrible cost of silence. What About Meera is a painful read, yet it must be endured and lauded to give voice to those silenced.

What About Meera is published by Umuzi.