16 Days of Activism and South African Contemporary Fiction
By Jennifer Crocker
Every year from 25 November, for 16 days, South Africa highlights activism against gender violence, and every year comments are made in the media about how this campaign does not make any real difference to those who have the very fabric of their lives torn apart by domestic violence, because we are told that we have more to fear from those we know than from strangers – a sober thought indeed.
In addition to using just 16 days to highlight this scourge, there are other ways in which people are creating awareness of the fragility of many people’s lives as a result of domestic violence. One is through literature, music, theatre and the arts. From time immemorial authors, philosophers and commentators have written about the issues around them, often weaving entertainment with harsh realities into what become cautionary tales. For many of us, the messages that resonate most are those conveyed through stories.
The South African publishing industry appears to be on the cusp of taking the publishing world by storm, with publishers pushing the boundaries and bravely bringing books to the reading market that stir the conscience.
A number of novels have been published that tackle the issue of domestic violence and abuse – bearing in mind that abuse is not always only physical, it also does not only affect women (although women are most often its victims), and almost universally it causes a sense of shame.
When novelists bring these stories out into the scrutiny of the light, and allow themselves the freedom of created characters to portray the horrors that are perpetuated on a daily basis, not just for 16 days of a year, we are drawn into stories that are as captivating as they are instructive. Discussions that follow from the reading of these books often allow those who have suffered – or continue to suffer – from abuse to share their experiences in a safe place for the first time.
Glowfly Dance by Jade Gibson (Umuzi, 2015) is one such book. Gibson begins the novel by setting up a perfect storm, and introducing the destruction of the life of a young girl, Mai, the voice through which the story is told. Mai lives with her mother and sister Amy. She is a happy little girl. She doesn’t know who her father is, but she has her mother and her quirky grandfather. The family is not rich in monetary terms, but they have flowers and games and love. When her mother meets Rashid, this all changes; Rashid, with his red car, is an abuser of children and women. Through the beauty of the writing Gibson shows us how a happy – if unusual – family is decimated by one man’s cruelty. How cunning and coercion can make you flee your happy place and put you on the bottom rung of society. It’s a brilliant and brave book, and carries across the message that violence in a family does only one thing: it destroys hope. And hope, once broken, is lost. Rashid is one of those men we will remember long after we have put down Gibson’s book; he’ll remain in our memories as the man who stole innocence in a whirlwind of cruelty and pain.
What About Meera (Umuzi, 2015) tells the story of a young woman who is happy in her life in rural KwaZulu-Natal, until she is forced to marry a man of status, a doctor. Her loveless marriage becomes a thing of entrapment and horror. Meera flees her life with him, but is judged and becomes a shame to her family. Events spiral out of control when she travels to Dublin and does a stupid and dangerous thing from a place of desperation. The book is essentially about the loss of innocence through neglect and cruelty. In a case of life imitating art, author ZP Dala was attacked after a literary festival in Durban, apparently by a group of men who took offence to her support of Salman Rushdie, and hit her in the face with a brick. One is tempted to think that the real world may intersect with the imagined world, for violence was done to a novelist by those wielding power. And abuse is about violence and exerting power over others. What About Meera also addresses the fact that the survivors of domestic abuse are often also victims of abuse within the wider family unit, either wittingly, to keep up appearances, or unwittingly, because they refuse to see what is happening.
In Carol Campbell’s book My Children Have Faces (Umuzi , 2013), we are taken to the edges of suffering in the Karoo, where a family has fled to escape the brutality of Miskiet, a murderer and a rapist who lives in the small town they have left. When Muis’s husband takes his ragged family back to the town, Miskiet is waiting for them. He sees Muis as a “dried out whore” but he has not forgotten her. While he still has the power to strike fear into her, he does not have enough power to stop her from doing the one thing she wants to do: get identity documents for her children so that they have a chance in life. It’s a wonderfully crafted tale spun from a composite group of people the author came to know in a little Karoo town. Muis has power, but it comes at great cost. It is price she is prepared to pay, but one that no person should be asked to pay.
Máire Fisher broke our hearts in her novel Birdseye (Umuzi, 2014), where violence perpetuated against little boys shows the ugly face of almost random violence, while in Kirsten Miller’s Sister Moon (Umuzi, 2104) the reader is confronted by familial complicity where the sexual abuse of a young girl is ignored because of financial dependency on the perpetrator. The shockwaves of the abuse reverberate through the family for decades.
Albert Camus said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” It has a ring of truth to it, because heaven knows we need as many ways as possible to address the horrible truth that lies behind violence and abuse. And not just for 16 days, but every day. There is a reason that text in books is always referred to in the present tense: it exists as a reality when a book is both closed and open. By opening up the reality of abuse and exposing it through literature, another arrow is added to the quiver exposing it in all its horror. Thank goodness we have authors who do that for us.
The 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children campaign runs from 25 November to 10 December 2106.
- My Children Have Faces by Carol Campbell
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