Thursday, April 9, 2009

At Risk: writing on and over the edge of South Africa

Review of At Risk: Writing on and over the edge of South Africa
edited by Liz McGregor and Sarah Nuttall, Jonathan Ball

This diverse collection of essays from South African writers, academics and journalists is loosely themed around the topic of “risk”: looking at those who have taken risks in their personal lives, such as Rain Queen Makobo, Queen Modjadji VI, or those who experienced the risk that crime imposes, such as Justice Malala writing from first-hand experience.

There are some outstanding essays that stay with you, such as Graeme Reid’s Moving In, Moving Out, about living as a gay man in the township of Wesselton in Ermelo, Mpumalanga, or Sarah Nuttall’s poignant account of losing a baby in What the Blood Remembers.

Collections of essays are rarely published in this country … and what a pity that is. This collection shows there’s a wealth of untapped experience waiting to be written down, and read in the short, sharp bites offered in an anthology.

The first, Liz McGregor’s Who Killed the Rain Queen? is not quite as short or succinct as the others, but still keeps you reading. McGregor repeatedly travelled to the Modjadji area in north-eastern Limpopo in a bid to find out why the current Rain Queen died at just 25. What killed her? McGregor unearths the truth, sort of, thwarted in her investigation by elders who don’t want it known. Rumours of Aids abound, also that the Rain Queen took a huge personal risk by choosing a lover, rather than sleeping with a family member chosen for her. It’s a fascinating investigation into secrets and cover-ups.

Aids rears its ubiquitous head again in Deborah Posel’s aptly titled A Matter of Life and Death. Posel writes about intervening in the life of Phina, a young HIV-positive woman living in rural Limpopo. Posel helps to organise transport so that Phina can obtain antiretroviral drugs, but the fact that she is HIV-positive, and taking the medicine,must remain a secret. Her uncle has arranged a cure for Phina’s mysterious illness from a witch doctor, and when Phina appears to be getting better (as a result of taking the antiretrovirals), she must keep quiet. To speak out would mean her uncle would lose face, while to mention that she is HIV-positive is impossible. The stigma is so ingrained that Phina watches her sister wasting away from what is assumed to be the same disease, but cannot speak. To do so might save her sister’s life, but it would also shatter taboos. A shocking, terribly sad story.

Makhosazana Xaba and Tom Odhiambo explore their neighbourhoods in essays moving from Bellevue East to Braamfontein. Both explore the notions of belonging in very personal,readable essays. Xaba talks about life with a difficult white neighbour; while Cameroonian Odhiambo explores his response to the new South Africa.

The real stand-out is Justice Malala’s Losing my Mind, a gripping, terrifying account of the effects of crime. Having been a victim of crime, Malala and his wife are renting a nearby flat while their home is renovated. His wife can’t wait to move back, but Malala wants to stay in the safety of flatland. He keeps recalling the night of the incident, a shooting, and lies awake, listening to burglar alarms and driving his security company mad with repeated callouts.

But the fear’s deep within him now. The essay moves beyond the personal, and takes a look at others who, terrified by crime, whom have been raped or assaulted, have chosen to leave the country. This is a chilling, excellent examination of what happens emotionally when you’re a victim of crime, and how that fear worms itself into you.

At Risk offers a window into where we, as South Africans, are right now. The scenes are varied, real, full of danger and yet also alive with humour. We can only hope there will be more windows, more anthologies.

(Published in The Star, September 20 2007)

No comments: