Sorry, I should've said 'Mother Teresa'

My gut instinct tells me that I should not really be bothered to respond to Ronald Suresh Roberts’s garbled response to my comments on his low-intensity war with Nadine Gordimer, who recently withdrew her ‘authorisation” for his long-awaited biography of herself.

But since he now appears to have further set himself up as the sole authorised spokesperson of the so-called ‘African diaspora” (whatever that is) as well, I suppose I should make the effort and try to unravel some of the deeply woolly concepts that underpin his thinking.

Talk about confusing your metaphors. Roberts has the singular talent of burying himself under a flurry of them, tying himself up in knots every time.
This makes what he calls the ‘sadly inarticulate” victims of ‘intellectual paucity” like myself more baffled than ever at what he is trying to say.

To begin at the end: the said ‘Roberts” explains that, far from having ‘forsaken Gordimer”, he is in fact her ‘authentic celebrant”. ‘I have cast off the treacherous epaulettes of her ‘authority’,” he announces with resounding pomp.

Now how do we read this? Epaulettes, as far as we intellectually challenged mortals can tell, are those bits of scrambled egg that generals pin on their shoulder pads to show that they are superior to the general rank and file. When a senior officer has committed a serious misdemeanour, the epaulettes are stripped from his or her shoulders by even more senior officers to show to all the world that they have disgraced themselves.

To strip yourself of your own epaulettes, on the other hand, is a major act of defiance. ‘I don’t need your recognition,” the gesture says. ‘I can go it on my own.”

This is the suggestion in Roberts’s description of casting off the epaulettes of authority that were presumably stuck there by Gordimer herself.

Good for you. You go, boy. But it is still an awkward metaphor — it begs the question of whether Roberts earned, indeed begged for, the distinction that he has now rejected, or whether it was always a burden that he resented and is now glad to be rid of once and for all.

As to the claim of being ‘Gordimer’s authentic celebrant”: a ‘celebrant”, according to my dictionary, can be either ‘one who celebrates”, or ‘the principal officiant [sic] at a rite”.

Now, which metaphor are we going for? If Roberts is truly ‘celebrating” Gordimer with his invective about her ‘editorial tampering”, what is it exactly that he is celebrating? And should the person being celebrated not enjoy being at the centre of all the ‘hurrahs” rather than be appalled by them?

If, on the other hand, Roberts means to say that he is ‘the principal officiant” at the rites that will elevate Gordimer to the pantheon of saints and bearers of eternal life, is he not also elevating himself once more to that rank of senior officers who alone hold the power to convey kudos on the worthy? Bang go the self-appointed epaulettes back on to the shoulder pads again.

Then there is his puzzling use of the terms ‘native” and ‘nativism”. ‘Native” is cool when it applies to himself, although even this is wrongly used — as in ‘New York editors [all of whom are white colonials, I presume] pressuring native intellectuals for inauthentic and sanitised texts”. (My emphasis.) Intellectuals native to where? To Trinidad? To New York? To the African jungle?

‘Nativism”, on the other hand (which he applies to the un-cool, like me) implies someone whose ‘mind — possesses — ideas that are inborn and not derived from sensation”, or who is inclined ‘to favour the natives of a country in preference to immigrants”.

Given Roberts’s certainty that my words are based on my ‘openly xenophobic” utterances (marking me out as ‘a product of an antiquated laager culture [¿que?]” and ‘a long time boulevardier of the liberal suburbs” to boot) he probably means the latter.

(Boulevardier, by the way, can briefly be described as ‘a man-about-town”, which is quite a compliment. But again, I don’t think Roberts quite meant it that way.)

Ah, and then we have his triumphant, killer statement of fact. ‘For decades,” he says, ‘the Matshikiza family has had Gordimer’s personal generosity, which Matshikiza naughtily fails to disclose”. As proof of this, he brings up the issue of a piano which Gordimer ‘sent John’s father, Todd”, in Lusaka.

I put it to Mr Roberts that one of the primary tasks of a biographer is to cross-check his information. It might have been too much for him to seek me out while I was boulevardiering in the ‘liberal suburbs” (which he himself supposedly studiously avoids out of a sense of native integrity) to find out the other side of the story. But he could at least have looked at one of the early pages of the same Todd Matshikiza’s autobiographical book, Chocolates for my Wife.

Here he would have discovered that the notorious piano was not a ‘gift” from Parktown, but a treasure rescued for a man fleeing reluctantly into exile in 1960, later to be redeemed when that same man landed up in Lusaka some years later and was (through Gordimer’s kindness and friendship, indeed) finally reunited with the piano that he loved — and that he had bought, with his own money, in Johannesburg in the early 1950s.

Check it out, Mr RSR, and stop spreading unsubstantiated gossip and innuendo.

Finally, the Diaspora Man is apparently going around demanding that I apologise for calling him a gangster. I didn’t say he is a gangster. I said he has the look of a gangster — and a minor one at that.

No one is accountable for the way they look. And no one, surely, can be held accountable for expressing an opinion about the way someone else looks — not even if they say they look like Mother Teresa.

Oh, and I didn’t say a word about the ‘Indianness” of the said Roberts’s middle name, either. If he himself has problem with it, he should consider embracing the ‘Indianness” of his many fantasy diasporas (along with the all-too-easy African one) and leave the rest of us alone.

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