Two sides of one coin

One of the liveliest writers’ sessions at this year’s Cape Town Book Fair featured novelists Jo-Anne Richards, Zukiswa Wanner and Margie Orford examining the uneasy relationship they, as popular fiction authors, had with the literary mainstream.

Chief among their grievances is the lukewarm critical reception they get from South Africa’s highbrow literary establishment. Richards recalls that when her debut book, The Innocence of Roast Chicken, came out it didn’t get any serious critical attention.
One of the snide, unhelpful remarks thrown her way was “she doesn’t even dress like a writer”. Richards bemoans the critics’ obsession with what she calls “worthy”, and, at times, “inaccessible” tomes, adding that if any novelist writes about people, the bigger issues that concern them will intuitively come out.

Wanner, author of The Madams and the just published Behind Every Succesful Man (both Kwela Books), sees this marginalisation of popular fiction as sexist. She wonders why her genre of literature is called “Black Chick Lit” and yet there is no similar designation for popular fiction- written by male authors. “No one calls Niq Mhlongo’s books Dick Lit,” she points out. “I write about what is happening. It should be entertaining — like watching television­.”

Reading Wanner’s Behind Every Successful Man is, in many ways, like watching TV: a painless, easy and a somewhat rewarding exercise. It’s about a black economic empowerment (BEE) man, Andile, a lawyer with traditionalist impulses; it’s also about his wife, Nobantu, a Wits commerce graduate, who finds the housewife role she plays unfulfilling and stifling. Things are going well for Andile, with his company Mapamo about to list on the Johannesburg Securities Exchange. When his wife celebrates her birthday, appropriately enough she gets a Jaguar as a present. When guests at the party ask a tipsy Andile what his wife does, he replies, “our Nobantu here does nothing. She is just a housewife.”

It is the moment which drives Nobantu to leave her family and home in a quest to prove that she is more than a housewife. It is fast-paced book; I read its 180-odd pages in a few hours. As you read you get the sense that you are in a rush and, as a consequence, issues are suggested and never fully explored. This could hint at the vacuous and vapid lives the super-rich lead, existences that Wanner is ridiculing. Oupa, a 50-something partner of Andile’s at Mapamo, has an empty-headed, shopaholic wife barely into her twenties. Andile wonders what they say to each other when they are alone. “She probably says, ‘do you know, the shops are still open right now in Brazil and if I was there I could be shopping —’.” And on and on this silly lovers’ talk goes.

Most things in the book are understated, somewhat robotic, and that includes even the sex. The pace of the plot is so breathless that we don’t quite see how Andile and Nobantu’s sexually explosive relationship slid into indifference and stultifying convention.

But Wanner is a keen observer of the rich, their empty lives and how unbalanced and inadequate they become in situations in which money can’t buy acquiescence and affection. When Andile, while trying to shirk his parental responsibility, tries to “bribe” Nqobisa, his precocious daughter sees through this: “Daddy, I am too old for an ice- cream bribe —”.

Wanner paints tenderly and with deftness and sensitivity the episode in which Nqobisa starts menstruating. It is one situation in which no bribe can be proffered and none, in any case, can be taken. Andile’s abdication of his role as a parent is cruelly exposed, for this is a situation in which one has to give oneself and no amount of BEE money can substitute for that self.

The book doesn’t lack for serious stuff, as this and other episodes show. It raises these bigger issues but at times the author chooses to look at them in a pared-down, almost noncommittal way, something which may drive away the more serious-minded readers.

The seriously minded is what Valerie Tagwira’s The Uncertainty of Hope (Jacana and Weaver Press) will get, especially at universities. It is set against Operation Murambatsvina, (Drive out Trash), the Zimbabwean state’s brutal onslaught on the poor of the country’s slums. In the 2005 operation the police destroyed the homes and livelihoods of up to a million people. The main protagonist in The Uncertainty of Hope is Onai Moyo, a vendor trapped in an abusive marriage. Onai’s plight is made bearable by a rewarding friendship and sisterhood she shares with Katy, married to a loving truck-driver husband, who, on the sly, trafficks girls into South Africa.

The world Tagwira draws is strangely small and interconnected, at times unbelievably so. It seems every one of the main characters, in different parts of the city, knows the other. The hospital is a central trope in the book, bringing together all these disparate people. I wondered if it was Tagwira’s professional bias (she studied obstetrics and gynaecology) or maybe a metaphor for a diseased country. A sick nation is a good host for those who happen to be near the increasingly depleting pot of gold: the primitive accumulators of wealth.

Yet even these see the emptiness of it all and they yearn for their younger, idealistic selves, forever gone. But there are those who long for—and are willing to relive—this idyll, such as the “madman” Mawaya who, after the death of his wife, abandons his businesses and privileged lifestyle and engages in strange rituals of poverty and penance.

The book is, for several reasons, a sociological document which at times is heavy going and recalls what was said about Malian Yambo Ouologuem’s Bound to Violence. Critics were not sure whether Ouologuem would turn out to be a “better sociologist and historian than novelist”. This description is not necessarily censure, for don’t we still go back to Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger and Charles Mungoshi’s Waiting for the Rain to look at the psyche of the black in the Rhodesia of the 1970s?

Tagwira’s book is a celebration of urban sisterhood and abiding relationships that withstand the deprivations of harsh, life-negating policies. It is also a record, sometimes with suffocating helpings of activism, of the struggle for the emancipation of women, a struggle which not even the end of the novel begins to deals with. For near the end of the book Onai’s daughter says she wants to be a journalist, an unpopular choice in her household. “Why don’t you think about nursing?” someone says, helpfully suggesting a safe, traditional female role.

The first 300 or so pages move at a slow, meditative pace—something the last 60 pages seem to want to rectify. It’s almost as though Tagwira, realising how action-starved her readers are, decides to unleash all the drama in one helping. There is an arrest, an eviction, a flight, a death and more—even in the lethargic­ urban mass one begins to see the stirrings of a people who want to struggle.

The Uncertainty of Hope and Behind Every Successful Man are two sides of one coin. The kind of readers who would enjoy one certainly won’t readily take to the other. But both novels are, in their ways, delicate and at times moving portrayals of women trying to defeat the obstacles—in private and public spaces—placed in their way by sexism and ancient traditions. One wishes, though, that these two would compare notes: Tagwira doesn’t have that chirpy lightheartedness that so typifies Wanner, and Wanner could do with a whiff of the seriousness that drips from Tagwira’s book.

Percy Zvomuya

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