Davids is turning back on black

The Blacks of Cape Town, the title of CA Davids's superb debut novel, partially works on the confusion the word "black" causes. While a surname for some, it is also an all-embracing racial grouping that comprises all the darker-hued people, united mostly by their brutal treatment from a tribe known loosely as "white". 

The story features Zara Black, a South African historian at a university in the United States. She is not only researching Malian history but also combing her brain, and those of her relatives and anyone else who can remember her family's memories – or, as Davids puts it, "memories of memories". Although her scholarly work on Timbuktu could be "shaped and verified" and so "offered comforts", Zara's own undocumented and scattered history "presented its challenges".  

Spanning two momentous yet quite unrelated events, the novel begins around the time diamonds are discovered in Kimberley and ends as "white" and "black" Americas are about to elect Barack "Yes We Can" Obama. (The nebulous, empty and open-ended slogan on which Obama rode should have warned us that nothing was really going to change. In a recently published book, Double Down by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, Obama tells his aides in a discussion on drones that he's "really good at killing people".)

The two events, set on the continents of Africa and North America, are, one could argue, attempts to create links between South Africa and the US, countries with shared identities and histories. These range from the "race problem", jazz traditions, and the sheer brutality of the colonial experience for the native, to concrete relationships forged by eminent artists from the two countries. The relationships include the friendships of people such as the recently deceased singer Sathima Bea Benjamin and musician Duke Ellington; Cape Town writer Richard Rive and American poet Langston Hughes; American essayist and writer James Baldwin and South African critic and author Lewis Nkosi. But I am getting carried away. Let's return to the blacks of Cape Town and the discovery of stones that brought us here.   

"Anyone who was not visibly European or Afrikaner – that is to say, starting with anyone whose skin revealed a dark blush beneath, or whose bridge amply crossed a face, or whose lips rose to a full moon when closed – was no longer permitted to move freely or allowed too close to the diamonds." This is a rather poetic rendition of Cecil John Rhodes's consolidation of the mines in Kimberley in the 1880s, many decades before the National Party seized power in 1948. With time, a crude formulation of race would be arrived at, whose embarrassing trope was the pencil test. 

Betraying ones own race

To escape the hell that came with not passing the pencil test some people went to extremes, including passing for white. "Those who could – and there were many – crept beneath the fence to the other side." A principal exemplar of this is Zara's grandfather, Isaiah, the original "Black". As he "turned his back" on blackness he chose a moniker that identified him with the fate and colour of what he was spurning. So it was that Isaiah decided to "wear the high-bridged nose and pale skin that his father had left him". For the "privilege" of whiteness he carried a "lifelong regret that he made his mother feel ashamed of her own dark skin". Betrayal, in this instance, of the aboriginal/original is the central motif of the book, to which it returns, again and again. 

I met Davids at a coffee shop in Sandton for a 90-minute interview about The Blacks of Cape Town that was freckled with the ironies and absurdities that daily punctuate race in our society. Halfway into the interview a waitress came to interrupt our talk with an inquiry. "There is a car belonging to ‘a coloured person' that's blocking other traffic, that's about to be towed away," she said. Are you the "coloured person", she asked Davids. 

Davids was, naturally, peeved at the racialising. Why, of all of things, she wondered, is the race of the offending driver important rather than their sex, the make of the car, their height? She could have turned to page 35 of her novel, which has a riposte to this kind of thinking: "There are many ways to describe people and by the colour of their skin is just unimaginative …"

This incident perhaps illuminates a point she made in the interview: "I wanted to write a race-less novel, a wonderful postmodern thought, but the reality is [that] race still plays a part in everything we do in South Africa. It informs a lot of what we do and how we relate to each other." In certain ways the novel is informed by a race-less aesthetic. Some of the characters are not identified by race but the way Davids does this is a way of racial nonidentification that immediately excites your curiosity about the race of the person. 

When she wrote the novel, "I was trying to speak about race because we haven't spoken about it. [Perhaps] we are speaking about it [now] but we are not having a direct conversation." 

Multiple centres

About writing a polycentric novel, or perhaps one with a nomadic centre that is one day in Kimberley, the next in Cape Town and another year in New Jersey, Davids said: "I had this idea of writing a novel that's a bit like life. I didn't want it to have just one theme. I have all these preoccupations … I wanted to write a novel that's complex in the way life is complex. I don't know if I achieved that." 

In that limited way the novel's multiple centres mirror Davids's personal details. She was in the US for two years, in China for three and in Switzerland for a year before coming back to settle first in Cape Town and now in Johannesburg. 

Her novel is written in a crisp, assured style that shows a remarkable regard for detail and ideas. It has 38, mostly short, bursts of chapters, often animated by fine dialogue. 

The narrative is propelled by a secret motor that doesn't really take a break. While the story itself is always moving, the pivot around which it propels itself could have been made of much more substantial metal, not some weak alloy. The betrayal the character Bart is supposed to have perpetrated is not explored enough, so one feels a sense of inadequacy. This is especially so given the fact that a character in the book says: "Our country's a museum of loss, our killing fields aren't filled with corpses, even if the bodies are there. No, our museum is populated with betrayals, stacked sky high." 

But if there is one thing Davids does extremely well in her novel it is to talk up an idea before systematically undermining it. Call it exploding absolutes or, to use theorist Fredric Jameson's name in vain, the way a dialectic appears to have reached a closure before it "reopens itself and begins all over again".  

As patriotic historians are busy writing a mono-nationalist historiography of South Africa, Davids's fine novel is important in the way it presents alternative modes of thinking and being. 

The Blacks of Cape Town is published by Modjaji Books 

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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