Room for a view: Pumla Dineo Gqola’s latest book is a celebration of black scholarship that nonetheless reveals a very private person
In a section titled Departures at the back of her new book of autobiographical essays, Pumla Dineo Gqola, a professor at Wits University’s department of African literature, lists the topics not covered in Reflecting Rogue: Inside the Mind of a Feminist.
In some ways, Reflecting Rogue is defined as much by the things that are left out of its pages as by what is within. If nothing else, it confirms Gqola as a deeply private person, unwilling to commit the writer’s sin of betraying her loved ones in the name of forging intimacy with her readers.
In this sense, it is a principled book. More than being about biographical detail, Reflecting Rogue, Gqola’s fourth and “most personal” book, is about ideas and a celebration of the networks and examples it takes to sustain a living feminism.
Those expecting a memoir need to kill their inner voyeur, it turns out. There are no dewy-eyed reflections of her tenure at Wits, which started in 2007. There are no salacious, rare glimpses into the private life of a public individual. No self-congratulatory moments about writing books (in particular, A Renegade Called Simphiwe and Rape: A South African Nightmare) that have shaped South Africa’s public discourse in landmark ways and, disturbingly, little in the form of #FeesMustFall, especially with Wits being the epicentre of the economically focused incarnation of #RhodesMustFall.
The paragraph in which Gqola explains her stance is unnerving to a degree but perhaps it offers a glimpse into her headspace while she was selecting pieces for the book: “I am also still so raw from the violence unleashed on some university campuses in response to #FeesMustFall that I have included nothing in here about the Fallists, except in brief mention in some chapters … my position on #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall are both public knowledge, since I have written on it before.”
I had the fortuitous twin accidents of interviewing Gqola for a different project and acquiring an electronic copy of her book around the time of Women’s Day. The latter would have been an otherwise empty coincidence, except that Gqola’s chapter “On the Beauty of Feminist Rage” provides some timeous reflection on feminism in action, ensnared as it is by the fences of a patriarchal society.
The chapters in which Gqola details the sacrifices she and her circle of friends made in order to help raise each other’s children in the face of the rigours of professional life are more poignant than any academese. Her memories of the iconoclasts who shaped her formative years (like her nonconformist schoolmate Pam, who hated needlework but loved gardening) present feminism as both organic and malleable.
In “On the Beauty of Feminist Rage”, she turns to Caribbean-American poet, essayist and activist June Jordan’s 1980 Poem for South African Women. Gqola writes that “she [Jordan] reminds us that women’s action is easy to celebrate retrospectively for those who have no real interest in creating a world friendly to women, a world fully owned by all.”
Gqola’s pondering sets up a dilemma. “While we have clear ideas of the work women in different groupings did in order to make the historic march possible, we are often at a loss as to what a new women’s movement might look like,” she writes. Many have declared it dead, she says.
From the anecdotes Gqola segues into, one can surmise that, in the parlance of the day, she considers the movement to be captured by old modes and the overarching “matrix” of “heteropatriarchy” rather than being wilfully dead.
Gqola tells the story of the August 2012 ANC Women’s League-led march that was disrupted by activists from the One in Nine Campaign, which changed the tenor of that
Then there was another momentous protest, far removed from
the histrionics of August. The nationally recorded, savvy #RememberKhwezi silent protest by Simamkele Dlakavu, Tinyiko Shikwambane, Naledi Chirwa and Amanda Mavuso in April 2016 pointed at new modes of disruption.
But besides that moment, all four of those protesters are constantly engaged in feminist work, writes Gqola. “There is no question that feminist activism needs to be re-energised and that we need to constantly evaluate the ways in which our strategies make it possible for us to be out of the frame.”
Billed as experimental, Gqola’s book sets up the expectation of a writer rigorously grappling with different writing styles. She revels in various experiments with prose but these appear then disappear, with her soon prioritising nuts and bolts over fanciful aesthetic exploration.
This is partly because her essays pull from various eras in her life, providing a composite sketch of her work and influences as opposed to a linear personal portrait.
Having spoken to Gqola a week before the launch of her book, I found it fun to see some of the ideas she relayed in conversation taking on a more literary form in print.
In “A Love Letter to the Blackman Who Fathered Me” Gqola pays tribute to the man she described to me as “gentle, laid back and indulgent” but “no pushover”.
She recalls a childhood moment of politicisation, but she is essentially expanding on how her “precociousness” crashed against his indulgent streak.
It is a beautiful moment, rendered more tender by the fact that Gqola, in conversation, is not interested in exceptionalising her father as an anomaly.
Raised by a father who was an organic chemistry professor at the University of Fort Hare and a mother who was a nursing sister at a hospital in Alice, Gqola grew up with the idea of black excellence being pretty much ubiquitous in the panoramic (at least to a child), self-contained world of a university campus.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t grow up in Fort Hare and have it allow me to take for granted the things I took for granted as a black girl,” she says.
Growing up with two female siblings of a similar age and a brother who was eight years younger, Gqola never knew the humiliation of gendered chores and games until the prepuberty awkwardness of higher primary school. By that time, her upbringing had insulated her to an extent.
To some degree, the book is a celebration of the black scholarship that her new career path seeks to resuscitate. Gqola, as most educators would know, understands how younger people need examples.
“Fort Hare is home, right?” she says when asked about her move to take a post at the institution as a dean of research.
“You can grow black scholarship anywhere but I can’t see how we can continue to do this work in white institutions. I can’t see how we can see decades of black institutions going down and pretend that it doesn’t mean anything. The pain [of decolonising within white institutions] is important but we have to start somewhere.”
Although Reflecting Rogue is not quite an experimental opus, it does find Gqola revelling in the joys of writing, mulling over phrases and finding new ways of tinkering with lifelong black obsessions such as colourism. But there is a sense that Gqola is driven by an urgency that won’t let her get carried away by indulgent experiments in lyricism.
In this case, the subtitle speaks volumes. Gqola, in how she synthesises various feminisms and anchors these with her own lived experiences, has a beautiful mind indeed.