Subtle stories with complex characters striving for connection amid the South African diaspora.
This debut collection by a South African writer was hailed when published in Afrikaans in 2011 and here sees American publication with an English translation by the author. Some of the characters in these stories try to connect, but most are exiles or outcasts, “severed from their youth, from all ties and expectations.” Most are dealing with impending or recent deaths: of their mothers from cancer, their lovers from AIDS. And this—the human condition—is their real homeland: “The pain inside her is a strange country, an impenetrable language.” Two consecutive stories, “VNLS” and “Mother’s Quartet,” feature the same protagonist, Ondien, who abandoned her Ph.D. thesis to become a world-music performer, a white artist backed by two female Zulus, their artistry “meant to be subversive, an attack on the system.” It turns into something quite different, and the other members of the group, whom she calls “my family…my sisters,” turn out to have a different relationship with her as well. By the second tale, the group is no more, and Ondien visits her own alienated family, her siblings, scattered around the globe, suffering from collapsing marriages and careers. She returns to South Africa to find herself “a thief amongst thieves…part of natural life in this country, the instinctive processes sustaining themselves behind shiny surfaces.” Most of these stories concern subcultures—artistic, academic, sexual, racial, national—where some sense of belonging makes the characters feel that much more alone.
Elliptical and ambitious, these stories communicate more through the silence of what isn’t said or revealed than through elaborate explication.