Resplendent images of emerging African independence, in a busy third outing from the native South African author (Ways of Dying and The Heart of Redness, both 2002).
The story is based on a 1971 trial in which white Afrikaners and blacks were prosecuted, under the notorious Immorality Act, for mixed-race sexual relations. In Mda’s retelling, the focal characters are Niki, a beautiful black woman who is raped by one white farmer and becomes the lover of another, producing a son (Viliki) and a daughter (Popi), the latter looking “almost like a white woman’s baby” but then burdened with a discolored skin caused by Niki’s desperate attempts to “brown” the infant over of a fire, to protect her from racist insults. There’s a lot going on here. Every chapter begins with a detailed visual image ostensibly created by “the trinity,” an unnamed “man, priest, and artist” for whose “madonnas” both Niki and Popi sit as models. There’s a tense account of the trial of “the Excelsior 19,” brought to an end when 14 black women are persuaded not to give evidence against the 5 whites they “seduced.” Mda traces the sad history of Niki’s marriage to Pule, who labors in mines far away and stores implacable resentment over her “infidelities.” The story’s political dimensions intensify when Viliki joins an “underground” liberation “Movement” and then later its army, and when he and Popi (whose awareness of her “difference” has fully radicalized her) are elected to their local council, seated with the black majority among three sullen Afrikaners. But “liberation” is imperfect. Viliki and Popi are voted out. The concrete-block house she builds for herself and Niki remains unfinished. Aging Niki becomes “the Bee Woman,” communing with her creatures and dispensing honey, and Popi’s conflicted freedom is beautifully encapsulated in a climactic conversation with the brother who grudgingly acknowledges her.
A gorgeously colored picture of personal and cultural metamorphosis. Exhilarating stuff.