The global frame of reference most readers have for African literature accommodates one or two names, generally speaking. “Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Adichie, that’s what we’ve got,” says South African writer and activist Sisonke Msimang.
Msimang is the author of Always Another Country, an affecting and poetic literary memoir of her coming-of-age as one of “freedom’s children” nurtured in exile as her father’s connection to the African National Congress (and his efforts to end apartheid in South Africa) shaped a life that eventually sent her to six countries, including Zambia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Canada, and the United States, where she attended college.
After a career as a human rights advocate, Msimang turned her attention to writing five years ago. She realized she was on to something as her writing began to appear in global outlets like South Africa’s Daily Maverick, the Guardian, and the New York Times. “I reached many more people writing than I did as an activist,” Msimang says. “I got instant gratification; I started caring about writing as a craft, not just to achieve a certain perspective.”
She enjoyed writing short articles about South Africa, but she wanted to write more, and globally. “The 800 words were great, but I felt like I was repeating myself,” she says. “I started working on longer-form essays, writing on topics beyond South Africa: women, blackness, and popular culture.
“One of the things whiteness does, and part of what happens with racism, is that when you see a complex black person, he or she becomes the exception,” Msimang says. “That can continue if you write just about yourself. But if you create a community of complex black people, which I tried to do in Always Another Country, that makes it really difficult to think about the exceptional black person. The book is in some ways a love letter to that. I chose a memoir format, but I tried very hard to imbue the community in that.”
There are a number of communities represented in her memoir as a result, including South African women, one of her main audiences. “South Africa is a country that has such a complicated history of racism, white settlers, and supremacy. Because of that, our country’s stories are defined by big men,” she says. “Nelson Mandela, Cecil Rhodes, and Jan Smuts. There are a million biographies about them.” She learned about them in school, but as she wrote Always Another Country, she decided to tell “small stories about women, about what happened around the margins of those histories, those who were collateral damage around their stories.”
The multifaceted community that Msimang renders in Always Another Country includes the unforgettable story of a reckoning when her father confronted the Canadian head of the school Msimang attended after a fellow student called Msimang a monkey as other kids laughed. Her father demanded an apology from not just the child, but the whole class—a pivotal instruction.
“That story taught me a lot of things at once,” Msimang says. “That racism is not just an experience of victimization; it can also be a site where you win. Being racially abused doesn’t just mean that you take it. That racism is the problem of the racist.”
Joshunda Sanders is a writer and educator living in New York.