Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 7, 2018

Always Another Country, by Sisonke Msimang

Some years ago, I read Gillian Slovo’s memoir Every Secret Thing and gained a glimpse into the sacrifices families make when parents are engaged in a cause greater than themselves.  Gillian Slovo’s parents were the exiled anti-Apartheid activists Ruth First – who was assassinated with a parcel bomb delivered by the South African security services, and Joe Slovo who after a lifetime in the ANC struggle became a minister in Nelson Mandela’s government.   Every Secret Thing shows that when parents sacrifice all in pursuit of a noble cause, the sacrifice affects their families, especially their children.

Born in exile from South Africa but now Perth-based, Sisonke Msimang’s memoir Always Another Country explores similar territory, but from a different angle.  She is acutely conscious of her privilege as a middle-class Black African: she was well-cared for, she had an excellent education and when she ‘returned’ from exile to live in the ‘new’ South Africa, she arrived with a good job, a comfortable income and a sense of mission to be part of the exciting reforms that were taking place.  The memoir traces her yearnings to belong, her excitement about the end of exile, and her disillusionment.

For Msimang, life in South Africa meant a sense of coming home, even though she had never been there, but she writes with disarming honesty about the unexpected travails.  In Canada – just one of many places she lived as a child, but the first in a predominantly white society – she had learned that the key to survival is blending in, in learning how to be just like everyone else as a first step to freedom.  The immigrant child must master the art of being normal so that she can stand out. But in South Africa, where she expected to belong, because multiracial, free South Africa was the dream her parents had worked for, she is like a love letter that has been torn up and put back together again.  Her experience of racial and feminist politics at university in America together with her broken heart after a failed relationship have fractured her sense of self and alienated her from her parents, especially her father who is behaving like a misogynist patriarch.  She is angry with her middle-class mother for being middle-class polite with the middle-class Whites who used to oppress them, but she is starting to realise that there are divisions within the newly-minted society into which she is blundering unprepared.

Her parents are busy becoming First Blacks.

Like everyone else of their age and social class, they are hard at work at nation building.  Their skills are in demand, and now that they are home they want to make up for lost time.

Baba is busy being a First Black CEO and First Black Director General and Mummy is busy making her mark in the community of returnees who are reshaping the business and cultural life of the new South Africa.  She is the First Black Woman to Open an African Restaurant, then she becomes the First Black Woman Table Grape Farmer, then she is named Woman of the Year in this Category and Runner-Up in Entrepreneurship in that Section. (p. 205)

But Msimang’s sister Zeng is a different kind of first black, an experimental kind, from the generation whose friends reflect the changing face of the country.  There are those like her…

who grew up in exile in Lesotho and Zambia and Uganda and Sweden and Russia and the UK and Canada and America and all sorts of other places. They returned as teenagers in the 1990s and tried to integrate into South African schools.  All of them were South African in their hearts but they had not encountered South Africa until after some pretty fundamental parts of their identities had been formed. (p.206)

And there are those who grew up in South Africa as the children of professionals who became middle-class as the Group Areas Act was relaxed a little.  Some are the children of activists who never went into exile, so they know what it’s like to be under constant threat but also to belong to a movement that is also a family.

And then there are the others whose parents aren’t anyone special.

These are the black kids bussed in to the suburbs from Atteridgeville township or Mamelodi to attend the high school down the street from our house where Zeng is initially enrolled at school. These kids can’t relate to Zeng and she can’t relate to them.  They think she is stuck-up because her English is perfect and her isiZulu is faltering and her Sesotho is non-existent. They think she is stuck-up because she lives in a house down the street and doesn’t need to wake up at the crack of dawn to catch a bus to be around white children who scorn them and laugh at their hair and their noses and the way they speak.  (p.207)

Msimang doesn’t mince words, not even when referencing a secular saint.

Like Zeng, they also grew up in the dying days of apartheid.  Unlike, Zeng, they do not live in middle-class comfort.  Stray dogs roam the streets and there are shacks and overcrowded schools in their communities. Nelson Mandela may be sleeping on fine sheets and soft pillows in Pretoria, but life has not changed much for them yet.  (p.207)

Language is a minefield.  Some friends speak five African languages and English.  Msimang struggles just as Zeng does with fluency in the everyday languages around her now.  She and her family regard Afrikaans as a pariah language and refused to learn it, which adds additional strain to communication with Afrikaners.

Those of us who watched South Africa’s transformation from afar will find this a fascinating memoir.  Sisonke shares not only our dismay at recent developments since Mandela’s death, but she also feels a passionate anger about the government’s failure to deal with the political, economic and social complexities of a nation in transition.  She mourns the loss of innocence:

There is a certain kind of innocence among black people—an innocence that will quickly be lost. In those early days, black people are bound together by a pride and a solidarity that underscores everything that we have collectively been through.  I don’t know it yet, but it will quickly fade.  A decade later it will all but disappear. (p.209)

Just one thing: Msimang couldn’t have known it when she wrote it but it seems singularly inappropriate in Melbourne where scurrilous politicians have been fomenting race hatred that she makes rather patronising remarks about polite white folks smiling at her in Perth because they seem pleased to see this tall, dark-skinned woman in their neighbourhood.  It adds a bit of chic to their suburb. She recognises these benevolent and inquisitive looks as kind, but also part of being defined by the superficial and yet all-important matters of the colour of my skin and the texture of my hair.  Fair point, but we here in Australia have been through successive waves of people who, yes, we at first notice as ‘different’ – from the postwar Europeans to the Asian refugees to those from the Middle East and now Africans… and some of us go out of our way to smile and be friendly because we want them to know that (whatever they may hear from a shameless media) the reality is that all nationalities are welcome here and that given a bit of time, they will no longer seem different at all.  Just part of our successful multicultural and multiracial society.

(And I hope you noticed that I said ‘we here in Australia’, even though I’m an import myself, with a Pommy accent that I still get teased about!)

PS Do watch Msimang’s TED talk!

Author: Sisonke Msimang
Title: Always Another Country, a memoir of exile and home
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2018
ISBN: 9781925603798
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

 


Responses

  1. I am sure it would be an interesting book. I still feel an outsider in this country after more than half a century. An emotional severing happens for some of us even though I am white and speak English albeit with a Glaswegian burr which is rarely uncommented upon. It can be wearisome. But I love this country and that helps to heal the wound which so many of us carry under the cloak of the cachet of middle class affluence. She is a woman of presence and dignity very very privilaged. Every day I encounter another older woman sleeping rough and no one is taking on that discourse with any great passion a favourite word these days. Where is the love our Prime Minister extolls? Women need to go beyond identity politics and the present culture of so called feminists in the public realm of politicians, actors, sports women and support other women who are in dire need. If they are truly for justice for women that has to be their agenda surely.

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    • Oh I could not agree more. About both your points. I do not belong, but I have never belonged anywhere so it doesn’t bother me, especially since so many people here don’t belong either, and really, nobody actually belongs until we sort out issue of the prior ownership of the land.
      But also, I am very disappointed in the current crop of feminists. They are very vocal, but are they actually *doing* anything to support what we used to call the sisterhood? As you say, who cares about older women with no home because their incomes and superannuation aren’t adequate?
      Just this week I visited a friend whose husband has shot through, to offer practical help with the ad-hoc kid-sitting that she’s going to need, and she was so surprised I could tell that no one else had offered. I was quite shocked because my support network when I was unhappily alone got me through some very difficult times. Women don’t need shouty sympathy, they need action.

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  2. I agree with all of that. I could not have made a new life without the generosity of women I barely knew and that led to a new life with many challenges of course. But the freedom to be in the world was worth it. Yes the abstraction of daily life is a dreadful blight on our well being.I am quite depleted by many of my sisters from all sides of the political spectrum and class.

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    • If you watch that TED talk (link above at the end of the post) you can see that Msimang is concerned about this too. She says we need more than listening to stories, though that’s important, but that if we care, we should act.

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  3. Will check that thanks.

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  4. What I think Lisa is keep smiling, it’s gotta be be better than the opposite! It’s hard not to be conscious of other ethnicities, impossible to be ‘natural’, I’m always dying to ask them questions.

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  5. Thanks Lisa for your insight into Sisonke Msimang’s memoir as it pertains to issues of immigration, race, and class. It’s good that Msimang is mindful of her educated middle-class status which permits her to view the effects of systematic racism, economic and social inequities, and governmental corruption on black people in South Africa as well as other countries in Africa, from subjective and objective perspectives. It seems that despite her privilege and possibly some personal biases (that most if not all people have) when it comes to being perceived in a negative way by other people from your ‘community’ with whom she is trying to empower and also aiding to make sustained social and political changes for a just society in the new South Africa.

    Msimang comes from a long line of African social justice activists and activist writers like Gillian Slovo’s parents, Chinua Achebe, Ellen Kuzwayo, Zoë Wicomb, Lauretta Ngcobo, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Bessie Head, Ken Saro Wiwa, Wangari Maathai, Flora Nwapa, Nadine Gordimer, Miriam Tlali, Athol Fugard, Buchi Emecheta, Wole Soyinka.

    Always Another Country brings to mind other memoirs and fictional works by other African women, past and present-
    • A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings by Bessie Head
    • Burger’s Daughter by Nadine Gordimer
    • Call Me Woman by Ellen Kuzwayo
    • Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga
    • Muriel at Metropolitan by Miriam Tlali
    • To My Children’s Children by Sindiwe Magona
    • Unbowed: A Memoir by Wangari Maathai
    • We Should All be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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    • Thanks for this list: it’s wonderful that books from Africa are now becoming so much more readily available than they used to be. Do you follow the Johannesburg Review of Books? It’s a great source of reviews and articles about the contemporary writing scene all over Africa. I follow them on Twitter (https://twitter.com/JoburgReview) but I have also also signed up for a newsletter at https://johannesburgreviewofbooks.com/ because half the time I miss things on my Twitter feed due to their algorithms that decide what they think I want to see.

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      • Thank you Lisa for recommending the Johannesburg Review of Books. I’m currently reviewing its website and the content is very informative.

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        • It’s great, isn’t it! I wish we had a journal like that here in Australia. (And yes, I do know what’s available).

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  6. […] Publishing) Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home by Sisonke Msimang (Text Publishing) see my review Small Wrongs: How we really say sorry in love, life and law by Kate Rossmanith (Hardie Grant […]

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  7. […] Always Another Country by Sisonke Msimang […]

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