BOOK REVIEW: Opening up Soweto and Chatsworth with stories
Niq Mhlongo’s fetching awkwardness contrasts with Pravasan Pillay’s dexterous appropriation of English, writes Hans Pienaar
A child hanging around under or in an apricot tree in a backyard puzzling over the grownups seems such a quintessential South African scene. But at the heart of Nic Mhlongo’s eponymous story in Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree, is another mystery: why was there an apricot tree in every backyard in Soweto? This is a matter he raised at some of the many launch events for the collection.
In reality, of course, such a backyard idyll is a tainted one. The apricots are either too green or they fall off and lie under the tree to rot. For Mhlongo the tree is the source of stories; that is where township dwellers gather to tell them. But its rotten fruit is also a reminder of the one story he is in two minds about — he owes his existence to apartheid’s absurd social engineering, which threw his father and mother together.
This tension, between the township as his home and source of the stories, has made him a writer and a human; and the sense of captivity and waste Soweto’s residents still suffer due to apartheid threads through the collection. Mhlongo struggles with English. This produces a fetching awkwardness, accompanied by the ironical self-surprise in the tone of his public pronouncements that makes him so popular.
The stories are littered with dead metaphors, cliches even, but this is the linguistic waste the townships and their discarded people have to deal with. His English is all other township dwellers’ English too, and the runaway sales of his collection attest to an identification with the ways he freshens it up.
There are wonderful stories in Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree. In Rope the tale of a piece of rope used in a zama-zama mine leaves readers dangling appropriately. In Turbulence the narrator is drawn into a political dialogue full of subtle ambiguities with an elderly fellow air passenger, a typical white liberal, prompting him into a stupid crime that goes against the empathy, well hidden in the subtext, that he discovers he feels for her despite his irritation.
But there are also a number of places where perspectives shift without warrant: different registers intrude midsentence and where an open ending seems prescribed more by manuals than any imperative emanating from the text.
Mhlongo undoubtedly has the talent and plenty of the ubuntu a writer needs to become really good, but one wishes he would spend more time under the apricot tree with a more ruthless editor.
Pravasan Pillay writes about another township, Chatsworth, in Durban. Seldom have I come across similar writing in which I can hardly wait for the next sentence. His collection could yet be remembered as the harbinger of a major authorship, up there with the very best in short SA fiction: Ivan Vladislavic, Nadine Gordimer and Hennie Aucamp.
Pillay has a relationship with English of a different sort, one of wholly appropriating it and making it one’s own, close to a new dialect. Pillay gets it down to a T, especially the unique twists in syntax that marks Durban Indian English. He makes you smile and appreciate the genius of language that is able to turn what may look like urban slang into a vehicle for distinctive life and additional dimensions of meaning.
Pillay effortlessly and expertly takes readers into this world, but also opens up others. In the quite masterful story, Crooks, he describes the tender love, suffused with oedipalities, between a struggling widow forced into illicit business and her overweight daughter. Likewise the ambiguous relationship between an older man and a boy whom he tries to persuade into selling him a "sand samoosa": is he a recruiter for a crime, a paedophile or just a lonely soul?
Many of the stories deal with growing up, reflecting Pillay’s time as a teacher. There is the schoolgirl who finds her feminist mojo in an altercation with a drug dealer trying to follow the unspoken rules of a chauvinist trade. Another is trapped in that state between puberty and adolescence when the body — another dexterously explored theme — is the focus of all attention and anxiety.
In another jewel, Under a Yellow Marquee, a woman with an almost supernatural affliction comes to the aid of a young father who cannot deal with his spoilt brat of a child at a funeral, which Pillay turns into an examination of so many other themes that a second, even third reading is needed to catch them all.
Apartheid is a challenge for 21st-century writers: will they succumb to the prescribed role of propagandist against it, or bring something fresh to an overwritten, overdetermined field in a done and dusted moral category? Pillay tackles racial discrimination in The Albino, the story of a schoolgirl whose unique form of albinism turns her into a "white" beauty admired by all.
Tragedy ensues in the usual banal fashion, but he impresses with his ability to conjure up a scene of originality against great odds, and at the same time to turn it into a drama of dreaded political anticipation.
Like Mhlongo, he specialises in the abrupt, dangling ending, and on occasion one senses a tripping over the feet after what was an elegant dance.
But mostly they open up whole new stories and fields of possibility in the kind of jolt that adds the final pleasure to a feast of imagery, well constructed sentences and paragraphs and just plain, good writing.
Gary Cummiskey’s Dye Hard Press must be commended for publishing this great book.