Storytelling is not an easy skill to master. For the past few weeks I have been writing and re-writing stories searching for the best one to tell , but none has stuck. Even though the times we now live in, offer a daily buffet rich with an abundance of subjects and issues to campaign, complain and write about. For someone interested in a little bit of everything, it can be challenging to choose one story when everything of importance seems to be taking place at once.
There is not enough time to process or digest the events before something new and more urgent takes place. Words kept swirling around in my mind in a thick sludge making me so dizzy it was an effort to swallow the urge to vomit letters which threaten to spill out in a crazy haparzard way; in mismatched bits of information from unrelated events which only seem to make sense to me and no one else, instead of neat algorithms suitable for the top search engine result pages.
My being nauseated with words began with a reading of Ben Okri’s Startbook (2007), which opened a door to an old but familiar world of myths, legends, beliefs, trials and tribulations, longing, love, suffering, desire, pain and redemption.
While I was still trying to make sense of the multiple worlds in Starbook, and which one I occupied, I was plunged into a situation which required my full and undivided attention. After two weeks of full immersion I came out gaping for air, plastered on the beach front of what used to be my life and then on a shelve I found a copy JM Coetzee’s Youth (2002), waiting for me. A gift left by a friend after I told her a longwinded story about why I have never read South Africa’s most decorated writer, yet. The story had to do with his prize winning novel, Disgrace. A book I started to read but never finished.
In Youth a semi-autographical book about JM Coetzee’s we first meet “John” in South Africa during the 1960’s as a frugal student navigating an awkward sex life, studies, reading materials, musings about mathematics, and literature behind a faint backdrop of political unrest. In the UK, where he goes to pursue his dream of becoming a writer, I find nuggets of resonance in phrases which starkly mirror some uncomfortable feelings I have about being South African today, especially the parts where Coetzee defines the country as “an albatross around his neck” which he couldn’t wait to be rid of. The author who eventually emigrated to Australia couldn’t wait for the day when he would refer to South Africa as a place he used to live.
I found I shared some of his sentiments but for different reasons. While I was still chewing on Cotzee’s gelid search for warmth laid out with mathematical distance, I read an article by Sisonke Msimang on the subject of xenophobia; Belonging: Why South Africans refuse to let Africa in, which left me stewing. She says, she found it disappointing during the recent spate of xenophobia in South Africa that black and white South African’s were united in treating both the rest of the continent and its nationals as the bad, unfamiliar and unacceptable “other”. While I could not argue against many of her points, reading her left me feeling inexplicably weak and positively ill.
I tried to purge the experience by re-reading an article written earlier in the year from an interview with Achile Mbembe, a thinker whose ideas I have not always agreed with, but found more palatable as the fires kept raging on, in the streets of South Africa.
Still, all the best minds in the country and the world were already dissecting the subject of Xenophobia, Femicide and, and.
I needed to find something else to write. I began to think about journalism and if I could still write a news story with a compelling angle. Break something, you know. Instead of new story ideas my mind brought up a series of images of my lecturers who I remembered not for what they taught in journalism class, but because they had perculiar ways of being.
There was Marc Cadwell in his uniform; faded blue jeans with a worn-in short sleeved blue t-shirt, brown Hi-tech sneakers explaining the practice of Journalism as if to himself. I notice that I was not paying attention to what he was saying, but how he was saying it, how he moved his hands slowly or kept pushing his right hand in the front pocket of his jeans while the other drew squiggly illegible notes on the blackboard. His voice slow and measured never changing in pitch, tone or cadence.
Or our history lecturer who reminded me of Mrs Doubtfire, with the same sensible shoes, pale flesh coloured stockings with generous conservative dresses which hung over her ample hips like curtains. She also wore thick eye-glasses and short clipped silver grey hair to boot. Her German inflected English brought the first and second world wars right in front of my eyes as if I was riding in the same carriage with Hitler and Mousolini as they played chess moves with people’s lives.
Then there was our politics teacher, Jude Mathurine, who reminded of me the character of Steve Urkel from the African-American hit comedy show, Family Matters without the character’s permanent goofy smile. He paced the floor seriously, earnestly reciting, analysing and comparing all the political ideologies known to man as rapidly as a racehorse commentator, pausing every now and then to bite the inside of his bottom lip to think, squeezing it with his thumb and index finger afterwards to complete a thought. I never heard nor understood a word he said yet I remember his pants which he wore high-waisted with his long sleeve shirts always tucked in. I remember his glasses and this long hair kept in a thick ponytail.
While these images could not help me find a story to write, they at least gave me some insight on how to do it. The first thing to remember is stories rarely come out of thin air – there is almost always a history and context behind most things. Secondly, the pace or timing is critical. One cannot tell a story too soon or too quickly because then you risk missing the point altogether, at the same time one cannot be too slow or too long either because then you risk loosing people’s interest.
This is when I saw her. Sitting under a tree telling us a story about her childhood. One summer while on school holiday, she and her sisters played in their grandmother’s farmhouse in Kliptown, when suddenly, a snake fell from a tree and landed right on top of her shoulder: she stood still, turned her head slowly, looked at the snake calmly before flicking it away without flinching even as her sisters scurried away screaming in panicked horror. “Beng’a Sabi” – I was not afraid she said folding her hands under her stomach as our eyes widened with wonder and admiration while we urged her to go on.
She told us of life in Kliptown and how there was no segregation when she grew up, the Chinese merchants lived next to Indian traders who were neighbours with black Africans who were neighbours with Coloured people. There was no segregation, ubandlululo, she said. Everyone came from everywhere, and they found a way to live together peacefully. She transformed the front garden of her childhood home where we were all gathered listening as she re-told real stories of her adventures as a fearless young girl. I wished we had more time.
Thinking of her reminds me of our collective heritage as Africans: storytelling – oral storytelling specifically which is made more compelling because it is almost always a shared experience. It does not rely only on words but on the storyteller’s voice, their eyes, the way their mouth moves; their energy, mannerisms, expressions, and their soul.
In other words, their presence. African storytelling depends on living beings to imbibe the codified visual messages along with words and songs, which are transformed by those who hear them; the unresolved questions, mysteries and lessons into a new way of life. A new culture.
Stories are told by those who live(d) them – and often it is not what they say that captivates us, it is how they say it. It is their being that pulls us in and makes the stories come alive.
There are no stories without people. She, my maternal grandmother always told positive stories about herself: she said she was strong and healthy and she was; she outlived her parents and all her 11 siblings.
As for me, I have always secretly wished to one day give her a place of honour at my wedding. As my own way of building bridges; of mending what was broken even before I was born but instead, with her last breath, she gave me a place of honour at her funeral.
You see, while we cannot control the stories we are born into or out of, while we cannot control what people do or say about us – it is the meaning(s) we attach to the stories we hear and tell about our lives which makes all the difference.