It is very hard to fall in love with something and give yourself over to it completely. Why do I write? I pay attention to what came before and then I fast forward to a time when I sense people will come after me (when I am no longer here) who will survive their own possession of a third World War inside their minds more than anywhere else.
I think about their lives and what impact my writing will have on them in the future. Nothing has really seemed to change for the teenagers, the so-called phenomena of the ‘lost generation’. I write for them too (those who have not known any happiness or peace of mind in their lives, any warmth or emotional sensitivity. I feel love for them and empathy and this is the only way that I can express what I think and feel because when I speak, the words are not often there) who are growing up on the wrong side of the tracks in my neighbourhood. It has made me want to claim an identity for myself that is not a bitter pill to swallow.
I am an African writer who represents a disenfranchised, marginalised, underprivileged youth who are on the whole ignored, seen as an unwanted burden because we do not seem to fit the mould of being rich and educated. Our lives are shadowed by loss, found in the translations of the warring factors of life and love, the measure of loss until we stop for death. When are the leaders on this continent going to do something about the demotivated youth? Why don’t we have more role models in Africa who lead their lives with Christian morals and values in the very fibre of their being? I question everything. As a writer I am curious about life, our inhibitions and the secrets and lies we shelve and that we go our whole lives not divulging. I want women who work in the real world to help empower girl children who have low self-esteem, come from single-parent homes, who are dependent on grants to fill their baby’s mouth and malnourished belly to start educating themselves about the world they live in today.
We, as men and women have to discover and cement the original, the sincere, the authentic and the destinies of young outstanding African men and women in time and history as beloved and cherished men and women. Without an identity, first and foremost, you will never believe that you can do anything. You will inspire nothing, you will be false, transparent, a fake, reckless and endanger yourself, and you will believe in nothing. You will have no faith in yourself to accomplish great things with humility and reach and undertake small victories with wisdom at tremendous sacrifice. In due course racism, xenophobia, prejudice, sexism, ageism, cities across South Africa where the Group Areas Act was enforced (the racism of which we never speak and pretend it is not there even though it still exists) will come to an unholy demise, a sticky end, though not soon enough for the want of trying and the scourge of all these daily challenges that we face, the chills that it comes with that run up and down our spines will resurface again and again until it is dealt with in a manner deserving of its severity.
Amandhla awethu! It has begun.
The true Freedom Fighters, their children, their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren survived the aftermath of a reversal of what happened in South Africa and came to the fore when Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1994. Whatever happened, the beginning of colonialism that became the rule, the norm, the status quo and the law of the land and with it came the first heartfelt stirrings of oppression a little over three hundred years ago has now slowly with the width of a thread become undone. It was not the struggle of one man, woman or youth alone. The Freedom Fighters who died so I could be writing these words right now in relative freedom, occupied only with the art of creative expression and artistic license, from forces that would antagonise me, spirit me away, interrogate me, those Fighters died so we could survive. So that the ghosts that haunt us to this day, concealed in the lives of generations present and past could finally come to light, rest in matters of the rhythm, beating, drumming of our collective hearts, be seriously addressed, be debated amongst great theorists and futurists and be put to rest.
Our relationships with each other’s cultures and races have been tender and strained but through the penetrating intellect of our writers and poets all of these stories will be told, their beauty will be resonated within us and we will tremble and we will become weak but that is the meaning and purpose of strength, courage and determination. You only have to look at Mahatma Gandhi to see why it is so, Mother Theresa, Florence Nightingale, Vincent van Gogh, the German composers, the French writers, the Nobel Prize winners in Africa, Ingrid Jonker, Bessie Head’s life and masterpiece ‘Maru’ and Susan Sontag. Strength is not a display of something equalling Samson’s brute strength, something brutal, violent, disturbing, aggressive and insensitive and an evil crime against humanity. Strength is a miracle, probing, truly magnificent and otherworldly. Africa, Africa, Africa you are mature, thoughtful, haunting, your energy blazes with the fury of two suns, your sons and daughters, sometimes you are paper thin, you make me run wild and free into the future.
You chose me out of everyone to fall in love with you. I hope that all the children of Africa, past and present will feel that way about you. You are an infuriating but always forgivable child. You have filled my heart with so much beauty, stuffed it full with fire, exotic life and governed it with wrath. You soothed my brow with a feverish anticipation of what came after the next word. You leave me bedazzled and formidable every day. I take all your treasures with me wherever I go, secretly like a rogue. Forgive me. Africa, you are in a class of your own.
This commentary was published as the foreword to the book Africa Where Art Thou as well as the 33rd Ovi Symposium on Ovi Magazine: Finland’s English Online Magazine.
Alone in the dark: The Sylvia Plath Effect and the South poet
I was 16 when I first attempted to take my own life. I was seeing a psychiatrist (he of the Einsteinian-hair, he had studied at a university in Vienna, his son went to the same high school my brother went to, the highly-prestigious Grey High School for Boys) at the time who was convinced that Risperdal could help me, elevate my mood. I was depressed, very, very depressed. I drank some red wine, and took some pills, and slept it off. There have been other attempts.
Anti-depressants, counselling, psychiatrists, a coma, psychosis, hallucinations (some auditory), but there also have been periods of intense creativity. The psychotropic medication seems to have not impacted my imagination, only my dopamine and serotonin levels. I felt down a lot in high school. I had no one to eat lunch with. One friend.
Every year I had one friend. One black friend. I got tired of being tired (they call it chronic fatigue syndrome). Sometimes I thought I was just pretending. That was why I was attracted to acting in the first place.
I didn’t have to be me anymore. I still think at 40 what people think of me, I’m still dying for my mother’s approval. There were crushing-and-numbing lows that felt like a succession of deaths, clinical depression, insomnia (I found it very difficult to fall asleep, would toss and turn the entire night listening to my parents fight behind their closed bedroom door, I read into the early hours of the morning with a torch under the covers). I’m fragile. I was abused mentally, verbally, physically by my mother for most of my childhood.
Later she isolated me from my so-called friends, from so-called family, and then rejected me because of the texture of my kinky-peppercorn hair. In her words I was an “wretchedly-ugly mistake”, who was “nothing special to look at”, “an intellectual like your father”, “take your smarties yet”. According to my mother, for years, I did not have a mental illness (see bipolar mood disorder), I was demon-possessed and needed prayer.
High school was difficult for me. I was bullied, and I was a bully. I was an obsessive-compulsive perfectionist, a high achiever academically but after the first two years of high school my grades started to slip). You would think that this would have been a warning sign for either my mother, or my manic-depressive father, who was also an over-achiever as I was. So, I felt pain every day, no one was pulling me through this pain, I hardly could get out of bed in the morning, there were no romantic entanglements with boys my own age (which meant no heavy petting, French-kissing, making out, distracted by sex, boyfriends, or popularity), no girlfriends who came to the house, no experimenting with the smoking of cigarettes. I decided I as an atheist, although I still went to church with my parents, and my siblings, my younger brother, and sister. I can’t put all my happy memories, and my childhood, and my elegant and narcissistic mother in a time capsule. I have the same nose like my mother.
My mother thought the obvious, it was drugs. I was smoking marijuana.
It was my peer-group. I was hanging out with the wrong friends. She blamed anything, everything, everyone, family, estranged family, cousins, except herself. I take tranquilisers at night to sleep, fall asleep watching television. Then there are my sleeping pills, my father’s sleeping pills, my aunt’s sleeping pills. Then there’s Pax, Lithium, Zolnox, Arizofy, Puricos for the gout, Puresis, the water tablet, for my chronic kidney disease. It seems that all I’ve seem to do for most of my life is take pills to make me happy, scale the seawalls of the depression, but it is seeming, writing keeps finding me, and I keep finding writing. Books, plays, novellas, poetry, essays, and blog posts. I was a teenage runaway. Sometimes I’m stressed out. I know how to deal with that kind of currency now. I’m still insecure. I’m like the most vulnerable person I know. I can’t turn back time.
I ran away to Johannesburg, and then to Swaziland, and wanted to go to the London Film School when I was 16. I’m designer playwright, keen diarist, hooked on becoming a memoirist, and inspiring ideas when I’m found hibernating in my room, lying in the foetal position on my bed listening to music blaring from my radio, and yes, I’m still running, carrying the cross. I’m only happy though when I’m a failure. I’m only unhappy when I’m adding another accomplishment, onto an already full list of accomplishments. Acting my heart out on the stage, drama rehearsals at the Opera House, lead role in the house play, Quiz, editor of the school newspaper, swimming laps in the local Gelvandale Olympic-sized swimming pool etcetera, etcetera. The everlasting list goes on, and never-ending on. I make money out of writing now.
I’ve lived with the naming, the shame-and-blame for all of my life.
Whose fault was it that I was abused, or that I was molested as an adolescent, or that I was too trustworthy of men in positions of power, and thought that every female that I met was my friend. Last year, I baked a cake for my birthday. It was the most beautiful cake in the world. I decorated it with mini-meringues and African violets, but nobody touched it, put it past their lips. And so, my 39th birthday collapsed, fell to pieces around me. I cut out recipes from magazines, and in the kitchen, I have this burning desire, this burning search to be chef, and baker. I sleep with cookbooks next to me on my bed. And like the high priestess of soul, Nina Simone, or the actress-celebrity Dorothy Dandridge, Oprah Winfrey, Misty Upham, you can only bury your thoughts, your shame, the people that you hold responsible for not loving you unconditionally, or protecting you.
Or nurturing you, or saying that they were proud of you, you can only bury your feelings for so long. So, now I write about the stigma, the bipolar struggle, the anxiety and fear that depression brings up inside of me like a storm, and you will usually find me crying in the dark, stifling my sobs into my pillow at night, dark is the night, winter has moved on, and I shy away from autumn, I’m battling survival, my survival, and I’m so well aware of the women who have not lived to fight another day (Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Assia Wevill, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Donkin, Iris Chang, Petya Dubarova). I’m battling daily. There are days that I feel deceived with burning desire by every single man, woman, and child that I encounter. I think of my happy childhood memories. I think of my sadness, my introspection, my reflections that mirror my soul. Sometimes a certain smell will take me back to childhood. Usually my mother’s perfume.
YSL’s Opium. To this day, that perfume gives me flashbacks.
Sometimes, just sometimes I think of the love of my life touching my face, and then I see him walking away from me in a parking lot, and I smile at this memory. I smile at the injustice of it all, that a man had loved me after all, and I ask myself, do you want even more heartache, more pain, more despair, then tell him that you love him back, that you only live for him. I smile at the memory of Ted Hughes, and Sylvia Plath, because after all he chose her to be his wife, and the mother of his children. Weddings are happy occasions marked by pomp and ceremony, and the happiness, and difficulties of both bride, and groom. It hurts too much on the inhale of the howl, and inside I’m a philosopher in the tradition of Nietzsche, and inside I’m a preacher. And sometimes, just sometimes the history of the bipolar, the madness life, the life that I live on my terms hurts too much on the exhale. In the bathroom mirror I write the narrative of love to myself.
There is a link between creativity, and mental illness, genius, and madness, and then I think of my extraordinary achievements, of my father’s giftedness, my mother’s own capacity for spells of melancholy, and giddy happiness, her talent for flowers. I see things that other people can’t. I hear things that other people can’t. I can’t turn back time to the good old days. I have moths, and butterflies, and swallows, and birds in my stomach, a reputation, an angel-tongue in my mouth. Love has passed me by. I made a conscious decision not to marry, not to have children, but it didn’t make me less unafraid of the world around me. I made a conscious choice not to experiment with illicit drugs. I don’t drink. And, yes, I thought the love of my life, and I would live the years together, from the infatuation-phase to the honeymoon-phase. It is better to have loved, and lost, than never to have loved at all.
I have tried to take my own life four times now. I have relapsed more times than I can care to remember, but I still believe in the inter-communicative, inter-related, grassroots-secret of longevity. I love life.
Finally diagnosed with Bipolar and understanding God’s purpose for my life
I’ve outlasted a lot of things. I’m over 35. I am nearing 40 years of age. I’ve made mistakes and lived with regret but I don’t anymore. And I’m finally able to make peace with the mistakes I’ve made in my past.
I can forgive someone who brought me pain. The suicidal thoughts that I’ve manages to overcome. I think of our happy my parents were in my childhood. I think of every childhood experience as happy except the memories brought back to me of apartheid. I don’t have to tell myself anymore, you can make it. By the grace and mercy of God, I’ve survived. And it is God that has outlasted my storms.
So for the millions of people out there who have been diagnosed with a mental illness or have a loved one living with a mental illness, be brave. You are going to get through this storm. You’re a fighter.
You’re going to make it and when you come out on the other side, talk about it, or write about your survival, tell someone about it, become a storyteller, or give your testimony. You might save a life in the same way yours was saved.
As I write this I think of Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and being fake-happy. Pretending to love being alone and not being the proper example of a good daughter. You want someone to love you until the end of time. I want someone to love until the end of time. I want people to love me. To remember me. In some way I want to belong to the world. I grew up with a narcissistic mother who passed this trait to her only son and middle daughter. That and beauty. That and arrogance.
But beauty fades like fast cars. It’s just tears I tell myself.
Tomorrow I’d have forgotten about them. Anticipating waves or the vibrations of depression does nothing for the way you look on the outside. It is all for you. I do it, I write it for you. I don’t know who you are. I just know that you accept me for who I am. I’m growing older and in the blue-dark I can’t see that I am growing older. All I do, the poetry, the writing is for you. I’m selfish that way, I guess.
I don’t want happiness. I just want a brave personality. That and the writing is what gets me through the hours, the day, the night. And sometimes I try very hard through the tears not to even think of going there. Of letting go. Sometimes I think I love this world too much. I love you, the Reader. I do love you. Perhaps in the end you’re the only thing that’s keeping the chemicals from balancing me the right way up. It’s all for you the Reader. Everything that I’ve ever written. You’re the assignment. Perhaps you’re the mission.
I was finally diagnosed with bipolar mood disorder after Tara. I spent
6 months in a mental institution in Johannesburg. Mental illness stamped on my forehead for all to see, alongside a stigma, a family (and paternal and maternal family) that saw to it that I quickly became an outcast, felt like an interloper when spoken to. I was ignored, and sat quietly by myself at family functions. It was as if I was in high school again. I never cried about it, but I don’t think that made me brave.
I was half-mute like Princess Diana, and Maya Angelou as a child.
Something had happened to me. Somehow I had been transformed intrinsically in childhood (it was because of my mother’s mental, verbal, and emotional abuse), but was it the environment that changed, no, no. It was human nature. All the humans around me. Bright children, no matter how bright they might seem even if adult words come out of their mouths, all children are still innocent. And all children want is the mother-love, and I felt the lack of mother-love acutely with an acumen and focus beyond my years.
I was called insubordinate by a male teacher once. Years later when we met at a prayer meeting, he spontaneously embraced me. In that moment, I forgave him. For the corporal punishment he had meted out to me for letting someone else, a popular girl, copy out my answers in a test. I thought I would be liked. But I wasn’t. I was still a goody two shoes.
I still sometimes would spend break in a bathroom stall.
As a moony-moody teenager I would read. I was mostly withdrawn, serious, never smiling (I never smiled once at Collegiate, it hurt too much to smile, my mother would go on rampages then, hurling mental abuse at me in the morning for breakfast, afternoon tea, and supper which my sister made for us. My mother was depressed too in a sinister and deceptive way). Now let me get back to never smiling, and never playing team sports.
Let me talk about the (good) old days. Collegiate High School for Girls in Port Elizabeth (a Model C school). That year, 1995, I was of course a perfectionist. A bipolar perfectionist who only ever understood the world of achievement, achievement. It had nothing and everything to do with having a Khoi-ego, Khoi-identity, Khoi-personality. But I would only understand the knowledge of Khoi-anything later on.
In those days I relaxed my hair. My hair was so straight it made no curls or waves, and I wore it in a ballerina bun. I was skinny, not voluptuous or buxom like the other girls. Late to bloom, as the saying goes. At 17 years old, or 16, I forget, all I could think of was my shame. My shame that I was not White. The shame of not having straight hair. The mortifying shame of not being athletic, not being able to play sports, not being able to be singled out first for a game during P.E. period I did not play hockey, or tennis (my mother got her Transvaal colours for tennis in high school).
I did not have blonde hair, and freckles on my face, forehead, knees, and the rest of my body. I did not have freckles in secret places.
But I learned quick, and I also learned very slowly that people don’t easily forgive, and forget if you live with a mental illness. This made me withdraw even more into my mute-self. For most of my life I lived like this with a mute voice inside of me until one day I began to write. I was 8 years old.
In later years cousins on both sides of the family despised me (because I was mentally ill). I could see it there in there eyes, as they did not meet my gaze whenever I spoke. Family despised me (because I was mentally ill). I was not invited to weddings, or kitchen teas. Women-fold women-folk kind of things. They despise you (this I told myself) because society despises lunatics, and for a long time I was happy encompassing whatever this word meant. Lunatic. It was me who was more in touch with reality than the ones who thought I was mad, I have come to accept this now. I have other much more important, and significant things on my mind, and I am about to begin to write my first novel. This is what moves me to write this for other people suffering in silence, people who are being told to pull their socks up (or that they ‘re beginning to be too big for their britches). Don’t live a half-life. Don’t live a half-lie.
Thoughts after reading Kiran Desai’s “The Inheritance of Loss”
You will experience happiness, I was the one who told myself this. No one else. The museum has invited me again to one of their lectures, but I never go. They will stop inviting, like they my father, one of these fine days, and then where will that leave me, and the fine museum built with my father’s hands. The South End Museum in Port Elizabeth, at the cusp of the Eastern Cape where in 1820 the English arrived. Sir Rufane Donkin who was to be the governor of the Cape (did he plunder, steal, rape, colonialise I thought to myself or was it kismet, fate, destiny written in the stars. Sir Donkin came with a mad wife in tow. Was she a Mrs Rochester, like me, like me, like me.
Bipolar, mosaic, atlas that it is, well for me it did the impossible with its overpowering (aplomb), uplifting gift that it gave me.
Sometimes the day itself is perfumed with good thoughts of T.S. Eliot, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound, Nabokov, the Russian writers, the Russian poets, the Russian masters, Isobel Dixon, Ingrid Jonker, Plath and Sexton. To me the women had superpowers, and the men, intelligence seeping through their every pore, I wanted them to talk to me, pull me into their arms and hug all my sadness, grief, loss, loneliness, frustration away from the secret chasms of my heart. I wanted them to lull and pull the self-pity that looped itself like cobwebs about my self-worth. Beautiful people, the beautiful women, that beautiful lady that was my mother that smelled just like Yves Saint Laurent’s Algeria, the beautiful men, seemed on the surface tension of things to get everything. They were rewarded. I was not.
I have this imperfect list of thoughts when I was reading Kiran Desai.
Oh, how I hope to be a respected and wonderful writer as she and Anuradha Roy is. Arundhati Roy, the writer of “The God of Small Things”. Sometimes I feel like a guardian, or rather a guardian angel when I write. I am hidden subtly, but also at the same time beyond opinion, and I also find that I am beyond caring for the approval of others. And by that of course I mean my sly and beautiful mother. Hair attractive as it falls about her face, hairpins/hair scarf/hair band loosened by her movements during the day and I try not to think of her telling me to make up my bed, or how they laugh at me, and look at me with this infuriating smile on their faces as if they know better.
Sometimes I think to myself who is the enemy now. Is it me, is it me who has to every year be put away for a week for my own good, to recover from ill health
I was sixteen years old when my mother dragged me to the Indian-looking psychiatrist who had studied in Vienna. And as I think back to that year I think of my identity coined now. That “term” on the inhale, and exhale of every breath that I take. That of a Khoi-female identity. Khoi-writer of prose, and poetry.
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