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African Renaissance

Ingrid Jonker’s Black Butterflies

Abigail George

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Let us tell ghost stories.

Jonker is a ghost of her former self, but she is still in the land of the living — a tragic beauty in a state of personal turmoil and crisis.

“There is no time like the future to seal my fate,” she thinks to herself, with growing uncertainty. She is unbearably nervous tonight. She fidgets. Her fingers twitch. The clock on the wall opposite her distracts her and she smokes cigarette after cigarette and then dashes them in an ashtray. She feels exposed, she paces up and down, but she still attaches no serious damage or blame to her last love affair. She was gentle and loving with her small daughter, Simone today. Simone is a beautiful child. Sweet and well behaved.       

In Paris, she was already a writer in exile — cursed, perturbed and a voyeur who had high-maintenance tastes. She is still unclear about what she is going to do about her lover. Her resolve unraveled that night in the flat. Her beauty meant nothing to her. She was not conceited. What had her attractive looks brought her but ill-fated relationships, rejection, pain and suffering? Nothing dulled or sated her desire for love, for life, for a hot and heavy intellectual debate, which her voice was the center of. In retrospect, living in Apartheid, participating in conversations with other colored and black writers, poets and intellectuals at secret literary meetings had made her begin to doubt what she was living for.

She wanted to be taken seriously as a woman, but more importantly, as a writer. They were dangerously in hate with a patriarchal system. The essence of the identity being passed to her was a fate worse than death and could not guarantee security in her chosen field or career.

Love will change you in an indescribable way. It will make the strong weak, strong hearts weak, render the intellectual speechless, comedians will vanish and be replaced by philosophers; the funny will be replaced by philosophy and everything that was laughable before is serious and stimulating. The challenges of the human condition become painfully obvious. Death is the ultimate sacrifice, invisible and mysterious. Ingrid Jonker made a decision for herself that was useless.

There is no earthly justification for what she did. Removing the very substance of her gift, her genius from this world, by taking her own life, by drowning herself in the sea.

As they pulled the limp body from the ocean, the subject in death mirrored life. There was a chill in her embrace. Her fingers were numb. She was haunting, pale and beautiful, lacking tenderness. Her cheeks were wet as if from tears. Her mouth is full. Her lips are cool, as if she has drunk her fill. Her appetite is sated. She sleeps to dream, she does not speak and there is no lapsed recovery from the multiple meanings of words. There will no longer be the willing prerogative of an insomniac to stay up the whole night and blot out the stain of her sins by writing.

The male police officers’ hair was windswept. They talked amongst themselves.

The breeze was salty, the morning tide came in, the breakers crashed against the rocks, the foam raced towards the shore, birds circling overhead perched on rocks and altered states were trapped in a war of nerves. Her eyes stared into the pale, blue sky. The beginning of the day was like her work, imaginative. It gave recognition to curious incidents in the still, mournful air of the morning. It concerned itself with the decline of evil and the harmful beginnings of the harvest of desolation.

The shadow of a ghost of a haunting memory refused to disappear into a hazy reverie. The poet, Ingrid Jonker, is dead. Her face has an unsmiling seriousness on it. Even in death, she is angelic. Her demeanor never giving way to the trouble or unfounded insecurity that lay underneath.

She is authentic, a true original, a unique. She will never know this in her own lifetime. Her life when held up to scrutiny in death will revere it. She knew what the imagination was capable of, the loneliness of the heart and when it was ready to surrender to a temporary escape into a romance. Her innocence and vulnerability reminds me of women ahead of the times they were born into, women who were visionaries, leaders, and had to endure great humiliation from powerful men, women from a more traditional public realm. Women like Joan of Arc, Saartjie Baartman, Susan Sontag, Princess Diana, Sylvia Plath and Marilyn Monroe.

She is barefoot in her flat. Her hair is dark, wild and free and falls across her face. Yet in her eyes, there is a declaration of having been to hell and back again. There has been a radical change in her behavior since she came back from Paris that has not escaped her but she does not speak of her experiences there, of the lingering sadness that torments her. The ‘unhappiness’ does not have a name yet, but soon the world will know and there is nothing she can do to protect her daughter from it.

Fate is like a drowned thing, an empty shell reserved for the sound of silence invoking the sound of the ocean. She has decided she is a poor activist, wife, mother, woman and lover. Simone, her daughter, wants to make her smile but she is tired of playing games.

Nonetheless she plays along, pretends to catch the joke, and today, when the journalist came for the interview, there was a glimmer of a smile on her face when her picture was taken. The picture of her as the famous, prize-winning poet. ‘The female voice of her generation’ was a small consolation to her. Without her father’s love, she felt lost. Fame meant little or nothing to her and the turning point came now, this night. How different would things be in the morning for people that she had been estranged from for years, she wondered quietly to herself?

How many times, I wonder, did she have to redirect her focus when tears blurred her vision when she cried, when she was working? How do you survive a blessed and cursed childhood? What made her laugh, this sensitive, delicate woman? Who made her smile? The elementary particles of light became diffused on her face. It was translucent, her face was dreamy and her lashes were damp. There is a distracting air near the incident now as they wait for the coroner. Simone woke up in the stillness of the flat and went in search of her mother. She searched the rooms one by one and found that they were empty.

Where does this story begin? The car is hurtling down the road past everything a young Ingrid knows and loves. This is the world of a child, a babyish language, tea parties in the shade with her sister, barefoot on the sandy beach searching for beautiful feathers, smooth pebbles and colorful shells. Now history has turned the page. Their father has come to fetch them to live with him and his family. Their idyllic childhood is over forever.

 

This article/commentary was published as creative non-fiction on the online magazine StoryTime as Ingrid’s Ghost.

Abigail George is a feminist, poet and short story writer. She is the recipient of two South African National Arts Council Writing Grants, one from the Centre for the Book and the Eastern Cape Provincial Arts and Culture Council. She was born and raised in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth, the Eastern Cape of South Africa, educated there and in Swaziland and Johannesburg. She has written a novella, books of poetry, and collections of short stories. She is busy with her brother putting the final additions to a biography on her father’s life. Her work has recently been anthologised in the Sol Plaatje EU Poetry Anthology IV. Her work was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She briefly studied film.

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African Renaissance

The forgotten world of female silence (around issues of mental cruelty and abandonment)

Abigail George

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I think of victims of abuse. Have I been a victim of abuse all of this time, all of these twenty years? Father says I have to go to work now. Not for the first time, I was the last solar runaway hiding under the sun. I would drink cinnamon milk. Imagining it to be the elixir of winter’s sure footing’s split personalities. Here is the news that still frightens me to death. My father’s death. My mum’s death. I feel little and lost and empty without the awareness of their love. It is Saturday. It erodes me to a small death. Breaks into my grateful light. Into this cocoon that guides me, that enters me. It has been a long, and boring day. There are angels that surround me now. I have fallen in love. Imagining the birds singing opera. I think of my life without books, without writing. It would have been no life. I think of survivors of abuse. Victims of abuse. How am I one of them paid in full, secure in the knowledge that I too will face death head-on one day. I have started to wear my hair like Woolf. Think of the hours of silence that pass me by. Itis much too late to have friends now. Sit around a table, give thanks, and partake of a meal in a fancy restaurant. I think of my first love. He is gone. He is gone. Like the blue in the sky, and the eyes of the cloud people who move like salmon in the air. I no longer wish to be centred in the bloom of youth. I am no longer perfect. Can’t get the stink out of this human stain. I feel so animal. I feel this trauma so electric.

Surrounded by a band of mercy, and older women whom I have disappointed. My sister is in Berlin for Christmas this year. Thinks she of me, does she miss me, is she proud of me, or is this goodbye? This is a prayer, an innocent prayer. This is a holy prayer. I think of the men in my life. They have all moved on by now. I am just messenger now. Poet. He has taken my sister away from me into the world of the Germans. Does he love her? Has he fallen in love with her? The world takes away everyone from me that I love. Give her back to me, Berlin. I love her so. But it has all come to me too late. So, I turn to prayer, and ask for the gorgeous price of health. The one I love is gone. Sister, and daughter walking on Rilke’s cobblestones. All I have are her songs. Listening to her music collection is like an input into her heart. I bless her. Let her remain vigilant, and loved, always, always. I take the sword and swallow it. I take the pain. My sister is dazzling and profound and urgent in her all of her requests and invitations towards the opposite sex. She is independent and wealthy. I am an artist. I struggle. I live in poverty. There’s a fragility to my happiness, and a frailty to madness. I think of all forms of violence. Think of taking my life again. Cannot see another way out.

My sister’s rescue dog Zooey rests her head on my knee. My sister is a sexual being, and there is something divine about this. About having this energy. She is both sensuous and loving, ardent and adored, thoughtful showcase and talent when it comes to choosing her lovers. I have none. I am not a sexual being. I am a meteor, pale fire in my eyes, I am acting, I am also fake, and monstrous in my behaviour with the ones I love. I am reductive. I am oppressor. It is my sister that I oppress. I only wish to emancipate myself through her. Live vicariously through, but that is no life to live whatsoever. I want to love, but I have left it too late in my life. I want to have cherished friendships in my life, but I am like spring. Here, and then gone again. I have fears. I have doubts. I have insecurities. I have anxieties. I am a triple threat to any man.

All I want is a kiss. All I want is a kiss. But then I will be done for. I got fat, then I got old. I got unattractive, lost the weight, and then became attractive. But what do I do with all of this newfound attention, and pleasure? I have fought pleasure all my life. It is not of my own doing. It came from childhood. Awkward chapters of childhood. All I ever wanted was to be beautiful. I thought that that would be enough. All I ever wanted was to be a sexual creature, a wife, and mother, a loving spouse, and supportive partner. I have failed miserably, miserably, miserably at being a woman. It is just so sad. And then I think of the origins of the Khoi in the Eastern Cape’s Kat River Settlement. Religion and doctrine, church and indoctrination, baptism and not being baptised. Accepted by Christ, and not being accepted by Christ. They are my origins too. I am Khoi. I am Krotoa.

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African Renaissance

Symptoms of depression: As told by Dr Ambrose Cato George to Abigail George

Abigail George

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What is depression

Life in South Africa can result in us having good and bad feelings. Sometimes we feel happy and sometimes we feel sad. However, when these sad feelings carry on for longer periods and interfere with the person’s ability to perform his responsibilities at home and at work, then that person could be suffering from a serious illness namely depression.

I have suffered from depression for the majority of my adult life. During this time, I have experienced much pain and suffering from the illness that affected all aspects of my life. There were many times that thoughts of suicide were constantly in my mind.

But I persevered and have lived to tell my story, a story of hope and happiness. Over the years I have learned to cope, by looking out for the signs of depression and getting immediate treatment for it.

The signs are important to all South Africans since we all confronted by stressors such as crime, violence, family abuse, rape, HIV/Aids, unemployment, retrenchment and the like.

I invite you to follow the signs of depression with me, the educator.

Slowing down

It is difficult to become aware that you are slowing down. I take action when I become less active at home and at work. I lost interest in the learners and what they were doing. This had to be a sign to family and co-workers that something was wrong with me.

Lack of interest and motivation

I lost complete interest in what was expected of me as an educator. There was no clarity in my thoughts to the extent that I could not see any good in what I had experienced in the past.

Extreme tiredness

This was one of the most difficult features of my depression to handle. I felt tired on waking in the morning and had no energy to see me through the day. If you are an active individual and you become slowed down by tiredness you need urgent medical attention.

Sleeping problem

As soon as my pattern of sleep is disrupted, I take immediate action. Waking up in the early hours of the morning and taking a long time to fall asleep means trouble of insomnia. See a doctor immediately.

Poor concentration and memory

This factor had a very painful effect on me as an educator. It was very difficult for me to concentrate in order to prepare my lessons. It was ever more difficult to present it to the class.

Disturbance with the appetite

Depression goes hand in hand with one eating too much or too little. With my depression, I lost my appetite to the extent that I stopped eating. The desire and need to eat was completely absent. This situation is very serious as it could lead to other physical ailments and even destroying yourself.

Suicidal thoughts

Frequent thoughts about death and dying and particularly suicidal thoughts need drastic action. When I was thinking about suicide, I contacted members of my support group immediately.

Gloom

My mood and daily vision, which had been bright, can become dark and dismal. Going to bed at night was a frightening experience as I hoped I would never wake up. Action need to be taken immediately.

Reduction in sex drive

It is a serious problem, which must be handled with insight, understanding and maturity.

Worthlessness

When I am very depressed, I am overcome with a feeling of hopelessness and worthlessness. The large classes, the undisciplined pupils, poor motivation and lack of concentration gave me a sense of hopelessness. I felt that there was no way out. I then knew I needed help.

Loss of self-esteem

When I start feeling no good and think that I am a failure, I realise that I am on the road of a bout of depression.

Throughout my years as a depression sufferer, I have been sensitive to the signs, which I have mentioned above.

From a medical point of view, a person can be considered depressed, if they have at least five of the signs mentioned above. Everyone must take swift action when they, a friend or a colleague is affected by depression. You can learn to cope with depression. There is hope.

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African Renaissance

Domestic Violence

Abigail George

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It is too cold to swim but she takes his hand. It is beach weather but it is still too cold to swim. She knows she is being brave at this point; even her rage is poetic as she feels the world, her world and the information in it blackening around her. Everything is becoming more and more intense (she can feel it in a jarring physical sense in her cells), barbarian, savage as she clings to him, her life partner and most of all she also feels mindful of detaching herself in secret from him. She is waiting for him, never questioning or fussing. Waiting for him to join her where she is outstretched on her side, her side of the towel and she is smiling up at him.

‘Here, let me dry your hair for you.’

In the car, he pulled her hair and before she could even blink back the tears, he slapped her hard in the face.

Curls never smelled as sweet like this before. It’s the sun. The sun pressed against her cheek. Her body is brown and tingling all over from the swim and the wind and her tears. He’s an invincible work-in-progress. In the interim she’s left to burn, to explode. The lines are there of her passion, her experiments into family life (cohabitation), intelligence and her value to this the most modern of society’s. Her survival she thinks up to this point has been extraordinary.

‘Hold still. Hold still. There’s sand in your hair.’

‘Pull yourself together right now or else I’m leaving you here.’ She licks her lips and tastes blood. Has it stained her clothes, she wonders? Blood is hard to get out.

Dianne in the kitchen, out the door, walking, in the afternoon quiet laying down in the bedroom with the curtains drawn, frying steak or chops, watching the hiss of chips in the pan for his lunch (instead he comes home with pizza, a weak smile on his face and he runs his hands up her arms, up and down her back until she feels light governing all her movements), watching the daylight until it is gone, listening to the forked tongues of laughter coming from the television. She feels all of it sliding through her as if she was a string on an instrument. It smells like rain so she gets up and stands in the draft, closing her eyes. The door is open. The security gate locked and bolted. Is it to keep her in or the madman out? She believes in him and whose fault is that. Who’s to blame? Has she gone mad?

Is he finally going to kill her? This scene has not lost its touch and the only thing that is going to take the edge off of things is if she starts to scream.

The next day the phone rings. It’s her sister, the one from Port Elizabeth, the younger one, and the outsider of the family. ‘Is he ready to start a family yet?’ is usually what the hot topic of discussion is that not why are you crying? What happened last night? Talk to me? Why do you let him do that to you?’

If she checks in the bathroom mirror, will he notice the turn of her head from the bed? She is drowning, Dianne is drowning but can he see?

The words coming out of her are, from the darkness of her tongue are broken links in a chain. There is no inner space, no room for forgetting the violence. When she is done with the out of town call, she plates two portions of breyani for herself, which the other sister, the eldest out of the four of them, the matriarch made for the entire family. When Dianne has had enough of feeling wretched, she sits on the couch and eats in front of the television before he comes home from work in the evening. He only comes home when it’s dark out. God knows what he gets up to or with whom, she imagines to herself. She has exiled herself from the hive of shouting, the flying fists, when he has her pinned to the floor under his weight, when she has blacked out.

‘Have you gone insane? I’ve had enough. I’m going to leave you.’

‘Have you really had enough, Dianne?’

‘It’s all a fog.’ She told the magistrate. She knew he didn’t believe her but she said it again as if he had misinterpreted her the first time. ‘It’s all a fog.’ The magistrate had seen this kind of case before. ‘I can’t remember. I don’t know the exact date. I did not call anyone. No, I didn’t pick up the phone to call the police or a trustworthy family member whom I could confide in.’ She didn’t add that she couldn’t move because she was in so much pain and her jaw hurt and she thought he might have broken one of her fingers. She didn’t add that he; her boyfriend had sent dishes with the leftovers of their half-eaten supper crashing to the floor. She remembered how dark his eyes turned at the table at the mention of his mother calling earlier that day when he was not at home.

‘What did you say?’

‘I said nothing. I just said that you would call her back as soon as you got home.’

For Dianne, she finds nothing to wound her imagination, that illusion of all illusions without flaws that delights a child and even more so, a woman, a female poet waiting in the wings. So when she says those words, ‘I believe in you’ or ‘I love you’, she says it in part with fear, as if some harm will come to her if she does not say those words with meaning and a giddy, mad dance of happiness, as if she is standing on the brink of a new world that beckons.) Her alienated family remains alienated, everything in her world that she can no longer cope with becomes more or less challenging to face. She begins to fear voyeurs, walking around with her life history inside their heads and then there’s she, ever so willing to give it up at a moment’s notice without any hesitation at all into her work.

‘I didn’t touch you that time. There’s not a mark on you. It’s just shock and panic rushing through you. That’s why you’re trembling. I didn’t mean to scare you like that.’

Hours pass.  ‘What is wrong with me,’ Dianne asked herself with the bedspread under her chin. It’s afternoon and she is still in her robe. ‘What has finally defeated me, all of that anger bottled up, fizzing inside of me? Was it the holocaust in childhood that exploded in my face like the freezing cold in winter, while I played in the dirt, played at ‘being mother’ or was it the veteran inside of me’s damage, rage and brutality, the poet’s inside-out abnormal sensitivity, the black dog of depression, that coveted prize of recovery that followed spells of mental illness that came with youth.’ She is tired of being brave, her suffering in silence and inclement rage. There is no heady, formidable sky to reach out to her in her physical pain and offer her solace. She is not perfect.

They are not perfect people. He says, it was just an accident waiting to happen and that she is just a voice with no sensation of armour.

She is the firm catalyst and when he starts swinging wildly at her, he cuts her deep to the very heart of her until she feels she is nothing, not worthy of being spoken up for, just a heap that has bottomed out that once had the potential to be buoyant. Cry baby standing her ground against brutality, a fragile bird caught in the fray of domestic violence, hair unkempt and one emotional cripple tied in chains to another; she finds her own blood enthralling. He wipes the floor with mummified her. She is stained by darkness that flows out of his fighting spirit to the point where her dreams meet reality; she is just a passenger. She only comes to life in silence, when she realises what her situation is.

All she can do is shout out loud. If she quivers at the sound of his voice, he will leave her like that, watching her soul spill into the ether.

What does she need a social worker with a rapidly increasing in-tray of case studies for? It’s not like they’re considering marriage. These skirmishes are just skirmishes, intermittent but she can still blot them out. She drifts in and out of waves of real time, paralysed by periods of resting, imaginatively counting the seconds between the blows before finally falling asleep. She feels as if she belongs to a tribe of moon women. Everything about them delicate (suicidal) and if physical harm should come to them (if they walked into a door for instance) they would go to the moon hospital surrounded by caring nursing staff, head doctors who are experts in their field. He cares. He does. Why would he apologise, buy her expensive gifts?

She can’t go out, not like this and she has told him this but he’s not listening, doesn’t give a damn or he’s not paying attention. ‘Use makeup. Hurry up. We’re going to be late.’

There was still something inside her that wanted him to stay. She was frightened of leaving, what that kind of ultimatum would say to her sisters and brother. She would be set loose on the city as a single again. She was too old for that scene. Through all the uncertainties holding her back and the silent treatments she endured in front of the television, in the bedroom, from the bitterness choking her, that climbed into her, curled up inside of her, head spinning she ran water for a bath adding bath oil under the hot water tap. She watched the water turn a constellation of milky white. She was a kept woman, the proverbial housewife with spiritual and physical tasks demanding her attention with nothing to fill up her time but to look after him and his needs.

Being emotionally dead was a serious condition. She needed to replenish the energy she was at a loss to explain how it got away from her. ‘I can break you.’

She knew that her dependency on him had to be seen as an addiction, ‘Dianne’s’ addiction. She slid into the hot water, a rag doll, her features out of focus in the mirror, far away from her conscious being. She closed her eyes as if to brace herself from a fall. To reach the green fields, the other side of the mountain, you had to climb hills.  All of life is drama and drama is a painful way of learning, Dianne and you are slowly becoming a master at that. Even when he wasn’t there in the house with her, she could hear him breathing down her neck, stalking her as if she was prey, carrion, talking to her as if she blind. It was too late for her to learn how to look after herself. She had to be joined to another soul to feel strangely creative. That was part of her generation’s Iifestyle. 

‘I can’t be held responsible for your behaviour, Dianne. You’re behaving like a child, talking like one, acting like one. Does that make you feel brave, standing up to me?’ 

Tea, a private affair for her, always helped to put everything away, to shut the face of her depression up as far as humanly possible. In a time capsule it had more perspective. She could let go of the song of the wind in her hair and him trailing markers of black lines wherever he went and beneath the highs of that surface laid alarm, still waters and the intertwined remains of a girl. She would leave the bag in a mug, pour boiling water over the teabag and leave it for a few minutes. For her ‘going out, flying away’ face she would stand in the bathroom curling her eyelashes making Hollywood-lashes, applying lipstick, rouge, scent and powder but for now she relaxed and opened the hot water tap again.

So she would continue to feel like a foreigner in their home (it was her home too, after all she was the one who kept the home fires burning), struggle against his fury even if it was futile. She packed away the empty bottles of wine where he would not find them and every evening she would compose herself before he came home. If she conceived, the child would be demanding but her splintered life would come full circle. The spiritual quest that had spread for most of her life in front of her would come to an end, normality would reign. But would that be enough? She remembered the day at the beach, waves crashing over her head, bluish sky, while inside she felt miserable, homeless while the commodity of the sun burned up, leaving her a luminous falling angel.

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