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African Renaissance

Survivors: Romantic love, the writing life and my heroine, Virginia Woolf

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Her hair came undone somehow in the water. And how it spread out. It was a flame. It was something significant fanning, framing her beautiful, wonderful face blue because of the cold. Yes, it was that time of the year. It was if a lotus flower had bloomed but with no roots tapping into the chilled earth, no stem sprouting from beneath the ground. There would be no myriads of green feasts of leaves either. From my perspective nothing escaped Woolf’s passionate all-seeing, all-knowing eyes.

She had her liberties, and her meditations on nature calmed her nerves. Her platelets, mitochondria and bilateral symmetry no more.

Only the grit, the brick walls, the mysterious interiors of the mansions of her work remained. Left behind. Granite. Diaries left behind for apprentices. Her intuition, breath and vitality has left this damned for an eternity to hell corpse. What does she have to do with the parenting skills of my distant manic-depressive father and my elegant and cold mother? My suicidal illness that needed the rooms of a mansion. No daughters and sons had Woolf. Only significant others with whom she journeyed inwards extraordinarily.

River Ouse captivated me. Woolf’s love letters to Vita. The love story of Woolf and Sackville-West. I am a woman who writes. Virginia Woolf was a woman who was a wife, a lover and woman who wrote. My ordinary madness became a thing of beauty to me. Me an empty vessel who found bright stars in women, in their husbands and children, in flowers in a vase, in the fabric of the universe at night. I am Orlando. I am Lady Lazarus. I have lived vicariously through Hiroshima, Jean Rhys the demimonde and artist’s model and the feminist Sylvia Plath’s cutting-edged authentic words signalling warning, communicating threads of wisdom, and protest poetry.

I needed to understand the London scene, Ted Hughes, Assia Wevill, and the child from that union, Shura. I’m afraid of fabricating the truth.

I’m afraid of modernism because it’s not modernism that is taking over the world. It’s writing. It’s female writing. The interpretations of an inner life, innerness, marriage, creativity and madness. Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf sitting in a tree. K-i-s-s-i-n-g.

One woman says to the other woman, ‘Don’t ‘look’ at me. Look ‘at’ me’.

The other woman turns to face her companion and says to her, ‘Our intimacy is something special. Your skin is a fabric I could drown in.

I can do without religion but I cannot do without you. You have given me the highest form of art, and that is inspiration. How can I ever repay you?’

Perhaps what follows is some of what Virginia Woolf wrote in a love letter to her Vita Sackville-West.

Come to me you elegant creature with all of the hopes that you have for yourself. Your goals have become mine. Your dreams my own.

Beautiful, elegant Vita. My Orlando. When I read your work, I am filled with a clarity of vision, astute perfection, and I feel as if I am your sole possession to have, to have, to have. Can I borrow some of your inhibitory nature, your anticipatory nostalgia, your poetic descriptions, your sky, and the sky in your eyes, your flowers, the flowers that you meditate upon in your garden, your compass that navigates you across the passages of London and Europe?

And I want to share something else with you if you will let me. I have come to care very deeply about you. Understand this. Understand that I don’t want to own you, claim you for my own as I am sure others have wanted to do in the past, and I do not want to possess you, and enter your world as a lover and leave as an interloper. When we are together like this, you reading my words (because there are parts of me that want to be completely honest with you about how safe I feel with the charming and seductive you). When we sit together there is still a veil of privacy, an idea of privacy on my part.

I am sure the same goes for you too. When I’m with you I’m oblivious to everything around me. When we are apart all I can think of is Vita.

What is Vita doing? Planting, gardening, writing, letter-writing (is she composing one to me), planning her day ahead, is Vita making lists, running errands, opening a letter (from me, from me). Is Vita smiling, is Vita laughing, and who is making my Vita smile, my Vita laugh? If it is not me, my duty to make you smile I feel a slight hysteria, overcome with emotion and I feel like an empty biblical vessel.

I feel useless because how can I be of use to anyone if I, the authentic me is not sincerely, utterly devoted to my Vita. It is all about significant you. There is no one else above you. I am utterly devoted to you. You have the key to my heart. Once opened you will find a Pandora’s Box but I must have secrets. Don’t all female writers allow themselves that latitude at least? I must keep something for myself. Something that I can go to when I begin to become afraid that you will be spirited away from me, of our love waning, you withering Vita and passing into indifference, being erased, never returning to the story of us?

What would I do if you weren’t in my world anymore? You, my most rare paradise, my heaven. Smoking cigarette after cigarette, stockinged feet in your slippers, your hair wild, loose, unkempt in my hands, in my hands and that is when I feel at my most magical. The real and the imagined becomes a twisted union, tantalising revolution and although it fades away in the morning it is still there in memory and all I can think about is when we will be able to meet here again. I watch you put your bathrobe on, as you brush the tangles out of your fashionably cut hair my darling, and you turn around watching me watching you and you smile.

My hand caresses the warmth that the physical you left behind on the sheets. I inhale your expensive perfume. And I come to the slow realisation that society will be the death of us. They will never accept us. You make me forget. I like that. You make me forget about Vanessa’s progeny. I like that. You make me forget about my secrets. I like that. You make me forget about my childhood. I like that. You make me forget about being molested by my two half-brothers when I was a child Vita. I like that most of all. You are so right for me woman.

Vita, you’re my gravity, my aorta, and I love how you acknowledge complicated me, my self-punishment, self-imposed exile, and childlike innocence. I love you and Leonard equally and if I were to lose you both, and not live up to both of your expectations then that would be the death of me. You’re an event. When the silence, in my room becomes unquiet, too much for me to endure, and I become self-conscious of it, self-conscious of a writer’s rituals, aware of self-pity I must continue to write. You’ve become my obsession and I can think of no one else’s company that I want to be in. As crazy as it sounds when I’m with you I can feel electricity humming in my bones.

Our connection is an infinite one. I find your poetry, your humility, your abandonment, your inhibitory current stunning, Vita. You are the second love of my life. You are all the dimensions of my world. I find you clever, so artistic, your work is electric, so electrifying, so imaginative, and so artful and you’ve tamed drowning me, Vita. I’ve always been curious of married life. I thought I would be surround by the walls of a prison if I ever found someone to propose to me, and then I married, became a wife but did not have those children and I discovered how far from the truth that was.

Marriage frees you in a sense in so many wonderful and illuminating ways. I wanted Leonard. I wanted love but not necessarily a husband because I didn’t think that love came with having a husband. Love comes with having a likeminded companion. You, Vita, are that likeminded companion. You come with measures of love, with passion, intelligence, you machine. Observe the adjustments in my personality carefully whenever I am with you, study, and evaluate my dying in your arms. Learn my half-truths and white lies as I do yours Vita. I only have to hear your voice and I thrive. I achieve a new intelligence, a new acting, a new materialism, and a new language in that dry season.

It should be as obvious to you now as it is to me that I am utterly besotted, smitten by you. I am in love with you. Let’s set up house together. Get away together if that’s impossible. And when I am without you I am a winter guest in an ice storm. I must brave the cold somehow, mustn’t I dearest? Well, I’ll put on a coat, a hat, and a scarf and my walking shoes, that’s brought a smile to my face. I tell myself that soon we will be together again like this.

I want to tell you that there is something luxurious and soothing about your skin. My Vita. I am at your mercy. Your perfume fills my head. And when I begin to live vicariously through you, self-consciously, or consciously my sadness has a complex wavelength.

Brutal accomplishments threading my humanity. I have longed for them my whole life. The gratitude I have for you being a part of my life has become educational.

And so Virginia returned to the book she was dedicating to the woman in her life who had made her feel extraordinarily loved, and blessed.

They did not think of the extraordinary consequences of the gift of their relationship. They did not think. Period. They lived for love like other women did for being regarded as sex objects, parties, men, the London scene and flowers. Instead they are transformed. The lovers whisper to themselves. They don’t want to part. The grass was a dream.

And they were both brides blushing, as if they were both rushing to the get to the end of adolescence, the English summer weather, its immediacy of sustaining both women’s ideas of silence in the complexity of detachment.

Here in the countryside, shielded by multitudes of simplistic chores, sharing the routine of waking up to their literary work, neither woman could untangle herself from their ‘marriage’. These elegant English heroines, English novelists whose writings were hypnotic were oblivious to reality, the outside world, and men were rendered insignificant, invisible. Men became others and humanity, the female of the species existed in a time and space that became known as the unknown, as the future of which was nearly upon them but not quite there yet.

And now I add my own voice again to the story. It is not Woolf’s voice. It is not Sackville-West’s voice.

After the dust, the cunning sexual disclosure, the impulsivity of the lesbian love affair between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West no sentence could shame the both of them, their writing process, their divine prowess. Woolf gave Sackville-West authority over her physical body, and in return Sackville-West did the same. Gaps, flashbacks, embarrassing regret should come with the territory of an affair that comes to an end. The silence is textured with what is not being said, the acute longing, and the despair of loneliness, of a seductive theory identifying the beginning of this lifelong romance, the mutual admiration committee between these two gifted English women.

I know what it is to suffer. To live with the face of enduring love shining upon my frozen countenance, love realigning my psychological frame, my sexual pace. Your power stifles me, a thing. And a woman alone. At first it’s a glance framing reality, a sensual anticipation and so the landscape’s feast becomes symbolic of what will come after this inconvenient love. Photographs survive. Historical events, knowledge, actors but not manic depressives, the mentally ill, people who have an absence of order in their lives.

Already she had a plan while writing in her diary Virginia, ‘I know I’ll never love this way again.’ And then the River Ouse was upon her like a lake. And there it was. She wanted to die. She wanted to waste away. Find a wilderness of her own making. She wanted to beg to the gods. The unwritten freedom which had been her church, and like a religion to her had left her angelic perspective. The dead end the shortcut to a hellish parade, the seducer. The hook of injustice was in her heart. She lived (a half-life that was but a pale gesture) but in death she lives extraordinarily.

Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominated shortlisted and longlisted poet Abigail George is a recipient of four writing grants from the National Arts Council, the Centre for Book and ECPACC. She briefly studied film, writes for The Poet, is an editor at MMAP and Contributing Writer at African Writer. She is a blogger, essayist, writer of several short stories, novellas and has ventured out to write for film with two projects in development . She was recently interviewed for Sentinel, and the BBC.

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African Renaissance

Slavery and the real life bending sinister

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What is slavery? It is nothing more than poverty of the mind. It is not a school of thought or a philosophy. It is scarcity. It is lack. It is cumbersome. It is heavy. It is a burden.

What does it have to do with politics? Ask what it has to do with genocide.

What does it have to do with the power of having a slave mentality? Just as easily as we rise, we fall. A leaf. Ask yourself this. Does the leaf or gravity have the slave mentality or is it just a path to its consciousness, and if it is a meandering path to its consciousness what does that make of gravity? Gravity is easily the culprit or saboteur. A cup carries water but how does the water break through the physical wellness of the body to sate thirst, how does water flow through the universal meridians and find sanctuary in all the wild places that the ocean cannot contain, in code, in which case what observations come out of these natural and bohemian studies.

A slave is a slave is a slave. My grandfather was a slave. My great-grandfather was a slave. On both the paternal and maternal side they are non-existent for me. I live for my father. My father is not a slave. You see his mind is not enslaved. His psyche, his mental, emotional, physical wellness, intellectual prowess and integrity is intact inasmuch as he is not a slave to the peculiarities and eccentricities of the people he finds himself amongst.

In the stages of my own life I can see that I have been enslaved (my mindset and attitude was) by my body image, my identity of cosmic Africa, the cosmos, my self as an African, what I was entitled to, my basic self esteem. I was a slave to my sister, her dalliances, her whiteness, her renouncing Africa for America then Europe and I understood what loneliness, family, friendship and family finally meant and this frightened me a great deal because I realised I had never really loved myself before. I was a slave to every moment up until I heard James Baldwin speak up. I had truly been a slave to waiting for someone to release me and offer me relief somehow from this kind of suffering and cognitive thinking. I wanted happiness but the price for my freedom was this. Somebody else had to love me before I could.

Ask what slavery has cost us as humanity. Look back at history. When I look back at history, all my life I never felt safe. Whether it was the bogeyman, or a horror film, or apartheid, or reading about apartheid, acknowledging it was the difficult part. How would you even begin that dialogue? What could you partner with those hectic images that left you with an urgency and a sense of betrayal from God? So, I grew up with an unpleasant disdain for middle class families in South Africa. It was easy for me to picture them as racist which they were and still are to a certain degree and yet how could I not be? The thought of slavery and decolonization never left me even as a child as I sought to fight for the betterment of society and to right all the evil wrongs.

Slavery is everything. It is primitive. It is visible if you look hard enough. We haven’t even begun to talk about or discuss in rational terms without venting or becoming agitated or irrational about race relations in South Africa or slavery as a concept or narrative in Africa.

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African Renaissance

On watching David Mamet in an African context

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His boots made a squelching sound. In the whorl of her ear a squelching noise on the welcome home mat. The man was quick. The girl was slow. The woman was slow to speak. She was slow to communicate what she was thinking and feeling. The secret part of the actor was valid. Her fear, anxiety and chemistry becoming like the flapping wings of a Bach woman. After the interview came the hurricane. Late morning the man realizes his mistake. The woman remembers her parents’ relationship from childhood. The man remembers how the young woman looked the day he married her. He remembers their courtship and the day they got married. How he squinted at her through the sunlight that fell upon her hair that day at the beach. He had gone fishing. Caught nothing.

He had left her alone to read a magazine on the beach. The town was near decay. It was a tourist destination for the mega rich.  She will think one day (the girl inside of her) that she married the wrong one.  The apparitions come at night. The snow in winter. David Mamet is a mega rich American writer and Republican intellectual. He has made it. Millions won’t. Millions idolize him. Thousands want to be him. They want to live his life for him. They admire him for living so well. There is driftwood on the beach. The chips of wood are like a magnet almost as if they are chipping away something of life at the root heart of humanity. There is always a story to be told from life, from everything. Everyone has a story to tell. The girl sighs with a thousand other girls. Her soul is bitter. She has lost something. She feels she has lost everything because the guy has up and left her stranded with the baby. What is she thinking, what is she feeling? David Mamet is a well-known playwright. In a shining circle the bleak ones live in this world feeling nothing. Existing on the fringes of this life world. They wait in unison for the hereafter. I realize my mistake now. The young girl fell for the wrong guy. The twig sucks me in. The man walks in beauty. Wild geese are calling with a purpose. Music in Africa has its own language.

We are conditioned to think that nothing lasts forever in politics. The only thing that really lasts is a story. It has prophecy and legacy combined. Which one lasts longer? What of our playwrights and our songwriters? It is a summer evening. People are dancing in the street. The smell of barbecue is smoky. She looks at her face as she passes a shop window that is brightly lit up and doesn’t recognize her own face. The wretched and forlorn look upon her face. The young girl smells of bloom ad smoke. She thought she would give it up for Lent. David Mamet is a world-famous director and writer who understands the nature of art and truth when it comes to telling and writing original stories. He started his own theatre company. He married an actress. Conquerors know of miracles. The house has a room that has been standing empty for years. The naming of parts comes with having a range of intelligence, scrutiny, wearing a sorrowful mask, understanding suffering. The woman has a slender body. The actress has a stunning face. The woman has a confession. There is a sharp intake of breath as the man’s fist comes crashing down on the table. You cut your finger with a kitchen knife. Remember, the day you cut your finger with the kitchen knife. Or was it really your fingernail?

The director goes back and forth, back and forth cutting between the tension and the dialogue of the actors. He walks them through their paces. The actors take a well-deserved break. They talk and interact with each other. They smoke and laugh. The girl throughs her head back and sounds silly when she tries to put everyone else at ease when she is not with her own performance. There is some insecurity there. Some self-doubt. They run lines. The gravity of the thing comes into view. We all struggle. Don’t we all, someone in the group says. There are confessions. Then there are more confessions with a trimmed and a manicured nail. I am getting old. I can feel it in my bones. The flesh of my flesh was very tender that day I cut my finger with the kitchen knife. I sliced it like a pear. Prizes make you happy and sad. Here is the ballad of a growing intimacy, a camaraderie amongst the actors in this theatre company. They mill around. No one wants to end the flow of the conversation. They want to work. They don’t want to go home yet. It means sitting at home alone for some. It means a lonely night. The beauty of the dahlias is complicated. Will there be real flowers or plastic fruit on opening night on the table? My sister doesn’t phone to talk to me.

When she does telephone, she speaks to my mother. I wish I was more real than having this kind of a fake personality.  The actress is deciding whether to paint her toenails a fire engine red to stay in character. Pain helps you to grow. If you forsake pain, you also forsake growth. All of us should conquer something in life. Let us go into the wild that is calling. My life has always been on this path.

On the edge of uncertainty. My soul is gone to tell you the truth. It has lost a bit of its own mystery.

When I speak of David Mamet, I think that in the context of Africa that there is the worker Mamet in all of us. Whether it comes to the tradition of oral storytelling or not, the linear arrangement of the goal of the storyline or in the sheltered pose of the actor reading their lines from a script. The past slips out of its calling. Its shell of water. It passes away into nothingness. That means absolutely nothing and everything to me.

I feel it coming. I feel it coming on. Turning me around. This lonely night. Beyond the trees I feel the thaw.

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African Renaissance

Covid-19 and recovering from the first wave of the pandemic

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coronavirus people

I always wanted to be an African writer living and working in Paris. Eating onion soup and fresh bread rolls at a café for lunch but mostly I am a woman reading, translating work through editing, writing and working in the macrocosm of the narrative that is modern day Africa. I am a woman who feels compelled to tell stories. It is a fundamental part of my day and one of the basics of my life. I want to be honest, but it hasn’t brought me happiness all the way. I go outside and loneliness meets me there. It is too authentic for its own good. It smells like spirit and behaves like wild horses. I admit that I am like water. I am tired of braving hospital life after braving hospital life again. Swimming against the tide of the kindness of strangers. Those nurses and caregivers. Covid-19 there, there, there everywhere and then manifesting inside of me.

What to do with illness? The aberrations of mental illness and physical illness. What to speak of it and to whom? I drink coffee. Too much coffee. Underneath all that coffee is a field. A field of illness. Health is wealth. But I have realized this much too late. The pills glow at night and during the day I take them with gulps of water. My mind palace is awaiting harvest. Too divine. Every day is a day of hope and recovery and renewal. There was a man in the picture, but he is gone now. I thought a man was going to save me. But he didn’t. Now he sits in a house, occupied with thought and calling. All I have ownership of is purpose. It is capable of many beauties. Many things. Once I was in love. Now I find territories to conquer and one of them happens to be life itself. I am a warrior with intent. I am happy, content and satisfied to be a puppet again engineered by the ways of a materialistic society. A puppet named outsider. I don’t pay attention to my mother as often as I should have. I chide myself. I should have been more on her side, placated her more, laughed more with her then I wouldn’t have been rejected by her I tell myself. Now that I am older, I don’t know what truth is anymore. Most of the time life perplexes me. In all my life Rilke has been in my hands like summer. I dance towards battle.

There is certain kind of darkness visible in my nerves. I have known and lived alongside suffering emphasized by psychological insight. It has been majestic in the way that only inconsolable sorrow can be. I am too primitive for this world. I have known love but not enough of it to marry and be happy. My brother says there are married people who feel deeply unloved and who are unhappy. There began to be patterns in my life that marked me, and the world seemed to reject the sunlight inside of me, inside the ancestral worship, Christian psychiatrist of my head. On returning home I began to step out in faith. I watched Joyce Meyer. I wanted to be worthy. Even comets have the air of having a complex about them. Time has a refrain. It is leaving me and with its return come all the stars of the universe. I wanted to know more, do more, I wanted to know what my inheritance was. I remembered myself as a bone thin girl in my twenties wanting to be ambitious but already jaded of the people around me, in their spiritually diminishing crowds. Their mystery attracted me. Their personalities seemed to reject the introvert that I was. I always viewed it as a rejection of me. Rejection of self I suppose.

My mother’s destructive self-sabotaging behavior milking my father’s manic-depressive personality. My own dark struggle with mental illness defined who I was for much of my adult life. My middle sister made her escape to Europe, my paternal family into the church, establishing the bonds of close-knit nuclear family, religion and my maternal family into wealth and privilege. The quiet honey of money. Rich and thick. I found a spiritual habitat in writing poetry, cognitive behavioral therapy and stream of consciousness writing was unleashed. I found there that life shimmers in both joy and solace. I found the edge of the impossible in reasoning, balancing and prayer. We tend to find the human being in the minority, the lesser being in the outsider and locate glory in the majority. In the pages of my diary I find the destruction of the earth there, moral being. For as long as the man was in my life, he was wondrous, and I felt tethered and I discovered that the empirical nature of childhood functions as the creative’s unweaving. When I wrote I felt bird flight in my veins, bird flight in Provincial Hospital, bird flight in my brainwaves, in the cavernous vibrations of my body and something was manifested.

It felt as if I was manifesting the exposed. The spiritual embodiment of the plains of the journeys we mature in confidence in, the districts of human nature, the rooftops of the birds and while society paints the iris, we contemplate the beauty in the world. On the wings of the unpeeled, the astonishing, the extraordinary the capable scientists flutter in the medical fraternity, on the cusp of innovation in pharma. I am left to glitter. Like an octopus I wade into the supreme self-correcting depths. There was an otherworldly renewal to my limbs when I recovered from the first wave of Covid-19 and life felt supernatural to me. Everything was faster, faster, faster and I began to live in a magical reality. Millions live life like this. On this precarious edge of the device of breathing with this kind of survival mechanism built into them. When you descend into illness you also descend into a kind of sustained despair that never leaves. That seems to float like the leaves, that has the hardy vertebrae of branches, the activity found in furious churning of the gulping mouth of a shaking fish. I never contemplated my own death in the hospital.

I never contemplated that life would go on, that I would recover, that I would write again. The day was filled with silence and longing in the ward filled with young women. Psychotic. Aggressive were words that were used. I had my period when I was admitted to the hospital. The depression I had when I got out of the hospital had the body length of an elephant. It curled up inside of me like a snake connected to my bones in the fetal position. My mother had a kind of tender fragility leaning towards sainthood when I came home. My father was sad. My brother did not pick up the phone when the hospital telephoned him to come and fetch me. I had been discharged. My mother told me he had feared the worst. I had to stay an extra day in the hospital. My mother explained they were not ready for me to come home yet. What did that mean, I wondered? I still don’t know how I made it through that passage of time, fought my way through. All I know is I still need to heal. I still need to heal and that takes practice and getting used to, engaging, involving yourself in the pursuit of daily activities, not words.

Things are returning to normal. My brother wants to get away to Canada now. Even the holy is visible here in my childhood home. Incarnated here if it is possible to use a word like that. It feels as if some days there is an anointing on everything that I touch. The day is golden and bright with promise. You don’t come all the way back from the experience of near death. I want you to remember that.

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