For three decades I wrote about African and African diasporic writers of fiction from my base at the University of Cape Town. Now I have overturned my routine and am living in Greater Manchester and writing my life story. I find I cannot write it without summoning a language which will enable me to entwine my emotional and intellectual investment in African writing of the past years with my attempts to make sense of my own past, as a white South African, as a woman and as a lapsed Jew, who finds myself groping after Yiddish words at key moments. I am finding that this entanglement with the lives of African and diasporic writers and artists, with their mixed wares of Africa and Europe, with the lives of women, whose battles echo mine, points me in the direction of where to look for this new language.
My compass, then, is writers and artists, some white, most black, diasporic women, who are living in London or New York, but whose parents—one or both—were born in Africa. The project is enabled by leaving South Africa temporarily and being distanced from its intensities. To this ambitious end of writing about fiction, art and life, from my own vantage point, I have used the many languages of analysis, memoir, poetry and the visual in conversation with each other. What results is a series of vignettes, a pastiche, which opposes the concept of a straight road or a unified person. Pastiche, so beloved of postmoderns, is a conglomerate of periods, styles, stories and permutations. But when it is harnessed to opposing received wisdoms and violating power, then it becomes a potent poetics of resistance.
Keywords: Language – Africa – art – literature – diaspora – life writing
If what follows does not have a tight structure, at least here is a map. I begin with the issue of language, with an English which carries some toxic baggage along with its liberating tools. One way to de-toxify is to play with words in various ways, including inventing new ones, such as snark or factish. The paradox is that such nonsense may make the most sense in the search for newness. This leads me to a discussion of the nonsense fiction of diasporic writer Helen Oyeyemi, who was influenced by Lewis Carroll’s snark, along with other inspirations, such as those gleaned from Ali Smith and Emily Dickinson.
If language has been a central preoccupation of writers from Africa and the African diaspora, then the question of in/visibility, the eye, the gaze, male subjects and female objects they view, have been key to many feminists. The necessity of re-envisioning calls on the artistic image to embody new ways of seeing and looking, which I do through the eyes of two artists and two writers. Lynette Yiadom Boakye and Sokari Douglas Camp are artists of very different kinds. Yiadom Boakye, whose parents were born in Ghana, paints in oil. Douglas Camp, born in Nigeria, is a sculptor. Diasporics both, they live and work in London and speak the languages of the visual, the literary, the plastic, languages of colour, analysis and politics. Where Yiadom Boakye’s paintings bring Oyeyemi’s fiction to colour, Douglas Camp’s sculpture flows into an image created by the South African Afrikaans poet, writer and activist, Antjie Krog. The sculpture illuminates how a woman like Krog, born to privilege and power, reconfigures her gaze and makes it possible for white South Africans like me to have inspirational cultural forms upon which to draw. Out of this maelstrom of invention, resistance and beauty, my paper poses the possibility of catharsis.
What is a factish? What meaning inheres in the surface skidding of such connections of sound, sight, embodiment and rhythm and why am I hunting for that meaning, and as a political endeavour? A factish is a neologism of the science studies scholar, Bruno Latour, and I will return to it. What do he and Lewis Carroll have in common that compels them to make up words—factishes and snarks? And what does all this have to do with my own attempts to write the story of my life by way of some new language?
From their earliest use of European languages to express their creativity, African writers recognised the imperative to bend such language to their wills, to make it work as their slave and not their master. This was a gargantuan task, not merely a matter of using a few proverbs and words from indigenous languages, or depicting African rituals in the mode of anthropological interpreters. Concealed in the intestines of the English language are its stories of conquest, its tropes of light and darkness, its multiple codes and maps and keys,its colluding metaphors,which reinforce the civilizing mission of enabling ‘savages’ from the darkheartcontinent to be liberated into the modernity of Christian church and British crown.
In other words, many stereotypes about Africa are locked into the English language itself and its categories and binaries. One of the most powerful and stubborn binariesis the polarisation between modernity and the indigenous, or between pre-scientific/pre-industrial societies and their post-industrial opposites.That is to say, between Africa and Europe.This categorisation spawns a proliferation of assumptions about African culture, politics and social life, posed against a backdrop of a supposedly more advanced Europe. In order to overcome deeply instilled polarisations such as these, Bruno Latour has to invent a new word, a factish. This word cuts right across the binary in its combination of so-called scientific facts and so-called traditional African belief in fetishes. This is necessitated by the conviction on the part of ‘moderns’ of the ‘essential difference between facts and fetishes’ (2010: 11). This conviction, furthermore, understands modernity as western and as based on facts, science and rationality, while places like Africa are backward, its inhabitants believing in magic and supernatural tokens like the fetish (2010: 60).
The factish enables all of us to ‘pass’ (2010: 23, Latour’s emphasis), ‘to live’ (2010: 28). It is ‘the wisdom of the passage’ (2010: 35, his emphasis). In other words, in order to become social beings, citizens, to speak and be heard and to hear, we are invested with the double-edged swords of language and its embedded binaries and assumptions. In order to make that necessary journey into subjectivity and citizenship, but via gateways other than those powerful portals of the patricians, colonisers and capitalists, we need to be armed with a different language, with a ‘factish’. And with the dismantling of the binary between modernity and Africa, ‘lights cross paths’ (2010: 66).
With lights crossing paths to guide us, let the hunt commence via new words, rhythms, rhymes, to tell different stories, of my life and that of others. New and also old. Snarks take us back well over 100 years to a white, male, enigmatic English storyteller, Lewis Carroll, who invited us on a dangerous hunt. The influence of Carroll is manifest in many recent African novels, such as those of Helen Oyeyemi, which I will come to shortly. Perhaps we can liberate ‘hunting’ from its association with African a-modernity. Perhaps the snark is a factish.
Carroll does not tell us exactly what this snark is, this creature that is so hotly sought by a motley crew of Butcher, Baker, Bellman, Barrister and Banker, among other representatives of B professions. Why B? That is the point. Why not? They are connected metonymically, randomly, by their alphabetical place and not by those deeply colluding metaphors and cultural stock responses. They could have been Cook, Clown, Clock-maker and Caretaker. Joined only by their Bs and their desire to sight a snark they sail off on their quest for what could be a mingled, mangled mish-mash snake, shark or aardvark. The snark, like the factish, brings together new connections and dimensions of life by manipulating and transforming the English language. Material and spiritual worlds collide in the hunt, whose weapons are the magnificently absurd twinning of hope and soap, with rhyme more than reason. The refrain throughout the poem jingles and jangles:
They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway-share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap. (Carroll 2011: 47)
This is a language that speaks to Helen Oyeyemi across the years, as she too risks all in her confrontation with standard European categories and literary canons that inhibit her ability use her writing to achieve her own identity. Oyeyemi has visceral memory of Africa, but no recollection. She has no African language as a ‘mother tongue’. Her characters are often depicted as having one Nigerian and one British parent, to capture this split and doubling in her self-awareness.She refers to Carroll in all three of her novels and gives us a code for reading them when she describes how a verse near the end of Ali Smith’s novelHotel world (2002: 237)inspired her with its possibilities for transforming the shape of fictional narrative:
And Oyeyemi asks herself, ‘can she—are you allowed to—do narrative like this? Make it so that words move when the story moves, skittering away from each other on the page when there is too much force for them to hold them together?’ (Oyeyemi, no date).
It is clear that the verses of the Ali Smith poem connect, but they do so in the mode of cabbages and kings;the meaning is of a world that is buffeted by disconnected words, worlds and layers of unintelligible connections. These worlds recede in the fog and become smaller, seen at more and more of a distance, as we try to pin them down and hold onto fixed meanings. Although these words may career about, they are carefully constructed and deployed.
This dismantling, however, threatens disintegration, the kind of meltdown that, I would suspect, contributed to Helen Oyeyemi’s attempted suicide while still at school (Saner 2004).In her first novel, The Icarus girl, in the inversion nonsense mode of Alice in wonderland, she dreams that she ‘was sliding breathlessly down into the waiting sky’ (2005: 200), her wings dripping and drooping with the death of melting wax.Sliding downwards into sky, not earth, may invert accepted categories, but what dangers await her? Her female Icarus of the title of that novel has fragile wings for such a perilous flight.
There is also the possibility, then, that the chaos is not anchored, that the partnership between hope and soapdoes not enable the co-existence of multiple, different planets and universes. Migrant writers confront the threat of the abyss, even as they search for the healing words and the bridges and connections between their multiple languages and pasts.What abyss did Lewis Carroll face that propelled him into a world of impossible connections?
He toois aware of theawful, obliterating possibility, when the hunt for the snark backfires and instead of the enabling password, the factish, there is annihilation. Instead of a Snark,the dreaded Boojum may besighted:
For, although common Snarks do no manner of harm,
Yet, I feel it my duty to say,
Some are Boojums— (Carroll 2011: 239)
The terrified bakerfaints on hearing this and is ‘roused’withthe healing connection between‘jam and judicious advice’ (1992: 239). He is petrified that, instead of a Snark, a Boojum will indeed surface from the deeps and ‘I shall softly and suddenly vanish away—’(2011: 241).
A Boojum? Boogey man and a jumble? Peek-a-boo—a fright and a mess? An abomination? Whatever it is, it is bad and the opposite of ‘finding yourself’through mixed parts and histories,asserting an identity and re-locating in anew place. The Baker, the sighter of the Boojum, is the man whose identity is blurred, submerged—
… —but the worst of it was,
He had wholly forgotten his name.
He would answer to ‘Hi!’ or to any loud cry,
Such as ‘Fry me!’ or ‘Fritter my wig!’
To ‘What-you-may-call-um!’ or ‘What-was-his-name!’
But especially ‘Thing-um-a-jig!’ (2011: 6-7)
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson? Lewis Carroll? Mathematician? Writer? Logician? Anglican Church dignitary? Tormented closeted paedophile? Snark or Boojum? Fritter my wig indeed.
The promise offered by these multiplicities and complexities, which are both irresolvable and also productive, might only be captured by a language of wise nonsense. Or as the writer Anne Enright recently put it, ‘I think the truth of us is somehow otherwise described’ (in O’Hagan 2011, 35).
This is how to approach Helen Oyeyemi’s anarchic fiction, in which she tries to describe the story of her life otherwise. Her second novel, The Opposite House, begins with the title of the first chapter, which is called ‘telling it slant’ (2007: 1), alerting us to the powerful influence on Oyeyemi of the poetry of Emily Dickinson, whose own opposite house was The Evergreens where her brother lived, while she hid herself away in The Homestead, the family home. (Gordon 2011: 4).
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind – (Dickinson 1999: 494)
The injunction to tell it slant, to disfigure the rhyme, to upset expectations of the rhythm, to play with the slipperiness of language itself, is to find a way through the maze of countless masks, messages, mimicries and metamorphoses. Stonum could have been describing Oyeyemi’s fiction when he has this to say about Dickinson’s poem about telling it slant:
The hermeneutic zigzag of truth and error, blindness and enlightenment, or affirmation and insinuation may itself be a little dazzling. Indeed, the razzle-dazzle may be the point, and the zigzag is certainly the method. (Stonum 2002: 9)
The razzle-dazzle is indeed the point and the zigzag the method. This is Oyeyemi’s ‘truth’ about the intersections between reality and myth, allegory and magic, slaves and gods, Habana, London and Lagos. There is no easy access, but only fleetingsegues,inter-permeations and re-arrangements into no predictable pattern, always at an angle, always exhibiting afleetingaspect, one which metamorphoses in the next sentence or chapter. This is the poetry of the gods, entering mortals who are transformed by its splintered light. Itis what enables complex writers and artists, who are heirs to many languages, traditions and cultures, to stay alive, not be sucked into the abyss. Or, as Oyeyemi puts it near the end of the novel:
The things that really say ‘stay’ are an Orisha, a kind night, a pretended boy, a garden song that made no sense. Those come closer to being enough. (2007: 185)
Not no sense, but a profound forging of a chain of survival through their poetry, a beautiful night, a pretend boy, a nonsensical song in the garden and a translated, surviving portion of Yoruba godhead. The Opposite House is a novel about language itself, the act of writing as the only mechanism for liberating the author’s own confused multiplicities, which began with the distant history of slavery, which both is, and is not, part of her heritage.
We now begin to understand that White is for witching in the title of Helen Oyeyemi’s latest novel as a poetic play, a metonymy. It is a jingle jangle border crosser, which challenges the history of the figurative language of race, in the context of Diaspora, where Oyeyemi and her characters are white and black, English and African. Oyeyemi writes:
A word that you believe in jangles in your head until it no longer has meaning.
Courage, cabbage, cuttage, cottage.
What was the first word?
… White is for witching, so ti gbo? Do you understand now? White is for witching…(2009: 175).
I am not sure that wefullyunderstand even now, but it may be important to try.The first word was not cabbage, it was courage, but in the jingle and jangle of ‘c’ words and made up ‘cuttages’ it does not matter; its meaning inheres in its echoes and associations—Carroll, cabbage and king.
Is white for witching or window, weather, wondrous, woeful? The white witchisthe haunting, haunted white protagonist, Miranda.Miranda with her echoes and overtones of generations of hidden women in their white dresses emulating the aura of Emily Dickinson herself (Oyeyemi 2009: 116). The witch may be white, but she speaks Yorubawords.
Strangely enough, the riddle of white witching may also be solved by Paarl, a town very familiar to me, just outside of Cape Town, renowned for its natural splendour and its splendid wines. It is predominantly Afrikaans-speaking, celebrates and monumentalises the language of the former baases. It is a bastion of the surviving old order and more rigid in its racial blackness and whiteness by far, than is the relatively more liberal Cape Town. And it is here, coincidentally, in my backyard, that Helen Oyeyemi conceived of White is for witching:
‘I wanted to write a vampire story,’ Oyeyemi explains. ‘After I graduated, I volunteered in South Africa for a few months. I was staying in this town called Paarl, and everyone wanted to talk about race all the time. I started to feel strange … I got this flu-like illness and spent a lot of time in bed with Dracula in the dark wing of this big house. I was feverish. I started thinking that vampire stories were a lot to do with the fear of the outsider, because you’ve got this foreign count with this unnatural appetite,’ she says, building momentum. ‘I thought, what’s an unnatural appetite? A girl who eats chalk, but probably with a desire to eat something else.’ The result is not a conventional vampire story; there are no fangs, bats or archvillains. (Machell: 2009)
There is no doubt that Oyeyemi felt herself to be an outsider in Paarl. She looks African, speaks English, went to Cambridge and must have been ‘v’ for visible,for simultaneously in/visible,volunteer, vampire, vomit. Being visible, invisible, returning the gaze with an evil eye, brings to mind a painting by Lynette Yiadom Boakye called ‘Cemetery’. It seems uncannily to capture the white witch, Miranda, as I visualise her in Oyeyemi’s novel.
Helen and Lynette, Yiadom Boakye and Oyeyemi. A multiplicity of names. Lynette’s white witch is blonde-haired and brown-skinned, white and black and full of venom. She is giving the viewer the evil eye and her funereal garb is denied by the sensuality of her red stockings. She is a sinister mixed message incarnate.She is me and not me; she is Lynette and not Lynette; she is Helen and not Helen. I recognise her and revel in her evil eye. I turn away from her accusing gaze.
Aside. There is more to coincidence than meets the evil eye. Happenstance delivers whiteness and witchiness randomly united in a ‘w’. Perhaps I was visiting Paarl when Helen was devising her weird and wonderful novel? Why not?I visit her now as I deflect the evil of my fellow white perpetrators and find a way of looking with that malevolent, magnificent eye myself.
Do not dare to look at me, or even worse beyond me, with the certainty of male power run to madness. I will deflect your gaze with my stare and turn your balls to dust with my glorious malevolence.
Do not believe the lore that decrees that women, especially post-menopausal crones, are evil, with supernatural powers vested in their toxic eye. There is no magic in the evil gaze of the woman who is not seen and will be recompensed. Just lessons learnt. The dreams that this haunting eye pulverises is the dream of violation, domination, destruction and venom.
Look at another of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings that casts its evil eye (Magret de Canard, courtesy of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye). It is a painting of a woman of enigmatic mixture. Her hands are white, her skin is black, her body and clothes merge in funereal shadows; she is slashed with bits of white and coffee. Her lips are smeared with tar. Do not contemplate kissing them. Her hair is straight and streaked with grey. And her hands gleam yellow-white and radiate static.
But her eyes …
I am spinning around the title of the painting. Perhaps it was simply named for the place in south west France, Magret de canard, because Lynette painted it there. Perhaps. This place has given its name to a speciality French dish. A magret de canard is the undercooked breast meat of force-fed ducks raised to produce foie gras. The ducks are fattened up for the culinary delight of their livers turned to butter. I look again at the painting. What can its title possibly mean?
I let my imagination loose and picture an overweight pissfeather, big belly resting on the fine dining table, red fatty globules of the juices of the body, the breast of a dead duck dribbling down his chin.
And somewhere in the shadows, waiting for him to lurch to his bed, are the electric, fluorescent, long-fingered, webbed hands, come to life, to pluck out his dreams …
And look at them.
Another gaze. This time at a pink hat.
The Pink Hat
There are many ways of being dispersed and not all of them are physical relocation like Helen Oyeyemi’s. Afrikaans-speaking South Africans, nurtured in the bosom of the apartheid architects and who rebelled, found themselves at odds with their own brothers and mothers, with their language, their church and their umbilical link to the planet. Their food turned to acid, which burned holes in the once beautiful old wood of the family table. One such brave turncoat is the writer Antjie Krog, who bore witness not only to atrocity, but to the deeply perplexing chains, ropes and harnesses of family. She loved her brothers and was deeply rooted in the family farm in a way that few English-speaking South Africans identified with the land. These same brothers shot at black people who poached on their farms and resisted change with all their hearts (Krog 1998: 11). These brothers knew that they were protecting what they owned, without a tiny glimmer of grit in their eyes to suggest that their land was not entirely, legitimately theirs. Where did her counter-intelligence spring from? Is there a kind of big bang that explodes in the entrails of some empathetic beings that puts them at odds with their tribe?
There is a beautiful moment in Krog’s book, A Change of Tongue (2003), set soon after the end of apartheid, when Antjie’s partly fictional persona visits the family farm that is being rented out to one Joep Joubert. Joep is an Afrikaner of the old school, not unlike her brothers. Joep insists that she come with him to witness the stupidity and benightedness of black people, who are unable in his opinion to run the country:
Joep drives me up to the fields where a group of women are hoeing. ‘Do you see that one there in the front with the fancy pink hat?’
‘She isn’t one hundred per cent “full”, as we say, a bit retarded, and with a real scoundrel of a husband. I had to take her into town the other day to collect her disability and child-support grants. She came home with R420 …
‘She bought a bloody fucking hat with half of her money. And now she’s working the fields with it! … These are the people that we are sharing the country with! Transformation? You don’t understand half of it.’ (Krog 2003: 120)
As they drive back, Antjie’s persona thinks about that woman:
how her face glowed as if light was collecting on her skin underneath the pink hat. How, while we were looking, she raised her one hand softly, as if she was touching something very special, and pulled the hat forward on her brow. (2003: 120)
Antjie stands with Joep, bosses both. Antjie is the bigger boss because Joep is her tenant. The nameless woman does not distinguish between them. When the white spectators look at her, this woman protects herself against becoming nothing as she softly raises her hand to her wonderful hat.
She does not gaze at her oppressors with an evil eye. She is beautiful and the light of the spirits shines upon her. She deflects the piercing, malevolent gaze of the Joeps. The bit between her teeth is a bouquet, an olive branch, a sensuous stubbornness. She is a woman of steel, who has turned plastic into plush.
The empathy flows from Antjie, through me as a portal, to Sokari Douglas Camp, whose metal sculptures like this one, embody the strength of women to take hold of their own destinies and to resist the limitations that others would impose on them. Douglas Camp’s Kalabari background not only disallows women from making art, but they are specifically prohibited from working in metal (British Museum,nd).
But what touches me to the core, me who willynilly stands with Joep and Antjie from our comfort zone of white privilege, is that radiation from Antjie of the flash of wonder, respect and awe for this woman. This current is my god. It is my religion. This vision of the rightness of the pink purchase is a blast of divinity. The pink hat is a factish. Its material reality signifies the rights of workers and the continuing prejudices of the old bosses; it is also a magical object, a gateway to a new rite of passage that will assist in the re-birth of white South Africans like me, like Antjie, like others. Empathy for the desire for a pink hatsegues into hope for the future …
And with this factish hunted down, I return to the imperative to invent new words to enable those who were invisible to materialise. They shine with the birth of their solid selves, for once, occupying great swathes of space. What word defines the moment when the viewer sees the one who was until a moment ago unseen? A mere second ago, the air was toxic with lasers of evil eyes as the invisible ones cursed and refused their obliteration; a moment ago, the woman worker merged into the background until her pink hat combusted with the luminosity of the glorious setting sun.
The luminous look. A luminook.
The visual, the poetic and a new vocabulary might help us to combat this invisibility. What could be the word for the woman’s evil eye? The evil eye of the unseen woman. A gazevil.
There is another eye as the song of the nightingale changes its tune and liberates an unusual protagonist. AS Byatt’s ‘fairy story’, ‘The djinn in the nightingale’s eye’ loominooks the Djinn. The Djinn, for once, is the Prince, the protagonist. Djinnagonist. No longer Aladdin’s slave, imprisoned in the lamp, summoned to serve and be servile. A djinnagonist. A protagonist who fills us with un-ease, humour or wonder when he becomes the main character, because he only ever facilitated the heroes who are of another ilk altogether. What joy when he is a she and emerges from the bottle, lamp or fish’s mouth to take control of her pearly, lovely life. A pearlagonist. A woman who is in her shell no longer, but liberated into the world. Byatt’s pearlagonist is Gillian, a stout, stolid, middle-aged academic, who ends up having an unlikely, sensual, sexy love affair with the genie. In breaking every code in the fairy story book, Byatt invents new ways of seeing the world that need new words to make them real. The djinn calls her Djilyan—Gillian and djinn in a relationship unlike any other between a genie and his liberator. The djinn becomes a beautiful man and Gillian, transforms into a lusty woman as she loominooks him:
The outsides of his thighs were greener and the insides softer and more golden. He had pulled down his tunic not entirely adequately: she could see his sex coiled like a folded snake and stirring. (Byatt 1995: 250)
Men who are different, who are gentle, who listen and reciprocate—djentlemen.
The magic of Byatt’s imagining is real and matter of fact. It is able to enter our everyday and transform it:
And they went back to England, the narratologist, the glass bottle, and the djinn; they went back by British Airways, with the bottle cushioned in bubble plastic in a bag at Gillian Perholt’s feet. (Byatt 1995: 253)
As the djinn is humanised, so the conventional prince, the blond, blue eyed and beautiful Boris Becker is miniaturised. Gillian is watching Wimbledon on television when the djinn first appears to her. The golden macho Boris Becker is playing against Henri Leconte. The djinn thinks he is doing Gillian a great service and happily extracts Boris from the airwaves for her to play with. What fun the feminist Byatt is having with the little, bewildered, forlorn, frightened and reduced male, Boris, who finds himself in Gillian’s hotel room—‘“Scheiss,” said the tiny Becker. “Scheiss und Scheiss. Was ist mit mir?”’ The compassionate Gillian instructs the genie to put him back or ‘he will lose the set’ (1995: 199).
The reduction of space occupied by the Borises. The bringing down to size of the talking, talking, talking, presiding, president, patriarch. Silencing the Pissfeather. A pissfeather is a man, who is full of opinions, without substance. A know-it-all male, who never shuts up and has no idea as to how little he knows. Krog’s Joep Joubert is a pissfeather.
Silencing the prick. Shrinking the dick. Not good. The anger that produces bad taste and poor language and unjust generalisations. Boomeranger.
Reactive anger to being invisible, to being the butt of prejudice. Not productive anger but perhaps justified, corrosive anger. Justified anger that turns into art, into something creative and good. And we have a word we can use without inventions. Cartharsis.
Catharsis. A beautiful, slippery word. That unstable engagement between volcanic rage and the best frame in which to contain it. Apartheid, freedom, colour, light and air, love and fun, premature death, my mother’s illness, your congenital heart defect, genocide and prejudice, produce white heat and golden honey, which indeed they must. Molten heat and sticky nectar shape into the precious metal of empathy and nourishment. The shaping works on the rage and on the fear, transforming them into politics and practices, enabling life to resurge after mourning and slavery. And sometimes it does not, and eruptions wreak the havoc of suicide bombs and tsunamis. And these too never settle, but engage in the choreography of searching for enabling frames and forms.
This is not the language of instinct, of female poetry and milk. It is art as geometric construction; it is language that has taken English by the balls, and debeckered it, prinked it and punctured it so that women, diasporics, djinns and djentlemen have access to it, may feed on it, may dance to it.
a frayed pause near the end of a thread where the cloth matters too much to fail.
(Oyeyemi 2007: 3)
As I come to the conclusion of this ‘otherwise’ paper, I understand better Oyeyemi’s frayed pause and lack of a thread. Helen Oyeyemi, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Lewis Carroll, Emily Dickinson, AS Byatt, Bruno Latour, Ali Smith and me. Is there a thread? When is a thread not an involuntary summons of the dreaded teleology waiting in the wings to shuffle all that appears new into old hierarchies, evolutions and powerful interests?
Oyeyemi’s ‘frayed pause near the end of a thread where the cloth matters too much’ (2007:3, my emphasis)is a thread on the slant. The end of the thread, the pinnacle of civilized modernity to which we all supposedly strive, the place where the cloth is vulnerable to disintegration. That frayed pause, that silence, admits a language and a logic that may overturn all of our certainties. Possibly it is again a slanted reference to Dickinson’s poetry, which provides the codes. The enigma of the pause that is frayed and the cloth that is so important evokes:
I felt a Cleaving in my Mind –
As if my Brain had split –
I tried to match it – Seam by Seam –
But could not make them fit.
The thought behind, I strove to join
Unto the thought before –
But Sequence ravelled out of Sound
Like Balls – upon a Floor. (Dickinson 1999: 379)
The frayed pause—is it the crack in the cleaved mind through which snark or boojum enter? Is the cloth the splintered mind, the frayed pause, as in the silence that cannot find a language, the damaged silence that falls when the light of the godhead is lost all that is left isStandardEnglish and the ache of loss? What might be possible if the new ‘thread’ brings together an Orisha, a kind night, a pretend boy, a garden songall blowing leafly in the mist?One possibility is that Oyeyemi becomes an interpreter of Lewis Carroll and Emily Dickinson, both writing over 100 years ago. Their voices resound in the 21st century as a young black woman of mixed heritage takes their secret lives, their looking glass wonderlands, and brings them into our purview. By perplexing the directional flow of knowledge production from Africa to Europe and North America in more than one direction, Oyeyemi’s slanted prose offers new ways of looking at the world. A mighty loominook. In other words, Oyeyemi inverts the power structure of the colonial centurythrough her writing,reinforcing thefundamental point that new language is necessary, because the old language carries the structures of domination in its interstices.
And as for me, a white person growing up under the apartheid regime, I am hunting for the shape of my own life through the languages of rhythm and rhyme, paint and poetry, performance and pictures, ideas and words - their weighty touch, sound and feel. New words, old words. To do so, I purloin from, pay homage to, and acknowledge the gifts of writers and artists, many of whom live in more than one world on a daily basis and also have been dispersed across the planet. Oyeyemi’s depression and near-suicide, Dickinson’s manic isolation and secret life holed up in her self-constructed attic prison sanctuary, Carroll’s sublimation of a forbidden sexuality, carry the danger of annihilation, but are engines of change. All of this opens up my own sense of personhood,enabling me to pass through the looking glass, as does Antjie Krog, at that moment when the shimmering pink hat in the heart of the colonial badlands of Paarl opens up a wondrous portal.
Byatt, A S 1995 The djinn in the nightingale's eye: five fairy stories, London, Vintage
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