The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes Life Stories
Learning From Genocide
She is old before her time. They all say that whoever they might be.
Her soap, undergarments, silk stockings, strands of hair lay everywhere for-the-world-to-see. Her perfume, cooking-skills and incense fills my head. She is preparing a roast, mapping it out with delightfully-nutritious-perfection-in-the-kitchen. We will all sit down to eat. With-the-family-life we’ve-been-storing-it-up. We’re all starving with hunger. Pouring-the-stealing beauty-of-the-kitchen-table-and-the-lust-for-the-feast-in-front-of-us-into-all. Her eye is a map, her hands smell like jasmine, her hair like gossamer and she is his dream come true. Her laughter is a custard apple, a cabbage rose, never-ending. We drink tea for hours confiding in each other insanely hypomanic as we discuss men and the objects of her affection, her children, and her lover.
Bellies full of a pretty food chain, a location for a nurturing position, prep, even grief we tell each other comes with gifts (endurance and forgiveness, a reason to validate, to forget, have an opinion whether it be relevant or irrelevant), future leaders leaning towards being proactive. Even in a war, in Nazi Germany there are whores of Babylon, stockings, a Hitler with a moustache, a world where Mussolini an ally and propaganda, where all the dead can’t be remembered, names forgotten everyone but once there was a pianist according to Polanski.
My head is lost in films, the opposite of the dark, a woman reading in a library, our South Africa, the Group Areas Act, my violent home, the brutality of man against man in my country. Yellow stars once upon a time marked a Jew’s coat, their lovers and their spirits, scorched them, and burned their intellect, their talent, mocking seduction and betrayal, mocking a syndrome. Listen. Listen as it settles like violence, the sea. The mocking sea. One day it will either say remember me, like Ingrid Jonker’s (my superior older sister) black butterflies inside her head or wash away your sins. I wonder about her contemporaries, her lovers, her Brink, her Andre. The sea is mocking me. This great event that lies before me dying and living, giving away and receiving, nurturing schools and shark teeth and a feast of eyes. In front of the poet lies the landscape, the hill, the valley, the mountain, and the playing fields. The intelligent mind is appalled by the needle and the knife.
There’s a heavy sensation at play, a freeze and an arrangement of sorts that pales in comparison to anything else that life seems to offer, an appealing curation. It chills me to the bone that I am not wearing that white wedding lace, that ring and there’s gossamer fairy thread in the clouds above and a silver lining in every one. I’m a shell. Shadows lurk under the bed, in the closet. He doesn’t turn back. I’m falling (an antique). I’m an old soul that no one can understand, fathom, explain love, passion, having a spouse and companion too. She is old before her time. They all say that whoever they might be.
The community, estranged and immediate family, the stigma, the neighbours. It is not normal not to have a child, children, drive a car (my mother is superior to me in every way but I know that a long time ago over a decade this was not the case). It is not normal to live in the reality that I live in with recovery after recovery after suicidal illness and how disability has become familiar to me. First in my father’s life and now in mine. I am left to dream. I am left to dream of a Saviour who will rescue me on this ghost planet. Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation. I find sanctuary, peace of mind reading in a sofa. I find myself amongst my books and writing grants. South Africa can learn from Germany.
South Africa can learn from Sarajevo. South Africa can learn from genocide and the holocaust and the rest of the African continent. Her beautiful people, their diamond smiles, creamy-velvet skin and their bravery, their bold survival, their sensuality, how they have managed being silenced about slavery, their footsteps in the dark, the beating of the drums, watermelons and mangoes, donkeys and carts. The enemy is the thief, the man and the woman, the German who causes heartache, what was really behind the Nazi vision? Hitler and his moustache? Was it an altered state of mind and separation anxiety? The rat’s spine is broken. It is a bleeding mass on the concrete. The dog has got to it first before the glued mousetrap. People who are hungry enough eat rats, squirrels too. Rats can be people too. If children are lucky enough they only learn that later in life after layers and layers of experience.
Germany was like South Africa a time out of place for some time, walls were built brick by brick literally and figuratively amongst the different race groups. It is still not forgotten. The people here have a long memory. The haves and the have-nots in a time not of their own making, an identity theory that is misplaced yet idolised at the same time, represented as the highest ideal and idea to live for and we believe that there is no revolution, no personal space for it, it’s evaporated like smoke. Where do the moths go when daylight comes if they are so attracted to the light? Do they come and go like an angel comes and goes.
It leaves a white feather as a reminder to tell us, ‘I have been here watching over you, watching over your household, your garden, your memories of the people in your life who have passed on to the hereafter. I see you in the kitchen preparing meals for your family. I see your love, affection and adoration for the little ones, for the big ones, for the giants and the greats that have lived and struggled, who were valiant. I see you when you are working, when you are fighting with something deep within yourself, your hurt, your ego and how you pray and meditate for yourself and for the young people around you, for their intellect.’ So angels come and angels go like sadness and suffering and ritual and ceremony, thanksgiving and pilgrimages and the theory of identity in a time that is not fluent but sometimes fluent in energy and variety. In South Africa the Jews are a minority group like those of us who wear white masks and go by the name of Coconut.
I have been shamed, have felt ashamed, humiliated by the colour of my skin, the sound of my posh voice that bounced off walls sounding like a sonnet, British-English from Speech and Drama lessons, sounding so articulate for a mixed race young girl (how I remember how other girls made me cry in the school bathroom during lunch break until I could no longer hold my breath, called me ‘Alice why do you talk that way funny little thing’ as I walked past them in the hallways, and in the street when I walked home after school. They called me other names, bullied me senseless until I became a mute like Princess Diana and Maya Angelou when they were children, lost myself, lost my voice only to find it on a stage, in the spotlight, in plays, rehearsals, reciting, reciting, learning lines parrot-fashion, garnered lead and supporting roles at the Opera House in Port Elizabeth and a house play, a school play).
I only found my voice when I discovered other poets and poetry. Home wasn’t so great. Now I know all Southern Africans have accents. The margin is there in Southern Africa between the fortunate and brave and those who have no skills and are unemployed. Black faces, chocolate, white faces, vanilla and those of mixed heritage, Cape Malay, Muslim, coloured, Rastafarian. We’re all living together and not together in a scorched climate, a summer and a winter, rain pouring down which some of us receive with joy as we curl up with wine, olives and cheese and pasta and others, the invisible others whose homes are flooded, whose little food is washed away, wasted away. It’s still the same for them. Has always been for years, the Rainbow Nation and the African Renaissance has come and gone but they come to me in dreams. I see them in front of me. I feel what they feel. I see what they see and it isn’t pretty, dignified or nice in any way. Their suffering tears into me. I flinch.
And it’s always their hunger that is never diminished, that fact is not wasted on me. Their children do their homework by candlelight or not at all. What do they eat? Is it any wonder that they do not grow normally, tall, dark and handsome, and why is it only the younger children that smile and play. Toys are not enough for their world. They need to eat, bread and milk and sandwiches (no eggs and bacon for the poor, fried mushrooms that taste as slimy as snails are for the rich, as is shellfish). Where is the birthday cake with balloons the colours of crayons? And every day they remember when it rained? How do they sleep, at school?
How do they keep their wide eyes open with their long lashes when there is a gust of wind through a broken window, when the rain is also an element on the Periodic Table, when there is no roof over their heads in the classroom, when there is a protest march in the community over service delivery? Why do the rich get richer in South Africa and the poor get poorer in South Africa on a daily basis? Children need people, adults to believe in them, have faith in them. All I see now on television, in the newspaper before I turn to read the comics is violence and guns like the night there were police and plainclothes detectives in our house confronting my brother. It was almost as if it was Warsaw, Poland and we were playing dress-up. As if we all were in futuristic costume. But I promised to look after him and they brought him back from the police station that night because he had promised to make no more trouble. No more trouble for my father who he had beaten up.
My father in his threadbare white vest, (no mistaking a pot belly) stained thick with blood, and sweat wearing a shorts showing his skinny legs. He’d smashed the windows with a brick scaring us all half-to-death like a tik-addict looking for a fix, an upper or a downer. And then he broke down, cried like a baby. The vulnerable part inside of him was shattered. I was shattered. They took him away, but brought him back again. Jews. Jews. Jews. Yes, I believed in the inherent goodness of people (but then a genocide took place in Africa in front of the world’s eyes documented in the film Hotel Rwanda). Just like a serving dish of sky, the blades of Whitman’s grass, autumn leaves, trees almost-conjured-up-out-of-the-ground, youth-not-yet-cuckoo-in-the-bird’s-nests-of-their-brains you will never forget the films you see that changes you for life. The films of war-torn Germany, genocide and the fact that there isn’t a film or a documentary about the forced removals.
Oh, there’re museums, but do they talk about the memory of that time’s frustration, ‘the struggle’, political activists that were recruited like my father when he was just seventeen years old along with his best friend and his brother. George Botha. Arthur Nortje. Dennis Brutus. Richard Rive. I want them to live forever like my ‘wild Sargasso’ sea. The District Six Museum, The South End Museum, The Red Location Museum, The George Botha Memorial Lecture by storyteller and Professor Cornelius Thomas of Rhodes University in Grahamstown who studied at Notre Dame University in North America.
The world does not promise everyone a rose garden, that you will be born with a silver spoon in your mouth, that the world will be your oyster. I think of Virginia Woolf ‘Her black butterflies’ and that fateful day of how if I had been there, a witness I would have said to her, ‘Turn back. Turn back because you are surely going to hell. You cannot take your own life. It is not your time.’ But I was not there. I am here now in this South Africa surrounded by faces of every hue, hair of every texture. Violence doesn’t seem to fade into the night, the moonlight, gunshots ring out, and there are ganglands even as I write this.
Even as I speak to my father in the morning over mugs of lukewarm coffee filled with powdered cream, no sugar because he is a diabetic as he rests, does his exercises-and-recovers-from-them but are we as far away from the ‘war zone’ on the streets of Gelvandale, Port Elizabeth as we think we are? The sexual, physical, and domestic violence? The prostitutes in their flats in Central with their stiletto heels, boots, their lipstick, wigs, cheap perfume, powders and ointments to make their partner’s ‘experience’ more pleasurable.
And I remember the face of this girl. Her name long forgotten but not her dark mane. Jewess. And I think of Otto and his daughter’s diary.
© Short fiction by Abigail George July 2014
Email address: abigailg at dbm.co.za
More killing. It is a mystery. Love is like that. Pure with all of its rituals it holds us in a death-grip and I warm to it, my heart warms to it, warms to you Ted