Life in Transit / Love is a Homesickness
(For Miriam “Mazi” Makeba: who collected passports, never kept her pass)
This essay is an analysis of why immigration to a powerful nation creates ambivalence and rebellion in those of us who fashion our “otherness” into a position that gives us strength. Being outsiders allow immigrants the power to construct ambiguous political and psychosocial positions – it is a source of agency, rather than something over which to lament. Whilst immigration to powerful nations such as the US gives supplicants a “Magic Pass” to mobility, it also requires a commitment to ideologies that many resist. When I could situate myself within that in-between lounge, always on the way Elsewhere, I had the freedom not to pledge allegiance to any dominant group. Laying to rest the anxiety surrounding the process of immigration – an often demoralising journey marked by enormous expense, perplexing directions, and the humiliations of negotiating with immigration officials at various borders and checkpoints – is accompanied by an overwhelming experience of loss. The supposed “end” to the journey is signified by simultaneous feelings of being “homed” and “unhomed”.
Immigration, immigration laws, Greencard, visa, passports, otherness, belonging, ambiguity, mobility, colonial subjectivity, agency.
I’ve lived my entire life under the gun of immigration officials, paying for countless visas, and enduring the ordinary ignominies that those who come from powerless nations get used to as they attempt to be mobile. In the 30 years during which I had been “unhomed” from my origins, I had no idea that I was developing a version of what I later came to realise, as an academic, was termed a “colonial subjectivity”: my own experience involved something more complex than the traditional mock-Fanon-esque conceptualisations of the colonised as those who are perpetually displaced and insecure, masking the transformed, “white” interior behind a “black” mask. I found that I had difficulty giving up displacement, and the accompanying itinerancy.
I preferred to be in transit.
Situating myself within that in-between lounge, always on the way Elsewhere, meant that I had the freedom not to pledge allegiance to any dominant group, though I could, when it was necessary – or politic – attempt to mask and assimilate. It was only when I was finally offered the possibility of belonging – settling into a useful alliance with one powerful nation – that I saw myself engineering a series of spectacularly destructive behaviours that would have, if I’d been successful in meeting this goal, ended my entry into a position of power: I was going to sabotage my chance at stability and belonging if I could. This essay is my attempt to analyse why immigration to a powerful nation creates ambivalence and rebellion in those of us who fashion our “otherness” into a position that gives us strength. Being outsiders allow us the power to construct ambiguous political and psychosocial positions – it is a source of agency, rather than something over which to lament. Immigration, especially to the United States of America, which requires the public avowal of allegiance during a ritualised ceremony, requires a commitment that I resisted; whilst I knew very well that immigration would give me a Magic Pass to mobility, I also knew that this nation requires a loyalty to certain ideologies that I would, naturally, resist. Laying to rest the anxiety surrounding the process of immigration – an often demoralising journey marked by enormous expense, perplexing directions, and the humiliations of negotiating with immigration officials at various borders and checkpoints – was, for me, accompanied by an overwhelming experience of loss. The supposed “end” to the journey was signified by simultaneous feelings of being “homed” and “unhomed”.
This is the story of how I nearly gave up the pass that every supplicating immigrant at the doorstep of America is supposed desire: a Greencard.
My historical family roots are in the port city of Colombo, Sri Lanka; our ancestral home is located in Kelaniya, a revered and ancient seat of Theravada Buddhism. My family moved to the south-central African country of Zambia in the late seventies, after my father was offered a job as a technical advisor in ZCCM – the Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines – ten years after he had first applied for the job, when the nation changed its laws to allow “Asians” into the country. Because he’d been educated in Moscow, Russia, during the time when Khrushchev came up with the brilliant plan to use cultural exchanges as a means of building loyalty in its satellite nations, my father’s degree – and his mechanical and mathematical wizardry – was deemed useless by any “western” nation. He wanted his daughters to be educated in English – he knew that it was the language that would give us mobility; and Zambia was the only nation that offered him employment. His contract stipulated that children would be enrolled in English-medium schools.
Soon after our arrival in Zambia, my father disappeared, largely, into his labour. I adjusted as any seven-year-old does: with excitement and relative ease, stumbling on the new language and new customs, but assimilating fast to the necessity of maintaining a double identity: one for At Home, where Sinhala determined my personhood, and another for At School, cultivated by the then largely Anglican-English staff employed at our trust school. It was my mother’s life that experienced the most drastic transformation: she was a Colombo socialite who loved trying new hors d’oeuvres on her friends, and sneaking out to watch early Bollywood dramas in which Lata Mangeshkar’s voice expressed the contradiction that is South Asian femininity: the knife’s edge coupling modesty and knowing sensuality. She went from organising elaborate birthday parties for her two daughters – replete with fire twirlers, fancy-dress costumes, and astrologers to pinpoint the auspicious moments in our lives – to being a housewife in an isolated mining town in the Copperbelt province: endless grassland, flat-topped acacias, and ore-rich soil inhospitable to the roses she tried to grow.
The ore that was dug from the bowels of this nation, and my father’s labour, 5 and a ½ days a week in a mine office located in an area so close to the processing plant that we could feel the clouds of sulphuric acid burn in our lungs as we approached it, would later finance my university education outside the country. The chemicals used in the copper-extraction process, and the heaps of slurry from the mine dumps that polluted the Kafue River were most likely the cause of two different autoimmune disorders from which both my mother and I suffered – I at puberty, and she at menopause; the effluent polluting our drinking water was also the conduit to what I saw as my escape from being trapped in a go-nowhere Third-World nation.
My father used the access that his labour gave him to show us the world – his world – before marriage and children. We saw mountainous piles of snow in Moscow winters, the twinkle of Budapest when the aeroplane landed at night, black caviar on the darkest of rye, and borcht that made our bowel movements just as red. He, though an accomplished Buddhist scholar who taught me Pali verses, had no qualms about introducing us to Eastern European sausages and pork and potato dumplings. He never failed to smile, cajole, and charm his way through borders and borderkeepers: immigration officers and the Berlin Wall were adventures to experience, not gates through which the likes of us were barred from entering.
Later in life, wherever I went, the multiple strands of my cultural and geographical histories have never come together in a manner that allowed me to feel fully comfortable within the strength that travel and mobility promised to those from more powerful locations. These migrations in our lives – full of the inconsistencies and beauties that multiplicity is supposed to offer the recipient of travel – have meant, also, that I’ve never had one location to call home, an origin to specify when people say, “Where are you from?”
And Origins, I’ve come to find, are indelibly linked to the imaginary of love.
* * *
In August 2006, after living for 18 years in the US under various temporary and unstable guises – including being an under-the-table pastry chef – I got a Greencard. I handed over $5,000 to an immigration lawyer, had a slew of blood tests completed to test me for TB, syphilis, gonorrhea, HIV, all-the-letters-of-the-alphabet types of hepatitis, measles, mumps, and rubella, and drove an hour and a half in a November ice storm (after spending the better part of an hour scraping and chipping the centimetre-thick sleeve of ice over my 1996 Honda Civic, slamming my gloved hand in the car door in my hurry to get to my appointment on time, and giving myself a swollen, purple thumb that throbbed for the duration of the excruciating drive) to an immigration services-approved doctor who tapped me on the knee to test whether my reflexes were in order: his tick marks, placed correctly in the list of boxes verifying that I was free of disease, would be the last in a line of defences meant to keep the unwanted out of this country. I knew that this doctor understood the power that his position entitled him: he examined me alone in a room, without a nurse present. He did “ask” me, dismissively, if a nurse was a “necessary” presence – I, smiling and agreeable, as any supplicant should be, replied, “No, it’s not a problem”. The examination seemed like a formality, and I didn’t want to seem demanding or deserving of “special” treatment. Besides, when the question was asked, I was already lying down on the examination table, wearing the usual paper gown: this is not a position from which one makes demands. He groped the area where my ovaries should exist. I asked what he was looking for – why examining the extensions attached to my genitals was necessary. He said that he was checking to see if I had fibroids. Had my fertility been compromised by fibroids, would I be deemed unworthy of being a professor of English literature in a backwater town on the shores of the great lakes?
A month after this examination, having completed all the tasks that would prove me worthy of America’s hand, I left for South Africa. I was going to spend my Christmas and New Year with a man for whom I’d fallen, a man I met on a previous academic research stint in Cape Town; in hindsight, I see that I simply wanted an exit, to be in Some Other Country – the romance provided the necessary explanation for my leaving. During the first week of January, 2006, whilst I was lying on a sunny picnic table in my knickers, pleasantly high on a tobacco and weed spliff, I checked my email: my immigration lawyer in New York had sent me an urgent note to inform me that the doctor who examined me had “forgotten” to mark the small box that declared me HIV negative. This omission cost me more in terms of the amount of time it took to process my passcard – it is, perhaps, unnecessary to mention the details of the anxiety that resulted. There I was, in a nation with the second highest HIV+ rate in the world, having to find a way to prove that I was not.
Yes, I subjected myself to the humiliations that all immigrants must negotiate, those indignities that allow us the privilege of working legally in a functioning, powerful nation.
I shared the trials, details, and weekly developments of my immigration process with my students in the Literature in a Global Context course I taught at the university at which I was now employed, a branch of the State University of New York located on the shores of Lake Ontario. This “telling” – making public the often-nebulous details of immigration – was part of my defence against the humiliations I endured. Most immigrants keep the story to themselves, sharing their private experiences of abusive, arrogant officials only with other immigrants. I wanted to communicate, to my American students – many of who believe, I think, on some unconscious level, that immigrants slipped in as a nuisance horde – the shock that my psychosocial body experienced as I went through this process. Mostly, they were surprised by the expense of immigration, of which I kept a detailed list. To begin with, I had to pay $1,000 for an “emergency” H1B visa when I first gained employment at the State University of New York; the hiring process for my position as Visiting Assistant Professor had been delayed by various factors that had to do with the university’s budget, and a regular H1B (or temporary work visa that was valid for the period of a year) would have taken too long to process. If I wanted the job, it was I who had to pay this extra fee to expedite the process. In addition to this fee that would ensure the processing of the visa would be funnelled through faster, I had to pay the $321 as a regular application fee, as well. A year later, my position was changed from “visiting professor” to a tenure-track post (when the university’s budget permitted). I had to return to my country of residence (Zambia) to renew my H1B visa for a further 3 years of employment – paying, of course, for my airline ticket there ($1,500+), and another $300+ processing fee at the US Embassy in Lusaka. Before 9/11, it was possible to apply to renew one’s work visas whilst still in the US; but after that date, immigration attorneys and personnel officers in universities recommended that we return to our nations of origin. At this point, I was in my early 30s, and had been living with my feet on shifting ground for all my adult life. When the US consular officer in Zambia asked “how” I’d been able to get the job as a university professor, I looked him straight in the eye – through the bullet-proof window behind which he was ensconced – and said, “I guess no American who speaks five languages wanted to live in Oswego.”
At this point, I was wondering about the lunacy of remaining in this country – the idiocy of clinging, barnacle-like, to a rock that leached off most of my savings – savings I struggled to put away, earned via the very employment that I fought to keep. It took me a year more to decide to apply for my Greencard – the more permanent work visa. Everyone to whom I spoke – who had, her or himself, already gone through the process, or were in the middle of the process – told me how foolhardy it was to wait and waffle as I was doing. Discomfort like mine, existential angst, and indecisiveness about an alignment with such indenture was too much of a luxury for the likes of us.
In the end, a year after I really should have, I rang an immigration attorney in New York City, a man whom my Spanish neighbour recommended. I was lucky: the university had gone though most of the necessary processes, and my immigration attorney only had to work through the final steps (other, larger universities paid for the whole process, but ours, being smaller and less prestigious, didn’t have the funds to prioritise their foreign hires’ immigration fees). My attorney fees were actually miraculously low: $5,000. I knew of other people who had paid $10,000. But of course, besides the lawyer’s fees, there were separate fees associated with each step of the remaining process: I had to get that medical examination by an immigration services-approved doctor ($75). All the blood tests for various diseases also had a separate cost. And the submissions of paperwork at each stage of the application had separate fees attached to them.
I regaled my students with the horror of the slew of time and savings-consuming steps: none of them had any idea that one had to be tested for diseases in order to be allowed into the country – a process that many felt was inherently unfair, and distinctly un-American: I appreciated the solidarity that they provided. One kid cheekily informed me, “Professor Neelika, this means that Pam Anderson cannot be a US resident.” (Pamela Anderson, she of the infamous size-DD watermelon chest and the original internet-distributed sex-tape footage, is a public crusader for finding a cure for the hepatitis she had unknowingly contracted. She was born in Canada. I doubt that she had much trouble earning an income in the US.)
One wise dude asked me, “What’ll protect you from the syphilis and gonorrhea in our country?”
“A rubber,” I answered, to much raucous laughter, “and the nil-to-zero eligible bachelors in this region.”
I was eventually found to be disease and fibroid free, over-educated, already employed, with a substantial savings account and access to a good lawyer, as any good immigrant should. And thusly, I was allowed to continue to labour for the State University of New York system. My neighbour from Madrid, Spain, who recommended the immigration attorney who brokered both our Greencard processes, claimed that we’d probably paid this exorbitant sum for the three hours of labour that our Manhattan man’s Japanese assistant carried out.
Suddenly, after years of living with ever-changing immigration laws, border hassles, and the threat of being denied entry whenever I left the country, I was free of the worries that had hounded me all my adult life. Here was this little plastic-covered card – every out-of-place immigrant’s dream – in my hand.
And just as suddenly, I wanted to find a way out. Here was my document – for which I’d paid an amount that had taken two years of frugal living to accumulate – and I could not face the idea that now, I would have to commit to this country.
* * *
Over the previous three years, whilst employed at my home institution in the US, I had been travelling to Cape Town, South Africa, to conduct research on contemporary literature and art. Cape Town is a port city in which the contestations that unleashed the inequalities that accompanied the Enlightenment – and the subsequent modernity from which Europeans benefitted – took place. It is a place in which African, European, and South Asian bodies were brought together: some willingly, many more by force. As a result of these minglings, bodies here – bodies of knowledge, as well as physical bodies – display an Otherness – the history of conquest is marked on them.
The Cape of Storms was the place on which the Portuguese landed, to get fresh water for their ships, on the way to the “Indies”: the indigenous peoples reportedly threw stones at them for trying to take water without asking for permission first (this is a dry zone, where water is a valuable resource), and one of them ended with a Portuguese crossbow though his torso for protesting too much. When the Dutch arrived, they, too, thought of this as a watering station – not as a place in which to stay. But soon thereafter, it became useful for the Dutch East India Company (the VOC) as a prison colony, much like the US now uses Guantanamo Bay – to remove, maroon, and erase political and religious leaders from the South Asian countries they were trying to take over. The first Asians that the VOC shipped to South Africa were political prisoners – princes and Imams, and other men of high standing, brought over with entire entourages of family and followers. In 1694, the Sheik Yussuf, “the saintly man who established the first Muslim settlement in South Africa”, was brought to The Cape Colony from the Indonesian archipelago, abroad a ship named the Voetboeg. He was “accompanied by 49 supporters, including two wives, two slave girls, twelve children, twelve imams, and a number of sympathetic friends”. Yussuf and his entourage were transferred to the sandy wasteland near the area now known as Macassar near Stellensboch, where, before his untimely demise (of illness), established the first Muslim community in the Cape of Good Hope.
But later, slave labour became the solution to the drudgery of everyday life. Allesverloren, Vergelegen, and Meerlust – wine farms, some of which have been around since the 1600s – are dotted with stately mansions and wineries constructed by the slave labourers brought from Malaysia, Ceylon, India, and other islands along the Indonesian archipelago – places to which the VOC sent their militarised ships to monopolise the spice trade.
Here on the Cape, post the 1994 democratic elections in South Africa, the question of what makes a person, a landscape, or a way of being – physically, psychosocially, sexually – particularly “African” (and therefore “legitimate” in this location) is a living question; it is a debate that is relevant here, more than in any other location in the enormity that is the continent of Africa. When visitors first land on this port, they are not simply disembarking on a spectacular, modern city located in the gentle bowl created by surrounding mountain ranges and two oceans, its beauty supported by vineyards, beaches, and cobblestoned courtyards built in the 16 and 1700s; they may, if they are aware enough, learn that those picturesque avenues were laid down by the slave labourers brought here by the VOC. They may realise that the labour that supports the “first world” portion of this nation – those cleaning their hotel rooms, those clearing the streets of rubbish, those cultivating the vines in breathtakingly beautiful vineyards – are the descendants of the same subjugated peoples who were brought here to labour on the roads, buildings, the kitchens, the vineyards: inscribed on their bodies is South Africa’s (and European modernity’s) deeply exploitative history. Things have changed here in South Africa, but nothing has moved that much.
Contained within the everyday nomenclature used to describe bodies within this nation is inscribed the desire to sidestep history, to maintain control over “Othered” bodies. Most American visitors believe, from news footage of the apartheid era, that the polarisation was between those deemed “white” and those who were “black”– yes, just like in the US: they transpose their vision of history to that of South Africa. But Afrikaner nationalists went much further in creating categories than race purists in the US. Under apartheid, there were four main “racial” groups in South Africa: White (of European descent); Bantu (or “Native”); Asian (anyone whose family origins were from the Indian subcontinent); Coloured (of “mixed race”). You’ll note, first, that “Black” South Africans were not officially referred to as “Black”, but as “Natives” or “Bantu” (a large grouping invented by European classifiers to denote any person “authentic” to this region, and not “mixed” with any immigrant group from either Europe or Asia). Apartheid classifiers did not use the word “Black” because, by a delightful linguistic twist, the word “black” translated, in Afrikaans, into the word “Afrikaner”: the same name white Dutch descendants used to denote their own “racial” group. Afrikaans – the language that the white supremacists of South Africa claimed and elevated as their “own” language, and displayed as proof of their ascendancy – is not without historical ironies: it was, in fact, the language that resulted from the creolisation of Dutch, South Asian, and local African languages, and was “invented” and used as a ligua franca by the slave labourers brought here. When the white supremacists of South Africa subsequently adopted this language, they consciously articulated it as a “white” language; they “borrowed” words and structures from the Netherlands in order to “purify” and “refresh” their language, signify their alignment with Europe, and – more importantly – separate themselves, linguistically, from the descendants of the slaves – the “Coloured” people of the Cape.
And yet another fun detail: the fact that in Southern African languages, the word “bantu” merely means “people” was lost on those who invented the nomenclature of apartheid. So although the racist nomenclature used “Bantu” to refer to an “indigenous” black person from Africa (denoting, in fact, the lowest ranking on the nomenclature ladder) that word simply means “people”: in all their human glory and fallibility.
And whilst American history produced the classic polarisation between “white” and “black”, South Africa not only created four main categories of “races”, but came up with no less than eight subcategories of “Coloured” to deal with the large, Creolised population that resulted from four centuries of slavery: The Coloured Proclamation Act of 1959 defined these eight different categories as Cape Coloured (largely Christian); Malay (Muslim, of South Asian descent); Griqua (described as “people of mixed Hottentot and slave descent with an infusion of European blood” in the South African Native Affairs Commission (Sanac) report of 1903-1905); Chinese; Indian (those brought to South Africa in later waves of indentured and free labour by the British), Other Indian (whoever didn’t fit that former category, but was Indianish – like a Sri Lankan, for instance); Other Asiatic (the remainders – Asia is a big place); and Other Coloured (who knows). The Japanese had a special status: “honorary white”. Apartheid, though colossally illogical, was clever: they did not ignore that certain expediencies were required for maintaining relations with a nation with financial prowess in the world.
In the twenty-first century, apartheid may be over in the legal books, but the Cape remains a location that highlighted and entombed the geographical origins of one’s ancestors, the precise shade of one’s skin, slant of the eye, shape of the nose, texture of hair: one can read the physical, historical, and political bodies of the people and the landscape of the this region – as inscribed by 400 years of history – and the privileges and disparities that these origins donated to their historical and current bodies.
* * *
The year on which I received my Greencard, I’d found a way to be in South Africa for a year – to work on a couple of academic papers that would help me get tenure at my home university, yes, but it was also a way to get out of the US, and to be with the man for whom I’d fallen on a previous visit.
I was at the University of Cape Town, on this gift of a research fellowship, when the US postal service forwarded the Greencard to my address at the Centre for African Studies, where I had an office. Our long-legged, voluptuous receptionist – much visited by every eligible and non-eligible man within a five-mile radius of Table Mountain – came to my office door to announce, in the glorious accent that marks those who were forcibly moved to the Cape Flats during apartheid-era, in accordance with the Group-Areas Acts: “Neelika: you have ano-ther letter from Amerrica, hey?”
My Greencard arrived in Cape Town by mistake.
The envelope looked like it contained a bill. The Department of Immigration actually stipulates that Greencards must be sent to a US address – after all, that is what we immigrants wanted, right? To be in the US? Whilst many in North America will not believe how reliable the American postal service actually is, I knew and feared the cheerful nosiness of small-town postal branch employees that made them especially efficient. In Oswego, the northern port city located on the shore of Lake Ontario where my American home is located, the three regulars at the post office know me as The Visiting Professor. I come a couple of times a year to fill out a hold-the-post form; and without fail, they ask me if I will enjoy the “hot” weather in “Africa”, adding that they wouldn’t really like it when it’s “that hot”, and that they would “miss the seasons”. When I told them that I was actually going to face a winter in “Africa” that produces snow on the tips of the mountain ranges, giving a short lesson about the tilt of the Earth on its axis (sometimes including an anecdote about how the water runs counter-clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere), my stories were met with puzzlement and dubious delight. But some of my fellow Upstaters knew: they’d watched an episode of “The Simpsons”, where the Springfield natives went to Australia, and discovered the wonders south of the Equator.
(When I told my students about these encounters, one of them quipped, “Neelika, you are the Peace Corps in Oswego. You’ve come to educate us Natives.” I seemed to be confusing the Natives, instead. I suppose that’s what the Peace Corps does.)
Before I left for South Africa for an entire year, the US Postal Service employees in Oswego told me that they have a service that will actually forward all my first-class mail to any place – including the Other hemisphere – for the duration of the whole year. My Greencard arrived at the Cape of Good Hope, though it was not meant to, only because nosy people in a northern town knew me because of my difference. Here, one of the wintertime hobbies is to park one’s car on the bluffs facing the lake to watch winter waves leap up and over the breakwater wall, forming great frozen mounds with the energy and movement of each successive wave etched into the ice. These people knew didn’t forget who I was. They might have seen the fine print on the envelope stipulating that this document must be delivered to a US address, but I imagine that they thought: “She probably needs this.”
* * *
It was in the Cape that I met an Afrikaans-speaking, white South African academic – he became, as he described, my lover. I resisted the nomenclature he used to describe his role in my life – the word seemed inherently silly and hyperbolic to me – something that would have to be accompanied by large muttonchops and, perhaps, bouquets of violets. He did have some unruly sideburns (he fancied himself a Romantic, and a scholar of the period), and spoke longingly of the mountainscape and the Cape flora using borrowed lines from other poets – though I believe he thought I was a young novice who wouldn’t be well-versed enough in English literature to recognise those stolen lines he passed off as his own.
Also, he drove an ancient black Beetle – the vehicle of choice of those who wanted to display their ‘70’s hippie credentials. The fact that this was the vehicle invented by Nazi engineers as part of Hitler’s campaign to conquer the deserts of North Africa (Beetles do not need to have water put into their radiators. My father drove home the significance of this fact by opening the hoods of all his friends’ vehicles, showing me that all other cars had a little coolant reserve) was not lost on me.
I liked these private jokes of mine – it was part of the enjoyment of being with a man. Nevertheless, I fell for this particular man, my irony collapsing just short of a sensible decision.
I’d chosen badly. This man: born in the Free State, the stronghold of apartheid. Who could be more unlikely a man for me, a South Asian born in a port city that hosted Arabs, Greeks, Thais, Portuguese, Dutch, British, and a host of Indians from Kerala to Calcutta? I was the most dis-located person he could imagine, with a uselessly old-fashioned existential angst expressing my lack of nationhood; he, one of the most located persons I’d ever known – with a raging mandate to prove that his language, his beleaguered history, and he himself belonged in this New South Africa. That the doings of his ancestors and contemporaries did not eject him from a place at the table.
It was the ferocity with which he claimed belonging that I found irresistible.
He had been a conscientious objector when the National Party drafted young white men to fight against black South Africans in the late seventies and eighties. After his university education, he taught at one of the first universities set up in the black townships. These two anecdotes proved his credentials to me (and others): they billboarded his anti-apartheid views, and therefore made him politically attractive: I thought, Ah! Someone who was born into one set of circumstances, but made personal choices to transform the self through making active decisions.
Just as I had.
I, like others who listened to the many anecdotes that this Afrikans man told at conferences and symposia, was spellbound by his stories: he had been an eighteen year old, no plan for the future except to get high on weed, hijacked by the history of his nation. He attempted to leave for England, as did many whites of his era, to escape the draft – but abandoned that escape when the cramped London bedsit, the slush of sleet and rain, and morose roommate who repetitively polished a pointless surfboard failed to provide the adventure and freedom that a mythical “return” to Europe promised for white South Africans.
He came back to his country, and lived through being derided and isolated in an army camp, being spied on, and having his home ransacked by the police. He loved his nation that much.
He believed that I was more committed to the prowess that was America, rather than to him. That there was no nation, no person, no nothing to which I would ever be loyal. I was trying to prove otherwise: that I left the US and came to the Cape to be with him. Rather than making the all-too predictable Greencard marriage to an American citizen, I was having an affair with a non-American in order to figure out a way that I could reject the clout that American residency would give me, without seeming to be doing something certifiably insane. I imagine that I could accept the impracticality of giving up employment in a powerful nation if I could use “love” as my reason.
My American friends believed, justifiably, that this love was sheer lunacy.
What I fell in love with were his stories, and the firmness with which he coupled himself to his landscape, his country, his history, his Africanness in being Afrikaner: his narratives of belonging had a grave solidity. Like any settler or immigrant, he was more invested in being identified as an African than any African who didn’t have to question her or his belonging in this landscape: it is the language with which the usurper speaks of the landscape of conquest. Though I had no great loyalty nor attachment to any of the locations on which I’d grown up, lived and worked – be it in Asia, the Americas, or Africa – I marvelled at how committed he was to being here, within a nation that had once told him that he had to fight to belong to “Africa” as a member of an extraordinary race, that his right to a place in this location would mean the violent exclusion of Others who were also located on this landscape. How much of his stories were his real experience, and how much of them were borrowed from others, I have no idea. How much of his decision to stay on in South Africa – whilst his brothers emigrated to the UK and the US with their exceptional educations and ambitions – was because he was a consummately ill-disciplined dreamer who could only get by as an academic here because apartheid still privileged his whiteness (despite his objections), I do not know. But he recounted the narrative of his decision to stay as if he had eaten of that commitment.
* * *
More than all of that romanticism about wilfully constructing belonging in a hostile landscape, I fell in love with the possibility that this man might give me a way back to the mythical Africa: he homed me in a location that I felt I should find belonging, but never had. As a child who grew up within Southern Africa’s socio-political landscape, I found no easy existence here – South Asians were always Indians in Africa: and Africa’s encounter with Indians taught them not about the seven temples of Mahabalipuram desiccating into the Indian Ocean; the finesse of Madras silk saris that could be threaded through the eye of a needle; of Calcutta as the city of cafes and trams, the city beloved as the seat of Indian literary knowledge; or of Kerala as the hotbed of Communist Party politics, and a level of literacy to rival that of Japan. Africans thought of Indians in much the same way as, well, much of the world thought of India and Indians back then: dusty, diseased, starved, overpopulated.
For Africans, India was a broken nation. And Indians in Africa were the shop-keeping, corner-crisps-shop-running, trader-cum-smuggler-cum-briber, arse-kissing, yes-no-head-lolling-and -“r”-rolling, expel from your African nation Asians.
I remember that Sri Lankans did everything they could to differentiate themselves from Indians in Africa; but for all practical purposes, no one on the continent (or anywhere else, for that matter) could remark on the difference. We corrected those who mistakenly misidentified us. We listed and elaborated upon our differences from Indians. But our attempts to separate ourselves from Indian barbarity was to no avail.
In my youth, I’d wanted nothing but leaving – the voluminous otherness that was America was such high pleasure that I forgot to return home for nearly two decades.
When I left my rural backwater mining town in Zambia for an equally backwater college town in the US, I wanted nothing but to run away from the narrative of expatriate-Asian unbelonging in Africa. I thought I’d never return: it was neither a negotiation that I imagined wanting to encounter, nor was prepared in any way to face.
But of course, we all return to Origins – especially those that trouble us, eject and reject us, unbelong us. We sometimes attempt to try to make those Origins acknowledge our legitimacy. We circumnavigate them, satellites mapping and documenting the surface of an ultimately unknowable location from a distance.
During the time I was undecided about whether I could be devoted to America, I believed that entertaining a man born into apartheid South Africa – one from a family that positioned itself in the isolated heart of an old Afrikaner stronghold – would solidify my claim to belonging here, back in the location of my initial dislocation.
Being with an Afrikaner was, for me, about creating belonging to a place that rejected me, or perhaps never desired me in the first place, using the blueprint of another Other in Africa – one whose people’s history spelt the enormity of power, a wilful construction of located-ness though brutal reconfigurations, an engineered belonging to this location, whilst simultaneously ejecting, rejecting, and erasing that same Africa.
I thought that being with him would un-Indian me.
* * *
When I had time off from my university job, I returned to the Cape to live with him in a cottage in the de Trafford vineyard, settled into to the joint between the Helderberg and Stellenbosch mountain ranges. On the Mont Fleur estate, where the farm was located, the workers saw me running through the clay roads before the sun set in the winter, and before the sun rose in the summer. I knew that if I ever injured myself running, everyone’d get notice of it via the bush telegraph immediately. My lover used to say that they liked him more for being with me – they recognised my shade of skin and my unplaceable features; they recognised the markings of another historical contact in my undefinable physical features. They approved of the Afrikaner more now that he was with a person whom they recognised as their own.
From him, I learned of birdcalls and migratory patterns: what I had to train my ear for at different times of the year. The sun only peeked over the granite of the mountaintops at 11 am, greeted by the excited twittering of Cape white-eyes. I usually experience a night or two of insomnia every month – usually associated with full-moon nights. During this period of my life, the insomnia became a regular occurrence; I would wake up at 3AM and listen to nightjars calling out to each other on moonlit nights: ‘two-two twirlydoooo!” I kissed my lover awake, and we listened to the voices of the nightbirds, the howling winter winds rustling through fields of fynbos, the bullets of bluegum pods scattering on the roof. We made love. At the end of August every year, when I left him and came back to my job in the US, I woke up at 3am, hearing the burbling watervoices of the nightjars.
The dislocations I experienced travelling back and forth between the South and North, winters and summers, were more than the usual confusion that I experienced as a traveller, not knowing whether I was in a hotel room, my uncle’s home in Sri Lanka where ring-necked parrots squawked till they were fed morning treats, or in my own flat on the shores of Lake Ontario in upstate New York. When I left the Cape to return to New York, I was seasonally dislocated, shocked by the streaming summer sunshine that awakened me, when I expected blowing rain and grey cloud of a Southern Hemisphere winter.
When I looked up at night to the rural northern sky above the great wash of Lake Ontario, the arc of stars was as brilliant as that of my vineyard sky: the long skirt-train of the Milky Way swept the dark sky above. Orion, here, existed the wrong way around; and the Southern Cross, the stars composing the two arms as brilliant as finely cut diamonds, a great and lonely absence.
In this northern place I returned to in order to make money, and to have stability, I felt nothing but absence. I was out of place without love to locate my body. I was out of place without his sense of location. Without him to locate me.
I knew he was right when he said, “Love is a homesickness”.
I would come to find that I will never feel “homed” in location, or in love; that I live in the transit lounge, always on the way to home and love. And I knew that neither thing – love nor home – existed, not as I wanted to have them, in my memory or desire.
* * *
In the Cape, sexual relations between European settler tribes, the indigenous people (the Xhosa, the Khoi, the San), and the slaves and indentured servants brought from the Dutch colonies in South Asia, as well as those from the island of Madagascar and various other parts of Africa produced the eight categories of those who came to be classified as “Coloured” during the apartheid era. Zimitri Erasmus, in her “Introduction” to Coloured by History, Shaped by Place, clarifies that as with any group that came to exist “under conditions of marginality”, Creole people of the Cape, too, constructed their identity “out of elements of ruling as well as subaltern cultures”. The racial hierarchy that placed “coloured identities midway between ‘white’ and ‘African’” created a legacy that has been tainted with complicitous relationships with those in power: Coloured people – like Indians in Africa – are known for the desire to identify with that which is “white” whilst, simultaneously, distancing themselves from all that is “African”. However, though people who are classified or seen as “Indian” in Africa are known to contain sober cultural habits, “being coloured is…clouded with sexualised shame…and associated with drunkenness and jollity”.
Being Coloured is about that history: that of the “loose” sexuality of female slave labourers, their drunken, jolling culture, their permissive behaviour that permitted white sailors, Company soldiers, and farmers to create this “remainder” of people outside of definable “races”. Being Coloured is about the ability to collude with those in power, to make compromises with one’s body in order to garner favours: to use one’s poes to get a Pass.
Erasmus illustrates that Coloured identities arose from the need to “survive and resist on terms dictated by slave-owners and colonisers” as well as the “compromises and opportunities that arose in the context of settlers’ encounters with indigenous Africans”. How cornered or threatened one had to be before one made such bodily compromises rarely enters the imaginations viewing Colouredness in terms of “shame” and “looseness”.
That we must “buy into notions of ‘race purity’”– that is, believe in the existence of “pure” races (black and white) in order to construct an idea of a “mixed race”; that we must agree, on some level, with “nineteenth century European eugenicists” in order to define identities “in terms of ‘mixture’”; that all cultures (and, I’d add, all genetic bodies of people) are “hybrid”, though they may not be “seen” and “read” as such: all this is lost in the discourses that define Creolised populations as those that resulted from “miscegenation” or “race mixing”.
In a nation that is hair-trigger-sensitive to particular physical markers as signals of “race”, my body screamed of Otherness. In Durban – the location to which indentured labourers from India were brought by the British colonisers to work on the sugarcane plantations and the railroads in the nineteenth century – I might be seen as a fellow Indian – but of a slightly strange variety: Indians brought to South Africa came, largely from the South of India: Telegus, Tamils, Keralites. I didn’t have the markers that carried that particular history: not the right shade of skin, not the right texture and colour of hair.
But in the Cape, which simply ruled anything that looked “neither/nor” as Coloured, I was just garden-variety, ordinary Cape Coloured – maybe Cape Malay, if one were looking for specifics. As long as I did not open my mouth to speak – betraying an accent that had more to do with a British colonial education and phrases that displayed an American enjoyment in the inventiveness of language – I passed as local.
I could disappear into a crowd. My body could pass here, in this location of contact. This was the first time in my life that it had happened to me: walk down a street, enter a market, a church, or a classroom, and not be asked, “Where are you from?”
I’d never imagined how significant that feeling would be – how powerful it would feel to never be asked to legitimate one’s right to be within a location – to simply belong.
Here, I got to drop the enormous weight of the history of being “Asian in Africa”. And at first, the removal of the old heaviness associated with being “Indian” was an exhilarating freedom. I’d not yet experienced the burden that was to come with being Coloured in the Cape.
That was to come soon enough.
Early in this essay, I wrote: origins are indelibly linked to the imaginary of love. And being Coloured is to be without clear Origins. Or at least, to have one’s origins clouded in shame. As a coloured woman in the Cape, I was agreeing to behave as History determined for me to behave: to collude with power, to make compromises with the body in order to curry favour, to accept these arrangements as the reality of being part of a “remainder” left behind by Europe and Africa.
* * *
The very things I adored about my lover – the solidity with which he belonged to his language, his home, his country – these were the same reasons I was neither able to stay with him, nor he with me. What I’d been attracted to was, in fact, the sense of power that surrounded his belonging to this location – something I did not have, but longed for. But what I didn’t realise, then, was that attempting to ride the coattails of others’ power is always accompanied by problematic fine print: they always decide the spaces you enter; they decide the pace at which you go; they may decide, eventually, to shake you off. And then, having never learnt how to stride into a room without hiding behind some powerful persona, your only option may be to find another coat to hang on to, if you are still desirable enough.
The dissonance between us was spelt out clearly whenever I encountered the world outside the cottage in which I shared a bed with him – and then, it entered the cottage. This happened at random encounters: at university conferences, where these notions of belonging and identity were debated with a ridiculous passion that only served (for me) to prove the silliness of academia, providing fodder for fun-making; for him, however, these debates denoted the seriousness of his life’s journey as an Afrikaner academic. At any given public presentation, the stupidity of competitiveness arose between us: when we presented together, there were few questions directed at his paper, whilst there were many who asked about mine – only, perhaps, because I was working with visual images and text, things that younger scholars respond to. Whilst he badgered me about the men who spoke to me, or exchanged cards with me, it was I who looked jealous if I questioned his behaviour around young, female academics.
I tried to situate these arguments as misunderstandings about love, or – simply, as idiotic jealousies that would go away, once he saw that I had no intentions for any man but him.
At other times, a conversation with a colleague in the hallway of his department highlighted the hypocrisy between what he professed in public (the importance of providing access to underrepresented groups, hiring young, Black scholars, etc.), and how he behaved in situations where he would not be seen. In private, he regaled me with tales involving older, established, white academics, and young, female scholars – how many black and coloured women had only been able to arrive where they had because they had been “initiated” into academia by much older, white men in South African academia. He had amassed some detailed stories and anecdotes to bolster his argument, and to illustrate that this was, in fact, a fair “deal” enjoyed by all involved.
He was clear about the benefits for the women.
What did the men get, besides sexual favours? Credentials as “non-racists” in the New South Africa. What better way to display one’s lack of prejudice than to be seen with a black woman? In the Bad Old South Africa, a white man would have to cloak the sexual encounter, pay the woman, live in fear of being found out by family, wife, and community. In the New Nation, a white man, soon after divorce or separation, paraded black women in public like a passport.
Whilst these conversations were taking place, I was educating myself about the particularities of the history of the Cape. Especially significant was Cheryl Hendricks’ article, “Ominous Liaisons”, in which the scholar details the manner in which the “European encounter with Africa…utilized sexuality to describe, define, categorize, and symbolize the ‘Otherness’ of the indigenous inhabitants of the Cape”, focusing particularly on the sexuality and the sexual organs of the local women as markers of “Otherness”. She argues, further, that it was “damning to admit to any sexual liaisons” with Khoi Khoi or San, given that these indigenous groups were described as the missing link between animal and human. Hendricks’ writing helped me add depth to the discussions on the life of Sara Baartman, the so called “Hottentot Venus” who was brought to London in 1810 as a sexual display item; upon her eventual death, her body was dismembered by the French evolutionary biologist and anatomist Georges Cuvier, who made a plaster cast of her body, and preserved – for display in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris – her brain, buttocks and vaginal organs. Baartman was born in 1789, the same year that the French Revolution – which, ironically, eventually inspired the Declaration of the Rights of Man – also erupted; she died at age 25, of complications arising from, possibly, a combination of syphilis and alcoholism. While Baartman’s remains were repatriated, 187 years later, for burial in 2002 (after petitions supported by the new democratic government of South Africa, and much debate in the French Parliament), Cuvier has a dolphin-flanked fountain to commemorate his contributions to science near the Jardin des Plantes (with his motto, "Rerum cognoscere causas" – "to know the causes of things" – emblazoned upon a tablet held by a host of adoring animals) with no mention of his fascination with the brains, backsides, and labia of African women.
Fascination with the African body and sexuality: no doubt about it. But shame associated with being known to derive pleasure from the African body: no doubt about that, either. Hendricks argues that whilst such encounters between “Europe and Africa” did take place, it was less shameful to have sex with “people of ‘mixed’ descent” because “they were differently situated in the racial hierarchy…occupying an interstitial space which was valued for its conferred advantages – gained because of an approximation to whiteness, yet despised for its association with ‘bastardisation/hybridity’ in a world that came to privilege ‘authenticity/purity’”.
Yes, I shared my newfound knowledge with the man who argued that there was some sort of “equal” gain in present-day sexual liaisons in South Africa that involved men and women who arrived at the erotic table with vastly different levels of power. I thought I was being clever, using scholarship and wit to argue back and forth – and that he, too, was simply challenging me, enjoying an intellectual game. Surely, he didn’t think that my being with him meant that I could be positioned as a young, “Coloured” scholar, benefitting from his largesse? Nor that he could, possibly, be with me, as physical proof of his “liberal” credentials? I didn’t realise, then, that being with a person who looked as I did, for a man tainted with the baggage of South Africa’s colonial and apartheid politics, was part of an inescapable, long history of exploitative sexual relations that white men enjoyed with the “safer” version of the Other – claiming, always, that this relationship was useful and productive to both parties involved.
I’d forgotten, because I was in love, that a nation’s history plays a bigger part in shaping individuals and their thought processes. In this landscape, this location of colonial encounter, the old methods of unequal exchange – wherein the use of body and sexuality were an accepted, ordinary part of negotiating for access and power – were still very much in place. These old customs were continuing to work well for some. And even if the man I was seeing had never positioned me as such – even if we, as a couple, did not see ourselves in this manner – others around us certainly did.
The fact that I cared little for the adoration of other male scholars, and that I had zero interest in gaining an academic upper hand through introductions to his network of cronies were not things that were believable to this man, nor to many others around us: this is not the way academia worked, not in their experience, and not in South Africa. That I did not want access to power through using my body – the physical or symbolic body – was bizarre enough that my protests were seen as just that: simply too much protest. That I especially did not want to climb up using his symbolic body as a conduit to power came to be seen as a separate problem: if I did not want to use him, then, I had no use for him. Then, I would not be grateful, beholden, or loyal to him.
And therefore, I would be uncontrollable: Colonial Subjectivity 101.
Just like a subversive Asian, given a situation in which I had to submit myself to a relationship with a nation that wanted to use me to further itself, I did not exactly comply with the rules of subjugation. I was not behaving in manner that was “Coloured” enough for this man, or this location.
I was back to being Indian.
* * *
The final decision I made – to leave him, yes, but more significantly, to return to the US to accept my residency – happened over something as benign as a holiday to see the blossoming Namaqualand flowers: along with the spring rains that come in late August and September, the desert in the Northern Cape bursts with flowers, and locals pilgrimage up the West Coast Highway to see the desert floor rolling in blooms. It is Sara Baartman’s childhood landscape.
Because we’d only decided to go on the trip late in the week, the better hotels were booked. We found a cheap place – a drinking house, really, with a few rooms. We were the only people staying there, but plenty of beefy, pap-and-vleis-fed, red-faced Afrikaners were at the bar, swallowing methodically - the way that serious drinkers approached drink. We laughed at the drab hopelessness of the scene. We felt everything was an adventure that we’d be able to laugh about.
“You think you’re out of place here?” he asked me, half-jokingly, before I said anything. “Imagine how I feel, looking at those guys I’m supposed to belong to.”
But he felt at home soon enough. The owner of the hotel, a 30-something white woman who looked like she drank her fair share, spoke to my companion in Afrikaans – she addressed only him, never once looking at me. Earlier in the evening, when I’d gone to fetch a bag from the car, and asked her for directions back to the room, she certainly replied to my query in comfortable English – but I was on my own at that moment.
She seemed intent on flirting with him. He seemed to comply – all the charm that I fell for was being trotted out here, too, in a dusty, two-tabled dining room with a black cat sleeping in the washbasin. She was attractive enough.
At the dinner table, I endured an entire conversation between them, in Afrikaans. My body seemed to have disappeared from the room. I was not only an outsider in his world, in her world – I did not exist.
My fish and wilted chips remained untouched.
When she came to collect the plates, she asked, in Afrikaans, if we’d enjoyed our meals: the question was not directed at me. But I knew enough Dutch and Afrikaans – for a person who loved languages, it was not difficult to pick up simple phrases.
“No,” I replied, “Het was niet smakelijk.”
I then asked her if she could speak to both of us – my lover and me – in English, since I could not understand Afrikaans.
She said, “Oh, are you very English then?” She emphasised the word.
“Yes, I am very English,” I replied, thinking, how ridiculous her comment, how hilarious it would be to laugh about this situation later: me, a coconut-island girl who grew up in the middle of a nowhere bush town in Zambia, being called “very English”, only because I was educated in Anglican schools.
She cocked her head in mock sympathy.
“Agh, shame!” She tutted. “Around here, we only use English for defence.”
I’d no idea how English could be used as a “defence” in any given environ. I wondered if this was the language that one might now use to prove that one was legitimate in the “New” South Africa. I wondered if English speakers could distance themselves from white Afrikaans speakers, whose language and history were mired in white supremacy. But everyone knew: it was the English who came up with the first laws of segregation in South Africa, and the descendants of the English benefitted largely from Apartheid, whilst hiding behind their Englishness as the means by which they separated themselves from the evildoing Afrikaners.
And in any case, English was certainly not a conduit for belonging, or a means of insisting on one’s “Africanness”.
I’m still working that one out.
But meanwhile, back at the ranch, I was thinking about that phrase the motel owner had used. “Agh, shame!” can denote multiple possibilities: it can genuinely mean “Oh, I’m so sorry”, drawing the recipient of one’s sympathies closer. Or it can be delivered in a manner that denotes the distance and superiority of the speaker.
Both Mr. Man and I knew which connotation was signified by this motel owner’s particular turn of the phrase.
Once she left the dining room, I waited for words denoting sympathy about the awkward situation I was living through, here on the frontier of colonial encounter. But he had nothing to say.
A full five minutes later, he faced me: “Why do you have to politicise everything? If this were France, you would not be so snobbish. You would defend their fear of English hegemony, and their right to speak in French. These are rural people who feel that English is taking over. They feel pride for their language. Can you not understand this?”
The last part of his speech was venomous, enraged. We were not, now, having an intellectual debate. I did not know how to show him that I was not here to “do politics”, but to have a holiday with a man believed I loved.
I knew that it would be no use arguing that French history was very different from apartheid history, and that in any case, a language and a culture that was as hegemonic (and violently so) as Afrikaans had no worry of being taken over by English. Or that there was no danger in Afrikaans being wiped out, as the “Coloured” dialect of Afrikaans was alive and thriving in all its multiplicitous glory – but of course, white Afrikaners did not often include their cousins’ language in their considerations of the survival of the language.
The rage with which this man reacted to my exchange with the motel owner shocked me out of love. It shook me out of wanting to be aligned with his narrative of nationalism – one that was now in the process of struggling to prove its place in Africa. I didn’t think that the conversation between us, at this point, revealed much about the politics surrounding language and identity, but much more about how much my lover’s loyalty to his heritage would play out in our relationship.
At the time, I believed that this was all a simple case of expecting a certain level of hospitality at a hotel gone awry. I knew the owner spoke English, she knew I spoke no Afrikaans, and because she was running a hotel, and I was a customer, I expected courtesy. My expectations of courtesy included that a hotel owner would address me, as well, not just my male companion. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew, also, that her performance had been about sexual display – and that he had responded. But at the time, I could not articulate this: that my lover’s behaviour, too, was a display of “un-hospitality” – an act of unhoming. That was what I was reacting to.
It was only much later that I understood how the public structures of things affected the private. It was a long time before I was able to read that encounter in terms of public history, landscape, and bodies: the motel owner directed her conversation towards him, and flirted hard with him, because in her experience, white men were the ones who had access to power. I was just the Coloured thing with whom he was having a bit of fun, away from the city. Her flirtation with him had to do with the particulars of Cape history – she was white, yes, but even for white women here, especially poor, rural women, white men were the ones who had power – financial and otherwise. And it was through the promise of sex that women vied for a bit of that power. I was supposed to step up to the game – defend my position, make this man the valued prize for which we both fought.
And my “refusal” to speak in Afrikaans was seen, I realised, as a cultivated snobbery: uppity city Coloureds sometimes want to distance themselves from this language, reject the association with apartheid. But out here in the rural hinterland, Coloureds were expected to remain Coloureds.
The following morning, I woke up early. I took my bag, and walked to the front desk, bypassing the black cat, asleep in another washbasin bowl in a different dilapidated room. I stopped to look at it, glorious in the sun: it opened one sharp green eye, and looked directly at me.
It was only when she realised that it would be I who would be paying for the night at her motel that she looked up.
I placed my credit card in front of her. She saw my name: not Cape Coloured. And the card was foreign-issued: American. She had no machine with which to process credit cards, but suddenly, she was warm, chatty, even.
“Why didn’t you say that you were foreign!?” Her new exclamations were uttered in perfectly good English.
“I have cash. In rands. Don’t worry.”
“Did you enjoy your stay?”
I left her a R50 tip – a third of the motel fee.
These were dogs of a breed I’d never encountered, and a madness for which I’d not bargained. This was, in fact, when I decided to return to America. To leave the man to whom I’d attached the enormity of home and nation.
* * *
On the day that I opened the envelope containing my Greencard, I drove out to Llandudno beach, thirty minutes south of the city, along the Atlantic seaboard. Llandudno is built into the lower flanks of the Twelve Apostles, the dozen mountains that stand sentinel along the Cape Peninsula. The gentle curvature of the cove below makes the waves curl beautifully – not large enough that an experienced surfer can boast of being held within the Green Room – that cylinder of air inside the curving palm of water – but beautiful for anyone not out on the ocean to prove themselves.
In mid summer, the water here is still cold from Antarctic currents, enough to make the belly-skin cringe; in the winter, impossible to contemplate without a wetsuit.
When I walked along the cliff walls leading down to the water, it was still sunny; bands of cormorants were on the rocks, catching the last of the sun, wings hanging out, drying their feathers.
No one was here: the waves were too rough, uneven. From high up along the coastal drive, I could see the kelp beds roaring wild: the Cape of Good Hope was anticipating a winter storm. We who live in seaward-looking cities can read the signs: we know those winds arriving from the Antarctic, we see the fynbos on the higher slopes of the mountain already on bended knee, we see the way these waves change their behaviour. If there’s anything I’ve learned from living on the shores of Lake Ontario, it’s how to read the change of wind arriving from the polar ice caps, the roaring change evident in the movement of water.
Sometimes, the signs of an impending calamity are unmistakable.
I knew, already, that nothing would be the same after that day.
I drove back to the cottage on the de Trafford wine farm. At dusk, the light hits the westward faces of the mountains to a pink so unlikely that it seems as if the granite is transformed into roses. The stucco and brick Cape Dutch mansions in which the wine farm owners live impose on the landscapes around here: outsiders eager to signal their difference. Bits of my ancestors are probably here – a Ceylonese woman is recorded as giving birth to the bastard child of Simon van der Stel, the Anglo-Indian first governor of the Cape. These leftovers are now the coloured workers on the farms, with generations of knowledge about how to trim the leaves around each bunch of grapes just right, so that the fruit will get the right amount of sun at harvest time: these are the new indentured servants of the Cape, whose ancestors hewed and laid down the stones for each of the grand homes lining the country roads.
At the time, I thought that living within this landscape of bodies bearing the marks of that undeniably violent colonial encounter was not simply about experiencing a “postcolonial adventure”, as my city friends joked, but about displaying power over that history. Falling for an Afrikaner was not about my “Empire striking back”, but about the possibilities that love – and modernity – may contain.
I thought about what I would tell this man who nominated himself my “lover”, the man I was using, I realised, to strengthen my escape from America. I believed, then, that being with him would find me a way out of aligning myself with the terrorist-ferreting, powerful nation at whose doorstep I did not want to beg – the nation that would solidify a new, powerful identity for me the moment I flew back and faced the consequences of having paid a lawyer all my savings to engineer that mobility and belonging.
I wondered how I was going to negotiate this new reality for myself, without an escape route.
This man presented me a way out of committing to America, yes. I understood his alienation from his own country’s history: how terrifying it must be to be claimed by a nation that gave one power by extracting a loyalty paid in blood and loss. I adored the language of otherness he’d developed to explain his predicament. I knew what it meant to speak of the gorgeous body of the pinotage in our glasses, the fat of the Karoo desert lamb in the roasting pan, and the way the granite on the mountain turned pink when the sun set – rather than face each other and speak cordially through our differences: this we had in common. To divert conflict, and the violence of the encounter that this landscape and these bodies had seen – and speak instead of the birdlife, the mountains, or of the body of one’s lover – to map the territory of conquest with language sweet enough to distract: this was the fine art we had developed.
But the great and unmapped territory within, and the labour required for undertaking the cartography of the self – that courage we lacked.
I’d chosen someone that I’d have to give up: I picked an impossibility, so that eventually, I’d have to show up for my sensible marriage, and reconcile myself to aligning my person with the stability that powerful nations assign to one’s body politic. Faced with the possibility that the US, my surrogate nation – the Superpower in all its post 9/11 ambiguity – would finally accept me, legally, 18 years after I first arrived, I balked. I guess I balked so hard that my body crashed through the windshield of the immigration vehicle I’d been driving so fast. The strength with which I held on to the unlikely – and often destructive – partnering of mine in South Africa had more to do with that self-engineered crash than with much else.
How I’m learning to negotiate the new rules of agency, to maintain the strength inherent in ambiguity whilst being admitted into this powerful and destructive nation: that’s a story I’m just beginning to narrate.
When I came back to my home university, located on the northern limit of my new country, I found an apartment with windows facing the shores of Lake Ontario – as close to the boundary of the nation as I could find. Above, beyond the lake and the horizon, were Canada and the Arctic Circle.
It was deep winter. I woke up at 3am, the roar of the waves carried by the gusting arctic wind. Outside: blackness and water.
I could hear the burbling watervoices of the nightjars outside.
1. From the dedication to Chimurenga, Volume 14. Makeba had 9 passports, and was given honorary citizenship in several countries; in 1960, she discovered that South Africa had revoked her passport when she tried to return for her mother’s funeral; in ’63, her citizenship was also revoked, after she testified against the apartheid system before the UN. She, along with many others – including Nelson Mandela – didn’t keep the “Passbook” that those classified as “Native” were required to carry. In South African slang, derived from Afrikaans, a “pass” can be a play on the word referring to a woman’s sexuality: Miriam was known as a lover extraordinaire.
2. Jackie Loos’ Echoes of Slavery (New Africa Books, 2004) is a beautifully written historical work that chronicles the labour and lives of those who constructed the language, culinary practices, roads, architecture, and agricultural backbone of the Cape, using both secondary and primary archival material. Loos was a librarian, who, after being “retrenched” from her job, decided to use her expertise as a researcher to dig up archival material and make public the lives and labour of the undocumented who constructed the glories upon which the Dutch Empire depended. p.48.
3. Same as Footnote 2.
4. Same as Footnote 2.
5. For an excellent introduction to the contradictions of Apartheid, and the sheer silliness of the nomenclature, see: http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/features/storyofafrica/12chapter7.shtml
6. Reddy, Thiven. 2001. “The Politics of Naming: the Constitution of Coloured Subjects in South Africa”. Coloured by History, Shaped by Place. ed. by Zimitri Erasmus. Kwela Books: Cape Town, 2001. p. 69.
7. For a quick (non-academic) introduction to the Apartheid-era Group Areas Acts, the specific details contained within Passcards, and the nomenclature of apartheid, see http://africanhistory.about.com/library/bl/blIdentityNumber.htm
8. Erasmus, Zimitri. 2001. “Introduction”. Coloured by History, Shaped by Place. ed. by Zimitri Erasmus. Kwela Books: Cape Town, 2001. p. 16.
9. Same as Footnote 8
10. Same as Footnote 8, p. 15.
11. Erasmus, Zimitri. 2001. “Introduction”. Coloured by History, Shaped by Place. ed. by Zimitri Erasmus. Kwela Books: Cape Town, 2001. p. 24.
12. Same as Footnote 11. p.16.
13. Same as Footnote 11, p.16.
14. Same as Footnote 11, p.16.
15. Hendricks, Cheryl. 2001. “Ominous Liaisons: Tracing the Interface Between “Race” and Sex at the Cape”. Coloured by History, Shaped by Place. ed. by Zimitri Erasmus. Kwela Books: Cape Town, 2001. p. 24.
16. For a extensive history of Baartman’s life and significance of the encounter between European and African sexuality, see Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography by Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully. Princeton University Press, 2008.
17. Same as Footnote 15, p. 35.
M. Neelika Jayawardane is Assistant Professor of English at the State University of New York-Oswego, where she teaches post-apartheid and South Asian literature, new fiction of the postmodern and postcolonial experience, as well as courses focusing on globalisation, diaspora, and transnational theory. She holds a doctorate in English, with a focus in Creative Writing, from the University of Denver; her Masters and Bachelors degrees are from Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. She has been a Visiting Associate at the Centre for African Studies in the University of Cape Town from 2005-present, where she researches the history of mobility, migration, and the role of passes, passports, and visa regulations in containing migrants from “Third World” nations.
RECONFIGURATIONS: A Journal for Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture, http://reconfigurations.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1938-3592, Volume Three (2009): Immanence/ Imminence