Out with Or­well and in with Oyeyemi

CityPress - - Voices - Joonji Mdyo­golo voices@city­press.co.za PHOTO: AFROL­E­GENDS.COM

The Sun­day Times has re­ported that the de­part­ment of ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion is scrap­ping An­i­mal Farm, Lord of the Flies, The Cru­cible and Othello from its English lit­er­a­ture canon. This lit­er­a­ture will be re­placed by lo­cal books. What good news. But how em­bar­rass­ing that it has taken the ANC gov­ern­ment so long to do this.

Like most South Africans, I read all those nov­els. “Four legs good, two legs bet­ter,” said the pigs in Ge­orge Or­well’s prophetic tale of the world’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ments, in­clud­ing our own.

From Wil­liam Gold­ing’s Piggy and those mur­der­ous ex­cuses for friends we’ve won­dered: Are hu­mans in­nately evil?

But it wasn’t un­til I read Ner­vous Con­di­tions by the Zim­bab­wean writer Tsitsi Dan­garem­bga that I felt an awak­en­ing, a rev­o­lu­tion­ary stir and a con­nec­tion from my soul to her mind about all the things I knew to be true, but could not ar­tic­u­late. It was through her and Mariama Ba’s So Long a Let­ter that I so­lid­i­fied my own ideas of fem­i­nism and self-ac­tu­al­i­sa­tion that never set­tled through Jane Austen, Vir­ginia Woolf, Char­lotte Brontë or Ge­orge Eliot, all of whose books were set works in the canon of great lit­er­a­ture while these African and fe­male writ­ers were on the fringe.

I say this know­ing that this is an un­fair read­ing of Austen and Brontë be­cause I gave up on their books as soon as I started, but apart from Mrs Dal­loway, I was get­ting im­pa­tient with English girls in­volved in dal­liances with non­sense men.

I’m not say­ing that Western clas­sics are not wor­thy works. Modern au­thors gather in­spi­ra­tion from a va­ri­ety of sources, many of them pale and dead for cen­turies.

I’m say­ing that to teach a na­tion, es­pe­cially one like ours that is on a rev­o­lu­tion­ary tra­jec­tory, con­text is im­por­tant. Th­ese books should have long shifted to make way for African writ­ers and con­tem­po­rary thinkers in high school and uni­ver­sity post-1994 cur­ricu­lums.

Ge­orge Or­well wrote An­i­mal Farm dur­ing World War 2 as a cau­tion­ary tale to so­cial­ist gov­ern­ments. The Cru­cible was pub­lished in the 1950s and drew par­al­lels be­tween the McCarthy-era in­ves­ti­ga­tions of the time and the Salem witch tri­als of 1692.

What good are school­books if they do not help you make sense of your world? I love Shake­speare and will duel any­one to the death who dis­putes his bril­liance. But I credit the many con­tem­po­rary fe­male writ­ers – some in­tro­duced in high school, oth­ers de­voured later in life – for shap­ing my mind to be­come the woman I am.

Dan­garem­bga’s book, pub­lished in 1998, helped me make sense of my world. Like her ti­tle char­ac­ter, I was liv­ing two lives – one at a pri­vate board­ing school and an­other in Soweto – and in con­flict with how the Western fem­i­nism ideals I was learn­ing at school fit­ted into my life back home. I picked up Erika Jong’s Fear of Fly­ing in my twen­ties by chance, and learnt about the “zi­p­less f**k”, which con­firmed my sus­pi­cions that the world was ly­ing about women’s sex­u­al­ity. Pub­lished in 1973, Jong scan­dalised the Western world by rip­ping apart sex­ual re­pres­sion. Read­ing it in my twen­ties was such a sex­ual lib­er­a­tion.

That’s what books are for: to rev­o­lu­tionise minds and dis­turb the sta­tus quo. Post-1994 we should have been build­ing on African thought, but we mis­took hear­ing black kids speak­ing in Model C ac­cents as progress. Colo­nial lit­er­a­ture does have its uses. It helps us nav­i­gate aca­demic and cor­po­rate struc­tures, and gets the “You’re so well read and so well spo­ken; where did you go to school?” com­pli­ments that gain us favour. But it’s a dou­ble-edged sword be­cause it has also made us com­pla­cent in up­hold­ing the sys­tems it was our post-lib­er­a­tion duty to take down. And if the gath­er­ing of what I heard a by­stander call the “newly con­scious co­conuts” who can only quote Biko is any­thing to go by, the gen­er­a­tion af­ter me has not fared bet­ter.

I de­clared 2015 my year of read­ing just books by black writ­ers, mostly mod­ern, from South Africa and the di­as­pora.

Bessie Head made me won­der why we have such low ex­pec­ta­tions of South African men. Helon Ha­bila and Zuk­iswa Wan­ner made me ashamed of my fix­a­tion with black writ­ing only if it was on colo­nial reck­on­ing and racism.

He­len Oyeyemi was a mind-ben­der, a writer who would not be boxed in. There is so much depth and knowl­edge here.

I’m thrilled for the fu­ture gen­er­a­tion and I have so much catch­ing up to do.

Tsitsi Dan­garem­bga

Mariama Ba

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