OPINION: The stories we tell ourselves in SA
We tell ourselves stories. Some of them fictional, and others rooted in fact. Often the lines between fact and fiction are a little blurry, but sometimes they fall into brief, sharp relief. A startling clarity. The stories that we tell about our lives, and the lives of others, is the way we make sense of the world. They reveal how we think about, process and understand what it means to be human, and to live here - wherever our 'here' may be.
The shape of our narratives, their arc, themes, moral lessons, protagonists and other characters, exposes how we make sense of our place in this world - this 'here'. They can also open up ways to engage with our discomforting lack of an easy place in it.
Some of our stories are easily accepted as truth. They become, simply, 'the way things are': popular narratives, in which myth, legend, subjective truth, fact, history and the present collide in a singular, neat story. Sewn-up. Intact. Hedged in against critique. They are beautifully wrapped in a language we have all learned to be fluent in, in spite of its exclusionary vocabulary. They never stutter.
Others have to fight for their stories to be given a voice and space in society's narrative of who and what we are, and what we have become. They are constantly aware of being part of those whom Arundhati Roy calls not the voiceless, but "the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard".
Towards the end of last year, new books emerged that spin on the numerous questions we face in South Africa. They tell different versions of our collective story. From Justice Malala's _We Have Now Begun Our Descent _to Eusebius Mckaiser's _Race Racist Run _and Ferial Haffajee's What If There Were No Whites, it is clear that the state of South Africa, race, class and other lines that continue to divide us remain central features of our public discourse, which we must continue attempting to unpack, analyse and address. They remain so, because these features of our lives continue to breathe through our bodies. They burden our bodies. And despite calls to 'get over' things like race, class or gender, they are the throbbing beat that underscores the rhythm of our lives, even when seemingly imperceptible.
A recognition of the inescapable structural character of these things energises Mckaiser's intervention into the question of race and its intersections - which is both highly relevant and presents sophisticated philosophical arguments in a clear manner. At the heart of the narrative is unpacking a complex set of questions about race that face us daily, such as "is there a place for anger?", "can liberals be racist?" and "are black people obliged to help white people understand racism?" through prising them apart and revealing the logic at their centre. The book is rooted in dealing with the 'here', with our present South African landscape, rather than attempting to escape it - which is critical if we are to make sense of our different realities, and how race consistently rises to the surface in our public discourse.
Haffajee's narrative spins on the question she uses as a title, which editor, writer and broadcaster Gugulethu Mhlungu argues is 'distracting and deeply problematic', and as such becomes a project of imaginative reality mapping and the pursuit of one story at all costs, without dealing with 'here'. Similarly, asking 'What if there were no men?' or 'What if there were no capitalists?' would not allow us to face the realities that confront us daily. These are not the propositions or questions that energise the work of people who are critiquing societal issues, pursuing economic equality and a just society. Considering particular bodies, white people, and not a structure of white supremacy that all of us partake, live in, collude with, make sense of ourselves in, and prevents confronting the sophisticated, full breadth of these realities. Even as these structures form the spine of our lives. Even as they hold our stories upright, resting under our skin. Determining how we move through the world.
As such, the importance of owning our stories, has become an often repeated warning - particularly in the digital age, where real-time photographs, videos and tweets seem to open up an opportunity to document our narratives. Still, as readings of the #FeesMustFall protests on social media and news pages illustrated, we can't control how others tell the story. The story of who we all are. The story of now. The story of 'here'.
In telling these stories, often people are framed in ways that make them stock characters, objects and not fully human. Finding meaning in things, will never happen if you reduce people to things, ideas, archetypes, characters. Finding meaning in things requires that we probe at what is beneath the surface, seeing people as people and allowing them to emerge with their full humanity intact.
Already, as the new year has emerged, Penny Sparrow's viral post has pointed to how some are constantly framed in exceedingly problematic ways: people who are constantly aware of being "an object in the midst of other objects", in the words of Frantz Fanon. Sparrow wrote: "These monkeys that are allowed to be released on New years Eve And new years day on to public beaches, towns etc. obviously have no education what so ever so to allow them loose is inviting huge dirt and troubles and discomfort to others. I'm sorry to say I was amongst the revellers and all I saw were black on black skins what a shame".
People as monkeys. Dirt. Troubles. Discomfort. People, as shame itself. Personified.
How we look at people, populate our stories and how we frame them reveals much about the narratives we tell ourselves about who we are, who 'they are' and this space we live in, together and so completely apart.
Inspired by Charles Dickens's idea of 'two cities', there are continuing ideas of two South Africas - from Mbeki's 'Two Nations' speech to Mmusi Maimane's comparison between Sandton and Soweto. The reality is less clean. There are multiple experiences of South Africa, governed by the facts that make up the spine of our lives. The facets of who we are that, like bone, form lines of race, crossed over by a parallel line of class, running adjacent to features like gender, sexuality, ability that synchronously working to form the complex bodies we live in, and shape the lives we live. One geographical space, like South Africa, houses different experiences and textures of life.
In a critique of Haffajee's book, writer Tlotlang Osiame Molefe wrote: "instead of creating dialogue, What If There Were No Whites In South Africa? will probably widen the gap in understanding and amplify the screaming match between them. And that's a shame." This critique can be aimed at many other public interventions into the state of our society. As identified by Mhlungu in an important piece on the state of public discourse, the question Molefe instead asks: "What if we actually listened to each other?" is critically important for opening up our vision, beyond the way we live, and what we see "if we are to begin to move towards an intersectional solution to this country's challenges".
But that listening can easily be crowded out by the stories we tell ourselves about other people's lives, or even our own, if we let it. Mhlungu is right that we are all often "stubbornly attached to our theories". Stubbornly attached to our stories. At all costs. We could all benefit from that listening.
2016 will not be different simply because the two hands of a clock met at midnight and declared the arrival of a new year. Listening, and acting on that listening to try and bridge the gaps between what it means to live here, presents an opportunity for reimagining 'here', on the basis of trying to achieve a more just society.
"We tell ourselves stories in order to live," Joan Didion wrote. "We tell ourselves these stories in order to live in the worlds we create, and to live with ourselves, when the world is on fire for some, but we can't smell the smoke, or see it but refuse to acknowledge it is happening." Didion continues, "We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience."
We can all be unreliable narrators, to some degree, at times blinded by our own experiences. This is why Mhlungu and Molefe jointly argue that we all need to actively listen to other experiences. The challenge we face, in incorporating what we hear into the stories we tell ourselves, is to fight against the single, neat story that is frozen in time, never shifting or altering. To constantly resist it, test our version of events against the raging fires of other's lives, and consider how our narratives allow us, and others, to live and live with ourselves.
No one is exempt from this challenge, from those fighting for change to those actively resisting it at all costs. Constantly pushing against the divide between 'actual experience' for multiple South Africans, and the frozen ideas that form the backbone of the stories we tell ourselves, 'in order to live', is uncomfortable for some, but for many is a familiar resistance: an ordinary feature of life in a space that houses so many narratives, but in which only few rise to the surface, break through the noise, and become heard. And after being heard, are believed.
Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She is currently an assistant researcher at Mistra and a member of Feminist Stokvel. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which often includes making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler
Images courtesy of Tarryn Hatchett.