Friday, November 12, 2010

On risky ambiguity in autobiographical writing

A month ago, I published a short personal essay in the St. Petersburg Times about race and hazing ( ). In it, I explored some very loaded questions, most notably: is there a link between hazing and race? I made some bold comparisons between my own experience of homophobic violent hazing under apartheid, in a whites-only school, and the experiences of Courtney Howard, who joined an all-black sorority at San Jose State and got badly roughed up. Implicitly, I posed what I thought was possibly the most outrageous question I could pose, as a white South African living in the United States—are there any similarities between my own racial minority’s experience and that of the most famous racial minority in my adopted country, African-Americans?

After the essay appeared in print and online, I held my breath. Typically, my op-eds get a flurry of livid responses. When I published an essay in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette arguing that recent anti-illegal immigrant legislation in Arizona had echoes of apartheid in it ( my email address was all afire with readers’ fury. I was dumb; anti-American; just didn’t understand about the rule of law. So this time, I was sure I was going to provoke a firestorm. Come on—white South Africans, probably one of the most privileged and oppressive racial minorities on the planet? Think the settler family on the farm, enjoying leisurely days supervising the cook, gardener, and maid who have had everything stolen from them. Against this, African-Americans, survivors and descendants of slaves. The man in Morrison’s Beloved whose mouth gets ruined by the metal bit. The flogging and back-breaking work and dehumanization that extends into the present day, where African-American men in particular are pulled into a mind-bogglingly enormous prison system—something like ten times the per capita size of the next most imprisoning industrial nation—that, to me at least, seems very reminiscent of slavery, down to chain gangs and the tradition of depriving felons of their voting rights.

Talk about chutzpah on my part, for even referring to these two minority experiences in the same sentence! At least that’s what I thought when I published the essay—even though I had my reasons for doing what I did, which I’ll get to in a minute.

But here’s what fascinated me: nobody confronted me. At least not in print. One reader commented that s/he couldn’t understand why I was so hung up on race—even though I explain in the article that I got the shit beaten out me so I wouldn’t be too sissy-ish to defend white power. Another rolled out the by now exhaustingly familiar “ranking of oppressions,” saying that apartheid homophobia couldn’t possibly compare in its intensity to apartheid racism. (For the most part, I agree with this argument, although I’m not sure how useful it is go down this road. There were white South African defense force conscripts tortured and drugged to suicide by apartheid homophobia. Are our brains too small to take in the gravity of this fact without having to ignore apartheid’s other enormous crimes?)

It was left to one of my colleagues here at the Susquehanna University Writers Institute to say the obvious. “Your essay was very risky indeed,” she commented. “I can imagine a black person reading it and being highly offended.”

She was, of course, right--although I was glad no African-American readers apparently got angry at me for writing it, suggesting the piece perhaps did manage to work well, overall.

So why did I do it?

Part of the reason, I’ll admit, has to do with literary form. The personal essay/op-ed for newspapers is an unforgiving genre, reminiscent in some ways of the TV soundbite. The writer must say one thing clearly, strongly, emphatically. The idea is to provoke controversy rather than explore all the nuance. In my essay, I had to educate readers about the Courtney Howard lawsuit; explain the Ricky Lee thesis about race and hazing, namely that hazing traditions, while harmful and destructive across the board, are influenced by cultural traditions; share my own hazing experiences; and—the final point--talk about why I emotionally identified with Howard. In a 5,000 word academic essay, would I have offered a disclaimer about what I think the limits are of this emotional identification? You bet! Would I have carefully listed what seemed similar to me between my experience and Courtney Howard’s as well as different? Yes! Similar: the style of beating; the racially segregated context; and the reason given for the violence, namely to strengthen the race against a hostile numerical-majority culture. Dissimilar: the fundamental power dynamic, in one case, the hazing being meant to preserve racial privilege, in the other case undermine it.

I would also probably have gone very deeply into the pros and cons of this instinctive emotional identification of mine, the way on the one hand it shows in me a sensitivity to my shared humanity with Courtney Howard; on the other hand perhaps a tendency to forget about white privilege.

But fact is, formal limits are not the only reason I need to or like doing this kind of “risky” writing. I was kind of happy to publish this piece of autobiographical testimony as it was, without the cautious clarifications. Here's the reason: I’m a literary artist, not a critical race studies analyst. In my personal essays—for newspapers or elsewhere—I’m not always trying to get it all right, nail the argument with perfect intellectual clarity. Sometimes I’m wanting to just show a suggestive fragment of myself and let the reader reach her own conclusions. Hemingway thought a short story should be like an iceberg, with most of the movement sensed beneath the surface. Sometimes that’s what I’m trying to do, too, with my autobiographical writing: showing what feels to me like a poignant and true part of myself, and trusting the reader to feel what I mean, without it being explained. This was my hope for a personal essay like “On being a minority, hazed.”

I have no idea what to make of the absence of commentary on my piece. Maybe they understood everything that I meant--sensed my good faith and didn't get offended. Maybe people just thought, "Oh, this guy is too screwed up about his painful experiences, I can't talk to him about this." I like to believe it wasn't callous indifference to the problem of violent hazing in our society and the trauma it causes.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Expat South Africans celebrate the World Cup

Obviously, hosting the World Cup was a very big deal for South Africa. I decided to celebrate history by heading to Washington, DC, a nearby city with South Africans in it. Here in Sunbury, PA, I’m the only South African I know—I’m almost sure I’m the only one in town, although the local Amish do make a milk pie that’s very similar to the milk tart the Afrikaner aunties in the Kruger National Park staff village sold at bake sales. Here is an unpublished report I wrote about it for the online press:

It’s Opening Game, and I’m standing in the normally august second-floor meeting rooms of the South African Embassy in Washington, DC. Wooden parquet floors stretch out under the rows of seats and the tables laden with Nederberg Pinotage, to the ornate Federal-style windows. Three large-screen television sets, framed by South African flags, have been set up here, and three-hundred-odd expatriate South Africans of all races mill and cheer the national team.

“The world’s greatest show,” proclaim the FIFA World Cup T-shirts visible everywhere, and it’s easy to believe this morning: vuvuzela trumpets blast below the signs advertising South Africa as an investment destination. Fans in Bafana Badana jerseys—many of them speaking in twangy American accents, with New York Yankee baseball caps—bang together bambams. Makarapa helmets are visible everywhere. I keep waiting for the police to arrive, armed with that ubiquitous feature of US life, a neighbors’ noise complaint, but they do not.

Even the country’s draw with Mexico—an early harbinger of what will turn out to be Bafana’s lackluster performance in the tournament as a whole—fails to dampen the exuberance visible over the thick pap corn porridge and boerewors sausage, served up for lunch courtesy of Brand South Africa, the government’s international marketing project.

Support for the World Cup is all but universal.

“Fantasic!” says Lisa, a Namibian business student at Howard University. “Africa’s showing the world what we can do.”

“With all the divisions in our country right now, this is something that can pull the different population groups together,” agrees Thembile, a local property manager.

He’s referring to the Malema controversy back home, and the many ongoing racial disparities in health, employment, and education; yet, when I press him, he admits the point might as easily apply to this get-together itself. The South African expatriate community in D.C., like those in the rest of North America, is notoriously fragmented largely along racial lines, with whites mostly meeting for braais (barbecues) and rugby, and blacks for church, funerals, picnics, soccer, and lively African dance parties.

“Yes, this is a new departure for us,” confirms Deputy Mission Chief Johnny Moloto. “We want to build on the successes of the World Cup and reach out to the expatriate community.”

Stephanie, a middle-aged nurse from Lesotho, speaks more bluntly: “Usually the embassy events are elite jacket and tie events. The World Cup is bringing the embassy home to the people. This is the first time I’ve ever seen such a mixture of people at an expat event.”

At times this bash seemed a miniature version of the World Cup Celebratory Concert screened the night before. Kwela music-legend Khola Phalatse strummed on the guitar in the fenced back garden. Ululations rose into the air.

Yet the national unity was hardly complete. Earlier that morning, I’d stopped by Solly’s U Street Tavern for another World Cup celebration—one organized by the local, predominantly white group for South African expatriates.

That event was an altogether quieter affair. Beneath a starred-and-striped poster advertising “Solomon Lowell Mayor” twenty or so soccer fans, overwhelmingly white, demurely sipped vodka and cranberry juice on metal bar stools. The single, occasional vuvuzela bellow from Brenard, a blonde man sitting in the corner, seemed rather incongruous. The general North American ambiance belied the slogan on the back of the T-shirt of the white man in front of me: “I am an African.”

“We didn’t really know about the embassy event,” Robyn, the group’s organizer explained later, over the phone. “Our gathering was planned six months ahead of time. Besides, our members don’t like dealing with parking and transport problems.”

She had a point: at the embassy, I saw cars double-parked in the lots off Massachusetts Avenue. As the festivities wound down, drunken party-goers swayed and jay-walked to Adams Morgan Metro stop, thirty minutes away.

Still, the symbolism seemed inescapable: for all the money and energy spent on uniting DC expatriates behind “Brand South Africa,” these supporters had remained isolated. In some ways, their reasons probably mirrored those of the South Africans back home who decided to avoid the vuvuzela racket, the teeming crowds, and the chaos on the roads: Africa’s usual benign, vibrant messiness.

“That was an oversight on our part,” Moloto acknowledges. “They should have been invited. That day was important for us as a nation. We should have all been together.”

As South Africa plunged into its post-Uruguay hangover, with striking security guards at Ellis Park and leading national commentators complaining about the tournament’s cost, his words seemed like a possible metaphor for the Cup itself.