This morning at around 2 am i finished reading Sisonke Msimang’s ‘Always Another Country’. Which was my second Christmas present from tbV after ‘Americanah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. To be fair, i think any book i read after ‘Americanah’ would have felt somewhat like a hospital pass, because Adichie just has such an impressive gift when it comes to knitting words together to make unbelievable garments that defy simple communication. But in and of itself ‘Always Another Country’ is a really good read and i felt like Sisonke finds her voice as she writes as it seemed to get stronger and stronger. The last chapter or two particularly had me completely gripped, but in the light of everything that had passed before.
‘I write because South Africa was liberated and she is not yet free. I write because I have been let down and sometimes I write because I do not know the answer and I am hoping someone might search with me. ‘
Perhaps it was a little easier for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie somehow, because ‘Americanah’ is more of a novel set with in a historically accurate context, whereas with ‘Always Another Country’ Sisonke Msimang bears her soul with a very personal story of home and family life and personal struggles and encounters that take place along the way. Maybe it is easier to find the words when you are painting someone else’s story than when you are pinning yours somewhat nakedly upon a canvas.
Relationships as a theme
‘In her own quiet and steady way, Mummy spent her whole life teaching us that it was having a map, rather than belonging to a country, that would make us free; that it was those we loved, and not where we lived, that would make us belong, and that it was open hearts, rather than closed fists, that would help us navigate the world.’
Sisonke’s relationship with her ‘Mummy’ is one of the key aspects of the book and there is such a deep respect and honour given all the way through, although it is only in the last chapter or two where she reflects back on her life and comes to some realisations about just who her mother has been, both to her and in life.
The relationships with key men in her life also provide a major backdrop in sharing her story, from the destructive but compelling connection to Jason to her flirtation with and eventual marrying of Simon, the white man with two young children, with the echoing footsteps of her strong but loosening ties to her father, known affectionately as Baba throughout the book.
With Jason, there is this sense right from the beginning that he is wrong for her and yet she can’t seem to walk the other way, much like someone driving past and accident and needing to have that slowed down look to see what has happened and is taking place.
‘His honesty impresses me, the truth hurts me. Jason refuses to be conventionally polite. He doesn’t pretend to be a regular guy who plays by regular rules.
There is something about the intensity of his affections that makes me feel as though I am in uncharted territory. Falling for him feels both necessary and reckless.
Jason is unemployed and unemployable. He tells me this on the first night. He says it without bitterness or pity. It is simply a fact. He collects a disability cheque. He is twenty-seven. He is an open book and yet he is the most mysterious man I have ever met. He is on medication because he is bipolar. He tells me this immediately, but of course, I have no idea what it means. Even if I had known I wouldn’t have chosen any differently.
In the years that follow Jason teaches me about loyalty and love and yes, about madness and living on the edge of what everyone else thinks is safe and straight and proper. ‘
While Simon is shown again and again as a completely patient and gracious man who always puts Sisonke first and has her interests at heart and yet for all the surface reasons is ‘the wrong man’.
‘Of course, the feeling is one thing. The reality is another.
Simon is a decade older than me and he has kids and he is white and none of these things are part of my game plan. I raged against whiteness in college; I poured my heart into poems about beautiful black love. I am in South Africa, where we have just defeated white supremacy, and I am in love with a white boy. It makes no sense.
I want him to be black but he is not and this is South Africa where white people have collectively done some fucked-up shit to black people and he can never be angry enough about it to satisfy me. How could he be? He grew up on the beach in Perth, in a city on the other side of the Indian Ocean where it was always sunny. What does he know of suffering?
In my self-righteousness, in my search for a frame to suit the politics I’ve embraced in the past few years, I don’t ask what I know of suffering let alone what love has to do with suffering. I stew and I steam. I rage, and, eventually, I decide it can’t work.’
And yet it does, and is portrayed as one of the great love stories. This older white man who seems to get her and who holds her so tenderly.
Where do I call home?
But at its very heart and essence, ‘Always Another Country’ is about finding home. In terms of the place you live in, the people you surround yourself with and make yourself vulnerable to, and even the political party you support. Sisonke Msimang is deeply affected by the events of Marikana which ultimately put her life-long loyalty to the ANC to the test:
‘It is tempting to see Julius Malema as the product of their fury [the ghosts of those who died at Marikana].
For years, the young man from Seshego has been in the public eye.
A badly behaved misogynist, a tiny tyrant, his rise seems to represent everything that is rotten in the ANC: the flaunting of wealth from questionable sources, the culture of moral impunity, and a growing intolerance for debate and dialogue.
If I were more spiritually inclined, I might put forward the idea that Malema’s turning, his decision to leave the ANC and become a man of the people again, was the work of the spirits.
In the months after Marikana, no one is as blistering and as articulate about the damage that has been done to us collectively, to the psyche of the nation and to the soul of South Africa, as Julius Malema. I watch and I listen as he channels the rage many of us feel. He says many of the things that have needed to be said about the leadership of the ANC.
I admire Malema in spite of myself. While I am vocal at home about my disgust for the ANC, I have not yet nailed my colours to the mast. The ANC is not just a party, it is home. I have not attended an ANC meeting for years, and I stopped paying my monthly dues a long time ago, but still, I consider the ANC to be in my blood. My great-granduncles Richard and Selby were founding members. My father was in MK.I was born in exile. I am ANC through and through. This is the story I have told myself about my obligation and commitment to the party. But as its politics worsens, I begin to understand that I must stop this language. The ANC is not in my blood, it is in my memory. There is paternalism built into the way I talk about the ANC that is designed to silence me. There is no genetic code that makes me more or less ANC than others. There is nothing inheritable about ANC membership: I am not a princess.
I realise the claim of being a child of the ANC is one that is bursting with prestige; it is a profound form of entitlement. Buying into it at any level makes the views of others less important. I am guilty of the very cronyism I abhor in the leadership of the ANC. This insight does not come to me at once. Yet in the aftermath of Marikana, as my revulsion towards the ANC grows, I begin to see that stepping away from the ‘child of’ language is allowing me to accept the truth. I am a grown woman and I am not beholden to the ANC.
I am a citizen of a country I love – and that perhaps is a function of having been raised by people who believe in the principles of equity and justice. The fact is my citizenship, the security that comes with my legal status, which guarantees me a place in this country, obliges me to take my responsibility to democracy seriously. If Julius – who said he would kill an die for Zuma – can break ranks and leave home, then, I realise, so can I. In fact, I must.’
Anyways, that is more than enough – just go and read the book already [but not directly after Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie]. For me, the honesty and vulnerability in its pages make it a tough read at times, but a more authentic and believable one. Sisonke Msimang is not afraid to show off her flaws or her scars or even bad judgements and foolish behaviour. But through it all, we are introduced to a woman who was moved from country to country and in the midst of the turmoil of life and love and work and relationships, manages to find home…