Die ding in die vuur by Riana Scheepers

Louise Vijoen, Department of Afrikaans and Dutch, University of Stellenbosch

Part 7 of the author's "Postcolonialism and Recent Women's Writing in Afrikaans," which first appeared in World Literature Today and which appears here with the kind permission of the author and Dr. William Riggan, editor of that publication. Copyright, of course, remains with the author and World Literature Today. Many thanks to Eric Dickens for suggesting the inclusion of this important essay.

Like the collection of stories by Huismans, Riana Scheepers' collection of short stories Die ding in die vuur [The thing in the fire] was also published in 1990. Whereas Huismans' text is representative of the oppositional impulse, Scheepers' stories show that these impulses co-exist with affirmative tendencies exploring new possibilities for postcolonial writing in Afrikaans. The collection combines a European narrative tradition (as manifested in the use of several postmodernist strategies) with an African narrative tradition (references to the Zulu oral narration as carried forth by women) to forge a new narrative strategy for the South African situation. Apart from this the difficult process of transculturation is achieved through an intricate interplay of focalisations that leads to the dismantling of privileged and patronising vantage points.

Most of the stories included in the collection are situated in rural KwaZulu-Natal where Scheepers grew up and later taught as a university lecturer at the University of Zululand. The title of the collection of stories refers to the 'thing' that will give one horns on the head if one listens to stories before the day's work has been done, according to the Zulu narrative tradition (p.76). It is also part of this tradition for the 'ugogo' or storyteller to spit in the fire after the story has been told to destroy all the fictional images called forth so that they cannot give her listeners nightmares (p.81). To further emphasise the influence of the Zulu narrative tradition on this collection of stories, it is preceded and concluded by traditional storytelling formulas in Zulu. In "Abantu oNgoye" [The people of oNgoye] several stories are combined to create a composite ideological picture of the oNgoye massacre that took place on the campus of the University of Zululand in the mid-eighties. The first story is told by an external narrator who describes the founding of the University of Zululand as an ethnic university by Verwoerd; the second by an 'ugogo' or traditional storyteller who recounts the massacre from the perspective of the rural inhabitants of Zululand; the third by the external narrator who tells the story from the view point of the students attacked in the massacre; the fourth by an I (reminiscent of the author Scheepers) who is trying to find out what really happened. The agile alternation between different narrative modes, ideological viewpoints and the author's relinquishing of a controlling perspective are narrative strategies adapted to the multiculturality of the South African situation.

Other stories in the collection chart the diverse forms of colonization still experienced by women in the remote rural regions of South Africa. In the story "Ruil" [Exchange] a white shopkeeper who emigrated from Scotland to rural KwaZulu-Natal abuses the financial and sexual power he has over the black women left impoverished and alone in their villages by the migrant labour system, exchanging a small jar of Vaseline for the sexual favours of a black woman. Although this is a potentially degrading situation for the woman, the narrator recovers the dignity of the woman by stressing her nobility at the expense of the shopkeeper's depravity. The story concludes with this image of the woman: "Haar nek en haar skouers het die trots en rysigheid van 'n vrou wat weet dat haar inkope goed afgehandel is" [Her neck and shoulders are proud and tall like that of a woman who knows that her shopping has been well done] (p.17). In the story "Tweede kind" [Second child] the wife of a white missionary and a thirteen year old black girl abandoned by her people on instruction of the Isangoma (witch doctor) give birth at the same time in a remote missionary hospital. Because the girl dies and her baby cannot keep down cows milk, the missionary's wife is asked to breastfeed the black baby. She grudgingly gives her "borste vir die barbare" [breasts to the savages] (p.21), as she terms it, bargaining with God to make her own son even stronger than he would have been if she fed him herself. Although the black girl (condemned by the power of the male Isangoma) and the white woman (negotiating with a patriarchal God) are both subject to male domination, this story shows that gender does not necessarily unify them in a glorious sisterhood but that it is definitively intersected by race and class. The story "Dom Koei" [Stupid cow] describes the practice of female circumcision from the uncomprehending perspective of a white student who sees the victim of such a circumcision brought to the rural medical clinic where she is doing postgraduate research. The story forces the reader out of a position of cultural ignorance by placing him/her in the same position as the white student through a confrontation with a graphic word-picture of the circumcision-wound. While the black nursing sister is treating the mutilated girl, the student is sent to free a cow that got caught in a wire fence outside the clinic. She vents her feelings of incomprehension, shock, disgust and anger on the defenceless cow who becomes symbolic of the girl: "Jou simpel fokken dom koei" [you dumb fucking stupid cow], she screams at the animal. The narrative places the student, the narrator as well as the reader in a position of voyeuristic power in relation to the silent and defenceless victim, almost implicating them in this colonizing abuse of women.

The story "Oor die pornografie van geweld in die Afrikaanse prosa: 'n outbiografiese steekproef" [On the pornography of violence in Afrikaans prose-writing: an autobiographical sample] raises the question of literary violence as opposed to literal violence in pre-democratic South Africa. In this postmodernist collage of intertwining discourses a discussion about violence is conducted with two men, both Afrikaans writers who have written on violence. One of the stories included in the collage contrasts the situation of a white woman's inexperience of violence with her black housekeeper's daily exposure to violence. Another story in this collage describes an attack on the black woman's kraal in which her little brother as well as the 'ugogo' or storyteller dies. Not only does this story reflect on its own implication as example of the European narrative tradition in the literary exploitation of violence, it also comments symbolically on the endangered position of the African oral tradition (the killing of the 'ugogo'). As such Scheepers' collection of short stories is not only aware of the variety of narrative possibilities available for the creation of a South African postcolonial discourse but also of that which threaten to impoverish or destroy it.

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