‘Always Another Country’: memoir of a bittersweet homecoming after exile

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A tale of ‘post-apartheid postpartum’ is just one of the startling moments in Sisonke Msimang’s elegant book

There’s a candid and endearing admission from Sisonke Msimang in the later chapters of her assured and brave Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home (Jonathan Ball Publishers).

Describing the birth of her daughter, she reveals the “post-apartheid postpartum gaffe” she uttered upon first seeing the infant.

“She’s white.”

Her words, Msimang writes, were an involuntary gasp. They embarrassed her husband, a blue-eyed Australian, who “reddens in his green scrubs” and she wasn’t sure whether it was the baby or her who disappointed him.

The medical staff thought it funny. “Well,” they joked, “at least you know she’s yours!”

“What is happening to this country,” Msimang continues, “when a black woman can be disdainful of her half-caste child?”

Her husband had been hoping “for my sake” that the baby would have been darker.

“He tells me this after the eight-month fog of my postpartum depression has lifted. I sob because he is showing me in the kindest way possible that my idealism and my personal politics can be unrelenting and this has its effects on those around me – on him. He has borne them well but my militancy is a lot to take.”

So it goes in the world of identity politics, a startling moment in an elegant book that is filled with such disquiet.

But there is reason enough for the militancy. Msimang was born in exile, the daughter of an MK guerrilla. Her book vividly details a sort of stateless childhood in Zambia and Kenya in the shadow of a free South Africa that loomed large in the imagination.

While much of her childhood is presented as an idyll of happy innocence, she was sexually assaulted by a domestic worker on one occasion.

Later the family move to Canada, where she is racially taunted at school. Her “vanilla-white” schoolmates react to her “difference” with malice and spite.

By the time she returns to South Africa after the unbanning of the ANC and Nelson Mandela’s release, she is a precocious 16-year-old.

“The country is already ours,” she writes, “and we know it. We are young and freedom is in front of us and heartache and pain are yesterday’s heroes.”

But the elation is short-lived. The future envisioned by Mandela has not materialised. As the laughter around the dinner party tables and the music fades, the rootlessness and disconsolation prevailed.

The transition to democracy, Msimang realises, was never going to be easy, and the new South Africa remains a deeply divided, unequal and violent society.

“We are not just proximate to the mundane inequality that made apartheid successful; we are complicit,” she writes. “Worse, we are unprepared to see and accept our complicity. We are multiracial and fair and kind. We are on the right side of history.”

There would be trips abroad, chiefly to the US to study. It was here, for instance, that she learned of the Marikana killings in August 2012. It was this massacre, Msimang reveals in one of the book’s closing chapters, that led to a cathartic break with the ANC.

That chapter is simply entitled Why I write, and it does, sadly, include a mishmash of whimsy and nonsense (“I write because Simphiwe Dana sings and because Brenda Fassie is dead .”) but it is nevertheless an undertaking that must be greatly encouraged judging by the strengths of this provocative and enjoyable book.

This article was originally published in The Times.

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