Archive for November, 2012

Can We Walk Away from Hillbrow?

Oh, the seductive allure of heaven!

But can heaven be the answer? Can one escape from life once dead?

As the illness Oswald had in Ibsen’s Ghosts was inherited from his father, the identity of the region is inherited. One is born into the region. The repetitive phrase that follows the names of the character, “Refentse, child of Tiragalong and Hillbrow,” for instance, constantly reminds Refentse and the readers that the bond between an individual and the region is stronger than one might assume, and perhaps unbreakable. It is interesting to note that Refentse, even after his death, remains in heaven, or our “new” Hillbrow, watching whatever is happening in the region. As mentioned in the novel, one cannot simply leave home. “Home travels with you.”

The unbreakable bond between the individual and one’s home in the novel somehow reminds me of the short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula Le Guin.  Omelas, a fictional ideal village in the story, is maintained on one condition that one child must be kept in perpetual misery in a dark grim room. People who had lived happily in Omelas, when confront the truth where their happiness is coming from, are shocked. The majority keeps on living in Omelas but a few people decide to walk away from Omelas, leaving their ideal happy village behind. But are they exempt from the sins and problems of Omelas? Likewise in “Welcome to Our Hillbrow” some characters decide to leave their city either by simply moving somewhere or by committing suicide. All the characters, however, end up returning to Hillbrow. Walking away simply does not clear one from obligations.

The book concludes with Refilwe’s death, welcome by “our heaven.” The characters, even after death, will reunite in heaven. They continue their existence. It’s quite scary when we think that there is no end. Hillbrow will keep welcoming its returnees again and again and again and…

Walk away if you can.


You, Familiar with the Streets of Hillbrow

A consequence of Mpe’s use of the second point of view to address Refentse is the reader’s involvement with the text. As one reads, Mpe’s use of the pronoun “you” makes one feel like one is Refentse, and all the events seem authentic, as if one had seen them with one’s own eyes. Moreover, Mpe uses many details to describe such a small town as Hillbrow, and therefore, by the end of the novel, one feels like they know everything about it.

What the reader knows:
– the importance of soccer to the citizens
– the detailed dangers of the streets, especially during big events
– what it means to be infected with AIDS
– discrimination (Makwerekwere)
– drug dealing and drunk citizens; prostitutes; beggars
– water scarcity
– perception of certain women
– what relationships are more or less like i.e. “Love. Betrayal. Seduction. Suicide.”
– English/Sepedi literature
– cellphone service providers: MTN and Vodacom
– emigration rate
– customs, beliefs, traditions i.e. “witches bewitch the deceased”; bone throwers
– rumors; different versions of stories
and more..

What one also comes to know are the streets of Hillbrow, in absolute detail. One knows how to get from the heart of Hillbrow, to the Refenste’s cousin’s house, and from the house to the University of the Witwatersrand.

Here is google map picture of the streets of Hillbrow that I’ve located.
The location marked in red is where Vickers is, opposite the De Gama Court. Through the map and using the directions in the book, you can see what exact route Refentse took everyday to the university from the house.

Welcome to our Humanity

“Welcome to our Hillbrow”

This sentence is uttered over and over again as the narrator realises the novel that his protagonist, Refentse couldn’t write in his own lifetime. The novel is in effect, a dedication to both his friend but also to a new South Africa struggling with questions of identity in the post-apartheid era. Like the novel that Refentse set out to write, Mpe’s novel addresses “Hillbrow, xenophobia and AIDS and the prejudices of rural lives.” (55) The narrative is particular in that it is written in the 2nd person, addressed as a letter or a dedication to Refentse, intricately describing the struggles of the community. It encompasses all of these through its thoughtful narrative, which addresses the very characters it describes.

The harrowing image of violence in the aftermath of Bafana Bafana’s (the South African football team) victories as bottles are hurled from balconies and a young girl was once fatally hit by a car in the madness, paints a bleak picture – even in jubilation, there is tragedy and suffering in Hillbrow. The town is full of crime and discrimination leads to the creation of scapegoats. Many of the locals blame the foreign black Africans for the moral corruption in their town. The Makwerekwere (a derogatory term used by black South Africans for other Africans) are despised and take the blame for the grievances of the town, “we can attribute the source of our dirges to Nigeria and Zaire” (21) and “It used to be fine in Hillbrow, until the Nigerians came” (118).

This xenophobia is similarly evident when Refilwe leaves to study in the UK. Refilwe discovers that she is then part of the marginalised “Africans” (102) population who are socially and culturally isolated, not altogether different from the way that the Makwerekwere were treated. Prejudice breeds in whispers and gossip that is sourced from speculation and ignorance however it also has very real impacts in the community. The conscience and the mind are seemed to be similarly powerful, “If such words (speculations about Refilwe’s condition and morality) did not actually come from people’s mouths, then they simply rang inside your own head” (120). Ultimately, it is a deep sense of guilt and despair that loom too great in their minds that sends Refentse to his death, and in turn, Lerato and that sends Sammy into a spiral of depression.

Just as HIV/AIDS lurks in the background of the lives of some of the central characters, particularly Refilwe as we discover she has been infected for 10 years, it similarly lays unseen in the background for most of the novel. AIDS is perceived as a problem inflicted on the community by foreigners and given that it is most commonly transmitted through drug use and unprotected sex, it is also linked to a morally corrupt, promiscuous society.

Identity and place are thus central to the narrative as they indicate the status of the person in society and imply either a sense of belonging or distance. After it is discovered that Refilwe has AIDS, she becomes “by association, one of the hated Makwerekwere” (118); her original identity had been lost through her association with a Nigerian boy, as well as her suffering from AIDS, and people no longer treat her in the same way.

As the novel progresses, the phrase, “Welcome to our Hillbrow” expands to include other people and places, as if the sentiment of moral corruption behind the original line is spreading around the world. The penultimate chapter ends with, “Welcome to Our Humanity” (113). Perhaps one should views others as if Through the Eyes of a Child… or maybe, like Hillbrow, the whole world is infected.

Questions raised from this text include: How does identity and prejudice influence the relationship between a specific culture (or set of people) and illness? Whether the idea of contagion is always linked with a place and therefore, looking at the selection of texts we have read, do writers try to increase tension by having characters that travel? Do you like the narrative of this text with it addressing the very characters it describes, does this add anything to the novel?

— Tom and Sam

Stimela See the World (Through the Eyes of a Child)

So I’ve been unable to track down a full version of the original song, the best I could do was a snippet I found here and a remix that I found here. And trust me, I spent a long time looking for the full thing. This blog, aptly named Welcome to My Online Hillbrow has a reference in the text to the song, and the lyrics. I thought they were interesting, melancholic, and worthy of our attention. It’s a recuring motif in the text, barely 5 pages go past without it being mentioned. Sadness, love, desperation, depth.

Here are the lyrics anyway:

It don’t hurt no more
Cause I’m stealing into the night
This broken heart
Won’t you please write a letter to yourself?
Maybe we’ll touch base when I can see your thoughts
Won’t you please take this child far away?
There’s too much blood flowing around
Please be safe this child
Won’t you please take this child by the hand?
Put a smile on the child’s face so scared and knows no other
Always feeling so alone
Won’t you please take this time to right the wrong?
That wasn’t her intent to mess with you
Say it loud say it loud say it loud and clear
I made a call to the missing people’s bureau
I wrote a song I had never sung
Your voice on the other side
Such pained and old I said son
There’s no time for a second call
Try again tomorrow so I’m glued
I say take my son take my pain to my pay check and love
But please take the child
With a little help from our friends
From our friends in high places
From our friends in even higher places
We can save the child
Now won’t you please be responsible
Now take your time to take think about the needs of a child
It’s their world we’re living in
See the world through the eyes of a child imagine yourself in the same situation
You got nobody you know no other you’re so lonely say in the darkness
You were a child once
Love is a destination
Belonging and respiration in good time
See the world through the eyes of a child
Take this child away from me too much blood flowing

The Show Must Go On

Knowing Freddie Mercury’s life I could make a strong connection between Angels in America and the Queen’s song “Show must go on”. This video is to prove it, or at least to make you think deeper of AIDS, contagion, life, and many other things. Definitely worth watching it!



Appiah, cosmopolitanism, & “contamination”

I mentioned in class today Anthony Appiah’s effort to rehabilitate the notion of “contamination,” to use it without negative connotation. Some of you are probably familiar with his book Cosmopolitanism, which tends to make the rounds at NYUAD, but here’s a nice concise version of his argument from the New York Times Magazine in 2006.

The point about culture and “contamination” has to do with how futile it is, in Appiah’s view, to “preserve” something like “cultural purity.” Culture just doesn’t work like that, he says:

Living cultures do not, in any case, evolve from purity into contamination; change is more a gradual transformation from one mixture to a new mixture, a process that usually takes place at some distance from rules and rulers, in the conversations that occur across cultural boundaries. Such conversations are not so much about arguments and values as about the exchange of perspectives. I don’t say that we can’t change minds, but the reasons we offer in our conversation will seldom do much to persuade others who do not share our fundamental evaluative judgments already. When we make judgments, after all, it’s rarely because we have applied well-thought-out principles to a set of facts and deduced an answer. Our efforts to justify what we have done — or what we plan to do — are typically made up after the event, rationalizations of what we have decided intuitively to do. And a good deal of what we intuitively take to be right, we take to be right just because it is what we are used to. That does not mean, however, that we cannot become accustomed to doing things differently.

He brings the term up again in conclusion:

The ideal of contamination has few exponents more eloquent than Salman Rushdie, who has insisted that the novel that occasioned his fatwa “celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelisation and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotch-potch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world.” No doubt there can be an easy and spurious utopianism of “mixture,” as there is of “purity” or “authenticity.” And yet the larger human truth is on the side of contamination — that endless process of imitation and revision.

A tenable global ethics has to temper a respect for difference with a respect for the freedom of actual human beings to make their own choices. That’s why cosmopolitans don’t insist that everyone become cosmopolitan. They know they don’t have all the answers. They’re humble enough to think that they might learn from strangers; not too humble to think that strangers can’t learn from them. Few remember what Chremes says after his “I am human” line, but it is equally suggestive: “If you’re right, I’ll do what you do. If you’re wrong, I’ll set you straight.”

Note how closely the quotation from Rushdie resembles Belize’s imagined heaven in Angels:

Belize: Hell or heaven?

[Roy indicates “Heaven” through a glance]

Belize: Like San Francisco.

Roy Cohn: A city. Good. I was worried… it’d be a garden. I hate that shit.

Belize: Mmmm. Big city. Overgrown with weeds, but flowering weeds. On every corner a wrecking crew and something new and crooked going up catty corner to that. Windows missing in every edifice like broken teeth, fierce gusts of gritty wind, and a gray high sky full of ravens.

Roy Cohn: Isaiah.

Belize: Prophet birds, Roy. Piles of trash, but lapidary like rubies and obsidian, and diamond-colored cowspit streamers in the wind. And voting booths.

Roy Cohn: And a dragon atop a golden horde.

Belize: And everyone in Balencia gowns with red corsages, and big dance palaces full of music and lights and racial impurity and gender confusion. And all the deities are creole, mulatto, brown as the mouths of rivers. Race, taste and history finally overcome. And you ain’t there.

Roy Cohn: And Heaven?

Belize: That was Heaven, Roy.

Does it make sense to think of Belize’s description as another example of the kind of cosmopolitanism Appiah describes? Does Belize’s emphasis on impurity, confusion, and mixing relate in some way to other elements of the play we’ve talked about — the decision to cast actors in multiple roles, for instance?

Speaking of heaven, I always think of this song when I read this play:


Sharing a Bed

In a review of a 2007 staging of Millennium Approaches, the reviewer notes an interesting approach in the staging of the play:

“The two couples Harper and Joe, and Prior and Louis go to bed and the two stories are played almost simultaneously using the same bed! Harper and Joe using the bottom as their headboard and Prior and Louis using the top end. This was a fantastic scene and perfectly allows the worlds to collide and crash into each other and utterly supports the “Fantasia” Kramer describes.”

What else could this staging decision highlight for comparison?