Hillbrow is an inner-city residential neighborhood in Johannesburg, South Africa, that used to be a whites-only zone during Apartheid in the 1970s. Post-Apartheid, it became a melting pot for people from diverse ethnic backgrounds and became home to one of the first prominent LBGT communities in South Africa. The neighborhood, however, slowly decayed into an urban slum due to a massive influx of poor migrants and the exodus of middle class communities. Mpe dedicates the first chapter of his novel to explore Hillbrow in the second person perspective through the life of Refentse, a writer who committed suicide. He explores the social issues of xenophobia, AIDS, racism, crime and poverty through what would have been Refentse’s typical routine through the city. He describes the people, street corners, and city rhythms of the “menacing monster” that is Hillbrow as if you were walking through its streets like a local. This brings up the question: What language does Mpe use to construct Hillbrow and why does he use it? The neighborhood takes on a life of its own for Mpe: “You discovered on arriving in Hillbrow, that to be drawn away from Tiragalong also went hand-in-hand with a loss of interest in Hillbrow. Because Tiragalong was in Hillbrow. You always took Tiragalong with you in your consciousness whenever you came to Hillbrow or any other place. In the same way, you carried Hillbrow with you always” (49). This makes one ask: What is a place? How does one’s environment shape their identity? What is the relationship between place and identity? What does it mean to have ownership of place? At first, there seems to be a clear distinction between the Hillbrowan and foreigner aka Mackwerekwere identity, but this gets confused as we learn that most of the so called locals were actually migrants. Refentse points out “There are very few Hillbrowans, if you think about it, who were not originally wanderers from Tiragalong and other rural villages, who have come here, as we have in search of education and work. Many of the Makwerewere you accuse of this and that are no different to us sojourners, here in search of green pastures.” How does place fit into our identities? How does it fit into the identity by descent or the identity by consent categories we discussed in Angels in America? Mpe repeats the title of the novel “Welcome to Our Hillbrow”. Notice the use of “Our”. Our Hillbrow suggests a sense of ownership of the place. Hillbrow isn’t just a geographical location, it is the sum of experiences, relationships and connections that its citizens create together.
He repeats this phrase multiple times:
“All these things that you have heard seen heard about felt smelt believed disbelieved shirked embraced brewing in your consciousness would find chilling haunting echoes in the simple words… Welcome to our Hillbrow….” (27)
And again at the end of the second chapter:
“If you were still alive, now Refentse child of Hillbrow and Tiragalong, if you were still alive, all of this that you have heard seen heard about felt smelt believed disbelieved shirked embraced brewing in your consciousness would still find chilling haunting echoes in the simple words… Welcome to our Hillbrow…” (62)
What does this repetition signify? The phrase seems to take on a new tone, becoming more ironic as Mpe repeats it.
The repetition of the phrase “Welcome to our Hillbrow” tells the readers that the narrator is from Hillbrow due to his/her reference to it as “ours” — something that belongs to him/her, too. In its irony, we can also tell that the narrator is unhappy with the way things are in Hillbrow — with the explicitly aforementioned issues of xenophobia, AIDS, and racism.
Not only do rumors of disease plague the people of South Africa, rumors about the characters’ own tragedies circulate as well. The devastating consequences of gossip are most strongly witnessed in the stories that “moved with ease to and from Tiragalong and Hillbrow” by car, landline, and cellphone service providers about Refentse’s suicide. The story of his death was embellished and changed by many, but most significantly by Refilwe, Refentse’s past lover. Refilwe blemished his name and sent him “hurtling towards [his] second death” by the stories and rumors she told. Refentse’s mother was set on fire and killed by the people of Tiragalong based on rumors that she had bewitched her son, causing him to commit suicide. Refilwe rewrote the story of Refentse’s suicide and convinced others that is was instead “a loose-thighed Hillbrowan called Lerato” who bewitched him, not his mother (43-44). The spread of misinformation continued on and on, reputations were destroyed, and very little regard was paid to hard facts. The constructed story of his suicide only helped to perpetuate the generalization that the women of Hillbrow were dangerous. These rumors also created a ripple effect, starting with Refentse’s suicide, leading to other characters loss of sanity or violent deaths. Was it Refentse’s suicide that set off the chain of tragedies that affected the other characters of the novel, or were the rumors and constructed stories to blame?
Judging by the way the story is told, the narrator seems to know and expect all these terrible events to happen — and is merely watching them unfold without interfering. It’s almost as if the narrator is familiar with the characters on a personal level — based on the amount of details known about them — but never once makes remarks that insinuate any sort of personal feelings towards them, instead simply telling the events as they occur.
The language that the narrator uses also changes throughout the novel. For example, at some point in the first part, it seems as if we are inside of Refentse’s head; when he is shocked, the narrator’s language changes to accommodate that sense of shock. In other instances, however, the narrator takes the role of a storyteller and is simply there to inform the reader of the events taking place in these characters’ lives.
So, what is the narrator’s relationship to Refentse? Since he/she dedicates such a large portion of the story with Refentse being the protagonist, the reader can assume that the two must be connected in some way. Also, what is the significance of the second person point of view? Does the author succeed in using this technique, or would it have worked better if the narration took on a more distant perspective?