Author: Annie

An outsider’s responsibility

Central to this novel is the influence of outsiders, particularly westerners, and their responsibilities. Elli, the doctor, establishes a public clinic for the residents of Khaufpur. Elli is aware of the suffering and does her best to help, but she did not experience the suffering for herself. That is what binds the people of Khaufpur, Animal’s people, most strongly — shared suffering. The entire community remembers ‘that night’ and still feels its effects. Elli simply lacks that shared experience, so she can’t fully connect with the Khaufpuris.

Another example of outside influence is obviously the Kampani. The entire disaster and its grievous affects are the direct result of ‘Amrikan’ actions. So many of the characters are focused to some extent on bringing the kampani to justice, and phrases of the kampani even pervade local speech. Despite this, those responsible continue to evade their culpability, and in Khaufpur “when the kampani comes to court” is equivalent to “when pigs fly”. The kampani’s actions thereby become even more like the morass of disease — even when the cause is tracked down, not much can be done to lessen the effects.

If this is all too frustratingly unjust, consider this small form of retribution: in 1999, Dow Chemical acquired Union Carbide (the real ‘kampani’ responsible for the Bhopal disaster). Jacques Servin, one half of The Yes Men, an activist duo you can read more about here, successfully impersonated a Dow Chemical representative on BBC news. Watch the rest —

Dow Chemical’s stocks took a hit and it was forced to once again publicly deny responsibility for the disaster, bringing attention back to the decades-long suffering in Bhopal that now rarely makes international news. It also sparked a conversation about the credibility and accuracy of large corporate news media outlets. These days, the news media also plays a crucial role in disseminating information about and sometimes manipulating the public view of epidemics and plagues.

As an addendum, Radiolab recently produced an hour-long podcast called Patient Zero, which investigates the origins of epidemics. Of particular relevance to our class discussions are this section about HIV/AIDS and the section about Ebola (which starts around 43:52 in the full podcast)

Thoughts on Hillbrow

A distinctive feature that separates this novel from our previous readings is its narrative voice, as briefly mentioned in the past convener’s post. It is second person, omniscient narrative, in which the narrator addresses the protagonist, Refentse, as “you”. In the first part of the novel, the narrator walks the readers through Refentse’s experience in Hillbrow:

Then you arrived in Hillbrow, Refentse, to witness it all for yourself; and come up with your own story, if you could. You came to be a witness, because your cousin, with whom you were going to stay until you found student accommodation at the University, stayed in Hillbrow, although not exactly in the center of the action. (Mpe 6)

One possible effect of this second person narrative is subtly drawing the readers into the plot, making us feel as if the narrator is addressing us and put ourselves in the shoes of the protagonist.

In other places in the novel, the narrator not only gives information on the behavior and thoughts of the characters but also reveals personal opinion from a detached point of view—when the narrator discusses the reason for the difference between Refentse and his cousin, for example (20).

What are the effects of second person, omniscient narrative shown in this novel? What could be Mpe’s purposes in this particular type of narration? Are they achieved throughout the novel?

The novel starts off by presenting Refentse as the protagonist. It doesn’t take long, however, until the readers realize that our protagonist is soon to be (or already) dead, facing “the blank wall of suicide” (25). Then the later part of this novel deals with how people around Refentse behave after his death, rather than continuing to recount the life of Refentse when he was alive. As the chapter “Refilwe” begins, the focus of this story shifts to this past “Bone of Heart” of Refentse—her life after his death is thoroughly narrated in the consecutive chapters. At the end of the novel, the narrator no longer addresses Refilwe with third person pronoun.

Refilwe, you were very grieved by this show. You felt sorry for those who loved you so much and expressed it so openly. You knew it was not  intentional that they should depress you (119).

It seems that Refilwe is now the protagonist of this second person narrative—in fact, she is the only round character in this novel who went through significant transformation. Once a xenophobic Hillbrowan, Refilwe became a cosmopolitan citizen who “no longer hide behind bias against Makwerekwere” and “do not blame them for troubles in life” (122).

Who do you think is the real protagonist of this novel? How can we elucidate this dichotomous narration?

One natural consequence of the narrator not being directly present as a character in the plot is that everything is told as it has been heard and seen, in the form of storytelling and rumors.

It is interesting to note that the people of Tiragalong are referred to as a whole as “Tiragalong”, uniting them as one organism that thinks and responds together:

“Tiragalong’s story was constructed when your mother slipped and fell into your grave on that hot Saturday morning of your burial. As Tiragalong believed, only witches could fall into a corpse’s grave on burial.” (43)

Because the people believe and act as one entity, rumors play a large role in determining their reactions.  Xenophobia and superstitions are the fundamental driving forces of the rumors, causing them to “[drink] in the scandal eagerly” (44). Rumors propagated by fear lead to various interpretations of Refentse’s death and also cause some subsequent deaths, such as the death of Refentse’s mother and Tschepo’s neighbor.

“So in your story, as in real life, Tiragalong danced because its xenophobia — its fear of and hatred for both black non-South Africans and Johannesburgers — was vindicated.” (55)

What does it mean to refer to an entire group of people as a proper noun? Are the traditional beliefs of Tiragalong responsible for the rumors and the consequences that follow? Or are they caused more by fear of the unknown?

The rampant prejudice, euphemism, and social classifications in Welcome to Our Hillbrow reflect the entrenched effects of apartheid and oppressive state control over South Africans. As a result of a governmental system that bestowed benefits and value based on skin color, within the post-apartheid black community of Hillbrow derogatory divisions remain. Black Africans originally from countries outside South Africa are derided as “Makwerekwere”, interracial romance is labeled as mental illness, AIDS is often referred to euphemistically and scornfully — “Is it not known what the fruit of sin is?” (112). Language is even systematically policed, erasing cultural characteristics and therefore denying the value of those cultures.

“She did not know that writing in an African language in South Africa could be such a curse. She had not anticipated that the publishers’ reviewers would brand her novel vulgar. Calling shit and genitalia by their correct names in Sepedi was apparently regarded as vulgar by these reviewers, who had for a long time been reviewing works of fiction for educational publishers, and who were determined to ensure that such works did not offend the systems that they served.” (56)

Therein lies evidence of a flawed system that “criminalize[s]… linguistic honesty” and legitimizes certain cultural practices and languages instead of others. The novel’s characters acutely experience this systemic oppression, as the literary aspirations of Refentse and Refilwe are marginalized and devalued.

How does this demonization and isolation of an “other”, especially to create a scapegoat for a complicated epidemic, present itself in other texts we’ve discussed? What role does euphemism play in disseminating both contagious bodily disease and an epidemic of distrust and rumor?

-Mina, JooHee, Annie


how effective is the Priest?

How much authority does the Priest have? This character enters the scene suddenly, with no particular prompting in the text. Besides his age and gender, the Priest is not physically described in detail. The reader can easily project him or herself onto this character, and that may be deliberate. The Priest is the only character who disapproves of the revelry, and angrily he asks Walsingham the questions no other character asks — 

“…Do you think [your mother] isn’t crying now,

Shedding bitter tears in Heaven itself,

To see her son caught up in reveling

At a shameless feast, to hear your voice

Singing like one possessed, amidst

Holy prayers and deep-felt sighs?” (Pushkin 103)

As readers, we can’t help but confront the same dilemma – how can Walsingham and his cohorts justifiably frolic when their loved ones and friends are falling prey to the plague? Isn’t this inherently disrespectful? Thus, the Priest can be viewed as the embodiment of society and religion’s ideals in Pushkin’s story. The Priests targets Walsingham, the leader of the group, and shames him heavily. In trying to convince Walsingham to end the partying, the Priest references Walsingham’s mother and daughter, both dead from plague. Using these characters, Pushkin constructs multiple dichotomies including authority vs. non-comformity, religion vs. sin, confrontation vs. escapism. But does the Priest’s shaming and imploring of Walsingham make a difference to any of the partygoers?


NO: The Priest is soundly shouted down by the chorus of revelers every time he speaks. They don’t want their fun trampled, and they refuse to listen to the Priest’s shaming. Walsingham in fact condemns any partygoers who agree with the Priest —

“Old man, go in peace;

But accursed may he be who follows you!” (Pushkin 103)

Furthermore, in the last stage directions of the play the Priest “exits” and “the feast continues” (Pushkin 104). One could argue that in his main purpose, shaming the revelers into ceasing their feast, the Priest was unsuccessful.


YES: The Priest makes an obvious impression on Walsingham. Despite Walsingham’s positivity and celebratory tone in the beginning of the story, after the Priest’s accusations Walsingham reveals his guilt and desire for escapism —

“I am bound here

By despair, by terrible remembrance,

By the knowledge of my lawlessness,

And by the horror of that dead emptiness

Which greets me now in my own house” (Pushkin 103

Walsingham seems to agree with the Priest. The feasting and self-indulgence is shameful, but Walsingham is too weak to cope with the death of his mother and sister in a respectful and dignified manner. He assumes and acknowledges his guilt in the presence of the Priest. Once the Priest leaves and the party resumes, Walsingham is buried in thought, clearly very affected by the Priest’s words.