Author: Linh Hoang

(Un)Welcome To Our Hillbrow

Apartheid in South Africa may have been eradicated, but its haunting remnants remained. Transition to a postapartheid society led to a host of problems that the South African government have to grapple with: Anti-apartheid people joining the police, labor disputes, criminal violence, conflicts between factions, the HIV-AIDS epidemics damaging a significant part of the population, corruption allegations being raised against their deputy president Zuma in 2005, poor living conditions of their citizens, the 2015 students protests against the increase in university fees. Mpe’s novel is one heavy with the weight of reality; therefore, it is no surprise for us to see W E B Du Bois’s words applied to “Welcome to Our Hillbrow”: “Readers, be assured that this narrative is no fiction.” 

As another post (and the opening paragraph on Hillbrow on Wikipedia) points out, “in the 1970s [Hillbrow] was an Apartheid-designated “whites only” area but soon became a “grey area”, where people of different ethnicities lived together. It acquired a cosmopolitan and politically progressive feel, and was one of the first identifiable gay and lesbian areas in urban South Africa. However, due to the mass growth of the population of poor and unemployed black people after the end of Apartheid, crime soared and the streets became strewn with rubbish.” Hillbrow has a deep history… of separation, and then, as seen in the novel, of “togetherness” born out of necessity. Hillbrow is a city of migrants fleeing violence, yet also a city where migrants are loathed. 

The negative connotations associated with foreignness in “Welcome to Our Hillbrow” is prevalent and pervasive. It is evident through the repetitive use of the derogatory term makwerekwere, often used to describe black foreigners from other African countries (especially Nigerians). It is also prevalent in the description of AIDS and how it is caused by “foreign germs” that are “transported” from Western and Central Africa. Even the disagreements and tensions regarding support for sport teams is rooted in supporting foreign teams, especially those from elsewhere in Africa. The moral decay of Hillbrow is even claimed to be the result of foreigners, “Hillbrow had been just fine until those Nigerians came in here with all their drug dealing” (17). The idea of foreignness as an evil does not only manifest in the contagion of AIDs. It manifests in every dimension of life in Hillbrow. Foreignness is perceived an “other” that decays life even though it also makes Hillbrow what it is, “…there are very few Hillbrowans, if you think about it, who were not originally wanderers from Tiragalong and other rural villages…many of the makwerekwere you accuse of this and that are no different to us – sojourners…” (18). Essentially, the “foreignness” is also the core of what makes Hillbrow, Hillbrow. This leads us to question, how and when does something that defines what a community is, become othered? What is the criteria for being regarded as “foreign”?

In the novel, the themes of xenophobia and contagion are inextricably linked, serving as a haunting parallel to the current COVID-19 crisis and how it unleashed prejudice against specific racial/ethnic groups around the world. During COVID-19, what began as casual racism about the “China virus” slowly intensified into intense xenophobia against people of Asian origin across the United States, as illustrated by this article. Concerningly, this phenomenon was not isolated to the U.S alone. In fact, xenophobia and scapegoating particular communities for the virus became common in several countries. In China, this manifested as racism towards Black expatriates, who were barred from shops during the crisis, and routinely evicted from their homes as they were blamed for spreading the virus. Similarly, in India, it cropped up as intense islamophobia, where Muslims were targeted as a community and perceived as spreaders. Lubnah’s recent short documentary from this summer encapsulates the blatant prejudice and vitriol that became commonplace on every Indian WhatsApp chat at the outset of the pandemic. 

These parallels of xenophobia make it obvious that societies have a tendency to scapegoat certain populations, and more importantly, that these infections are simply used as covers for underlying racism. This also raises some pertinent questions: why do we turn to xenophobia and us versus them narratives in times of crisis? How does contagion, in particular, lend itself to prejudiced sentiments? 

As a previous Convener’s post pointed out, the city’s most destructive contagion might be “spread of judgement,” including its xenophobia, or its spread of gossip and superstition. In a city plagued by death, crime, blatant xenophobia, visited by AIDS, vulnerable to superstition and gossip, where does the origin of this contagion lie? Is it a city of multiple contagion? This idea brings up a very crucial point about Hillbrow which is its insistence on stories. The residents are surrounded by stories at all times – the “informal” news about the city, including the news about the origin of AIDS, comes from the “migrant grapevine,” Refentse’s cousin insists on assigning stories of blame to the migrants seeking refuge in Hillbrow, Refentse’s own death is altered by Refilwe shifting his story at his funeral, Refentse’s mother is also murdered because the story of witchcraft being imposed on her.

These are only a few examples from the first two chapters, but it seems like stories have the capability of changing lives in the city of Hillbrow. Which raises the question, where do these stories come from? Moreover, the migrants bring their stories with them to a city which already seems to be inundated with stories, their new stories don’t seem to get space in Hillbrow, on the contrary, does the city force itself together by the violent imposition of its existing stories on everyone who walks through its streets? What role do stories play in ‘uniting’ the city — or in doing just the opposite? Do these stories stem from the already separated, disjointed nature of the city, broken by its history? Can such a city begin to heal from its stories, and therefore its contagion that has tied everyone together? What does healing even look like?

The (Two) Old Men and The Sea

Great wave off the coast of Kanagawa (Katsushika Hokusai, c. 1830)

Title of this post is retrieved from Earnest Hemingway, “The Old Man and The Sea”

Having established their friendship, what do two men do in their seek for a moment of solace amid the plague-stricken city? Well, they go for a swim together in the sea.

For a long time, many literary works have included the image of the sea and its symbolism. This paper should help you dig deeper into the meaning behind the recurrence of the sea in Camus’ works, as well as another symbolic image that he used – the sun.

Before the vast, immese ocean, human beings suddenly internalize our smallness, and at that moment we can’t help ourselves but contemplate about life. What do we learn about life from The Plague? Life is absurd, there is no such thing as value or meaning, but we have to continue fighting our battle anyway.

What I write below can be unrelated to Camus and The Plague, so please consider this a prior warning. From here, let me take you away from the shore of “recognized” literary works, and dive into the sea of the more “unofficial” form of literary: fanfiction. More specifically, slash fanfiction. This very swimming scene of Dr.Rieux and Tarrou in “The Plague” reminds me of a similar scence in my most favorite Vietnamese fanfiction of all time, “Head like a Big Row of Trees” by Mike Kobayashi. (title loosely translated into English by me.)

I have no doubt that Mike must have got inspiration for his swimming scene from Albert Camus. Two people, two men: while Dr.Rieux and Tarrou was looking for a moment of pleasure and solace, for oneness and isolation from the city; Mike’s characters were looking for a moment of purification, a spiritual transcendence, and maybe oneness as well.

This paragraph is the narrator’s monologue in “Head like a Big Row of Trees” after the swimming scece. If you are interested in this kind of writing, you can also read the summary of the story and the full swimming scene here. (This is also loosely translated by me.)

“I used to think, on that night, there was something dying inside us. But not until much later did I realize that death has always lied inside of us. When we were standing in front of the sea, the hauntingly black body of water, death suddenly stepped out and faced us, rendering us unable to utter a word. I realized, there are things that you cannot carry with you for a lifetime, you pick up the extra luggage and you throw it away, childhood toys, laughter from the good old days, leave them behind and move forward. It’s just that we have to accept the loss. Accept the fact that we are born to die, and day by day, we are coming closer to the immense organism that is the eternal sea of death.”

Invisible Contagion

“When I heard Regine and Oswald in there, it was just like seeing ghosts. But then I’m inclined to think that we are all ghosts, Pastor Manders, every one of us. It’s not just what we inherit from our mothers and fathers that haunts us. It’s all kinds of old defunct theories, all sorts of old defunct beliefs, and things like that. It’s not that they actually live on in us; they are simply lodged there, and we cannot get rid of them. I’ve only to pick up a newspaper and I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines. Over the whole country there must be ghosts, as numerous as the sands of the sea. And here we are, all of us, abysmally afraid of the light.”

(Ibsens, Ghosts, Act II)

This quote said by Mrs. Alving stuck out to all four of us. She highlights the idea of old societal beliefs and values that eerily live on within us in ways we aren’t aware of, and are passed down in ways that we aren’t aware of. The way these “old defunct beliefs” were presented as a “ghost” was intriguing, especially because the concept of contagion seems to be embedded in this idea.  This is evident when she says, “I’ve only to pick up a newspaper and I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines.” Yet, the way that she uses ghosts to describe a kind of contagion is not the primary way we have been thinking of contagion in this class. Contagion has been described in visible, physical and tangible terms. It felt powerful to have the invisible contagion of values of beliefs wrapped in the metaphor of a ghost. Ironically, through this line, she gave visibility to the invisible. She voiced, really clearly, intangible structures in a really poignant way.  

A 1987 televised version of the play directed by Elijah Moshinsky has very interesting visuals. The whole action takes place inside the Alving house, in its dark walls, dark furniture and sparse light. Its visuals, especially its colours, are somewhat suggestive of the paintings that have emerged out of earlier pandemics. 

“Titian’s last painting, Pieta, from 1575. In 1576 he succumbed to the plague that was raging in Venice.

Pastor Manders’s character in the film is particularly similar to Edvard Munch’s Self Portrait during the Spanish Flu.

It’s very useful to the action of the play taking place in dim, spacious, yet claustrophobic rooms, never leaving the indoors, a quality that has come to be associated with the current pandemic. Moreover, in this version of the play, a model of the house is securely stored inside a glass box, placed in the living room. Manders is seen constantly resting his hands on this box as though protecting and relying on this structure. This can be seen as a metaphor for Mander’s insistence on closely following the established rules/structures of the world. 

Ibsen uses the symbolism of “ghosts” to illustrate the idea that remnants of practices from a bygone era continue to haunt us, sometimes preventing our society from progressing. The struggle between the craving for a new social order and the rigid shackles of the past are perfectly exemplified in Mrs. Alving. She embodies a progressive, feminist way of approaching marriage and motherhood — ideas that the Pastor refuses to accept, having been possessed by the “ghosts” of archaic traditions. As Mrs. Alving explains, ghosts are “all kinds of old defunct theories, all sorts of old defunct beliefs…”, which in her life have been the gender norms imposed on her of being a “good”, supportive wife despite being stuck in a toxic marriage. Reading this in 2020 was alarming as many of the issues she raises surrounding expectations from women continue to be salient, which begs the question: when do these “ghosts” finally terminate, and when do these ideas stop propagating across generations? What does that mean for us, as people participating in the world today? Is the core of what we have constructed as life infected by patriarchal structures of the past?

In “Severance”, Candace held herself to the immigrant work ethics not because she found meaning in her job, but only because she wanted to uphold the legacy of her deceased father. Duties and responsibilities are passed down from generations, and they are just as contagious and sins and diseases. “The sins of the father are visited upon the children.” is what the doctor told Oswald Alving about his illness. 

So, where does the contagion originate? What is the source of it? Did it come from Oswald’s father when he passed on the illness of his mind and body to his son, who now has to face the ghosts of his late father’s life? Or did it come from even before this family, did it come from structures of “law and order” that Helene talks about? Do these rigid structures birth and sustain this contagion? What makes these structures so contagious, what makes them so compelling to pass on, why do they continue to haunt us? 

In this particular course, we learn about the current pandemic that we are facing by reading about all the great plagues that have happened in the past. Within these materials we are bound to see similarities. Patterns are concluded, feelings shared, and history seems to repeat itself. Humans have been studying history since forever. Why is that? What is the point of us living in the present and looking back into our past, into our collective memories? Do we ever learn from it? 

How is a plague like a war?

‘Journal of the plague year’ contains very little, if no description on the medical treatment and cure of the dreadful plague that raged the city, which is understandable given the underdeveloped health system of London in the year 1655 compared with modern days’. However, during our time, the discourse of plague and its treatment has changed into something very much resembling war-fare, with US President Donald Trump talking about how he ‘fights’ the COVID-19 and how the virus cannot ‘defeat’ him.

This article of The Alantic perfectly illustrates this point.

“In the Western world, bouts of illness are regularly described as “battles.” Viruses and other pathogens are “enemies” to be “beaten.” Patients are encouraged to “be strong” and praised for being “fighters.”

This ‘battle’ against the virus, like any ‘battle’ against illiteracy, hunger, poverty, etc. saw a foregone victory belonging to the affluent in our society. Defoe has shown us that since the year 1655, only the rich can afford to flee the city and seek refuge in the country in the times of plague.

And remember what we said in our Severance discussion, about the plague serving to eradicate all social labels, only leaving one with the state of either ‘strong/not sick’ or ‘infected’, no matter what one’s religion, class, and political leaning is? Dafoe affirmed that another matter can have the same effect – death, as he described a burial ritual in ‘Journal of the plague year’:

“[…] seeing they were all dead, and were to be huddled together into the common grave of mankind, as we may call it, for here was no difference made, but poor and rich went together; there was no other way of burials”