Contagion, Cosmopolitanism, Hillbrow

Mpe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow (2001) helps us tie together some threads or strands that have run through several readings in this course. Specifically, it addresses issues such as the relationship between communication and communicable disease (a topic running all the way back to Sampson’s Virality), the weight of history and tradition, the effects of circulation or migration on personal and communal identity, and the very question of individual agency in the face of an epidemic disorder that stresses, above all, our connections to others.

I was tempted to assign — and maybe will in the future — one of the few pieces of criticism on Mpe’s novel that engages with these issues in ways that speak to the rest of our course. It’s this piece by Emily S. Davis, who teaches at the University of Delaware and writes about globalization, human rights, social justice, and (of all things) romance genres. But for now I’ll give you a couple crucial quotes that also serve, usefully, as an example of how you start to build an argument about a text based on the evidence generated through close reading or explication. In this case, she makes an argument that the novel posits contagion as a form of connection or even belonging: “Contagion, as Refilwe realizes, is the condition of modern life, whether in Tiragalong or London. We are all potentially or already sick without exposure to foreigners; one can become infected without ever leaving home.”

From there she seeks to reinforce this argument by offering an interpretation of the repeated “Welcome to our…” passages:

 The structure of the novel reinforces this expansive sense of belonging as shared infection. The refrain of “Welcome to our Hillbrow” (Mpe 2000, 2) in the first chapter expands in scale over the course of the text to include “Welcome to our England” (97), “Welcome to our All” (104), “Welcome to the World of our Humanity” (113), and finally “Welcome to our Heaven” (124). Refilwe is welcomed into Heaven at the end of the book by a cast of other characters, all of whom have died and are being memorialized by the unnamed omniscient narrator. The conception of heaven laid out by this narrator is fundamentally narrative: “Heaven is the world of our continuing existence, located in the memory and consciousness of those who live with us and after us. It is the archive that those we left behind keep visiting and revisiting; digging this out, suppressing or burying that. Continually reconfiguring the stories of our lives” (124). Mpe’s cosmopolitan text suggests that the task of the aesthetic is to memorialize the complex interconnections among people, even those connections people might wish to hide or ignore. Toward this end, the novel dramatizes the competing narratives about the current South African issues of AIDS and immigration. According to the xenophobic rural/nationalist narrative, both the AIDS crisis and immigration involve foreign elements that must be excised through witchcraft. But the narrator demonstrates repeatedly that there is more to these stories than meets the eye: the bone throwers cynically exploit their knowledge of local feuds and relationships for profit, while the villagers erroneously believe that there is a cure for social ills. In contrast, the narrator’s cosmopolitan narrative invokes an interconnectedness for which there is no cure. No god intervenes to restore a parochial moral order; moreover, we are all guilty (or potentially guilty) of the same crimes and linked by our shared bodily passions and our shared vulnerability to suffering.

(Davis 106-107)

I’d love to hear your responses to this reading of contagion and whether you think it applies to texts we’ve read other than Hillbrow. And what are the implications of framing contagion in this way? Davis offers this answer: “As a human rights text, Welcome to Our Hillbrow embraces contaminations of all kinds, presenting physical rights (freedom from disease, access to medical care, etc.) as inextricable from social rights (freedom of speech, freedom from xenophobia, freedom to love), the local as inextricable from the foreign, and the bodily as inextricable from the narrative” (108).

My own comments in class should indicate that I’m sympathetic to this position, but I certainly welcome counterarguments or conflicting takes. I see the position Davis stakes out as compatible, as I’ve noted in discussion, with Appiah’s approach to cosmopolitanism and “contamination,” which I’ve written about in a very early post on this site. That post grew out of a discussion of Angels in America, so perhaps this conversation will spill into our discussion of that work as we turn to it next.

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