Archive for November, 2016

“I died because my dad was the biggest blood merchant”

Dream of Ding Village is a fiction based on the AIDS crisis in Henan Province in China. Before writing the book, Yan Lianke, the author had visited the AIDS village seven times and lived with the locals for a while. After the first edition was sold out, the book was banned by the Chinese government with the allegation that it “exaggerated the harm and horror of AIDS with the gloomy way of description”.

In this book, we get a unique perspective from a dead narrator at the beginning of the story, who narrates the acts of his father and grandfather and the consequences faced by the villagers. The commodification of blood is an interesting aspect of the story. Blood is the vital fluid that courses through our veins. The irony is, that the blood that is intended to give life, in the context of Ding Village, takes it away.

Although most of the people who moved into the elementary school are nearing the end of their lives, the corruption of human nature never stops. Though on the verge of dying, people still attempt to steal grains and money. Rather than helping each other and making the rest of their short lives more pleasant, they fight for position and power. When Li Sanren died, he can’t close his eyes without having the official seal, the representation of power, in hand. What does power and position mean to people? Aren’t we also like the characters in the fiction? We all know that we are dying within a hundred of years, yet aren’t we still having the “the more, the better” mindset, striving to pursue something we can’t bring away after we pass away?

Three-Character Classic is the material every Chinese children learn. It teaches them the basis of Confucian morality, especially filial piety and respect for elders. Grandpa Ding has been teaching Three-Character Classic as a teacher throughout his life. However, it’s ironic that both of his sons aren’t behaving well, not even having the basic respect to their father. People start to look down on him because of what his sons have done. When parents have done their best to teach the children, are they to blame for the children’s misconducts?

Dream of Ding Village illustrates the important aspects of human nature. Ding Hui becomes committed in his pursuit of money, not considering ethics whilst doing so. In order to maximize profit, he sold blood wherever it was needed, meaning that he is to be blamed for the spread of AIDS in his country. At the same time, he profited from the government’s weak efforts to aid those diagnosed with AIDS. His approach to this economic opportunity can be compared to those by tobacco companies who profit from selling their tobacco products as well as profiting from the medication to help stop tobacco addiction. Faced with their own mortality, the inhabitants of the village stop caring for one another and the future of those not infected. Instead, they care solely on coffins and “face”. The book is a significantly effective reminder of the negative consequences of placing our financial benefit before the long-term burdens that haunt us down the line. Ding Qiang, Ding Hui’s son, was murdered, using poison, by the villagers in retaliation of his father’s actions. Like the case of Ibsen’s Ghosts, sons are punished for the sins of their fathers.

The majority of the readings that we did dealt with looking for the cause of a plague to find something or someone to blame. Whether it was supposedly caused by the LGBT community or as punishment from God to those that have constantly sinned people always looked for someone to blame. In the case of Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke, The grandfather of the narrator is pinning the blame on his son, Ding Hui, for becoming a blood merchant. Ding Hui’s pursuit of a better life turned him into a heartless man, he did not shed any tears when his Son died but lashed out at the other villagers for the murderer to show himself. Ironically, Ding Hui himself is looking for someone to blame for the murder of his son as well. It is possible that Ding Hui is to blame for the spread of AIDS in their village because of his cheap ways of extracting blood, however nonetheless the villagers still consented to his business. Furthermore, we believe that the Grandfather himself is also looking for someone else to blame for the spread of disease, as he himself was the person that said blood would always flow. In the case of Dream of Ding Village, what would pinning the blame on someone for spreading AIDS bring? Apologies would not bring back the dead nor cure the people currently carrying the disease.


— Lateefa, Abdullah, Kai-Wen, Neha

See The World Through The Eyes of A Child

You might probably wonder why Stimela’s song See The World Through The Eyes of A Child is so frequently mentioned in Welcometo Our Hillbrow. The book gives us a glimpse that, to Refentse, “it was a song about a neglected, homeless child, exposed to much street violence and blood,and subsequently grown to be scared of darkness.” (84) It speaks to Refentse in volume about his “loneliness” and “fear of rejection”. But there is definitely more to it than that.

First of all, the song often becomes a “musical background” for numerous scenes in the novella: Refentse’s contemplation, Lerato’s suicide, Refilwe’s attempt to seduce Refentse back to her. What these scenes have in common is that they all lead the characters to regret. Refentse’s contemplation of love and the purpose of living leads him to his suicide. Lerato’s guilt also leads her to kill herself. The narrator, through his use of language, portrays how Refentse’s and Lerato’s premature deaths take away what could have happened. Bryan mentioned it in class that the book’s tone is almost that of mourning. The actions of the characters seem to be all imagined, “if only..” this and that.

Refilwe’s failed seduction definitely also leads her to regret. Her rejection by Refentse that night in her apartment plants a seed of revenge in her heart. She later channels this into telling a false story about Refentse’s death, which causes the necklacing of Refentse’s innocent mother. The realization that her action is wrong—her regret—comes way too late.

Now I have tried, folks, to listen to the song closely, for the internet has failed to simply tell me the lyrics, to find out why the song plays in the background of these scenes. And one of the things I could pick up was the question posed in the song: “Won’t you please write a letter to yourself?” It seems to me, that the regret shown in the scenes we looked at, is summarized by this question. We somewhat agreed in class that the narrator cannot be one person. And somehow the question in the song leads me to think that, with too many ifs mentioned, the narrator may perhaps be the collective voice of all the dead characters trying to reconfigure their stories. The possessive pronoun “our” (who could possibly say “our heaven” if not the dead or God?), the fact that the characters are all “the child of..” something—all these somehow suggest that the narrator is trying to take us on a journey to See The World Through The Eyes of A Child, the characters. These dead characters might actually be real people, or a representation of them, that live in Mpe’s “memory and consciousness”. And Mpe’s action to write this book is perhaps a request, by what the song calls “the voice on the other side”, to reconfigure the stories of the characters.

Welcome to our nostalgia

Witchcraft is a recurrent theme throughout Welcome to our Hillbrow. Looking over previous posts in the course blog, I stumbled upon this video from a 2015 post. I found it interesting because it does a quick summary of what witchcraft is like in a few countries of South Africa today. Laws are being passed according to witchcraft! The video is quite visual so beware, it’s not Halloween witches, rather real people exposed to insane violence because they’re believed to be witches.

In addition, I found this song called Hillbrow by Johannes Kerkorrel (1989) and although it’s not in English, the sound of the song says everything. Especially the cover by Elvis Blue. Jus by listening to it you’ll capture its nostalgic feel. It’s a sad song that seems to remember what once was. Somewhat like an elegy.

Welcome to our Hillbrow is a nostalgic novel. It’s everything our main character Refentse could have felt, said, done, thought, had he not committed suicide. Most chapters start with: “If you were still alive now, Refentse, child of Tiragalong and Hillbrow, you might finally…” Thus, there is an impotence that comes with the narration; Refentse could have gone through so many things, but he’s dead so it’s not possible anymore. In a sense, this impotence is the same impotence of Hillbrow. Had it not been devastated in the aftermaths of South African Apartheid, perhaps it’d have all the open possibilities that Refeltse would have had had he not committed suicide. Kerkorrel’s song, and Blue’s subsequent cover depict part of that impotence through the music.

I couldn’t find the translated song so I went with Google Translate, which is NOT GREAT, but sheds light on some of the song lyrics. For anyone who’s interested, here’s the translation (up to your interpretation):

Old man sitting at cafes,
And see all the people walking back and forth
Tramps rage at the Wimpy Bar
And Fontana is open until late in the evening
Barefoot children in the street, pointing to parking
And then keep the hand and then hold the hand
And hang up the hand? yes

Chorus One:
And give, give, give. Give, give, give
Your money, your dreams, your clothes full of holes
Give your heart to Hillbrow
Yes, give your heart to Hillbrow

In Quartz Street I hear? A girl called me,
There’s a Hare Krishna asking what I was looking
And I know Jesus? Ask? a man on the porch,
Between Hillbrow records and Estoril Books
And it’s long after midnight,
And send the Hillbrow Tower
She signals at night, its signal at night
His signal for the junkies waiting, O

Chorus One:
And give, give, give. Give, give, give
Your money, your dreams, your future full of holes
Give your heart to Hillbrow
Yes, give your heart to HillbrowEn the lights go on in the Chelsea Hotel,
And voices and music sound in every apartment.
We sat in the sun, drinking wine,
We survive with? a hell lot of pain in this country, so
Let’s drink to the one who survived his dreams,
On the one who gets what he wants, jaKoortjie:
And give, give, give. Give, give, give
Your money, your dreams, your future full of holes
Give your heart to Hillbrow
Yes, give your heart to Hillbrow
Come on, give your heart to Hillbrow

“Welcome to….”?__Augmenter’s post

“Welcome to our Hillbrow…welcome to our Alexandra… welcome to our Tiragalong in Johannesburg…welcome to our England…welcome to our Heaven”.

There are a number of things I find fascinatingly wrong with the above phrases. The most obvious of my issues is the very fact that I cannot decipher who the narrator is and what his/her relationship is to some form of constructed identity or structured community. By constantly welcoming foreigners to “our” stated communities, the narrator is implying the he/she is already a part of those communities. How is it possible to belong to Hillbrow, Alexandra, Tiragalong, England and heaven, all at the same time? I postulate that it might be because the narrator has a fluid sense of identity. ‘Identity’ for our narrator is not rooted in socially-constructed ideals of identity by descent (birth and breeding). But, identity as part of a community is rooted in one’s present spatio-temporal world. Essentially, as one moves, so does his or her relation to a community. It is unclear as to whether the narrator abandons his previous belongings to other communities by adapting to newer ones, but it is evident from my understanding of the novel that because change and movement are very dynamic, one’s form of identity should equally be dynamic.

The second issue with the above phrasings rests in the extents to which one is truly welcomed as part of a community. Throughout the book, Mpe creates strong tension between the foreigners and the locals- the Hillbrowans vs. the people from Johannesburg, the black South Africans vs. the black foreigners, the ‘Africans’ [excluding (white) South Africans] vs. the British, etc. So, even though it may seem like the foreigners are being welcomed with open arms, one cannot help but take this invitation with a grain of salt or some form of hesitation as the invitation might not be truly sincere.