Among one of the most recurrent themes in Welcome to Our Hillbrow by Phaswane Mpe is othering, or categorizing certain groups of people as “Us vs. Them”. We witnessed this in the circulated story of how “AIDs travelled by foreign germs down from central and western parts of Africa” (p. 3 – 4). It is also seen in the vulgar nickname Makwerekwere , designated for black foreigners from other countries. (p. 20). It is also seen in the way white people are referred to, especially in all the stories circulated on what disorder takes place in the “kitchens” (p, 23).
Because of this very recurrent focus on othering, I couldn’t help but think back to Robert Sapolsky’s book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst. Chapter 11 of Behave, “Us Versus Them” theorizes the concept of othering, taking into account both nature and nurture.
One of the most memorable arguments in that chapter is the standardized ways in which human beings view “Thems” as well as the standardized ways in which “Those Thems” evoke responses from us (Sapolsky, p. 398). The following quote encapsulates this well:
“Thus, Thems come in different flavors – threatening and angry, disgusting and repellent, primitive and undifferentiated.” (p. 399)
Thems can evoke feelings of disgust, feelings of menace, or even feelings of threat and fear, depending on the way they are largely viewed (e.g. “I am afraid of Them because Their religion is radical”, or “I am disgusted by Them because They bring diseases”, or “I am angry at Their presence because They are stealing my jobs”) (p. 398 – 400).
This framework, introduced by Sapolsky, could give us better guidance to understand the different forms of othering that are happening in Welcome to Our Hillbrow.
Mpe, Phaswane. Welcome to our Hillbrow. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 2001.
Sapolsky, Robert M. Behave: The biology of humans at our best and worst. Penguin, 2017.
Donald Trump may be (outwardly) the most powerful COVID denier in the world, but he is not the only one. Denialism runs deep inside the minds of people, whether due to their distorted allegiance to rationality (or rationalization) or thanks to the conditioned privilege of not encountering catastrophes on a daily basis before the disaster kicks their doors open and tells them to wake up. In Camus’s The Plague, we encounter denialism through witnessing the plague unravel from the perspective of Dr. Rieux, who unmasks the reality of the sickness taking over the French-Algerian city of Oran.
Figure 1. Variations in the book cover for Albert Camus’ The Plague
Among the many book covers (Fig. 1) of Albert Camus’ The Plague, the one at the bottom left corner, a 1955 version from the first paperback publication of the author’s work (Fig. 2), seems to best reflect the environment where the plague of denialism can spread among the denizens. The pastel roofs of the houses in the city Oran, painted lightly in blue, purple, green, yellow, orange, etc., aptly corresponds to how the town is pictured by Camus, with “a serene blue sky flooded with golden light each morning,” where “all seemed well” (58). The soft colors belie how at the beginning the people of the city take the progression of the plague ‘lightly,’ in the tranquility that is “so casual and thoughtless [that it] seemed almost effortlessly to give the lie to those old pictures of the plague,” allowing the rats, as depicted in the cover, to infiltrate the town, just as soldiers during the war would conduct their surprise-attacks (39). Rats aside, the optimistic colors of the city are in contrast with the foreboding figure in the foreground. Could the figure be an anthropomorphized representation of a plague, a secondary one that is birthed by the epidemic of denialism? Why is the figure positioned at the outside of Oran, as if he is a foreigner to the city?
The figure of the plague is always a migrant, someone that arrives from abroad, rather than something in the population itself. That’s true for COVID- it jumped from animals to humans, a taxonomic leap that destabilized the entire human colony on earth. Yet barring the foreigner from entry is the most appealing tactic in a time of plague- that’s the first, measly step President Trump took to stem the flow of the contagion in February, and he focused only on China. That was never going to be sufficient, but the denier in chief of the US thought it would be enough. Denialism is no foreigner to us.
This previous conveners post touches upon denialism in society in The Plague through framing it as a “conflict between confidence and fear”, highlighted in the interaction between the authorities and the doctors and the reluctance to alarm people about the pestilence in concern of spreading fear. Adding to this previous conveners post, it is crucial to account for the dynamics between doctors and political authorities, and the roles each assume (which are still concerningly relevant to this day), described accurately in the following excerpt:
“… It’s not a question of painting too black a picture. It’s a question of taking precautions.”
While doctors are concerned with protecting citizens and taking the necessary precautions to curb the spread of a contagion, authorities, in their PR-full roles, worry about image, response, and appeal. With a clash in intent and concern, citizens are often left in a state of confusion caused by a lack of information (and the abundance of misinformation). This could lead to difficulty in understanding the true extent of the plague, even when presented with numbers and official notices.
“And since a dead man has no substance unless one has actually seen him dead, a hundred million corpses broadcast through history are no more than a puff of smoke in the imagination. ”We see similar issues taking place today with how people are becoming numb to COVID death counts, despite more creative efforts in explaining to the populace how many people have died. COVID no longer surprises us. COVID is no longer a foreigner.
While reading Ghosts, I was
struck with the theme of hiding the truth for the sake of maintaining ideals
and reputation. One example of this is of the characters implicitly conversing
with each other on topics too taboo to be explicitly articulated (Mrs. Alving
saying “Regine belonged here in this house…” instead of explaining how Regine
is related to the family).
This concept of evading the truth reminds me of another play, Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams, which also tackles the ideas of illness and preexisting rigid social structures, although written almost 100 years later. William’s play is about Mrs. Venable and Catherine (her niece), and it focuses on Mrs. Venable’s recently diseased son, Sebastian. Mrs. Venable attempts to have a psychiatrist perform a lobotomy on Catherine, as she claims her niece has gone mad. This is because Catherine, the only person present with Sebastian at the time of his death, reveals that Sebastián used to “procure” young males for sexual exploitation, and that he died being devoured by a mob of starving children – all of which Mrs. Venable refuses to believe.
the illness that is uncovered in Ghosts is a sexually transmitted
disease, Suddenly Last Summer grapples with the idea of Catherine’s
reliability as a narrator of Sebastian’s death, hinting that she might be
mentally ill. I was reminded of this play, as both illnesses aforementioned are
perceived as “invisible” illnesses (up until the stage at which Syphilis
Another similarity is that both plays tackle the topic of social structures and the difficult decision of challenging them. In Suddenly Last Summer, Catherine suffers the consequences of choosing to challenge the structures by talking about Sebastian’s troubling reality. In Ghosts, on the other hand, the characters suffer the consequences of choosing not to challenge the structures and hiding the truth in the name of ideals.
A.N. Here’s a short clip of a film adaptation of Suddenly Last Summer
Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year is an elusive text. First published in 1722, it describes life in London during the Bubonic Plague through one man’s experiences and documentation. Though Defoe refers to it as a “Journal”, which is evident in the title of the book, it is debatable whether this book can be categorized as factual or fictional. It leans towards an objective account when it depicts documentation of the times, such as mortality bills, and then leans to the comparatively new fictional form of the novel when it conveys the emotional atmosphere of the plague, such as the descriptions of people’s suffering in both mental, physical, and spiritual dimensions. Today, Defoe’s book is categorized as a historical novel, which seemingly accounts for the dual nature of the book’s contents. As this previous convener’s post notes, Defoe weaves both storytelling and documentation together, to paint a picture of London in its direst straits, describing all the facets (societal, classist, psychological, etc.) of London that the plague changes.
London’s Dreadful Visitation, or, A Collection of all the Bills of Mortality for this Present Year (London: E. Cotes, 1665)
2. Bill of mortality for the week of 19th–26th September 1665, which saw the highest death toll from plague.
We are interested in exploring the subjectivity of the documents and bills quoted by Defoe, as mentioned in the convener’s post above. The recurrent use of weekly mortality bills gives the text of the narrative sections an administrative, authoritative, and authentic texture. However, there is a corollary impression with this choice to emulsify fiction and nonfiction. With fiction and information in such close proximity to each other (they’re not social distancing!), it results in a situation whereas the narrative becomes more authentic, the documentation becomes more suspect. Specifically, Ellen Cotes’ ‘London’s Dreadful Visitation’ (Fig. 1), a collection of all the bills of mortality printed in London during the Great Plague of 1665, elicits a question of to what extent a primary historical document could be a product of manipulation or reconstruction. Labels on causes of death, such as ‘suddenly,’ ‘frighted,’ and ‘grief’ (Fig. 2) are in the approximated language, leading to a question of who assigned these causes to the deaths. Whether it’s in fiction or in reality, the attempts to cover up and distort the numbers of the pandemic have continued from centuries ago. However, such continuity does not take human societies’ adaptations to the nausea of statistics, percentages, and predictions (of the pandemic) for granted.
“Preparedness, for Defoe, needed to be a closer collaboration between individual citizens and the state, one in which both parties understood their social and ethical responsibilities to each other. To be prepared involved much more human work.” — Travis Chi Wing Lau
Central to reading any piece of literature is the reader’s relationship and interactions with the text. There is no denying that reading A Journal of A Plague Year during a pandemic equips a reader with a lens through which one can further engage with and critique the text. For instance, the bills listing the number of burials per week remind us of daily COVID case announcements. The exacerbation of class issues and inequalities by the plague (as with the poor and the servants falling sick in greater numbers than other demographics) reminds us of the way the poorest and most vulnerable populations around the world today are hit hardest by the spread of the coronavirus. The lack of citizen compliance to home quarantine in the Journal when infected resembles our current-day anti-maskers and anti-lockdown rioters. Such close and jarring comparisons between our current pandemic and a legendary plague which took place hundreds of years ago, tells us a lot about the nature of governance and citizenship in crises.
The questions we had after grappling with the Journal’s elusiveness are these- What sort of literary form is most useful to warn our descendants of epidemics and pandemics, and to convince them to live in austerity that protects their community? Is it the objective form, such as through using mortality bills and statistical models? Is it the narrative form of exploring people’s grief and the dimensions of their suffering? Or do we combine both forms in as Defoe does? Which forms help us tolerate the uncertainty and subjectivity of plagues? And how can we spread useful information in a counter contagion? If A Journal of A Plague Year does warn us of times such as the one we live through, are we even paying attention to Defoe?