mother to mother

Magona, Sindiwe. Mother to Mother. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.

This project I’m working on is totally cool. A group of current students and graduates of the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies, which used to be Johnston College for a lot of us old fogies involved, got together by invitation from Bill McDonald, our literature guru professor. Bill retired in 2005 after being one of the founding faculty of Johnston (1969), and the profound effect he’s had on his students over the decades manifested in our group discussions in April, 2005, when we all met in Redlands — a scholarly, familial, aesthetic reunion made possible by Kathryn Greene’s wise and caring philanthropy. Eventually, after a lot of email wrangling, we decided to do a collective book on J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace.

Disgrace was my first read of anything by Coetzee, and I went on to read Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man. Although Elizabeth Costello is a curious pastiche based on actual lectures Coetzee delivered on animal rights (that’s simplified), it may be my favorite so far, mainly because of the talk about the novel, the African novel, and other big writerly topics that Coetzee handles with sharp guffaws.

So, what am I taking on for this project? I’m following my discomfort. The places my hackles bristle. What might those be? 1) portrayal of Black S. Africans; and 2) Lucy’s silence about rape. I’m looking at racism, and I’ll start with my own. Why have I not read any Coetzee until now? Precisely because he is Afrikaaner, white S. African. Not a good reason. But I do get frustrated that when U.S. readers think of S. African writers, I’m bettin’ that Athol Fugard and J.M. Coetzee are the first two that come to mind.

My experience with S. African literature is limited, but I’ve tended to read and teach Black S. African writers like Bessie Head, Miriam Tlali, Alex LaGuma, and Mark Mathabane. Reading Disgrace, I felt off-center, as if Coetzee’s novel and I were weighing down one side of a scale; we needed those other writers — Tlali, LaGuma — to sit next to us on the other part of the scale and balance things out. In other words, there was just something wrong with Coetzee’s view of things, something missing, something skewed. I’m using Coetzee’s name instead of the narrator, because this same kind of skewing appears in the other novels.

I’ve chosen Sindiwe Magona’s novel, Mother to Mother, to read along with Disgrace in order to study my sense of imbalance. Mother to Mother is also post-apartheid; set in 1993 on the eve of elections, it deals with an historical event, the murder of a white American woman, Amy Biehl. Magona’s novel is written in first-person narrative in the voice of Mandisa, the mother of the youth who killed Amy; Mandisa writes to Amy’s mother.

In her “Author’s preface,” Magona says that the Biehl case gave a lot of information on Amy, and then asks, “And yet, are there no lessons to be had from knowing something of the other world? The reverse of such benevolent and nurturing entities as those that throw up the Amy Biehls, the Andrew Goodmans, and other young people of that quality? What was the world of this young woman’s killers, the world of those, young as she was young, whose environment failed to nurture them in the higher ideals of humanity and who, instead, became lost creatures of malice and destruction?” (v)

Interesting that Magona parallels Amy Biehl and Andrew Goodman, one of the three civil rights workers murdered in Philadelphia MS in 1964. Almost thirty years after Goodman’s murder, Amy Biehl is a Fulbright scholar who “had gone to South Africa to help black people prepare for the country’s first truly democratic elections” (Magona v).

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