11 February 2014
Makhosazana Xaba’s poetry has been translated into Mandarin and Italian and published in China and Italy. Her first critically acclaimed story, Running, won the Deon Hofmeyr Award for Creative Writing in 2005.
Xaba has now produced a collection of ten short stories, neatly bracketed by two imaginative responses to Can Themba’s iconic story The Suit, and playfully, though with a sting, engaging with Siphiwo Mahala’s The Suit Continued.
In this collection of well-crafted short stories (seven related in the first-person), the reader is taken on a richly textured journey through the all-too-seldom articulated thoughts of South African women, into the private language that women speak among themselves. The beauty of Xaba’s writing is that the narration is gentle yet compelling, and that although her touch is tender, she confronts firmly and head-on brutal realities such as rape, backyard abortion, infidelity and domestic cruelty.
Part of her persuasiveness arises from how her stories centre on character and not polemically on these issues. She is therefore able to handle with great sensitivity female same-sex relationships and coming of age. With this collection, with its wonderful breadth of subjects and characters, Xaba has made a rewarding, beautifully told, and urgently needed contribution to South African literary fiction.
Qhamukile wondered why people spoke of feelings as being in the chest. Having thought of them that way for a long time made her feel them, right there, in her chest. The fullness was unbearable.
She spent time telling her chest to relax, but it would not. Then she decided to focus on the road, or rather on things around the road. She had been focusing on the road for at least an hour now.
The journey began that morning at about five. The alarm clock went off one second after she opened her eyes and wondered whether it was time to wake up yet. She left the bed and went straight to the toilet, then to the kitchen to turn on the kettle. When the water boiled she made a cup of tea, then walked back to her bedroom to enjoy it in bed. This was the best way to enjoy one’s first morning cup. That done, she packed their picnic bag. She hated buying food from roadside stores. Her daughter’s favourite foods all went in: Oros, a cheese sandwich, a banana, Tinkies and chocolate muffins that she had baked the previous night. For herself, she packed apples, fresh juice and peanuts. A friend had told her it was important to pack foods that would keep you awake as you drove, keep you chewing hard. Peanuts and apples it was going to be. After all, on your first five-hour drive you have to take your absolute favourites.
She had made plenty of muffins so she could take umngenandlini as well, even though baking had taken so long that she had only gone to bed at midnight. The chocolate muffins were for her daughter, the bran for her mama, and the banana for her mama’s neighbour, MaMkhize. Qhamukile was not going to go to her mama’s house without bringing MaMkhize muffins. MaMkhize had long declared her love for fresh-baked muffins.
Her mama had known MaMkhize for fifteen years. She was there when Mama moved to the area. She took care of Mama’s orientation. She did more than invite her for meals at home with other women. She informed Mama about deaths and funerals in the neighbourhood, and made sure Mama attended. She explained relationships among the neighbours, infusing life to their characters. MaMkhize also listed the names of men whose wives had died, explaining the circumstances surrounding their death. MaMkhize’s husband had left her for a younger woman. She had four daughters who had each had a child without getting married to the father. She was now raising the four grandchildren while her two younger daughters were finishing higher education. Qhamukile was looking forward to current news about the neighbourhood. She was sure MaMkhize would make time to tell her everything.
Bathing was going to take too long, so Qhamukile decided to do a wipe. It involved a few strokes: face, armpits, between the legs. For the first round she used soap, none for the second. For the third round, a dry towel sufficed. I must start taking care of my face, she thought.
Another friend had told her that as a woman approaching forty, she must start looking after her face, proper cleansing, no soap, toner (whatever that was) and moisturiser. It’s very simple, her friend had explained. Once in the morning and once in the evening, and you get used to it. She could not see where she could fit such a rigorous routine in her schedule. So she kept postponing.
There must be some truth in it though, because this friend had a face like a child’s, and she claimed she had been using these things since her late teens. She laughed as she recalled her friend’s voice: “Friend, it’s an investment.”
Putting clothes on was the quickest, three pairs of things, a panty and a bra, tracksuit top and bottom, socks and running shoes.
The next steps were the most irritating ones; taking all the sets of keys to open the front gate, the front door, the side gate and the side door, the garage gate and the car door, six keys in all! She returned to the house to fetch three bags: two suitcases (hers and her daughter’s) and the picnic bag. These were waiting next to the front door, in her usual style of needing no hassle in the morning. When all was packed into the car, she locked it and went back to get her daughter from her bed. They had agreed she would be transplanted from her own bed to the back seat of the car. The blankets were waiting in position on the seat.
Helping her daughter Nontshisekelo out of bed also meant carrying her to the toilet, and while supporting her torso, encouraging her to release her bladder with characteristic motherly sounds. Nontshisekelo was able to urinate with her eyes completely closed. Simultaneously, she mastered a certain limpness that only a mother could understand, at this hour, during this activity. No amount of friendly advice could help Qhamukile with this. Her daughter had not come with a recipe book.
Running and other stories by Makhosazana Xaba
Review by Brent Meersman for GroundUp