I’ve had a best friend since I was four years old. I count this as one of my life’s greatest achievements.
She told her mom the day we’d first met that she’d made friends with a girl with the same hair as her. This idea is today astounding to me, because our hair is probably the thing that most sets us apart. Hers is so silky smooth that you can almost not help but bury your hands in it. Mine is touched without consent for an entirely different reason — “exotic”, kroes.
Back then I was desperate for a twin. Most girls my age were. The Olsen twins, Tia and Tamera Mowry from Sister, Sister and, of course, The Parent Trap crystallised this fantasy for a whole generation of us. The long lost twin sister, with a life far-removed from your own, was particularly appealing.
With nine days between us, my best friend and I forced our birthdays into the same day. I even liked to pretend that our mothers met in Jo’burg Gen after what would have been a hideously long labour for my mother and a slightly premature one for hers.
Over the years of our friendship, we’ve managed to make each other our own. As Tsitsi Jaji puts it, I sound her out and she sounds me out.
Towards the end of her chapter, in the Shannon Walsh and Jon Soske edited Ties that Bind: Race and the Politics of Friendship in South Africa, Jaji writes of her parent’s interracial marriage: “As their daughter, I am, I suppose, always already in an interracial friendship … ”
This image, a sideways nod to Frantz Fanon’s construction of — the splitting of the consciousness into black and white — evokes the innermost desire to meet that playmate who affirms that actually there is no difference there. We are of the same body. Twins.
Ties That Bind takes the intimacy of friendship and uses it to figure the very complicated conditions of solidarity in South Africa. For the book’s contributors — who speak fluent academic, but are also artists in their own right — it’s a dizzying task. It is also one that now probably seems more urgent than ever.
We have seen, especially in recent years, very public attempts to come to terms with the question of solidarity in this country — mostly with vague summonings of Steve Biko and Fanon. These key figures in the theory of solidarity across racial lines have been such cherished sounding boards that they have often been distorted into whatever wavelength serves the conversation now.
Last year, Sisonke Msimang, another one of the volume’s contributors, tweeted: “Asking for a friend: is there a name for people who tweet abt #Biko & #Fanon to boost their followers but have never bothered to read them?”
Someone replied, “Allies?” and another sardonically simply at-ed Black First Land First (BLF) leader Andile Mngxitama.
What seems to be a compulsive desire to manifest these theorists into the present moment, comes from — as most of the contributors seem to agree — a collective disillusionment with the framework of nonracialism which, as Franco Barchiesi puts it, most captures “the hopes, expectations and ethical claims of 20th century South African progressivism”.
The contributors to Ties That Bind appear less concerned with using theory as an emissary to explain the state of things and more interested in tracing the contours of their own experiences with intimacy and political solidarity across the split-screen of race.
They are necessarily forthcoming with the deeply personal sources of theory and how they “get it”.
The collection is open to the forms that this way of entering theory provokes — using poetry, performance, personal histories and interviews to show that conventional academic writing is often just not enough when it comes to talking about our most private connections.
That said, it can at points still make you feel at a full intellectual loss, exposing the personal shame of your own very haphazard reference list.
So the success of Ties That Bind is that the space it makes for good non-fiction writing, alongside the chafing aspects of academic prose, can at times make you forget that you’re wielding a pretty hefty book that is also overflowing with theory.
Gabeba Baderoon’s piece “Fanon’s Secret”, for instance, made me audibly sigh with relief upon finding a three-stanza-long poem under a title that could have marked a lengthy analysis of Fanon’s marriage to a white French woman.
Many of the contributors are organised, or at least moved, by the principles of Afro-pessimism, which connects contemporary scholarship — by the likes of Saidiya Hartman, Jared Sexton and Hortense Spillers — and, as Walsh puts it, builds “on certain readings of Fanon”.
The protracted interview with Frank B Wilderson III seemingly sets up these conditions. The American critic’s oft-quoted sermon on interracial antagonism — “an irreconcilable struggle between entities, or positions, the resolution of which is not dialectical but entails the obliteration of one of the other positions” — becomes the site of struggle for many of the volume’s contributors.
The most compelling section of Walsh’s interview with Wilderson is when he talks about teaching The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah at Khanya College in the early 1990s and how he felt that his student’s belief in South Africa’s successful liberation stopped them from seeing how intimately connected the country’s fate would be to Armah’s post-Nkrumah Ghana.
Jaji reflects on the significance of these intra-continental solidarities, reflecting on the destiny of the foreigns — the muffled makwerekwere — as South Africa struggles towards and against nationalist kinship.
Where the Wilderson interview loses it a bit, and where, perhaps, the academy shows itself as sometimes out of touch, is the time dedicated to the aforementioned leader of the BLF and his critical contribution to a new way of thinking about solidarity in South Africa.
A note at the end of it simply reads: “Mngxitama is no longer a part of the EFF [Economic Freedom Fighters] party” — leaving the reader with the sinking feeling that already so much has changed since Ties That Bind was initially conceived.
Sarah Smit both subs and writes for the Mail & Guardian. She joined the M&G after completing her master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Cape Town. She is interested in the literature of the contemporary black diaspora and its intersection with queer aesthetics of solidarity. Her recent work considers the connections between South African literary history and literature from the rest of the Continent. Read more from Sarah Smit
Frantz FanonAyi Kwei ArmahAndile MngxitamaAlways Another Country by Sisonke MsimangBlack First Land First (BLF)Economic Freedom Fighters
Armah, Ayi Kwei 1939–
A Ghanaian educated in America and now living in the United States, Armah writes novels, poetry, and short stories. His first novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, was praised for its prose style and compared with work by Joyce.
Ayi Kwei Armah tends to regard himself as a novelist only incidentally African. On occasion Armah has gone to rather great pains to make it clear that he is writing literature first, and that the Africanness of his writing is something of less great importance. With few exceptions, Armah's two novels [The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born and Fragments]—and especially the second one—would seem to support this theory, for there are very few "Africanisms" in his work, and his protagonists become alienated men—lonely, isolated individuals confronting a thoroughly dehumanized society in which everyone else seems insane, although it is usually Armah's insular protagonists who, because of their determination to dance to a different drummer, become the accused criminals or madmen. Being thus, Armah's novels fall into the mainstream of current Western tradition, and his protagonists are not very different from a whole line of Western literary anti-heroes: Julian Sorel, Huckleberry Finn, Stephen Dedalus, or Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.
Like the unnamed protagonist in Ellison's work, Armah's protagonist in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968) is also unnamed, simply referred to as "the man." In addition, like Ellison's Invisible Man. Armah's Man goes on a journey through hell, though unlike Ellison's protagonist, who only slowly comes to the realization that it is his society that is out of joint, Armah's Man knows all along that his society has lost its values and that he is the lone center of value in a society which has long since traded its soul to the devil. It is this awareness from the very beginning that makes the Man's voyage so excruciatingly painful.
The journey itself begins and ends with a bus ride; the Man is riding to work. The emphasis is not, however, on the Man but on the bus itself, the driver, the conductor, and the other passengers, because The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born is not so much a novel about a person as it is a novel about a society: post-independent Ghana in the days prior to Nkrumah's fall. (pp. 258-59)
As the Man leaves the bus, Armah begins his graphic description of the Man's hell: a modern wasteland transported to contemporary Africa. Refuse, waste, filth, debris, excrement become the overriding images of his novel. (p. 259)
Everywhere black people are trying to be white. (p. 263)
The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born is a richly evocative work and its publication placed Ayi Kwei Armah in the forefront of the new generation of African writers. In his depiction of a society on the brink of suicide, Armah has created a deeply disturbing picture of the foibles of all decadent political systems—a decadence which has nothing to do with age—of all late bourgeois worlds where morals and values have been lost and even the man of good intentions begins to doubt his sanity, begins to feel that he is the guilty one for not being corrupt. It is a novel which burns with passion and tension, with a fire so strongly kindled that in every word and every sentence one can almost hear and smell the sizzling of the author's own branded flesh. Reading it for the first time, one is almost led to believe that its young author might have burned himself out in the mere process of its creation, but seemingly Armah had not yet sunk to the lowest levels of hell—that near fatal drowning was reserved for his second novel, Fragments (1970), which because of its autobiographical nature, its nearness to certain events in Armah's own life, strikes the reader with an even harsher reality than the earlier work as it probes more deeply into the cranium of the artist/intellectual in contemporary African society, and into the near impossibility of being an artist in Africa today.
The structural complexity of Fragments is hinted at in the title and in the dedication: "for AMA ATA & ANA LIVIA." Ama Ata is the Ghanaian writer, Christina Ama Ata Aidoo, an old friend of Armah's. Anna Livia is a character in James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. The content or story will be African; the structure (made up of fragments or little pieces like a puzzle) will show an indebtedness to Joyce, though not nearly the amount of obscurity present in Soyinka's The Interpreters. Armah does, however, make use of shifting points of view in Fragments and of extensive passages of introspection bordering on stream of consciousness. His story here is hardly more plotted than that in his earlier novel though the conflict is much more personalized. Baako, a writer, returns to Ghana after five years overseas and a recent nervous breakdown. Pressured by family and societal conventions, he soon suffers from a second break-down, more serious than the first because this time it is his own family and country that lead to the collapse. (pp. 268-69)
Armah's picture of contemporary Ghana in Fragments is more appalling, more an exposé of corruption than that in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. (p. 269)
The events in Fragments record those which precipitated Ayi Kwei Armah's own mental relapse when he returned to Ghana after studying abroad. As it is suggested in Naana's poignant dialogue with herself, Baako/Armah later exiled himself from his native land, and has since continued his writing in the United States and in Europe.
Ayi Kwei Armah is the most skilled prose stylist in Anglophone Africa today, a painter whose medium happens to be prose. His novel, wrenched from his soul, belongs on the honored shelf with a whole world tradition of autobiographical novels such as André Gide's Les faux monnayeurs, James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel. In his depiction of the stifled artist in contemporary Africa, and specifically of the writer, Armah has turned to a theme almost as old as Western fiction itself but a theme entirely new in African literature. How odd this is, we may think—those of us who are used to reading novels about struggling writers and other artists. We forget, however, that in spite of the fact that the canon of contemporary African literature now includes several hundred volumes of creative work, the printed word is still something relatively new in sub-Saharan Africa, and the theme of the thwarted novelist has been able to surface only now that a second generation of writers have begun their careers and African nations are beginning to close the illiteracy gap. (p. 276)
Charles R. Larson, in his The Emergence of African Fiction, revised edition (copyright © 1972 by Charles R. Larson), Indiana University Press, 1972.
Brother Ayi's work, like Fanon's, has very little of the sentimental to it, and is in fact so raw oft-times that one is left dumbfounded as to just how he got into print. He will not make you feel good unless you find pleasure in those stark elements that comprise world-African reality…. Why Are We So Blest? deals masterfully with perhaps the greatest problem stifling the African Freedom-struggle: the Black man and woman's persistent willingness to send their children off to the oppressor for schooling….
Not only is the content of Why Are We So Blest? so very powerful, but the form itself is a locomotive of life's force. The form reminds one at first of diary installments and, indeed, the three main characters of the book are in a sense keeping diaries that we now are reading. Yet, the form goes far far beyond this; it is as a style, a shape, coldly calculated to be life itself, not merely like life. To be specific, we get installments, comments, happenings in the early pages of the book and right on down to the last few moments that we will not understand until the last word is read and reflection on the experience of the book is had. In other words, as in life, we will not understand some occurrences until time has elapsed and brought us the additional insight that comes with more knowledge of the total situation and reflection as such. (p. 86)
Ayi Kwei Armah employs throughout his work what we shall term the floating symbol: By this we have reference to how our novelist will utilize/create characters who are symbols of certain real-life factors such as corruption, decadence, waste, and unnerving integrity in the face of these contrapositives; however, each such character is also actual, not just a symbol, and thus is not a mere superficial concoction employed as a vehicle toward the perpetuation of some abstract (for better or for worse) literary point. (pp. 87-8)
Kiarri T-H Cheatwood, in Black World (copyright © March, 1974, by Black World; reprinted by permission of Black World and Kiarri T-H Cheatwood), March, 1974.