There’s a moment whenever you’re walking outside somewhere, say during your lunch break from wherever you spend your obligatory 9-5, when you catch a glimpse of your reflection. The surface type will determine whether it’s a silhouette of your shape, or a glint of your face, or a full-frontal mirror reflection of every detail. Depending on the day you’re having you may like what you see or feel insecure about forgetting what your face looks like. Either way these surface shout-outs jolt your consciousness of self, and make you reflect on the person and being that you are. Whether a fleeting “nice shoes” or a lingering “who am I?”, seeing yourself out in the open, passing yourself even, is an experience that forces introspection. In Xhosa the word for self-consciousness is umvandedwa. Directly translated into the queen’s it comes to “[a] hear me alone”

One of the interesting observations on “Here Me Alone”, Thando Mgqolozana’s sophomore novel, is how he inserts his Xhosaness into the writing. This makes an important statement towards representation; in the broader sense, not just in relation to his culture. The idea of seeing yourself in art, specifically in literature and particularly as an African in, especially, global contexts and scenes is at the core of equality.

Seemingly it’s a reference tenet in Thando’s personal agenda. Mgqolozana is famous for his disruptive debut novel “A man who’s not a man” (2009) that held up a mirror to the anachronisms of ulwaluko (Xhosa initiation to manhood). He is infamous for openly shunning South Africa’s literary festivals for being white and non-inclusive to darker hued authors and their materials. The latter resulted in the birth of the Abantu Book Festival, which has had three successful years of exhibiting black talent to black readers. Thando’s courage, radical shake-ups of the status quo and mission for representation drive the energy of “Here me alone”.

The story of Mary and Joseph from the Good Book, already one of the more dramatic bits of that novel, is given a different liveliness by the intimate involvement of a third party to the story we all know. The book extends on a portion of Luke’s gospel, which is written as a letter to one Theophilus. In “Hear me alone” the scribe is Epher, a seemingly early teens young man from Nazareth.

What was a weird love triangle between a woman, a “good” man and a divinity in the original story, becomes an even more peculiar four way between a good woman, a bad man, a divinity and Epher. In this version, the virgin birth is tainted by information asymmetry. Epher confesses in his letters to his friend that he’s the father of the Lamb. A chance encounter with his crush one starry night leads to amorous congress with a distraught Bellewa Miriam (the Mary character). Earlier that day, Miriam had got the news that she’d been traded to Joseph the woodwork merchant in that patriarchal commercialisation of the woman in marriage transactions. She’d also been told by the angel Gabria of her imminent immaculate conception at the ripe age of 13 years old. Epher, a practicing surgeon awkwardly familiar with the gynecology of the village women, comforts her. The resulting pregnancy, having lost all sense of pristine, forces Epher into exile in anticipation that Joseph will seek revenge.

Thando goes into brilliant detail in describing the scenes of a rural Nazareth. As a Xhosa reader though, you start to see that this Nazareth has hints of Mqanduli in the Eastern Cape. Thando localises in a subtle and elegant way the speech and manner of the characters, giving them not only a Xhosa feel but modern sensibilities on the gender politics.

The use of phrases like “you arrive at the heels of the wives” (in Xhosa: “ufika ezithendeni zabafazi”) and “Say to cousin ‘old eyes’” (in Xhosa: “yithi kumzala ‘mehlo madala’”) – both of which have scant reference in the English versions but are daily bread in Xhosa – excites a knowing reader. The direct translation of a Xhosa hymn makes you want to weep with recognition:

“Kishoma was sitting at the table, piecing together pieces of linen for a new robe. I imagined that she had been humming that haunting hymn she liked to sing while listening to her hear me alone:

This hope of mine
I will ascend with this hope of mine
Till I enter the place of psalms
The place of psalms”

While the English has none of the rhythm of the Xhosa version, those that recognise the interpolation will hum right along with Epher’s grandmother:

“Ithemba lami
Ndonyuka nalo
Mandingene endumisweni
(ndingene, ndingen’ endumisweni)

The character of Epher proves to be no hotep either in Thando’s version of the nativity. Throughout his dilemma with the love of his life, his “dove” as he calls her, he laments on the brutality of a patriarchal system that objectifies women and treats them as tradeable property. Miriam’s father, the castrator (of cocks; by which I mean poultry) gets a whole catalogue of wooden furniture and furnishings on closing the marriage deal with Joseph the carpenter.

The true value of a woman was that she was a man’s wife which is also to say his property. The calibre of your manhood as determined by other men…depended on what type of woman you acquired or moulded in your backyard” reflects Epher. His personal views sit counter to the stance of the time; “The Virgin’s view of women is typical of the men of our times, and The Virgin is meant to be timeless…the timelessness of the Virgin, as currently inscribed, could prove to be the most valid tool for endorsing the subjugation of women by men a million years from now. I asked the assembly…do we want to be responsible for a thing like that?

That bit firmly establishes the structural foundations of male-centredness and male-domination. Virginity as a virtue and yardstick by which all women are measured, descends into all sorts of perversions around the rights of female bodies and the ownership and power over those rights. Mgqolozana also inserts his natural subversions in an age-old tale by using the term “The Virgin” as reference to “the most-high”, and not in its familiar biblical sense.

Hear me alone” has multiple surfaces on which society is both silhouetted and reflected. From the politics of African custom versus Christian liturgy; to the class systems of shepherds subservient to educated children; to the strange enlightenment of male gynaecologists. Epher himself encounters the dissonance of even liberal and progressive men in the face of female self-determination in the book’s sad but empowering ending. The refraction of themes that have systematically undermined the role and independence of women and Africans shines a light right back at the (especially African male) reader. You’re forced, in your own space and time and consciousness, to take the reflections of yourself in Mgqolozana’s book – the sweet and warm and nostalgic with the bitter and cringeworthy and cold of your species and your kind. The book leaves you alone to decide whether the shoes fit and who you want to be in the great story.

BOOK: Hear Me Alone
AUTHOR: Thando Mgqolozana, 978-1-431402-49-6
PUBLISHER: Jacana Media
PRICE: R185, Takealot, Exclusive Books, Bargain Books

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