A story about waste – human waste – in immaculate prose, Diane Awerbuck’s ‘Phosphorescence’ has, for me, a quality of suspension. On the one hand, it’s about the defiant resistance of ‘an old lady’ against loss, of her habitual daily swim of over 50 years, set in the borrowed time of ‘an ellipsis’ before the impending ‘carnage and the flattening’ of a local municipality-ordered demolition of the man-made tidal Graaff’s Pool she swims in, at Sea Point in Cape Town. In this sense of age-oldness and lack of control, waiting and spent time, suspension is perhaps entirely appropriate. Because on the other, the story seems almost not to reveal itself fully, not really – a bit like the relationship between the two women of its focus, Alice and her relentlessly modern and so messed-up granddaughter Brittany, the narrative is unfolded through a series of balanced placements and re-alignments – the slop of a pumped stomach echoed in the slap of a wave at high tide and its dirty brown foam, the flail of a lost, terrified octopus and the ‘sealskin’ release of Gran’s black nylon swimsuit, the tidal connections of the sea and the moon, and those between the ipod and the bulldozer. The drive emerges from its meticulous, beautifully rendered observations in a process a bit like the two women’s swim – which is an instant of extreme togetherness, the liberation and vulnerability of a shared immersion in the freezing Atlantic waters of Graaff’s Pool – surrounded by the magical qualities of the luminescence of the story’s title that is also, as we hear from Alice, literally fuelled by shit. It feeds on the raw sewage of the plant nearby. It is Alice, then, that makes the story’s comment, that what we choose to know, ignore, or falsify is also often dependent on both…
Awerbuck’s skill as a prose stylist is absolutely clear. Look how much is here – in one sentence (and this is not even the full sentence):
‘Alice wondered…if a man with roses of sweat on his T-shirt and a paunch over his belt would order her out of the water; she would have to lift herself out to lie panting on the rocks before him, an ancient mermaid, scaly and songless.’
It is tender and sharp, precise and poignant, elegant in its wry self-deprecation. We know about ‘ancient’ Alice and the immune, impenetrable Brittany, ‘her face in the dusk unlined, her eyes sleepy and blank, idly counting Alice’s sun spots like the pips on dice’ – we know about Alice’s son, Brittany’s father, ‘boob jobs, tummy tucks, facelifts … easy to execute’, and we know about their mutual alienation and the lack of warmth between them as a family – we know them keenly through the immediacy of detail and Awerbuck’s subtle shifts between their voices and entwined histories. In his review at Brittle Paper, Nigerian novelist Richard Ali has called ‘Phosphorescence’ “a near perfect story”. I agree, and it’s here, in this skill, that this really comes to the fore for me.
What lives through this story, as much as grandmother and woman and her granddaughter and girl, is place – Alice’s sustained engagement with her own environment of Sea Point, Cape Town – and its time – commemorated by her swim every day of more than 50 years, a rare sticking to, commitment to one location, one ‘home’.
Graaff’s Pool – a quick google dip bears fruit and the layered up times of the story’s present come into view: when the pool was built, by and for whom, its place in Sea Point’s colonial history and encroachment of newer modernisation (in its early history, a tunnel needed to be built to the pool, to go under the railway tracks), its later reputation as a nudie hangout and cruising location through the ’50s and into the ’80s, presumably linked to the rumblings of the ‘decline’ of the pool that lead to the partial demolition of its wall in 2005. This is the demolition that Alice waits for, of the wall that had provided privacy for the pool’s users from its very inception – that affords Alice her daily ‘half-secret’ space, and hides the activities of the rentboys who wash their ‘used parts in the showers’. Awerbuck’s ‘Phosphorescence’ was published in her short story collection Cabin Fever in 2011 (Umuzi). In a 2013 online article from The People’s Post, entitled ‘Graaff’s Pool’s Grave State’ you can almost hear Alice’s loss (not least in the article’s title) and the hiatus caused by the demolition, as the article articulates calls from local residents that the pool’s historic significance be recognised, officially, with signs put up explaining what that is, that the part-demolished wall ‘like a bomb’s hit it’ be, at least, tidied up.
Place – Cape Town – Beach Road – Mouille Point Lighthouse, and the people in it – its own ecosystems: overlapping and often undocumented histories of exploitation, expansion, hidden activities, growth and change; the city’s pushing up against urban and wild (sea and mountain); the contrasts that are evident in the group activities that continue as Graaff’s Pool is taped off – Alice continuing her daily swim just over the road from her apartment on Beach Road (and the additional significance of Brittany’s name on this point); the proximity with the municipal ‘workers’ prettifying the beach daily – the men mowing, removing stinking SOLID WASTE, the woman who rakes the sand; the bench sitters; or the ‘travellers’ at Mouille Point ignoring the stench of the sewage plant, the ‘reminder of the contents of their expensive insides’.
And it is this reminder that Alice chooses to swim in. Phosphorescence and sewage. Every day. And that Awerbuck offers us in its imminent loss. And this is where Alice and Brittany share their similarity, their likeness, where Alice protects her granddaughter, and through which Brittany is able to take the lead and shelter her grandmother from exposure. It is an odd kind of inheritance of understanding and of learning, a broken line with its blind-spots and remaining untolds that is passed on. As they escape via the tunnel under the road and railway tracks, Alice remembers being trapped in the Cango Caves thirty years earlier – an extensive system of limestone tunnels and chambers in the Western Cape, its entrance known to have been inhabited in the Middle and later Stone Ages. A small swim, then, conjures a span of ancient and accelerated time, of histories of the Cape, as well as the strange time-spaces of one lifetime’s memories and habits. Reading ‘Phosphorescence’ and its poised telling of various kinds of human transformation and of its wastes, recalls 2014 Caine Prize judge Helon Habila’s opening gambit to his Caine blogspot essay, ‘Tradition and the African writer’, that the ad nauseam questions about what African literature is or might be are answered ‘by writers, story by story, sentence by sentence.’
Diane Awerbuck is a South African writer. Her novel, Gardening at Night, won the 2004 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, best first book (Africa and the Caribbean), and was shortlisted for the International Dublin IMPAC Award. Her collection of short stories, Cabin Fever and Other Stories (2011), and her novel Home Remedies (2012) were published by Umuzi. Her reviews, essays and short stories are published regularly. Her non-fiction has appeared in the Mail & Guardian. Her doctorate, The Spirit and the Letter: Trauma, Warblogs and the Public Sphere, was published in 2012.
Read ‘Phosphorescence’ HERE.
Last year Africa in Words took part in ‘Blogging the Caine Prize’ – a carnival of week-by-week blogging around the shortlist for the annual Caine Prize for African writing. While there is no ‘organised’ carnival going on this year, the prize continues to showcase some fantastic writing. Africa in Words will be sharing a review or comment piece each week on one of the 5 Caine Prize shortlisted short stories, by different contributors, some regular, some new.
Inspired by the reviews on Brittle Paper, we are posting our own in the same order:
Billy Kahora’s ‘The Gorilla’s Apprentice’. Read Rachel Knighton‘s AiW review.
Diane Awerbuck’s ‘Phosphorescence’.
Okwiri Oduor’s ‘My Father’s Head’.
Tendai Huchu’s ‘Intervention’.
Efemia Chela’s ‘Chicken’.
The stories are all available to download and read for free on the Caine Prize website. Read them, our reviews and others, and let us know what you think.
Read next week’s story, Okwiri Oduor’s ‘My Father’s Head’ HERE.