Masande Ntshanga’s title invites the reader to consider multiple conceptions of space. It conjures up stories of exploration, which promise adventure, excitement and fear. At the same time, it evokes the spaces we occupy, and suggests ways of thinking, reading and writing that are grounded in a particular politics of location. I think Ntshanga’s Space rests at the intersection of these interpretations, telling a story of childhood exploration that is knotted with social, historical and political discourses.
Set in Bisho in the early nineties, Space focuses on the friendship between four young school boys: CK, Thobela, Thando and an unnamed narrator who guides the reader through their world. The story is set into motion by the promise of an adventure, as the narrator informs the reader in his opening lines:
I guess you won’t believe him, either, but this is what CK tells us, this morning. He says there’s a grey man living in the shed behind Ma Thano’s spaza shop on Miya Street, a man who isn’t a man, one sent down to Earth from a distant place.
He says how this man, behind Ma Thano’s spaza shop, he isn’t the same as any other man he’s ever seen, before. CK leans forward and tells us that this guy, whatever he is, he’s just something we have to set our own eyes on.
The mystery of the grey man is filtered through representations of the boys’ lives that are grounded in the political, historical and socio-economic conditions of their space and time. Ntshanga places particular focus on the tangible, material ways in which the boys move through their world. Often, this is expressed through writing the body. There is, for example, a sustained emphasis on heat, and the reader’s attention is drawn to bare feet on hot tar, and sweat that threatens to dissolve almost everything. This builds up almost unbearably as the story nears its end:
The way it’s getting hot is that when you go without shoes, you can’t. You have to stand on the sides of your soles and everywhere on your face there’s sweat trying to tickle you, sticky rivulets that try to sting our eyes shut.
The story foregrounds its location and the different spaces its characters inhabit. The boys, who occupy different economic backgrounds, move between city centre, suburban, township and resettlement areas. The narrator notes the everyday implications of moving through these spaces, often through commentary and anecdotes that alert the reader to the characters’ nuanced relationships to place. Some of the most common phrases the narrator uses are those which ground his audience in the material, such as “Where we are is…” and, “From where I’m standing I can see…” Through his narrator, Ntshanga privileges the personal narratives of his characters, while situating them in larger national and historical discourses.
Of these, one of the most central is the discourse around education. The boys attend the local primary school, and the first part of the story is a representation of that world. The boys worry about their Afrikaans tests, hide their report cards, and either scrape by or fail. The young narrator is acutely aware of the ways in which race, economic status, the country’s huge political changes and his own failure or success on his report card determines which school he might attend. Equally central is a particular discourse around family. The characters reflect on their families, noting absent or returned fathers, absent parents and the impact political and social factors might have on family life.
These discourses, however, are very clearly gendered. There are almost no female characters, and certainly none that are nuanced or complex. In fact, the only way in which young girls really feature in Space is through the depiction of the boys’ negotiation of adolescent sexuality. This is particularly evident in the depiction of Thobela’s celebrated talent: he can, and does, steal several pairs of panties a week. In language that emphasises the visceral, Ntshanga depicts the narrator’s engagement with young female bodies through dirty underwear. It is disturbing imagery, maintained throughout the story, and contaminates the idea of boyish escapade with something more sinister.
The entire story is, in a sense, a contaminated escapade. When the boys finally do go and see the grey man, he is not alien, but human. He is ill and isolated and their adventure ends not in wonder, but in horror, poignantly capturing the radical impact this encounter has on the boys and the way they see their world. However, the representation of illness as spectacle, and of sickness as alien and other – even if that imagery is disrupted – disturbs me. I am not convinced that such representations are productive, especially in addressing stigma. I am interested in ways of representing suffering which might maintain the subjectivity of those who suffer.
Haunting and evocative, Space demands a thoughtful read.
Nomonde Ntsepo is pursuing her Masters in Modern and Contemporary Literature at the University of Sussex, and earned her undergraduate degree in English at the University of the Witwatersrand. She is particularly interested in contemporary African literature.
For the last two years Africa in Words has been blogging the Caine Prize for African writing. As Kate Haines wrote in Africa in Words’ first piece about the Caine Prize, we acknowledge that “it is a ‘good thing, but it isn’t the thing’, and yet conversation about whether it is or is claiming to be ‘the thing’ is important and will still continue. The prize has undoubtedly played a significant part in shaping the production and reception of post-millennial African writing in the UK and beyond, and this needs to be recognised and explored critically.”As such, Africa in Words will be sharing a review or comment piece each week on one of the five Caine Prize shortlisted short stories, by different contributors, some regular, some new. The shortlisted stories are:
- Segun Afolabi (Nigeria) for “The Folded Leaf” in Wasafiri Read “The Folded Leaf”
- Elnathan John (Nigeria) for “Flying” in Per Contra Read “Flying”
- F. T. Kola (South Africa) for “A Party for the Colonel” in One Story Read “A Party for the Colonel”
- Masande Ntshanga (South Africa) for “Space” in Twenty in 20 Read “Space”
- Namwali Serpell (Zambia) for “The Sack” in Africa39 Read “The Sack”
The stories are all available to download and read for free via the above links and on the Caine Prize website. Read them, our reviews and others, and let us know what you think.