AiW Guest: Ed Charlton.
In the same way as the vicissitudes of the weather—sudden hailstorms, raucous gales, sweltering humidity—often mark our experience of a place more vividly than any of the customary variations in climate, it is the petty familial squabbles, awkward communal gatherings, and disruptions to the daily routine over the bare facts of history that Nadia Davids celebrates in her first novel, An Imperfect Blessing. Known to most as a successful playwright and theatre director—her first play At Her Feet (2002) earned her the Fleur du Cap Award for Best New Director, while Cissie (2008) was nominated for a host of national theatre awards—Davids’ transition into prose writing has neither delimited her ambitions, nor diminished her achievements. By providing space for her to indulge her keen eye for the extraordinariness of the ordinary, it has only encouraged Davids to nurture further her deeply felt obligation to engage intensively but imaginatively with the burdensome legacies of apartheid.
With the vision of her novel split temporally between the desperate turmoil of South Africa’s emergency years and the similarly tempestuous transition to democracy, she extends this focus into a compelling study of the everyday experiences of a single Muslim family, all the time resisting the mythologies abound during this vital juncture in South Africa’s recent past. This is not to imply that the historical is absented altogether. Like her opening account of “The Cape Doctor,” a prevailing south-easterly wind that plagues Cape Town during its summer months, the national political climate is as a vital player in Davids’ vision. But in her focus on the unpredictable downpours, the searing heat and the gusting winds of the political transition, Davids prefers to chart the dominant atmospheric conditions as they afflict the Dawoods and their lives in the Walmer Estate; a place patterned by its own microhistory, its own microclimate, even.
Forcibly relocated to the Estate from District Six, a predominantly Coloured inner-city suburb of Cape Town fêted before its ruin during the 1970s in Alex La Guma’s A Walk in the Night (1962), the family continue to bear the marks of their past trauma in their present surroundings. The ageing family matriarch, Fozia, is desperate to retain the comfort of a community, like her husband, long since lost. Her two sons, Adam and Waleed, separated by sixteen years, convey equally remote attitudes in their response to the demands made of the Coloured population by the Struggle. Adam, the older of the two, remains resolutely pragmatic in his outlook. Working tirelessly to ensure the success of his fabric shop, he is far removed from any revolutionary caste. And with the legislative barriers that once guarded against racial mobility lifted, his two daughters, Nasreen and Alia, are both afforded a private education, for it is from such institutions, Adam insists without apology, that the leaders of tomorrow will eventually emerge.
Alia, around whose adolescent struggles the narrative often focalizes, is made to embody in her search for a secure identity something of the country’s own collective desire for stability during a time of increasing uncertainty. Armed with “the graffiti and the chanting and the defiance” that helped bring it to the brink of democracy, however, the nation’s particular search appears to be more assured than the young girl’s ever will. She has arrived “too late to know what it felt like to lend flesh to a crowd, to spit at the police, to gather in secret corners at school”. As Alia notes with the naïve sincerity that only childhood can afford, “it [doesn’t] feel like she and the country [are] in this together.” Instead, she is left to negotiate her experiences as a young Muslim girl in a desegregated, increasingly secular and depoliticised city-space with little guidance, save the odd sympathetic directive from her older sister.
Their Uncle Waleed, by contrast, has already acquired his political stripes. Having revoked the relative comfort afforded him by his family in support of the armed struggle, he maintains a purposeful remove from them for much of the novel, maintaining a residual anger “not because he wanted to live in a state of perpetual rage, but because the anger was a way of remembering.” Memories of police assaults, of the forced removals of both his own family and those living on the Cape Flats, and of a young boy, since murdered, whom he helped to smuggle into exile all plague his present thoughts as the nation prepares itself for democracy. However, the consequence is less an elegy for the victims of apartheid and more a personal sense of torpor. His short stories, like his doctoral thesis on the limits placed by trauma on creativity, lie largely unwritten. And while he is quick to descend into the binary thinking of the past, where action trumps deliberation, it is largely inaction that governs his days.
Indeed, inertia is precisely where the novel begins. In the “warm stillness” of January 1993, the steep streets that wind down from the Walmer Estate to the City Bowl below are unusually calm. The feared Cape Doctor has lost its “full-skied shriek,” leaving the suburb to an uncommon state of serenity. Like the underlying political stasis, however, such tranquillity is merely a prelude to violent disruption. As the wind inevitably returns to fuel indiscriminate wildfires, the novel recalls the equally arbitrary attacks perpetuated across the country by the reputed Third Force, the riotous aftermath of Chris Hani’s memorial service, and the callous shooting at the Heidelberg Tavern of New Year’s Eve revellers. Such is the delicacy of the bond between the personal and the political in David’s meticulously crafted narrative that these highly significant national events are but rivals to the compelling travails of the Dawood family. As the family confront the bewildering clash between expectancy and uncertainty that dominates their everyday lives in this age of freedom, the ordinariness of their lives acquires its own dramatic status. Davids works tirelessly to ensure that neither aspect eclipses the other, that the characters’ daily survival on Cape Town’s quickly changing streets is not set up as rival to the transformations ongoing at the national or constitutional level. Rather, in stark contrast to the demands made of the arts by certain cultural brokers during the democratic transition, the ordinary and the extraordinary are inextricably fused together, the one bound up in the other.
This imbrication is reflected most vividly at the level of language. In outlining the everyday experiences of her characters, for instance, Davids deploys the peculiar lexicon of apartheid itself. During the girls’ first visit to the local club, Alia distinguishes a group of black teenagers “confined to a corner, as if the dance floor was an abstracted grid of the city and they were still obeying a now abolished law.” Their mother, meanwhile, describes Waleed as “a cadre in her skirmishes with her mother-in-law” as the political readily collapses into the familial. Indeed, far from obscuring from view the politics that dominate their lives, this model ensures that characters are often quick to provide perceptive, if now familiar, analysis. Waleed’s girlfriend, Anna, ruminates with revealing candour, for example, on her status as a white liberal and the “delicate, transparent guilt” that this perspective breeds within her. Waleed, too, outlines the terms of a longstanding debate under apartheid when he confesses to “arguing passionately in front of an entire meeting of activists that an artist’s first loyalty must be to art not to politics, that critique was as important as solidarity.” Such insights are vital in lifting the novel out from the depoliticised space that often circumscribes this brand of familial portraiture. They also mark Davids’ rare ability to turn a story of the everyday into one with national, historical significance.
Praise for An Imperfect Blessing, released in South Africa in 2014, has already been high. Having garnered numerous nominations for national and international prizes, it even counts J.M. Coetzee, Davids’ former creative writing tutor at the University of Cape Town, amongst its early admirers. By no means unwarranted, Coetzee’s uncommon eulogizing, however, like Davids’ prodigious training, should not be thought to signal any wider accord with Coetzee’s particular branch of philosophical fiction. Her novel is cut from an entirely different cloth. The type of autobiographical reading that Coetzee delights in making possible if not permissible, Davids, too, makes available. But where the Nobel Laureate retains a purposeful elusiveness, Davids, or, at least, Waleed—the budding short story writer—is refreshingly direct:
Always, he’s refused his own life in his work. But now he sees that there is no shame in acknowledgement. No, none at all.
A mindful aside that aims at Coetzee’s gamesmanship? Perhaps. In truth, Nadia Davids plays a small biographical game of her own, albeit not to the same evasive ends as “JC”. The family’s surname, Dawood, is plainly evocative of the writer’s own, especially when heard through the type of Afrikaans accent that dominates the Cape. Moreover, Adam’s constant confusion of his two daughters’ names to create the portmanteau, Nalia, makes a similar appeal to the autobiographical, while also serving to reinforce Davids’ own sensitivity for the humorous minutiae of family life. It is notable, too, that the author’s family were themselves compelled to abandon their homes in District Six and that she was also schooled on the District’s outskirts during her younger years. As such, the “place of field and memory” that haunts the novel is clearly one patterned as much by the writer’s own intimate memories of, and nostalgia for, the District as by those of her characters.
Indeed, it is precisely this nostalgia that ensures that heart of the narrative beats clearly and forcefully, celebrating the fortitude of a place and a people in the face of serious communal and personal trauma. However, such is Davids’ attention to the finest of cultural details that when recalling the particularities of this place and its people, her narrator retains a knowingness about her reader that almost anticipates their wistfulness. Given the novel’s focus on the still unfolding events of the political transition, this perceptivity sits awkwardly at times within the narrative, indulging a little too nakedly, for instance, the reader’s delight for the embarrassingly kitsch cultural references of the early 90s. Perhaps Davids is playing for laughs. But in terms of the integrity of the narrative, such moments jeopardize the delicate fabric of its historicity—those images of a tumultuous but hope-filled flash from the recent past that the rest of the novel works hard to style. Equally, at times, the characters appear to have an uncanny awareness of the country’s future failings, assured with a knowledge that can only have been delivered by the author’s own retrospection.
Thankfully, such moments are rare. For the large majority of its four hundred pages, An Imperfect Blessing delights and inspires, capturing with a rare intensity the extraordinariness of the ordinary. In recalling a time in which the spectacular images of political freedom still dominate, the novel recalibrates our understanding of South Africa’s transition to democracy, locating its impulses and its afterlife far beneath the visible surface of history. But rather than compelling her reader, Davids proceeds with a prose style that gently encourages them to follow her into this everyday terrain, allowing them to delight in the uniquely tender expression of hope she discovers there. For as Davids herself puts it deftly, “sometimes, when a country is full of the talk of freedom all day, every day, its effects are felt in the most unexpected places.”
Ed Charlton completed his PhD on South African theatre and film at the University of Cambridge in 2014. In October, he will being taking up a post at LSE as Mellon Fellow in Cities and Humanities, 2015-16. Despite the focus of this review, his present interests lie further north in the spatial politics of Johannesburg. Nonetheless, he still hopes to find time to visit Cape Town again next year.
An Imperfect Blessing is a vibrant, funny and moving debut.
“In An Imperfect Blessing, a novel that is sharp in its insights yet warm in feeling, Nadia Davids gives us the tumultuous years between the end of white rule in South Africa and the Mandela presidency as seen through the eyes of a family from a Muslim community that is itself coming under pressure to adapt and evolve.”– JM Coetzee author of The Childhood of Jesus
“A poignant evocation of Cape Town in the last of the apartheid years. With subtlety, compassion, and a brilliant blending of the personal and political, Davids’s debut novel traces the lives of a family shaken by the complexities of the struggle.” – Zoe Wicomb author of October
Nadia Davids’ work has been published, produced and performed in southern Africa, Europe and the United States. She was awarded the 2003 Rosalie van der Gucht Prize for new directors for her play At Her Feet and in 2008 received three Fleur de Cap Award nominations for Cissie. Nadia Davids holds a PhD in Drama from UCT and lives in London, where she lectures in the Drama Department at Queen Mary’s, University of London.