AiW Guest Pede Hollist
The biography at the end of “Memories We Lost” quotes South African writer, filmmaker, and photographer Lidudumalingani as saying, “I am fascinated by mental illnesses, having seen my own extended relatives deal with it.” He also tell readers the story represents his efforts at “trying to …invent ways that could help [him] write about how one family is dealing” with mental illness.
I suppose if a writer so clearly spells out his intent, we should honor it. Yes, “Memories We Lost” is about the effects of schizophrenia, initially described as “this thing” that takes, abducts, the narrator’s younger sister, causes her inexplicable behaviors, and, over time, robs the siblings of the ability to speak and remember. This inability, in fact, explains the episodic structure of the narrative, a series of loosely connected vignettes of the unnamed sister’s behaviors—running away from home at night, banging her head on a wall until it bleeds, breaking furniture in a classroom, throwing hot porridge on the also unnamed narrator’s chest—and the remedies to cure them: a traditional healer who baked his patients in order to kill the demons inside them; ineffective Christian prayers and church sermons; and the depressive counterproductive effects of herbal, psychotropic medications. Written as a reflection on these past experiences, the narrative structure represents the older sister’s attempt to make sense of her memories and a family fractured by its experiences with a schizophrenic daughter whose father also suffered from the disorder. Lidudumalingani deserves praise not only for the deft handling of the topic, but also for making the narrative technique mimic the disjunctive experience of understanding and coping with schizophrenia without burdening the story with Jekyll and Hyde personalities, interior monologues, surrealism and other postmodern techniques.
Thankfully, though, there is no unbroken line between a writer’s intent, the words and technique of his art, and its reception once it enters the public domain. “Memories We Love” registers as more than a personal, even if fictionalized, account of a family dealing with mental illness. How can a text by a black South African writer dealing with this “thing” that has “abducted” an unspecified and confounded family and community not trigger readers’ memories, real or vicarious, of a nation that was once in the midst of the schizophrenia of Apartheid and is now, literally (pun intended), inventing ways to understand and heal a national disorder that, like the afflicted daughter of the story, is transgenerational? How can Lidudumalingani’s intent prevent readers from leaping from text to world when every text stands as a metaphor, and the sisters appear to represent, metonymically, a South Africa dealing with its unresolved and painful schizophrenic past? Perhaps the biographical note is a strategic misdirection. Therefore, we should trust not the author but the text.
It provides social commentary without the muscularity of satire or authorial indignation. Its appropriately sedate but clear prose alerts without alarming, informs without instructing. It is sufficiently ambiguous without being incomprehensible. It touches on the boundary between reality and fiction, fiction and nonfiction, imagination and lunacy. It hints at the love and pain of protecting a sister’s secret. It does all that and generates, as every good story should, concern for the fate of the protagonists, the sisters, on their march to escape from their village. Will they put enough distance between themselves and the home, memories, and secrets that stamp them as belonging to a family known for mental illness? Will the younger one overcome her affliction? Are the memories lost an expression of regret, a statement of fact, or an affirmation of achievement? Does the “We” of the title refer to the sisters, South Africans, or readers? The text, intentionally, leaves these questions unanswered, telling only that after their night’s sleep, the sisters will “wake up once the sun was up and walk again, to somewhere”—perhaps, for readers, to a future South African world (or text) which might provide answers.
Lidudumalingani’s story rewards careful reading, is a deserving selection for the Caine Prize shortlist, and is another example of the range of topics African short story writers continue to cover with skill and confidence.
Pede Hollist is an associate professor of English at The University of Tampa, Florida. His work draws upon the African consciousness, showing through literature the experiences of those on the continent and the experiences of those a part of the African diaspora. His short stories have appeared in Ìrìnkèrindò: A Journal of African Migration, on the Sierra Leone Writers Series Web site, and in Matatu 41-12. His short story Foreign Aid was shortlisted for the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing (read our AiW review here). So the Path Does Not Die (reviewed for AiW here) is his first novel.
Lidudumalingani is a writer, filmmaker and photographer. He was born in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, in a village called Zikhovane. Lidudumalingani has published short stories, non-fiction and criticism in various publications. His films have been screened at various film festivals.