AiW Guest: Anu Kumar
It is almost an anomaly of sorts: that any literary work from South Africa, as from India for that matter, demands a certain context—who is telling the story and why. But Stacy Hardy’s short stories—and all the pieces in her collection are not conventionally so—defy easy characterization.
The first piece, a vignette on envy and a young girl’s desire to fit in and be accepted, is half a page long. The longest, on the opposing tugs that desire can give rise to, goes on for ten pages or so. Some are in the first person and others use the third person narrative, but in no case is the narrator ever named. There is a lot of interior monologue, which is even engaging in an absorbing way. Yet all this means that it is hard to set these stories in any definite place.
But clearly, these are modern day stories about modern young people—their angst and confusion in matters of love and sex starkly evident. Recent novels from India in English, such as Kaushik Barua’s No Direction Rome (Harper Collins India, 2015), have also taken on a similar theme of young urban confusion, especially when confronted with munificent choice and complete independence.
In several of Hardy’s pieces in this collection, the narrator is a young woman who clearly evinces a need to belong and a desire to prove herself—contradictory aspects still interestingly conjoined, as in several of Hardy’s other pieces. The unnamed narrator in ‘Breasting’ is obsessed about her breasts, tiny and bit-sized; she isn’t really proud of them as she and other competitors are put up on display for a “Wet T-shirt” competition. As it appears, it’s the booze she wins that she has been after.
In the story that follows this called ‘A Breast is Not a Leg,’ the narrator is a member of a group called Phantom Limb Anonymous; she communes with others who have lost or given up a limb, usually a leg. All those she meets and converses with are men, a few have prosthetic limbs. But a breast is something quite different; to the narrator, somehow, it has always signified being and identity, a reason for being noticed and loved, and it seems that her desire to give up her breasts is actually a crying, confused need: the narrator is looking to be loved for herself. Despite this, she ‘misses’ her lost breast, almost as if it had been a friend, someone she could conjure up anytime she wanted.
Indeed, this metaphor of something existing as a phantom, a persisting memory, a haunting presence, appears in almost all of the stories. For instance, in the story, ‘Whiteout,’ the narrator appears to miss her boyfriend. He is a phantom presence whom she misses and yet does not want to call; still, she does. She does not want to meet him either, but yet she does. When he leaves, he expects her to tell him to stay, though it is clear he will not, and she does not say a word. The inner confusions, contradictions and torments are things Hardy ably evokes, especially in this story about a relationship. There is no clear ending, but then there doesn’t have to be one either.
“He says he has been offered a job—an opportunity. It’s overseas, a university. Oh really. They are in the lounge. It is very messy. Sorry. She collects up the books, papers. She sits back in a chair, lights a cigarette. She blows a line of smoke. She smiles. She makes herself smile. She blinks a hundred times. How wonderful for you. The university—it’s very rated. How do you know that? I read it somewhere. He is quiet. She watches his face.”
In several of the pieces, it is not easy to picture the narrator. In a couple, this becomes (almost in the manner of an interesting exercise) possible when the writer does describe the ‘other,’ as in the piece called ‘Kisula.’
The third sentence in this piece goes: “How come Black Consciousness guys always have white girlfriends?” But it is not the conflict of opposition that draws the narrator to someone who is now a former lover. She instead prefers to watch the football match with the Congolese security man in her residential block. They celebrate when France, once the ravaging colonial nation, scores on a penalty. History, race and even color, as this piece suggests, are strangely irrelevant to the laws of human attraction.
In another story, the narrator obsesses about PJ, a Nigerian drug dealer with whom she has had a regulated, coded interaction: certain words that must be spoken to establish credibility. And from all of this, a nameless, unspoken attraction grows.
The metaphor of a lost breast appears in ‘Conjoined,’ where the narrator looks for a lost brother. This story, as with one that comes soon after, ‘Ways to Die,’ reveal a bit about South African politics, especially of the Apartheid era, when the marginal, the dispossessed and disenfranchised, or those evoking suspicion, were routinely picked up, detained, and made to disappear.
“A lost person might not be lost at all. They might simply have moved on or become displaced— forcibly or by choice. It is so hard to tell the difference sometimes. So easy to get lost in this country. Our history is full of removals. Whole neighbourhoods are torn down and rebuilt and rebuilt again. There are disappeared persons, arrested, detained, abducted or otherwise deprived of their liberty.”
For the narrator of ‘Conjoined,’ the need to find her brother is compulsive and yet, in the manner of Hardy’s other pieces, several possible leads to his whereabouts leave her strangely disjointed.
Some of the shorter pieces are indeed vignettes, some evoking the animal and even vegetable motif as in ‘Artichoked,’ ‘Molester’ and ‘Chicken,’ while the longer piece, ‘My Black Lover,’ takes on some of the haunting resonances associated with prose poems.
It begins: “My black lover isn’t even really black. He’s more fallow. Sepia, sienna, tan. I say soil, dirt, rust. He calls it chocolate.” A few paragraphs later: “My black lover says he is Muslim but he drinks like a fish. He takes me to bars.” Then again: “My black lover takes me back to his place. Bo-Kaap, the Muslim quarter, the second level in one of the thin brightly coloured double-storey houses packed on top of each other.”
As her website has it, Stacy Hardy is an artist who has collaborated and experimented with other artists in multiple media. In this short work, Because The Night, the pieces are interspersed with photographs by the Sardinian visual artist Mario Pischedda—photos that show the myriad, surreal effects of light. This collection also draws a comparison with a visual work produced some years ago by Hardy in collaboration with Jaco Bouwer called I Love You Jet Li. In this work, as scenes from an airport unfold around her, a woman talks of the various crushes in her life, all of which, for some obscure reason or another, end in disappointment. It’s a theme that is well evoked in this present collection, where the actual motivations for elemental human feelings such as love or the need to love, lust and attraction are, in the end, hard to fathom, even for the individual.
Anu Kumar lives in Maryland in the US, and is a recent graduate of the MFA in Writing Program from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She writes often for publications like scroll.in and the Economic and Political Weekly. Her most recent work of fiction is The Girl Who Ran Away In A Washing Machine And Other Stories (Kitaab, Singapore).
“Stacy Hardy is Associate Editor at the pan-African journal Chimurenga and teaches on Rhodes University’s Creative Writing MA programme. Her work has appeared in publications across the globe, and her short stories have appeared in books, literary anthologies, monographs and catalogues.” Because the Night (2015) is available for purchase through Pocko.
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