THE FOREIGN EYE: LETTERS FROM MY EXILE

I have so many stories about this city that I love, Stru! My histories are written from Phefeni, Orlando West, Thabethe Street to Bree Street Taxi Rank where all my journeys began. Each avenue and street corner though hidden from me at times, has a story I share with so many souls. But despite this reality, there’s so much about this city that I didn’t know – things I didn’t see which only a foreign eye could see. So in many ways I have been like a voyeur, a tourist in the city of my birth, guided through it by fresher eyes than my own. It is quite something to be detached from a place that runs through your blood, whose heart beat mirrors your own, a place as comfortable as being in your own body. There’s no other alternative, it’s like constantly wondering what it would be like to be someone else. The exercise on its own might be very interesting but it is largely fruitless because if you were someone else you wouldn’t be you would you? Even as someone else then you are still you, it is you being someone else. Since there are so many people you could be, why not be, just you, for a change?

One Day I will Write About This Place

I started reading the book wondering how in the world Biyavanga Wainaina could read my thoughts, I was going to name my first child that, when as is the hallmark of great writing I ended up thinking about my life here in this city. I started to wonder what kind of story I would tell about it.  I started to think about the first story I ever wrote about my Johannesburgness, my Joziness and realized that it is only through foreign eyes that I began to experience the real heart of South Africa. Johannesburg. This mad guy who is crazy about everything she does.  I was sitting outside the HQ (Head Quarters) table at a restaurant that used to be called Spiros – a joint which was owned by a white man called Spiro. Now the restaurant is called Poppies and it is owned by a black woman called Poppy.  I was listening to returned political activists and exiles speak about the strangeness of Johannesburg – South Africa. They were commenting in particular to the incredulity of “these young people” who “ twang” and speak English better than their own mother tongues but who simultaneously  don’t know much less understand their own history and its geopolitical context. Of course, they knew my story inside and out.

The Politics of Being : You

I was just as incredulous at their comments, I listened and wondered if they’ve ever taken the time to ask why?  How did they end up twanging? Why is it that they don’t know their history? And then listen to the answers without interrupting.  I went home that night and wrote down the answer to a question I was never asked, printed it out and gave it to them on paper – for the record. They said I’d make a good writer one day. I had interesting opinions they said, as they folded the paper away. I also folded my story away. I was not ready. So I made it my goal to experience my world and history through foreign eyes, those were the ones people listened to, trusted. Their opinions were more valid, legitimized by the words exile, African National Congress, comrades, people who out of the goodness of their hearts volunteered to fight for the liberation of South African black people – in New York, Toronto, London and Moscow. Some were in Tanzania, maybe others were in Nairobi but most went over the seas. Some didn’t make it back. Some never want to come back. All of them were vital to my freedom. Then Kopano Matlwa released a book called Coconut – which everybody loved. “Coconut” is a derogatory term used to describe black people who are fluent in English and speak with the “right” accent, like coconuts they are black on the outside and white on the inside – they are perceived to have a white-state-of-mind – to be brainwashed. I went to one of her readings at the Boekehuis which has turned into a  restaurant that sells beer to South Africans. That’s  where I read Franz Fanon for the first time.  I was grateful for her book and her eloquence. Though I never read her story. It was mine. How do you write about change? How do you stop time and look into the evolution of life, the geography of how someone’s’ mind changes in an instant or in a slow and gradual way that even when the change has already happened it is imperceptible to the human eye. Often it is only from a distant- faraway place that this change be recognized, seen and perceived in the context of everything else. What has changed?

Who am I?

 

Those who don’t know me very well seem to think that I’m an angry black. Woman. That’s also okay, I am sure there were times when I welcomed the title. But I was and still am not angry as much as I am tired of coming face to face with eyes glazed over with indifference when I explain or speak. Oh Dear! Not another sop story! Maybe if you heard me that would not be your immediate response. My reasons are valid. So I keep silent. I won’t explain anything. Because you are not listening. You don’t want to know. And for real though, it’s your right. You don’t have to listen to me. I certainly won’t force you. With Respect. Hopefully one day, when you have a bit of time and money to spare – you will find all the answers you were not ready to hear to questions you didn’t ask between the pages of a book about you. I hope you learn to laugh until you cry and laugh again and again at the silliness of it all. I hope you enjoy it, because I certainly enjoyed watching you – watch me. Please don’t say, you should have told me. I just did. It’s On The Record.

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