Why Don’t South Africans Read Fiction?

Originally published in The Kalahari Review (June 2018)

“Why don’t South Africans read fiction?” Greg says. He presses his fists into his eyes and groans theatrically so Thapelo knows he is joking, sort of. He already regrets saying it. Generalisations are so obviously untrue (not all South Africans, obviously), but how can he speak without generalising? How can anyone? Words are compromised, partial, inaccurate. If you look for trends, if you comment on anything, you are ignoring the caveats, the details. Maybe Greg thinks he dislikes the song playing on the radio right now for musical reasons when in fact he dislikes it because of his inability to understand the culture of the singer, his restricted access to the lives of the oppressed, his complicity in propping up the system?

Doctor Abrahams says it’s social anxiety that keeps Greg from speaking his mind but Greg knows it’s not anxiety. It’s the muck of history on everything. It stinks and it stains and it weighs us down. He speaks to avoid suffocating in this muck but he knows these outbursts are blunt and inaccurate. Myopic at best and toxic at worst. “I know not enough people read anything,” he continues, already backtracking, qualifying, anticipating Thapelo’s response, “and the education system is broken and books are expensive. I know. But fiction sales are disproportionately dismal. When people read, they read sports biographies, cookbooks, political exposés.”

“They read Twitter,” Thapelo says. He winks at Greg and smiles his beautiful, crooked smile. “It’s going to be fine, babe, stop stressing. The market’s small but growing. Becoming more relevant with every great new black author.”

“If I wrote in Afrikaans I’d be sorted. Afrikaans readers are much more patriotic. They’re loyal to local authors.”

“Because there are no international Afrikaans authors for them to disloyally read.”

Greg offers a convincing smile. Must Thapelo split an infinitive to make that joke? And must everything be a joke? This is his problem too. The longer Greg makes no money, the longer he is a financial burden on Thapelo. An unlikely addition to Thapelo’s black tax. Thapelo’s advocate salary is good but how many dinners in Nelson Mandela Square can he afford to pick up for the two of them without getting resentful? Thapelo wants to pay for Greg. He offers. But he must think it’s weird, surely?

“You know what it is,” Greg says, “We have an empathy problem. As a nation. We can’t imagine what it’s like to be someone else. We don’t want to imagine it. A white tannie in the suburbs doesn’t want to go through the experience of being unemployed and black. And the unemployed black man doesn’t want to know that a tannie in the suburbs can also feel heartbroken or hopeless. We’re so brainwashed into defending our positions that we can’t inhabit each others’ humanity.”

“Mmhmm.”

“One of the many scars of apartheid.”

“Ya.”

“Everyone’s so angry because anger is easier than empathy.”

“Or maybe,” Thapelo says, his tone suddenly very different from just a minute ago, “we’re angry because half our young people can’t find work. Because we have one of the worst Gini coefficients in the world. We have bigger problems than novels, Greg. And incidentally, how many books are published in isiZulu or Setswana? Our writers are the problem, not our readers.”

That’s a publishing issue, Greg wants to say, but he leaves it. He says nothing. Lets the verbal slap sting. Doctor Abrahams said that defensiveness is a sign someone feels invalidated and that gay people are hypersensitive to invalidation because they have endured so much of it in their childhoods. Thapelo must feel attacked. He interprets so much of what Greg says as an attack.

Greg takes a slow, steady breath. He gets up, walks behind the armchair that Thapelo is sitting in, a mid-century armchair of teak and royal blue leather, and he rubs Thapelo’s shoulders. “You have an empathy problem,” he says. Thapelo jerks his head around but when he sees Greg sticking his tongue out at him, he relaxes again. Puts his hand on Greg’s hand. Should it really be this difficult to talk to someone you love?

+++

Thapelo gets back from Botswana late on a Thursday afternoon. The flight is bumpy because it’s the highveld and it’s summer and though the pilot tries to fly around the worst of the thunderstorms, the sky is stacked with titanic truncheons of dense cloud that close off any escape. He orders another whiskey just before they begin the descent and the air hostess looks at him like he might have a drinking problem. Maybe she just has opinions about the lifestyle choices of the black middle class. After all the aggression of her eyebrows, the whiskey does nothing to calm his nerves.

He spends the train ride in to Sandton feeling happy to be alive and a little surprised. The world is brighter and cleared of its haze, even in the dark tunnels beneath the city. The stations glow with the light of a xenon sun and there are details everywhere. Brushed, golden scalene triangle earrings hang from the earlobes of that dark, beautiful woman in the pencil-skirt. A tiny sticker of Africa flashes past on the noise-cancelling headphones of a grungy teenage boy. Witty lines jump out from the ads on the sides of the station walls. Wealth everywhere, and opportunity, and the kinds of people he would never have seen as a child. Never have known they existed, if they did. He can make things work with Greg. Everyone goes through rough patches. All relationships sometimes feel like misunderstandings.

“Happy birthday old man,” he says to Ofentse as he gets to the bar in Parkhurst. He hugs his friend and smacks him on the shoulder and pulls up a chair on the opposite side of the table. Joyce scoots up to make room between herself and Greg. Thapelo leans over and kisses Greg quickly on the lips.

“How was the trip?”

“Fine,” he says and he doesn’t think his tone is hostile but Greg looks hurt by the brevity, as he always does when he gets a one-word response to a question, and so Thapelo says “I think we’re going to win the case.”

A cheer erupts around the table. Half-empty pint glasses with streaks of white down the insides are raised towards him. “Thanks,” he says, “thank you,” and then he looks around the table for a different conversation to join so he doesn’t feel so naked and exposed. He leans in, tries to figure out what Joyce and Keke are talking about. Something to do with financial modelling. He raises his eyebrows. Orders a Soweto Gold.

Greg isn’t talking to anyone. He’s blushing slightly and trying to make it look as if he isn’t looking anywhere in particular. “You’ll love this,” Thapelo says, quieter this time so no one else can hear. “The advocate I was working with in Bots told me South Africans are very boring because we’re so obsessed with race.”

Greg’s expression freezes. He is working out whether to enjoy the sentiment or find it problematic. The next thing he’ll say will be to ask if the speaker was black. The predictability of this interaction already makes Thapelo want to scream.

“Was he black?” Greg asks.

“She was a she. But yes.”

Greg relaxes. He doesn’t have to launch into a tirade about the insensitivity of his fellow white folk. He doesn’t have to prove that he is not one of those white people who thinks black people should just get over apartheid. Thapelo used to like this about Greg. Now it’s tedious. He wishes he hadn’t brought it up.

“It must be nice to live somewhere it doesn’t matter,” Greg says.

Thapelo’s beer arrives. He takes a sip. Leans in to the greater group conversation. Greg hesitates, then puts his hand on Thapelo’s knee. Thapelo watches him out of the corner of his eye. “Don’t do that,” he says, “don’t look so proud of yourself for being the only white guy here.”

He meant it as a joke but it didn’t sound like a joke. A light goes out in Greg’s eyes.

The phone vibrates in Thapelo’s pocket. His brother is calling. “Thapelo,” he says, “mom was attacked again. I think you should come home.”

+++

The drive out to Rustenburg is long and tense. The roads are bad. The landscape is dry and hot. Dust in the air. Shacks by the side of the road where families live out their whole lives without anyone knowing. Thapelo is restless behind the wheel. He barely speaks. Greg tries to be quiet too. He knows how much Thapelo blames himself for his mother’s solitude. She is alone because his father could not abide a gay son. She was attacked because she is alone.

She lives in a small matchbox RDP house. Not what Greg was expecting and a different world from Thapelo’s Italianate townhouse, from his jokes and his love of boozy brunches. “I wish we could have met under better circumstances,” Greg says and she takes both of his hands in hers. “Never mind that,” she says, “I’m just happy to finally meet you. Thanks for looking after my boy.”

Her hands are cold and clammy. Her smile scrunches up around her eyes and makes the one look small and kind, curved downwards slightly towards her cheek. The other eye is swollen shut.

“He looks after me,” Greg says. He winks at Thapelo but Thapelo is watching his mother. Tears glisten on his cheeks.

“Can I make you something to eat, Mama?”

“I’m not hungry,” she says, then — “maybe a sandwich.”

In the kitchen, Greg arranges slices of white bread on three white plates. Thapelo cuts thick, uneven slices of cheese. He sticks the end of his knife into the sealed plastic tray of ham that they brought with them from Woolies and the air makes a gunshot noise as it escapes. The flowers they brought are here, too, in a simple vase with orange and brown petals painted on.

“You know, she’s never met any of my boyfriends,” Thapelo says. He has composed himself after the initial shock of seeing her. Only the slightest tinge of red in his eyes.

“I think I’m a hit,” Greg says, flicking his hand from his face in the most diva-like gesture he can manage. He hopes the lightness helps. He hopes Thapelo knows he’s not trying to make it about him. Thapelo sniffs and wipes his nose. He smiles as he butters the bread.

That night, the two of them lie very still in a room barely dark enough to sleep. Headlights move across the lace curtains. A dog barks somewhere in the distance. “You okay in there, Ma?” Thapelo calls.

“I’m fine!”

Greg rolls away from the window. A minute passes. Another excruciating minute. Then the bed creaks and Thapelo’s arm comes sliding under Greg’s pillow. His other arm wraps around Greg’s torso and pulls him in close. They sleep like that until morning.


Copyright © Alistair Charles Mackay, 2018

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