Keryn Clark was born in South Africa and currently lives in Perth. She immigrated to Australia in 1989 and has spent the last eight years as a student at UWA.
Keryn's poetry has been published in Australian literary journals and her first novel Bloom was shortlisted for the Penguin Varuna Awards in 2010 and 2011 and won a Varuna Fellowship award in 2012.
Excerpt from ‘So Where to Now?' The Female Bildungsroman and the Missing Child.
Somewhere Over the Rainbow
I am fourteen. I sit in the bath daydreaming. My grandmother, whose energies have sagged over the years in keeping us going, is shrewish through the door.
‘You’d better make up your mind what you want to be, young lady. Soon you need to go out and work.’ In a very Kincaid moment of heartily wishing my grandmother dead, I snap back.1
‘I want to be wise.’
‘You’d better be careful what you wish for young lady, you might just get it.’
Of course when my grandmother dies in an old age home that smells of cabbages and lost hope I am consumed by guilt. Nor do I ever forget the words that arrive as small spears through a bathroom door.
In my darker moments with my mother too, when there is no escape from our dissolving world and I am pressed in from all sides by its emissaries urging me to join the cause, I threaten that one day when I save enough money I am going to the furthest, most under the world place I can think of. Australia. No one will find me there. I will leave forever and then they’ll be sorry.
It occurred to me how many times during my candidature I have travelled up what seemed to be promising avenues of research only to find myself boxed into a blind alley. Many times I have had to back out and abandon ideas that did not fit and take on new ones I hadn’t even considered only to find myself back at the beginning again, where it all started, as if I were playing a game of snakes and ladders. The title of this exegesis is a case in point. It’s been changed several times as I focused on areas of interest only to become bored or disillusioned or to find, staring back at me, aspects of myself that I didn’t particularly like and quickly tried to sweep under the carpet. Perhaps that is what the act of writing does for us and to us as readers. It penetrates the glossy images we construct for and about ourselves.
As this exegesis approached its end, I found my original PhD proposal stuffed among mountains of research and saw the title I’d given it in a spur of panic when all I had to give the scholarship office was a loose idea. I didn’t really think about it. Nor did I know, if I’m completely honest, what a bildungsroman was. But it sounded intelligent.
The reason I chose the title was the result of a story a friend told me which indirectly led back to my grandmother. In telling a friend how guilty I felt about my grandmother’s last days she told me about an old lady she came across in an old age home where she worked and an incident that upset her so much she resigned. One day, my friend watched an elderly lady and an elderly man as they sat on a bench in the gardens of the home. A romance developed between them. It happened that shortly afterwards, the nursing staff, along with my friend, discovered the elderly couple lying entwined in his room. As South Africa is a culture that has never been at a loose end when it came to female morality, the nursing staff burst into the room to put an end to it. Startled, the old lady leapt up, grabbed her belongings and stood to attention looking fixedly ahead. ‘So where to now?’ She said. It was a good question.
Bloom was a way of telling my own story and to bring back to life people who’ve been lost. I wanted to draw faces on the hard lines of history by showing that beneath those heavy plates people struggled to live, breathe and solve the puzzles of life. However, the question ‘So where to now?’ also implies a journey and that is what a bildungsroman is. It’s a journey from a position of loss, through the struggles of life in order to acquire some sort of wisdom about the world, what we’re doing here, how we’ve been changed by it and what it means for our relationships with others. Throughout this project I have tried to interweave the body with the body politic and here I suggest another sort of bildungsroman. The bildung of country, culture and perceptions about each other, which are explained in the stories we tell. Chinua Achebe points out that our journeys as human beings are shaped by the storyteller and the power of narrative to create or destabilize the fixed identities of groups of people. He writes:
If I were writing about plants, and seeds and propagation, I would say cross-pollination has taken place. This is a new world that needs to let go of the old paradigms. They are icebergs dragging us down. Whites no longer wield power; blacks are no longer in chains. We both emerge from the long dark journey in the hold blinking in the bright light. We cannot define ourselves according to the past because we would simply rehash old history. We need to make history using the knowledge we have gained from the nightmare days where, in turn, we have all been in exile.2
So where to now?
One way, as Green suggests in Translating the Nation, is through sport. It’s been frequently suggested that the Rainbow Nation, which glimmered at the end of South Africa’s own long struggle is, as is the case with rainbows, an illusion or a trick of the light. Perhaps this is true. In Welcome to Our Hillbrow Mpe makes no bones about savagely critiquing its empty promises and glaring contradictions. However, because I am a runner and since unwellness has been under the spotlight in this exegesis, in the spirit of Green’s suggestion, I offer a reading of the rainbow that links together themes of displacement, illness and journeys in terms of the distance travelled and the way still to go through the idea of sport as a new way of translating old paradigms. It also offers a neat allegory for my journey through this PhD.
In April this year I travelled to Cape Town for what has become an annual event. The Clark family, or what remains of it, congregate to run the 56km Two Oceans Ultra Marathon held each year on Easter Saturday. This year, carrying a knee injury I didn’t know about and severely undertrained as a result of long hours working on this exegesis and getting nowhere, I lined up at the start apprehensive to say the least. Noting my obvious consternation at what lay ahead, my brother, who was soon to vanish into the crowds, pointed to a pole looming above the heads of the runners. ‘If you get into trouble’, he said, ‘jump on a bus.’
A bus in running terms is a group of runners organized around a designated pace setter and identified by a pole, or totem, bearing the sponsor’s logo and showing the time that particular bus is aiming to achieve. In this image I see a new, healthier form of community. The idea is that people work together to achieve a common purpose. The success or failure of this purpose is not measured in monuments, political speeches or standing armies but in time. Clicking on my iPod and mistakenly thinking that I didn’t need a rain jacket, I, along with 7,000 others, surged when the gun went off into what was to become the most inclement weather in the history of the race. Shit.
At 16kms the rain arrived. At 19kms my knees hurt and my bottom lip began to tremble. I wondered how the hell I was supposed to cover another 37kms over the hardest part of the course. Cape Town is, after all, famous for mountains. Above my iPod I heard the strong voice of a woman singing. I clicked off my iPod and peered through what can only be described as sleet. Not far ahead was the pole my brother had pointed out to me at the start of the race and I remembered his words. Thank god! A bus!
Drawing closer, I saw that this was not an ordinary bus. The pole was not a sponsored pole. It was a rather tattered pole, more like a stick or a broom with the brush removed. Wrapped around the top of the pole and fluttering like a wet flag was a bright yellow vest and it held aloft a sagging hand written cardboard sign. It read 6:30. Six hours and thirty minutes. Perfect. I figured I could hold that pace. The woman was still singing with the men tuning in for the chorus. They were singing Shosholoza. They all wore the same bright yellow vests and I looked closer to see what club they represented. Emblazoned on their backs in red were the words HIV POSITIVE.
Suddenly my knees didn’t seem to be such a big deal. The person carrying the pole shouted out to me ‘come and join us.’ Perhaps I looked like I needed all the help I could get or perhaps they did. It didn’t matter. Together we crossed the mountains singing Shosholoza.
At 30kms, on Chapman’s Peak we were hit hard by the wind coming in from the ocean and we tucked into each other. I’d love to say that we ran like gazelles but really we were all shuffling. Under my peak I studied my fellow passengers while the woman kept singing. Serious looking young Indians; coloured women; black women; portly white accountant types; young black men with beads in their dreadlocks; old black men with flecks of grey. This in a race which in 1975, a year before the riots began, required that the organizers obtain special permission from the Minister for Sport, Dr. P.G.J. Koornhof, for blacks to participate in what had previously been a white male only race.
Women were luckier, they’d been allowed to run the year before, all one of them - and she did not finish. Koornhof gave his official approval for a team of eight black runners to compete on condition that the ‘different race groups would not mix unnecessarily.’ As Grace might have said at the time, ‘believe me, sticking close to the singing at the top of Chappie’s in a howling gale is extremely necessary.’ In addition to the team of 8 black runners, it was also the year the first woman finished the race.
To the international runners casting bemused glances at our odd group of singing runners, we might have presented as a comic illusion or a coincidental gathering of people embedded with no particular meaning. Instead what they witnessed was a small miracle. The power and potential of small miracles was not lost on Helen Zille, who, at that time, was still leader of the opposition Democratic Party. Her sodden supporters dressed in matching blue t-shirts handed out refreshments and ghetto blasted encouragement as we dropped into Hout Bay while Zille herself, armed with an umbrella, waited ankle deep in mud at the finish. There was no sign of the ruling African National Congress who had produced the large miracle of a revolution. Perhaps, in the effort, they’d paused to rest on their laurels, or the directions they’d been given as to where to find the new nation had been lost in translation.
At the foot of Constantia Nek, an arduous 3km climb which winds into the clouds before dropping down to the finish, I stepped off the bus. I could no longer hold the pace. I had time in hand and I knew I would make it. Running in close formation, all that was left of the bus that had crossed the mountains together were the people in yellow vests led by a man blowing a whistle. They gathered themselves for the last climb and disappeared up the hill singing. The pole with the yellow flag wobbled above them as they slowly vanished into an ocean of bobbing heads. Spectators in this elite part of town stepped from behind the high walls of their homes and lined the course to applaud. A coloured band wrapped in clear plastic to protect their green and white satin outfits and stiff boater hats played on. A frozen group of blonde girls in gold bikinis shook pompoms around one of the bends. The sleet was back. 8kms to go. This was going to be a slog. I clicked on my iPod. A South African group I’d only recently discovered:
Try predict the future by inventing my tomorrow
It's not a destination; it's a creation I desire
With my back against the past, seeing my future in my grasp
Believe the beauty of my dreams is my, my one, supreme
So I tell myself, don’t, look back … don’t, look back
Don't get tied up in that twisted trap,
Save, your best bits for tomorrow
Feel my life is incomplete, without my missin’ puzzle piece
Searching for a soul-mate, as I dance the song of heartache
Inquire to the guards, is romance just a facade
Is there really someone, somehow, somewhere, out there?
So I tell myself, don’t, look back … don’t, look back
Don’t get tied up in that twisted trap,
Save, your best bits for tomorrow. 3
This is how it happened that with The Parlotones for company, I glimpsed the rainbow on the mountain as I trudged along and wept.
For the critical focus of my exegesis I meditate on loops of memory and shame and how they are linked to ideas of place, loss and belonging. The experience of war and immigration told through the reflections of my protagonist Grace Little is considered through the works of South African writers Nadine Gordimer and Phaswane Mpe along with a discussion of the psychological ramifications of dispossession and a state of exile.
With reference to the esteemed African writer and scholar Chinua Achebe I examine the storyteller’s role in creating and destabilising fixed identities and what these constructions mean to those in exile. With reference to Achebe’s work I draw upon recent theorising on shame, trauma and abjection to reflect critically on how South Africa, and in particular the suburb of Hillbrow where Grace Little grows up, has been represented in the knowledge of Apartheid and post-Apartheid society.
I seek to examine the relationship between narrative and the self in very specific ways: of Bloom (my creative component) as fictive autobiography and of Grace as white South African immigrant whose experiences complicate easy assumptions of privilege and also traditional modes of story telling such as the bildungsroman.
Above all, and in keeping with the theme of luminosity, I reflect on states of flux through the metaphor of the rainbow nation and I consider how the luminosity derived from knowledge requires abandoning set ideas to accommodate the fluid nature of story.