By MICHELLE CONSTANT
I STARTED 2018 READING a few books that will have me in their thrall for the entirety of the year. This was necessary, after ploughing through Crispian Olver’s chilling How to Steal a City; The Battle for Nelson Mandela Bay and then being plunged into gloom with Jacques Pauw’s The President’s Keepers.
But this column is about a different set of narratives: it’s about geography and memory. As we entered a new year, I read two books: Sisonke Msimang’s Always Another Country and Mohsin Hamid’s fourth novel, Exit West. Both books address the question of geography as destiny, while examining the concept of “home”. In her debut memoir, Msimang describes her life as a child in exile, and her yearning and dreaming towards that “home” called South Africa. It’s a deceptively simple read that insinuates itself into the reader’s psyche.
Msimang calls out our failings, demanding a more robust engagement in conversations around whiteness, racism, and classism. Woven into the narrative is a moving conversation about what we call home. Msimang’s anger is visceral and catching too. When she writes; “My country is a father who can never return my love”, I feel those hooks, even as I write it now. Any person who has experienced the complexity of the father-daughter relationship, will understand the dread of being at home, but not.
Importantly, Msimang questions the ideas that are associated with memory remembering as a political act. Exile, migration, and refuge are the thread that runs through Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, a 2017 Man Booker finalist. Hamid uses magical realism to talk to the ideas of memory and geography in his story of a couple that leave an unnamed city that is populated with refugees and militants. The brutality of the militants, which contributes not only to the misery, but also to the creation of the refugees, is a powerful storyline in Exit West.
The constant forced migration of people across the globe is one that is intrinsic to the current age. Indeed, the concept of nation state is teased and chewed, eschewing geography for relationships. In Hamid’s new world where the present, which rubs shoulders with the past, is closer to the future than we foresaw migrancy is the status quo. Hamid rethinks our notion of family in the new world, writing, “When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind,” and also that “We are all migrants in life.”
While Always Another Country and Exit West are different in both style and genre, they are a powerful coupling, opening our eyes, minds and hearts to both local and global worlds. We need writers such as Msimang and Hamid to challenge us on our positions both “at home” and “in the world”.
Constant is the CEO of Business and Arts South Africa and the presenter of SAfm lifestyle (Saturdays, 9am to noon)