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A Collection of short stories and opinion pieces by Prithiraj Ramkisun Dullay
The year is 1978.
The apartheid machine is grinding all in its path.
Steve Biko was brutally murdered a year before.
Nelson Mandela is in his 17th year on Robben Island.
Strini Moodley is in the 3rd year of his six-year imprisonment term on Robben Island.
It is at this time that life is becoming untenable for a young activist teacher, Prithiraj Ramkisun Dullay, simply because he believes that teaching is a subversive activity, and endeavours to live out his belief in truth and freedom without fear.
As a consequence of his political activity, Pritz and his family are suddenly thrust into exile, to a strange land just a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle, a land that will become their home for 14 years…
The stories of this enforced departure, and his eventual return to his homeland when Mandela was released, as well as the riveting stories of Dullay’s growing up and early development, are all told with immediacy and import in SALT WATER RUNS IN MY VEINS.
Alongside the definitive South African autobiography, Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom (1994), there have been numerous autobiographical writings embedded in the context of apartheid and the struggle for political liberation. French philosopher Michel de Certeau’s words are directly applicable to South Africa at the present time when he says in his work, The Practice of Everyday Life: “Our society has become a recited society, in three senses: it is defined by stories, by citations of stories, and by the interminable recitation of stories” (1984: 186). As Sarah Nuttall and Cheryl-Ann Michael, in their book, Senses of Culture, observe:
The autobiographical act in South Africa, more than a literary convention, has become a cultural activity. Memoir, reminiscence, confession, testament, case history and personal journalism, all different kinds of autobiographical acts or cultural occasions in which narrators take up models of identity that have become widely available, have pervaded the culture of the 1990s and have spread into the new century. (Nuttall and Michael 2000: 298)
SALT WATER RUNS IN MY VEINS is a recent worthy addition to these “autobiographical acts”. It consists of two parts - a collection of sequential autobiographical vignettes and a collection of opinion pieces that appeared in the media.
Part One offers a kaleidoscope of experiences, ranging from the local to the international, from living inside apartheid to living outside it, from domestic and family matters to those of public, political import. The segments are arranged chronologically, allowing the reader to navigate the contents as one does a bildungsroman.
A few noteworthy elements of Part One are the following:
• An immediate and striking feature of the writing is the evocation of landscape and place. The environs of the Umzimkulu River, the beaches of the Natal South Coast, the town of Port Shepstone, are imaginatively depicted. This reminds one of the moving descriptions in the opening pages of Alan Paton’s famous Cry the Beloved Country. The writing inserts itself unmistakably into a South African literary tradition, marked by a poetics of place, where South African landscapes become synonymous with identity and a sense of belonging. Ronnie Govender has done the same for Cato Manor in At the Edge (1996) and Aziz Hassim for Grey Street and the Casbah in Durban in his novels, The Lotus People (2002) and Revenge of Kali (2009).
• SALT WATER RUNS IN MY VEINS shows that we live, as we often do, in the landscapes “hymned by our ancestors” - places where we were born, grew up and had our being - and therefore indelibly etched in our minds. Being wrenched from an Edenic paradise, which also bears the scars of the intrusion of apartheid reality, is a traumatic experience for Dullay, and is translated into memory; and it is the memory of place that sustains Dullay when he is physically and temporally separated from it.
• An important element of Dullay’s life and his writing is that it is not marked by a narrow, ethnocentric identity. Accenting his initial locatedness, in more ways than one, Dullay maps the progression of his life across time and space and presents vivid “geographies of imagination”. His many and diverse experiences have the effect of giving him an expansive sense of his identity, away from the conditioning and social engineering of the apartheid state. Amartya Sen, in Identity and Violence – The Illusion of Destiny (2006) has rightly criticized the tendency for “singular affiliation”, where there is identification with one collectivity only. In enhancing our sense of “our common humanity”, Sen argues for identities that are “robustly plural”, and we see this well illustrated in Dullay’s writing (and in the wonderful music we were treated to at the launch). Dullay’s experiences bear out Antjie Krog’s view when she states in Country of my Skull,
“…the retina learns to expand
Daily because by a thousand stories
I was scorched
a new skin.” (1998: 279)
• The depictions of the icy cold climate of Denmark provide an implicit counterpoint to the sub-tropical life enjoyed in South Africa. The stories of the exile experience, a forced mobility, show the different struggles to survive on foreign soil and the challenges of striking new roots.
• The pleasures and dislocation of exile are effectively portrayed. The warm, convivial hospitality that is experienced in overseas climes is contrasted with the cold, suffocating and arid life under apartheid. Dullay skillfully balances the narratives of expansion of one’s horizons and the many gains in widening one’s cultural repertoire with those of the estrangement and alienation from one’s kith and kin. I think of someone like Arthur Nortje, one of South Africa’s most famous exiles, who was not as fortunate as Dullay. Nortje languished in foreign climes, and did not live to return to his beloved country.
• The descriptions avoid romanticizing the exile or liberation experience. They also show the fissures and fault lines of a life in the Struggle, as is evidenced by Dullay’s experiences at Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College in Tanzania, but they are an important part of the wider African experience that Dullay and the family encountered.
• Names are important in the narratives and signal the wider community that Dullay lives in. Each name evokes a world of history behind it and shows the networks, connections and collaborations in the Struggle; each celebrates the many unsung heroes and heroines in the South African liberation struggle. The many different names that shape and make history – the many unknown levers that moved the liberation machine to extricate us all out of the vortex of apartheid - are often forgotten [as a normative, official history-making process proceeds apace], but Dullay pays them pointed homage. Alongside the iconic names of “Mandela” and “Biko”, we encounter names such as “Lisbeth Moerup, Joyce Christensen and Kirsten Brun” in Denmark, and “Eddie Naidu” of Puntan’s Hill, Durban and “Daya Naicker” in Port Shepstone.
• A further poignant sub-text running through the narratives is the role that Mala, Dullay’s “life partner”, played. While liberation stories sometimes engage in the erasure of women, this writing unequivocally shows how the decisions that men took during the Struggle days affected the lives of women: how women supported and coped with exile, suffered through it, and emerged triumphant. Similarly, the narrative of the two daughters, Simmi and Sureka, is an important component here of the unintended consequences of exile on children. These elements are narrated with control and sensitivity and are an indivisible part of the warp and weft of the writing.
• SALT WATER RUNS IN MY VEINS is unique among life writings in South Africa for its drawing from a very specific archive - the flows and circuits of the Hibiscus Coast of Natal to those of Denmark in Scandinavia. It is an inspiring, undulating set of narratives, narratives that ebb and flow, telling of struggle, integrity, endurance, and the triumph of the human spirit. While tracing the trajectory of an individual’s life, SALT WATER RUNS IN MY VEINS shows that the particular is the universal.
The collection is lucid, controlled, well-paced, passionate, and is a celebration and remembrance of places, spaces and people, focusing on identities of inclusion rather than of exclusion. In this TIME OF MEMORY, when South Africans are recalling the past and telling of their stories under apartheid, Dullay’s collection is a necessary continuation of the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission), now that its formal work is over. As Ela Gandhi observes in her Foreword to the book, “The truth must never be covered with the cobwebs of denialism and processes that attempt to sanitize apartheid’s terrible inhumanity to South Africans of colour.”
And as Dullay noted recently:
“My memory is a honed weapon against the sanitation of our history. My memory is an affirmation of who I am. It is a weapon of liberation” (Sunday Times Extra, May 23, 2010, p4). He also rightly notes in the Preface to the book: “Forgiving is an act of healing, forgetting is an act of betrayal.”
Methodologically, SALT WATER RUNS IN MY VEINS has elements of auto-ethnography. Dullay’s personal narratives are “journeys of the self” that explore and foreground his subjective experiences in life. They inflect the general accounts of history by constructing a palpable, subjective perspective. In chronicling aspects of his life experiences, Dullay provides reflective accounts of them, situated as they are in a general socio-cultural context. In the constructions of his life writing Dullay constantly shows how the personal is embedded and imbricated in the cultural, social and political, and that there is an interplay among these various elements.
Though marginalized and ‘othered’ by apartheid, and made invisible through exile, the writing re-centres him through authorial agency (and reaffirms the political agency he displayed all along). By drawing from archival memory and negotiating his past in the very story-telling, the writing itself becomes an important site for the performance of identity (and identities), as well as a method of inquiry into that past. In presenting vignettes or fragments of autobiographical life writing, a multi-layered approach is intuitively adopted, where different identities are performed, and one segment is read inter-textually against another. SALT WATER RUNS IN MY VEINS thus becomes an important contribution to the many genres of “the making of memory in South Africa” at the present time.
PART TWO - “I WRITE WHAT I LIKE”
Part Two is issue-based and responds principally to the many and diverse post-1994 challenges in South Africa across the political, educational, cultural and social spectrum. It provides an itinerary of the debates and competing demands made on “the new South Africa”.
Some of the issues that have been considered are: drugs; xenophobia; affirmative action; corporate greed; sexism; crime; school violence; democracy and Civil Society; and the excesses of government.
Given the wide range of topics that are tackled, Dullay is following in the footsteps of his illustrious mentor, Steve Biko, who “wrote what he liked”. The articles, with their strident intellectual analysis, are illuminating, informative and non-partisan. Drawing from a range of critical discourses, they are prompted by Dullay’s enduring support for the hard-won ideals of a just democracy. Dullay writes out of a deep awareness of the wounding of the nation’s collective psyche, and a longing for the healing of the fledgling nation. Throughout, Dullay shows that he is an independent thinker, that he firmly believes that the real custodians of democracy – the people – should understand their inherent rights and exercise them with confidence and maturity, and with due vigilance.
SALT WATER RUNS IN MY VEINS may be described as a narrative of HOME and of HOMING, in all its connotations – a frequent theme in postcolonial writing. Taken together, the personal, autobiographical writings, and the opinion pieces, show that the custody of Truth is held in one’s hand: Dealing with the denial of one’s birthright in the land of one’s birth, adjusting to the ambivalences and exigencies of exile, finding a voice amid the euphoria and “enigma” of return – are all different but connected in ways in which home and homing are continually sought and expressed. How one chooses to act and think and the decisions one makes are impelled in all circumstances by the dictates of a moral compass.
The following poem, composed by one of the students during the Struggle days at Soloman Mahlangu Freedom College, may be seen as an appropriate description of Pritz Dullay, his life story as depicted in SALT WATER RUNS IN MY VEINS, and his on-going contribution to the transformation of South Africa:
I’m the voice,
That sings songs from the bottom of my heart,
And tune them right up to my mouth,
To feed the ears that await my commands,
Commands that stop the wind from flowing.
I’m the voice that sings,
Songs of hope.
I’m the voice that sings,
Songs of thirst.
I’m the voice that sings,
Songs of an awakened people.
I’m the voice that sings,
Songs of Praise.
I’m the voice that sings,
Songs of we-shall-be-free.
I’m the voice that sings,
Songs of metamorphosis.
*Anonymous, in If you want to know me – Voices from Somafco, 1999:10.
In continuing to be the leaven in the lump, to “sing songs of metamorphosis” in the present time, Dullay is clearly following in the footsteps of Mandela, who concludes Long Walk to Freedom, with the words:
“…The truth is that we are not free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed…
…I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.” (1994: 617)
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Last Updated (Wednesday, 23 June 2010 21:25)