Monday, June 20, 2011

My Sympathies

I’m an aunt! Again! My niece was born, healthy and hale, last Tuesday evening.

As much as I love my nephew, I feel a special affinity for E.---and not just because she looks and acts much like I did as a newborn. I’m also the second of two, and so I have a particular sympathy for her position in the family. Indeed, I can already see the same (troublesome) patterns emerging. Although I can understand and respect the need to reassure the older child that he is still a special and much-loved part of the family, my family has a tendency to overcompensate for that insecurity. All my life, my position in the family and my accomplishments have been defined in terms of how they will affect my older sister. I was never allowed to be special or to celebrate what is unique about me in the same way that my sister was because to do so might make her feel badly about herself.

I can already see this same path for my niece. For every gift she gets (or her mother gets on her behalf), my nephew gets two. They even removed E. from the room before A. came down from his nap yesterday---when both sides of the family gathered for a Fathers Day/Welcome Baby/Thanksgiving dinner---so that he wouldn’t have to share the attention with his baby sister.

This all seems a bit extreme and overcompensating---and eventually damaging to my niece’s sense of self. But I’m curious how other families have handled the same situation. Am I just being oversensitive and paranoid?


On another note: I’ve finished the first book of my Reading Africa challenge. My mother keeps stealing my Kindle, so I had to change the order of books a bit. So instead of reading Gurnah’s Desertion, I read Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee.

I’m dissatisfied, perplexed, annoyed, conflicted. I feel like I need someone way smarter than me to tell me how I’m supposed to read this book.

***Warning: Spoilers Ahead***

In a nutshell, the novel concerns a middle-age scholar-cum-reluctant professor, David Lurie, living in post-Apartheid South Africa. After losing his weekly appointment with a prostitute because he semi-stalks her, he then begins a short-lived “affair” with one of his students after semi-stalking her as well and possibly raping her. He’s dismissed from the university and sends himself into exile at his daughter’s homestead in the Eastern Cape. While staying with his daughter, she’s gang-raped and he’s beaten by three black men at her home. David and his daughter clash over her decision of how to cope after the rape (he wants her to report the rape to the police and move away from her homestead; she refuses to do either).

I appreciate that Coetzee takes on a difficult and politically unpopular topic: how do white South Africans cope in the post-apartheid era. I’m sensitive and somewhat sympathetic the precariousness and fear that many white South Africans felt (and continue to feel); while in Malawi, I met a number of white Zimbabweans who had been forced out of---and sometimes fled under attack from---their homes during Mugabe’s regime. They had been born in Zimbabwe; their parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents had lived their whole lives in Zimbabwe. Many were still fearful that they could again be dislocated from Malawi. Moreover, I have the experience of being a white woman in Africa and understand (some of ) the ways that you are marked by your race and your gender.

That all said, I thought the main character was unsympathetic and troubling and, well, disgraceful. The author seemed to be asking me not only to sympathize with but to admire someone I thought was racist, elitist, and misogynist. (I think) I’m supposed to see David as heroic when he refuses to offer a full confession and apology as part of the university’s inquest into his affair with his student. (I think) I’m supposed to think that he was bravely taking on the culture of political correctness by refusing to apologize for giving in to “Eros.” Instead I read his actions as those of an entitled man who refuses to accept responsibility for his crime: using his power to coerce a girl into an unwanted sexual exchange. Even after his daughter’s rape, David again refuses--or simply can’t---make the connection between the abuse and exploitation she suffered (and continues to suffer) and the ways that he exploited and abused other women (the prostitute, his student, another prostitute at the end of the novel). (I think) I'm supposed to see him as the voice of reason, being drowned out by the chaos of the post-apartheid transition, when he tries to convince his daughter to report the rape to the police and leave her homestead. Yet I would argue that he contributes to the violation of his daughter by attempting to force her to adopt the position he thinks she should take regarding the rape (as the helpless victim). And again at the end of the novel, when we discover that the daughter’s tenant/worker is using the rape---and was possibly active in arranging it---to force her to marry him and turn over her land in exchange for protection, (I think) I'm supposed to sympathize with David for wanting to protect his daughter and find a way to start over, clear of the baggage of apartheid. But I was more angered that David still doesn’t make the connection between his own use of sex as an exploitative form of exchange (sex for money, sex for grades) and that being suffered by his daughter. Adding insult to injury is the great “revelation” of the novel: that David has been “enriched” by each of his sexual relationships---and he claims hundreds of them---and therefore should not have to apologize for his behavior---to the women, to the university, to God---or feel any disgrace for his actions. (Never mind what the women might think about these exchanges; they only serve as symbols in the novel.)

I’m both intrigued and perplexed by Coetzee’s approach to race in the novel. He often doesn’t state a given character’s race outright. He makes vague illusions via physical characteristics, although never specific enough for me to be able to say definitively what race a given character is, or he’ll later clarify a character’s race. But he often leaves race unspoken. I’m torn on whether this is a clever commentary on the reader’s prejudices (that we assume the attackers are black Africans without being told immediately) or whether the author is revealing his own prejudices (of course the attackers are black Africans because they are the source of violence in post-Apartheid South Africa). (I’m still not clear on whether I’m supposed to read the character of Melanie, the student, as black, white, or other; given the context of the novel, I think it matters to how you interpret that exchange and the fall-out from it.)

So I feel like I’m missing something, that I’m not getting the joke, so to speak. Surely we wouldn’t celebrate someone who seems to valorize such a despicable character and, by extension, such deplorable views? Yet the novel doesn’t seem to be broad enough for satire. What am I not reading in this novel? Can someone who is smarter, better read, more insightful please explain this book to me?

I’m also now curious how other authors---particularly women and black South Africans---have dealt with the post-Apartheid transition, so I’ve added to my list two more South African books: The House Gun by Nadine Gordimer and The Heart of Redness by Zakes Mda.


At 7:50 AM , Blogger Chay said...

Congratulations on being an aunt x2. Thats awesome.

When me and my brother were younger (he is about a year older than me) we would both get presents on each others birthdays, I guess so that neither of us would be jealous. I'm pretty sure my parents, grandma, and aunt all stopped doing that when we were about 5 or 6. However, they did not do the same thing for my sister but she is way younger.

At 4:30 PM , Blogger Jessica Mason said...

That novel...does not sound very appealing. I'm guessing I would have about the same reaction you did, though of course I haven't read it. Committing rape or some form of coercive sex pretty much automatically makes a character unsympathetic for me, and I find it pretty hard to keep reading a novel without having at least some feeling for the central character.

But new kids are exciting! My little brother was born two days before my birthday, and came home on my birthday--lucky me! I don't remember my parents going out of their way to cushion the blow, though they were always pretty attentive to all of us and I never really felt neglected. We definitely didn't get presents on each other's birthdays, but my mom was always really good about having separate parties and cakes for me and little brother. Which meant we always had a surplus of cake at the end of October!

I would guess the best thing to do is make sure each kid gets to carve out his/her own niche, hobbies, activities and so on, and that each kid gets some one-on-one time with the parents from time to time. Nothing's ever going to be perfectly even and balanced, and I suspect that as long as you don't actually like one kid more than the other it's probably all ok.


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