20 December, 2011
Nature’s Valley, Western Cape
I’m currently sitting on the patio of a hostel in the Nature’s Valley, a relatively remote spot on the Garden Route, part of the long stretch of beautiful coastline between Cape Town and Durban. It’s 10 am, I’m sipping coffee, and listening to music, relatively alone for the first time in a few days. I’m trying to work through a lot, and I’ve been traveling pretty much nonstop in a van with five kind-hearted, free-spirited Canadians since Friday. We’re on our way to Cape Town, where I’ll spend Christmas and the New Year, heading back to Durban around 6 January. I don’t really have the energy or desire to write a coherent narrative of how things are going, so I thought I might just write four short sketches of what’s happened over the last few weeks.
I.A Question, Friend
Most Wednesday nights I do trivia at Jackie Horner’s, a local bar in Glenwood. We’re a motley group of folk that compete, and we usually down a pint or three as we rack our brains for useless knowledge in hopes of winning one of the many great prizes—ranging from bottles of wine to 200 Rand ($25) gift certificates. Last week just felt off—even though the game went well, I just didn’t feel a part of the event. The small, slightly enclosed space usually feels inviting, this time it just felt suffocating. I had the odd sensation of feeling like a spectator on my own life; I could see myself writing down answers, drinking beer, laughing with people, but with an entire sense of detachment that I found unnerving.
Jackie Horner’s is a relatively straight walk to my house, just off Esther Robberts Road. It takes about 20 minutes by foot, and the stretch is a bit lonely although pretty safe. As I stepped out into the cool Wednesday evening, I looked around and walked quickly, nervously, the wind blowing tendrils of hair in and out of my eyes as I distractedly ambled home. I passed the old tennis club, long blocks of flats that had been clearly built for a different populace at the height of 1960’s apartheid modernism, a preschool, and began to pass the Grace Presbyterian Church, on the corner of Brand and Robberts. As I did, I heard, rather than saw three figures standing on the church steps.
“hey, friend!” a female voice called out, in a curious mix of recognition and pleading.
Disoriented by the disembodied voice and its claims to familiarity, I slowed a bit, and pushed more hair out of my eyes where it’d fallen.”Yeah?”
I saw them now, three women, relatively formless shadows standing on the steps of the church, clothes somewhat tight, hair arranged hurriedly. I could see them, but they were still across the street and hard to make out.
“What are you doing tonight, friend? Do you want a blowjob?”
I almost stopped dead, suddenly realizing what was happening. I was being propositioned. Across a street. From church steps. By three women.
I stuttered, and unconsciously switched to Zulu, but the sentences were stiff, formal. They sounded like they came out of a text book.
“Ngiyaxolisa, kodwa ngidinga ukubuyela ekhaya manje. Angifuni ukwenza lutho manje, sisi.”
[I’m sorry, but I am needing to return to my home now. I do not want to do anything now, sister.]
“We can have fun, friend” the voices lost form again, melted into shadow as I walked on, disturbed, confused.
What was this? How did I process this? Why was it particularly strange for me that the proposition happened on the steps of a church? Why did I think of my own masculinity? My own sense of occupying space, my own privilege to walk through the space and ask questions and be asked questions? To be inquired of a blowjob on a street corner by a shadowy trio? How and why did I rattle in a formal isiZulu, like a computer printout?
I slept poorly that night.
II.You never know who you’re going to meet
The Killie Campbell Africana Library, which I often just refer to as “The Archive,” is the center of most of my ‘working’ and intellectual life here in Durban. Nellie Somers, one of the head archivists, is a woman of boundless energy and determined will. She constantly works to increase the exposure of the archives, to get researchers to come in and visit, and she is dead-set against the idea of digitization, which she rightfully foresees will limit visitors, and thereby halt funding for the overall program, leaving the restoration itself at risk.
Often, she walks up to me, wearing multiple bracelets, bright colors in a business practical cut, and with the light glinting of her gold jewelry, will remind me that we need people to come visit the archive.
“It is a fundamental part of the experience, meeting people in the archive…talking through work.”
I’m hard pressed to disagree with her. This week really brought that home for me. On Thursday, my last day of the archive for the year, I sat down in my usual place, with computer in hand, typing away notes on Zulu polygamy, cattle, and missionary reports on sexuality when I saw a man walk in with a book in hand. Nellie looked at me, and I took out my headphones, letting Thomas Krane’s melancholy guitar fade from my mental landscape for a second.
“T.J., this man is writing on Indian Muslims and their lives in Durban.”
The older man with close cut grey hair, bright brown eyes, and skin like stretched, dark parchment, looked at me and smiled. “Are you interested?”
The professor and I sat outside on a bench under a leafy walkway, chatting about Indian men, immigration, hopes, dreams, and the challenges of moving to a new place. I began to discuss in detail what it might have meant to be a Muslim man arriving from India, not as an indentured laborer, but as a trader or commercial lawyer in the 1870s and 1880s. I began to think about how white men in Durban would respond to this, men who were used to the homosocial space of the Durban Club, a place where rich white men were only allowed, and who were served by the willing bodies of Indian men attired in ‘traditional’ clothing. I read about an 1897 dust up that occurred when Durban men protested the winning bid made by Muslim Indian men (called ‘Arabs’ in the newspapers) on the land right next to the Durban club. What would it mean to have ‘your space’, a place that was defined by brown bodies in subservience that mirrored your sense of power, to be right next to a place purchased by men similar to your servants? What would happen to your sense of place, your certainty in the world? As we traded stories and words, I began to imagine an article—a study of West Street, Durban, where the early gentleman’s club called white Durban men into a state of ‘specialness,’ and where industrious Indians began to acquire land and build mosques, where new Jewish immigrants began to construct synagogues, where the first Indian markets and trader stores went up, where African rickshaw drivers yelled commands in isiZulu, and everyone tried to ‘order’ or comprehend the chaotic mix all around them.
“Now that’s an idea!” chirped Joan Wardrop, a short, friendly Australian professor who squinted through spectacles underneath her close-cut black hair. She beamed from behind a pile of 1920s almanacs that afternoon. “Walk around West Street, feel it. Take yourself back, imagine the smells, the shapes, the geography. Stretch your mind out, feel the world around you, and feel what it would mean to be at this space—what is at stake? What do you fear, need, want? Tell that story, T.J.” Joan and I have become friends in the three months we’ve spent researching in the archive, and her indefatigable good cheer and similarly perverse interest in gender and race history in Natal have made us ready friends. “You can do this, and I want to read it!”
“When you go to Cape Town,” Nellie said, placing a maternal hand on my shoulder. “Take out a notebook, find a quiet spot, and let all the words in your head just spill out and write. Write your thoughts, write your processing. No rules.”
And this is why you must go to an archive rather than simply read documents online.
“Daniel Houghton has invited you to DEATH” the facebook event update read. I blinked a bit. That was a strange invite to receive. Daniel is the mastermind behind the local performance venue Unit 11, a large warehouse space off Stamford Hill Road in Durban that hosts a variety of acts during the week and a local gathering place for indie music lovers, community builders, and the like. There is even an edgy pseudo-postmodern evangelical church service on Sunday nights. Daniel is a tireless promoter and all around cool guy who also finds time to be the driving force behind a trippily creative band, Thomas Krane. Unfortunately, a series of events have forced the Unit 11 crew to close down, and the space was marked for closure at the end of December. Thursday nights were a regular performance event, featuring cheap slices of cake and sweet music; an Eddie Izzard fan, Daniel had named the event “Cake or Death” after one of Izzard’s best sketches. Unfortunately, it was now time for DEATH.
So I pulled on my knit cap, v-neck, smaller jeans, and converse, and headed out to the warehouse space that is home to all of Durban’s strange indie music crew. It is very very hard to describe accurately and completely what goes on at Unit 11. It is an anthropological tour de force of South African hipsterdom, to put it mildly. Every cliché uniform idea that you see in the States is here. Skinny as possible jeans on men? Check. Oversized black frames, knit caps, and bleary eyed sneers on women? Double check. Everywhere converse? Yes. Tight 1970s ironic vintage tees rub against stripes and plaids and the adornments that one would most likely think of in Portland or Williamsburg or Silverlake. Yet the context seems…odd. Hipsterdom, by rights, should be so ironic, so self-referential as to be safely insulated from criticism, from deep investigation, and from a rooting in context; it is a series of individual images, of fashion statements, of ideas, jumbled, recycled and rehashed post-iron, post-contempt, post-feeling. It is a performance of distance, disdain, and of belonging—A uniform gathering of individualists that are conforming relatively knowingly and laughing at your attempts to make sense of it.
And this is where I get lost. So much of this that I see in Durban looks…”transplanted,” really. It looks like it is being falsely set down in a new location—but that is the nature of hispterdom right? Does it need a context/ can I claim that the rich white kids of Brooklyn are more authentic than the bored and anxious white men and women in Durban? That this ‘movement’ (were it to be actually one) is predominantly upper middle class and very white is doubtlessly true, and I always feel an outlier as I put on my own imitation of the uniform, sneering knowingly at the irony of it all (like everyone), but it feels strange and foreign in the race and class demographics of a space like Durban. I see the same anti-rhythmic moving on/off beat that I see in Urbana, Illinois, or South Park San Diego, but with occasional Afrikaans or Zulu words lilting in the background. ON some levels, this is a hipster colonialism—it is a space that seems ‘invaded’ by a largely American anti-cultural effect, but one that people seem to be embracing with as much eagerness as the post-ironic can muster. How do I explain my weird sense of familiarity, confusion, and disorientation surrounded by swaying bodies wrapped in kitsch and sweating off teh smell of cheap beer, heavy make up, and disdain?
I downed a triple gin and tonic (I felt edgy that night, and postcolonial beverages seemed apt) and mingled with friends, got in pointless debates about existence, and meaning, and place, and the douchiness of John Mayer, and then hopped in a cab home, where an Indian driver named Marc asked me if I wanted ‘women or pills’ in addition to my cab ride, and then added in an undertone, ‘I don’t offer men,’ when he saw my obvious, confused refusal.
I got out of the cab, straightened my hat, politely declined any of the offers of the flesh, and closed the gate to Laurel Road behind me, confused at life.
IV.Living in Between
Friday morning, I left with a series of Canadians to travel to Cape Town. This is really my first sustained trip as a ‘tourist’ aside from weekends in Lesotho or Mozambique, and it’s weird to see how I see myself here. People ask me where I’m from, and I struggle to answer—Durban? Illinois? Los Angeles? Zulu springs defensively to my lips, and I struggle with understanding what it means to be a ‘tourist’ when one somewhat ‘lives’ in a space. I don’t know.
There has been a massive UN Climate Change Conference—COP17—in Durban for much of the past month. People have debated climate change, natural resources, justice, and the like, and it’s been unnerving, honestly, to see so many foreigners here. And yes, I have to remember that I indeed am a foreigner as well, but I grow incredibly confused by the vision of Americans, in that nasal accent that we share, pointing out things that they see as droll or irritating about this country that I love. I feel my own itching confusion as I move between spaces as a semi-insider; totally aware of the fact that I am NOT a South African, but I am trying to live in and be in this place.
Last week, my friend Steven dropped by, and we talked about the difficulties of being in this space and trying to observe as an outsider.
“It’s good that you are willing to change your frameworks,” he said, looking at me directly.
“It shows me that you are living here, and trying to understand this place that you are not from.”
And while I’m not from here, I am indeed in differing dgrees of belonging to this place. I would not pretend to be from here, but I also live here. I speak Zulu with increasing defensiveness to make a claim to being here (which unnerves me to no end), and yet I also love being here and want people to know that I want to live here and be here. This is strange.
And so I’m riding for a week in a seven seater van with five Canadians. It’s been an incredible event so far, just going from hostel to hostel, recognizing the privilege of traveling through a space while trying to be responsible, open minded, and interested in all around me. We’ve had amazing trips to the seaside, travelled up and down beautiful trails, learned some words in isiXhosa, and have bonded with the ridiculous people I’m traveling with. I’m learning to love this space, and to try to be okay with my in-between travelling life. I’m looking forward to two weeks in Cape Town, and I’m really looking forward to thinking through what it means to celebrate the birth of a hope this weekend, in a city far away from my family, and occupying a new space so fundamentally different from the world I easily inhabit.
I hope this holiday season sees all of you well, and I am so glad to know you guys. Thank you for listening, for being with me on this journey, and for your constant thoughts, support, silliness and the like. I’m grateful for it, more than you know.