Intrusive Pasts, Intrusive Bodies:
Achmat Dangor's Bitter Fruit

Bitter Fruit
Achmat Dangor
Toronto [Canada], HarperCollins, 2001
281 pages, ISBN 0-00-200596-4

Reviewed by Helene Strauss, University of Western Ontario

In South African fiction, women have a long history of opening their bodies to metaphor and abstraction. In post-apartheid South Africa in particular, it seems, the violated female body and womb are becoming popular sites from which to re-imagine identities grappling with the country’s interrelated histories of political, racial and sexual violence. Indeed, as Meg Samuelson points out, narratives of specifically interracial rape that results in the birth of a child continue to haunt the imaginations of post-apartheid writers. These narratives, which include J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, Arthur Maimane’s Hate No More and Zakes Mda’s The Madonna of Excelsior, are marked by a reluctance on the part of their authors to disentangle themselves from the anxieties surrounding the female reproductive body that were enlisted during the apartheid era in the service of hetero-patriarchal discourses of racial, and ultimately economic, exclusivity.

With Bitter Fruit, which was first published in South Africa in 2001 but is receiving renewed attention as a result of having been short-listed for the 2004 Man Booker Award, Achmat Dangor opens up these old ideas to new questions. It is a richly nuanced narrative that addresses a wide spectrum of concerns, including the post-apartheid politics of rape, incest, race and sexuality, the Mandela-Mbeki transition, the continued prominence of colonial and apartheid constructions of colouredness[1] and “bastardization” within South African discourses of racialization and the legacy of sexualized shame imposed by these discourses. Against this background Dangor considers what it means to have to “learn to become ordinary” (138) while living with the lies that need to be told to satisfy “a world relentless in its demand for the continuation of a ‘political miracle’” (67).

The text explores the interpersonal struggles of a coloured family crumbling under post-1994 pressures to forget the past and to give in to dominant discourses of reconciliation.  It charts the breakdown of the relationships between Silas Ali, a former counter-intelligence operative for Umkhonto we Sizwe (the military wing of the ANC) now working on the 1998 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report; his wife Lydia, a nurse who was raped by a white security policeman named Du Boise as a result of Silas’s involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle; and their son Mikey, a talented university student who learns that he was the product of his mother’s rape. Based on the experiences of one of Dangor’s female friends, whose rape was never addressed by the TRC (Dangor qtd. in Brown 70-1), Bitter Fruit confronts the TRC’s inability to listen to women’s voices and considers the continued effects of this silencing on those still staggering under the burden of traumatic memory. The stories of all the women who were not heard by the TRC, explains Dangor, are “personified – represented – by the character of Lydia” (qtd. in Meiring 6); yet in spite of this drive towards representationality, he succeeds in investing Lydia’s narrative with singularity by not shying away, through metaphorical distancing, from the corporeal specificities of the violence inflicted upon her. In fact, for the reader expecting the allegorical trickery and allusive style of Kafka’s Curse, Dangor’s stark, clear prose in Bitter Fruit, which explicitly foregrounds the contextual particulars of the violent act of rape, comes as a surprise. Throughout the text, Dangor narrates the violent eruptions of the past into the present with unflinching openness while remaining reflexive about the inevitable link between violence and representation.

This link is highlighted specifically in his treatment of Lydia’s trauma. He pierces her imposed veil of “self-containment” (158) by letting her record her own version of events in a diary. This diary registers Lydia’s objection to the finality of the act of “confession” through which, the Church teaches, “true salvation is to be found” (127) – an idea from which the TRC, which was based to a large extent on the concept of confession that would lead to absolution/amnesty for perpetrators, never succeeded in detaching itself. Lydia’s refusal to let the TRC determine the moment of release serves as an attempt at reclaiming female agency amidst the overdetermining constraints of patriarchal “benevolence.” She is understandably wary of letting her suffering be appropriated by the men in her life, especially by Silas, who she realises would want to make her “pain his tragedy” (127). It is thus telling that the reader gets access to Lydia’s diary through the intruding eyes of her son Mikey, who steals it and makes it the source of his own pain. Mikey’s theft of the diary makes the reader an uninvited spectator to Lydia’s suffering, which serves as an acknowledgement of the reader’s and Dangor’s own potential complicity in reducing her pain to spectacle by imposing their own readings of events upon her.

Bitter Fruit offers neither an easy resolution to the lasting psychic effects of the rape on Lydia nor any straightforward answers to Mikey’s search for a place of racial and cultural belonging, but it does urge the reader to become an active participant in the difficult processes of representation, remembering and identity formation. It also exposes the ultimate constructedness of received discourses of racialization by carefully situating Mikey’s cultural and racial self-doubt within overarching historical, social and political vocabularies of colouredness. The text is littered with references to hybridity and “bastardization,” yet instead of reinforcing these classificatory divisions, Dangor simply asks questions about the strategies used by those trying to craft sustainable identities for themselves in the face of oppressive racial labeling. Silas, for instance, for whom the cultural incompatibility of his white Afrikaans mother and his Islamic father remains a source of unease, is plagued by feelings of illegitimacy and by stereotypical concerns about “not being white enough in the past, and […] not black enough now” (215). Aside from registering his fears of being rendered redundant within the Mbeki sphere of political influence after the completion of the TRC report (a certain bitterness about the onset of the so-called “Age of the Manager” [165] runs through the text), Silas’s “ongoing preoccupation with race” (272) reflects the hold that apartheid categories continue to have on post-apartheid South Africans.

Mikey, in turn, rejects the cultural and racial heritage represented by his rapist father by actively pursuing the cultural bonds offered by Silas’s patrilineal Muslim family, by changing his name and by going on a violent killing spree in which he shoots both his father and the sexually abusive white father of his friend Vinu. Mikey’s actions are not condoned by the author, but they do foreground some of the excesses of retribution that the imposition of stifling definitions of race and the premature celebration of narratives of reconciliation risk producing. The violent form which Mikey’s engagement with these men takes suggests that the repercussions of apartheid brutality will be felt for generations to come and speaks to the urgency of exploring new and honest ways of thinking about the past and about race in a South African context. By giving Mikey the agency to reject his “unwanted, imposed” beginnings (276), Dangor challenges apartheid constructions of blood-bonds, yet the text does nonetheless, and perhaps inevitably, at times remain trapped within a received grammar of racial embodiment and pigmentation. Dangor invests the younger generation with a kind of “exotic” beauty befitting old stereotypes of inbetweenness. Kate, Silas’s friend and ex-counter-intelligence commander, for instance, describes Mikey’s skin as being “tinged with blue, as if he had no colour of his own, as if his complexion was created by absorbing light from elements around him” (71). Silas, in turn, thinks of Vinu as having “a down of bastard gold” with “the gift of indelible beauty that we bushies carry about like a second skin” (274). The “exotic” Mozambican João, through whom Lydia finds partial release from both Du Boise and Silas, is described as “beautiful as jet” (281) with “eyes a bastard green, set deep within a dark face” (261). While these views are expressed by an older generation who lived through the struggle and perhaps cannot help but romanticize the vitality of the young, one wonders about the literary and cultural efficacy of these types.

Nonetheless, Bitter Fruit’s strength lies in its range and in the beautiful heterogeneity of its characters.  It reminds us that the past cannot simply be written off in favour of an artificially constructed harmonious present and that the questions that converge around narratives of interracial rape and retribution will continue to resonate with readers and writers for as long as race remains a primary marker of identity in South Africa.

Notes

[1]

The term "coloured" is used here with an awareness of the contested histories of racial labeling within which it has come into signification in South Africa. Yet I also recognize the creative and resistant processes of identity making that have been taking place under this sign as imposed identities have been renegotiated.

Works Cited

Brown, Audrey. "Die onthou en vergeet van n townshipkind." Insig, Jan-Feb 2002: 70-1.

Meiring, Jean. "The Sweet Fruit of Literary Success." This Day, 21 Oct. 2004: 6.

Samuelson, Meg. "The Rainbow Womb: Rape and Race in South African Fiction of the Transition." Kunapipi, 14.1 (2002): 88-100.