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African Writing Archives


African Pens


African Pens; New Writing from Southern Africa, 2007


 Pessimism in African Pens 2007

pessimism: (noun) the tendency to be sad and anxious and to believe that the worst will happen.

Back in December, as I read African Pens: New Writing from Southern Africa (2007) my artist brother, Peter asked an interesting question: if the title was ‘African pens’ why was the cover artwork dominated by pencils? The anthology engaged my thoughts for another reason: pessimism was the backdrop against which most of the stories were written. In his comment, J. M. Coetzee said:

entrants confront the unhappier aspects of present day society…”(ix)

They certainly did. The issues addressed in the majority of the thirty-one short stories were contemporary and not in the least comforting.

The Mugabe regime and Zimbabwe’s sad state of affairs was attacked by Petina Gappah in The Sound of the Last Post and Rotten Row, by Elizabeth Bishop in Supermarket and by Matt Mbanga in We were meant to live for so much more. Poverty was addressed by Vrenika Pather in Ninema and The Old Man and the Oyster (which reminded me of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea). HIV/ AIDS and social injustice were the main themes of For Honour by Stanley Ojezani Kenani and Broken Wings by Christopher Mlalazi respectively. Further still, rape and crime is engaged by Safe Home by Nadia Davids and How to become a god in three easy steps by Linda McCullough.. Morne Malan manages to successfully cover the controversial topic of homosexuality in “Jason’s Kiss”. The list goes on.

As social critics, the authors simply narrated and illustrated the problems in their societies, but did not necessarily offer any solutions. They managed to capture the futility of life in their writings. To put it more crudely, they constantly seemed to be saying that life was a bitch and there was only so much you could do to pimp it. A good example was “The Rebound” by Steven Marston. The protagonist’s life was monotonous, thus the title (it was anything but a love story). He was repeatedly doing the same thing each day. Everything that he was about to do, he has done before, He knew what was going to happen before it actually happened, leaving no room for excitement and only existence:

And when it’s over I head on home and take my boots off…I sleep then, and then I do it all over again a few more times and then at last somehow it becomes Friday night” (p.139)

Marston achieved a personalized effect by starting the narrative in the first person; yet, halfway through the story, he switches voice and the reader is suddenly being addressed directly, as though the story were an account of his or her life:

“ The weather’s awesome outside so when you choose a girl you can take her to the deck once she’s seen your moves…And there you talk addresses and cars and neighbourhoods and lifts for friends and taxis. The logistics of love…” (p.140)

This makes both situations and characters real and down-to-earth, such that the reader is looking at himself in the mirror, experiencing the same emotions.

Sometimes this resignation about the future is projected by the loss of something in the past. There is a constant yearning for what was: lost loves, hopes and dreams. In a phrase, pessimism is coupled to nostalgia. At times the characters wallow in self-pity and one is tempted to judge them harshly, dismissing them as pathetic characters. Henk in “Going Nowhere” by Kyne Nislev Bernstorff is a perfect example. Having lost both his legs in a bomb explosion nineteen years earlier, he was “[getting] nowhere” because he hadn’t come to terms with his disability. He is a weak personality. I like to draw a contrast between him and the female character in the fact-based motion picture Why I wore Lipstick to my Mastectomy. Whilst battling breast cancer she manages to stay strong. But Henk does not and this (understandably) irritates his friend, Pete . After all, D. H. Lawrence did say, concerning self-pity: “I have never seen a wild thing sorry for itself.

Carolyn Weir’s Collage concludes with the narrator Bill thinking:

“I feel that maybe, after all life doesn’t have to be the way I planned. Perhaps even the pain can still, somehow, be precious”(p.267).

Other stories in which the characters live in the past are: Nostalgia (C.A. Davids), The Summerhouse (Renee Bornochis), Sarah Begins (Karen Jennings), Men and Mermaids (Deborah Klein) and Trojan Horse (Karlien van der Schyff).

Some of the titles even are even suggestive of pessimism: Michelle Sack’s Chronicles of a Naked Heart and Sean Mitchell’s Tears, to mention just two.

There is an indication of possible happiness and hope for the future in a handful of stories. Lynn in the award-winning story Poison by Henrietta Rose-Innes Lynn sits in a rusted car optimistic that help will come along eventually. Also, in How to become a god in three easy steps, the protagonist learns three things from the gods and inadvertently becomes a god himself.

Typical of realism, these stories are melancholic but they are a good read nonetheless, my personal favourites being Ninema and The Rebound. The year is long and I’m eager to see another publication similar to this, but more representative of Southern Africa.



Clara Ndyani

Ndyani is a Malawian
English language
teacher at an Asian
community school in
She writes in her
spare time and
has previously written
for Steve Chimombo
and some Malawian

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