Monthly Archives: June 2019

Review: Like Family – Domestic Workers in South African History and Literature by Ena Jansen

Like FamilyThe relationship between domestic workers and their employers in South Africa has a complex and deeply troubled history. Yet, it lies at the heart of many local homes, whichever side of this relationship you find yourself on: as job creator or taker. The connection between the two defines everyday life for millions of South Africans. For foreigners, it is often unfathomable. Thus, I found Ena Jansen’s study of the subject, Like Family: Domestic Workers in South African History and Literature, extremely illuminating.

Having grown up in a Polish working-class family, I was taught to do all domestic work myself. Also, there was a time in my life when I cleaned other people’s houses to make money, but the transactions with my employers – cash for services rendered – did not involve much socio-historical baggage. Despite, or maybe because of, these experiences, after first moving to Cape Town, I found it incredibly difficult to adjust to having staff in the home I shared for a decade with my late husband. I now live alone and have returned to taking care of my home and garden on my own, finding it easier to negotiate. But I understand that my situation is exceptional within the context of South African history; I only know one other middle-class household where a domestic worker is not employed to clean up after the family.

My personal recollections and observations might seem irrelevant as such, but they point to the greatest achievement of Jansen’s book: no matter what else, Like Family will make you re-examine your position in this historically fraught set-up. Jansen herself recalls the women who took care of her and her family throughout their lives and invites her readers to reflect on their own situations through the prisms of South African history and literature.

First published in Afrikaans in 2015, Like Family has been updated and now includes references to more recent publications. By tracing the relationship between families and the people they either forced or employed to do their domestic work from mid-17th century to the present, Jansen unearths the origins of what the narrator of Barbara Fölscher’s short story “Kinders grootmaak is nie pap en melk nie” (Raising children is not simply a matter of porridge and milk, 2002) calls “a wound in my house”. It is a striking image, and most apt to illustrate the dynamics of violence, uncertainty and suffering that characterise the relationship and its background.

Rooted in slavery, the ties between domestic workers and their employers have undergone many changes in South Africa and resulted in a “peculiar, often contradictory form of duty and dependence”. Jansen sees the relationship as defining in comprehending race, class and gender relations in South Africa. Like Family is not a comfortable read, but its insights have the potential to change lives.

Like Family: Domestic Workers in South African History and Literature

Ena Jansen

Wits UP, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 21 June 2019.

Review: Zikr by Saaleha Idrees Bamjee

saaleha-idrees-bamjee-zikrZikr is the debut poetry collection of the writer and photographer Saaleha Idrees Bamjee. Once opened, it is not a book you will want to close again easily, unless for a moment of silence to contemplate the beauty of what you have just read before you return eagerly for more.

In interviews, Bamjee talks about how the poems grew out of a deep sense of longing and loss, most poignantly expressed in poems like After a Miscarriage, or My World Today with the opening sentence “No babies yet”, or We Are Building Your House which ends with the lines “I have cleared a space in my mind, child / in my waking hours, and in my heart. / We are framing your memories, and waiting.”

Infertility, death, devotion and what it means to be an independent woman in a world of traditions are the major themes of this delicately woven volume. Its fabric is durable enough to hold the heaviest of struggles. One of my favourite pieces in Zikr is the prose poem Women on Beaches which includes the lines “The first bathing suit was a wooden house wheeled into the sea. They used to sew weights into hemlines. Drowning was a kind of modesty.”

The title of the book refers to “the remembrance of God” and some of the most powerful poems in the collection capture moments of exquisite spirituality: “My hands / are not big enough / to grasp prayer, / my tongue not loose enough / to utter them” (I, the Divine).

With Zikr, Bamjee establishes herself as a poet of grace, allowing readers to find solace and strength in her words: “I won’t pack sand around your heart. I will fill your mouth with zephyrs. / I will leave a bomb in your hand and quietly close the door.”

Zikr

by Saaleha Idrees Bamjee

uHlanga, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 14 June 2019.

Saaleha Idrees Bamjee with Nick Mulgrew

Saaleha Idrees Bamjee with her publisher Nick Mulgrew at EB Cavendish

Review: London Undercurrents – The Hidden Histories of London’s Unsung Heroines, North and South of The River by Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire

London UndercurrentsThe Thames runs through it. North and south of the famous river lie the “hidden histories” of mostly forgotten women. London Undercurrents brings them vividly back into our literary consciousness in this remarkable collection, written and compiled by two of the city’s female poets. Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire researched the past of these two geographical spaces located around the natural aquatic divide and retrieved from its archives the voices of women who have occupied them throughout the ages: “Woke up to find / I’d lived here half my life. / Felt the pull of community. / Began to dig. Began to sow.”

From Catherine Boucher, who upon marrying William Blake learned “to sign my own proud name”, or a young pupil who remembers being taught by Mary Wollstonecraft – “this woman who drove us towards / betterment in spite of ourselves” at the end of the 18th century – to a mother whose heart “still leaps / when police sirens call” and she remembers her son, a victim of gang violence in the 1960s, the poems in London Undercurrents capture the lives of women from diverse backgrounds, all sharing a city away from its usual spotlights.

Reading, we witness a street seller enticing passers-by to buy her cheese in 1575, discover what it must have been like for a fourteen-year-old to become an apprentice laundress in the 1890s, or we march along concert goers on their way to see the Sex Pistols in 1977 and are told to “take a good look”: “We’re pretty in black, / mother, daughter, sister, Punk.” What emerges through these evocative and accessible poems is a unique urban chronicle that is a joy to engage with.

London Undercurrents: The Hidden Histories of London’s Unsung Heroines, North and South of The River

by Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire

Holland Park Press, 2019

Review first appeared in the Cape Times on 7 June 2019.