25 Books to Read Before You Die

Original Essays



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Original Essays

Why I Am Not a Zulu

by Lewis DeSoto
  1. A Blade of Grass
    $9.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

    A Blade of Grass

    Lewis Desoto

A black man spat on me in the Uganda airport. He did this because I was white and South African. The year was 1967, I was fifteen. "We are free here," he shouted. "No apartheid!" I slunk away, feeling that I deserved his saliva on my shirt and that he had every right to spit on me.

I threw away my South African passport shortly after I arrived in Canada. I had a love/hate relationship to that passport. On the one hand I was proud it — it was the first one I had ever had and was full of stamps tracing my journeys: Uganda, Athens, London, Manchester, Paris — but I was also ashamed whenever I had to present it at border crossings. Especially in other African countries, where I was not even allowed out of the transit lounge at airports. That passport marked me everywhere as a pariah, one of them, the white oppressors.

I threw away my passport because I had already decided that I would never go back to South Africa. The act was a revocation of my citizenship; a declaration that I would no longer be associated with that country. Apartheid was an era of enforced separation between the races — a physical, political and economic separation. And, most painfully, emotional separation. The tragic irony of apartheid is that while it was a system to ensure the oppression and exploitation of the blacks it also set the white South Africans apart, at home and in the world.

One day, at my new school in Toronto, a student said to me, "Why aren?t you black?" The question was absurd, showing an astonishing ignorance of the state of the world. But upon later reflection I realised that perhaps I had misunderstood the intent of the question. After all, Africa was for the Africans, wasn?t it? And if I had been born there, why was I the wrong colour? Why was I not a Zulu?

I think I found the answer in the writing of A Blade of Grass. It came about this way:

In one of those moments of reverie, half-dream, half-waking, that sometimes come just before sleep, I saw an image of a woman walking on a dusty road in the African countryside, in the country of my youth. Her hair was shorn, she walked barefoot, and although she was a white woman, she wore the clothes of a rural farm-worker. Such an air of tragedy emanated from her that the image lodged itself deeply in my consciousness, haunting me for days afterwards. She seemed to be someone I knew, to have her origin in my own life. This was the woman who became Märit.

I did not wonder where this woman was walking to, because I knew somehow that she walked towards the future. I wondered instead where she had come from, what she had left, why she walked alone. As I retraced her steps in my imagination, along that dusty road, following the imprints of her bare feet in the sand, I saw a farm. Far back along that road that wound through the grass of the veldt and between the thorny acacia trees, stood a farmhouse with white-washed walls and a thatched roof, a windmill turning slowly in the breeze over the corn fields. And standing in front of the house was another woman, a young black woman, shading her eyes against the glare as she peered into the distance where the road disappeared into the distant hills. On her face was an expression of longing, and of hope. This was Tembi.

These images arose out of the depths of my memory, out of emotions that had been lodged in my soul, still there after countless years, after departure, after exile, after the creation of another life in another country. Still the taste of dust on my lips, still the smell of wood-smoke from early morning cooking-fires, still the sound of the cicadas in the long grass. And still the longing and the hope. The tragedy that Märit carried with her and the yearning that was on Tembi?s face were in my heart too.

The small farmhouse in the countryside, at the tip of a continent, becomes a refuge for the two women in a world where all ownership and belonging is in violent dispute. When their fragile friendship breaks down, the house becomes a battleground. It is no stretch of the imagination to think of that small house as a symbol for the country, for the continent, for the world.

I could not write this book until apartheid had ended in South Africa. Not for any political reason, but because apartheid had put a lock on my memory and my imagination. To write a book about South Africa while the system of racial oppression existed would have meant writing a political book, as an act and a statement. But there were other voices, better able than mine, more urgent, more desperate, that were speaking the necessary truths in those years. With the breaking of the chains that strangled the country came a release in my own heart, a return from an exile that allowed me to cease mourning, and to believe in the future again.

I left South Africa in 1967, as a teenager, and yet 35 years later I can write a novel about that country precisely because memory and emotion are still alive, even though the 'facts' of my upbringing have long since faded away.

When I threw away my passport I knew I was giving up my past as well as my home. A Blade of Grass is written out of memory, not the facts of history but the emotions caused by history. At the heart of the book is a simple question: Where is home? All the characters and all the actions are driven by this question. Where do I lay my head at night to sleep undisturbed and wake to serenity and peace? The anxiety that comes from not being able to answer the question is what gives the book its air of tension, and its tragedy.

The language and style of the book have an intentional cadence and rhythm that owes a great deal to my memory of hearing stories from the Bible. During my childhood I was very moved by the narratives of the Old Testament. Tembi and Märit seem to me to exist in that elemental, almost archaic landscape. Their story of struggle and sacrifice and exile is an old, old one, yet it continues to this day, all over the world, still being created and played out in the lives of those who still ask, Where is home?

Home is not only a physical place, it is very much where the heart rests. The attempt at friendship between the two women, Märit and Tembi, of such disparate backgrounds, with so many impediments standing between them, is also an attempt to find a home — a home for the spirit and the heart, where both hope and love can exist.

So, why am I not a Zulu? My family have been in South Africa for generations, which makes us part of the Afrikaaner tribe. But before that we came from Europe. Which makes us French, or Dutch, or Spanish, or German. And before that? Gauls? Goths? And before that? Who knows? To reason backwards in this way is absurd. I am no longer part of any tribe. Instead, to use Bishop Desmond Tutu?s phrase, I am part of the Rainbow Nation. That?s the tribe to which we all belong. spacer

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