When I first met Glen Retief, the man who would become my husband, he informed me he was a writer. Inwardly I scoffed, “Yeah, right, everyone is a writer.” But a few weeks after our relationship started heating up, he sent me a draft chapter from a memoir he was writing. I read one paragraph and my eyes popped, “Whoa, he really is a writer!” In fact, he is a fine ass writer. Glen ended up winning the 2012 Lambda Literary Prize in the Gay Memoir category for his book, The Jack Bank–A Memoir of a South African Childhood.
Not only is the writing good, his book is fast-paced, it is action packed with a brush with lions in Kruger Park, queer activism during Apartheid in Cape Town, and an Inkatha attack in SOWETO. The book has it all: Wild life, gay sex, violence, and liberation. Recently Glen was feted at the Cape Town Book Fair and honored for his work as a queer activist during the transition to a new South Africa.
In May Glen and I travelled with 15 Susquehanna University students for the Travel Writing in South Africa two week course. This was not your typical tourist trip to South Africa. We mostly stayed in private homes in rural Zulu, Tsonga, and Venda villages. Sleeping on the floor, doing my business in the fields, and having to negotiate ox head soup for lunch became a part of my daily life. It was wonderful, but any true cultural immersion has its tensions.
Writing for Inside Higher Ed, Glen relates an unsettling experience in one of the villages with lots of misunderstanding all around.
“You wouldn’t believe what just happened!” says Jade, a light-skinned Dominican student from Long Island.
“What a workout,” pants Steph, a short, vivacious brunette from rural Pennsylvania.
Their story tumbles out, even as the outside racket builds and two, four, then seven or so kids poke their heads against the entrance grate, some of them thrusting forward open palms for money—annoyed, I shake my head and shout Voertsek, scram!
What I learn from our students is that around noon, at the homestead where Jenna, Liz, Sarah, and Abby are staying, an impromptu party began. A phone connected to battery-powered speakers; neighbors dropping by. Our students swung around the young children; played hide and seek with them. Then, as the crowd grew, local kids demanded to show the four Americans some Tsonga dance moves. To be good sports, they played along, generating, of course, much laughter and merriment. Then the Tsonga kids began to imitate US vocal pitches and accents by pinching their noses, a game that had already been getting on the Americans’ nerves from the previous day.
“At first it all just seemed in good fun,” says Liz, sitting in the living-room. “We understand—we’re exotic. But the joke went on too long, and then at some point it wasn’t good-natured anymore. It began to seem aggressive.”
Glen admits in the piece that at this point he judges his students and me harshly. He looked disdainfully down on us as uninformed and misguided Americans who completely misunderstood South African rural culture.
Yet now, in the face of this evidently sincere anguish, I’m surprised at how irritable and unsympathetic I’m feeling towards these students, towards Peterson for identifying with their distress, and towards Americans in general—my adopted compatriots. Within a US cultural framework, this situation seems to evoke scenarios from emotional safety presentations. For me as a South African, though, my current associations are different.
Right now, for example, I’m thinking of the old colonial comic books I read as a child. Tintin in the jungle, doing who-knows-what to upset hundreds of natives, and then shrugging in passive helplessness at their unintelligible reaction: a shrug repeated hundreds of times in my early years, as my white friends and family shook their heads in bewilderment at the peculiar ways of “the blacks.” Or the “inscrutable intentions” in Heart of Darkness, a literary mystery that infuriated Chinua Achebe so much, he penned that classic portrait of coherent African reasoning and motivation, Things Fall Apart.
Or, to be perfectly honest—this isn’t a thought that shapes itself into words, in the moment, but later I will recognize its unconscious power—the vast crime of apartheid itself, perpetrated by white South Africans when we allowed themselves, specifically, to get spooked by the vision of black people, in large numbers, bullying us. I may not completely realize it yet, but this is the button my students’ fears are pushing—the story of my home country’s near-destruction—massacres, murders, brutality—by white terror.
Even weeks after the encounter, my conversations with Glen were tense over what happened and how we both interpreted it. But as a skilled writer, Glen eventually sat down and explored the encounter, his own feelings, and his own history. He ultimately created a thoughtful and meaningful personal essay that brings clarity and light.
Find out how things turn out: On Study Abroad, Conscripted Dances, and Mysterious Natives