Remembering Achmat Dangor, the South African novelist who redefined identity

Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images

Ronit Frenkel, University of Johannesburg

In his 71 years, Achmat Dangor was many things to many people, both in South Africa and across the world. He was a lifelong activist and social justice advocate. He was once banned for his political activities in resistance to apartheid. He was a cultural leader at the centre of the Congress of South African Writers, a tireless development organiser and, for six years, the chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. For me, he was above all an extraordinary novelist and poet who expanded how I think.

I was a graduate student when, quite by chance, I picked up a copy of Dangor’s 1997 novel Kafka’s Curse in Exclusive Books in Johannesburg. It was 2001 and I was starting to write my dissertation proposal. I read Kafka’s Curse and realised that I had to change topics, such was the impact of the novella on my intellectual life.

It remains a formative novel in my understanding of South African culture, and a favourite novel due to the sheer pleasure to be found in its writing, in its gorgeous prose and magical, mythical landscape.

The complexity of culture

In Kafka’s Curse the characters shift and transform. The protagonist Oscar Kahn is revealed to be Omar Khan, both coloured and Muslim, who has passed as Jewish and white by changing two letters of his name. His wife leaves him as his illness progresses, an illness which poisons his lungs and turns his skin into bark just as Nelson Mandela becomes South Africa’s first democratically elected president.

In many ways, Dangor’s fiction represented the shifts that South African literature and culture underwent in the early days of the country’s transition to democracy. His was a focus on the relationship between race, memory and apartheid constructions.

Both the form and the content of his novels highlight the ambiguous character of identity and history. They offer a complex and nuanced alternative to dominant understandings of South Africa, ones that moved away from a logic of black and white, good and bad, past and present, and into a textured and intricate conception of the country’s culture.

An illustration of a tree with an orange fruit in its branches.

Pantheon Books

They certainly changed my own understandings of my world. Kafka’s Curse showed me that South Africans were not always one thing or another, but had to deny the complexities of identity in order to fit into apartheid’s system of racial categorisation.

In a post-apartheid context, Dangor’s characters reveal the irrepressible mix of South African identities. In Kafka’s Curse he applied the legend of Majnoen to South African culture in a short novel written of rich prose that is often described as magical realist in terms of genre. In an interview with Bold Type magazine, he himself described it as follows:

The ancient Arabic legend of Leila and Majnoen (‘a name as well as a madness’) is a cautionary moral tale: tamper with the hierarchy of a society’s structure and you threaten its orderliness, and hence its very existence.

Ask the Caliph who caused his daughter Leila and her lover Majnoen so much suffering: his caliphate probably did not endure as long as their legend.

The legend of Majnoen in South Africa becomes a story of enduring love that defies despotic rule. Apartheid meanings are interrogated from the points that it denied existed – the ambiguities or overlaps between its lines of racial categorisation. This is embodied by the figure of Oscar/Omar.

Like when I first read it, these ambiguities unravel what my own graduate students think they know when I teach this book today. Kafka’s Curse muddies the line between the imagined and the lived reality of racial constructions.

The uncertainty of the past

In his internationally acclaimed 2001 novel Bitter Fruit, Dangor continued his investigation of ambiguity by exploring the line between silence and speaking up. He did this by looking at the impact of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), set up by the Mandela government to deal with the atrocities of apartheid. While Kafka’s Curse explored these issues around South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994, Bitter Fruit dealt with similar issues around the second election in 1999. Its focus was the uncertainties of history and memory.

A painting of a pomegranate torn open on the cover of a book.

Atlantic Books

Bitter Fruit was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2004 and is probably Dangor’s best-known work. Set in urban Johannesburg, the narrative focuses on Silas and Lydia Ali and their son Mikey. As their relationships begin to unravel at the end of the Mandela presidency, silence surrounds the characters’ pasts as a counterpoint against which to examine the impact of the TRC as a form of cultural articulation.

How do we deal with our past and the uncertainties of history, Dangor asks, in a novel that floats back and forth between present and past, speech and silence, public and private.

Bitter Fruit’s three sections – memory, confession and retribution – act as counterpoints against which the TRC’s processes of speak, grieve and heal are situated. He doesn’t offer any neat solutions, but traces different ways of dealing with our past. In much the same way that the TRC could not construct a unified idea of South African history but merely offered one piece of a fragmentary story, Dangor illustrated the ambiguity inherent in the various ways we synthesise that past as individuals and as a society as a whole.

In each of his books, he explored questions that shifted these sorts of cultural debates. Dangor’s last novel, Dikeledi (2017), sits on my bedside table and I wonder what new knowledge lies within its pages for me to discover, what questions will be explored that I cannot articulate myself.

Rest in peace Achmat Dangor, my teacher in novelistic form.The Conversation

Ronit Frenkel, Professor of English, University of Johannesburg

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Quarantine envy’ could finally wake people up to the deep inequalities that pervade American life

Envy is one of the seven deadly sins – the worst of them all, according to the ‘Canterbury Tales.’
Richard Donaghue/EyeEm via Getty Images

Jessica Rosenfeld, Washington University in St Louis

In recent months, mental health experts have been drawing attention to what they’ve dubbed “quarantine envy.”

Many people, they note, have been sizing up the extent to which they’ve been affected by lockdowns and economic hardship. Who still has a job? Who gets to work from home? Whose home is spacious, light-filled and Instagram-worthy?

The start of the school year adds another layer of comparison. Parents stuck in a small apartment with two kids forced to learn remotely might feel pangs about the fact that their friend’s kids get to attend a private school in person.

What should we do with these unpleasant feelings? Should we repress them or reason them away? Are they too shameful to be shared?

Envy is one of Christianity’s seven deadly sins – the worst of them all, says the Parson in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” But my research into the long history of envy shows that the emotion has many sides to it.

Some are certainly destructive. But envy can also be useful. The “sin” can help us better understand ourselves and the world around us – and it can be a key driver of social change.

Tales of envy

Envy has a bad reputation. Everyone feels it at one point or another, although we often don’t want to admit to being truly envious of others – harboring the kind of envy that gnaws at us and makes us feel inferior.

One man – representing envy – stands with his palms out and one eye blinded. The other – greed – has both his eyes blinded.
A 15th-century illustration of a classic fable of envy and greed.
Morgan Library

Portraits of envy can show it as an astonishingly malicious emotion. One version of a popular fable tells the story of an envious man and a greedy man being given a single wish. The one condition is that the person who does not get to choose the reward will be given double what the other man wishes. The greedy man quickly asks that the envious man be given the choice; the envious man then wishes to be blinded in one eye.

In William Langland’s poem “Piers Plowman,” the personification of Envy confesses that all he wants is for his neighbor, “Gybbe,” to have something bad happen to him; he wants this even more than he wants cheese (which is saying a lot, if you ask me!).

In these stories, envy is typically defined as wanting misfortune for others, longing to feel superior in some way or at least making them just as miserable as you are.

Late medieval literature is also filled with stories that point to envy as a source of violence.

The chronicler Jean Froissart describes the social unrest associated with the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 as a consequence of the envy the commoners had toward the nobles and the rich.

Here – and elsewhere – envy is a label used to diminish the political claims of a particular group of people. In 2012, Mitt Romney accused Barack Obama of practicing the “bitter politics of envy.” In this way, criticism of the rich or powerful, or wanting the wealthy to be taxed more to fund public services, brings accusations of petty envy and resentment.

When envy spurs social change

Modern understandings of envy are also related to other kinds of negative feelings, like anger that someone has undeserved wealth or frustration that certain groups are hoarding money, power, or privileges.

Here is where envy can take a turn that can lead to better outcomes. Envy can be productive when it is not directed at one person in particular but is instead directed at the way society is structured.

Economists and political scientists increasingly recognize that reducing inequality can be an end in itself. Envy – even the kind of nakedly competitive envy that seeks to damage others for no personal gain – can work to regulate inequality that has grown too wide.

Political scientist Jeffrey Green defends policies driven by a “reasonable envy” that targets the well off, even if there is no expectation of gain for everyone else. For example, he says that capping wealth might lower the material welfare for all, but this would be worth the reduction in inequality, since excessive or unjust inequality can lead to instability and feelings of disempowerment among ordinary citizens.

Economist Robert Frank prefers taxing consumption to reduce “luxury fever,” in which competitive spending escalates wildly, especially among the super-rich, leaving less money for individuals and the government to spend on essential services.

Personification of envy, wearing a veil and green dress, sits on a bench with her arms folded.
An illustration of the personification of envy from a medieval manuscript.
The Morgan Library

In their new book, “The Economic Other,” political scientists Meghan Condon and Amber Wichowsky open with the line, “The human imagination is an engine of comparison.”

In their studies, they show that politics is driven by the social imagination – and Americans have fewer opportunities for comparison because of increasing class segregation in our society. Middle-class and poorer Americans see the wealthy online and on TV but not in everyday life. The authors believe policies might become more just if there were more opportunities for “upward comparison” – if everyday Americans could simply see, in their day-to-day lives, the extent to which the wealthy lead extravagant lives. Their research suggests that envious comparison would lead to more support for government spending on welfare, Social Security and education.

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Dwelling with envy

Aristotle has a much more specific – and negative – definition of envy. In his view, the emotion is directed toward our equals. We become envious when our neighbors have something we desire and believe we deserve, and when we feel it is our own fault that we do not have that good thing.

He distinguishes envy from other comparative feelings like emulation, indignation or pity. These kinds of distinctions are helpful, because thinking carefully about emotions can give us information about ourselves and our environment. Some philosophers describe emotions as reasoning tools, a shortcut to filter copious amounts of information.

In a time of quarantine – when comparisons often involve who has the best version of being alone – dwelling with envy can open our eyes to ourselves and the world.

Do these negative feelings say something about ourselves? Are they specific to another person? Or do they reflect an unjust system?

Can these disparities change? If so, what could bring that about?

Trying to manage or avoid envious feelings doesn’t allow us to answer – or even ask – those questions.The Conversation

Jessica Rosenfeld, Associate Professor of English Literature, Washington University in St Louis

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.