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Maya Fowler

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Coconuts and Boerewors Wellington

Where do unused languages go, why do they get lost, and should we care?

If you haven’t read Coconut yet, you should try it. It’s a powerful book, poignant and pervaded with sadness, but also fantastically hilarious in parts. It’s about loss of heritage, language loss, and the desire to fit into a culture viewed as superior. In this case, it’s about learning to be white, and leaving your black traditions, including your language, sePedi, this time, behind forever.

Here’s one of the passages that got me thinking:

“Where does an unused language go? Is it packed away in an old crumbly cereal box along with a misplaced tomato, your old locker code, first telephone number and the location of your budgie’s grave, and then shoved into the dusty garage space of our brain? Or is it blown up or deleted or is it shredded up into a gazillion fragments or degenerated or decomposed into a nasty smell and excreted out of your body?”
(Coconut by Kopano Matlwa, Jacana Media, 2007)

While the novel concerns the phenomenon of black people aspiring to white English culture, the book really struck a chord with me, white and Afrikaans as I am. You might find that strange, even thinking that I’m the last person in the world who should identify with Ofilwe, the main character in Part 1. What gives me the right, you might ask. But the truth is, for most of my life I, too, have been – to put it in the colourful turn of phrase my linguistic heritage allows – living wydsbeen between two cultures.

Being raised in an Afrikaans home but educated in English means that I think in English some of the time, and in Afrikaans at other times. I pray – when I do – in English. But I still speak Afrikaans to most cats. They respond well to names like “maatjie” and “goggo”, and phrases like “die kle-e-einste ou kietergog”, and these aren’t things one can really translate.

And when Afrikaans metaphors and turns of phrase crop up in my mind, I write in Afrikaans. (Look out for “Geld Wat Brand” in this year’s Maskew Miller anthology for schools, Sussie Veer is Dood en Ander Verhale and “Man Alleen” in the forthcoming issue of New Contrast.)

Bilingual vs monolingual

Unlike the unfortunate character in Coconut, the bilingual experience has, I believe, enriched me. But there’s the thing – the word I just used – bilingual. Not monolingual. No enforced shift. So it was enriching, because I was never expected to leave anything behind. However, things are never that straightforward …

In any case, unlike the generation of black children being raised in the mists of some Anglo-American dream, I count myself lucky. My parents are both proud of their language, and there was never any attempt to suppress it. I love Afrikaans for its rich vocabulary, and for the very specific tone of voice I achieve when I write fiction in it, and for words like “vuurvreter” and “krotbuurt” (sounds like what it is) and “Pikgitiena” (the name some clever translator invented for Sootica, the sister of Gobbolino, the witch’s cat).

Tension: Home vs the outside world

But, as I’ve mentioned before, it’s complicated. For all the love and pride, there’s also the harsh criticism and prejudice that have made me want to hide my roots at times. And that’s a sad thing, as much for me as for Ofilwe or anyone else trying to deny their heritage. The problem was never my family. Nobody was looking to “try for English”, or aspire to leaving Afrikaans behind. The problem was the outside world.

So, why might one feel embarrassed about being Afrikaans, apart from the taint of apartheid, that damned spot that just won’t out? One problem is that stereotypes continue to capture the imagination, as ever. Afrikaans people are all illiterate racists who walk around with combs in their socks, lie under cars all weekend, and think Shakespeare is a traditional weapon to be outlawed, right?

Picture yourself, an Afrikaans child in an English school, having to listen to stories about how “thick” Dutchmen (aka boneheads) are. (For a very accurate and moving portrayal of the tensions between English and Afrikaans in this country, read The Children’s Day by Michiel Heyns. It’s witty, poignant and absolutely hilarious. I can’t recommend it enough.)

And now: learn to say your own name!

Back to the scenario of being an Afrikaans child at an English school. Forget about the teachers. You can count on your classmates to give you an education. Like Coconut’s Ofilwe, who is taught to say “uh-vin” not “oh-vin”, I was instructed on pronunciation: “ga-luh” not “ga-lah”; “fruhnge” not “fringe”; even my own name: “may-uh” not “may-ah”!

Then of course, another thing that might make a white Afrikaans person blush (Afrikaans person, yes, because not all of us necessarily see ourselves as Afrikaners): the people who’ve chosen to desert the language. In the case of the coloured community, the reasons are utterly understandable. You don’t want to go and show solidarity with a government that is trying its best to marginalise you. So, yes, it’s understandable, but I feel really sad for what they’ve left behind. I find Kaapse Afrikaans, a rich, lovely form. And look what powerful, beautiful protest literature Adam Small crafted from it!

I could carry on at length about Kaaps. I love the accent, the inflections, the ease with which it rolls off the tongue. Quite often I’ll find myself queuing in a shop, listening to the cashiers chatting away. Then I’ll pay for my groceries and my Burger, try to say something in Afrikaans, and then get a reply in English. It always leaves me disappointed, this inability to connect in a shared language. I want to say, “It’s yours as much as it is mine!” But I don’t. Because I’m more vocal on paper or through the ether than in real life. Ask anyone.

Furthermore, slurs abound, and they’re not great for self-image. One that somehow always wounds me deeply is the aforementioned “Dutchmen”. I had one of the most monumental arguments of my life over being called this. Recently. Of course, the irony is that most people who would call someone a Dutchman wouldn’t know Dutch from German, or probably even Afrikaans, if they heard it. And the person who called me this was hardly a cornerstone of culture either, but it takes insensitive and obnoxious people to feed misunderstanding, and insensitive people, it seems, abound.

On a lighter note – I think – recently I found out that Jewish people, too, have a derogatory term for Afrikaners, namely chateisim. (Hope I have the spelling right there.) It means “infidels”, which is actually exactly what that dreaded k-word we know too well means. So on one level I find it completely hilarious. Poetic justice, even. But by just thinking that way, am I not, too, buying into the stereotype I’m trying to smash to pieces?

As I’m trying to work out my identity, I can only say this: at some point, one has to drop anchor somewhere. Maybe there’s a compromise between the best you can take from your home, your ancestry, and the world? How can you leave everything behind?

So, what now?

It’s a dangerous game: You work hard at making yourself fit into a certain sphere, but then suddenly spheres shift. You might want to be white English, but then in fifty years time, perhaps, you’re nobody if you ain’t Mandarin. There’s continental drift, you find yourself in a new milieu, what now? Which part of yourself are you going to renounce this time? The heritage into which you were born, or the crystal palace you built yourself?


Recent comments:

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    September 22nd, 2009 @21:13 #

    Bump. Big post here - and nifty formatting to boot. Thanks, Maya.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Lauren Beukes</a>
    Lauren Beukes
    September 22nd, 2009 @21:17 #

    Identity is such a fraught uptight little animal in South Africa, backed into a corner with its hackles up. Nice to see you taming the critter, or at least coaxing it out into the sunlight to be critically observed (dissected? no, Helen wouldn't stand for that).

    Great reading recommends and I'd never heard of chateism - totally fascinating. Thanks for this!

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    September 22nd, 2009 @21:29 #

    A fascinating, meaty post. I am married to someone who negotiates this precise identity crisis on a daily basis. I think he will get a lot out of this.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    September 23rd, 2009 @00:01 #

    Grand post, esp as no dissection, just thoughtful observation. (The title is suggestive of a weird recipe.) I first found out what identity was when I was six and heard a neighbouring farmer say (in Afrikaans to his wife) "Get that bloody Englishwoman and her children off my property." He was talking about my mother, myself and my little sister.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    September 23rd, 2009 @01:45 #

    Excellent piece. It brings to mind the gang of English lads we Hollanders (my brother and I) ran with as teenagers. Occasionally, we'd get into clay-lat fights with a gang of Afrikaans lads. This would regularly prompt someone to shout: "Let's moer those [expletive] Dutchmen!" Whereupon someone else would apologetically mumble: "We don't mean you."

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Kopano</a>
    September 24th, 2009 @17:48 #

    hi maya, thanks for the lovely mentions of coconut. your piece was lovely and enlightening to read, and im always so fascinated by how multicultural the pressures of westernisation are. if you come to any answers, let me know:)

    warmest of regards


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