Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Formal Body and the Subtle Body

Deleuze and Guattari say that we all are at once an organism and a Body without Organs.

Buddhists say that we have at once a formal body and a subtle body.

As far as I can see, the formal body=the organism and the subtle body=the Body without Organs.

The difference is between an external and internal perspective.  The organism, according to Deleuze and Guattari, is the ‘organ-isation’ imposed on top of the Body without Organs.  To be an organism is to be all internally subdivided into self-contained little organs which can be anatomised, worked on surgically, diagramed and colour coded.  Metaphorically, it is to have a socially embedded identity.  Your organism is that you which can fit into a form: write your name in block capitals, and then tick the appropriate boxes for sex, race, age, profession.  And don’t leave the house without your wallet and your pants!

Similarly, the ‘formal’ body or matierial body is that which has form, which has matter, which can be perceived by and exists for others.  And it corresponds to an ego.  It’s all very self-contained and relatively stable.  The organism and the formal body are neat, and from there we can easily move into a modern Western fixation on the polite body versus the grotesque body.  The polite body farts silently and pretends it wasn’t me.  The grotesque body shits explosively and has a big laugh about it.

The subtle body is the body as experienced internally.  With a throbbing headache, the subtle body has a huge head, for example.  The subtle body of an amputee may still have that limb–the source of terrible phantom pains.

The Body without Organs is that in you which is not contained by and in fact protests against all of the labelling of identity.  Rather than self-contained organs, we have all those permeable membranes, arranged in patterns but pulsing, linked with flows, sparking with electricity.  There is the you that gets lost, that gets high, that goes mad, that slips free of all the organisation.

The subtle body of Buddhism is, it seems, less a thing in revolt.  There are pathways laid out for it, and there are maps and diagrams drawn for it.  The chakras are an anatomy of the subtle body, of the paths by which intensities move through the body.  Tantric yoga is a way of working with the subtle body, getting the intensities to flow in a certain way, and coming to understand an absolute connection between the self and the other (so much so that there seems to be no division).  It’s a way of stepping out of a contained formal body into a subtle body that embraces and transcends dualism.

The Body without Organs is a 20th century Western coming towards the subtle body.  And it is a subversive thing, a thing which it’s hard to talk about and understand.  This is clear from the way that Deleuze and Guattari write about it.  They write about the BwO of the drug user, across which intensities of cold circulate, freezing the spinal column, approaching absolute zero.  Or the BwO created by a masochist program–sew up my arse, put a bit in my mouth and beat me with a crop so that waves of pain will flow across my BwO and that I may become a horse.  The schizophrenic is the BwO par excellence, so that Napoleon, God and Anastasia become names by one can designate zones of intensity–not so different from chakras, really.  When Bessie Head writes that Elizabeth is becoming Isis and David and Al Capone, she’s mapping Elizabeth’s subtle body.

The trouble is, of course, that the BwO (versus the subtle body) isn’t so well hooked up to cultural apparatuses in the West, and if one dismantles the organism in a hurry and all alone, that’s a very dangerous project.  You can bring the whole structure crashing down on you.  You might go out of your mind and not come back.  Head’s Elizabeth gets way far out of herself, all the way to heaven an hell, and it makes her suicidal–she needs the interventions of hospitals twice.  It’s not that those hospitals understand what’s going on at all, but they give her an anchor and haul her back from the extremes of her demented journeying.  And so, although they don’t seem very aware of Buddhism or Hinduism and the close equivalents there, Deleuze and Guattari urge caution, careful practice, when one is constructing a BwO.  What are the forms of Buddhism (the various ‘yanas’), after all, but practices, methods, tools?

She and Harold Weren’t Getting On

Bessie Head’s A Question of Power is a famously autobiographical novel about the mental breakdown of Elizabeth, whose chidhood and current circumstances closely resemble Head’s own.  In letters to her friend Randolphe Vigne, she says that he’ll see plenty of her son in the book (as the “small boy”) and asks if he’s recognised their mutual friend Pat Rensburg as “the Eugene man.”

Given these broad parallels, there’s a difference between Elizabeth’s fictional life and Head’s biography which seems very cheeky indeed.  Elizabeth and Head both leave South Africa following the breakdown of their marriages…

Elizabeth’s husband is a Buddhist gangster just out of jail who is bedding every woman in the neighborhood and has a white boyfriend as well.

Head’s husband, Howard, was a journalist and activist and, according to Vigne at least, a relatively quiet soul compared to the hot-tempered Bessie.

Ouch, Bessie Head.  Ouch.

Schizophrenia, Cancer and Viruses: Splitting, Othering and Crossing

[Some thoughts on schizophrenia, cancer and viruses–and how they can be read as different models for understanding our relationship to the world.]

Schizophrenia, according to Deleuze and Guattari, is the quintessential madness of capitalism.  The processes of this kind of madness are the processes fundamental to capitalism, taken to the extreme.  The schiz- is the splitting apart.  An internal splitting of self from self, as capitalism divides selves from selves, self from action, process from product, use value from exchange value.  If we follow Laing, the schizophrenic self is subdivided–not necessarily into ‘split personalities’ but into an exaggerated version of internal and external reality.  Between inner ‘truth’ and outer performance, until they correspond hardly at all, speeding towards the limits of alienation.  From these processes of splitting, a fantastic momentum is acquired.  Schizophrenia is a process of restless motion and appropriation, taking on all the personas of history, all the tribes of the world.

If schizophrenia is the madness of capitalism, then cancer is surely its disease.*  Cancer is the result of a certain type of cell growing uncontrollably, reproducing (more splitting) when it should be stopping or dying.  Cancer is the body gone monomaniacal.  Barbara Ehrenreich, describing her experience with breast cancer in Bright-Sided, has a wonderful line about the cancer cells being little fantatics of “Barbara.”  Cancer is what happens when part of the body forgets itself as part of the body, breaks the pattern which connects.  Any ‘self’ that we have is only that: a pattern which connects, interlinked processes, balanced flows.

Cancerous cells not only divide, they invade and they spread.  It is the self which forgets itself and attacks itself, and in the process, the self becomes ‘other.’

Cancer is the pathological emergence of self/other.  The body (this pattern of flows) is a multiple unity.  Yes?  There is no splitting of finger from hand from wrist from arm.  A red blood cell, a neuron, a bone cell–they are diverse manifestations of an underlying unity, their shared DNA.  They are ‘one’ with each other and with the whole body in the same sort of way, I believe, that Buddhism suggests we are ‘one’ with the universe.  But the cancerous cell is the cell which has no sense of its unity with or connection to the other cells of the body.  Not realising that any one cell is coextensive with every cell and thus is everywhere by being just where it is, the cancer cells invade and spread.  They already were their neighbouring cells, they already were the blood and the lymph–but no, they’ve gone all literal, so they take over, they replace those cells with endless copies of themselves.

When you can’t recognise connections, you start playing the game of Self and Other, and it’s a fundamentally destructive game, in which nothing makes so much sense as invasion and colonisation.  Wordsworth’s daffodils colonising every classroom in the Empire, just as Starbucks and McDonalds colonise the city corners now.  The cancer spreads its disconnection, its mad heedless growth.  And of course, the products of that growth, the world which capitalism’s disconnected growth has created is the world in which we ourselves become cancerous.

And what is the opposite of cancer?  What’s the opposite of the self-obsessed, self-consuming self?  The part which refuses connection to the whole?  I reckon it’s the virus.  Yes, the virus also spreads and invades and destroys (and yes, viruses cause some cancers), but the dynamic is very different.  The virus is an agent of radical interconnectedness.  It’s an agent of crossings, existing on the border between living and non-living.  It’s that which can only live through and within another.  And cell membranes are made to receive them, to welcome them in, and when they welcome them, they welcome god knows how many creatures all at once.  Because, you see, viruses are promiscuous; they like to mingle.  They mingle DNAs.  It’s called horizontal gene transfer, the process by which a virus brings scraps of genetic material from one organism to the other, one species to another to another.  Spreading genes not by sex but contagion–not lineage, not mommy-daddy-me, but a wide, strange mixing.  It’s the Island of Dr Moreau in there.  The infected cells, on a genetic level, engage in a process of becoming: becoming-bird, becoming-pig, becoming-monkey, whatever.  And our bodies, well, the pattern is very complex, and it’s much more than just the diverse manifestations of a single code.  The unity is much more polychromatic.  Our bodies are complex interkingdom ecosystems, and even our own mitochondrion seem to be bacterial collaborators.  Viruses speak to our radical interconnectedness , the artificiality of divisions between self and other, self and world.  The body is permeable and constantly permeated on every level.  It is an ecology through which organisms flow.  These flows can engage the body in becomings–potentially enriching, potentially disruptive and destructive–which demonstrate our fundamental, inescapable openness.

*I’ve just seen that John McMurty has written a book called “The Cancer Stage of Capitalism,” and an article to which JSTOR is refusing me access–I apologise for these thoughts being carelessly researched and probably derivative!

Connie, Sally and Priscilla: Gay Slang in South Africa

South African gay culture has produced a rich range of slang terms which has been called a ‘gay vernacular.’  Although of course many South African gays will have never used or may actively dislike and avoid these slang terms, they are intriguing indicators of a vibrant subculture. Gerrit Olivier includes a long list of terms of slang terms based around alliterative female names in his essay “From Ada to Zelda.”  It’s a list which is predictably rich in sexual terms (Annie anus, Sally suck off), but there is also the wonderfully concise Celia, which means “offering a cigarette by way of camping.”  Apartheid’s racial categorisations are evident in the range of terms designating gay men of different races: Iris for Indian, Golda for Jewish, Wendy for white and Zelda for Zulu.  There are also flashes of homophobic violence and repression: codes for beatings, murders and cops.  Coated and claimed in cute slang, painful or forbidden words are hidden, passed safely, owned.

Ada: the buttocks area
Annie: the anus
Bella: to be beaten up; someone who beats up homosexuals
Celia: offering a cigarette by way of camping
Connie: moment of orgasm/ejaculation; condom
Debra: depressed; depression
Delia: drama queen
Deloris: delirious; mad
Fiona: wanting or having sex
Gail: to chat
Hilda: unpleasant or ugly (person)
Lily: the law; the police
Maureen: murdered
Milly: mad
Priscilla: police officer(s); the law
Tilly: masturbate; also ‘Tilly Toss-off’

(All terms and definitions quoted from Oliver)

My favourite slang terms, however, are drawn from a South African government report on gay culture, drawn up during an attempt in the 1960s to pass more draconian legislation against homosexuality, part of a general Apartheid push for increased control of all spheres of life.  The report contains information gathered through undercover police infilatration of the gay scene, and boy is is it top-secret stuff: ‘dilders’ are wielded by ‘butch’ lesbians and “uniform members of the police are known as ‘morons.'”  Shh, don’t tell nobody!  (Incidentally, while gay activism managed to curb the harshest excesses of the proposed legislation, dildoes were banned.  When dildoes are outlawed, only outlaws will have dildoes.)

Works Cited

Olivier, Gerrit.  “From Ada to Zelda: Notes on Gays and Language in South Africa.”  Defiant Desire.  Ed. Mark Gevisser and Edwin Cameron.  New York, London: Routledge, 1995.  219-224.

Retief, Glen.  “Keeping Sodom out of the Laager: State Repression of Homosexuality in Apartheid South Africa.” ibid. 99-111

The Colonial Roots of African Nationalist Homophobia

LGBTI, Africa

from Eusebius McKaiser, click-through to link

Aggressive homophobia has become a distressingly familiar trope in African nationalist rhetoric.  A recent surge in anti-gay legislation across the continent has attracted media and activist attention, from the imprisonment of the Malawian gay couple in 2010 to Uganda’s ‘kill the gays’ law, as well as draft legislation in Nigeria and Cameroon.  Homophobia is characterised as a defence of African cultural authenticity—and has been too easily taken by horrified Western onlookers as proof of African barbarism.  The roots of this African nationalist homophobia can be traced, however, to the apparently opposed ideologies of colonial and white settler regimes, particularly in southern Africa.  These intertwined ideologies have not only helped to impose harsh heterosexist strictures; they have also had dangerous misogynist implications, where ‘loose’ women are as much to be feared and repressed as ‘effeminate’ men.

“Homosex is not in black culture”: so read a placard waved in support of Winnie Mandela, who defended herself against accusations of abduction by claiming she was rescuing boys from a white homosexual.  In 2001 Mugabe declared that homosexuals were “mad persons” who ought to be jailed, adding that, “We don’t want to import [homosexuality] into our country, we have our own culture, our own people” (qt. Zabus 251).  Homosexuality is characterised as alien to African cultures, a decadent Western import, and repulsive result of exploitation.  The idea, roughly, is that homosexuality has emerged through the weakening and perverting of African culture by colonial and neo-colonial processes, individual manifestations of the processes by which Africa was ‘fucked up the arse’ (Dunton 424).

Prisons and mines have been taken as breeding this kind of exploitative ‘situational homosexuality,’ and they were also emblematic of colonial regimes.  One former inmate of Robben Island, for example, told how guards would arrange for new prisoners to be gang raped, an abuse which combines the horrors of homosexuality, prison rape, and Apartheid.  A more benign example, which has still been seen as a corruption of African male sexuality, is that of ‘mine marriages,’ homosexual partnerships which were common in the South African mines that drew huge volumes of migrant labour from across southern Africa.  These ‘mine marriages’ had been seen as “a disorder brought about by the oppressive social structures of apartheid and the concomitant harshness of exploitative labour conditions” (Spurlin 189).   Migrant labour undoubtedly did have transformative and destabilising effects in rural African communities and families, but increasingly scholars argue that, rather than distorting migrants’ sexuality and ‘creating’ homosexuality, the isolation of South African mines may have offered men the freedom to act upon genuine desires.  Not dissimilarly, the ‘situational homosexuality’ so common among European colonial officials was almost certainly not the result of a desperate lack of women but rather the fact that imperial dislocation disproportionately attracted gay and bisexual men into the service.

The story is that homosexuality is a Western import with no authentic existence in African culture—one Zimbabwean official famously declared that there are no African words for homosexuality.  There are, Zabus counters, fifty such words.  As Marc Epprecht puts it, however, “Homophobia, not homosexuality, would appear to be the real ‘White man’s disease’”: anti-homosexuality legislation in Africa is a colonial legacy; missionaries imposed Western standards of sexual morality; and the Apartheid regime saw homosexuality as a threat akin to miscegenation and communism.  While it is impossible to gain unmediated access to pre-colonial African queer experiences, it is clear that there were a range of homosexual erotic relationships and behaviours that were recognised and accommodated within African societies (more about this in another entry).

Homophobic nationalism is based on the identification of the nation with the phallus, an identification made in Apartheid South Africa as well as Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.  White settler nations would subdue nature and the natives with a healthful combination of rugby and prayer (Epprecht 256), just as Zimbabwe would defeat neo-imperialism by closing down the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) stall at a bookfair.  In 1954, Southern Rhodesia amended the Immigration Act of 1914 to prevent practitioners of ‘homosexualism’ from entering the country, even as tourists!  Colonial morality gradually transmitted its moral panics.  South African miners were bombarded with propaganda warning them that, not only would both partners in homosexual partnerships be punished under the law, they would also face hellfire (Epprecht 257-8).  Even town planning and the design of public housing could communicate and inculcate European moral anxieties, through the set-up of sleeping quarters, for example.  It had, for example, been “normal, non-sexual and non-threatening for African men to sleep under the same blanket in the nude in the early days of colonial development (as had been the case in pre-colonial days)” (258).  By instituting separate sleeping quarters, colonialism literally removed the spaces for such practices, imposing through architectural layout, through single beds, the individual separateness so fundamental to Western thought and morality.  (In joyous contrast, in the 1940s Eva Meyerowitz wrote about women in the Gold Coast who would buy the biggest beds possible to facilitate lesbian group sex with six or so women [Murray 42]).

As Spurlin puts it, nationalist homophobia relies on classically imperialist Self/Other divisions, establishing rigid regimes of classification.  It

played on nationalist and masculinist assumptions that colonial power was emasculating for Africa and that homosexuality among blacks is a form of ideological penetration by  whites that further ‘feminizes’ the nation-state (conceived as masculine) (196).

The misogynist implications of this ideology are obvious.  The nationalist is masculine; the collaborator is female or effeminate; and the coloniser is, one supposes, homosexual.  Not only was African male weakness seen as a result of colonialism; so was a particular kind of African female strength.  The need to suppress ‘loose’ African women was a point where colonial and nationalist policies could dovetail.  Urbanisation disrupted social and domestic patterns, creating spaces for homosexuality to thrive (Gevisser), but also for the growth of prostitution and the emergence of newly assertive and economically independent women.  In 1916, the Southern Rhodesian government passed the Native Adultery Ordinance in an attempt to “protect indigenous African patriarchs from the disruptive effects of these women” through “periodic police round-ups and deportations of female ‘vagrants,’ and compulsory vaginal check-ups for sexually transmitted diseases” (Epprecht 258).  Later, nationalist complaints against colonial ‘emasculation’ were used to “fan popular perceptions that the humiliation of African men could be linked to the supposed looseness of African women.  Often, barely disguised, they favoured violence against such women as a strategy to restore masculine dignity” (259-60).

The practical consequences of hypermasculinist heterosexism are outlined by Epprecht.  They range from a gang of white Rhodesians (including a policeman) beating to death a middle aged white man for being a ‘poof’ in 1972 (257) to attacks on women during the first major strike by Africans in 1948 (260).  In 1956, Nationalist leaders refused to condemn, or even condoned, the mass rape of women in a Harare hostel on the grounds that they refused to participate in an anti-colonial protest (260).  One leader, Obed Muteza, said of his decision to go to prison that, “clearly, the honourable choice is the life of hardship, even death, [rather] than to go down in the annals of a nation as a collaborator or indeed a woman.  The choice before me is simple; am I a man or a woman?” (qt 260).

Homosexuality is figured as a corrupted and corrupting weakness; strong women are a perversion that need to be beaten into submission.  African masculinity, like white settler masculinity before it, is to be asserted upon the bodies of women and homosexuals. It is a phallocentric, narrow and violent rhetoric—derived, in large part, from narrow, violent European ideologies.

Works Cited

Dunton, Chris.  “‘Wheyting be Dat?’: The Treatment of Homosexuality in African Literature.”  Research in African Literatures 20:3 (1989): 422-448.  JSTOR [28 Feb 2013]

Epprecht, Marc.  “Black Skin, ‘Cowboy’ Masculinity: A Genealogy of Homophobia in the African Nationalist Movement in Zimbabwe to 1983.”  Culture, Health & Sexuality 7:3 (May 2005): 253-266.  JSTOR [8 Mar 2013]

Gevisser, Mark.  “A Different Fight for Freedom: A History of South African Lesbian and Gay Organizations from the 1950s to 1990s.”  Defiant Desire. Ed. Mark Gevisser and Edwin Cameron.  New York, London: Routledge, 1995. 14-86.  Print.

Murray, Stephen O.  “Homosexuality in ‘Traditional’ Sub-Saharan Africa and Contemporary South Africa: An Overview.”  <<http://semgai.free.fr>&gt;

Spurlin, William J.  “Broadening Postcolonial Studies/Decolonizing Queer Studies: Emerging ‘Queer’ Identities and Cultures in Southern Africa.”  Postcolonial, Queer: Theoretical Intersections.  Ed. John C. Hawley.  Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.  185-205.  Print.

Zabus, Chantal.  “Out in Africa: Queer Desire in Some Anthropological and Literary Texts.” Comparative Critical Studies 6:2 (2009): 251-270.  Web [28 Feb 2013]

Summoning the Rains: A Review

Summoning the Rains, FEMRITE, African women's short stories(This is the long version of a review which will appear in the LUCAS Bulletin, and you can purchase the book at African Books Collective, including a very reasonable £6.99 ebook option)

Summoning the Rains.  Eds. Hilda Twongyeirwe and Ellen Banda-Aaku. FEMRITE Publications Limited, Kampala, 2012. Pp. 225.  ISBN 9789970700257 (pb) £18.95.

Summoning the Rains is a collection of twenty stories by women writers from eleven African countries, stories which emerged from FEMRITE’s third annual Regional Women Writers Residency in Uganda.  There are a number of particularly strong, striking stories here which I would recommend to anyone interested in new short fiction, particularly those by Tanya Sam Chan, Isabella Morris, Sylvia Schlettwein, Wame Molefhe and Mamle Kabu.  The collection would also make a valuable addition to courses on Development and Women’s Studies, due to its accessible and insistently human depiction of a wide range of contemporary African women’s experiences—which, of course, should not be so special a recommendation as it is.

This is an engaging, delightful and frustrating collection.  Much of what is both fascinating and problematic about Summoning the Rains seems connected to the label that waves banner-like over this book: African women writers.  These stories illuminate perspectives which are still too often silenced and flattened.  This means that even those pieces which are less arresting as fiction will nonetheless enrich and enlarge Western readers’ understandings of African women and girls.  Yet the marginalisation and intersecting oppressions which make this book so valuable and interesting also seem to inhibit and fetter many of the stories’ reach and vision—although some of this may, more simply, be a matter of new writers developing their craft.

In these stories we encounter women and girls whose lives and opportunities are bounded round by patriarchy, violence, poverty.  The protagonists in these stories are testing their strategies, concocting uneasy mixtures of accommodation, investment, resistance and escape.  They have a lot to lose, and isolation haunts these stories: characters are disconnected from mothers, daughters, sisters, husbands, sons, lovers, aunties, friends.  In story after story, intimates stare at each other with wounded incomprehension.  Talk withers or wheels round in obsessive circles.  Historical and national contexts, the circumstances of their griefs, which have stunted their capacity for love and communication, are sketched briefly, if at all.  The political is personal, and the personal is political—but as these authors show, if we move between the public and the private spheres, if we map the impacts of global processes onto individual hearts, we find paradoxical connections and painful refractions, not simple correspondences or slogans.

The collection’s first and last stories are also—perhaps not coincidentally—the ones that engage most explicitly with the sorts of national historical contexts which, for so long, African fiction was expected, even pressured, to engage with.  We begin with anti-colonial nationalism and finish with civil war and displacement—but the significance of these events in the stories is unpredictable.  The collection opens with Gothataone Moeng’s “In the Shadow of God,” telling the story of Seretse Khama’s return to lead Bechuanaland to independence, and how—lost in the welcoming crowd—a girl loses her mother and makes love to a returned migrant labourer.  Through the resulting pregnancy the daughter is released—expelled—from her mother’s oppressive ambitions to liberate her: “I don’t want to be a typist or a teacher, I don’t care about a big house, I screamed in my head….Some of the girls in my class had dropped out of school to get married and start their own families.  I too wanted my life to be my own.”  Moeng lays down subtle parallels between Seretse Khama and the girl: sexual waywardness, rejection, exile and returns.  Yet through these parallels she demonstrates that independence, progress and development have no one, stable meaning.

Flashbacks to Uganda’s civil war intrude on the mind of a busy bride on her wedding day in Beatrice Lamwaka’s “Bonding Ceremony,” the final story in the collection, narrated in urgent second-person.  Marriage provides an opportunity for the successful, highly-educated woman to return to the home she fled.  This celebration of love and union offers a chance for her to revisit and revise the significance of a traumatic site: “You don’t want to remember the day the rebels sat your whole family down, put guns to your heads…For you [the wedding] was a bonding ceremony.  It was a ceremony to make people dance and eat, for the two families to meet and know that forever they are bonded.”  Lamwaka begins to imply, however, that hostility and displacement are not simply a past to be overcome, but dynamics with their own relevance to this marriage.  From the DJ’s sexist set, to bickering over bride price, to her new husband’s sudden vindictiveness, it becomes clear that there is a limit to how radically this bride, on her own, can rewrite rituals and social patterns.  When she realises this, however, her response is sanguine: marriage has not worked; perhaps a PhD will.

Gender, violence and education dance round each other in Wame Molefhe’s witty and moving “States of Matter,” in which studying chemistry provides a means of escape for a bright lively girl, while also becoming a scientific poetry with which to analyse social roles.  Though her mother says that “A good woman must be solid,” the child insists “I’m free like a gas, Mama, and I’m going to stay free forever,” upon which she performs an interpretative dance of the hydrogen atom.  When an increasingly controlling lover’s attempts to ‘turn her solid’ land her in hospital, her mother appears at her bedside reading A New Certificate in Chemistry “in a strong voice, ploughing through terms I knew she did not understand.… Uncombined hydrogen does not occur in nature to any appreciable extent, but the element occurs in vast quantities in a combined state…”  The mother’s uncomprehending—yet deeply understanding—recitation transforms science (at once rational and magical) into a litany of healing and offers one of the collection’s rare moments of loving connection and solidarity.

While realism is by far the dominant mode in Summoning the Rains, two of the stories venture into the realm of the fantastic, to powerful effect.  Tanya Sam Chan’s “Flesh to Flesh,” in which an AIDS nurse tries to accept her daughter’s sexuality, is a daring and increasingly strange exploration of emotional switchbacks.  Chan’s sparing use of the fantastic—here, a Daphne-esque metamorphosis—hardens rather than softens the impact of her social realism, creating a sense of traumatised dissociation.  The combination of minute observation and stark nightmare imagery makes Chan’s the most shocking of the collection’s meditations on mother/daughter hostility, particularly the process by which a mother’s rage against the world’s injustices and dangers may become rage against the daughter who cannot or will not be protected.

“Mother of the Beast,” by Sylvia Schlettwein, is a hard-bitten veldt fairytale about Ingemar Jansson’s tragic love for her son, the talking jackal Waldemar, who leaves home to become a Namibian singing sensation.  As he departs, he tells his mother, “Don’t wish me luck and don’t cry.  I am a wild animal, after all.  You shouldn’t get too attached.”  Although it is tempting to read the interspecies devotion and wariness as a (rather unsettling) racial allegory, especially as the farmers who raise the jackal are white, Schlettwein seems more interested in the processes of becoming-human and becoming-jackal.  Waldemar the changeling, the werewolf-in-reverse who effortlessly masters language and song, calls into question the humanity of his parents who barely speak and who become, like the land, “dry and harsh and unforgiving.”  To adapt Wittgenstein, if the jackal could speak, would we understand him?  If husbands and wives could speak, if parents and children could speak, would they understand each other?

Isabella Morris’ “In the Shadow of the Blue Bus” also describes a family mired in silent frustration and disappointment: “The house we lived in should have been warm and bright…But the long shadow of the 60-seater bus that stood on its rusted wheel mountings outside our front door hung over our house…”  As the years pass, the father’s stubborn dream of fixing up the bus becomes as worn and brittle as the carefully saved scrap of paper on which he asks his son to calculate and recalculate the expenses.  Morris unfolds her tale of disappointment slowly, revelling in fine-grained observations and telling detail.  In a particularly haunting scene, the boy spends and afternoon in town at Mr. Venter’s Bike Emporium, watching an old man slowly fixing a puncture.  “‘Which one do you like?’ my father asked, the question making me delirious with hope.  I raised my hand, ready to point at the blue one with the long, thin seat and the high handlebars, but my father had already turned away.”  The father’s generosity and attention to another’s dreams—when it finally comes—will reveal, however, the same extravagant impracticality that has haunted his whole life.

In “Beauty,” one of the collection’s most impressive pieces, Mamle Kabu confronts with witty and moving directness the intersecting oppressions that weigh on African women’s fiction.  African women’s writing becomes implicated, almost unavoidably, in a constellation of questions about patriarchy, poverty, development and social change.  Well, if that is the case then Kabu arms herself with a protagonist, Christie, who as a Ghanaian academic involved in a development project, is more than able to grapple with the questions that haunt many of the texts in Summoning the Rains.  Women’s writing—and the education, confidence, access and resources it requires—is a development issue and a social justice issue.  Christie, speaking to the village men about the women’s lack of rights, “felt the thrill, heady and terrifying, of standing alone at the crossroads of wildly diverging worlds….Having access to both but powerless to bring them together, to make either comprehend the extremity of the other.”

Kabu demonstrates that fiction can be a natural, necessary partner of activism and analysis.  In this story of a ‘Women’s Focus Group Discussion’ and its repercussions, Kabu shows us moments too personal, tender and confusing to be couched in academic prose: “she tried to dismiss it as one of those many less than lucid interview moments which never made it into a report and were quickly forgotten.  But it pulsed all around her, even after she had left Benin…” “Beauty” is a ringing call for women’s education, a hopeful message about the possible rapidity of change—yet at the same time Kabu very subtly reveals the ways in which the agents and tools of such change (for example, a Ghanaian female academic) may be tempted into complicity with existing power structures.  Watching a roomful of women, Christie’s imagination “tried to penetrate their serenity, conjure up the unspeakable.  The forcing apart of their legs, the metal blade that sliced into, sliced off, their softest parts…”  Even sympathetic attempts to grasp the realities of another’s oppression may, Kabu suggests, come worryingly close to re-enacting violations.  Kabu does not foreclose the possibility of understanding, however, and her story—intelligent, confident and touching—is beautiful.

If we follow Kabu’s example then, it is no insult to suggest that one of the undeniable strengths of Summoning the Rains is the extent to which it will expand readers’ understandings of contemporary African women, although we must (as Kabu also warns) be mindful of the ways in which empathy and othering can become intertwined.  Summoning the Rains is a step towards the freedom, space and peace which will allow women like the twenty authors represented here to develop their voices more fully, to practice and hone their craft, gaining the confidence to stretch their writing and thinking ever further, ever deeper.