For years I have wanted–but have been unable–to write to my own satisfaction about life in southern Africa. As a writer and an outsider, I constantly wrestle with moral issues: my own blindness, curiosity, lack of understanding, white privilege; my need to say what I see within an historical context of stereotypes that interfere with seeing; my learned racism always there, though the work is to see it and expunge it, and unless I see it I cannot expunge it. Some White South Africans write about what can and cannot be imagined.Is it possible, they ask, for a White author (what is White? what is Race?) to write fiction with Black (what is Black?) characters? What are the limits of a White person’s imagination? What if the White writer is an Outsider to White cultures? What if the White Outsider is North American, female, queer, and formerly working class? What if half the White Outsider’s children are Black? How much can she imagine? What’s love got to do with it? What are the limits? What is fiction?
In a deconstructed world, everything is fiction. Everything is seen and selected from a biased point of view. There is no objective truth. What is reported or quoted is shaped by a consciousness that has its own history. Who can speak and who must remain silent?
Antjie Krog, White middle-class Afrikaner straight woman, wrestles with these questions in Begging to Be Black (Random house, 2009) in a quoted dialogue with a German professor, as follows:
Krog: “I think I am saying that in a country where we have come from different civilizations, then lived apart in unequal and distorted relationships that formed generations of us, our imagination is simply not capable of imagining a reality as–or with–the other.”
German professor: “So you have changed your position? During our first conversations you were concerned that not being able to imagine might mean a hidden racism?”
Krog: “Yes, now I think that to imagine black at this stage is to insult black. That is why I stay with non-fiction, listening, engaging, observing, translating, until one can hopefully begin to sense a thinning of skin, negotiate possible small openings at places where imaginings can begin to begin.” (268).
I take that in. I am grateful to her for enunciating “unequal and distorted,” “not capable,” “insult.” I agree with her, and I back off. Then I lean forward again. Can we put boundaries on the imagination? Can we say that a man cannot imagine what it is to be a woman? Certainly many men fail, some don’t even try, but there are occasional successes I would not want to be without. How does class limit the imagination? Krog is describing what she feels she can do; she isn’t prescribing (is she?) what the rest of us should do. She is finding her way and allowing us to watch her process. This is helpful.
I think of Sebastian Barry and his 100-year-old woman character in Sacred Secrets. I am not 100 years old, but I think he got her. On the other hand, I have never believed Medea is other than a figment of male imagination. Ophelia and Desdemona are cardboard. But Rosalind? The same author can fail sometimes and succeed sometimes. Perhaps the task before us is to unleash the imagination and see where it leads. Allow the imagination to run wild. Follow it. And let the reader decide.
I lift my head from my notebook and gaze into the rolling sea and the black stick-figures on surfboards. I have no idea what it’s like to ride a wave on a surfboard. None. I will never know that. I look on, my eyes squint against the light, and I imagine it must be like good sex: that upward building tension, that moment of yielding and steering, riding the perfect wave where it goes. But I don’t know. I only imagine.