I have a confession: I’m pretty nonplussed about the tsunami. 150,000 people dead, yea, so, 2 million died in Rwanda and nobody gave a fucking shit. 1 in 3 people in Southern Africa has HIV or AIDS, and the US is pushing abstinence-only programs there instead of condoms.
Whoop-dee-doo 150K dead.
Oh. Yea. That’s right. White tourists were there! Poor white tourists, their cozy vacations were ruined!
Let me tell you a story, because I had to pull out this story to put it all back into perspective for me. Before I was writing here at Brutal Women, I was sending “updates” to my writing buddies a couple times a month. I dug this one out this morning, about one of the times me and some of the other U of Natal academics went to a neat little bar in Durban called Bean Bag for B’s going-away-to-an-American-university party. So, let me channel my 22-year-old self and share:
Madness Du Jour 12 Sept, 2002
What I like about Bean Bag, among other things, is that there are actually women mooning over other women here. That may sound sorta stupid, but mainly, among J & co., I’ll meet lots of girls, their boyfriends, and men who flirt with men – couples and singles. Sometimes I despair that there’s no one in the world who finds women attractive enough to flirt with.
It’s safe to bet that all of the male waiters at Bean Bag are more interested in your date than you are, and the guy-couples are usually sexual pairings, and the handful of guys interested in women are there with girlfriends. As a girl, you don’t go to Bean Bag to pick up on guys, you go there to look fabulous and hang out with fabulous people and have fabulous people see how fabulous and bohemian you look. It feels like everybody’s in drag: everybody’s trying to look good and impress people. There are some non-beautiful people here, sure, but they’re actively trying to be “cool” if not beautiful. They’re trying to Look Like Somebody.
I meet a Zulu couple who are sitting next to one of my fellow grad students, Stephen. The man is a friend of B’s, and his wife or girlfriend sits at his side. She’s quite beautiful, has an aura of quiet intelligence about her, and I like her immediately. She’s a physically big woman. Not tall, but big – not fat – big. I once lamented to J about being from a country of obese people and feeling so totally out of place in South Africa. He pointed out that it’s not that there aren’t fat people in Durban. Almost all of the older Zulu women you see are heavy, or at the very least, have exaggerated curves. I sometimes wonder where the hell they buy jeans that have enough room in the butt and hips. So it’s not that there aren’t big people here: they just don’t carry it like it’s shameful, or something to hide. And it’s not like they want for men. The two or three times I’ve been hit on here, it’ been by Zulu-speaking guys.
She turns out to be a teacher from Kwa Mashu, one of the big townships outside of Durban. She teaches a class of 85 children. All of the teachers there do. It was a rather awkward conversation, because I started out in my classically American way, saying I thought it was really cool of her to do that, how good-works it was to teach all of these kids who otherwise wouldn’t really have teachers, and she said;
“You know, when you come from being taught in a classroom of 85 children and have to teach a class of 85 children, really, all you’re thinking about is how you’re going to get out of there. How you’re going to keep getting more education so you can teach somewhere else, have a better career.”
This was a blow to my Assumption of Privilege American “save the children, sacrifice yourself” ideal of the happy martyr, something I wasn’t aware that I toted around until she said this. She *wanted* to get the fuck out of the township and get a better job in a better area. Duh. She wasn’t doing it because she was into self-sacrifice. She was doing it to survive. Because until she had more schooling, it was the only teaching position she could get.
“How do you not lose hope, I mean, teaching kids who don’t believe education will help them?” I said.
She sighed. “You assign homework, and the next day, you ask who did the homework. And the five children who have done the homework come up to the front of the class, and you teach those five children.”
“But don’t they realize that education will help them get better jobs?”
Looking back on it, she was really nice to me and all my stupid American questions.
She shook her head. “There are no jobs. This is what people don’t understand. You can got to university and get your honours degree, but when you come out, there will still be no jobs for you. You’re talking to children who are from families where no one is formally employed. They would rather learn how to be streetwise. That’s all they know. That’s how their families survive, being streetwise. Why should they learn all of this book learning when there aren’t any jobs it could get them?”
The conversation peters out, mainly because I can see this hopeless chasm yawning out before me. I understand South African cynicism.
I spent the most comfortable part of the night talking to Stephen the post-grad, a 25-year-old frumpy bookstore employee and his boyfriend at the “non-fabulous” table, and later on, B, as we couldn’t all fit at one table. I think I was just avoiding the fabulous table, which included J, the flirty A, and some rather lovely looking kid who couldn’t have been much past 20 who I assumed was the former geek from high school that J said had become a model, some cleanly pretty guy with a shaved head, B’s girlfriend, et al.
I preferred to be at the all-but-me-male, non-fabulous table. We had some interesting topics of conversation, mainly centered around ways the government has failed to support its population and how it could create sustainable communities, and the benefit or drawback of university education for the “masses”, and etc. Mostly, I got from everyone a big dose of South African cynicism and hopelessness. Not hopeless in the sense that they didn’t have ideas, or didn’t know how to do it, but because no one would listen, and the people in power have enough money that they really don’t give a shit about how much of the population has to die of AIDS. After all, if they’re all dead, you don’t have to worry about getting them jobs or medical or helping them form sustainable communities, do you?
Talking about President Thabo Mbeki, AIDS, and the purging of 30% of South Africa’s population by simply “letting them die” always makes me want to vomit.
Eventually, as more people wandered away, the tables merged, and I ended up sitting next to J. A was sitting on his other side, the 20 year old model was sitting on A’s other side, B’s girlfriend and a bunch of new people were across the table, and B, Stephen, and the boy couple took up the other end of the table.
I don’t remember much of the conversation. I remember J was drinking martinis. I had only been able to afford 3 rum & cokes, and wasn’t even feeling fuzzy, which I resented. I’ve said that I can only enjoy Bean Bag for 2 hours – that’s 2 hours if I’m sober. If I’m drunk my self-reflecting mechanism turns off, and I don’t care about all the beautiful fabulous people drinking and fucking while 36% of the people in the province die of AIDS and live in squatter camps. Because it’s never just, “Gosh, sucks not to be one of the beautiful people.” It’s getting to all that by passing through abject poverty. Literally.
We drove through bits of downtown Durban to get to Bean Bag (not my usual route, but one B chose or accidentally stumbled onto, for some reason). I’m still thinking of the teacher in Kwa Mashu as I’m watching A cheek-kiss all the acquaintances of his who’ve wandered over to the table. Durban is a small town in the sense that there are very few places that people who have money can go, so no matter where you are, you’re always running into someone you know.
There was a part of me watching people fluttering in and out as I smoked cigarettes and stared into J’s empty martini class that wanted to shout: “None of this shit is fucking important! None of this matters! You know what matters? People. Just people. Not the fucking sneakers you’re wearing! Not what kind of cigarettes you’re smoking! And all these fucking people are dying and all these fucking kids in Kwa Mashu are going to starve or start their own rape gangs and nobody cares!”
I went outside to get some air and get away from the fabulous A and B’s drunken girlfriend and the joint being passed around.
I eventually got myself a table inside, both because it was cold outside, and because I just couldn’t stand sitting with the gang any longer. I got a glass of water and thought about Alaska. Were things really so romantically different there? I always had this idea that it didn’t matter what you looked like there. People assessed you by where you’d been and how much you knew. At least, I thought they did. I know I learned to.
If I’d ever had anything against physically imperfect people, or socially imperfect people, I had to get over it really fucking fast in AK, because *everyone* was physically and socially fucking poor. No, not squatter camp poor, but it was fucking cold outside, we couldn’t afford new clothes, it was dark all the time; a big night out was to pile into the stolen van that didn’t have a heater, wrapped up in our tatty clothes, and go out to buy salmon chowder and fresh-baked bread at the chowder house across from the movie theatre: it was good, cheap food. Everybody dressed in bulky, crap clothes, nobody had a tan, everyone had that extra layer of subcutaneous fat, and nobody really cared, because when it’s fucking cold outside, all you give a shit about is whether or not your bed partner is warm.
J wandered in after me, apparently because B was asking where I was. I tried to articulate some of this stuff to him, about the superficiality of this place, about how this was so outside the realm of my experience, about how this place and these people were different from everything I’ve ever know. But I don’t think I said it very well.
Finally, all I could say was, “This just really isn’t my milieu.”
B drove us home soon after, and I got to say goodbye to him, as I wouldn’t see him again before he flew out.
Mostly, I spent the night not being able to sleep. I was thinking about being beautiful and being alive and being a teacher in Kwa Mashu. And thinking about madness.
I always feel thumped on the head with the idea that female madness is the result of being female, of not being able to accept your place in the world. Sure, you can blame some of this on oppression, yea, but how long can you sit around and blame oppression for your inability to interact with the world?
But that night, after sitting in Bean Bag, wishing I was drunk but too poor to afford to be, talking about 30% of the country dying, just dying, and not even dying, but being left to die, and the impossible poverty, and teachers who teach to survive and help 5 kids in 85, and street kids who beg for money until they’re too old to be cute and then start stealing cars and raping women, and car guards groping at you for money, and beautiful people fluttering over martinis and talking about expensive sneakers… It was just too much for me. It was too much for me to know that I was one of them, that I wasn’t doing anything to help anybody. I was just consuming alcohol and feeling faintly ill about it.
And I thought, god, what’s wrong with me? Why do I care about a bunch of people dying in a third world country? They’re poor. So what? People are poor. People die. That’s life. Birth, poverty, death. That’s all. Why do I care?
I care because these are the people who walk next to me every day. These are the people next to you on the bus. These are the people you walk past downtown on the way to the beach. When I did an interview with P, a former MK (the militant arm of the ANC) affiliate, I was introduced to Dludlu, the woman who comes in to clean her house once a week. Dludlu was a nice, polite, smiling woman in a clean pink domestic worker’s dress and apron. Over coffee, P told me that Dludlu lives in a squatter camp. During the heavy spring rain we’d had a few days before, her bed, which was just a mattress on the ground, had finally gotten so soaked that it had fallen apart, and P had her take out one of her old mattresses, and told Dludlu to use bricks to keep it off the ground.
These are the people in my life, however, peripheral. And they’re living in squatter camps and subsisting on mealie-meal and dying of AIDS.
This is not fucking National Geographic.
Talking to P about her involvement with the ANC and the liberation struggle, you can hear her hope, and also her bitterness about how it turned out.
“All that happened was they just changed the people who were in power,” she said. “We were so poor. We were in such poverty. These men, I remember bringing these men home from prison, and having to buy underpants for them, and they were thin, and they stank, and they couldn’t even afford to buy their own clothes after coming out of prison. And now they get paid R250,000 a year and pay their domestic workers R400 a month. They think they deserve it, but they have forgotten what we fought for. Sometimes I hope I’ll die soon. This world is too much glitz and glamour for me. I’m not from an important family. We lived in poverty. I ate dal and rice for three years when I went to university and drank water at night. That was how we lived, that was how they lived, and they have forgotten.”
When I first arrived to do the interview, P was still showering, so I had some time to read and look at everything on the walls of her flat, the ANC posters, the free Mandela posters, the pictures of fellow comrades, the banners, the flyers, the flags, the funeral notices for the deaths of her sons, and you know, I started to cry. I got all weepy and had to wipe the tears away before she got out of the bathroom. So many people died for this, for this, and nothing has changed except that all the rich white people who could leave, left, and all the black people who fought or their families or supporters filled all those positions. And 80% of the population is still poor, and everyone is dying.
I really thought there was something wrong with me for getting all emotional over this.
Which brings me back to madness. Are we really mad? Is this madness, to weep for people who died and are dying so a handful of people can pay their domestic servants R400 a month?
What I realized, lying awake, unable to sleep, was that it’s not women who are crazy, it’s not women who are mad:
It’s the world that’s fucked up.
There’s a reason that in every story you read, the first time a character is exposed to violence – bloody, gory, real violence – their initial reaction is to be violently ill. That’s the natural reaction.
If violence is “natural” to human behavior as people say it is, why does it make so many people sick? Why do soldiers have to be so rigorously trained and hyper-masculinized in order to face it?
I thought there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t stand on-screen violence in movies anymore, after living here for six months. Watching one woman get knifed with a pair of scissors and another get repeatedly drown throughout the whole of Minority Report made me ill. And now, thinking of my reaction to teaching children in Kwa Mashu, and Dludlu’s mattress in her shack being inundated with water, I’m starting to think that if I *didn’t* have such an alarmed, emotional response to it, there would be something wrong with me.
That’s when I’d be really crazy.
I remember the first time I killed something beautiful.
Not like an ant or a spider or a bee, or something that seemed more like annoying dust, but something big, something substantial, and something that, in all my giddy girlishness, I loved.
Me and my cousin used to run around my grandmother’s garden in the summer and try to catch flying grasshoppers, the big ones. I guess they’re actually called locusts, but we called them flying grasshoppers. I was only four or five, so they seemed terribly big to me. One of them was nearly the length of my palm.
The problem was that they were really fast. They saw you long before you could grab them, and they would hop up and spread their beautiful wings – some had black wings lined in yellow or white, and those were the best. Later, I’d become fascinated with dragonflies for the same reason: they were just so beautiful.
I finally caught one of the locusts, a big beautiful one with black wings with yellow fringes. My cousin always said that I wouldn’t be able to catch one, but I had, and I decided I would keep it in a jar and feed it leaves, and then I would let it go the next day.
I poked holes in the lid of the jar, which my cousin had taught me to do so the locust wouldn’t die, and I put the big locust inside and gave it some wet leaves and things.
I walked out into the front yard behind some trees and set the jar down next to some bushes. I talked to the locust and told him how pretty he was, and I told him I would let him go tomorrow, but I just wanted to look at him for awhile.
Then my parents arrived back from work to pick us up from my grandmother’s place and take us home for the night, and I said goodbye to my locust.
The next day, I arrived back from school to discover that my locust was dead.
I had left the jar in the sun.
I wasn’t so much heartbroken as horrified. I couldn’t believe I had killed this beautiful thing. Because as soon as I saw that the afternoon sun had eliminated the shadows of the trees, I knew what I had done. I knew even then that you can’t leave animals inside a car in summer with the windows rolled up. I knew better.
I opened up the jar and let the big dead locust slide out, and I cried over him, because he was really pretty, and he was dead. And it was my fault.
You’re supposed to believe that dead things: squirrels, mice, cats, dogs, rats, don’t die the same way people do, that what you’re looking at isn’t what you’ll be when you’re dead. You’re supposed to believe that people are different.
This isn’t true.
I remember working at the vet clinic on weekends, and there was this beautiful little brown dog who was really sick, and I tried to get him to go outside for a walk with me, but he just looked up at me with these really big brown eyes like, “Honey, it ain’t gonna happen.” And I patted his head and fed him, but he didn’t eat, just gazed at me.
I stood up, and the dog died in from of me. Just died. Just leaned his head back and gave a sort of cough, and the last breath left his body, and he was dead.
Why is it so much more terrible when it’s something so beautiful?
If we don’t even care about the woman starving to death on our front stoop, who gives a fuck about a dog?
You get people to kill things, or not care about things, by making them ugly. By convincing people that they’re looking at something Other, something inferior, different. This is how men get “trained” into killing each other. This is why men hurt women. Not because rape and torture and mutilation is “natural,” but because they’ve been taught that women or black or gays or whites or Indians or poor people or diseased people or Americans or Russians are somehow ugly. Are somehow monstrous. We are told that we must hurt them before they prey on us.
You learn to look at the world as ugly and beautiful. You learn what the world believes is ugly and beautiful, but the world is fucked up. It’s not real.
But how can you live if you try to give a shit about every starving woman on your stoop?
You’d go mad.
There is a little gray-haired man who haunts my block. He wears the same blue sports coat with a red handkerchief sticking out of one pocket. The sleeves are too long, and they nearly cover his hands. The coat reaches his knees. The too-long ends of his trousers pool around his too-big shoes. He has never asked me for money. Maybe this is because I’ve never sat through his entire spiel.
Instead, what he wants to tell me is all the love Jesus has for me. He wants to tell me how I am one of God’s children, and I am loved. He wants to tell me that everyone is loved, everyone is beautiful.
I usually ignore him. He’s fruity as a loop, but harmless.
Fruity, but sometimes the fruity have bits and pieces in the right places.
The world is not full of ugly people. It’s full of beautiful people, but not the kind of beautiful you see on MTV.
What happens to the world when you pull off the veil and see that everyone is beautiful, that everyone is you? What happens when you realize it’s not just the locusts you’ve been killing, but people? What happens to you then?
Because there’s no such thing as the Beautiful People. I keep thinking there is. I keep stepping into it and thinking, god, where the fuck am I? But it’s better to see it as the drag show it is, a veil, hiding real beauty behind booze and expensive shoes.
We’re trying so hard to separate Us and Them. There’s got to be a reason We go home to houses with indoor plumbing and drive around in our white cars. It has to be that we’re Beautiful. Or brilliant. Or both. Because if it’s not because we’re beautiful, if everyone’s beautiful, and beautiful people are dying of AIDS in squatter camps and getting raped and beaten, if that’s happened to the beautiful people, then there’s something wrong with the world. You can’t pretend anymore. The veil comes loose.
And you’ll go nuts thinking about it.
Because sometimes, when I’m not careful, I’ll look up and I’ll see it. I’ll look up and into all of these faces, and they’re all so heartbreakingly beautiful. And it isn’t what they’re wearing, and it’s not where they live, it’s just in their faces, in the fact that they’re alive, that they’ve survived to be here, that they share this place with me, and when I look up, I see that B is beautiful, and P is beautiful, and J, and B’s girlfriend, and Dludlu, and Stephen and the teacher from Kwa Mashu and even bitchy A is beautiful in his own way, and yes, even me in my denim and boots, smoking cigarettes and contemplating Alaska at a table by myself, even I’m beautiful, and it’s not because we’re so different from everybody else, it’s because we’re the same.
And in our madness, and in our drag show, we forget that. We forget and we become really superficial, and drunk because we’re not sure what’s wrong, we’re not sure what we’re trying to do except be Beautiful, because everyone knows that no one kills Beautiful People, and Beautiful People don’t live in squatter camps. Beautiful people don’t die.
But they do. And it’s us. And it’s madness pretending it’s not, every day. Not just today.
Every damn day.