Jeanne-Marie Jackson, USAWarscapes Corona Notebooks April 15, 2020
I’ve been thinking about two things in Baltimore, Maryland during the Coronavirus Pandemic, one of which is contact, and how essential contact is to African writing. The other is medical practice, and how essential contact is to medical practice. I've been thinking about these two things for two equally connected reasons, one of which is that I'm a scholar of African literature and I also spent years living in South Africa, which I desperately miss. The other is that I am married to a hospital physician who is currently on the frontlines of what’s happening with the coronavirus here in the U.S. The reason that contact is so important for African writing isn’t because Africa and the many discrepant locales that make up that name is exceptional; that place isn’t important to French writing, say. It’s because the way that literary production works on much of the continent means that books actually have to move from hand to hand and suitcase to suitcase. And it means that your awareness of the incredible books that are being published – oftentimes by small independent outlets – is totally contingent on your community, wherever it is on the African continent that you do your intellectual work.
For me, it’s Cape Town and Johannesburg in the main and, to some degree, Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, and through family connections that have branched out into intellectual interests, Accra in Ghana. So, it goes without saying that I miss my “people,” I miss my family, and trips that have been canceled are sad things to reckon with, not least because it’s one of the only times of the year, with the U.S. summer coming up, where my son gets to see a lot of his family members. But, it also means that it’s a chance to think about what it means to not be there or to not be able to be “there” when we formulate thoughts about African writing and its richness. I also happen to be teaching a class right now – virtually, of course, although it started in person – called Doctors Without Borders, which is meant to be a pithy and fun title. It’s not actually about that organization. It’s about the way that different writers’ conception of medical practice changes the more self-consciously global their narrative structures become. So when I was preparing this today, I got to thinking about the ways in which this reliance on contact -- on the sense of being there – is, if not uniquely, at least extremely essential to understanding a lot of literary production coming from the African continent. How might that converge with thinking about doctoring, thinking about what it means to be a physician amid tumultuous circumstances, certainly including the present ones?
Two of the books that I have returned to again and again when I think of these problems, which we might shorthand as contact as meaning depends on it and contact as care depends on it, are from different parts of the continent, one of which is South Africa. The first is a book called My Beautiful Death by Eben Venter, who is I think one of the seminal queer novelists in the country in its post-Apartheid era. My Beautiful Death is about dying from AIDS in the 90s, before medicines were as advanced as they are now, and also about being away from home. Not unpredictably, it’s a story of a gay Afrikaans man and his immigration to Australia, which is a pretty familiar pattern to people who know South Africa and especially Afrikaans culture. It’s also about the ways in which the impressions of home, of place, of contact are so much stronger for speaking a so-called “minor” language in the diaspora. Eben Venter is writing about dying in a language by which he is not surrounded; it’s unbelievably poignant. The Afrikaans title of the novel is actually Ek Stamel Ek Sterwe, and it’s much better than My Beautiful Death. I would translate it as "I Stumble, I Fall." Ultimately, he realizes that he cannot get home at the same time as he realizes that he will actually never leave it, as he slips more and more into an Afrikaans idiom. As the novel progresses and as his disease does, he calls home to his parents on a farm, even as he’s trying to get comfortable on a couch that he will essentially fade away on. It’s a really beautiful book and I think it raises some questions that a lot of African literature raises. Questions about the difference, for example, between moving around the world speaking a tongue you are almost certain to find other speakers of more or less anywhere you go -- English for one, but a lot of the Romance languages and to some degree, Chinese or even Russian – versus what it means to speak a language that you know you are more or less leaving upon leaving the country. It means that in practical terms, you have to go back to the place you were raised in order to reap its intellectual fruits. It means that you cannot simply continue your work as before when you are far removed from the place you came from.
I’ve also been working to try to keep my mind right with my spouse working at a hospital right now, partly by trying to translate some Shona poetry. It’s amazing to me how impoverished I feel doing it, for reasons that aren’t only linguistic, while not being able to do it this year in Zimbabwe as I had originally planned. So, a second book that couples thinking about distance and diaspora and uprooting with thinking about the importance of contact in this very literal sense of having to be there – of having to have the capacity for touch in order to derive meaning from text – is a book called Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. He’s a professor at Stanford University in the States, but has done some brilliant work in the Medical Humanities as well as writing fiction. He’s writing about an Indian diaspora community in Ethiopia and he’s writing specifically about a family made up of two doctors, husband and a wife and a set of twins they adopt after one of their colleagues unfortunately dies giving birth to them. And over and over again, in this book as well, we have an emphasis on the nature of the contact on which medical treatments depend: how and with what instruments doctors are touching their patients. The nature of that contact completely depends on the delimitation of Addis Ababa as a setting. One of the best examples of that is when the wife doctor, who is a gynecologist, is sitting around chatting with her husband who is an internist but ends up becoming a surgeon, and makes fun at him for invoking the Hippocratic Oath. She says something like, “Ugh, that’s quaint. But, the Hippocratic Oath is meant for people sitting in London drinking tea before they go off to practice medicine at the hospital.” The implication is that it’s not in full effect when we’re barely able to provide treatment at an under-serviced hospital amid a series of coups that end up personally affecting their family.
What I don’t want to do is create an impression that African literature doesn’t move, because that’s patently false. What I do want to say is that for many of us who have deep ties to the continent, personal and intellectual, being cut off from it is particularly painful, certainly, but also generative of working through what kinds of meaning and ways of making meaning might be specific to our work in different African locales. And I think that’s true for scholars and writers and it’s probably true for a lot of artists right now, realizing that those moments sitting with whoever your community is, in Johannesburg or Cape Town or Harare or Nairobi or Accra, is not just window dressing. It’s not just trying to find ways to spend research funds. It’s not just visiting family. You are drawing a tremendous intellectual sustenance from being able to reach out and touch the person you are in a conversation with. Moving books around the world, bringing awareness to the kinds of books that are doing that kind of moving, and then trying to figure out on how the dependence on hand to hand transport and contact is built into the text themselves. So, that’s what I’m thinking about as I sit and hope that this passes soon. And I look forward to being back in touch with so many of my colleagues not in Baltimore, Maryland as soon as I’m able to get over to various other homes.
Jeanne-Marie Jackson is Assistant Professor of World Anglophone Literature at Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of South African Literature’s Russian Soul: Narrative Forms of Global Isolation (2015) and her second book The African Novel of Ideas is forthcoming with Princeton University Press. She writes for a wide range of academic and nonacademic venues including NOVEL, Research in African Literatures, n+1, 3:AM Magazine, and The Conversation.