A Life Apart: Catherine Taylor’s South Africa

By Laura MurphyAugust 1, 2013

A Life Apart: Catherine Taylor’s South Africa

Apart by Catherine Taylor

CATHERINE TAYLOR’S compellingly disturbing memoir Apart navigates the thorny but intimate terrain of white privilege, as experienced by an American of South African descent. Seductively fragmented and disjointed, this short “lyric documentary,” as Taylor dubs it, defies generic description — moving not seamlessly but seam-fully between prose, poetry, documentary, memoir, biography, archival report, photography exhibit, testimony, theoretical musing, epistolary, flâneur’s diary, and travelogue. The varied vignettes that comprise the book, published just over a year ago, tell of a young girl maturing and attempting to locate herself, a story as conventional, at one level, as can be. But her coming-of-age struggle happens amidst African independence movements, in a family fraught with racial violence and shame, as her mother fights courageously but inevitably unsuccessfully to defend black South Africans from the murderous oppression of apartheid. Taylor’s archival archeology allows her to tell a story larger than herself, of the confrontation with privilege that is her racial inheritance as both an American and a South African.

The image of a pendulum haunts the text; Taylor’s memoir establishes no destination, no narrative arc, no temporal linearity, and no resolution. It’s more collage than chronicle. It punctuates cyclicality. Taylor suggests that creating a stable, linear narrative arc for such an unresolved experience would be impossible. Resonance, absence, abundance, silence, dissonance, immanence, and influence all gather here to form the poetic oscillations of her prose.

What Taylor undertakes is nothing less than an ardent indictment of herself, her family, racialized violence, white privilege, apartheid, the archive, freedom, and apartness. The scab-picking required of such a project compels Taylor to look away in disgust from time to time, telling herself to “stop picking at it” — only to find herself right back at it, scraping away at the layers of silence that surround the narrative of white South African life during and after apartheid.

Taylor, who was born in the mid-1960s, first encountered Africa as a child, when her mother took her back to her native South Africa on summer visits. As Taylor matured, so did the struggles for independence on the continent, and her life story lurks alongside the burgeoning independence movements. Unlike Rushdie’s Saleem Sinai or the third-world protagonists of Frederic Jameson’s imagining, Taylor’s life cannot be read or presented as a simple allegory for the end of colonialism. Instead, she depicts the inevitable distance between her and those events, those lives, those revolutions. She is able — as a white South African born in the United States — to move freely, to land momentarily, to escape the tumult of revolution. But living “apart,” as she does, she nevertheless feels her life inextricably bound and ever determined by the African revolutions taking place beside her as she grows into adulthood.

Taylor’s childhood memories of her “ancestral home” are trapped within the cabins of airplanes floating in the liminal space between continents — on layovers, in the clouds, over the Atlantic. “Our mother flew us over and over again into the heart of history,” she writes, reminiscent of that heart of darkness described by Conrad. But this time, Africa is not fashioned as an ahistorical blank map. Taylor’s Africa, and more particularly South Africa, is a place where “the world was changing,” filled with “places of revolution we brushed past, aware and not aware.” Like the Google Earth image of the Isle of Sal that Taylor’s son locates, the image of Africa that she has in her memory is always pixelated. “You always need to zoom in more,” her son tells her, and it is no less true of her own memories. By writing these vignettes, Taylor tries to effect that very zooming.

Strangely, each episodic memory of her childhood returns to Africa is a near-death experience. In one case, a plane buzzes dangerously close to the plane Taylor’s family is traveling in for their summer retreat. In another, their own plane loses an engine and is forced to make an emergency landing. In yet another, armed military revolutionaries search their plane, and Taylor’s mother warns her not to surrender her passport to them under any circumstances. For the young Taylor, these brushes with danger are adventures, animated stories to recount to her family and friends.

In each case, Taylor and her family are somehow able to escape the terror and the violent crash that seemed inevitable in those moments of suspension. It is only in retrospect that Taylor recognizes that even those flights, hovering as they did in precarious liminality, defining her very apartness, were also securely guarded spaces of privilege. And as apartheid struggles grew ever more violent, her return trips grew ever less frequent, until her mother decided to stop taking her back at all. Just as the story of independence began to unfold on the continent, Taylor’s connection to it was abruptly severed.

With this sense of displacement at the fore, Taylor seeks desperately to be a part of some larger narrative. But what narrative is available to the one who lives “apart”? Perhaps this is the test of “third-world” belonging that Jameson poses: Can your story act as a mirror of the nation? Or even some significant aspect of that nation? When Taylor fails Jameson’s test, she has to figure out how to explain her life, her self, to herself. She has to write, but she has to write in some other way.

If the memoir is a mode of self-fashioning, of representing the self, Taylor’s text fails, too, as she is unable to hold the self together. It jostles and erupts and digresses. Taylor attempts to articulate a grammar in which, as she quotes Rosemarie Waldrop, “subject and object function are not fixed, but reversible roles, where there is no hierarchy of main and subordinate clauses, but a fluid and constant alternation.” In one of Taylor’s associational prose poems that are interspersed throughout the text, she writes:

Language haunted by history. Languages haunted by histories. Up the ante on your etymologies. Grammar may be a structure of domination’s nation, but just because it sutures subject to object or predicate to property doesn’t mean disruptions jump the fence with any consequence. Maybe vernacular’s an agent of unruliness, or maybe its in the swing between verse and chorus of writing as praxis. Adorno’s Deutsch cracks the code and Esperanto’s whacked dream to make a necessary mash-up of internationalism that cleaves language between itselves. That’s the polyphonic shit you crave. Language as both bond and division. Wracked syntax a revolution won’t engender.

But the language does not yet exist that can sustain such equality and redistributive potential at the same time. Taylor’s Apart is explicitly and persistently haunted by a grammar that privileges the “I” subject that is Taylor and subordinates those black South Africans who do not appear on her family tree or in her photo albums, but merely as the obscured and redacted objects of archival reports and her mother’s memory. As much as she longs to be a part of that history, she finds herself increasingly apart from it. In spite of her fractured sense of belonging, Taylor looks to South Africa to find a mirror, to tell her who she really is. “To be African seems exotic and liberating,” she thinks, when her South African family suggests that she should move back to Africa. “It would free me from being American without having to become ‘South’ African.” Repelled by the position her whiteness thrusts her into, whether as an American or a South African, she takes the position of one who is both, but neither.

I imagine “returning” to one past and leaving another behind; to belong and to be free of belonging. Intoxicating. The fact that all around me a National Geographic special is being projected — the grass waving golden green, the blue gum trees swishing in slo-mo, the sky blue and yellow, the fields full of ibis, even the glamour of the recent struggle still shining just out of the frame — makes me dizzy.

From this dizzying perspective, she is privy to something of a DuBoisian double consciousness, but she wills an even greater tearing asunder. Is it possible to simply amputate the embarrassing, troubling parts of one’s identity and history? It’s hard to say whether, given the chance, Taylor would. She savors the flexibility of being “rigorously non-nationalistic,” but faces the same question Judith Butler raises of Hannah Arendt: “What would non-nationalist modes of belonging be? I’m not sure she is describing reality as it is, but making use of language to invoke, incite, and solicit a different future." Taylor’s work here attempts to forge that language of futurity, one that might be post-national and post-racial, but it remains out of reach, or, at best, the broken and fragmented language of lyric.

Taylor wants to embrace the potential energy of a non-nationalist stance, or at least the post-apartheid, new South Africa. “I don’t want to be a cynic,” she tells us, claiming that she longs for “the fantasy of the rainbow nation.” Both a post-national global perspective and a post-racial South Africa would liberate her from her distressing apartness. But that longing betrays the fact that these utopian futures — free of colonialism, free of oppression, free of inequality, free of the binds of nationality — remain potentialities so far unrealized. From the very prologue on, Taylor is pondering the “after,” the “maybe,” — the future potential. She evokes a grammar of race that is always grounded in futurity, focused on that promissory note that Martin Luther King presented to the world. She reminds us that the promise of a free future may never happen.

This elliptic, never-yet-but-ever-forward drive pervades the text. The specter of Freedom Day keeps returning to haunt us. South Africans celebrate Freedom Day every April 27 to commemorate the first post-apartheid elections, but while Taylor’s family members and friends often set out to travel to Freedom Day festivities, they never seem to arrive. They appear too late, or the festivities are cancelled before they reach their destination. Taylor and her family remain in the car. Freedom Day, like freedom itself, always remains in the future. It is a utopian ideal celebrated now, for its potential arrival in a future day of liberation. Neither the black nor white South African ever arrives at Freedom Day in Taylor’s narrative.

Pondering this persistent postponement, Taylor wonders what an adequate white anti-racist response might be. She looks to her mother’s apartheid-era experience for answers, but finds herself on ever more unstable ground. According to Taylor, white South African youth had four possible avenues they might take when they were forced to shed their innocent ignorance of racial violence in South Africa: they could choose “denial or complicity or escape or resistance.” In the very moments when real action can be taken to challenge racial segregation and oppression in Taylor’s narrative, these are the tropes of white privilege that erupt from the text: barely graspable positions that constantly overlap and fold back on one another, so that the escapist is always complicit and the resistor is always in denial.

The exploration of her mother’s generation and her anti-apartheid activism at the Black Sash Advice Office sets Taylor down a spiraling path of uncertainty, as she contemplates the futility of white protests against racism. Logs kept by the Black Sash volunteers document a litany of cold-blooded murders of black township dwellers who were killed while innocently crossing the street or getting ready for work. Taylor reproduces several of these brief but grisly entries testifying to the predictability of otherwise unfathomable violence enacted on South Africa’s black citizens in the 1970s and ’80s. And, in doing so, she realizes that the documents replicated in her text and the thousands recorded in the organization’s logs can never do justice to the lives that were lost. Instead, the entries inadvertently reveal the numbing effect recording such atrocity had on the very anti-racist activists who sought to listen and record, when they could do nothing else through legal channels. Their attempts to escape complicity through activism left many of them desensitized to the violence, and their records did nothing to end apartheid or its madness.

Is it ever possible to completely renounce one’s privilege, Taylor wonders, and live a deliberate life dedicated to justice? Is it possible that the work of representing racial injustice is not only inadequate to the task of producing equality but also reifies inequalities? Taylor ponders whether “to learn horror is to forget it,” as Claude Lanzmann suggests, and whether writing horror, recording it, processing it, assimilating it into your life narrative has any productive effect whatsoever. “What faith in representation sustains this space?” she asks of the archive of atrocity recorded by her mother and her colleagues. And she realizes that the same question must be asked of her book.

Reiterating her resistance to cynicism, Taylor indicates that she is “hesitant to give up completely on the value of reportage’s legacy, to say that it is inevitably ineffectual,” and her book is evidence that we should not resign ourselves either. Taylor refuses to ignore atrocity or to place it “with white gloves, carefully back in their acid-free tombs” in the archive. Instead, she remains dedicated to articulating the radical inequities that provided security and prosperity to her family in a country where so many black citizens were brutally oppressed. She juxtaposes her family’s life of relative luxury (populated by mafia bosses driving Mercedes-Benzes to business deals, innocent children singing imported musicals, and her own transatlantic travels) against that of black South Africa (populated by people exiled from their homes and placed into homelands, women who search for husbands and sons they rightfully suspect have been senselessly murdered, and freedom fighters who must struggle to win back the right to their own land), presented to us in montages that highlight the hideous disparities endemic in South African life.

Taylor finds a way of expressing and experiencing privilege that is grounded in vulnerability, baring naked the guilt, shame, and desire that constitute it. She suggests that the privileged are envious of the irreproachable position of the oppressed. They long to identify with a position that is ethically indisputable. They long for the right to speak from a position not sullied by a legacy of hatred and oppression. Indeed, Taylor reveals that she sometimes even longs for the darker skin of her mother and brother because passing as “colored” (in South African terms) provides, she thinks, a kind of legitimacy that her pale skin denies her.

For a while I would tell Quinn’s [Taylor’s nephew] identity story any chance I got, insinuating, and enjoying the possibilities of my own blackness. But then I read Nadine Gordimer’s story "Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black” in which she takes white South Africans to task for finding their one drop of black blood as another way to lay claim to power.

To attempt to escape privilege is to seek what may be the only advantage that the oppressed have — their irrefutable guiltlessness in the context of their oppression. White people can never claim that they are not to blame without revealing rabid ignorance. Taylor’s willingness to bear witness to that conflicted and politically anxious position and to try to kill it in the rendering is what makes her book invaluable and inevitable. She presents not conclusions, but the contradictory, discomfited, irresolute facts of her position. Some readers will want to turn away from this seemingly tangled confession, but what is exceptionally powerful about the text is precisely the vulnerability that Taylor reveals. In these most uncomfortable racial critiques that she levels against herself, she picks at that scab of privilege and begs for salt.


Laura Murphy is the author of Metaphor and the Slave Trade in West African Literature

LARB Contributor

Laura Murphy is assistant professor of English and director of African and African American Studies at Loyola University New Orleans, and author of Metaphor and the Slave Trade in West African Literature.


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