‘South African Writing’ on BBC Radio 3 / Podcast: Novel Dialogue
This month I was really pleased to feature on another episode of BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking (14th June 2022). I joined Damon Galgut, Julia Blackburn and host Anne McElvoy to discuss ‘South African Writing’, including Damon’s 2021 Booker Prize winning novel The Promise, and Julia’s forthcoming book Dreaming the Karoo: A People Called the /Xam.
You can listen to the episode here or on the Arts and Ideas podcast.
Project Co-Investigator Andrew van der Vlies also took part in a discussion with Damon Galgut about The Promise earlier this year on a podcast episode of Novel Dialogue (host: Chris Holmes). You can listen here.
Postcard: Can Themba’s ‘The Suit’
As part of the Free Thinking episode on ‘South African Writing’, I presented a postcard essay on Can Themba’s ‘The Suit’. The text is copied below, with a bibliography of sources.
In Can Themba’s 1963 short story, ‘The Suit’, the protagonist, Philemon, makes his wife Matilda breakfast in bed, then heads to work. On the way, Philemon meets his friend, Maphikela, who tells him: ‘there’s a young man who’s going to visit your wife every morning’ (9).
Philemon rushes home and catches his wife in bed with her lover. He pretends not to notice as the man, ‘clad only in vest and underpants’, promptly leaps out of the window and runs off down the street. A suit lies draped over the bedroom chair.
Slowly, [Philemon] turned round and contemplated…the suit. […]
"Ha”, he said, “I see we have a visitor,” indicating the suit. “We really must show some of our hospitality.” […]
“I’d like him to be treated with the greatest of consideration. He will eat every meal with us and share all we have. Since we have no spare room, he’d better sleep in here. But the point is, Tilly, that you will meticulously look after him. If he vanishes or anything else happens to him… […] Matilda, I’ll kill you.” (10)
Matilda is forced to treat the suit as an honoured guest in their home. She serves the suit meals, takes the suit for walks, introduces the suit to guests at a dinner party. Finally, unable to bear the humiliation any longer, Matilda commits suicide.
In Can Themba’s short story, the suit provides material evidence of Matilda’s infidelity; it is a haunting reminder of its owner that lives on in the couple’s home; it is both symbol and method for Philemon’s vengeance.
But it is more than this too.
In ‘The Suit’, Can Themba deploys various techniques that we associate with literary modernism: symbolism, abstraction, disillusionment, alienation, perspectival shifts, representations of rich and complex interior and domestic lives.
These techniques are used to create a cruel and intimate story of infidelity, a marriage-turned toxic, and personal revenge. But the story is also, and at the same time, an allegory of the violent and devastating consequences of apartheid.
Sophiatown, where the story is set, was a suburb of Johannesburg, and then a hugely important cultural hub for black artists, musicians and writers, and a site of political resistance. In 1955, under the direction of the National Party government, the bulldozers and armed police moved in. Over a number of years, Sophiatown residents were forcibly removed, homes razed to the ground, and the area rebuilt and rezoned for whites only.
Philemon, like the other inhabitants of Sophiatown, is forced out of his home.
The empty suit, then, is meaningful. It recalls displaced peoples, the missing bodies and ‘disappeared’ victims of apartheid. Its hanging, dragging presence in the home is the policy and practice of racial segregation pervading all aspects of life in 1950s South Africa.
‘The Suit’ continues to speak across time – emblematising the dispossessions, displacements and deaths that took place, first under colonialism, and then under apartheid. Even today, ‘The Suit’ lives on as one of South Africa’s most famous and important short stories, inspiring literary responses, and film and stage adaptations – the enduring disembodiment of that which has yet to be resolved.
Brown, Ryan Lenora. ‘A Native of Nowhere: The Life of South Africa Journalist Nat Nakasa, 1937-1965’, Kronos, (November 2011), 41-59
Chapman, Michael, ed. The Drum Decade: Stories from the 1950s (Scottsville; University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2012) Coetsee, Jarryd (dir.) The Suit (2016)
Gready, Paul. ‘The Sophiatown Writers of the Fifties: The Unreal Reality of their World’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 16.1 (1990), 139-64
Hannerz, Ulf. ‘Sophiatown: The View From Afar’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 20.2 (1994), 181-93
Heywood, Christopher. A History of South African Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)
Lelliott, Kitso Lynn. ‘The Tailored Suit: Re-Membering and Gendering Can Themba’s “The Suit”, Black Camera, 9.2 (Spring 2018), 256-76.
Mahala, Siphiwo. Can Themba: The Making and Breaking of the Intellectual Tsotsi (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2022)
Nicol, Mike. A Good-Looking Corpse (London: Secker and Warburg, 1991)
Themba, Can. Requiem for Sophiatown (London: Penguin, 2006)
---. ‘The Suit’, in The Classic, 1.1 (1963), 6-16.