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Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Running by Makhosazana Xaba (Modjaji Books, 2013)

With this year’s Nobel Literature Prize going to the Canadian Alice Munro, it appears that the status of short fiction is rising to equal the novel in the eyes of the powers that be in the literary world. Makhosazana Xaba’s new collection of short stories is an excellent example of contemporary African fiction. Running leads the reader through dreams, nightmares, places of pleasure as well as familiar and unfamiliar purgatories. From the beach to the geriatric ward Xaba reveals hidden possibilities in the real-life and imagined characters of our virtual democracy.

South Africa’s constitution grants equal rights to all citizens of every gender, race and sexuality. The behaviour of our citizens often lags behind. It is always the violent breaches of this code for humanity that make headlines, yet we do not live in headlines. Authors live among people and capture the lives of people, and this is one of the joys of Running: everyone will find themselves a place in these reflections on our life in this country.

A dry ironic voice begins the book in the story After the Suit. “To be terminally ill and write from a hospital bed at the age of eighty is a tad risky; the tendency to romanticise abounds.” This story references Siphiwo Mahala’s recent short story collection, African Delights which is in part an imaginative response to Can Temba’s famous short story The Suit. The Suit “tells the story of Philomen, a middle-class lawyer, and his wife, Matilda, who live in Sophiatown. One day, Philemon hears that his wife is having an affair, so he goes home in the middle of the day and catches her in flagrante. Her lover jumps out of the window but leaves behind his suit. Philemon then dreams up a strange and bizarre punishment. Matilda has to treat the suit as an honoured guest, feed it, entertain it and take it out for walks. This serves as a constant reminder of her adultery. A remorseful Matilda eventually dies of humiliation. Philemon then regrets his actions but it is all too late.” (Wikipedia,

Like Temba’s, Xaba’s After the Suit focusses on the detail of the character’s pov. For example, the octogenarian Mondliwesizwe Mbatha notices the elderly nurse’s uniform: “Two buttons around the bust displayed some strain.” Xaba thus begins her collection by bestowing the humanity that the apartheid system removed from black people over generations, by giving voice to their private thoughts, some delightfully mundane, others steeped in philosophy.

Xaba’s precision is what keeps the reader focussed on every word, wanting to find out more. As a veteran of organisations working to change society, she is adept in using the language of meetings and rallies, crisis committees and caucuses, but it is the writer’s sensibility that brings all these to a human form. “The way she carries herself in her black conference T-shirt and black pants makes her pronouncements more believable. Maybe it’s her sturdy body. Maybe it’s the doctor in her. She has a presence, one that says “take me seriously”.”

Everything in Xaba’s world has a voice, each object, person, and creature is making meaning through its existence. In the somewhat sinister The Weekend, “The bedroom had a queen-size bed against the wall to the right side of the door. A bedcover of large sunflowers spoke to the walls. Against the wall opposite the bed stood a wooden chest of drawers, the kind that makes you want to ask many questions…” The mundane sharing of chicken pieces is contrasted with an intense exploration of abortion.

Like the bright community radio presenter Thuli in the punchy People of the Valley, Xaba listens to her characters and asks questions rather than offering judgements; in this way, drawing them out of themselves. Coupled with the author’s poetic imagination, and economical use of language, the story is insightful without being heavy, the different voices of the people who call in to the show to air their opinions paces up what could be a dry debate about the ethics of rural medical practices.

The thoughts are crafted in a rich language that flows through dialects and localities where she finds her characters, who reveal themselves directly to the reader. Sometimes it is the setting that reveals the character, as in Room for my shoes, where the narrator goes to the beach to enjoy the sunrise. “The sea looks agitated. The waves appear to be rushing to the shore at an anxious speed, one I have not seen in the few days since our arrival on this island. But then we’ve only come to the beach in the afternoon. Maybe this is the pre-sunrise rhythm,” she continues to rationalise until the sea’s tempestuous behaviour leaves her in terror. But it is her father’s scolding care that stays with her for days afterwards – a resonant and brief reflection on love and exile, and how we live together afterwards.

Then there is Refiloe, the optimistic orphan in Prayers, who needs only three things, tablets to cure her little sister’s bedwetting, “a businessman to build a home for children, orphans who do not go to school and those who do not have homes”, and the name of the mine where her father worked, so she can claim his pension. Instead of presenting a victim, which Refiloe undoubtedly is, Xaba introduces us to a resilient, hopeful individual who is trying to overcome the material challenges of her life – again, she brings the character to her full humanity for the reader’s appreciation.

There is something filmic in the way she creates the space for the reader to absorb her character’s thoughts and musings. One of my favourite examples from The Trip, a story about one of our national rituals: the long road trip to visit family.

“At this hour the horizon was doing its thing, with colours in the sky changing to announce the rising sun. The clouds and the sky seemed to have rehearsed this gracious performance. She thought of singers announcing the arrival of the bride, the joy, the voices. The skies and clouds seemed to understand this well. The colours were the mystery. The kind of mystery it’s best not to unravel.”

Like the love story waiting to unravel in Inside, a story of sexual attraction between two women, the simplicity of Xaba’s world allows desire to flourish and dreams to reach their realisation. These stories allow characters based on real people in a real society, to live their lives fully, and show us once again that writing is the only true democracy in which everyone is allowed to exist.

Running, the title story is a sharp observation of a very common betrayal in South African society, when a young, energetic activist meets a shadow from her past. As is the case with such stories, the only justice awarded to the victim is the telling of the story, and in the telling, her humanity and her courage remind us all of the strength that lies in us.

If you’ve ever sat at a coffee shop with a view of a public area, wondered about the inner lives of the characters that cross and recross the space, Running is the book for you. If you’d like to give a person overseas a snapshot of what it’s like here in South Africa at the moment, this is the book to send them. Running is a love poem, a cry of anguish, the courage of a child, sexual desire, emotional distance, all told in your ear, in a whisper, by a friend.


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