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REVIEW — Always Another Country

Always Another Country, by Sisonke Msimang; Johannesburg & Cape Town: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2017, ISBN 9781868428489

There’s been, in our era, a lot of books that dramatise the modern female psyche, its self divisions and complications, but not enough that enact the simplicity, wholeness and stable female psyche. Sisonke Msimang’s book, Always Another Country, is a progeny of our era.

Msimang is rescued from the follies of the age by deriving a dose of stability from her late mother, a Swazi lady who met, fell in love and married her guerrilla-student-exile South African father in Lusaka. Her mother, in exile years, became the anchor and the bread winner of their family. Once their father finished studying the family left for Canada on better prospects.

The earlier years spent in Lusaka, Nairobi and other African cities, in my humble opinion, would have worked better had they been told with a young voice, like in Noviolet Bulawayo’s character in We Need New Names. Better still, that of Betty Smith’s in her classical book A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. Hence my opinion of Always Another Country falls just short of joining the book records as one of the great memoirs of our age.

Msimang's use of language is superb, poetic and scintillating at times. I found myself thinking, had I been her publisher, I would have advised her to go and write a novel about a young, well traveled, immigrant African woman who fell in love with an abusive American guy (Jason). And while recovering from that relationship, she compensated for the absent fatherly love – her father worked with jobs that required him to travel a lot – by marrying an older Australian white guy (Simon) in whom she finds shelter and love. I think that book should have been written first, before this memoir. I say so because the parts staged in Canada and the US, in Always Another Country, are the most compelling. They’ve got psychological depth and insight that comes from the distance created by chewing the cud of personal experience, which is what great writing is all about. Good writers are nothing if not good ruminant animals.

My guess is that the death of her mother compelled Msimang to look internally, hence this, rather rushed, memoir for someone so young. Indeed there’s something to be said about writing with your own blood, to adapt Nietzsche. But, for the young, if necessary, this should be served with a dose of imagination, even it is for the sake of presentation if nothing else. The belief that the young are too young to broadcast on the public microphone-stand though, is a personal feeling. I applaud those who do it well.

The South African section of the book is the least favourite part of the book for me. It feels too contrived and bolstering. Msimang knows this also, because at some stage she admits to lacking the associative lens for looking at the country through memory and experience. And that her association with it is merely biological – surprising her whenever she meets people who look like her, but she shares no Weltanschaung with.

All said and done, Msimang has managed to pull off a compelling memoir – something extremely phenomenal when you consider she’s only in her thirties. She depicts emotional vulnerability in a non-mawkish manner. She has fresh non-cloying vocabulary for intimate self-disclosure.

I look forward to reading her next work. This book, like its cover, is racy and Afro funky; cosmopolitan and pan-Africanist; inter-sectional and intimate. It depicts a young life that had to grow up very quickly under fast changing circumstances, and forever changing landscapes, cultures, politics and religions. Such things are known to plant seeds of restlessness and melancholy in lessor resilient spirits than that of Msimang. I am sure she’s grateful to have found a great anchor in her “mummy” – in whose memory the book is written.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

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Mphuthumi Ntabeni
Mphuthumi Ntabeni lives in Cape Town where he is a political commentator and writer. He writers for the Southern Cross and his book, The Broken River Tent is published by Black Back Book, an imprint of Jacana Books, in early 2018.

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