I’m from here
An Unfinished Story
Not long before my 40th birthday I came across Colleen Higgs’ remarkable poem, autobiography (after Nazim Hikmet), published in her book, halfborn woman, Hands-on books, 2004. It inspired me to write my own version of poem-autobiography. The following poem is it. (It was initially published in one of the South African poetry journals.)
Preparing for the big O
– cued by Colleen Higgs
I was born
in a divided city
Immediate middle-ear infection.
And I had to eat.
Through the window I saw
the cherry tree.
Pulled off my gloves,
Then the Americans landed
on the moon in the radio
and my father's astonished face.
Soon after that, my family ate
a huge basket of fruit on a hill in Finale Ligure,
then boarded the Galileo Galilei –
because on Earth you could go
through all horizons.
I swam on the ship
in the adults' pool,
then walked to school on blossoms
with castanettes above in the jagged crowns.
South Africa had the heaviest rains
in fifty years, and the teacher called my mother:
Red panties were unacceptable,
and I may not kiss other children.
Those who called me silkworm I chased.
At nine I got my own room
in Freya Road near the airforce base,
and my father built a tree house in the Elata,
where a boy from Great Britain
tried to feel my thighs.
You must say you remember vaguely, not darkly,
said my best friend. And,
they have a case, but they shouldn't burn
their schools. Meanwhile, my grandmother,
a hemisphere away, phoned to check
that we were still alive.
We visited at Christmas, but my grandfather
had already died.
Later, I said good-bye to my virginity
in my room, and walked with a dog
and knife in hand at night through
the Permanent Force residential section looking
for a suicidal boy. He designed
a house by the river with steps leading down,
and claimed he loved Einstein
and could create energy
and would join the Reccies.
We broke up over that.
Later still I agreed to be head-girl
so long as I didn't have to organise the beauty-contest,
or tell anyone to cut hair or nails.
I lost my sanity soon after,
did tertiary studies with a bell-jar over my head.
They told me to say good
not as in boo, but as in book.
There was inevitably new love
I clung to, walking again in darkness,
this time with flowers, by fierce coastal cliffs
over the Great Kei River and
in the hills of Natal. There, herons gathered
on branches over water at dusk.
But by then dead people were floating down the river –
PW Botha's Tricameral Parliament was in place.
Then the wall crumbled in my birth city
(I have kept some crumbs in a glass on the shelf);
the red danger disappeared;
panties amongst other things in all colours were allowed;
and here FW gave the green light to release
Nelson Mandela, and we did it.
Free to choose I married
a man just opening green eyes from a coma
(he'd been attacked by an unknown bouncer).
He had seizures and nightmares,
wanted to escape from life.
Our marriage was a 'happy death'.
Didn't even watch the presidential inauguration,
but sat quietly on rocks over the speech of water.
Then came a new president with continental visions of rebirth,
and we a had a baby boy
and the New Government Nurse came round
and said, Where is he? Why haven't you given him
his shot against TB?
I returned to university to write a book,
was briefly institutionalized
for writing madly and too much,
though the book won a prize and
gained a degree.
I have since found a teacher
who helps me shape clay into surprising hollows:
vessels that hold
more than you or I could ever do.
And South Africa has won the bid for World Cup,
and for my thirty-ninth my father-in-law bought Proteas –
Susannah, Compacta, Obtusifolia -
for the renewed garden.
And in between the clay workshops I give
to a mother and her child -
a talk on southern night skies, behold:
slides of nebulae Eagle and Swan.
Wolf the astronomer says Parks
are introducing swans at Rondevlei,
and Solole Private Nature Reserve are excavating
in preparation for hippopotami near
the new townhouse complex;
and the most precious gifts are sight
All told thus far I have realised that life
is a hollowing-out process:
the spin of Lao-Tzu's bicycle spokes, or
a reverse countdown, if you like.
I make myself useful in the interim,
feeding, cleaning, shaping, reading,
so to preserve what I know.
Am preparing without haste
for the big O.
So, ok. I was born in Berlin, way before the wall fell, and I’d been naturalised as a South African citizen when it did fall, removing the ‘rooi gevaar’ and allowing F.W. de Klerk to hold the referendum that would get Mandela out of Pollsmoor.
I’m from here. If only there were one here. My mother, from the Protestant North of Germany, dark-haired, brown-eyed, high-cheekboned, wore platform shoes, minis and sometimes leather jewellery when I was young; people were forever assuming she was my big sister. She taught me to read and write at three; handicraft was part of life – I drew, painted, modelled Fimo and clay and must always make cards and gifts with my own two hands: my mother set the example. My father, a curly blond, fast balding, from the Catholic South, Black Forest region, was a scientist who explained the sky to my sisters and me around countless camp fires in Southern Africa. He taught me to tie my shoe laces, and sometimes made yeast cake with jam and raisins.
My parents were devout atheists; my father officially left the church to avoid the automatic church taxes. Reverence was due to Nature in all her glory; ‘high’ culture (Mozart, Beethoven, Goethe, Böll, Dali, Picasso, you get the drift); and good quality food prepared fresh, eaten together at table. Intolerance of popular culture was de rigeur. Live in the world, but don’t be of it. Differing ideas, however, thought through carefully, were generally considered.
“What would you do if I became a Christian?” I asked my father.
“You are free to believe what you wish,” he retorted, adding, “though I would probably discourage you if you wanted to become a nun.”
Are parents ‘here’s’? There was Berlin, where I only remember the swans; then Heidelberg, where I remember the Neckar River flooding its banks; and my first boyfriend at pre-school: my best friend. And his baby brother, who peed an arc into the air when his mom put him on the kitchen scale.
The relocation to South Africa happened by accident, in a way. My dad was accepted for a post-doctoral programme of sorts and we were only going to be here for two, at most three, years. Well, the years ran on and Schmidt’s Germany was in a recession. Eventually my dad bought a house in Valhalla, bordering on Voortrekkerhoogte, in Pretoria. It was nice and cheap there. The army guys used to jog past our house, the roads were still gravel, and the nannies in pink and blue aprons would stoop to pick bits of dolomite to eat.
It was a suburb built on sinkholes, which sometimes lived up to their name, and were cordoned off, for us to gawk at nothings into which houses just like ours had vanished.
School was the only English-medium one in a radius of 50kms. Most of the teachers were Afrikaans, as there was job reservation; the Nats were actually running a kind of private Socialist State benefiting exclusively their own. When the children called me ‘Nazi’ I had to go home and ask what that was. Schweinehund and Jawohl! and Ve have vays and means were remarks I have had throughout my life to put up with, on the grounds of being born where I was; living in an Anglophone context, it remains important for certain people to continue to indicate their offendedness at Hitler’s transgressions by smearing their disgust onto me; they do not even know they are doing it, it is an amusing cultural habit that caresses them in their comfort zone.
My dad eventually garnered a position at Wits University, which marked a pinnacle in his career. Academia was deemed an acme in human civilisation; his instatement happened in my Matric year, so the move to Jo’burg followed logically, as my sisters and I would get our tertiary education at a premium; in my second or third year, it became completely free.
Jo’burgers were said to be far more liberal (by which word in those days was understood ‘human’) and cosmopolitan than the verkrampte P.F. (Permanent Force) folk we’d lived alongside in Valhalla; but nothing had prepared me for the Drama Department at Wits, where I chose to register, dreaming vainly of a future in theatre. Many of the unrepressed, questing individuals I encountered there influence me to this day.
When I left home, I lived in various places in Yeoville, Bellevue and Bellevue East. I walked everywhere – through Hillbrow at all hours, to Bez Valley, to town and back, as far as the Oriental Plaza, through taxi ranks, past beggars I befriended; and when I began teaching part-time in Soweto, by way of paying for my rent, a man stopped me one afternoon at the taxi rank to ask,
“Aren’t you afraid to walk here, the only white woman?”
I looked into his sweet face, could not help but smile, and said,
“Are you saying I ought to be afraid of people like you?”
It was a good moment for us both.
Those were P.W. Botha’s State of Emergency years, things were pretty awful. Some people had their places bombed, Albie Sachs’ arm got torn off, many were arrested, more were raided and harassed by security police, my friends and I were among them, my underwear over my chair leaned on by Colonel Whitecross early one morning, and six or so soldiers with rifles standing by, I answering questions in my grandmother’s nightie.
We went on marches and were sjambokked and teargassed. All my white male friends regularly discussed the traumas they’d suffered doing military service; compulsory camps after the obligatory two years were still the order of the day. It was an ugly and exciting time and the main topic on all our minds – we were in our early 20s – was sex.
I fell in love with a beautiful soul of a Jewish man who put up with me for several years. I fell for his family, too, and the feeling was mutual – to this day. The bits of Yiddish made me feel totally at home and their open-mindedness, alongside traditional cultural ways, harmonised with me. To their delight I even began baking Kitkes, using the recipe in the Anchor Yeast booklet. Jo’burg is in many ways profoundly rooted in diasporas from Lithuania and elsewhere; that it is the biggest man-made forest on earth is, as far as I know, entirely thanks to the endeavour of Jewish settlers during the city’s early days.
Just before the first democratic elections, I moved to Cape Town, pulled by some kind of magnetite in my soul, having married a man with South African cross British, and a speckle of Italian, ancestry. We ended up living in Simonstown, that winter refuge for the Royal Navy, where we made a rickety life by teaching part-time, here and there, enjoying, at that stage still, Black Eagles overhead, otters and heron on the beach, and learning to stop baboons from getting into our house, with a hose pipe and by blowing loudly on vuvuzelas to alert the neighbourhood.
Cape Town, and the South Peninsula, boomed not long after our arrival, in that ‘economic backwater’, at the very end of 1992. Gautengers were fleeing the land beyond the Vaal, and overseas buyers were seeking investment in the Rainbow Nation. We witnessed what one of my Marxist lecturers at Wits had called a ‘bourgeois revolution’. Many of my leftie friends and colleagues from the days of oppression were now authorities in secure jobs.
Simonstown was my ‘here’ for nineteen years. I was utterly from that ‘here’ – birthed a child in my lounge, got involved with all kinds of localised work in nature and education, went hacking to save my mountain from Port Jackson and Myrtles – the South Peninsula was my home, for sure. During a spell of working for the Western Cape Oral History Project (now the Centre for Popular Memory), based at UCT, I interviewed two dozen former inhabitants of the forcibly removed Red Hill community, including a Cape Point lighthouse keeper and a couple of previous occupants of the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, who had subsisted there as fisherfolk before the reserve was declared.
But then it turned out that some kind of magnetite in my heart pulled me out of that haven – to Hogsback. To a man, of course, again. Much as I was devoted to him, I hated Hogsback for not being on the coast and its remoteness. The roads there rearranged my inner organs every time we went anywhere – kidneys in my inner ear, liver and heart exchanged places. Any upkeep is done privately to this day.
It was in Hogsback, that I married, happily, a second time – married my husband, the by now internationally known poet, Norman Morrissey. He died last year and I’ve not wished to leave: his spirit is utterly present to me in the house we shared. I don’t mind the rough non-roads anymore, though I do a lot of praying for my car. I live in Eden: monkeys duck to peer at me; duiker and bushbuck visit regularly and do not run when they see me; hares nap in the many wild patches of the property, bound off when I traipse through. I won’t even mention the birdlife – you’d be here till tomorrow if I did.
Many of the locals – black and white alike – have roots that go back generations in this region, lending it a strange stability of sorts, despite the continuing inflammatory events (literally and figuratively) that plague that old haunt of Mandela’s and other stalwarts of the anti-Apartheid struggle – Fort Hare University in Alice, just 35 kms away.
Here. I’m from here. Here, now – where Azaleas, Rhododendrons and Silver birches thrive beside Yellowwoods, Proteas and Watsonias; where people of different origins and races muddle along side by side, one way or another. Where one student I met is studying Xhosa click sounds in the Zoology Department!
Here – an itinerary of points of now, which pass to hand me over to what next gust in the wind?
Earth, actually. Earth is my home. Where I hear spirits, ancestors, angels say: We’re from here, too. I hear them more clearly now than ever before, so I don’t think Hogsback is finished with me. Yes, in Hogsback I’m still learning about my place on earth.
– Silke Heiss
Hogsback, October 2018