Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Past in the Present: Personal and Collective Trauma in Achmat Dangor's Bitter Fruit

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Past in the Present: Personal and Collective Trauma in Achmat Dangor's Bitter Fruit

Article excerpt

One might argue that narratives in fiction may ... involve truth claims on a structural or general level by providing insight into phenomena such as slavery and the Holocaust, by offering a reading of a process or period, or by giving an at least plausible "feel" for experience and emotion which may be difficult to arrive at through restricted documentary methods.

Dominick LaCapra

Unless the enquiries of the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] are extended, complicated and intensified in the imaginings of literature, society cannot sufficiently come to terms with its past to face the future.

Andre Brink

The representation of personal and collective trauma in Achmat Dangor's Bitter Fruit (2003) disrupts the surface of reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa and works to foreground the complex and enduring ramifications of apartheid. The novel represents interacting layers of trauma in South Africa arising from structural and symbolic racial oppression and acts of extreme violence under the apartheid regime. Bitter Fruit casts doubt on the ability of universalized Eurocentric models of trauma (located within a specific history and set of cultural practices) to account for South African trauma without suppressing the heterogeneity of experiences and responses to trauma in that locale. Homogenizing accounts exclude the particular historical, social, cultural, and personal contexts of trauma. Within postcolonial discourse, for example, Elleke Boehmer observes that there are "those among the once-colonised for whom the silences of history have not ended" (132). Boehmer pays particular attention to the marginalization of gender in male-authored postcolonial theory and the "silencing" of homosexuality in postcolonial and African writing (172). In a similar way, Ato Quayson emphasizes the need to articulate postcolonial experiences from "ex-centric" positions in order to include views that fall outside "the perspectives of sanctioned historical tellings of the nation" (192). Bitter Fruit suggests the importance of taking into account the specific context in which individual and collective traumas unfold by representing voices and experiences that cannot be subsumed into generalized models of trauma. The novel indicates ways in which gender, race, sexuality, class, age, religion, and language constitute and differentiate South African identities and experiences, past and present; but it focuses particularly on two ex-centric positions in the South African context. Bitter Fruit subverts Manichean representations that simplify South Africa's racial problems in terms of black and white (see Wicomb and Kruger) by representing colored experiences. In focusing on the sexual (and racial) violence of Lydia's rape, Bitter Fruit addresses a widely known but often unspoken area of experience in South Africa. The novel also draws attention to violence against homosexuals within the colored community as well as the wider homophobia in apartheid and post-apartheid society. Bitter Fruit suggests that many traumas remain unspoken and invisible, eluding the representation of a collective South African experience.

In the novel's central narrative, the silenced memory of Lydia's rape by a white policeman nineteen years earlier (which her husband Silas was forced to listen to) erupts into the post-apartheid present, forcing a confrontation with the suppressed traumatic past. Following the rape, Lydia and Silas have lived in a cold and non-communicative marriage, becoming increasingly isolated from each other as the years have gone by. The unspoken trauma overshadows their relationship and also affects their child Mikey, who is the unacknowledged product of Lydia's rape. Mikey is initially unaware of the rape and his own embeddedness in this traumatic history. When he reads Lydia's diary, he is forced to confront the fact that "he is the child of some murderous white man, ... a boer, ... who worked for the old system, was the old system" (131) and has to readdress his past and reassess the meaning of his life. …

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