Academic journal article ARIEL

Complex Collaborations: Elsa Joubert's the Long Journey of Poppie Nongena and Zoe Wicomb's David's Story

Academic journal article ARIEL

Complex Collaborations: Elsa Joubert's the Long Journey of Poppie Nongena and Zoe Wicomb's David's Story

Article excerpt

Abstract: This essay examines how South African author Zoe Wicomb's novel David's Story (2001) critiques collaborative life writing. More specifically, it argues that the faltering collaboration between the protagonists David and the unnamed amanuensis in David's Story serves as an illuminating critique of past collaborative works such as Elsa Joubert's The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena (1980) by shifting the focus from the end product to the collaborative writing process that precedes it. The analyses in this essay reveal that the fallibility of language demonstrated in Wicomb's novel serves as a reminder of the impossibility of the narrative project that the amanuensis and David have set out to work on. Moreover, this essay argues that Wicomb's novel highlights what can be unequal power relations between an amanuensis and an autobiographical subject in a collaborative writing process.

Keywords: Elsa Joubert, The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena, Zoe Wicomb, David's Story, collaborative autobiography, South Africa


In 1978, the Afrikaans journalist and novelist Elsa Joubert published Die Swerfare van Poppie Nongena, detailing the life and hardships of a black South African woman during apartheid. Two years later, an English translation with the title The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena was published. The book became immensely popular; it was reprinted three times within half a year of the original publication in Afrikaans and was translated into several languages such as French, Spanish, and German. As David Schalkwyk astutely observes in his article "The Flight from Politics: An Analysis of the South African Reception of 'Poppie Nongena,'" the public that was moved to tears by the account of a black woman's suffering under pass laws and homeland resettlement was the same public that indirectly or directly contributed to keeping those laws in place. Much debate arose among book reviewers and scholars whether Joubert's book was political or not, with Joubert asserting in an interview that "it is not a political book" (Schalkwyk, "The Flight From Politics" 187).

The original framing of the book, conveyed through its prefatory note and an interview published in 1984, was that it told the real life story of a black woman who showed up on Joubert's doorstep on Boxing Day in 1976 (Daymond et al. 58-61). In Coullie et al.'s Selves in Question: Interviews on Southern African Auto/biography, Joubert says that Poppie worked for her in her household prior to the creation of The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena (174), placing their relationship in the context of domestic labour. Joubert taped interviews with Poppie and other members of Poppies family. These interviews became the basis of the novel The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena, which Joubert describes in the note to the reader that precedes the first chapter:

   This novel is based on the actual life story of a black woman
   living in South Africa today. Only her name, Poppie Rachel Nongena,
   born Matati, is invented. The facts were related to me not only by
   Poppie herself, but by members of her immediate family and her
   extended family or clan, (1) and they cover one family's experience
   over the past forty years. (Emphasis added)

As mentioned earlier, The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena received much attention upon publication, and many discussions arose among scholars regarding the potential problems of a white woman writing a black woman's story. It was not the first narrative resulting from collaborations between blacks and whites, preceded by collaborations such as early mission-press publications printed by the Lovedale Press during the second half of the nineteenth century. Another example is the novel Blanket Boy's Moon (1953) on the life of Monare of Lomontsa, written by Peter Lanham and Mosotho author A. S. Mopeli-Paulus. While not a collaboration in the conventional sense of the word, it could still be considered a form of collaborative autobiography in this context, and it resembles The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena in the sense that a white author is (re-)writing a black person's narrative. …

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