Reviews – Rosa’s District Six


Rosa’s District Six

by Antony Di Nardo

Books in Canada

by Antony Di Nardo
April 2005

Thomas hardy described the masses as “a throng of people . . . .containing a certain minority who have sensitive souls; these, and the aspects of these, being what is worth observing.” In a work of fiction, these sensitive souls are realized when the reader recognizes them as breathing, thinking, feeling individuals. They ache and complain, love and desire. They rejoice with friends and family or they don’t. They punish their children, gossip about neighbours, curse the weather, and receive the news that breaks their hearts. This is the common currency of the masses and of the sensitive ones among them, and when a fiction writer gets it right––of a narrative world. Read Rozena Maart’s Rosa’s District 6 and enter such a world.

Rozena Maart knows “what is worth observing” and she writes about it from experience. Born and raised in District Six, a working class, segregated neighbourhood in the heart of Cape Town, she came to Canada in 1989, and in 1992 won the Journey Prize for her story, “No Rosa, No District Six.” The characters and place featured in her winning story now reappear in this collection. The lives of these characters, Rosa’s family and neighbours, intersect in all five of the collected stories––on the streets and in the homes of their tightly knit community of 1970s apartheid South Africa. Here non-White Christians and Moslems live side by side. They speak the same language, a patois that is mostly English with Afrikaner, Dutch and Malay thrown into the mix. They all have Rosa in common, an impish yet charming little girl whose presence in each story provides the occasional child-like gaze onto this complex world. And that gaze is vivid and clear.

Rozena Maart writes with self-assuredness. She is a competent and trustworthy writer whose stories explore the underbelly of a society that emerged as a result of slavery, exploitation and apartheid policies. Her graphic sense of place and lively characterization portray District Six as a world of chaos, confusion, and anger. It is an all-too-human place of visions and jealousies, knifings and rapes, anger and rage, love and hate.

Yet, within that world, Rosa, Mamma Zila, Mrs. Hood and Auntie Flowers, and their tacit understanding and acceptance of the status quo, help to create a unique harmony and peace.In the last story, “The Bracelet,” we learn that there’s an upper side to District Six, both geographically and socially, “ . . . occupied by families who carried themselves as though they were not Black and certainly not Coloured, as the latter was descriptive of the social, ethnic and cultural particularities of District Sixers.” Nathaniel, a young married man and father of three, accepts that he is gay, and as he prepares to introduce his lover to his parents, they reveal to their son that he is Coloured. So skilfully executed is the narrative as it winds and unwinds, building unsuspectingly towards this climax, that Nathaniel’s surprise is as palpable as the reader’s. This is the strongest story in the collection, striking for its density of feelings, tensions and conflicts based in racial resentments and social status.

The scenes are animated, subtleties are noted, a look or a gesture is full of meaning. Throughout the dialogue is lively and revealing. It seems there is so much to know about these individuals. Rosa, always with her notebook and pencil around her neck, poised to observe and record these “sensitive souls,” appears in every story. It is usually in her presence that the dramas of District Six are played out. In the first story, “No Rosa, No District Six”, she spies on Auntie Flowers and Mrs. Hood in ardent embrace, their lesbian love-making portrayed sensuously and tenderly. In “The Green Chair”, Rosa’s neighbour flies into a fit of rage when she discovers her teenage daughters have taken her favourite chair to the shop for re-upholstering. The chair, we learn, is reserved for the spirit of her first-born son who died at birth and appears to her regularly. “Money for your Madness” tells of a middle-aged mother, a local beauty, who confuses protectiveness and jealousy when she prevents her 34-year old, mentally unstable daughter from pursuing a romance. Rosa innocently informs the daughter of the flowers sent by her suitor that her mother kept for herself. “Ai Gadija” is a story of loss and betrayal, violence and bitter anger. Gadija is a young Moslem mother of two, whose husband is a political prisoner on Robben Island, and her world is a confusion of family, children, and neighbours, who come and go in and out of her house, yet somehow manage to keep the truth from her of her sister’s pregnancy, her husband’s infidelity and her friend’s betrayal. The outcome is tragic and devastating, but like Rosa, who appears in this story as a friend of Gadija’s children, it is accepted as part of life in District Six.

Rozena Maart’s writing is not weighed down with metaphors or postcard imagery. Yet, it isn’t sparse either. Her scenes are embellished with careful details of foods and aromas, streetscapes and marketplaces. Her characters know themselves and easily communicate who they are. She is clumsy in parts where sentences get tangled with names and pronouns, and there are places where you wonder whether it is the chaotic lives of the people of District Six or the number of characters she is trying to juggle that causes confusion. I was grateful for the glossary of local words and patois that’s included. The glossary defines words that are significant to the voices of her characters and serve to heighten the cultural distinctness of District Sixers. So strong are their voices that I found myself deeply engaged with their world and their stories.

Reviewed by Laurel Smith

Quill & Quire

Canada’s Magazine of Book News and Reviews

Rosa‘s District 6
Rozena Maart; $18.95 paper 1-894770-16-1, 234 pp., 5 3/4 x 8 3/4 ,
Tsar Publications
April 2005

Reviewed by Laurel Smith

Finding courage, humour, and humanity within oppressive circumstances is a rare but hopeful thing in this bitter world. One such discovery is Rosa’s District 6, a series of short stories situated in 1960s Cape Town, South Africa, during the era of apartheid. The stories are linked by a little girl named Rosa, who has a passion for writing and is eerily wise beyond her years.

These tales reflect an inner knowledge of the secrets in people’s lives, emerging through the eyes of this precocious child. The characters –
mostly women – are colourful, utterly believable, and filled with contradictions and contrasts. Among those who form the backbone of the District 6 community are the local healer, Auntie Flowers; Rosa’s aunt and caretaker, Mamma Zila; and Auntie Flowers’ sometime lover, Mrs. Hood.

Although Rosa’s District 6 tells of a specific era, a particular culture, and a unique community, these stories show the kind of universal truths that can provide inspiration and courage. The confusing and painful reality of apartheid is most vividly portrayed in one story about the Collingwood family, who reside on the “right side of the tracks” and who appear to be more “white” than their neighbours in the District, and therefore much more respectable.

The interaction between these two solitudes is painful, but it also creates humour, conflict, and, ultimately, a changed reality for both sides of the divide. The stories are filled with wit and pathos, and while the plots occasionally feel improbable, the reader is completely engaged with the strange goings-on in this singular community. The sometimes rambling storytelling style reflects the importance of the characters’ oral traditions. It also allows for delightful surprises in the telling. And for those who need a map through the cultural terrain of the book, Maart provides a glossary for the patois of the District 6 inhabitants.

– Laurel Smith

Reviewed by Irene D’Souza

Rosa‘s District 6
by Rozena Maart
TSAR Publications

Women’s news and Feminist views
Reviewed by Irene D’Souza

The common image of the non-white South African is hard to erase: mired in poverty and strife, shoulders overloaded with the burdens and brutality of apartheid. To ensure that the world no longer tolerate the injustices, South African literature rightly focused on historical issues, leaving individual stories percolating on the back burner––until now.

Rosa’s District 6, a delightful collection of short stories, has a precocious protagonist named Rosa guiding the reader to a South Africa that never made the news headlines. In District 6, the sun shines, it rains, people fall in and out of love, they fight, love to eat and drink, dance and make music. Rosa will say anything; she is endlessly inquisitive, utterly fearless, and when she is not documenting the life of District 6, she is equally eager to observe adults in bedrooms and to divine the secrets of female sexuality.

Author Rozena Maart has an uncanny talent for mixing hilarity and pain. For example, Rosa will dish out awkward information at the most inopportune moments. “Toria’s Mummy go wit her auntie to der hospital cos her husband hit her . . . huh Toria?” Rosa is a modern day Scheherazade who captivates the reader. The characters are alive and vibrant, living fulfilling and charmed lives––people who are caught up in the quirks and traumas of everyday living. Maart’s prose is luminous and unsentimental, but never glib. Her descriptions of the denizens of District 6 test our sociological conceptions.

District 6 is engrossing on so many levels. Yes, to our western eyes, the inhabitants are marginalized, but it is what they do within the margins that matter. This brutally honest, compassionate glimpse of life in District 6 captures the nuances, humour and cultural smorgasbord of South Africans. Reading these intertwined stories will leave you with the understanding that people forced to live as outcasts––overwhelmed by the task of coping with an inhumane environment, scraping up enough strength to make a beautiful life––are tenacious and life affirming.

Maart has written an eloquent and heart warming treatise.

April 13, 2006
By Karen Rutter

Unexpectedly for the author, the story won the prestigious Journey Prize for Best Short Fiction in 1992.With academic commitments to be fulfilled, Maart turned down an advance to continue with the stories – she was scheduled to start her doctoral degree at the University of Birmingham in England.

But once her thesis and a period of lecturing in England and Canada was completed, Maart wrote the four extra pieces that make up her collection.

Rosa’s District Six was originally published in Canada in 2004, and has been snapped up by David Philip for local release.

“Writing the stories – especially the first one, ‘No Rosa, No District Six’ – was a kind of healing for me,” says Maart. “I grew up in District Six in the 1970s, and my family and I were forcibly removed when I was 11-and-a-half-years-old. It was very traumatic for all of us.We went to live in Lavender Hill and things were never the same.

For years after that, every day on August 4, which is the day we had to leave District Six, I broke out in hives. Nothing could be done about it. Until I decided to get it all down on paper – the pain, the memories. And also the good times.

“The other thing that motivated me was the lack of fiction about District Six – there has been some excellent writing by the likes of Alex la Guma, Richard Rive and Bessie Head, but not enough. I wanted something substantial I could read – so I wrote it myself,” she laughs.

Maart’s words underscore a confidence and a creative energy that is very characteristic. It is the same spirit that saw her intensely passionately involved in politics during the turbulent 1980s, during and after she was a student at UWC.

Focusing her attention on the gender struggle, she and other women formed the first black women’s radical feminist organization War (Women Against Repression). After completing her honours degree in social work, Maart was offered a scholarship to do her masters in women’s studies at York University in the UK.

She left South Africa in 1987, and has lived in England, Colombia and Canada. Maart has published several academic works, research papers and an anthology of poetry. Rosa’s District Six, while semi-autobiographical, is her first work of fiction.

The heady mix of memorable characters set against a vibrantly drawn backdrop, has been praised as “vivid” and “heartwarming”.

One reviewer wrote: “The dangers and pleasures of life are laid bare and Maart reopens the various wounds of District Six living, but in such a way as to make a new place of this Cape Town legend.
Clearly a love for the city and its complicated past comes through in each story.”My mother and most of my extended family still live in the Cape. I have followed what has happened in South Africa over the past 20 years with intense interest.

“When I first left the country, it was both shocking and interesting to become aware of different kinds of struggles in the world. I suppose you could say that over the years I have developed more of a global consciousness, alongside my black and feminist consciousness.
“However, being outside your country of birth makes you think deeply about yourself and your identity. My heritage, which includes a slave history, is a part of this.

Apart from her career as an academic and writer, Maart is still actively involved with feminist organisations. “Although it’s a bit ironic sometimes – I live in a country where young people think the battles have all been won. They are not all that interested in feminism – they don’t necessarily see its relevance as a philosophy within a broader political perspective.

“But I look at the kind of changes that have taken place in South Africa, and the importance of gender politics becomes so obvious.”I see young black women taking their rightful places in the world without having to apologise. And I see sexist attitudes and behaviour being challenged, which never used to happen before,” she enthuses.

Rosa’s District Six will be published in South Africa in March/April.

April 13, 2006
By Karen Rutter

Smullekker vertellings oor motchies, oemies, voetvroue en imams
Joan Hambidge 21/08/2006 06:57:52 AM – (SA)

Smullekker vertellings oor motchies, oemies, voetvroue en imams
JOAN HAMBIDGE 21/08/2006 06:57:52 AM – (SA)
ROSA’S DISTRICT 6, deur Rozena Maart. David Philip, Kaapstad, 2006. (Sagteband, 232 bladsye, ISBN 978 0 86486 690 5.)

Dis ’n boek dié oor die Bo-Kaap en ­Distrik Ses. Dis ’n lekker boek oor die motchies en oemies. Jy kan lees van snoek en slangetjies. Daar’s ook koe­sisters en brijani. En bollas en boeber! Selfs boerewors en bobotie! Oor die ­lekker en die Eina! Jy lees hier van die ou dae, toe alles nog “gestamp and ­gechap” was, oorlat jy bruin is. En die lewe was soms deurmekaa.
Jy kan hier lees van die hopelots, hoere en imams. En Lieberstein. Soms lees jy van die kadoematjie en ’n voetvrou wat kinders in die lewe help bring. Daar is lewe en dood en hierom ook Kee Feit teen die agtergrond van Tafelberg.

Dit behoort vir die leser tot sover ­duidelik te wees dat hierdie boek van ­Rozena Maart ’n mens inspireer om al die kodes en gebruike te probeer begryp. Die boek heet Rosa’s District 6, en ­verskyn op dieselfde tyd as Zoë Wicomb se Playing in the Light en Rayda Jacobs se My Father’s Orchid (laasgenoemde twee uitgegee deur Umuzi).
Die skrywer woon in Ontario, is as skrywer bekroon vir haar kortverhaal “No Rosa, no District Six”, en is ook ’n digter (Talk about it!).

Dus ’n feministiese ekspat-skrywer wat die verlede in Distrik Ses karteer. ’n Dubbele outsiderskap.
Die boek bevat verskillende ver­tellings met ’n puik glossarium. In die ­eers­te verhaal word die kind aan die woord gestel in ’n praatstyl, en die leser word gewaarsku: Hier sal ’n verbeeldingryke aan die woord wees!
En die kind sien ongerymdhede raak, wat onder meer wentel om twee ou tantes se passie vir mekaar in ’n bad.
Die verhaal eindig meesterlik, met ’n kind wat gaan speel en terugkeer, soos verwag, uit die verbeeldingswêreld ­terug na roetine. En die leser begryp die transformasie wat plaasgevind het in die kind se gemoed.
Dit is duidelik uit “The Bracelet” dat hierdie boek veral op die internasionale leser gerig is met oorduidelike ­ver­wysings en verduidelikings ten opsigte van kleur, rassisme en klassisme binne die gemeenskap self, waar die “Upper­siders” se hovaardighede deur die ­Distrik-Sessers bespot is.
In hierdie vertellings word kos kleurryk en smullekker beskryf: ’n mens kan die brijani en frikkadelle ruik. Die skrywer gebruik kos, en die rituele rondom eet, om sosiale gewoontes en kodes weer te gee. ’n Gebed, onder meer, waarin die politieke onsekerhede aangeraak word in die roepe na Bo om dit uit te sorteer.
Wat besondere vermelding verdien, is die uitwys van die gay-lewe in hierdie bestaan en die gebruik van “gail” of ­gay-taal. In die slotvertelling word twee onthullings gesinkopeer, en ek ken min verhale wat jou so in die maag tref soos hierdie een: die poging om gay-wees te onthul, word deur ’n ander, ­groter ­politieke werklikheid getroef, naamlik naamsverandering en om te kon oorleef in ’n blank-besete Suid-Afrika.
Hierdie vertellings, soos ander ­romans wat tans verskyn, herontdek die sogenaamde “slawe-verlede” met trots. Die gay-outing is dus ’n metafoor van die politieke erkenning van die ouers in die verhaal: ’n mens is uiteindelik presies net wat jy is.
Ai, Gadija” analiseer die verskillende rolle van die vrou in so ’n kultuur met ’n gay meisie en hoe veral die vroue-gemeenskap haar aanvaar: geleerdheid en konvensie word hier teenoor mekaar geplaas.
Die vertellings is soms wydlopig en woordryk.
En die kleine Rosa is die waarnemer: sy skryf alles op in haar boekie. Sy is ’n sensitiewe buitestander. Dis ’n versameling verhale wat ’n mens terugneem na die oeuvre van I.D. du Plessis, en ek dink hier spesifiek aan “In die Slamse Buurt”, wat eindig met: “ ’n Halfvergete melodie / van hartseer en verlange.”
Of “Kaalvoet Klonkie” en my aller­gunsteling-Du Plessis-gedig, “Katrina”.
Lees hierdie vertellings. Soms ’n kortverhaal, soms amper ’n novelle, en saam gelees ’n ryk tapisserie van mense uit­gelewer aan die politiek van die tyd in ’n erg diskriminerende same­lewing. Die outeur het hier grootgeword en die leser wéét, ten spyte van die ­fiksionele aan­bieding, dat die egtheid of ­lewensgetrouheid die boek belangrik maak. Rosa, die Chambers-egpaar, Auntie Latief, Mama Zila, Auntie Flowers .. .
(Hoekom dan “Belleville” in plaas van Bellville? En, oeps, “geeeting” pleks van greeting?)
Eet, drink, dans, kavorteer, praat en rebelleer blyk die ses plesiere van die area te wees, om die verteller aan te haal. Tafelberg is heeltyd aanwesig, nes die seisoensveranderings in die stad.
Die aangrypende voorblad van Cloete Breytenbach verdien spesiale ver­melding.
Krislaam: Wees gegroet
motchie: Moesliem-vrou
oemie: ouma
slangetjies: eetdingetjie met speserye
bollas: nagereg
boeber: nagereg wat jy kan drink (gemaak van vermicelli)
deurmekaa: van deurmekaar; beteken gevaarlik
hopelots: deel van die armblanke-area waar kinders uit Distrik Ses gespeel het
kadoematjie: stuk lap met grond en speserye om die nek gedra om jou teen die bose en kolonistiese uitbuiting te ­beskerm
voetvrou: vroedvrou
Kee Feit: ’n Moesliem-begrafnis

Joan Hambidge is ’n skrywer en akademikus van Kaapstad.