Sisters and spirits: the postcolonial Gothic in Angelina N Sithebe's Holy Hill.
While much postcolonial writing could content itself with mimesis, exposing histories and experiences using realism, the Gothic in postcolonial Gothic enriches the landscape of place, mind, and expression further by bodying forth the imaginary, the spiritual, imaginative, sensed, and felt, the internal landscapes of the mind, showing these as real, as the more frequently recorded historical, and richer because layered with meaning, demanding interpretation and engagement from readers. (Gina Wisker 2007a: 402)
Angelina N Sithebe's novel, Holy Hill (2007), explores a number of pressing issues in the contemporary South African setting: child-rearing; education; gender dynamics; migration; xenophobia; violence; materialism; and HIV/ Aids. Sithebe views these not merely as material or moral issues, but as having both religious and spiritual dimensions. My titular shorthand for Sithebe's juxtaposition of the realms of the physical and the metaphysical, and her complex treatment of the Roman Catholic religion alongside a form of traditional spirituality, is the metaphor of sisters and spirits. In this article I argue that the most useful lens through which to analyse the effects of Sithebe's doubled representations is that of the postcolonial Gothic. After a brief contextualisation in terms of feminist postcolonial criticism I sketch an account of the Gothic historically, then narrow my focus to the postcolonial Gothic and its critical application to the South African context. After this background I apply these theoretical perspectives to the novel.
Feminist postcolonialist theory, as exemplified by the work of Musa W Dube (2000) and Kwok Pui-lan (2005), underpins my analysis. Dube notes: "Just like the strategy of subverting the master's genre and language, the critical twinning of biblical and indigenous religious stories is an anti-imperial decolonising method" (2000: 108). Referring to Ngugi, who points out that the project of imperialism "took the form of destroying people's languages, history, dances, education, religions, naming systems and other social institutions that were the basis of their self conception" (Ngugi 1993: 42), Dube goes on to suggest that the "critical twinning" of the Christian and indigenous "is a radical transgression of boundaries" (2000: 108).
The postcolonial Gothic mode in which Holy Hill is written also constitutes a radical blurring of boundaries. The term "Gothic" has had various shifting meanings. It was originally an adjective applied to the Germanic tribe, and was subsequently broadened to mean Germanic in general. In these senses it implied otherness and 'barbarity'. The meaning then came to represent the medieval period, especially in terms of pointed, upwardly aspiring church architecture. The first Gothic novel was Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story (1764). The eerie medieval setting of the sub-title became a staple of the early works which can be defined as Gothic. Beyond this, however, the best authors captured a mood of spiritual malaise, madness and psychological terror underlying the rational veneer of civilisation. Matthew Gregory Lewis, for instance, in The Monk (1796) portrays the seduction of a friar by a female demon, and his subsequent rape and murder of a young woman in the vaults of his abbey, acts which ultimately lead to his damnation. The church's underbelly is the shocking setting for warped eroticism. While the setting of the early Gothic texts often involved castles, secret passages and subterranean realms, these were an objective correlative for regression, entropy, terror and death. The setting was also a microcosm of the wider society. De Sade commented in 1800 that "there was nobody left who had not experienced more misfortunes in four or five years than could be depicted in a century by literature's most famous novelists: it was necessary to call upon hell to arouse interest" (quoted in Morrow and McGrath 1992: xii).
Even though many early Gothic authors did not harp upon horrors for their own sensationalistic sake, but viewed the experience of terror and horror as a cathartic pathway to the Sublime, readers' anxieties are provoked by the nature of the depictions and particularly by the textual transgression of appropriate boundaries. The unnatural creature cobbled together by Mary Shelley's eponymous hero in Frankenstein (1818) is a tragic hybrid born of man, not woman, and brought back from the dead. Vampires too, which embody the unassuageable appetite of the undead who batten on and infect the living, constitute a category crisis reflecting cultural anxieties. Edgar Allan Poe, who in his Gothic fiction examined alterity in the form of femininity and blackness, was insistent that reality was double and combinational: "Thus the two Principles Proper, Attraction and Repulsion--the Material and the Spiritual--accompany each other, in the strictest fellowship, forever. Thus The Body and the Soul walk hand in hand" (1850: 162). In the Gothic imagination the binaries of self and other, life and death, past and present, inner and outer, the homely and the uncanny, health and disease, existential hopes and fears, the corporeal and the metaphysical, all co-exist simultaneously, and this dissolution of absolutes is profoundly unsettling to both characters and readers.
Bradford Morrow and Patrick McGrath conclude their introduction to The New Gothic: A Collection of Contemporary Gothic Fiction by claiming that "horror, madness, monstrosity, death, disease, terror, evil, and weird sexuality" (1992: xiv) still inform the symbolic mode of the Gothic in contemporary British and American fiction, but with a difference from its first wave:
The consolation that Western souls once found in religion has faded; Faustus no longer faces a Mephistopheles from divinity's antithetic underworld, nor is Ambrosio [the central protagonist in The Monk] doomed to Christianity's eternal hell. Now hell is decidedly on earth, located within the vaults and chambers of our own minds. (1992: xiv)
This is a sweeping and inaccurate generalisation, and it is also noteworthy that Morrow and McGrath omit from their purview the postcolonial Gothic. Homi Bhabha maintains that "the 'unhomely' is a paradigmatic colonial and post-colonial condition" (1994: 9), and further claims that "the uncanny forces of race, sexuality, violence, cultural and even climatic differences ... emerge in the colonial discourse as the split and mixed texts of hybridity" (1994: 113). Various texts including Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902), Doris Lessing's The Grass is Singing (1950) and Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987) exemplify these uncanny forces at work. Yet it is important to add--contrary to Morrow and McGrath's secularist assertion--that a consistent haunting presence in many Gothic novels is the problematic question of religion and spirituality. Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert touches on the anxieties aired in British society around 1800 regarding such issues as colonial others and different belief systems from the Christian norm (2006: 230). She goes on to examine the effects of representing hybrid African-derived religious practices such as Obeah in colonial and postcolonial Caribbean Gothic novels, noting that such metaphors as zombification and spirit-possession function variably across the coloniser/colonised divide, and that death imagery as used by contemporary Caribbean Gothic novelists may suggest a stage in the renewal of "the ancestral body of the people" (243). Paradoxically, "Death ultimately asserts life, thus ensuring the indestructible immortality of the people" (243).
A number of critics have started to address the previously overlooked corpus of postcolonial Gothic novels. David Punter notes the consonance between the postcolonial and the Gothic, which both deal with the return of the repressed and with alternative visions of the past and present (2000: vi). Gina Wisker elaborates on these similarities:
Postcolonial landscapes are filled with the histories and spirits of a past of colonialism, the silencing of alternative visions, and hidden violence. The Gothic offers the potential to explore how such tales and hidden histories can represent themselves. (2007b: 147)
If the Gothic is generally received as discomfiting and destabilising, then, the postcolonial Gothic is doubly so--and this effect is amplified when gender is also factored in. Over the centuries the prevalent metaphor of imprisonment associated with the Gothic has often been expressed in terms of the woman subject's oppression, othering and confinement at the hands of patriarchal culture which reduces her to sexual object or potential mother of a male lineage. Wisker points out that women authors of the postcolonial Gothic tend to emphasise ways in which repression and silencing occur in terms of gender as well as race, and she notes that their writing is a hybrid form which offers fresh and sharply critical insights into the imbrication of these vectors of identity (148).
The contribution of authors of African heritage to the developing mode of the postcolonial Gothic is currently receiving some critical attention; however, most of this is centred on diasporic African authors, and the time is ripe to reconsider the writing of authors using this mode whose lives were spent on the continent of Africa. Authors who could profitably be considered through this lens include Dambudzo Marechera, Ben Okri and Bessie Head. One article which addresses this lacuna is Lily G N Mabura's "Breaking Gods: An African Postcolonial Gothic Reading of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun" (2008). A similar lack of critical attention to the topic of the postcolonial Gothic pertains in the South African context. I am aware of two published articles, "Haunted House, Haunted Nation: Triomf and the South African Postcolonial Gothic", by Jack Shear (2006), and "The Postcolonial Gothic: Time and Death in Southern African Literature", by Gerald Gaylard (2008). Shear uses Derrida's notion of hauntology to argue that the spectral reappearances from the Sophiatown past in the present suburb of Triomf metaphorically signal the demise of "white South Africa's civil religion of cultural domination" (2006: 70). Gaylard names a number of southern African authors who have inherited the Gothic mantle, including Karel Schoeman, Anne Landsman, Damon Galgut, K Sello Duiker, Mia Couto and Zakes Mda. He argues interestingly that Gothicism is a form of thanatophilia--and hence a mode of writing which simultaneously employs two scales of time, the everyday experience of time and the timeless realm, a combination which serves to render human consciousness relative. Gaylard divides his attention between Poe, Angela Carter and JM Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians. Literary critical perspectives on the postcolonial Gothic in Africa need further development, and it is especially necessary to put under the spotlight the works of black South African women who have been particularly repressed and silenced. Holy Hill reveals a jaundiced view of human nature. The central character is Christina Nana Mlozi. She is the third child in her family, disappointingly a daughter, and she is presented as anomalous from her very birth. Although premature she is a huge baby, and visitors find her ugly, too big, too dark and monstrous, as she was born with her eyes open. The inhabitants of the township where Nana is born are all Christians, but they slyly hurt the child they find so odd, as do her older brothers. The only person who welcomes her is another outsider, a cousin in her late twenties who is sent to care for the child. This cousin, Mzala, is likewise spurned by her community for being different. Behind her back she is mocked for transgressing social norms and appearing like a witch, a madwoman, a man and a heathen. Mzala discerns the spirit which has inhabited Nana from the time of her birth, and is sensitive to other spirit presences. The bond between the two is soon severed when Nana's parents send Mzala away, however. Nana too fails to conform to custom, and she incurs her mother's wrath and fear for a number of eerie incidents involving the supernatural realm to which she has access. As a result she is sent as a boarder to a convent school where she is to be tamed into her gendered role by the nuns. Not just physical and mental punishments, but also spiritual authoritarianism and racist practices are critiqued in the text. The little maverick is beaten, humiliated and accused of being a liar, and like her schoolmates is given insufficient and infested food, and required to use revolting ablution facilities; the sisters, however, have ample, tasty and nutritious food, and modern bathrooms:
Now and again the older girls would complain about the food at lunch time, which was always the same--mealie samp with yellow husks still visible and invisible white worms, stews of pumpkin leaves or khamkheshe, a concoction of hard, almost uncookable potatoes with pig or cow udders, lungs and intestines. No matter how long the udders were cooked, they retained their rubbery texture and primal smell and taste, like raw unpasteurised milk. The girls were told poverty was almost a guarantee for entry into heaven. "It is easier for a camel to go through a needle than for a rich person to get into heaven," the Sisters said, their wisdom accepted by the girls without conviction or belief. (77-8)
In addition to the revolting fare, unsurprisingly resulting in kwashiorkor and tuberculosis, the girls are forced to perform manual labour and are portrayed as an underclass, hewing wood and bearing water. This hierarchical racial and gender system and the nuns' emphasis on acceptance of their precepts without understanding are also found in their spiritual teachings:
The first year was ... a time for learning the catechism for Nana and other non-Catholics who had to convert quickly before they were grabbed by the claws of Satan. During those special lessons after school they learned that they needed to be cleansed of the sin that all humans were born with, committed by the first woman, Eve, a long time ago, who had made a man, Adam, do what a snake had told her to do. The man knew that it was something so terrible, eating a red apple, yet he had listened to the woman who had tempted him. (80)
The combined effects of customary sexism and a misogynistic strain of Christianity are revealed by Nana's observation that the few boys at the school cannot be disciplined by the nuns, and that this traditional norm is explained by their being free of Eve's sin. While boarders at the school enjoy a social cachet in their urbanised and Christianised home communities, the local rural, traditional community is much more suspicious and negative, as they perceive their children to have been alienated by the sisters for three generations, and at one point this antipathy escalates into violence. This episode arises because of Nana's sensitivity to the spiritual domain, which terrifies her peers. She is portrayed as being able to foretell death, such as that of her beloved Mzala, see various kinds of spirits, have visions, chiefly of herself in a grave, and practise psychokinesis. The nuns brand her a liar, and when they beat her mercilessly with a stick soaked in salt water she enters a fugue state in which she recognises her inhabiting spirit. Fear of hell rather than love of God is emphasised by the nuns, and charity is in short supply. When a nun falls pregnant the girls delight in reporting her to the other sisters, and in typical Gothic fashion she is expelled from the convent but later returns, dishevelled, mad and screaming, "'Witches, evil ...'" (108).
The image of the sexually active nun is one which provides a frisson in Gothic literature and pornography alike. In general, nuns are defined as virginal, renouncing the typical female destiny of heterosexual pair-bonding and procreation. As Eve is stereotypically portrayed as the weaker vessel who drew Adam into sin, thus causing death and the spiritual fall of humans, so is Mary seen in Roman Catholicism as the new Eve who has redemptive qualities. Her virginity confers a mystical purity on her. Nuns are idealised as wise virgins who embody the attributes of Mary. The sisters at Holy Hill, however, like Nana's mother, are far from ideal, and offer her little in the way of guidance as to the mysteries of sex except that Nana's mother has a contraceptive loop inserted in her daughter when she reaches puberty, and the nuns warn her direly to avoid "jollying with tsotsis whose only intention was to soil girls, using them as rags to wipe their dirty boots" (107), a prediction which comes all too true.
All of the points I have mentioned so far focus on criticisms of the convent school, Holy Hill, depicted in the novel. However, there are also positive aspects which are highlighted in the text. In adulthood Nana briefly revisits her childhood fantasy about becoming a nun (earlier paired with a desire to "die and be a martyr, then come back and live forever" (81)), and she feels heartfelt thanks for the moral lessons inculcated by the sisters when she is tempted to do wrong. Further, when she is 33 she returns to the convent, armed with a sjambok and bent on revenge, but she relents when she meets the old sisters who now look so pitiful. Finally, and crucially, Sithebe chooses epigraphs from the Book of Matthew to precede each of the five main sections of the novel. These epigraphs function in a complex way. They foreshadow the main themes of each section, they function partly ironically by contrasting the ideal spiritual lesson of several parables with the cynical and callous real world, and they convey a sense of religious gravitas by using pithy and resonant words of Jesus.
The first epigraph, from Matthew 7: 9-11, is Jesus's question whether any man would give his son a stone when he asked for bread, and the assurance: "If you, then, bad as you are, know how to give your children what is good for them, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him!" (25). This is the epigraph to the section dealing with Nana's childhood before she goes to boarding school, when her needs are cruelly ignored by her Christian mother. There is obvious criticism of uncaring parenting which places more importance on what the neighbours say than the needs of the individual child. At the same time, however, there is an intense yearning for spiritual blessings.
The second epigraph, from Matthew 7: 16 and 17, is the warning against false prophets who are wolves disguised as sheep: "You will recognise them by the fruits they bear. Can grapes be picked from briars, or figs from thistles?" (63). The nuns' meagre provision of unpalatable food is obviously referred to here as a signifier of their lack of humanity and spiritual leadership. The biblical quotation evokes righteous anger in the reader. This response is fuelled by the image in the Prologue of Christina Nana armed with a whip, an image bringing to mind Christ's anger against the money-lenders. Yet in that same flash-forward in the Prologue the adult Nana's vengeful visit to the convent is followed by her forgiveness of the nuns, so the reading of the second epigraph is also tempered by a degree of mature compassion.
The final epigraph is taken from the parable of the wise and foolish virgins found in Matthew 25: 10-13, and concludes: "Keep awake then; for you never know the day or the hour" (191). This epigraph continues to keep in the reader's mind a number of issues: the female body; folly and wisdom; and constant receptivity to the possibility of spiritual summons. Taken together, the epigraphs suggest the interpenetration of narrative and experience, everyday time and atemporality, the material and the spiritual, the quotidian and end things. For a Christian reader they would suggest that the new kingdom is at hand. (1) The biblical quotations remind the reader that we live sub specie aeternitatis; they increase the sense of horror with regard to the shocking events in the novel; and they simultaneously and inescapably remind one of the spiritual consequences of sins of omission or commission.
Various aspects of the critical insider accounts of convent life in the second half of the twentieth century as rendered by Sithebe can fruitfully be compared with the memoir, The Spiral Staircase (2004), by the British writer, Karen Armstrong. This comparison functions to situate the criticism of the Roman Catholic Church, but more specifically criticism of communities of women in convent settings, as widespread and not motivated by petty, personal vindictiveness or an anti-religious spirit. This line of criticism is part of a liberation theology which seeks to identify harmful practices and put pressure on the Church to liberalise its position with regard to others--in terms of race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. There is a consonance between the two texts' representations of harm done by the Roman Catholic Church to women, in a self-perpetuating system which is difficult to eradicate. Armstrong, who was a Catholic nun for seven years in the 1960s, recounts the damage she suffered as a sensitive, intelligent young woman who was subjected to stringent discipline and a rote-learning attitude to religion. In addition, she was treated as an attention-seeking hysteric because of her fainting spells and hallucinations during which she saw a spirit. A number of years after losing her faith and leaving the convent she learns that she was suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy which had led to her debilitating symptoms. She accepts that she is a perpetual outsider, although she is sustained by female friends. Her own suffering sensitises her to the pain of others, and she explores the parallels between religions. These depictions are similar to the depiction of Nana, who constantly revisits her harmful experiences in the convent school, who has unorthodox spiritual visions of the dead, accompanied by physical manifestations such as nosebleeds, and who receives succour from her sister-in-law.
The comparison between Holy Hill and The Spiral Staircase is also useful as there is a special set of practices relating to race and ethnicity that Sithebe deals with that naturally enough are not handled by Armstrong, as they are outside her personal field of reference. For example, the black sisters eat with the girls, while the white sisters are a rarely seen elite who have special food and privileges. Yet interestingly the (male) saint names of the nuns elide their racial differences, as should be the case according to a progressive religion. The girls provide an interesting counterpoint in terms of ethnic differences, as while they tend to stick to their own groups they also learn from one another's strengths. At the end of her school career Nana evaluates the experience:
Nana had learned profound lessons at Holy Hill. ... Nana learned never to wish or pray for anything. She'd never set foot in a church, she swore. ... Nana learned that adults could be very cruel, and they sided with other adults against children or the weak, while other adults looked on and cheered in approval. She had learned to use the biting tongue of the girls from Zululand, the shy wisdom of the girls from Durban, to play with words like the Koloni girls. To show superiority like the girls from Egoli. To hiss and giggle like them too. And to dress like them. (114-15)
Undoubtedly the Roman Catholic Church has altered since the 1980s setting of this section of Holy Hill, and as this is a novel one can make allowance for exaggeration and inaccuracy. Further, I am aware that the Catholic Church currently does sterling work with HIV/Aids infected and affected individuals. In novels which deal with school life, particularly at boarding schools, it is a commonplace to satirise the teachers, often for comic effect, as in John van de Ruit's Spud books. When gender and race dynamics are added to the power differential between teacher and pupil, the effects are portrayed more menacingly, as in Tsitsi Dangarembga's The Book of Not (2006), which presents a sharply critical account of the rampant racism at a girls' boarding school in Zimbabwe. However, Unoma Nguemo Azuah's Sky-High Flames (2005) gives a positive portrayal of a convent boarding school in Nigeria, with the main character finding a mental overlap between her traditional female deity, Onishe, and the Christian mother of God, Mary; she also finds the nuns warm and generous. In the collection of reminiscences, Cheesecutters and Gymslips: South Africans at Boarding School edited by Robin Malan (2008), the roll-call of teaching nuns is negative, in line with their typical representation in literature. Doris Lessing was told by the nuns to offer up her pain to God; Anne Harries's terrifying Mother Superior still haunts her with nightmares; Ellen Kuzwayo's nuns, who were white, were cold disciplinarians; Prue Leith imagined seeing the nuns naked; and Liz Macgregor was taught to view the body as a source of shame, and accused of unnatural lusts.
All of these elements are seen in Holy Hill. Being female, vowed to celibacy, in charge of children, dedicated to religion but with limited authority in the church hierarchy, nuns occupy an anomalous position and provoke prurient interest, especially in a society which sees women in terms of sexual commodification and procreative potential. (In other social contexts, where chastity is seen as a respected option for women, being a nun is a vocation which confers agency and cultural approval--see the example of Coptic Orthodox nuns in Egypt analysed in Jeppson (2003)). The critique of nuns can thus be perceived as intrinsically connected to a critique of social values. Interestingly, the criticism of the nuns in Holy Hill is paralleled by criticism of hard-hearted mothers and abusive male partners. The moral stakes in each case are high, as parents have a natural duty to provide for their children's needs; the church has an obligation to care for its members; and men professing love should show this by their actions. Yet as the church portrays itself as a conduit between humans and God the moral stakes are particularly high for its representatives--in this case, the brides of Christ. Sithebe is not following the line of anti-Catholicism found in early Gothic fictions. The pointed question implicitly posed by Holy Hill is to what extent harmful practices of othering and lack of humanity persist in Roman Catholic convents, the Catholic church, and, by extension, the Christian faith community in South Africa.
Holy Hill shows the difficulties involved in reconciling or even juxtaposing two different belief systems. In her book Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, Musa Dube suggests a number of "literary strategies of decolonising", which focus on "concerns over losing control of one's land, subverting the literary genre and language of the coloniser, rereading the master's texts and retelling history, and gender at the decolonisation zone" (2000: 101). These issues are all present in Sithebe's novel, but for my purposes the most telling are her re-enactment of the religious/spiritual colonial contact zone, her treatment of gender and her fresh use of the Gothic style of writing. Churches such as the Zionists and Nazarites are renowned for melding elements of traditional beliefs into Christian worship. A 1985 study found a high degree of syncretism among professing Christian amaZulu, with 69.6% expressing animistic beliefs in the power of ancestral spirits to provide protection and good fortune (Congdon 1985). According to this study, "fewer professing Christians affirmed the deity of Christ than expressed dependence upon the ancestral spirits for problems connected with daily living" (1985: 297). The Roman Catholic Church in South Africa has been less receptive to what Dube calls "critical twinning" than some other religions, such as the Zionists and the Nazarites, but as it has the largest number of members outside the group of African Independent Churches (according to the 2001 census, 7.1% compared with the Zionist Church's 11.1%) the dilemma of dual allegiances amongst black Catholics and other members of orthodox Christian churches is doubtless statistically and culturally significant.
Holy Hill reveals the tectonic strains in syncretic cosmologies. Intriguingly, the entire novel is recounted in omniscient narration by the voice of a spirit, one of a community of unquiet spirits who seek entry to the world through receptive living souls, and who operate according to their own laws. This narrator serves to endorse the reality of Nana's spiritual experiences, as does the author's dedication to her children and her "Spirit Guides". Since childhood Nana has seen visions of little people in the forest, the dead, and especially the narrator:
"Open days" was what she called those days when she distinctly sensed me and all the others that lingered around her, we whom she called the invisible. On her open days Nana was suspended between conscious and subconscious, like an open window for any of us to wander through. Sadly, some of us are wild tricksters and it was taking too long for Nana to distinguish among us. I had to be extra vigilant to guard her body against the mischief of the malevolent. (11)
While the narrator is portrayed here as benign, s/he subsequently decides Nana is too unstable a host and decides to enter another receptive and damaged soul, that of the Congolese illegal immigrant, Claude Dema. Claude was a child soldier who witnessed and participated in atrocities, and he is now an opportunistic criminal, drug pusher and hustler, as well as an aspirant pastor. The representation of the narrator spirit is suggestive but opaque, subject to a variety of interpretations. Typical of the Gothic form and of this text's refusal to occupy one side of any binary, this spirit has positive and negative significance. Unlike the rational explanation provided in The Spiral Staircase, spirit awareness in Holy Hill cannot be attributed to a pathological physiological condition. The novel thus gives credence and dignity to traditional religion, which has historically been suppressed or treated as 'pagan' by missionaries and the Catholic Church, although many South Africans combine a reverence for both belief systems. Significantly, those in the novel who are receptive to this alternative form of spirituality are Christians who have been damaged by their experiences, and who therefore have a special vulnerability and sensitivity to the pain of humanity. One is an outsider Xhosa girl/woman who is yearning for her deceased spiritual mother, while the other is a socially and economically marginalised immigrant. The spirit has power but cannot be perceived as either good or evil, rather as combinational, elusive and uncanny.
Some of the more unsettling examples of these effects include the schoolgirl Nana's unconscious evocation of spirits when people have offended her: her mother's leg is broken as a result of her being hurled to the ground; Nana's brother, who has burned her with an iron, is nearly fatally stung by bees; and in an episode which is reminiscent of the Chicken Little episode in Toni Morrison's Sula, a girl who has stolen Nana's shoes falls to her death over a waterfall. The supernatural realm is depicted as a place which fulfils the individual's wishes for protection or revenge, and Nana's family and peers fear her mystical powers. Nana's powers are not only self-preservative, however, as she also has the ability to divine illness and death. Sithebe's use of the spirit narrator is designed to promote a state of willing suspension of disbelief in the reader, although the events represented evoke a frisson of horror.
The most useful prism through which to view this spiritual yet physically rooted aspect of the postcolonial Gothic text, Holy Hill, is Harry Garuba's notion of animist realism (2003). The narrating spirit of the novel is a recuperation of the traditional, involving what Garuba terms "a manifestation of an animist unconscious" (2003: 265), which in this case renders mundane reality eerily mystical. As Garuba points out, one core feature of animism is its insistence that gods and spirits have physical embodiments (267), and another is the transmigration of awakened souls (272). His comments on animist realism are particularly appropriate to Holy Hill:
A recurrent theme in accounts of the meeting between traditional ways of life and modernity is the clash of cultures and the agony of the man or woman caught in the throes of opposing conceptions of the world and of social life. In these narratives a binary structure is usually erected, and within this world the agonistic struggle of the protagonist is drawn. The animistic trajectory of accommodation sketched here appears to belie the rigid binarisms of this narrative. ... [A]nimist logic subverts this binarism and destabilizes the hierarchy of science over magic and the secularist narrative of modernity by reabsorbing historical time into the matrices of myth and magic. (270)
Garuba usefully offers the term "animist realism" for African fictions which, like the work of magical realists, yoke the real and the fantastic, but find their spiritual source in traditional African animist cultures (275). This cosmology is inclusive and at variance with the absolutism of monotheistic religion. The animist unconscious allows for the juxtaposition of syncretic belief systems, the secular and the spiritual, the urban and the rural, the contemporary and the ahistorical, the individual and the social, and these combinations are stripped of hierarchical symbolisation.
The spirit narrator of Holy Hill may be seen as unreliable, a trickster figure, or, more profitably, as a dramatisation of the animist unconscious. Viewed from this perspective, the narrator is particularly interesting in that s/he is unnamed and ungendered. The spirit is described as coming to awareness at the birth of Nana, which can be dated to 1971, half-way through the era of apartheid. To draw a parallel from the actual lives of women of a similar age who responded to the spiritual call to be sangomas, the agent through whom they received an indication that they were chosen to become sangomas was an ancestor who identified himself or herself (Nkabinde and Morgan 2005: 234-7). By comparison, the omniscient spirit in Holy Hill is represented as generic rather than individual, and as gradually accruing power. By placing the date of its re-birth at the mid-point of apartheid, Sithebe seems to suggest that at the nadir of one cycle of oppression a spark of spiritual resistance and recuperation of traditional guidance was brought into being. The lack of particularity implied by the namelessness of the spirit also suggests an amnesia brought about by an erosion of culture and the impact of modernity. In similar vein, the anthropologist Halliburton reports that at the end of the twentieth century spirit possession in Kerala, India, presented as much less specific than four decades previously. The identities of possessing spirits in the later period were more anonymous, homogenous and depersonalised than in the earlier period (2005: 113). Halliburton associates this shift in idioms of expressed distress with a loss of context connected to the process of modernisation in India (2005: 123). This process of modernisation affects manifestations of the traditional, but at the same time indigenous culture resists, critiques and modifies modernity in specific settings in India, Africa, and other postcolonial contexts. Similarly in Holy Hill there is a relative lack of context, but the presence of the spirit as narrator ensures the pervasiveness of the mythical and mystical throughout the text, thus acting to desecularise the modern setting and imbue the postcolonial Gothic form of the novel with animist sacrality.
The lack of an ascribed gender adds a further twist to the spirit narrator. The effects achieved by this indeterminacy are reminiscent of the effects achieved by Jeanette Winterson, who intrigues readers by her use of characters whose gender is undisclosed. Winterson thus avoids the cliched binaries of gender and provides a fluid openness to her characterisation. As Lucy Hallet observes in her review of Written on the Body, "The speaking subject is always grammatically androgynous: 'I' is an ungendered pronoun" (1992: 116), and of course the only explicitly gendered pronouns in the English language occur in the third person singular. Both Winterson and Sithebe offer readers imaginative entry through biblical, mythic, speculative and numinous allusion into the world of desire, death, loss and redemption. Language as used by them offers possibilities beyond the binaries of gender, as does the spirit realm as represented in Holy Hill.
The material world of the text, however, is highly Gothically gendered. Nana's father is portrayed as sensitive, nurturing and wise, but his style of masculinity is the exception in the novel, and is not replicated in his sons' behaviour. Nana's sexual initiation, when she is an innocent schoolgirl, occurs with a male teacher at the convent school, and subsequent lovers are shown to be exploitative, jealous, violent and sexually abusive. Her last lover, Claude, refuses to accept her severance of relations with him, and the novel ends with eerie echoes of The Monk: Claude, who has been fasting, praying and battling to expel a demon from the body of a young Congolese girl from his church, enters Nana's home, rapes her and gruesomely murders her. In addition to its expose of gender violence, the text raises the chilling spectre of HIV/Aids, and before her murder Nana senses the welcoming presence of Mzala, she knows intuitively that she is dying of Aids, and she is relieved that Claude will not have to kill her. Either way, she realises that her destiny is to be killed by a man, directly or indirectly. Her death enables her inhabiting spirit to transfer itself to Claude, who is seen by the spirit as a preferable host as it will be able to inhabit him exclusively, without jostling for control with other spectral presences. In the Gothic schema the character who signifies alterity is only free to die when another scapegoat is present to take over the mantle of suffering (Botting 1996: 107). The end of the novel is ambiguous, complex and discomfiting to the reader. Nana's premonitions of being buried come true, but her soul survives death and, according to the narrating spirit, she feels compassion for Claude and is suffused with happy sensations from her past and associated with the natural world. Claude and his inhabiting spirit, which he perceives as an angel, envision a future in which he preaches salvation to thousands of believers. Nana is represented as a martyr who attains redemption in the afterlife through acceptance and forgiveness. This is problematic enough, with its suggestion that gendered submission and fatalism spiritually validate a life; however, the vision of Claude's future triumphant religious career is even more unsettling. Another dimension which unnerves the reader is the chain of imagery drawing parallels between Nana and Christ: her first name is Christina; she is 33 when she dies; she willingly embraces her death; and her death functions redemptively. The reader is urged to speculate about the possible fate of a black, female Christ.
The end of the novel offers no easy hope, but neither does contemporary South African society. Psychic anxiety is aroused and not allayed, except partially and temporarily. The novel Holy Hill and the memoir The Spiral Staircase criticise organised religion, particularly in the form of Roman Catholic convents in the past, for doing physical, mental and spiritual harm, while fulfilling their religious and secular calling, resulting in the alienation of individuals who are outsiders in various ways. Holy Hill helps us to see specifically South African enactments of these harms on the bodies, minds and spirits of black girls, in particular. The extra-textual question which is implied is to what extent vestiges of these patriarchal and racist practices are still embedded in consciousnesses? Further, a vital question which is posed by the text is how an accommodation can be reached between Christianity and traditional African belief systems? Each belief system is extensively problematised, and it is chilling that the young woman who embodies this battleground is killed at the end of the text, highlighting the difficulty of reaching a rapprochement. Even more disturbing is the suggestion that the murderer may achieve glory as a result, one presumes, of contrition for this act of violence. The winged ancestral spirit which narrates the text is ambiguous and Gothically disturbing, both angel and demon. The individual psyche, men and women, the social institution of the family, the Christian church and African traditional spirituality are all revealed to be an amalgam of good and evil, promise and failure, love and hate, health and disease. This bleak vision and figuration of social anxiety constitute the repressed revenant which returns to haunt characters and reader alike.
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(1.) My thanks to Duncan Brown for this suggestion.
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|Publication:||Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2008|
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