The following short review originally appeared in Rapport, 26 December 2009 (scroll down). This is the English version of the pre-sub-edited Afrikaans version:
I DON’T want to interfere wholesale, and right now, in a conversation between Max du Preez (Rapport, 18 November 2009) and Antjie Krog regarding the themes of her book, of which the main one Du Preez characterisises as “identity suicide”. But I think it’s an important, interesting and necessary conversation; and I think I should add a few sjieling.
Begging to be Black traces no less than 6 strands in a journey which I think only now starts for Krog: her involvement surrounding a political killing in Kroonstad in 1992, the history of Moshoeshoe, letters from Berlin to her mother, a Berlin diary, conversations with an Australian philosopher during her residency at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin, and travels and conversations in Lesotho.
Naturally, the reader is taken on several journeys across different time frames. There’s the 1800s with Moshoeshe, then there’s the Kroonstad murder which is revisited during the early 1990s, then revisited from the vantage point of the TRC, as well as from the present, when Krog looks up the old comrades concerned. The letters to her mother are undated, but are written during Krog’s residency in Berlin, letters of familial wonder and pride from the daughter of a South African teacher of German now coming face to face with the place and culture that her mother would have coddled.
The Berlin diary notes the typical South African amazement at how things work in the everyday of European cities: snow gets cleared, buses run on time even on new year’s, etc.
The conversations with the philosopher form the core of Krog’s ‘journey’: what is it that she, as white South African, misses, misunderstands or can gain in understanding about black South Africa. And how.
Sometimes, the other strands speak strongly to this central theme – Mosheoshoe’s African humanism, for instance. At other times, though, I wonder about this multi-genre approach to the book. Some of the strands touch lightly on her central concerns, but the multiple threads detract from her central quest exactly because these strands are never brought together for the reader. One is left with multiple searches – perhaps for the same thing – but I feel that the writer has not played a strong enough hand in bringing them together.
A long essay on Moshoeshoe, for example, can incorporate the history of the king and Krog’s present day concerns, and that should make an interesting book: the questing self in direct reflection on a historical figure.
On the theme itself, I think Du Preez’s criticism is partly right, but also partly to do with vocabulary – which of course is Krog’s problem as well. Of course Krog doesn’t mean that she is literally begging to be black. And neither is she, as Du Preez has it, wanting to commit identity suicide.
Perhaps the vocabulary we are looking for is something like ‘acculturation’ or ‘deracination’. If we look at Moshoeshoe and his relationship with Casalis, the king was quite prepared to acculturate – i.e. take on and use the cultural frameworks of the missionaries – while keeping his own identity. Krog is essentially asking to what extent it is possible for her to take on Moshoeshoe’s frameworks. Colonial society typically demands acculturation from its colonised. Perhaps Krog is starting to ask to what extent the colonising society is prepared for acculturation to happen the other way round?