What We Don’t Know We Know
Pumla Dineo Gqola
REVIEW: Genna Gardini
In 2005, author and now-publisher Melinda Ferguson wrote the memoir Smacked, which was met with such success that publishing house Jacana offered her an imprint of her own. With MF Books Joburg, Ferguson has, so far, commissioned titles almost all by and about South Africa women. In 2013, she added a new book to the stable, WITS associate professor of African literary and gender studies Pumla Dineo Gqola’s A Renegade Called Simphiwe. Here, Gqola, who describes the book as her “dream project”, considers and interrogates what singer Simphiwe Dana means as a cultural figure in contemporary South Africa.
Despite being defined by Jacana’s website as “part biography, part analysis”, the book is, by Gqola’s own admission, not a biography. Instead of following a linear narrative through Dana’s life, Gqola has written eight essays using the idea of Dana as starting point, unpicking and unpacking what it might mean to be a young black woman artist living and making work in South Africa today. As the writer puts it, biographies “are not the only way to make sense” of a person’s life.
And it is questions around the wider significance of Dana’s life, or many different lives, which form the spine of the book. The divisions between her public profiles (as a musician, writer, and social and political commentator) and the public’s reaction to them and her much discussed private life, are of interest to Gqola. They also became of interest to me – on more than one occasion, while reading the book I was approached by someone who wanted to know if it “told the truth” about Dana.
When asked what that might mean, the explanation always ended with a line about how the singer’s (sometimes alleged, sometimes confirmed) romantic entanglements seemed to be in contrast with opinions she’d voiced or aligned herself with.
Thinking about these reactions, I decided that this desire to find out the “truth” about Dana had something to do with what Gqola explains as feeling both drawn to and dismissive of the singer’s contradictions, of being both envious and dismissive of her ability to move (or transgress, depending on how you look at it) between spaces. Poet Adrienne Rich once wrote that in poems we put “what you don’t know you know.” In this book, Gqola speaks to the significance of Dana as an artist who may not have personally grown into the wisdom clear in her work. She also addresses how people’s reaction to Dana also illuminates something about South Africa today: “…her profundity is not only in her prophetic vision. There is much freedom for our individual selves if we allow ourselves some of the permissions she wrestles with.”
According to the writer, Dana’s first album, Zandisile, “appealed to listeners who may not ordinarily dance together.” For Gqola, the singer has a resonance, no pun intended, which transcends genres and spaces in that she seems to dissolve restrictions. How others react to Dana’s pushing of boundaries is sometimes supportive, sometimes questioning, sometimes abusive. “One minute South Africa worships at her throne. The next minute we are trying to rein her in. This says something about her,” writes Gqola.
In 2012, Dana was reported to be involved with a married man. The singer, who had tweeted previously about her belief in heterosexual monogamy, was widely lambasted, by both the press and in social media, for having double standards. Gqola, in turn, considers the double standard of Dana’s detractors, with Dana slutshamed for having an affair with a married man who received very little of the same treatment.
The book’s title has been considered controversial, with some asking why Gqola would define Dana as a renegade. The author, however, answers the question fairly clearly in the first few pages of the preface: “The book is called A Renegade Called Simphiwe because Simphiwe widens many people’s senses of what is appropriate and imaginable. She is a rebel even within defiant spaces.”
According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word refers to “a person who deserts and betrays an organisation, country, or set of principles.” But perhaps it is worth remembering that that dictionary later also defines a renegade as someone who “behaves in a rebelliously unconventional manner.” This seems fairly in line with Gqola’s consideration of Dana.
The clarity of Gqola’s writing is astounding, her thinking sturdy and easy to follow as a bridge through the spaces she describes Dana moving to and from. As I write this, I find myself reading a recent tweet by Dana which almost seems to allude to that journey: “We have travelled so long with our heads to the ground we have forgotten the beauty of our path.” – Genna Gardini is a poet and playwright reading towards her MA in Playwriting at UCT.
- This review first appeared in the Cape Times in October 2013