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Review of Tossie van Tonder's My African Heart PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 05 August 2015 13:26

Review by Tamar Meskin

I am generally not a fan of memoirs, especially ones written by people about whom I have little knowledge and whose reminiscences, as a result, seem somewhat inconsequential in my life.  So it was with mixed feelings that I embarked on reading Tossie van Tonder’s My African Heart.  As someone who works in theatre, I knew a little, mostly anecdotal, about van Tonder, but what I knew was restricted almost entirely to her work as a contemporary dancer.  I was surprised, therefore, to find a story that encompassed so wide an array of engagements with what it means to be alive in South Africa today, what is means to have a white skin with all that that signifies, and what it means to be an artist at this critical moment in our history.

More than an autobiography, the book is a chronicle of one woman’s search for identity, a seeking for a space in which all the contradictions of one’s past, one’s family, one’s nationality, one’s heritage (sought or resisted) may coexist.  For van Tonder, this process is integrally connected with the twin experiences of being an artist and being a mother.  Using the metaphor of her ‘dance’ as an access point for her narrative, she charts the often-fraught journey from the entrapment of history into the freedom of acceptance, and the conscious decision to choose her own path through the minefield of South Africa’s painful past.   The metaphorical journey is mirrored in the choice to become not simply Tossie van Tonder – white woman, Afrikaner woman, product of a proud heritage and also of silent familial struggles – but also Nobonke, or ‘She of all People’, a claiming of a self-generated identity, belonging to a citizen of the re-imagined South Africa that is the focus of her aspiration throughout the book.

The book uses the device of three different narrative voices: the artist in the present seeking to understand her selfhood; the daughter in the past probing in imagined letters her relationship with her parents, and theirs to each other, in order to own – and forgive – her roots; and the future-looking unborn child whose commentaries imagine a new beginning for all the victims of South Africa’s traumatic history. The device generally works well; for me, it is the latter two sections which carry the most humanity and to which I found myself really connecting. In particular, the letters which reveal the child’s view of her history, and her family, through adult eyes – able to comprehend the failings but also the beauty and miracles of her everyday life growing up – offered the most powerful insights.  The exquisite detail of the descriptions of ordinary, mundane moments, turned into magically lyrical expressions, which left indelible images that shaped my experience of the work.

It is clear that the book is very much a part of one individual’s attempt to heal her own wounded spirit.  Early in the first section, tellingly entitled Exile, she says: “In the deeper recesses of my history, every fact recorded gravitates towards a misaligned and contorted self-esteem, minority-inferiority and the ominous knell that the word apartheid rings, unceasingly” (47).  It is the wounds of the apartheid-weapon – “the cross of humiliation” (47) – that drive the narrative.  Perhaps the most significant aspect is the recognition of the power of art – here, the dance, but by extension, all art forms – not just to explore the world for others, but also to make meaning for oneself.  If there is a criticism to be leveled, it is that the unrelenting inward-focus can, at times, feel indulgent; it is redeemed, however, by the unwavering certainty that this is a woman driven to pursue the question to its bitter end in order to weave a future for herself and her unborn child “beyond [her] pitiful history” (61).

As an autoethnographic study, this memoir offers a rigorous interrogation of a particular moment in time and one woman’s view of it.  Van Tonder claims that “South Africa’s gift is everyone’s own truth” (80), and this observation captures the essence of the book: the complexity and challenge of difference, the fear and pain of oppression, and the power of freedom to elicit forgiveness, all elements of what she calls “the credo of the African requiem” (164).  It is presented somewhat idealistically – a fairly uncritical notion of the rainbow nation ideal is imagined – but it is nonetheless a brutally honest and insightful exploration of how we may begin to heal ourselves, and each other.  The voice of the unborn child, telling us that we “cannot be what you hope to become – until being African and being white, be one” (171), offers a philosophy for the living, a way out of the guilt and into a new ‘birth’ – one that is both literal and metaphorical, manifested in the signature to her final letter “I of all people” (245), a description that proudly trumpets its absence of race.

My African Heart (2014) is self-published.