Location, Location

  • Donna-Michelle St. Bernard
    Gas Girls. Playwrights Canada Press
  • Dawn Promislow
    Jewels and Other Stories. TSAR Publications
Reviewed by Julie Cairnie

As a Canadian who researches Southern African literature, I am keen to read texts that might illuminate the connections between these seemingly disparate locations. Two recent books, Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s play Gas Girls and Dawn Promislow’s collection of short stories Jewels hold much promise. Both texts raise questions about location and perspective: Gas Girls presents a troubling view of contemporary Zimbabwe for Canadian theatre audiences, while Jewels complicates perspective when imaginatively revisiting 1970s South Africa.

Gas Girls is part of an ambitious project—the first of fifty-four plays about Africa that St. Bernard plans to write. The idea for the book and series was conceived before she visited a single country on the continent. The play is a creative response to something the playwright read about actual women who trade sex for gas along the Zimbabwean border, but bears little if any resemblance to Zimbabwe. In Gas Girls, people eat cassava, whereas the staple in Zimbabwe is sadza, a stiff maize-meal porridge. There are several references to a beach, but Zimbabwe is landlocked. Imperial measures are used, but Africa (with the exception of Liberia) is fully metric.

More significantly, characters speak a pidgin English that in no way resembles the English spoken in Zimbabwe, and would be an affront to many Zimbabweans. An intermediary language (kitchen kaffir) was used during white rule, but hasn’t survived. English-language Zimbabwean literature typically creates an English mingled with Shona or Ndebele to depict rural or uneducated folk; they have their own language. Adding to the stereotypical representation, men and women in the text are presented as having loose sexual morals and there is one instance of rear penetration. Representations of sexuality—particularly from outsiders—is a sensitive topic, given that Africa has for centuries been presented as the site of sexual deviance. The continent has been historically linked to disease, most recently AIDS, because of perceptions of loose morals and animal-like practices. Countless inaccuracies and familiar stereotypes render St. Bernard’s Zimbabwe no place and a synonym for African immorality.

Jewels is a much more subtle and intelligent study of location. Without exception, the fourteen stories that comprise the collection look at the Apartheid past from a vantage point in the present, sometimes from overseas (Canada is implied through references to snowflakes and northern light) and sometimes from a place of social change (post-Apartheid South Africa). Most compelling is that stories and lives are interlinked, connected in ways that are ironic in the context of 1970s South Africa. Apartheid enforced separation and prohibited cross-racial exchange. Black Consciousness pushed liberal white writers to avoid representing black characters and experiences. Jewels registers these defining features of 1970s South Africa, but assumes some (not all) black perspectives and writes the past in such a way that disparate lives are connected in intimate and meaningful ways.

The ethics of representation might lead readers to assume that first-person narration is reserved for white characters and third person for black characters, but Promislow does not tolerate Manichean binary logic. Some stories use first person to tell black characters’ stories (“Billy” and “Just a Job”), while third person is employed to tell white characters’ stories (“Somewhere”). Many of the stories overlap. “Billy” and “Our Story/His Story” document a white family’s intervention to treat their employee’s child’s malnutrition. Billy, an artist in Johannesburg, chooses to draw the stories my mother told me, rather than the story of exceptional white benevolence. “Our Story/His Story” tells an almost identical story, about Jimmy, but focuses on the white family and the limits of white benevolence (a theme in many of the stories). The narrator tells us, Jimmy’s story is the one that I myself cannot tell. Similarly, one of Promislow’s young white characters wants to communicate with a young black activist from her youth: She would like to have told him that nothing she saw was as interesting, or as important, as what she left behind.

She never does, and perhaps in the end it is the work required to connect disparate locations, stories, and lives that links Gas Girls and Jewels. My worry about St. Bernard’s play is that the Canadian audience will feel removed from the characters, but also compelled to contribute to a condom-distribution fund or an AIDS-awareness campaign, confident that its own sexual mores and linguistic codes are intact and sufficiently sophisticated. My preference for Promislow’s collection of short stories is that it complicates the possibility of ethical communication between disparate groups, but doesn’t dismiss it as historically fated to fail.

This review “Location, Location” originally appeared in Contested Migrations. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 219 (Winter 2013): 185-86.

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