5 January 2005

South Africa: Novel Explores Women's Experiences in Prison

book review

Journey to Myself: Writings by Women from Prison in South Africa. Edited by Julia Landau. Rondebosch, South Africa: Footprints, 2004. 80 pp.

Journey to Myself, the product of writing workshops with women prisoners in South Africa, is a book about communication. These women have given their true names, provided pictures of objects sacred to them, and have published deeply personal stories and poems. They are reaching out to the outside world, and nowhere is the outside world more obsessed over than in prison.

The book's back cover says these are "stories of women who learnt to feel again." I can imagine the change they must have undergone as they wrote these stories, confessing secret feelings, longings, and hurts. Did they feel empowered, redeemed, or just better in some indefinable way? Cecilia Cox, who killed her daughter out of desperation, writes little of her crime, focusing in her first piece on her time in jail, which she lists as the fifth turning point in her life. She writes proudly of taking courses and passing exams, as well as her oldest son's responsibility and care. Her second piece is terribly poignant-a poem that spans her entire life, but speeds up once it enters adulthood. Her childhood is described in tender, meticulous images. "I remember the tree where we used to get an old blanket to make a tent,/ and play house with the tea-sets my mom bought us at the Chemist,/ the morning sound of my mother opening her dresser drawers," Cox writes.

So often these stories present an abrupt shift from childhood into adulthood, as innocence falls away and is replaced with voids, addiction, dashed dreams and sadness. A women who calls herself Ongeluksvoël writes, "As a little girl, I was the luckiest girl in the world." After her adopted parents died in a car crash, her life went downhill. Shireen Nazley Constable tells of an unhappy home life but of many successes in school. After she was raped, she turned to drugs and found a new, destructive boyfriend. Her favorite object is a notebook given to her by a friend. In school she wanted to be a writer, and in these pages she has contributed more than most. Describing the physical conditions of prison she writes, "The cold arrives with the evening shadows/ and hovers in the corners/ until the dead of night/ when it touches my cheek/ with its icy fingers."

Many women depict the prison as an uncomfortable, alien place filled with sorrow and regret. I really got drawn in the story, however, when some were brave enough to say they were scared. Fear is such a humanizing emotion, and to realize that these women are not hardened so much as vulnerable makes me feel that I really know them. Pamela Wagenaar, who describes herself as once "a beautiful fat baby" and a delight to her parents, was only born in 1981. Drugs and a boyfriend led her to steal, and she is now in prison for the third time. The first time she admits, "I was so scared! All I could do was pray. I shared a single cell with two other girls and slept under the grey blankets that made me itch." Lola Nguzza says that when she first arrived, "I cried the first days and I couldn't sleep the whole night… When I am afraid, my heart beats so fast that I don't know what to do. When I am sad, my body shrinks and my mind no longer functions." These fears are well founded: Ongeluksvoël, whose name means "bird of misfortune," was brutally raped by fellow inmates.

Journey to Myself has two purposes. The first, more personal purpose is to help the woman heal. Storytelling can be a powerful tool of survival, showing the march of time and the possibility for redemption, which gives the storyteller a sense of closure and meaning. The second purpose is to help outsiders understand the prisoner's inner world. Each woman has given her life's story, written in clear, direct prose, making no excuses and asking no favors. Some of the women with a particularly affinity for the written word went farther, writing poems that give depth to their personal narratives. Both facilitators, Dianne Case and Anne Schuster, wrote about the courage it took for the women to open up, sharing their pieces with first the group and now the public. Anne Schuster wrote that she wanted to inch the women out of their dull prison existence and into imagination, "one of vivid colours, smells, tastes, sounds." Some of the women have found a forgotten talent, Schuster writes, and two won awards for their writing. Case describes their hopes and fears about the tenuous, uncertain world outside. Many do not know how they will survive and raise their children, whether they will be able to stay drug free, and if their families will forgive them.

Each woman's personal narrative is joined by her name and a picture of a special object, something she has cherished in prison. Some women have no object, and list instead their love for their children, mother or grandmother. Others display pictures of their children, a handmade cross or a rosary. One proffers a picture of herself as a young woman. She looks open and beautiful, full of life, full of promise. These objects are touching, easily understood as cherished and important. Now they also have a copy of this book, showing their talents for all the world to see.

Do I recommend this book? I do. It is a short book, and though the stories are often sad, they are not graphic. They open up these women's lives with brave vulnerability. This is a book that can make you feel more, a book that stays with you days after, the stories playing in your head as you shop for groceries.

Norah Vawter is an intern at allAfrica.com, focusing on the book review page. She received her B.A. from the College of William and Mary, where she studied English literature and edited the fiction section of the William and Mary Review.

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