Sisonke Msimang’s Always Another Country
Book Review by Joy Watson
Sisonke Msimang’s book “Always Another Country” is a memoir, a striking narrative of growing up in exile. The book is a poignant reflection on how we construct identity in different temporal and societal spaces. At a young age, Msimang’s father went underground as an ANC cadre and became part of a group of recruits who were to join the military wing of the ANC. He was sent into exile, under strict instructions to tell no-one, not even his family, where he was going. ‘Always Another Country’ chronicles Msimang’s childhood in exile in Zambia, Kenya and Canada, her college education in the USA and her eventual relocation back to South Africa. Set in these terrains, the landscape of the book is both haunting and beautiful. Msimang’s vivid, colourful descriptions transport us on a magic carpet ride right to the epicentre of the places she’s lived and experienced. We are lulled into the beauty of ordinary, everyday things, such as the joy of lunches with steaming plates of nsima with greens and tomato relish and playing imaginary games of Olympics. Through her childhood eyes, we catch glimpses into the lived realities of her different social contexts. With razor-sharp insight, she gives us a snapshot into the underlying cultural and social dynamics at play in the different spaces she finds herself.
In some ways, “Always Another Country’ is about a series of awakenings. One such awakening relates to how, as children, we encounter the world in particular ways, one where we hold the promise of all that is good; and the gradual awakening into the realisation that the world can be cruel place, one that seeks to diminish our sense of self. Msimang pulls the reader into a turbulent emotional vortex. We are transported into the pain associated with moments of awakening, such as when she encounters the ugly slap across the face of blatant racism, when misogyny rears its twisted head and she is sexually violated and, when she has to stare in the face the stark reality that the South African dream of a liberated future has not brought about social justice.
Msimang describes what it is like to grow up as a ‘born free’ and how as a child she had ‘every reason to believe that she was the centre of the universe.’ Moulded by parents who taught her to be confident and secure in her sense of self, they conveyed an ‘unmistakeable air of self-assurance’ and behaved ‘as if though the ground beneath their feet was theirs and the sun in the sky had risen purely for their benefit.’ Against this backdrop, Msimang’s childhood is a relatively stable, happy one, notwithstanding not having a real sense of home and not being anchored in any one place. With adept, skilful command, we become spectators to the pain associated with her moments of awakening, when her sense of security and assurance is tested, when she loses loved ones and when she is forced to rethink what it means to be a patriotic South African, committed to social transformation.
An integral part of ‘Always Another Country’ is Msimang’s eventual home-coming, her return to South Africa. With visceral honesty, she recounts the joy of coming back to craft a life for herself her. This narrative is underpinned by the complexity of being ‘othered,’ in not having grown up in South Africa. The book is a sharp reminder of how language, culture and the lack of shared history can be a barrier that has to be transcended in trying to fit in and find our ‘tribe.’ Msimang negotiates her way through the complexity of issues pertaining to identity and belonging with prowess.
The book has a number of strengths. The story is riveting and keeps you wanting to dip back in for more. The use of language is a formidable force to be reckoned with – sentences are skilfully, beautifully constructed and I often found myself going back to be lost in pull of the words. Pivotal to the book are issues of power, privilege and the notion of social justice. Msimang sets in motion a process for thinking deeply about how our societies are constructed and how power is used as a mechanism for entrenching inequity. I found Msimang’s use of reflexivity as a writing tool particularly refreshing. Her commentary on power and privilege is underscored by her ability to put her own power and privilege under an analytic microscope. In this way, Msimang uses her writing as an agency for social transformation; the book is inherently activist, calling us to reflect on important political and social issues. It is testimony to her journey as a writer, activist and feminist. It should be prescribed reading for all South Africans.