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  • Pain, Resilience, and the Agency MemoirThe Year in South Africa
  • Nick Mdika Tembo (bio)

A notable trend in the life narratives in South Africa this year is the individual authors' determination to create a new normal when their will to live seems to be shattered. The three texts of witness—Vanessa Govender's Beaten but not Broken, Helena Kriel's The Year of Facing Fire, and Ilana Gerschlowitz's Saving My Sons—exemplify a range of "survival tools" on how to survive the harsh realities that life sometimes throws on our path. The texts inscribe pain, anxiety, loneliness, coping with illness, and near-death experiences. More crucially, they are testimonies of survival and resilience, of images and scattered memories, and of things that become normalized in our societies when they shouldn't be.

A thread that binds the three memoirs together is agency. Govender's, Kriel's, and Gerschlowitz's visions fundamentally originate in human agency. In the philosophical sense, the utopias produced in the three texts are the product of human resoluteness, extended to the limits of choice. There's that freedom and capacity in all of us to make choices, take action, and have control over our lives, regardless of what others might think of our actions. As Clare Bradford et al. also remind us, if people want to act on something, if they want to have agency, they should be able to answer for their actions. More importantly, they should be responsible (Bradford et al. 33). Vanessa Govender acknowledges in this regard that as human beings we have the choice to go on, or the choice to languish. We have the choice "to choose differently, make a change, accept what you've been given and change what you've been given. The choice to give up and the choice to rise above" (167). Choice, in this sense, becomes power or authority.

Beaten but not Broken is Vanessa Govender's heart-wrenching tale of life in a toxic relationship. Govender, an award-winning former television-news journalist, admits that her relationship of "five years and seven months" (29) with an unnamed boyfriend was not built on love but on use of brute force, as the boyfriend "left scars and bruises" (18) on her body each time they had an argument, or when he [End Page 152] felt like punching her. "Violence and making up afterwards was all very much part of our crazy relationship" (28), she confesses. Govender writes that she sincerely believed in her boyfriend's potential and his promise to do and be better and treat her right (63), even when she knew that his love for her was "full of sound and fury—but […] signifying nothing" (101). She accepts that as a journalist she "greedily gathered the affection and adoration of strangers, men and women and children" (24) without letting them into her private life; and that "getting slapped around and being constantly berated became the new norm in our relationship" (62). She further admits to lying about the source of her bruises to the outside world: "A little make-up or clever story, and no one really bothered to delve deeper or question what they were seeing and being told" (18). Govender candidly says that she used to tell these lies not to protect her abuser, but herself. She even thought that this is what most women who are in abusive relationships do:

we lie to protect ourselves. No one must know who we really are. That beneath the smiles and laughs we carefully and calculatingly display, to charm those around us and make them ignore their niggling feeling that something isn't quite right, beneath all of that is just a frightened, defeated, barely existing, pathetic little victim. Like our abusers, we are also masters of deception. We can fool you into thinking we're loved, in love and content. From the very first time we are struck, we just know how to deceive.


The purpose of creating these lies is not hard to figure out for someone of Govender's social standing: she wanted "to portray the image of a strong woman" (24), because as a journalist, she was...


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pp. 152-157
Launched on MUSE
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