Innards by Magogodi oaMphela Makhene review – a stunning Sowetan debut | Short stories

Innards by Magogodi oaMphela Makhene review – a stunning Sowetan debut | Short stories

On the front cover of the South African writer Magogodi oaMphela Makhene’s impressive debut collection of linked stories about life under and after apartheid, a young Black girl, primly attired in a collared dress, holds in each of her hands a chicken – defeathered and seemingly gutted. Look closer and you’ll notice the horns on the girl’s forehead and a sinuous stream of blood down her left leg. Her eyes stare ahead, whether in resignation or pain or provocation. Makhene’s book, like this image – an oil painting by Zimbabwean artist Kudzanai-Violet Hwami – melds the ordinary and the spectacular, grief, grit and horror, in novel and arresting ways.

Largely set in the township of Soweto, the stories follow characters as they unsnarl racially flecked feelings of anger, disappointment, indignity, culpability and betrayal in the aftermath of injury and loss, both personal and shared. In Indians Can’t Fly, Krishna is tortured at the infamous John Vorster Square detention centre after she fails to provide information on her husband, a freedom fighter who has gone incommunicado. When Krishna is released, she attempts to find out his whereabouts, only to realise that he may have turned against his co-insurgents, becoming an “askari” – a collaborator. (We hear of him again in a slice of gossip in the centrepiece story, Innards; and we meet him as a character proper in the darkly comic Dr Basters, where we learn how he reinvented himself after apartheid ended.)

In 7678B Old Potchefstroom Road, Ethel’s reunion with her brother Kingsley is complicated by the pass laws in place. Arriving at Ethel’s place from Transkei, one of the two independent “homelands” or “Bantustans” designated for the Xhosa people during apartheid, Kingsley has to hide in the coal bin during “dompass” raids at night. Kingsley “still hadn’t found work. Which meant he had no white man to sign his papers. Which made Kingsley the thing they stamp in a dompass before deportation: ‘Prohibited Alien.’” Later, when Ethel’s husband dies, his papers prove insufficient to prevent her repatriation to Transkei. Soldiers mercilessly ransack her house, and throw all her furniture out.

Children feature in several heart-wrenching stories. In Star-Coloured Tears, a young boy returns home from a fishing trip with friends to find that his mother, an anti-apartheid activist, has been taken away by the police. In The Caretaker, a mother and her children are made to witness the killing of their dog at the hands of a Boer policeman. In Black Christmas, an 11-year-old schoolgirl stops speaking after she comes across a Black man being “necklaced” or burned alive for his suspected collusion with apartheid forces. Another thread of the story concerns the girl’s schooling within the strictures of the Bantu Education Act, dramatising clearly and forcefully how apartheid sought to induct Black South Africans into a life of subservience and manual labour.

Makhene concocts her grim tales with the right blend of history and story. Political exposition comes in slivers of dialogue, action and scenery; you must work to grasp her cues and references. Her stories – soaked in the languages of Soweto (isiZulu, Sesotho, Sepedi, Setswana, Afrikaans) and studded with important facts, names, dates and local political lore – often seem like a challenge to the unversed reader. “Can you move over to where I am?” she seems to ask, in the manner of Toni Morrison. Do you care to fully inhabit the world and worldview of my characters?

In the title story, a man begins to relive painful episodes from his past after receiving the news of his father’s death. Now living in Berlin, he recalls witnessing, as a child, his father’s “servile nakedness” as the police paraded him through the streets. He remembers the raids, how “all the fathers and grandfathers and uncles and brothers” were rounded up, “shaken like loose litter from their houses”. Meanwhile, his sister, settled in New York, is haunted by the image of the mutilated body of Steve Biko, the anti-apartheid martyr whose funeral she had attended. “She remembers seeing his sunken eyes lying in his coffin. Neck snapped into chicken bones. Broken wing bones, clavicle, keel, rib. Broken lip too false to form any word you’d recognise as human.” To read Makhene is to understand apartheid as a live, unhealed wound. It is to contend with and comprehend, deeply, intimately, the savage realities her characters endure, and the unconquerable memories of violence that they carry. This makes for an extraordinary achievement.

Innards by Magogodi oaMphela Makhene is published by Atlantic (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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