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 The Mid-South Tribune
“Where there is no vision, the people will perish.”


Travelers, to Book Review in PDF


For immediate Release                                                                         November 13, 2018

“Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home” by Sisonke Msimang is Historical and Contemporary Page Turner*

Review by Arelya J. Mitchell

“The wretchedness of apartheid is ostensibly over, so the suffering of blacks, under the rule of other blacks, is somehow less sinister— which does not change the fact of its horror.”

            I really did not want to start this review of Sisonke Msimang’s “Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home” (Publisher: World Editions) with the above quote, because I did not want it to be a review about South African politics set against the backdrop of an autobiography.

 Msimang’s memoir is above politics.  Yet politics is the lifeblood which flows through Msimang’s formative years all the way into her adult years—from a 20th Century to a 21st Century. There is simply no way around politics or out of it when reading this turn-pager memoir.  For most of her childhood and young adulthood, Msimang is a girl and later a young woman without a country—at least one she and her family couldn’t live in until Nelson Mandela:

            “Suddenly, freedom is no longer coming: it has arrived. The date is 27 April. The year 1994. On this day, black South Africans gain full citizenship rights and white South Africans begin to put the stain of racist shame behind them. The occasion is momentous,” she recalls the election of ANC (African National Congress) co-founder, activist, former prisoner-for-life Nelson Mandela to South Africa’s presidency, a dream most black South Africans could not fathom even if they had hoped for it, a significant point to be made as would be in the case of America getting its first black president in a new century.

  A few paragraphs later, Msimang brings into prismatic perspective this rainbow victory over color lines back down to Earth.
“When the day [election day] finally comes it is both climatic and oddly underwhelming. On one hand there is joy and noise and celebration. On the other is a barely audible sound; it is apartheid’s long slow hiss into obsolescence. Quite suddenly apartheid has lost its spectral force. It is a demon defeated, no longer a Klansman on a horse inspiring fear in the hearts of black people.”

            And then she time travels into the future of today: “Within seconds South Africa is hurtling towards democracy.” To me, this short sentence describes the transition of South Africa hurtling from violence to jubilance in a manic-depressive political system. It’s hurtling, but where is it hurtling to?

It mirrors so hauntingly what happened in black America’s transition of segregation to desegregation. What’s next?
Before Mandela ascends from prison to presidency, his charismatic comrade in arms and ANC co-founder Chris Hani is gunned down in his driveway in 1993; eerily mirroring when American civil rights NAACP activist Medgar Evers was gunned down in his driveway in 1963.

And in an even stranger sense, black South Africans and black Americans have perhaps found themselves in that historical dialectical riddle that the revolutionary leaders do not make for the best post-revolutionary leaders—you know where the antithesis and synthesis merely go back and forth to being the same. Msimang was understandably ecstatic when Mandela became president but now (as of this writing of her memoir) is disappointed in the ANC leadership which continues after Mandela’s death. Can not the same be said of black Americans who were ecstatic for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but are now disappointed in the civil rights leaders and in one-time activists who emerged from a King-led Civil Rights era into a 21st Century with 1960s mindsets still intact, where emotional anger is the driving force to the next erratic step.

You can tear her book into pieces, scatter the torn leaves and place the mess into America and practically get the same picture of America’s Jim Crow. You get the hope of which came with the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights bill and the illusion that joy had come in the morning albeit Msimang and her sisters were not even thought of in 1964. Her parents were. Msimang and her sisters are children born in the 70’s; yet, they could be Black children of the 60’s whose parents dared to think the same as hers: That apartheid would end and getting the best education was the best panacea to racism.

But let me do put a large yellow caution sign here in telling you now that Msimang does not make the comparisons between black America’s Civil Rights Movement to black South Africa’s anti-Apartheid Movement. It is I as a reviewer who draw the comparisons. I cannot help myself. These observations between Jim Crow and apartheid are what I kept ghost ‘reading’ behind Msimang’s stunning work— her meticulous wording as she examines her life and family within the context of South African politics, within her private conscience, within her searching monologues of becoming an individual as—yes—a privileged black South African elite. Again, I could see the mirroring of an apartheid and a Jim Crow of black elitism, because in that white macrocosmic world, therein lies a microcosmic world of apartheid/segregation; and therein lies yet another microcosmic world of black haves and have nots.  Yes, I digress a bit in making comparisons, but Msimang herself brings out about how she and her family were still privileged while in exile going from country to country— adjusting from such diverse cultures from Canada to Kenya and all in between.

Because her father – her ‘Baba’—is a highly regarded member of the ANC, he is physically absent most of the time from the family, but his dominant and loving presence is always felt by Msimang and her sisters.  He is a strong father, yet committed to the Cause; and he has a wife who is understanding of that. Loyal to that. In fact, it is her “Mummy” whom she dedicates her book.  As children of a revolutionist, Msimang and her sisters have learned to live with the fear of losing him either to death or to imprisonment; they, too, adjust themselves to gypsy-ing from country to country, always longing for ‘home’, South Africa, and for the stability of both parents being at ‘home’.

Sisonke Msimang pulls the reader into her life, and he/she goes into it willingly and curiously. First of all, because this is smooth writing and not bumpy as some memoirs can be—you know, more academic and sterile when politics is anywhere in the mix. She gives you depth in examining her relationships with her father, mother, sisters, relatives, a Rasputin lover, her husband, and her children. She brings all of these relationships into one full circle and that makes us want to see a follow up to “Always Another Country.”

One other thing I found surprising was Msimang broaching the taboo subject of prejudice between black Americans and black Africans.  It is no secret that Africans and African Americans are not always enamored of each other. At times, it rears its ugly head in undercurrents of black prejudices such as when some blacks had a problem with then presidential candidate Barack Obama because he had no Diaspora roots. This black American-on-black African prejudice is seldom voiced aloud, let alone written about. There is this ‘thing’ that African Americans view motherland Africans as looking down on them violating those ‘roots’ with a capital ‘R’ as in Alex Haley’s “Roots” and that small ‘r’ as in a connection. There have already been those whispered complaints that in a contemporary world Ivy League universities and Corporate America would rather admit or hire authentic, motherland Africans to fulfill their affirmative action programs than African Americans of slave descent.

            Msimang was bold enough bring this black-on-black cultural schism into focus in the following observation in the college segment of her memoir:
“I lose my patience. I find it hard to be friends with the other African students on campus. They titter and cluck about black Americans. They use the usual tropes—they are lazy, they are damaged. They are full of excuses about how different Africans are from African Americans.  I get tired of hearing the same old lines, about how whatever happened during slavery severed the connection between blacks in America and those in Africa. … But, a few months in, their disdain makes me nervous. Intellectually I can see there is little difference between the two campus communities—the small striving African one and the striving black American one—but there is a rift. It isn’t ugly or openly antagonistic, but it is there.”
Yes, it is ‘there’, somewhere hidden in the blackness of two continents with dark histories.  Msimang is the first non-fiction writer I’ve known to bring it out, period.

“Always Another Country” is more than a good read; it is a good experience. But what I believe the reader will get from it, just to reiterate, is that it is the real story of a family and of a true-life protagonist who has chosen to give us her poignant story in exile, out of exile; her story of abuse, love, loss, love again; her story from immaturity to maturity.  
 In a post-Mandela era and in terms of what is happening presently in the black South African-white South African conflict, she writes of her disappointment in the ANC political party for which her father had sacrificed his family:

“I grew up believing in heroes, so the past decade of watching the moral decline of the political party to which I owe much of who I am has been hard. My idols have been smashed and I have been bewildered and often deeply wounded by their conduct. I have asked myself whether I was wrong to have believed in them in the first place. I have wondered whether it was all a lie. I have chastised myself. Perhaps I as simply a foolish child.”
When she emerged from exile along with other children of the anti-Apartheid movement—the Revolution—she continued to tap into the pride and exhilaration of the older generation who thought perhaps they would never see this day. But the older generation saw that day and saw their children see it, she reminds us. In fact, Msimang threads her memoir with this generational crossroads between shiny hope polished up as fine as the Hope Diamond but like the Hope Diamond it conjures up both beauty and curses.

“They know I am a mere harbinger, an augury sent in advance of the warrior who will soon return home,” she writes in this one succinct sentence when she sets foot on South African soil after a childhood of exile.

“Mere harbinger?” I think not. Perhaps more of a harbinger who has to tell her story like an Ancient Mariner. And she does just that in her chapter of “Why I Write”. Read it well, readers and an unborn generation.


*Ms. Mitchell is the Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of The Mid-South Tribune.



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