I've written elsewhere about Luis Vaz de Camoens' 16th century creation myth; the myth according to which the quick-thinking goddess, Thetis, in order to escape being raped by a Titan, Adamastor, transforms him into a huge land mass, the continent Africa; his head morphed into the furious Cape of Storms. I wrote back then too, about ways in which, in subsequent South African writing, the male sexual aggression of that Portuguese myth is justified, condoned and even recast to the extent that the would-be rapist sometimes becomes ‘victim' of a wanton ‘cock-tease'. What I didn't write then, is how apposite that creation myth has proved to be for our country, rape capital of the world.
South Africa is a scary place for girls to grow up in; not only are our rape stats beyond comprehension, but the domestic violence stats show that even (or, especially?) the home is not a place of safety or of refuge, for women. Add to that, some of those elephants herding in the room - if 1 in 4 South African women are subjected to domestic abuse, how many wife-beaters are there among your co-workers, your golfing buddies, your dinner party pals? If half a million South African women are raped every year, how many...?
And too, there's the seeming reticence of our country's authors, poets and other writers to explore and examine in their work, so pervasive an aspect of our national psyche. Surely then, we have to worry about questions such as: Have we come to accept the physical abuse of women by men as ‘normal'? Have we, as so many victims of gender violence do, appropriated and internalised the shame of our perpetrators? Have we still to find that ‘something' inside ourselves that will enable us to face up to our flaws?
Botswana's first woman High Court judge, Unity Dow, wrote the subject in her 2002 novel, Far and Beyon' ; journalist Tracey Farren created Tess in 2008 to narrate a South African story of girlhood survival in Whiplash; now, Rayda Jacobs brings us her young Joonie. I'm not sure how many of our men have attempted to write in-depth examinations of the scourge - I do hope it's not generally considered a women's problem/issue.
Jacobs' 7-year-old Joonie is not shamed into silence after an uncle offers her chocolate and invites her to be ‘naughty' and touch his "little rocket" nestling in his lap between the folds of his unzipped pants. The 9-year-old Joonie finds a way to refuse the headmaster's suggestive offer that would assure her being cast in the coveted role of Spring Queen in the school's annual pageant. A 17-year-old Joonie is more than match for the feely-touchy Reverend who thinks he can take advantage of a ‘bad' girl while supposedly helping her "get back on the right path." Can you, I wonder, guess the fate of 19-year-old Joonie's punch-happy boyfriend?
Not for nothing was this lass given the birth name Junaid (warrior) but it would be simplistic to presume that all a girl has to do is be strong in the face of evil and then she will triumph over it. Even if Joonie, as Thetis did, does manage in the end to prevail, what is the cost to her psyche to discover that the men of those three pillars of our society - family, school and church - would corrupt or defile her if only they could? That's the question Rayda Jacobs' latest novel poses.
Her earlier Confessions of a Gambler (2007), which sets issues of homosexuality and HIV/AIDS as well as of casino gambling and marital infidelity into a devout Muslim community, shows the author to be unafraid of posing awkward questions; unafraid of looking at that which we'd rather not see (or have made visible to outsiders). This new story, Jacobs' tenth book, is set squarely and unmistakably in South Africa; she tells it simply, alternating between first and third person in a technique that enhances the sense of the narrator recalling the stories of her life. I'm easily able to imagine the 50-something Joonie sitting, shielded from the wind, on a bankie on the polished red stoep of her parents' old house in Maitland, remembering the first twenty years of her younger self.
Rayda Jacobs' Joonie may be simply told but it is far from being a simple story. You'll be left with more questions than you might have imagined. Give the book to your daughters to read? You may prefer to protect them from exposure to Joonie's experiences; on the other hand, you may be opening a conversation in which they are at last able to speak about those of Joonie's experiences they already share. Give the book to your sons to read? Oh yes; that conversation is 500 years overdue.
review first published in Cape Times 13 May 2011
Joonie, by Rayda Jacobs
Publisher: Jacana, 2011
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