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When Home Is ‘Always Another Country’

Category: Art & Culture,Books

ALWAYS ANOTHER COUNTRY
A Memoir of Exile and Home
By Sisonke Msimang
Illustrated. 365 pp. World Editions. Paper, $16.99.

In 2005, the novelist Taiye Selasi published an essay in the now defunct LIP magazine defining a generation of young Africans whose roots spanned the world. “‘Home’ for this lot is many things: where their parents are from; where they go for vacation; where they went to school; where they see old friends; where they live (or live this year),” Selasi wrote. “Like so many African young people working and living in cities around the globe, they belong to no single geography, but feel at home in many.”

Selasi christened this cohort of her peers “Afropolitans,” and in the wake of her essay their stories have proliferated. Several Afropolitan novelists — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Teju Cole, Dinaw Mengestu and NoViolet Bulawayo — have become near household names. Today, the market is saturated with work exploring ideas of belonging and unbelonging; placelessness is chic.

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All this makes “Always Another Country,” a graceful memoir by Sisonke Msimang, a welcome novelty. Msimang, a South African writer and political analyst, charts an alternate course to the now familiar conclusion that home is not always a place on a map. Her story begins in exile. Her parents, members of the African National Congress, then fighting to overthrow South Africa’s apartheid regime, have fled to Zambia, where they have three daughters. “We are raised on a diet of communist propaganda and schooled in radical Africanist discourse, in the shadows of our father’s hope and our mother’s practicality,” Msimang writes. Her father is a soldier in the A.N.C.’s armed wing — its “illegal army” — a job that has taken him across the world, from Russia, for training, to Tanzania, where he helped establish a military base, and, finally, to Zambia, where he met and married Msimang’s mother. As a result of their work, Msimang spent her childhood calling a different country — Zambia, Kenya, Canada, Ethiopia — home every few years. “My parents were freedom fighters,” she writes. “So they cast our journeys around the world as part of a necessary sacrifice. Our suffering was noble.”

Msimang’s parents believed in an exceptional South Africa, one whose future would be free of injustice. Their daughter learns not to see the world this way. In Canada, a boy in her grade-school class calls her an African monkey, and a group of white girls with whom she became close abruptly exclude her. These moments reveal racism’s “sharp little teeth”; before long, she realizes she has been spoiled as a child, bred to believe that she and her sisters “weren’t just children — we were representatives of ideals.” Living abroad, “far away for the sake of freedom,” her family was “no more special than anyone else.”

If Canada taught Msimang the insidiousness of racism, Kenya exposed her to class politics. In a moving scene, she confronts a boy who steals her bike. After a mob — which she compares to the chorus of a Greek tragedy — brings the perpetrator to her feet, the boy issues a careless apology. “He doesn’t mean it,” she writes. “He stares at me with naked rage. He is sorry that I am rich and he is poor and he is not moved by my tears or my vulnerability.” The incident becomes a funny story her family likes to tell. But it’s also discomforting evidence of economic inequality, a subject her parents seem hardly to discuss. Reflecting on the boy’s behavior, Msimang concedes that she could “never say that he made no apologies for himself or that he blamed me for being a certain kind of girl and occupying the world with a certain kind of obliviousness that was not acceptable.” There is no room for the complicated truth in the narrative their world imposes on them: The boy is a thief and she his victim.

At Macalester College, in St. Paul, Msimang undergoes a political awakening. She joins a black women’s poetry troupe that performs work by women. But the group’s political inspirations — “the words that animate our conversations, and that push us to act in the real world” — are men. She begins to see her parents “not as revolutionary heroes, but as slightly naïve.” Msimang’s biting humor gives this section a glorious punch. There is a sense that the more she distances herself from her parents, the more her own voice can emerge.

In coming-of-age stories, the journey to self-discovery almost always involves leaving home. But for children for whom “home” means the family unit rather than a particular location, leaving is not necessarily marked by physical movement. Like most daughters of African parents (this reviewer included), Msimang was taught to be brave but never defiant, particularly when it comes to family. She eventually moves to South Africa — the object of her parents’ dreams and life’s work. She marries, becomes a mother and, eventually, a journalist. She, too, is invested in her country’s future, but on her own terms. “South Africa doesn’t need heroes,” she writes. “She needs the best type of friends — those who bear witness.”


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