Books

A Personal Journey Through the Legacy of Apartheid

(all images in this review created from photographs taken by author for Hyperallergic)
Catherine Taylor’s ‘Apart’ (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

“After it is over, after the shooting stops, after the blood bath, after things change, after democracy, after reconciliation, after redistribution, after understanding, maybe then it will begin.”

This is how Catherine Taylor’s book Apart begins.

Picking it up now, reading that opening, three years since the book was first published, my mind immediately went to contemporary struggles for justice happening in the US today, particularly the ongoing struggles for racial justice. That centuries-old distant hope for a just future that every protester carries with them on the street — “maybe then it will begin.”

*   *   *

Taylor-Apart-CoverTaylor’s book, published by Ugly Duckling Presse, centers on her search — what feels like an obsessive search — through veins of history buried in the time of apartheid in South Africa, where she and her family are from.

Reading her text, you can’t help but get drawn into her relentless quest. The book feels like a collection of unfinished and incomplete thoughts, but ones that have purposely been left hanging. The structure is loose and undefined, mixing essay and poetry and redacted excerpts from archives, and sometimes lengthy footnotes that even in their clarifications feel uncertain.

It seems as if by combing through archives, family memories and stories, her own memories, reflections, and impressions, Taylor is attempting to get to the bottom of something — only to have the floor continually fall through, revealing sinkholes of irresolvability. This is the case particularly with her own emotions — ambivalence, guilt, desire; even there she continues to pull the ground out from beneath herself, looking for the origins of her feelings and turning up more unanswered questions.

Tomorrow, we will begin again the whole laborious telling of the collectivity. And of the individual. And their inseparability. The self, the family, the society; their tensions and dissolutions. The interwoven narrative, the absence of narratives, the facts, their fleeing.

The book’s search jumps off from Taylor’s first trip back to South Africa in nearly three decades, her first since leaving the country with her family for New York when she was a child. The text follows along as she travels to places familiar and unfamiliar, such as townships outside Cape Town, the University of Cape Town’s Manuscripts and Archives Division, and Christmas Camp, a park that many generations of her family have travelled to in the countryside outside Cape Town.

As she moves into and through these spaces, she collects old and new information, impressions, both her own and others’. It’s as if she is mulling over a kind of personal truth and reconciliation process, specifically about the role that her own family played within and in resistance to the apartheid government, the role of race within her family (while Taylor is fair skinned, others in her family bear darker skin), and her own privileged position both in her youth and in returning to South Africa.

Photograph of pages 58 and 59 in Catherine Taylor's Apart.
A spread from Catherine Taylor’s ‘Apart’

At the state level, truth and reconciliation processes involve deep and detailed investigations into violence wrought by governments: detailed reports of government-led murders, mass killings, and human rights violations; testimony by survivors; testimony by witnesses; narratives from various groups subjected to state violence; and other recorded evidence such as films and photographs depicting and describing the ways in which a government has sought to destroy or incapacitate its own people.

I remember having dinner with a woman a few years ago who was working on such a process in Afghanistan, and she emphasized that a key piece of the process was to have each of the many groups affected tell their story in order to make those stories part of the official record. The goal being that no story would be erased — that each would be given weight and voracity, acting as ballast against he-said/she-said/they-said debates and insisting that all be taken into account.

Of course, this also gets at one of the big issues floating below the surface of Apart: does the world need more meditations from white people on legacies of racial oppression? Acknowledging her privilege and position, Taylor does, at regular intervals, question her own motivations in the book, adding in other people’s interrogation of her motives, particularly her family’s. As a white woman myself, I have not come up with a pat answer to this question, save to acknowledge and agree that white people take up a disproportionate amount of space in the society I live in, and to simultaneously propose that the problem is not people writing and sharing their thoughts (I firmly believe that everyone can and should be free to do so); the problem is that more people of color need to be given the same platforms, regardless of whether their subject matter is race. Which is to say, each story must be given weight and voracity; the scales need to be rebalanced.

The book challenges its own voracity throughout, with the unfinished thoughts, the partial stories, the snapshots that reveal only fragments. Neither we nor Taylor get to the end of the search — there is no final answer, no closing bow to tie up all the loose strings she has collected. The structure itself seems to question the efficacy of the project — an archive of impressions absent clear and direct connections, absent a satisfying linear narrative.

Detail of photograph of page 123 of Catherine Taylor's Apart.
Detail of a photograph in Catherine Taylor’s ‘Apart’

Near the end of the book Taylor reveals that while the family lived in South Africa, her mother was part of a group of women, white middle- and upper-class women, who called themselves the Black Sash. From 1955–94, the group used methods of nonviolent protest in order to resist apartheid.

Taylor’s decision to save this fact for the end is fascinating. Choosing to reveal it early would have framed her search so differently; it could have served as a way of giving herself credibility by tying herself to a legacy of resistance to racial oppression. By placing it at the end, and by using the section to question and critique the Black Sash’s efficacy, she in fact seems to suggest that she does not wish to give herself a pass — history is more complicated than that.

Catherine Taylor’s Apart is published by Ugly Duckling Presse and available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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