The Pity of Advice
Lately I've been taking a break from my usual diet of poetry, fairy tales, and sidelong diaries to read online advice columns and Maggie Messitt's narrative nonfiction The Rainy Season: Three Lives in the New South Africa.
Never mind the advice columns for a moment -- you know what they do. Messitt follows three strivers in a village through nine months in their complex lives. They are Regina, a weaver, mother, and grandmother; Thoko, an entrepreneur, healer, and leader; and Dankie, a young man graduating from school and facing a blank future. Their lives are not much like mine, probably not much like yours. I say that and feel guilty. Distance, incomprehension: coward's shelter. Though maybe that's a better recourse than the two poles I otherwise swing between -- judgment and pity.
We have, for example, Thoko's comment on a neighbor's suicide:
"He should have killed his wife first, if he was going to commit suicide," said Thoko in a considered, yet uncomplicated, tone. "You just can't commit suicide and leave a wife, stealing away the good life."
To be clear, Thoko is a woman. She, like Regina, accepts her culture's rules, under which women are subservient to their frequently awful, abusive, and irresponsible husbands. After Regina's husband dies, she must observe the rites of widowhood:
There was no looking to her right, no looking to her left, and no looking back. She was not allowed to raise her voice above a soft and respectful tone. Nor was she allowed to walk without her hands behind her back or crossed over her chest. Regina, for the next six months, would honor her husband with these rules of obedience.
Never mind that he left her years before. I can't pretend to neutrality, can't pretend I don't judge this sexist culture.
On the other hand, when AIDS casts its long shadow over the village, when Messitt goes through the villagers' beliefs about how the disease is spread, who could blame them for believing the worst -- the worst in every way? Messitt writes,
Young people, particularly men, have ignited rumors about a white doctor who invented condoms and gave them away for free. Word spread that he put the virus inside of those condoms and was trying to prevent the black South African population from increasing, thereby decreasing their power.
Recall what you know of South Africa: this suspicion may be tragically wrong, but it isn't farfetched. How can I help but pity them?
But judgment and pity alike, if they are to be right and good, depend on empathy, and empathy's a bitch, this belief that I can understand across distance. I should know better. We hardly understand across our local distances. Instead, we pity and judge.
Messitt can be a maddening writer, leaping around in time and place to produce confusing sentences like this one: "After she recently insisted on cutting her dreadlocks, only to be filled with tears when she saw the result, her pink and grey hoodie offset her little boy's haircut." A single scene, covering no more time than a morning and no more space than a few hundred feet, nevertheless strands me: where is Regina now, what is she doing?
But maybe I know what Messitt intends. Her erratic temporal motion might represent a vision of another reality: a heat-soaked dream in which one action or another rises from the dust, but the whole sinks into everyone else's time, communal routine. And her fixation on space -- her insistence on describing just how Thoko's buildings are arranged on her plots of land, though this kind of information is practically always hard to understand in writing -- might match the material needs of her subjects, their intense focus on what they can hold (in one passage, she describes how the villagers turn money into bricks in their yards, stockpiling for a concrete future).
Anyway, it's just logistics -- something I can surely read past. I can understand that Dankie's cousin has hanged himself without quite grasping where the cousin's house is or how close this event is in time to anything else. The man swinging from the beam is clear. But he matters less, in The Rainy Season, than his elaborate and tense funeral, which closes in his own home:
Each side of the main room -- a kitchen and living room -- had two wooden doors leading to small rooms. The doors were closed with the exception of the first room to the right. Inside, Maduzu was carried and placed on his bed to rest. Family members followed, filling the three remaining walls of the room with bodies, leaving little space for movement or light to break through.
Above the bed is the beam Maduzu hanged himself from, still bearing the severed rope he used. It's all logistics, it turns out.
Or consider the proverbs Messitt mulls over in the wake of Maduzu's death: "The good man dies in the bush" -- away, that is, from his family, on his own; and "The evil one dies in his village" -- among his family, bringing his death on them. Where you die (not how or why) makes the difference. And so, though Messitt's meandering storytelling tempts me to skim -- though I do in fact rush ahead to the epilogue to see how these lives "turn out," whose attempts prosper and whose fail -- I realize that I will not understand anything if I don't slow down and let this other time and place -- these other times and places, ghosted with histories and futures at once foreign and close -- wash over me.
As for the advice columns -- I lie in bed and read the questions, then turn off my phone and make up my answers. I enjoy dictating decisions -- leave him, have an affair, don't move, grow the fuck up -- to total strangers. It stops the world spinning under, through me.