The house of exile

Edward Said once said of the usefulness of exile for intellectual work: it involves adopting “a spirit of opposition, rather than accommodation.” James Baldwin and Sisonke Msimang took it to heart.

Lusaka, Zambia. Image credit Bengt Flemark via Flickr (CC).

“In exile we only thought about the Boers. We never imagined the houses—what they were like inside and how it felt to live in one.” Growing up in exile in Zambia, Kenya, Canada and the United States, a daughter of anti-apartheid freedom fighters, Sisonke Msimang knew her country only as a metaphoric war of ideals. Always Another CountryA Memoir of Exile and Home (World Editions, 2018) tells of her coming-of-age outside the country, and her long-awaited homecoming as an adult. On the surface, this is a celebratory moment: She and her husband buy their first house: “the walkway (…) smells like jasmine (…) there is a lovely soft grey marble on the floors (…) a generous veranda runs the length of the house.” But she soon begins to realize that South African suburbia is “a place as haunting as it is manicured.” She is confronted with her identity without the Struggle, and the guilt of her position as a member of the black elite, one who “got off easy” in exile, begins to consume her.

Much has been written about the usefulness of exile for intellectual work: Edward Said described it as adopting “a spirit of opposition, rather than accommodation.” But what about the houses? What about the architecture, where the windows are located, whether there’s a garden, how the light streams in? Living in exile seems to raise the stakes of the domestic, and this is something that preoccupies Baldwin scholar Magdalena Zabarowska in her latest biographical study, Me and My House: Baldwin’s Last Decade in France (Duke University Press, 2018). Baldwin’s final resting place, a sprawling stone house in the French village of St. Paul-de-Vence, transformed him from a “transatlantic commuter” into a homeowner. The privacy of this exilic abode, Zaborowska shows, developed in sophisticated dialogue with the “political house” he called the United States. His sensitivity to interior spaces and the objects in them—“he referred to them as ‘little gimcracks, like mirrors and ash-trays’”—provides an unexplored dimension to understanding his role as an interpreter of America, and he “infused many of his essays with metaphors of domesticity that confirmed his commitment to the private being always political and vice versa.” Baldwin left America—first for Turkey, and then for France—not only to gain a sharper perspective on it, but also for the creative respite of a “private life”—a life beyond his role as a cipher, a target, or the resident specialist in American race politics. Outside America, he found this home.

In many ways, Msimang’s story appears as a mirror image of Baldwin’s, which starts in Harlem and unfolds in the glimpses of his autobiographical essays. If Baldwin was pushed out of America, Msimang’s family was locked out of South Africa, her father having left before she was born, to be trained outside the country as a member of the ANC’s armed wing. If Msimang gained a home country, she was also bereft of the ideal of South Africa—a kind of spiritual-political home—with which she grew up.

In light of Zabarowska’s study, it’s striking to see the weight given to domestic details in Msimang’s memoir. In Canada, a white classmate walks into the family home, treading dirt into the carpet. She turns toward the mantelpiece, where rows of photographs show multiple generations of family and friends. “‘Don’t you like even know anyone who isn’t from Africa?’” she asks. “I had never even thought about it,” Msimang writes, “but now, looking at the house, at our art and our photos, through her eyes, we were different.”

As a child, then, Msimang encounters herself through the eyes of whiteness—a Fanonian idea that was useful for Baldwin, who maintained that, as an identity, race was nothing more valuable than a projection by the white imaginary. What Africans and African Americans held in common, he wrote in “Princes and Powers”—is a history of suffering, but this was no marker of cultural unity. They also held in common “the necessity to remake the world in their own image, to impose this image on the world, and no longer be controlled by the vision of the world, and themselves, held by other people.”

While Baldwin left America in order to discover who he was without its racial politics, Msimang’s arrival in South Africa culminates in the loss of all the Others that had defined her identity up until that point—it is a loss of the Other opposite which she was positioned in exile, whiteness abroad and whiteness at home, of the South Africa-to-come, which was always a metaphor for redemption. But it is also, to some extent, the loss of a private life. If the private is political, in South Africa, the material private is especially so. The house in which her family ensconces itself begins to take on a sinister undercurrent, as though haunted by a ghost whose exorcism had failed. Its upkeep begs the labor of other black South Africans, and suddenly she is no longer an innocent—“the house has made me complicit.” Two women move in to help with the housework and childcare. They watch soap operas together and “breathe the same air,” even as they keep an “emotional distance” and “learn to live with the guilt.” It is when one of the women betrays her that Msimang is forced to confront her growing disillusionment with the ANC’s entire enterprise. “Apartheid’s spatial legacies seem to have woven themselves into the most intimate of spaces,” she writes.  “Dysfunction pulses at every street light and violence seeps under every door.” The private is political.

But of course, as Baldwin continually shows, it’s not that simple. When Msimang inconveniently falls in love with a white Australian, she initially resists. “I’m stubbornly clinging to a political position I arrived at in the absence of love—when I was in college and charged with a righteousness that was deeply powerful and naively abstract—instead of deciding that it’s more complex than I want it to be.” Eventually she decides that although “objections to interracial love in a racist world make sense,” she will “accept the contradictions.” It is fitting that love is the area where her politics ultimately has no place: the very element Baldwin invoked when he spoke about “private life,” his Jamesian term, Kevin Gaines writes, “for the interior life that served as the wellspring of his creativity. In a homophobic world, it was also the euphemism he used for his sexuality: a catch-all for the immensity—and the wealth—of life beyond the political.”

As the young Msimang looks at her classmate looking at the objects on her mantelpiece, we see how the domestic is a way of remaking the world in her own image, of imposing this image on the world. Though she sees, for the first time, the photos of “yellow-eyed grannies who had paid a great deal to have themselves posed, and well-fed black men (…) whose eyes spoke of hard times despite their tight waistcoats and spotless white shirts,” and though the photo of her with her cousins and siblings was suddenly just a photo of “long-limbed Africans sprawled out on a lawn somewhere foreign,” there is a hint at the potential of these objects as refuges of dignity. The framed Heidi Lange batik had come “all the way from Nairobi.”

“We washed our hands because the world was dirty and home was clean.”

Further Reading

Exile, Return, Home?

Many will read Sisonke Msimang’s new memoir for its musings on exile and home, but it is also a political telling of the complicated South African transition.