Book Review

"What does it mean to be a disabled man or woman in South Africa today?"
                    -Kobus Moolman

Putting together an anthology of literary writing in an emerging field is always to lay oneself open to criticism. Inevitably there will be charges that the writing was not "literary" enough, that the quality of the selections was uneven or that the criteria for the selection was questionable. Nowhere is this more true than in disability literature where ground-breaking anthologies like Vassar Miller's Despite this Flesh and J. L. Baird's Towards Solomon's Mountain fall prey to critics applying today's standards or sensibilities to work produced a quarter of a century ago. Thus it takes a certain amount of courage for Kobus Moolman, a playwright and poet with the credentials to prove it, to take on the mantle of editor and venture into this territory.

Tilling the Hard Soil: Poetry, Prose and Art by South African Writers with Disabilities (University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2010) shows today's readers just how such a first anthology of emerging literature looks. It is valuable not only for the writings that it collects but for Moolman's preface illuminating just what kinds of considerations he had to address in putting a text like this together.

The pieces that form Tilling the Hard Soil are essentially life writings and poems. This is hardly surprising since it directly parallels the development of disability literature in the United States. Life writing – autobiography, memoir, personal narrative – is probably the least " literary" of literary genres and, therefore, the one most accessible to those outside the mainstream traditions. Moreover, it tends to lay bare many of the most salient issues that marginalized groups face.

The personal narratives in the anthology are interesting in the way they show the differences and similarity between the experience of disability in South Africa and in the United States. In "A School for Children Like You" Mandla Mabilia writes:

There were always two explanations of my disability at home; one of course was polio (the Western medical term for my condition), which is really not the ‘real' explanation so far as my family is concerned. The ‘real' explanation has to do with the wind to some extent; in other words, with witchcraft.

Though there may still be some American homes that would view a disabled child as some kind of divine punishment, it would be a rare to find one that would consider it the result of witchcraft.* On the other hand, Mabila's decription of how he was included in soccer games as a child seems universal. He would sit on the ground near the opponent's goal so that a team member could roccochet the ball off of Mambila's foot into the goal causing him to score.

In addition to Mabilia's work, readers are likely to be drawn to the autobiographical writings of Musa Zula and William Zulu. Both writers are represented by several selections drawn from their own book length works. An excerpt from Musa Zulu's The Language of Me in the current issue of Wordgathering supplements this view to give readers a more extended sampling of his writing.

The poetry selections included in Tilling the Hard Soil make for an interesting comparison with the evolution of disability poetry in the United States. Much of the poetry is political and, while this is hardly unfamiliar ground for American poets with disabilities, unlike American poets, these South African poets are much less focused on accessibility issues or ADA rights, than on rights of people as a whole. “Somebody to Whisper” by Looks Matoto, with the repetition of the line "Can Somebody Whisper Me Freedom" together with poems by Mak Manaka, and Sipho Mkhize will call to mind the activist spirit of the 1960's in the United States. The words dream and freedom are among the most frequently appearing words in the anthology's poetry.

This does not mean that some of the poets do not also focus in on the lives or needs of people with disabilities. As in almost all disability writing, the medical establishment plays a prominent role. In "K Ward" Jill Hamilton writes:

in the room next door
a man coughs
so deep
and so long
that i fear his lungs will end up
all over the clean
green walls.

Kevin Dean Hollingshead, in the voice of the medical professional, says:

Science is my game
Study the man from the outside in
And tell him how to feel.

No shortage of cynicism there. However, in giving expression to the emotional experience of a person with a physical disability, perhaps the most powerful poem in the volume comes from Looks Matoto in his poem " Between These Thighs":

between these thighs i am a complete man
between these thighs i am a complete woman...
between these thighs my capability
can match and even surpass yours
oh between these thighs,
and still my capability is not limited
between these thighs
nor shall your yardstick measure me...
do you consider this poem a seduction
meant to lure you to a warm place
between these thighs
i just want to deliver to your knowledge
your happiness can be fulfilled
between these thighs

It is perhaps unfair to single out any one poet in an anthology which, of necessity, offers a very slight sampling of each writer's work. Mlungisi Kumalo, Papi Nkoli, Shelley Barry and Mooman himself, all give the reader interesting poems. Still, one poet who seems to rise a bit above the pack is Jillian Hamilton. Hamilton is represented by only three poems, but each of them, "K Ward," "On Amputation," and "Word of Mouth" leave the reader with a feeling that she is a poet capable of mastering a variety of forms and on diverse topics. "Word of Mouth," for example will immediately made American writers think of poet Mark Strand.

gobble books for breakfast
devour books for dinner
licking the gravy from the pages
chew great forksfull
in a midnight feast
bite, gnaw, gulp, swallow
grow plump with the words

Not only are the lines great advice for poets, but they leave the reader wondering what other poems Hamilton has to offer.

In addition to the life narrative and poems, two other selections in the anthology are especially worth mentioning. One is Kobus Moolman's short story "Shelter". Fiction in which the major character has a disability is a pretty rare commodity and Moolman, who is known primarily as a playwright and poet, has written an engaging story, in the realistic tradition, about a young boy's coming to grips with his own physical disability in a South African community. The other singular piece included in the anthology is Heinrich Wagner's "Bat Magic." Set up as a stage piece, it is actually an autobiographical narrative disguised as a monologue. Whether this would actually work on stage or is more of a closet drama is up to the reader to decide, but it does deserve credit for inventiveness.

As the subtitle of the book indicates, art is also a part of the anthology. These include black and white drawings, painting and linotypes. The artists of the book are none other than the writers and poets themselves, so the book has a bit of a Rennaisance feel to it. The linotypes are especially effective and it is from one by William Zulu that the book takes its name.

As the editor of Tilling the Hard Soil, Moolman knows the process of putting together an anthology for an emerging genre can be particularly tricky. In the introduction he tries to address some of the issues that such a task raises including asking whether one can even think of "the disabled" as a category that cuts across social and cultural boundaries to form some kind of unity. The question of the definition of disability itself is the first problem and Moolman has chosen to go with as broad a definition as possible. A second question is how to avoid the accusation that his book is an attempt to cash in on the now fashionable trend of writing about previously marginalized peoples. Moolman states categorically, "This not a showcase of the different or the exceptional. Nor is it a platform or soapbox, or any other form of public display." He believes that he can accomplish this by simply letting the authors speak in their own voices.

Moolman established several criteria for what he would include in the anthology. First, there had to be some degree of literary merit to the work and it had to be written in English. This latter criterion is tough because South African peoples speak many languages. Second, he wanted work that would reveal the reality of the world of the writers and avoid platitudes and sentimentality. The third was the that the writing need to give the reader a feel for what it was like to live in South African society. While the first and third criteria may be more specific to South Africa, the second is the major motivation of disability literature across the globe. Moolman's "Preface" is as important as any other piece in the book. It is what helps to make the book necessary reading for anyone really interested in the field of disability literature.

In the final selection of the book, Musa Zulu offers his philosophy of how the life with disability can be lived. It seems a fitting note to close on both because it embodies the philosophy of Tilling the Hard Ground as a whole and because it provides a world view that should give much food for thought to any person with a disability who calls herself or himself a writer.

Disability has opened my eyes not only to the pain of others, but to my own internal prejudices toward the disabled, conditioned into me by the society I live in. My sole ambition is to be the instrument of change, to use my experiences and talents in the service of the struggle for the emancipation and dignity of all disabled South Africans...As much as I believe that government and business have a crucial role to play in helping to elevate the status of disabled people in our society, I also feel strongly that, as with all struggles, it is those who are directly affected who need to take responsibility for leading their own march towards freedom, empowerment and visibility.

Those considering purchasing a copy of Tilling the Hard Soil may find their decision made a little easier knowing that all royalties from the book go to Open Air School in Durban, South Africa. Open Air School serves children with physical disabilities, especially those from impoverished backgrounds. The price of the book is not only an investment in the reader's own knowledge, but in the children of South Africa.

*However, see Cheryl Mattingly and Linda C. Garro's, The Cultural Construction of Illness, University of California Press, 2000.