Book Review | The irresistible lure of ‘Dinotshi’

Author Tuelo Gabonewe has written what is arguably the first erotic novel in Setswana. With it he breaks important boundaries for both women and the language.

In a webinar hosted by Fat Cats Book Club and Xarra Books to celebrate Tuelo Gabonewe’s Setswana erotic novel Dinotshi, the question that kickstarted the dialogue asked what the difference between erotica and porn is. 

The query magnifies the prevailing secrecy and lack of openness to sex education and personal sexual pleasure in South Africa. It helps locate the country’s conservatism around sex and the contextual background against which erotic literature such as Dinotshi and many others before it exist. 

In the introduction of Adults Only: Stories of Love, Lust, Sex and Sensuality, an erotic anthology produced by the National Arts Festival in 2014, anthologist, essayist and poet Makhosazana Xaba makes a relevant point when she writes: “Between apartheid laws that enforced and institutionalised racism; patriarchy (cutting across all racial groups) that defines women as ‘less than’ men, thus allowing for endemic and pathological misogyny; and conventional religious beliefs that often reinforce the same about women, it is no surprise that sex, sexuality and sex orientation are topics shrouded in silence, confusion, doubt, shame, misunderstanding and even controversy.”  

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Additionally, Gugulethu Mhlungu’s new book, You Have Struck A Rock, puts the context and continuities of apartheid’s Immorality Act (also referred to as the Sex Act) into an acute perspective in a chapter about sex, power, gender and development. Zooming in on sex work in the country, Mhlungu shows how residues of the act linger in post-apartheid South Africa and continue to shame, criminalise and legislate sexuality and personal private actions.

This conservatism is further extended into different communities and cultures. Sex is a taboo subject in Setswana. Whereas since The Vagina Monologues there have been sociopolitical and cultural shifts that attempt a freeing of the word “vagina” and verbalising sexuality – with varied results in different contexts – the naming of genitalia in Setswana is still considered vulgar. The arrival of Dinotshi therefore comes with expectant excitement for Setswana speakers.

Gabonewe is reluctant for Dinotshi to be called the first Setswana erotic novel, citing existing books such as Morabaraba by SJ Lebethe. However, the difference between the two is that although entanglements may venture into the erotic in Morabaraba, the eroticism is incidental and not the main goal. In Dinotshi, however, eroticism is the intention. With that Gabonewe does break the mould. And in doing so, Dinotshi is an invitation for others to go even further.

Extending a language

Dinotshi is a major contribution to the evolution of the Setswana language and the expansion of its vocabulary. Although Gabonewe opts for a “palatable” language to appease the conservatives, he does give us new words for the sex toys he employs in his scenes and for other technological or modern terms that support the lives of his characters.The introduction of new words in literature allows for their confident use in mainstream media. 

Dinotshi comes after other South African erotic literature such as Adults Only; Open: An Erotic Anthology by South African Women Writers; Exhale: Queer Erotic Fiction; The Ecstasy of Brush Strokes by Rachel Haze; and Pleasure by Nthikeng Mohlele, to name a few. The challenge with erotica is to write about sex repeatedly in creative and exciting ways. Gabonewe succeeds in using delightful language and mythical imagery for a sensuous reading experience. With this he also shows off the playful dignity of Setswana and the prowess of its idioms.

However, Setswana – like many of our languages and the larger world we live in– is embedded in a culture that oppresses women. Proverbs like “Mosadi tshwene o jewa mabogo (A woman is judged by her handiness and not by beauty alone)”, which speaks to how women are mainly valued for their productive labour, or “Tsa etelelwa pele ke e namagadi di wela ka lengope (They are led by a female and fall into a ditch)”, which undermines a woman’s leadership, highlight the patriarchal agenda. 

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This has bled into how Setswana male novelists have characterised women. Diphimotswe Dipsy Victoria Mereeotlhe accentuates this in her mini dissertation, A Feministic Reading of Four Tswana Novels, which examines Marara (1961) and Ngaka Mosadi Mooka (1965) by DPS Monyaise, as well as Mosele (1972) and Morabaraba (1974) by SJ Lebethe.

Mereeotlhe writes: “All the female characters … are representative of the male’s perception of a woman. In the four novels, female characters are allotted a vulnerable and inferior position in order to enable men to either manipulate them with ease or get away unscathed when taking advantage of them.”      

As a contemporary writer, the decision for Gabonewe to lead with a woman protagonist was deliberate. “Mosadi [woman in Setswana] means a remainer or one who stays behind. I’m very aware of how Setswana belittles women and that word for me is a crucial starting point. As a writer I wanted to challenge myself to write from the perspective of a woman,” he says. 

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“When we talk about sex for your personal pleasure and not for reproductive purposes, women tend to be judged when they express themselves sexually. I wanted to contest that and show that women too can be in charge of their sexual experience.”  

Gabonewe was also very intentional about the setting of his novel. “Setting the story in Johannesburg helps support the narrative that I want to put forward. It also gives credibility to the actions that drive the plot,” he explains.  

However, delving into the background of his characters, he touches on shared geographical histories that connect Setswana speakers through land and memory.  

The repatriation of letters

Dinotshi is not Gabonewe’s first book, although it is his first in Setswana. Previous novels include Planet Savage (2011) and Sarcophagus (2016). He translated the latter into Setswana with the title Tshika Fa E Ya Baneng. This was for the Repatriation of Letters project, which translates books initially meant to be in Setswana or books with Setswana settings, characters and roots back to the original language. Other books included for repatriation are Mhudi by Sol Plaatje, Maru by Bessie Head, Call Me Woman by Ellen Kuzwayo, This Book Betrays My Brother by Kagiso Lesego Molope and Taung Wells by Martin Koboekae. 

Visual artist Athi-Patra Ruga believes strongly that the sustainability of language lies in the translation industry. This is a point he raises on his platform Victory of the Word, a funding and development project created with actor and voice artist Lesoko Seabe and curator Anelisa Mangcu that is committed to serving independent artists and the preservation of language.

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Their foremost venture is to bring awareness and support to the struggling 200-year-old Lovedale Press that has a great legacy of producing literary records of Bantu-speaking Africans in their own languages. 

Dinotshi and Sabata-Mpho Mokae’s Moletlo Wa Manong are published by Xarra Books. Mokae’s previous novels Dikeledi and Ga Ke Modisa are published by Geko Publishing. They are part of a handful of Setswana books published not to be school set works, which is the route of much Setswana literature. One of the main reasons for writing Dinotshi as erotica was for Gabonewe to have the freedom to write on any topic and avoid the boxing of his book to educational institutions. With it he contributes to the expansion of greater freedoms for readers and writers.

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