Set in Johannesburg’s Eldorado Park, a township designated a coloured area by the apartheid government, Terry-Ann Adams’ debut novel breaks new literary ground in form and language, while building on a tradition of writing that animates the community’s experience in both apartheid and post-apartheid literature.
She weaves a riveting narrative through the voices and points of view of five bold women characters, whose first-person narrations of a year in the life of two families provide contrasting, yet supplementary perspectives on events as they unfold on one little street corner of the township.
This literary strategy pays off handsomely, providing a finely textured, multivocal account of the dramas, pleasures and violence the characters face. One of the reasons Adams wrote the novel was to foreground the voices of women who would have been classified as coloured under apartheid, but those outside Cape Town. She wanted to feature these women’s stories, she says, “as an underrepresented community and an underrepresented group that is often most affected by systemic oppression.” In this aim, she certainly succeeds.
The cast, and class
Central to the story are two key characters: Janice and Kaylynn. They are neighbours and best friends at the beginning of the novel, starting their all-important matric year.
While they have much in common, class separates their experiences and ultimately informs their destinies. Kaylynn, a good student at a Model C school, is the conscious narrator who foregrounds the differences between her and Janice’s high school journeys, pointing out the ways in which Janice’s school, located in the township, falls dismally short because of lack of resources.
A cast of superbly drawn characters fill in the story. There is Bertha, Janice’s mother. She is a factory worker who has finally found the courage to leave an abusive husband of 23 years. There is Raquel, Bertha’s daughter and Janice’s sister, who has successfully “made” it out of “Eldos” through a career in journalism and marriage to a celebrity. But she has her own cross to bear still. Then there is Laverne. She is a pious, 20-something cousin of Janice, and has left Cape Town for the City of Gold to make her professional dreams come true.
Laverne provides a background layer of sanctimonious judgment to the characters’ struggles, silently reflecting on the perceived dysfunction of her extended family, while expounding on her own virtue, in a daily journal.
Another character in the story is Eldorado Park itself. The place is personified and given voice in several epigraphs sectioning off the novel. Adams’ poetic voice shines here, showing a versatile writer who easily shifts form in the service of good storytelling. Taking on the voice of a first-person narrator, Eldorado Park introduces itself to the reader in lyric form:
I am a Shaeed’s mutton bunny and chips from Spar.
I am two loaves of sliced bread, a polony special and an AK47.
I am sugar from next door and an onion and a loose tea bag.
I am the AGS church and the two Catholic churches.
I am the Old Apostolic Church and the new. I am the SDA churches and the Masjit in extension one.
Reading these slices of Eldorado Park life lures the reader into the role of flâneur. These lines afford one the privilege of taking a leisurely stroll down the streets listed in a sort of roll call in the novel’s opening. These poetic vignettes invoke the sights, smells and sounds of the township as only one intimately familiar with its contours can.
A complex portrait
Adams draws a complex portrait of a community in crisis, shaped by ongoing structural violence, gangsterism and the scourge of drug use. She deftly gives insight into the characters’ motivations, their strivings, dreams and disappointments, as shaped by the physical space of the township.
Through Janice’s ruminations on race and place, Adams makes connections between the stereotypes circulating about people formerly classified as coloured by the apartheid government and her subjects’ social locations. “In the eyes of other people, we are always loud, smokers, gangsters or drug addicts. People don’t know what got us to that point. They don’t know anything about us. They don’t know that Eldos is a glorified labour camp. Jobs are hard to find and drugs are very easy to come by,” says Janice.
From this location we see struggles unfold around sex and sexuality, reproductive health rights, unfulfilled promise due to lack of opportunity and gender-based violence. Violence against women is one recurring problem. It is the thread snaking through the narrative, shaping almost every life portrayed in this novel, and binding together several characters through shared trauma.
Another thread within the novel, highlighting a gendered double standard, is sexual health and sexual rights, including fertility. Adams shows how when things go wrong in the realm of sexual encounter, blame inevitably accrues to the women and their sexuality. When women express their sexuality openly, not keeping it on a tight leash and abiding by respectability standards, they get shamed and made to suffer inordinately.
Adams trains a sensitive and politically conscious eye on the struggles she portrays, showing the intersectional nature of oppression in this space. For example, she poignantly shows Bertha’s difficulties in a factory where she is constantly put on short time, while suffering the blatant disrespect meted out to her by her middle-class in-laws on account of her low-class status.
The women’s experiences and strivings are portrayed with pathos, gentle humour and empathy. They are afforded a kind of dignity rarely seen in mainstream portrayals of women formerly classified as coloured by the apartheid state.
The structure of oppression’s cages
As the novel’s title suggests, the story, in its own way, shines a light on the structures of oppression working to keep people deemed coloured under apartheid in their designated cages, women especially.
“Everyone lives in a cage. Whether they know it or not is the question. I think knowing that you live in a cage is what ultimately sets you free,” says Janice. The author suggests, with this rumination from Janice, that recognising the structural oppression which bears down upon the individual is one step in the direction of resisting it, and ultimately being liberated from it.
Religion is one such cage used to uphold the respectability standards to which women are held. “Religion is a big cage here in Eldos. It holds people like my mother and Laverne hostage and they can’t see outside what the Bible or the pastor says. Being a woman is also a cage. I know that cage very well,” continues Janice.
The novel’s brilliance lies in making visible the intersections of these multiple cages that trap the working class, women and the disabled in Eldorado Park.
With this book, Adams joins a rather distinguished list of luminaries and, in a way, builds on their work. Her story, nevertheless a singular and original work of fiction, is in the tradition of works by such writers as Alex la Guma, Chris van Wyk, Zoë Wicomb, Rehana Rossouw, Malika Ndlovu and Olivia Coetzee. Her language strategy, however, seamlessly harnesses English, Afrikaans and Kaaps. This separates her from the old masters and forges a new paradigm in South African letters, opening up exciting possibilities for where the literature of a new generation of writers might take us.
Those Who Live in Cages is a remarkable debut novel; a satisfying and humanely rendered slice of contemporary life, promising intriguing new directions in South African writing.