Untitled: an extract from Kgebetli Moele’s latest novel
Kgebetli Moele burst on to the literary scene with Room 207 (Kwela, 2006). That success was followed by The Book of the Dead (2009), a deeply shocking novel whose protagonist deliberately sets out to infect as many people as he possibly can with HIV.
Now, in Untitled, Moele employs a similar narrative strategy, moving from person to person, but this time his subject is sexual predation – rape and the sexual abuse of women and girls as young as 11 - in a broken rural community, a community that blames victims and offers them no protection. It is told from the perspective of teenager Mokgethi who is doing her best to hold body and soul together in a place where the men are “like bees - if one stings you, they will all attack”. It is a devastating portrait of moral decay as poverty and inequality rampages through our hinterland. But this is not a simplistic tale of collective victimhood. Moele skilfully lays out in a highly readable narrative the complexities of the situation, as well as the ways in which the young girls, robbed of the belief in their own agency, often blindly co-operate in their destruction. It should be widely read. It should be prescribed reading in schools.
A few days later my aunt put herself in the middle of things. She came to the house early one morning and we were all happy that she was visiting until she started to talk about the clothes that she had bought Khutso.
“Khutso, I hear that you do not like the clothes that I bought for you.”
“They are not my style.”
“I buy you clothes and you tell me that they are not your style. You are going to wear those clothes whether they are your style or not.”
“Those, I do not want,” he said, smiling. “Will you please take them back because I cannot wear them!”
“We are trying to do everything for you and this is all we get in return?”
He tried to be humble. “No, it’s just that I cannot wear those clothes.”
“You are stressing my mother each and every day as if you were her own children.”
With that, Khutso raised himself from the seat and went to his room, locking the door behind him.
“I am talking to you!” Aunt Shirley shouted after Khutso, struggling to her feet. “This is what you are doing to my mother each and every day; she cannot get old in peace!”
Aunt Shirley started knocking at Khutso’s door, saying that we were the children of the snake that killed her sister, that she knew that we were little snakes and that we were here to stress her out, that she did not have money to raise the snakes that we were. Suddenly, very violently, Khutso flung the door open and looked her straight in the eye.
“Say that again. Say that again.” Tears were dropping out of his eyes but he was looking at her calmly. “I do not think that I heard you clearly. Say that to my face. Say it to my eyes.”
My grandmother tried to distract him, saying something that I missed.
“Gran, do not interfere in this matter.”
My aunt slapped Khutso with a hot kafferklap, but he didn’t flinch, just stood there looking at her.
“Hit me again if you want to see if I am a snake. Hit me again.”
I didn’t know what to do or what to think.
“I am the child of a snake? Why do you bother yourself with the children of a snake? Why do you buy the children of a snake clothes? For what good reason?”
He was more than calm.
“Gran, you don’t love us. We are only here because we are your grandchildren and you cannot just cast us away! Can you?”
“Khutso, my grandson, why would I not want you?”
“Stop lying to me. You don’t want us here.”
They didn’t have anything to say to that, they couldn’t lie or pretend any more. Eternity passed, then Khutso went back into his bedroom and took out half of his clothes and nearly all of his shoes, put them on the table in the sitting room and said, in tears:
“Thank you very much, but I don’t need these any more. And don’t ever buy me anything again.”
Then he went back to his room.
Before she left, Aunt Shirley and my grandmother had a whispering meeting, but neither of them touched the unwanted clothes.
When my uncle came back, the clothes were still in the sitting room. He asked whose they were and what they were doing there. Then he woke Khutso up and asked him to remove the clothes from the sitting room. Maybe he thought that Khutso would have calmed down by then and have realised that he needed the clothes, which was what I thought. But Khutso took them all to the back garden and set them alight. When he came back into the house my uncle asked him where he had taken the clothes, but Khutso didn’t answer, just shook his head and went back to his room.
My uncle’s curiosity got the better of him and he checked outside and found the clothes going up in smoke. Though he didn’t know everything that had happened between Khutso and my aunt and my grandmother, the burning of the clothes pissed him off. He went to Khutso’s room.
“Khutso, why are you burning you clothes?” my uncle asked in a tone that told everyone he was not really interested in an answer.
“Told her I didn’t want them anymore.”
“You think you can just burn clothes because you don’t want them?”
My uncle’s intention was to punish Khutso. He took off his belt and hit him once but Khutso hit back with fists and then they were fighting. Unfortunately my uncle was a little drunk and by the time my grandmother got there he was lying on the floor and his blood was all over the place. Khutso and his uncle had fought and Khutso had won the fight.
It made me proud, very proud of Khutso, that he could stand up for himself and defend his ground.
Untitled by Kgebetli Moele
Review by Brent Meersman for GroundUp.
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