Rosa's District Six

by Rozena Maart
ISBN: 1894770161

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A Review of: Rosa∆s District 6
by Antony Di Nardo

Thomas Hardy described the masses as "a throng of peoplecontaining a certain minority who have sensitive souls; these, and the aspects of these, being what is worth observing." In a work of fiction, these sensitive souls are realized when the reader recognizes them as breathing, thinking, feeling individuals. They ache and complain, love and desire. They rejoice with friends and family or they don't. They punish their children, gossip about neighbours, curse the weather, and receive the news that breaks their hearts. This is the common currency of the masses and of the sensitive ones among them, and-when a fiction writer gets it right-of a narrative world. Read Rozena Maart's Rosa's District 6 and enter such a world.
Rozena Maart knows "what is worth observing" and she writes about it from experience. Born and raised in District Six, a working-class, segregated neighbourhood in the heart of Cape Town, she came to Canada in 1989, and in 1992 won the Journey Prize for her story, "No Rosa, No District Six". The characters and the place featured in her winning story now re-appear in this collection. The lives of these characters, Rosa's family and neighbours, intersect in all five of the collected stories-on the streets and in the homes of their tightly knit community of 1970s apartheid South Africa. Here non-White Christians and Moslems live side by side. They speak the same language, a patois that is mostly English with Afrikaner, Dutch and Malay thrown into the mix. They all have Rosa in common, an impish yet charming little girl whose presence in each story provides the occasional childlike gaze onto this complex world. And that gaze is vivid and clear.
Rozena Maart writes with self-assuredness. She is a competent and trustworthy writer whose stories explore the underbelly of a society that emerged as a result of slavery, exploitation and apartheid policies. Her graphic sense of place and lively characterization portray District Six as a world of chaos, confusion and anger. It is an all-too-human place of visions and jealousies, knifings and rapes, anger and rage, love and hate. Yet, within that world, Rosa, Mamma Zila, Mrs. Hood and Auntie Flowers, and their tacit understanding and acceptance of the status quo, help to create a unique harmony and peace.
In the last story, "The Bracelet", we learn that there's an upper side to District Six, both geographically and socially, "occupied by families who carried themselves as though they were not Black and certainly not Coloured, as the latter was descriptive of the social, ethnic and cultural particularities of District Sixers." Nathaniel, a young married man and father of three, accepts that he is gay, and as he prepares to introduce his lover to his parents, they reveal to their son that he is Coloured. So skillfully executed is the narrative as it winds and unwinds, building unsuspectingly towards this climax, that Nathaniel's surprise is as palpable as the reader's. This is the strongest story in the collection, striking for its density of feelings, tensions and conflicts based on racial resentments and social status. The scenes are animated, subtleties are noted, a look or a gesture is full of meaning. Throughout, the dialogue is lively and revealing. It seems there is so much to know about these individuals.
Rosa, always with her notebook and pencil around her neck, poised to observe and record these "sensitive souls," appears in every story. It is usually in her presence that the dramas of District Six are played out. In the first story, "No Rosa No District Six", she spies on Auntie Flowers and Mrs. Hood in ardent embrace, their lesbian love-making portrayed sensuously and tenderly. In "The Green Chair", Rosa's neighbour flies into a fit of rage when she discovers her teenage daughters have taken her favorite chair to the shop for re-upholstering. The chair, we learn, is reserved for the spirit of her first-born son who died at birth and appears to her regularly. "Money for your Madness" tells of a middle-aged mother, a local beauty, who confuses protectiveness and jealousy when she prevents her 34-year old, mentally unstable daughter from pursuing a romance. Rosa innocently informs the daughter of the flowers sent by her suitor that her mother kept for herself. "Ai, Gadija" is a story of loss and betrayal, violence and bitter anger. Gadija is a young Moslem mother of two, whose husband is a political prisoner on Robben Island, and her world is a confusion of family, children, and neighbours, who come and go in and out of her house, yet somehow manage to keep the truth from her of her sister's pregnancy, her husband's infidelity, and her friend's betrayal. The outcome is tragic and devastating, but like Rosa, who appears in this story as a friend of Gadija's children, it is accepted as a part of life in District Six.
Rozena Maart's writing is not weighed down with metaphors or postcard imagery. Yet it isn't sparse either. Her scenes are embellished with careful details of foods and aromas, streetscapes and marketplaces. Her characters know themselves and easily communicate who they are. She is clumsy in parts where sentences get tangled with names and pronouns, and there are places where you wonder whether it is the chaotic lives of the people of District Six or the number of characters she is trying to juggle that causes confusion. I was grateful for the glossary of local words and patois that's included. The glossary defines words that are significant to the voices of her characters and serve to heighten the cultural distinctness of District Sixers. So strong are their voices that I found myself deeply engaged with their world and their stories.

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