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Image: Nick White

‘Writing is a great clarifier. The process of writing helps you to think about what you’ve gone through.’

Sisonke Msimang has gone through a lot. Born in exile, the daughter of South African freedom fighters, Msimang grew up between Zambia, Kenya, Canada and Ethiopia. As a young woman she moved to the US to study, then made a long-awaited return to South Africa with her family following the end of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela. During the following years in South Africa she worked for the United Nations and as the executive director of a not-for-profit organisation, and now lives in Australia with her husband and their two children. 

Msimang’s newly-released memoir Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home (Text Publishing) charts this trajectory, and follows years of incisive writing focused on politics (‘Australia’s Trump thinks South Africa’s white farmers need saving’), race (‘What’s offensive about blackface? Imagine you’re from another planet…’) and feminism (‘All your faves are problematic: A brief history of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, stanning and the trap of #blackgirlmagic’). 

Msimang now works at the Centre for Stories in Perth, where she’s head of Oral Storytelling. Given this role, I ask how useful she thinks storytelling is as a tool for political change. ‘I’m sceptical, of course,’ she tells me. ‘I know that it’s a buzzword these days and it’s kind of sexy to think about stories as being more important than they are. And of course they are important – stories are universal and all that stuff. All the things people say about stories are true because of course otherwise they wouldn’t be clichés. But I worry about the extent to which storytelling can replace action and just make us feel good.’ This is a topic Msimang explores at length in her popular TED Talk, ‘If A Story Moves You, Act On It’. She explains, ‘If you think about the world through stories and that enables you to be more critical, to act in better ways, in more challenging ways, then they become useful.’

‘Writing is a great clarifier. The process of writing helps you to think about what you’ve gone through.’

Msimang is not afraid to be critical of her own story. Throughout Always Another Country, she interrogates imbalances of power, whether they’re based on race, gender, nationality or class. On class particularly, she must reckon with her own privilege. After returning to South Africa after years in exile, Msimang moved into a middle-class neighbourhood with her white husband and a live-in nanny. Of this time she writes: ‘Our parents had fought for equality, but we were not occupying spaces of equality – we were simply ascending to places higher up on a ladder that we knew provided unfair leverage to a tiny group. We were now part of that group.’ 

Msimang describes why it was important for her to critique herself. ‘I think it’s what you have to do if you’re an activist. There’s nothing worse than the call-out culture that doesn’t reflect back on itself. I think my investment in social justice is one that requires a certain kind of honesty. If I’m going to talk about racism and white supremacy, and if I’m going to talk about inequality, then I have to be able to turn the lens back on myself. I think there’s a level of self-indulgence that gets involved when you’re not able to do that. If we’re going to engage in an honest conversation then I think it’s important to be honest about ourselves as well.’

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Politics has always had a huge presence in Msimang’s life. After spending her childhood surrounded by exiled communist revolutionaries, she moved to the US to study a Bachelor of Arts degree in Politics and Communication Studies at Macalester College. She also has a Masters Degree in Political Science from the University of Cape Town. In Always Another Country, Msimang charts her developing political consciousness as a young woman, her deviation from the politics of her parents, a growing awareness of ‘the difference between being politically aware and being politically active’.

‘If I’m going to talk about racism and white supremacy, and if I’m going to talk about inequality, then I have to be able to turn the lens back on myself.’

Of her years at university, Msimang writes:

The poetry we perform is mainly by women, but the politics – the words that animate our conversations, and that push us to act in the real world – these belong to men. It takes a while before I understand the effect this has on my own political sensibilities.

When we speak about this, Msimang explains further. ‘What I was reading and interested in in my university days was, going back to Malcolm X, the debates with Martin Luther King, reading the statement from the dock at the Rivonia trial of Nelson Mandela, reading Franz Fanon, Frederick Douglas, Marcus Garvey…all of these big men who have shaped Black Nationalist thinking, all of these larger-than-life male figures who have shaped the way we think about blackness. Their words are fiery and defiant, but don’t often take into account what it means to be both black and a woman.

‘What it meant, and what it means in terms of activism, of course, is that you often get into a kind of aggression that isn’t necessary in engagement around race discourse. I’m not interested in being friends or fighting when I’m talking about race and racism. I don’t have a predilection to one or the other. But I think often the way that conversations unfold about race and racism, it’s pre-determined that they’re going to be defensive and they’re going to be ugly. And I think that’s largely because of the way in which they’ve often been framed by men. I feel like there’s a different way of talking about race, and there are different ways of talking about gender that don’t have to necessary be conflictual, but they’re so steeped in masculinised ways of talking and thinking that it’s sometimes hard to act our way out of those frames and modes of thinking.’

Sisonke and her mother, Ntombi Msimang, c.1980. Image: Supplied

‘Reft of a physical place in this world we call home, exile makes us love the idea of South Africa’, Msimang writes in her introduction to Always Another Country. ‘I see now that the dream of freedom was a sort of home for us. It was a castle we built in the air, and inside its walls every one of us was a hero. When we first returned from exile, the castle stayed firmly in our mind’s eye. People pointed to South Africa to demonstrate that good can triumph over evil. We were proud of ourselves. We told ourselves that we were special, and we sought to build a Rainbow Nation. But when the guns died down and the smoke cleared, we discovered we were not exceptional. All along, we had only been human.’

I ask Msimang about returning to South Africa, and the gulf between the country she dreamed of and the country she and her parents came back to. ‘Part of getting older is coming to terms with the fact that the world will not change in some cataclysmic way most of the time,’ she says. ‘There are these moments of rupture where amazing things happen – but generally, that’s not how it works. And yet in South Africa we got so close…there was this tantalising sense of being so close to a revolution, and yet understanding that, in some pretty fundamental ways, there has been no revolution.

‘Growing up and realising that there are a lot of continuities between the old apartheid state and the current racist and unequal post-apartheid state has been difficult but important. It helps me to frame the way I look at every society that I encounter. It helps me to understand Australia, America… I see a world where there are all these tantalising possibilities for change and also at the same time where very little does change in dramatic ways.’

‘Often it’s pre-determined that [conversations about racism] are going to be defensive and they’re going to be ugly. And I think that’s largely because of the way they’ve been framed by men.’

It must be hard, I say, having this life-long status as an outsider. Msimang laughs and says, ‘actually, I was in South Africa two weeks ago – I’m always in South Africa – but on this particular trip I had this real sense of feeling at home. A feeling of being settled and confident and comfortable in that society. I realised how much of a South African I’ve become in the last twenty years. I finally got from South Africa what I never thought I would, and it’s only happened after the book, after all these reflections on being an outsider. I’m like, Oh shit! I don’t feel like an outsider anymore!’

Leaving South Africa in 2014, then, was a long and difficult decision. In the book, Msimang describes her mixed feelings: ‘My love affair with South Africa has deepened. The country feels toxic, yet I’m obsessed with it.’ It was a combination of factors (her mother’s death, the loss of her job, several incidents of random violence and wanting to be closer to her husband’s family in Australia) that finally allowed her to let go of the idea that ‘geography and belonging were entwined’.

Msimang’s friends and family greeted the news of her decision to move to Australia with apprehension. She writes:

They were worried about how I, an outspoken black woman, would cope. The stereotype of white South Africans who go to Australia because they are sceptical of black people running the country runs so deep that, in South Africa, telling a white person to ‘go to Australia’ is shorthand for telling them they are racist.

I ask Msimang how she relates to Australia, a country whose First Nations people have also been subject to the appalling atrocities and injustices of colonialism.

‘When you move [to Australia] of your own free will, you are complicit in what the state does to people, and you become complicit in its history. You especially become complicit if you are a person who is middle-class. So I’m always aware that my presence here is one in which I benefit from the history of the oppression of Indigenous people, as everybody else who isn’t Indigenous does. Even if we didn’t necessarily come here of our own free will. It’s a complicated history.

‘At the same time I also think that all of us have an obligation, then, to understand that history better and to think about ways of framing the present differently. For me it has meant tracking the national conversation that’s happening around treaty and voice, it has meant that in the storytelling work I do at the Centre for Stories, making sure that I’m understanding and working with a range of Indigenous people and communities in ways that are respectful. You have to not arrive here obliviously – which I think is possible in Australia, because the Indigenous population has been so marginalised, so pushed aside, because Indigenous peoples’ rights are so under threat constantly. In some ways it is very easy to forget, and very easy to further the inequality in this country. Which makes it all the more urgent not to.’

‘When you move [to Australia] of your own free will, you are complicit in what the state does to people, and you become complicit in its history.’

Msimang is unequivocal about Australia’s problem with racism. In a piece from 2015 (‘Is There a Place Where White People Are More Committed to Faux Race Blindness than South Africa?‘) she writes: ‘the levels of racism amongst many white Australians seem to match the levels of denial about their being racist.’

‘Australia is funny, because people are so hardcore when it comes to politics here,’ she tells me. ‘And yet they’re so fragile when it comes to race. There’s an incredible commitment to being robust in politics, but you just say the word racism and the same white boys who are so tough just shrink! They can’t take it! So for me there’s something about being able to step away from race and racism and look at other aspects of your life and how you are and then think, why can’t I do that when it comes to race? What’s so unique, what’s so particular about race? What’s happening there that doesn’t allow me to be robust and to be tough and to engage and to be in the fray?

‘I think that unfortunately, it’s such a deep psychological problem for white people that it makes it hard for them to hold their own culpability and their own responsibility, and at the same time think about how they might work to make things different. I wish I had the answer to how to make that happen.’

Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home is available now at Readings.

Sisonke Mismang will be appearing in several events at Melbourne Writers Festival from 24 August–2 September. She is also appearing at two events at Sydney’s ANTIDOTE Festival on Sunday 2 September.