Kopano Matlawas newest novel Mens pain is a short but fierce novel about young women in South Africa’s post-apartheid period.
But I knew I had to be on duty. The beast had just fallen asleep and could wake up every moment.
Menstrual pain is a wounded prayer to God, an honest diary and a raw tale from a country of growth pain. The novel goes close to the very religious doctor Mascheba whose life and work at a public hospital in South Africa becomes quite different from what she had thought. She gets to know Nyasha, another doctor at the hospital where she works, and together with Nyasha, the two colleagues rent an apartment. This friendship becomes very important to Mascheba and it makes her much more open to the eyes of racism that is happening around her. Nyasha is from Zimbabwe and is thus a foreigner in South Africa, a so-called “kwere kwere”. Together they witness countless patients arriving at the hospital, people who are exposed to horrendous acts of violence due to skin color and birthplace.
When I got people the first time, I thought Ma was going to kill me. I was a naughty young man, stabbed my fingers where I should not know parts of my body that I was not allowed to touch.
The cycle of men and women’s body is of course key issues in this book, and we are familiar with Mascheba’s own human pain. These menstrual pain is compared to herself with South Africa’s own growth pain, which is both interesting and precious. Not least, I must admit that I think it’s very refreshing to read such thorough descriptions and observations of people. That such a theme will still be tabooed in 2018 is incomprehensible to me. Then it’s amazing that there are novels like this that can stir a little around the pot. Having people is often strongly linked to shame, and Mascheba is no exception. She feels this is a punishment from God, and her strong bleeding causes her to blow through her clothes often: “Never a feast. Never stay with friends. Ma would express herself for the humiliation that would bring a phone from another parent to tell her daughter had softened through the bed sheet and put stains on the mattress. “Where does this shame come from? What is the woman’s body that does not allow her natural features to be talked about can not be treated as a natural matter?
There was a woman who had had bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a lot from many doctors. All she owned, she had used without being helped; It was worse with her too.
The form is quite short, which makes me reading as a bit feel distanced from the whole story. It is mixed with quotes from the Bible , some of them more striking than others, and in particular I think of the quote about the bleeding woman who is healed after being in touch with Jesus. These quotes always tell us about Mascheba’s state of mind, about how she relates to both the outside world and the legacy. Religion becomes both stressful and comforting to Mascheba: Can her god save her?
While I can experience the author’s style as something cool, Matlawa gets a lot of words to say. We get a small part of everyday life for a young woman in South Africa, but sometimes this look is just a little too small for me. Or maybe it’s not that I’m quite able to take in all the horrendous happening in the novel? Here there is nothing that extends to much, and I have enough need to be told a little more. This impression, however, changes in the third part where Mascheba is raped and where the storyteller really falls into place for me. To me, the whole story becomes more and more real when Mascheba goes from being an observer to becoming a victim, to finally become the protagonist in his own story.
Why are you here yet?
Where were you when it happened? Did you follow? Did you shrink? Did you cry
The ropes to God after the rape are heartbreaking, and it takes a while for the reader to get an insight into what has happened. This despicable prayer continues across several sides and is a very effective step. Here, Menstrual pain is taking place and eventually we also learn the cause of the rape. Mascheba is being punished because she has been publicly involved in racism’s wickedness and because of her friendship to a “kwere kwere”, namely Nyasha. Here we also come back to the topic of female body and how this body can be controlled, humiliated and tortured. Mascheba himself is a doctor and whose job is to help other people is now unable to save himself and take care of his own body. Can Mascheba’s body and mind heal after such an experience? Can South Africa be healed after the cruel events that have taken place there? Kopano Matlawa actually gives us new hope in the end, about both the body and the country.
Human pain is an important novel because it has an urgent message about body and women because it explores themes like people, violence and racism and not least because it comes from a non-western perspective. When the book also gets fit with me, it’s really good. Bente Klinge has translated the novel from English with a steady hand. Read it today on Women’s Day, but also on all other days. Good March 8th!
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