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Barry Ronge Prize shortlist: Kopano Matlwa discusses her novel Period Pain

Published in the Sunday Times

Period Pain

Period Pain
Kopano Matlwa (Jacana Media)

I write because I need to. It is through writing that I try (or at least attempt) to make sense of the world. I wrote Period Pain because I needed to, because it was through writing it that I began to work through my own disappointments with our “new South Africa” and remind myself why it is, despite the decay, I still believe in the South African dream.

Sometimes I write pages of pages of scraps without any sense of where those scraps are going, and then out of nowhere a title comes and it grips me, and I sigh a sigh of great relief because I know that I have a title and that means I’m writing a novel!

I’ve always had a fascination with how we as women relate to our bodies. I recall as a medical student or maybe someone told me the story and it made such an impression on me that I remember it as my own, I can’t be sure… It was during a rotating of an obstetrics and gynaecology module, and sitting in on a consultation between the gynaecologist on duty and a middle-age woman from one of Cape Town’s many disadvantaged communities.

The woman kept referring to her vagina as her ‘skaamte’ i.e. her shame. I remember being so struck by that. So saddened. So angry. So embarrassed. Her shame? Why shame? Who knows where titles come? Perhaps from the same magical place novels come from. I suppose in some subconscious way the title Period Pain came from a frustration with the shadow of contempt cast upon our bodies, by society, by men, by language, by ourselves, from a frustration with our bodies being the battlefield, the scapegoat, the excuse. And then there is also, of course, the pain of the period that South Africa is in but that’s probably a whole other topic for another day…

EXTRACT

What is it inside of us that makes us so evil? And how do we become better? Why are we capable of so much harm and badness? How do we change? And stay changed?

Nyasha says her group of new intern doctors all have weaves. Twelve girls as black as night, with mops of plastic on their heads. She is annoyed.

‘Stupid girls. Book smart, but stupid. They can tell you the nerve that innervates the stapedius muscle, but they can’t see the foolishness in walking around with heaps of self-hatred on their heads.’

She wants me to get involved.

‘Why don’t you tell them, Chaba? These are your sisters, your South African sisters. Maybe if you speak to them, you can put some sense into their heads.’

I say nothing, so she continues. ‘We know we hate ourselves as black people. That we know. But now we’re exposing ourselves to white people, too. Now we are exposing this dark stain of self-hatred on our race. We’re giving them evidence that we are indeed a foolish, self-loathing people. A thing to be pitied. How much do those weaves cost? These girls have only been working a few months and already they’re enriching the industries that strive to oppress us instead of building our communities.’

Her tirade continues, and she seems not bothered by my obvious disinterest.

‘Now I must keep these dreadlocks, even though they wear my head down, even though I’ve grown tired of them, because one of us, some of us, must have pride. We can’t all walk around like mad people. If aliens were to come from Mars, what would they make of us, Chaba?’

Nyasha wants to fight, fight, fight. She hates white people and blames them for everything. Maybe she’s right, maybe they are to blame. But it is what it is. What’s happened has happened. We can’t go back, and we certainly can’t change who we are to try to avenge the past. She says we black South Africans are too nice, too accommodating, too soft. ‘Weak’ and ‘pathetic’ are the words she uses to describe us.

‘We need to stop bending over backwards, breaking our backs to make them feel comfortable, welcome, safe. Put a white man in charge and he’ll only serve his own interests.’

Maybe, Nyasha, maybe that’s true, but maybe it isn’t. And maybe, Nyasha, we need to remember that this world is fallen. There are wars we will never win, and maybe the end game is not to triumph over fleeting kingdoms in this life, but to conquer the battle for eternity.

Of course she scoffs when I say things like that.

‘Why does your god make it so hard for us to love him, Chaba? Why play these games? Create this world, bring us here, only to watch us suffer? Why does he hide? Is he a coward? Why doesn’t he come out here and see the mess he’s made, come see how his creation is doing?’

I’m no good at arguing. I get too overwhelmed and my mind goes blank, so I say nothing.

Ma insists that my friendship with Nyasha will only result in pain. She insists that foreigners are crafty, and that Nyasha is only being my friend to steal all my knowledge and overtake me. This is what foreigners like to do, she says. They come to our country to take from us all the things we fought for.

I’ve given up trying to reason with Ma. When I go home on weekends she makes me take off my clothes at the door; she doesn’t want me coming into the house with Nyasha’s charms and black magic. It’s her way of getting back at me for leaving her and moving in with Nyasha.

If only they knew how similar they were, how much they have in common. They both want me to hate white people, but I don’t want to. I don’t want to hate foreigners, either. I don’t want to hate anybody. It’s tiring. I’m already so tired from work. It’s much more than I can deal with at the moment.

But they constantly remind me that I must. They retell old stories of deceit, of conniving, of looting, and then share new ones. I don’t want to disappoint them, make them worry that I’m unfocused, that I’ve dropped the ball. So I often just nod in agreement and hope they’ll stop. But this ball is too heavy to carry. It hurts my arms, and with it in my hands I cannot do anything else.

So I don’t tell Nyasha what I did with Francois at the Christmas party. And when he walks past me in the doctors’ parking lot and smiles, she’s immediately annoyed and goes off on one of her tirades.

‘White men think they can just smile at a black woman and she’ll oblige. They think we should be flattered that they even see us. No, not just flattered, honoured. It makes me sick. Even the morbidly obese ones, who could never summon the courage to approach one of their own, think we’ll just drop our panties at the sight of their skin.’

I pretend not to hear, mumble that I have pre-op bloods to take before the morning ward round, and rush off.

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