When Bodies Remember: Experiences and Politics of Aids in South Africa

Hilary Mantel writes:

Where to begin? When we tell stories about Africa we can’t speak without an imported frame of reference, carving up the years into the pre-colonial, the post-colonial era: once upon a time in the golden age, once upon a time in the dark ages that followed. But in South Africa over the last two decades, story itself has been shortened, shrinking to the time-span of a truncated life – thirty years perhaps, enough time to have children of your own and leave them a memory box when you die. Puleng, from Alexandra township, aged 29, weight about 35 kilos, tells her story ‘in one breath’ and pro forma, as if she were part of the government’s initiative to tackle the disease biographically; storytelling has become an organised activity, intended to stem denial and ease stigma, with an exhibition of storyboard biographies travelling among the stricken. Puleng’s is a township story from the apartheid years: family breakdown, alcoholic mother, vanished father; her good looks and talent squandered; ambitions thwarted; a house burned down, a brother killed by the police; then the arrival of the virus, contracted from a man who tells lies. And now, the need to plan one’s funeral.

(LRB 20 September 2007)