This article on my mother, Dora Taylor, first appeared in South Africa’s Baobab literary journal:
» read article
This article on my mother, Dora Taylor, first appeared in South Africa’s Baobab literary journal:
The late Professor Shirley Kossick (who died early this year) wrote a beautiful article about Dora Taylor, called Rediscovering Dora Taylor, which was published in The Cape Librarian. The editor has given her permission for this to be used in other literary magazines and literary sites:
Dora Taylor’s Rage of Life: The Cannibalism of a Country
Rage of Life
Forty-six years after completion, Dora Taylor’s Rage of Life, winner of the 2008 South African Posthumous Literary Award, makes its debut in print.
Born in Scotland in 1899, Taylor was orphaned shortly thereafter and suffered several years of abuse and neglect from relatives. However, with the kind assistance of a school teacher, she went on to study English literature at Aberdeen University and became a school teacher herself. In 1926 she joined her husband, Jim Taylor, in South Africa, where he had accepted a post in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cape Town. Believing in a non-racial democracy, Dora Taylor became an active protester against racial discrimination in South Africa. Her promotion of fair treatment for all races eventually forced Taylor into exile in 1963. For the remaining 13 years of her life she mourned not being able to return to South Africa.
Much of Taylor’s non-fiction was published in the ’40s and ’50s in various magazines and journals; however, none of her prose fiction was published during her lifetime. Recently Penguin Books has published three works of Taylor’s fiction posthumously; these include the novels Kathie and Rage of Life, and a collection of short stories entitled Don’t Tread on My Dreams. Sheila Belshaw, Dora Taylor’s daughter, writes in the brief biography included in the Penguin edition of Rage of Life that her mother’s “deep concern, her pity and her empathy for all disadvantaged people, no matter who they were or where in the world they lived, or how they came to be in a state of desperation, was the stimulus for all her writing.”
In Rage of Life that stimulus comes from day-to-day life in 1950s Sophiatown, an urban township on the outskirts of Johannesburg. The story is focused through the character of Linda Malindi, with a brief interlude through the eyes of her lover, Simon Manzana. when he returns to his family in the country. Yet it is the voice of the omniscient narrator which is most powerful, for it is a voice that speaks with a hard wisdom of the relentless tragedy, the absence of salvation, and the simple cold facts of township life in South Africa.
The narration follows Linda through the murder of her brother by tsotsis, the disappearance of her father (likely into a farm jail in the country), and her mother’s death through overwork. Alone, without family or friends, Linda’s existence becomes motivated by two certainties: having a man to look after her, and making a living through a life of theft. She is involved with a core group of young thieves, who interchange lovers as individuals go in and out of prison and as resentments grow.
A number of years later, Linda meets Simon Manzana, a recent arrival in Sophiatown from the country, whom she educates in the ways of urban township living. However, guilt-ridden by the starving family he left behind in the Transkei, Simon returns to his home to try to make amends. But what he returns to is no longer his. His wife is with another man, his sister has died, his father resents him, and his child barely knows him. Poverty and hunger proliferate, and he yearns for the rush of urban living. Returning to Sophiatown he reconnects with Linda and life seems to improve. He is assured a substantial amount of money once he becomes fully immersed into the world of crime through Jo Bula’s gang of ruffians, and Linda and Simon have the promise of a long life together. Yet when a jealous fellow gang member takes his resentments out on Simon, leaving him dead in a gutter, Linda swallows any grief she might feel, and turns to the next man who can take care of her. This time it is Jo Bula, the head gangster himself.
Though Rage of Life is somewhat flawed and at times suffers from over-writing, its success lies in the vividly morbid descriptions of life in Sophiatown; a life described in terms of ritualistic cannibalism. Goli, as a modern industrial city, is depicted as having ferocious needs, needs met by the people from the townships, who come to work in the mines, in the factories, in homes, as cleaners, as gardeners. Descriptions of the city are reminiscent of a primeval graveyard straight out of a sci-fi novel:
In the near distance rises the powerful concrete headgear of one of the Reef gold mines, its tall rigging, its spars and girders like a multiple scaffold, or the skeleton of some antediluvian giant, unfleshed in a grim elemental contest. Black smoke from unseen furnaces belches out of a high, narrow chimney. Ant-like figures, pouring out from their stone bunks in the mine compound, hurry to enter the skips that will carry them underground, for the hungry machines beneath the City of Gold must be fed night and day. In the background stands one of the many ashen-pale slag dumps, the gigantic excrement of the gold mines, petrified monsters shrouded in the morning mist.
The hunger of the mines had moved into action in the eighteen eighties with the discovery of diamonds and gold; it had swallowed up man and beast, land and the fruits of the soil, family life and human relationships with satanic impartiality … [Under the] sacred name of free enterprise a species of cannibalism was of necessity practiced at all levels.
The consequence of this large-scale cannibalism is felt in the microcosm of Sophiatown, for while the machines consumed human life, men and women consumed one another in the township jungle. The empty dead body found sprawling in an alleyway in the early morning was swept up with the refuse spilling over the bursting dustbins.
As I say, it is this metaphor of cannibalism which strikes home the most. For initially upon reading this novel one might think, What difference can it make? The ’50s are in the past, apartheid is over. What difference can this book make now, other than offering minor interest as a document of social history? But its relevance – and this is where the deep tragedy of our country comes to the fore – lies in the fact that were one to remove any mention of passbooks and of apartheid itself, this novel could without any difficulty be set in present-day South Africa. Our country is one where corruption thrives, where government officials are involved in criminal practices, and where the rich in the name of free enterprise continue to cannibalise the poor.
Towards the end of Rage of Life, Dora Taylor writes, “The rage of existence left little that was permanently in its place.” But in fact, what her novel has proven is that much is left in place. While the names of those in power and the previously monochromatic colour of the rich may have altered in the past decade or more, what has not changed is their ferocious cannibalism.
Rage of Life by Dora Taylor
(Edited by Sheila Belshaw)
As in her other recently published works – the novel Kathie and the short story collection Don’t Tread on my Dreams – Dora Taylor again exhibits in Rage of Life her uncanny ability to enter into the lives of her characters. Although in political exile from 1963 to her death in 1976, Dora Taylor never lost her deep love of South Africa or her disgust with the appalling inequities of the apartheid regime.
Her commitment to justice so eloquently expressed in her writings has at last received recognition both in the belated publication of her fiction and, most deservedly, in the decision to bestow on her the South African Posthumous Literary Award.
Rage of Life centres on the story of Linda Malindi, born and bred in Sophiatown, orphaned and homeless at sixteen, who must learn to fend for herself. With a vividness hard to match Taylor describes the grasping, pitiless world of ‘that urban township, that seething pot of humanity, that compost heap flung outside the city confines, and left to stew with the hot stinking manure of poverty and vice, violent, full of death, yet heaving with the ferment of an irrepressible vitality’.
As Linda struggles to survive in this hostile environment her story becomes emblematic of apartheid’s deprivations in general. Like those around her, Linda has only a rudimentary education and knows nothing of the traditions or moral values of her forebears. She snatches what joy she can from life and becomes a habitué of Angels One, a throbbing shebeen run by the formidable yet intrinsically humane Ma-jaze.
Here, under Ma-jaze’s all-seeing eye, the ‘rage of life’ itself takes place as the patrons play out their rivalries, greed, violence and desperate need for pleasure and escape. This mixed troupe has one important thing in common which is their contempt for the law of the white man. As Taylor so wisely shows, the injustices of apartheid can lead only to moral degradation whose effects are still with us today:
Where there had been one vast social dishonesty, one huge theft,
of which he [the black man] was the victim, individual dishonesty seemed the sanest response. Since the laws had outlawed him from society, he answered in kind with his own brand of lawlessness.
When Simon Manzana leaves his parched homeland to find work in the city the contrast between traditional mores and the moral vacuum of Sophiatown is powerfully dramatised in his love affair with Linda. While he is torn between his newfound passion and loyalty to the family he has left behind, Linda regards his scruples and sense of duty with utter incomprehension.
Simon’s journey back to his village starkly reveals another destructive aspect of apartheid. He travels through an ‘ashen’ landscape, denuded of vegetation – and symbolically of hope – to find his family pitifully diminished. Land and cattle have been taken from them by what his father calls ‘wolves’ who ‘devour’ the peasantry’s livelihood.
Throughout this novel one is kept constantly aware of the intrusive, not to say lethal, pressure brought to bear on all the characters by the apartheid system. Whether in the country or in town, whether in the choice of occupation or in private life, in fact in every aspect of existence from birth to death the apartheid laws impinged and controlled. That Taylor was able to integrate this truth into a fast-moving and absorbing work of literature is a fine achievement indeed.
(First published in the Cape Times – 20 March 2009)
Speech by Sheila Belshaw at the launch of Dora Taylor’s final novel
held at Kalk Bay Books on Saturday 21 March 2009
I WONDER WHAT DORA would have done if she’d known about this magnificent Literary Posthumous Award. She longed for her fiction to be published, but my gentle, shy mother was far too modest to have ever dreamed of such a prize.
Thank you all for coming to share with Muriel and me the thrill of launching our mother’s new – but sadly her very last novel. Thank you, Ann, for so graciously hosting this event. Your launches are always special. And we are truly delighted to have Alison Lowry with us this evening. Thank you, Alison, for having the insight – and the foresight – to publish our mother’s fiction after so many years of obscurity. Thank you, Ciraj. Your research into Dora’s writing is – invaluable.
I was very lucky to find another little bundle of my mother’s letters in which she specifically mentions the writing of Rage of Life. So I know that she wrote it in 1961, not long before she left Cape Town for the very last time. Although of course she didn’t know then, that it was for the last time. She thought she was merely going to accompany my father on his sabbatical year at Harvard. So her letters from Claremont gave no hint of the dreadful thing that would soon happen to her, and in December 1961 she wrote happily and excitedly about her writing:
“You’ll be pleased to hear that Rage of Life is practically finished. It has taken only five months to write and I have greatly enjoyed the increase in power over the pen that steady work brings. The writing flows, and there is a facility in language that I find exciting. So – one can grow – till one dies. I’m not a laborious reviser of my work, like Flaubert for example, who weighed up every word and sentence in Madame Bovary – many times.
“In fact, I still regard writing as a curious process of inspiration, once thought and feeling have been warmed up sufficiently to let spontaneity take over. I just don’t know where the images and the dialogue come from, at the moment of writing. It’s best not to look into it too closely! Of course it was incredibly stupid of me to stop the novel writing just because the first one – Kathie – was rejected. I want to go on now – without stopping – to make up for all the ‘wasted’ years.”
But sadly, her exile shattered that dream. Being wrenched from her home, her friends, her country made her feel unwanted – unloved – unworthy – just as she had in her childhood and youth because of her illegitimacy. She lost confidence in herself. However, while in Boston in 1963, she did send the manuscript to one American publisher. Then, in a letter from Canada in 1965, this is what she says:
“At last I’ve got my novel back from Boston – rejected! After two years! But I must re-write the final chapter. In a way, an ending is a beginning reversed. And as it’s my only copy, I’ll have to sweat re-typing it.”
But she did not re-type it – ever. The manuscript is peppered with crossings-out and corrections, asterisks and arrows, and additions up and down the margins. She rewrote that final chapter with tears smudging the ink, but never sent it out to a publisher again. So for me to hold this book in my hands is – an amazing moment.
However, she was still hopeful. Because in another letter she says:
“Whether it would find a place in the jungle of the literary world – that’s another matter. [She loved that word jungle] So I’ll probably discard it. Yet, I would like to make a little out of it so that I can give you a lovely present. Something you really want.”
That was so typical of her. Always thinking of others rather than herself.
So I would like to give her a present. Because next Thursday – the 26th of March – is the one hundred and tenth anniversary of her birthday. And I can think of no better present for her than – a book! Books were her passion. The walls of our house in Claremont never needed painting because they were lined with books. Hundreds of those little Penguin paperbacks too. Remember them? So this is for you, Mummy. A brand new Penguin paperback – with all my love.
Unlike Kathie and Don’t Tread on My Dreams, in which she draws her inspiration from the people and places in Cape Town – and the Eastern Cape – this novel is set in Sophiatown in the late 40s, early 50s, before the government bulldozed it to the ground. “That seething pot of humanity”, to use Dora’s own words. The home of gangsters, yes, but also of thousands of ordinary people struggling to make a living. And of course, a unique enclave of writers, artists, musicians! Think of Can Themba, Miriam Makeba!
How Dora managed to portray the life there so vividly is a wonder to me. For she only visited Sophiatown once. Yet one is aware of the pulse of the place. The vitality . . . the vibrancy . . . the violence . . .
But Rage of Life is not just about old Sophiatown. And not just about violence. It’s a story of love, loss, heartache. Jealousy, treachery . . . intrigue! And as Dora says:
“It’s also a tragedy. That – I can never get away from.”
She was not only a literary critic, essayist, novelist, poet – she was also a playwright. And you can see this in the immediacy of the writing. You feel you’re right there with the characters. You feel they are real people. Listen to how Dora herself describes to me the process of writing Rage of Life:
“I visualise the action of the novel, scene by scene, as if it were on the stage. I see the actors moving from place to place. I follow them. I hear their dialogue as in a play. I laugh with them. I weep with them. I fall in love with them. I dance with them. I think I must be influenced by the modern film, which I so love. It would be easy to transpose this one into a play.”
The main character is interesting. Linda Malindi. Tough. Independent. Resilient. She has to be to survive. But she longs for love. Longs for someone to call her own. Longs for somewhere to call – home. And while the events bear no relation to Dora’s own tortured early life – you cannot help but feel the depth of her own loneliness, her homelessness – the pain of her own abandonment, through this character. In fact, Rage of Life covers the whole spectrum of human emotions – as experienced by Linda Malindi. And Dora Taylor. But known – to us all.
Before my sister Muriel reads a passage from Rage, I’ll return briefly to this wonderful tribute to Dora – the posthumous award. I only had a few days to prepare an acceptance speech for the occasion. But with each step onto the platform, high heels wobbling, confronted with a bristling microphone and a sea of what looked like at least five thousand expectant faces, my carefully rehearsed words vanished. So on the spur of the moment I told the audience how, whenever my mother was happy, she danced. Right now, I told them, she must surely be dancing non-stop – up there on that little cloud of hers.
RAGE OF LIFE
Kalk Bay Books & Penguin SA
invite you to the launch of
Rage of Life
Last year, Kalk Bay Books was privileged to host the launch of Dora Taylor’s first two books, Kathie and Don’t Tread on My Dreams,
rediscovered years after her death and now published by Penguin.
This year, we are delighted to be hosting the launch of
Dora Taylor’s third work of fiction, Rage of Life.
Dora Taylor died in exile more than thirty years ago.
With the unearthing of these literary jewels, her voice reveals the political and social ethos of the day, and is startlingly accurate
in depicting relationships between black and white.
She was recently awarded the
South African Posthumous Literary Award.
When: Saturday, 21 March 2009
Where: Kalk Bay Books, 124 Main Road, Kalk Bay
Time: 5.30 for 6pm (please note revised starting time)
RSVP: email@example.com or 021 788 2266 by 19 March 2009. (NB: Please indicate numbers for catering purposes)
About the book
Born and bred in Sophiatown, Linda Malindi is no stranger to poverty and violence. After the killing of her only brother, the jailing and disappearance of her father, and the death of her mother when she is taken in by the family of a distant cousin, she is thrown out on the streets when the cousin and his wife accuse her of soliciting the services of a witchdoctor to infect their daughter with TB.
Once more homeless and alone, pregnant and abandoned by the father of the child, she feels the onset of the birth of her baby. Desperate for help, she remembers being told that Ma-jaze, the notorious hardnosed owner of the shebeen, Angels One, might help her in her predicament.
This is a turning point for Linda.
Ma-jaze befriends her but she loses the baby. She finds solace in the arms of Simon Mangana, who through necessity left his wife and child in his homeland to seek work in the City of Gold. The course of their love affair is charged with turbulence, Simon is lured back to his village, a brief sojourn that ends in sadness and disillusionment and drives him back to Sophiatown – the city jungle which pulsates with vibrancy and vitality, but where all their lives are at stake.
Watch this space! Dora Taylor’s second and last novel is about to hit the headlines. Although she died 32 years ago, she has just won the South African Literary Posthumous Award 2008 for her incredibly insightful novel, Kathie, and her collection of short stories, Don’t Tread on My Dreams, published by Penguin, both about life as it really was in South Africa in the 1940s and 50s. Kathie and Don’t Tread on My Dreams are must-reads, but just you wait! On the 21st of March 2009 the most-talked-about, trendiest Kalk Bay Books will be launching her second and last novel – Rage of Life. Don’t miss it.
THE SELFLESSNESS OF DORA TAYLOR:
Political Duty and Literary Sacrifice
By Ciraj Rassool
Don’t Tread on My Dreams
Rage of Life
The publication of these works by the late Dora Taylor is a moment of profound significance in South African literary history. For much of her life, Taylor’s intellectual and political existence was devoted almost entirely to the political cause of social emancipation in South Africa. In this life of service, Dora Taylor sacrificed her own creative output as she devoted herself to political duty and to the all-encompassing work of supporting and facilitating the public political efforts of Unity Movement leader, Isaac Bangani Tabata.
From the late 1930s or early 1940s until her death in exile in England in 1976, Dora Taylor and IB Tabata formed a vital political partnership in a relationship of mutuality that constituted a space of intensity that gave rise to a tremendous output of ideas. Dora Taylor’s life can only be properly understood in the setting of the affirmations of her political relationship with Tabata. Equally it is not possible adequately to comprehend the trajectories and contradictions of IB Tabata’s political life without considering Taylor’s formative influence.
In the process, Dora Taylor’s literary efforts were almost overshadowed by political duty and commitment to the cause of political mobilisation. While her political work found expression at the heart of liberation strategy, for much of the time, it was conducted anonymously and in semi-underground spaces. Even when Taylor’s political efforts under her own name were formally recognised by the movement, these were often at the expense of her own literary work. This was a case of willing and conscious selflessness and sacrifice that was accompanied by under-recognition for her literary talent. The publication of these books by Penguin will mean that Dora Taylor’s sacrifices will not have been in vain.
Dora Taylor and her husband, the psychologist JG Taylor, came to South Africa from Scotland in 1926. During the 1930s, Taylor immersed herself in a programme of creative and political writing as well as literary criticism, having herself been encouraged by her mentors in the Spartacus Club, which was associated with the anti-Stalinist Workers’ Party of South Africa. She also found inspiration from her contacts with radical academics in Cape Town such as Benjamin Farrington, Lancelot Hogben and Frederick Bodmer. At this time as well, Taylor wrote plays which were performed by Spartacus Club members. She also composed revolutionary songs, and I was fortunate in the mid-1990s to be able to listen to one of her compositions sung in Qumbu by the late Cadoc Kobus, lawyer in District Six, and father of Nombulelo Mkefa of the City and the District Six Museum.
From 1939, Taylor found an outlet for her political analyses, social commentary and literary scholarship in the independent magazine, Trek. Taylor’s first writings were studies of political and social questions including analyses of war and imperialism, the economics of political life, women and fascism, the role of education, social poverty, the meaning of democracy, and ideology and propaganda.
From late 1941, Taylor’s focus switched almost entirely to cultural and literary analyses, with major assessments of international and South African literary production. This coincided with the first political analyses that were submitted to Trek under Tabata’s pseudonyms. It was as if Taylor and Tabata came to adopt an intellectual division of labour, with Taylor as cultural critic and Tabata as political analyst. From some time in the second half of 1941, the energies of Taylor’s political analyses became directed towards assisting Tabata in the production of political interventions under his pseudonyms.
Tabata’s writings were thus not those of the lone, self-sufficient writer. They were produced in a relationship with Taylor, at her encouragement, with her active assistance and drawing on her prior experience as a writer. At times, this help was merely that of the secretary, wordsmith and grammarian. Sometimes she was the amanuensis, and at others, the silent, unacknowledged co-author. This is a serious point to be making here, to note that Dora Taylor needs to be acknowledged as the co-author of some of the main works of political analysis that emanated from the liberation movement.
In South Africa, this relationship spanned about twenty years of assistance by Taylor with Tabata’s political writing, in the form of organisational and agitational letters, interventionist pamphlets and longer texts of political education and social analysis. Their friendship and comradeship was not a public one. In the first place, the political activities of the WPSA were shifted entirely to the underground after 1939. Moreover, there was a racial dimension: white party members did not engage in public political work. Dora Taylor’s intellectual and political work was necessarily – in the Party’s terms – covert.
It was also out of Taylor’s research on the killing of Hintsa that a wider project on the ‘role of the missionaries’ was initiated. In 1952, in the aftermath of the campaigns against the Van Riebeeck Festival, Taylor spent time writing a history of missionaries and colonialism in South Africa. At the end of 1952, The Role of The Missionaries in Conquest was published by the Society of Young Africa in Alexandra and its anonymous authorship was designated as ‘Nosipho Majeke’. This pseudonym was carefully chosen by Taylor, perhaps with Tabata’s Xhosa language assistance, because it approximated a Xhosa-ised rendition of her own birth name – Dora Jack.
Taylor may not have been a public activist, and the historical text may not have been the primary means of expression by which she may have wanted to enter the public domain and influence young minds. In addition, she had become accustomed to an unacknowledged and unacknowlegable position of the clandestine and anonymous facilitation of political strategy and written political expression.
Nevertheless, with only a few in the movement in the know, Taylor’s politically charged historical research entered the public sphere in a way that directly influenced young activists in the movement and outside. The publication of The Role of the Missionaries may have made up somewhat for her public unacknowledgability. However in the form that it was published, it also simultaneously deepened her public anonymity. This anonymity was decided upon and came to define Taylor’s relationship with the domain of public politics. The publication of Dora Taylor’s historical writing contributed to the entrenchment of her selflessness.
From her diaries we learn that Taylor’s own childhood had been characterised by ‘rootlessness’, which was the cause of her ‘uncompromising attitude to family relations’. Her experience of being abandoned and adopted in the first years of her life had made her ‘stunted and warped through lack of a child’s first necessity, security’. It also guided her ‘intuitively rather than by reason’. This ‘psychology of the child’ as ‘the human being who doesn’t belong’ was also ‘the psychology of the whole people in SA – the Non-Europeans’. It was this personal affinity that perhaps enabled her ‘to write truly’ about the social conditions of the oppressed.
In 1957, while he was banned, Tabata wrote to The London Magazine about Dora Taylor, interceding in an effort to get some of her work published. Up to the first half of the twentieth century, he suggested, South African writers had been ‘mainly Europeans’, who wrote ‘from a particular distorted angle and presented us as less than human – objects of pity or laughter – or as the noble savage’. While some white writers since 1950 had written with ‘a certain amount of sympathy for the African’, they wrote as ‘onlookers seeing us as from a distance.’ Dora Taylor, on the other hand, had transcended this distance, and according to Tabata, the story written by her in her own name indicated that she ‘writes for us’, not ‘about us’. (I.B. Tabata to Mr Lehmann, The London Magazine, 29 June 1957). Through this authorial location, Tabata contended that Taylor gave ‘artistic expression to our feelings as human beings plunged in the various situations of the complex racial system of South Africa’. Taylor wrote ‘simply’, he argued, ‘without the intrusion of any extraneous attitudes’. Those outside may not understand how difficult this was because of ‘the constant pressures imposed by the racial situation in this country’. (IB Tabata to Mr Lehmann, The London Magazine, 29 June 1957).
Through the efforts of Dora Taylor’s daughter, Sheila Belshaw, as well as Sheila’s sisters Doreen and Muriel, as well as the commitment of Penguin Books, the publication of these three works of fiction ─ Kathie, Don’t Tread on My Dreams, and the shortly to be released Rage of Life, will ensure that Dora Taylor’s legacy will not only be that of political service but also that of a socially committed literature.