I speak, though voiceless
The boat that brought me here carried 300 Armenians, of which 287 survived. We sell fruit and vegetables on Johannesburg streets. Mining town grown larger by the second. The trams rush past, the noise is sense less deafening till Armenian silence is obliterated. Joseph Silver finds me, young girl, head strong, rebellious in this late19th Century hedonism. Unloved sex in the backrooms of his brothel, under the tutelage of a guard dog madam. Unloved yes, but exciting to be in the action. I am born in this encounter, though this birth contains the seeds of my death. Still, I hold rural dreams of marriage, children, land. Early 20th century recession expands our client base. I meet him, young Zulu boy miner, inexperienced but so sweet faced. First taste of whiskey and his face is retched. It’s love, not so strangely, he being a country boy at heart with the same dreams. The excitement of the action fades so We run away, to the kraal, and certain ridicule. Our son is born in Durban, far from bitter village tongues. There is no space for our story in the formation of him, coloured boy to the masses, no history to speak of. Last taste of whiskey claims husband, and I die young, victim of cholera or some other such disease of the poor.
I speak, though voiceless
My picture taken aged 12 appears, blank faced and receptive to the power around me. A century later, in a textbook. Labelled ‘Armenian Fresh Produce Sellers on Rissik St’. My spirit lingers in the print. So I speak, though voiceless.
This piece came out of a response to hearing Nadine Gordimer speak at the Southbank Centre this week. She had some very important things to communicate about the new Secrecy Bill in South Africa, and the threats to freedom of speech this represents. I love Nadine Gordimer’s writing. It is so evocative and succinct, and gets under the skin of the complexity of making sense of identity in South Africa. I love that she does not separate this writing work from her work as an activist. What I found jolting in her speech was how she defined white identiy in South Africa. She linked white claims to an African or South African identity to an association with the Struggle; saying that whites need to earn their place in society through an active commitment to justice. I agree with this. Up to a point, because it seemed to me that this definition of whiteness was too narrow; too middle class and educated. It limits an exploration of the construction and significance of whiteness in South Africa to the parameters of this experience, which is juxtaposed against one other white experience, that of the Afrikaaner.
I wanted to use this piece to explore a little more other ways in which whiteness is enveloped in the unfolding of South African identity, and how whiteness intersects with other identities, both between people and within people. It was inspired by a photograph I saw in a history book about the Witwatersrand, and a picture of turn of the century Armenian fruit and vegetable sellers in Johannesburg. It was an older woman and a young girl, wearing headscarves, and sat on the floor, legs stretched out, next to their produce cart. They looked so different from the ways in which whiteness is imagined historically in South Africa. This image did not fit with either of the paradigms of whiteness we tend to revert to in thinking about South Africa. I was also drawn to the fact that these were Armenian women, Armenia being a space and an ethnic designation that sits on the borders of whiteness; not quite white. Borders are the spaces in which we are able to see the ways in which more solid means of classification are constructed. They are uneasy spaces, and threatening to the making of timeless and naturalised constructions of self. Joseph Silver was a real figure in the history of Johannesburg, a Polish-American pimp who came via New York and London to set up a lucrative business in the sex trade in the early decades of Johannesburg’s rapid emergence as a city built on gold mining. He was known for his brutality, and also his love of money. The brothels that flourished in the quarter of early Joburg known as Frenchfontein were also not fussy about where their money came from, and ignored the racialised divisions that the city authorities and state attempted to enforce from a moral position based on fears of miscegenation (not to mention a united working class…….). So when mass migration of black labour from the rural areas to feed the demand for cheap labour in the mines began (fuelled by the imposition of hut taxes and the tightening of colonial authority over so-called ‘tribal’ areas), the brothels were ready to service the new clientele. I wondered about the ways in which these spaces contained so many untold stories, hidden from view under the blanket of salacious headlines and courtcases. I wanted to reach out to an imaginary-real story that may have emerged there.
In doing so, I want to articulate the sadness, exploitation, hopefulness and complexity of the ways in which South Africa emerges out of these huge, catastrophic, exciting, tragic global changes of the 19thcentury, changes that set up the world as we know it today, not only in South Africa but most of the globe. This is why the real figure of Joseph Silver is important to the story. He epitomises the movement of capital trans-nationally, and the ways in which the desire for wealth, and more than this, power, are implicated in the pain stories and mass movement of lots of different people. How these meta-narratives are so massive they drown out the intimacy of the human stories that bubble amongst them. I wanted to fish a story out. And this one has been in my head since I first saw that picture several years ago. In the spirit of what I am doing now, writing what is inside and letting it out, even though it may not be fully formed or perfect, I allowed this story to make its way out through me. I’m not sure what happens next with it. Perhaps this is where it stops. Certainly, it needs to be supported by more understanding and research on Armenian migration. It betrays my tendency to privilege the romantic.
But here it is anyway. The girl who has been in my head for so many years.