Here’s a terse, direct, almost telegraphic tale of South Africa, race, danger, immaculate whiteness and denial. It’s haunting, disturbing—reminiscent of J. M. Coetzee himself. Dawn Promislow is another hugely promising writer dg discovered when he read her fine first collection Jewels (the collection from which this story is taken) while jurying for the 2011 Danuta Gleed Literary Award. Of this book, Jim Bartley wrote in the Globe and Mail:
At their best, the stories have a compression of description and a simplicity of narrative arc that can indeed be jewel-like in lucidity. The real strength of the collection is its success at bridging the polarities of race and class that so distress its liberal white folks, characters whose pained awareness of the brutally enforced otherness of black lives forms the spine of many stories.
Between and within stories, Promislow shifts us repeatedly from white households to the lives of the servants who do their dull and dirty work. We’re admitted to both worlds, yet the essential otherness of the black world remains intact, never allowing us to forget the entrenched privilege distorting the white viewpoint. The deadlocked society of apartheid is strikingly rendered.
Dawn Promislow was born and raised in South Africa, but has lived in Toronto since 1987. Jewels and Other Stories was published by Tsar Books in 2010. One of the collection’s stories was short-listed for UK-based Wasafiri‘s New Writing Prize 2009, while the title story was anthologized in TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Book 5. Jewels and Other Stories will be launched in South Africa next month (September). It has been long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award 2011. You can read an interview with Dawn Promislow here at Open Book Ontario and another one here at Rob McLennan’s Blog. And here is another review of the book.
A Short Story by Dawn Promislow
The grapefruit was sharp in my mouth when I read the report. I was on the terrace, the morning sun filtering through the trees – a hot, still day it would be. It was one of those reports we read all the time, back then. Attempted sabotage of power plant. Et cetera. I got tired of it. I turned to the theatre listings – I was to book tickets for a play.
And then I went in to dress. There was my face, wan in the morning light, I remember it, that day.
My husband mentioned it a few days later. He said there was a colleague’s friend who needed somewhere to stay – a few weeks, that was all. Someone involved in the recent attempt. He’d stay in the garden room, there was a bathroom there, we’d not need to see him. Is this necessary Howard, I said. It’s necessary, yes, he said, you know it’s necessary. We had had someone else like this stay once, in that room. My husband was not afraid; I was not either. He thought the police would never touch him. I told the servants a man from Howard’s work would be in the room for a few weeks. They weren’t much interested, of course. I told them not to bother him, he’d take care of the room himself.
A few days later he came home with my husband. He shook my hand. Thank you, thank you, he said. I’ll be moving on soon. It’ll be alright, my husband said, it’ll be fine. The three of us had a drink. It was a strange time, then.
And then I forgot about it. Or I tried to forget about it. I never saw him. Howard said he had books with him. He was a university professor, before. At night, very late, he had visitors, the servants told me that. The visitors came in cars, headlights pooling in the darkness, they let themselves in at the side gate, I never heard them. My husband assured me, again, he’d be gone soon.
I had my own preoccupations. The children, both, finally away at university. I was free. I was working, then, on my series – the white series. You’ve seen it. It was before then that I started it.