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BODIES THAT BELONG: RACE AND SPACE IN ELLEKE BOEHMER'S NILE BABY

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BODIES THAT BELONG: RACE AND SPACE IN ELLEKE BOEHMER'S NILE BABY
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   PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR ARTICLE This article was downloaded by: [University of Witwatersrand]  On: 6 September 2010  Access details: Access Details: [subscription number 917691900]  Publisher Routledge  Informa Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK English Studies in Africa Publication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information:http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/title~content=t904149979 BODIES THAT BELONG: RACE AND SPACE IN ELLEKE BOEHMER S NILE B BY Mike Marais aa  Department of English, Rhodes University,Online publication date: 02 September 2010 To cite this Article  Marais, Mike(2010) 'BODIES THAT BELONG: RACE AND SPACE IN ELLEKE BOEHMER'S NILE BABY  ', English Studies in Africa, 53: 1, 45 — 52 To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/00138398.2010.488337 URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00138398.2010.488337 Full terms and conditions of use: http://www.informaworld.com/terms-and-conditions-of-access.pdfThis article may be used for research, teaching and private study purposes. Any substantial orsystematic reproduction, re-distribution, re-selling, loan or sub-licensing, systematic supply ordistribution in any form to anyone is expressly forbidden.The publisher does not give any warranty express or implied or make any representation that the contentswill be complete or accurate or up to date. The accuracy of any instructions, formulae and drug dosesshould be independently verified with primary sources. The publisher shall not be liable for any loss,actions, claims, proceedings, demand or costs or damages whatsoever or howsoever caused arising directlyor indirectly in connection with or arising out of the use of this material.  45 DOI: 10.1080/00138398.2010.488337 English Studies in Africa 53 (1)M.Marais@ru.ac.za © University of the Witwatersrand pp 45–52 BODIES THAT BELONG: RACE AND SPACE IN ELLEKE BOEHMER’S  NILE BABY  Mike Marais We do not possess memories: memories possess us, we rise from them. (Eaglestone 79)There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the ap- pearance of a chain of events, he  sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is  blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his  back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call  progress, is this storm. (Benjamin) South African literature has never been particularly perceptive in addressing the question of race. While this is especially true of writing of the apartheid period, not much has changed in the post-apartheid years. Only rarely does one encounter a literary treatment of race that is aware of its  performative, rather than essential, nature. Rarer still are works that are conscious of the ways in                 -ties. Rarest of all, though, are texts that attempt to engage with the problem for the present posed  by what Sam Durrant has termed ‘racial memory’, that is, the collective memory of an unspeak-able violence done to the black body (80). Nevertheless, there are some notable exceptions in this regard. While my principal focus, in this article, is  Nile Baby , I frame my reading of it with a      David’s Story , which shares with Boehmer’s text a profound aware-ness of not only the mutually constitutive relationship between race and space, but also of the way in which the interminable imperative to remember the victims of racial oppression acts on our present states and future possibilities. Both these ‘post-transitional’ novels, in their treatment of the impact on the present of a catastrophic past, are reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s angel of history. In Benjamin’s description of Paul Klee’s painting, the angel is blasted forwards into the future by the catastrophic past and by a wind that is blowing from paradise. The fact that the                  former can neither be redeemed nor ignored. Just such a melancholic understanding of history  D o w nl o ad ed  B y : [ U ni v e r si t y  of  Wi t w a t e r s r a nd]  A t : 07 :37 6  S e p t e mb e r 2010  46Mike Marais informs Wicomb and Boehmer’s novels: precisely because it is unnameable and therefore inas-similable, South Africa’s traumatic past ceaselessly demands to be remembered.Throughout  David’s Story , Wicomb focuses on the semiotics of the body, on the signs and symbols of racial difference. This is particularly evident in this novel’s many allusions and refer-ences to Saartje Baartman. When David Dirkse, who feels that coloured people ‘don’t know what                  -dries Abraham Stockenstrom le Fleur, it transpires that he is using this material to ‘displace’ that of which he cannot speak (145), namely the shame of miscegenation, the taint of mixed blood, that is inscribed on his body. In its turn, this shame is a displacement of the body. Eventually, David, as part of his attempt to recuperate himself, discards Griqua history and focuses ‘on the                                               but about ‘white people’s pathological terms’ (17) – about late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-            features serve as external signs of ‘inner states’ such as rationality and concupiscence. To write about the body, Wicomb’s novel indicates, is to write about those racial markers that render it               out that Cuvier, rather than Le Fleur, is the progenitor of David’s bloodline. His ‘roots’ are in the constituting discourses of his own embodiedness, the discourses which engender the shame that he feels at the colour of his eyes, the ‘fake doll’s eyes’ that have been ‘dropped as if by accident into his brown skin’ (98).In  David’s Story , it is this semiotics of the body that triggers the migration of the Griquas. The novel presents the treks of the Griquas – that is, of a group of people marginalized by Eu-ropean culture’s biologization of race – as the quest of displaced bodies for a home, for a place where they can belong, where their ‘very faces’ are no longer ‘branded’ with ‘shame’ (161).                  belonging if it constructs space as its belonging, that is, if it racializes space by making of it a ra-cial   possession, a racial homeland. The devastating irony that Wicomb lays bare in her portrayal of racial migration is therefore that, in order to belong, to feel at home, the Griquas accept and               and sense of national belonging of which Le Fleur boasts when he says ‘we have fashioned our-selves into a proud people a grand Griqua race no coloured nameless bastards’ (146), is rooted in nineteenth-century theories of race and nationhood, the latter conceived of as a biological unit             In  Nile Baby , Elleke Boehmer develops in important ways Wicomb’s critique of the raciali-zation of the body and the forms of belonging that this act inscribes. The titular character of this novel is a human foetus in a specimen jar. Apart from having neither name nor traceable history, this character’s sex and colour are indeterminate, and its body eventually simply disappears. Clearly, then, the anonymity of its protagonist is this novel’s most striking feature. Indeed, the focus of much of the text is the overwhelming desire of the other characters to place this unlikely                                                            Khan, a girl of mixed European and African descent, perceives the foetal body: ‘I know this for                       D o w nl o ad ed  B y : [ U ni v e r si t y  of  Wi t w a t e r s r a nd]  A t : 07 :37 6  S e p t e mb e r 2010  47Bodies that Belong nose, and mouth the shape of her own face. There they were; she spotted them that very minute, her own high African cheekbones’ (1). A few pages later, a shift to Alice’s point of view empha-sizes the manner in which her gaze renders the foetal body meaningful: Yes, she could make-believe the thing was nearly African, demi-semi-African. Look at its sharp nostrils and tall, wide forehead and cheekbones, like her own face in the bath-room mirror.... She could be staring into a face she belonged to.... Mad to think the speci-men could be joined to her somehow and to Africa. (10) What we have here is not the invocation of a racial essence but a perceptual act in which Alice, in reading the body of the foetus, invests it with an identity, a racial descent, a history. In itself, the foetus is a body and stands for nothing other than itself. However, the character who observes it has been interpellated into English culture, and thus reads the body in its terms. She is located in a cultural matrix that has constructed the body as a sign. To an extent, the foetus is the creation of this cultural matrix, its product or offspring. In the novel, European culture’s historical role in racializing the human body is implicit in the fact that the foetus has been preserved for decades in a specimen jar in a school labora-              The foetus is a  specimen , that is, an example, a type in a racial typology that makes it signify. Moreover, the transparent jar presupposes not simply a viewer, but one located in a particular culture and time. The body is on display as a sign to the gaze of the post-Enlightenment, Europe-an subject. At stake here is Western science’s distinction between European and African bodies, that is, the srcinary act of differentiation through which the European subject was constituted. Indeed,  Nile Baby ’s allusions to Western science’s role in racializing the body, together with its references to the phenomenon of the nineteenth-century freak show in its depiction of the foetus, cannot but bring to mind Cuvier’s relationship with Saartje Baartman. This, of course, is also true of the ostensible telos  that informs this novel’s plot, namely to return the foetal specimen to its home in Africa, which clearly invokes the repatriation of Baartman’s remains in 2002.                   England. This is apparent not only in Alice and Arnie’s responses to it, but also in those of the text’s other characters who, as I have said, all try to read the foetus. On the surface, their readings diverge markedly: in contrast to Alice and Arnie’s, which is clearly located in a post-Enlighten-ment European perceptual regime, there is, for instance, the Nigerian woman Katarina’s reading of the body as an ogbanje  infant (a ‘ghost baby’ [149] that repeatedly returns to the womb of its mother [see 140]), 1  which is equally clearly grounded in Igbo culture. What these accounts                  in England.The spatial extension of this hermeneutic placement of the foetal body is, of course, Arnie’s quest to return the foetus, which he names Fish, to Africa. And it is in her presentation of this quest that Boehmer’s meditation on the forms of belonging concomitant with the racialization of the body is most evident. In the course of his wanderings, Arnie encounters Jim Noelson. When he reads Jim’s skin colour as a sign of his African identity, the latter responds with the words: ‘I not from Africa, not directly, though black’ (112). The way in which Arnie’s gaze places Jim, explains the latter’s sense of displacement in England: ‘When I arrive in this  fashion   nation  here, this You-Kay , this Grand Britannia, I expect                             D o w nl o ad ed  B y : [ U ni v e r si t y  of  Wi t w a t e r s r a nd]  A t : 07 :37 6  S e p t e mb e r 2010  48Mike Marais Clearly, Boehmer refuses to equate race and place in her novel. This resistance is further evident in one of the juxtapositions generated by the interlacement of the dual narrative strands                  -ing on Laura’s discovery of the skeleton of an African soldier at an archaeological dig. Africans, this scene reveals, fought with the Romans against the Celts in England prior to the arrival there of the Angles, Jutes and Saxons, and the subsequent celebration of the Anglo-Saxon race. To her dig-leader’s injunction not to treat the skeleton like ‘cutglass’, Laura responds with the words: ‘How can I help it? ... when I’m staring Africa in the eyes in the middle of this Thames                 man with Africa, to the extent that the black body becomes a metonym for Africa, the scene historicizes – and so resists – this racialization of space and body by invoking a time before the  biologization of racial difference. In the process, the scene exposes the ‘African body’, to use Boehmer’s description in another context, ‘as colonial fact and artifact, as overproduced, written    The novel thus erodes the difference between Europe and Africa, Thames and Nile. Not-withstanding its racialization, its desire to construct its history in terms of racial descent, English society cannot separate itself from Africa. Africa is embedded in England. In fact, the raced, European subject is haunted by that which it attempts to exclude, by that against which it has                    difference, the difference in question is endlessly deferred and therefore always yet to be located. In this novel, then, Boehmer quite pointedly refuses to present blackness as a sign of the body’s displacement in England. So, for instance, the telos  of Arnie’s quest is not attained: Fish, the foetal body, is not returned to Africa, his or her putative ancestral home. In other words, through historicizing it,  Nile Baby  resists the racialization of space and body implicit in the notion that Africa is the home of the black person.                 Importantly, though, the foetus is not buried in England either. As I have said, Fish simply disappears. What this suggests is that this body cannot be understood, and so contained, by lan-guage and culture’s systems of difference, including those between England and Africa, white and black. In other words, its disappearance indicates that the foetus exceeds these differences. This character, to appropriate Boehmer’s description of Friday in J.M. Coetzee’s  Foe , ‘remains                             specimen jar: the only trace of the foetal body is what remains of that which, in attempting to                 failure to conceptualize the body: indeed, since its otherness is in fact constituted by these signi-                        body. In  Nile Baby , Boehmer thematizes precisely this representational violence. One of the very few things that we get to know about the foetus is what she herself has pointed out in an interview, namely that it is a body that ‘died in pain’ (Szczurek) and that, one may add, this  pain was a consequence of its visibility to the white person’s gaze. Despite its muted state, then, Boehmer’s peripatetic corpse gestures ceaselessly toward an unnameable violence and an un-                 Saartje Baartman, but all victims of colonial history. It follows that the novel, through its pro-                 D o w nl o ad ed  B y : [ U ni v e r si t y  of  Wi t w a t e r s r a nd]  A t : 07 :37 6  S e p t e mb e r 2010
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